“The art of reading Melissa’s mind,” Dess said out of the blue.
“Huh?” Jonathan was passing an eighteen-wheeler, trying to coax his father’s car into doing more than sixty-five on level ground. He was also watching for the turnoff, fairly certain that the directions suffered from mindcaster vagueness. Not that he could blame her, but Melissa had a pretty thin grasp on reality at times.
“Dessometrics. You asked me what it was.”
Jonathan looked at her biting her thumbnail as she stared out the front windshield. She and Melissa had gotten into something back there—a staring contest, it had looked like. “Yeah, right. And you can do that? Read her mind?”
“Well, it helps if Rex is around. He’s the one who gave it away.”
The semi finally gave up drag racing him and slipped behind with an amicable wave from the driver. Jonathan relaxed. “Gave what away?”
Dess squirmed in the seat next to him. “You didn’t notice a certain… smarminess between those two?”
“Hmm.” He decided against passing the next truck up ahead. At this hour the north-south interstate was crowded with Mexican goods coming up through Texas. Even the smallest eighteen-wheeler could crush his father’s car like a cockroach.
Despite how automobile ads tried to make it look, Jonathan had learned this year that driving was not like flying. In fact, driving pretty much sucked compared to flying. Flatland at sixty miles an hour was still Flatland.
And his sore throat from the other night hadn’t gone away entirely. He swallowed gingerly before he spoke. “Actually, those two pretty much set off my smarmy meter twenty-four, seven. I tend not to notice the minor fluctuations.”
Dess chuckled beside him, the low rumble of it bringing a smile to his face. Jonathan hadn’t hung out much with Dess lately, he realized. At least not since Jessica had arrived in town.
“Weren’t they kind of… chummy?” she continued. And chipper.”
He glanced at Dess. Her expectant expression annoyed him. Who was supposed to be the mind reader here? He shrugged. “I think they were just freaked out by what they saw last night. Hell, I’d be.”
The thought that he was driving straight back to where it had all happened wasn’t thrilling Jonathan either. He wondered why he was here instead of getting back to school to tell Jessica what had happened and make sure she was okay.
Maybe because of all of them, he most trusted Dess to help Jessica when she really needed it. Ten days ago he’d seen who had led the other two across darkling-infested desert when he and Jessica had been trapped in the snake pit.
“Sure. The trauma thing was part of it.” Dess was nodding to herself. “But there was more.”
“Like what? What more could there be?”
“So you know what I mean.”
A trucker blasted his horn just behind them, looking to keep up the speed his rig had gathered down the slope of an overpass. Jonathan wrenched the car out of his way, earning a respectful middle finger as the truck roared by. This conversation had become dangerously distracting.
“You’re nuts,” Jonathan said. “No way.”
“True. No possible way. It’s more complicated than that.”
He snorted. “I can’t imagine anything more complicated than that.”
She snickered, then said, “You know they did… once.”
Jonathan looked at her with alarm. “Did what?”
“Not that.” She laughed. “But back when they were kids, Rex touched Melissa by accident.”
“Oh.” Jonathan’s left hand trembled for a moment, a sense memory moving through his body in a wave of dizziness. He gripped the wheel hard, concentrating on the dotted white lines pulsing in front of the car, and managed to keep the vehicle in a straight line until the spell passed.
“Rex told me all about it,” Dess was saying. “Said it was a total head bang, like she was crowding into his mind and he was getting into hers.”
Jonathan nodded. “Yeah. That’s what it’s like.”
“What? How would you know?”
He paused. He wondered why he’d never told anyone about this, not even Jessica. (Especially not Jessica, come to think of it.) Rex must have realized what was going on as it happened, but neither he nor Jonathan had ever brought it up. And of course, Melissa hadn’t said a thing after that one thank-you in the desert.
“Well, it was the weekend before last, when we found out Jessica was the flame-bringer. When you guys were trying to get to the snake pit and you did your amazon thing.”
“That was so cool. Resplendently Scintillating Illustrations kicked that darkling’s ass.”
“Yeah, well. But you may recall that you left Rex and Melissa surrounded by a zillion spiders. And I had to fly back out and save them.”
Dess was silent for a moment, then she let out a long breath. “That’s right! You flew Melissa back to the snake pit. So you must have…”
“Touched her.” Jonathan felt a faint shadow of the dizziness come over him again—the nauseating rush of thoughts and emotions, the despair that permeated Melissa, her revulsion at those few seconds of human contact. Since that night he hadn’t seen her the same way. He could detect something behind her scowl other than her hatred for humanity—something fragile.
Jonathan shuddered. Silent treatment or not, he somehow felt closer to her now. It had been much easier when she’d just been a royal bitch.
“Damn,” Dess said softly. “Rex must hate you for that.”
“What? For saving both their lives?” He shook his head, suddenly hoping Dess wouldn’t answer. He wished this whole conversation hadn’t started. Fortunately the turnoff was just ahead. “Forget I mentioned it.”
But Dess didn’t shut up. “Rex says in the old days, mindcasters could control their ability. They could tolerate crowds, even transmit information through a handshake. They were the ones who passed on the news, who bound everyone together.”
“Really?” Jonathan knew there’d been mindcasters back in Bixby’s history, but he’d never imagined sane ones. “So why’s Melissa such a basket case?”
“Rex doesn’t know. Maybe she’s just a freak. But he’s always wanted to find out if she can learn to tolerate it. Maybe last night was some kind of bonding experience or something. And now they’re trying to hook up.”
Jonathan looked at his left hand; it had always seemed as if Melissa’s searing touch should have left a mark. But his palm bore nothing but a thin layer of sweat.
He swallowed again, his throat still sore.
They exited the main highway, heading toward Las Colonias. Melissa’s directions had turned out to make sense after all. The badlands were ahead of them now, a single tear of sun-leeched white across the horizon.
Jonathan remembered the two of them on the porch, Rex all smiley, Melissa as relaxed as he’d ever seen her in normal time. But then he felt another touching-Melissa flashback trembling at the edge of his mind and shook his head.
“I just hope they know what they’re doing.”
Dess laughed. “Haven’t you figured it out, Flyboy? None of us knows what we’re doing.”
The arched entrance to Las Colonias was guarded by a private security car. Two rent-a-cops slouched against its hood, drinking coffee and turning redder in the sun. One held up his hand, his eyes sweeping across the old car with obvious contempt. Jonathan rolled down his window, the presence of an authority figure bleeding into his stomach like a drink of acid.
“What’s your business here?”
“Just taking a drive, Officer.” Rent-a-cops loved it when you called them Officer.
“Here to see the demon house, huh? Well, I’m afraid it’s residents only today. So why don’t you just turn your vehicle around and head back where you come from.”
Jonathan thought of a few things to say but realized that if he mouthed off, one of the two might figure out it was a school day. So he tipped an imaginary cowboy hat and started to turn the car around.
“Smooth, Jonathan,” Dess started in. “ ‘Just taking a drive, Officer.’ ”
“What would you have said? ‘Just here to investigate the paranormal’?”
Dess snickered and put on her good-old-boy drawl. “How about, ‘Just taking my new girlfriend to meet my daddy? We’re fixin’ to get us married.’ ”
He laughed. “Next time you do the talking.”
“So now what?”
“Now we look for the back door.” Jonathan turned down the dusty service road that skirted the community, his eyes following the ten-foot-high metal fence surrounding it. Even in normal time his acrobat’s brain still worked. He could see the angles—where a foot would go to get a boost up, then a handhold, another within reach of that one…
Finally he spotted a place. A termite mound rose up close to the fence, cutting a couple of feet from its height. Jonathan slowed the car.
“We can’t climb that,” Dess said.
“I can. Just show me how that thing works.”
Dess’s eyes widened, and she pulled away.
He sighed. “Do you want your numbers or not?”
Her face twitched for a moment, but finally she scowled and said, “Okay. But if you lose it, break it, or get arrested and they take it, you’re dead.”
Jonathan just rolled his eyes and listened as she explained how to capture coordinates. As he walked away from the car, he whispered to himself, “You’re welcome.”
On the other side Jonathan dropped to the ground at the edge of an unfinished lot, then paused to shake the termites from his sneakers and the pain from his still-sprained ankle. Construction materials were strewn across the dry, bare soil. There was no frame yet, just a wide driveway leading to a gaping foundation. He moved quickly through the site, figuring he’d be less conspicuous walking down the street than creeping through an empty lot.
At this time on a weekday few cars passed him, and no one seemed to pay him any mind. Half the houses looked unoccupied. He could smell the fresh paint jobs and see the seams in the newly rolled-down lawns.
Spotting Darkling Manor was easy. It was across the street from the demon house, which had a broken window up on the second floor. The front door was sealed with yellow police tape. Jonathan wondered what the family was doing today. Sitting around watching TV and trying not to wonder what had happened last night? Or had they gone to a motel for a while?
Of course, the truly haunted house was on the other side of the street. Darkling Manor looked like every other home in the development. Everything about it—the garage, windows, lawn—was unnecessarily huge. The driveway was empty, and Rex and Melissa said they hadn’t seen a stick of furniture, so it seemed unlikely anyone was home. He walked around it, trying to look interested rather than criminal.
In the back he found the balcony with the sliding glass doors that Rex had described. Standing beneath it, as close as he could get to the house, Jonathan held up the GPS receiver and pressed capture. The shifting numbers froze.
According to Dess, that was it.
Jonathan paused. In daylight the house didn’t give him the chills he’d expected. It was so new, unlike any other darkling place he’d ever seen. He wondered if there were some clue inside, something that would tell him who owned it and who was behind the new threat to Jessica.
Around front again, he spotted the mailbox. Its little red flag was standing up. He crossed the lawn, glancing up and down the still empty street.
His gait slowed when he saw her. Peering at him out of the window of the demon house was a woman. She looked like someone who’d had a sleepless night, her face dark with suspicion.
Jonathan smiled and waved. She didn’t wave back. He opened the mailbox and reached in to find a single letter. Pulling it out, he waved again and turned back toward the house.
“Crap,” he whispered. The front door was probably locked, and the hairs on the back of Jonathan’s neck told him that he was still being watched. He headed around the back of the house the way he’d come, taking one last glance over his shoulder.
The woman’s face was still in the window, but she wasn’t looking at him anymore. She was watching the private security car that was coming up the winding street.
Jonathan crammed the envelope into his pocket and ran, dashing across the backyard, rolling across a low fence and stumbling into another backyard. He passed yet another giant, empty house and crossed the next street over.
He kept going until he was breathless, moving across the streets instead of down them. The overweight rent-a-cops would never catch him on foot, even with his ankle screaming with every step. The screech of tires came from his right as they tried to parallel him in their car.
At the edge of the development, where Jonathan had come in, the houses were still under construction and the ground grew rough. A few workers silently watched him pass, not taking much interest. He dodged piles of dirt and broken bricks, wishing for a ten-second burst of midnight gravity to get him out of here. One hard jump in that direction would carry him all the way back to Dess.
Finally he reached the fence. He could see his father’s car through the bars. But there wasn’t any termite mound on this side, no footholds, no way to climb it.
He spun around. The security car crawled into sight a hundred yards away, leaving the road and growling onto the dirt strip of unsodded backyards, its tires spitting gravel and spinning up a cloud of dust.
Jonathan looked around frantically for something to get a boost from—a pile of bricks, a tree stump, anything. But the fence stretched along flat red soil as far as he could see.
Then his eyes fell on an old tire lying in the sun, its treads choked with dirt, its rubber cracked. He ran to it, lifted it upright, and sent it rolling ahead of him with a solid kick. Mosquito-breeding water sloshed from its innards as it wobbled along. Bracing it sideways against the fence, Jonathan planted a foot on it and pushed himself up.
The tire sagged as he jumped, but his hands managed to grasp the top spikes of the fence. The spitting tires of the car sounded as if they were right under him. Jonathan pulled himself up and over and dropped to the other side, every ounce of his normal-gravity weight landing on his bad ankle.
“Finally,” Dess said as he limped up. “I was getting bored.”
Jonathan started the car, looking back at the security guards. They slewed to a halt on the other side of the fence, their car immediately swallowed by its own dust cloud. The two rent-a-cops emerged, coughing in the dirt storm, and looked at him forlornly through the fence. One tested the tire with his foot, but it sagged almost flat under his weight.
Jonathan took a deep breath. No reason to rush.
“Hey, it’s those buttheads again,” Dess said. “Were they chasing you?”
“Cool. You’re not really a total loser in normal time, you know.”
“Right.” His heart was pounding, his throat was scraped raw from inhaling dust, and his ankle was throbbing. He never felt this way at midnight, half dead from running a paltry mile. He pulled the GPS receiver from his belt. “Hope this thing still works.”
“It better,” she said, flicking it on. She stared at the numbers recorded on the little readout. A moment later a grin of satisfaction spread across her face. “Oh, this is so good!”
Jonathan felt himself smiling too. Maybe it wasn’t so bad, getting his heart beating. Not as good as flying, of course. “That’s from right under the balcony, just like you said.”
“I can see it…” Her eyes were open wide like those of a four-year-old girl entranced by her first butterfly. “I’ve got the pattern now. This is so freaky.”
She turned and leapt across the front seat, kissing him on the right cheek, hard and wet.
Jonathan laughed, then glanced at the cops again. They were getting slowly back into their car. It was miles back to the gate and then back here. He was enjoying just sitting here, ignoring them.
Then Jonathan remembered the letter in his pocket. He pulled it out, and the smile dropped from his face.
It wasn’t good news. Not at all.
“You think that’s freaky, check this out.” He tossed it to Dess.
She lifted it to her eyes as he pulled the car back onto the road, heading for the highway fast. They had to get back to school.
“What the hell…?” she murmured.
“It was in the mailbox at Darkling Manor. That must be the owner’s name, courtesy of Oklahoma Power and Light.”
“Oh, man, Jonathan,” Dess exclaimed. “With a name like that, they’ve got to be related.” She started to shake her head. “Jessica isn’t going to like this.”
“No. And I don’t either.”
He drove fast and hard toward school.