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16

2:54 p.m.

AFTER-SCHOOL SPECIAL

Thirty seconds before the scream of the last bell rang out, Melissas headphones were in place, her tape cued to her lancing song.

She leaned back, closing her eyes. Across Bixby High she could feel fingers gripping the sides of desks, books and pens gathered, backpacks zipped closed under the exhausted and complicit stares of teachers. The minds around her whirred with anticipated routes, the quickest way to lockers, to the nearest door and onto the bus, the fastest way out. The noise escalated maddeningly in the last few seconds and filled her head like a cafeteria chant pounded onto a table

Out, out, out!

Finally the scream sounded, and the building exploded around her.

Ooooh, Melissa said. Last bell didnt compare to midnights arrival, but it was still the second-best moment of her day.

She hit play and tipped her head back. Metal power chords detonated in her ears, drowning out the scrapes of desks and sneaker squeaks around her. She felt bodies struggling past each other in the halls, fingers attacking locker combinations, and unbottled conversations gushing through the halls.

Then the flow reached the doors and the pressure that had tormented her mind all day began to subside, like a lanced boil spilling its runny contents at last.

She sighed, opening her eyes. Mr. Rogers stood over her. The classroom was empty except for the two of them. She snapped off the tape.

Melissa? Are you all right?

Never better. Her satisfied smile only disturbed him more. Last semester shed trained her final-period teacher to deal with the lancing ritual. She hoped Rogers wasnt going to give her any trouble.

Do you do that after every class?

No, just this one. I like to relax for a moment after the rigors of a hard school day. I hope thats all right with you, Mr. Rogers.

You know, listening to music isnt allowed in classrooms.

Her eyes narrowed. I dont turn it on until the last bell rings. When class is over. When school is over.

She could taste the answer before he opened his mouth. The rancid butter flavor of a petty mind grasping for control.

Still, Melissa, he said, this is a classroom, and Id appreciate it if you waited until you were out in the hall before turning that thing on.

A sharp retort curled her tongue, but Melissa let it slide. These last few days her temper had become easier to control.

Besides, as her social studies teacher liked to say, there were always productive ways to channel protest.

Certainly, Mr. Rogers, she said pleasantly. Do you happen to live in Bixby?

What? Yes, over by the Dr. Pepper plant. Why do you ask?

Nothing. Just curious.

She smiled. Mr. Rogers lived close enough to visit, one of these nights during the midnight hour.

Asshole.


The empty bleachers reeked of defeat. Melissa never paid attention to football, but sitting here she could tell that the Bixby Tigers were losers and had been for a long time. Her mind was filled with futility and the bleak taste of cheering for a team that didnt stand a chance.

Wafting up from the hidden spaces underneath, she also caught the scent of secret pleasures, along with a lingering fear of getting caught. Lifting her sunglasses to peer down through the bleachers, she saw cigarette butts hiding in the slatted shadows. Melissa could always sense hidden placesthe narrow alleys between temporary classrooms, the janitors closets and basement doors that drew truants to them. They all had the same taste: sweet momentary freedom spiced with nervous glances over the shoulder.

She wondered what was keeping Rex. Bixby High was mostly empty, leaving only the tastes of band practice, a drama rehearsal, and the football team, who were doing mindless calisthenics on the field in front of her. Melissa closed her eyes, inhaling deeply to relish the peace of after-school depopulation.

Suddenly a picture began to form in her mind, a remnant from the scant minutes shed been connected to the woman in Darkling Manor. Angiethat was her namefull of confidence and contempt for her partner. Melissa had fished only fragments from Angies mind before the half-thing had chased them off, but here, waiting for Rex, the long benches of the bleachers triggered a fleeting image. It floated before her eyes now: the construction in the desert, a road stretching out into the salt flats until it simply ended.

It was huge. And it had something to do with the halfling. Angie had never seen the nightmarish creature, of course. She was a stiff whenever it appeared. But she had communicated with the halfling through lore symbols and knew it bore some relationship to the thing being built in the desert the road to nowhere.

Hey! Rexs voice called from below, scattering the half-formed picture in her mind.

The bleachers wobbled as he made his way up, hands in pockets to thread his long coat between the seats. He sat heavily beside her, kicking up his black boots. The sun glimmered along the metal loop of Conscientious around his ankle.

Hey, Cowgirl.

Hey, Loverboy. Rex smiled at the new nickname, as he always did now that the touching thing was working out.

A football bounced against the bottom row of the bleachers, wobbling to an uneven stop a few yards away. Calisthenics were over. The two watched a player in a Tigers uniform retrieve the ball and pause to give them a suspicious glance.

Freaks! he called, then turned and ran back to rejoin the other boys dressed in purple helmets and gold Lycra tights.

Footballs are retarded, Melissa said. Theyre not even round.

Rex shrugged. That must help our team. It makes the game more random, after all.

Why dont they just flip a coin?

He looked at her. Um, they do. At the beginning.

Oh. Melissa sighed. Even Rex didnt understand how little she knew about pointless stuff like sports.

But Melissa had to admit that she could see the world more clearly lately. Bixby High wasnt as overwhelming as usual. Today had actually been decent until Mr. Rogers had been pissy about the lancing ritual. Now that the school was mostly empty, Melissa had even recovered from that unpleasantness. The bumbling idiots scattered across the football field were strangely interesting to watch, chasing the errant ball like a flock of ducks, even making the same sorts of noises.

She smiled. Touching Rex, letting her mind open to his, had changed her. It alleviated the pressure in her brain. It was like letting a few thousand barrels blow out of a pinched-off oil well. She found herself wishing theyd started a long time ago.

So which one is she? she asked.

Rex turned toward the cheerleading tryouts just getting under way on the sidelines. Girls in sweats or last years uniforms were scrambling to obtain matching pairs from a frilly stack of pom-poms.

Shes one of the tall ones, Rex said. Melissa noticed that the cheerleading candidates were divided into very tall and very short. She wondered what height had to do with leading cheers. Shes half Native American and wearing a uniform. Red sneakers? Rex started to raise his arm to point, but Melissa pushed it down.

I got her. Shes pretty.

You really never noticed her before? Shes, like, famous.

I dont notice anything, Rex. Things either assault me or they dont.

Melissa closed her eyes. Nothing distinct was coming from any of the cheerleaders, just a blurry, competitive alpha-girl buzzthe sensation of beer foam going up her nose. And the testosterone-filled morons on the football field werent helping reception either.

She opened her eyes.

Still too crowded. Lets follow her after its over. She spat between the bleacher slats to clear the accumulated tastes from her mouth.

Sure, Rex said. Just thought wed try. But I dont want to lose her. Shes our best shot at finding Ernesto Grayfoot.

Melissa shrugged. Whatever. Once shes away from the pom-pom club, I should be able to trail her.

You didnt get anything in the library?

Hardly. Melissa had slipped out of fourth period to linger outside Constanza and Jessicas study hall. With classes in session, it had been a total waste of time. Only the minds of the two midnighters had come throughJessica trying to get up the nerve to talk to Constanza and failing miserably, and Desss brain whirring through the last phases of some mathematical solution. Shed ridden off after sixth period in a hurry, toting her new coordinates toy and beaming thoughts of maps and numbers in all directions.

Melissa remembered the image shed seen earlier, the fragment from Angies mind. Hey, Rex, can we wait for Ms. Cheerleader in the parking lot? These bleachers are making my butt go to sleep.

He laughed. Sure. A flutter of excitement moved in him.

Yes, she answered his unspoken question, theres something I want to show you. She pulled off a glove one finger at a time as they made their way down. While I was waiting, something triggered my memory. I saw the picture from that womans mind again, but clearer this time.

The construction project?

Yeah. She paused at the bottom of the bleachers, pointing down the length of the lowest bench. Whatever theyre building in the desert, its long and flat, like a road.

A road? To where?

Melissa shrugged. To nowhere. It just stops.

Darklings dont build things. Rex shook his head. And they hate the highways that pass through the desert. But maybe the darkling groupies are building a trail to get out to some lore site.

I dont know, Rex. Its pretty huge for a trail. The biggest thing Ive ever seen.

He squeezed her shoulder. Come show me. Well figure it out once weve found Ernesto.

Melissa nodded and smiled, feeling Rexs quiet confidence cut through the buzz of football practice and mindless cheerleader pep. She put her arm around his waist as they walked back to her car, glad for the thousandth time that shed tracked him down eight years before, running through empty, blue streets in her cowgirl pajamas, seeking the only other midnight mind that she could feel in Bixby. She couldnt wait to touch him againat least they had something to do while they waited.

Following Constanza Grayfoot was going to make for a long afternoon.


15 2:42 p.m. DEAD ZONE | Touching Darkness | 17 3:04 p.m. MADELEINE



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