The lunchroom produced an incessant whine in her head, like the sound of a buzz saw going through a box of rats. Melissa could hear the keen of spinning metal, the tearing of defenseless cardboard, and the screech of little mammals scrambling to get on top of each other. Strange—the dessert was chocolate pudding today, which usually tamped down the desperation until the sugar rushes hit. It was probably the gray, slimy chicken livers filling everyone with trapped and panicky thoughts.
Eight more months of eating this crap! she kept hearing.
Melissa turned up the volume in her headphones, but the screeching guitars only made things worse. She closed her eyes and visualized a barrier around her mind, but it crumbled under a fresh onslaught of anxieties: the chocolate pudding was running out.
She’d been letting her guard down lately in school, expecting things to be easy, as if connecting with Rex was going to save her from Bixby High. That was what happened when you let somebody in—everybody else tried to get in too.
Of course, maybe it could also work the other way around…
Melissa gritted her teeth and turned the tape player off. At first, the whirlwind in her head redoubled without the edge of heavy metal to cut it. But Melissa took a deep breath and let herself stop fighting the cacophony of voices. That was what had finally worked with Rex: allowing the flood of alien thoughts to sweep through her, trusting her own mind to still be there when the assault was over.
For a horrible moment she felt herself being erased, overwhelmed by the crowd, drowning in their petty squabbles over prime seats and chocolate pudding. But slowly, just as when she and Rex touched each other, she came back to herself, regaining her footing despite the storm.
Melissa opened her eyes and held out a hand in front of her face. It hardly trembled, though her fingers were bone white from desperately clenching her fist the moment before. She took another deep breath and, for the first time ever in the cafeteria, pulled the headphones off.
No one noticed. They were all listening raptly to Jessica.
“The rest of her family never comes into town. Constanza’s grandfather threatened to cut them out of his will if they ever set foot in Bixby. They’re totally afraid to even drive through!”
Well, Melissa thought, Jessica has finally gotten up the nerve to ask Constanza Grayfoot a few simple questions. Give the girl a round of applause.
“All of them live over in Broken Arrow,” Jessica continued, then shot Dess a puzzled glance. “Like you said they might…”
Even through the lunchroom bedlam, Melissa tasted the strange response that bubbled up in Dess’s brain—satisfaction at having been proven right, followed by momentary confusion. Then her thoughts subsided back into the mass.
Jessica plowed ahead. “Anyway, the main thing is the timing. Her grandfather left Bixby about fifty years ago, right when the lore stopped.”
She paused to beam at Rex, extremely proud of herself for noticing the obvious. At least in the din of the cafeteria Melissa didn’t have to taste Jessica’s enthusiasm. Last night her metallic flame-bringer flavor had gone off the charts, choking Melissa like a mouthful of new pennies. In fact, Melissa had felt midnight itself shudder, all the way out to the old, fetid minds in the mountains.
The darklings had every right to be afraid of Jessica Day: her talent tore straight through the fabric of the secret hour. And she enjoyed the hell out of it. Her green eyes were still wild and gleaming as she delivered more of the profound intelligence she’d collected.
“Because he moved here, her dad doesn’t get told much about the family business. There’s only one Grayfoot who ever comes here from Broken Arrow. And guess what his name is.”
They all sat looking at her stupidly.
“Ernesto?” Flyboy finally managed. It was so cute when couples finished each other’s sentences. And what was with Jessica? She was touching Jonathan like a monkey picking nits to eat. His vague discomfort with the touchy-feely contact didn’t rise above the din, but you could see it on his face.
“Exactly.” Jessica leaned back and draped her hand over Jonathan’s shoulder.
“Well, that all makes sense,” Rex said. “But Constanza’s father isn’t totally in the dark. I found something interesting on his desk.” He pulled out the folder he’d pinched and went on to explain the vision Melissa had prized from Angie’s head.
Melissa stopped listening and wondered if anyone was going to bring up the really big question about last night: How the hell had Jonathan and Jessica found their way to Constanza’s?
Melissa had felt the two shooting down the highway, their minds tentative and frustrated, like new freshmen trying to figure out the way to the temporary classrooms. Then suddenly something had clicked into place, filling both their heads with surety and purpose. A flash of inspiration out of nowhere, dumping the information into their empty heads.
Whatever had done the job had left no trace of itself, but for that fraction of a second Melissa had tasted something new out there…
Momentarily adrift in the perplexing memory, her control slipped, and the cafeteria’s mob mind overwhelmed hers for a few awful seconds. She forced herself to relax and ride out the tempest.
When she returned to herself, Dess was saying, “There’s no runway on any of my maps.”
“It hasn’t been built yet.” Rex shrugged. “I don’t even know where it’s going to be.”
“Hang on, I think my mom knows something about it,” Jessica said. “She’s on some committee at work.”
“But what does a runway have to do with Jessica’s stalker?” Jonathan asked. “Or the halfling, for that matter?”
“We don’t know yet,” Rex admitted. “But it’s pretty obvious that the Grayfoots are involved in all three.”
“So what do we do?” Dess asked.
“Jessica, you should find out what you can about the runway from your mom,” Rex said. “But we also need to go back to Constanza’s house. There are tons of papers I didn’t have time to look at. And maps and other stuff that Dess might be able to figure out.”
“Constanza’s house?” Jessica complained. “What, last night wasn’t enough of a disaster for you?”
“And now the darklings will be expecting us,” Dess added. “And the Grayfoots know we’re on to them, thanks to you two.”
“Yeah, okay,” Rex said. “Us going alone was stupid. But this time all five of us will be there. The darklings won’t dare mess with us if Jessica’s there from the stroke of twelve. And with more people we can search faster, hopefully without wrecking the place.”
“What do you mean, ‘from the stroke of twelve’?” Jessica asked. “Flying out there takes a while.”
“There won’t be time to fly,” Rex said. “That close to the desert, we’ll need you around at midnight if we want to steer clear of another rumble.”
“You don’t expect me to spend the night at Constanza’s, do you?” Jessica’s fear of the Grayfoots cut through the lunchroom din, tasting of sour milk. “They’re not even staying there right now, you freaked them out so bad.”
“That’s fine,” Rex said. “You can spend the night with Dess. Melissa and I will pick you up before midnight. We’ll all drive over together.”
“What about me?” At the thought of being left out, Jonathan was clinging to Jessica’s arm now.
“Fly or drive.” Rex shrugged. “It’s your choice.”
No one said anything. Melissa could taste doubts in all of them, but they were more afraid of doing nothing. They’d all started to get paranoid about the darkling groupies.
“All right, then, this Friday?” Rex said, smiling. “All five of us together at midnight again?”
“Well, yee-ha,” Melissa said quietly, but none of them heard her over the noise.
As Melissa walked with Rex to his history class, the maelstrom dropped off behind them, her mind calming in slow stages. Compared to the cafeteria, the rest of school was a Cakewalk, and her senses sharpened with every step.
Melissa had once read something on a bus station bathroom wall: What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. The sentence had stuck with her, partly because it was about the stupidest thing she’d ever read. Things that didn’t kill you could leave you maimed, or deaf and blind, or just plain crazy. None of which would count as stronger in Melissa’s book. But the bathroom guy had a point. Sometimes not dying, like not being erased by all these years of the mind noise of Bixby High, might have a payoff. Riding out the mayhem in the cafeteria instead of fighting it had left her head clearer, and Melissa had to admit that she felt a little stronger.
As they walked, she tasted a nervous glimmer in Rex’s mind.
“Relax, Loverboy. Since when have you ever had trouble with a history test?”
“I’m going to kill the test,” he said. “I’m a lot more worried about finding out what’s going on in time.”
“In time for what?”
“We left a mess at Constanza’s. I’ve overheard rumors about it all day. The Grayfoots must know we’re on to them now. They’ll act against one of us soon.”
“Maybe,” she said. “So we ransack Constanza’s house, like you said.”
He stopped and looked at her. “You were listening?”
She smiled. “I always listen. Or try, anyway. So how hard can it be to find out what they’re up to?”
Rex sighed. “Very. We don’t know what we’re looking for, and the Grayfoots may have already cleaned up any evidence in Bixby. If we don’t find anything on Friday, that leaves us with going to Broken Arrow, where we’re not protected by the secret hour. And with Jessica’s parents the way they are, we can’t take her anywhere in real time.”
“We can fix the way they are, Rex.”
He shook his head. “We’ve done enough of that.”
Melissa tasted the sour flavor of Rex’s festering guilt—a perfect example of something that, while not killing you, could leave you very, very screwed up. “Okay, whatever. Maybe Dess can help. Her latest project seems to have wound down. Not much brain activity today except feeling smug about herself. She’ll be looking for something to sink her teeth into. We can show her what we found in Angie’s brain.”
“Right… but what if you have to…?”
She felt it in him again, the same cloying emotion that had flickered through him before the rumble last night, possessive and resentful.
She slowed as the emotion overwhelmed her mind, put one hand to her head. “Rex, chill out.” People pushed past them, the jostling shoulders punishing her delicate flinch response.
“Sorry.” He pulled her out of the flow and leaned her against the wall.
She opened her eyes and breathed hard. “Like I’d even think of doing that.” The thought of Dess’s buzzing little calculations crowding into her brain made Melissa ill.
But Rex just stood there, biting into his own lip hard enough for her to feel it. “What if that’s the only way to show her what you got from Angie’s mind?” he asked.
Melissa sank back against the lockers, wishing he would stop obsessing about this. His brain traveled the thought on well-worn grooves, like the mind of someone who’d spent all night memorizing a single formula. She focused her mind on the hard knuckle of a combination lock pressing into her back.
“Not just the images,” Rex went on, “but the stuff Dess can use. I can’t hold all those numbers in my head. It’s mostly mathematical symbols I don’t even know the names for. You might have to touch her to—”
“Stop it!” she cried. His emotions were twisted around her guts, as if a boa constrictor had crawled inside her and started squeezing. Melissa could hardly breathe, the mind noise of his jealousy raging like the cafeteria, every bit as invading and much more personal. She gagged on the taste of it, and the world disappeared for a moment.
And she saw what was buried in Rex’s mind, so deep he could barely glimpse it himself. This wasn’t really about Dess. It was about that night two weeks ago, when she’d had to take Jonathan’s hand. It had been horrible—she could still taste the acrobat’s surprise at what he’d seen inside her, his insipid pity rolling into her head as they’d flown. But in Rex’s mind it boiled down to only one thing: before allowing him into her mind, Melissa had shared herself with Flyboy, whose existence was one long affront to Rex’s authority.
When she opened her eyes, Rex was holding her, his head turned to keep the bare skin of his face away from hers. The hall had almost emptied, but people were looking at them.
Melissa pushed him away. Crap. Her face was wet.
“I wouldn’t do that to you, Rex. That time with Jonathan sucked, all right?”
“You might have to.”
She looked into Rex’s eyes, letting his emotions flood through her without resistance, wondering if he understood how many times she’d been given a headache by some idiotic lovers’ quarrel that felt just like this: purposeless and obsessive and vain. Melissa had been force-fed a diet of overheard jealousy in these halls for years. The last thing she needed was the same thing from Rex. Didn’t he realize that if she’d learned anything from sixteen years in other people’s heads, it was that betraying your friends was a fool’s game?
The bell rang. Rex was late for his test.
“You might have to,” he repeated.
She shook her head. “Try and make me.”