“Ada,” Dess said softly, and felt the door shut.
The knowledge slid from her mind, but with Melissa outside waiting, the transition wasn’t clean. Though memories faded, the anxiety that filled Dess didn’t disappear but was cast adrift. Her brain felt disjointed, full of unresolved worry, plagued by loose ends of uncertainty and fear.
“What the hell?” she muttered.
“She’s here,” Jessica said, lifting Jonathan’s shield. “I’m done. You?”
Dess looked down at the bench before her, at the pile of throwing disks made from paint-can lids marked with high multiples of thirteen in Phoenician.
“Uh, yeah,” she said blankly. Why did she feel this way, so worried and strung out? Oh, right, duh: Rex was missing. The groupies had got him and he was darkling meat unless they found him by midnight. Dess blinked, wondering why her head wouldn’t clear.
Man, she thought, I get way too caught up in work sometimes. No wonder half the geniuses in the history of mathematics couldn’t tie their own shoes.
She started shoving weapons into her duffel bag. “Let’s move before she starts honking and wakes up my parents.”
“We’re going to wait for Jonathan, right?”
“Sure.” Dess snorted. “But you get to explain that to Melissa.”
Jessica scowled. “So I get to explain everything, huh?”
Dess glanced at Jessica. What the hell was she talking about?
They swept the finished weaponry into the duffel bag, and Dess dropped Geostationary into her pocket. She’d opened the window and was halfway out when Melissa let off a long blast of her horn. The barking of angry mutts spread across the trailer park like a fire in a dry field.
“Thanks, Melissa,” Dess muttered. At least it was Friday night, and her parents would be expecting to get woken up a few times. There were always fights and loud music in the trailer park during the witching hours.
They ran, duffel bag clanking, across the front lawn to the old Ford, threw open the door, and piled into the back. It took a moment for Dess to realize that the front seat next to Melissa was empty.
Of course—Rex always rode shotgun.
She swallowed. Outside of rare glimpses in the school hall, she couldn’t remember ever seeing Melissa without Rex by her side.
The mindcaster’s knuckles were white on the steering wheel. Without looking back, she said in a small, anguished voice, “What do we do now?”
Dess paused. Where the hell would the darkling groupies take Rex, anyway? Back to Broken Arrow? She squirmed in the seat, trying to shift the duffel bag. One of the poles from her dad’s tent, Daughterboard, was jabbing into her stomach, and she still couldn’t think straight.
“Okay,” Jessica said, all cool and collected, “Dess thinks that they’ll take Rex out into the desert. To where the runway’s going to be.”
“I do?” Dess asked.
Jessica shot her an annoyed look. “Yes, you do. That’s why the darklings are afraid of the runway, remember? It’s going to steamroll the spot where they make halflings.” She pulled a piece of paper from her pocket and thrust it at Dess.
“Oh, yeah. This.” She remembered drawing the map based on the stuff Jessica had borrowed from her mother. But would the darkling groupies really take Rex there?
“Maybe…” Melissa’s voice came from in front. Her forehead rested against the steering wheel. “The runway was in Angie’s head, and it seemed like it had something to do with the halfling.” She put the car in gear.
“Hang on!” Jessica cried. “We have to wait for Jonathan.”
Melissa thumped her palms against the steering wheel. “We can’t wait. I can’t just sit here doing nothing.”
“He’ll be here in ten minutes.”
“So what? He’s useless!”
“He can’t fly until midnight,” Melissa said. “And we’ve got to find Rex before then.”
The car started to move.
“Wait!” Jessica yelled. “He’s not useless!” She pushed her door open. “I’m staying here to wait for him.”
Melissa stepped on the gas, gravel spitting up around the car. “No, you’re not. You we might need if we get stuck out there late.”
“Then we need him too!”
“No time,” Melissa said. The car surged ahead, pressing Dess back into her seat. Jessica looked over at her, eyes wild. Her door was still open, as if she were ready to jump. The thought of going out to the desert with a crazed Melissa and no Jonathan was clearly not making her too happy.
“Be careful, Jess!” Dess reached across and grabbed her arm. Through the still-open door the road was rushing past, a blur of gravel and patchy asphalt. Jessica tried to pull away, and Daughterboard managed to jam itself between Dess’s ribs with a vengeance. “Ow! Come on!”
Jessica stopped fighting. The car was moving way too fast now.
“Make her stop!” Jessica said in an intense whisper. “Or I’ll tell her everything!”
“Huh?” Dess kept her grip on Jessica’s arm. Had she gone crazy?
“If you don’t make her stop, I’ll tell Melissa the thing I’m not supposed to think about!”
“What are you talking about?” Dess asked. With Rex missing she could understand Melissa losing it, but why had Jessica gone nuts?
“I’ll tell her!” Jessica whispered.
“Tell her what?”
The car slewed to a halt, throwing them both forward against the seat back with a thud. A choking dust cloud rose up through Jessica’s open door before it slammed shut with the car’s momentum.
Melissa shut off the engine and turned slowly, locking her eyes onto Dess. She made a sniffing noise.
“You know something about Rex,” she said softly. “Something… secret.”
Dess scowled. “Did you both double up on crazy pills this morning?”
“You do,” Melissa said. She glanced at Jessica, who sat there wide-eyed and glaring. “You told Jessica. She stinks of not thinking about it.”
“Told her what?” Dess said, fighting not to cough from the dust roiling through the car. “Have you gone totally nuts?”
“And I can taste it on you,” Melissa said. “Something like… tea.” She wrinkled her nose. “With milk.”
A sharp pain shot through Dess’s head. “I hate tea.”
“I’ve tasted this before,” Melissa muttered; then her eyes brightened. “The other night, when Jessica and Flyboy got help finding their way. You know something about that, don’t you?”
Dess crossed her arms in front of her. “You have totally lost it, Melissa.”
“No, I think I’m about to find it.” Melissa took her hands from the wheel and stared at her. “How do you know where Rex is? Tell me.”
“Do I look like a darkling groupie? I mean, what Jessica said might be true, but how should I know?”
Melissa closed her eyes. “You do know, somewhere in there. But it’s hidden… by someone clever.” She opened her eyes and shook her head. “Man, Rex knew this would happen. How spooky is that?” She started pulling off one glove, finger by finger.
Dess slunk back into her seat, feeling something nauseous rising inside her. “Don’t you dare touch me.” Her stomach rolled over at the thought.
“I have to do this, sweetie,” Melissa said. “They’ve got Rex, don’t you understand? Plus keeping secrets is wrong.”
“Ada,” Dess whispered, not sure why the name had sprung to mind, demanding to be spoken.
“I’m not going to be alone again,” Melissa said. The glove was off.
Dess’s stomach heaved, and something rose up in her mind, an awful memory out of nowhere, something she’d been given to protect herself.
“Just relax.” Melissa reached out.
“Or what?” Dess spat. “You’ll make me like Rex’s father?”
Melissa’s hand froze, her face suddenly pale. The words from nowhere had worked; they’d brought her to a halt.
“What—what do you mean?” Jessica stammered.
Dess could see the old man now—the empty eyes, the drool glistening on his half-shaven chin. The realization sank in. “You did that to him. And Rex helped you.”
Melissa bit her lip. “That was an accident.”
“An accident?” Dess felt her voice rising—anything to keep Melissa on the defensive. “You left him a vegetable by accident?”
There was a pause. “More or less. We didn’t know what we were doing.”
Jessica shrank into her corner of the backseat, eyes wide. “You can do that? You guys never told me…”
“We never told anyone.” Melissa’s eyes narrowed at Dess, the fingers of her bare hand flexing. “Not even little Dess. But someone told you.”
“How could you?” Jessica cried. “To Rex’s father?”
“It was easy,” Melissa spat. “You should have seen what he was doing to Rex.”
“Jesus,” Dess said. “I know the guy was a bastard, but…”
Melissa shook her head slowly. “I’m not talking about the beatings, Dess. Hell, there are times I want to knock Rex around myself. But he couldn’t take the tarantulas…”
“The what?” Dess whispered, but she remembered the terrarium, empty for the whole time she’d known Rex. She’d always thought the tarantulas had only existed in the old man’s mind.
“The hairy spiders. Rex’s father wanted to make him a man instead of some book-reading pussy. He used to force Rex to stand still while they crawled all over him.” Melissa made a soft, strangled sound. “That’s the first image I ever got from him, you know? The first time we ever touched, when Rex and I were eight years old. Tarantulas. His mind was rotten with it. That’s why I never… That’s why it took so long to touch him again.”
It was silent in the car for a while. Even the dogs outside had settled down, as if they were listening.
“Rex wouldn’t have survived if we hadn’t done what we did,” Melissa finally said.
“Jesus,” Jessica said.
Dess’s mind had gone blank. She couldn’t bring herself to imagine it, didn’t want to try. All that was left in her head was something thrumming again and again, blocking every other thought: Keep her talking. Don’t let her touch you.
“And I was young,” Melissa said. “I didn’t know how to do it back then. I won’t hurt you, Dess.” Her voice was almost pleading.
“But I don’t know anything.” Dess turned to Jessica for help.
“Don’t, Melissa,” Jessica said. “She doesn’t want you to. You can’t.”
“So we just let Rex die? Worse than die?” Melissa shook her head and seized Dess by the arm with her gloved hand. The other reached out toward her throat. “I’m sorry.”
“Ada,” Dess said, breathing hard, the name gushing up out of her. “Don’t touch me.”
“Melissa!” Jessica cried, but shrank farther away, pulling herself into her jacket, terrified now of the mindcaster’s touch. “We’ll go now. Whatever you want. We don’t have to wait for Jonathan. Just don’t…”
Melissa shook her head. “You know where Rex is.”
Something huge rushed up inside Dess and jerked her limbs, made her flail like a puppet. “Ada, Ada…”
And then it happened: Melissa’s cold hand grasped her chin, and a wave of emotion cascaded through her. Stomach-crushing panic and anxiety, the overwhelming fear that she would lose him—her Rex, her Loverboy—and be alone again, forever. Eight years of isolation rolled through Dess, alone against the invasion of ten thousand minds… the way Melissa had suffered before finally tracking Rex across the dark terrain of midnight, running the streets barefoot in cowgirl pajamas.
And inside herself Dess felt things crumbling, barriers bending under the weight of Melissa’s mind—the run-down house and the empty attic, the old maps that showed Bixby’s psychic currents. And finally Madeleine, her lined face forbidden to think of, bringing up the bitter taste of tea as sharp as stomach acid in her mouth… A jolt shook her body.
Here, cling to this, Dess.
Another wave flooded into her mind from Melissa, but this time there were numbers… blessed ranks of steady digits, that ran across like the precise coordinates of Geostationary, as wet as a cold washcloth pressed to her head in a fever. They wrapped themselves around an image of the emergency runway, carried on the name Angie. They began to dance, transformed by the math of minutes and seconds, the ripples and convolutions playing across Dess’s hostage mind.
Good, find Loverboy. That’s all that matters.
Dess trembled, stripped of her secrets and her will, until finally she raggedly said, “Lovelace,” in surrender, and the last of the barriers fell away.
Seconds later the math was done…
Melissa’s hand slipped from her face. The mindcaster fell away into the front seat, breathing hard.
Dess heaved, trying not to puke. Her stomach hurt and, much worse, her mind felt trashed, strewn with Melissa’s fears and loneliness, all the debris of her rotten life.
“Man,” Melissa said quietly from the front seat. “You’ve been busy.”
“I hate you. That was mine, not yours.”
Jessica’s cool hands touched Dess’s cheek. “Are you okay?”
She opened her eyes and looked into Jessica’s. Despite how much she still hurt and how disgusting the whole thing had been, her head felt clearer than it had for days. All those barriers Madeleine had built inside her… Melissa had swept them away. Dess knew the secret history again, completely and without encumbrance.
“Mindcasters,” she said. “They suck.”
“You’re telling me?” Melissa murmured softly from in front. “She left us alone all these years…”
“Dess, are you okay?” Jessica repeated.
The cool hands felt good against Dess’s fevered skin. “Not great.” She took a slow breath. “But I’ll live. And I know where they’ve taken Rex. The exact spot was in Angie’s head.”
“I thought so,” Melissa said softly.
Headlights swept through the car, turning the rearview mirror into a glaring, horizontal eye.
“Crap, it’s just after curfew,” Melissa muttered.
“Maybe it’s Jonathan,” Jessica said.
“Maybe,” Melissa said. “If it’s the cops, Rex is dead.”