“Are you sure you’re ready for this?”
Melissa stared at him across the front seat of the old Ford, a wry look on her face. “Well, it is an awfully big step.”
Rex felt himself flush. After eight years he was used to the idea that Melissa could sense his emotions and read him better than anybody had a right to, but none of that made it any easier when she used her power to embarrass him.
“I mean,” she continued, “I only want to do this if you think you’re ready.”
“I thought that you…”
His jaw tightened. The whole thing had been her idea, and now he was getting mocked for his trouble. This was just like Melissa: she took midnight and its lore seriously—more seriously than any of the rest of them—but sometimes she had to demonstrate that everything was still a big joke to her. A waste of the precious little energy she had left over from merely existing in the world.
Even when he’d repeated the news that Jessica had delivered this morning, Melissa hadn’t seemed very alarmed, as if no mere human threat could unnerve the unflappable bitch goddess.
She nodded, pulling at the fingers of one glove. “Yeah, it was my idea. But maybe we’re rushing things. I’d hate to ruin a beautiful friendship.”
At those words Rex felt a clenched laugh escape him. He looked up from her hands and saw that her smile had softened. His anger faded, taking with it the anxiety that had gradually built all day.
He cleared his throat. “I’ll still respect you in the morning.”
She laughed, radiant for a moment. But then her face turned serious, and she stared out the front windshield. “We’ll see about that.”
Rex could see now that she was nervous too. Of course, if the lore was right, he was about to feel exactly how nervous. The touch of normal people disgusted Melissa, redoubling their usual intrusions into her mind—she could barely stand visits to the doctor. But with other midnighters the connection went both ways and was much more intense. He swallowed, some of his own apprehension returning, and reminded himself that he had wanted this for a long time. It was a test of the lore, a way to find out more about how the talents worked together. Maybe it was even a way to break through Melissa’s shell and finally connect her with the rest of the group.
And perhaps, Rex allowed himself to hope, he might make his own connection to Melissa, as he’d always wanted to and never could. He quenched that thought.
“Let’s just get it over with,” she said.
“Okay. Any cops around?”
“Gee, not since I checked three minutes ago.” But she sighed, dutifully closing her eyes. They were pretty far from the center of town, out where Melissa’s casting was clearest. The blasting mind noise of Bixby was miles behind them, and at this hour most of the population had already succumbed to sleep. The beings out in the desert that filled her mind with their alien tastes and ancient fears—the midnight things—hadn’t awoken yet.
After a moment she shook her head. “Still no cops.”
“Okay. Let’s do it, then.” He took a deep breath.
Slowly Melissa pulled off her right glove. Her pale hand was luminous in the darkness; there were no streetlights this far out, and the moon was only a glowing smear on the high, fish-scale clouds.
Rex laid his own right hand on the car seat, palm up. He saw it trembling but didn’t bother to hold still. With Melissa it was pointless to pretend.
“Remember the first time?”
Rex swallowed. “Sure, Cowgirl.”
It had all happened long ago, but he recalled their early experiences in the secret hour with a marvelous clarity. They had taken a long walk through the blue and empty streets of Bixby. Melissa was showing him how her talent worked, pointing at a house to say, “An old woman died slowly in there; I can still taste it.” Or, “A child drowned in their swimming pool; they dream about it every night.” Once she stopped to stare at a normal-looking house for a solid minute, Rex conjuring horrible images as he waited. But finally Melissa said, “They’re happy in there. I think that’s what it is, anyway.”
At some point when he was eight years old, Rex had reached out—unknowingly and innocently to take her hand, that first and last time.
“I was real sorry about that, Cowgirl.”
“I got over it. It’s not your fault I’m like this.”
Melissa just smiled at him and reached out slowly, her hand trembling as much as his. In that moment Rex knew that she wanted this too. No mind reading required.
He didn’t dare move, so he just closed his eyes.
Their fingers brushed, and it was fiercer, more intense than Rex remembered. He felt the wild hunger first, her animal need to consume his thoughts, and he almost pulled his hand back but fought to keep it still. Her mind came then, entering his in a bold, unstoppable surge of energy, rushing into corners and crannies and uprooting long-buried memories. The car spun around Rex, his hands clenching to take hold of anything real and solid, but his fingernails only sank into her flesh, making the contact stronger.
Melissa’s own emotions followed the first onslaught, carried along like bitter backwash. Rex could sense her constant phobia of being touched, as well as her new misgivings about the sudden and overwhelming intimacy between them. Rex felt his throat tighten, his stomach lurching as he recognized her long-simmering fear of this moment, suddenly understanding how much greater her anxiety had been than his.
But still, she’d trusted him enough to reach out her hand…
Pieces of dark knowledge came through then: the way a darkling’s mind tasted when it was very old, as bitter as a rusty nail held under a dry tongue; the chaos of Bixby High just before the late bell rang, almost loud enough to break her mind; the terror that with one touch, one of the clamoring minds that harassed her every daylight moment would invade and trespass on hers; and finally the sweet onset of the blue hour, a silence so glorious, it was as if everyone in the world had been exterminated, their petty thoughts all finally extinguished.
Then, suddenly, it was over.
He looked down at his hand, empty and slick with sweat. Melissa had somehow managed to pull away. Rex stared dumbly at his palm, watching four red half-moons appear, the marks of his own fingernails digging in after she had slipped out of his grasp.
But at least it was silent now. He was alone again inside his head.
He turned away from her to look out the window, feeling as bleak as the charcoal desert stretched out before him. Strange. Rex had expected to feel full once it was over. This was new information, like the wisdom of his books or the surety of lore, things that always made some part of him feel larger. This was something he’d wanted from her as long as he could remember. But somehow the knowledge of Melissa, of what it was like to be her, had emptied him.
“Maybe next time,” she said.
He blinked at her. “What?”
“Maybe it’ll be better next time.” She tore her eyes from his and turned over the engine, the car springing to life beneath them.
Rex tried to offer reassurances and say something hopeful. Perhaps she would build up resistance. Or they would gain more control, sharing thoughts and ideas instead of raw sensations and blind fears. Maybe one day they could do more than touch for a few moments—maybe anything was possible. But Melissa shook her head at every thought that crossed Rex’s mind, never taking her gaze from the road. This wasn’t just her usual sensitivity, he realized. Melissa had been inside him every moment of the maelstrom and felt the desolation she had left in him.
There was nothing he could say that she didn’t already know.
He watched the signs of midnight pass. It was better than thinking about what had happened between him and his oldest friend.
The midnight invasion had stopped, that much was for sure. When Jessica Day had first appeared in town, the marks had been everywhere, swaths of sharp Focus across the blur of Rex’s vision, revealing where darklings and their foot soldiers had disturbed the daylight world. They had pushed farther into town every night, despite the clean metal and thirteen-pointed stars that protected Bixby, emboldened by their hatred of Jessica.
But now the marks were fading. Since she had discovered her talent, the darklings were powerless to attack Jessica directly. The town was softening again, losing the Focus. The darklings were in retreat.
Melissa made a turn. Rex frowned, unsure of where they were headed but unwilling to disturb the silence that had fallen between them since they’d touched. The plan had been to drive around Jessica’s neighborhood and try to catch the thoughts of her human stalker. But they weren’t headed into town. The desert was still in view, a black horizon stretching away toward Rustle’s Bottom and the snake pit.
“Didn’t you get my message?” Melissa said.
“About where we’re going.”
Rex chewed his lip. For a moment he wondered why he should bother to speak since she could evidently read every thought in his mind now. “Message? You know my father—”
“Not a telephone call. From my mind, moron.” She turned to glare at him. “All you got was crap?”
“I wouldn’t call it crap.” The majesty of midnight’s tastes, her profound loneliness, her long-tended hatred of humanity—none of it was crap. All of it was…
“Don’t get all depressing on me, Rex. I tried to send you a message, that’s all. I thought that was the way you wanted it to work. So quit feeling sorry for me and think for a second.”
Rex took a deep breath, turned to stare out the window, and began to examine the mental fragments she had left inside him. He had to ignore what he’d learned, the awesome sadness of it. He had to forget for a moment that he had never managed to understand what his best friend….
“Rex…” she growled.
“Oops, sorry. Thinking about the message now.”
And suddenly there it was against the bleak backdrop. A kind of undigested thought in his head, like a dream not quite remembered in the morning. He closed his eyes, but strangely that made the thought disappear, so he opened them again and stared out at the passing oil fields. Gradually his attention was caught by the rhythm of derricks rising and falling under the bright orange suns of mercury lamps. And then it became clear, like looking just to one side of a faint star and discovering that the periphery of vision is stronger than the center.
“We must have Jessica Day,” he murmured.
“Bingo,” Melissa said.
“You heard that…? In normal time?”
“Give the man a cigar.”
Rex blinked, hearing the voice, distant but clear, exactly as Melissa had when they’d driven back from Rustle’s Bottom that night. “It was a human. You’ve known for a whole week that something human wanted Jessica.”
“The Eagle has landed. Houston, we have a winner.”
He stared dumbly out the window, unable to believe what he had heard in his mind or to comprehend the hysteria in her voice. Why would she hide this from him?
Then suddenly he blinked. Melissa’s old Ford was passing a house he recognized, the two-story colonial fitting neatly over a vision she had left inside him. They were at the exact point on Kerr Street where she’d heard the voice.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Rex asked in amazement.
“Because…” Melissa’s voice choked off, and she breathed deeply, getting herself under control. Finally she sighed. “Well, Loverboy, why don’t you figure that one out on your own?”