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Chapter 6: "Touch"


"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, could 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 windscreen. "We'll see about that."

She was nervous too, Rex could see now. 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. And maybe a way to break through Melissa's shell, to connect her with the rest of the group.

And to connect her with him, in a way he'd wanted for a long time. 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 lay his own right hand on the car seat, palm up. He saw it trembling there, but didn't bother to hold still. At least 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." And 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 he had reached out--unknowingly and, at eight years old, 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."

"Yours either."

Melissa just smiled at him and reached out slowly, her hand trembling as much as his. She wanted this too, Rex knew, no mind-reading required.
He didn't dare move, just closed his eyes.

Their fingers brushed, and it was fiercer, more sovereign than Rex remembered. He felt the wild hunger first, her animal need to consume his thoughts, and almost pulled his hand back, but fought to keep it still. Her mind came then, entering his in a bold, unstoppable deluge, rushing into corners and crannies, uprooting long-buried memories and shaking unequivocal beliefs to their foundations. 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 hungry onslaught, carried along like bitter backwash--an old horror at being touched, new misgivings about the sudden and overwhelming intimacy between them. Rex felt his throat tighten, his stomach lurching as if trying to eject some rotten thing he'd eaten. He realized what it was: her long-simmering fear of this moment, and suddenly understood 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 cacophony of Bixby High just before the late bell rang, almost loud enough to break her mind, like cowering from a hailstorm under a fragile sheet of glass; the fear, always, of being touched, the terror that one of the clamoring minds that harassed her every daylight moment would invade and trespass hers. And finally the sweet onset of the blue hour, a staggering silence as glorious as if everyone in the world had been exterminated, their petty thoughts all finally extinguished.

And then it was over.

He looked down at his hand, empty and slick with sweat. Melissa had pulled away, somehow able to act amid that chaos. Rex dumbly stared 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, but 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, to say something. 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. Not just her usual sensitivity, he realized--Melissa had been inside him every moment of the maelstrom, had 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 naked vision, revealing where darklings and their ilk had disturbed the daylight world. They had pushed farther into town every night, daring the clean metal and thirteen-pointed stars, emboldened by their hatred of Jessica.

But now the marks were fading. Since she had discovered her talent, they 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 stood 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.

"What message?"

"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 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 cold majesty of midnight's tastes, loneliness mixed with constant and unwanted intimacy, her tenaciously refined 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. 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 Rex stared out at the passing oil fields. Gradually, his mind 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.

"And Bingo was his name-o," 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 as 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."

"I say again: B-I-N-G-O. 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. "But why didn't you tell me?"

"Because . . . " Melissa's voice choked off, and she breathed deeply, getting herself under control. Then finally she sighed. "Well, Loverboy, why don't you just figure that one out on your own?"



Chapter 8


12:00AM "Search Party"

"Something bad is happening."

Melissa's words were spoken softly, and filled the silence of the blue time like an urgent whisper. Dess looked to the edge of the junkyard lot where her friends stood. Melissa's upturned eyes caught the light of the midnight moon. Rex, as usual, hovered close to her, focused on every word.

Dess waited for more, but Melissa just stared into the sky, listening with her whole being, tasting the motionless air.

Dess shrugged and returned her gaze to the ground, scanning the pile of metal bits that Rex had picked for her. According to him, all of them were untouched by inhuman hands. If he was right about tonight there was the possibility of a serious rumble, and she was going to need clean steel to work with.

Of course, Rex could be wrong. It didn't feel like a bad night to Dess. Friday, September 5, the fifth day of the ninth month. The combination of nine and five wasn't particularly nasty: the numbers made 4, 14, or 45 (when subtracted, added, or multiplied), which was kind of a cute pattern if you liked fours, which Dess did, but hardly dangerous. On top of that, "S-e-p-t-e-m-b-e-r f-i-v-e" spelled out had thirteen letters, which was as safe as any number could be. What was to complain about?

But Rex was worried.

Dess looked up. The dark moon looked normal, rising at its usual stately pace and resplendent with its usual gorgeous, pale blue light. So far, Dess hadn't heard the sounds of anything big roaming. Nor had she seen too many slithers. Not a single one, in fact, not even out of the corner of her eye.

That was weird, actually. She looked around the junkyard. There were rusted-out cars, a corrugated iron shack flattened by some ancient tornado, and a jumbled tire pile--plenty of places to slither under and peer out from, but not a flicker of movement anywhere. And even when they couldn't be seen, the chirps and calls of slithers were usually audible. But none of the little guys were watching tonight.

"Almost too quiet," she said to herself in a bad-guy accent.

Across the junkyard, Melissa moaned, and despite the constant warmth of the blue time a shiver passed through Dess.

It was time to get started.

She squatted and began to sort through the pieces of metal, looking for bright steel uncorrupted by rust. Stainless was best, unpainted and shiny. The twisted, uneven shapes of the metal also played a part in her selections. The long trip from factory to junkyard had weathered some pieces to certain proportions, small rods with elegant ratios of length and width, scarred old bolts with harmonious spacings between their dents. Dess arranged her finds happily. Steel came alive here in the blue time. She saw iridescent veins of moonlight streak across the metal and then fade, as if the steel were reflecting a fireworks show in the pale sky above.

As she chose from the bits of metal, Dess brought each to her mouth and blew a name into it.

Some of the big pieces were beautiful, but she needed to be able to carry all of them easily, possibly while running for her life. She selected a small but perfect washer, rejecting a heavy length of pipe.

"Overzealously," she whispered to it.

Words tumbled through her head, some of which she didn't even know the meanings of, scraps of language that had stuck in her mind because of the number or arrangement of their letters. Words weren't really her thing, except when they collided with numbers and patterns, like stretching across a Scrabble board to grab a triple-word score.

What she wanted tonight was pretty straightforward: thirteen-letter words to boost the power of these pieces of steel.

"Fossilization," she named a long, thin screw, the thread of which wound exactly thirty-nine times around its shaft.

The crunch of Rex's boots came from right behind her. She hadn't heard him approach, lost as she was in the pleasures of steel.

"If you were a slither, you'd've bit me," she murmured. The foul little things didn't exactly bite, of course, but close enough.

"Melissa's found her," Rex said.

Dess lifted an old hubcap up to the light. Trapped blue fire coursed around its rim.

"About time."

"But she says we have to hurry. There's trouble. Something big out there, or just nasty. Whatever it is, it's giving Melissa a serious headache."

Dess brought the hubcap close to her lips.

"Hypochondriac," she whispered to it.

"You ready?" Rex asked.

"Yeah. This stuff's all weaponized."

"Let's go, then."

She stood up, clutching the hubcap in one hand and dropping the smaller bits of metal into her pockets. Rex turned and jogged to the edge of the junkyard, where their bikes were stashed. He jumped on his and rode after Melissa, who was already headed down the road toward downtown. Of course, Dess thought. Gillian Day was a city girl. Her parents could afford to live close in, away from the badlands and the smells of oil rigs and roadkill.

Dess walked over calmly and pulled her bike up, mounted and began to pedal after the two. She didn't rush. Melissa could only move so fast without losing her way, as she cautiously felt for the trembling threads in the tenuous psychic spiderweb of midnight. And even with her crappy one-speed, Dess could beat either of them in a race. It would be no problem to catch up before the fireworks started.

She just hoped this wasn't a wild goose chase, a symptom of Rex's beginning-of-the-school-year paranoia. Sure, there was a new midnighter in town, but that had happened once before, and the consequences hadn't exactly been earth shattering.

Rex had sounded pretty scared on the phone, though. So Dess had worn her sensible shoes. Running shoes.

The hubcap rattled happily in the basket on Dess's bike. She smiled. Whatever was out there, she wouldn't have to run right away. The comforting weight of metal clinked heavily in her pockets, and Dess knew without counting how many weapons she had made tonight.

"Lucky thirteen," she said.

They drew closer to the city, the wide, blank spaces of vacant lots and new developments giving way to strip malls and gas stations, and, of course, her favorite store: 7-Eleven, a fraction also known as point-six-three-six-three-repeat-to-infinity.

Up ahead, Melissa was going faster now, no longer feeling her way, apparently certain of the direction. Something was really giving off bad vibes tonight. Dess pedaled a little harder, swerving her bike around the occasional motionless cars that hogged the road.

Rex was right behind Melissa, making sure she didn't crash into a car while she had her nose in the air. Melissa was a lot more functional here in the blue time, but Rex still hovered. Eight years of baby-sitting was a hard habit to break.

Dess saw a shape in the sky. Silent and gliding--a winged slither. Against the almost fully risen moon, she could see the fingers in the wing. Like a bat's, the slither's wing was really a hand: four long, jointed finger bones spread out like kite struts, with paper-thin skin webbed between them.

The slither made a chirping call, a strangled little noise that sounded like the last cry of a stomped-on rat.

Answers sounded. There were more of them up there, a full flock of twelve. They were headed in the same direction as Dess and her friends.

Dess swallowed. It was probably a coincidence. Or maybe the little guys were just coming along for the ride. There were always some around, curious about the little tribe of humans who visited the blue time. They didn't usually make trouble.

She looked up. Another flock had swept in to join the first group. She counted the dark, translucent shapes with a glance: twenty-four of them now.

Dess started counting aloud to calm her nerves. "Uno, dos, tres . . . " She knew how to count in twenty-six languages, and was working on a few more. The rhythmic sounds of number-words soothed her, and she always found the different ways of dealing with the tricky teens amusing.

She switched nervously to Old English. "Ane, twa, thri, feower, fif . . . "

September the fifth. Nothing big was happening tonight, she was positive. Nine plus five was fourteen. And it was the 248th day of the year, and two plus four plus eight also made fourteen. Not as good as thirteen, but no bad karma there.

There were still more shapes in the sky. Their calls came mockingly from every direction.
"Un, deux, trois, quatre," she switched to French, counting louder to drown the slithers out. Dess decided to go all the way to eighty, which was "four twenties" in French. "Cinq, six, sept . . . "

"Sept!" she said aloud, skidding her bike to a halt.

Sept meant seven in French, and in a bunch of other languages too. (A septagon had seven sides, her brain uselessly informed her.) Sept as in September. She remembered now--way back in the old days, a thousand years ago, September had been the seventh month, not the ninth.

September fifth had once been the fifth day of the seventh month.

And seven plus five was twelve.

"Oh, crap," Dess said.

She lifted from her bicycle seat, thrusting her right foot down hard against its pedal as she pulled up on the handles, straining to get the bike moving again. Melissa and Rex had gotten way too far ahead. On a night this serious, she and her weapons should be leading the pack.
A long, piercing cry sounded above her, and another thirteen-letter word came unbidden into Dess's head.

"Bloodcurdling," she whispered, and kept on pedaling.










































































































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