Bixby Highâ€™s late bell shrieked in the distance, like something wounded and ready to be cut from the herd.
_ Rex Greene was always late these days, stumbling in confusion from one class to another, late with his fatherâ€™s pills or forgetting them altogether. But the worst was getting up for school. It didnâ€™t help that heâ€™d unplugged his clock a few nights ago, unable to sleep with the soft buzzing sound it made all night, like a mosquito hovering just out of armâ€™s length. His newly acute hearing had turned every electronic contraption into something whiny and annoying.
_ But it was more than just the clockâ€™s noise; it was what it meant, with its false day of twenty-four hours. Since what had happened to him in the desert, Rex had started to feel time as something marked out in the skyâ€”the rise and fall of the sun, the spinning stars, the interlocking ratios of the light moon and the dark.
_ The rest of the world still had their clocks, though, so Melissa had banged on his window again this morning, dragging him rudely out of his strange new dreams.
_ â€œSmells like . . . assembly,â€ she said as they pulled into the school parking lot, her head tipping back a bit, nostrils flaring.
_ All Rex could smell was crumbling vinylâ€”the upholstery of Melissaâ€™s crappy Ford broken down by thirty-odd Oklahoma summersâ€”and gasoline fumes leaking up through the floorboard from the carâ€™s rumbling engine. Humans loved their oil, a flash of darkling memory informed him. They scoured the desert for it, used it to make clever things like plastic and gasoline. . . .
_ Rex shook his head to clear it. Mornings like these, when heâ€™d dreamed of Stone Age hunts all night, he had more trouble concentrating than usual. The old knowledge inside him seemed more real than his sixteen years of human memories. Sometimes Rex wondered if he would ever recover from what the darklings had done, the half change theyâ€™d effected before Jessica had rescued him.
_ Was he gradually healing from the experience? Or was the darkness theyâ€™d left inside him like a virus, slowly growing stronger?
_ As Melissa maneuvered the Ford into a parking place, Rex spotted a few stragglers making their way into the gymnasium entrance. The sound of an amplified voice echoed out from the propped-open double doors.
_ â€œCrap, thatâ€™s right,â€ Melissa said, gripping the steering wheel tighter. â€œPep rally today.â€
_ Rex groaned and closed his eyes. He hadnâ€™t faced anything like this since the change, and he wasnâ€™t looking forward to it. The thought of all those bodies pressed in close around him, chanting together, brought a trickle of nerves into his stomach.
_ â€œDonâ€™t worry,â€ Melissa said, reaching across to take his hand. â€œIâ€™ll be there.â€
_ At her touch, with no more insistence than a cool breeze, a calmness fell across Rex. His stomach stopped roiling, his mind growing still as Melissaâ€™s serenity poured into him.
_ A shudder passed through Rex; her strength became his.
_ Funny. A month ago it had been Rex whoâ€™d had to talk Melissa through the beginning-of-football-season pep rally. Now she was the sane one, and he was . . .
_ What, exactly?
_ He didnâ€™t know yet, and Rex hated not knowing. There were no halflings in the lore, much less recovering halflings.
_ Bad dreams last night?
_ Rex smiled and turned to face Melissa. The words had come through as clear as speech. They could have whole conversations now without her uttering a sound.
_ Her control was almost perfect, not a leaked thought anywhere, so different from the vomited rush of fear and pain that had struck him when they had first begun to touch each other. Although sometimes Rex missed those early experiments, the terrifying moments when he saw all of Melissa at once.
_ When his mind was focused, he hardly had to speak himself; Melissa simply pulled the words from him. But this morning he was too much of a wreck.
_ â€œYeah, some bad dreams,â€ Rex said aloud. â€œBut not all of them.â€
_ The hunting dreams had been sweetâ€”the cold, patient hunger as he tracked prey for days across the plain, anticipation building as the weakest were cut from the group, and then the burning rush of the kill.
_ But of course, thereâ€™d been those other dreams as well, memories of when the clever little monkeys had started hunting back. The beginning of the end.
_ â€œJeez, lighten up,â€ Melissa said, pulling her hand away and rubbing it, as if to wring out the ancient horror sheâ€™d felt in his mind. â€œI think someone forgot to drink his coffee this morning.â€
_ â€œSorry, Cowgirl. Yeah, I guess I could use a cup. Or six.â€ Rex shook his head again. His brain felt stuffed full, his own thoughts almost crowded out by the memories that the darklings had implanted to make him one of them. â€œSometimes I wonder if Iâ€™ll ever get back to normal.â€
_ Melissa snorted. â€œWhen were you ever normal, Rex? When were any of us?â€
_ â€œWell, maybe not normal,â€ Rex admitted. â€œBut Iâ€™d settle for human.â€
_ She laughed and touched his shoulder, and he felt a spark of her pleasure even through the fabric of his long black coat. â€œYouâ€™re totally human, Rex. Trust me on that one.â€
_ â€œGlad you think so,â€ he said, smiling.
_ Melissaâ€™s fingers stayed on his shoulder, drumming out a nervous rhythm, and her glance strayed to the open gymnasium door. Rex realized that however much her control had improved, the thought of enduring a pep rally still made Melissa anxious.
_ â€œYouâ€™ll be okay,â€ he said softly, pulling her closer.
_ She turned to him, and their lips met.
_ At first Rex felt serenity in the warmth of their kiss, her new calmness and self-control flowing into him. But then Melissa allowed her composure to slip, and it was like their first time. Everything inside her crashed out in a torrent: the enduring wounds of all those years alone, memories of the constant hammering of other minds, the old fear of being touched. She let it well up and spill over, pouring into him. Rex was overwhelmed for a moment, but then he felt his damaged surety rallying, responding to her need. He twisted in the car seat to take her shoulders, and the kiss built, his strength becoming hers, until he felt Melissaâ€™s mastery of herself return.
_ She sighed as they separated. â€œI say again, Rex: fully human.â€
_ Rex leaned back into his seat, smiling. The heavy dread that he had felt since waking and realizing that it was a school dayâ€”and a Monday at thatâ€”had lifted from him at last.
_ Melissaâ€™s fingers played across his cheek, and she grinned. â€œYou taste electric now, like you do after a jolt of coffee.â€
_ â€œHmm. Maybe kissing is sort of like natureâ€™s coffee.â€
_ â€œActually, Rex, coffee is natureâ€™s coffee. It is a plant, you know.â€
_ â€œAh, right. Good point, Cowgirl.â€
_ He looked at the gymnasium door. A pep rally couldnâ€™t be that bad, could it? Better than the hated first-period math class it would replace, and he could use the time to cram for his upcoming English test. One thing about carrying ancient memories of an elder species around in your head, it could royally screw up your interpretation of Catcher in the Rye.
_ Rex checked his backpack. No English book. â€œListen, I have to go by my locker. Save me a seat?â€
_ â€œBack row?â€
_ â€œOf course.â€ He snorted. â€œI havenâ€™t changed that much.â€
_ She nodded slowly, then her eyes narrowed. â€œShould I come with you?â€
_ â€œDonâ€™t worry about me.â€ Rex ran his tongue across his teeth. They never felt as sharp as he expected them to, the canines never as long as they should be. Phantom limbs itched sometimes at night, as if parts of his body were missing.
_ But Rex took a deep breath and forced those thoughts from his mind. He couldnâ€™t complain about every discomfort. Heâ€™d been granted something that any seer would die for: a chance to learn more about the darklings than the lore could ever teach, to understand them from the inside. Maybe his kidnapping and transformation had been a gift in disguise.
_ As long as his human half stayed in control . . .
_ â€œItâ€™s okay, Cowgirl,â€ he said. â€œI can take care of myself.â€
The hallway was as unpleasantly bright as always, sunlight spilling through the doors, the fluorescents buzzing overhead in a constant drone.
_ Rex squinted in the light, reminding himself to buy sunglasses. That was one advantage since the change: his vision was much sharper. Rex didnâ€™t even need his eyeglasses at school anymore. A strange kind of Focus clung to everything here: the marks of human passage and invention, a million prey trails piled on top of each other, making everything crystal clear and somehow . . . appetizing.
_ It was almost too much. Sometimes he wished that school could be blurry and soft again, distanced behind the thick glasses heâ€™d worn since third grade. Everything was so sharp now. It wasnâ€™t just the buzzing fluorescents that annoyed him; Rex could feel the fire alarms and public address system behind the walls, those razor-fine wires that clever humans always laced their buildings with. It felt like being in a metal cage with electrified bars.
_ And human places were so ugly. Rex noticed for the first time in his two years at Bixby High that the tiled floors were the exact same yellow hue as his fatherâ€™s nicotine-stained fingers. Whose idea of interior decorating was that?
_ At least the halls had been emptied by the pep rally.
_ As he headed for his locker, Rex ran a hand across his scalp, feeling it prickle his palm. When Jessicaâ€™s white flame had freed him from the darkling body, big patches of his hair had burned away, his gothy haircut totaled. So Rex had cropped it to a half inch all over with the electric clippers that his father had once used to shorten the thick coat of their dog, Magnetosphere, for summer.
_ Rexâ€™s own reflection still brought him to a halt when he passed shop windows, and he found himself touching his scalp all the time, fascinated by the hairs standing up so straight, as hard and even as Astroturf under his palm. Maybe this meant that Melissa was right, that he was still human: even after all the other changes that had racked his body and mind, a new haircut still took some getting used to.
_ Rex reached his locker, letting his fingers open it by feel. The tricky part was not thinking of the numbers, that cleverest and most dangerous of human inventions. Fortunately, there werenâ€™t any multiples of the Aversion in his combination. It was hard enough already when his fingers faltered, and Rex had to start over, forcing his way through the sequence number by number, like some freshman on his first day of school.
_ When he looked at the lockerâ€™s dial, he hardly even saw the Aversion anymoreâ€”it appeared as a wavering blurry spot between twelve and fourteen, edited out by his mind, like an FBI informantâ€™s face on the news.
_ He was thinking of taking Dess up on her offer to pull apart the lock and hack it, changing the combination to a smooth string of twelves and twenty-fours. She was already doing his math homework these days. Too many combinations awaited on every page that could paralyze the darkling half of his mind, leaving him with a snapped pencil and a pounding headache.
_ Math was deadly now.
_ Success on the first try. He heard the tiny click of the last cylinder lining up and pulled the locker open happily. But distracted by his thoughts of numbers, Rex realized too late that someone had crept up behind him. A familiar scent swept through him, setting off old alarm bells, fearful and violent memories suddenly rising up.
_ A fist struck the locker, slamming it shut again. The sound echoed through the empty hallway as he spun around.
_ â€œHey, Rex. Lost your specs?â€
_ Timmy Hudson. That explained the trickle of fear in Rexâ€™s stomachâ€”the boy had beaten him up almost every day back in fifth grade. As strong as any flash of darkling memory, Rex recalled being trapped behind the school one day by Timmy and three friends, punched in the gut so hard that for a week it had hurt to piss. Though it had been years since Timmy had done anything worse to Rex than slam him against the wall, the tightening in Rexâ€™s stomach remained as knife-edged as it had ever been.
_ â€œDidnâ€™t lose them,â€ Rex answered, own voice weak and plaintive in his ears. â€œDonâ€™t wear glasses anymore.â€
_ Timmy grinned and stood closer, the smell of sour milk sharp on his breath. â€œContact lenses? Huh. The funny thing is, makes you look like even more of a retard.â€
_ Rex didnâ€™t answer, struck with the sudden realization that Timmy Hudson was looking up at him. At some point he had grown taller than his old nemesis. When had that happened?
_ â€œYou must think youâ€™re getting pretty cool these days, huh?â€ Timmy punctuated the last grunted word with a hard shove, and a combination lock rammed into the small of Rexâ€™s back, hard as the barrel of a gun. The feel of it focused his mind, and he felt his lips begin to twitch, pulling away from his teeth. His mouth felt suddenly dry.
_ Something was moving through Rex, something stronger than him.
_ He shook his head no. He was Rex Greene, a seer, not an animal.
_ â€œWhatâ€™s the matter? Too cool to talk to me these days?â€ Timmy laughed, then squinted up at Rexâ€™s scalp. He reached out and ran one hand across its bristly surface.
_ â€œAnd a new â€™do?â€ Timmy shook his head sadly. â€œYou trying to look tough? Like everyone doesnâ€™t remember what a little pussy you are?â€
_ Rex found himself staring at Timmyâ€™s throat, where the blood pulsed close to the surface. One shallow rip through the frail skin and life would spill out, warm and nourishing.
_ â€œThink your little extreme makeover makes you Mr. Cool, donâ€™t you?â€
_ Rex found himself smiling at the words. What had happened to him was so much more extreme than anything Timmy could imagine.
_ â€œWhatâ€™s so funny?â€
_ â€œYour weakness.â€ Rex blinked. The words had just popped out of his mouth.
_ Timmy took half a step back, blank-faced with shock for a moment. He looked one way down the empty hall, then the other, as if checking the reaction of some invisible audience.
_ â€œMy what?â€ he finally spat.
_ Rex nodded slowly. He could smell it now, he realized, and the scent of weakness had triggered something inside him, something that threatened to spin out of control.
_ His mind grasped for some way to master himself. He tried to think of the lore symbols, but they had all flown out of his brain. All he had left were words. Maybe if he could keep talking . . .
_ â€œYouâ€™re the kind we cut from the herd.â€
_ Timmyâ€™s eyebrows went up. â€œSay what, retard?â€
_ â€œYouâ€™re weak and afraid.â€
_ â€œYou think Iâ€™m afraid, Rex?â€ The boy tried to put on an amused smile, but only half his face obeyed. The left side seemed frozen, taut and wide-eyed, his fear leaking out into his expression. â€œOf you?â€
_ Rex saw that Timmyâ€™s pulse was quickening, his hands shaking.
_ â€œI can smell it on you. . . .â€ The words faded as Rex finally lost control. He watched the rest of what happened like a passenger in his own body. He took a step forward until his face was as close as Timmy had dared come a moment before.
_ The fear in Rexâ€™s stomach had changed into something else, something hot and cruel that surged through his chest and up into his jaw. His teeth parted, lips pulling back so far that he felt them split, baring his teeth and half an inch of gums. His whole body grew as taut as one long trembling muscle, swaying for balance like a snake ready to strike, arms out and fingers locked in rigid claws.
_ He made a noise then, right in Timmyâ€™s face, a horrific sound that Rex had never heard before, much less produced himself. His mouth still open wide, the back of his throat cinched tightly closed, a breath forcing its way out with a long and shuddering hisssssâ€”a mix of fingernails on a chalkboard, the shriek of a hawk, and the last rattle of a punctured lung. The noise seemed to coil in the air for a moment, wrapping around Timmyâ€™s shuddering frame, squeezing the breath from him.
_ The hiss lingered in the empty hallway like the echoes of a shout, disappearing into the buzzing of the fluorescent lights.
_ Timmy didnâ€™t move. The twisted half smile stayed on his face, muscles frozen, as if some careless surgeon had snipped a nerve and he was stuck with the half-formed expression for the rest of his life.
_ â€œWeakness,â€ Rex said softly, the hiss still ringing in his voice.
_ His body softened then, whatever demon had slipped into him departing as swiftly as it had come. His jaw relaxed, and Rexâ€™s muscles lost their inhuman rigidityâ€”but Timmy still didnâ€™t move. He looked thoroughly frozen, like a rat that had just lost a staring contest with a python.
_ He didnâ€™t make another sound as Rex walked away.
_ Halfway to the gym, Rexâ€™s heart was still pounding with the weirdness of what had just happened. He felt elated, confident, and powerful, finally cleansed of the fear that had stalked him through the halls of Bixby High School every day for the last two years.
_ But he was also afraid. Heâ€™d tried to fend off the darkling part of him, but it had taken control nonetheless.
_ Still, the experience had left him feeling so goodâ€”purposeful and somehow more complete. And he hadnâ€™t really lost it, had he? The predator had drawn its claws, but it hadnâ€™t used them. He hadnâ€™t struck for the pulse in Timmyâ€™s throat, the easy kill of the straggler.
_ Maybe the darkling side of him maintained a balance with his human half. Perhaps Rex Greene was still sane.
_ For now.