About the Book
Sixteen-year-old Jessica Mastriani knew she wasn't going to be able to hide her psychic powers from the U.S. government—interested in utilizing her special skills for their own devices—forever. But she never thought that she and Cyrus Krantz, the special agent brought in to "convince" Jess to join his elite team of "specially-gifted" crime solvers, would turn out to have something in common.
But when a local boy's disappearance is attributed to a backwoods militai group, Jess's goal—to find the missing child—and Dr. Krantz's—to stop a group of madmen before they kill again—turn out to be one and the same. Suddenly Jess finds herself working with one enemy in order to stop a far worse one. In an atmosphere of hate and fear, can Jess and Dr. Krantz—not to mention Jess's would-be boyfriend Rob—work together to unite a community and save a life...without losing their own?
"Gosh, Mrs. Wilkins," I said. "That was the best pumpkin pie I ever had."
Rob's mom brightened. "You really think so, Jess?"
"Yes, ma'am," I said, meaning it. "Better than my dad's, even."
"Well, I doubt that," Mrs. Wilkins said, with a laugh. She looked pretty in the soft light over the kitchen sink, with all her red hair piled up on top of her head. She had on a nice dress, too, a silk one in jade green. She didn't look like a mom. She looked like she was somebody's girlfriend. Which she was, in fact. She was this guy Gary-No-Really-Just-Call-Me-Gary's girlfriend.
But she was also my boyfriend Rob's mom.
"Isn't your dad a gourmet cook?" Just-Call-Me-Gary asked, as he helped bring in the dishes from the Wilkinses' dining room table.
"Well," I said. "I don't know about gourmet. But he's a good cook. Still, his pumpkin pie can't hold a candle to yours, Mrs. Wilkins."
"Go on," Mrs. Wilkins said, flushing with pleasure. "Me? Better than a gourmet cook? I don't think so."
"Sure is good enough for me," Gary said, and he put his arms around her waist, and sort of danced her around the kitchen.
I noticed Rob, watching from the kitchen door, kind of grimace, then turn around and walk away. Maybe Rob had a right to be disgusted. He worked with Just-Call-Me-Gary at his uncle's auto repair shop. It was through Rob that Mrs. Wilkins had met Just-Call-Me-Gary in the first place.
After watching Gary and Rob's mom dance for a few seconds more--they actually looked pretty good together, since he was all lean and tall and good looking in a cowboy sort of way, and she was all pretty and plump in a dance hall girl kind of way--I followed Rob out into the living room, where he'd switched on the TV, and was watching football.
And Rob is not a huge sports fan. Like me, he prefers bikes.
Motorbikes, that is.
"Hey," I said, flopping down onto the couch next to him. "Why so glum, chum?"
Which was a toolish thing to say, I know, but when confronted with six feet of hot, freshly showered male in softly faded denim, it is hard for a girl like me to think straight.
"Nothing." Rob, normally fairly uncommunicative, at least where his deepest emotions were concerned--like, for instance, the ones he felt for me--aimed the remote and changed the channel.
"Is it Gary?" I asked. "I thought you liked him."
"He's all right," Rob said. Click. Click. Click. He was going through channels like Claire Lippman, a champion tanner, went through bottles of sunscreen.
"Then what's the matter?"
"Nothing," Rob said. "I told you."
I couldn't help feeling a little disappointed. It wasn't like I'd expected him to propose to me or anything, but I had sort of thought, when he'd invited me to have Thanksgiving dinner with him and his mom, that Rob and I were making some headway, you know, in the relationship department. I thought maybe he was finally going to put aside this ridiculous prejudice he has against me, on account of my being sixteen, and him being eighteen and on probation for some crime the nature of which he still has yet to reveal to me.
Instead, the whole thing seemed to have been cooked up by his mom. Not just the dinner, but the invitation, as well.
"We just don't see enough of you," Mrs. Wilkins had said, when I'd come through the door, bearing flowers (Stop and Shop, but what she didn't know wouldn't hurt her. Besides, they were pretty nice, and had cost me ten whole dollars). "Do we, Rob?"
Rob had only glared at me. "You could have called," he said. "I'd have come and picked you up."
"Why should you have gone to all that trouble?" I'd asked, airily. "My mom was fine with me taking the car."
"Mastriani, I think you're forgetting something."
"You don't have a license."
For a guy I'd met in detention, you would think Rob would be a lot more open-minded. But he is surprisingly old-fashioned on a large number of topics.
Such as, I was finding out, his mom, and her dating habits.
"It's just," he said, when sounds of playful splashing started coming from the kitchen, "she has to work tomorrow, that's all. I mean, the whole reason we stayed here instead of going to Evansville with my uncle is that she has to work tomorrow."
"Oh," I said. What else could I say?
"I just hope he isn't planning on staying late," Rob said. Click. Click. Click. "Mom's got the breakfast shift."
I knew all about Mrs. Wilkins and her breakfast shift. Before it burned down, Rob's mom had worked at Mastriani's. Since it got toasted, she's been working instead at Joe's, my mom and dad's other restaurant.
"I'm sure he's going to leave soon," I said, encouragingly, even though it wasn't even ten o'clock. Rob was way overreacting. "Hey, why don't we volunteer to do the dishes, so they can, you know, visit?"
Rob made a face, but since he is basically a guy who would do anything for his mom, on account of his dad having left them both a long time ago, he stood up.
But when we got into the kitchen, it was clear from the amount of suds being flung about that Just-Call-Me-Gary and Mrs. Wilkins were having a pretty good time doing the dishes themselves.
"Mom," Rob said, trying, I could tell, not to get mad. "Isn't that your good dress?"
"Oh." Mrs. Wilkins looked down at herself. "Yes, it is. Where is my apron? Oh, I left it in my bedroom...."
"I'll get it," I volunteered, because I am nosey and I wanted to see what Mrs. Wilkins's bedroom looked like.
"Oh, aren't you sweet?" Mrs. Wilkins said. And then she aimed the dish nozzle at Just-Call-Me-Gary and got him right in the chest with a stream of hot water.
Rob looked nauseated.
Mrs. Wilkins's bedroom was on the second floor of the tiny little farmhouse she and Rob lived in. Her room was a lot like her, pink and cream and pretty. She had some baby pictures of Rob on the wall that I admired for a few seconds, after I'd found her apron on the bed. That, I thought to myself, is how my kid with Rob would look. If we ever had kids. Which would have to wait until I had a career, first. Oh, and for Rob to propose. Or take me out on a real date.
In one of the photos, Rob, who was still young enough to be in diapers, was being held by a man whom I didn't recognize. He didn't look like any of Rob's uncles, who, like Rob's mom, were all red-headed. In fact, this man looked more like Rob, with the same dark hair and smokey grey eyes.
This, I decided, had to be Rob's dad. Rob never wanted to talk about his dad, I guess because he was still mad at him for walking out on Rob and his mom. Still, I could see why Rob's mom would have gone for the guy. He was something of a hottie.
Back downstairs, I handed Mrs. Wilkins her apron. She was still giggling over something Just-Call-Me-Gary had said. Just-Call-Me-Gary looked pretty happy, too. In fact the only person who didn't look very happy was Rob.
Mrs. Wilkins must have noticed, since she went, "Rob, why don't you show Jessica the progress you've made on your bike?"
I perked up at this. Rob kept the bike he was currently working on, a totally choice but ancient Harley, in the barn. This was practically an invitation from Rob's mom to go and make out with her son. I could not believe my good fortune.
But once we got into the barn, Rob didn't look very inclined to make out. Not that he ever does. He is unfortunately very good at resisting his carnal urges. In fact, I would almost say that he doesn't have any carnal urges, except that every once in a while, and all too rarely for my tastes, I am able to wear him down with my charm and Cherry Chapstick.
Or maybe he just gets so sick of me talking all the time that he kisses me in order to shut me up. Who knows?
In any case, he didn't seem particularly inclined to take advantage of my vulnerable femininity there in the barn. Maybe I should have worn a skirt, or something.
"Is this just because I drove out here?" I asked, as I watched him tinker around with the bike.
Rob, looking up at the bike, which rested on a work table in the middle of the barn, tightened something with a wrench. "What are you talking about?"
"This," I said. "I mean, if I'd known you were going to be so crabby about it, I'd have called you to come pick me up, I swear."
"No, you wouldn't have," Rob said, doing something with the wrench that made the muscles in his upper arms bunch up beneath the grey sweater he wore. Which was way more entertaining than watching sports on TV, let me tell you.
"What are you talking about? I just said--"
"You didn't even tell your parents you were coming here, Mastriani," Rob said. "So cut the crap."
"What do you mean?" I tried to sound offended, even though of course he was telling the truth. "They know where I am."
Rob put down the wrench, folded his arms across his chest, leaned his butt against the work table, and said, "Then why when you called them to tell them you got here, did you say you were at somebody called Joanne's?"
Damn! I hadn't realized he'd been in the room when I'd made that call.
"Look, Mastriani," he said. "You know I've had my doubts from the start about this--you and me, I mean. And not just because I've graduated, and you're still in the eleventh grade--not to mention the whole jailbait factor. But let's be real. You and I come from different worlds."
"That," I said, "is so not--"
"Well, different sides of the tracks, then."
"Just because I'm a Townie," I said, "and you're a--"
He held up a single hand. "Look, Mastriani. Let's face it. This isn't going to work."
I've been working really hard on my anger management issues lately. Except for that whole thing with the football players--and Karen Sue Hankey--I hadn't beat up a single person, or served a day of detention, the whole semester. Mr. Goodhart, my guidance counselor, said he was really proud of my progress, and was thinking about canceling my mandatory weekly meetings with him.
But when Rob held up his hand like that, and said that this, meaning us, wasn't going to work, it was about all I could do to keep from grabbing that hand and twisting Rob's arm behind his back until he said uncle. All that kept me from doing it, really, was that I have found that boys don't really like it when you do things like this to them, and I wanted Rob to like me. To more than like me.
So instead of twisting his arm behind his back, I put my hands on my hips, cocked my head, and went, "Does this have something to do with that Gary dude?"
Rob unfolded his arms and turned back to his bike. "No," he said. "This is between you and me, Mastriani."
"Because I noticed you don't seem to like him very much."
"You're sixteen years old," Rob said, to the bike. "Sixteen!"
"I mean, I guess I could understand why you don't like him. It must be weird to see your mom with some guy other than your dad. But that doesn't mean it's okay to take it out on me."
"Jess." It always meant trouble when Rob called me by my first name. "You've got to see that this can't go anywhere. I'm on probation, okay? I can't get caught hanging out with some kid--"
The kid part stung, but I graciously chose to ignore it, observing that Rob, in the words of Great Aunt Rose's hero, Oprah, was in some psychic pain.
"What I hear you saying," I said, talking the way Mr. Goodhart had advised me to talk when I was in a situation that might turn adversarial, "is that you don't want to see me anymore because you feel that our age and socio-economic differences are too great--"
"Don't even tell me that you don't agree," Rob interrupted, in a warning tone. "Otherwise, why haven't you told your parents about me? Huh? Why am I this dark secret in your life? If you were so sure that we have something that could work, you'd have introduced me to them by now. "
"What I am saying to you in response," I went on, as if he hadn't spoken, "is that I believe you are pushing me away because your father pushed you away, and you can't stand to be hurt that way again."
Rob looked at me over his shoulder. His smokey grey eyes, in the light from the single bulb hanging from the wooden beam overhead, were shadowed.
"You're nuts," was all he said. But he really seemed to mean it sincerely.
"Rob," I said, taking a step towards him. "I just want you to know. I am not like your dad. I will never leave you."
"Because you're a freaking psycho," Rob said.
"No," I said. "That's not why. It's because I lo--"
"Don't!" he said, thrusting the rag out at me like it was a weapon. There was a look of naked panic on his face. "Don't say it! Mastriani, I am warning you--"
"I told you--" He wadded the rag up and threw it viciously into a far corner of the barn. "--not to say it."
"I'm sorry," I said, gravely. "But I am afraid my unbridled passion was simply too great to hold in check a moment longer."
A second later, it appeared that in actuality, Rob was the one suffering from the unbridled passion, not me. At least if the way he grabbed me by the shoulders, dragged me towards him, and started kissing me was any indication.
While it was, of course, highly gratifying to be kissed by a young man who was clearly so incapable of controlling his tremendous ardor for me, it has to be remembered that we were kissing in a barn, which at the end of November is not the warmest place to be at night. Furthermore, it wasn't like there were any comfy couches or beds nearby for him to throw me down on or anything. I suppose we could have done it in the hay, but
a) ew, and
b) my passion for Rob is not that unbridled.
I mean, sex is a big enough step in any relationship without doing it in an old barn. Um, no thank you. I am willing to wait until the moment is right--such as prom night. In the unlikely event I am ever invited to prom. Which, considering that my boyfriend is already a high school graduate, seems unlikely. Unless of course I invite him.
But again, ew.
"I think I should go home now," I said, the next time we both came up for air.
"That," Rob said, resting his forehead against mine, and breathing hard, "would probably be a good idea."
So I went in and said thank you to Rob's mom, who was sitting on the couch with Just-Call-Me-Gary watching TV in a snuggly sort of position that, had Rob seen it, might just have sent him over the edge. Fortunately, however, he did not see it. And I did not tell him about it, either.
"Well," I said to him, as I climbed behind the wheel of my mom's car. "Seeing as how we aren't broken up anymore, do you want to do something Saturday? Like go see a movie or whatever?"
"Gosh, I don't know," Rob said. "I thought you might be busy with your good friend Joanne."
"Look," I said. It was so cold out that my breath was coming out in little white puffs, because it was so cold, but I didn't care. "My parents have a lot to deal with right now. I mean, there's the restaurant, and Mike dropping out of Harvard...."
"You're never going to tell them about me, are you?" Rob's grey eyes bore into me.
"Just let me give them a chance to adjust to the idea," I said. "I mean, there's the whole thing with Douglas and his job, and Great Aunt Rose, and--"
"And you and the psychic thing," he reminded me, with just the faintest trace of bitterness. "Don't forget you and the psychic thing."
"Right," I said. "Me and the psychic thing." The one thing I could never forget, no matter how much I tried.
"Look, you better get going," Rob said, straightening up. "I'll follow behind, and make sure you get home okay."
"You don't have to--"
"Mastriani," he said. "Just shut up and drive."
And so I did.
Only it turned out we didn't get very far.