The sun hung heavy in the sky, staining the clouds crimson. I stood on top of the hill outside the A-frame with the other concubines. Under the direction of Lori, we’d all put on what were apparently our festive clothes—white halter tops and flowing white linen pants. In the growing twilight, I gazed down over Jasontown. The roofs of houses glowed, reflecting back the dying sunlight. The grass and gardens had taken on a surreal look, like they belonged on a postcard—something picturesque and pastoral. The air was still warm. The mugginess clung to my bare arms and belly.
Lori had tambourines she was passing out. The other girls were giddy and giggling, flipping their hair as they discussed the evening’s activities. I had no idea what to expect. Jason had called a community gathering around the fire. Already, from below us, in the plain near the river, I could hear the sound of hand drums, the beat echoing off the mountains. I understood that this was going to be something like a party, but I also knew that the reason Jason had called this gathering had something to do with the men who’d caused problems last night. I didn’t think their actions really warranted a party.
I watched the clouds floating over the setting sun. They were heavy and dark, harbingers of a coming storm. I felt wary too. Something strange had happened on the river with Jason today. I couldn’t really remember the details, but I had a clear recollection of an empty, hopeless feeling. Of fear. Why had I felt fear? With Jason? I didn’t know, and I didn’t like it.
Lori gave me a tambourine and pulled me along with her to the front of the group of girls. “You’re going to lead the procession with me. Jason’s orders.”
She smiled. “We always make a bit of an entrance, us A-frame girls. Follow my lead. You’ll get the hang of it pretty easily.” Lori turned to the other girls. “Ready?”
A series of whoops answered her.
Lori raised her tambourine over her head and shook it. She threw back her head and yelled. The other girls followed suit. Grabbing my hand, Lori took off down the path towards the river. Laughing, I had no choice but to go with her. A chain of screaming, laughing women, we danced and skipped our way down the path. As we descended, the beat of the drums grew louder, and the sun sunk lower.
As we emerged on the plain even with the river, our yells and whoops settled into a chant of sorts. Lori would yell out, “Who loves Jason?”
We would respond, “We do! We do!” Then we’d shake our tambourines. We were in sight of the drums now, and I could see that beyond the gardens, an enormous fire was blazing in the fire pit. The entire community was gathered around it. Some were playing drums. Others had instruments like guitars and banjos slung over their backs. Still others were dancing on the lawn, their feet bare. The rest were all staring at us, our white outfits blazing in the scant light as we ran towards them, laughing and shouting, jingling our tambourines. As we’d closed in on the drum circle, our tambourine shaking had naturally begun to fit into the drumming, finding little spaces in the beats to accent and jingle.
I could see that several large deer had been cleaned and spitted. They hung over the fire, and the smell of roasting meat permeated the air along with the scent of burning wood. The atmosphere was very festive, and I felt my spirits soar with it. Everyone was smiling. Those who weren’t drumming were dancing. Those who weren’t dancing were clapping. We concubines wound around the fire in a circle. I felt as if I was buoyed up by the drums. My body felt liquid. I moved with the drum beat. It resonated through my insides, moving my limbs. It was like the energy of the entire community was flowing through me. I was grinning, and I couldn’t help it.
We reached the other side of the fire and we found Jason. He sat on a makeshift bench—really just a log on the ground—and he was beautiful. He wore a gleaming white linen shirt and white linen pants like our own. On his head, he wore a garland of flowers. He held out his arms to us.
We followed Lori and circled Jason, surrounding him, our tambourines high above our heads, jingling brightly. Somehow, our chant had shifted, and now we were only repeating, “Jason. Jason. Jason.”
The crowd behind us joined in. The swell of voices behind our own was powerful. We were a huge group, a unit, all focused on our leader. Our wonderful, wonderful Jason.
Jason was laughing. He motioned for us to sit down, and the other girls did, settling on the ground around Jason, all gazing up at him adoringly. I tried to do the same thing, but Jason took my arm and pulled me onto his lap. He wrapped his arms around me. I felt safe there. I felt happy.
Jason inclined his head, and the people with stringed instruments picked them up. They exchanged a few glances over the fire and began to play, as if they knew what to play without speaking to each other. Had they practiced this or was there something about being in the presence of Jason that made everyone on the same page? The music was astonishing. Song after song poured out over the company. Some people sang along. Their voices surged, and it was as if they sang the sun to bed. Darkness floated over everything. Stars peeked out in the sky. In the fields around the fire, children danced with their mothers. Men and women danced in each other’s arms. Some of the concubines danced too, weaving around each other with their tambourines. I’d never felt such joy, such togetherness. It was like we were all one body and the drums our collective heartbeat.
After the singing, it was time for eating. We feasted on meat from the fires, on ears of corn roasted in their husks. There was wine and homemade beer. Full and a little tipsy, Jason and I sat together on the bench, gazing into the mesmerizing patterns in the fire. It was beautiful. It was perfect. The drumming began again. Jason pulled me to my feet. We danced in front of the fire. He whirled me and tugged me close, and I gave myself over to the drums, letting them tell my feet where to move.
But eventually, the dance was over. Grateful, I caught my breath and sprawled on the ground.
Jason got up on the log we’d been sitting on and motioned for quiet. Immediately, everyone was silent, staring up at him. “My people,” he said. “As you know, there was another disturbance last night.”
Jason’s guards brought in about ten men. They all had their hands tied behind their backs. And they all looked as if they’d been roughed up a bit. They had scabbed and swollen faces.
Jason pointed at the men. “These men threatened the peace of Jasontown. These men claimed that the punishment that the people of Jasontown demanded of their friends was not fair or just.” Jason looked out over the crowd. “Tonight, I do not ask for your word to punish these men. Tonight, so that all will know that the punishment comes not from me, but from all the people of the community, I will ask you to exact the punishment yourselves.”
What did he mean? How did he expect the people of Jasontown to punish these men?
“Start the drums,” said Jason.
The drumming began again, pounding its ancient rhythms into my skull, speaking to my limbs, asking them to move. Even though I was sore from dancing, I pushed myself to my feet. Around me, others did so too, forming a ring of dancers around the fire.
“Release the men,” Jason yelled.
The guards untied the men and pushed them into the ring of dancers.
I saw the look on one of the men’s faces. He looked terrified. I felt something for a moment, a twinge of sympathy, perhaps, and then it was washed away. Instead, I felt nothing but indignation towards these men. They had threatened the safety of our village and they should be punished for their actions. I felt red and tense, ready for them.
The drums swirled around us, pulsing out primitive beats, driving me forward, driving all of us forward. The men struggled, but we were stronger. It was like a dance, the pummeling, the punching, the crunch of bones, the squirt of blood, the trampling of flesh under our feet. We screamed and yelled. We chanted. Someone had started up the chant that Lori had been leading earlier.
“Who loves Jason?”
Our answers reverberated off the sky as we rained down hundreds of fists on the men who’d dared to try to hurt us.
And when it was done, the men were dead. In the distance, I heard the roar of thunder. A storm was coming.
I ran my hand over Jason’s bare chest later in bed. Outside, the rain poured down on the roof of his house, making a comforting patter. I was still a little drunk, and I felt uninhibited, freer than I usually would. He caught my wrist, stopped my hand from going any lower.
“We shouldn’t,” he said.
I looked up at him, feeling a little disappointed.
He planted a kiss on my forehead. “It’s too risky. I can’t afford being too tired to keep up my power. Tonight, the people have to bask in it. If they didn’t have it, they might feel…” Jason scooted up, so that he was propped up on the pillows and gazed down at me. “It’s important.”
I stretched, yawning. I was tired anyway. Whatever Jason thought was best was fine with me. “Do you still want me to stay with you?”
“Of course.” He brushed my cheek with his knuckles.
“Good.” I snuggled into the pillow.
“I guess it’s important, anyway,” he said, but he wasn’t looking at me anymore. Instead he was studying the sheets on the bed. He bunched up the edge in his fists. “Things were so much easier before you showed up. Then, it didn’t matter. I mean, none of it was real back then. Now, everything seems different.”
“Jason, everything’s okay,” I said. “You’re perfect. You make me so happy.”
“That’s it exactly,” he said. “I make you happy. I force you to be happy. Which is a good thing, isn’t it? For people to be happy?”
“It’s a very good thing,” I said, grinning.
“That’s why I did it, you know,” he said. “If I didn’t make an example of those men tonight, then the sickness would spread. Sometimes, I get tired, and I can’t keep up the power constantly. I have to turn it off occasionally to recharge. And during those times, I need people to stay happy. Because if they aren’t, then everything gets bad. Like it did tonight.”
What was he talking about? Tonight had been one of the best nights of my life. I’d been so free and happy. I’d never known I could dance like that. “I didn’t think it was bad.”
“You don’t remember what it was like before,” Jason went on as if I hadn’t said anything. “No one has ever been happy around me. No one has ever loved me. They all wanted to use me, since I was a little kid. I’ve been shuffled all over the place, taught to be efficient, taught to be smart, taught to be brutal. And if I succeeded, people were kind to me, and they pretended to care about me. But they never did. No one did. Anton didn’t. Hallam didn’t. You didn’t.”
“Jason, I do care about you.” I pushed myself up on one elbow.
“No, you don’t,” he said. “If I took the power away, if I stopped influencing your mind, you’d leave again. And I’d rather have fake love than no love at all. I know none of it’s real. I know all these people are only near me because I’m forcing them to be shiny, happy people. But before you showed up, that was enough. Because I was convinced that someone like me would never get any real love. But with you lying next to me like this, right now, your eyes glowing, after I know I forced you to help trample ten men to death earlier…”
“They deserved it,” I said. “They betrayed you.”
“Right,” he said. “That’s what I do when something threatens me. I kill it.” He clenched his fists around the bed sheets and pulled at them, drawing the sheet tight between his hands.
I put my hand over one of his fists. “Jason, you’re a good man. You’re not a killer.”
He laughed hollowly. “Killing is what I’m best at.”
He seemed so sad. I wanted to take that sadness from him. If only I could make him feel as good as he made me feel. I didn’t know how.
“Seeing you again reminds me of the way I used to feel,” he said. “Like things were real. Like I was real. Like I could be a normal person. All that time when we were apart, everything got fuzzier and fuzzier. You loved me before. You made me a real boy. And then you took your love away. And I was just a wooden puppet again. Except there wasn’t anyone to hold the strings anymore. No Sons. No danger to escape. No Edgar Weem. I thought that if I could make a place where everyone was nice to me and nice to each other, it would be easier. And it was. But when I look at you, I remember what it was like when things were real. And I miss that.” He looked at me again.
I felt my happiness begin to slip away again, like it had by the river. Fear crept up my spine, digging its claws into my belly. I tensed up, realizing what had happened tonight. Jason had killed more people, and he’d used me to do it. He’d used other bodies to kill, but it didn’t mean Jason was any less of a murderer. I squeezed his hand. But I hadn’t been lying earlier when I’d told him I cared about him. I did. “Jason,” I whispered.
He shook his head. “No, I see it in your eyes. You’re horrified by me.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but no sound came out. I did feel horror, but it didn’t mean that—
My head felt fuzzy and warm as tendrils of pleasure wrapped themselves around me. Familiar bliss. I yawned. “I feel sleepy.”
“I can’t risk it,” he said. “I just can’t. I’m sorry.”
“Mmmm,” I agreed, closing my eyes.
“I don’t ever want you to leave.”
“I won’t,” I said.
It was raining, and Chance was yelling his head off. I couldn’t blame the kid. We were both soaked, but it wasn’t that cold outside. It didn’t get too cold in July, even at night, but we sure as heck weren’t warm either. I held Chance’s squirming body close to my chest as I trudged through the downpour, looking for shelter.
We’d walked away from Cumberland originally, because I’d been trying to get distance between myself and the men who’d attacked me—along with their mysterious leader, whoever he was. But now, out in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but trees for shelter, I was heading back the way we’d come, walking along the silent road with a baby in my arms. In the rain. I really expected to see a house somewhere. From Azazel’s memories, she’d considered Cumberland a more populated area than most of the surrounding places. But Azazel didn’t recognize anything about where we were now. We must have gone someplace that she wasn’t familiar with. We needed someplace out of the rain. I’d take an abandoned house. Hell. I’d take an abandoned shed. I didn’t know how much longer I was going to be able to handle Chance’s yelling his head off.
The truth was, I was beginning to feel really stupid. Why had I run off like this with no plan? Sure, I wanted to find Azazel, and I wanted to give her powers back. But I had no idea where she was. I was wandering around with a baby in a strange place. We didn’t have a lot of food left either.
In the distance, I heard the whirr of a car engine.
That was strange. I hadn’t seen a lot of working cars out here. I moved off the road, huddling down with Chance in a ditch in case it was the same crew of people from before. I didn’t want to be seen unless I was sure it was safe.
Within seconds, a group of four cars roared up the road, their headlights cutting into darkness, illuminating the wet road. I could tell from the look of the cars that they were from the OF. No one except people in D.C. had cars that were in such good condition these days. The OF was here. Were they looking for me?
But no. I remembered the dream I’d had. Lily in an office, claiming that there was some kind of big, big powerful person here in Cumberland. Was the dream true? Was that why they were here? If the OF had someone like that, what would they do? I thought about the things I’d heard Lily discussing in her office before I’d left. The OF wanted absolute power and they wanted someone with magical abilities to help them do it. I didn’t think that was a great idea. Also, I kind of needed a car.
I gave it a second of consideration, but then, I just did it. I uncapped Azazel’s power inside myself, letting it bubble up and flow through me. Then I reached out with the power and found the minds of the men who were driving the cars. The power was itching to have them all wreck horribly, but I held it back. “Not yet,” I whispered furiously, concentrating. I needed to talk to these men.
I made the men bring their cars to a halt. I made them shut the cars off, get out, and close their doors. I approached them on the wet asphalt. They stared at me blankly.
Chance was still crying. Irritably, I let the power touch his brain, quieting him instantly. Something in Azazel’s memories flared—a warning. I ignored it.
Droplets of rain splattered against the ground. Wet spots appeared on the shoulders of the suits of the men in the cars. I looked into their eyes. I didn’ t have to ask it out loud. I simply made them want to tell me the answers to my question.
“We don’t know his name,” said one.
“He controls a group of armed men here in the area. His influence is growing,” said another.
Armed men? The power that Lily had talked about in her dream. He was the same guy that I’d been waiting for in that abandoned building. Did I want to save him?
“We now know that he’s based in Bramford, WV, though his power influences this area of Maryland as well,” said another of the men. “We are headed there now to find him.”
Bramford? That was Azazel’s hometown. Maybe there was a reason to check this guy out, after all. I didn’t know if I wanted to save him from the OF, exactly, but I needed to know more about him. Maybe, if he was dangerous, and the OF was after him, I needed to destroy him.
At the thought of destruction, the power inside me perked right up. Smash them up now? it asked, eager.
I was going to take one of their cars. I could simply tell them to walk the other way, but eventually they’d snap out of it if I didn’t keep the power on them, and I wanted to bottle it up. That meant that they’d come after me. I didn’t like it, but…
I let the power do its thing. I didn’t stop to watch. I just got in a car, surrounded Chance with the stuff I’d been lugging and buckled him in, and drove off. I heard the sounds of busting glass and screeching tires in the distance. I could imagine what the power was up to. Within minutes, it floated back to me. I capped it back up. I knew where I was headed now.
It didn’t take me long to get to Bramford, maybe forty minutes. When I drove into town, it was dark, and I couldn’t make much out. There wasn’t any point in trying to do anything right then. I certainly couldn’t find this leader guy, who was apparently powerful. In the scant light, I was able to make out that it looked pretty typical of small town America these days. There was a defunct Rite-Aid on one corner, its windows busted out. The courthouse squatted like a dark toad, its pillars covered in graffiti. After my experiences in Cumberland, I didn’t want to try and take shelter in one of the buildings, so I drove through town.
Azazel’s memories told me about a place she used to go to make out with her boyfriend Toby in high school. Judging from her memories, it was isolated—near the woods. There weren’t any houses around it. It seemed perfect.
As I drove there, I mused over the fact that Azazel had never told me a thing about this Toby guy. I sifted through her memories of him. He seemed like a first-rate asshole. Had Azazel ever dated a nice guy? It seemed like both of her boyfriends had been self-centered pricks who’d at some point tried to have sex with her against her will. She wasn’t the luckiest girl on earth, was she?
I guessed there was me. Maybe I was nice, but there wasn’t much use for a nice guy in Azazel’s world. I was useless to her. If only there was some way to give Zaza back her memories and not give her back the burden of this power. I knew it was eating her up inside. I could feel that when I used it, it was violent and efficient. It craved destruction. So I knew why Zaza hadn’t wanted to use it. I understood. But it was different for me, when I used it. I guessed it had similar effects. But it wasn’t affecting me. It wasn’t changing who I was. The problem with Zaza wielding this power was that there was too much darkness pooled up inside her. She’d been through too much, had to make too many decisions that had made her hard and cruel. When she released the power, it enhanced the darkness already inside her. The two forces—Zaza’s darkness and the power’s darkness—fed off of each other in some kind of symbiotic cycle. I could protect her from that, if I could keep the power. And then there would be some reason for me to exist in her life. I could help her.
When I finally reached Azazel’s old make out spot, I parked the car and turned the key. Chance was sleeping, snug in the back seat. I lowered my seat. I was wet. All my stuff was wet. But I was going to need to get some sleep if I wanted to find the leader tomorrow.
I shut my eyes.
I was dreaming almost immediately.
In my dream, I was me, not Azazel, which was always nice. I was sitting alongside the river. There were heads on sticks lining the riverbank. The heads were fresh. They still dripped blood from the place where their necks had been severed from their shoulders. Their eyes were open. They gazed blankly out at the river.
I stood up and looked around. There was no one around except me.
“We would take you,” said a voice.
I nearly stumbled as I looked around, trying to locate the source of the voice.
“We would chew you up and spit you out.” The voice was coming from one of the heads. It was a head belonging to man with black hair. His eyes had been gouged out, so there was nothing but red gore above his hooked nose. When his mouth moved, blood dribbled out of the side of his mouth, running down his chin. “We could find plenty of things to use you for.”
I had a sudden urge to knock the head off its stick. For some reason, I didn’t like being addressed by a dead person. And I didn’t like looking at the gory head either.
“All of our vessels are nothing more than insects,” said the head. “Without our power, that’s all you are. A harmless, annoying little fly. We could make you so much more. We could make you a god. Use us. Let us out.”
The heads all spoke at once. “Let us out.”
I felt sick to my stomach. I backed away from the row of heads, staggering up the riverbank.
I emerged onto an old road, cracked in places. Weeds grew between the cracks. There was a woman standing in the middle of the road. She was wearing a hooded robe. When she saw me, she lowered the hood so that I could see her face. I didn’t recognize her, but Azazel did.
“Agnes,” I said, but I said it with Azazel’s voice.
“I will kill you myself,” she said.
From behind me, the heads chorused, “Let us out.”
I spread my hands, and I felt power surging through me, lighting my body up with a fiery flood.
“Kill you!” Agnes snarled.
“Don’t mess with me, bitch,” I replied, thrusting my hands forward at her, releasing the power.
It caught her in the stomach like a cannon ball. She made an oomphing noise, and then she exploded. Bits of her flesh rained down on me, thudding against the cracked road.
I awoke to the sounds of rain on the roof. The sun was rising.
On my drive back into town the next morning, I noticed a hand-painted sign by the road. It said, “Guns. Ammo. Will trade for food and supplies.” I pulled over. Having the power of ultimate destruction was handy, but it was also pretty messy. I thought that having a gun might be a good way to protect myself without making everyone kill each other in extraordinarily disgusting ways.
I had made a little sling to carry Chance in out of an old sweatshirt I’d brought along, so I pulled that on and settled Chance inside. He was happy, gurgling the sound, “duh,” over and over again, which was his favorite thing to do recently. If Chance had a dad, undoubtedly I’d think he was saying “Da-da.” But I’d never tried to get him to say that or to call me that. So maybe kids didn’t really say “Da-da.” Maybe they just started making noises and kept making them if they got encouragement.
I brushed his tiny nose with my finger. “Duh-duh-duh to you too,” I told him.
“Duh-duh-duh-duh-duh,” he chirped in response, grinning at me.
The sign was in front of an old farmhouse, with several rusting cars in the front lawn. The porch was crowded with various bits of lawn furniture and toys. There were five or six trash cans sitting in front of it, all overflowing with trash. As I approached the house, I heard loud barking. A large black lab came bounding out from behind the house, his tongue hanging out of the side of his mouth. When he saw me, he growled.
I wasn’t afraid of a black lab. They were big, dumb dogs who were generally easy tempered. Instead, I held out my hand to him and said, “Hey there, big guy.”
The dog growled again, but approached me cautiously. He sniffed my proffered hand for a few seconds.
“You’re a pretty one, aren’t you?” I said, reaching up to stroke him behind the ears.
He quieted immediately, letting me pet him while he panted loudly.
“Sunshine!” yelled a voice with a thick hick accent. Great, another guy from Deliverance, I thought. I looked up. Sure enough, there was a man with a huge beard in a dirty white t-shirt on the porch. He wore a ball cap cockeyed on his head. He had bushy eyebrows. “That’s a stranger, Sunshine. Damned fucking dog.”
I waved at the man on the porch. “It’s okay. I only stopped because I saw your sign and I’d like to possibly trade for one of your guns.”
The guy shoved his hands into his pockets, surveying me. “Piss poor watchdog,” he said. He spat sideways.
Seriously? He had chewing tobacco? Who had tobacco products these days? And besides, how much more stereotypical could you get?
He gestured with his head for me to come over. “What kind of gun were you looking for?”
Well, that was kind of a problem, wasn’t it? I knew very little about guns. Desperately, I searched Azazel’s memories for information on guns. She knew less than me, apparently. She could aim one and shoot it, but she had no idea what they were called. “Uh…a handgun, I guess.”
The man nodded. “Yeah. Lots of folks are worried about protecting themselves these days. Alls I got is a Beretta subcompact and a Glock compact.”
Great. What the hell did that mean? “Which one do you have more ammunition for?” I asked.
“You don’t know shit about guns, do you, boy?” the man asked me.
“I know enough,” I said. I had carried an assault rifle when I’d worked for the OF last year, and I’d known how to load it, clean it, and shoot it, but I’d worked with Azazel, and she had magical powers. I’d almost never had to actually shoot that gun. Beyond my experience with the OF, I’d shot a gun a handful of times. I didn’t have terrible aim. I wasn’t an expert, but I wasn’t a complete idiot either.
The man spat again. “I don’t know. Something tells me that if I barter you a gun, you’ll shoot off your own foot. Or maybe you’ll accidentally shoot that precious little bundle you’re holding there. Your girl send you out looking for guns? Tell her next time to keep the baby.”
I glowered at him. “There’s no girl anymore, okay? There’s only me. And him. And I want a gun. I’ve got food. Let’s make a trade.”
The man looked a little sheepish. “I’m sorry about your girl,” he said. “Stay here. I’ll be right back.” He disappeared into the house for a few minutes and returned with a small gun and a box of ammo. “So what were you thinking of trading?”
I told him what I’d thought.
He laughed. “You’re going to have to do a lot better than that, boy.”
Screw it. I didn’t have time for this. I uncapped the power inside myself. As it bubbled through me, I warned it, No killing this guy. Just want the gun.
The power sighed, almost pouting. But it let me send a tendril of magic to the man’s head, convincing him to hand over the gun and the ammo.
“Thanks,” I told the guy. I pulled out the food I’d brought to trade and set it on the porch. I wasn’t going to steal from the guy. We shook hands, and I headed back to the car with my new gun. I didn’t recap the power yet. I wanted to get in the car before the guy realized I’d somehow convinced him to give me a gun for less than he’d wanted.
I could feel the power spreading out, reaching into the distance. It touched something.
I paused, the door of my car open. My power had touched another power. I probed it. It was cool and liquid, a soothing rush of calm. It beckoned. Come to me.
Jason. I must be closer to that fuck’s camp than I had thought. I must be feeling his power. Suddenly, I was angry. How dare he be summoning people with his power? How dare he be the one that Azazel wanted when he was so clearly a jerk? I wanted to claw him apart. I poured all my power against his power. I ripped at it, letting my power engulf his. As I did, I felt the minds of those he controlled. So, so many. I made their minds confused. I made them feel anger towards Jason. I took away whatever it was he’d given them.
It happened so quickly. One minute, I was looking out over the people of Jasontown from the stage. Jason was in front of me, speaking to everyone. In that moment, they were all staring at him with rapt adoration. The next minute, it was chaos.
This book is being posted on Mondays and Thursdays between 7/4/2011 and 9/5/2011. To access other chapters, check out the Between Posts Archive, here.