Jason’s birthday was right around the corner. The previous year, we hadn’t made too big of a deal about it, but this year, Chance and I wanted to throw Jason a huge party. We were pretty sure he’d never had a really big birthday party, and he was turning twenty. I wanted it to be awesome. Chance’s friend Mitch was in school for event planning, and we’d been able to rope him into our scheme by bribing him with some of Grandma Hoyt’s money. Chance and I were pretty rich. Our grandmother had left everything to the two of us, and she’d been absolutely loaded.
I guess I’d been avoiding Jason. We had a rocky two years. At first, things had been idyllic. We’d been completely happy together. It was the first time we’d been able to live together and share a room and openly be a couple (okay, have sex). We started college together in the fall of 2009. We commuted from our house and took classes. I loved it.
Then the thing with Jenna happened in June of 2010. I took it pretty hard. Well, everyone did, but I took it the worst, because I thought it was my fault. For a few months, I’d started drinking really heavily again, which had been a problem for me for a while as a teenager. I started hanging out with some friends from school and getting smashed a lot. Jason got pissed, and I got resentful. We worked it out for the most part, and I cooled it on the drinking. Jason made me make up a bunch of rules for myself, like not to go above four drinks in a night unless I took an hour-long break and had a full stomach. It was all ridiculous, but sticking to it did help.
It didn’t keep Jason from getting jealous, though.
Hell, maybe it was me. I was jealous too.
I don’t know why we didn’t trust each other, but we were always checking up on the other person. I didn’t like it if Jason studied with a group of girls. He didn’t like it if I went to parties without him.
My therapist said that I was just insecure, and that Jason was too. Jason’s therapist didn’t say anything because Jason had stopped going to therapy after about a year. He said that he’d had enough, and that he was fine. Which was rich, I thought, because Jason had been raised in a really screwed up atmosphere, and I thought he needed years and years of therapy.
We argued about that too.
We also argued about Jason’s beating people up. Jason always had a temper, and now that we weren’t on the run, it didn’t go away. There weren’t many of them. Maybe three. But they always ended the same way. With Jason injuring the other guy so badly that the guy needed an ambulance. I kept telling him he was lucky that these guys weren’t pressing charges. I kept telling him he was lucky he didn’t kill someone.
Anyway, even though everything was royally screwed half the time, I still thought this birthday party for Jason would help things. If nothing else, he’d know how much I cared about him. And I was so focused on that, I guess I didn’t pay much attention to him for a few weeks.
What Jason saw was me spending a lot of time with Mitch, sometimes with Chance, and sometimes without Chance. Mitch and I would meet at restaurants and coffee shops and plan the party. We’d hang out in the kitchen at our house and call places to set up catering and decorations and guests. And whenever Jason showed up in the kitchen, we acted like we were hiding something. Because we were. A surprise party. And whenever Jason asked if he could come along, I said no. Maybe I was an idiot not to realize that this would drive Jason nuts.
No. I guess I knew it would drive him nuts, but that was part of the game. When he found out about the party, everything would be okay. I could picture myself in his position and knew he must feel frustrated. Any normal person would. But I forgot that Jason wasn’t a normal person. So, yeah, I expected him to be frustrated. I didn’t expect him to get a gun.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to forget that night. Mitch, Chance, and I were at a restaurant in town. Mitch and Chance had driven together. I’d come separately. So we split up to get to our cars. I don’t know exactly what happened then. I was getting in my car when I got the phone call from Chance. He was screaming, saying they were getting mugged, and they needed my help. “Call 911,” he yelled at me. “Call 911!”
I started to hang up and do what he said, but he stopped me. “No,” he said. “No, it’s Jason.”
I didn’t call 911. I raced to the parking garage where Chance and Mitch had been headed. When I got there, the parking garage was nearly empty, except for a few cars which skulked in the yellow light of the garage. The concrete was covered in oil stains and graffiti. I hurried over it, my footfalls echoing throughout the garage, which was otherwise silent.
I nearly tripped over Mitch’s body. He’d been shot in the head, but Jason had taken the time to rough him up first. His face was smashed in. If he’d been alive, his nose would never have healed straight. Blood was everywhere, smeared all over the concrete, gushing from the wound in Mitch’s head.
That would have been enough. I don’t know if I could ever have felt the same way about him after that. But two feet away from Mitch lay my baby brother. He was lying face down against the concrete, and he wasn’t moving.
At first I thought he was dead. I rushed to him, turning him over. He looked up at me, his eyes frightened. “I can’t move, Zaza,” he whispered.
And Jason? Was he still there, or had he run like a coward?
Jason was in a corner, curled up in a ball. He had his arms over his head, including the one that held a gun. He was crying.
I advanced on him. “What the fuck, Jason?” I said. I stopped when I stood over him. He didn’t look up. “What did you do?”
“I didn’t mean to hurt Chance,” he said, looking up at me. His eyes were red-rimmed. “It was an accident, I swear.”
“And Mitch?” I said. “I guess you meant to do that.”
“Why couldn’t you just break up with me?” he said, his voice wracked with sobs. “Why did you have to do in front of my face like that? I couldn’t take it, Azazel. I just couldn’t.” His nose was running. He rubbed it with the back of his hand.
He disgusted me. I was appalled and horrified. I despised him. “Mitch and Chance and I have been planning a fucking surprise birthday for you, Jason,” I said. “I didn’t break up with you because I was in love with you.”
The shock in his eyes was intense. He’d really thought I was cheating on him. I could see that he’d never even considered another option.
“Even if I’d been screwing him behind your back,” I said, “that doesn’t give you the right to kill him.”
Jason started to sob again. “I told you,” he said. “I told you to do it in England. I said to kill me, and you wouldn’t.”
I snatched the gun out of his hand. “You want me to kill you?” I said. My voice was shaking. So were my hands as I aimed the gun at him.
“Zaza,” said Chance weakly. “What are you doing to Jason? He didn’t mean to shoot me.”
“You shot my brother?” I said. I hadn’t been able to tell before. I hadn’t been able to see the blood. The whole situation was a nightmare, but all I felt was rage. Jason had hurt my brother. He’d shot Chance. My Chance.
Jason swallowed his tears. He nodded, staring me square in the eye. “Do it. Shoot me. I don’t work right, Azazel. You have to do it.”
I think I might have. I struggled to steady my arms, pointing the gun in his face.
“Zaza?” said Chance.
Oh, God. I closed my eyes. I dropped the gun to my side. I was shaking all over.
“Don’t shoot him,” said Chance. “Please don’t.”
I opened my eyes. I looked over at my brother. “You don’t want me to kill this asshole?”
“He didn’t mean it.”
I snapped my head back to Jason. “You get out of here,” I growled. “Get away from me. Get away from my family.”
Jason stood up. He started to walk away, his head down. He got to Mitch’s body. He stopped and looked at me. “Azazel—”
“Chance and I will lie for you,” I said. “We’ll say it was a mugger. But this is the last time, Jason Wodden. I never want to see you ever, ever again.”
He nodded. “Yeah,” he said. He slunk off into the night.
I wouldn’t have come here to see him if it hadn’t been for that damned grimoire. I meant it when I said it. I never wanted to see him again.
The whole story came spilling out, with various interruptions from Chance, helpfully pointing out that I’d ignored Jason almost completely for a month and that Jason had probably felt abandoned. I didn’t let Chance snag the forward motion of my recounting the events. When I was done, I was seething mad at Jason again. I thought I’d been mad at him before, but I’d forgotten the force of my fury.
Kieran absorbed the entire thing. By this time, he was sitting on one of the pews in the sanctuary. Chance was parked next to him in his wheelchair. I was on my feet. The anger had made it impossible to sit down.
“You were too harsh on him,” said Chance. “If I can talk to him, then he’ll see that everything’s okay, and then he’ll stop being horrible.”
I spun to face Chance. “Too harsh on him?”
Kieran held up a hand. “Wait,” he said to me. He turned to Chance. “She wasn’t too harsh on him. She wasn’t harsh enough.”
Chance furrowed his brow.
“Jason had killed someone. He should have gone to jail,” Kieran said. He looked back at me. “I gotta say I wish you had called the police.”
I sat down heavily, relieved that Kieran had taken my side. I should have known he would. Kieran didn’t have any love for Jason. After Kieran and I had argued so much the past two days, I had just expected him to take the opposite side as me. “I couldn’t do that,” I said. “After all, I’ve killed people too.”
“You’ve killed people in self-defense,” said Kieran. “It’s not the same thing. Jason killed out of jealousy.” He turned back to Chance. “I guess you and Jason were friends, huh?”
Chance laughed. “Well, I’m not going to lie. I was pretty angry with him for a while. I mean, I can’t walk anymore.” He considered ruefully for several seconds. “There are actually a lot of things I can’t do anymore.” He brightened. “But I’m not angry with him anymore. And maybe you guys are right that Jason really screwed up, but maybe what he needs right now is a friend.”
“We can’t let you talk to him,” said Kieran. “I’m sorry. It’s too dangerous.”
“He won’t hurt me,” said Chance.
Kieran raised an eyebrow. “Five minutes after I met the guy, he had a gun to your sister’s head.”
Chance looked shocked. He didn’t say anything.
“He’s different than he was, Chance,” I said as gently as I could. “He’s a lot different.”
Chance shook his head. “Well, then, I have to see for myself.”
“No,” I said.
Kieran shook his head.
“I still can’t believe they let you leave D.C.,” I muttered.
“Hey, give me some credit,” said Chance. “They didn’t let me do anything. I decided to leave, so I did. They couldn’t stop me. And you guys won’t be able to stop me from going to see Jason either.”
“Chance,” I said.
“Just because you and Jason aren’t together anymore doesn’t mean that I have to hate him too,” said Chance.
“He shot you, Chance. I’ll never forgive him for that.”
“Why not?” said Chance. “I have.”
I was stunned. I shambled back up to the church from the outhouse, not really sure how to react. I didn’t look at anyone, I just went back to my pack and dug through it for what I needed. Armed, I headed back to the outhouse. Kieran stopped me on my way there. “Where are you going?” he asked.
In response, I simply held up the tampon.
I hurried away before he could say anything.
I’d gotten my period. It was a week and a half late, and I’d just tested positive for pregnancy, and here I was, getting my period. I didn’t know what that meant. My period wasn’t accompanied by any kind of relentlessly painful cramps or gushes of blood. It seemed like my normal period. Was this a miscarriage? If you miscarried this early, did it not hurt?
I guessed it didn’t matter, one way or the other. After all, if I was bleeding I wasn’t pregnant. I repeated that in my thoughts. I wasn’t pregnant. This was good news. So why did I feel so sad?
If it was a miscarriage, I could blame biology again. Weren’t there all kinds of hormonal imbalances that happened when you lost a baby? On the other hand, your regular menstrual cycle threw a cocktail of hormones at you. I could just blame my period.
Thing was, I didn’t really believe my period made me think or feel things I wouldn’t normally. Sometimes, I guessed, it just made the reactions stronger. So, maybe I wasn’t really as sad as I felt. But I was sad.
I didn’t know why. I didn’t want to have a baby. Thinking I was going to have a baby had been depressing. I’d been through over and over the litany of reasons why having a baby was a bad idea. But somehow, in the course of waiting for my period, I’d gotten kind of used to the idea. And that positive pregnancy test—
That was the worst. They were supposed to be so accurate. How could it have screwed up? Of course, I had kind of left it for longer than I was supposed to. It had said something about not reading the results past ten minutes. Had that caused me to read a false positive?
However it had happened, I had adjusted to the idea that I was going to have a baby. Now I wasn’t. I had to readjust back. Which should be easy, because I’d never wanted a baby in the first place. Had I? I thought about my conversation with Kieran in the afternoon that day, when the light was streaming through the sheets. I remembered my image of the little baby girl. I bit my lip. Okay. Well. Maybe I had wanted a baby. Maybe just a little bit.
I left the outhouse and trudged back to the church. Kieran was standing on the lawn, waiting for me. God. Kieran was going to be so upset.
I couldn’t help it. The sight of Kieran for some reason made it worse. I started crying.
Kieran jogged over to me. “Azazel?” he said softly.
I threw my arms around him, buried my face in his chest, and cried.
Kieran held me and let me cry, which he was really good at doing. He was so comforting. He was like some kind of enormous stuffed animal. When I was done, I backed away, scrubbing at my face with my hands.
“I thought the test was positive,” said Kieran.
“I did too,” I said.
“Do you think you lost it?” Kieran said. It was an it now that it didn’t exist. It wasn’t a him or a her.
“I thought you’d be happy,” he said.
“I thought so too,” I said.
He touched my face. I closed my eyes.
“I am happy,” I said. “I’m relieved.”
“Me too,” Kieran said.
My eyes snapped open. “Really? I thought you’d be upset. I thought you wanted the baby a whole lot.”
“I did,” he said. “But it’s relieving. It was going to make things complicated.”
I nodded. We were quiet for a little bit. Kieran put his arm around me. It was late evening, and the sun was drooping in the sky. We looked at it together, watching the darkening sky and the heavy sun.
“I feel like something’s missing,” I said. “Like I lost something that I didn’t really get a chance to understand or know.”
“Yeah, I get that,” said Kieran. “It will be okay, though. I mean, all the arguments you made about why it would be hard to have a baby right now were true. And so now, things are just easier again.”
“Right.” Why didn’t easier seem better?
“And it would have made our relationship even more complicated to sort out,” said Kieran.
I looked up at his face. “We have a relationship?”
He smiled at me. “Don’t you think so?”
“I don’t know, Kieran. We seem to argue a lot.”
“Mostly, we’ve argued about the baby. And there isn’t a baby. So that should help to make things smoother.”
Maybe he was right. I leaned in against his body, enjoying his warmth and his closeness.
“Here’s what I think,” Kieran continued. “I think I should run back to the church and get a sleeping bag and we should talk. And sleep outside tonight, away from everyone.”
I gave him a look, remembering what happened last time we slept outside in a sleeping bag. “You realize I’m having my period, right?”
He just grinned. “I wasn’t propositioning you, Zaza. But if the opportunity arose, you don’t really think that would bother me, do you?”
“I really don’t like that nickname,” I said.
“Well I like it a lot,” he said. He kissed my forehead. “Yes to the sleeping bag?”
I nodded. “Yes. But while you’re there, get Lily or Gus or someone to watch out for Chance. I don’t want him trying to sneak out to see Jason.”
Kieran’s body was pressed tight against mine. I clutched at him, arching my back and gasping. His lips met mine. His breath was labored too. I was focused completely on him and on nothing else. I no longer heard the insects singing in the trees or felt the faint sting of the cool night air. All I felt or thought now was Kieran and me.
It must have been how they managed to get so close to us. They made a racket in the church before they got to us, and if Kieran and I hadn’t been so distracted, maybe we would have heard it. I’d feel guilty later. Very guilty. I should have been in the church. Hallam had left me in charge. He hadn’t left me to get freaked out about my personal problems and run off to be alone with my boyfriend. If that was even what Kieran was.
They were surrounding us before we knew they were there.
I heard the laughter first. It took a moment, because, as I said, I was focused on Kieran and what we were doing. Not much sound was cutting through. But then I did hear it. Jeering laughter.
I went rigid against Kieran. “Stop,” I whispered.
He didn’t listen. I dug my nails into his shoulders. “Stop,” I repeated, still a whisper, but a more forceful one. He stopped. “Listen.”
There were voices now. I recognized the same accent from before. “Hey, I think I found them.” A snicker.
Kieran’s eyes widened. He made a flailing grab for his pants, which were outside the sleeping bag. Under my breath, I swore. I didn’t have a gun. How had I been so sloppy to come out here without a gun?
They had kerosene lanterns, and I peered around Kieran who was trying to get dressed inside the sleeping bag. I could see them gathering close to us, five lanterns. Five men. The same men who’d been in the pharmacy in Clinton. The same men who’d murdered Kieran’s parents and raped his sister. And now they were all standing in a circle around our sleeping bag. We didn’t have any guns, and we weren’t wearing our clothes.
This wasn’t good.
“It’s them, all right,” said one of the men. “The ones who killed Norris, Jeff, and Buck.” He had a rifle slung over his shoulder, and he shifted it now, so that it was in his hands, and it was pointed at us.
They had guns, and we didn’t. And they outnumbered us. I tried to think. Was there any way to get one of their guns? Could I knock one out of their hands if I kicked?
“Pretty stupid of them to park that car right out on the road, wasn’t it?” said another of the men.
The sleeping bag was in my way. I’d have to wriggle out of it before I could kick, and I’d lose my advantage. For all I knew, they’d shoot the minute I moved.
One of the men leaned down over us. “Buck was my brother,” he said, anger and hurt in his voice. “You shot him down like a dog.”
A dog? Their legs were close. Maybe I could reach out and bite one of their ankles. Maybe he’d be so surprised he’d drop his gun.
Kieran’s voice next to me, ragged: “You killed my family too, you bastards.”
The other men rearranged their guns. There were five barrels pointing at us. The biting thing was a long shot. And I wished Kieran hadn’t antagonized them like that.
“Killed your what?” sneered one of them.
“Chicago,” said Kieran. “You took our TV. You raped my sister. She bled to death later.”
One of the men turned to another. “You remember this fuckface?”
“Sure as fuck don’t,” said the man. He looked down at Kieran over the barrel of his gun. “If it was us, your sister was asking for it.”
One of the men prodded me with the barrel of his rifle. “What about this one? She looks like she’s asking for it.”
“What kind of slut takes it outdoors, anyway?” said another man. “You don’t got a stitch on under that sleeping bag, do you, sweetheart?”
Great. This was turning out well. Kieran started to sit up. His fists were clenched, his jaw set in a firm line. The men stopped him with their guns.
“No, no,” said one. “You’re gonna watch.”
Oh forget that. Well. I didn’t really have any options here, did I? I might care a lot about the good of mankind and my own psychological health, but there was a line. Sometimes, the end really did justify the means.
“Let us see what you’ve got on,” said a man, pushing the sleeping bag aside with his gun, nearly exposing me.
“I don’t think so,” I said, gritting my teeth. Which would screw me up more? Forcing a bunch of men to kill each other or being gang raped? That was a pretty easy answer wasn’t it?
“Besides, you dicks, I’m on the rag.”
I unleashed the magic in my head, funneling the hatred I felt for each of them into their brains. I felt their initial confusion, then I felt it fade as the destruction washed out their thoughts. They were easy targets, their minds already focused on violence. It was too easy to push them in another direction, to make them hate each other.
They began to hit each other with the butts of their guns. One man smashed the man next to him in the face over and over again. There was a crunch when the man’s nose broke. Blood spattered down on Kieran and I. The other man kept smashing him in the face with the butt of the rifle until he crumpled to the ground.
Next to him, the other two men were engaged in a fist fight. The final man had a knife and he was going after the guy who’d just killed his companion by beating him to death. He lunged over Kieran and I, slashing the air with the knife. Showing no fear, the other man lunged for him. We watched as, over our bodies, the man with a knife stabbed the other in the stomach, in the chest, in the throat. There was seemingly no end to the stabbing.
It reminded me of watching the musical Chicago in high school for chorus class. “And then he ran into my knife. He ran into it ten times.” I giggled.
Kieran turned to me. His face was splattered with blood. The expression on his face was distorted, almost cartoonish. It made me laugh harder. I doubled over in the sleeping bag from the force of my laughter. Tears sprang to my eyes.
The man being stabbed fell lifeless on our legs. I didn’t bother to push him off. Instead, I twisted around to look behind us. The man with a knife was going after the other two men. No, there was only one guy left. The other one was thudding against the ground, his eyes bulging. He’d been strangled.
The man who strangled him had dropped him. His arms were wide. He went towards the man with a knife as if he were going in for a hug. The man with a knife slashed his throat. The man gurgled, blood spilling out of his mouth as he dropped to his knees. His eyes fixed on mine for a second, then went blank as he toppled over.
For some reason, this was even funnier, and I laughed harder.
There was only one left. What should he do? Should he commit hari kari? Disembowel himself? I’d never disemboweled someone. I cocked my head, sizing him up and still giggling.
The man punched his knife into his gut and began to drag it through his flesh. I didn’t know if his knife was going to be long enough to actually disembowel him. He might have to dig inside his rib cage with his knife, cutting through the meat of himself—
There was a gunshot and a bullet blew up the man’s face. He fell down. I stopped laughing.
Kieran set down the rifle. He must have picked it up after one of the men dropped it. “Jesus,” he said, swallowing.
“Hey,” I said. “I was in the middle of something there.”
“Yeah,” said Kieran. “I could see that.”
I shrugged, and got out of the sleeping bag. My clothes were lying on the grass, all bloody and covered with dead guys. Gross. “You wanted me to use my magic,” I said.
Kieran looked around at the bodies. “You went a little overboard, don’t you think? I mean, they could have all just shot each other.”
“Sure, if you want it to be boring ,” I said. Whatever. He and I could have died. I could have been raped. I pulled my shirt out from beneath the strangled dude. It wasn’t too bloody. I guessed I could put it back on.
As I shrugged into my shirt, I realized I hadn’t heard the voice this time either. Something about that should bother me, shouldn’t it? I tried to remember why. It was silly, wasn’t it? I hated the voice. If it was gone, it was good. I got to my feet and looked down at Kieran, who was still sitting in the blood-smeared sleeping bag. “By the way, you’re welcome. I just saved your life.”