“So,” Tessa was saying, “you remember how when we first got here, Jason was talking about reporting suspicious people?”
We were sitting in our stifling room in the late hours of the evening after dinner. I had no idea what she was talking about. “I remember Jason trying to strangle me.”
Tessa got up and tried to open the window in our room wider. It was open as wide as it got. “You always exaggerate that. Like I wasn’t there watching the whole thing. It wasn’t like he was trying to kill you or something.”
Actually, it had been like that. For several minutes, I’d been pretty sure he wanted me dead. Jason sure did know how to send mixed signals. After nearly kissing me a few nights before, he’d ignored me every time I’d seen him after that. And it was kind of disturbing to me that no one seemed to have a clear memory of Jason nearly killing me. It was like all these people had this perfect image of Jason, and they just ignored anything that might provide evidence to the contrary. I just sighed. I lay back on my bed and dragged my fingers against the sloped ceiling, which was right above my head.
“Anyway,” said Tessa, “he said there were spies. That the Witch of the OF was corrupting people. Do you remember that?”
Now that she mentioned it, I guess he had been talking about that. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“Well,” said Tessa, “I think I heard some people talking this afternoon that might be spies.”
I twisted on the bed to face her. “What did you hear?”
Tessa sat down on her bed, her eyes bright with excitement. “They were complaining about the food ration. They said they worked too hard to only receive the small amount that they did.”
“That doesn’t mean they’re spies.” I looked up at the ceiling again.
“But they’re unhappy,” said Tessa, “and no one is unhappy in Jasontown. It’s like a perfect place of everything good. So they must be spies.”
“Maybe they were just hungry people,” I said. I thought of the building where Jason had questioned me with its cruel whips hanging from the walls. I wasn’t sure what would happen to people who were reported to be spies, but I didn’t think it was nice. Honestly, I was beginning to wonder what I was doing here. Before, I’d felt like I had a purpose. But now that I was in Jasontown, I didn’t feel happy and comfortable. Maybe I should leave. I didn’t want to abandon Tessa, though. And then there was Jason. He might be kind of weird and even a little creepy sometimes, but I did feel drawn to him. Besides, if I left, where would I go?
“I was thinking,” said Tessa, “since you’re close to Jason–“
“I’m not close to Jason,” I interrupted.
“You’ve been alone with him twice,” Tessa said.
Right. And both times, he’d acted like he was going to kiss me and then stopped. To say nothing of the fact that he seemed to think I might be some woman he totally hated. “It wasn’t like that, though. I told you that I just remind him of some woman from his past who hurt him really bad.”
“You’re closer to him than I am,” said Tessa. “So I was thinking that if you would talk to him, maybe you could get him to talk to me so that I could report the spies.”
“Geez, Tessa, they aren’t even spies.”
“You do not know that. Jason said to report anything suspicious.”
“To the guards,” I said. “Not to Jason himself.”
“Yeah,” she said, “but I was thinking that if I told him myself, he might be, you know, grateful. And then maybe he’d summon me some night.”
Ugh. I so did not want Jason to sleep with Tessa. I sighed. “I can’t just talk to him like that. Really. He and I are not close.”
“Oh come on, Joan. You’re just trying to keep him all to yourself, and it’s not fair. He’s Jason. There’s enough of him to go around.”
He was just a guy. He wasn’t…spreadable. I didn’t look at Tessa. “I’d help you if I could, but I can’t.” Which wasn’t exactly true, because I didn’t want to help Tessa report anyone, no matter how suspicious they might seem. She was my friend, though, and I didn’t want to refuse her outright. Especially if it was because there was some truth to what she’d said. There was a part of me that did want Jason all to myself. Even if I didn’t actually have him.
There was a knock on our door, which wasn’t actually closed, because to get any kind of cross breeze from the window, we had to leave it wide open. Lori was in the doorway. “I was coming to get you guys for the house gathering.”
We both must have looked confused, because Lori explained, “Once a week, every house gets together for a little gathering. We talk about what’s been going on with us in the community and any issues or gains we’ve had. We usually sing a little bit too. It’s nice. Everyone’s doing it right now, all over Jasontown.”
Didn’t sound awful, I guessed. But I didn’t know what gains were exactly. Tessa and I followed Lori downstairs. The rest of the girls were gathered in the great room, some sitting Indian style on the floor, others sprawled on couches or chairs. Tessa and I both found a place on the floor. Lori sat down in a large wooden rocking chair in front of the fireplace.
“I think we’re all here,” said Lori, “so let’s get started.”
The girls reached out their hands to each other and clasped them so that they were forming a giant circle of held hands. Tessa and I followed suit, both of us exchanging a glance. What exactly was this?
Lori cast her gaze upwards. “We come together here, the members of this household. We have gathered here to draw from each other’s strength and to work to conquer our weaknesses. Collectively, we surrender our energy to the group. We rely on each other and on our leader Jason.” It sounded like a speech or a prayer. Rehearsed. I was beginning to feel uncomfortable. I didn’t know why exactly. I wanted to pull my hands away from the other girls, but I didn’t, afraid of being different than everyone else.
Lori took several deep breaths, closing her eyes. The other girls followed her lead, breathing with her. Tessa did it too. I didn’t. I kept my eyes open. Instinctively I knew it was a bad idea to close one’s eyes. It left a person vulnerable. Instead, I let my eyes dart around the room, checking all the exits and windows.
“All right,” said Lori. “That’s great.” Everyone dropped hands and opened their eyes. “So, I thought I’d start our share time with a gain I made this week.” Everyone looked at her expectantly. “You guys remember what Jason was talking about a few days ago at the community gathering? He was talking about how we’re a strong unit here because we depend on each other and because our collective energy nurtures everyone?”
There was a chorus of murmured acknowledgement.
“Well, I’ve been thinking about that ever since,” said Lori. “And it kind of hit me the other night, when Joan was summoned to see Jason, that we were being really divisive. You know Jason has never promised us that serving the community by being his companions would be easy. We have to make sacrifices, all of us. Sure, we’re lucky because we get to be physically close to Jason, but we have to share that physical closeness with each other. And we have to share Jason with the entire community, because he really belongs to everyone here. So, I know it’s hard, but I think for all of us to truly grow, we have to let those feelings of jealousy or resentment fade away. You know?”
The girls were sighing and making affirmative acknowledgements.
“Wow,” said one. “That is so true.”
“Yeah,” said another. “I’m sorry Joan. We didn’t make you feel welcome.”
Now everyone was looking at me. Great. I shrugged. “Uh, it’s not a problem.”
Another girl raised her hand. “I’ve got a gain.”
“Great,” said Lori. “Go ahead.”
“Well,” said the girl, “I think that working in the fields with the community this week has really brought home to me how connected to the earth we really are as humans. Like, when you’re out there, really helping the crops to, like, grow, you really see how everything is all part of itself. It totally blew my mind.”
I cocked my head at the girl who’d just spoken. Could she sound any more like an idiot than she already did?
This kind of ridiculousness went on for about ten more minutes. Lots of people shared “gains.” I was beginning to feel like I’d been sucked into some kind of alternate universe where it was perpetually the 1960s. I wondered if we’d all start taking acid soon and rambling on about colors. Everyone except me seemed super enthusiastic about these “gains.” Maybe they even went on longer. I don’t know. I couldn’t handle it. I got up and left.
Everyone watched me. I didn’t give any explanation. I just headed for the door and got the hell out of there.
Once out of the house, I started down the hill towards the river. I didn’t know where I was going to go, exactly. This Jason thing had seemed like a really good idea when I’d been on my way here, but ever since getting here, it had just gotten weirder and weirder. So what that Jason was wicked hot and I wanted to make out with him? That was no reason to stay in a community with a bunch of crazy people.
It was dark outside and the moon was a sliver in the starry sky. It was pretty. I paused on the path towards the river and just stared up at the sky, breathing in the night air. It was so much cooler now that the sun had gone down. I liked it.
For a moment, everything seemed kind of perfect. Simple. I had no belongings. No memory of who I was. There was just me and the moon. Existing together. It was so nice. Then I realized I sounded like the crazy girls in the house, having “gains” about being close to nature. I grimaced and kept walking.
“Going somewhere?” said a voice behind me.
It was Jason. He was wearing a pair of beat up jeans. No shirt. No shoes. (He seemed to get plenty of service around here, though.) The muscles in his chest glinted in the moonlight, making him look like some kind of romance-novel-cover pin-up. I gulped. Why did he have to be so freaking pretty?
Jason padded over to me on his bare feet. “Everyone else is having house gatherings.”
“Yeah, well,” I said, “it’s been nice hanging out here, but I don’t think this place is for me.”
“You’re leaving.” He snorted. “Or maybe you’re just running off to the OF to tell them you’ve got a lay of the land and you can easily guide a thousand troops in here to annihilate me.”
“What are you talking about?”
He jammed his hands into his pockets. “I don’t know. It doesn’t make any sense, really. I don’t think you’d try something so convoluted. Why would you pretend to lose your memory? But why else would you be here if you weren’t trying to take me down?”
“I’m not trying anything,” I said. “Think what you want. I’m getting out of here.”
He moved to intercept me. “I can’t let you leave. I can’t be sure you’re not her.”
I tried to step around him, but he blocked me. “Who is it you think I am, anyway?”
“Oh come on,” he said. “Stop playing games.”
“I’m not playing games,” I said. “Before I got here, you seemed really great, and every time I thought about you, this feeling of peace and perfectness would wash over me. But ever since I looked into your eyes, all those feelings have gone away. And I just think that I must have been–“
“Wait.” He held up a finger. “You felt peace and perfection?”
“That’s what I said. Maybe it’s stupid, but–“
“No,” he said. “Not stupid. But it proves you’re telling the truth. Because if you were her, you never could have felt the effects of my power.”
He grinned at my lopsidedly. “That feeling you felt. Was it something like this?”
Suddenly, my heart soared. I was buoyed up with a kind of elation. Joy bubbled out of my pores. It was the feeling I’d felt just when I woke up three weeks ago. The feeling I’d come to associate with Jason. But this feeling was ten times as perfect, too good. I gasped, hardly able to stand. I stumbled and Jason caught me.
Jason laughed, pulling me into his arms. “You aren’t her,” he said.
“I thought we’d established that.”
“Or…if you are her, you don’t have her powers.” Suddenly, Jason seized my left arm. He ran his fingers over it until they settled over a small spot of puckered skin on my upper arm. A scar? I hadn’t even known it was there. How had Jason known it was there?
Jason caressed the scar. “It’s you,” he said. “But you’re not you.”
“Who am I?” He did know me. And maybe I was the girl who’d hurt him so badly. If I could just–
“That’s not important,” said Jason, his voice velvet. Another wave of joyous pleasure racked my body.
I moaned. I’d been trying to think of something before, but now it didn’t seem very important. I sagged in Jason’s arms.
He pushed a strand of hair out of my face, whispering to me, “I stopped using my power on you when I saw you, because I was sure it wouldn’t work. But now it does for some reason. And I can make us happy again. I promise. All of the badness from before, it’s gone.”
“What badness?” I murmured. I was having a hard time remembering that there had ever been any badness.
Jason cupped my face with his hands. “Oh, Azazel,” he said, pressing his lips against mine.
Jolts of pleasure ratcheted through my body. But I pulled away. “My name is Joan.” It seemed important that he know that.
“Of course it is,” he said and kissed me again.
I clung to him, and he put his arm under my legs, swinging me up off the ground into his arms. He carried me back up the hill, never taking his eyes off my face.
Driving into Cumberland, Maryland left me awash in Azazel’s memories. She’d grown up just forty-five minutes away from here in Bramford, West Virginia. Cumberland was the place she’d traveled to in order to do any shopping for clothes or see movies at the mall. I nearly got off the interstate at the exit for the mall, simply because Azazel was so familiar with it. Having her memories made me feel curious about it, almost as if it were an important place to me. I felt myself wanting to see what had become of it since the power had gone out. Had it been destroyed, ransacked? But I realized that the mall wasn’t really going to cut it. Little Chance was cranky from being stuck in the car for hours, and I was tired as well. We needed someplace to stay.
Since the solar flare, there had been some progress at rebuilding, but we still weren’t anywhere near the way things had been before. Cumberland wasn’t in an area that had any electricity. The solar flare had fried nearly all the transformers on the east coast, and they were not easy to repair. We had neither the manpower nor the resources to do so. So, there had been a few places, mostly near D.C., that had power again, but most of the eastern part of the country was still running without a grid. Still, Zaza and I had travelled all over the country while fighting Jason, and we’d occasionally been able to find hotels and other hallmarks of commerce within small cities. I expected that if I went downtown in Cumberland, I’d be able to find someplace to stay. Possibly even someplace that would actually take paper money in exchange. If not, I had things I could trade. Some gasoline. Some food. Maybe even some of Chance’s toys would be useful.
So, instead of driving to the mall, I took the exit into downtown Cumberland. Zaza’s memories knew which one it was, but she wasn’t sure about much else. Apparently, she hadn’t spent much time driving in downtown Cumberland. Once off the interstate, I found myself lost and clueless.
Interstate 68 went straight through Cumberland, and it wound around and over the city on a series of bridges. The buildings in the town were old and brick, crumbling testaments to a dying industry–and according to Zaza’s memories, it had always looked like that. Even before the solar flare, Cumberland had resembled a town that had seen better days. Abandoned buildings squatted on every corner, their windows boarded up. Old construction from the turn of the century had been turned into stores and doctor’s offices. The town didn’t look much different from the way it had looked when Azazel had been there last, but it definitely looked a bit worse for wear. There was more graffiti. The streets were darker. Broken glass and rubble littered the sidewalks. I drove the car slowly through the streets, looking for signs of life.
Everything seemed empty and cold. It was possible, I supposed, that the entire town was abandoned. We’d seen it out west. If that were the case, the best thing for Chance and I to do would be to find some shelter somewhere and keep going tomorrow.
Chance started to cry in the back seat. I leaned around, feeling for his pacifier. I couldn’t find it.
“Hang on, buddy,” I told him. Maybe the mall would have been a better idea. Unless it had been locked up tight, it might have been a good place to sleep. I began to look for a good place to park the car. I didn’t want to leave it in plain sight, because I couldn’t be sure there weren’t raiders around. They’d steal everything.
Ahead, I noticed a dark alley where there were several other cars parked. That might be good. My car could blend in. I pulled in behind one of the other cars. Both of its windows had been broken. However, all the cars lay in the shadow of a big brick building, which was also missing glass in its windows. It would have to do. I didn’t want to go too far from the car.
I got Chance’s car seat out of the backseat and carefully lowered him inside the building through one of the missing windows. I grabbed a few other things from the car and then climbed in after him. The building had once been some kind of office. There were scattered desks and office chairs. Several shattered computers. I set about breaking up some of the chairs to make kindling. Then I built a fire near one of the windows. I set up a sleeping bag on the floor and got out some food for Chance and me. I fed him a jar of smashed up peas and carrots. I ate some dried meat and some bread. The bread was going to get hard soon, which was too bad.
After eating and crawling around on the sleeping bag for a while, Chance got sleepy and I put him to bed. I didn’t have much else to do, so I crawled into the sleeping bag next to him, curling my body around his tiny one. He slept, but I lay awake, wondering if this had even been a good idea. How was I supposed to find Zaza out here? What made me think she’d come here? She had no memory. Where would she go?
I might have fallen asleep after all, but as I was thinking that I’d gotten myself into a really idiotic situation, I heard the sound of several gunshots. A voice yelled, “Who’s got that fire going in there?”
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.