~kieran~

I dreamed I was in a music video for “Welcome to the Jungle,” by Guns n’ Roses. The music video starred Jason. The music kicked in right away, following a panoramic view of a battlefield covered in corpses. They lay like something in a medieval painting, heads cut off, limbs missing, and blood spilling out everywhere. It was almost cartoonish, however. The people didn’t seem quite real.

The corpses littered a hill, and on the horizon, there was a blood red sky, crowded with black clouds. At the top of the hill, arms spread against the sky, was Jason. He was grinning. Jason reached out a hand to me, and I took it.

He pulled me close. I looked down at my body and realized I was Azazel. Of course I was Azazel. Pressed tight against Jason, he began to dance with me, twirling me around. We leaped nimbly over the dead bodies. Jason pulled me up higher with him, into the air, and we floated, our bodies still entwined. As we flew over the dead people, I stared down at them, noticing that they were covered with flies. Flies were pouring out of their mouths, out of their eyes. And all the bodies were clutching signs. The signs said, “Democracy Now” and “We Want the Vote.”

I blanched and looked away, back into Jason’s eyes. Jason’s arms were strong and muscular, and I liked the way they felt around my fragile, tiny body. Did I want to come down? I lay my head on his shoulder, snuggling close to him. “I miss you,” I whispered.

“I miss you more,” he said. “All the time. Come back to me, Azazel. Without you, I feel like half a person.”

I shook my head, pushing at his chest. “That’s because you are half a person. You used me, Jason. You made me into more than your girlfriend. I was your conscience too. That wasn’t fair.”

Jason flung me away from him, twirling me under his arm and then letting go. I twirled and twirled until I fell in a heap on the ground, surrounded by a trio of dancing flies, who were doing a complex routine including back flips to Slash’s guitar solo. They chorused the lyrics to the song in tiny Chipmunk voices.

I looked away from the flies to see Jason, coming for me. He pointed up at the sky. I looked up. Suddenly, we’d been surrounded by a circle of heads on sticks. The heads were all missing their eyes. I could see into their bloody eye sockets, straight through to their brains. The heads were rocking back and forth on the sticks, singing along with the song.

They were closing in on us. I hunched my shoulders, trying to shrink from them, but there was nowhere to go. Jason knelt by me. He stroked my face with his knuckles. His touch was so tender. “You and me,” he whispered. “It’s always going to be you and me, Azazel. It doesn’t matter what happens. You’re mine. And I’m yours.”

I reached for him, and he gathered me into his arms. He kissed me and everything seemed to explode around us, guitars blaring, blood gushing. The bodies of the dead came back to life, scrabbling up the hill to us, intoning the words to “Welcome to the Jungle” in hollow voices.

And then.

I woke up.

Shivering and sweating in bed. I rolled over and pulled the pillow over my head. Ugh. Another one of Zaza’s dreams. Great.

I didn’t know what was the worst about those dreams. They were always disturbing, always frightening, and that was pretty bad. But they featured Jason a lot of the time too, and he was usually disturbing and frightening. Also, he and Azazel were very often pretty physical in those dreams.

It was bad enough that I had every memory of my girlfriend kissing and having sex with her ex, from her point of view. But in these dreams, I was forced to experience it. And forced to realize how it made her feel to kiss him. And I could compare it to the way she felt when she kissed me. And…

It really didn’t compare.

I didn’t measure up. (And, unfortunately, I also meant that literally. Yeah.) Jason, the sick bastard, made her feel like she was coming inside out. The passion she felt for him was unbridled. When they touched, she lit up all over. She caught flame. When she touched me, she mostly felt like she was being covered up with a blanket. I was safe and boring.

I got it, of course. I knew why she couldn’t be with Jason. His danger was appealing, but also terrifying. I understood exactly why she’d picked me over him. I didn’t scare her. But when I sifted through her memories and felt the intensity she’d felt for Jason, I couldn’t help but wish that I was a little bit dangerous. Just enough to make her feel some kind of spark. Because, as much as I told myself it wasn’t true, it really felt like Azazel had settled for me. I was good enough. And sometimes, it felt like she’d only picked me because she thought that I wouldn’t bring out the worst in her. That I was her boyfriend precisely because I was the sensible choice. And if you looked at love from a logical standpoint, obviously I was the person to pick.

But my love for Azazel wasn’t logical. She was messy and frightening and larger than life. I’d fallen for her because she made my pulse race. But she’d fallen for me because I was…stable and sweet and nice. I didn’t know why it bothered me so much. Maybe it wouldn’t have if I’d just heard her say it. Because it sounded good. It sounded so grounded and practical. But the way it felt—the way she felt about me—

She didn’t feel about me the way I felt about her. She had to convince herself to be in love with me. And with Jason…with Jason…she had to convince herself not to be in love with him.

So even if she’d pushed him away in this dream, and even if this dream had been full of death and blood and other disgusting things, I knew what this dream meant. This dream meant that Azazel still loved Jason. And that she always would. And if I wanted to be with her, when I got her back, I was just going to have to deal with that.

But, the thing was, especially at night like this, I didn’t know if I could.

***

~kieran~

In the morning, the dream seemed to send a different message to me. Rather than being nothing more than a reminder about how much Azazel was still hung up on Jason, I began to recognize the parts of it that had belonged to my own mind, not Azazel’s. That in itself was a little strange, considering I’d been Azazel in the dream, not myself. I wondered if the dream had been less of a prophetic Zaza dream and simply a dream my own subconscious had concocted itself. After all, I had all these memories of Jason, including the fact that he was a diehard Guns N’ Roses fan and that he and Azazel had danced to a GNR song at their prom. Because I’d worried about how much Azazel still cared about Jason, my mind had mixed all that up and spit it out to me in a dream. The part that belonged to my experience alone was the fact that there had been so many bodies.

Those bodies had surfaced because I’d killed them all the day before using Zaza’s powers. That was why the bodies were all carrying signs demanding to be given the vote. The dream was my own conscience, guilty and confused, sending me a message that it didn’t like killing people.

I decided to go see Lily. I wanted to talk to her a little more about the idea of her taking Zaza’s powers. Maybe if she could assure me that we could get Azazel’s memories back to her, I’d let her have them. I didn’t know if I was ready for the responsibility of using the powers for the OF. Lily was trained and skilled in magic. She might actually be a better fit for the powers. I wasn’t sure if I could stand doing what I’d done the other night ever again.

I was a little concerned about the entire episode, too. I really thought that the OF had misinterpreted the intentions of the crowd. Maybe if I could get Lily to explain to me why the OF had been okay with them being dead, I’d feel better about everything.

I took Chance with me. He liked going out in his stroller and seeing people. Plus, the secretaries in Lily’s office building thought he was super cute, and would probably amuse him while I talked to Lily. Getting Chance ready to go out took a long time, and by the time I had him ready to walk out the door, I realized I’d completely forgotten to get myself ready. I was still in my pajamas. I didn’t think I was particularly good at this Mr. Mom stuff. I needed to find Zaza. Having two of us around made a huge difference.

I was right that the secretaries were excited to see Chance. They got so absorbed in playing with him that they didn’t even ask me who I was heading in to see. That was fine. I knew where Lily’s office was. I could get there myself. I left Chance under the watchful eyes of four cooing women and walked back the hall to Lily’s office. When I got there, the door was ajar. I started to push it open when I heard voices inside.

“Kieran was pretty resistant,” Lily was saying.

She was talking about me? I took my hand away from the door and stopped to listen. Call it instinct, but I didn’t want to interrupt her talking about me. I had a feeling she wouldn’t say what she was going to say to my face.

“But he got the job done,” said a male voice, a voice I vaguely recognized as belonging to the President. He was meeting with Lily in her office? This must be a big deal.

“He did, but he made a comment afterwards that the operation had been unreasonable,” said Lily. “I don’t know if he’ll continue to comply. I know he’d have no trouble going up against Jason. There’s no love lost between the two of them. But with Jason playing at being a hippie and preaching peace and love, he’s not much of a threat at the moment.”

She definitely wouldn’t be saying this stuff to my face.

“So we tell him that the forces he’s fighting are tied to Jason.”

“I told him that last night,” said Lily. “But he could read their intentions in their minds. He knew what was really going on. I don’t think that will work as a long term strategy.”

A heavy sigh. Another voice spoke up, also male. I couldn’t place it. “We’ve worked too hard on this, Lily. The world is primed to finally accept the OF’s vision of a better world. We couldn’t have asked for better circumstances. But we have to establish our power forcefully or we’ll be fighting down these little insurgents forever. We need the power, and we need it to be reliable.”

Establish their power forcefully? They’d lied to me about the people I’d killed? This wasn’t good. I trusted the OF. I’d worked for them for a long time, and I thought they were doing the right thing. This didn’t sound like the right thing to me.

“I agree with you,” said Lily. “But I can’t convince him to relinquish the powers to me.”

“Perhaps you could take them by force?” asked the President. “You said the spell would work to transfer them to you?”

“It would,” said Lily, “but it could be damaging to Kieran if I did it that way. We’ve seen what it did to Azazel. I don’t really fancy the idea of having both of their memories bouncing around in my brain.”

“Oh, that’s not a problem,” said the other male voice. “I’ve been talking to some others about a reflection maneuver we can use. If someone connected to the person is used as a sort buffer, they can stop the memories from transferring.”

Take the powers away from me, huh? This was not good. This was extremely not good. Lily would say no, though, wouldn’t she? She wouldn’t do that to me. We’d worked together side by side in Columbus, Kentucky, just over a year before. We weren’t friends exactly, but she wouldn’t do something like that to me.

“If that’s our best option,” said Lily, “then that’s what I’ll do.”

What?!

I eased away from the door. This was very bad. I swallowed and did my best not to sprint up the hallway. Instead, I walked slowly and deliberately back up to the secretaries. Act normal, I told myself. I hoped I didn’t seem completely freaked out as I collected Chance and got out of the building as quickly as possible.

***

~kieran~

Hallam’s cell phone didn’t have the greatest reception wherever the heck he was. I hadn’t always kept tabs on him and Marlena, but I knew that they were still working out west, trying to secure the resources they had on that side of the country to use for the east. I hadn’t been able to get hold of him at all right after Azazel had lost her memory and run away. But admittedly, I hadn’t tried too hard. Between the nasty headaches I’d been having and trying to keep Chance fed and happy, I’d been pretty preoccupied. He’d gotten all the information from Lily, who’d briefed him.

Between bursts of static, I understood that he was telling me how sorry he was that everything had gotten so crazy. “Azazel…tried to help her myself so many times…trouble follows her…the best you could.”

At least that was my interpretation of those bits of words. I was pacing in my apartment, holding my cell to my ear and keeping one eye on Chance, who was playing with his blocks on the floor. “I just overheard a conversation that Lily was having with the President. They want to strip the powers from me even though they think it might take my memories too.”

“What?” said Hallam. “I didn’t understand. My reception’s kind of…” His voice faded away.

I repeated myself. “What do I do?”

“I’m sorry, Kieran,” said Hallam. “I still didn’t get it.”

I sighed. “I think I have to leave. I have to take Chance and leave.”

“You sound like Azazel. Maybe her memories are…bad influence…”

“I’m in danger here, Hallam. The OF is planning to use these powers to establish some kind of dominance, no matter what the cost.”

“What do you mean, dominance? They’re the government. They’re trying to govern. That’s all.”

“No, Hallam. They had me massacre a crowd of innocent people,” I said.

“Massacre what?” said Hallam.

I dragged a hand over my face in frustration. “When are you and Marlena coming back to D.C.?”

“Probably…year.”

What had he said? Next year? Later this year? It didn’t matter, anyway. Whenever it was, it would be too late. This was pointless. “Look, never mind, Hallam. I’ll call you when you’ve got better reception.”

“What?” said Hallam.

“Never mind,” I yelled.

“You don’t have to yell. I’m…deaf…the phone is…”

“Goodbye, Hallam,” I said. I snapped the phone shut. I looked at little Chance, obliviously playing with his toys. Where were we going to go? How was I going to go on the run with a baby? Would the OF come after me?

If they did, I’d use my powers, I guessed. They couldn’t stop me if I could control their minds. And I guessed I could stay here and try to do that, but it just seemed too dangerous. Lily could sneak up on me while I was sleeping and completely ruin me. No. I had to get away. If I left, I could track down Azazel. Once I found her, I’d figure out how to get her memories back to her. And she’d know what to do. Zaza had faced down Satanists and secret societies that controlled the world. She could handle the OF. I just needed to find her.

I knelt down on the floor in front of Chance. “Hey little guy,” I said. “We’re going to go on a little trip. Do you want to go on a trip?”

He offered me a block and made some gibberish noises.

I took the block. “Thank you for the block,” I said. “I don’t know how many of your toys we’ll be able to take with us, though.”

He stretched out his chubby arms for me to pick him up. My heart swelled. There was no way I could chance Lily getting my memory. I wouldn’t be able to take care of Chance without it. No, I had to do this. For him as well as me. I gathered him into my arms and stood up. He grabbed at my nose and laughed.

“A trip,” I told him. “It’ll be fun. An adventure. Just the two of us, okay?”

***

~kieran~

With Chance snugly tucked into a car seat, I drove my car out onto the Capital Beltway. I’d worried a little about getting out of D.C., but no one paid any attention to me. I’d always just been Azazel’s boyfriend, and no one had thought I was very important. It seemed that now, even though I had her powers, no one had really thought to change their opinion. The few members of the OF hadn’t even seemed to notice the fact that I was dragging several suitcases out of my apartment.

I had no idea where I’d start looking for Azazel, but I knew I’d done the right thing by getting out of there. I drove without much thought of which direction I was going. Azazel was more familiar with this part of the country than I was. I was from Chicago, and I’d paid very little attention when we’d drove around. There wasn’t much else to the east, though, so I decided to go west.

I’d been driving for over an hour when my cell phone started ringing. Why had I brought that along? The front of the phone told me that the phone call was from Lily. Did I want her to be able to reach me? Sure, I wanted to talk to Hallam at some point, but he was still technically working for the OF. I rolled down my window and flung the phone out.

Ahead of me, there was a sign for I-70. Azazel’s memories flared. I-70 to I-68. Through Hagerstown. Get off in Cumberland…

I took the exit, unsure of where her memories were taking me.

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.