Kieran found me in the out building of the church, which apparently wasn’t being used for anything. It was piled with junk that Hallam and Marlena’s group must have moved from the church. Desks, computers, phones. Once I think it might have been the church’s office. I had crawled underneath one of the desks in the room and was clutching my knees to my chest, concentrating on not crying.
Kieran found me in five minutes. He sat down next to me on the floor.
I glared at him. “Go away.”
He studied his fingernails. “I get that you might not want me to come and talk to you, after what you said to me last night. But Hallam and Marlena are upset too.”
“No one needs to talk to me,” I said. If I talked, I might burst into tears. I’d never cried in front of Kieran. Before the thing had happened between us, Kieran had just been one of the guys. I did my best not to show weakness in front of them. Now, I was acting like a little girl. I hated it.
“Hey, it’s really understandable. This is a stressful situation for you. Having to see Jason again must have been pretty disturbing.”
“It’s not about that.” What was it about, anyway?
“Everyone’s stressed out. Sometimes I have a hard time too.”
God. I didn’t want Kieran to sympathize with me. Kieran was half the problem anyway. If I’d never gotten drunk with him, half of my problems wouldn’t exist. Yes. That was good. If I just got angry, I could keep back the tears. “You have no idea what’s going on with me,” I said.
“I don’t. I wish you’d tell me.”
I crawled out from under the desk and got to my feet. I looked down at him. “Do you? Do you really?”
He stood up too. “Really,” he said. “I want us to be friends.”
“That’s not going to happen.”
“Okay.” Kieran took a step back. “Look, I don’t know why you hate me so much. You seemed to like me fine before. If I’d known that having sex with you would make everything so weird, I never would have done it.”
“It’s not just the sex.” I mean, it was because of the sex, but I could love ’em and leave ’em. I wasn’t weak.
“Sure, whatever. I’m sick of this junior high crap, though. We had sex; it was fun; it didn’t mean anything. Let’s get over it.” He started out of the building.
I jammed my hands in my pockets. Good. He was leaving. That’s what I wanted.
I don’t know why I called after him. “I want to get over it, but I can’t.”
He stopped and looked at me. “What’s that mean?”
I walked over to him. I didn’t want to yell this across a room. “I’m late,” I said.
“For what?” He looked puzzled.
“My period,” I said, “is late.”
Kieran didn’t say anything. His eyes widened. His adam’s apple bobbed. He took a huge, shuddering breath.
I stepped around him and walked out of the out building, back towards the church.
Kieran caught up with me in a few minutes. He stopped me and turned me around to face him. “We used a condom,” he said.
I shrugged. “I think it was old. And they don’t always work anyway.”
He shook his head. “This can’t be happening.”
“Tell me about it,” I said. I kept walking back to the church. Kieran didn’t stop me again.
The rest of the day was tense. Hallam didn’t want to talk to me. Marlena was with Hallam. Kieran avoided me. I spent the day with two members of the group who were hunting. I tried to get some information from them about where the scouting party (including Lily and the grimoire) might have gone. They gave me a basic idea of the layout of Columbus, Kentucky, which was a very small town. Most of the houses in and around it were abandoned. They figured that most of the locals had joined Jason. Jason was apparently camped out in Columbus-Belmont park, some historic memorial to a battle in the Civil War. The abandoned houses were most likely the places the scouting party would have hit.
Eventually, they made me stop talking, because they said I was scaring the animals away. It was probably a good thing that I did, because shortly after that, someone shot a deer. That was a lot of meat. It was too bad we no longer had refrigerators, because there was no way we’d be able to eat all of it before it went bad.
I didn’t stick around long enough to watch the guys gut and clean the meat. Too gross. Ugh.
I helped with cooking dinner again and with cleaning up afterwards. There was no laughing and chattering during our evening meal that day, only silence. Everyone seemed grim or angry.
I headed back to my sleeping area shortly after eating. I hadn’t been able to get back to sleep after my dream last night, and I felt pretty tired. The odds were good I’d have another nightmare tonight, but maybe if I went to bed early, I’d get in a few more hours. One of the guys who I’d been hunting with was already in the room when I walked in. His name was Gus, I thought.
I said hi and made my way through the partitions to my own little area.
He called after me, “Is what Hallam says true?”
I ducked back out from behind the hanging sheets. “About what?”
He looked a little embarrassed. “About being able to influence all the people in the park. Making them jump in the river or something.”
Great. I wished Hallam hadn’t been so forthcoming about my abilities to everyone else. “I don’t like doing that kind of thing,” I said. “It’s all death and destruction and blood and—” How could I make him understand that so much of my life had been swallowed by violence? How could I make him understand that I just didn’t want to hurt people anymore?
“But you’d be able to get the others back,” he said.
I sighed. “Look, I’m sorry. I can’t do it. I told Hallam that.”
He bit his lip. “It’s just that one of the people in the scouting party is my wife. They sent back her finger and…” His face twisted. He looked like he might start crying.
I lowered my head. “I’m sorry.”
“If there was anything you could do, I beg you, please, do it,” he said. There were tears in his voice.
I wouldn’t look at him. It would be too much. I already felt guilty enough. “You don’t understand,” I managed. “It’s destructive. It’s wrong. I can’t hurt all those people.”
“Please,” he repeated, sounding so empty and hollow.
I darted back into my sleeping area. I didn’t say anything else to him, but I heard him sobbing. I hated hearing men cry. I’d heard too much of it ever since the lights had gone out. I just yanked the covers over my head and tried not to listen.
Exhaustion claimed me, and I fell asleep.
The dreams were waiting.
I sat on a plush couch, piled with silks and velvets. I was surrounded by opulence: elaborate paintings framed with gold, dangling crystal chandeliers, thick soft carpeting, and expensive furniture. Servants came in and out of the room, bearing trays laden with fruits and meats. I felt like an Egyptian queen as I lounged there. All that was missing were men in loincloths fanning me with huge leaves.
Instead, Jason appeared behind my couch. I smiled up at him. He looked just as beautiful as he always did. “Hello, love,” I said.
He leaned over the back of the couch and kissed me, long and deep. I wanted to pull him down on top of me and run my hands over his body, but he pulled away after the kiss, stroking my forehead. He crossed the room to another couch and settled on it.
“Darling,” he said, “we have prisoners to deal with.”
I sighed. “More of them?” I pouted.
“Yes,” said Jason, “well, it’s hard work ruling the world.”
He was so right. It was. Oh, how we suffered. I caught his eyes with my own and we shared an empathetic look. Only we understood what this was like.
“Well,” I said, “bring them in.”
Jason waved his hand carelessly at the servants.
A door on the other side of the room opened and several guards escorted two men inside. The men were dirty and grizzled. They were chained hand and foot. They had scabs and scars crisscrossing their hands and faces. Still, there was a look of determination in their eyes, a fire. I smiled at Jason. Between the two of us, we’d put that fire out. It was what we did best.
The men were forced to their knees in front of us.
One of the guards stepped forward. “These men are members of the Resistance, your Worship. They have committed crimes of treason against your empire.”
Jason raised his eyebrows. He addressed the prisoners. “The punishment for such crimes is death. Are you aware of this?”
The men stared straight ahead, refusing to answer.
“Your emperor has asked you a question,” I said. “Answer him.”
They were stonily silent.
I narrowed my eyes, sending a tendril of magic across the room towards the men. At once, they grimaced in pain. “Answer your emperor,” I repeated.
“Yes,” one of the men replied, but he still didn’t look defeated. He still looked angry. We’d break him, though. Of course we would.
Jason smiled at me in thanks. “We can kill you one of two ways,” he said. “The first way is quick. It will be over in seconds. The pain will not last. The second is long and excruciating. You will feel more pain than you thought possible and it will go on for quite some time, until your body cannot handle it.” Jason paused. “I’m sure you would prefer to die the first way. And we can arrange that. All we need to know is the location of the Resistance base. Where are the Resistance leaders?”
“We’ll never tell you that,” said one of the men.
I smiled. “Oh good. I was hoping they’d pick the second option. It’s so much more fun.”
Jason reached his hand across the arm of the couch. I did the same. “So was I, my love,” he said. “So was I.”
Our fingers brushed. Our hands met and clasped. The power danced through us, like electric current on wire. We turned to the two men. The power burst from us. They writhed and screamed and bled and hurt.
Jason looked at me tenderly. “I knew you’d come over to my side eventually, darling.”
I woke up screaming. I hated it when I did that. I tried not to scream usually. But this dream was new. I’d never dreamed about Jason and I torturing someone before. The euphoria I’d felt causing pain in the men disturbed me more than anything. Was this a prophetic dream? Was there a possibility that something like this could happen?
I only screamed once, but I woke up Kieran. He was on the other side of the sheets hanging to my right. Immediately, he shoved them out of the way and crawled into my sleeping area, his eyes wide, his gun drawn.
I sat up, pushing his gun down gently. “It was just a dream,” I whispered. “I’m sorry. Go back to sleep.”
He squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again. “You’re okay?”
He flipped the safety on the gun back on and stowed it back in his sleeping area. “You want to talk about the dream?”
“You don’t have to be nice to me,” I said. I’d been kind of bitchy to him earlier.
“Sure I do. I’m a decent human being, right?”
It would be nice not be alone with this dream. “Yeah, I want to talk about it.” I motioned towards the door. “Not in here. We’ll wake people up.”
There wasn’t anyone sleeping in the sanctuary. Apparently, with the scouting party kidnapped, there was enough room in the rooms in the back. Kieran and I sat down on one of the pews. It was dark. All I could see of Kieran were shadows. Somehow, it made it easier to be vulnerable. To talk to him. I told him about the dream. “It was just so creepy. To think that I could take that much joy in someone else’s pain. I felt like some kind of super villain or something.”
“Hey, it was just a dream. You’re not like that at all.”
But my dreams weren’t “just” anything. They were omens, portents, and warnings. “Sometimes I wonder if I am. Hallam said that I only cared about the grimoire. He was kind of right. And that guy was begging me to use my magic to save his wife, and I said no. But if I use the magic, I’m afraid I might turn into that. Into something evil.”
Kieran shook his head. He took my hand. “Nothing about you is evil.”
I tried to make out his features in the darkness. “You don’t know me very well, Kieran.”
He brushed my cheek with his knuckles, a quick caress. “Sorry,” he said.
I almost wished he’d do it again, but I knew it was only because I felt lonely and scared. That was the reason I’d gone to bed with him in the first place. I couldn’t make that mistake again. I didn’t care about Kieran like that. I didn’t think I was really capable of caring that way for someone. Not after Jason. Not ever again.
“Do you think you dreamed about Jason because you saw him the other day?” he asked.
“Maybe,” I said.
“What happened between the two of you, anyway? When did the relationship go bad?”
I sighed, staring out into the darkness. “In some ways, it was always bad, I guess. We were only really happy together when we were on the run. When we had a common enemy. Whenever we were safe, things started unraveling.”
“Because he was violent?”
“Yes. No. Maybe. We were both violent, that was the thing. I killed my own brothers. I shot my best friend. I made all the members of the Sons kill themselves. I destroyed the world.”
“Hey, come on. That’s not your fault.”
That was nice of him to say, but we both knew it wasn’t true. “Jason and I would both just get…jealous. And we’d get crazy because of it. But he got so crazy that he…” I sighed. Sometimes the weight of how much Jason had betrayed me overwhelmed me. I’d forgiven him so many times, but what he’d done the last time was simply unforgivable.
Kieran didn’t say anything. He just squeezed my hand. We sat there in the night, holding hands on the church pew. Neither of us spoke again for a long time. It was nice, just being next to him. It was comforting.
Finally, Kieran said, “About what you said earlier?”
Oh God. I didn’t want to think about that. “I’m sorry I told you.”
“I’m not. I’m glad you told me. I have a right to know about something like that. Don’t you think?”
“Yeah. I guess so.”
“What are we going to do?”
What could we do? “Wait. See if my period comes.”
Kieran shifted next to me. “And if it doesn’t? If you’re…”
Don’t say the word. Don’t say it.
“I’m not. I can’t be. I can’t have a…” I licked my lips. “I would be a horrible mother.”
He squeezed my hand again. I pulled it away.
“Don’t be like that,” Kieran said. “We got into this mess together. We can deal with it together. Let me be there for you.”
I shook my head, but I wasn’t sure if he could see in the darkness. “I feel tired. I should go back to sleep.”
Kieran sighed, sounding frustrated. “You can’t keep me locked out forever.”
I stood up.
“If you’re pregnant, it’s my baby too,” he said. “I deserve to be part of this.”
What?! “Deserve?” I repeated. “Because you managed to get some sperm past a latex barrier? Deserve?” I stalked off.
Behind me, I could hear Kieran swearing.
“I just think it might be a good idea,” I said. “Part of reason I came here was to find that grimoire, and if you’re right, and it’s lying on the ground somewhere, I need to find it. It’s important.”
Kieran and I were talking to Hallam in the radio room the next morning. He was standing with his arms crossed over his chest, looking annoyed. I knew that look on Hallam quite well from when I was a teenager, and he was pissed that Jason and I were sleeping in the same bed. Sometimes it seemed like Hallam never approved of me.
“What about provisions?” Hallam asked. “You expect us to provide you with water and food for this little searching expedition you’ve planned?”
“The way I figure it,” said Kieran, “your scouting party failed to bring in any more food or fuel. Azazel and I can look for the grimoire and try to bring back some supplies. It’s a win-win for you, Hallam. Otherwise, we’re just here in your hair, eating your food anyway.”
Hallam sighed. “I just wish you were as concerned over the lives of the people who were captured as you are over that stupid magic book.”
“I am concerned,” I said. “But the orders said to sit tight and wait.”
“What if he kills them?”
“He won’t,” I said. But I wasn’t sure. Jason might. I didn’t know him nearly as well as I used to.
“Azazel, are you sure you can’t just use your power to—”
“No!” I said.
Hallam sighed again, more heavily. He shot a glance at Kieran, who shrugged.
“Maybe you should do it,” Kieran said. “It would make everything a lot easier.”
I wasn’t using magic. I wished everyone would stop asking me to do it. “I need the grimoire,” I said. “It will help.” Maybe lying could buy me some time. Once I had the book, and I’d purged all power from my body, then they could complain all they want, but it would be done. No one would ask this from me anymore.
“All right, then,” said Hallam. “Go try to find it.”
“Great,” I said. “Kieran and I will leave this afternoon.”
We packed sparingly, bringing some supplies for camping and a little water. Hopefully, we’d find some food in some of the abandoned houses. We thought about taking the car, but it seemed like a needless waste of gasoline. We needed the fuel to get back to Georgia, or wherever we’d be headed after this. Instead, we decided we’d be walking.
I wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of spending a few days alone with Kieran, because things were so weird between us. However, I trusted Kieran, and I knew him better than the others in the camp. I couldn’t ask Hallam to spare one of his own people to help me find the grimoire. Kieran had been assigned to help me with this mission. Kieran was the person I was taking.
We set off in the afternoon. The sun was still bright in the sky. It was warm, but not nearly as warm as it had been the day we arrived. The spring heat fluctuated. Tomorrow, it could be cold. I didn’t know how similar the climate of Kentucky was to West Virginia, where I’d grown up, but I knew back home it wasn’t unlikely for an occasional frost to happen at this point of the year. I hoped it wouldn’t get that cold. If it did, Kieran and I would have to snuggle for warmth. And somehow, I thought he would enjoy that more than I would.
We checked the houses that lined Polk Circle, but they were quite close to the church, and had probably already been raided. Sure enough, there was next to nothing there, and no sign of the grimoire. We thought, however, that the scouting party had probably been captured closer to town. After all, Jason’s people were camped out in the state park, which was right next to the river. Would they have spread out so far trying to find this scouting party?
We were trying to find supplies, but my first priority was the grimoire, so I insisted we search close first. Kieran and I decided it made sense to work in ever widening semicircles, branching out from the entrance to the state park. We searched until it got dark, but didn’t find the grimoire. We did, however, find some canned food, which we stacked and left to gather up on our return trip. There was no reason to carry all that heavy stuff with us when we were coming back this way.
As the sun started to drag heavy in the horizon and the sky turned bright colors, we came to one last house, which we decided to check out before we made camp. If the house was suitable, we might even sleep there that night. The house was two stories, with a wide veranda-style porch on the front. It had white siding. It sat alone in a field. The grass was high. One lone straggly tree adorned its front yard. A swing hung from the branches. For the most part, the house looked inviting, if a little forlorn.
Kieran and I had to break in. The doors were locked, as if the people inside were just on an extended vacation. Kieran smashed out a window in the front door. We were able to unlock the door that way and get inside.
The house was stuffy inside. It didn’t smell good.
“We’re not sleeping in this stench,” Kieran said, and I agreed with him. I’d rather sleep outdoors than smell this.
“Let’s just check out the kitchen and get out of here,” I said.
“Go for it,” said Kieran. “I’m going to duck into the garage and see if there’s any gasoline or cars I can siphon.”
We parted ways. The kitchen was at the back of the house. I made my way through a messy living room. Used plates were still sitting on the coffee table. Articles of clothing were scattered over the floor. These people were slobs, I decided. The stench got worse as I got further into the house.
The kitchen had one of those swinging bar doors, like a saloon in the old west. I swung though it and was greeted with a disgusting sight.
A man sat at the kitchen table, clutching a shotgun. What was left of his head was slumped to the side of his lifeless body. His face was just gore—brain matter and blood. There were flies crawling all over his body. They made a sickening buzzing sound.
I wanted to throw up. I backed out of the kitchen, bumping against the swinging door on my way out. “Kieran!” I yelled.
I knew this kind of thing had happened. For some people, it had been too hard after the power outage. At first, we’d thought it was nothing. After all, sometimes, the power goes out. Hospitals had generators, so did many grocery and department stores. We were aware that it was massive and that transformers up and down the entire east coast of the U.S. had been knocked out. We knew that millions of people were without power. But… it was just a power outage. We expected to be up and running again by the end of the day. We didn’t understand that the transformers couldn’t be repaired. They had to be replaced. And we had neither replacement transformers nor the means to build new ones. Not without power.
Weeks passed. No power. Hospitals couldn’t function. Battery operated appliances couldn’t be recharged. Cell phones stopped working. It was October—neither too hot nor too cold, so people weren’t dying yet from exposure, but people were dying in hospitals. People were starting to panic. That’s when the riots started and the looting. And then things just kept getting worse and worse.
Some people couldn’t handle it. Some people killed themselves. Apparently, that’s what this guy had done.
“Kieran!” I yelled again.
And that’s when I heard it. Wailing. From upstairs.
It was a baby.
I ran up the steps as quick as I could. At the top, there was a bathroom and three bedrooms. I looked in each, looking for the source of the crying. In the first, two children, maybe six or seven were lying on their beds. They’d both been shot. I closed my eyes and backed out of the room. Oh my God. What had this man done? Had he shot his entire family and then shot himself?
It certainly looked like it. The second room contained a woman, also lying on her bed, shot through the head.
I could still hear the crying. I opened the door to the third bedroom. It was a baby’s room. The walls were yellow, with a strip of wallpaper around the middle. Little zoo animals marched around the walls—chubby elephants and wide-eyed zebras. There was a crib on the far wall. The mobile over the crib was zoo animals as well. I walked to the crib and looked down into it. The baby was squalling as loud as he could. I thought he was a little boy. He was wearing a blue onesie with trains on it. What had happened? Had the man saved the baby for last? Hadn’t he been able to shoot the baby? But how could he bear to leave the baby alive to starve to death? Certainly, that was crueler than a shot to the head. I shuddered, wondering how long the baby had been here by himself.
He was still screaming as I lifted him out of the crib. I pulled him close, cradling his head against my shoulder and sliding my hand under his bottom. I began to walk around the room and bounce him gently, cooing to him.
Kieran appeared in the door to the bedroom. “Holy crap!” he said.
I looked at him helplessly. “Will you look through the kitchen for some formula?” I yelled over the baby’s cries.