Chapter Nine

I didn’t go after her when she went back into the cabin. Instead, I stayed out on the porch and stared into the woods. The trees were in shadow, black lines against the rising sun. It was beautiful, and just then, I felt completely divorced from it.

Azazel agreed with the voice in my head that told me to stay away from her. Lilith thought I should stay away from Azazel. Jude seemed to as well, since he’d tried to get me away from the dance. It seemed obvious that I should stay away from her. So why did it feel as if that would be so hard?

Killing people. Azazel had said being together might make me kill people. The Sons had made me do that. Sometimes I blocked it out or lied to myself. I told myself that I’d never really done anything. I blamed other people who’d been with me. Sometimes, if I really concentrated, I could make myself believe that was true. That I really hadn’t ever killed someone.

I didn’t want Azazel to ever find out what I’d done. Hell, I didn’t even really want to admit it to myself. Staring at the skeletal trees against the crimson sky right then, however, I couldn’t lie to myself. I was a murderer many times over. And I never wanted to do it again. But when Azazel had said that we’d kill people together, something about what she said resonated within me, like a memory. She was right. There was something about the two of us together that was dangerous.

I stepped off the porch and sat down on the steps. The sun was climbing higher into the sky, staining the clouds purple and pink.

Fine, then, I’d do what Azazel suggested. I’d go back into the cabin, wake Lilith up, and apologize. I’d do my best to ignore Azazel. And I’d tell myself it was worth it. That it was the right thing to do.

I waited a long time, doing nothing but sitting on those steps. I wanted something to occur to me that could make me take it back. But nothing did. So finally, I took a deep breath, stood up, squared my shoulders, and headed back inside the cabin. But when I opened the door to the cabin, it didn’t open onto the living room like I remembered. Instead, I was walking into a dark bedroom. There was a figure in the bed, covers thrown up over her head, but I could see flashes of blonde curls peaking out, splayed all over her pillow. The room was cluttered, clothes flung on the floor, makeup clustered on dressers. Where was I?

I looked behind me, expecting to see the sunrise over the woods and the porch. But it wasn’t there. There was only a dark, narrow hallway.

I took a step forward, further into the room, and everything got clearer. Sorority house. Hallam was downstairs. I had to round up the girls.

What had I thought I would see when I turned around again? I couldn’t quite remember. Things were fuzzy. I hesitated in the doorway to the girl’s room, unsure of myself. But I knew what I was doing now, didn’t I? Get the girls. Get them downstairs. Round them up. And shoot them. Shoot all of them.

I gulped. Why did I have the strangest sensation that I’d done this before?

I lurched forward on unsteady feet. I realized I was gripping a gun. How had I forgotten that I had a gun? Whatever. It would mean that I didn’t have to touch her. I took several more unsteady steps until I stood over the girl’s bed. I nudged her with the tip of my gun.

She moaned and shifted in her sleep.

I nudged her again, harder this time. When she still didn’t wake up, I began to jam the gun into her shoulders over and over again. Finally, her eyes popped open. They were full of fear.

Steady , I told myself. She’s a whore. Don’t forget it.

She whimpered, pulling the covers tight as if they’d protect her from my gun. “Who are you?”

“Get out of bed,” I said. My voice sounded wooden. I should stop this. I shouldn’t do it. I should run and get away. This was what I regretted—being this. I never wanted to do this.

“Please don’t hurt me.” She was crying now, tears leaking out of her eyes.

“Get out of bed.” She was crying for God’s sake. Why wasn’t I doing something about this? Why was I hurting her?

She pushed the covers away from her body slowly, still crying. Her pajamas had little cartoon turtles all over them. I watched myself cock my head in interest, studying the little drawings. What was I? Was I psychotic? What kind of person did this? The girl stood up. I gestured with my gun. “Into the hallway,” I said.

The next girl was easier. The next even easier. I went down the hallway, waking each of them up, making them come with me. If they tried to hug each other or talk to each other, I told them to stop, waving my gun in their faces. And through all of it, no matter how much I urged myself not to do what I was doing, I kept doing it. I was a mechanical wind-up toy. I moved efficiently, stiffly, darkly.

When I had all of the girls on the hall, I made them come downstairs with me. I made them go to the kitchen. There was a big table there. I had them all sit down at it. And I settled on the counter, cradling my gun.

“I think,” I said, “you should know why you’re going to die.”

Several of the girls broke into loud sobs.

I trained my gun on them. “Shut up!” I thundered. “It’s too late to be sorry. You’ve disrespected your own bodies. You’ve disrespected the hallowed purpose of the interaction between men and women. You’ve whored yourselves, erecting this brothel. The All-Father sees what you have done, and he has decreed you must be punished.”

But the girls didn’t stop sobbing. They got louder.

I had done this before, hadn’t I? I didn’t want to do it again. I could stop myself from doing this horrible thing. I felt in control of myself. I looked out over the girls, each in their pajamas, their hair mussed from sleep, their eyes red from crying, and they didn’t look like whores to me at all. Instead, they looked like children. Helpless, vulnerable little girls. I suddenly didn’t care what they’d done. I set my gun down on the counter. Screw my orders. I was going to let them go.

But Hallam burst into the kitchen, his face red. “What are you doing?”

“I wanted them to know—”

“You’re making it too difficult,” Hallam said. “All you had to do was go up there and shoot them all. Easy. Why talk to them? Why torture yourself?” His eyes swept the girls at the table, and he turned his gaze away quickly.

“I can’t do this,” I said.

“We have to do this.”

“Why? Because of orders? Because the Sons say so?”

“Because I already shot five of them!” His voice broke. “Because we’ve started, and we have to finish.”

“You finish,” I snapped.

And there was a sudden movement behind me. I whirled. A girl with a huge knife, bringing it down on me like a killer in a slasher movie.

Hallam brought up his gun to shoot her.

But a figure streaked into the kitchen in the darkness and tackled Hallam. His gun discharged into the ceiling. The girls began screaming. They were getting up from the table, running this way and that. The girl behind me was still holding the knife. It was still coming down on me.

“Let it play out,” whispered the person who’d tackled Hallam.

There was a sharp stab of pain in my chest. I stared in shock as the girl buried the knife in my body. Blood welled up on my wound. I gasped. I took several staggering steps, trying to keep my balance, but I lost the battle and went sprawling on the floor.

As I fell, the knife slid out of me. It hurt worse going out than it had going in.

I lay on the ground, looking up at the girl who’d stabbed me. She still held the bloody knife. Her expression was brutal. She glared down at me, blood on her hands, and death in her eyes. And then she dropped the knife, letting it clatter on the floor, and broke into a run.

I touched the wound on my chest. The blood was spreading so fast. There was blood on my fingers. I stared at it. I was bleeding to death, wasn’t I?

Hallam scrambled to his feet. “I have to stop them!” he yelled. He took off. I heard gunshots.

The dark figure who’d tackled Hallam sat down next to me. It was Jude.

“You’re not supposed to be here,” I said.

“You don’t have to hurt anyone, Jason,” he said. “Brother.”

I looked at the blood on my chest. “Am I dying?”

He smiled a strange smile. “What do you think?”

Do you want your powers back? The voice echoed in my brain, bouncing against my skull. There was a reason that my chest hurt, wasn’t there? But it wasn’t because of a knife wound. And it wasn’t my chest. It was my head. I’d been—

“You can change things,” said Jude. “Let it go, brother. Just let it all go. That’s what I did when they killed me. I struggled for a little bit. Seconds, probably. It felt like eternities. But then I realized it was useless. That things were better if I didn’t. So I just let go. And now I’m luminous.”

The room swam around me, dark shapes of the kitchen floating into each other. I was losing blood. I was dying. Jude was saying to let go, but I…

“Azazel,” I said. “Azazel’s in the cabin still. How did I get here, Jude?” I struggled to sit up, but I couldn’t move.

Jude looked annoyed. “Forget about the cabin, Jason.”

“But is she safe? Can you promise me that she’s safe?”

“Let go,” he said again.

“Azazel,” I said.

And then the world went black.

* * *

My head smashed against pavement, hard, knocking my thoughts loose. My vision was blurry. I squinted, waiting for my sight to clear, but there was a fist in my face instead. Where was I?

It hardly mattered. If there was one thing on earth that was second nature to me, it was fighting. I knew it by feel, by smell, by sound. Even if I couldn’t see, I knew where my opponent was. I knew how to evade him and stop him. To end him.

My hand shot forward, grasping my opponent’s shirt. I snatched a handful of it, while my other hand clenched in a fist and rocketed into his face. I felt the impact, my knuckles colliding with the hardness of bone. There was a crunching noise.

I pressed my advantage, hitting him again in the same place. There was another crunching sound, and a vague whimper. My vision was clearing. I could now see the face of the person I was fighting—a young man with a shaved head. His nose was oddly crooked and there was blood leaking out of it. I slammed my fist into his face again.

He lurched backward, away from me, tearing out of the grip I had on his shirt. He swore, wiping the blood away from his face with the back of his hand. I vaulted to my feet, ready to go after him.

As I crouched, anticipating any new attack he might make, I took in my surroundings. I was standing outside in the dark in an empty parking lot. There were streetlights overhead, illuminating the scene. Ten or twenty people stood around me and the guy with the shaved head, all cheering and shouting. Most of them had their phones open or held cameras.

They were filming us.

Right. I was street fighting for YouTube videos. I had a channel. It had some massive amount of hits every day. I got fan mail from thirteen-year-old girls who wanted to marry me. How could I have forgotten this? Why was I so disoriented? This dude must have made me hit my head harder than I thought. I wasn’t worried much about it, though. These days, I seemed to heal pretty well—and quickly. Whatever had happened, I was already on the mend. I’d be fine.

I took a step towards the guy with the shaved head, my fists up.

But he backed away further, holding up his hands in surrender. “Dude, I’m cool.”

I tensed for a few seconds, waiting to see if he was bluffing. It had happened before. Guys always wanted to fight me. I was becoming sort of legendary. Jason the Undefeated. But since I had such an awesome track record, people didn’t always fight fair. Sometimes they pulled dirty tricks and figured it was justified since no one had ever beaten me.

The guy with a shaved head slumped between the bystanders, disappearing from my view.

I relaxed, letting out a long, slow breath. I turned to the nearest camera, grinning. “Another one bites the dust.”

The surrounding crowd erupted in laughter and hoots. They pushed close to me, patting me on the back, yelling my name. I felt a surge of satisfaction. They were pleased with me. They loved me. Right now, they were putty in my hands. It felt good. Ever since Azazel had kicked me out, this was the only thing that had made me feel good. Not the fights, exactly, but the accolades afterwards. Knowing that a bunch of people were paying attention to me and that they were listening to me. It was a heady sensation. It was power.

I went out with a group of them after the fight was over. They took me to a run-down sports bar where the carpets were stained with beer and the waitresses were too pudgy for their skimpy uniforms. I drank glasses of cheap booze mixed with soda and let the power buzz through me. There were guys clapping me on the back, congratulating me, telling me I was amazing. There were girls, their bodies squeezed against mine, on either side of me in the booth I sat in. They giggled and squirmed around me. But I didn’t care about their lithe bodies or their flirtatious lips. All I cared about was power, rushing into my pores, my nostrils, my eyes. I could feel it in the air.

“I brought you another drink, Jason.” A girl set it down in front of me. I saw a flash of red hair.

“Lilith?” I said, confused. I twisted to get a better view of the girl.

She looked me in the eyes. She wasn’t Lilith. Lilith was dead. Why had I thought… There was a cabin somewhere, wasn’t…? “Polly,” I said softly. Her name floated into my head. She was important.

She beamed. “You remember me?”

I didn’t feel like I remembered much of anything anymore. Everything was confusing. Maybe it was the knock on the head, or maybe… No. I couldn’t quite place it. I stood up in the booth, forcing the others around me to let me out. I slung my arm around Polly, noticing how exaggerated my movements were from the liquor. “You wanna get out of here?”

Her whole face lit up. “I would love to.” She gazed at me, adoration all over her.

I pulled her close and drank the power. She was pretty. She liked me a lot. She had red hair, and that would piss off Azazel, wouldn’t it? If I ever saw Azazel again, of course, which didn’t seem likely. I’d been single long enough. I had the feeling Polly would follow me to the ends of the earth. She’d do whatever I wanted. “Let’s go,” I said to her.

We walked out of the bar and stood on the dark street. I could hear the faint sounds of sirens in the distance. I turned Polly in my arms so that she faced me. I ran a finger over her face, tracing the outline of her jaw. Her skin was like silk. I kissed her, and she willingly opened her mouth to me, sighing and clinging to my body. I hadn’t held a woman like this since Azazel. It felt strange, but it felt good.

“Hey lovebirds,” yelled a voice.

Polly and I broke apart, both of us looking around for the source of the voice.

He stepped out of the darkness, almost as if he had materialized from the night. He fixed me with accusatory eyes. There was a huge wound in his forehead, dripping blood. Flies clustered on it.

“Jude,” I said. “You’re not supposed to be here. You’re dead.”

He folded his arms over his chest. “Figured that out finally, did you?”

Polly looked from Jude to me. She touched her own forehead. “Are you okay?”

“I’m dead,” said Jude. “Didn’t you hear what he said? You’ll be dead too if you don’t get away from him. You’ll bleed out birthing his screaming child.”

Polly wrinkled her brow in confusion.

But I understood. At least, I thought I did. “Chance,” I whispered.

Jude took me by the arm and tried to pull me away from Polly. “Let her go. If you continue down this path, you’ll only destroy her.”

Let her go? If I was only going to hurt her, then maybe I should. I felt as if someone else had told me to let go. To let things play out. I wracked my brain. Why couldn’t I remember anything? Then an image came to me. A cabin, outside, the sun rising over the trees. “Azazel.”

“Would you forget her for five minutes?” Jude said. “Let Polly go.”

Polly reached for my hand. “Jason, who is this guy?”

I grasped her hand with my own, tugging her close. “He’s no one. Let’s get out of here.”

Jude moved into our path. “You’ll kill her. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”

Of course it did. I didn’t want to kill anyone. I knew that. And if I did what Jude said, if I let go, I could stop the pain. Stop the death. But then I had another flash—Chance, his fluff of red hair in disarray, chattering Jay-Jay-Jay-Jay over and over, a huge grin on his baby face.

My son. He was in danger. And if I let Polly go, she’d live, but Chance… “If I leave her alone, then Chance doesn’t get born,” I said.

Jude shook his head. “Why can’t you let go, Jason?”

“Why are you here?” I demanded. “Why do you keep showing up everywhere?”

“That’s the wrong question,” Jude said. “The right question is, ‘Why are you here?'” He pulled a gun out of the waist of his pants—lightning quick. He was aiming it at me before I could make a move.

A shot.

Pain. In my head.

Do you want your powers back?

“Jason?”

I turned around. I wasn’t on a street with Jude and Polly anymore. Instead, I was upstairs in the meeting house of the Sons’ safe house. Anton was standing there. My knees almost gave out at the sight of him. He looked the same as I remembered that last night. He was wearing a bulky suit jacket over a black turtleneck. The suit jacket was just baggy enough to conceal a gun. His hair was receding a little, just at his temples.

“Anton,” I said. “You wanted to see me?” As the words came out of my mouth, I realized. This was the night. The night that everything got terrible. The night that Anton died. I was going to relive it, and I didn’t know if I could handle it. I wanted to turn and run, but Jude was right next to me.

“Surely you won’t go through with this?” he asked me. “Surely, you can’t shoot Anton again, can you?”

What was this? Why was I bumping around through all these different timelines? “What happens if I don’t kill him?” I asked Jude.

“He kills you, of course,” said Jude. “You never meet Azazel. She never has to leave her family. No one else dies because of you.” He smiled. “Including me.”

“But…” That didn’t make sense. Not really. “I let the girl in the sorority house kill me. That should have stopped everything.”

“You didn’t give yourself over to it,” said Jude. “You didn’t believe it. You were trying to get back to Azazel. You have to let her go. The only way to save her is for you to leave her. Let go.”

Anton was approaching, a wide smile on his face. He didn’t seem to be able to see Jude.

“And Chance?” I said. “Chance is never born?”

“His namesake lives,” said Jude. “Polly lives.”

Right. But… “He’ll never exist? Not at all?”

“What kind of life do you think he’d have anyway, Jason? Let go.”

But I couldn’t. I simply couldn’t do it. I didn’t know if it was fair or right or good, but I did know that even though evil and horrible things had come from me, Chance wasn’t one of them. Chance was the one pure, perfect thing I’d contributed to the world. I couldn’t wipe him out. I simply couldn’t. Making it so he never existed was like killing him, and I’d do anything to protect him. So I couldn’t let go. I had to… I gulped, feeling ill.

Anton was next to me, reaching into his suit jacket, that huge smile still on his face. I felt the hard circle of the barrel of his gun against my ribs. He was so close, he could have been embracing me.

I felt it all over again. The sheer betrayal of it. “Anton?” my voice was small and hurt. He was the closest thing I’d ever had to a father. How could he be doing this to me?

“You’re an abomination,” he said. “I know it now. I see what you will do. You aren’t the Rising Sun. You do not do the work of the All-Father. You are a thing of evil. I will kill you before you destroy the world.”

And the memories swirled into my brain, suddenly. I knew it all. I remembered what I’d done, the faces of the people I’d killed. I remembered slicing into my skin to try to transfer the agony I felt in my guilt. I saw the lives destroyed, remembered how selfish I’d been. Everything after this moment, all the steps that had led me to become the man who’d put heads on sticks, who’d forced people to kill against their will, who’d sacrificed the lives and happiness of so many people simply so that I could have Azazel. I could see it now, and I knew why Jude wanted me to let go. I was an abomination, a thing of evil. I was everything they’d ever said about me. All the things they’d promised had come true.

Anton jammed his gun under my rib cage. His face twisted into an ugly sneer.

I gazed into his eyes, the eyes of the man who’d cared for me when I was a child. He’d been my protector. Now he wanted to kill me. I didn’t deserve to live, but that didn’t mean that my son should be denied the chance to. If I let Anton kill me, if I let go and gave up, I would be destroying the good things I’d done as well as the bad things. I squeezed my eyes shut.

And I let myself slip back into the boy I’d been then, frightened and betrayed, and trained by the very man who was trying to kill me to defend myself at all costs. “Anton, please.”

“No. You’ve fooled me long enough. You show me the face of a boy, but I know that it’s only the mask of a monster. You can’t be allowed to live. I can’t let you.”

“Why are you doing this?” I could hear the way my voice was breaking. He was family to me. The closest thing I’d ever had.

“To stop the evil.” He cocked the gun.

Yes. To stop the evil. That was what I wanted. I’d tried to punish myself. I’d tried to leave everyone I’d ever hurt. I’d tried to bury myself in my guilt and let my misery be my penance. But I hadn’t been able to go through with it, because of… Chance.

And protecting Chance had led me to that room with Kieran and Eve, where they’d tortured Marlena. And I’d shot and killed all those men because I wanted to protect Chance. But then Agnes… The sharp pain in my head…

I turned slowly to Jude. “Am I dying?”

“Let go,” said Jude.

“What happens if I let go?” I asked.

“If you let go, you’ll never have done any of the—”

“No,” I said. “What did you say before? About struggling when you were dying? You said you gave up, you let go, and you became luminous. Am I dying?”

Jude only smiled.

“What happens to Chance if I die?”

“Let go, Jason,” Jude said. “You’ve never done anything but create pain and hurt and destruction, and there is no reason for you to exist!”

That wasn’t true. Not exactly. Because I’d created Chance. And if there was anything perfect and innocent and worthy of living, it was him. And if Jude was saying that letting go would mean I died and couldn’t protect him, then…

Anton was trying to kill me. I couldn’t let him do that. I moved quickly—wrapping my fingers around the barrel of the gun and wrenching it from him before he had the chance to react. Once in my hands, I turned it on him, and before I could think, I was emptying the bullets into his chest. One. Two. Three. Four.

Anton fell to his knees, blood gushing from holes in his throat and chest. His eyes glazed over. He gave me a funny look, as if he couldn’t understand what was happening to him. “Jason?” His voice was confused and old.

Five. Six. Seven.

And the light went out in his eyes. His body thudded against the floor.

I sobbed.

I knelt down next to him, gathered his ruined body in my arms and cried. It sunk in then. What I’d done. I’d killed Anton. The only person I’d ever loved back then. The only person who’d meant anything to me. Dead. By my hand.

I could see Jude through my tears. He was shaking his head sadly. “Why couldn’t you let go, Jason? You could have had peace.”

I gritted my teeth. “Take me back to the cabin, Jude. Take me back to Azazel.”

* * *

I stalked back through the door of the cabin. I was still carrying the gun I’d used to kill Anton. Lilith was sitting on the couch. She turned to me, a startled look on her face. Jude came in behind me. He was railing at me, “You can’t go back to Azazel, don’t you understand? You already made this choice. You left her behind. You were letting go, and now—”

“Shut up,” I said. To Lilith, “Where’s Azazel?”

Lilith got to her feet. “We were here to help you find peace, Jason. If you let go of everything, you can have that.”

“Letting go of the bad things in your life is the only way to achieve enlightenment,” said Jude. “If you cling to your past, you get stuck in the same loops, never fixing anything. Everyone has to let go of themselves. All of themselves.”

“I’m not dying,” I said. “I’m going to save my son. Now tell me where Azazel is. If the one thing I have to do is choose to be with her to make this entire nightmare be over, then I want to find her now.”

“She’s not really Azazel,” said Lilith. “She’s just something in your brain. You’re dying. If you won’t find your peace, you’ll—”

“Where is she?” I said. I started back the hall of the cabin.

Lilith and Jude came after me, tearing at my arms, grasping hold of my clothes. I shook them off and began opening doors. The first door opened into a bathroom. It was empty. I slammed it shut.

“For God’s sake,” said Jude. “Stop opening doors!” He tried to get in front of me, to block my way.

I pushed him aside. I went to the next door. I put my hand on the doorknob.

“Stop it!” cried Lilith.

The other door opened onto a bedroom. I stalked inside, looking under the bed, forcing the doors of the closet open. But there was no one there. “Where is she?”

There were no other rooms in the cabin, and no other doors except the one to the outside. I got past Jude and Lilith and went back to the living room. I opened the door the cabin.

Outside the cabin, there was green grass. Summer warmth blew in the door. I could see the sun blazing down on a field of bodies. Azazel was standing in the center of them, a gun in her hand. She had it under her own chin. She was sobbing.

“No!” I screamed. I ran across the threshold of the cabin to Azazel, the summer heat blazing down on me, shocking me. I yanked the gun out of her hands, threw it on the ground.

“Jason?” she said, looking confused. “We’re dead.”

“We’re not dead,” I said. “Not yet. I choose you. I choose you !” And then I kissed her.

As our lips met, I heard the crash of thunder. A storm was rolling in, dark clouds obscuring the sun. Lightning fractured the sky. The roar of rain welled up like the last movement of a film score. And everything was finally right with the world again.

We pulled away from each other and gazed into each other’s eyes. We were connected now, tied together with invisible strands.

“They told me I had to let go,” said Azazel.

“They were lying,” I said.

This book is being posted on Tuesdays and Thursdays beginning 1/17/2012. To access other chapters, check out the Onset Posts Archive, here.