Chapter Nine

I awoke in Kieran’s arms. We were both zipped inside a sleeping bag that we’d gotten from the back of the Subaru. The morning breeze lifted my hair off of my bare shoulders. I opened my eyes, looking up at the morning sky, the grass and trees. I had done it again.

I shifted, maneuvering myself on to my back. How had this happened? Right, we were going to talk and we wanted to sit down, so Kieran suggested getting the sleeping bag. But I hadn’t been interested in talking, I’d just wanted to kiss Kieran more. I guess I was afraid if we talked, he might realize that I wasn’t sure how I felt about him at all.

Of course, a perfect reaction to a feeling like that was to have sex with him again. Damn it.

Kieran was only the fourth guy I’d ever had sex with. Besides Jason, I’d had a couple drunken hookups in college. Just like Kieran should have been. Nothing but a drunken hookup. That would have made things so much easier.

It wasn’t that I was a fan of one night stands in general or didn’t think that sex was better in a committed relationship with a person you loved. I thought that stuff. It was just that I had felt very, very deeply for Jason when we’d been together. It hadn’t been that long of a relationship, but it had been very intense. We went through scary stuff together. Our lives were in danger half of the time. Everything about our relationship had been frantic and extreme. I killed for him. I would have died for him. And even though I couldn’t be in a relationship with him anymore, it didn’t mean that it was easy to start another one.

Even now. I gazed at Kieran’s sleeping face. I liked him. I liked the way he made me feel. I liked how steady he was, and how much he cared about me. But I thought maybe something inside me was broken or something. I didn’t know if I could really love someone ever again. After the all-encompassing, forceful love I’d had for Jason, love that I’d felt with every fiber of my being, I didn’t know if anything else could ever measure up.

God. What was I doing? I was just going to screw Kieran up. Hell, I probably already had. What was I going to do?

Careful to be as quiet as possible, I unzipped the sleeping bag and slipped out of it. I found my clothes. Put them on. Darted away from Kieran to the church. I didn’t know what he’d think or how he’d feel when he woke up alone. But I couldn’t be there with him when he did. I felt too conflicted.

It was early, but Hallam was out back, piling charcoal into the grill for breakfast. He saw me approaching, but he didn’t wave or call out. I decided I’d do my walk of shame through the front of the church instead of the back. But when Hallam saw me veering towards the front door, he called me over.

I debated for a second, but I walked over to him.

“Where were you all night?” he asked, setting the charcoal bag down on the ground.

I yawned and shrugged. “I think I’m going to try to catch another hour of sleep.”

“Where’s Kieran?”

Marlena opened the back of the church and came out. She had a sweater on, buttoned tight against the morning chill. “Hallam,” she said, “she’s a grown woman. Maybe it’s none of your business.”

Sure. Fine. Except when Kieran was hating me later, it was going to screw up the entire dynamic of the whole team. I was really good at messing stuff up, wasn’t I?

Hallam’s shoulders slumped. “You’re right,” he said to Marlena. To me, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” I said, starting for the door inside.

“Hold on,” said Hallam. “I wanted to talk to you about something.” His voice sounded weary, like an old man.

I bit my lip. “Okay.”

“You really came here because you wanted to get rid of your powers?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Is this because of Jenna?” Marlena asked.

I folded my arms over my chest, trying to protect myself. I could hardly think about that, let alone talk about it. “It’s because of a lot of things,” I said. “If you think about the consequences of my magic, it’s never really positive.”

Hallam sighed. “I’m not going to argue with you about that. You seem convinced that it’s true. But I have to admit the fact you want to get rid of your magic is disturbing, both to me and to the OF. I felt the need to radio headquarters about it.”

My heart sank. This wasn’t good. Headquarters was going to be pissed.

“They want you and Kieran to report to D.C. immediately. You’re to leave as soon as you can pack your stuff,” said Hallam.

Oh. Okay. Right. Why was it that everything in my life got worse and worse no matter what I did? I was only trying to make things better for everyone. Why couldn’t anyone see that?

Marlena came close and put her arm around me. “I’m sorry,” she said.

I leaned against her for a second. Comfort was nice, even if I didn’t deserve it. “It’s okay,” I told her.

“For what it’s worth,” Hallam said, “I can’t imagine what a burden this all must be for you. We expect a lot from you, Azazel. I’m sorry that your young life has been so harrowing. I’m sorry that Jason has become what he’s become. I’m sorry that you have to carry the responsibility for the deaths of all the men in the Sons. It’s not fair, and if I were you, I don’t know that I could bear it either.”

I moved away from Marlena. “I can handle it,” I said. “It’s not that.”

“Listen,” said Marlena, “what happened with Jenna…you can’t know if what you did worsened the situation or not. Babies cry, Azazel. How would Mina and Chance have known she wasn’t just colicky?”

I’d heard this argument before, from my own brother, his eyes red-rimmed with tears. I didn’t want to hear it now. “Chance is okay, isn’t he?” I asked. “I mean, you haven’t heard anything otherwise?”

“No,” said Hallam. “I suppose you can see him while you’re in D.C.”

“Yeah,” I said. My brother had been taken into what might be called protective custody after the lights had gone out, but I didn’t think it was so bad. He was allowed to come and go as he pleased. Mostly, anyway. There wasn’t a lot of coming and going in a world where there was very little transportation. He was safe. That was the important thing. It had been one of my conditions before I even considered working with the OF. Chance had to be safe. As for Mina, his ex-girlfriend, with whom he’d had a child, well, we hadn’t heard from her since the funeral. We’d heard rumors she’d gone out west. I hoped so. I hoped she was clear of this disaster, safe somewhere where televisions still worked.

I rubbed my face. “I’ll start packing.” But as I started towards the church door again, I saw Kieran making his way towards us, the sleeping bag balled up under one arm. I wanted to run inside and avoid him, but I was going to be spending another long, uncomfortable car ride with him. What was the point?

He didn’t look happy. He stopped next to the three of us, shifting the sleeping bag to another arm.

“Headquarters ordered us to come to D.C.,” I said by way of greeting.

Kieran’s eyes widened in surprise.

“I told them that Azazel wants to purge herself of power,” Hallam explained.

Kieran shrugged. “Well, I guess that would do it.” He shot a look at me. I looked away. “We need to leave right away?”

“As soon as you’re packed,” said Hallam.

“Better get packing,” said Kieran. He went into the church. I followed him.

We didn’t have a lot of packing to do. Mostly, we shoved our clothes into our packs. We stuck those in the Subaru, along with the sleeping bag we’d used the night before. Kieran unhooked the motorboat we’d pulled with us from Georgia. They’d need it if they ever got a chance to cross the river. And during all of this, Kieran and I said next to nothing to each other.

We stood outside the church, surveying the Subaru and the motorboat.

“I’ll go say goodbye to Hallam and Marlena,” I said.

“We should talk,” said Kieran.

“We’ll be stuck in a car together for a few days,” I said.

Kieran took me by the elbow and dragged me away from the church, back down the road where we’d kissed last night. Once we were out of earshot of anyone inside, he stopped. He took two steps back from me, so that we were facing each other. He glanced at me, then glanced down at the road. He jammed his hands into his pockets.

I wondered if he was going to say anything.

Kieran took a deep breath, started to speak, then stopped. He tilted his head back. His hair was down. It hung free around his shoulders. Little strands of it glinted golden in the sun.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“No, this is my fault,” he said. “I miss my family, and I have tried to turn you into something that you aren’t.”

“Kieran, I should never have slept with you again. I was—”

He held his hand up. “Stop.”

I gulped down the rest of my words. I nodded.

“Okay,” he said, tapping his foot and looking everywhere but at me, “when you told me you might be pregnant, at first I was really scared. And then, for a little bit, I was angry, because I didn’t think this should be happening to me. I didn’t want any of that. I felt like I barely knew you. Hell, I still barely know you.”

“I’m sorry.”

He waved his arms in my face. “No, seriously, don’t say anything, okay?”

I nodded again, wondering where he was going with this.

He steadied himself and took another long breath. “Okay, so I was pissed. But then, I started thinking about everything, and I started to feel like maybe it was going to be okay, because this was, like, I don’t know, a replacement. For what I lost. And that I should embrace it.”

A replacement?

Kieran rubbed the back of his neck with one hand. “Right after the lights went out, everything started to get pretty hairy where I lived in Chicago. There were gangs and lootings and stuff pretty much right away. And my family got caught up in the cross-fire. These guys were drunk or on some kind of messed-up drugs. I don’t know. But they broke into our apartment.”

He stopped, seemingly unable to finish what he was going to say. He shifted on his feet and changed tactics. “I’d been at school, you know, when it broke out. My senior year. I was studying to be a phys ed teacher. But then the lights went out and they closed the dorms, and even though I was living on campus, it just seemed like I should go to be with my family. So I did.

“I hadn’t been there for very long. Maybe a few days. My little sister—well, she wasn’t so little anymore. She was sixteen. She was pretty, and we were just kind of getting to the point where we didn’t get on each other’s nerves so much. Like, we could tell that at some point soon, we could be friends, because we’d both be adults. Her name was Angie. I never realized how much I loved her. I don’t know if I ever told her I loved her. Her whole life, I don’t know if I ever once said that. But I did love her. So, so much.

“And my parents. They got on my nerves sometimes, but they were good, solid people. I depended on them. When those guys broke into our apartment, wanting whatever it was they wanted from us—I guess our food. Our TV. Any money we had. When they did that, I’d never seen my dad look so afraid. And I was afraid too. We didn’t put up a struggle. None of us. We didn’t fight them. They had guns. It probably would have been stupid, I guess. I thought, you know, that they’d just take what they wanted and then leave.”

Kieran was talking to his hands now. His head was bowed. “And at first, it seemed like that’s what they were doing. They were filling up these pillow cases with all our stuff, and they were cleaning us out. We were all sitting in the corner, like they’d told us to. One of them was making these comments about Angie, like how much of a hottie she was and other stuff. It was vulgar. I wanted to kill him. I wanted to rip him to shreds, but…

“I didn’t do anything,” he bit out fiercely. “I just sat there. And I watched. And he…”

“Kieran,” I whispered. I could guess the rest.

But Kieran kept going. His voice was getting tighter as he talked. He sounded so angry. “I watched them rape her. And when my father tried to do something about it, they shot him in the head. And when I tried to do something, they shot my mother too.”

I put my hand to my mouth, too horrified to say anything.

“They left Angie and me. But Angie was so upset and hurt and I didn’t have anywhere to take her. I didn’t know what to do. Later that night, she started, like, bleeding, and I tried to get her to a hospital or to those rescue shelters they had then. The ones that existed for a while. But she didn’t make it. She just bled and bled and bled and then…” He took a shuddering breath. “And then she was dead.”

I reached for him, but he stepped back, out of my grasp. “I’m sorry,” I murmured. It wasn’t enough, but it was all I could say.

Kieran swallowed hard, and his jaw tensed. He wouldn’t look at me. “I’m telling you this, because I hated myself for not protecting them. And I joined the OF, so that I could learn, you know, to be stronger. But I wasn’t letting anyone that close anymore. Then, you told me that maybe I was having a baby. And I thought that this was my chance to redeem myself. Like, if I could protect you and if I could protect that baby, then maybe it would make up for the way I failed my family. Then maybe I could forgive myself.”

I didn’t say anything. I wanted to hug him maybe, or touch his arm, but I didn’t know if I should, not after the way I’d just abandoned him in the sleeping bag that morning.

Kieran fidgeted with his hands, unsure of what to do with them. “That’s why I pushed so hard for us to be together. It wasn’t fair to you.”

“It’s okay.”

“It’s not okay. I was basically using you.”

I blinked hard, trying to process all of this. First Kieran told me a long, horrific story that should qualify him for hours and hours of counseling, during which the counselor would eventually just give him some pills and tell him everything would be fine. (I know this. I shot my best friend in the head and the counselor wrote me a prescription. Seriously.) Then Kieran somehow made this an excuse for his actions. Then, he somehow decided his actions were bad and that he had hurt me in some way. The guy was even more screwed up in the head than I was. All I could say was, “I don’t think so.”

He looked up at me, holding my eyes with his own. “Yes, I was using you. I put you in this position to be something that you never promised me you could be. And no wonder you felt like you had to run away from that.”

I thought my head was going to explode. “No,” I said. “Sleeping with you again was cruel. I shouldn’t have done that when I didn’t know how I felt about you.”

“No, that’s my point. I don’t know how I feel about you either. And we can’t let this baby thing make us think that we should feel certain ways about each other when we don’t really know anything about each other.”

I nodded slowly, waiting for this to sink in. “So you’re not mad at me?”

“Well, it totally sucked waking up in that sleeping bag alone. But while we were packing, I started thinking, and I decided that I couldn’t be mad at you.”

He wasn’t mad at me. That was good. That was very good. But I was still confused. And I felt like we hadn’t really addressed the whole story he’d told me, but I didn’t want to bring it back up. It was too terrible. Who wants to talk about stuff like that anyway? “So you’re not interested in me romantically?”

“I didn’t say that,” said Kieran. “I…” He blushed. “Obviously, I find you attractive.”

I felt embarrassed too. “I think you’re pretty easy on the eyes yourself.”

“And we’re, you know, physically—that’s good.”

I laughed nervously. “Yeah. It’s good.”

“So,” he said, “we have this whole several days in a car thing planned. And I think it would be a good time to get to know each other.”

Well, that sounded too healthy for words. I grinned. “Yeah. Okay. That sounds good.”

He smiled and looked relieved. “Good.”

I should have left it at that, but I couldn’t. “Kieran, about your family, I—”

“It’s cool,” he said. “You don’t have to say anything.”

“I just…” I picked at the edge of my shirt. “I watched my parents get shot and killed too. It was years ago, and they were kind of messed up people, but I loved them.” I paused. “You think you failed your family, but you don’t know what it’s like to really do actual horrible things to people. I have done things, Kieran, that I still can’t really think about. Really, really bad things.” I looked up at him. “So, you don’t have to feel bad about anything around me, okay?”

“You’re talking about the magic, Azazel, and I’m telling you that you haven’t done anything—”

“I’m not talking about the magic. I’m talking about other stuff. The magic stuff was all an accident. I never meant for any of it to happen. But you think you failed your sister, because you didn’t save her. But my brothers, they kidnapped me, because they wanted me to kill Jason, because they thought he was like the anti-christ or something. And to get away from them, I…” I glanced at the ground, then the sky, then my shoes, and then finally back up at Kieran. “I shot them both. I killed them.” I didn’t look away after I said it. I just watched him, waiting for his reaction.

“They kidnapped you? They tried to make you kill someone?”

I nodded.

“Those jerks,” he said.

That was his reaction? Really? “Don’t you care that I killed them?”

“It sounds to me like you were protecting yourself,” he said. “I don’t think you did anything that horrible at all.”

I considered for a minute. “Even though now I don’t even hesitate before I shoot kids in the arm?”

He shrugged. “Look, I told you I thought you were a badass. It’s not a bad thing. Come on. They’re waiting for us in Washington.”

Right. Washington. Great.

* * *

With several gallons of gasoline closed up tight in the trunk of the Subaru, Kieran and I started off for Washington, D.C. Kieran was driving for the first leg of the trip, and I’d take over later. We’d barely pulled onto the E. Hoover Parkway when I saw them.

Just beyond the sign to Columbus-Belmont park, they were marching. It was an enormous group of people, mostly men and boys, but with a few women scattered in as well. They carried shotguns and rifles, the kind you’d use for hunting. They had grim, determined faces. They were heading into town.

“Kieran,” I said.

He was watching the road. He hadn’t seen them. “What?”

“Look.” I pointed.

He glanced in the direction of the park. “Crap,” he said. “It’s Jason’s people, huh?”

“It’s got to be. They’re going after Hallam and everyone else.”

“What should we do?”

I considered. We had orders to be in D.C., but leaving Hallam in the lurch like this seemed like a bad idea. Jason’s people outnumbered Hallam’s by a huge amount. It was almost as if Jason had emptied his camp of people. Hmm. Jason’s camp was empty. That would mean that no one was there guarding the grimoire. “Stop the car,” I said to Kieran.

He pulled over. “We’ve got our orders, Azazel,” he said.

“Screw the orders,” I said, opening the car door.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Go back and warn Hallam,” I told him. “There’s something I have to take care of.” I got out of the car and slammed the door.

I could hear Kieran yelling after me, but his words were muffled.

I didn’t pay any attention to him. I scampered across the road and into the woods surrounding Columbus-Belmont Park. I didn’t even look back to see if Kieran was following my instructions. He’d have to be a total dick not to warn Hallam, though.

It took me about ten minutes to get to the camping loop. It was right next to the main entrance, where we’d found that guard last night. I peered through the foliage in the woods at the camp. Like before, I could see numerous pitched tents, some campers, and a few RVs. There was a central fire pit. Several women, trailed by small children, were walking through the encampment. A few carried dishes. Maybe they’d been washing them in the river.

The question was where did Jason sleep? I tried to think it through. It was possible that Jason had won these people’s loyalty by a show of solidarity. In that case, he’d sleep among them, in any one of these tents, wanting to appear as if he was just another of the people in town, nothing special.

On the other hand, Jason could have swept in like a king and demanded the best sleeping arrangements in the place, in which case he’d either be in a house or a deluxe camper somewhere away from the rest of the town.

Which was most likely? I didn’t know. The Jason I knew wouldn’t be leading a group of people at all. He hated it when people looked to him for leadership. Or at least, he’d hated it when the Sons had done it. Now? Who knew what he loved or hated?

There was another problem. How was I supposed to explore the camp when there were people all over the place? It was daylight. I couldn’t sneak around in the shadows. Somehow, I was going to have to find a way to hide in plain sight. Damn it. I really hadn’t had much time to think this plan through, had I?

“For God’s sake, Polly!” Was that Jason’s voice? I peered through the foliage.

There he was. He was striding across the camping loop. A woman with long, red hair was following him.

“Jason, wait,” said the woman with red hair, very possibly Polly.

Jason didn’t wait. He kept going. He walked right past the spot where I was hiding in the woods and down the path to the road out of the camp. He must be late for the battle.

As quietly as I could, I followed him, still staying behind the cover of trees.

When he broke onto the road, he turned on his heel and glared at Polly, who was still behind him. They were out of sight of the encampment at this point. I crept closer, wincing when I crunched on a dead twig.

Jason didn’t seem to notice. “I’m late,” he said. “They left at least fifteen minutes ago. I do not have time for this.”

“I know,” said Polly. “I’m sorry.” She closed the distance between the two of them in two steps. She put her arms around him. She pressed her lips against his.

I let out a little gasp.

Jason didn’t hear that either. He was too busy closing his eyes and crushing Polly against him, pulling her so, so close.

Polly looked an awful lot like my ex-best friend, Lilith. I guess Jason had a soft spot for redheads, no matter what he might have claimed to the contrary. I glowered at the kissing couple.

Why had he begged me to join him, when he already had his little redhead? Why had he nearly assaulted me, pretended that he still wanted me?

My stomach was twisting into knots. It had all been part of Jason’s attempt to manipulate me, I realized. He was playing my attraction to him to his own advantage. He knew it threw me off balance. He had never meant any of it. And to think, last night, when I was talking to Kieran, I’d actually half-considered what it would be like to give in to Jason. To think that I’d bought any of his lies. That jerk. Tears were forming in my eyes.

Polly pulled away from Jason, smiling a small, satisfied smile. “That’s all I wanted,” she said. “Be careful.”

He shook his head at her. “Woman,” he growled mock-angrily, reaching forward to tickle her.

My stomach twisted over again. Jason used to tease me that way.

Polly darted out of his reach, giggling.

Jason was serious now. “I’ve got to go.”

They kissed again, briefly, before Jason sprinted off after his troops.

I seethed in the woods for a few minutes, watching Polly trudge back up into the encampment.

Somehow, I hadn’t thought of Jason finding someone else. Why, I didn’t know. And maybe it shouldn’t make me angry, but… The tears seeped out of my eyes onto my cheeks.

No. I wasn’t crying over Jason. Not again.

I left the woods and emerged onto the road. I walked out the same way Jason had. As I did, I reached inside myself and began uncapping the power that flowed within my body, the way the OF had taught me to do years ago. I liked to keep the power completely tamped down. But today, right now, I didn’t much care.

It rushed into me, like lava. I felt aware. Awake. I was a searing force. I searched for the minds of Jason’s people. It wasn’t hard. There was a huge group of them and they were all single-mindedly focused on one purpose. They wanted revenge. I saw within their collective mind the faces of the guards we’d killed the night before. The names. Andrew. Kevin. David. John. Michael. Nicholas. To the men coming for Hallam’s camp, they were just boys. They were beloved children of a town, and we’d snuffed out their lives.

I reached for the burning flood of my power and sent it pouring like a waterfall over the minds of Jason’s men. I planted confusion. I burst apart the collectivity of their thoughts. I threw as many distracting thoughts as I could into their brains. They were going the wrong way. They were hungry. They had reasons to hate each other. They didn’t like shooting people. They didn’t know exactly who killed the boys.

I felt the minds of the men become confused. Perfect.

That should at least give Hallam the time he needed to get organized.

I’d been walking down the path out of Columbus-Belmont Park, but now I began to run. I hurried as fast as I could to find Jason’s people and to see what was happening. Green leaves blurred in front of my eyes as I sprinted through the woods. I could hear the voices of Jason’s people, who’d begun to question each other.

I rounded a bend in the road, and I spotted them. Instead of marching in the direction of the church, they were now milling about aimlessly. Some were arguing with each other. Jason had caught up to them too, and he was stalking through them, trying to figure out what was going on.

I planted myself in the middle of the road, crossing my arms over my chest. I felt pretty pleased with myself.

Jason’s eyes swept his group, who were now more a mob than a small army. Then he saw me. We stared across the expanse of men at each other. At first he looked startled, but then I saw that he understood what had happened to his men. I had taken control of their minds. He gave me a twisted, knowing smile.

I gave him the finger. Dick.

Jason turned his back on me. He lifted his hands above his head. He yelled, “For Andrew! For Kevin! For David! For John! For Michael! For Nicholas!”

I felt it, then. Jason’s power. It was different than mine, although also liquid. While my power burned and fizzed, Jason’s cooled and soothed. His magic flowed out over the group of men like a refreshing balm, completely undoing my attempt to confuse them. They all stared at Jason adoringly and began to march forward.

I realized then why their minds had felt so focused. It was Jason’s magic. His power was the complete opposite of mine. While my power destroyed, his pulled things together. No wonder the men had all had one collective mind. Jason had the ability to focus them.

Well, not on my watch, baby.

I reached out again to the men’s minds, and I pulled at them harder this time. Instead of just making them confused, I dug out deeper, darker emotions. I funneled anger and fear into their ranks, and I focused that anger and fear on their neighbors, on the men who they stood and marched next to.

The men scattered almost immediately, pointing their guns at each other.

I fixed an image in my brain of the men all shooting each other. I savored the rage and tasted the sharp metallic bite of blood on my tongue. Some army Jason was going to have if they were all dead.

I poured my power into the men, working each of them up to a fiery rage.

The first shots rang out. I watched one of the men take a shot in the stomach. Another cried out as a bullet tore through his arm.

Jason’s arms went up again. He broke down everything I’d done again, pulling the men together. They whipped their guns up against their shoulders and drew their feet together—coming to attention.

But I didn’t wait this time. I just pushed back, refueling the men with rage.

Between us, Jason’s people danced like flags tied to a rope in our tug-of-war. One second, they faced forward, reading to march. The next second, they dropped into defensive stances, snarling at each other. Shots echoed off the trees. Men clubbed each other with the butts of rifles.

Each time, Jason drew them back together, but with every moment I held their minds, more bodies fell to the ground.

As we continued, I saw Hallam, Kieran and the rest of the people from the church approach, guns in hand. They took advantage of the situation by starting to shoot at Jason’s people. Jason’s men were helpless to defend themselves. Several more bodies thudded against the ground. Screams rent the air as men doubled over or grabbed at their wounds, staring in disbelief at the blood seeping through their fingers. The air was thick with the smell of discharged guns and sweat. I watched as Jason’s army became a chaotic mass, struggling to make any kind of move.

This was the last straw for Jason. He threw his hands down and sent a different message to his men: Retreat.

Immediately, the men scattered, running back for Columbus-Belmont Park.

I took a look at Jason, and I pulled my magic back, bottling it back up inside me. I’d won. Satisfied, I took a deep breath.

Hallam and the OF group chased the men back into the park, their guns raised. Only Jason remained standing, while all his men ran. I approached him, feeling triumphant.

He started for me, his expression dark.

We met in the center, men running around us, parting for us like the Red Sea.

I glared at him. “A redhead, huh?”

He looked startled. He didn’t know I knew about that, did he? “Polly?” he said. “Polly’s just—”

“A girl you kiss?”

He gritted his teeth and shrugged. “Something like that. Sure.”

“Fuck you,” I said. “Don’t try anymore of that stupid I-still-want-you crap, okay?” I started to push past him.

He stopped me. He leaned close. He whispered in my ear, “I knew you’d use magic again. I knew it.”

* * *

Before…

December 2012

It was blowing snow, but none of it was sticking to the ground. Last year, I wouldn’t have worried so much about how cold it was, but last year, there was electric heat. Last year, I lived in a house. Last year, warmth was a given.

This year, I was working for the OF, trying to gather as much gasoline as we could. We were in northern Virginia, one of those suburbs of D.C. that’s covered with strip malls and cookie cutter housing developments. The power had been out for about three months. I went out with the OF team about a month after it started. We went as far south as we could, hauling empty tanker trucks to store all the gasoline. In the beginning, it had been easy.

Back in early November, people still trusted us. We were the government, and when we said we were coming to help, they believed we could help them. We said we needed fuel to get west and get help. They said that was fine and to take it. Even though I’d been brought along to use my magic, I hadn’t had to, not in the beginning.

But it was worse now. People were scared and worried. People were dying. And it was cold. We were finishing our sweep and heading back to D.C. This suburb was our last stop before checking in with headquarters. I had hoped everything would go smoothly. I could still see the river in Tennessee, just a week ago, glutted with bodies. They floated face down in the muddy water, dead. And that had been my fault. I hadn’t meant to. Oh God, I hadn’t meant to. But when I opened up the container that held my magic, it seemed like I always released the voice too. The whispery one. The one that told me to do awful things. The voice I couldn’t seem to resist anymore.

I huddled inside my winter coat, my hands jammed into the pockets. I was watching as the other members of the OF team siphoned gas out of the tanks below an Exxon station. Across six lanes of empty street, a Target store squatted, a remnant of life before the power outage. Its windows were cracked and broken. The parking lot was littered with twisted carts and abandoned cars. The gray sky spit and swirled snow flakes at us. We were alone.

I hoped.

One of the guys on our team emerged from inside the Exxon. The original door was shattered, leaving a gaping dark hole as an entrance. He was holding handfuls of candy bars. I thought his name was Kieran. He loped across the Exxon parking lot to me, offering me a KitKat.

I shook my head.

“You more of a Hershey’s Almonds girl?” he asked, sorting through the candy bars to find one.

“Snickers,” I said, taking the one I saw peeking out of his jacket pocket.

“Hell, I was saving that for myself,” he said. “It was the last one.” I offered it back to him, but he shook his head and grinned at me. “You can have it.”

The Snickers bar was cold. My hands were numb, and I struggled to open the wrapper. Kieran took it from me and opened it. He handed it back.

“You look cold,” he said.

I shivered. “I’m fine.”

“I could go across to the Target and look for some gloves or a scarf or something for you,” he said.

I took a bite of the Snickers bar. It was nearly frozen and brittle, but still sweet. I chewed and swallowed. “I’m fine, really,” I said. “Thanks for the candy bar.”

“Your nose is red,” said Kieran. “You look like—”

He was interrupted from what I was sure wouldn’t have been a flattering comparison by a gun shot.

We both started forward in the direction of the sound. There was a group of about twenty locals marching up the empty street. They were carrying shotguns. Wonderful.

“Damn it,” I said.

“Damn it,” said Kieran.

We exchanged a look.

Since I was here to be the negotiator, I had to go and talk to the locals. Mournfully, I glanced down at the Snickers bar. I’d only had one bite. However, I didn’t think the people with shotguns would take me very seriously if I was chewing on a candy bar. I thrust the Snickers at Kieran and jogged to intercept the mob.

“Stand down!” I called as I approached. “This is an official government squad. We’re just following orders.”

The locals neither stood down nor stopped walking. I planted myself in front of them, in the center of the road. I’d try logic. Sometimes logic worked. “Our weapons are more sophisticated than yours and we’ve all been trained,” I said. “If you try to engage us, you will lose. Why don’t you all just go home?”

There was a man in the front. He stopped and motioned for the others to stop walking. He stared me down. “Who are you, girlie?”

Girlie. Seriously? I clenched my teeth. “I’m the only one in this team whose job it is to be nice to you people. Those guys—” I jerked my head towards the men siphoning gas— “don’t talk. They shoot.”

“Well, maybe we don’t feel like talking either.” The man fired another gun shot into the air for emphasis.

Oh. This was perfect. This was really perfect. “For your own safety,” I said, “I really must insist that you disband and return to your homes.”

“You’re stealing our gas,” said the man.

“We are taking possession of fuel in order to get west and get help,” I said. “The government needs this fuel in order to help the country.” No one seemed to believe me anymore when I said things like this. Maybe it was because all the teams we’d sent west thus far had disappeared without a trace. No help had come. Maybe it was because it was winter, and everything seemed gloomier and gloomier with each passing gray day.

“We need the gas,” said the man. “What are we going to do while the government steals our fuel?”

“I thought those Order of the Fly assholes were magical, anyway,” yelled someone else within the mob of people. “How come they can’t just magic up some gasoline?”

“Yeah,” chorused several other voices.

Uh oh. This was getting worse. The last thing I need was a bunch of people yelling and complaining. Especially if those people were all holding guns. Things were going to get ugly fast, unless I used my magic. But I didn’t want to. In Tennessee, all of those people floating in the river had gotten there because of my magic. Even if these people were planning on shooting all of us, I felt guilty about manipulating their minds.

Maybe I wouldn’t hear the voice. Maybe things wouldn’t get out of hand. Maybe if I was careful—

But I didn’t have more time to think, because the man leading the mob raised his shotgun into the air and yelled, “Charge!”

Before the stampede could start, I reached inside myself and uncapped the container holding my magic. As always, it flowed into my entire body, making my limbs tingle and the back of my head feel like bubbles were rising up my spine. I could feel the hazy focus of the minds of the mob. They were angry and scared. They wanted to hurt us, because they were hurt and there was no one else to blame.

I tried, as I always did, to simply quiet them. I tried to quench their anger and calm their fears. But my power never seemed to work that way. It was as if it fed on anger and fear. As if it could only cause pain and destruction.

Within seconds, I realized it would be easier to simply redirect the mob’s fear. I pulled the focus away from our team and placed the focus on the Target. The store was already destroyed. How much worse could they make it?

The mob howled and took off towards the store, guns at the ready. They began to pump bullets into the store’s windows. Glass shattered. A hole appeared in the target emblem on the side. Bullseye.

I couldn’t help but laugh. It was appropriate, I guessed. They needed a target for their anger, why not Target?

Maybe it was the laughter that brought the voice. Maybe it was just the magic. I didn’t know. But it spoke to me in scaly whispers, a voice that came from a deep, dark, musty place. Human targets , it said.

Before I could stop myself, I found myself picturing the people turning on each other, emptying their shotguns into each other’s chests. I tried to turn off the image, to think about Target, to refocus them on the store, but the images had taken hold of my brain.

The locals began to snarl at each other.

No. No, stop it. I struggled with the magic. I’d stuff it down, back inside me, if I couldn’t control it. I reached out for it, trying to pull it back to my body. It wouldn’t budge.

The man who’d been the leader shot one of the local women in the head. Her skull exploded in red gore, and she toppled to the pavement. Another man shrieked and shot at the leader. Two red holes burst through his chest. He fell to his knees, clutching at his wounds before crumpling to the ground.

I yanked as hard as I could on the magic, drawing it back closer to me. But I was too late. The parking lot in front of Target had erupted into a shooting frenzy. Bodies danced as they were riddled with gun fire and thudded on the empty lot.

I bottled the power back up, capping it tightly. I was shaking. This always happened. This always happened. I couldn’t use this magic anymore. Not if this was the result.

Grimacing, I took one last look at the carnage across the street. Then I looked away, ashamed.

chapter ten >>