~joan~

I nestled against Jason’s shoulder. It was late at night. A sheet covered us. He held me so carefully in his arms, like I was something precious. I felt safe and comfortable. There was something familiar about being close to him like this, even though I didn’t know why. Our bodies fit against each other like puzzle pieces. I felt like I’d done this before. But for all I knew, it was a trick. I had no memory of who I was or what I’d done. Even though Jason seemed to think he’d known me. I traced patterns on his chest with my fingertips. His eyes were half open as he gazed at me.

“Do you still think I’m her?” I asked.

He groaned sleepily. “Let’s not talk about this right now.”

I propped myself up on my elbow. “But if you know who I am, I’d like to know. I don’t remember anything.”

Jason looked at the headboard of the bed, rolling his head on the pillow and looking annoyed. “Come on, Joan. Let’s go to sleep.”

I felt a tiny stab of fear, thinking about what Lori had told me earlier. Maybe I shouldn’t push him. Maybe if he got mad, he’d—

“You’re only thinking about this right now because I’m a little bit drained,” he said. “I can’t seem to keep up my powers after being with you.” He pulled me close. “You are exhausting,” he growled in my ear.

“I didn’t hear you complaining.” I playfully poked him.

He kissed me. “I’m not complaining now. I’m happier than I’ve been in years.” He looked thoughtful. “Although maybe it wasn’t a callous. Maybe they didn’t resist me. Maybe being with you is what made me lose power over them.”

He was talking about confusing stuff again. I didn’t know what to say to it. So I said, “I’m happier too. I mean, I think. I don’t remember.”

“Remembering any of it is just going to be painful,” he said. “Don’t you want to be happy?”

I snorted, pulling away from him. “Ignorance is bliss, huh?”

He covered his eyes with his hand. “I didn’t mean it like that. I don’t want to ruin anything. I just got you back, and I want to enjoy the present, not dwell on the past.”

“Got me back?” I repeated. “You do think I’m her. Who is she? Who am I?”

“Joan, please.”

I rolled over, my back to him, pulling the sheet tight around my body.

“Don’t be like that.” His body was surrounding me, the hard muscles of his chest hot against my back. He kissed my shoulder. “Could we talk about this in the morning?”

I didn’t answer. Instead, my hand went to the scar on my upper arm, a circular knot of tissue. I fingered it. What had happened here? “You recognized my scar. How did I get it?”

He didn’t answer at first. His lips tickled my neck, the top of my spine. “You were shot.”

I turned to look at him. He was telling me, wasn’t he? He thought I was that girl who had such a complicated past. Hell, if I had her scar, it must mean that I was her. Why was I thinking about this now, anyway? I hadn’t thought about it all day. No, all I’d thought about before was how happy I was, how wonderful Jason was, how perfect it was here in Jasontown. Was Jason right? Was I only trying to make myself miserable by digging at the past? Maybe. But I had to know anyway. “Why did someone shoot me?”

He ran his fingers over my back. “It was my fault.”

“You shot me?” I rolled over so that I was facing him.

“No, of course not. I would never do that to you.” He brushed hair out of my eyes. “It was my fault because people were always after me back then, and I couldn’t protect you from them. Then, I mean. I can now. I can stop anyone from trying to hurt anyone. My powers make people want to stop fighting. They make people happy. I make people happy now. You couldn’t see it before, but you see it now, don’t you? Isn’t everyone happy here?”

“Blissfully,” I said, grinning. It was strange for me to see him so vulnerable and unsure of himself, but somehow, it made me care about him more. It was a different feeling that filled me now, not as overpowering as the pleasure that I’d felt all day being close to Jason, but instead sweet and sharp. I wanted to reassure him, hold him close and let him know everything would be okay.

“So, you do see it?”

I nodded. “Of course I do. I think what you’re doing here in Jasontown is amazing. You’re a great man, Jason, and I’m humbled to be allowed to be this close to you.”

“No,” he said. “Don’t be like that. Not like the rest of them. You’re different. You don’t have to act like I’m some kind of…”

“But you are. You’re a spiritual leader, Jason. You’re a force for good. And you have a powerful message. You’re different. You’re more than the rest of us.”

“You and I are the same,” he said. “We’ve always been the same.”

I laughed. “Lori said you told her I was going to heal or you or something.”

“You will. You are. Already, I feel so much better.” He rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. “If only I could be sure the community wasn’t ripping itself apart. Sometimes there’s so many of them, I don’t know if I can keep it up. Keep pumping all the happiness and peace into them. I feel like I’m going to run dry.”

“Of course you can keep it up. You’re Jason. And I’m nothing compared to you. I’m ordinary. I don’t have anything like what you have.”

“That’s not true,” he said. “You’re so much more than ordinary. You’re…” He didn’t finish.

“Who am I? What did we share together?”

He sighed, still staring at the ceiling. “You heard what I called you. Before I kissed you.”

Did I remember that? I searched my recollections, remembering the bliss of that night. Oh. Maybe I did remember. I’d corrected him. Told him my real name. “You called me the name of the witch,” I murmured. “The one who’s trying to kill you.”

“Yeah,” he said.

I sat up in bed. “That’s who I am?” I felt disgusted. I felt dirty. “No. It can’t be true.”

“We weren’t always trying to kill each other,” Jason said.

“I don’t believe it,” I said.

“Good,” he said. “Because as far as I’m concerned, you’re not her. Not anymore. And we don’t ever have to talk about this again.”

I lay back on the bed, too stunned to say anything in return. How could I be Azazel, the Witch of the OF? She was a terror of a woman, sending armies of men to their deaths all over the country. She was dead set on her mission to eradicate Jason from the earth. I couldn’t be this woman. I couldn’t be Jason’s sworn enemy. I loved Jason. Maybe I’d never thought those words before, but they were true. I didn’t want to hurt him. “How?” I whispered.

“How?” he repeated, not understanding my question.

“How did I go from loving you to hating you? How did I start trying to kill you? And why I am here, with no memory of any of it?”

“I don’t know,” said Jason. “I don’t know why you’re here. I don’t where your memories went. And I don’t know what happened. One day, you—she—just stopped feeling whatever it was she’d felt for me. Ever since then, I’ve tried to do everything I could to show her that I wasn’t evil, that I could do good. That’s what I’m doing here. I’m helping these people in Jasontown. All of them. I thought if she could see that I wasn’t a monster, she’d—”

“Stop,” I said. “You’re not a monster, Jason. She’s a monster. She’s more evil than you could ever be. And I’m not her. No part of me could ever hate you.”

Jason kissed me fiercely. “Say it again.”

“What?”

“That I’m not a monster.”

“You’re not a monster,” I said.

“You mean it?”

“Of course I do,” I said.

He kissed me again, wrapping his arms tightly around me.

***

~kieran~

I hadn’t meant to fall asleep. The men had taken my car during the night. They’d had one man drive it off to God-knows-where. All of the provisions I’d brought were inside, and so I was left with only what I’d taken into the building with me the night before. Luckily, that meant that I had most of Chance’s stuff and most of our food. The men had piled it all up to take from me, but after they were dead, they weren’t exactly able to keep me from getting it again. Overall, without a car, it was okay, because I could only take what I could carry. I’d spent the morning lugging Chance and all of our stuff as far away as I could. Finally, he’d started getting cranky, and I’d stopped to feed him, hiding us as best I could behind some trees along the road. I’d fed Chance and he’d fallen asleep in my arms. And I’d fallen asleep too, as much as I hadn’t wanted to.

I dreamed.

In my dream, I was Azazel. As usual. I was sitting inside the waiting room of an office. There were magazines on an end table. The front desk was manned by several women, all of whom were dead. They had gray skin, stretched tight against their skeletons. They were surrounded by hordes of flies. Jason was sitting next to me. He threw a magazine against the wall.

“This is stupid,” he said.

I realized we were in a counselor’s office. Jason and I were waiting for our turn to see the therapist. “It isn’t stupid. It’s good. It’s helping.”

“I don’t need their help.” Jason got up. He kicked the chair he’d been sitting in. “I’m fine. I don’t need to tell anyone about my life. I told you. That was enough. You still accept me. That’s enough. I don’t care what anyone else thinks.”

“The point isn’t to get the therapist to accept you,” I said, feeling frustrated. “The point is for you to accept yourself.”

“You accept me,” he said again. “That’s all that matters.”

I stood up too. I began to edge toward the door. “I can’t do this for you anymore,” I said. “I can’t be whatever it is you need me to be. I am too screwed up to save you. I can’t even save myself. You’ve got to help me. You’ve got to help yourself.”

“Why?” he said. “I have you. Your love makes me whole.”

I shook my head, hand on the doorknob of the office, ready to burst outside. “I want to love someone who can be whole without me. I want to love someone who can live without me. I want to love someone who can give. All you do is take, Jason. And I don’t have anything left.”

“Where are you going?” he said, looking alarmed. “Don’t you know I’ll go absolutely insane without you?”

I opened the door. “That’s not my problem anymore. It never should have been my problem. Fix yourself, Jason.” And I walked outside.

But instead of stepping into the sunshine, into a parking lot outside the therapist’s office, I found myself inside the OF headquarters, in Lily’s office. And suddenly, I was me—Kieran—not Azazel. Lily, the President, and several other OF members were sitting around her desk. No one looked up when I entered.

“How could you have let this happen?” the President was asking Lily. “I thought you said he was under control.”

“Kieran surprised us all,” said Lily, pursing her lips. “I never thought he’d simply leave.”

“And now we have no idea where he is,” said another OF member. “Well, this is perfect. We’ve got nothing. And the uprisings are getting worse.”

“We have another option,” Lily said. “I’ve been detecting a disturbance, quite powerful, near Cumberland, Maryland. There’s someone there who’s wielding power that might be strong enough to rival that of either Jason’s or Azazel’s.”

“Kieran’s, you mean,” said the President.

Lily rolled her eyes. “I’ve already got people in the area, scouting it out. Give the word, and we’ll have this powerful person, whoever he or she is, brought back to D.C.”

Suddenly, the sound went away. I could still see the people in Lily’s office talking, but I couldn’t hear them. Instead, I heard a different voice.

“Maybe they don’t deserve the powers,” said the voice, a voice I couldn’t place.

Flies began to crawl into Lily’s office through cracks in the ceiling. They swarmed in through the windows, blocking everything out.

“Maybe we deserve the powers. Maybe we should take them.”

Everything went black.

And all I could hear was buzzing.

***

~joan~

Sunlight was streaming in through the windows when I opened my eyes. Tessa was standing over me, shaking me. I was alone in bed. I blinked and stretched. Where was Jason?

“God, you’re hard to wake up,” said Tessa.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, pulling the sheets up around me as I sat up.

“Lori sent me in to get you. It’s our turn weeding in the vegetable gardens today.”

I nodded, yawning. “Let me get dressed.”

I joined Tessa in a few minutes, and we set out down the hill towards the gardens. They stretched out on the plain in front of the river. I wondered if they’d be ruined if there were a flood. Maybe floods were good for gardens. I had no idea.

“You are glowing,” Tessa pronounced as she looked me over.

I laughed, feeling shy. “Jason’s kind of amazing.”

“You are preaching to the choir, girl.” She clasped my hand. “I’m sure it’s wonderful being close to him like that. But I realize what a responsibility it is, too. Jason’s not, you know, just any guy. He’s pretty much extraordinary. You’ve got to do the best you can to please him.”

She was right. Vaguely, I recalled the way he’d been last night. He’d seemed so vulnerable. I could hardly believe that now, in the sunlight. Jason was too perfect to have been so unsure of himself. Maybe I’d dreamed it. “I hope I’m worthy of doing what I can in his service, is all. Compared to Jason, I’m practically nothing.”

“None of us are anything compared to Jason,” Tessa agreed. She caught my eye, and we giggled, like girls in high school who shared a crush on a teacher. Tessa let go of my hand. We continued our walk down the hill.

“Tessa, I am so grateful that I found you and Garth,” I said. “If I hadn’t, I might never have found Jasontown. You have no idea how much I owe you.”

“You owe me nothing,” said Tessa. “Are you kidding?”

“Have you seen Garth?” I asked.

“Not since we got here,” said Tessa. “I’m sure he’s fine, though. How could you not be fine here?”

She was so right. This place was paradise.

We were greeted at the garden by the field head. She was a woman with thick arms and a double chin. She smiled warmly at us and directed us to the section of the garden we’d be weeding. She showed us which of the plants were the ones we wanted to pull out and which were to be left alone. Enthusiastically, Tessa and I got to work.

“So,” Tessa said as she grasped a weed and yanked it out by its roots, “I know you were having a wonderful time with Jason last night, but you completely missed all the excitement.”

I yanked out my own weed. “Excitement?”

Tessa threw the weed in the pile we were making for weeds. They’d be disposed of later. “Late last night, a group of people who were friends with the guys Jason executed yesterday got really pissed off.”

I paused before tossing my weed. “But why?”

“They thought Jason’s judgment wasn’t fair.”

I threw the weed. “But Jason left it up to the people. It wasn’t even his own decision. They couldn’t blame Jason for that.”

Tessa tugged on another weed. “They were completely irrational. They were saying weird stuff about mind control and how Jason was using people to create an army to fight the OF.”

I made a face as I got hold of the stalk of a weed. “That’s completely stupid.”

“I know. Like Jason wants to fight. He’s like the most peaceful person ever.”

I shook my head. “I can hardly believe it. What happened?”

“The guards had to constrain them. They rounded them all up and shoved them in the barn.” Tessa gestured across the field at the building I’d been put in the first day.

I remembered there were whips on the walls. I realized now why the building needed to be there. The security of Jasontown couldn’t be threatened. There needed to be some way to keep elements like that in line. “They’ll have to be punished. That kind of negativity threatens everyone.”

Tessa nodded. “I think they should be killed, just like the other men. I mean, you should have seen it, Joan. They were threatening violence.” She shuddered.

“I don’t understand how they could do something like that. Here.”

Tessa’s eyes widened, focusing on something behind me.

I turned to see what she was looking at. Jason was advancing towards me. He looked troubled. When he saw that I’d seen him, he stopped walking and beckoned for me. I dropped the weed in my hand and hurried over to him.

Jason put a hand on my back, leading me away. “I need to talk to you,” he said.

“Of course,” I said.

“Did you hear about what happened last night?” he asked me. “About the men who threatened the settlement?”

“Tessa told me. I’m completely flabbergasted.” We were walking away from the gardens, towards the river.

“What do you think I should do?” he asked me, his eyes searching my face.

Why was he asking me? I had no idea. I didn’t make decisions for Jasontown. Jason did. He was wise and powerful and good. I was only…a girl. “Well, what do you think you should do?” I said. “Because whatever it is, I’m sure it’s the right thing.”

Jason looked annoyed. “You don’t have to do that. You don’t have to suck up to me. Tell me what you think.”

“I wasn’t sucking up,” I said, confused that he would think so. “I know that I trust you.”

He sighed. We’d reached the river, so we stopped walking. Jason shoved his hands in his pockets and looked at the river. “Of course you’d say that. If you’re under my power, you’d say that.” He scuffed his foot against the dirt, scattering a few pebbles. “And last night, the only reason they weren’t under my power was because making love to you completely wiped me out. I didn’t have the energy to keep it up, and all hell broke loose.”

I smiled. “It is like that. Like I’m under your power. You’re so amazing. It’s almost like a spell. Like magic.”

“Stop it,” he muttered. He glared at me.

Suddenly, I felt like I’d been hit by rush of cold air. It blew everything away from me, stripping away what I felt. My bubble of bliss being this close to Jason burst. I gasped and took a step backwards. “Wha—?”

Jason put out a hand to steady me. “Now,” he said. “What do you think I should do?”

“About the men who tried to hurt you last night?” I said.

He nodded.

My head hurt, but suddenly things did seem clearer. “Well… I guess they were only doing it because you killed their friends. Which, when you think about it, makes sense. It’s got to be terrifying to think that you could be killed for being hungry. They were right to protest against what you did, I think.” I looked up at Jason, feeling my stomach sink. “Jason, why did you kill those men?”

He looked away from me again, back out at the river. “Last night, you said you didn’t think I was a monster. Is that still true?”

“It’s true,” I said, but doubts were beginning to creep into my mind. What was I doing here? Why was I sleeping with this man? He had whips in a barn. He had people killed if they expressed anything besides complete happiness. He had a group of pretty burly guards protecting him. And he had a bunch of people following him around like he was the messiah.

He looked into my eyes. “I don’t believe you.”

I swallowed.

“I won’t lose you again, dammit. I’ll do anything not to lose you.”

Relief flooded my limbs. Happiness bubbled up inside my body. I gazed into Jason’s eyes, the familiar feeling of pleasure surrounding me. I sighed happily. “You won’t lose me, silly.”

“No,” he said. “I won’t.” And he kissed 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.