“Jason,” a soft female voice was saying. “Jason, wake up.” Someone was shaking me.
I rolled over, rubbing my eyes. Dull morning light was streaming in through the curtains of the room I stayed in with Chance. Mrs. Jones was standing over me in her bathrobe. Her hair was in rollers.
“You must not have heard your alarm,” said Mrs. Jones.
“Crap,” I said, throwing aside the covers and sitting up in bed. I’d been having such a weird dream. I was old, and people were trying to kill me. But it was fading now, turning to wisps in my brain. All I could really focus on was that I’d overslept. And that meant there wasn’t going to be any hot water for a shower. If I even had time for one. “What time is it?”
She gestured at my clock radio. “Seven-fifteen,” she said.
“Crap,” I said again. I had to catch the bus in twenty minutes.
“Breakfast is on the table.” She smiled at me and swept out of the room.
I got out of bed and pulled some clothes out of my dresser. Most of them didn’t fit me very well. They were all hand-me-downs from the Jones’ various foster kids. It was better than wearing the same clothes every day, though, so I wasn’t about to complain. I cinched up a pair of jeans with a belt so they wouldn’t fall down and yanked a t-shirt over my head. I stumbled to the bathroom to at least brush my teeth and run a wet comb through my hair.
I smacked directly into Azazel in the hallway. She was wrapped in a towel and her hair was wet. My eyes swept her body, looking at the little droplets of water that were still clinging to her shoulders and neck.
“Sorry, Jason,” she said.
“No,” I said. “It was my fault.” I had a weird flash out of nowhere. I had my mouth on her neck. She wasn’t wearing any clothes. Whoa. I looked away from her. I darted into the bathroom. Damn it. I slammed the door after me.
The mirror was fogged up from all the other showers people had taken this morning. I tried to wipe it off with my hand, but there was too much steam in the room. It didn’t make much difference. As I popped my toothbrush into my mouth, I scolded myself.
Azazel is really, really taken , I said to myself. She’s all over that Toby guy. People like you do not get to have girlfriends. Or sex. Ever. So stop thinking about her.
But that wasn’t right, was it? Why did I have this weird feeling like I’d been with Azazel, not just in my prevalent adolescent fantasies (which often took place in the Jones’ shower, embarrassingly) but really and actually? That I’d actually held her and kissed her and touched her and—
Stop it , I warned myself.
There was something more to that odd feeling I had. As if I’d been with her, but it had been a mistake. I should never have touched her, ever. But that was crazy. Wasn’t it?
“Taken,” I told the mirror. “I get it.”
“Jason?” called Chance from outside the bathroom, “are you talking to yourself?”
“No,” I said.
“Well, hurry up,” he said.
I swung the door open. Chance raised his eyebrows at me. For some reason, I felt the urge to give him a huge hug. It felt as if I hadn’t seen him in ages. But Chance and I didn’t really hug, so I shoved my hands in my pockets and trudged downstairs for breakfast. This was the weirdest morning ever.
I was waiting at the bus stop with the other guys. Cameron and Nick were having some kind of in-depth discussion on how to find codes to cheat on video games. I was half-listening to them and wondering if I’d done my homework for school today. Weirdly enough, I had absolutely no memory of what we’d done in class yesterday. I guessed it wasn’t a completely big deal if I got behind. It wasn’t as if I was going to get to stay here forever, and in the grand scheme of things, high school really didn’t matter very much. But it was freaking me out.
A car pulled up and the window rolled down. Lilith leaned out the window, brushing red hair away from her lipstick. She smiled at me. “Want a ride to school, Jason?”
“Uh…” I looked at Chance and the guys as if they could give me the answer. They shrugged at me. “Sure.” It was better than the bus, right?
I walked around to the other side of the car. As I opened the passenger door, Lilith grabbed junk she had on the passenger seat and began hurling it into the back seat. I helped her until we’d cleared a space for me to sit down. I pulled the door closed after me, still holding a stack of papers I’d taken off her seat. I glanced down at them. “Hey, is this a pentagram on this?”
Lilith snatched the papers from me and threw them in the back. “No. It’s nothing.” She pulled the car out, wheels spinning loudly on the gravel.
Why would Lilith have a pentagram? And why did I feel as if I already knew the answer to that question?
Lilith stole a glance at me from the driver’s side. “We could ditch if you wanted, you know.” She raised an eyebrow at me suggestively. “I’m sure we could figure out something more interesting to do than school.”
“That’s okay,” I said. I wiggled my foot. “They track this ankle bracelet, you know. I could get in trouble.”
“Too bad,” she said. Her hand snaked across the car and rested on my thigh. She rubbed her hand over my leg, coming dangerously close to my crotch.
I gulped. “Um…” I should tell her to stop doing that.
Why? mocked my thoughts. Because you’re staying loyal to Azazel, who’s taken?
Lilith’s fingers moved further up my thigh. I stared down at her painted fingernails, digging into the cloth of my jeans. No girl had ever put her hands on me like that.
But that wasn’t true, was it? Hadn’t I been with another girl, one with red hair like Lilith’s?
No. I was losing my mind. I shoved Lilith’s hand off of me. “Let’s just go to school, okay?”
She laughed. “Whatever, Jason. We both know you think I’m hot. I see the way you keep checking out my cleavage. We should give in and do it already.”
“Don’t you, like, have a boyfriend or something?” I said. I was struggling to try to remember why I didn’t want to do that. It seemed as if I’d be betraying someone, but that didn’t make any sense.
“No,” Lilith snorted. “Don’t do boyfriends. Don’t do commitment. But I sure as fuck want to do you .”
“No…” I was really trying to figure this out. “You like Toby or something. You two are like—”
Lilith had turned white as a sheet. “No, I don’t. I fucking hate Toby. We don’t get along. Where would you get such a stupid idea?”
Okay, never mind. I shook my head. “This has been a really weird morning. That’s all.”
She rolled her eyes. “Well, remind me never to drive you to school again.”
“No,” I said. “I appreciate the ride.”
“It wasn’t the kind of ride I had in mind.”
She was really vulgar, wasn’t she? I had to admit there was a part of me that did think she was attractive. And there was something about her ballsy, devil-may-care attitude that was appealing. “Look, Lilith, maybe if we could just try this a little slower—”
“Just forget it, Jason, okay?” She glared at the steering wheel.
“Okay,” I said.
We drove the rest of the way to school in silence. When we got to the parking lot, Azazel was already there, hanging out outside Toby’s truck with Jude. He was wearing a skin-tight pink shirt and pink fake eyelashes. They waved us over.
Jude? He didn’t belong here, did he? But of course he did. He was Azazel’s gay best friend. Lilith was her girl best friend. She’d explained this to me before.
Lilith looked sidelong at me. “I really don’t think that guy is gay. Do you?”
I gave her a funny look. “Have we talked about this before?” Everything this morning was this kind of screwy déjà vu feeling.
“No,” she said. She strolled over to Jude and Azazel. “Hey Jude,” she said to him. “I thought the administration said no costumes.”
Jude looked down at his outfit. “This is so not a costume. These are like my everyday clothes.”
Right. So why did I have this weird feeling that he was, in fact, in disguise?
“Lilith, since when do you drive Jason to school?” Azazel asked.
Lilith took me by the arm. “You can’t have everyone, Azazel. Jesus. Share the wealth. Share the boys. Besides, I thought this was your big night with Toby.” She dragged me away towards the school building.
I pulled away from her grasp, but kept walking with her. “What do you mean, her big night?”
Lilith shrugged. “Oh, she called me last night. She and Toby are finally going to do it.”
My stomach turned over. “You mean like…” I didn’t finish.
“Yep,” said Lilith. “Naked time. Sure you don’t want to reconsider my offer?” She smiled suggestively.
I looked over my shoulder at Azazel, who was glaring at us, her arms still crossed over her chest. She was going to screw Toby. And I didn’t have anything except shower fantasies. Lilith was flesh and blood and willing, so why didn’t I just go for it? I turned back around, but I didn’t say anything.
“You coming to the Homecoming Dance tonight?” she asked.
“I think I have to,” I said. “The Joneses are chaperoning.”
“I’ll see you there, then,” she said, winking.
“What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?” intoned Ms. Campbell from the front of the classroom.
I was staring at the back of Azazel’s head. She and Toby had their hands linked underneath the desks in the front of the room. I couldn’t help but think about what Lilith had told me in the parking lot. The thought of Azazel and Toby going all the way made my stomach turn.
“All right, so before we dive into all this business of gyres and time and Yeats being a crazy man,” said Ms. Campbell, “let’s nail down some of the framework of the poem. If I hadn’t told you a thing about Yeats’ beliefs, you’d still be able to tell me the tone of this poem, right?”
No one said anything. I really wished they’d stop holding hands. They shouldn’t do that in class.
“Earth to AP students,” said Ms. Campbell. “I know someone out there is awake. Lisa?”
Lisa Huron looked at Ms. Campbell with a look of terror on her face that let me know she hadn’t been paying any attention. That was weird for her, because Lisa lived for saying pseudo-intellectual things in class.
“What’s the tone of the poem?” Ms. Campbell repeated.
Lisa visibly sagged in relief. She had this covered. “It’s really ominous.”
“Good,” said Ms. Campbell, clearly far more interested in this stupid poem than any of us were. “Ominous. Great word. It’s a very dark poem. The last image in particular is quite chilling. Appropriate for All Hallow’s Eve, don’t you think?”
Why couldn’t Ms. Campbell notice that Azazel and Toby were holding hands and tell them to stop?
“So, how does he do it?” asked Ms. Campbell. “How does he achieve that tone?”
Wonderful. I was Ms. Campbell’s go-to kid. I always had the right answer, and I always gave it. And maybe I could stand to be distracted from the disgustingness that was Azazel and Toby for a few minutes. I gazed down at the text of the Yeats poem in my book. “Um, he uses a bunch of symbols of things that people associate with bad stuff. Like the desert birds and chimera things and stuff. And then he threatens something that’s sacred to a whole bunch of people with his reference to cradles and Bethlehem. I mean, putting in the image of a rocking cradle is probably enough, because most people would infer that there’s like danger to a baby or something and be horrified. But when he says Bethlehem, it’s as though he’s saying that Christianity itself is going to be taken over, and that’s an awful image for a lot of people.”
“Well,” said Ms. Campbell, “for some people. Not a lot of us, probably. But for some people.” She waved it away. “I like what you said about symbols, Jason. That’s exactly what Yeats was going for here. You see that reference to the Spiritus Mundi? Yeats believed that the whole world had a spirit, comprised of everything on earth, and that the way it communicated with us was through symbols. Certain symbols held ancestral, primitive meanings. Meanings that cut into every human’s existence. And this rough beast, slouching towards Bethlehem to be born…well, who wouldn’t want to stop it?”
Toby suddenly snatched his hand away from Azazel and looked back at me. Several of the other students in the class did too.
“The beast is evil,” said Ms. Campbell. “It has to be ripped out of the universe. Wouldn’t you stop it if you could, Jason? If there were something you could do to make it all better, wouldn’t you do it?”
I felt their gazes on me, heavy and piercing. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. “Well, it’s just a poem.”
“Imagine,” said Ms. Campbell, “a vision from the world’s spirit. Imagine what it could tell you. What advice it could give you.”
I shrugged. “If you believed in that kind of thing, I guess.”
Ms. Campbell’s lips curved slowly into a smile. “Belief is the key, of course. There is no power without belief.”
I swallowed. Why did I suddenly feel as if practically everyone in the classroom was out to get me?
I was ahead of the class in Biology, because I’d already finished my lab. The teacher let me go to the library instead. I browsed through the stacks, looking for a book. I figured I was going to be really bored at the Homecoming Dance tonight, and I didn’t think I wanted to watch Azazel and Toby moon over each other the entire time. A book would help me pass the time.
I was hunting through the science fiction section when Jude appeared around one of the bookshelves. “Hi, Jason,” he said.
“Hey,” I said. I didn’t really want to talk to him. He was Azazel’s friend, not mine.
He sidled closer, but now that he wasn’t around Azazel, he seemed to have dropped his gay boy posture. I wondered if Lilith was right about him. “So, I’m thinking this Homecoming Dance is going to be a bust.”
“We could do something else.”
What was this? No one ever talked to me, usually. Now everyone wanted to hang out? I pulled a book off the shelf. “I’m not really into guys, if you know what I mean.”
“I didn’t mean like that,” said Jude. “Look, I overheard some of the football guys talking about roughing you up. Apparently you’re not very popular around here. I figure you’d be safer if you never showed up at the dance at all.”
I showed him my ankle bracelet. “I have to show up. They can track me.”
Jude chewed on his lip, thinking.
I began reading the inside flap of the book pointedly. Maybe he’d realize I didn’t want to talk to him and leave me alone.
“We could get that off,” said Jude.
“I’d go to jail.” I opened the book and started flipping through the pages. Jude wasn’t taking the hint.
“Not if you ran away. We could both run away.”
I lowered the book slowly to look at him. “Why would I want to run away with you?”
“I feel as if we have a lot in common. Plus, I know stuff about you. About who you are.”
I slammed the book closed, instantly suspicious. “What are you talking about? Who are you?”
Jude put up his hands in a surrender pose. “I’m just Jude, Azazel’s gay best friend.”
“No, you’re not,” I said. Who was he? I knew this. It was right on the tip of my tongue, but I couldn’t get my brain in gear. “You don’t belong here.”
“Neither do you,” he said.
I pushed him up against the bookshelf. “Are you working for the Sons? Did Hallam send you?”
His eyes got big and scared. “Hold up. I’m not trying to start anything. Don’t hurt me.”
Maybe he was just a clueless kid who wished I was gay. Maybe I was taking this too far. I let go of him.
He backed away from me. “You don’t have to hurt me, you know, Jason?”
“I won’t hurt you,” I said. “As long as you’re not trying to screw me up.”
Jude shook his head. “It’s always about her, isn’t it? No matter what, you’re obsessed with her.”
What was he talking about? I opened my book back up. “Get lost, Jude.”
He backed the rest of the way up behind the bookshelf. I looked back at my book and ignored him.
I was stuffed with Chinese food, and trying to figure out a Halloween costume for the dance that night. Azazel appeared in the doorway to my bedroom. She was dressed in a long white dress, and her hair fell around her shoulders. She looked ethereal and beautiful. I had the urge to go to her and touch her, but I knew I couldn’t do that. Why was this happening to me all the time?
“Hey,” she said. “What’s your costume?”
I held up a pair of sweatpants and a vest. “I have no freaking clue.”
“Maybe you could be a pirate,” she said.
A pirate? I considered the pieces of clothing I had. “That could work, actually. Thanks for the tip.”
She considered the floor. “So, um, Lilith took you to school today.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Do you like Lilith?”
“Sure, she’s nice.” I set the sweatpants and vest down on the bed.
“No, I meant, like do you like like her?”
I studied the costume pieces as if they were really interesting. “Does it matter if I do?”
“I guess not. As long as you’re both happy.”
I looked at her. “You’re happy with Toby, right?”
She nodded. “Very happy.”
“Good,” I said. “Everybody’s happy.”
“Zaza,” called a disembodied voice from somewhere else in the house, “Toby’s here.”
She didn’t break our gaze. She stepped closer to me. I took a step closer to her. I reached for her, unsure of whether I’d actually have the guts to touch her or not.
But then she looked away. “I guess I should go.”
To Toby? I hated that idea. But I just nodded. “Yeah, I guess so.”
The dance was even more boring than I’d imagined. And, unfortunately, due to my super strange interaction with Azazel, I’d forgotten to bring a book along. So instead, I sat at a table in the darkness of the decorated gym, watching everyone else at the dance. No one talked to me. As I’d predicted, I spent most of the time watching Azazel and Toby dance. The guy was wearing this totally creepy Michael Myers costume, and I couldn’t understand why she kept looking up at him with adoring eyes the whole time. What did she see in that guy anyway? Sure, he was blonde and tall and handsome, but he was royally stupid and small minded. I couldn’t let them have sex tonight. I had to get Azazel alone at some point. I had to tell her how I felt about her.
Bad idea, I told myself. Leave her alone. It’s better if you leave her alone. Maybe you should see what Lilith is doing.
Lilith? Well, she had seemed into me earlier today, I guessed. And whenever I thought about Azazel, I did get this feeling of foreboding, as though something was telling me to stay away from her. I craned my neck to look around for Lilith, when someone thrust his fists down on the table in front of me. “Hey, ass wipe.”
I looked up. Great. Eric Nelson, the guy who I’d beaten up at the Nelson farm party. He seemed pissed off. “Hi, Eric. Enjoying the dance?”
“Listen, I’m ready, anytime, anywhere. Just say the word, dumbfuck.”
He wanted a rematch, huh? Wonderful. I got up from the table, wondering if I shouldn’t simply pound him here and be done with it, when someone wedged herself between the two of us.
All I could see was red hair. Lilith. She pushed Eric on the chest. “Come on, Eric. This is a dance, you know. Can’t you let it go until some other time?”
“Let me at him, Lilith,” Eric said, sounding like a cartoon character. His eyes were all big and his face was red too.
Lilith rolled her eyes. “Not even.” She reached back for my hand. “Let’s go get some punch, Jason.” She dragged me away from Eric. She dragged me out of the gym, past the punch bowl in the cafeteria, and out into the parking lot.
“Lilith,” I said, “I can’t leave the dance. Thanks for taking care of Eric and all, but—”
She didn’t stop moving. “No, you have to leave the dance. It’s really hard to explain, but if you stick around, then people are going to try to kill you.”
What? “Kill me?” I planted my feet and refused to move.
Since she was still holding onto me, she stopped too. She swung around to face me. “I don’t have time to explain. We just have to get the hell out of here.”
I gestured to the ankle monitor. Why didn’t anyone except me remember this thing?
“We can get that off,” she said. “I’ve got something in the car.”
“If I take it off, it sends a message to the police.”
“So, big deal. People are trying to kill you. The police are not a big issue right now. Besides the police are part of the group of people who want to kill you anyway.”
This was ridiculously weird. I glanced back at the school. “Does this have anything to do with that pentagram I saw in your car today?”
“You catch on quick,” she said. “Now come with me to my car, and let’s go.”
Something about that seemed familiar. This didn’t seem quite right, but I had some kind of sense that something bad was going to happen at this dance. It involved Azazel. Maybe it was tied up in my whole sense of foreboding. Maybe I should go with Lilith. “What about Azazel?”
“Would forget about Azazel for once? She’s fine. She’s the Vessel. Are you coming?”
Maybe I should. “Okay.”
Lilith used an old twirling baton she had in her backseat to get the ankle bracelet off. (When I looked confused about why there was a baton in her car, she said, “I was a kid once.”) Then she stuck the ankle bracelet under the back wheel of her car. We got inside the car and ran over the ankle monitor twice. Then we sped out of the school parking lot.
Once on Route 50, Lilith immediately turned onto a back road, explaining we had to keep out of sight in case anyone was looking for us already.
I insisted, now that we’d left the dance, that she explain to me what the hell was going on.
She sighed. As she drove, she gestured with one hand. “It’s totally weird. The whole town is full of Satanists. They think you’re the worst thing since Hitler, and they think you need to die.”
“So why haven’t they killed me already?” I probably could have asked a lot of other questions too. I mean, none of that really sounded as though it made sense. Of course, I was the Rising Sun, so maybe I was simply used to hearing unbelievable things.
“Oh, it’s like this big, complicated ritual thing. They’ve got to imbue Azazel with the spirit of a demon, and—”
“She has to have sex with Toby,” I said. I knew this somehow. I remembered. “We have to go back for her. I can’t leave her with those crazy people.”
“Those crazy people want to kill you,” said Lilith, “so I don’t think so. Besides, she wants to have sex with Toby. She’s really excited about it. She’s wanted to have sex with Toby for ages now.”
I shook my head. “No, not like that.”
“Don’t worry about it. When they find out you’re gone, it’ll put a wrench in everything. They won’t be able to do anything. Nothing’s going to happen to her. And seriously, can we not talk about her for like five seconds, ever?”
I looked out the window of the car into the darkness. I could barely make out the branches of trees against the blue-black sky. “She’s important.”
Lilith snorted. “Yeah, so everyone has been telling me. For years. I had to give up my boyfriend so he could date her and keep her pure for the ritual. I had to be her best friend and keep her in the dark about everything so she’d be prepared to accept the spirit of Azazel. She’s special, everyone said. She’s the Vessel. Screw that.”
“I have this weird feeling that things aren’t going the way they’re supposed to,” I said. “As if I’ve done all this before, but last time, I did it differently. And this time, everything’s screwed up.”
“That’s insane,” said Lilith. “Clearly, this is the best way for things to go down. You don’t get killed. Azazel doesn’t have to become a demon. It’s all good.”
Maybe what she was saying made sense. Maybe if I could get out of Bramford and not involve Azazel in any of this, it would be better for her. I didn’t want to hurt her. I knew that. And it wasn’t as if being around me was ever safe or anything like that. I took a deep breath. “Okay, maybe you’re right. We should just get out of here.”
“Good, you’re finally talking sense. We’ve got to leave Bramford. Get as far away from here as possible.”
Of course we did. Something inside me ached at the thought of leaving Azazel behind, but there was no reason to get her tangled up in my screwed-up life. Here, she had her family. She’d be okay. “Did you bring any money?”
“I’ve got some cash, but not a lot.”
“Enough for a few tanks of gas?” I asked.
“Great. I’ve got a contact in New York. If we can get there, I can get some untraceable credit cards. We’ll be set for a while anyway. And I guess since you rescued me, you’re coming along.”
“Hell, yes, I am.”
This book is being posted on Tuesdays and Thursdays beginning 1/17/2012. To access other chapters, check out the Onset Posts Archive, here.