~joan~

“You can’t just walk out on a house gathering,” Lori said, her arms folded over her chest. I’d just walked into the A-frame. It was mid-morning, and Lori had flour all over her arms. There were a few white spots on her face as well. Apparently, she’d been making bread. “Where were you anyway?”

Jason eased into through the doorway behind me. “It’s okay, Lori,” he said. “She was with me.”

Lori looked stricken. She dropped her arms, and her mouth opened.

“Joan was feeling conflicted about her role here,” Jason continued, his voice soothing and deep. “I was able to show her that she really did belong here.”

“Oh,” said Lori.

“I’m sorry, Lori,” I said. “I was confused.” I remembered that I’d been feeling like leaving Jasontown last night, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why. I couldn’t imagine not feeling perfectly at peace here. With Jason. Jason was amazing.

Jason took my hand and pulled me in close to him. Touching my face, he said, “It’s okay. Just go get your things like we talked about.”

I really didn’t have any “things,” but I had been given a few articles of clothing by the other girls at the A-frame. In particular, I had a white headscarf that marked me as one of the concubines. Apparently, during community gatherings all the girls from the A-frame wore them. It helped to set them apart and to show the men in the community that they were off limits. Jason was very anxious that I get it. And if it made him happy, I’d get it. I’d do anything to make him happy. “Okay,” I said, smiling at him.

He kissed my forehead and started to release me. Then he pulled me against him again and kissed my mouth. “Hurry,” he whispered.

I ran for the steps to my bedroom. In the distance, I could hear Lori saying, “Why does she need her things?”

“She’s going to stay with me from now on,” Jason replied.

I couldn’t believe it. Jason was perfect and wonderful. Last night, we’d made love over and over again, every time more amazing than the time before. And when we’d woken up this morning, Jason had told me he never wanted me out of his sight. He said I had to stay with him from now on. I was ecstatic. I couldn’t imagine anything better. Being with Jason was pure bliss. And I didn’t want to be away from him either.

Tessa was in our bedroom at the top of the house, making her bed. She looked up when I came in. “Oh, thank goodness you’re okay!” She bounded over to me and gave me a hug.

I hugged her back. “Of course I’m okay,” I said. “I’ve been with Jason.”

Her eyes widened. “All night?”

I nodded, grinning at the memory of it.

“Wow,” Tessa breathed.

I opened the trunk at the foot of my bed and took out the few articles of clothing I had. “I’m going to go stay with him from now on.” I turned to Tessa. I was going to miss her. “I’m sorry we won’t be in the same room anymore.”

“You’re staying with Jason?” she asked. “I knew you were close to him.”

She was right, I guessed. “Yeah. We are close. Now.” It was like this whirlwind. I couldn’t believe everything was moving so quickly. But it was good that it was. I was happy.

“So, then, you can tell him about the people I overheard who might be spies.”

I blinked. I did remember that now. Before, I seemed to remember that I’d thought that Tessa was nuts. But now, I realized that she was right to be concerned. “He’s downstairs waiting for me. Why don’t you come down now and tell him yourself?”

“Really? You think he’ll talk to me?”

“Of course he’ll talk to you. He’s Jason. He cares about everyone who lives in Jasontown. And I’m sure he’d want to know about your concerns.”

Tessa took a nervous breath. “Do I look okay?”

I smiled. “You look fine.”

“Oh my God. I can’t believe I’m going to get to speak to him.”

I grabbed her hand. “Just come on already.”

We trooped down the stairs, just in time to hear the end of what Lori was saying to Jason. “…just that you always said that you would be distracted from the work you were trying to do here if there were women too close to you.”

Tessa and I emerged on the lower level. Lori was twisting her hands in front of her body. She looked conflicted and upset. I wanted to hug her. With Jason around, there was no reason to feel that way.

Jason opened his arms to her and enfolded her in them. He spoke softly in her ear. I couldn’t hear what he said. But when they broke away from each other, Lori was beaming. I felt relieved. Jason was good at that. Setting everything right. Lori turned to Tessa and me. She hugged Tessa first, and then hugged me. She whispered in my ear, “I’m happy you’ve come to us. Your presence is a blessing.”

I pulled back. “No,” I said. “This community is a blessing to me.” I felt a swelling of gratefulness to Jason and all the people here. This place was so welcoming, so wonderful.

I took Tessa’s hand and pulled her forward. “Tessa has something to tell you, Jason.”

Tessa looked a little embarrassed, but Jason prompted her reassuringly. She told him about what she’d seen. The people complaining about not having enough food.

Jason listened gravely, his face looking more and more serious. “Thank you for telling me, Tessa. This kind of attitude is a danger to all of us here at Jasontown. I promise you that I will deal with this.” He reached for me, and then his arm was around me and I felt like I was drowning in a wave of happiness. I smiled at him, and he led me away. I just knew that everything was going to be okay now.

***

~kieran~

I could see the sun rising through the broken windows in the building. I hadn’t slept at all last night, but thank goodness Chance had. He’d slept through all of it. The last thing I needed was a cranky baby. We were surrounded by tall men with guns. They didn’t hold them, but they displayed them in their holsters, which jutted out against their hips. If I so much as moved a way they didn’t like, their hands tensed towards their guns. They didn’t like that I was here. They hadn’t been particularly forthcoming with their reasons, and they’d made it clear they weren’t going to answer questions. But they told me that everything would be okay as long as I didn’t cause any trouble.

They were guarding Chance and me. They’d contacted someone, some kind of leader or governor, and we were waiting for him to show up. Even though this was Maryland, the men had the kind of Appalachian swagger that made me feel alien and slightly frightened, almost as if I’d wandered into Deliverance. They sported shaggy beards that covered their cheeks and necks. They wore dirty white t-shirts and faded jeans. They spoke with an accent that Azazel’s memories recognized as being typical of this part of the world.

Thinking about Azazel was something I was trying not to do. It made me feel like some kind of failure at manliness. It was odd, but whenever I’d been with Azazel, I’d never noticed how much of a fucking pussy I actually was. Azazel was the tough one. She was the one who knew how to shoot. She was the one who could defend herself. I hadn’t realized how much I’d depended on her. And I hadn’t realized how much more of a “man” Jason was. Compared to Jason, I was a six-year-old girl. I couldn’t protect anyone. In fact, the best thing I could think to do right now was to cooperate with these bastards so they didn’t hurt my kid. Well. Jason’s kid. That’s who I was trying to protect. And I was doing a piss poor job of it too. Because I was scared and stupid and weak. I kind of hated myself, with my politeness, my attempts to calm them, my near whiny pleading. Now that I could see us both with Azazel’s memories, I couldn’t figure out why the hell she’d ever stayed with me, when Jason had been such a badass.

The worst thing was realizing that my weakness might have been part of the whole allure. Azazel was afraid of surrendering her feelings to anyone, and I was such a wuss head that there was no way I could have scared her or hurt her. Or hurt anyone. I was so freaking safe. And that fact could very well get me killed. Or Chance. Of course, I didn’t guess it really mattered, considering if I died, I couldn’t take care of Chance anymore.

“Won’t be long now,” said one of the men in a gruff voice. In growing light, their faces were in shadow, and they loomed over me like Vikings or Sasquatches. “He’ll be here soon.”

I didn’t know who this guy they were talking about was. I huddled on my sleeping bag, Chance in my arms, his eyes closed and his tiny mouth parted. Staring down at him, I felt so angry at my helplessness. “Who are we waiting for, anyway?” I said.

“You’ll see,” said another of the men. “Once he gets here, he’ll get you sorted out. Figure out what you’re doing here, whether or not you’re a threat.”

“You’ve got OF written all over you,” another sneered. “With your fancy car and your clothes and you’re—”

“Shut up, Ganthor,” the first man said.

They didn’t want to give that away, then. And they weren’t in league with the OF. That was a good sign, I thought. I wondered if I should tell him that I had escaped from the OF. That we had a common enemy. Would that make them more likely to stop threatening me? One thing was for sure. I didn’t think I wanted to meet this leader guy. Heck, I didn’t want to be stuck here surrounded by armed men. What would Azazel do? If she were here, she’d undoubtedly have a gun—

No, screw that. More and more, Azazel hadn’t seen the need for tools like guns. Not when she had the power to control people’s minds. Of course, she didn’t even have that power anymore.

I had it.

Yeah. Okay, so not only was I pussy, I was also a complete and total idiot. I had the power to control people’s minds, and I’d let these guys hold me prisoner all night. How could I have been so completely and utterly stupid?

I reached inside myself and unleashed the power, uncapping it and letting it fizz into my head and limbs. It surged through me. Suddenly, I felt very strong and very powerful. Jason? Ha. I was in control of the power of complete destruction.

I wanted it to be quick and simple. I wanted them all to just pull their guns out of their holsters, pop them up under their chins, and pull the trigger. One movement. All gone. Two seconds.

But the power had other ideas, once set free. It settled into my body, stretching out from my fingers and probing the men’s minds. The voice rasped in my head, Slow and painful. Yes.

So it took its time. It had them shoot off their hands, shoot the kneecaps off the other men, blow off pieces of their toes, their ears. The men howled and cringed in pain. They grunted and yelled in rage. To match their noises, Little Chance woke up and began shrieking. But when it was done doing what it had to do, it curled up back deep inside me like a satisfied cat. I recapped the power, tucking it safely away. And I used baby wipes to wipe all the blood off Chance’s face, even while his screams pierced my ears.

***

~joan~

Jason called a special meeting of the entire community down by the stage. It happened in the afternoon, when the sun was sweltering down on us. More people had shown up since I had, and I looked over my shoulder at a sea of faces. All of the girls from the A-frame sat together in front of the stage, Indian style on the ground, our white headscarves occasionally fluttering in the scant breeze. The rest of the community stood behind us as Jason took the stage, flanked by a few of his guards. The screens that projected Jason’s face flickered to life, but in the glare of the sun, I wasn’t sure anyone could actually see them.

Earlier, after Tessa had told him about the men who were dissatisfied with their food rations, he’d been very upset about it. He’d talked to me about things I didn’t really understand as if I should understand them. He’d told me something about power and influence, and about how some people took to it better than others, and how some of them seemed to build up a barrier against it. “It’s like a callous,” he’d muttered. There wasn’t anything he knew to do about those kinds of people. The kinds who couldn’t fully appreciate the beautiful world he’d created here in Jasontown. He thought those people were corruptible, that they could be turned against him.

He’d paced, stroking his beard. His eyes earnest, he’d said to me, “I have to protect the community. What I’ve built here. Getting rid of them is the right thing to do, isn’t it?”

I hadn’t known what to tell him. I trusted him completely. I told him to trust his judgment. Why was he asking me for advice anyway? I didn’t know anything. It had been unnerving, seeing him look so confused and looking to me for guidance. I felt unprepared and incapable of helping him. I also felt sad for him. His presence washed away all our confusion and pain, but he had to carry that inside himself. He sacrificed to make us happy, carried all our worries himself. It made me admire him even more. He was such an amazing man.

On the stage, Jason was telling the crowd that a threat to the safety of Jasontown had been uncovered. He said that the vigilance of Tessa had brought it to his attention. Though she was a new member of our extended family, she had proved herself valuable. He had her stand up and the crowd gave her a rousing round of applause. Tessa’s cheeks turned bright pink, but she was happy. I could tell.

Then Jason called the names of two men and asked them to come to the stage. After a long pause, filled with hushed murmuring, the two men made their way up front. They were about my age. They looked young, but they did look skinny. I felt a pang for them. Something inside me sympathized with them. They looked so pathetic and innocent. But when I looked at Jason, the feeling passed. Certainty and rightness filled me. These men were betraying Jasontown. These men could not be allowed to pollute the community for any longer.

“Everything here,” Jason said from the stage, “hinges on positivity. Negative thoughts corrupt us all, and leave us vulnerable to the influence of others. Especially forces from outside, from the OF. These men have proved that they cannot display positive energy, and their complaints are poisoning us from the inside.” He paused. “When a plant has been infected, we must prune away the dying leaves and branches to save the whole organism. We must do the same here.” He held out his arms to the crowd. “I will not make the decisions for you, my people. We govern ourselves here. There is no power that forces us to bend to its will. So you must tell me what I should do with these men. These men who have brought their poisonous thoughts into our midst. What should we do with them?”

There was an incomprehensible roar from the crowd.

“Should we allow them to live in our community anymore?”

The roar came again, an unmistakable no.

Jason sucked air in through his nose. The sound was audible in the microphone. “Should we,” he asked in softer voice, “allow them to live at all?”

The crowd roared again, saying no once more.

Jason stepped back from the microphone, his head bowed. He paused there a moment and then stepped back up. When he spoke again, his voice was sad, but firm. He addressed the two men. “The community has spoken. For your poisonous energy, which you have brought among us, you will be executed.” He nodded to his guards.

The men’s faces had a wild look on them, something related to hunger. They looked ready to bolt in either direction, but they didn’t have a chance. Jason’s men were quick and efficient. Two shots, ringing out almost simultaneously, and the two men crumpled to the ground.

Someone gasped. It must have been me, because Lori, who was sitting in front of me, reached back and squeezed my hand.

“Does this kind of thing happen often around here?” I whispered to her.

But before she could answer, Jason was speaking again. “Justice for the community has been served. Punishment has been carried out. As deeply as it has pained us, we have done what was necessary for the survival of Jasontown. We will do it again, should another threat arise.” Jason raised his arms over his head. I felt a surge of pride. Our community was strong. Jason took care of us. Together, we were a fortress against negativity. “Go now. Mourn their deaths. Mourn the loss of their integrity. Mourn. But remember that we have done what we had to, and that the good of all has been served.”

The crowd burst into raucous applause, and I joined them, adding my own cheers to the noise. Jason walked off stage. The guards swarmed over the bodies of the men. I peered over the heads of the other concubines, trying to see more closely.

Lori tugged on my hand, and I turned to her. “Take a walk with me?” she asked, smiling.

I nodded. Of course I’d walk with Lori. We got up and left the stage, wandering down towards the river. We walked along the bank, the sounds of chirping insects all around us.

Lori gave me a conspiratorial grin. “I didn’t want to talk to you around the other girls. I thought it would be a little strange for them. Many of them don’t understand. Even though they’ve been selected to be Jason’s companions, many of them have never been intimate with him. I assume you have?”

Whoa. She was asking me if I’d had sex with Jason, wasn’t she? “Last night,” I said. “There was some…intimacy.” I felt shy, like it was none of Lori’s business. But I supposed that we’d both been with the same man, so there was no reason to be shy about it.

“I thought so,” she said. She stopped walking and grasped a strand of long grass growing by the side of the river. “To be honest with you, before you came, I was the one who bore the bulk of Jason’s, well, needs.” She yanked on the grass, pulling it up by the roots. “I’ve always felt privileged to serve him and the community in the way that I’ve been able to, but I have to say that I’m relieved that you’re here.”

“Relieved?”

She twisted the piece of grass around her fingers, not looking at me. “I suppose earlier, I might have given a different impression. I suppose I felt like I’d been supplanted by you. Like you’d filled a spot in Jason’s affections that had been mine. But when he spoke to me, I realized nothing could be further from the truth. That Jason still cared as deeply for me as he did for everyone in the community. I was allowing individualist thinking to cloud my thoughts.”

I nodded, even though she wasn’t looking at me. “That’s so hard, though, Lori. Before we were here in this community, we all focused on ourselves as individuals. Not on the group.” Between bouts of lovemaking last night, Jason and I had talked about this. His vision for Jasontown—a place where everyone was truly equal. Part of equality was surrendering oneself to the group, making decisions for the good of the community instead of just for one’s own good. It was a difficult transition to make. I could see that. But it was an important one. “I mean, we all struggle with that. That’s what I was struggling with last night at the house gathering when I ran off.”

She looked up at me, smiling. “Thank you for that affirmation. I really needed to hear that.” She tossed the piece of grass aside. “Still, I wanted to talk to you, because I know that being so close to Jason, and yielding to his…desires can be a heavy burden that is difficult to bear.”

Burden? I made a confused face.

Lori sighed. “Jason is a very important and powerful man. He isn’t like the rest of us, and he’s put himself under so much pressure for the community. For everyone. He handles it so gracefully most of the time, but in his proclivities, he sometimes lets go to a great degree.”

“What are you saying?” I said. I was completely confused.

“I don’t know what your experience with him last night was like,” she said. “Sometimes he can be very sweet. Other times, he’s…more forceful.”

I furrowed my brow. “What happened between Jason and me last night was…” What? A spiritual melding of souls and bodies? It was my turn to look away from Lori. Maybe it had felt like that to me, but that wasn’t the case. If it were the case, Jason wouldn’t still have a house full of concubines right across the street. I was one of many. I needed to remember that.

Lori reached for my hands. She looked into my eyes. “I want you to know that I don’t mean this in a negative way at all. Jason is the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me. And I was happy to wear the bruises that he sometimes gave me in order to serve the community. It was my role.”

I pulled my hands away from hers. “Bruises?”

She swallowed. “You can’t judge Jason the way you would an ordinary man. You’ll never meet a man like him again. He’s…he’s enlarged my mind.”

I nodded. I knew what she meant. Jason had changed the way I thought and felt too, and only in a very short time.

“I had no one, you see,” she said. “I couldn’t tell anyone what he did. If he…if he ever hurts you, you’ll have me. Okay?”

I shook my head. The idea was ridiculous. “He wouldn’t hurt me.”

“I thought that too,” she said.

An idea formed in my mind. A ridiculous idea. One that made no sense, but still felt true. It seemed like something I knew deep in the fiber of my being. Jason wouldn’t hurt me. Other girls, other people, yes. But me? Never. But hadn’t I just gotten through telling myself to stop thinking that I was special to Jason? I wasn’t. I was only another one of his concubines. I needed to understand my place. I kept shaking my head at Lori. “I can’t imagine him being…”

She shrugged. “Sometimes, he’s different. He gets…” She grabbed my hands again. “Maybe he’s better now. Maybe you make him better. He said you would. He said you’d been sent to him to heal him. I hope he never does anything to you. I really hope that.”

I made Jason better? I didn’t think so. It was the other way around. Jason made me better. Whole. Happy. Content. He was larger than life. I was nothing.

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.