I froze, horrified. Jason grinned at me, an awful grin. And then he walked past me, following his men back into the camp. Now that the people had cleared out, I could see the damage I’d caused. There were bodies lying on the ground. Those men were dead, not because of a fight with the people they’d come to fight, but because I’d twisted their brains and forced them to turn on each other. Jason had stopped them from all killing each other, but he hadn’t been able to stop everything I’d done.
I stumbled forward, running to the first man I saw. I knelt next to him. His eyes were wide open. Blood stained his slack lips, twisted in an expression of agony. I threw myself to my feet and ran to the next man. He was dead too, lying face down on the ground. His blood spilled out of him, turning the grass crimson. There was a man beside him, his neck twisted unnaturally. No, on closer look, he was hardly a man. He couldn’t have been more than fifteen years old. The sparse blonde hairs on his upper lip gave his youth away. I rushed from one body to the next, hoping to find someone alive, someone I could save, but they were all dead. Dead bodies. Dead, because I was jealous of Jason’s new girlfriend.
What kind of sick monster was I, anyway?
I stood in the middle of the empty battlefield, my shaking hands pressed to my lips. What had I done? I hadn’t wanted to kill anyone else. I hated hurting people. Why hadn’t I had one moment of regret, one second to consider these men’s lives while I was toying with them? I let out a little gasp. I couldn’t handle this.
I stumbled past Hallam, Marlena, Kieran, and the rest of them. I walked all the way back to the church. Kieran had parked the Subaru in front again, where it had been before. I got inside. No keys. Darn it. I sat back against the driver’s seat, pulling the door shut after me.
What had I done?
I sat in the car, turning it over and over in my head, the way you do when you can’t shake a horrible thought. I tried to make excuses for myself. I was angry. I wasn’t thinking clearly. If I hadn’t done what I’d done, then Jason’s people would have hurt Hallam. But I knew that I hadn’t done it for them. Not really. I’d done it only because I was angry at Jason. I’d used those people as my weapon against him. That wasn’t the right thing to do. That was clearly the wrong thing to do. Why did I have this kind of power when I was so clearly unable to use it responsibly?
The things I could do…
I could rule the world. Everyone would fear me, because I could make them do things they didn’t want to do. And no one would be able to stop me.
I realized it then. It cut through me like ice, chilling me. The voice. I hadn’t heard the voice once today.
Did that mean that I was the source of its perverse orders and visions, not the magic itself? Did it mean that all the horror I caused came directly from my own brain? I shuddered.
The worst thing was that I could have gotten that grimoire, and I could have completely neutralized myself as a threat. But I’d been distracted by my own anger and now the damage was done.
It didn’t take long for the others to get back to the church.
Kieran noticed me in the car and came around to the passenger side. He tried the door. I’d locked it, so he just tugged at it.
“Go away,” I told him.
He pounded on the window. “Let me in.”
Kieran sighed heavily. Hallam and Marlena peered in at me.
“What do you suppose she’s upset about?” Hallam wanted to know. “She was fabulous. Without her, we would have been slaughtered.”
“Let me talk to her,” Kieran said.
Forget it. I wasn’t talking to anyone.
After a little more conversation, Hallam and Marlena went inside, leaving me with Kieran. He stood outside the car. “I’m not leaving,” he said. “Not until you talk to me.”
I scrunched down in the seat. I did not want to talk to Kieran. Why couldn’t everyone just leave me alone?
Kieran pulled the keys to the Subaru out of his pocket with flourish. Great. He opened the passenger door and got in the car next to me.
“I don’t want to talk,” I said.
“You’re mad at yourself because of using magic, right?”
“Did you see all those people who were dead, just lying on the ground there? I did that. I made them shoot each other.”
“They were going to shoot us.”
“Whenever I do magic, it always leads to destruction and death,” I said. “I’m sick of it. I’m sick of hurting people. I don’t want anyone else to die because of me.”
“Azazel, stop blaming yourself. You did what you had to do,” he said.
“I didn’t have to do that,” I said.
“They were like that mob in Virginia. You stopped them from hurting anyone.”
I flashed on the bodies in the blowing snow, their blood freezing on the parking lot. So many dead men. I didn’t want to think about it anymore. I banged my hands against the steering wheel. “I wish you’d just go away.”
“I know you do. And I will, if you really want to be alone. But first, tell me why you think your power is so horrible.”
I sighed. “It’s just always done horrible things,” I said.
“I think it’s a matter of perspective,” said Kieran. “It’s horrible to some people, good for others.”
“Right,” I said. “So what was so great about my baby niece dying then? From what perspective was that a good thing?”
He furrowed his brow. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Do you want to tell me about it?”
I didn’t. Not really. But maybe if I told him, he’d understand. Maybe he’d let it go and I wouldn’t have to explain myself over and over again. Maybe he’d be on my side. “Right after the thing where all the Sons died,” I began, “Jason, me, Marlena, Hallam, and my brother and his girlfriend all moved into my grandmother’s house. She was dead, and we inherited the house and her money. It was a big enough house for all of us, and it was nice. We were happy there. My brother’s girlfriend, Mina, had a baby. A beautiful little girl named Jenna. I loved her more than I’ve ever loved another being, not even Jason. She was so helpless and perfect and wonderful.
“But,” I continued, “she cried a lot.”
“Babies do that, or so I understand,” said Kieran.
“Right,” I said. “None of us thought anything of it. I don’t know if anyone would have, though, if anyone had ever really heard her cry for very long. I used my magic a lot to…quiet her down. Just to make her calm. Because, I don’t know, I guess I just thought she was more pleasant that way. And it was easier for everyone not to have to deal with a screaming baby.
“But we didn’t know that Jenna was crying so much because she was dying. She was very, very sick, and we couldn’t tell. She was trying to tell us, but I made her shut up. So, she died, and if I’d never used that fucking magic on her, she wouldn’t have.”
I slammed my hands against the steering wheel of the car again, then I gripped it. I wished I could shake the car apart. No matter what anyone said, there was no way I could forgive myself for what I’d done. I’d killed my baby niece. It just made it worse that no one really blamed me. Everyone had forgiven me. Everyone said it wasn’t my fault. Even Mina, before she ran off. She said she didn’t blame me. It was no one’s fault.
“I know how you feel,” said Kieran.
I turned to him sharply. That wasn’t what I’d expected him to say. I’d expected more of the same ridiculous drivel, that it wasn’t really my fault.
“I should have saved my family,” said Kieran, “and I didn’t.”
I bit my lip. Neither of us said anything to each other for a few minutes. I just reached over and took Kieran’s hand. He squeezed it. We sat in the car, holding hands. And, somehow, that was better than any reassuring words that anyone had ever tried to tell me before.
I spoke to Hallam about the fact that Jason had been using magic that afternoon. I told him that I could feel that our powers were different—mine was destructive and Jason’s was cohesive. The powers had different textures. While Hallam was concerned about the fact that Jason had the ability to influence a large group of people’s minds, just like I did, he dismissed the idea that our powers were opposite or that my power was evil, like I thought it was. I didn’t argue too much with him, because I was beginning to wonder if he was right. Maybe my power wasn’t evil. Maybe I was just evil.
Hallam said I had to get over it, because he and his people needed to rely on my magic. I didn’t like this. I didn’t like killing people or hurting people. After a brief discussion, Hallam convinced me to talk to Lily, who was supposed to convince me that my powers weren’t evil.
Lily and I met in the radio room. She perched on a chair elegantly. She was probably somewhere in her early forties, but she was a wiry woman. I could tell she was strong and in shape.
I slouched in my own chair, not really interested in anything she was going to tell me. I’d heard this business from the OF. Power comes from the earth, and everything on the planet is part of the same cycle, therefore nothing could really be all that bad, could it? Stupid.
Sure enough, she started in with natural analogies right away. “Do you know anything about redwood pine cones?”
What did this have to do with anything? I glared at her. I was starting to feel a little sick to my stomach. Had I eaten anything today? “No, I don’t know anything about pine cones.”
“Redwood pine cones will not release their seeds if they go through a fire. Fire is destructive, you see, but it brings about regeneration.”
I rolled my eyes. “You’re saying that destruction isn’t always bad.”
“Precisely. It is, perhaps, a matter of perspective.”
“Try to explain to me a perspective where it’s better for people to be dead.”
“Well…” She stood up and walked over to the radio. “If they were trying to kill you, then the threat to you is neutralized.”
That wasn’t a good enough reason. “I don’t like it,” I said. “Ever since I was seventeen years old, I’ve had to kill people. I don’t want to do it anymore. There’s got to be a way where I don’t have to do it.”
Lily picked up a pencil, which was sitting next to the radio, along with a pad of paper. It was for taking notes on orders. She began to gesture with the pencil while she talked. “I don’t think anyone enjoys killing people. I certainly don’t. But like you, I’ve been forced to live a life of violence.”
“Because of the solar flare.”
“Because of who I am and what I choose to do. I work for the OF, and I have always used my abilities to protect others. Protection means neutralizing threats. That’s the way things are. I believe that because of what I do, others are able to live lives without violence. It’s a sacrifice I make for others.”
Right. Okay. Sure. But I’d made all my sacrifices for the sake of Jason, and now he wasn’t worth sacrificing for. Now, I wasn’t sure why I was doing any of this. Did I even really care about other people? I didn’t want them to die, so that must mean something.
“Your connection with Jason makes you the only person who can fight him effectively,” said Lily, putting down the pencil. “But your anger towards him rules you. It makes you erratic. It makes you doubt yourself. You need to forgive Jason.”
I snorted. Now I got up. I wasn’t listening to this. I headed for the door.
Lily intercepted me. “Why does the mere thought of forgiving Jason make you run for the door?”
I tried to duck around her, but she grasped my arm. “I can’t forgive him. He doesn’t deserve it.”
“We forgive for ourselves, not for others.”
“If I forgive him, it makes everything okay.”
“No. If you forgive him, it means you accept that he is the way he is, and that you don’t allow his actions to wound you anymore.”
I knitted my eyebrows together. “That’s not a way I’ve heard forgiveness described before.”
She released my arm. “It’s a good definition, I think.” She smiled at me. “Azazel, tell me why you fight Jason?”
I was taken aback. I didn’t know if I’d ever thought about it before. “Because he’s keeping us from going west,” I said finally. “I mean, that’s why we’re here.”
“You think it’s important to get west?” she asked.
Of course I did. “We need to get help. We need to restore power. Yes, I think it’s important.” My stomach was still feeling unsettled. I kind of wanted to get out of there, and not just because she was making me uncomfortable with her questions.
“So,” she said, “you do believe what we are doing matters?”
Was she deaf? “Yes.”
“We’re not just inconsequential flies, easily brushed aside?”
Flies? Like my dreams. “What did you say?”
“I mean, what we do matters, that’s all. If you think that, then you have to ask yourself how far you’re willing to go to make sure what matters happens. Sometimes we have to do things we find distasteful or uncomfortable in order to accomplish important things.”
“The end justifies the means,” I muttered. Agh. I was going to throw up. I grimaced. “Um, hold on, I have to get out of here for a second.”
I tore out of the door to the radio room, through the hallway, and out the backdoor. Bile was rising in my throat. Lily was yelling after me to come back, but I couldn’t.
Kieran was in the yard. He looked up as I streaked out the door. “Azazel?”
I got as far as I could outside before I couldn’t keep it back anymore. I threw up all over the lawn. Gross.
Kieran wandered closer, patting my back. “Morning sickness?” he asked.
Marlena appeared at the back door to the church. She looked horrified. “What did you say?”
I wiped my mouth with my hand. Kieran tried to put his arm around me, but I shoved him off. Marlena descended the stairs slowly. She headed over to us, shaking her head. “What did you say?” she repeated.
“Uh…” said Kieran, “I asked her if it was morning sickness.”
“Why would you think that?” asked Marlena. “I mean, don’t you think it would be a little soon after last night?”
This was embarrassing. “We, um, before we came here, there was an incident,” I said.
Marlena raised her eyebrows. “I see.” She sounded annoyed.
“It’s going to be okay,” said Kieran.
Marlena crossed her arms over her chest. “Oh, you think so?”
Kieran and I exchanged a sheepish look.
“Walk with me,” Marlena ordered.
We did. The three of us walked away from the church, along the road. I was beginning to feel like I’d spent too much time having serious conversations on this road. There needed to be a different “serious conversation” spot. On second thought, maybe it would be cool if there was no more need for “serious conversations.” Fat chance of that happening, with everyone trying to make me use magic, and Jason trying to keep us from going west, and Kieran and I having a non-relationship.
“How long have you known?” asked Marlena.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m a week late, and I threw up this morning. I don’t think it’s necessarily conclusive. I mean, Mina didn’t have morning sickness until way later than a week.”
“Everyone’s different,” said Marlena. “But I don’t really know, myself. I’ve never been pregnant.” She threw her hands up in the air and talked to the sky, “Ridiculous. Hallam and I are in our late twenties and everyone else starts having babies. This is what happens from being responsible, is it?”
Neither Kieran nor I said anything.
“You shouldn’t have kept this from us,” said Marlena.
“But I’m not even sure yet,” I said. “I’ve been looking all over for a pregnancy test, but I haven’t been able to find one.”
“Azazel and I are working through this on our own,” said Kieran. “It’s kind of complicated, but I don’t think it’s anyone else’s business.”
“Not our business?” Marlena couldn’t believe him. “We’re sending a pregnant woman on dangerous missions, places where bullets are flying at her. We can’t do that. No, Azazel, you’re going to have to go back to D.C., now.”
“I thought we needed her magic,” said Kieran.
Marlena covered her face with her hands.
“Look,” said Kieran, “I’m looking out for her. And she’s tough. She can take care of herself. It will be okay.”
Marlena shook her head. “No, if something happened to that baby, it would be a disaster.”
“Hey,” I said, “maybe there’s not a baby, huh?”
“But what if there is?” asked Marlena.
“Then we’ll deal with it,” said Kieran. “We can do that.”
“You’re going to send her out to fight against Jason when she’s nine months pregnant?” said Marlena.
“You think we’re going to be here for nine months?” I said. God, I hoped not. All told, this whole pregnancy thing just sounded like a huge pain in the ass. Why me?
“Well, maybe not,” said Marlena, “but you definitely won’t be coming west with us if you’re pregnant.”
“I wasn’t planning on it,” I said. “You guys are the scouting team. I work in suppression of riots, or did you forget?”
“This is a disaster,” said Marlena.
“Tell me about it,” I said.
“It’s not a disaster,” said Kieran. “It’s good. It’s beautiful. Is no one besides me excited about the prospect of there being a baby?”
Marlena and I both looked at him. “No,” we both said.
“Jesus,” said Kieran, running his hands through his hair. “This is going to be fine. It’s going to work out. People have been having babies since the dawn of time. It can’t be that big of a deal.”
“I still say that we shouldn’t freak out until we know for sure,” I said.
“But how can we know for sure?” asked Kieran.
“A pregnancy test,” said Marlena. “They don’t have any in Columbus, but I bet you might find one in Clinton.”
“Clinton?” I asked.
“It’s not far from here. You and Kieran could drive there tomorrow. I’m sure they have drug stores there. You should be able to find one, and then we’ll know,” said Marlena.
Perfect. I nodded. “Yes,” I said. “We’re going.”
“Okay,” said Kieran.
“I just have to figure out what to tell Hallam about why you’re going,” said Marlena. “If he thought you were pregnant, he would flip out.”
Like he didn’t flip out about everything I did, anyway. But whatever.
The rest of the day passed without incident. I never finished my conversation with Lily, because I told her I was sick. Since I was sick, everyone thought I should lie down for a while, and I did feel a little tired. I realized that since Kieran and I had been busy the night before, I really hadn’t gotten much sleep. I napped away the afternoon.
Kieran came in to wake me up for dinner. It was late afternoon. The inside of my sleeping area was lit up with golden light and shadows. Kieran crawled in next to me and shook me gently. I opened my eyes slowly, and I was happy that he was the first thing I saw.
I reached up to stroke his cheek.
He smiled at me.
This thing between Kieran and me was totally weird, but I kind of liked it.
“It’s time for dinner,” Kieran said softly.
I yawned and propped myself up on my elbows.
“You were tired, huh?” he asked me.
“Yeah,” I said. I felt better now, though. Much more rested. And my stomach didn’t feel icky at all anymore. This pregnancy thing was all going to be a scare and then everything was going to be fine.
“Do you think that’s a sign?” he asked.
Damn it. I hadn’t thought so. But Mina had definitely been tired a lot in the beginning. She’d slept constantly. Crap. “Maybe,” I said.
Kieran chuckled. “You really don’t want to be pregnant, do you?”
“No,” I said, pushing myself up into a sitting position. “You don’t want me to be, do you?”
He turned away from me a second, grinning. “I don’t know. Sure, it would be inconvenient. It would be hard. But, it would kind of be neat, don’t you think?” He looked back at me.
I rolled my eyes, but I was still smiling. “Neat, how?”
He leaned close to me. “Just that it would be parts of us. Both of us. And it would be cool, watching it grow up and learn to talk and walk and stuff.”
I shoved him playfully. “It?”
“Him,” he said.
I shoved him again, harder. “Him?!”
“Her?” he said, laughing.
“Better,” I decided.
“You want a girl?”
I didn’t want a baby at all, but Kieran was making me think about it. Here inside the enclave of sheets, in this lazy, warm light, I felt like we were cocooned somewhere away from the world. Here, crazy things were possible. “Maybe a girl,” I said. I envisioned it. Baby clothes. Ribbons. A pudgy hand in mind. The weight of a squirming, giggling baby in my arms. Kieran was right. There was something about it that was…neat. I poked him. “But I guess a boy would be okay too.”
“Just okay?” he said.
I laughed. “More than okay.”
Kieran kissed me.
I was startled.
He looked abashed. “Sorry. I know we never got to have that really long conversation in the car getting to know each other.”
“It’s okay,” I said. I put my hand on his shoulder. He had very nice shoulders, quite broad. Under my fingers, he felt solid and firm. My hand trailed down over his shoulder, onto his arm, where I felt his biceps through his shirt.
Kieran’s fingers grazed my throat, sending shivers down my back.
I scooted closer to him, placing my other hand on his other shoulder. I explored his back with my fingers, all the flawless, smooth muscle of him.
Kieran made a noise in the back of his throat.
Our lips met again. He urged my mouth open with his tongue.
I crushed myself against his chest.
His arms went around me, at first lightly dancing over my hips, then urgently pulling me closer.
I felt it again, the liquid warmth. Kieran made me feel so good, and not in a scary way. My heart wasn’t thudding away in my chest. I wasn’t hyperventilating or sweating. Instead, he was relaxing and protective. I could stay here in the circle of his arms for a very, very long time.
Eventually, though, our kiss broke.
Our faces lingered close to each other.
“I don’t know,” I murmured, “I think since it’s the apocalypse, we might have to teach our little girl or guy to shoot a gun before they learn to walk.”
Kieran laughed. “Come on. Hallam and Marlena will go west and bring back the lights. Everything will be okay after that.”
“Yeah,” I said. I laid my head on Kieran’s shoulder. His arms held me close.
“So,” Kieran said into my hair, “what is going on here between the two of us?”
“I don’t know,” I told his shoulder, “but it’s nice.”
When Kieran and I showed up at dinner holding hands, Marlena shot us a murderous look. We stopped holding hands. As we ate, I watched him, talking easily to others around him. I did like Kieran. I really did. I couldn’t say it was anything like love, exactly, not yet, but maybe there was hope for that.
In some ways, maybe it was good that I’d seen Jason with that redhead this morning. It had set me free in a way that I hadn’t known I needed to be set free. I hadn’t really thought there was any part of me that was still attached to Jason, but when I’d seen the two of them together, it had hurt me.
Still, it was good. Because now I knew that Jason was really gone. He’d moved on. Somehow, knowing that, it made it okay for me to do it too. Whatever happened, I wanted to see how things could be with Kieran. I’d never been with someone who was just a nice guy before. It might turn out to be a very nice change.
We grinned at each other over our plates of food, like the two of us shared a secret that no one else could possibly fathom. And that was a nicer feeling than I thought I’d felt in a very long time.