I left the guy’s body hidden in the tall grass behind the restaurant and took his car. There was a half-drunk Coca-Cola in it. It was warm, but I didn’t care. I downed the entire thing. It helped my thirst a little, but not a lot. Too sugary. I needed water, but I couldn’t let anyone see me.
I drove through the afternoon and evening. I hid behind the bill of the baseball cap and kept the visor down in the car. I didn’t think anyone else on the road recognized me. I was still thirsty.
I listened to the radio. They were talking about me. They read descriptions of me. They told everyone to be on the lookout for me. They didn’t say anything about the car I was driving. Hopefully, my plan had worked.
I drove as the darkness settled, the states starting to fly by. I was getting closer. Late at night, I decided to chance breaking into a closed convenience store for water. It went okay. I had to break a window, but I got the water I needed. I also stole some Red Bull. I was starting to feel tired. The water tasted so good as I drank it. As I started to nod off at the wheel later, I was grateful for the Red Bull as well. But a few hours later, a bulletin came on the radio about my theft. I hadn’t been seen, but the only person who would rob a store would be me. Kieran knew my location. Everyone knew my location.
By this time, I was somewhere in Ohio. That meant that Kieran knew I was still heading east. For all he knew, I was still going to Jasontown, though. I had to be stealthy and quick from here on out. I wanted to pick up my speed and streak across the roads, but I didn’t want to attract attention, so I tried to keep my speed level with the cars around me. I drove and drove. And drank more Red Bull. And drove some more.
The sun came up. I kept driving.
I was in Georgetown by midmorning.
I was exhausted. I didn’t know where to find Azazel, if she was even still here. I didn’t know where the apartment was that she and Kieran had lived in when they worked for the Order of the Fly, the government that had been in place before Kieran and Eve took over. I didn’t know my way around Georgetown either. Furthermore, if Kieran found out about this car soon, it was better if I wasn’t anywhere in it.
I drove the car to downtown D.C., to the mall. I parked it near the Lincoln monument. Then I lost myself in the sight-seeing crowds at D.C. I followed a group of school children up to the Lincoln monument. Then I looked at it. It was like that Planet of the Apes remake. It wasn’t Lincoln anymore. It was Kieran. I cocked my head and stared at it. I couldn’t believe it. How had I missed this happening?
I took a walk around the rest of D.C. All of the monuments had been defaced or renamed in honor of Kieran and Eve. It was truly a brave, new world.
Eventually, the exhaustion caught up with me. I broke into a closet in one of the Smithsonian museums. I fell asleep. The dreams were as bad as they usually were.
I woke up to someone shaking me. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, Jason?”
I opened my eyes. There was a tall guy standing over me. He had short-cropped curly hair and a goatee. He looked annoyed. He also looked familiar.
He thrust a handkerchief at me. “Wipe the blood off your face.”
Right. I’d gotten pretty scraped up when I’d jumped out of that car with Kieran. I guessed I’d never cleaned myself up. I took the handkerchief and mopped at my forehead. I squinted at the guy. “Hey, I know you.”
“Graham,” he said. “From Columbus. I worked with Hallam and Marlena.”
My squint deepened. “Really?”
“Really,” he said. “We have to get you out of here. Kieran and Eve are going to find you pretty easily if you take naps in the Smithsonian.”
“So, you’re on my side?” I said, feeling confused. I didn’t really remember this guy. His face looked familiar, but…
He made a face. “I’m on Azazel’s side. All I remember about you is severed fingers.”
I winced. But he’d said Azazel. “She’s here?”
“We can’t keep talking in a closet in the Smithsonian,” he said. “We have to get out of here. Fast.”
Graham and I left the closet together, after he scoped out the people outside to make sure they wouldn’t notice us. Then, telling me to follow him, he led me into the crowds who were browsing the Smithsonian. According to Graham, if we minded our business and blended in with the other people, we wouldn’t be noticed. I followed him out of the museum, into the streets, and down into the metro tunnel. I’d never spent much time in the D.C. underground transit system, but it was a lot like the New York subway tunnels. Dark, dirty, and crowded. Graham and I got on a train. We were surrounded by people, so I didn’t ask any questions, but I was curious as to where the heck he was taking me. After about two stops, we got off.
Graham wound through the people getting on and off the train. I trailed behind him. We walked down the tunnel, past benches where people sat reading newspapers that had pictures of Kieran and Eve smiling on the front page.
Graham jumped down off the platform and into the area where the tracks stretched off into the darkness. He started walking down the center, between the tracks. This seemed dangerous to me. After all, trains went down those tracks. Maybe Graham was leading me someplace for a double suicide. I considered whether or not I cared that much. Then I followed him.
Once we’d been swallowed up by darkness, Graham hopped up out of the tracks and flicked on a flashlight. In its gleam, I could see that a gaping hole had been hammered out in the side of the metro tunnel. Graham went through it. I went after him. We walked in darkness for several feet. It was musty and dank, and I was pretty sure I could hear rats scuttling about somewhere. We turned a corner, and there was light.
We emerged into a tunneled-out room. The walls were earthen, buoyed up in some places by stones and chunks of concrete. It was lit by strands of Christmas lights which crisscrossed the low ceiling. Two men stood in front of another gaping hole/doorway. They were holding machine guns. They nodded at Graham and moved out of our way. We continued through into another room. It was much bigger, but similarly lit and constructed. I could see ramshackle huts constructed out of plywood and cardboard. People were sitting outside of them on overturned buckets and rusty lawn chairs. A few dirty children chased each other, laughing as they wound through the huts.
Graham held out his arms. “Welcome to the Resistance, Jason.”
I didn’t know what to say.
Several of the people sitting outside the huts looked up and saw us. A man got to his feet and started toward us. As he got closer, I recognized him. Hallam.
He was bulkier, but slimmer, as if he’d been working out but hadn’t had much to eat. He had an unkempt beard. There were lines around his eyes. On his forehead. He looked older and wearier. Our gazes locked.
I had a flash. Hallam stood in the center of a kitchen, surrounded by the bodies of college girls. There was blood on his face. His eyes were wild. He said, “I’ll always have your back like that.”
I shook myself, and I was back in the tunnels beneath Washington, D.C. Hallam stood in front of me. His expression was wary. We hadn’t parted on good terms. We hadn’t spoken in a long time. “Hallam,” I said.
“Jason,” he said. His British accent was getting muddled. Too much time around yanks, undoubtedly. He hesitated for a minute and then stuck out his hand.
I took it. We shook.
Hallam looked at Graham. “You found him okay?”
Graham nodded. “He was right where Agnes said he’d be.”
Agnes? That name sounded familiar. I tried to remember how I knew it. “The woman from Tuscany that Azazel saw in a dream?” I said. “The one who blessed Michaela before I was born? She’s here?”
“Not exactly,” said Hallam. “She’s dead. But some of our witches—people who worked for the Order of the Fly—kind of channel her or something. I don’t really know how it works. She told them you were on your way here. Azazel insisted someone go out and bring you here.”
Azazel again. “Where is Azazel?”
Hallam gestured with his head to the back of the tunneled out room at one of the huts. “She’s in her headquarters. She kind of runs the show around here.” He jammed his hands into the pockets of his ratty jeans. “She says she wants to see you as soon as you arrive, but…” Hallam studied the dirt floor and wouldn’t meet my eyes. “I think maybe it might be a good idea if you just turned around and left.”
I didn’t say anything. I’d had the same thought myself. I looked down at the floor too. Finally, I nodded. “I only came because Kieran and Eve are trying to find Chance. They want to capture him. I had to make sure he was safe.”
“He’s safe,” said Hallam. “I promise you, he’s safe.”
I nodded again. I turned and headed back for the door I came through. Then I stopped. Looked at Hallam again. “Can I… can I see him?” When Hallam didn’t say anything, I plowed on. “I won’t talk to him or anything. He doesn’t have to see me. But can I just, you know, look at him? See for myself?”
Hallam shook his head. “He’s not here, Jason. He’s someplace safe. Someplace where he’s normal and happy, and he can play in the sun.”
What? Azazel didn’t have Chance? “You sent him away?” I said. I was starting to feel angry. “How can you be sure he’s safe if you don’t have him with you?”
“It’s better this way. It really—”
I was pushing past Hallam. “I want to see Azazel. I need to know what she did with my son.”
Hallam took me by the arms. He positioned himself in my path. His voice was calm, but firm. “You listen to me. She is better than I’ve ever seen her. Solid. Focused. Got her head on straight. And every time you show back up in her life, you screw her up. I don’t want to see that. And she’s no good for you either. She makes you crazy. It’s better for everyone if the two of you stay away from each other. Do you understand me?”
I took a step back from Hallam. I knew he was right. I had never been good for Azazel. I’d only ever caused her pain. I looked back the way I’d come. And then I remembered Chance. “My son, Hallam.” My voice cracked. I sounded pathetic.
Hallam laughed a little, bitterly. “You haven’t been very interested in him for the past five years, have you?”
He was right. I tried to swallow, but my throat was too dry. I hid behind the bill of the baseball cap I was still wearing. “I guess I haven’t.”
“I promise you he’s safe, Jason,” Hallam said. “But if you don’t know where he is, you can’t lead Kieran and Eve to him, right? You see the sense in it?”
I nodded again. “I’ll go.” I turned around and started back for the opening, back for the tunnels. Where I was heading after this, I didn’t know.
Graham put his arm on my shoulder. “Hold up a second.” To Hallam, “She wants to see him. She said so.”
Hallam sounded bemused. “I’d think you, of all people, Graham, wouldn’t want her to do that.”
“Not saying I particularly do,” said Graham. “But she’s pissy when her orders don’t get followed, and I’m the one who has to bear the brunt of that, not you.”
I eyed Graham. What the heck was that all about? Why did Graham “bear the brunt” of Azazel’s anger?
Graham rolled his eyes at me. “No need to get territorial, man,” he said. “I’m not much more than an occasional dildo attached to a body to her, all right?”
Okay. So Azazel was sleeping with this Graham guy. And she’d sent him to come get me and bring me down into the tunnels, where she and about thirty people lived with rats. And she’d sent my son off to God-knows-where. Of course, I’d been fighting the urge to cut myself every night for the past five years. I didn’t have much room to think badly of her, did I? “No worries,” I told Graham. I looked at Hallam. “Maybe Hallam’s right. Maybe I shouldn’t see her. If you, um, listed all the seriously horrible things I’ve done to her and people she cares about over the years, it would take quite a while. There’s a reason I didn’t stay with her in the first place. I’m not exactly good for anyone. I’m like a psychotic mass murderer.”
“Yeah, like I said, I remember the severed fingers,” said Graham. He started walking in the direction of the hut Hallam had called headquarters. “Come on.”
I looked at Hallam, asking permission with my eyes.
He shrugged. “I guess she’s a grown-up now. Just be careful. Try not to do whatever it is the two of you do when you’re together. Please.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that. I slouched after Graham. The closer we got to the hut where Azazel was, the faster my heart beat. I was nervous. She always made me nervous. From the first second I’d met her, when she’d somehow convinced me to go back to her parents’ house when I knew it was dangerous, she’d made me feel out of control. She was Azazel Jones. The only woman I’d ever loved. The first woman I’d ever kissed. The first woman I’d ever made love to. The first woman I’d ever killed for.
Graham rapped against a flimsy door made of plywood. “Zaza?”
The door flew open. It wasn’t bright in the tunnel room, but it was even less bright inside the hut. I could see her outline, but I couldn’t see her. Not really. She was frozen inside the door, not speaking, not moving. Finally, she spoke. Her voice was hoarse. “Jason?”
My breath caught in my throat. I tried to speak, but I couldn’t.
“Come in,” she said. To Graham, “Give us a little bit.”
His face twitched, and I could tell he didn’t like that, but he only gestured with his hand for me to go inside.
For a few seconds, I didn’t think my legs would move. But they did. I took several shaky steps, and I was inside the hut. My eyes adjusted as she shut the door behind us. It wasn’t big. There was a sleeping pallet along one wall. It took up most of the room. A rickety desk was slapped up against another wall, right next to the bed. That left us about three square feet to stand in and stare at each other.
Her brown hair was pulled back in a bun at the nape of her neck. She wasn’t wearing any makeup, so her face looked clean and fresh. She had a tiny scar running down the right side of her forehead. It puckered red against her white flesh. I’d never seen it before. I wondered what happened. She surveyed me, arms drawn tight across her chest, her expression severe. She looked like a drill sergeant. Whatever softness I remembered about her seemed gone. She looked hard, as if she were carved from stone.
I took off the baseball cap and ran a hand through my hair. I didn’t know what to say. My heart was thudding against my rib cage so loud I was sure she could hear it.
We stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity. Then she shoved me. Hard. “Bastard,” she spit out.
I took it. I looked into her eyes and took it. She was right.
“Why’d you leave us?” she asked.
I searched for my voice. When I found it, it wavered. “I didn’t want to hurt you anymore.”
She snorted. “Right. So you thought if you abandoned me with your baby, that would be the opposite of hurting me.”
I flinched. “At the time, all I could think about was how much I’d screwed everything up. I thought you’d be better off without me.”
Her expression hardened even further. Her scar seemed to pulse. “Fuck you.”
I gave her a bitter half-smile. “I could say I was sorry, but would it really matter?”
“Try it and see.”
“I am sorry,” I said. “I regret so much. Everything I did to you. I wish I could take it back.”
She shook her head. “No. Didn’t make a damned bit of difference.”
I started to open the door. “Maybe I should—”
She stopped me, her hand on my arm.
I turned and gazed into her eyes. Something softened there.
Her hand wound its way up my arm, over my shoulders, to cup my cheek. She stepped closer to me. She moved her face closer to mine and then—
We were kissing. It was urgent, as if something that had been locked up inside both of us was being let out, and it was ravenous. My hands went around her waist, and I crushed her against my body. Her hands tangled themselves in my hair, holding my face against hers. I traced the curves of her back with my fingers. She sighed against my mouth—a sound of relief and longing and desire.
And then she wasn’t touching me anymore. She was on the other side of the hut, her back against the makeshift wall. She was breathing hard. “Fuck.”
Yeah. I was struggling to catch my own breath. I’d forgotten the taste of her. How sweet she was. What it was like to have her in my arms.
“That is why it’s such a bad idea to be around you.” Her voice was shaking.
“Right,” I said. Because we got all consumed with each other, and it was so easy to let the rest of the world go to hell. It was so easy to want to watch everything burn, just for the reflection the flames would make in her eyes.
She chewed on her lower lip.
“I only came because of Chance,” I blurted. “But Hallam says he’s not here, so I don’t really need to stay.”
“You’re leaving then?” I couldn’t tell if she was disappointed or relieved.
“Where is he?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“What? How can you not know? You abandoned him?”
“ I abandoned him? You should talk,” she said.
I deserved that.
She wasn’t done. “I watched his mother bleed to death giving birth to him. Your men had blown up all the hospitals. She screamed and screamed. And you weren’t there. I watched him say his first words. And you weren’t there. You’ve never been there. So don’t say shit to me about abandoning him. He’s not even my kid.”
I deserved that too. But it stung. God, it stung. And for the first time in years, I felt like defending myself. “You took him from me. You and Kieran. You guys took my kid and wouldn’t let me see him.”
“Yeah, and you were the poster child of stability and good-fatherhood at that point. You were insane.”
“So were you,” I said.
She huffed. “Well, Kieran wasn’t.”
“Well, he is now. And he’s looking for Chance.”
“We know that. Why do you think we hid him?”
“Where is he?”
“I told you, I don’t know. It’s better if I don’t know, because if Kieran and Eve capture me, I can’t tell them where he is.” She glowered at me like she wished I was dead.
Anger was flaring in me, bright and righteous. I hadn’t been angry in a long time. “Did you send him away so you could bang that Graham dude without Chance being in the way?”
Her jaw dropped. “Don’t you dare say that to me, Mr. I-Had-A-Harem.”
I couldn’t believe that. “You’re exaggerating.”
“You had fucking concubines. I was one of them.”
“I wasn’t having sex with all of them,” I said. Really. I wasn’t. At that point in my life, I wasn’t all that interested in sex. I was more interested in controlling people’s minds and forcing them to do stuff. The concubine thing was really just a power grab. I liked the idea of taking all those girls away from other men. Sick, I know, but…well, I’m often a sick guy. “And the last person I was with was you. Five years ago.”
“So you’re a monk. You want a prize or something? You left me, remember? I didn’t know if I was ever going to see you again, and I got lonely. It’s not like a thing between me and Graham, you know? We…fuck sometimes. That’s all. Don’t get weird about it. Just because you showed back up doesn’t mean I’m going to throw myself back in your arms and start making out with you.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Of course. That’s completely not what happened.”
She glared at me.
I felt deflated suddenly. Why was I angry? Was it being around Azazel? Did she ignite my passions, especially the negative ones? I let my shoulders sag. My voice was quiet. “If you don’t know where he is, how do you know he’s okay?”
She gave me a sympathetic look. “He’s with Mina, Jason. Hallam and Marlena took him there. I took her baby, and so, a couple months after you left, I gave her another one. I…”
I went to her and put my arm around her. Azazel blamed herself for the death of her niece, Jenna. Her brother Chance, who’d also died, and his girlfriend Mina had lost the baby because she was sick. But Azazel had used her magical powers to convince the baby to stop crying, and we’d never known Jenna was dying. Azazel had never forgiven herself for it.
She leaned her head against my chest. “I remembered what you told me about the way you grew up. Always on the run. People after you, trying to kill you. Everyone wanting you for something. I knew you wouldn’t want that for Chance. So they took him, and they left him with Mina. She doesn’t know who Chance is. Chance doesn’t know who he is. Hallam left Chance with Mina without talking to her. She found him, and she took him in, and she’s raising him like Chance was her own. That way Kieran can never find him, because neither Chance nor Mina knows that Chance is the kid Kieran and Eve are looking for. I don’t know where they are. I told Hallam not to tell me. But it’s better for him.” She looked up at me. “Don’t you think it’s better?”
She was right. A childhood hiding from Kieran and Eve was no childhood at all. And I didn’t want Chance to be as screwed up as I was. This was better. But a lump was growing in my throat. I really couldn’t see him. And I hadn’t realized how badly I wanted to. “I do think it’s better,” I said.
Azazel’s eyes were shining. “I miss him, though. Every day.” She disentangled herself from me and went over to her sleeping pallet. She sat down on it. “I had a dream once. Back when my dreams were prophetic. I thought I was pregnant at the time. But you were in my dream, and you said that I would never have any babies. I’m pretty sure it’s true.”
“Azazel, your dreams were—”
“He was the closest I got,” she cut me off. “A baby you had with a woman that wasn’t me.” She smiled tightly. “All the things you’ve done…” She looked me square in the eye. “You don’t deserve me, Jason.”
I avoided her direct gaze. “I know.” My voice wasn’t strong. The lump was still in my throat.
“Good,” she said.
This book is being posted on Tuesdays and Thursdays beginning 1/17/2012. To access other chapters, check out the Onset Posts Archive, here.