~joan~

Jason pounded down the stairs.

Startled, I ran to him. “What’s wrong?”

His eyes were wide. “I heard the door close. I thought you left.”

“I’m still here,” I said.

Jason went around me to the door. He opened it and looked outside. Shutting it, he turned back to me. “You heard me come down the steps and came back inside.”

I shook my head. “No. It was Tessa. She came to talk to me. She left. I’m still here.”

He snorted. “You expect me to believe that? If Tessa was here, why didn’t I see her walking away?”

“I don’t know.” I didn’t. Maybe she’d already made it back to the A-frame. “But it’s okay, Jason. Calm down. She wants me to talk to you about something. You remember that when Tessa and I got here, we came with a guy named Garth?”

“What do I have to do to keep you here?” Jason paced in front of the door. “Do I have to tie you up?”

Tie me…what? “Jason, you’re kind of freaking me out here.”

Jason advanced on me, eyes flashing. “I’m freaking you out, huh? Because you’re freaking me out. You’re lying to me.”

I backed away from him, remembering what Lori had said to me, about bruises. “I’m not lying.”

Jason grabbed one of my arms and squeezed. He pulled me close to him so that our faces were inches apart. “I won’t let you leave me.”

“You’re hurting me.” My voice was breathless and high-pitched. I sounded frightened. I was frightened. I’d never seen Jason like this. What was going on with him?

He released me and emitted a caustic laugh. “Oh, I’m hurting you, am I? What do you think you’re doing to me? Getting up in the middle of the night? Sneaking away? Leaving me all by myself again?” He crossed the room to a bookshelf against the wall. “I can’t do it again, Azazel. I can’t live without you again. Not after having you back.” He grasped the edge of the bookshelf with book hands and heaved.

It toppled over, books flying and hitting the ground in a thunder of thuds.

I jumped and wrapped my arms around myself. I wanted to disappear. “Jason, please—”

“Jason, please,” he mocked me, cocking his head to one side, his voice ugly.

This wasn’t good. Maybe Tessa was right. Maybe whatever good part of Jason existed too deeply inside him to be trusted. Maybe he was swallowed by whatever darkness controlled him. After all, a man who made a community of people do whatever he wanted because he couldn’t get people to love him in real life was not exactly a stable person. What was I going to do? I looked from the toppled bookshelf to Jason, his eyes blazing.

And I knew suddenly, that I needed to get out of there. Now. I ran for the door.

Jason was faster. He caught me before I made it five feet.

He clutched my shoulders, digging his fingers into my arms. “I knew you were trying to leave. Everyone always leaves me.”

Staring at his wild expression, I thought I understood why. I shook my head. “I wasn’t. I was talking to Tessa. You imprisoned Garth, her brother. And he’s not working for the OF. I’m sure of it. But now…” Should I admit it? What would he do if I did? “Yes. Now, I want to leave.”

For a second, his fingers dug deeper into my shoulders. I winced at the pain. Then he let his arms drop, looking defeated. He stepped out of my way. “Go.”

Okay, good. He wasn’t going to hurt me or try to force me. I walked past him to the door. As soon as I let the door clatter behind me, and I was standing in the summer night air, I started to cry. I managed to make a few steps before I sat down on the ground and began to sob in earnest. I’d spent time trying to defend Jason to Tessa, claiming he was a good man. And then he’d frightened me. Jason very well might be psychotic. And, even though it was probably only because he’d been controlling my mind, Jason was the only important thing in my life. I’d told him I wanted to leave, but I felt lost now. What was I going to do? Was I going to walk out of Jasontown? Where would I go?

The more I thought like that, the harder I sobbed.

The door of Jason’s house opened. Jason came out and sat down beside me. “Joan,” he said. “I shouldn’t have…”

He put a tentative hand on my back. He gently patted me.

I probably should have pulled away. I probably should have gotten up and ran away. But. I didn’t.

We sat together outside his house for some time. Jason put his arm around me. I lay my head on his shoulder. Eventually, my sobs quieted. I somehow knew, in that moment, that I’d made my choice, no matter how wrong or stupid it was. I could have left. I didn’t. I was here. I was going to stay with him. Maybe that made me an idiot. But there was something about Jason. Something besides the mind control business. He felt right to me. Every part of my rational brain screamed at me that he was wrong. And yet my gut told me otherwise. My heart told me otherwise.

“What did you say the name of Tessa’s brother was?” Jason finally asked.

“Garth,” I said.

“Okay,” said Jason. “We’ll find him tomorrow.”

“Okay,” I whispered. I wrapped my arms tightly around him. “Let’s go back to bed.”

***

~kieran~

I woke up one morning to find out that Eve had taken all my clothes to wash them. There were washers and dryers that ran on a generator that the entire community of Bramford used. Everyone had a scheduled time that they got to use them. That day was Eve’s day. She said she wouldn’t get a chance to do laundry again for a month, and so it was important that she get all of our clothes washed. I could see her logic, but I was a little annoyed, because it meant I had nothing to wear except what I’d worn to bed. It had been particularly hot the night before, and so I’d gone to sleep in only my boxers.

Eve lent me a robe and told me to go look through her grandfather’s old clothes to see if any of them would fit. (Cameron’s clothes wouldn’t fit me, or I would have just taken them.) Then she went to do laundry. Eve’s grandfather’s clothes were kept on the top level of the house in a closet off one of the guest rooms. The house was stuffy and hot up there. Within about ten minutes, I’d shed the robe because it was way too hot to wear.

I wasn’t crazy about wearing old man clothes, but I also didn’t want to run around in my boxers or the really hot robe, so I told myself to suck it up, and I began going through the clothes hanging in the closet. There were eight or ten leisure suits with huge lapels, all made of polyester, and at least twenty other suits, most far too hot to consider wearing. None of the summer clothes seemed to be hanging up. I noticed a few boxes on the floor of the closet. Grunting and sweating, I pushed aside clothes on hangers to look at them. They weren’t labeled, so I had to open them up. One had sweaters in it. I pushed it to the back of the closet. Another had baby clothes. I pulled it out to see if anything in it would fit Chance. Finally, I found a box that had t-shirts in it. Most of them were kind of horrible. One had a train on it. Another was from Bermuda. One said, “I’d rather be fishing.” Finally, I found a few plain t-shirts in basic colors. I put them aside.

I was really hot and a little exhausted at that point, so I sat down on the floor and glared into the closet. Was I going to be doomed to wearing a t-shirt and polyester leisure pants? In the back of the closet, I spied another box, this one with writing on it. I could make out the letters “S-H-O-R-T.” Shorts! I thought. I yanked the box out.

But instead the box said, “Shorty’s journals.” No luck. I opened it anyway, kind of curious as to who this Shorty was. Was Eve’s grandfather named Shorty? Inside the box were stacks of composition style notebooks—the ones with the black and white marble pattern on the front. They were dated. One said, “1991.” I opened it up.

The handwriting was even and carefully lettered by a black pen. It was easy to read. And so I started to read.

Michaela Weem is a curse on this community. The Joneses are merely her puppets, willing to convince anyone to do whatever she says. And what’s worse, everyone seems to be following along, towing the line she’s passing down to everyone that some dangerous agent of order is going to destroy the world. I’m appalled.

Huh. Michaela Weem was Jason’s mother. She’d influenced the community of Satanists in Bramford to groom Azazel to kill Jason. I’d never known that there had been any resistance. And the Joneses must be Azazel’s parents. I was intrigued. I got comfortable and continued to read.

When I spoke out in the coven recently, I was accused of only doing so because I was angry at having been usurped as leader of the coven. This outraged me. After all, the entire idea of our coven is that there is no leader. We function without orders and rules. It is our place. Chaos. We live chaos in service of our Infernal Lord Azazel. He is the symbol of rebellion and of independence. I would never presume to lead anyone. I am completely against the idea of leading.

No matter, however. The coven couldn’t care less. They have been seduced by Michaela Weem’s arguments that we are an important part of the fight against order. I want to scream at them that they are betraying their heritage and everything that we believe by following this woman, but no one is listening to me anymore.

They claim we must prepare a vessel for the essence of Azazel, and that when the time is right, he will fill this vessel and strike down the agent of order, allowing chaos to reign again. What they don’t understand is that chaos and order cannot survive without one another. We reject the oppressive force of order, preferring the natural force of chaos, certainly. But we do not impose chaos on the world. To do so would be oppressive. Furthermore, there is evidence in our own ancient writings about the Vessel of Azazel that the vessel’s role will be to join with the agent of order, not destroy it. The power of order and chaos must unite. Only then will paradise on earth occur.

This is the sacred belief we have held to for centuries. Now, we are being infiltrated by sensationalist Satanists. They want rituals and upside-down crosses. They don’t recognize that ours is an ancient quest, a journey to embrace the flesh, the world, and the physical. It is not about destruction, but about elevating the body to the same level as the spirit, about recognizing our desires as the force that points the way to enlightenment. Desires are to be celebrated and indulged, not squelched. When this truth can be melded with the discipline of order, true balance will be achieved.

A bead of sweat dripped down my nose and spattered onto the journal. I shut it. I really needed to be looking for clothes, not reading in the sweltering heat. I resumed searching and eventually found a box of shorts. They were pretty horrible and made for old men, but they fit, so I headed back down stairs and put on my new clothes. I brought the journal along, thinking I might read it later on the back porch where it was cooler.

But when I got back downstairs, Chance had woken up from his nap squalling. I fed him and changed him, and then played with him for a few hours. He really liked the set of blocks that Eve had found stashed in a closet. When Eve got home later, she made fun of my clothes for a really long time, but then she finally gave me back my laundry, and I changed. I had to admit, it was nice to be in clean clothes again.

After dinner, I remembered the journal and asked Eve about it. “Is this your grandfather’s? Was he Shorty?”

I’d brought up a few buckets of water from the stream outside, and Eve was dumping them into the sink to wash the dishes. “Yeah,” she said. “That’s my Pap, all right.”

I stacked up the dinner plates on the table. “It was really interesting stuff. I hadn’t realized that there had been a rift between Michaela Weem and your grandfather way back.”

Eve added soap to the wash water. “Oh, Pap used to talk about that all time. He never let it go. But it’s weird, because if everyone had listened to him, things might have turned out differently.”

I gathered up silverware and set them on top of the stack of plates. “Differently? What things?”

Eve dropped a skillet into the wash water. It made a plopping noise. “Well, Pap knew that there was an ancient belief of those who worshipped Azazel. They thought that his Vessel and an agent of order would combine their powers and begin an era of prosperity and peace over the world. Sort of like a utopia.”

I brought the dishes over to the counter. “Yeah, I remember reading something like that in the journal. So what does that mean?”

Eve started to scrub at the skillet in the wash water. “Zaza was the Vessel. Jason was the agent of order. And they were both clearly drawn to each other when they met.”

I held out my hand for the skillet. “Want me to rinse?”

She handed it to me. “Sure. Thanks.”

I dunked the skillet in the rinse water in the other sink. “I have Azazel’s memories of that. She was really into him. But, I mean, wasn’t that just because he was attractive and interesting? You aren’t saying that there was some kind of fate at work or something? Something that drew them together?”

Eve shrugged. “Their powers are supposed to work together. If they did, everything would be okay. But they’ve always been surrounded by all this conflict. And they’ve never really worked together. So, everything’s a mess.”

I stacked the skillet in the dish drainer and waited for Eve to hand me the next soapy dish. “Huh. So, you think that her feelings for Jason could be kind of mystical? Like maybe that’s why she still cares about him so much and that’s why she wants him more than she wants me?”

Eve gave me a plate. “If you want to know what I think, honestly, I think they’re completely screwed at this point.”

I rinsed the plate. “How so?”

Eve pushed a curl off her forehead, leaving a soapy trail on her skin. “From what you’ve told me, and from what I understand about what’s been happening over the past few months, they can’t stand each other. They’re trying to destroy each other, and they’re using anyone in the world that they can to make that happen.”

For some reason, that little trail of soap made me want to touch her forehead. I stacked the plate instead. “But they can’t destroy each other. They’re evenly matched.”

“Exactly,” said Eve. “The power in Azazel calls out to the power in Jason. They want to be connected, so they clash at each other, because clashing is better than simply ignoring each other.”

“You think they should get back together.” For some reason, the idea didn’t bother me nearly as much as it usually did.

“I think their powers need to be joined together,” said Eve. “But I don’t know if, with all the baggage Jason and Azazel have, they should be the ones to join the power together.”

“What are you saying?” I was confused.

Eve scrubbed another plate. “I’m not saying anything. It’s just that, you know, now the power of Azazel is with you, not with Zaza, so…”

“So I should join together with Jason?” I raised my eyebrows.

Eve handed me the plate. “I’m not saying that. I’m not saying anything really. I…well, Cameron thought it might be possible to block their powers completely or maybe to transfer them or something.”

“Transfer them?” I submerged the plate into the rinse water. It was starting to get cloudy with soap residue. It was hard to get things really clean these days.

“Maybe to other people, who’d do a better job with the powers.”

I stepped back, flinging water off of my fingers. “Hey, hold up. I’m not giving up this power to anyone except Azazel, okay. I kept it from Lily, and I’m certainly not giving it to a bunch of Satanists.”

“You say Satanists like we’re worse than the OF.”

I sighed. I knew that the Satanists were actually pretty peace-loving people. They didn’t actually try to cause much trouble at all. “I didn’t mean it like that. I meant I’m not giving it up.”

“Look, it was Cameron’s idea,” said Eve. “It’s not a big deal.” She paused, holding out another soapy dish. “You still helping me rinse?”

I took the dish. “Sure I am.”

***

~joan~

I went with Jason to the guard’s quarters to make sure he let Garth go. What I found there completely appalled me. The accused were being kept in two rooms in the basement with no bathroom facilities or any privacy. They squatted and milled about the filthy area. It was dark. They didn’t look like they’d been fed very well either. I had to weave through these hollow-faced people to find Garth, who was huddled in a corner, a week’s worth of growth on his chin. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, and his pants had been unevenly ripped into shorts. They were dirty. Heck, Garth was dirty. Everyone was dirty.

When he saw Jason and me, he got a wary look in his eyes.

I ran to him, knelt down next to him. “This is him,” I threw over my shoulder to Jason.

“Fine,” said Jason.

“Come with us,” I told Garth. “We’re getting you out of here.”

Garth looked around at the others in the basement, as if he wasn’t sure what to do.

“It’s okay,” I said. “Come on.”

Garth didn’t say anything, even after we’d taken him away from the guard’s quarters and delivered him to the A-frame to meet Tessa. He half-stumbled when he walked and hung his head. He seemed…broken. I wanted to stay to watch Tessa and Garth’s reunion, but Jason pulled me away.

He made me walk with him down to the river, but he wouldn’t talk the whole way down the driveway. Once we were standing on the bank of the river, its muddy water rushing past us, the breeze on our face, he shoved his hands into his pockets. “Are you happy now?”

I didn’t know how to respond. I was just as confused as I’d been before, only now I had the images of those people in my head. They were being abused, and Jason was having them executed. And, for the life of me, I didn’t know whether or not they were guilty or not. Sure, that guy had tried to shoot me. So maybe I was in danger. But even if it meant I was safe, I didn’t know if I wanted those people treated like sub humans. “What have you done?” I finally said.

He stiffened. “What do you mean? I’ve been protecting you.”

“Did you know they were being kept like that? Like animals?”

He turned away from me and started walking down the river bank. “You and your moral high ground. You forget that you’ve done just as many awful things as I have.”

“Exactly. I forget,” I said. “I have amnesia.”

Jason shrugged and kept walking.

I went after him. “You have to let them go.”

He didn’t look at me. “If I let them go, what message does that send about the people I already had killed? What kind of leader does that make me look like? I’ll be inconsistent. No one follows someone inconsistent.”

“What kind of leader does it make you look like if you kill all of them?”

“Thirty people, fifty people…when you’re talking those numbers, it hardly makes a difference.”

I stopped walking. I couldn’t believe he’d said something like that. I hugged myself, feeling sick to my stomach. “What kind of person are you?”

He turned around and began spitting words at me from several feet away. “I’m a monster. A psycho. An abomination. Take your pick. It’s not like you haven’t been warned about me before. After all, what kind of person controls some girl’s mind so she doesn’t leave him? Do you think that kind of person is a nice guy?”

His words stung. Still. If he really thought he was so horrible, why was he telling me he was horrible? Didn’t horrible people usually think what they were doing was right?

“I’ll understand if you need to leave,” he said. He waved a hand up at the whole of Jasontown. “I’ll understand if they all want to leave.” He sat down on the river bank, stretching out his legs. “Everyone leaves me in the end, anyway.”

I swallowed. But hadn’t I made my choice last night, when he’d frightened me? “I’m not going to leave.”

Jason picked up a rock and hurled it into the river. It didn’t skip over the surface. It plopped into the water and sunk. “You probably should.”

I knew that. That was why I’d walked out last night. I should go. “Why?” My voice was barely audible.

“Lately, I feel out of control. Last night, you had a look in your eyes. You were scared of me.” He threw another rock. “I didn’t like it. I don’t want to scare you.”

Then don’t. Then stop killing people and acting insane. But I didn’t say that out loud.

“I seem to get a little nuts when I’m trying to keep you with me. Something about you has always just…” He looked up at me. “You’re my everything. You always have been, since that moment you stepped out of that truck in Bramford.”

I chewed on my lip. “I don’t remember that. But I think I know what you mean.” I went to him and sat down next to him. I looked out over the river, wondering why I didn’t run from him. “Is that a good reason, do you think? For us to stay together? Because without each other, the world doesn’t seem to mean anything?”

Jason picked up another rock and weighed it in his hands. “I don’t know if it’s a good reason or not.” He turned to look at me. “You feel that way too?”

I nodded. “Something about you…”

“If you don’t go, I’ll keep killing for you. I know I will.”

I thought of the rows of heads lining the walkway to Jason’s house. They disgusted me. “I can’t leave.”

He was quiet for a few minutes, gazing into my eyes. Then he gently caressed the line of my jaw with the back of his fingers. When he spoke, his voice was ragged. “I’m just never sure if we’re exactly…good. If our love doesn’t only cause destruction and chaos. When you left me before, maybe it was for the best.”

My breath caught in my throat. I loved the way it felt when he touched me. “When I was the Witch of the OF, and I was terrorizing the countryside by forcing people to try to kill you? You mean then? That was for the best?”

His face moved closer to mine. “Good point,” he whispered.

I focused on his lips, so full. They were slightly parted, and they were inching toward mine. I felt myself pulled to him by something with electromagnetic strength. When our lips finally touched, my eyes slammed shut, and there in the darkness, I was sure there was nothing in the universe but Jason, me, and our lips. I felt like we’d simply wiped everything and everyone else out.

***

~joan~

There was no trial that day. No execution. After we left the river, Jason shut himself in the bedroom and wouldn’t open the door, not even to me. Confused and concerned, I wandered out of Jason’s house. Tessa was standing outside of the A-frame with Garth. She had a bag slung over her shoulder. Lori was at the door, her arms folded over her chest.

As I approached, I heard Lori saying, “I wish you’d reconsider.”

Tessa shook her head. “I don’t feel safe.” She noticed me walking over. “Did he see that we’re leaving?” she asked me, her eyes full of fear. “Did he send you to stop us?”

“No,” I said. “He didn’t. He doesn’t know.” I paused. “You’re leaving?”

Tessa looked at Garth, who was staring at the ground. He had clean clothes on, and he didn’t look nearly as disheveled. But he wasn’t talking. Tessa patted his shoulder. “I have to get Garth away from here. I don’t know what Jason has done to him, but he’s not okay.” Her face crumpled.

I felt horrible. Responsible. “I’m sorry, Tessa. If I’d known what was happening—”

“You wouldn’t have done anything,” she said. “None of us would have, because we couldn’t. That monster was mind raping us.”

Technically, she was right. I didn’t know what to say.

“You should come with us,” said Tessa. “You don’t have to stay with him.”

“I belong with him,” I said. I wasn’t sure why I believed that, but I also knew it was true.

“You don’t belong with him,” said Tessa. “He’s crazy and evil. You’re good and sweet. You don’t belong with something like that.”

I shrugged.

“He’s not crazy or evil,” Lori spoke up. “He’s Jason. He’s the most amazing person I’ve ever met. He’s changed me for the better.”

“He’s killing everyone in this town for no reason,” said Tessa. She gestured at the row of severed heads which lined the road just ahead of us. For a minute, I gazed at leathery skin and dried blood, and then I had to look away.

“He’s made mistakes,” I said. “But he’s gone through a lot in his life. I don’t think we understand everything that’s happened to him.”

“I’m supposed to feel sorry for him because he had a bad childhood?” Tessa half-snorted. “I don’t believe you. That’s no excuse. When someone controls your mind and kills people, he’s bad. End of story. It’s simple.”

“It’s complicated,” I said.

“He’s a great man,” said Lori. “I’d follow him anywhere, no matter what he’s done. The truths he’s revealed to me counter any of the evil he’s done.”

Tessa hiked her bag higher up on her shoulder. “You guys just think he’s hot.”

“No,” I said. “Well, I mean, of course he’s attractive. But that’s not why I’m staying.”

“He must have some kind of insane pillow talk,” said Tessa. “I don’t know what else could have turned both of you into total idiots. Did he tell you that you were the most wonderful thing on earth, and that he’d do anything for you, is that it?”

I didn’t say anything. Because maybe he had said things just like that.

“No,” said Lori. “It was never like that. He’s not romantic. He’s intense. He has needs. He’s a—”

“—great man,” said Tessa. “Yeah, I got that.” She touched Garth’s arm again. “My brother’s a pretty great guy too, you know. Or at least, he used to be.” She started to lead Garth away. “Come on, Garth.”

Lori and I watched them go.

Lori twisted her hands together in front of her body. “She’s wrong, isn’t she? About Jason? I’ve been following Jason for a long time. He’s not a bad man.” She looked at me. “Is he?”

I looked from Lori’s tortured expression to the severed heads and back again. I took a breath to speak, but then I didn’t say anything.

“He’s enlarged my mind.” But her voice sounded shrill and pitiful somehow.

“When you said there were bruises, Lori,” I said, “what did you mean, exactly?”

She looked away. “I don’t think he meant to. He’s just stronger than I am, and sometimes he needed, you know, an outlet.”

“Did he hit you?” I asked. For some reason, this was important. If Jason had ever hit a woman, then—

“No,” she said. “He never hit me.”

I felt relieved. I snuck a look back at the heads on the sticks and a harsh laugh ripped out of my throat. What was I thinking? He was an okay guy because he didn’t hit women? Was it better to be battered and alive or to be dead?

Was Tessa right? I stared over the hill where she and Garth’s figures were getting smaller and smaller. A man was on the path, trudging up towards us. Another recruit to Jasontown? But I didn’t think Jason’s powers were working anymore.

The man waved over his head at me. “Azazel!” he called.

Lori looked at me sharply. “What did he call you?”

“He’s confused,” I told her. I took off for the man and met up with him on the path. We were out of earshot of Lori. “Don’t call me that,” I told him. “My name is Joan.” Who was this guy, anyway? He knew me, but, of course, I didn’t remember him.

He made a confused face. “I’m sorry.” He had a British accent. “Don’t you remember me? I’m Edgar Weem.” When I didn’t react, he continued. “Jason’s father?”

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.