~joan~

It was instinctive. I struggled. My hands went to his hand on my throat, and I tried to pull it away. His face loomed over mine, twisted into an ugly sneer. Why was he doing this? The Jason I’d seen on the videos was kind and peaceful, never violent.

“What are you waiting for?” he asked. “Why aren’t you using your powers to make this crowd surge against me?”

What was he talking about? I was having trouble breathing. I tugged at the hand he had around my neck, but it didn’t make any difference. I tried to use my legs to kick him, but I couldn’t make impact.

“You can’t think that seeing me hurt you would change their minds about me,” he said. “You know my power better than anyone.”

The world was going dark. My hands fell away from his hand, weakly.

And abruptly, he let me go. “Maybe,” he said as he scrambled off me, “we’ll have our tearful reunion somewhere more private.”

I coughed, feeling dizzy. I struggled to sit up.

Jason snapped his fingers and several men in dark clothes surrounded me, yanking me to my feet. As they led me away, I stole a glance over my shoulder at Tessa and Garth, who looked bewildered, but not concerned or worried. Maybe there was nothing to fear. Maybe this was normal.

The men took me behind the stage to a squat building that had no windows. Like the stage, it was made from mismatched pieces of wood. Inside, there was one dark room. The men forced me to sit down on a chair. They were in the middle of tying me to it when Jason came in and told them not to bother. “Ropes won’t stop her,” he said.

Jason lit a kerosene lamp, illuminating the room. There was nothing inside it except a few chairs and makeshift work table, where the lamp sat. On the walls, however, I could see that whips hung in coils, nailed to the wall. One in particular had bits of broken glass attached to it. What was this place?

Jason snapped his fingers again and the men filed out of the building, closing the door behind them. Jason pulled up a chair and sat opposite me.

“So,” he said, “what are you doing here?”

Jason was acting like he knew me. I might have lost my memory, but I didn’t think that I’d ever known Jason. If I had, why wouldn’t I have been here when I woke up? “I think you have me confused with someone else,” I said.

Jason barked out an astonished laugh. “What?”

“I think you think I’m someone that I’m not,” I said.

Jason sat back in his chair, stretching out his legs in front of himself. “Okay, then. Who are you?”

“I’m Joan,” I said. “I came here because I felt a call. I felt drawn to this place and to you. I thought you welcomed everyone.”

Jason laughed again. “You expect me to buy that? What kind of game are you playing here? Where are your armies? Where’s your little lapdog boy toy, Kieran? Where’s my son? Have you got him calling that wuss-face Daddy?”

I pulled my arms in close to my body, crossing them and massaging my elbows. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Jason rolled his eyes. “This is me we’re talking about. You might be able to fool other people with stories like that, but you can’t fool me. I know you better than anyone on earth, babe.” His eyes swept my body, and I felt like they were peering under my clothes. “I know every part of you.” His voice had gotten deeper.

Was that true? Did Jason know who I was? Did he have the secrets to my identity? “Well,” I said, “maybe I did know you, and I don’t remember.”

“What do you mean?”

“I have amnesia,” I said. “I remember things about the world, but I don’t know who I am, and I don’t remember anything about my life. I remember you, though. I remember that I wanted to be here in Jasontown. I knew I had to come.”

“Oh, this is ridiculous.” Jason rubbed his face with his hand. “That has got to be the stupidest thing I have ever heard. I don’t buy it for a second. Do you think I’m an idiot?”

“It’s true.”

“What’s your plan? Are you going to infiltrate my compound and discover its secrets so that you can take me down?”

“No, I’m not going to do anything like that. I just want to be part of the community. I want to work for peace.”

He got out of his chair. “Why would you come here with a story like that?” he said, but he wasn’t looking at me. “If you wanted me dead, you’d have shot me already.” He strode to me, and captured my chin with his fingers. Holding my face still, he gazed deep into my eyes. “You don’t remember anything?”

“No,” I said. I was speaking barely above a whisper because he was so close to me, his face inches from my own.

“Not your Homecoming Dance? Not me and you at Homecoming in the hallway beside the bathrooms?” He searched my eyes, looking for something.

“No.”

“Not what I did to your brother? To Chance?”

I stared back into his eyes. Did I have a brother? It didn’t matter. Jason’s eyes were huge and luminous. I felt lost in them. “No.”

Jason’s face came closer to mine, his lips coming for my own. His hand left my chin, and he caressed my jaw, his touch soft. I wanted him to kiss me, I realized. I wanted it badly.

But he backed away. He walked over to the kerosene lamp. Put his hands on the work table. “I want to believe you. If that were true…”

The muscles in his back were lit up and shadowed. He looked so powerful and virile. I swallowed. I was attracted to Jason. Very attracted. Was that a bad thing? He was a spiritual leader. Certainly, he didn’t—

Jason strode out of the building, letting the door clatter closed after him. I sat in the chair for a minute, wondering if he’d been satisfied with my answers. Who had he thought that I was? Was I that girl, whoever it was he recognized? Or was he just confused, mistaking me for someone else? Whoever this person was, Jason seemed to hate her and love her all at the same time.

The men from before came into the building to collect me. “Follow us,” said one.

***

~joan~

Jasontown sat on the Potomac River, about an hour’s drive from Washington, D.C. It was comprised of houses that had sat on the river before the solar flare. There were also new constructions, like the stage. Jason’s house was one of the old houses, probably something that had been some rich guy’s vacation home. It was hulking and intricate, made of bricks and glass. A beautiful house, really. Jason lived there, or so the guards told me as we made our way up the hill towards it. Everything except the stage was up a hill, to get away from the flood plain, apparently. Across from Jason’s house was another old vacation home, this one a huge log cabin A-frame. It was obviously an attempt to look rustic, but it had been built by people who were so sophisticated, they didn’t really understand what rustic was. It was the concubine house, the guards told me. And it was where I’d be staying.

I had a little bit of a hard time processing this. First of all, I wasn’t a concubine. This was the twenty-first century, and women didn’t have to trade their bodies for food or shelter or protection, at least I didn’t think they should have to. I wasn’t keen on the idea of basically being a prostitute. I must have reacted in a way that showed that I was upset, so the guards asked why. I said I didn’t want to be forced to sleep with people, and they told me it wasn’t people. It was just Jason.

That led me to the second thing that sort of bugged me about it. Jason had, like, a harem? This wasn’t how I’d pictured him at all. I had not expected Jason to be violent, or to try to kiss me, or to have a whole group of women that he kept in a house across the street so that he could bang them whenever he wanted. Jason was beginning to seem less like the benevolent, peaceful leader I’d thought he was, and more like some guy who thought he was a king or something.

The third thing that bugged me was that I didn’t so much mind the idea of having to sleep with Jason. Actually, I kind of liked the idea. And I shouldn’t, I didn’t think. I shouldn’t feel okay about the idea of being someone’s whore, no matter how freaking gorgeous he was. Furthermore, if I was going to be sleeping with Jason, I didn’t think I was going to like sharing him.

I was met inside the door of the concubine house by about ten redheads. They all stared at me. A couple of them reached out and touched my brown hair. None of them said anything.

One of the guards said, “Jason specifically asked for me to put her here. I know it’s weird, but if it’s what he wants…”

“Then we do it,” said one of the redheads. She smiled at me. “Sorry, we’re acting so strange.” She pulled me inside the house and hugged me. “Welcome. It’s so good to have you here.”

Inside the concubine house, there was a large great room, with a high, pointed ceiling from the A-frame roof. The kitchen was at the back of the room, and there was a fireplace in one corner. Two stories of lofts overlooked the great room. Apparently, that was where the bedrooms were.

“We don’t usually get two new girls in one day,” said one of the other redheads.

Behind her, Tessa waved.

“Tessa!” I said, going to her. Tessa had the reddest hair I’d ever seen. It was frizzy and full and long. And that was good, because I had a friend here.

She hugged me. “Apparently Jason has a thing for redheads.”

I felt suddenly self-conscious about my hair. I ran my hands through it, wishing I could pull it back in a bun and hide it.

The other girls in the house showed me around, explaining to me that they took turns cooking dinner for the house, and that in addition to our duties tending to Jason’s, er, pleasures, we also had to work in the gardens I’d seen by the river. However, we had probably the cushiest existence of anyone in Jasontown, or so they said. After they all introduced themselves (I couldn’t remember any of their names two minutes later), and finished showing me around the kitchen and great room, they showed me to my room, which I was sharing with Tessa.

The room was tiny. It was on the third floor, in the tip top part of the house. The ceiling sloped heavily over our heads. It was really hot up there, even though there was a giant open window and a breeze was blowing into the room. For the most part, I’d gotten used to the lack of air conditioning since the solar flare, but I wasn’t sure it was going to be easy to fall asleep up here. I guessed we got the crappiest room since we were the newest girls. There wasn’t much of anything in it except two beds.

After making sure we were comfortable and telling us dinner would be in a few hours, the redheads left Tessa and me alone in the stifling room. Tessa flung herself back on her bed. “So,” she said, “you were alone with Jason, weren’t you? Was that awesome?”

I snorted, sitting down on my own bed. “Hardly. I thought he was going to kill me. Didn’t you see how he practically strangled me in front of everyone?”

Tessa propped herself up on one elbow. “Strangled you? Exaggerate much?”

I’d almost blacked out. I didn’t think I was exaggerating. “He was really angry with me.”

“Jason would never hurt anyone,” said Tessa. “I mean, not unless he had to. You know, if that person were a danger to the community or something. You know this. We talked about this.”

I remembered the way I’d felt before coming here about Jason. That he was perfect and kind and a wonderful leader. I remembered the tug I’d felt, calling me to him. But ever since I’d looked into his eyes, the call had gone away. And all those feelings of safety and warmth were gone. I didn’t know why. I guess he’d just scared me. “I guess,” I said. “I can’t believe he has concubines.”

Tessa lay back on the bed. “Well, it’s not like he wouldn’t have needs, you know? And he wouldn’t have time to really have a relationship. He’s a busy guy.”

“Right,” I said.

“I think it’s kind of cool,” said Tessa. “I mean, can you imagine how amazing it’s going to be to have sex with Jason?”

I flashed on the way his muscular back had looked in the shadows of the kerosene lamp. I bit my lip. Yeah, I could imagine it. And I sure as hell didn’t think I wanted Tessa to have sex with Jason. Was that selfish of me? No. It wasn’t selfish. It was normal. Having concubines was abnormal. This whole place was abnormal. But that had been what I wanted when I came here so why did things feel different now?

Tessa kept talking. “But apparently, we almost never see him, and he doesn’t really have much sex with the concubines.”

I felt relieved. “He doesn’t?”

“Before you showed up, the other girls were telling me that a lot of them actually have relationships with the guards,” Tessa said. “Apparently, they’re not allowed to date other guys in a normal way, since they technically belong to Jason, and Jason doesn’t mind sharing with his guards. So, basically, we either pine away waiting for Jason to want us, or we get busy with the guards.”

“How about neither?” I said. I spread out on the bed. “Hey, aren’t you curious about why Jason pulled me away from everyone?”

“Well, I’m sure he had a good reason,” said Tessa.

“He didn’t,” I said. “He thinks I’m someone he knows. Someone I don’t think he likes very much.”

“Who?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “But I kind of got the impression it was an ex-girlfriend or something.”

“Whatever,” said Tessa, laughing. “I don’t think someone like Jason actually has girlfriends.”

“I don’t know who I am,” I said. “Do you think I could be? Do you think the reason I was drawn to Jason was because we have some kind of history?”

Tessa shot me a withering look. “Oh, come on, Joan. Everyone who’s here felt drawn to Jason. That’s all it was. And even if you did know Jason before, I’m sure you were not his girlfriend.”

Right. That was crazy. Wasn’t it?

***

~joan~

Dinner was nice. The other girls seemed friendly. We were joined by several of the guards and we all ate in the great room at a big oak table. As Tessa had explained, some of the guards looked pretty cozy with some of the girls. We also had some homemade wine. It was pretty strong, so I kept it to a glass. I wasn’t sure, of course, but I didn’t think I’d ever been one to drink much. I knew that I didn’t like to feel out of control, and it just seemed unlike me to have been much of a drunk.

The girls seemed really nice. After dinner, we all helped clear the table. Tessa and I volunteered to go down to the well to bring up water to wash the dishes. Jasontown had a limited supply of electricity from various sources like solar panels and generators, but no running water. Not yet, anyway. According to one of the guards, it was something they were working on. The well was only about forty or fifty feet from the house. Tessa and I each hauled back a big bucket of it.

When we got back, we heard chatter from inside the house. It didn’t sound quite as happy as it had during dinner. And the minute we got inside, it got completely quiet.

Tessa and I brought the water back to the kitchen, and I could swear all the girls were staring at me. They didn’t have particularly nice expressions on their faces either.

I set down my bucket on the counter, feeling fed up. “What?” I said finally. “What’s going on?”

One of the redheads spoke up. Her name was Lori, and I was figuring out that she was kind of the leader. “Jason wants to see you tonight,” she said, glaring at me.

I looked down at the floor, feeling nervous. I didn’t know if I wanted to do this or not.

“It’s a little odd,” said one of the other girls. “It’s been over a month since he’s asked to see anyone, and Lori’s his favorite. But then you show up, and you don’t look like us, and he wants to see you all of the sudden.”

Wow. Okay. They were jealous. “Look,” I said, “I didn’t ask to be Jason’s whore, okay? You want to do it, Lori, be my guest.”

“We’re not whores,” said a different girl, looking indignant.

“And it doesn’t work like that,” said Lori. “What Jason wants is what he gets. So, if he wants you, then we send you.”

Tessa squeezed my hand. “You are so lucky,” she whispered to me.

Funny. I didn’t feel lucky exactly. I swallowed. “So, this is what it’s like? He just sends for me, and I don’t have a choice?”

“Serving Jason is an honor,” said Lori. Her voice was ice.

Yeah. Okay. I looked around at the faces of the other girls. They really did sort of worship this guy. And just a few hours earlier, I thought that maybe I had too. What had changed? I nodded slowly. “Well, then, I guess I’m honored.” I hoped I didn’t sound sarcastic.

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.