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"You're kidding," Jude gasped. "She said somebody needed to show him and then it was quiet?"
"Yeah," I said. "And Jason has the nerve to be jealous of me and act like it's my fault."
Jude was pulling into the driveway of the restaurant where Lilith and Jason worked. He shook his head as if he couldn't believe it. "So the two of you had another fight then?"
"I guess so."
"Girl, is it just me, or are the two of you arguing a lot lately?"
"It's Lilith!" I said. "She's ruining everything. I just want to get rid of her."
"So that's why we're going to Jason's work? So you can confront him about Lilith?"
I couldn't explain to Jude why exactly I was going, so I guessed his interpretation worked as well as any other. "Yeah."
Jude parked the car in the parking lot and turned it off.
"Thanks for driving me," I said. "I know I must not seem like the safest person to be around lately."
Jude shrugged. "I got your back, Azazel. Really. Whatever you need to do."
I was glad he hadn't asked any questions about Mr. Sutherland. It made everything much easier. Jude was a good friend. I didn't care what anyone thought. I was glad to have him. And there was nothing going on with him beyond that.
"So," said Jude. "You want me to wait in the car?"
I nodded. That would be easier. I need to talk to Jason privately. Jude might get in the way.
"Okay," said Jude.
"Thanks," I said. I put my hand on the door handle.
"Azazel?" said Jude.
I stopped and looked at him. "Yeah?"
"If you ever feel like . . ."
"What?" I said.
"It's not important."
Trailing off drove me crazy. "Tell me," I said.
"It's just that if you feel like you have to stay with Jason because he's all you've got, I want you to know that's not true."
"I know you think you love him. Maybe you do. But just because you love someone doesn’t mean that you two are good for each other, you know? Anyway, I just want you to know that if you ever need anything, you have me, okay?"
I just smiled. "Thanks Jude. That means a lot. It does. But nobody else really gets Jason and me. What we have goes beyond being good or bad for each other." We're each other's oxygen. But I didn't say that out loud.
I went up to the restaurant. The door was locked, because they were closing, so I went around back to the kitchen entrance. A few guys were outside, dumping large garbage bags into the dumpster behind the restaurant. I recognized them because I knew they worked with Jason, but I couldn't remember their names.
"Hi," I said. "I'm looking for Jason."
"Oh, right," said one of the guys. "You're his girlfriend, right?"
"Right," I said.
"Well, he already left," said the other guy.
"He did?" I said.
I'd missed him? I wondered what he'd think when he got home, and I wasn't there.
"Yeah," said the first guy. "He went to a party out on Cortez."
"Right. At Rachel Kline's house," said the other guy.
A party? Jason had gone to a party? After everything that had happened, he'd just ditched me to go off and drink?
"Really?" I said.
"He's been hanging out pretty close with that redhead chick," said one of the guys. "I'm pretty sure going to the party was her idea."
"Oh my God." I shook my head, angry and hurt at the same time.
"Sorry," said the other guy. "Tough break. For what it's worth, I think you're way hotter than that Lilith girl."
Fuming, I went back to Jude's car. I filled him in. "They're at Rachel Kline's," I said.
"Oh right," he said. "I totally forgot about that."
"So did I," I said. "You asked me if I wanted to go on Sunday."
"Seems like five years ago," said Jude. "It's been quite a week."
"Yeah," I said. It had been.
"So I guess we're going to Rachel's?" Jude asked.
"I guess so," I said. I couldn't believe Jason was going to a party. Was this some way of getting back at me for going to parties without him all the time? I hadn't realized it bothered him so much.
"Could be fun," said Jude. "It's a party, after all."
Fun? Doubt it. And maybe I'd just been fooling myself all this time, thinking that I went out to so many parties and drank so much because I wanted to cut loose and be free. Truthfully, I thought I might just be running from everything that had happened. I didn't want to face what had happened to me. I didn't want to face who I'd become. But I wasn't a crazy party girl. I was a girl who'd fought off a serial rapist. I was a girl who'd faced down the Sons of the Rising Sun. I was girl who could load a gun and flick off the safety. I was a girl who loved a boy more than life itself. I was me. There wasn't any running from it. Not anymore. I had to be myself. Own up to it.
But I smiled weakly. "Party time," I said.
Jude laughed. He started the car. "You sound so enthused."
As he pulled out of the parking lot, Jude got his phone out of his pocket. "I'm going to give a couple of the guys from work a call and tell them I'm going out to the party, okay?"
I listened while he relayed our destination over the phone and gave directions to Rachel's house. It didn't take long to drive out to Rachel's house. It was close to town. Once there, we had trouble finding a parking space since the entire street was glutted with cars, and they were taking up every possible place to park. Finally, we parked maybe three blocks away and had to walk all the way back to the party.
Rachel's house was one of those McMansions that populate the Sarasota-Bradenton area. Easily worth a half-million dollars, it sprawled amongst houses of the same size in a crowded, planned neighborhood. Inside, there was a lot of space, but not a lot of rooms. The foyer had high ceilings and a large chandelier. Overall, however, the house was a regular three bedroom house. Just a fancy one, with big windows and walk-in closets.
Rachel's parents were out of town for the weekend, and it seemed that everyone in Bayshore High School knew that. The party was packed. Bodies writhed in the living room, dancing to a pulsing stereo. In the foyer, kids chatted in groups, clutching bottles of beer or plastic cups filled with sugary mixed drinks. The kitchen was similarly crowded. There were puddles of alcohol on the floor. There were stains on the carpet. I didn't see Rachel Kline anywhere. I wondered if she were worried about the fact that her house was being destroyed by the entire student body.
Because the party was so packed, I couldn't find Jason or Lilith. Jude and I made a search of each of the rooms in the lower level of the house. The living room. The foyer. The kitchen. The den. The line to the downstairs bathroom. They were nowhere to be found. Had they actually come to the party? What if they were somewhere else? Together?
The thought made me feel nauseated.
"Where are they?" I wondered aloud.
"Should we check upstairs?" Jude asked.
Upstairs? Like . . . in a bedroom? I gulped. If that's where they were, did I want to know?
I chewed on my lip, trying to work up the courage to mount the steps and look. But I didn't have to, because I saw Jason coming out of the kitchen, the plastic cup he held sloshing liquid all over the floor.
Jude touched my shoulder. "You want me to stick around while you talk to him? For moral support?"
I shook my head. "It's probably better if you don't. He doesn't much like you, if you hadn't noticed."
Jude nodded. "I'll be around," he said. "Find me if you need a ride or anything." And then he disappeared into the throng of bodies surrounding us.
I pushed my way through them to Jason.
Jason looked surprised when he recognized me. "What are you doing here, Azazel?" he asked.
"I'm looking for you," I said. "I have something I need to tell you."
He took a long swig of his drink.
"Can we go somewhere and talk? Somewhere quiet?" I asked him.
Jason raised his eyebrows. "What do you want to talk about Azazel? Can't you see I'm drinking here? I'm having fun. I thought you'd be glad. Isn't that what you want me to do? Stop being so serious? Live it up?"
"No," I said. "No, I need to tell you something very important."
"So tell me."
"It's so loud and crowded here. Can't we just—"
"Tell me," he said. "I've got shit to do."
I looked at the floor. "You're drunk."
"Hell yeah, I am," said Jason. "No drunker than you always get, though."
"It's about the bell, Jason."
"Oh, the bell. Come on, Azazel, can't you let that go? I thought Sutherland stuck it in your purse, anyway. Sutherland's not a problem. I told you that, didn't I?"
"Sutherland didn't do it," I said.
"Then who did?"
"The Satanists," I said.
Jason's expression froze thoughtfully. "The Satanists?"
"I found a ritual on the internet telling me that the Invocation to Azazel could be completed with a bell and other stuff. I think the bell was planted to scare me. Or to tip me off. I don't know. Maybe they thought once the ritual was completed, I'd be on their side completely or something."
"Wait," said Jason. "The Satanists? Who? Michaela Weem?"
"No," I said. "I mean, I think she's behind it, but I don't think she's here."
"There's only one person who's close to me, who has ties to the Satanists, and who showed up right before the bell appeared in my purse."
"Lilith, Jason. It's Lilith. And she's obviously trying to seduce you so that I'll get angry with you."
Jason glared at me witheringly before chugging his drink again. "Lilith? Jesus, Azazel, this is ridiculous."
"You don't believe me?" I said. God, what was wrong with Jason? Why didn't he see that what I was saying was the truth?
"Look, I'm drunk, and you're grasping at straws."
"Mr. Sutherland said that someone close to me was trying to complete the ritual," I said.
"And you believed him? He's not exactly a reliable source, is he?"
"He wanted to trade information. He only got violent with me when I wouldn't tell him that you were Edgar Weem's son."
"What?" Jason looked confused. "I can't think about this right now, okay?"
"We have to. Lilith is staying in our house. We have to do something before she—"
"Before she what? Why do you hate Lilith so much, Azazel?"
"This isn't about the way I feel about her. This is about the fact that you and I are both in danger and that the Satanists are—"
"Spare me," said Jason. "I'm sick of your conspiracy theories. If it's up to you, we'll never be safe. We'll never be normal. You see danger everywhere. You're paranoid, and you need to get over it."
Jason drained his glass, turned his back on me, and started back for the kitchen.
"Jason!" I called after him, struggling to push through the bodies and keep up.
He turned on me. "I need some space, okay, Azazel? Just give me one night where I don't have to be the Rising Sun. Just give me one night where I don't have to think about this crap. Just give me one night to be normal. Okay? Is that too much to ask?"
His eyes blazed. Wounded, I hung back. But then Lilith slid between the crowded bodies and moved close to Jason. She was holding two plastic cups. She gave one to Jason. He took it from her and took a large gulp. The two surveyed me.
"Zaza," said Lilith. "You look like you might start crying. Are you okay?"
God. I hated her. How could she pretend to be concerned when she was plotting against me?
Jason laughed. "You should hear her latest paranoid delusion, Lil. She thinks you're working for the Satanists. She thinks you put that bell in her purse after you performed an invocation over her body to invoke the demon Azazel."
Lilith's brow furrowed sympathetically. "Jesus, Zaza." She turned to Jason. "She's been under a lot of stress lately. She was nearly captured and then nearly raped. You shouldn't be too hard on her."
I gaped at Lilith. "Don't play dumb," I said to her. "I know it's true."
Lilith looked into her drink, pressing her lips together as if she were trying very hard to keep from saying something.
"What's your plan?" I said to her. "You think if you seduce Jason that I'll feel betrayed and kill him?"
"Jesus Christ!" Jason exclaimed. "You know I'd never do that."
"I used to think you'd never say I was paranoid and delusional too," I spat out. "I used to think you'd never run off without telling me where you're going and come home covered in blood, too stunned to speak. I used to think all kinds of things about you, Jason Wodden. Now I'm not sure if I even know you."
Jason rolled his eyes. "Screw this," he said. "I can't take this right now." He turned away from me and made his way into the crowd. Lilith started to follow him, but I darted forward and caught her by the arm.
"No," I said. "You don't go with him. There's no way I'm letting you go off with him now."
"You can't control Jason, you know," she said. "He's a big boy. He can do what he wants."
"Yeah?" I said. "Well, he's not doing you. Not on my watch." I started for the door to the house, pulling Lilith with me. "You're coming with me," I said. "We're going to go talk to Hallam. We'll see what he thinks about this."
Lilith struggled, but she walked with me. "I'm not going anywhere with you," she said. "You're going nuts. You're losing it Azazel. None of this is real. You realize that don't you? You're paranoid. Can't you see that you're paranoid?"
"Maybe if I'd been a little more paranoid in Bramford, none of that shit would have happened," I retorted.
I pulled her out the door and onto the porch. Once in the muggy night air, she wrenched her arm out of my grip.
"Don't fool yourself, Azazel," said Lilith. "You didn't have any control over what happened to you in Bramford, just like you don't have any control over what's happening to you now. You're Azazel. The Vessel. The girlfriend of Jason. You're never going to get to choose what you want. Don't you realize that?"
"What are you talking about?" I said. Because it almost sounded to me like she was admitting that I was right. She was a Satanist. She was controlling my destiny. "I know everything that's going on here. I can stop what's going on."
"Well," said another voice, "not everything."
I whirled, looking for the person who owned the voice.
And I couldn't believe my eyes. Walking across the lawn to Rachel Kline's house were my two older brothers, Noah and Gordon. I hadn't seen the two of them since the ritual in Bramford, back in October.
"Noah?" I gasped. "Gordon?" I looked at Lilith. "Why are they here?"
But she looked just as surprised as I did. "I don't . . ." She shook her head.
Noah and Gordon stopped in front of us, both grinning. Noah jammed his hands into his pockets. Gordon rubbed his chin. When I'd spoken to Chance earlier in the week, he'd said that they'd been planning to visit me. Was this that visit?
"Hey Zaza," said Noah.
"Lil' sis," said Gordon.
Suddenly, everything clicked into place. "Oh," I murmured, covering my mouth with my hand. "It was you two. You two stole the bell and performed the ritual."
Noah shrugged. "Well, yeah. After what happened to Mom and Dad, you didn't expect us to just give up, did you?"
"Gotta say, though, we're kind of disappointed in you, Zaza," said Gordon. "You really haven't been living up to your potential. Why couldn't you have just cooperated in October and saved us all this trouble?"
I shook my head. "So, you've been working with Michaela Weem or something?"
"She was really shaken up when she saw the two of you in Shiloh," said Noah. "The things she said she saw . . . Seriously, Zaza. Don't you know that you should get your big brothers' approval before you start dating someone?"
"We don't like this Jason guy at all. He's bad, bad news," said Gordon.
"I'm never going to kill him," I said. "You two must understand that."
They shrugged. "There's some stuff we want to show you," said Gordon.
"You might change your mind," said Noah.
"Never," I said.
"Still," said Gordon, "we'd like you to come with us."
"No way," I said. "You two helped. You two tried to set me up to get raped by Toby. I don't trust you. I don't care if you are my brothers."
"You're talking like you have a choice," said Noah.
Damn it. What did that mean? "So you're going to take me by force?" I asked. Where was a gun when I needed it?
"If we have to," said Noah.
"It would be easier if we didn't have to do that," said Gordon. "You could just come voluntarily."
"What about me?" asked Lilith.
"She'll probably just run off and tell Jason about us if we let her go," said Noah to Gordon.
"Wait," I said. "Lilith isn't working with you?"
"Lilith?" said Noah. "Come on, Zaza. I know she's your friend and all, but she's way too stupid to pull anything like that off."
"Screw you," Lilith said darkly.
I didn't think. I just moved. My hand darted out and grasped Lilith's. I broke out into a sprint, dragging her along.
We ran across the lawn of Rachel Kline's house. Behind us, I heard both Noah and Gordon cry out in surprise.
Lilith and I might have made it, even though she was slowing me down, her breath coming in gasps.
But before we could get off the lawn and onto the sidewalk (where there were cars to hide in, maybe one with unlocked doors and keys inside) a familiar figure appeared in our path.
"Jude!" I cried out in recognition and relief. "We have to get out of here. I'll explain later." I slowed as I approached him, glancing over my shoulder to see if Noah and Gordon were in pursuit.
I didn't see them anywhere.
Confused, I stopped, pulling Lilith to a stop next to me.
Jude ambled over to us, his arms clasped behind his back. "What's going on?" he asked.
"There are these two guys who were chasing us," I said, struggling to catch my breath. "I don't know where they went."
"I don't see anyone," said Jude.
I just shook my head. "We have to get out of here, anyway," I said. "They'll—"
Jude took his arms out from behind his back. He was holding a baseball bat.
"Jude?" I whispered.
He raised the bat over his head. "Sorry, Azazel," he said.
The bat came crashing down.
And everything winked out, like birthday candles that had just been blown out.
Copyright (c) 2009 Valerie Chambers