Stupid, stupid, stupid , I thought to myself as I uprooted the herbs that I’d grown around my house and shoved them into bags. I needed to have the leaves to chew, and I wasn’t staying here. I had to find Chance and protect him from Kieran and Eve. Now. How could I have been such an idiot, thinking that if I left him alone, he’d be safe without me? I’d been so caught up in making sure I didn’t hurt him, I had never thought about anyone else hurting him. I was a stupid, arrogant bastard.
It had been five years since I’d seen Chance. He’d been baby back then, barely saying his first words. I remembered saying goodbye to him before I left him with Azazel at my house in Jasontown. I’d left them without any of the leaves that blocked magic, certain that they could be happy there. Without me. And I’d gone off to hide someplace where I could be miserable alone. Where I could brood and cut myself and think of nothing except all the evil things I’d done.
Stupid selfish jerk , I thought. How had I not seen before that I was being even more self-centered by hiding like this? Eve and Kieran were killing innocent people for fun. They were searching for my son, who they wanted to bring up in their mad world, and I was completely consumed with guilt. I’d tried to do the right thing, but I’d made things even worse. I’d abandoned everyone I cared about and left them to fend for themselves. What was happening to them now?
The darkness was setting in as I finished packing the herbs, but I barely glanced at the knives as I left the small house I’d been living in for years. Faces of my former victims didn’t haunt me that evening. Instead, the face of my son did. He’d be older now, I knew, but I still pictured him as tiny and helpless, his eyes wide and searching, so innocent. My God. How had I left him defenseless like that?
I slung the bag that held the herbs over my back and took off in the growing twilight. As my feet pounded against the road, I reassured myself as best I could. He was with Azazel. She wasn’t a shrinking violet. She could take care of herself. I laughed bitterly. I’d made sure of that, hadn’t I? I’d loved her. I’d protected her. And I’d taught her to kill. What a wonderful boyfriend I’d been. She could put up a decent fight if she needed to and I knew she wouldn’t have let anything happen to Chance.
Headlights cut through the semi-darkness. I stuck out my thumb. Hitchhiking wasn’t the greatest way to travel, but it was the best option I had. I didn’t own a car and I’d given up stealing from people five years ago. I didn’t want to hurt people anymore. Not at all.
The car slowed and pulled to a stop. The driver leaned over and opened the passenger door. He was a man in his late forties. His hair was thinning. “Need a ride?”
I got in. “Thanks.”
He sped off. “Where you headed?”
“East,” I said. To Jasontown. The last place I’d seen Azazel. Where I’d left her defenseless, without herbs to block the influence of Kieran and Eve. I’d told myself then that I wanted her to be happy. Now I felt as though all I’d done was leave her in danger with no protection. Idiot , I thought again. But there wasn’t time to berate myself anymore. I’d been doing that for five years. I had to act now.
“East?” said the driver. “How far east?”
“Almost all the way,” I said. “I’m sure you aren’t going that far.”
I gave him a sidelong glance. Why did he care? “How far are you going?”
The man smiled. “I asked you first, didn’t I?”
He was nosy, I guessed. I looked out the window at the black shadows of dusk streaming by. “Edge of West Virginia. Nearly to Washington, D. C.”
“Jasontown?” said the man. “You really don’t know where he is, do you, Jason?”
I whipped my head around to face him. “What did you say?”
“We’re inside all their minds,” said the man. His voice sounded a little different than it had before. “We can see you wherever you go and we’re watching you as closely as we possibly can.”
“Kieran?” my voice was hoarse.
“You catch on quick,” said Kieran-as-the-driver. He was controlling the man’s body. “This trick isn’t something you ever tried, though, is it? Maybe you didn’t quite have the juice without Azazel’s powers combined with yours.”
“Stop the car,” I said. I knew it was pointless. Kieran wasn’t going to stop the car.
“Chance isn’t in Jasontown,” said Kieran-as-the-driver. “That’s the first place we looked. We thought you’d stay there, living out your happy lives together. We thought it would be easy to take Chance. But when you weren’t there, we realized we couldn’t feel any of you. We couldn’t touch your brains. You were blocked from us somehow. We didn’t know how you were doing it. We still don’t. Maybe it’s because you used to have the powers. Maybe we can’t find Chance because he’s your son, and he inherited some kind of immunity from you.”
He didn’t know about the herb. Good. But everything wasn’t good. If Azazel had left Jasontown, and Kieran couldn’t sense her presence, then she… Was she dead? Was Chance dead? I’d taken all of the herbs and left her there. Where could she have gone?
“You look alarmed,” noted Kieran-as-the-driver. “You have no idea where Chance is now.” He paused. “Eve’s very upset. We were so excited to find you. We thought our search was over.” He shook his head at me. “I can’t believe you abandoned Chance like that. You really are a horrible father, aren’t you?”
I looked away. “Yes. I’m pretty much a horrible human being altogether, or had you forgotten?”
Kieran-as-the-driver chuckled. “Right. The abomination.”
I couldn’t help it. I winced.
“Still have your mommy issues, I see.”
I gave him a dark look. “I never gave a rat’s ass about that bitch. I blew her head off.”
“Oh, I remember. Well, I remember Azazel remembering. I remember a lot of her memories. It’s been helpful in trying to track her down.”
That was great. Kieran knew everything about us. He’d practically been Azazel for months when he’d had all her memories trapped in his head. Talk about unfair advantages. The guy could get in everyone’s head in the entire world. How was I supposed to hide from him? How was I supposed to find my son?
“Zaza has Chance, doesn’t she?”
“Don’t call her that,” I said.
“And you don’t know where she is,” said Kieran-as-the-driver. “She left you some clues, you know. I guess she didn’t figure on me finding them first. But I did. When we got to Jasontown, there was a message spelled out in dried leaves on the wall of your old house. It said, ‘Bethlehem.'”
Shiloh! Hallam had left me a message years ago, back when Azazel and I had first been on the run from the Sons. He’d told me to get to Bethlehem, by which he meant Shiloh, Georgia, the place where I was born. At that time, the Sons still thought I was the messiah, and using Bethlehem was a little joke between Hallam and me. The leaves meant she’d found some of the herb. I hadn’t gotten it all. If Kieran didn’t know where she was, and he didn’t know where I was, then that must mean the herb blocked him and Eve from seeing us somehow. Azazel wasn’t dead. I sagged against the seat of the car, relieved.
“It took me two seconds to figure that out, of course,” said Kieran-as-the-driver.
Of course. He remembered her memories.
“We went to Georgia right away,” he continued. “She’d been there, but she’d moved on. She spent time with that priest. What was his name? Father Gerald? Anyway, that message was more obscure. It said, ‘We had plans. Meet me with George.’ I wracked my brain up and down for any kind of plans you two might have had. Couldn’t think of anything involving someone named George.” He grinned at me, the same kind of awful lips-peeled-back grimace as he’d had during the games. “Does it mean something to you, Jason? Do you know where she is? Why don’t you just save us all some time and tell me where.”
Plans? Meet me with George? I puzzled over it for several minutes before it came to me. Before I’d run out on Azazel and Chance, she and I had been planning to dose the water supply in Washington, D.C. with the leaves and wake everyone up. She’d been counting on the apartment in Georgetown that she used to share with Kieran being empty. That had been the place we’d planned to do it from. That must be what she meant. But if Azazel had continued with our plans, then something must have happened. Because, as far as I knew, the water supply of Washington D.C. had not been dosed, and people had not broken free of the influence of Kieran and Eve. Was she still there?
I worried, trying not to let it show on my face. I didn’t want Kieran to know I’d recognized what her clue meant. “I don’t know anyone named George,” I told Kieran.
“You can’t hide it from me, you know,” said Kieran-as-the-driver. “I have eyes and ears everywhere. Everyone you see, everyone you interact with is wired right into my brain. So wherever you go, I’ll see. So, let’s not drag it out, Jason. Just tell me what it means. I’ll find you sooner or later.”
I swallowed hard. I was at a serious disadvantage here. But at least Kieran had saved me a trip to Jasontown. What was I going to do? I could knock out the driver and steal his car, but it wouldn’t matter. Kieran knew this car. He’d have everyone look out for it. If anyone saw the car, Kieran saw it. He’d figure out where I went. I could get out and hitch another ride, but Kieran could use that driver to see me. It was like Kieran had millions of security cameras all over the country. He could be anyone, see what anyone saw. It was like a bad episode of a television show that’s jumped the shark, when you aren’t sure if watching it is even fun anymore, now that the heroes don’t stand a chance.
I leaned back in the passenger seat of the car. I didn’t have a plan. Kieran was right. It seemed hopeless. How was I going to get to Azazel and Chance? Maybe I shouldn’t. If Kieran couldn’t find her, maybe it would be safer for them if I stayed away. Now that he’d found me, he’d be watching me. Going anywhere near them might only put them in danger. I wasn’t in a good mood. “So who’s the problem, you or Eve?” I asked, not looking at him.
“Whose fault is it that you can’t get pregnant? Are you shooting blanks? Hell, maybe you can’t get it up anymore. That the problem, Kieran?” Mean spirited, maybe. I didn’t care. Like I said, I never liked the guy much.
Kieran-as-the-driver only laughed. “You think you can make me angry, Jason? Don’t be ridiculous. I don’t get angry anymore. I’ve been inside the power too long. Emotions are human. I’m more than that.”
“Which is why you’re so desperate to have a child, I guess. Because you’re beyond being human.” I turned to him, giving him my own nasty smile.
He laughed again. “Where is she, Jason?”
“Go to hell,” I said. I grabbed the bag that held the herbs, threw open the car door, and hurled myself out into the darkness. As I thudded and rolled on the pavement, I heard the echo of Kieran’s laughter fading into the distance.
He didn’t come after me. Maybe it wasn’t worth the trouble to him. Maybe he figured someone else would see me soon enough. Or maybe he thought I was killing myself by throwing myself out of a speeding car.
I was damned lucky not to break any bones, but I was pretty scraped up. As I dragged myself off the road, I wished like anything that I was still invincible. Instant healing would really have come in handy right then. With my clothes ripped and blood seeping from the places where my skin had been ripped away from my body, I stumbled into the woods. I found a tree, huddled under it, and spent the night trying to sleep away the pain.
When I did sleep, I dreamed. It was the same dream. There was a lot of blood. There was a lot of shooting. I was always doing it. Shooting people. Sometimes for good reasons, or at least it seemed that way in the beginning. Either they lied to me and told me it was for a good reason, or someone I cared about was in danger. And then… then the reasons weren’t so good anymore. I couldn’t count the number of people I’d killed.
It was a relief to wake up to the aches in my body. Physical pain was real and bright. It blotted out all the noise in my head. I liked it so much that I didn’t even think about doing anything to clean my scrapes. I pushed through the woods. Every step hurt. Every step kept the memories at bay. The tortured faces. The screams. The begging and pleading. “Don’t. Please don’t hurt me.” And I pulled the trigger anyway.
I stuffed leaves into my mouth and chewed them as I walked. When I wasn’t glorying in the way the physical pain kept my guilt away, I tried to figure out my situation. I hadn’t gotten very far in the car before I’d thrown myself out, so it was safe to say that I was still in Minnesota. It would take nearly twenty-four straight hours driving in a car to get to D.C. from here. Hitchhiking was out and so was any kind of public transportation. No one could see me. How could I get a car without anyone seeing me?
Steal one from the driveway of a house at night while the people who owned it slept inside?
Sure. Except for the fact that car theft never happened anymore, which meant that Kieran and Eve would immediately know that I was the one who stole the car. They’d know everything about the car. Its color, make, model, plates. How long would it take for them to track me down when everyone in the whole country was watching for it?
I should probably stay away. I’d run away so that I could keep Chance and Azazel from my darkness. Going to them now was only bringing them more danger. But she’d left messages meant for me. She wanted me to find her. Maybe I was causing her pain by staying away.
Could that even be possible? After she’d been away from me for this long, hadn’t she realized how much better off she was without me? Whatever she’d thought she felt for me, certainly she’d realized that it was only because I’d twisted her in my own dark way. I was bad for her. She knew that now, didn’t she?
I was thirsty. Eventually, I’d need to drink water or I’d die. I’d decided a long time ago that death was too good for me so I needed to stay alive. I crashed around in the woods for a while, looking for a stream. Instead, I found the road again. There was a gas station and a restaurant outside the tree line. If I went there, someone would see me. Kieran would find me. I crept forward anyway and snuck up to the back of the building.
Crouching in the tall grass behind the restaurant, I peered inside a window. It was nearly empty inside. I guess business wasn’t booming that day. There was a television on in the corner. The two servers were staring at it. My face was on the screen. In large letters underneath, it said my name and the words, “Watch him.”
I sagged against the building, lowering myself from the window. Great. Now I was public enemy number one. That was fine; I was used to it. I’d been on the run for most of my life. Sure, things hadn’t been quite this difficult back then, but I knew how to handle myself when I was running from someone. I knew how to keep from being discovered. I ran through my internal checklist of things to do when being chased. Change my appearance. Use untraceable funds, like cash or fake credit cards. That didn’t matter much these days. No one used money. Everyone was so happy that they just gave other people whatever they wanted.
I was sticky with dried blood. My face and the entire right half of my body were scraped up. My clothes were torn and ragged. I wasn’t exactly inconspicuous. How was I going to change my appearance, exactly?
The only way to ensure that Kieran couldn’t see someone was if they’d been chewing the leaves. Was there some way I could get someone to chew the leaves without seeing me? Like if I waited in this parking lot near a car until the driver came to it, knocked the person out from behind, and then shoved leaves into his or her mouth? I could take that person’s clothes, I guess, which would be better than nothing for changing my appearance. I could take his or her car. No, it would have to be a guy. A guy with a hat. I’d need something to obscure my face. By the time the guy woke up and the effects of the leaves wore off, Kieran would have no idea where I was. He’d be able to trace the car at that point, I supposed, but the effects of the leaves lasted about a day. If I drove straight through, I could make it to D.C. by then.
Should I go?
I had to go.
I scoped out the parking lot for hours. Several people came out of the restaurant. None of them were men with hats. I was getting thirstier. But I waited.
Eventually, a car pulled up, and a man wearing a baseball cap got out of it. He was about my height, but he was heavier. It didn’t matter, I decided. I’d been waiting with a heavy rock in my hand to knock whoever owned the car out. I crept toward the man, holding the rock in one hand, keeping out of his sight as best I could. He was walking toward the door of the restaurant, and I was running out of time, so I darted behind him, raising the rock over my head.
And hesitated. I was going to hurt him, wasn’t I? Hadn’t I promised myself that I’d never hurt someone, never again?
He’d seen me move out of the corner of his eye. He was turning, startled—
I brought the rock down on his skull.
He made a little yelp and fell to the ground. I dragged him behind the car, checking for a pulse. Alive. He was alive.
But his lifeless body made me feel sick inside. It brought too many memories to mind, too many other lifeless bodies lying next to me. I struggled to push the memories back, to keep control. I fumbled with my bag of leaves, shoving a handful into the man’s mouth.
You didn’t kill him , I reassured myself. He’s alive. He’s going to be okay.
I yanked the baseball cap off of his head and put it on my own. I had to get out of there. Now.
This book is being posted on Tuesdays and Thursdays beginning 1/17/2012. To access other chapters, check out the Onset Posts Archive, here.