Kieran went for his gun.
“You draw that, I blow her head off,” said Jason.
Marlena had her hand over her open mouth. She was shaking her head back and forth, like she couldn’t believe it.
Only Hallam kept his cool. “You expect me to believe you’d shoot Azazel?” he said. He drew his own gun out of his shoulder holster.
Jason didn’t shoot me. Instead, he moved the gun away from my temple and pushed me into Kieran. “You expect me to believe you’d shoot me, Hallam?”
Kieran and I went sprawling onto the floor, a tangle of arms and legs. We extracted ourselves and scrambled to our feet.
Jason pushed past Marlena, shoving her into the wall. He sprinted down the hallway.
Hallam yelled, but he didn’t shoot.
Kieran struggled to free his gun.
Jason burst through the door into the sanctuary.
Kieran went after him.
Hallam and I didn’t move.
I heard shots, muffled through the door. It unglued my legs. I raced after Jason and Kieran, throwing open the door to the sanctuary. Hallam and Marlena were hot on my heels.
The sanctuary was empty. I darted up the aisle and out the door, crashing into Kieran on the outside steps. He steadied me with one arm, peering fiercely around the church, his gun at the ready.
“He got away,” said Kieran.
Of course he did. That wasn’t relief I was feeling, was it?
I heard Hallam sigh behind me. “What’s happened to him?”
Hallam’s office was off the side of the church, part of the ugly addition that had been built on. There was a sleeping pallet in one corner, and a desk in the other. It was covered with maps and other pieces of paper. The computer that used to sit on it was junked and stashed against the wall, its screen shattered. Computers were worthless without electricity.
The four of us sat on some folding chairs, and I explained what Jason had said to me.
Then Marlena started crying, for real, which was a big deal, because Marlena was tough and I’d never seen her cry. “I just don’t know what happened to him.”
Hallam put his arm around her. “I hate to say it, but I think Azazel was the only thing keeping him tethered to this world.” He looked at me. “When you left him, he just snapped.”
Right. Fine. Blame me. Hallam and Marlena had known Jason longer than they’d known me anyway. I guess they were on his side.
“This isn’t Azazel’s fault,” said Kieran. “That guy is nuts. Wasn’t he trained to be like the ultimate mass murderer or something anyway?”
Hallam studied his fingernails. He’d been the one who’d done a lot of that training. But he’d been ordered to by the Sons of the Rising Sun, a twisted secret society bent on world domination. And Jason and I had gotten rid of them. In the end, it was really me who was the mass murderer. I’d convinced them all to commit suicide, screwing up the entire world. Maybe it all was my fault.
“I’m not blaming her,” said Hallam.
“Of course not,” said Marlena. “I was there when you two broke up.” She looked at Hallam. “If you’d done something like thatâ€””
“I would never do that,” Hallam said.
“The point is,” said Kieran, “he’s not going to join the OF. So we need to radio in and see what they want us to do about it. Do they want him destroyed?”
“No,” said Marlena.
I shook my head. “That’s not our problem, Kieran. We came here to talk to him. We did. Now, if I can just get the Key of Asher, then Kieran and I can leave.”
“Maybe if you talked to him again,” said Hallam.
“No,” I said.
“But you were always able to get through to him,” said Hallam. “Even at the Sons’ Headquarters, when he’d gone completely insane, you were able to stop him.”
“He was never able to stop, Hallam,” I said. “You and I both know that. He’s never been quite balanced. And I was just lucky that time in England. Because he shot at me. And if I’d hit the floor one second later, I’d be dead.”
“This guy is dangerous,” said Kieran. “I gather that he’s charming. Sociopathic people often are. But he uses people like pawns to achieve his own ends. You can’t let him manipulate you.”
“Jason isn’t sociopathic.” Marlena leaned forward in her chair, fire in her eyes.
“He fits the profile,” said Kieran.
“He’s not sociopathic,” I said.
“Excuse me,” said Kieran, “but I don’t know if you’re being honest with yourself about this. You were essentially in an abusive relationship with him, and I don’t think it’s fair to ask you to confront your abuserâ€””
“He didn’t abuse me.”
“He tried to kill you. I just saw him holding a gun to your head.”
I took a deep breath, trying to steady myself. “We had an unhealthy relationship. Yes. He’s not a great guy. But he’s not abusive or sociopathic. He has empathy. He feels guilt. He was just brought up in such a wayâ€””
“Don’t defend him,” said Kieran. He looked around at us. “All three of you. You make excuses for him.”
“You don’t understand,” said Hallam. “You don’t know him.”
“I do,” I said. I looked at Kieran. Was he right? Was I defending a man who’d abused me? What was Jason if not a clever, cunning killer? How many people had I seen him kill? Sure, sometimes he cried later, but did that make those people any less dead? “Hallam, he doesn’t want to let you through because he doesn’t want the OF to tell him what to do. He hates authority. He’s always been violent.”
“He protects the people he cares about,” Hallam countered. “He saved your life too many times to count, Azazel. He saved mine too.”
“Protects?” I repeated. “After Jason appeared in my life, I spent years being chased and shot at. Because of him, my entire family is dead. Because of him, I had to learn to kill people. If I’d never met himâ€””
“Those things were not all Jason’s fault,” said Hallam.
He was right. I rubbed my face with my hand. “He didn’t always do it to protect people,” I said. “Like Marlena said, when I broke up with him, he was out of control.”
Hallam massaged the bridge of his nose. “Indeed.”
We were quiet.
“You want my advice?” I said. “Break camp in Columbus and try to cross the river somewhere else. He wasn’t wrong when he said that the force of people you have here is no match for him.”
“But you’re a match for him, Azazel,” said Hallam. “You’re powerful. The things you can do are astounding.”
“No,” I said. “Because I won’t be here. I’m taking the Key of Asher and reporting back to Georgia. Because I’ve fulfilled everything that I was supposed to do here.”
“You can’t just leave,” said Hallam.
“He’s right,” said Marlena. “Jason still loves you. I know he does. If only you couldâ€””
“No,” said Kieran, “you can’t ask her to see him anymore. This man traumatized her. So lead us to Key of Asher or whatever, and we’ll leave tomorrow morning.”
Marlena got up and came to me. She knelt next to my chair. “Azazelâ€””
I turned away. “Kieran’s right.”
Hallam sighed. He stood up too and walked to the door. “Lily’s out with a few others scouting for fuel and food. She should be back this evening. She’s got the Key of Asher. You can talk to her.” He opened the door and gestured to the hallway. “I’ll show you where you can sleep.”
One of the rooms in the back, the one where all the guns and ammo were stored, had been partitioned off with sheets into separate, small sleeping areas. Kieran and I both had small sleeping pallets. We spent the rest of the afternoon staying busy. Kieran offered to help with the radio, and I went out back where Marlena and few of the women were working on making food.
Some of the group had been hunting. They’d killed some rabbits. They were skinned and cleaned. We were cooking them on an old charcoal grill, along with wild onions that a few of the others had found. Rabbit wasn’t something I would have eaten before the lights went out, but I had to admit that meat sounded nice. Kieran and the group I worked with the in south subsided almost entirely on canned food and powdered pasta meals. At least there were still large supplies of prepared herbs there for the taking in abandoned grocery stores. If we couldn’t get west, though, and get help, things would go even further downhill. It was amazing to me what losing electricity had done to civilization. All our pretty, fancy little toys and tricks were suddenly meaningless. We were primitive, struggling to survive like animals. It frightened me.
After dinner, we sat around the smoldering coals of the grill as twilight set in. I listened to the chatter and laughter of Marlena, Hallam, and their group. They were one of the scouting units. Their mission was to get west. They’d been on the move for months. While they were frustrated with the fact that Jason had halted their progress, I could tell they enjoyed the chance to wait it out here for a bit. The more permanent encampment seemed to suit them. It was a warm, spring day, but as the sun set, the air grew colder. I shivered in my t-shirt and shorts for a bit, but then I went back in to get some warmer clothing from my duffel.
As I was emerging from my little sleeping area, now in jeans and a sweatshirt, Kieran met me at the door. Scant light filtered in through the windows of the room, turning the guns into long, black shadows. I could barely see the features of Kieran’s face.
“Hey,” he said. “I just came to check on you.”
I gestured to my new outfit. “I was cold.”
I started to push past him, but he stopped me.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“I’m fine.” I didn’t need Kieran to comfort me. I was glad he’d had my back when we were talking to Hallam and Marlena, but that didn’t mean we were best friends or something.
I started for the hallway.
“Look,” said Kieran, “I didn’t ask for them to assign me to come with you.”
I stopped and turned to him. His hair was catching the last bit of light from outside. It glowed, surrounding his head like a halo. “I know.”
“When we talked right before we left, you said we were cool.”
“We are cool.”
“Okay, so why the silent treatment? Why are you treating me like some asshole?”
I rolled my eyes in the darkness. I didn’t have time for this. “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.”
“That’s not what I mean. I just don’t see why we can’t be adults about this.”
“I don’t see how being adults means we have to be best friends.”
“You know, I was drunk too.”
“Oh thanks,” I said. “This has been real comforting, Kieran, but seriously.” I stepped into the hallway.
“Come on,” he said. “I didnâ€™t mean it like that. I mean, you’re gorgeous and smart and awesome. I would have done it if I wasn’t drunk, butâ€””
I closed my eyes. “I just want to pretend it didn’t happen.” Which would be a lot easier, if I wasn’t still waiting for myâ€”
“I don’t,” he said. “We were lonely. Both of us. The world exploded. It’s okay that we needed some comfort, some human contact. It can just be that. We can still be friends.”
“We have never been friends. And I’m sorry, but just because I got wasted and let you play hide the salami with me does not mean we’re a couple or buddies or that I have to tell you how I’m feeling.”
“Let’s just find the Key of Asher and get the hell out of here. Please?”
I started down the hallway.
“Fine,” he muttered. “Sure.” He paused, and then called after me, “Was it really bad or something?”
I stopped. Turned. It had been awesome. Really awesome. The best since Jason. But if I told him thatâ€¦ I opened my mouth.
And then I heard the screaming, outside of the church. Kieran and I exchanged a look of alarm and then we both scrambled towards the door.