I keep my stable of girls shackled in there as well. I currently own three of them, each between the ages of fourteen and twenty, each collared and chained to a wall.
Healthy young females like Evie have become rarities, resources. Like everyone else alive, I hoard resources.
It makes no difference that I’d begun doing this before the apocalypse. I need them, using them to test my concoctions.
Some might say I torture simply because I myself was tortured by my father, a tyrant who’d tried to “beat the evil” out of me. I’d been a mass of healing fractures and repeated contusions for all of my childhood—up until the day I chloroformed him, chained him in a storage tub, then leisurely dissolved him in hydrochloric acid.
He’d awakened in time to meet the evil up close.
And my mother, the woman who’d done nothing to stop him, even blaming me for triggering his ire?
She fared worse.
But my past experience is irrelevant. I use these girls only to further my research. This is my life’s work. I don’t set out to harm them, per se. The fact that I enjoy inflicting pain on them is incidental.
No, the research is all that matters.
When I head toward the dungeon, the trio falls silent behind the plastic curtain, their chains rattling as they scurry back toward the wall.
I push past the plastic, turning up the battery-powered lantern on the wall. As they shield their eyes from the light, I stare down at them one by one.
Clad in soiled garments, they cower on the packed earthen floor, their hands caked with dirt. They’ve been digging into the ground, making little nests in which to keep warm when they sleep.
A maggot-ridden corpse lies curled up in one nest, still attached to her chain. That one succumbed to my last experiment: a potion I’d designed to lessen the body’s need for fluids.
For weeks, it’d worked faultlessly. Then it . . . didn’t.
I view her remains dispassionately. The congealing blood, tissue, and organs used to be a person—a former Merit Scholar at an Ivy League college. That pile of meat used to embody a soul.
Now it’s just a collection of elements.
Evie will take the scholar’s place. Perhaps she’ll live longer than a month. Perhaps my newest elixir—immortality in a bottle—will finally cheat death.
Why does everyone assume we’ve seen the worst of the apocalypse? I will be ready.
I clench the chain of the oldest girl, yanking her to her feet. “Why has there been noise?” I demand, spittle spraying.
The ring of blisters circling her neck runs with watery blood. All of them get neck wounds from the rusty iron collars. This one needs more of my salve. I won’t give it to her now.
She considers answering, then thinks better of it. She’d been rebellious at first, sassy. Now she’s hollow-eyed and quaking.
“If I hear another sound, I’ll make you drink the gold elixir.” It’s a pain potion that rips through their intestines. I relish their stricken looks. “Understood?”
They mumble, “Yes, Arthur. . . .”
When I return upstairs to Evie, I find her relaxed in her chair, staring at the fire. Her heavy-lidded gaze follows the flames.
The last fire she’ll ever see. Enjoy it for now.
“Sorry about that,” I tell her. “A pack of rats seems to have moved in over the winter.” I hope that my statement doesn’t sound conceited. A rat infestation these days is a bounty. “If only they’d stop knocking over empty paint buckets. Now, where were we?” I turn the recorder back on, taking a seat. “Tell me what those first few weeks were like.”
“My hometown used to have a few thousand people. Almost all of them watched the Flash—less than a handful lived. Directly after, they holed up in what was left of the still-smoldering church, but not Mom and me,” Evie says. “When none of the cars worked, we took our one surviving horse, hooked up a cart, and went raiding.”
She leans forward, growing a bit more animated. “Half of the grocery store had burned by the time we got there. So we hit the remaining aisles. Mom tossed back my graham crackers and potato chips, teaching me to go for calorie-dense food, like peanut butter. The pharmacy had burned down completely, so we ransacked the vet’s supply of antibiotics. We looted guns and ammo from Flash victims’ homes. We were like locusts.”
Evie says this with pride. She should. If it wasn’t for enterprising souls like her, I’d have no supplies to appropriate.
“Though Mom was convinced that the army would ride into Sterling and save the day—government and the rule of law returning, or whatever—we prepared like we were on our own. We worked ourselves to the bone, until our basement was stockpiled. Then we stood arm in arm, surveying the thousands of cans, the bags of beans, the canisters of weight-gain powder.”
Shaking her head ruefully, she says, “I remember thinking our supply would last us years. As soon as Mom had prepared us as best as she could, she . . . broke down.”
“What do you mean?”
“She was eaten up with guilt that she’d sent her mother away, that she’d sent me to that awful place in Atlanta. Can you imagine it? Her mother had been right all along, and her daughter’s visions had proved pretty much spot-on. My ‘bogeymen’ were Bagmen, pale-eyed and slimy. Not to mention the details of the Flash. . . . Well, Mom’s entire concept of the world got a violent reboot. Her confidence was obliterated.”
“Did your grandmother impart anything to her that she could pass on to you?”
“Mom had blocked out Gran’s doomsday preachings—like aggressively blocked them out. So she didn’t know a lot. And anytime I pressed her to try to remember more, she’d cry. She was no longer the steel magnolia I’d always known.”
“There must have been something?”
“Mom knew only three things. My clairvoyance had to do with Tarot cards somehow. My call sign, of sorts, was the Empress. And I might be destined to”—Evie mumbles the next—“save humanity.”
I inwardly laugh at this. This girl is weak in body and in mind, as defenseless as she is gullible; if the fate of mankind rests in her hands, we are all utterly doomed. “That’s a lot to put on a sixteen-year-old girl’s shoulders, isn’t it?”
“I know! It was so frustrating. If Gran was right and I actually was some empress, then what was the freaking point? Could I have saved my friends? Was that what the visions had been for? I had guilt of my own to haunt me.”
“Did the visions”—hallucinations—“continue after the Flash?”
She gives her head a clearing shake, blinking for focus. “The ones of different characters were rare, but I did see Matthew about once a week. Each visit, he seemed even more incoherent. Still, I was desperate to see someone my age, so I welcomed him, migraines, nosebleeds, and all. But I had a whole new symptom to deal with. I was hearing voices in my head. The Flash brought me a perfect storm of crazy—nightmares of gruesome deaths, visions, voices.”
Voices? That would correspond with her pathology. “What did they say?”
“For months, I heard only whispers and gibberish. Nothing that made sense. They grew clearer each day, but that also meant they got louder. Everything bad kept building on itself.” She rocked faster. “Stress, hunger, nightmares, voices. Always building.”
Evie was alone on that farm with only her mother, as good as stranded on a deserted island. It’s no wonder she conjured voices, to give her a sense of belonging. Like imaginary friends.
And naturally, she fabricated those superpowers for herself. In a world filled with peril, where girls like her are targeted at every turn, she needs to feel powerful.
I would diagnose her as a paranoid schizophrenic with delusional features. It’s because of my own madness that I can so readily identify it in others. But mine is a divine madness, a spark that flared to godhood.
With my elixirs coursing through my blood, I am a god. Soon Evie will kneel, awestruck, as I reveal my true nature.
In comparison, her madness grows tedious. A garden-variety schizo won’t hold my interest for long. “So what did you make of those voices?”
“Again, I didn’t know!” She frets one of her delicate, shell-pink nails—hardly the thorn claws she described. “They started the day after the Flash. Eventually, they grew into warnings.” She raises her head, meeting my eyes.
Seeing if I’m buying this? I cast her a sympathetic expression—or as close to one as I can manage.
“And with those warnings came the feeling that I was supposed to be out in the world doing something. Both Death and Matthew had said, ‘It begins with the End.’ Something had begun, but I couldn’t say what.”
“What about your other . . . abilities? Did you retain them?”
“There were no plants around for me to control. My skin regeneration was hit or miss. But sometimes when I had a scary vision, my nails would turn.”
I raise my brows at her hands, a silent request for her to demonstrate this.
“Oh, I have to be really emotional. I can’t just make them appear.” She splays her pale fingers for me. “You don’t believe me, do you?”
“Honestly? I’m not certain.” I am 100 percent certain that she is either lying or delusional. The spontaneous plant movement she described is biomechanically impossible—not to mention the morphing of her fingernails into a plant’s attribute.
Science can explain all the other events of the apocalypse—but not Evie’s “powers.”
Which have conveniently vanished. Since the earth has gone barren, and she isn’t “emotional,” there is no way to prove or disprove her tale.
I begin to wonder if I’m not being played, if perhaps the girl isn’t spinning a tale on the fly, picking up cues from my home, from my personality. The boredom I’d felt dissipates as I consider the prospect.
Will she talk about fires—because of the flames she was just regarding—or stew, like the one she ate earlier?
“I feared you’d tell me that you believed me, even if you didn’t,” Evie says. “I appreciate your honesty, Arthur.” She holds my gaze, as if to really make me understand how serious she is. “Lying is the worst, you know?”
So says the girl whose lips spill untruths. But I have to wonder who lied to her. Who hurt you, Evie? “I’ll always be honest with you.”
She bestows a sweet smile upon me. A sixteen-year-old blonde. So easily duped.
When I wave her on, she grows somber. “A little more than a month ago, everything got worse. Much worse.”
“I discovered a new talent of sorts, Jackson Deveaux rode back into my life, and my mom . . . she got hurt.”
Her voice breaks when she speaks of her mother, but the mention of that boy puts my back up. Something about the way Evie has described him—as if the Cajun is larger than life to her—makes me feel murderous.
So not only had he lived, he’d returned for her? I see the odds of her being my helpmeet dwindling.
Why did bad boys like Jackson Deveaux always attract girls like Evie? It’d been that way at my high school. The only attention I had received from pretty girls was their laughter when I’d shown up for class with a busted lip or an awkward new cast.
They’d spurned me for things I could not control.
I remind myself that I took control of my parents—and that I no longer have to worry about attracting a girl’s attention; I have a captive audience of beautiful females.
Yes, these days Arthur gets all the girls. I keep them in my basement. I nearly chuckle.
Instead, I say, “Tell me about your mom.” My tone is kindly and concerned, even as I’m thinking, If you like bad boys, little girl, then you’ve found the baddest of them all.
“I’ll tell you the rest.” Another abashed look. “But, Arthur,” she says in that soft drawl, the one that makes my heartbeat race, “the same warning as before applies.”
DAY 214 A.F.
It was time.
A pitcher of water shook in one of my hands. In my other fist, I squeezed a clean length of bandage.
Still I hesitated, dreading what I was about to see. And I hated myself for being a coward.
The voices that hounded me—with their repeated chorus of twisted threats—quieted to a low, manageable buzz. As if to let me suffer the next twenty minutes with my mom all the more.
No distractions, no interruptions . . . “Bastards,” I muttered. “Rot in hell, every single one of you.”
Deep breath in. Out. Showtime.
With a breezy demeanor, I sailed into Mom’s darkened room, placing the pitcher next to the washbowl on her dresser. “Good morning. How’re you feeling?”
A ray of sun peeked through a broken louver on the hurricane shutter, highlighting her face. She looked so tiny in her big canopy bed, a shadow of the woman she’d been before the Flash. Her gaunt cheeks were much paler than yesterday.
If she truly had an internal injury like she thought, then that meant more of her blood had been collecting in the mottled, pulpy bruises beneath her elastic bandage.
“You ready for me to change your dressing?”
If I cried at the sight, I was going to hate myself forever. If I faltered in any way . . .
When I sat beside her on the bed, she raised her hand to cup my face. “How are you doing, honey?”
My bottom lip almost trembled. How badly I wanted to talk to Mom, to tell her all the things on my mind.
I hear more than a dozen voices. If I sleep, nightmares torment me. We’re on the last of our food stores. Even now, I’m shaking from the effort not to ditch your room and run outside to scream into the wind with frustration. Our horse is dying of starvation. You’re getting worse.
Are you dying?
Instead I said, “How am I doing? The best. Today is pea-soup day.” My performance fooled no one, but I was determined to sell it. “So let’s see what we’ve got here.” I spread her arm across my shoulders, gently helping her to sit up while I stuffed pillows behind her.