Poison Princess

Page 16

Perspiration beaded her face—from her effort not to cry out in pain? We were both actors in our roles. And worse, we both knew it.

I started unwrapping her bandage, found the material damp with sweat. Every morning, I changed her dressing. Ever since she’d been attacked.

A week ago, she’d ridden out to check our dead neighbor’s well levels. One of our water pumps was spitting sand, sounding like a straw at the bottom of a milkshake. So she’d decided to investigate, going out alone early one morning when I’d been asleep. In the note she’d left, she’d pointed out that Allegra could barely carry her, much less both of us, and she assured me that no Bagmen would be out in the daylight.

As long as she had her salt and made it back before sunset, she’d be safe.

Neither of us had even seen a Bagman, except in my drawings. At first I’d been petrified that they’d overrun us, but months had passed with no sighting. So I hadn’t gone hysterical when I found her note.

To keep myself busy, I’d done a thorough cleaning of the house. I couldn’t stand the ash that accumulated over everything, grew sickened if I let myself think I could be breathing someone’s cremated remains.

As I’d been working, Mom had been miles away—stumbling upon three Bagmen in a pump house.

Two of the things had been licking at a wellhead. Another had stood between her and the door. It’d knocked her salt from her hand, so she’d charged, tackling it into the sun, both of them tumbling down cement steps. . . .

Now as I unraveled the first layer of bandage, I remembered how I’d listened to her tale, dumbstruck by her bravery. The badass Karen of old had made it home—without a single freaking Bagman bite, just a couple of bruised ribs.

Or so we’d thought.

Second layer of bandage. Like an idiot, I’d wondered if the attack might not be a good thing, a catalyst to jar her back to her ballsy ways.

Third layer. This task was testing me in ways I wasn’t ready for.

Where had that thought come from? Shame on you, Evie.

Shame. On. You.

Final layer. Don’t you dare gasp at the sight. Don’t inhale a breath. Calm. Act like it’s better.

Reveal. I clamped my lips together to hold back the surge of vomit in my mouth. Swallow it back down, you stupid coward with your stupid shaking hands.

The wound was hideous.

At first the injury had been just a cluster of bruises. Then it’d turned squishy. Now it looked tight, a sack of blood about to burst. Like a tumor growing out of her side.

The bandage was doing nothing but making me feel better—allowing me to think I was making a difference.

“It’s . . . better today,” I choked out. “I really think so.” With wobbly knees, I crossed to the antique pitcher and bowl—the ones we’d previously used as quaint decorative pieces. Now back in service.

As I wet a cloth to clean her skin, I took a moment to collect myself, gazing in the mirror at her room’s reflection.

This space was also a shadow of its former self. The burgundy and cream décor, the rich silk wall hangings, and the lace of her canopy bed were now all drab, the colors muted.

Despite my best efforts, ash continued to steal inside, steeping everything we owned. Layer by layer, that ash was erasing what we’d once known, erasing who we were.

I broke my stare, meeting eyes with Mom. Oh God, she’d been watching me when I was unguarded! Shame on you, Evie.

Had she caught a glimpse of the helpless frustration churning inside me? Of course—her eyes were glistening with unshed tears. But she said nothing, playing her role.

“Let’s get you cleaned up,” I said brightly, determined not to be helpless. Because wasn’t that just another way to say useless?

Exactly as that Cajun boy had once described me. Bonne à rien. Good for nothing.

As I washed Mom’s torso, I realized he’d been right. I couldn’t cook, sew, repair, or hunt the vermin and snakes that had survived. I was a clumsy and inefficient caretaker.

Never in the history of mankind had there been a better time not to be useless.

But I wasn’t going to be for long. . . .

Once I’d finished cleaning her up and rewrapping her torso as best as I could, I said, “Mom, I’m going out to find you a doctor today.” I might as well have said I was going to find her an Internet connection. Or a rainbow. “If I ride fast, I can make it to the next parish before sunset.”

The mere idea of heading away from this place, out into the world, sent a thrill through me. Then I felt guilty. How could I be excited about leaving my mom?

Was I so desperate to flee the misery at Haven House?

Every time I got that overwhelming urge to leave, I feared that I might truly be a coward at heart.

Or could it be more? Had something begun at the End, at the end of the world?

What I wouldn’t give for an answer! Since I’d stopped taking my meds, I’d started remembering more about that last drive with Gran. But those tiny flashes of recollection were never enough to make sense.

I recalled that she’d asked me to take her Tarot deck out of her purse, to look at the Major Arcana. I remembered the smell of her purse—Juicy Fruit gum and gardenia hand lotion. As I’d shuffled through the cards, they’d felt so big. . . .

“What are the odds that there will be a physician, Evie?” Mom asked. “And even if there is, the doctor will never have whatever is necessary to heal me. Be realistic.” Was her voice fainter than it’d been yesterday? “And your plan to ride fast ? A week ago, Allegra was about to keel over just from walking to the neighbor’s. She won’t make the property line now.”

Did Mom think I was just going to sit idly by and do crosswords with her? The last time I’d sat idly by hadn’t worked out so well for us.

What if I could’ve somehow used my visions to save our friends and loved ones . . . ?

Hell, the only positive thing about the voices was that they kept me from dwelling on the past, on what could’ve been. More than a dozen kids spoke in my head at various times, as cryptically as Matthew always did. This morning as I’d debated bringing Mom breakfast (knowing she’d turn it away), they’d ranted:

—Crush you with the Weight of Sins.—

—Red of tooth and claw!—

—We will love you. In our own way.—

“Evie,” Mom said, “I want you to dress up real nice and take a basket of cans over to Mr. Abernathy.”

The former animal control officer of the parish? “A basket. What do you think we are—rich?” The cellar full of cans that was supposed to last us years? We were down to weeks, were already rationing to the point of constant hunger.

“Do this for me, honey. Relieve my worries.”

In a mock-horrified tone, I said, “My mom’s pimping me out to a fifty-year-old dogcatcher.”

“He’s only thirty or so. And he’s a widower now.”

“You’re serious?” My mother, once so independent, now wanted me to go throw myself on the mercy of a man.

The woman who’d fought the old boys’ network of farming—and dominated—planned to offer up her daughter.

Don’t scream; keep the banter light. “Then why stop with a basket of cans, Mom? Don’t you think showing up with a fourteen-year-old sister-wife in tow would be more appropriate?”

“He’s one of the last people in Sterling, honey.”

Outside, the daily winds were starting up, pelting the shuttered windows, rocking Haven House until it creaked and groaned.

When the wind stirred up the ash, obscuring the sun, the temperature dropped. I busied myself smoothing another blanket over her. “Then maybe you should go out with Abernathy.”

“I’m forty-one and currently in no condition to go make nice with the boys. Evie, what if something happened to me? What would you do?” Ever since the attack, she’d been asking me this. “There’s no one here to look out for you, no one to protect you. It preys on my mind, thinking of you alone here.”

“I’ve asked you to stop talking like that. A few days ago, you told me you’d be fine. Now you’re acting like I’m about to have to institute Darwinism or cast you adrift on an iceberg or something.”

She sighed, and immediately started coughing. Once the fit subsided, I handed her a glass of water, making a mental note to go to the pump whenever there was a lull in the winds.

“Oh, Evie. What would you do?” she asked again.

I met her gaze, willing her to believe my words: “It won’t happen, Mom.” As soon as I left this room, I was going to march down to the barn. If Allegra could take a saddle, I was riding out for a doctor. “Why don’t you concentrate on getting better and leave the worrying to me?” I kissed her on the forehead. “I’m off to finish my booby trap.”

This was a believable lie. Though no one had ever trespassed—or even visited—Haven since the Flash, I’d been preoccupied with securing our home, with keeping Mom safe.

Her expression grew wary. “Evie, that’s so dangerous, and you’re . . . you’re . . .”

“All thumbs? Even I can follow a guidebook with pictures.”

“But the storm?”

The ash was disgusting but manageable. I dragged my ever-present bandanna from my neck up over my face, then made finger guns like a bandit. Mom smiled, but didn’t laugh.

“Get some rest,” I told her. “I’ll be back to bring you lunch.”

“Don’t forget your salt,” she called weakly.

My smile disappeared the instant I was alone. We were out of food, out of luck, out of time.

Back in my room, I donned my oversize Coach sunglasses and a hoodie, then strapped my shotgun over my back. Between that and the salt in my pockets, I was prepared for potential bad guys—and Bagmen.

Salt was supposed to repel the zombies—if we believed the few haunted-eyed stragglers who had passed through Sterling. They’d also said that plague had hit the North, nonstop fires raged out west, slavers ruled the bigger cities in the South, and cannibals had taken over the Eastern Seaboard.

Hearing tales like those made me thankful to be here, tucked away at Haven—even as I suffered the overpowering sense that I should be somewhere else, doing something else.

But what could possibly be more important than watching out for Mom . . . ?

Once I’d opened the hurricane shutter covering my window, I loosed the fire escape ladder, watching it unfurl down the side of the house.

This window was our only entrance. Early on, I’d braced all the doors with lumber, painstakingly nailing down the shutters on the first floor.

I closed my window behind me, then climbed down the swaying ladder into the swirling ash, like I was in the gym class of the damned. The sooty ground crunched when I hopped down.

At once, I had to lean into the wind or get tossed.

The only things constant about the new weather patterns? There was never any rain. For most of each day, we had windstorms. And after the storms faded, cloudless blue skies and that scorching sun returned.

At night, there was perfect stillness, with no insect chatter, no rustling leaves or swaying branches. Wretched silence.

Unless a quake rumbled somewhere in the distance.

When I passed the remains of the once mighty Haven oaks—now twisted black skeletons with leafless fingers—I slowed to run a hand over a crumbling trunk.

As ever, I felt a pang; they’d given their lives, protecting us.

That last night of rain before the Flash had saturated the thirsty, aged boards of Haven House and the barn. Between that and the cover of the oaks, the structures had been saved from the sky fires—though most wooden buildings in the parish had burned to the ground.

It was almost a blessing that I couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of me. At least around the house we had the semblance of trees. But the fields . . .

My six million strong, destroyed utterly. I heard a sound, surprised to find it was a soft cry—from my own lips.

At the barn, I opened the double doors just enough to squeeze through without the wind catching them.

Inside, I drew down my bandanna, marching to Allegra’s stall. So help me, I’d make her take a saddle, and then we’d be off.

I didn’t see my horse in her stall—not until I was standing just before it, because she lay on her side, ribs jutting even worse than I’d realized. Her breaths were labored.

She could barely lift her lids, but she tried to, wanting to acknowledge me.

Did she ever wonder why I never brought her apples anymore? Was she scared? How could I let her suffer any longer?

Her expressive eyes rolled back, and she passed out. No Allegra; no doctor for Mom.

The grief and frustration welling up inside me had to have an outlet. I threw back my head and screamed at the top of my lungs.

I screamed. And screamed.

When my throat burned like fire, I finally stopped, choking out to the voices, “Come on, then! It’s your turn!” I jerked around in a circle. “There’s still some of me left to torment. Don’t be shy.”

Three different voices obliged, all speaking at once:

—Eyes to the skies, lads, I strike from above!—

—I watch you like a hawk.—

—I’ll make a feast of your bones!—

I recognized Ogen’s grating hiss. I’d figured out that at least some of the voices belonged to characters I’d had visions of.

I recalled the winged boy I’d glimpsed the night of my party. Maybe he was the one saying, I watch you like a hawk.

And the sparking, electric-looking guy? Had those been his lightning javelins? Perhaps that was his Irish-accented voice saying, Eyes to the skies, lads.

I’d seen those boys and the blurry-faced archer lying in wait. Now they were in my head among many more. Could any of those kids possibly be real?

Boys with wings and lightning javelins. Horned creatures like Ogen. Death . . .

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