Poison Princess

Page 17

Before the Flash, I’d never been crazy. After? I was on a slippery slope and they kept pushing, pushing at me, until I was sure to fall.

I unstrapped my gun, put my back against the wall, and slid down, knocking my head against the wood. Over and over.

I’d always wondered why kids had done that at CLC—seemed like it’d freaking hurt—but now I knew why. That pain distracted me from my misery.

Yet it did nothing for those voices. They swarmed like wasps in my head.

—We will love you. . . . Feast of your bones. . . . I strike from above!—

“Matthew!” I called. “I’ll take the migraine. Just come here. Please?”

Naturally, my attitude had changed toward him, toward all the visions. I craved his visits now. During his latest, he’d explained to me, “He hurts when he helps.”

Did I have any idea what that meant? Nope, but I just liked that Matthew was nearby.

Another time he’d popped up just to inform me somberly, “You are the only friend I’ve ever had.”

When he didn’t come this time, I stemmed my disappointment, commanding myself to concentrate and block those voices out. Think about what to do!

Mom had once asked if we would eat Allegra if things got desperate enough. I’d thought the better question would be, How can Evie look her horse in the eye, shoot it, then butcher it?

I was about to find out.

If Allegra couldn’t be used for transportation, then she’d be . . . food. Mom would have to do better with more nourishment; she sure as hell couldn’t do worse.

This was the only thing I could do to help her.

Butcher my gentle Allegra.

With a cry, I dropped my face into my hands, my eyes brimming with tears. Soon I was sobbing worse than I had day one after the Flash, when I’d first suspected that most everyone on earth was dead.

Pain sliced into my scalp. Tears drenched my cheeks—and my forehead?

I glanced down, saw blood streaming into my palms. “Shit!” I’d cut my forehead with my razor-sharp claws, and now blood was pouring down my face. It dripped from my chin, saturating my bandanna.

Leaving a trail of crimson behind me, I squinted around for something not dust-coated to dry the wounds with, but I couldn’t see through the blood.

I frantically wiped my eyes, blinded by the cascade. Scalp wounds bled so much, and now I had ten of them!

Finding no makeshift bandage, I pulled my soaked bandanna up over my entire face, pressing the bunched seam at the top against the line of cuts.

I froze when I heard a whisper of sound to my right. Then another to my left. I sensed movement all around me, but was too terrified to flee, to yank down my blood-soaked blindfold.

Shuddering, I eased my hand toward my gun, patting the wet ground—and felt some creature straining against my palm.

A rat! Several rats? I shrieked, lurching away, tumbling onto my back as I snatched at the bandanna. Rats would eat me alive in this barn!

I swiped an arm over my eyes, could finally see—

My jaw dropped, my breath leaving me in a rush. At length, I was able to murmur, “Oh my God.”

I was looking up at . . . plants.

Shoots of green were growing in the dust all around me. Wherever my blood had hit old oats or hayseeds, they’d sprouted.

I rose cautiously. It had been so long since I’d been near a living plant; I’d almost convinced myself that I had been hallucinating about my connection to them.

The voices tried to ring the Evie bell then, but I was so fascinated with my new discovery that for a few brief moments, I could turn down the volume.

As I gauged my sanity, the plants stretched toward a murky shaft of light. Could this be real? I tentatively touched a stalk with another drop of blood.

It shot higher, from seedling to mature in seconds. “Life in your very blood,” Death had said. My mind could hardly wrap around the possibilities. I needed—

“More seed.”

I took off toward the house, sprinting into the wind. By the time I’d reached the kitchen, my claws had retracted and my head had stopped bleeding, already healing.

Inside the pantry, I ransacked a box filled with seed packs. Mom and I had collected them, thinking we’d grow food for ourselves.

Nothing ever took for us. Nor for anyone that we’d heard of.

But now . . .

My thoughts raced as fast as my heartbeat. There was an area at the back of the barn where the roof had caved in, creating a space open to the sky. We’d meant to fix it, fearing rain would pour inside.

No rain ever came. Only sun, dust, and ash. But I could grow crops there.

I stuffed packs into my jeans pockets. If Mom had enough food—good food—then she would get better. Yes, of course! She wasn’t healing as she should because she was weak with hunger.

My narrowed gaze turned toward the barn. I could fix that. I could even mend our horse, then set off to find a doctor.

Out of food, out of luck, and out of time? I could take advantage of this luck, grow new food, and buy time.

With nothing more than a razor blade.

After all, how much blood could one girl need?

Chapter 16

DAY 220 A.F.

I thought I’d heard a motorcycle.

This morning the winds were still. With no leaves, cars, or animal calls, sound carried differently now.

Can it possibly be? I wondered as I stumbled away from the house, weak from blood loss. Since my discovery last week, I’d been aggressively . . . farming.

That motorcycle sound stirred up memories from a former life, a time of comfort and plenty that seemed a thousand years past.

I could almost close my eyes, listen to that rumble, and pretend I still lived that existence.

Almost. The bitter scent of ash and the jarring voices in my mind made it hard to pretend.

You’re just delirious, Evie. There was no motorcycle—any more than there would be planes in the sky.

Yes, delirium. Alas, that was an occupational hazard of being a blood farmer. Especially one with such bountiful crops as mine.

I’d believed the side effects from yesterday’s bloodletting had abated. Apparently they hadn’t, if I was imagining figments from the past.

But really, what was one more imaginary sound? Join the chorus, roar along with the voices!

I trudged onward to the barn, determined to get to work. The sky was clear for now. That unbroken blue above should’ve been beautiful to me, but it seemed like it was trying too hard to compensate for the lack of green.

To me, that blue sky seemed like a forced smile. . . .

I remembered Brandon once saying that his thoughts were on shuffle between me and football. Now my life was on shuffle, among three miserable tracks.

Track One. In the morning, I would bandage Mom’s ribs. I might be deluding myself, but I didn’t think they looked worse. Yet her thoughts seemed foggier, and she was sleeping all the time.

After making Mom comfortable, I would head to the barn for Track Two before lunch. My new rows of crops seemed to mute the voices, shoring up my sanity for precious hours—yet that came with a price.

Track Three. When I was alone in my bed at night, those voices exploded. As if my beloved crops had just forced them into a bottle of soda that would later be shaken until the top burst.

Until I wanted to tear out my hair. If I could somehow sleep through the noise, I was rewarded with lifelike scenes of the red witch. . . .

Just minutes ago, I’d completed Track One. I’d left Mom dozing fitfully after a crying jag. Hers, not mine.

The more her health declined, the more emotional she grew.

“Why didn’t I . . . listen?” she’d wheezed. “Gran told me you were special, and I laughed at her. Why couldn’t I believe in her—or you . . . the two people I loved most in the world?”

Though I’d often wondered that myself, I’d tried to soothe her, telling her that everything was going to be fine now.

After her outburst, I knew I couldn’t reveal my new talent. For days, I’d debated it, but how would she feel when confronted with yet more proof that I was “special”? More crying, more coughing fits?

My pilgrim’s bounty would be like a slap in the face to the woman who’d dispatched me to Child’s Last Chance. So I’d decided to keep quiet.

If she was out of it, I could sneak her little bites of succulent honeydew and strawberries. Yesterday morning, she’d murmured, “This must be a dream.”

For other times, I’d simply pickled the vegetables and told her I’d found jars in storage or at a neighbor’s.

Did I know how to pickle food? Hell no. But I knew how to eat pickles out of a jar, then drop the new veggies into the pickle juice.

At the barn doors, I opened the padlock. No, we hadn’t had visitors or trespassers here; regardless, I’d been paranoid enough about the priceless contents of our barn to lock it.

Inside, Allegra whinnied with a touch more energy. At least she was on her feet. After an initial lack of appetite, she’d become the delighted recipient of constant melon rinds.

“Hey, girl.” I ran my palm down her neck, touching noses with her. I’d allotted two more days before I’d risk a trip with her.

Too soon, and I could kill her, eliminating any hope of finding a doctor. Too late, and . . .

Don’t go there, Evie.

In the back, I ducked under the fallen roof rafters to enter my garden, shucking out of my jacket. After rolling up a sleeve of my sweater, I pulled out my pack of razor blades from my jeans pocket, sliding one off the top.

I took a deep breath, then dragged the blade along the plump vein leading to my elbow. If only the doctors in Atlanta could see me now!

Ah, but those smug quacks were probably all ash.

As though kindling a fire, I used my blood to coax carrot seeds and potato eyes to life. I dappled drops over kernels, watching as sleek stalks sprouted ears of corn for me.

Yet too soon, dizziness and a bone-deep chill washed over me. I now understood why dying movie characters always whispered, “Cold, so . . . cold,” as they bled out. Body warmth oozed out right along with the blood.

I sighed when my skin began healing. Though my hand shook, I reopened that tender vein with another razor slice, wincing with pain.

As the blood ran, I fought to keep my eyes open. The barn started to spin and that chill intensified.

Delirium must be taking hold, because I heard that imaginary motorcycle—roaring down Haven’s shell drive.

Not imaginary? My first thought: Had the Cajun . . . lived?

From time to time, I’d thought of him, mostly to curse him for taking Mel’s phone—even though I’d begun to wonder if I could possibly have gotten her back to Haven and into the cellar in time.

Did I blame him for her death? Whenever I imagined Mel incinerated in her car, I did.

It hurt less than blaming myself for my mistakes—for not making my mother see the truth, for not believing in my own sanity, for not warning people.

For not saying, “Hell yeah, Mel, you’re staying here tonight.”

The motorcycle was getting closer. No matter who it was, I needed to tidy up and get my shotgun ready. I wiped my arm clean, then shoved down my sleeve.

Gun in hand, I stumbled outside, locking the barn behind me.

The biker caught sight of me and slowed to a stop, canting his helmet. He had on a black leather jacket, worn jeans, and boots. A wicked-looking crossbow was slung over his back.

I recognized his build, the wide expanse of his shoulders. My lips parted in shock. Jackson Deveaux.

He was alive.

I tottered, as if the ground was shaking beneath my feet. Then I frowned. The ground had briefly quaked.

He parked, turned off his engine. When he removed his helmet, I saw that his jet-black hair was longer, his face not quite as tanned. His eyes were still that vivid gray, but had dark circles under them.

He looked weary. And there was a hardness to his features that hadn’t been there before.

I didn’t know how I felt about seeing him again. In my mind, he was a villain. But he was also a former classmate—for however short a duration. Hadn’t I yearned to see someone my own age? This one was actually, physically here.

Did I need to talk with someone so badly that I’d suffer even Jackson’s presence?

We stared at each other for long moments. He took his time surveying me, just as he had the first time he’d ever seen me.

How different I appeared now. My looks had gone from well-kempt cheerleader to apocalyptic disasterpiece. My clothes were unmended and stained with soot, my hair wild. I must’ve been pale as death.

In the deep voice I remembered so clearly, he muttered, “De’pouille.”

I stiffened. De’pouille pretty much meant “hot mess” in Cajun. He was going to show up here and insult me? After our last encounter?

Like I didn’t have enough to deal with! “I should have known you’d survive.”

He climbed off his bike, then leaned back against it. “Why’s that, Evangeline?”

“Reptiles and vermin fared well.” I sounded stoned. I inwardly shook myself, forcing my eyelids to open wider.

“I see nothing’s changed with you. Still south of useless.”

“And nothing’s changed with you. Still impolite and classless.”

“You look a little cagou. Pale in the face. You caught the plague, you?”

No, just been doing some gardening. It takes blood, sweat, and tears. I almost chuckled, but pressed the back of my hand against my lips. At length, I said, “What do you want?”

“I’m on my way to Texas. Stopped here to barter.” He unzipped his jacket, then took his flask from a pocket. “A couple of folks in Sterling say you’ve got stores of food. Figures that you and your mother would be sitting pretty here.”

Sitting pretty? What did that mean? I couldn’t think. Even in the sun, I was so cold my teeth were nearly chattering. “What are you talking about?”

“You knew what was about to happen, didn’t you? I’m sure you prepared for it. That’s why you got food still.”

“Prepared?” My dizziness grew. “If we still have stores, it’s because we were out scavenging while everyone else was praying.” The winds were kicking up again, worsening my chill.

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