“And inside the cities?”
“Lots of corpses. More survivors are dying out now, and the old ones ain’t moldering like they normally would, just piling up.”
I shivered at the mental image. “Is every place burned out like Sterling?”
“Not a damned thing’s green, if that’s what you’re asking. Everything’s covered in ash, but not every place is burned. Some towns look striped from the lines of flames that hit the ground. C’est surprenant.” It’s uncanny. “Real finger-of-God stuff.”
At my confused look, he said, “One house stands while the one beside it burned down. No rhyme or reason, like how a tornado strikes.” He closed the hood. After wiping his hands on his jeans, he collected his crossbow and climbed into the driver’s seat, setting the bow on his lap. “Hop in.”
When I’d joined him inside, he said, “You’d never make it to North Carolina, Evie. That’s heading right into the belly of the beast.”
“Why do you say that? Because of the Bagmen?”
He met my gaze. “Maybe you’ll never have to find out. Ask me nice, and I might take you to Texas.”
God, his eyes really were breathtaking. As I stared into them, I allowed myself to imagine what it’d be like with him guiding Mom and me west. She liked him so much already.
Another thing I’d noticed? The voices were much quieter when he was near. I guessed they faded when more people were around to distract me.
I begrudgingly admitted that it might be not awful having him around. “Why would you help us like that?”
“Your mère has been kind to me.”
“There has to be more to it than that.”
Earlier, I’d told Mom, “Jackson wouldn’t stick around here unless he had an angle.”
She’d given me a soft smile. “His ‘angle’ ? It’s probably that you’re a pretty girl and he’s an eighteen-year-old boy.”
Did he actually like me in that way?
“I got my reasons, me. That’s all you need to know for now.”
“Not good enough. By this time tomorrow, she could be under the care of a real doctor.”
He hesitated, gripping the steering wheel, clearly wrestling with a decision. Snapping his fingers for the flask, he said, “Clotile lived through the Flash.”
That was surprising. “How?” I handed him the whiskey. “And for that matter, how did you?”
He absently touched his forearm. “Wouldn’t stop bleeding, this. Couldn’t throttle my bike. So Clotile took me to an unlicensed doc in the next parish over, had a cellar office.”
In a twist of fate, that drunk man had ended up saving both Jackson’s and Clotile’s lives.
“After the Flash, Clotile and me followed another survivor from the Basin, a reservist, to join his company. He talked us into serving our fellow man, and all that bullshit. But what else did we have to do? Besides, he’d figured out how to get his car to work, and we were hankering to put the entire wasted parish behind us. Though Clotile was a damned fine shot, the reservists stuck her in the kitchen and me in the fields, hunting Bagmen.”
“You’ve killed them?”
“During the day, we exterminated them in their hiding places. At night, we patrolled on live bug hunts. I’ve killed hundreds.” I narrowed my eyes, but he said, “It’s true. If I never see another Bagman . . .”
He gave a harsh shake of his head, then continued, “Clotile and me had shelter and food, so we spent a few months like that. It felt good to be busy, to keep my mind off”—he glanced past me—“off dwelling on things. Anyway, two weeks ago, this big-ass army marched in, led by General Milovníci. Given the choice to join or die, my unit’s leader surrendered the chain of command to Milovníci. I thought the general was weird, but his two kids were off the charts.”
“Vincent and Violet are twins about your age, with these vacant eyes, like a dead fish’s. They dress alike, talk alike, and even got a matching tattoo—some Goth-looking design—on their hand.”
—We will love you. In our own way.—
I struggled to block out the stray voice. Damn it, they’d been so quiet.
“But what do I know about politics, me?” Jackson said. “One general’s as bad as the next, I supposed. I didn’t have a dog in that fight, so I followed my orders and went out on patrol. When I returned, I passed the rest of the army’s convoy—the prisoner detail. All women and girls, every one of them. I ran for Clotile, but they’d already taken her.”
“To the general?”
“Non. That’s where this gets . . . étrange. The twins had her.” Jackson gripped the steering wheel again. “I found their tent and held up the guards outside, but there were too many—they surrounded me, slammed a rifle butt into my face. When I woke the next morning, I was being dragged from the brig to a firing squad.” He turned to me. “See, the reason there’re no male prisoners is because they execute any men who rebel. They do it in front of everyone, keep the rank and file in line.”
“Then what happened?” I asked breathlessly.
“I got a sign from a couple of podnas. They were goan to help me out. So there I was, fighting the two guards holding me when I saw Clotile running from the twins’ tent with a pistol in her hand. She’d fought them to get free.” Voice gone low, he said, “But, Evie, they’d beaten her to hell over the night. Blood coming out of her nose, her ears, her busted lips. Her left arm hung limp. Her eyes were . . . they were frantic.”
He seemed to shake himself out of that memory. “Now, Clotile, she’d been around the block. She’d seen some things in her day, but whatever happened in that tent had left her shell-shocked.”
—in our own way, in our own way—
“She opened fire on the two guards holding me. Those cowards ran. So I was free, just had to get to her and get us the hell out of there. . . .”
“And then?” I reached over to touch his forearm, grazing that fateful scar.
“She shook her head at me, waving at me to run with my friends. I gave her the look that deserved and kept heading for her. Then the twins limped out of their tent. She looked over her shoulder and saw them, then met my eyes. My heart dropped in my stomach—I knew what she was goan to do. I was yelling at her, just to wait, just to give me time to get to her. She . . . that damn girl, she mouthed, I’m sorry.” He swallowed. “Then she blew her brains out over the ground.”
I forgot to breathe. To watch a loved one commit suicide?
“I sometimes wonder, me, what drove her to do it. Just to save my worthless hide? Or because she couldn’t live with whatever those two had done to her?” He shook his head in confusion. “A Catholic girl. Taking her own life?”
When he finally faced me, he seemed surprised that I was on the verge of tears. “Doan you cry,” he snapped, growing distinctly uncomfortable. “I didn’t want to tell you that. I just didn’t know what else to do to convince you.” In a brusque tone, he said, “I doan like tears, me.”
“I can’t help it.” We sat in silence until I’d gotten control of my emotions. “Why is it so important for you to convince me? Who am I to you?”
Another deep drink. “I’ve met people from all over, some down from Canada or up from South America. East all the way from the burning fields of California. And there’re a couple of things that everybody agrees on—nothing grows anywhere. And there’s no rain. I doan think there are oceans anymore.”
“Flash-evaporation. It happened to more than just the rivers and lakes. The Gulf Coast is a desert as far as the eye can see.” As I digested this horrifying news, he said, “After Clotile died, I stopped pretending like there was something for me to keep goan on for.”
“Non, let me finish. I decided to go west to see if there were some militias that might take on the general. I wanted a shot at him, at his son and daughter too,” Jackson said, the quiet rage in his voice unsettling me. He was talking about murdering three people like he might talk about slapping three mosquitoes. “I knew I’d die trying, but didn’t care. So I figured I’d stop by the farm of this belle fille I used to go to school with and solve one last mystery.”
“Uh-huh. Over the last half a year, I’ve seen everything in your journal coming true. I had to know why.”
“You and your puzzles,” I said absently. “Why did you think I’d still be alive, when most girls died?”
“I knew.” At my raised brows, he gruffly said, “I got ways, me.” Before I could delve deeper, he continued, “But I never imagined what I’d find when I got here. In a backwater parish in Louisiana, there’s this soft little girl hiding crops in a barn.” Jackson held my gaze. “I’ll be damned before the general gets his hands on them.”
“When will they come?”
“If it’s clear tomorrow, the first convoy of trucks will be here by noon at the latest. Why woan you believe me?”
“It doesn’t matter if I do or don’t. I can’t move Mom! She’s in terrible pain just rising from the bed—how am I going to get her down the stairs? What if I hurt her worse? I could kill her!” Struggling for an even tone, I asked, “What would you do if it were your mother?”
I’d just assumed she’d died when Jackson and Clotile had been at the doctor’s. . . .
He stilled beside me. “Doan want to talk about her, no.” He could talk about the horror that had befallen Clotile, but not about whatever had happened to his mother?
Could her fate have been worse? “Okay, then. I won’t mention it again.”
“What if I promise to find your mère a doctor in Texas?”
If someone had told me yesterday that I’d soon be considering this—trusting my mother’s life to Jackson Deveaux—I would have laughed. “Can I just think about this until morning?”
“What for, you?”
He’d shared his agonizing tale with me. I could at least be honest about my hesitation. “I’m not used to making decisions like this,” I admitted. “Mom pretty much took care of any tough calls for the first ninety-five percent of my life. I’m still stumbling here, and God knows I can’t afford a misstep with this. Nothing matters to me more than her. Nothing.”
“She might take a turn for the better now that she’s eaten so well.”
He exhaled a pent-up breath, but that muscle ticked in his cheek again. “We’ll talk in the morning. Early. Until then, I’m goan to be filling this car with supplies, readying to bug out fast.”
“I’m goan to top off every container I can find with fuel or water. Goan to rummage for weapons and a few tools. And you better be packed, ready to go. Just in case,” he added, but I knew he had no doubt in his mind that we’d be leaving.
“You’re pretty confident you’ll get this car to work, then?”
He nodded. “Now, what’re we goan to do about the crops?”
I gazed away. “Do?” We?
“When the army finds them, that general’s goan to want to know all about them. If you’re here, he’ll give you to the twins to torture until you reveal everything. If you’re not here, he’ll send trackers after you. One way or another, he will get answers. Is that something you want him to find out?”
Dear God, no. If that man was as evil as Jackson said, he’d probably drain me daily. I shivered.
“Evangeline, damn it, tell me about them, and I’ll help you. How’d you do it? Voodoo? Magic? Government experiment?” When I remained silent, he grated, “Come on, after all I told you?” He made a sound of frustration. “Then at least answer me this: If I pack that box of seeds from your pantry, can those crops come about again?”
I could at least answer that, right? I worried my bottom lip. Mom thought we could trust him. Take a leap, Evie. We did need him.
So why did I still distrust him so strongly? Was it because of our history, or because he was so different from me, from the folks I’d grown up with? “You yourself told me you were a thousand times worse than everyone said. You acted like you wanted to kiss me just so you and your friends could steal from me and mine. How can I trust you?”
He cast me a disbelieving look. “You think that’s the only reason I wanted to kiss you? You doan know much about boys, no. I would’ve taken you to bed that night so fast it’d make your head swim.” Another swig.
My breaths shallowed. “L-like I said before, I’ll address this in the morning. It might be a moot point.” At his raised brows, I said, “All this is assuming you can get our car fixed.”
“It’s been fixed, peekôn.”
I held my breath as he reached for the start button. When the engine came roaring to life in the quiet of the night, I glanced at Mom’s room again.
I imagined her tucked in her bed, about to doze off, dreamily smiling at the sound.
DAY 221 A.F.
I rose at dawn, wide-awake.
I was too wired to be hungover, even though Jackson and I had sat in the car, passing his flask back and forth as I’d charged my iPod. He believed electronics that escaped a direct Flash hit didn’t get fried: “Kind of like people.” He’d been right about my iPod.
But when he’d asked about the crops again, I’d quietly thanked him for dinner and gone to bed. . . .
Now I slipped to the window, gazing out at the morning dust storm—a howler. Which meant those men would be delayed and I could hold Jackson off a little while longer. Maybe Mom was better, well enough to evacuate.