Poison Princess

Page 24

I tried to sleep in the silent ship.

Haven House was always—had always been—so noisy. I would never hear it creak and groan again. Would never hear the cane whisper me to sleep. Would never hear my mom’s heels clicking across the marble floor.

Even the voices were quiet, as if they wanted me to experience my grief to its full, excruciating potential.

Or perhaps they were quiet because Jackson was mere feet from me, sleeping slumped over that desk. He’d told me we’d always stay in the same room on the road because, again, “no place is one hundred percent safe.” His crossbow was at the ready.

I felt alternately uneasy and protected to have him so close.

As I lay on a too-soft foam bed in a too-quiet cabin, I relived the day. A trio of memories had been etched into my mind, and I knew they’d never be forgotten.

The proud look Jackson had given me when I dropped the lighter to burn down my home and cremate my mother.

The feel of his blistered palm when we ran hand-in-hand from the flames.

How peaceful Mom had looked in death.

Tears gathered and spilled—there was no stopping them. I imagined her last thoughts, imagined her clutching that picture. Had she known it would be her last night to live?

Why hadn’t I stayed with her?

If she hadn’t died in her sleep, then I could have been there to hold her hand, to see her . . . to see her through it.

Curling on my side, I wept, trying so hard not to make a sound.

Jackson suddenly shot upright. “You need to stop crying.”

I kept crying.

With a harsh oath, he grated, “Out here, there’s no room for this. You’re too soft, Evangeline.”

Yes, Jackson had only just begun to recognize what a weighty responsibility he’d taken on today—and now the reality was setting in. I sat up, swiping my forearm over my face. “I c-can’t help it.” Sooner or later, he’d get sick of me.

“Your mère died in grace. What more could you want for her? I only hope to go out so clean.”

I cried harder.

“Damn it, Evie!” His brows drew together, his lips thinned. “To hell with it. Cry all you like, but I doan have to watch it!” Snatching up his bow, he stormed out of the cabin, slamming the door.

I stared after him, miserable, listening as he strode through the ship. But just as suddenly, he started back toward the cabin. I heard him slide down outside, sitting against the door. He exhaled a gust of breath.

I continued to cry; he rose to pace.

What felt like hours later, he flung open the door. “You know what PEWS is?”

I shook my head dumbly.

“Perimeter early-warning system. It’s a way to hear enemies creeping up on you. Like the crackling shells out on the deck.”

“O-okay?” Tears were streaming down my face.

But he wouldn’t look at me, just started pacing again. “You can crush up lightbulbs outside your door, any kind of glass. A groaning staircase works just as well. That’s part of the reason I always try to roll two-story houses. When I’m driving, you’re goan to be looking for places for us to overnight, so keep that in mind.”

I tentatively nodded.

“Now, Baggers can smell water from miles away, so they still flock to old bodies of—”

“Then wh-why are we in a shipyard?”

“A ship on blocks is too good to pass up. Bagmen are like rabid wolves—they can hunt, but they can’t figure out how to use a ladder. Besides, every overnight has its own drawbacks. Any house with an open door? You have to wonder if a Bagger got in there first, like a moccasin coiled in your boot. Public building? You can’t spit without hitting a fire exit. Fire exits equal Bagman entrances.”

“Y-you know a lot.”

“I do, Evie,” he said matter-of-factly. “I know that Bagman scratches aren’t contagious, but their saliva or blood in your own will turn you in less than two days. I know that the only way to kill them is beheading or a shot to the brainpan. I’ve seen ’em all dried-out and chalky, till you think they got to be dead—but if you toss a bucket of water on ’em, they’ll come slithering across the ground to bite you. I know that they’re not allergic to sun like everybody thinks. They just doan like it ’cause it dries out their slimy skin. Enough of an incentive and they’ll brave the sun. I’ve seen ’em out past dawn licking dew from cars, or even from the ground.”

As I shivered to imagine such a sight, he canted his head at me. “You paying attention? I learned this stuff, but I’ve paid for it. Giving it to you for free.”

I would grasp at anything to occupy my mind. “I want to learn more.”

“All righty.” He hauled his backpack to the bed, taking a seat across from me. “Now, this here’s my bug-out bag. Only critical stuff and survival gear.” He dumped its contents onto the cover, his bearing seemingly proud ?

My gaze flicked over energy gel-packs and protein bars, a canister of Morton salt, a Swiss Army multipurpose tool, a travel toothbrush, lighters, medical tape, a windup flashlight, glow sticks, three mini bottles of liquor, and a canteen.

Some items were more surprising: a small hammer and bag of nails, an envelope of photos that he didn’t seem keen for me to see, and a pistol, snapped in a holster. “We’ll turn your backpack into a bug-out bag too. And every night, we’ll sort our resources.” At my questioning look, he said, “So we know what to be looking out for on the road.”

My tears were drying. “Like what?”

“If your bootlaces get busted, we woan pass by a corpse with decent lace-up boots.”

I swallowed. This was my life now. “If you have a pistol, why do you carry only a bow and arrow?”

“Only?” he scoffed. “This is bolt-action.” He reached for his weapon, showing me a magazine clip with six short arrows inside. “It’s quiet, and the arrows are reusable. Not so great against militiamen, but perfect for Baggers. Besides, that pistol’s only got one bullet—hanging on to it in case I get bit.”

“Oh. When do I get my shotgun back?”

“Try never.” I glared. “I’m goan to saw off the barrel. Carry it along with my bow for black hats. But here, I’ll help you get started with supplies.” He handed me the three mini bottles.

I raised my brows. “Jack Daniels?”

He met my gaze. “Is always good to have in hand.”

I set them away, too tired and emotionally raw to deal with his innuendo.

But he scooped the bottles up, dropping them insistently into my lap. “Doan scoff at the liquor, Evie. What else on earth can disinfect, catch an enemy on fire, and get you drunk? Tell me, what could you use the empty bottles for?”

“Um . . . glass for a PEWS?”

The corners of his lips curved just the slightest bit.

Chapter 22

DAY 230 A.F.


I sat in the parked car, surrounded by old corpses, watching Jackson fight through a windstorm. He had his bow at the ready, the shotgun slung over his shoulder, and a plastic gas tank tethered to his belt.

Empty, of course.

We hadn’t made it out of Louisiana before we’d started running on fumes. That’d been nine days ago. Since then, he’d been scrounging a gallon here or there and sourcing for car parts. Already we’d burned through three pairs of windshield-wiper blades and two air filters.

With the constant stops—and the unrelenting windstorms—we averaged less than twenty miles a day.

Today, he was sourcing fuel at a lawn mower repair shop. He thought the militia might’ve overlooked it.

Surely they’d gotten everything else. Just as Jackson predicted, food was scarce. We were running out of cans. Luckily, we were holding steady on water, sometimes finding leftovers inside water heaters.

Kneeling up on my seat with my forehead to the glass, I squinted, keeping Jackson in sight. Visibility was poor. The car rocked, ash swirling over the corpses splayed all around, like sand over windswept dunes.

When he encountered a body in his way, he didn’t veer his direction, just stepped right over it. He drove over corpses too.

At first I’d asked him to avoid them. After a couple of days, I’d realized how silly my request was. Without much moisture or insects, and few birds, the bodies had a lot of staying power, collecting over time.

He’d told me they were worse in the cities. I’d never imagined how many there could be.

Still, I was relieved to be out here on the road with Jackson, felt like some of the pressure of the last several months had been lifted.

Though my grief for my mom remained raw, it wasn’t as debilitating as it’d been in the beginning. At least now I could stem my tears. They seemed to really bother Jackson, like he took them as a personal insult.

But then, he spent most hours of the day irritated with me anyway. I had little clue why, barely able to keep up with his moods. . . .

The winds increased. A plastic Christmas tree tumbled by; a blackened clothes dryer inched down the road. Debris battered the car.

Jackson was out in that wasteland, exposed to danger. The militia had indeed cleared the roads, bulldozing wrecks. They’d piled them up along the sides, until the streets were like corrals. Like deadly wind chutes.

When he bent down beside a riding lawnmower parked on the small lot, I fretted my bottom lip. But Jackson seemed to possess no sense of fear, working steadily at his task.

I watched as he jammed a clear siphoning hose into the mower’s tank, swishing the tube around. He gave me a thumbs-up sign.

Clever, Jackson.

He’d turned out to be markedly different from how I’d remembered him at school. He was more hardened, and so possessed of himself that I sometimes forgot he was only a couple of years older than me.

Yet on very rare occasions, I caught a glimpse of an eighteen-year-old boy.

Some aspects of Jackson had remained the same. He was still dangerous, compelling, impossible to ignore—and confusing.

Though I wanted to be out there helping him, he always refused. Then he’d criticize me for not pulling my weight.

Sometimes I felt like I could never win with him, like he was purposely driving a wedge between us. But I didn’t know why.

After positioning the gas container beside the mower tank, he pulled down his bandanna, taking the hose between his teeth. I didn’t miss his hesitation to start the flow. Even if he was skilled enough not to get a mouthful of gas, he was still breathing the fumes—

Out of the corner of my eye, I spied a piece of sheet metal zooming through the air toward him, shearing everything in its path like a giant razor blade. I screamed, “Look out!” He couldn’t possibly hear me.

He ducked all on his own.

I pressed my sweating palms against the window, exhaling a breath as he faced me. His sunglasses covered his eyes, but I knew we were sharing a Holy shit! look. Then he set right back to work.

Another gust shoved the car. More winds, more rocking, more ash. I was losing sight of him.

My heart dropped when he disappeared, swallowed by the haze.

Worry preyed on me. I hated this helplessness! Without him in sight, the voices threatened.

I tried to busy myself by studying the bodies around the car. Jackson had told me to pay attention to the newer corpses because “they give you the lay of the land.”

At my blank look, he’d explained, “A bullet between the eyes means militia victim. You can tell how recently armed men have passed by. A body that’s been beaten or strangled to death? Survival-of-the-fittest killing. Desperate folks are scrapping for resources, so you keep moving. Ain’t goan to be no food around. A stab wound to the back? In-house. Family or friends offing each other. Again, keep stepping.”

I could recognize the Bagman victims all on my own. Their faces were frozen in horror, their necks savaged. Apparently, a bite was contagious only if one lived through the attack.

I would forever keep salt in my hoodie pocket. . . .

—Red of tooth and claw!—

—I’ll make a feast of your bones!—

I balled my hands into fists, struggling to tamp down the Arcana calls. It took exhausting effort. I’d grown to crave Jackson’s presence, just for the peace he brought.

Other kids whispered, new ones:

—I descend upon you like nightfall.—

—Woe to the bloody vanquished!—

I even thought I heard Matthew’s voice. —Crazy like a fox.—

So that was what he’d meant; the phrase was his own call. I’d thought he’d been spouting more gibberish.

And then Death spoke. —Come to me, Empress. I’ve waited so long.— I easily recognized him. He often talked directly to me, leaving my nerves frayed.

I rubbed my arms, hugging them around me miserably. Where was Jackson? What if he never returned? What if there was another piece of sheet metal . . . ?

I heard him just outside the car. Transferring fuel? Then he slammed the container into the back. After fighting to open the driver’s-side door, he wedged himself inside the opening and into the seat just before another gust flattened the door behind him.

“Jackson, I was so worried!”

He yanked down his soot-stained bandanna, catching his breath.

The voices faded to a whisper, then . . . gone. As I hurried to open a canteen for him, I wondered if he could tell I was trembling. “I couldn’t see you.”

He took his time situating the sawed-off shotgun between his seat and the console, then laid his bow close at hand in the backseat. He glowered at the canteen before taking it from me.

After a deep drink, he wiped his sleeve over his mouth. “I kept you in sight,” he said, his tone curt. He was mad, yet again?

“I’m just saying I was worried.”

“Your bodyguard returned in one piece. You might want to look for a better one though. I only got a few gallons. And no food.”

He turned on the engine. At once, the windshield wipers scraped the gritty glass, like fingernails on a chalkboard.

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