Poison Princess

Page 25


“A few gallons is incredible!” I reached over and squeezed one of his gas-stained hands. “We can finally make it to Alabama on that. And we’ll find food tonight. I’ve got a good feeling.”

He softened somewhat, digging into his pocket. “Got you this. Might help with the hunger.” He offered me an opened pack of Juicy Fruit gum with three pieces left. The same brand my gran always loved.

Realization struck me. Every piece I enjoyed meant that there was one less in the world, never to be replenished. I met his gaze. “Thank you, Jackson.”

He shrugged uncomfortably, color flushing across his cheekbones. At that moment, he looked very much like an eighteen-year-old boy.

I couldn’t help but smile.

“It ain’t like we’re engaged or anything,” he muttered. “Now let’s get the hell out of here. Thought I saw a curtain flutter in a nearby house. We’re being watched.”

“There’re people?” I cried. Sometimes when we sourced for supplies, casing houses, I’d spy a door slamming shut or a figure running in the distance. Unlike Jackson, I didn’t believe that everyone was evil. But no one would show their faces. “Live people?”

He scowled at me. “Which are the worst kind.”

Still, I craned my head around.

“What’s your damned fixation with seeing others? I ain’t company enough for you?”

And again, he’s surly. “Of course you are, it’s just—”

“Before you go wishing for someone else to talk to, keep in mind that we’re about to drive near a big city—in other words, slaver territory. . . .”

Though we both hated backtracking, we were forced to retrace our route to get to the interstate. Jackson thought backtracking was a tactical error, and I had an OCD thing about it.

We traversed the same speed-bump corpses—buh-dunk buh-dunk—and passed the same spray-painted road sign. Someone had written Repent! in red. Beneath it, another person had painted in black Or WHAT?

Then, back on the interstate, quiet stretched between us. Blissful quiet. I pulled out a yellowing copy of Cosmopolitan from the glove compartment, but found my attention on Jackson instead.

He was lost in thought, holding the wheel with one hand, absently tracing the scars on his knuckles with the other.

Was he still angry that I’d hoped to see other people? Frustrated that we hadn’t scored food today?

How could he appear lost in thought and restless at the same time?

Over the last several days, I’d learned many new things about my Cajun bodyguard, but everything I’d discovered led to more questions.

I’d learned that he could go for long stretches in total silence. Whereas Brandon had been such an open book—thought to speech with no filter—Jackson kept his musings close to the vest.

What did a boy his age, an apocalypse survivor, think about over the course of the day? Why did he often trace the scars on his hands? Was he remembering old fights?

At other times, I suspected I was better off not knowing what went on in his mind.

I should just savor the quiet. The voices had been vanquished, which meant I was at peace. At least for a little while.

I rested my forehead against the window, staring out at the singed billboards advertising things we could never again buy—a trip to Hawaii, a new computer, permanent hair removal at a spa. Thank God Mel had made me go with her last year when she’d gotten herself lasered.

Pack of gum in hand, I closed my eyes. With each reprieve from the voices, I’d been able to center my thoughts, remembering more of my life before the clinic. During today’s lull, I smelled the familiar sweet scent of the gum, my mind drifting to that fateful drive with Gran. . . .

“I’ll return you to Haven well before your sixteenth birthday,” she said. “Once you’ve been prepared for your destiny.”

My destiny? Mint chocolate chip or butter pecan.

“There’s a Tarot pack in my pocketbook,” Gran said. “I want you to look at the cards. Really look at them.”

“Okay.” I rooted through her huge purse, past her gardenia lotion, but I got distracted by bubblegum—

“Evie, the deck.”

I nodded, pulling the cards out, slipping some off the top.

“The most elegant cards are the trump cards, the Major Arcana.”

“Major whatta?”

“Major Ar-kay-nah. It’s Latin for greater secrets. You and I will have our share.” She looked sad all of the sudden. “It’s the way of our line.” Shaking it off, she said, “The details of the images are important. They’re to be read like a map.”

I saw one card with a winged angel, one with an old man in a robe, one with a lion. A couple of cards had dogs on them.

I was struck by one picture of a fair-haired woman dressed in a poppy-red gown. She had a crown atop her head with twelve stars. Behind her, green and red hills rolled on and on.

Her arms were opened wide as if she wanted a hug, but her gaze looked mean.

Gran changed lanes, peering down at the card. “That’s you, Evie. You’re the Empress. One day, you’ll control all things that root or bloom. You’ll smell like them, and they’ll recognize your scent.”

I half frowned/half grinned up at her. Sometimes Gran said the strangest things. Then I shuffled through another couple of cards . . . until I saw him—a knight in black armor atop a creamy-white mount. The poor horse had bloodshot eyes. I loved horses—

“The details, Evie,” Gran said in a sterner voice, checking her rearview mirror again.

People were kneeling before the knight, crying and pleading. He raised some kind of stick over their heads, and they were scared.

“That one of Death frightens you, doesn’t it, sweetheart?” Gran asked. “Or maybe you get really angry when you look at it . . . ?”

“Evie, you awake?” Jackson asked me.

I blinked open my eyes, the memory fading. “Yeah, what’s up?” God, I could hardly wait to see Gran once more! At last all my maddening questions would be answered.

Jackson opened his mouth to speak. Closed it. Opened it. “Forget it,” he finally said.

I shrugged, gazing out the window once more. It hadn’t escaped me that Jackson was in the same situation that I was. Once we reached the Outer Banks, he’d have his puzzles solved too.

My secrets were driving him crazy. He’d continued to interrogate me about the crops and the visions. Yesterday he’d said, “If we do make it to North Carolina and we can camp somewhere for a time, what would I need to get for you? So you could make our seeds grow?”

“I’ll tell you everything as soon as we get to my grandmother’s. Until then, we need to be sourcing for silver bells and cockleshells.”

Now he asked me, “Why are you always so quiet around me? You were a chatterbox with other people.”

Chatterbox? “How can you say that? You hardly knew me.” Oh, wait. Except for the fact that he’d once possessed the source of all-things-Evie.

Brandon’s phone. How much had Jackson seen, read, heard? “In any case, I wanted to let you concentrate on driving.”

“Uh-huh. You cried out again last night, mumbled some things in your sleep. What’d you dream of? And if you answer ‘this and that’ one more time, I’m slamming on the brakes.”

“I don’t remember,” I said, even as I recollected my latest nightmare of the witch. All of them seemed to be from the same day, from nearly the same location. In this one, she’d been traveling the countryside with a besotted young admirer. He’d angered her over something. So—of course—she’d decided on murder.

“Come. Touch,” she’d murmured to him. When he’d tripped over his feet to reach her, she’d opened up her palm and a flower had grown—from her skin. With a sensual wink, she’d blown him a kiss across the bloom, releasing deadly spores.

He’d started choking, dropping to her feet. His skin had swelled until it split open in places. Putrid boils welled and spurted. She’d gazed on, cheerfully telling him, “How artfully we plants beckon; how perfectly we punish. . . .”

Each day, I hated her more. Then I frowned. “Jackson, what did you hear me mumble in my sleep?”

“You said, ‘Come touch.’ I thought this was a fine idea, until you added, ‘But you’ll pay a price.’ What was that about?”

The admirable deviousness of briars. “I can’t imagine.”

“Liar.” He glanced into the rearview mirror. “What’s it goan to take to get you to trust me, huh?”

“Don’t know,” I said honestly. I wished I did. How badly I yearned to be able to confide in another! Maybe just to have a friend again? At least, one who was physically present.

But I didn’t need to give Jackson more reason to ditch me. Though he’d accepted the visions easily enough, my hearing voices was a different matter altogether. My repeated nightmares of cold-blooded murder . . .

“You’re always scouting for other folks, but you doan talk to the one you’re with,” he said. “Guess I ain’t worth the bother.”

“Maybe I’d talk to you more, if you weren’t mean to me all the time.”

“Mean? When? Is this because of the sunglasses?”

My old Coach ones were so scratched I could barely see through them. I’d sourced aviator glasses—still on a body. Again and again, I’d circled the stabbed corpse—definitely in-house—wanting those glasses so badly. Jackson had ordered, “You get your ass over there, Evangeline, and you pluck those off! Right now!”

“Yes, mean,” I insisted. “How about when I forgot my bug-out bag that one time. You went off!”

“If I doan treat you with kid gloves, it’s for good reason.”

Kid gloves? Please. In the early days of our trip, he’d been decent but distant. But as the worst of my grief ebbed, his surliness increased.

If he ever came upon me sniffling with sadness or not eating when we did have food or not sleeping, he took it as a personal affront. “Bed not soft enough for you, princess?” he’d sneer, though I’d never complained. “Food not up to your standards?”

He especially didn’t like it when I was quiet or lost in thought. Even though he was often the same.

Recalling all the times he’d appeared restless, I figured that he simply hated being cooped up in a car with me, being saddled with me. We were stuck together, watching the windshield wipers scrape, listening to the same iPod songs over and over.

Most of the tracks were from Mel’s playlists. Oddly, Jackson didn’t enjoy endless rap remixes of Alanis Morissette.

God, I miss that girl like an ache, like I miss Mom. . . .

Still stewing over my accusation of meanness, Jackson said, “You ain’t perfect yourself, peekôn. You get your feelings hurt like this”—he snapped his fingers—“and you woan tell me anything about you. Most close-lipped girl I ever knew.”

“Why am I always the one getting interrogated? You’ve rarely talked about yourself since we’ve been on the road.” Yes, I had secrets, but he had such a huge advantage over me—Brandon’s phone!

“Ask me something,” Jackson said, though his grip on the steering wheel tightened, as if he were bracing for a punch.

“Okay. Was the cage-the-rage rumor true? Did you really go to prison?” If so, he might understand some of what my experience at CLC had been like.

Anger flared in his expression. “You got to go for the slam at every opportunity.”

“What are you talking about? I asked for a reason.”

“Which is to remind me of my place!”

“Jackson, I’m astonished you can walk upright with that chip on your shoulder.”

“How about asking what my favorite book is? Or what class I liked best?”

“I figured you liked English a lot, and I thought Robinson Crusoe was your favorite book.”

In a menacingly low voice, he said, “Sometimes I forget, me, that you were in my house.”

“Fine, I’ll try again. So, Jackson, what had you planned to do after high school?”

He slid me a narrowed glance. “Open a chop shop. Steal cars for parts. Isn’t that what you expect me to say?”

“Forget I asked.”

“What were you goan to do, then?”

“Marry Brandon, have a couple of rich brats, play tennis all day. Isn’t that what you expected me to say?”

He seemed to be strangling the steering wheel. At least his hands had healed. When I’d insisted on cleaning and bandaging them last week, he’d been gruff, but I thought he secretly liked someone fussing over him.

Because it was such a rarity?

When I’d finished dressing them, he’d grumbled, “Surprised you didn’t kiss ’em better.” So I did, pressing a quick kiss to each bandage, just to shock him. Instead, his voice had grown husky as he’d called me “ma belle infirmière.” My pretty nurse . . .

His moods were so changeable. That night he’d been flirtatious. Now he was brooding, filled with tension.

It seemed like the harder I tried to be nice to him, to make him happy, the more it backfired on me.

Silence stretched between us again. Until my stomach growled.

Jackson cast me another scowl. I’d also learned that the sound of my hunger really bothered him, as if I were pestering him for food.

“We’re not eating for hours yet, princess.” He knew I hated it when he called me that. “We agreed to keep heading for Atlanta, Evie. And we knew it’d be lean.”

“I’m not complaining. I have never complained.”

“No, but that stomach of yours is. I almost wish you’d start bitching at me.” His knuckles were now white on the wheel.

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