“I never called you a lunatic. I’m not making fun.”
Did I dare confide this to him? I bit my bottom lip. “I’m not talking to myself—I’m talking to others. I do hear voices, tons of them. They all sound like they’re kids our age.”
“Do you think they’re real?” he asked in a neutral tone.
I sighed, nodding. “And I feel like I’m connected to them somehow. Like we share a hive mind or something.”
“Hive mind. Like how bees communicate.”
“You’re starting to confuse and unsettle me, Evangeline,” he said, but strangely, he didn’t look either at all. Did nothing faze him? “What they say to you?”
“Sometimes nothing but gibberish. Sometimes I hear these phrases repeated over and over. A girl says, ‘Behold the Bringer of Doubt.’ This Irish kid always says, ‘Eyes to the skies, lads, I strike from above.’ It gives me chills.”
Jackson studied my expression, probably reading me like a book, while I gleaned nothing from him. Would he be even more likely to cut his losses now, to ditch the mental girl? “Why do you think it’s happening?”
“I don’t know. That’s the reason I have to get to Gran. She will have all the answers.”
“Is she psychic?”
Good question. “I honestly don’t know. She could be.” Or maybe she’d learned all this Arcana stuff from her own mother, information handed down through the generations.
Hadn’t Gran told me she herself was a chronicler? Matthew had mentioned something about it as well.
“If your grandmother knows so much, then why the hell didn’t she teach you before she packed up for the beach?” Jackson said. “Let me guess: There was some secret passing-down-the-baton ceremony on your sixteenth birthday that never came about—”
“She was sent away when I was eight. Everybody said she was insane. I was forbidden to talk about what she’d taught me.”
“You have to remember something.”
“Not enough. I was forbidden even to think about her.”
“Nobody can control what you think about,” Jackson said.
I gave a bitter laugh. “Oh, but they can.” I recalled sitting at a cold metal table with my primary shrink. I’d glanced down, confused to see a puddle of saliva pooling. Even when dosed so heavily—with a billion milligrams of don’t-give-a-shit drugs pumping through me—I’d been humiliated to realize the drool was coming from me. He’d asked, “Evie, do you understand why you must reject your grandmother’s teachings . . . ?”
Jackson slid his gaze to me. “They get into that head of yours?”
How to tell him I’d been drugged to within an inch of my life in an echoing ward, then hypnotized until I could barely remember my name?
No, not hypnotized—that might’ve been beneficial. Hypnosis that made things worse? That was called brainwashing.
“Yes,” I said simply. Let’s see how he likes that for an answer.
He let it drop. “So, do you hear voices right now?” When I eventually nodded, he did a double take. “Like right now?”
“Don’t look at me like I’m a freak, Jackson. I hate that look!” I squeezed my eyes shut, mortified. His nuthouse and fous cracks hadn’t helped things.
Why had I revealed so much to him?
Oh yeah, because he’d shared with me. One difference: I didn’t judge him.
“Did you just get your feelings hurt again? Damn, cher, I doan know my way around this with you.”
I opened my eyes but wouldn’t look at him. “Around what?”
“Being with a girl like you.” Now I had to raise my brows at him. “Yeah, with your bebins and your girly ways. You got soft hands, and you’re . . . soft. But I doan think you’re a freak.”
“How could you not?” I imagined what Brandon’s reaction might have been if he were the one here with me tonight. Would he be able to handle my confession? Then I remembered that I probably wouldn’t have survived this long without Jackson.
“Look, Evie, I saw some things before the Flash, things that couldn’t be explained. Hell, my grandmère was rumored to be a traiteuse.”
A kind of Cajun medicine woman. “Really?”
He nodded. “After the Flash, I’m ready to believe just about anything. Do these voices make me uneasy? Mais yeah. Am I itching to know what causes them? Ouais. But that doan mean I think less of you for hearing them.” He curled his forefinger under my chin, until our eyes met—and I could see he was telling the truth. “Just glad you told me a secret.” He canted his head. “Though you got a thousand more, non?”
So many more.
One of those voices belongs to Death on a pale horse, and he wants to kill me. I communicate “clairaudiently” with a crazy boy who gives me nosebleeds when he thinks I’m not listening hard enough. Just about every morning, I wake up to the scent of blood and the sound of agonized screams.
My gaze dropped, and he lowered his hand.
“What’re the voices saying now?”
“They’re quiet enough to ignore,” I said. “When I’m around others, they pipe down.” I peered up at him from under a lock of hair and admitted, “But never as much as they’ve done around you.”
“Evangeline,” he sighed. “It ain’t ever goan to be easy with you, is it?”
Though I feared more and more that he would get sick of me and leave one day, I answered honestly, “Nope.”
DAY 235 A.F.
DEEPER IN MISSISSIPPI
“Do you need to slow down?” Jackson yelled over the winds.
I shook my head, wanting to continue on. We’d left Haven almost two weeks ago; I was beginning to fear we’d never get out of this state.
Bandannas over our faces and sunglasses in place, we meandered through another deserted town, with a windstorm whipping around us—and tremors beneath our feet.
Lucky for us, the storms had become more sporadic and shorter, lasting just an hour or two a day. A blessing, since we remained carless.
Even if Jackson could fix a vehicle, the tank would be empty.
On foot, we’d started seeing gaunt-cheeked survivors every now and then, peeking out from behind barricaded windows. Much to Jackson’s annoyance, I always gave them a tentative wave. But none of them had wanted anything to do with us. . . .
“You stay right behind me,” he said now, pressing on. He would always walk first, blocking the wind for me, insisting I draft behind him.
During the worst part of the storms, I would curl my forefinger around one of his belt loops, which always seemed to amuse him.
I did so now, dumbly following his broad back down yet another “main” street. During daylight hours, Jackson usually had the shotgun in hand, with his bow and bag slung over his shoulders.
Today, he also carried something far more exciting—
Without warning, my head started to pound. My nose itched.
My bandanna was continually bloody on the inside, courtesy of his appearances. Jackson might keep the voices in check, but Matthew showed whenever.
And with each visit I’d become more convinced that he was, in fact, sending me visions. I didn’t believe I’d ever been clairvoyant. He was the only one with that talent.
Now blood began trickling to my upper lip. These moving visions were the worst. I’d learned to just keep walking, even when Jackson disappeared and all I could see around me was Matthew’s basement.
—Find me, friend.—
I clamped my lips shut, willing myself not to speak out loud. I told you, I have to find my gran first. Where are you, anyway?
—On your way.—
Truly? What city are you in?
—Arcana means secrets; keep ours.—
I don’t understand. If I had a can of ravioli for every time I told Matthew that . . .
—Have you seen the red witch?—
Unfortunately, I dream about her all the time. Is she alive today?
—She arises. She’s coming for you. The Empress fights the red witch. Learn her strengths and weaknesses.—
Do you expect me to face her?
—Evie, you must be ready.—
Apparently. God, why do I put up with you?
—The same reason I put up with you.—
—We are friends.—
Once he was gone, I furtively washed the blood away with water from my canteen. I’d just finished as the storm faded. When the ash settled over the town, the temperature began to rise on the shade-free street. The odor of refuse boiled up from the ground.
I unzipped my hoodie and pulled down my bandanna, surveying the area. I could see so much more around me. Not necessarily a good thing.
Of course there were bodies. But it was worse than that. . . .
Over his shoulder, Jackson muttered to me, “Bedlam.”
I was beginning to understand his compulsion to solve puzzles. Every few feet, a new mystery taunted me.
An eighteen wheeler lay atop a house. On my right, someone had painstakingly nailed a wedding dress and veil to a front door. A dingy sleeve waved in the wind.
To my left, a dead man and young boy were positioned in a front yard, as if they’d been making snow angels in the ash right up to the end.
On the side of a dumpster, someone had spray-painted: Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn . . . Whatever.
I struggled to assign meaning to things, to read clues. But post-Flash, little made sense. I had to wonder if Jackson might not be right, that maybe everyone was bad now. Or at least crazy.
Up ahead, there was a moaning Bagman, chained by the neck to a refrigerator, crawling in place, its pants rotting off. Who in their right mind would think chaining up a Bagman was a good idea?
Its skin was chalkier than the ones I’d seen in the swamp, and it moaned louder.
Jackson paused before it, offering me his crossbow. “Shoot it.”
I shook my head.
“Come on, it’ll do you some good to take one out.”
“No, Jackson.” Did I think the Bagman needed to live? Not at all. But I didn’t want to be the one dispatching it. What if I . . . liked killing it?
The witch enjoyed killing more than anything. I’m all about life.
With a scowl at me, Jackson shot it in the temple, then retrieved his arrow. Great. He was mad again.
But he surprised me a short while later, when we had to cut through the cracked open fuselage of a jumbo jet. He took my hand, helping me over the debris. I grimaced at the bodies still fastened into seat belts, still hunched in a crash position.
“Hell on earth, huh?” he asked when we were clear.
I nodded shakily. “About the only way to describe it.”
“You know, at first, I wanted you to see stuff like this all the time, so you’d get harder.”
My drill sergeant. “And now?”
“Now I wish you never needed to get harder. But it’s just goan to keep getting worse,” he said, continuing on.
I believed that. I’d be even more despairing over our circumstances if it wasn’t for the knowledge that every step took us closer to North Carolina—that and my growing fascination with Jackson.
It was mind-boggling to me that I’d known him at school and had never guessed how remarkable he might be.
Unfortunately, my fascination was slipping toward infatuation. I told myself it would never work between us—best not to complicate things.
So why had I been absolutely thrilled when Jackson had begun carrying my bag?
Last night, we’d been forced to stay in a library—one of those fire-exit capitals—but at least this one had been locked up. As we’d meandered through the stacks with his windup flashlight, I’d teased him, “You carried my bag today. Does that mean you like me, Jackson? Hmm? Isn’t that what a beau does?”
His shoulders had stiffened at my tone. “Or maybe I help you along because you would slow me down otherwise.”
“Oh,” I’d said, on the verge of getting my feelings hurt “like that.” But then I’d wondered if maybe Jackson had snapped at me because I’d found a chink in his tarnished armor.
Which would mean that he did like me, and did think of himself as my beau.
That would also explain why he got so mad whenever my stomach growled. A boy like Jackson would be protective of any girl he thought “belonged” to him, and frustrated that he couldn’t provide for her.
Of course, this was all speculation. More likely, as Jackson repeatedly told me, I just didn’t understand boys whatsoever.
After all, why would he like me? I was still the same old Evie, the one he’d ridiculed and cursed. I wasn’t exactly this team’s critical asset. On the road, my skill set consisted of fussing over any injuries he sustained, biting back every complaint, and occasionally speaking French with him; it seemed to relax him.
He’d considered me useless before the Flash. When he’d first seen me afterward, he’d summed me up with one word: de’pouille. I had no illusions that I’d changed his opinion of me.
Still, when I found a copy of Robinson Crusoe on the library shelves, I’d secretly slipped it into my pack to give him later.
“Behind me, Evie!” Jackson snapped. He had his gun against his shoulder, aiming toward a house. I didn’t ask, just hurried behind him.
A middle-aged man stood on a front porch with his own rifle aimed back at us. Three preteen boys cowered behind him. Everything in the guy’s bearing said, Keep walking, strangers.
So we did, Jackson easing past, me walking behind. Yet then the man’s gaze darted from Jackson’s gun . . . to me, and lingered.
At once, fury seemed to roil within Jackson. “Lower that piece, old man, or I’ll drop you where you stand.”
The man didn’t comply. Faceoff.
Then Jackson bit out, “Your boys’ll be next—and I woan waste bullets on them, no.”