I’d asked him if Jackson had been with Selena—and I’d received the same response. I still couldn’t tell if they had. The two of them got along great, but never betrayed that anything deeper was at work.
At least Jackson didn’t. Selena was clearly head over heels for him.
She might not be the only one.
If I could find out for certain that he wanted more from me, and that he hadn’t slept with our constant traveling companion, I’d tell him that I was falling for him. . . .
Now Matthew gave me a disappointed look. “Empress lies about them throwing me away.”
I exhaled. “I’d never let anything happen to you. If they toss you out, I’ll go with.”
I’d told Jackson as much. Big mistake.
Yesterday, in one of the rare moments when both Matthew and the clinging Selena had been out of earshot, Jackson had gruffly muttered to me, “Do you think that boy can take care of you? Can protect you on the road?”
I’d blinked in confusion. “Uh, will he need to?” Then doubts had arisen. “Ohh, I see how it is. The tribe has spoken. You and Selena are going to lighten the load. Will you at least give me notice so we can be ready?”
Jackson had drawn his head back, his jaw muscles bulging. “You believe I’d abandon you?”
“I might have accidentally overheard you and Selena talking. You called Matthew a resource-suck, said he was burning through the food.” Would Jackson look at Matthew through “greater good” glasses? Especially with Selena’s influence and doubt-mongering?
“That’s fact,” Jackson had said. “Something I tend to consider in decision-making.”
“Like deciding whether to maroon him?”
“And what would you do if I did?”
“Go with him,” I’d said without hesitation.
“You’d choose to go with him over me?” For the scarcest instant, I’d thought I saw something fierce and chillingly possessive in his gaze, then—
Gone. His expression had grown shuttered once more. He’d said in a scathing tone, “Maybe that’s what I should do! Let you two make your own way, one more useless than the other. If I wasn’t so sure I’d be sending you to your grave, I’d probably cut bait now!” Then he’d stormed off, leaving me shaken.
We hadn’t spoken more than a few words since, though I often caught his gaze on me in the rearview mirror.
Now I told Matthew, “I don’t want you to worry about getting abandoned, okay? Promise me.”
“We don’t need them,” he said. “You need your allies.”
“Okay, I’ll play. Who are they?”
“Shhh, kid.” As much as I felt like a big sister and best friend to Matthew, he could nettle me like no other. I imagined this was what it’d be like with a sibling on a long road trip.
In a quieter tone, he said, “You need to practice your powers. Phytomanipulation.”
This was something new! “Does that mean plant control?”
Patience. “Matthew, if I’m supposed to practice, are you going to be my coach?”
“Yes!” he said brightly. “Flex your thorn claws.”
Suddenly self-conscious that another person knew about them, I made fists. “I can’t just force them out.” The last time they’d appeared was in Selena’s neighborhood. “Or can I?”
He gave a long-suffering sigh.
I focused my attention on my fingernails, imagining them transforming. Nothing happened. I concentrated again. Same result. So I gave up. “You said I had other”—possibly easier—“abilities? What are they? What’s my Arcana call?”
“I don’t see your claws.” He peered at my hands, then began studying his own. Topic finished.
“Oh, I get it. We’re on a new reward system.” I lay back in a huff, staring at the van roof.
Maybe I should just let things unfold. We could be at Gran’s in less than two weeks. I could wait till then to bombard her with all my questions.
What am I? Why am I this way? What is my purpose?
Can the world be . . . saved?
Suddenly Matthew shot upright, his face paling. “Death sends his regards.”
At once, Selena turned down the music. I saw Jackson’s eyes narrow in the rearview mirror.
Matthew asked, “Why aren’t you preparing for Death, Evie? We’ve talked of what the future brings.”
Oh, no, no. If our cryptic exchanges weren’t enough to make me batty, Matthew also liked to talk about his visions of Death. A lot. Which kept me on edge—Jackson as well.
And Jackson didn’t even know that Matthew referred to a real man, a psychotic knight who’d vowed to execute me and drink my blood.
This morning Jackson had told Matthew, “You mention death one more time, and I’ll knock you into next week. Comprends?”
“Already been there,” Matthew had answered. Now he told me, “You have to be ready for Death, Evie.”
Jackson said, “I warned you, coo-yôn!”
Selena touched his forearm, casting him a fake, pleading, Be-patient-for-Evie’s-sake look.
Her personality had been grating on my nerves, scaling new heights of annoyance. But as ever, I was filled with doubts about her. How fitting. I didn’t feel I could trust her, but I sensed I might have to . . . depend on her?
Matthew asked me, “This time will be different, won’t it?”
Though I had no idea what he was talking about, I promised, “Yes, Matthew. Let’s just lie back.”
“You won’t kill me?”
Jackson shot me a look in the mirror.
Under my breath, I said, “I’d never hurt you!”
“Death won’t wait forever.” With a confident nod, he added, “Strike first or be first struck.”
When Jackson gripped the steering wheel harder, I said, “Hey, let’s talk about something else. Did you ever get to see the space shuttle in Florida?” Nothing. “How about those rascally Ewoks, huh?”
“I’m in Death’s pocket, so he’s in my eyes,” Matthew said again. “He sees you even now. You’ll meet the Reaper soon.”
“C’est ça coo-yôn! Jackson snapped. “That’s it! I’ve had enough of your crazy-ass talk—”
The engine rattled.
Sputter. Clunk. Done.
Everyone fell silent as Jackson steered the van off the road—as if another car might need to pass. Once our momentum crept to a standstill, we all sat wordlessly, even Matthew.
Without gas, we’d be walking. In the raw cold and fog. There was only one house in sight, a modest brick structure that had surely already been rolled.
Just as I’d been in the days before my mom had passed, we were shit out of luck—and I felt like heading to the barn for my daily primal scream.
Selena piped her lip to blow her hair out of her face. “What are we going to do now, J.D.?”
“We passed a militia camp in a valley, not far back. They’ll have gas.”
I hadn’t seen anything. Of course, I’d been trying to keep Matthew quiet. “How do you know it’s a militia?”
“Several big fires. I saw them even through the fog. They got no fear that others might spot them, which means it’s an armed group.” He climbed out of the van, immediately tucking his chin and pulling his jacket close around him.
I followed him, sucking in a shocked breath. The temperature had dropped even more since this morning.
“Hate this cold,” he muttered.
Though none of us was accustomed to these temperatures, at least I’d been skiing with Mel and her family each winter break.
Jackson had never known a cold like this, had never been outside of Louisiana. When Selena had asked him what his favorite ski resort was, he’d shared an amused glance with me in the rearview mirror. “Wouldn’t know snow if it hit me in the face,” he’d said. “Bayou boy, me, born and raised. . . .”
Once Selena and Matthew had climbed out, Jackson said, “We’ll stop at that house for the night, raid the camp in the morning.”
“How are we going to steal gas from them?” I asked.
“We?” Jackson raised his brows. “We ain’t goan to do nothing. You are goan to sit somewhere safe, you. Once the Bagmen get scarce at dawn, Selena and me will ride the bikes in closer.”
I glared, feeling as useless as ever, embarrassed by my ineptitude, especially compared to her.
Whenever Jackson called Matthew bon à rien, good-for-nothing, it only reminded me of all the times that he’d called me the same.
A worthless little doll with no teeth.
I shot up with a gasp, fresh from a nightmare. When I blinked open my eyes, my claws were extended, glinting in the dim moonlight that streamed through a dirty window.
Beside me, Selena and Matthew slept on. Earlier, the three of us had laid out sleeping bags around a cold hearth—we hadn’t dared to build a fire—then divided an energy bar. While we’d tried to sleep, Jackson had taken up watch in an adjoining room.
I stared down at my claws as I remembered my dream. The witch had been surrounded by shadowy figures, burning with that aggression, that overwhelming compulsion to kill them.
So she’d twirled in place until her leaf-strewn red hair spun around her head, emitting something into the air. Spores? Once she’d stopped in place, she’d assured her victims, “There is no shame in surrender.”
I’d expected the villagers to choke, writhing like her young admirer had. Even when sleeping, I’d braced for more ghastly images to stain my brain.
Instead, her victims had dropped to the ground with happy sighs, curling up on a grassy field, warmed by the sun.
Where was the fractured bone? The bits of flesh? The shrieks? The people had simply gone to sleep.
Yet they would never wake up.
Experiencing this dream was almost worse than the most gruesome ones. Her subtle evil haunted me. There hadn’t been a single shriek—because not one soul had been aware enough to fight for his life. . . .
As my claws began to recede, I wiggled my fingers, watching the light play over the thorns. I realized I was growing accustomed to them. The sight didn’t shock me at all anymore. In fact, I felt . . . numb.
I was gradually becoming more like her. The abilities I’d once considered a gift now seemed more like a curse.
Once my nails returned to normal, I rose, seeking Jackson. Seeking comfort. I just needed to be near him, knew it would make me feel better.
In the next room, I drew up short to find him sleeping on his watch, sitting upright on a cushioned window bench.
One of his long legs was bent, his crossbow balanced precariously on his knee, his other leg stretched out in front of him. He rested his head against the window. Had I ever seen him sleep?
No. Because he’d been watching over me every night. Well, except for at Selena’s. I wasn’t yet sure where he’d slept then.
He had dark circles under his eyes and his brow was creased with worry. So much responsibility. I felt a pang. No wonder he drank so much.
I climbed up on the bench, kneeling before him, and smoothed the backs of my fingers along one cheek. Still he didn’t wake. He must be exhausted.
I felt a welling of tenderness for this boy—my cursing, hard-drinking, ladies’-man protector.
I sighed. Was he my protector? Could he possibly prefer bonne à rien over flawless Selena? As much as I hated to admit it, she suited him better. In fact, I didn’t see how anyone could suit him better than she did.
If I found out they’d had sex, would I still want him?
So many questions swirled between us, so many secrets. I was involved in some kind of battle that I wanted no part of, I was a marked target because of abilities I’d never asked for and didn’t know how to control, and Jackson was the only thing in my life that made me feel sane, made me want to fight for a future.
Tilting my head, I grazed my thumb over his bottom lip, remembering our kiss. What I wouldn’t give to go back to that night, to explain my fears to him, to ask him to go slower.
“Hey,” he suddenly murmured. His eyes were hooded, a lazy smile beginning to curve his lips. “Now, this is what I like to wake up to, peekôn.”
If I’d thought happy and smiling was a good look on him, a sleepy Jackson tugged at my heart.
He set away his bow, then looped an arm around me to drag me to his chest. When I relaxed against him, he brought his knees up on both sides of me.
Against my hair, he rasped, “Honeysuckle. You liking ole Jack right now?”
“Yes,” I answered honestly, luxuriating in his heat, his strong arms around me. I wanted to burrow even closer to him.
“Ah, bébé, I feel like I ain’t seen you in weeks.”
“I know, me too.”
He cupped my face, meeting my gaze. “If I’d known I would wake up to this, I’d have gone to sleep earlier.” Then he tensed. “Wait. Why was I asleep?”
He scrambled to his feet, sending me tumbling before he caught my arm and steadied me on the bench. “What the hell! I fell asleep on watch?”
Selena stirred in the next room but didn’t wake.
“Jackson, you haven’t been getting any rest for days. Weeks, even. You passed out.”
“And you got the drop on me?” He snatched up his bow, scanning out of the windows. The coast must’ve been clear, because he lowered the weapon. “We could’ve been surrounded by Baggers. I doan know what happened. This has never happened.”
“Nobody can go this long with so little sleep.”
“I have in the past.” He sank back down on the bench, gazing out. “A fine job I’m doing taking care of you.”
“You have been! I owe my life to you.”