“How long can I keep you safe? It’s only goan to get worse and worse. We’re heading into places where folks lived off the land and hunted, where there weren’t Wal-Marts on every corner with aisles of cans to live off of. They’re goan to be starving, Evie. Desperate.”
The new food chain . . .
“I’ll be taking you straight into danger, and it might be for nothing. You got to be wondering if your grandmother’s even alive.”
“Why you sound so confident about her? You’ve had more visions, haven’t you? Damn it, why haven’t you told me?” In a surly tone, he added, “Bet you told coo-yôn.”
How to reply to that one?
“It’s like you two communicate in some way I can’t understand.” He exhaled a breath. “I got to accept that, me.” Then his brows drew together. “Why’s that boy always talking about the future? You said he lectured you—why would he be lecturing a psychic like you?”
I began pulling at a new hole in my jeans.
“Is he . . . like you? Can he see the future?”
Though I might not tell Jackson my disturbing secrets, I couldn’t lie to him anymore. “I don’t have visions of the future, Jackson. I am not psychic.” But I also couldn’t tell him Matthew’s secrets.
Jackson flashed me a disappointed look. “I saw your drawings. I’ve watched you get nosebleeds.”
I bit my bottom lip, gazing out through a filmy windowpane.
When I glanced back, he had that analytical look on his face. Uh-oh. “The day we rescued that boy, you told me you didn’t think you’d be alive for long without his help. He ain’t simple, is he?” When I eventually shook my head, Jackson added in a mutter, “I’d kinda hoped he was.”
“He’s just . . . different.”
“When are you goan to come clean with me? What is he to you?”
“I started seeing him just before the Flash. We do communicate differently. He’s one of the voices I hear.”
“Heh. You haven’t had a single nosebleed since we picked up that boy.”
I swallowed, uneasy with where this was going.
“This is like those puzzles we used to do in school. If some things are true and some are false, you can figure out a solution. If you haven’t told me any lies tonight—”
“—then I can back my way into the truth. One. You said you can’t see the future, but you didn’t answer when I asked if that coo-yôn could. Two. For some reason, you think his help can protect your life. Three. You once told me your visions felt like they were being shoved into your head. Maybe ’cause they were?”
Cunning, perceptive Jackson.
Realization lit his expression. “You’ve been growing plants somehow, and he’s been seeing the future? It makes sense.”
I just stared at him.
“Did he send you those visions to protect you?”
Why bother denying it? “He tried to get me ready for the Flash. I barely listened to him.”
Jackson tensed. “Then why does he keep talking about you dying, Evangeline?”
Oh boy. “When he talks about me meeting Death, he’s doesn’t mean it like you think. More like I should be prepared to face a big-bad or something. I know it sounds weird, but he considers Death to be a . . . person. Someone who can be defeated.”
A measure of tension eased from Jackson’s shoulders. The idea of a fightable adversary was something he could handle. “So both of you got gifts.” Then his face fell. “That’s why you like each other so much.”
“It’s not like that with Matthew and me. He doesn’t see me in that light.”
“He’s a sixteen-year-old boy, Evie. He sees you in only one light! Trust me on this, cher.”
“Well, I look at him like a sibling.”
“Like I did with Clotile?” he asked, and I thought he was holding his breath.
“Exactly. He’s a kid brother to me.”
Jackson briefly closed his eyes. At the memory of Clotile? Or from relief at my words? Both?
Had he truly believed I was interested in Matthew? I could only imagine what all Selena had told him when I wasn’t around. Doubt-mongering bitch.
Jackson met my gaze. “Got something for you.” He reached for his nearby bag, rooted around inside, then produced a bottle of Sprite.
My lips parted as he handed it to me. “Did you know that was my favorite?” He might as well have presented me with a piece of priceless jewelry. Just like with the gum, every time we drank a soda or ate a candy bar, there was one less treat in the world, never to be replenished.
“Of course. I did see you at five lunch periods. I’ve been saving it for when you could enjoy it—alone.”
I unscrewed the top, handing it back to him. “We will share it.”
“Oh, you’ll drink after me?”
My cheeks flushed. “Sometimes I can be immature, Jackson. I know it’s not always easy to be patient with me.”
As we passed the bottle between us, he grew serious again. “I’m not goan to be able to keep charging forward blindly. And there’s so much more than you’re telling me. Why woan you trust me? Is it because of the stuff I did back in school?”
Arcana means secrets. “It’s not you, Jackson, it’s me.”
He scowled at that, about to question me more, but the sun had begun to rise.
“I got to head out to work, me,” he said. “I’d leave Selena here as a guard, but her bow shoots better from a distance, and I need her for cover. I can’t get in and out of a camp full of soldiers without her.”
“You woan have to worry about Baggers today. And hell, coo-yôn can probably see any threats coming, huh?”
“Don’t worry about me. Just please be careful.” Though I knew he was brave and resourceful, I didn’t want him to go, dreading the danger he was about to wade into. “I want you to make it back, okay?”
“I could almost think you really care about me.”
“I do really care!”
“About having a bodyguard to protect you.”
“You’re more than that to me,” I said quietly. “And you have to know that—so why are you acting like you don’t?”
“Then prove it.” He eased closer, until our faces were inches apart. “Tell me your secrets.”
God, I loved it when he looked at me like this, with his eyes so steady and . . . affectionate?
“Trust me, ma belle. Can you do that?”
Ma belle meant “my pretty,” but also “my girlfriend.” So how did Jackson mean it?
Just then, glaring beams of sunlight hit us through the window, like . . . winter sunshine.
The spell was broken between us. Jackson shifted back to his usual restless self, his mind on his upcoming task. “Just think about it, Evie. We’ll talk when I get back.”
We woke Selena and Matthew, both groggy and in pissy moods. I was too nervous to care much.
Jackson deemed the house too plain a target, so we camouflaged the van down the road for Matthew and me to hide in.
Before Selena and Jackson departed, he gripped Matthew’s upper arm, telling him in that steely tone, “You’re goan to stay here and watch out for Evie. Earn your keep for once. You see a chance to kill or die for her today, then you take it.”
When Matthew merely stared at him, Jackson reached into the weapon box and pulled out a sheathed machete, handing it to the boy.
Matthew laughed and dropped it.
Jackson’s fists clenched, his temper at the ready.
But Selena quickly said, “They’ll be hidden here, J.D. They’ll be fine.”
Jackson turned to me. “On parle quand j’reviens.” We’ll talk when I get back.
“Prends soin de toi,” I replied. Take care of yourself.
Selena didn’t like this exchange whatsoever. “Hey, handsome, we don’t need to take both bikes. Wastes gas.”
When Jackson agreed with a shrug and mounted up, Selena slung her bow over her shoulder and hopped on behind him. With exaggerated relish, she wrapped her arms around his torso, pressing her long legs against his.
My spot. That was where I belonged. My claws grew slowly, menacingly, and it felt good. I tucked them into my palms so no one could see, but Matthew chuckled behind me.
Over her shoulder, Selena cast me a triumphant expression. And when she laid her head against his back, I was certain he could feel her smiling against him.
“Are you ready to tell me if Jackson will be safe down there?” I asked Matthew as we waited in the van, bundled in our sleeping bags for warmth. The fog was setting in, chilling me to my bones.
“You’ll see him again.” When I exhaled with relief, he said, “You think about him too much.”
Tell me something I don’t know, Matto. And that’d been before Jackson had called me ma belle.
To be Jackson Deveaux’s girlfriend . . . I was giddy from the possibility, too scared to hope.
Then I nibbled my lip as doubts crept in. What about the Arcana war, Selena, Death, the red witch?
“When Dee-vee-oh helps you, he hurts you.”
“You’ve told me that before, but not what that means.” No answer. “He did save my life—and yours. He’s protected us. He’s taught me about Bagmen and sourcing.” Nothing. “Matthew, I feel stronger around him.”
“Practice with your claws,” he said. “That will make you feel stronger.”
“I don’t know how to make them appear, because someone won’t tell me.” Right now they were emotion-based and uncontrollable.
“How does the red witch flex her claws?”
I glared. “And speaking of disgusting things that repel me, how long am I going to suffer those nightmares? Can you look into the future? Why do I see her?”
Though I had no interest in fighting Death, I was almost tempted to face the witch. Then the nightmares would end—one way or another. “Matthew?”
He began staring at one of his hands. Subject closed.
So I posed the same question I’d been asking for days, “Can you please just tell me if Jackson and Selena were together?”
“You’ll find out soon enough,” he answered in a testy tone.
Baffling answers from the king of cryptic!
“You’re thinking of him, and you haven’t even heard the card,” Matthew said.
“What card?” I asked, beginning to prepare our lunch. In other words, I pulled out a squished energy bar from my pocket to halve with him. My stomach was already growling for it.
“Nearby. Don’t look at this hand. But you can’t hear him because of Dee-vee-oh.”
“Why would I want to hear the voices? I don’t know this new card, don’t feel an attachment to any of them but you. I hate the voices.”
“Then you’ll die, with their gloating whispers in your ear.”
“Matthew, that was . . . harsh.” And eerie. It was times like this when I realized how little I truly knew about this boy.
“Death is expecting you,” he said for the umpteenth time.
“Then he’ll have a damned long wait!” I snapped. The mere mention of that knight set me off. “Death schooled those other Arcana, and they were strong, united. Even committed to each other,” I added, remembering Joules’s howl of grief. “I will never face him. Get it out of your head, because it will never happen. Never.”
Silence groaned between us, cold seeping into the van.
Regretting my tone with him, I tamped down my irritation and changed the subject. “If we’re going to have this cold and fog, maybe we could actually get some rain, too.”
Matthew shot upright, eyes wild. “No, no, no! Never say that! Take it back!” He clasped my shoulder, squeezing hard.
“I take it back! You’re hurting me!”
“You don’t want rain!” His gaze darted, his expression horrified. “The rain is worse.”
“How can that be?”
He yelled, “WORSE!” His voice boomed in the confines of the van, paining my ears. “For you. For us! Can’t be stopped though.” He released me, looking wounded, his face leached of color. “Why would you hope for hell, Evie?”
“I-I’m sorry.” This was the first time he’d ever frightened me. I kept thinking of him as childlike, and he was in some ways. But he was also volatile, and as strong as a full-grown man. “What does the rain do, Matthew?” Was precipitation even possible anymore? Surely if there was fog . . .
“The game changes. Not in our favor,” he whispered. “We grow so weak. They grow so strong.”
“All our foes laugh now. But once the sun hides? You’ve never known terror, not like you will when the rains come.”
I shivered from cold—and fear. “I need more of an explanation. Matthew, I need you to clarify these things to me.”
“You’re not ready. You listen poorly. We sit inside this van—because you listen poorly! We are behind, with rain on the horizon.”
“Okay, okay, but I’m ready to listen better now. Tell me what we should be doing. What do you think we should do? I want to know.”
“Too late. Our capture starts soon.”
“We need the card in the cage.”
Glancing up through the windshield, I asked, “What are you talking . . .” My words trailed off, my heart dropping.
In the wafting mist, a ragtag group of militiamen—all armed to the teeth—stalked closer.
Like a hunting party.
“Matthew, you follow me now,” I whispered as I strapped on my bag and crawled to the back doors of the van. “Grab the machete. We’ve got to slip out, quietly.” I cracked open one door, wincing as the hinges groaned—