BETWEEN HEAVEN AND HELL
Paper lanterns make the convention center ballroom look like a sky full of stars and the few hundred bodies gathered beneath them move to the music like planets following some celestial trajectory. I scan the crowd of barely familiar faces and realize I’m the only one without a satellite.
Even my best friend has deserted me. She’s probably off somewhere trying to find me a last-minute date. Tara thinks it’s pathetic that I don’t have a date for my own sweet sixteen and I can’t argue with her there. I’d always just planned on going with our mutual childhood friend Brent, but that all changed when he made it clear that he saw me as more than just a friend. Now I don’t even know if he’s going to show up.
I give up searching for him in the crowd and pour myself a glass of punch. It hasn’t been spiked yet, but Tara’s new boyfriend will probably see to that before the night is over.
“There you are.” Tara grabs my shoulder from behind and I jolt so hard I almost spill punch all over my light blue dress. Mom spent seven hours dragging me from one store to the other until we found the perfect dress. Her idea of the perfect dress, at least. If I had my way, I’d be wearing jeans.
Or anywhere else in the world.
“Geez, you’re jumpy tonight.”
“You know I hate parties.”
She rolls her eyes. “This is your party, Jordan.
“You realize that makes it worse, right?”
“I don’t get you. We’ve been friends since pre-K and I still don’t get you,” she says, dragging me away from the line forming by the punch bowl. “This is like the party of the year, everyone is here, and it’s not hard to guess who that red Corvette in the back lot that’s wrapped in a giant pink bow is for. Why aren’t you happy?”
“First of all, I barely know any of these people, second of all, they’re just here for the free food, third of all, I don’t need a car when we live in a town of ten-thousand people,” I say, pausing to take a breath, “and fourth of all, not everyone is here.”
“Are you talking about Brent?”
I take a sip of punch to avoid incriminating myself any further.
“I’m sorry, weren’t you the one who put him in the friendzone?”
“Is that what we’re calling being honest and not leading someone on now?”
She rolls her eyes again. “Whatever. I just don’t get why he wasn’t good enough.”
“Careful, Tara. If your tone gets any pointier I might bleed.”
“Don’t pretend that wasn’t a passive-aggressive remark,” I say. Normally I’d let it go, but between the noise and the lights, I’m on sensory overload. “I know what happened last summer at the beach house. If he turned you down, I should be worshiping at his feet for choosing me, is that it?”
“That’s not what I meant,” she snaps, glancing over her shoulder. She’s always so careful about what people hear.
“Okay, then what did you mean?”
“Just that you could do a lot worse than Brent. He’s hot, he thinks your lame jokes are funny, he doesn’t care that you spend all your time with old people and his dad is filthy rich,” she says, tucking a blonde curl behind her ear. “I know you pretend like you don’t care about that kind of thing, but it matters in a town like Twin Pines.”
“I’m sorry, when did you have time to perfect your impression of my mother?”
She glares at me. “Okay, fine. I’m the tiniest bit jealous that he’s into you and not me, but you’re still my best friend and I hate to watch you screw up a good thing.”
“That’s what I was trying not to do,” I say, leaning against the wall. “I like Brent, maybe even as more than a friend, but I’m not ready to be anything else. I just didn’t want to risk ruining our friendship in the inevitable event that I screw things up.”
“Well, that went well.”
“Tell me about it.”
She leans against the wall beside me and draws her arm around my waist, resting her head on my shoulder and giving me those big puppy dog eyes she knows damn well I can’t stay mad at. “Look, I’m sorry. Forget about Brent, it’s your birthday. Now we’re both sixteen. How long have we been talking about this, forever?”
“Seems like,” I admit.
“Cars, freedom, actual freedom a couple of years from now when we go to college,” she says. “Getting out of suburban hell and driving until we hit ocean. Rooming together, going to school on the beach, pledging sororities, hot fraternity boyfriends. That’s all still in the plan, right?”
I glance at her out of the corner of my eye. “I was thinking more along the lines of the Ivy League than permanent spring break, but more or less.”
“Then just focus on that,” she says, taking my hand and setting my punch glass aside to pull me out onto the dance floor. An upbeat remix of a song that’s kind of okay has just come on. “Now come dance with me and we’ll find you a new date in like five seconds.”
I roll my eyes, but she’s right. It’s my party, whether I wanted it or not. It won’t kill me to have a little fun.
By the time the third song comes on, I’m actually beginning to enjoy myself. When Tara’s expression falls suddenly, that enjoyment turns into anxiety. “Oh my God.”
“What?” By the time I turn around, Brent is in front of me and I trip into him.
He looks sharp in his open blazer. Of course he isn’t wearing a tie or anything. He’s much too cool for that. He’s put an awful lot of effort into making it look like he didn’t touch his tousled yellow hair. His eyes travel up and down my body and I feel exposed even though my dress hardly shows any skin.
“Never thought I’d see you in a dress.”
“First time for everything,” I say stiffly, pulling a curtain of hair over my shoulder.
“You look beautiful.”
“Thanks. So do you.”
I know those aren’t the right words as soon as they leave my mouth, but taking them back seems worse.
“This is painful to watch,” says Tara. “Just ask her to dance already.”
Brent clears his throat and offers his hand. As if the universe is out to get me, a syrupy R&B ballad is playing. I take his hand and force a smile as he leads me onto the floor again. Tara gives me the thumbs up before disappearing into the crowd and I place my hands on Brent’s shoulders and try not to dance like a mannequin. His hands have already settled low on my waist.
“So,” he says, “nice party.”
“Thanks,” I say with a smile I hope is convincing.
“You’re doing a good job of pretending you’re not in hell.”
I wince. “Is it that obvious?”
“Only to me.”
Guilt eats at me. He’s right. He knows me better than anyone, even Tara. She and I might have been friends longer, but Brent has always been my true best friend. At least until a position opened up that he decided he wanted more.
“Your mom went all out,” he says, looking around the ballroom.
“Dad’s going to hyperventilate when he finds out how much she spent,” I say. “I would have been happy with Mexican food and movies.”
“Events aren’t usually for the people they’re celebrating,” he says in that disaffected tone of his.
“I guess it’s not all bad.” My next words stick in my throat but I know I’ll regret them whether they’re said or not. “Not now that you’re here.”
He looks surprised. I’m not the most affectionate person. Tara is so touchy-feely it’s kind of impossible not to be affectionate with her, but lately I’ve been so afraid of giving Brent the wrong idea that I have to wonder if I’ve gone too far in the other direction with him. Maybe he thinks that he means less to me as a friend just because I don’t want him to be more than that.
Now I’m not entirely sure what I want.
The lights have dimmed and the lanterns are casting a hazy effect on the dance floor. The dreamy music has everyone else in a trance, and Brent’s unexpected entrance is nothing short of a scene from a movie. This should be one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments. Right about now, the formula says that I should be realizing that I do have feelings for Brent after all. My heart should be palpitating in anticipation of the kiss I’m sure is imminent judging from his heavy-lidded gaze, not because of dread.
Whether from surprise or sheer awkwardness, I freeze when I realize that he’s really going to kiss me and I can’t bring myself to stop it. His lips connect with mine and in an instant, a thousand different questions are answered.
This is the right moment. This is the right kiss – my first real kiss – and Brent is the right guy.
Its me that’s wrong. Not just for him, for everything. My entire life, I’ve been fighting these feelings that I’m out of place in my family, at school, in this world. Tonight they’ve built to a crescendo and I know that I can’t keep fighting them.
I pull away from Brent and he watches me in bewilderment. Others are watching, too, but for once I don’t care. My chest is tight with something like panic and I can’t see much around the hazy black tunnel surrounding Brent.
“What’s wrong?” he asks, coming towards me.
“Nothing,” I say in a distorted voice, taking a step back. I only realize I’m holding my hand out to keep him away when a look of hurt registers on his face. It soon turns to humiliation as a small crowd gathers around us.
“I thought we were on the same page.” There’s an edge in his voice now as he slips his hands into his pocket.
“We were,” I say, but I can already tell it's too late for apologies. My weirdness has garnered an audience, and a cool guy will forgive your for just about anything other than making him look uncool. “It's not you, it's --”
I at least have the awareness to cut myself off before I can finish that cliché. “I’m sorry,” I say, skirting around the dance floor. My tunnel vision is now fully focused on the doors to the balcony.
I break into the fresh air but the crisp November chill burns my lungs as it fills them. I grip the balcony and pray that Brent hasn’t followed me. A couple that was previously making out on the railing give me dirty looks before going inside.
When my legs give out, I wish they hadn’t. It doesn’t take long to realize that this isn’t just another panic attack. My usual coping techniques aren’t working. I really can’t breathe, no matter how high I count down from or how much I tell myself my body won’t really let me suffocate myself.
Breath soon becomes the least of my concerns. The tightness in my chest has turned into a warm buzzing sensation and it hurts. It hurts worse than I can comprehend, almost so much it doesn’t. I ask myself how it’s possible to feel this much pain and remain conscious.
A moment later I crumple to the floor with the realization that it isn’t.
Sirens fill the air, some leaving others coming. The static sounds of voices over dispatch give me some clue as to why I’m strapped to a gurney. I can make out a few stray, garbled words.
Medic… fire… teenage girl… shock… all personnel…
The correspondence reassures me that the bright lights obscuring my vision are coming from an ambulance and not the end of the proverbial tunnel. I guess someone must have found me after I blacked out. I feel fine now, even if I can’t move due to the restraints. They strike me as unnecessary.
My parents must be freaking out. I wonder briefly if Tara is hitting on the cute medics. The thought makes me laugh a little and I hear footsteps.
“She’s awake.” The woman’s voice is full of surprise. Like me waking up wasn’t inevitable.
More footsteps. Soon I’m surrounded by a crowd of concerned faces and murmurs. The way they surround me makes me feel like I can’t get a good breath again.
“I’m fine,” I say, choosing one to focus on. It’s a woman about my mom’s age. Her face wrinkles with worry as she look down at me.
“Just relax, sweetheart,” she says, putting a hand on my arm. She tells the others to back away and they listen. She must be the one in charge.
“Why am I restrained?” I ask, looking down at the straps.
“It’s for your own safety,” she says in a soothing tone, stroking my arm. I know that tone. It’s the same one I use whenever I need to comfort a hurt animal, and there’s always a reason not to be comforted.
“My safety?” I lift my head and catch a glimpse of another stretcher nearby before she pushes me back down. It looks like there’s someone on it.
“You woke up for a little bit earlier,” she says, frowning. “You don’t remember?”
“No, I don’t. What happened?”
She hesitates. “You were upset, understandably. You were screaming something in a foreign language. What was that, French?”
“Foreign language?” My head is spinning and suddenly I’m glad I’m lying down. If I really had a full on psychotic break at my own party, maybe I don’t want to rejoin the others just yet. “I’m in AP Spanish, but I don’t remember saying anything.”
“This definitely wasn’t Spanish,” she says, taking out a small blood pressure cuff that she places around my wrist. “Let’s see if we can get a better reading now that you’re a bit calmer.”
“Where’s my mom?” I ask, straining to see past the medics.
She stiffens up a bit but keeps her head turned away so I can’t see her face. “One forty-five over eighty six. That’s a little high but okay under the circumstances.”
“The social worker is on her way, sweetheart. She’ll explain.”
“Social worker?” I test the restraints but they won’t budge. “Where are my parents? I’m a minor, they should be here if something’s wrong with me.”
She looks at me with glassy eyes full of sorrow and all the answers I decide I don’t want when it’s too late to put them back.
“No.” My voice is full of gravel.
“I’m so sorry.”
“Where is Tara?”
She frowns. “Who?”
“My best friend. She was inside.”
Her expression falls. “If she was inside, she’s gone. They’re all gone. There was an electrical fire and…”
Those are the last words I hear before an earsplitting scream makes it impossible to hear anything else. I realize I’m the one screaming when a needle plunges into my arm. My head falls heavy against the stretcher and warm tendrils work their way throughout my body. Soon it’s impossible to hold on to the panic, the disbelief.
I don’t go all the way out, not this time. I can still hear them talking, but I can’t take more than a passing interest in their words. A young medic is telling the boss that some of the dead are being taken to the hospital in the next town over. They debate over whether to wait for Twin Pines General to clear out or to take me there and ultimately decide on the latter.
They load me into an ambulance and we begin the journey to Glenn View County Hospital. The next few hours are a blur of tests and people in white coats speaking to me in well rehearsed tones of consolation. When the doctors leave, the fire Marshall comes in. He asks me the same questions the doctors did.
Where was I when the fire began? Did I see or hear anything strange that night? Was there anyone who would have done this to me or anyone in my family? Anyone with a grudge?
My answers come in a monotone. My own voice sounds foreign. How is it possible to speak so calmly when inside my own head I can’t even hold onto the trail of a single thought?
Finally a woman in scrubs shows up and shoos the men with badges away. I don’t recognize her, but she says she knows my mom from the county events committee. She says she’s sorry for my loss and brings me a cup of hot cocoa from the cafeteria.
I can’t taste it and I’m aware of my scalded tongue in only the most detached sense.
The social worker—Karen or maybe Kara—asks me if there are any relatives I can stay with tonight. I tell her no. It’s a lie. Aunt Jenny and her new husband are an inevitability if there’s going to be a funeral. I can’t handle them right now.
I look up at her suddenly. We’ve been talking for a good twenty minutes, but it feels like I just woke up in the middle of the conversation. “How many?”
She looks up from her clipboard and peers at me over rimless glasses. “I’m sorry?”
“How many people are dead?”
She hesitates. “You’re the only survivor as far as I know.”
“How is that even possible?”
“The fire marshal already spoke to you, didn’t he?” she asks, shifting her weight to one foot.
He did, but I decide against admitting that I don’t remember any of what he said. All I want is to go home and if I keep up the “Girl, Interrupted” act, they’re going to keep me here forever.
“I guess I was a little distracted.”
“The best they can tell is that it was some kind of electrical fire. It didn’t damage anything in the ballroom itself, just…”
“Just everyone in it.” I can tell she’s never going to say the words, and now I know why. As soon as they’re out of my mouth I wish I could reel them back in, as if it that would somehow keep this from being real.
She gives my shoulder a squeeze and slips a card into my hand. “My cell number is on the back. If you need anything tonight at all, call me. I’ll be back to check on you in the morning. The police want you to give a statement down at the precinct, but only if you’re up for it.”
“I’m staying here?”
“They’re not going to release you to go home alone,” she says patiently. “Not after what happened.”
She means after my linguistic freakout. “I was in shock,” I say. “I’m fine now.”
She gives me a look. “The fact that you think that is all the more reason you need to remain under observation. In the morning, we can talk more about it. For tonight, I just want you to try to get some rest.”
Arguing seems like a moot point even if I had the energy so I nod. She says goodnight and leaves. The nurses keep trying to insist that I change into the thin cotton gown left on a tray table beside my bed, but as uncomfortable as my dress is, it’s the only thing keeping me tethered to a reality that doesn’t make me want to scream.
Somehow I know if I start again I won’t ever stop.
There’s a knock at the door just when I thought I had dealt with the last in a string of somber professionals. I always imagined that the aftermath of tragedy would be chaos, but it’s not. It’s bureaucracy.
Before I can say, “Come in,” a man in a vague uniform steps into the room. He might be dressed the part of a public servant, but he doesn’t look it. He’s absurdly tall – the top of his head brushes the doorway as he walks into the room – and his dark hair is much too shaggy compared to the crew cuts that have been walking in and out of my room all night. He’s younger than most of them, too. He can’t be a day over twenty.
“You must be Jordan,” he says, shutting the door. That action raises an immediate red flag. Even the fire marshal left it open.
“I already talked to the marshal,” I say, glancing at the Fire Department patch on his shirt. “Who are you?”
“That was the marshal from Twin Peaks. I’m from Glenn View. Different paperwork,” he says, flashing a badge I barely even have time to see before he slips it back into his pocket. “There were a few things in the report you gave that need some clearing up.”
“I’m tired,” I say, folding my arms. “I’m talking to the police in the morning, can’t it wait until then?”
“Different jurisdiction,” he says with the most heavily forced smile I’ve ever seen. “This will only take a few minutes, promise.”
I sigh, pulling a knitted white blanket around my shoulders. The room feels cold all of a sudden. “I guess I don’t have a choice. What do you want to know?”
He flips through a notebook and taps his pen against the paper. “The report you gave says you don’t have any recollection of the fire, is that really true?”
I frown. “Why would I lie?”
He shrugs. “People say all kinds of things after going through a trauma. Maybe you were overwhelmed and there’s something you remember now. I’m just trying to make sure we get all the facts.”
“Well, I meant what I said. I had a panic attack, went out onto the balcony, passed out and the next thing I know, I’m strapped down to a stretcher and everyone I know is dead.” My voice isn’t my own. My hands feel like they’re shaking but when I look down, they’re perfectly still.
He scribbles something in his notepad. “The medics say you were shouting in a foreign language when you woke up. You have no memory of that either?”
“And do you speak any other languages?”
“Just like I told the marshal and the five people who came in here before you, I can fumble my way through ordering food at a Mexican restaurant, but that’s it. I have no idea what I said.” I pause to rub my temple since it’s throbbing and lower my voice. “My parents and half my school just died, it was probably just gibberish.”
“Probably,” he agrees, pulling up a chair beside my bed. “Let’s switch gears, Jordan. Tell me about yourself.”
“I just want to know what your life is like. School, hobbies, that sort of thing.”
“The fire department really sent you here to ask about my hobbies?”
“Humor me,” he says with a thin smile.
I keep rubbing my forehead and struggle to collect my thoughts. There’s been a ringing in my ears ever since the balcony and he’s making it worse. If it will get him out of here sooner, he can have my whole life story. “I like school. I’m an honor student, president of the community service committee, I used to belong to the soccer team, I like doing Sudoku puzzles in the morning while I eat my cereal and I’m a Sagittarius. Is that enough background for you?”
“It’s a start,” he says. “What about your parents? How did you get along with them?”
The question stings like a slap in the face. Suddenly it makes sense. All the questioning, all the uniforms. “You’re investigating me.”
“I’m investigating the fire,” he says. “You’re the only surviving witness, so yes, in a sense I am investigating you, too.”
“You think I had something to do with it?” The words catch in my throat. “You can’t be serious.”
“I didn’t say that, kid. I’m just trying to get a better idea of the situation here.”
“Then explain the situation to me,” I say, feeling anger rise up in my throat like bile. “So far I’ve given about a million answers to you and your colleagues, so I think I deserve some in return. Do you have reason to believe the fire wasn’t an accident?”
“It’s something the fire marshal is considering,” he says carefully.
He’s silent for a moment. Such a long moment that I think I’m not going to get an answer at all until he says, “I know it wasn’t.”
“Because this was no ordinary fire,” he says. “In fact, in my entire career I’ve only ever seen one other like it.”
“Your entire career?” I scoff. “How long’s that been, a month?”
He snorts. “I’m older than I look.”
“What’s that supposed to mean? Are all emergency services workers this cryptic?”
“The sooner you answer the questions, the sooner I’ll be out of your hair.”
I bite my lip to keep a few choice words where they belong. I’ve never met this guy before, and he’s pressing buttons I didn’t even know I had. “What’s the question again? Do I love my parents? Did I set them on fire along with two hundred other people because they wouldn’t extend my curfew?”
“I know it’s difficult, but this is all standard questioning,” he says, glancing down at his notepad. “It says you were adopted, is that true?”
I flinch. My adoption is something of a taboo subject at home. In fact, I can count the number of times it’s come up on one hand. Sometimes even I forget. “Yes. What does that have to do with anything?”
“Probably nothing,” he says. “Do you know your birth parents?”
“No. It was a closed adoption and I’ve been with my parents since I was a newborn.”
“When did you find out you were adopted?” He scribbles something in his notepad.
“When I was five,” I say, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear. I haven’t thought about that day in such a long time. “The week before I started kindergarten, they sat me down and told me. I didn’t really understand it then and they never really brought it up after that. Neither did I.”
“You must have been somewhat curious,” he says.
“Not really. Are you going somewhere with this?”
He flips the page and keeps writing. “So, you’d say you had a good relationship with your parents?”
“Better than most,” I reply carefully, suddenly feeling like I’m on trial. “Am I being investigated or psychoanalyzed?”
“Just trying to get a better picture of your home life. The sooner I rule you out as a suspect, the sooner we can find the person responsible.”
“Look, I had issues with my parents,” I say, feeling that familiar tightening in my chest. “I don’t know any teenager who doesn’t, but I love them. L-loved them.”
“I’m sure. What kind of issues?”
I swallow hard. Now there really is bile in my throat. “My mom and I fight sometimes. Just mother-daughter stuff.”
“She hates everything I wear,” I mutter. “She thinks I should dress up more. Wear lipstick, join the cheerleading squad, that kind of thing. Not exactly matricide-inducing problems.”
“Sounds like she didn’t really accept you for who you are,” he says. “Would you say that’s an accurate characterization?”
“No,” I say through gritted teeth. “She just had her own ideas about what would make me happy, but we loved each other. We fought, but we always got over it. She raised me, she gave me a home. She stayed up with me the entire night when I got the swine flu and chased away every monster under my bed, so if you’re implying that I ever would have hurt her just because she didn’t give birth to me, you can go to hell, deputy whatever you are. With all due respect.”
As I wait for him to explode, a slow smile spreads across his face, turning his handsome features wicked. “Soon enough,” he said, flipping the notepad closed. “I think that’s enough for tonight. I’ll let you get some rest. I’m sure they’ll have more questions for you tomorrow down at the precinct.”
“Can’t wait,” I mutter, turning away. I relax only once I hear the door fall shut. As much as I wanted him gone, the anger I felt in his presence begins to ebb away and I realize that it was acting as a shield for all the other emotions I haven’t had time to process.
I curl up in a ball on my bed and pull my knees to my chest. Now that I’m alone the pain fills the air and becomes thick like smoke, making it hard to breathe. Guilt is working its way into the mix, too. It doesn’t seem possible that my entire world could unravel just moments after my first real kiss. Isn’t there supposed to be some kind of buffer between moments like that?
Despite all of it, my eyes are dry. I feel like a monster for not being able to cry now more than ever. From my grandmother’s funeral to being bullied on the playground, my inability to shed a single tear no matter what I’m feeling inside has always haunted me, but I never imagined that brokenness ran so deep that I could remain dry eyed at a time like this. Before it just made me feel like a freak, but now I feel like a monster.
A normal person would cry herself to sleep. I just stare at the wall until the darkness behind my eyes becomes more interesting than my own thoughts.
“Jordan?” I open my eyes to find a young nurse I don’t recognize staring down at me. She nudges my arm and looks at me like I’m a bite risk when I start to sit up. “It’s time to wake up.”
Whether it’s a mercy or not, there’s no lack of continuity between the earth shattering events of last night and my morning reality. No momentary disbelief to indulge in. Maybe it’s because I don’t dream, either.
“What time is it?” I ask, glancing around the room. It’s still bathed in the hazy blue glow of early morning.
“A little after six-thirty,” she says. “You’re being discharged early. A car is here to take you to the police station.”
I frown, glancing at the card my social worker left on the tray table. “It’s a little early, isn’t it?”
The nurse shrugs and hands me a small stack of papers. I glance through them and realize they’re just standard release forms. Apparently a psychologist will be following up with me soon.
“Isn’t the psychologist supposed to see me first?” I ask, climbing out of bed.
“No idea. I’m just supposed to get you out to the carport,” she says, glancing at my rumpled party wear. “You’re already dressed, I see.”
I reach for the plastic bag on the chair beside my bed and pull out my heels. Now I’m relieved that I stuck to my guns and bought the low ones instead of the spiky pair Tara was pushing. The memory of that last shopping trip fills me with a fresh wave of grief that’s stronger than anything I’ve felt yet.
“Come on,” says the nurse, all but pushing me out of the room. I stumble in my attempt to keep up with her as she leads me along the corridor. She keeps looking at the front desk and out of the corner of my eye I see something that isn’t remotely possible.
For a moment, I could swear her eyes flashed red. They’re back to normal before I can even process what I saw – or what I hallucinated.
I say nothing, of course. I’m not crazy about the way she’s rushing me out of here and the police station is just about the last place I want to be right now, but I don’t want to give them a reason to keep me for an impromptu psychiatric observation either.
We make it to the side entrance and she stops in front of a squad car parked out front.
“Wait,” I say. “Where’s my social worker? She’s supposed to take me to the station.”
“Change of plans,” she says in a singsong voice. The door unlocks and she opens it for me. “You’ll be just fine with the officer.”
I can’t even make out who it is through the tinted windows, but I’m pretty sure the nurse is going to stuff me inside the car if I don’t get in. At least the divider is clear so I can see the back of the driver’s head. Once I’m inside, she shuts the door and they all lock automatically. The young officer-marshal-deputy or whatever he was from the night before turns to me with a wink before rolling down the passenger window to speak to the nurse.
“Thanks, Hellen. I’ll take it from here.”
“Don’t thank me,” she says, leaning in the window. “Just remember, we’re even.” She pauses to give me a look that makes my skin crawl and pats the side of the car. The window rolls up and as we pull out of the driveway, I’m torn between that instinct that tells me, “Scream, run, get out now, something isn’t right here” and the much stronger one that tells me to stay quiet and not risk making a fool out of myself for nothing.
It’s barely even a contest.
“Where is Kara?” I ask once the hospital is just a blip in the rear view mirror.
“My social worker.”
“Oh, right. She couldn’t make it.”
“Is someone else coming?” I ask. “I’m a minor, I don’t have to speak to the police without an adult present.”
“Yeah, someone else will be there,” he says in a tone that makes it clear he’s only half paying attention.
“I thought you said you were with the fire marshal.”
“It’s a small town, there’s a lot of overlap,” he replies, keeping his eyes fixed ahead as we leave the outer limits of Glenn View.
“Wait, don’t we have to go to your station? Why are we going back to Twin Pines?”
He sighs and his eyes lock on me in the rearview. “It’s complicated, okay? Just try to relax until we get there.”
I freeze for a moment. It’s hard to move with him watching me. Now I understand the deer and the rabbit. There’s something in his eyes far more brutal and honest than his voice. “You’re not taking me to the station, are you?”
This time he doesn’t even bother to answer. He looks away, releasing me from his spell and I sink back into my seat and try to quell the fear building inside me. I guess I’m not quite out of emotions yet.
Of course I left my phone at home since my dress didn’t come with pockets and practically everyone in town was at the party anyway. I turn to stare out the window and find the fact that we’re going much too fast to jump out of the car even if I could somehow get out strangely comforting. As if I’m absolved from having to try it.
Instead, I settle for rehearsing plans to make a run for it as soon as he opens the door. When he actually makes the turn into Twin Pines, I’m shocked. My surprise turns to confusion when he bypasses the road to the station and turns into my neighborhood. He parks in front of my house and comes around for my door.
“What are we doing here?”
“Getting your things,” he says, taking my elbow to help me out of the car. “Hurry up, we’re due at the station in twenty minutes.”
“Why do I need my things?” I ask as he leads me to the door. I’m too confused to put my escape plan to action.
“Do you really want to sit through a full day of questioning in that?” he asks, looking over my outfit with a judgmental gaze. “You’d better pack a few things. However this goes, there’s no way they’re gonna let you come back here.”
I fumble for my keys and open the front door before he can change his mind. Maybe my instincts were wrong after all.
I’ve barely taken a step into the house before the emptiness hits me. It’s dark. My dad’s keys are still in the wicker basket on the table by the door. They took mom’s car to the party. Her light blue trenchcoat is still hanging on the rack.
“You alright?” my possible kidnapper asks, coming up beside me.
“Fine,” I say, clearing my throat. “You can sit down if you want, I’ll just be a minute.”
He doesn’t argue as I climb the stairs but I’m barely through the door to my room before I hear his casual footsteps following me. I choose to pretend he’s not there and pull my backpack off my bedpost and empty it out before opening my drawers. The first thing I do is change into khakis and a presentable shirt, just on the off chance that we really are going to the station. The outfit is easier to run in than an evening gown, too. Next, I grab a few shirts at random, a couple pairs of jeans, some other essentials and look around my room.
It’s full of so many things. My bed, my dresser, three bookshelves filled to the brim with texts I’ve convinced myself I need, but now it’s a struggle to think of anything worth filling the remaining space my backpack. I grab my phone and my charger along with my tablet, some earphones and my toothbrush and zip up the bag.
I try to tell myself it’s not like I’m never coming back. I linger in the doorway for a moment with my hand on the light switch. I try to remember what it felt like the last time I was in here, but I can’t. It’s only been a night, but the distance between now and normal seems to be growing exponentially with every second that passes.
Out of the corner of my eye, something on my desk catches my attention. I usually keep the space where I do my homework neat and tidy, so the thick blue envelope stands out. My name is on the front, in my mother’s elegant handwriting.
I brush my fingertips over the dramatic swoop of the letter “J” and the demure curvature of the letters that follow. It’s easy to imagine her sitting at her antique writing desk, putting her signature flourish into the simple address as dad huffs and puffs about running late in the background.
Curiosity overtakes me but I’m careful with opening the letter for fear of damaging this last relic of the woman who raised me for sixteen years. They call them years, but it’s clear to me as I look over my mother’s handwriting, the words all blurred together in my strained vision, that they were really moments. Thousands upon millions of them, one bleeding into the next. They passed so seamlessly, I never saw them for the individual, finite things they were. Now that the supply has run out, this letter just might be the last moment I have and I’m afraid to squander its passage by reading it.
A thump downstairs reminds me that I don’t have much time and I force myself to begin.
I’m writing this as we’re getting ready to go to the convention center to set up for the party. Tonight is a big night and your father and I know the best thing we can be is scarce, so I thought it would be better for you to find this when things have quieted down.
Your father and I are so incredibly proud of the young woman you’ve become. Sixteen years ago, when we first held you in our arms, our hearts were full of expectations and hopes. I can honestly say that you’ve exceeded every one of them.
I know you didn’t want the car or the party, but I want to thank you for humoring your old mom who just can’t bear to throw away all the traditions. Sometimes I think we’re the only parents in the world who wish their teenage daughter would stay out a little later, or bring home a boy we don’t like. You do so much for everyone else, but I don’t want you to forget that these years are for discovering yourself, too. Enjoy these moments, because they really will be gone before you know it.
My vision blurs with unshed tears that do nothing more than distort the letter. I sniff and turn the page.
Jordan, these words are more difficult to write than you know. A mother never wants to admit that she lied nevermind about something this important. This burden has weighed heavily on my heart for the last sixteen years, but you’re a woman now. I’ve come to realize that our relationship can’t handle a secret like this between us. Your adoption was private, but it wasn’t closed. Your birth mother asked us not to disclose her identity until you were older, and at that point she would leave the decision up to us.
My heart stops beating. I reread the words a few times, just to make sure there’s no mistake.
You have every right to be angry at us, and I won’t make excuses. I would be lying if I said my decision to keep my promise to her was selfless. Even now I burn up with envy when I think about the fact that someone else brought you into this world and that despite how much I love you, you might find all those things in her that were lacking in me. That all it could take is one look for your heart to replace me.
The papers tremble in my grasp and I want to tell her that she’s wrong. I’ve never wanted to tell anyone anything so badly and I’d give anything for another moment to do it.
See? That’s the kind of selfish thought I can admit to you now woman-to-woman. I don’t want things to be the way they were with my mother, Jordan. I want to be your friend. As your friend, as your mother, I want you to have this information and do with it whatever will make you happy. Your father and I will support you no matter what you choose. We always will.
I turn to the last page and it doesn’t take me long to make sense of the old form. It’s a birth certificate, but it’s different from the one I had to give the volunteer coordinator at the nursing home. It still says that my birth place is Twin Pines and has my birthday right—November twenty-second, nineteen ninety-nine—but my parents’ names are missing. I was always told that they were the ones on the original birth certificate since it was a private adoption. Under the line marked Mother’s Name is Evelyn Caldwell. The line beside it simply says Father Unknown.
There’s another thump downstairs, followed by the sound of angry muttering. I creep out into the hall and my increasingly-less-likely-to-be-kidnapper’s voice becomes clearer. He’s talking to someone on the phone, but I can’t make out the other side and I don’t want to risk the creaky stairs to get closer.
“And I told you, I don’t take orders from fly boys,” he says tersely. “No, you listen. I got the girl, I held up my end of the deal. I’m gonna need a little show of good faith on your part or she just might fall into Mikey’s hands after all.”
My blood turns to slush and I back away slowly. I’ve heard enough to decide that he’s not a cop. At least, not the kind I can trust. It takes every shred of willpower I have not to run. There’s a fire escape outside my parents’ bedroom window. I shut the door as quietly as possible and lock it, then shove the letter in my backpack and sling it over my shoulder as I open the window. It sticks and my hands are trembling even worse than before, but I manage it.
I toss my bag onto the fire escape first and swing a leg out, casting one last glance back at the door to make sure I haven’t been followed.
The hard part is over, I tell myself as I make it out into the crisp morning air. I got out of the house. Now all I have to do is get across the street. Mr. Dover is a writer, he’s always home. He’ll call the real police and his collection of antique firearms should discourage keep us safe until they come.
I put my backpack on and start down the fire escape, barely making it three rungs before someone grabs my bag and pulls me off the ladder. I barely have time to scream before I hit the ground nearly two stories below.
A shadow falls from above and the fake cop lands on his feet a few feet away from me. I moan, rolling onto my side as he stalks towards me, somehow unfazed by the jump. The privacy fence dashes any hope that someone will see my distress from the street. My right knee made a popping sound when I fell, but the pain is nothing compared to my screaming ribs. It feels like someone set my lung on fire from the inside.
“You hear that?” Fake Cop crouches down beside me and takes my face in his hand. He’s still got a phone pressed to his ear and there’s a glint of amusement in his unnaturally green eyes. “Looks like she is breakable.”
“I swear, Samael, if you hurt her again…” The other man’s voice, deeper and more mature, is distorted from a bad connection but loud enough to make out now.
“You’re the one who wanted to hear her voice,” Samael says with a triumphant lilt in his. His smugness fades and the distortion grows too much for me to make out the garbled words on the other line. “Yeah, fine. Here.”
He thrusts the phone in my face and I struggle to grab it even though the pressure of my hand against my ribs is the only thing relieving the pain in my side. “Hello?”
“Jordan.” He breathes my name like a familiar sigh. “Are you hurt?”
“Who are you?” I ask, afraid to take my eyes off of Samael.
“Answer the question.”
I take in another painful lungful of air. “He pulled me off the side of the house. I fell, I think my ribs are broken, maybe my knee.”
He sighs again, as if what I’ve told him is cause for relief. “You’ll be alright. I made a mistake when I hired him, but he was the best I could do under the circumstances. Better than the alternative.”
“Hire him?” I echo. “Who are you? What do you want with me?”
“If I told you who I was, you wouldn’t believe me,” he says. “Let’s skip to what you need to know. I’m a very powerful entity who’s trying to protect you from others like me, and like the barbarian who’s with you.”
“Angel is the term you’re most familiar with, I believe.”
“An angel?” A stilted laugh escapes my throat. “You’re crazy. You, him, the ‘nurse’ at the hospital. You’re all nuts.”
Samael shrugs as if he can hear him just fine. “I called in a favor to bust her out early. That place was crawling with cops.”
“I can’t handle this,” I say. “Please, whatever you want, just take it. My parents had money, and you can have all of it. I just want to be left alone.”
“I’m afraid that’s not an option, Jordan.” His sympathetic tone worries me far more than Samael’s aggression. “I know you’ve been living among humans for a long time, but unfortunately, there is no time for an acclamation period.”
“Living among humans? You say that like you think I’m not one.” Then again, this nutcase thinks he’s an angel.
“You’re not. You’re a nephilim.”
“I suppose you weren’t brought up by a religious family.”
“My dad is Jewish,” I say. “Mom stopped taking me to Sunday school when I was eight, but what the hell does a giant human-angel hybrid monster have to do with me?”
“You are one,” he says matter-of-factly. “The legends are a bit shaky, but they got the gist of it. Nephilim appear human and they act it until they come of age, which is why I couldn’t find you sooner. The good news is, neither could the other angels. Or the demons.”
“Demons?” My head spins as I manage to sit up. Now that I’m recovered slightly from the fall, I’m reasonably sure that whatever happened to my knee is a temporary injury. My lacrosse teammate tore her ACL and after hearing the way she screamed, I feel pretty confident that I’d know if that was what happened to me.
“You’re looking at one.”
I look up to find Samael giving me a mocking little wave and my stomach clenches in dread. I don’t believe a word of what he’s saying. How can I? But if I’m being kidnapped by loons who think they’re an angel and a demon, voicing my lack of theology isn’t going to make much difference.
“Let me get this straight. Angels are hunting me, so you sent a demon to protect me?”
“There’s no creature in the universe better at scurrying in the shadows,” he says in a tone of cool disgust.
“But why are they after me? And what makes you think I’m one of these nephilim things?”
“A nephilim is one of the most destructive creatures in existence,” he says. “Once awakened, its power can be used for terrible things. What happened last night was just a taste.”
My throat closes up as I piece his words together. “What happened last night? You’re saying I did this?”
“No,” he says. He’s a terrible liar, but why he would even bother is beyond me. “Not intentionally. This wasn’t your fault, you can’t help what you are.”
That’s not the answer I want to hear. If there’s even a possibility that he’s not insane, if I really was somehow responsible for the fire…
“Jordan,” he says, as if aware of the direction my thoughts are taking. “I want you to listen carefully. A nephilim isn’t a monster, it’s an atomic power source. If one were to fall into the wrong hands, the consequences would be unspeakable, so it’s Heaven’s mandate to wipe all nephilim from the Slate of Life. You’re the first to exist in a thousand years.”
“Even if I believed you,” I begin carefully, “why should I trust you?”
“You shouldn’t,” he says. “You should trust no one, but for the moment, I’m not giving you a choice. I know you think I’m insane, but just remember that there is a legion of people who are equally insane and determined to hunt you down and kill you, not protect you.”
I gulp. It’s a valid point if it’s true.
“This idiot will take you somewhere safe from those pursuing you until I can come up with a more permanent solution.”
That doesn’t sound like a good thing, but I can’t bring myself to a respectable level of panic. In fact, it feels like my anxiety is peeling off of me like a coat. There’s something about this man’s voice that I trust. Something familiar.
“Who are you?” I ask. “Do angels have names?”
That makes him chuckle. It’s a surprisingly mild sound. “My name is Gabriel.”
My gasp makes his laugh grow warmer. “I take it you’ve heard of me.”
“My grandma gave me a statue of the angel Gabriel holding a puppy when I was five and couldn’t sleep through the night,” I say. Before the unsolicited confession is out of my mouth, I regret it. “She said you protect children. Is that true?” I can’t believe I’m humoring my kidnapper’s boss.
“Not exactly,” he says slowly. “That’s more my brother Raphael’s department, but she wasn’t entirely wrong. You’re a special case.”
“Why are you helping me? If the others want to kill me, why should you be any different?”
He’s silent for a bit too long. Samael shifts restlessly and glances at the gate for the hundredth time.
“It’s not important,” he says. “What is important is that you stay with Samael and do as he says. For the time being.”
“He’s a demon and he just flung me off a house.” These aren’t things I feel I should have to remind someone who supposedly wants to protect me.
“And he knows that if any more harm comes to you, by his hand or any other, he will pay for it a thousandfold,” Gabriel says calmly. “Until I can get to you, he’ll have to do.”
“Tell him I want my payment,” says Samael, watching me with crossed arms and a scowl etched deeply into his mouth.
“He says he wants payment.”
“I heard him. He gets nothing until you reach the safe house. Then we’ll talk about arranging a call.”
“You son of a --”
Samael lunges for the phone but by the time he snatches it out of my hands, Gabriel is gone. I cringe away from him as he slams it on the ground and it shatters into ten different pieces.
“No! How are we supposed to reach him now?” The warm fuzzy feeling I had on the phone with Gabriel is fading fast, but I still understand that he’s my best chance at survival if even a shred of this is true.
“It’s just a burner phone,” he says, combing violent fingers through his slicked back hair until it falls in his eyes. “The asshole could call us on a toy phone if he wanted.”
It takes a moment for that to sink in. “What if we need to call him?”
His mouth twists into a sneer. “Then I suggest you get on your knees and pray.”
After stealing my dad’s Corvette and raiding the safe, we set out on the road at about fifty miles above the speed limit. Samael has said nothing since the phone encounter with Gabriel. Every time I venture a glance at him he shifts from brooding to furious in an instant.
Any pathetic efforts he was making at civility ended with that phone call. At least there’s something strangely comforting about knowing for sure that I’ve been kidnapped.
“Keep your fucking eyes on the road, mutt.”
I get the feeling the term is supposed to sting more than it does. Up until today, I didn’t even know my birth mothers name, nevermind her potentially supernatural heritage. Apparently my birth father’s is still up for debate.
“Isn’t that just for drivers?”
He makes a disgruntled sound and stabs the radio power button. With each station he shifts through, he grimaces even more. “What the hell is the point of fifty thousand radio stations if you can’t even get Bon Jovi?”
Of course demons like Bon Jovi.
“You can listen to FM, too,” I say, pushing the button. Dad already has it set to the oldies station. It’s not Bon Jovi but the cheesy 70s rock ballad seems to pacify him.
“How’s your leg?” he asks, looking over at me.
“Why do you care?” I ask, unable to hide my shock.
“I care if I’m gonna have to haul you around,” he snaps. “You were limping pretty bad back there.”
“It’s fine.” It’s a lie. I rub it just to check and the shooting pain makes me wince. It’s worse than before.
“Bullshit. Is it broken?”
“How should I know?”
“Please just look at the road.”
“I’ve been driving since horsepower was literal, the last thing I need is advice from a little girl.”
“I thought I was a monster.”
He snorts. “You can be both.”
“If you really are what you say you are, you might be able to survive a rollover in a convertible going a hundred and twenty miles an hour, but I can’t,” I say, more afraid of the road than my captor at this point. “Do you really think you’ll see your payment if I get turned into roadkill?”
His knuckles stretch out white on the steering wheel and his shoulders tense up. I prepare myself for another outburst, but the car gradually loses speed. We’re still going well over the speed limit, but at least I don’t feel like we’re going to go flying off the side of the road at any minute.
As much as I don’t want to admit it, he’s a good driver even if he is a reckless one. I guess maybe I would be too if I thought I was an immortal demon.
“I’m not delusional,” he says, jolting me out of my thoughts.
“Wh-what? Did you just –“
“Read your mind?” He blows a dismissive puff of air through his nose. “Don’t need to. I can read your emotions, your body language.” He glances me up and down. “Your scent.”
That one bothers me more than the others for some reason. “Excuse me?”
“You can tell a lot about a human by their scent,” he says. “It’s all in the pheromones. Whether they’re afraid, content, upset, aroused.”
My face grows hot. It must be some kind of a trauma-induced glitch, because I’m not one of those girls who blushes easily and certainly not over a creep like him. “That’s gross.”
He laughs. “It’s a useful skill set to have.” He pauses to sniff the air. “For example, now I can tell that you’re afraid, which means Gabriel’s auditory Xanax is wearing off, that you’re in a lot of pain and that you wanna punch me out.”
“Auditory Xanax?” I ask, choosing not to respond to the others.
“He’s the one with mind control,” says Samael. “If a demon wants to control a human, we have to rely on our charms or possession, but an archangel like Gabriel? A little whisper in your ear is all it takes to calm you down. Or drive you insane. Depends on his mood, I guess.”
A shudder runs down my spine and he sniffs the air again. “Ahh, the sweet bouquet of horror. One of my favorites.”
“Even if I believe you, why would he want to calm me down?” I ask.
“Because you having an existential crisis about killing all those people is hardly conducive to getting you across the country in one piece,” he says.
“I didn't --”A high pitched ringing sound in my ear eclipses the pain of my other injuries and I grip my head. It's only now that I realize the softer ringing from earlier is gone. “That sound,” I say through gritted teeth. “What is it?”
“Sound?” He frowns. “Oh, sorry. Must have tripped the security perimeter by mentioning – well, you know.” He doesn’t seem sorry at all.
“Why is this happening?” I gasp, slumping against the door.
“It’s like an invisible fence for thoughts. Wander too far in the wrong direction and a piercing frequency only you can hear will drive you back.”
“How do I make it stop?”
“Stop thinking about how you killed your parents.”
I scream as the noise intensifies.
“Sorry,” he says, turning up the radio. He changes stations until he settles on some bass-heavy hip-hop song that’s blaring enough to make the car pulse. It hurts my ears in a different way, but it’s a welcome distraction.
“Tell me about yourself, Jordan.”
I manage to open my eyes enough to glare at him. “You’ve gotta be kidding.”
“Friends, hobbies, sports clubs?”
“I told you that already when you interrogated me.”
“You said you played soccer. Why’d you quit?”
I let out a whimper that’s far more pathetic of a sound than I ever wanted to make. Years ago in biology class we read a story about a man whose tinnitus was so severe he put an ice pick through his own ears to make it stop. Now I understand.
“I didn’t have time.”
I let out a heavy sigh. “I didn’t have time between community service and studying for the SATs, okay?”
“What kind of community service?”
“I work at a nursing home.”
He gives me a look. “Why would someone your age volunteer to spend time hanging out with the nearly departed?”
“First of all, that’s rude,” I say, rubbing my temples. The ringing seems a little less all-encompassing now. I’m starting to be able to hear my thoughts before they come out of my mouth again. “Second, I enjoy it. I like helping people and most of them feel forgotten, like no one cares about them anymore. It means a lot to them just to have someone listen to their stories.”
“Yeah, the Life and Times of Arty the Tax Accountant,” he says dryly. “Sounds like a real thriller.”
“A story doesn’t have to be exciting to be worth telling,” I say. “You know, the concept that all storytelling must include a climax comes from a uniquely Western mindset that completely ignores a rich history of –“
“How’s your head?”
His question catches me off guard for a moment. “What? Oh, it’s – it’s fine, actually,” I say. Without my realizing it, the shrill scream has died down to a manageable whistle and is fading fast.
“Good, you were close to boring me to death.”
I frown. “You were just distracting me?”
“It’s the fastest way,” he says. “And before you ask why, I just don’t feel like dealing with the meltdown all the way to Omaha.”
“Omaha? That’s where we’re going?”
“That’s where the safe house is,” he says. “We won’t get there ‘till next week.”
“Why can’t we just fly?”
“Because your name is all over the news,” he says. “You’re damn lucky I found you before the angels did, but don’t think it’ll be long. I’d be shocked if they’re not already combing through your house.”
The idea that it’s angels after me, of all things, is making it even harder to believe any of this, but I keep my doubts to myself. If he really is what he says, Samael can already sense them. “Oh.”
“Let’s just say angels and airplanes don’t mix well. It’s better to stay on the road.”
“We’re going to keep driving all the way to Omaha?” I ask worriedly.
He hesitates. “That would be the smart thing to do, but no. We’ll find a hotel for the night so I can take a look at your leg and trade this car in before the angels trace the plates.”
“Can they do that? Wouldn’t they have to be cops?”
“Angels can’t possess people, but you’re exhibit A of why they don’t need to. All one has to do is bat his lashes at the nearest cop and they’re in.”
Okay, that makes them a little more intimidating. “I thought angels were supposed to be protective and kind?”
“They are, if you’re human,” he says. “The rest of us are just vermin to them. Especially you. No offense.”
“None taken,” I mutter, leaning against the door.
Not much later, Samael takes an exit that looks promising. There’s an empty pit gnawing away at my stomach since I didn’t eat any of the hospital food last night and didn’t have a chance to eat breakfast this morning. After everything that’s happened I thought I’d never be hungry again, but when we pull up to the drive-thru of a burger joint I’m proven wrong.
“I can’t eat here,” I say when we pull up to the end of the line. There’s a family coming out of the restaurant, nearly bowling over a man who’s smoking outside, and the bags they’re holding remind me that this is the place with the “nothing but beef” menu.
He rolls his eyes. “Let me guess, you’re on a diet?”
“No,” I say, mildly offended. “I’m a vegetarian.”
He gives me a double take. “You? But you're a --” He groans and pulls out of the line. “Of course you are.”
“Sorry.” I mean it, too. He might have kidnapped me, but somehow I get the feeling he’s as miserable as I am. After all, if he really is crazy—and that still seems like the only plausible scenario—he’s being led along by this Gabriel wacko, too.
He stares at me as if an apology is the last thing he expected to hear. “It’s… fine. We’ll order pizza when we get to the hotel. First, we need to junk this car.”
“The car?” I can barely conceal my horror. “It’s brand new.”
“It’s a target,” he says, driving a bit further out of town. “They know you, they know your parents.”
I can’t argue with that. At least, not in any way that will be convincing to him. He really believes we’re on the run from killer angels and after my bizarre experience with phone-induced tinnitus, there’s still a small, irrational part of me that’s afraid he’s right.
The hotel is surprisingly middle-grade. It’s not the Ritz, but its certainly not the cockroach motel I was expecting from all those movie hideout scenes. “Isn’t this a little conspicuous?” I ask. “I mean, I could see it from the highway.”
“That’s the point,” he says. “Always hide in plain sight. If you can’t find a five-star hotel, find the next best thing. Angels always check the flea bags motels first.”
“Good to know. So what, we pay for everything in cash now?”
“Hell no. That’s like burning off your fingerprints and thinking the cops can’t ID you. You might as well wear a neon sign saying, ‘I have something to hide.’”
“I never thought of that.”
He snorts. “You’re not exactly a criminal mastermind.”
“You say that like it’s a surprise?”
He shrugs. “We all have our theories on what nephilims are like. Stories that get passed down over the years.”
“I’m not like the stories?” I ask warily.
He replies with an emphatic, “No.”
When I realize he’s circled around the hotel, I lean forward to watch it pass by. “Hey, we missed the entrance.”
“No, we didn’t.” I wait for him to elaborate, but he’s silent as we turn onto a dirt road. My heart skips a beat as it becomes even more desolate. I remind myself that I’ve been alone with him all day and that just because it’s nightfall doesn’t mean I’m somehow more vulnerable than I have been this whole time. That does little to assuage my nerves, though. Especially when I remember that he thinks he’s a demon.
Maybe he has some sort of nighttime blood sucking ritual planned. Is that what wannabe demons do, or just vampires?
The car comes to a stop and he pulls both of our bags out of the backseat. His is a long black duffel that’s just the right size to hide tools for cutting up a body, as my imagination so helpfully reminds me.
When he opens my door, I jump.
“You’re jittery.” He drops the bags in the grass and I can see the lake in the headlights. His eyes search mine intently and all I can do is hope he can’t pick up on what I’m thinking.
“Relax, it’s not your body we’re here to dump,” he says, pulling me out of the car. I instinctively put weight on my injured leg and a searing pain sends me tumbling forward. He catches me by the arms, but not before I fall into his chest. It feels like there’s a brick wall underneath that stolen uniform.
When I look up, I decide I really have lost it. There’s no way the concern I’m reading into the look on his face could be anything but a hallucination.
“That answers that question,” he says in a sullen tone.
“You can’t walk,” he says, lifting me into his arms before I even have time to protest. He sets me down a moment later at the top of the grassy incline. “Stay here.”
Like I have a choice.
He walks back to dad’s car and closes the doors, leaning in through the window for something. I watch with growing curiosity as he goes around to the back of the car and puts one hand on to of the trunk. With barely a tap, he sends dad’s prized possession rolling towards the water.
I stare in shock as the car picks up speed and dives in nose first. I know it’s possible for one person to move a car when it’s in neutral – I’ve seen it happen on the side of the road – but I don’t think it should be that easy.
I chastise myself for the direction my thoughts are taking. So he’s strong. Really strong. That doesn’t make him a demon.
“Let’s go,” he says, leaning down like he’s going to pick me up again.
“Whoa,” I say, scrambling back from him.
His shoulders heave in frustration. “What is it now?”
“I don’t want to be carried, that’s weird.”
“Then what would you suggest, princess?”
“Leaning on you would be less awkward.” Only slightly.
He rolls his eyes. “I’m not gonna be your walking stick all the way to the hotel. We’re vulnerable out here, we need to move. I don’t know why I’m arguing with you,” he says, more to himself than me, before he scoops me up again.
The rough climb up the hill leaves me no choice but to put my arms around his neck, and I try to make my displeasure obvious. He doesn’t seem to be paying me any attention, which is just as well.
We make it to the hotel and I realize with no small amount of horror that he’s planning on carrying me in like this. “Can’t I just wait outside?” I ask, making a feeble attempt to squirm out of his arms.
“Please, like I’d leave you unattended. No cute stuff with the clerk. Anyone you tip off, I have to kill.”
I gulp. He’s not kidding. Maybe he’s not a demon, but there’s something in his eyes that keeps me from doubting for a moment that he’s capable of killing someone.
Luckily the lobby is empty, but the middle aged desk worker is giving us enough side eye to compensate for the shaming of a much bigger audience. “Can I help you?”
“We need a room,” he says, flipping on the charm with a winning smile he apparently only pulls out for people he deems human. It works and the clerk’s judgment melts into befuddlement in an instant. “The little lady sprained her ankle at a rest stop, so I figured we’d better stop.”
“Oh, well there’s a walk-in just across the way,” she says, all sunshine and smiles now. “I’m afraid they just closed, but you could head over in the morning.”
“Thanks, we’ll try that if it isn’t better by then,” he says, still smiling. I haven’t seen him force himself to be this pleasant for such a long time and I can’t help but wonder if this is how spontaneous combustion happens. “Do you have anything open for the night?”
“Oh, yes,” she says, tapping something on her keyboard like she just remembered why we’re here. “You’re in luck, I only have two rooms left and there’s a double on the first floor.”
“First? Do you have anything else?”
She looks surprised by his rejection of the first room she offered, but she glances back at the screen. “Well, there is one more but it’s on the third floor and it’s a single.” She glances pointedly at my bare ring finger.
“We’ll take that one. What’s the damage?”
“Mind getting my wallet, babe?” he asks, his voice dripping with sweetness.
At least one of us his having a good time.
“Sure, honey,” I say through clenched teeth. I can make out the bulge in his shirt pocket. I fish his wallet out and try to hide my shock at what I find. There are at least seven different driver’s licenses and credit cards in there under a few different names.
“Use the blue one,” he says, his lip twitching. “I get reward points on travel spending.”
“Of course you do.” I force a smile and slide the card across the desk to the clerk.
A few moments later, she furnishes an electronic key card and someone named Joseph Wyatt’s credit card. “Enjoy your stay,” she says, looking directly at me to add, “but not too much.”
I guess she saved a little bit of judgment after all.
“What’s the deal with taking the room on the third floor? You know I can’t walk,” I say once we’re in the elevator.
“That’s the point. This’ll at least slow you down if you try to escape,” he says. “Besides, angels can’t use elevators and if they come up the stairs, I’ll hear them.”
“What, are they claustrophobic?”
He laughs. It’s a curt, brief laugh but it seems genuine. “Hardly. They screw with electronics and draw attention to themselves. Angels and airwaves and all that jazz.”
“They sound… interesting,” I say, relieved when the doors slide open. Of course, I’m about to trade being trapped with him in one box for another.
“You don’t know the half of it, kid.”
The room is about what I expected. It’s big enough, and there’s the standard hotel desk, chair, television, nightstand and dresser. It looks clean. No roaches or three-foot rats to speak of. The only unsettling thing about it is the fact that there’s only one bed in the center of the room.
My heart races when the door falls shut behind us and Samael places me on the edge of the bed. Gabriel’s supposed mind control seems to have worn off, leaving me with a keen awareness of the compromising situation I’m in. There are two options, the way I see it. He’s either insane or he’s a demon and either way that means he’s capable of anything.
He picks my bag up off the floor and drops it on the bed beside me. “Get changed into something more comfortable. I’m gonna step outside to order the pizza and when I come back, I’ll take a look at that leg.”
I stare at him for a moment before stammering, “Yeah. Okay.”
To my amazement, he walks towards the door like he’s actually going to leave. He pauses with his hand on the doorknob and looks back at me. “No running.”
“Not like it worked out for me the last time.”
He grunts in agreement and leaves me alone. I wait a moment to make sure he’s gone before digging into my bag. I’m relieved that I managed to toss in a pair of sweats in my haste. My leg is swollen and bruised and the sight of it makes me glad I haven’t eaten, so I’m eager to cover it up. I trade my sweater for a t-shirt and stuff my clothes back into the bag.
A knock at the door startles me and I’m not sure if that’s because I wasn’t expecting him or I just wasn’t expecting him to knock. He steps inside the room a moment later and I realize he’s not looking directly at me. “Are you dressed?”
“Yeah,” I say, staring blankly at him.
“It’s just that you’re surprisingly polite for a demon.”
“How would you know?”
A fair point. He kneels in front of the bed and rolls my pant leg up before I can stop him. “Just because I’m a demon doesn’t mean I perv on teenage girls,” he says, prodding my knee.
I wince and take in a sharp breath. “Is it broken?”
“Dislocated, which isn’t much better.”
“Great. Can’t they give me a brace at the clinic?”
“Can’t risk taking you in there even under a fake name. Besides, there’s no time and no need when I can just pop it back in.”
“Pop it back in?” My voice cracks.
“It’ll hurt, but its already starting to heal and trust me, you don’t want it to heal out of place.”
"That's not possible. I just --”
He raises an eyebrow and moves his hand away so I can see. I force myself to look and find that the swelling and bruising from just a few minutes earlier looks significantly different. The purple bruising has lightened to a sickly yellow shade but something still looks off about my kneecap.
“How?” Its a rhetorical question. I don’t really want to know.
“Angels are healers. Makes sense that a halfbreed would have some of that juice.”
“But this hasn’t ever happened before!”
“Your switch hadn’t been flipped yet,” he says, like this is all common knowledge. Before I can argue with him, he moves his hand swiftly and a new kind of pain slices through my knee. By the time I scream, it’s over. The swelling and bruising is still there, but my kneecap is back where it should be.
“You could have warned me!”
“Trust me, the favor was not warning you.” He opens his bag and takes out small black cloth bag that I recognize as a first aid kit only when he unrolls it to reveal a few bandage packets, a medical sewing kit and a thick roll of cloth bandages. He starts rubbing some kind of cream on my knee that cools the skin on contact and then wraps it up with a big square of gauze.
“Demonic first aid?” I ask doubtfully.
He gives me a look. “You’re half human. Figured I’d come prepared.”
“I’d say thank you, but I’m a little conflicted since you’re the one who pulled me off the fire escape in the first place.”
“Save the thank-yous for Gabriel, I’m just doing my job.”
“Which is what, exactly?”
“Getting you from point A to point B. Alive, if possible.”
I hesitate. “‘If possible,’ as in it’s not necessary?”
“What does Gabriel want with me?” I sense his hesitation and press, “It’s not like lying to me will change anything.”
“Like Gabriel said, you’re a weapon. The guy with the gun is the one who decides how it ends.”
“But why protect me? Why doesn’t he just hand me over to the others?” Hopefully I’m not giving him any ideas he hasn’t thought of. Sometimes curiosity is a curse.
“He is. Gabe is at the forefront of the operation to hunt you down, second in authority only to Michael,” he says calmly. “How else do you think we’re staying one step ahead of the angels? He’s playing both sides.”
“Because he’s smart, that’s why. It’s horns that keep that shiny halo in place.”
I take a moment to process the new information. Something dangerously close to disappointment weighs heavily on me.
“Sorry, did I burst you bubble?”
“I just thought angels would be, I don’t know…”
“Welcome to the real world.”
Says the guy who thinks he’s a demon. Someone knocks at the door and I jolt. “Do you think someone heard me scream?”
“Nah, and even if they did, its a midrate hotel off the highway. I’m sure its not the first time. Probably just the pizza,” he says, motioning for me to be silent as he leans down to look through the peephole. The adjustment makes me realize just how tall he is. He reaches behind his back and my stomach twists violently when he pulls out a black gun.
He opens the door enough to see out, but I still can’t. “Hey. Yeah, I paid over the phone,” he says, taking a couple of boxes through the door. He shuts it a moment later and slides the chain back into place. After placing the boxes down, he takes out a small flask and casts a few droplets of what looks like water on the chain and lock. I catch a glimpse of a strange symbol engraved on the front of the flask. I’ve never seen it before but I can’t imagine that it’s just decorative. Next, he crosses to the other side of the room and does the same thing to the windows.
“What is that?”
“You’ve heard of holy water?”
“This is kind of the opposite,” he says, tucking the bottle into his jacket. He inspects both boxes and slides one over to me. “This one’s yours.”
I lift the lid and look up at him. “It’s veggie.”
“Yeah, so? You said you only eat rabbit food.”
“No, it’s just—It was thoughtful, that’s all.”
He ignores me and goes back to eating. I pick up a slice and my habit of eating daintily in front of company crumbles with the first bite. I’m starving after being too nervous to eat the entire day of the party.
When I finally look up, Samael is staring at me. My face burns in humiliation and I quickly wipe my mouth for any traces of food, but the napkin is clean.
My confusion is quickly compounded when he asks, “You really weren’t lying about not eating meat?”
“Of course not. Why would I?”
“Just seems weird. According to all the legends, the nephilim are supposed to be these fierce, bloodthirsty creatures who show no mercy to humans or angels. A vegetarian candy stripper doesn’t exactly fit the profile.”
“It’s candy striper.” I frown. “Why do I detect a hint of disappointment?”
He shrugs. “You’re Gabriel’s weapon, not mine. Doesn’t matter to me if you live up to the hype or not.”
“Right. You’re just the delivery boy.”
He gives me a withering look and I decide it’s time for a subject change. “What is he paying you, anyway? It must be a lot for a demon to be willing to take orders from an angel.” I’m getting a little too good at playing along. My knee’s swift healing isn’t helping.
“Who says he’s giving me money?” he scoffs. “I’m a demon. If I want cash, all I have to do is possess a banker. Or a billionaire.”
“You said on the phone that you wanted what he owed you,” I remind him.
His eyes narrow dangerously and for a moment I worry that I’ve been too brazen, but he finally lets out a sigh and turns on the TV, flipping through the channels with equal disdain for everything that’s on.
“He must have something you want,” I say, feeling adventurous. Or foolish. It’s not like I have anything left to lose. Maybe I can even get him to reveal some bit of info I can use to get away.
He growls and stabs the controller to escape the pre-Monday Night Football show. I guess demons aren’t big on tailgating. “Are you still on about that?”
“You did kidnap me. Is it so weird for me to want to understand your motive?”
“If you weren’t still in denial you’d realize that if I hadn’t ‘“kidnapped” you, Michael’s goon squad would have turned you into stardust by now.”
So he sees this as a rescue, not an abduction. Good to know. I can use that. “Okay, but that still doesn’t explain why you’re helping an angel protect a celestial ‘weapon.’”
He turns the TV off and slams the remote down on the nightstand before turning to face me. “If I tell you, will you shut up for the rest of the night?”
“Yes,” I say, straightening my spine. “I will.”
He rolls his eyes. “It just so happens that good ol’ Gabe does have something I want. The keys to Hell.”
My eyes widen. "What? But he's --”
“An angel, yeah. Hell was created to punish demons. Did you really think they’d pick an inmate to be prison warden?”
“I don’t understand. You’re free. Why would you want to get into Hell?”
“Prison break,” he says like it should be obvious. “Heaven’s bulldog grabbed a buddy of mine a few millennia ago, so when Gabe approached me about the job, I figured it was worth a few weeks’ hassle. Don’t prove me wrong.”
“Oh,” I say, taking a moment to process the idea that demons have friends. “That’s all? You’re not going to set the others free?”
“Hell no.” He cringes at his unintentional pun. “You don’t open the gates of Hell unless you want to start Armageddon. Most of the demons in there are there because they don’t play well with others, demons included. Letting them out would be suicide.”
“What about your friend? Why is he in there?”
“He’s not like the others,” he says, taking on a gravelly tone. He stares off into space and a fragile silence falls over the room that I don’t dare to shatter. He’s done talking. Relief washes over me when he turns on the television and becomes engrossed in the game he shunned moments earlier.
I carve out my own space at the head of the bed and yawn. Fighting off sleep is growing more difficult with the blue glow of the screen and I can’t turn on the light without revealing my intention of staying awake. The sliver of vulnerability he so unwillingly showed me had the opposite effect of what I intended. When he was just a kidnapper spinning a story, that I could deal with. Now that I know he’s fully convinced that the story is real, I’m more afraid of him than ever.
“He’s coming.” A woman’s voice whispers through the gray expanse. It’s familiar somehow, even though I don’t recognize it. The expanse stretches on past a thick layer of fog and somehow I know it doesn’t end. I feel like if I look into it for long enough, I’ll lose whatever is left of my sanity.
My attempts to locate the source of the voice only serve to get me lost deeper inside the gray. Soon it’s hard to tell where it ends and I begin. The tendrils of a voice echo all around me. Just fragments and wisps, nothing quite like words.
Something brushes against my arm and I spin around, but no one is there. “Where are you?” I cry. “What do you want?”
It feels like I’ve been searching for her a thousand years if a day. I have to get out of this place. The ringing is back, and it’s making it so hard to remember how I got here. It’s making it hard to remember anything.
“He’s coming,” the voice echoes.
“Who?” My voice barely carries through the fog, dampened and trapped.
Just when I’m sure no one heard me she says, “The light bringer is coming. The one who brings all destruction.”
I struggle to process her words. Her voice is coming from everywhere and nowhere at once. “I don’t understand. Why are you telling me this, what can I do?”
Silence overtakes everything. The woman’s voice, the ringing, my own thoughts. A shape starts to appear in the distance, and I run forward. The closer I get, the more the form takes on a male shape. I can see that it’s glowing, too. In fact, it’s hard to look at.
I stop short when the light becomes too much to bear and shield my eyes. “Who are you?” I cry, more afraid of isolation than anything he could do to me.
The figure straightens to his full height but he doesn’t turn around and the light around him doesn’t dim. If I squint, I can just barely look at him.
He’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
Suddenly I don’t care about the voice or what I’ve forgotten or anything else. Every pain, physical and emotional, melts away when I look at him. I take a step forward and I’m unsure if it’s my own will, but I can’t bring myself to care.
He’s calling me. Maybe not with words or gestures, but the pull is unmistakable and irresistible.
Before I can reach him, his light envelops me. It’s hard to tell if the arms I feel around me are real, but they make me feel safe nonetheless. Soon the light begins to fade—or at least I become accustomed to it—and my comforter’s shape becomes solid.
“Jordan,” he says in a soothing voice, stroking my hair. His face is still too bright to see clearly. “You must come to me.”
“I’m already here,” I say, bewildered.
“No, this is just a dream. You must find me when you wake up.”
A warm hand strokes my face. “My dear little moth, you won’t be able to help it.”
I gaze into the soft golden light. Just as the face beneath it starts to come into focus, a shadow falls over us. I look up as the dull gray sky soaks up a spot of crimson that spreads out like blood on a cotton swab. Dark shapes come through the clouds like hundreds of locusts if not thousands.
“What are those?” I choke out. Before the figure in front of me has a chance to answer, one of the lower figures comes close enough for me to make out its shape. It’s a man with wings clutching something like a mace in his hands.
The glowing man begins to laugh. It’s a pleasant, almost musical sound that’s jarring in contrast to the bloodied sky.
“Run, little moth. Run as fast as you can. They’re coming.”
One of the angels swoops low and a metal blade cuts into the earth feet away from me. I waste no time heeding his order and run to escape the swarm above me.
No matter how hard and fast my feet hit the earth, the shadow remains. It overtakes me and I look up to see no less than a dozen angels overhead, their blades poised to strike.
“No!” I scream, tripping in my panic. All I can do is shield my eyes.
A hand seizes my arm and I scream. My assailant holds me fast, seemingly oblivious to my struggling.
“Jordan!” Samael’s voice cuts through the last of the fog from my nightmare, but I don’t stop struggling right away. It takes a moment to realize that it’s just the hotel sheets that bind my limbs like a straightjacket, and that his hands are the only ones that hold me. “Calm down!”
I stop struggling and stare at him. He stares back. For a moment, my gasps are the only sound breaking the silence.
There are dark circles under his eyes and he hasn’t changed out of his clothes, but the rumpled blanket on the arm of the chair in the corner suggests that demons do sleep after all. His grip on my arms loosens but he doesn’t let go.
“You’re okay,” he says with enough certainty that I’m tempted to believe him. “It was just a dream.”
“Th-they were everywhere.” My voice sounds like gravel.
“The angels. The sky turned red, and—” I stop when I realize he’s looking at me like I sound as crazy to him as I do to myself. “I guess it was just a dream.”
“You’re okay,” he repeats, pressing a hand to my cheek. It’s big and rough, not at all like the elegant touch I felt in the dream. “If there were any angels around, I’d know.”
I should ask how, but I don’t want to. Not now. I just want to find a rock to crawl under. Instead, I settle for moving away and pulling the blanket over my shoulders.
“For what?” he asks, offering me a bottle of water.
I take it gratefully and drink it faster than is probably ladylike. I guess I was thirstier than I thought. “For freaking out,” I say, nodding to the empty chair. “For waking you up.”
He shrugs. “It’s fine, I wasn’t really out.”
“So you can sleep?”
He gives me a tired grin. “I can. No dreams, though.”
“That makes two of us.”
He frowns. “What was that, then?”
I paused to consider it. “An anomaly, I guess.”
“What, that was the first time you had a dream?”
“Yeah.” I sigh. “If that’s what I’ve been missing, I can’t say I see the appeal.”
“That’s not good,” he mutters, sitting next to me. “What did you see, Jordan?”
“Why? You said yourself, it was just a dream.”
“The first dream you’ve ever had isn’t just a dream,” he says. “Especially not if it involves angels.”
I hesitate. “I don’t know. One minute I was watching TV with you, the next I opened my eyes and I was in this blank gray place. At first, I couldn’t see anything but gray, but then I saw a light.” I pause for a sign that I should go on. He keeps watching me expectantly, a serious glint in his eyes. By the time I finish telling him about the dream, it’s turned into full-on concern and he takes to pacing the room.
“And you didn’t see what he looked like? The ‘glowing man,’ I mean.”
“No, his face was too bright,” I say.
“What?” I turn to watch him as he looks through the blinds. “Why is that bad?”
“It means he’s an angel,” he mutters. “Angels are beings of light and they’re blinding in their true forms. Humans have died just from looking at them.”
“He didn’t seem like he wanted to hurt me,” I say, starting to come back to my senses. Aside from the fact that I never dream, it really isn’t that strange that I’d have a nightmare about angels. “It was hard to look at him, but I’m fine.”
“You’re not human,” he says matter-of-factly.
I open my mouth to argue with him and remind myself there’s little point. I’ve just given him more ammo for his crazy ideas. There’ll be no talking him down now.
“Did he give you a name?” he asks after a few minutes of silence.
“No, does it matter?”
“Probably not,” he admits. “Whoever it is, he didn’t crash the slumber party to bring you tidings of good joy. We need to leave,” he says suddenly, rummaging through his bag for something. I hear a metallic sound, almost like keys jingling. Big keys.
“What? Why?” I ask, sitting up. “I thought we were leaving in the morning.”
He stops collecting our things for a moment to make eye contact. “That wasn’t a dream, Jordan. It was a vision.”
“A vision?” I echo. “As in, tidings of good joy, that kind of vision?”
“Exactly, only replace joy with imminent doom and tidings with threats,” he says, slinging both our bags over his shoulder. “Put on your jacket.”
I’m as mystified by his sudden determination to leave as I am by his concern when the clock radio on the dresser starts blasting an oldies station. The display flickers, shifting from 4:53 to 11:11.
“People are strange when you’re a stranger,” croons a familiar voice I recognize from my father’s favorite band. The display flickers again and I jump.
“…women seem wicked when you’re unwanted…”
The alarm starts to blare over the song.
“What’s happening?” I ask, instinctively moving towards Samael.
He grabs my arm and pulls me to his side, casting a sideways glance at the door as the eerily casual song continues to play amid static. “Remember when I told you I’d be able to tell if an angel was near?”
Okay, I still don’t believe in angels but I’m willing to accept that something is going on that I don’t have a reasonable explanation for at the moment. “Let’s go,” I plead, clinging to his arm.
“It’s too late,” he says gravely.
tap. tap. tap.
We both freeze. He looks at me with a warning gaze that could melt metal and holds a finger to his lips.
I nod faintly.
It’s far too late for housekeeping. As Samael approaches the door and reaches for his gun, I hold my breath and try to tell myself that it’s probably just some drunk who has the wrong room.
He looks through the peephole and turns back to me with a shake of his head. That can’t be good. I finally manage to free myself from the sheets and they fall to the floor. I don’t dare speak and hope he’ll understand the universal look of desperate confusion.
He ignores me and reaches into his bag for what appears to be a long black robe. It looks like something a magician might wear, or a prop for some Lovecraftian ritual. When he reaches to throw it over my shoulders, I step back instinctively.
The look he gives me makes the cloak seem like the lesser of two evils. He grabs me by the shoulders and pushes me into the corner closest to the door. “You are going to put this on and you will not move or make so much as a fucking sound no matter what you see, got it?”
I nod earnestly. He drapes the cloak over me and pulls the hood over my head so that it covers my face, making it impossible to see anything but the floor. I don’t dare to adjust it.
This time it sounds like someone is knocking with a battering ram rather than a fist. I clasp my trembling hands to keep them still and try to come up with a logical explanation for why someone would show up at our door this late. At first, I feel a surge of hope that it might be the police, but surely they would announce themselves. I’ve watched enough cop shows to know that.
“Enough hiding, Samael,” bellows a woman from the other side of the door. My relief at the presence of another woman is short lived when she adds, “We know you have the girl. Hand her over now and there’s no need for you to face the punishment for harboring an abomination.”
So he wasn’t lying. There really are others after me. People who think I’m this—thing—the nephilim. People who want to kill me.
I lift the hood just enough to locate Samael. He’s just staring at the door in deep thought about something and the realization that he’s probably considering her offer fills me with fresh dread. I still don’t believe he’s a demon, but the last thirty seconds have proven without a doubt that there are others out there at least as crazy as he is and I have a funny feeling they’re not interested in protecting me.
In a sudden flurry of movement, he slides the chain back and opens the door before I can cry out to warn him. I clamp my hands over my mouth and watch as he steps back to let the woman and her two companions into the room.
She’s tall and elegant with strong features set in a scowl. Keen eyes peer out from her stone face and scan the room. My breath halts automatically as I wait for them to land on me, but her gaze lingers on my corner only for a second before sweeping the rest of the room. With a wave of her hand, the suited men who came with her begin searching the closets and the bathroom.
My weary brain is struggling to process what’s happening. Here I am, practically standing in the middle of the room, and these people are tearing it apart searching for me. The only possible explanation is one I don’t even want to dignify with a thought, but I clutch the sides of the cloak to me for just in case.
The woman smooths a hand over her sleek hair, pulled back into a tight bun. Her hair and eyebrows are so pale they almost match her nearly translucent skin. The men are wearing matching suits, as if in uniform, but her fitted white dress is distinct enough to set her apart as their leader. It cost a fortune. I recognize the designer as one of mom’s favorites.
“I have to admit,” she begins in a tone far more polite than when she was yelling through the door, but equally authoritative, “when they said the nephilim had been seen with a demon, I never expected it would be you. And to think, you’ve been clever enough to stay off my radar all this time.”
“You know how I feel about family reunions,” he says, casually leaning against the wall. For a moment, his eyes lock on mine and he gives me a subtle wink in reassurance. “The potato salad, the party games and don’t even get me started on good old Uncle Raph getting drunk and hitting on the Seraphim.”
My heart skips. Can he see me? The more time the passes, the more that a cloak of invisibility, however absurd, seems like the only explanation for what’s happening and possibly my only chance at survival.
If there is some kind of magic in this robe that’s making me invisible to them but not to Samael, that kind of discovery has certain reality shifting implications I’m not ready to handle.
All I can do is watch the scene unfold in a mixture of horror and fascination.
“Oh, you won’t have to worry about any of that. In fact, the only family you’ll be seeing any time soon is your brother.” There’s more than a hint of satisfaction in her voice. Samael clenches his jaw and I can practically see him straining to keep his mouth shut.
He has a brother?
“Luriel, she isn’t in the room,” says the man who just came out of the bathroom. I can see dislodged ceiling tiles through the open door.
“The hotel is clear,” says the other, bursting through the front door. The hotel room has turned into the scene of a procedural drama and I’m the missing body.
“That’s very interesting,” says Luriel, tilting her head as she looks at Samael. “Especially since it isn’t possible. There are traces of angelic resonance all over this room.”
Samael shrugs and gives her a shit-eating grin. “You heard your flunkies, no girls in my room after curfew. Try Gadreel. We all know how he feels about witches, maybe he traded up to banging the nephilim.”
A blade falls from her sleeve and sits against Samael’s neck before my brain can process what my eyes are seeing. “You’re an insolent little fool and you always have been, Samael. Personally, I hope they don’t kill you. I look forward to seeing your rotting flesh burn away anew each day,” she says with a deranged smile. When her blade presses deep enough to cut, thick white steam comes out of Samael’s neck rather than blood.
I try to blink away the hallucination but it remains a fixed point in reality, distorting it forever.
"I wonder if how long it'll take you to break?" she muses. "Your little brother only made it a few decades. At first, you could hear his screams all the way from purgatory to Styx, but now he barely even makes a --”
Her taunt is cut off by the sound of her choking. In the time it takes me to blink, Samael has her pinned against the wall with the dull side of her own blade digging into her neck so deeply her skin nearly swallows it.
The suited man rush to her aid but when Samael holds up his other hand, one is thrown into the wall and the other into the door as it slams shut. When they try to move, they’re pinned like insects to a cork board.
Luriel gawks at him, my own confusion echoed in her eyes as she sputters for breath. “How?”
“Let’s just say the Fall was a bit kinder to me than most,” he says through gritted teeth. “Walk away, Luriel. That thing isn’t worth dying over.”
When I realize who the “thing” he’s talking about is, I feel an irrational sting of betrayal.
She sneers through her obvious pain. “That’s right. After all this time, you still haven’t lost your virginity, have you?”
“It’s never too late,” he says in a dangerous tone that makes me realize he’s been in a downright peppy mood up until this point. “You wanna be my first?”
She leans into the blade. “The only one dying is you, traitor.”
His eyes narrow. “Walk away, Luriel. I owe Gadreel a debt, but only to a point.”
“Save your pleas for Gabriel and his wardens.” She glances over his shoulder and I follow her gaze to one of her men whose hand is raised. A knife hovers a few feet behind Samael, poised to strike his heart through his back.
“Samael, watch out!” I scream.
It happens all at once. The hood of the cloak falls from my head. Samael spins around in time to catch the knife in his hand. The pinned guards fall to the ground and Luriel turns towards me. A slow smile spreads across her pale lips and I know the moment her cold gray eyes fall on me that the spell is broken.
She can see me. They all can.
I remain frozen only for a moment, but it’s long enough for one of the angels freed by Samael’s distraction to lunge for me. He has a blade in his hand and all I can do is cower and raise my hands to shield myself.
When the next moment passes and I seem to be alive, I dare to open my eyes. The angel who charged me is frozen, straining against something that looks like a molten hot chain with soot shedding off the links like scales. The chain is held in Samael’s grasp and although its burning through the angel’s suit, he doesn’t seem to be affected.
The angel lets out an earsplitting roar of agony and thrashes futilely against the chains now that the initial shock has worn off. The entire process is rapid, but I see it all in excruciating detail. Smoke rises up from the chains as they sink into the flesh of his arms and torso, eating him away from the middle. If I survive this, the smell of burning flesh will never leave my mind even if I do somehow manage to get it out of my clothes. In a matter of seconds, he’s nothing more than a pile of white ash. It’s not the color human ashes are supposed to be. I remember being shocked that my grandfather’s ashes were a dull gray-white color rather than the bone color I had expected, but the angel’s are pure white. They almost glow.
“No,” cries Luriel. There’s more disbelief in her voice than sadness. It doesn’t take her long to recover. She picks up the blade Samael dropped and the other angel closes in on his other side. I wrap the cloak around me in hopes that it will start working again.
Samael looks between his attackers and recoils the chain around his hand. Now I know why it’s so callused. “One more chance to walk away from this. There’s no reason this has to end with another pile of ashes.”
“So you managed to hold onto a little of your celestial glory when you fell,” Luriel seethes. “You think that puts you in a position to bargain with me?”
Samael gives her a dismissive look. “I wasn’t talking to you.”
“Go to hell, Samael,” the other angel says in a strained voice full of the grief their leader seems bereft of. He raises his blade and charges Samael with a gravelly cry of, “This is for Zephon!”
The angel’s foot no sooner hits the ground than Samael’s chain coils around his neck. With a quick jerk, the angel’s neck snaps and his blade falls to the floor a moment before he hits his knees. As the smoldering chain begins to eat away at his lifeless body, I realize with some difficulty that his quick death was a mercy.
I turn away only to see Luriel standing with blade in hand, as far away from Samael and his long range weapon as possible. She crouches slightly, ready to spring, as if eager to get in close since she can’t get far enough away.
“Guess I wasn’t your first after all.” Nervousness lurks beneath her taunting.
“They were your men,” Samael says, grimacing. “They were your family under your orders, and you led them to the slaughter without lifting a finger in their defense?”
She shrugs. “I wanted to see what you were capable of. It’s not my fault they can’t handle a demon, even if you are an anomaly.”
“I’d say you’ve lost your soul, but that would be assuming you had one in the first place.”
“Well, if that isn’t the pot calling the kettle damned.” Her eyes flicker between us and my stomach churns. The burning flesh was bad, but her icy stare just might be what makes me lose my dinner. “So that’s the nephilim. Not very impressive, I have to say. Certainly not worth your freedom and whatever else the one who hired you is offering.”
“I’m sure you have a counter offer.”
My heart lurches. “Samael…”
He ignores me and remains focused on her. “What makes you think I’m working for someone? Maybe I just wanted in on the arms deal of the millennium.”
“That’s not your style,” she says confidently. “The others, they all fell for power, for the promise of a cushy position in the new kingdom. You, on the other hand…”
“What’s your offer?” I can’t help but feel like his interruption is motivated as much by the desire to keep me from hearing whatever she was going to say as it is by impatience.
Luriel turns to me again and snorts before looking back at him. “I can’t grant you amnesty. We’re a few centuries beyond that, but I can say that you got away. There’s a body count to corroborate that. Just tell me your employer’s name and remain available in the future. I could use a demon with your skills on my payroll. Under the table, of course.”
“Naturally. Sounds more like a job offer than a payoff.”
“It’s better than Hell, isn’t it?” She pauses and raises the blade only to toss it aside on the floor. “It doesn’t need to come to violence between us, Samael. You and I have a long history.”
“Most of it filled with violence, but go on.”
Her eye twitches, the only sign of her growing irritation. “Some of it, yes, but that’s in the past. I’ve always been more interested in the future. Things in Heaven have changed since you’ve been gone,” she says. I flinch when she comes closer, but she walks past me like I’m not there and steps over her fallen comrade’s body to peer out the window. “Things aren’t what they used to be. The order of things, it’s degrading to the point where in another thousand years, I’m not sure you’ll even be able to tell the difference between our home and this rotting stink hole.”
I wince. If that’s how angels view the planet, now I understand why prayers don’t get answered.
Holy shit, angels are real.
“You say that like I should give a shit,” Samael says, refusing to make eye contact with me. He crosses his arms and watches her carefully, but the chain is still tightly coiled around his right hand.
She glances back at him with a knowing tilt of her head. “Please, Samael. The reform school dropout look isn’t fooling anyone, except maybe her,” she says, nodding to me. “You can put on a tattered leather jacket and practice the James Dean pout in the mirror all you like, but we both know you’re nothing but borrowed guilt wrapped in a Hefty bag of responsibility. Demon or angel, you care. If you didn’t, you never would have lost your wings.”
Wings? I force myself to suspend my disbelief for long enough to follow what she’s saying through to its logical conclusion. Family. The Fall. If Samael is a demon now—and after seeing him kill those two with that hellish chain, I’m lost for any other straw of an explanation to grasp at—that means he was an angel once. I might find that comforting if Luriel wasn’t my first official encounter of the angelic kind.
I think I’d rather go with the demons.
He folds his arms and his grip on the chain loosens. “Is there a point buried somewhere in this haystack of melancholia?”
“There’s a war coming, Samael. You might be enjoying your time as an independent contractor now, but it wont last.”
He rolls his eyes. “There’s been a war coming since the big red guy split and headed south for the winter.”
“I’m not talking about a war between Heaven and Hell, Samael,” she says pointedly.
His smug expression melts into a frown. “A civil war?”
She nods slowly. “Heaven is divided.”
“Heaven’s been a kaleidoscope since these idiots crawled out of the ooze,” he scoffs. “Tell me something I don’t know.”
“It’s different this time. I’m not talking about the small factions that lure in weak, disgruntled guardians who think they can push toddlers out of the street without facing consequences,” she says, stepping closer. I move away instinctively. “I’m talking about a real leader. Someone who wants to unite us all, even those lost in the Fall.”
The consideration he’s been giving her words crumbles and his brow furrows in unmistakable disappointment. “Let me guess, he just has to tear everything apart to do it.”
“You can’t just patch the drywall when the entire foundation is crumbling,” she says, moving closer to him. “Heaven is rotting, Samael. Your brother saw it a long time ago, but this angel can follow through.”
“Out of all of them, I never thought you’d turn into a cult leader groupie,” he says, shaking his head. “Don’t tell me Gadreel is on board with all this.”
Her spine stiffens at the mention of his name and she smooths down her dress. “Gadreel will come around when sides are drawn. They all will.”
“And those who don’t?”
Her lips purse into a tight smile. “Let’s just say that Hell isn’t short on prison cells. Of course, those like your brother who were imprisoned merely for the crime of following the wrong messiah will be released. Those who are fallen for noble purpose and willing to swear their loyalty to our true leader will be reinstated to their proper ranks.”
“Sounds like a pretty sweet deal,” he says. “And who might I be pledging my undying allegiance to forever and ever?”
She sighs. “That’s privileged information. All you need to know is that he’s someone we’ve both fought under in the past and he won’t abide by another lame duck administration once the revolution takes place.”
“You mean mutiny.”
“Call it whatever you like now,” she says breathily. “We both know the winning side gets to pick the name that sticks. I do have a battalion to lead and a coup to plan, so you need to make a decision.”
“You’ve pretty much sold me, but humor me with just one more question,” he says, nodding to me. “What does our fearless anonymous leader plan to do with her? You know how I feel about environmental hazards.”
“She’ll be kept in proper containment for the time being,” she says. I get the feeling her idea of proper containment involves fire and brimstone and my legs turn to jelly beneath me, so I lean against the wall for support. “Once the time is right, we’ll make the powers that be aware of her. If all goes according to plan, this will be a Cold War, not World War III. Besides, this little hunt is keeping Gabriel’s men occupied.”
“I bet it is,” he says in a dry tone. The fact that he hasn’t come out and told her about Gabriel is the only thing giving me hope that he might not hand me over to her. “Sounds like you’ve got it all planned out.”
“We do,” she says, taking my arm. When I try to pull away, her touch freezes my skin until it burns and I let out a cry of pain. “Just let me pop downstairs with her and then we’ll make your enlistment official.”
“Oh, I’m not joining your cult,” he says calmly. “And she’s not going anywhere.”
Her face falls. “Excuse me?”
“I turned my back on God,” he says with a dry laugh. “You think I’m gonna sign my soul away to some freak who doesn’t even have the balls to put his name out there to his own followers?”
“Fine,” she says, drawing her blade and tightening her grip on my arm. “Become a stinking, fetid corpse and leave your brother to rot in Hell. Just know that you had your chance to be remembered as something other than a coward.”
“Now that’s not fair,” he says, drawing the chain through the his palm. “You know damn well all the chicks are still swooning over my tenor at choir practice. They’ll at least remember that.”
“You’ll regret this, Samael,” she says firmly. “I’ll make sure that your death is slow enough that you have the chance.”
“Come on then,” he says, swinging the thick metal weight on the end of the chain. For the first time, I realize it’s an equal armed cross with a sharp blade on the bottom. “But you’ll have to let her go first.”
“You take me for a fool, is that it?”
He shrugs. “I tried.”
He swings the chain forward and I barely have time to put my hands up before the weight hurls right at me. I brace myself for the excruciating burn, but all I feel is the rough texture of cool metal as the chain coils around my wrist and pulls me out of Luriel’s grasp. The chain unwinds when I’m halfway across the room, but inertia sends me into the wall and I collapse on the floor. My hand touches something soft and powdery and I recoil in horror when I realize I landed in a pile of what was once Zephon.
I wipe frantically wipe the powder off on my pants as the battle continues. Luriel and Samael are in a standoff until she lunges. She’s so fast that she’s across the room and her blade is wrapped in his chain before my mind can process her movement. Just as quickly, she jerks the blade back and sends him flying into the wall, leaving a crater in the drywall.
Samael gets back to his feet immediately and catches the weight of his chain in his left hand.
“My, how quickly you’ve adapted to the idea of killing your brethren,” she says, brandishing her knife.
“I’ve always been a fast learner. Besides, you made it clear in the Fall that we’re not family anymore.”
“Gadreel always had such faith in you. I never understood why and now it’s even more of a mystery,” she taunts. “You pretend your defiance was an act of valor, but it wasn’t. Your loyalty has always been your weakness.”
“And here I thought it was my need to be loved.”
She jerks her blade back sharply and the chain flies across the room. From the look on his face, I can tell that his advantage is gone. Luriel knows it, too.
She stalks towards him and he reaches for Zephon’s fallen blade, but it’s too far away.
An idea comes to me and I surprise myself with how quick my normally clumsy body is to react to it. I pull the cloak off my shoulders and fling it towards him with as much force as I can. “Samael!” I cry out to warn him.
He looks up and recognition passes between us as his eyes meet mine. He grasps the cloak and Luriel’s blade slashes the thick black fabric before it envelops him entirely and they become nothing.
If there was any lingering doubt in my mind that the cloak is magic, it disappears with the demon.
Luriel lets out a cry of rage as her blade comes away clean. Her anger lasts only an instant before she channels it into something more productive and sets her sights on me.
She grabs me by the hair and yanks my head back, pressing her blade into my throat. It’s so sharp that I don’t even realize I’ve been cut until something warm and sticky drips onto my clavicle.
I freeze in fear of pushing the blade deeper, inflicting a mortal wound before I even feel the pain. Samael is nowhere and I have no way of knowing if that’s because he’s lurking unseen or has abandoned me entirely.
There’s no reason for him not to.
“Show yourself or the nephilim dies,” she growls. “Don’t think I won’t kill it just because it’s useful.”
The silence is a far more cutting response than any taunt.
I gasp as the blade presses deeper. Some people say your life flashes before your eyes before you die and others say you see a tunnel. All I can feel is the crushing weight of my regrets.
How I wish I had meant it when I said thank you to mom and dad for the party. How I wish I had gotten the chance to fake a smile as they presented me with a car I didn’t want, just like they did when I brought them childish “presents” of stick dolls and horrible macaroni sculptures. How I should have told Tara how much it hurt me when she ditched me Freshman year for Connie Sorento and her posse, and how much I wish I had meant it when I told her I forgave her. How I wish I had told Brent he was an asshole for deciding that nine years of companionship and secret all-night phone calls and sneaking out our windows at night to catch fireflies in jars even when we were too old to have a bedtime wasn’t a friendship to be cherished but a “friendzone” to escape.
How different things would have been if I hadn’t run away. If I had stayed in his arms for the rest of that last dance, if I had died with all of them like I was supposed to.
“Fine. Run,” Luriel spits. “It’s the only thing you’ve ever been good at. That and letting down the people you’re supposed to protect. What’s one more casualty of your cowardice?”
The sound of metal rustling makes my heart stop. I don’t dare move and I can tell Luriel didn’t hear it. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see the chain beginning to rise, slowly uncoiling in silence like someone is gripping it at both ends.
“Let’s see how much a nephilim can bleed,” says Luriel, dragging her blade across my throat. This time I feel it.
Something coils around me from out of nowhere and constricts like a python, pulling us together. Luriel’s arm is trapped against me and the blade falls from her hand with a clatter. I let out a cry of anticipated pain, but Luriel’s screams drown me out before I realize that all I can feel is the discomfort of restraint.
Samael peels off the cloak and reveals his position standing in front of me with one hand still gripping the chain. I wonder how long he’s been there, but I don’t have long to contemplate it. Luriel’s struggle is fading fast and so is she. To my horror, I feel less of her with each passing second as the chains that were once so tight it was impossible to breathe become loose until they clatter to the floor and I’m left standing in a pile of ash.
I stay there, frozen in disgust and shock. I try to move, but I can’t. My eyes burn from not blinking.
He moves forward and takes me by the shoulders in an attempt to get me out of the ash pile, but my knees are locked and my arms stiff like a mannequin’s.
“Jordan?” He pulls off his shirt and presses it against my neck to stop the bleeding. His eyes search mine and I know that something must really be wrong with my head, because I could swear I saw concern in them. “It’s alright. It’s over.”
My knees give out and I collapse against his chest, but the timing is pure coincidence. It’s not alright and it’s never going to be, not after what I’ve seen tonight. This fight might be over, but something buried in my mind, deeper than my memories or even my personality, tells me that this is just the beginning.
The sound of my name jolts me out of thoughts far less pleasant than red and gold trees that cover the Amish countryside rolling past my window. It seems like we’ve only been on the road for a few hours, but the sun melting into the horizon line suggests otherwise.
“I said there’s a rest stop coming up. Looks like this one actually has food.”
“I’m not hungry,” I say, looking back out the window.
“Maybe not, but the car needs fuel and so do we,” he says, careening down the exit lane.
“Demons need food?”
“We won’t die without it, but it benefits us the same as humans.”
I begin to wonder if I’m not hungry because of what I’ve seen or because of what I’m turning into. The doubts about the supernatural have been replaced with ones abut the world I thought I knew. If demons and angels are real, everything else has fallen into question.
“Oh, no,” he says, glancing over at me. “It’s taken almost two days to get you to come out of that hole in your head and I’m not letting you go back in that easily.”
“I don’t know what you want me to say. I’m not exactly in the mood to play eye spy.”
"I'm not asking for a road trip buddy, but a nod or a word of acknowledgment every few hours would be nice," he says, slowing down as we start approaching the first signs of civilization for a few hundred miles. "Hell, I'd settle for blinking. Any sign of human --”
He falls silent. I feel him cringe even though I’m not looking at him. “You know what I meant.”
“It’s fine.” My voice sounds hollow even to me but I don’t have the energy to try faking it. “I’m not in denial anymore.”
“Since when?” He doesn’t sound relieved. He sounds concerned, which is hard to register now that I know he really is a demon.
“Since three people died because of me.”
“First of all, those were angels, not people,” he says. “And if anything, they died because of what you are, not because of you.”
“No, it’s not, and you’ll never survive if you think that way.”
“Maybe that’s for the best.”
He looks over me and frowns but rather than the impending lecture I fear, he turns back towards the road and makes a sharp turn onto a barely visible dirt path.
“What are you doing? The rest stop is back the other way.”
He ignores me and turns the wheel sharply. The car veers off the road and I grip the arm rest, screaming as we go flying down the hillside. Just when it seems like the ride of terror is over, he goes charging for a line of trees that look like they’ve been there since before the settlers.
“Samael, stop!” I scream, grabbing his arm.
“I thought you wanted to die,” he jeers, flooring the gas. “No use putting my ass on the line to protect you if you don’t even want to live. Why not put you out of your misery now?”
“What about Gabriel?” I cry, grasping at straws. The car is going much too fast to jump out and the treeline is no longer a haze in the distance.
“Like Luriel said, I’m an independent contractor. I don’t answer to anyone. Not her, not Gabriel, not the Big Man Upstairs.” The engine roars like a lion on the hunt. “My job is just to keep you from falling into the wrong hands. Alive or dead makes no difference to me. It’s your choice, so what’s it gonna be?”
“You’ve made your point,” I say through gritted teeth, my nails deeply embedded in his leather upholstery.
“Not good enough, mutt. If you want me to stop, I’ll stop but you have to say the words.” His eyes gleam like the forest in the moonlight and I wish he’d put them on the road instead of on me. “No copouts. No passing the buck. It’s your decision.”
I shut my eyes tight as the trees get impossibly close. The breath I’ve been holding escapes my lips in a violent gust. I war with myself, but the battle is over before it’s begun. When my eyes fly open and I see the trees flying towards us with maybe seconds left before collision, it’s not even a question.
“Stop!!” My voice is shrill and desperate and it feels almost cathartic. It’s the first time I’ve released any emotion since the fire.
His foot lets up on the gas, but not completely. We’re still hurdling towards the trees, just not as madly. I look over at him in search of an explanation. “I said stop!”
“I heard you,” he says. “But why should I?”
“Go to Hell.”
The engine roars. “Couldn’t quite make that out.”
I grip the arm rest and the door and struggle to remember the rosary I learned so many years ago, while wondering if it even counts coming from me. "Because I --” I freeze when I realize how close we are. It's like time has slowed down even though the car hasn't. We're going to hit the trees, and I realize there's nothing that can be done about it. He doesn't have time to stop or avoid them. It's inevitable.
I’m not filled with sadness or relief like I had hoped. There is no light at the end of this tunnel. I know it now with the strangest certainty. I know it as surely as I’ve ever known anything, from my parents’ love to my own name. There can’t be reunion or relief or rest or pain beyond this treeline, because those things are all a part of life, not death.
My answer comes with clarity, even if it comes too late. “Because I don’t want to die, I just want the pain to stop!”
Samael looks over at me with a strange smile. “That’s the big secret, kiddo.” He slams on the gas and I barely have time to shut my eyes before the collision.
Except, it doesn’t come. When seconds we don’t have pass, I open my eyes and find us back on the road. We pass the same dirt road Samael turned down moments ago and I look around frantically, trying to make sense of what just happened.
“Life and death and everything in between,” he continues, erasing any doubts that I hallucinated my close encounter, “it’s all relative, all impermanent. Pain? That shit’s real. It might just be the only real thing there is in this fake-ass world, and you can’t escape it in death any more than you can in life.”
My lungs burn with every gasp of air I take to replenish them. “What happened? What did you just do?”
“Just gave you a little taste of the in between,” he says casually.
“Why?” I choke. “Why do you care? You’re a demon and I’m something even worse. Why does it matter to you whether I want to live or die?”
“It doesn’t,” he says with a shrug. “A death wish can get you as far as the will to survive. I’ve seen it on the battlefield enough times. It’s being wishy washy that’ll get you killed.”
I process that for a moment. “How did you know I wanted to live?” Even I didn’t know until death was inevitable.
“I didn’t. At least not until I saw this.” He reaches over and brushes something wet off my cheek in a surprisingly tender gesture. Even more shocking is the realization of what it is.
I touch my face and stare in awe at the clear droplets on my fingertips. “I’m crying. I’ve never been able to cry, not even when I was a baby.”
“Emotional displays don’t come easily for angels,” he says, pulling into the bustling rest stop towards the far end of the lot. “Doesn’t mean they never happen.”
“You still think of yourself as an angel,” I murmur. “Is that why you don’t kill them?”
He leans back in his seat and considers it for a moment. “I was never a separatist. You can rip off the wings and dip the soul in the lake of fire, but an angel is still an angel.”
“I’m sorry, then.”
He gives me a quizzical look. “Why?”
“Because that means that those angels you killed back there were your family,” I say quietly.
He snorts and climbs out of the car, slamming his door. I follow him. “You can pretend not to care, but I saw how easily you took out those angels. Even Luriel,” I say, rushing to keep up with him. My legs still feel like they’re made of gelatin after my near brush with imaginary death.
“What are you on about?” He stuffs his hands into his jacket and strides towards the rest stop.
“You didn’t hide me because you were afraid they’d kill us,” I say. “You were trying to avoid killing them.”
“I’m a one-man operation and I’m not getting paid enough to take on unnecessary headaches.” His eyes flicker over me pointedly. “I’ve already got one to worry about, so yeah, it made sense to avoid unnecessary bloodshed.”
“Luriel said you were a virgin,” I remind him. “You don’t seem like the purity club type, so I’m guessing she meant you’ve never killed an angel.”
“I thought you wanted me to talk,” I remind him. “Here I am, talking.”
“I changed my mind.” He stops walking and I nearly collide with him. He pulls the door to the big glass-and-brick building open and it takes me a moment to realize he’s getting the door for me. I don’t know why his random acts of chivalry are so surprising. After all, he’s saved my life not once but twice already.
Then again, he’s also the one who dislocated my knee.
I mumble a thanks and slip inside. The rest stop isn’t quite as crowded as the parking lot, but it’s still packed. There’s a convenience store attached to a small outlet of restaurants and shops, connected by an open passage. It’s a stark contrast to the rural hills we’ve been driving through. A standing map in the center of the room shows exactly where we are in Pennsylvania. Further in than out, but still a long ways to go until we reach Ohio. Nebraska seems unfathomably distant.
When I turn back from the map, I find myself alone. An inexplicable rush of panic sinks my stomach and I begin to search from him, trying not to look like the lost child I feel like.
Somewhere between my home town and a hotel room in the middle of nowhere, Samael became by tether to a world I hardly know. Without him by my side, the mother leading her child through the crowd is a homicidal angel and the weary traveler struggling to get a signal by the coffee shop is a demon calling his boss to announce that he got a location on his target.
Someone touches my shoulder and I whirl around, ready to scream.
“Geez, Samael,” I breathe. “You can’t just disappear and sneak up on me.”
“I wasn’t sneaking.” He blinks at me, holding out a red coffee cup. When I reach for it, he pulls it back. “Maybe you don’t need this after all. You’re already tweaking.”
I snatch it from him and glare. “You drove me into trees. I’m allowed to be jumpy.”
“I drove you through trees,” he corrects, leading me over to a table looking out over a glass wall. The sun has disappeared below the earth but the dusky sky is still tinged with blue. “And call me Sam. Only angels call me Samael and you’re not one. Not completely.”
“Sam?” I fight the smile tugging at the corners of my lips. I never thought I’d smile again. I don’t want to be able to.
“Yeah, so what?”
“It’s just ironic,” I say with a dry cough that’s a poor approximation of a laugh. “You’ve never heard of Son of Sam?”
His blank look is enough of an answer.
“He was a serial killer. It’s also a name for the devil. You’re literally a demon and your name is Sam, but you go out of your way not to kill people.”
My explanation only intensifies the confusion on his face and I can’t blame him. Even I don’t know why I find it so amusing.
“Yeah, that settles it. We’re finding another hotel so you can sleep before the rest of your marbles spill.”
“No.” I sober up quickly. “I’ll sleep in the car. We can’t stop again.”
“I can last a lot longer than a human—and yes, I mean in all the ways,” he says, earning a hard eyeroll, “But I’m going to need sleep eventually.”
“Then we’ll trade off and I’ll drive.”
“Says the girl who had a death wish not an hour ago. Can you even drive? You’re what, seventeen?”
“Sixteen,” I admit. “But I got a perfect score in driver’s ed and I have my learner’s permit.”
“Exactly how is that different from a license?” he asks warily.
I tuck a strand of hair behind my ear. “It’s basically the same thing. I just have to be with a licensed driver who’s older than twenty-one, which I’m pretty sure you are.”
He snorts. “Only by a few million years. Look, I get why you’re afraid, but Gabriel didn’t hire me because I’m some run-of-the-mill demon and you proved you can handle yourself back there.”
“You mean when I saved your ass?”
“I wouldn’t go that far,’” he says, taking a sip of his coffee. “But it was quick thinking.”
“But will that be enough to handle the next ones who come after us? How long before they realize Luriel is dead and send others?”
He hesitates. “Long enough for us to be in the next state. That’s all we have to worry about for now. Or more specifically, all I have to worry about.”
“We’re in this together.”
“Since you saved my life. Since you’re the closest thing I have left to someone I can trust,” I say, picking at the sleeve of my cup. He’s silent for too long and when I venture to raise my head, he looks away quickly and clears his throat.
“You can’t trust me, Jordan,” he says in an unusually gruff voice. “You can’t trust anyone. You’re a freak among monsters. Even if I get you to Gabriel alive, even if he keeps you safe, there’s no one else like you in the entire universe, and as soon as there is, they’re just going to be killed. If you want to believe in something, believe in that.
His words don’t just sting, they burn. With all the molten fury I had expected from his chains, they sear a brand into the back of my mind.
His eyes soften and he pats my hand in a stiff gesture that seems downright mushy for him. “It’s nothing personal, kid, but at the end of the day I am just a demon working a job and you’re-”
“Just a freak,” I finish for him, pulling my hand away. “I get it. Honor student, remember?”
He looks like he’s about to argue, and I’m not sure I can take any more, so I say, “I did have a question about the hotel.”
He pauses, as if he’s debating whether he’s going to let me get away with changing the subject. He finally sighs and withdraws his hand. “Shoot.”
“Your chain didn’t burn me but it obliterated those angels. Why?”
“Oh. That.” He takes another sip of coffee. Biding his time. “It only works on angels and demons. It’s harmless to a human because of the way your souls are designed.”
I frown. “Shouldn’t yours be stronger?”
“Our bodies are, but the soul is different. Angels were created to serve God and all demons were angels once. We’re like highly advanced computers and our souls are just the electricity we need to keep running. We’re capable of almost anything, but we’re easy to short out. Humans on the other hand.” He chuckles, playing games with his empty cup. “The human soul is a nuclear payload, as intricate as it is vast, all bunched up and stuffed into a paper-thin shell. A well-aimed tap to the head and it’s game over, but you’re damn near indestructible when it comes to a weapon that only affects the soul.”
“But I’m not human,” I say, feeling like I shouldn’t have to remind him when he’s the one who won’t let me forget it. “How could you have possibly known it wouldn’t hurt me?”
His silence is a dead giveaway.
“Oh,” I say. “Right. You didn’t.”
“It wasn’t like I just took a shot in the dark,” he protests.
“You don’t need to bother defending yourself,” I say, gathering up our trash to toss it. I walk towards the exit as fast as I can without drawing attention. Tears sting my eyes, threatening the most inopportune kind of betrayal.
“Jordan!” He calls after me.
I ignore him and keep walking. There’s literally no turning back now. Not since the tears have spilled over, every one a testament to how right he is. I can’t shed even a single tear for my own parents, and yet I’ve already cried twice over a man I barely even know. A demon, no less.
No, Sam was wrong. Freak is too kind. Luriel was right when she called me an abomination.
He grabs my arm and turns me to face him, proving that he’s still the same brute who pulled me off the fire escape. We’re getting all sorts of strange looks from the other travelers. When I try to pull my arm away, his grip tightens. It doesn’t hurt, but anger still flares up inside of me.
“Listen to me,” he says, lowering his voice to a growl. “Demons can see souls. Yours is different from any human’s I’ve seen, but it’s nothing like an angel’s, either.”
“That means nothing. You said it yourself, I’m just another monster. Just admit that you had no way of knowing they wouldn’t affect me.”
“I would admit it if it were true,” he says, releasing my arm to rake his hand through his dark hair. He seems to notice the crowd of onlookers and snatches my arm again, whisking me through the doors. The only reason I don’t put up a fight is because I’m every bit as eager to get out of there as he is.
Once we’re sufficiently alone, he lets me go and stalks away from me only to come to a stop a few feet away with an exasperated sigh. “I don’t even know why I’m bothering to explain myself to you.”
“Then don’t. I don’t care.”
“Is that why you’re crying?”
“Demons can see human souls,” he mutters. It’s almost impossible to make out his words, so I step closer.
“I don’t repeat myself,” he snaps. “Listen the first time or don’t listen at all.”
“Okay, I’m listening.”
“Demons and only demons can see souls. Human or angel, it doesn’t matter. My chains work by using a soul’s corruption as fuel to burn. Most angels have millions upon millions of years of bloodshed, dirty politics and power lust eating away at theirs. The more corrupt the soul, the faster it burns.”
“Oh. That’s nice.”
“Shut up until I’m finished.” he says, still looking away from me. “Your soul isn’t human, but it isn’t angelic, ether. It’s a whole thing of its own, and it’s in near mint condition. Hell, I’ve seen newborns with more soul rust than you’ve got, so yeah, I took a risk but it wasn’t much of one. Sure as hell less risky than letting Luriel carve you up.”
Those damn tears had all but gone away and here they are, springing up again. Why did I ever envy this ability? “Samael…”
“What did I say about calling me that?” he demands, turning on me.
“Sorry, Sam,” I say with a small smile.“I just wanted to say thanks.”
“Well, don’t,” he barks. “I didn’t tell you that so we could bond, I told you because I don’t have the patience to spend the next four thousand miles in the car with a weeping halfbreed angel.”
“Fair enough,” I say, linking my arm in his. He tries to recoil but I hold on fast, giving him a taste of his own medicine as we walk towards the car.
He makes a sound of pure disgust but he stops trying to get away even though he easily could and bears his fate in silence the rest of the way to the car.
He doesn’t say a word once we’re on the road. I’m more than content to stare out the window in silence. My thoughts are full of problems I never could have fathomed a few days ago, but my heart is lighter than it’s been in a long time.
I wake to the sound of rock music blaring and when I open my eyes, the room is pitch black except for the eerily red display on the alarm clock that reads 11:11. Even my skeptical brain is starting to notice a pattern.
It takes me a moment to realize that it must be Sam’s new phone. He confiscated mine our first day on the road and that certainly isn’t my ringtone. I fumble for the lamp switch in the dark of the hotel room we checked into for the night and squint to make sure Sam is still there. To my relief, he’s sound asleep on the other bed and shows no sign of waking up despite the noise.
I guess he was more tired than he let on.
My feet hit the floor and I’m relieved that this room is carpeted. I follow the obnoxious sound, steps staggering and eyes bleary, until I find that the source of it is his jacket hanging on a hook by the door. It really has seen better days, but something tells me he’d sooner shed his skin than trade it in for something new.
It takes three tries to find the right pocket, and the fact that there are only two is a testament to my exhaustion. This time I can’t blame it on a lack of sleep. It was five in the morning when we poured ourselves into bed and now it’s night again.
I pick up the phone and frown at the number that scrolls past. It matches the one on the clock. 11:11.
“Sam?” I whisper. Nothing.
Well, it might be important. After a moment’s hesitation, I jam my finger into the answer button. “Hello?”
“You’re not Sammy.” The singsong accusation of the man on the other end of the line catches me off guard.
“Uh, no,” I mutter, immediately regretting my decision to answer the phone. “He’s sleeping, but can I take a message?”
I wince at the shrill laugh that pierces my eardrum. “A message? Oh, that’s cute. ‘A message,’ she says. What’s your name, sweetheart?”
I purse my lips. “Why don’t you tell me yours first?”
“Smart girl,” he says in a condescending tone. “Why don’t you go and put daddy on the phone, hm?”
I hesitate, leaning over Sam’s sleeping form. I nudge him gently and he doesn’t budge. If it weren’t for the fact that he’s breathing regularly, I’d be worried. “I’m sorry, I can’t do that.”
He sighs and the superficial veil of his patience melts away. “You know how hard it is to hijack angelic frequencies, little girl?”
“You’re a demon?” For some reason having my suspicion confirmed makes me even more nervous.
“Very astute. Your mommy and daddy ever read you bedtime stores about the boogeyman?”
“Can’t say that they did,” I reply carefully. “Don’t tell me he’s a demon?”
“One of the best,” he purrs. “Of course, my friends just call me Bo. Short for Boshareth, but I haven’t gone by that since the Babylonians.”
“Y-you? You’re the Boogeyman? As in the one who eats children?”
“Eats, recruits, it’s all such boring technical stuff. I’m much more interested in what Sammy’s doing with a cute girl such as yourself. Nice pj’s, by the way.”
Every hair on my body stands on end and my spine stiffens. I turn towards the window, but the thick curtains are drawn shut.
“Don’t worry, Jordan your room is perfectly secure,” he says soothingly. “It is Jordan, isn’t it?”
“How can you see me?” I ask, scanning the corners for any signs of hidden cameras. “And how do you know my name?”
“Sammy told me. Like I said, we go way back. He didn’t tell me you were such a doll, though. Personally my money was on the nephilim being a lanky dude with an underbite.” He sounds almost disappointed. “Oh, well. Since you’re probably not going to survive the fortnight, do you mind if I tell people you were a lanky dude with an underbite?”
“Look, I don't know what you want, but --”
“I do have a message,” he interrupts. “Tell Sammy the bird’s nest is all aflutter with news of Luriel’s death, and the little birdies have all flown away to regroup.”
“Oh,” I say, trying to forget what he is long enough to process what he’s saying. “That’s a good thing, isn’t it?”
“It would be if it weren’t for the rumor that Michael has decided to send Azrael after you in her place.”
“Azrael?” I echo. “Who is that?”
“Let’s just say he’s an army of one and Heaven only thaws him out when the bad PR outweighs the consequences,” he says. “Just tell Sammy when he wakes up. He’ll know the name.”
“I will, but –“
“Oh and one more thing. Tell him I’ve been monitoring all of Hell’s frequencies, but nothing has come through for him.” He pauses. “Did your daddy patch the call through or not?”
“Sammy was supposed to get a call. Proof of intent to make good on their contract and all that. Not that it would be the first time one of the fly boys reneged on a deal,” he mutters.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. My father is dead.”
The words jar me. It might be a fact, but it seems almost absurd when I say it out loud.
Another long pause. “Oh. Heh. Right. Of course he is.”
“What did you mean?” I ask, frowning.
“Nothing at all, dollface. Just deliver the message, and remember. Az-ree-el,” he says, sounding out each syllable.
“Hey, wait --”
Before I can protest, cheesy string music begins to play after a click. “You are now accessing angelic frequencies,” says a prerecorded female voice. “If you know your party's extension, please enter it now. For non-traditional communication devices such as spirit boards, psychic mediums or scrying mirrors, please speak your party's Enochian extension. For calls made before the year eighteen seventy-six, please --”
I smash the end call button half a dozen times for good measure.
That’s enough of that for one lifetime.
I quickly stash the phone back in Sam’s pocket and return to the edge of my bed to think about what I’m going to do. I’ll have to tell him I answered his phone soon. Bo’s message sounded too important to mess around, but it raised a few new concerns.
At least my leg is healed. It takes me until now to realize that it’s not throbbing from all the stumbling around the room. When I roll up my nightgown, the flesh is almost free of bruising. I guess there are some perks to being the most hated thing in the universe after all.
Sam shows no signs of waking up any time soon. Part of me wants to let him sleep because he’s exhausted and part of me wants to let him sleep because I’m more afraid of him than ever after seeing what he did to those angels, even if it was in my defense.
After a bit of halfhearted channel surfing, I land on one of those teenage soap operas Tara was always trying to get me to watch. I used to make fun of her for liking them. Now that I’m actually watching and it’s not half bad. The main character is a bit melodramatic for a werewolf hunter, and her love interest’s hair is the focus of more scenes than she is, but the story is admittedly intriguing. As luck would have it it’s a marathon and by the third episode I’ve decided I owe Tara an apology.
I actually reach for my confiscated phone before I realize what I’m doing.
Even if I did have my phone, the only way I stand a chance at talking to Tara or anyone else from my old life—a life that seems both literally and figuratively thousands of miles in the rearview—is a spirit board.
Suddenly the TV is more depressing than it is distracting. I turn it off, grab a towel and decide to take a shower before Sam wakes up and uses all the hot water. It occurs to me that despite my already sullen mood being dragged into the pit after thinking about Tara, there are no tears mingling in the drain with the water.
I don’t know why Sam has an exclusive line to my screwy emotions, but it has to stop. The only thing worse than being a psychopath who can’t feel is being a psychopath who can only feel selectively.
That and he made it perfectly clear the other night that whatever bizarre attachment I’ve formed is entirely one-sided. He’s not my friend.
My mind is on board with the realization. Now I just have to wait for my emotions to fall in line.
I turn the water off and realize only once I step out onto the tile and wrap a towel around myself that I forgot to bring a change of clothes. We’re only minutes past midnight and I can already tell it’s going one of those days.
I open the door slowly and slip out into the room, hoping that Sam is still in his coma. I’m not sure why I bother. By this point, I should know my luck is hopeless. At least now I have being a nephilim to blame it on.
Sam is fully awake, dressed and judging from the fact that he’s got my phone in hand, I’m guessing he knows I played answering service. His pissed off expression shifts into one I really don’t want to see on his face. Not after everything he said the other night.
His eyes travel down my body so overtly that I’m starting to get pissed off myself until he looks up suddenly with a look of horror that tells me he’s internally scolding himself for his automatic reaction way more than I ever could. When he practically vaults himself over to the window and turns away from me like he’ll turn into a pillar of salt if he catches my eye, I’m insulted for an entirely different reason.
“Where the fuck are your clothes?”
“I forgot them,” I say, gripping my towel like my life depends on its staying in place as I rummage clumsily through my bag for a clean shirt. “Geez, you’re a demon. I’m sure you’ve seen women in a lot less than a towel.”
“You’re not a woman,” he snaps, keeping his back turned.
“You know what I mean.”
I don’t, but I decide I don’t want to. I tuck my clothes underneath my arm and head back towards the bathroom, pausing as an idea enters my mind. It’s uncharacteristically wicked, but after what Bo implied, I’m not feeling overly charitable towards him. I’ve never been “one of those girls.” I’m still not even sure what Brent saw in me, considering that I have the sex appeal of an accountant, but this might be the only chance I get to exploit Sam’s flustered state.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” I say, leaning against the wall with my hand on my hip like Tara is always doing when she’s chatting up a guy. I wait until he turns around to flip my hair over my shoulder like the girl in Werewolf Huntress, but it’s still damp and doesn’t seem to have quite the same effect. “You got a phone call while you were asleep.”
“I can see that,” he says, his teeth partially touching. He’s looking at the wall next to me. “We can talk about it once you’re dressed.”
“I might forget,” I say, folding my arms. The sexy pose is clearly not working. “You’re friends with the Boogeyman?”
“I’m friends with a lot of people.”
“Yeah, well you might want to tell him that because he seems to be under the impression that you’re besties.” I steel myself for what I’m about to unleash, knowing that there’s never going to be a good time and probably not a better one. “He also seems to be under the impression that Gabriel is my father. Any idea why that might be?”
His face is unreadable for a moment before he snorts it off in the same dismissive way he always does. “Yeah. Even demons get drunk. Bo lives drunk. He probably thinks the Easter Bunny is his dad. Not that that would be far off,” he mutters almost under his breath.
“He seemed perfectly sober to me, Sam. He also seemed freaked out when he realized I had no idea what he was talking about.”
“Probably because he sensed that you’re an annoying little snapping turtle when you get an idea into your head and had the foresight to know that I’m gonna kick his ass for setting you off on a tangent,” he says, jerking the zipper to his duffel bag so hard it snaps off. He utters a rapid string of profanities and slings the bag over his shoulder before snatching mine. “Clothes. Now. We’ve lost too much time already.”
“You slept a whole day away, the road can wait another minute,” I say, blocking his path to the door. It might be unwise, but the way he’s acting, I may as well have bathed in holy water. “We’re not leaving until you tell me why Bo thinks Gabriel is my father.”
“Is that right?” He takes a long stride forward until we’re nose-to-nose. Or at least, we would be if he didn’t have more than a foot on me.
Stupid tree people.
I swallow my nerves and do my best to look like I’m trembling because of my state of relative undress rather than fear. “Yes. I have a right to know.”
He looks like he’s sizing me up, or at least as much as he can without letting his eyes drift below my shoulders. “Fine. He thinks that because half of Heaven thinks the same thing the last I heard.”
“Because whenever there’s a nephilim, someone had to make it and gossip about a little angel-on-human action is a welcome distraction from the angel-on-angel violence that everyone knows is about to go down,” he says. “Tabloids have nothing on the angelic rumor mill. Don’t believe me? Then I suggest you get down on your knees and dial Gabriel. Otherwise, put your fucking clothes on and move your ass out the door.”
I stare at him for a long moment, trying to decide whether I believe him. Something tells me there’s more to the story, but I’m not getting it from him. “No,” I mutter, turning towards the bathroom. “I believe you.”
“I’m touched. If you’re not down in the lobby in two minutes, I’m coming after you.”
The door slams and I dress quickly. He means it.
I slip my hand into the pocket of my jeans and pull out the carefully folded letter from my mom. It hasn’t left my side the entire trip. Even when I’m sleeping, I keep it under my pillow. I turn to the last page and reread the address for the thousandth time. Maybe Samael and Gabriel won’t give me the answers I need, but I think I know someone who will.
“Here it is.” Sam’s announcement is followed immediately by the car veering off the road. I’m still a but gun shy after nearly colliding with all those trees, and I grip the door handle.
“Dammit, Sam! I scold. It’s been a day since we got back on the road and he’s gone from grumpy to downright manic.
“Chill out,” he says, getting out of the car. I follow him reluctantly, but no amount of scanning my surroundings reveals why we stopped here. We’re smack dab in the middle of Kansas and it’s every bit as riveting as I imagined. Just miles and miles of flat green farmland.
He jogs up ahead of the car towards the edge of the road where the grass becomes tall and thick. He steps into it and I wait by the road. I’m not sure if Kansas has any venomous snakes, but if it does, this is where they’d live.
“Come on,” he calls. When I don’t, he turns to give me an exasperated look and beckons. “Just trust me.”
“You won’t give me a single honest answer and I’m supposed to trust you?
He sighs and stalks back to the road. This time he grabs my hand and pulls me with him. “You know, I didn’t lose everything in the Fall. I’m still a man of my word.”
“Is that so?” I ask, struggling to keep up with him while checking the grass before each step. I guess he finally gets tired of me slowing him down, because he scoops me into his arms and starts carrying me. “Hey!”
Before I have time to struggle too much, he stops and just looks around. He takes a deep breath and closes his eyes for a moment, like he’s taking in something truly special.
To my untrained eye, there’s absolutely nothing remarkable about this particular chunk of land except maybe how unremarkable it manages to be. It’s beautiful in the same way that all the other hundreds of miles of indistinguishable farmland we’ve driven has been beautiful. After a day and a half of staring out the window and seeing the same thing, I’m immune to the charms of beautiful.
The sight that’s keeping me silent is him. The serene look on his face marks the first time I’ve seen it unmarred by a smirk or a snarl. The wind rustles in his dark hair and the ghost of a smile plays at his lips. For a moment, it’s almost easy to forget that he’s a demon and I’m a monster. For a moment, I’m just a girl looking at a guy who makes her feel things she doesn’t understand. Terrible things and wonderful things, and everything in between.
There are as many shades of feelings when I’m with him as there are shades of green in his eyes. He opens them, ever intent on convincing me he’s a mind reader, and smiles. Not a smirk or a grin or a faint little quiver, but a real smile that makes my stomach flip and my chest clench so hard it almost hurts. He puts me down, but my arms linger around his neck.
“Why did you bring me here?” I finally remember how to speak. To my relief, my voice doesn’t crack like I’m sure it will.
“This,” he says, casting a glance around us that gives me just enough time to compose myself, “is a very special place to me.”
Once again, I search the grassy expanse for any sign of something notable. “Why?”
“It’s where I fell,” he says, stepping away from me to take a few steps forward. He leans down running his hand over the grass. I can barely see it now, but there’s a slight dip in the otherwise flat field. The grass camouflages it well. “You can’t really see it now, but I left quite the impression on this hunk of rock.”
“You mean you literally fell?” I balk, looking up at the dusky sky. “From up there?”
“Sure did,” he says, taking my hand. Before I can protest, he falls back and pulls me with him. With a cry of surprise I land on top of him, my hair falling around us like a curtain. He rolls me over so I’m on my back, staring up at the yellow-and-orange-streaked sky.
“The view’s a lot different from down here,” he says.
I frown, looking harder at the last traces of the sun. If I don’t focus, I can almost see the shadows of angels appearing behind the clouds and it takes concentration to keep them away.
“I don’t understand,” I say after a moment.
“You don’t understand what?”
“Why you fell,” I clarify. It might not be the answer to the burning question in my mind about Gabriel, but I’m determined to get something out of him. “It’s been bothering me ever since what Luriel said, about you being a loyal angel. Why would you throw that away for this?” I gesture around us. “Being Gabriel’s ‘errand boy?’”
“I can go there,” I mutter. “I’m the express delivery, remember?”
“Careful, Sam. Wouldn’t want to pop a blood vessel from all that candor.”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
He sighs heavily, keeping his eyes fixed on the sky. He stares at it for so long I’m convinced he isn’t going to answer. “I didn’t fall for the same reasons the others did. It wasn’t rebellion.”
“Rebellion against God?” I’ve never put much stock into whether there was one or not. It shouldn’t seem like such a crazy idea now that I know angels and demons are real, but it is. I can sort of compartmentalize them as alien life forms, but God?
He snorts. “He’s not as involved in all of this as you’d think.”
“But you’ve met Him, right?” My curiosity has been piqued all of a sudden.
He shrugs. “Can you meet a river? Or a volcano? Because if yes, then we all have in one way or another. And no, I wasn’t rebelling against God, I was rebelling against the Divine Order and the two haven’t been the same for longer than I can remember.”
“Oh,” I say slowly. I think maybe I’ve had enough answers for a lifetime, but I press on. “Then why?”
He’s silent again. “Remember when I said it was complicated?”
“I didn’t so much fall as jump trying to save someone who did.”
“What? Then why are you a demon?” I cry. “How could they punish you for trying to rescue someone?”
The corner of his lip twitches. “Being a hero doesn’t always get you in the paper, kid. Saving someone can be just about the worst crime you can commit, depending on who it is.”
“That’s bullshit,” I blurt out, feeling my blood pressure rise. If I’m capable of what everyone says, I can understand why the angels are coming after me, but this is just an injustice.
“I don’t know about that. You wouldn’t call the guy who willingly took a bullet for Stalin a hero.”
“That’s not what happened.”
He cocks an eyebrow. “You sound so sure.”
“Because an angel like you would never become a demon for a monster,” I say with enough confidence to surprise the both of us.
He props himself up on his elbow and watches me for a moment. “You don’t even know me.”
“I know you’ve risked your life for me,” I say, rising to meet him. I only realize that I’ve brought our faces inches apart when it’s too late to pull away. My voice hitches as I add, “I know you’ve killed your own kind to protect me. I know you’ve kept your word when it would have been easier to just walk away.”
His hand rests against my neck and my quickened pulse betrays me. My face grows warm to seal the deal. “Stupid kid. Can’t even follow a single piece of advice.”
He smirks at my confusion. “I warned you not to trust me. Not to get attached.”
My face grows hotter. “Don’t flatter yourself. Just because I don’t think you’re evil doesn’t mean any of that..”
“That so?” He leans a bit closer, his lips parted as his gaze falls on mine.
All I can do is let out a quivering breath as my eyes fall shut. I can feel his breath on me, cool and soft. It teases my lips in anticipation as his hover an unknown distance from mine. I’ve had two imminent kisses in the past week, but this is so much different. The fear is still there, but it’s different than how I felt when Brent was about to kiss me. There’s electricity in the negligible space between us, and I can’t seem to remember how to get air to go into my lungs. It’s never been something I had to work on.
The sound of his chuckle breaks me out of my trance. When I open my eyes, he’s pulled away and he’s starting to stand. “That’s what I thought.”
I stare at him in bewilderment as he offers his hand and pulls me to my feet without waiting for him to take it. I stumble forward, not quite prepared to use my shaking legs.
“You’re a jerk.” It’s the best insult I can come up with in my flustered state.
He laughs and walks on ahead. “And you’re a schoolgirl with a crush on a demon.”
“I don’t have a crush on you!” I yell, abandoning my former caution in an attempt to catch up with him.
“You were going to let me kiss you.”
Damn Kansas farmlands and their lack of giant rocks to crawl under. “You were trying to distract me so I wouldn’t keep asking question.”
“There’s that honor student brain at work.”
“Who was it?” I ask, finally falling into stride with him. I have a bad feeling it’s only because he let me. “It’s the one Gabriel is holding over your head, isn’t it?”
Whoever it is must be important. Not just in the scheme of things, but to him. The idea that it might be a lover he’s trying to rescue flashes through my mind only briefly before jealousy and other irrational emotions chase it out.
He’s right. I’m not myself. I don’t get crushes, nevermind on demons. All my rationality has gone out the window.
“It doesn’t matter who it is,” he says. “All that matters is that I’m gonna get you to Gabriel safe and sound. After that, you’re never going to hear from me again.”
I stop walking, caught off guard by his words. He turns around a few feet away from the car and I must be doing a worse job of hiding my feelings than I’d hoped, because his expression softens. “It’s for your own good, Jordan, not mine,” he says in a kind voice I’ve never heard before. “Consider it a belated birthday present.”
I look up from my slushie just in time to see Sam’s keys hurling towards my face. “Ow!” I cry as one of them hits me just inches away from my eye. “What are you trying to do, blind me?”
He winces. “Sorry. I don’t know why I keep expecting you to have good reflexes.”
“Well stop it or I won’t have to worry about the angels,” I say, picking the keys up off the ground. “What are these for?” He just came out from paying for a full tank of gas for the pickup we stole from a junkyard a few towns back.
“You’re driving,” he says, getting in the passenger side before I can question him.
“Excuse me?” I say, leaning in the window.
“I thought it would cheer you up.”
I stare at him. One moment he seems intent on crushing whatever slightly good mood I’m in and the next he’s trying to cheer me up. Of course, it makes sense if he just enjoys building me up to take me down. That seems like a demon hobby if ever there was one.
I get in the truck and start it up, relieved that it’s an automatic. The last thing I need is to humiliate myself in front of him by trying to drive stick.
He turns the radio on and finds another rock station, of course. Everything else is country, so I guess it’s the better option.
“Why are you in such a good mood?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Because you’re you.”
He rolls his eyes. “If you must know, I’m expecting a call.”
“A call?” It takes me a moment to remember Gabriel’s promise the day Sam kidnapped me. I guess now I can admit it was a rescue, after all. “Oh, right. That’s what Bo was asking about.”
“Gabriel keeps putting it off,” he says like that’s no surprise.
“He doesn’t keep his word very often, does he?”
“He’s an angel. Comes with the territory.”
“That’s disheartening,” I say, putting down the visor to block out the intense afternoon sun. “Were they always so…”
“Petty? Unreliable? Prone to childish bickering with apocalyptic consequences?” he offers.
“For as long as I can remember,” he says, stretching out his long legs in the limited space of the cab. “And that’s a pretty damn long time.”
It’s easy to forget sometimes. He doesn’t exactly act his age. “Why? Don’t they care that people depend on them?”
“When you get right down to it, angels and humans might be made of the same stuff but they used the same blueprints,” he says, letting his hand dangle out the window. “When there’s a vacuum in leadership, the wrong people step up and the rest follow suit.”
“How can they not have a leader?
“Let me rephrase. It’s not so much a lack of leaders as an excess of them,” he says. “The four archangels supposedly run things on equal footing, but there are factions that want each of them to take over exclusively.”
“Archangels? You mean like Gabriel?”
“He’s one of them. Then there’s Michael, Raph and Uriel. Gabe is the people’s choice, but Michael is the defacto leader and he has been ever since he cast Satan out,” he sighs. “Then there’s Uriel. He’s the dark horse, but his cult’s been getting more popular these days.”
“That sounds like chaos.”
“All the ingredients are there,” he admits.
“Why hasn’t someone made a move to take over, then?”
He shrugs. “It’s kind of like the Cold War. Nobody wants to be the one to make the first move.”
“But having the ultimate weapon certainly wouldn’t hurt,” I mutter. “Is that the real reason Gabriel is trying to protect me? I’m his celestial trump card?”
He casts a wary look at me from the side and I can tell he regrets telling me so much, but it’s too late. Now the wheels are turning. “Look, of all the angels whose hands you could have fallen into, Gabriel is by far the most benign.”
“For one, he actually still gives a shit about humans. The others would just see this planet as collateral damage.”
“And what do you see it as?”
He frowns. “Jordan --”
“I mean it. I want to know.”
His head falls back against the rest and he stares up at the ceiling for a few seconds. “At this point, it’s the closest thing to home I’ve got. I’m not the only demon who feels that way.”
“But it might be,” I remind him, “if the angels go to war. Your family. You really trust some guy who can’t even keep his word about a phone call to stop that from happening?”
“What do you want me to do, Jordan? Put on a cape and run off to save Gotham?”
“It would be a start,” I say, gripping the wheel. “You’re capable of all these amazing things, things you’re way better at than pretending to be cold and heartless. And I know you still care about the angels, otherwise you wouldn’t have tried so hard to spare Luriel.”
“I owed her lover a favor and that debt has been repaid,” he says in a dry tone. “Your idealism is showing.”
“I’d rather be an idealist than a cynical mercenary who’s just willing to hand over the deadliest weapon in the universe to the highest bidder.”
“Spoken like a sixteen-year-old.”
I’m about to argue when the radio static interrupts us. I cringe and will the shitty ballad I was lamenting moments ago to come back on, but no dice. Sam leans forward and fiddles with the dial until the 11:11 display on the screen becomes clearer. “Gabriel?”
A woman’s garbled voice comes through moments later, dashing his hopes. I struggle to keep my attention on the road. “Should I pull over?”
“No, just keep your eyes on the road,” he says gruffly, leaning over the radio. “Hello? Who is this?”
“…this… Hanael…” The voice isn’t as garbled this time. “Is that you, Samael?”
I glance over just long enough to see his brow furrow in confusion. “Yeah, it’s me. What the fuck are you doing on this signal?”
“Gabriel asked me to contact you,” she says in a silken voice not unlike Gabriel’s. “He is indisposed at the moment.”
“Indisposed? Where the fuck is he, Hanael?”
“That information is classified,” she says calmly.
“Of fucking course it is,” he says through gritted teeth.
“Is the nephilim with you?”
“That information is classified,” he says, mimicking her soft tone.
It’s hard to tell through he static, but I think she sighed. “There’s been a delay in regard to your brother’s call.”
I look to Sam for answers but he’s forgotten I’m even here. “What kind of delay? I’m getting tired of his bullshit.”
“I understand your frustrations, and we appreciate your patience,” she says with the expert composure of a customer service rep. “I can personally assure you that your brother is doing well.”
“I don’t give a shit about your personal assurance,” he snaps. “How do I know you even have his permission to be doing this?”
“Rex Iliath Exprithanha,” she says slowly. I don’t have a clue what the words mean, but Sam obviously does.
“Okay, so he gave you the password. Color me impressed. Where is he?”
This time she clearly sighs. “There has been an incident.”
“An incident? Are we talking cleanup in aisle three level incident or possibly the beginning of World Wars three to infinity?”
“Um. The latter? I’m really not supposed to be talking about this with you,” she says, lowering her voice to an almost impossible-to-hear-whisper. “You fell.”
“Yeah, I know. I was there. What’s going on?”
She hesitates and, to my disbelief, she continues with, “Luriel has been killed. Uriel’s followers have accused Michael and there’s talk of an uprising.”
My eyes widen as I piece her words together. I’m about to say something when Sam silences me with a frigid look and a finger to his lips.
“Luriel?” It’s unsettling how easily he feigns disbelief. Then again, Hanael doesn’t seem hard to convince. “Shit. How do they know it was Michael?”
“It’s no secret whose side she was on,” she says, her voice quivering in sadness. “Uriel and his followers need little ammunition. Besides, who else could it have been?”
“Good question,” he mutters, combing a hand through his hair. Sweat beads on his forehead. “How’s Gadreel holding up?”
“He isn’t. He’s publicly sided with Uriel now. Samael, I wish you were with us,” she blurts out. “War has been inevitable for so long, but for it to finally come is another thing entirely. I haven’t seen such chaos among our brothers since the Fall.”
“I know,” he says, clearing his throat. The fact that he won’t look at me is proof it’s just a cover for the emotion he seems determined to convince me he doesn’t feel, for some reason. “It’ll be alright, Han. Just do what Gabriel tells you, he’ll keep you safe.”
“It is not for my safety that I fear, Samael,” she says. A long pause follows and Sam reaches for the dial to fix it before she comes back. “I fear what this conflict will do to our family, especially now that there is a way to decisive victory. Please consider --”
“No,” he says sharply, like he’s afraid she’ll say something he doesn’t want me to hear. She’s already said enough. “It’s too late for that. You swear he’s alright? You’ve seen him with your own eyes?”
“I swear it, but --”
“Good enough for me. Tell Gabriel to call the second he gets back.” He punches the dial and the car falls silent.
“She talked for too long as it is. Someone could have intercepted the signal.”
“Don’t pretend like that’s why,” I hiss. “You’re just afraid she’ll say something that makes it more inconvenient to sell out your own kind.”
“My own kind?” he scoffs.
“You might have traded in your wings, but you're still an angel, Sam. I know it, Hanael knows it and deep down even you --”
“I’m a demon,” he says in a rumbling voice that makes goosebumps appear on my arms. “Heaven can rip itself apart and earth, too, for all I care. I left any responsibility for their mess behind when I fell. The only, and I mean only person I give a shit about is going to be free as soon as I get you to Gabriel.”
I clench the wheel and try to blink away the moisture in my eyes to no avail. When he’s not looking, I swipe at a traitorous tear that sneaks its way onto my cheek. “Your brother.”
“I don’t have siblings,” I say, with a strangled laugh. “Or who knows, maybe I do. But I know what it’s like to lose someone you love and for it to hurt so much, you’d do anything to get them back, but this is too far, Sam.” Gabriel’s psychic wall still keeps me from dwelling on “what happened,” but it doesn’t stop the pain.
“You don’t understand,” he says, staring out the window. “You’re just a kid.”
“A kid who’s capable of destroying the world,” I remind him. “And you’re about to hand me over to someone who used us both to kill his own kind and start a civil war. He set you up to kill Luriel.”
“Don’t pretend like you knew. I saw how it affected you, don’t pretend like you don’t care that he used you.”
“I’m not pretending because as long as I get what I want, it doesn’t matter. Now pull over, we’re never gonna make it to Washington with you driving.”
I follow his command, fuming as I brush past him on my way to switch sides. I put on my seat belt and this time I’m the one who turns on the radio to fill the silence between us. I’d argue more, but I know there’s no point. His mind was made up before we even met.
Anyway, I don’t want to pass what little time we have left together with fighting. If the plan forming in the back of my mind goes well, there’ll be less of it than he thinks.
“You sure you don’t want anything to eat?” Sam asks as he leads me into the rest stop food court. It’s been almost a full day since Hanael called and his mood is once again on the upswing. All I have to do is remind myself that he’s probably in that good mood because he’s so close to handing me over to an angel who’s quite possibly going to use me to win World War III. We’re well into Idaho and this rest stop is the first sign of civilization I’ve seen the whole day.
Today is the day. I’ve been biding my time, waiting for the perfect opportunity to give him the slip. I know for a fact I won’t get another. We’re never going to be this close to Smithfield again, the place where my birth mother lived, according to mom’s letter. I’ve built some semblance of trust with Samael, but that’s all going to dissolve as soon as he realizes I’m gone, which I’m hoping won’t be until I’m well on the road.
“Yeah, the crackers I had earlier aren’t sitting well with me,” I say. I’ve been playing sick all day and I’m starting to feel it. “I’ll just find a table while you get the food.”
He looks between me and the numerous neon signs beckoning him. “Are you sure? We can leave if you’re not up for food.”
“The last thing I want to do is get back in the car.” I look up sharply, like I just remembered something. “Actually, I have some anti-nausea pills in my bag in the car. Can I have the keys?”
He starts to reach for them, then falters. “I’ll get them for you.”
“I don’t want you going through my bag,” I say, panicking. I wasn’t counting on Helpful Sam when I came up with my escape plan.
“Why not?” he asks, clearly suspicious. The Plan is quickly unraveling. I can manage half the countries in my school’s Model United Nations on my own, but I can’t even trick one lousy demon.
“Because it has private things in it.”
“Yeah, like what?”
I groan inwardly. “Like tampons.”
That does the trick. He grimaces like the word hurt him physically, but he recovers quicker than I would have liked. “I don't care about --” He cuts off when his phone rings and frowns as he stares at the ones flashing across the screen. “Hang on, I've gotta take this.”
I look around frantically, feeling my window close. As I look over towards the doors my gaze falls on a young man with golden blond hair and a familiar gray-and-blue beanie. I recognize it immediately because it’s identical to the one Tara made for Brent during her short-lived foray into the world of knitting. A crowd of tourists passes him and I strain to get a better look past them. “Brent?”
“What?” Sam mouths, still holding the phone to his ear. It’s Bo’s voice on the other line and I can barely make out the word “Israel.” At least, I think that’s what he said.
“Nothing,” I say, biting my lip. I press a hand against my stomach and do my best to look like violent illness is impending while holding out my other hand for his keys. “Please?”
He rolls his eyes and drops the keys into my hands. “Yeah, no, I’m listening. Well, no shit he’s taking human form. Giants with four faces and a shit ton of wings don’t exactly blend in.”
Suddenly I don’t have to fake the nausea.
“Come right back,” Sam says, pointing hard at the floor. I’m getting better at reading his lips than his words. I nod a promise I have no intention of keeping and scurry off towards the doors. Of course the guy who looks like Brent is gone and I can’t see him anywhere in the lobby. Not that it matters. Brent is dead, beyond a shadow of a doubt. Incinerated, according to the fire marshal.
Besides, Tara probably didn’t even make that hat. She probably lied and bought it off Etsy. Either way, I’m not about to let exhaustion-induced hallucination deprive me of what’s probably my only chance at escape.
To my amazement, I make it to the car with no sign of Sam behind me. My hands are shaking so badly that I drop the keys, but when the engine finally roars to life, it seems too good to be true.
I still don’t let out the breath I’ve been holding until I’m out of the parking lot. I feel a pang of guilt for what I’m doing, and reminding myself that this all started out as a kidnapping does little to help. At least this car was already stolen when I stole it. That has to count for something.
I’ve been on the road a solid five minutes before the familiar sound of my ringtone fills the car. I jump a little, half expecting Sam to pop up in the passenger’s seat. After all, I’m sure I’ve only scraped the surface of his creepy demon powers.
It takes me a minute to realize that the sound is coming from a relatively hidden compartment in the center console.
So that’s where he’s been hiding my phone. Looks like he kept it charged, too.
My hand is still shaking when I pick up the phone and I’m embarrassed by my surprise when I see that it’s just a normal number rather than 666. I debate over whether I should even answer for a moment before I decide that it’s probably better if he doesn’t think I’ve been kidnapped.
I put my phone on speaker and set it in the cup holder before accepting the call. Safety first and all that.
“I trusted you,” he says before I can even utter a hello.
“You can’t trust anyone,” I say, echoing his words.
“Now isn’t the time to get cute with me Where. Are. You?”
“On my way to get answers?” It comes out like the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question I’m not half sure about.
“You have five seconds to give me an answer, Jordan.”
Jordan? Well, shit. I don’t even need a full hand to count the number of times he’s called me by my name.
“I’m serious. I need to know who Gabriel is to me and if you won’t give me the answer, I know who will.” I regret the words before they’re out of my mouth, but it doesn’t matter. Even he can’t figure out the address from such a vague clue.
He’s silent for a long time and I actually glance at the phone to make sure he didn’t hang up. “You mean your mom.” His tone is completely flat.
‘ “My birth mother,” I correct.
“You really think now is the best time to run off on a journey of self-exploration? Do you have any idea who’s out there looking for you right now?”
“No, you don’t tell me anything, remember?”
“His name is Azrael and if if he finds you, you’re dead.”
“He can’t be any worse than all the other angels who want me dead.”
The phone crackles with the force of the breath he lets out to summon his patience. “Azrael isn’t just an angel, he’s a weapon like you and trust me when I say that pure destructive force is the only thing you two have in common. Whoever sent him wants to make sure that if they can’t find you, no one can. When he finds you—when, not if—he won’t hesitate. You won’t be alive long enough to use the puppy dog eyes and when he’s done with you, there won’t be a pair of atoms from what used to be your body left within a hundred miles of each other.”
Puppy dog eyes?
He does paint a vivid picture, though.
“There’s nothing left for me here, Sam. If this Azrael guy kills me, then fine. At least he won’t be able to use me as a nuclear warhead,” I mutter. “But I’m going to get answers first.”
“And how many people do you think you’ll take out in the process when Azrael kills you? If you won’t listen to reason, at least think about the death toll you left in Twin Pines.”
His words hit their mark, maybe a bit closer than he intended. I take a moment to be sure I can control the words that leave my mouth. “I guess it’s a good thing my birth mother isn’t a city girl.”
The phone’s GPS says her house is pretty much in the middle of nowhere and I don’t intend to be there long enough to put her in danger either.
"Jordan, you know I didn't mean --"
“You meant it,” I say. “And it’s the truth. My parents, my friends and all those other people are dead because of me, and I have to know why. Goodbye, Samael. I’ll do my best to get obliterated in a scenic area.”
I hang up, letting out a long breath before he can talk me into turning around. I’m already more than halfway there. I’ve already come this far and I can’t walk away empty handed. I’ve already failed my parents in so many ways, the least I can do is understand why this woman cursed with a thing like me.
I also have to know whether Gabriel’s reasons for keeping me safe are really to protect him or to protect himself. Part of me is hoping that my birth mother can put my suspicions at ease. Spending eternity floating in a cloud prison under Gabriel’s watchful eye isn’t my idea of Heaven, but it beats getting destroyed by some angel with roid rage.
That and it would mean I’d get to see Samael again. I hate myself for wanting that. He’s made it perfectly clear that I’m just the means to an end for him.
The GPS takes me ever deeper into the endless fields of corn that make up Idaho’s landscape. The verdant stalks sway in the sunset with hypnotic coordination. If it weren’t for the GPS, I would have missed the dirt road leading to the little white farmhouse entirely. From the road, a hanging scarecrow is the only thing that marks the house in the midst of all the stalks.
There’s an old blue pickup in the driveway, but the rusted engine on the hood tells me that it hasn’t been used in quite some time. I brace myself and reach into the back, rummaging through Sam’s bag. His chain is missing—come to think of it, I haven’t seen it at all since his fight with Luriel—but there’s a small knife inside, which I slip into my jacket just in case. I don’t know the first thing about how to use one in a fight, and I’m sure it wouldn’t be any more useful against an angel than a toothpick, but it might deter any human trouble I encounter.
Armed with a small amount of security, I move through the overgrown yard and try to rally some hope that someone still lives here. So far it seems like it’s just me and the scarecrow. Just because this was her address whenever mom heard from her last doesn’t mean she still lives here. Or anywhere.
I take a deep breath and knock twice on the door. When no one answers immediately, I glance around the side of the house. There’s a sandbox that’s long since turned muddy and a swing set with one of the seats dropped out. A small bike sits turned over in the grass and a few toys line the edge of the porch railing.
Children lived here at one point and the idea that I might have brothers or sisters out there somewhere makes the abandoned farmhouse an even more surreal setting. I knock again, but when the door swings open almost immediately, I jump in surprise.
There’s a woman standing in the door, her dark brown hair kept back in a loose braid that falls over her shoulder. Her soft features are set in confusion as she looks me over, but her eyes, framed in soft lines, are undeniably familiar.
As we stand there staring at each other for what feels like forever, I struggle for what to say. I realize only then that I wasn’t prepared for anyone to open that door, let alone her. Before I can come up with a way to explain who I am and what I’m doing here, she reaches out and takes me into her arms.
Her embrace is fragile but warm, almost like she’s afraid she’ll crumble if she holds me any harder. “It’s you. It’s really you,” she whispers into my ear.
“You know who I am?”
“Of course I do,” she says, pulling away to stroke my hair. “You’re Jordan. You’re my daughter.”
I stare at her, processing the fact that she knows my name. My hand rests on her arm and I jerk it back in surprise at how cold she is to the touch. She pulls her shall closer around her shoulders and pushes the door open.
“Please,” she says, clutching the locket at her chest, “come in, it’s freezing out there.”
It really isn’t, but I’m not about to argue. I hesitate only a moment before obeying and stepping inside the house. It might only be a bit nippy outside, but it really is colder in here. I can see the a faint cloud every time I breathe. The house is dark, lit only by kerosine lamps and candles that barely illuminate the parlor.
It’s tidy to the point of obsession. The throw pillows and doilies lining the couch and chairs are arranged precisely and not a book on the shelf by the fireplace is out of place, and yet a thick layer of dust covers everything. It’s a space full of contradiction.
“Have a seat,” she says, motioning to the couch. “Forgive the mess, I don’t get company often. You’ll have to excuse the lights, too. We had an outage.”
I saw a few houses on the way with power, but they were so few and far between that I guess it would be possible for there to be an outage in a local area. Still, something about the way she doesn’t meet my eyes makes me think she’s lying.
I guess I would lie too if my power had gotten shut off because I couldn’t pay the electric bill. The house itself is lovely, but it’s fallen into such disrepair that it’s a shock anyone lives here at all. Her clothes are no different. They’re well made—maybe even handmade—but they’re dated. The only thing that looks new is the silver locket around her neck.
“So,” she says, sitting across from me with her pale hands folded in her lap. “What made you decide to come see me? Did your parents tell you where I was?”
“Um, sort of,” I begin carefully. “They actually both passed away very recently.”
She listens quietly, her mouth slightly open.
“It was a fire,” I explain, tucking my hair behind my ear. It’s the first time I’ve had to tell someone. I always thought it would be painful, but it just feels awkward. Like I’m telling a lie. There’s still part of me that remains convinced that one day I’m going to go home and walk through the front door and they’ll be there. That dad will be in his chair watching the evening news and mom will be fussing with her hair in the hallway mirror, getting ready for one of her social clubs.
“Oh,” she says knowingly. “I’m so sorry to hear that. They were wonderful people.”
Her consolation seems sincere but stiff, like she doesn’t know how to navigate this conversation any more than I do. “Thanks. You knew them well?”
She shakes her head. “Only your mother. She and I kept in touch for a bit when you were little. She sent me pictures sometimes,” she says with a distant smile. “You were such a pretty little girl. Now you’re a beautiful young woman. You must have all the boys eating out of your hand.”
“Not exactly,” I say. Her words seem almost mechanical, like she’s drawing them from a phrase bank.
“No? The girls, then?”
I laugh nervously. “No, not them either. There was a guy who wanted to be my boyfriend, I guess, but it didn’t work out.”
“Why not?” she asks, frowning.
I wet my lips. They’ve gone dry in the cold air. “Mostly because he died, I guess.” It’s a lie, but it seems unnecessary to go into my lack of chemistry with my deceased best friend. That and her interest in the subject is starting to creep me out. “I actually came here because I was hoping you could answer a question for me. I don’t want to trouble you.”
“But it’s no trouble,” she says, leaning forward. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
I blink at her. “How did you know I was coming?”
“I didn’t,” she says quickly, standing. “I just meant that when I told your mother she could give you my information when you were older, I hoped you would come.”
My phone rings again and I switch it to silent. I don’t even need to look at it to know it’s Sam. After all, everyone else who has my number is dead.
“Can I get you something to drink?” she offers sweetly.
I want to say no, but my mouth is bone dry. “Sure, thanks. Anything is fine.”
When she returns with a dusty can of a soda I’ve never even heard of before, I regret my decision. At least it’s sealed, but it’s still completely flat. “Thanks,” I say, coughing a little as I swallow it.
She smiles and glances up at the dark stairwell. She keeps doing that.
“Is there someone else here?” I ask warily, running my fingers over the long silhouette of the knife inside my jacket.
“No reason.” The sooner I get out of here, the better. Like all adopted kids, I’ve had my share of fantasies about what it would be like to meet my birth mother. None of them went like this.
“What was it you wanted to ask me, Jordan?”
"Right." I set the can down on the coffee table. I can barely make out that it's glass through the thick layer of dust clinging to it. "I know this is incredibly personal, and I wouldn't ask if it wasn't really important, but --”
“You want to know who your real father is,” she says with clarity in her voice and eyes for the first time since I met her. I was beginning to suspect that drugs had a part to play in her strange behavior, but now I’m starting to think she’s just mentally ill. My heart clenches at the thought of her living here by herself, alone and confused.
“Yes,” I say in a thick voice. The words that have to come out of my mouth next fill me with guilt now that I’m reasonably sure they’ll just compromise her fragile mental state even more, but I don’t have a choice. “I know there’s a chance that he isn’t… human.”
Even under these circumstances, it sounds absurd when I say it out loud. Now she’s going to think I’m the crazy one.
“Oh, no,” she says casually. “He’s an angel. A very powerful one.”
She sounds almost proud.
“Then you can tell me who he is?” I have to drag the question out of my own mouth kicking and screaming. “You know his name?”
“Mhm,” she says, leaning against the wall. She pulls something out of her collar and fondles it while she stares off longingly. “He was so handsome when I met him. Tall, blond hair and the kindest blue eyes. They could see right through you, like he was looking into your soul. I guess we have the same type.”
I frown. “Type?”
“Your Brent,” she says.
“I never told you what he looked like,” I say, standing slowly. “Or his name.”
“No?” She frowns. “Oh. Well, your mother must have in one of her letters.”
I nod faintly, keeping the door in the corner of my eye. She glances up at the stairs again. I slip the phone from my pocket and pretend to have just noticed the missed calls. “Oh wow, I’m really sorry but my social worker just called and she freaks out if I don’t check in right away. Do you mind if I take this?”
“Of course not,” she says. “You’ll get better reception on the porch.”
“Thanks,” I say, wasting no time on my exit. As soon as the autumn air hits my lungs, I feel better. The house isn’t just cold, it’s dry, like all the oxygen has been sucked out of the air. I call Sam’s number, more than eager to call him in for backup. Even though it’s probably nothing that can’t be explained by whatever becoming an angel’s baby mama did to her brain, and even though he’s probably going to kill me, the fact remains that I haven’t felt safe since I left him. As much as I hate it, and as much as he doesn’t want it to be true, he’s the only one I can trust.
The phone crackles, making it hard to hear the ring. Abigail wasn’t kidding about the bad reception. His voice is mangled when he picks up, but I can still tell that he’s angry. My heart swells with relief at the sound of it.
“Sam,” I breathe. “I need you to come get me. I found Abigail, but things are getting weird.”
I can barely make out, “Where are you?” and, “Tracing.”
“It’s a white farmhouse in the middle of about a million miles of corn,” I say. “Eleven Boone Court in Seekersville.” As soon as I begin saying the address, the static roars. I can barely hear Sam yelling in the background before the call ends.
I stare down at my phone as the display flickers. It blinks a few times before the screen pixelates and it goes completely dead, despite the fact that the battery is half full. It’s never done that, not even that time I couldn’t be bothered to update the operating system for six months.
I look back at the house, then at the car and slowly make my way towards it. My stomach starts doing an acrobatics routine when I remember what Sam sad about angels and electronics.
Unfortunately, the car is automatic. Praying seems ill advised at the moment since you never know who’s listening, so I decide to just focus intently on willing the car to start.
I breathe a small sigh of relief when the engine roars to life, but my relief is short lived when every electronic system in the car springs to life. All my warning lights flicker wildly, the radio turns on blasting the country rock station Sam was listening to last, and the alarm cuts through the silent fields with rhythmic shrieks.
I pull the keys out of the ignition and stumble out of the car, looking around for signs that I’m being visited. I can’t help but wonder if all those UFO sightings rednecks talk about are really close encounters of the angelic kind.
The house is an undesirable sanctuary, but it seems safer to hide out there and hope that Sam heard enough to come find me than waiting for an angel to swoop down and pick me up like a hawk dropping down on a rabbit.
When I open the door, Abigail is still leaning against the wall, but she isn’t alone. A blond head peaks out above a high-backed chair next to the fireplace.
“You’re back,” she says pleasantly. “Did you make your call?”
I freeze with my hand on the doorknob. “Abigail,” I begin slowly, “Who is that?”
“My house guest,” she says with a distant smile. “I believe you two know each other already.”
“No,” I breathe, jolting when the doorknob slips from my grasp and the door slams behind me. Not Gabriel.
The man rises slowly and when he turns around, all the blood drains from my face and hands until my skin matches the temperature of the icy room.
“Hey, Jordan,” Brent says with a lopsided smile that’s all his own, except for the blank eyes. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
The imposter’s face is a death mask. It’s identical to Brent’s right down to the bump on his nose from the time he kicked Timmy Doderidge’s ass for telling the entire football team that Tara let him get to second base—I’m still not even sure what that means, but those were fighting words in eighth grade. The eyes are the only part the angel didn’t get perfect. They’re the right shade of blue, but they seem flat somehow. Empty. It’s the only thing keeping me from running into his arms.
The impulse is harder to resist than it should be.
“You’re not Brent,” I all but whisper, more to myself than him.
“Of course I am,” he says, taking a step forward. I stumble back against the door. “I’ve hardly been gone for a week and you don’t recognize me?”
“No,” I murmur. “Brent is dead. He’s dead because of me, and I don’t know who you are, but you’re not him.”
“You were always so hard on yourself,” he says softly, now just a few feet away. I want to run, but it’s like the soles of my shoes have grown into the faded wood floor. He reaches out and I flinch, terrified that his touch is going to be as cold as Abigail’s, but it isn’t. His skin is warm, maybe even more than it was when he was alive, and his palm cups my cheeks with such gentleness that I dare to open my eyes. When his meet mine, they’re full of worry.
“You don’t really think I’d hurt you, do you?”
I open my mouth to reply but a dry, strangled syllable is all that will come out.
He takes my face in both hands and leans down, forcing me to look him in the eye. It’s almost impossible to do so. There’s something off about them. Something wrong.
“I didn’t come here to blame you for my death,” he says with a furrowed brow. “You know I’d never hurt you, Firebug.”
I take in a sharp breath. Firebug was my code name when we were kids. “Firebug, do you read me?” The garbled question through the walkie talkie hidden away in my nightstand drawer was how I woke up in the middle of many a school night. Sometimes he was calling to tell me about whatever scheme he’d cooked up to mess with his older brother. Other times he just wanted to to talk about nothing.
Over the years, as we became too old for spy games and traded our walkie talkies in for cell phones, it became a secret nickname, an inside joke made sacred by the passage of time. The older we got, the more sparingly he used it. I haven’t heard that name in years.
“It is you,” I breathe. “How?”
“So you’re hanging out with demons now, but it’s really so unbelievable that your best friend could come back from the dead?” His smirk is melting my lingering doubts. I struggle to hold onto them, but my loneliness and desperation for redemption, however small, his outweighing my ability to see this logically. I’m the moth and he’s the flame.
“I want to believe this is real,” I say. “I want to believe you’re really here, but I can’t.”
“Then ask me something only I could know,” he says, stepping back.
I hesitate. There are so many questions buzzing around in the back of my head, but I can’t quite grab onto one long enough to ask it.
Suddenly one comes to me.
“You called me Firebug,” I begin. “Why?”
He gives me a quizzical frown. “It was your call sign when we were kids. I gave it to you since you always liked catching the damn things so much.”
I force myself to hold off on the sigh of relief that wants to escape me. “And yours? What did I call you?”
The corner of his lip twitches in a slight grimace. “Trigger,” he mutters, slipping his hands into his pockets.
My heart skips. “Do you remember why that was your nickname?”
“Yeah, I remember. It’s from that summer when my idiot brother left his hunting chest unlocked and I got his gun,” he says. “I was playing army guy like a little dumbass and nearly blew my head off. Took out the ceiling light and broke three bones in my hand. You’d always warned me not to touch his gun, and you had your parents rush you to the hospital just so you could tell me you told me so.” His mouth curves into a faint smile. “Never let me live it down, either.”
“Brent,” I sob, throwing my arms around his neck. His wrap around me slowly, giving me a gentle squeeze. “Oh my God, I can’t believe it’s really you. You have no idea what’s happened.”
“It’s alright,” he says into my hair, stroking my back. “I’m here now, nothing else matters.”
“How?” I ask, pulling away enough to look at him. I look him up and down for any traces of how he died. “The medics were worried about identifying so many bodies burned beyond recognition, but you don’t even have a tan.”
“I was healed,” he says, taking my hand and leading me over to a chair. Abigail is still waiting quietly with a vague look of contentment on her face. “Raised from Perdition, if you want to call it that.”
“Healed?” I ask, glancing between them. “By who?”
“By an angel.” He says it like it’s supposed to comfort me somehow.
“Brent, angels are psychotic,” I say slowly. There’s no easy way to break something like this, especially to someone who never believed in them in the first place. “At least, most of them are. They’re hunting me and whoever raised you from the dead is probably just trying to use you to get to me.”
“Psychotic?” He laughs. “My angel raised me from the dead and told me how to find you. What’s your demon done lately?”
“Saved my life, for one,” I say, sounding more defensive than I’d like. “You don’t understand. We’re not even safe talking here.”
“Of course we’re safe,” says Abigail, a frail looking hand pressed against her collarbone. “This house is protected.”
“By who?” I ask warily.
Her only answer is a slow smile that makes me uneasier than anything she’s said or done so far.
“Jordan,” Brent says, redirecting my attention with a squeeze of my hand. “You’ve been lied to. That’s what demons do, they lie. Samael is just using you to get what he wants.”
I pull my hand back. “How did you know his name?”
“The angel,” he says in that tone he uses when he realizes he’s caught in a lie. “He told me about everything. About the civil war, about the demons, about you.”
I flinch. “Then you know it’s my fault.”
“No,” he says firmly. “It’s not your fault, it’s the traitor’s. The angel who betrayed the most basic oath of his own kind by sleeping with a human, fathering an innocent child who couldn’t possibly know what she was capable of. None of that was your choice.”
I want to believe his words, or at least that he means them, but something inside of me is tugging me back. “They want to kill me, Brent. They want to use me in their war.”
“I know.” He takes a deep breath. “That’s why I’m here.”
“What? Brent, you’re human, even if you did come back from the dead. How are you going to stop a whole host of angels?”
“I’m not,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’m here to convince you to turn yourself in.”
I stare at him for a moment, searching his face for any signs that he’s joking. “Why?”
“You’re a ticking time bomb, Jordan.” The fact that his words so closely echo Sam’s makes me cringe. “What happened at the party will only happen again, but worse.”
“I know that. That’s why I’m going with Samael. He’s taking me somewhere I can’t hurt anyone,” I explain. “If I let the angels kill me, so many more people are going to get hurt.”
“Sometimes people have to die for the greater good,” he says gently.
The way he speaks so casually about my death hurts badly enough, but I decide there’s no way he understands the ramifications of what he’s saying.
“Thousands, maybe even millions of people will die, Brent.”
“And how many do you think will die if the demons get the upper hand once Heaven is thrown into chaos?” The edge in his voice takes me aback. He tries to recover, softening his tone, but it’s too late. “Dying isn’t what hurts, Jordan. It’s the anticipation. All you have to do is let him take you. You won’t even feel it and in an instant, your old body will be gone and your soul can be placed in a new one. You won’t be cursed anymore. You can be free with me, with Tara and your parents the way it should have been. Don’t you want that?”
“Of course I do,” I say, my voice quivering. “I want it so bad it hurts, but not at the cost of more lives. I’m not afraid to die.” The experience of barreling towards those trees taught me that. The memory is so fresh I can still feel my heart lurch with the acceleration of the car. “I’m afraid of hurting people. I’m afraid of not getting the answers before I do.”
“That’s why we’re here, isn’t it?” He stands, gesturing to the dreary house around us. He walks over to the mantel and puts his hands on Abigail’s shoulders. She reacts only with a vacant smile. “So you can get closure. Go on. Ask her.”
I hesitate. His hunger for my death isn’t the primary source of my unease. It’s something else I can’t quite put my finger on. “Abigail,” I begin carefully. The question is simple. Who is my father? I knew it would be hard to ask, but the words are caught in my throat as if it’s lined with glue. “You knew my father was an angel, didn’t you?” Better begin with something relatively innocuous.
“Yes,” she says, picking a bit of dust off her collar.
I gulp. “Your relationship. Was it – consensual?”
Her eyes meet mine and for a moment, she’s present. “Of course it was.”
“I’m sorry,” I say quickly. “I didn’t mean to imply otherwise, I just… I always wondered why you gave me up and I thought maybe –“
“No,” she says, not quite there again. “He was a lovely man. He came to me when I needed him most.”
“Go on,” Brent says impatiently. It’s hard to tell if he’s talking to her or to me. Either way, Abigail is clearly jarred.
I stand to put something between them. “Brent, I really think I should talk to Abigail alone.”
He looks between us like he wants to argue but his mouth sets into a stiff smile instead. “Sure. Sorry, I’m just worried that we don’t have long before your demon shows up,” he says, running a hand through his hair.
“It’s fine. This won’t take long, I promise.”
I wait until he’s up the stairs before taking Abigail’s arm and dragging her towards the door.
“Where are we going?” she asks, dragging her feet.
“Shh,” I plead, leading her towards the side door. “We have to get out of here, that’s not Brent.”
“Of course not,” she says with a musical little laugh. At least she’s letting me get the door. The next words out of her mouth make me freeze and I nearly stumble down the side steps. “That’s Azrael.”
I freeze on the last step. “Do you have any idea who he is?”
“He’s an angel,” she says matter-of-factly. “Like your father.”
It’s only sheer will that keeps me from getting sick in the tall grass. I have to keep it together until we can get off her property. The corn fields are our only hope.
“Hurry,” I whisper, pulling her towards the endless sea of green. I can only hope that the darkness and sheer monotony of the landscape work in our favor. We round the back of the house and a hoarse scream escapes me.
Brent is standing there, kneeling beside the sandbox with a plastic dump truck in his hand. He tilts the back and a decade of dirty sand pours out. He stands when he sees us and casually saunters over like he’s been waiting for us.
“What gave it away?” he asks, brushing the sand off his hands. His voice has dropped now and he looks older, even though his features are the same. “Was it the hair? The boy is ever so particular about its presentation.”
“No,” I say, moving to stand in front of Abigail even though my legs are quivering. He stops a few feet away, but I know there’s no point in running. Not now. “You got the hair right. You got almost everything right, Azrael.”
He squares his shoulders and his fists clench and release at his sides like he’s trying to get comfortable in a new suit that hasn’t yet been broken in. “What was it, then? Just to satisfy my curiosity.”
He speaks with an accent now. It’s faint and not one that I recognize.
“Your eyes,” I admit, taking a step back only to realize that Abigail is no longer behind me. “They’re not the same.”
“Ah,” he says with a knowing nod. He comes towards me again, ambling. “They truly are the window to the soul. I suppose that’s impossible to replicate, even for an angel.”
“That and you made another big mistake.”
He arches a brow. “Oh?”
“You were too nice,” I say with a stilted laugh. “You told me everything I wanted to hear. Forgiveness, comfort, reassurance. Brent was a lot of things, but he wasn’t a very nice person.”
“I see,” he muses. I get the feeling this is all academic for him and I’m just a curiosity. “You’ll have to forgive my clumsiness. I’m more accustomed to destroying humans than imitating them. Even though I have this vessel’s memories,” he says, looking down at his hands. Brent’s hands, at any rate. “There are certain bits and pieces that do not linger when the soul leaves.”
“Why are you doing this?” I demand. “You could have killed me at any time from the moment I pulled up. Why the charade? Why raise him from the dead just to kill me?”
“Killing you is no problem,” he says, reaching out. I flinch, but when I open my eyes, he’s just rolling a lock of my hair between his fingers. “But there are a few loose ends I need to pull together first.”
“Such as?” My voice hitches in my throat. My feet are frozen again, my knees locked in place. I can’t tell it it’s the result of some angelic enchantment or simple terror.
“Your bastard parentage for one thing.” He puts his hands on my shoulders and turns me to face Abigail. As she stands there like a mannequin, the wind buffets her insufficient dress. Any flash of light that was there before is fading fast. She’s just a paper doll in a paper gown. “I brought her back just for this occasion.”
My stomach churns in revulsion as he confirms my worst case scenario. “She’s dead?”
“Reanimated for a spell,” he says, squeezing my shoulders. “You should be grateful. Most people have to wait until they die to reunite with their dead loved ones. Not that you’ll be going to the same place.”
My hands ball into fists. Anger is rapidly overtaking fear, although I’m left with plenty of both. “You did this to her?”
“Of course not,” he scoffs. “She’s been gone for a long time, but there was just enough left to pull her back. Not that it didn’t take some artistry, mind you.”
The stark contrast between his brutish words and his gentle tone makes it impossible to tell if he’s being sarcastic. I get the feeling even he doesn’t know.
“You’re sick. Why go through all this? Why defile the dead and play with them like dolls when you could just take what you want?”
“Possessing a recent corpse is one thing,” he says calmly. “There was more dust than flesh to your mother, if you know what I mean.”
“She’s not my mother,” I hiss. “And she doesn’t deserve this. Let her go.”
“Gladly, once she talks.”
“What could she possibly --?” I fall silent when the last piece of this macabre puzzle falls into place. “Of course,” I murmur. “You don't know who my father is either.”
He leans in to whisper, “Clever girl.”
“Why can’t you just ask her?” I spin around. He won’t look at me all of a sudden. “You can’t, can you?”
“Whoever it is was clever enough to cover his tracks,” he says, glancing at her. “Like father like daughter, I suppose. She’s barely a shell and yet the binding he placed on her mind won’t crack even after all these years.”
I cover my mouth to stifle a gasp. “He did this? He made her like this?”
“She was already fragile. I’m sure the neurological rewiring didn’t help matters. Maybe that’s why she offed herself,” he muses.
Bile rises in my throat. “If she can’t tell you who he is, then why leave her like this? Just to torture me?”
“Hardly.” If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was offended. “I’m not cruel, not needlessly. In fact, if this had all gone according to plan, you would have had a nice little chat with your mother, gotten your closure in the process of giving me the answer I need, and then I would have given you a good death. Not a peaceful one, granted, but instant. In the middle of nowhere, no less. That’s what you want to die, isn’t it? The casualties would be negligible.”
“I’d hardly call obliterating an entire town negligible.”
He shrugs. “An anthill looks larger to a mouse than a wolf, I suppose.”
“What makes you think she’ll tell me who my father is if he wiped her mind?” I ask, taking a step back.
“Because there’s always a weakness to any system,” he says, taking Abigail’s hand. He pulls her gently to his side. “No matter how hard you try, no matter how clever you are, there’s always something to exploit. Mind control is no different. You can wipe memories and put up psychic walls, but one little question asked in just the right way—by just the right person,” he adds, nodding to me, “can undo the whole thing.”
“You sound like you know a lot about mind control.”
His face splits into a grin. “I should. After all, I am a product of it.”
The stalks of corn bow low under the roaring wind, almost as if they know they’re in the presence of a god. I try not to look at them, to keep my gaze on the waning move that’s not nearly as far away as I would like. My feet ache as I strain to hold on to the wooden block beneath them. My arms are tied to the outstretched posts that once belonged to the scarecrow whose throne I’ve claimed, but it still feels like I’ll fall if my feet slip. I think that’s why he left them unbound.
I’ve always been afraid of heights, ever since I nearly slipped out of the harness of a roller coaster I was too small to go on. Tara talked me into it and the attendant spent so much time helping her into her harness that I guess he cut some corners with mine. Brent was there, of course.
I’m betting that’s the only reason I’m hanging up here now. Azrael is using his memories to scare me, and why not? No one knows me better. I dare a glance down to see the angel whispering something into Abigail’s ear. He places something in her hand before I realize that looking down is a mistake. The earth swoons.
“You doing alright up there?” He’s losing Brent’s voice and taking on a mild accent of his own. It’s almost British.
“I’m not helping you,” I yell, turning onto the wooden beam behind my head. The wood leaves splinters in my cheek, but I press myself against it for some semblance of stability. “It doesn’t matter how long you leave me up here.”
“Oh, I think you’ll change your tune when the birds start in on your eyes,” he says in a conversational tone.
It’s a reference to The Birds, it has to be. It’s Brent’s favorite movie and he made me watch it no less than a hundred times. Azrael is taunting me, using my best friend’s body like a puppet.
“Fortunately for you, we don’t have time for that.” He rests an arm on Abigail’s shoulder as if they’re the best of buddies. She stares up at me, blank. I wonder if she can even tell the difference between me and the lifeless sack of old clothes stuffed with straw cast aside at the bass of the post. “One more chance, Jordan,” he warns.
“Go fuck yourself, Azrael.”
He clicks his tongue in disapproval. “That’s not very ladylike,” he says, kneeling down. It’s a struggle to see what he’s doing directly beneath me, but I’m no less puzzled when I see him disemboweling the discarded scarecrow. When he disappears and returns from behind the shed with a huge armful of straw, it becomes clear.
“No!” I scream, pulling at the ropes that were my only security moments before. I’ll take my chances with the fifteen-foot drop over burning to death. “Please, don’t do this!”
“It’s your choice, Jordan,” he says, carefully arranging the straw. “All you have to do is ask the question.”
I clench my jaw, struggling to remind myself why I can’t just give him what he wants even if it means burning alive. Abigail is a stranger, and her second death would be more of a mercy than a betrayal. I owe nothing to my birth father, who I’m all but certain is Gabriel, and all I have to go on that he’s the lesser of two evils is Sam’s word. At least Azrael just wants to destroy me.
But Sam. Now that it’s inevitable, the idea of never seeing him again scares me more than dying and fuels my will to resist.
Is that really it? Am I that pathetic? No matter what logical arguments my mind makes for taking Azrael’s plea deal, he’s the only thing holding me back. Because I can’t stand the idea of the last words I said to him face to face being a lie. Because I’m too selfish to accept the idea that I’ll never see him again.
“Brent,” I call, desperate. “If there’s anything left of you at all, please, don’t let him do this. You’re the strongest person I know, you can fight this.”
He freezes with his back turned to me. The slightest tendril of hope uncoils deep in my chest. He turns towards me slowly and I lean forward in anticipation as his eyes lock on mine. They’re different somehow, warmer even though I can barely see them.
“Jordan?” He lets a small handful of straw falls to the ground and my heart soars.
“Oh my God,” I breathe. Tears burn my eyes. For once, I don’t resent them. “Please, Brent, you have to get me down.”
He just stands and stares.
“There’s a shed over there! Maybe you could –“
His blank expression peels off like a mask and he bursts into laughter. I stare at him in dismay as he staggers back to rejoin Abigail. “Oh, your face. Now that was hilarious. And here they say you mortals aren’t entertaining.”
Humiliation washes over me as I’m the joke. He was never Brent, not even for a moment.
“You know what the real punchline is?” Azrael asks, looking up at me as he taps his temple. “There’s just enough of him left in here to know that if he were in control, he’d already have lit the match. You were right earlier when you said he wouldn’t forgive you. In fact, he wants to see you to atone for what you’ve done.”
“No,” I say, shaking my head. “That’s not true.”
“Really, Jordan? Denial is what got you here in the first place. Denial of what you really are.”
“Brent would never say that,” I seethe. “He’s my best friend.”
“Ah, yes. He resents you for that, too. Something about leading him on, wasting his time…”
“You’re right, I’m sure you’ll hear all about it soon enough,” he says, patting Abigail’s arm. “Now’s the time.”
She walks forward with a vacant smile on her face. I realize what’s in her hand only when she strikes a match against the box and a flame springs to life. She tosses the burning match into the straw and I watch in horror as it feeds, insatiable.
The smoke rises to me sooner than it seems possible, pouring into my nostrils, my mouth, wrapping its vapid fingers around my throat from the inside. I’ve felt this way only once before. Before the “fire” that took everything.
This time it isn’t just a premonition.
The flames crackle at the base of the post and climb their way up, the heat nipping at my toes like a cat’s claws. The flames are barely a few feet off the ground before my vision starts to narrow. Images of sights and sounds and smells I couldn’t possibly remember. Burning flesh. It’s unmistakable once you’ve experienced it.
“He’s not worth dying for,” says Azrael, his voice barely audible through the flames. They’re climbing swiftly now. I can feel them on my heels, not just their heat. Strangely, it’s not much worse. “Of course, you’ll die anyway, but not like this. Not protecting someone so worthless. Someone who abandoned you.”
“He’s not – cough – worthless.” Every word is a chore when oxygen is scarce. My head falls onto my chest and it’s too heavy to pick back up. “He never left me.”
In his silence I realize he was talking about Gabriel. The heat is making it hard to think, melting away everything except the things that are really, truly important. My old life was so full of things and people and responsibilities that it’s hard to accept that there are so few of them.
“Just say the words, Jordan,” he says tersely. His patience is slipping, if it was ever truly there. “Ask her. Three little words. Who. Is. He.”
I try to shake my head but nothing moves. Even if I wanted to ask now, I couldn’t.
But I don’t. I’ve realized all too late that it doesn’t matter whether Gabriel is my father or not, just like it doesn’t matter that Abigail is my mother. My parents, the only people I could really count on in this world, are dead. No amount of atonement will change that. Even if it could, they wouldn’t want me to.
They wouldn’t blame me for this.
“It’s not my fault,” I cough.
“What?” I hear him move closer.
I open my mouth, but the smoke is choking out the words. The flames begin to recede, wispy tendrils slipping from my nostrils and mouth. The smoke clears away enough that I can begin to make out Azrael’s shape.
Hes asking me something, but I can’t quite hear. I’m distracted by the vague shadow forming behind Abigail. It rises over her frail, hunched form. I open my mouth to warn her but nothing comes out.
Azrael stops beneath the stake. “What did you say?”
“Look out!” I cry as a dark figure overshadows Abigail from behind.
The angel frowns in confusion, but before Abigail can heed my warning, a sharp piece of metal plunges through the middle of her chest. Her body stiffens and her head lolls back. She smiles at the looming shadow as red soaks her pretty linen dress.
Maybe it’s the smoke inhalation, but I could swear her ashen lips mouth, “Thank you,” before she crumples to the ground. It’s a sudden transformation, like she was just a marionette and someone cut her strings. She’s gone.
“No!” Azrael’s cry echoes mine in word only. She’s just a lost pawn to him.
The flames disappear completely as Azrael runs at the shadow with full force. He draws a blade if light from nowhere and thrusts it into the blackness, only to have it wrapped in an all too familiar chain. Abigail’s blood is still dripping down the links all the way to the intricately engraved cross.
Azrael’s blade isn’t like Luriel’s. That much becomes apparent when Samael’s chain begins to smoke. It uncoils rapidly and retreats into the shadow. Even from a distance, I can see Azrael’s eyes glowing white.
“Samael?” I call. Shock has kept it from setting in that my rescuer is the reason Abigail is on the ground, a lifeless shell.
His shape emerges from the shadows. He looks up at me, but his focus remains on Azrael. The two stand yards apart, Abigail’s body strewn aside like a meaningless prop between them.
“So this is what you’ve come to now?” Sam taunts, circling the angel. His stance is far more guarded than it was even when fighting Luriel and her soldiers. “An angel using a dead woman as a puppet?”
“And you’re one to talk? Babysitting the nephilim,” Azrael scoffs. “I thought even demons had standards.”
“Speaking of standards, would you rate that ice block they keep chiseling you out of four or five stars?”
Azrael stiffens. “I thought the human woman would be an easier target, but I guess you’ll have to do. Tell me which angel you’ve whored yourself out to and I’ll think about making your execution less than grueling.”
“As generous as that is, I think I’ll pass.”
“Sam?” It’s a wonder he can hear my feeble voice at all, but when his eyes meet mine, the fear drains from me. We’re surrounded in burning chaos, Abigail is dead and as far as I’m concerned, the devil himself is possessing Brent, but all I can feel is relief that he’s here.
There really is something wrong with me, and I don’t think I can blame it on being the nephilim.
The silver cross whips past my head and fresh blood sprays my cheek before it winds around the stake above me. Before I can scream, Samael gives the chain a hard jerk and the stake splinters in the dry earth. My head and stomach lurch in unison as the stake hurdles towards the demon’s waiting palm.
Azrael charges out of nowhere and they both fly straight through the side of the farmhouse. I screw my eyes shut and wait for impact, but the end of the stake hits something before I can hit the ground. The rope around my shoulders snaps and I find myself dangling by the one around my waste, still well off the ground. The stake happened to catch on the roof of the toolshed. I’m not far enough off the ground that I’ll die if I fall, but I’d rather not have to deal with Azrael and a broken leg.
The smoke still has a stranglehold on my thoughts and the shock of watching Abigail die is a few years away from wearing off, but a burst of mental clarity reminds me of the knife I stoke from Sam’s trunk. It feels like it’s literally burning a hole in my pocket. My arms can move a bit more freely now that the first rope is gone and I manage to wriggle my fingertips into my pocket. I wince as the edge of the blade slices me, but I manage to pull it out and get a better grip.
It’s sharp. Sharp enough that the rope isn’t going to pose any issues, even with the only awkward angle I can manage. The problem is being ready to hit the ground when the rope breaks. The fire has grown out of control in Azrael’s absence and it would be very easy to fall into it.
The sounds of struggle from within the farmhouse remind me that I don’t have a lot of time to wait for the perfect moment. I saw blindly at the rope and take a deep breath when it releases me, as if that will somehow soften my fall. It’s all I can do to toss the knife away from me before I can fall on it.
Before I shut my eyes, I can see that I didn’t aim that well. Something catches me midair on my way into the inferno and my fall is suspended. I venture to open one eye and I’m no more relieved to realize that I really am hovering above the ground by a good six feet. It feels like there’s an invisible tightrope under my feet and if I move a muscle, I’ll lose whatever precarious balance I have.
The front wall of the farmhouse explodes and sends a human-sized object hurdling into the cornfield. A line eats through the stalks for what seems like miles until the projectile collides with the earth with meteoric impact.
The sight breaks whatever force was holding me and I plummet to the ground. It’s a nasty fall that didn’t do my partially healed leg any favors, and there’s a sharp pain in my wrist, but I get to my feet alright. It’s not so much adrenaline fueling me as I limp towards the farmhouse as it is the need to know whether it’s Azrael in that field or…
“Sam?!” A hunched figure appears in the haze of debris and rubble that was once Abigail’s front porch. At first I can’t tell who it is, there’s so much dust in the air, but the familiar sound of a chain rustling to the ground followed by a heavy drop is music to my ears and I rush forward. My shoe snags on a piece of the porch floor that splintered and I lurch forward only to find myself caught up in strong arms that feel more like home than anything has in a long time.
“Walk much?” There’s a hint of humor in his tired voice. I hold him tight, breathing in the familiar scent that somehow clings to him through the smoke and ash.
“Yeah, no thanks to you.”
“I knew the stake would get caught on the shed,” he says, resting a hand on the back of my head. There’s a noise behind us and I feel him tense up. “We should go. He won’t be out for long.”
I hesitate, looking back towards the hole in the ground where the scarecrow once stood. He reaches for me, but I slip away from him and force myself to walk back towards the scene everything is telling me to flee.
Abigail is gone. She’s just a pile of ash and linen in the grass. There’s more of her house left than her. I fall to my knees as the weight of loss settles around me like a familiar cloak. After sixteen years, I thought I was finally through with grieving her but it’s all coming back again and this time there’s no fantasy that she’s living a fairytale life somewhere to soften the truth.
“I’m sorry, Jordan.” Sam’s hand rests on my shoulder, firm and warm. “I know this doesn’t make it any better, but she was already gone a long time before you met her.”
“I know.” Once again, my steady voice and dry eyes betray me for the monster they all think I am. I frown at the pile of ash, stirring in the wind that’s nursing the fire and try to make myself feel something that isn’t there. “I knew the moment I met her something wasn’t right. You did what you had to do to stop Azrael. To protect Gabriel. My father.”
He falls silent until all I can hear is the fire crackling and my own pulse.
“So she did tell you,” he says flatly.
“Not explicitly, but it shouldn’t have have taken me this long to figure it out,” I say, taking his hand when he offers it. “It’s just hard to live your entire life as a nobody and jump to the conclusion that the archangel Gabriel is your father, no matter what the signs are.”
More silence. “I’m sorry.”
“For what? You were just doing your job. So is he,” I say, nodding towards the cornfield. “The way I see it, Gabriel is the one who owes me an explanation, just like he owes you a phone call with your brother. He owed Abigail more, too. We both did.”
“You don’t owe either of them shit, kid. Come on,” he says, kneeling for something before he grabs my hand and pulls me towards the driveway. “We have to move.”
I stumble after him, wincing at the pain in my leg. At least this time I’m sure it isn’t broken. The pain is a welcome distraction anyway.
When we make it to the end of Abigail’s driveway, a dusty old pickup truck is waiting for us. “Nice ride.”
“Yeah, some asshole teenager jacked mine.” He shoots me a dirty look, opening the door. He grabs me by the waist and unceremoniously stuffs me inside.
“You ‘jacked’ it from someone else,” I remind him.
He wastes no time getting in and starting the engine. To my surprise, it roars to life right away. I’m still not convinced it has what it takes to get us away from Azrael, but beggars can’t be choosers.
“I’m sorry,” he says once we’ve been on the road for a few minutes.
“I told you, I don't blame you for what happened to Abigail --”
“Not that,” he snaps. “That was a mercy killing. I meant I’m sorry for what I said earlier.” His words come through gritted teeth as if each one is causing him physical pain.
“What do you mean?”
“Before, when I said my brother is the only one I care about. That was a lie.”
I watch him closely, trying to convince myself I’m not hearing right. “Sam…”
“Just shut up and listen because I’m only gonna say this once,” he snaps. After waiting to make sure I’m not going to interject, he continues, “I care about you. I didn’t realize it until you ran away—un-fucking-believably stupid thing to do, by the way—but I do and I won’t be able to live with myself if anything happens to you.”
I try to speak but my first attempt comes out strangled. “Sam, I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything, just try to stop trying to get yourself killed, alright?”
I brush a tear off my cheek and hope desperately that he doesn’t notice. “Yeah. Okay.”
“I’m serious,” he says gruffly. “Surviving is a full-time job until we get to the safe house. You don’t have time to live in the past and this guilt complex is gonna get you killed.”
“It’s hard not to feel guilty when you’re the reason everyone you love is dead,” I remind him. Sometimes it’s easy to forget he isn’t human. This isn’t one of those times. “They deserved better.”
He scoffs. “There are genocidal dictators bathing in gold-plated showers while saints starve in rat-infested gutters, and you still think what people get has anything to do with what they deserve? Somehow you’re in charge of handing out fair shakes when God hasn’t been able to get it straight these past few billion years?”
How can I argue with that? He seems content with my inability to try and the truck falls silent. He’s as lost in thought as I am, although I’m sure for different reasons. As I stare out the window, the sky full of stars conjures up memories of a night that seems like it happened a lifetime ago. In a way, I guess it did.
After driving for who knows how long, the truck pulls off onto the first exit I’ve seen in awhile. Judging from the sign, there’s not much to see at Exit 14.
Sam gets out and I follow suit, stretching my legs while he pumps the gas. The station is dark inside, but the pumps are automatic. It’s a stroke of luck in and of itself that they’re still on. This is a small town, if you can even call it that, and I don’t even see a cell tower around anywhere.
When a hand rests on my shoulder, I jump. He lowers something over my head from behind and I can feel him fumbling with something at the back of my neck. “Move your hair.”
He grunts in frustration and sweeps my hair over my shoulder. The sensation of his rough fingertips brushing against my bare skin makes me shiver. If he notices, he doesn’t say anything. He’s too focused on whatever he’s doing.
I press my hand against the small object resting against my chest as he steps back with a satisfied, “There.”
I look down at the silver locket in my hand and as soon as I recognize it, the metal seems to burn my skin. I reach for the clasp immediately but he grabs my hand to stop me.
“That took forever.”
“I can't wear this,” I say quickly. “Where did you even --”
“I found it in the ash,” he says. “You should have it.”
I shake my head. “It feels wrong.”
He sighs heavily. “You’re her daughter. She’d want you to have it.”
“I'm the reason she's --”
He presses a finger to my lips and gives me a weary look. “We’ve already been over this, kid. Abigail and the others are dead. No amount of self-loathing is going go change that. I know if it were me, I’d rather live on in someone’s memory than be another member of their pity party.”
I take a sudden interest in the digital display on the gas tank. “I guess.”
He cups my cheek in his hand and forces me to look at him. “You can’t bring them back, Jordan, but it’s up to you whether they’re really gone.
His gaze holds me and I realize I’ve unconsciously backed myself against the truck. “Is that how you feel?” I ask, desperate to fill the silence. “About your brother, I mean.”
He studies my face for a moment. “He’s not gone. I am going to bring him back.”
“Is that really what he wants?” I challenge, emboldened. “Do you think he’d approve of everything you’ve sacrificed for him, or do you think he’d want you to move on?”
“That’s different,” he says, planting both hands on the truck on either side of me. He’s close enough now that I can feel the familiar current of electricity between us.
He leans closer and his voice turns husky. “You ask too many questions.”
I reach for him automatically. My hands tremble as they brush over the stubble on his face. “Then what’s one more, right?”
He grunts a vague assent.
“When you said you cared at me,” I begin, against what little judgment I have left, “What did you mean?”
Surprise flickers over his face momentarily. Something is clearly wrong with my vision, because it looks almost like his cheeks are reddening. “You know I’m not good with words.”
“Try,” I plead.
Just when I think he’s ignoring me, he pushes me against the truck and his hands settle around my waist as his lips meet mine. His touch is warm and gentle and full of all the things that were absent in my first kiss. The gentleness lasts only for a moment before it sparks into a reckless embrace. I scare myself with how easy it is to return his fervor.
My fingers weave into his hair and his dig into the soft flesh at my sides like they’re struggling to get at something underneath the fabric of my shirt, underneath my skin. “Sam,” I whisper in the brief moment his lips leave mine.
He silences me with another kiss and lifts me against the truck until we’re face to face. I wrap myself around him as he presses me against the cool metal frame of the truth and finds ways to make me shiver from the tenderness of his kiss one moment and moan from the sting of his teeth at my neck the next.
My previous romantic encounters range from nonexistent to I-wish-they-were-nonexistent, but nothing could have prepared me for this. He kisses me like he’s torn between making love to me and devouring me. I’m not sure I have the will or the desire to stop him either way.
It’s only when his hand slips underneath the edge of my shirt that panic surges within me. I freeze and he notices my reaction before I can say anything.
“What’s wrong?” he asks, breathless. The green eyes staring back at me belong to a wild thing. I barely recognize them, and yet concern is etched across his features. “Did I hurt you?”
“No,” I say, feeling my face grow warm. “It's not you, it's just --”
A familiar “DING” sounds behind us, sparing me the effort of coming up with a lie he’ll believe.
The sliding numbers that register the price of gas are shifting. It starts slowly at first, but they begin to roll faster until the first two fall on one. It doesn’t take a genius to guess where the next few will land.
“Sam?” I clutch his arm as he sets me back on the ground. Our moment is over. Back to the chaos that has become my reality.
“In the car, now,” he says urgently, shutting me inside. He gets in and fumbles with the ignition. It starts on the second try.
“We’ve been driving for so long, how did he find us?”
“I don’t know,” he mutters. “We should be out of his range.”
“He can’t track me or he would have found us earlier, right?”
“Can we get away from him in a truck?” I ask warily as we turn off the dirt road and onto the highway. The sight of asphalt has never been more welcome.
“We’re gonna find out,” he says, flooring the gas.
“Brent is just a human,” I say, fastening my seat belt. “How can he be this strong?”
Oh. Right. He doesn’t know. “Yeah, uh, Azrael possessed him.”
He mutters something unintelligible. “Of course he did.”
“How is Azrael making Brent do all this? He was just a normal human.”
“He’s not. Your boyfriend is gone, what’s left is just Azrael’s meatsuit,” he says, glancing in the rearview. I’ve never seen him so alert. “No offense.”
I cringe. “Brent wasn’t my boyfriend.”
He gives a disbelieving snort and veers into the exit lane only to transfer onto another highway. “Whatever he was, he’s Azrael’s vessel now. He’s capable of pretty much anything.”
“But you said angels can’t possess people.”
“They can’t.” He hesitates, changing lanes again. I can’t tell if he’s being cautious or just paranoid. I certainly don’t see any signs of him, but the idea that Sam might be picking up on something I’m not makes me nervous.
“Then why is the angel of destruction wearing a dead guy like a Halloween costume?”
“Azrael isn’t your run-of-the-mill angel. I’ve never heard anything about him being able to possess a human, but who knows? He hasn’t been thawed out in thousands of years. I wouldn’t be surprised if he picked up a few tricks.”
He opens his mouth as if to say something, then stops and checks the mirror again.
“What?” I ask, glancing behind us.
“You don’t wanna know.”
“I really do.”
He rolls his eyes. “If Azrael has to follow the same rules of possession as a demon, it just says a lot about your friend.” He says it like it’s a four-letter word.
“There are rules for possession?”
“There are rules for everything. We either need a willing vessel or someone who’s spiritually compromised enough to slip in without a fight,” he says.
“Like I said, humans are no match for demons physically, but the soul is a hell of a guard dog. That’s why we usually go for people who suffer from extreme mental illness.” He shrugs. “That and who’s gonna believe them?”
I shiver and take a sudden interest in my chipped nail polish. Sometimes I wish it wasn’t so easy to forget what he is because then it wouldn’t be so jarring when I remember.
“I know you’re dying to ask, so go ahead. Ask me if I’ve ever possessed a human”
I sigh. I know he’s just trying to distract me. “Maybe that I don’t want to know.”
“Why not? Would it make the whole demon thing seem official?”
“Maybe,” I confess.
He laughs and falls silent. Damn it, he knows I can’t let it rest now.
“Well? Have you?” I steel myself for the answer. I’m not sure why I was able to run into his arms knowing he technically killed my mother, but the idea of an ancient demon doing what demons are known for freaks me out.
My head snaps up hard enough that a warm pain spreads through my neck. I was expecting either a lie or a figure in the hundreds, if not thousands, but not that. “Once?”
“Once,” he repeats. “How’d you think I got these duds?”
I consider that for a moment. “This isn’t your true form?”
“True form?” A smile tugs at his lips. “Hardly. An angel’s ‘true form’ can only exist in Heaven, so demons lose access when we fall.”
He looks over at me. “Why does that freak you out so much?”
“It doesn’t,” I squeak.
“Would it make you feel better if I told you it was a voluntary possession?”
I hesitate. “I don’t know, maybe. Was it?”
He pauses for a moment to consider it. “No, but he was a bad guy.”
“Bad?” I ask, wary of a demon’s definition of bad. “How bad?”
“Let’s just say you’d remember his name if I hadn’t taken his body, and not because of his legendary cupcake recipes.”
“Got it. Don’t need to know anymore.”
He turns his attention back to the road. A moment later, my brain gets the best of me. “So what do you really look like?”
“Does it matter?”
“Well, I never went for the halo and harp look.”
“I figured, but did you look human?”
“More or less. Depended on who was looking at me, I guess.”
“Why are you being so cryptic all of a sudden?”
He sighs. “I didn’t look much different than how I do now. My vessel has similar features. I’ve never been anything special, and my brother got all the looks.”
Yeah, right. If his brother is half as good looking as Sam’s vessel we’re all in trouble. “That’s not what Luriel seemed to think. She said you still have angelic powers. That’s special.”
“That’s because I hadn’t fallen all the way,” he mutters. “That changed when I killed Luriel and her men.”
“But they were evil.”
“Evil is relative. Take our story, for example.”
I frown. “What do you mean?”
“You see me as the white knight to your damsel in distress, but that’s not how the angels see it. To them I’m just the villain’s henchman and you’re the poison apple.”
“And what does that make Gabriel?”
He pauses to consider. “The twist at the end. Or maybe the evil queen.”
I lean back in my seat and stare out the window in an attempt to settle into our tentative safety. The corn passes in dark waves without the light of the sun to turn it gold. I’d look at the clock to see how long we’ve been on the road, but I don’t really want to know.
The radio comes on and fills the silence. It’s some country song about a girl getting back at her scorned lover. I wait for Sam to find a better channel, but when I look over, he has both hands contentedly on the wheel.
“You like this stuff?”
His brow furrows in confusion. “You’re the one who put it on.”
“I didn’t even touch the dial!”
He opens his mouth to argue and then shuts his jaw in a grimace. “Shit.”
Before I can ask, static overtakes the girl power ballad and the LED display blinks in confusion. The time read a little before midnight moments ago, but now it’s set back to 11:11. I grip the door handle, my nails digging into the leather. The station goes to 111.1.
“I don’t know anything about Iowa’s call numbers, but it’s too much to hope that that’s a real station, isn’t it?”
His Adam’s apple bobs and he presses the gas a little harder, but our course never veers. “Definitely.”
The static intensifies and the overhead light flickers, causing me to move instinctively towards Sam. I can hear a voice coming through the static. It becomes clear that the ghost announcer is repeating, “Do you read?”
“Sammy?” A voice echoes more clearly through the cabin. It’s familiar.
Sam’s shoulders fall and the color comes back into his knuckles. “Damn it, Bo, you scared the shit out of us.”
“Hey, at least the inside of the truck will match the outside.”
“What do you want, asshole?”
“That’s no way to talk to the asshole who just saved you and your girlfriend, you prick.”
They’re friends and this is how they talk to each other?
“She's not --” He mutters a silent curse under his breath and checks the rear view again. “I repeat. What?”
“I patched into angelic CCTV after you called me to help track the all-American abomination—no offense, sweetheart,” he says.
“It’s fine, Bo.” My voice is strained from exhaustion and smoke.
“If you’re watching, how do you know they aren’t?” Sam asks stiffly.
“Please, you don’t think I know how to cover my tracks? I invented their shitty systems before Thomas Edison stole the light bulb. Anyway, I figured you could use some help making a getaway.”
“So you’re the reason Azrael hasn’t caught up to us,” Sam says.
“Yep. I’ve been jamming frequencies around you for miles. Gave him a bitchin’ headache, but it won’t keep him away for long,” he says. “Sorry for spooking you at the gas station.”
I freeze. “Y-you were watching us?”
“Yeah, well, I did what I could to give you and loverboy some privacy but I had to get you moving somehow. Your little makeout sesh was going on too long and our avenging angel got a lock on you again.”
I groan, slumping against the door. On the one hand, I’m freshly terrified. On the other hand, I’m not sure I WANT to live anymore.
“Gotta hand it to ya, Sammy. I like a dangerous broad as much as the next guy but you’ve taken the femme fatale thing to a whole new level.”
“Now would be a real good time to shut up, Bo.”
I shoot Sam a look in hopes of stopping him from offending what seems like the only supernatural creature in the universe who doesn’t want us both dead right now, with the exception of Gabriel. All things considered, I’ll take my chances with the Boogeyman.
“Okay, smartass. But first, you think you can manage to set this tank’s cruise control to one-eleven?”
“Sure, but why?”
“Because there’s no way you’re gonna get away from him if you keep driving. He found a manual and you’ll run out of gas if he doesn’t get to you first.”
A shiver runs down my spine and I jolt in surprise as Sam reaches over to squeeze my hand. The touch is reassuring even if we’re beyond that.
“I’m about to open a portal, but it’ll only hold for a minute and it has to be timed perfectly,” says Bo.
“A portal?” It comes out as more of a shriek than a question. “To where?”
“No problem,” Sam says, ignoring me. “What do I do?”
“There’s an old Civil War burial ground up ahead in exactly three-point-two miles,” says Bo. “It’s got just enough juice to jump the portal, but I won’t be able to do it again. When I say the word, get to one-eleven, not a mile over, and drive into the portal.”
“How will I know where it is?”
“I’ll do my best to position it over the road, but you can’t miss it. It’ll look kind of like a gaping black hole in time and space.”
“It’s our only option,” says Sam.
“When your only option is to drive into a wormhole because the Boogeyman tells you to, it’s time to pause and reevaluate things,” I hiss.
“Not a wormhole. A black hole,” Bo says matter-of-factly. “Don’t they teach physics in schools anymore?”
The radio crackles and a different song wars with the static.
“I’d rather see you dead, little girl…”
It’s a familiar voice, but I don’t recognize this song.
“Shit.” Bo’s garbled curse isn’t exactly a comfort.
“What is it?” asks Sam.
The music comes back again. “…than to see you with another man…”
“An angel is jamming my signal,” Bo says as his signal wins out again. “One guess who it is.”
“It’s John Lennon,” I say hoarsely. “Brent was always obsessed with him.”
“Shit,” echoes Sam.
“The time is now, Sammy Boy. I can open the portal now, but you’ve only got one shot.”
“We don’t have a choice, Jordan. I trust him with my life.”
“Well, I don’t!”
“Then trust me.”
I swallow hard. Despite the roughness of his tone, it’s more of a plea than a command.
A deafening rip draws both our attention back to the road. I press myself flat against the seat and clutch the door handle as I see a yawning hole stretched across the two-lane highway. Reality ripples around it but through it I can only see blackness, like some twisted mirror. “Oh, God.”
Sam squeezes my hand again. “What’s it gonna be, Jordan?” he asks, pressing the brake to bring the speed down to my new least favorite number.
I turn away from the cosmic monstrosity before us and take more interest in the stalks of corn bending wildly from its force than anyone ever has. I squeeze his hand so hard I can’t feel mine anymore and nod. “Just do it,” I say, clenching my jaw.
The sound of time and space colliding and dancing around each other grows until I can hardly hear the static on the radio or make out Bo’s distorted commands. All I can do is hold on to Sam’s hand. I have no idea what’s on the other side of that hole, but I know with absolute certainty that I’ll end up adrift in nothingness if my grip falters even slightly.
“Hold on,” he says as we barrel into the abyss. Like I have any other option.
The cosmic void looks nothing like I thought it would. Bright blue sky, a single golden sun hanging overhead, threatening to dry out every ounce of moisture in my body. The ground under me is solid, to my relief. In fact, the cosmic void looks a lot like Iowa. Either Bo kept his promise and sent us somewhere safe, or…
When I sit up, my head spins. It’s pounding, too, but I manage to get to my feet. Still, the rest of my body seems intact. It’s a little worse than jet lag but not nearly as bad as I thought the side effects of time travel would be.
“Sam?” I call, looking around. There’s farmland everywhere and golden stalks stretch on in neat rows for miles and miles, but golden wheat has replaced the corn. There’s a little red farmhouse with a silo up ahead. It’s not unlike Abigail’s. There are bales of hay where cattle graze behind a low wicker fence and a little red pickup, too, but no sign of Sam or the truck.
At first I panic at the thought of him leaving me, but I know better. Maybe that would be the smart thing for him to do. I could certainly understand him deciding that the hassle of keeping me safe just isn’t worth what Gabriel promised him, but somehow I know that’s not what happened.
Maybe I’m just humoring myself by thinking that our kiss meant as much to him as it did to me, but I can’t bring myself to believe that he would just leave me after everything we’ve been through. Something happened to him, I can feel it.
My search becomes more desperate. The farmland is flat like Iowa’s, but the grass is tall and the wheat makes it hard to see. “Sam!” I cry, feeling like a child lost in a grocery store as I run aimlessly around the farmhouse. “Sam, where are you?”
“What’s all the commotion out here, Miss?” The door to the farmhouse swings open and a man who looks more like a professor than Old MacDonald steps off the porch. He’s wearing a nice button-down shirt with suspenders and well-pressed slacks and he can’t be a day over thirty. He has that post-hipster look about him and the faux-military haircut doesn’t help.
I stare at him, taken aback by is out-of-placeness only for a moment. “My friend,” I say, running to meet him. “Have you seen him? He’s kind of a big guy, looks like a greaser, drives a big green truck?”
His peaceful expression falters. “Samael?”
My heart lurches. “Yes. Yes, that’s him. Do you know where he is?”
The front door creaks open, followed by the unmistakable sound of a shotgun’s chamber. I remember it from the first and only hunting expedition I begged my father and uncle to let me tag along on.
A woman is standing at the door, equally out of place in her surroundings for entirely different reasons. She’s petite and delicate with curly brown hair that’s bigger than she is and her bohemian clothing would make her look more at home in a New Age shop than this Thomas Kinkade painting come to life. She doesn’t look substantial enough to lift the gun she’s holding but she wields it like an expert and her eyes are fixed firmly on me.
“Is there a problem, Thomas?”
“Hard to tell, love,” he says, eying me with thoughtful concern. “She says she’s looking for Samael, but she isn’t human and there’s been no word from him.”
She frowns, holding the shotgun on me. I raise my hands instinctively. Something in those doe-brown eyes tells me she’ll shoot. “Do you think it’s her? The one he was bringing?”
“Maybe,” he muses, stroking his blond stubble. “She’s a few months late though and I haven’t heard anything from him.”
“Wait, is this the safe house?” I ask hopefully.
“That all depends on what you are, darlin’,” she says in a proper Southern drawl. For the first time I notice the cross around her neck, hanging from a row of beads lost amid a sea of other necklaces.
Great. I’ve stumbled upon a cult.
“I’m Jordan,” I say, my voice thick. I don’t know how much it’s safe to tell these people, but I get the feeling I’m not going to be around long enough to find Sam if I don’t start talking. “Sam is my friend. He was trying to take me here, I think, but the Boogeyman opened up a portal in the road and I woke up here, but I can’t find him. Please, just help me find him and he can tell you whatever you need to know.”
“Boogeyman?” Her eyes widen and she lowers the gun. “Bo sent you here?”
I blink. “You know him?”
“Oh, we go way back,” she says, tossing her curls behind her shoulder with a nostalgic smile. “He said he was sending Sammy up our way with a fugitive in need of shelter, but they were due last year.”
“Last year? But we’ve only been on the road for a couple of weeks,” I insist.
“You said Boshareth opened a black hole?” Thomas asks.
I nod. “We just came through it.”
He chuckles. “Maybe you did, but time passes a little differently in a black hole.”
My stomach flips. Why didn’t I take physics? Oh, that’s right. It was offered junior year and I didn’t want to risk my perfect GPA. Some good that 4.0 is doing me now. “I’m sorry, what do you mean?”
“Well, my best guess is that you experienced the travel in a matter of a few seconds while a little less than than a year has passed here in the outside world,” he says. “It’s mid-August.”
“August?” I choke on the word. “Oh, my God. What does that mean for Sam? Where is he?”
“I don’t know,” Thomas says with a frown. “Time is warped in a black hole, but so is space. He could be anywhere. Ada, darling, I don’t think Jordan here is much of a threat.”
“You don’t think?” she cocks an eyebrow and keeps the gun trained on me.
He shrugs. “Hard to say. I’ve never seen anything like her.”
“What does your gut say?”
He pauses to consider. “My gut says she’s clean.”
The woman, who I can only assume is his wife, sighs and lowers her gun completely. “Good enough for me.” She extends a hand. “Nice to meet you—Jordan, was it?”
“Jordan Havers,” I say, shaking her hand. Her grip is firmer than I would have thought. Thomas’ isn’t, although it’s obviously not from a lack of strength.
“I’m Adaline, but everyone calls me Ada, and this is my husband, Thomas,” she says with a smile. “We’re the Keepers around these parts.”
“It’s complicated, but we’re more or less border patrol,” Thomas says.
“Border between here and what?”
He gives his head a curious tilt. “Between Heaven and Hell, I suppose. What are you, exactly?”
I swallow hard, straining for a lie. It’s more difficult under his thoughtful gaze than it is normally, and that’s saying something. I remind myself that I don’t know these people, and I’m all on my own. That and something tells me they won’t take kindly to finding out someone sent the nephilim to their doorstep.
“It’s alright,” he says, raising a hand. “No need to lie. If you’re a friend of Sam’s, that’s good enough for me. For now.”
“Thank you,” I say, breathing a sigh of relief. “Does this mean you’ll help me find him?”
“Yes, but that could take awhile,” he warns.
“Long enough for you to come in and have a cup of tea,” Ada says, draping one arm around my shoulders to lead me towards the house, her gun still tucked safely under the other.
My heart still wants to keep searching, but something tells me these strange people are my only shot at finding him. The inside of their farmhouse is enough to distract me momentarily. It’s a strange amalgamation of dripping candles, occult curios and hanging herbs living alongside saint statues, a beautiful reprint of “The Last Supper,” and more crucifixes than I can count. My concerns about wandering into a cult seem a bit more founded than before.
Thomas notices the look on my face before I can hide it and gives a hardy laugh. “Like our décor? I guess it is a bit eclectic,” he says, wiping a bit of nonexistent dust off a human skull on the ledge of the kitchen window I can only hope isn’t real.
“A bit,” I say, watching Ada put a kettle on the stove. She takes out a clear square of gauzy fabric and piles so many strange looking herbs into it that I give up on watching to make sure they aren’t planning on spiking my drink.
“Have a seat,” Thomas offers, sliding a spirit board down to the other end of the table to make room. He catches me eying it and grins before moving it off the table and taking a chair for himself. “That isn’t ours. It belongs to a client.”
“Oh,” I say, nodding as if that explains it.
“Thomas and I help people with problems of a… spiritual nature,” Ada explains, setting a teacup in front of me with a thick sachet of herbs inside. She fills it with steaming water and asks, “Sugar? Honey?”
“No, this is fine,” I say quickly. “Thanks.”
She takes a seat next to Thomas, squeezing his hand. Her bracelets jangle with the movement. “We’ve been running this safe house for a long time now, but I’ll confess this is the first time Thomas hasn’t been able to identify a supernatural creature right in front of his face.”
“Who exactly does this place keep safe?” I ask, eager to change the subject. “And from who?”
The odd couple exchanges a look. “We provide sanctuary to anyone who needs it, really. That is what holy ground is for,” says Thomas.
“Holy ground?” I blink. “You mean like a church?”
Ada smiles at me over jeweled fingers. “Church comes in many shapes and forms. Trees make a fine pulpit, whether they’re carved and sanded into a stand, a kitchen table or even growing out of the ground. The congregation is what’s hard to come by.”
Thomas rolls his eyes and she swats his arm. “I saw that.”
“So,” he says, focusing on me, “How do you know Samael?”
“Well,” I begin, deciding it’s best to be honest where I can, “My father hired him to protect me from an angel who wants me dead.”
“Your father?” Ada asks.
I hesitate. “It’s really safer if you don’t know any more than you have to.”
“Why would it matter if we know who your father is, unless…?” He trails off as the wheels start turning and realization dawns on his face before I can think up a lie. His eyes meet Ada’s and a look of disbelief passes between them.
“You’re the nephilim, aren’t you?” she asks, leaning closer.
My blood runs cold. I don’t know these people from Adam, but Sam did. If he trusted them, that’s good enough for me. “Yes.”
I wait for panic, anger, anything. If these people are as clued in to the supernatural world as they seem to be, then they have a right to be furious. Instead, Ada sighs and pours another cup of tea. Thomas leans back in his chair, deep in thought.
“Samael really didn’t tell you?”
“No,” says Ada, taking a long sip of chamomile. “I wondered when I got wind that a new one had awakened on earth, but all he said was that he was bringing someone who needed sanctuary. Can’t say I blame him for keeping this under wraps. Not that we’d have turned you away.”
“Why not?” I ask warily. “I’m kind of a ticking time bomb.”
“To say the least,” Thomas snorts.
“I understand why he was trying to bring you here,” says Ada. “If you really are the nephilim, this is the only place on earth you’re safe, both to yourself and everyone else.”
“Your father is an angel, isn’t he?” asks Thomas.
I nod reluctantly.
“Must be a high-ranking one if he’s gone through all this just to keep his secret,” he muses. “Let me guess. You’re the lone participant in an angelic arms race now that they know you exist?”
“How did you know?”
“Angels are as predictable as the tide,” he says with a distasteful snarl before sipping his tea. He suddenly notices the taste and shudders. At least now I know it’s not just mine. “I know you can’t tell us who your father is, and truth be told, I don’t want to know, but you can at least tell us the name of the angel who’s after you.”
“Azrael.” It’s impossible to say his name without bitterness.
A look of unspoken horror passes between them. Ada looks me up and down and just when I’m convinced she’s about to throw me out, she settles. “They really brought out the big guns for you, little girl. But you’re in luck. This is one of only seven or so places in the universe Azrael can’t get to.”
“Why not?” I ask, holding my relief.
“Like he said, it’s holy ground,” says Ada. “There are certain spaces in the universe that have been designated as sanctuary for supernatural creatures, just like churches offer sanctuary to humans. They’re neutral spaces, safe from angelic or demonic authority and anything in between. Anyone can come here, but their powers are neutralized in the boundaries of this town. For all intents and purposes, monsters are human here.”
“Oh,” I say slowly. “Why would something like that be offered? Wouldn’t every supernatural creature on the run just come here?”
“It’s harder than you’d think,” says Thomas. “You have to know how to get here, which means you’re pretty desperate in the first place. You also have to prove that you have a valid reason to declare sanctuary.”
“Such as?” I ask as a lump forms in my throat.
He shrugs. “It goes on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes it’s a fugitive being pursued for unjust reasons, others it’s a demon who needs to wrap up unfinished business before he turns himself in.”
I bite my lip. “I’m not sure if I qualify.”
Ada smiles patiently. “If you care enough to admit that, it’s a pretty good sign you do. Besides, I trust Thomas’ gut. It’s never led me wrong yet.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, love.”
“Now his moral judgment is another matter entirely,” she says dryly, crossing her arms. “In any case, you’ve got our protection while you’re here.”
“Thank you,” I say earnestly. “But um, how are you going to protect me from Azrael, exactly?” Even without his powers, I’m sure he can manage to cause enough trouble. “Are you supernatural creatures, too?”
“The most dangerous kind,” she says with a twinkle I her eyes. “We’re humans.”
I look at Thomas for some sign that she’s joking, but he gives none. “She’s not pulling your leg. We’re human, more or less.”
I consider that for a moment. “But why would God or the universe or whatever put two humans in charge of someplace like this?”
“We’re not exactly your run-of-the-mill humans,” says Thomas, choking down another sip of his tea.
“An exorcist and a witch make a surprisingly formidable team against the things that come through here,” Ada muses.
“An exorcist?” I sputter, looking Thomas up and down. “You don’t look like a priest.”
He chuckles. “I should hope not.”
“Why does everyone always think you’re the exorcist?” Ada huffs, swirling a cinnamon stick around in her tea.
“Probably because you dress like the Voodoo Queen, my dear,” Thomas says gently. “All the jewelry is a bit… spooky.”
She scowls. “Well, you pout when I don’t wear your gifts and after as many anniversaries and birthdays we’ve had, they start to add up.”
“Wait, you’re the exorcist?” I ask in disbelief. “Then that means Thomas is… What, a warlock?”
He winces. “I leave that term for the edgy chauvinistic teenagers. I prefer witch.”
“Thomas is very sensitive about the nomenclature,” Ada says wryly.
I shake my head. “I don’t understand. Shouldn’t you two be enemies?”
“We were,” she says. “Do you want to tell the story this time, darling?”
“No, you tell it so well,” he says, propping his head on his hand as he gazes at her in pure adoration.
“You’re in luck,” she says, giving me a wink. “I always give the abridged version. Way back when, I was working solo on a case of possession in the South. I caught wind that there was a witch luring in souls for a demon and followed my lead to Thomas.”
“So you were able to clear him of the accusations?”
“Oh, no. The accusations were all true.” She chuckles. “I exorcised the demon and I was about to take him out when my gun jammed. It was the darnedest thing. He could have killed me, but he didn’t. He just left. First witch that ever escaped on me.”
“She’s the best,” Thomas says proudly.
I stare at Thomas, doubtful that the placid man in front of me could be capable of anything so terrible. I guess it really is the quiet ones. “So you fell for him because he let you go?”
She snorts. “Of course not. I hunted him down all the way to Beijing. He humiliated me and I was intent on making him pay. Finally found him hiding out in some distasteful opium den.”
“I wasn’t hiding,” Thomas says, taking another sip of tea. He’s gotten used to the taste by now. I haven’t. “I was conducting business.”
“Oh, whatever. The point is, that time I caught you and hauled your sorry behind back to the Tribunal in Italy. Or at least, most of the way.”
“She succumbed to my charms on the voyage.”
She rolls her eyes. “I succumbed to the plague and he used his juju nonsense to save my life. Unbidden, mind you.”
“Wait, the plague? I thought we wiped that out in the 1800s.”
“We did,” she says. “Thomas and I are older than we look. Especially Thomas.”
I look to him for confirmation. Ada seems like the type to embellish, but I can’t imagine him bothering.
“Let’s just say I had a front-row seat in the whole Salem debacle.”
I must do a poorer job of hiding my shock than I thought, because he bursts out laughing.
“In the courtroom, I should say. Most of the real witches were clever enough to avoid trial, but the buckleheads did a marvelous job ridding New England of midwives and women their wives didn’t like.”
It takes me a moment to accept his assertion. It shouldn’t come as a surprise considering what I am. “But neither of you look a day over thirty. How is that possible?”
“Moisturizer,” Ada says, playfully stroking her cheek. “And maybe a bit of magic.”
“It’s amazing what even the most honorable servant of the Vatican is willing to compromise on if it means foregoing the aging process,” Thomas says wryly.
“Hey, your tinctures are different. That’s not witchcraft, that’s—holistic medicine.”
“Whatever you need to tell yourself, darling.”
I take a deep breath, still reeling from their story. I’m not sure if I can handle any more right now. “I can’t say I understand how you make it work, but it seems like you do.”
“There was a time when my skin color was more of an issue than his practice,” says Ada. “Besides, if a demon and a nephilim can fall in love, I’d say there’s hope for anyone.”
“Love?” I shake my head vehemently. “No, it’s not like that. Sam and I are just friends.”
I still have enough sense left in me to know that what happened at the gas station probably didn’t change that. Even if we hadn’t been interrupted by demons, we would have had to come down off the cloud at some point. Sam will never give up on his brother, and handing me over to Gabriel is the only way he’s going to get him back. I’m under no illusion that I’ll be allowed to go out on date night once he figures out what to do with me.
Not that sense ever stopped anyone from hoping.
“That so?” Ada arches an eyebrow. “Seems like there’s more to it than that. I’ve never seen anyone get so worked up over ‘just a friend.’”
I shrug. “He’s saved my life half a million times and I owe him, that’s all.”
She gives me a look the government should really consider using in interrogations and I gulp. “Okay, fine. I might have developed a tiny crush, but there’s no way it could ever amount to anything. I just need to make sure he’s okay.”
“Why?” Thomas asks.
“What do you mean, why?”
“You said it yourself, he was hired to protect you. If he’s just doing his job and it’s just a crush, why risk your life to find him? Because that is what you’ll be doing if you leave this place.”
I chew on my bottom lip to bide enough time to come up with an answer. “Because if it were me out there, he’d do the same. Maybe it is just because my father has something he wants, but it doesn’t matter. Everyone has an ulterior motive. That doesn’t mean the things they do don’t matter.”
He listens patiently and cracks the faintest of smiles. “Well, then. I guess we’d better start looking.”
I watch in confusion as he leaves the table and begins gathering an array of things from around the house. Most are jars of spices from the cupboard, but he also snatches a few gray candles, some string and some other mismatched items that don’t seem like they’d be particularly useful for finding a demon.
“You are not doing magic in my kitchen, mister.”
Thomas looks up from the supplies he’s gathered in a basket and cocks his head defiantly. “It’s my kitchen, considering the fact that you’ve never so much as boiled an egg in it. Besides, it’s just a little summoning spell.”
“Oh, no.” She flies out of her chair and sends it screeching across the wooden floor. She plants one hand on her hip and stabs a finger in the direction of the door. “I don’t care if it’s Samael or Santa Claus, if you want to summon a demon you’re gonna do it in the barn.”
Thomas sighs dramatically, lifting the rather harmless looking basket as he stands. “Come on, Jordan. There’s no reasoning with her when she’s like this.”
I venture a glance between them and finally decide to follow him. I’m not sure I want to be there for the summoning, even if it is Samael, but the chance of seeing him again outweighs my fears, if only slightly.
“Isn’t she coming?” I ask, glancing back at the farmhouse as he leads us towards a little red barn in the distance.
“No, she has her orders to keep,” he says wryly, handing me the basket as he pries open the wooden doors. He rolls up his clean white sleeves and carries a lantern into the barn. It’s empty, save for bales of hay and a layer of straw on the floor, which he begins to sweep away with a polished shoe. “Ada turns a blind eye to magic, but that doesn’t mean she participates.”
“So you still practice?”
He stops what he’s doing and gives me a devilish grin that seems out of place on his saintly face. “I’m reformed, but I’m still a witch. I just reserve my skills for helping clients these days, and dealing with any trouble that finds us.”
“I thought this place was protected,” I say, feeling useless as I watch him kneel on the floor. He takes out a chunky stick of what seems to be homemade chalk and begins drawing on the space he cleared. “How are you allowed to do magic?”
“This place is protected from the supernatural,” he explains. “Ironically, witchcraft is part of the natural world. Call it the human birthright.”
“I just hope that birthright is really enough to keep Azrael away,” I say, hugging myself to stave off the chill in the barn.
Thomas’ drawing is starting to take shape into some strange symbol, but it’s not one that I recognize. It looks a bit like a dragon if I squint. “Oh, don’t fret. Azrael isn’t a normal angel. He’s more or less a robot,” he says, leaning back to survey his work. He goes in again and erases a few lines, redrawing them with renewed zeal. “He wouldn’t dare set foot on this property without a warrant.”
“Well, there are circumstances where Heaven’s authority may deem someone too great of a threat to allow sanctuary, but it hasn’t happened in my lifetime and I doubt even you will be the first,” he says with a wink.
“There,” says Thomas, standing to his feet. He grabs the candles from the basket and places them around the circular drawing.
“What is it?”
“It’s Samael’s name.”
“Oh,” I say, struggling to make out the letters.
He laughs and gives my back a sound pat. “It’s not meant for humans to read. It’s a Solomonic summoning sigil. We use them for exorcisms.”
“Exorcisms?” I cry. “But we want to find him, not get rid of him.”
“The sigil only summons the demon and holds him in place,” he says in a reassuring tone. “It’s the easiest way to get him here. If he’s free anywhere in the physical universe, it will bring him.”
“And if he’s not?”
His silence is answer enough. The door to the barn slides open a crack and I squint at the light before the door shuts again. Ada walks in with a sour look on her face and something shiny dangling from her hand.
“What are you doing?” Thomas’ face registers shock. I was starting to think he wasn’t capable of being flustered.
“If you’re getting back into this nonsense, I’m not about to let you do it alone,” she says, coming to a stop in front of him. “Heaven knows all sense leaves you the moment you get chalk in your hands.”
He grins widely for someone being scolded like a child. His gaze flickers down to the necklace hanging from her hands. At first I think it’s a match to the one she’s wearing, and then I realize it is hers. “What’s this?”
“You know what it is, Thomas. If you’re going to do this, you need protection.
He sighs and looks ready to argue when she presses a finger against his lips. She knits her brow in concern. “Just humor me. Please.”
His shoulders fall as the fight drains from him. Ada puts on a show, but I realize then that Thomas is the one calling the shots. What must it be like to have someone so powerful love you so much that he’d defy his very nature just to be with you?
Thomas works on the last finishing touches of the sigil, Ada’s rosary hanging from his neck as he scrawls arcane lines into the floor. I somehow doubt he believes in anything it stands for, but maybe his belief in her is enough to keep him safe.
“We have to start now,” he says, taking on a somber countenance I haven’t seen before. He kneels down and I hover for a moment before Ada takes my hand and pulls me down onto the floor a safe distance away.
“Don’t make a sound for this part,” she whispers.
I don’t dare.
Thomas is kneeling, his eyes open but his head bowed as if in silent prayer. I don’t want to think about what he’s praying to. He closes his eyes and in that exact moment, all the candles light. His head lolls back and he takes in a deep breath before a low, murmured incantation fills the silence. It starts out as sporadic and clumsy but picks up to a steady clip and rhythm as he continues.
The words are foreign, maybe Latin, but I don’t recognize any of them. I understand enough Spanish that I should be able to make out at least a little if that’s what it is.
“What is that?” I whisper to Ada.
“It’s Enochian,” she says, her worried gaze fixed on Thomas. “The angelic language.”
The candles cast warm shadows on the high walls of the barn and the droning incantation coming from Thomas’ lips is beginning to put me into a trance. Ada’s light touch on my arm jolts me out of it just as the chanting stops.
Thomas holds his hand out, beckoning me.
“Go,” Ada says, giving me a light push.
I stand, but my legs feel like gelatin and it’s not just from sitting on them for so long. When I reach Thomas, he grabs me by the hand and pulls me down with him. It soon becomes clear that he’s the one in a trance, and his gentle demeanor is stripped away.
When he slips a knife from his sleeve, I strain away out of instinct. His blue eyes fly open, piercing. “Do you want to find him or not?”
Ada nods a somber reassurance. I’m not at all sure I trust Thomas, but something deep inside is telling me to trust her. I force myself to kneel beside him and wince as he holds my outstretched palm under the gleaming blade.
The cut hurts, but it’s over in an instant. A thin sliver along my lifeline. It’s enough to create a steady trickle of blood, which he holds over the sigil. The moment the first drop hits, the white chalk glows. Soon, it’s almost impossible to see anything but our clasped hands over the sigil of light.
“Is it working?” I dare to ask only after what seems like ages.
Thomas frowns, slightly more himself. After seeing the state he goes into, I understand why Ada is hesitant for him to practice magic like this. “I think so.”
“What’s wrong?” Ada’s voice is close behind us, but it’s hard to see her through the light. “This isn’t supposed to happen.”
“I don’t know,” he says, releasing my hand. “The sigil is right, or it wouldn’t have lit up. It’s like the ritual is stalled.”
“Is it her blood?”
They both turn to me. “What? What’s wrong with my blood?”
“I should have checked,” Thomas mutters, raking a hand through his hair. “It’s horribly awkward to ask and I thought it was a safe bet.”
Ada sighs. “Kids these days.”
“What are you talking about?” I demand.
“The ritual to summon a demon requires virgin blood,” says Ada.
My face grows hot under the burning light. “I am a virgin, but how did you --?”
“Oh, I can spot from one a mile away,” says Thomas.
Ada gives him a withering look. “Then the spell should have worked.”
“I’m not human,” I remind them. “Could that be it?”
“It’s never mattered before,” he says. “I’ve used humans and angels before, I don’t see why a hybrid shouldn’t work.”
I’m about to reply when a strange noise begins emanating from the circle. It puts off vibrations that crawl through my hands and up my wrists, bringing every pulse and breath into its rhythm. “What is that?” I ask, staring into the circle, mystified.
They both look at me like I’m crazy.
“What is what?” Thomas asks slowly.
“You don’t hear that?” A shiver takes me over. The hum is almost musical, and its vibrations seem to wake every cell in my body. “That sound, it’s… it’s beautiful.”
Thomas creeps out of the sigil and motions for Ada to do the same. “We can’t hear anything, Jordan, but I want you to listen very carefully. Is there a voice underneath the sound?”
I hesitate. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Listen harder. Close your eyes and focus only on the sound, only on what you feel.”
I do as he says but it’s hard at first to focus through the whispered exchange between them. The sound begins to take over without much effort. I can’t not listen. At first the strange sound is all I hear but then I realize Thomas is right. I can make out a voice. It’s so faint that I can barely hear it. Maybe it’s only there because I want it to be, but it’s enough to give me hope. “I hear something.”
“Good,” says Thomas. I open my eyes but all I can see is light. His voice is disembodied, somewhere in the darkness beyond the cloistered glowing ball I find myself in. “That’s Samael.”
“What?” My disbelief fades as the voice becomes clearer, familiar. It’s still faint, but it’s growing stronger every second.
“What is he saying?” Thomas presses.
I listen harder. “Jordan?” It has to be wishful thinking. “It sounds like he’s calling my name.”
“That’s good.” Thomas sounds hopeful. “Call back to him.”
I hesitate. It feels silly calling out to someone only I can hear, but I have to try. “Sam?” I venture. “Samael, can you hear me?”
“Jordan.” The voice is strong now. I can hear it, and I mean really hear it. It sounds like he’s in the same house but in a different room.
“Yeah, it’s me,” I say, a bit louder. “I’m here, Sam. I’m at the safe house, with Ada and Thomas. Where are you?”
Nothing. My heart drops. “I think I lost him.”
Ada and Thomas are silent. Someone touches my shoulder and I whirl around only to find him standing there in front of me. He’s vague, almost like a hologram, but it’s him. “Sam?” I plead. Please let it be him.
He reaches out for me again and his hand rests underneath my chin. His touch is solid even though he isn’t. He watches me like I’m the one who’s see-through. “Is it really you?”
“Of course it’s me,” I say, grabbing his hand, like holding onto him will somehow keep him with me. If that was all it took, we’d still be together. “What happened, why didn’t you come with me?”
“Azrael was following us,” he murmurs. There’s something dull about his eyes, and it’s not just the same haze that surrounds his entire body. It’s like he hasn’t slept in years. “He was closer than we thought. He tried to follow us through the portal, but I jumped him. I made sure he couldn’t follow you through.”
“Then where did you go?” I cry, holding onto him with both hands. “Where are you now?”
“Ask him if he remembers anything about his surroundings, Jordan.” Thomas’ voice jolts me back to reality, but not enough to lose him. Not quite. “He’s confused, you’ll have to lead him.”
I take a hard look at Sam and force myself to accept that Thomas is right. He’s here, but not all of him. Something is missing. “Sam,” I say, giving his hand a squeeze gentler than my previous vice grip. “Can you tell me anything about where you are? What does it look like?”
He’s still silent. I’m beginning to think he’s incapable of answering at all when he finally murmurs, “River.”
“There’s a river… keeps… on.”
I gulp. “He says there’s a really long river.”
“Ask him what color the sky is.”
Despite the fact that I feel like I’m wasting precious time I ask. “Sam, what color is the sky?”
“Red,” he murmurs. “Red and gray.”
“He says it’s red and gray, what does that mean?”
“Shit,” mutters Thomas. “He’s in Hell.”
“What?” I nearly lose my grasp on Sam. His hand is limp at his side now. What little life was in him before is fading fast. “No. He can’t be there, he doesn’t belong there.”
“Jordan, the light is fading,” warns Ada. “You don’t have much time.”
“What should I do?” I cry. “What do I ask him?”
“Nothing.” There’s no hope left in Thomas’ voice. “You should say goodbye, Jordan.”
“No!” I scream, shutting them out. I throw my arms around Sam. He feels less solid than he did moments ago. “I’m not saying goodbye, I’m not letting you go.”
To my amazement, his arms wrap around me, stiff but strong. “You have to, kiddo.”
For a moment, his voice is a little less monotonous. I look up at him, and for the first time he isn’t just looking past me.
“I’ll get you out,” I say through gritted teeth. “I don’t care if I have to use myself as a bargaining chip, I’m not about to let you rot in Hell because of me. And what about your brother?”
He frowns. “He’s here, somewhere. I’ll find him. Find Gabriel. He’ll keep you safe.”
“I don’t want to be safe, I want to be with you!”
Sam falls silent, leaving me in shock at my own words. I almost take them back, but I can’t. They’re true, and I might never get another chance to tell him.
“You don’t owe me anything,” he says at length.
“It's not about that! It's not about what I owe you, or why you signed up to protect me. I've had to learn to live without everyone else, but I --” I grit my teeth and surrender the last of my dignity. “I know you're a demon and I know we barely even know each other, but I can't live in a world where you just don't exist, even if it's only for a day.”
He stares at me and I decide that the only thing worse than being laughed at is being looked at like you’re crazy. He takes my face in his hands, leans down and presses his lips against mine, quelling any lingering doubts that what happened between us was all in my head.
The kiss ends all too soon and he pulls away with a gentle smile. “Remember what I told you about honoring the dead?”
I nod weakly.
“Don’t you dare add me to your list of regrets.”
It takes a few tries to get my voice to work right. “I won’t. I’ll find you, Sam.”
His gaze turns distant again. “Goodbye, Jordan.”
I shake my head. I won’t say that. I can’t.
Not that I’m given the chance.
The light vanishes and takes Sam with it. My eyes fly open even though I thought they already were. I’m on the floor and Thomas is holding me while Ada looms over us with a look of concern.
“What happened, darlin’?”
“He’s in Hell,” I say, grabbing her arm. “We have to get him out.”
She looks away and Thomas clears his throat. “I’m sorry, but it’s not that simple.”
“Why not?” I sit up. “You were able to contact him. There has to be a way to reach him.”
“Astral contact is different,” he says. “He wasn’t really here. Even that shouldn’t have been possible considering where he is.”
“Why was it possible?” asks Ada.
“I have my theories, but for now she needs rest,” he says, pulling me to my feet. I want to tell him I’m fine but the moment I move away to walk on my own, my legs give out on me like a newborn foal’s. “Hell is in another dimension. That kind of sustained contact would be enough to drain even me. I see why they want her.”
“Please, if you can’t help me, then summon Bo. Maybe he can –“
“This is above Bo’s paygrade,” says Ada. “He can manipulate Heaven’s communications, but even he can’t break into Hell. Thank goodness,” she mutters.
Before I can question her, Thomas sweeps me off my feet and I quickly realize that he was right about at least one thing. I don’t have the strength to fight, but that doesn’t stop me from trying.
“Put me down! I have to call Gabriel.”
“Gabriel?” Ada frowns.
“You’re not calling anyone,” says Thomas, carrying me out of the barn. The light is blinding. “Not until you rest.”
“I can’t rest while Sam is being tortured!”
“Samael is in Hell. A thousand years have already passed since you spoke as far as he’s concerned. A few hours of sleep will hardly make a difference,” he says in a fatherly tone I’m all too familiar with.
“No,” I say, straining to get out of his arms. He glances back over his shoulder. “May I?”
“Go ahead,” says Ada.
Thomas passes a hand over my forehead before I can respond. A warm, heavy sensation spreads throughout my body until I can’t hold my own head up anymore. It falls against his shoulder and I’m only vaguely aware of being carried up the stairs and placed on a soft bed. Ada drapes a blanket over me and says something to Thomas in a hushed tone. Not that it matters. My brain is processing everything too slowly to decipher her words anyway.
All I can do is let the heaviness take me over and hope that the next time I open my eyes, he’ll be there. At this point, I don’t care if he’s real or not. I just can’t deal with that being the last time I ever see him.
The following weeks bleed into each other with little distinction. This morning Thomas informed me that it’s actually been two-and-a-half months since the black hole dumped me onto the lawn of their little farmhouse. Time just isn’t the same without Samael. Nothing is.
“Finish your eggs before they get cold,” says Ada. Neither of them looks more than ten years my senior, but they’ve already taken on the role of my surrogate parents.
“Sorry, I’m just not hungry.” She’s starting to see through my trick of moving the food around on the plate.
Ada sighs, folding her napkin in her lap. Just when I think I’m going to get a lecture, she says, “Thomas is going into town today. I thought you might like to go with him.”
I look up from my untouched breakfast in confusion. “I thought it wasn’t safe to leave the property.”
“Oh, the town is within the boundaries of the sanctuary,” she says, clearing our plates. “Besides, if anyone comes after you in town we’ve got bigger problems. This is your home.”
I hesitate. “It is?”
“Of course,” says Thomas, on his way down the stairs. “Like I said before, all supernatural creatures are more or less human while they’re here. The nephilim is no exception, so you won’t pose any danger here. Besides, Ada and I never got around to having children. We’ve talked it over and we think it might be nice to have some young blood in the house.”
My hand goes instinctively to the long healed wound on my palm and Ada laughs. “He means that figuratively, of course.”
Thomas checks his watch. It’s a pocket watch, just another little reminder of an era he hasn’t quite left behind. “I’d better get going if I’m still heading into town.”
“Jordan is going with you.”
“She is?” The news seems to be as much of a surprise to him as it is to me.
Ada gives me a reassuring nod. Thomas is right, there’s no arguing with her.
“I guess the fresh air would be nice,” I admit, standing.
“Wonderful. Grab a jacket and meet me in the truck,” he says.
He’s got the fatherly concern about mildly inconvenient temperatures down, at least. I open the hall closet and pull Sam’s leather jacket out of it. Thomas tracked the truck down a few miles easy. Fortunately, it got tossed off the road and out of the way of looters. It was there along with his chain, a mix CD and a few other trivial items I’ve made a shrine out of.
The jacket doesn’t come close to fitting me, even with the sleeves rolled up, but I don’t care. I resist the urge to sleep with it most nights, if only to preserve the scent that still clings to it. Thomas eyes the jacket and looks at me like I’m a one-legged puppy dog, but to his credit he starts the car and doesn’t say a word as we start out on the road.
“How far are we from town?” I ask, gazing out at the picturesque countryside. It really is a beautiful place, if remote.
“Far enough to stay sane, close enough to make a run for some supplies for your birthday gift.”
“Gift?” The mere mention of my birthday is enough to sour my good mood. The last one was much too recent.
“We know you’re not comfortable with a party but it didn’t feel right not doing anything,” he says. “It’s coming up, you know.”
“Yeah, I guess it is.” I sigh. “You shouldn’t have gotten me anything. You’ve both already done so much for me.”
“Don’t turn it down until you know what it is. A summoning isn’t easy to come by around these parts.”
“Summoning?” I echo, sitting up straight.
He laughs. “That’s the first time I’ve seen you excited about something.”
“You’re really going to try contacting Sam again?” I ask hopefully.
“No. All that’s going to do is make it harder on you if we can’t find a way to get him out,” he says with a sigh. “I am going to summon Boshareth.”
“But I thought you said he couldn’t break into Hell.”
“He can’t but if anyone knows how to, it’s him. He’s my next to last resort since I’ve exhausted all my other contacts.”
I feel another pang of guilt upon realizing that he hasn’t just been passively looking for the answer in his books. “Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it. Really.” His grip tightens on the wheel. “Ada is in this line of work because helping people is just what she does. For me, it’s penance.”
“Penance?” I ask warily. “I mean, what you do is kind of creepy, but is it really all that bad?”
“It’s what I did in the past,” he says, keeping his gaze on the country road ahead. “I wasn’t just a witch before I met Ada, I was a monster. A real monster of my own design, not just someone born a different kind of creature like yourself.”
“You wouldn’t know it from the way Ada looks at you.”
He smiles. “That’s the key to happiness, Jordan. Find someone who looks at you like you already are the person you want to become.” He pauses as I consider his words. “Or maybe you already have?”
I chew my lip. “Sam makes me feel more human than I ever did before I knew I wasn’t,” I concede. “That doesn’t mean we’re right for each other.”
“True enough, but it seems there was at least something to it on his end. No reward Gabriel could have promised for protecting you is worth going to Hell.”
“I guess not, but that doesn’t mean he feels the same way I do.”
“And how do you feel?”
I freeze. “I don’t know.”
“You’re not a particularly hardy soul, no offense,” he says, turning onto a larger road. Moments later, the edge of town pops into view. It’s just a sprinkling of homes and small buildings with a small white church on top of the only hill as far as the eye can see. It’s immediately identifiable as a church, but the little white steeple drives it home. “In my experience, there’s only one thing that can drive a regular person to do the things you’ve done.”
“What’s that?” I ask carefully.
He gives me a knowing look as he parks in front of the general store and gets out. “We’re just picking up a few things. Nothing too strange, don’t worry.”
I breathe an inaudible sigh of relief and try to pretend I don’t notice the townsfolk gawking at us as we make our way down the aisles. I hold the basket while Thomas fills it with garlic, nails and enough salt to open a bad restaurant.
We make it to the checkout and the cashier doesn’t bat an eye at the strange basket, but she looks at me like I have two heads.
“My niece from the northeast,” Thomas says in answer to her unspoken question.
She nods doubtfully but rings us out without an issue. The ride to the store was as pleasant as I’m capable of finding anything these days, but the way back is torturous. Now that we have a sliver of a lead on how to get Sam back, every mile passes like a thousand.
I apologize to Ada for tearing past her on my way into the house and run up the stairs to my room. I can still hear them talking about my newfound energy downstairs as I fall to my knees and open the trunk at the end of my bed. Wrapped carefully in a stack of quilted blankets is his chain. The metal rustles when I pick it up and heft the weight of the chain. I’ve long since scrubbed all traces of Abigail’s blood from it. It’s cool and heavy in my hands, but it hums with the same strange energy I felt in the summoning circle.
I drag it down the stairs as carefully as I can without sending myself sprawling forward. Thomas rushes over to take it from me. “What’s this for?”
“If Bo knows a way into Hell, maybe he can get it to Sam at the very least,” I say.
Ada gives Thomas a questioning look and he shrugs. “Can’t hurt. Everything else is ready, with the exception of one ingredient.”
It takes only a moment to read between the lines. “Take as much blood as you want,” I say. “As long as it works.”
“Just a few drops will be more than enough,” he assures me, motioning for us to follow him out to the barn.
“You’re sitting in on this one, too?” I ask. Ada seems less nervous than last time. Maybe realizing that Thomas didn’t fully go over to the dark side eased her concerns.
“I haven’t seen Boshareth in nearly a century,” she says, motioning for me to help her open the barn doors since Thomas’ hands are full. “This’ll be like a reunion.”
Thomas’ grimace doesn’t escape me. The ritual stage is laid out just like last time, only this time the sigil is different. Instead of a dragon, it looks like a horned skull. There’s something unsettlingly familiar about it.
“I’m gonna guess that doesn’t stand for little Bo peep?”
Ada laughs. “He’s not all that bad. The stories are mostly overblown.”
“Overblown, says the saint of the Boogeyman,” Thomas mutters.
“Oh, Tommy’s just a little jealous since Boshareth and I used to see each other socially.”
“You dated the Boogeyman?” I ask in disbelief.
“It was eons ago. My standards weren’t quite as high as they are now.”
“She’s always had a thing for the bad boys,” Thomas says, waving me over.
I’m too stunned by the revelation to notice the cut of the knife until it’s over this time.
“You’re getting better at being a sacrifice,” he teases, holding my hand over the circle.
“Great, I’ll put that on my college applications if I somehow survive all this,” I say in a dry tone I can only hope masks my nervousness. Bo gives me the creeps, even if he is my best hope of finding Sam. Hearing him over the airwaves is bad enough, I’m not looking forward to seeing him in person.
Thomas pulls me back to where Ada stands a safe distance from the circle. It lights up like before, but the process is much faster. A blinding pillar of light bursts from the floor and through the roof. It disappears, but the spots in my vision keep me from seeing the figure left standing in the center at first.
It’s a man, and not a particularly large one. He’s neither short nor tall, but he is decidedly on the thin side. His dark hair hangs over his eyes in stark contrast to his pale skin. To my relief, he’s fully clothed. To my surprise, he’s wearing jeans and a t-shirt.
He looks up to reveal a surprisingly handsome face, but there’s a sleazy quality to his gaze as it flits from me to Thomas and settles on Ada with almost predatory satisfaction. “Ada, baby doll,” he purrs with outstretched arms. “When I said we should do lunch in a few hundred years, I had someplace a little classier in mind.” He eyes the barn distastefully.
She keeps her distance and watches him with crossed arms. “Hey there, Bo. Long time no see.”
“You still playing Darren to his Samantha?” He nods to Thomas, who pretends not to hear him.
“Boshareth,” I say, startled when I succeed in drawing his attention. “I’m the one who summoned you.”
He takes a step forward but doesn’t leave the symbol on the floor. “Did you now, little girl?”
I swallow hard. “More or less. I need your help. I’m –“
“I know who you are,” he says with a dismissive wave. “You’re Sammy’s little girlfriend, which makes you no fun. Can’t go messin’ around with your best friend’s girl and all that.”
I decide that downplaying my importance to Sam probably isn’t the best idea and let the misnomer slide. “Azrael got through when you sent us through the black hole and Sam sacrificed himself to get me to sanctuary. He’s in Hell.”
“I know where he is. I’ve got eyes everywhere, remember?”
I frown. “Then why haven’t you tried to help him? You’re his friend.”
His smug expression falters. “You’re mouthy. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories about what I do to mouthy little girls who don’t mind their manners.”
“Bo,” Ada says in a warning tone.
“Sorry, I’ll behave,” he says, raising his hands in submission. I decide maybe I should be a little more afraid of Ada considering that the tiny woman is currently in command of a legendary demon and a powerful witch. “I don’t know what you expect me to do about it. You think I haven’t tried? I’ve looked in every deep, dark nook and cranny I know about, but wherever he is they’ve got him buried deep.”
“Did you try the river?” asks Thomas.
Bo freezes and presses a hand against his forehead, as if in shock. “The river of souls? Well shit, I didn’t think of that. Hot dog, I’m gonna march right back to command central and do a sweep of the most obvious place in the universe.”
“Just checking,” Thomas says with a placid smile.
“What’s happening to him down there?” I ask in a desperate attempt to steer the conversation back on track.
“Down there,” Bo scoffs. “Oh, that’s cute. So mortal, and yet so not. You know what she is, right?” He turns to Ada.
“We know,” she says flatly. “Answer the girl’s question. I’m not the one who called you.”
He clutches at his heart as if she’s deeply wounded him. I get the feeling it’s not as much of an act as he’d like to pretend. “Fine. You wanna know what they’re doin’ to him, kid? They’re torturing him in the worst, most specific ways possible, and that’s the appetizer. He’s been gone a year. That’s roughly the equivalent of a quarter of human history in Hell Standard Time. That’s why I gave up after the first week he was gone, and you should do the same.”
I cringe. “That’s not happening.”
“Even if you do somehow manage to do what I can’t, there’s not gonna be anything left of him to save. His soul has been stripped of anything resembling sanity or his personality. He’s not in Cell Block C. There are a whole lot of demons down there and aside from Hell’s automatic torture programs, the shit they’re doing to him makes the Shawshank Redemption look like a chick flick.”
“Boshareth,” Ada scolds.
“Besides, by now his physical vessel is probably completely burned away,” says Bo, ignoring him.
“Why does that matter?” I ask. “He’s a demon, he can just possess a new one.”
Bo cocks an eyebrow. “You don’t know him that well if you think Sam would ever ‘just possess’ another human. He’s been in that raggedy old meat suit since you crawled outta ooze.”
“But if I could find him another body, then I could get him out?”
“Notwithstanding a million other problems, yeah, sure, technically. You’re not human, the hellfire would take a lot longer to affect you. You do understand that you’d have to get in, find your way through the labyrinth that is Hell, move past all the other demons and pray to your sweet useless daddy that Azrael isn’t still in there, right?”
I nod. “Just tell me how.”
“Jordan!” Ada cries.
“What? This was the whole point of summoning him, wasn’t it? To find a way to get Sam back.”
“Of course, but not by sending you with him!”
As I look between Thomas and Ada, taking in the looks of panic on their faces, the obvious occurs to me. “You knew there was no magic spell to get him out. You just wanted me to hear it from him, so I’d give up.”
Ada steps forward, resting her hands on my shoulders. “Sweetheart, Samael is gone,” she says gently. “The sooner you realize that, the sooner you can get back to living your life.”
“I don’t have a life!” I cry, stepping away from her. Tears sting my eyes, always betraying me when I need to look strong. “Everything, everyone is gone. My friends, my parents, even Abigail. Maybe I didn’t choose this, but they’re still dead because of me.”
“Jordan…” Thomas stands beside me. “That doesn’t mean your life is over. Heaven isn’t the only place that can contain the nephilim. Here, your power is neutralized. You could live with us and have a normal life.”
The offer is a tempting one, and more than anything I deserve. I’ve felt more at peace these last few weeks with Thomas and Ada than I have most of my life.
“It would be easy,” I admit. “There are no deadlines, no after school clubs, no college applications. No angels breaking down the door in the middle of the night. For the first time in my life, I feel like a kid.”
“That’s how it should be,” Thomas says, placing a hand over Ada’s. “None of us are normal, but that doesn’t mean we can’t live normal lives here.”
I hesitate. It’s not actual hesitation so much as taking a moment to grieve something I know I wasn’t really meant to have. I knew what I had to do the moment Boshareth said there was nothing that could be done to pull Sam out. I clutch the locket around my neck. It’s stuck so I can’t even open it, but it gives me strength, if only because Sam is the one who put it there.
“I can’t,” I say quietly. It takes more strength to utter the words than I’d expect. “I want to, more than anything, but I can’t. Sam isn’t just gone because he disappeared. I ran. I’m the one who walked into Azrael’s trap because I didn’t trust him and he paid the price.”
“Getting yourself killed won’t make up for that,” Ada says earnestly.
“I know that now. Before he disappeared, Sam told me that the best way I could honor the dead wasn’t by feeling guilty or having a death wish, but by carrying them with me as I lived my life.”
“That’s right,” says Thomas. “And you can do that here. It’s what he would want.”
I shake my head. “Sam isn’t gone. Not yet. I don’t know how, but I can feel it and as long as he’s out there, if there’s any chance I can reach him, I have to try. That’s how I make this right. Not just for him, but for my parents, my friends, even Abigail. That thing is still walking around in Brent’s body and I have to stop him from using me to hurt anyone else. No one else dies because of me, and sure as hell not Sam.”
“Jordan, even if we could get you into Hell, it’s filled with demons,” Thomas says slowly, as if he’s speaking to a child. I guess to him, I am one.
“I’m not worried about the demons,” I say, glancing at Bo. “Luriel and Sam knew what I was immediately. The same goes for the rest of you, right?”
The demon shrugs. “I guess so.”
“Then they’re not going to risk blowing Hell apart by hurting me. All I have to do is get to Sam and give him something to fight with,” I say, lifting his chain off the ground. “If I do that, can you get us out?”
I can only hope the ensuing silence is a sign that they’re at least listening to me. No one will look me in the eye.
“It’s more than a longshot, but it’s possible if you can get to the right coordinates,” says Bo.
Thomas glowers at him. “Even if the demons leave her alone and she somehow finds Sam, what about Azrael? There’s a good chance he’s still trapped down there. He’ll destroy her the first chance he gets.”
“I don’t think so,” I say quickly. “He could have killed me at Abigail’s house, but he didn’t. He wanted to know who my father is and as far as he knows, Sam and I are the only ones who can tell him.”
“He could have gotten the information out of Sam,” Ada says gently.
I shake my head. “Sam wouldn’t cave. Even if he did, I’m willing to take that chance. Angels are going to come for me eventually, sanctuary or not. At least this way I’m not a sitting duck.”
“No, you’re just duck a l’orange delivered to the hunters on a platter.”
“Thomas!” Ada scolds.
“It’s the truth and you know it.”
Even Bo seems affected by the awkward silence that follows.
“I don’t like it any more than you do, Thomas, but this is her decision to make,” Ada says, taking a step back from me. Her eyes meet mine, searching. “But you need to be sure, Jordan. You have to understand that even if we get you in there, there might not be anything left of him to save.”
“There is.” My voice sounds surer than I have any right to be. “Even if there isn’t, I have to try.”
She lets out a slow breath of resignation. “Alright, then. Bo, you’re our inside man. How do we get her in and out?”
Thomas mutters an unintelligible curse and stalks away from the circle.
Bo gives me a dubious once over. “If you’re serious, it’s possible, but it’s not gonna be easy. I have to open a portal in and out, but it won’t last forever. It’s an arcane ritual that could kill you on its own, and once you’re in I can’t guide you. You’re on your own and it’s easy for an angel to lose track of reality in that mindfuck.”
“Watch your mouth, Bo,” Ada mutters.
“What, we’re sending her into Hell but she’s too precious to hear a ‘bad word?’”
He has a point.
“I know it’s not going to be easy, but how do I find Sam?” I ask, hoping to steer him back on track.
“Hell is a big place,” Bo says, fussing with his slightly greasy black hair. “There are circles within layers within kingdoms. The ritual will open a portal into Sam’s circle, but you’ll have to locate him from there.”
“That’s great!” For the first time, I feel myself crossing the thin line from irrational denial to farfetched hope.
“Hang on. A circle of Hell is roughly the size of New York City with twice the population, even if it doesn’t look like it. The demons might not be an issue, but the damned souls aren’t always with it enough to discriminate, if you know what I mean,” he says, tapping his forehead.
I gulp. I don’t know, and all I can do is hope I don’t find out. “So, what do I do to stay safe?”
“To stay safe? You stay here,” he scoffs. “To reduce your chances of being eaten by a hoard of psychos, you keep your head down and move as fast as you can to grandmother’s house. Don’t talk to anyone if you can help it, but steer especially clear of demons.”
“How do I tell the difference?”
A wicked grin splits his face. “In Hell? Trust me, you’ll know.”
“Demons take on a spirit form once their human hosts burn away in Hell,” Ada explains. “They look different depending on the condition of the soul, but they’re all pretty…”
“Grotesque?” Bo offers, still grinning. “It’s a good thing I always put on my best face for you.”
“No one wants to hear your lecherous remarks, you buffoon.”
I turn around, surprised to see Thomas walking towards us. He’s carrying a tin box full of white candles and other assorted supplies that can only be for a ritual.
“What’s all that?” Ada asks, giving the box a quizzical look.
“I know the ritual Bo is talking about,” he mutters, avoiding eye contact with both of us. “The portal has to be opened on the exact anniversary of their relationship.”
“But we aren’t in a relationship.”
“It’s a figure of speech,” he says. “It means the day you met.”
“Oh, that’s easy. It was the night of my party, after the fire,” I murmur. It’s hard to believe that one of the best things in my life could come from the worst night of it.
“Yes, but it has to be precise, down to the last minute,” he says. “Considering the fact that your birthday is coming up soon, we need to move quickly.”
I stare at him for a moment, struggling to process his sudden change in heart. I decide not to question it in case he changes his mind. “Okay. What can I do?”
“Just this,” he says, pulling a pair of silver shears from his pocket. Before I can process what’s happened, he’s snipped off a lock of my hair and dropped it into the box. “No blood required for this spell. Just something of yours and something of his.” He eyes the leather jacket.
My face grows warm as I slip it off and hand it to him. Without its reassuring weight, I feel like I might drift off.
“You’re not going to destroy it, are you?”
“You’ll have it back by morning,” he assures me. “In the meantime, I need some peace and quiet.”
“What about me?” Bo demands. “You’re really gonna drag me all this way and not even invite me inside?”
“You are a criminal wanted by Heaven, Hell and everything in between,” says Ada, folding her arms. “Consider yourself lucky we’re not turning you in.”
“You’ll live,” she says, linking her arm in mind. “You heard the man. Come on inside and help me finish up that batch of holy water while Thomas works.”
I follow her outside only to find that the sun has long since set. Halfway across the divide between the barn and the house, I venture a glance over my shoulder to make sure we’re alone. “What happened?”
“What do you mean?”
“Thomas was so set against me going, and now he’s helping Bo with the spell. Why?”
She gives me a knowing smile as she sits down at the table and hands me an empty bottle to fill from a plain glass pitcher. It looks like any other, and I’d think it was if I hadn’t seen Ada conduct a blessing over it firsthand.
“Nothing changed, darlin’. He’s as against it as he ever was.”
“Then why is he helping?”
“Because when you really love someone, that’s what you do. You speak your peace and then you let them make their own way in the world, and you help them do it as best as you can.”
The four letter word takes me by surprise. When I look up, Ada is watching me.
“I meant what I said. Thomas loves you, and so do I.”
She laughs at the look on my face. “Well, don’t look so surprised. When you’re our age, the difference between a few months and a few days isn’t a whole heck of a lot. Besides, Thomas sees too much of himself in you to fault you for what you’re doing.”
“Oh, you’d be surprised. I never told you the real reason we never had children of our own, did I?”
I shake my head.
She sighs, filling a flask from another pitcher with a steady hand. No matter how hard I try, I always spill a few drops. “Thomas’ father was a wicked man who made no distinction between commercial goods and human beings. He was a land owner back in the days when setting up home in this country was akin to moving to outer space.”
My eyes widen. “That’s a long time ago.”
“Mhm. Let’s just say Nicholas Verre was one of the reasons why they had to make civil laws about savage things. He showed no less brutality to his own family than the people he owned,” she says in a cracked voice. “He killed Thomas’ mother and youngest brother right in front of the rest of the family, including Thomas. He was barely seven at the time.”
“That’s – I can’t even imagine something so evil,” I say, my stomach churning.
“Men make better monsters than some demons and they always have,” she says, screwing the cap on the finished flask. She crosses herself before setting it aside. “I’m telling this so you’ll understand Thomas a little bit better. See, you’d think after all that that Thomas would have grown up to hate his father, but he didn’t.”
I frown. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
“That’s good,” she murmurs. “I hope you never do. You see, sometimes, when a person goes through something that’s too terrible for the mind to process and too painful for the heart to absorb, especially at such a young age, they twist it around in their head. The things they’ve felt and seen are too much to bear in a world of sanity and reason, so the person they should hate becomes an anchor as they slide deeper and deeper into a false reality where up is down and down is up. They cling to that reality, that anchor, with all they have because to let go and see it for what it is means losing everything.”
“So Thomas became like his father?” It seems incomprehensible that the gentle if somewhat somber man I know could ever do such horrible things.
“Not entirely. He didn’t have the stomach for being a slave owner, but he was the only son his father had left after killing one and driving the other to madness, so there was little Nicholas could do but try to beat the ‘weakness’ out of him,” she sighs. “When that didn’t work, he cast him out entirely. “It’s a long story and it’s not mine to tell, but when Thomas was down, a witch was the one who picked him back up and made him feel powerful for the first time in his life. He did a lot of things with that power that I know he’s not proud of, but he did promise to put an end to his father’s legacy of brutality, and all these years later, he’s kept it.”
“That’s why you didn’t have children?”
“Thomas always said there was wickedness in his blood,” she murmurs. “Just like his father and his father before him. Some witches thing their power comes from their bloodline, but Thomas? As far as he’s concerned, the only fruit the Verre line will ever bear is pain.”
“But what his father did was his own choice,” I protest. “Thomas isn’t like him, and even if he has the capacity to be, he chose to be different. You both devote your lives to helping people. That has to count for something.”
She gives me a tired smile. “Preaching to the choir, darlin’. For someone like Thomas, it’s a lot easier to see the potential for redemption in others than it is to recognize it in himself. I think that’s why he’s gotten so attached to you.”
“I’m hardly the poster child for redemption,” I mutter. “I’ve left a bigger path of destruction in my wake than a tornado’s.
“That’s right. Death and destruction are in your blood as sure as anything.”
I frown. “If this is how you give pep talks, I can see why they don’t have you on sermon duty at the parish.”
She laughs. “My point is, you didn’t choose the circumstances of your birth either, but you’re still trying to make it right. If a sheltered little girl from the suburbs with no power of her own to speak of can stand up to the angel of destruction, it gives a pair of cynical old fools like Thomas and I something we haven’t had in a long time.”
“Heartburn,” she muses. “It’s downright idiotic what you’re doing and there’s almost no chance it’ll work. But,” she continues, preempting my groan. “It also gives us hope. That’s something we’ve lost over all these years living in isolation, seeing the world at its worst.”
“I don’t know what to say,” I admit. “I don’t think I’ve done anything to deserve that kind of faith.” I certainly don’t have it in myself.
“Just remember you’ve got some pretty high expectations to live up to,” she says, waving a finger in jest. “And some very worried adoptive parents to make it back to.”
My eyes sting as I try to swallow the emotion in my throat. “I will. I promise.”
“Now,” she says, grabbing another flask to fill. “Go on upstairs and get some sleep. Sometimes magic does happen overnight.”
“Wake up, Jordan.”
Someone shakes me but the bed is too soft and the jersey blanket around my shoulders is too warm to resist. The second shake is harder and a set of nails dig into my arm, jolting me awake.
When I sit up, I find myself staring at a familiar shade of blue on the walls that shouldn’t be there. I push the blanket away and look around at the bookshelves lined in contemporary literature, graphic novels and comic books and the eighties pinup poster on the wall but I still can’t bring myself to accept my surroundings.
Blonde curls block my view of the Breakfast Club on Brent’s flat screen TV. It’s the only modern thing about his room, besides his computer. He’s always weirdly romanticized the year 1984, which I can only assume is some Orwellian fixation.
“You keep falling asleep,” Tara scolds, looking back at me. “This is my favorite part.”
I stare at her, transfixed. I never realized how beautiful she is until now that she’s a sight I never thought I’d see again. She’s so alive, just the way I left her.
Well, not quite. She doesn’t have that scar over her left eyebrow from falling down the stairs in the studded designer heels her aunt bought her for her sixteenth birthday. Come to think of it, her hair is a little longer, too. She got it cut right before my party.
“Sorry.” It’s all I can think of to say. She gives me a look like I’m being a creep and turns towards the door as it opens.
“Alright, ladies,” Brent says, balancing a tray of soda cans and snacks in one hand. “Time to refuel.”
“You’re so lame,” Tara says in that tone that makes it clear she thinks he’s anything but.
He passes a Diet Coke to her and hands me a Sprite. “Enjoying the movie, Firebug?”
I freeze as our fingers brush. I can’t help but gawk at him. Just like Tara, he’s as alive as he ever was. This has to be a dream, but he even feels real. The smell of his aftershave is just a bit overpowering. It’s the kind he wore when he first started wearing it, before he learned that less is more.
“You okay?” He frowns. As his eyes search mine, they’re a refreshingly clear shade of blue. They’re his.
“Y-yeah, fine,” I say a bit too eagerly. “Just a little tired, that’s all.”
“Better grab something with some caffeine then,” he says, sifting through the portion of his VHS collection that’s migrated to his TV stand. “We’re only halfway through eighties night and I haven’t even made my next pick.”
“But we’re not even finished with mine,” Tara whines.
“I’m just queuing it up,” says Brent, sitting on the floor.
As I watch him sift through movies, their bickering becomes all too familiar background noise. It goes beyond deja vu. It’s like they’re reading from a script.
Brent pulls out a tape. It’s one of his many bootlegs, tucked in a plain white case and discernible only by a handwritten label I can’t see.
“Jaws,” we say in unison.
That’s when it hits me. This isn’t just a dream, it’s a memory. I remember this night. It’s right before the start of junior year.
They both stare at me.
“How’d you know that?” Brent asks.
I look around the room for any sign that the dream is crumbling. Even though I know it isn’t real, this moment is a gift more precious than I ever thought I’d receive and I’m terrified of doing anything to make it go away.
“Lucky guess,” I say with a nervous laugh.
Tara shrugs and goes back to her movie. Brent takes a seat beside me on the bed. I’m so lost in trying not to do anything strange that I almost miss his hand slipping around my waist.
I move away out of instinct. Nostalgia has made me forget about this part of the night. Now I’m not sure I want to relive this memory anymore.
Tara’s phone rings right when I knew it would. I want to tell her not to take the call, that it’s just her mom asking for the wireless password. That she’ll find it if she just looks on the refrigerator.
“Be right back,” she says, darting out of the room.
“No, Tara –“
“Forget her,” Brent says, grabbing my arm. “What’s up with you tonight? You’re flightier than usual.”
“I’m fine,” I say, pulling away from him.
“That’s not true.” He sweeps a lock of hair over my shoulder. “You’re still all wound up from finals. You need to relax.”
“I am,” I say, nodding to the TV set and the wrappers littering his otherwise spotless room.
“Not like that.” His hand slips under the back of my shirt and my stomach churns, because I know what’s coming next. If I could just say or do something to break the script, maybe I could change this horrible memory I’ve pushed out of my mind, because it’s not how I want to remember him, but I can’t. Its like I’m stuck. This is a horrible reenactment and I’m part of it.
“Brent, Tara is downstairs.” I can still hear her talking on the phone.
“She’ll be on the phone for an hour at least, you remember last time,” he says, pushing me back onto his bed. When I try to sit up, he rests his knee on my leg and pins me. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed how you avoid spending time alone with me.
I wonder why. “Brent, come on,” I say, managing a dry laugh.
If I don’t react, if I don’t make this a big deal, it doesn’t have to be. When his hand snakes underneath my shirt again, I cringe.
“Don’t be like that.” His tone turns icy, but he doesn’t stop.
I press against his chest, more forcefully when he seems unaffected. “I said stop.”
He freezes, like he’s assessing how far he wants this to go, but he doesn’t climb off me. “God, you’re so dramatic.”
Footsteps on the stairs get him to move where my protests failed. A moment later, Tara comes into the room. She looks between us as I sit on the edge of the bed as far from Brent as possible without drawing suspicion and try to look normal.
“Everything okay?” she asks.
“Fine,” we say in unison.
“Let’s just watch the movie,” Brent says, his mood officially soured for the night.
Tara’s gaze remains fixed on me, sharp and searching. I can tell she doesn’t buy it, but she sits down and we fall into silence as we watch the movie.
It’s the movie night we’re ever going to have.
The room shakes as the familiar opening theme plays. I close my eyes and wait for it all to fall apart. I’ve overstayed my welcome anyway.
“Jordan.” Ada shakes me awake much more gently. When I open my eyes, I’ve never been more relieved than to find myself in that upstairs room. “Wake up, darlin’. Thomas has the coordinates.”
“Coordinates?” I ask drowsily, rubbing my eyes. I realize only then that I fell asleep in my clothes. Without pausing to answer, Ada takes my arm and leads me down the hall and down the stairs to where Thomas is waiting in the kitchen. The brisk movement is helping to shake off the dream’s atmosphere.
The dark circles underneath his eyes tell me that he really did stay up all night. His anger from last night seems to have faded, but he still won’t look me in the eye. He at least gives me a nod of acknowledgment.
Even after everything Ada told me last night, I still can’t see him any differently. I’m not sure whether I was expecting him to be someone else or just to see something in him I had missed before, but he’s still the same thoughtful, gentle, melancholic Thomas.
“You know where he is?” I ask hopefully.
He nods again, taking a seat at the table. Ada brings him a cup of coffee, but tea is his usual fare.
“More or less. Hell is sort of like an organic prison that creates scenarios based off the memories and experiences of its inhabitants.”
“Wait, so Sam is literally trapped in his own mind?”
He gives me a tired smile before taking a sip of his coffee. “Thank you, dear. And yes, more or less. Angels enjoy irony a bit too much, if you ask me.”
“But how do these coordinates help?”
“Well, each circle is made up of thousands of demons and human souls. It’s not just Sam’s memories, it’s all of theirs. Everything from their worst nightmares to their sweetest dreams, which isn’t much of a distinction if you consider the nature of Hell’s general population.”
I shudder and hope he doesn’t notice. “So the coordinates will put me as close to Sam as possible?”
“Exactly. The spell will create another black hole of sorts, at the most vulnerable point of entry. For you, that happens to be the moment you and Sam first intersected.”
“The night of the party,” I murmur.
“Yep.” He takes out a sheet of parchment that looks as if it’s been burnt on all the edges to a single scrap. “Does this look right?”
I take the paper and do a double take. “The day is right, but this is way too early. After the fire, he came to see me in the hospital, but it was late at night. The party was still going on then.”
He frowns. “Are you sure?”
“Absolutely.” I remember, because I was watching the clock to see if Brent would show up. Now I remember, it wasn’t so much out of hope as fear.
Thomas shrugs. “The spell is infallible as far as I know. He must have seen you before.”
A thousand questions swirl around in my mind, but it’s too early for my brain to pull apart any one of them. “So I have to wait until my birthday to go?”
“Yes,” he says. “We also have to go to the exact location.”
My stomach twists in knots. “Back to the scene of the fire? But it’s been a year, I-I’m sure they’ve torn down the convention center by now.”
“All that matters is the location,” he says in a reassuring tone. “The building doesn’t have to be there. You also don’t have to do this.”
“No,” I say quickly. “I want to.” Before he can change his mind.
He nods solemnly. “I figured.” He reaches for the pile of books on the table and slides them over to me. There’s always something strange on the kitchen table, usually a cursed object someone has brought to have exorcized, so I didn’t pay any attention to them before.
“What are those?”
“Research,” he says. “We’ve still got a whole week until your birthday. You may as well read up on some of the demons you’re likely to run across.”
I glance at the cover of the one on top and the picture alone/ A crouched gargoyle-like creature sits crouched over a sigil similar to the ones Thomas used to summon Sam and Bo. “‘The Lesser Key of Solomon?’” I read aloud, flipping through the pages. Every entry has a picture, each one more gruesome than the last.
“Consider it the introductory encyclopedia of demonology,” says Ada. “Hope you’re good at studying.”
“It’s probably the only thing I’m good at,” I admit, closing the book. I look up at Thomas, relieved when he meets my eyes. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me,” he mutters, pushing himself up from the table. “Not for sending you to your death.”
He’s halfway out the door before I get to my feet. Ada gives her head a warning shake.
“Leave him be. Besides, you’ve got your work cut out for you.” She nods to the stack of books in front of me.
I sigh and pull the top one onto the table in front of me as Ada goes back to the dishes. I feel bad about not helping with chores, but I guess this is kind of a time-sensitive matter. Maybe it’ll take my mind off of the fact that the hospital room wasn’t the first time we met. Or at least not the first time Sam met me.
One of the first entries is about a demon named Bael. He’s depicted as a sad, goblin-like man with a frog and a cat on either side of him and awful spider legs. It says he’s one of the seven princes of Hell and he was a god of one of the countries the nation of Israel as always fighting against.
Apparently, he gives magicians who summon him the power of invisibility. I can see how that would have come in handy in high school, but I don’t see how it’s enough to make someone go through with summoning him. When I get to the part about the sacrifices the Romans used to make to him, I quickly turn the page.
Curiosity gets the best of me and I flip towards the end of the book. It’s arranged alphabetically, so I find the S section and bite my lip. Maybe I don’t want to know what it says about him.
To my simultaneous relief and disappointment, he’s nowhere to be found. There’s Sallos and Sitri, but no Samael in between.
She looks up from the dried lavender she’s collecting from the window. “Hm?”
“Why isn’t Samael in this book?”
“Which one is it?” she asks, squinting.
I hold it up so she can see the cover.
“Oh, that’s more the beginner’s guide to demonology, more or less. You won’t find him in there.” Her skirt rustles against the floor as she sifts through the pile with expertise. She pulls out a smaller blue book and offers it to me triumphantly. “This one has a pretty good entry. Curious about your boyfriend’s press, hm?”
“I’m just teasing,” she says with a musical laugh, returning to her herbs. I know she just uses them to make holy water, but I can kind of see why people think she’s the witch in the family. “It’s towards the end of the book. Page… four-fifty or thereabouts.”
The cover reads “An Understanding of Talmudic Spirits,” which may as well be in Latin like half of the other books seem to be, but I open it up anyway. After looking through the various entries, I begin to notice a pattern. “These are all about angels.”
“Mhm. That’s how a demon gets its start, you know.”
I turn to the page she mentioned and it doesn’t take long to find his entry. His depiction looks more like him than I expected. It certainly doesn’t look like any of the grotesque illustrations in the other book. He’s a tall, vaguely defined man holding an all too familiar chain in his right hand. The heads of his enemies sit at his feet and he appears to be standing in a pool of blood, but his head is held high in angelic glory.
I look up again. “Why doesn’t he have wings?”
Ada laughs. “Most angels don’t. Raphael is one of the few who’s actually described as having wings in the old lore. That came about later on.”
“Oh,” I murmur. “How do you know so much about this?”
“Whose books do you think those are?”
“They’re not Thomas’s?” I ask sheepishly.
She blows a puff of air to remove a curl that’s fallen onto her forehead, but it just ends up flopping back into the same spot. “I’m the one who taught Thomas how to summon demons.”
“Don’t look so surprised. King Solomon was the one who wrote that first book you looked at.”
“Solomon as in the Bible guy?”
She smiles. “Yes, the Bible guy. I’m surprised you know about him at all, considering where you’re from.”
“I went to Sunday school.” A few times, but she doesn’t need to know that.
She mouths a sarcastic, “Ooh.”
“Well,” she says, “summoning is just another necessary skill in an exorcist’s toolkit. Know thy enemy and all that.”
“Then can you teach me?”
“I could, but it wouldn’t do you much good,” she says. “Exorcism doesn’t kill a demon, it just sends them back to Hell, or into another vessel for containment if you’re particularly good at it. Even Thomas can’t do that.”
She grins. “If I had to. I’m no absolutist when it comes to demons—or angels for that matter—but the ones I come across in my line of work tend to warrant the full treatment. Keep reading.”
I turn back to Samael’s entry and once I start poring over the words, I can’t stop until it’s finished. His name means poison of God, and he’s a major figure in Judaism, even though he doesn’t seem to be acknowledged much in the other religions. It says he’s the angel of death and it’s his job to make men do evil so serving God is a greater sacrifice. The author seems to think he and Azazel are the same angel, but others…
This time when I look, Ada is watching me intently with a mischievous glint in her eyes. “Find anything interesting?”
“He’s the devil?”
“Oh, that’s a relative term. He certainly was the accuser, that much is true.”
“But—but how how is that even possible?” I stammer. “He's so --”
“Well, I wouldn’t call him that, but I wouldn’t say he’s evil, either. Misunderstood is probably the best term,” she muses. “Either way, he fulfilled a necessary role and he was one of God’s most faithful servants.”
“Then what happened?”
She sighs, leaning against the table. “That’s another story that isn’t really mine to tell.”
“It has to do with his brother, doesn’t it?” I ask warily.
She nods. “Let’s just say some angels fall for greed, some for power and very few for something even more powerful than that.”
“Love,” she says softly. “Deep, unwavering love that goes beyond all the laws of the universe and Heaven itself.”
“So Sam didn’t want to be a demon?”
“Now that you’ll have to ask him.” She gives me a small smile. “Keep on reading and pray hard enough and you just might get the chance.”
I turn to the front of the book with renewed determination. “Thanks, Ada.”
“No problem.” She hesitates, as if she’s not quite sure she wants to say something.
“What is it?”
“When you’re down there, most of the demons can be avoided if you’re clever enough, but there’s one you need to look out for. One you need to avoid no matter what.”
“Who’s that?” I ask, my heart fluttering.
“Lucifer,” she says, her tone grave. “If you so much as hear a syllable of his name, you run and hide and don’t come out for anything.”
My eyes widen. “Lucifer? But I thought Samael was the one everyone thinks is the devil.”
“Honey, there are worse things in this world than the devil. You don’t need to fear the dark half as much as the things that hide themselves in the light.”
My studies eat the week away and it’s the morning of my birthday before I know it. Aside from my new occupation, things have mostly gone back to normal, but Thomas still seems distant. He plays cards with us, but he always folds before the game is over and he doesn’t offer to take me into town like he used to, but he’s civil. I try to remember what Ada said and not take it personally, but it’s hard not to when I’m trying to squeeze in as much time with them as possible. My rationality grows more with each passing day, and I’ve finally accepted that this is almost certainly going to be a one-way trip.
Ada’s warning rings fresh in my mind, but it’s not like there’s much I can do. The reality is that I’m not likely going to survive long enough to meet Lucifer anyway. I’m not sure what happens in a physical body dies in Hell, but it can’t be good.
At least this time I can’t hurt anyone I love. Anyone who isn’t gone already.
“Alright, where are your boarding passes?” asks Ada, straightening Thomas’ tie. They’re both old enough that they still see flying as a special occasion you dress up for. Ada looked like she was going to cry when she realized I planned to board the plane in my jeans and hoodie. When I made a joke about dressing in layers since I’m heading South, she started crying for real and Thomas practically had to pry her arms from around me.
“Yes, love, for the fifth time,” Thomas says patiently, slipping the edge of the passes from his blazer pocket.
“Well, I’m just making sure,” she says, giving us both a once over. “You’re sure I shouldn’t come? I could leave some holy water with the priest, and –“
“Darling, you need to stay here,” says Thomas, taking her hand. She calms down almost instantly as he presses his lips against the back of it. After all these years, she still isn’t immune to his enchantment. “The town needs you and what do you think would happen if both the Keepers left their posts?”
“You're right,” she says, deflated. “I know, I just --” Her eyes meet mine and she looks away quickly, but not before I catch a glint of moisture in her eyes.
“It’s okay, Ada,” I say, stepping forward. For once, it’s my turn to put my hands on her shoulders and muster a confidence I’m entirely unentitled to. “Everything is going to be fine. I’m gonna go down there, get Sam and Bo will bring us both back. You’ll see me next year.”
If she sees me at all. The portal can only open for a sliver of time on this date. When I get back, I may feel like I was down there a few hours or a few centuries, but here exactly one year will have passed. Thomas and Bo have gone over it all time and time again. All that’s left is to go through with it.
“I know,” she says, dabbing her eye with the long sleeve of her peasant blouse. “I know you’re right.”
She knows we’re all pretending, but it’s a comforting kind of delusion.
“Jordan,” she says in a tone that threatens my resolve.
“Ada, don’t,” I plead.
“I know, but are you sure?” she asks. “I mean really sure. Maybe if you just waited another year --”
“If I wait another year, there really will be nothing left of him,” I say as firmly as I can manage. Now I know why Thomas gives her everything she wants. I’d do anything not to be the reason behind those tears.
She nods solemnly. “I know. I know, and I’m sorry. We’ve been over this before.” She sniffs. “You should go, you know how airport security is these days.”
“Bye, Ada,” I say, leaning in to give her a hug. She meets me halfway and returns it with a vice grip that shouldn’t be possible for someone so tiny.
“You remember everything we taught you,” she whispers, holding me close. “You bring him back.”
“I will,” I promise, struggling to speak through the knot in my throat. She finally lets me go and falls into Thomas’ embrace. Whatever was keeping her together dissolves in his arms and she sobs quietly into his shoulder. He strokes her back patiently and whispers a few words of comfort in her ear, even though he’s the one who’s been set against this from the beginning.
I move over to the door and pretend to check my back I’ve already compulsively checked a hundred times to give them some privacy. It looks light, but I sink a bit under its weight when I heft it over my shoulder. Samael’s chain is inside, and I hate the idea of checking it, but Thomas is right. It’ll never make it past security as a carry-on.
“Let’s go,” says Thomas, taking the duffel bag from me. He hoists it over his shoulder like it’s nothing.
I follow him out to the truck and Ada runs after us as he starts the engine. “What about your holy water?” she asks.
I hold up my water bottle.
“Ada, we’ll miss our flight if we don’t go now.”
She folds her arms and watches us. “Come back, both of you. You both come home.”
My heart surges at word. She’s known me for such a short amount of time that the idea she thinks of this place as my home, too, touches me so deeply it almost hurts. “I will,” I say hoarsely.
Thomas nods an unspoken acknowledgment and pulls out of the driveway. He says nothing on the drive to the airport, which is just as well. I’m busy trying to memorize every last grain of wheat and stretch of the little country road, as if it’ll help me get back.
The airport isn’t busy, so we have plenty of time to sit at the gate and wait for our connecting flight to New York. Thomas doesn’t say much, except to ask me if I want some crappy airport food. I thank him but decline. Even if I wasn’t already queasy from nerves, a stale cinnamon bun might do the trick.
We board the plane and at least the on-flight movie gives Thomas an excuse for his silence. I pull out one of the books I brought, to study the list of incantations Ada gave me. Neither of them know whether they’ll work on a demon who’s already in Hell, but it can’t hurt and it gives me something to do.
Making our next flight is easier than I thought. It was delayed, but that’s why we left out as early as we did. I take an interest in the view out the window as the flight attendant announces that we’ve made it to New England.
“It’s nice,” Thomas says, casting a cursory glance at the rolling farmland below.
“Yeah, Vermont is nice,” I say, trying to hide my shock at the fact that he’s broken his silence. “Have you ever been?”
“Not in decades,” he says, earning a strange look from the woman in the next aisle. She’s already been looking at me funny since she saw the title of my book. I guess the average teenager just isn’t into demonology these days.
We trickle off the sparsely populated flight and find our way to Thomas’ rental. There are a few hours to spare until seven, but Bo wants us there as early as possible to make sure everything is set up. He’s free again, and I’m trying not to let myself dwell on the possibility that he might not show up at all, or the fact that I’m sure Thomas wouldn’t be too broken up about it. It’s only one of a million things that could make this all go horrifically wrong, and if I abandon my unfounded optimism now, I’m done.
“You should know things have changed while you’ve been gone,” says Thomas, flexing his hands around the wheel.
“Well, yeah, I figured. I’m a missing person, for one.” It’s kind of a trip to see my picture actually come up in search results for my relatively commonplace name.
“If there's anywhere you'd like to go or anyone you'd like to see first --”
“No,” I say quickly. “No, that’s okay. There’s not anyone left, really.” Just an aunt and a few cousins I only every other Christmas. It’s not that there’s any bad blood, but seeing them would just unnecessarily complicate their lives.
He opens his mouth to say something and decides against it. He clears his throat instead. “Did Ada ever tell you about my past?”
I blink, surprised at the sudden change in subject. “Um, a bit. She told me about your family,” I admit.
“Yes, but did she tell you how I became a witch?”
“She said you met someone who helped you with what your father put you through,” I say, choosing my words carefully.
He gives a dry laugh. “She’s always been charitable. I met the one demon in this world who was never born an angel. He was evil incarnate, and I fell in love the very moment I laid eyes on him.”
I fall silent and he smirks. “Not in a romantic sense, perhaps, but in every other. He quite literally pulled me from the gutter and gave me access to more power than I ever imagined. Tended my wounds, physically and psychologically. He made me stronger than I ever thought possible.”
“That doesn’t sound so evil,” I admit.
“Oh, no. He treated his friends quiet well,” he says bitterly. “So well, in fact, that you’d do absolutely anything he wanted without him even having to ask.”
I swallow hard. I don’t want to know the answer to the question I’m about to ask, but I feel like I’m expected to ask it. “Things like what?”
“Killing my father, for starters,” he murmurs.
I hesitate. “From what Ada told me, is that really such a bad thing?”
“Maybe not,” he admits. “But he didn’t just want an offering of blood to prove my loyalty. I gave my father’s soul as a sacrifice.”
“His soul?” I ask hoarsely. “What does that even mean?”
“It means I gave him over to eternal torment for power, wealth and achievement in this world,” he says, his gaze fixed ahead. “You see, there are witches who get their power from nature, others from angels. Some go to demons, and my dark savior was one of them. So, as the years passed, was I.”
My gut surges with dread. I want to beg him to stop talking, to let this not be the last conversation we have, but I’m afraid to say anything.
“My father was my first sacrifice, but he was far from the last. At first I had standards. I would only take the worst, men so vile they surely deserved the fate I was sending them to. He allowed me my petty little rules, knowing well how long they would last. It wasn’t six months before I was sacrificing perfect strangers for rewards I can scarcely even remember now.”
“Why are you telling me this, Thomas? I don’t want to know.”
“One day,” he continues, unaffected by my plea, “I was running a job for my master. Run of the mill business, but I became the only friend he trusted. I was told the Vatican had caught wind of our racket and was sending one of their best, which meant little to me. I’d kill him, just like I killed all the rest. The soul of a holy man fetches a higher price than most.”
I lean against the door, hoping the cool air pouring through the crack in the window will provide some relief.
“The exorcist showed up alright,” he says. “And that was the end for me. The end and the beginning.”
I venture a glance over at him. “Ada?”
“Most beautiful creature in this vast little universe, and I’ve destroyed enough beauty with my own hands to know,” he murmured. “It was like looking into a mirror. She was my opposite in every way. Where pain had broken my spirit and left me calloused, it had only strengthened and softened hers. I was nothing but a warped fragment of a man bathed in the illusion of self-importance because I knew what deep dark corners to look in for real power. Finding her, it felt like someone had taken all the pieces of my soul I’d given away bit by bit and pieced them into something so much more.”
“Sounds like Ada was the one who saved you, then.”
He considers that for a moment. “I suppose she did. All I know is that I never got back my soul, and when I die, I’ve made peace with where I’m going, but for now? Ada is enough good for the both of us. She keeps me on track. She helps me remember what it’s like to be a person, even if I never really will be.”
“Don't start arguing, there's nothing you can say that she hasn't already. I'm not telling you all this to get reassurances I don't deserve. I'm telling you so you'll understand when I say that I never thought I'd feel human again until I met Ada, and I never thought I'd feel --” He cuts off like something is caught in his throat. “Do you believe in reincarnation, Jordan?”
“I’m not sure,” I admit. “I’ve never really given it much thought.”
“Neither have I,” he says with a small chuckle. “Not until we met.”
I blink. “What? Why?”
“It’s the strangest thing, but I can’t shake the feeling that we’ve known each other for a long time. That we’re family.”
“What, like you were my father or something?” I feel silly even saying it aloud, but once I do it doesn’t seem that strange.
He nods. “I don’t believe in that kind of thing, mind you, but it makes more sense than this feeling I can’t escape that this isn’t the first time I’ve failed you. Or the first time I’ve lost you.”
“Thomas, I don’t know what to say.” I take a deep breath. “I don’t really know if I believe in that kind of thing either.” I manage a small smile. “But if it is true, you’re someone I’d be proud to call father in any time.”
He returns the smile, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. “I’m proud of you, Jordan. I hate this, but I’m proud of you. We both are.”
“I know,” I say. It’s the glue holding me together at this point. The idea of letting them down is harder than the idea of what I’m about to do. “You know,” I continue in a wry tone. “If we did know each other in a past life, then that means you’re more than just the sum of the choices you’ve made in this life, however long it’s been.”
He sighs, and I realize that the car has been stopped for awhile. We’re not parked at the convention center, because there’s no parking lot left. Just the charred ruins of the old building in the middle of freshly unearthed soil. There’s a yard not far from the building where people have left wreaths of flowers, stuffed animals and balloons, but a few items line the building itself.
“Are you ready to do this?” he asks, glancing over at me.
“Not hardly,” I mutter, slipping out of the truck. I look around for signs of security. “Are you sure we’re not going to get caught? I can’t imagine you’re allowed to just walk in here.”
“The building itself is pretty dangerous,” he says, following me towards the entrance. “Bo took care of security.
I nearly snap my neck from turning to look at him.
“Relax, he just messed with their electronic schedules. Ada’s got him on a tight leash.”
I nod, relieved. Thomas puts an arm out to stop me when I reach for the front door. He steps in through a hole in the wall which I can only assume is less compromising to the structural integrity of the convention center.
I barely even recognize the lobby. It’s like it’s been hollowed out. Fortunately there are no signs of the people, but fliers and paper cups litter the floor. I bend down to pick one up and swallow hard when I realize that it’s an announcement for my party.
Thomas stops beside me, reading in silence.
“Mom and I got into the biggest argument over these,” I say with a dry laugh. “I wanted just a few friends, and she wanted to pass these out to the entire town. ‘You’re ruining my birthday.’ That was one of the last things I said to her, over something so stupid.”
A heavy hand rests on my shoulder. “You’re a teenager, Jordan. It may have stung in the moment, but she wouldn’t have wanted you to carry that with you.”
“I know,” I say, letting the paper flutter to the floor with the rest. “But I always will. I feel like if I add one more thing to the pile of regrets, it’s going to bury me.”
“Then don’t,” he says, opening the door to the stairway that leads into the main ballroom. “That’s why we’re here. You can’t change the past, but you can create your own reality starting now. That’s the thing that makes humans even more powerful than the demons and the angels.”
Somehow I doubt that, but I follow him anyway. The stairway is too dark to see until he strikes a match. Of course.
“Is that really a good idea in here?”
“The wiring is fine,” he says, reminding me that it was just a cover story the authorities used when they couldn’t find an answer.
He pulls open the door at the top of the stairs and light floods into the stairway. The ballroom has been cleaned of any traces of human remains, but it’s still littered like the downstairs lobby. Bo is in the center of the room standing in the middle of the only space that’s been cleaned. At first, I think the sigil he’s standing in is holding him there, but when he steps out of it with ease I know otherwise.
“Don’t sound so shocked,” he says, sauntering towards us with his hands in the pocket of his tattered leather jacket. There are patches all over it, some from the same 80s rock bands Sam likes. I can see why they’re friends.
“You are a demon,” says Thomas.
“Yeah, and you ain’t exactly a saint yourself. We all got our vices.”
“Thank you for doing this,” I say earnestly. Bo not showing up was the biggest obstacle I could see in my path. Now that he’s here, I’m a strange mixture of terrified and elated.
He shrugs it off. “Like I said, Sammy and me go way back. ‘Course he’s gonna kill me if you do somehow manage to bring him back and he finds out I helped.
I can’t help but smile. That’s a big vote of confidence coming from him. “I’ll try to put in a good word for you. So, what do we do?”
“You’ve seen a summoning ritual,” he says, plopping down to the side of the sigil. It’s a new one full of more indecipherable letters than shapes. “This is a bit more complex, but we’ve got all the same building blocks. “Demon,” he says, pointing to himself, then to Thomas as he says, “witch,” and finally to me with a designation of, “sacrifice.”
Bo grins. “I told you this ritual was arcane. That means a boatload of blood is necessary to power the portal.”
I hesitate. “What did you do for the portal that sent Sam and Azrael to Hell?”
“Moving on,” he says, lighting a circle of silver candles. “The energy is in your blood. The more we siphon off, the more juice the portal gets and the more you’ll be able to pass as a normal creepy thing to the demons down there. Hopefully it’ll still be enough for the humans to leave you alone and, you know, not kill you. It’s a delicate balance.”
“I won’t let that happen,” says Thomas, patiently waiting off to the side. He watches Bo’s every move with scrutiny.
A few moments later, the ritual stage is set. I can tell because Bo jumps up and moves back to survey his work, rubbing his hands together in satisfaction. “That’s nice. How’d I do, Mr. Witch?”
Thomas shrugs. “It’s alright.”
“Don’t be sore just ‘cause I used to date your girl,” he says, clicking his tongue. The lovely Ada is more than enough woman to go around.”
Thomas lunges forward, but I manage to get between them. “Bo, knock it off.”
“Ooh, bossy. I like it. Tell you what, if Sammy’s burnt to a crisp, come back and we’ll talk.”
I roll my eyes, figuring that’s more of a response than he deserves. Bo talks a big game, but he’s less of a creep than I’m used to dealing with.
“Can we just do this?”
“Yeah, sure,” he says, slipping a carved metal blade from his sleeve. “Who wants to do the honors?”
“She’s not a cake,” Thomas mutters, snatching the blade from his hand. He glances at his watch and eyes me warily. “It’s about an hour out. That gives us enough time to do the bloodletting slowly. There’s plenty of time to change your mind.”
“I know,” he sighs, motioning for me to sit on the blanket Bo must have put out. I’m surprised by the thoughtfulness. “This isn’t going to be like before,” he warns, gathering several glass bowls I can only imagine are going to contain my blood. It’s hard to imagine I have that much in me.
“It’s okay,” I promise. “I can do this.”
“Let me put you into a trance, like before,” he half-asks.
I hesitate. “What if I don’t wake up?”
“You won’t fall asleep,” he says. “I give you my word.”
I nod. I trust him, for some reason. I don’t know if I believe it’s because we were family in a past life, but it goes deeper than just a gut feeling. As irrational as it is to believe in light of who he is, somehow I know Thomas would never hurt me. Just like I know Sam would never abandon me.
He sweeps his hand over my forehead and before my hair falls back in place, a warm, fuzzy feeling spreads throughout my body, making it too heavy to hold up. Thomas catches me with one arm and transfers me to Bo, who lays me back against the blanket with unexpected gentleness.
The first cut stings, but I can’t bring myself to care. It’s like it’s happening to someone else. All I can think about is the few scorched paper lanterns hanging overhead. The longer I stare at them, they start to sway with the light current of the air conditioner. The stiff, shrunken paper bowls fill out and take on a soft glow in the lights hung around the ballroom.
“That works fast.” Bo’s voice cuts through the hallucination, but not enough to displace it entirely.
“She’s susceptible to that kind of thing,” says Thomas. I feel another cut. “She’s about to get the bird’s eye view of what really happened that night.”
What really happened?
Bo snorts. “You’re hoping she’s gonna change her mind, aren’t you?”
Thomas is silent. “Just get me another bowl,” he finally says.
My head grows too light to pull apart their conversation. It’s getting harder and harder to hold onto their voices, like I’m on a slow train moving away from them. I close my eyes in hopes of stopping the whirling sensation in my head, and when I open them, all the lights and music turn on.
Looks like I’m the only girl in the world who gets to celebrate her seventeenth birthday by reliving her sixteenth.
I’m no longer lying down, I’m standing, but I can’t quite feel the floor beneath my feet. Come to think of it, I can’t feel my body at all. I can see perfectly clear, somehow. The convention center is decorated just like it was that night, but no guests have arrived. Just convention center staff scurrying around to make all the last minute preparations.
And then I see her. My mother is standing in the middle of the room, going over a menu with one of the caterers. She was in and out of the house all day making arrangements. Somehow I never noticed the dark circles of exhaustion around her eyes. I was too busy sulking about the party to notice how much she was doing to make sure I had the perfect day.
Then I show up. Seeing myself stalking towards my mom as I struggle to hold up the hem of my dress makes me realize that all the times I think I’ve had an out of body experience, I really haven’t.
“Mom, this dress doesn’t even fit right.” Not, “Hi.” Not, “How is your day going?” Just a complaint.
She looks me up and down, tilting her head. “Oh, honey, I think you look beautiful. What’s wrong?”
“It’s all clingy and gross,” I say, tugging at the bunched fabric around my waist.
She gives me a tired smile. “It’s fitted. It was like that in the store.”
“Well, I hate it. And the shoes are –“
A dark-haired man approaches us. Even from behind, even in an ill-fitted waiter’s jacket, he’s easy to recognize. “Excuse me?”
I glance up at him when I realize he’s talking to me. It’s barely a glance. My lack of a reaction is almost more of a shock than the fact that he’s here at all.
That’s the first word I ever said to him. Yeah.
“You’re Jordan Havers, aren’t you?”
I glance between him and the menu. I remember I was worried that mom hadn’t ordered anything vegetarian for Tara. “Yeah, that’s me. Did you need something?”
“No, just verifying the guest list,” he says, holding a clipboard and a pen out to me with a smile. “Four twenty-seven, right?”
Any attention that was focused on him turns immediately to mom. “You said two-hundred max!”
“Just need a signature,” he says.
I sign the clipboard and hand it back to him without a word, The argument escalates from there. Sam slips away without notice, and I follow him out onto the balcony, leaving my former self to say more things I have to regret. He takes out his phone and leans on the balcony with a pensive look on his face I’ve never seen before.
The phone rings and a familiar voice answers, “Hello?”
“It’s her,” he mutters, looking down at the signed piece of paper. The signature portion is smoking. “The analysis was a match, the nephilim is your daughter. Jordan Havers. She’s here with her adoptive parents, should I –?”
He frowns. “What the hell are you talking about? We’ve got minutes, maybe hours before all these people die. No, I’ll worry about whatever I want, I’m not one of your messenger boys.”
The words coming from the other end of the line are unintelligible, but there’s no doubting who he’s talking to. My stomach churns. Gabriel knew what was going to happen? They both knew?
Sam listens for a long time. With every moment that passes, his frown etches deeper into his face. “You son of a bitch. You call yourself an angel? Yeah, well let’s see how Raphael feels about that. You don’t think I know that?” His voice raises to the point where he glances behind his shoulder to make sure no one is around.
After taking a deep breath to regain his composure, Sam switches the phone to his other hand. “I know what’s at stake, I just don’t think I can do this. She’s not what I thought, none of this is what we agreed to, I—hello?”
He stares at the phone and all the color drains from his face. Even I can hear the screams of agony coming through the speaker, distorting the sound.
“No,” he says through gritted teeth. “Brother? It's me, it's Sam, can you --” The screams cut off. A much calmer voice comes back on the line. “Yes. No, I understand perfectly,” he says through gritted teeth. “It'll be done, and then you fulfill your end or I --”
The line goes dead. Sam stares at the phone for a moment, grips it and I can tell he’s thinking of chucking it over the balcony, but he doesn’t. He slips it back into his pocket and slinks back into the ballroom, disappearing as the vision begins to fade.
I sit up sharply but strong hands keep me down. I find myself staring into Bo’s concerned face. “Whoa there,” he says. “You cut it pretty close there, sleeping beauty.”
“What time is it?” I ask, looking around. The convention center is as it was, only now with the imprint of Sam’s presence mixed in with all the other ghosts. The room is hotter than I remember, and sweat beads on my forehead. There’s a crackling sound coming from somewhere, but it’s hard to make out over the sound of blood rushing through my ears. “Is it too late to open the portal?”
“It’s already open,” says Thomas, helping me sit up slowly. I follow his gaze to the gaping hole in the middle of the floor where the portal once was. Now I know where the crackling sound is coming from, and why it feels like someone cranked up the heat. Flames lap hungrily from the confines of the circle.
I don’t trust my legs, so I inch forward on my hands and knees, keeping a safe distance from the portal’s rim. I lean over just enough to realize that the flames go much deeper than the first floor of the convention center.
“Is that what I think it is?” I can’t bring myself to say the words.
“Not exactly the kind of lake you’d wanna go skinny dipping in, huh?”
Bo doesn’t look half as cocky as he sounds. Even he keeps a safe distance from the edge of the groaning pit.
Thomas takes my arm and helps me to my feet, offering me a bottle of water. I thank him and drain it in a matter of seconds. If the heat is getting to me now, I can’t imagine how I’m going to get through Hell itself.
“It’s just the barrier,” says Thomas, as if reading my thoughts. Sometimes I worry. “You won’t feel the heat once you’re through.”
“Oh. That’s good,” I say, struggling to hide my relief.
“You were out for longer than we thought,” says Bo. “The portal won’t hold much longer. If you’re gonna go, now’s the time.”
I reach for the small supply bag Thomas somehow enchanted to fit Samael’s chain, my supply of holy water and a blade I can’t imagine will be much more useful than a toothpick against the things down there, but it’s a nice gesture. The bag is somehow light as I toss it over my shoulder and force myself to take a step closer to the portal.
“Wait,” says Thomas.
I turn to face him, steeling myself for another plea that’s going to make it even harder to do what I have to do. I’m not prepared at all for him to pull me into his arms and give me a tight squeeze.
“You can do this,” he whispers. “You’re not like those things down there. Reality is what you make it. Don’t forget that.”
I nod, still in shock as he pulls away. “Yeah. Bye, Thomas.”
His lips twitch in something I wouldn’t quite call a smile and he steps back. “You should go.”
“Nah, it’s not like this thing’s on a timer. Take your time,” Bo says dryly.
I turn to him and lean in to place a kiss on his cheek.
“The hell was that for?” he demands, touching his face like I just wounded him.
I can’t help but smile. “That was for everything you’ve done for Sam. He’s lucky to have a friend like you.”
“Yeah, whatever,” he mutters, wiping his cheek with the back of his hand. “Just make you tell him that if you survive somehow. Which I doubt you will.”
“I’ll miss you too, Bo,” I say, walking to the edge of the portal. It’s strange, but the heat doesn’t seem as bad from here. I hold tight to the strap of my bag and look back at the two of them. “So I just… jump?”
Thomas nods. “Just like getting into the water. It’s better to just jump in.”
“Water,” I say, gazing into the pit that seems to know no depths beyond the flames. “Got it. And uh, Sam will know the way back, right?”
“Yes,” says Thomas, slipping something out of his pocket. He places it in my hand and folds my fingers around the smooth golden surface. “You’ll need this.”
“Your pocket watch,” I say, looking up at him. The initials engraved on the back aren’t his, but I don’t need to ask to know it’s important to him. I’ve never seen him without it. “I can’t take this.”
“It’s enchanted. It’s the only way you’ll be able to keep track of how much time has passed,” he says. “Just make sure you bring it back.”
I bite my lip, hoping the pain will keep my emotions in check, and slip the watch into my pocket. “I will.”
“You're gonna have all the time in the world if you don't move,” says Bo. “If you need a push --”
“No,” I say, taking a deep breath. “That won’t be necessary.” I look at them both, etching their features into my memory. “See you next year.”
And with that, I take my first and only step into the pit. Thomas was right. It really is easier if you just jump in.
Jordan Havers's sixteenth birthday turns out to be anything but sweet when she's kidnapped by a demon who swears that she's the reason her party turned into a tragedy. When Heaven itself unleashes an ancient force to hunt her down, healthy skepticism takes a backseat to survival. Could an honor student from Twin Pines really be the nephilim, a human-angel hybrid cursed with power of apocalyptic proportions? Could a demon really be anything other than a monster? Soon Jordan is forced to choose between accepting Hell's protection and throwing herself at the mercy of Heaven's greatest weapon.