“What good would that do?”
“It’s better than you sitting here seething all day.”
“Seething? Hardly!” He didn’t understand. I could roll with a lot of punches now that the voices were quieted. “I was in a great mood earlier.”
“Bullshit! Over what? You’re exhausted, starving, and you doan know where your next meal’s coming from.”
“You didn’t get decapitated by sheet metal and we scored some fuel. Win!”
“But no food.” The wipers scraped louder across the windshield. Grate, grate, grate . . .
I threw my hands up. “All right, you talked me into it. I’m officially in a pissy mood.”
“Damn it, you doan need to miss meals.” Early on, he’d been giving me the lion’s share, calling me a “growing girl.”
As he’d explained: “Hell, Evie, I like where you’re goan with this”—he’d motioned to indicate my chest—“I want to see where you end up.”
Now he muttered, “Thought I’d be shooting some game.” On occasion, we’d see a bird or a rabbit. “And you ain’t exactly contributing to the pot.”
No, but I could. If things got really bad, I’d grow food from the seeds in the back. Refusing to rise to the bait, I said, “It’s getting late.” The winds were dying down as the sun set. The ash started to settle, revealing a waxing moon. “Shouldn’t we be looking for a place to overnight?”
“We need to get past this area. The gas took longer than I thought.” He glanced over his shoulder, then back to the road, picking up speed. “Sick of these storms.”
“What about the Bagmen? You said we can never drive past sundown.” This afternoon, we’d crossed bridge after bridge. If they flocked to old bodies of water, at night . . .
“I’m changing the rule, adding: unless we’re in slaver territory. We got to make up some time anyway.”
My stomach growled more insistently.
“Suck it up, Evie! We can’t risk looking for food right now. If anything happens to me, you’re screwed.”
“One more time, I’m not arguing with you about food, I’m not complaining, and I might surprise you by actually surviving without you.”
“You can’t hunt or ferret out supplies. You’re a resource-suck. You’re hopeless in the kitchen—”
“Here we go again.” I could deny nothing. I was awful at cooking, couldn’t seem to heat a can of ravioli without screwing it up.
“You should end each and every day with a ‘Thank you, Jack. It’s great to be alive.’ ” Another glance over his shoulder, another increase in speed.
“Clearly, I’m just a nuisance to you, a ball and chain around your ankle. I’m surprised you haven’t gotten sick of me and dumped me already. I keep waiting for you to say, ‘Screw this,’ and ditch on North Carolina.”
“I doan let puzzles go unsolved.”
Which is why I won’t tell you about the crops until you’ve gotten me where I need to go.
“Besides”—he flashed me a wolfish grin—“I ain’t even slept with you yet.”
My lips parted. “You’re talking about having . . . sex. With me?”
I should have known this conversation would arise soon enough. It seemed like each night together, Jackson and I had grown less comfortable with each other.
If he felt relatively secure with our overnight, he’d sleep without a shirt. Those tantalizing glimpses of his chest—I always looked away—flustered me, making it difficult to sleep.
At other times, I’d cast wary glances at the bed, while he cast hungry looks at me.
“Sex is what you sit in this car thinking about?” Just as I’d suspected, I was better off not knowing.
His expression was bored, as if to say Grow up. “Why wouldn’t I? I’m a red-blooded male, and you’re the only game in town. Tell me you doan think about it.”
I had. I’d fantasized about what might have happened at the sugar mill if we’d kissed, if we’d explored that sizzling chemistry between us. Then I would feel guilty and out of sorts. “I-I’m not hav**g s*x with you!” I finally answered. “I can’t believe you would just put it out there like that.”
Though I knew the world was different now, I still held on to the naïve idea that losing my virginity should be special—something I did with my boyfriend.
Not something I did solely because the guy with me was red-blooded.
He flashed me a knowing look, with a wicked glint in his eyes. “So you doan deny thinking about it?”
I sputtered. “That’s the main reason you volunteered to help me—because you wanted to make me one of your gaiennes, one of your doe tags!”
“De bon cœur.” Wholeheartedly.
“All that bullshit about remembering the bayou and Why-whoever-will-I-talk-Cajun-to? was just lip service. You couldn’t care less if we speak the same language or share a history!”
“I told you the truth. It’s not my fault all that comes in a pretty blond package that I want to take to bed—”
BOOM! BOOM! Explosions sounded just outside.
The car careened out of control. He stomped the brakes, but we rushed toward an embankment.
My hands shot forward to grip the dashboard. “Jackson!”
“Hold on, Evie!” he yelled, arms straining as he fought the steering wheel.
The car swept up that embankment sideways—a ramp launching us off the ground.
Then . . . weightlessness. Jackson surrendered the wheel, shoving his arm over my chest. The engine revved as we rolled in the air.
My feet were above my head. When the ground suddenly punched the top of the car, I screamed; airbags deployed.
Still we plummeted . . . rolling . . .
Sudden stop. The car landed upside down. Windows shattered on impact, metal shrieking from strain.
Jackson and I hung from our seat belts. And it’d sounded like we’d landed on another car?
Even over the wheezing gaskets, our breaths were loud. “Wh-what just happened?” I peered out the window opening, disoriented. We were off the ground, by at least half a dozen feet.
At once, Jackson’s buck knife flashed out, stabbing the airbags. “I hope you got your bug-out bag packed right. Now stay still.”
“You’re not going to cut my seat—”
He cut my seat belt.
“Ow!” I scrambled upright, hunching down on the roof of the car.
Then he cut his own belt, twisting to his back. “Evie, grab your bag and shut your mouth! You hear me?”
I reached back, rummaging until I laid hands on my pack. “What is going on?”
“We’re in a heap of trouble.” He grabbed his own pack, his bow, and the shotgun, then shimmied out through the window hole. Jumping down, he hurried to help me out.
As we crawled free from the wreck, comprehension dawned. We’d landed on an old car. All around us were more wrecked vehicles.
A graveyard of cars.
At once, flashlight beams started bouncing toward us. What sounded like a . . . dog bayed. While I marveled that one still lived, Jackson raised the shotgun, cocking it.
His lips were thin with fury, his gaze murderous.
“Those people aren’t coming to help?” I whispered. “Maybe th-they know that road is dangerous.”
“They ain’t coming to help. They’re slavers coming to hunt. They were just laying in wait.”
Oh my God.
He gazed from the group nearing on our right—to the forbidding ruins of a forest to our left. Then his expression grew determined.
He gripped my upper arm and hauled me toward the murky tree line. I struggled to keep up, but mud—actual mud—was sucking at my boots. Which meant moisture.
Which meant Bagmen.
“Jackson, we can’t go into that forest,” I murmured between breaths, glancing over my shoulder. The men were gaining. In the erratic light, I could make out a few of them, regular dressed middle-aged guys. No manacles at the ready. They looked so . . . normal.
“Not a forest. Used to be a wooded swamp.”
“What if those people do want to help us?”
“It was a trap.” With one hand, Jackson swapped out the gun for his bow, bolting an arrow in place. “A spike strip took out all four tires. These cars were all wrecked on purpose.”
“Oh, yeah. They might be too scared to follow us. An old swamp’s probably full of Baggers.”
“Forget that! You can’t convince me that we’d be better off in there!”
He squeezed my arm. “The ones who set the trap are slavers—at best. At least the Bagmen usually go right for the throat.”
I gaped, letting him lead me away from the approaching lights, the yelling men.
As soon as we plunged past the tree line, sounds echoed all around us. A snapping twig. The rustle of sooty leaves.
Dead branches crackled just to our left. Jackson released me with a shove, whirling around with his bow at the ready. “Run, Evie!”
With a cry, I stumbled forward. But scorched vines littered the ground, slowing my retreat.
Though I had no idea where I was going, I struggled on. The rising moon streamed shafts of light through the leafless trees. Shadows wavered all around me.
Where was Jackson? I’d never been more terrified. Had never felt more vulnerable . . .
—I watch you like a hawk.—
—Blood will tell, blood will run.—
—Don’t look at this hand, look at that one.—
“No, no! Shut up, shut up!” Slice. Pain flared in my palms.
I gazed down, didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. My thorns had grown back. Staring at my claws, I burst into a clearing, glanced up. Three Bagmen were mere feet from me.
I drew up short with a gasp. One stood while two smaller ones crawled on hands and knees, licking the mud.
Their heads swung in my direction.
They were even more horrific than in my visions. Pus seeped from their eyes, glistening in the moonlight. Their irises were as pale as cream. And their skin . . . battered and creased all over, like wadded-up paper sacks—but so slimy.
Blood and filth stained their slack mouths, their tattered clothes.
The standing one’s runny gaze landed on my throat. With a shuffling gait, it lurched toward me. I backed away. Did I dare scream for Jackson? Were there more behind me?
The creature was picking up speed. In a panic, I dug into my hoodie pocket for salt, slicing the lining with a claw. My supply of salt began drizzling away, sand from an hourglass.
I managed to salvage a handful. Aimed it at the Bagman. Threw it as hard as I could.
Would the crystals sear its skin, blind it . . . ?
The salt dropped uselessly to the ground well in front of it.
Shit, shit! My gaze darted once more—
I heard a twang. An arrow suddenly jutted from the big one’s right eye.
As the creature’s body collapsed, a hand covered my mouth from behind. I jerked with fright, but Jackson whispered at my ear, “Quiet.”
When I nodded, he released me to loose two more arrows, dispatching the remaining pair.
Three monsters, dropped like carnival targets. I’d seen his skill at fighting, but I’d never seen him shoot.
Yet as I was staring up at him with undisguised awe, he was frowning down at me. “Evie, what’s on your face?”
“I don’t know, ash? Did those men follow?”
He blinked his eyes. “No. But there’ll be more Baggers in the hours till dawn. I need those arrows.” He started for the ones he’d killed, but murmured over his shoulder, “You stick to me like a shadow, you.”
Before, I’d bristled when he gave me that order. Now I whispered, “Not a problem, Jackson.”
“Didn’t you tell me you had a good feeling about tonight?” Jackson muttered as he shot yet another Bagman straggler.
After he’d taken out the first trio, we’d holed up in a dense stand of dead and fallen trees, protected on three sides. Jackson was guarding the fourth.
“Damn, Evie, what kind of psychic are you?” he asked when he rose to collect his arrow.
Might not be one whatsoever, jury’s still out, I thought as I hurried to stay right behind him.
But I hesitated to approach the creature. Up close, it was even more revolting than in my drawings, with old blood running down its mouth and neck like a painted-on beard. Its mucousy-looking skin shed globs of reeking slime all around it.
If they were constantly excreting this stuff, no wonder they were always thirsty.
I could scarcely believe that this thing used to be a person. But it wore ragged jeans, a concert T-shirt, and one Timberland boot. A teenage boy.
Now Jackson’s arrow jutted from its eye. Did the Cajun never miss?
“Remember how it smells, girl,” he told me.
“It’s rotten.” When I was little, I’d had a dog who was addicted to rolling in the remains of dead animals. No amount of shampoo could erase the rancid scent. That was what I was smelling now.
“You grab the arrow, I’ll move the body,” he said, but still I hesitated. In the harsh tone he’d taken to using with me, Jackson snapped, “Over here, Evie. Now. I’ll be damned if I’m goan to let you be scared of a dead Bagman.”
Let me? Had he been so mean for days just to . . . toughen me up? Like a drill sergeant getting me ready for war?
Or possibly because I was getting on his last nerve. “Fine.” I plodded forward.
Holding my breath, I reached for the short arrow, tugging at the end, but it wouldn’t come out.
“Yank it, princess.”
With a glare, I yanked harder, until it came free with a bubbling rush of red goo.
As I shoved the back of my hand against my mouth, working not to vomit, Jackson said, “This one fed recently. Otherwise it’d be chalkier.”