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Lilith Saintcrow


  Lilith Saintcrow

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  I think I’m the Antichrist,” Rob Maguire said, handing me the stolen cigarette. His gaunt face, covered with moving leaf shadows, pulled in on itself under his messy dark hair.

  I thought he was kidding.

  I took a long drag, let it out. “Great. If you are, can you kill my dad and get me out of here?”

  I was not kidding. I still had bruises from my last trip home. I’d lasted two days.

  Rob gave me a sideways look, hunching his thin shoulders. He was like that, wouldn’t ever say you were being a jerk directly. He’d been knocking around Holy Camp at least as long as I had; we’d been quasi-friends, off and on, for a couple years. Lately he’d been hanging with me a lot, ever since his sixteenth birthday.

  “So if you’re him, what are you doing at Camp, bigshot?” I couldn’t help myself.

  He rolled his dark eyes. “Maybe I’m bored, Kingstree. Or maybe I just found out I’m a frigging supervillain recently, and decided to share the good news with you.”

  “Way thoughtful.” We’d been meeting here under the big oak tree for a couple days, but it wouldn’t last. Holy Camp is like that—they always catch you. If someone doesn’t rat on you, one of the cherubs catches sight, and then you’re toast. I was up to my neck in demerits; if I did much more I would get an Incorrigible patch and maybe it would be de-resurrection into the mines for me once I hit eighteen.

  Rob’s patches were Disobedience and Pride. Mine was a straight Disobedience, the green square sewn on the left breast and the sleeve of my gray uniform shirt. When we were caught together I’d probably get a Babylon. He wouldn’t; he was a guy.

  Singing filtered out of the low white shell of the Community Building. We were skipping afternoon worship like we wanted to be caught. I took another drag, handed the smoke back.

  “Julie.” Rob’s fingers touched mine. “If I was…you know. Would you hate me?”

  I didn’t even think about it. “Of course not. You’re one of the few people I don’t hate, Robbie. Chill.”

  He seemed about to say something else, but just then a head-sized silver orb drifted weightlessly through the branches of the trees above us, and a little red dot played over its surface as it hovered.

  “A cherub.” I made the words a long, drawn-out, aggravated sigh. “Busted.”

  Rob just stared up at it, his Adam’s apple working, and we waited for the ax to fall.

  * * *

  Five demerits for skipping worship, but Rob got the worst of it. He vanished between dinner and breakfast, and nobody said a word. That’s the worst thing about Holy Camps. Kids disappear, and you’re never sure if they’ve been derezzed into the mines or over the border, sent for Rechristening as an Incorrigible, taken home, or what the hell.

  After breakfast—half a grapefruit and half a piece of bread with oleo spread thin, some watery skim milk—we all trooped into the Community Building, heads lowered to show the required humility. Kimmie, who was in my pod, pinched my upper arm. “Boyfriend’s not here,” she hissed, and made a slurping sound under the thunder of drums and a wailing guitar. The huge telescreens were flashing like strobes, the video some forgettable band mouthing a series of clichés about His Love.

  “Go to hell,” I whispered back. She was a human cherub, that bitch, and I’d probably get another demerit.

  The music wallowed to a crescendo, and before everyone was in their seats the opening montage started. The Crosses and Stars flag flapped against a blue sky, fluffy white clouds oddly foreshortened because of the angle of the telescreens, and the Pledge started. We mouthed along, everyone finally settling into their assigned seat. When the Pledge was over there was the Message, this time a recitation by Pastor Peter in Colorado Springs himself, his oil-black hair slicked back and his blue eyes piercing through the screen.

  “Murica used to be a godless, sinful place!” he was saying, while a susurrus of crowd noise hit the roof and poured back down like rain. “But we changed all that! We’re free now! Now we live under Christ Jesus, and we’re happy about that! There’s no hunger in Murica. There’s no violence, no crime, no bad government! We’ve got the Lord and he’s got us. We’re lucky to live in Murica, and we’re proud of our young people. You are the future, the warriors against sin and temptation. You’re the fighters Jesus Himself talked about!”

  My stomach cramped and growled. He went on through the speech, but I’d shut off. Usually you can tell where it’s gonna go in the first thirty seconds well enough to fake an answer in Discussion later. Just one of the many life skills you learn at Sunday school and polish at Holy Camp if you’ve got any synapses still functioning by the time they get done with you in elementary school.

  The music swelled, and there was a glitch in the feed. For thirty whole seconds the telescreen was dark and the music kept twitching, a disc on skip. I craned my neck, the lights flashing aimlessly, and was kind of hoping I’d see Rob’s beaky face. He had this weird way of looking just when I did. Either that or he was always watching me.

  No Rob.

  It ended up not mattering, because halfway through the sermon, while we were all swaying with our hands in the air and the ginormous pastor on the screens was mumbling along some endless prayer about Feeling The Grace, frog-faced Miz Susan, a lay pastor (because women are always lay, in all senses, don’t you know), suddenly appeared in the aisle and grabbed me.

  I thought I was derezzed. She dragged me out of the Community Building and we were whisked by lectrocart down to the Main Offices. Me with a sick sourness in my still-growling stomach and a need for a smoke burning everything else, and when the camp director ushered me into his office personally I found out I was going home.

  My father had died.

  * * *

  “Don’t worry.” Uncle Irving perched on a stool, his watery brown gaze fastened on my mother’s ass as she wandered around the kitchen. “We’ll take care of you and Julie. Harry would’ve wanted that.”

  Mom nodded, her cheeks tear-chapped and her long brown hair uncombed. She wasn’t even wearing a kerchief to hide her head, which gave me a weird feeling way deep in my bones. Plus her sweater was slipping down and showing a slice of her shoulder, and good old Irv was eyeing her skin like it was steak.

  I stood in the kitchen doorway, fluorescent glare and sunlight mixing to hurt my eyes. I hadn’t even set down my duffel bag yet—by now I’ve got packing for Holy Camp down to an art. The house was the same as it always was: two story, tofu-colored, double garage and postage-stamp yard mostly kept up by the boys on mission at our local Community instead of indentureds with names like Rico or Jorge.

  Father was a low-level pastor who hadn’t even made the trek to Colorado Springs yet. But he was Going Places. Everyone said so. He had a hard core of the Neighborhood Faithful and the only problem was Mom swallowing enough pills to keep her smiling and his Troubled Daughter.

  That would be yours truly.

  “Julie!” Irv slid off the stool. Long arms, long legs, pinchy knobbed fingers, and Dad’s perpetually blushing cheeks, the turkeyskin neck of an older man and a lipless mouth—that was Irv. He had cold-coffee eyes instead of Father’s yellow-brown pin-you-to-the-wall stare. He even had a black armband, cinching the short sleeve of his white button-down. “You’re home! Hey, kiddo!”

  As if I’d come back from the Springs or something. I swung my duffel, “accidentally” catching him in the shins as he went to hug-grope me. Mom swayed near the sink, grabbing onto it, her vacant gaze sliding over both of us like
we were an unfunny comedy routine. I made apologies, Irv limped to the table—stacked with paperwork and all sorts of crap; Father would’ve had a fit over the mess—and I caught sight of our domestic, Mattie, peeking from the utility room where the washer chugged quietly. Mattie’s cheeks were wet with tears, too. It would upset her to see Mom so zoned.

  Oh, Christ have mercy. It was something Mom used to say when a cake fell or Father sprang a six-person dinner on her at four thirty on a Friday afternoon. I almost said it, too; caught myself just in time.

  Father was dead. There would be no slap or sucker punch for blasphemy. But Irv was giving me a Significant Look, taking me in from neatly braided hair to bare knees over the tops of my socks and under my plaid skirt—I hadn’t even changed out of Camp uniform yet.

  “Mom.” I dropped the duffel, made it into the kitchen, and got my arms around her when she started to moan. Irv mumbled something or other and beat a hobbling retreat to the parlor, and I met Mattie’s wide dark gaze again. She made a hurried motion, and I realized she was crossing herself.

  That could get her derezzed, sent back over the border in a hurry with her indenture yanked. I hurriedly looked away. Mom swayed and hiccoughed. I swallowed hard and wondered just what Irv was up to.

  * * *

  The Myrmidons showed up that evening. Mom was in bed, the sedatives blurring her out, and Irv had left to go sleep at the seminary Father had been underdean at. He couldn’t stay at the house even with Mattie there. Even if he was making brotherwife noises.

  God, that thought just made me go cold all over.

  Anyway, Mattie came into Mom’s room, wide-eyed and pasty under her copper-toned skin. “Inquisitores,” she whispered, grabbing my arm and digging her work-roughened fingers in.

  I appreciated the warning. My head filled up with rushing pulse-noise, I made it down the stairs and plodded across the hall into the parlor. It was still dust-free and shiny everywhere, the spines of books Father never read—because he’d bought them glued together by the yard from the designer—still frowning at the overstuffed couches and the doilies.

  Mom used to crochet before Father made them change her meds.

  Anyway, they were Myrmidons. Two nice young clean-shaven guys, hair short and fingernails buffed, in matching dark suits and wine-red ties. Squeaky-polished wingtip shoes reflecting the lamplight. The bay window looking out on the front yard held only darkness; I could barely see the streetlamp and the two black electro SUVs parked beside the still-spindly redwood tree and the mercilessly trimmed laurel hedge.

  “Julia Kingstree? I’m Agent Harker; this is Agent Brown.” The fractionally taller one flashed his double-cross badge as he rose. “We’re sorry to intrude—”

  “My mom’s upstairs. She’s sleeping.” I grabbed the doorframe. It wouldn’t do any good—they had tasebolt guns, I could see the shoulder holsters peeping out. But the smaller one—Brown—was sitting, staring at the bookshelves like he was perplexed.

  I could maybe run, couldn’t I? I’d probably make it out onto the street before they caught me. Then it would be stuffed into the vans and off to derezzing. Unless I was going to be Rechristened.

  “We’re sorry to intrude at a time like this,” he continued smoothly. “You’re not in any trouble, Miss Kingstree. Please, sit down.”

  I stayed right where I was. Not in trouble? That’ll be the day.

  The smaller one had a round face, and he looked a little softer. His wire-rimmed glasses flashed as he turned his head a little, looking at me. “She just came from Mount Temple, Hark. I don’t think she believes you.”

  “Well, I did Temple too. Didn’t do me any harm.” Harker flashed me a wide white smile. “Really, Miss Kingstree. We’re just here to ask some questions.”

  That’s how it always starts. I made my fingers unclench. But I stayed where I was, watching them, until Brown sighed.

  “Harker, show a little class. Miss Kingstree, we’re here to ask about Robert Maguire. You were the last person to speak to him. We’re…concerned. We’re not going to bite you.”

  No, they were Myrmidons. They could do a lot worse than bite. But I took a single step inside the room, and that seemed to satisfy them.

  “Rob?” My voice wouldn’t work quite right. “He…we were…He’s gone?”

  “Vanished right out of Mount Temple Camp, Miss Kingstree. You went to your pod after skipping worship; he went between the Community Building and the Sheds. The cherub lost him there.” Brown’s glasses twinkled again. The eyes behind them were sharp and cold, and I was suddenly sure he was the one to watch out for here. Harker moved restlessly, like he wanted my attention, but I kept staring at round-faced, pleasantly smiling Brown.

  “Cherubs don’t lose people,” I mumbled. “Right? They just don’t.”

  “Well, it lost him.” Harker sighed. “Will you come in and sit down? Honestly, Miss Kingstree. We just want to know what you two talked about. This could be a good thing for you.”

  “You’re bright,” Brown chimed in. “Very bright. You have a problem with authority, and a stressful home life. You’ve done every Camp there is. You’re prime material for Myrmidon training, Miss Kingstree, and if you cooperate, well…How would you like never having to go to Camp again? And arrangements could be made.”

  “For your mother, he means.” Harker was leaning forward on his toes, watching me. His shoulders were tight, and I’d seen that kind of tension on youth leaders who weren’t sure if a kid was going to play with the program. “We understand she’s…delicate.”

  And there it was. Without Father, Mom was what the Elders called a “useless mouth.” If Irv took an interest, he could brotherwife her. That would be about as pleasant as living with Father again, for both of us.

  Myrmidons got special treatment. Everyone knew that.

  I think I’m the Antichrist. I opened my mouth, shut it. They wouldn’t believe that. Nobody would, no matter how much Pastor Peter ranted about the coming Rapture and the winnowing. If we were going to be Raptured, it would’ve happened by now, right? Because everyone was so holy.

  I made it all the way into the parlor on wobbly legs. Sank down in a flowered, overstuffed armchair, squeezing my knees together out of long habit. The Camp uniform skirt scratched me—I still hadn’t had a chance to get out of the damn thing, Mom had moaned for a long time—and my shoes were beginning to feel like lead. Sweat prickled down my back and in my armpits.

  “I cooperate.” I sounded flat and unhelpful, even to myself. “And I get sent to be a Myrmidon, and Mom’s safe? She doesn’t have to brotherwife with Uncle Irv or anyone else?”

  “Allowances can be made.” Harker glanced out the bay window. Then all his attention was back on me. “What do you know about Robert Maguire? We hear you’re the only person at Temple he sought out or seemed to speak at any length to.”

  Make it a good lie, Julie. But in order to tell a good lie, you have to start with the truth. “We just talked. Both of us hated Camp. He got a Pride patch for telling a lay pastor he could teach a better theology class. He thought all the adults were stupid.”

  They exchanged glances. I drew a deep breath, and took the plunge with something they’d believe.

  “He kind of was asking me to run away. Said we’d go south over the border. Just him and me.”

  And we were off and running, both of them throwing questions at me. It was like a Confession Session, sitting in the middle of the circle and thinking up sins to make it worthwhile as the pastors and youth leaders shouted at you and the other kids made Holy Spirit noises.

  I think I did pretty okay, because after a while they left, and I made it upstairs to my bathroom before I had to throw up.

  * * *

  The communicator sat on my nightstand, a little silvery circle blinking its tiny red LED. Just like a baby cherub. It probably was spying on me. If Rob showed up I was supposed to press the button and the Myrmidons would come.

  They were so smart, they didn’t even know h
e had no idea where I lived.

  I lay in bed and tried not to think. I couldn’t hurt Rob if he was gone, and if I could get into Myrmidon training…why not? I could pretend to be orthodox. I could ride around in an electro SUV and terrify people, I could mouth Pastor Peter’s newest all the time. It wasn’t that hard.

  And Mom would be safe. She’d been restless again when I finished throwing up, and I’d brushed her hair to calm her down. Maybe she could even come off the meds a bit, now that Father—

  A rattle at my window. I blinked, pushing down the white eyelet cover, and propped myself on my elbows. The communicator kept flashing, steadily.

  A shadow at my window, tapping, and I probably already knew who it was. Because I got out of bed, pulling my tank top down, and padded over. I unlocked the window and slid it up, cool night air raising goose bumps all over me, and the plane tree outside rustled as he moved a little.

  “Julie.” He was perched up in the tree, for God’s sake. His hair was all messed up, and his T-shirt had definitely seen better days, but he was bright-eyed and grinning. It did a lot for his thin face. “Hey.”

  “What are you doing?” I whispered. “The Myrmidons are after you, for cripesake! And how did you find out where I—”

  “You’ve got an incognito cherub in your bedroom, too. It’s okay.” The grin widened. He was as far away from the gaunt, sullen kid at Temple as it was possible to get. Still thin, but that smile threatened to crack him wide open. “And five minutes at a public vidshell would find you. Kingstree’s not like Smith for a name, you know. Get your shoes.” His whisper was a lot louder than mine, or maybe it just seemed that way. Mom was tranked to the gills and Mattie was probably in bed by now, but still.

  “My shoes? I’m in my pajamas.” But I reached out through the window, and he grabbed my hand. His skin was warm, and he squeezed. “Rob. What are you doing?”