Children of the Earth

Children of the Earth

by Anna Schumacher

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780698146389
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 06/02/2015
Series: End Times , #2
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 288,772
File size: 703 KB
Age Range: 12 Years

About the Author

Anna Schumacher received an MFA in fiction writing from the New School. Born and raised in the tiny town of Guilford, Vermont (no traffic lights, no post office, one store), she now lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and two cats. She is also the author of End Times.

Read an Excerpt

Razorbill, an Imprint of Penguin Random House

Facing east, we raise our swords

And murmur these enchanted words:

Gods of Air, where’er ye roam,

Blow our siblings swiftly home.

DARKNESS HAD FALLEN OVER CARBON County by the time Daphne pulled her compact Subaru to the side of the dirt road. Up ahead she could make out strains of raucous laughter, and the acrid smoke of charred meat drifted down to her on a sharp breeze.

She pulled her boyfriend’s worn flannel shirt around her shoulders, trying to ward off the early autumn chill, and double-checked that the doors were locked before slipping the key into her pocket. There wasn’t much to steal in her car—after splitting her earnings from working the oil rig between her ailing mother in Detroit and the collection plate at church, she could only afford an ancient clunker with a perpetually jammed cassette deck. Still, she couldn’t trust the drifters who had taken up residence in the abandoned motocross track parking lot. They were rough-and-tumble oil prospectors with not a lot going for them and even less to lose, and it was rumored that they’d steal the shirt off your back, if given the chance.

The night noises sharpened as she approached: gas generators hacking out watts of power, hot dogs sizzling on portable barbecues, and plastic tarps erected as haphazard shelters crinkling in the wind. The parking lot where the Carbon County locals had once come to race dirt bikes, drink beer, and swap bragging rights was now a makeshift village of weather-beaten tents and rusted pop-up trailers, the track itself shut down.

None of the locals had wanted to set foot there since the horrible night just three months before, when Daphne had helped deliver her cousin Janie’s stillborn baby on the cold metal bleachers overlooking the track. Too many of their own had died there: first Trey, who had wrecked fatally during a race, and then Jeremiah, the baby who never took a breath.

Now the gate to the track was permanently shut, its padlock caked with rust, and the parking lot was transformed into a drab tent city of desperadoes. Only one thing could send Daphne there almost nightly to pick her way through the narrow paths between tents, stepping over mud-caked work boots and pots still crusted with last night’s beans. It drew her there despite the drifters’ unsavory reputation, despite the rumors of their rough-handed, heavy-drinking ways. She went because beyond the gate, on the eroding hills and turns of the track itself, was the only place where she could meet her boyfriend, Owen, in secret.

Owen was the best thing that had ever happened to her, but also one of the worst. He was the last person she’d expected to find in Carbon County, a rural town in the Wyoming foothills where she’d taken refuge with her extended family, the Peytons, after an especially rough winter in Detroit. But instead of the peace and quiet she’d been craving, she found oil on her uncle’s land and a strange ability to read the ancient Aramaic words on a stone tablet discovered beneath the earth, an ability that some said marked her as a prophet. She found all that, and she also found Owen, a green-eyed stranger who somehow wormed his way into her heart despite her general distrust of everyone, especially guys.

As soon as he arrived, it felt like Owen was everywhere: on the oil rig where she worked and at the motocross track, where he quickly destroyed the locals in competition, instantly making him the least-liked guy in town. It didn’t help when Trey, a popular local boy, died in a race against Owen—or that later, he and Daphne were the only two present when her pregnant cousin, Janie, went into sudden, early labor, delivering a stillborn infant on the bleachers overlooking the motocross track.

Maybe the townspeople hated Owen because he was there at all the wrong times, or maybe it was just because he didn’t say much to anyone besides Daphne, didn’t have the gift of small-town small talk that put them at ease. Whatever it was, she knew exactly what they thought of him . . . and what they would think of her if they knew he was her boyfriend.

Now, more than ever, she needed the townspeople’s approval. She’d fallen from their graces once before, when her cousin’s jerk of a baby daddy, Doug, revealed that she’d stood trial for her stepfather’s murder in Detroit. It had been in self-defense, after he tried to rape her at knifepoint, and she’d been acquitted––but Doug didn’t tell anyone that part. Instead, he’d accused her of not only killing her stepfather, but he and Janie’s infant son as well. He’d implicated Owen, too, and the townspeople had rallied behind Doug, threatening to throw both Daphne and Owen out of town.

It was only after Pastor Ted learned that Daphne could read the Aramaic tablet and declared her a prophet that the townspeople grudgingly allowed her back in their good graces . . . but by then, it was too late for Owen. The town needed a scapegoat, and he was the most convenient target.

If it weren’t for her aunt and uncle, Daphne wouldn’t have cared what anyone thought about her personal life. But Uncle Floyd and Aunt Karen meant everything to her: They had taken her in when she had nowhere else to go and taught her the true meaning of family and faith, and she would rather die than upset them. They had never trusted Owen and still believed that he may have had a hand in their grandchild’s death–-and until they had a little more time to heal, Daphne didn’t want to upset them further.

So, to avoid suspicion, she and Owen met on the abandoned motocross track after sundown, where fear of the drifters kept the gossipy townsfolk away.

Gravel crunched behind her, and Daphne froze. But the path through the camp was deserted, with the drifters gathered around a fire at the other end of the parking lot. An unsecured tarp scratched at the ground, echoing the sound that had made her panic. Exhaling in relief, Daphne turned and made her way out of the camp.

She slipped past the padlocked gate and onto the dark trail leading to the motocross track. Even when she wasn’t sneaking out to meet Owen, their clandestine relationship made her jumpy and anxious, always looking over her shoulder and trying to wipe the traces of their secret from her face. If she could have resisted him, she would have. But their bond was too strong, too powerful, to ignore.

The dark drew itself around her, only the pale comma of a moon punctuating the sky, and she heard the crunch again, closer than before. But she wouldn’t turn and look, wouldn’t let her paranoia get the better of her.

Stones skittered across the path behind her, and the wind panted in her wake. Although it was too dark for shadows, she thought she saw something flicker across her vision. Her stomach clenched as she felt the sudden presence of a stranger behind her, his skin emanating a dank rot.

She whirled around, but it was too late. Yellowed nails dug into her shoulders, the force knocking her to the ground. She got in one good scream before his hand clapped over her mouth, filling her lungs with the sickening scent of decay. Adrenaline flew through her veins as she kicked the air, praying for her steel-enforced boots to connect.

The stranger covered her body with his, stilling her legs and pinning her to the ground. Greasy strings of hair fell onto her cheeks, and he laughed a grating chainsaw laugh, reaching into the folds of an oily trench coat to reveal a blade that turned the weak beam of moonlight to ice. The world pulsed, and terror screamed through her, her vision condensing into a single point of light. Her eyes rolled back in her head as power gathered in her stomach, spreading from cell to cell until she was charged like a battery, electricity fighting its way through her skin and making her writhe and quake under his weight. She looked straight into his eyes—one gray, one brown—and saw, with horror, their true intent.

She’d had a knife to her throat and a grown man’s unwanted body on hers before. She knew what that man, her stepfather, Jim, had wanted: to force himself inside of her, debasing her body until it no longer felt like her own.

But this man didn’t want that. He didn’t care about her body. He wanted her life.

She jerked and seized beneath him, and the power rocketing inside of her forced her hands around his neck, choking off his windpipe with a python grip. For a moment, everything was black. Then she heard a voice in her head, and all she could see was fire.

The Vision of Fire

And yea, there will come a day

When ye stand before the derrick

That pumps oil from the earth

And a wall of flames consumes the sky.

These shall be no ordinary flames

But the hellfire of damnation,

Wild with hunger to destroy

All that is holy and good.

And ye shall see, as the fire approacheth

And crude oil boils inside the earth

And the heat peels trees from land

And skin from bone

Ye shall see a shadow

With shoulders wide as mountains,

Arms raised, fingers outstretched,

Coaxing the fire ever closer.

Slow as boulders forming

The dark figure turns

Until he looks down upon you

And you fall to your knees.

For this figure has a face you know,

A face you have touched.

You have seen these eyes

Flash serpentine green.

These eyes have deceived you,

These hands draw down fire to burn the land,

This heart serves only the dark lord

And this soul is as black as the devil.

Your limbs shall tremble

And your heart shall tear in two,

For this is a face you know—

A face you love.

OWEN CROUCHED IN THE DARKNESS, his body sizzling with need. Being at the motocross track was both a torture and a release: Torture in the jumps and berms that made him miss his dirt bike the way an amputee misses a limb. Release because it meant time alone with Daphne, whose touch raced through him faster than any motor and cut like the sharpest hairpin turn.

With the track shut down, she was the only thing keeping him sane. She was a reason to get up and go to work on the oil rig each morning and his last thought before falling into a fitful sleep every night. But even the cool relief of her smile, the kisses stolen on their lunch breaks, and their electric evenings alone on the motocross track weren’t enough to staunch the dreams.

They came thick and furious each night, the same nightmares that had driven him to Carbon County so many months before. Dark figures danced around a bonfire, but now he could see them more clearly, eleven pairs of emerald eyes glowing like fireflies, only one face still dark. They danced and chanted, hands clasped and limbs gleaming in the firelight, and as their voices crescendoed to a wild shriek and the fire flung itself into the sky, the earth began to shake, threatening to open up and release a mighty and powerful god, the God of the Earth.

The dreams always ended with a voice of thunder and lighting, of molten gravel pouring from the earth’s core. Find the vein, it had whispered to him long ago, terrifying and seducing him, sending him back and forth across the country until he found his sister, Luna, and together they let it draw them to Carbon County like gravity, an elemental force.

That voice was the God of the Earth, Luna had explained to him, and the God of the Earth was their father. At first he thought she was crazy, a lost hippie child who’d probably taken too many substances at the music festivals where she performed with her glowing hula hoop. The only evidence that they were even related were their identical green eyes and her stories of growing up on the commune where he was born, a commune called Children of the Earth. But when the Aramaic tablet told of a great battle between the Children of God and the Children of the Earth, he began to reluctantly believe his sister. If she was right, that meant that he and Daphne were on opposite sides of a great battle between good and evil—a battle that the tablet had threatened could destroy the world.

He didn’t want it to be that way, but the predictions on the tablet had all come true, from the fiery wreck that had taken Trey’s life at the motocross track to the flock of birds of paradise that had dropped dead from the sky on the day of Janie’s wedding. Now the second part of the prophecy was coming true: The Children of the Earth were arriving in Carbon County.

He’d noticed others with the same green eyes trickling into town, other children of the God of the Earth, and he knew from the faces in his dreams that all but one had arrived. Like him, they’d been drawn there by dreams of fire and destruction that ended with the gravelly voice of their father urging them to “find the vein.” And Luna, in that half-cheeky, half-ominous way of hers, had made it easy for them.

She had her own place now, a brand-new nightclub that was full to bursting with roughnecks and prospectors each night. All Children of the Earth were guaranteed jobs there, as bartenders and busboys, bouncers and cocktail waitresses and kitchen crew. And just so there wasn’t any question about where they should go, she had named it the Vein.

So far Owen had managed to stay away, gritting his teeth and gripping the bottom of his chair as Luna packed her costumes and hula hoops and urged him to move across town with her to the loft above the club, tears filling her eyes and her words wrapping around him like a serpent as she begged him to join her.

He’d refused. He had to stay away from her, from all of them, to protect his love for Daphne. If she knew, just as the tablet had predicted, that most of the Children of the Earth were already in town, she’d be forced to choose between her loyalty to him and her duty as the prophet of the Children of God. He knew that he’d have to tell her eventually, but he couldn’t bear for her to have to make that choice just yet.

So he stayed far away from the Vein despite Luna’s text messages and the voice in his dreams, which pulled at his blood like a magnet at metal shavings. His will was strong, and his love for Daphne stronger. But each day that he held out was harder than the last, and he was terrified that someday, by his will or against it, he would end up among them. As much as he fought it, the need to go to his brothers and sisters grew stronger every day.

A scream cut through his thoughts with the white-hot immediacy of lightning, making the hair on his arms stand on end. He was on his feet before he could catch up with his body, racing down the face of the jump and calling her name. He knew that voice and knew it could only be her.

Daphne.

He shouldn’t have let her come alone, he thought, furious at himself as his feet pounded the track, kicking up dust and splattering his pants with mud. Daphne was tough, but the path through the drifters’ camp was dangerous, the squatters unscrupulous in their quest to get what they wanted—and what if what they wanted was a girl? Owen never should have put her in that kind of danger, and Daphne never should have agreed to it. Their desire for one another had grown huge and reckless; something had to change before it was too late.

Unless it already was.

A thin layer of sweat clung to his skin by the time he reached the messy circle of squatters who had gathered at the bottom of the dark path down to the track. “What happened?” He shouldered past the men, ignoring the sour scent of their beer breath and unshowered bodies.

“Looks like she’s having a seizure,” someone grunted.

“But I wouldn’t get too close,” another cautioned. “Lookit what she did to him.”

Ignoring the warning, Owen stepped to the front of the crowd.

Daphne convulsed on the ground, flopping like a minnow in the bottom of a rowboat. Her eyes were narrow white slits, and her lashes beat furiously against her cheeks. A few feet away, a man lay unconscious, stringy hair feathered around his head. His eyes, one gray and one brown, were open but unseeing, the red still draining from his face and a patina of bruises decorating the stubbled skin of his neck.

A knife marked the ground between them, its blade throwing slices of light from the drifters’ headlamps and gas lanterns.

“Daphne!” Owen rushed to her even as crooked hands reached for his arms and tried to hold him back.

“You don’t wanna do that,” someone warned. “We pulled her offa him, but it wa’n’t easy. Girl’s got a demon grip.”

“Call an ambulance!” Owen broke free and rushed to her side. He wasn’t afraid of her, even if the rough-and-tumble drifters were.

He knelt by Daphne’s convulsing body and slipped a gentle hand under her head. She stiffened at his touch, and her eyelids flew open. But the eyes that bored into his weren’t hers—they were barely even human. They blazed with fear and distrust so sudden and unexpected that he snatched back his hand.

Daphne’s body jackknifed, her legs spasming as her hands flew to his throat. Steel-strong fingers closed over his neck, crushing the air from his lungs.

“I told ’im not to go in,” he heard one of the squatters say, but it sounded like it was coming from far away, from another continent on another planet in another lifetime.

He sputtered for breath. He was losing air, losing consciousness. The world telescoped inward, its edges black and fuzzy, static filling his ears like sand.

He was going to die. The realization shot a cannonball of adrenaline through him, and with the last shred of his waning strength he brought his hands to his neck and closed his fingers over Daphne’s. He imagined strength pouring up his arms and through his hands, pictured Daphne’s vice-strong grip turning to jelly under his fingers. The vision squeezed through the choked-up passageways of his windpipe, rushing from nerve to nerve.

My fingers are steel, her fingers are jelly. These words would be his last thoughts, he realized through a thick film of panic. If only they were true: if only Daphne’s strength really were waning, if only the crushing tension in her muscles would relax into flesh and beyond flesh, into jelly so soft he could spread it on toast. As he pried at her fingers, gasping for breath, he thought he felt her hands loosen under his, her strength give millimeter by painstaking millimeter.

A sliver of air rushed to his lungs, just enough to give him a better grip. The refrain of my fingers are steel, her fingers are jelly pounded in his brain. He breathed in again, the sound raspy and desperate as he wedged first one, then two, then all of his fingers into the growing gap between her hands and his throat. With a final burst of strength, he freed himself and threw her aside.

Daphne’s arms flopped in the dirt. Black dots floated in Owen’s vision as he rubbed his throat, the bruises tender beneath his fingers. Air had never tasted sweeter, and he sucked in giant lungfuls of it, the pain in his windpipe a stabbing reminder of how close he’d come.

“Damn.” A nearby prospector shook his head, whistling air through his teeth. “That was close. How’d you do it?”

“I don’t know.” Now that he was out of immediate danger Owen could feel power surging through his body, sparking from his mind down to the tips of his fingers in electrical currents that made his skin seem feel hot and too tight. His brain was on overdrive, the echo of my fingers are steel, her fingers are jelly dancing there like a song that had stuck in his head. It almost felt like those thoughts, rather than his own strength, had saved his life.

Daphne shot to sitting like a zombie rising from the grave. Her eyes flew open, and she looked around wildly, taking in the knife and the man lying unconscious and the circle of drifters. When her gaze reached Owen, she shrieked and scuttled back in the dirt. Her face was drawn in terror, and she whimpered as if the sight of him caused her pain.

“Daphne.” He kept his voice low and gentle, knowing she must be disoriented. “It’s okay. It’s me, Owen.”

“No!” She turned her back to him and clutched her knees, curling into a ball and rocking back and forth.

Still gasping for breath, he crawled over and wrapped his arms around her trembling shoulders. She shrugged him off at first, still whimpering into her knees, but as the keening wail of the ambulance grew closer and the drifters began to scatter he tried again.

“You had a seizure, Daphne,” he said softly, his lips close to her ear, soothing her the way he’d soothed his little sister after a nightmare in his previous life back in Kansas long ago. “I know it’s scary, but you’re okay. You’re going to be all right. I’m here.”

She relaxed and let him envelop her, wrapping herself in the scent of earth and motor oil that never left his skin, resting her head against his chest and drying her cheek on his T-shirt. This was Owen, the real Owen. That other Owen, the one who’d blazed huge and evil in her vision, didn’t exist. He couldn’t. She’d been hallucinating, her mind riled up in self-defense and playing terrible tricks on her.

But as the siren swam closer and the sky pulsed red and she sobbed into Owen’s shirt, another thought nagged at her, one she couldn’t ignore. Because, whether or not she wanted it, she was a prophet—and prophets didn’t see mistakes or hallucinations. They saw visions from God.

THE DOG WAS BARKING. BELLA stood on the pink lump that Janie made under her sleeping bag, pawing at her shoulder and yapping in her ear, awakening her from a heavy nap dotted with restless dreams.

“Shut up, Bella.” Janie swept the dog onto the floor, but Bella landed on her cream-colored paws and went right on barking, dancing back and forth from the couch to the TV and making the cherry vodka on the milk-crate coffee table slosh in its plastic bottle.

As she struggled out of the depths of sleep, Janie slowly realized what the dog was fussing about. Someone was knocking on the door, the pounding echoing through the empty halls of the half-finished mansion atop Elk Mountain.

“Crap.” She sat up, throwing off the sleeping bag, and ran a hand through the rat’s nest of her hair. She dimly remembered something about Hilary coming to visit, a text message exchange from yesterday or the day before—it was easy to lose track of time when all you did was sleep and watch Teen Mom.

“Janie, it’s for you!” Deirdre Varley’s nagging trill floated up from the lobby and bounced off the vaulted ceiling.

“Coming,” Janie called back. But it came out sounding like a croak.

She found her slippers and padded down the hall, tightening the drawstring on her sweatpants as she descended the stairs.

“Hey, girl!” Hilary’s voice was unnaturally bright, the brightest thing by far in the towering, empty lobby of the half-finished chateau. She wrapped Janie in a hug that smelled like baby powder and fresh laundry, making Janie wonder what had happened to her old best friend who had always reeked of cigarettes and Rihanna’s Rogue perfume.

“Close the door, you’re letting cold air in,” Deirdre admonished. She gave Janie a pinched glare. “I wish you’d remembered you were having company,” she sniffed. “I had to come all the way down from our wing to let her in.”

“Sorry.” Janie looked down at her slippers, threadbare Smurfettes staring mournfully from her toes. “I’ll remember next time.”

Like there would be a next time. It’s not like anyone ever came to visit her—even her mom had gotten sick of Deirdre’s sniping and stopped coming round, choosing instead to nag Janie by phone.

“It’s good to see you.” Hilary smiled and pushed away a stray corkscrew curl that had fallen over her eye. “It’s been too long.”

Janie didn’t know how long it had been, exactly. Lately she’d been losing track of time, whole days disappearing between commercial breaks and fitful dreams. But it must have been a while, because Hilary didn’t just smell different, she looked different, too. She’d put on some weight, and her face was rounder, the skin taut and glowing and her old acne pockmarks nearly gone.

“Yeah, well.” Janie gave a vague shrug. “I guess we should go upstairs.”

She led Hilary up the wooden skeleton of a wide, sweeping staircase that would one day be finished in marble, past doorways with no doors that peeked into rooms whose only decoration was yellow sheets of insulation stapled to the walls. With the lawsuit against Janie’s father stalled and the Varleys hurting for cash, they’d sold their ranch house in town and moved the family to the chateau on Elk Mountain before it was finished—and judging from the way money had been lately, it seemed like it may never get done at all. Vince Varley swore they’d get it fully insulated and heated before winter, but there had been no workers for days, maybe even weeks. The Wyoming air was chilly even in early September, wind whistling through the cracks in the walls like lost children crying to come home.

“Brrr.” Hilary hugged her arms and shivered as they entered the den. It was the only room in the west wing—Doug and Janie’s wing—that was fully furnished, but the old leather living room set from the Varley’s ranch house still seemed dwarfed by the vast expanse of plywood floor. “It’s cold in here.”

“I’ll build up the fire.” Janie dredged logs from a cardboard box and poked at the smoldering coals, watching them jump and hiss before licking at the wood and filling the room with smoke. “At least there’s plenty of wood on this land.”

“Remind me to bring you a space heater next time I come.” Hilary perched on the end of the couch and looked around, slowly taking in the panorama of the Savage Mountain Range from the huge bay window. “Sure is some view, though.”

Janie guessed it was okay, but she preferred to face away from the lonely peaks, staring instead at the fireplace or the flat-screen television Doug had propped somewhat precariously on a milk crate.

“Want a drink?” Janie held out an economy-sized plastic bottle half-full of the cherry vodka she’d taken to sipping throughout the day. The strong, clear liquid burned sweet trails down her throat and kept her mind hazy and soft, away from the thorny edges of thoughts that caught and ripped at her brain: memories of the birds that had fallen dead from the sky on the day of her shotgun wedding to Doug, of Daphne holding her stillborn infant son in her arms, of Doug pushing her into the dirt and screaming over her as she sobbed, blaming her for their son’s death. “It’ll warm you up.”

She realized that maybe she should go to the kitchen for glasses (it’s what a good hostess would do, what her mother would do), but that meant a long trip down the cold stairs and dark hallways, and possibly meeting Deirdre Varley’s disapproving face over the vast kitchen island, silently judging her daughter-in-law while she attempted a new casserole with some phony-sounding French name.

But Hilary shook her head. “I don’t really drink anymore,” she said. “I know—crazy, right? Me, turning down a drink? But, well, ever since everything happened, with Trey going to God and them finding that ancient tablet and—well, you know . . . what happened to you.” She averted her eyes, color creeping into her cheeks. Janie knew. Sometimes, it felt like it was all she knew.

“Anyway, I’ve been trying to live a little cleaner since all that,” Hilary went on. “Pastor Ted says the Rapture’s coming any day now, and we all have to get right in the eyes of God. That means no drinking, no swearing, no getting down before marriage—which is great for me, ’cause now Bryce keeps talking about putting a ring on it.” She grinned wickedly, a flash of the wisecracking old Hilary superimposed over the clean, shiny new one.

Janie took a swig from the bottle, seeing as how Hilary didn’t want any anyway. Maybe it wasn’t exactly polite, but what did it matter? It wasn’t like Hilary was the queen of England. As the liquid warmed her insides, she looked up and saw concern flash in her old friend’s eyes.

“We miss you at church.” Hilary sounded like she was trying to coax a scared dog out from under the bed.

“Yeah, well,” Janie shrugged. She already wanted another swig—it seemed like she needed more and more to take the edge off lately. “I’ve been real busy up here.”

Hilary’s eyebrows knit, and for a moment Janie saw herself through her friend’s eyes: hair matted around her face, bundled in her old Carbon County High sweatshirt and a cheap pair of sweatpants that, honestly, she hadn’t changed in a few days. She must look pathetic, like a washed-up housewife who couldn’t even get it together to do laundry. Not that the laundry hookup was even close to ready in the Varley mansion, and Deirdre, being too proud to let them go to the laundromat in town, insisted they hand-wash their clothes in the sink. Screw that: Janie had better things to do. Like sleep. And watch TV. And drink.

“Well, we’d all love it if you could find time to come see what we’ve been up to at the church!” Hilary sounded too upbeat, too positive—the very opposite of her sarcastic former self. Had Janie been that annoying when she was on her big Jesus kick? She couldn’t remember. Everything about the past, the time before she married Doug and lost her baby and moved into the house at Elk Mountain, seemed so far away, like it had happened in another lifetime to another person. A happier person.

“So many people have moved into town since Pastor Ted got that show on the Christian channel,” Hilary continued. “There are all these great new folks now, we’ve started a youth group and everything, and the Sunday sermons are packed. Seriously, Janie, you would not believe it: standing room only! It’s a good thing your folks are donating the money for a new church, and that’s close to done, too, so we’ll have room for everyone who’s ready to be saved.”

Hilary leaned forward on the couch, eyes glowing. “Just come to church this Sunday, Janie. It would mean so much to your folks, and to Pastor Ted, and . . . well, to me.”

Janie couldn’t hold out anymore. She grabbed the bottle and took a good, long gulp. The vodka burned, but it was so much easier to swallow than Hilary’s words. She’d believed in the church—in God, in Jesus, all of it—with all her heart before. But where was God when she’d cried out to him to let her baby be delivered safe and sound? Not listening, obviously. So why should she put her faith in him now?

She set the bottle down and wiped the back of her mouth with her hand. “I’ll go,” she said.

“You will?” Hilary scootched forward on the couch and wrapped her arms around Janie, a hint of her old fierceness in her grip. “That’s so great! Pastor Ted will be so excited—and Daphne, too! She’s there every Sunday now, and you wouldn’t believe the fuss people make about her. I guess not every congregation gets to have its own real, live, honest-to-goodness prophet.”

“That’s . . . awesome.” Janie tried to force a smile, but it just wouldn’t come. It wasn’t that she didn’t love Daphne, not exactly. Just that she didn’t buy into all that prophet baloney. A real prophet would have been able to save her baby. A real prophet wouldn’t have let an infant die in her arms.

Hilary sat back on the couch and kept talking, her chatter rapid and meaningless. Janie tuned out, sneaking occasional nips from the bottle and nodding along numbly as Hilary gossiped about their old friends and raved about Pastor Ted and waxed on about clean living and the Rapture and that weird new club in town, the Vein, which Pastor Ted said was a hotbed of sin they all must avoid if they wanted to be swept up to heaven in God’s golden light. It was a relief when her friend finally ran out of things to say and Janie could escort her downstairs to the door, the naked worklights strung through the hallways yellowing their skin as they said goodbye.

“So you’ll really come to church on Sunday?” Hilary asked for what seemed like the millionth time, clasping one of Janie’s cold hands in both of her warm ones.

“Yeah.” Janie nodded thickly, knowing it was a lie. But if a promise would get Hilary off her back, then she was more than glad to make it. The vodka had worked, finally, and the world was sleepy and slippery around her, a snowglobe filled with static. “I’ll see you there.”

“Great. I can’t wait!” Hilary kissed her cheek, and then she was gone, and Janie was blessedly alone again, her footsteps ghostly echoes in the huge, silent halls. She trudged upstairs, swaying, a little off-balance thanks to the booze, and tipped another shot into her mouth as she turned on the TV. A little girl’s face filled the screen, lips pink, eyes rimmed in fake lashes. One of those child beauty-pageant shows. Perfect. Janie loved those.

Bella leapt onto her lap and snuggled into her, the dog’s cuddles one of the few honest pleasures still left in her life. Janie felt her head tip sideways and her mouth fall open, the booze and couch and the dog’s tiny patch of warmth pulling her eyelids shut into a heavy, troubled sleep.

• • •

An arrhythmic thumping jerked her awake. She didn’t know how long she’d been asleep, only that it was dark outside and her head was pounding, her mouth dry and scratchy from her lips all the way down to the sour slosh of old vodka in her stomach.

The thumps grew louder, suddenly familiar. It was Doug, stumbling down the hall. So it was late, then. He always came home late, and often drunk—not that she had any right to judge. She held her breath, wondering if it would be one of those nights he wanted something from her or if he’d just pass by, heading to the large, lonely bed in the master bedroom they supposedly shared.

Things had been different with Doug since that night, the night of Jeremiah’s funeral, when he left her sobbing in the dust by the bonfire. He’d apologized, of course: Doug was good at apologizing. He’d gotten down on his knees and said he was out of his mind with grief, so broken up about their baby that he didn’t know what he was doing. And she’d forgiven him, because she didn’t know how else to respond and because she loved him and wanted things to go back to the way they were.

Not that they had. Now they were ghosts orbiting each other in the giant house, Doug finding as many excuses to leave as Janie did to stay. She didn’t know where he went. All she knew was that he came home drunk, sometimes wanting her body and other times wanting nothing more than bed.

The footsteps stopped, and he appeared in the doorless doorway, weaving slightly on oversized feet, his big head blocking out the work lights from the hall. Disgust and desire welled up in her, battling for control as he lumbered toward her and lowered himself to the couch with a heavy grunt. Even as the whiskey on his breath repulsed her, she found herself arching out of the sleeping bag to meet his groping hand.

He didn’t say a word as he unbuckled his belt and grasped her hand roughly, guiding her to him. She didn’t either, although her breath quickened and she felt herself lean toward him, anxious for even the quickest, sloppiest kiss, the most fleeting connection to what their life and their love had once been.

Her cell phone jangled on the coffee table, startling them both. It was late, she knew—too late for anyone to call.

“Mom?” Her voice was rusty with disuse. “What’s up?”

She listened, her eyes widening, before hanging up and slipping the phone into her pocket.

“What?” Doug fell back on the couch, staring woozily at the mournful sliver of moonlight outside the bay window as Janie chased her shadow around the room, looking for the boots she hadn’t worn since her last trip out to gather kindling.

“It’s cousin Daphne.” Her voice was hollow. “She had an accident or something, and she’s in the hospital. I gotta go.”

She found her imitation Uggs under the couch and mashed her feet into them, sweatpants and all. She fished the keys to Doug’s truck from his pocket and looked down at him one last time, at the blanket of sleep that had already fallen over his face and the gently snoring mouth that had once declared his undying love. She didn’t know whether she wanted to kiss that mouth or kick it, and so she did neither.

Instead, she let herself out of the house and started his truck, shivering as she drove off into the night.

MUSIC THROBBED THROUGH LUNA’S BODY, pulsing the blood in her veins and making her skin feel warm and alive. The tips of her multicolored dreadlocks brushed her bare back, tickling the sensitive skin where a tree tattoo sprouted from her root chakra and spread over her back and down her arms. She threw back her head and closed her eyes, letting the music roll over her shoulders and trace trails in the air from her fingertips.

Even in the darkness behind her lids, she could feel them watching her, hungering for her. Their eyes left hot retina prints on her hips, which swirled lazily, keeping the twinkling circle of her LED hoop aloft. From time to time she sensed a grubby hand reach for her, desperate to stroke even the tiniest patch of skin on her calf, but it was easy enough to send the hand’s owner stumbling backward with a well-timed kick of her vegan leather boot.

The Vein was packed, the music deafening, the air thick with crushed dreams and frustrated desires. Her Earth Sisters Freya and Abilene moved like panthers behind the bar, green eyes flashing as they poured shots down the prospectors’ throats and tucked their ample tips into holsters slung low on their hips. Orion winked at her from the DJ booth while Aura sent fog creeping across the floor and lasers dancing over the walls, and Gray and Kimo moved silently through the crowd, clearing glasses and mopping up spills, their lithe bodies no more than shadows that left the Vein’s patrons feeling inexplicably cold and empty as they passed, making them shiver and curse and hurry to the bar for another drink.

Oh, how the prospectors could drink! It took gallons of booze to fill their vacant souls each night. Their greed was massive and oppressive, their desire for easy money and cheap thrills so strong that sometimes Luna found herself forcing back bubbles of nausea while she twirled her hoop atop her go-go platform, above it all.

Radio signals of want radiated from them, so loud at times that Luna wanted to scream at the prospectors that these desires would leave them even emptier in the end, just as the alcohol drained not only their wallets but also their souls. She wanted to force them to see the beauty in the earth, the blinding happiness in a simple life spent worshipping the land, the incomparable joy of respecting every living thing. She wanted to make them understand the damage they did each day when they went tearing up the foothills looking for oil.

But she knew that route didn’t work. Her people had been trying to turn the tides for centuries, from the druids of Ireland to the monks of Tibet to the gentle hippies who had raised her on a commune called the Children of the Earth. Their warnings never worked. People were just too greedy, just too blind.

With the earth on the verge of destruction, the planet’s veins bled of oil, its airways choked with smog, and the water in its cells polluted with toxic chemicals, it was Luna’s responsibility to tap into the ancient power of the earth and take action. She had to stop the destruction before it was too late.

But she couldn’t do it alone. She needed the Children of the Earth—all of the Children of the Earth—at her side.

Somewhere below the go-go platform, a fight broke out. Glass shattered, and an arc of blood sailed through the air, the sound of fist meeting flesh exploding over the music’s driving beat.

Luna put down her hoop and leapt to the floor, landing silently on the thick rubber soles of her boots. She flowed through the crowd like steam, and it automatically parted to let her pass. In a moment she was between the brawling men, the solid center in a swirl of flying fists and hamburger-meat faces, of bloodied lips and bloodshot eyes.

“Stop.” She held up her hands, a palm facing each of them. She felt the magic build inside of her, the indigo-colored force that started in her throat chakra and roared to life in her veins. It sensed the men’s desires radiating off of them like a foul smell, knew by instinct that their fight wasn’t really over a spilled mug of ale but because they were frustrated, their thirst for approval and women and riches never slaked.

She fed on them, these desires, and now she knew what to do with them. The men may have thought they wanted to fight and win, but she sensed the need underneath: to feel completely safe and protected, the way they’d felt as infants in their mothers’ arms.

Luna glanced from one man to the other, the buzz of power pulsing through her. Up in the DJ booth, Orion cut the music, and the Vein fell silent.

“You don’t fight in my club.” Her voice was quiet, her eyes cool. “Understand?”

“Yes’m.” The men murmured, bashful, staring down at their muddied shoes. Their anger fizzled and seemed to leak from their suddenly unclenched fists. They didn’t dare meet her gaze.

“Now get out.” She raised her face to the teeming crowd, meeting all of their eyes at once, making them blush all the way to the roots of their greasy hair. “All of you. We’re closing up for the night.”

Moving as one, the staff of the Vein pushed the mob of prospectors toward the exit. Within minutes the bar was empty. Only the Children of the Earth remained.

“Are there any left?” Luna asked Kimo as he slipped by with a push broom.

Her Earth Brother stopped. He tilted his head to the side, so that his stiff black Mohawk almost disappeared, and sniffed the air delicately. His eyes went a shade greener, glowing incandescent in the bar’s gloom.

“There’s two in the bathroom,” he said. “You don’t even want to know what they’re doing.”

Luna nodded. “Get them out.”

Kimo hurried away, and she grasped the railing of the spiral staircase and took the steps two at a time. Orion paused from packing up his turntables to give her shoulder an affectionate squeeze as she wafted past him and through a black door.

Ciaran sat at a desk in the management office, counting the night’s earnings. His fingers were dragonfly legs dancing across the backs of bills as he sorted them into piles. They didn’t stop as he looked up.

“Evening, Earth Sister.” He tossed a long, honey-colored lock of hair from his eyes.

Luna kissed his golden cheek. “We do well tonight?” She perched on the edge of his desk, swinging her legs.

“We cleaned up, like we always do.” He punched numbers into a calculator, his smile never losing its glow. “If those prospectors knew how to make money like we do, they’d stop looking for oil in all the wrong places.”

She tapped him on the nose. “If they knew how to make money like we do, we wouldn’t make money like we do.”

“Touché.” He opened a safe in the wall and placed the bills inside. “But you’re not happy,” he observed. “Something’s bothering you.”

Her legs stopped mid-swing. Ciaran was the first of her Earth Siblings to arrive in town after Owen, but she still wasn’t entirely used to the way he could see inside her mind. It was his power, just as manipulating desires was hers.

She got up and closed the door, then leaned in close and whispered in his ear. “He isn’t back yet.”

Ciaran’s brow wrinkled. “That guy? The one who was supposed to take care of Daphne?”

“Yeah.” The word tasted dark. “Something happened. Something bad. I can feel it.”

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