"Ezekiel is my second-any problems you have, you take up with him," he continued and turned to Zeke, giving him a curt nod. "Good work finding the boy, son."
"Thank you, sir."
A very faint, proud smile crossed Jebbadiah's lips before he turned sharply to Ruth, who cringed under his stare. "I expect you to keep a better eye on young Caleb in the future," he said. "Such carelessness is unforgivable. Had Ezekiel not found him tonight, he would've been left behind. Do you understand?" Ruth's lower lip trembled, and she nodded.
"Good." Jeb stepped back, nodded at me, his steely eyes unreadable. "Welcome to the family, Allison," he stated and strode away, hands clasped behind him. I was tempted to make a face at his retreating back, but Zeke was watching me, so I resisted.
Darren slapped Zeke on the shoulder and returned to his post. Caleb beamed at us, but Ruth took his hand and dragged him off. I shot Zeke a sideways look, raising an eyebrow.
He winced. "Yeah. It's the name of an archangel, but only Jeb calls me that anymore." Raking a hand through his hair, he turned away. "Come on, I'll introduce you to everyone." Not long after, I met nearly everyone in the small congregation, though I forgot most of their names as soon as I heard them. Of the dozen or so skinny, half-starved people, about half were adults; the rest were kids my age and younger. I suspected, from the amount of children running around with no parents, that the group had been larger once. I wondered how long they had been wandering, following a fanatical old man, looking for some mythical city that probably didn't exist.
I wondered how many hadn't made it this far.
Initially, the adults were cool toward me; I was a stranger, new and untried, and yet another mouth to feed. It was the same back in the Fringe. But after Zeke told my story, with even more hatred and anger for the vampires than I had first embellished, they regarded me with newfound sympathy, awe and respect. I was relieved; in one fell swoop, I had won over this group of strangers without having to say or prove anything at all. Well, actually, it was Zeke who did the win-ning, but I wasn't going to complain. Staying with these people would be hard enough without immediate suspicion and distrust.
"All right, listen up, everyone!" Zeke called after introductions were made. "Dawn is about two hours away, and it's too late to continue on tonight. So we're setting up camp here. Now, listen, I need the first and second watch doubled until sunrise. Darren and I didn't see any rabids in the area, but I don't want to take chances. Allison..." He turned in my direction, surprising me. "Did you see any rabids when you first came in?"
"No," I replied, thrilled at what he was doing. Including me, making me a part of the group. "The road was clear."
"Good." Zeke turned back to the others. "Most of the apartment rooms are fairly clear and have concrete f loors, so we'll be safe there. Everyone get some rest while they can.
Jeb wants an early start tomorrow night." The group broke into organized chaos, moving slowly into the apartment complex. I stood beside Zeke, watching them, and caught several curious glances, especially from the kids and young people. Ruth glared daggers as she led Caleb into the apartment ruins, and I smiled back nastily.
"Ezekiel." Jeb appeared again, coming from nowhere to stand before us.
Jeb put a hand on his shoulder. "I want you to take first watch tonight with the others. At least until dawn. It's not that I don't trust Jake and Darren, but I want someone more experienced in a town like this. Make sure the demons don't creep up on us in our sleep."
Jeb's gaze shifted to me and back again. "Take Allison with you. Tell her how things are done here. She can start contributing to the group today."
Oh, great. I hope they don't expect me to take watch in the daylight hours. How am I going to get out of this?
Jeb suddenly looked right at me, and something in those f linty eyes made me want to back away, snarling. "You don't mind, do you girl?"
"Not at all," I replied, staring him down, "if you ask me nicely."
Jeb's eyebrow twitched. "Ezekiel, will you excuse us a moment?" he asked in his not-really-a-question voice. Zeke gave me a helpless look but immediately nodded and left, walking back toward the gate.
I raised my chin and faced Jebbadiah Crosse, defiant smirk firmly in place. If this crazy old man wanted to lecture me, he was in for a surprise. I wasn't afraid of him, I wasn't part of his f lock, and I was more than ready to tell him what he could do with his lecture.
Jeb regarded me with no expression. "Do you believe in God, Allison?"
"No," I said immediately. "Is this the part where you tell me I'm going to hell?"
"This is hell," Jebbadiah said, gesturing to the town around us. "This is our punishment, our Tribulation. God has abandoned this world. The faithful have already gone on to their reward, and he has left the rest of us here, at the mercy of the demons and the devils. The sins of our fathers have passed on to their children, and their children's children, and it will continue to be so until this world is completely destroyed. So it doesn't matter if you believe in God or not, because He is not here."
I blinked at him, speechless. "That's..."
"Not what you were expecting?" Jeb gave a bitter smile. "It is useless to offer words of hope when you have none yourself. And I have seen things in this world to make me certain that God is no longer watching us. I am not here to preach His message or to convert the entire world-it is far too late for that.
"However," he continued, giving me a hard stare, "these people expect me to lead them to our destination. I expect Ezekiel has already told you about Eden. Know this-I will allow nothing- nothing-to keep us from our goal. I will do whatever it takes to reach it, even if it means leaving a few behind. Those who cannot contribute, or those who cause problems, will be cast out. I give you this warning now. Make of it what you will."
"You're still hoping to reach your Promised Land even though you don't believe in it?"
"Eden is real," Jeb said with utter confidence. "It is a city, nothing more. I have no illusions of a Promised Land or Paradise. But there is a human city, one with no vampires, and that is enough to keep us searching.
"I cannot offer them God," Jebbadiah continued, looking back toward the apartments. "I wish I could, but He is far from our reach. But I can give them hope of something better than this." His expression hardened. "And perhaps, when we reach Eden, I can offer something more." Once again, his gaze f licked to me, becoming sharp and cold. "This world is full of evil," he said, peering at me as if he was trying to see inside my head. "God has abandoned it, but that does not mean we should submit to the devils who rule it now. I know not what waits beyond this hell. Perhaps this is a test. Perhaps someday, we will cast the devils out for good. But first, we have to reach Eden. Nothing matters but that."
He might not be a true religious fanatic, but he was still scary, with that determined, obsessive gleam in his eyes.
"Well, you can relax," I told him. "If you want to look for Eden, by all means, go right ahead. I'm not about to stop you."
"No, you will not." Jebbadiah stepped back as if that was the end of it. "Go to Ezekiel," he said, dismissing me with a wave of his hand. "Tell him to find you a tent and a backpack-we have a few left over from those who have passed on. And be ready to move out as soon as the sun sets. We have a lot of ground to cover."
As soon as he was gone, I seriously considered leaving.
Walking away from this insane cult with its fanatic leader who already had it in for me. How was I going to feed with ol' Crazy-eyes watching my every move? Something told me Jeb wasn't the understanding type. If he ever discovered what I was, I could see torches and angry mobs and stakings in my future.
For a second, I wondered if I shouldn't just vanish into the night. It was stupid and risky to be around so many humans, anyway. Maybe I should turn into a predator lurking on the fringes of their small society, hunting them through the darkness. But then Zeke came around a corner, a green knapsack over one shoulder, and I felt my convictions disappear.
"Heads up," Zeke said, tossing the pack at me. "There's a tent and a few supplies," he explained as I caught it, surprised that it was so light. "It's not big, but at least it'll keep the rain off you when we're camping out in the open. You know how to put up a tent, right?"
"I can show you," Zeke said, smiling again. "Tomorrow, I promise. But right now, I have first watch until dawn. Come sit with me a few minutes, and then I'll let you sleep-you probably need it after today."
As I smiled back and followed him to where he had set up watch, I couldn't help thinking that this boy-this helpful, friendly, genuinely nice human being-was probably going to get me killed.
The next evening, I woke up groggy and a bit disoriented. I wasn't in the cool, comforting earth; I'd taken shelter in a top room of the old apartment complex the previous night, well away from the group below. I'd had to climb a few f lights of broken stairs, and I'd spent the daylight hours in a windowless hole of a room, lying on hard concrete, but it was necessary.
I didn't want anyone tripping over my body in the daytime and realizing I slept like the dead.
Dropping back to the ground f loor, I found most of the group just beginning to stir, as well. In the middle of the room, Ruth and an older woman with graying hair were starting to lay out food, opening cans of fruit and pouring them into metal bowls and cups. They seemed efficient as they opened a can, poured half the contents into a bowl, and handed it to a waiting child. Caleb, after receiving his share, trotted away with cup in hand, picking out yellow slices with his fingers. He stopped short when he saw me.
"Hi, Allie." Beaming, he held up his cup. "Look at what Zeke and Darren found yesterday! It's sweet. Are you going to get some?"
"Um." I glanced at the women and found Ruth glaring at me again. What the hell was the girl's problem? "Not now.
I'm not really that hungry."
His eyes widened, as if he couldn't believe what I had just said. "Really? But, we hardly ever get food like this! You should try it, at least a little bit." I smiled wistfully, remembering when I had taken such pleasure in a can of fruit. I wished I could've tried some, but Kanin had warned me that normal food would make me sick, and my body would expel it almost immediately. Meaning I would hurl it back up, something I did not want to do in front of a group of strangers.
"Here." Caleb held up a dripping yellow slice, and abruptly, the sweet, cloying smell made me slightly nauseated. "Have one of mine."
"Maybe later." I shifted uneasily and took a step back, feeling Ruth's never-ending glare at the base of my skull. "Have you seen Zeke?"
"He's always with Jeb when we first wake up." Caleb stuffed the whole slice into his mouth, then gave me a yellow-orange smile. "We usually don't see him until after breakfast."