Claire is eleven when her father leaves.
She doesn't mean to be up so late, but she has to return her friend Ellie's copy of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban tomorrow and she wants to finish reading it a fourth time.
So she hears it when someone starts rummaging around. And she watches him put on his suit and trenchcoat. Padding along behind him, she stops in the doorway and listens to him praying, calling out to this angel — this Castiel, who Mom says doesn't exist, can't exist; who everyone else says makes Daddy crazy, even though he says he's not and won't even think about taking his pills.
Claire doesn't expect anything to happen. Freezing wind blows across her face, rustles her pink nightgown with the little embroidered design of Princess Ariel that Grandma Jane, Daddy's mother, put there right above her heart. And Claire's knuckles go white as she grips onto the doorframe. Waiting. Holding her breath. Praying, please, Jesus, please — just let him know he's crazy so we can try to fix him ...
But something happens anyway.
Light hits Daddy like the alien abductions from TV shows. Only, it's warm. It brushes her face where the wind's just been and makes her feel so happy. Calm. Like nothing's ever been wrong before. Claire hears something, too — a voice, whispering something to him — it's soft, and gentle, and it sounds like summertime, like all the times she's gone running barefoot around the field behind Church because it's Saturday and Pastor Joshua says that Saturdays in June are the best times to be a child.
The voice calls itself Castiel, and Daddy talks back to it.
Listening makes Claire's skin crawl and her stomach churn because she knows that this conversation isn't meant for her — but if this Castiel, whatever it is, wants to keep interfering with her family, then she has a right to listen. It's her job as Daddy's daughter. Even if she hates holding still for fear of slipping up and letting the thing catch her, even if she hates trying not to breathe too loudly. She has to stay here. She can't leave.
She can hear enough of it to know Castiel isn't speaking English, but still she understands it, and Daddy seems to, too: We need you, Jimmy ... You're special — a vessel ... my vessel ... There's a war coming, Jimmy, between angels and demons ... Your faith is strong enough to take part in it, and we need that faith ... We can't risk losing, Jimmy; the odds are stacked too high against us as it is and if the demons win, there will be Hell on Earth for everyone ...
"What do you need?" Daddy asks the light and voice. "Please, Castiel, I'll do anything."
Dean Winchester — this is, Claire thinks, a very silly name for anyone to have. What's this Dean Winchester guy, anyway, the principal of one of those fancy prep schools that Grandma Jane wants her to go to when she's old enough? But Castiel continues: We can't save him yet, not until we have you on our side. But Dean Winchester can save your planet from darkness. And it will be our job to look after him, see that he stays on the path of the Lord.
"But what can I do?" Claire's never heard Daddy sound like that — like he's lost, like he might break.
Just say 'yes,' Jimmy.
And then he does.
And then the light flashes, and Claire feels something inside her lifting up.
And then she ruins everything by asking, "... Daddy?"
"I am not your father."
The reply cuts worse than knives and colder than the night feels now that the light's gone. And Claire knows that it's not really Daddy — the voice sounded like him, but it was Castiel's — she knows it was. It had to be Castiel's. But whoever it is, it doesn't matter. Daddy's body still walks away into the darkness, down the path to the sidewalk, down to the corner, and then he disappears into thin air.
She stays up for the rest of the night, crying, getting tear stains all over the pages of Ellie's book as she wishes that she could just be a wizard now, that she had magic so she could get Daddy back, or that she could go away to Hogwarts and never, ever have to deal with things like this. At school the next day, she almost falls asleep in all her classes, and Ellie makes her cry again when she asks why there are tears all over Lupin teaching his class about Boggarts, but not over Buckbeak's death or something that's actually sad.
And Ellie apologizes, but Claire still has to tell her that Daddy left.
Ellie says she's sorry. Claire's teachers say they're sorry. Mrs. Rawlins, the school counselor, talks to Claire and gives her pamphlets, and says she's sorry no less than twenty times in forty-five minutes. Word travels fast, and sooner or later, everybody says they're sorry — but nobody really means it.
Or maybe they do, but they still treat Claire differently. People talk to her like she's a china doll on the high part of a shelf. Boys start holding doors open for her and asking if they can carry her books home for her and stop calling her the Bucktooth Bookworm. And the other girls, even ones she's never been friends with before, they give her hugs any time she "looks sad" and ask if they can do anything, and remind her that they're here for her and all she has to do is ask.
Over the next year, Claire tries to forget everything. She focuses on her studies and gets top marks in all her classes, which never makes Mom smile anymore, and eventually, she stops caring if Mom smiles. All Claire needs is something to hold her attention, something that has nothing to do with her missing father. During Church, she reads books instead of singing or praying with everyone else; she does not listen to the different prayers for God to help Jimmy Novak and bring him back to his family, and she does not talk to the parishioners who bring food and money to her and Mom.
She just nods and lets Mommy tell the story. Jimmy had schizophrenia, the doctors said — late-onset, very tragic. It made him crazy and he wouldn't take his pills. And then he left. And for all they know, he's probably dead. She keeps thinking that she saw wings emerge from Daddy's back, that she heard the fluttering of feathers, but she tells no one about this. Mommy doesn't need to think she's crazy too.
Claire is twelve, almost thirteen, when her father leaves for a second time, and everything she didn't want to believe in turns out to be true.
He came home talking like himself again just so Castiel can get back inside him and take him away.
Not before the angel gets inside of her, though. Not before he makes her feel nauseated — control of her own body rips away from her the second she whispers that yes, but she still feels every motion. Every reaction she wants to have to everything she sees. And everything that Castiel feels, even the way he makes her heart beat faster when he looks at Dean.
But then he gets back inside her father. The demons are vanquished, and her father's body is alive, but it doesn't hang around. It just says something to the Winchesters and leaves. James Novak is in Heaven and, in his place, is some cold, expressionless angel, one who isn't anything like how angels are supposed to be. He does not comfort. He does not stay behind to offer any words of consolation, or even an apology for the suffering he's caused Claire and her mother. His name is Castiel, and he's a soldier of God.
And Claire learns too quickly that she's not allowed to talk about this. Her mother tears up every time she does, and one time, she even smacks Claire across the face.
Claire is fifteen when her mother remarries. Amelia's waited long enough, she thinks, and legally, Jimmy's dead anyway. It's not cheating. And besides, Chris is good to her. He's good to Claire. He's a lawyer, he's respectable, and he's been there for them ever since they left Pontiac for New Harmony, Indiana and he came over to welcome them to the neighborhood. When he proposes to Amelia, it's over a special dinner on the anniversary of their first date.
Claire keeps her mouth shut as far as anyone else is concerned. Because her mother's happy now, and after everything they've gone through, Amelia deserves to smile. Because Claire doesn't want to be the one who ruined the best thing that her mother's ever had since Daddy disappeared, the man Amelia thinks is the best thing that they've both ever had.
Because no one would believe her anyway — because she's just some socially awkward, strange little girl who reads books of old lore in the library, who sits in her room with books about angels and demons and monsters and a complete collected works of Carver Edlund in which she makes pink marginalia, listening to Tori Amos, Courtney Love and Hole, Sleater-Kinney, Bikini Kill, Emilie Autumn, Vienna Teng, all kinds of strong-voiced women who've suffered like Claire has. And Nine Inch Nails, despite Amelia's repeated attempts at taking them away; Claire's too good at hiding the mp3s.
Because no one believes her about the angels, either. No one understands that she's serious when she still prays to them, not even her mother's pastor, some smiling old fat man who Claire's certain dismissed her as soon as he saw her wearing a pro-feminist t-shirt to Sunday Mass. (Which she thinks was stupid, anyway. She was just pointing out in t-shirt form that most of the pro-life legislators are cissexual, cisgendered men and that it's none of their business to make the calls about women's bodies.)
Because she knows that it's irrational, how fervently she clings to this belief, but she knows that no one will believe her and no one could convince her otherwise, if they felt like making an attempt.
Because she was thirteen, almost fourteen, when Chris first came into her room in the middle of the night. He'd been sleeping over for a few months by then, because Amelia was too afraid of what might happen if she left Claire home alone overnight, and he'd never tried anything until then. Until he snuck out of Amelia's embrace and climbed into bed with Claire. Until he sidled up behind her, suffocated her from behind, grinding up against her back, fumbled with her chest (she thought she was flat until he found something to grab onto).
"You need to hide your skin mags better, baby-girl," he hissed. "Where'd a little thing like you get your hands on a Penthouse anyway? … You think you're a dyke? You've never even been with a boy before, let alone a man. Come on, honey, just spread your legs and let me show you what a real man feels like."
A real man feels like he's ripping her apart. And it doesn't stop there. Chris can't have just once. He starts watching her after that; even after he marries Amelia, Claire can feel his eyes on her, waiting for her to slip up and look at a girl the wrong way, make it obvious that he can't just
But Claire prays, because all of Heaven is supposed to hear the prayers of people who need help. And if her father hears her, then maybe he can tell Castiel to please come smite the man who's hurting his baby-girl, who's taking Jimmy's nickname for her and making it sound like a slap to the face. When she doesn't pray for this to end, she prays for him to die. She's taking Greek and Latin at school, where they translate the old epics, where Homer and Virgil are completely fine with coming up with gruesome ends for rapists and murderers. She prays for some angel to come and impale Chris on sharp rocks, like Athena did to Oilean Ajax in The Aeneid.
But no one comes to help her. Not her father, not the angels, not anybody. Her mother doesn't even notice, not even when Claire starts skipping meals, or when she has nightmares, or when all she wants for Christmas is a lock for her bedroom door.
It's a useless wish, anyway, and by Valentine's Day, Claire regrets ever asking for the thing. It doesn't keep Chris out; he just gets a copy of the key made, then another one when Claire steals it from him, and when he storms into her bed, grips her thighs so hard his nails almost break her skin, he hisses things at her like, What'd you need a lock for, slut? Did Daddy finally cure you, baby-girl — are you gonna start inviting boys over? Gonna try to cheat on me? … Like any boy would even want you. You're used goods, they'll smell it on you and they'll know.
Claire wishes that someone would smell it on her. Even if it's her fault, even if she takes showers so scalding her skin turns failed-geometry-test-marking red, she wants someone to sniff out his stench on her and know what he does in the middle of the night. She wants to rip the son of a bitch apart. She wants a demon to possess him, to ride his flesh for miles and miles and make him suffer, then drag him down to Hell.
But all that wishing gets for her is more abuse.
Claire is sixteen the first time she thinks she might be pregnant. She keeps her journals hidden where Chris can't find them, keeps meticulous track of her menstruation and minimizes all evidence of it in the house, just in case Chris is sick enough to try and turn her into some baby factory. So she notices it when she's a day late, then two. On the third, she's thinking of everything she can try to get rid of it, if there's a baby, and wondering if she can legally take herself to Planned Parenthood and tell them to scrape her clean, and if she really should because this would be perfect evidence of what Chris has been doing to her.
But her period comes, and for the first time in years, she whispers a legitimate prayer of thanks.
Claire is seventeen when she can't take it anymore. She's not sure what happens to set her off, if it's something about the summer night, or if it's the fact that she has a knife under her pillow, or if it's the panic and the gnawing anxiety of pretending to be asleep, of waiting for Chris to come so she can scar him up like he's scarred her … but before she even hears his footsteps coming up the hall, she has to run. She climbs down the trellis by her window and takes off, damp grass and dirt and eventually sidewalk caressing her bare feet.
She runs — doesn't keep track of time or where she's going, just runs like there are demons after her, ducks around corners when she hears someone coming, doesn't matter to her if they're pedestrians (late-night dogwalkers, or some of the frat boys and sorority sisters who live near the local college) or cars — and she doesn't even notice how far she goes until she crashes into the cop. She doesn't pay him mind, just tries to keep running — can't stop, can't think; her brain's crashing around at a million miles a minute, rattling so hard in her skull that it's a blank, and nothing slows down until Officer Ugly Mustache tries shaking her by the shoulders. Then everything snaps into gut-wrenching slow motion.
She throws up on him. Her knees wobble. Everything goes black.
She's getting put into an ambulance when she comes around, blearily tells the paramedics her name and her mom's phone number before falling asleep on the stretcher. It takes two days of observation in Saint Lawrence Hospital, but the eventual verdict is that there's been some kind of sexual assault — she gives the freaking genius doctor who came up with that one a roll of her eyes and a cold, barking laugh but doesn't — and that, all things considered, she could probably use some time in an institution. Claire doesn't even think before agreeing. She's not crazy — she knows she's not crazy — but better there than going home.
The next morning, Mom drives her fifteen miles to a place called Clairmont, sees her through the check-in process and has to leave when it's time for Claire's initial evaluation. She nods her way through it and figures, hey, she's already in a nut-case house, why not tell the fat chief psychiatrist and his stupid walrus mustache everything about the angels and the demons and how some Heavenly ass-hat with wings stole her fucking father. He nods back at her, doesn't say anything about his final diagnosis, just calls for an orderly to come show her to her room.
Her roommate's a skinny blonde girl named Emily Fremont, who, when they decide to swap life stories, tells Claire that she's from Washington Falls, the rich suburb of New Harmony, that she's been here for five weeks, and that her parents asked her to please consider going. She loved them too much not to, she says, not when she could see how much she was hurting them by staying out there. It's not right, apparently — she's an only child, like Claire, and she's artistic, intelligent, has designs on studying literature or history somewhere, like maybe University of Michigan, because she took a campus tour there last fall and loved it … but she's not right, and her parents haven't really ever been able to deal with it.
"I mean, I've been in therapy since I was eight or nine anyway," she says far too casually for someone who's talking about the series of events that got her locked up in a juvenile psych ward (if more or less voluntarily, or so she'd like Claire to think). "And I've always managed not to be medicated … and I had a bad reaction to what they had me on in the first three weeks I was here, so now I'm off it again. Thank God-or-something-like-him. … But you say one thing about demons and suddenly everybody thinks that's why you can't take care of yourself, not the fact that everyone spends your life wastes time being completely just … People telling you that you're crazy makes you crazy, you know?"
"So you're a compulsive liar, right?" Claire says with a huff, after considering it for a minute. "I mean … that's gotta be crap. You look way too normal — you're just … making things up now, right? … Whatever's wrong with you is like, so much worse and you just don't want to share it?" Especially not the fact that she's talking about demons. Claire hasn't even said anything about her own life yet — and the girl can't know about that; there's just no way.
She can apparently look hurt with the cutest, saddest-looking puppies, though. Her big, blue eyes go even wider, and her nose wrinkles up, and even when she puts a smile back on, it looks sort of … broken. "'Compulsive liar' is a new one," she says with a shrug. "And it's better than what everybody else says … but I'm not. I swear."
"But if you were a compulsive liar, then it's not like you'd admit to it, right?" Claire shouldn't even be trying to make a joke right now — it's too soon after getting into Clairmont, too soon after getting out of her mother's house, too soon after escaping from Chris. She's kind of horrified with herself, moreso when it feels oddly right.
But Emily laughs, and Claire has no idea what to do with that. But she tries smiling, and telling her own story — everything there is to it. Not just the Chris things, either. She's already told a doctor about everything she's gone through today, and there's no good reason why she can't tell someone she's going to be sharing a room with. She tells Emily everything about how an angel took her father, then took his body when his soul moved on, how there was a demon in her mother and she knows this happened, but no one believes her, they've called her crazy for this since she can remember—
"You're not crazy," Emily interrupts her. When Claire demands to know what she's talking about (since, really, the current setting doesn't say much in favor of them being right, and since it almost makes her heart stop, actually hearing somebody say the opposite of what she's heard for the past five years), Emily sighs. "Think about it," she says. "No, really, I mean it … have you seen those guys on Youtube? The Ghostfacers? Or that 'Hunter Kat' blog that says it's original fiction? … If you cross-reference the stuff she writes about, though, some of it actually happened, and it's in newspapers … and there are monsters, and people who hunt them."
Claire thinks she should be worried about how that's probably the most sensible-sounding thing that she's heard in months. Emily just nods, and moves over to Claire's bed. She takes Claire's hand without waiting and whispers, "You're not crazy — all of the other stuff, maybe you need help with it, but … you're not crazy for the angels stuff. I promise."
It might be the first time in years that Claire believes a promise.
It's about a month after that when Emily's doctor say's she's cleared for release — no medication needed, just a clean bill that says she's effectively faked her way out of dealing with people who just don't understand. And Claire doesn't want to let Emily leave. How much she doesn't want to let Emily leave horrifies her.
But Emily hugs her before she leaves, and Claire almost believes it when she promises that they'll find each other again. Like someone's really going to go on Facebook and friend some girl she met in the nut-house. Like anyone would admit to this — Claire's trying to find any excuse she can not to admit that she's been here; dying relative, sick relative, anything will work.
She still can't make herself watch Emily leave, though.
Claire is still seventeen when she gets out, after three months of her own in the facility. Her mother picks her up at Clairmont, crying and apologizing and telling her all about how she divorced Chris, how he got arrested trying to go after some girl at the grocery store, how he confessed to what he did to Claire and how they didn't even need to have a trial, he just took a plea deal and went away for life.
And Claire thinks that it's not nearly enough punishment for him — after everything, she's certain that nothing short of Hell itself is bad enough for that son of a bitch — but she'll accept it. What really matters is that she's free. And Emily's free, even if they'll probably never see each other again. And Mom's taking her back to Illinois, to a Chicago suburb called Elburn, where they'll be closer to Claire's grandparents, to people who can help Claire cope with what happened.
Where they won't need to think about Chris again, outside of being stronger than he is and putting their lives back together far away from trash like him.
Claire is nineteen when she shows up in Ann Arbor for freshman orientation. She takes herself there, packs up what she'll need in the Toyota, the car that Mom's actually paid off — a little suitcase of clothes, her backpack, a box full of her journals and her books of lore, her music and the cable that plugs her ipod into the car's speakers … the essentials. All along the six-hour drive from Elburn to U-Michigan, she keeps thinking that her roommate's name is Emily, that it's a pretty common name, that there are probably hundreds of girls in Ann Arbor named Emily, and that there's no way in Hell it's going to be her Emily.
But the other girl's already there when Claire opens the dorm room door, and she's unpacking. She's blonde, and she's skinny, and she attacks Claire with a hug. And in between a bunch of squealing that Claire can't decipher, she makes out the girl saying, "I knew it, I knew it, I saw your name and I knew it — didn't I promise you I'd find you?"
Claire's heart skips a beat. The girl — her Emily — pulls away and beams at her. Claire pulls her back up into a kiss.
Claire is twenty when she and Emily give up on school and hit the road. They finished their freshman year, and Emily came to visit over summer break, and in the dead of night, they take the Toyota and start driving in the direction of some omens that Emily's been tracing. She can't tell if they look demonic, or angelic, or something else, but they're definitely
Claire leaves her's and Emily's old cellphones on the kitchen counter, a postcard for her mother, one with a photograph of U-Michigan on it, and scrawls on the back: Mom, I love you, and I'm glad that you like Emily. We'll be fine, I promise. But there's more important things to do than get a BA in English.
There's people out there dying and big things going on and you don't have to believe me if you want, but that bastard angel who took Jimmy's involved, I'm sure of it. He's real. You have to know that much. There are more than enough other people who know things like it too. Hunters and occultists and mediums. Emily knows. That's why she's coming with me.
Don't come looking for me, Mom. I love you. I'll be fine.