They went to California. Sacramento. She could go to Stanford, mom said, when she was older.
Claire didn’t say that she didn’t want to go Stanford, or any other school. She just nodded and stared out the window of the stolen car as desert slowly gave way to craggy mountains and the hazy green forests of the Pacific Coast.
The first few weeks were filled with the business of starting over. They had to find a house, a job, a school, and a reasonable explanation for their lack of identification, financial history, school records, and paper trail of any kind. Claire was never sure how mom managed it, but she did. She also declared their new last name to be Scott and shortened her own first name to Amy. She said to think of it as a chance to become a new person, to make a new life.
They didn’t talk about the old life, or the reason it was over.
On the twenty-seventh morning after… well, after, on Claire’s first day at her new school, she told her mother over breakfast, “I had a dream last night.”
Mom froze, spoon suspended in the dark surface of her coffee. They had a small, single-cup coffee maker, now. Coffee for one.
Claire pushed on into the silence, the images of the dream still churning fresh and clear in her head. “It was Sunday, and I was making French toast with dad. Like always. And I dropped the pan, with the toast and everything. Dad laughed and said that was my piece. Then he left, went out of the room like he was going to get something. Only he didn’t come back in. I waited, but he was taking a really long time and I started getting scared. Y’know, like you do in dreams, when there’s nothing scary going on, but you’re scared anyway?”
Mom’s hands tightened around the coffee mug, thin and white-knuckled. She didn’t say anything, and she didn’t look up.
Claire swallowed and went on. “So I went to find him, but he wasn’t there. I looked all over the house, and I couldn’t find him. So I went outside, and there was just… light. Everywhere. Everything was bright and hot, and I thought I’d burn up in it, and… and then I woke up.”
She couldn’t tell it right. Couldn’t convey the enormity of it, the overwhelming brightness, or the simple, gripping terror in her father’s absence.
Mom was quiet for a long time. Claire could hear the cheap plastic clock ticking on the wall, ticking out the seconds that divided Before and After with brutal, invasive finality.
Finally, mom said, in a voice that came out like steel wire unspooling, “We’re not going to talk about this anymore. Okay? We’ve got a chance to start over, and we’re going to take it. We can’t think about… about all the other stuff. I don’t want you to think about it. Okay?”
Over the last month, Claire had begun to despise the words start, new, over, chance, life, and their various combinations. “Okay, mom.”
That day, instead of getting to know her new classmates during recess, Claire went to the school library and politely asked to use one of the computers. While the other kids chased each other, gossiped, and enjoyed the passage of their childhoods, Claire Novak started doing research.
At first, it was angels. Obviously.
She kept a notebook for printouts, news clippings, and hand-written notes on everything that sounded plausible or fit with the things she already knew. Eventually, as weeks turned into months, one notebook turned into two, and research on angels, finally exhausted, turned into research on demons. It all spiraled out from there.
After almost a year in her new life, Claire had an encyclopedia’s worth of notes on nearly every supernatural creature in recorded history, an archive of over 200 separate paranormal events, and just slightly above-average marks in school.
She also had a stalker.
She didn’t notice him, at first. Sometimes, she would see a dark figure out of the corner of her eye, or a face that, for a second, seemed familiar. Slowly, the figure resolved into a man in a dark suit, the face became one that she saw with unsettling regularity. For one full second, she thought he might be one of those creeps they talked about on the news, the ones mom worried about and told her to stay away from.
Then she looked, and there it was.
He stood a little too straight, moved a little too smoothly when he moved at all. His face carried an expression that was at once blank and deathly serious, as if the world at large displeased him and only its unimportance saved it from his wrath.
In February of 2010, Claire was at the public library, attention divided between a school project and a news story about a town abandoned overnight. She looked up and saw him at a table tucked between the adjacent stacks. He was turning the pages of a large King James Bible.
With a sigh, Claire collected her things, walked straight to him, and dropped into a chair.
“I know what you are.”
Slowly, the angel looked up from his book and arched one eyebrow, a plastic imitation of human confusion. “Excuse me?”
His voice rang with a deep, grave timbre, smoother than the tumbled gravel that had been Castiel’s speech in her father’s mouth. Claire thought suddenly about this angel’s vessel, and wondered what he really sounded like.
“I know what you are,” she repeated, swallowing the abrupt reminder that she was speaking to a creature who had watched the world created out of star dust. “Why are you following me?”
The angel narrowed his eyes, looking her over like a mouse who’d just done an unexpected and not entirely pleasant trick. All pretense at humanity evaporated. “Don’t presume, child. You know nothing.”
It was a slap in the face, a cold, acute awareness that, for all her reading and research, she had no idea what was going on. She had no way of knowing what had happened to her father, or the Winchesters, or whether the world might end in a matter of minutes. She was shut away, locked in her new little life, reaching desperately through lines and wires to find her place in the strange world that had destroyed her family.
A year ago, she would have cried. Now, she knew better what was out there, what her father had given up a life of love and safety to fight.
Now, she was angry.
“So tell me,” she snapped, and the angel’s regard became considerably less tolerant, which just made Claire angrier. “Don’t give me that look. If you were gonna hurt me, you’d have done it already. You’re watching me, and I wanna know why.”
For a long moment, the angel just stared at her, unblinking. Claire felt her skin prick and crawl under his eyes, but she stayed still and held his gaze. Finally, with a deep scowl, he told her, “Castiel has rebelled. My superiors believe that his… sympathies for the humans may lead him here.”
That took a minute to process, and, when it did, Claire’s blood ran cold. “What do you mean, he rebelled?”
The angel’s scowl sharpened. “I’ve told you more than you need to know. If Castiel appears, I will alert my superiors, and he will be dealt with. It does not concern you.”
“Doesn’t con-… He’s wearing my father. And you’re going to deal with him. How does that not concern me?” Claire kept her voice low, fighting the impulse to scream. They were still in a library, even if new cracks were spidering across her fractured heart.
The angel looked at her coolly and said nothing.
“Fuck you,” Claire growled. She’d never sworn before, but she was too full of rage to take any joy in small rebellions. “I hope he doesn’t show up. I hope you never catch him and he keeps doing whatever he is to piss you off.”
“You shouldn’t speak of things you know nothing about.” The angel’s tone was icy and full of warning, but Claire was well beyond caring.
“If he does show up, I hope he kicks your ass,” she hissed. “Now get away from me. I can’t stop you from stalking me, but I don’t wanna see your face. Ever.”
The angel seemed about to say more, to reprimand or correct her, but he just shook his head. Then there was the sound of wings, and Claire was alone, again.
Castiel did not come to see her.
Based on the sudden decline in apocalyptic-type events, she assumed that the end of the world had somehow been averted, and Claire passed the subsequent years in much the same way as she had passed the first, wondering if those on the front lines had survived.
She did not see the angel again. Nor did she come across any demons, spirits, vampires, or supernatural creatures of any kind, though she seemed always to be holding her breath, waiting.
The first event to interrupt her stream of endless research, school, and diligent avoidance of social contact came in the third year of After, and that was when her mother brought home David.
David was tall, broad-shouldered, and had a slow, warm smile that made Claire think of cinnamon and summer afternoons. He was quiet and easy going, and, despite all odds and expectations, Claire liked him. He talked to her like an adult and asked for her opinion, which, at her current age of thirteen-going-on-forty, earned him a great deal of credit.
And mom liked him. Really liked him. He made her happy, and Claire couldn’t bring herself to be displeased with that. He was something new, a promise for mom that she truly could leave behind the ruins of her old life.
The problem, and what sparked the first of many fights between Claire and her mother, was what mom told David about that old life. Or rather, what she did and didn’t tell him.
When David asked Claire how she would feel if he and mom got married, Claire, in her own impassive way, was thrilled. She was about to tell him so, until he broached the one subject he had so artfully circumnavigated in the seven months he’d been seeing mom.
“I know you miss your dad, and I know you’re probably a little angry at him, too. But I want you to know that I’m not going anywhere. If you let me stick around, I promise I won’t ever leave like that.”
He said it kindly, gently. He meant it as a reassurance and an affirmation of his love for both her and her mother, and, Claire knew distantly, it was actually very sweet. All the same, it struck through her like a sharp knife, the realization that mom had told him nothing, that he thought dad had just taken off. Anger, now a familiar companion, burned bitter in her throat, but Claire smiled and said she was happy for them.
She had inherited two things, and two things only, from her father: blue eyes and patience. Her patience ran out the moment she was alone with her mother.
“What did you tell him? That dad ran off with another woman?”
“I told him the truth,” mom snapped. “Your dad disappeared in the middle of the night, and we never saw him again.”
“But that’s….” Claire’s memory tracked back to conversations preceding that fateful disappearance, conversations she hadn’t been meant to hear. “You told him dad was crazy? That’s such bullshit.”
“Watch your mouth, young lady.”
“Don’t young lady me. You’re lying to your fiancé about your first husband.”
“Well, what am I supposed to tell him, Claire? The truth doesn’t bear thinking about, much less repeating.”
“You’re trying so hard to pretend it never happened. You won’t even talk about it to me. You get mad if I even mention dad.”
It felt like the moment she’d first understood that angels weren’t always good guys and God wasn’t listening, a betrayal of her deepest faiths. She had clung so fiercely to the simple precepts that her father, whatever had become of him, had been a good man and that her mother had and would always love him, that even his absence held a place in their lives, in their shared memories. Now, mom seemed determined to shatter the last of Claire’s anchors with a single blow.
“I don’t want to talk about this,” mom said, speaking over her.
“You never want to talk about it,” Claire shouted back. “Now David thinks dad was a nutcase loser.”
“It doesn’t matter! Your dad’s gone, Claire. He’s not coming back.”
“But that’s why it matters! God, you just… it’s like you’re trying to forget everything!”
“I’m trying to give us a normal life!”
“Our life isn’t normal!” Claire screamed. “It can’t be!”
Her voice ran dry on the last syllable, cracking around the tears stuck in her throat. Mom was still talking, but Claire had had enough. She rushed out of the room, mom calling after her, and slammed her bedroom door behind her.
She hadn’t cried in years, not since she was ten and missing her old life, so tossed about she could hardly see straight. Now, she missed her dad with a fierce, physical need that rattled in her bones. She missed his ready laugh and quick smile, the suits he hated and never managed to look respectable in, and how he always smelled like soap and cedar. She missed telling him about her day, missed his calm, quiet voice reading out her spelling words and how he’d sometimes say the words with a funny accent just to make her laugh.
She wrapped her arms around her pillow and cried herself to sleep.
By the sixth year of After, Claire’s steadiest friends were Anger and Loneliness. They attended her as she once believed angels did, constant keepers of her company whose presence had long been taken as a matter of course.
Concerned teachers sent home notes saying that, while she was clearly very bright, she wasn’t living up to her potential, didn’t interact with the other children, and often seemed sullen and distracted. They asked, politely, if something might be the matter at home.
When the first note came, mom made the mistake of asking her what was wrong. Claire told her. The resulting argument rivaled the infamous Post-Engagment Fight of 2012 in intensity and nearly surpassed the Christmas Feud of 2014 in length. David, now Claire’s step-dad and a permanent fixture in the house, was deeply distressed and confused by the uproar and spent the next few days treading on eggshells.
Subsequent notes were met with a sigh, and mom would simply say, “Just don’t cause trouble.”
Trouble was the last thing Claire wanted. Trouble meant Attention, and Attention brought the risk that her research and the library of notes under her bed might be discovered. That was one fight she wasn’t prepared to have.
Attention, as it happened, arrived on its own and seemed to have left Trouble well behind, at first.
His name was Eric and he was Different. Well, maybe not so different for California, but Eric was an army brat and, after a very long school year in north Alabama, had learned to spot other Difference a mile away. He zeroed in on Claire instantly.
He also scared the crap out of her when he sat abruptly beside her at lunch and declared, “I like your bag.”
The bag in question had been a new-school-year gift from David. It was dark blue with big, silver stars scattered across it. Claire liked it, too. “Um, thanks.” She quickly closed the notebook she’d been writing in, a quick note about a haunting in Delaware which she was fairly certain at least one of the Winchesters had been involved in.
Eric, who was astonishingly skinny and spoke in a voice that was a little too high, introduced himself and immediately launched into a retelling of his life story, his detailed opinion of Sacramento, his despair over the public school system, the question of whether Claire wore contacts, and what kind of conditioner did she use because her hair was gorgeous.
Claire just stared at him until the end-of-lunch bell rang, and he sashayed off to class with the promise that he’d see her later. A promise he kept at the end of the day when he appeared, just as suddenly, at her side, asking where she lived and oh that was near his house so they could walk together.
It was a 30 minute walk, and the first ten minutes went by much as lunch had done, with Eric talking and Claire staring. Then he started asking Questions.
Was she from Sacramento? Did she like it? What did her parents do? Did she have any hobbies? Did she miss Illinois? (“Oh, forget I asked that. It’s Illinois!”) Where was her real dad? That was terrible and did she miss him? Was her step-dad nice? Would she stay in California? Where did she want to go to school? Had she ever travelled?
Claire found herself buried under this barrage of questions, but, as she dug her way out, she found the necessary omissions to be overshadowed by the simple relief of telling the truth.
No. Sure. Mom was a teacher, step-dad was a psychiatrist. Not really. Sometimes. Gone. All the time. Yes, very. Probably not. No idea. Never.
It came almost as a relief to hear her life boiled down into so few words, all the complications and tragedy stripped away to simple facts in a conversation.
When Eric turned off on his street, he waved goodbye and said he was really glad to have met her and would see her tomorrow.
True to his word, he was waiting at the corner when she set out for school the next day and maintained a steady stream of chatter right through the school doors.
The familiar shadow of Anger that clung to Claire’s shoulders remained steady as ever, but Loneliness had begun to slip just a little.
Trouble started with the assignment of a school project, one to be done in pairs.
Eric, of course, claimed Claire as his partner as quickly as his skinny arms could move. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that they needed a place to work, and Eric’s house was out of the question.
“I have two brothers and a three-year-old sister,” he explained. “Love them to death, but they make more noise than a diva in a mood.” So they went to Claire’s.
Mom was ecstatic. Not only did Claire have a friend, but he was out-going, friendly, and the absolute picture of polite manners. She didn’t even seem to notice that he was Different, which, Claire supposed, spoke either to the influence of six years in California or her relief that Claire was capable of human contact.
Once in Claire’s room, Eric immediately began to investigate in the same casually invasive way that he had asked about her life. He flipped through books, turned over papers, picked up knick knacks, and kept up a running commentary on the state of her wardrobe, the quality of her house, and how nice her mom seemed.
Claire, more or less accustomed to Eric’s disregard for privacy and apparent lack of any need to breathe, pointed out that they should probably get started. Which was a good idea, and Eric agreed, except that, instead of reaching for his own notes, he picked up a notebook off of Claire’s desk.
It wasn’t her school notes.
She was unpacking her bag and didn’t notice. “I hate presentations. I can do all the research, if you’ll do the talking in class. It’ll take me, like, ten minutes to find everything.”
Eric was quiet, and that, more than anything, tripped Claire’s sensitivity to Things Out of the Ordinary. She turned around and saw him squinting at a news print-out about an unexplained power outage that had shut down all of Oregon for three days. She couldn’t see the paper clearly, but she knew that she’d highlighted sections and written down the side of the page: Archangel. See 9-14, 4 dead. Demons? Why OR?
He started to flip the paper and look at the corresponding page in the notebook, a summary of the article reporting four unidentified bodies found in south Portland, one of which seemed to have been dead for months with no signs of decay. Claire reached out to snatch the notebook away, bur Eric leapt out of her reach.
“What is this?” he asked, still turning pages. “You’re not some kind of weird religious freak, are you?”
“No. Give it back.” She snatched at the notebook again, but he was still faster. “It’s a… it’s a hobby. I just like weird stuff.”
“Angels, demons, haunted houses, vampires. Girl, you’ve got weird covered.” He read another note and frowned. “What the hell is a rougarou?”
“It’s a…. Look, it doesn’t matter.” No one had ever seen her notebooks. No one knew about her research, her obsession. Her heart pounded. What if he thought she was crazy? What if he thought she was dangerous? What if he told mom? “It’s just a thing, okay? It’s no big deal.”
“Sure. One hundred and fifty college-rule pages of no big deal.” Eric tossed the notebook back on the bed and fixed Claire with a look. “You’ve been holding out on me.”
Claire blinked. “What?”
“You have the coolest obsession ever, and you didn’t tell me!” He flailed slightly in exasperation. “It’s a little Tim Burton for my taste, but so much better than when I thought you had a personality disorder or something like that. I had this friend at my last school, well not a friend exactly, just, like, the one person in the entire state I could actually tolerate. Anyway, she was into all that Wicca stuff, which was super cool, but then I started, like, asking her about it, and she was all, like, whatever. Like she’d read about it on the internet and thought it sounded, y’know, different, or something. But you’re, like, seriously into this, which is totally awesome. So how do you even start looking for this kind of stuff? I mean, ghosts I get, but some of this stuff is seriously out there.”
It took Claire a moment, in the whir of words and the absence of condemnation, to realize that he’d asked her a question. “Um… y’know, I just… started.”
Eric rolled his eyes. “Oh come on. This is, like, stalker obsession. The supernatural world could take out a restraining order on you. So dish.” He pulled his legs up under him and looked at her expectantly. “What’s the story? I bet it’s awesome.”
She opened her mouth to lie, to side-step the question, but, in the space of an indrawn breath, memory stepped in.
She’d broken a cup. Not one of the nice ones, just a little glass tumbler. She could still see the pieces of it glinting on the kitchen floor, sparkling up at her like an accusation. She’d broken a cup, and, like any child confronted, she’d lied. She didn’t remember what she’d said or how she’d felt or even who had asked her about it. All she remembered was her father’s voice gently reminding her, without reprimand, that lying was a sin and, more importantly, it hurt the people who loved her.
What came out of her mouth was, “My dad. He… he left to go fight these things. I guess I just wanna understand the world that killed him.”
Eric was silent for a moment, and Claire thought she might have scared him off, after all. Until he said softly, “Wow. That’s intense.”
Claire nodded. “These… these demons came after us, me and mom, and we had to run. That’s why we came here. We had to start over.” After six years, the words still tasted bitter in her mouth.
“That sucks.” Eric said. "But your dad must have been, like, amazing.”
Claire smiled. “Yeah, he was.”
Which is why, two years later, Eric was with her when she went to investigate the death of one Michael Lewis who was found disemboweled in his Davis home, the doors and windows of which were locked from the inside with no sign of forced entry. Claire had done all the research, found the history of the house, determined the identity of the offending spirit, and was ninety-percent sure that, having been cremated, some small piece of the body must still be in the house. This conclusion had led directly to their current situation: creeping silently through the empty, haunted house they'd just broken into, Eric clutching a flashlight and Claire carefully wielding a loaded shotgun.
Their respective parents thought they were at a concert.
"This is a very bad idea," Eric whispered for the twelfth time since they'd left Sacramento.
Claire shushed him with a hiss, her eyes straining to see in the dark. There were boxes everywhere, in various states of unpacked, and they cast sharp, jagged shadows across the floorboards, which squeaked under the weight of the two intruders.
"Where did you even get a shotgun?" Eric asked.
"David," she replied absently, pressing down on her left foot. Did that floorboard sound a little different? "He keeps it in the hall closet."
"Do you know how to use it?"
"Shut up." She knelt down and felt around the floor. "Shine the light down here."
Eric obeyed, and the flashlight illuminated a small rectangle of wood that didn't appear quite connected to the others. Claire fished out her Swiss army knife and, flipping it open with one hand, pried up the section of floor.
"Okay, that is seriously cool," breathed Eric as Claire reached down into the hole to pull out a tin box that, once upon a time, may have been bright blue.
She was about to tug open the rusted lid when, suddenly, an icy chill rushed across her skin. She looked up in time to see the apparition of a man bearing down upon them, a large knife in his upraised hand.
"Get down!" Claire shouted, and Eric hit the floor just as she swung up the shotgun, with the intention of sending two rounds of rock salt straight through their ghostly attacker.
The gun gave a loud click, and nothing happened.
Claire had just enough time to go from stunned to furious before she was rolling out of the way to avoid the aforementioned large knife.
"Get the box!" she shouted to Eric, cursing herself as she flipped the safety on the shotgun. The ghost lunged for her again, and, this time, was met with a face full of salt as the recoil sent Claire sprawling back on the floor.
Eric had forced the lid off the box and dumped its contents onto the floor. "What am I looking for?" he cried.
Claire had a glimpse of baseball cards, bottle caps, and a shiny rock. "Anything that might have DNA on it." She cocked the shotgun just as the ghost appeared again, its face twisted in unearthly rage. Another shot sent him packing. From the corner of her eye, she saw Eric fumbling with the lighter, swearing loudly.
She felt the cold of the spirit's coming on the back of her neck and whirled to find the knife swinging down toward her face.
In the darkness, a spark caught, flared, and suddenly the ghost was burning. Then, just as suddenly, it burst into cinders and was gone.
There was a moment in which it seemed that nothing in the world was moving. Then Claire's legs turned to water, and she sat down hard on the floor, shoulder aching and heart pounding in her throat. They'd done it. They'd actually destroyed a vengeful spirit.
Across from her, Eric stared in disgust at the lump of material burning down to nothing in front of him. "Who keeps a used band-aid? Honestly?"
With the exception of those few incidents and the recurring, repetitive fights with mom, the eight years of After were relatively uneventful. Mom didn't find out about the research and hunting, the demons didn't come for them, there was no sign of Castiel or of dad, and nobody got hurt.
It was in the eighth year, two weeks before Claire's eighteenth birthday, that all of these things happened at once, though not precisely in that order.
Trouble came in the form of a local news report describing an unexplained power outage, brilliant flashes of light, and what appeared to be strange scorch marks at a warehouse in the industrial park.
"Maybe it's fireworks," Eric said. "Ooh, or terrorists!" He paused. "Or terrorists shooting off fireworks!"
"Or, y’know, angels," Claire replied. "In any case, we're checking it out."
"It's our duty as responsible citizens," agreed Eric. He brightened. “Maybe it’s aliens!”
Getting out the door turned out to be a bit of a problem.
"Mom, we're just going to the movies."
"What are you going to see?"
"I don't know. Some stupid chick flick. It's Eric's turn to pick."
"What time will you be back?"
This was unusual. Claire had spent enough time going out with Eric, for ordinary as well as paranormal purposes, that mom hardly batted an eye when Claire left the house. This was reinforced by David's calm reminder that they were good kids who had never so much as looked at Trouble, so, as long as they called to check in, what was the harm? Claire thought that he had no idea, but she appreciated his confidence. This time, though, mom seemed out of sorts.
"Which theatre are you going to?"
"The one by Arden Fair." It was an old lie, and a ready one. "Seriously, mom, we go out every weekend."
"I know, I know." Mom's hair was short, now, neatly bobbed at her chin and streaked with silver. She had laugh lines and frown lines, and both were sketched deep in her pretty face. It seemed to Claire that she had started to smile more as the years went by, but, tonight, her eyes looked tired and dark with memory. "I've just got a bad feeling, is all. Just being a mom, I guess."
Claire smiled and gave her a quick kiss. "I promise not to jump off any bridges or smoke crack or talk to strangers. And, if the ushers get fresh, I have Eric to defend my honor."
That earned her a weak laugh and a hug. "Okay, just be careful. Have fun."
It was a brief, rare moment of closeness and affection, and it would play on a loop in Claire's mind for a long time after. She would pick it apart looking for the honesty in it, hating herself for the lie, struggling to keep the memory clear and present. Mom was wearing a sweater. A light sweater; it was March. Her perfume had worn off, and she smelled like spaghetti sauce. Or had that been coming from the kitchen? She'd smiled. It was the last time Claire would see her mother smile for a long time.
At the time, she waved goodbye to David and dashed out the door to pick up Eric, anxious to see what had been left in the wake of angels passing and unaware of what wicked things waited in the dark.
They parked at the end of a long street of warehouses, creeping past floodlights and the occasional security guard toward the one dark building on the row. Empty, blown out windows stared at them from behind the police tape that followed the perimeter of a hurricane fence that now lay flat and broken on the pavement.
Something had happened here, alright. Something big.
She didn't think about that fact that it had occurred so close to home, or that there was shockingly little security covering what looked like an explosion site. She didn't consider that there might be other explanations for this kind of destruction. It was angels, she was sure of it, and that was all that mattered.
"Creepy," Eric observed, and she couldn't help but agree.
They walked in, rather easily, through the opening left by a steel door that appeared to have been blasted off its hinges, shattered glass crunching beneath their feet. The warehouse was empty except for a few nondescript crates scattered haphazardly throughout the massive space. Inside, the ambient sounds of the city were muffled so that the sound of their breathing seemed suddenly loud. Claire shivered.
"Um, I hate to be Captain Obvious, here," Eric said in a stage whisper, "but it just looks like a warehouse."
"No," Claire replied, shaking her head. "Something's up." She gazed around, as if the bare walls and dirty floor would provide the answers she was looking for. There were scorch marks, like the newspaper said, but they appeared random, no patterns or shapes of wings. The lights and windows in this building had obviously been blown out, but the rest of the street was untouched. There'd been a blast, certainly, but it had been small, controlled. Something wasn't up, it was wrong.
"We need to get out of here," she told Eric, turning toward the door. "This isn't right. We need t-"
There was a woman standing in the doorway, silhouetted by the bright street lights outside.
At least, she seemed to be a woman, in the same way that the angel who'd once followed Claire had seemed to be a man. But this creature was no angel. She held herself loosely, as if trying to demonstrate how comfortable she was in unfamiliar skin, and her smile held a poison that no amount of genuine cheer could have diluted. As she walked slowly toward them, her heels clicking and cracking on the broken glass, a pool of light from the window fell across her face, and her eyes flashed black.
"Little late for children to be out," she purred, her voice a flow of liquid malice. Claire found that her own voice had run away to hide somewhere in her stomach.
"Uh, Claire." Eric was tugging at her sleeve. "That thing about leaving should probably be happening now."
Claire's feet were frozen to the floor, her body lead, like all the fear of the past eight years had come to weigh her down in that moment. Her heart seemed to beat only in answer to the footsteps of the demon as it paced slowly toward her. She saw again her mother's cold face and black eyes as she raised a hand to strike, raised a gun to fire. She felt again the shocking pain as her heart broke and her world fell apart. It was happening again. The demons had found them, and it was all going to happen again.
"Claire!" Eric's shout didn't register, but the jolt as he grabbed her hand and pulled her away did.
She blinked. Suddenly, she could feel her legs again, feel her heart beating on its own rhythm, and see the demon coming for her without the veil of memory. She turned, her hand still gripped in Eric's, and ran for her life.
Over their clattering footsteps, they could hear the demon laugh. "Oh, I love it when they run!"
They ran hard for three blocks, finally ducking into a narrow alley to catch their breath. Even as her body struggled to keep up, Claire knew they shouldn't be stopping and knew there was no way they could run fast or far enough. The demon had them. Period.
In between gasps, Eric gave her a look. "What. The. Fuck.”
"Demon," she panted, hoping that would be enough. It wasn't.
"Yeah, I got that part," he said, rolling his eyes. "What I want to know is why it set a trap for us, why it's chasing us, and why it thought angel sightings would be good bait."
Claire took a deep breath, because she needed it to speak as much as to steady herself. "Y'know how I said my dad fought supernatural things, and how we had to run because the demons came after us?" Eric raised his eyebrows, and she swallowed. "Well, there's a little more to it than that."
There wasn't much left to tell, and she told it in a rush. At the end, Eric stared at her with wide eyes. "Holy crap." He paused, still breathing hard. "So, in conclusion, we should be running."
Claire nodded. "We should definitely be running."
They took off again, sprinting up the street toward Claire's little Toyota, hidden between two dented storage sheds. They had to get home, had to tell mom and David. They'd have to leave again, find somewhere else, become new people. Claire's mind raced. She knew all the ways to keep demons away, but she hadn't brought anything with her. The words of the exorcism, words she'd never used, tumbled around in her head like debris in a cyclone. She was just as helpless now as she'd been as a child, tied to a chair, watching the forces of good, evil, and in-between play out another scene in their endless saga.
Eric was flagging. She glanced over her shoulder to see that he was alright, and, when she looked back ahead, skidded to a stop on the pavement. Eric stumbled into her, fingers digging hard into her arm. The demon was standing in their path.
"I really don't feel like chasing you all over the city," it said casually. "So let's just get this over with, okay?" Her smile was a curling red slash across her face. "First things first."
It raised a hand and gave a quick twist of its fingers. With a crack that would sound in Claire's nightmares for the rest of her life, Eric's head jerked suddenly around, and he dropped to the ground, gone. Something broke off in Claire's chest, cold and tearing. There was a scream, and she knew only distantly that it had come from her.
The demon advanced.
"Claire Novak." It made her name sound like something vile, something to be torn apart and dragged through the dirt. "I have to say, I'm impressed. Hiding from the agents of Hell isn't exactly a piece of cake."
Claire, backing away in terror, tripped over Eric's body and went sprawling backward on the concrete. The demon chuckled. "You thought you were ready for the big leagues, didn't you? With all that first-hand knowledge and first-class research. I bet you were just itching to get out there and start fighting the good fight. Just like daddy."
Through the freezing terror, anger welled up like fresh blood. "Fuck you."
The demon laughed again. "Oh, with that razor-sharp wit, I'm sure you'd have been fine."
"What do you want?" Claire spat, letting the rage warm her and stop her limbs from shaking.
"Well, you, obviously," it said, smiling. "The battle with Heaven may be over, but an empty Vessel is still quite a prize."
Words came rushing into Claire's mind, words she hadn't been meant to hear, had barely understood. That means vivisection, at best. "Why?" she snarled. "So you can take me apart and see what makes me tick?"
"Something like that."
She was scrambling back across the ground, and the demon was keeping pace, watching her with its empty eyes and vicious grin. There was nowhere to go, no way that she was getting out of this. Even the heat of her anger couldn't push back the freezing tide that rose with the realization that she was going to die slowly, painfully, and in the service of Hell. She stopped moving and stared unblinking as the demon drew close and crouched down in front of her.
"Don't worry," it said gently, "it'll only hurt for a little bit."
Claire was ten-years-old again, tied to a chair, and watching the world end. Only this time, the gun was pointed at her. She remembered those moments of infinite, bottomless terror and what she'd done. She'd screwed her eyes shut and prayed, called out to the one name she knew in all of Heaven, the one being in the universe who could help her. With the demon leaning over her, smelling of roses and dead flesh, Claire took a deep breath and screamed with every last inch of her being.
Even as the echoes of her voice died away in the empty street, she knew how foolish that hope was. For all she knew, Castiel was dead, and, if he wasn't, what reason would an angel have to help a frightened teenager?
The demon grinned. "Guess Heaven's not listening."
The streetlight above their heads exploded.
Claire rolled over and threw her arms over her head to protect herself from the rain of glass and sparks. She heard the demon speak, but the words were lost in the clatter as every light in view shattered, plunging everything into darkness. A sound like a great storm rising swept around them, roaring so loudly in Claire's ears she thought her eardrums would burst. She would learn, later, that all of Northern California had been blacked out, but, now, all she knew was the cold shine of starlight and the wild, ringing noise.
As suddenly as the chaos had begun, it ended, and a deep, deafening silence fell.
Claire peered out from under her raised arms. She could see Eric's pale, lifeless face, and, beyond him, the demon backing away in terror, its black eyes wide and staring at something behind Claire. Bits of broken glass scraped against her face as she turned to look.
What she saw was shoes.
Black dress shoes that had clearly been to places no dress shoe had ever been intended to go. Whatever shine they'd once held had been beaten out of them, and they had achieved a look of forced functionality, as if they'd never intended to be useful but had accepted that to be their lot in life and chosen to bear it with grace. Claire watched, fixated, as the shoes stepped around her with measured, menacing steps to stand between her and the demon.
The demon gaped and stammered. "Please... I didn't... I was told t-"
Claire's eyes scanned slowly up from the shoes and the black pants with the spots of pulled thread to the sweeping hem of a battered trench coat and the straight, strong back it covered.
"This girl and her family are protected. Go." That voice had rolled through every one of Claire's bad dreams since the age of ten, sometimes in the mouth of her rescuer and sometimes from the monster in the dark. She sat up, but found that she was shaking too hard to stand.
The demon vanished, and there was a long moment of agonizing stillness in which Claire both longed for and dreaded the moment when the figure in front of her would turn around. She knew that this was not her father, that there was nothing of what her father had once been in this ancient, burning creature, but his face was still more familiar than any she'd known.
Finally, slowly, he lifted his chin and looked at her over his shoulder. It was dark, but she could see his features as clearly as if they shone with their own light. She'd spent hours anticipating this moment, rehearsing the things she would say if he ever stood before her again. Under the intensity of his regard, every word she had ever learned vanished, and all sound turned to dust on her tongue.
She did not see him move, but she heard the rush of wings and felt the sudden sensation of a warm touch on her forehead. Then, for a second, there was nothing.
She sat up in bed, still dressed, tiny shards of glass tumbling from her hair like scattered diamonds. The room was dark. For the space of one full breath, she thought the whole thing might have been a dream, but the dirt on her jeans and the scratches on her face would not let her imagine for long. The adrenaline that had kept her moving and thinking left her with stomach-churning abruptness, draining out of her as if someone had pulled a plug. The enormity of what had just happened struck her with a force that seemed to rattle in her bones. A demon had come for her. Castiel had saved her. Eric was dead.
She couldn't breathe, her lungs, muscles, mouth wouldn't work. Then she heard again in memory the sickening crack as his neck twisted and snapped, and she suck a deep, wild breath into her chest. It came out as a howl.
She didn't notice when mom and David came into the room with bobbing flashlights and an electric lantern, didn't hear them talking, soothing, trying to calm her down. She didn't hear herself tell them what happened, tell them everything, but she knew, though the thick ringing of her own shock, that she did.
As her senses slowly filtered back, she found that David was staring, uncomprehending, and mom was shouting. "How could you be this careless? We got away from that world! We were safe! And you've brought it back into our house!"
"Amy, what is going on?" David demanded in as firm a tone as Claire had ever heard him use.
Unexpectedly, his confusion came through the lingering haze in her mind and touched a spark to her ever-present anger. "Yeah, Amy. Why don't you let dear old step-dad in on the secret?"
Her mother shot her a look that was one part terror and two parts rage. "This is not the time, Claire."
"This is exactly the time! You can't pretend that this isn't happening!"
"It's happening because of you!" mom roared. "You went looking for trouble! You brought them down on us! You got your best friend killed!"
"Yes! I did! It's my fault!" Claire's voice was cracking under the strain of everything that had happened and the pure, relentless anger crashing through her. "But you're the one who made us hide! You're the one who wanted things to be normal! You knew what was out there, and you wouldn't talk about it! I just wanted to know how to fight it!"
"So you can get us all killed? So you can get yourself killed, like your father?"
The fight was reaching fever pitch, and David was looking between them with fear and concern. Setting a hand on mom's shoulder, he said gently, "Maybe we need to take a step back and talk about this calmly."
Mom ignored him, still shouting at Claire. “I will not have this in my house! Do you understand?”
“Fine!” Claire screamed back. “You don’t want it in the house? Then I’ll get it out of your fucking house!” She leapt off the bed and marched toward the door. The anger roiled and churned in her head, so hot and thick she could hardly see where she was going. All she knew was that she had to go, had to get away, for their safety and her sanity.
She’d never heard David yell, and the sound of his mellow voice raised in anger brought her up short. She and mom both stared at him, wearing identical looks of stunned disbelief.
More quietly, he said, “Both of you, stop it.” His face was a wash of exhaustion, frustration, and fear as he looked between them. “Now, I have no idea what’s going on here, but screaming about it solves nothing.” He paused, frowning, then pointed at Claire. “You need to get some sleep. Whatever’s happened can wait a few hours.” Mom started to protest, but he cut her off. “You and I need to have a talk.”
Mom’s mouth snapped shut. She cast an angry glance at Claire, and then she sighed. “Yes, we do.”
“Okay, then.” As he ushered mom out of the room, he turned to Claire and said gently. “Get some rest, sweetheart. Everything’s gonna be okay.”
Even as the door closed behind them, even as she wished with all her heart for that to be true, she knew that he was wrong. Nothing was going to be okay.
As silently as she could, Claire started packing things into her school bag, the blue one with the silver stars. Clothes, knife, holy water, and a few select journals that she thought might be useful. Then she waited in the dark for mom and David to go to bed. When they did, and the house was quiet, she crept out of her room with her bag in one hand and her boots in the other. From the kitchen, she got some food and a can of salt. Finally, she took David’s shotgun out of the hall closet, wrapped it in a small blanket, and slung it over her shoulder.
The front door clicking shut behind her seemed like the loudest noise she had ever heard.
Her car keys were still in her pocket. She’d have to walk back to the industrial park to get her car, assuming the cops hadn’t showed up yet. There was about fifty bucks in her wallet. Not much, but it should buy her enough gas to get to South Dakota.
She’d been dragged into this world as a terrified little girl, grown up on its fringes with nothing but small reminders and constant fear. Now, she was ready to start fighting.