Chapter 1 You will return to the earth for out of it you were taken; for from dust you were made and to dust you will return.
—Angel prayer Here’s the thing about being raised an Angel: You don’t process
Grief is a sin. Loss is God’s design, and to mourn the dead is to insult His vision. To despair at His will is sacrilege. How dare you betray His plan by grieving what was always His to take? Unfaithful, disgusting heretic, you should be hung from the wall so the nonbelievers will know what’s coming for them. Romans 6:23—for the wages of sin is death.
So the image of Dad’s body burns into the folds of my brain, writes itself between the grooves of my fingerprints, and I swallow it down until I choke. Angels cut out the parts of us that remember how to cry until we can’t. We learn to mask the grief, to pack it away for later, later, later,
until eventually we just die.
The way I see it, I don’t have to worry. If the Angels get their way, all this grief will be His problem soon enough. And if they don’t—
God, please don’t—
I’m running. Dad’s blood is in my mouth. Brother Hutch shot him once in the chest to stop him and once in the head to kill him. Brother Hutch calls for me, “We can do this the easy way, we really can!” The other Angels sweep the riverfront, shining white in the blazing February sun, moving slow and sure through the streets. They don’t have to be quick. They know they’ll catch me eventually.
One sixteen-year-old boy against a death squad of Angels? I’m doomed.
I crash to a stop behind a stone pillar by the riverbank and double over to gasp for air. My hair sticks to my forehead in a slurry of sweat and blood—Dad’s blood—drying on my face and hands. My lungs burn. I can’t tell if the roaring in my ears is my heartbeat or the river.
Dad’s gone. He’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead.
“Please, God,” I whisper before I can stop myself. What makes me think He’s going to answer me now? “Please give me something, anything—”
“Sister Woodside!” Brother Hutch cries. “Your mother is worried about you! She wants her daughter to come home.”
The first thing Dad told me—when Mom said I’d see the Lord’s plan for my womanhood eventually, that she’d carve it into me if she had to—he told me I’m a man, and I fought for it, and nobody can take that from me. Open your eyes. Breathe. Pull it together, Benji, pull it together.
The death squads haven’t gotten me yet.
I can finish what Dad started.
I can get out of Acheson, Pennsylvania.
I peek from behind the pillar to look down the street. The riverfront district was probably beautiful before Judgment Day. Before the Flood hit. Now, ivy climbs up glass skyscrapers and cars rust in parking-lot graveyards. Lawns and gardens have gone wild, smothering everything they can reach. Flowers bloom in February. It’s one of the few good months for flowers. They’ll die of thirst by April.
But I don’t see any Angels. Not yet.
Brother Hutch shouts to the heavens, “We don’t want to hurt you, we don’t.”
The only way in or out of southern Acheson is the bridge—the one bridge the Angels didn’t destroy on Judgment Day. It’s just half a block from me. With the death squads closing in and the bridge guards called away to join the hunt, this is my only shot.
I was supposed to do this with Dad. We were supposed to leave Acheson together. We were supposed to make it to Acresfield County together.
Now he’s a corpse in the lawn of a crumbling hotel, brains soaking into the dirt, returning to earth for out of it he was taken.
I can’t finish what we started if I stand here begging God for things to be different. It won’t bring him back.
I’ve been running for days but not like this. Not with my legs screaming and my sneakers pounding the sidewalk in time with my heartbeat. I pretend Dad is right behind me, that I can’t hear him because I’m breathing too hard, that I can mistake him for a blur in the windows across the street.
I make it to the mouth of the bridge. I don’t stop, just dive between the wreckage of cars choking the entrance. The bridge shines silver, suspension towers dangling thick metal wires from bank to bank. It belongs to the Angels now. A banner flutters high above me: GOD LOVES YOU.
Corpses dangle from the wires, yellow-pink organs hanging from their stomachs to obscure their nakedness, like Adam and Eve ashamed of their bodies.
One of the bodies is twisted, the leg held at a broken angle, and I can’t tell if the Angels did that or the Flood did. The Flood is cruel. It’ll do some terrible things to a body.
Not that I need another reminder.
This is a long bridge. I can almost convince myself that Dad is waiting on the other side, holding our backpacks, demanding, What took you so long?
I’ll crash into him, and we’ll run until we’re away from Acheson, so far away from every Angel camp and colony that they’ll never find us again. Dad and I memorized a map of every outpost in the surrounding states and every major stronghold in North America. We’ll be okay. We’ll be okay. “There!”
I shouldn’t look, I shouldn’t.
I know the Angel behind me is Brother Hutch because his robes are splattered with Dad’s blood. His rifle hangs from a strap over his shoulder. He’s close enough that I can make out the bruises on his knuckles, the stains on his face mask.
Masks keep the Flood out, but I haven’t worn one for a while. I can’t get infected twice.
“Sister Woodside,” Brother Hutch says, and the other Angels emerge from the shadows, the ruins, the back-streets, and I don’t stand still a moment longer.
The second thing Dad told me—when we finally escaped, listening for the scream of monsters and the beat of boots against the ground—was that if the Angels want to get their hands on me, I have to make them suffer for it.
I still taste his blood.
I vault the Jersey barriers at the Angel checkpoint and hit the ground hard on the other side. There are lawn chairs back here, a Bible, and a few bottles of water. The road is full of broken glass. The bodies sway. Run.
I dreamed about what it would be like on the other side of the bridge. Dad and I could head north and find a place to make it through the summer. Sure, there would be Angels, because there would always be Angels until the last nonbeliever was dead, but we would have all the earth to avoid them. Maybe we would meet someone: a handsome nonbeliever who would fall for me when I soaked his hands in warm water and bandaged his wounds. He would be sweet and a little brash and queer as hell, and he wouldn’t mess up my pronouns when he saw my chest for the first time. Sometimes he was blond, like my fiancé. Most of the time, he wasn’t. Stop. Don’t think about him. Don’t think about Theo.
None of it matters anyway, because none of it will ever happen. The Flood will break me like it breaks everything else, and I need to keep the monster away from the Angels. I need to get out, I need to get away, I need to—
An Angel whistles, and the whistle is met with a scream.
Between the cars ahead of me, a tangle of limbs unfolds, and it shrieks and howls with all the pain of Hell, the weeping and gnashing of teeth. A creature made of corpses and the Flood—sharpened ribs lining its back in a row of spines, eyeballs blinking between sinew, muscles so swollen they split the skin—rises from the wreckage. Claws the size of arm bones curl around a truck cab and crumple it.
I stop running. No. No, no, no
Not a Grace. Not when I’m so close.
What had once been a person’s face opens from the bottom of its jaw, up between the eyes and back to the nape of its neck, showing teeth smeared black with Flood rot. I faintly register the sound of boots and shouting, but that doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is the monster towering above me, dripping decay and blocking the only way out.
The third thing Dad told me—when he realized what I could do, when I reached out to a Grace and begged it to kill every Angel it could find; when I stood in a sea of gore, a beast curled around me.
He told me to be good.
To never become the monster the Angels want me to be, for evil begets evil begets evil.
The sound of boots slows and stops. My legs fail me. I stumble to the ground, pressing my palms to the burning road. Be good. Make them suffer.
Being good means being quiet, obedient, turning away from the virus’s power the same way Eve should have turned away from the apple. Making them suffer means seizing the Grace and taking the Angels down with me in a blaze of flesh and fury.
I could stop this. I could whisper across this street and make the Angels regret ever laying their hands on me.
I almost reach out for the Grace.
Dad died holding my face—his blood smeared down my tongue, across my cheeks, matted in my hair—and begging me to be good.
He’s not waiting for me. I can’t keep running like this. I am so, so tired.
Good wins out.
“I’ll be good. I’ll be good, I’ll be good.” I say it out loud like that will make failure feel any better, as if my insides aren’t screaming to burn the Angels in hellfire, as if there’s any
way I could obey all of Dad’s words at once. “I’ll be good, O Lord, lend me Your strength, lead and guide me—”
Hot liquid trickles over my chin, and I wipe my mouth. My fingers come away black and red.
A pair of heavy boots appears in the corner of my vision, wreathed by stained white robes. I stare at my hand, the horizon, the rising sun.
Is this really what He wants? Is this really His plan?
Brother Hutch says, “I’m sorry,” and he almost sounds like he means it.
I make an awful keening sound deep in my throat. It’s the closest I’ve come to crying in years. Past Brother Hutch and past the Grace, the river rushes, perfect blue and clear and clean; the mountains of Acresfield County shine with green and gold; the black wings of carrion birds glimmer in the morning sun.
I pretend Dad is out there. I tell him I was good and to go on without me. I tell him I’ll meet up with him eventually, one day, maybe, I promise.
Brother Hutch says, “It’s time to come home.”
Copyright © 2022 by by Andrew Joseph White. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.