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Maggie Cartwright : Chapter One

“Alright, sweet thing,” Maggie said, resting her hand on the copper plate. “Just talk to me, and we’ll get you all better.” 

The towering engine didn’t say anything in reply. They never did, not with words, but sometimes Maggie would swear that she could hear the metal sing. 

Today, all she got was a quiet grumble. 

Maggie shook her head. “Don’t be stubborn. This is for your own good.” 

The machine was huge. Eight feet tall and twice as long, bristling with copper coils and runes. When it ran, it could hold a fifty-seat passenger car in the air or accelerate it down a subway tunnel at great speed, handling two kilometers of subterranean tunnels. It was the sort of technology that humans had been struggling to develop for decades. Her people, with a bit of magic, had perfected it a century ago. 

It had stopped running, and since public transit through this part of the tunnel was unable to run without it, Maggie was getting paid top dollar to diagnose its problem and fix the damage. 

A cool breeze wafted up the tunnel, and the engine shuddered slightly, its many metals contracting. 

She rolled her eyes. “Don’t give me that. You’re too young for joint pains. What are you, five years old? Ten?” 

The metal still glimmered as she looked it up and down. The only iron in the whole construction, a polished flat plate on top to conduct the magnetic lift, looked almost brand new. Given that, it was probably a construction error, some fault by the engineer who’d installed it, leading to undue stress and wear on its internals. 

So, Maggie walked back to her truck, where her complete set of tools were waiting to deal with any issue she might face. She’d been able to drive right down into the subway from a maintenance entrance half a kilometer up the tunnel, which was a blessing – it meant she didn’t have to schlep her hundreds of pounds of gear down by hand. Plus, she could use the light rack on her truck instead of setting up a dozen work lights, at least to get started. 

Sifting through options, she picked up her flashlight and a thirty-inch crescent wrench. It was steel, but her heavy-duty leather gloves ensured that she wouldn’t break out at the touch. There were non-ferrous tools that were strong enough for the job, but with proper PPE, Maggie never had an issue with iron. 

Her tools selected, she put the flashlight in her pocket and walked back to the engine, getting to work on the access panel so she could see what was going on inside. 

Maggie had to put in some real grunting and effort, putting her weight into the wrench to free each seized bolt. It was harder work than it should have been, just to get open the access panel, but that gave Maggie a theory of what was wrong. Metal warping could have a lot of causes, and it could cause a lot of malfunctions, from overtight bolts to loose valves to completely nonfunctioning engines. 

“Now, let’s see what secrets you’re keeping,” Maggie said as the fourth bolt came free. She set down her wrench, pulled the access plate free, and took out her flashlight to peek inside. The light was magic powered, and with a hint of effort and a word, she brought out a bright point of light. 

She blinked. 

The inside was torn apart. It looked like a rat had gotten inside and chewed everything up to make a nest, except that rats generally chewed up old linens, not hardened metal gears and conductors. 

“What on earth happened to you?” she asked, looking up at the engine with concern. This couldn’t have happened by accident, the engine’s contents were absolutely shredded

Raising her light, she looked in more carefully, and from deep within, she saw two little red points. An indicator light, perhaps, except… indicator lights didn’t have blinking eyelids. 

Pest damage, Maggie realized. A shamworm, maybe, though it’d have to be a particularly big one. Whatever it was, it’d taken up a nest inside the engine, and she’d need to coax it out. 

“Hey, there, little guy,” she said, willing the light from her flashlight to get brighter so she could get a better look at it. “What are… you…” 

It wasn’t a shamworm. Shamworms didn’t have armored plates of chitin, they didn’t have claws, and they couldn’t scream. 

The thing, whatever it was, screamed. Then it lunged, out of the engine and straight towards her face. 

Maggie ducked to the side of the access panel before it could take her head off. She dropped her flashlight, spinning to face the thing. 

It was cast in silhouette in front of her truck, visible only as a dark outline the size of a wolf, chittering and yowling angrily. Its glowing red eyes were narrowly placed, giving it an almost comical grimace on its oversized body. 

Maggie bent her knees, slightly, feeling for- 

The creature lunged at her again, and she seized her wrench from off the ground, swing all thirty inches of high carbon steel at its head. The beast had a lot of momentum, but her impact knocked it out of the air mid-leap with force that reverberated up the heavy steel tool, through her gloves, and into her joints. 

It didn’t even seem fazed, and as Maggie recovered from the shock of the attack, it came at her again. She raised the tool in a defensive gesture, putting the steel between her and the thing’s gnashing teeth. 

It bit at the wrench, ripping it out of her hands and knocking her back into the engine. Hitting the ground on all fours, it shook the tool like a dog with a bone, bit down, and broke it in half with one good chomp. 

Maggie decided, then, not to let the creature bite her. 

She bolted to her truck. The keys were already in the ignition, half turned while she kept the lights on, so she grabbed them and twisted, revving the engine to life. 

A chitinous claw slammed through the ceiling. The first creature was visible in front of her, stalking towards the truck, which meant…

There’s two of them.

Heart racing, Maggie slammed the truck into drive, hit the gas, and accelerated as fast as she could. 

Two impacts. First, a solid whump as the front of her truck slammed into the creature. Then, a loud, crunchy WHAM! When the truck and creature both hit the solid metal engine that it had been nesting in. 

Her truck had an aluminum frame and was fairly lightweight, but it was still solid and carried plenty of mass, and it was going nearly thirty miles an hour when she crashed, wrapping the front of the truck around the first creature and flinging the second from her roof. 

 A second too late, the car alarm began to wail, and the airbag kicked in. Maggie flipped out her pocketknife, slashing the inflated bag and shoving it out of the way so she could get free of the truck and see what was going on.

The creature she’d hit was pinned. It didn’t seem injured in the slightest, and was more annoyed at being stuck. 

What does it take to kill these things? 

The other one pounced, not at Maggie, but onto the hood of her truck, claws ripping to free its friend. Like the thing’s teeth, its claws shredded steel like tissue.

Head ringing, Maggie ran. 

The creatures pursued. 

Deep in the tunnel, every sound was amplified by echoes, coming from all directions. Her hearing was acute, but with all the noise coming at her—the scraping, the chittering, the wail of the alarm—she couldn’t tell how close they were behind her. 

She stole a look back. They were thirty feet behind, but gaining. She put on the speed and stopped looking back. 

The maintenance entrance was barely in view up ahead, lights peeking through the open service gate on the left of the tunnel. If Maggie could make it through, close it behind her, and… 

Will it even stop them? Those claws…

She could see the light up ahead, peering through the open service gate that she’d driven through not half an hour ago. She was closing on it, but her speed was capped by the limits of muscle and bone. 

It seemed that her pursuers didn’t have those limits. When she stole a glance over her shoulder, she could see the red eyes coming closer, too close. 

She wasn’t going to escape. Fighting the creatures seemed like a fool’s errand, but they seemed to only have animal intelligence. Maybe, just maybe, she could scare them off. 

Legs still pumping away, she considered her options. First, she still had her knife, a trusty tool she never went anywhere without. Second, she had her flashlight, which was really a handle with a crystal and a simple glowing charm. Third, she had…

Is that really it? 

It was just those two things, and she scolded herself for not bringing along any real self-defense tools. She’d left herself without much to work with.

Fumbling in her pocket, she got out the flashlight. Thanks to its magical properties, it could shine either like a spotlight or a lamp with equal illumination, and as she flicked her wrist, she called up as bright a werelight as she could, raising it up like an Olympic torch carrier.

The shrieking got louder, and she looked back again to see both of the creatures following behind her, emotions inscrutable on their alien faces. 

They were fifteen feet away, running on all fours like horses at a full gallop. She could see their bodies, now, armored in chalky white plate from tip to toe, like soldiers. The only way that these beings could be this fast with chitin that hard is if they were errekin. Magic was reinforcing their muscles, or the bony plates that protected them.

Maggie hoped it was the plates. If the chitin really was just stone-hard, she couldn’t do much about it. 

Either way, she had about two seconds before they caught up to her, so she had to act fast. 

Pulling the knife from its pocket on her belt, Maggie flipped out the four-inch blade from its handle. Thus armed, she dropped the light from her hand, skidded to a stop, and fell into a solid horse stance.

The creature on the left had visible scrape marks on its chitin from her truck, and either it was more aggressive because she’d hurt it, or maybe it just got a head start on its buddy. Either way, it lunged first, leading with its mouthful of razor teeth, confident that the small knife wouldn’t be able to pierce its armor.

It was wrong. 

Maggie had forged the knife herself, decades ago, when she was still learning the art of metalworking. It wasn’t her finest steel, but it was made from starmetal and imbued under the light of a solstice moon. What it lacked in size and refinement, it made up for in the ability to pierce magic like tissue. 

She shifted her grip, bracing her body and holding out the blade. She didn’t need to stab, she just needed to absorb the shock of the blow and let the creature do the rest. The blade caught it just above where the heart would be on a normal animal, and all its momentum and weight were enough to crack its chitin chest plate in half. 

Its teeth made it to only a few inches from her throat before her hand hit the creature’s chest and her low, braced position won out. Her hand smarted with pain similar to that of punching a stone wall, and she thanked her stars that she was wearing gloves. 

Maggie had been wrong before. Up until now, the creatures hadn’t been screaming. This was a scream, the kind that made her pointed ears ring in pain, until the blade caught something vital and the creature suddenly stopped making noise. 

Her knife was buried halfway up the handle, and she couldn’t yank it free in time to duck the second creature’s attack. Maggie dropped and rolled, mind racing to come up with a plan as it skittered to a stop and whirled to face her. 

Even one on one, she couldn’t fight this thing, not without a weapon. Even if she had her knife, the second one wouldn’t just throw itself on her blade. 

In the full light, she could see its razor-sharp claws were only a few inches long. It didn’t have inhuman reach, at least. And, though it was fast, it wasn’t pixie quick, darting to and fro quicker than the naked eye could see. 

She glanced back at the gate. Maybe- 

She almost missed the creature charging at her, and if she hadn’t dodged to the side to put the first one’s body between her and its friend, it would have bowled her down in an instant. Instead, it skidded to a stop, avoiding touching the pooling dark ichor that was spilling out of the other creature. 

It panted for a moment, red eyes darting between Maggie and the fallen monster. 

Good news. Panting meant that it needed to breathe.

Bad news. Maggie was never much of a wrestler. 

It beats pushing up daisies. 

She put herself in a fighting stance, waiting. 

The creature eyed her, wary of another trick, like the knife. It had a certain level of cunning. That was good. If it were ruled purely by baser instincts, she couldn’t pretend to have another knife up her sleeve, or something similar. 

Still, once it came at her, she was going to have to choke out something that was faster than her, stronger than her, and armed with as many knives as it had fingers and teeth. It didn’t look like a winning prospect. 

One other option.

“Do you understand me?” she asked. 

It tilted its head. No English, but… it recognized speech. Maybe it didn’t understand language, and was reacting like a dog hearing familiar words without understanding the base meaning. But maybe…

She tried again, slipping into the old tongue. “Do you understand me?” 

It tilted its head the other way, curious. Then, deciding that the sounds Maggie made were unimportant and she was no longer scary without the steel in her hand, it lowered its body and got ready to finish her off. 

Pop-BAM! 

A piece of chitin on the side of its head chipped away, followed by the boom of hypersonic rifle fire. Another shot rang out, then, and another, pelting the creature with bullets that pitted the bony armor, piece by piece, exposing its flesh beneath. 

Maggie turned, surprised to see a team standing in the service entrance, half a dozen of her people dressed in tactical armor and acting with military precision. She was too far away to make out precisely the weapons they were carrying, but they were clearly some variety of sniper rifle, and with six of them firing, the shots sounded almost like that of an automatic weapon. 

They weren’t perfect shots, but their aim was deadly, raining down fire on the creature as it turned, running for its life as bits of ichor began spraying from nicks and cuts that made it through its chitin. 

Scrambling clear of the line of fire, Maggie let the squad do their job. It made it halfway back to her truck before the shots finally overwhelmed it and the creature fell to the ground, motionless.

Ears ringing from the screeching and the hail of echoed gunfire, Maggie watched as one of the snipers set aside their gun and started jogging towards her, shouting something indistinct. 

They probably wanted her to come along and get to safety. She was more than happy to comply, but first, she needed to do one thing. Walking back to the slumped body of the creature she’d killed, Maggie pushed it over and planted her work boot on its chest, tugging her knife free. 

Wiping it off on her ichor-splattered shirt, she started jogging towards the exit. 

This was supposed to be a simple repair job. Go in, fix the engine, pocket a check. Nobody had said anything about monsters that needed a firing squad to fend off. 

Someone had a lot of explaining to do. 

Chapter Two of this story is already up on Patreon, if you can’t wait to read it! I’m trying to get out a chapter a week, so if you’re patient you can read it here in a few days.

2020 Announcements, Free Books, and Panic Attacks


I had a panic attack yesterday.

I’ll tell you all about it in a minute, but first I want to make a couple announcements. 

First: The next book in the KC Warlock Weekly series has been postponed, with a new release date TBD. 

Second: I’m making all of my books free. If there’s anything in my library that you want to read, you can download it here. All four main titles in The Sacrosanct Records, the short story compilation, and the first book of The KC Warlock Weekly; You can read it all, share it, send it to your friends with no strings attached. 

Third: I’m launching a Patreon, and I’ve created a Ko-Fi if you want to leave me a tip. 

All these things, (panic attack included,) are connected to each other, but that’s the Cliff Notes version. If you’re just here for the free books, you can just stop reading here! Happy reading, and I hope you enjoy! 

You can download my books here! For free! I’m not kidding, and there are no strings attached.

At the time of writing this, it’s Thursday. Today I was supposed to send off my next book, “The KC Warlock Weekly: Justice” to my editor, so she’d be able to iron out the kinks in time for a February 2nd publication. That’s not going to happen. 

I’ve been struggling with the world of indie publishing for a while. I love the writing, the storytelling, the craft of it, it’s the ‘Publishing’ part that gets me – Success seems to hinge more on my ability to navigate the world of marketing than my ability to write. I don’t know how to maximize SEO on my social media posts. I’m not a marketing guru who can maximize Amazon ads or perfect my keywords for sales.

When I’ve tried at these things, I’ve failed, miserably. And it affects how I feel about myself as a writer. It’s irrational, but when my ad campaigns fizzle, it makes me feel like I’m incompetent as an author. I tied the value of my art to the amount of money I could make off of it, and when I couldn’t sell myself well enough, it hurt. 

In short, it wasn’t healthy. 

I’d known that it wasn’t for a long time, but knowing something isn’t the same as believing it. So, even as I made plans on how to change, how to get away from the elements of self publishing that were eating away at my self esteem and confidence as a writer, I still let it influence me. 

Amazon’s sales algorithm rewards authors who can write fast. Beyond just having more books for sale, Amazon boosts books in its algorithm for a limited time after release – So, if you want the best shot at being seen on Amazon, you have to release books regularly and often, not because it means the books will be of higher quality, but because it’s what the algorithm favors. 

So, that’s why I picked February 2nd as my release date – to try and get that algorithm boost as quickly as possible. 

And, that’s why a couple nights ago, I was feverishly rushing to complete a draft that I’d be able to finish and upload in time. Not because it would be my best work, but because it was what the algorithm demanded, and I’d convinced myself that if I couldn’t keep up with the algorithm’s demands, then I didn’t deserve to call myself an author.

I knew that the words I was writing weren’t my best. I’d been so focused on the crunch, the deadline, that I’d sacrificed creating a story I was happy with. 

And I hated it. I still hate it. 

I hate that, even while I could say out loud that the algorithm didn’t dictate my worth as an artist, I let it influence how I thought about myself. I put pressure on myself that I’d never even think of putting on anyone else – I’d call it cruel and callous. The ironic thing is, I can write very quickly and with quality when I have the creative freedom to do so, but the crushing pressure I’d imposed on myself killed that passion. 

I talked about the issue with some friends, and a family member, but it was my fiancée who brought me back down to earth. Forcing myself to recognize emotionally what I knew logically wasn’t easy. Part of me still feels like I’m giving up. 

And all this is to say, I could use your help. 

I love to write. I’ll likely keep writing for as long as I can type. Publishing, though? That’s more difficult. 

While I want my stories to be read, publishing isn’t free. Covers and editing cost money, and more pressingly, I still have bills to pay and groceries to buy. 

I want to reject the algorithm model. I want to write for you, my fans, people who love to read, without worrying about what Amazon is going to promote, about whether or not my ads are going to have a low enough cost-per-click, any of that junk. Heck, I want everyone to be able to read my stories, regardless of where they’re at financially – I don’t want to block anyone from being able to read. 

But to do that, I’m going to need your help. 

Like I said at the start of this, I’ve launched a Patreon. My hope is that, if you can, you’ll help me reject the crunch, and the grind, and the algorithm chasing. I would love to be able to get support from you directly. In turn, I want to write stories that you want to read. If anything I’ve written has inspired you, or made you laugh, or smile, or feel, then I’ve done my job right. 

With your support, Patreon will let me write without fear of the marketing, without stress about pandering to an algorithm. I can write longer books and short stories without worrying that I’d be more commercially viable if I cut the story off sooner or bloated the length. I plan on doing both of those things, in fact.

If you’ve made it this far but haven’t read any of my works, you’re welcome to check out anything I’ve done – my writing is available to be read. Check it out, see if it’s to your taste. If you like it, and you want to see more, I would love to have your support.

I don’t want to sell books. I want to tell stories. 

Will you please help me do that?

Guest Post – The KC Warlock Weekly Book 1 Review, by Kevin Dilmore

When journalist Levi Lawson works his news beats, he’s not seeking quotes at City Hall or rifling through filings at the district courthouse. His reporting typically takes him to darker corners of the city: the secret sites of arcane rituals or a wizard’s workshop—or face to face with powers and creatures most people consider the stuff of legend and imagination. See, his job is to report on his city’s covert community of magic users, a job that’s made even tougher by the fact that he’s not one of them.

In M.N. Jolley’s clever and brisk novel The KC Warlock Weekly, Levi (pronounced “levy”) is the owner and publisher of the newspaper from which the book draws its title. Even on a “normal” day, Levi’s job is sure to put him at odds with all sorts of spellcasters and supernatural beings, all of whom operate within a shroud of illusion that hides them from their non-magical fellow residents of Kansas City, Mo. From the opening of Jolley’s novel, subtitled Book One: Accused, it becomes clear that the day is anything but typical for Levi. He’s being interrogated by a pair of counsellors (“wizard cops,” as Levi explains) as the prime suspect in a murder case. As the book unfolds, Levi finds himself working to exonerate himself, identify the actual murderer—and all while trying to get the latest issue of his paper to the printer on deadline.

Through Levi’s first-person narration of the story, Jolley effectively introduces readers not only to a resourceful, clever and even charming lead for the series but he also immerses readers into a world of magic hidden in plain sight from the rest of us. He builds this world, explains its rules, and adheres to them in ways that make for an enjoyable read. As Levi hardly is alone in his adventures, Jolley offers a diverse cast of supporting characters, most of whom are crafted in ways that make a reader hope they will turn up in subsequent stories. Dialogue is smart and punchy, evoking the feel of an old-school, hard-boiled whodunnit with contemporary spins. The story’s plot moves quickly, with every fresh turn carrying some surprise. Another fun surprise: Jolley’s choices and descriptions of story locations will ring very true to readers familiar with Kansas City.

Jolley’s book is a terrific and rewarding escape—think Fletch meets Harry Potter. The KC Warlock Weekly is a fun, funny and fast-paced introduction to an intriguing world that’s just a sidestep apart from our own.—Kevin Dilmore

KEVIN DILMORE has teamed with author and best pal Dayton Ward for nearly 20 years on novels, shorter fiction and other writings chiefly in the Star Trek universe. A contributor to publications including the Village Voice, Amazing Stories, and Famous Monsters of Filmland, he works as a senior writer for Hallmark Cards.

Guest Post – The KC Warlock Book 1 Review, by Jamie Davis

Review for Accused: Book One of the KC Warlock Weekly

It’s not often an urban fantasy story catches me by surprise. It seems like many great authors have explored all the corners of the potential for a hidden magical world alongside our own modern existence. Then Max Jolley’s new book came along and melded a great UF story with another genre favorite of mine, a fantastic noir mystery.

Levi Lawson (Lee-vee), an investigative journalist from a startup newspaper covering the supernatural side of Kansas City, stumbles on a murder. But that’s the least of his problems as he soon finds out he’s been tagged as the killer. Add in a great good cop/bad cop duo, gritty interrogations, vampires, wizards, and even a bridge troll, and you’ve got a rollicking urban fantasy adventure. 

As the mystery around the murder expands into an even bigger story, our intrepid investigator pulls out every trick in his limited mundane collection. Somehow, he manages to stay one step ahead of the multitude of people and creatures out to get him. He can’t afford to get caught. He has to get to the bottom of the mystery, solve the crime, and print the next newspaper. 

The story grabbed me from the beginning and pulled me in right away. Before I knew it, I wanted to know how Levi was going to solve the crime while somehow saving his failing newspaper. I couldn’t stop and had to read to the end. And, I never saw the twist coming.

I stumbled a little keeping all the characters straight that Levi meets along the way. But that’s because the world Jolley crafts is deep and rich with many textures and diversity. Fairies and vampires, mages and potion masters, and many others all come together atop an underlying magical bureaucracy. There’s a lot more of this world to explore. I’m looking forward to more editions and stories from the KC Warlock Weekly and reporter Levi Lawson.

Jamie Davis, author of Fun Fantasy Reads, writes urban and epic fantasy stories for teens and adults. You can find out more about him at https://jamiedavisbooks.com

“Pilot”

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“How’s it going?” 

“Fuel’s running low.”

“What else is new?” 

The truck rumbled down the road, high beams shining in two wide cones that lit the highway from shoulder to shoulder. There wasn’t much to see. Blacktop and retroreflectors stared back at Susan, the driver, and the occasional speed limit sign was visible for a few seconds as the truck roared past, blatantly ignoring the “70” printed in faded ink. 

The details of the truck were hard to work out with only a starry sky to light it. An observer might mistake the navy blue for pure black, might not be able to read the torn bumper sticker, might think that the bits of blood and flesh stuck into the corners of the grill guard were merely mud. 

Country music warbled quietly from the CD player, a dozen songs on repeat that the driver knew by heart. 

Susan adjusted her rearview mirror with three fingers, eyeing her passenger, a lanky girl with pixie cut that had grown shaggy. The girl was lounging across the three rear seats, a bundle of old laundry serving as a pillow. She had to sit up in the narrow backseat bench to stretch her arms, yawning deeply and blinking a few times to clear the sleep from her system. 

“Thanks for taking an extra shift,” she mumbled. “I’ve got the next shift.” 

Lifting her thumb from the steering wheel, Susan eyed the fuel gauge, then looked at the assorted pile of change sitting in the cupholder. “There might not be a next shift, Lily.”

“Liliana,” she corrected, half standing in the backseat. “I’m coming up there.” 

Susan grimaced and leaned to the left as Lily swung one leg over the front seat, then another, briefly straddling the headrest. Her muddy designer shoes stayed at eye level for a moment, then she tumbled into the passenger seat with practiced clumsiness. Spinning in place, she got buckled up.

Leaning so she could see the fuel gauge, Lily asked, “Are we that low on cash?” 

“I’ve got three bucks, plus whatever’s in the cupholder,” Susan explained, twisting the steering wheel to move around a patch of roadkill. “We can maybe get a couple gallons in the tank, but we don’t know how long it’ll be without another gas stop.” 

“We’re not going to get stranded again,” Lily said immediately, leaning down to fish through the backpack at his feet, taking inventory. “Both spare cans are empty, right?” 

Susan nodded “Ran them dry when we decided to skip that last station.”

“And I don’t regret that decision.” Lily pulled out a bag of mixed nuts and chocolate chips, tossed it onto the middle seat by the stick shift, and continued rummaging for a bottle of water to accompany the snack. 

“Is that the last of our food?” Susan asked, raising an eyebrow without looking away from the road. 

Lily dug through her pack for a second longer, then sat back. “Think so.” 

“Hmm.” 

Ripping open the trail mix, Lily poured a handful out and tossed it into her mouth, chewing loudly as she offered the rest of the bag to Susan. Susan shook her head, not hungry.

“Take an inventory,” Susan decided. “Figure out what we’ve got to work with. Maybe there’s something in here we can sell.” 

Lily snorted, almost spitting out of her food. Without swallowing first, she asked, “To who?” 

“Whoever.” Susan shrugged. “Just do the inventory.” 

Rolling her eyes, Lily set the open pouch of trail mix in the open cup holder, washed what she had down with a swig of water, and scooped up the change into her hand, mouthing the numbers as she counted.

“One…” she mumbled, dropping four quarters back in place. “Two… Three… Three fifty… seven. Three fifty-seven. 

“That’s less than seven bucks, with my cash,” Susan said. “Maybe six gallons if the price is low. A fifth of a tank.” 

“Well, shit,” Lily said, dropping the last few pennies into place. Returning to her backpack, she pulled out a cell phone, flipping it open and powering up the device. It chimed cheerfully as the LCD powered on.

Susan stole a glance at the screen, looking away from the road long enough to see the ‘NO SIGNAL’ message flash across the top of the screen in blocky digital letters. She wasn’t surprised, but she scowled anyways. 

“Still nothing, but I’ve got half the battery left,” Lily said, snapping the phone shut and tossing it back into her bag. She came out with his snub-nosed .22, a tiny revolver that could fit in her jacket without sticking out of a pocket. Flicking out the cylinder, she counted on her fingers.

“Three rounds in here,” she said, stuffing the gun into her jacket and leaning to pull the shotgun from its jury-rigged holster on the passenger door. She broke it in half, checking the shells inside, then checking the slots on the outside of the holster. “Five shells.” 

She jammed the shotgun back into place, avoiding the duct tape that held the holster down. 

“Enough to stop a couple someones, then,” Susan said, unconsciously patting the side of her leg, where she’d strapped a nine-inch combat knife. As a backup weapon, it’d seen more than a little use. “Better than nothing.” 

Lily chewed on her thumbnail, mulling over their other supplies. “Spare tire in the back, two empty gas cans, most of your toolbox. We’ve got an axe head but no axe, a shovel, a couple road flares. Nothing we can sell, unless we start ripping parts off the truck.” 

“All in all, nothing new.”

“It’s good to know where we stand, though. We do have one more problem.”

“What’s that?” 

Lily leaned forward and slapped a button on the dash, killing the music. “If I’ve got to listen to Toby Keith sing about himself one more time, I’m going to chuck this CD out the window.” 

Susan slapped Lily’s hand away and turned the CD player back on. It was an aftermarket installation, one that she’d been skeptical of at the time but welcomed now. Tim McGraw began crooning about his failed marriage, and she said, “My turn to drive, my music. When you drive, Lily, you can put on whatever you want.”

“Liliana,” Lily said again. “And I can’t put on anything else when we haven’t got anything else.”

“There’s the radio,” Susan suggested.

“Yeah, right,” Lily said, hand darting forward to press another button before Susan could slap her hand away again. The radio began scanning for FM channels, each one echoing with a slight variation of white noise and static. 

Pursing her lips and sighing, Susan returned to the CD once again. The music hesitated as the player clicked, remembering its place and resuming the last song. 

“And you know the AM sounds exactly the same,” Lily complained. “We’ve got exactly one CD, and it’s got exactly zero good songs.” 

“Well, I like it, so you can suck an egg.” Susan regretted the comment quickly. Lily could always coax childish taunts out of her, bring her down to the girl’s level, and it always made her feel the fool afterwards. 

“God, I’d kill for an egg right now,” Lily said, jumping the conversation to a completely new track before Susan could start brooding. “Or anything that has a shelf life not measured in decades.” 

Susan squinted into the night, then pointed. “You see that light?” 

“Where?” Lily asked, leaning forward, trying to see what she was pointing at. 

“Behind that rise, I don’t think you can see it now. We’ll come over a ledge in just a sec, keep an eye out.” 

The road tilted up, creating what could generously be called a low hill. “See it!” Lily exclaimed. “Gas station?” 

“Truck stop, if we’re lucky,” Susan replied. “We’ll check it out. Keep an eye out, it could be a trap.” 

They rolled forward in silence. Lily checked her gun twice during the three minutes it took to approach the station, nervously sipping on her water every few moments until the bottle was empty.

The exit sign had been knocked down, and Susan almost missed the off ramp until it was too late. Swerving, she hit the brakes and controlled their turn off the highway. 

“Jesus!” Lily shouted, grabbing the door as she was thrown into her seatbelt. “A little warning next time?” 

“That was an accident,” Susan pointed out. “If I’d had the time give you a warning, I wouldn’t have done it in the first place.” 

“Right,” Lily grumbled, sitting back as they turned right, pulling into the truck stop’s parking lot. 

At the very least, it was well lit. A wave of fog had rolled in, shrouding the outside landscape, but they could see the station itself with ease. The flickering incandescent bulbs kept all eight pumps in stark display. Susan pulled over to a green diesel pump, only remembering to turn off her high beams after accidentally flashing a semi truck parked off to the side and receiving an angry honk in response. 

“We’re not the only ones here.” Lily eyed the semi warily. “Think it’s safe?” 

“I think we don’t have a choice,” Susan replied, shifting to neutral, pulling the parking brake, and finally unbuckling. The music died as she turned off the truck and took her keys, twirling them in her left hand before sticking them in a pocket. The flourish was difficult considering her pinkie and ring fingers were in a makeshift splint, but she managed. “Check and see if the pump takes card. We might get lucky.” 

Lily thumbed the lock on the door, patted her pocket to ensure his pistol was still there, and swung out into the chill air. 

“It’s cold out,” she said, zipping up his jacket.

“Noted.” Susan pocketed her keys and turned to dig out her own jacket from the pile in the backseat. 

Lily walked up to the pump, fishing her wallet out from her jeans pocket, flipping it open, and retrieving a black credit card. On the pump, blue tape had been stuck over the card slot with the words, ‘CARD NOT WORKING’ written in black sharpie. She ripped away the tape, stuck her card into the slot, and waited patiently while the display on the pump processed.

A few seconds passed, then it read, ‘Error: See attendant.’ 

“No luck,” she said, sticking the card back in her wallet. 

“Figures,” Susan said, hopping down onto the pavement. “Let’s see if they can help us inside.” 

Lily nodded, looking over at the semi truck. “Is the truck locked?” 

Susan fished the keys out of her pocket, walked back to the door, and locked it manually. “It is now.” 

They crossed to the truck stop’s entrance quickly, eyes peeled for any danger. Nothing came, and the door was unlocked, so she held it open and let Lily cross inside first. 

The interior of the truck stop smelled like cigarette smoke and dog piss. Susan stepped in a puddle of something as she walked in. Looking down, she saw a yellow puddle right in the doorway.

“Gross,” Lily commented, looking down at the sound of the splash. “Doesn’t this place have a bathroom?” 

From behind a laminated sheet of glass and fencing, a man blew out a cloud of smoke and stubbed out the remains of his cigarette, discarding the butt in an ash tray. “Some dickhead brought his mutt in here,” he explained, already lighting a new one. “Told him to get it out, thing wasn’t trained for shit. Pissed all over the place before he finally left.” 

“And you don’t have a mop?” Lily asked, eyeing the man. He was short and fat, with an unkempt beard and grease marks all over his blue T shirt, matching the stains on his teeth and on the counter he was leaning against. He was a dirty man, and he blended in well with the dirty truck stop. 

“Got to attend to the register,” he said, holding up a book of crossword puzzles to emphasize his point. 

“Right,” Lily said, skeptically, as she looked at the ground and watched her step, making sure there was nothing else unsavory to step in between her and the counter. The stop was lit by cheap fluorescent lights, the kind that buzzed and flickered in time with each other, making her head hurt as she leaned forward.

“Can I get some help? The card reader outside didn’t work.”

“‘Cause they’re broken. Can’t you read, girl?” 

Susan turned away from their conversation, shaking droplets off her boot and scanning the aisles. There were a couple rows of snacks, a shelf of car repair supplies, a rotating display of over-designed knives with iridescent handles, kept behind a locked pane of glass. Old tortilla chips sat in a basket next to a bubbling pot of nacho cheese with a dark orange film slowly solidifying on top, untouched by any outside influences for what looked to be days.

She started scanning the snack aisles, looking for the best combination of calories to price, seeing if it would be possible to make a few meals for two people without spending much money. A loaf of white bread and a jar of peanut butter would have kept them going for a couple days, but she didn’t see any groceries. Their best bet was going to be snack cakes and beef jerky, with candy to taste. 

Susan longed for something with a few vitamins in it, but their first priority was having the energy to keep driving. Everything else was secondary to that. A healthy protein bar was twice the cost of a Snickers, and the Snickers had more calories. It was a no brainer. 

Of course, all that was moot if Lily’s card was declined. She looked over to see the girl arguing with the cashier, who was staring back impassively, blowing smoke into Lily’s face from behind his grate.

Setting down her handful of snacks, Susan walked over to the counter, placing a firm hand on Lily’s shoulder. She stopped and nearly whirled on Susan, but Susan spoke quickly so she wouldn’t panic at the intrusion on her personal space. 

“What’s the problem?” 

“Card reader’s down,” the attendant explained, sounding bored. 

“Do you have any checks we could fill out?” Susan asked. 

“We only cash local checks.”

Lily threw up her hands. “Local? Who’s that, you and the trucker?” 

“Girl, whinin’s not gonna change our policy,” the attendant said, calmly clicking his pen and noting down a word in his crossword. “G-A-U-R-D. Guard.” 

“You’ve got that backwards,” Susan said, pointing. “It’s ‘U-A.’”

“I think I know what I’m doin’,” the attendant replied. “Anyways, either get cash or get out. Not my problem which you pick.” 

Lily flipped her middle finger at the man, who looked up for just long enough to roll his eyes before taking a drag and returning to his puzzle. Bitterly, Lily trudged outside, skirting the yellow puddle on the floor. 

“Well that’s a crock of shit,” Lily exclaimed, once the door shut behind them. “What are we going to do?” 

“Get six dollars of gas, hope the next station is close,” Susan said. “It’s that, or wait for someone to come through here that’s feeling charitable.” 

“Fat chance,” Lily said, stalking back to the car. “How much cash do you think he has in that register?” 

No.” Susan stopped, keeping her keys in her pocket. “We’re not doing that.” 

“Why not?” Lily asked, trying the truck handle. It resisted, still locked. “Open the door.” 

“We’re not doing that because I said so,” Susan insisted. “If you go in there and pull a two-one-one to take what you want, you don’t get to ride in my truck.” 

Lily threw up her arms, facing Susan. “It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve had to fight someone to survive. We don’t even have to worry about cops coming after us, so why—”

“We only do that when we don’t have a choice,” Susan said, gritting her teeth. “When they don’t leave us a choice.” 

“Do we have a choice here?” Lily asked. “It’s starve here, starve on the road, or pray we come across the first friendly soul we’ve ever seen out here.” 

“Besides me.” 

“Besides you.” 

Susan shook her head. “If you don’t want to go, we don’t go, but we’re not going to rob anyone. The law doesn’t go away just because there’s nobody around to enforce it.”

“That’s bullshit,” Lily glowered. Sticking her hand into her pocket, she pulled out the revolver.

Stepping back, Susan raised her hands. “Woah there, wait a minute. We don’t—”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, I’m not going to shoot you.” Lily pushed out the cylinder, crossing to her side and pointing at the three empty chambers. “You see that?” 

“You’ve got three rounds left,” Susan agreed. “What’s your point?” 

“You remember how we used the other three?”

Susan sucked in an angry breath between her teeth. “Yes, but—”

“Can you name anything recently that’s gone our way without some kind of bloodshed? Without a fight? Without breaking some kind of law?” 

“No, but we’ve never been instigators, and—”

“That’s how it works out here!” Lily shoved the gun back into her jacket pocket, running her fingers through her unkempt hair. “We don’t get to be the nice guys. The good guys. We don’t get to avoid the fight because it looks dangerous, or mean, or nasty.”

“Fine, but—”

“And besides that, we…” Lily trailed off, facing Susan with a puzzled expression. “What?”

“I said fine,” Susan repeated, gritting her teeth as she added, “You’re right. But we’re not just going to shoot him up.”

“So, what, I hold him at gunpoint while you fill the tank and get a sack full of food?” Lily asked. 

“Something like that, yeah,” Susan agreed. 

“Fine.” Lily looked off her guard, unsure to react now that she’d won the argument. “So…”

“So, I’ll get our cash, and we’ll act like we’re getting some food to buy. You’ll go to the cash register, say you want six bucks in gas, and stick the gun through the window while he’s reaching for the register.” Susan explained. 

“Huh?” 

“You keep him pinned down, make him give you the cash and start the pumps,” Susan explained. “I’ll make sure the pump works and grab all the food I can, you just have to keep him in place.” 

“You’ve planned this out an awful lot.”

Susan pursed her lips. “Isn’t it all just obvious?”  

Lily looked at her gun again, then proffered it out to Susan. “You should do it, it’s your plan.”

“I don’t want to do this in the first place,” Susan said, rejecting the offer. “Besides…frankly, you look a lot more harmless than me. Act cool and you’ll be less suspicious.” 

Lily grumbled and turned, pushing her way back into the truck stop, skirting the puddle once again. Susan trailed behind the girl, and together they endured an uncomfortable stare from the cashier while they walked to the snack aisle. 

“Shit,” Lily whispered, once they were in the aisle. “Did you see that look? He knows we’re up to something.” 

“He’s just a grumpy bastard,” Susan whispered back. “We’re fine, don’t worry about it.” 

Taking two candy bars, Lily walked up from the aisle, approaching the cashier. Susan wasn’t sure if the girl’s hands were shaking, or if just seemed that way from the flickering lights, but either way Lily visibly stopped and took a breath to calm herself down.

Shit, Susan thought. He’s definitely going to know something is up now.

“I’ll get these,” Lily said, tossing down the two candy bars and looking around the little storefront nervously.  “How much?”

The attendant reached forward under the grate and took one of the bars, examining it for a moment before sliding it under a scanner, only glancing away from Lily for long enough to read the scanner’s display. “Two dollars even. Anything else?” 

“Yeah.” Liliana stuck her hand in her pocket, grip tightening on the little revolver. Please work. Please work.

“Give me all the money in the register!” 

Liliana froze, surprised to hear a gruff, unfamiliar voice steal the words from her lips.

To her right, a distinct, rumbling growl echoed into the truck stop, loud enough that Liliana could no longer hear the whine from the lights.

Then, the mechanical Cha-chunk of a slide action shotgun echoed in her ears, and even the growl seemed a small problem by comparison. 

Liliana looked towards the door, and then staggered back as she saw the trucker standing in the doorway. He was huge. At least six feet tall, and built like a brick shithouse and holding a shotgun that had been cut down nearly to stock. His elastic-banded ball cap strained to stay on his head, and the leather jacket he wore looked thick enough to qualify as some kind of medieval armor. 

At his feet, a similarly built black mastiff was snarling angrily, all its teeth showing in a fierce display. It seemed almost cartoonish in its proportions, huge fangs and massive limbs on an emaciated frame, patches of matted fur and raw, red skin where someone had apparently shaved the dog clean with a rusty kitchen knife. 

In other circumstances, Liliana might have pitied the creature, but at the moment she couldn’t think of it as anything other than a monster that was hungry for her blood. It was looking at her, specifically, as though she had done something to personally offend the huge hound and it wanted revenge. 

She stepped back, not wanting to get involved. If anything, she was hoping that the big man would knock out the cashier and leave, leaving the store open to looting. Liliana felt that the she deserved a lucky turn after so long getting the short end of the stick. 

“You, kid,” the man growled, boots splashing in the puddle as he strolled inside. “That your truck outside?” 

“Not mine,” Liliana said, stepping back, feeling her shoulders press up against the glass display behind her. Jamming a thumb down the aisle at Susan, she said, “Hers.” 

The man’s gun whipped around, leveled at Susan’s chest. “Keys. It got gas?” 

“Thanks,” Susan muttered at Liliana, putting her hand on her pocket. “Got the keys right here, but the tank’s empty.”

“Toss ‘em over, then,” the trucker grumbled. “Gentle, like.” 

Susan nodded. “Nobody’s got to get hurt here. I’m taking them out, now, so don’t shoot.” 

The trucker grunted, hand on the stock. Liliana was ready to move, to run at the first sign of trouble, but the big dog still in the doorway was going to make any flight difficult. 

Hands slowly drawing from her pocket, Susan took out her keys, holding up the ring and flashing them in the shitty fluorescent light. Lowering her hand, she made a little lobbing motion, preparing a gentle toss. Then she flung the metal ring underhanded, straight at the trucker’s face. 

The trucker swore as one of the keys caught him in the eye, squeezing down on the trigger of his shotgun. The blast made Liliana’s ears ring in the confined space, muting out the buzz and growl of her surroundings entirely as her ears tried to adjust to the sudden thunderclap. 

Then, Susan was beside her, kicking hard against the food display. It tumbled forward, sloshing hot cheese and landing against the trucker’s leg as he tried to chamber a new round in his gun. The next moment, Susan was brandishing a tiny canister of pepper spray that Lily didn’t even know she had. 

Thumbing the top, Susan unloaded the spray directly into the trucker’s eyes. 

Liliana was busy digging the gun from her pocket as the trucker roared, raising one arm to shield his eyes, flailing the other out in Susan’s direction, using the stock of his shotgun like a club. By then, the dog had reacted, leaping in from where it had stood at the doorway, charging to defend its master.

Flicking away the safety, Liliana barely aimed before pulling the trigger, gun popping as it fired a small round into the dog. The shot struck home and the mastiff yelped, claws scraping at the tile floor as it reacted to the surprise wound. 

Ignoring the scarcity of rounds for a moment, Liliana pulled the trigger again, and then a third time, all three shots landing square on the target. The beast twitched two more times, recovered, and rounded its snarl to point at her.

“Oh, shi—” she had time to start, before the dog had leapt at her, jaws snapping angrily. Liliana managed to get her arms between herself and the mastiff’s huge teeth, but that only meant that its teeth were dug into the meat of her arm, not of the meat of her throat.

Susan ducked under the trucker’s arm, taking advantage of his pain and rage to get behind him and grab at his neck, trying to establish a locking hold. The huge trucker had her beat on size and muscle, and she expected any solid hits from his flailing fists would be enough to end the fight, but as long as he was blind she had a chance. 

Getting both arms over the trucker, Susan grabbed her own wrist and pulled back, getting her arm flat against his throat and cutting off the circulation. She grinned fiercely, right up until the back of his head smashed into her face, followed by a wild elbow struck her in the side. The blows hit like a sledgehammer, and her grip suddenly vanished as a shock went through her side. She fell, crashing into a shelf of chips that was, in turn, thrown back, sending both her and the chips into a roll. 

Wiping the blood from her mouth, Susan went for her knife. 

Liliana, meanwhile, was kicking and flailing against the huge dog snarling at her person. There was blood spilling from her arm, and no matter how hard she hit, the beast only seemed interested in clamping down, holding steady, and scraping with its claws just in case the biting wasn’t bad enough.

At least her ears were no longer ringing from gunfire, but now all she could hear were her own cries of pain as the dog’s bite dug harder down, nearly cutting to the bone. She tried to punch the mastiff in the snout, but if the dog had shrugged off his bullets quickly, it didn’t seem to even notice the fists. 

Scrabbling at the floor with her feet, Liliana tried to grab with her free arm for anything that could help. There wasn’t much around that would help. She found a snack bar and threw it at the dog’s face, but it seemed to barely notice, so Lily reached out again, hand slapping against a tall glass case.

It would have to do. Yanking hard, she brought the shelf crashing down directly atop her own person, making sure to at least get her head out of the way. It toppled and slammed onto the mastiff, and then the combined weight of the dog and the shelf were both pressed against Liliana’s chest, adding to the pains racking her body. 

Only then did the glass shatter, tiny crystal shards making cuts across her face and hands as dozens of cheap, decorative knives were scattered across the floor.

The dog, for its part, got back onto all fours, growling more angrily than ever.

Liliana grimaced, picking up one of the knives and scrambling to her feet before the hound could charge again. “You have got to be kidding me.” 

Susan’s own blade was a bit more heavy-duty, four and a half inches of high carbon steel that had never let her down before. The trucker had spun to face her and was holding his shotgun by the stock, squinting through red, puffy eyelids. 

As Susan tried to decide how to proceed, he made the decision for her, shouldering the gun and aiming it loosely in her direction. She cried out and jumped forward, grabbing the barrel and jamming it sideways, feeling sudden heat as the gun roared and fired into a gallon of anti-freeze stacked against the wall. 

The trucker wrenched away the gun and swung it at her head, but Susan managed to duck and lunge even closer in, stabbing with her knife as hard as she could. The blade pierced leather, then cotton, and then finally contacted with flesh and cut into the trucker’s chest, too far from his heart to be instantly fatal, but enough to give him something to think about. 

Liliana held out her knife and tried to keep the hound at bay, crouched low and ready to scramble away should the dog actually lunge. It was angry and injured, but still wary enough to know that leaping straight into a blade wouldn’t be a good idea, even if that blade was three inches long and unnecessarily wide and dull. The knife was built for form more than function, but it could stab, and the dog understood that. It circled, and Liliana spun on unsteady feet, ensuring that neither could gain the advantage. 

The roar of the shotgun made Liliana wince away, and given that split-second hesitation, the mastiff jumped in with jaws snapping. Liliana jabbed out the knife in response, but she was too slow to land a solid blow. The dog knocked aside the attack and bit at her hand, and in response Liliana dropped the knife and ran backwards, struggling to stay upright while running on the cheap, sticky tile. 

Claws scratching on the ground, the dog charged at her, and as she passed the end of the aisle, she lunged to the side just in time for the beast to slam into the refrigerator door behind her, shattering the glass and knocking down a shower of plastic soda bottles. The dog shook its head, turned, and charged again. 

This time, Liliana was prepared. Her knife was tiny and cheap, but it was the best defense she had. As the huge, rawboned creature leapt at her, she jammed the knife out, striking somewhere around the dog’s ribcage. The blade sunk all the way to the hilt, all three inches of cheap steel lodged in deep enough that Liliana couldn’t pull it out for a second blow. 

If it hurt, though, the dog barely seemed to care. Snarling, it took her to the ground, gnashing at her throat for all it was worth. 

Susan wasn’t quick enough to dodge the trucker’s huge, flailing fists and took a blow to the head, the heavy thud strong enough to make her dizzy and release the handle of her knife. She staggered away, and he did as well, both needing a moment to recover before continuing the brawl. 

She stepped back, giving herself space. If he was going to charge, she wanted room to react. Of course, if he tried to shoot, she’d be farther away and have to close the distance faster, but one way or another she would be screwed, so she trusted her gut to decide which way to go. 

The trucker did as she’d hoped and charged, wet boots planting right in the puddle of sloshing antifreeze. His boots had rubberized slip-resistant soles, but as top-heavy as he was, the unexpected fluid was enough to make him stagger, and Susan was happy to take advantage of his momentary weakness. 

She kicked at the trucker’s knee and grabbed for his gun with both arms, sending the big man toppling to the ground. He flailed to try and catch something, and that gave her all the leverage she needed to pry away the gun, spinning it around so that the barrel was pointed right at the trucker’s head.

Taking one short breath to aim, Susan pulled the trigger.

It clicked, and the ejection port caught halfway with a new shell before the old could be released. 

She only had time to yell “Fuck!” before the trucker had grabbed her ankles and pulled, bringing her down to his level. 

Landing on her back, Susan had no time to be stunned. The trucker was clawing his way towards her, reaching for the gun, getting into a position where he could just throw down punches and elbows until she stopped moving. 

Taking the shotgun by its short barrel, Susan swung as hard as she could from her prone position, hitting the trucker in the face with a satisfying cracking sound. He flinched, and in that time, Susan raised the gun again, bringing it down once more, cracking the stock as it split open his scalp. He roared, and she swung again, shattering the plastic stock against his head. 

He stopped clutching at her, and Susan kicked her feet and pushed with her hands to clamber away, grabbing at one of the standing shelves to pull herself up. 

The trucker groaned, rolling onto his back and feeling for the knife in his chest. Not wanting to stick around and see what he’d do with it, Susan skirted around him and ran for the exit.

Liliana was focused on the fangs about to dig into her throat, but wasn’t so distracted that she didn’t see Susan go. “Susan?” she shouted, eyes wide in alarm. “Susan! Fuck, I could use some help here!” 

The mastiff barked in her face, something that seemed almost as loud as the shotgun blasts, and she tried again to ineffectually shove it back. The knife was still stuck in its chest, and Liliana had no leverage to pull it out with her one good arm. If she tried to get a good handle and yank it out, but in the moment she did that, there would be nothing covering her throat. If that happened, she’d be too busy dying to strike back. 

Kicking with her legs, she tried to get at anything that might help. Maybe she could knock over another shelf, cause a distraction. Maybe the gas station attendant would finally get off his ass and help, for that matter. 

No such luck. Liliana’s flailing legs found nothing but slick tile and cheap, scattered knives that she was too far away to grab.

She jerked away, trying to put more distance between herself and the dog, but her head was already pressed against tile and when she tried to move, shards of broken glass just found their way into the back of her neck and scalp. She had nowhere to go, no way to escape, no— 

BOOM.

Gunfire rang in her ears for the fourth time in a minute, and the dog was thrown to the side, falling off of her with a loud whimper. 

Lily wasn’t about to take chanced. Spinning onto her side and reaching out with her good arm, Lily took a knife from the floor, flicked it open, and brought it down hard somewhere in the black dog’s neck. Spraying blood covered Lily’s face and arms, and she rolled away, staggering to her feet and looking around.

Susan was standing in the doorway, their trusty double barrel held in a tight shooter’s grip. She lowered the weapon long enough to make sure that the dog wasn’t moving, then turned, pointing it down at the trucker. 

She didn’t have any quips, she just pulled the trigger and put an ounce of buckshot between his eyes. The trucker’s body twitched once, then lay still. 

“Jesus!” Lily screamed, leaning back against the counter. “Jesus fucking fuck.” 

Susan looked at her, pulled the lever to fold open the gun, and smoothly reloaded. “You okay?”

“I—” Lily stopped, thinking about the question. She was, mostly. “Dog tore open my arm pretty bad, got some cuts, I’ll be fine.” 

“Good,” Susan said, looking over to the station attendant. The squat man had been cowering behind the counter, and only then stood to face them. “Any chance you’ll take a check now?

The attendant looked at her, then around the store, then shook his head. “You trashed my store! I’ve got half a mind to kick you out for good.”

Lily threw up her arm. “Are you fucking kidding me? We just saved your ass, and now—”

“Lily,” Susan cut her off with a word. “First aid in the back of the truck. Go get yourself fixed up.” 

“But—” Lily spluttered. “He—”

“I’ve got this,” Susan said, crouching by the trucker’s body and yanking her knife from his chest, wiping the blood off on his pants. 

Liliana grumbled and stalked out to the truck, feeling the blood on her face quickly cool in the night air. She crossed his arms in front of his chest, trudging to the truck, dropping the tailgate and pulling out their first aid kit.

Their first kit had started out as a basic set of emergency gear, but it had ballooned in size since they realized how important it was going to be. It now took up an entire utility-sized tackle box, stuffed to the gills with bandages, stitches, superglue, and anything else they could pillage. 

She slipped off her jacket, then paused, gritting her teeth. “Okay, just do it,” Liliana told herself, before yanking her shirt over her head. The night wasn’t below freezing, but without a shirt it was cold, and rubbing an alcoholic wipe over the bite marks on her arm made it flare up with stinging pain. 

“Dammit, dammit, dammit,” she chanted in annoyance, wiping away the blood and tossing the expended wipe on the ground, fishing in the kit for an antibiotic cream. 

Once the wound was clean and she’d done what she could to stop infection, Liliana stuck an adhesive patch over her arm, then walked to the side of the truck to get a new shirt from their pile. Before she could get the door open, she heard footsteps and spun in alarm.

Susan was holding up an old, ratty blanket, offering it to her. It was covered in dog hair, but looked pretty warm, and she accepted it gratefully.

“Where’d you get this?” Liliana asked, shivering as she pulled the blanket over her shoulders like a cape. 

“Trucker had his keys on him,” Susan explained, holding up a bulging leather rectangle in her hand. “And this has two hundred bucks in cash.”

“Nice,” Liliana said, leaning against the truck. “Get his gun?” 

“Broken, but it’s a twelve gauge, and he had half a box of shells left.” 

“Not a bad stop, then.” Liliana winced, putting a hand to her arm. 

“I’ll go get us food and gas, and I’ll drive the next round,” Susan offered. “That bite looked pretty nasty.” 

“It’s not bad, just—” Liliana started to move her arm to demonstrate that it wasn’t too bad, then winced and shook his head. “Okay, yeah, it’s pretty bad. I can drive fine, though. You should rest.” 

Susan shrugged, sticking a hand into her jacket. “One more thing.”

“What’s that?” Liliana asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Cash wasn’t the only thing he had in that truck.” Susan pulled her hand free, displaying what she’d taken.

“Fuckin A!” Liliana said, grabbing the object enthusiastically. “Oh, I am definitely driving next.” 

“Get a shirt on, then,” Susan said. “We need to get back on the road.” 

Ten minutes later, they were cruising down the highway once again, blasting Down with the Sickness as loud as Susan could tolerate, the trucker’s CD collection getting put to good use. 

Though neither of them noticed, as the music player changed tracks, they passed a milestone. It had been six thousand miles since they started driving together. 

They hadn’t seen the sun in five days. 

They kept driving. 

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