“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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Let’s Talk About Liking Things

Everyone’s a critic. Myself included.

I have a reflexive habit of responding with a lot of negativity towards the media I consume. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily – Being negative is no more inherently a bad quality than being positive is inherently good – but it tends to dominate the conversation. Even coming out of movies or books that I really enjoy, there’s a reflex I feel to hedge that enjoyment by pointing out all the flaws. Whether I do this out of some unconcious, misplaced instinct to be “Fair”, or just because it’s easier for me to see and explain the isolated flaws in a work than to comprehend what made that work good to begin with. I just recently finished playing Hollow Knight, (an excellent Metroidvania that you should absolutely play,) and despite the fact that I enjoyed my time with the game so much that I played it to 107% completion, seeking out every bit of bonus content and every hidden area the game had to offer, when I talked about it with friends I was quick to bring up the isolated moments and small quirks that frustrated me.

This isn’t unique to myself, of course. Go on Youtube and look up video essays or think pieces about movies, you’ll find that most of them aren’t deconstructions of “Good” films, but are instead critical analyses of bad works, and this isn’t even taking into account the deluge of nitpick channels and riff-style comedy shows. (This isn’t a universal rule, of course – Bob Chipman (“Moviebob”) notably has an excellent series called ‘Really That Good’ where he exclusively talks about renowned or otherwise great works.)

Again, I want to stress that this isn’t a bad thing. Deconstructing a bad work of fiction can be incredibly illuminating and educational, not to mention cathartic and satisfying, and if you’ve never seen Lindsay Ellis or Dan Olson do a visceral autopsy or thorough takedown of a bad film, you’re really missing out. A lot of “Riff” humor is genuinely funny. (There’s a reason why Mystery Science Theater ran for twelve seasons and 211 episodes, and it occurs to me that if I keep up with this blog I’ll end up divulging my entire Youtube and Netflix playlists.)

However, even as I add another video to my ‘watch later’ with a title like “A Thorough Deconstruction of ‘Show Dogs’ (2018)”, I feel like there’s a point where too much of a good thing can start to cause problems. I don’t watch movies or read books because I want to see them lambasted, no matter how thoroughly or precisely an author can list all its flaws.

I watch movies because I like them. I read books because I enjoy them. When the chips are down, I like liking things a lot more than I like disliking them.

Criticism and deconstruction are valuable tools, but I don’t want that to be something I make a part of my identity, because as easy as it is for me to complain about a film, that’s not what I want to spend all my time thinking about. There’s a lot of bad stuff going on in the world right now, and I think everyone could use a few more positive thoughts.

So… I’m going to make a stand, sort of. This blog won’t be a negativity-free zone, because like I said at the top, negativity can be important, but I’m going to try to make it a positivity-forward zone. If I’m going to take the time to talk about a subject, I’m going to pick something I like, and I’m not going to pick a subject that’s going to end on a downer note, because plenty of that already exists.

I wish I had a better mission statement or thesis here, but I really don’t. I’m still feeling this out, trying to find my style and my voice on this site, figuring out what I really want to write and who I want to be out here.

But while I’m figuring all that out, I might as well make it something fun.

(Links:

Moviebob (Bob Chipman)

Lindsay Ellis

Folding Ideas (Dan Olson) )

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