If there was one thing that could be said to be true about Charlie Madison, it was that she genuinely did not want to be out on the side of the road that Friday night. If she had had her way, she would have been just about anywhere else. Her own bed for preference, if we’re going to get down to it. But instead, she was walking on the roadside well past the sunset and well into the shadows. She drummed her fingers on her thigh as she stopped to study the highway. It wasn’t much of one, really, just an old 2 lane that fancied itself to be an interstate. She reached for the cell phone stuck in her back pocket and stared at it in confusion. Why was the screen cracked? When had that happened? She wasn’t sure. Shaking her head to try and clear the cobwebs, she tried to turn her phone on anyway. Maybe someone could come pick her up? She stopped, looking around. Something was wrong. Where was her car? The more she tried to think, the more it was like trying to think through television snow. Nothing but static and noise and the idea that maybe somewhere behind all of it was a picture that made sense. Lights surged around the corner and Charlie looked up, shielding her eyes with her arm. It was a car but she couldn’t make out what kind. Something on the smaller side. A four-door or maybe a hatchback? Certainly not a truck. She couldn’t make out the silhouette, just the lights and the general idea of ‘car’. With a silent prayer, Charlie stepped out and tried to flag the car down. Maybe she could get help, maybe she could go home. But there was no going home for Charlie Madison. The car shot through her and she screamed. For a moment, the world went white and then she was standing by the side of the road once more, just as lost and disoriented as she’d been before.
Alan only barely saw the woman standing at the side of the road. The night was dark and she had almost become just another shadow. He pulled over and rolled his window down, smiling at her brightly.
“Hey there. Everything alright?”
She looked at him with tearstained eyes, expression uncertain. Then a tentative smile wavered onto her lips.
“I just need a lift to the next rest stop. My… I got left here.”
Alan nodded slowly and leaned over to open the door.
“Hop in and I’ll get you there.”
She slid onto the passenger’s seat and slammed the door.
“Thanks.” Her voice was soft and she looked down again. “I’m Jessie.”
And off they drove. She huddled in her seat, rubbing her arms and trying to warm herself. Every so often, Alan would glance over at her. Finally, he looked and she met his eyes steadily.
“You keep doing that.”
He laughed, just a touch of a blush coming to his cheeks.
“Sorry. I just…” He smiled, clearly embarrassed. “This might sound silly, but I thought you might be a ghost.”
Jessie blinked and her eyes went wide. Then she started laughing. He leaned over and turned the heat up then, giving her a smile.
“We should be there in a few minutes.”
A few minutes later, they did pull into the rest stop and Jessie got out of the car.
“Thank you so much.”
She turned to shut the door and thank Alan, only to find that the car was gone. Looking around, she tried to find him again. She thought she would recognize that car anywhere, but it was nowhere to be seen.
The dark haired boy turned back over his shoulder, looking at the other two who had come with him. Milla stood with her shovel still in the gravel by the old stump, Vesper stood beside her with his thumb in his mouth.
“Titus, you need to come look at this.”
Milla was shaking, her eyes huge in her small face. Titus jogged over, his curls bouncing as he joined her by the stump.
“What? Something wrong? You know we need to get this stuff back home before nightfall.”
“I…I know. But, I heard something.”
Vesper looked up at both of them, his dirty face solemn.
“It said ow.”
Vesper clutched Milla’s pant-leg as a sound come from under the heap of gravel again. Titus knelt, looking all around the stump.
“Could be anything…”
That was what he said. Inside, though, he was remembering the stories he’d been told all his life. About the war that had ended war, about how they’d all had to go under the earth to survive when death rained down from the sky. He adjusted his gloves and gave the stump a push. How far down were the homes under the ground?
“What did it sound like, Milla?”
“Like a person,” she hissed. “Titus, I think we need to go.”
He tugged at the shovel, trying to prize it from her hands.
“If you’re going to be a coward, then let me dig. You can go gather nuts.”
She grabbed it fiercely, refusing to hand it over. Then she jammed it into the ground again and they heard another cry of pain.
“See, Titus? Do you see now?”
He frowned and Vesper looked like he was going to cry. Vesper cried a lot. Milla had moved the shovel once more, trying to dig around the stump.
“There can’t be anyone in the ground, right Titus?”
Vesper’s voice was soft. For a long moment, Titus just watched Milla dig in silence. Then he scooped Vesper up and balanced the little boy on his hip.
“We don’t know. We won’t know until your sister finishes digging. So how about we let her, alright?”
It seemed like ages before Milla made a sound that wasn’t a grunt of exertion. The sudden scream tore out of her throat before she could stop it and Titus scanned the horizon in alarm. No movement. Milla had both hands over her mouth now. Vesper tried to fight to see past Titus but the older boy blocked his vision.
“Get Vesper out of here. Now.”
“Milla? What’s going on?”
“Just go, Titus! Now!”
Her voice pitched upward with more than a bit of fear and Titus looked at her. She was shaking from head to toe, her eyes wide and her breathing coming fast. Titus didn’t question her words, he just ran.
Milla looked into the shallow grave by the stump. That was what it was, wasn’t it? A grave. Only the poor wretch wasn’t dead. She knelt and offered her hands to the woman. She was broken and battered, her eyes blacked and her arm twisted unnaturally. Whoever she was, she was covered in dirt and looked like she hadn’t seen food or water in far too long. Coughing, she let Milla pull her out.
The woman turned her ashen face to look at Milla and said nothing. Then she looked at the horizon.
“They will come back.”
Milla felt like her blood had turned to ice in her veins. ‘They’ could only be one thing around here and there was nothing that could be worse, especially not for her.
“Come on, we have a camp near here. We can help you.”
The woman’s eyes seemed to look through Milla, beyond her body, and into her soul.
“There was no help for me. There is no help for me. There will be no help for you.”
Before she could question what that meant, Milla heard the sound of engines.
“No. No. No. No. No.”
The simple word became a chant on her lips as she turned and ran. She ran as hard and as fast as she could. She could also hear the woman laughing.
“No help for you, girl. No help.”
Milla tore through the desert scrubland headed away from her band’s camp. She couldn’t return to them. Not with them on her heels. She glanced back and saw the green. There was no question then, it was them. Another vehicle came screaming out from the side, some little fast thing on two wheels. She screamed, dropping and hoped they would think she was dead. The thing skidded to a halt and the rider jumped off, pulling a helmet off to reveal a woman of middle years with her hair up in a tight bun.
“Damn it all to hell. Are you alright, girl?”
She knelt beside Milla, checking her for a pulse. Then she passed a little black box that fit in the palm over her hand over Milla’s body and glanced at it.
“She’s got a pulse and low rad numbers!”
She shouted those words to two men who had jumped out of one of the larger four-wheeled vehicles. With a nod, she began to direct the others and moved to help Milla to her feet. The girl was shaking again, fear overwhelming her.
“Please…please don’t…don’t hurt me.”
The woman looked confused and then sighed.
“Escher, Lincoln, grab a ration tray and a canteen for our new friend here. Girl, I’m Sargent Tycho and this is my unit. We’re friends, alright?”
Milla shook her head frantically.
“You’re the bad people. I know you are. My…my parents always said, only bad things come from the people on wheels.”
Escher and Lincoln returned, holding the requested supplies and then some. They offered a blanket and a first aid kit, even a small block of something dark and sweet that Milla had never seen before. But they exchanged worried glances with Tycho.
“Must be raiders in the area…”
“Explains the tracks we saw.”
Milla ate and drank what they gave her warily, watching them constantly from where they’d sat her on the back of one of the vehicles. Why weren’t they hurting her? Why hadn’t they done to her what they’d obviously done to the woman she and Titus and Vesper had found. She looked up, startled again. Had Titus gotten Vesper away? The camp would move soon if they knew the wheel riders were in the area again.
“The old woman.”
She blurted it out and then stopped, cutting herself off.
Again, the strangers exchanged that confused glance.
Tycho beckoned for Milla to explain, concern in her eyes.
“The…the woman. We found her buried, over there.” She pointed past her, regretting saying we and hoping they wouldn’t notice. “She wasn’t dead.”
Escher swore so harshly that Milla was honestly impressed. She’d thought her Grand’ther swore the best she’d ever heard, but this was just amazing. Blew him right out of the water.
“It’s the raiders again, Sarge. Has to be.”
Tycho pulled her helmet back on.
“Lincoln, new orders. Get this girl back to base on the double. Get her safe and settled. Escher, pull everyone in. We’re going hunting.”
Milla looked back as the desert she’d grown up in was lost to distance, wondering if she would ever see it again, ever see her band again. Lincoln was talking quite cheerfully, telling her about their base and how they had clean water and good food. He talked about how they were building the world again and how their leader had a vision of the future. She didn’t really listen. She would see soon enough if it was real. Maybe then, maybe she would ask if she could find the others and bring them. Until then, she was alone.
They called her Birdy, but the cops on her trail sure weren’t cats. She grabbed the wheel, wrenching it to the side as she slammed the pedal into the floor so hard she was half convinced the damn thing was going to break. She could still hear the sirens somewhere behind her, but they didn’t matter. Just a little further and she’d hit the county line and the old bridge. And her boys were there, ready and waiting with their gats and a neat little kit to lift the bridge clear off its stands once she was past it. With a glance in the back, she smiled at the young woman huddled there holding her baby tight.
“We’re almost clear. That piece of trash ain’t gonna ever find either of you.”
The woman didn’t respond at first, then her eyes widened.
Birdy’s eyes were back on the road and she swore. How had they managed to get the paddy wagon into the road ahead of her? She slammed on the breaks, turning the wheel hard and dropping gears all at once. The old Dodge was used to such maneuvers, especially since she’d souped-up the engine herself. They skidded right, into a cornfield.
“Keep your head down. We’re still alright. Promise.”
She could see the river. It was far, but she could cut it. The real question was how to get up the embankment on the side of the field. She looked at it and then back at the woman in the backseat. There was really only one thing she could choose to do, being completely honest with herself. Only one path forward. She pulled her trusty derringer out from between the front seats, just in case, and drove hard for the embankment.
“Run for the bridge. My boys know the drill and they’ll keep you safe. Got it?”
“What about you?”
Birdy took a breath, glad she’d long ago learned to control her emotions when she was on a job. It wouldn’t do for the nervous shakes to come on her while she was behind the wheel.
“I’ll be fine. You get yourself and that boy of yours clear and safe.”
She came to a hard stop as close to the embankment as she dare get. The woman hesitated for a moment.
“Go, dammit! You don’t got time.”
And the woman and her baby were gone, running hard for the bridge and the safety of Birdy’s boys. Birdy herself turned her Dodge back the way she’d come and started gaining speed. Hard and fast, she careened through the field and back onto the road. Finally upshifting to her top gear, she was nearly flying. She let the ecstasy of adrenaline claim her. Birdy could see the patrol cars ahead racing towards her. Would they turn? Would they stop? She heard the snap-bang and saw the spidering crack in her windshield. They were shooting at her. Of course, they were shooting at her. She couldn’t lean out to get a shot of her own in, she had to just drive. Another snap-bang and a searing pain shot through her left shoulder. She clung to the wheel for all she was worth, letting her derringer fall to the floor. At the last second, the patrol cars veered. She tore off down the road, scrambling for a rag to stop the bleeding. She knew she had to stop the bleeding.
Birdy rolled up to the old farmhouse, nearly falling over the steering wheel as she finally came to a stop. An older woman in a gingham dress came running, a dish towel still in hand.
Birdy smiled weakly, leaning on the side of the car for support as she got out.
“Got her safe, Mama…”
Blood blossomed across the front of her white shirt and covered her hands and the rag that she still clung to.
“Her and the baby both. Got her to the lads.”
Birdy took a shaky step towards her mother. The woman closed the distance quickly, holding the dish towel to her daughter’s wound without a thought.
“We have to call the doctor. Jacob!” She shouted for Birdy’s brother. “JACOB!”
“He ain’t here, Mama… He’s at the bridge helping that girl. I’ll-” She hissed in sudden pain. “Gonna be fine, Mama. Just need…to stop…bleeding…”
Catherine, known all around as Bold Birdy, slumped against her mother then. The woman fell slowly to her knees, unable to support the full weight of her daughter, or of her death.