James strained his eyes to make out the uneven terrain ahead. There was no moonlight to illuminate the sand, and he was keeping the headlights turned off. The skinny mechanic couldn’t even see the green of his eyes in the rearview mirror.
The pickup truck crawled along the bumpy desert floor at no more than twenty kilometers per hour. James remembered working on this truck more than a few times. This was Victor’s truck. He always had extra sand buildup in the rear axles. Always liked to run the throttle hot too.
In the passenger seat was a teenage girl wearing a black shirt two sizes too big and wild brown hair. If James’ hair grew a hand width longer, their scalps would be nearly identical. Megan cradled her baby just over her seatbelt loop. Her four year old son sat on the seat in the middle, his head lying on her lap.
The young mother had a naturally grating voice, but she kept her tone fairly soft, “Probably a stupid question: what’s wrong?”
He lied, “Nothing.”
Victor died trying to save me. The young man’s slim face and focused eyes were frozen in James’ memory. Victor had promised to let James kill the sniper that had murdered Tsara. I told him Harris’ truck was bulletproof. I even installed the resin windows myself.
Megan spoke up again, “The kids are asleep if you want to vent.”
James tried to maneuver around the topic, “Do you think I can turn on the headlights yet?”
She didn’t skip a beat, “I’d keep them off. At least if they take the time to follow the tire tracks they won’t be able to come straight at us.”
“Yeah, that was good thinking on your part. I was just gonna run the truck in a straight line out of there.”
James could tell from earlier radio conversations that Megan liked to be sarcastic. After an hour’s drive, she finally resumed her dry tone, “Cause that would be so hard to follow.”
He might have smiled any other day, but he just let it go. The stars offered less than a glimmer of illumination, but James was glad to see a horizon again. Feels like I’m not driving into an endless abyss anymore at least.
Megan feigned a cough.
“Do you know where you’re going?”
Not really. “Just an educated guess. I’ve been locked in a trailer since the oasis. No thanks to your… Tate.”
She didn’t sound amused, “Good save. I’m not his, and he ain’t mine. Got it?”
They fell into an awkward silence again. James tapped his thumbs on the steering wheel to a vague rhythm.
Megan sighed, “Do you even know where the north star is?”
James rolled his eyes. I guess she’s spent plenty of time with Deb. “Nope. Would you like to point it out?”
The young mother carefully leaned forward to look out the front. Then she slowly slid back into the seat to look out the back window. “It’s behind your left shoulder.”
James didn’t change course, “Good to know. Can you follow it back to the oasis?”
“They kept me in the back of a trailer too.”
“Thank Ares we know where north is.”
“You don’t have to be a smartass.”
“Neither do you. Can we just try to survive this without trying to piss each other off?”
More awkward silence followed. James was beginning to look forward to their long pauses. Teens. Heavy eye lids began to fall, again and again. Keeping the truck going at walking speed wasn’t helping either.
James couldn’t remember the last time he just stopped to just look at the stars. When he managed to keep his eyes open, the massive net of glowing stellar activity hypnotized him into a quasi-sleep state. “Maybe we should be yelling at each other.”
Megan’s voice seemed to come out of nowhere, “What did you say?”
James’ eyes fluttered open. He cleared his throat a few times, “Sorry, I’m falling asleep over here. Did I say something?”
“You said something… Want to switch?”
James woke up a little more with that, “Uh, haha, I don’t think so.”
“Are you afraid of children?”
“Um, I never held one before. We — I thought about having them before. I just wasn’t sure if I was man enough, you know?”
“I saw you knock a UFO out of the air and gut it like a surfaced graboid. I have a feeling you’re man enough.”
James almost chuckled, “Thanks. What happened to their dad?”
“I killed him the second night he thought he could treat me like a punching bag.”
I guess that’s better than, ‘Deborah killed them.’
“Sorry if that’s, too much. Deborah said you people are a little more civilized than us.”
“Yeah, normally she says we’re just soft, or weak.”
“I wouldn’t mind raising these two in a place like that.”
“Don’t worry, I plan on helping with that.”
Megan sounded doubtful, “Really?”
James stumbled, “Oh, well, as in, I’m going to get you, us, all of us… here… back to Anthill. I don’t really know how to raise… you know. You know.”
“I am overwhelmed with your confidence…”
James glanced over. He wasn’t sure if his eyes were adjusting to the darker interior, or if it was wishful thinking. Megan seemed to be genuinely smiling.
The quiet drive stretched on. James felt the clutches of sleep digging into him again.
Megan interrupted James’ sleep-driving again, “What’s your chief like?”
“Chief? Oh, we don’t have one chief. Our people vote for a group of five leaders. Peacefully. Not like what… most tribes do, I think. Were you, one of those, tribes?”
“If someone wanted to be the leader, they required voters to stand behind them. Then the challenger would fight the chief. They fight until they knock each other down. Each time someone gets knocked down, a voter moves away. Whoever runs out of voters first, loses.” Megan sounded genuinely curious, “Is that peaceful?”
James shrugged, “Yeah, we kinda do it that way. Just less, hitting, more talking.”
“What kind of talking?”
“Like, what our town should do to make sure we don’t ruin our water supply. How many resources we should devote to exploring the sand.”
“Sounds nice. Our chief just tells us which direction we should move and makes up a pecking order.”
“We still have that too. I guess there’s always a food chain.”
“Do you have slaves?”
“No. Did you?”
“Yeah. Ours volunteered, if that makes it any better.”
“Better than the Dust Giants.”
“Wow. Thanks. That’s a real high bar you set there.” Megan seemed to hesitate, “James?”
“What if we’re in the Giants’ territory?”
Then we’ll need a faster car. “Do you think these vamps would set up their home so close to those animals? I mean, we’re still close to this, Manor, right?”
“I didn’t track the distance, I just drove as fast as I could.”
Angelica sniffled, signaling Megan to sigh, “Must be midnight.”
The tiny baby started a soft cry, gradually growing louder and louder. Megan didn’t unbuckle herself as she lifted her baggy shirt to drape it over her shoulder. James made sure to look ahead as Megan lifted Angelica to her breast. The baby’s cry was muffled at first, but quickly transformed into a gentle suckling.
James cleared his throat again, “Is that just a saying, or is this a, uh, routine?”
“Definitely a routine. Tommy used to wake up hungry around the same time. Either something runs in the branch, or my body has a schedule they figured out.”
“Mom?” Tommy’s tiny voice cracked awake, “I’m thirsty.”
Oh no. He’s too old for that, right?
Megan cooed the boy, “Sit up Tommy.”
James only looked over with his eyes.
Megan revealed a canteen with her free hand, “Drink it slowly. Do you remember how we used to drink water before the fountain?”
Tommy sounded annoyed and tired, “Yes.”
James felt awake. Back at home, when a scout ever picked up a car that James had fixed, they had always told him that he was saving their lives. They’d buy James drinks at the bar, insisting that he kept them alive. When they had brought him gifts from the sand, they had joked that his trinkets were cheaper than dying.
Driving this small family felt nothing like the respect he had earned with his people. James had heard her over the radio most of the day. They had only seen each other for the first time hours ago. Their lives were in his hands, and no one was joking, or letting him know he was doing a good job.
James felt the strongest sense of dread he could remember feeling. Ever since James had left with Deborah on their rescue mission, he was terrified that he was going to die. Staying in Anthill hadn’t helped, being back home just meant he had had more distractions to avoid thinking about dying.
Losing Tsara had turned off the fear. Life had become more of an obstacle course without a goal, for about half an hour. Tate had beaten the shit out of him and then turned him into a hostage, not even letting James have enough time in consciousness to grieve.
Looking to his right, James could clearly see through the darkness. Angelica looked happy. Tommy was adorably fighting sleep. Tsara smiled back, her deep blue eyes glowed brighter than the streak of blue behind the stars.
James’ chin quivered. His vision blurred with tears.
Tsara hugged the children tighter. She had a smear of black grease on her cheek. James smiled back and reached over to wipe her face. His thumb cleared the mess and his palm slid across her jawline. He felt a tear run over his hand. Looking at the back of his hand, he saw that the tears had turned into blood when they touched his skin.
“What are you doing?” Megan didn’t bother to soften her grated voice.
James’ vision returned to normal. He could barely see Megan’s brown eyes glisten in the dark. The young man realized his hand was curling around the empty space in front of Megan’s face. He tried to process what had just happened, “I thought I saw something. Never mind.” He recoiled his hand back to the wheel.
Another spurt of silent driving followed.
Tommy closed his canteen and curled up under Megan’s free arm. He yawned and tried to speak up, “Is Aunt Debbie following us?”
James felt his gut sink. After she goes on another quick killing spree.
Megan answered, “Yes sweetie. Aunt Debbie and Uncle Tate are right behind us. Right James?”
He couldn’t even fake the enthusiasm, “Yep. Right behind us.”
Tommy yawned again, “Aunt Debbie used to scare me.”
Megan replied, “Me too baby.”
James scoffed, “She still scares me.”
Tommy giggled, “I bet Uncle Tate’s scared of her too.”
If he’s smart he is. Actually, Tate does seem kind of stupid. “Hey Tommy, how smart do you think Tate is?”
“I think he’s smart because if you’re a chief you have to be smart to help your tribe. But mom calls him an idiot sometimes.”
James glanced to Megan, he could barely see her shrug back.
Tommy continued, “Mister James?”
“You can just call me James, Tommy.”
“Can we go to the fountain? I don’t like ra-tion-ing.”
Megan giggled with joy, “Tommy! That is such a big word! Mommy is so proud of you!” The teenage mother picked the boy up and smothered his scalp and face with kisses.
“Eww!” Tommy tried to wriggle out of his mother’s grip to no avail.
Megan just squeezed him and rocked him gently back and forth. “Mommy loves you so much!”
James felt a smile creep over his face. He looked back to the sand ahead. I have to keep them safe. He tried not to think about what it would be like to lose them.
Another glance back, and James’ smile faded.
Tsara clutched the children tightly and smiled wide.