Author’s Note: I can’t always promise that updates will come this fast (and let’s be real—no one really wants that anyway. It’s a busy world! People have things to do other than read my strange stories!) but for now I have a fire lit under my ass about these two. I love them, and I love telling their story, so I hope you’ll indulge me these rapid-fire updates while they last.
Also, the vibes between Alexis and Moriah are weird and going to get weirder, so you might want to tap out if that’s not your scene. <3
Alexis is hungry again. She wishes she’d had the foresight to pick up another loaf of bread in that last town. She’d thought of it, but the outside of the convenience store gave her the creeps. There was a sickly green light coming from inside, seafoam-hued and wrong. Probably nothing would’ve happened. She should’ve gone in anyway.
She’s thinking of grabbing the jar of peanut butter from the back when Moriah turns the radio down. The man talking to dead air trails off into nothingness like someone falling asleep mid-sentence.
All your money won’t save you unless…
“I miss Bible-thumpers,” Alexis says, the first words she’s spoken in miles. Her voice feels rusty from disuse. It sounds like badly oiled hinges. “Like the genuine article. Not these off-brands.”
Moriah snorts. “What, the world’s not nutty enough for you?”
Alexis looks out the window. It’s raining. Everything is cloaked in amorphous grey, and droplets cling to the glass. “I miss predictable varieties of nut. This variety pack is for the birds.”
Alexis puts her fingers on the glass, tracing constellations over the raindrops just to annoy Moriah, who doesn’t notice. She turns to her sister. “So.”
What did you want to talk about? hangs unspoken. Alexis wishes she wouldn’t.
“About Chapel Hill—” Moriah says.
“I just wanted to say—”
Moriah ignores her. Of course she does. “I just wanted to say I’m sorry.” She looks away from the road long enough to glare defiantly at Alexis.
“And now you have.” Beat. “Even though I told you not to.”
“Yep.” She pops her p like a fucking brat.
Alexis sighs. “Can we listen to the radio now?”
Moriah relents and flips the switch back on. It’s her way of saying sorry. “But no more manic preachers. You know I hate that shit.”
She turns the tuning dial with one hand on the wheel, her eyes only half on the road. Alexis sinks further into her seat.
It’s damn hot in the car. She hopes the rain lets up soon. She grabs the goddamn peanut butter.
* * *
They don’t stop in motels. She doesn’t remember exactly when that stopped being an option, but Alexis doesn’t ask, and Moriah doesn’t offer. They need to sleep sometime, so they do it where they can. In the car, mostly. Windows rolled up so nothing can get at them. Alexis sleeps best when they’re in motion, the endless breeze of the endless road whipping across her face. She sleeps best when they’re in motion, but she sleeps fine when they’re at rest, her seat tilted back, the breath of her and her sister mingling into a fine, humid mist that smells like the two of them, unwashed and familiar.
She could climb in the back. The backseat is always waiting, but Alexis outgrew it a long time ago. She doesn’t like sleeping with her legs jammed up against the door like she’s bracing for something. She doesn’t like getting out of the car in the near-perfect dark, not even in the light of rusted, winking bar signs. Not even for the seconds it’d take to hop out one door and in another.
Moriah sleeps in the driver’s seat, always. Keys in the ignition. She’s always ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Tonight is a stopping night. Even Moriah is human, curled up in the driver’s seat with her long, black hair everywhere and her arm pillowed beneath her head. Tonight, Alexis can’t sleep. The comforting dark of nothing won’t come, and she stares up at the roof of their car in its absence. There are stains on the ceiling, ones whose shape she can just barely make out in the dark. She traces them with her eyes.
“Yeah?” Whisper-quiet. Indoor voices.
“I’m sorry I got mad.”
The answer doesn’t come for a long time, so long that Alexis thinks Moriah must be asleep. “‘s okay.”
Moriah’s hand reaches out of the darkness to squeeze hers, fingers warm and dry. Alexis catches her hand and squeezes back.
This is where she belongs. Shoulder to shoulder with her sister with the gearshift between them. She gazes out at the lights across the horizon. There’s nothing but a clear field of wheat, waving tops as far as the eye can see. Occasional crackles of heat lightning blaze across the sky.
* * *
Not every day is so dire. They have their good days too, same as anyone.
Some days, the darkness lets up. Some days it’s nothing but the sweet scent of freshly cut grass wafting up from a field, weak, watery sunlight that almost, almost justifies Alexis’ sunglasses.
They still don’t have enough to eat. Alexis’ stomach is turning itself properly inside out, gnawing at itself, and that’s a real drag—it dampens the glory of the sunlight a little bit, and she wonders if Moriah will let her suck on her fingers the way she used to when the hunger pains got too bad. Wonders if Moriah will dip her fingers in a bit of sour milk or faintly sugared water, little filched white sugar packets halfheartedly dissolved in a glass of water—Alexis wonders if she will. But Alexis has gotten too old, and there’s this cavern of space between them now. She’s far too smart to ask, so she twists her hair into a long, slippery rope and sucks the ragged end of it instead.
“Gross,” Moriah says, but there’s no heat in it, none at all because she’s hungry, Moriah knows she’s hungry. Moriah is hungry too, and they’re only human after all, so Moriah doesn’t say anything else, just loops her arm around the back of Alexis’ shoulder and guides her like it’s nothing. Touch feels good, after all this time. It makes everything feel a little less dire, like it’s not supposed to be, so Alexis lets herself be steered and doesn’t put up a fuss.
“Remember when we had picnics in fields like this? Gooseberries and toast and those little white cookies with the rock sugar on top.”
“You used to eat most of the cookies like a jerk,” she says around the hair in her mouth.
Moriah shrugs. “I was bigger.”
There’s a tree a ways in the distance, a heavy-leaning one right in the middle of the brown grass field. Everything crunches underfoot, mostly dead and a little crispy. Nothing grows without the light. They aim their feet towards the tree.
They don’t talk as much these days. Alexis thinks they used to talk more, but then, there used to be more things to talk about. Now, not so much. It’s not all bad. They still have the sound of a living, breathing person next to them. Alexis listens hard and tries to tell the difference between the sound her shoes make in the field and the sound Moriah’s make. It bothers her that she can’t. Today, it bothers her.
They sit down in the grass, under the canopy of the tree out of habit. It hardly matters. Its branches are mostly bare and in this kind of light, shade is a concept that belongs to another time. They sit beside it anyway. Moriah leans her back against the tree and opens her arms, inviting Alexis to lean against her if she wants.
She does. It feels good to be held after days of nothing but peeling upholstery under her legs, nothing but faux leather under her fingers. Moriah is angular and bony, just like she is, but it’s harder to tell under the layers of clothes. The knobby edge of a knee digs into the small of Alexis’ back, but she says nothing. She leans back, letting her head rest against the shelf of Moriah’s collarbone. She looks at the sky—its ragged, washed out edges through the shape of the branches.
“Do you think we’ll ever settle down?” Alexis asks. Her mind is starting to wander. She can feel herself starting to dream.
She feels rather than sees Moriah’s shrug against her back. That’s her answer to everything these days—a shrug, a nod, pursed lips and a slight shake of her head. I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. It’s not a kindness that Alexis keeps asking, but she can’t find it in herself to stop.
“Do you want to?” Moriah asks her.
Alexis doesn’t answer for a while. She doesn’t think about what she’ll say so much as she pays close attention to the air filling her lungs. The slow, steady pressure against her ribs as she draws it in, the emptiness when it’s gone. She can hear her blood pounding in her ears.
“I don’t know that I could ever feel safe,” Alexis says.
She tries to turn around to look at Moriah, but Moriah keeps her still inside the cage of her limbs. Alexis doesn’t fight very hard. She’d like to see her face, but this is still where she wants to be. There’s no sense fighting something that you want.
She wonders if Moriah nods, if she cries, if she makes the sour face she makes when Alexis is being ridiculous. She knows her sister so well, but there are still things she can’t predict. She figures it’s a good thing. If you’re stuck with someone at the end of the world, it’s probably good if they don’t give away the game too soon. She wonders what they’ll do when they finally know everything, and it’s a sobering thought.
Her belly gurgles again, loud and insistent, making itself known in case she’d forgotten.
Moriah slides a hand down from where she has both arms draped across Alexis’ body. She puts it on the hollow of Alexis’ belly and presses down into the ache. She rubs hard over skin stretched tight and concave, and Alexis sighs and goes boneless, leaning into the touch.
“We’ve gotta get you something to eat,” Moriah says, and Alexis doesn’t disagree.
They’re human, after all. Maybe keep your sister fed needs to be another rule, like keep the car gassed. She thinks of how often she’s failed with a sinking sensation and hopes the rule doesn’t apply retroactively.
“In a little bit,” she says. “The light is just so…”
She doesn’t finish that thought. She doesn’t really have to.
It’s night again. It’s always night.
They emerge from the desert like seekers returning from a pilgrimage, which is to say, they return blinking the shine from their eyes when every lit-up neon sign is too much, much too gaudy and much too foreign. Alexis slips her sunglasses back on her face, and Moriah only takes a look at her and sighs.
“I swear, it’s like I can’t take you anywhere.”
“You love me,” Alexis says, and Moriah only shakes her head. She doesn’t dignify it with an answer.
The two-tone digital bell chimes as they push their way into a deserted diner. The fact of prerecording sends a shiver down the back of Alexis’ spine. She thinks of the ghosts of long-dead fish in the desert and puts it out of her mind. The metal push bar is sticky beneath her fingers, and she makes a mental note not to touch anything.
The host that greets them is tired and ragged, worn around the edges just like the menus she hands them. Everything is sticky, including the tacky vinyl booths. It sticks to the back of Alexis’ legs. There are knife wounds in the upholstery from someone’s temper. Alexis can see into the foamy guts of the seat.
Their waitress is pretty in a way that’s gone on too long, a record left to play after the DJ fell asleep, spinning around and around until the grooves wear smooth to the point of distortion and beyond. Makeup gathers in the creases that bracket her mouth, in the fine little lines beneath her eyes. She offers them a tired smile and two glasses of water and asks, “What can I get you?”
“Pancakes and bacon,” Moriah says.
“Coffee.” Alexis’ stomach gurgles.
“She’ll have the pancakes too.”
The waitress doesn’t even pause. Just nods and walks away over checkerboard tile. Alexis leans her head on her hands. “I hate it when you do that.”
“And I hate when you don’t eat. Tough.”
“We don’t have the money.”
They both shut their mouths when the waitress comes back with Alexis’ coffee through force of long habit.
“Yeah, well. On the list of things I’m willing to sacrifice, meals don’t make the cut. Not yours and not mine.”
Alexis worries her bottom lip between her teeth. “Yeah, okay.” It isn’t the last time they’ll have this conversation, but she likes when Moriah talks like this. She likes the lit-coal feeling it sparks somewhere in her chest, low down next to her growling belly.
She snags the glass sugar canister off the edge of the table and dumps an ungodly amount in her coffee, then she drowns it in creamer. It’s tepid by the time she raises it to her lips, sweet enough to choke her. The sugar container and handle are both sticky. Everything is sticky.
“I don’t know how you can drink it like that,” Moriah says with undisguised disgust worn smooth through use. It’s an old saw, familiar land.
Alexis just shrugs like she’s supposed to. “Calories are calories. Caffeine is caffeine.”
She pushes her cup across the table and Moriah stares at it like it’s poison. She sighs, scrubbing a hand over her tired face and lifting the cup to her mouth. “Only because I’m driving,” she says. She takes a deep gulp and thumps the mug back down, setting it rattling in its saucer. “God, that’s foul.”
They shut up again when the waitress comes back with their food. She eyes the cup sitting on Moriah’s side of the table but says nothing. She looks them over once and refills it from a steaming carafe that smells bitter and burnt, too tired to care if two urchins stiff them out of three bucks.
Alexis dresses the second cup just as nasty as the first. She’s still thinking about the bruises under the waitress’ eyes after she’s gone. They remind her of the yawning maw of the canyon.
Moriah drowns her pancakes in syrup and crunches on her bacon, dragging it through the sticky sweet mess on her plate. She makes happy noises as she eats, and Alexis just watches her for a while. There’s a bead of syrup sitting perfect on the dimple on her lip. It’s there only for a second before Moriah licks it back off.
Moriah glances up from her food (wonder of wonders) and catches Alexis looking. She quirks a brow in her direction, you gonna eat or what?
Alexis shakes her head and twists her hair off her face and away from her food, letting it unravel down the slope of her back like a tawny rope. She pours a river of syrup onto her own pancakes and wonders if diabetes runs in their family. The bacon is burnt and the pancakes taste like chemicals, and Alexis once again has that feeling of being home.
* * *
They hit a gas station on their way out of town. It’s nonnegotiable, so that it isn’t even a conversation. The needle to the gas meter is dipping too near the E for comfort, and no matter what Moriah says, they’d skip meals for this if they had to.
Keep the car gassed: it’s the inviolate rule.
Alexis leans her arm against the open window and taps her fingers along its lip, little aimless songs that remind her of the prairie. She tips her head back and rests her head while she waits for Moriah to finish filling ‘er up. The tumbleweeds in this town give her the creeps. Everything is too quiet. The flat, empty fields of dirt stretch on for miles, yawning into the dark.
It’s disturbing here in a way it wasn’t in the desert. An empty place that’s supposed to be empty is peaceful. One that’s supposed to be full is a horror.
Alexis looks at herself in the passenger side mirror, assessing her looks. She’s pretty, she guesses. Sometimes she thinks so. Tonight is lucky; it’s one of those nights. The bleary lights from the awning overhead shine down on her just right, blurring imperfections and picking out the shadows beneath her cheekbones, the tired hollows beneath her eyes. Consumption chic. She’s got Moriah’s nose in miniature with thin, stubborn lips and tilted black eyes. There’s more to tell them apart than to keep them together. People can’t often tell, she doesn’t think, that they’re a matched set. Sometimes she likes that and sometimes she doesn’t.
The slam of a car door jerks her out of her reverie.
“Alright,” Moriah says. “Let’s rock and roll.”
* * *
Alexis picks at the edges of her cellphone. It’s silvered with paint, the false chrome already flaking off to reveal the plastic white underneath. It’s a cheap thing, picked up at a drugstore in a town miles back. Alexis gets her thumbnail under the crumbling paint. She pries at its weakness and flakes it off to silver powder into her lap.
She sticks the edge of her thumb into her mouth to taste it, and it tastes like nothing. Like dirt and dust and the slight salt of her own skin.
She flips the phone open. The screen blinks white for only a second before winking back into grey, flat nothingness. Dead again. Nothing holds a charge anymore.
She opens the glovebox all the same, pulling out a kinked old power cord. She plugs one end into the cigarette lighter and the other into her phone, waiting for the screen to blink back to life. She flips the lid of the phone shut and tosses it in the cupholder.
“You know we’re going to have to talk about it sometime.”
Now it’s Alexis’ turn to reach out and crank up the radio. She flips to a talk station and turns it up obnoxiously loud. It’s a dirty trick, but someone’s got to do it.
This story is now finished and is available as a short novel wherever you find your books. Here are some links for easy access.
Two sisters on an eerie jaunt through an uncertain apocalypse. Brought to you by my love of @a_long_drive, the road trip bot on Twitter, probably.
It’s cold here in the deep desert. The AC crapped out miles ago, ditto the heater, so it’s nothing but windows down for them. Alexis pushes her face into the breeze.
She can smell the ocean from here, even hundreds of miles from the nearest shore. It’s the damnedest thing. She thinks of the ghosts of thousands upon thousands of sea creatures buried beneath their tread. She thinks of smelling the salt of an ocean long gone, faded away into flakes of salt and nothingness.
The wind stings her cheeks and blows the wet right out of her eyes.
Moriah slaps Alexis’ thigh idly, never taking her eyes off the road. “Get back in the car. You look like a damn dog.”
Alexis flips her off. She keeps her head out the window for a few seconds more, partway to annoy the crap out of Moriah and partway out of genuine enjoyment of the sensation. Eventually she does what Moriah says, hauling herself back in the little red car with a small huff. The smell of diesel wars with the scent of salt. It smells like home, and Alexis settles back against the car seat with a happy sigh.
Moriah slants a glance at her. “You done communing with nature?”
Alexis shrugs. “I’m hungry. Are you hungry?”
“I could eat.” Moriah glances at the rearview mirror where there’s nothing but dead space that winks out into nothingness behind the red glow of their tail lights. “Don’t think we’re going to find anything out here though.”
“Yeah. You’re probably right.”
Alexis unfastens her seatbelt and leans over the seat, reaching for her bag in back.
“Hey! Hey, sit your ass down.” Moriah swats at her ass, and Alexis ignores her. “Gonna make me fucking crash,” she grumbles.
“Sit your own ass down. You’re a better driver than that.” Alexis glances at Moriah archly over her shoulder, giving her a grin. “Although not by much.”
Alexis swings back into the front seat holding her prize. She takes her sweet time rebuckling her belt. First, she unzips her backpack and digs around until she finds two smashed PB&Js. She tosses one into Moriah’s lap, keeping the other for herself. She unzips the top of the ziploc and pulls her sandwich out, taking a big bite and licking the jelly that oozes from the corner onto the web of her thumb. She tosses her bag down into the footwell.
“I don’t suppose you’ve got a bag of chips in that magic sack of yours, boy scout?”
Alexis chomps at her sandwich, flicking her backpack open with the toe of her shoe. “Nope. I’ve got—a bottle of warm water, a pack of fruit snacks, and not much else.”
“Ugh, fine. God, I’m sick of peanut butter sandwiches.”
“Me too,” Alexis says, drawing the words out with relish. They’re almost as good as the feeling of finally having food in her belly. She wishes there were more. Just in case Moriah really wanted chips, she adds, “We’ll keep our eyes peeled.”
“Yeah,” Moriah says. She sounds troubled, enough that Alexis glances over. She traces the frown on her sister’s face, the pinched line at the corner of her mouth.
Alexis opens her mouth to ask about it, but Moriah cranks the stereo all the way up. She does it on purpose, to cut her off.
Alexis settles back in her seat, pulling her sunglasses off the dash and settling them on her face, shielding her eyes from the night. Her sunglasses are white, cheap plastic and gaudy, $4.99 from some gas station she can barely remember. Moriah says they make her look like a douchebag, and Alexis says good—they’re supposed to. They’re just what she likes.
She crumples up her sandwich wrapper and throws it out the window. It’s destined to become part of the doomed landscape, just like them all. Guns N’ Roses pours out of their little car’s speakers, streaming desperately into the night.
Alexis closes her eyes, and Moriah drives.
* * *
Alexis doesn’t think she sleeps, but she wakes up sometime before morning. The sun is just starting to stain the horizon blush-pink, the whole world lit up in tones of soft-washed grey. Alexis can still see the stars as faint pinpricks of light if she looks up. The driver’s seat is empty beside her.
She yawns her way out of the car, snagging the hoodie that had been crumpled under her head and shoving it over her shivering body. It’s still fucking cold in the desert. She can see the faint white puffs of her breath. She slams the car door shut, and Moriah looks toward the sound, just for a second, before turning her gaze back over the canyon. She’s perched at the edge of a cliff face, nothing but a fathomless plunge below. Alexis can’t see the bottom, even when she walks over to stand side by side with Moriah, close enough that their shoulders brush.
It looks like an ink wash drawing painted in hues of bruise, livid violets. Caput Mortuum. She glances over at Moriah, the thready black hair whispering across her face, trailing out behind her in the breeze. Her sister is beautiful, Alexis thinks. She studies the proud, crooked line of Moriah’s nose in profile, the serious set to her generous mouth.
She looks back at the canyon. They really drove all night.
“I didn’t think you were ever going to wake up,” Moriah says. Her voice sounds strange. Smaller, Alexis thinks. It’s strange to think of anything about Moriah as small. She’s always taken up all the room there is in every room, every hallway, every outdoor place.
“You could have woken me.” Her voice does it too.
Maybe it’s not her voice, Alexis thinks. Maybe it’s this place, a place too old and big for the both of them. Maybe it’s swallowing them up, the sounds they make sucked into the violet dark below. If she were the reverent type, she might care about walking on hallowed ground, but the only altar she knows is her sister.
“Nah,” Moriah says. “You looked like hell. Figured you could use the sleep.”
“So could you,” Alexis says. Then she says, “Thanks,” belatedly. It’s awkward. Gratitude always is, between them.
Moriah shrugs. “You feel up to driving?”
“Sure.” Alexis holds out her hand and only has to wait a second for Moriah to slap the keys into it. The jagged corners sting her palm.
She doesn’t say that Moriah never lets her drive. She doesn’t ask if she’s alright. The answer is so obviously no.