Here’s a sneak preview of my latest project, 48 STATES. Enjoy!
Dark and cold.
That was North Dakota in a nutshell. Prior to the relocations, it bore the distinct honor of being the least visited state in the nation. Remote, desolate and unforgiving, it never garnered much regard from humanity. Now, stripped of its statehood, it was forgotten, a discarded landmass most were forbidden to enter.
River’s breath hung suspended in the truck’s cab like a ghostly specter as she ended her shift and eased her rig onto Route 85. Even with gloves, her fingertips rebelled against the touch of the wheel in the frigid darkness of January. She was alone, as usual, on the road with nothing but the gas flares for company, not a creature stirring in the night. In almost two years she hadn’t seen so much as a snail trying to cross the road on her way back from the fields. Even brainless mollusks know when to call it quits, she thought as she continued down the highway.
What’s my excuse?
After a few minutes on the highway, she saw the telltale florescent sign in the distance and soon after, eased her rig into the bar parking lot, pulling up next to the rest of the trucks. There was no last call in the Territories. You could buy a drink twenty-four hours a day and among the masses, there was general consensus that providing round-the clock lubrication was the least Universal Industries could do for its employees. Outerlands was one of a dozen bars in Williston, all of them catering to various tastes and price points. At some you could sit at the counter and buy time with a set of virtual reality goggles, at others you could sit at the counter and buy time with a companion of your choosing. River chose her spot because she liked the name and the fact that they held trivia nights once a month. A voracious reader, she was good at collecting random bits of information and always managed to win a few rounds. Few people came to play of course, just a motley crew of intellectual types, lost souls who’d made a deal with the devil, or God, or themselves to be in this place for some kind of penance or escape. Williston served as the main outpost in the Territory, which had been emptied by forced evacuation and then repopulated with soldiers and veterans, motorman and roughnecks ready for their twenty-day shift, or hitch. It was a rough-hewn place, a company town boasting a twenty-to-one ratio of men to women, stocked with just enough amenities to keep the natives from being too restless. There were plenty of escorts, a hospital, but no library, free cable television and a well-patronized Wal-Mart that sold cheap beer and ammunition.
Twenty sets of eyes followed River as she entered the bar, and she felt the heat of their gaze as she sat down at an open stool. She ignored the attention, surreptitiously scanning the room. There were a few pay-by-the-hour types lurking in the shadows, but no other crewmembers. Just my luck, she thought.
Within seconds the first shot arrived.
“Send it back Bobby,” River said, pushing a glass of what was likely tequila, men always sent that or Jägermeister, towards the bartender. “You know the drill.”
“Sure thing,” Bobby said. “But if I were you, I would skip the drink and get out. The mood tonight is pretty crazy. Most of these guys just got off their twenty.”
“I appreciate the advice, but can take care of myself,” she said. “Will you bring me a jack and coke?”
River had long ago sized Bobby up to be in his late-twenties. He favored black t-shirts and was covered in elaborate tattoos – peacocks with gleaming feathers, mermaids and the solar system, the rings of Uranus posted mid-bicep. An elaborately inked treasure map covered the other upper arm, but what it led to, Bobby would never say. A nose ring dangled from his septum, giving him a menacing air, but he was all right in the end. He’d come to the Territory to nurse a broken heart. River wasn’t sure of the particulars, only that he preferred being here to San Francisco. River had told him many times he was crazy to leave California for such a rotten, cold place, but he’d just laughed and told her “anywhere can go rotten if you fuck it up bad enough.” She just nodded, knowing only too well that he was right.
“Ok, but don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Bobby replied “And if you don’t mind me saying it for the hundredth time, why don’t you get the hell out of here already?”
“Leave all this behind?” River mocked. “Compared to a tour of duty in France, this is paradise.”
River never told him the truth. Never revealed that her husband had killed himself and left a mound of debt and few options except to leave her daughter and work in this god-forsaken wasteland. Veteran, widow, single mother…not a promising trio in any era. At eighty dollars an hour, more than one hundred if she worked over time, she’d signed the contract to work inside the Territory as soon as they’d offered her a position. Life was never going to be easy, she reminded herself nightly as she unfolded her bones into her cheap motel room bed. Her job was to make it home in one piece, with a nest egg in the bank, and her daughter in her arms.
“You know you don’t belong here with all these heathens,” Bobby said.
“Heathens…That’s pretty good,” River replied. “That’s an SAT word. Did you go to college?”
“Sure. Berkeley undergrad, then I studied creative writing at the University of San Francisco,” he said, delivering her drink. “Until my scholarship ran out. The government cancelled student loans for MFA programs around the time they started banning books.”
River nodded and took a sip, sensing the presence behind her just as she put the glass back down on the bar. A noxious combination of sweat and solvents filled her nostrils as he leaned in to speak to her.
“Hey sugar,” he purred. “How about we have ourselves a little party tonight.”
“No thanks,” River said keeping her gaze straight ahead.
“Oh come on….” He prodded. “I can be a lot of fun.”
“Actually I’m just leaving,” she said.
“Great,” the man said. “We can walk out together.”
The bar’s occupants, never candidates for charm school to begin with, sensed the promise of violence and turned to watch. Her would be suitor grinned, egged on by his audience, revealing a mouth full of missing and half-broken teeth.
“I promise to be nice,” he continued, grabbing River’s closely cropped hair. The pain was immediate as he dragged her closer to his rank breath. “Don’t make this harder than it has to be. I don’t want to have to hurt you.”
River nodded and for a second the onlookers could have been persuaded she was going to leave with him, enduring whatever horrors lay ahead, her body language seemingly passive as she rose from the stool. But then in a blink of an eye, she’d grabbed his other hand and brought his arm in close, using it as a fulcrum to send him tumbling. The man let out a whimper as his arm was broken, landing flat on his back with an audible thud. River quickly pulled her trusty Glock out from where it had been resting in her jeans at the small of her back and pointed it straight at his chest.
“If you so much as raise a finger I will shoot it off and keep it as a souvenir, and then I will put a bullet straight through your heart before you can even get up off the ground,” River said. “Do we understand each other?”
The man nodded, but otherwise remained motionless.
“Good,” she said. “Do not even think of following me out.”
River reached back towards the bar, grabbed her glass and finished her drink, catching Bobby’s eye along the way.
“Put it on my tab,” she said, heading for the door.
River kept her gun out and did not let her guard down until she was inside the cab of her truck with the engine running. Damn, damn, damn.
It never ceased to amaze River that she’d felt safer being cooped up in the Syrian Desert during her second tour with twenty men and little more than a hole to shit in. More than once the men in her unit asked to see her tits, but none of them had ever tried anything, except the one she married. It was probably wise to switch bars for a while, which irritated River because the Amazon gift cards she won guessing new wave bands from the nineteen eighties really came in handy. She mulled it over for a second as she drove home and then decided against running, knowing she would return to Outerlands in a few days. On the off chance she ran into Mr. “I don’t take no for an answer,” the Glock would prove crucial. With a semi-automatic, there would be no fumbling to reload, just a steady supply of bullets in the chamber. River was a good shot. If he came for her again, she would end it, of that she was certain. She also knew that there was no penalty for killing a man inside the territory. You’d need laws for that, and River knew very well that the government had signed them all away.