Road Runner, by Bianca Brutaldo
Chapter 6
I always thought “watch your step” was a cliche

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The soldiers have motorcycles. My soldier – his PO badge says “Franks” – slides on his bike and tells me to climb on, so I do. When I wrap my arms around his waist, his badge skims my wrist. I’ve never been on a motorcycle, just like I’ve never been to a farm, and I’m a bit thrilled at the adventure of it.

But I can see Peasant still resisting her soldier, Phillips. He’s trying to hold her wrist as if it were her hand, but it isn’t. Her hand is a fist. She stops struggling when she sees me get on the bike. I catch her eye and try to exude big-sister confidence – “trust me I’ve got a plan” my eyes say – but I’ll never forget her look of dread and resignation. It was the same look Vivian used to get during the war whenever there was a knock at our door.

The motor bikes cough to life. We zip through the streets, dodging craters and shelled cars and languishing bodies, and I can only hope Peasant is somewhere behind me. Soon the crumbling pavement gives way to a dirt road barely discernible in the bike’s weak beams. From there, the ride is swift and dark and dusty.

We stop on a bluff a few miles outside of the glow of the city. We’ve outrun the thunderheads clustered over Reno, and now we are surrounded by silence and stars. Sprawled out below us, I see my first farm. The whole place is cast with the green industrial lighting we used during wartime – lights that were made to mimic the weak shine of the moon. Lights that were designed to go unnoticed from up above.

Franks’ bike spotlights a few giant war tents below us surrounded by fence and barbed wire. Rows of shovels line one side of the fence. Other than that, the place looks abandoned – no animals or rows of greens, even though it smells like fresh dirt out here. This is not what I imagined.

Phillips’ bike approaches and I catch another flash of the valley below – a valley filled with holes. Then he’s off the bike – Peasant is running towards me – and the look on her face makes me uneasy.

“Jesus, Franks, you were driving like you got a death wish,” Phillips says.

“Don’t be a puss, just don’t veer off the road and you’re fine.”

I look down at my feet and see the road, more like twin tracks that seemingly run straight off the cliff. Peasant stands next to me at the ledge, looking down. Franks puts one arm roughly around my waist and I try to swallow the unease that’s filling my lungs, making my breathe come out in short gasps.

“Do all farms look like that?” I ask. “I thought there would be cows. There aren’t even roosters.”

They laugh at my expense. It’s a sound I am familiar with. Even Peasant laughs.

“This isn’t that kind of farm, girly,” Phillips says, cornering Peasant on the ledge. I finger the shears in my pocket and pray my 13-year-old sister doesn’t do anything stupid.

Then I turn, put my free hand on Franks’ chest and smash my face to his face.

I’ve never kissed anyone before. The chapped skin of our lips rub against each other, two sets of dry kindling looking for a spark, and then his mouth opens and his tongue emerges, like a polite pet in search of a home. I close my eyes. For one brief moment, I forget about the shears and Peasant and the road runners and my broken Pops and maternal-less mother and secretive brother and dead siblings and dead-end future and I just get to feel what it is like to be a teenager in the grips of a lust I’d only read about in books.

It was a brief, beautiful instant. Then he reaches up and grabs my breast. Then he twists, like he’s turning a rusty doorknob.

“Mmph,” I say.

His tongue turns aggressive and then both of his hands are twisting and pulling as if he could open the doors to my chest and claim my heart, or crush it. I let him. While he’s busy, I slowly remove the shears from my pocket, fumble for his badge and snip.

What I didn’t count on was the noise the scissors made when they cut through the thin steel wire that held the badge in place – a noise that had been masked by the raucousness of the casinos.

I open my eyes. Franks is staring at my hands. I try to stab him but he pushes me back and punches me in the face.

Have you ever been punched in the face? The colors it provokes are indescribable – colors that no book or artist has ever referenced, colors that are the visual expression of pain as your brain ricochets around your skull and then once again, as your skull hits the ground.

I must’ve passed out. I awake to screaming. Peasant. She’s walking towards me. Slowly. As if through water. I realize the screaming is my own. I shut my mouth and taste blood. It tastes like red dust.

The soldiers are talking loudly. Arguing. Pushing. Their words don’t make sense. My eyes are locked on Peasant. Why is she so slow? If she can just get to me. Everything will be alright.

She gets to me. Nothing is alright. I’ve lost the scissors. Mother will be mad. Peasant helps me stand. The dirt around me is black with blood. I watch as more of it falls.

They turn on us.

“–with it?” the big one screams.

But he’s got the badge in his hand? Then I remember the other one but Peasant interrupts my remembering. Even in crisis her hair is heavenly.

“The kids took it,” she says. “There’s a dealer who’s offered a month of rations for one.”

But that’s not right. I can feel it in my pocket?

They’re talking again, quieter. They’re discussing us. What to do with us. I can see it on their faces. Testing the limits of each other’s humanity. What to do with two teenage girls who’ve humiliated them. How to keep them quiet. How to teach them a lesson. Once one starts, the other won’t be able to stop. Stopping would be weak.

Peasant stands in front of me. My nose is also bleeding. I try not to bleed on her. It’s her nicest shirt. She only has two.

“Maybe I can get one of their bikes,” she whispers. She can’t know how to drive a motorcycle. I take a step sideways and the world spins a bit. Even the stars are laughing at me? What have I ever done?

The soldiers turn back to us. A decision has been made. Whatever happens, it will be worse if they find the badge. Without the badge I have nothing. I close one eye to see straight. I know what I have to do. I was born for it. I take the deepest breath my lungs have ever taken. I stumble. Then I start running away from the cliff. Away from Peasant.

They’re shouting behind me. I don’t look back. They can’t see me in the dark. They can’t catch me in the dark. There is nothing but my ragged breathing. My nose is clogged with blood. I breathe through my mouth. I veer to the left, off the road, and point my feet towards Reno’s glow and I run. My breath evens out. My legs find their pace. My lips crack a smile. And then the world explodes.