Clay holds the empty revolver in his fist. The determined look on his face makes me think if he stares at it long enough, he can conjure bullets from thin air. And maybe he can. In the last few weeks, I’ve seen him do some goddamned amazing things. But, if Clay could’ve done it, he would have, seeing as how bullets are the most valuable commodities in the land. Even Clay can’t make that magic happen.
And it’s bullets we need because over the hill a curl of campfire smoke rises into the dusk. The smell of crisping meat makes my empty stomach clench. We ain’t had a decent meal in five days, just jerky and water and that’s gone, too. Whoever’s on the other side of this hill better be ready for a fight. We sure are.
Our truck died over a week ago and our bullets ran out three days back. I think of the three square meals a day we had at the Citadel and wanna cry. Their provisions lasted us about a week. I look over at my brother, Ethan, and a knot forms in my throat. The little fat he put on at Citadel has wasted off his cheeks, leaving them hollow. His dark hair is dusty and coarse, and the nice clothes we were given have already worn through at the elbows and knees from skulking around cacti and climbing up rocky hillsides. He’s got his tan back, which out in the desert is a good thing. We’ve been away from the Believers long enough that their way of life’s been baked off our bodies. It’s some consolation to starving out in the desert.
When Ethan catches my eye, he throws on a little smile, but I know he’s suffering just like me. I dig into the pack on my back and hand him the water canteen.
He looks down at the water jug and shakes his head. “I’m fine. You drink it,” he whispers, shoving the jug back to me.
I shake my head and push it back. “Took a drink an hour ago.”
“Don’t believe you,” he whispers, blowing out a breath that stirs the sand in front of his face. “You always give me too much.”
“Do not,” I say, pressing the jug into his hands.
Clay shoots us both a will-you-hush-up look and trains his eyes on the crest of the hill where the smoke rolls into the heavens. “We can worry ’bout who drank what later. Right now I need your eyes and ears on this. Riley, come up with me.” He gestures to the crest of the hill. “Ethan, stay by the packs.” Ethan protests, but Clay cuts him off with a look. They’ve become like brothers over the last few months. Something I’m still getting used to.
I give Ethan’s arm a squeeze and press my hunting knife into his palm. Then I scoot on my belly to Clay. Slowly, we inch up until we can peer down into the valley.
Everything is just as it was twenty minutes ago. The hill rolls into a low, bowl-shaped valley about fifty feet wide. Down in the valley, a camp fire crackles inside a ring of rocks. On one side, a figure sits on a boulder, tending the blaze. From here we can tell it’s a man, though he could be a wizened old shell or a behemoth who’ll cleave us in half with his bare hands for all we know. I glance at Clay, who works his jaw back and forth. If we run into this scene, we gamble with our lives. But then, every damn day is a gamble.
On the other side of the fire the second of our worries lies wrapped in a tattered blanket. It’s a person, though definitely smaller. Could be a boy. Could be a woman.
We know nothing, and that’s what’s eating at me. We should just turn around and leave.
Clay points and draws my attention to the man tending the fire. A long black shadow rests at his feet, likely a shotgun, though we can’t be sure. I glance at Clay, trying to discern from his face whether he thinks this is a problem or not. Most guns around here are for show. Bullets are harder to come by than chocolate cake and even more desired. If he’s got bullets, we’re in trouble. I got a six-inch hunting knife and Clay’s got a nine-inch serrated blade. We’ll have to get close to do any sort of damage, and if he hears us, he can pick us off easy.
I scoot back down the hill and lie on my back. The night sky thickens with stars. Coyotes howl in the distance, a night sound I’m so familiar with it’s usually soothing. But not tonight. I roll over and look at Clay.
“This is plain crazy. We’ll get shot up before we make it to the fire.”
Clay looks over at me, his sky-blue eyes finding mine. God, they soften me every time, but right now I don’t wanna be soft.
“Riley,” he says, smiling. “One old man and his boy can’t stop me. You know we got this.” He flashes white teeth in a look that would melt any girl from here to White Sands. If there were any girls from here to White Sands.
I scowl and cross my arms over my bound breasts. “You mighta got this if you had bullets, but you don’t.” I gesture to the useless revolvers at his hips. “What’re you gonna do, chuck those at him?”
Clay smiles again, unfazed. “If I need to.”
“This ain’t funny,” I say, frowning. “If he hears us coming down, we’re dead in two blasts. Ethan’ll starve to death beneath that cactus.
Clay’s smile fades. He scoots closer to me until his body is inches from mine. I refuse to face. Instead, I try to puzzle out my fate in the stars above.
“Riley,” he whispers, his breath on my cheek.
I don’t move.
“Riley.” His hand slinks under the fabric at my waist, fingers caressing the skin there. Tingles ignite were his touch meets my skin. Finally I roll toward him. His blue eyes match the last wink of day in the west and his stubbled cheeks make him look both rugged and manly. Any hint of the sickness from the Believers’ water has left. What’s left is a deep tan and wind-blown hair.
He slides a hand out and cups my cheek. “When I say we got this,” he pauses and runs a thumb from my cheekbone to my jaw. “We got this. I wouldn’t put you or Ethan in danger.”
I nod, but he insists. “Do you trust me?”
I think of what we’ve been through—the Breeders and the fight with Clay’s parents, the Citadel and how we fought side by side as the mall filled with poison. I press my hand to the gold band he gave me, resting on a chain beneath my shirt.
“Yes,” I breathe, my lips moving inches from his.
A voice from the valley below us stops my heart cold. We pull apart, eyes wide. Carefully we inch up to the edge and peer down.
The man leans over the fire, stirring something in the pot. He speaks to whomever is under the blanket. Clay and I watch for a moment and slide back down.
“I think I recognize the one by the fire,” Clay whispers, pulling out his knife and inspecting it. “He’s a trader. Ruthless one. Sells boys, too.”
I think of Ethan back down the ridge. “Does this change things?”
Clay shakes his head. A hardness has settled over his features. “That bastard down there deserves what I’m about to do to him.”
I put my hand on his arm. “I thought we said no killing.”
He doesn’t meet my gaze, just stares at the razor-sharp knife in his hand. “I never said no killin’.”
I tighten my grip on his arm. “Listen, killing for supplies…. That ain’t right.”
Clay nods. “Won’t kill if I don’t have to, but I ain’t makin’ promises.” He looks up at me, serious. “Get ready.”
When dark has crouched down on the land, we crawl on our bellies over the rocky dirt hilltop with our blades tight in our fists. My heart’s flailing around in my chest like a lizard caught in a snare. I glance at Clay and he gives me a nod.
“If things go south, run for Ethan and hightail it west. I’ll come for you.”
Not if you’re dead, I think, but nod. “I don’t need to say be careful—”
“Ri,” he says, brushing his knuckles down my cheek. “I’d never leave you.” Then he’s crouching up, ready. “Let’s go.”
Down below, the fire has burned to flickering embers and the shadows are thick. The one under the blanket hasn’t moved. The man sits at his place by the fire, but his head has drooped into his chest. Asleep, hopefully.
Clay glances at the scene, then nods once.
We creep down the hill as stealthily as possible. My pulse jumps into my throat as I step over the scrub grass and rocks. One false move and Clay and I’ll both be leaking. Beside me, Clay follows my lead—arms out like a tightrope walker, eyes and ears alert. Above, the moon is nearly full and provides enough light to navigate. Every sound strikes my ears like the thwack of a gong—my boots crunching on a twig, my breath loud in my throat, a stirring of wings as bats flit off in the distance. I can’t look anywhere but at the man hunched over the fire. As we approach, he looks bigger, more filled out than I’d thought. His boots are new and polished, a hard feat out here in the bush. His cowboy hat is pulled low over his eyes and shades his face, which makes me nervous. The closer I get, the better I can make out his thick beard and the scar parting the hair on his left cheek. I study his hands laced together over his paunch. Will we have to kill him? Will these be his last dreams?
We make it to the bottom of the basin and circle closer. Clay motions for me to go at the one under the blanket like we planned. I’m to sneak up behind the mound and wait until Clay jumps on the larger one. Then I’ll pin down whoever’s under there and keep him still while Clay ties up the larger one. It seems like a simple enough plan, but we got no idea who’s under the blanket. I picture a man who cracks my skull with one blow or a roiling cluster of snakes that spill out to bite me. Suppressing these ridiculous images, I tiptoe over to the blanket and crouch behind it.
The smell of the sputtering campfire thickens the air, but another scent lingers too, the smell of unwashed bodies, a heady stink that rises up from beneath the mound that’s three feet from where I crouch. There’s definitely a human under there. But what kind?
My eyes flit up as Clay tiptoes around the fire to the sleeping man. Clay’s a skilled tracker and talented fighter, but stealth has never been his strong suit. He’s used to charging in, guns blazing, no need for quiet. Yet he does well enough, sidestepping a scraggly bush and slipping over a rock pile without disturbing a single stone. My heart pounds in my chest, as he nears the sleeping man. Five more steps. Four. My body tenses as I watch Clay take the last two steps, approaching the man from behind. He extends one hand out for a headlock while the other, his uninjured hand, holds his knife. Slowly, very slowly, he reaches his arms around the sleeping man’s shoulders.
I hold my breath.
The sleeping man jumps up, a move so lightning quick there’s no way he’s been asleep at all. His hand shoots out and grabs Clay’s wrist. His elbow lashes back like the strike of a snake, smashing into Clay’s jaw with a pop.
“Clay!” I shout, starting for him, forgetting the figure under the blanket. The blanket before me begins to rise. I pounce on it. Inside someone oomphs and lies still again. My target pinned, I look back to Clay.
They’re squared off, holding onto each other’s wrists like wrestlers locked in combat. Gritting his teeth and flexing his arms, Clay presses against the trader. The trader strains against Clay, his yellow teeth flashing in a grimace as he tries to force Clay’s arms back. Clay’s injured hand sags, but his good hand drives the knife toward the trader’s throat. Eyes widening, the trader watches the knife inch toward him.
I bite my lip. I know I need to keep whoever it is underneath me out of the fight, but judging from how little he’s moving, there’s not much chance of him being a threat. But maybe he’s bluffing. Maybe he’ll spring up once I’ve eased off him and cut my throat. I stay put and watch the awful fight, my chest a bundles of nerves.
The trader lurches forward, attempting to throw Clay off balance. Clay stumbles, knees banging into a boulder, but doesn’t lose his grip. The knife hovers inches from the trader’s throat. Suddenly, the trader drops one knee, slipping sideways, flinging Clay forward over the boulder, into the dust, and onto his back. The knife goes flying into the dirt. The trader lurches for the gun at his feet.
“Clay!” I shout, jumping up. I tear toward the trader, who draws up his shotgun, his finger searching for the trigger. The dying fire lights up the man’s beard, his furrowed brow, the snarl on his face as he aims the barrel at Clay’s chest. Clay, in the dust, is climbing to his feet, one hand out as if he could catch the bullet that’s about to hollow him. I sprint toward the trader as fast as my body will allow.
In the last second before the gun goes off, my eyes dart to Clay’s face and watch his eyes go wide as he realizes he’s about to be shot. I open my mouth to scream. I won’t make--
The gun clicks, but there’s no boom, no recoil. The man stares at the gun in his hands, shocked. Clay, too, stares at the barrel. A misfire.
I jump, diving into the trader’s back. My body slams into his, jarring every inch of me. My chest smashes into his shoulder, my knee into his leg, my jaw snapping with a hollow pop. We both go down hard and my wind is knocked away. I can’t see the trader or his shotgun. I can’t breathe. Something moves beneath me. The trader. He’s trying to find his gun. Slowly, head spinning, I lift my eyes.
A blur of movement to my right. Clay. He tackles the trader pinned under my legs and we’re all one big pile of arms and legs and fists. I manage to roll away and scramble to my feet. On the ground, Clay’s on his knees, punching and kicking. The trader lies in a fetal position, trying in vain to protect his face, his innards.
“Stop,” I shout as he lands more blows. “Clay, stop!”
He stops mid-punch and looks up at me. His face is red and dirt-caked. Anger crinkles the corners of his eyes, but drains away as he stares up into my face. He nods once and pins the trader. He spits blood and says, “Get some rope.”
As I’m circling around the fire, I remember the figure under the blanket. When I run over, he’s still there and hasn’t moved a muscle. Now that we’ve got the other one subdued, I prod the blanket with my toe.
“Don’t make a move,” I say. “We got your buddy pinned. If you go along easy, we won’t have to hurt ya.”
The figure under the blanket doesn’t move. Curiosity digging at me, I slowly draw the blanket back.
A cap of short brown hair appears first, then small hands and thin wrists bound with rope. That explains why he didn’t help fight. This person’s too small to be a man, so I think boy, and yet there’s a feminine quality to the arms and wrists that suggests girl. I draw the blanket back all the way.
Hands slowly pull away from a frightened face, wide brown eyes alert and fearful, a slender ski-slope nose and full lips. Girl or boy? Or neither? An asexual bender, neither male nor female, but some mutation of both.
I crouch in front of the figure and meet her (his?) gaze. Those giant, animal eyes watch my every move.
“It’s okay,” I say. “We’re not gonna hurt you.”
The bender says nothing, just watches me. She’s pretty enough, but I can tell there are male qualities about her that she plays up—baggy clothes, short hair, dirt smudged around her chin and cheeks to look like a swatch of stubble. The same tricks I pull.
“Did he hurt you?” I ask, pointing to the trader pinned under Clay.
Again no answer. Her eyes dart from me to where her captor lies face-down on the ground.
I look at the rope lashed violently around her red wrists. When I reach for them, she pulls away. “I’m going to untie you. Your hands first, okay? Then I’ll come back for your feet in a minute.”
This time when I reach for her wrists she only flinches, but doesn’t pull away. I dig out knots with my fingers, trying hard not to hurt her peeled skin. Looks like she’s been tied up for a while.
“Riley?” Clay calls from across the fire. “What’s goin’ on?”
“Getting the rope!” I call. He seemed open minded about benders when he thought I was one, but with his adrenaline pumping from the fight, he might need a minute to clear his head.
I walk the rope around the fire to Clay. He lashes the trader’s hands together behind his back. “What you got over there?” he asks, as he’s tying knots.
“He’s got a captive. Pretty roughed up.”
Clay stops lashing and frowns. “Boy or girl?”
“Hard to say,” I lie. I haven’t seen proof, but I’d bet dollars to donuts it’s a bender.
Clay sniffs and continues tying. “Let me finish up here and then we’ll have a look.”
"What we gonna do with him?” I ask, looking over the trader. Clay’s punches have pounded a sturdy man in his forties into a trembling wreck. Blood meanders through his beard. He’s limp as Clay binds his wrists.
Once Clay’s done with the last knot, he stands and peers at his handiwork. “Not sure what to do. If it were me, I’d probably finish it off quick, but—”
I open my mouth to protest and he cuts me off.
“But it’s not just me. It’s you and me. And you say no killin’, so there’s no killin’.” Clay sighs. “The stuff I do for you.”
I lean in and kiss his cheek. “I’m worth it.”
Clay nods. “Yes, ma’am.”
We walk back around the fire to where the bender is furiously digging at the rope around her ankles. With bloodied fingernails, she scrapes at knots like a raccoon clawing out of a cage.
Clay leans back, taking her in. “A girl?” he asks, turning to me.
Leaning close, I whisper in his ear. “A bender, I think. Be nice to her. The bastard over there’s been rough.”
“I’m nice,” Clay mutters, playing hurt at my comment. He walks to where the bender sits in the dirt and crouches before her.
She stops digging at the rope and looks at him like any moment he might attack her. I walk over and crouch beside him to show we’re both good guys.
“Howdy,” Clay says, running a hand through his messy brown hair. “Looks like you’ve had a rough go as of late.”
She says nothing. Her dirty face hardens.
Clay tries again. “We ain’t like him.” Clay points to the bound man. “We don’t kidnap.”
Her eyes go to me. “Bender?” she asks.
I look at Clay and back at her. Answering truthfully would reveal the secret of my gender and that’s very dangerous. “Yeah. You?”
She doesn’t answer at first, just blinks at me and then shifts her eyes to Clay. Finally, she gives a curt nod with her eyes to the dirt.
“What’s your name?” I ask, shifting to sit in the dirt beside her.
“Nada,” she says quietly. Her dirty hands clasp her knees and her shoulders slump. When she’s not angry, she looks down right pathetic.
“Nada’s a nice name,” I say, elbowing Clay who’s staring now. He nods heavily.
“Yep, nice. You been with him long?” he asks, pointing back to the man moaning in the dirt.
She shakes her head. “He caught me ’bout fifty miles from here at an old well. He was taking me back.”
“Back where?” Clay asks.
Nada’s eyes shoot up and her expression tightens. She looks as though she’s already said too much.
I try another tactic. “You got family?”
She shakes her head, still looking wary. Then she points at her bound feet and her eyes meet mine.
“Oh. Right.” I lean down to untie the knots, but Clay’s hand on mine stops me.
“Can I have a word?” he asks, tugging on my arm.
I shoot him a curious look. “Just a minute,” I say to Nada. I follow Clay up the hill a ways and out of earshot.
“What?” I ask, watching Nada by the fire. Once we’re gone she starts digging at the rope again.
“I don’t know, Ri. She might run off and tell people about you.” Clay crosses his hands over his chest and sighs.
“Who’s she gonna tell?” I ask. “She’s as much on the run as I am.”
“Not if she suspects you’re a girl. A bender might be worth a month’s wages. You…” He pauses and looks me over like he’s seeing me for the first time. “You’re worth a lifetime’s pay to the right buyer.” He bites his lip. “Like my mother.”
I blow out my breath, considering. “Nada thinks I’m a bender like her.”
"How d’you know what she thinks?” he asks, furrowing his brow. “How do you know she won’t squeal the minute she gets picked up again? ‘I got a better prize right down the road. Follow me.’ People’ll throw you to the wolves, Ri.”
“You think I don’t know that?” I ask, feeling heat creep up my neck. I hate when he acts like I don’t know how the world works. He’s the one who grew up privileged, safe behind town walls with every luxury in the world. I clench my fists and stare at Nada, chewing on the bonds that hold her feet together. “We can’t just leave her.”
“We can’t take her with us,” Clay says, his fingers tracing the handle of his revolver. “We ain’t got enough supplies.”
“Well, we can’t kill her,” I say, angry.
Clay shoots me a look and puts a finger to his lips to tell me I’ve been too loud. We both look down the hill. The bender’s stopped digging at her rope and is sucking on bloody fingers. God, she looks so pathetic.
“We gotta free her. I can’t live with myself if we do anything else.”
“Let’s think on it,” Clay says, walking up the ridge. “I’ll go get Ethan. You stay here and keep an eye on things.”
Slowly, I walk back down into the ring of firelight. As the bender watches, I throw a couple scraggly logs on the blaze. Then I sit heavily beside her and sigh.
“You should get out of here,” Nada whispers.
I look over. Her bottom lip has been busted and healing into a dark crease. Old bruises dot one cheek.
“I’m safe with Clay,” I say, letting my eyes linger up the moonlit ridge. “We take care of each other.”
“No bender is safe. Not with a man.”
I sigh, thinking about how I should explain this without giving away too much. “Clay’s different. He wouldn’t—”
“There’s a bounty.” She stares at me, eyes wide.
“It’s big. Big enough that every trader, every wannabe trader, too, is snatching up benders. No place is safe.” She drops her eyes to her dirty jeans. “You should just kill me now.”
“I’m not gonna kill you.” My insides are cold. I don’t like hearing there’s a bounty on benders. That means I’m not safe no matter where I go. Even passing as a bender won’t keep me out of harm’s way anymore.
Beside me, Nada begins sniffling. I try to touch her shoulder, but she shies away and goes back to digging at the bonds around her ankles.
“Here, stop that,” I say, putting my hands on top of hers. Her fingers tremble under mine. This is all too much. I can’t stand the suffering look on this poor bender’s face. I draw out my hunting knife and slip it through the twine. When the rope frays, I look at Nada, my heart pounding.
She looks between me and her free ankles with disbelief.
“If you want, we can try to drive you someplace safe. We’re headed north to a town ther—”
Before I can finish my sentence, Nada springs at me. Her hands slam into my chest, bowling me over into the dirt. I’m so shocked, I don’t even think to fight back when she grabs my knife.
“What’re you doing?” I manage to yell. I reach for her, but she’s quick. She jumps off me and runs around the fire.
I push up and after her, but she has a big head start. She sprints around the campfire toward the shotgun. Maybe she thinks I’m too big to kill with a knife. Instead she’ll shoot me.
I was so stupid.
She skids to her knees beside the man who’s bound and lying face down in the dirt.. She must want the keys to his truck. We found it parked behind a butte. But she can’t get his keys and shoot me at the same time. I’m about to pounce when the knife flashes upward. What’s she--
Nada plunges the knife in a slashing arch down into the man’s back, two stabs right where his heart would be. The man twitches and is still.
I skid to a stop a few feet away and stare, the shock freezing me in place. She just… killed him. Bright red blood jets from his back.
I can’t believe it.
Nada runs into the dark like a coyote skittering away into the night.
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