July 1st, Year of our Fair Lord 10, East-West Highway
The central south of Westfall was flat. They took a bus through the forested midlands, then out across the open countryside and its prairies. July baked the air, but it was drier in the west than it was in the east. Eventually they veered south, towards the border.
Jill stared out the window of the bus, watching the scenery roll by. She used to like busses, and boats, and cars. She used to like vehicles. It hadn’t been that much time ago that she’d learned to drive, and to her riding was still easier. You didn’t have to think. You left the work up to someone else. Why worry on top of everything about how to get somewhere?
But it was starting to matter. She used to be observant, now she wondered what had happened to her that she couldn’t focus. Wasn’t fight or flight syndrome supposed to make you think better? Or was that just move faster? Or was it that you stopped thinking as much? Jill was starting to bet on the last one. You were hyped on adrenaline so you couldn’t think in the long term. There was just the need to get away, to run, to hide, to escape. Letting someone convey you just felt like another trap.
So much of my life was screwed up by that day, she reflected. She reached down to adjust her backpack, which was serving as a kind of leg rest. She sat cross legged on a back seat of the bus. She hadn’t wanted to stow her luggage. That was a symptom too, probably. She knew she didn’t want her only means of survival out of her sight.
Well, not her only means, but she didn’t like thinking about relying on Fred. That had gotten her into the whole mess with him in the first place. Even so, she did take it for granted, didn’t she, that his advice had helped, that he wasn’t a bad person?
She scoffed at herself for the thought. You’re doing it all over again, she berated herself, looking for a hero. He’s not it. Be smart. No one looks out for you but you. Rose and Pastor are different—their families are messed up. You have people to worry about.
Fred did too, of course, but though he was only a year older than her, she understood that his parents didn’t need anyone taking care of them. They were the sort of people who would probably go parasailing when they were ninety, just to tick it off the bucket list.
It was an unfair thought really, but it made Jill reflect on how much she felt she had to take care of everyone these days. Worrying out loud had been her method of choice and that wasn’t really doing much. She needed a new strategy.
The end of the world was as good enough a time as any to start thinking of one. What could she do to make this problem go away?
Fair Kings and their Lords didn’t need anything, but humans did. Fred had explained it but Jill wasn’t entirely sure she understood. The more you wished, the more power they had to act. The more you trusted them, the more you wished, and so on. If they couldn’t convince you to trust them to do good, they could always terrify you into expecting the worst. It was all about getting attention, like a show or some game. Even stories belied their stage-hogging presence. Every hero needed a monster, and you had to wonder if the two were playing on the same team all along in fairy tales. And, if so, was there some good, opposite pairing like them somewhere that could fight such insidious cooperation?
Jill glanced across the line of seats to Rose and Pastor. Rose was curled up on her side, her bag also at her feet. Pastor was slumped against the window, his head craned back, still and probably asleep by how limp he was when the slight turns jostled him. Jill wondered if it was hard falling asleep when you were blind, and could you cry? Did your throat just get stuck up? She felt a little embarrassed at the thought of asking.
The more serious question about them was, what was Pastor Wellington that the Slight Twice King would flinch?
If she could figure that out, then maybe the next time she and the Slight Twice King met, she could do more than stand terrified with a gun to her head. At the way things were progressing, she could hardly hope to live through their next encounter, right? And who knew what he’d do to her family after?
She looked ahead a row to where Fred sat with his head against the glass window, his arms and legs folded as a means of bracing himself while he slept. He had always been a light sleeper, though, so she reached across and poked his shoulder, knowing he’d wake up almost immediately. He opened his eyes, then blinked and looked back at her.
“Everything okay?” he asked.
Jill gathered her thoughts into something coherent. “We’re almost to the end of this, aren’t we?” she asked, “Glitterford?”
“You’re in a hurry to see me gone, I know,” he concluded, and settled back. Irritated, she poked him again. “What?”
She tried to whisper across the aisle. It didn’t quite work with the rumbling of the bus. “What if Rose is wrong?” she asked.
Fred frowned and looked around at the other passengers. He lowered his voice. “We don’t even know what she’s right about.”
“You think she’s right?”
“We can talk at the next rest stop,” he said seriously, “but I assume, when people with more power are upset at you, you’re probably right about something.”
“Like maybe there really is a way to—”
“Next stop,” Fred interrupted, and made a more pointed glance at the passengers.
Jill sighed and leaned back in her seat. She stared down the aisle of the bus. No one seemed to be listening in, just looking out windows across the semi-desert prairies. She wished Fred had a more definite answer, but since he’d given her a thought to chew on she relented.
There wasn’t much to see out here but some rock formations in the distance. It made a good border region, really. You could see anything coming for miles.
If you remembered to look up.