"Morning, runner babies, and welcome to your daily dose of radiation. If this is beaming in your eardrums, you've probably got spooks on your heels, so make sure to give them a good one-fingered salute. Doctor's orders.
For everyone who's left their ghost or dust in the desert sand, and for everyone who will, we got a little piece of life in the zone. Forgiveness. Love. Loss. That's right, babies. I'm talking about the Mailbox."
"And this is the Mailbox."
Show Pony grins. "We send a lot of mail out here?"
"Not the kind that gets returned," Patrick says, running his hands over the paint. Painting's not his thing, but he'd taken some red and a brush from Party Poison a while back and added a flower on the back, where the last patches of old post-office blue remained. It's faded and bumpy with grit now, but still there.
The wind gusts, and Patrick slides on his mask automatically. Pony's only a second behind, slipping a modified motorcycle helmet over hir head. Patrick isn't sure how much good it'll do with Pony's tight leggings and bared arms, but ze seemed okay with the grains of sand biting into hir skin, or okay enough that ze only brushed off most of it with gloved hands.
"Have you been out here before?" Patrick asks, his voice a crackle in the speakers of his own helmet.
"Out to the Mailbox?"
"Out to the zones."
Ze drops in the front seat of the car and kicked hir legs up in the air. "I was born out here."
"And we're back with none other than our favorite wheels on the pavement. Good to have you spinnin', Show Pony."
"Mask up, Doc."
"Word is you were just out in the 'skirts, Pony. How's the Mailbox weathering?"
"Baking in the sun and bright as ever."
"Good to hear. Got a word to share on your lifeline to the metal box?"
"Just that I'll keep checking in."
"Rock and roll. 'Runners, watch after your crew and your gun, and we'll watch after your mailbox. Now for the Misfits."
The first piece of mail Bob ever got was a birthday card from his grandma. He doesn't remember the card anymore, but the envelope was purple, and his name was spelled out in blue ink. It was the first times he'd seen his name written out and recognized it. He'd mouthed "Robert Bryar" as he'd traced the letters with a fingertip.
The letter he sticks in the Mailbox has no name in specific, just a place scrawled on the envelope: Chicago. It was the last place he was Robert, so that's the name on the bottom, written as close to his grandma's handwriting as he can make it.
Smoke from Gerard's cigarette blows in Bob's direction. Gerard stands by the Trans Am, his back turned as the Mailbox clanks closed. It's the most space he can give.
The sun beats down as Bob closes the distance between them.
"And that was our favorite soda in the glass: Cherri Cola, with the latest from Battery City."
I've heard from some of you dragging across the zones that you don't feel the Mailbox vibing your way. That it's a cancer on a spot of earth we could be using to plant the colony. Dr. D feels your pains, babies, but spin on this: when you're nothing but your shadow, who'll remember what you were?"
The car pulls up, first as a pair of lights under the stars, then, as Victoria's eyes adjust, a body as dingy and destroyed as the rest of the cars in the zones. It's easy to sneak out of the city, almost too easy. Good think S/C/A/R/E/C/R/O/W knows nothing about subtlety.
The man stepping out of the car wears the type of jumpsuit that anyone who leaves the bubble uses. It's more durable than most Battery City outfits and less trashed than any of the secondhand outfits people in the zones wore. He pulls off the generic rebreather and says, "Got your delivery."
Victoria grins and circles back to his trunk. He parked closer to the Mailbox than usual, but the wind'll blow away the tire tracks before dawn. "Always do."
"Not sure for how much longer." He lifts the trunk lid. "Both sides are cracking down. Decay Dance--"
"Is my problem." It's hard not to get breathy when she spots the cases. Medical supplies. God, there's a million crews who'd kill her for these. "I'll send out someone else if you don't want to do it."
He sighs and brushes dirt out of his silver hair. The wind's dead, more dead than usual, so it doesn't replace. "You're willing to bring someone in on this?"
The man smiles. "I always do."
He tears out the second the cases are in Victoria's trunk, and only the light from the stars and the tribute candles stay behind.
"For everyone dropping a line: if you lost the Mailbox, I'm not your map back. Be better off stealing GPS from the City or doing what everyone else does: ask the other 'runners. Next person who ruffles my feathers gets directed to Pony. Ze's been needing target practice.
And for the rest: make sure to turn up at the colony's swap, and bring all your discards. Never know when something good's hiding in the trash."
"Mom," the envelope reads.
Grace slips the letter in the Mailbox and pulls out a pen Gerard gave her. A Sharpie, he'd said. It isn't like the pens in Battery City; they don't write on anything but the computer tablets. And it isn't like the pens in the colony; they're thin, and only used in emergencies. This one's fat, fatter than Grace's fingers. And it stinks.
She draws a small heart on the leg while Ray sticks plastic flowers at the bottom.
"They'll just get blasted," she says. "The wind."
"Yeah." Ray nods his head. "They will."
"But that's a waste." Waste's a word Grace's mom liked. Don't waste the food, we don't know when we'll get more, sweetie. It'd be a waste not to finish the water. Don't waste time outside, we don't know who's there. She can hear her say not to waste the flowers like she's there.
"Trust me, Baby," Ray says. "It's not."
After, there's only static until the sun rises again.
"I'm taking a candle out tomorrow," Mikey says. "If you want to come."
Gerard balls his fists.
No use getting pissed if you can't do anything about it, Bob would say. So Gerard kicks a paint bucket. It hits the garage wall and rattles, little flecks of red dotting the graffiti.
Mikey stands like nothing happened. If he raises an eyebrow, well. Gerard doesn't see it, that's what counts. "Or I can take something for you. Whichever."
After he leaves, Gerard grabs mostly blank sheets of paper. He finds a pen that hasn't dried completely and writes Bob's name three or four times. What he writes after aren't always words: there's small sketches of knives and laser bolts, unattached syllables, words he can't let Grace learn. He puts it all out, then scratches it out hard enough to tear through the paper, marking the board he uses as a desk with deep grooves of black.
He balls the scraps up and throws them near the paint can.
By the time he's passed out on his drawing board, he's too out of it to hear Mikey walk in. But he does hear the crinkle of paper as it's smoothed out again, and the click of the garage door as it closes behind Mikey.
"And that was Tommy Chow Mein with...well, babies, I don't know what that was. But he's around the zones if you ever want to find out.
Here's a little clip I got from my waves outside the zones: back when the good ol' US of A wasn't a pile of ashes, and the capital stood on the other end of our slab of earth, they had a little thing called the Wall. And on that Wall, they carved every single name of the dusted from a war.
Their wall fit in a city. But you've all seen the skeletons. Their names could fit on all the walls of Battery City and leave more for the empty space without buildings.
Now, Iron Maiden."
The Mailbox heats up quick. It's why Pete only leans against it at night, or in the early morning. But the wind's been up all day, and it's sunset, so he only feels it through his clothes a little. Not enough to burn.
"You hit the house in Zone Four today," he says aloud. His voice is a bit harsh, but resonant, like he's on Dr. Death Defying's show. Maybe, if the good doc has to keep running, he could take over for a while. "Your hair looks like shit, Mikes. I'll dye it first thing when you get back."
It won't be the first time he's dyed Mikey's hair. The days after the takeover had been fucked for supplies, even more than now, but Pete's always gotten what he wants. He never dyed his hair anything but black, but he liked boys who did. And God, could Mikey wear bleach.
And he took it, too. The first time he'd bleached Patrick's hair, Patrick whined the whole time about how it hurt. And his hair wasn't even that dark naturally. Mikey had to wait longer, let it set, and he barely blinked. But the first time Pete finished, and Mikey'd smiled...
Pete hits the Mailbox until it rattles.
The Mailbox is for the dusted. Mikey's still walking, haunting Route Guano nearly as much as he did before. But New Chicago's in pieces, and Pete doesn't even have his club anymore. Not like he used to.
He'll get it back. All of it.
"That's our show for the day. I've got two candles to light out at the Mailbox: one for you, and one for me. And as long as my chair keeps wheeling, I'll keep that flame lit. Signing off."
The Trans Am kicks up dirt in the air around Frank, but the breeze is throwing it back, to the point where he's got his bandanna and goggles on. Lucky he's been out here a million times. If anyone could call that lucky.
Of course, the patrol's kind of useless when he can't see, and when no one's been out this far in the zones for months. But it's better than reacting to cabin fever with laser bolts, so whatever.
He misses the Mailbox the first pass. And the second. He only finds what he's looking for when he stops the car, lets the dust clear, and melted metal and a black crater sit where the Mailbox used to. Frank even takes off his goggles, in case he's seeing wrong.
But he's not. The Mailbox is gone.