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Blood, Coffee, & Motor Oil

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prologue
The Open Road Cafe has been Furiosa’s go-to coffee shop for the last four years, ever since she moved to Australia. Though Starbucks has swept to this far-flung corner of the earth as well, the Open Road is an independent holdout seemingly ready to stand the test of time. Near enough to the highway for convenience, the place still attracts the blue collar set, truckers mostly with a dollar and change, looking for a Styrofoam cup of joe, no milk, no sugar, and certainly no funny machiatto-latte-brulee-mocha-venti-grande business. Furiosa likes the place because the owners know her, and keep a pot of drip coffee going in the mornings for her, without judging her terrible American ways.

Which is why, when Furiosa arrives in the shop at six am the next morning to stumble upon the sight of a milk steamer being installed against the back wall, she looks around for the barista with immediate concern and suspicion. True to her worries, she doesn’t recognize the man leaning up against the till.

“Under new management?” She asks, aware that this is perhaps a gross overreaction, given the fact that she’s dealing with just one new piece of equipment, and one new face. It comes out probably a little more hostile than she might otherwise have intended, if it weren’t six in the morning, if she’d had her coffee yet.

“Mm,” says the barista, which seems to be a ‘yes,’ and Furiosa takes a closer look at him. Ten hands or so, maybe 180, well muscled, sandy brown hair and a black t-shirt. He looks like the sort who should be off getting into trouble more than standing behind the bar of a coffee shop. With the counter between them she can’t tell if he’s wearing the uniform apron or not. The best thing Furiosa can say about him is that he’s currently filling up one of those little Styrofoam cups of coffee, without needing to be asked, and holding it out to her without a word.

She drops her money on the counter, and holds up a hand to forestall him when he opens the till and starts to go through the motions of making change. Without bothering to wait and see if he looks thankful about the tip, she turns on her heel and is on her way out the door, coffee in hand.

 

PART 1
---

It’s an unsettling start to an unsettling day. The little town of Citadel is small enough that Furiosa’s is the only mechanics shop in town, and as a rule that helps her. It means that by now, year four of being the proprietor of the business, the locals are finally returning. This is the kind of township where you’re ‘the new one’ for the first fifteen, twenty years your family spends here, and only now are most people quitting their habit of driving two towns over to a garage that’s a little more ‘reliable, dear, no offence.’

She knows the place. It’s run by a nice man in his sixties who was born on one of the local farmsteads, and has several things that make him a safer bet in the eyes of the locals, including, but not limited to, local pedigree, two hands, and a penis.

Splendid had once slyly suggested that she should buy a penis and display it somewhere in the shop, to set the locals at easy, but Furiosa thinks that might have done more harm than good. (The pang at the thought of dear Splendid is immediate, but passes quickly enough, as she catches her breath.)

Anyways, after about year three, her reputation among the trucking community for fair dealing and fast work had won one town convert, and with that one came another, and this last year Furiosa has spent about as much time on the local machinery as she has the big rigs pulled in off the long and desolate stretch of nearby highway. Business is up, the pay is finally something approaching good, and by the time she’s in at work and shrugging off her short leather jacket, her mood is much improved.

Furiosa likes getting into the shop good and early. She gets a start on the work day before the sun is too high in the sky. By midsummer, the morning cool will only last a few minutes, and the afternoon sun will be scorchingly hot, but today she has an hour or two while the sky is still a watery, robins’ egg sort of blue. She opens up the hood of old Mr Gunderson’s pick up truck, and loses herself in the morning’s work, in getting the poor old machine to get a bit more go.

The morning passes by quickly like that. Furiosa enjoys these kinds of jobs- they don’t pay, Capable would gently remind her, hardly anything compared to the amount of hours she sinks in to them. Still, she considers it leisure time. It’s balm to the endless dent removal and broken headlights. She loses herself in the work, and by the time the phone rings, a few hours later, she’s covered in motor oil and sweat, and so lost in the job that she doesn’t realize she’s getting a call till something like the third ring.

She’s just stripping off her gloves when machine beats her to it. In the style of everything else in the shop, a thing slightly out of time, the answering machine speaks out loud to the room, announcing the store hours in Splendid’s soft voice, and that can’t come to the phone right now but to leave a message after the beep.

“Hi, Fury, it’s me,” chimes Toast, with the kind of affection and ease that make her wince- if her tenants were just slightly more intimidated by her, her life would be a lot easier, “I know you’re probably out in the yard, listening in. Ms Brown wants me to remind you to get out of the sun and to eat lunch at some point. I wanted to remind you that you owe me a cup of coffee and you’ve been putting it off for weeks. So, we’re meeting at noon, for your lunch break, since I know full bloody well that you don’t have anything on then, and you can’t make any excuses. If that’s a problem you’d better pick up the phone now, but otherwise see you at the Open Road for twelve okay thanks bye!”

Aware, perhaps, that Furiosa was lunging for the phone to make her excuses, Toast’s voice picks up speed on the last sentence, biting the words out quickly before disconnecting the call in a hurry, just as Furiosa makes it to the line.

She doesn’t swear. She does, however, close her eyes in defeat, and rest her forehead against the counter, letting a breath out through her nose and running through a quick plea for serenity.

The girls don’t bother her as much as she’d like to pretend they do. The problem is, they all know it.

While she’s bent over like that, the shop door chimes, and Furiosa straightens up, planting her palms flat on the counter and leaning into it, assuredly, summoning the closest thing she has to a customer-service smile and reaching for a rag to wipe down her clean hand, and the fingers of her prosthetic. She politely ignores the double-take, the lingering stare that the young man gives her, pleased at least that he doesn’t seem to know which part of her should surprise him most.

--

Furiosa isn’t thinking about the latte machine when she trudges back down the road to the coffee shop. What’s preoccupying her now is the sting of sweat in her eyes, and the suspicion that she may have motor oil on her face from leaning up against the counter before. The kid who’d come in had just taken a card and scampered, so she’s pretty sure she’s lost that one to the armless-penisless phenomenon from before, despite her best (dreadfully poor) customer service smile. She’s only just getting her attention back to the meeting at hand, to Toast and her long hinted at ‘need to talk’ that this coffee is fulfilling. It isn’t about making rent; the cost is deliberately low in Furiosa’s building, and anyways, Toast has been semi-stably employed for the few months she’s lived in the city. Not so reliably employed that Furiosa is going to let her pay for the coffee, of course, which brings her to the thought that she doesn’t know whether she grabbed her wallet on the way out? She’s checking the pockets of her jeans for cash, front and back, when she finds herself practically at the counter and looking up...

At no one at all. Furiosa goes onto her toes, to see over the display of coffee tins, the pastry fridge, and one of the carafes to see if someone might be standing down at the other end of the bar, but no luck there. She turns, and searches the rest of the shop in a slow sweep, when she stumbles upon the sight of the barista from this morning.

The man is standing in the front window, an incongruously small tin watering can in one of his big hands, apparently tending to the shop window boxes. He is in an apron, she can see now. Not only that, he has a plastic sticker on his chest. Where an employee ID pin might normally rest, someone has stuck a ‘HELLO my name is’ sticker. Furiosa places an instant bet with herself that an employer has instructed him to wear it, but hadn’t gone any more specific with the instructions, because the barista hasn’t actually filled it in.

He’s also staring at her, and has been for the last several seconds, apparently, while she’s been standing at his cash register, and now blatantly looking him over.

Long, long years of life have left Furiosa largely immune to feelings of mortification, so she just steps backwards and leans against his counter, resting her hands on the lip of it, like she has all the time in the world. Whether he falls for it or not, the corner of his mouth quirks up in what might be sort of a smile, and the only thing that saves her from having to come to terms with the fact that she is physically attracted to this person who is potentially a machiatto-involved idiot is the chime above the door going off as Toast slips in.

“You’ve got motor oil on your face.” Toast announces, loudly, as she bounds in for a hug, gamely and kindly ignoring what the dust and mess Furiosa is covered in is going to do to her white sundress. Still, it’s the kind of hug that’s mostly chest and shoulder, to spare her the worst of it.

“You’re late.” Furiosa answers back, opening her eyes in time to see hello-my-name-is moving past them, to the counter and then behind it. By the time she straightens up and turns to face the cash, he’s set the watering can down and is washing his hands in the employee sink, broad back turned to them. Toast is standing over the pastry display, looking in at the rows of items, almost certainly all bulk purchased and freshly defrosted, but appetizingly sugary nonetheless.

“One coffee,” same order as this morning, “and whatever she’s getting, thanks.”

“You can’t have coffee.” Toast interjects, without looking up from the pastries. The barista’s hand freezes on the carafe. “It’s obscene. It’s a million degrees out there, get something iced, would you?”

He looks from Toast to her, as though awaiting a final verdict, and Furiosa scrubs her hand over her face, before remembering she’s just smearing grease around, and that now it’s on her palm, again. He’s still staring at her, so she just shakes her head, and sets a note down on the counter. She’s paying, she gets to decide, and she wants plain and simple hot coffee.

The only amendment she makes, when she sees him reaching for the Styrofoam again, is to add;

“For here.”

The place has no air conditioning, but it has some shade, and a little rotating fan standing near the back wall, and they can at least stay out of the noonday sun. She can at least use their bathroom while Toast keeps pretending to resist the sweets section.

Furiosa steps into the familiar back corner, flicks on the light, and turns the water on with just her fingertips so as not to continue to spread the mess anywhere. She soaps her hand off quickly, and dries it on the hand towel, before stopping to take a paper towel to the worst of the mess on her face, as well. The bathroom mirror needs a good cleaning, she thinks, which is at least one thing about the place that hasn’t changed under the new management. After a moment of looking past the crud on the glass, and the oil on her face, she takes a good, hard long look at herself.

She can do this. Snapping out of it, Furiosa steps out of the bathroom, squaring herself off to face the combined obstacles that are the barista and her tenant.

Toast has settled down in one of the chairs close to the fan, and the barista is busy behind the counter- but catches her eye and nods her towards the cash register. She’d put down a twenty, and while it had been reasonable to just leave the change this morning, there’s considerably more of it now. She pockets the notes, and tosses the coins into the little tin can marked tips, with felt pen on masking tape. The barista nods at her, and sets two cups down on the counter in front of her. Her own ceramic mug, and Toast’s tall, cool glass of iced tea.

Furiosa looks down at the glasses, and then very gingerly sets her palms back on the counter. It’s rare it takes someone this long to notice, but now she gets to see the expression on his face when he takes all of her in. His eyebrows lift ever so slightly, the universal look of surprise that almost everyone gets. It’s partially that she has a prosthetic arm at all, she knows, but also that it’s an unusual one. Furiosa has manufactured herself rudimentary fingers, an elbow joint and a wrist with nearly full mobility. It’s cruder than some of the really advanced limbs that are coming out these days, but better than many people are able to afford. She’s able, for example, to pocket her change and then to take the glassware gently in hand, and deliberately, carefully, walk over to where Toast is sitting, waiting for her.

“What’s this about, Toast?”

Her gruffness is practiced, but softened a bit by the way she lowers her voice. The barista is cleaning up after making their drinks, but is too near within hearing range for her comfort. He seems to be actively trying not to listen, but casts a glance or two in their direction. Luckily, within a few seconds, he ducks into the back, and she can turn her attention back to the issue at hand.

“I have another potential tenant for you.” Toast says, and the bottom drops right out of Furiosa’s stomach. She knows it doesn’t show in her face, which is something, but it reflects in Toast’s eyes in ways she doesn’t particularly care to think about.

“She’s just the kind of girl the organization likes to place. She’s- her boyfriend.” Toast says, voice sliding lower, delicately, glancing at the kitchen now. “She’s from Darwin. Up North.”

“Thanks, Toast,” Furiosa answers, drily, because one day they’ll stop pretend-assuming she knows absolutely nothing about the geography of her adopted home.

“Right. And her boyfriend- well, right now, she’s in an emergency housing unit and she can stay there for a week. But she’s really nature oriented, she’d like to move out somewhere she could get work on one of the farms. And the further away she is from him, Fury, the better.”

Furiosa lets out a breath. The apartment building is more of a house, actually, with segments converted into small housing units, and a communal living space on the ground floor. Furiosa serves as landlord, superintendant, and man-of-all-work, and in return has a small cabin to herself towards the back of the property, an old converted servant’s quarters. The premise is run as a not-for-profit by one of the womyn’s groups associated with her mother’s old gang, the aim of which is to provide reasonably priced, discreet, sisterhood oriented housing for women leaving abusive situations. They’re far more grassroots than they are, strictly speaking, ‘licensed,’ but since the women own the property themselves, and the money the girls contribute really just goes to utilities and upkeep, they skate by largely under the radar. Furiosa likes to pretend to insist on rent being paid in a timely manner, because of firm belief that the women who live with her need to get in the habit of getting back on their own two feet, but in reality no one has ever been evicted from the home, no matter how long the cheques went unpaid.

There is, technically, a vacancy. As much as she wants to protest, and as much as she can see that Toast looks uncomfortable asking, it sounds like there is also a woman in need.

She’s still thinking of Splendid when the barista comes out of the back again. He’s carrying a rag and spray bottle, and headed for the bathroom. He leaves the door open, in case the front doorbell chimes, she bets, except she can also tell that he’s in earshot again.

Toast is watching her with concern in her expression, clearly still waiting for her overdue answer. In the end, it’s easier to know what to do than it is to say it out loud. The memory of one shouldn’t be enough to compromise the safety of another, she reminds herself.

So, Furiosa nods, and winces when she sees just how relieved Toast looks. Grateful, too, enough to promise, in a high, excited voice;

“I’ll pack things up, if you like. I can buy boxes on the way home from work.”

“No, no,” Furiosa says, with a sigh, “I’ve got a budget built in for things like this. If you want, you can help, but I have to go over the room for damage anyways. Don’t worry about it.”

Toast grins, and changes the topic. It’s a good thing she does, because the barista goes back to his counter, lounging behind it now with the local paper, making Furiosa feel ever so mildly antsy. The policy, as informal as everything else about the house, is not to discuss it with anyone, anyone who doesn’t live there. Many of the women who come through have to deal with stalking and criminal harassment, even the odd unethical private investigator. Continuing any discussion of the new girl’s living arrangement in front of this man would be strictly taboo.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that Furiosa’s mental habit of referring to her tenants as ‘the girls’ would make her mother roll over in her grave. They’re all over the age of eighteen, currently, if just barely- it just also happens that the oldest of them is currently twenty five, and to Furiosa’s thirty nine years that makes them ‘the girls,’ as much as the sisterhood would insist on their being ‘the women.’ On this score, she can’t help but feel vaguely guilty, and that the second wavers from her childhood are really the ones that had it right.

The rest of her lunch hour goes quickly. The coffee helps, and so does the fact that the barista (henceforth the barista) is joined by a second one, a kid much younger than him and one with apparently a little more authority in the situation. Yeah, he’s the same kid who was in her garage earlier, she’s pretty sure, but the way he’s talking to this guy now lightens her mood. Her bet about the tag was right, apparently- she doesn’t catch the words over the noise of the fan and Toast’s conversation, but there’s no mistaking the timbre of frustration in the kid’s tone or the fact that he’s clearly reaching for the felt pen sitting next to the tip jar.

Picking up her coffee cup and holding the rim against her mouth, to tamp down a smile, Furiosa leans forward ever so slightly to peek around the watering can and the new kid- a wiry little thing with bright blue eyes and a slightly manic energy in his step. Unperturbed, his subordinate employee is still leaning against the counter, with his hands now tucked into the pockets of his apron, and a freshly inked nametag on his chest.

On the way out, Toast is the one to say it first, which is good, because Furiosa isn’t sure she’d have been able to resist it.

“Bye, Max.”

 

The next morning, Furiosa stops in for coffee again, and is unsurprised to see Max again. This morning, someone has made him a customer name pin, albeit with a label maker rather than his name actually embossed into the plastic. He’s in a clean tshirt and apron, and reading the new newspaper for the day already. When Furiosa steps up to his counter, he speaks what she realizes are the first real words he’s said to her.

“You might want to consider cutting back.”

His voice is deeper than she would have imagined. The total frankness in his expression is the only indication she has that he’s kidding, except that a man in his circumstances must have a sense of humour in order to survive.

“You give that advice to every customer? That must be good for business.”

Despite his admonishment, she notices with approval that he’s already pouring her a cup, in exchange for the handful of loose change she manages to drag out of her coat pocket. Her wallet is still where-ever-the-hell, and she doesn’t own purses, so this mess is just what was down behind the sofa this morning. It lands on the counter with a fair amount of lint, and one of Capable’s hair elastics. Max looks from it, up to her, and rather wisely doesn’t ask, separating out the change he needs from the till with careful, calloused fingertips. Furiosa tips an appropriate amount back into her pocket, and drops the rest into the tip jar, coins rattling too-loud in the empty canister in a way that makes her feel a little awkward, like she’s trying to buy more of something from him.

“Boxes.” He says, as he snaps the plastic lid onto her cup for her. He brings it to the counter, and sets the cup down in front of her.

“Sorry?”

“Your friend yesterday said you needed boxes. We’ve got them ‘round back, big cardboard ones. Cup delivery, lid delivery, beans, napkins...”

He trails off at the look on her face, and she can only guess what it must be by the way his expression shutters. He hadn’t exactly been open before, but now he looks like he expects her to throw a punch. Honestly, if there weren’t a counter between them she might be tempted to.

Furiosa takes her coffee, turns on her heel, and gets the hell out.

---

The thing about Splendid wasn’t that she was pregnant. Furiosa had known many women who were. Violence tended to escalate during a pregnancy, in many kinds of abusive relationships, so rudimentary prenatal care was a familiar part of her job.

It wasn’t how long she’d stayed, either, because there were girls who had been there longer- Capable and Cheedo had both arrived before Splendid, and stayed since. Toast had arrived not long after.

It wasn’t even the death, though that was always terrible. Other women had come her way and gone back again before. Abusive relationships are hard to leave in every sense of the word, and some returns were a part of the work. Furiosa tried not to let her heart break for them, let them know they’d be welcome back if they ever needed, and hoped for the best while expecting the worst. Among those women, there had been fatalities.

The thing about Splendid that is ripping Furiosa apart is not knowing. Splendid had disappeared from home without warning four months back. Heavily pregnant, fleeing an abusive husband (a religious leader of something culty and a real fucking shithead, from the sounds of things) it hadn’t made sense for Splendid to flee without a word. She’d left her clothes, her things, everything she’d gathered in anticipation of the birth of the child- but with her wallet and her car gone, the officers Furiosa had dealt with in the aftermath had been firm that there was nothing they could do. An investigation, they informed her, would remain ongoing, but with no indication that Joe had any information about his estranged wife’s whereabouts, they couldn’t do more than hold him for questioning.

The whole thing makes her sick to her stomach to think about, to this day. It’s as much of an outright failure of the home as they’ve ever had. The police remain sure that Splendid has just moved on, cut and run, and promise to keep an eye out for her car- but Furiosa is growing more and more privately sure that neither will ever be found. Packing up the boxes feels like a grim confirmation of that defeat.

It takes until late afternoon, a skipped lunch break and a whole morning spent on her back underneath the front end of a Mazda older than Cheedo for her to come to terms with the fact that she may have been a little harsh with Max, given his apparent attempt at helpfulness and his total lack of context for the situation.

She drops her head back a little further, twists the wrench again, then lets out a long breath of frustration and tries to decide if it’s worth bothering to apologize.

Tonight is Wednesday, which is communal cooking night, an event that is not to be missed. So, Furiosa puts her barista problems out of her head, lets herself off work early, and locks the place up behind her. The sun is still high enough in the sky that she doesn’t want to try to walk home, so she grabs her keys and helmet from behind the counter and gets on her bike. The thing scared the hell out of the locals her first year here, before she’d managed to get across that ever motorcycle driver out there wasn’t necessarily part of a gang- leaving well-out the fact that yes, at one point arguably she was, because there’s just too much context there to try to impart to the townsfolk.

It’s only a few minutes ride out down the back roads, though, and she doesn’t end up passing a single car on her way up to the house. Sure, a housewife or two probably peeks out at her from behind the curtains, but there will never not be rumours about what goes on in this place, and the current ones that revolve around some kind of pot dealing suit her just fine.

She parks around back, and heads in to clean up the kitchen, prior to the big cook-out of the evening.

Furiosa’s place is actually drug-free, though her own back apartment have a few brownies tucked in the freezer that may have a little more of a kick to them than is really expected. Alcohol, though, they aren’t as fussy about, and dinner turns out to be Mexican food on the porch, with margharitas by the pitcher, thanks to Capable’s firm guidance. Toast has told her, Furiosa can tell, about the clean up that’s going to be done, so the conversation tonight is a little more warm than usual, a little more tender, as the three current residents express their care for her in the ways they know best, namely food and drink.

“And then he got electrocuted,” Cheedo is saying, which snaps her wandering attention back to the conversation they’re having, “which is like the third hospitalization this picture. Fourth, if you count the extra who went into anaphylactic shock over the sunscreen allergy.”

“What were the other two?” Capable asks, brows drawn together.

“A grip was moving a fan that someone hadn’t put the front casing on, and it was fast and sharp enough that it actually took off his thumb.” Cheedo answers, which makes Toast cringe and put a hand over her eyes. “And that aide I’m in replacing was the one who broke her ankle on the steps up to the trailer.”

Country out here is filming territory, which is good contract work if you can get it, and Cheedo has worked on three pictures now and seems to be finding a knack for it. She’s been one of the slowest to find her feet that Furiosa has known in a long time, but that air of learned helplessness and fragility is finally starting to diminish in earnest. Getting called in to this picture as a replacement had been a huge coup. The actor she’s working with now had remembered her and specifically suggested to check if she might be free, after the accident with her predecessor. The work is a commute and a half, honestly, but the independence is too good for her to pass up.

“As glad as I am you’re getting to do this...” Capable starts to joke, and Furiosa looks out over the dust outside, and the stars that are just coming out. This far out away from the city, even the diffuse lights of the town aren’t enough to diminish the nighttime sky. It’s glorious, in a way that the girls had never seen from the cities they’d come from. Furiosa remembers sights like it, on the long treks on the back of her mother’s bike when she was a girl.

“There’s a new guy at the coffee shop.” Toast says, apropos of nothing except for maybe Furiosa’s total inability to focus. She says it with enough light, loaded intention that it’s clearly the start of a story, not the end of one. “His name is Max, and he’s cute, and Furiosa intimidates him.”

Capable snorts, which probably means something along the lines of ‘doesn’t she everyone?’ which makes Furiosa smile, thin lipped and triumphant, taking another long few sips of her drink.

She doesn’t need to fill them in on what happened this morning, she figures. For now, she plays along.

“It’s been a while since a man like that came into town.”

Cheedo’s mouth drops slightly open, like she’s just heard her own mother admit to having a sex drive. She’s only thirty nine, for Christ’s sake, but these kids sometimes make her feel ninety.

It’s Toast who wins the round though, with a musing;

“Imagine Susan Greer’s face if you go through her grocery store check out line with a pack of cigarettes and a box of condoms.”

Cheedo goes beet red, Capable about goes over backwards with a shout of laughter, and Furiosa climbs to her feet, mouth twitching in an indulgent smile. She leaves them to their laughter, and to the eventual cleanup, strolling her own way back up to her little house, coasting on the mild buzz and trying not to think about the fact that it’s Wednesday and she has work in the morning.

---
The next day, with an unduly blistering headache, and equally undue roiling sense of humiliation, given she’d only had a single drink, momentarily unwilling to face any of it, Furiosa breaks a promise to herself and to her ancestors both.

On her way in to work she resorts to Starbucks.