The Girl’s hand gripped Show Pony’s, tanned fingers clasped tightly around his. It helped to stop the shaking. Biting her lip, she took a tentative step forward, legs ready to buckle.
“Sure you want to do this, Darlin’?” Show Pony twitched an eyebrow towards her. “It’s not too late to turn back and run for home.”
“Where is home, Pony? Because I sure as hell haven’t found it.” The Girl looked away, off into the wavering expanse of desert. Nothing but sand and sky and the distance sound of gunfire. “This place was as close as you can get and it’s gone.”
“Yeah. It was home. But now we have to find our own way.”
“In the dark and out of harm.” The Girl repeated the words she’d heard all too often during her childhood.
“You know it.” Show Pony agreed, giving her hand a gentle squeeze. “Now are you coming or am I doing this alone?”
“Like you’d have the guts.” The Girl joked, forcing her voice to sound lively as she elbowed him teasingly in the stomach. To his credit, Pony doubled over and pretended to be incapacitated with a satisfying cry of defeat.
“Not after you’ve finished with me.” He gasped, arm wrapped protectively around his body, “I’ll have no insides left at all!”
“No one ever does after they’ve messed with me.” The Girl nodded seriously, miming firing a gun with her fingers.
“You said it, girl.” Pony flashed her a strained smile. “Let’s get this over with.”
With a small sigh, he led her away from the battered Trans Am that had been her life for as long as she could remember and towards the smoking husk of Dr D’s diner. Only one wall was left standing, crumbling like a cliff to the sea. The wooden panel covering the side entrance was blown several metres away, severely blackened and cracked.
The world fell away with a whisper.
“It’s worse than I imagined.”
“It always is.” Pony grimaced.
“Where do we even start?” The Girl asked, cringing every time her gaze settled on something definitive, too scared of what the shapes would become if she looked for too long.
“Wherever we can.”
Pushing off on his roller skates, Pony solemnly approached the wreckage. The Girl followed at a distance, teeth clenched and fingers curled. There was nothing but debris and half-forgotten memories. She didn’t know which frightened her more. It had been ten years since death had come knocking yet here it was again. An old friend. The destruction settling around her, the despair burning a hole in her chest, cracked the lid. Pandora’s Box opened.
Ten Years Previously
“You can’t do that, Ghoul. It’d be like opening Pandora’s Box.” Poison sighed, rubbing the side of his face with a worn hand. The circles around his eyes were getting darker by the day.
“Isn’t that what we want?” Ghoul argued, taking drag on his cigarette. The smoke filled the room but no one else seemed to mind.
The Girl was hovering by the door, watching curiously. It was Kobra who noticed her, interrupting the conversation to nod to her presence.
Sighing, Poison muttered to his brother, “Can you take her out?”
“I’ll be right back.” Kobra promised, scraping his chair back. Standing, he reached over and plucked Ghoul’s cigarette straight from his mouth, stubbing it out on the split wooden table, “We only have a dozen or so left. Slow down.”
“Since when do you care? You don’t smoke.”
“No, but neither does she.” Kobra said slowly, walking to where The Girl stood and picking her up. Walking through the doorway and down the corridor, he hummed softly to himself. Shouldering his way into the crash room- one of only three they dared inhabit- he sat The Girl down on the pile of blankets that was her bed.
“Can’t sleep?” He asked, gently crouching down beside her.
“The nightmare.” The Girl whispered.
“If I tell you a story, will you try to go back to sleep?” Kobra bargained, rearranging her blankets so they covered her body.
“The story of Pandora’s Box.” He began, moving so that he was sat at the end of her bed. “A long, long time ago, there were two brothers named-”
“Uncle Mikey and Uncle Gerard.” The Girl interrupted, going through her usual routine of doctoring the story.
“Sure.” Kobra nodded. “Mikey and Gerard were very naughty and annoyed many of the Greek Gods, including the most powerful God-”
“Uncle Ray!” The Girl giggled and Kobra shook his head at her, smiling slightly.
“Ray decided to punish Gerard and Mikey. He made a beautiful woman out of clay called Pandora. Ray gave her as a gift to Gerard, who agreed to marry her.”
“Yucky.” The Girl mumbled, her eyelids starting to droop.
“Very yucky.” Kobra agreed, “After Gerard said he’d marry Pandora, Pandora was given a box by Ray and told she must, never, ever open it. But Pandora was fascinated with what the box might contain. Was it rubies, diamonds or pearls? She really wanted to know and so she opened the box.. Inside was all the horrible things in the whole world. Scared and knowing she had done something wrong, she slammed the lid shut but it was too late- it had all escaped.. However, all was not lost. There was one thing still left inside the box. Do you know what it was?”
“Uncle Frankie.” The Girl murmured, her mouth working on automatic.
“No.” Kobra disagreed, “Although he is small enough. Inside the box was hope. So remember, sunshine, even though those horrors will always be out there, so will hope. Never lose sight of it.”
“I haven’t lost sight, Kobra. It’s just harder to find these days.” The Girl whispered, a silent tear slipping down her smeared cheek. She hastily wiped it away with the back of her hand.
Turning, she kept on searching for anything worth salvaging. A few dented cans of Power Pup lay in the dirt. Next to them was a photo frame, cracked and half-buried in sand. It was of her and Pony, six years ago. He had his arm around her and was smiling; looking the most carefree she’d seen him in those six years. Her own face was happier, her beaming grin real. Holding the photo to her chest, The Girl let a few tears escape as another memory engulfed her.
Six Years Previously
Show Pony was knelt on the floor next to the white crate with the all too familiar BL/Ind logo on it. He was rifling through it, looking for anything of use. So far, there didn’t seem to be much. It looked like it was mostly work uniforms, which had Pony cursing himself. It was only when he reached the very bottom of the crate that his fingers brushed another smaller box. Withdrawing it, he saw that it was a box for a camera. Assuming it must have been put in there by mistake, he ripped open the box with his knife. Inside, just as he predicted, was a little black camera.
“Well look at that. Think you could use this, D?” Pony held it up, shaking it tantalisingly.
“Probably. Could wire it up to the trackers and see-”
“Why can’t we just use it as a camera?” The Girl wondered, interrupting.
“Well . . .” Pony started, drawing out his word to give him time to come up with a reason she’d accept.
“Let her have it if she wants it.” Dr Death Defying consented, shaking his head. “She’s still a kid; she doesn’t get much fun these days. Not since . . . not for a long time.”
“Thanks, D!” She grinned.
“No problem,” Dr Death replied. “Now you two get in close. Let’s get the first photo.”
Carefully tucking the photo into her rucksack, The Girl dusted her hands off, wiping them on her jeans. She’d never had her own pair- these were an old pair of Pony’s- yet she’d managed to make them her own through her resourceful customisation. Patches of used material were sewn onto them and old bike chains hung from the belt hooks, clunking against each other as she walked. She’d cut off three quarters of one of the legs after a direct hit had frazzled the fabric. There was still some faded black where she’d cut it off, but it looked almost deliberate, so she didn’t mind it. It reminded her of Jet Star, who always had an array of blackened burn marks on all of his clothes.
“Hey, Motorbaby?” Pony’s voice called, snapping her out of her trance.
“Yeah?” She instinctively replied, looking over to where he stood, staring down at something by his feet.
“Don’t come over here. You won’t like it.” Pony warned, lifting his head and sweeping his hair out his eyes. A streak of red flashed menacingly on his hand.
Show Pony looked straight at her, a grim expression on his face. “I found D.”
Cold, unforgiving dread squeezed her like a hand shoved down her throat, churning her vital organs up. She retched but nothing happened- there was nothing inside of her to throw up. Shaking, she pressed a hand against her mouth, holding her scream down. Sinking to the floor, The Girl tried to stop the thoughts flying through her head but the memories kept on flowing, faster and faster. She heard Pony walk over to her and felt his hand on her shoulder, but she couldn’t tell whether it was in the present or one of the memories she’d conjured up. She didn’t much care, for as the memories twisted and turned around her brain she couldn’t help but clutch onto Pony’s hand. When the memories started to slow, she dared to open her eyes, but the scene she opened them to wasn’t what she expected.
Three Years Previously
The Girl was sat at Dr Death Defying’s sound board, helping with his broadcast. Whilst he spoke she added various effects to distort the output, playing around with the noise.
“-alright, Tumbleweeds, it looks like the population’s dropping like BLI flies.” D’s eyebrows raised as he spoke, flicking a switch to her left. “A firefight occurred earlier today in Zone One, with Killjoys Agent Cherri Cola and DJ Hot Chimp firing into the static age. The last anyone saw of Cola, he was heading for Battery. He’s presumed ghosted.” There was a moment of silence out of respect. “Stay beautiful, Sunshines, and keep it as ugly as Tommy Chow Mein’s outhouse. Here is the weather.”
Dr D put on the pre-recorded track, sliding his headphones down so they were sitting around his neck, turning to face The Girl, “Get the next track ready will ya, kid?”
The Girl nodded and rummaged through the box of vinyl. Pulling out the record, she handed it over to Dr Death. The sleeve was sun damaged and the corners were a crumpled but that didn’t matter.
“D?” She asked, eyes focused on a faded poster for The Mad Gear and Missile Kid. “Cola’s not really ghosted, is he?”
“No, he damn well isn’t. He’s out there still, but not as you know him. Neither’s Chimp, either, as far as I can tell. We lost two good’uns today.” Dr Death Defying considered The Girl for a moment, seeing her blink back tears. Mustering up a smile, D ruffled her hair, “Now you’re my sidekick, I think we need to get you your own pair of headphones. But as I don’t have any right now, you better borrow these.” He took off his own pair and plonked them on her head. Too big, they slipped down. Dr Death leaned over and adjusted them so they fit snugly on her head. She smiled sadly up at him, touching the headphones subconsciously. D smiled back then turned back around to put on another track.
“D?” The Girl grabbed his attention again. Her eyes stayed on the poster, avoiding his face.
“Headphones are for music, right? Killjoys are the only ones left using them.” She stated with another quick touch to the ones on her head.
“Pretty much.” Dr Death Defying replied, inspecting a record closely.
The Girl looked at him then, eyes shining in the dim light. “So why does Korse wear a pair?”
Freezing, D closed his eyes for a moment. The record was placed back in its sleeve.
“That’s a good question.”
“So why don’t you answer it?” The Girl countered, her gaze not wavering.
There was a pause that lasted for over a minute as D considered how much he should say.
“They’re a souvenir, of sorts.”
“A souvenir?” The Girl questioned, furrowing her brow. “Of what?”
“His greatest ever kill.” Dr Death Defying divulged, mouth a grim line. “The one he’d been chasing all his life.”
“Who was it? His greatest ever kill?” The Girl pressed, sitting up higher in her seat, a low feeling of dread in her stomach.
Dr Death Defying turned his head once more to meet eyes with The Girl, a jaded solemnness settling over him. His face seemed to have more lines carved into it than before, his hair losing its vibrancy. Dr D had grown old and The Girl hadn’t even seen it coming.
Taking a deep breath and pushing down the memory of that night, D uttered the name he’d told himself he wouldn’t ever say again.