The air is heavy with the smell of warm damp swamp grass, and the sky is blanketed with smooth gray clouds that burn Juliet's eyes to look at.
“Middle of the ocean,” James says from somewhere behind her. “That'd be worse than this. Just havin' to float around waitin' for the next flash.” His voice is low and gleeful with the knowledge he's causing chills to race down her spine. “Or for the sharks to getcha.”
She ignores him. There are biting insects in all the green, and if the air weren't so full and choking with humidity and stagnant water, she could almost believe it was the island again.
(But it's not, because there's no salt or sand and no electric fear on her skin.)
“Or we could come out somewhere in mid air,” James continues, and Juliet can hear him slap at something on his skin. “Just gotta fall down and watch the ground come racin' up.”
“At least we'd get a breeze,” she says mildly, and he gives a loud laugh that brings a smile to her face and makes her hate the place not quite so much.
Sometimes the flashes are only minutes apart. And sometimes it's days.
The swamp is humid and full of biting insects and brackish water. Everything is damp and green and it's impossible to get a fire lit.
“Civilization probably don't even exist yet,” James says, but it's not with the delighted, shit-stirring tone he'd had two days previously. “Guess all we can do now is hope a T-Rex comes chargin' out of the trees to end our damn misery.”
“I think we'd have noticed dinosaurs roaming around, James,” Juliet says. She's watching the ripples a fish is making as it mouths at insects on the surface of the water. “Why don't you concentrate on making that fishing line.”
“Outta what, my hair?” he asks. “Because I got news for you, Blondie. I –”
He bites off the end of his sentence, and Juliet can feel it too – the pressure in her temples and the sudden lead weight in her chest. The next flash.
“It's about damn time!” James shouts to the gray sky, and then everything is white and lost.
Juliet coughs and blinks awake. She always comes to with sparks bursting and fading in front of her eyes. She's on her back on a hard floor of packed dirt, staring up at the broken roof of a wide, open building. An old barn or something. Pigeons flutter in the rafters.
“Rise and shine, Sleepin' Beauty,” James says. His clothes are still stained with mud and swamp water, but he looks more cheerful than she's seen him in days. “Lady Luck is finally on our side. We've landed in the times of jelly doughnuts.” He holds up a paper bag.
Juliet sits up. “Where'd you get those? Did you run off and leave me here?”
“Wrote you a note,” he says, pointing to some chicken scratchings in the dirt.
GONE FISHIN'. - James
“Very cute,” she says, reaching for the bag. “How long have I been out?”
“Sat with you a couple of hours,” he says. “Been here maybe three or four. On a farm on the outskirts of town. Ain't much out there. Should be able to pull some clean clothes off a line somewhere later.”
Juliet reaches up to touch her hair. Her ponytail is a tangled mess, and she smells like sweat and swamp. “A hot shower would be nice,” she says.
“Well, I'll see what I can do.” James folds his arms. “Didn't hear a thank you for those doughnuts, though.”
“My appreciation is without boundary,” Juliet says, tearing a doughnut in half with her fingers. “Did you steal these?”
“Told you – Lady Luck found us.” James sits beside her, sprawling his legs on the packed dirt of the barn floor. “Walked outta here and found a fella needing a tire changed.” He shakes his shirt pocket, and she can hear coins jumping against one another. “Gave me a token of his appreciation.”
“And you used it to buy doughnuts.”
“Yeah, well, wasn't gonna cover much else.” James takes one from the bag. “Cheap bastard.”
The worst part about the unpredictability of the flashes is having to avoid other people. It's no good making friends or trying to start a lengthy negotiation if you could vanish into nowhere at any time.
Juliet misses other company sometimes. She has James, but their conversations suffer from weariness, and they snap at one another. Easy to lay the blame on one another when you can't find anything else for it.
They take a newspaper from a front porch and discover it's October 1993. They're in a crossroad town in Wyoming where strangers – even ones in cleaner clothes, probably – are conspicuous, and treated with a hefty amount of suspicion. After their initial scout, James and Juliet lie low.
“Main Street's got the bakery, butcher, bank and the post office,” James says. He's chewing on a dry stem of grass. “I say we rob the bank and high tail it outta here.”
“It's 1993, James, not the old west,” Juliet says. “Robbing a bank has real consequences.”
“What can they do to us when we're gonna be yanked out of here by hoodoo time-magic anyway?” he asks. “And you think robbing a bank didn't have consequences in the old west? Ain't you ever seen a John Wayne?”
“Stealing clothes is going to be risky,” Juliet says, staring up at the patches of blue sky showing through the roof of the old barn. “People will recognize anything we take and wear.”
“So we take it and we run,” James says. “Failin' to see why this is a bad idea.”
“Because we're in the middle of nowhere, with no transport?” Juliet says, lifting her head. “Taking a small town for all they're worth and making a run for it on foot isn't your best idea, James.”
“We'll steal a horse!” he says.
“You're not a cowboy!” she snaps.
“Says who?” He's fired up now and they're both angry at one another, itching to burn off pent up energy with an argument. “Listen, sweetheart, you can't keep tryin' to apply rules to all of this. Rules don't matter when the world don't make sense.” He waves his hand in the air. “Two minutes and we could be squeezin' ourselves out through another invisible door in the universe, endin' up god knows where.”
Juliet glares up at the open rafters. She can understand what he's saying, but it still doesn't feel right.
“We gotta look out for ourselves,” James says, and his tone isn't angry anymore, it's almost pleading. “Jules, it's just you and me here.”
She looks over at him to find him watching her.
“Just you and me,” he repeats. “And I ain't half sorry that I'm what you ended up with, but we gotta make the best of it. And if that means stealin' more than a clean shirt, so be it.” He waits for her to say something, but she can't bring herself to say anything.
“This is hard enough without tryin' to do the right thing all the time,” he says eventually, and he stretches out in a rectangle of sunlight pouring in through the roof.
They lay there in silence, and Juliet has to admit to herself that he's right.
The river is just about the coldest thing Juliet's felt in her life, but she can't bring herself to complain. She washes the grime out of her hair and off her skin, and floats on her back and watches the white puffs of cloud tear apart in the blue sky.
When she emerges, shivering and almost blue with cold, but clean and happy, she pulls on clean clothes. A long-sleeved shirt frayed around the collar, and a pair of denim overalls stolen from a washing line.
She's rinsed out her other clothes as best she can, and she drapes them over the tree branches and sits in the sun to dry off. James wanders slowly along the bank, jeans slung low on his hips and his hair still slicked back with river water.
“The early 90s Farmer Jane look suits you,” he says, sitting down beside her. He throws his shirt over the branch next to hers.
“Thanks,” she says dryly. She rubs her fingers through her damp hair. “What's our next move?”
“Get the hell out of this one horse town and find somewhere we can get lost in,” James says. “We stick out here like a couple'a sore thumbs. And if you're still so against takin' some sort of transport, I guess we got a long walk ahead of us.”
She sits in silence, annoyed she's going to have to starting breaking the law on a more serious level sooner or later. There just seems to be a very heavy line between taking old clothes and stealing a car.
“I don't want to take anything from anyone who can't afford it,” she says eventually. “Anyone living here isn't going to have a whole lot of money.”
“Figure you're right about that,” James says. “But anyone here ain't as poor as us, Blondie.”
Robbing the bank is pitifully easy. James levers the door open with a crowbar from the barn. Juliet waits for an alarm to start shrieking, but there's nothing.
“Wanna practice your safe-cracking skills?” he asks with a grin, kneeling in front of the tiny safe behind the counter. “Seems we got all the time in the world.”
“Just hurry up,” Juliet mutters, folding her arms.
The safe yields them a few hundred dollars. James holds the fistful of bills up with a victorious grin.
“I seem to remember someone wishin' for a hot shower,” he says. “Baby, I'm gonna treat you to the finest budget motel on the highway.”
It's hard to be mad at James. He knows how to charm people, and she's not as oblivious to it as she wants to be.
“You want to go all the way?” he asks with another grin. “That shitty old pickup down the street is only worth whatever gas is in it. If it's insured we'll be doing the guy a favor.”
“Sure, James,” Juliet mutters, but she follows him back into the chilly night air.
“I'm sure they'll hold a cute bake sale for him,” James says. “Raise another twenty bucks for him to buy one of similar value.”
Juliet thinks maybe she wouldn't be so bothered by all of this if James wasn't enjoying himself to such a degree. But she keeps quiet, deciding to give him less ammunition by reacting with icy silence instead of vocal protest.
The truck isn't locked, and there's a mess of tools loose in the back. James whistles softly as he picks out a hammer and two screwdrivers. He wrenches the passenger door open for Juliet, and it groans with hinges full of dust.
She sits in the passenger seat, the foam padding busting through the split vinyl, and she tries not to look nervous. She doesn't want to get caught, even if they're likely to vanish out of there before any serious consequences can be handed down.
James jumps into the driver's seat beside her. He's whistling Spanish Flea. Juliet watches with more curiosity than she'd like to admit to. He checks the ignition, runs his finger over it, and then – with an ease Juliet can't believe, taps one of the screwdrivers into the barrel and turns it. The truck starts with a cough of blue smoke from the exhaust, and James steers it out onto the street.
“How'd you do that?” Juliet asks.
“Ignitions in these old things get all loose,” James says. “Probably didn't even need the hammer.”
Juliet scratches a mosquito bite on her arm – a souvenir from their time in the swamp. “I don't like how easy all of this was,” she says.
“Ain't askin' you to like it,” James says. He glances over at her, his fingers loose around the bottom of the steering wheel. “I don't know how long these flashes are gonna keep up,” he says. “In four days all we've had to eat are a few green apples and some jelly doughnuts. If we don't start puttin' ourselves ahead of everyone else we come across, we ain't gonna last long.”
She draws her feet up onto the seat and wraps her arms around her knees, watching the edges of the road fly past under the yellow glow of the headlights. “I know,” she says eventually. “I'd just always pictured life being a little more normal after I got away from the island.”
James glances at her again, but he doesn't say anything.
She swallows hard and stares out through the windshield. “I was a different person to this,” she adds, and her voice is hollow. “I wanted to be good again.”
His hand is warm over her knee. “C'mere,” he says, and she gives in and slides over.
He smells like river water and sunshine. She closes her eyes and lets herself cry into his shirt, falling apart in the rattling old pickup as it flies down the highway.
They get burgers and shakes at a drive-thru, and it's the best thing Juliet's ever eaten in her life. James eats the fries she can't finish and steers the truck with one hand, looking for a place they can spend the night.
When they pull into the parking lot of a motel off the highway, Juliet tries to figure out the best way to say she doesn't want a room to herself.
“You wanna bunk up?” James asks, before she can figure out what she's going to say. “I'll sleep on the floor.”
“Okay,” she says. She doesn't ask why he made the suggestion.
The next flash starts right after the door of their room closes behind them.
“Son of a bitch!” James says, pinching the bridge of his nose as the pressure sets in. “Couldn't happen ten minutes ago, before I paid for a room we ain't even gonna –”
They land in a dry heat, under a pale blue sky showing through the waving heads of bright yellow sunflowers.
“Aw, hell,” James mutters. Juliet reaches out blindly and finds him sprawled beside her. They lie in the dust, waiting for the world to stop spinning so fast.
“Just when we had it figured out,” he complains. “Lady Luck didn't hang around long.”
Juliet sits up slowly. She's already covered in dust and sweat. She hopes wherever they've landed has somewhere she can wash up.
She staggers to the end of the row of sunflowers, looks down into the valley. Another small spit of a town, all wooden boards and dirt. There are no wires running pole to pole. Horses stir the dust in the main street.
“Are you coming, cowboy?” she asks, dusting herself off.
James starts to laugh as he follows her down the hill. “You gonna object to stealin' here?” he asks. “Or are you gonna be the Bonnie to my Clyde?”
“I'd like to see you try to steal a horse with a screwdriver,” she retorts. She ducks under the rails of a wooden fence and crosses into the next field.
The place looks like a Hollywood set. Despite the small size of the town, the main street is bustling with activity. It'll be harder to fit in here than it was in Wyoming – especially in what they're wearing.
James settles down at the edge of the field with a sigh. “Probably a clever idea to hang back and take it in,” he says. “Least until we can get some clothes and maybe a gun.”
“A gun?” Juliet raises her eyebrow at him. “Where do you think you're going to lift one of those from?” She sits beside him in the dirt.
“I'll find one,” he says, settling back in the shade. He laces his hands over his chest and stares up at the sky. “Hope the next flash don't come too soon,” he says. “I always wanted to be a cowboy.”