“Stay here,” Dr. D told the girl, and she couldn’t convince him otherwise, no matter how she argued.
“They're gonna come after you,” she shouted, and he just shook his head with a weariness she’d never noticed in him before. “They’ll find us!”
“And what? Ghost me?" He shook his head. "They want to get to you, they need a few more tricks up their sleeve than that.”
But I can’t stay here, the girl knew. Ain’t gonna be me that ends you, too.
They said little that night over their canned dinners, eating in the darkness of D’s DJ shack. The girl sniffled over her spoon, her mind thick with the memory of her boys roughhousing in the booths at home, eating and talking and finding arguments where none existed, just for the fun of it. Sometimes she didn’t even bother to sit with them, just climbed up onto the counter with her can and watched the show. And sometimes Party would look over at her and say, “Killjoys eat their dog food together.”
She never failed to scramble over and squeeze into the booth beside him, his arm around her the only thing keeping her from falling out again. Whenever they said it, that she was a Killjoy just as much as them, her heart surged like a raygun shot off in her chest. Everyone knew it, of course, but hearing it never stopped being a compliment.
“Catch some shut-eye,” D told her when the sun was getting ready to rise, just starting to bleach the black out of the night. “I got some radio to whisper.”
The girl scowled, but the radio gig was in the other room—and anything she did to get him to wheel on in would be worth it. So she pulled a pillow down from a broke-backed couch and curled up on the floor with it, trying to make her eyes close.
Every time they did, she saw the shootout all over again. Grimy Killjoys with their gumball-colored rayguns facing off against ghostly Dracs and Scarecrows. They looked cowardly to her, hiding under white masks and hoods, too afraid to let their real faces, in all their uniqueness, show. She’d been in the center of it, screaming for all she was worth, her eyes squeezed shut, but she’d seen the electric raygun bolts through her eyelids: flying past her, bending around her, never hitting her. Getting every other Killjoy but her.
Every time she shut her eyes, she had to open them again. After a minute, she rolled over so she couldn’t see D’s limp black hair anymore and stared at the dust balls under the couch. She counted to a hundred after she heard the door shut behind D, and then she got up.
Four cans of rations—sorry, Dr. D—and a raygun and her boombox, and she was tiptoeing out like a lizard on hot sand. Outside, she walked faster, then ran, the radio under her arm, the cans in her bag slapping against her thigh. She ran away from the sun, her feet pounding every step down, until she stumbled and hit the sand. Before she knew what she was doing, her fists were beating the ground, a shriek rising in her throat.
Killjoys didn’t normally have temper tantrums—that was a good way to annoy other Killjoys and get left behind at home—but normally, Killjoys were never alone. Not like this. Not permanently.
“It’s not fair!” she screamed, pushing herself up off the sand. Dr. D’s shack was too far away to see. The silence seemed heavier when she stopped yelling, so she kept going. “It’s not fair! Killjoys never die!”
She yelled at the empty dunes until her throat hurt and her face was tracked with dust and tears.
And then she kept running.
Four cans of rations, she quickly realized, weren’t enough. The boys had always made sure she had her share of food, or more than. She could remember days when Party and the Kid shared a meal and told her to eat up her whole can. She’d never questioned it before; they’d always made it seem normal that she got the most of anybody.
It meant she was used to having a can of B.L.I. slop with just about every meal. And that meant that four cans would only get her through a day, with time for breakfast, before she ran out of rations.
“If they could do it, you can, too,” she told herself bitterly when she couldn’t keep running on an empty belly. Her little jabby knife was fine for cutting the can open, but she wasn’t about to stick it in her mouth, so she was stuck eating the rations out of the can with two fingers. Soon as she could, she needed to find a spoon. “Stop halfway.”
She was still hungry when she put her half-eaten breakfast back in her bag, but Party Poison was twice as big as her and lived on half a can of this stuff sometimes. She could, too.
He doesn’t live anymore, she remembered, and her stomach clenched around the food. None of ‘em are ever gonna complain about dinner again.
Already the scream was threatening to come back up through her throat and cut up her tongue with misery, so she stomped down on the thought.
I gotta figure out where I’m going, anyway. Someplace far away, she’d already decided. She was the last Killjoy, and if B.L.I. wanted them dead that badly—for hacking their stupid vending machines, maybe—then she needed to hide. As much as she ached to go home and curl up in the pile of blankets and pillows that counted as her bed, they’d look for her there. She had to go someplace nobody knew her, someplace nobody would want to look for her.
If she knew what was good for her, she’d never come back to Zone Six again.
The problem with that plan was just how big Zone Six turned out to be, and just how unclear the borders were. After hours of walking—running, she’d decided, would just make her hungry faster—under the high, hot sun, the only thing she’d figured out was that she needed the old map of Battery City and all the Zones if she wanted to get out of hers.
The map was probably in Kobra Kid’s jacket, though, ready for any on-the-spot navigation the crew would need on their way to Battery City. If it wasn’t, it was shoved in the dashboard box of the car or sitting back in the diner they’d called home. Long gone, in other words, or probably crawling with Scarecrows waiting for a stupid little girl to go back home.
They’d be waiting a long time. Scarecrows didn’t love anybody—everybody knew that. Jet Star told her once, while he showed her how to pyramid up sticks for a bonfire. They’d never understand that home wasn’t a place, not if everybody else who slept there with you was dead. That was home the way a dead body was a person: it was kind of true if you screwed up your eyes and squinted, but all the important parts were hollowed out. You could leave it behind. You had to, because keeping it wouldn’t bring back the stuff you wanted out of it in the first place.
Knowing that didn’t make the pinch under her ribs hurt any less, was the only problem.
I could trade for a new map, she thought, trying to shake off the thought of the Killjoys’ hollow eyes, but trading meant finding people—enough people that one of them might have what she wanted. And it meant having something to trade in return. All she had were clothes and a few cans of chow. Even her robot was gone, dropped someplace while she was dragged away from her boys.
My boombox, she thought, but she’d rather pull out her teeth and trade those. The best way she saw was the path before her, the one that stretched past the horizon, all the way out to some mystery place where she’d know what to do next.
She kept walking.
The rain started so gently that the girl didn’t realize what it was at first. A drip here could be sweat. A spot on the sand might be disguised by the shadow of some scrub. As it continued, though, it began to beat into her wild curls hard enough that she glanced around at the world beyond her feet.
Clouds crushed against each other in the sky, turning it a sickly, greenish colour. The sunlight was muffled by clouds, a respite she had appreciated unknowingly earlier—the heat became oppressive at the top of the day, when shadows disappeared underneath her feet—and the air smelled different. She couldn’t say how, exactly. It smelled like stones, but also like a raygun after it fired. A little like crushing a needly leaf from a bush between her fingers, too.
It smelled, she finally decided, like danger.
Lightning stabbed down on the horizon, cutting a bright white wound into the sky. Above her head, there was a crack like a raygun bolt hitting metal, and she jumped. Thunder and lightning were nothing new—even in a dry desert, heat was enough to spark them—but the nearness of the sound was startling. She saw Fun Ghoul fall again inside her mind and decided it was time to find someplace to hide.
With no buildings on the horizon, she picked a direction and started to run again. The rain chased after her, pattering harder and harder on her shoulders. It rolled off her vest and soaked her shirt underneath, clung to her thick curls and ran down her neck in itchy rivers.
The next time the lightning struck, it was three steps ahead of her. The girl skidded to a stop, her eyes wide in the blinding flash. If she’d been a little faster, she’d be a smoking pile of nothing, instead of the molten sand hissing in the rain. Dodging left, she kicked her feet down with all the power she could muster.
Another bolt cut down at her side, so close she thought she could feel the heat radiating off it. Another, close enough for her to touch, and a third that she barely dodged around. The thunder never seemed to stop, one deafening crash after another, and she never quite went deaf to it. Her legs tingled with the vibrations of the sound.
“Stop it!” Her lungs burned from the running and the fear that she was going to end up a lost, crumpled body on the sand in nobody-loves-me land. They’d find her bones, if they found her at all. “Leave me alone!”
The lightning didn’t stop, and neither did she.
“Killjoys never die,” she mouthed, unable to spare a breath to actually voice the words. Every gulp of air needed to go to her legs. “Killjoys never die. I’m not gonna die. Killjoys never die.”
If I die, she thought, underneath the animal fear pushing her towards nothing she could see, they all died for nothing. I can’t die. I won’t die. Killjoys—
She stumbled into the rock before she realized what it was. By the time she reached it, she was blind to everything but the veins of electricity that decided she was the best target on the sand. Her legs were too tired for more than a walk, and she’d nearly ended up lightning char twice.
The pain of rapping her head against stone sent her reeling back. As the shock of the pain cleared, the girl peered at the rock in the flash of another too-close bolt of lightning. It was big—not a cliff, but enough rock to fill her sight. And she’d hit her head against the edge of an outcropping. Everything under it was empty air, on down to the sand.
The girl sank to her knees and crawled underneath the overhang of rock. The sand was cold, but it was dry, and she was asleep as soon as she pillowed her bag under her head.
When she woke, the world smelled like wet sand, and all she saw was stone. She started, sitting up so quickly that she hit the crown of her head on the rock, and groaned. That’d be a snake egg by noon. The pain reminded her of where she was, and why, and that she was going to have a whole nest of bumps on her head if she kept this up.
Rolling over, she stared out at the world beyond her little dry corner. It was grey, the air thicker than she’d ever seen, so the sand faded soft and disappeared a few footsteps out from the rock. It was too quiet for rain. Instead, it hung in the air, clinging to her skin so she felt like she could reach out and push the air back and forth in front of her.
When she tried, it didn’t do anything, but the sensation of water all around her, breathing into her every time she inhaled, stayed.
“It was a roaring fog,” one of Kobra Kid’s best stories had started, “so vicious you’d swear it had teeth to bite you with.”
He’d always tickled her there, his hands clawed into points like the jaws of a monster, and she’d tried to imagine a vicious fog. This was it—heavy and weightless at the same time, impossible to see through—and Kid wasn’t even here to see it.
On her own, the fog was boring. No one to talk to, nowhere to go without getting lost, nothing to look at. She started tracing letters in the sand next to her the way Party Poison taught her when she was little.
The first words she learned to recognize were pasted up big on the back of the car: L-O-O-K A-L-I-V-E S-U-N-S-H-I-N-E. W-K-I-L 109 F-M-X. C-A-L-I-F-O-R-N-I-A. 4 X-O-X 575. All the boys would sound them out with her, and she’d laugh at their attempts to pronounce “wkil” like it was a word instead of a call sign. After that, they got sticks and wrote in the dust: G-I-R-L, P-A-R-T-Y, K-I-D, G-H-O-U-L, J-E-T. And after that, nothing stopped her from figuring out every word she could think of.
Under the rock, she ran out of room for the word K-I-L-L-J-O-Y-S when she got to the J. For a moment, she stared at what she’d written, her stomach tight with hunger and loss. She kicked at the sand until there was nothing left to her words and curled up over the space like she was going back to sleep.
It felt like hours that she was there, protecting something that didn’t need protection at all. The thought of leaving that kill-without-joys stretch of sand open to the rest of the world’s view made her feel dizzy and angry all at once.
Eventually, with the help of her growling stomach, she realized that might just be hunger.
A few fingers of slop later, she heard a curious little chirp in the mist. Not a bird—she knew that—but nothing she could place. It happened again, closer, and then closer.
The girl shrank back, wondering if the jagged top of the can would work for a weapon. It didn’t sound like something big, but maybe it was a bomb. Maybe the Scarecrows found her and rolled some kind of chirpy little grenade her way, something to warn her before she blew up into so many pieces the Witch would never find them all.
She had her knife in her hand by the time the shape of the creature came into weak, foggy detail. Tiny and black, with pointed ears and thin little legs, it stepped through the fog like it knew exactly what it was doing.
“A cat,” she breathed. There was a picture of one in a book Fun Ghoul found for her. “I never saw one of you before.”
The cat paused, looking up at the girl as if it was listening. Maybe it was waiting for her to say something smarter than you’re a cat. A cat would know that already. It would be like if it walked up to her and said you’re a girl, except that the wonder of an animal talking would make up for saying something so obvious.
The girl watched, her breath hard in her chest. It was such a skinny little thing, it seemed like it might blow away if she breathed out.
“You hungry, cat?” she whispered, remembering the can of food in her hand. Careful not to cut her hand on the edges of the can, she scooped out a little food and held out her fingers to the cat. It backed up a few steps when she reached out, but the girl waited. Animals spooked easily—lizards did, anyway—but if you were quiet and willing to wait for them to decide they liked you, sometimes they let you touch them.
And maybe the cat wanted lunch as badly as the girl had. Its nose twitched, its whiskers shook, and after a few moments with its paw in the air, like it couldn’t decide whether to walk forward or not, it trotted up and nibbled the food right off the girl’s fingers. She laughed when the cat’s rough tongue rubbed over her fingertips, then tried her best to bite off the sound.
When every speck of food was gone, the girl stuck her fingers back in for more and held it out, not quite as far. “C’mere. Gotta make friends if you wanna eat.”
The cat came closer with each bite of food, until it was sitting on the girl’s crossed legs, rumbling like the car used to when Party revved the engine. “You’re purrin’, ain’tcha?”
That’s what Kid called it, making the engine purr. Same idea, but small and warm and furry. The girl stroked the cat’s head.
“You can’t be a Killjoy,” she told it. It didn’t seem right to make new Killjoys, Killjoys that none of her boys would ever meet, even if she guessed she was allowed to. There wasn’t a person out there who could tell her no. But it would only make her remember how far away they were from the real Killjoys. Her voice turned as quiet as the fog. “I’m the only Killjoy left. I got them all ghosted. But if you don’t mind that, you can stay with me.”
She fell asleep holding the cat. When she woke, her legs were cold and light, and she nearly hit her head again looking around for it. In her groggy, half-asleep mind, the worst thing that could happen anymore was losing the newest friend she’d made—but it was next to her, sitting with its chin resting on its paws. The girl sighed out the worry, and patted its back. “Wanna go somewhere?”
The cat looked up at her and blinked its green-glass eyes. It seemed close enough to a yes for the girl, so she grabbed her bag and crawled out from under the rock.
She emerged in sunlight and found herself staring at a desert she’d never seen before. Plants covered the ground all the way out to the horizon. Not dried-out tumbleweeds or bushes that sucked moisture out of the air, but green-stemmed things with leaves. And flowers—everywhere, yellow flowers like pictures in books, flowers that swayed in the breeze.
She ran, not caring whether the cat ran after her, until she was surrounded by flowers on all sides, their frilly little petals brushing against her jeans. They smelled like dust and sweetness mixed up with something she couldn’t name, and they stretched their faces up to the sun just like she did. The girl spun around in circles, her arms out in a hug for the whole desert, until she thought she’d puke. She fell down among the flowers and let the sky wobble around in the sky above her.
It was like the whole world had become something new. She pulled a thin, knobby stem from the ground and shook the roots cleanish before she brought it over to look at it. Thin little white roots gave way to the plant’s colours. At the center of each flower’s face, there were tiny hair-like things, bright red against the yellow petals. The girl dangled the plant over her face, letting the petals and leaves tickle her skin.
Green stems, yellow petals, red hairs, and above them all, a blue sky. She looked at it, peering in the bright sunlight, and counted the colours. Then she broke off the dirty white roots, threw them as far away as she could, and looked again. Fun Ghoul and Party Poison and Kobra Kid and Jet Star stared back at her, just for a moment—just in her mind, but just enough to count.
A black paw reached out to bat at the dangling stem. The girl glanced over at the cat. It was staring at the plant like it was the shiniest toy in the world.
She sat up and tucked the plant away in her bag. “You can have a different one. This one’s mine.”
I’m going to keep it. Not just the plant. This feeling of something new, something that might be good, even though so many other things might be bad. As long as I’m around, Killjoys never die.