Bad Ride: An Excerpt from Maxine Unleashes Doomsday
The United States has collapsed. Bandits stalk the highways, preying on the weak and unaware.
In order to transport goods between heavily fortified cities, companies hire convoy escorts. Maxine is the best of these new road warriors: tough, smart, and unbelievably fast. But she also has a secret: She’s the niece of New York’s most notorious outlaw, a man hunted by what’s left of the nation’s law enforcement.
Maxine wants to live a normal, upstanding life. But a bad incident on the road leaves her mauled, penniless…and fired. If she wants to survive, she’s going to need to embrace her outlaw roots—and carry off the biggest heist that the post-apocalypse has ever seen. It’s a journey that will take her through obstacle after obstacle to the edge of death itself—and beyond.
The year Maxine turned fourteen, she found her true calling, at the cost of two lives.
Maxine spent her childhood mornings at the front window of the crumbling farmhouse where she lived with her brother, Brad, her mother, Joan, and her mother’s big bastard of a synthetic-heroin monkey, watching for cars on the road. Whenever one passed, she imagined herself behind its wheel, zooming out of her life with glorious speed, and her heart ached with need.
Maxine knew that, without her, life in the house would fall apart. She needed to feed and clean Brad, kill as many cockroaches and rats as possible, keep the phones powered, stop her mother from choking on her own vomit during the bad highs, and throw rocks at the junkies who lurked in the weedy driveway. That was a typical list of tasks before she left for school. Every two weeks or so, her uncle Preacher came down from the hills and, living his nickname to the fullest, spent hours yelling at her mother to clean up her act. Her mother would groan and shake her head and agree to go straight, only to break that promise once he disappeared back into hiding.
Maxine liked to play the No Crying Game, which goes like this: You run into a wall so hard it knocks you backward, leaving your nerves humming like guitar strings and your mouth salty with blood, but you never cry. If you slam yourself hard enough to chip a tooth or bruise your face, and not a single tear rolls down your cheek, you can stop doing it for a week.
On the fifth of every month, their benefits came, and Maxine’s mother would pile them into the family’s rattling wreck of a van for the fifteen-minute trip to Red Junction, where the big grocery store gladly accepted EBT. Maxine loved the store’s bright lights, the aisles lined with shiny packaging, the sleekness and color that reminded her of the cars zipping down the road: signs that someone out there cared enough to do a good job, to make something perfect. Maxine chose not to see how some of the shoppers looked at them with horrified pity, as if they were roadkill.
Maxine’s mother always acted happy in the store. She whistled and told knock-knock jokes as she filled their cart with cereal and the cheapest kelp-meat, which Maxine could stretch far if she mixed it with herbs and roots pulled from the small yard behind the house. When she was sober, her mother was very good at calculating everything down to the cent, in order to prevent the embarrassment of having to leave food on the cashier’s conveyor belt. That had happened once, and Maxine’s mother yelled, and someone called security, and it was only because Maxine acted so cute with the manager that they were ever allowed to come back.
Maxine’s father was in prison forever, thanks to a drug deal gone wrong, and all their relatives were dead except for Preacher, who needed to stay in the hills because the police wanted him in a cell or a coffin, preferably the latter.
Maxine hated the police, especially the two who came around to stand in the weedy yard and call her a waste of life, dangling candy bars as they asked where her uncle was hiding, as if she were stupid enough to give up a blood relative for a sugar rush. Maxine would hiss at them and bare her teeth, but she knew to go no further. A friend of hers, Monica Miller from down the road, once bit a cop on the ankle during a scuffle, and they hit her in the head hard enough to put her in a coma. Sometimes stuff just happens. It’s a mean world.
The cops called her family rednecks and trash and hillbillies. “You gonna be just like your mama,” one of them liked to tell Maxine, “and your kids gonna be just like you. How you feel about that?”
Maxine always stuck out her tongue at that cop, whose name was Dwight and who rocked a blond caterpillar of a moustache. Dwight liked to take out his club and run at Maxine as if he intended to bash her brains all over the porch, but she knew to hold her ground.
“You never getting out of here,” Dwight usually said. “You’re just another waste of breath, you ask me.”
Maxine thought of Dwight as an angry possum in a tent, anxious to bite anything trapped in there with it. But deep in her heart, she feared the cop was right. She had no idea of a life other than this one. On the cracked screen of her cheap-ass phone, she watched shows where beautiful people in sleek dresses and suits marched through gleaming spires of steel and glass, scenes from New York City that might as well have taken place on a planet far from this one. Her own eyes had never seen anyone in clothes so shiny, nor buildings so magical.
When the cops came by, Maxine imagined Preacher watching them from the black trees along the top of the ridge. When the roof collapsed, or some man in a suit threatened to kick them out of the house for good, or mother’s EBT card no longer worked at the store, Maxine sent up a silent cry for Preacher to save them, knowing that he would never appear, not until the danger had passed. So she learned to do everything herself.
Maxine was very good around cops until she turned fourteen, and then everything went to hell.
To celebrate her birthday, Maxine took a little joyride.
She had skipped school that morning, choosing instead to hang out on the porch of The Tony Eight with her best friend, Michelle. The Tony Eight was a hard bar but its owner, Tony the Third, kept a counter by the front door stocked with goodies such as candy and burner phones. He let kids use his porch as a chill-out zone (“Better they stay here than go in the woods. They don’t all come back from the woods,” is how he defended that choice) from eight in the morning until five in the evening, when the number of drunks inside reached critical mass. He only had two rules: no cursing within his earshot, and none of that boy-band crap on the throwback jukebox he kept in one corner.
That Tuesday afternoon, Maxine and Michelle had already spent two hours on the wooden steps, smoking cheap Beijing Blue cigarettes and talking dreams.
“Someday I want to go to California,” Michelle told Maxine. “Did you know it used to be a state?”
“Duh.” Maxine rolled her eyes. “But good luck getting across their border. I heard it’s total lockdown. Like, they shoot anyone that even tries to come close.”
Michelle groaned. “Why?”
Maxine prided herself on reading the news every day, even though her mother liked to call it fake. “There was this thing called the Water Wars. We tried to cut off their supply, so they started shooting back. I’m not trying to be mean, but you really got to study.”
Before Michelle could reply, a red Mustang screeched into the bar’s gravel lot. They both tensed, knowing it was Ricky, a local weed dealer who liked his girls a little too young.
Ricky lurched from the car, creepy smile in place, and paused to check his phone before sauntering toward them. Maxine reached into the left pocket of her jeans jacket, palming the small knife she kept there. Without looking up, she could feel Ricky’s gaze slithering over her legs, and shuddered. Please God, she begged, just make him go away.
God declined to answer, but someone else did. Ricky made it ten yards across the lot when a big black car slithered into view behind him, its lithium-ion motor silent but its tires squealing on the slick road, its passenger window zipping down to reveal a hand with a pistol—pop, pop, pop, and Ricky collapsed, his purple jumpsuit puffing as the bullets punched through his flesh. The black car zipped past the bar before disappearing around the far curve.
Through the open door behind her, Maxine heard Tony the Third curse. Michelle clutched her knees and rocked back and forth, tears rolling down her cheeks. Maxine felt curiously numb, her breathing nice and regular as she stood and walked over to Ricky just as he managed, with a loud grunt, to roll onto his back, his front stained black from moist gravel and probably a quart of spilled blood.
Maxine pulled out her phone and dialed 911. Those calls were free, which was good, because she was running low on minutes this month (again) and didn’t like the idea of burning a few on a piece of crap like Ricky. As she held the phone to her ear, she knelt and rifled through the pockets of the jumpsuit, removing a wad of pleasingly retro twenty-dollar bills in a gaudy money clip (bloody), a key fob attached to a silver dog’s head (ugly), and a brand-new phone (bonus!) with one of those cool bendable screens.
“Some of your dealer friends tracked you down, huh?” she asked Ricky.
“Help…” The sides of Ricky’s mouth bubbled with pink froth. “Help…”
“Nine-one-one’s on hold,” she said, popping open the money clip and flicking through the stained bills. “Like, what else is new, right?”
Maxine handling his cash shocked a bit of life back into Ricky. His cold hand gripped her wrist and squeezed as he rasped, “Don’t…take…bitch…”
She smacked him on the forehead with the money clip. “Hold on, the phone’s ringing.” The operator clicked to life, asking about her distress, and Maxine cheerfully told her all the gory details about a drive-by shooting at The Tony Eight. That task complete, she called over her shoulder, “Michelle, go inside. Tony’s got a med-kit.”
Michelle obeyed without backtalk. She was one of those types: prickly as a porcupine on a mega-dose of Heisenberg Blue most days, but a total lamb in a crisis. Maxine knew that Tony kept a fully loaded med-kit behind the bar, next to the shotgun. While she waited for Michelle to return, she helped herself to Ricky’s car keys.
Ricky hissed, “Don’t…take…”
“Look,” she said. “You got shot, but you’re gonna make it.” That was definitely a lie, given the amount of blood pumping out Ricky’s holes. “Tony got a good kit. Ambulance be here in a minute. We going through all this trouble for you, means you owe us a favor. So I’m taking a spin in your sweet car over there. Don’t worry, you’ll get it back.”
Ricky tried to spit blood at her and missed.
She slid behind the Mustang’s wheel, unsurprised at Ricky’s choices in tricking out the interior: a blue glow from LEDs beneath the front seats, oversized speakers that probably cost three times more than the engine, and a steering wheel wrapped in the finest imitation leather. Maxine wrinkled her nose at the near-overpowering stench of cheap cologne and spilled beer as she popped the key fob into the slot on the dashboard, the gas engine awakening with a roar, the stereo booming vintage rap-rock (classy, Ricky, classy) loud enough to rattle the substandard fillings in her teeth.
Maxine smacked dashboard buttons until the music went quiet, spun the wheel, and gunned the Mustang out of the lot. In the rearview mirror, she saw the Tony rip Ricky’s jumpsuit open and squirt something from a can into the wounds, but not before giving Maxine a big thumbs-up. What more pseudo-parental approval did she need?
Her first joyride almost went wrong ten seconds in, as she tried to muscle the Mustang’s fat ass into the first sharp turn and almost skidded out, nearly ramming into a truck in the oncoming lane, spinning the wheel to correct and overcompensating, clipping a rusty traffic sign, shrieking in fear and joy as she finally pointed the car’s nose in the right direction and slammed the gas pedal to the floor. The Mustang snarled its pleasure. It was her first time driving and she was a natural, powering into each curve, feathering the brake at the intersections.
The black car appeared just ahead, and her jubilation curdled into unease. From Preacher, she’d learned the first rule of doing crime: you hide after the crime’s been done. So why were they still on the road? She needed to get out of here before they noticed Ricky’s car in their rearview mirror, but they were on a straightaway: no turnoffs, no side roads.
The black car tapped its brakes. She slowed to keep distance, her dread igniting into outright fear as the car’s front-passenger window buzzed down and the hand with the pistol emerged. She veered the Mustang left just as the gun spat fire, a bullet snapping off her roof.
If she stayed back, the next bullet might smash through the windshield and her forehead. If she stopped, they would turn around and hunt her down. That left her with one choice.
Punching the gas, she rammed her fender into the other car’s trunk, bumping it forward and to the right. The shooter’s head and shoulders appeared above the car roof, silhouetted by the sun, the gun waving as he tried to aim, and she accelerated again until her front tires came parallel with the other car’s rear door and she swung the wheel hard right. With a crunch of metal, the other car left the road—a faint scream from the shooter above the boom of two tons of metal rolling into a deep ditch. The wheel slithered hot in Maxine’s hands as she fought for control, finally skewing to a stop in her own lane.
You need to drive away, she thought. Get out of here.
An inner voice interrupted. It sounded like an adult, not some scared kid: You need to see if anyone survived.
What if they’re still alive?
The voice declined to answer—maybe because the answer was obvious. Her hands shook as she searched the junk in the passenger footwell. Beneath a pile of soggy bills, she discovered a short pry bar, its tip a sharp point. Despite her fear, it felt good in her hand.
Before she climbed out of the Mustang, she wiped her shirttail on the steering wheel and anything else she might have touched. Her sweaty palms made it hard to grip the pry bar as she tiptoed into the weeds.
The black car had entered the ditch on its side, landing in three feet of oily water. A broken tree stump jutted through the crumpled steel of the hood. The windshield had cracked but not shattered, and through the webbed glass (Maxine snuck close now, breathing hard, ready for the bullet) she could see the body hunched in the driver’s seat, limp hand on the steering wheel.
She leapt onto the far side of the ditch and discovered the top of the shooter’s head in the water, blond hair streaming like kelp. No bubbles meant no breathing meant it was safe to come closer, which she did, recognizing the face just beneath the muddy surface.
It was her good friend Officer Dwight, his torso pinned beneath the car’s frame.
Maxine’s fear deepened into nausea. She sank to her knees on the wet grass and vomited a neon spray of half-digested junk food.
Now you can get out of here.
Yes, that was the best idea. Wiping her mouth, she stood and walked across the field beyond the ditch, toward the distant band of forest that would give her cover from anyone driving past on the road. Her boots sank into the muck, slowing her progress. Maxine pulled out her phone and made another call.
Copyright © 2019 Nick Kolakowski
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