The girl noticed the man in the Lexus following her three blocks ago. She didn’t mind (Though it did make her wish her mother hadn’t bought her those sparkly, light-up-when-you-step shoes for her eleventh birthday). It was nice to have company.
She came to a pile of bricks that towered high enough to blanket her in shade. She climbed it on all fours.
When she reached the other side, she looked back to see the Lexus cautiously maneuvering around the abandoned, rusted cars, shrapnel, other such obstructions. She guessed that they’d been left there when the war started a year ago. Her mother never told her many details about what happened before, but from what she understood, somebody dropped a bomb somewhere. Then we bombed them back. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Her mother had sent her out to buy groceries when the media reported that the White House had been hit.
That’s when the riots started. Countries blew each other up until it seemed to the girl that they’d run out of explosives.
Or something like that. She never got all the details.
She passed a record store and spotted a man inside, asleep. A veiny arm clasped his coat to his chest, while another lay slumped over a boom-box.
She inched forward. The singer had a voice like melted chocolate dribbled over your favorite dessert.
I like New York in June. How about you?
She glanced back. The car had stopped, and it flicked its high beams on and off twice, then stared her down in the noonday sun.
The CD skipped. I like—like—like New York in—in—innnnn—June. How about you?
The girl shouldered her grocery bag and wrinkled her nose at the smell. She then proceeded away from the store and positioned herself on the sidewalk so she could see the driver.
When she did, she doubted the driver was the real owner of the Lexus. There was clearly a man behind the wheel she didn’t think a man would buy a vanity plate that read DADDYSGRL.
The car slipped between a red Cadillac and a pile of rubble, and stayed there for a minute, as if waiting for her approach, but she stood her ground.
The window hissed down to reveal a black man—the kind of man her grandmother said she should cross the street to avoid.
He stared expectantly. “Well…? Aren’t you going to get in?”
She crossed her arms. “No.”
The man eyed the sleeping mass in the record store. “I guarantee you if that guy wakes up and you’re around, he’s not going to play nice with you.”
New York—York—York—York in Junnnnnne….how about you?
“I won’t be here.”
“If I honk this horn he’ll wake up. I can drive away. Then you’ve got a problem on your hands.”
The girl’s mouth twisted into a grin. She’d been fending for herself for almost a year. Did he expect his threats would scare her? “You can’t drive very fast,” she said, gesturing at the rubbish cluttering the street. “And wouldn’t he be madder at the guy who woke him up?”
The man thought about that for a moment, and then muttered a curse the girl couldn’t make out.
“Why do you want me in the car so bad?”
“If I tell you, you’ll run off.”
“I’ll run off anyway, so you might as well tell me.”
The man shook his head. He punched the dashboard. “I rolled even, dammit,” he muttered.
“Rolled even?” She took a step back. “Is that some sex thing I don’t know about?”
“No! Dammit, No! I rolled the dice! They came up even, and now I have to help you out.”
The girl arched an eyebrow. “You’re crazy.”
The man laughed at that. “Welcome to the real world, kid. Everybody’s crazy, nowadays.” As an afterthought, he added, “I guess that makes everyone sane.”
He popped the lock on the car door and pushed it open to reveal faded gray leather seats. Beer and soda cans cluttered the floor. “Get in.”
She looked back at the record store. In JJJJJu-u-ne. How about—out—out—out you?
She slid into the car.
They sat in silence, since the girl didn’t want to be the first to speak, and she guessed her companion shared that feeling.
She stared out the window, the singer’s rich voice now muffled by the car door.
“So you’re not going to molest me?”
“No!” The man shouted, “Why would I do that?”
“Mom said all strangers do that.”
“Your Mom’s trying to scare you.”
“Is t—” the man bit his lip and sighed. He sniffed the air. “What the hell is that smell?”
The girl slipped a carton of eggs out of her bag. Only two were still intact. “They went bad.” she said.
“Of course they went bad. Why wouldn’t they?”
“Dunno,” the girl said. “But Mom sent me out to get groceries. I’ve been looking for some of the stuff on her list for months. I’ve got all the non-perishables,” she interrupted herself. “Well, all but a few. Mom made a long list, but most of the stuff has gone bad everywhere–”
“How long ago did your Mom give you this list?” the man asked.
The girl scrunched up her face. “Dunno.” She said. “I sort of lost track of the days.” She stared off into space. “It was the same day the White House blew up.”
The man put the car in gear. “Let’s get you home. Where’s your mother?”
“Is that all you can say? What do you mean you don’t know? You’re what? Twelve? And you don’t know your own address?”
“I do too!” the girl said. Her nostrils flared. “I just don’t know where my Mom is.”
The man’s expression softened. “So why are you still going through this grocery list?”
“The last thing my Mom told me was don’t forget to buy milk. And I don’t want to forget.” She muttered a strangled repetition, “I don’t want to forget.” Her voice trailed off. She looked out the window.
Her attention turned back to the man when she heard a crunch out the driver’s side window. When she reached for her grocery bag, her eggs were gone.
The man challenged her with a look. “I don’t want my car smelling like shi—bad. Smelling bad. I don’t want my car smelling bad.” He took a deep breath. “So you want to get eggs?”
“And milk. And a few other things.”
Without a word, the man pulled two die from his pocket. They were red and shiny. Not a speck of dirt on them.
“How often do you polish those?” she asked.
“I don’t. Nail polish remover and two new coats does the trick. It keeps ’em fresh.” He tossed the dice on the dashboard. They came up three and two.
The girl did the math in her head. “Five!” She exclaimed. “Three and two make five!” Her heart sank after she said it. This man, this Dice Master had picked her up because he rolled even.
“Odd numbers,” the man muttered. He pressed down on the gas. “Follow the odd girl’s request.”
“You don’t make your decisions on odds and evens?” she asked.
“What kind of idiot do you take me for? What am I, a Batman villain? The dice read however I want them to read.”
“Then what’s the point of them?”
The Dice Master raised a finger to retort, but words fell silent on his tongue. “Listen, you got your grocery list, I got my dice.” He winced as they squeezed past a pickup truck and half an airplane. “We’ve all got to keep our eyes on something.”
“What’s your name?” the girl asked.
The Dice Master shook his head. “Nuh-uh. No names. I’ve been through that once. I’m not doing it again.”
“Then I’ll call you the Dice Master.”
“First a Batman villain, now I’m a B-movie superhero,” the Dice Master muttered. “What are you gonna call me next? Goldfinger?”
“I don’t get it.”
“Never mind. What am I calling you?”
“The Newt,” she said.
The Dice Master arched an eyebrow. “Why the Newt?”
“Because of my face,” she said.
The Dice Master wrinkled his forehead. “Why would you make fun of yourself like that?”
“The bullies called me that,” the Newt explained. “Before all this. But I tricked them. I told my friends to call me Newt, too. Then it didn’t hurt anymore.”
The Dice Master chuckled. “You’re clever, kid. And cleverness will get you far in this brave new world.”
Half consciously, the Dice Master poked the radio on. The man on the other end spoke like every other gray-faced old man her Mom used to watch on the TV. “There are almost none of us left, now. The sick and the weak have already died and gone to the God in Heaven. The pure have followedf Him. The Rapture has begun, my friends. And not in the way that you think. Disease is at an all-time low, humanity has reached its lowest point, for the greatest threat of this new age is boredom.” The man took a moment to cough. And in this new age, the phrase dying of boredom takes on a whole new meaning.”
The Dice Master grimaced at the voice, but he let it play.
“But there is hope, my friends,” the man said, “I have been sent to you from the Almighty, forced to live among sinners to guide you, and I couldn’t be gladder. The pure of heart have gone to Heaven. Only sinners remain, and the only way you—” he made sure to put emphasis on that last word, “—can get into God’s Kingdom, is if you rid the world of your fellow sinners–to prove yourself worthy in God’s eyes.”
The Dice Master poked the radio off. He mouthed a word the Newt was always warned never to say. “Don’t listen to that guy, kid,” the Dice Master said.
“Who is he?”
“David Pact. An ex-evangelical T.V preacher. He’s been preaching the Rapture since I was in diapers. Now’s his chance to say I told you so. I’d wager my dice that he robbed a Men’s Warehouse before a supermarket, when the first bomb hit.”
“How is he on the radio?”
“I don’t know, but I’ve heard people guess. Ron–” he cut himself off. “A friend of mine said that he had this plan in mind when tensions were rising. He paid some people off to keep the radio station running while money still had value. By now he’s probably got people who do it out of the goodness of their little ol’ hearts. Or maybe it’s something to do.”
The Newt nodded along. “What happened to him?”
The Dice Master said nothing.
“He has a point,” she said, nodding to the radio.
The Dice Master flexed his fingers on the wheel. “What do you mean?”
“Not about killing people. That’s wrong. But he was right about boredom. Nobody has anything to do. We’re not fighting over food.”
“We’re just bored. Mom says bullies do bad things ’cause they can’t think of anything better to do.”
“Of course.” Sarcasm dripped from every word. “You’re right. Why didn’t I think of that sooner? You’re what? Twelve? I’m thirty four. What do I know? I’m just an old man.”
The Newt’s anger flared. “Shut up!”
“Hey, I’m admitting you’re right!” the Dice Master said, “After all, a twelve year old knows so much more about the world than a grown up.”
“Shut up! Just shut up!” She did not realize she’d shouted, at first. The Dice Master glared at her. She added a belated, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
The Dice Master swerved out of the way of a tank. “I’m not going to argue with a twelve year old,” the Dice Master said. “You don’t know anything.”
Her mother’s words leapt into her head, though she didn’t know what they meant. “And you’re being petty.”
The Dice Master made a face like she’d poured vinegar on his tongue. “You’re right. I’m sorry. We’re going to have to get along if we’re sticking together.”
The Newt turned to face the road. “Look out!”
The tires shrieked to a halt in front of three men.
“Get out of the car!” One of them yelled.
The Dice Master groaned. “Right. Them.”
“Who’s them?” the Newt asked.
“The Pact. Davie’s got his own little messiahs running around. My friend and I ran into them a while back.”
“And they’re going to take the car and kill us,” the Dice Master said. “But not necessarily in that order.”
“Hey!” the man shouted again. He was obese man with double chin covered by thick stubble. He raised a pistol that looked like a relic from the Civil War. “I said get out of the fu—”
The Dice Master stuck his head out the window. “Watch your mouth, you—” the Newt blocked her ears when he said the C word her mother warned her about. “There are ladies present!”
The fat man drew the hammer back on his gun. The Dice Master didn’t flinch.
The second man looked like a mob reject. He’d popped his collar, and his shirt was half unbuttoned to expose a hairless, acned chest. He wrung a chain around his knuckles.
The last one looked like he’d stepped out of an army recruitment billboard. His arms were huge and veiny.
“Don’t make me use this,” the fat man said. He shook the weapon erratically.
“Yes, I can see your gun.” The Dice Master sighed. “It’s cute, okay? Now move along before I run you over.”
“You’re shitting us,” the second man said. “You wouldn’t.”
The Dice Master drove forward. “Cover your ears,” he whispered to the Newt.
“I’m not asking.”
“I don’t have time for this.” The Dice Master rolled the Lexus up toward them. The mob reject and the man in camouflage backed up. He kept going until the driver’s side was next to the fat man. He beckoned him closer.
The fat man obeyed.
“Do you know what it looks like when a man gets run over? Have you heard the sound of ribs breaking? Can you imagine the pain of this vehicle slowly going over your torso? Think about that for a second. And then think about the silence that follows. And how little I’ll care. Do you know what that kind of quiet feels like? To go from screaming and crying for your mommy–” his voice dropped with every word. “To…utter….” he mouthed silence.
The man paled. He lowered his flintlock and backed away.
The Newt couldn’t stop picturing it. She cursed herself for listening. She rolled down the window and puked onto the asphalt.
The giant man seized this opportunity and grabbed her under her armpits and pulled.
“Out of the car!” the man screamed, “Or I’ll kill the girl.”
The Newt was halfway out of the car, herself. She locked her heels around the door. Her captor had adjusted his grip to hold her neck, suspending her in the air.
She was dimly aware of the Dice Master unbuckling and inching closer. “Alright,” he said. “Alright just…just let me open this door and get her safely to the ground.”
Before she could process what she’d done, the Newt had pressed her thumbs into the man’s eyes. He squeezed tighter, and for a moment the Newt couldn’t breathe. Primal fury gripped her. She pressed harder. Dug deeper. She dug and dug and she didn’t give him the chance to close his eyes. She pushed at his eyeballs until he relented. Then she was falling.
And a hand caught her shirt.
The Dice Master pulled her back into the car. He took her hands. “Look into my eyes,” she said. “Don’t look away. If you do I swear to God I’m leaving you here.”
The muscle bound man was screaming, but he sounded distant. The Newt never thought a man that scary could scream like that.
She kept her eyes locked on the Dice Master.
“Don’t look at your hands,” he said, “And don’t look at that man.” He rubbed something wet off her hands. “Keep your head down and don’t look at that man.”
The fat man stuck his gun through the car window. “I’m going to kill you, jackass!” He gesticulated wildly.
Dispassion marked the Dice Master’s response. “No. You’re not.” He took out his dice.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m trying to decide whether I want to run over your Mafia friend here,” the Dice Master said. Wannabe Sicilian stood frozen in front of the car, wide eyed.
“What the hell are the dice for?”
“The dice are the decision.”
He dumped them into his lap and covered them before the fat man had a chance to look. “Care to take a guess?” he said.
“Dice don’t make decisions!” The fat man said. Though he did not quite sound sure of that. “Dice don’t make decisions! I’ll kill you!”
“If you were going to kill me, you’d have pulled the trigger when I stopped the car.”
“I mean it!”
“I’d be scared if I thought you had the balls.”
The man shoved the flintlock in the Dice Master’s face.
The Dice Master stared down the barrel. “Shoving it in my face is not how you fire a gun. You’re a big boy. Work it out. But first, we should examine the facts, shouldn’t we? Your army friend over there is still screaming. I’m pretty sure he wet his pants. Then you’ve got the Godfather over there,” he jabbed a finger at Wannabe Sicilian. “He looks pretty eager to leave. And then there’s you. You, with that stupid flintlock. Where’d you get that? An antique shop? It won’t fire, idiot.”
“Then do it!” the Dice Master screamed. “Shoot me!”
The man pulled the trigger. There was a click and nothing else.
The Dice Master raised an eyebrow. “My turn.” He revealed his dice. “Six and three. Nine. Sounds like the nein. No one dies today. I’m almost upset. You’re an embarrassment to what’s left of us.” He floored the gas pedal. Wannabe Sicilian flew out of the way.
“Can I look up?” the Newt asked. G.I Joe’s screaming echoed in her head.
“Yes. Yes you can look up, Newt.”
Neither of them said a word for the next few minutes. The Newt heard a ringing in her ears. The Dice Master put his attention into maneuvering the Lexus between obstructions.
“That was impressive,” he said.
“What you did to that guy who grabbed you.”
“Hm.” The Newt furrowed her brow. “What did he look like after…y’know?”
The Dice Master’s smile vanished. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Try not to think about it.
The Newt stared out the window. Cars were embedded in window-shops. She tried to look at the object and skip over the bodies. “We could try Market Basket,” she said. “Do you think there are eggs there?”
The Dice Master bit. “No,” he said. He pulled the dice out of his pocket. “I don’t think they have eggs. But I have an idea.”
The Newt didn’t see how the dice landed, but next thing she knew, a hard left jerked her against the window. The Lexus rumbled over jagged asphalt between two buildings. She closed her eyes and waited for the crash.
And then nothing. When they emerged, the Newt heard someone playing Spanish music off a stereo.
“We’ll find your chickens here,”
“But I want eggs, not chickens.”
“Beggars can’t be choosers.”
“What does that even mean?”
“It means shut up and let me drive.” The Dice Master grimaced. “Jesus, now you’ve got me talking like you.”
“But how do you know there are chickens here?”
The Dice Master’s knuckles whitened on the steering wheel. “Because I know.”
He drove with a map in his head. Each turn was calculated to bring them to one place.
And that place was a rickety old house.
The paint was chipped and faded. Windows were shattered. The deck floorboards were splintered and uneven. But the Newt beamed when she saw the chicken strutting in the backyard. “Is this your friend’s house?”
“It’s just a house.”
The Newt started to get out. The Dice Master caught her belt buckle. “No. You’re staying here.”
“Mom sent me to get the eggs,” the Newt said.
“And the dice told me to protect you.”
“I’m getting out.”
The Newt bit his arm. He reeled back and she made a dash for the house. She skinned her knee on the front step, bounced back up, and reached for the doorknob when a man flung the door wide. His face was obscured by a shotgun barrel.
“Someone had to have been feeding the chickens,” the Dice Master said as he exited the car, “Let me take care of this.”
The gun’s owner had a belly that spilled out from under his torn tanktop. He smelled like hair grease and cigarettes. “You get the fu—”
“Watch your mouth,” the Dice Master cautioned.
“Since when did you care if I curse? Don’t make me use this. Get off my property.
“This ain’t your property, Henr—”
“No names!” the man shouted. He switched the shotgun from the Newt to the Dice Master. “That’s what we agreed! No emotional connections. No tethers to the past. That still holds, even after Ron.”
The Dice Master raised his hands. “We’re not here to discuss the past. We just want a chicken. You owe me after what you did to—”
“He had it coming! And you will, too, if you take one more step! Those chickens are mine!”
The Newt wiped her palm-sweat on her jeans. Her heart punched her chest.
“Let the girl go,” the Dice Master said. “And we’ll talk this out like grown men. Okay?”
“There ain’t nothing to talk about!”
“Let her go. You don’t want her death on your conscience, do you?”
The Newt stepped back slowly. She nearly fell off the deck in her retreat. She yelped when the Dice Master grabbed her from behind.
“Stay here,” he said. “Remember Sinatra? The guy singing on the boom-box?”
The Newt tried to speak, but her mouth wouldn’t let her form the words in her mind. She nodded.
“Cover your ears. And listen to me, this time. I don’t want a repeat of earlier. When I close that door, I want you to sing.”
The Dice Master marched up the steps. The man stood there, gun trembling in his hands.
She spotted his dice on the pavement. Six and six.
The man babbled warnings as the Dice Master moved closer. He shoved the man inside and closed the door behind him.
The Newt sang.
“I like New York in June…”
There was muffled scream reminded her of the man from before.
“…How about you? I like New York in June….”
Scattered noises and crashes replaced screams.
“…How about you? I like New York in June…I-I l-like New York in June.”
She tried to think of the rest of the song. She grimaced when she couldn’t remember the words.
“I—I—I like New Y—Y—York in June. H—H—H-How about you?”
She heard a loud bang which hurt her ears, even though she’d covered them.
“I like N—N—N—New York i—i—in J—J—June. How about y—y—you?”
Silence followed. She let her hands fall to her sides and heaved a breath.
She sat by the Lexus waiting for the Dice Master amidst the silence.
He came out wearing a fresh set of clothes that were baggy on him. He carried a chicken and a rooster in either arm.
“Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum,” he said. “They’ll give you your eggs. The Dice Master snatched his dice and the two hopped into the car. He didn’t look at the Newt.
Neither of them said a word. The only sound was the squawking of the two chickens in the backseat.
“About that man…” the Newt began.
“Did you…you know? Do it?”
“Then why are you so tense?”
“Because I am.”
The Dice Master offered a smile. “What’s next on your list?”
“Milk. I can’t forget to buy milk.”
A very heartfelt thank you to my patrons. You make this writing possible. Special thanks to Saija Rantala, Lydia Raya, Abbey Newman, and Temi Olatinwo.