Margaret Killjoy’s Danielle Cain series is a dropkick-in-the-mouth anarcho-punk fantasy that pits traveling anarchist Danielle Cain against eternal spirits, hypocritical ideologues, and brutal, unfeeling officers of the law. The story continues with The Barrow Will Send What it May, available April 3rd from Tor.com Publishing.
Now a nascent demon-hunting crew on the lam, Danielle and her friends arrive in a small town that contains a secret occult library run by anarchists and residents who claim to have come back from the dead. When Danielle and her crew investigate, they are put directly in the crosshairs of a necromancer’s wrath — whose actions threaten to trigger the apocalypse itself.
The towering bursts of flame that staggered their way across the empty, black horizon weren’t helping my mood. I’d been dozing in the backseat of the car, my head against Brynn’s shoulder, but the staccato, silent bursts were too eerie to sleep through.
“Where the hell are we?” I asked.
Outside, as far as I could see, were featureless plains. No stars in the sky, just blackness. Blackness and fire.
“Hell’s about the word for it,” Brynn said. She was gazing out the window, her face lit a little by the interior lights of the car and a lot by the occasional streaks of fire outside. A single thick black tattoo line cut its way down her face from her short bangs to the bridge of her nose, and her face was severe. Even more severe than usual. Or maybe I was just drowsy.
The rest of the passengers were silent, and we tore down the road through all that darkness.
It was gas flaring. As I woke up more properly, I remembered. Must be in North Dakota somewhere. Excess natural gas production, beyond what they’ve got the infrastructure for, gets burned off. I’d never seen it with my own eyes, those flames that stood in monument to the wastefulness of civilization.
My left shoulder ached where thread—regular sewing thread—held together a crowbar wound. My right hand was sore, still, and mottled with supernatural gray where an undead goat had bitten it.
Behind us, a thousand miles of highway ago, was nothing. Dead bodies and probably some investigators who wanted explanations we couldn’t really give. A demon killed those police officers, sir. It wasn’t us. They probably shouldn’t have pulled guns out around a bloodred, three-antlered deer with obvious supernatural agility, so whose fault was it really.
No one would believe us. A week ago, I wouldn’t have believed us. We couldn’t go back.
Ahead of us, there was also nothing. We had a sort of scattershot map of towns with friends who might shelter us, of places that might have books or witches who could teach us. Doomsday was convinced that if we made it to the Washington coast, we’d eventually find people who’d get us on a boat to the islands off the coast of Canada. Vulture had a Google map populated with disappearances and strange phenomena we might look into. But none of us had anything concrete. No real plans, only chaos.
This is how we’re meant to live.
* * *
Thursday drove for sixteen hours straight, his fists gripping the wheel at ten and two. No music on the stereo, but the ethereal, washed-out voices of AM radio preachers were on sometimes. I think they were telling us we were going to hell. I always assume that voices like those are telling me that.
We left the fields of fire behind just as the sun edged over the horizon behind us. Thursday pulled into a rest area “to watch dawn, maybe eat something,” but once the engine was off he didn’t even make it out of the driver’s seat before he fell asleep.
The rest of us, better rested, leaned against the car in the chilly morning air and watched that sunrise. If you stay up all night, you owe it to yourself to watch sunrise, every time.
Vulture passed around a tiny bottle of orange juice he produced from somewhere, maybe his hoodie pocket because those blue jean short-shorts sure didn’t have serious pockets on them. He would have made a good stage magician. He had the right kind of charm, and all of his motions were fluid, almost hypnotizing. He smiled easily, and even though his smile rarely looked genuine, when he smiled you found yourself smiling too.
“Is this going to work out?” Brynn asked, breaking hours of silence. She was sitting on top of the spray painted–red old Honda Civic hatchback, her steel-toed boots hanging down over the side. She ripped at a pomegranate, casting its pulp onto the pavement. Her arms were bare to the shoulder—I’m not sure she owned any T-shirts that still had their sleeves.
“On a long enough timeline,” Doomsday said, “no. But it’ll work out today.” Even if she was only just now learning to weave words into ritual magic, Doomsday had a way of warping the world around her when she spoke.
“What’s more important?” I asked. “Laying low or our new career?” It was idle curiosity, nothing more. What mattered was our motion, not our purpose.
“Laying low,” Doomsday said.
“Find some demons,” Vulture said, at the same time.
They looked at one another. They’d known one another how long? Years? I’d known them not even a week.
“Find some demons while laying low,” Vulture said. It was his way of conceding.
“The more we know about magic, the more equipped we’ll be to handle whatever comes at us,” Doomsday said.
“So both?” I asked. “How the hell will we do both?”
“Magic,” Vulture said, grinning.
Brynn, probably delirious, laughed with her whole body, her heels banging on the window glass.
“Shut the fuck up,” Thursday mumbled from inside the car. At least, that’s what I think he said. It’s what I would have said.
Thursday would have driven the whole way if we’d have let him, but his protestations were scarcely audible as we helped him up into the backseat. I took his place behind the wheel, Brynn took shotgun, and we ran away from the encroaching day.
* * *
I’ve spent most of my life in the flyover states and their beauty is largely unmatched through the rest of the country. But sometimes the endless expanse is too endless.
I spent the full day driving. Vulture was nocturnal by choice, and he snored softly with his face against the glass. Thursday was wiped out. Doomsday was wanted for murder—more actively than the rest of us—and wasn’t excited about being the one who would get ID’d if we were pulled over.
Brynn could have taken a turn. I’m sure of it. But I didn’t want her to. She looked happy, sitting there in the passenger seat. She put her hand on my arm and left it there for a long time, and that settled that: I wanted to be the driver.
I drove all day.
I used to think I was going to end up a trucker. When I first started hitchhiking ten years back, I’d been eighteen and I’d fallen in love with basically every lady trucker I’d met. Even when that thing happened when I was nineteen where I had to stab a man trucker in the hand, even after that I’d assumed I’d wind up a trucker.
Open road, solitude, books on tape, decent pay. Who wouldn’t want to be a trucker?
By the time I was old enough for the job, I didn’t want it. Mostly because I didn’t want any job. I’d found my niche as a wanderer and driving on some company’s schedule just wasn’t going to suit me.
Still, I was pretty sure I was one hell of a long haul driver.
* * *
We crossed into Montana and I kept driving. Glacier National Park is probably the single most beautiful place in the country and I figured we’d get to sleep there—blend in with the tourists at some campground—if I just kept at it.
We made it halfway across the state. I was on a side highway, avoiding the interstate because the occasional small town speed trap seemed like a better bet than the highway patrol, who might have had an all-points to look for us.
Some British man was narrating a fantasy book at us from the stereo—Vulture’s doing—and the sun was just starting to get low. Brynn was asleep. Everyone in the backseat was quiet, hadn’t said a word in an hour. The sun was just starting to look a little low on the horizon.
I nodded off.
I came to, halfway into the oncoming lane, and corrected. There was no traffic to run into, just an endless stretch of Montana highway. I slapped myself—it’s usually good for ten minutes or so—and made a mental note to pull off at the next exit, switch drivers.
I nodded off again.
I’d never crashed a car in my life.
When I came to probably half a second later, I was in the wrong lane again. Fully this time. Startled, I corrected, fast, and saw myself headed real quick toward running off the right side of the road. So I corrected again. Still wasn’t thinking. Way too fast. The car went up on two wheels, and my vision got choppy.
The sunset streaming through the window, with the road where the sky should be.
Maybe I screamed. Maybe someone else screamed.
Where’s the reset button? Like I was a kid again, playing Nintendo. Just hit the reset button. Start over from the last save.
No, it’s actually happening.
Then it was over. We were twenty feet off the left-hand side of the road. The car was upright again—we’d spun a full 360. The windshield was fucked. A beautiful spiderweb of fucked, with trees in the distance that I could see through the kaleidoscope of fucked.
Guess the car didn’t have air bags. What year did air bags get to be standard?
Thursday’s voice cut through the white noise that I hadn’t even noticed. “Doomsday?”
I freaked out. Just started gasping for air.
I’d rolled the car.
I’d almost killed Brynn.
“Fine.” I answered because I wanted to be left alone and answering seemed like the fastest way to accomplish that. I took off my seat belt—thank fuck we’d all been wearing seat belts. Even the people sleeping—even the other people sleeping—had been wearing seat belts. I opened the door and tried to stand, but my legs gave out and I collapsed in on myself.
“Danielle,” Brynn said. She was next to me, crouching, her arm around me.
“I fucked up,” I said, fighting for air. “I don’t need anything. I’m the one who . . .” I gave up trying to talk. I got my head between my knees and I retched out gasps. No tears, though. Not yet.
Vulture knelt down on the other side of me, put his arm around me too. I lifted my head up to see him. Wet blood smeared across his brown skin.
“You’re bleeding,” I said.
“I’m fine. Just cut up my arm a little, nothing deep.”
“I fell asleep.”
Vulture pulled aside the shoulder strap of my tank top. “Hey,” he said, “my stitches held!”
“Got to get this thing away from the road before anyone drives by,” Thursday said. “Into the trees.”
Vulture glared at his friend, but Thursday was right. We didn’t want to deal with cops or ambulances or any of that shit.
Brynn tried to help me up, but I shook her arm off. The only thing worse than needing emotional support after what I’d done, was stubbornly refusing help I so obviously needed, but I couldn’t help it. Which made me resent her support even more.
Pushing a fucking car, though. That I could do. Vulture and I were tied for being the smallest but no one made any suggestion that I should get back behind the wheel. Doomsday got in and steered while the rest of us pushed, and we got it into what was probably a tree farm. The trees were in those unnaturally perfect rows and I’m sure the car wasn’t completely hidden, but with any luck we’d gotten it far enough from the road that it looked like it was supposed to be there. A few cars went by while we were doing it, but none of them slowed down.
“What’s next?” Doomsday asked, getting out.
“Get the VIN numbers off,” Thursday said.
“It’s just VIN,” Vulture corrected. “Vehicle Identification Number. Like ATM machine or PIN number or whatever.”
“There’ll be a plate on the dash, that’s easy,” I said, cutting in. “But it’ll also be stamped into the frame a few places. We’d need a pretty serious file to get it out, even if we can get to all the VIN numbers without taking the thing apart.”
They talked it over for a moment, then Thursday pried the metal tag off the dash while Vulture and Brynn took off the plates. Close enough for government work, I guess.
Me, I leaned against the back of the car. I tried not to take stock of what condition the car was in, but the windows were all busted out and the roof was caved in on the back corner.
It was Doomsday. Probably the least emotional of the five of us. Strangely, that helped.
I put my hand on the massive dent on the roof. “If we’d landed anywhere else . . .” I said.
“We didn’t.” Doomsday pulled out a cigarette, lit it, took a drag.
“You smoke?” I asked.
“Not usually,” she said. “Used to more. Still keep a pack around. But . . . I could use a cigarette. You did almost just kill us all.”
“I’m not going to say ‘don’t remind me.’”
“I probably won’t again. You know what you did, and you’ll mostly get over it, and there isn’t one of us who’s anywhere near as mad at you as you are.”
“Thanks,” I said. I didn’t smoke either. “Can I have a cigarette?”
“I don’t bum cigarettes out to nonsmokers.”
* * *
It’s hard to hitchhike with five people. Under normal circumstances, the thing to do would have been to split up into two groups. But these obviously weren’t normal circumstances.
To make things even more fun, we had to get a ride before the cops stopped us and ran our names. None of us had any idea if there were warrants out for us yet, but none of us wanted to find out the hard way.
Five people and luggage. Brynn, Vulture, and I had travel packs. The Days had decent-sized suitcases. All of them were covered in glass, and Vulture’s yellow pack was now replete with bloodstains.
“Alright,” Doomsday said, dropping her cigarette from her lips, letting it fall to the ground where she stomped it out with a heeled boot. “Gather ’round. Hold hands. Got a ritual for this hitchhiking shit.”
We were still in the woods, hidden from the road. I took Vulture’s hand and Brynn’s hand, and the five of us formed a little pentagon.
“You say what I say,” Doomsday said, “but like, in a round. I’ll say a line, then Thursday you say that line while I say the next one. Then Brynn, Danielle, Vulture. You say the line the person on your left said the last time. After I say the fifth line, you all go on without me, until Vulture says the last line alone. Anyone fucks it up, we just start over. First time I tried this method, I fucked up every line once. It’s not a big deal. Got it?”
“Got it,” we said back. We began.
“We ask for good strangers.”
“We ask for the barrow to send what it may.”
“We ask that ill eyes pass us over.”
“We ask for the dead to guard us.”
“We ask that sorrow be held at bay.”
It took us about four rounds to get it right. It’s hard to listen to what someone is saying while you’re talking, but not as hard as I would have thought. I’m glad I was never the one to fuck up—I don’t know how well I could have handled any more failure.
I felt the energy pass between our hands. A subtle thing. The kind of thing I might have felt before I’d seen magic. But after Vulture said the last line, a silence fell over us and a wind picked up. A gyre spun itself between us, the same direction as our ritual, then spun outward through the trees.
Then that silence.
“So . . .” I asked at last. “The fuck did we just do?”
“It’s nothing,” Doomsday said. “Just a spell for good luck with strangers, keeping people who would hurt us away.”
“And all that shit about the barrow and the dead?”
“I don’t know the spell too well. I think Barrow is the name of the endless spirit it appeals to. He’s a death spirit, I guess, but that’s not what the ritual is about.”
“Yeah, great. What could go wrong?”
* * *
An SUV picked us up, not ten minutes after we’d been waiting. For those keeping score at home, neither being picked up by an SUV or so quickly is common. I mean, both have happened to me before, but usually not while hitching with five people, two of them being people of color and men besides. Oh and Brynn had that face tattoo. And Doomsday was a bona fide cop-killing, husband-killing murderer.
I actually can’t blame anyone who drove past the five of us though, no matter what their car. No one wants to be outnumbered by strangers in their own vehicle. It takes a certain kind of person, one with bravery and belief in doing right by people, to pick up a crew like us.
It takes a person like Gertrude Miller, it turns out.
“Where you headed?” she asked after the other four got in the back and I climbed in shotgun.
I’d been designated “driver-dealer-wither” by a rather hasty consensus decision, with the caveat that Thursday be ready to step in if the driver was a creep or just a bro looking to bro down. Gertrude Miller wasn’t either of those things. She was a white woman, probably fifty, with a vacant look in her eyes and a cold but somehow genuine smile on her face. She had that tired look of a woman who’d done service-class work her entire life, and the self-confidence of the same.
“Out to Glacier,” I said. “You?”
It’s good practice to ask where a ride is going. Probably more important when you’ve got reason to be skeptical—like when I’m hitching alone and a man picks me up. If they can’t give a clear answer, I don’t get in their car.
“Pendleton,” she said. “That’ll get you close to Glacier, but I’m afraid the sun’ll be down before we get there.”
“That’s fine,” I said, “we’ll figure it out from there. Thanks for the ride.”
“Anytime,” she said. “Know why I picked you up?”
Probably: Jesus told her to pick us up. Or maybe I reminded her of her daughter or her granddaughter. Or she was worried about me in the company I kept.
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“God told me to,” she said. “There’re some young folks who look just like y’all in Pendleton. They run the library, ever since the county gave up on it, and they still run it for free. Never would have thought I’d make friends with someone with a face tattoo, no I didn’t, but these kids are alright. Figured you’re alright too.”
The smile dropped off her face for a moment as she squinted her eyes at the road ahead.
“Plus,” she went on, “I’ve already died once. Ain’t got nothing left to fear.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that, so I just waited for her to elaborate. She didn’t. Instead, she put the radio on, pop country filled the car, and we drove back off into the sunset.
Excerpted from The Barrow Will Send What It May, copyright © 2018 by Margaret Killjoy
Excerpt originally appeared on Littsburgh.