Soledad lets Gabe do the introductions because most strangers see him as the more respectable sibling. His attentive green eyes stare from under thick lashes, and his hair lies flat even when it’s desperately in need of a cut.
“We want Queen Mary’s protection,” he says, brazen as anything. Soledad tries not to stare at the ground. Gabe squeezes her hand.
“What can you give her?” the man at the door asks. Huge firearms dangle from his sides.
“We got guns, for one thing. And we’re mechanics. We can fix things. Bikes.”
The bouncer taps a finger against his forearm. “What kind of bikes you mean? Motorcycles or the other ones?”
“No engines,” Gabe says, firm and deliberate. “The kind that’ll last when there’s no gas left.”
Gabe doesn’t want to say the word. “Bicycles” sound like something frivolous, out of the old times, and not everybody understands what’s needed in the here-and-now. Not everybody knows you can cross five state lines in a month and a bicycle will carry you past the point where your legs give out.
“And we brought some personal gifts,” he adds.
Soledad lets go of his hand and shrugs off her pack. She pulls out a plastic bag and holds up a small eye shadow palette in pink and brown. It was scavenged from the back room of a Kroger that had long since been picked clean of anything edible. People will take anything, but sometimes they miss.
She drops it back into the bag, where it makes a promising clink.
“We kept an eye out wherever we passed through,” Gabe says. “To show we’re serious. I hear she likes–”
“You can see her,” the bouncer says. Lazily he extends his arm to rap three times on the door behind him. Then, after the click, he pushes the door open and slides inside. The entrance is narrow, and he is not; his belt is packed with metal things that catch on corners.
A backstage area lies behind the door. Maybe this place used to be famous.
The seats, ringing the auditorium on two levels, are velvet. A prop throne sits on the stage. The gold paint is chipping off the armrests, and for a dangerous moment Soledad wants to laugh, before she sees–
Queen Mary’s dress: bright red, tied at her waist and falling off her slim shoulders, trailing in the back. The fabric looks impossibly new, which takes all the air from Soledad’s lungs. She is confronted with the imperious rise of the Queen’s cheekbones and the sparkle on the tips of her fingernails.
But it’s the Queen’s straight dark hair (long, how is it still long?) that convinces Soledad they were right to come here. Any woman who feels safe with long hair–who can wear it loose, keep it clean–must live in luxury. She must live without fear of men she barely knows waking her up by the campfire at night, seizing her by the hair.
No roving gangs in Marytown. No ravagers, no cult-killers on motorcycles. Safe.
Gabe is struck into uncharacteristic silence. Soledad thinks she sees the bouncer wink at them.
Queen Mary walks toward them from the throne, heels echoing on the wooden floor.
“Did you bring me any party favors?” she asks, voice surprisingly high. It could be lilting, if the tension underneath were made of anything but iron.
Wordlessly, Soledad holds out the bag of makeup. An attendant takes it.
It’s true, she thinks, dazed. You can see the mascara on her, and the red of her lipstick, maybe too bright outside the stage lights. How can someone who lives today, in this world, afford that kind of luxury? Who bothers? Who has the time?
Suddenly, Gabe fumbles for Soledad’s fingers. Grabs her hand.
“Gabriel Reyes Mendoza.” The queen is close enough now that Soledad sees the lipstick clinging to itself as the slim lips part. Like the red gunk wants to seal her up.
“Thought so!” The words sound, if not false, then over-clean. Like the sharpness of vision that comes alongside an adrenaline rush. “I’m pretty good with faces. But was it track or cross country? That part I forget.”
“Track team,” Gabe says. “Lincoln High. Dallas. You were in my history class, too.”
This coincidence–this way in–excites Soledad for a moment. Then she registers the tremor in her brother’s voice.
The queen steps forward until she’s close to Gabe’s chest, looking up at an angle that forces him to acknowledge how small she is. How easily he could snap her limbs.
“Third period, right? Mm, we’ll have to catch up,” she says.
Soledad thinks: if I were a Barter Queen, I wouldn’t want anyone to know anything about me. Not where I came from, not the kid I used to be. Queen Mary can’t be older than twenty-five, but the sleek shapes of her penciled eyebrows make that easy to ignore.
The bouncer is not far away, and other big big men stand nearby.
Queen Mary touches the bottom button of Gabe’s polo.
“Is this your sister?” She looks back at Soledad. Her eyes do not flicker. They strike fast, like pinning a butterfly to a board.
Gabe swallows and nods.
“You used to talk about her.” She absently fixes his collar. “I think you–”
“We want into your community,” Gabe says loudly.
Queen Mary’s fingers still. Her body stops moving for a fraction of a second too long.
The big big men’s hands move toward their holsters.
“I’m sorry!” Soledad hears herself say, voice cracking from disuse. Weight, invisible and iron hot, presses down on her spine like men’s hands. “I’m sorry, he–we didn’t mean to interrupt. We just…we want your protection. We’ll help out however we can. I’m sorry.”
The Queen pauses, then laughs. The sound goes on for longer than is comfortable as she releases Gabe’s shirt. “Oh my god, I’m not a dictator, okay? Nobody’s gonna get shot for talking out of turn here.”
Gabe’s hand sweats in Soledad’s.
“You’re cute,” the Queen says. “What’s your name again?”
“Soledad.” She jumps as Mary touches her shoulder.
“Okay, Soledad. Tell me everything you’re good at, and I’ll see about raising you up.”
Turns out, Soledad is mostly good at fixing bikes and doing hair.
She was in the cosmetology track in high school and ran around with girls who dyed each other’s hair green for laughs. Her mom had been furious, had said there was no future there.
Turns out, there’s no future anywhere anyway. Not since the bombs got dirtier.
Queen Mary asks Soledad to dye her hair blonde. She’s had box dye sitting around for ages. Some girl brought it as tribute when she heard Marytown was taking in refugees who had something to offer the community–and that the queen could be buttered with bribes.
“Kid didn’t have any real skills,” the queen says, sitting on the royal bed and picking at her toenail. “Felt bad for her though, so she’s still around. She picked up fast with a shotgun. Shells, now those’re getting harder to find. That and everything else.”
The royal chambers are squeezed into the gutted remains of the theater’s tech booth. Few people are allowed entry. The collapsed bed takes up half the space, while the queen’s wardrobe takes up the other half. Her dresses and rompers are hung with an obsessive level of care from an appropriated steel beam.
Soledad clears her throat. “Your hair’s dark. We have to bleach it basically to hell and back.” She looks at the back of the box. “I wish I had a toner–”
“What’s that? You need that?” Queen Mary says sharply, looking up at Soledad from under her bangs.
Soledad swallows, pinned under brown eyes. “Just that…blonde hair goes green. Toner’d help.”
The Queen clicks her tongue. She picks at a clump of mascara. “Fuck it, then. Changed my mind. There’s just two boxes anyway.”
“You don’t wanna try it?”
“Hell no,” she sighs, sounding genuinely disappointed. “Because if they see me blonde, they’ll notice when I go back to black. Or when I get green.”
Soledad makes a dismissive noise before she can stop herself.
Queen Mary looks at her. Her smile echoes the incredulous arc of her eyebrows in perfect, gorgeous condescension. “Girl, I don’t think you get it.”
“No, I don’t. Why go for perfect hair? Nowadays…”
The queen collapses backwards onto her bed. She points towards the ceiling, then moves her finger in a wide circle like she’s trying to encompass all of Marytown–all of the earth. “Well, Sol, it’s like this. I built this place up from nothing, and they didn’t see me chip a single nail.”
The sound of fist striking jawbone: dull and hollow rather than the clean peal of a slap. At the foot of the Queen’s throne, Soledad freezes, hunched over the foot bath she’d been preparing with herbs and oil.
The visiting biker-lord swipes a palm across his cheek like he’s wiping away mud. Above the line of his beard lies the indent of Queen Mary’s ring.
“Leave now,” the Queen says calmly, shaking out her hand, “before I get my friends to do worse.”
The lord is huge, and he comes with a posse. Divested of their weaponry, fifteen muscle heads stand behind him in the backstage area. One pulls off his jacket, snarling; another shouts something obscene.
Soledad’s heart knocks against her rib cage. She tries to map her exits–to visualize herself leaping from the stage and sprinting down the aisleway–but she can’t get past the picture of the big big men reaching out to break her spine.
The biker-lord holds up a hand–metal spikes stick up from the bare skin of his knuckles–and his posse goes silent.
“Shit’s not called for,” he tells the queen. “All we want is to offer you some decent cargo services. ‘S a long road between barter towns, and folk on the road ain’t always so friendly.”
“Friendly,” Queen Mary says. “That what you call pigs who trade in human cargo?”
The lord scowls. “Rumors.”
“No,” Queen Mary says. “No, I got spies and shit.” She steps forward until her bare toes nearly rest on top of his steel-toed boots.
There it is: even as she stands toe-to-toe with him, even though she’s close enough for him to grasp her neck and squeeze, he averts his eyes from hers.
“You better leave my kingdom, Ashley,” she tells him. “You leave now, and I let you live.”
Ashley’s lips twitch into a half-suppressed snarl before he smooths them into neutrality. A black dotted line is tattooed across his lower lip. “You don’t have the manpower to waste us.”
“Believe what you want. But I got control of every trade network for two hundred miles. You stay here a minute longer–you ever come back–you’re dead in the water out there. Worse.”
“If you insult me,” Queen Mary says, and Soledad can hear the red-lipped smile, “it’s the same. It’s the goddamn same. I have the cards. You’re dead.”
The silence is as heavy as dust in the stage lights.
Soledad thinks: third-period history. Divine right of kings.
Finally, Ashley turns away. He strides between his posse, out the backstage door. They follow him. The throne room is left in silence. Slowly, the various attendants–bouncers and clerks, mostly–return to their duties in the wings.
Soledad isn’t aware of her own shaking until Queen Mary pulls her up by her arm.
“No good lying there,” the queen says quietly. “Don’t ever let ‘em see you lying there.”
“Her name was María,” Gabe says, trying to get the fire going. They’re huddled up in the theater’s cavernous entrance hall. The ceiling’s been torn out in places so the smoke from cooking fires can escape more easily. Nobody wants to start noticeable fires outside Castle Marytown’s walls if they can help it; that kind of vulnerability isn’t worth the risk.
Sleepily, Soledad hunches into Gabe’s shoulder. “Mm? Girl of yours?”
“No,” he says, annoyed. “Hell no. Her name was María Pérez, and she was just some stuck-up bitch on the track team.”
Soledad’s stomach twists strangely. She swishes her tongue in her mouth, missing the taste of lipstick and the shrieking laughter of girls in the cosmetology room as they gave each other stupid half-sexual dares. Some days, the teacher just didn’t show up. No one expected them to accomplish much. So, not so different from their school at large–but the cosmo girls had better hair.
“Stuff was different in high school,” she says, feeling wise and generous and hungry for carrot stew. There’s a garden in Marytown, ringed in barbed wire and growing bigger by the day. The two of them are in the tending rotation (when they’re not fixing bikes or hair), so they get first cut of any one vegetable. Gabe picked carrots.
“Yeah, but you don’t become a god in six years. Or a queen.”
“I mean, why not? Nothing else makes sense, either. All the rules are dead.”
Gabe shakes his head. He pulls out his treasured knife to peel the potatoes. “Why’d she change her name?”
“The hell she didn’t. She look like somebody whose parents named her Mary?”
Soledad wants to say yes. Mary, untouchable as the virgin queen. Skin white as snow. But when you see the name–María Pérez–you see the rest of her. You see a Tejana who ran track in high school.
“She’s not a queen,” Gabe says. He grimaces, breathes in, air hissing through the gap in his front teeth. “You could be her.”
“Gabe.” The name comes out as a warning, but Soledad doesn’t feel the fear she expected to. She doesn’t think they’re being watched. Mary wouldn’t do that. “What do you care? It’s safe here, right?”
Gabe looks like he wants to argue. Then the fight goes out of him all at once. “Sure,” he says, deftly peeling the first potato. “But she’s safer ‘n we are, even though she’s no better than you or me.”
Gabe is missing a piece of the puzzle. Soledad loves her brother, but she doesn’t think his mumbled discontent stems from egalitarian logic. She’s seen the queen at work now, and she knows the secret. It was the secret at work in Ashley’s face that morning–in the face of most men and women who come through Marytown.
When they first see Her Majesty, they are awed. Then they are quietly furious.
It’s some particular, terrible magic she works on them without them realizing: they see her beautiful face–how she remains beautiful even in the midst of all this–and they hate her. They hate her delicacy and the way she doesn’t try to hide it. They hate that someone self-obsessed enough to have red lips and well-conditioned hair after the apocalypse has power over them. Most of all, they hate that they can’t tell her this; they can’t call her stuck-up bitch to her face, or threaten her, or ask sexual favors to disguise their rage. She’s a fake face on a fake throne surrounded by her big big men, and she watches everyone who wishes she was real trip into her web. She makes them dance so she can see the strings move.
Soledad smiles to herself, a secret of her own, as she leans on her brother’s arm and watches the water boil.
Queen Mary is screaming when Soledad brings her daily washing water. It only gets worse from there.
The bouncer from the backstage door–Den–weathers the storm gracefully. He stands outside the royal chambers, arms crossed as his queen hurls invectives. She hangs on her door frame and leans toward him and then away as though tossed by a wind.
“They can’t do that! You can’t let them do that! You fucking moron, we look like pigs in here! Fat fucking pigs who let people die on the doorstep!”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Den tries. “But the scouts were halfway to the interstate–on foot, you know?–before the bikers caught up to them. We couldn’t’ve stopped it if we tried.”
“It’s that puto idiota from a week back, isn’t it? The one who wanted me to hire his half-cocked gang to move goods–”
“Your Majesty, we don’t know for sure–”
“It fucking is, and you know it!” She clutches the door frame, her expression wild. Her bangs stick to the bridge of her nose. Soledad will have to trim them soon.
“They got pissed, murdered our people, and made us look like damn fools. Made your guys look like fools, Den!”
Den’s expression doesn’t change. He tilts his head to the side. “You wanna hit ‘em hard?”
“Well, we have to! There’s no choice; the minute everybody learns you can hit Marytown and live–”
“Understood,” Den says. From anyone else, this would sound like an interruption. Their patter seems practiced. Soledad isn’t sure Den is just the bouncer.
He notices Soledad for the first time; gives her a wink before leaving.
Mary throws herself on her bed while Soledad prepares the washing water with sweet-smelling herbs. She moves carefully, hyper-aware of the monarch in flannel PJs behind her.
After a while Mary asks, “Anybody else see that?”
“No,” Soledad says. “I wouldn’t let them.”
It would be terrible for anyone to see the Queen scream–to need to scream to get something done.
“Good.” Mary’s pillow muffles her voice. Her words sound wet.
Soledad straightens Mary’s lotions and acne creams. Then she moves to the careful rows of makeup underneath the steel beam “closet.” The tube of BB cream–perfectly matched to Mary’s skin tone–is nearly empty. Her eyeshadow pallet is full of broken, chalky pieces. Her glittering nail polish has run out.
After awhile there’s just nowhere left to go.
“She was with the scout team,” Mary says at last. “You know, that kid who brought the box dye? Sent her out on a scavenge trip ‘cause she couldn’t do much else. Shouldn’t’ve taken her in from the beginning.”
Soledad caps Mary’s favorite lipstick–still a few weeks’ worth inside–and sits down on the bed. She runs her fingertips against the quilt; wonders who made it.
“It’s just, you know, for a second I couldn’t help it,” Mary says, sniffling into her pillow. “You want them to know you don’t take no shit–don’t take nothing useless–and then some stupid girl in glasses like the ones you wore in middle school comes along…”
Soledad reaches out. Touches Mary’s palm.
“…and all of a sudden there’s gangs all up in your shit like they can touch you now. Like they got the power.”
Soledad moves her fingertips against the Queen’s wrist. She turns over Mary’s hand and presses it between her own palms.
“You can’t let your makeup run if you ever start wearing it,” Mary says, lifting her head. Her hair trails against the pillow, dark and luscious. Her wild eyes, ringed in dirty mascara, meet Soledad’s. “That’s the trap. You can’t ever be touched. You can’t sweat or your makeup’ll run. You get it, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Soledad says. She isn’t sure she does. Some foreign power hums against her lips–like insect wings or like riding a bike over gravel.
She bends down to Mary’s face. She traces the tracks of her tears, kissing along the secret shadows beneath Mary’s eyes. Kissing her cheeks, the corner of her soft red lips.
The biker-lord presses his advantage.
Gabe finds Soledad sleeping outside the royal chambers. He shakes her awake, shouting nonsense: they have to go, they have to leave, Marytown be damned.
The floor is warm to the touch. War cries and screams rise from the level below.
“We can’t leave her,” Soledad mumbles, even as her eyes begin to water. Even as she smells the smoke.
“–n’t there,” Gabe says, grasping her shoulder.
Soledad pushes his hand away; tries to crawl to Mary’s doorway.
Gabe lifts her off the ground. Her fingers scrabble at the space where the old carpet pulls back from the floorboards. She screams as her skin tears against splintering wood.
“No! No! I won’t–”
“–said she’s not fucking there!” Gabe tries to lift her over his shoulder.
She reaches, again, for the doorway.
The door is open. There’s no one inside.
“–left me here,” Soledad says.
“Come on.” Gabe sets her upright. “You’re all I care about.”
The air is clearer once they’re down the stairs to the entrance hall. Smoke rises through the cooking-fire holes. The long room is abandoned, save a few figures huddled in their own blood. Soledad makes out a man with his skull caved in; a woman with two bullet holes in her chest. They fell inches from each other. Soledad knows the woman from the mechanic’s shop. The man she doesn’t recognize. A motorcycle lies on its side nearby.
Flames lick along the outer wall, blocking the closest doorway. Gunfire echoes from outside Castle Marytown. Voices chant Queen Mary’s high school fight song (Soledad’s high school fight song) and she thinks: Good. We’re pushing them out.
Isolated blooms of flame leap and fade before doors to the theater seating area. Pools of gasoline have been deliberately spilled before the thresholds.
“Come on, the bikes!” Gabe pulls at her arm.
She resists, listening intently. The closest theater door is propped slightly ajar by the empty gasoline tank. The flames do not look insurmountable for something going fast enough. The acoustics from the stage are strong. A terrible sound echoes toward her.
She scrambles to the overturned motorcycle.
“You can’t ride that!” Gabe shouts. “I can’t ride that!”
“Not going far.” Soledad’s voice pitches toward hysteria. She straddles the thing. Starts the engine. “Go get our bikes–Gabe? Give me your knife.”
The theater door provides no resistance. If the flames do, she doesn’t notice. Past the door, the auditorium is unburnt.
She holds tight as the motorcycle speeds down the sloping aisleway without her input. There, on the stage–
She forgot the orchestra pit. The bike crashes through the low padded wall. Her stomach drops, then the rest of her follows. She pushes away from the bike in midair, hits the floor, tumbles shoulder over shoulder, and skids to a stop against a cluster of metal chairs.
The bike crashes into the raised wall of the stage, but she can barely hear it through the throbbing in her eardrums.
She pulls herself to her feet and sprints. Pulls herself over the edge of the stage. Pulls herself to her feet again. Pulls herself forward until she’s slamming bodily into Ashley’s side with enough force to pull him to the ground beneath her, his left shoulder jamming up against her chest.
His gun skids across the stage. He backhands her blindly, hand-spikes gouging into the side of her chin. She feels the punctures like points of light.
She doesn’t raise Gabe’s knife up over her head, doesn’t strike with all the power in her body. Doesn’t fight honorably or strike like a big big man might.
Instead, she slams the knife’s handle against the stage floor, blade up–behind Ashley, beneath his left shoulder. She grasps it tight, keeping it upright. Then she lurches sideways, willing Ashley to follow the motion, to twist onto his back to better punch the daylights out of her.
She holds the knife steady. He twists hard, then screams.
When she drifts into awareness, she’s curled on the stage floor. Pain throbs through every inch of her back. The stench of smoke has worked its way into the theater alongside the flames curling across the back row of the auditorium. Gabe will have to go around through the stage door.
Mary lies beside her.
Her bangs stick on the bridge of her nose. Her eyes are bloodshot, and her eyeliner is smeared clear across her temples. Her hand rests, dead weight, on Soledad’s thigh.
“I couldn’t stop him,” Soledad says, swallowing grit.
Mary winces, a sign of life in her clammy face. She starts to say something, then coughs–an awful, wet sound like a hacking cat.
“They can’t do this,” Soledad says, louder. “Not to someone like you.”
New redness swells over Mary’s lips and bubbles, dribbling down to blend with the smear of lipstick down her chin.
“Any…” she gasps at last. “Anybody can.” She shudders. “Put me on my throne.”
“Maybe we can get help–”
“No,” Mary says, guttural. “The throne.”
Soledad pushes herself to her knees. She takes off her sweater and ties it tight around Mary’s torso, ignoring her yip of pain.
She half-carries, half-leads Mary as gently as she can. Judging by the state of her new red dress, gentleness wouldn’t make much difference.
“Put my hair up,” the queen gasps as soon as she is upright on the prop throne. “They can’t find me like this.”
A slow ache, too large to see the full shape of it, spirals down into Soledad’s gut. “Why can’t we just–can’t you just, this once–”
Mary moans. Soledad complies, nauseated.
Slowly, Mary’s tremors subside. The queen raises a blood-stained hand to the back of her head: steady, and supremely controlled. “Make it lower,” she says softly. “Like, loose. Like I don’t gotta try.”
Then she stills, staring out into the abandoned theater.
Soledad kisses the tip of Her Majesty’s ear. Undoes her work with shaking hands.
It’s tempting to leave the wand tattoo hidden, to leave Mary’s hair wild and tumbling down her shoulders, freer than it’s ever been, silky-cool to the touch in the face of flame. But this would not be the will of the queen.
The fancy red stage curtains are long gone, but as the room grows hotter, the fire curtain lowers.
Soledad keeps braiding, even as her vision blurs over–even as the queen’s head lolls to the side.
Soledad strides out the gates, guiding her new motorcycle.
Her saddlebags are spray-painted with Marytown’s logo. They’re filled with tools, bullets, bandages, rice, potatoes, and carrots. She loaned her old bicycle to the collective fund in exchange for antibiotic cream and a huge jar of peanut butter. The exchange officers had bigger things on their mind, but Den made sure everyone understood that trade had to continue as usual, even though the community’s grief.
That’s something she wants to look into: Den moving so quickly to restore order.
“Last chance to change your mind,” Gabe says, awkwardly wheeling out his bicycle. He’s sporting a bruise on his temple and two of his fingers are wrapped together. He’d had a tough time fighting his way to the backstage door, but came out of the melee standing–unlike Soledad, at first. It was a miracle, the medic said, that she hadn’t paralyzed herself. Soledad finds that unlikely. She isn’t the type to attract miracles. Not cost-free.
“I’m good.” She smiles grimly, curling her short fingers around the motorcycle’s handlebar. Her hip barely hurts today.
“I don’t have to tell you that thing runs on a finite resource. We gotta be cautious.”
“Yeah.” She looks out toward the road that runs for three miles before flowing onto the interstate. “Cautious‘s good sometimes. But sometimes–”
“I know.” He taps his bandage.
She straddles her new bike and kicks it into gear. It comes to life with a stuttering roar, thrumming beneath her like it wants to gobble up gravel. A great power controlled by gentle suggestion.
“Let me pace you ‘til we get to the scout rendezvous. ‘Bout two miles.” Gabe checks the notes on his arm. “Then it’s forty ‘til a rest.”
“I’ll be y’all’s vanguard,” Soledad says.
The road to the next barter town is long, and folk on the road aren’t always friendly. Someone clear-minded and strong-headed has to brave all of those big big men.
At least until people can sleep safe around their campfires at night, truth etched on their open faces, fingers tangling in each other’s long hair.
This story first appeared in Cast of Wonders 2019.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Sarah Pauling spent several years sending other people to distant places for a living as a study abroad advisor in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She’s now in Seattle, graciously sharing her home with two cats and a husband. A graduate of the Viable Paradise workshop, her stories have appeared in places like Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, and Clarkesworld. If approached without sudden movement, she can be found at _PaulingS on Twitter, where she natters on about writing, tabletop gaming, comics, and books.