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For September’s first, free story, A. R Capetta takes us on a spectacular road trip beyond anything we could have imagined. ~ Julian and Fran, Sept 3, 2023
by A. R. Capetta
You climb the fence, hit the yard of the body shop at three in the morning—whispered among automancers as the best time—and write sigils on the tires in a thick glop of white paint. You skim the wheels with the specially prepared olive oil, which Rye always called wake-up juice, infused with chilis and lemon peel and much less savory ingredients that you sourced from that guy in the Haight who swore the marrow was fresh.
You picked this low-slung maroon Jaguar—silver cat mid-leap on the car’s ass—because Edgar will like it. If he ever sees it.
Time to test if you can still perform. It’s been five years but you feel it, always trying to bust out of your skin, this need to bring things back. You pop the little door of the gas tank with a fist, unscrew the cap, and feed bone slurry to the circle of its open mouth. Arranging candles in a rough circle around the body of the old beast, you speak the words.
Nothing happens. You fall back onto the hood of the car, settle into the failure. Letting your magic rust means that you have to live with the consequences.
You take the postcard out of your pocket.
You kiss the cheap paper, kiss Edgar goodbye, really this time. He’s on his own.
Everybody, everybody is on their own. It’s an empty jingle in your head, like the one time Vex found an old radio station that never stopped blanketing the country with a signal, its last program of pop songs stuck on a loop, and ancient commercials got wedged in your brain.
That trip is long gone.
Those days, as they say, are dead.
Then the car rumbles back into existence, tires inflating beneath you like the Jaguar is taking a deep breath. The headlights flick themselves on and cast light over the unchosen dead of the yard, hundreds of metallic bodies. They’re everywhere these days, a feature of the landscape, littered in random spots, lumped together in yards, just waiting for someone with a touch like yours.
You raised a car from the dead. Good for you. That bit was easy compared to what comes next.
You get in and drive, you and the car warming up to each other, until the sun slithers over what used to be San Francisco. Here are houses dredged in sand and seawater down by Ocean Beach, where the tides lapped up a few blocks, then a few more. There are mostly-drowned cars stranded in water, stripped by salt to the point that you can barely recognize brown ribs poking from gray waves.
You steer toward the house on Moraga, thinking about the time Ting found the attic apartment and gleefully moved you all in between trips, a home base that you came back to for years. You find your former crew (former friends, former lovers, former everythings) where you knew they’d be, under a makeshift pier that used to be someone’s second-story porch, getting higher (they’re already high).
“Hey, bonetrippers,” you say through your open window as the car idles impatiently.
“Oh,” Vex says, words malformed around the smoke he’s got stopped at the back of his throat. “It’s you.”
The car revs without your permission. “Rude little monster,” you mutter, patting the wheel. You always end up liking the cars, and then they re-die on you. Speaking of that, this resurrection has a shelf life. “So, we have four days to get to Maine,” you announce. Whoops. It wasn’t supposed to sound like you were ordering people around. You were never in charge, even when you were one of them. The automancer in a crew is like the front man of a band—more obvious, not really more important.
“Is there anything else you want to say?” Rye asks. “Anything apology-shaped?”
“Pass,” Vex says, and when the bowl is offered back to him, he adds, “On the apology.”
“It’s a cute reunion scene, though,” Ting says. “What’s in Maine?”
“Not what,” you say. “Unless you think of Edgar as an object.” You almost throw the postcard at them, but that’s a bad idea. “He needs us to pick him up.”
“Edgar?” Rye asks.
“Fucking Edgar?” Vex echoes.
“Egg?” Ting cries, still showing off that she’s the only one allowed to use this nickname.
Then they’re running to pack, and you predictably hate knowing that they did it for Edgar and not for you. Rye loads the trunk with a duffel bag of arcane ingredients next to a crank-turned grinder with metal teeth, the size of an extra-large toaster oven. Vex and Ting pile in, slam the doors. No one asks where you’ve been. They treat you like you left last night in a rotted-out mood and came back on a fresh breeze the next day.
Maybe you do love them after all.
That love curls up when you reach the highway and everyone starts complaining that you don’t drive like Edgar used to.
“Edgar didn’t have to run a resurrection spell while he was changing lanes,” you say as you grit your teeth and keep the wheel in place by sheer force.
Automancy was never supposed to be a thing, but sometimes a lot of people die at once, in waves like the gray crash at Ocean Beach, and one of those waves releases a latent source of magic—or equalizes the world to the point that magic, choked by overpopulation, gasps suddenly back to life. You’ve argued this backward and forward with the crew on long trips, and you don’t want to revive the conversation now. The fact is that some desperate people went to perform acts of necromancy in different spots across a broken country—a constellation of resurrections—and those spells didn’t end with their friends and loved ones coming back. They got cars, summoned from obsolescence. And there were no gods left to ask questions of or bargain with, so everyone rolled with it. Literally.
California gives up at some point and becomes Nevada. A road trip starts when you hit the highway, but a bonetrip isn’t truly alive—or in some cases, dead—until the first challenge, which comes halfway across the arid stretch of I-80 currently sucking every molecule of water from your skin, hair, eyeballs.
“Shitty road ahead,” Vex says, back in his place as navigator, perched in shotgun, one hand on the oh-shit bar, running two spells at the same time—a standard map spell, and the satellite spell inspired by old tech that allows him to see the car and surrounding stretch of road from six angles. “It looks like a rock-eating giant took a dump. Let’s stop and refresh tire sigils.” Tires are always the first things to go, they have to be babied after resurrection to protect them from the churned-up highways. You slow down to pull to the side. “Wait. Fuck that. It’s an asphalt trap. Gun it.”
You don’t question Vex in a tight spot. You gun it.
The speedometer’s needle palsies and panics as it hits the red, but the car holds steady. An open-bed truck peels out from behind a lone boulder and bears down, head-on, a figure standing in the back with a wild bent to their arms like they’re trying to call down wrath or something equally godlike.
Ting crawls on top of your car. She casts the tether spell that will keep her up there, a shining tie. Then she stomps twice, the sign that she’s ready to fight. Here’s the truth—you’ve missed your battle mage.
“I put a spell in the bone slurry to keep us moving forward at all costs,” Rye says. “Don’t let up.” And since they are the best necrofuel expert you’ve ever met, you really don’t let up.
The truck’s mage is singing some kind of pitchy incantation while three passengers point guns out the windows. Any halfway-decent battle mage can take guns apart with their eyes closed, but the few seconds it takes can give a crew an advantage. And a lot of people living on this country’s carcass have a lot of guns that they will use to get that edge.
Ting hits the truck with a sizzling net of white-hot magic. It snares all the guns at once, tosses them in front of the truck, making the challengers choke on their own metal. The truck rumbles over the mangled guns and veers into your lane. That’s when the big incantation the other mage has been working up whirls to life. It’s a branched lightning bolt—three white streaks crab-walking down the sky to electrify your car.
Ting puts her arm up like a lightning rod.
You shout, “Pirouette!”
It’s a move you’ve seen Edgar perform a hundred times. You wrench the wheel into a spin as Ting spins in the other direction, not catching the lightning but channeling it with a rubber spell, ricochet-style, to knock the oncoming truck slightly off course. It speeds by at a viciously acute angle. Ting drags the showboat mage in the air, holding them suspended like a fish on a line as the truck keeps rumbling down what’s left of I-80, minus a crew member.
The figure spins in the air, retaliating with wild spells that, in the rearview mirror, you see flying wide.
Vex hoots as Ting sets the other battle mage down gently on the double yellow. It’s worse than killing them in a way. These crews have no fear of death, but humiliation burns them up like cheap matchsticks. They will do something terrible to that bonetripper, worse than whatever quick end Ting would have chosen, but that isn’t your call. And it isn’t Ting’s job to murder people just so they won’t get murdered worse later on.
You clear the last of the asphalt trap, hitting smoother pavement.
“So?” Rye asks.
A car doesn’t get a name until after its first battle.
You shoot past a sign—Leaving Eureka County.
“Eureka!” everyone shouts, and for the first time in five years it feels like you are together. Not just shoved in a car by circumstance, but together. All except Edgar, of course, and you are going to get him, you are baptized in lightning and on your fucking way.
Eureka powers across Utah and Wyoming, snips a corner off Colorado. You stop at the bone traders housed in an old gas station mini-mart, and Rye goes in with their duffel bag and comes out with bones bundled like pale firewood. They prefer to gather in graveyards, they feel like it’s more respectful, but you don’t have time, you have two days and half a continent to cross. As Rye grinds down the bones, you think about all the ways Edgar could have died since you got that postcard. You think about him when he was alive, when you knew he was alive, when this wasn’t Schrödinger’s road trip.
He was the one who found you, angry, magical, alone except for the cars that you kept summoning. The first time you tried, you ended up with a fleet of trucks following you around like angry ducklings. It was disappointing, technically, because you were trying to raise your parents from the dead. You were twenty, a baby. It’s retrospectively embarrassing how much you believed you might get them back.
Edgar taught you what you could be without them. He called you the most powerful automancer he’d ever seen. He even taught you to drive, though it was clear that he was the born driver, drifting across lanes like fog. He found Rye, and Vex, and Ting. He knitted you all together.
When Rye is done with the grinder, they tip gallon after gallon of fresh slurry into the tank. “You know, I’ve been thinking about how I’m literally feeding death to these cars,” they mutter from within a makeshift ring of sigils. Without the grounding of those marks, Eureka might suck Rye’s own bones from within their flesh. “Weirdly, it’s not that weird.”
“Yeah?” you ask vacantly as the last of the light burns off the horizon. You’re not looking forward to driving all night.
“Think of the history of it. And yet I don’t believe people cared as much as I do when they fed ancient dead creatures to these very same cars.”
“What are you talking about?”
“What the shit do you think was in gasoline?” Vex asks as he finishes up a quick piss break. “Dead organic matter, squeezed into dark juice by pressure and time.”
You crouch suddenly. Gravel to palms. Cool air to lungs.
“Did I get too philosophical and bring down the whole trip?” Rye asks. “I hate when I do that.”
Ting jumps out of the car and puts an arm around your shoulders. “You okay?”
“I’m okay,” you lie between your teeth.
Which are just more bones.
Someday, when you’re dead, maybe soon, those bones will fuel someone else’s bad decisions. But right now you have to get up. You have to keep working the automancy spell and drive, and doing both has become sweat-pouring, meat-shaking work. You’ve been overriding your synapses with complex chants. You’ve basically hot-wired your own body. And you can’t stop, because off the highways there are cults, ghost towns, ghost cults, so you keep driving, and at dawn, more battles, Nebraska just a string of battles that everyone can see coming across the split-open landscape. Eureka emerges victorious, with only minor injuries: a popped tire, blown-out glass in the left rear window. Blown-out hearing in Rye’s ear, too, though it’s slowly creeping back. Iowa is starting to white out your memory of hills when Ting leans between the front seats and asks, “So how did Edgar get a message to you anyway?”
“He didn’t, exactly,” you say.
The car goes incandescent with swearing. Eureka swerves slightly.
“He needs us to come, but he didn’t say that. In so many words. Directly.”
“What are you driving us directly into?” Vex asks.
That’s when you pull out the postcard. It’s soft from how much you folded it, read it, tossed it in the trash, fished it back out, read it again, slept with it under your pillow. It’s the kind people used to buy from spinning racks in tourist traps: a shellacked photo of live lobsters. It took you a while to figure out what their mottled, armored bodies were—you’ve only ever seen them pictured very red, very dead.
Printed at the top of the postcard, in a sunny font: Old Orchard Beach.
On the back, a diarrhea scrawl in dark pen: Edgar says he’s your driver. If you want him back, this is where.
“I think a crew took him, either by force or he . . .”
“Joined up?” Vex volunteers. “Because he was on his own? And these fuckwaffles weren’t as sweet as us, surprise, surprise?”
“It could be a cult,” Rye adds quietly. They escaped a cult in the redwoods when they were just a kid.
“Whatever it is, we might be able to get him back.”
“Or get his body back,” Vex says, and for once it’s not a sour half-joke. Vex buried three siblings before he was twelve. He takes burials seriously.
“They probably want a ransom,” Ting says. “What the fuck do we have to pay for Egg’s life with?”
Darkness laps at the highway in all directions. Miles warp in the silence. You only have Eureka’s pale headlights and the next stitch in the center of the road.
“Also, why didn’t you tell us?” Ting asks, finally.
“I couldn’t get to him alone. I was worried you might not come.”
“You’re the one who left us,” Rye says.
And there it is.
Nobody needs to say anything more for a whole day, so they don’t.
In New York State, the barns that line I-90 are falling apart. They look like great hulking beasts in the half-night. You shouldn’t stop here, but you’re going to fall apart before you get to Maine. You leave Eureka on the side of the road, resurrection spell running down hour by hour, and cast a few trip-wire sigils—at least you’ll know if someone tries to steal your car.
Heavy blue light comes in through the barn slats. Rye finds blankets that might have been for horses. They still smell like muscle and sun after years of being ignored.
Early the next morning, you wake up, inner alarm triggered. It’s not the sigils, those would make your fingertips burn. This is plain old instinct, sharp as a knife at the hollow of your neck. At first you think the rustling is a person coming for you, possibly an animal. You nearly bolt. But then you realize that across an open stretch of barn, not all that far away from where you’ve been sleeping, Rye and Vex and Ting are mostly unclothed, fully tangled up, blankets forgotten. Groans leak out of Vex like the early light between the slats as his dick disappears into Rye’s mouth and Ting makes breathy huffing sounds as she slips into Rye from behind, she’s even brought her harness, and Rye holds everything in until they can’t, a thick vine of pleasure unfurling from the back of their throat.
You get up and pass their naked asses, say, “Two minutes to finish. I’m waiting in the car.”
Eureka greets you with a flick of the headlights. You curl into the driver’s seat. The revving shakes up your horny, lonely thighs. In two minutes, the rest of the crew traipse out of the barn with dumb hair and hazy smiles. You thought that leaving stomped out everything good for them, in the name of some highly dubious safety. But you didn’t kill the way they care about each other. Maybe it doesn’t all come down to you.
Knowing that was worth two minutes.
Now you have to make up time.
Edgar is still out there, missing because you got mad at him one night and left. He’d gotten smashed up in a challenge on the way back to California, and he dangled so close to death, like a tooth hanging on by just the nerve. It took a week to know if he’d pull through. That was nearly enough to get you to run, the seven-day slow-motion experience of what it would feel like to lose him. But as he came back to you, he stared earnestly through the mist of scavenged painkillers and said that you would become so much more magical if you wanted to resurrect him. If you had that fire in you.
So he’d be doing you a favor if he died.
That was the part you couldn’t forgive, that he thought you’d be better when he was gone.
You left. He left, too.
You still don’t know how much of Edgar’s decision you’re responsible for. You do the doom-math for the ten-thousandth time as the slow crawl of the Adirondacks gives way to darkly forested land. New England is dense with leaves, clotted with shadows.
The roadkill red carpet starts right around the border of Maine.
Everybody feels the need to tell you that this is not a good sign.
“I know, I know,” you say. Another empty jingle.
There are dead raccoons and possums and squirrels, split like pomegranates, spilling red like seeds. Then larger animals, dogs and deer, sluggish as bags of salt.
“So I think we can safely say that Edgar is with a crew that likes to kill things,” Ting mutters.
Eureka slides through Portland, up I-95, toward Old Orchard Beach.
“Do you want to turn around?” you ask as you near the exit. Roadkill lines both sides, leading the way.
“No,” everyone says in unison.
They’re with you, somehow. Still with you.
You’ve split this crew apart, but now you’re trying to knit them back together—not the simple string of a line on a map that brings you home, but the slow, painful, imperfect knitting of bone.
There’s salt in the air past the exit, the old salt of death and the fresh salt of the sea swirling together on your tongue. The old park and ride is nearly a jungle.
“Look,” Rye says. “There.”
Cars spill out of a trash yard. On both sides of the entrance, the roadkill is heaped twice as high as Eureka.
“Gates of death,” Ting says.
“Sounds like a myth, smells like a nightmare,” Vex adds.
Eureka coughs twice at the gate and unceremoniously dies. It was your own exhaustion and relief—you let up a little, took an extra-long breath, and the spell released like an old rubber band. Now Eureka won’t be brought back, no matter how much you slam the heels of your palms against the wheel and chant and scream.
“Ooookay, I guess we’re walking the rest of the way,” Ting says.
You enter the trash yard, passing cars and trucks and a slumbering school bus with smashed-out windows. You’ll need one of these vehicles to carry you home, but right now you don’t care.
Because you’re staring at the throne.
It’s made of junk parts, dripping with black bone slurry, edging from gory to glorious and back again. Edgar sits on it. Dark twists of hair, nervous eyes. Scratched and bruised like he’s been toyed with. No: tortured.
You run. “Oh,” Edgar says, his throat clogged with something. Emotion or blood. “Shit. They saw you coming, but I thought you’d turn back.”
You try not to be singed by this fucking comment.
“We’re here to get you out,” you say, and hold up the postcard so Edgar can see the writing. The lobsters look nearly black in this light.
Something’s wrong with this setup. There had to be a trap, a trick, or at least an unpayable price, but you didn’t know what kind until Edgar opens his mouth again. It’s crusty at the edges. There are blackflies.
“They all want to be bonetrippers here. Could never do more than take a joyride, kill off a few deer. I told them about you. The best automancer I’ve ever ridden with. Got drunk on some fermented blueberry shit and bragged, actually.”
You feel the doom-math rushing to finish this equation.
“We’re not, uh, not getting out. They want you in.”
A dozen people swarm around the back of the throne, and before you can do a single thing to stop it, Edgar’s throat is speared with a rusty old dipstick and pouring blood. There’s a wetly guttering sound.
More people step out from the yard to watch.
Edgar’s gray eyes go glassy exactly how you pictured they would. Maybe if you hadn’t spent so much time picturing it, this wouldn’t be happening. Maybe if you’d let go of this fear years ago, you wouldn’t be facing a real-life version of it.
Or maybe Edgar made his own choices. This argument will rage in you forever now. It will never die.
The magic that roars within you can’t be stopped. You don’t even try. The spell releases itself, no need for sigils or wake-up juice or marrow. It stuttered when Eureka died, but now it burns a clean line of fuel from Edgar’s body back to the quick-beating chambers of your heart.
Every car in the yard comes to life.
You’ve never summoned this many, and yet it feels like nothing. Edgar was wrong, though. Your throat cracks to tell him, because he’s lying right there. (He’s already gone.) You aren’t more powerful because you’re trying to bring him back from the dead—you’re keeping the rest of your crew alive.
These would-be bonetrippers watch your every move with ugly satisfaction. You did what they wanted you to do.
But you’re not finished.
Cars circle you, and your crew, a thick ring of protection. You will not let Rye and Vex and Ting become fuel. One truck stands sentry over Edgar’s body. Another rams headfirst into his killer. The rest of these fuckwaffles are doing their own doom-math now, running for the edges of the yard, because you should not be able to do this, command cars like they are notes in a symphony of death and you are the conductor. You rip the postcard to shreds and they fly from your fingertips on a salted, unnatural wind. Cars that you’ve brought to life chase down Edgar’s torturers, obliterate them quickly, the school bus mowing down half a dozen at once, a yard full of magic and screaming and death and vehicles that come when you beckon.
When it’s done, your crew is staring at you. You expect shock, or sorrow, or blame. But they look like they love you again, and that’s so much scarier. Vex gathers Edgar’s body so gently. His bones will never burn.
“What now?” Rye asks.
“Home?” Ting says.
The cars, the trucks, the school buses, your crew, everyone is waiting for your next move. This time, you don’t run. You know the next stop on what is going to be a long, long trip. “It’s time to find a new driver.”
When the four of you reach the gates, Eureka is warmed up and waiting.
Thank you for joining our journey this week.
A. R. Capetta is a best-selling and award-winning author of magic, science, weirdness, and wonder. Their books include The Lost Coast, The Brilliant Death, and The Heartbreak Bakery, which won the Lambda Literary Award. They co-authored the best-selling Once & Future series with their spouse, Cory McCarthy. With Wade Roush, they co-edited the recent anthology Tasting Light: Ten Science Fiction Stories to Rewire Your Perceptions. To see more about their work, visit onceandfuturestories.com.
“Resurrection Highway,” © A.R. Capetta, 2023.
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