Chapter Two: Making False Promises

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The exit bell dinged, but Kai remained frozen in the doorway.

He turned until he was facing the counter on the far side of the diner. "What was that?"

Miriam tried to push by him. "Come on, Kai. Let's go."

He didn't budge. He stared at the person sitting on one of the barstools, a long, narrow figure with their back still turned facing him.

"I know where Arcadia is," the patron repeated.

Miriam held the door open. "They're just trying to mess with us. Let's get out of this place."

Kai continued to ignore her. "You ever been?"

A wide brimmed hat hung off the back of their neck, but Kai was sure he saw them shake their head. "I haven't seen it myself yet, but that's where I'm headed. A few hundred miles northwest of here."

"You're screwing with us," he concluded.

"I'm not. I could show you the map if you really wanted to see it, but if you don't believe me, that's fine."

Kai approached the counter and took a seat two barstools down from the person. "Then why say anything?"

The patron finally looked up just enough for Kai to catch their profile. She was a woman, probably in her mid thirties. Her skin was strikingly pale—a risk and a rarity this far into the desert. Her hair was nearly as light and close cropped.

She almost smiled. "I don't know," she admitted. "Maybe the more I say it out loud, the more I'll be able to convince myself that it's real."

Kai studied her face. "You need a ride." He didn't ask.

"I have a ride," she countered defensively. "It's just not reliable. What I'm looking for are companions. It's a rough journey out there. It's not smart to be running a solo operation."

He leaned on the counter and rested his chin on his fist. "Don't you know where we are? This is the Wild West, baby. This is the land of every man for himself. Get it together or get dead."

The woman looked down into a cup of coffee in front of her. "Yeah, well, maybe I would've believed you felt that way if you hadn't just exhausted your wallet feeding two kids. Who I can only assume you just met, I'm sure. You weren't exactly telling them to get dead."

He avoided looking at Miriam and Meredith through his peripherals. "Kids are different. Anyone with half a conscious knows that."

"You're something of a kid, too, though, aren't you? You can't be anymore than what, seventeen or eighteen?"

Kai frowned. "Twenty-one."

She waved it off. "What I'm trying to say is: that's my point. You're young. You may think you've been jaded by the dog eat dog world of the desert, but you're really not. Not as bad as you could be. You don't have anywhere to go. You're not looking for anything in particular besides a better life. So why don't you shoot for the moon? Six hundred miles northwest. If Arcadia isn't real, where's the worst it could get you? Out of this godforsaken desert. Maybe you'll even see a tree."

Kai wasn't sure if he was supposed to find that funny or not. "If you'd been out there for any stretch of time, you'd know that there's a lot worse things we could find than that."

The woman finally turned to look him in the eyes, revealing her whole face for the first time. What he noticed first was a darkened bruise just above her jawline. What held his attention was her eyes. If her blue-grey irises weren't striking enough, her pupils were almost alien. Her left pupil was dilated to nearly twice the size of the right. He couldn't help but shift his gaze between the two, suddenly unsure of how to make eye contact with another human.

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