Before: Jonah's forehead rested on his knees, his heels touched the ass of his jeans, and his hands were interlocked around his shins. He was positively swimming in his hoodie: the hood blotted out most of the light from the car's windows, and his hands were warm, hidden away, the right sleeve tucked into the left one like Ouroboros. His jeans flared out at the bottom, covering most of his filthy, tattered tennis shoes. For an hour he had floated on the edge of sleep, shifting seamlessly between his waking surroundings and the vivid details of his dreams brought on by the white noise of the car's engine, the whoosh of the other cars' tires on the wet road, the roving sheets of spotted light coming through the rear window from headlights and the orange lights over the highway, and the heavy mound of hamburger in his stomach. He felt warm—not even just physically, somehow—in the tiny enclosure of the Chevy Sonic's trunk. He was pressed firmly against the backs of the seats on his left side, and against the trunk door on his right. He had room to stretch his legs out a touch more, but so far he hadn't done so. He felt inexplicably calm, and safe. Safe. This word occurred to him as he bobbed back to the surface of wakefulness. He felt safe. How absurd. The feeling, however, wasn't new, unusual, or foreign. Some of his first memories were largely nonsensory, sliding forward through time from his mother's closet, from the crawlspace in the basement, from the dryer, from the center of a pile of clothes, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, merely feeling himself surrounded and secure, and smelling laundry, or perfume, or damp. One memory (one that comes to him so vividly that he barely credits it as an authenticity) is that of the industrial, front-loading dryer his mother had to purchase to keep up with laundry for five children, her husband, and her sister. He recalls sitting in the tiny, cylindrical space, which really should have been wildly uncomfortable, feeling completely at home, when his mother opened the door with an armful of dirty clothes, glimpsed something crouching inside of her dryer, screamed, more or less threw the armful of laundry at her son, and fell backwards into the hamper, like inside of the hamper. Mrs. Sang was a very small woman who birthed a lot of very small children, such that she could fit inside of an average-sized hamper with her legs over her head and her son could fit inside of a dryer. There was a particularly extended whoosh somewhere in front of him—they were likely passing a truck. It lulled him back to sleep, and the memory of the dryer passed back into obscurity.
Poprocks was sitting in the passenger seat with her right foot up on the dash and her right arm propped up against it, snapping her fingers to the beat of the music seeping from the car stereo. Her lips moved silently along, mouthing, “Bobby thumbed a diesel down just before it rained.” She yelped, then, pointed at the radio, “Oh, just like us!” and smiled at Tom, the driver. Jonah lifted his head, peered out from the recesses of his hood over the seat, eyes unfocused, and then laid his head back down. Poprocks put a hand over her mouth, smiled again at Tom, and pulled her cheeks down into an upside-down grimace: whoops!
“Really, though,” she whispered. “You picked us up, like, right on time.”
Tom nodded, keeping his eyes on the road. Poprocks saw the lights from the road reflecting off of his bald head.
“Seriously. You're awesome. I'm gonna write about you in a good light in my autobiography.”
A smile played at the corner of Tom's mouth. “Thanks.”
“You're very welcome.”
She resumed snapping her fingers and watched out the window as they passed a rest stop. Tom took advantage of her inattention to steal a glance at the boy in the trunk. When he had picked the pair up from a rest stop an hour West, it had already been dark, and they'd each been bundled up in their hoods and filthy tousle caps. He was on his way to Washington, D.C. on business, and when he stopped to use the restroom, he almost backed the car back out of the spot immediately: there were what appeared to be two transients leaning against the wall, right next to the door he'd have to go through. His first concern was of robbery, but there were other people at the stop as well—a woman using a payphone, a kid shuddering in the autumn cold while his dog took its time finding a spot to piss, an old couple fumbling with something in the bed of their truck, basically all of them easier targets than himself, an apparently strong middle-aged man—and none of them seemed to be concerned. His second fear, one actually slightly more halting than the first, was the thought of having to tell the tramps he didn't have any change to spare. He had his hand on the gear shift when he recalled just how badly he needed to use the restroom. He struggled for a moment, biting his lip, fearing both the streaks of dirt on the kids' hands he could see from where he was parked as well as the growing pressure in his abdomen. Finally, he turned off the ignition, grabbed a handful of change he'd meant to use for tolls from the cup holder, and stepped out into the cold. He walked across the remainder of the lot toward the squat brick building, keeping his head down, but his eyes more or less fixed on the tramps, watching for one of them to raise its eyes, to pull a hand from a pocket, to push off of the wall and give him a sad, meaningful look. He wanted so badly for the rest stop to be empty, to just be able to walk into the building and take a piss in peace. His heart leaped when one of them, indeed, pushed off of the wall. She threw back her hood, and he slowed down, stopped; he couldn't pretend he didn't know she wanted to talk. Suddenly he was softened; she didn't look like a tramp. Now that he was closer, and some of his anxiousness had subsided, Tom saw that the two kids were merely dressed like tramps. They were a little dirty, and looked travel-weary, but he couldn't smell them from where he was standing, and the girl was really cute: her hair was blonde, pulled down straight on the sides, and spiked up into a halfhearted fauxhawk, likely knocked down from wholehearted fauxhawk by the hood she had been wearing. She had on a modest shade of eyeshadow, aside from which she looked a little like one of the Jonas Brothers, boyish like that. She stepped toward him bashfully, tilting her head to the side and scratching the back of her neck.
“Hey, we're trying to get to D.C. Any chance we can hitch a ride?” she asked, digging her elbow into her hip and pivoting her arm out into the air, her thumb cocked and aimed at the sky.
She was friendly, energetic, he could tell already. Despite his reservations, she had struck a marvelous first impression.
“Ah, uh, I'm sorry,” he began.
“No prob, dude,” she replied with a smile.
She returned to her friend, who glanced up at him for a moment, “'sup?” during which he looked completely harmless and undeniably Korean, save for the bleached blond hair. He turned his head back to the ground and pulled his hoodie tighter around his shoulders with a slight shiver.
“Where are you coming from?” he found himself asking. He immediately regretted it, and began to sidle toward the restroom door.
“Pittsburgh. Been at it for a few days now. Fish ain't biting.” She turned her attention back to the boy, apparently disregarding Tom.
The boy said to her, just loud enough for to Tom to hear, “Smells like rain.”
Tom realized that it did, and went inside, stood at the nearest urinal. As the warmth of the building began to settle into his clothes, he realized how unseasonably cold it was outside. The forecast for the next day was beautiful, but that girl and her friend were in for a rough night if the fish remained indifferent. He took a deep breath, shut his eyes, and knocked his head against the wall above the urinal.
“Christ Almighty,” he said under his breath, and, resolved, left the restroom without washing his hands.
Now, he glanced back at the boy, who he noticed wasn't utilizing all of the space he had, which was minimal to begin with in the trunk of a two-seat vehicle. He returned his eyes to the road as the girl who introduced herself as “Poprocks” did the same.
“If you want me to stop and let you guys switch, just let me know,” Tom offered.
“Oh, no, he likes it back there. Claustrophile.”
“What?” “Like a claustrophobic person is afraid of enclosed spaces? Except he really likes them. It's very, um, Freudian, probably.”
Tom turned the music up a little and turned the vents toward his hands. This girl was cute, he thought, and the other guy certainly didn't act like her boyfriend. Probably Tom would only know her for as long as the car ride lasted—probably until 7 or 8 am, when they reached the metro station—but, well, she was cute, and what harm could it do?
“So,” he began, then choked on his own spit and pretended to cough. He continued, “What's your business in Our Nation's Fine Capitol?” and he said it like that, too, with each word capitalized, and then barely stopped himself from making things worse by actually smacking the palm of his hand against his forehead in frustration.
“Have you been there before?” He could almost taste how boring he was.
“Well, alright, who are you gonna tell, let's be honest: we're kind of hoping that some protests get out of hand.”
“I thought those were pretty much over?”
“We suspect,” she replied, throwing her thumb over her shoulder, indicating Jonah. “that this is the calm before the storm. People are pissed off.” An edge came into her voice, one Tom associated with political arguments.
Suddenly Jonah spoke up from the back seat, completely awake, laying his arm on the tiny compartment between the driver and passenger seats, and his eyes flashing at Tom in the rearview mirror. “A little police crackdown isn't gonna quell that kind of frustration. It's just gonna incite a violent answer.”
“And you, uh, want to be there when that happens?”
“There's gonna be rioting, like soon,” Poprocks said. “And we want to be there to see it all go down. We wanna be there when it starts.”
Jonah lifted one of his feet to window-level. “We bought new boots.”
After: Jonah was literally running in circles, whimpering. Poprocks stood by, her attention switching between wiping the blood from the wound in her head and watching him, being unsure of what to do. She vaguely recalled learning how to clean what felt like a deep cut, as well as how to deal with a person in the throes of panic in a CPR/First Aid class she had taken a year before, but the memory was all hazy now, right when she needed the information it contained. She recognized on a very conscious level that she needed to calm down and follow a methodical procedure, but her head was still screaming RUN! DROP DOWN AND COVER THE BACK OF YOUR HEAD WITH YOUR HANDS! GET AWAY FROM DOORS AND WINDOWS! and other ingrained contingency plans like that. Apparently Jonah's head was stuck on “RUN!” so she stuck out her foot to trip him and he landed face-first in the weird gravelly stuff that whoever owned this building covered their roof with. She had once performed a life-saving maneuver by shoving her face into the crotch of a childhood friend, so she didn't figure this was so insulting. He grunted as he hit the ground and looked up at her, his eyes wide with hurt.
“You can stop running. We're safe, I think.”
He looked around as if he'd forgotten where he was. She helped him to his feet, thinking swiftly. She knew what would make him happy, exactly what he needed to hear just then. A vow. He went to the edge of the roof and looked down on the streets below. A car fishtailed by the building, throwing gibbering protesters from the rear bumper. Members of Congress with blood positively flowing from their mouths chased down one of the few people still alive below them and sank their teeth into whatever part they could get a hold on. A mother jumped, snarling, through a storefront window across the street, leaving behind a stroller, which was turned away from Poprocks's rooftop, which didn't hinder her ability to hear the thing screaming and thrashing inside. She couldn't tell from the sound if it were zombified yet or not. She saw Jonah staring at the stroller, and grabbed his hands in both of hers, jerking them toward her to secure his attention.
“Don't look down there.”
“I said don't look! Forget them! They're all dead. It's you and me, okay? You and me, together 'til the ends of the earth.”
Her words were having the desired effect. Jonah's face hardened: he shut his mouth and set his jaw firmly in place; his hands gripped hers; some of the crazy went out of his eyes.
She continued, “Just you and me. But you gotta promise me, okay?”
Jonah nodded, and squeezed her hands. “You and me. I promise.”