In Cars

Bryan Alston Patrick

“Is this legal?.” Cora was on her hands on knees, having just crawled in through the hatchback. Her iridescent tights caught cross-firing headlights from all over the lot, making a marine design come alive on her legs and hips, a school of neon fish swimming in unison.

“Barely.” Ned admitted.

“Because it’s dope.” She added, looking around at everything from the upholstery to the lighting, flat screens, kitchenette, bathtubs, fold out sleeping areas and a cozy little private water closet.

Ned stood outside the tailgate, stretching his arms overhead, yawning in a last helping of night air before heading in for the evening. Lights blinked and horns honked as cars and trucks stopped and started, angling to make room for each other.

People were still out watching the movie or dancing at the crave or just goofing around. Kids threw a frisbee back and forth between flatbeds parked fifty feet apart. Somebody’s mom yelled at them to “knock it off!”

It was Friday night and the headlight flashing ceremony was beginning. Two hundred thousand cars mimicking a sea of twinkling stars for thirty miles in every direction.

Ned marveled at the Motor City while Cora made herself at home on a memory foam pad in the rear section, aka the “master suite.”

“You get pulled over anyway?”

He nodded. “But I’ve got all my papers in order so.”

“You ever tell them, ‘beat it, pig—you’re trespassing?’”

“Nah. You can’t do shit like that. Satisfying as it might be. They’ll bust a taillight or flatten a tire, anything to mess with you. Then you’re stranded side of the road. No lot will take you.”

“That sucks, man.”

“Not really. It’s just life.”

“Life can really suck though.”

“Genocide sucks. Life is just life.”

“Whoa. Ain’t you the cheery little optimist?” Cora said, curving around like a cat to make eye contact with Ned.

Her electric pink rubber-band top optimized cleavage while promising to spill her ample boobs into plain view at any second. Her hair looked black until hit with direct light. When someone pulled in or out of the lot, or turned by them, Ned saw it flash rich fantasy blue in the passing headlights.

Other than zany hair and clothing, Cora was simple and earthy. No makeup on her smooth pale skin.

“No tattoos either.” She volunteered between chews on her white wad of speed gum, straddling Ned in the backseat while she still had her clothes on. “Or piercings. Or implants. No tech. I’m all natural.”

Ned kissed her neck. One of his hands slipped down the back of her tights, respectfully tracing the rough, lacy border of her underwear.

“I like nice undies.” She said. “I like nice things.”

“Yeah?” Ned said, trying to sound confident or studly. Not his forte. His heavy breath and pounding pulse gave him away. “That what you like about me. Cause my whip is all that?”

“Ha, ha.” Cora said with nasally East Coast a’s. “I gotta be careful what I say around you.”

“Nope. Just be honest.”

“Well. Honestly. Ned. You know I thought you were real cute way before you showed me your big old whip. Remember?”

“Right.” Ned said, licking Cora’s chin, steadily unraveling with lust. “I hadn’t even whipped it out.”

“See? And you’re funny too.” Cora said. “Honestly, I like cute, funny guys, okay?”

“And I’m cute and funny.”

“You’re getting funnier all the time. And you are super-cute. What are you anyway?”

Ned shrugged. “Who knows at this point? Mostly Korican from what moms told me.”

“Yeah? I can see that. I bet you got some Iroquois or something too, though.”

“Could be.”

“So, you think your ancestors met in the Old States or in like, San Juan?”

“No idea.”

“Ain’t you ever wondered though?”

“Sort of. Genealogy wasn’t ever my thing. Is that what you’re into?”

“My birthday is May 11 on the old calendar. The true calendar. So I’m into food, sex and sleep. But yeah, I love genealogy and history. I think because those areas are kind of physical in a way, don’t you think?”

“Never thought about it.” Ned reflected. “What about geology and geography?”

“Those too. Yeah.”

“That what you studied in school?”

“Nope. I studied computers. Back when they were still legal. I was really good too. Oh well. What about you?”

“I grew up out here so no school.” Ned said. “I’m into cars.”

“Obviously.”

“That’s physical.”

“Sure is. Cars are kind of sexual, right?”

“I guess so.”

“Are you real horny right now, Ned?”

He nodded, dropping his guard. She raked and tussled his longish black hair with both hands.

“You feel like you want to get off with me?”

Again, he nodded.

“You want to see my boobies?”

Before he could answer, Cora pulled her top down around her waist and pressed his face to her chest.

“Can I spend the night if we do it?”

More nodding between her boobs. A muffled “uh-huh.”

“Could I maybe spend two nights?”

Nodding continued. He looked up from her chest to grab some air and speak.

“What about your place, though?” He asked her. “It’s okay unoccupied?”

“My place broke down. Got the magnet three days ago.”

“Where’d you sleep last night?”

She turned her head toward a tinted window for a moment during which the seductive expression disappeared from her face. “Do I have to say?”

“No.”

“Will you judge me if I tell you?”

“No.”

“I slept under a Chevy.”

“On the ground?”

Cora nodded, frowning matter-of-factly.

“Dang.”

“Yeah.” She said. “Went to the token wash first thing this morning, had the guys hose me down in front of everyone, so that was fun too.”

“Sorry.” Ned said. “How much to get your ride back?”

Cora shook her head. “No idea and it don’t matter anyway. I don’t have it and the car is busted. Even if I could pay to spring it, then what? Fixing is another huge cost.”

“I can fix it.”

“How do you know?”

“I can fix anything. My dad was a mechanic like his dad and his grandfather built cars in Old Pontiac.”

“You’re a legacy. Wow. But why would you fix my car?”

“I like working on cars. It still pays pretty good too.”

“But I can’t pay you, Ned.” She said. “And sexual favors in trade make me feel real bad.”

“Nah, I wouldn’t ask that. You can just tell people I fixed your car. Spread the word. More paying customers will come my way.”

“You would do that?”

“I’ve done the same thing more times than I can count. That’s how I built my business.”

She looked at him quietly for a lingering moment.

“What?”

“You are really something, Ned.”

“Thanks. I think.”

“You ever think about going somewhere? Getting out of this lot?”

“All the time. But where?”

“Seems like you could park this thing in a real park somewhere. With the great mobiles. It’s almost big enough.”

“It is big enough. I built it big enough for a real park and small enough for a lot.”

“You built this car yourself?”

“I told you. I come from four generations of motorheads.” Ned said. “Also, you can bathe here in the morning. I’m hooked up to a water line. There are mini-tubs between the front and middle seats. It’s not as good as a real bath but.”

“Better than the token wash.”

“Much. Plus I put in a micro-filtration system so you can drink the water too.”

“Damn, boy. How come you don’t have a girlfriend?”

“Had one. She left.”

“Why the heck would she do that?”

“No idea. Someone might have grabbed her.”

“Oh my gosh. Have you looked or asked around?”

“A little. No one around here knows. This is the biggest lot in North America though so.”

“You think she caught a ride somewhere?”

“Maybe.” Ned said. “She got pissed one morning and took off. I figured she would be right back but. I don’t know.”

“You think maybe she wandered up to the North End and maybe something.”

“Look. Nina was a junkie and she used to hook. Started early. Her own parents pimped her.”

“Aw.”

“Yeah. Aw. Really nasty. I loved her but honestly she was a fucking handful and she wouldn’t let herself be loved. I seriously wouldn’t be surprised if she went up north to hook and get high because she felt guilty and undeserving with me.”

“That is like the saddest thing I ever heard.”

“Nah. The saddest thing, if I’m being honest? I don’t even miss her, Cora. I want a relationship with someone who isn’t crazy.”

“Hmm. I’m sort of crazy to tell you the truth.”

“Sort of beats full-blown. And anyway, we just met.”

“Speaking of, when I saw you at the game earlier, it seemed like you were into that girl Bibi. What’s up with that?”

“Bibi’s nice.”

“She is hot. Be honest.”

“She is hot.”

“Hotter than me.”

“I wouldn’t say that.”

“I would.”

“Agree to disagree.”

“Is that because?”

Ned took a beat and nodded.

“Did you know or did you find out the hard way?”

“No, I knew. My neighbor, Heath, hooked up with Bibi before. Heath only likes, you know, so.”

“Lot a guys out there like Heath. NuGirls are really popular these days.”

“I don’t really get it.”

“They’re hot and they can’t get pregnant and they know what guys like because they have firsthand knowledge.” Cora said. “What’s to get?”

“I get all that but it doesn’t do it for me.”

“You like real women. That’s cool. Earlier, when I said I’m all natural.”

“You really are.”

“Yeah.” Cora grinned. “Wanna see?”

She pulled her tights and underwear down around her thighs.

“Go ahead and touch me if you want, Ned. I already got a little wet earlier.”

He was tentative. She took his fingers and put them between her legs.

“Yeah. Like that.”

Cora pushed her boobs together with both hands and angled a tall nipple up to Ned lips.

He closed his eyes and tongued it for several seconds before sudden pounding on a side window shattered the mood.

They froze for a moment in place, waiting. Seconds later the pounding returned.

“Shit.”

“What the heck?”

More pounding.

“I gotta see.” Ned started moving to get out from under Cora.

“Hold on.” She said, pulling up her tights and top, wiggling everything back to center.

Ned touched a button on the ceiling and took the car off sleep mode. Then he rolled the window down about six inches.

Heath and Black Fred were outside. Heath was just a normal human dude, lean and tall with chocolate milk skin and a big fuzzy afro. Fred had grown up during the Dark Bowl. His family survived the biggest nano-dust storm of all time but Fred hadn’t made it back to the car in time and got exposed. Nanites got in through his pours and replicated for years, turning his skin an oily, pearlescent black. But on the flip side, he was immune to basically every pathogen on Earth and thriving at a hundred and twenty-three years old.

“Kind of busy.” Ned’s eyes said through the window. “What’s up?”

“Sorry to bother you guys.” Heath said. “We got birds coming.”

“Food drops?” Ned said. “This time of night?”

“Nah.” Black Fred said. “Manhunters.”

“On the West Side? No way.”

“Bobbi-Jay came from up north. She said she knows the sound.” Heath said.

“She can hear the difference between a Grub-Wing and a Manhunter?” Ned sounded unconvinced.

Heath nodded emphatically. “Plus, you know, Fred can.”

Ned looked at Fred.

“We got about seven minutes.” Fred said. He could also see up to eleven minutes into the future anytime people around him were feeling afraid. That was one such time.

“But what happened?” Cora asked, leaning in over Ned’s shoulder. “Why are Hunters coming here?”

“Somebody’s parked illegally.” Heath said.

“Shit, Ned.” Cora said, her fingers perched on his shoulders, massaging restlessly. “What do we do?”

Ned’s eyes darted up and down, back and forth, corner to corner. He was thinking through scenarios at reckless speeds. He lowered the window the rest of the way for a look around, past Fred and Heath.

Most of the other cars were dark. It was late. People were sleeping. Music from the crave was audible in the distance, grinding mechanically, masking noise from approaching aircrafts.

“I built my car for this.” Ned said. “You guys are welcome in here with us.”

“What about our cars?” Asked Heath.

“Hopefully they’ll be okay.” Ned said. “But they’re not armored like mine. No other car is.”

Heath and Fred stood motionless outside the window, each reluctant to abandon his car.

“You got about five minutes to make up your minds.” Ned said. “I’m locking this thing down.”

“How many people can you fit?” Heath asked.

“Who do you have in mind?”

“Bobbi-Jay. Me and her are kind of together right now.”

“Fine. Bobbi-Jay’s cool.”

“Great. She’s in my ride. I’ll bring her over.”

“What about LarryEllen?” Fred asked.

“Ain’t she dating Trucker Wyoming?” Asked Cora.

“I mean, I don’t know if I would say dating but.”

“You got five minutes to find her and bring her here.” Ned said. “Get moving.”

“She’s always over by the movie screen!” Cora shouted.

Fred was already off and jogging in that direction.

“No way he makes it back in time.” She said.

“Two minutes there and two back.” Ned said. “That gives him one minute to find LarryEllen and convince her.”

“Like I said. No way.”

Ned was crawling over the seats toward the driver’s.

“You want me up there with you, Ned?”

He tumbled down behind the wheel and flipped on a map light to rehearse his lockdown sequence. It had been programmed in from the build but never activated.

“No. Stay back there, Cora. I need you to let the guys in and lock up behind them, okay?”

“Yeah.”

“We might be ticking it down to the wire for Fred and LarryEllen if he finds her.”

“Oh.” She said. “Here comes Heath with Bobbi-Jay now.”

Cora opened the back side door for them. Bobbi-Jay climbed in first with messy hair and makeup. She and Heath had obviously been interrupted too. Sub-dermal glow beads flashed pink and violet along her jaw and cheekbones and underneath a thinned out XXL t-shirt she wore as an improvised dress with nothing else but shiny red and white hot pants and thigh-high sneaker-boots she must have had on the whole time given the intricate lacing process.

“You guys are the best.” Bobbi-Jay said in her tiny helium girl voice.

She crawled across the backseat to make room for Heath and also to smooch Cora on the cheek like an estranged lover. Heath slid in behind her before she was settled and bumped her butt, making her kiss extra forceful on Cora’s cheek.

Cora winced.

“Sorry, babe.” Said Bobbi-Jay. “Heath. You made me bump her head.”

“Sixty seconds flat.” Heath said, clocking himself on a old school timepiece chained to a belt loop on his greasy pitstop coveralls. “What’s a little head-knocking?”

“Look at her face?” Bobbi-Jay motioned palms-up at the lipstick smear on Cora’s cheek.

“I think she’ll pull through.” Heath said.

“Here, hon’.” Bobbi-Jay lifted her shirt tail to clean the lipstick.

“Uh.” Cora recoiled initially and then surrendered. “Okay, then.”

“Almost got it all.”

That’s when everyone heard it. The crave music sounded especially distant underneath a low, steady hum that for a moment made you think of thunder. But it was too persistent. Too mechanical.

Manhunters could creep on stealth-mode when they wanted to sneak up, or go noises-on when they wanted people to scurry. That night was the latter. They wanted chaos and they caused it.

Shouting and yelling were sparse and far-flung at first. Voice by voice, it rolled in on a wave of terror.

Engines grumbled on. Tires coughed and screeched. Horns chirped and blasted. Metal hit metal.

“Everybody in?” Ned said from up front. “The sequence is about to begin.”

“No!” Cora said. “We still don’t have Fred and LarryEllen.”

“Too bad.” Heath said. “He knew the chance he was taking.”

“Heath’s right.” Ned said. “They’re too close now. We can’t risk it.”

“We are waiting!” Bobbi-Jay insisted with the shrill voice of an impetuous child.

The first explosion was too far away to see directly. There was the boom and then the fiery afterglow lighting everything in pale yellow and then the dry heatwave like an oven door suddenly opened and then the sickly bitter smell of burning rubber and singed wiring and melting synthetics.

The second explosion was dead ahead but still pretty far off.

“That’s the drive-in.” Said Bobbi-Jay.

Ned turned around from the wheel to address everyone. His face was hot and raw with loss. “That’s the heart of the West Side.”

Cora was glaring at him.

“What?”

“Ned. That’s where Fred was going. Who cares about the drive-in?”

“Fred’s fine.” Ned said. “He can see the future.”

“There they are!” Heath shouted.

Bobbi-Jay and Cora leaned over on Heath to piggyback his POV. Black Fred was jumping over cars, cradling LarryEllen in his arms like a comic book hero.

He leapt off the hood of a tricked out Buick as a third explosion sent three cars fifty-something feet into the air. His feet hit the ground a second or two before the vehicles came crashing and crunching down behind them.

The stunt caught the attention of several displaced residents. Their eyes followed Black Fred, carrying LarryEllen toward Ned’s conspicuously large vehicle.

“Over there!” Somebody shouted.

Like animals, they moved on instinct, chasing after Fred. He put LarryEllen down and pointed toward Ned’s place.

“Go!” He ordered. “Run!”

LarryEllen hesitated.

“I’ll be fine.” He said, turning to face their pursuers. “Run!”

LarryEllen took off running in her tennis whites. The translucent green visor caught wind and flew backward off her head. She kept running.

Heath opened the door for her and she spilled in, crawling over his legs, across Bobbi-Jay’s lap, scrunching in momentarily next to Cora.

Black Fred had disappeared from view behind an overturned delivery truck. The mob tailing him was out of sight too. Only the indistinct cacophony of raised voices hinted at their location.

One of three Manhunters hovered around in a fishtail move, almost directly above Ned’s car.

“I’m locking it down!” Ned said.

“Black Fred is still out there!” Cried LarryEllen.

“Initiating armor sequence.” Ned said, punching the first of four buttons underneath a discreet panel on his dash.

The whole vehicle quavered as the high-density carbon security panels engaged and began cascading into place. The front windshield was first, followed by the hood and front end. Then driver’s side and front passenger windows went black.

The midsection was next. Cora, LarryEllen and Bobbi-Jay held hands as the side panels came down, sealing them off from Black Fred, perhaps for good.

“He saved my life.” LarryEllen whimpered.

“Freddy was the best.” Bobbi-Jay added.

“I wish I could have gotten to know him.” Cora lamented.

The center shields were inches from closed when all of a sudden a snakelike form slithered in through the remaining gap. It was liquid and solid at the same time.

All five passengers screamed in unison as the shape arched into a parabola, jumping over Heath into the last seating section.

Again, the whole ride quaked as the panels locked into place with a fat clunk. All eyes were on the dark liquid-solid shape as it poured itself into vaguely recognizable form.

“Fred!” LarryEllen shouted before he was even completely solidified.

She climbed over the seats, all six feet five inches of her, tumbling into an embrace with Fred as he finished reconstituting.

“You dropped this.” He said, holding LarryEllen’s tennis visor.

“That was incredible.” She said. “I had no idea you could do something like that.”

“Makes two of us.” He said.

“How did you?” Asked Cora.

“Pure instinct. I fought off those assholes from five-G and saw the shields coming down. Something in me said dive for it and I just did. That’s it.”

“Wow, Freddy.” LarryEllen kissed the side of his face. “You’re amazing. Like some kind of superhero.”

She felt something in her mouth and spit it into the palm of her hand to examine. “What is this?”

“Popcorn.” Fred said, picking more pieces of it off his skin along with unpopped kernels. “It’s all over you too.”

LarryEllen looked down the front of her top and for the first time noticed it was full of popcorn.

“Gosh, some even got in my bra.”

Bobbi-Jay and Heath started brushing away all the popcorn LarryEllen had tracked in and deposited on them.

“Nobody eat it though.” Black Fred said. “One of the Manhunters hit a bunch of bulk bags at the drive-in. Probably it’s all fucked up and toxic.”

“I got some in my mouth already.” LarryEllen whined. “Should I be worried?”

“Here.” Fred said. “Open your mouth. Let me look.”

She complied, tilting her head back in the dome light so he could really see in there. Fred turned her head side to side, back and forth, evoking the techniques of ancient dentistry.

“Let me just.”

He leaned in and slipped his tongue in her mouth, going everywhere. She relaxed into the strangely clinical French kiss. When he was done he let go of her head and sat back.

“Any foreign particulates will be metabolized by my nanites.” He told her. “You’re good.”

A closer explosion shook the whole ride hard. Everyone inside grabbed something or someone else, bracing through the collective concussion. Heavy caliber gunfire followed in tightly strung beads of din hanging between thunderous booms.

Cora looked up at the ceiling symbolically.

“This is like World War II in London or Paris.” She said, pausing for commiserative reactions that never came.

Nobody else in the car had studied ancient history, apparently.

“Both cities were subjected to intense aerial bombardment.” She added.

Still nothing.

Ned reached over the seat and wrapped his fingers around her wrist.

“You want me up there with you?” She asked him.

He nodded.

Cora broke her movements down into several cautious segments, between which she waited for additional blasts. As though the Manhunters were waiting for her to feel safe, the next one hit close and rattled the vehicle as she was balanced between seats, bouncing her head off the ceiling.

“Uhphh!” She staggered forward.

Ned caught her arm in time to keep her from crashing headfirst into the dash. She steadied herself and wobbled into the seat next to his.

“Sorry, Cora.” Ned said. “I shouldn’t have asked you to move.”

“I’m okay.” She said, rubbing the top of her head as another sequence of booms and bullets ripping ran its course off in the distance somewhere.

“They’re moving away.” Said LarryEllen.

“Thank goodness.” Said Bobbi-Jay.

“Let’s not be thankful yet.” Heath said. “They could circle back.”

“This is crazy.” Cora said. “They blow up half of Motor City cause someone parked illegally?”

“Wouldn’t be the first time.” LarryEllen said. “Trust me. I’m from the NE.”

“I don’t buy it.” Cora said. “There has to be more to the story.”

“The question isn’t who was parked illegally but why?” Black Fred said. “Whoever it is has something or knows something the Barons want destroyed.”

“Fucking Power Barons.” Ned said. “They do whatever they want. Ain’t a damn thing we can do about it.”

That was the last thing anyone said as the roar of destruction moved steadily north until it was faint enough to feel gone. Adrenaline levels crashed. Within half an hour, everyone in Ned’s whip was asleep.

Dawn came and went outside the opacity of the blast shields. Cora woke with a start, perhaps from a dream in which alternative versions of the previous night’s terror had continued playing out.

She sat for several minutes, alone in relative silence. Heath and Bobbi-Jay were snoring in tandem—her high frequency whistling nostrils rode atop his gnarly lumberjack style. They had been sleeping together for a few weeks and synched up.

Black Fred and LarryEllen were all the way in back, coiled up in front of the hatch, completely silent as far as Cora could tell.

Ned was next to her, dozing upright with both hands on the steering wheel.

When she felt it was time, when it was safe enough, Cora reached over and touched Ned’s forearm, shaking it softly at first. It didn’t take much of her strength to separate his fingers from the wheel.

Ned’s hand fell to his knee and his eyes opened. A moment passed as he read the environment—panels down over the windshield. All of it flooded back.

He turned to Cora.

“I think they’re gone, Ned.”

They regarded each other. Seconds ticked off. Distance closed between them. Lips mashed together in the kiss they hadn’t managed to steal the night before.

Several minutes of making out went by while the other four passengers slept. Eventually the smacking, slurping oral frenzy slowed down to just foreheads resting together, chests rising and falling together, heavy breathing synchronized.

“Should we take a look?” Cora asked.

“I’m afraid to.”

“Me too.” She said. “But.”

“Sooner or later.”

“I vote sooner.”

“Should we wake the others?”

Cora shrugged.

“Okay.” Ned said. “Here goes.”

He flipped open the dash compartment with the buttons in it and punched them one at a time in reverse order, right to left. Cora had one hand on the dash and one on Ned’s arm, bracing herself for she couldn’t imagine what.

Inch by inch, midmorning sun rose like leavening bread in an oven from flat sheets to thick blocks. Ned and Cora locked eyes, neither of them quite ready to look outside.

He went first. She waited, took a breath and held it in and looked through the glass.

Everything in sight just about was on fire. Black smoke plumed and pillowed from every direction. Wedges of blue sky waved at them like old friends where smoke columns hadn’t yet converged.

They hadn’t noticed the snoring stop, or Bobbi-Jay leaning over the seats for a view.

Heath was awake too but he was staring out the side window. Jaws agape. Next door, his ride was a sizzling mound of pulverized metal.

It looked a lot like just about everything else. The place was scorched and blackened. Smoking silhouettes mangled and tangled.

Fred and LarryEllen were awake by then, peering out the back windows, taking in more of the same. She broke into tears.

An odd orange and white mark stood out on one charred heap twenty feet off. Fred squinted for details. It was a frisbee. Must have landed on someone’s roof and melted there.

“Why would they do this?” Cora’s voice trembled.

“Somebody threatened them.” Heath said. “They had to make sure.”

“What now?” Bobbi-Jay asked with big glistening eyes, slick with tears. “Motor City’s gone.”

“The West Side is.” Ned said. “Motor City’s still here. We’ll head east. Settle somewhere new for a while.”

“But I was born here.” Bobbi-Jay said. “I grew up on the West Side. This place was everything to me. The movie screen. Boom Club.”

She broke down. Heath held her close.

“Me and Heath met at classic films night.” She cried into his collar.

“Bobbi-Jay.” Cora said. “You got family around here too?”

Bobbi-Jay sniffled and nodded. “Just my mom and me now.”

“Anybody else?” Cora asked the car.

“I haven’t seen my brother in years.” Heath said. “Last I heard, he left Motor City for a park somewhere south of the border. Can’t say I blame him.”

“I was made in a lab.” LarryEllen said. “I was close with three of my tube-sisters back in the day but we all lost touch eventually.”

“You guys know my story.” Fred said. “I outlived all my relatives by half a century now.”

“Ned?”

He shook his head. “My mom is a pilot. Or was, when the barons still used them. She used to find me once a year or so but it’s been two at least by now. I don’t know where she is but right now that’s comforting. I know she wasn’t here last night.”

Silence hung in the stillness of the sealed interior.

“Cora?” LarryEllen said. “What about you?”

“I’m sort of in the camp with Ned. I grew up in Tire Town but my folks sent me away to school when I was really young. That was right before The Last Fall. It took me almost a year of walking and thumbing back to Tire Town and my folks were gone by then.”

“You don’t know where?”

“My stepdad told me about a place out west. A park hidden between two mountains that look like cats—one on its haunches, the other napping beside it. I’ve always wondered if they made it there but.”

“It was too dangerous for you to follow.” Ned said.

“Exactly.” Cora said. “I tried but, Motor City’s as far as I got. I’ve been here three years now. The West Side was as much a home to me as anywhere.”

“We could go there now.” LarryEllen said. “Why not?”

“First things first, guys.” Cora said. “Right now we have to find Bobbi-Jay’s mother.”

Her eyes landed on BJ.

“Where did you last see her?”

Bobbi-Jay sniffled in a deep breath. “Last night. Mom walked me to the crave. Dropped me off.”

“Any idea where she went from there?”

“Movies. Always.” Bobbi-Jay said. “She loved the movies. We would go anytime they were playing or she would go alone.”

Ned and Cora regarded each other grimly. Based on what they all heard the night before, the movie theater took a serious beating.

“Well, it’s settled then.” Cora said. “We’re going to the screen.”

“Walking or driving?” Asked LarryEllen.

Ned was already thinking about it. “I think we should drive. Stick together. And I don’t want to leave my whip unattended in such unpredictable times.”

“How do we know it’s clear though?” Cora asked him. “After all that noise last night, the pathways might be blocked with who knows what.”

“I’ll go first.” Fred said. “Do some recon.”

“You sure, Freddy?” Asked LarryEllen.

“I absorbed a bunch of energy from all that destruction last night. No one ‘ll fuck with me.”

“Here.” Ned said, handing Heath a walkie to pass Fred. “Radio back when you have eyes on the screen.”

Fred took the walkie from Heath. “Will do. Wanna let me out the hatch?”

The old drive-in theater had sat dormant for centuries before becoming the heart of the West Side. Originally, Silver Screen was its own city, growing a few miles from the much larger Motor City, which had sprung up around a demolished super-mall in the exurbs of a minor midwestern city. Nothing had ever been rebuilt, leaving one massive parking area atop water and electrical infrastructure. In just a few years, the two cities grew together. The larger population of Motor City won the debate over the name and Silver Screen became a popular area on the West Side. A few years after that, Motor City was the largest “wheel community” in North America and a few years after that, the largest population center, period.

It was a ten-minute walk to the screen from Ned’s place. Fred did it in five, surveyed the area and radioed back.

“Roger that.” Ned answered. “We’re here. What are you looking at, over?”

“Wholesale D in every direction, over.”

“Roger that, BF. Survivors, over?”

Fred was standing over Trucker Wyoming’s charred remains. Sections of his antique bionic endoskeleton were visible where flesh had been cooked off completely.

Other bodies laid beyond Trucker’s in similar condition. Not all that many by comparison to the number of people normally in attendance at big premiers.

“A lot of folks must have run.” Fred said. “How far they got, hard to say, over.”

“Roger that.” Ned said, vaguely annoyed. “Are there any survivors, over?”

“Affirmative.” Fred said, waving up at the projection booth window. “Looks like three, over.”

Ned followed Fred’s directions for navigating debris blockage. The drive was slow and dangerous but they made it to the rendezvous point in the clearing beyond The Courts, on which LarryEllen had advanced days earlier within one round of her first title.

Fred was waiting for them there with three other people. The projectionist, Jean-Claude Keanu, was there next to him along with Bobbi-Jay’s mother, Tilly-Jo and her lifelong bestie, Hilda-Ray.

Ned hadn’t even stopped the car completely and Bobbi-Jay was out the rear passenger door, stumbling into a jog. Tilly-Jo moved as fast as she could on her cane and crashed into her daughter’s arms.

LarryEllen got out to greet Fred with a hero’s welcome hug.

Everyone else waited in the car for the reunion to run its course. As the love-in naturally wound down, collective attention turned to next moves and modes of transport.

“I got my tech van down in the tunnel.” Jean-Claude volunteered the vehicle from which he had powered and operated the movie screen for years.

“Is it fast enough for the road?” Ned asked. “Is it tough enough?”

“Oh, she’s fully armored.” Jean-Claude said. “She used to be a news van in war zones like Kentucky and Maryland. Before that, she was an EMT vehicle. I still got the medical set-up in back to prove it.”

“What about fuel?” Ned asked next. “We’re looking at two thousand miles or more. Can she go the distance?”

“Same as yours I bet.” Jean-Claude said. “I got twin biomass cells, two gas tanks and the whole shell is photovoltaic with a heat-sponge sub-dermis.”

“Coral-based?”

“Straight up.”

Ned was nodding approval. “You’re right. Our mechanics are basically identical.”

Jean-Claude smiled, upped his chin at Ned’s ride. “You got the cosmetic edge I must admit. What’s that, ten coats of racing green?”

“Eleven.”

“And full fuckin’ race cams too?”

“Good eye.”

“Small enough for a lot and big enough for a park, right?”

“Exactly.”

“I’d say we’re ready to roll then.” Jean-Claude said. “I’ll drive lead since you’re a little faster. That way you can move out to pass me if we run into trouble.”

“We will run into trouble.”

“And we’ll be ready for it.”

“You sure you’re ready to leave this place?”

Jean-Claude gestured at the wreckage. “What place? Everything I had went to shit last night. Right now I need purpose and that’s helping you folks get where you’re going.”

He was already back-peddling to the tunnel entrance. “Anyone riding with me, saddle up.”

With Motor City smoldering in the rearview, two vehicles sped west on a crumbling interstate. Broken down rides lined both directions, eastbound more than westbound. Jean-Claude and Ned swerved through like two elite athletes going at it on an obstacle course.

The angular black van led the way like a fullback. Ned’s racing green tailback looked and moved like a bug, with handcrafted curvature on every seam and corner mimicking nature’s handiwork, deftly handling sharp turns at high speeds.

Jean-Claude said he knew a smaller highway in better condition cutting diagonal across the country. The exit they needed was two hundred miles out. That would take a while, slowing down for clutter so often.

Eighty miles from Motor City, the road opened up. Wrecks still appeared here and there but finally the two-piece caravan could move consistently above sixty miles per hour.

In all those miles, they saw only one other vehicle moving, eastbound, toward Motor City.

“Sad.” Cora said. “What they’re going to find when they get there.”

“Depends on where they’re coming from.” Ned said quickly, without thinking it through.

Cora looked almost hurt maybe. His tone was chilly and curt and inadvertently corrective. Ned wasn’t usually like that or wait—they had only known each other eighteen hours. There was no telling what he was like. She could have left everything behind for a total asswipe.

She crawled back to the next row of seats, ostensibly to check in with Fred and LarryEllen. Heath and Bobbi-Jay were riding in Jean-Claude’s van with her mom and Hildie. With just the four of them in Ned’s ride, everyone had plenty of room.

“Hey girl.” LarryEllen said. “How’s it going up there.”

“Fine.” Cora said with her nose crinkled to the contrary.

“Here.” Fred said, handing her a bottle of water. “We just filled up several of them.”

“Thanks.” Cora said. She took the bottle and instantly forgot about it except for the muscle memory required.

“Drink up.” LarryEllen said. “You really need to hydrate.”

“I’m okay.”

“You’re not. After everything we went through last night, all that stress. Trust me. You’re depleted. Eat, drink and sleep as much as you can.”

Shortly thereafter, Cora followed her advice and climbed up in the sleeper atop the cab. Minutes later she was snoozing through sharp turns and bumps in the road. Several hours after that she woke to find Ned sleeping next to her.

She climbed over him to peek into the cab and found Fred at the wheel. He noticed her upside down in the rearview.

“I don’t need to sleep much.” He said.

“Want some company?”

“Sure. Okay.”

They drove the next seventy-something miles in complete silence. Everyone else was asleep and Fred wasn’t the type to disturb others with music or rambling conversation. As dawn broke in the rearview, maintaining silence became more awkward than breaking it.

“Everything okay with you and Ned?” Fred asked quietly.

Cora gave it a moment of thought and tentatively nodded her head. “Yeah.” She said with a small, mousy voice.

“That’s not very convincing.”

“I’m not trying to convince you of anything, Fred. Just being honest.”

“So you honestly feel like you and Ned are okay?”

“We are definitely doing better than okay for two people who met not quite twenty-four hours ago before being thrown together in semi-voluntary exile after the firebombing of our beloved hometown.”

Fred nodded and took his eyes off the road just long enough to shoot her a supportive glance.

“You in love with LarryEllen?”

Fred held back for a moment before busting out a toothy white grin. His self-cleaning choppers were pristine and pearly bright in contrast to his shiny black skin that swirled with sub-dermal dynamism in the morning sun.

“I’ll take that as a yes.” Cora said. “Good thing cause she is clearly head over heals for you, my man.”

Black road snaked ahead, a hot, solid river resembling Fred in liquid state, tying together thousands of acres of withered farmland and the deserts lying beyond. Flat planes wrinkled up into hills on either side of the two-lane black top.

Above them hovered dark thunderheads mercifully obscuring the sun. Lightning wriggled between them, rumbling up to the vehicle seconds later in an eerie reminder of the previous night.

Fat droplets followed shortly, smearing the windshield into an impressionist landscape for roughly half a minute while Fred found the wiper switch. Ned’s blades made perfect contact on the glass, clearing away water and dust, bringing everything into focus. Old yellow lines were faintly visible again where the rain had washed the asphalt.

Ned spilled out of the sleeper and landed in the second row of seating. He yawned and leaned into the cab to kiss Cora on her cheek with musty morning breath. She grimaced and smiled at the same time.

“Anybody want coffee?” Ned asked.

“Yes!” Blurted LarryEllen from behind. She was totally horizontal in a bedding section and out of sight.

“Me too please.” Cora said.

“I’m alright.” Fred added to close the subject.

Hot water gurgled from the midsection moments later, prefacing a soothing aroma that soon filled the entire cabin. Ned reached between the front seats to carefully pass a fresh mug to Cora.

“This smells delicious.” She said. “Thank you.”

“Thanks to Motor City Hydro.” Ned said, mournfully acknowledging the revolutionary farming operation that for most of his life had occupied five repurposed city buses, which may or may not have survived the night.

“How we doing for water?” Cora asked.

“We can’t go crazy guzzling every drop in sight but the car recycles everything. Everyone should stay hydrated till we get there.”

“When’s that?” Asked LarryEllen.

“No telling.” Fred answered her. “Unless were under eleven minutes out and something scares the shit out of you guys!”

Jean-Claude’s voice crackled in over the CB. “Y’all going okay back there, over?”

“Roger that, Kick Boxer.” Fred said. “We are A-okay back here, brother. How’s the view up front, over?”

“We got a tangle a wreckage coming up in a half-mile I’d say. Looks to me like it might be staged. Over.”

“Roger that.” Fred said. “Just let me know if we need to maneuver. Over.”

“Will do, Long Shadow. For now let’s all sit tight and keep our eyes on the road. Over.”

“Roger that, Jean-Claude.” Fred turned off the CB while Cora was looking out the side window, exhibiting signs of suspense. “We gotta watch for cannibals out here.”

“Cannibals?” Cora said.

“Did you just say cannibals?” LarryEllen said.

“It’s just a rumor.” Fred said. “Or would you say more of a legend, Ned?”

“Yeah.” Ned said, catching after a slight delay. “Rumor. Legend. Folklore.”

“But it’s so plausible,” Fred added. “Don’t you think?”

“Oh, completely. People out here in the dry wastes? What else are you going to eat except folks passing through.”

“Meals on wheels.”

“Yeah.” Ned chuckled. “That’s good.”

“Are you guys serious right now?” Asked Cora.

But it didn’t matter. By then she and LarryEllen were both frightened enough to give Fred a peek into the future. He went quiet for several seconds and then picked up the CB.

“Breaker.” Fred said. “You there, Kick Boxer?”

“Roger that, Long Shadow.” Jean-Claude said.

“You got three bad boys lurking on the far side of that wreck. Hardly any firepower between them. Nothing much to scratch our skins. Over.”

“Roger that.” Jean-Claude said. “I got Bobbi-Jay up in the turret just in case. Over.”

“Keep us posted.”

“Will do.”

Radio silence resumed. Cora crossed her arms and smirked.

“Cannibals. Neat trick.”

“Too bad it only works one time.”

Bobbi-Jay peppered the wreck with light machine gun fire, scattering three very dusty bipeds out into the open. They were furry. Skinny. Obscured by filth. Gender unknown.

They fled the strafing and the roar of heavy armored vehicles. No score for them. Nothing but days of hunger to come.

Jean-Claude stepped on it with Fred tailing close. They blasted through the rest of the wreck, clipping an Oldsmobile. Jean-Claude hit it first, upside a shattered headlight, spinning it clockwise right on time for Fred to catch the rear bumper, throwing the puny old sedan into the shoulder trough. Pulverized glass and plastic sparkled like diamonds in the hot afternoon sun.

Sunset came a little while later. Bobbi-Jay took over for Jean-Claude. Ned took the wheel of his own ride for the first time in days. Not that Fred was tired. He was just sick of looking at pavement rolling. He and LarryEllen needed some quality quiet time together.

They slipped off the back sleeping area and closed the curtains. Cora dozed in the middle section right behind Ned and woke as dawn was breaking orange and purple over big mesas on both sides of the highway with pointy mountains flat and black, jagged shadow teeth nibbling the horizon.

Cora sat up and blinked sleep out of her eyes. She yawned and gave herself a moment before moving to join Ned up front. He too was yawning for different reasons. It was time for another break.

She was just about to offer when something caught her attention out the front windshield.

“Look!” Cora said pointing forward.

Ned’s eyes groggily followed her finger. He didn’t seem to see it at first but she kept pointing until he put it together.

Two mountains in the distance. Feline siblings. The left one napping on its side while the cat on the right sat up on its haunches, ears pricked.