Jonny woke up every time the car creaked loudly: often. Every time she woke up, she cried. Naturally, I couldn’t sleep either, what with Jonny crying every few minutes. The car was old — it was called an Oldsmobile. Like someone had known that no matter what year it was, it would ever be old. It made a lot of noise as Mom struggled to keep it up to the speed limit. The Silhouette struggled against steep hills and headwind.
I was struggling against tears. I had held them back so far, for Mama’s sake. I wished I was in the backseat, with little Jonny, but I didn’t ask to move. I thought Mama liked being able to look over and see me. Make sure I was still there.
The radio played softly in the background, but it had long ago been out of range. Static numbed the mind. No one spoke.
On the downside of a hill, in the side mirror, I noticed the clouds. They were heavy, each with their moist burdens. Each glaring at our backside, daring us to turn around and face them. Ahead, the sky was significantly clearer. I couldn’t help but believe the clouds were chasing us away from danger, or warning us. God knows.
The windows were down because the air conditioning did not work. Occasionally, skunk smells or the odor of cow manure wafted through and there was nothing we could do but plug our noses. Except Jonny. She was too young to plug her nose, so she just cried.
This time we passed through a thin cloud of smoke, but it smelled strong of fire. The smoke caught in my lungs and I quietly panicked: flashbacks. I wanted to scream; I think I groaned instead. Somehow, after the smell began to pass, I managed to breathe. That smell.
I wanted to say something to Mom, but the debate in my mind slowed me. Then I noticed a tear sliding down her cheek, approaching her jaw line and I caught the words in my throat. She was in no condition to comfort. She had surely experienced the flashbacks as well. Why had I been so selfish as to believe that I should seek solace in her? She would surely give it, but it would only eat up a little bit more of her soul. There had been enough soul-eating lately, and I was not going to contribute.
A dark blue haze from the clouds surrounded what would otherwise be a gray and white blotchy moon when I woke up. Apparently, exhaustion had allowed Jonny to ignore the creaks and bumps that came along with travelling. Apparently, I had followed suite for…I glanced at the clock. Three hours. Not bad. Not great, but not bad. It was sleep only in the technical sense. I hardly felt rested, and had always been somewhat lucid. Better than Mom though.
She was still driving, hunched forward, with her chin barely above the steering wheel. I only then realized I had waken from my restless slumber because the van was slowing. The change in velocity was all it had taken to bring me back to grotesque consciousness.
Phantom smells tickled my willpower and brought my dreams back to consciousness. There was no fire. And no smoke. And no imminent danger. Not entirely convinced of the latter, I peeked my head out the window for fresher air. The air in my lungs made me slightly more aware.
“Baby, don’t do that.”
My first impulse was to argue that she was being paranoid, but I hadn’t experienced all that she had. She didn’t have to tell me that. Her eyes betrayed what she tried so hard to hide from Jonny and I.
I pulled my head fully into the car. Under the moonlight, I could see Mom’s dilated pupils scanning the side of the road. We were going 30 now, on the highway. I held my tongue again, although curiosity almost betrayed my self-control.
Spotting what could be construed as a trail off the shoulder, she braked and pulled into it. The path only led 20 yards into the trees before it stopped and widened- a turnaround or something similar. Mom turned off the car and the lights, front of the van facing the road.
A full minute passed with only the ticking of a very hot engine and Jonny’s sleep noises. Then I heard the sound of tires approaching on the highway. The headlights poked through the tree trunks, flashing over our faces. I glanced at Mom and saw her staring forward, eyes and thoughts focused on the car.
Another minute after the car passed, Mom turned on the car again and pulled out. I have no idea how she found the motivation, after nearly 12 hours of driving, to continue. I did, however, notice her repeatedly looking in her rear view mirror at Jonny. Or scanning for cars.
The radio static to which we had all become accustomed crackled, waking me from my exhausting subconscious delusions. I turned down the radio before Mom woke up. She had her head angled toward the driver’s side window, mouth slightly ajar. Out cold. No doubt dreaming, too. She had pulled off the highway; I couldn’t even see the road from where we were. I turned the radio up a little bit, wondering what had made it break from its monotony.
An alarm that was meant to be disturbing sounded thrice, followed by an electronic voice. Mom stirred.
“This is a State Security Advisory Warning. On March 16th, 2 days ago, a suspected Rebel set fire to his house, for unknown reasons and fled in his van. Neighbors say the van was headed North, on Highway-”
Mom’s eyes snapped open and she immediately silenced the radio. I stared at her but she refused to return the gaze. She closed her eyes, tilted her head toward the fabric ceiling and cleared her throat. She remained in that position, brow furrowed, for a while, then swallowed and started the car again.
I looked at the gas tank. Apparently, she had stopped for gas while I was dreaming. I hadn’t even noticed. I hoped she hadn’t paid with her ID tag; but she surely wasn’t so shortsighted as to make that mistake. Even this tired, her paranoia wouldn’t let her.
“How much longer?” I asked when we had travelled the half mile back onto the highway. No one else occupied the road. Of course.
She drank from a water bottle- which she also must have purchased at the gas station- and offered me a drink. I drank half the bottle. When I handed it back, she answered, “About six more hours. We’ll be there before dark.”
I still hadn’t asked where there was. Mom knew I didn’t know, and she didn’t offer the information.
I poured some water in a sippy cup for Jonny. I guessed I’d find out in six hours.
Mom scanned through the radio stations to find some soothing music either to comfort Jonny and stop her crying or simply cover over the noise. The portable radio was plugged into the cigarette lighter for power; the car stereo had been stolen about eight months ago, shortly after the Invasion.
Jonny was certainly cranky due to lack of deep sleep and hunger. We were all a bit hungry. We snacked on bread that we had purchased at the beginning of the trip and some crackers and water that Mom had obtained sometime in between then and now.
When we stopped for gas again, Mom didn’t even go inside for food, to my disappointment. She quickly filled up the tank and the red two-gallon gas container which she kept in the back and paid with her I.D. card. I cringed when she swiped it; and I am sure she did as well. But we had no cash, and there was no other way. Mom quickly returned to the car, looking 10 years older than she had even last week.
The monotony of the road and the bland food and the static from the radio began to wear on my mental strength. I checked the clock on the dash ever other minute, willing this trip to end, hoping our destination would bring relief. I was constantly fighting the urge to complain, or even just cry. I envied the release in which Jonny could so guiltlessly partake. I reached back to her and pushed her golden brown curls out of her eyes, comforting her with pats.
A green highway sign, metal bent and legs cock-eyed, announced “Norfolk – 175”. With the approximate time that Mom had given me, Norfolk, Virginia, was my best guess as to our destination. We had a little less than three hours left in our journey, if, at 7:13 this morning, Mom had truly meant “about six more hours”.
I contented myself with staring at the mountains and trees for the next two hours, barely thinking, barely breathing. I numbly watched the new scenery. This area of Virginia was much more natural than St. Louis, and as such had not been affected as much by the Invasion. Trees stood tall, where, in my city, buildings were razed. Mountains are immovable; unfortunately, whole cities of people are not.
Rivers and valleys are not easily murdered, innocent dissenters are. Grass and evergreens cannot go insane and burn down their family’s house.
I was crying now, silently. It was almost 12:30. I was hungry, but figured we would eat when we arrived.
Forty-five minutes later, a sign displayed the words, “Welcome to Virginia Beach.” We had arrived.
Misty white hands covered my eyes. They blocked my vision entirely, but with a white blanket, not the blackness I would have expected. The white was peaceful and comforting and I did not fight it as I would have instinctively if any other hands covered my eyes.
I slowly reached up to feel the hands. They were soft and slender. A woman’s hands. I kept my hand on hers.
I heard her mouth open and my heart pounded in expectation. The voice which followed I cannot accurately describe, only in vague attempts. It was the fulfillment of my being. I don’t even know fully what that means, I only know that it is true.
“Come find me.”
I breathed in sharply and exhaled deeply.
“Who are you?” I choked out.
There was no response as the white slowly faded into darkness. Grotesque and realistic darkness. A cold cement floor. I was l laying on my back, arms spread out in a surrendered pose. I did not move as my eyes adjusted from the white to the black. I eventually noticed stars toward the horizon, blocked out immediately above me.
Slowly I remembered. It was a parking garage, one that had stood well. It seemed very stable. Relatively stable. Moments later, I realized my subconscious had become accustomed to the waves crashing nearby. I stood, disoriented, and meandered toward the sound of the ocean.
Exiting through a rubble filled crack in the ground floor half-wall, my feet immediately touched sand. Bare feet. Should have grabbed my shoes.
Strange place for a parking garage. Must be for tourists. Must have been.
Water swirled around my feet creating foot imprints, deeper each wave cycle. I don’t know how long I stood there, but the sun began to rise. We had slept for the whole evening and through to the early morning. Jonny was sleeping in his car seat which we had salvaged from the van, along with the portable radio. Any other odds and ends would surely be pillaged by noon. The van itself may have been stolen. For what it was worth after the pounding it took on the trip up here.
I heard sand move behind me, slowly, almost tentatively approaching.
“What are we doing here, Mom?”
The first time I asked, but I had been waiting so long that the question came out confidently.
An elongated sigh and hug from behind. “Baby, I don’t know exactly.” A tear dropped from her face onto my shoulder. “We just needed to get out.”
“But why here?”
“We used to have family up here.” I hadn’t known that, but it made sense. She held out some foreign hope that a costal family could have survived.
I asked if she knew where they lived and she replied that she did, in a way. Generally. Streets were no help in navigation anymore, and dangerous even so. It was a beach house, she said, which would be safer.
Safe was only relative. Loyalists had surveillance systems, but the even more subtle danger was the Rebels. Despite their common hatred for Loyalists, Rebels were only loosely unified, and their Code was even looser. Rebels fought Rebels; Rebels fought Loyalists. And any moderate person was in danger.
“Mom, did you leave Jonny back at the garage?”
Her back straightened and without a word she ran back towards the garage. I stared after her, growing worried for her.
I couldn’t help but think that darkness only made us feel safer as we crossed town that night, darting from crumbled buildings to trees to abandoned houses. If the city was inhabited, all the living areas would be underground or less conspicuous than these old, empty, two-floors in subdivisions. This obviously used to be a Rebel town, like St. Louis.
Loyalist towns lived “freely”, that is to say, they could show their faces. But that is not where we wanted to be anyway.
Mom had given Jonny some sleeping aid she had in her satchel as a preemptive caution against poorly timed cries. She ran with her in her arms, bundled up and pulled tightly to her chest. I followed anxiously behind, taking long, jogging strides, but never sprinting.
Mom kept looking up at the dark sky, I assumed that was her way of navigating. She had grown up in Illinois, on one of the last family farms, some 35 years ago.
We kept to the shadows, knowing that infrared cameras could be anywhere. Closely followed by investigative forces. An I.D. check would lead to immediate problems.
This being an abandoned town, any activity would automatically be registered as suspicious. The only people here were those who took exception to the Invasion and refused to live under the new Code.
After what seemed to be a couple hours, Mom turned and motioned for me to come close. “Stay here with Jonny,” she whispered into my ear. I took my sister from her arms and tugged her up to my chest protectively. Mom turned and crossed the dark street quickly, afraid of the exposure it brought. The houses here were relatively untouched. Of course, they were in disrepair from lack of maintenance, but almost no fire or bomb damage. Mom approached one of the homes; how she knew which to choose, I don’t know. Each house had numbers above the doors, marked for reasons beyond me. Maybe one of the tactics of the Invaders.
She first circled around the house, attempting to keep herself in the shadows and out of the moonlight. She disappeared around the back for at least five minutes, then slowly, I heard the unmistakable creaking of a door. I stared hard at the front door and noticed it was slightly ajar. A hand emerged from the crack and motioned, “come”. Mom’s hand.
Tucking Jonny tight again, I stood slowly and ran quickly. I was very aware of all the energy my heart was wasting, pulsing away out of nervousness. We hadn’t even faced tangible danger yet.
How would we be able to do this, changing towns? Starting over. Finding any sort of connections.
Only past halfway across the empty street, my mental strength snapped and I dropped, still cradling Jonny, kneeling in the moonlight.
White light beamed down onto me. Overt exposure, but my current mental state welcomed it. It seemed unnatural to hide any longer. I was aware of my vulnerability, yet still wanted to scream. I wanted to exasperate the situation to the point of immediate retribution. I was tired of waiting, anxiety killing my soul, for someone to kill my body.
Some force pulled me up and realism followed. They were hands. They removed Jonny from my grip and through tear-soaked eyes, I saw my mother’s silhouette. A hand like a clamp guided me toward the home and my legs quickly found their strength again. I was apologizing before I even entered the home.
We collapsed on the atrium floor. Mom comforted me, which made me aware how burdensome I was. I forced my mind to focus. The house was mostly empty, naturally. Pillaged.
“Are you hungry?” Mom asked, smiling for the first time since the fire. It was an obvious question. She stood and slipped off in the darkness. I couldn’t help but think the stress was affecting her as well. Certainly all the food had gone bad or been stolen already.
She returned with two cans in her hands, one of peaches and one of green beans.
“Where did you get those?”
“It’s my sister-in-law’s house. She was Dad’s sister,” Mom smiled, again. So, being in that family, she was very prepared for what had happened.
“What happened to her?”
Mom shook her head. “I don’t know.” She produced a can opener from her pocket. Peaches first, because they were the most tempting.
As we extricated the slippery devils out of the can, sweet juice running down our lips, I wondered how these pre-Invasion, subdivided people lived. It was such a foreign concept to me to live so freely. I could hardly believe it had truly been free- it seemed a fairy tale. Even before the Invasion, freedom was hardly in existence.
Mom mashed up some peaches for Jonny. She had only eaten a few. I encouraged her to eat more and offered some of my own. She said the sweetness didn’t sit well with her stomach and declined. But she didn’t eat many green beans either.
I stared at her face. Wrinkles were deep and had formed quickly. Her eyes displayed defeat and I couldn’t help but wonder what all she knew. What those gray eyes had witnessed.