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Smugglers (The Maskheads Series, #1)

Chapter Three.

Source: Pixabay.

This is a speculative fiction series comprised of three books. One chapter will be released every Wednesday, with links to previous and next chapters when applicable.

Previous chapter.

It happened too fast for me to have any initial emotion. Mama John was yelling “Oh my god! Oh my god!” She instinctively held me closer, as if trying to protect me from what had happened on the television set.

I could clutch her as I breathed., so I did. All of us were screaming uncontrollably at that point. We must have been. All of us up and down the street, screams ringing from the windows. Everyone must have been watching the show and yelling their heads off. That’s how it felt.

Amazingly, the camera kept rolling even after Lady Four shot herself. By now the aides had rushed to her side, pushing the chalkboard away and wiping the blood out of her hair. “Ave Maria” started playing again, like it usually did at the end of the show. But there was no fadeout. The camera didn’t stop rolling, so we were forced to watch the assistants wail and try to stop the blood in the stark lighting. Lady Four just lay there. She looked so beautiful, Nothing like I expected a dead body to look. It was hard to believe that she was gone.

“Andy, we have to go.”

“Wait, what?” I was startled out of my haze.

“We have to leave, Andrew. Things are going to get crazy here, we have to leave.” Mama John stood up quickly, causing me to fall into the beanbag chair where she had been sitting.

“Where are we going?”

“I don’t know. Probably up in the mountains, somewhere quiet. I’m expecting there will be riots in the street tonight.”

“Why?”

Mama John looked pained. “Because they didn’t expect Lady Four to do that, my love. And this was right after Three passed away. Now there’s only a few of us left.”

Us. That meant me too; this was serious. I stood up quickly. “Why would people riot, then? Why wouldn’t they try to protect us?”

“Because they’re scared, Andrew. People do crazy things when they’re scared.” Mama John went over to the closet and hauled out her loaded Bug Out Bag. I followed and pulled out my own: Army-surplus green, though mine was just painted that color. It was really black canvas, the standard color for kid packs.

Mama John slipped on her tactical vest, and I put on the dark beanie hat I had stowed away. It made me feel cool to have a small piece of clothing stashed away too. And while it didn’t hold any food or matches, it kept me warm and hid my hair well enough.

“Okay, you got your pack on, Andy?” Mama John buckled the bottom of her vest.

“Yes, I’m almost ready.” My pack was on, and I was pulling up the dirty jeans I had folded up below my pack. They were snug, but they were supposed to be. All the better for protecting my skin.

“Good, we’ll make great time then.” Mama John put on her own hat, a brown wide-brimmed thing that looked like a cowboy hat. But she left her pack off, heading to the window.

“What are you doing, Mama?”

“Just checking to see if it’s dangerous out there. I don’t want to leave if there’s a big crowd directly outside.”

“Okay.” I had found my hiking books in the far back of the closet and started pulling them on.

A tinkle of metal; Mama John had slightly opened the horizontal blinds. After a few moments of looking, she looked back to me. “There’s only a few people on the street now. If we leave soon, I think we’ll be safe.”

That’s when the brick came through the window.

It hit her square in the head, and Mama John crumbled over the dining table.

She bled steadily as she fell hard onto the carpet. No words.

The blood came out. It was quiet. Not noisy like it had been with Four.

The blood came out. So quiet.

I only realized after a minute that I was the one screaming.

I’ve heard moments like this described as an act of God. Something so incredibly specific, too coincidental to happen if not for some divine reason. That everything happens for a reason.

I don’t believe in a god, but I don’t have any other way to talk about that moment. I couldn’t believe that something had happened to Mama John so soon after Lady Four. And so soon after Three, too.

It made no sense to me. It still doesn’t now.

The sound of my own screaming scared me more than anything else. I was hearing it as if it was a sound made by a stranger: A high pitched wailing, with uncharacteristic shaking. It wasn’t how I normally screamed when I did.

This was so loud, and alien in how it felt coming out of my throat. It was feminine too, in a way that wasn’t scared to sound like a girl. I should have been scared, but I wasn’t. I couldn’t stop making that sound.

Mama John wasn’t moving in response. She kept looking at me, with a look of empty fear.

I didn’t go near her, but I could see what had happened. The brick had dropped to the floor, directly across from where her forehead rested. Her head wasn’t caved in from the striking, but something was broken just under the skin. If she had been an animal, I would have touched the skin just to see what that spot felt like. Blood was steadily pouring out. Not gushing, just slipping out like lemonade in a leaky pitcher.

Mama John wasn’t moving. Men outside were screaming now, louder than me. I had unknowingly stopped to listen to them. They were all crying out in pain, as if their own mother had just died on television. I heard sounds of more windows breaking.

How many people were out on the street at that moment? Was no one safe, if even we could be reached and hurt on the second floor? How many other children lost parents that day, or their own lives? I should know these answers, but I don’t. I’m not sure I want to find out.

Banging sounds on the door, then Mr. Fu’s voice: “Andrew! John! Are you okay in there?”

I wiped my hands on my pants and ran to the door. He came in and starting talking as soon as I unlatched the door. “Is everything okay in here? Those hooligans down the street started throwing bricks into the store’s windows. I heard screaming from somewhere, I wanted to make sure you two were okay.”

Mama John’s body was still on the floor. Mr. Fu found her feet with his eyes and leaned around to see past the wall’s corner. I saw his eyes widen at the sight of her. Pushing the door closed behind him, he walked slowly into the living room.

Mr. Fu’s boots barely made a sound on the tile entryway, and even less so on the carpet. As I locked the door, I noticed he had on his windproof coat. Had he come prepared for something else?

He knelt down next to Mama John’s body, and I followed him. He placed his hand on her wrist, then on the side of her neck. Looking up to me, he whispered, “She’s dead, Andrew.”

“I know, Mr. Fu.”

“How did this happen?”

“That brick came through the window when she was looking out of it. It hit her on the head, then she fell on the floor.”

He said something in a language I couldn’t understand, though I could tell he was swearing. He pulled down Mama John’s eyelids, then slipped his arms under hers and lifted her up with a grunt.

“What are you doing?” I cried out.

“Just moving her to the bed, Andrew. There’s probably going to be police officers investigating the vandalism, and I think we’d be better off if they didn’t find the body right away.”

“Why would we be better off?”

He began carrying her to the bedroom, her stocking feet trailing behind. Blood dripped onto the carpet in irregular specks, mostly falling on her own clothes. Not the best thing for me to see then, but it happened. She looked so heavy and doll-like, not like Mama John at all.

Mr. Fu didn’t speak. He opened the door to Mama John’s bedroom, right next to the second closet that held coats and my dress. A few more steps, and he shifted Mama John on the bed in one motion. She took to it well, looking like she had fallen asleep in her work clothes.

Pushing her closer to the center of the bed, Mr. Fu asked, “Andrew, have you told anyone that you were born a girl?”

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t play with me, Andrew. Your mother had a daughter, and that’s you. Have you told anyone that you were born a girl?”

“No, I wasn’t allowed. Why?”

“I just need to know, so I can keep you safe. You won’t be in trouble, Andrew. Just be honest: Did you ever tell anyone that you were born a girl?”

“No. Just as a joke sometimes with Justin. But we were just kidding around.” It felt so cold to recall that then. Was it possible to kid about anything now?

Mr. Fu looked relieved. “That’s good. That’s very good.”

“What’s going on, Mr. Fu? What’s going to happen?”

He paused, clearly debating how much to say. “Andrew, you can’t tell anyone that you were born a girl. It is very important that you do not do this.”

“Why?”

“Because everyone is very upset about Lady Four dying. There’s going to be people in the streets, probably violence. I don’t know what will happen to you if people find out that you’re a girl. So we need to be extra careful, so you can be safe.”

“Are we going to hide out, like when that riot about the Internet happened a few years ago?”

“No, we need to run. I need to take you to Home. It’ll take a few days, so we need to get going as soon as we can.”

“What do you mean? This is my home.”

“No, we need to go to Home. That’s the name of a safehouse Lady Six built that’s now a retreat for people that have been affected by disasters.” He leaned down and peeked under the bed. “Where do you two keep your Bug Out Bags?”

“In the hall closet. We were just getting them out. But Mr. Fu, how do you know all of this? Did Mama John tell you?”

He flinched a little at the sound of her name. But he answered quickly while getting up and heading in the direction of the hall closet. “John told me lots of things when I agreed to be your godfather. And I’m very glad she did.”

“Oh.”

“Can you wear the adult vest, Andrew? Or is it too heavy on you?”

“No, I think I can carry it.”

With one motion, Mr. Fu unzipped and unbuckled Mama John’s vest. Without any pause, he then rolled Mama John’s body toward him and shoved the vest under her. One more roll in the opposite direction, and the vest was on the other side. Mr. Fu yanked out the vest from under Mama John and handed it to me. “Take off your pack and put this on.”

I obeyed. “Mr. Fu, why are you calling her John?”

He hurriedly walked back out to the hallway, giving me a quick but meaningful look. “For the same reason she called you Andrew — to keep you safe.”

“But nobody can hear us from up here.”

He silently pointed at the window, and I understood. There was now lots of noise coming from the street. People were crying, and there were more sounds of things breaking than before. People could probably hear us talking, or at least could hear us easier than before.

Mr. Fu handed me my pack and I pulled it on. The straps were slightly frayed from the last camping trip, but it was still ready to go. I wasn’t leaping into action like Justin and I did when playing Bug Out. The whole situation wasn’t nearly as exciting as I had expected it to be. I didn’t think Mama John would have to die as part of a big Bug Out adventure.

“Now, we’re going to go by train as much as possible. We’ll stop for a break in Detroit, and cut down to Florida from there.” He pulled a pack around his own shoulders, which he must have dropped next to the door when he walked in. Then he looked down at me. “Andrew, are you crying?”

I couldn’t say anything. My mouth was hurting too much; everything was scrunching up inside, and I couldn’t look around. I might see the open door, see Mama John’s body on the bed. I might see her arm hanging off the bed, which she’d never be able to pull back up. She couldn’t ever touch me again with that hand. Ever.

Mr. Fu bent down so I could see directly into his eyes. He had wrinkles, but his hair was still mostly black and he looked strong. Mr. Fu could protect me, and he would. But right then, he didn’t know how to handle me. “Andrew, you can’t cry. I know you want to, but you can’t. We have to move now. Do you understand?”

I nodded, but tears were still coming out of my eyes. Mr. Fu looked around, then found my Bug Out Bag. He held it the straps open and I slid it onto my back. He picked up Mama John’s pack and held it across one arms as he turned back to me. “Come on, Andrew.”

I still couldn’t make myself move. Mr Fu looked around the room, clearly losing patience. But then he said, “Andrew, we really do need to go. I promise, you can cry as much as you need to once we’re on the train. But we need to go now. Can you wait until then?”

Just wait, don’t stifle it completely. My body could cooperate with that. I wiped my nose on my sleeve and nodded. I quickly doubled back to the kitchen and grabbed the emergency stacks of beef jerky and preserved fruit out of the pantry.

“What are you doing?” cried Mr. Fu.

“Grabbing provisions.” I closed the pantry door and held up the stacks of jerky.

Mr. Fu looked genuinely surprised, but nodded. “Okay. That’s actually a really good idea. But after you’ve done that, we have to go down to my store so I can grab my emergency bag. I’ll leave this one here. Then we’ll head down to the train station. We’ll be safer there.”

“Why don’t you just take Mama John’s pack? Or that one.”

“It doesn’t have things I specifically need. We can John’s as the extra provisions bag.”

“Okay.”

Mr. Fu held out his hand, and I took it. We filed out of the apartment without any fuss, leaving the salmon dish on the counter and the blood on the floor. It sounds crazy, I know. But maybe there wasn’t enough blood to scare Mr. Fu to clean the apartment before we left. I didn’t ask questions then.

I hope that I can go back that neighborhood someday, just to see what has become of it. In the moment I was just listening and looking for anyone that was potentially in our way. No one was in the inside hallway when we left the apartment, and the the outside stairs seemed fairly quiet too.

Mr. Fu’s store was a quick turn to the right, on the ground floor. He took out the keys on the last step and quickly plugged them into the door.

“What do we still need to get?”

“My pack’s just inside. I’m going to get some money out of the safe, too.”

“Okay.” I was suddenly fearful. Would people see us coming in and demand that we give them money?

People were starting to trickle out of the buildings, all adults in casual clothes. They weren’t being violent, and just seemed to be coming out to talk to each other. Why they didn’t just stay inside to talk? Couldn’t they just talk to their neighbors in their hallways?

I didn’t get it then. Now I know it was like how we come together at Home for meetings: People sometimes just need to see other people’s faces. They need to see their own feelings reflected, see it in something other than themselves. People need to be reminded that their pain makes sense.

“Got it, let’s go.” Mr Fu pulled back the retractable iron gate, then opened the door with just enough room for me. I slipped in and he followed, quickly closing the gate behind us.

“Now, you have to stay down, Andrew, in case anything comes through the windows. If anyone sees us in here they may try to rob the store.”

“Okay.”

“Good. Pick up a magazine or something, it may be a long ride to the train. God, the buses are going to be hell tonight.”

“It’s not even one o’clock in the afternoon. How do you know they’ll be bad?” I slipped a teen pop magazine into my bag. It was the newest issue, and it featured profiles of every member of the Six.

“Trust me, they will be. It’s no good to be up in the hills during a riot. Now leave me alone, I have to pray at the shrine.” Mr. Fu ducked behind the curtains at the back of the store.

I had to hurry and leave everything behind, but he was allowed to take a few minutes and pray? It didn’t seem fair. I stole a roll of hard candies and hid them in my vest pocket as revenge.

There was a smell of incense. Mr. Fu came out, looking maybe two degrees calmer than before. “Okay then, we’re ready to go. And I got the money out of the safe, too. Are you ready to go, Andrew?”

“Yes, I’m ready.”

“We’re going to catch the trolley two blocks down, that’ll take us directly to the station. If a better option presents itself, you follow me. Understand?”

“Yes.” I felt the roll of hard candy against my chest and felt smug.

“Good. I’ll go first out the door, then you’ll follow. Stay close to me.”

Mr. Fu brought out his keys again, and I noticed he was now wearing a white baseball cap. It wasn’t wide-brimmed enough to count as a Bug Out survival hat, so I wondered why he had picked that one. Was survival and Bug Out stuff not his strong suit?

We left the store through a side door and headed down an alleyway to the trolley stop. Mr. Fu kept telling me me to hurry up, and I tried my best. But eventually he sighed and just picked me up. I had had a recent growth spurt, and could almost touch the ground holding on to his neck.

I didn’t want to be carried, but I apparently couldn’t move fast enough for him. I stayed quiet so he wouldn’t yell at me again.

There weren’t any fights breaking out on the narrow street we cut across, but there were now plenty of wails coming out of the windows.

Running by one basement apartment, I saw an obese white man bawling. This small sight sticks with me now because it was the first sign that things had really fallen apart. Not to say that men didn’t cry in those times, or felt that they couldn’t. But it rarely happened, and hardly ever so intensely. In my fear, it struck me as grotesque.

That was also when my Bug Out Bag really started to weigh on me and I asked Mr. Fu if I could please walk.

“Are you going to keep up?”

“I’ll try. My bag’s just hurting my back.”

“Fine, you can walk. But you need to keep up, or else I’m sticking you in a wagon and pulling you to the station.” He set me down, and I realized he was carrying Mama John’s backpack on one arm as well as his own Bug Out bag on his back. How heavy I must have been with all of that stuff, while complaining about my pack hurting me.

But I didn’t have time to apologize. Mr. Fu grabbed my hand and pulled me down the road, too fast to see into any other windows. We left the urban neighborhoods with no more incidents, though it was clear that we were racing ahead of something worst.

At one point I looked behind me and saw two men throwing matches into a car on the street. Were they trying to set it on fire? That had never happened before, as far as I could remember. Not in the riot that had taken place three years previously.

That was when Give had been shut down for “maintenance” for three days. Never mind that it was the night after Lady Four’s Tub Scene and it was officially declared “indecent” by the government agency that moderated the media, and was now being played on Give and the other video sites.

People rioted all over the country. Mama John wouldn’t let me go to school out of fear I would get trampled or lost. The mayor told us all to remain calm, that hopefully the company would turn everything on again soon. They eventually did, after three days of people protesting outside the national capitol.

We finally reached the trolley stop, but the electronic update screen told us that the next one wouldn’t be for another 35 minutes. Mr. Fu grumbled, then grabbed my hand again. “We can probably reach the station in half that time if we walk quickly.”

“Okay. I’ll keep up, I promise.”

“You need to, Andrew. Really, you do. I don’t know how far things will spread. The sooner we get to safety, the better.”

“Okay.” I remember thinking to myself, How could any violence get in this part of town? This is where all the nice homes and businesses are.

But even here, people were coming out to talk to each other without shame. People in suits, younger people in t-shirts and jeans. But weirdly, more men were crying openly in this street than in our neighborhood.

After twenty minutes of walking with our packs, and we finally reached the train station. Another twenty minutes in line and we reached a ticket agent.

Mr. Fu butted in front of me to address him. “Hello, yes. We need two tickets to Detroit, one adult and one child.”

“Okay, then. Layover preference?”

“None.”

“Okay, let me see what we have.” He spent a few minutes of typing, probably difficult with his thick fingers. “It looks like the only route available is a re-route to Sacramento, then Chicago and then Detroit.”

“That’s the most direct route you have?” Mr. Fu sounded surprised, and a little disturbed.

“Yes. But the upside is, it leaves in just a few hours. 2:25.”

“Fine, then. How much is that?”

“For you two, two hundred and fifty dollars.”

Mr. Fu started to bring out his wallet, but suddenly stopped. “Why so cheap?”

The attendant dropped the act, and leaned in closer to Mr. Fu. “You see anyone traveling out of here? They’re trying to fill that train up as much as possible.”

“I see. Well, it’s an exceptional price. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Then the old attendant spotted me. “Are you ready for an adventure, little man?”

“I guess so.”

“You guess so? Little man, you’re riding on the Zephyr, one of the best trains in the country. You tell me you’re not excited to ride on that train?”

“Are you bothering my son, sir?” Mr. Fu spoke suddenly, very stern.

The attendant was flustered. “Oh no, I meant no disrespect, sir. Now can I please see your identification?”

Mr. Fu handed him his driver’s license, and I looked around the station. I don’t know if it’s still standing at the time I’m writing this, but I hope so.

Back then, it was a grand place. The were murals on the walls, of settlers coming to the Northwest, forests being cleared and young women tending the soil. The women there were painted to look like Mama John: Strong, with very pale skin. The few Native Americans in the painting were women working behind them, scattering seeds.

Were the men off clearing the far forests, without a care about what their womenfolk and two-spirit people were doing? That was the name for Betweeners I read in history class. I thought it was a nice name.

“Andrew, here are your tickets.” Mr. Fu handed me a stack of papers stapled together. “Do not lose those, they’ll get you all the way to Detroit.”

“Okay.”

“Good.” Mr. Fu slipped his own stack into his shirt pocket. “Now let’s dump these bags.”

We found a bench by the ticket inspector on the other end of the hallway. Mr. Fu set down Mama John’s pack gently, then heaved his own off his back with a groan. He started rubbing the small of his back, but stopped when he saw I was watching him. “What?”

“Nothing. You’re really strong.”

He rolled his eyes. “Not so strong. Just enough to get all the stuff out here.”

“No, you are. You carried both packs, then me and my pack. You’re really strong. That’s cool.”

“Well, thank you. But I was just doing what needed to be done.” Mr. Fu looked up at the big clock under the mural. “The attendant said the train leaves at 2:25, yes?”

“Yeah, that’s what he said.”

“Okay. I think I should go and pray for a blessing for the trip. Can you stay here with the bags for a little bit?”

“Yeah. But where are you going?”

“There’s a shrine not too far from here. It’s just a few blocks away, and I won’t take too long. I’ll just be needing a few essential items, Andrew. But can I trust you to stay with the bags?”

“Yes, I can do it.”

“Okay, then.” Mr. Fu smiled. “I promise, I’ll be back before too long.”

“Okay.” I sat down between the bags on the bench, as if showing how committed I was to this task.

He nodded and kept his smile, which was generous for him. He opened up a side pocket of his pack, and removed a wallet and a small switchblade. I stared briefly at the knife, but he gave me a sharp look. “That’s not a toy, Andrew. I hope I don’t ever see you with one of your own.”

“I don’t have a knife, Mr. Fu.”

“Good. No good making you into a hooligan if we don’t have to.” He closed up the pack and headed back toward the entrance. A few steps, and I was alone with the two huge bags on either side of me.

As soon as I was sure he was gone, I opened up Mama John’s pack. I’d never seen everything inside of it. What was left of her here?

Directly under the top flap, there was a first aid kit and a water straw. I pulled out the straw and put it in the side of my own pack. Best keep that close. Underneath that, a big waterproof shell. Mama John’s ID and hunting license. Three MRES and a water bottle. All things I couldn’t take out. They’d be missed.

Underneath that, there was a small Emergency Tent. This one looked new; it had a lever on the side that you pulled to deploy. The small writing on the plastic cover said it could house two adults comfortably.

I started crying quietly. Two adults… Mama John would never see me become an adult. She couldn’t even talk to me about sex, like she had said she would. That was supposed to happen after Lady Four’s show. But she was dead, and so was Mama John. She was dead and I wasn’t ever going to see her again.

That’s when I started to doubt Mr. Fu. How did he know this was the right thing to do? Had Mama John ever talked to him about this? I doubted it. She hadn’t planned to die. Probably not, anyway. And why choose Mr. Fu to be my godfather, whatever that entailed? He clearly didn’t even like me that much.

I wiped my tears away and kept going through the pack. Not until we were on the train, Mr. Fu had said. I didn’t want him to come back and see me crying again.

I eventually moved a small first aid kit, a bottle opener, a collapsible walking stick and a tube of chocolate frosting to my bag. There were a couple other funny items in the bag: A green head scarf, and two packets of sunflower seeds meant for growing. These all went into my bag. Down at the bottom was the oddest item of all: A small poster of Mama John when she was Lady Two.

She looked so different in the picture, and I thought she looked like a princess: Long, curly brown hair under a wool beanie hat with a pom-pom. Warm brown eyes. Athletic limbs, visible in her red plaid shorts. It was a pin-up style portrait of her, posing as a kind of sexy lumberjack.

I keep that picture on my wall in my room at Home today, and I still don’t know what it’s intended purpose might have been. Was Mama John going to show it with me, tell stories of her time as a Lady while pointing out details from the picture? Was it a preventative picture, that she could flash in case we were cornered by someone with a gun? Get some sort of immunity bcause Mama John’s former life?

I tucked the picture into my shirt, like how I had seen Mr. Fu do with his tickets. I had no pocket there, but the strap of my pack would press it against my skin once I put it on. It would be safe from outside eyes.

For the rest of the time I waited for Mr. Fu, I kept both my hands on Mama John’s pack. Every so often, I’d open up a side pocket and see something else I’d move to my pack: Cigarettes. Fishing line. A mini road flare. One of my school pictures. A small box of golden raisins. All of them went into my pack, like a squirrel’s hoard.

No one bothered me the entire time I sat on the bench, so I was able to nestle safely within the bags. I felt safe, and didn’t move for quite a while. My fortress: Two adult-size Bug Out Bags, and my canvas“kid” bag at my feet.

“Andrew?”

I turned. There was Mr. Fu, unharmed and holding a white paper bag.

“Hey. How did it go?”

“Well enough. Things are definitely getting rowdier out there, though. We’ll be safest waiting in here until the train arrives.”

I remember him staring at me, tucked within the Bug Out bags. “Were there any problems while I was gone?”

“No. Everything’s okay.”

“Good.” Mr. Fu sat on the other side of me, a full pack between us. “I wanted to apologize for being so harsh before. A lot has changed for you very quickly, and I didn’t let you feel it. I apologize.”

“Is it really that bad out there? Did we have to get out of there so quickly?”

“I can’t explain it here, but I have a feeling that things are only going to get more dangerous for us. This is how things go: A small tragedy happens that sets people on edge, then a big public tragedy happens and shocks everyone. People act out to try to feel control again. It’s just how these things happen. Better you and I not get caught up in it all.”

“And you really think this Home place is the best place for us to go?”

“Absolutely.”

I was quiet. Mr. Fu brought the paper bag up to his lap and opened it. He drew out one item enclosed in wax paper and handed it to me (over the pack, which was nice of him).

I reached over and took it, unwrapping it in my lap. It was a doughnut: round, glazed and filled with lemon custard. “Mr. Fu, where did you get this?”

“I was on my way back, and I saw that the shop was just about to close.” Mr. Fu smiled a little. “You were smart to grab the preserved food. I just thought these would be better for starting the trip off on the right foot.”

I was touched. “Thank you, Mr. Fu.”

He looked at me. “I mean it, Andrew. You thought of something I didn’t, and you proved to be a good guard with the bags. So I apologize for being short with you. I didn’t realize that John had trained you so well.”

“I’m not that good at survival.”

“Maybe not. But you think differently than I do, which is important. So I will try to listen to you more.”

“Mr. Fu, you don’t have to do this.”

“Yes, I do. We have a long journey ahead of us. I want us to be a cohesive team.”

“What does ‘cohesive’ mean?”

“It means we stay alive. And we don’t kill each other.” Mr. Fu unwrapped a donut in his own lap, a cinnamon twist.

That word stuck with me: Cohesive. I reached into the Bug Out Bag at my feet and started rummaging. I found the mini road flare and handed it to Mr. Fu.

He looked surprised. “What’s this?”

“A mini road flare. I found it in John’s pack; it glows really bright orange when you light the butt end of it.”

“Why are you giving it to me?”

“Because I thought it was cool. And I wanted to trade you for the donut.”

Mr. Fu laughed. “No trade necessary, Andrew.”

“Yeah, it is. We’re supposed to be cohesive, remember? I’m trading you this for your donut.”

Mr. Fu shook his head, taking it out of my hand. “Well played. Thank you, Andrew. I’ll use it if we need it.”

“I know.” I looked down at my donut. It was glazed perfectly, end to end. I held it to my mouth and took a bite: Perfectly sweet, but not sugary. It must have been made with organic sugar. It kept the sweetness of the custard from being obnoxious, and I really liked it.

We ate silently for a few minutes, each lost in our own sweet treat. I was still snugly enclosed within the packs, and Mr. Fu thankfully didn’t ask me to move.

Within ten minutes, a voice came over the speaker: “NOW BOARDING the Coast Rider, bound for Chico, San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles and beyond.”

“That’s us, Andrew. Are you all done with yours?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, let’s head out.” Mr. Fu crumpled up the cellophane that had surrounded his own donut. We stood up simultaneously, slinging on our individual packs.

He picked up Mama John’s pack, balancing the straps on his forearm as gracefully as if he was carrying a coat. He turned to me and asked, “Did you take things out of this pack, Andrew?”

“Just a few things. I rebalanced the load afterward, though. Some things got shifted around after we first grabbed it.”

“That’s why it feels so much lighter? I don’t believe it.”

“Dad always said you can fit twice as much stuff into a bag if you know how to pack it right.”

Mr. Fu rolled his eyes. “Fine, I don’t want to argue about this anymore. Now let’s go, Andrew. Do you still have your ticket?”

“Yes, right here.”

“Okay, let’s go.” Mr. Fu took my arm and led me to the ticket punch line. Maybe ten other people stood in line with us, and they too were loaded up with bags. The station had filled with slightly more people than a few hours ago, but they were civilians. Mr. Fu, me, and all those other people in line were quiet. Methodical. We said thank you when the attendant punched our tickets, then ran to the train without celebration.

Mr. Fu had bought us two general seats for the 19 hours to Sacramento. “We’ll have beds for the two days to Detroit. But this was cheaper and better for now.”

“Okay.” I put Mama John’s bag in the overhead section, then tucked mine under my seat.

“I know, I know. You probably want a real bed for the journey. But this is the best solution, Andrew.”

“No, I’m okay. I’m just confused — I thought they said that the train was empty. Who’s sleeping in the bed cars, then?”

Mr. Fu gave me a look that shut me up, then finished shoving his pack under the seat ahead of us. He sat down next to me, and pulled a pen out of his back pocket. In the space of a minute, he wrote on his hand and showed it to me: THE WORKERS.

I was confused, and shrugged while looking at him. He added to the phrase: THE WORKERS THEY CAN’T PAY.

I nodded, understanding. Free room and board, in exchange for a salary maybe half as much as they would normally accept. It wasn’t the first alternative pay arrangement I’d ever heard of, but it was definitely the most extreme.

When you have less than half the customers you once had, you learn to negotiate with the help.

The train car was only half full when we shoved off. Mostly men who looked like rough traveler types, but there was one transwoman with curly hair who I found absolutely beautiful. I knew she was trans because she was wearing women’s clothes outright. Looking at how old she was, she must have had the operation to switch right before all the women died.

She saw me see her, and smiled. I was shy and ducked away. She had dark blonde hair.

“Folks of the Northwest, I’d like to welcome you aboard the Coast Rider.” A muffled voice came out over the intercom. “We’re currently leaving on time, headed toward Chico, Sacramento and eventually Los Angeles and beyond. We hope you enjoy your time with us.”

“Now then,” Mr. Fu said. “I think I’m going to rest for a while. I took some sleeping pills, so if you need me just poke really hard.”

“Okay.” I wasn’t sure what to do now that we were moving. Being this close to Mr. Fu felt weird, but I pulled out my magazine and started reading profiles of the Six like it didn’t bother me.

Everything was made up. All made up. Mama John had supposedly “withdrawn from public life” because she was deathly ill. But even the article didn’t seem to care about her: “Jolene Morrison’s current location is unknown, but knowing her, she’s off saving trees and loving the great outdoors wherever she is!”

Jolene. That was my mother’s real name. I remember mouthing it to myself over and over again: Jo-lene. Joe-lean. Joe. John.

John was my mother’s name in my head. Jolene seemed too contrived, too flossy and feminine for my mother. Even in her pin-up costume, she didn’t seem like a Jolene.

Did this mean I had a secret name too? I thought my birth certificate said Andrew Jeffrey Morrison. I hadn’t ever been anything else. Maybe I could stay Andrew forever.

I flipped through the magazine, nothing really registering in my head. No advertisements drew me in; nothing comforted me. Mama John wasn’t anywhere, not even in the stories I could read about her. Would I be the only one who remembered her correctly? Maybe Mr. Fu would too, if he wanted.

An hour or two must have passed by; I remember not even caring to check my watch because it felt like too much effort. I turned to Mr. Fu: He was sound asleep. That’s when I realized he hadn’t taken the pills just to drop out. He promised me privacy to cry, and now he’d done just that. Even if I just wanted to curl up on the seat and cry, I could do that and have him never know.

But this still felt too public. I inched past Mr. Fu and went down to the lower level of the train. The restrooms were usually down there.

There were two stalls, both closed. But there was a much bigger room at the end of the car, with a sign that read LADIES’ DRESSING ROOM. It felt appropriate, so I went in.

I was already sniffling when I opened the door — I was ready to cry. But there was someone already there.

I jumped back against the door, which I had just finished closing. “What are you doing in here?”

It was a heavyset boy, wearing a dark blue polo shirt. “I should be asking you that! Don’t people ever knock?”

“I just thought no one would be in here. The door wasn’t locked or anything.”

He frowned. “That door doesn’t lock — it’s the main door to all these little rooms.” He waved his hand, and I saw what he meant: The lit vanity where he sat was the hub of a cluster of changing stalls.

It just made me more hostile, though. “So what’s the problem with me coming in here without knocking?”

He paused, looking as if he wanted to say something. But he just sighed. “I guess there isn’t one. Sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

“My name’s Ryan. What’s yours?”

“I’m Andrew.” I stared at him. “What are you doing down here?”

“I wanted to be alone. My stupid family’s being really loud and annoying.”

“I haven’t heard anything from upstairs.”

“They’re two cars over. Why are you down here?”

“I wanted to be alone too.” My thoughts were full of swear words.

“Oh. Where are you going?”

I thought for a moment before telling him. “Sacramento. You?”

“San Francisco. My parents want us all to go visit my grandpa. Like that’s not the most bogus city that’s ever existed.” He rolled his eyes.

“Wait, you have two parents?” This kid was seriously cutting into the time I could have been alone, but that drew in my attention.

“Yeah, my dads. Why, you got a problem with that?” He suddenly got defensive.

“Oh no, I just didn’t know what you meant.”

“What did you think I meant, a mom and a dad? Not exactly a lot of moms lying around around here. And two guys are allowed to be dads, you know!”

I couldn’t help it — I sniffed. Like a deep sniff. Then I started crying. He was right, of course: There weren’t a lot of moms around now. And there was one less today.

Ryan was totally confused by my reaction. He got up from the stool and grabbed tissues from the slot underneath the dressing room counter. He handed them to me, then stood there awkwardly while I wiped my eyes and nose. “What did I say?”

“I’m okay.” I wiped my nose.

“No, I’m sorry. What did I say to make you angry, though?”

“It wasn’t you. I just… my dad died today. And I only had one.”

“Wait, then who are you traveling with?” Ryan’s voice was much softer now.

“My neighbor. We’re going to go move in with my mom’s friend.”

“Oh man. I’m, I’m really sorry. I feel like a jerk, I didn’t know.”

“No, it’s okay.”

“So that just happened today?”

“Yeah, there was a riot starting in my town. He was injured, and then died.” It felt so strange to recount the story aloud. It was a simple story, really. It only hurt because it was mine.

Ryan’s eyes got wide. “The riot up in Portland?”

“Yeah, that’s where we’re from. How do you know about it?”

Ryan pulled out a smartphone from his back pocket, and I sat down on the stool next to him. It was topped with a squishy plastic, and it reminded me of the cushion on the chair in Mama John’s bathroom.

He pressed on an icon that I recognized as the Give app. A few more taps, and he was on the Trending News page. At the very top: Portland Riots.

“Oh my gosh,” I whispered. He scrolled through the feed, and it was just like Mama John and Mr. Fu had feared: A few hours after the broadcast of Lady Four’s show, people started rioting for real. Fights broke out. Then the statues of all the male politicians were pulled down. Transwomen and drag queens were hiding out, sending messages from their homes and offices telling their families they were safe. People were trying to flee but couldn’t. Mr Fu and I must have been some of the first people to get out.

“Yeah, you see what’s going on?”

“I had no idea.”

“It’s getting nuts. My dad wouldn’t even let me look out the window when we came by Portland.”

“Where are you from?”

“Seattle.”

“That’s where One lives.”

“Yeah. Sometimes she drops her car off at my other dad’s tire shop.” Ryan suddenly smiled. “She’s really nice. She has a lot of money, so she always gets as much fixed as possible. One time she bought ice cream for everyone at my school.”

“That’s cool.” Being reminded of One made me feel calmer. She was still around; I could still think of her.

A ping came from Ryan’s phone; he held it up so we could both see it, which I thought was very nice. The first headline under Trending News read: Fire Breaks out in Northwest Portland, Death Count Up To Five.

“Open that up — where is the fire happening?”

“Here, let me see.” Ryan lowered the phone and tapped it a few more times. After a minute, he said. “I can’t find the addresses. But they have a picture of how far the fire’s spread so far.”

He held it up. The city was outlined as a blue grid, with angry red blotches pulsing wherever fire had broken out. I took the phone from Ryan, and held it close to my face so I could see the street names.

My street wasn’t in the blue area. “Is this map interactive? Do you know?”

“I think it is. Try pressing the red spots — if it’s interactive, it’ll show pictures of the places on fire.”

As I write this, I appreciate how generous Ryan was being at that moment to let me use his phone. I fumbled with it, scanning until I found the street next to our apartment building. An official news picture popped up showing lots of smoke. Other photos, the ones taken from people on the street, were much more graphic. They showed people running from the flames. One showed a young man in a ski mask throwing a chair through a window, and the comments on the photo begged people to contact the police if they recognized him.

Looking closer, I recognized the red gate on the store. That was Mr. Fu’s store. One swipe to the the right, and my fears were confirmed: My building was on fire.

“See what I mean? It’s crazy.”

“My building’s on fire.” I held the screen up to him. “That’s my building. And the picture before that one is my neighbor’s store.”

Ryan passed through the pictures, taking it in himself. By this point I was already gone. Just numb. Mama John was dead, and probably pretty soon my home would be gone too. There wouldn’t be anything left; not my bed, my video games or even my other clothes. To this day, I still don’t know what became of my old home. I admit I’m scared to go back.

“So… God, you’ve just had a rough time of it today. Do you want to come up to my family’s seats? I have a joint up there, you can have it if you want.”

“No, it’s okay.”

“Seriously, I feel really bad for earlier. I’m sorry I was such a jerk, I didn’t know you were from Portland.”

“No, it’s okay. I didn’t know about the riots getting to my house either.”

“God, so you have no home to go home to… I’m really sorry, Andrew.”

“Really, it’s okay. I’m sorry to be a bummer on your vacation.”

Ryan stared at his phone for another minute, then tapped a few side buttons and put the phone back in his pocket. We sat there on the stools together, me moving side to side a little on mine. We just stared at the floor.

Finally, Ryan spoke. “I didn’t want to say anything because I didn’t want to sound like a jerk, but if it makes you feel better, I think you’re really pretty.”

My head shot up. “What do you mean by that?”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to be insensitive. I just wanted to tell you I thought you were really pretty.”

“But what do you mean by ‘pretty’?”

“Like I think you’re a nice-looking girl. Your hair’s cool, and you have cool gear. And you have a pretty face.”

“But… I’m not…”

Ryan gave me a strange look. “Andrew, you don’t have to act like a boy. I know you’re a Taylor, it’s okay.”

“What’s a Taylor? Isn’t that a person’s name?”

Ryan looked surprised. “Huh. I thought that was a thing everywhere.”

“Clearly not where I’m from. So what is that?”

“It’s a girl who dresses as a boy so she’s safe on the street and stuff.”

“Are there a lot of them in Seattle?”

“I don’t know, but there’s a few in my class at school.”

“And everyone knows they’re not boys?”

Ryan shrugged. “Pretty much, yeah. Some are really good because they have more money to get binders and plastic surgery and stuff. But no one cares. They just have to keep off the street sometimes when cameras are on anywhere.”

“The cameras? Like the police cameras?”

“Yeah. You know how much the police would freak out if they found out there were girls around? And the news?”

“Yeah, I’m not an idiot, Ryan. But the Taylors just… walk around? They have girl names and everything?”

“Sometimes. Why, what’s yours?”

“I don’t have one, I’m just Andrew. That’s my real name.”

“Really? That’s cool.” Ryan smiled. I remember that smile now. It warms me as I write this, and I feel the warmth of that boy’s interest in me now as acutely as I did then.

But at that moment, everything was coming down. Not in a horrible way — in a way that made sense. In a way that redeemed everything that I had gone through on that horrible day.

There were others. There were others, and we weren’t scared for no reason. I mean, I knew things would be crazy if people ever found out I was a girl. But to hear someone else express that fear, give it a sentence, was incredible.

Taylors. Girls who dressed like boys were called Taylors.

I just had one question, which I asked Ryan in my higher, natural voice: “Does One know about them?”

Ryan nodded. “She sends out messages to them sometimes through social media, but they’re kinda coded. Maybe it’s just a Seattle thing, but you can just tell when she’s talking to Taylors. She called them ‘peaches’ once, and one time it was ‘little deer.’”

I remember being quiet for a minute. “Wow. I mean, I always thought I was the only one.”

“Oh god, no. My friend Doug is a Taylor, and a bunch of them live in my building.”

“And they’re just around?”

“Yeah.” Ryan looked concerned again. “You’ve seriously never met any other Taylors?”

“I don’t know. Maybe I have and just didn’t realize it.”

“Maybe. God, that sucks. I can’t imagine living like that.”

That made me angry again. “Of course not. You didn’t have people ogling at pictures of women in magazines and graffiti all the time. You didn’t live in fear of having you and your mom found out and run out of town, or… whatever would happen to women if they got caught. I don’t even know.”

“I don’t know, either.” Ryan just looked at me. “God, I’m sorry I ruined your day even more. Do you want me to go away?”

“No, you can hang out here if you want. I just… I want to know how to meet more Taylors if I can. Do they have a club or something?”

“No, they just kinda know each other. Do you have an address where I can talk to you? Are you on Give?”

“Yeah, I’m on Give, but I’m not really sure if there’ll be Internet where we’re going. Give me your address, and I’ll send you a letter once we’re there.”

“You don’t think you’ll have Internet where you’re going?”

“I don’t know, my neighbor’s the one that really knows where we’re going. But is that cool?”

“Yeah, let me just write it down.” Ryan reached down into a pack at his feet that I hadn’t noticed before. He pulled out a small notebook and wrote down an address. He tore off the page, then folded it in half before passing it to me.

“Thanks. I’ll send you a letter once I’m settled.”

“Cool. I’ll hook you up with my Taylor friends.” Ryan suddenly looked uncomfortable. “Sorry if I bothered you with that ‘pretty’ thing.”

“No, it’s okay. I’ve just never heard anyone call me that but my mom.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Is it really that obvious that I’m a girl?”

“A little. But maybe it’s easier to pass in Portland.”

“No, we have transwomen and drag queens. Gosh, did everyone know this whole time…?”

Ryan shrugged again. “Can’t say. Maybe the fact that you’re thin helped. I can’t really pass for anything but a guy.”

“I don’t know, my mom said she gained a lot of weight to pass as a man at first. You’re not bad-looking as a guy.”

He smiled a little. “Thanks. I try.”

“Well, it works. And you don’t have to worry about your hair being short enough to pass.” I smiled, trying to sound joking. I wanted to have time to cry, and I would. But this was great news. There were other people like me, and I could get to them!

And Ryan wasn’t bad looking. He was nice, too. I wasn’t used to being attracted to boys, since most of my attention was always focused on being a boy. Even now, it felt hard to concentrate on it. Too much had happened that day.

Ryan laughed darkly. “Yeah, I guess not. Man, what a life to live. Hoped I helped a little and didn’t completely ruin your day.”

“No, you didn’t. I’m glad I met someone else down here.” I smiled. “But you know everything about me. I don’t know anything about you.”

“Not much to tell. I like video games, and I’m on the debate team at school. This is my spring break now, so my dads thought it would be nice to go down and see Grandpa. I only said I’d go because they’ said they’d take me to Sea World.”

“What’s Sea World?”

“What do you mean?

“I mean, I don’t know what Sea World is.”

“You don’t know about Sea World?” Ryan took out his phone again and furiously started typing. He’d go on to talk about Sea World for the next hour, and I’d tell him about the times Mama John and I went camping. He’d listen to me, not asking if Mama John was my mom or my dad.

Ryan was fourteen then, and I was twelve. I didn’t cry at all on the night that I met him, and I think that was a good thing. I needed distraction then, even if I didn’t know it.

He gave me a ray of light on the worst day of my life. There were others out there like me, and I could be friends with them someday. Maybe they could understand how I felt now.

Next chapter.