Johnny had never been out this far. He had never seen the mile markers hit double digits. It gave him a horrible feeling in his stomach, but that could have been from eating the crawfish which had brought him out there in the first place.
He always stayed on the highways even though they had long been overgrown with grass because he liked the mile marker signs. He could always gauge how far he had to go back to get to the heart of the city when he needed to.
10 miles was awfully far, but food, well, good food at least, was getting harder and harder to find in the heart of the city. You had to go out to the deep end now.
The food wasn’t for Johnny. It was to sell. Crawfish went for $20 a piece at the marketplace by the river so he was due to be about almost $1,000 richer by the end of the night, if he could get there in time.
Johnny knew he shouldn’t have stopped to eat one of the creatures for three reasons.
They couldn’t have looked any less appetizing to him. They looked like aliens. Maybe they were aliens?
There couldn’t have been much meat at all in them.
They weren’t fish. Why were they called “fish?”
He was so curious he took the time to start a fire, boil some water, and cook one of the things after he pulled them out of the swamp 10 miles North of the city.
It tasted like mud to him. Many years later he wouldn’t be surprised that people in the Bayou region had called them “mud bugs.”
All of this was running through Johnny’s mind when he ran past the 8 Mile marker and praised himself for the time he was making only to be interrupted by the shock of seeing another person in a Med Suit.
He stopped running. He stopped breathing. He stopped everything.
He had never seen another Suit out on one of his harvesting journeys. He had only seen a few Bikers. He had no idea if this was a good thing or a bad thing.
The other Suit saw him. They stopped in their tracks too. The two of them stood on the highway staring at each other from about 20 yards away.
They couldn’t stop for long though. Suits out in the wild who stood idle never lasted long. Johnny didn’t think Bikers were as bloodthirsty as the government, and the general population, made them out to be, but he knew they couldn’t pass on a free lunch, let alone two free lunches, when they were offered them up on the cracked cement platter of the highway.
Johnny made the move across the highway to confront the other Suit. He clicked on the communication system inside his suit and the LED screen on his chest hummed to life.
Now is probably the time to explain what Johnny’s “suit” and the “Suits” were.
It happened so fast 75 percent of the population was already dead by the time anyone knew what to do. The only ones who survived were the ones who were in perfect health and youth. Those who survived were mostly the super religious from advanced countries. The kind of people who had never smoked a cigarette, never had a drink, drank a lot of water, worked out a lot, and were usually rather young.
What happened? Turns out the scientists were right. More right than they maybe even thought they were.
The C02 levels in the air rose too high all over the world. No one ever figured exactly why. Most of the scientists were dead by the time they even had enough time to fully research it.
Even the 120% healthy, young Christians started to fade. Everyone was sick, struggling to breath. The government had only one option. They tested space suits and those who wore them could live in the environment. They started constructing them as fast as they possibly could as the people who were building them literally started dying on the line.
People stormed the facilities that gave away the suits as soon as they were available. The suits weren’t quite “space suits,” but they were close and they had built-in respirators. It was suggested you don’t ever take them off. There were waste systems and systems for taking in food, but they didn’t expose your skin in the slightest to the outside world.
Then it all went away. The media. The government. Mass communication and organization. One day it was just over and everyone was on their own. The people who got suits had to figure out how to use and maintain them on their own and people had to create their own organizations, communities, and plans.
Johnny was too young to remember all of this very well. He only had a few vague shots in his head of things he heard and experienced at the time when he was seven years old.
There weren’t nearly enough suits for everyone. It was ugly chaos. People killed each other over suits. A lot of people killed each other over suits. People who couldn’t get suits straight-up died. Women and children died.
There were a few really bad years before things started to get just a little bit better and organized. People who were fortunate enough to have suits congregated in the large cities and started to form new and more-organized communities which centered around maintaining and continuing life.
Before you knew it. There was a new normal. People gathered and created communities. Created schools. Created jobs. Kept their families together. Built new families. Created new homes. Created new societies.
The Suits was one of those “societies,” but it wasn’t the only society. There were the Bikers.
The Bikers were the people who were never able to get the safety suits yet survived. They were called the Bikers because their main source of transportation were bicycles.
No one had any idea how they survived without the suits, just that they were scared of them, even though no one was really sure why exactly they were scared of them. Due to the high price and social nature of who got the suits when they were out, the Bikers were primarily the economically-disadvantaged and things only got worse for them after things changed.
Yet, they survived.
The Bikers barely talked. No one really knew about that either. It was speculated they simply didn’t open their mouths to fight the toxic air and maybe they had some sort of rare trait in their nasal cavity that allowed them to survive.
This was what Johnny knew, but it could have been made up. It was just what adults and teachers taught him growing up, but these same adults and teachers would barely tell him about himself.
Johnny was an orphan. That he knew. Who his parents were he didn’t know by name or much about them. He knew them by image recognition, but he didn’t even know their first names or his last name. He wasn’t old enough to know that information before it all happened.
One of his only memories of his parents was that they left for work in the morning one morning and never came back. He spent weeks at the daycare before he was shipped off to the Lost Childrens Center in downtown Detroit where he spent the rest of his life.
The Lost Children’s Center was a god send. That he knew. He would be dead without it. They got 50 suits somehow for the 27 kids they had there and locked themselves in the center for months once things went to Hell before anyone came out.
Things were rough though, even when it calmed down. Food was scarce. Clean water was scarce. Medicine was scarce. The few adult employees who stayed at the center were able to get enough items to keep everyone alive, but it quickly became painfully clear they needed help, and they turned to the kids.
They trained the kids to go out and gather food. At first they just foraged around the city, but Johnny pushed things further. He would sneak off into the surrounding areas, because that’s where it was easiest to find the best, and most, food, and he specialized in fishing.
It was incredibly easy and fruitful. He got a bunch of poles and lures from sporting goods stores and would go out to rivers, creeks, and a few lakes out in the areas around the city and load up on all the fish he could catch.
He discovered the crawfish which would make him a Suit fortune, by accident. Earthworms were the best bait and he was upturning rocks to find one when he stumbled upon one of the crawfish, tucked up in the mud. He grabbed the thing to take it back to the center to ask the adults if it was an alien or something only to discover it was a delicacy.
Lobster was no longer available. Crab was no longer available. Clams were no longer available. Even fish like salmon were no longer available in Detroit. Crawfish was the only seafood anyone could have and Johnny was one of the only people brave enough, even among adults, to slip out there into the edges of the city and go get them.
Part of Johnny’s security blanket was it was believed Bikers would not harm children. This was believed simply because it was verbally spread that no child had ever been harmed by one.
Also, Johnny was fast. If sports were still around he would have been a coveted football prospect being recruited by Detroit’s elite private schools and the nation’s best college football programs.
All of this led up to Johnny standing there in the middle of the abandoned highway staring at the other Suit, frozen in indecision and rising fear.
Johnny started assessing the other Suit. Their suit was small. They must have been a kid or a teen. Their stance didn’t even give anything away about them. It was even possible they were just a small adult. Many small adults wore the kids suits. It was even rumored smaller adults used this to their advantage to travel through Biker territory without fear.
Johnny took the lead, getting his communication system read. What he said in the voice box in his suit would be digitally displayed on a small LED screen on the chest of his suit.
He hoped the other Suit would respond by illuminating their LED screen and communicating back.
“Hi, I’m Johnny, I’m from the Lost Children’s Center in the Central District of Detroit. I’m out scouting taking back crawfish food to sell at the Food Market in Downtown Detroit,” Johnny said calmly and held up his container of crawfish bathing in water at the other Suit.
Johnny started to breathe easier when he saw the other Suit’s communication LED screen hum to life.
It took a few moments, but words started to scroll across the LED screen he stared at.
Hi Johnny, my name is Casey. I’m from the Northside of Downtown Detroit. I’m out on a…
Casey’s words cut off there and the gaze of their helmet screen shifted from Johnny’s helmet screen to just over his shoulder causing Johnny to start to sweat inside his suit.
“What? What?” Johnny screamed into his voice box, not caring if his intensity and volume would probably mess up the communication lines and end up with different words than what he was saying on his communication screen.
Jumping back two paragraphs, I’m referring to Casey as “their” because one of the intricacies of the Suit civilization was you usually would not know the sex of someone you met until a little ways down the line, particularly if they had an androgenous name like “Casey.” Johnny had no clue if the person who was standing before him was male or female.
Casey didn’t respond with words on their communication screen. They just grabbed Johnny on the shoulder and pulled him along as they ran for the tall grass on the side of the highway.
Johnny just went with it, all the way until Casey pulled him down onto the hard ground and they gazed back at the highway in front of them. Casey kept a hand on Johnny’s back, pressing him down, seeming to not want him to run.
Johnny and Casey watched as a pair of bare feet sprinted up the highway and past them. The sight took Johnny’s breath away. It had been a long time since he had seen a Biker that close and he didn’t think he had ever seen one not on a bike that close.
Then he heard the flapping sound that announced the arrival of another Biker. No one knew why, but Bikers took up the old pastime of putting baseball cards in the spokes of their tires to give them a flapping sound that supposedly mimicked a rumbling car engine.
Johnny appreciated it because it let you know when they were around, like a rattlesnake letting you know it’s perturbed with the rattle on the end of its tail.
Johnny and Casey watched a few Bikers speed by on their bikes. They watched until they were out of sight and then started to breathe again.
Then Johnny felt something grasp onto his ankle. His heart sank before he felt himself get pulled back violently away from Casey.
The world grew dark as Johnny found himself yanked back into the tall trees and broken down buildings that lined the space around the highway. He screamed inside his suit and tried to fight off whoever was pulling him backward, but he couldn’t even see behind him yet. The suit was not easy to maneuver in.
Yet, he kept fighting and was able to turn himself around to at least face his assailant.
The sight of Johnny’s facemask seemed to stop his attacker in their tracks because they stopped in the alleyway between two long-abandoned buildings and Johnny stared into the dark eyes of a Biker. He was shocked how different he felt the young man who was holding onto him looked from him.
At least how Johnny thought he looked. Johnny had never taken off his suit since he was seven so he only knew what he looked like through a faint images he could see of his face through his helmet screen in mirrors, by looking at his face out of the corner of his eye, and the occasional reflection of himself he could sometimes see in the glass of his screen.
The Biker looked like the crude drawings of Mowgli from the old The Jungle Book paperback Johnny had read back at the Center. He was a wild child of the jungle outside of the city – electrocuted long hair, skin smudged with dirt, and a toned body that looked like one giant, connected muscle.
Johnny didn’t think he could be any more terrified before he saw the Biker’s face, but he definitely could be once he stared into his cold eyes. Especially when the Biker started to pull him toward him and brandished what looked to be a crude knife, possibly made out of an animal bone, or at least Johnny hoped it was an animal.
Johnny tried to fight, but it was almost impossible in the suit. He was helpless as he felt the blade swipe at his suit, but luckily missed on the first few attempts.
He knew that even a small nick in the suit could puncture his breathing system and there was no way he could get back to the city to get it repaired in time. He was fighting for his life, but he had training wheels on and could do almost nothing.
He closed his eyes when he felt the young Biker climb up his body and push his face toward the screen of his helmet. He hoped the Biker would just kill him rather than puncture his suit and let the Earth do the job. He heard horror stories about how that played out.
What felt like a swift gust of wind swept over Johnny and he suddenly felt the weight of the Biker fall off of him.
He scrambled up onto his feet and immediately caught a glimpse of his savior’s back. It scared him almost more than the dirty Biker and his blade…
What stood before him was a teenage girl glad in a black skirt and long-sleeve shirt. She was just as sinewy and strong as the male Biker who had taken him to the ground and possibly even taller, but maybe that was just because she had a high ponytail of bright blonde hair that jutted out above her head.
Johnny quickly saw he shouldn’t have been scared of the female Biker since she was fighting off his attacker. He also quickly realized he shouldn’t stick around to watch the fight. He took off back to the highway.
It was almost completely dark when Johnny broke out onto the highway running as fast as he could. All of the foliage on the edge of the road seemed to be alive as he huffed and puffed his way toward 7 Mile Road. Things were twisting and moving in the darkness, like snakes in the trees of the jungle, but he knew it was all his imagination and he knew he had to slow down.
The breathing system in the suits could only work so hard. They were known to break down if you breathed too hard and he was beyond screwed if his broke down seven miles from downtown.
He stopped in the highway and started to control his breathing, bending over and trying not to vomit inside his suit. It took a long time.
He saw another Suit jog by him as he was just about to get his wind back. Based on the size, stature, and gait of the Suit, it seemed to be the person who he was trying to communicate with back by 8 Mile Road before the attack happened.
They stood in front of each other, both watching the other’s communication screen come to life. Johnny couldn’t breathe again so he couldn’t even talk. I couldn’t even remember their name, but then it started to click…Casey…yes…it was CASEY.
Casey got things started. Words started forming on their screen.
Are you ok? We shouldn’t be out here this late. I lost track of time making. We should go back to the city though as soon as possible. I didn’t know anyone else my age came out there though. Stay in touch?
Johnny caught his breath and replied.
Yes, let’s. I live in the Downtown Children’s Center. Please come by sometime. Where do you live?
Casey’s helmet nodded.
3116 East Lake Drive #7. Nice to meet you. Get back safe.
Casey hurried away.
“Wait! Wait! Wait!” Johnny barked inside his helmet though it didn’t matter.
Casey couldn’t see those words illuminating across Johnny’s communication screen he or she was already gone.
Johnny ran them down and turned them around. He started talking into his helmet.
Why don’t we go back to the city together?
Casey fired back immediately.
Not a good idea to travel together. More vulnerable in a pair. You saw.
That made enough sense to Johnny, he guessed.
See you around though. Casey.
With that, Casey turned around and hurried away, moving somewhere between a jog and a sprint.
Johnny did the same, all the way home.
Johnny was too spooked to go on another run for a while. He stayed at the Center and did his best to try and be just like any other kid. It wasn’t easy. He was bored and stir crazy within 24 hours.
He followed his usual routine once he started to get cabin fever. He used the fire escape to get up onto the roof of the Center and look out at the city and the surrounding areas for four stories up. It gave him some comfort.
He was up there a couple mornings after the incident at 8 Mile Road when he saw a familiar gait headed toward the Center. It was Casey.
One of the many interesting things about the new normal in Suit society was you frequently could not tell who someone was until they communicated it on their screen because everyone’s suits were the same. At least in Detroit, the central governing committee barred the construction of suits with any kind of personal markings or identification. Johnny had no idea why this was this case.
Everything about Casey had been running through his mind though in the 48 hours since they met so he could sense their gait as soon as he saw it. Flat footed. A lot of arm movement and determination. It was definitely Casey.
Johnny ran down the fire escape and waited at the front door for a knock (doorbells had long since stopped working). He answered the door practically before Casey was finished knocking.
Johnny wanted to know how Casey had programed their suit to say “Lol” instead of (Laughter) the way it did on the rare occasion that anyone actually laughed, but he had more important questions to ask, such as:
Yes, I came by to say hi, and see if you wanted to join me on a forage. I could use some help. Would you like to?
Johnny was eager to respond until he saw a shadow creep up behind him. He knew it was Nancy, the director of the Center, and he knew he was going to have to have quite a talk with her before he did anything with Casey.
Yes, just give me a few minutes, ok?
Johnny communicated before he felt Nancy’s hand rest on his shoulder.
Johnny found himself behind Nancy’s cluttered desk, hoping and praying every second their meeting went on Casey didn’t get bored and walk back to North Downtown.
Nancy rambled and rambled and rambled about the dangers of forming bonds with other citizens outside of the Center. There were too many to list, but her favorite was the danger of trusting outsiders. Even if people were Suits and not Bikers, they frequently used others for their own gain.
Johnny failed to mention anything about Nancy taking 25 percent of the money he made selling seafood at the market and how she thought it was a great idea for him to make as many connections and as deep of connections as he could with any seafood vendors, but that was another fight for another day.
He just wanted to get out the door now and he knew that meant agreeing with everything Nancy said and trying not to eye all of the junk all over her desk while she said it. Forced ultra minimalism had taken over the world, but not Nancy. She had half-empty soda cans from back when they were still producing Faygo half hanging off her desk, waiting more than a decade to tip over and stain her carpet purple, Page A Day calendars from 2021 and 2022, and sticky notes with phone numbers jotted on them, even though the phones stopped working years ago.
Nancy’s body and face looked like her office. She was still trying to dye her plume of formerly red hair that was now mostly gray with some specks of red. The rumor at the Center was she used cherry Kool-Aide to try and do the job and she regularly spent hundreds of dollars at markets buying up as many packets as she possibly could.
She also still wore make up, but was reduced to whatever was available at markets, and it usually wasn’t good. Just the dregs of whatever wasn’t stolen at Walgreen’s and CVSs in the area.
Lastly, she didn’t really eat much. No one really could, but she somehow was still not in good shape. She maintained a fairly large gut and heavy arms. She frequently pointed out the weight came from stress and not calories, and she may have been right.
Deep inside Johnny still had love for Nancy. She was the reason he was still alive. She was the reason all the kids at the Center were still alive when most other children’s centers experienced significant loss in life. It was because she was stressed and it was because she would fight. Johnny had actually watched her wrestle another Suit who had tried to steal some food out of her bag at the market one time.
Case in point, you might be wondering how Johnny knew how Nancy looked since you couldn’t see inside the suits. Nancy was so selfless she sold her adult suit and her husband Ted’s suit when the world crashed for the stockpile of children’s suits at the fall of humanity.
She knew that breathing in the world’s atmosphere was killing her the way it had finally taken Ted a year before and it made the 50-year-old woman look like she was 75, but that was okay with her. The kids at the Center were more important. Plus, the regular research the few scientists who still worked at the University of Detroit did on her and Ted were making some inroads in trying to figure out a sustainable way for humans to live in the new atmosphere without a suit.
But anyway, she was a fear monger to Johnny the way all mother figures are to 15-year-old boys.
Uh huh. Yes. Yes. Sounds good.
That was pretty much all that ever came across Johnny’s communication screen when he was in Nancy’s office.
“Just be CAREFUL,” Nancy finished all of her conversations with Johnny with the same three words even when they were talking about something like reading a book.
Johnny smiled and was on his way to the front door where Casey was waiting.
It seemed Casey was indeed impatient, as she already had a message cued up on her communication screen when Johnny met her outside the front door.
Let’s go on an adventure.
Johnny couldn’t agree fast enough and she started to lead him to the east side of the city.
Casey and Johnny chatted on their way out east, but it wasn’t easy. They had to tilt their communication screens in each other’s direction whenever they said something.
Johnny learned plenty about Casey though. He or she (still hadn’t been clarified yet) was a couple of years older than Johnny when things hit. The entire family had suits, but Casey’s parents’ must have not worked or something because they ended up dying. Casey’s brother wasn’t home when the shit hit the fan so he must have been stranded at school and never made it home.
Casey was interesting and mysterious. Johnny picked up on that. He also picked up on that Casey seemed to like to play around with those concepts, possibly knowing that it was drawing Johnny in.
Johnny started to wonder and worry about some of the sentiment Nancy shared with him before he left. Was Casey setting him up in some way? Was Casey a rival crawfish dealer or something looking to take out their biggest competition.
No. There was an air of genuine compassion Johnny was picking up off of Casey. He trusted Casey with everything right now, including leading them miles outside of the city to the west to an area he had never been before. A nice area. They weren’t on the ugly highway he was used to, instead going up quiet streets that were probably quiet streets, even before they were abandoned.
It was nice. Even the deadly air seemed to feel better in this area against Johnny’s suit.
Casey was also super knowledgeable. Casey pointed out the mansions they were passing were populated by the small population of the super rich who still lived in Detroit when things fell apart up until not that long ago. They had hired private security teams to defend themselves, their families, their homes, and their possessions. Johnny had never heard any of this.
Where did they go? Johnny asked.
No one really knows. Don’t know if they moved somewhere else or if they all got killed or something. Casey answered.
Casey turned down one of the quiet and shady streets. Johnny grabbed Casey’s shoulder to hold Casey up.
Look, I’m starting to get a little uncomfortable.
Johnny had been stopping himself from asking for hours, but he finally had to.
Are you a boy or a girl?
There was a long pause. Then –
I prefer not to answer that question. I find it generally changes the dynamic of those I become friends with. However, when I am ready to let you know, I’ll let you know.
Johnny didn’t love this response, especially because he was picking up on that he was 90 percent sure Casey was a girl, for a few reasons, and he really liked her personality. It was why he was walking up a dark cul de sac with her lined with abandoned brick houses.
Ok. Where are we going though?
🙂 To work. I can show you how to make more money than digging out water bugs from under rocks.
Johnny didn’t know how to make emojis on the communication screen. He really wanted to though. Man, Casey was cool.
He had another burning question though.
How old are you?
In Johnny’s head Casey was 14.
Casey took a while to answer.
I don’t really like answering this question either, but it’s not too bad. I’m 16.
That made sense. Nancy always told the kids at the Center kids and teens were less mature than they were before the fallout because they were less sheltered and had to show their puberty to the world. It’s hard to stay a kid when your face is riddled with acne and your boobs are perking up, she would always say, thoroughly horrifying all the kids and teens in the centers.
Johnny still had one more question. He shot it out rapid-fire before Casey could start to walk away again.
Ok. What are we doing on this street though?
JUST FOLLOW ME. IT’S EASIER THAN EXPLAINING 🙂
Casey walked off leaving Johnny wondering how you communicated in all capital letters. He eventually followed her up the cul de sac.
He caught up with her just before the cul de sac ended and she headed to the most-modest house on the street, a one-story rambler with two rusted cars parked in front of the open garage.
Johnny was horrified as he watched her slip into the open garage and nearly disappear in the darkness. She waved back to him to follow just before she moved out of his sight.
The house was murky inside. Dark, but you could still faintly see the world around you. It was like when you open your eyes underwater.
Casey had found whatever they were looking for in the living room. It was hard to tell exactly what it was in the near dark, but it first appeared to be massive stacks of wooden boxes to Johnny.
Johnny watched as Casey slid open the top of one of the boxes and reached down into it. He hurried up to get behind Casey so he could see what was inside.
His vantage point revealed stacks upon stacks of small, black boxes. Casey started loading up the sack they carried over their shoulder with as many boxes as they could, furiously dumping them into the bag like a robber in a bank heist.
Casey turned to Johnny with words already displayed on their communication screen.
Fill up your backpack as much as you can. No questions, for now, please.
Johnny obeyed orders again. He started stuffing his backpack full of the little black boxes. He kept stuffing them in until he could barely zip his backpack shut then looked over at Casey and the communication screen on their chest.
Johnny didn’t ask any questions, he just chased Casey out the way they came in.
They ran down the street until they were at the end and out of breath. He grabbed Casey by the shoulders and forced Casey to look at him, right in the visor of his helmet.
What was that?
I don’t know, I’ve never seen anyone in there like that. Let’s head back to the city, quick.
Casey started walking back in the direction they came from. Johnny followed.
Hey, hey. What’s in the packs?
Casey took longer to respond than Johnny would have liked, but Casey eventually responded when they were far enough away from the cul de sac street they were just on that they couldn’t see it any more.
Now it was Johnny’s turn to take a long time to respond. Johnny didn’t really know what Lithium was. He knew of it as a song from a really, really old band called Nirvana. Other than that he had no clue.
Like the song?
They speed walked as they talked, each turning their torsos to each other once they finished their statement.
No, like the element. They make batteries with it. It’s really valuable. I noticed almost all of the nice houses out here had stockpiles of it when I started going in them. There are dealers at the markets who pay like $500 an ounce for it when I bring it back to them. Apparently people who are trying to rebuild society think they can make batteries from it that can re-power the devices we used to use like phones and computers.
So that’s why you go on these “adventures?”
Casey and Johnny hurried back to the city and parted ways at Johnny’s Center. They used the rest of the way to get to know each other more instead of discussing Casey’s business. Even though Johnny had a lot of questions about Casey’s business.
Casey liked cooking (she was interested in trying crawfish), jogging by the river, basketball, reading, and music, particularly. Johnny started to think Casey might be a boy after hearing this and he didn’t know how he felt about it.
Johnny shared what he was into. Reading. A lot of reading. Writing, mostly journaling about his days and thoughts. Casey wanted to read his writing. Johnny didn’t say it but he was not ever going to give Casey his writing and journaling, especially since he knew it was mostly going to be about Casey as long as Casey was able to spend time with him.
The time they were able to spend together only increased as time went on. Casey would arrive at the front door of the center every morning and Johnny would join Casey on an adventure and vice versa.
They frequently took days off from collecting lithium and crawfish and dodging mysterious house dwellers and Bikers to play basketball, run by the river, or have Casey bring her guitar to a park and have Casey sing him songs, even Lithium.
By “singing” Casey sang inside their suit and the words came up on their communication stream while they strummed a guitar with the chords and notes. It was a little clumsy given how fat the fingers of the suit were, but Casey had mastered it about as much as possible, which a classic rock expert might joke as actually being a little bit better than Kurt Cobain at guitar.
Casey and Johnny grew incredibly close in the span of just a few weeks. Their adventures continued even past their usual hours. Johnny had to be home by sundown each day, but he rigged up a setup to where Casey could climb up onto the roof of the Center and they could watch the sun set each night and talk into the night until Nancy yelled at him to get to bed.
Their routine began to get a little more difficult as Summer turned to Autumn and the nights grew chilly. While the suits were naturally a little bit stuffy inside, they had no heating system and the only available source of heating in their world was fires.
It was one of these chilly nights when things began to enter a new phase for Casey and Johnny.
Johnny was about to say something about wanting to go inside when Casey slid over next to him as they looked out at the fires of the city all around off in the distance the fellow citizens of 2031 Detroit were warming themselves by. The inside of Johnny’s suit quickly warmed and shelter was no longer at the front of his mind.
He looked over to Casey as they twisted their body so he could see their communication screen.
I’m ready to tell you. I’m a girl. My middle name is Anne. <3
Johnny’s realized how silly his preoccupation with Casey’s sex was as soon as she said it to him. It was likely they would never actually see what the other looked like. They likely would never have physical contact, and despite being a 15-year-old boy, Johnny believed the rapid evolution of humans and his body had been so altered that he didn’t have the same physical drive he read about in so many books boys his age were supposed to have.
That’s nice. I kind of figured.
I should get home though. I don’t want to be running around too late.
With that, Casey extended up. Johnny did the same. She reached over and slipped a hand around his shoulder, securing him in a side hug.
No one had ever “hugged” Johnny since the time of the Suits, so he discovered the only way you could really do it was from the side, kind of squeezing each other’s suited hips together. But it felt good. They held there for a few minutes, taking in the endless sea of roaring fires.
Johnny had an idea for their next adventure. It would take place in the art room of the Center. They would draw what they both believed they looked like with colored pencils Nancy had been stockpiling for years.
Casey agreed and they met at the Center the next afternoon. They each got their pad of paper and shared a box of colored pencils Johnny had to sign out with Nancy, who came in to “check on them” every 10 minutes.
The artful adventure may have been Johnny’s idea, but he almost kind of regretted it on his side, wondering if he would look like a fool if he made himself too good looking. The boy could worry quite a bit for a 15-year-old male, but again, the rapid evolution I mentioned earlier likely played a factor. His entire life had been true anxiety.
Johnny did his best to create a modest self-portrait, mostly just using the light brown, brown, and dark brown colored pencils with a little black, white, and sky blue for a backdrop.
Johnny was so deep into his self portrait he didn’t even bother to look at Casey’s. When he did, he was amazed at how perfect her portrait was, even drawing with their clumsy, suit gloved hands.
He also couldn’t believe how much she looked like she would be in his head. Long light hair, olive skin, full lips, eyes the color of honey, slight dimples, and a slight smile. It was always kind of how he envisioned her.
The two held up pictures of what each looked like and laughed inside their suits. Johnny as “Lol” lighted up on Casey’s screen and finally asked Casey how to make emojis and abbreviations. She explained.
Casey’s mystery didn’t end just by knowing she was a girl and what she looked like. Johnny still had a lot of questions and not many answers as the days with her turned to weeks and months until they found themselves in the midst of a snowy Winter with Thanksgiving rapidly approaching.
What was Casey’s home like (through all of the months together she had never brought Johnny there. He had never even walked up to it)? What was Casey doing with all of the money she was making with all of the lithium (it had to be a fortune at this point)? Why was she so fearless?
That last question came up on one of their adventures to get more crawfish. They were out past 8 Mile Road again, where they were attacked before they knew each other.
Johnny heard something rustling in the bushes as they gathered more poor crustacean souls to take back to the city. He suggested they should make a swim into the middle of the lake, even though it was absolutely freezing, rather than take their chances with whatever was in the bushes.
Casey wasn’t phased though.
Don’t worry about it. We’re good.
Johnny felt assured by her confidence, but he was still on edge. It prompted him to start asking questions on their journey home in the cold darkness.
Where do you live? Can I see it? What do you do with all of the lithium money?
Johnny bombarded her. She didn’t answer the questions. Just told him that she was going to finally take him to her place and answer some questions. He sweated all the way there even though it was below freezing.
They had to stop just a mile outside of the city. A cluster of Bikers stood in the middle of the icy highway, blocking their way.
Johnny swallowed his tongue just before his mouth went completely dry.
He looked behind them. There was a chain of Bikers there as well.
This was it. There was a chance they might just want the crawfish or lithium, but it was unlikely that they would make it out of the situation unscathed.
What do we do?
I got this.
Johnny started to protest, but stopped himself as he watched Casey walk right up to the Bikers in front of them and stop in front of them, defiant.
He couldn’t really see what she was doing, but he could tell Casey was doing something with her helmet and it had the Bikers’ interest maybe even more than his. They were all very interested in whatever she was showing them on the front of her body.
Johnny couldn’t help but be jealous.
Jealousy was quickly replaced by being thankful when he watched the Biker get back in-gear and pedal away up the highway.
Casey returned to Johnny, triumphant, but not the least bit boastful.
What the hell was that? Why did they listen to you? Why aren’t we dead?
So many questions…I’ll answer when we get to my place.
Now Johnny had even more questions.
It turns out Casey lived in an apartment building near the river and she seemed to be the only person who still lived in the entire building. Johnny couldn’t believe he was finally there when she led him up the hallway stairs to her “penthouse” apartment on the third floor.
She led him into her apartment. He was shocked at how sparse the place was, even for 2031. It was a large apartment with wide open space and a large window that overlooked the window, but it had almost nothing in it.
The living room had just a plastic chair, a T.V. tray, and a stack of books and magazines. The kitchen was littered with plastic food wrappers and some pots and pans, but the dining room space was completely empty. Worse yet, you could still see the imprints of where the table had been in the thick beige carpet.
Not what you expected?
I’m not sure. It’s 2031. I don’t know what to expect with anything.
Casey started to float back toward the hallway that led away from the living room and kitchen areas and toward where Johnny assumed the bedrooms were. He couldn’t read what her body language meant. Was he inviting her back there? It was hard to read body language through the suits.
Johnny realized he had been staring at her like a weirdo when those three little letters illuminated on her communication screen.
It was almost like she could sense his nervousness through his suit. She reached over and put a hand on his shoulder.
Hold tight. It will all start to make more sense in a minute. Just stay here.
Casey disappeared into the hallway. Johnny looked across the room and saw a balcony outside that overlooked the river. It looked really nice, the perfect place to enjoy a cigarette or a cocktail, if he smoked or drank. Maybe he would take at least one of them up.
Those thoughts clogged Johnny’s mind when he noticed that Casey had slipped back next to him in the room.
But it wasn’t Casey. It was a Biker. A wild-eyed and wild-haired Biker dressed in a tank top, her olive skin littered with tattoos, her body tall and sinewy, like that of someone who spent their days running outside, presumably killing Suits for sport.
Johnny got himself ready to run out of the room when he heard a human voice that wasn’t Nancy of Ted’s for the first time in his life.
“Relax, it’s okay. It’s me,” the soft voice didn’t match the hardened body in Johnny’s opinion.
His mouth dropped open and he stammered incomprehensibly. His communication screen read:
“Casey,” Casey’s voice, sweet as red licorice (Johnny’s favorite sweet snack) tickled his ear as she pressed her lips up against his soft lobe.
He jumped away from her even though he was starting to feel more at ease. She followed him over to where he jumped in the middle of the room, her dark eyes never leaving his.
“You can take yours off too. There’s so much you don’t know,” Casey went on.
Casey explained a lot of what Johnny didn’t know before he even considered taking his suit off.
Yes, Casey was originally a Biker. She was still a Biker, but she also didn’t like that line of thinking because there was no difference between Bikers and Suits other than Suits thought they needed to wear suits to survive and status.
Casey was born a regular girl in a suburb of Detroit and the story about her family was true. Her parents died in the chaos when it all went down and her brother just never came home from college.
The only lie was that she lived in the apartment she lived in now at the time. That wasn’t true. She lived in a small house in the suburbs and took in with a group of Bikers out there for a few years.
She had to leave that group when an attack from Suits killed almost every member of her group. She was only spared because she was able to attack one of the young members of the Suits group, steal her suit, and put it on herself.
Then Casey made her transformation. She used her Suit to maintain a quiet and safe life in the city and sell goods, particularly lithium, to the suited citizens and she could take her suit off and acclimate back into Biker life when she needed to.
But the air, it’s toxic, aren’t you going to drop dead any day now?
Casey wished she still had to communicate on her communication screen because she would zing Johnny with an “Lol.”
Insteady, she explained the air wasn’t toxic. No one knew really what was killing people when it all fell down for sure, but it was the panic that killed most, and it was most-likely a virus or bacteria, but it likely wasn’t the air. People now were dying younger because there was zero healthcare and many of those Suits who suddenly died when they lost their suits or they stopped working. There was a truth Casey was working toward that was really going on.
What? What? What is that “truth?”
Those people weren’t dying, they were joining an elite program called South. It was a group that originated in the fallout in New York City who discovered the truth and were setting up new civilizations on the sunny beaches of Florida that were closing to getting electricity going again. The members of South would transport you down there if you had enough money.
Those who escaped went with the “disappeared” thing because they didn’t want the prolitereates of Suit civilizations figuring it out and marching down to Miami Beach or something. They also definitely didn’t want it getting out to the Bikers.
Casey’s trade opened her up to these elites and their conversations about the South. She had even been given an offer to go down there once she had enough cash.
Well, she actually had enough cash, and was going to go, but that was right before she met Johnny. Now she had a new goal.
What was that?
Just take off the damn suit!” Casey commanded.
Give me a while. It’s gonna take a long time before I’m comfortable doing that.
“Well my goal is to save up enough money so we both can go down South to Florida, together,” Casey explained. “There, is that enough for you to take it off now?”
…I don’t even know how.
Casey reached around to the back of Johnny’s neck.
“Is this okay?” She asked.
He nodded. Yes.
She slipped the constraints of the helmet off with precision, she had done it so many times. She had it all ready to pull the entire suit off of Johnny in a flash as soon as he was ready, but she wanted to make sure.
“Once I pull this thread, this whole thing is going to come off. Is that okay?” She asked, staring into his mask.
He was ready, but he had a question, and an issue. He wasn’t wearing any clothes inside the thing and he never thought about it until that moment, but he probably smelled awful. There was no bathing system for the thing.
He explained that all on the communication system. Did she still want to take his suit off?
She had clothes he could use, leftover from the teenage son of the people who lived in the apartment before her and she could already smell him through the suit. It was okay. She probably smelled rather rank herself too.
Okay. Do it.
“I’m not stripping you down right here. Come on. I’ll get you close and you can change in the bathroom,” Casey said.
Moments later, Johnny was wearing a Detroit Lions shirt that was two sizes too big and Detroit Pistons shorts that were three sizes too big.
“You look like a gangster,” Casey said with a snort laugh at the end.
“What’s that?” Johnny asked back, not taking in the magnitude of that being the first time he had ever spoken in the open air.
The two bonded even further, just taking in each other casually, and carefully. They sat on the soft carpet of the floor together looking out at the fires again.
Johnny felt like an adult for the first time. He vocalized it.
“I know, I remember my first nights here. It reminded me of this old, old, old, old, song by the Beach Boys,” Casey started in.
“Nevermind, I’ll just play it.”
Casey went into her room and retrieved her acoustic guitar. She set up in front of Johnny and began to play some haunting chords. Then she started to sing in a voice soft and sweet.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older than we wouldn’t have to wait so long. And wouldn’t it be nice to live together in the kind of world where we belong.”
Casey went on. By the end of the second verse, Johnny knew exactly what she was talking about.
He sang the song in his head all the way home.
What Casey and Johnny understood to be a romance blossomed from there. They spent every waking minute they could together. They played songs together on her living room floor that he had never heard before that every non-Amish person in America knew in 2020, yet Johnny had no understanding of. They went out and foraged lithium and crawfish together. They kissed, sometimes. It was just like any other teen romance ever in history.
Her favorite pastime was educating him on the virtue of the Bikers and the evil of the Suits. The Bikers were just trying to get by and never harm anyone unless they had to. Many Bikers even knew about the South and made no effort to go down there. They had found they had never been more mentally healthy than from when they embraced nature and nomadism. They weren’t interested in Cocoa Beach. They were interested in being one with the world until the day it decided it was their time to pass.
It went on for almost a year and those longing for spending the night together in that beautiful Beach Boys song that had become “their song” burned more than ever in both of them. It was so hard to say goodbye to each other each night, have Johnny put on his suit, and walk across town.
The time had come though. One night after sharing a dinner of canned ravioli they found in an abandoned shopping cart by 9 Mile Road, Casey let him know she had enough money for both of them to buy a ticket to Florida and the money he surely had from selling all his crawfish would be killer spending money when they got there, where they could make a living scrounging lithium and crawfish in Florida, right?
Johnny almost couldn’t believe how eager he was to agree. To leave behind Nancy and the center. To leave behind the only city he had ever called home. To leave behind the place where his parents could come find him should that day ever come. To leave it all.
He agreed and they sang a song about a small-town girl living in a lonely world and a city boy South Detroit.
Getting to the South was simple. Casey met another person who started as a Biker but who posed as a Suit to make money in the markets, Blair. Like Casey, Blair didn’t like revealing his or her sex, but it didn’t matter. Get him or her the cash and they got you to the South in a few days.
You gave Blair half the money when you met him at the market and he took you to a boat in the Detroit River which would take you down Lake Erie to Toledo, Ohio. From Toledo you took a bus all the way to Florida where you’d have an option of where you wanted to get off as you drove down the east coast of the state.
It all made so much sense, except the bus. Johnny hadn’t seen a car running since right after it all happened.
Casey said Blair explained there was a bloody war for what little gas was out there all across America. That was why the trip to the South was so expensive. Gas was super expensive and you had to pay the security guards on the bus to protect you.
Johnny would regret for the rest of his life how he left the Center the day they headed for the South. He treated it just like any other day. He made some small talk with Nancy over breakfast, heeding her many warnings. The only way he made it different was giving her a little hug before he left.
Johnny felt all of his muscles tense on the walk from the Center down to the river, where he was meeting Casey, and Blair. He considered backing out four times.
But Johnny made it. He saw Casey standing down there in her suit by the river, in her customary slack stance, loose in a way he would never be.
They greeted each other with a hug, making Johnny wish they could be back in her apartment, not wearing their suits, warm in her bed, hugging each other skin-to-skin instead of plastic-and-nylon to plastic-and-nylon.
Johnny noticed a Suit standing up on a grassy knoll above the river boardwalk they stood on. He just looked down at them through the dark glass of his helmet. He assumed this was Blair.
Blair stepped down and joined them by the water. Casey turned and communicated with Blair via both of their communication screens, but Johnny couldn’t see the conversation before Blair walked back away.
Johnny tried to communicate with Casey, asking questions about Blair, but she wasn’t paying attention to him, her eyes stuck out on the river.
She pointed out into the water, upriver, drawing Johnny’s gaze. Johnny saw a small fishing boat approaching as fast as it could, the engine wide open, wheezing out into the cold air.
Casey pointed her communication system at Johnny, already reading:
We get on the boat, without questions, it will take us down to Toledo.
Johnny wanted to respond, but he saw more words form on Casey’s screen.
We’re getting out of here.
Johnny thought for a few moments, then agreed.
The driver of the boat was a Suit. He didn’t say anything, just frantically waved them onto the boat once it docked at the boardwalk and Casey and Johnny jumped down onto it and the driver hauled ass.
Johnny looked up at the city, saying goodbye to the only place he ever knew.
The ride didn’t take very long. Johnny enjoyed it. He had never been in a boat before. He could barely remember ever being in a car. Speed motion felt great. It felt like an amusement park ride, or what he thought an amusement park ride would feel like.
Everything seemed normal other than the driver never acknowledging them, but maybe that was normal for the situation, what the hell did he know? He also had no idea what happened to their money. He believed Casey had given it to Blair, but he wasn’t sure how exactly that went down.
They docked in South Toledo, where the river started to get narrow, landing at a steep, wooden dock that looked like it might collapse down into the swift river when they jumped up onto it.
The boat sped away without any communication, leaving Casey and Johnny alone on the dock.
A sense of dread started to creep back into Johnny’s blood. He was ready to speak up on his communication system when Casey pulled off her helmet and sucked in a deep breath.
“Sorry, I needed some fresh air,” Casey said.
Johnny stared at Casey’s hair flowing in the wind and morning sun for a few moments before he answered back on his communication system.
Sorry, still not comfortable taking it off outside.
“That’s fine, but you better get over that once we get to the South. I’m not going swimming in tropical waters with you wearing a suit.”
Johnny assured her that wouldn’t happen as they saw a big yellow school bus pull up to the end of the dock.
Casey and Johnny were again the only people other than a suit-wearing driver who would not interact with them. They found a cozy seat in the back, took off the rest of their suits and started to dream of the beach together with their hands interlaced.
They drifted off to sleep together.
Casey and Johnny woke up speeding down a highway, an ocean surging next to them off in the distance.
Johnny looked to Casey, eyes closed, still asleep. He woke her, excited.
“Look, we already made it to the Atlantic Ocean. I never thought I’d see it,” Johnny said gazing out at the blue water off in the sunny distance.
Casey was excited, but only briefly as she looked out at what Johny was seeing. Then she squinted at the far away waves and started looking around in every direction.
“What? What?” Johnny asked frantically.
“That water is on the North side of us. It’s not the Atlantic. There’s no way we would already be to the Atlantic this quick. We were only asleep for a few hours,” Casey explained, wary all over her voice.
Johnny looked at the water again. She was right, it didn’t look like an ocean either. He couldn’t see the end of it, but it didn’t look to Johnny the way the ocean did in books.
Casey quickly chewed off a long fingernail.
“That’s Lake Erie. We’re going east, not south. This isn’t good,” Casey seethed with her eyes on the driver.
“What’s so bad about that? Don’t we have to go a little east to get to Florida?” Johnny asked.
“No. Not at all. I think I know what’s going on. We’re going to Cleveland.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Everything. I just didn’t want to tell you.”
A cold silence washed over their two-seat row of the bus.
“I didn’t want to tell you because I didn’t want to freak you out, but Florida isn’t the only place you can go. You can go to Cleveland,” Casey said.
“Again, what’s wrong with that?” Johnny asked.
“Cleveland is a human labor and testing camp, at least according to the people in the know I know. You go there and they either work you to death or they run tests on you to death, trying to figure out how to beat a problem we’re not even actually fighting,” Casey explained.
Johnny tried to reason with her. They could just be taking a different way for a number of reasons, but she wasn’t buying it. She just had a feeling. Blair was being strange when she gave him the money. He completely changed once it was physically in his hands. He had been warm and jovial before that, then he immediately turned to ice and just gave her blunt instructions.
It all had seemed so legit other than that though, so she had never questioned anything, but maybe it had been? She started scanning the entire process backwards in her mind, picking up every little thing about Blair and the situation that seemed off.
Blair was in a suit the entire time. How did she even know she was talking to Blair the entire time. Blair seemed to know everything about the operation in Cleveland, but only very little about the operation in Florida. Was there even a Florida or The South or whatever Blair told her? Why had she trusted Blair so much? Some random guy who bought Lithium from her at the market? Why had all the people with all the lithium back in those mansions disappear? Did they get shipped off to Cleveland once they sold enough thinking they were going to Florida?
Johnny calmed Blair down. He would talk to the driver. Tell the driver they knew about Cleveland and confirm they were just taking a different way to Florida or figure out whatever, likely harmless, thing was going on.
Johnny found no answers. All he got was cold silence from the driver and more foot on the peddle.
He was also able to look in the driver’s side-view mirror and see they were being followed by a large truck.
Johnny had a sick feeling in his stomach, and that was before he saw the gun and the long knife sticking out of a compartment just to the left of the steering wheel, easily within a moment’s grasp from the driver.
It was almost as if Casey could read his mind because Johnny turned to head back and get her, but she was standing just behind him.
He only saw Casey for a second before he saw her closed fist flying at the back of the head of the driver. He screamed out “NO!” at her.
Casey’s fist hit the back of the driver’s suited head and sent his face forward toward the steering wheel. She pressed hard down on the back of his next and pushed it into the steering wheel.
The bus swerved off the road and rumbled into a rocky field, shaking back and forth and rocking up and down violently.
Johnny and the driver were out of control, flailing helplessly, but it was almost like all of the chaos was actually part of Casey’s plan. She kept the driver’s face down with a strong push of one hand and ripped off his helmet carefully with the other.
She spun around the driver’s face and Casey and Johnny stared into the eyes of a young man not much older than them, looking even more scared than them.
The bus crashed into a tree and came to a stop. Johnny smashed against the windshield and Casey and the driver smashed against the dash, but everyone was recovered rather quickly.
Casey grabbed the knife and gun out of the driver’s compartment as soon as she was steady and placed the knife softly against his throat.
“Where are you taking us?” Casey asked.
“I don’t even know. The people following us. This is their scam. They took me too. They just gave me a map with what roads to follow. I don’t know. A month ago I was with my family in Detroit,” the driver pleaded while holding his hands up.
The driver noticed Casey’s tattoos and grew even more panicked.
“I think they target the young for some reason. Maybe they can get more out of us? Maybe they think we’re more naive? I don’t really know. They’ve just had me driving. They said because I’m small, light, make the bus use less gas. I think they said we’re going to pick more up in Cleveland and Pittsburgh. I heard we’re going to New York. I just heard that,” the driver went on.
Johnny looked over to Casey’s sweaty brow. He could see the gears turning inside her head.
Casey pushed the driver down onto the floor and grabbed Johnny by the hand and led him to the door, which had shattered open.
“What are we doing?” Johnny asked as she pushed him out of the door.
“We’re running. We’re not finding out who’s in that truck behind us,” Casey said as they rushed out the door. “Go for the water.”
Casey and Johnny got out the door and ran blind for the water. Johnny noticed she was carrying their suits when they were about halfway there.
They reached the muddy shore and dove behind a huge rock. They looked back at the wreck and didn’t see the truck anywhere in sight, just the wrecked bus.
But the sun was beginning to set in the direction in which they had been driving and they could see headlights up on the highway and they could see the shadows of what looked like men standing next to the truck, looking out at the water.
Johnny wasn’t going to ask anymore questions. He was just going to go along with Casey.
Again, it seemed like they were reading each other’s minds. Both were thinking it didn’t matter where they had just stranded themselves because they had each other and both felt safe because no one was more trained for making life work on the fly than a young woman who had lived on both sides of the line in Detroit.
They also knew that one of them was really good at catching crawfish and they were on the shores of a rocky lake.