Chapter 13: Apple Pie Werebear

“Over here!”

The shattered remains of Twenty-six's giant head are scattered far and wide, granite shards littering a half-dead forest in the shadow of a broken mountain.

Sam gestures frantically and shouts again, “Over here, fellas! It could be just a bear that got knocked out, but I'm pretty sure it's him. Help me with these boulders.”

The Forties scramble over the detritus and help Sam clear the rocks away from the brown heap of fur. “This isn't looking too good,” says Forty-three.

They get the rocks cleared away, but the bear won't wake up. His fur is matted with blood. His limbs are bent unnaturally.

“I don't think my songs of healing are gonna help this time,” says Forty-two.

“He's still in bear form, which means he's still with us,” says Sam. “If only just.” He rummages in his bindle until he finds a triangular item the size of an open hand, wrapped in plastic. He peels back the plastic a little and holds it under the bear's nose.

With a couple of bear-strength sniffs and a growl of hunger, the bear's eyes pop open. “Pie,” he grumbles. His fur recedes. His body shrinks and smooths until he's back in human form. “Apple pie.” Sam feeds him a small bite. “I can heal better as a bear, says Twenty-six, “but I don't have the strength to stay that way. I'm done for, men. You'll have to go on without me.” He takes another chomp of pie.

“Don't say that,” says Sam. “We'll get you to the Oneida. They'll patch you up good as new.”

Twenty-six tries to shake his head, but winces. “The Constitution. It's safe.” With great effort, he raises his arm and points. “The back teeth, over there. There's one that's a little loose. I hid it in there.”

“Good man,” says Forty-three. “We'll use its eldritch powers to heal you.”

“No!” Twenty-six grimaces at the effort of shouting. “It's not for me. It's for everybody.” He coughs. “You have to take it back. Back where it belongs.”

“You mean-” says Forty-two.

“The Swamp,” says Twenty-six. “Once it's back in its rightful place, The Swamp will drain. The balance of power will be restored. I'm sure it will. It has to- It has to work.” He coughs again.

“But what about you?” says Sam. A shadow appears overhead.

“I'm cold,” says Twenty-six. “I don't have much time left.”

Sam looks up. “That's just Cam's dirigible. Also, you're nude.”

“No. This is it for me. You men go on. Just do me one favor.”

“Anything.”

“Put the pie in my mouth. And don't look back.”

Chapter 12: The Effects of Pugilism on Giants Made of Stone

Three ex-presidents tumble through the air, Number Twenty-six still in his werebear form. Forty-two clutches his saxophone as if to cushion its fall. Forty-three secretly wishes he'd worn his flight suit costume, because then at least he'd look cool.

Far above, silhouetted against the sky, is the receding face of The First, carved from the rock of the mountain and animated by the power of the Constitution. Far below and getting closer is the ground. Off to the side, some dark shape moves against the brownish green of the forest. It quickly grows, spreading like a stain in their wind-blurred vision. No, not growing. Getting closer.

They land with a thump, hard and painful but strangely cushioned. “That was a close one,” somebody says. It's Sam, standing on top of Cam's dirigible with a rope tied around his waist. He hands out ropes with carabiners attached. “Get clipped in, fellas. It's just a short slide, a little swing, and then we'll be inside. Then Cam can fly us out of here.”

The stone giant form of The First spots the aircraft and stiffly turns to swat at it. They all hug the roof as Cam maneuvers out of the way.

“I'm not leaving,” says Twenty-six. He's morphed back into his human form, and he stands naked, unashamed.

“The hell you say?” says Sam.

“Seven still has the document. I know what I need to do now.” He makes a loop with his rope and puts his hand through it. “This will come in handy, I think. Here's what I need you to do. And hurry, we don't have much time.”

 

 

“He's nuts,” says Cam. “It's gonna be like trying to hit a bullseye with a yo-yo tied to a blimp. Which is pretty much what we're doing.”

“But you can do it, right?” says Sam.

“Of course I can. As long as it opens up like he says it will.”

The dirigible picks up speed, a small nude figure dangling from it on a rope. The First gains on it, stepping awkwardly as it finds its legs. The airship swoops down, aiming to buzz the top of the giant stone head of Twenty-six, still embedded in the mountain. Sure enough, as the real Twenty-six swings closer, the stone mouth opens. Cam throws the ship into full reverse, backing off of the giant bust's hairline at the last second and launching Twenty-six into the opening. Forty-three throws his hands into the air. “Goal!”

“Now,” says Cam, turning the ship and rising above the grasping hands of The First, “let's get a ringside view.”

 

 

Twenty-six lets go of the rope and soars feet-first into his own cavernous mouth. He morphs into his bear form just before landing, to better absorb the impact and heal from any petty human wounds. He quickly reverts to his human form. This is not a job for a bear.

The mountain rumbles, sending loose boulders tumbling down its slopes. Any animals that didn't flee when The First rose do so now. The stone giant form of Twenty-six stands erect. He turns to The First, and he puts up his dukes.

“My money's on the one with the mustache,” says Forty-three.

“Of course it is,” says Forty-two. “He's on our side. We're supposed to be rooting for him.”

Forty-three shrugs. “Even besides that. He looks scrappy.”

The First opens its mouth, and a booming voice emanates from it. “You think you can defeat me? I have the document. I have The First. I have a robot. What do you have?”

“Years of boxing experience,” says Twenty-six. “My apologies to Number One, but that's his head you're in.” His giant stone form hits The First square in the nose. The stone head cracks around its circumference, splitting under the ears and all the way around the back of the skull. The entire top of the head flies off, powdered wig and all, leaving Seven and his robot exposed in the now open lower jaw.

“That was fast,” says Forty-two. “And kind of anticlimactic.”

“I knew our boy could do it,” says Forty-three.

“It's not done yet,” says Sam.

Twenty-six's giant reaches up and pinches the top of Seven's robot, a delicate gesture for a gargantuan stone figure. The robot tries to swat his hand away, but it's like an ant slapping an elephant. The glass on the display case cracks, and Twenty-six raises his granite hand, clutching the Constitution gently between his fingertips. He sticks the fingers into his mouth, where his still-nude flesh body retrieves the Constitution from their enormous grasp. He turns the gray giant toward the airship and gives a wave of triumph.

Sparks of red, white and blue fly from Seven's robot. His voice buzzes like a swarm of insects. “Fools! You don't know how to harness it. I'm the only one that understands it.” With a final burst of energy, a parting shot before the residual power of the Constitution bleeds from his nested bodies, Seven makes a fist with The First's right hand. Before they can warn Twenty-six, or intercede on his behalf, before his stone eyes see it coming, the fist has connected with his head.

The First lurches forward, pulled by momentum. Twenty-six's stone head is free from its neck now, a granite cannonball sailing over the South Dakotan forest. It lands nearly a mile away. The giant's body, absent its pilot, falls with The First. They seem to fall for hours, toppling together under the stoic gaze of Three and Sixteen and the shocked faces of the crew in the airship.

They fall for what seems a long time, but not forever, and when they hit the ground, it's felt across all fifty states.

Chapter 11: Bear v Lion Part 2: Rumble in the Head

Inside the mountainous skull of the First U.S. President, Former President Twenty-six, in full werebear form, charges Number Seven's Freedom robot. The robot is strong, but not fast, and it takes the full brunt of the bear's attack. The bear swipes at Seven's face, raking his claws through soft flesh, scraping bone. The robot kicks, hydraulic joints powered by the Original Document thrusting with the full force of the Founding Fathers. The bear has no wings, but he learns that under the right circumstances, he can fly. He smacks against the far wall of the cavernous head. Dazed by the blow, his bear form shrinks, halfway between man and beast as he struggles to stay conscious.

“We've gotta do something,” says Forty-two.

“I'm on it,” says Forty-three, and runs for the door.

“Wait, where are you going?”

“Deploying my exit strategy,” says Forty-three. The door slides shut, six inches of solid metal slamming into the floor. Every other door in the room does the same, sealing off their only means of egress.

“Going somewhere?” says Seven. The gashes in his face are rapidly closing.

“Your face,” says Forty-two. “It was shredded to ribbons.”

“Being wounded is a state of mind,” he says. He stomps his robot toward the Forties.

“How about being blinded?” says Forty-three. He reaches a hand into his pocket and pulls out a fistful of white powder. He opens his palm and blows as hard as he can. Seven's face is hit by a thick cloud of the stuff, filling his eyes and mouth. He coughs, rubs his eyes, and gropes blindly at the Forties.

“What is that stuff?” says Forty-two as they dodge out of the way. “It's not- Is it?”

“It's flour. I traded some POGs for it back at the hobo camp. Thought we could make some biscuits. Wait, you didn't think-”

“Never mind,” says Forty-two. “You distract the robot some more. I've gotta help the bear.”

“Hey, Seven,” says Forty-three, “there's some WMDs over there we've gotta get.”

“What? Where?” Seven squints one eye open and looks in the direction Forty-three is pointing. “They're mine! I'm America, I get to have all the nukes!” He stomps the robot across the room, still half-blind.

Forty-two kneels by Twenty-six's half bear form. “You have to get the Constitution away from him,” says Twenty-six. “It's the only way.”

“I will, but I need your help,” says Forty-two.

“Leave me. You can do it. You have the power. You have my vote.”

“And you have mine.” Forty-two reaches behind his back and pulls his saxophone around on its strap. “This'll help you out.” The saxophone has more than a few dents now, and it could use a new reed, but he plays anyway. A tune that seems somber at first, but hints at better news on the horizon. It's a song of loss and hope, wounds and scars, the turn of the day and a sun that sets before it rises.

“Stop that racket!” says Seven from across the room. He turns and starts to stomp back in their direction.

Twenty-six puts his hand on Forty-two's shoulder. It swells into a bear-sized paw. “It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed,” he says. “We might fail today, but we'll do it together.” He picks up the pieces of his broken walking stick. He tosses one, aiming at the glass enclosure that holds the Constitution. The robot catches it in midair. While Seven is distracted, the bear throws the other half of his stick. It lodges in the robot's knee, jammed between two of the flagpoles that make up its body.

“You think sticks and stones can defeat me?” says Seven. He raises his own leg inside the cockpit, but the robot struggles to follow his movements, straining against the stick in its joint. He straightens his leg out, then bends his knee as hard as he can. The stick splinters into a thousand pieces.

The bear laughs, a low and hearty rumble.

“Your end is imminent,” says Seven. “What do you find so funny in this moment?”

“That stick,” says Twenty-six. “It's made from hickory.”

The room shakes. A low rumble rolls in from somewhere in the distance.

“Told ya there were WMDs over there,” says Forty-three.

“The airstrike,” says Seven. He laughs. “It's nowhere near us. I told you they'd never hit the mountain.”

The building trembles. The floor pitches and tilts. “Near enough for the shockwaves to bring the whole skull down on top of us,” says Forty-two. “You'll be buried along with us.”

A muffled cracking sound echoes through the chamber. It sounds like ice cracking on a frozen lake. “That's no collapse,” says Seven. A shaft of light appears through a hole high up in the wall. A second light appears a moment later, bathing Seven in golden sunlight.

“The eyes,” growls Twenty-six. “The cement is cracking. The faces awaken. He's going to stand up. With the Constitution, he can control the entire body. There'll be no way to stop him, unless- Forties! This way!” He throws his bear body at the steel door that leads to the next head.

“You'll never get through that,” says Seven. Two iron rings ascend from the floor, near the same chamber that housed his Freedom Enforcer. “You think I didn't plan for this?” He grabs the rings with the robot's hands.

The room quakes and tumbles. Twenty-six uses his soft bear body to cushion the Forties as they're tossed around. Their stomachs lurch with the sensation of quickly rising, then stopping suddenly. For a moment, all is calm. Another light appears, level with the floor.

“The mouth!” says Twenty-six. “He's opened the mouth!”

“You want out?” says Seven. “Let me get the door for you.”

The head tilts forward. The mouth opens wide. There's nothing to grab onto, nothing to stop their slide. Seven holds onto the rings, safely embedded in his robot, controlling the stone body of the First. The Forties and the bear tumble out into open air.

Chapter 10: Bear v. Lion

First   Previous

The giant robotic hand of President Number Seven's Freedom Enforcer grips harder, controlled by Seven's own hand. The air squeezes out of U.S. President Number Twenty-six with a grunt.

“You're crushing him!” says Forty-three.

“You don't have to do this,” says Forty-two. “We're all on the same team here, Seven. Just put him down, and we can talk this out. Vote on it. Simple majority, like we always do.”

“Well, not always,” says Forty-three.

“One man with courage makes a majority,” says Seven, and squeezes harder.

“Well, now you just sound like a supervillain,” says Forty-two.

“You want him back? Take him.” The Freedom Enforcer's arm swings back and tosses Twenty-six at the other presidents. They break his fall, but all three end up on the floor in a heap. The flag-festooned robot stomps forward. Seven looks down on them from the cockpit. “The Constitution is mine, gentlemen. I'm the first man in history to realize its true power. Only I can harness it.”

“Speaking of supervillains,” says Forty-three, “now you're starting to sound like another president I won't name here.”

“There's no other like me.”

“Let's keep it that way,” says Twenty-six.

“And how are you going to stop me? Look at you. You're pathetic. No power. No name. No votes.”

Twenty-six coughs, and a little bit of blood trickles out. He grabs his walking stick from where it's fallen nearby and pushes himself to his feet. He says something in a low, soft voice.

Seven leans forward. “What did you say? You're mumbling. Even your voice fails you.”

“I said, 'what's brown and sticky?'”

“Lots of things. Molasses-”

“A stick.” Twenty-six's walking stick rips through the air with a whoosh. It strikes Seven in the chin. The robot staggers backwards, raising its arms in unison with Seven's own. Twenty-six rushes around the side of the hulking construct and raises his stick to smash the display case that holds the Constitution, the source of the machine's power. Inches from the glass, the robot blocks the strike. It yanks the stick out of his hand and snaps it in two like a pencil, then kicks Twenty-six square in the chest. He flies like a ragdoll and slaps against the wall, out cold.

“Nothing can stop me now,” says Seven. “I'll defeat you one by one, absorbing your power with every victory. I will reclaim my name, regain the Presidency, and crush the world into tiny pieces of Freedom.”

A low rumble, almost a growl, comes from Twenty-six's body. His arms twitch, flex, then seem to grow. His mustache lengthens, followed by the rest of his body hair. His clothes rip under the pressure from his swelling flesh. His nose and mouth protrude. Claws curl from his enormous fingers. He opens his eyes, two black wells. His lip curls into a sneer over his pointed teeth. He looks Seven straight in the eye, and in a low bearitone, he says, “You broke my stick.”

Chapter 9: A Good Old-Fashioned Heist

First   Previous

Sam sits in his cell, dejected. He rummages for a bobby pin in a secret pocket of his patchwork suit, turns the pin over in his fingers, then tosses it across the room. “What's the point,” he mutters. The door swings open. A guard comes in with a cafeteria tray. “I'm not hungry,” says Sam.

“Not even for a good old-fashioned heist?”

Sam looks up at the guard's face for the first time. “Forty-three?”

“The one and only,” says Forty-three. “I'm here to rescue you.”

“Where's Forty-two? And Cam?”

“No time to explain. We're heisting!”

“I don't follow.”

“We got to talking to some of the rebels here. Turns out, not all of 'em are happy with the way things are running. We're staging a little rebellion within a rebellion. Heh, heh.”

“I knew I could count on you two,” says Sam. “Listen, Applegate's lost it. He's taunting Forty-five into launching an airstrike on the Faceless Mount. They have the Constitution up there. The original. It'll be incinerated. They're trying to stage it so Forty-five is responsible, but they'll be just as culpable, and the document will be just as dead.”

“We know,” says Forty-three. “Don't worry, we've got a plan to get it back. Come on, before they come to check on you.”

Forty-three leads Sam into the hallway, where he's parked a souped up Segway with flames painted on the wheels. He hops on, starts it up and immediately falls on his face. Sam gives him a hand up.

“I hate when that happens,” say Forty-three. “Come on, we'll just jog.”

They meet up with the rest of the mutineers at the entrance to a tunnel. A monorail shuttle stands ready to ship them down the tunnel.

“What took you so long?” says Forty-two.

“We had a little trouble with the Segway.”

“We don't have much time,” says one of the rebels in a soft voice. He half-leans on a big walking stick. “This tunnel leads to an elevator that goes straight up to the Faceless Mount. We need to get in there and get it out. Cam is ready with his airship. He'll swoop in when we give him the signal. Take this radio, Sam. You'll be stationed at the exit. When the Constitution in removed from its display case, the alarms will automatically sound. That's when you'll need to signal Cam. The code phrase is 'Hey, Cam, it's time to swoop in now.' Does everybody know what they're doing? Good. Let's ride.”

“Halt!” says one of the guards as Twenty-six steps off the shuttle. “What's the meaning of this? The heads have been evacuated. You all need to turn back now.”

“Wouldn't you know it, in all the excitement of packing, I left my glasses upstairs. It'll only take a minute. I know exactly where I left them. It is my head, after all.”

“Sorry, Mr. President,” says the guard. “Nobody's allowed back up. General's orders.”

“If you're just going back for your glasses, why'd you bring all them with you?” says the other guard, motioning toward the shuttle. “You've got, like, twenty people in there.”

“Well, I thought, as long as I'm going back for my glasses, I might as well give these guys a look at the place,” says Twenty-six. “They've never seen the old melon from the inside. We won't take long. Just a quick gander for old times' sake.”

“Absolutely no one is allowed in the heads,” says the guard. “Especially not some glorified tour group.” He looks at the rebels stepping out of the shuttle. “You've all been with the rebellion long enough to see upstairs. It's not my fault if you put it off until it was too late.”

“Hold on,” says the other guard. “Aren't the other presidents supposed to be in lockup?”

“The funny thing about 'supposed to' is-” Twenty-six twirls his stick and knocks the guard on the side of the head. Before the other guard can react, he's been knocked out with the other end of the stick. He grabs a badge from the first guard's lanyard and swipes it next to the door. The elevator slides open with a ding. “They'll have a headache in the morning,” says Twenty-six. “You two,” he points at two of the mutineers. “Stay here and hold off anybody that tries to follow us.”

“We'll do our best.”

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” He grabs the submachine guns from the unconscious guards and hands them to the rebels.

The heads are cavernous inside, and nearly empty. Blasted stone domes that turn a whisper into a thousand echoes. “The document is this way,” says Twenty-six. “Inside the First. You three, go with Sam. Make sure we have a clear way out. Presidents, and the rest of the mutineers, with me. Do a good job, and there might be a place for you in the Rough Riders. I'm thinking of starting it up again. It's a cool name, right?”

Forty-two leans in and whispers to Forty-three, “He's a little different than I expected.”

“He did invent the Teddy bear, though, right?”

“Enough lollygagging, men. This is it. Tonight, we save Democracy.”

They charge through the wooden door into the head of The First, splintering it off its hinges. There, in the middle of the room, encased in a glass display, illuminated only by emergency lights, is the original U.S. Constitution.

“It's beautiful,” says one of the rebels.

“I can feel it in my bones,” says Forty-two.

“I feel like when my foot falls asleep, but it's my whole body,” says Forty-three.

Twenty-six takes a step toward the document. His muscles flex, ripping his shirt to shreds which fall away like feathers.

“I had a feeling you'd be making you way up here.” The voice seems to come from all around, echoing in circles around the dome.

“Who's there?” says Twenty-six. “Show yourself.”

The floor around the display case slides open. The case itself rises toward the ceiling, borne upon the back of a hulking robot cobbled together from flag poles and ancient voting machines. In the center of the robot, controlling its movements, sits another ex-president.

“Seven,” says Twenty-six. “I didn't expect to see you here. Come on, we have to get that to safety. Thanks for building whatever that thing is to carry it, I guess.”

“Fools,” says Seven. “I've been here all along. Who do you think convinced General Applegate to bring the document up here, and to evacuate the heads. That was all I needed to complete construction of my Freedom Enforcer. With the Constitution, I finally have a power source. Nothing can stop us now. With my creation, I will crush everything in my path into glorious freedom!”

“But the airstrike,” says Forty-two. “There'll be bombs falling on us any minute now.”

“Forty-five's men couldn't bomb the broad side of a barn,” says Seven. “They might hit the rebel base, but they'll not come anywhere near the heads. Now,” he moves his hand and the robot's arm swings forward, grabbing Twenty-six in its massive fist. “Who wants to be free?”

Chapter 8: Conditions

First   Previous   Next

Meanwhile, in a waiting room.

“Next.”

A young man slides his paperwork over the counter along with two forms of ID.

The clerk behind the counter licks his fingers and flips through the stack, making tally marks on a slip of paper as he does so. “All right,” he says with a cough. He makes a quick calculation on an adding machine. “You've checked seventy-three percent of pre-existing conditions. Accounting for your age,” cough, “and your unwillingness to make more money,” cough, “your monthly premium comes to,” cough cough. The clerk's face turns red, then purple. His coughs turn to desperate wheezing. He clutches at his tie, rips his shirt open. Bluish black fluid fountains from his mouth, splashing onto the counter and soaking the reams of paper piled about. The young man takes a step back. The clerk falls to the floor, dribbling that dark fluid onto the carpet. A few older stains already spot the carpet nearby.

The young man pushes his way through the crowd to the door on the other side of the waiting room and knocks urgently. There's no answer. He knocks again. The door swings open. A gray-haired man with bags the size of plums under his eyes stands there in a coat that used to be white but is now stained with a palette of reds and browns. He holds a stack of clipboards. “What is it? Do you have an appointment? I'm in the middle of seeing a batch of patients.” Behind the doctor, a dozen people crowd the examination room, sitting or standing in hospital gowns.

“It's the clerk, Doctor. He's had some kind of attack. He needs help.”

“Is it an emergency?”

The young man nods.

“Well, call nine-one-one. This isn't an ER.” He starts to shut the door.

“But you're a doctor.”

“They have doctors at hospitals, too. And ambulances have medics. That's twice the care he'll get here. He's lucky.”

“But all of these people are waiting. And there's not another clerk.”

The doctor looks beyond the young man into the waiting room. Every seat is taken. Dozens of people stand in a line that snakes through velvet ropes and out the door.

“No more clerks?” says the doctor.

The young man shakes his head.

The doctor turns to the patients in the examination room. He hands each one a clipboard. “You'll have to get each other's information. Just fill out the questionnaires. Medical history, symptoms, medications. It's all on the sheet. Oh, and the blood pressure thing is there,” he points. “You'll figure it out. I'll be with you in-” he looks at his watch, steps into the waiting room and shuts the door behind him.

He makes his way behind the counter. “Oh, dear,” he says when he sees the clerk. He checks the clerk for a pulse, slaps his cheek, waves his hand in front of the man's eyes. “I'm calling it,” he says. “Nine-thirty AM. PM? Nine-thirty. Ink poisoning. It's happened before. Not here, necessarily.” He presses a red button under the counter marked 'MORGUE.' He glances at the ink-sodden papers piled on the counter. He looks at the line of people filling the room. “Right! I suppose I'll have to take over here until the bag men come and clean this up. I'm going to recite a list of pre-existing conditions. If you hear something you have, raise your hand. I'll remind everyone that failure to answer honestly can result in fines, prison, lifetime denial of coverage, all that stuff. You know the drill. Gout!” A few people raise their hands. “Move to the back of the line, please.” There are a few grumblings of resentment, but those with gout exit the line and seek its end, which is somewhere between the front door and the state line. The doctor continues, “Dyspepsia!” More people raise their hands. “Fresh air will do you a world of good. Um...” The doctor chews one of his nails while he thinks. “Hangnails, infected or otherwise.” He continues that way, listing conditions and sending those that raise their hands to the back of the line. “Knock knees! Tiny bones! Beef sweats!” Again and again, the line moves up as its denizens are shuffled to the back.

“Doctor,” says the young man, finally summoning the nerve to interrupt.

“Gah!” The doctor turns, startled. “I didn't realize you were still there. Yes, what?”

“I was already at the front of the line. Will I be getting an appointment?”

“Let's see. Do you have...” The doctor looks him up and down. “Popcorn lips?”

The young man licks his dry, salty lips. “I do, yes, but-”

“Sorry, then. Back of the line. There's a hierarchy to this. You could always move to a state where people aren't penalized for pre-existing conditions. I think California's the only one left, although it's mostly underwater now.” The young man turns to go. “Wait.” The doctor grabs his arm. “You're not a member of Congress, are you?” The young man shakes his head. “Yeah, then, back of the line.”

The young man hears the doctor as he makes his way outside, in search of the line's end. “It might be faster to do it this way,” the doctor says. “Does anybody here not have any pre-existing conditions? Anybody? Very well. Oh, I know what I forgot. Anybody with a uterus, raise your hand.”

The young man follows the line for a while. It stretches down the block, around the corner, across the street. He checks with somebody to make sure he's still following the same line. He is. He comes to another corner and turns into a straightaway. He's hit Main Street. The line keeps going as far as he can see. He spots some of the groups that were ejected before him up ahead. Some people have given up and left. Some are sitting down to rest. Some might not be resting.

Night falls. The line keep going. He's at the edge of town now, where the highway starts. He smells something cooking not far away. A small crowd has wandered off from their pilgrimage to the line's end. They're gathered under an overpass, huddled around a fire. He finds himself drawn to them before he knows what he's doing.

“Sit down, friend,” one of the hobos says. “Have a cup of stew.”

The food is warm. Somebody passes out bottles of water. “Thank you,” the young man manages to say.

A portly fellow with a bushy mustache approaches him. “Hello there, friend,” he says. “They call me Twenty-two. I'd shake your hand, but you're busy with your supper.”

“I thought you were Twenty-four,” says a nearby hobo.

“I'll answer to both,” says the man with the mustache. “I have an offer for you, young man.” He holds out a slip of card stock. The young man looks at it, confused. “I'm sure you're a bit addled from the day's journey. It's a long way from the doctor's office, and longer still before you reach the end of the line. I'm offering you a ticket on the Oneida. It's a top-notch medical yacht. Did wonders for me a while back. They're stationed in California. I know it's far, but the hobos can help you get most of the way. Just make it to the shoreline. The ticket's got a tracker. They'll send a dinghy for you. You'll get the care you need there.”

The young man takes the ticket and stares at it. “But why?” he says. “You give me this ticket, you offer me healthcare. On what condition?”

“Just one condition,” says Twenty-two. “You show up.”

Chapter 7: No Heroes

“They're not superheroes, Sam. They're human beings. And they're fugitives from the law.”

“An absurd law. You know that, Jack.”

“Don't call me 'Jack.'”

“Johnny, then?”

“General. Or sir.”

Sam raises his hands, jingling the chain that runs from his wrists through a hoop on the table. “Is this really necessary? You know me, General Jack. Remember The Fall? We've been through hell together.”

“This is hell,” says the General. “I thought I knew you.” He shakes his head. “But you can't trust anybody these days. Maybe you never could. In a way, maybe everything that's happened to this country is for the best. It's revealed everybody for who they really are. The American Experiment hasn't failed, we have.”

“You don't believe that, Jack. I know you don't. This country's entire history is full of horrors. We've seen times as bad as this before. Worse, even. There's a million embarrassing things we'd like to sweep under the rug of history. But what makes this country special, what makes the human race special, is not what we are or what we've done, but what we're capable of. We define our greatness not by what we've accomplished, but by what we strive for.”

The General nods. “Not bad. Give it a second draft, and it'll make a pretty good speech after the... After.” He stands. “There are things worth fighting for, Sam. Not ideals, not justice. Not some future utopia. We fight for control. Resources. Power. It's just how the world works, Sam. We were fools to believe otherwise.”

“Deep down, I know you don't believe that. If you did, you wouldn't have bothered to hold onto it. Keep it safe.”

“Keep what safe?”

“The Constitution,” says Sam.

“Oh, that. Yeah, we have it. For now. It's the real deal, too. We'll make sure they know that.”

“Make sure who knows?”

“The Media,” says the General. “State run media, real news, bloggers, all of them. There'll be no doubt that it was the original document.”

“What do you mean, 'was?'”

“We purposely leaked images of the document to various media sources. We assumed it would attract a few ex-presidents. The two you brought make a total of eight. Not a lot, but enough. A good variety, too. Some that are loved and hated by all sides. But all are hated by Forty-five. They're a constant reminder of his shortcomings. His failures, his incompetency. He'd do anything to get rid of them once and for all.”

“You didn't,” says Sam. “You brought them here just to-”

“We're not going to kill them. Well, we have no current plans to. They'll be safe here in the base. It's the mountain they'll be targeting. There's a skeleton crew there right now, preparing to install the document in a place of honor inside Number One's head. They'll evacuate long before any airstrike. We can expect zero casualties, and Forty-five will get the blame for cremating the Constitution. We can discuss what to do with the exes afterwards.” The General puts on his hat and opens the door to leave.

“You can't be serious,” says Sam. “Jack. If you do this, you- you'll be no better than them.”

The General pauses, his hand on the doorknob. He looks back at Sam. “I'm not.”

Chapter 6: The Faceless Mount

“So it's true,” says Forty-two, peering through a porthole. “They covered up the faces.”

They're in a dirigible, drifting like a cloud over the South Dakotan wilds. “Shove over,” says Forty-three. “I wanna take a gander.”

At first glance, nothing's amiss. It looks like mountain. Then a flash of recognition, as the shapes of those four heads find their place in your memories. Then you notice how the faces have been smoothed over. The longer you look, the less natural it seems. If you get closer, or look at the rock face through binoculars, it soon becomes apparent that the faces haven't been torn down or blown to rubble. They were simply covered up, buried under tons of poured concrete.

“I bet I can still name 'em,” says Forty-three.

“Bad luck to say their names,” says Forty-two. “One, Three, Sixteen and Twenty-six.”

“I would've known that,” says Forty-three.

“I know,” says Forty-two.

“The rebel base isn't really inside the mountain,” says Sam. “That would be too obvious, although they don't dissuade people from thinking that's where it is. It's not far from here, though. Captain Cam and I have friends there. We'll get you in. Boy, they'll be happy to see you two.”

Captain Cam sets the dirigible down in a small field and the four of them walk the rest of the way. The base itself is housed in the remains of a big box store, long since bankrupt and shuttered. The rebels have let the outside of the building fade and crumble, the better to blend in. Inside, they've reinforced the walls and roof and built a labyrinthine complex of barracks, offices, information centers, storerooms. A town unto itself.

The asphalt parking lot has been torn apart and used for building material by feral suburbanites. The forest has encroached, blending trees and undergrowth with abandoned cars and other garbage from the Olden Days. The four men approach with caution, eyes peeled for traps. There's not a soul in sight.

“Halt,” says a voice from a guard tower hidden in the trees. Sam, Cam, and the two presidents stop and raise their hands. Half a dozen guards appear around them as if from nowhere, cloaked and camouflaged in the surrounding detritus. “State your name and business.”

“Name's Sam,” says Sam. “I've got business with General Applegate.”

Another voice comes from behind them. “Do you have an appointment?”

Sam spins around. The person who spoke is wearing some kind of invisibility garment. He fades into reality like a Romulan Warbird. “Johnny Applegate,” says Sam with a grin of recognition. “Or should I say, 'General?'”

The General doesn't smile back. “You made a mistake coming here, Sam,” he says. “Guards. Arrest these men.”

Chapter 5: An Interlude in the Golden Tower

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The fighter jets speed through the air, one chasing the other like a fox after a hound. They dive and climb, swooping and soaring in impossible maneuvers, until finally the pursuer has the rebel jet in its sights. Spittle flies, accompanied by the sound of gunfire. The rebel jet crashes nose-first into the desk, leaving a small gouge in the wood.

Across the cavernous room, the door creaks open. A man in a butler's uniform pushes a cart with a covered tray. “Snack time,” he says in a sing-song voice.

“I'm not hungry,” says Forty-five. “I'm shooting down losers.”

“You have to keep up your strength, Mr. President.”

“I told you not to call me that, Chris! I'm not the President anymore. That's fake news. It's illegal. I've never broken the law. I spoke to a judge, he said I was the most law-abiding citizen he'd ever seen. But you can't be the president. Let me tell you, I was the best. And if I was the president again, I could do great things. But you gotta have states' rights. So I'm the Governor. Governor of all the states. First person in history to do it. I have the most states out of anyone.”

“Well, not all the states. About half, at last count.” Chris sets a newspaper on the desk next to the crashed fighter jet. Forty-five snatches it up, tries to rip it in half but can't, tosses it onto the floor.

“Fake news!” he says. “I've got more states than anyone.”

“Yes, Mr. P- Governor,” says Chris. He whisks the dome off of the tray on the cart. “I made chicken fingers, but if you're not hungry, I guess I'll have to eat 'em all myself.” He picks up one of the morsels and pretends to eat it. “Om, nom nom, nom nom. Mmm, It's so good.”

“No, stop it,” says Forty-five. “I want it! You get meatloaf. That's all you eat.”

“Well, if you insist,” says Chris. He sets the tray on the desk. It's heaped with microwaved chicken fingers surrounded by condiment cups brimming with ketchup.

Forty-five sets down his fighter jet and tucks in. “Read me a story,” he says around a mouthful.

Chris picks up the newspaper and smooths out the wrinkles. He opens his mouth to read a headline, but he's cut off by the buzz of the intercom.

“Hold on, this could be important,” says Forty-five. He presses the button for the intercom, leaving a sheen of chicken grease. “What?” he says.

“Mr. Governor, it's the Chief. I've got vital intelligence for you.”

“Well, get in here. I made chicken fingers. Chris can't have any.”

The Chief strolls in with a grin on his face. He's in full uniform, complete with plastic badge. He's holding a briefcase in one hand. His other arm is behind his back, and when he gets close to the Governor's desk, he whips it around with a vrooom that echoes around the room. In his hand is a toy plane, and he flies it over the desk.

“Oh, cool, a bomber!” says Forty-five.

“Uh, oh!” says the Chief. “I think I see some enemy chicken strips down there. Bombs away!” He presses a switch on the plane and the bomb bay doors open, dropping plastic bombs onto the tray. One of them lands with a splat in the ketchup. Forty-five pumps his fist.

“Aw, he got one in your ketchup,” says Chris. “Here, let me clean that up for you.”

“Back off, turd pants,” says Forty-five. “I like it that way.” He picks up the plastic payload and sucks the ketchup off.

The Chief lands the bomber on the desk next to the fighter jets. “I brought that one just for you. There's fifteen-hundred more where that came from. Life size, with real bombs.”

“Yeah! Let's bomb the shit out of them.” Forty-five slams the bomb back into the ketchup, then pops it into his mouth like a sucker.

“Out of who?” says Chris. Forty-five spits the bomb at him. It hits his shirt, leaving a small red stain.

“I've got a few targets for you,” says the Chief. “I just got word that Forty-two and Forty-three launched an attack on a camp full of innocent homeless people. We sent in the NICE Boys to bring them in, but they blew up a bridge and escaped. Five of our men died. Real bad deaths, and it's not our fault.”

“What about Forty-four?” says Forty-five.

“Still no sign of him,” says the Chief, “but I've got good news. I just heard from a reliable source that the,” he looks from side to side as if to be sure that no one else is listening, “C-O-N-S-T-I-T-U-T-I-O-N has been spotted near a rebel base.”

“The construction?”

The Chief nods, his smile unwavering. “Not only that, but the Constitution, too. You're so smart to spell so good.”

“That's why I'm the Governor.” The Governor dips another chicken finger and takes a bite.

“You sure are,” says the Chief. “You're such a smart Governor. You did such a good job ordering that airstrike on the rebel base.”

Forty-five stops chewing for a second. “Oh, yeah, yeah. The airstrike.”

The Chief nods. “At least a few of the presidents are bound to be there when it happens. And we might just get the Constitution back while we're at it. You know. To keep it safe. There's just a little paperwork to sign. It's boring stuff, so I'll make it quick.” He opens his briefcase and presents a stack of documents to the Governor. "All this says, pretty much, is that you ordered those really tremendous airstrikes. And a few other little things."

“Mm-hmm.” Forty-five signs wherever the Chief points, spotting the papers with grease and ketchup. He tosses the pen at Chris, stuffs the last bite of chicken into his mouth and licks his fingers.

“Good job, sir,” says Chris. “You're in the Clean Plate Club today.”

“I'm not a baby, Chris!” he says through his mouthful.

“Well, I'd better go get started on that airstrike,” says the Chief. “I bet somebody wants a power nap after that big, manly meal.”

“Yeah,” says Forty-five. “Bring me my blanket, Chris. And pillows. I wanna do a desk fort.”

Chapter 4: The Heart

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“I don't understand,” says Mickey, his hands still red with nettle stings. They're in the caverns, a mile or so from the hobo camp through a labyrinth of underground tunnels. This is the conference hall, a natural cave with a domed ceiling covered in stalactites. There's room for everybody, but nobody's happy to be there. “The NICE Boys have never bothered us at Abby's Jungle. Why would they raid us now?” This starts a debate, which leads to an argument, which only exacerbates the chaos that comes from a few dozen hobos taking refuge in a dark cave.

Abby pulls the presidents aside, along with Sam. “Listen, boys,” she says, “you're not to blame for the raid, but there's a lot of people here who might not feel that way. If we end up holding a hobo court here tonight, things might not go your way. It might be best if you take off now, before things settle down and people start pointing fingers. You'll have to go by hand, but it's not far. The way through is marked. I'd recommend the water route.”

Sam tips his hat. “Much obliged, Abby,” he says.

“But what if we are to blame?” says Forty-two. “Those NICE agents might have been after the two of us. If we led 'em to your camp, we've got to take responsibility.”

“Well, now, hold one,” says Forty-three. “Let's not be hasty.”

“They blew up her bridge,” says Forty-two.

“Bridges collapse all the time,” says Forty-three. “Heh. You can't explain why.”

Abby shakes her head. “It's no use arguing about it. They've been cracking down on jungles from coast to coast. It's been going on for weeks. Maybe they were looking for you two, but it was only a matter of time before they dropped in on us.”

Sam nods. “But most people don't care about facts when they're angry. They just want a fall guy. I don't mind catching the blame with you, but it would be best not to be here when it happens. I've been accused of worse, and I always manage to sort it out one way or another. Abby will take care of the people here. She always does.”

Abby nods. She hands Sam a stack of newspapers. “It's gonna be Winter soon,” she says. “California blankets are good for more than one thing.” She winks.

“Our thanks to you,” says Sam. “See you when I see you.” He ushers the presidents into a side corridor, and they're away into the tunnels before anyone notices they're gone. As the noise of the crowd fades behind them, they hear a long whistle cut through the din. The cavern falls quiet, and Abby's is the only voice they hear; the calm voice of a leader, looking after her people.

“I've been this way once before,” says Sam as he ushers the presidents along. His lantern disappears down a side passage. They hustle to keep up. “The waterway will take us to a cave by a lake where there's a cabin, in which lives a disgraced dirigible pilot. He owes me a favor from the time I used the breeze from a fan boat to alter the trajectory of his slowly crashing airship, thereby saving his life and the lives of everybody at that chili cook-off, though not saving him from the charge of attempted assassination, for judging that chili cook-off was celebrity chef and Governor of Nevada, Manny O'Fire. Never mind that the controls of his dirigible had been sabotaged, and the real criminals remain at large to this day. All of this is to say, he'll give us a lift if I ask him nicely.”

“But we still don't know where we're going,” says Forty-two. “We're careening from place to place with no sense of purpose, trash in the wind.”

“All we wanted to do was fix the country,” says Forty-three, “but it's fractured into pieces like a sheet of delicious peanut brittle. There's too many factions, too much animosity. I'm a uniter, not a divider, but I can't even keep from dividing a hobo camp against itself. Not that it was my fault.”

The tunnel forks into a crossroads. One path leads left, the other right. Sam stops. “You want to heal the nation?” he says. “Here are your choices.” He points one way. “Follow that until you see moonlight. Climb up the ladder you find there and out through the manhole. You'll be right in front of a police station. Turn yourselves in. Serve your time, pay your dues, see who cares or even notices.” He points the other way. “Or go that way. Follow the underground river to the lake and hop a dirigible for the slimmest possible chance that we can find the beating Heart of America and restore it to its rightful place.” He hands the stack of California blankets to the presidents. In the dim light of Sam's lantern, they can just make out the newsprint.

“This isn't state-owned media,” says Forty-two.

“This is the Failing Times,” says Forty-three.

Sam taps a headline. “A sliver of hope is better than a pile of nope. I forget who said that. Probably me.”

The presidents don't have time to read the article before Sam turns down the corridor to the waterway, taking his lantern with him. It doesn't matter. They only need to see the headline and a glimpse of the blurry photo above the article.

“It's true, then,” say Forty-three.

“It's still out there. The Heart.”

They take off after the bobbing light of Sam's lantern, an afterimage of the headline still flashing in their eyes. “U.S. Constitution Spotted Near Rebel Stronghold.”

Chapter 3: Hobo Code

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“All right, fellas, it's time you learned the Hobo Code.” The presidents sit on milk crates like pupils in grade school. Sam crouches in front of them, drawing in the dirt with a stick. “Now, this would be the language of pictograms that we all use to communicate, not the ethical code by which we all live. We'll cover that later.”

“You wouldn't happen to have a pen and paper, would you?” says Forty-two.

“No notes,” says Sam. He taps his head. “The old brain organ's gonna have to be your pen and paper. You might very well find yourself in a situation where you have to make a split-second choice based on the symbols you see there. You won't have time to check your notes. You're gonna have to know the difference between a safe place and a town that's been burnt by a bad 'bo. First, a brief history of pictograms. The ancient Sumerians...”

Forty-three catches an elbow in the ribs and jolts awake. He snorts and wipes the drool from the corner of his mouth. “Huh? Was I sleeping?”

“Not just sleeping, but snoring,” says Forty-two. “It's hours later on the same day, and we've learned a lot about the system of pictograms that transients use to communicate.”

“Glad that's over with,” Forty-three whispers. “I was always a 'C' student, as in 'C you later, alligator, heh heh.”

“He's pulling your leg,” says Sam. “You were out for about ten seconds. We've still got plenty of material to cover. But I guess we can skip the history for now.” He draws a square with an open top. “This symbol mean's that it's safe to camp in that spot...”

Hours later on the same day, the presidents have learned a lot about the system of pictograms that transients use to communicate, for real this time. Afternoon turns to evening, and a few campers start a Mulligan stew in a giant pot. Everyone who can contribute does so. They start with wild onions and thyme somebody foraged nearby, sauteed in a few pats of foil-wrapped butter pocketed in some diner. Sam throws in a few cans of beans. A couple of kids find some dandelion roots thick enough to chop up like carrots. Someone even manages to fight off a mutant nettle plant. It'll be back someday, for revenge. They have a long memory, stored deep in their roots, passed down through their seeds. It might not find its nemesis, but its sprouts will, or their sprouts after them. On that day, the hobo named Mickey will wake to find his skin red and welted with nettle stings, tufts of hair torn from his scalp, one bald patch for every leaf he tore from the walking nettle that day, downriver from Abby's Jungle. The leaves add a nice fresh, green flavor to the stew.

There's more than enough to feed the whole camp. Forty-two eats his out of an old mason jar, his necktie wrapped around it for insulation. He makes his way through the crowd, gladhanding as much as he can with a jar of stew in one hand. Old habits. He spots a family, two kids of about ten with their parents, eating together by the riverside. He makes his way over. “They gave me a packet of crackers, but I don't need all that salt.” He offers the saltines to the children.

“Say 'thank you,'” says the mother.

“Thank you.” The children split the crackers, crumbling them into their stew.

“They call me Forty-two.” He shakes the couple's hands.

“Martin.”

“Amy.”

“What brings you here?” Forty-two asks the couple.

Amy begins, “We lost our jobs when the-” but she's cut off by Forty-three, who comes running over dragging a middle-aged man by the arm.

“Mission accomplished!” Forty-three shouts. “This guy's the solution to all our problems.”

“We were in the middle of a conversation,” says Forty-two. “These fine people were telling me how they lost their jobs-”

“I've got a job creator right here,” says Forty-three, panting from excitement and brief exertion. He elbows his new friend in the side. “Tell 'em.”

“My name's Amerinext,” says the man. “I'm a corporation down on my luck. All these darned regulations are strangling me. Why, I never even heard of 'pneumoconiosis' until Big Government said it was a problem. Just Big Pharma trying to turn a profit, which of course is their right.”

“He needs a bailout!” says Forty-three. “Come on, you're holding the cash.”

“Are you nuts?” says Forty-two.

“If everybody in the camp gives him part of their road stake, plus a small portion of ours, he'll create enough jobs for everybody here.”

“Well, not the females,” says Amerinext. “Kids okay, though.”

“This is exactly the kind of thing that got us into this mess in the first place,” says Forty-two.

“Oh, there you go, finger-pointing again.”

“Well, if the finger fits-”

He doesn't get to finish his sentence, so we'll have to wait to find out what will happen if the finger fits. “It's the NICE Boys,” somebody shouts. Sure enough, up on the bridge a squadron of NICE agents jump out of an armored car. Two of them rappel down into the congregation. They're swarmed by hobos and tied up with the very ropes they used to descend.

Chaos erupts in the camp. Somebody douses the cook fire. All of the lanterns are snuffed within a few seconds, but the NICE car shines a spotlight down on the crowd.

Abby's already corralling people, ushering them to a secret tunnel under the bridge.

“Come on,” Sam shouts to the presidents. “This way!”

A voice booms out of a bullhorn. “Vagrants,” the voice says, “you are in violation of a lot of laws, assembling and loitering, and some other things. Stop tying up our agents down there. I hate it! You're all going to jail, and I gotta say, this is the worst hobo camp I've seen. The worst. Let me tell you, I would never do a hobo camp, but if I did, it would be great. It would be the best camp.” He drones on like that for a while, in the rhetorical style of his leader. Abby ushers the last of the campers through the secret hatch into their tunnel.

“Take me with you,” says one of the hogtied NICE Boys.

“Sorry,” says Abby. “No room in the tunnels for bulls.” She shuts the hatch. It's pitch black until somebody strikes a match and lights a lantern. “Let's get moving,” says Abby. “They'll be on that bullhorn for a while, but you never know what'll happen with these tools. We can't take any chances.”

Sure enough, not long after they've started their way through the long and winding tunnels, they feel the Earth shake. The muffled sound of an explosion rumbles down the corridor.

“That would be the bridge,” says Abby. “They wrecked my camp.”

Chapter 2: Hobo Camp

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They hop off as soon as the train slows down. “Best to get out before it pulls into the yard,” says the hobo. "Makes it easier to steer clear of the bulls. Don't leave any trash in the car. Always leave a place as good as or better than you found it.”

The night was short, but it was the best sleep the ex-presidents have gotten in weeks, rocked to sleep by the locomotive like babes in a cradle, huddled for warmth in a boxcar.

The dew's still on the grass as they make their way across a field. The hobo expertly opens a can of beans as they walk, takes a bite and passes the can around. “You fellas headed anywhere in particular?” he asks.

Forty-two and Forty-three glance at each other. “We're still working that out,” says Forty-two. “It's not safe being a President these days. Especially since it's been outlawed.”

“Not just outlawed, but unpopular,” says Forty-three. “No matter where we go, we find ourselves persona au gratin.”

“We might be able to help you out on that front,” says the hobo. “Hobos have a knack for finding a place where they're welcome. And leaving when they're not. There's a jungle not far from here. That's what we call a hobo camp. It's under a bridge, but we try to keep the trolls away. We can boil up, at least. Best to let me do the talking when we get there. You might have a silver tongue,” he points to Forty-two, “and you've got folksy charm to spare,” he points to Forty-three, “but you're still as green as a couple of Angelinas.”

“Considering I only understand about half of what you say, I'm happy to let you do the talking,” says Forty-three.

The jungle is more than a campsite, less than a town. It spills out from under an old bridge, spreading out like dandelions on the riverside, a haphazard ragbag of tents and bedrolls. There's a makeshift bathhouse cobbled together from corrugated iron and plywood. Some of the denizens are still sleeping, but the camp is bustling with activity. Hobos of multifarious ages, genders, and backgrounds cook breakfast, wash up, and boil their glad rags in giant pots over campfires.

Forties Two and Three are met with a wary gaze, but everyone seems to recognize their hobo guide. “Ho there, Sam!” somebody hollers. “Where'd you pick up the city slickers?”

“These two flipped a cannonball last night,” Sam answered. “Don't let the suits fool you; they've been carrying the banner for a while now. They've been paddin' the hoof and doggin' it, so I figured I'd give 'em a primer on freighthopping.”

“Just like you to take on a couple of road kids,” says the other hobo.

“Friends,” says Sam to the presidents, “this here's Abby. Abby's a barnacle, which means she's kept a local job for a couple of years now. She runs this camp, so be respectful now. Abby, these two 'bos go by the monikers Forty-two and Forty-three. They're new to the life of an itinerant.”

“To be honest,” says Forty-two, “we much appreciate your guidance and hospitality, but, and I mean no disrespect to your way of life, I'm just not sure the hobo lifestyle is for us.”

Forty-three nods. “Our density lies elsewhere.”

“With all due respect to the former dignity of your former office, I know the lost when I see them.” Abby shakes them both by the hand. “You've been spurned by the very country you thought you served. Your peers, betrayed by you, or you by them. Everything familiar, vanished. Your values, constantly in question. You don't know where to turn. What to do. Men without a country. Men without a purpose.” Abby turns and beckons for them to follow. “There are many here like you,” she makes a sweeping gesture that encompasses the entire camp. The people sharing a plate of fish, meager but freshly caught. The ones helping each other hang their clothes to dry. The ones negotiating a trade of supplies. People asking about work. Looking for friends. Looking for food and clothes for their children, some barely old enough to walk. Some looking at the presidents with scorn. Some with admiration. Most ignoring them altogether as they go about their business.

“None of them will stay for long,” says Abby. “Many will be gone tomorrow, on their way to someplace else. More will come to take their place, passing through like migrant birds. Some return again and again, like Sam. Some we see only once. It is a place of tradition, and a place of change. Of permanence and transience. But one thing is constant. People only come here if they're looking for something. Or someone. Somewhere. That's what the word 'hobo' means: Homeward Bound. Now, strip off your glad rags. We gotta check you for lice.”

Chapter 1: Saxophone Cheeseburger

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The train chugs along, picking up speed with every thrust of the coupling rods. Forty-two jumps, grabs onto the door of the boxcar with one hand, and manages to pull himself inside. Forty-three is jogging along, already falling behind the pace of the train. Forty-two crouches and sticks out his hand. “Come on, I've got you!”

Forty-three reaches for the hand, brushes Forty-two's fingers, falls back. “I can't make it,” he pants. “The bulls are gonna get me.” He glances over his shoulder to see how close they are. They're close, but not that close, but now he's off his stride and he trips. He puts out a hand to brace the fall but still hits his face on the gravel. One of his shoes slips off, loosened by sweat. He picks it up and throws it at the bobbing flashlights. “What the hell,” he mutters. He slips the other shoe off and chucks it, too. One of the flashlights swings up to bat it away and misses. There's a dull thud. Forty-three pumps his fist once, then he's back up and running in his stocking feet.

“There you go!” shouts Forty-two. “You can make it, just grab my hand.”

He's a few cars behind now, but he feels a pulse of adrenaline from beaning the bull with his wingtips. He's already got a stitch, but he pushes through, legs pumping hard to catch up.

“Just a little farther,” says Forty-two, one hand outstretched, the other holding on for life.

Forty-three tries to answer, but he can't catch enough breath to make a word. Forty-two knows what he has to do. He reaches behind his back and grabs the tenor saxophone that hangs there on a strap. He holds it out, reed-first. Forty-three grabs it.

Seconds later, they're both in the car. Forty-three lies on his back, panting. “Now I get it,” he says. “Showing a through at a guy can be mighty satisfying. Er, throwing a shoe, that is.”

“Now you're out of shoes, though,” says forty-two. “Aw, shoot. Dented my sax pulling you in. Look at it.” He looks down dolefully, the yellow strobe from the sodium lights casting a shadow into the dinted brass. This key doesn't close all the way now.”

“I almost missed the ride and you're worried about your sax? I could've been on my way to the hoosegow right now.”

“Well, whose fault would that be, Forty-three?”

“You're blaming this on me?”

“I almost had enough for a bus ticket. We're trying to keep a low profile. You had to go and drum up a crowd. Now the heat's gonna be on us clear into the next county.”

“I was trying to help out. More people, more money. Why do you keep on busking if we're keeping a low profile?”

“It's the only thing that keeps from feeling dead inside,” Forty-two says under his breath.

“What?”

“I said we need the money. I hope you've got a plan, because the riches aren't exactly trickling down.”

“Oh, you love to throw that back in my face.”

“Well, only a moron throws a shoe.”

“I don't need a shoe to clobber you!”

The two men come together, punching and grappling. The train chugs past the last lights of town, leaving the boxcar in the dark. Most of their blows swish through the empty air, but one of the men will have a black eye the next day, the other a fat lip. Their melee is cut short by an unfamiliar voice. “That's enough of that, now.”

The scratch and hiss of a match strike cuts through the noise of the rail. A warm circle of light blooms from the far corner of the boxcar. The hand holding it belongs to a lean and lanky man of about thirty going on ninety. His clothes are mostly patches. His hat's so ragged it looks like an open sack with a band. His beard is scruffier than a used-up pot scrubber. “There's no fighting in a hobo car, gentleman.” He touches the match to the wick of a lamp. The light spreads a little farther. “You fellas nearly blew up my spot,” he says.

Forty-two stands up and staggers a little, still getting his train legs. “Our apologies.” He holds out his hand. “We're traveling businessmen, currently between vehicles. We didn't know this boxcar was occupied. My name is-”

“I know who you are,” says the man in the corner. “Him, too,” nodding at Forty-three. “I voted for one of you, but not t'other, and I'll let you puzzle that out between yourselves. You boys are looking a little scrawny. Been on the road long?”

“Longer than I'd like,” says Forty-three.

“How does a hot meal sound?” He pats his bindle.

“Oh, that sure would hit the spot,” says Forty-three.

“We'd be much obliged,” says Forty-two. “We're a little tight on funds at the moment, but we'd be happy to pay you for it.” He reaches into his pocket, bulging with change and crumpled bills.

“I don't wanna take your whole road stake," says the hobo. “Tell you what. Play me a tune on that old umbrella-horn, and we'll call it square.”

“I'm not sure how it's gonna sound with this dent. This key won't even close.”

“This is America,” says the man. “Everything's a little dented.” He unwraps his bindle and peeks inside. “How does a burger sound?” he says.

“That'd be more than a fella could ask for,” says Forty-three, smacking his lips. “Fresh-ground beef from a corn-fed American cow. I can picture it now. Its black and white majesty plodding across the plains, its ample girth bulging with wet, juicy meat. Its udders swollen with milk, soon to be rendered into individually wrapped cheese-like singles. She hesitates a little on the ramp, but only for a second. She knows her destiny, as the river knows the sea. Medium rare. Ice cold lettuce. Plain white bun.”

“That's not how a burger sounds,” says Forty-two. He presses the saxophone's mouthpiece to his lips. A squeak or two and a wrong note feel just like the sting of an old memory, his jazz fingers feeling their way past the broken key and settling into a smooth riff, just as the memory comes flooding in. The memory of a more carefree time, though he wouldn't have believed it then. A time when he would jog down the street, surrounded by men in suits, his stride sure as he makes his way to those golden arches at the end of the lane.

The song ends. The memory fades. The boxcar is silent for a minute.

The hobo nods. “Now, that's how a burger sounds.”

“Yeah,” says Forty-three. “That's it, all right.”

“I'm a vegan now,” says Forty-two. “With no regrets.”

“Oh, we've all got regrets,” says the hobo. He reaches into his bindle. “Anyway, turns out all I've got is beans.” He holds up a can with the label scraped off. He punches a few holes in the top with a Swiss Army knife can opener and sets the can on top of the lamp to warm. “Better get used to beans. We're all hobos now, Mr. Presidents.”

A Weekly Serial

The year: 20$$. American Presidents have been outlawed. Now, more than forty ex-commanders-in-chief will have to work together if they want to save Democracy. It's a coast to coast road trip through Real America, Fake America, and all the Americas in between. From Heartland to Buttland, sea to rising sea. Is the American dream still alive, or is it nothing but a nightmare?

New chapters every Saturday.