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Jimmy’s parents called, wishing him a happy birthday and telling him they were “holding down the fort” in Trenton, by the capitol building. They were there with dozens of their friends, and they were rotating their shifts so that some people got to drive home and sleep.

“I’m jealous,” Jimmy admitted once he’d hung up.

I tried to comfort him with a back rub, but it only made him tense to have my cold hands against his back. Tense, until he got used to it.

We were listening to the news, waiting for some change. But it was the same news over and over, just as it was the same speech over and over from the stage.

“It’s cool to be here,” I reminded him.

“No, it’s cold to be here,” he corrected. “Damn Kansas.”

I knew the trap we were about to fall into—Jimmy was becoming testy, which would make me anxious, which would make him even more testy, which would make me even more anxious…until our exasperation would boil over into outright annoyance. I didn’t want that to happen. So I told him I was going to walk around with Elwood for a little bit. He didn’t invite himself along.

All of this time, I’d thought that the true test of our relationship would be if we were torn apart, if somehow I lost him and couldn’t get him back. But now I understood the truer test is actually in staying together, in following hour of us with hour of us with hour of us.

I hoped we would make it.

twenty-five

“Tell me about Passover,” Elwood asked. We were just walking—no real destination in sight. I had one eye out for Sue; I was hoping he’d found his father but was sure that if he hadn’t he’d still be around, searching.

“Passover? That’s not until April.”

“I know,” Elwood said. “But I’ve never celebrated it. I can’t wait to.”

It’s not that I hadn’t given Passover much thought; the whole point of Passover was to give it thought. But I’d never tried to explain it before, especially to an aspiring Jew.

“Well, my whole family gathers for a seder. It’s basically a big family meal, only you have a Haggadah to read from—it’s basically the story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, and you retell it every year to remember what happened, like the fact that God parted the Red Sea and we escaped from the pharaoh.”

“I know that part,” Elwood said solemnly.

“Yup. But it’s more than that. On Passover, we remember that no matter where we are in our lives and in the world, we were once slaves and we were once strangers. And because of that—because we were the victims of injustice—we must dedicate ourselves to fighting injustice, to fighting slavery, and to being kind to all strangers, for we ourselves were once strangers in a strange land. You end by saying, ‘Next year in Jerusalem; next year may all be free!’ And that means everyone, Jews and non-Jews. It reminds us that our goal is to make the world an ideal place.”

“And you eat matzoh.”

“Yes, we eat matzoh. Unleavened bread. Because the bread in the desert didn’t have enough time to rise.”

“I love matzoh.”

I looked at Elwood. “When have you had matzoh?”

He blushed. “I snuck some. Is that okay?”

I smiled and told him I was sure it was okay.

I felt bad for Elwood, because I knew that when this was all over, he’d have to go back home and deal with whatever limitations lived there. But I also felt that clearly there was no way to keep the outside world away from him. Soon enough, when he was old enough to leave, he would get to live in that outside world and be whoever he wanted to be. It was no doubt frustrating to wait. But the wait would be worth it. We in the outside world would welcome him.

I wondered how long it would take the governor of Kansas to recount the votes. I wondered if he could really swing the election the other way. I wondered if the country could survive that, or if we’d go back to being brainwashed by products and false wars and individual conflicts.

I was impatient. If it was all going to go wrong, I wanted it to go wrong now. I wanted to know whether staying here would be worth it. Only the outcome would decide that.

“Maybe next year I’ll go to Jerusalem,” Elwood said.

We say: Anything is possible. But what we mean is: I hope that good is possible.

When Elwood and I returned, Jimmy’s spirits seemed to have thawed a little.

“Wanna go on a supply run to the bus?” he asked me. “Sara met up with Clive and returned the keys. We’re going to go and get the rest of the Everything Bars.”

“Whatever you want, Birthday Boy,” I answered.

“I suppose a Holy Ghostwriter encore is out of the question?”

“You mean you want me to put out again?”

“Only if it wouldn’t put U out.”

I swatted at him, and he swatted at me.

“Bickering!” Gus called out.

“It’s not bickering!” we shouted back.

Janna, Mandy, Elwood, and Virgil were going to come along with us.

“We’re leaving Mira and Keisha in the same place at the same time?” I asked Jimmy. “Was there any troop movement while I was gone?”

Jimmy shook his head. “Nope. But do you really think there should be?”

The rest of our group was ahead of us. It was just the two of us talking.

“You don’t?” I asked.

He paused. We were approaching the counterprotesters. They were looking bedraggled—as hungry, cold, and unwashed as we were. Their shouting wasn’t as loud now, but the edge in it was sharper.

We tried to ignore it.

“Don’t you want them to get back together?” I pressed.

Jimmy shrugged. “Honestly, I don’t know. I mean, what Keisha did was pretty rotten, no matter what Sara says. How can Mira ever trust her again?”

“But if she’s sorry, doesn’t that matter?”

We weren’t talking about us, but with any couple, whenever you talk about another couple it becomes at least partly a conversation about your own relationship.

“If Keisha’s so sorry, she shouldn’t have been making out with Sara,” Jimmy said. I wasn’t crazy about the judgment in his voice…but then I thought, If it had been Jimmy with Sara, wouldn’t I be saying the same thing?

It was so complicated. I wanted forgiveness from Jimmy, even though it wasn’t for me.

Once we were closer to the bus, Janna ducked back to us.

“Did you see those Decents protesting?” she asked. “They weren’t in good shape.”

“Maybe that means they’ll leave,” Jimmy said. “Or at least we can hope.”

I didn’t disagree with that. It would have been satisfying to outlast them.

We looked ahead to Virgil, Mandy, and Elwood. They seemed to be studying something on the bus. When we caught up with them, we saw what they were looking at—eggs that had been hurled at the bus’s windows and sides.

“Waste of good food,” Virgil said.

“Do you think it was Sara?” Mandy joked.

Janna stuck her finger in one of the egg spots.

“Nope. This is a fresh assault. We could still make an omelet if we hurry.”

We took a look at the other side of the bus, but apparently this side—the one with Gus’s words on it—had been the only object of attack. I felt a little strange—what if the eggsailants were still close by? What if they chose another food group to attack us with?

I think my uneasiness was shared, since we moved with much more efficiency and much less talk than we had the day before. We unloaded the last boxes of Everything Bars and a few extra blankets we’d taken. Then we locked up and started heading back—although not before each of us had used the bus’s restroom. It wasn’t spacious, but it was still a sight cleaner than the toilet cubes that had been set up around Topeka.

“All right,” Virgil said when the last of us was finished. “Let’s beat it.”

As we started back toward downtown, I said to Jimmy, “I bet this isn’t how you pictured your seventeeth birthday.”

“Yeah, I can’t say this is what I thought it would be. I mean, I knew I’d be in Kansas, but I had no idea I’d still be with you.”

He was joking, but somewhere it hurt.

Janna shot me a look. She understood.

Mandy asked Virgil what his weirdest birthday ever was, and he told us a story involving a surprise party, a mental hospital, a Buick, and Flora with a nest of cherries in her hair.

It was good to be laughing, as all of us were. All of us except Janna, who seemed to have something else on her mind.

It was only when we got to the counterprotesters that we found out what it was.

twenty-six

“We need to help them,” Janna said.

I knew exactly who she meant, but even Mandy was a little confused.

“Who?” she asked.

“Them.” Janna pointed to the ragged bunch of screamers that we were approaching, their posters a little worn but still full of poisoned words. “Look at those kids on the side. I wonder if they’ve had anything to eat the past two days. We should offer them some of the Everything Bars. We have plenty, especially with the triplets and Sue gone. We should share. It’s what Jesus would want us to do.”

I was in no position to argue what Jesus would or wouldn’t do.

“Really, Janna,” Jimmy said, “I think that’s too much. We can share with the people around us at the rally. I’m sure they’d be happy to have some Everything Bars.”

“No. Look at them.” Sure enough, there were a bunch of kids at the edge of the counterprotest, looking like they missed home in a big way. A camera crew was nearby, asking an adult to spew some vitriol for the news.

But Janna wouldn’t relent. “Luke, chapter six, verses thirty-five and thirty-six,” she said. “‘Love your opponents, do good to them, and give to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because God is kind to the ungrateful and cruel. Be merciful, just as God is merciful.’ That’s what ‘U R 4 Me and I M 4 U’ is all about.”

“‘U R 4 Me and I M 4 U’?” This time Jimmy didn’t hold back his laugh. “How about, ‘They R Not 4 Us, So We Should Give Our Food 2 People Who R’?”

“Why don’t we vote?” Janna asked. “All in favor?”

Janna and Mandy raised their hands. And Virgil. And Elwood. And me.

“Against?”

Jimmy didn’t bother to raise his hand.

“Fine. Be that way.” He looked at me. “Sometimes I don’t understand you at all.”

“C’mon…,” Mandy said.

“No—you go ahead.” Jimmy held up his hands in surrender. “I’m just not going to do it with you. I’m going to walk past them and have them tell me I’m going to hell and that I’m a dirty black fag. You can go eat with them.”

I saw his point. Really, I did. It’s just that I saw Janna’s point more.

“Jimmy,” I said. I wanted him to stay. I desperately wanted him to stay. Partly because that would mean he didn’t think I was wrong.

“Do what you want, Dunc,” he replied, shutting me down. “I’ll be sure to send over my birthday cake for them when they’re done with the Everything Bars.”

Virgil started to say something then, but Jimmy was already leaving. I started to follow, but Virgil told me, “Let him go.”

And I did.

I don’t think they saw us. Not the adults, at least. But the kids knew something was up. There were about ten of them, and none of them was over eight. Janna got to them first. “Here,” she said, handing a little girl an Everything Bar. “It’s the chocolate kind.”

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