Estimated reading time — 13 minutes
The whole thing started with Davey Stein. His mother, already on her morning chores, had told him that if he was insistent on going outside, to take care, so he was just playing ball and jacks on the front lawn when it happened. Suddenly, a big, green truck drove right through the street, slow enough that everybody in the neighborhood saw it, but too fast for anyone to really know what their business was. Old Mrs. Ellison saw it; she was outside tending her garden as usual when the noise of it drove her back in. Mitchell Keene was taking his morning walk up and down the neighborhood, striding down the sidewalk like a man with a purpose, and lowering his hat to keep out the glare of the May sun. He saw the truck, watching as it sloped down the hill at the end of the street and out of sight.
And that was when Davey Stein spotted the Ashwood kids. It was a brief glimpse, to be sure- just a flash of two little figures behind the fence, two small pale children ducking down right quick, but he was sure that they had peered out to see the truck, too. They didn’t get many people passing through. It was a close-knit community; a rural community, one without much prosperity these days, but one where they took care of their own. And so the scrawny, bespectacled Davey ran back inside his little yellow house, as the heat was oppressive even this early in the day, and frankly, he had finally seen all he needed to see.
The boy was dutiful, his voice laden with concern. “I think the Ashwood kids are home, Ma,” he told his mother as she was folding sheets on the parlor sofa. “And not just that, they seem… scared. And weak, real weak. Like they’d been… hiding from everybody.” She brushed her hair back and looked intently at her son, her eyes begging him to go on. “I think I even saw some- bruises, Ma.” She sighed and set the laundry aside, imploring him to sit beside her, and Davey obliged.
In spite of himself, his voice became faint, even a bit choked up. “There has to be SOMEthing you can do about it, Mom… you could intervene, I know you could. You’re in the Red Cross, that has to count for something!”
“Oh Davey,” she said softly. The woman was emotionally drained and exhausted from working all day with no husband beside her. “Come here.” She hugged her son to her tightly, stroking his dark matted hair. “I know you care about those kids… anybody would. And you never got to have a brother or sister of your own.”
“Exactly!” he protested. “That’s a good thing. So maybe one of them could come live with us or… or something like that.”
She couldn’t help but faintly laugh. “Under this roof? With what food and clothing- does it just come out of thin air?” She rubbed his arm affectionately. “I feel for those children, I really do. And you did the right thing telling me. But you KNOW I haven’t heard back from the Red Cross headquarters yet…” Her tired eyes went over to the two-way radio on the stand.
Davey tried once more. “Couldn’t we- go into town? Maybe somebody…”
“You know it’s hard these days, especially walking all that way when it’s so hot. Maybe when Mr. Shuster finally repairs the car, alright?” He finally smiled back, his big, round eyes still gazing out the window and at the small, plain white house at the end of the street. The Ashwood house.
Mrs. Ashwood was inside that very moment, looking blankly at the curtains over the windows as she, too, had heard the truck. Her children darted back in the house only to withdraw to their bedroom, and she barely noticed. These days she didn’t notice much. She considered cursing them for having wandered out again, for DISOBEYING her, but she was too tired. More often than not she spent her days inside just listening to the radio, staring off into space as the broadcast droned on, cutting in and out until eventually she fell asleep to the comforting dull of static.
Their little blue fridge was nearly empty, but the children were too frightened to say a word, let alone show her tears. She’d grown angry, hard, like a statue of a mother instead of a loving, caring hand to calm them. And so they stayed in their rooms, rocking quietly and clutching one another while the world outside went on without them.
Mrs. Ellison lived next door, and stood where she did most days, shaking her head and mumbling over the pitiful crops this month- another lousy harvest. She was the neighborhood gossip, and so naturally when she’d realized how seldom those kids were seen or heard, she had started to grow concerned. It was lonely for Mrs. Ellison these days- especially after Iggy, her beloved tabby, had died the week prior, so she went to her usual source for chat- Mrs. Stein, just across the street.
The old woman knocked, sighing and fanning herself on their porch, until Mrs. Stein appeared behind a worn mesh screen, a smile stretched across her thin face. They exchanged pleasantries, and she told Mrs. Ellison how sorry she was about Iggy- at this, they both went quiet. Then the older lady piped back up, saying how she’d like to get some books, but can’t drive anymore. Just then, their neighbor and farmer emerged from his field behind the houses, good old Jim Van Horne, beads of sweat dripping down his tanned visage.
“Hello ladies,” he said with a hospitable grin, and they greeted him back. “Oh Mr. Van Horne… I’ve been thinking of going to the library,” Mrs. Ellison said wistfully, “but I’m just not sure. Are you heading into town with crops this week? Have you heard any news?”
He wiped his face with a rag and shook his head. “I’m awful sorry to say, but it doesn’t matter ‘bout the library. Old place finally shut down for good. I reckon I’d better have a drink then get back to the seedlings… it’s mighty tough this time of year.” They said their goodbyes, and at first the old woman was crestfallen, but Mrs. Stein took her hand and told her, “Don’t worry now- I have just the thing.” She disappeared for a moment back into her parlor and Mrs. Ellison waited as the lady hastily picked up a couple of paperbacks. “Here,” she said, and cheerily handed them over. “Hope they’ll do for now. There’s plenty more where that came from.”
With a nervous glance, Mrs. Ellison handed back the book she’d borrowed last week- and with it, a note slipped delicately in the cover, the way they always did. Mrs. Stein looked at it covertly, and sighed. She’d knew it all this time… she just didn’t want to face it. “Poor children,” she murmured, and Mrs. Ellison simply shook her head before thanking the woman and tottering home, past the vegetable garden that just wouldn’t grow, and looked over the Ashwood family’s fence before she went inside.
Mitchell Keene watched her leave before tipping his brim at Mrs. Stein, who nodded politely and went in. His stroll complete, he walked across the street to Charlie Shuster, hard at work on the Stein family car. “Hello, Mr. Keene!” Charlie called jovially, wiping his face with the back of his hand.
“How goes the repairs, then?” Mitchell asked with a smile.
Charlie was grim. “Ahh, not too darn well… gonna be hard to find the parts I need, that’s for sure.”
“Well, then you’re in luck.” Mr. Keene leaned in closer. “I happen to be planning a trip into town, real soon, too. And I’ll be able to get resources. You know how we are here, Charlie.” He put his hand warmly on Mr. Shuster’s. “Good times or bad, we always stick together. Speaking of which…”
Now his voice was low and stern. Mitchell Keene had a hard face, made rough beyond its years by the sun, and he was a no-nonsense man that made sure everything would be taken care of in its due time. So when he spoke- people listened. “Now Charlie,” he said, “I’m worried that I haven’t seen the Ashwood girl or boy in a while… have you?”
Shuster shook his head. “Sorry, can’t say I have.”
“It’s just that Mrs. Ashwood… well, I’m not sure I trust their mother or what things she might get up to, if you catch my meaning.” Mitchell stood upright and sighed, eyes scanning around his neighborhood. “Call me old-fashioned, Charlie, but when I look at my boy Henry- well, I just long for the way things were back in the days you could trust a mother with her own children. You know?”
Charlie nodded. “Oh I do sir, I do. Seein’ kids hurt like that… it’s enough to make a fella sick.”
Mr. Keene turned to face him squarely. “We’ll be having a little meeting tonight at my house, say around seven. Do you think you could rally some of the folks together? It’d sure be swell if we could talk things out- I’m going out hunting with a few of the boys.” He glanced down at his watch. “In fact, I’d better hop to it. Could ya do that for me, Charlie?”
“Well sure.” He shook his hand amicably. “Seven it is. Best of luck on the hunt- it’s tricky ‘round these woods nowadays, ain’t it?”
Mitchell laughed and waved as he started home. “It sure is, Charlie. See you later, then!” And with their gear and rifles at the ready, the local men set off into the forest, Mr. Keene patting his son on the head and telling him to be the big man- keep an eye out for any trouble while his father’s away. Little Henry nodded, then went looking for a playmate.
He finally had gathered up Davey Stein, still restless from earlier, and young Laura Prewitt, a precious little thing who was thrilled to play baseball. With Henry donning his mitt, the three took to the open street and began idly tossing the ball around, all a bit tired what with chores and that scorching sun. But they still laughed and chased the ball back just to throw it again, the way kids do. That is, until it landed behind a fence- right in the middle of the Ashwood’s yard.
Laura pouted, and Henry hung his head in disappointment, until at once they heard rustling bushes. There was quick but definite movement behind the slats of the fence. At first all three children began to near the backyard, but that was when Davey noticed newspaper hastily put up, blocking the bedroom windows, that wasn’t there before. He held the two younger kids back with a wave of his hand, brow furrowed in worry, before gingerly approaching the fence.
When Davey got close enough he could make out two small figures hiding in what little shadow remained of the day- a gangly little boy of about 7, clutching the baseball like a prize in his two little hands, skinny arms visibly bruised right up until they disappeared under a shirt far too big. It was even worse than anyone had thought. Silently the boy (Danny was his name, Davey remembered, Danny Ashwood) handed the ball to his sister, aged nine, who was in a dirty parka with stuffing exposed on one side, wearing sunglasses that contrasted against her pale skin, which reminded Davey of a porcelain doll.
The girl’s, Susie’s, cracked lips gave him a weak smile as she handed the ball back over the fence, and then brother and sister slowly backed behind their house again, and Davey likewise retreated, a sick uneasy feeling in his stomach. “Here now, I’ve got the ball,” he told his two young playmates, trying to act cheery and hoping they hadn’t just seen what he had. “C’mon, Henry, I’ll run back and you catch next, yeah?”
Henry looked down at his mitt and shrugged. “I dunno, Davey… it’s too dang hot out here. And mother wants me home soon anyway for supper. Just one more, alright?” The older boy agreed, and Henry ran a ways and caught it right in his glove, smiling a bit before heading home. Laura Prewitt listlessly chewed her nails and half-heartedly tossed the ball with Davey, but soon they, too, went back to their respective homes, not before Laura gave a sideways glance at that quiet, plain white house on the corner before vanishing inside.
That evening a group convened around Mitchell Keene’s dining table- he and his wife Norma, Charlie Shuster, Mrs. Prewitt with little Laura in tow, and a couple of the hunters from the end of the block. They were all grateful as Norma put out a plate of crackers and some old, hard cheese, and each began chewing even as they spoke.
“I have seen those poor children DUCKING down when I pass by,” Mrs. Prewitt said, appalled. “I mean, my Laura never got that thin no matter how tough times were.” Some of the others nodded in agreement.
Charlie chimed in, “And I haven’t seen them playing with no other kids, neither. It isn’t right.” At that moment there was a knock, and Davey’s mother entered late with an apology, greeting the hosts before she got down to things.
“I know we’re all concerned for the children. I… I have plenty of medical supplies still at my house, you know.” She looked around the room but didn’t find many faces open to her suggestion, and felt desperate. “I may just be one woman, but… well, Mrs. Ellison is coming behind me. And she would know- they live just next door. So ask her… please.”
Mitchell Keene stood and splayed his hands out on the table like a pastor addressing his flock. “Look- I’m not one to be stingy but let’s talk facts. We only have so many resources, even with yours, Mrs. Stein.” The woman looked down, almost regretting her attendance. “Everybody here has had to pull TOGETHER, and that doesn’t make this any easier. Months now without help. How much more can we take?” His wife put a hand on his arm and her lip trembled with the threat of tears, but he steadied her. It was no way for children to live. No way at all. A single drop ran down onto her blouse as she imagined her Henry suffering that way.
Mrs. Ellison had finally arrived. “Yes, those little children,” she said thoughtfully. “Now, I’m not one to pry-“
“Hang on just a second,” interrupted Charlie with a hint of frustration. “Just because you’re next door we hang our plans on your say-so?”
Mrs. Ellison held her own. “I may be old, Charlie Shuster, but I have brought plenty to the table when it comes to keeping our little group together. And if you think that makes me soft, you think AGAIN, son.” He averted his eyes like a scolded schoolboy. “Now something HAS to be done about those kids. Just wasting away in that house while their mother is up to God-knows-what, and the father nowhere to be seen…”
“I can’t take it,” Mrs. Prewitt blurted out, the tension in the room almost tangible. “I, I’m sorry. But I just can’t. I’ve had enough and… and so has my little girl, for God’s sakes!” She scooped up the child in her arms, eyes scouring all their faces wildly. “Now whatever you decide, I won’t be a part of it. Come on, dear.” And with that, she stormed out and back across the street. The rest of the people in the room exchanged dark, heavy glances.
Davey Stein was back in his yellow house, reading an old Boy Scout manual by candlelight as his mother slipped back in, having left the meeting unsatisfied. Mrs. Prewitt, too, was home, forcing a smile as she rolled the dice on the Monopoly board Laura’d got for her birthday last year, on the front porch; she quickly ushered the girl inside, careful to keep the board straight so they didn’t lose their houses, when she saw the group emerging from Mitchell Keene’s house. Mrs. Ashwood was clutching her husband’s pillow to her cheek as her dark, bleary eyes looked out into the moonlit floor.
And finally, just outside, in the relative safety of night, Susie Ashwood knelt by the fence and idly tugged at the tape patching her jeans, straining to listen for the sound of anything- a barking dog, the local train, the forest that grew stiller each day. But none of those things caught her ear anymore. She straightened up to hear Mrs. Prewitt’s slamming door when suddenly she was caught by the wrist, albeit gently, by Mrs. Ellison, who led her to the front door of the Ashwood house.
The rest of the neighbors ushered over her brother Danny, who was pulling at blades of dead, brown grass. He followed them with the same blank stare he’d had for months- as if he was looking into nothing, and yet seeing so much. Susie grasped for his hand as they backed toward their front door, and she shifted her sunglasses nervously, shying away from the neighbors and their flashlights.
Mrs. Ashwood was startled by a loud knock, and pried the door open a few inches, her eyes fierce and angry behind the chain. “I don’t believe the nerve of you-“ Mitchell Keene stepped forward and that made her fall dead silent, his wife Norma cowering behind him. Suddenly Mrs. Ashwood realized. “Susie? Danny? Oh God, my Susie!” She knew at once that they’d snuck out again, and that they had finally been seen- she looked down and surely enough, there were her children, the adults forming a protective circle around them.
“Now just calm down, Mrs. Ashwood,” said Charlie Shuster in a steely voice. “If you had just followed the rules, like everybody else here…” There were murmurs within the crowd. “Then it wouldn’t have come to this.”
Little Danny Ashwood wanted to speak, but fear had shut him up and all he could manage was to hide behind his big sister, away from the harsh, bright lights the neighbors carried.
Mr. Keene cleared his throat. “He’s right. We have ALL had to make… sacrifices.” At this, Norma became weepy and choked out, “You weren’t the only house with more than one child!” before she broke into sobs and buried herself in her husband’s shoulder. But Mitchell just put on a hard, strict manner and said, “Mrs. Ashwood, you should be thinking about EVERYone. There are other children in this community, not just yours.”
“I know I’m a senior woman,” Mrs. Ellison rasped, “but that doesn’t mean I’m ready to die yet. And nobody else should have to if we can just make it through- nobody else that can work. I garden. I’ve sacrificed my own. MANY of us have.” She seized the children and brought them forth even as their mother screamed and struggled to unchain the door, Susie and Danny trying to break away as they were thrust into a sea of ragged people, hands worn to the bone and twitching in anticipation of the resources the Ashwoods had been holding back all this time. At the thought of their TWO children, unlike so many other families that had just one…
Finally Mrs. Ashwood burst out onto the grass and her children grabbed frantically at her skirts as they were forced into the light, her shift dress having long since lost its flowery pattern. It was burned clean of its hue and now lay like a white, shapeless robe around her, and she spat out her words as she put a scarred hand over each child, the dress draped about her thin frame like a ghost. “You cannot… have… MY CHILDREN!” Her screech rang out into the night, and that was when the neighbors, the POSSE, saw the two of them and fell silent.
Danny, his head bulging out at an angle where hair didn’t grow, and his legs curved in slightly at the knee, eyes looking up at all of the adults red-rimmed as he left out a rattly cough, making them to take a step back. Wanting so much to protect him, brave little Susie removed her sunglasses to reveal wet blue eyes turned milky white by the blast, her blonde hair thin and missing in patches. At last their mother found her courage and her voice, telling them hoarsely, “Do you want the truth? Because I can TELL you that much.”
Even Mitchell Keene looked down at his feet. There was a slow, poorly feeling settling into all of them, and Mrs. Ashwood was at her breaking point. “My husband took a new job down in the city. We were visiting him the 23rd. Do you see, then? DO YOU SEE?” She thrust out her arms as if to show the world. “We tried to run when we heard sirens but… we got caught in the wave and, well, all the rest.” Her arms came back down to hold her children close. “Eventually we made it back home, back before the buses stopped running. But if you try… if you even TRY to lay a finger on one of my children…” Her entire body shook furiously. “Well, then you’ll have to take me first.”
Charlie Shuster shook his head and walked off in disgrace. The Keenes backed away, Mitchell speechless for once in his life, before dismissing everybody back home with a wave of his hand. As the rest began to disperse, Mrs. Keene slowly kneeled down to the children’s level, cautious not to get too close, in order to meet Susie’s pearly white gaze. Norma whispered to them both, “I’m so… so sorry. Forgive us.” She unsteadily wandered away, the shameful tears once again promising to devour her. Sacrifice meant something… very real to her. And while little Henry lay in bed back home, in the still of the dark, he didn’t sleep. Not facing the empty bed opposite his. Not anymore.
Once inside, Mrs. Ashwood bolted the door and sank to the ground as she held her children close to her, breathing hard with relief. The exhausted, hungry crowd begrudgingly went back to their porches, sat back on their sofas, realizing with defeat that there was nothing they could get from the Ashwoods. They had been in the city zone that fateful September day, and couldn’t yield a thing for the increasingly desperate neighborhood, exposed and infected the way they were. Like tainted meat.