Authors: Terri Blackstock
He heard the wagon up ahead and saw the kids breaking out of the trees and running across a parking lot. Perfect. If he got them on level ground, they’d never outrun him.
But they’d thrown more limbs across the path.
And they were fast, really fast. Still fifty yards or more behind them, Jeff chased them as they crossed an empty lot and cut behind a church. Then they vanished again. Jeff stopped as he came to the church, balancing the bike with his foot on the ground, trying to catch his breath as he looked around for some sign of them. He heard the wagon rattling, then a gate slammed.
Taking off toward the sound, he came to a tall fence. He tried to push the gate open, but they had bolted it. He rammed it with his shoulder, but it wouldn’t budge.
Reluctantly leaving his bike, he scaled the fence. Jumping down, he saw the back of an apartment complex. Garbage was piled waist-high behind the building, and the stench almost made him gag. He saw the boys disappearing around the far corner of the building.
Wiping the sweat out of his eyes, Jeff followed. The sign said Sandwood Place Apartments. There were the boys — running up the stairs, slowed by the weight of their boxes and the neighbors in their way. They got their loot to a door and disappeared inside.
Jeff ran up the stairs two at a time — past people sitting on the steps — and banged on the door he’d seen them go in. “Open up!”
He pounded again. “I’m not leaving here until you open this door, you little thieves!”
Rage exploded inside him. Kicking the door, he shouted, “Give me back my food!”
But there was nothing but silence behind the door.
HE DOOR TO THE NEXT APARTMENT OPENED AND A WOMAN
looked out. She was pale and skinny with long, stringy black hair and yellow teeth. Even so, she looked young — not that much older than Deni. “Hold it down out here, would ya?” she said. “I’m trying to sleep!”
Jeff banged again, determined to get to the children inside. “Some kids in there broke into my house and robbed us.”
The woman looked mildly interested. “What’d they get?”
He raked his hand through his light brown hair. “Our food, that’s what,” he bit out. “And I’m here to get it back.”
“Careful, they got a gun. They wave it around at everybody. Somebody would have strung them up by now if they didn’t have it.”
“So I heard,” he said. “Is it loaded?”
“Don’t know for sure. But if you want to find out, bust that door in. We haven’t had any good entertainment around here in months.”
He noticed the curtain on the front window being pulled back, someone looking out through the bottom of the miniblinds.
What would his father do? Probably weigh the danger and walk away. But there was no way Jeff could do that. They had worked for weeks tilling the yards, cultivating the garden, and taking care of the plants; they had bartered everything they had of any worth. They’d traded an ax for a bag of potatoes. A shovel for some beans. Two of their flashlights for a couple of loaves of homemade bread. And these little thugs were not getting it.
But they had a gun. And that meant he had to be smart about this.
In a voice loud enough to be heard through the door, he told the woman, “Well, I guess they’re not coming out. I’ll have to come back later.”
The woman stepped back into her apartment and closed the door as Jeff started back toward the stairs. But he didn’t go down. He waited just around the side of the building at the top of the stairwell, watching for the door to open.
He hadn’t noticed the parking lot before, he’d been so focused on getting to the kids. Like every other parking lot in town, it was full of cars that hadn’t moved since May 24. Several people on the stairs stared up at him. No one looked inclined to interfere. If they felt as bitter toward the brats as that woman had, maybe they’d be glad to see them get theirs.
He sat for half an hour or so, watching people bringing sloshing buckets of dirty water home. Where did they get it? There wasn’t a lake nearby.
And how could they grow food when everything around them was paved? How did they cook with no electricity or gas? And what was up with that garbage piled up in the back of the buildings?
Men clustered out in the parking lot as if they had nothing else to do. Women supervised children playing on the pavement. The smoke from a grill rose nearby. At least they had that.
Finally, the door at 4B opened, and the two boys stepped cautiously out.
Jeff watched, hidden, until they turned away from him, then launched himself and ran toward that door. The boys didn’t see him until he shoved their door open behind them and pushed his way into the apartment. The younger one shouted, “It’s him!”
A little girl screamed.
Undaunted, Jeff walked through the filthy, dark apartment, trying to look as threatening as he could. At five-eleven, he towered above the skinny children. The living room was smaller than his family’s laundry room, and the place smelled almost as rank as the garbage outside. Through an open doorway, Jeff could see a little red-haired boy sitting at the cruddy kitchen table, eating squash out of a jar with his fingers. Next to him, the screaming girl of about three stood on her knees, holding a carrot. Snot had dried under her nose and her hands were filthy.
“Get out of here!” the oldest boy shouted.
“You stole my food, you little punk! I want it back.” Jeff bolted into the tiny kitchen and saw that some of the jars of vegetables had already been opened and eaten. They hadn’t wasted any time. The boy at the table started to cry, and the preschool-aged girl screamed in a higher pitch.
Jeff suddenly felt like
was the criminal, here to torment innocent kids. But they were anything but innocent. “I’m not turning you over to the police,” he said, quieter now. “Just give me back what you haven’t eaten and we’ll call it even.”
“We’re not giving nothing back!” the kid cried.
The second child — the other thief — emerged from a bedroom with a gun. “You better leave, Mister.”
Jeff lifted his hands, palms out — placating rather than surrendering. “Chill out. I don’t want to hurt anybody. Put the gun down.”
But the boy wouldn’t lower the gun.
“Look,” Jeff said, “I don’t care what you do. You can steal from everybody in town. Just give me back my food and from now on leave our house alone.”
“Give it to me, Joey.” The oldest took the gun, keeping it aimed at Jeff. “I ain’t afraid to use this,” he said through his teeth.
Jeff’s breath caught in his chest. What would happen if they shot him? Would that detached, bitter neighbor next door leave him to bleed to death? Would they drag his body out and leave him in the garbage? Would someone go for the police?
The two little ones at the table quieted, as though the gun brought them comfort. Sweat dripped into Jeff’s eyes.
“Shoot him, Aaron,” Joey bit out.
Jeff latched onto his name. “No, Aaron. You don’t want to shoot me. Then you
be in trouble.”
If there was any doubt that the gun was loaded, Joey’s attitude almost banished it. Yet Jeff was standing in front of the little ones. If the gun was loaded, wouldn’t Aaron fear killing them?
Ammo was hard to come by, since all the stores that had once carried it had been robbed and shut down by now. With no transportation to bring new merchandise in, few of the stores had reopened.
Besides, what kind of parents would leave four children with a loaded gun?
He decided to take a chance. Lowering his hands, he said, “Where are your parents? I want to talk to them.”
“I’m in charge here,” Aaron said.
“Right. Just tell me when your mother’ll be home. I want to talk to her.”
“She’s not comin’ home,” the little girl cried in a distraught, lilting voice. “Is she, Aaron?”
Aaron shook his head. “Our mother is none of your business.”
Jeff frowned. “Then your dad. Where is he?”
“We don’t got a dad,” the youngest boy said.
“Shut up, Luke!” Aaron moved closer with the gun.
“Well, you can’t be living here by yourselves.”
Aaron grabbed one of the jars that hadn’t been opened, handed it to Jeff while keeping that gun on him. “Take this and go. I don’t want to shoot you.”
Jeff took the jar. “I don’t want you to, either. So just put the stinkin’ gun down.”
“No! Not until you leave!”
The other boy, the one who had hung behind Aaron, thrust the bag of potatoes at him. “Here. Now go.”
Jeff gladly took them. He saw an empty cardboard box on the floor and loaded them into it. When he rose up, he looked for the rest of it. Some of it was on the filthy kitchen counters. Roaches feasted openly on the counter crud. How did they live like this? The smell alone was killing him.
And the kids were so skinny, as if a gust of wind might break them in two. The girl looked like that little good-ship lollipop kid in those black-and-white movies — only with brown hair and dirt everywhere. And she wasn’t much bigger than a toddler.
Despite his anger, his heart softened. “Look, I can see that you guys are hungry. You probably only steal so you can eat. Am I right?”
The little girl wiped her wet eyes, smearing dirt across her cheek, and deferred to her brothers. But none of them answered.
“You can’t go breaking into people’s homes and stealing their food,” he said. “That could get you killed. Does your mother know that you do that?”
The kids all just stared at him. Aaron kept clutching the gun.
“Look, just let me talk to her. When will she be home? Is she at work?”
“We don’t know where she is,” the boy who looked around five piped in. “She left and never came back.”
Aaron shot him a dangerous look. “Luke, don’t tell him nothin’ else.”
But Jeff tried anyway. “How long ago did your mother leave? Hours? Days?”
Joey, the second little thief, nodded.
“Did you look for her?”
“Yeah,” Aaron said. “But we didn’t find her. We don’t need her, anyway. We get by just fine by ourselves.”
“If we have to,” Aaron said.
Jeff started to suggest that they work for their food, or grow it, like everybody else. But these were little kids. They had no place to dig, to till, to plant. Where did they even get the water they needed each day? With no one to take care of them, he couldn’t imagine what kind of life they were living.
Gathering some of his unopened jars from the counter, he reached for the bag of apples. But the food didn’t matter so much anymore. Maybe the kids needed the apples more than his family did. Leaving them on the counter, he lifted the box with the meager things he’d salvaged and backed toward the door. Aaron kept the gun trained on him.
“I’m going, okay?” Jeff said. “Just keep the rest of it, but don’t break into my house again. I know where you live, understand? I’ll come after you, and next time I’ll bring
No one said a word. He backed out the door, and Joey slammed it shut. He heard the dead bolt clicking.
Jeff looked around at the neighbors who had come out of their apartments to see the show. As he passed, they eyed the things in his box. Everyone here seemed hungry. He felt a sudden need to get out of there fast. He jogged down the stairs and back the way he’d come, around behind the building, through the garbage heap at the edge of the woods, and back to the fence. He unbolted the gate and went through. His bike was still there.
Making his way back through the woods, thoughts of those kids haunted his mind. Somehow, he’d have to convince his parents to help the thieves that had robbed them.
HE WARM AIR RIPPLED WITH ANTICIPATION AS THE
Hollow residents waited for government news. But Deni Branning’s anticipation was greatest of all. She’d heard that the postmaster was bringing mail today. She’d been waiting weeks for word from Craig, her fiancé‚ in Washington, D.C. If it didn’t come today, she might just drown herself in the lake.
She pulled her dark brown hair out of its ponytail, finger-brushed it back up, and bound it again. The heat was already oppressive. Oh, how she longed for air-conditioning! Her friend Chris looked even hotter than she. Instead of wearing shorts, as Deni had this morning, Chris wore her nursing scrubs. Her shoulder-length, wavy blonde hair was pinned into a bun, but perspiration glistened on her neck.
Even in the sweltering August heat, almost every able-bodied citizen in Oak Hollow had turned out to hear the mayor’s announcements. Kit Arboghast, who’d been elected last year when the main problems of their small suburb of Crockett were the need for more restaurants and the traffic flow from Birmingham, hadn’t done much since the outage. Now that she had news from the government, she’d chosen to reassert herself. Because there was no PA system, and being heard over a large crowd was difficult, she was making the mystery announcements in individual neighborhoods rather than having a huge town meeting at the high school football field.
The mayor had ridden over with Sheriff Scarbrough in the 1963 VW van the government had given him. Only vehicles built before 1970, before microchips were built into the systems, still ran. There weren’t many of those around, but occasionally you could hear one of the old, rattletrap engines passing by where the roads had been cleared of cars that had stalled on that first day.
Besides the regular Oak Hollow residents, some from other subdivisions had come just to listen in. Their own meetings would be held later today, but many of them couldn’t wait. Deni understood. She would have done the same thing if theirs hadn’t been the first meeting of the day. But the added people made it difficult for the ones who belonged here. These neighborhood meetings usually filled the empty lots by the gazebo at the lake, but this morning they spilled over into the street.
The mayor stepped up into the pickup truck that had been rolled onto the grass to provide a platform, and the crowd hushed. Mayor Arboghast had tried to dress up for the occasion — she wore a short-sleeved golf shirt that already had sweat rings and a khaki skirt with bare legs and sandals.