Authors: Terri Blackstock
He stared at the floor, shaking his head. “I honestly don’t know. But there’s no use borrowing trouble. For now, we should probably just be thankful to be alive.” Patting her leg, he got up and started to the door. “I’m going to work at the well. Send Logan to get me as soon as Jeff gets home.”
Kay sat up and took a deep breath. She’d pull herself together and stay busy until Jeff got home.
Only then would she fall apart.
OUG HAD DRAFTED THE WORK SCHEDULE FOR THE WELL AND
lectured the neighborhood men about the importance of showing up, so he couldn’t very well skip out himself. The plan was to keep the digging going every daylight hour, and the ones on the shift before him couldn’t leave until he got there. They had limited patience when someone was late.
He and Jeff were digging partners, but since Jeff had gone chasing after thieves, Doug had asked his next-door neighbor Brad to fill in. Jeff could take Brad’s shift later. Working outside the hole were Mark Green and Zach Emory, charged with mixing the mortar and lowering the bricks for the walls of the well. Judith and Brad’s oldest child, Jeremy, had the job of raising the buckets of dirt out when they were full, dumping them, then lowering them again.
They’d dug the well in a square shape, eight feet by eight feet, but it was tight quarters for him and Brad down in the hole. They’d had to make it wide enough that two men could work side by side with a pick, a shovel, and a long steel rod used to break up rock, but the work was filthy and backbreaking. It would be worth it, though, when they finally struck water. Everyone working at the hole knew that it could literally be months before they dug deep enough through the soil, limestone, sandstone, and shale to hit the water table. The Pulses might very well end before they ever finished the task. But whether the Pulses lasted for months or years, the well would make their lives easier for the duration. That was why it was so important to keep the digging going every hour of daylight. There was no time to waste.
The well-digging was going slowly. Doug and the other men in the neighborhood — those who’d agreed to a cooperative work schedule to get this done — had been digging for almost a month. They’d only made it fifteen feet down, since digging wasn’t the only component of this monumental job. As they dug, they had to reinforce the walls with bricks to prevent a cave-in. The process was laborious — dig two feet down, stop, brick the walls, then dig some more. And it wasn’t like they could make a run to Home Depot for the bricks, since the home improvement store had long since closed, empty of merchandise and unable to pay its employees. No, they’d first had to scout around for abandoned buildings that could be demolished for their bricks and lumber.
Most of the men working on the well had been reluctant to use their much-needed tools on this job, unwilling to dull their sharp ax blades or break their picks hacking through layers of rock. So they’d managed to come up with several steel rods that they hammered to fracture the stone.
It would all be worth it when they hit the water table. Doug had prayed often over the last few weeks that when that happened, the water would be clean enough for drinking — not rusty water from iron-rich earth, or sulfur-contaminated water they couldn’t drink.
Brad thrust his shovel into the dirt and leaned on the wooden handle. Soil covered his brown skin, and he glistened with sweat. “What time is it?”
Doug looked at his windup Timex. “One-thirty. Thirty minutes more.” He was thankful that the neighborhood men had seen the wisdom in their taking only hour-long shifts and rotating the schedule so that no one had to continually work in the hottest part of the day. Today he and Brad had started at one, and tomorrow their shift would be at two. By the weekend they’d be shoveling during the late daylight hours, when it would be cooler.
Brad wiped the sweat off his forehead, then opened his milk jug of water. Taking a long drag, he looked up to see how much progress they’d made.
They’d at least deepened the well by another foot. It was time to stop and lay some more bricks.
It was Jeff’s voice, and Doug looked up to see his son’s face at the top of the hole. Relief washed through him. “Jeff, did you catch the thieves?”
“Yeah, kind of.”
“So you got the food back?”
Jeff hesitated. “Well … some of it.”
Doug braced himself. “Some of it? Why didn’t you get it all?”
“Because they were four kids living by themselves in a hole-in-the-wall apartment. The oldest didn’t look more than nine, and the littlest was three or four. No parents. They’ve been fending for themselves. They stole to eat, Dad. I don’t really know what choice they had.”
Doug looked at Brad. His friend rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Don’t believe that, man. It’s a con if I ever heard one.”
Doug agreed. He looked up at Jeff. “Son, four kids living alone would probably have starved to death. No neighbors in their right minds would let that happen.”
“Dad, I’m telling you, they didn’t have any adults in that apartment. They said their mother took off weeks ago and never came back. The neighbors know they have a gun, so that’s probably why they haven’t bothered them. That and the fact that they can barely feed themselves, much less four more kids.”
Their mother was probably the one who’d come up with that cockamamie story to keep from having to work hard like everybody else. Anger tightened his chest. “So are you telling me you didn’t get our food back?”
“I got some of it, but they had already eaten some. And I didn’t want to take everything. How will they eat?”
If Doug could have gotten out of the hole easily, he would have throttled his son. He wiped his forehead on his arm, and longed for some water. But those deadbeat kids had taken all the sterilized drinking water they had, so he hadn’t been able to bring any.
“All right, we’ll talk about it later. For now, just help Deni get water, and as soon as it’s filtered and boiled, bring me some.”
“Okay, Dad. But I really think we need to do something about those kids.”
Brad picked up his jug and thrust it at Doug. “Here, drink some of mine. Our shift’ll be over before yours is boiled and cooled enough to drink.”
Gladly, Doug accepted the jug and took a long swig.
Above him came his son’s voice again. “Dad?”
“I heard you, son. We’ll discuss this later. The Boxcar kids can wait. They’ve survived this long.”
Jeff disappeared from the mouth of the well, and Doug went back to digging.
OUG GOT HOME, COVERED WITH THE DIRT AND CLAY
he’d been shoveling out of the hole, he went into the bathroom where Kay had a bowl of water waiting for his cleanup. What a day! First the meeting and the bad news about the banks, the promise of the measly disbursement money, the thieves walking away with their food, then the miserable work at the well …
Now he had to prove to his son that those kids were nothing more than pawns of sick parents who’d trained them to burglarize from those who actually worked for their food.
He splashed water on his face, soaped up, then rinsed. The water was brown, just from his filthy hands. He sighed. Sometimes he thought he would never be truly clean again. Two months ago, dirt under his fingernails would have been a shocker. Now it seemed tattooed there.
He did his best to wash off the sweat and grime, then got dressed. He found his family sitting around the patio table. Jeff had Kay’s rapt attention. Great. As if she wasn’t stressed enough about the pulsar, now Jeff was giving her those kids to worry about.
“Doug, we’ve got to do something,” she said. “Those poor children!”
He dropped into the chair. “How much food did you get back?”
“A few jars of vegetables. A bag of potatoes. But I left them the apples.”
Doug gritted his teeth and looked at the sky. They’d worked hard for those apples. In exchange for two bags of them, the entire family had had to ride five miles to the Hortons’ orchard and spend the day harvesting the fruit. It was the Hortons’ way of maintaining the orchard while keeping up the daily drudgery of surviving. For two bags of apples, a family had to work several hours. Now they were gone.
“Doug, he says they’re all alone. Orphaned children, living there with nothing to eat.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it.”
“Good. Then let’s go,” she said.
He sat up straighter and turned his troubled eyes to his wife. “Go where?”
“To see for ourselves. Doug, if this is true, we have to do something.”
He could see in her eyes that there would be no talking her out of it. He let out a heavy breath. “All right, but I want the sheriff to go with us.”
“Dad!” Jeff said. “You can’t arrest a bunch of little kids!”
“Not to arrest them,” he said, sliding his chair back and getting up. “I want him to be there to see what’s going on with the parents. Sounds like it’s a case of neglect, maybe even child abuse. He should be aware of it.”
“Do you want me to come with you?” Jeff asked.
“No,” Doug said. “You and Deni stay here and do your chores. What’s the apartment number?”
“4B, Sandwood Place Apartments. They’re a block south of the bank, or you can cut through the woods.”
“I know where it is. When we get back, you and I are going to talk about that window you left unlocked.”
S FIRST REACTION TO THEIR FOOD BEING STOLEN HAD BEEN
pure rage. Though they often shared with their neighbors, their resources had been stretched unbearably thin. The family had shared in the work of growing the food and canning it, and they’d bartered and baked and built and babysat to stock their pantry.
But now, as she pedaled her bike to the sheriff’s department, she didn’t know who to blame. Starving children didn’t deserve her wrath. But someone must.
How she longed for the days when she could whip over to McDonald’s in her SUV and get the kids combo meals. Would those days ever return?
It wasn’t all bad, of course. Strange as it seemed, the Pulses had brought about some good. Before the outage, she’d only had a waving acquaintance with most of her neighbors. Time spent with her kids was in the car to and from soccer tournaments, baseball games, and ballet lessons. Doug was rarely home, and when he was, he was on his computer. The kids were always lost in PlayStation games or IMing their friends. She TiVo’d her favorite programs to watch at her leisure — Oprah, Dr. Phil,
and a number of sitcoms she was too ashamed to admit she watched.
Since the Pulses, so much had been different. Her lazy children were turning into hard workers who understood that if they wanted to eat they had to do their share. Their situation left no room for slackers. Over the weeks since the outage, the whole family had come to recognize the value of home as they never had before, and she’d seen Doug transformed into a new man — spending time with his kids, providing for them with his hands rather than his head.
The darkness in the house at night had even become a blessing. Instead of separating to their rooms at night for their favorite but solitary activities, they now spent evenings together in one room, talking and playing games, or reading aloud under the light of the oil lamps.
Though her children still complained and plotted to get out of their work, they seemed healthier, if skinnier. Their skin glowed, now that they’d all been detoxed from their high-fat supersize diets, food additives, trans fats, and soft drinks. And the truth was, the hard work had toned her body as no Pilates class could, and made her healthier than daily aerobic workouts. Weight was no longer a problem.
Life moved at a slower, more deliberate pace, and that had profoundly affected Kay’s character as well as her family’s. No more instant gratification. The Pulses had fostered patience in all of them, and made them think more of others than themselves …
Most of the time.
Now she swung between anger and compassion at the children who’d disrupted her day.
Four children that young, living alone? It was criminal. If it was true, someone was going to pay.
Doug was quiet as he rode beside her.
“Doug, I know you’re upset about having to do this,” she said. “But imagine if something had happened to us when our kids were small, and our children were living alone.”
“Kay, you’ll see that it’s not even true. They probably lied to Jeff, playing on his sympathy. They’ve taken enough of our resources already. I don’t like that they’re taking more of our time. I have work to do.”
“But what if it’s true?”
They sailed around a corner. “That’s why we’re going, Kay. On the off-chance that it’s true.”
His attitude worried her. Though the outage had brought the family closer together, her relationship with Doug seemed more distant than ever. They rarely had a private moment, and when they did, they were so exhausted that they fell into bed and went to sleep. Intimacy had been exchanged for efficiency.
It was her fault as much as his. They were each too burdened by life to make intimate time a priority. Sometimes she longed to slip into her husband’s arms and lay her head against his chest. But his constant preoccupation dissuaded her.
They turned down the road leading to the sheriff’s office and saw Scarbrough’s van sitting out front.
“Good,” Doug said, “he’s here. Maybe he’ll give us a ride and we can make this quick.”
“He won’t give us a ride, Doug. They’ve said over and over the cars are not for personal use.”
“It’s not for our personal use,” Doug said. “We’re reporting a crime and leading him to the perpetrators.”
She sighed. “They’re not perpetrators. They’re children.”
Doug wasn’t buying it.
Carrying their bikes inside, they found Scarbrough at his desk. He heard them out, then agreed to go with them. After loading their bikes into the van, they headed for the Sandwood Place Apartments.
They pulled into the apartment complex Kay had driven past so many times in her pre-outage days. She’d hardly given it a thought. But now she saw the people loitering in their doorways or standing out on the hot pavement.