The old man wouldn’t stop talking about thechildren. The same old man at the bus stopeverymorning and usually something about the weather andthe kinds of jacketspeople worebecause of it (his waslarge and khaki, many pockets), but now this heavy,heavy talk.
It reminds me of when I was a child, he said, almostwistfully.
Oh? said thewoman beside me. She was short and sour-looking, her hair wavy-dry andgoing gray, but when the man spoke, her face softened. Bespectacled and bearded, the man talked to everyone there waiting, and instead of each of us standing inside her separate loneliness, he pulled us together as a community.
Kids was always disappearing then, he said. Youcould lock your door, but itdidntmatter.Theyd drag them out.Therewasnt much you could do.Theyd justtakethem if they wanted them.
Thewoman was listening in close, stitching her browstogethera charged, attentive pity shaping her face.Itook out my book. It was large and heavy with gold scripton the cover. The story was based on a B horror movie in which a small town is terrorized by a scaled, human-shaped beast I was pretty suredidnt actually exist.
Of course, they took men andwomen too, not justchildren, the man said. Old ones and young onesthey did not discriminate! At this he laughed, his eyesgoingsmall beneath his glasses.
Kids was always disappearing then, he said. Youcould lock your door, but itdidntmatter.Theyd drag them out.Therewasnt much you could do.Theyd justtakethem if they wanted them.
We had, of course, read about that era when wewerein school. The kidnappings and all that went along with them always seemed to have happened elsewhere anddeep in the pastitwasnt a history we included ourselves inbut now the old man was pulling this historyout, unfolding it, showing us it was not so long ago.History had caught up to us. It had, in fact, become a present-tense kind of situation, and it was this:There wasa group of men killing children at night.Going into homes and taking them from their beds. Taking them off the streets. We the people thought we knew who the men were during the day, but because of some technicality we could not arrest them then. They had to be caught in the act. But at night it was dark and they wore hats casting shadows over their faces, and some people thought that the children deserved it. They were not considered the brightest kids in school and were known to steal candy and cigarettes from the corner store, which had always been a rite of passage for people in the area, and even I had once palmed a long, flat apple candy before unwrapping it down the street and letting it form to the roof of my mouth. Stealing from this store was talked about in a werent-we-crazy-kids-back-then sort of way, but when these kids did it, thesekids-these-dayskids, people likened it to a greater problem with children in general, and they said these children huffed paint too and that some of them had once found a few stray cats and had used them for some dark purpose that had to do with the music they listened to, music whose lyrics we could not understand.
Cant believe this is happening again, the man said.He shook his head. His voice had a certain cadence, aquality that made us like whatever he was saying, even ifit was tragic.
What to do,thesechildren? he said. Whatcanonedo? No one is safe.
Youre absolutely right, thewoman said. It is soshameful. Im ashamed to live in this world. She shookher head the way the old man had done.
I had a way of angling from tragedy. I listened but letmy face go flat. I wantedpeople to make a joke of it then put it away, to make it feel less like a scar theywere showing me. The most recent kidnapping had been over aweek ago, and I hoped it would be the last. But even as Ithought it, I knew itwasnt true, knew itwouldnt be thelast time, and the real botherwasnt that itwasntgoingto be the last time but that the situationwasntgoing tochange by some old man at the bus stop, as jolly and beloved as he was, talking and sighing and shaking hishead, so why not lets not talk about it anymore?
Little Miss, he said, seeming to only then notice me.How old are you?
Im an adult, I said, and looked down the street.There was agreat cube of a clock jutting from the building on the cornermulti-faced so that you could read itfrom any direction. It always kept perfect time.
It began to rain as my bus pulled up. It took me fromthe central square and passed through several neighborhoods, each more depressed than the next: gray two-flats with bricks busted out like bad teeth, storefrontsbehind black bars, trashheavy and wetclotting thesewer grates with its pulpy mash, and, on one bent sidewalk, a diapered baby sitting flat on its bottom. The change from straight and square downtown to gray ruin happened so plainly as to serve as a time-lapse example of such collapse, a linear progression charted on an x/y axis: bad, worse, worst.
The bus rattled fast ahead through the rain, the windows shaking as the wheels dipped into each pothole.From behind me came the sound of a marble or ball bearing dropping from some height then rolling along thefloor.
Falling apart? thewoman in front of me turned toask. Her lipsshaped a wry smile.
Yes, Dear Stranger, I answered in my head.The worldis about to run off the rails.Were allgoing to get knocked out of orbit, a pool ball chipped off thetable. Its not just afeeling I have, Dear Stranger, rather an assurance, a surety, everything so goddamn out of whack that its no longer amatter of if but when.
The bus took me to a neighborhood that looked excerpted from elsewherean ivied campus where it waseternally autumn, the air sharp and clean, leaves frozen in their most vibrant shade of decay. That this neighborhood was surrounded by the other, grayer neighborhoods served to some as an indicator of all the good thatcould happen in the world.Arose blooming in the desert!Forothers, it was tasteless bragging, an opulent oasis to which access was highly regulated. I tried not to take sides.
In the rosy neighborhood, I made smartchildrensmarter. They lived in largehouses with tall gates, sotheir parents didnt worry or theydidnt worry too muchor they worried just the right amount to keep them safe.
As I searched my bag for my room key, a securityguard halted his squeak up the hall and said,Yourehere awful early, young lady. Do you have a pass?
I workhere, I said, and handed him my ID.
I see, he said. He took his time studying my twofaces. The guards sleeves stopped at his biceps, his arms bigger affairs than seemed necessary.
Wont happen again, he said.
Doubtful, I thought butdidnt say.
In first period, the kids took turns telling me abouttheir summers. Piano lessons. French lessons. A monthon an island Id never heard of. One boy finished a long-beloved book series then buried each volume in hisbackyard.
Mysister told methere are almost endless goodbooks, he said. But none likethese.
His face was bony and slight, creating dark pocketsof sensitivity beneath his eyes. His hair was chin-length,dark brown, and straight, and he shyly tucked itbehindhis ear as he talked. I hated choosing favorites, which meant I always did and immediately. His quiet maturity was so stark that it conjured in me the thought of a future when the difference in our ages would shrink to nothing. He, like all of themas precocious as any darling prodigywas half my age, me divided in two. I didnt know anything about his parents, save theyd given him the most beautiful name one can to a boy in this language.
During the passing period, I watched thechildrenmove up and down the hallway. The girls had long,straight hair, the bright natural blondes and browns ofundyed, unaltered youth; the boyswere covered in sour,shiny pimples or were girlish and small stillelfinanglesin their chins and a flipping bit of hair covering one eye.Our school was an island of beauty and learning andsharing, I told myself, far apart from the mainland ofsmog and grime and crime,thesechildren princes andprincesses of their own sparklingfutures.
Sometimes I tookthe train home, a different crowdall the way. None of the old ladies with cagey carts fromthe bus, clothes humped on backs, ormothers and bundled babies, butpeople with jobs, moving to and fromthem.Women in gray pencil skirts and blade-thin heels,hair in sleek curtains down their backs.
There were men too. Men in summer cotton pants and checkered shirts buttoned up, the lips of their belts tucked neatly away. Their faces were shaved smooth or gone to seed, their hair combed slick or left curly-soft. I thought about running my fingers through all that hair. I thought about untucking, unbuttoning, unzipping them. Putting them inside my mouth one after the other. I wondered if, after a brief explanation of my desires, they would permit me this. A nod, a silent assent. And if they denied me, if they recoiled, I wondered if they would comply, acquiesce, give in after I explained my feeling, nay, my knowing with an unwavering certainty that this train ride was going to end, and soon, in disaster, hurtling ahead seemingly without conductor, galloping at such a pace that it loosened my gut from the rest of my body. The planeI wanted to grab them by the wristswas going down, so they might as well toss their dicks into my face and let me do as I would. We were all in this together.
Our school was an island of beauty and learning andsharing, I told myself, far apart from the mainland ofsmog and grime and crime,thesechildren princes andprincesses of their own sparklingfutures.
The air was humid and close from the rain, my skinslick with it. In my book, the protagonistssister had just gotten her face eaten off by the scaled beasta lowblow, as the protagonist hadreally seemed to like hersister. Before the train ran express to the nether regionsof the city, one last man ducked into our car. He was atree-sturdy man in a denim shirt and brown boots. Someone in the habit of walking slowly. It used to be that Id stare and stare at strangers then look away. But when the man at the door finally saw me, I kept at him. I shaped my mouth into something like a smile. He returned the look for only a moment then lowered his head to his newspaper.
At the first stop out of downtown the doors openedand released a sigh ofpeople. The next stop, the same,only less so, the crowd loosening. I got up and stood nextto the man by the door. He was somewhere in the soggymiddle of the paper, where tucked down in the cornerwas a black-and-white headshot of awoman in a blazer.The text above her head read,What of theChildren?
Scary stuff, I said.
The weather, I replied. Wind gusts up to seventy-fivemiles per hour.
I put my hand to my chest and tickled my shirt, agesture I thought hinted at sensitive concern, one Idbeen practicing for some time and that did not go unnoticed by my new, tall friend. His eyes traced a line from my chest to my face. Tilting his head, he said, Thats windy,and I knew Iwouldnt have to ask him to walk me home.
In the morning papers:five morechildren taken.Five morechildren who had been out the day beforeloitering, skateboarding, double-dutching. One child, who was hardly a child anymore, had been out for awalk with his friend, taking in the last day of summer warmth, and a man had not liked the way this hardly child had been walking. The man had used the word struttingStrutting around in his tennis shoes and T-shirtand he told the child, hardly a child, Son, we need to have a talk. A hand on his shoulder then several men and several hands on his shoulders and into a white van that had either snuck up just then or been there all along. In the middle of the day, the paper said, because this was the important part of the story, the part that was new.
The papers said what had long been speculated but never voiced: All of the menwere policemen. Or firemen or congressmen. Somethingmen. A spokesperson for themen said that they knew with certainty who the badkids were and who the good kidswere and which kidswouldlater become bad and which kidswere on thefence and therefore should be taken care of just in case.It was instinctual, this knowing, nothing that could be explained in language. If we wanted to stay safe, we hadto take their word for it. It held a certain logic, their collective nonexplaining. Nothing revealed and thereforenothing to criticize. Zero equals zero.Trust usequalsWecant tell you. Whowere we to question it? We had,afterall, given them their uniforms, their nightsticks and badges. We had given them our vote. If they were wrong, what would that say about us?
In an opinion article, awoman said it was all a damnshame. It was certainly hard not to feel bad for the young ones, but adults had a right to be frightened too. Late-night movies and TV series ofgreat childhood uprisings abounded, she said. Early teenagers in dirty jeansand T-shirts with the sleeves cut off, chains and tire ironsand fiery bottles in their hands, marching to some midnight destination while a punk rock song built to angryclimax. Thewoman didnt mention how greatthose filmswere. How they could light a good fire in you, get youmoving to some previously unknown fingers-into-fistsfeeling. Itwasnt just about rebellion, but where the rebellion livedthose movies more about the clothes andthe music than anythingelse. Thethings that scared theadults and drew thechildren in.
A spokesperson for themen said that they knew with certainty who the badkids were and who the good kidswere and which kidswouldlater become bad and which kidswere on thefence and therefore should be taken care of just in case.
When I got to the bus stop, theywere already talking.
Will not and cannot let this go on, the sweet-and-sourwoman said. She looked shorter but more potent, a concentrated version of herself.
Thepeople must rise up, the old man said, leaningback, his hands clasped at hismiddle. Up up up!
Whats the weatherdoingtoday? I asked.
The weather, my dear, is changing.
A cold front? I asked. Icouldnt takepeople talking in metaphors, the weak language of everything-means-something-else.
Theresgoing to be a march, sweet-and-sour said.A demand for information and justice.
I checked the clock on the corner.
You should be interested in this, the old man said.
And why is that?
He eyed me but good. I sensed he was no longer trying to figure me out, rather considering how best to handle me. I liked it better when he complimented myoutfits, my seasonally appropriate accoutrements; Ialways chose just the right ones.
None of uswere that long agochildren, he said.
Sure, I said, sure. But at least now we have bank accounts. New skirt, I added, and slid open my trench.
He squinted at me, barely noting the skirt or whereit stopped above my knees. He looked away.
We are, truth be told, all in danger. Injustice for oneis injustice for all.
Thewoman closed her eyes and nodded.
Tomorrow evening, a man said.Will you bethere?
I feel embarrassed yellingthings aloud.
Sweet-and-sour snapped her head up, face puckered.Not disappointed so much as shocked that Ididnt share her feelings. I opened my book and moved inside it.The town crazy was raving that the beast was a physical manifestation of the evil inside each and every one of them. Pure evil, he said, which I was fairly certain couldnt exist outside a sterile laboratory. The old man and woman talked in a new, hushed tone. How strange when strangers tried to step inside you, I thought. Like when men in rags announced themselves to a train car, telling everyone about their lives, their current states of disrepair and what they wanted, needed, God bless, from everyone, which somehow included you, and you kept your head down, reading the same sentence again and again, never quite taking hold of it, and the harder you tried, the more the mens voices got in your ear, the more like they were speaking only to you. Once a man pulled up the leg of his trousers and showed me the wound of him. A red mouth full of cottage cheese, the red mouth saying, Please, please help me, and I looked away until he went away.
I sensed the bus-stoppers tightening into a circle. Ididnt want to lose them completely, so as I stepped onto my bus, I turned and said, I hope you all have a wondrous day!
My first-hour was blazingwith the news. Tryingto get the lessongoing, I recapped act two of the playwe were reading. A number of noble men and women had recently lost their heads, and everywhere there were bloodstains that just wouldnt come out, but the kids kept circling back.
Are yougoing to the demonstration? one boy askedthe girl next to him.
My parentswont let me, she said.
Minewonteither, but Im justgoing to do it.
I have no reason to be downtown.
The library is rightthere.
Are yougoing to go? the girl asked me.
WellI tended to flush whenthings turned overlypersonalthesethings have a way of becoming very…crowded.
But its a demonstration, one of them said.
Dangerous, then. I stopped, but itdidnt seem satisfying, so I did what I always did when Ididnt quiteknow what to say: I turned the question back to them.Do you think its a good idea to risk it?
A few sidelong glances and the pursing of lips. It wasuncanny howlittle they considered even the simplestquestions if they ran opposed to their own convictions. Ithought that might have done it, but then my beautifulbook burier started talking.
This cant go on, he said. He was looking down.When I think of their familieshe stopped, his mindfollowing the thought somewhere the rest of uscouldntgo. He shook his head. The gesture echoed the old man and sweet-and-sour, but he had none of their adult importance, the kind that comes from listening too closely to ones own voice.
We have to dosomething, he said, his eyes turned up,large and naive. My face had looked even younger at his age. Adultswere forever pitching their voices high tome, but I denied them my childish inclinations, wentabout my kid business in secretwriting rhymed songs,posing dolls, letting the world silently terrify me. I keptmyself hidden, not wanting to conform to any massnoun that might include me.
Nobody ever has to do anything, I said.
Not even now? he asked. Not even now?
He was too confused and pleading, too guileless,that look. Too much a child. The rest of them looked thesame, theirfaces cracked open, baby chicks pecking outinto the world and me the hen that had warmed them. I never asked for this, I thought, but, Question, question,question mark, theirlittlefaces went.
Well, I mean, its nothing foryouguys to worryabout!
Why not? they asked. Yeah, why not?
Youre such good kids, I thought. This type ofthing didnt happen tosuch good kids. But I knew itwasnt any kind of thing to say. I also knew that Ishouldnt describe the way my head was about to roll off the back ofmy neck, how certain I was of the end of the world happening so very soon that it was like it had already happened. I put my hand on my stomach and winced.
Act three! I groaned, and flew from the room.
Thewoman on thebuswas telling the bus how shehad a titanium hip and a titanium knee and a glass eye and an implant inside her ear. She had a pin in her thumb,a stent in her chest, and a wigshed purchased in thisvery neighborhood. She had no particular audience, getting all the encouragement she needed from the busssilence. I wondered what was the most of a person thatcould be made of somethingelse. Hooks for hands andwheels for legs, an iron lung, a metal heart. Whats theleast amount ofhuman ahuman could be?
Adultswere forever pitching their voices high tome, but I denied them my childish inclinations, wentabout my kid business in secretwriting rhymed songs,posing dolls, letting the world silently terrify me. I keptmyself hidden, not wanting to conform to any massnoun that might include me.
A group of field-tripping daycarechildren got on atthe next stop. Toddling kids no bigger than big dolls,climbing up and in, all holding on to the same red rope.
Sit down, their carewoman called. The bus is aboutto move!
They scrambled into their seats, legs dangling. Thelittle girl beside me, hair sprouting from her head in asingle, round pouf, turned to look out the window, thento me.
Did you tie your shoes all by yourself? she asked.
Shes a big girl, her watcher said.
I nodded and smiled, and the girl turned to look outthe window again. Her earswere impossibly small, as pliable as gummy candy. Somewhere an adult had gotten pregnant and had said,Okay, yes. Yes, okay, fine. Shehad planned it or not planned it and had decided to make alittlething that looked like her. The adult hadwanted reassurance that she wasnt so far away from being a child herself. Wanted to make athing to tell her,Were not so different, you and me. But what the pregnantadult did not think about was the way thelittlethingsface wasgoing to changefrom the small, soft versionto something hard like burnt cake. The pregnant adultshrank herimagined timeline to include only what I sawnow. Who could blame her? I thought about taking thechild for myself, taking her by the hand and pointing outthe world to her, telling her the names of everything andwhat I thought any of it meant. I saw myself holding herup in the mirror, she looking into my eyes and saying,Lets you be me. Lets me be us.The desire of it was soplain, rising up, bursting out so fast, it was like something Id spilled all over myself.
I reached over and pinched the toe of her whitesneaker, wiggled it, and opened my book in my lap. Iliked its weight there. The townspeople had discoveredthat by channeling their positive energy, they couldmake the beast change shape, melt, or diminish in power. They just had to have faith. Of all that had come thus far, this seemed the most unbelievable.
The next morning,the radio told me everything Idmissed. Protesters had gone out into the streets thenight before, carrying signs with pictures of the taken.They said,Show us the men who have done this. Bring themto us. But there theywere. Policemen hidden in plainsight inside their plastic helmets and shields, telling themen andwomen assembled thattheyd assembled incorrectly, had not filed the correct permits five to tenbusiness days in advance and therefore needed to disperse. Thepeople said that justice could not wait. The people said,Whos next?A few of them had picked uprocks and put them into the airdull, impotent thudsagainst allthose plastic shieldsand this was reasonenough for the men to slide out their thick batons andnew crowd-control swords, clearing a path as with a machete through the jungle. They could not quantify itspecifically, butthere had been significant bloodshed.Bloodshed, the radioman said, making it sound likesomething no longer needed.Bloodshed, like snakes ridding themselves of their skin. A spokesperson for thehardlychildren told the reporter that this was not it, not even close to not it, was even more not it than ithadntbeen it before, now with so many new names to add to the signs, and to night they would meet with the men hidden within uniforms yet again until they got just what they were coming for.
Andtherewerechildren newly missing,those unaccounted for in the significant bloodshed. Youngpeoplefrom all over the city had come to join the protest andshow their support for the taken, only to be taken themselves. They were said to have been snatched from thequieter, more sensitive edges of the protest. I thought ofhow my fellow teachers called the students their kids,as though theywere all our sons anddaughters, and howI didnt think of any otherchildren in that way. Onlymykidswere my kids.
My walk took me past the wooded park, the sunpushing up while mist descended within the trees. A fewblocks from downtown I found a shoe on the sidewalk.Just smaller than my hand. White with a silver starburst pulling behind it a glittery rainbow and at the end of itstail a speck of blood. Farther along, a pair of overallssmeared with blood. I thought of the girl on the busher edible earsand it would seem the kind of coincidence that only the most sentimental would create. Allalong the edge of the park, a breadcrumb trail of jackets and jeans and rags gone red, as always the morningafterthe messy evidence of two lovers who shed theirclothing before eating the other up.
They could not quantify itspecifically, butthere had been significant bloodshed.Bloodshed, the radioman said, making it sound likesomething no longer needed.Bloodshed, like snakes ridding themselves of their skin.
I let the first bus pass, thinking myself early. Then another and no old man, no sweet or sour. I took the third, and when I got to the school, I found chains cuffing the doors. I put my fist against the glassuntil the guard came out from behind the building, telling me that the day was canceled on account of last night and what would take place again and more so tonight and that it wasnt entirely safe, in his professional opinion, for me to be out on my own, and did I have someone to pick me up? I said, Dont be silly, but if it possibly wasnt entirely safe for me it might also possibly not be entirely safe for an old man, and I thought how he had always been as sure and steady as the downtown clock and what did he do and where did he go but outside to the people when the world terrified him?
Despite the guardsand the radiomans and thenewspapers suggestion for individuals to stay in theirhomes, I ventured out that evening. I had bought a newjacket, a burnt-orange number that would do well in thechill, and I wanted to show it off to the old man.
It was dark by the time I got downtown. Rounding acorner, I saw the people streaming into the square, the mass of them glowing with small fires carried in theirhands. I joined the back where they kept the Sundaymorning folksold men andwomen, the youngestchildren.After reading so many reports, I felt the excitement that came when a beloved book was made into film, all of a sudden visible and real.
The old man was nowhere in sight. I worked my way upsmall candles progressing in size and heat to beer bottles to liquorbottles to torches. I stopped one rowbehind the frontline, where a hot silence draped itselfover the crowd. Peeking up on my toes, I fought for a viewbetween shoulders. Thepeople leaders had stopped before the men leaders, no more than a breath betweenthem. The men in power had covered themselves in plastic: square black helmets with tinted visors over theirfaces and plates of protective rubber embedded intheir uniforms. Each had tucked himselfbehind a shieldwith one shoulder, holding a black club or metal blade inthe opposite hand.
A teenager with a blue bandana over his face whispered down to me, Youshouldnt be uphere.
It started the way anything started: with a seed ofquaking static in your gut, a feeling likeyoure movingbut not moving, and then a wild overflow, a purging, agetting the inside out as fast as possible.
A young man in front, looking at the men, cried out,Annie!
And the crowdbehind him cried, Annie! Justice!
Betsy! he cried.
Betsy! Justice! the crowd responded.
Dante! Justice! the crowd yelled.
And Eric, Frankie, and Geoffrey; Harry, Iona, andJames on down the line, each response faster, each filledto the brim with heatall the while, the uniforms hiding men motionlessKathy, Larry, Michael, all the waytoPfor Peter. I didnt know how many Peterstherewerein the world, how many in our city, but in between theyoung mans saying it and the crowds dutiful echo, I sawa particular Peter, a perfect whisper of a schoolboy, a pristine castrato who only ever sang the pains of boyhood into beauty, andafter the crowd addedJustice, I responded with a cry of my own, a sound that could have been the scream of a child or amother losing that child,and the scene quickly became something confusing.
The back of the crowd surged, pushing the front ofthe line into the men, who pushed back with their plastic plates. They pushed and pusheduntil the line broke, thepeople and the men zipping themselves up, boy, man,boy, man,untilthere was no longer anything separating us. I saw one of the mens long blades bared then made to disappear inside a young one. Frombehind me, rocksand more rocks, bigger rocks, and flamingbottles took flight. I covered my head with my hands, trying to moveout by moving back. I ducked and dipped, musclingthrough while making myself as small as possible. As I was nearly out, a shoulder knocked me to the ground, and down there with me was a body, a small body, which I put into my arms. I stood. I hunched and pushed, stepping on feet and hands. I got out of the crowd to the edge of the square, where the concrete fell away to hard dirt, and the dark trees of the park picked up. I got down on my knees, cradling the small body in the bowl of my lap. The body was a child, a breathing child I did not know or recognize. A boy or girl child, a cap of short black hair with a ring of oily red around its head, red that bled down the rest of its body, as a baby pushed from the womb, covered in the messy violence of its mothers flesh. I looked to the crowd for a mother or sister missing the child, but I saw only bodies, one against the other, and from inside the clash a man with a long blade breaking free. He moved toward me and the child, a confident march neither slow nor fast, the man as faceless and irrevocable as fear itself. The red was coming from inside the childs head and it shone all around its face. Its eyes were looking at me with so much blank hunger, like my eyes could feed his, hers, its chests breaths winding down, and I said, Youre beautiful. Its okay. Youre beautiful. Youre so beautiful; you look just like me.
From Hardly Children. Used with permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright 2018 by Laura Adamczyk.