You don’t panic until the dog starts barking.
Frankie radios from the bird’s nest just before nap time. “Five minutes,” she says.
You’ll be ready in four. Poised and calm like this is a drill, you sing the hiding song – Quiet, quiet, little mice! – and tuck children inside cupboards and closets like scattered playthings in need of tidying up.
It’s not a drill; it’s an exercise. It’s why you’re here.
Not one peep!
You pluck still-damp finger-paintings from the clotheslines strung across the living room and toss them on the fire – newsprint edges curling to crisp black petals. You close the curtains and stand at the front door, chewing red paint from your cuticles as the trucks rumble over the gravel driveway. Three. Just like Frankie said.
Greta, the German shepherd mix you found as a pup chasing cars along the shoulder of I-95, is losing her goddamn mind. She leaps at the white picket fence, and you wonder – will it hold her? Will they shoot her?
God, the kids love that stupid dog.
Will the gunfire frighten the little ones? Lure the older ones from hiding?
Greta eats too much anyway – hardly worth the trouble. But the kids like to throw sticks for her to fetch in the yard. They let her lick their dirty faces.
And when you wake in the night drenched in sweat, a scream caught like a fist in your throat, she’s fast at your side, resting her monstrous head on your belly, whimpering softly.
Sometimes she brings you rabbits.
And you think – will we eat her? It depends on the entry wound, of course. Can’t let the poor thing die in vain.
Nothing goes to waste in a wasteland.
You swallow bile. The trucks crawl to a stop in front of the garage. You wipe your sweaty palms on the seat of your Levis and reach for the doorknob.
Car doors slam shut. Feet crunch gravel, tromp steps. A hard knock. No voices.
You remember to breathe.
The schoolhouse is a raised ranch set back from the main road at the end of a cul-de-sac in what was once a New York City suburb. It’s livable, if you can get past the mold. And you’ve got a month or two yet until the flood season starts. The only occupied dwelling for miles, it’s small, easily worth a cool mil before the collapse. Back before the rains. The plague. Back before the cities died and the suburbs emptied like termites fleeing a burning log. Fleeing into the fire.
You think you took a train ride along the Hudson once when you were a little girl, no older than your current crop. It’s hard to remember for sure. Memory’s a gauzy thing, a web of omissions and fabrications. Lies.
You open the door.
Six men in fatigues, strapped with AR-15s and bandoliers, stand on the sagging front porch, their faces dingy with sweat. They’re from Washington, likely. New Washington. A military compound due south, overseen by some energy CEO-turned-warlord and his hired meat-shields. There’s no shortage of self-proclaimed patriots in this territory, men hungry for guns and trucks, or just plain hungry. The warlords dangle artillery like carrots. They promise to make America great again.
Frankie says it’s their kind that caused the die-offs. The floods. Them and their greed. She remembers better than you. You were just a kid then.
The men are ragged. You guess they’ve been driving for days. Maybe a week. What’s left of the highway is cratered with potholes, choked with abandoned cars and washed-up debris. They’ve burnt a lot of gas to get here. You’re flattered.
“Carmen Escobar?” says the one in front. He has terrible teeth. Yellowing to brown. And breath like he’s been eating shit. Forgetting to floss.
You smile at Shitmouth. When the looting started, your parents hoarded toothpaste while storekeepers were shot dead for iPhones. They had foresight. Fifteen years, and still no reliable cell service. But you – you’ve got yourself some nice teeth.
You nod politely.
You are not Carmen Escobar, though you kissed her once – outside a seedy cantina, sprung up along the Jersey Turnpike to water the droves of thirsty Manhattan expats. You took her wallet and her name. It’s safer than your own.
“Can I help you?”
Greta’s still barking. She quiets a little when she hears your voice.
Shitmouth juts out his hand. He’s clutching a folded piece of paper. “I’ve got a warrant to search the premises.”
It’s quaint how he offers you this vestige of forgotten commonwealth. You take it. It could be blank for all you know, for all you care.
“Please,” you gesture invitingly, “come inside.”
You don’t ask what they’re looking for. You have broken – you are breaking – more laws than can fit on a slip of paper. But you don’t think about that now. Instead you think about Frankie, about her militia running tactical wargames a few blocks east.
It won’t be long.
“Nice place.” He snickers because he knows you’re a squatter. He’s staring at the portraits over the mantle, at the lilywhite family – Mom and Dad, three kids. Fake smiles, teeth like pearls.
Plausible deniability. Nothing here is yours.
He’s goading you, but you know better than to respond. Homesteading isn’t a crime, per se. That’s not why they’re here.
Footsteps rattle the crystal chandeliers. The men fan out across the second floor. Doors open and close. Be very, very still. You’ve practiced this a dozen times. The children pretend it’s a game. Hide-and-seek. Not a giggle!
“I got something,” a voice calls from above.
Shitmouth snorts and grabs you by the arm.
He’s so young, you think, as he squeezes your bicep. Surely, he has no memory of life before. Not that you remember much. Not that you trust those memories at all.
You make your way up the stairs, past baby pictures laced with cobwebs, peeling paint and empty nails. What we take, what we leave behind – none of it makes sense.
The men are assembled in the classroom. They’re whispering. Shitmouth lets you go and joins the huddle. You glance instinctively at the closet door then catch yourself.
The classroom was a master bedroom once, the bed pushed off to one side. There’s a Persian rug in the middle of the floor, speckled with dried paint and covered in dog hair because it’s not worth running the vacuum off the shitty little generator Frankie’s got hooked up for you.
Shitmouth is waving a tattered copy of Oh, the Places You’ll Go! He tsks under his vile breath. “I know what you are, Escobar.”
What you are?
You know what he’s implying. It’s the kindest of all your sins.
You’re a teacher.
“It’s my daughter’s.” You try to sound dispassionate.
It’s strange not to lie. You blush.
“Where is she?” he snaps. “I don’t see any children here.”
You imagine your pupils hearing this, choking back their snickers. A game well played.
“She’s dead,” you say.
You run an illegal school for illegal children in an illegal township. You fight for a future your own child will never know.
“Registered?” he asks without sympathy.
“Birth and death,” you hiss.
Five years old. Young for the sickness. You blame yourself, like any good mother would.
He takes out a scrap of paper and writes something down. It’s not like he can verify the truth. Not quickly. The Information Age ended when the sea swallowed the coasts and the plague seeped up through the muck, poisoning everything.
Greta’s still barking. That’s good. You pray her pitch will rise soon, that Frankie will come with reinforcements. Praying. Like that’s a thing you still know how to do.
“We didn’t come all this way for a storybook.”
This one’s voice squeaks like he’s barely pubescent. A fucking child. Pipsqueak. For a second you feel guilty. He’s a dead man walking. A dead boy.
“We know about the schoolhouse.” Shitmouth is growing impatient. “Your people aren’t as loyal as you think. A report was filed with the bureau – you got a leaker.”
You are the leaker.
You didn’t think they’d respond so fast. Honestly, you didn’t think they’d respond at all. You figured the warlords had more pressing matters, but alas. They’ve sent half a dozen men to the mid-coaster wetlands, all on account of little ol’ you. Frankie knows her shit.
“Sorry to disappoint.” A grin shatters your impassive veneer, and you overcorrect with something like a grimace. But it’s too late. Shitmouth is pissed.
You brace yourself. He can hit you. Once. You’ll give him that. But if things get out of hand, there’s a 9mm at your waist, concealed beneath your favorite cardigan – a cashmere thing you peeled off a corpse back when you still felt bad about robbing graves. Not robbing, repurposing. No one bothers with graves anymore.
Regardless, you don’t want to shoot him. Not yet.
Shitmouth doesn’t hit you. Instead, he smiles.
“You lying puta.” He uses puta because he thinks you’re Carmen Escobar. But you’re fairly sure he has more Spanish blood than you. “You don’t fool me. You don’t fool any of us.”
You baited this trap, and now it’s up to Frankie to spring it shut.
“One way or another, you’ll make our trip worthwhile.” Shitmouth leers. “My boys could use a nasty thing like you to make men of them”
He grabs his crotch. He wants you to be afraid, but you’re unfazed by boys who brandish cocks like weapons. You give him nothing. You are stone.
“You like games, maestra?”
Shitmouth pulls a pistol of his own and aims it at your head. You don’t flinch.
The longer you can drag this out, the more time Frankie has to mobilize her ragtag troops, the parents of your hapless wards. What parent wouldn’t kill for their child?
You killed for yours.
“They’re not the same as you and me,” Frankie likes to say of her new recruits. “They haven’t got the instincts yet. They’re soft.”
You and Frankie were smuggled into this township to make killers of its gentlefolk. How easy it is to forget this when teaching their children how to write their names.
There are six kids hiding in this room. The older ones. You can feel them holding their breath. Eyes shut tight. That’s your rule. No matter what you hear.
“How ‘bout a game of chance,” he says. “You can turn yourself in, bring out the little ones, all safe and sound, let us take them to the compound to be registered, to be legalized, or—” Shitmouth sucks the spittle from his lips. “We can tear this place apart until we find them. Then play roulette – line ‘em up, you too, and take this baby for a spin.” He points the gun in the air and gives the cylinder a twirl.
You doubt he’s ever fired a gun. He holds it wrong.
“You’d kill innocent children?”
It’s not his cruelty that surprises you. Men are monsters. Rather, it’s that children, healthy children, are a commodity in times like these.
Before Shitmouth can reply, a sneeze erupts from inside the armoire.
He grins, smug as hell.
Shit! Shit! Shit!
“Choose, maestra!” He barks, eying the pair of wooden doors. One askew. “How you gonna play this? Choose!”
And, so you do. “You’ll never find them all.”
He glares at you in disgust. He hates your choice.
But you need more time.
Goddamn it, Frankie.
Pipsqueak pulls Izzy out of the armoire. She stumbles from his grip and reaches for your outstretched hand.
“It’s okay.” You lie as easily as you breathe.
She wraps her arms around your waist and buries her snotty face in your sweater.
Izzy’s almost seven. Your oldest. Brown eyes. Mousy hair. Too big t-shirt worn paper thin, loose wrapping for little bones.
She mumbles, but you can’t parse words from the sniveling. Instinctively, you stroke her back.
Pipsqueak looks ready to piss himself. He’s gone pale. Like he’s never seen a real kid before. Like he’s never looked in the fucking mirror.
Shitmouth makes a cry like a sick animal. “Why you have to be so goddamn stupid?” You hug Izzy tight as he paces a circle around you both, waving his gun in the air. “Stupid puta.”
You think that’s what his father called his mother when he was a boy. He says it just like that. Shitmouth rubs his forehead. He glances from you to the other officers. Rage contorts his face. “Enough games.” He lunges, grabs Izzy by the shoulders and rips her from your arms. “Bring me the others,” he presses the barrel to her skull, “or I blow her fucking brains out.”
You didn’t know what to say when Frankie’d first asked you, “How many?”
It was pouring out. The two of you sat soaking wet in the cab of her ancient Tahoe, windows cracked, rain hammering the roof. She’d just lit a cigarette, and the smoke made you feel heady and strange. Frankie’s always got cigarettes. Somehow. You don’t ask. They’re stale. Old as shit. And sometimes after you fuck, she lets you suck a drag off hers.
“How many?” she’d asked again because you still hadn’t answered, and this was important. “How many are you willing to lose?”
You’d shivered, staring out the blurry windshield.
That’s what you wanted to say because she was talking about dead kids. Your kids.
But there’s always risk. That’s how the game is played. It’s how Frankie turns lambs into lions. It’s how we win.
Frankie’s a damn good teacher. The best.
You know what you have to do.
“Downstairs,” you say to Shitmouth. “The rest are downstairs.”
Izzy shoots you a look that says: thank you and you’re lying and I’m going to vomit all at once. Shitmouth gives her a shove, and she crumples to the floor. You stand her up, brush her off, and follow him down the stairs.
Downstairs is better. Tactically speaking.
Three. That’s what you’d told Frankie. No more than three.
They find Tomas crouched behind the boiler. Lily beneath a shelf in the pantry.
Greta’s all worked up again. Maybe it’s the commotion, the opening and closing of doors, the shrieks and whimpers.
Hope cuts deeper, more jagged than fear.
No more than three.
The found children cling to your legs and shirtsleeves. Izzy. Thomas. Lily. You can’t look at them. You can’t breathe.
Greta goes silent.
She knows before you do.
Frankie’s grenade shatters the bay window, exploding as it hurtles through the living room, engulfing everything in smoke.
It’s about damn time.
Sulfur stings your eyes. There’s coughing.
You, the mother hen, swoop up your chicks. You duck behind the sofa, arms splayed like wings over trembling bodies.
“Close your eyes,” you tell them.
Because the smoke stings. Because shrapnel glitters the haze. Because they won’t remember what they don’t see.
The wide-eyed dead.
Seconds pass like bullets. Like the train ride you may or may not have taken. And then, it’s over.
Daylight streams in the shattered windows, piercing the haze, scorched curtains fluttering. Olly olly oxen free!
Ears ringing, you take the roll:
Your charges return to their eager parents, met with tears of joy, carried by a tide of flak jackets. No peeking!
You are left alone in the schoolhouse.
No one’s house.
Not alone. Not really. Because you’ve got Greta panting at the screen door. And Shitmouth and Pipsqueak and their whole damn squad bleeding out onto the carpet. Easier for you to leave than them. So, you pack your things.
Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
Frankie wants uniforms. And boots. She’s already picked over the weapons. The trucks. The fuel. The ID tags. Med kits.
You straddle Shitmouth, frown at the particulate spatter that covers the wall behind his head and strip him to his soiled shorts.
Pipsqueak’s got a hole the size of a fist blown through his jacket. Through his chest.
When you’re done, you take Greta by the collar, duffel bag slung over your shoulder, and close the front door.
It was a nice house.
You say goodbye to Carmen Escobar.
It was a nice name.
You jump into Frankie’s waiting Chevy and greet her with a kiss.