The old man wouldn’t stop talking about the children. The same old man at the bus stop every morning and usually something about the weather and the kinds of jackets people wore because of it (his was large and khaki, many pockets), but now this heavy, heavy talk.
It reminds me of when I was a child, he said, almost wistfully.
Oh? said the woman beside me. She was short and sour-looking, her hair wavy-dry and going 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. You could lock your door, but it didn’t matter. They’d drag them out. There wasn’t much you could do. They’d just take them if they wanted them.
The woman was listening in close, stitching her brows together—a charged, attentive pity shaping her face. I took out my book. It was large and heavy with gold script on 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 sure didn’t actually exist.
Of course, they took men and women too, not just children, the man said. Old ones and young ones—they did not discriminate! At this he laughed, his eyes going small beneath his glasses.Kids was always disappearing then, he said. You could lock your door, but it didn’t matter. They’d drag them out. There wasn’t much you could do. They’d just take them if they wanted them.
We had, of course, read about that era when we were in school. The kidnappings and all that went along with them always seemed to have happened elsewhere and deep in the past—it wasn’t a history we included ourselves in—but now the old man was pulling this history out, 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 was a 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 weren’t-we-crazy-kids-back-then sort of way, but when these kids did it, these kids-these-days kids, 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.
Can’t believe this is happening again, the man said. He shook his head. His voice had a certain cadence, a quality that made us like what ever he was saying, even if it was tragic.
What to do, these children? he said. What can one do? No one is safe.
You’re absolutely right, the woman said. It is so shameful. I’m ashamed to live in this world. She shook her head the way the old man had done.
I had a way of angling from tragedy. I listened but let my face go flat. I wanted people to make a joke of it then put it away, to make it feel less like a scar they were showing me. The most recent kidnapping had been over a week ago, and I hoped it would be the last. But even as I thought it, I knew it wasn’t true, knew it wouldn’t be the last time, and the real bother wasn’t that it wasn’t going to be the last time but that the situation wasn’t going to change by some old man at the bus stop, as jolly and beloved as he was, talking and sighing and shaking his head, so why not let’s not talk about it anymore?
Little Miss, he said, seeming to only then notice me. How old are you?
I’m an adult, I said, and looked down the street. There was a great cube of a clock jutting from the building on the corner—multi-faced so that you could read it from any direction. It always kept perfect time.
It began to rain as my bus pulled up. It took me from the central square and passed through several neighborhoods, each more depressed than the next: gray two-flats with bricks busted out like bad teeth, storefronts behind black bars, trash—heavy and wet—clotting the sewer 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 the floor.
Falling apart? the woman in front of me turned to ask. Her lips shaped a wry smile.
Yes, Dear Stranger, I answered in my head. The world is about to run off the rails. We’re all going to get knocked out of orbit, a pool ball chipped off the table. It’s not just a feeling I have, Dear Stranger, rather an assurance, a surety, everything so goddamn out of whack that it’s no longer a matter of if but when.
The bus took me to a neighborhood that looked excerpted from elsewhere—an ivied campus where it was eternally 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 that could happen in the world. A rose blooming in the desert! For others, 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 smart children smarter. They lived in large houses with tall gates, so their parents didn’t worry or they didn’t worry too much or they worried just the right amount to keep them safe.
As I searched my bag for my room key, a security guard halted his squeak up the hall and said, You’re here awful early, young lady. Do you have a pass?
I work here, I said, and handed him my ID.
I see, he said. He took his time studying my two faces. The guard’s sleeves stopped at his biceps, his arms bigger affairs than seemed necessary.
Won’t happen again, he said.
Doubtful, I thought but didn’t say.
In first period, the kids took turns telling me about their summers. Piano lessons. French lessons. A month on an island I’d never heard of. One boy finished a long-beloved book series then buried each volume in his backyard.
My sister told me there are almost endless good books, he said. But none like these.
His face was bony and slight, creating dark pockets of sensitivity beneath his eyes. His hair was chin-length, dark brown, and straight, and he shyly tucked it behind his 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 them—as precocious as any darling prodigy—was half my age, me divided in two. I didn’t know anything about his parents, save they’d given him the most beautiful name one can to a boy in this language.
During the passing period, I watched the children move up and down the hallway. The girls had long, straight hair, the bright natural blondes and browns of undyed, unaltered youth; the boys were covered in sour, shiny pimples or were girlish and small still—elfin angles in their chins and a flipping bit of hair covering one eye. Our school was an island of beauty and learning and sharing, I told myself, far apart from the mainland of smog and grime and crime, these children princes and princesses of their own sparkling futures.
Sometimes I took the train home, a different crowd all the way. None of the old ladies with cagey carts from the bus, clothes humped on backs, or mothers and bundled babies, but people with jobs, moving to and from them. 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 plane—I wanted to grab them by the wrists—was 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 and sharing, I told myself, far apart from the mainland of smog and grime and crime, these children princes and princesses of their own sparkling futures.
The air was humid and close from the rain, my skin slick with it. In my book, the protagonist’s sister had just gotten her face eaten off by the scaled beast—a low blow, as the protagonist had really seemed to like her sister. Before the train ran express to the nether regions of the city, one last man ducked into our car. He was a tree-sturdy man in a denim shirt and brown boots. Someone in the habit of walking slowly. It used to be that I’d 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 opened and released a sigh of people. The next stop, the same, only less so, the crowd loosening. I got up and stood next to the man by the door. He was somewhere in the soggy middle of the paper, where tucked down in the corner was a black-and-white headshot of a woman in a blazer. The text above her head read, What of the Children?
Scary stuff, I said.
The weather, I replied. Wind gusts up to seventy-five miles per hour.
I put my hand to my chest and tickled my shirt, a gesture I thought hinted at sensitive concern, one I’d been 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, That’s windy, and I knew I wouldn’t have to ask him to walk me home.
In the morning papers: five more children taken. Five more children who had been out the day before—loitering, skateboarding, double-dutching. One child, who was hardly a child anymore, had been out for a walk 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 “strutting”—Strutting around in his tennis shoes and T-shirt—and 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 men were policemen. Or firemen or congressmen. Somethingmen. A spokesperson for the men said that they knew with certainty who the bad kids were and who the good kids were and which kids would later become bad and which kids were on the fence 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 had to take their word for it. It held a certain logic, their collective nonexplaining. Nothing revealed and therefore nothing to criticize. Zero equals zero. Trust us equals We can’t tell you. Who were we to question it? We had, after all, 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, a woman said it was all a damn shame. 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 of great childhood uprisings abounded, she said. Early teenagers in dirty jeans and T-shirts with the sleeves cut off, chains and tire irons and fiery bottles in their hands, marching to some midnight destination while a punk rock song built to angry climax. The woman didn’t mention how great those films were. How they could light a good fire in you, get you moving to some previously unknown fingers-into-fists feeling. It wasn’t just about rebellion, but where the rebellion lived—those movies more about the clothes and the music than anything else. The things that scared the adults and drew the children in.A spokesperson for the men said that they knew with certainty who the bad kids were and who the good kids were and which kids would later become bad and which kids were on the fence and therefore should be taken care of just in case.
When I got to the bus stop, they were already talking.
Will not and cannot let this go on, the sweet-and-sour woman said. She looked shorter but more potent, a concentrated version of herself.
The people must rise up, the old man said, leaning back, his hands clasped at his middle. Up up up!
What’s the weather doing today? I asked.
The weather, my dear, is changing.
A cold front? I asked. I couldn’t take people talking in metaphors, the weak language of everything-means-something-else.
There’s going 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 my outfits, my seasonally appropriate accoutrements; I always chose just the right ones.
None of us were that long ago children, 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 where it stopped above my knees. He looked away.
We are, truth be told, all in danger. Injustice for one is injustice for all.
The woman closed her eyes and nodded.
Tomorrow evening, a man said. Will you be there?
I feel embarrassed yelling things aloud.
Sweet-and-sour snapped her head up, face puckered. Not disappointed so much as shocked that I didn’t 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 couldn’t 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 men’s 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. I didn’t 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 blazing with the news. Trying to get the lesson going, I recapped act two of the play we were reading. A number of noble men and women had recently lost their heads, and everywhere there were bloodstains that just wouldn’t come out, but the kids kept circling back.
Are you going to the demonstration? one boy asked the girl next to him.
My parents won’t let me, she said.
Mine won’t either, but I’m just going to do it.
I have no reason to be downtown.
The library is right there.
Are you going to go? the girl asked me.
Well—I tended to flush when things turned overly personal—these things have a way of becoming very . . .crowded.
But it’s a demonstration, one of them said.
Dangerous, then. I stopped, but it didn’t seem satisfying, so I did what I always did when I didn’t quite know what to say: I turned the question back to them. Do you think it’s a good idea to risk it?
A few sidelong glances and the pursing of lips. It was uncanny how little they considered even the simplest questions if they ran opposed to their own convictions. I thought that might have done it, but then my beautiful book burier started talking.
This can’t go on, he said. He was looking down. When I think of their families—he stopped, his mind following the thought somewhere the rest of us couldn’t go. 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 one’s own voice.
We have to do something, he said, his eyes turned up, large and naive. My face had looked even younger at his age. Adults were forever pitching their voices high to me, but I denied them my childish inclinations, went about my kid business in secret—writing rhymed songs, posing dolls, letting the world silently terrify me. I kept myself hidden, not wanting to conform to any mass noun 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 the same, their faces cracked open, baby chicks pecking out into the world and me the hen that had warmed them. I never asked for this, I thought, but, Question, question, question mark, their little faces went.
Well, I mean, it’s nothing for you guys to worry about!
Why not? they asked. Yeah, why not?
You’re such good kids, I thought. This type of thing didn’t happen to such good kids. But I knew it wasn’t any kind of thing to say. I also knew that I shouldn’t describe the way my head was about to roll off the back of my 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.
The woman on the bus was telling the bus how she had 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 wig she’d purchased in this very neighborhood. She had no particular audience, getting all the encouragement she needed from the bus’s silence. I wondered what was the most of a person that could be made of something else. Hooks for hands and wheels for legs, an iron lung, a metal heart. What’s the least amount of human a human could be?Adults were forever pitching their voices high to me, but I denied them my childish inclinations, went about my kid business in secret—writing rhymed songs, posing dolls, letting the world silently terrify me. I kept myself hidden, not wanting to conform to any mass noun that might include me.
A group of field-tripping daycare children got on at the 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 about to move!
They scrambled into their seats, legs dangling. The little girl beside me, hair sprouting from her head in a single, round pouf, turned to look out the window, then to me.
Did you tie your shoes all by yourself? she asked.
She’s a big girl, her watcher said.
I nodded and smiled, and the girl turned to look out the window again. Her ears were impossibly small, as pliable as gummy candy. Somewhere an adult had gotten pregnant and had said, Okay, yes. Yes, okay, fine. She had planned it or not planned it and had decided to make a little thing that looked like her. The adult had wanted reassurance that she wasn’t so far away from being a child herself. Wanted to make a thing to tell her, We’re not so different, you and me. But what the pregnant adult did not think about was the way the little thing’s face was going to change—from the small, soft version to something hard like burnt cake. The pregnant adult shrank her imagined timeline to include only what I saw now. Who could blame her? I thought about taking the child for myself, taking her by the hand and pointing out the world to her, telling her the names of everything and what I thought any of it meant. I saw myself holding her up in the mirror, she looking into my eyes and saying, Let’s you be me. Let’s me be us. The desire of it was so plain, rising up, bursting out so fast, it was like something I’d spilled all over myself.
I reached over and pinched the toe of her white sneaker, wiggled it, and opened my book in my lap. I liked its weight there. The townspeople had discovered that by channeling their positive energy, they could make 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 I’d missed. Protesters had gone out into the streets the night before, carrying signs with pictures of the taken. They said, Show us the men who have done this. Bring them to us. But there they were. Policemen hidden in plain sight inside their plastic helmets and shields, telling the men and women assembled that they’d assembled incorrectly, had not filed the correct permits five to ten business days in advance and therefore needed to disperse. The people said that justice could not wait. The people said, Who’s next? A few of them had picked up rocks and put them into the air—dull, impotent thuds against all those plastic shields—and this was reason enough for the men to slide out their thick batons and new crowd-control swords, clearing a path as with a machete through the jungle. They could not quantify it specifically, but there had been significant bloodshed. Bloodshed, the radioman said, making it sound like something no longer needed. Bloodshed, like snakes ridding themselves of their skin. A spokesperson for the hardly children told the reporter that this was not it, not even close to not it, was even more not it than it hadn’t been 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.
And there were children newly missing, those unaccounted for in the significant bloodshed. Young people from all over the city had come to join the protest and show their support for the taken, only to be taken themselves. They were said to have been snatched from the quieter, more sensitive edges of the protest. I thought of how my fellow teachers called the students their “kids,” as though they were all our sons and daughters, and how I didn’t think of any other children in that way. Only my kids were my kids.
My walk took me past the wooded park, the sun pushing up while mist descended within the trees. A few blocks 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 its tail a speck of blood. Farther along, a pair of overalls smeared with blood. I thought of the girl on the bus—her edible ears—and it would seem the kind of coincidence that only the most sentimental would create. All along the edge of the park, a breadcrumb trail of jackets and jeans and rags gone red, as always the morning after—the messy evidence of two lovers who shed their clothing before eating the other up.They could not quantify it specifically, but there had been significant bloodshed. Bloodshed, the radioman said, making it sound like something 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 glass until 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 wasn’t 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, Don’t be silly, but if it possibly wasn’t 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 guard’s and the radioman’s and the newspapers’ suggestion for individuals to stay in their homes, I ventured out that evening. I had bought a new jacket, a burnt-orange number that would do well in the chill, and I wanted to show it off to the old man.
It was dark by the time I got downtown. Rounding a corner, I saw the people streaming into the square, the mass of them glowing with small fires carried in their hands. I joined the back where they kept the Sunday morning folks—old men and women, the youngest children. 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 up—small candles progressing in size and heat to beer bottles to liquor bottles to torches. I stopped one row behind the frontline, where a hot silence draped itself over the crowd. Peeking up on my toes, I fought for a view between shoulders. The people leaders had stopped before the men leaders, no more than a breath between them. The men in power had covered themselves in plastic: square black helmets with tinted visors over their faces and plates of protective rubber embedded in their uniforms. Each had tucked himself behind a shield with one shoulder, holding a black club or metal blade in the opposite hand.
A teenager with a blue bandana over his face whispered down to me, You shouldn’t be up here.
It started the way anything started: with a seed of quaking static in your gut, a feeling like you’re moving but not moving, and then a wild overflow, a purging, a getting the inside out as fast as possible.
A young man in front, looking at the men, cried out, Annie!
And the crowd behind him cried, Annie! Justice!
Betsy! he cried.
Betsy! Justice! the crowd responded.
Dante! Justice! the crowd yelled.
And Eric, Frankie, and Geoffrey; Harry, Iona, and James on down the line, each response faster, each filled to the brim with heat—all the while, the uniforms hiding men motionless—Kathy, Larry, Michael, all the way to P for Peter. I didn’t know how many Peters there were in the world, how many in our city, but in between the young man’s saying it and the crowd’s dutiful echo, I saw a particular Peter, a perfect whisper of a schoolboy, a pristine castrato who only ever sang the pains of boyhood into beauty, and after the crowd added Justice, I responded with a cry of my own, a sound that could have been the scream of a child or a mother losing that child, and the scene quickly became something confusing.
The back of the crowd surged, pushing the front of the line into the men, who pushed back with their plastic plates. They pushed and pushed until the line broke, the people and the men zipping themselves up, boy, man, boy, man, until there was no longer anything separating us. I saw one of the men’s long blades bared then made to disappear inside a young one. From behind me, rocks and more rocks, bigger rocks, and flaming bottles took flight. I covered my head with my hands, trying to move out by moving back. I ducked and dipped, muscling through 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 mother’s 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 child’s 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 chest’s breaths winding down, and I said, You’re beautiful. It’s okay. You’re beautiful. You’re so beautiful; you look just like me.
From Hardly Children. Used with permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2018 by Laura Adamczyk.