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The Children


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"The Children" first appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine's Seventieth Anniversary issue, September/October 2011. Please look for it in the Kindle Store, the iTunes Store and the Nook Store. It is also available with its sequel, the novella Champawat, in The Children & Champawat in the Kindle Store and the Nook Store.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Children

 

 

 

 

Ella awakened face-down on the concrete. She spat out grit that swirled in the night wind, then rolled painfully to her side. The Kingstons' windows were dark but the glare of arc lights on their jack frost hurt her eyes. She dropped her gaze to an iron fence like a line of spears from the Corinthian porch to the next rowhouse. She struggled to free her arm from the sheet wrapped around her, but the effort made her lungs boil with coughs. Earlier, she'd come to with her nose mashed and her mouth covered, struggling to breathe through the filthy linen. She remembered twisting and slithering toward the gate, frantic to expose her face. Now, if she could pull herself through and tumble down the steps to the basement level service entrance, the wagon wouldn't see her when it passed. It wouldn't matter if she blacked out again, the drivers wouldn't mistake her stupor for death. They wouldn't toss her onto a pile of corpses stacked like cordwood. Maybe she could hang on till Cook came out for the milk. None of the servants knew that Charles, Cook's bad-tempered husband, had dragged Ella to the curb like garbage. He'd waited till long past midnight, and if he'd wakened Cook afterward, it would have been to take his vulgar pleasure, not to tell her what he'd done

Charles had been glad to get rid of Ella, she knew that. When the Kingstons brought home baby Annie, they'd wanted the house kept warmer at night. Charles always slept through extra stokings of the furnace, so Mr. Kingston forced him out of his wife's warm bed and onto a cot in the basement. To keep him from sneaking back to the attic room and passing out there, Mrs. Kingston sent Ella, till then on a feather mattress in the nursery, to take Charles' place, "problem solved." As if the Kingstons knew anything about problems.

Most nights, Charles would slip upstairs after the two o'clock stoking and lie with his wife as if Ella weren't in the bed at all, as if Cook didn't weep with shame into her pillow, knowing Ella merely feigned sleep.

The men in the household were pigs. All but little John, eight years old and a master of silly limericks and botched riddles. Ella hoped he didn't grow up to be like his father, who'd felt no compunction about accepting an "accommodation" from her in lieu of references.

The fact that this had been a good deal for Ella didn't make his part of it right. He'd put his children into a stranger's hands knowing nothing but what she'd told him herself. And she'd have said anything to escape a shirt factory that left women half blind and coughing up cotton dust.

The Kingstons should have let her die inside, no matter their terror (everybody's terror) of the Spanish flu. At first, they'd put her in a corner of the basement, as far as possible from the potato bin and the new wringer washer. She didn't know how long she'd lain on old blankets like a stray dog gasping for breath. She'd overheard Charles, his voice full of false concern, tell the Kingstons they'd best set her out for the wagon soon. She'd be dead before it arrived, and why risk having the sickness seep through the house till then? What if he should nod off and miss the moment? They couldn't put her to the curb in the daytime. It wasn't that sort of neighborhood—cabinet members and senators and a supreme court justice lived within a stone's throw. But if they kept her inside, the stench would waft upstairs all day tomorrow, perhaps to baby Annie's room, or to six year old Muriel's or little John's.

Mr. Kingston, a lawyer, had blown hot air around it. He'd said it was a shame there were no caskets for the dead anymore, nor anyplace to put them, with funeral parlors stacked floor to ceiling. "Cook says the mother's dead and no father, that sort of family, so we'd have to bear the expense ourselves. But there's just no possibility of a burial now." Taking her to the hospital had been ruled out. "The Post says they've run out of everything, beds most of all. The sick are outside on the ground, both sides of the driveway and down the block. They can't do a thing for them. Pity the vaccine was useless." Mrs. Kingston wondered if taking Ella there would at least solve the problem of her disposal. "But how to get her there?" Mr. K was slightly curt, as usual with his wife. "It's no use sending for the Packard, no one at the garage will fetch her. They're not medics, can't expect them to risk contagion." He'd added, "And do we want our hospitals steam shoveling holes out back, piling in thousands of bodies like they do in Philadelphia? Not that you can blame Philly—4600 dead there last week alone. But I think our method's better, let wagons collect them off the streets and take them to rural Virginia." They'd agreed it was a mark of excellent governance that they could toss an afflicted servant to the gutter like trash and think no more about her.

As she walked out, Mrs. Kingston turned to say, "Charles, I'm terrified for the children. Is there someplace you can go for a few days after handling her… her body? I appreciate that you've stayed down here, away from all of us, since moving her. I'll leave some coins for you on the washer, for lodging and food. Please don't take the chance… don't say good-bye to Cook. I'll explain to her tomorrow." Charles had said yes, missus. "And you have no guess how the disease came into the house? We kept you all inside, none of us has been out for days." Charles said nothing. The servants knew Mr. K slipped away once or twice a week, returning just before dawn. He'd been doing it for months. "I'll have Maid put on gloves and a mask and send the rest of Nanny's things down the laundry chute. You'll get them burned before you go?"

Later Ella realized, blearily from her corner, that Charles was feeding something other than coal into the furnace. He was stuffing in her clothes and hats, in case some trace of sickness clung to them. There would be nothing left of her. Her body would melt away in a lye-covered layer of a mass grave. There would no stone with her name on it, there would be no ceremony. Funerals, like all public gatherings, were forbidden, illegal on order of the mayor. Not that any but the very rich could afford coffins—the few that could be found cost as much as Model Ts.

She noticed a darting movement in the shadow between the arc lights. A rat. It approached in tentative sets of steps. She wanted to scream but couldn't get enough air into or out of her lungs. She tried to unroll herself from the constricting linen, desperate to free her arms, to ward off this creature that, like her employers, couldn't even wait till she was dead. The rat turned, its ears angling toward the sound of metal wheels, the clomp of horseshoes on cobbles. Then it dashed back into the shadows.

The death wagon had turned onto her street.

Ella knew, from nights watching through the attic window, that two men in rubber boots would climb from the wagon's benchlike seat. As their horses stomped and fussed, they'd bend over her. From above, she'd look like a rolled carpet or bundle of bedding. Each would pick up one end, then they'd stagger to the open back of the wagon. With a practiced swing or two, they'd hoist her onto the stack. Men had been doing this since the middle ages.

And how was 1918 different than 1318? People were dragged away to prison for speaking against their ruler, thanks to the Sedition Act. Girls were burned alive, not at the stake but in locked shirtwaist factories. Men were tortured and lynched by mobs, not of peasants but of Klansmen. The poor fought wars so the rich could divide the spoils. And again, the streets rattled with wagons full of pestilent corpses.

They had been right, at the Anarchist's Hall. (It was shuttered now, many of her friends deported.) Mamma had taken Ella almost every night—it was where all the immigrants went, it was their social center. They staged plays and songfests, they collected money for strikers and shingle-weavers with cedar lung, they hosted speakers and held rallies. Ella and the other children had rampaged up the halls, jumped down the stairs, played games in the kitchen, and ignored the endless blather. They didn't care if someday humans treated each other as equals and shared their wealth. Things seemed just fine at the Hall. She couldn't imagine why the grown-ups complained all the time.

That's how people like the Kingstons were. They thought all the world was like their happy piece of it. They didn't understand the fuss—the strikes, the Free Speech Actions, the opposition to the draft. Things around them were good. Why should anyone protest?

Nicky used to say, it's not enough to tell people things aren't fine for others. Until trouble's brought home to them, they can't understand it. He was in Mexico now because he wouldn't fight men who'd done him no harm in a war no one could explain. Someday soon he'd come looking for her. The Kingstons wouldn't bother lying that they'd cared for her till the end. They'd simply refuse entry to a tattered-looking man asking after a dead servant.

Her ear on the cold sidewalk made the wagon jarringly loud, the more so because it was different from common street sounds, from the backfires and rumbles of cars, the clatter of trolleys, the staccato of women's boots on cobbles or cement.

It stopped near the Roosevelt house. Too close. It would come for her next.

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To read the rest, please go to the Kindle Store, the iTunes Store or the Nook Store. It is also available with its sequel, the novella Champawat, in The Children & Champawat at the Kindle Store and the Nook Store.