Househeld

[fiction]

All the food is kept in the house kitchen. Yon and I, like all the kids but Symboline, aren’t allowed to go there. Symboline, the oldest of us all, brings out bread for children who’ve been nicest to her and flicks crumbs at the others. After she saw our first kiss the other week, she began tsking at us. We tried to be nice to her by shining her shoes and braiding her hair, but after each task, she tsked. Now, when she brings the bread out, she doesn’t even bother hitting us with the crumbs.

Since we started getting no bread, the longest times of the day start at noon when my stomach lights up with hot gnawing. It slows my thinking and pulls me into naps that I hate. Yon doesn’t let on so much that he misses the bread, but he was born in the house, unlike me. I was left here when I turned five. My non-house life taught me to expect food and complain about midday starvation.

If it weren’t for the breakfast and dinner oatmeal Symboline leaves in our assigned wall alcoves, I’d be dead by now. At breakfast one day, I say I’m going to figure out how to have a talk with the adults on the other side of the house, and Yon says that even if I make it through the kitchen to the other side, which I won’t, they’d just ask me to figure things out with Symboline.

“Don’t they care?” I say.

“I’ve never seen an adult on this side, but that’s what Symboline’s for,” he says.

“Does that mean you’ve seen an adult on the other?” I say in wonder.

“Not that either. You know no one ever goes there,” he says.

I imagine beyond the kitchen door. I conjure up a man in an apron who prepares the food for Symboline to carry out. Beyond him, a hallway that leads to the rest of the house, not only hidden from us inside, but also outside. If you walk around to the back of the house, the towering evergreen trees grow thick, and no one dares to push through them.

“Why is Symboline in charge anyway?” I say.

“She’s been here forever,” he says.

“And later, if we just go to the kitchen for more food?” I say, the daily lack of bread making me daring.

“Don’t you remember the boy who never came back?” he says.

“But at least we wouldn’t have to be here anymore,” I say.

“Speaking of, we have to go to work,” he says.

Breakfast over, we head up and grab our bundle of The News, the newspapers we print in the attic at night. About a month ago, we said it would be nice to make something. It was our first close conversation. On a walk soon after, we headed higher and higher in the house, into dusty parts no one bothered with, and found a trove of computer equipment and stacks of paper. We hadn’t used a computer since the one in the rec room died the summer before, but we got it all working in a few days.

In the garage we set the stack of papers in the box in the middle of the unwieldy tandem bicycle. Anyone could use the bike, but we were the ones who got along enough to make it work. Each day we bike to Marty Square to sell our news for a quarter each. We tell Symboline and the others that we give the newspapers away. They don’t care because everyone has to make up some kind of fun in a house with no books but our lesson texts. Though since Symboline told everyone about the kiss, Jerome does rub his index fingers together at us and pretend to gag.

At the park we smell hot meat and peanuts. We lick our lips when someone holds an ice cream cone while giving us a quarter for a newspaper. The headlines are always like today’s: “Alien Elected US President—Again.” We don’t get many repeat customers, though the woman we call our veiled editor has started to bring back copies with marks on them. “I’m a school teacher,” she says through her flowing cloth. Her eyes live in a rectangular panel bordered in bright oranges. “The article on dogs causing all of our pollution was original, but the word ‘pollution’ was spelled three different ways.”

I take the newspaper, and, as with the other times she’s handed us one back, we try to give her a quarter for it. She laughs in delight once again, though this time for a shorter period, and waves away the small money.

“How old are you?”

We don’t answer, and we shake our heads at the offer of lunch.

She tells us to read her comments, to give them to our editor. She’s our one editor, though, and we know she doesn’t mean that. When she’s gone, I read through what she’s written. Sometimes she’s placed a star in a margin and written “Good word choice.” The rest is full of suggestions like “More research needed to aid believability.”

“Maybe today we don’t return to the house,” Yon says. He places a hand on my rumbling stomach.

“Do we have enough money?” I say.

I remember my mother towering over me, my last memory of her. She seemed the size of the sky and I was a feather from a sparrow’s wing.

He shakes his head, so I say, “The adults would find us. And then one of them would stomp on us.” He frowns and nods. A vision of a giant foot squishing me the way my mother’s car once squished a hare fills my thoughts. When Mom and I got out to see what we’d hit, we found two piles of jackrabbit: the outsides, and, a foot away, pounds of insides. I imagine one of the adults lifting a foot to find my outsides compressed. A second later, he sees that his stomping has forced my insides to squirt out and land nearby.

“Gross,” I say.

“What is?” Yon says.

“My brain.” I shake the images away.

I remember my mother towering over me, my last memory of her. She seemed the size of the sky and I was a feather from a sparrow’s wing.

We continue to sell our newspaper, but I can’t concentrate very well. In the morning, the oatmeal felt like it stuck to my stomach’s walls, but it has slid away. “What if I take a fist of our quarters to buy us those hotdogs they talk about?” I say, even though Yon knows as well as I that the house adults can smell all food.

“It’s not just the adults who could tell,” he says. “They’ve taught Symboline to smell any food on us too.”

“When did they do that?” I say.

He scrunches up his nose. “I don’t know, but everyone knows it,” he says.

“I didn’t know,” I say, and he tells me that now I do.

Stomachs still on fire, we pack up the last of the newspapers and return to the house. When no one’s in our long boys’ room, Yon slips the quarters into one of his bedposts, and I burn the leftover paper in the room’s fireplace. We kiss.

Beyond Symboline and Jerome, the kids in the house don’t care that Yon and I kiss, including all the boys who share our room. They only get gaggy at the thought of kissing when it’s for themselves. Every brave attempt at spin the bottle has ended in terrified screams.

And it’s not that we make out in front of anyone. Symboline saw us because she opened our bedroom door when she wasn’t supposed to. Yon says she can do what she wants, which is common knowledge, but it’s also common knowledge that girls aren’t supposed to open boys’ bedroom doors as much as we aren’t supposed to open theirs. Even Matt, who says he was always really a boy and sleeps in our room now, isn’t allowed to open any girls’ doors anymore.

After the quiet of holding each other, we go down to the dining hall and find our dinner oatmeal in our wall alcoves and shovel it down. Afterward, I hold my aching stomach and cry. The other kids finish their bowls and leave us in the dining hall. “Tomorrow, let’s not come back,” Yon says.

“We’ll have enough to leave?” I say.

He says he guesses maybe not but soon. He rubs circles into my back and says it’s time to head to the attic to print the next day’s news.

“We’ll write a story about her,” he says.

“Symboline?”

“No. The veiled editor,” he says, and I agree.

The next day in the park we set up with our printouts. “Do you think she’ll be here today?” I say.

“I hope so,” Yon says, and sure enough, about an hour into selling, the veiled woman, clothes rippling in the wind, walks up to us. I wonder if her eyes were always green. She buys a copy and reads.

“Clever, this,” she says as she taps the headline, “Veiled Avenger Solves Case.”

Her cool tone surprises me. Yon thanks her, and she pulls a loaf of bread from her bag. “Do you want any?” she says.

The bread is in the same red-and-white packaging as the loaves Symboline has at the house. I step back and hide behind Yon. He tells the woman thanks but no thanks, and she apologizes and slides the bread back into her bag.

“We can’t do wheat,” Yon says.

“Oh, okay,” she says, and she says sorry again and walks away.

“Did you see what bread she had?” I say when she’s gone.

“I’m sure that bread is everywhere,” he says.

We sell the rest of the copies in the next two hours—a record for us—and bike home with quarters filling our pockets. At the house, we sneak through to the empty bedroom and Yon fills the bedpost with the quarters.

For a few moments, we have enough without the money.

“Do we have enough yet?” I say.

He shakes his head and pulls me into a hug. In the past weeks he’s gotten taller, so he rests my cheek on his shoulder and squeezes me. For a few moments I forget I’m hungry. For a few moments, we have enough without the money.

The next day as we put our morning bowls and cups in the stacks next to the water jugs on the long table Symboline says we’re not to go to the park with our papers. One of the adults is coming over, and we have to head to the rec room.

In the rec room, Yon and I sit by the stage on two of the many costume boxes donated to the house after a local professional theater shut down. The younger children sometimes put on skits, though I haven’t seen one in months. After all thirty of us kids have gathered, Symboline nods and leaves the room. As one kid yells out that if we’re not good the adult will squash us for sure, the adult walks in. She’s clutching a loaf of bread. She has flowing black clothes on. We can see nothing but her eyes through the cutout in her headpiece. The adult is our veiled editor. After being so nice, how could she be one of the adults who would squash us?

She tells the room that there are reports of two boys in the house who are not following all the rules. She says the two boys go out every day and work, sell things, and horde the earnings. “And they are extremely good friends,” she says. The woman never focuses on anyone, but she doesn’t have to. By the time she says she’d like the issue resolved soon, everyone is staring at Yon and me.

The veiled woman leaves, and bodies stir in the quiet. Everyone stands, unsure of what to do, since the woman didn’t ask anyone to do anything in particular. People start to whisper and point, so Yon and I move for the door. People part at first, but Jerome makes kissing fingers at us and blocks our way. “Kissers,” he says.

“Not for you,” Yon says, and he tries to push past Jerome.

“Give them ten minutes to leave,” Symboline, suddenly standing with us, says.

“You have ten minutes,” Jerome parrots as he lets us pass. No one protests about any of it. No one in the house has great friends—no one but Yon and I have ever tried to be attached, it seems—but now I feel like we’ve been living with strangers.

We leave everyone behind, the buzz of their voices churning after us. I start up the steps, but Yon yanks me back. “No—we go to the garage,” he says.

“But the money,” I say.

“No time. I don’t know what they’ll do to you. We’ll figure something out later. Sneak in or something.”

We bike to the square, the place we know best outside of the house, though our latest edition sits in the attic. The sun flashes on and off of the pavement, blinding us in some moments, guiding us forward in others. At the park, we roll the bike into some trees and find a stone bench.

Sneaking back in for the money will be the last time at the house, but I don’t feel freedom. We don’t have enough sold yet. I smooth my hand over the stone and worry about sleeping. I like my bed and the pillow that stretches just right around my neck. And though I am always hungry, I eat twice a day at the house. Yon pulls me to him and rubs my hands, even though they are not cold. Yon tells me we’ll be okay. I rest for a moment, and when I open my eyes, I smile because Yon’s already smiling at me. But then I focus beyond him and see the veiled woman heading for us.

Yon pulls me up and we skip past the bike-hiding place for the painted sidewalks. We step on face after face. “We left the house like she said to. Why is she here?” I say.

“I don’t know,” Yon huffs.

We bump into a woman pulling a wagon and call out that we’re sorry. She swears at us, but we’re already too far away to respond. I look back to see how fast the veiled woman can move with so much covering, but I don’t see her.

Yon grips my hand and slows us. I can feel his fear. I twist about and find the veiled woman a body length in front of us. “I haven’t run that fast in years,” she says.

“Why are you after us? We left the house like you wanted,” Yon says between breaths.

“Left the house? What do you mean?” she says.

Before either of us can answer, her eyes grow distracted at something behind us. She pulls herself taut and we swivel around. Standing back at the start of the painted sidewalks is another veiled woman. As she gets closer, we see she could be the same woman—with the same fabric, nearly the same bright embroidery.

The first veiled woman says, “What is this?” and the second one tsks and says, “If you don’t show me where the money is, the adults will start hurting the ones who are left.”

I check on the woman behind us. She takes a look at each of us and shakes her head, backs away. She reaches the opposite end of the painted sidewalks and turns out of sight.

“Let’s go after her,” Yon says.

“Can we?” I say.

“No,” the remaining veiled woman says. “After all I’ve done for you, you must return one more time.”

Yon puts an arm around me and walks us past the woman, past the bike, home. I struggle on the way, but Yon holds me tighter and says things will be fine, and what do I have but him?

At the house, she brings us back in front of the househeld, all the kids. Jerome makes his finger-kisses and soon everyone is. “They have agreed to bring the adults their secret money,” our captor says.

“And then they’re done for good,” Jerome says.

“For good,” a girl cries.

“Bring me to the money,” Symboline says from behind us.

I search for the veiled woman, but she is no longer in the room.

We lead Symboline out of the room. Out of earshot of the other kids, she says, “The adults just need the money and then you can go.”

Yon pulls me up the stairs and along to the bedroom. Inside, Symboline says, “But after you left I searched in here.”

Yon settles me on his bed. He kisses me, and Symboline tsks. He unscrews the wooden ball at the top of a bedpost and tosses it next to me on the bed. I roll it around. It’s not hollow. It’s heavy.

Symboline stares down into the hiding place. “The money’s in there?”

I pick up the bedpost topper and test its weight.

“Yes, it’s down in there,” Yon says. “All quarters.”

“I know that,” she says.

Yon yanks a duffel bag out from under the bed. He pulls up on the post and says, “Hold the bag open.” Symboline anchors its mouth wide as he slides the post away from the bed and tips it to rain coins into the bag.

“All this in just under a month?” Symboline says in the most hopeful voice I’ve heard that year. “And you worked together? Imagine how much bread this could buy.”

“No, not all this,” Yon says, and tells her to bring the bag to the other rear post. He repeats the same moves and another stream of quarters joins the first. “That’s what we made in just under a month,” he says. “With your help too, of course. The quarter you used to buy the newspaper is in there too.”

I realize he’s right but keep my surprise to myself. Symboline tightens her slack stance and tosses her hair back. “How did you know?”

“At the park earlier, you sounded like you. I didn’t catch it when you bought the paper, but with the real woman there, it was obvious. And I don’t know how you found such close-matching clothes, but you couldn’t be her: The real woman was nice, didn’t hate us,” Yon says.

“The costume boxes are helpful, and I don’t hate you,” she says. “I made sure you kept getting oatmeal. It’s just that for the kids to survive, things need order.”

“Did the adults tell you that?” Yon says.

“The adults,” she says. “Yeah, they tell me.”

“Why didn’t you just tell us to leave right away?” Yon says.

“It takes a little while to make outcasts, to feed the disquiet that people don’t even know is growing. If the househeld think they’ve kicked you out, they won’t think of leaving too.”

“But why pretend to be the veiled woman?” he says.

“I followed you to the park after you started going out every day. I followed you to see how close you’d gotten. I was shocked to see you were making money—and talking with an outside adult multiple times. Pretending to be her seemed a perfect way to make you stop trusting an outsider.”

I step up on the bedframe and with a wild swing, I slam the bedpost ball against Symboline’s head. She slumps forward, and Yon catches her. “Took you long enough,” he says.

“I wasn’t sure if that’s what you meant,” I say. I’m grateful she’s breathing, and we move her up on the bed. I can’t imagine moving again if she weren’t breathing.

Yon shoulders the bag and says he hadn’t thought it would be so heavy. “It’s enough though, right?” I say, and he says we’ll have to make it be.

“Let’s get back to the park and the bike,” he says. “I didn’t want to risk having it back here and something happening to it.”

We head for the front door, but we find Jerome and ten other kids. They start finger-kissing at us, so we back away and go for the rec room. It has lots of windows—but kids are standing in our way there too.

“Get them,” echoes between the groups.

We reach the stairs again, but going up means fewer ways to get out. Besides, Symboline is that way. Instead, we opt for the dining room and aim for a door that leads to the front hall. Before we reach it, Jerome slams through it. We veer right and find ourselves in front of the kitchen door.

“Kissers,” they say, and they have us. The swinging door behind us might as well be a drop off a cliff.

“At least we’re together,” Yon says, and he pulls me through the door. No one follows, and no one cries out. No one’s invented a sound for what we’ve just done.

No one follows, and no one cries out. No one’s invented a sound for what we’ve just done.

Or for what we see. Grime covers the kitchen. One set of towering metal shelves holds rows of oatmeal silos, though most are missing their tops. Next to the silos, our house bowls rest in stacks. Other shelves hold a few loaves and countless empty bread bags. We look in cabinets and the refrigerator, but we find no other food. On the stove is a large pot crusted with oatmeal. On the wall opposite our entrance, a white door waits.

We squeeze each other’s hands. Yon grips the handle and pulls it open. The excitement of discovering the hallway to the other side of the house, to the adults, quiets away fear. We run into a dim grass-covered room that has trees for walls. We race around a bench and push into a gap in the farthest trees. The bag of coins gets stuck for a moment, but we ease it free. And come to a stone wall. It’s just low enough for us to press ourselves up to look over it. The park we bike to lies out and below. Between Marty Square and us is the slope of the city—yards and houses and streets and stores. We leave the wall and push through the trees in other directions, but we end up in the neighboring yards.

“This whole time it’s just been a backyard,” Yon says, and I feel guilty that I struck Symboline.

We return to the kitchen and ease the door shut. Yon puts the duffel on the closest counter. We look at the scant supplies of food. “What kind of teacher do you think the real veiled woman is?” he says.

“A nice one?” I say.

“Do you think if we sell newspapers in the park again that she’ll buy one?” he says.

I shrug. “That would be nice,” I say.

We read the prices marked on the bags of bread and boxes of oatmeal. We have money to buy plenty more.

“Do you think they’re waiting out there for us?” I say.

“Maybe, but they’ll see we were able to go in and out of the kitchen. But we can say the adults made us like Symboline.”

“Symboline,” he says.

“Our first change could be to get hotdogs,” I say, and Yon hugs me close.

For now, we leave the bag of quarters on the counter. We push the swinging door out to find the house gathered. I catch Jerome’s face, and he mouths a “Wow.” He calls for people to get back, that we’ve done the impossible. When the room is full and silent, Yon kisses me in the doorway and again in the dining hall.

 

Todd Wellman is former fiction editor for cream city review. He received his MA from UW-Milwaukee. His writing has appeared in The James Franco Review, the Indie Next Lists, The Missouri Review blog, and more. He implores all to shop at indie bookstores.