Online Exclusive

07.09.19
Ghost Child
At a rooftop signal, children haul debris onto the road in random-looking piles, then run to a wall’s broken shadow. The girls hide and, as the convoy arrives, the boys pretend to play.

     “Hey,” the militia Captain shouts from his halted jeep.

     The boys stop pretending to play.

     “Get over here and clear off this road for us.”

     “What do we get?” a boy shouts back.

     “It’s what you don’t get,” a soldier says.

     “A lesson in manners,” says another.

     “An anatomy lesson,” says a third.

     “You get to keep all your little playmates,” the first soldier says. “And all the rotten teeth in that smart mouth of yours.”

     The Captain silences them. He studies the boy, whom he decides is the leader.

     “A meal,” he says. “Afterwards.”

     “Before.”

     “After. Or I can let my men play their favorite game with you.”

     If they’re going to scatter, now is the time. The boy doesn’t move. He is assessing choices and risks, assessing the look on the Captain’s face. Finally he leads the other boys onto the road.

     They start slowly clearing away the debris, pausing, panting, making it look harder than it is. After a while a soldier tells the boy the Captain wants to see him.

     The militia has occupied the theater. It’s the only building in the area with four nearly complete walls and a roof. Until now the children have claimed it as theirs. Onstage, the Captain is sprawled across a ruined divan, taking fat bites from a purple fruit. His men surround him, eating rations on the floor. Behind them the forest backdrop hung by the children the week before. Theater magic has drained all menace from the scene, turning the guns into props, the men into actors playing the parts of soldiers picnicking in the woods.

     The Captain invites the boy onstage. The militia is a family, he says. They look after each other. Live together, share meals together. Go on adventures together. (The boy watches in spite of himself each leisurely bite of the purple fruit. Sees the flesh within, amply seeded and golden.) The Captain tells the boy some of their adventures. The boy takes in the commanding ease of his sprawl across the divan and the way his men are gathered at his feet. Takes in the glisten of juice on his lips and chin. The boy knows why he is being told these tales. And he knows the Captain could simply snatch him away instead and force him to be a soldier. He’s seen it happen to others. But this Captain is taking the time to persuade and that alone is persuasive. The Captain says one of his men joined the militia when he was no older than the boy himself, and he points toward a painted brook, where a young soldier is licking clean the torn-open side of a ration package.

     The boy last ate two days before, at the home of a woman he didn’t know. They come, at times, from what remains of the town, trading food for work. These townspeople call them ghost children, but they are in fact the children of ghosts. They’re called ghost children because of the way they appear in living neighborhoods to scavenge or steal before vanishing back into the ruins. Twice children have gone with townspeople and not returned, and the others don’t speak of it but agree in their minds that they’re safe, that their friends have been adopted and are in homes right now with water spurting from silver faucets and steaming plates of food cooked by new mothers. Which doesn’t mean the children fail to be cautious when the townspeople come with their offers and promises.

     “I’ll feed you afterwards,” the woman told the boy. “A nice, proper meal.”

     It was Ancestor’s Day, and she wanted someone to help move her father to the square for the celebration.

     “Before,” the boy said.

     He sat at a table while she cooked. Through a doorway he saw a child’s bed, a box of toys.

     “I’m leaving this place,” she said to him. He was on his third helping. There was sanctuary across the border, she said. She knew of people who’d made it there. She told him he could come with her, but she was smiling so he didn’t know whether she was joking.

     The crypt was a honeycombed maze of white hallways. The boy had never seen the ordered dead. He knew corpses as broken things: burned, smashed, incomplete, discovery preceded always by smell. But the bodies there, shrouded and snug in their walls, reminded him of medicine handed out once in the ruins—arrayed capsules pristine in their molded casing. He followed her through the maze. He didn’t let her see that he was afraid. Not by the dead; it was the cool stillness of the place. The peace and order of it. The woman stopped.

     “Here. Help me.” Each taking an end, they removed her father from his recess in the wall.

     What was left of the town had gathered in the square. A food stall dangled colored lights and a pair of speakers rattled and sang on second-story windowsills. Across the shattered tiles the living danced for the dead. The boy helped the woman prop her father against a stump, and then she started dancing too. Sometimes she laughed without warning and sometimes she closed her eyes and slowed to a sway. He liked watching her dance. She danced on even after the square had emptied of living and dead, the stall dark, the speakers silent in their sills.

     “I’m leaving here,” she said again after they’d replaced her father in the wall. She looked at him. “You can come with me.” She wasn’t smiling this time.

     He’s thinking, now, about sanctuary and adventure and about whether they are to be believed, this dancing woman, this sprawling Captain. He has already, over the course of months, designed his own sanctuary, his own adventure. It has yet to be built, but it will be an ordinary house, except for the cellar, where a secret tunnel leads far away into deep woods, to his real home, enormous and impregnable and peopled by machines to take care of all his needs. The woods are so deep and so far away that no one will be able to find him, but if someone does get close, he will, since he is a brilliant inventor, devise a machine to trick the mind, leading the trespassers away, off in another direction entirely, while they think they’re still going in a straight line …

     The boy’s life has until this point consisted of small, manageable choices. Now he feels himself coming up against a choice too large for him. There are too many factors he can’t predict. He knows enough to distrust the woman and the Captain, but isn’t sure which parts to distrust. There is no way he could know, for instance, that the figure capsuled in the wall was not the woman’s father. (Her own family crypt had been shelled months before.) Or that she didn’t need his help. Not, at least, to carry the body—she is perfectly familiar with the lightness of desiccated corpses. If she needed him beside her as she removed the stranger and danced for it in the square, it was for reasons she didn’t understand herself. And there is no way the boy could know that she is lying about sanctuary. Although it might not be a lie. Sanctuary itself certainly exists, or she is in any case certain of its reality; but the possibility of ever actually making it there feels to her like a lie she’s trying to convince herself is real.

     And the Captain?

     The boy doubts, rightly, the thrilling tales of adventure. These are not true. But the Captain and his men don’t think of the stories as lies. They listen to the parade of brave words as if it might turn what they’ve done to others, and what’s been done to them, into something else altogether. As if these tales are the real truths. The lies are elsewhere: the Captain’s lordly, luxuriating sprawl is in fact one of simple exhaustion; the man licking the ration package was never a boy soldier—it is the Captain who, a ghost child once in a lost and distant town, joined when he was younger even than the boy is now, though not through tales or persuasion, and not by choice; and finally, the fruit in his hand is not, as it appears to the boy, a common spoil of war offered up to the Captain by rank and daring.

     It was discovered as the militia searched for scraps, foraging like the children themselves do every day. They came upon a deserted home with one wall sheared neatly away, an enlarged dollhouse displaying its domestic interior. On a rug, a polished table; and on the table, the fruit, miraculous in its china bowl: purple, symmetrical, intact.

     The Captain hesitated, as if its removal might rupture the perfect neutrality of the hushed air, violating the truce that this room had established with the surrounding ruins. Once in his pocket it remained there, the blessed or cursed thing, for three days. And when he did take it from his pocket and, with apparent nonchalance, tear through the unblemished skin, it was only to impress the boy with a life the Captain had never lived. Because the truth is that this fruit was the first he’d eaten, purple or otherwise, in over a year.

S.P. Tenhoff’s writing has appeared in Conjunctions, The Gettysburg Review, American Short Fiction, The Southern Review, The Antioch Review, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and elsewhere. He is a recipient of the Editor’s Reprint Award and Columbia University’s Bennett Cerf Memorial Prize for Fiction. His debut story collection, The Involuntary Sojourner, the title story of which originally appeared on Conjunctions online, is forthcoming in November of 2019 from Seven Stories Press.