The neighborhood children wander the street in front of our house carrying baseball bats, and cartons of eggs and sometimes large cans of cheap paint from the hardware store three blocks west. They have used each of these items against us, we who live on the block. The cartons of eggs: to spray the McKinley house with yellow inside white; the baseball bats: to smash windows and make supine the once vertical mailboxes of the Philips’ and Drangers’; the large cans of cheap paint: to ruin the exterior siding of Hargrove’s’ house with bright, garish colors, to write foul-mouthed slogans across the front doors of the Stuarts’ and Wilcox’s. They have already assaulted our own front yard several times since we moved in, their scrunched-up faces betraying nothing but dim contempt for tolerance, for compassion. They knock over our garbage cans. They chase our cat. They trounce our rosebushes and hydrangeas, smashing them back into the earth. They are tall and lean and gangly, and if we could smell them, if we were to get that close, they would stink, reek of puberty we are sure. They are a tribe unto themselves, their mission oblique. They smear mud across their appled cheeks, holding the softened soil aloft, a gift for the gods. Is this a sign of some strange tribal allegiance or simply an excuse to get dirty? Ah: innocence! we cry in unison, as if this were a dismissal of actions, a notable tolerance of their behavior. Or, perhaps, it is simply us throwing up our hands, waving them the way you would wave a white flag.
The neighborhood children can be heard laughing, even when the streets are apparently empty. The resonance is menacing, the disembodied voices carried across the air, lapsing over everything, stretching out, across the day, into the gloaming as the afternoon begins to recede, the sky punched black and blue. Night hides the nocturnal movements of the neighborhood children, cloaks their dark endeavors. Every morning we find more evidence of their siege against the neighborhood: dismantled and discarded road signs, upended shopping carts left in front yards, crude cardboard manifestations of certain residents in the neighborhood. What are we to assume from these objects? Do they represent something more than pure vandalism? Are they signs of things to come?
The children’s parents are naturally belligerent when approached regarding their offspring’s behavior. This is the way it is with parents who raise children such as these. Underneath their dismissive comments, the parents are frightened. Their darting, sorrowful eyes hiding the fear that is constantly blooming in the deepest parts of their minds. They are terrified by what their chubby-cheeked, waddling little babies have become, how they have evolved into a thing that as remote to them as the shambling monster in those late, late movies on TV.
Law Enforcement is called upon, but they do little more than hold a neighborhood meeting in a house two doors down from ours-the Goldstein’s-a meeting proffered with stale chocolate chip cookies, limp pound cake and leftover Halla bread. The small living room is packed with nervous homeowners who have mortgages and jobs and bills and debts and children who have yet to use baseball bats for much more than hitting speeding balls. The air is taut. There is the sound of endless, nervous chewing. Who are these people that dismantle our lives with their bared yellow teeth and bottomless eyes, we ask of Law Enforcement. What can be done? There are places for juveniles, surely. They call it Juvenile Hallright? Law Enforcement shrug and hand out fliers on How To Better Secure Your Home. The fliers are printed on bright pink and orange paper, punctuated by bold black lettering and illustrations featuring stiff, smiling people who look as if worry is not commonplace in their world. We are told that there is assurance to be found in those blocky words. We see ourselves in those illustrations, the people we would like to be again. Ultimately, we obey the fliers. There is nothing else we can do. We erect fences. We dig trenches for the neighborhood children to fall into if they are clumsy or just stupid. We wire our houses with the highest grade security systems, creating an invisible barrier designed to keep our own fears under tight, winding wraps.
In the coming months, the neighborhood children bring children from other neighborhoods to help them with their rounds. We watch from behind drawn curtains as they plant landmines in the front yard of the elderly woman who lives by herself. They carry rifles, these children, slung over their ever-widening shoulders. They shoot birds from telephone poles, birds that are not aggressive shades of black but the more passive colors of blue and orange and red. They fire rounds at parked cars, blowing out tires, shattering windows, instigating alarms. The Philips’ Boston terrier suddenly goes missing. Was this our own childhood?, we wonder. Were we this relentless?
The neighborhood children’s houses stand empty now, the detritus of neglect running riot: front yards succumbing to encroaching hoards of weeds; a car perched upon cinder blocks minus wheels, a disemboweled sofa appearing on the sidewalk next to overflowing garbage cans. The houses remain dark within. There are no signs of their parents. Did the neighborhood children murder them? Bury their bodies in the basement under layers of newly poured concrete? Carve them into pieces and store them in freezers next to bags of peas and packets of turkey giblets? Or perhaps the parents fled, to other distant neighborhoods, finally unable to tolerate the tight-fisted bodies of belligerence that moved about them, penetrating their thoughts with worry, with lurid visions of the savage deeds that they conspired to bring upon the world, the slick aftertaste of disillusionment always present, always lingering. There is a part of us that envy the parents, regardless of their fate.
The neighborhood children wander the street in front of our house, getting older, becoming more cunning. There is no one out there but them. The days of radios on porches, of “look at those azaleas” thrown casually across front lawns, of lingering and long glances at the sinking blood-shot eye of the sun had finally vanished. We slink away to our jobs when they are not looking; we make infrequent trips to the grocery store buying more than we need so that we don’t have to leave our houses more than necessary. Where is Law Enforcement? Why haven’t they done anything more than hold meetings and pass out fliers? Perhaps they have equally sadistic children, too. Perhaps they already knew something we have only come to realize. House values plummet. Word gets around, about the children. The neighborhood children scuttle over our fence having already ascended its apparently undaunting 10-foot height several times (we should have gone with our first instinct and festooned the top of the fence with razor wire). The security system we installed went bankrupt in their capable, thorough hands. They loiter in our now barren front yard, rooting at the ground with clubs and spikes, searching for something that is ancient and unknown, beyond or own lives, lives built upon barbecues and dinner parties and luncheons for obscure diseases.
We would move again, but there would probably be neighborhood children there as well.
Previously unpublished short story