Walking home, the children threw apples at her. They were hard, mealy little apples that stung and left bruises. She couldn’t even pick them up to use. She’d tried. They were buggy. Her strategy, her defense, was duck and protect her head with her bag.
It wasn’t always apples. In the spring it had been dirt clods and in the harsh winter, ice balls.
She didn’t even know for certain why they hated her. She also didn’t know if they did this to anyone else. She doubted it.
She’d yelled at them to stop at first but that just egged them on. They’d mock her as she tried to yell through tears of pain, and worse; humiliation. They called her names: Loser, freak, stupid, worthless, waste, why are you still even here! She never saw any other adults around. The way the seven buildings loomed up encircling the ragged courtyard orchard someone had to see. Had to hear and go look out one of those windows. She couldn’t expect help from anyone else or say to adults that might show up. Control. Your. Children.
Their goal, now that she just tucked and took it, was to knock her down. She was sure if they ever did, they would fall on her and kill her.
She didn’t go by the place every day where they lurked in or around the shanty clubhouse they had fashioned from old paneling, tin, and pieces of old tub surround looted from empty apartments, but every day she went by, the children were there. It was tiresome and it wore on her. She was 32 but felt 45. Or was she 45 and wanted to feel 32. She couldn’t remember. And there weren’t ways for her to mark the time anymore. They were just days and nights. More nights than days she was pretty sure. Her mother had called her Deidra, at her work they called her D. Not Dee, or DeeDee, or anything upbeat. They wrote it just D. Like the Machines she ran she was just an alphabetical cog. Actually, her machine’s name was longer than hers. Its title was K7. There was a placard that hung from the open rafters by rusty chains that said. K. K was her row. There were 10 Labeler machines in each alphabetical row. But their alphabet only went to L. It was dark on K line, darker still on L. Not by much.
There were kids that worked there too. Not as young as the apple throwing kids, probably their older siblings. They looked at her with disinterest, when they looked at her at all. More often they looked past her, through her. One of them, no older than 14 if that, worked on the machine next to her. She was certainly related to the orchard children.
“God, what the hell did you do to the feeder? My line’s not hardly moving you stupid old BAT!
“You screw it up every day, can’t you…”
“No!…” Deidra began.
“…do anything right? Just one day.”
“My feeder’s fine though.”
“Are you crazy? Look!” but in a huff, she’d pushed the call light for the line boss.
Leaving on that particular evening, reprimand in hand and docked a day’s pay, Deidra’s co-worker and some of her co-worker’s friends from other lines bumped roughly into her.
“Gyod watchout!” They said, despite being the bumpers not the bump-ies.
Her line mate said to one of her vapid friends, “You can work by me, I hear reductions are next week.”
Reductions; re-assignment to anyone with reprimands. Like the one Deidra had in her hand. Re-assignment was never upward.
That particularly bleak day all the children were in the orchard. All of them and more. There were more kids there than she’d ever seen! She thought, did they ship in new ones? Where did they come from! The apples were aimed mostly at her head. They hit pretty often too. Her frustration level and fear made her scream at them. Not saying anything, not stop, not fuck you little brats, just scream, like a harpy and run away, arms pin-wheeling around her head as if there were bees swarming her. She could hear them, the chorus of hatefulness, You suck! Worthless, Loser, Low life, Crazy! She chanced a look over her shoulder and saw one of the older boys as he did a skipping wind up in the middle of the cracked path and chucked a huge, dripping, rotten apple at her fleeing back.
The apple whizzed past her head and shoulder and hit the path right in front of her. In her flight, she inadvertently kicked it and feet, ankles, legs, and apple got all tangled up as she slipped, the round apple skidding beneath her feet, smashing apart and becoming a sickly-sweet mash. She was falling and there was no way to stop it. She was falling.
She’d had her big brown sack of a bag clutched in her left hand as she’d been fending off the barrage and her right was still in mid-overhead twirl when her feet were suddenly visible in front of her face. For a split second. It was like a magic trick. She was levitating. Of course, she wasn’t. She hit the pavement. Full on her back, head bouncing off the blacktop.
The kids, who chased her with more apples, stopped. They didn’t throw them, but they didn’t drop them, just jogged to stop and watched to see what happened next. As Deidra’s eyes rolled up and her world darkened, she saw them; a hoard of children all together as if on the verge of battle. Then children waited, then began to look at one another. Some younger boys shrugged in an ‘oh well’ gesture and took off, apples in hand, back toward the shanty. Those that stayed began to shuffle closer to each other, their confusion magnetic.
The quick turn of her head to look back at them made the world swim. The pain caused inky black spots to plume over her vision and her vision to fade out. So dazed she didn’t understand what was happening, she felt her head lifted and searing pain as something was shoved under it. She sensed someone near. One of the children. Instead of reflexively beating the child to death out of fear, she just lay there and groaned on the cracked cement of the orchard path. Deidra’s stomach clenched and did an icy roll, she felt the gore rising. She didn’t want to move. Oh, how she didn’t want to move the pain was going to be awful, but… she clamped her lips together and rocked to her side, pain making her cry out, the cry stifled as she vomited. She heaved to her hands and knees to escape the filth.
She pushed herself backwards and a streak of bright color followed her. Red. I’m bleeding then. She sat back on her heels, the world still reeling, reached her hand up to the back of her massively throbbing head. It was like touching your cheek with a hot curling iron. She jerked her hand back, now a red mitten.
She vomited again at the sight. And panic scuttled up her spine.
THE CHILDREN. Where were the children now!
The hazy sun dipped behind the Plaza 7 building and the light was that surreal quality of silhouettes and dim focus. Dim, yes. The kids were back there, tall against…no those are the trees. The stupid orchard trees in the worthless green space. Yes, there. The kids, at least a few, sat at the base of them. Near the shanty. The rest more menacingly close, standing in the grass at the path’s edge.
It strained her eyes to focus. Why were they not descending on her with bricks and rocks to bash the rest of her brains out? She grasped frantically around for her bag. And realized that had been the thing that had been shoved under her head by one of these beastly children. She snatched it up, spilling some of the contents, a clatter of coins, a pen, a knife with a wet, crimson blade… No time! Don’t worry about that now! She abandoned the spilled contents, clutched the bag to her to run away before they attacked. They always attack! Standing up hurt, the pulsing pain like an iron maul. Bam, whoosh, Bam, whoosh, Bam, whoosh in her head, roaring in her ears. She had to bend over, hands on her thighs in case she should faint or throw up again, twin smears of fresh blood stained her khakis dungarees. She did neither and willed herself to slowly, carefully stand, moving in a dowdy crouch as she did Escaping. Fleeing.
A few steps away something within Deidra snapped. Enough. Something, (the pelting, the falling, the blood) clicked. She stopped. More black plumes exploded like dark fireworks across her vision, she held on as she stood straight, straighter than years of labeling, and walked back. Two steps. Two more. Step after larger step. The children shuffled as one, invincible. They clumped together, their jostling the breathing of the beast they were.
“Are you happy?” She asked them.
They didn’t say anything, just jutted their chins. Set their jaws, looked at her, despising her.
“You won. ARE YOU HAPPY NOW?”
The pain of the scream nearly took her to her knees; she bore it. Still no child spoke. No one dared. Dirty blank faces, empty eyes, children headed for empty lives. Deidra tilted her head, torn between pity and righteous satisfaction. “You’re going to be me.”
They didn’t defend themselves.
She walked away. Hoping! Mentally daring them to descend on her like the pack of feral animals they were. She couldn’t do this anymore. This gauntlet of humiliation, fear, and anguished despair. She couldn’t do this.
With each step she expected the blow to bring the dark. With each step her soul cried out: Come on! With each step the suspense an antsy escort on the longest journey of her life.
She crossed the threshold, she was through.
She woke to the same time-devoid gray of all days, but day it was. She was soaked with sweat. A fever come and gone while she was out. She sat up. Slowly. So I am still, she thought, then; what day? What day did they get me? What day now? The pain was exquisite, a rag was matted to her wounds.
She reached for the keypad on the wall, hesitated, her hand still stained with rusty dried blood, then pushed the code for MedServ and waited, trying to remember, to not vomit, not black out, until the team came in.
She was cleared on a Monday afternoon. Doctors tried to get her to tell them what led to this and why. She said she couldn’t remember. It was hazy, she said. You nearly died, they told her. I fell down is all Deidra said. Why bother with more. No one would understand being so intimidated, so beaten by children. The echoes of their cruelty reverberating through every day. Through every place. How these children made her life an experiment in torture survival. Explanation didn’t matter. She simply couldn’t care.
She went back to work Tuesday. Her linemate rolled her eyes at her return. No one asked her anything. Anything. She was relieved. Her work went smoothly and when her linemate cussed and kicked her machine in some frustration, Deidra smiled; slight and wry as it was. She went over, uninvited, fixed the machine, patted the girl matronly on the shoulder before returning to her own work.
Leaving for the day she was extra tired. Still healing, she imagined. She should walk the long way around to get home, skip the orchard. Not go there. It had been a hard yet good day, why second guess it? She went anyway.
They weren’t there. None of them. Not a one. The shanty was there. The apples were there. She walked by looking for them, not in watchful fear, curiously. She walked up by the trees, she walked to the shanty, she walked past where her blood still marred the path. She was disappointed. She needed to see them again.
It was Thursday before they came back. When they did they weren’t back in full apple-throwing glory. They walked out of the trees, filed out of the shanty, and stood by the path. When they looked, she looked back. Nothing to care about was nothing to lose. They left her alone, talking about her to each other: almost rid of her, still pathetic, ultimate failure! She heard. She ignored as she strolled onward.
Friday they were gone again. The following week: there Monday, gone Tuesday and Wednesday, back Thursday and Friday but silent, Saturday gone, Sunday they spit at her. The weeks blurred similarly.
They never picked up another apple. Or dirt clod. Or ice ball. They pushed occasionally, pretended to be passing her on the pathway, knocking a shoulder into her. The little ones pinched from time to time but the hurling apples? Over.
It was good enough. She wondered if this was as good as it would ever get.
She couldn’t search for that answer yet…maybe someday. Right now, walking through the children was enough. Walking. Right through.
Laura holds a Liberal Art Bachelors and a Creative Writing Certificate from the University of Iowa. Her work has appeared in Buckmaster’s magazine (although she doesn't hunt), the 2017 edition of The Wapsipinicon Almanac, an excerpt from her capstone novel work was chosen for reading at the iconic Iowa City bookstore Prairie Lights. She is a landlord by day and writes from her home, now permanently in Iowa City, Iowa. Where she found not only a culture of literary love but real love and was recently married. Together they have 4 grown girls between them, 2 yellow labs (literally between them), and 2 cats. Tips on hair control always welcome!