“We need volunteers!” screamed Councilman
Finally, Francis Lewis, standing in the back of the room, said, “Can we volunteer our children? If they’re adults?”
“Of course,” said Councilman
“I am,” said Francis. “He thinks he’s too good to eat three meals a day at his parents’ house now that he has quadruplets.”
“Then it’s settled,” said Councilman
The townspeople muttered and crossed themselves as thunder rumbled in the gathering clouds over the school. Then they ate cookies that were more frosting than cookie, drove home through falling leaves and shreds of fog, and slept their customary deep, troubled sleeps.
Sid shuffled his feet in the yellow and brown leaves that carpeted the forest floor, a powerful flashlight in one hand and a revolver in the other. He had extra ammo in a denim backpack slung over one shoulder. His wife had made the backpack for him out of his favorite jeans, which she had despised. Sid did not consider the backpack a good compromise. “Where should I stand?” he asked.
The child psychologists sighed and rubbed their temples as if Sid had just asked the dumbest question of all time. Finally the one with glasses half the size of his face and an enormous, wobbling stomach said, “Stand anywhere, Sid! We don’t know which direction they’ll come from! The success of this mission does not depend on where you decide to stand right now. They won’t come until nightfall anyway.”
Sid pouted. “I don’t think two dead rabbits will be enough to attract them.” The other child psychologist, a man with white hair and a black gotee, said, “Number one: you don’t know anything about feral children. Number two: fine, kill some more rabbits if you can and add them to the pile. It couldn’t hurt.”
Sid shivered and jogged in place for a few steps. “What if they try to use a smaller, cuter feral child as a diversion and then the rest sneak up behind me and sink their teeth into my neck?”
“If?” said the first child psychologist. “They’re definitely going to do that. Try to think of a tactic to counter that before nightfall.” With that, the two child psychologists tramped back down the trail toward the road and left Sid alone in the quiet forest. Sulking, he kicked the pair of scrawny dead rabbits lying on the remnants of an old stone foundation of what had probably been a barn and sat down to wait for the feral children to arrive.
Sid awoke in the dark sprawled out on the forest floor with a child’s hands wrapped around his neck. He grunted and flailed his arms, blindly shoving the child away from him as he groped around for his flashlight. He could feel drool on his chin and he hoped it was his own. The sound of the child panting and scrambling in the leaves made Sid panicky. At last, finding the cold cylindrical shape of the flashlight with his hand, Sid snapped it on and rested his finger on the trigger of his revolver. There were close to fifteen children standing around him in the forest ranging in age from six to twelve or so. None of them looked very feral. In fact, he recognized many of them from the town’s summer Library Hour program where he occasionally volunteered to read books aloud to the kids about what little boys and girls in Arab countries eat or adjusting to new baby brothers.
“Did any of you see the feral child trying to strangle me just now?” he asked. “David? Did you see where the feral child went?”
David, a tan little boy who should have been wearing a jacket and a scarf but wasn’t, didn’t answer. None of the children did. Except for some minor fidgeting and quick glances at the gun in Sid’s hand, they seemed reluctant to do or say anything. Sid got to his feet and brushed crumbling leaf fragments off of his pants. “Well? Do you kids know the feral children? Do you know where they are? Do you know if the feral children are coming out tonight?”
“We don’t know them,” said one of the older girls. There was a twig caught in her long hair.
“That’s what I figured,” said Sid. The wind rustled the dry leaves that still clung to the branches overhead. Sid looked around for the dead rabbits and discovered that they were missing. In their place there were now only bloodstains and tufts of fur on the cracked stone. “Well,” he said with a sigh. “Looks like they already came and went.” He waved the flashlight around in such a way as to encompass all of the children in his final pronouncement before heading home for the night. “I’m surprised all of your parents let you out this late. This’ll put you on a bad schedule. You should be at home sleeping or, if you were still awake, practicing math with flash cards or coloring pictures without scribbling.”
The next morning, Francis Lewis called Sid at dawn. “Did you get ‘em, son?” he asked. “Or did you embarrass me?”
“Neither,” said Sid as his wife jammed a pillow down over her head. The sound of the phone ringing had woken the quadruplets, and at least three of them were now screaming in unison from the nursery.
“Neither?” said Francis. “Impossible. I’m embarrassed.” He hung up before Sid could explain further.
Sid turned to his wife and asked, “Where do you think feral children come from?”
“I don’t believe in feral children,” said his wife as she climbed wearily out of bed and stumbled down the hall to her wailing babies.
Later that afternoon, the headless bodies of the two child psychologists were found stuffed under the merry-go-round at the park. There were bite marks from child-sized teeth in their flesh. The coroner said that some of the bite marks came from teeth with braces on them. Where would feral children have found the money to afford braces? Maybe, suggested Councilman
Sid came home from work that evening to find his wife asleep on the couch. “Are the babies still napping?” he asked.
She rubbed her eyes and said, “I guess so. I haven’t heard anything since I put them down after we got back from Mother & Child Playtime at the Community Center.”
Sid went down the hall to the nursery, loosening his necktie as he walked, and opened the door very gently to peak inside. Dusk had fallen outside and the room was dark. Sid tip-toed into the nursery, holding his breath and letting his eyes adjust to the faint light coming in through the open window. The open window? Sid’s guts turned to ice water. The quadruplets were gone. All that remained in the four identical cribs were little piles of bloody rabbit bones. Sid ran to the window and saw two neighbor boys in his yard using his croquet set without permission. “Kids!” he cried. “Did you see any feral children going in or out of this window?”
The boys looked up at him, shadowy figures with fresh haircuts and tucked in shirts on his lawn, croquet mallets sized for grown men in their hands. One of them appeared to be wearing a gigantic pair of eyeglasses.
“No,” one of the boys finally said in a shrill, casual voice. Sid couldn’t tell which boy had spoken.
“Are you sure? My quadruplets are gone! All four of them! I’m afraid the feral children might have taken them!” Sid was trying to hold it together, trying to remain clear-headed enough to solve this problem, to reverse this tragedy.
The sky was a deep violet except for a thin strip of crimson right along the edge of the horizon. The boy’s voice again came to Sid from across the lawn. “Maybe they wanted to leave.”
“They’re babies!” shouted Sid. “How could they leave? We’re still months away from working on crawling!”
“Oh,” said the boy. “Well, if you haven’t worked on it yet, then I guess it’s impossible.” The other boy burst out in a wet, wheezing laugh.
From a back porch far down the block, a woman shouted, “Boys! Time for dinner!” The boys dropped the croquet mallets on Sid’s lawn and scampered off in the direction of the dinner call, hurdling obstacles scattered throughout the back yards of the neighborhood like they could see in the dark, their shirts coming untucked, their hair already beginning to grow back.