good neighbors
 
betty martin

               The two children next door kicked a ragged ball back and forth. With every kick, the ball got smaller. Diminishing returns, I thought as I watched them play. It was Saturday afternoon, the time for baseball games on glowing screens of one kind or another, not that you could watch them anymore, and so I watched the kids from my battered lawn chair while I swatted at sweat flies with a damp rag. This place used to be what they called a suburb, green lawns and trampolines, SUVs and basketball hoops. All that gone, not even a fence between my house and theirs.

               I could have used a drink of something, anything. Who was I kidding? The choice was only water, but I’d used up my water rations washing my car. I contemplated squeezing out my rag and sucking out the last bit of moisture. Nobody else was watching the kids. I was their one true fan.

               The ball rolled over to where I was sitting. I stopped my fly swatting and stared down at it as though it held answers. The light dimmed. Was I having sunstroke? No, it was one of the kids blocking out the sun.

               “Can we have our ball back?” said the kid blocking the sun.

               I sat there, in my battered lawn chair in my bony body, housed in a cotton t-shirt and drawstring scrub pants, wispy hair and chin-itching stubble, giving them a hard time, acting like I didn’t hear the boy. I didn’t have any kids of my own. I looked like a beat-up uncle, smelled like one, too. Bathing wasn’t something you could keep up with, what with the water rations, especially not with me wasting mine by washing my car.

               “Sure, son,” I said, and scooped up the ball, wincing as I moved the leg with the wound out of the way. I held it out to her. She glared at me. Maybe it was because I called her “son,” for it was a girl that picked up the ball, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, shiny black hair pulled into a ponytail, a figure getting ready to take on the features of an adult like they do at around ten or eleven. The other one, the smaller one, stood further back. He stared at me through large, dragonfly eyes. His hair was black, too, growing out from a pitiful buzz cut. He wore a pair of overalls, too big for him. I could tell the two of them didn’t trust me.

               She took the ball and hugged it close. Our eyes bored into each other like a pair of fighting beetles before the first jab. She broke away from our staring contest and gave a glance to my car, resting resplendent under its protective awning.                

               “Is that yours?” she asked.

               “Last time I checked,” I said.

               “It’s a nice car,” she said.

               “What’s your name?”

               “Not supposed to talk to strangers,” she said, but she had started the conversation.

               By this time, her brother was standing up close. “My name’s Apollo. Her name’s Artemis,” he said. His sister gave him the same look she had given me.

               “Well now, those are nice names,” I said, thinking about the crazy parents who named them so. I’d never met them. Never cared to. “Want to know mine?”

               Artemis shrugged. I told her it was Bert. Bert Grumby. She shrugged again, unimpressed. But she stole another glance at my car, a look so full of repressed longing you could practically taste it.

               “Would you two like to sit inside it?” Their longing showed they hadn’t given up. Same reason I had spent my last water rations cleaning it. The brother stood on his toes, ready to bolt for the car.

               “We’re not supposed to go off with strangers,” said Artemis. The girl was stubborn, sure enough. I was about to say to her that we weren’t strangers anymore, seeing as how we all knew each other’s names when her hand shot out and grabbed her brother’s shoulder to prevent him from running off towards my car. My red Camaro awaited her decision. All it could do was wait, seeing as how it was propped up on cement blocks and so was not going anywhere anytime soon.

               “How about this? You go ask. If it’s alright by your parents, come back and I’ll let you try out my car. If I don’t see you back here, I’ll know you didn’t get the okay. No harm, no foul.” The pair sped off without another word.

               I shouldn’t have offered. Kids can mess up a car faster than a rat can gnaw through a piece of cardboard, or a cement basement, for that matter. I closed my eyes. My body relaxed into a twilight doze, ready to sleep off the rest of the hot afternoon. Yes, I was almost there. I could feel my body making the transition from nap to full-on sleep and then. . . I startled into full alertness when the light behind my closed lids changed. I opened them and there they were, the younger one, grinning.

               “Mr. Grumby, we can sit in your car,” said Artemis.

               “Call me Bert,” I said. We trooped over to the Camaro. I stopped them in front of the driver’s side door. “Who’s going to drive?” I asked. The two of them stared at each other in a wide-eyed suspension of disbelief. “Just kidding. The car’s not going anywhere, but who wants to sit in the driver’s seat?” My question spurred a heated discussion. I waited for them to work it out.

               “We’ll take turns,” said Artemis. “Me, first.”

               “Okay, milady.” I unlocked the driver’s side and held the door out for her. She got in and I closed the door. I went over to the passenger side and performed the same duties for Apollo, opening and closing his door as if I was his manservant.

               Artemis clamped her safety belt on, gesturing to her brother to do the same.

               I leaned on the driver’s side door and coached Artemis through the window. “Ten and two,” I said, and then I showed her how to position her hands on the steering wheel, how the gearbox functioned with the pedals. She put her hand on the gear shifter and mimed a change of gears, forgetting to use the pedal.

               I put my hand behind my ear and moved closer to the engine, pretending to hear something. “Whoa! What’s that? Better watch out for grinding those gears.” She let go of the gear shifter as though it had given her a static shock. I hadn’t meant to frighten her, just wanted to give it a little verité. “Next time, ease into it with the clutch. Push in that pedal on the left,” I said in a gentler tone of voice.

               Artemis pushed in the clutch and then eased out, giving it some pretend gas with her right foot as I instructed her. The gas tank was as dry as burnt toast. Both pedals pushed in and out with no resistance, their connection to actual function ruptured long ago. With each gear shift, Apollo added engine noises.

               “That’s it, now you’ve got it,” I said. “Where are you two headed?”

               “We’re going to the supply depot,” said Artemis.

               “No, no, no,” I said. “You’ve got to go to someplace fun.”

               “We’re going to Galactic Mountain!” shouted Apollo, bouncing on his seat. It was a place I’d blessedly been spared, thanks to my no kids situation.

               An image of pure beauty came to me. How to do it justice? I gave myself a few seconds before speaking. “There was a place I visited once with mountains rising up almost to the sun. Trees overhead gentled by a cooling breeze. Water streaming down those mountains in great gushes, making rainbows in the splashed up water droplets. I hiked up those mountains all the way to the top. Saw a bird that looked like it was floating on the wind.”

               “There isn’t a place like that,” said Artemis.

               “Maybe not now, but there was once,” I said.

               “What was the name of it?” asked Apollo.

               “Cucumber Falls,” I answered him. He laughed like I’d said the funniest thing in the world.

               “What’s a cucumber?” asked Apollo when he’d stopped gasping.

               He had me stumped as to how to explain. Hard to believe vegetables had gone away, the wish of all children finally fulfilled. “It’s a long green something you can eat shaped like a half-used water bladder.” Our water came in zucchini-shaped pieces of rubber that reminded me of the balloons we’d throw at each other on hot summer days. Zucchinis aren’t something I miss much, but I could go for a cucumber. 

               Apollo gave me an I-don’t-believe-you look. I was saved from further explanation by his sister who said to him, “Your turn.”

               Artemis put the gear shifter into Park, as I instructed her. They unclasped their seatbelts and swapped positions. I took the opportunity to retrieve my lawn chair. Apollo grabbed onto the steering wheel. His legs dangled, too short to touch the pedals. 

               “Where you headed, Sport?”

               “We’re going to Galactic Mountain!” he said. A determined little mite. Artemis groaned but clasped her seatbelt. I could see she had a high sense of duty towards her brother.

               Artemis played along, making engine noises obligingly and once pretending her brother took a turn too sharply. “You better watch how you’re driving this thing,” she said.

               “This thing?” I repeated. “Have some respect! You are driving one of the only late 21st-century sports cars in existence. They stopped making them right around the time when the powers that be realized there’d be no more oil, no gas, definitely no more gas stations selling Slim Jims and Dr. Pepper.” My mouth watered at the thought while Artemis and Apollo looked at me as if I was a few cards short of a deck.

               Artemis narrowed her eyes at me. “We’re here. It’s time to go home.”

               “Aww!” said Apollo. But he obeyed his sister, adjusting the gear shifter until it slotted into Park. He took a lingering look at the dashboard and then on up to where a chain hung from the rearview mirror. Two tiny plastic aliens and a miniature basketball hung down from that chain, the alien’s plastic bodies catching the late afternoon’s rays.

               “You can have it,” I said. Artemis didn’t say no, so I struggled out of my lawn chair and reached in, undoing the spring-loaded mechanism that kept the keychain hooked onto the mirror’s mounting post. I placed the little collection of toys into Apollo’s eager hands.

               “Can we come back tomorrow and play in the car?” he asked me.

               I was about to nod yes when Artemis answered in the voice of a parent, “We’ll see.”

 

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               Sunday, I didn’t see the kids until I’d finished my bowl of cereal. I had eaten it outside, using a slab of metal for a tray, an ancient Melamine bowl to hold the cereal. When they arrived in my yard, the kids eyed my empty bowl. I poured another big helping without waiting to ask if they wanted some.

               “Sorry I only have one spoon,” I said, handing it over. They took turns eating just as they had taken turns pretending in the car. It gave me pleasure to feed them, which surprised me, having never thought of another person’s needs but my own for quite some time.

               After breakfast, it was time for another jaunt. My car was covered in the dust that was impossible to avoid. I’d forgotten to secure the tarp, imagine that. It didn’t matter to the kids how it looked though, still excited for our game. 

               Apollo bounced up and down. “Can we go to that place you mentioned? The one with the cucumber trees?” he asked. I hid a smile and didn’t correct him. “Cucumber Falls it is.”

               “But we don’t know how to get there,” said Artemis. “We could use a navigator,” she added.

               “Who? Me?” I used both hands to point to myself in exaggerated surprise. Artemis pressed her lips together and I decided not to push it further.

               I limped over to the seats in back. Artemis sat behind the wheel, Apollo in the front passenger seat. I directed the children over hilly roads, through small towns where we’d switch off drivers and pretend to have lunch at restaurants. After a little while we “reached” the park and got out, peeling our skin away from the simulated leather.

               We stood a little ways off from my car, our shirts stained with ribbons of sweat. The morning’s cool had given way to some heat. The game had gotten stale in our mutual torpor. Time to do something about that.

               “Shh!” I said, startling the kids. I pointed up. “Look!” Artemis and Apollo obliged, shielding their eyes from the relentless sun.

               “I don’t see anything,” said Artemis.

               “Look again, there it is!” I exclaimed. “An Osprey. It’s a big one, alright! See its white belly? Those spread out wings are about as big as you are, Apollo.” The kids peered up at the sky as I continued to describe it. “Watch. It’s headed down to the water. There. It caught a fish and now it’s going back, probably to feed some chicks in a nest somewhere.”

               “Is it a mama bird?” asked Apollo.

               “It could be, but both the mother and father bird share in feeding the chicks.” It was a hobby of mine to know all kinds of useless information about animals no longer with us.

               And then, abruptly, Artemis announced that the game was over. She was upset, giving me a squint of pure hostility, but what I’d done was a mystery.

               “I’m not going,” said Apollo. “I want to stay with Bert.” Artemis tried pulling him by his shirtsleeve. That only succeeded in tearing the fabric. “Look what you’ve done!” he screamed.

               “Now hold on. I have a needle and thread inside. Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be right back.” I went inside and rifled through a collection of oddments. I got the needle and thread. Inside the same drawer was a small glass bird. Funny the things you save when everything else is gone. I snatched it up and put it inside my scrub pants pocket.

               I mended the shirt while they waited. My hands had not forgotten their training and I stitched up the tear with surgical precision.

               “There,” I said, handing back the shirt. “And Artemis, this little bird will remind you of our journey to Cucumber Falls.” She took it, held it up to the light. “Apollo got the keychain. I thought you could have something, too.” She took it, but I did not believe she’d forgiven me for whatever she thought I’d done.

               Artemis said to Apollo, “Come on, I think I hear Mom calling.”

               “Yeah, right,” said Apollo. “Mom’s not—”

               Artemis yanked her brother hard. I expected him to yell, but he didn’t. He followed her home without another word.

 

                                                                                                              #

               If anything, it was even hotter on Monday. The air stung with the heat and sand, making the slightest breeze a punishment. I spent the morning inside in my basement, and guess what I found? Probably the last three bottles of Dr. Pepper in existence. I had forgotten I’d stockpiled it, my favorite beverage, and I got a tingling thrill at the thought of sharing them with Artemis and Apollo, especially Artemis. Maybe this was a way to return to her good graces. Hell, if soda didn’t do it, I don’t know what would.

               It had cooled off a bit by the late afternoon. That’s when I saw the kids again. They came out of the back porch door wearing school uniforms. It made me wonder since schools were closed. I waved and they waved back, Apollo turning to whisper something into Artemis’s ear. She nodded, and he ran over to my lawn chair.

               “I got a gold star in school today,” said Apollo when he reached my chair.

               “Well, that is a call for celebration,” I said. I pulled out one of the bottles of Dr. Pepper. 

               “What’s that?” asked Apollo.

               “You mean you haven’t had one of these?” I asked him, raising my eyebrows in cartoon surprise. Of course, he hadn’t. I opened up the bottle with a crack against the metal legs of my chair, gave him that one and opened up another for myself. They weren’t cold, but cool from the basement’s natural ability to fend off heat. Before I took a swig, I had the pleasure of seeing his eyes bug out at the first swallow of the cherry-flavored concoction.

               Artemis watched us from the porch. I waved to her and she waved back again, but she didn’t come over. Maybe she was still a little sore.

               We sat, drinking our soda, me in my chair and Apollo sitting on what remained of my lawn. At this close range, I saw that the fabric of his school shirt was practically see-through, his uniform pants shiny, the pant legs far too short. As for myself, I wore shorts today instead of my scrub pants, exposing the compression stocking on my leg, which I wore despite the sweaty complaint of the skin beneath.

               “What’s that?” asked Apollo, gesturing to the stocking with his almost empty bottle.

               “It’s to help with an old war wound,” I said.

               “War wound?”

               “Yep.” I fought a battle against a rat who was after my last can of peaches. I won the battle, but not before the rat gave me a gash with its sharp claws.

               “Can I see?” asked Apollo.

               “You sure? It isn’t pretty,” I replied. Apollo answered with a solemn nod. I rolled down the stocking, letting the cloth covering up the wound fall away. About a week old, the gash had swollen, its color intensified to an angry red. That spelled trouble with a capital T especially since I’d run out of much of anything to address the problem. It didn’t take someone with my medical background to know that.

               Apollo’s face was white, threatening to become green. He was going to puke, damn it. I was sorry I’d shown him the wound. That’s what a parent, a real parent, knew better about. Not me. No, I had to go and scare the kid.

               “I gotta go home,” he said and ran.

               I sat there thinking about the difference between people who had kids and people who didn’t, making myself more miserable by the second for what I’d done, but then Apollo came back, this time with Artemis.

               She held a beat up metal box with a red cross on the lid. “Apollo told me about your wound.” She stooped down and began unpacking her box. There was a bottle of peroxide, real bandages, and miracle of miracles, several tubes of antibiotic cream. I reached over for the bottle of peroxide and winced with the effort. She picked it up for me.

               “Open it, will you?” I rolled down my sock. Artemis looked away, but she didn’t cry out. “I’m going to need you to hand me things. Can you do that?” Her head was pointed in the opposite direction and so I repeated, “Artemis, can you do it?” She turned back around and faced me, nodded. I pointed and she handed over some gauze. I cleaned the wound. “Now that tube,” I said, indicating the antibiotic cream. She handed it over.

               The wound had started to throb, as it always did without the compression bandage over it. I needed her help with the final dressing before pulling up the stocking. She did it without complaint, but from her face, I could tell it was a strain. When it was all over, I said, “Thank you, nurse Artemis.”

               “I’m not a nurse,” said Artemis.  

               I was about to explain I was trying to thank her, but I thought better of it. She had an unfocused look about her. Maybe it was the seriousness of helping me that had done it. I decided to lighten the mood. “Would you and Apollo like to take the car out for another spin?” I asked.

               “We’ll have to change first,” said Artemis. Good. She was brightening a little.

               “Is that a yes?”

               “Yes.”

               When they returned they were in their play clothes from yesterday and the day before, smelling a little ripe. The same as before, Artemis took the first turn behind the driver’s seat.

               I asked my usual question, “Where to?”

               “Supply depot,” Artemis replied.

               “I don’t want to go get supplies,” said Apollo. I knew what he meant, but there was an urgency in the way Artemis had said it this time. Knowing what I knew about the place, I was not going to let the two of them go on this journey alone, even if it was all pretend.

               “Okay, let’s go get supplies,” I said, all casual. I climbed into the back seat once more. Artemis pantomimed starting the engine. She didn’t wait until we’d fastened our seat belts before pressing the gas pedal to the floor.

               Her eyes scanned through the windshield, neck rotating left and right, body leaning forward. She watched as if she was anticipating a vision. Her silence was palpable.

               Apollo felt it, too. He crawled over the front seat and sat next to me in back, wrapping his arms around my waist. Something was not right with his sister. Artemis cranked her body, pantomiming sharp curves along the roadway, but never did her gaze lose its intensity. She was looking for something. Or someone.

               Before our dear citizen soldiers took over, organizing food and water drops, the supply depot was all there was. It was a place of savagery and violence run by competing marauders. I knew that first hand. At the hospital, we got some of their victims, beatings, knife wounds, plus the burn victims from the latest fire, the flood victims we were never going to be able to resuscitate, the people who had been buried under rubble for so long their lungs had compressed into pancakes. 

               Environmental disasters came and went in arrhythmic spasms, as though the earth were in a permanent state of cardiac arrest. Attending to the kids, though? That was the hardest. That was my specialty. That’s what decided things for me one day when I walked away from a dying three-year-old who no longer needed anybody’s help.

               I shoved away the images. Something was happening to Artemis. If it was possible for an entire body to become a grimace, hers had. I tried to think of something to reassure the kids. “You are lucky you have me in the car because I have medical training.”

               “A doctor?” asked Artemis.

               “Surgical nurse,” I answered. 

               “Good,” said Artemis. “We might need you when we get there.”

               “Are we going to find Mommy and Daddy?” said Apollo.

               “Yes,” said Artemis.

                                                                                                                 #

               How could I have been so dumb? How could I not have known that these kids were on their own? There was never an adult around. The checking to see if it was alright to play in the car, the shushing when Apollo almost spilled the beans, all an attempt to keep me in a state of ignorance. Artemis was a clever girl. Instinct had told her to pretend that her parents were still around, phantom protection against a world whose decent side had become enfeebled. And I, along with the rest of us, had become enfeebled, too. Concerned only for myself, not seeing their situation for what it was.

               “Where are we now?” I asked Artemis in the calmest voice I could muster. She didn’t answer. Her teeth had started to chatter. If I couldn’t get her to focus on the present moment, then I feared she’d go into shock. She might already be doing exactly that. I tried again, “Artemis, are we almost there?”

               She began to talk but it did not make any sense. “I’m coming with you! I want to come with you! No, you have to stay and protect your brother. Stay and keep Apollo safe. Stay and stay and stay and…”

               Her eyes were opened wide, her body on a replay of shock. I risked touching her skin, afraid she’d lash out, but she didn’t even notice. Her skin was cold, despite the heat inside the car. Not good.

               “I’ve got to get a blanket,” I said to Apollo. “I’ve got to go inside, but I will be right back. I promise.” I began to peel his arms away from my waist, but he clamped tighter.

               “Don’t go!” Apollo cried.

               “I’ve got to help your sister. She needs our help.”

               “Don’t leave us!”

               “I’m not leaving you, not permanently. I’m going to go inside, but I’ll be right back.”

               His arms were like a vice around my waist. “Don’t.”

               “Apollo, I have to go. I have to help Artemis.”

               Apollo shook his head over and over. Snot from his nose rubbed off on my shirt. 

               I had no idea what to do, even with all my background in medicine, my experience in trauma situations. Helping one kid meant hurting the other. Then I thought of another way. Something I should have thought of before. “I’m not leaving,” I said.

               I told Apollo what we were going to do. He agreed to the plan and let go of my waist. I  gathered up Artemis and awkwardly slid her out from behind the steering wheel. She offered no resistance. All this climbing around had sent my leg into a code blue pain level. I ignored it as best I could.

               The three of us slid down into a huddle, our backs to the car. “We’re going to use our body heat as a blanket,” I said to Apollo. Apollo wrapped his arms around his sister. I pulled the two of them closer and wrapped my arms around both. We sat like that a long time, until the sun was low enough that the car’s exterior had cooled.

               “Are you okay now, honey?” I asked Artemis. She looked better, but I wanted to hear her say it. I realized, too late, that all she needed to do was to nod yes, avoiding the verbal response. My whole body ached, but when she nodded, it was tempered with the sweet ache of relief. I helped her up, or rather, the three of us helped ourselves up. We made our way back to the place where I’d left the soda. I had Artemis drink hers all the way to the dregs.

               The sun had given up its effort to bake us alive, had to save the attempt for another day. It was true dark now and getting cold. I led the kids inside my house and for once, Artemis didn’t object. I didn’t know what we were, but we were no longer strangers. No. We had become something else.

               I had these thoughts as I arranged blankets, setting up palettes, laying them close together on my living room floor. Before retiring for the night, I hunted out that last can of peaches, hard won. No better time to use them up.

Betty Martin holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her work has appeared in Luna Station Quarterly and is forthcoming in Make Literary Magazine. She is currently an MFA candidate at Arcadia University in Glenside Pennsylvania.

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