By Melissa R. Mendelson
“Come on, Ben. Wake up.” He kicked the young boy’s shoulder. “Get up.”
“Oh, come on, Henry. It’s early.” He rolled across the floor and pushed the thin shirt under his head closer to him. “Let me just sleep.”
“You’ve slept enough. Come on, Ben. Let’s go. We got work to do.”
“Yeah. Work, if you could call it that. Fine. I’m up.” He let out a loud yawn.
“Are you trying to wake Dad?” He noticed the glint of fear in his brother’s eyes. “He’s still passed out right now. Let’s go before he wakes up.” He helped his brother to his feet.
Henry glanced outside the small room. There was no door to push open, and he knew which floorboards to step on. He gestured for his brother to follow him and avoid the boards that would creak under their weight, alerting their father nearby, passed out in his chair with a bottle resting against his foot, and Ben followed him. But then he accidently kicked the bottle, and both boys froze as their father stirred. Henry glared at Ben, who mouthed the word, “Sorry.”
“That was close.”
“Too close, Ben.” Henry surveyed the outside before taking another step forward. He spotted a large puddle and moved toward it. It rained last night, the water was murky, but he didn’t care. He still washed his hands and gestured for his brother to do the same.
“I miss clean water,” Ben grumbled.
“Me too, but it is what it is.” Henry dried his hands on his shirt.
Henry walked over to a wheelbarrow near the house. He knelt down and worked at the rope tied around it. He didn’t trust anyone in the town. He didn’t trust his father either, and he had tied the knots really good this time. It took a few minutes to unravel them, and he shoved the rope into his pocket.
Ben yawned and scratched the back of his shirt. He heard a tear and looked at Henry, and Henry checked for him. He had ripped his shirt. “Mom’s going to kill me,” he cried.
“Don’t worry about Mom, unless she runs out of drink.”
“That’s not nice, Henry.”
“Come on. We’re late.”
“Unless you want to live like rats, someone has to get rid of it.”
“Yeah, but why does that have to be us?”
“It just is, Ben.”
Henry pushed the wheelbarrow forward, stopping every now and then to pick up trash. Dirty diapers. Newspapers. Old, ripped clothing. Shoes. They were always finding shoes. He noticed his brother pick something up off the ground. He was about to taste it when Henry ripped it out of his hands.
“You want to be like that Smith kid? He ate something bad and then died afterward.”
“But it was a cookie.”
“What if it had rat droppings?”
“Gross, but I’m hungry.”
“I know, Ben, so am I.” Henry sighed as he stared at his brother. “Look, if we get some bread later, I’ll give you my half.”
“But Henry, it’s your bread.”
“It’s okay, Ben. Now, come on. We’re wasting time. If we’re late, they won’t pick up the trash from us.”
“They didn’t pick it up yesterday.”
“Would you rather be with the other boys? Fighting and stealing?”
Ben rubbed his chin, a small, dark bruise left by their father. “No. I don’t like hitting.”
“Me neither.” Henry touched his shoulder but then stopped.
“We should be in school.” Ben kicked at an empty glass bottle. He picked it up and dropped it into the wheelbarrow with the other trash. “The wheels go round and round, round and round. The wheels go round and round all day long.”
Henry smiled as he listened to Ben sing. At least, his spirits were never low. If not for him, Henry would be completely lost.
Ben followed his brother over to the highway nearby. “Henry, do you think we will ever go back home?”
“No, Ben. I don’t.” Henry positioned the wheelbarrow near the road, and they waited for a long time.
A green Ford truck finally appeared heading down the highway. It flew past the boys but then braked and moved in reverse towards them. Two men sat in the front, laughing. One of them rolled down the window and said, “Well, if it ain’t the Hoover boys. Got some garbage I see.”
“Yes, we have garbage,” Henry answered. “Will you take it from us today?”
“Yeah, sure. Why not?” The man got out of the truck, and the driver did the same.
“You boys look hungry,” the driver said. “When was the last time that you ate?” He watched Ben shrug in response. “Jack, give them your lunch.”
“What? The hell with that.” Jack saw the look on the driver’s face. “Fine.” He reached into the car and pulled out a small package along with a container of milk. “Here you go, boys. Merry Christmas.” He watched the driver dump the contents of the wheelbarrow into the back of the truck. “We done here?”
“Yeah, we’re done.” The driver got back into the truck.
“See you boys later, or not.”
Henry didn’t say a word as the truck sped off. He put a hand on Ben’s shoulder, signaling for him to wait. He had to make sure that they didn’t change their mind. When he was finally sure, he sat down near the highway and unwrapped the sandwich. He gave most of it to Ben.
“What about you,” Ben asked, shoving the sandwich into his mouth.
“I’m good.” Henry drank some milk and then wiped his mouth with his hand. “Here you go, Ben. You finish it.” He watched Ben drink the milk.
“I’m tired of walking.”
Henry stood up from the ground. “Let’s go back to town. You know, Ben, as long as I’m around, I won’t let anything happen to you.”
“I know that, Henry.” Ben threw the wrapper and empty container into the wheelbarrow. “For tomorrow.”
“No, we can’t let Dad see it. He won’t be happy about it.” He looked at his brother. “Or your shirt.” He moved a short distance away and then dug into the soft dirt nearby.
“What are you doing?”
“Digging. We’ll come back for everything tomorrow. Now, take off your shirt.”
Ben pulled off his shirt, revealing more scars and bruises. “Won’t they be mad that we come back without my shirt?”
“They’re going to be mad either way, Ben, but at least, Mom won’t attempt to fix the tear. And you’ll get a new shirt, or one of Dad’s.”
“If he didn’t lose his job, then we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
“But we are, Ben. We are.” He took his brother’s shirt and pushed it into the ground, burying it with the dirt. “We just need to survive. That’s what we do.” He brushed a tear aside.
“I love you, Henry.”
“I love you too. Now, let’s get back,” and he pushed the wheelbarrow away from the road.
Bio: Melissa R. Mendelson is a Poet and Horror, Science-Fiction and Dystopian Short Story Author, whose writing has been published by Sirens Call Publications, Dark Helix Press, Altered Reality Magazine, Transmundane Press, Owl Canyon Press. Her short stories have been published by Wild Ink Publishing, and through Wild Ink Publishing, she will soon release a new poetry book called, This Will Remain With Us. She also has two short story collections, “Better Off Here” and “Stories Written Along Covid Walls“, both of which can be purchased at Amazon, or found on The Yard’s Bookstore page.