Didn’t Susan know it. “Kids!” She bellowed once more and this time was greeted with the rushing of feet. She inspected her children as they entered the kitchen. Both appeared well-groomed. Marie had long brown hair tied back with a pink scarf that matched her long hemmed poodle skirt and shoes. Jake was a good-looking seventeen-year-old with rosy cheeks. Since he became captain of New Haven’s football team, he was rarely seen without his football jersey. “Well,” Susan said proudly, “don’t you two clean up nice?”
“You’d rarely suspect them as ours.” Jeff agreed with a sip of Susan’s coffee.
“Stop teasing us,” Marie said with a roll of her eyes. “We know Jake doesn’t clean up well at all.”
Susan tried not to giggle while Jake’s cheeks flushed and his nose turned up like a pig’s. “You’re going to let her talk to me like that?”
“It was a joke.” Marie folded her arms in front of her. “Tell him, Mom.”
“It was a joke,” Susan brushed off Jake’s shoulders. “And you look handsome as ever.” Her smile glowed and inside a well of pride sprung a leak.
Jake’s expression softened. “Thanks, Mom.”
“Now off to school.” Susan headed to the counter as Marie picked up her lunch, but Jake stepped forward. He fiddled with his jacket and his face turned down while he chewed on his lip. “Mom.” There was a tremor to his voice. “We’re out of eggs and milk. I was wondering when you were going to get new rations.”
Jeff cast him a stern look. “If there aren’t eggs and milk, eat something else. You think it’s easy running a house with four mouths to feed?”
Marie’s nose turned up. “You always eat more than your share. It’s not fair to the rest of us, you know.”
“Stop it, kids. No fighting.” Susan sighed. “I’m heading to the market today to pick up a few more rations, but it’ll have to hold us until the end of the week. We’ve almost used up all of our monthly spending points.”
“We could eat out,” Jake suggested.
“That takes money and you know there isn’t enough to go around. You like this house heated and with cable TV? You like those stylish clothes on your back?” Jeff stood and shoved his bar stool into the kitchen island.
The teenagers eyed it and the air in the room thickened. “He doesn’t mean it, Daddy. Do you?” Marie turned toward her brother, her ponytail lashing at the back of her neck.
“No.” Jake said quietly. His cheeks reddened. “I’m happy to eat whatever Mom can cook up.”
Susan patted his cheek. “Good boy. Better get off to school. The bus will be outside any moment.” She kissed each of their cheeks and handed Jake his lunch. “No trading at the lunch table again, understand?” The front door latched and Susan pivoted, placing her hands on her hips.
“What?” Jeff asked, placing her drained coffee mug in the dishwasher. “He’s insensitive and selfish.”
“In other words,” Susan said, grinning, “a teenager.”
“Well, I don’t have to like it.” Jeff huffed. His shoulders relaxed when Susan kissed his cheek.
“He’ll be our boy again once he’s through this phase. He’s a good kid, you know that.”
“I know, I know. I guess I just remember being him, before I moved here. What a dope I was to both my parents.” Jeff shook his head.
Susan rarely heard him talk about his time before New Haven, and she tried to pretend such times never existed. Her fingers twisted together and spun her wedding ring while her shoulders inched up her ears. “Speaking of your parents, we’re going to meet them this Sunday for some bingo after church service. I’m making an upside down pineapple cake.”
“Not more bingo.” He sighed. “Can’t we just serve the cake here?”
“I love bingo and you love me, so therefore…” Something on the counter caught Susan’s attention; it was Marie’s metal thermos. Eyes wide, Susan snatched it and charged out the front door. She sprinted down the street and over the residential hill. At the corner stood a group of students. The girls were dressed in proper skirts and high heels, while the boys wore pressed shirts and khaki pants. “Marie!” Susan called as the bus squealed to a stop beside them.
Marie glanced up with surprise, clutching her lunchbox in one hand and her school books in another.
“Sweetheart, you forgot your liquefied organ juice!”
Marie grinned and kissed Susan’s cheek. “Thanks, Mom! I don’t know what I’d do without you!”
Susan clasped her hands in front of her. “Well, I know how stressful a move to a new city can be on you and especially the children. You’ll have to make sure they’re okay with the process, won’t you?”
Diane nodded, tears glistening in her eyes.
“New job? Is that why you moved here?”
Startled, Diane blinked her eyes. “Moved here? Moved here? Don’t you know? Don’t you know what this place is?”
Susan’s smile stretched like an elastic band and her heartbeat quickened. “Of course I do. It’s a great community. We have friends, families, jobs. Every weekend there’s a sock hop downtown. Our children can grow, thrive. So now you go on and tell me, why did you move here?”
Diane swallowed, glancing down. “So my children could grow up safe.”
Susan squeezed the woman’s wrist. She wore the same bracelet that Susan wore, that they all wore. “Why don’t you invite me inside and I can start to show you the ropes, okay? I’ll explain a few things to you. Trust me, there’s a lot of misinformation out there.”
“I could put on some water for tea.” Diane said and pattered inside, leaving Susan to step in and close the door behind her.
Susan adjusted her skirt and heard the sound of playing coming from the living room. Peeking her head around the corner, she saw a sofa and furnishings already in place, with cardboard boxes stacked against the wall. The two boys playing on the beige rug were four and five, or thereabouts. Cute children, Susan thought. Each had thick blond hair, with bracelets on their wrists. Around their necks, Susan saw red marks.
She gulped down a quick breath of air. How horrid the process was, just horrid.
Susan clicked down the hall and found the kitchen. Diane sat at the table beside a window that overlooked a small cramped yard. If it was big enough for a barbecue grill, Susan would have been surprised. Diane and her husband were quiet, holding each other’s hands while their eyes were somewhere else. Susan knew what it was like. She knew exactly what they were going through.
She sat beside them and outreached her hand on top of theirs. “It’ll be all right.” Susan said softly. “You’ll get through this fine. In a few weeks, you’ll begin to feel better, fit in.”
The husband glanced at Susan for the first time. His deep brown eyes held sadness she could feel. “We were living in Ohio. The kids just started school. We weren’t hurting anyone.”
Susan knew. She understood. “This is the way things are. It can be a good life if you accept it.”
“And if you don’t?” He asked quietly, angrily.
“You’ll go away,” Susan said. “And those children, those beautiful children will grow up without a father. If they grow up at all.”
He squeezed his eyes shut.
“Will the tea be ready soon?” Susan asked.
Diane nodded. “It should be in a minute.”
“Good,” Susan patted her knee with a big smile, “we’ll sit over muffins and you can tell me about the new jobs you’ve gotten. And I’ll tell you all about my big Tupperware party next week. Wouldn’t it be nice to get out and meet some of your neighbors?”
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