“Them” – A Short Story

 “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

 

They had been talking about them long before they joined our class. Mrs. Lewis said we ought to be nice to them and include them in games even though they probably didn’t speak our language yet. Tom said his dad now made him lock his bike in the garage every time he came home because his father didn’t want their family to be the first ones they stole from. Lisa said that people were building a new house close to where she lived and that construction workers now occupied the playground she used to go to after school. Lisa always sounded very smart no matter what she said, and when Jonah asked what she meant by that and how it would change anything, she only looked at him with big eyes as if he was truly stupid and stated that now she obviously couldn’t go there anymore.

When Monday morning came around, I jumped down from the front porch, escaping my mother’s puckered lips just before they could kiss my cheeks.

“Have a fun day at school,” she called after me as I skipped down the lawn and joined Eric who was picking a patch of dry paint off our wooden gate. Mom had suggested a new coat of paint a few times already, and Dad always seemed to agree. But more important things had come up, so the fence slowly turned from old to scruffy.

“Whatcha do on the weekend, Eric?” He looked up at me from behind a curtain of light brown hair and shrugged, his gaze distant and clouded. A little darker than usual, but nothing out of the ordinary. Throughout kindergarten and the first years of grade school he’d never been much of a talker, but we got along just fine. It had become our ritual — me asking questions and him shrugging them off. Eric and I had become friends before we knew it. Growing up in the same neighborhood formed friendships like an unwritten law around here.

***

Tom sat in his chair, eying us expectantly when we entered the classroom. Eric glanced at him and went straight to his seat by the window while I sat down in mine.

“Did you see them yet?” Tom leaned towards me as I came out from under the table with my notebook and pencil. Mrs. Lewis liked when we had our things ready by the time we started class, and I liked when she noticed that I usually did.

“Who’s them?”

“The new kids. The refugees.” He put an emphasis on the word “refugees” as if he’d been let in on a secret he wasn’t supposed to know about. I turned to spot three empty seats in the back of the classroom.

“Sadly, your new classmates won’t be joining us just yet,” Mrs. Lewis announced in a serious voice. I hadn’t heard her enter the classroom, but teachers had a tendency to show up in places at times when you didn’t expect them to. “There was an incident on the weekend that is the reason for their absence today, but that doesn’t mean I expect you to be any less welcoming when they join us in a few days.”

“An incident?” Eager to say something, Lisa straightened her back and narrowed her eyes in a way that adults found cute and I found annoying. Of course she wanted to know further details, but Mrs. Lewis wouldn’t give us any. The matter was being investigated, but that was none of our concern.

“What if they simply don’t fit in, though? What if they don’t want to fit in?” Tom chimed in from the seat behind me.

Mrs. Lewis raised her eyebrows. “Why would they not fit in, Tom?”

“Because… they are so different. They don’t even speak English.”

Mrs. Lewis put her notes down and walked around her desk, halfway sitting down on its table top. “Are they really that different from you?” She readjusted her glasses as if to buy herself some time. When she spoke again, her voice was steady, her words carefully chosen.

“Let me tell you a little story about our past.” She glanced up to make sure we were listening. “When we learn about our history, we must realize that many, many things went wrong and that many people — individuals, tribes, an ethnicity as such — have been mistreated and deprived of their rights as a person and a culture and that they’ve been reduced to a minority based on their skin color and origin. I don’t have to remind you that this is an issue we are, in fact, still facing today. But let’s go back a little further. Back to the core idea that this country was built upon. I’m talking about the idea of freedom. When people took the long and rough journey from Europe across the ocean upon themselves, they were hoping to find just that: political but also religious freedom. The United States of America soon became an asylum for all those who found themselves persecuted in their home countries. Let’s be very clear at this point though, because as you all know, this invitation didn’t come without strings attached as it wasn’t addressed to everyone — only to the free white person. With this in mind, let’s return to the refugee debate we are having today, and the fact that their situation shouldn’t seem so different after all. The children who are joining our class were growing up in a protected environment that offered them an education similar to yours; yet now, they are facing war and terror. Children your age are dealing with the loss of family members, hunger, and fear. What they wish for is as basic as the ideals this country was built upon: peace and liberty — things that we, all of us, can provide them with.”

The room went quiet for a moment as we each thought about our teacher’s words.

“But why do they have to come here?” Lisa’s voice reached a high-pitched frequency whenever she was nervous. “Why can’t they go somewhere —”

Mrs. Lewis cut Lisa short, her eyes serious once more. “That’s enough. When you go home later today, I want all of you to think of at least three reasons that Aya, Sayid, and Fathi might be worried about coming here.” Mrs. Lewis took a second to look around the classroom before she continued. “I want you to really try to put yourselves in their shoes.”

Lisa attempted to say something else, but Mrs. Lewis gave her one of those looks that immediately erased whatever thought was on her mind. Lisa’s mouth snapped shut like a fish’s failed attempt at gasping for air. Expecting a smile in return, I grinned at Eric, who continued to draw weird-looking smiley faces in the notebook in front of him, his lips pressed together in a hard line.

I glanced at him occasionally as the lesson went on and stared at him at some point when Mrs. Lewis’ voice grew softer again, but he never met my eyes. As soon as class was over, he rushed out of his seat and then out of the door. I waited in front of the metal school gates that glistened in the afternoon sun until the bell announced the end of a fifteen-minute recess and the beginning of the next period. More kids came and went, but Eric was nowhere to be seen. For the first time that day, I walked home alone.

***

A cold rush of air went through the house and was immediately followed by the stamping of my sister’s small feet running down the stairs and into Dad’s arms when he came home that night.

“Close it, close it,” she squealed, pushing the door shut behind him while I waited, leaning against the door frame of our small kitchen with my hands folded behind my back. Our father took the silver badge off his jacket and handed it to me. I smiled and put it in the top chest of drawers in the hallway where he would pick it up again before leaving the house the next morning. At work they called him Officer Bates, but at home he was just Dad.

“Now who do we have here?” He swung Becca in his arms and nuzzled her neck, her two blond pigtails whipping from side to side as he carried her back into the warmth of our home. Like most nights, his hand was in my hair before I could stop him, and I protested loudly even though my laugh gave me away. Dad set Becca down on the floor so he could kiss our mother smack on the lips, and my sister wiggled her way out of the kitchen, carrying the smell of baked potatoes and chicken behind her as she ran past me.

Dad caught me staring at the newspaper when we sat down at the table. There was a front-page photo of several police cars parked in front of the big house people had been talking and whispering about in hushed voices. Much to my surprise, he turned the paper towards me instead of taking it away.

“Unwelcome Welcome,” I read the boldface letters as I spread the newspaper out in front of me. “Vandalism Disrupting Resettlement Process of Four Families — Two Arrests on Sunday Night.”

“The new kids…” I started, looking up at my father as I tried to make sense of both the picture and its headline. “…they didn’t come to school today.”

Mom’s hand shot out to my father’s shoulder, her face distorted into an alarmed expression. At home, we never talked about his work.

“What is vandalism?” I asked when the silence lasted too long.

“Allan, he’s so young —”

“It’s okay, Rose, they’ve been told too many lies already.”

***

Eric didn’t come to school for the rest of the week. I waited for him every morning, and I called his house in the afternoon, but no one answered the phone. Eventually, Mom suggested I stop calling. She had run into his mother at the supermarket, and she seemed all right but a little reserved. Mom didn’t want to press for information and neither should I.

On Tuesday of the following week, Eric was back. No notice, no call, his slim figure seemed lost in the midst of a crowd of students who pushed and shoved past him until they disappeared into the building. I raised my hand and waved mechanically. He caught my eye and his shoulders dropped, his navy blue cardigan clinging to him like a wet mop as his eyes returned to the floor.

I stopped short at the sight of his father, a man whose presence made me shiver even on the warmest days of the year. Now he was here at school — more intimidating than he was in his own house — his muscular torso threatening to split the seams of his expensive gray suit and trapping Mrs. Lewis in its ridiculously large shadow. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I had an idea. Judging by the look on my teacher’s face, it seemed like a rather one-sided conversation — his furiously waving hands meeting her pleading expression.

Mr. Lockwood worked in finance. Eric once told me that his father looked after a department of twenty-five employees, and I immediately felt sorry for all of them. Lucky for us, this also meant that he was gone for most of the day since I had to leave their house as soon as he came home from work. Mr. Lockwood didn’t like to be disturbed, and while my mom usually arrived in time to pick me up before he got mad, Eric had to learn the hard way.

Like so many times before, I wondered what was going on in Eric’s mind as he stood next to his father, still as a statue: waiting for it to be over, waiting to be asked to speak, waiting to be asked to leave. Stunned by the idea of walking past them, I stood in the shadows of newly green bushes that had begun to grow over and around most parts of the school fence, and I began to feel incredibly sad for my friend. It wouldn’t be long until he’d have to go home with his father — a man he had every reason to be scared of.

I don’t think any one of us saw it coming when Mr. Lockwood’s hand shot forward and his fingers tightened around Mrs. Lewis’ arm. He shook her once, her body rocking back and forth, looking fragile and breakable next to his. He let go of her as soon as he’d grabbed her, but his grip lingered as a piercing cry cut through the air.

Mr. Lockwood turned around sharply, his face red with anger, his eyes dark and disapproving — a frightening mixture of fury and coldness that would haunt me in my sleep for weeks — and they were aimed at me, boring through me like a spear. I could feel the heat rush to my cheeks as I found myself standing alone in the now empty school yard. He started towards me, and I moved back, almost falling over my own feet, expecting him to grab me too. But he stormed past me, dragging Eric along by the collar, his brows furrowed in disgust.

I thought I caught a glimpse of my friend’s frightened eyes once more, but I couldn’t be sure. A wordless goodbye as they disappeared from my field of vision.

***

I didn’t know where I was going until I found myself in front of the police station. The building was one of the oldest in town, its red bricks famous among tourists and historians who visited it frequently. I had been inside a few times before, getting excited each time my father would bring me, but nothing exciting ever happened when I was there. They only called him for the important stuff now, he’d tell me on the way back home, and I would look at him with glowing eyes, eager to grow old enough to hear the stories.

His office was on the first floor, down the hallway on the far right. Taking two steps at a time, I ran up the stairs, past notes and advisory posters pinned to the walls, ignoring the alarmed voice of the receptionist calling after me. I entered my father’s office without knocking.

He looked up from his computer, his expression shifting from irritation to surprise when he saw it was me.

“Noah.” There was a trace of confusion and worry in his voice as I ran towards him and hurled myself into his lap. Tears were burning my face now. From the corner of my eyes, I saw a plump woman in uniform standing in the open doorframe to the hallway.

“Officer Bates, I am so — oh.”

“Thank you, Nancy.”

“Of course.” The woman smiled at us sympathetically and closed the door behind her.

For a while we just sat there, and I cried, my body shaken by violent sobs while my father held me, his hand stroking my back until I calmed down.

“Do you want to tell me what happened?” he asked when I finally stopped. And I did. I told him what the kids at school were saying about the refugees and about Eric and Mr. Lockwood and what he had done to Mrs. Lewis and that maybe, since so many people seemed so upset about it, what if it wasn’t such a good idea for them to come after all. My father heard me out, listened to every word I said without interrupting or laughing at me once.

“A lot of people don’t understand, Noah,” he explained when I’d finished. “It’s not because they are bad people, it’s not that they’re trying to do bad things, they simply don’t understand.”

I looked at him through teary eyes and waited for him to continue. He lifted me onto his right leg, still holding me close, and watched me with observant eyes.

“People, no matter how rich or poor or smart or stupid, can be very ignorant sometimes. They tend to look for others to blame for their personal problems, and they take the easy way out by attacking the weakest link. The people who have been assigned to live among us have no past here; they have lost everything — their families, their homes, their jobs, their self-respect. They are leaving everything behind, holding on to their hope to start over and depending on us, our community, to make it come true.”

“But what if it’s true?” I sobbed. “What if they steal like people say, or if they don’t respect the way we live?”

“That’s a very harsh accusation to make, don’t you think, Noah? To judge people based on the color of their skin, their religion, or their way of life, and to base your beliefs on prejudices — it’s an ugly thing to do.”

“But Mr. Lockwood —” I blushed when it began to dawn on me that I might have disappointed my father. Tears filled my eyes once more, but he didn’t turn away from me, his hand still resting on my back.

“People sometimes do very stupid things when they’re afraid. Mr. Lockwood was weak today when he attacked Mrs. Lewis, and he was weak when he glared at you for catching him at it. He let his guard down. He lost control.”

“But I was scared of him,” I admitted, looking down at my tangled hands, wondering whether I should have been braver. The touch of my father’s finger against my chin forced me to look up again.

“Mr. Lockwood is taller, stronger, and a lot older than you. He abused his power as a man and a father. I promise you I will do everything in my power to assure it won’t happen again.”

I tried to brush away the tears, but they were falling freely again. “How do you know he won’t do it again? The house that got destroyed… what if that was him as well?”

My father’s face was serious. “In the past, Mr. Lockwood’s never made his opinions a secret. Here, we’ve kept an eye on him for quite some time, and so far we’ve had no reason to get involved in his business. He has a right to speak up like you and me, and he’s been exercising that right. But what he did today — that was a big mistake, and he knows it. Today, he lost a big part of his credibility, and he only has himself to blame.

“As for the destruction that was done to the house,” he raised an eyebrow as if to tell me the conversation was coming to an end, “we’ve caught the culprits and are dealing with them.”

I wanted to ask who he was talking about and if I knew them, but there was something final about his tone of voice. His fingers traced the framed photograph of our family that he kept on his desk, squeezed in between the computer screen and a pile of notes and letters. It was taken on what I remembered as the perfect day. We had made a handful of sandwiches and left the house early to get to the lake before it got too crowded. Mom, Dad, Becca, and me. It was one of the few days Dad turned his phone off before we left. He took me swimming while Mom built sand castles with Becca, and we ate the sandwiches that had gotten a little mushy from the sun. When we returned to the car, Becca was sleeping in our mother’s arms, and our cheeks were rosy.

“Do you think things will ever be okay again, Dad?” I asked, and a gentle smile began to form around the corner of his mouth.

“In time, Noah, things will be okay in time.” I thought he might stop there again, but he continued after a short pause. “Lucky for us, we have a lot of it. The families who are resettling, they are running out of it. But us, people like you and me and Mrs. Lewis,” he looked me straight in the eye, “we have all the time to make people see that there’s no reason to be afraid.”

***

Two boys and a girl with dark brown, almost black hair, clung to a young woman who was standing in front of the school gate the next morning. Except for a light blue scarf that was loosely wrapped around her head and shoulders, she was dressed in black, the fabric of her clothes caressing her short figure softly. The boys were about the same height, both wearing short-sleeved shirts of popular European soccer clubs, but the girl was a little shorter, her small hand holding on to the woman’s dress as she peeked at our school through the metal grate from various angles. A loose strand of her shoulder-length hair continued to fall in her face, and it refused to stay put no matter how many times she brushed it back.

Their skin, I noticed, was a little darker than mine was after a summer spent in the fields, but other than that, they didn’t seem much different.

The boys started bouncing a ball back and forth on the sidewalk while the woman kneeled down next to the girl. Aya, I remembered Mrs. Lewis had told us her name was. Her hands had dropped to her sides, and her lips moved quickly as she looked at the woman with insisting, dark eyes that caught not only the woman’s but also my attention.

A few children passed them on their way to class and stared, their fingers pointing in their direction, and Aya glanced back at them nervously. I watched how the woman placed her hands on both sides of the girl’s face and pulled her forward ever so gently, her lips planting a soft kiss on her forehead before she turned to the boys, Sayid and Fathi, who were now kicking the ball a little further down the street. She called out to them in a language I didn’t recognize or understand, and their heads shot up almost simultaneously. They picked up the ball and were back in no time. Meanwhile, the woman reached inside the black purse she carried over her shoulder and produced a handful of papers that she gave to each of the children. She smiled and rose gently while Aya’s hand shot back towards her dress as if it was guided by a magnetic pull. A little twitchy, she stepped from one foot to the other as her eyes darted back and forth between the woman’s face and the papers she held with trembling fingers.

I couldn’t help but wonder how I or anyone else had ever been afraid of them. They were just people who were no different from the rest of us, just like my father and Mrs. Lewis had suggested. I would have to tell him tonight — I thought as I ran to catch up with them — that they seemed really nice.

They now moved steadily towards our town’s small elementary school, a little faster than necessary, as if they might change their minds should they slow down. One of the boys turned to face me when I came closer, his intense gaze slowing my pace, and I waved my hand.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m Noah.”


Photo credit: Climatalk .in via Flickr cc

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