Chloe frowned. That was the sixth kid she saw tracking past, covered in dirt. She didn’t normally mind a bit of mud, as long as they washed before they went inside, but this was getting downright weird. There was another one, a little blonde girl with a garden spade shoved in her pocket, her knees covered in black mud.
“Excuse me,” Chloe called. “Excuse me. Suzy?” The girl was called Suzy. A COT, as Buck would put it, a Child of Tribulation. Cameron, she silently corrected herself, he’s called Cameron now. Not Buck. There’s nothing to buck here. She needed to remember that. It was part of God remaking them according to his will. She needed to embrace that.
Suzy glanced up, startled. “Yes, Mommy Chloe?”
That’s right, Chloe remembered, she didn’t have a family. Her parents had been Carpathianists. They’d died in the last battle.
Chloe knelt down and smiled. “Have you been playing in the dirt, sweetie? Gardening?” Gardening wasn’t exactly necessary these days, with all plants being edible (and reasonably tasty), but a lot of people did it as a hobby, or a trade. You were more likely to get certain kinds of food with a bit of work. God helps those who help themselves, after all.
Suzy nodded, wide-eyed. “Playing. There was a big empty spot. I didn’t think anyone would mind.” She looked oddly frightened.
A wave of pity swelled in Chloe’s heart. Christ alone would know what that poor child had been subjected to, with a Carpathianist upbringing. “Of course not.” She ruffled Suzy’s hair. “As long as you’re not hurting anything, play where you like. Just make sure you clean up properly, and put the shovel back when you’re done. And remind your little friends to do the same think, okay?”
“Run along now,” Chloe said.
Little Suzy dashed off. Chloe smiled. “Bless her, Jesus,” she prayed. “Bless all their little hearts.”
As always, when she prayed, she felt an answering rush of pure love.
“I didn’t tell anyone!” Fatima yelled. She hadn’t. Okay, if she had told, she’d have picked Zayna, and Suzy. They were friends of hers, the same age, and their parents were in the pit, too. And they weren’t weird, like Kenny or Michelle who prayed a lot, and told Jesus everything. But she didn’t even know some of the other kids. There were a couple of older boys; a skinny black kid and a shorter blond-haired white one. They both looked about Hakim’s age, which made them just about the oldest kids there were. And two little white girls who Fatima had never seen before stood at the edge of the pit, looking shy and clutching plastic beach shovels.
“How’d they find out then?” Hakim snapped. “I didn’t say anything!”
“Hey,” said the black kid. “The little girl didn’t say anything. It was a different girl. Said her name was Jenny.”
“Jenny?” Hakim frowned. “I don’t know any Jenny.”
“Tall girl? Black hair? Looked older? Maybe twelve?”
Hakim shook his head. “She can’t be twelve. No one’s twelve.”
“I don’t know! She looked twelve.”
Suzy tugged on Hakim’s elbow. “What are we supposed to do?”
Hakim looked down. “Dig.” He sighed. “Fatima, show them.”
Fatima let Suzy and the other kids down the bottom of the hole. She showed them the garden bucket she’d borrowed, and the pile a few feet away where she and Hakim had been dumping the dirt.
By then, the black kid seemed to be finished talking with Hakim. He climbed down into the hole, and unfolded the shovel he’d brought; a square-ended thing, about as long as Fatima’s arm. It had a joint that could bend halfway down the handle.
“What’s that?” Fatima asked. She’d never seen anything like it. She just had an ordinary garden spade.
“It’s a camping shovel,” the boy replied. He held it out for her to look at. “My...father had it. We had to hide out in the hills for a while, after things got really crazy. He used to dig latrines with it.”
“Toilets.” The boy grinned. “We didn’t have proper toilets, so we’d have to poop in a hole.”
“Gross!” Fatima jumped back, dropping the shovel.
The boy laughed. “Don’t worry. The shovel was for digging in dirt, not poop.” He picked it up. “I’m Chris. What’s your name?”
“Fatima. I’m Hakim’s sister.”
“Nice to meet you.” Chris smiled and shook her hand.
Fatima grinned up at him. “Can I try your shovel?”
Hakim shook his head. "There's more of them."
Fatima looked up. Three girls had just come over the hill. They were all carrying shovels. Long shovels; grown-up size. She didn't know any of them. "Isn't that good?" she asked. More kids meant more digging. The hole was growing a lot faster now.
"There's too many." Hakim stood up. "If we keep getting more kids, we're gonna get caught." He pulled himself out of the hole, and walked over to the new kids.
Fatima watched from the edge of the hole, where she was hauling up buckets of dirt on a string. It was her idea, the string. Faster than climbing in and out of the pit. Hakim had called her clever for coming up with it.
"What are you doing here?" she heard Hakim ask.
The one in front, a tall black girl nearly Hakim's age, helt out a shovel. "We came to dig."
"How'd you know about the digging?"
The girl shrugged. "Jenny told me."
Fatima ducked her head and hauled dirt. Hakim always asked this, and never got an answer. Never any more answer than Chris gave the first day. Some girl. Looked older than she could be. They wouldn't know her; no one knew Jenny. She was just some girl who knew about the hole.
Hakim wouldn't like it. He never liked it. But he'd let the girls dig, because the hole grew faster. That's what he always did.
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