“No school today,” Melanie’s mother said. “No playing outside. If you have to go into another room, you tell me so I can go with you. Can you do that?”
Melanie nodded. “Does Christopher know?”
“No, and you can’t tell him. This is a secret.”
“Do the police know?”
“Melanie, no one knows. You can’t tell the police either.”
“But we have to Report. It’s the rule.” Melanie’s brow furrowed the way she did when her mother tried to explain what made the rain fall or how long division worked.
“This isn’t like when Mrs. Davidson started keeping the lights dimmed in class and told you not to tell the principal. That was a bad secret, and those you have to report. This is something we’re supposed to keep secret.”
“Is this why Daddy went away?”
Her mother pressed her lips together for a moment, and then said, “Yes, that’s why. He had a lot of work to finish before tonight. He might not make it home in time.”
“Is that why Sally’s family went away?”
Her mother nodded. “And Mr. and Mrs. Bell, from next door, and Harry the milk man, and, lots of people. There are so many things that have to be done and not much time left to do them.”
“What about you, Mommy? What’s your thing that you have to get done?”
Skirts rustling around her legs, Melanie’s mother knelt and pulled her daughter in for a tight hug. “You, my love,” she whispered. “I have to spend all the minutes I have left with you.” Leaning back, she wiped her eyes and smiled. “Let’s make breakfast. Anything you want out of the ice box. What are you hungry for?”
Melanie thought hard. “Pancakes?”
“We can do pancakes. Anything else?”
“That’s my girl. Do you want blueberries in your pancakes?”
Melanie nodded. “And frosting?” She chewed on her lip. “Is that too much?”
“Frosting sounds perfect. But you’re going to help me stir. And lick the spoons.”
After, her mother said to leave the dishes in the sink (“they don’t matter, honey”) and sent Melanie up to change into clean clothes (“you’re wearing more syrup than ended up on your pancakes”) while she washed up (“how did you get frosting in my hair, Melanie?”). While the pipes rattled and the sound of water splashed in the big iron tub, Melanie looked through her closet, deciding. Days without school or church meant denim shorts and a shirt with short sleeves, but going to places where grownups worked usually meant smart dresses and the black Mary Janes that pinched her toes. Reporting would be like that, she thought. There hadn’t been many trips to see Daddy at work this year, none in months, but he worked for the Government, and the Government offices were grown up places.
She put on the dark green dress she loved the most (even though Daddy had said it made her “stand out” and her mother had said “she’s going to stand out as long as you let them make us out to be something different”) and carried her shoes until she reached the bottom of the wooden stairs. Nervously, she opened the front door slowly, and peeked outside. It seemed to Melanie that not much had changed. Whatever was happening later in the day hadn’t started yet. There was still time for the one thing Melanie had been taught to do, no matter what.
She slipped on her shoes and started down the street.
“Hello, Mrs. Baker!” she yelled as she passed the old woman’s house. Mrs. Baker, who’d gone deaf very recently, went inside without so much as a wave. At the end of her block, Melanie turned right, walking past Sally’s house (her lawn was turning brown in spots) and then, a few houses down, Camille’s (her drapes were drawn), and at the end of that block on the other side of the street was Bobby’s house who used to be their paperboy. It looked like he hadn’t left on his route yet because there were papers stacked up in front of the door still. She was pretty sure he delivered right when the sun came up because he had to get done before he went to school and the middle school was blocks away, but maybe that had changed and that’s why her Daddy didn’t read the paper at breakfast anymore.
At the stop sign, Melanie looked both ways. The big poster across the street advised her to “Always Be Cautious!” On it was a tall, handsome man facing to the right, a pretty but stern-faced woman looking to the left, and a boy looking out at Melanie. “The Enemy is Everywhere” was spelled out in big letters at the bottom, just under the boy’s curly-haired terrier. Her mother had said this meant a speeding driver could come around the corner at any minute, and she always made Melanie hold her hand when they crossed. There didn’t seem to be any cars on the street at all, so Melanie made a dash for it.
The dress shop on the corner had a sign in the window proclaiming, “The New Look is Here!” The pressure she felt to Report faded a little as she stopped to study the dressmaker’s dolls in the window. The ruffled blouses were delicate, feathery concoctions compared to the plain tops her mother always wore: crème cotton voile with buttons up the front, darted cap sleeves and pointed collars. The shop’s dresses were shorter, too, ending just above the full part of the calf. She was certain that your skirt was supposed to get longer as you got older, since it was all right for her dresses to end above her knees when she was a toddler but when she started school they had to go below her knees, as if the place where your legs bend in half was something only babies were allowed to have. She wasn’t sure what to make of this “New Look” until—
“Ooh!” she said out loud, seeing the shoes at the bottom of the window. “They’re so tall.”
The sign next to them read Show THEM who’s boss — walk proud and in style. She traced the shape of them against the window, her little fingers arcing up for several inches. The strap around the heel and the two bows across the toes made these shoes look like grown up versions of her own Mary Janes. Except the glass had a strange effect on the texture of the shoe in the window, making them dimpled in the same way as the skin on the back of her hands or across her nose. She leaned forward until her nose touched the glass, trying to read the tiny sign inside them that said…
“I have to Report now,” she told herself. “Citizens Report.” She jammed her hands into her pockets and walked away as fast as she could.
By the end of the block, she felt better, and was determined to be extra polite to anyone she walked past. The grocer was so busy stacking apples on the table in front of his store that he didn’t see Melanie until she said, “Good Morning!” in her happiest voice. He looked down at her and his eyes widened. His hands shook, and one of them flew up to his chest.
“I’m sorry to startle you, Mr. Barra,” Melanie said. “Good morning,” she added, a bit quieter this time.
“Should you be out like this?” he asked.
“I’m old enough to walk by myself. It’s just my mother likes to take walks so she always wants to come with me.”
“Where is… your mother?”
“Home.” Melanie shrugged. “Cleaning up, I think. But I have an important thing to do today, Mr. Barra, and I couldn’t wait. I am going to Report!” She grinned. “It’s my first one.”
“I’m sure they don’t need kids like you bothering them at the Station,” Mr. Barra told her, crossing his arms.
“Our Citizens are the eyes, ears, and heart of our Nation,” she recited at him.
He shook his head but said, “I suppose you know where it is?”
“Well, get going then.”
She walked away, smiling proudly. The next three blocks took her past the barber shop (closed for another few hours still), the druggist (who didn’t allow kids at the soda counter anymore, Daddy had said, so there was no reason to go inside) and the library (“Every book approved by the Loyalty Program!”) before she reached the wide stone steps leading up to the Police Station.
Inside, she marched up to the wooden counter and said, “Excuse me,” to the uniformed man on the other side. He looked up from the newspaper, then looked down at her and sighed.
“Carter,” he yelled. “We got one of yours.” To Melanie, he said, “Have a seat, kid,” and waved toward an empty bench. She dutifully sat, trying hard not to fidget too much. She breathed in and out deeply, sat up very straight, got bored, and decided to count to 100 before going back to the counter again. She got to 47 before she decided that 100 was too big a number, but at that moment another man in a police uniform walked into the room.
“That her?” he asked the first officer.
“You see anyone else it could be?”
The first one went back to reading the paper, and the second walked over to Melanie. Very kindly, he asked, “How can I help you?”
“I’m here to Report,” she said with all of the seriousness she could muster.
“Let’s get you to an interview room, then,” he said. “Follow me.”
He got her settled into a chair, had her recite her name and address and exchange number, before leaving her alone for “just a moment.” When he came back (Melanie had counted to 100 and said the alphabet and the colors of the rainbow) he set a paper cup down in front of her.
“Hot chocolate,” he said with a smile. “My boys love the stuff. What about you?”
She took it while he sat down in the chair on the other side of the table.
“Now, Melanie, do you want to tell me why you’re here?” he asked.
“My mother said not to tell, but I know that’s the wrong answer.”
“And how do you know that?”
“I’m in 5th grade already. We did Documented Answers to Questions Asked by Friend and Foe in 4th grade. We had a whole section on it, and prizes. I won a blue pencil.”
“Blue is an excellent color.”
“I think so. I wanted the hamster but Mrs. Davidson said that maybe the hamster should go home with someone else and she gave it to Billy but she’s not our teacher anymore.”
“Because of the hamster?”
“No, because she got the thing in her eyes where she didn’t like the light anymore and they took her to a hospital to live.” Melanie took a sip of her hot chocolate.
“How did you feel about that?” the man asked gently.
“She was nice, I guess, but if she’s not suitable anymore then that’s okay, too. We had Mrs. Lemon for the rest of the school year and she let us take turns writing the math on the blackboard but this year we have Mr. Simons and he makes me sit in the back of the class.”
“Are you mad at your mother, Melanie?”
“What?” The little girl frowned. “I don’t think she wants me to sit in the back.”
“Are you upset with her for anything else?” he asked.
Melanie shook her head.
“Do you love your mother?” he asked, leaning forward a little. He spoke softly when he added, “Are you happy at home?”
“I have the very best mother,” Melanie told him.
“Then why do you want to Report her?” the officer asked.
“Not her,” she said. “The bombs are the bad thing. I think they’re a secret you’re supposed to tell, even though she said they’re not. And I am a Citizen. I am.”
He sat back and stared at her for a moment. Then he took the pen and the little notebook out of his shirt pocket.
“Melanie, my name is Officer James Mallone. Can you tell me what day it is?”
“And the name of our city?”
She told him that, too.
“Please repeat your address for me one more time.”
She did, and helpfully added walking directions. Then he asked about the bombs, and made her repeat the exact words her mother had used to explain them. She told him everything, even about breakfast and how the milk was gone now and the sink was full of dishes.
He wrote it all down.
There was a quick knock at the door before it opened. Melanie’s mother rushed in but stopped suddenly, looking at Officer Mallone and his little notebook. The door closed behind her with a small click.
“I’m sorry if my daughter has been any trouble, sir,” she said quietly. “I’ll take her straight home.”
“I’m afraid it’s not that simple, ma’am. Your daughter has made some statements which will need to be investigated.”
Her mother looked over her then, eyes shiny with unspilled tears. “Baby, what did you do?”
“I told what you said about the balloons. I had to, didn’t I? I don’t want to be bad.”
“You did exactly right, Melanie,” her mother said. “You always do. Let me sit with you.” They traded places then, Melanie standing so her mother could take the chair, and then letting herself be pulled gently onto her mother’s lap like when she was small.
Officer Mallone, who’d watched silently until they were settled with Melanie’s head against her mother’s chest and her mother’s arms around her tightly, said, “I can’t ignore what your daughter has said, Mrs. Rhodes. Children often want to please their parents, teachers, and other authority figures, but making a false Report is a waste of time and resources.”
“My daughter would never do that.”
“Well, clearly, she has.”
“Officer, you do whatever you need to do, as long as you do not separate me from my daughter today.”
“You’re not suggesting that she was telling the truth.”
“I’m not suggesting it. I’m saying it. I’d rather that she hadn’t said anything at all, but that isn’t her fault.”
Officer Mallone didn’t say anything for a minute or two. Without another word, he stood up and left the room. Her mother didn’t rise, so Melanie stayed where she was. After a while, she grew tired. The steady rhythm of her mother’s breathing, the unmoving air of the interview room, and the warmth of the overhead light folded together to wrap her in a comfortable boredom.
She closed her eyes.
When she opened them again, Mallone was back, talking to her mother in a hushed voice.
“You’re sure?” he asked.
“I wish I wasn’t,” Melanie’s mother said softly, “but my husband has been working on this project. He is a lot of things, but he wouldn’t lie to me. He wanted me to know, so Melanie and I could at least be together.”
“Where will you go?”
“Home,” she said. “Nowhere else to be, really. Are you letting us leave?”
He nodded. “I’ll file the paperwork on this, but it won’t be seen in time. I think that’s better, don’t you?”
Her mother stood, carefully setting Melanie on her feet as she did, and took her hand. “If you have people,” she said to him, “you should be with them.”
“My boys — their mother was passing, but they couldn’t. She took them up North. I don’t know exactly where. I’d have gone but we thought it’d be safer this way.”
She put her hand on his arm, for a long moment, before leading Melanie outside.
No one stopped them from leaving the station.
“Are you hungry?” her mother asked, once they were down the wide stone steps. “I think it’s lunch time.”
Melanie’s tummy rumbled. “Yes,” she said.
“I could murder a sandwich and a pulled soda, couldn’t you?”
Melanie looked up. Her mother, dark curls aglow with the sun shining bright behind her head, was grinning.
“You’re not mad at me?”
“My darling girl, we are going to have the best afternoon. A big lunch, here in town. We’ll go shopping and spend all my pin money,” she said with a laugh. “Then we’ll go home and put on the record player and dance the bomb boogie until the stars fall from the sky.”
They laughed all the way to Max’s, each inventing bigger and more elaborate lunch plans until the waitress, a young woman with bleach-blond curls piled into a bun on the top of her head, announced they could get a box to go but they didn’t have seating for children like that just now.
“That’s a shame,” Melanie’s mother said. “Refusing service to law-abiding Citizens is everywhere these days.” She shrugged. “Come along, dear,” she said to Melanie. “We’ll have to spend Daddy’s money somewhere else.”
“Wait,” the waitress said. “I can get you lunch to go. Give me your order and I’ll bring it to you outside.”
“We can’t even stand inside while our food is prepared?”
“It’s not me,” the waitress insisted. “It’s the manager.”
“Afraid someone will think you’re decent human beings?”
“You don’t have to be so difficult. I’m being nice to you.” The waitress crossed her arms, her shoulders hunched forward to match her pout. “You people make this harder on yourselves.”
“Thank you,” Melanie’s mother replied with a smile. “You’ve suddenly made me feel much better about the rest of my day.” She pulled Melanie out of the restaurant.
Instead, the girl sat on the green bench outside of Sugar Rations while her mother went in. She came out with a large pink box and two bottles of pop. Melanie carried the drinks while her usually quiet mother greeted — loudly — every person they passed.
As they neared their house, a breeze blew over them, and a faint rumble tickled the bottom of Melanie’s feet. Her mother stopped, tilted her head up, one hand shielding her eyes from the afternoon sun. Melanie stopped too, searching the sky.
“There!” her mother said. A long object was shooting straight up, higher than the buildings and trees, up and up, until it dwindled in size and could no longer be seen.
Melanie clutched the bottles to her chest and asked in a small voice, “Mommy, is that the bomb?”
“It’s a rocket,” she was told. “There should be more, dozens… look, there’s another!” her mother cried, pointing to the right. This rocket was much smaller, and already high up before she saw it. There was only a moment before it was gone, too.
“Your daddy made those,” Melanie’s mother said. “He really did it.” She sighed. “Let’s get home before the icing melts.” She didn’t mention any more rocket launches, though Melanie counted at least two others before they reached their door, bumped into another child who’d stopped in the middle of the sidewalk to stare up at the sky, and nearly tripped getting up the steps to her porch without looking where she was going. Once inside, with the shades drawn and the sound of curious neighbors shut out, it was easier to focus on the business at hand: a party-size assortment of pastries, more than Melanie had ever seen in her house at one time.
After a while, they both had to admit that there was such a thing as too many pastries.
“What do we still have?” her mother asked. She was lying on the couch, one hand on her belly.
Melanie rolled over, opened the lid of the bakery box, and peeked in. “Half of a slice of cake, one of the flaky ones with the chocolate in it, and a blue cupcake.” She let her head drop onto her arm, and closed her eyes.
“Croissant, darling girl. The flaky ones are croissants. What flavor of cake?”
“Yellow?” She didn’t check.
There was a knock at the door. Melanie’s mother groaned slightly, but pushed herself off the couch and, stepping over her daughter, went to answer it.
“Mrs. Rhodes?” a man’s voice asked.
“Officer Mallone,” her mother answered. “Would you like to come in?”
Melanie turned herself onto her side and opened one eye. The grownups were looking down at her. She waved weakly.
“Dessert for dinner,” her mother explained. “Why not?”
“I can’t blame you,” Mallone said.
“We have croissant,” Melanie said carefully. “And a cupcake. It’s blue. Want it?”
“No, thank you,” he told her. “I’ve come to take you both somewhere safe.”
“Where would that be?” her mother asked.
“Out of town. I think you’re right about… what you said earlier. I made some calls and did you see the rockets that blasted off? That happened all over. Every state, in other countries even. Important people, gone in those ships. Whatever’s going to happen next, it’s going to be soon.”
“What’s happening next is that this little girl needs a bath. Would you mind picking her up?”
“Oh. Sure.” He scooped Melanie off the floor. “Where to?”
In the bathroom, she turned the taps on, and started to unbutton Melanie’s dress.
“How’s your skin?”
“Scratchy,” the girl said.
“Do you want oatmeal tonight?”
Melanie nodded sleepily.
“Could you?” her mother asked Officer Mallone, who’d stayed out in the hall. She pointed at the shelf nearest the door. He found the right tin and handed it over. She shook a cup or so of a fine, light brown powder into the steaming water, stirred it with her hand, and turned off the taps. Peeled down to skin, her daughter stepped into the tub and nearly disappeared beneath the milky water.
“It used to be that we all looked alike,” her mother said. “All different shades of skin, and no one cared.” She took a wash cloth from the stack and handed it to Melanie. “Now, our skin is all anyone talks about.”
“Mrs. Rhodes, we don’t have much time.”
“Amelia, then. The cities will be hardest hit. Small towns like ours won’t be safe either, not for long.”
“I can assure you, James, we won’t be safe at all. My husband was clear with me. There’s one due to land right on top of us, on account of how close we are to the swamplands. You know how they say we congregate near water.”
Melanie handed the washcloth over and turned. Her mother carefully washed the mottled skin along the back of the girl’s neck.
“If there’s nowhere else to be, I’d rather be at home,” Amelia said. “Thank you, though.”
“If we can get going quick enough, we can get to the state park. It’s miles and miles of nothing. No reason to bomb that,” Mallone insisted. “We can wait it out.”
“Melanie, what did I tell you about the bombs?” her mother asked.
“A bomb is a bad thing, you said.”
“Can you explain it to Officer Mallone?”
Melanie held her hands out, framing the shape of a large circle in the air. “Imagine a balloon full of fire that falls from the sky.” Her hands dropped, down and away from her sides. “And when it hits the ground, the fire spills out.” Her fingers flickered, splashing across the top of her bathwater.
“Is it a very big fire?” her mother asked.
“Yes, it will be a very big fire.”
“Can we run away?”
“No, Mommy, we can’t. There are a lot of bombs, and they’re going to fall everywhere. There’ll be nowhere to run to.”
Her mother turned back to the officer. “My husband works for the Department of Defense,” she said.
“I know, ma’am.”
“So believe me when I say that these are not the sort of bombs you can wait out. These are the kind where everyone who could find themselves a seat on those rockets has already left the planet.”
“But that’s hardly anyone. Maybe thousands out of the whole population. They can’t really be planning to kill everyone else.”
“You said your wife was passing, Mr. Mallone.”
“Yes. I mean, she told me, early on. It was never a secret between us. But to most folks, she was just a policeman’s wife.”
“Until your children were born?”
He sighed. “Twin boys.”
“They didn’t take after your side of the family.” The way her mother said that, Melanie knew it wasn’t a question. She relaxed into the warm water again.
“No, Amelia, they did not. You could tell right away they were not like other children.”
“Except, it turns out, they were like quite a lot of other children. Some of them just didn’t show until they were older. Melanie’s coloring came in over the summer. What color did you used to be, baby?”
“Peach,” Melanie said.
“And what color are you now?”
Melanie held up one hand, softened by the bath but still faintly scaled. “I’m me colored.”
“That’s right, beautiful girl. Wash your hair.”
To Officer Mallone, her mother said, “You grew up in a world with secret soldiers and internment camps and rules and Reporting, all because two or three generations ago, some people who looked like everyone else but weren’t started marrying in. None of that worked so you really can’t believe they’d set the world on fire to see us gone for good?”
In the distance, there was a tinkle of broken glass and a faded scream.
“Your husband left you here, alone, to face this,” Mallone said. “Why would you want to stay? Please come with me.”
“My mother never told me what we were. She only said, ’Don’t marry a man with green eyes. He might not know it, but you could be related.’ I had no idea, until Melanie, that I was anything else. It’s not his fault that he married me, but his job — well, it’s hard, and he has a security clearance. Do you understand?”
“That’s not enough to make a man leave his wife and child behind. Not if he loved them.”
“They did these tests. Melanie’s blood comes from me, not him. He could keep doing the important work he was doing, or he could give it up and stay home with me. He’s a patriot, Mr. Mallone. He did what he had to do for our Country.”
“Can I get out now?” Melanie asked.
“Of course,” her mother said. The girl stepped out of the tub and let herself be wrapped in a large towel.
“I do appreciate you thinking of us, Mr. Mallone, but my mind’s made up. You can stay if you like. I think we’re going to have one more go at that cake.”
“Why did you tell her?” he asked quietly. “I can’t figure that out.”
“My girl is a runner and a climber, aren’t you Melanie?” Mrs. Rhodes asked.
“Yes,” she answered back.
“If I hadn’t told you why you needed to stay home, where would you have been today?”
“In the park, maybe. Or down by the creek; Tommy said he saw baby frogs the other day and I wanted to see them, too. Or, at Sally’s if her parents had come home.”
“See, Mr. Mallone? I didn’t have a choice if I wanted to be with her when the time came. Believe me, I would rather this had all gone another way.”
Her voice cracked at the end. Melanie offered one corner of her towel to wipe away her mother’s tears.
Officer Mallone stood in the bathroom doorway for another moment, and then left without a word.
“Which is your favorite nightgown?” Melanie’s mother asked. Downstairs, the front door clicked shut.
Melanie thought for two seconds and then announced, “The purple one.”
“That’s my favorite, too.”
Dressed for bed, Melanie sat on the couch while her mother locked the door, checked the windows. She watched while her mother picked up the pink box from the floor (“No more, Mommy, I’m full”) and put it in the kitchen.
“Which record do you think?” Mrs. Rhodes asked as she opened up the Philco. “A waltz?”
Melanie shook her head.
“How about Frankie Laine? Your father used to play this for you when you were a baby.”
The needle touched down and the record began to play.
Melanie’s mother sat down next to her on the couch, and they leaned into each other. Somewhere near them, people outside were yelling loudly. The sound of their words blended with the music, an angry staccato punctuating the crooner’s mellow voice.
“Is he on his way home now?” Melanie asked.
“Daddy. His work is done now, isn’t it?”
Her mother opened her mouth but the lights flickered. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. The lights steadied.
“I’m sure that he will be home soon,” she said finally.
“Do you miss him,” Melanie asked.
“Every minute. But I have you, and you remind me of him.”
Her mother laughed. “Yes, baby, that’s very good.”
The song changed. After a few verses, her mother began to sing along, softly. Show me that river, take me across, wash all my troubles away…
“I remember this,” Melanie said.
The windows rattled suddenly. Outside, silence fell, replaced by a strange whistling sound.
A rumble followed after, and another gust of wind, stronger than the first, slammed against the house.
“This is it, Melanie,” her mother said, grabbing her hand. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
They ran up the stairs. The pictures, framed photographs of her parent’s wedding, baby Melanie, Melanie learning to walk, her whole life rushing by in black and white, shook against the wall as they bolted past. Down the hall, into her parent’s room — her mother shut the door behind them and half-pushed, half-lifted her into the bed.
As they scrambled to get under the covers, the darkness turned gray.
Downstairs, someone banged on the front door.
“Is that Daddy? Is he home?” Melanie started to climb out but her mother grabbed her and pulled her into a hug.
“Yes, baby,” Mrs. Rhodes said. “Wait here and he’ll be right up. Close your eyes and keep them closed.”
The gray turned pale, as if the moon had winked on or the sun was rising at the wrong hour.
“Daddy really came home?” Melanie asked, her eyes clenched shut. “Are you sure?”
“Where else would he want to be? Any moment now, we’re going to be like that lucky old sun,” her mother said. “Rollin’ round heaven all day.” She held her daughter closer as the light filled the room, a bright white that burned Melanie’s eyes. Her skin itched and she cried out.
“Spend all your minutes with me, baby.” her mother whispered. “Don’t let go.”