He’d needed them to be afraid of him because they’d needed to be afraid of him; because for as much shining trust as there was in the babies’ eyes, as much as the nervous shyness faltered and fell away from the younger children, the older children and Kitty and Toadie all knew that even if they could trust him now, that had been an uphill climb, statistically improbable, against all the odds; and even then it was one man against a sea of millions of deployed White bodies with guns and bombs and shrapnel and knives and teeth and hands and harsh words barked out to harsh men that could all tear you apart and kill you and leave you in the dust without even meaning anything to them, not even a backwards glance.
Toadie hadn’t looked back.
Explosion. Bomb. Tank. Blood. Guts– maybe. Pieces of faces– maybe. Pieces of hands. The smell. Tumbling, tumbling, tumbling, broken bones shaken loose and shifted into the wrong place and a wall of cold decay too-soft too-stiff crawling, crawling, crawling loose. The medics. The medicine. The medicine! The crowd and dissolving into it like foam back into the ocean because he wasn’t going back to that even if it (when it) (would it?) kill him. (Please let it kill him.)
Even that the older kids, long before Kitty did, trusted him enough not to watch him constantly– even though Toadie knew what he was and was not willing to do, knew very well that was a different thing than what he could do and could watch done when he couldn’t do it himself– that all of his escape routes from them did not involve these other men he had run from himself, or the self he was still running from– they couldn’t know that, and shouldn’t depend on it, or on him, any further than they absolutely needed to.
That fear and mistrust could and would save their lives.
The first time it had really hit home for Toadie– the first time he could remember, anyway, fragments of memory strung together like morse code, patterns emerging out of emotional impact– they had all already taken turns keeping watching sleeping, carrying food, that sort of thing. Stuff that was of mutual benefit, so Toadie brushed it aside, because he was just as well off with someone else ready to wake him while he slept if something happened as they were being able to sleep without needing to keep one eye open themselves. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Sharing needles with the woman, with Kitty (he’d remembered her hands, sleek and quick even bruised and scraped and torn, and quick without striking the children, even panicked and half-dragging them by their shirts– there had been an abundance of panic in those days), had even made sense, that he could steal clean syringes out of military tents without anyone giving him a second glance, with his pale skin and flashing blue eyes, that she got a fresh injection she could trust without having to put herself or the kids at risk, that he would’ve been using whatever he could find anyway and it didn’t matter to him if he got sick off a dirty needle, but, hell, only one other person using it sounded good to him. He could excuse a lot.
He could’ve just gone in, shown them his dog tags, shown them he hadn’t died in the dust and gravel like so many men had, like the men in his Jeep; they would’ve given him the medicine, but then they would’ve taken it away, and they would’ve sent him back out to tear more children apart and laugh in photos with other men tearing children apart and this was better and easier and quieter to have a hole someplace and a way to scrape his fix out of it.
He’d used a lot of dirty needles before he left. It hadn’t mattered, getting sick, until it did. But then there were new drugs and new needles and new targets to tear apart and nothing really mattered by that point, did it?
But one day Kitty had… left. She’d gone off to market, someplace, straining to pull together a few paltry coins to buy something for one of the kids’ birthdays, he’d gathered after the fact– he remembered because it had struck him how few they’d had altogether, he had felt so old– but she was gone and he had all these damn children and she was deaf so he couldn’t hardly holler after her and it would attract the wrong kind of attention, other soldiers less inclined to watch the backs of trusting little girls and little boys than to watch for an abandoned house, a truck, an alley to take part of them away forever. Toadie knew what soldiers did. Toadie was a soldier. No. Good soldiers followed orders. Good soldiers were happy to follow orders. So Toadie was not a soldier, not a good one, at least, but he’d rather be what he’d become than what he’d seen other “good soldiers” turn into, so– he hid.
He hid with them until they’d heard Kitty coming back, and she came back to an empty street corner where the children had been. She’d panicked (panic) until Toadie gave them all a sign to come out from where they were hidden on rooves, in barrels, and he’d shaken her. He’d screamed and she couldn’t hear him but he screamed until the screaming cut his throat, and he’d shaken her and Kitty had seemed tearful and afraid at first until the children explained everything. And she should’ve stayed afraid. But even then, she hadn’t. The children had misunderstood, they hadn’t explained it right– how could they?– but they had to– he’d been worried for Kitty, yes, yes, but he was more worried that she would have trusted him with her siblings, more worried what that could have meant, worried that anyone would trust him, period.
The children had mimed it to him, when they’d first met; he assumed, like many people did, that Kitty was a very young wartime mother, their father dead or jailed or tortured or drafted like so many others. But their mother was dead. Kitty was all they had left when the soldiers came, and when the soldiers took her and she came back bloodied and afraid, they had turned to anyone who would help them, even another soldier.
She hadn’t let him lead them to the mobile hospital, and Toadie had been fine with that. He had ducked, like they did, into the shadows when they heard other soldiers coming; he had edged away from the medical tents and the smell of iodine; and that and Kitty’s own need were the only reasons she’d gone with him.
After that, it had only been a matter of time. One day, some army unit of strangers– not Toadie’s country, not Toadie’s colors, foreign even to him– had started “clearing out” the street they’d been squatting in the eaves of a storefront on, with the usual methods. One of them had a bayonet, the only possible reason being that he liked using it. (He could hear superior officers’ voices in his ears even then: healthy outlets, men need to vent, don’t make the fuckin’ news.) They were loud, boisterous. Possibly inebriated, like Kitty, like Toadie himself, to a lesser degree, having shared their supply equally, though she was smaller. Possibly not. It mattered. Would they come one on one, would they come in a crowd, would they be systematic, would they give up easily. How easily was easily. How easily was easily for Toadie, for the skinny boy with the limp, for the girl with the easily snatched hair. For all of them together, or split up.
The soldiers had been nearly ten meters away when Toadie’s mind cleared enough to figure out what needed to happen; this, he’d remembered clearly, intense colors, deep contrasts, shadows darker than black and blinding whites and the feeling of other people’s breath on him, the heat against his back and his pulse in his ears and listening for anything and everything in the world at once. Shaking awake a woman still coasting on her high, brought crashing down as she panicked, panicked, panicked, panicked trying to count off children. Toadie made sure the older kids watched their younger siblings’ backs, that none of them were alone, that they all knew how to hide, small, quiet. Be forgotten by these men. Be forgettable. Be unnoticed.
He couldn’t begin to tell them not to help, if they heard their siblings screaming, even if it would save their lives; and he wouldn’t. He would have turned back for his own brother, he had, a few times, seen the phantom of his memory of Fish walking the streets, and tried to give chase.
Toadie grew out a beard, as best as he could, let his hair start to grow shaggy and long, hiding Fish from his own face.
He couldn’t begin to know how to tell them to run from any White men they saw, even him, especially him– because if they thought it was him, and they were wrong– if the ways they knew him were his Whiteness, his blondness, his blue eyes and Army knife and Army boots, his cocksure swagger or stealthy creep, those weren’t his alone. They were borrowed. They were tools of a lethal breed, and Toadie was as trained a predator as they were. He could help them, God, he could try, but they should never have trusted him, they should never have trusted him, they should just run from everything about him and hope they were faster than he’d ever managed to be.
When they regrouped, three streets down and several winding blocks West, they’d counted off again. One of the youngest had been lost in the hustle and bustle. One of the boys trying to hold back the oldest girl, sobbing, from tearing back down the street to find them. It had been an easy decision. Toadie was bigger, stronger, faster, more likely to fight, when he knew he would need to, more likely to survive fighting. And she… was old enough to be a target. All of them were, really, but fewer soldiers would feel bad about it, at her age, with these fast little Indian girls looking older than they were, and the too-old panic in their eyes. That’s how they would justify it to themselves afterwards, he knew, they may have been doing already, three streets up, several winding blocks East. So it had been easy. Even finding the kid; Toadie knew all of their favorite hiding places, had pointed them out each time they found a new spot to settle, for a while, here is where you can fit, here is where I will look for you if you are lost. The decision had felt like the smoothest thing in the world, a natural progression of the plan to move them all in the first place.
And then. The child had seen boots. The child had seen smooth footsteps. The child, excited, had wriggled out from under the bags of beans and spices they’d shoved themselves between, hands open and face smiling until they’d seen a different man’s face looming over them, not smiling back, pulling out a long, harsh knife. The man laughing. It wasn’t a nice laugh. It was the kind of laugh people have when someone falls down in a movie, and it’s not them, and the person who fell wasn’t real, and the person laughing would forget them when the movie ended.
She’d run inside. This wasn’t a movie. She didn’t want it to be a movie. She wanted to go home. She wanted to be real. There were no other doors in the shop. Only a few sad rows of dry food goods, split and spilled on the floor for the child to slip and trip on, blood already spilled on the floor from the man splitting an unfortunate shopkeeper over the counter while the child had been hiding. The man’s boots were close behind. The rubber soles on the wet grains of rice on the floor had sounded like a kind of laughing.
She’d been lucky. Toadie was around the corner already. He grappled with the man, taken a cut to the face, a gash across the nose, another over the eyebrow, and a stab to the shoulder before wrestling the blade away and giving it back to the soldier in the gut, then breaking his neck. He’d had to tell the baby to cover their eyes; hide in a shelf. After the scuffle, they were attracting the wrong kind of attention. He’d had to take her into one of the many open sewer grates lining the road, hide out until the soldier’s unit stopped moving, loud, angry, killing more refugees in retaliation for what he’d done. Once Toadie stopped hearing them from all directions, they walked, and walked, past the underground’s inhabitants, past more bodies, past the refuse of the refuse, Toadie carrying the child nearly a mile before re-emerging out of the pipes. They traced a circuitous path twice as far, taking twice as long as usual to avoid leaving a bloody trail, or being seen, to the meeting point with Kitty, and the other children. They’d all been waiting, and Toadie had collapsed after entering the empty lean-to. When he woke up, Kitty had patched him us as best she could, the children were all hovering around him to touch him, hold his hand, hug him, and Kitty was staring at him with something like reverence.
But all he could think was that they’d have been safer if they’d never felt safe with him to begin with. If there had been no military here, or if there were, that he had never had anything of them in him that would put this family in danger.
Toadie kept tabs on other foreigners more closely after that, paying attention to the aid groups handing out flyers to streetwalkers, missionaries and chaplains and Red Cross volunteers, never able to stray more than three feet away from any of the Patils at any given time with their renewed devotion to him, making mental notes just the same. He finally found a brochure he was looking for, found a woman in a white uniform who could give him details about it, talking with her without the children growing suspicious, under the pretext of scouting for a new place to stay, as he’d done before. (He was the one most likely to come out of bad areas intact or to come out of areas that would be bad for the rest of them alive at all. He’d always found them a new place. Always. This was no exception.)
Toadie walked with the Patils all the next day, weird sideways routes, strange doublings-back, shaking his head at every suggestion the children made, putting up a finger for them to wait. There was a lonely road, over a few lonely hills, that they slept next to that night, and Toadie promised there was a place beyond there, food, shelter. He hadn’t lied; they walked all day the next day as well, and there… was an institution. Kitty had looked betrayed, appalled, horrified, thinking it was another hospital, prepared to grab the kids and run before they had pieces of their bodies cut out, before they were bled dry into the streets for money or on a whim or for someone’s idea of fun (not like her, not them, not them) until Toadie had strolled in by himself first, brought out a woman who spoke fluent Hindi and who could sign at Kitty that they were safe, her hands not moving as smoothly or poetically as Kitty’s, but the same language, the same gestures of the wrist and fingers.
It was a children’s home, a kind of orphanage. They could stay. All of them could stay. And it was a miracle, and a blessing, and they had all been so grateful, until Toadie had ruffled the kids’ hair, squeezed Kitty’s hand and gave her a long, strange look. And after getting them all inside, seated, with food and water, he walked away with the strange woman whose hands moved like awkward birds– and the woman came back, and Toadie didn’t.
He’d gone straight out to the road, disappeared into the now morning-busy streets, and Kitty hadn’t seen him again.
It would be easier for them, this way.
Toadie didn’t look back.