On a shelf above my bench was a plastic basin that contained my few possessions. I reached up and took it down, taking advantage of the lamplight to examine the worn-rough ridge of the plastic, the frayed rope handles. I imagined my mom's and my sister's fingers on them.
Most of the boys paid their keep by hunting rodents and mon-keys out of the bush that Monsieur Tatagani could sell to the market vendors. When they had a good day we'd eat the extra meat, but usually Monsieur Tatagani boiled up rice, shallow wooden bowlfuls for which he'd add a few francs to our debt. Whoever returned last got the sludge at the bottom, a cooked-down rice water that was gray and foamy. It looked like what you'd get if you milked a monster, but it was plentiful and filled the belly. I took a plastic bag from a hook on the wall and held the snipped-off tip to my lips. Some of the cooled dregs dribbled into my mouth, and I swallowed them and then some more.
Back when my mother had been alive, dinner had been fruit and a heavy slice of manioc bread, eaten at a sloping wooden table overlooking our field. My father was a road builder and almost always far away, laying pavement. There was never a lot to eat, but there was always enough, because when none of our crops were ready we'd find a neighbor who'd harvested. Other times we'd return the favor, so there was usually company at our table. When my mother got sick and my sister stopped growing, we had to move to Franceville for its hospital. I was too young to work, so I'd beg meals from the few family members we had here. But they were my father's family, and it had been years since he'd last been seen. Once they gave up on him, they gave up on me, and my meals became bar scraps and the milk of the monster.
I didn't usually allow myself to stew on the time when my parents had been around, but that night had been so strange between Prof and the metal briefcase and the calls I thought I'd heard from the mock men that I was cracked open. As I lay on the bench, I wished that my mother could place a blanket over me, like she'd once done. But she was gone. Even the blanket was gone. So instead I lay my arm across Pierre, blanketing him.
What I needed most was to get some sleep. But all I could think about was the metal briefcase and what it would look like placed alongside the rest of my possessions inside the plastic basin. Its four corners would just nest inside. Once that basin had held my sister, until she'd stopped growing and shrunk to nothing instead. Tomorrow it would hold this different treasure. Making soft tuck-tuck sounds, I turned the basin in a slow circle, the way I'd once done to coax Carine into sleep. I stopped only when Pierre fidgeted.
I allowed myself to dream. In my new life I could use whatever the case held to buy a hut and a plot of land. Once I had that, I could pay Pierre's debt and he could live with me. Or maybe my father, once he heard I was set up somewhere, would finally return. I could have a family.
Usually I was woken by the clatter of Monsieur Tatagani rummag-ing through the kitchen pans, grumbling about his hangover. But today I woke to silence, which was worse.
I drew in my legs and sat up as quietly as I could. I was sore all along my back, my tight muscles pulling me into a curve. As I sat up my head hit the shelf, and without thinking I shushed, hoping my sister wouldn't make noise.
I must have forced Pierre off the bench during the night he was now lying on his usual spot on the floor. I crept over to the housedress and peered around it.
A creature was in the doorway a monkey with a silver body and a black face. Hand against the mud wall, he was peering in, the dingy dress-curtain piled on his head.
Excerpted from Threatened by Eliot Schrefer. Copyright © 2014 by Eliot Schrefer. Excerpted by permission of Scholastic. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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