After forcing my arms through the sleeves of my coat, I grabbed my facemask and backpack then walked over to kiss Hope and Aaron goodbye. Aaron leaned toward me, his eyes never leaving the t.v. screen, to allow me to give him a peck on the cheek.
“Bye, Dad. Love you.”
“Love you too, son.”
Hope clambered up to her knees so that she could wrap her arms around my neck. I squeezed her tight, then loosened my grip so that I could turn and plant a kiss on her temple. Her brow felt warm but dry, the fever had broken last night.
“Have a good day at work, Daddy.”
“I will. You be good and listen to your brother today, all right?”
Hope nodded then lowered herself back to the couch and rested her head on her pillow. A trio of coughs prompted her to reach for the cup of warm water with lemon that I’d placed on the table in front of her. I didn’t want her back at school yet, but couldn’t leave her home alone. I’d thought about calling in sick myself, but the longer I put off the inevitable, the worse it would get.
“You’ll be okay today?” I paused at the door, waiting for Aaron’s response.
“Of course, Dad, we’ll be fine.”
“My cell phone won’t work down there so I left the number to the Wilson’s kitchen phone on the fridge. If you need me, tell Bea to come get me, all right?”
“Yep. Number on the fridge, tell Bea. Got it.”
With no more reason to stall, I stepped out of my apartment and felt my anxiety rise with every step that I took toward the Wilson’s off-shore underwater estate.
My hands trembled as I scanned my ID at the checkpoints. By the time I reached the kitchen I’d begun to feel a bit nauseous. Bea greeted me and fed me what she could spare, knowing I barely ate at home so that the kids could have most of our rations. Through sheer willpower I managed to keep down my breakfast, it would be a crime to waste that much food.
With my coat on, I made my rounds that day, taking a bit longer than usual since my sweat-slick palms couldn’t keep a grip on my tools. They’d already switched from the artificial daytime to the dark of the ocean above by the time I’d finished my list of chores.
The timing of my departure proved providential since the Wilson’s were all inside, sitting down to dinner at the very moment that I passed through the small but thriving orchard.
Without letting myself think too much, I shrugged out of my coat and tied off the sleeves at each wrist, then I began to stuff the arms with red and green apples. When I’d taken enough to make it worth the effort, but not so much that it would be obvious that my wadded up coat under my arm was more than just that, I headed for the kitchen.
Bea glanced at my bundle and away in less time than it took me to say goodnight as she bustled around the kitchen.
“Night,” she called back. “Kiss those babies for me!”
My mouth felt dry, and it became increasingly hard to swallow as I approached the first guard. He barely looked up from the screen of his tablet to wave.
“Night, Warren,” he mumbled, then returned to his game.
“Night,” I croaked back.
Once I’d reached ground level, I stuffed my bundle into my backpack and tried to look casual as I passed through the main doors. I don’t think I took a breath until I was out of sight of that building.
As I walked toward home, I pulled my phone from my pocket and sent a text to Aaron, letting him know I was done with work but would be a little longer getting home. Once that was delivered, I sent another text, a curt message that read: Location?
Seconds later my phone buzzed and I tapped the link embedded in the message to pull up the route on my map.
Two blocks before my apartment building, I turned down a side street and my pulse began to quicken. With trepidation I approached the empty storefront whose faded numbers matched the address on the text.
What was I thinking? I wondered. Another thought came on the heels of the last, but this time it was Mary’s voice saying, You’re not going to be able to take care of the children if you’re dead.
As if sensing my hesitation, the back door opened and a broad-shouldered man in a sharp-looking business suit beckoned me inside.
“Let’s see what you’ve got.” His voice echoed in the empty room.
After he closed the door, he shook his solar flashlight and I was forced to shield my eyes as he directed the light at my face.
Turning from the beam, I slid my pack off my back and opened the main compartment. I knelt with my backpack in front of me and rested the weight against my legs so that I could removed the precious contents with both hands.
When the first shiny green apple became visible, the man reached down and snatched it before I even had time to react. I heard a crunch and then the slurping sound of him sucking the excess juice as he bit into my payment.
“Hey!” I protested, reaching for the apple.
I couldn’t go far unless I wanted to dump the rest of them. The man swatted my hand away and grinned.
“This is my cut,” he stated, leaning in toward me as he took another huge bite.
Despite my anger, my mouth began to water.
“Put the rest in that case.” With a nod of his head the man indicated the location for my deposit.
I hesitated, wondering how much of the food would actually make it to its destination. Then with a sigh, I complied.
What am I going to do? Call the police?
The man devoured every last morsel, stem, core, seeds and all, then licked the sticky juice from his fingers.
“Pleasure doing business with you,” he said with a grin, then he snapped his case closed, picked it up and left.
I made it home without incident. The children’s smiles and stories of their day pushed aside the memories of my own for a while, but that night I tossed and turned. Hunger gnawed at my belly, seeming worse than usual as the smell of sweet, ripe apple lingered in my mind. Fear gnawed at my soul.
Two more weeks, a little at a time, and my debt would be paid.
Two more weeks of stealing from the people that paid my salary.