Gum parked across the street and three cars before the house. They sat deep in their seats, hats low. The air turned into the usual heaviness that came with the slight tension in their muscles.
Gum watched the house and its dark windows, looking for movement. He was familiar with the contours and how it breathed night and day as he had been watching it for awhile. That morning, the family’d left for a trip somewhere. Packed suitcases in the car, clean coats over clean clothes and clean shoes. All four drove away, the dad, the two kids, and her on the wheel.
The streetlights shone on the parked cars and sidewalk. Apart from the slightly moving leaves, the place looked clean.
He was eleven when she first came to the hole. Couldn’t look more out of place than she had, and she sure knew it too. That skirt and white shirt. No one has a white shirt, at least not anymore. She was tense, scaredy eyes though she tried to smile to cover it up. She didn’t know they were closer to animals than humans in that dump, and animals can smell fear from miles.
He was called over with six others kids. They were to take a trip, have fun. She was sent by a charity, people who were slightly luckier than them wanted to share the fruits of their hard work. So was it luck or was it hard work? They couldn’t make up their mind. The kids were whisked off for an awkward-as-hell day trip.
Went to the department store only for her to realise that they’d dirty all those clothes trying them on, so she took them to the public bath. He tried to run away, twice, unsuccessfully. She then knelt and asked for his name. He replied by popping a gum to her face.
“Right, I shall call you Gum then.” Something seemed to change in her, she was no longer scared.
The soap smelled funny, he was sure he wouldn’t be able to sneak up on anyone with that smell sticking to him. That did not make him happy. She told everybody to scrub clean, but they spent more time flinging soap at each other than cleaning themselves. The janitor also did not look happy when they left. She knelt and dried them with the towels one by one like chickens, scrubbed so hard and thorough that they left like overcooked crabs.
They each got a makeover, hair cut, new shirts. The trip ended with a treat, ice cream. He won’t complain about those. But even that wasn’t worth the consequences. There were more than seven kids in the hole. Guess what happens when these seven lucky dwarves goes back to the forest? Don’t touch baby hamsters with your hands.
She came six more times, once a month with the same rituals and the same funny smelling soap in the public bath. He was ‘lucky’ each time, it was purely his fault. Since he popped the gum, she remembered the name and looked for him. The other kids snickered and teased him for it and started calling him Gum too. Like the candy, the name stuck to him stubbornly.
On the sixth trip, she told them she won’t be coming again. Something’s changing in the organisation and direction — not that he knew what that meant. Hearing that, he jumped up and shouted, “Praise the Lord!” To which she just looked guilty. Served her right. He hated her more that day.
These people thought them some social experiment. If they come and clean them up once a month, give them new clothes and shoes and book and whatnot, would that up their luck? Would the kids turn into proper people? They all knew the answer to that. Some things soap can’t clean.
Years after, he tracked her down. For curiosity. She lived in a decent house with a husband and two cute kids. Kids that probably smelled good all the time not just once a month. Husband seemed the loyal type, too. The younger goes to ballet classes three times a week and the older’s a nerd who stays at home.
Meanwhile, she worked at the local car dealer. Came home at three each day, with the kids picked up from school. By six they’re all clean and she would be cooking dinner. He wondered if she scrubbed her kids hard with the towels and if she bought them ice cream each month.
When he, Lomo and Ez racked their brains out for a new target, he’d offered her house. They would have a decent amount of valuables inside. He was already familiar with the house and the family’s schedule. She’s had seven years of being lucky and enjoying her fruits, it was time.
As it happened, spring break came for the kids, and the timing fell into place. He saw them leave for their vacation and called Lomo and Ez that night.
He left his car with the key inside for a quick getaway and they crept around the back of the house, each carrying a backpack for the goods and a knife to force open locked doors.
Lomo was a wiz with keyholes so it took him only a minute to open the door. There were no alarms, the family were well off but not filthy rich. That was good, you don’t want to mess with the filthy riches. The three crept in the darkness and split, each with a room in mind as they’ve planned.
Gum took the stairs to the second level, he passed the kids’ rooms. He caught a glimpse of the comfy-looking bed and the lack of trash around the room. One, must be the elder kid, had a console. So he put it in his pack. The younger didn’t have anything of interest in her room. He walked the corridor to the bathroom.
A minute later, a scream, then a muffled sound. He ran downstairs, to the kitchen, wincing against the lights.
Ez looked back at him, his eyes darted in what was half-panic and half-horror.
“You.. you said they all left. I dunno, she.. she came, turned the lights and started screaming. I.. I.. Shit we didn’t plan for this.”
Behind him, she knelt, holding her stomach with a knife protruding. Ez pulled his knife out. Her eyes wider as she felt it slide. Her blood gushed out like an open faucet. She slumped down. Ez started cursing and he, too. Lomo came and added his own in the background.
“Go,” Gum said.
“What? Okay, okay let’s go. Shit! SHIT!”
“I mean you guys go. Now. Take the car.”
“Whut? We’re not leaving with you, man? What’re you gonna do? She’s dying.” Lomo was ever the voice of reason.
“I can see that. Just get the fuck out of here. GET! OUT! Call emergency for me.”
Ez backed away and then to his relief they ran out the back door.
Gum dropped his pack and the bar of soap he held in his hand. He slid on his knees to her side and lifted her head on his lap as he spoke to himself, “Thought it was empty. Didn’t know. You were here..”
Her eyes fluttered open. She creased her eyebrows. “You.. Gum?” She shuddered with every intake. Her eyes glazed in mixed emotions.
He did not look away or say another word. They gazed at each other as their breaths slowed and the night grew colder.
Gum cradled the closest thing he had to a mother as she left him, again.
Thank you for reading.