RHINEBERRY: Chapter Five

What was that? Who was that?

Beryl Robinson pulled back the curtains that hung at a window over the garage below and watched suspiciously as two figures felt their way along the retaining wall that bordered one side of her driveway. What was going on out there?

She had driven back from the Cobble relieved that the week was nearly over, and angry that meteorologists — wherever they were: without radio or television who knew? — insisted on making every storm one of the century and scaring people to death. People were stronger than that, certainly in Rhineberry.

She had driven into the garage under the house — a simple ranch style, elevated, three bedrooms, two baths, not expensive when she’d bought it and not expensive still (damn!) thanks to the economy — got out and once more walked back to pull down the garage door — she had sat in her car that morning pushing the automatic door opener for minutes before she realized why nothing was happening — sealing the space against the snow storm already hysterically given its name: Bert.

She had pulled open the door to the stairway leading upstairs, grateful that her twelve year old, Sissy, was finally old enough to stay with the other two for a short time without supervision. For a working mother, this advance in age meant more than she could say.

Once in her kitchen, Beryl had whistled to announce herself. This had been unnecessary as the muted rumble of the garage door had been heard and within seconds two of her three children were at her side.

She peered through her curtains, still perplexed but then suddenly angry.

The girl couldn’t have been more than ten, thin and angular enough to be disturbing, her limbs bare, wearing only a dark school skirt and a white blouse and carrying a white cane. Her face was like one changed in a dream, long, with a stubborn and outsized chin, a nose that was far too large for her face and oddly-shaped: it was that of a forty-five year old man, someone brainy but too confident, too eager to correct and speak sharply.

The boy on her right followed by a step or two, his thin arm stretched out to hers. One couldn’t tell whether he was being tugged or simply holding back because he was uncertain where they were, where they were going, what they were to do. In his right hand was a pouch of some kind, like a briefcase from school. He, too, was wraithlike. His face, though, was more normal, if normal meant one who couldn’t see and perhaps might not even be able to speak, although why Beryl imagined this she couldn’t have said.

Out there in this weather!

The pair, moving haltingly but relentlessly, were right under the window now. The girl with her cane had found the front steps.

Beryl rushed to the front door. She pulled open the door and, startling the pair, spoke immediately. “What on earth? What are you two kids doing out like that? You’ll freeze. You come right on up here!”

“Who are they, Mom?” Sissy asked in a whisper, partially hiding behind her mother’s large frame.

“Never you mind, miss,” Beryl said quickly.

She tried to stop herself from behaving badly, but she was already halfway down the brick steps. God, it was cold! She reached out to put

her hands on the shoulders of her strange visitors. “Just make sure Jack’s in his room,” she called back to the house.

Beryl half-pushed, half-hauled the two children into her front hallway and quickly closed the door behind them.

“Now,” Beryl said pre-emptively, “you come right in and get warm. Whoever let you out on a day like this dressed like that should be whipped.”

The girl’s face, which Beryl could now see more clearly, was totally unlined but for a thin thread of concern running above her eyebrows.

Beryl couldn’t help but recall movies she’d seen as a teenager about pod-people, about outer-space takeovers of happy unsuspecting Midwestern towns.

The child’s jaw was thrust out from her thin neck, and tilted upward. Her chin seemed too large for her face, not necessarily combative but rather like a separate growth. It looked like a stuck-on potato newly peeled and washed, growing independently of the rest of her face. smooth, slippery, out of scale with her age. Her eyes, hidden behind dark glasses (Beryl wondered immediately if they were real), seemed to panic, jerking in one direction and then another, uncontrollably.

The boy never let go of the girl’s hand. He stood stock still, but shivering. He wore navy-blue shorts and a white shirt with a clip-on tie. His dark hair stood straight up from the back of his head, whether blown there or growing that way. He seemed to be humming to himself.

“Explain yourselves,” Beryl demanded, even as she ushered them into her warm kitchen — warmth being comparative in the blackout.

Neither spoke. Beryl let go of their shoulders and opened her refrigerator to get some milk which she immediately poured into a sauce pan to heat. She reached for chocolate chip cookies at the same time.

“Where do you come from?” she asked, bringing her own prosecutorial tone down half a notch.

“My name is Laurie,” said the girl finally, in a high other-worldly sing-song. ‘This is Danny, my brother.”

“But where do you live? Who brought you here?”

“We go all over,” said Laurie, “telling people about Salvation.”

“Salvation?”

“Yes, it’s what we see even though we can’t see. It’s where we’re going when this life passes.”

“But how old are you?” Beryl demanded.

“I’m ten, Danny’s nine.”

“And where do you live when you’re not saving people?”

Beryl had the hot milk in mugs and chocolate chips cookies on the small kitchen table by now, and she knew the aromas could be sensed.

Sissy and now Delia took up stations in a corner, watching wide-eyed.

“You’re very kind,” Laurie chanted, reaching tentatively in the direction of the warming treats. “You’ve probably already met Christ.”

“Who brought you here?” Beryl asked. “Are there others like you walking around cold, miserable, so badly dressed?”

“They don’t mind,” Laurie sang without accent, reaching to the mug for warmth but not yet drinking.

“I mind!” Beryl objected.

Jack, aged six, slipped into the kitchen. “Mom, there’s a car idling out there.”

Beryl went quickly to the window to look. A black SUV, a big one, was sitting at the curb. After a second, it moved very slowly onward, out of sight.

“You stay right here!” Beryl commanded her children. “I’ll be back.”

She grabbed her parka and left the house, half-running down the drive. The SUV was idling again, just around the corner, nearly out of sight. Beryl took a big breath and approached it quickly. “Hello?” she said, raising her voice. “Hello?”

A man, dark, with sharp, very thin features and lips, perhaps forty and dressed warmly enough in boots, jeans and parka, rolled down the driver’s window. Beryl moved right up close.

“Are you running these kids?” she asked.

“Pardon me?”

Beryl didn’t like him at all. He hadn’t shaved; he had a burning cigarette in one hand. His eyes were red-rimmed.

“You heard me,” she said, trying to keep her anger under control. “Are you running these kids in this weather, sending them out to beg?”

“They’re not begging,” the man explained easily. “They’re sharing the Word of God.”

“And freezing at the same time,” Beryl added. “This is inhuman.”

The man shrugged and flipped his cigarette into the street. “Send them out, if you want. Send them back.”

“Where do you keep them?” Beryl demanded. “How many kids are you running?”

The man stretched for the gear-shift. “We’re legal, lady,” he said.

“You’re heartless,” Beryl returned.

But whether he heard what she said or not she couldn’t tell for he put pressure on the gas pedal and drove quickly away.

Beryl was not at a loss. She memorized the license plate number.

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