The Harvest of Young Minds
By Dolores J. Nurss
“I hope to God we’re doing the right thing,” Consuelo Terco said, shaking her head over the files.
Her brother replied, “Isn’t the only thing the right thing?”
The teenager rolled under the renewed fire, scrambled behind a cluster of garbage cans, and caught his breath, adjusting his much-taped glasses and flipping the black curls out of his eyes. Footsteps pounded down the alley towards him, but he could not resist taking one more glance at his loot. “Morgoth’s Ring!” he breathed. “I’ve wanted it forever!”
He shoved the book into his jacket and came out firing. They sent darts after him, but he returned bullets. He heard cries; he didn’t wait to see blood. He ran for it, everything blurred down to instinct, the gray alley whipping by till he made it out to the street, then ran dodging through the traffic while tires screeched and drivers cursed. He spared one shot into the air to scare the good folks into getting out of his way, then made it into a coffeeshop.
“Nobody’s getting robbed today!” he cried out as patrons screamed and dived under tables, the smell of spilled coffee pungent on the air. But he held the gun high for all to see anyway, and his lankiness made it higher still. “Lucky you!” He ran between the tables. “Just mind your own business and let me mind mine. Now where’s the damned back door?” A whey-faced barrista pointed and he went that way. He came out in a different alley, and ducked immediately into another shop’s back door, locked it behind him, then finally sagged against it, breathing heavily. It made no sense. People usually didn’t take book thefts this seriously.
He found himself in a storeroom full of boxes of unidentified inventory. He sat down on one, and leafed through the front of the book, looking for autographs or anything else that might make it pricier than expected, then slapped himself on the forehead. “Posthumous works don’t get autographs!” Only then did he allow himself to feel the hunger shaking in him this whole time, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten for days. “Can’t think like this,” he muttered. Again he pushed the long, tangled curls back behind his glasses, shoved the book back into his jacket, and rose to his feet, looking around himself. Over there–that looked like a refrigerator, next to a card table and a microwave. Somebody ate regularly on the premises.
The owner of the shop watched from the inside door, unseen. The youth’s hard face had softened in its weariness and need, looking at once childlike and old, in the glow of the opened refrigerator. She saw, framed by the dirty black curls and underneath the chipped glasses, a hooked nose and all-too-prominent cheekbones. He bore a scar on one brow, a more complicated one on the left hand, and a nick in his ear that looked like someone had pulled out an earring the hard way. The sleeves and pants-cuffs of his threadbare garb no longer fit his length, but it concerned her that the waistband still seemed to fit just fine, and in fact his tight-cinched belt pulled in ripples of loose fabric.
He saw her as he carried her tofu and wild rice salad to the table. He froze, staring at the old woman.
“Sit down. Eat.” She noticed a slight limp as the boy, very cautiously, continued to the table and did as told. “Who are you?”
Unexpectedly, he grinned. “Robin Royale, at your service.” He nodded to her in lieu of a bow, before gobbling down food. With his mouth full he added, “But you can call me Rob Roy. Everybody does.”
She dimpled. “What a charming alias! Inventive, even.” He did not correct her, yet tensed when she approached the table herself. “Don’t mind me. Keep on eating. I have hours till noon to buy myself another lunch. Would you like tahini sauce on that? It’s in the side door of the fridge.” She saw the gun, then, in its holster, but only paused for a second. “Would you like me to get it for you?”
He nodded. “Thank you, Ma’am.”
Reaching into the fridge, and pointedly not watching the gun-toting kid while she did so, she remarked, “I like Middle-Eastern flavors. Do you?”
He nodded when he took the tahini from her hand and poured it onto his food. “I should. I am Middle-Eastern. But I like anything edible.” At her raised brow and smile he said, a little defiantly, “I’m half Israeli, half Palestinian, okay? My mother fled to the States after Dad got killed. Then somebody killed her. I don’t think it had to do with her race, though. Not here.” Almost inaudibly he muttered, “Not sure which one she was, anyway.” He pulled himself up as though proud. “I’m ‘a wild ass of the desert’, Ma’am, and all hands are against me.” Then he stuffed his mouth full of food again, like the hungry boy he was.
Interesting quote, she thought. A literate rascal, if nothing else. She pulled up another chair. “So you’re on your own, now. How long?”
He shrugged, talking with his mouth full. “Dunno. Hardly ‘member m’parents.”
“What about foster parents?”
He gave her an incredulous grin, shook his head, and kept on eating. Finally he allowed, “Sometimes,” in between mouthfuls.
She sighed and said, “You’re going to rob me, aren’t you?”
He froze. “I don’t hurt sweet little old ladies.” Then he gobbled his food faster.
“Yet you will rob me, as painlessly as you can manage. You don’t have any other way to get by, do you?”
He had the grace to blush, and his eyes had the hurt look of something wild just now shot. But again, he did not contradict her.
“Just don’t tie me up,” she muttered, disgusted with the world to the verge of tears. “I have circulation problems. Cash register’s up front in plain sight.” She threw the key onto the table.
But as he reached for it, his eyes widened and she saw a dart sticking out of his neck. Snarling, he whipped out his gun and fired at the woman–no, past her, over her shoulder at people rushing in through the inside door, faceless behind mirror-visored helmets, their bulletproof shields before them, gleaming like so many machines. Riccochets flew and she dived under the table, skinning her knee. Of all the absurd things she could only think, for a moment, about how slowly old skin healed and how angry that made her.
A woman’s voice asked, “You okay, Ma’am?” A gloved hand helped her out. Whoever hid under all of that body armor did not look at all like a woman, or like anything.
“He’s contained now, Ma’am. Sorry you had to find yourself in the crossfire. But you’re safe, now.” She saw the unconscious youth that other gloved hands strapped into a stretcher, drugged darts still sticking from him here and there. Somehow when they slipped off his glasses into a plastic pouch, it made him look younger still, almost harmless.
“You ought to be careful,” she said, and realized the absurdity of her words even as she spoke. “An underweight kid like that–drugging could hurt him.”
“Oh, we’ll take good care of this package, Ma’am. Never fear.”
And that’s when she realized that the body armor belonged to no uniform that she recognized, police or otherwise. Her heart beat painfully fast as she turned to the visor and said, “I won’t say a word to anyone. Bullet holes–if anybody asks, I’ll just glare. Women my age know how to do that, you know, shut the questions up.”
The helmet nodded. “Good. I think I can trust you. Of course, if I can’t, we’ll find out.” And they left with the boy, and the old woman sat down before the half-finished meal, and didn’t answer the bell ringing for customer service, hours later, up front.
“Not always,” Consuelo answered her brother. “Maybe there’s some other answer out there, that we’re just too stupid to see.”
“Then maybe they will help us find it.”
“After we traumatize them?”
“What’s one more trauma in lives like theirs?”
“The last straw, maybe?”