Troops

By Kyle Ellingson

    He came awake in that one bloated room they all shared. Mister was moving about the floor, his footsteps pronounced on the hardwood. A duffel bag in hand. A jacket across his back and the hat he always wore to the track propped atop his head. He stood in the slanted light of the morning moon and counted money from a roll of bills and pinned them under a ceramic ashtray. Mister saw him and raised a pointer finger, and kissed it.

    "They're allowed to sleep. I'll be back tonight."

    At the curb, one of Mr. Wall's cars. Mister heard it too, and cleared the room with a sweep of quiet noises. He watched Mister pitch the duffel into the backseat and climb in after.

     When the sun surfaced the rooflines to the east, and light broke into the little room, he woke the other children. They stretched their limbs like kittens. He washed the youngest in the sink. No diaper. He tore a strip of threadbare blanket and rewrapped his brother.

     The others drank water from collected plastic cups. When they all fell to sleeping again he covered himself in a coat and took the bills and walked down the block to the grocers. He bought eggs and brick cheese and three packets of tortillas on sale.

     On the opposing streetside he collected the mail from the post and waited for traffic to wave him back across. There was a woman in black shorts and leggings and a shortjacket exhaling smoke outside the apartment entrance. "Does Mr. Wall own this place?"

           "Yes."

           "Who's living here?"

            "We're only allowed to know Mr. Wall's name."

    The woman nodded and stuffed her cigarette against the side of the building.

           "You aren't allowed in," he said.

           "C'mon kid, one of mine is up there."

     He found the keyhole and turned. "You signed a contract. You can't take them."

     The woman crossed her left hand into the fold of her right elbow and traced her fingernails through the morning air. "I wasn't planning on taking her."

    Upstairs, he hung the bag of groceries plumb out the window, pinching the plastic handles in the pane as he levered it shut. He watched the woman moving about the floor, looking down at the bodies as they slept.

           "Carlie?" she said. Nothing moved. She faced him. "I don't know which one's mine."

           He pointed her to the door.

     Later, as the sun rolled beyond the last edge of window, Mister returned. He had cigarettes. He distributed them and lit them and the room filled with smoke. "These are from Mr. Wall, everyone. He wants you to know that he loves you."

    At midnight he awoke to a pounding at the door. Mister got up and lit a candle, and answered. A woman in a longcoat stepped into the room carrying a bundle of cloth. In the upcast light her face appeared like a djinn's. She looked at the bodies lying in blankets, under rugs. "Is this it?" she said.

    "Yes," Mister said. "It's enough. They know they're loved."

    She rotated the bundle into Mister's arms. He checked its teeth and made it cry. "Its lungs are healthy."

     The woman's eyes lingered about the floor and corners of the room. "There're so many of them. Are they all-"

      "Mr. Wall's? Yes." Mister squatted low, situating the newborn amidst a landscape craggy with limbs, those nests where children lay huddled, chests to their knees. Fingers in their mouths. "You must understand," Mister said, "Mr. Wall is building an army."