“To make a statement, we need explosives, a detonator, and someone who is willing to blow himself to smithereens.” The Professor’s smile winks in the tobacco-shrouded gloom of a cellar somewhere in Boston. “Obviously the last resource is the rarest and most expensive.”
William scuffs his shoe in the sand and eyes the sign over the Reformed Presbyterian Church spring Bake Sale. His expression is one of hunger, and disgust, and hopelessness.
“Our target is the male between fourteen and twenty,” the professor’s voice grates, “jobless, mentally immature.”
William looks into his wallet, sees that it is empty, and throws it angrily on the ground, swearing loud enough that mothers with babies jerk away from him. That fact might make him feel better, but there is a tightness in William’s chest that makes breathing difficult and turns his manly cursing into pitiful, asthmatic wheezing. Ashamed, William bends and retrieves his wallet. His bus tokens are in there.
The Professor ticks the points off on his fingers. “No money, no girl, can’t take care of his family. He wants to find a job, but…” Light from the single overhead bulb flashes white off the palms of the Professor’s hands as he holds them out in a shrug.
A surly frown on his face, focused on his constricted breathing and the ruined ground in front of him, William slouches toward the bake sale tables. Maybe he can steal something.
“He joins our cause because he has nothing better to do.”
“You look lost, son.” The woman behind the piles of cookies, brownies, and cakes is in her fifties and as wrinkled as a smiling apple. She holds out a brownie wrapped in a piece of oil-paper and William takes it. “No work today?”
“No,” he says. “Not today.” It is impossible for him to hide how hungry he is as he bites into the confection. Not just beet sugar and brown coloring. Could that be the taste of real chocolate? “Shit this is good.”
“Language!” The grandma barks, then settles back onto her stool, smiling. “A young man needs money to keep his family healthy, isn’t that right?”
His family. William winces. He promised his mother he would bring something home today.
“So we give them something to do,” says the Professor in his cellar, not very far away from where William stands, “and we give them a way to become the men of their households.”
The grandmother’s practiced eyes run over the gawky boy in front of her. The acne, the squint, the gawky bulges of knees and elbows on undernourished limbs, the stooped shoulders and labored breathing of a childhood spent inhaling coal dust.
“You know, I see a lot of young men like you,” she settles comfortably onto her stool as children run around her and large-eyed young mothers whisper to each other. “Good boys, but they don’t know what to do. Now that the Demons have taken over, what is there for them to do?” She forks the sign of the devil at the sky.