The bed was empty at last. Julia stood in the doorway staring blankly at the neat, clean sheets. For a long moment she didn't know what to do next. It had been so long since she had seen a bed that didn't contain a sweating, writhing figure struck down by the mysterious fever that had appeared out of the blue.
For the last three months it had been a ceaseless battle against the illness. Julia had been one of the earliest casualties and her survival had been taken as a sign of hope at first but, as the death toll mounted, hope too had died. The mortality rate was literally unbelievable, In their small community of 200 people only 3 had lived. The epidemic had hit in high summer, the hottest part of the year making it difficult to lower the soaring fevers. Hospitals had stopped admitting new patients after the first week. The T.V. had gone off in the first month, The radio and the electricity supply had lasted a little longer. Finally, the taps had gone dry.
Now, as she finally stood still, Julia could hear children playing in the garden and, miraculously, laughing.
Unbelievable That happy sound torn though her brain and she staggered back, turning to run down the stairs to the sanity of the kitchen. Mona looked up as Julia entered.
“Heard 'em. Hey?”
“Yes” Julia choked in reply.
“Bin there on and off for an hour now” Mona said, “ Makes ya wonder, don't it.”
“Where have they come from?”
“How should I know? Just turned up and started playin' like they belonged”
“ Did you ask?”
“Aye. Didn't get no answer though. They just looked at me then turned and went outside.”
“ How many are there?”
“'Bout a dozen all told. I guess there'll be more comin'.”
With that Mona turned away and started washing the sheets. Glancing back over her shoulder she said “ Put some more water on t' boil, then y'ad better go git some more food.”
Dazed, Julia did as she was told, picking up the bucket yoke and heading out to the well. As she drew near where the children were playing they froze and turned to watch her with silent intensity.
“Hello” Julia said, “ I'm getting some water, would you like to help?”
Without even glancing at each other, the two eldest looking, boys of about 12, moved towards the well where they stood waiting, still in eerie silence. Julia smiled at the other children and moved on to the well.
“Thanks for helping.”
She got a nod in reply and the boys moved simultaneously, one helping her lower the yoke, the other starting to wind the well handle, raising the bucket.
“So, I'm Julia, what are your names?”
The boys again gave her a brief, penetrating glance before going on silently with their tasks.
“O.K., no names.” Julia got the feeling she was missing something, “It's hot, you boys want to come up to the house and get drinks for everyone?”
Both boys nodded and, as she picked up the yoke, moved to steady the now full buckets, one each side in perfect unison without a word of look exchanged.
“Come on then. We've water and milk. There might be some lemonade left too.”
She lead the boys back towards the house, past the laughing children who seemed to be playing tag. Julia paused to watch as she wiped her forehead with her sleeve. Suddenly, the hot air seemed to turn ice cold as she realised that, apart from the laughter, the children were not making a sound. Speeding up, she moved quickly to the house, no longer caring whether she spilled water from the buckets on the yoke. As she notice the two boys, still trotting along with her were carefully steadying the buckets she felt close to tears with unexplainable panic.
Her abrupt entry into the kitchen caused Mona to look up.
“Aye, I noticed that me-self.” Mona turned to the boys, “ glasses are in that cupboard, milk's in the pantry keeping cool, so's the lemonade. Don't spill owt or you clean it up y'selves.”
Julia watched in horrified amazement as the boys filled glasses and silently handed milk, water or lemonade to the equally silent line of children, each of whom took the glass that was offered without comment or acknowledgement.
Julia turned to Mona.
“Do they need us?”
The question was jerked out of her.
“For now, aye.” was the reply, delivered with a grim shrug.