Odis Harding heard the knock on his door; he just wasn’t ready to go. He knew this would be the last time he would see his home.
“Dad? Can you open the door? Dad? Can you hear me?”
“I ain’t deaf,” he whispered, staring at the yawning, blackened fireplace. He thought of all the things he had fed to the flames in exchange for warmth over the years when the snows fell. His wife’s clothes, his daughter’s dolls, books, furniture. All eaten up, gone.
The door busted open with a loud pop. His son-in-law, Robert, fell into the empty room. He was thinner than Odis remembered him.
“Oh, Dad.” Sylvia removed her sweater and wrapped it around his shoulders. “Okay, let’s get you out of here. They’re going to take good care of you.”
Robert moved to help his wife. “When’s the last time you’ve eaten, Odis?” he yelled.
“I ain’t deaf,” he grumbled, grunting as the two lifted him from the floor. His legs threatened to give out.
“You’re lucky Sylvia has some pull, Odis. She got you a fine room all to yourself.”
They got him situated on the wagon, Sylvia climbing in beside him and pulling a hand-crocheted blanket over their legs.
Odis swiped at his eyes with the back of a trembling hand. He stared at his home, trying to burn every detail into his failing mind. Cracked cement steps, banister eaten by rust, windows repaired with plywood, the patterns of lost shingles. He knew within days, it would be an empty lot, existing only for him, until that too was eaten up.
Under the spell of the spring sunshine and the steady clip clop of hooves, Odis could almost remember what it used to be like. His body swayed, his mind wandered as he eyed the farms they passed; farms that used to be bustling neighborhoods full of kids playing in the streets, smells of fried catfish and barbeque, porches alive with card games and laughter deep into dusk.
“What was it like? I mean, we learned about it in school, of course, but what was it really like, for you and mom?”
Odis let himself focus on his daughter, his heart breaking. She would never know what it meant to grow up free. She had asked him a straightforward question though, so he would give her a straightforward answer.
“Nothing made sense that day, Sylvia. The stars could have fallen out of the sky and bounced on the street and we couldn’t have been more shocked. We sat there with our neighbors at the time, Vern and Poppy, listening to the President talk about how China had cashed in their chips and we couldn’t pay. How we made an agreement with them to repay our debt by letting them come in and restructure our economy. We just stared at each other. Poppy said maybe it was a joke. The dread in the pit of our stomachs told us it wasn’t.
“There was some excitement at first as Chinese business men toured the major cities in their silk suits. People were even naïve enough to think maybe they would help us get back on our feet as a nation. Then the bulldozers came and the wrecking balls and the communist uniforms. The changes were swift and brutal. Neighborhoods were leveled; people were relocated to central locations in the cities. Factories sprouted up and were populated with women and children. The men labored on new farms and orchards away from their families.”
“But, why were there riots? Didn’t people believe that America needed new factories? That the desolate and foreclosed neighborhoods would better be used as farm land? The Chinese gave us jobs at a time when there were none.”
Odis felt old rage stir like bees in his chest. He was too tired to embrace it. He laughed instead.
“So that’s what they teach you in school, huh? Jobs? You call workin’ sixty hours a week in a dirty factory just for a roof and enough food to survive a job? That’s slavery, Sylvia, that ain’t no employment.”
“We do get paychecks, Daddy…they just go to repay our debt. It’s not so bad, really.”
“Says the rat in the cage.” Odis shook his head and closed his eyes.
When he opened them again, they were stopped in front of an old prison that had been turned into a state hospital. He glanced at the Chinese guards walking toward them and then into his daughter’s eyes. He saw no spark, no hope and the pain was suddenly too much to bear.
“I’m sorry, sweet girl.”
Wrapping one arm around her, he breathed in the scent of her hair. His other hand moved to the pistol hidden in his waistband. The one loaded with two bullets he prayed to God he would have the strength to use.