Talia sat alone in the room she shared with Missy and Dani, staring blankly at a history textbook while listening to the yelling. After a while, the yelling ended in a sharp slap and the crying started. Her fingers tightened on the cover of her book and her lips thinned, but she stayed on her bed, waiting. It wasn’t long before the bedroom door opened a crack just wide enough to admit a small figure.
Missy slipped into the room and ghosted to her bed, avoiding eye contact as she slipped under the covers. Talia wondered what Missy had done to earn this latest abuse, if anything.
When sober, Rita could be fairly reasonable, but after she had been drinking, the slightest infraction, imagined or otherwise, could send her into a rage. Sometimes all it took was the wrong look. Dani needed to lose that smirk, Missy had to stop being so scared, and Talia needed to learn her place. They all had lessons to learn, and Rita was quick to put them straight, often with the flat of her hand, at least with the younger kids. Talia’s age and size saved her from physical abuse, but that didn’t blunt the edge of Rita’s tongue.
“Would you like to hear a story?” Talia asked as the muffled sobbing in the other bed slowed to an occasional sniffle.
The thin blanket rustled and Talia laid aside her textbooks when she saw the tear-stained face emerge from beneath it. Missy’s hair was so blond it was almost white and so light and full of static from the blanket that it looked like dandelion fluff around her thin face. Given wings and a clean face, Missy would look like a fairy from a Disney movie, but now she just looked lost and bedraggled.
Talia patted the bed next to her and waited while Missy scuttled over to sit next to her, dragging her one treasure, a teddy bear so bedraggled that it no longer had a face. At eight, Rita thought Missy was too old for a stuffed bear and was always threatening to throw it out, but so far it had escaped. Missy clutched it to her and nestled in next to Talia, wiping her nose on her sleeve.
Dani bounced into the room, almost but not quite slamming the door behind her. Even Dani knew better than to break that rule. No one wanted Rita coming into their room, drunk.
“What’d you do this time?” Dani asked, throwing a pile of clothes onto the floor from her bed and plopping down onto the tangled sheets.
Missy just shrugged, either not wanting to explain, or more likely, unable to.
Dani’s mother had been African American and her father of some kind of Asian descent, no one knew exactly what, not even her mother. The combination was striking. Even at 12 she was getting a lot of attention from the boys and too many adults. As Dani said, as bad as Rita was, at least she wasn’t into girls. She had cut her hair short last week, saying she was tired of taking care of the thick curls, but Talia thought she had hoped it would make her less pretty. Instead, the new cut just emphasized her high cheekbones and clear, warm skin, drawing attention to the slight slant of her eyes. Nothing short of a paper bag could hide Dani’s growing beauty and Talia knew just how much that scared the younger girl.
Talia was the oldest in the home. Just short of 18 and legal freedom, she was tall for her age, but too broad-faced and blunt to excite the attention Dani received. Her hair couldn’t decide if it was blond or brunette so it just sat in the middle, too dark and too light at once. She had widely spaced eyes and full cheeks, only one of which had a dimple, which rarely showed. She was slow to smile, but also slow to frown, always looking out at the world with a blankness that seemed to irritate Rita and made most of her teachers assume she was slow-witted.
“I was about to tell Missy a story, if you want to join us,” Talia said and waited for Dani to toss aside her bedding and launch herself onto the older girl’s bed. After the others had snuggled in beside her, she began.
“Once upon a time, there was a town that was overrun with rats. A woman came to the town and offered to get rid of the rats for a fee. The mayor and city council agreed, since everyone else had failed to save them from the pests.”
“I know this one,” Dani said, “It’s the pied piper, but I thought the piper was a man.”
Talia shrugged and continued.
“The stranger pulled out her flute and started to play a lively tune. The rats came, first in a trickle, and then in a flood, called to the music from dark hidey-holes all over town. When the piper was surrounded by a sea of gray, brown, and white bodies, she began to walk down the main street and into the countryside. The astonished and delighted townsfolk followed as she danced past the farmers’ fields to a small hill nearby. As she approached, the hill opened, light shining through, and the rats poured into the crack in the stone. She continued playing until the last of the rats bounded happily into the hillside. As the final tail disappeared from view, the piper stopped playing and the hill slid closed, cutting off the golden light from within.”
“That must have been some music,” Dani said.
“I wish I could have heard it,” Missy whispered.
“When the piper went to the mayor and city council and asked for her payment, they refused to pay her. She warned them that they needed to do right by her, but they just laughed. Now that the rats were gone, they didn’t see any reason to pay and straight up told her, ‘What will you do about it? The rats aren’t coming back, are they?’”
“That’s rude,” Dani said, indignant. “They promised to pay her, they should pay.”
“Sometimes adults don’t do what they say they will do,” Talia said.
“They should,” Missy said and the look on her face was heart-breaking. There was no doubt that many adults had let her down in her short life.
“The piper didn’t argue, but warned them that she would be back the next day and, if they didn’t pay, there would be a terrible price.” Talia continued. “The mayor and the council just laughed and watched the humble piper walk away.”
“The next day the piper returned, carrying her flute, and asked one last time for her payment. The townsfolk just jeered and threw rotten vegetables at her. She wiped her face and, with tears in her eyes, she began to play. The tune that had drawn out the rats had been lively and fun, making the listeners want to dance. This tune was sad and dark, but oddly lovely. As she played, the gathered crowds stopped jeering and quieted to listen. Then, the first little girl stepped out of the crowd and joined the piper, swaying to the music. She was followed by a boy and then another girl. The parents tried to stop the children, but they pulled away. The parents were unable to hold them back as the crowd fell under the piper’s spell.”
“That’s scary,” Missy said in a small voice. “What’s going to happen to the kids?”
“The piper began to walk out of the town. The adults tried to follow, but were unable to move while the children left them behind. She led the way to the same hill, which opened wide. A scent of summer and sunshine met the children whose parents had refused to keep their promises, and they passed through into the light, leaving the faithless and dishonest adults behind. As the last of the children passed out of sight, the piper heard a distressed cry and saw a lame girl limping behind. She returned and lifted the child onto her back, still playing the music that would haunt the townsfolk for the rest of their lives. At the hillside, the piper stepped through with the last of the children and the hill slid shut behind her. As the last crack closed, the music ended and the townsfolk could move. They ran to the hill and found no sign of the piper or their children, neither of which was ever seen again.”
“It serves them right,” Dani said, voice low and dark. “People should keep their promises.”
“Do you think the children were happy in the summer place in the hill,” Missy asked, voice worried. “Do you think they had to live with the rats?”
“No, the piper sent the rats somewhere they would be happy and the children went somewhere else, where no adults would ever lie or cheat or hurt them again.” Talia said, stroking Missy’s tangled hair.
“How do you know it wasn’t all a trick,” Dani asked. “Maybe it just looked like a summer place but was really a trap. Maybe those kids all died there in the hill.”
Missy’s eyes filled with tears. “I don’t want the kids to be dead. I want them to run and play and be happy and safe, especially the lame girl. Do you think she was lame in the summer place?”
“I think she was safer in the summer place than she was with people who despised her for being different.” Talia said, firmly.
“I wish the summer place was real,” Dani said, “I’d go there in a minute. I hate it here with Rita and the boys with grabby hands in the school hall.” She shuddered and leaned into Talia.
Talia looked down at the two lost, young faces and nodded solemnly.
Without a word, she disentangled herself and rose to her feet. In the top drawer of her dresser was a long, thin box. She opened it and pulled out the parts of her flute. She screwed them together and thought of the one song she had known she would need from the day she had come to this house. She always hoped she wouldn’t need the flute, but there were too many lost kids and too many faithless adults.
She began to play.