The potatoes sizzled on the hot coals. Joshua turned them over then checked the battered pot of water. It boiled furiously. Joshua took handfuls of dandelion greens and nettles and tossed them into the water. They wilted instantly. He stirred them with a small piece of wood. The scalding hot water splashed his fingers. Joshua wiped away some tears. Behind him, six hungry children waited for their dinner.
“It’ll be soon,” he promised.
The potatoes roasted. Joshua fished out the greens with his piece of wood. He dumped them into another pot of cold water. He took them from the pot and squeezed them dry. Then he popped a few leaves with a pinch of salt into his mouth. They tasted slightly bitter, but fresh and bright, like spring sunshine.
Just hours before Joshua had no idea how to cook anything.
Five million people lived in Destinapolis in all manner of homes. The rich lounged in marble mansions on Hightown Street. The factory workers crowded into the red brick apartments of Rustington. Twelve year old Joshua Sage and his friends huddled in a small alley in Dreamer’s Garden, a crumbling, forgotten corner of the city. In addition to Joshua there was Heathcliff Pucker, also twelve, Lucinda Quince, eleven, and the three young ones, the twins Ollie and Rollie age eight and little Dina Sprout who was only six. They’d been a family since they all met, with Joshua as the father. He woke up every morning with a hundred new problems to solve.
That morning the problem he tried to solve was finding them a better place to live. Dreamer’s Garden, once a bright neighborhood of craftsmen and artists, was now all burnt out buildings filled with loose boards, rusty nails, broken glass. When they first came, they explored some of the old homes. Joshua put his foot down on a nail that went right through his shoe but somehow missed his foot entirely. After that they settled in the alley. Joshua and Heathcliff rolled up two ratty quilts and turned them into mattresses to sleep on. Joshua and Heathcliff shared one, with a bit of canvas hung over their heads while Lucinda and the young ones lay huddled on the other inside an old wooden box. It was just enough to keep the rains off them. With a small fire they were almost comfortable.
But it was high summer and Joshua feared the winter. Last winter they were in the Charity Shelters while outside a foot of snow and ice blanketed everything. The shelters were gray buildings with gray attendants. The poor were given a drafty corner and a ratty mattress. The shelters had dozens of rules for their residents. And if a resident broke even a single edict they were thrown out; even if that meant death by freezing. The attendants showed no mercy as they tossed the poor wretches out into the cold. Thankfully, Joshua and the others didn’t break a rule until after the spring thaw.
So Joshua had to find them a proper shelter, one they couldn’t be evicted from, before the snows returned.
At least there was food. The good people who funded the shelters also opened the gray grim Charity Kitchens all over the city. One of them lay just a few blocks away from Dreamer’s Garden. The attendants wore stiff suits the color of cement. They never smiled as they served steaming bowls of thin glue like paste mixed with hard kernels of leftover horse feed. But it was hot and the meager bowls were enough to fill small bellies.
No, Joshua Sage wasn’t worried about food, not when that day started. The Charity gruel, even though it tasted of dishwater, was there. He could focus on his other worries while Lucinda took the young ones to the kitchen.
He scouted the perimeter of an old house. Green plants grew wild all around it. Joshua thought maybe a room or part of the cellar remained intact, perhaps big enough for the six of them. He hesitated to explore. If the floor gave way or he stepped on something sharp, there’d be no one to help. As usual Heathcliff wandered off that morning and followed whatever idea had crept into his mind during the night.
Joshua took his first few steps through the weeds when he heard Lucinda.
He saw them returning.
It’s still early, he thought. Did they finish breakfast already?
Lucinda was in the lead, her plump arm dragged Ollie (or Rollie) who clung to his brother who had a hold of Dina on the end. In the distance, the three round bodies in front of the small slight one looked like a caterpillar crawling along the rubble. When they got closer, Joshua saw Lucinda’s moon shaped face was flushed red.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
Lucinda blurted out, “It’s the kitchens. They wouldn’t let us in!”
She threw down her hands and stamped her foot.
“What do you mean? Did you break a rule?”
“Not the attendants,” said Ollie (or Rollie).
“Boys. A gang of them,” added his twin.
“They stand just outside the Kitchen entrance. They don’t try to stop any adult. They’re too cowardly for that. But they make the kids pay to come in.”
“Pay with what? Money?” Joshua asked.
It had been over a year ago since Joshua had a single penny in his pockets.
Lucinda went on, “They’ll take money. But if the kids don’t have money or anything valuable the gang tells them to steal something. We saw kids hand over pocket watches, handkerchiefs, spectacles, shoes, shirts stolen right off the clotheslines.”
“What did you do?” Joshua asked.
Lucinda declared proudly, “I told them we wouldn’t pay them a single penny. They wouldn’t get a tin plate out of us. We would never ever steal for them. And I told them to get out of our way!”
Then she sat down deflated.
“They weren’t impressed,” she admitted.
“They pushed her down,” said one of the twins.
“Hard,” added the other.
“Are you hurt?” Joshua demanded.
“No. I just landed on my rump. But what will we do now?”
“Another kitchen?” offered Ollie.
“There are others,” added Rollie.
Joshua shook his head.
“The nearest is in the heart of Cutthroat Town.”
He heard a grumbling noise. All eyes looked at Dina who had remained quiet throughout all this.
“Dina, are you hungry?”
“No,” she said in a way that obviously meant “yes.”
“All right, I’ll go down there and fix this,” Joshua said.
“How will you fix it?” Lucinda asked.
“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of everything,” Joshua said. He started for the Charity Kitchen.
Lucinda followed him for first block. She called out after him, “But what will you do?”