They scoured the alleys and found four small boxes that they filled with vegetables. Then Joshua began to cook.
He’d never handled food before. He’d never even watched his mother cook. He’d always played in the fields while she worked. Yet somehow his hands knew exactly what to do. It was almost as if he watched someone else tear, rinse and stir.
He didn’t have much in the way of utensils to work with. He skewered the potatoes on sharp sticks and roasted them directly over a fire. The nettles he tore by hand and boiled in an old metal pot with a hundred dents in it. They stung his fingers as he crushed their tiny spines. He boiled them first then drained them using a flat piece of wood as a strainer. He tossed them into a small cracked clay bowl and set about boiling the dandelions.
“We could use some salt,” Joshua said aloud.
Lucinda produced a small little leather pouch. Inside was a salt that tasted just like the sea.
“I thought maybe someday we’d find a rabbit or a goose or something. I was saving it till then,” she said.
Heathcliff found small planks of wood to serve as plates. Joshua thoroughly washed his hands in a pot of clean water then served the boiled greens on the wood plank with his fingers. Then he gingerly placed a potato on each plank. The skins were crisp as a cookie. Joshua pressed in and the fluffy insides of the potato popped open. His fingers were red and swelling by the end but he didn’t care.
“I don’t suppose you’ve secretly horded butter or olive oil?” he asked.
Lucinda shook her head.
Joshua sprinkled the precious salt over the meal.
“Should still be fine,” Joshua said.
He needn’t have worried. The others sat by and drooled as he worked. They tore into the meal. The food vanished from the makeshift platters in moments.
“That was great,” said Ollie.
“Much better than the Charity gruel,” said Rollie.
“Thank you, Joshua,” said Dina.
They all thanked and congratulated him on a miraculous meal. And it was miraculous. What else could it be? That very morning he had wandered by the alley and the garden without seeing the bounty beneath his feet. Suddenly he just knew.
As they sat and let their food digest, Sophie told more stories about the Great Children’s Underground and how they saved orphans from the Rat King. The little ones and Heathcliff crowded close so they could hear every word. Towards the end of the tale even Lucinda and Joshua edged nearer.
“Did that really happen?” Dina asked.
“Why would people make up such a tale?” was Sophie’s answer.
Joshua could think of many reasons why people lied. He knew most people didn’t really need a reason.
“Thank you for the meal, Joshua,” said Sophie. She stood up and stretched.
“It’ll be dark soon. I have to be going?”
“You’re leaving?” Joshua asked.
“You could stay. We have…”
He remembered they didn’t actually have anything Sophie could sleep on.
“Thank you for the offer. I’ll be fine.”
Sophie waved goodbye as she left.
“Will we see her again?” Dina asked.
Joshua thought about it.
“Maybe. Why? Do you like her?”
“You like her,” Dina answered. She let out a yawn.
“Go to sleep. Ollie, Rollie, you too.”
“Sure,” Ollie said.
“So full. I’ll sleep like a log,” said Rollie.
The little ones crawled into their makeshift bed.
“That Sophie’s an odd one,” said Lucinda.
Joshua chuckled and pointed at Heathcliff.
“As odd as this one?”
“Not that kind of odd. There’s something she’s not telling us,” said Lucinda
“I don’t know. But I can just tell there’s something she’s hiding from us.”
Heathcliff piped in with a question of his own.
“As long as we’re on the subject of odd, how did you do that?”
Not knowing what to say, Joshua told them the truth.
“I have no idea. But I can do even more.”
Joshua looked at the sleeping little ones. He wanted to give them real beds in real rooms. That was still beyond his ability to give them.
But there is something I can give them now. A meal. Not just a meal. A feast.
The only snag was that his plan would take more than just a simple fire and a pot of water. He needed a kitchen.
His eyes focused on something in the alley. Like the dandelions, it had lain there the entire time without them seeing it. Now Joshua saw it clearly and saw what it could be used for. It was a metal gate made of long metal bars. The enamel had long ago peeled away leaving only bare metal rusting in several spots.
“Give me a hand with this,” he said.
The three of them carried the old gate to the center of the alley.
Next Joshua walked around and picked up some loose bricks. He laid them down in a large rectangle. Heathcliff joined in the construction.
“What are you thinking?” Heathcliff asked.
Joshua said, “Lucinda, tomorrow morning you and the little ones find some rags and scrub that gate. Get the rust and dirt off of it.”
He picked up the old dented pot. Lucinda knew what he wanted.
“There are more in a pile a few houses down. Most of them have holes in them, but there should be a few good ones.”
“I could use one with holes in it. Just one though.”
He found a large plank of wood. He could use that to work on. It was thick enough to use a cutting board.
Cutting. He couldn’t keep using his fingers. He looked around and grabbed two thin pieces of metal, one as long as his hand, the other twice as long.
“What are you going to do with those?” Lucinda asked.
“Tomorrow morning I need to make a trip,” he answered.
Heathcliff put a long arm around his shoulders.
“Where are we going?”
I can’t believe what I’m actually planning. This is crazy. But is it any crazier than to sit around, do nothing and still hope things would get better? It’ll all be worth it, I’m sure.
“Let’s get some sleep,” he said.
They lay down on their rolled up quilts. He found he couldn’t get to sleep. He thought about tomorrow. Thoughts about tomorrow usually kept him up at nights but this time it was different.
He was excited instead of worried.
He knew what he would do tomorrow. He knew it would be a lot of hard work. He imagined Dina, Lucinda, Heathcliff and the twins eating their next meal. He imagined the looks on their faces. He wanted to see all of that. For a moment he thought about his father. He wondered if he felt the same way at night; excited at the thought of working the next morning, providing for him and his mother. He remembered how his father smiled after he gave Joshua a new toy or his mother a gift, as if giving the gift brought him as much joy as they did receiving.
Joshua felt a tear run down his cheek.