Little Boy

Little Boy
Author: Bixby Jerome
Title: Little Boy
Release Date: 2019-01-21
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 27 March 2019
Count views: 854
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There are times when the animal in Mankind
savagely asserts itself. Even children become
snarling little beasts. Fortunately, however,
in childhood laughter is not buried deep.

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Worlds of If Science Fiction, October 1954.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

He dropped over the stone wall and flattened to the ground. He lookedwarily about him like a young wolf, head down, eyes up. His name wasSteven—but he'd forgotten that. His face was a sunburned, bitter,filthy eleven-year-old face—tight lips, lean cheeks, sharp blueeyes with startlingly clear whites. His clothes were rags—a pair ofcorduroy trousers without any knees; a man's white shirt, far too bigfor him, full of holes, stained, reeking with sweat; a pair of dirtybrown sneakers.

He lay, knife in hand, and waited to see if anyone had seen him comingover the wall or heard his almost soundless landing on the weedgrowndirt.

Above and behind him was the grey stone wall that ran along CentralPark West all the way from Columbus Circle to the edge of Harlem.He had jumped over just north of 72nd Street. Here the park wasconsiderably below street level—the wall was about three feet high onthe sidewalk side and about nine feet high on the park side. From wherehe lay at the foot of the wall only the jagged, leaning tops of theshattered apartment buildings across the street were visible. Like theteeth of a skull's smile they caught the late afternoon sunlight thatdrifted across the park.

For five minutes Steven had knelt motionless on one of the cementbenches on the other side of the wall, just the top of his head and hiseyes protruding over the top. He had seen no one moving in the park.Every few seconds he had looked up and down the street behind him tomake sure that no one was sneaking up on him that way. Once he hadseen a man dart out halfway across the street, then wheel and vanishback into the rubble where one whole side of an apartment house hadcollapsed into 68th Street.

Steven knew the reason for that. A dozen blocks down the street, fromaround Columbus Circle, had come the distant hollow racket of a pack ofdogs.

Then he had jumped over the wall—partly because the dogs might headthis way, partly because the best time to move was when you couldn'tsee anyone else. After all, you could never be sure that no one wasseeing you. You just moved, and then you waited to see if anythinghappened. If someone came at you, you fought. Or ran, if the otherlooked too dangerous.

No one came at him this time. Only a few days ago he'd come into thepark and two men had been hidden in the bushes a few yards from thewall. They'd been lying very still, and had covered themselves withleaves, so he hadn't seen them; and they'd been looking the other way,waiting for someone to come along one of the paths or through thetrees, so they hadn't seen him looking over the wall.

The instant he'd landed, they were up and chasing him, yelling that ifhe'd drop his knife and any food he had they'd let him go. He droppedthe knife, because he had others at home—and when they stopped to pawfor it in the leaves, he got away.

Now he got into a crouching position, very slowly. His nostrils dilatedas he sniffed the breeze. Sometimes you knew men were near by theirsmell—the ones who didn't stand outside when it rained and scrub thesmell off them.

He smelled nothing. He looked and listened some more, his blue eyeshard and bright. He saw nothing except trees, rocks, bushes, allcrowded by thick weeds. He heard nothing except the movement ofgreenery in the afternoon breeze, the far off baying of the dog pack,the flutter of birds, the scamper of a squirrel.

He whirled at the scamper. When he saw that it was a squirrel, helicked his lips, almost tasting it. But it was too far away to killwith the knife, and he didn't want to risk stoning it, because thatmade noise. You stoned squirrels only after you'd scouted all around,and even then it was dangerous—someone might hear you anyway and sneakup and kill you for the squirrel, or for anything else you had, or justkill you—there were some men who did that. Not for guns or knives orfood or anything else that Steven could see ... they just killed, andhowled like dogs when they did it. He'd watched them. They were the menwith the funny looks in their eyes—the ones who tried to get you tocome close to them by pretending to offer you food or something.

In a half-crouch Steven started moving deeper into the park, pausingeach time he reached any cover to look around. He came to a long greenslope and went down it soundlessly, stepping on rocks whenever hecould. He crossed the weedgrown bridle path, darting from the shelterof a bush on one side to press against the trunk of a tree on the other.

He moved so silently that he surprised another squirrel on the treetrunk. In one furious motion Steven had his knife out of his belt, andsliced it at the squirrel so fast the blade went whuh in the air—butthe squirrel was faster. It scurried up out of reach, and the knifejust clipped off the end of its tail. It went higher, and out onto abranch, and chittered at him. It was funny about squirrels—they didn'tseem to feel anything in their tails. Once he'd caught one that way,and it had twisted and run off, leaving the snapped-off tail in hishand.

Dogs weren't that way—once he'd fought a crippled stray from a pack,and he'd got it by the tail and swung it around and brained it on alamppost.

Dogs ... squirrels....

Steven had some dim, almost dreamlike memory of dogs that actedfriendly, dogs that didn't roam the streets in packs and pull youdown and tear you apart and eat you alive; and he had a memory of thesquirrels in the park being so tame that they'd eat right out of yourhand....

But that had been a long, long time ago—before men had started huntingsquirrels, and sometimes dogs, for food, and dogs had started huntingmen.

Steven turned south and paralleled the bridle path, going alwayswherever the cover was thickest, moving as silently as the breeze.He was going no place in particular—his purpose was simply to seesomeone before that someone saw him, to see if the other had anythingworth taking, and, if so, take it if possible. Also, he'd try to get asquirrel.

Far ahead of him, across the bridle path and the half-mile or so oftree-clumped park that lay beyond, was Central Park South—a sawtoothedridge of grey-white rubble. And beyond that lay the ruin of midtownManhattan. The bomb had exploded low over 34th Street and SeventhAvenue that night six years ago, and everything for a mile in everydirection had been leveled in ten seconds. The crater started at around26th and sloped down to where 34th had been and then up again to 40th,and it glowed at night. It wasn't safe to go down around the crater,Steven knew. He'd heard some men talking about it—they'd said thatanyone who went there got sick; something would go wrong with theirskin and their blood, and they'd start glowing too, and die.

Steven had understood only part of that. The men had seen him andchased him. He'd gotten away, and since then had never ventured belowCentral Park South.

It was a "war", they'd said. He didn't know much about that either ...who was winning, or had won, or even if it was still being fought. Hehad only the vaguest notion of what a war was—it was some kind offight, but he didn't think it was over food. Someone had "bombed" thecity—once he had heard a man call the city a "country"—and that wasabout as early as he could remember anything. In his memory was theflash and roar of that night and, hours before that, cars with loudvoices driving up and down the streets warning everybody to get out ofthe city because of the "war". But Steven's father had been drunk thatnight, lying on the couch in the living room of their apartment on theupper west side, and even the bomb hadn't waked him up. The cars withthe voices had waked Steven up; he'd gone back to sleep after a while,and then the bomb had waked him up again. He'd gone to the window andclimbed out onto the fire escape, and seen the people running in thestreet, and listened to all the screaming and the steady rumble ofstill-falling masonry, and watched the people on foot trample eachother and people in cars drive across the bodies and knock other peopledown and out of the way, and still other people jump on the cars andpull out the drivers and try to drive away themselves until someonepulled them out.... Steven had watched, fascinated, because it wasmore exciting than anything he'd ever seen, like a movie. Then a manhad stood under the fire escape, holding up his arms, and shouted upat Steven to jump for God's sake, little boy, and that had frightenedSteven and he went back inside. His father had always told him never toplay with strangers.

Next afternoon Steven's father had gotten up and gone downstairs toget a drink, and when he saw what had happened, he'd come back makingchoked noises in his throat and saying over and over again, "Everybodyworth a damn got out ... now it's a jungle ... all the scum left, likeme—and the ones they hurt, like you, Stevie...." He'd put some cans offood in a bag and started to take Steven out of the city, but a madmanwith a shotgun had blown the side of his head off before they'd gonefive blocks. Not to get the food or anything ... looting was going onall over, but there wasn't any food problem yet ... the man was justone of the ones who killed for no reason at all. There'd been a lotlike that the first few weeks after the bomb, but most of them hadn'tlasted long—they wanted to die, it looked like, about as much as theywanted to kill.

Steven had gotten away. He was five years old and small and fast on hisfeet, and the madman missed with the other barrel.

Steven had fled like an animal, and since then had lived like one. He'dstayed away from the men, remembering how his father had looked withhalf a head—and because the few times men had seen him, they'd chasedhim; either they were afraid he'd steal from them, or they wanted hisknife or belt or something. Once or twice men had shouted that theywouldn't hurt him, they only wanted to help him—but he didn't believethem. Not after seeing his father that way, and after the times theyhad tried to kill him.

He watched the men, though, sneaking around their fires atnight—sometimes because he was lonely and, later on, hoping to findscraps of food. He saw how they lived, and that was the way he livedtoo. He saw them raid grocery stores—he raided the stores after theyleft. He saw them carrying knives and guns—he found a knife andcarried it; he hadn't yet found a gun. They ran from the dogs; helearned to run from them, after seeing them catch a man once. The menraided other stores, taking clothes and lots of things whose use Stevendidn't understand. Steven took some clothes at first, but he didn'tcare much about what he wore—both his shirt and his heavy winter coathad come from dead men. He found toy stores, and had a lot of toys. Themen collected and hoarded wads of green paper, and sometimes foughtand killed each other over it. Steven vaguely remembered that it wascalled "money", and that it was very important. He found it too, hereand there, in dead men's pockets, in boxes with sliding drawers instores—but he couldn't find any use for it, so his

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