I ask Anna again when we can go home but she doesn't answer me she just pries up one of the snap-stick floorboards from the gym where we used to duck our heads and run under the rainbow parachute and when the NOISE NOISE NOISE came, Anna said we had to run into the gym and duck and cover our heads and all the colors flashed inside my eyes that time.
"When can we go home?" I ask again because maybe she didn't hear me the first time because there's a lot of shouting this morning because Teacher Mila said she would go out to look for food but she hasn't come back yet and the little-little ones are hungry hungry and they didn't get dinner yesterday or much lunch either after we finished the bread and cheese we found in the still-standing part of the kitchen and anyway I guess she heard me because Anna says we can't go home yet. I say, "You said the same thing yesterday and the day before that and the day before that and I don't remember how many days it was before that.”
She says "Shut up," and I say, "Mom says you're not allowed" and then she gets some sparkle-drops in her eyes and she looks like she's about to whack me with the loose floorboard except Teacher Sonia comes by and hands her a piece of stiff card with sand glued to it. Anna begins sanding off the shiny part of the wood because when we burned the first pieces with the mirror-gleam still on, everyone went COUGH COUGH COUGH. Then Teacher Mila put a cloth over her nose and mouth and came back from the art room with several bags except she still went COUGH COUGH COUGH when she came back too. Even though the smoke had gone slip-sliding out the windows because the glass wasn't in them anymore.
"But when can we go home?" I ask, and Anna looks at Teacher Sonia like she can't believe how stupid I am and last year when she looked like that, I bit her to make her change the curl of her lip but Teacher Sonia doesn't look at her, she just pats me on the shoulder and tells me to be a good girl.
Anna growls again, "Not yet."
"When will yet be?"
She ignores me.
"When is lunch?"
"We're all hungry!" she shouts. Then she is crying and hugging me, pressing my face into her shoulder like I'm her best-favorite doll, and she doesn't even see the ant-men coming in, their masks with the black bug-eyes and rubber antennae testing the air. Their crackle-crackle voices don't quite reach my ears but when I turn my head I see Teacher Sonia gesturing "Come, come," and I wriggle in Anna's arms and we follow. The ant-men line us up with half-words choked through the masks:
"Are we going home?" I whisper to Anna, as I fall in behind her, the gym floorboards sagging sadly beneath my feet.
The back of Anna's head moves side-to-side. The gym starts to empty.
Linda McMullen is a wife, mother, diplomat and homesick Wisconsinite. Her short stories and the occasional poem have appeared in over one hundred literary magazines. She received Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations in 2020. She may be found on Twitter