At the edge of the house’s corner a shadow darted and hid. Then it whispered, “Hey. Hey, you.”
Hale held still and waited while a shaggy brown head peered around the side. The head was followed by the skinny but heavily covered body of a teenaged boy with hollow cheeks and vaguely wild eyes. Firelight from inside the house wobbled through the front window and half shadowed, half illuminated his face.
“You were asking about my grandfather?”
“Ezekiel?” Hale made a safe and easy guess.
The boy crept forward, taking care to stay away from the parted place in the curtains so he couldn’t be seen from the home’s interior. “What did my mother say?”
“Did she tell you he’s a hero?”
Hale said, “No. She didn’t tell me that.”
The boy made an angry snort and ran a mittened hand up his head, across his matted hair. “Of course she didn’t. She doesn’t believe it, or if she does, she doesn’t give a damn.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“I do,” he said. “She acts like he didn’t do anything good. She acts like everyone’s right, and he emptied out the jail because someone paid him to do it—but if he did, then where’s the money? Do we look like we have any money?”
Zeke gave the biographer enough time to answer, but Hale didn’t know what to say.
Zeke continued. “Once everyone understood about the Blight, they evacuated everything they could, right? They cleared out the hospital and even the jail, but the people stuck at the station—the folks who’d gotten arrested, but not charged with anything yet—they just left them there, locked up. And they couldn’t get away. The Blight was coming, and everyone knew it. All those people in there, they were going to die.”
He sniffed and rubbed the back of his hand under his nose. It might have been running, or simply numb from cold.
“But my grandfather, Maynard, you know? The captain told him to seal off the last end of the quarter, but he wouldn’t do it while there were people inside. And those people, they were poor folks, like us. They weren’t all bad, not all of them. They’d mostly been picked up for little things, for stealing little things or breaking little things.
“And my grandfather, he wouldn’t do it. He wouldn’t seal ’em in to die there. The Blight gas was coming for them; and it’d already eaten up the shortest way back to the station. But he ran back into the Blight, covering his face up as much as he could.
“When he got there, he threw the lever that held all the cells locked, and he leaned on it—he held it down with his own weight, because you had to, to keep the doors open. So while everyone ran, he stayed behind.
“And the last two out were a pair of brothers. They understood what he’d done, and they helped him. He was real sick with the gas, though, and it was too late. So they brought him home, trying to help him even though they knew that if anybody saw them, they’d get arrested all over again. But they did it, same as why Maynard did what he did. ’Cause ain’t nobody all bad, through and through. Maybe Maynard was a little bad, doing what he did; and maybe those last two guys were a little good.
“But here’s the long and short of it,” Zeke said, holding up a finger and pushing it under Hale’s nose. “There were twenty-two people inside those cells, and Maynard saved them, every last one. It cost him his life, and he didn’t get nothing for it.”
As the kid turned to his front door and reached for the knob, he added, “And neither did we.”