Valerie’s nose twitched from the faintly rancid vegetable oil heating in her dented soup pot. She tried not to think about how long the oil had been warehoused. She tried not to think about a lot of things. Which of her campmates would survive the war. Where Tomás and the other scavenger boys went when they slipped through the holes in the fences at night. And what happened to the ones who didn’t return.
Tomás never talked about them.
“Are the onions good enough?” His small voice quavered, his dark eyes tracking Valerie’s every move. The bulbs were shriveled, their papery skins broken and spotted with black mold, but he’d found them himself and she didn’t want to hurt his feelings.
“They’re perfect.” The chopped onion sizzled as it hit the hot oil. After a couple of turns she handed him the wooden spoon and stepped out of the way. “Very good, your technique. You’re turning into a fine sous-chef.”
The compliment—and being allowed to help her cook—usually made Tomás smile. But nothing cheered him that afternoon. Typical for early spring in the Hudson Valley, a steady rain cloaked the Catskill Mountains in gray mist. On a cold, dreary day when he couldn’t play soccer with his friends, soup made from old onions, sprouted potatoes, and not much else would do little to help.
“What was your favorite meal?” Valerie asked while he sautéed the onions. She’d tricked herself into believing that curated reminders of how life used to be would keep her focused on the day when they could leave this place. When there would be fat, ripe tomatoes and good meat and decent cookware. When she could tend a real garden instead of a sad patch behind the mess, planted with the seeds she’d hoarded and the eyes she’d gouged from the potatoes. When she’d have a real bed in her own room instead of a hard cot in a barracks she shared with a constantly changing sea of women whose names she’d stopped bothering to remember.
“Mrs. Angela made it for my birthday once.” Tomás frowned with determination as he made sure to keep the onions cooking evenly. “It had chicken. With sauce on it. It tasted like lemons. Lemons and butter.”
A sigh escaped Valerie’s throat. Lemon. Butter. Chicken Française was one of the first meals she’d taught herself how to make. So simple, but so elegant.How long had it been since she’d tasted those silky flavors? How long since her knife had bitten into the sharp, juicy flesh of a lemon, since real butter had browned in her saucepan?
She patted his shoulder, signaling that she wanted to take over at the stove. “One day I’ll make it for you. In my very own kitchen. And we’ll eat so much our bellies will burst.”
* * *
As proficient as Valerie had become at tucking painful memories into small, locked compartments in her mind, she couldn’t stop thinking about her father. Especially when she walked through the camp, from the mess hall to the women’s quarters to the courtyard where the children played.
Papa—United States Secretary of State Elliot Kipplander, as the world once knew him—had often reminded her that while the first casualty of war was the truth, the second was the well-being of the civilians. Decades earlier, after the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis, Papa had helped the UN plan the Displacement Shelter Program. The DSP camps of his design were smaller, cleaner, and promised more efficiency and compassion than the sprawl of chaos and suffering that had been streamed around the world back then. Food and medical supplies were to come from the private sector. Military personnel would not be allowed on or near the premises; the network of shelters was to be protected and run by well-vetted nongovernmental organizations, dedicated to keeping the civilians safe.
The grand experiment, despite Papa’s impassioned arguments, despite the elegant prototypes, failed.
This camp, based on his initial ideas, was indeed smaller than the ones surrounding Syria back then. It was cleaner. Food and medical supplies came as they could be found—or stolen.
But Valerie didn’t feel safe.
If Papa could see the armed Russian and Cuban soldiers patrolling the fences, strutting across the recreation field, and even coming into the mess, demanding to be fed, he’d be furious. If he knew that some of her campmates disappeared in the night, most of them children, he’d be livid. If he knew that his only daughter had ended up in a distorted version of his original plan, more prison than shelter and only hours from where the ruins of his beloved United Nations still smoldered…well, she couldn’t even imagine the depths of his heartbreak.
Sometimes she thought it was better that he couldn’t see it.
Finally the storm lifted, and Valerie went outside to see to her humble garden and scoop water from her rain barrel. Two soldiers were shooting baskets at the portable net in the courtyard, maybe a hundred feet from the mess. Three of the scavenger boys—the soldiers called them rats—sat on the sidelines, their weak appeals for court time met with scorn and laughter. The taller of the two men had been one of the most recent soldiers to barge into the mess.
The daughter of a diplomat, Valerie knew her rights and had politely but firmly asked him to leave.
He’d given her a slow, crooked smile. “Aw, chica. How’d you get to be so cold?”
Because the Russian army you joined up with took advantage of our civil war and overthrew our government, and that’s why my father is dead and the rest of my family is missing. And stop calling me chica.
But words like that could get her disappeared with the others.
Valerie had stood straighter—at a tick over five foot three she doubted it would have made a difference—and forced some starch into her voice. “You’re not supposed to be in here.”
He’d planted his fists on his sides, giving her a better view of the gun in his holster. “I can be any place I please. You should be grateful to have our protection.” Then he’d stolen a hunk of bread from her table, narrowing his eyes as if expecting a challenge, and, with one last smirk, he walked out.
* * *
When Tomás slipped into the mess hall the next morning—Valerie sighed with relief to see he’d survived another night—he carried a cloth sack over his shoulder and wore a sweet grin she hadn’t seen in some time.
His expression reminded her of better days, before the war, when Tomás clung to the kitchen doorframe, the toe of one small sneaker scraping the side of the other, one hand playing with the tiny gold cross that hung around his neck. Mrs. Angela, the Kipplanders’ chef, called him her little mouse, mapetite souris, and gave him a cookie. If Valerie was sitting at the table by the kitchen, where she liked to do her homework or pore over Mrs. Angela’s cookbooks, she got to hand him his treat. He had dark saucer eyes and that exact smile, and he’d say a polite and carefully enunciated thank you, then disappear before his Guatemalan mother, one of the housekeepers, could scold him.
He still wore the cross, but those small sneakers had become filthy and worn, and one pinky toe poked out of a hole in the side. His mother would be aghast at his condition—Valerie’s, too, no doubt—yet the state of Tomás’s clothing didn’t seem to concern him. Nor did the fringe of brown hair that kept falling into his eyes.
He set his bag on the counter and watched Valerie inspect the dozen or so apples, peppered with brown spots and wormholes.
“I know they don’t look so nice,” he said. “But are they good enough for pie?”
A few days earlier, the first night it had stopped raining, one of his favorite friends hadn’t returned from their scavenging, and perhaps to comfort himself, Tomás had been obsessing about their old life in the Kipplanders’ big house overlooking the Hudson River. He chattered on about how he liked to help his mother fold the laundry, how everything smelled so good and clean. But even better were the smells from Mrs. Angela’s kitchen. He wanted pie.
An older boy had told him about an abandoned apple orchard and cider mill about a mile outside the camp, “where the bad soldiers hardly ever patrol,” which gave Tomás the idea. Valerie eyed the meager harvest that had survived the winter; they weren’t the best apples for baking, and she didn’t have most of the ingredients, or even enough flour to make a proper crust, but she couldn’t bear to disappoint him. Especially when the scrapes on his arms and legs were most likely the price he’d paid for the late-night adventure.
“We can cut around the worms and stuff.” Valerie poured sunlight into her words. “Why don’t we make an apple crumble instead? Those can be very good. It won’t be exactly Mrs. Angela’s pie, but maybe it’ll be enough to remind us.”
They’d have to be careful. Surely the aroma of baking apples would attract attention, so she waited until after dinner. Tomás stayed behind, helping her with the dishes. Then she showed him how to core, peel, and slice the apples with a small paring knife—all the tricks she’d learned at Mrs. Angela’s side and perfected in cooking school. She showed him how to sprinkle the apples with only a bit of sugar, which was all she could spare, and she improvised a crumble from bread crumbs, some of the instant oatmeal meant for breakfast, and a bit of cooking oil.
“The top is a little chewy,” Tomás said, when Valerie offered him the first slice. “But the apples aren’t too bad.” He looked contemplative, his small lower lip jutting out. “What do we need to make a real apple pie like Mrs. Angela’s?”
“Butter,” she sighed. “Butter and more flour for the crust. Cinnamon, nutmeg, and more sugar for the apples.”
His solemn nod made her stomach churn.
“No. Tomás, no. For something as foolish as pie, it’s not worth the risk.”