It was the stripes that fooled them, I suppose. They crept in there like it was some candy-striped kingdom. They had stories in their heads—fairytales, really—of castles made of chocolate, entire houses of gingerbread and musk sticks, lakes of sweet strawberry milk. The biggest one was only 14, the youngest just a tyke at six. Too much made of candy stripes, these days. The thick-thin bands on gobstoppers that emerge from mouths blurry and slick. The secret interior of a black suit coat. And the bright lines of a fumigation tent.
When the police found them three days later, their bodies were zipped up and whisked away before anyone could see them. In our minds, though, we knew we all thought the same thing: five children on their backs, legs in the air, fingers splayed—the exaggerated rictus of the very cockroaches the fumigation was meant to eradicate. We pictured their mad final scrambling breaths, knocking into one another, walls, and the fridge. The littlest one trying vainly to crawl under the stove.
It was all anyone could think to talk about for the entire week after it happened. They were holiday kids, come down to the Cape to watch the leaves change colour. We pictured their parents, what they were doing as their children choked into obtuse shapes. They were sipping cocktails by the lake, we knew; they were parking boxy expensive sedans across somebody’s driveway; they were laughing their loud voices, snapping their fat fingers.
We helped with the search, of course, because that was what a community did. We knocked on our neighbours’ doors, while our neighbours knocked at ours. Meanwhile, the parents held phones right to their ears for hours at a time, not trusting anything to local knowledge, calling in lawyers and investigators and emergency favours from the deep heart of the city. The Cape suffered a fresh wave of human indignity, washing over us like a sandstorm. You lose five people, we said to each other, and you gain five hundred.
Fingers pointed in various litigious ways at our councillors, at our public health system, at the fumigators. Nothing, we knew though, could really be done. Those big tents look the same, we told them, here as in the city. It was just the way of things. Had been as long as we could think. An unfortunate accident, that’s what we said to them.
The next autumn, the Cape was a sparse place. We shrugged our shoulders at each other as we passed in unusually empty streets. We plunged our hands deep into our coat pockets as we walked through the suddenly desolate parks. We smiled, sitting on the pier, sitting only exactly where we wanted to sit. The cockroaches stayed away, too, or so it seemed.