“You shouldn’t be here, mister.”
Ernest stopped raking and glanced around. There was no one there.
“Down here, dummy.”
He leaned over his fence. On the other side were four tiny girls, decked out in bright summer clothes and licking popsicles. They couldn’t have been older than five.
“This is our turf,” said the blonde girl in the neon pink tights and green shoes. “If you want to stay, you’re gonna have to pay.”
Ernest looked around, puzzled. “My front yard is your … turf?”
“You got it, chump,” spat a black girl with perfectly sculpted hair. “This is a shakedown.”
Ernest wanted to laugh, but he wasn’t sure this was a joke and didn’t want to hurt their feelings. “I see. You’re all in a gang.”
“Twenty dollars!” shouted a little freckle-faced girl in a plaid jumper.
“I’m supposed to pay you? Or what?”
The blonde girl looked at her fellow gang members and nodded. Then, they opened their mouths in unison and began to emit what Ernest could only describe as the most ear-splitting sound he’d ever heard. It was just at the top of the range of human hearing, and loud enough to cause a jabbing pain that entered at the eardrums and bored straight into the bone of his skull. He dropped his rake and attempted to cover his ears.
The noise went on and on. There was a seemingly endless supply of air inside his tiny assailants.
Finally, they stopped. Ernest shook his head but the after-echo continued ringing in his head.
“Girls, I think—”
They began again, somehow louder this time. Ernest had fought in the Korean War; he’d seen blood and death, heard bombs and the cries of the dying. He was an old man now, and his hearing was failing. He’d beaten cancer and had a double hip replacement. And yet, somehow, this sound was causing him more discomfort than any of those things. His legs gave out and he dropped to his knees on the grass as the girls stopped their second aural assault.
Four heads peeked over the fence at him, glaring with sinister purpose. His shaking hand reached for his wallet.
“T-t-twenty, did you say?”
As the little girls skipped away down the sidewalk, Ernest gazed around at the once-quiet suburban neighborhood where he’d lived for 30 years. The tasteful, conservative bungalows and their manicured lawns suddenly took on a menacing appearance in his fevered mind. And children! They were everywhere! How did he never notice before?
Was he safe? Would he ever be safe again?