Linda was an orphan. The priest at the local parish scared her. She couldn’t explain. There was no rhyme or reason. He wanted to talk to her about Jesus.
She needed a middle man but there was none. The orphanage was crowded. Overflowing with children from all corners of the world, people who had lost parents in every horrific way possible.
There were malnourished children who needed special food and hourly shots. Younger children with fears so big they couldn’t sleep or stop shaking.
The ones who’d been there longest knew all the different routes to the kitchen. They ran in and out like walls didn’t exist. And nobody had the time to count the cans in the giant pantry.
Linda was new, but she wasn’t young. She was old enough that nobody would ever adopt her. Each person she had met since she was orphaned told her as much by the way they looked at her.
Some eyes were filled with cruel disgust, some with stomach-churning pity, some with dismissive frustration, and others with determined service, devotion to the sick, the poor, the underprivileged, the forgotten.
But none with hope.
The priest had something in his eyes that Linda couldn’t describe. She’d seen hate, false kindness, even whatever emotion that came with intent to exploit, so she knew it was nothing like that.
She’d seen hope in her own eyes after having cried in the back of a cop car and being told a story of far away places to distract her from the lights and the incessant barking and the scents that she would spend decades of her future trying to forget.
That night, a woman had been called to hold her hand in a tender but firm way. To help her feel less alone. She lead her to a bathroom, watched over Linda and gently asked her to not use the sink.
The woman had been talking about these far away places. She carefully increased the volume of her voice and bumped up the sing-song quality as she tried to guide Linda past the mirror without calling attention to the shiny reflective surface.
But something inside Linda was louder than the woman’s voice. The child, who was not really a child anymore, turned to her reflection. She did not see the soot or the wounds or the scars on her face. She saw her eyes aglow with hope, stoked as it had been by the stories.
Eventually, she was taken to the orphanage. Where she was warmly welcomed and then promptly dumped into a large room with two long rows of bunk beds.
This is where she met Sil. He told her he was sixteen and that he knew everything about the place, so if she needed anything, just ask.
He winked. No kid had winked at her before, only adults.
By that time, her face had been cleaned, but Linda had a feeling talking to Sil that everything that had ever existed in her life could be read in a glance at her somehow as easily as a palmist saw the future in heart and head lines.
Sil didn’t do much to make her feel comfortable. He told her where to find the dinning room and how to get there, and then he left the room.
Linda still held hope that she could start a new life the morning she arrived at the orphanage.
Then she met the other kids. Each walked according to adoptability. The youngest and cutest and funniest and smartest wore their qualities like badges, tickets to a better life.
The kids who looked like her walked with slumped shoulders, one foot in front of the other, head tilted down.
Linda put her hope in a steel box where she knew nobody would find it. She kept the box out of sight, draping the shine with heavy, dark cloth.
She tried her best to walk like the others. She took her seat at the table where kids who looked like her sat. And ate the muddy stew, conscious suddenly of the reflexive smile that popped up when she was being observed.
She realized that here, that smile was the opposite of what she needed to stay under the radar, and she spent the entire twenty minutes curbing the muscles around her mouth, pinching her lips, slacking each tell as it cropped up.
Hoping that none of the other kids like her could recognize the exercise. Dying to be alone. Knowing there was no more alone.
The grounds were nice. Hopscotch and other games painted on the pavement in bright primary colours. The black, iron fence made Linda feel safe.
She’d been living at the orphanage for three weeks before meeting the priest. He noticed her as soon as she walked into the room and that frightened her, because she didn’t know why.
How could she know he saw the things that haunted her? How could she know he was able and willing to set her free without an exchange?
The fear started to haunt her louder than anything else. She started running through walls with Sil and his boys. She started pilfering cans for acceptance.
She’d hid the steel box so well that she forgot it existed.
Hope looked different by then, anyway.
She prayed each night before bed, lead like the others by the ward night mistress. But she didn’t fumble the words to escape punishment. Linda found comfort in the prayers.
It wasn’t long before she started to walk in a way that didn’t fit in with the other kids who looked like her. She didn’t notice it. One of Sil’s friend’s did and he made fun of her so bad in front of everyone that she changed her posture, despite how she felt inside.
Linda was starting to see that if she was going to survive that place and make it on her own when it came time to live on the outside, she would have to learn to lie.
The idea scared her so much that she wasn’t able to sleep for three days, and when she did finally fall into a restless half-wake, half-sleep state, she punched and kicked at the air so violently, she fell off the bed.
She woke paralyzed, unable to get up off the floor, all muscles except her ocular muscles dead.
The dust bunnies terrified her as they danced with the flow of recycled air in the strong rays of silver coming from a full moon.
She had to hide her fear when the sun came up. She had to get up and walk like the other kids that looked like her.
She knew that if she didn’t, she would never make it out.