Sometimes the whitest lies hide the darkest secrets.
When you’re an orphan, you spend your days and nights dreaming and imagining who the people were that brought you into this world. Were they kind, good people who didn’t want to give you up, but had to—for your own good? Were they not-so-good people–bad even–who gave you up because they didn’t want you? No matter how hard you try to believe the first, as you get older that dream fades. The gilt on the edges of the fairy tale page starts to flake and the pictures start to crumble. The knight does get eaten by the dragon and the girl grubbing in the fire never sees the inside of a castle. Perhaps even worse is when the knight–white and shining–turns back into what he always was: a beast. A monster.
Every night after bed-check, the older girls would tells stories—scary stories, ghost stories, naughty stories—stories made for the darkness. These were the stories that had the ring of truth, although it took me a long time to realize that. I used to lay there, biting the edge of my pillow or the neck of my t-shirt so that I wouldn’t scream and attract the ridicule of the oldest girls. It took years before I realized who the real monsters were. And by then, it was too late.
“Lara, Lara, are you still sleeping?”
The whispered voice roused me from a dream I had often, a tall, dark haired man with eyes that crinkled at the corners and a smile like fresh milk came to the door and held out his arms to me and told me that he was my Papa. I groaned and pulled the edge of my thin blanket over my head, trying to shut out the faint glow of sunlight and the sound. The bunk above me creaked and the whole metal frame trembled as I freed one eye from the blindfold and looked up at the girl above me.
“Yes, I’m still sleeping,” I said to the blonde urchin leaning over the edge of the bunk to look down at me. “You should be, too.”
“I can’t! I’m too excited,” Jenna’s voice cracked with the effort of keeping her anticipation below a whisper.
My stomach sank all the way through the mattress until it slumped on the cold wooden floor. Today was the day Jenna would go to live with her new family. I was happy for her, really, but it seemed every time I made a friend, someone came to take them away.
“The Thorsens won’t be happy if you’re tired and grumpy when they come,” I rolled over so I wouldn’t have to see her smiling.
“I won’t be grumpy! I’ll be perfect—that’s what Mrs. Thorsen said when she saw me,” Jenna sighed on the word. “Perfect.”
I tried to block out her happy words with my pillow but the flimsy bedframe shook with her delighted bouncing until I rolled over and stared at the crisscrossed springs above my head. I knew sleep was lost as I lay there tracing the patterns in the rusted springs with my eyes until the sun came up for real and the dinging of our wake-up call rattled through the speakers in the ceiling.
Jenna dressed with even more care than usual, discarding her favorite, faded blue sweater for a less faded pink blouse, doing her best to smooth the wrinkles. She picked up her comb and turned to me, blue eyes round and beseeching.
“Oh, come here,” I said, patting my bunk.
As I pulled the comb through her hair, I hummed. It was a habit–one I assumed came from manufacturing memories of my mother doing the same. The song was one that only I seemed to know—so maybe someone did sing it to me, maybe the man with the loving eyes. It seemed to calm Jenna, which was especially important today. With her hair pulled back in a neat ponytail, she smiled brilliantly at me and I pulled on my worn jeans and over-sized cable-knit sweater. The other girls said I looked like a marshmallow in the cream-colored monstrosity; but it was warm. Jenna took my hand—something she hadn’t done since she turned eight, and I squeezed it gently before we walked down to breakfast.
The Head Matron, Mrs. Puckett (or Puckett as we called her, safely out of earshot) stood at the end of the meal and we set down our forks while she forced her stiff lips into a smile.
“Today is an exciting day for all of us, but especially for Jenna. She will leave us today to go home to her new mother and father,” she turned her plastic expression of happiness towards Jenna.
The table of younger girls banged their silverware on the tabletop in celebration. We older girls contented ourselves with sedate clapping. There weren’t many of us—at seventeen I was the oldest by several years.
“Say your goodbyes before lessons–we will start a bit later today to give everyone a chance to wish Jenna well,” Puckett sat down again as girls crowded around Jenna.
Some hung back, obviously jealous, but most girls—even the older ones who had given up hope of ever being part of a new family—were eager to give Jenna their good wishes. She was sweet and even the bullies left her alone; she had that effect on people. I was surprised it took this long for someone to choose her, but at eight, she still had plenty of time to enjoy with her new family. I hugged my sweater closer as I watched her blonde head bobbing excitedly through the crowd. Twelve days until I turned eighteen and then Cook’s Home for Orphaned Girls would no longer belong to me. Or I to it.