Street Rats Part II

Read Part I first

         Zion knelt with the thirteen other boys that picked pockets for the Thief Master. Rael himself looked over the piles of gemstones, coins, and jewelry that sat in front of each boy as they crouched on the damp stone floor, heads down. Sometimes, Zion saw the cracks in the floor when he closed his eyes at night, but he kept his eyes down until Rael’s hand landed lightly on his head. Rael nudged the pile in front of Zion with his boot, his thin lips squirming in a smile.
         “This is all?”
         Zion dug his bare feet into the stone and looked Rael in the eyes. “Yes, Rael.”
         “A little mouse saw you talking with a Great Merchant in the bazaar,” Rael said.
         Zion fought the urge to look down the line of boys. He trusted no one in the catacombs—another lesson hard earned at the hands of the Thief Master. Rael’s moods and favorites shifted more quickly than torchlight in a draught and the disfavored always sought ways to change their lot.
         “I spoke to his guardsman after the Merchant surprised me. I did not want to lose a hand,” Zion said.
         “Why would the guard of a Grand Merchant speak to the likes of you? My little mouse said it was a lengthy conversation.”
         Zion wondered—not for the first time—where Rael came from. His accent and words were cultured, even though he spoke the gutter-tongue of thieves and beggars to his boys.
         “He felt sorry for the refugees and asked if I got enough to eat. I think he might have offered me food or coin, but his master pulled him away,” Zion said.
         He hoped Rael could not see the way his heart hammered under his tunic or the way Solas’ coin seemed to burn into his chest. Rael grabbed a handful of Zion’s hair and tilted his head back until the tendons in his neck threatened to pop.
         “Are you lying, little Zion?” Rael’s breath caressed his cheek, smelling of the cloves he chewed. “I always know when you lie.”
         “I swear it is the truth on my immortal soul,” Zion said, gratified by the flicker in Rael’s eyes. To swear such an oath on a lie would doom his immortal soul to the darkness. If one believed such things.
         Rael released him and smoothed his hair down flat again. “But of course. You learned your lesson about carrying false tales, didn’t you? Next time you bring in so little, little Zion, I shall not be so benevolent.”
         Rael flicked Zion’s cheek and Zion tried not to flinch. He looked back down at the ground, knowing that Rael would see the hatred burning in his eyes even in the uncertain torchlight. The next boy was questioned about his earnings and Zion turned his head away at the sharp sound of flesh striking flesh and the boy’s pained yelp. He thought of his meeting with Solas and tried to gauge the time. It was always night in the catacombs. He would need to run if he was to meet Solas at the Broken Staff before moonrise. When the boys were finally released, they rose with sore knees and stiff backs and each boy received a silver coin and five coppers for dinner before they scattered like rats. Zion made his way back up to the surface in time to hear the final bells of the evening prayers sing their bronze dirge over the darkening city. Zion tucked his coins into several different pockets. He had lost many a night’s earning when he first joined Rael—the older boys waited outside the entrances and exits to the catacombs, ready to beat the weaker ones bloody for their few coppers. Anything they found that a boy held back from Rael would win favor for weeks. Zion learned his own ways in and out of Rael’s domain, abandoning them and finding new ones if he were ever discovered.
         He waited until any watching eyes would be hard-pressed to follow him before breaking into a run towards the Broken Staff. He ignored the moans of the huddled beggars and grunting pairs in the shadows. The whores had begun their nightly work as well. Panting, he finally slowed his pace several streets from the inn. It would not do to arrive out of breath. There was a small fountain in the circle formed where three streets met. At its center, a woman with one arm and no hand held a pitcher from which a stream of lukewarm, brackish water fell into the shallow, moss-greened basin. Zion thrust his hands under the stream and splashed the water onto his face and legs, trying to clean the worst of the dust from his feet. The Broken Staff was familiar with beggars, but a boy alone would be noticed. He felt for the coin; strangely cool despite the heat of the night and the warmth of his skin. When he reached the street where the Broken Staff leaned against similar establishments, he hesitated just outside the pool of light. Although the man spoke kindly—and in his mother tongue—it did not prove he meant well by Zion. Rael had once seemed protector and father. Zion straightened and moved Solas’ coin into a pocket in his sleeve where it would be easier to access. He was not a child as he had been when Rael found him. There were more than coins hidden in the pockets in his sleeves.

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Do Svidaniya

A continuation of the story started in Here, There be Monsters

drawing by me

drawing by me

         I heard Jenna call as the girls began to troop to their lessons, the hallways ringing with excitement and grumbling in equal measure. Her shout was the only warning I had before she launched herself into my arms, her head colliding with my chest. I stroked her hair back from her face and bent so that I could look into her eyes.
         “No tears, Jenna. You’re going to live with the Thorsens and they will be your family—a mum and dad, real ones,” the smile on my face felt as stiff as the Head Matron’s.
        “I wish you could come, too,” she said her bottom lip shaking as she tried not to cry.
         I laughed to myself at the thought of tiny blonde Mrs. Thorsen and her husband—both immaculately dressed in pastels every time I saw them—taking home a gangly seventeen year old with hair so dark it was almost black and eyebrows to match it.
         “I know, Jen, but you’re going to be so happy—the three of you. It will be wonderful.”
         “Maybe I can come back and visit?” her eyes looked even bigger, the tears sparkling on her lashes.
         I simply hugged her. If she ever came back—which I doubted to the depth of my being—I would be long gone.
         “Lara, lessons,” Puckett appeared, interrupting our goodbye. “Jenna, the Thorsens will be here any minute. Your things are packed up and waiting in the office,” she held out a dry, white hand.
         I squeezed Jenna tightly for the last time and released her to Puckett, ignoring the way my throat tightened as the little blonde pony tail swayed out the door.

         I was surprised when I received a letter just over a week later—it was from Jenna. She loved her new home and her new parents, they had a cat—a fat gray tabby—and a swimming pool they could heat even in winter. She sounded blissfully happy. I folded up the letter and stuffed it into my knapsack, along with everything else that belonged to me. I wore one of my two pairs of jeans and my only sweater–the marshmallow. My three other shirts, underwear, socks, two books, and my limited toiletries were already packed into the beat up canvas bag. My one good pair of shoes—some old leather combat boots, were already laced. It was convenient that my birthday fell right when lessons broke for Christmas. According to Puckett, anyway. The other girls were downstairs—enjoying their end of term hot chocolate and cookie snack, a very rare treat. I needed the few moments alone. I could count the number of times I had been completely alone over the last eighteen years. I sat with my eyes closed, enjoying the solitude, carefully keeping my mind empty of where I would go from here. The floorboards creaked and I knew, without turning, that it was Puckett.
         “Well,” she said.
         Her voice always reminded me of the sound dead leaves made when you stomped on them.
         I stood and pulled the straps of my knapsack on over my shoulders.
         “Lara, you’ve been with us a long time. You’ve been a good girl and a good worker. I have your wages from the library that become yours when you leave,” she held out a fat envelope to me.
         I took it, not bothering to check the cash inside. I carefully tabulated my hours at the library, so I had a pretty good idea of how much there was. Not nearly enough.
         “And this.”
         As she handed me a second envelope, I saw uncertainty in her face for the first time.
         “You know what time the bus comes?”
         I nodded.
         “Well. Good. We will…miss you, Lara.”
         I knew it was a lie, but I gave her a perfect fake smile that sent her out the door and back to her office. She too would be enjoying hot chocolate, no doubt diluted liberally with peppermint schnapps. The children would think she smelled festive. The scent lingered even as I heard her heavy tread fade. There was a note scrawled across the front of the yellow envelope. “To be given at eighteen.” It was Puckett’s handwriting and I knew it sat in my file since the first day I came here. I took a deep breath and tried to keep my fingers from shaking as I tore down the side of the envelope and slid the folded paper out.

         Dearest Nadia,
         I know they will have given you another name, since I told them you had none. But to me, you are my Nadia, my hope. I know this place is not a home, even though I can read it on the sign outside. I know it will be cold and hard and you will have no mother to comfort you. I also know it is better this way. You may not believe me, dearest Nadia, but it is true. It is one of two truths I can offer you. The first—and most important—is that I love you, my darling, my hope. The second is as I told you, you will never know me and that is the greatest gift I can offer to you. Take them both and live, my darling daughter.

         do svidaniya

         I realized I had been holding my breath, the letter was damp in my hands and I loosened my grip, afraid to tear the age-thinned paper. Nadia. I tried to think of myself as Nadia and shook my head; too late for that, now. The words at the bottom caught my eye. Do svidaniya . I tried it out loud. Russian, I thought. It made sense, with the name “Nadia” as well. I looked back down. The slanting handwriting was delicate, feminine—nothing like my heavy-handed script. I pictured a beautiful woman, with dark hair like mine and a full figure–not like mine—penning these words as I lay sleeping, perhaps only a few hours old. This, this is what she left me? My mother who claimed to love me? A name I did not own, two words in Russian, and a promise that I would never know her.
         The paper crinkled under my fingers as I tried to keep the hot tears running down my nose in check. I stopped myself just short of tearing it to shreds and stuck in back in the envelope, tucking it into an outside pocket of my bad next to Jenna’s letter. I shoved the envelope of money into the front of my jeans, despite the way the paper poked me, and pulled my sweater back over it. I checked the cheap watch on my wrist. The bus would be at the stop down the road in ten minutes. And I would be on it.

Here, There Be Monsters

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.