“The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness”
As predicted, I hadn’t had a wink of sleep last night. Every time I closed my eyes, I kept on surfacing to the day I woke up in the labs, clueless and afraid of myself. Also, partly because I felt like I should watch over Poppy. I know it’s stupid, but I feel like Headmistress and the rest of the staff – forget that – it’s like the whole school is waiting for me fall asleep so that they can carry her away and do more horrid things to her.
I have been wondering as well. I thought about the others outside in the wilderness. In history class, they tell us that we are special and that we are chosen to become the new generation of ‘perfect’ humans, although I don’t see how beating us will make us perfect.
I wonder what they did to the rest. Did they kill them all or let them rot out there without any food or shelter? I heard once the teachers talk about ‘other schools’ and that means that there is more of places like this. I wonder if they erase everyone’s memories, because each student here is either a beggar, a child to a prostitute or a drunkard, a child to a murderer, an orphan or a past criminal.
How much of it is a lie and how much is the truth? I don’t believe them, because if they were to actually get poor and downtrodden children and keep them here, feeding them and educating them, then that would be kindness. And this is not what it is.
What if most of us here had a good life and we didn’t want to stay here? Of course we would want to be safe in this building, with hot food every day and education and a bed to sleep in, if we know that out there we have no one, if we know that we are trash.
I sigh and get up, glorious for the break of dawn’s light crawling through the window. The dormitory is slowly beginning to become luminous, as if in slow motion. First, I begin to see clearly, then I see the dim outline of the beds and then the whole dormitory.
I yawn slightly and smirk. So now is the time my brain decides it wants to sleep? Not so fast there, pal.
I have to get up earlier than most today, because I am on kitchen duty. I had to cook yesterday and today I am at the counter. It’s an easy job and you only need to ask if the person wants blueberries or butter on top of their pancakes. Sometimes, I sneak a few berries into my mouth when Breeda, the cook, isn’t watching.
I hop off my bed lightly, my feet colliding with the icicle-like floor and sending goose bumps to erect all over my body. I shudder and silently, careful to not to wake the others up, I make my bed. I straighten the sheets, beat up the pillow and tuck in the covers. God help you if they see that your bed is not made or in a state.
I grab my toothpaste, hairbrush and towel form the cabinet, along with my uniform and tip-toe to the bathroom, sneaking a look at Poppy. She is sleeping soundlessly, her mouth open and drooling. I suppress the urge to laugh softly. I also see that her bandage is now deep crimson and I bite on the inside of my cheek. I need to change it, but that would wake her up. I decide to leave some fresh bandages at the cabinet for her.
I reach the bathroom and I curse at myself mentally for not wearing my slippers, because of how blue my feet are getting. It’s near the end of summer, but the bathroom here is always cold, like a fridge.
I quickly take a shower, the freezing water attacking my flesh like daggers. At least it wakes me up. We only have hot showers on the weekends and still they are only lukewarm. I wash my hair out too, because it has been a week since I properly took care of it, due to the impossible queue to the showers. These are the perks of being on kitchen duty.
You could wake up earlier every day just to wash your hair, but you wouldn’t get out alive. The other girls will kill you if you wake them up. I’m only immune, because they know that I actually have to get up.
I slip on my uniform, which is a simple grey skirt that passes by my knees, a light blue blouse and a grey vest. We usually wear jumpers, but because it’s summer, it is too warm.
I brush my teeth furiously, desperate to get the stench of a grave out of my mouth. I would normally brush them after I eat, but since I have to literally stuff my face before the first class, seeing as I will be too busy to eat, I would not be able to do it. I use the toothpaste sparsely, because we only get a new one at least once every two or three months and if you use it up, then you need to either do without it and stink like a skunk or rely on your friends to help you out. The last option doesn’t even exist for me.
I rake down my hair with the stiff brush that tears out half of my scalp. I have to hold my frizzy hair in place to prevent the pain. I have no other choice, because it’s either this or looking like a banshee. I prefer the first option.
I plat my hair neatly and let it fall behind my back, still damp. You can wear your hair down, but it’s better to leave it up, because it gets in your face and then you need to constantly brush it back, which irritates me. And if you have bushy and frizzy hair like mine, then your new best friend is a pony-tail or a plat.
When I am done, I stare at myself. I look like Death. I blame this on fatigue and the everyday horror of seeing Poppy beaten again. My cheeks are hollow and my skin is too pallid. My hair is its usual ash blonde, dully curling at the temples. I hate it when it does that, because it makes me look like I have tiny horns.
My eyes are bloodshot and have deep and dark shadows beneath them. The obscurity cannot be hidden from them, even if I smile. I look like I am dying inside, which is true.
My thin arms are skeletal, making me look like a scarecrow. I am not tall and I envy those who are, secretly. They look so graceful, striding in adagio tempo as they walk. But I look like some retarded duck, clumsily dragging my feet and slouching as if I have ten kilograms slapped on my back.
I am pretty small, not medium tall or petite, but very small. Poppy is almost up to my elbows, that’s how small. I hate it, because whenever Willow decides to make fun of me, I look ridiculous trying to snap back, with her as tall as a tree and me like some elf.
Suddenly, I am aware that someone is watching me. I turn to see Poppy standing in the doorway, staring. I feel rather embarrassed by the fact that I was ogling at myself. It must have looked like I was admiring myself. I turn scarlet and I feel heat rise up on my cheeks.
“Beautiful,” Poppy smiles and I give a hollow laugh. I am too relived to do anything else, but embrace her in a big hug. I am so glad that she is not mute anymore. That’s my Poppy, stronger than I thought she would be.
“And you are a liar, little mouse!” I tickle her neck and she giggles softly. I press a finger to my lips, stifling a laugh, because all I need now is for the whole dormitory to wake up.
I turn her hands and see that she has in fact, brought the extra cloth that I have left at the cabinet, with her. She must have wanted to change it. My face turns grim and I stop laughing, because the memory of her screams cuts through my mind and I flinch, breathing deeply in and out. Those screams will stay with me forever. There is just too much that time won’t be able to erase.
I change the bandage and brush away one of her brown curls form her face. She smiles at me in thanks. Her astral eyes look at me softly and she blinks with her long lashes. She looks just like a doll that little children play with, a beautiful little doll.
“Go to bed, Poppy,” I whisper, “I need to get to the kitchens, before Muffin thwacks me with her wooden spoon again,” I say. ‘Muffin’ is a nickname for Breeda, because her last name is Dough. Quite ironic, with her being a cook and all.
“M‘kay,” she mutters and her smile sinks. She knows that I will have to leave her and we will only see each other at dine times, because she is a junior so we have different classes.
“Hey, it’ll be fine,” I soothe her, lifting her chin up with my finger, “If anyone tries to hurt you, I will protect you, okay? Don’t worry. I will see you at breakfast. You want me to save the raspberries for you?” I eye her cheekily and she tries to hide her grin by pressing her lips together, but it’s not working.
“Okay, little mouse. Time to go,” I kiss her forehead and ruffle her hair. She stays behind and I leave her to her privacy. Everyone is more or less asleep. I see a few girls are up and those who are mad about books are reading in the dim light, although I wouldn’t do that, and the others who love to draw still have paint in their hair and are furiously slashing their pencils across some paper.
I was always jealous of those who could draw beautifully. I envied how they made the objects re-appear on the white and empty sheet. I love how the thin lead of the pencil would smoothly glide across making arcs and lines that would turn into a breathtaking image.
I am not special. I am not a bookworm who knows every line of each poem or some story, but I do like to read occasionally. I don’t draw or play any instrument or a sport. All I am good for is looking after Poppy and I am happy with that.
However, I do like flowers, not in the scientific ways, but I like to look after them and daydream in their presence. It makes me feel like there is still some beauty left in this morbid world, like the most obscure place will still have a little ray of sunshine.
That’s why gardening chores are my favorite. Most people hate them, because they get grime on their hands and dirt under their nails and on their uniforms, but I don’t mind. I could come out with my head covered in soil and not care. The Glasshouse is my favorite place and I like to spend time there during the weekends with Poppy.
I walk through the hallways that are looming and creaking like they want to collapse over me and squash me to a pulp. The air is arid and the sun is now fully out, with the pretty sunrise colors sending glistening, golden shadows over the walls and the floors.
The dormitories are on the second and third floors. The boys have theirs on the third and the girls are on the second. Of course, they are on the other side of the building, just as a precaution and I am glad, because I don’t feel safe sleeping and knowing that they might come in at any moment, seeing me half-naked.
I don’t really make acquaintance with boys, partly because they don’t speak to me. We avoid each other and I like that. I feel nervous in their presence and I haven’t spoken to one properly, except to ask what they want for breakfast.
I guess what also puts me off is that I also must marry one of them in a year.
The Foyer is also huge. The marble floor has various spiraling designs of murals and mosaics. There are patterns on it, reminding me of how Churches have the Renaissance paintings on the inside of the dome walls. The ceiling is round and cavernous, like a bell jar, echoing my footsteps.
The walls are covered in pictures of the teachers, the Headmistress, the President and students who have earned Accolades. Those are like rewards and they are usually for being stuck up and telling on anyone who misbehaves or on those who give out about a teacher in secret or if you catch someone smoking. We can’t smoke or do drugs, because of our health policy and it’s very serious if you do get caught.
This is, miraculously, the only thing that I agree on with the school. I don’t see the point of killing yourself faster. Sure it may be pleasant or something, I haven’t tried it, but I don’t want to poison my lungs, when my mind is already being poisoned.
If you do get caught, you are practically dead. Once, Prax Major got found out smoking in the Glasshouse and it was horrible. They locked him up in the Crypt for a whole week, with no food or water. Let’s just say that Poppy’s stutter was minor compared to what he had. I haven’t seen him since that time.
Also, there is the chores list. It’s a huge screen which projects the name and job beside it. We used to have a chalk board, but people began to wipe out their duties and put in the desired ones instead, so that was scrapped.
I shuffle up to it, examining and scanning around for my name. It is rotated every week to keep it fair and usually everyone has a job each week. It’s rare to be off chores.
The girls and boys have equal shares of chores. We all have to do kitchen duty, gardening, working at the hospital, cleaning and other things, but girls only do the laundry and boys only do the fixing and building. We have some fields to reduce the cost of buying food, but it’s nothing much.
When I spot my name, my heart sinks. I am up next for laundry. I hate it there, because the laundry rooms are so clammy that it’s airtight in my throat and the steam burns your fingers when you fold the bed sheets. Then I also have to wash the windows. That’s not too bad, better than washing the toilets or the floors anyways.
I sigh and make my way to the Dining Hall, which is to my left. But before I enter the huge mahogany doors, I see the main entrance open and three figures walk inside.
Two bulky men stride in, who are the Peacemakers and one boy who is being hauled inside.The men are wearing black uniforms and they are carrying guns. I freeze in my spot, praying that they won’t notice me. I know it’s silly and that they wouldn’t shoot, but the fear of being punctured by a small bullet, makes me die on the spot. It’s like a huge thorn surrounding your thoughts and you can’t do anything, but stand there, motionless.
I can’t see their faces, because they are carrying the boy by his limbs. He seems to be unconscious, but then again, all of them are when they first come. He is quite big and he must be about my age. I only see his ink-black hair swaying, as his limp body gets hauled up the Main Staircase.
Suddenly, I feel like I have seen something that I shouldn’t have. I swallow hard and swiftly abandon the Foyer, almost running to the kitchens, doing my best to look normal. I know that I wasn’t supposed to see him, because a voice inside my head screams alarm!
When I come to the kitchens I see Breeda standing there eagle- eyed and her wooden spoon at the ready. I glance at the clock and it’s 07.28 am. I grin, but keep my distance from her.
She is plump and medium height. Her hair is up in a knot and covered with a fish-net cap. She is wearing her usual uniform that consists of an apron and her famous wooden spoon.
Her oblong face is set in an irritated expression, her teeth in a snarl. I see that they are yellow and nearly gag, but I manage to contain myself. Her forehead is way too high and her long nose hooks over her thins lips. Her hands are covered in flour, which is also smeared across her left cheek.
“I still have two more minutes,” I say as-a-matter-of-factly and she just grunts.
“Get in there, or this spoon will stick to yar head for the rest of yar life,” she hisses and I sidestep her, squirming through the doorway and walking into the steam and smell of pancakes.
I don’t technically need to do anything, but to keep her from getting angrier, I carry the plates to the counter and fill each container with blueberries, raspberries, sugar, honey or syrup. They are all in order and it’s easier that way to just scoop up anything they ask for and plop it onto the pancake.
There is no one else here apart from me, Breeda and Molly, who I rarely speak to. She is a year younger than me, with hazel eyes and light brown hair. She hunches over trying to get the pancakes done in a hurry. She is a good cook, even better than me. Then again, I am never good at anything.
Finally, the Dining Hall begins to get filled up. Hundreds of boys and girls stand in a single file, each waiting for their order. This is what I hate about the job. I have to look at each and every one of their miserable faces, witnessing the bruises and cuts.
The Dining Hall is also cavernous. There are rows upon rows of wooden tables that spread out, down to the very end. Huge chandeliers hang from the ceiling and I sincerely feel sorry for those who need to dust them. There are huge marble pillars running down the centre of the Hall, with a few spaces between each. The teachers’ dais is up at the very back, with high chairs and a raised platform.
The windows are highly arched in Gothic style and the sunlight beams through them, illuminating every fleck of dust, making it shimmer.
It seems like hours until the line gets shorter. Finally, Poppy orders her usual; raspberries and honey. I give her a small wink as she waddles off to a nearby table.
Then up next is a light haired boy, with almond shaped eyes that are so wide you can even see flecks of hazel in the sea of green. His face is square and set into a crooked grin. He has a tall and stocky build, his hands in his pockets. Suddenly, one hand rushes through his hair, tousling it. I roll my eyes. Marcus.
“What would you like?” I ask him. He lifts his brows, smiling.
“Give me sugar and lemon,” he purrs seductively. I click my tongue impatiently. Marcus is one of those boys who wants every girl. He has had a record of kissing at least each senior, except me. I wonder how come he never gets caught? It is against the rules to have relationships though.
I sprinkle the sugar onto the steaming pancakes and squirt the lemon on top. When I am done, I hand him the plate and he winks at me. I say nothing, but “Next!” He’s quite annoying actually and I try to avoid him, because there have been incidents when a girl is left alone with a boy.
Of course, the girl gets the blame because in the past her mother was a whore, so presumably she is to blame for seducing the boy. I shudder. I don’t know what happens to them after that, but it can’t be anything good.
When the line disperses and everyone is seated and stuffing their faces with the food, I am free to have my own breakfast. The Hall is in its usual buzz and I get whiffs of conversations. Then, hearing one, I freeze.
“Did you hear that Glitch screaming last night?” Willow’s voice hisses and she gives a callous laugh. I grit my teeth and clench tightly to the counter edge, stifling the urge to throw the berries at her.
“I bet you she glitches when she screams,” says Cara, one of her friends. She immediately begins to twitch her face and say “G-glitch, g-glitch, g-glitch,” they all laugh and I look over at Poppy to see if she has heard and mercifully she is eating as if nothing has happened.
I vow to get Willow back for this. How dare she? I wonder does she scream when her pretty face is cut and bruised. I wonder is she’ll ‘glitch’ if her long, dark hair is shaved off. I would give anything to just see that.
“Baywell!” I hear Muffin boom through the hot steam and I turn around, “What’s with ya girl? Ya look as white as milk!” she gasps. I swallow and shrug.
“Nothing,” I mutter and take a few deep breaths.
“Right then,” she snaps back, “Get this to the labs, Rita must be starving, poor thing!” she rasps and hands me a tray full of food.
I am about to protest that I won’t have time to eat, but the sudden memory of the wooden spoon shuts me up. The tray is heavy and I pray to God that I won’t drop it or else it’s off with my head.
I inhale the smell of coffee and the instant caffeine hits my nose. It’s so good, the fumes licking around my nose. The rest of the tray is full of pancakes oozing with butter. My stomach churns at the sight of them. I guess I’ll have to wait until lunch time.
When I am up on the fifth floor sudden realization seeps into my brain that I will have to see my Healers again.
Hence, the third nightmare begins.
I have never been back up to the labs, because I don’t want to relive my bad dreams, but also due to the fact that we are strictly forbidden to go up here. I think that’s what Poppy might have done. She must have wandered too far, her curiosity getting the better of her and she was caught.
I don’t know where they will be, but I have a feeling that it is the ward with the lights on. I can’t see anything through it, because it’s so blurry, but the moment I step towards the door, it slides open.
I see no one here. The room is empty and I am back in my first bad dream. The silver walls glisten painfully, muddling up my vision. The rows of lab tables are empty, each metallic and cold. The ice-like air is gnawing at my bare neck and my fingers turn blue.
The projection lights are on, but no one is around. I wonder where they went. What if this is a trap? What if they knew that I must have helped Poppy somehow and they plan to cut off my hair or burn me with a poker, or worse? What if they want to erase my memories? Experiment on me?
I feel sudden nausea coming on and my eyes dart around in panic. I feel stupid standing here with my tray, with nowhere to go. My back becomes wet with cold sweat and my hair sticks to the back of my neck. I begin to breathe deeply and when nothing happens, I let out a sigh of relief.
I walk up to one of the tables and plant the tray gingerly onto it. I have succeeded in keeping it intact and whole. I wipe my forehead.
I turn to the doorway, realizing that they must have just been taking care of the boy that I saw this morning, so they probably are escorting him to Madame Rees’ office. I laugh at how silly I am.
Suddenly, I feel a hand on my mouth, which closes tightly. The other jams my windpipe and the air is taken out of my lungs.