“Surrounded by darkness yet enfolded in light”
― Alan Brennert, Moloka'i
Everything is dark, I can't see a thing and suddenly it's choking me, pressing on my body from all directions, tendrils entwining around my neck, sliding into my eyes, nose and mouth, suffocating me. Then I am running down a deserted street, rain pouring down, running over the cobbles and pattering in the flooded gutters. Then they are there, pulling me along, the same but different, his dark curls and his light tousled locks. We are at the gates and they are wrapping their arms around me. "No," I plead, "No, don't leave me! Please!" "But we must" They say in unison, "You'll be safe here". I burst into tears as they fade away but there is something behind me, something horrible. I can sense its presence and I can barely breathe. I turn around, rooted to the spot and...
"Marlin! Wake up, wake up you stupid girl" I bolt upright and find myself staring into the bulging, bloodshot eyes of the matron. "Just because this is your last day here it doesn't mean you can get away with tardiness. Now get up and make yourself presentable, Miss Wakefield is waiting!" Matron screeches before hobbling away to find her next victim. Matron is the oldest person I have ever known, she is grey and grizzled and her single remaining tooth is yellowed and jagged. Her whiskers are bristly and her warts plentiful, she is the terror of Miss Wakefield's School for Troubled Children. Second only to Miss Wakefield herself of course.
I roll out of bed and climb into my uniform. As I examine my face in the mirror, I think about the dream. it's always the same, I have had it for as long as I can remember, the darkness, then the running and then the goodbye. And then there is that feeling of something behind me, but I always wake up before I get the chance to see it. The dream has always made me wonder if I ever had a life outside the school. If I ever had a family. But then I am always snapped out of my musings by the harsh light of reality. I am Marlin. I am an orphan. I am completely alone on this earth, there is no one on the outside for me. I have no one apart from me. Suddenly I glance at the at the clock on the wall and curse under my breath. I'm going to be late.
I yank my shock of brown curls into the neatest bun I can manage and stuff my feet into the scuffed shoes I forgot to polish last night. Again. I run out of my tiny room, slamming the door behind me. I skid along the corridor before racing down the long passageway that leads to Miss Wakefield's office. As I try to creep through the door it goes silent in the office and the line of seniors turn to stare at me. "Marlin Pellitier," says Miss Wakefield coldly, "Nice of you to join us."
I walk to the end of the line and try not to slouch or fidget so I don't give her another excuse to punish me. Jobs are issued to the seniors one by one. As the oldest students in the school it is considered our duty to take care of the younger ones. As soon as our official education was completed we were immediately put to work, slaving away for hours on end, all day everyday. Some are put to work in the school rooms, some clean, I myself have spent many hours scrubbing away at the hard stone floors and I have the sores to prove it. Some people help Cook down in the kitchens or serve the food at meals. The people who are good with the younger children become carers or minders. And then there is the job that I always seem to get stuck with. "Marlin," shouts Miss Wakefield, "Hold your head up high and wipe that expression off your face. You're on Ward 13."
I groan inwardly and walk out the office. I always get put on Ward 13. Every single day. I suppose it's because I'm one of the only students who really know the truth about Ward 13 (aside from its occupants of course.) The walk to Ward 13 is a long one and I stop briefly to gather the supplies that I will need and make a quick visit to the kitchens before making my way to the far end of the school. There are several doors with signs that ban unauthorised access and finally one that states 'Enter at your own risk'. I sigh and push the large black key into the lock and watch as the heavy door swings open into Ward 13.
Now, there is something I have to tell you about Ward 13. If the rest of the school are troubled children, the occupants of Ward 13 are the especially troubled children. They have to be contained to prevent them from hurting themselves or others. They are guarded all around the clock and only a few people are allowed to have access to them. Including me of course. My job is to go around the cells, drop off the objects that they need and talk to them. Basically to make sure they don't go anymore insane than they already are.
Miss Wakefield always says that troubled is just her way of saying gifted. She doesn't want people from the outside to be tempted to investigate us. She says if she had named the institute Miss Wakefield's Home For Gifted Children people would have been curious. They would have come from miles around to marvel at us. We would have been freaks in a freak show. So it had to be troubled.
People with minor and controllable gifts are put in the main school along side the people with no gifts at all like me. Unless you count sleeping over the morning rising bell on a regular basis a gift. Then I'm the most powerful of them all. My friend Evelyn is gifted. Sometimes, when she concentrates very hard she can make objects levitate for a few seconds. It can be very impressive but she has a tendency to faint clean away afterwards so she usually refrains from putting her gift to the test. The people with the stronger gifts, or the people with gifts who aren't quite of the soundest mind are put in Ward 13. It's basically a lunatic asylum for magic people.
No one really knows why some people are gifted in these ways. Miss Wakefield once read an extract from a prophecy in morning assembly. I know it talked of dark and light power and the parting of the ways but I don't think I was really paying much attention.
Anyway, back to Ward 13. My first stop is Eugene. As usual, he is sitting on the ceiling. "Good morning Eugene!" I cry, as I unlock his cell. I stride over to his bed and begin changing the sheets and plumping the pillow. "Hello Marlin," He says quietly, and begins to crawl down the wall until he is standing next to me. Eugene is about eleven years old with a mass of bright ginger hair and more freckles than nearly everyone I know put together. He is subdued and shy and it was several weeks before I could coax even a nod or a shake of the head out of him. I hand him his meagre meal tray and apologise as he stares at it in disappointment. "I'm sorry," I say, "Chef was in a terrible mood this morning and this is all he gave me." Eugene nods and takes the tray. I look around conspiratorially and lean in to whisper in his ear, "But guess what I managed to get." I reach into the pocket of my apron and pull out a sticky bun with a bright red cherry on the top. His face lights up and he lets out a nervous giggle. "Thank you," He whispers before wrapping his arms around my waist and looking up at me with eyes shining with tears, "I'm going to miss you Marlin."
After hugging Eugene back I realised I had to go so I told him I would miss him too and carried on my route whilst he returned to the ceiling. The next person is Bessie. Bessie is even less talkative than Eugene. She arrived a few years ago. Rumour has it she came from a tiny village in northern Ireland where she burnt the entire village down, killing every single person there. She terrifies me. She is sitting facing the wall when I unlock the door and I jump as she shoots a fireball into the wall next to my head. I gasp and nearly trip over the threshold before gathering my wits. "What was that for?" I shout, slamming the tray down on the floor next to her. Bessie's room is even creepier than her. All over the once white walls and ceiling she has burnt horrible pictures of fire and burning and death. There is also a permanent haze of smoke that stings your eyes if you stay too long. She turns to me with fire flickering over her hands and arms and I see with a pang that her eyes are filled with tears. "Look," I say, "I'm sorry, you just scared me a bit there."
"You know, you're the only person who has tried to be my friend here" She says suddenly, in a low and husky voice. I start because I have never heard her speak before. "And I just want to say thank you, and good luck". She turns back to the wall like nothing every happened. I smile at the back of her head and leave a sticky bun next to the bread and stew on her tray.
The rest of the morning passes in a blur and as I go around distributing the sticky buns and going through so many good byes and receiving so many wishes of luck and happiness in the future I almost found myself being reluctant to leave all these people i had grown to know so well. Even the invisible triplets cease their perpetual tricks to say good bye to me. After lunch, Matron sought me out to inform me that I was not scheduled work in the afternoon. Instead I had a meeting with Miss Wakefield and then I would have a chance to bid my farewells to the girls in the main school.
As I made my way to Miss Wakefield's office, I marvelled at the familiarity of these halls, how I was soon going to leave them behind me forever. Miss Wakefield is sitting bolt upright in her chair, her bun scraped back so tightly it seems like her eyes would pop out of her head. As soon as I sit down on the hard, wooden chair that is always in front of her desk she clears her throat and begins. "Marlin, I have something for you. It is something I should have given you long ago and I'm sorry that I have kept it from you." She reaches down into the depths of her desk and pulls out a small package. I take it gingerly and stare down at it, afraid what the contents might be. "Where did you get it?" I ask tentatively. "It was with you when you arrived here. You were unconscious outside the gates and it was clutched in your hand." Miss Wakefield says. "Who is it from?" I ask, trying to contain the avalanche of questions racing through my mind. "It's from," Miss Wakefield pauses to look me directly in the eye, "It's from your brothers."