“Are you from around here?” Hellebore asked again. Her eyes were glazed over as she shuffled between the piles of dirty clothing heaped on the old worn rug, reaching out to rearrange them, but her fingers often slipped right off, leaving the cloth where it was, and she would move on.
Tea couldn’t tell if she was doing it purposefully, but she was distracted without doubt. All afternoon Hellebore had been attempting to make a conversation with Poppy, but came up with the same questions time and time again.
Poppy continued to nod politely, even as Tea began to twitch irritably. She hadn’t rediscovered her source of energy that jolted her awake, and her bones were even more uncomfortably visible through her crater-filled dark skin in the pale light that shone through the large windows of the orphanage, but even in the short space of time since she had arrived, she seemed calmer, happier, with the occasional twitch.
When she spoke, she stuttered.
Tea had realised that her speech-pattern was a stutter, and though it almost touched him as endearing at first, now it was getting annoying.
On the other hand, every else seemed to not mind. They had been peering in on the new girl since Tea had placed her on the worn-out chair in the living room, trying to make conversation. Some were sympathetic, some looked at her in pity, and others didn’t seem to care at all, though all the children were idle.
Bluebottle thought it was cute.
She stayed close to Tea, standing ever closer behind his shoulder, but he noticed the supressed smile struggle with her lips whenever the new girl tried to pronounce her Ps.
But even Bluebottle seemed as though the larger part of her mind was focused elsewhere. In fact, the whole house was quieter than normal. The usual arguments and racket were all but gone, and the children passed in and out of rooms without so much as a whisper, except to ask Poppy the same old questions.
“Who did you live with?” Hellebore enquired.
Now sitting on a flaky varnished table in an upstairs room – Poppy’s new room, which had been previously used as a dumping ground for clothes that couldn’t quite make it down to the river to be washed- the new question drew Tea’s attention away from the window, where he’d been watching a man amusingly struggle over the cobblestones with a rickety wheelbarrow.
It was something he had meant to ask, but as soon as he’d managed to get the girl’s name out of her, she’d fallen back into a silent stupor, and since she’d awoken Hellebore and the others had managed to monopolise the poor girl’s time in an attempt to distract themselves, and her, too, perhaps.
Bluebottle had been feigning gazing out of the window, too, but Tea had noticed her glances in his direction. He had dismissed them, as always he did. She glanced at him now, too, a soft smile fixed on her lips. Tea pretended it was the sun that put it there, and not his safe return.
Instead of answering the question, Poppy looked down, and began to scratch at the holes on her arms.
This action seemed to bring Hellebore back to herself, as she leapt forward and smacked the girl’s hand away, stunning her into stillness, stuck with a confused and hurt twist to her lips and eyebrows.
“Did you live alone?” Bluebottle asked gently, betraying her care for the girl in the way she managed to tear her eyes from Tea’s face.
Poppy’s lips were pressed hard together, but slowly she shook her head.
“No, I was wi-th my fath-ther.” Her voice was barely a whisper.
“Was he the one you were afraid of?” Tea spoke up, voice clear and determined, startling the three girls. “Were you running from him? Why? Did he give you those marks?”
For a long moment three pairs of eyes were wide, pressing in on him.
And as one went blank, and one looked on uneasily, another grew angry.
Hellebore’s rage leapt at him.
“You can’t just ask that!” She screeched, “You can’t! That’s so insensitive! Have you never felt pain in your life?”
Tea blinked, astonished, and then laughed bitterly as Hellebore’s expression crumbled.
“Oh.” She sobbed, “Oh. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Tea was about to make a jibe in return, when he was struck by the way Hellebore continued,
“Your parents. I’m sorry.”
His expression blanked.
The images of his parents as he last saw them filled his mind – his mother’s hair, the colour of a summer sunset, spread over her green sack rucksack, blowing gently in the breeze; his father’s hair, tousled black. He didn’t think he could recall their faces- they had never turned back to look at their son one last time, never turned at the end of the farm path to wave…
His parents. They were probably dead, though how would he know?
For the first time in a long time, he remembered that he was more than just someone who existed, he had been someone’s child, and they were gone.
But why should he care? He knew they weren’t worth crying over.
He’d spent years believing they were the most incredible parents a child could ask for – they were clever, they taught him to read, they let him help on the farm and sung to him.
But when he got to the orphanage, when he began to boast, and when he began to see the tears that flowed from the other children’s eyes when they spoke of the warmth of their lost parents… when Bluebottle talked about her fathers… that was when he starting to think that he was wrong.
He could still taste the rage that filled his mouth when the other children spoke of joy, and play, and being given the lion’s share of what little food there was, and being protected from harm.
Tea remembered labour, he remembered the disappointed gazes of his parents when he couldn’t manage what they could, he remembered smaller portions because he was the smallest, and he remembered the guitar. The antique, completely off-limits guitar, and the fear that flooded him when he accidentally broke the string.
But the thing that really made him bitter was the girl who shared his room who never shut up about how her fathers used to lie together with her in the middle, huddled closely together, sharing warmth and happiness.
He couldn’t recall the last time his parents had hugged him.
That contrast was what made him hit Bluebottle the first time.
Tea looked back out of the window to hide his shame at the thought.
“It’s fine.” He shrugged, uncaring, “It doesn’t bother me anymore. I spent most of my life not seeing them, anyway. You know, with farm work… Archaeological expeditions…”
Breathing in slowly through his nose, he reminded himself of the years he’d worked on not caring.
For a moment, he was victim to stares of disbelief, stares that had never gone away since he’d started to tell people he didn’t give a damn - children with loving parents were supposed to love them back.
“Wh-who was th-the man upstairs?” Poppy asked, drawing the stares away.
The emotion fell again from Hellebore’s face, distraction returned. She reached down to a pile of clothes and her finger glided past a green tunic once, twice, three times.
In silence, she stared at her hand like it was alien, and began to cry.
When Tea had returned with Poppy, the orphanage had been silent, the door ajar.
Inside, the peeling walls did not echo with insults, nor footsteps, not even the creak of a floorboard, just the ghostly crackling of candle flames, their shadows making writhing monsters across the floors.
In the uppermost room, where Rue had been consumed by agony there were three figures:
Hellebore, whose face was beyond the bounds of distraught as she curled herself into the foetal position by the door; another kid he could have known, but with so many in the orphanage, and it being dark, he couldn’t think up the name; and a final body sprawled on the floor, arms twisted to unnatural positions, skin bruised and scabbed with the appearance of having been ripped, neck torn wide open.
The priest that Hellebore believed in so much was a shredded corpse in front of her.
It was unknown where Rue had gone from the third set of stairs down from her room, where the blood off the souls of her feet had finally dried completely.
Tea had stared at the priest for a long time, forgetting about the weight in his arms of the young girl, already traumatised and now without warning faced with this horror.
He pressed his lips tightly together, turning them white with pressure, and he wondered if the priest had kept his promise not to tell.
For just a moment, his mouth had twitched into a smirk,
It can only be a good thing, he’d allowed himself to think for just a moment, that this man is dead.
It had been Poppy’s gaze that had drawn him away. She didn’t seem phased by the body, but rather stared imploringly up into his eyes, through him, as though she could read his mind with her one good eye.
Under the hold of that gaze, he managed to shift Poppy’s weight to one arm and use the other arm to pull Hellebore away from the scene.
He shook the crude thought from his mind, and retreated back to the ground floor.
“Will Poppy be alright?” Bluebottle whispered through the darkness to where Tea was curled up in his blankets on the rotten carpet of their shared room. He clung to the worn strap of his guitar, as he always did when he lay down to sleep. “She seemed very weak.”
Bluebottle slept against the opposite wall of the small space, leaning against the peeling wallpaper rather than lying with her face to the carpet – she had tried to, apparently, before he got here, and had woken up with a burning red rash up her left side that didn’t disappear for a week. He’d noticed that she would itch the following day if she had accidentally slept with any of her skin against the carpet.
But he wasn’t sure if that was a nervous thing.
“Hellebore is with her. She’ll be fine.” Tea was tired from his night wandering, and the memories of his first years at the orphanage still haunted him. He tried to squeeze his eyes tightly shut and force himself to sleep. “She’s gotten this far.”
For a long time Bluebottle stayed quiet, and Tea managed to drift thankfully into a light sleep.
Hemlock stood before him, grand atop the chestnut horse.
Tea felt like he was both 10 and 14, his past self and his present self blurred into one.
His heart thumped, his iron eyes scoured every part of Hemlock – the arms, the legs, and in between, all enhanced to perfection in the imagination of dreaming, but always he returned to that serene, heterochromatic gaze.
He wondered why he was so captivated.
He wondered if it was the Angel’s magic Hemlock was rumoured to have…
“My sweet,” Hemlock’s voice was a song, all he could ever ask for in a piece of music and more. “Is it not because of love?”
Tea wondered if it was, and if someone as perfect as Hemlock could ever love someone such as Tea, with the things he’d done.
“Have you missed me?”
Where are you now? Tea thought, Are you nearby?
“Are you missing me right now?”
That voice… That voice… Tea could forget himself in that voice, forget everything in that voice.
“Do you want me?”
Can I find you?
“Do you need me?”
Can we be together?
The air in his dream glowed with a pink aura; he felt warm and safe. A gentle hand caressed his cheek. Hemlock had gotten down from his horse. He was so close… his lips right there… close enough to…
“Do you love me?”
Can you get me away from this scary place?
The alarming thought had woken him before the knock had.
Could he ever get away?
He took a moment to grimace at the door, then at Bluebottle, who slept soundly, undisturbed.
Slowly, he rocked to his feet, stepping awkwardly over his guitar and staggering to the splintering white door.
“Am-m I okay to co-come in h-h-here?”
Poppy looked across at him – tall enough to see eye-to-eye with him, almost taller.
In the black of the night her dark skin almost blended in, but the whites of her eyes glowed.
“Can I talk to y-you?”
“I want to sleep.”
“Why?” He asked slowly.
“To as-sk.” Poppy’s voice was monotone, wide-awake. Had she slept at all? He wondered.
“Am I allowed to ask back?”
Poppy didn’t make any response, but scratched the holes in her arms.
Tea pushed past her and eased the door shut before starting down the stairs. Poppy furrowed her brow as she looked down at him over the banister.
“We’re not talking in there.” He hissed. “Come on.”