(I had to split chapter six in half because it was too large for the site.)
Christopher gripped the railing as the staircase shook. Children rushed from above, a steady current of squirming, bony bodies. He had no choice to follow the ones before him, lest he get swept up between the knobby elbows and knees that prodded him from behind. He had been surprised, moments before, when the dinner bell rang. It had quieted the whole room. Instantously, the boys had plucked themselves from the rotting floor and had flung themselves down the hallway. Christopher had also been surprised to see the staircase already populated with girls, dressed in garb as filthy as the boys, with all the stains and frayed endings. He had been astonished, then, to find the staircase was still in operation. Certainly, with all of the weight on it, the poor contraption would fold and plummet at least a story to the ground. But it kept on, shaking and groaning, but still standing.
The horde led him from the lobby to the dark hallway he had seen earlier, then turned sharply to the left, where they all spilled through a single doorway to the dining area. Like the lobby and the boy’s room, there was nothing to marvel at. A long wooden table sat in the middle of a narrow room. Benches lined either side. Christopher thought, for a moment, that the boys would take the far side, and the ladies the opposite, but clearly the orphanage didn’t follow society’s norms. Girls and boys alike sat together on either side. Mr. Landworth took his seat at the far end, while a woman Christopher hadn’t met before took the opposing end. Christopher walked to the table, hoping he wasn’t as invisible as he seemed before. Yet as he moved toward an unpreoccupied seat, a boy materialized and claimed it as his own. This happened three or more times, with the occupants never so much as glancing in his direction. Finally, he was able to settle in on the far side of the table, flanked by two younger-looking boys that had taken it upon themselves to flick peas at each other via their spoons. Christopher peered down at the food that coated his chipped plate. A gray mass that he classified as mashed potatoes was on the left side. A collection of weathered, green stalks that he guessed was asparagus bordered the right, next to something that was more fat than meat. In the middle sat the peas, sinking in a lake of watery-green substance so questionable that he felt his appetite perish instantly.
He moved his gaze down the table toward Mr. Landworth, expecting at any moment to see the man clear his throat and tap thrice on his glass to call dinner to order. Instead, he seemed much too interested in Mrs. Clark, who sat adjacent to him. Their heads were bent in fervent discussion as their hands clasped tightly together. Christopher blushed and looked away.
Eventually, he stoked up enough nerve to eat. He tried to distance himself from the cold, wet feeling of the substances sliding down his throat, just as he tried to distance himself the clamor of noise around him. Even still, conversation was able to drift toward his ears, bits and pieces of gossip his mind grasped to decipher.
“...perhaps if we weren’t cooped up in here we could have seen for ourselves.”
“Isn’t it enough to glance at it through the windows? It’s unique, but strange. Why should we have any part in it?”
Christopher looked around, finding the source of the voice after a few moments. The words were coming from a few seats down on the opposite side of the table, from a girl with blonde tresses that reached a little below her shoulders, and soft brown eyes that searched her companion’s gaze. She was pale; the purple crescents below her eyes served her a sort of haunted look in the candlelight. The other girl had black hair that descended to the middle of her back. Her nose was ruddy and she gripped a handkerchief in her hand. Her brows arched over her green eyes as her expression grew animated.
“I’ve heard his potions can cure any illness! I’ve heard that even stepping inside can improve one’s emotions instantly!”
He knew the two were discussing Mr. Carlyle’s tent. It had only been up for a few hours, but already news was spreading fast.
“It’s true, actually,” he said. “I’ve been there.”
The girl’s stopped their chatting and turned to stare.
Christopher felt trepidation weighing the air. Did he intrude?
“Oh?” said the black-haired girl. “How did you fancy it?”
“It was marvelous, actually. Like everything you said and more.”
At this, the girl’s face lit back up. She looked to her friend. “Then we must go, Julia! I’ve been rotting with boredom for days!”
“There’s plenty to do here,” Julia commented. She pushed her peas around with her fork, and her eyes traced their path as they fumbled around the plate.
“What, like play jacks? Or chess? Someone stole one of the knights weeks ago. You might like sitting in the corner and knitting, but I’d like to go outside. Adventure!” She slammed her fist on the table as if to punctuate her desperation.
Christopher’s glass wobbled and he grabbed for it. He looked around, expecting perplexed gazes, but no one had noticed. He guessed they wouldn’t have bothered if the decanter had plummeted over the side of the table either.
“There’s so much to do, so much to see!” the girl continued. “And where are we? Hunched between the same four walls, like always.”
“We have a roof over our head,” Julia countered.
“The roof leaks.”
“It’s an old house.”
“It’s too old.”
“We have beds to sleep on.”
“The beds are cold and lumpy.”
“Like the food,” Christopher interjected.
The girls looked up at him, again startled to find him there. He worried once more if he had intruded. But the black-haired girl cracked a smile.
“He has a point,” she said.
Julia pursed her lips, surveying the mush on her plate. “Why do you need this ‘magic’? Haven’t you thought about what it could do to you?”
“What it could do to me?” the girl echoed. “Of course I’ve thought about it! If his potions are as spectacular as I’ve heard…” At this she looked to Christopher, as if needing back up. He nodded his head earnestly. He hadn’t witnessed their supposed wonders firsthand, but he did admit that he was curious to find out.
“Then I can be rid of this terrible cold,” she continued. “I bet we could even find something for you.”
“I’m not ailing in any means. I don’t need a cure.”
“I know you’re just as bored as me. Don’t deny it.” The girl cocked her head, a smile once again pulling up her lips.
“You know as well as I do that we can’t go. We’re hardly let out,” Julia stated.
This silenced the other girl. She returned her gaze to Christopher, and once again he felt compelled to speak.
“Would they take mind, though?” he ventured. “I was brought here just a few hours ago, but already, I’ve noticed this place is rather...lenient, to put it lightly. I hardly think anyone would care if we snuck out.”
“We’re escaping?” the girl exclaimed. Excitement was raw in her tone.
“We?” Julia said at the same time. “We hardly know you, and as you’ve said, you’ve only been here for a handful of hours. Why would you want to start on a bad foot?”
“Not escaping, exactly,” Christopher explained. “Just...slipping out for a bit, doing a little sight-seeing for an hour, maybe a bit more. Mrs. Clark and Mrs. Murray hardly noticed I was there earlier. If we’re wise, I’m sure we can do it.”
“I like your thinking,” the dark-haired girl said. “I’m Laurel, by the way.” She held out her hand.
“Christopher.” He shook it.
Julia sighed. “How can we trust you?”
“I’ve been to Mr. Carlyle’s tent before. I watched the route from there to the orphanage. I should know how to get back.”
Another bout of silence settled around them, in which Julia glowered at her mashed potatoes, caught between her decisions.
“We could go tomorrow morning,” Laurel said.
“The nuns are visiting us. Tomorrow is Sunday service, after all.”
“After service, then,” said Laurel. “Then there’ll be breakfast. All we’d have to do is wait for it to be over, while everyone’s heading back upstairs. Then we’ll rush for the front door.”
Christopher thought back to the woman that was sweeping the porch when he first arrived. “Do you think there’d be anyone outside yet?” he asked.
“If we act fast, no.”
“And what if we do get caught?” Julia said. “I’d rather not be punished.”
“At worst they’ll take away your dinner. Are you that concerned with your food? So worried that you’d fight for it?” Laurel swiped a knife from the table and pointed it at her mockingly.
“If we’re not back by noon, we’ll be terribly hungry. Are you inclined to adventure on an empty stomach?”
In answer, Laurel only jabbed the utensil playfully at her.
Julia pushed it away and rolled her eyes. “Fine. If you’re so knowledgeable on how to get there, I’ll go. But if you get us lost just once…” She looked toward Christopher. He expected to see anger in her eyes, as her voice was rather threatening, but instead he only saw concern.
“Just don’t expect me to buy anything. As interesting as elixirs and potions might appear, I don’t trust the stuff.”
Laurel embraced her friend. “I knew you’d warm up to it!”
Julia stiffened, then patted her friend’s arm. “Let’s just be wise about it, hm?” She turned away to finish her meal, if it could be called that.
Soon, dinner was over. There was no bell or announcement from Mr. Landworth, like before. Everyone just seemed to know when it was done. Either side stood from the benches and headed toward the door, with Christopher scrambling to do the same. He tried to weasel through the line of children before him, to catch up with Laurel and go over any last minutes adjustments before the morning. But she was near the doorway, Julia at her side. He watched as Julia looked back to him; with a sinking feeling he thought she was going to fight her way to him and call the escapade off. But instead, she met his gaze and did something seemingly entirely out of character.
Minutes later, he was back in the spacious room on the third floor. Though the area was filled with the chittering of the boys around him, Christopher found no trouble going to sleep. For once, his mind wasn’t preoccupied with the phantoms of his father. For once, he had something bright and wonderful to look forward to.