If Christopher was any more cognizant, perhaps he would have been more alarmed, at first, to be woken up by screams. His hazy mind had written them off as accessories to his nightmares. After all, the past few nights hadn’t been peaceful in the slightest. But as the sounds grew louder, the film evaporated. He sat up, a scream of his own on his lips, but his tongue was thick with sleep. He digested the scene as his eyes opened.
Instead of being trapped in some burning hellscape, he saw Grandview Park. Instead of being surrounded by ghoulish creatures with pointed teeth, he saw ladies and gentlemen strolling the lanes. He realized with some bitterness that that description matched most of the residents in Sherfield, anyway. But he couldn’t dwell on that fact for long—the screaming was starting up again. The bench squeaked and popped as he maneuvered his stiff legs off of it. He turned around as the screaming grew louder. After a brief moment of searching, he located the source. A group of little girls were sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk behind him, toward the end. They gripped tiny porcelain ponies in their small hands and rode them against the walkway, screaming with laughter all the while.
Christopher realized with embarrassment that that was the sound that had fueled his terror. He sat up more and rolled his shoulders back, then massaged the knots in his neck; the bench hadn’t been kind to him. He stood up and nabbed his coat, which he had used as a blanket just hours before, and started walking. His weary legs carried him throughout the park. He stumbled past ladies on the arms of their gentlemen, dressed for a fine morning walk. They kept their eyes off of him as he passed, yet he could feel them return as he moved ahead. Grandview Park was reserved only for the wealthy, so witnessing a boy stumbling around in threadbare clothes was rather peculiar. Perhaps they thought he was an urchin in search of money. Would they call the constables on him? Christopher hardly cared. At least there he’d have a place to stay.
Christopher found himself at the fringes of the park, overlooking the town square just feet away. The posh usually crisscrossed their way to the shops that flanked the area, filling the area with idle gossip and the crinkle of paper shopping bags. It was a scene that bored Christopher considerably. Today, however, the noise was boisterous—deafening. People were gathered in a clump in the middle, instead of in pockets around the plaza. But what was even more puzzling and astonishing was the object that had attracted everyone’s attention.
A tent had been erected in the center of the square. It was deep maroon and boasted no white slashes like one found at a circus. The width seemed considerably smaller, and it looked as if it could house only fifteen or so people, instead of the legion that lurked outside. A silver pole protruded from the tent’s pointed top, sporting a black flag that snapped in the breeze.
Christopher surged into the crowd. Legs, elbows, and parasols blocked and prodded at him, but he paid them no mind. Before him was something spectacular. The people around him, no more than blockades, were familiar even if he hadn’t seen their faces before. Their mannerisms and ideals were all the same. Sherfield was trite and monotonous—and here was something that would shatter all predictability.
Christopher fought on, eventually making it toward the front. Here the crowd had transformed from a stumbling mass to a somewhat orderly line. Christopher filed behind and nearly tripped on the end of a woman’s bustle in his haste. She shot him a dirty look. Christopher hardly saw it. His mind was distracted by what he saw inside of the tent. Light slanted in from a hole in the top, illuminating the numerous bookshelves that lined every side of the tent. On those shelves sat bottles of varying shapes, some with thin or stout necks. Dark purples and blues clouded the glasses. Most of the liquids were in a constant state of swirling, never settling at the bottom. Every bottle boasted a plaque beneath it, though Christopher couldn’t get too close to read them. The roof of the tent soared ten feet above him. The very atmosphere of the place felt different. It was insulated, not just from the body heat of those that pressed around him. It was quite a relief from the gnawing cold that lingered outside with the other speculating townspeople.
Rows of bookshelves were in the middle and stretched out to the other side of the tent. Christopher watched as men and women plucked items from the shelves and inspected them. Christopher pondered, at first, why anyone would marvel at objects as common as shaving cream and hair brushes, especially when mysterious substances were just footsteps away. But he remembered that everything here was new. Strange. Even the most familiar things were just a bit...different. The whole area seemed to have an aura around it, evoking a feeling in Christopher that he hadn’t felt for quite a while: pure excitement.
Christopher whirled around, not surprised by the voice, but at the stabbing pain in his foot. He saw a walking stick recoiling from view, then a man with an impatient frown below a thick moustache.
“Some of us would rather like to come inside. You’ve been blocking the entrance for a full minute.”
“I hardly know why you’re even in here,” interrupted the man. “Could you even afford any of this? Or are you just here to look? I don’t blame you. I’ve heard what’s inside this tent is very exquisite. But I couldn’t attest to that myself, for I haven’t been able to set foot in there yet.”
Christopher only blinked in response.
“I wouldn’t be too confident, sir,” said another voice.
Christopher turned to see another man standing next to him. A pocket watch dangled from a silver chain between his gloved fingers. Christopher wouldn’t have paid it any mind, save for the fact that the watch seemed very familiar. He caught the initials engraved on the surface as it glinted off the sunlight leaking in from the tent’s opening. W.C.
“Too confident in what?” inquired the other man.
“In your assertion of time. I’ve been watching this boy ever since he came in here, which I assure you was only twenty seconds ago.”
Now it was the stranger’s time to blink. He shifted his gaze away from Warren’s and worked his jaw, as if he was about to say something.
“Thank you for finally putting Henry in his place. He thinks he’s quite the know it all.”
Christopher turned away from Ms. Davenshire’s voice. He only let his fists unravel after he heard the couple move away to the far side of the tent. Just hearing her had stoked the anger that had been radiating in him since his father’s funeral.
“Thank you,” Christopher said as he lifted his gaze from the ground. He glanced to his side and watched as more people trickled in.
“Are the rich always this annoying? If so, I feel sorry for you. I’ve only had to deal with them for a few hours. Though, I find them much more tolerable when they’re shoving money at me.”
“Wait...this tent is yours?”
Christopher shook his head, wondering at the size and the oddities he had spied earlier. “How did you ever manage to construct this in just a night?”
“I have a few helping hands. Some are more complacent than others.” Warren gestured to the left side of the tent, where three men were situated. One leaned against the canvas with his arms crossed, looking impressingly bored. The other gleefully shook customer’s hands and directed them about the tent to find what they desired. Another man was positioned behind a counter, ringing up and bagging orders.
A line coiled around the tent and stopped just feet away from Christopher. He watched as a mother picked a bottle from her bag and passed it down to her child, who ogled at the contents inside.
“Vial of Ignorance,” Christopher read aloud as he caught what was written on the flask. “Now why would anyone want that?”
Warren shrugged. “Perhaps you did something bad and you wanted a certain someone to not remember it.”
“But that mother’s buying it for her child…”
“Perhaps she wants to have her child remain in blissful ignorance for just a little bit longer, retain his childlike wonder.”
“And how would that work?”
“You expect me to divulge my secrets in such a public setting?” Warren scoffed and pointed toward a row of vials to his left. “Perhaps you’d be interested in Brew of the Wolf? A very showy title, I know, but it’ll clear up a range of illnesses within minutes.”
“They’re wonderful concepts, I’m sure, but…” He hesitated, thinking of the tricksters that would occasionally occupy Sherfield’s street corners. They never sold potions, but their illusions were all predictable. “The only magician’s I’ve come across were frauds.”
“Then I suspect I’m an outlier.”
Christopher swallowed his reply as he saw two women walking their way. With annoyance, he recalled seeing them at the funeral. They were only two slivers of Mrs. Davenshire’s clutch. Christopher couldn’t remember their names. He hardly cared anyway.
“What a lovely shop you have here!” one of the women exclaimed as the other nodded.
“Why thank you, ladies. I assume you’ve found everything smoothly?”
“Actually,” one of the women said as she chucked her gaze over her shoulder. “We were looking for something to give to Mrs. Davenshire. Christmas is weeks away, but still, we like to be prepared.”
“Were you looking for something specifically?”
The two women glanced at each other as their smiles faded somewhat.
“Er...um, well...yes, actually. I’m afraid she…”
“Smells,” finished the other. “Terribly. She’s our dearest friend. This is for her own good, you see.”
Christopher ducked away, biting his lip to cage his laughter.
“I always appreciate those that look out for others. And it just so happens that I have something that will take care of her...ailments.”
Christopher glanced back to see Warren snatch a bottle from a shelf, then another. “This should certainly do the trick. Two for the price of one. Consider it a distant cousin of perfume. She simply has to dab it on her neck or wrists and she’ll smell like a rose.”
Christopher watched the two women scurry off to join the line of customers, which had shortened a tad.
“...Did you just sell them glorified perfume?”
“I said it was a cousin to perfume. It’s stronger. Lasts much longer.”
“Then I assume it must have some sort of side effect,” Christopher said somewhat wishfully, his voice hushed. A part of him couldn’t resist wanting some sort of payment on Mrs. Davenshire. “Persistent headaches? An annoying rash?”
“Warts?” Christopher couldn’t help but laugh this time. “That’s asinine! Well, somewhat brilliant...but still foolish! What if she finds out?”
“I’m sure I’ll be well out of town by then. I travel around. If word reaches to the next town, I’ll skip to another.” He shrugged, as if rumors were the least of his worries.
“How can you be certain she’ll get these warts?”
“I’m not. But we can hope, can’t we?”
Christopher imagined Mrs. Davenshire waking up December 26th, reaching for a hand mirror, seeing herself enveloped in blemishes, and promptly screaming. The thought was enough to make him smile. He scanned the crowd for the woman and found her exchanging some slip of gossip with her gentleman. Christopher was going to thank Mr. Carlyle for invoking actual happiness in him, though as he turned around, he saw the man swamped with inquiring customers. He didn’t wish to intrude. He turned and slipped away toward the entrance of the tent. Before he could grace the cold again, a hand clamped upon his shoulder. He tried to twist away, but the grip firmly held him in place.
“Are you Christopher Quartermaine?”
“...Yes.” Christopher glanced backward, meaning to glimpse the man’s face. Instead, he caught sight of a silver badge that was pinned to the man’s overcoat. J. Landworth, Exec. of Sherfield Orphanage.
“I apologize for tracking you down in such a public setting. I was just informed of your...situation a few minutes ago.”
“That’s to be kept entirely confidential, I’m afraid.”
Christopher threw his gaze around the tent, scanning for any sets of eyes that were witnessing this strange scene. He spotted Mrs. Davenshire and her gentleman on the far side of the tent, smiling with their arms linked, and definitely staring in his direction.
Christopher resisted the urge to charge through the clump of people before him and tackle either one--or both, preferably--to the cobbles. But doing so would only worsen his predicament. One side of him urged himself to be grateful. If he was to be taken to the orphanage, he’d have a place to rest his head and regular meals. He was sixteen years old, almost a man in most of society’s eyes. He’d be in the doors almost as soon as he’d be out of them, so even if he loathed the place, he’d only have a year or so to live with the torture. Yet the man’s next words halted his thoughts completely.
“I understand you’re not exactly a child in the eyes of others. You might consider it ludicrous that I’m even bothering you. But if you stay with us, we’ll make sure it’s worth your while. We have a program for disadvantaged children, like yourself.”
Christopher bit his lip. He had heard of the orphanage’s programs before and had seen their effects firsthand. Children that had grown out of the system were paired up with the most horrid jobs within Sherfield: a butcher at the slaughterhouse, or a cleaner in the sewers, among others. The young women would find themselves as scullery maids, scrubbing floors until the skin of their fingers cracked. Or they’d go to work as a seamstress in a factory, suffering for twelve hours in the boiling heat as they sewed clothes for the wealthy. He’d seen young adults age years within weeks. They’d claw themselves out from beneath manhole covers and scurry out of chimneys with weathered faces and bent backs. Their clothes would be stained with soot, blood, or the remnants of vermin. Christopher had watched these poor souls from the front windows in the bookshop. They’d stumble home in the dark, their paths lit only by faint lamplight. They’d sleep in their ramshackle houses, wake up before the sun had spilled across the rooftops, and start the agony all over again.
“You might consider those jobs dirty, perhaps a little heinous. But consider the benefits, Christopher! Would you like to prowl the streets as a hoodrat, begging hardworking townspeople for their spare change? Or would you rather have a living, sustaining yourself all on your own as a confident individual?”
Christopher felt his mouth drying, silencing all the arguments in his head. Yesterday, as he had stared down at his father’s grave, his worst fear had been living without him. Now, his worst fear was living a life that would’ve disappointed him.
Mr. Landworth apparently took his silence as a yes, as he guided Christopher out of the tent and into the morning air. Navigating out of the crowd this time was far more easier. The throng was much more compliant in parting for a gentleman than a boy dressed in shabby clothes. Soon they were at the edge of the square and had navigated to a sidewalk facing a busy street. The man swept his gaze down the street, and, upon noticing his carriage, gestured for Christopher to follow.
Christopher studied the view from the window. The storefronts soon morphed into houses of moderate condition. He could tell by their squat yet stable stature that they had drifted into the middle class portion of Sherfield. The poor envied the un-peeled paint and wicker rockers of this area; the rich rolled their eyes at the pathetic attempt of normalcy. At least their yards were large enough to hold rounds of croquet, and their porches spacious enough for tea sessions.
The carriage rumbled down the street, a vision of lacquered paint and polished silver wheels. Christopher knew that the supposed composure of the vehicle hadn’t been carried inside. The seats were stiff, webbed with crevices, and the low ceiling had caused both Christopher and Mr. Landworth to stoop over. It was a clever guise of wealth wrapped up in destitution.
The same could be said about the orphanage.
It was three stories of meticulous brickwork. A black iron fence tethered the property and led up to a gate that Mr. Landworth eased open for Christopher. The two strode across a gravel lane that wedged through the otherwise perfect grass. They passed by a marbled cherub tipping a bucket of burbling water into a basin below it. Christopher followed the man up a few stairs to the porch, where they passed an old woman sweeping idly. Mr. Landworth tilted his hat at her and she replied with a mock curtsy. Christopher caught himself almost smiling at the scene, temporarily forgetting his reluctance about coming. What had he been worried about? Everything here was orderly. Well-managed. Serene.
A chill blew in from the left, and as Mr. Landworth opened the front door, the gust carried away Christopher’s cheery emotions.
The only light came from a few tiny candles sprinkled about the room. The windows were so well camouflaged with dirt and grime that Christopher had barely distinguished them from the flaking wallpaper. A few crooked paintings hung upon the walls, depicting angels and children like the fountain outside. Yet the pictures were coated with dust and the glass was fractured. It was a sad, slightly unnerving, stab at ordinariness. A desk sat in the middle of the room, where two women were sitting reading the newspaper, even though the countertop was swamped with paperwork. Beyond them was a hallway which led into shadows.
A vibration shook the walls, snapping Christopher out of his study. He found himself turning toward a staircase to his left, not five feet away. He saw four children stumble down the steps, ricochet off the banisters, and vanish into the hallway beyond, hollering all the while. Christopher wouldn’t have been so concerned, save for the state the children were in. Baths hadn’t been as commonplace in his house as Christopher would’ve liked, but he was at least knowledgeable of proper hygiene. The children that had rushed past him looked as if they hadn’t bathed in weeks.
“You’ll have to forgive their rowdy behavior. They’re children, afterall.”
Christopher stumbled back, startling a herd of beetles and roaches. He glanced over to see Mr. Landworth peering at him behind his spectacles.
“Mrs. Murray will show you to your living quarters, while Mrs. Clark will let you in on the protocol here.” He started to move away but paused as if forgetting something. He reached over and patted Christopher awkwardly on the arm, flashed him an equally uncomfortable smile. It seemed as if he had shed all of his happiness and persuasion in the carriage. “Smile! You just might like it here,” he said with a tone that did nothing to convince him.
The man departed and Christopher stepped forward. It took three clearings of his throat to attract the attention of the ladies in front of him. They studied him over the brim of their cracked coffee mugs and bent newspapers.
“And what may we do…,” one woman trailed off, ending her half-question with a long sip from her cup.
“...To help you?” the other finished, punctuating the last word with an irritable sigh as she flipped through her paper.
“I was told by Mr. Landworth that Mrs. Murray would show me where I’d be staying.”
Mrs. Murray, the woman that was so obsessed with her coffee, pulled away from it long enough to say, “Third floor on the left. Can’t miss it...unless you’re blind.” At this, she actually pulled the cup away from her face and raised her eyebrows at the boy. “Are you?”
Christopher shook his head quickly and the woman easily returned her attention to her beverage.
“I was also told that Mrs. Clark would let me know of the rules here.”
Without looking up, Mrs. Clark slapped a piece of paper atop the counter in front of Christopher. Christopher squinted down at it.
THIS LIST HENCEFORTH DETAILS ALL BEHAVIOR AND ACTIVITIES PROHIBITED ON THE GROUNDS OF THE SHERFIELD ORPHANAGE. FAILURE TO FOLLOW THESE RULES WILL RESULT IN STRICT REINFORCEMENT.
NO EXTRA FOOD PORTIONS.
NO LOITERING OUTSIDE PAST 8 P.M.
As he read that rule, he heard a rather loud exclamatory being shouted from the floor above. Clearly, that rule didn’t matter. In fact, it seemed most of them didn’t matter. There was one against defacing property. Though he hadn’t noticed it before, someone had taken chalk and had scribbled a pair of pointed teeth and Devil horns to many of the paintings around him. Christopher picked up the paper and tucked it into his coat pocket for reference, though a feeling told him he wouldn’t have to care much about it. It seemed the whole establishment ran at the fringes of what was socially and morally acceptable. Thirty or more guidelines, however carefully outlined they were, weren’t going to change that.
Christopher turned and edged his way up the splintered staircase. Steps groaned above him and he glanced up, noticing two sets of round eyes peeking at him over the railing. He raised his hand to give a small wave, but stopped as something wet hit his face. He swiped at his cheek and irritably rubbed the spit away. He glanced up again to see the children bursting into giggles before bounding up the steps. Christopher followed them, though at a much slower place. The trepidation he had felt earlier was settling back into his bones. What was he doing here? He could leave, bust out of the doors, and find refuge in an alleyway if Mr. Landworth even bothered to send someone after him. But even that situation wasn’t ideal. Sleeping outside, facing the elements headon, wasn’t something he’d prefer doing. At least here he’d be somewhat sheltered from the winter weather that was quickly descending on Sherfield.
The top of the staircase deposited him on the third floor. In front of him stretched a hallway. The left wall was punctured by windows that looked out at the city. The right was filled with wide, doorless entryways. Christopher peeked into the one nearest him, noticing a large, windowless room with numerous beds pressed against the far wall. A small fireplace sat in one corner and a few shabby, round carpets dotted the floorboards.
It seemed as if the room was split in half. The younger boys kept to the left, where they seemed content tossing balled up newspaper at each other--or, less frequently but more dangerously, punches. The other group, perhaps aged twelve and above, were sprawled on their beds on the right side, trading quips and insults instead of slaps. Hesitating at the entrance, Christopher couldn’t tell whether either side’s injuries were thrown in jest or actual spite.
He didn’t want to find out.
As carefully and quietly as he could, he navigated to the middle of the room. He perched upon the first bed he came to and leaned back, closing his eyes. A heavy weight fell on him; with a sickening feeling he knew it was the gazes of all in the room. He opened his eyes, expecting to hear jeers. Instead, there was silence. He glanced around and tried to make eye contact, though everyone had turned their attentions to each other. The slaps and punches returned, conversation ensued. He should have been grateful; he wasn’t a target of their hate or torment. But he couldn’t help but realize that, even though they had all acknowledged his existence in the room, not a one had so much as asked for his name. A heavy feeling settled over him then, nearly impossible to shrug off. Loneliness. This was the feeling Christopher had been worried about. The feeling he knew he wouldn’t be impervious to. But he had expected to feel it within the confines of a quiet bookshop. Not in a room full of twenty souls.
Normally, noise didn’t bother him. He could sleep through rain slapping the tiles of the roof above. He could withstand nights full of howling wind and scraping branches on the window glass. But the sound of conversation, the mere notion that he was being ignored--discarded, was enough to keep his mind working as his eyes sought the blackness of his eyelids.
(Chapter six cont. in next segment)