Thirteen Nights – After the Crusade
Author of Thirteen Days
Thursday, March 11, 2004 – And into the Fire
I am not sure just how long I had been sleeping before I was abruptly awakened by shrieking cries and due to the image that formed in my head it was obvious that my mind was still dwelling closely to the dreaming side of sleep. I envisioned that somewhere within this boy's institution there was a werewolf and from the sounds it was making, it was either very angry or in great pain, maybe both. However after I overcame the initial sock of being awaken so violently I realized that the screams had to be coming from a man but my imagination was still holding tightly to the ideas of anger and pain for what else could cause a man to cry out so?
I couldn't help but notice that besides the screams there were no other sounds, not even the sounds of my fellow bunkmate who surely must have heard it too. Given that the room was completly void of light and the lack of even the sound of their breathing, I found myself wondering if they were even in their beds.
The unknown mans cries continued for only a few more minutes before stopping all at once as if someone had just turned off a television. Despite the absence of the cries, I could not get back to sleep; I was just too scared.
Well actually, I thought I could not go back to sleep but before I knew it, I had left the conscious world once again. However, my sleep was no longer restful and was filled with horrible images. The worst dream was seeing both of my parents standing on the front porch of our home yelling for me. They both looked very panicked and worried. While they frantically called for me, the wind and rain blew hard against them as if trying to force their words back into their mouths.
Brrrannng! Brrrannng! Brrrannng!
The sharp, ear-piercing jangle of the bell crashed through the darkness of the room like glass shattering. With a violent start, I awoke once again, my heart hammering with the force of ten sticks of dynamite. For a moment I could not remember where I was, nor imagine what the terrible noise was that had awakened me. Then the dread memory of all that had happened swept over me like a black wave. With a shudder I remembered where I was--I was in a room with five other boys and I remembered what the slightly older, straw haired and skeletal girl from last night had whispered to me before leaving me in this room--she had said that in the morning a bell would go off that would rattle my teeth. Well, the bell must have been what awakened me this time, but how could it be morning? The room was as dark as it had been when I had crawled into the bed, with not a flicker of light anywhere. Furthermore, around me all was silent until ...
Brrrannng! Brrrannng! Brrrannng!
The bell jangled again and now the silence that followed the bell was suddenly broken by the sounds of rusted bed springs squeaking and bare feet thump, thump, thumping on the floor. I knew that I must climb from my bed as well, and quickly. Shivering, I dropped my feet down onto the frigid wooden floor but it might as well have been made of ice as far as my toes were concerned.
Thinking to myself, "How am I supposed to find the clothes Cho had left hanging on the nail for me?"
If I could find them I wasn't so concerned with putting them on in the dark; I figured I could manage that much. Then I remembered that Cho had told me that when I got up that I must pull up my bedcovers. Fortunately, that was something I could manage in the dark since I still had one hand holding to the wool blanket that I had only seconds before been sleeping under.
As I reached across myself with my other hand, I remembered I no longer was wearing my body armor. I suppose I had gotten so used to wearing it that without it I felt very exposed and vulnerable.
Suddenly two wall lamps flickered on from the opposite end of the small room. Thankfully they were not so bright as to hurt my eyes but were enough to cast a shadowy glow across the room allowing me to see all five boys and in turn, they could see me too; or might have if they had not been so intent on scrambling out of the shapeless gray flannel nightshirts they all wore.
One boy did spot me, eventually. He had curly black hair and was still sitting on the edge of the bed next to mine. Just before his nightshirt went up over his head, he caught sight of me staring at him and then dropped his nightshirt back down again.
For a moment or two, he stared at me with an odd look of disbelief on his face, almost as though he was not sure if he was actually seeing me. Had he looked a little more distressed I would have guessed he thought me to be a ghost or something but for the most part his face remained emotionless except for a hint of bewilderment.
With a twitch of his head and a scooping wave he beckoned to the other boys who were now swiftly buttoning on baggy trousers, their pale, thin chests still bare.
"Hey, come see wot we got usselves here, a flippin' new baby!" the curly haired boy said to his four companions.
The four other boys, dragging ill-fitting shirts of assorted drab, faded colors over their heads, lost no time in making their way over to join the boy. The lot of them stared at me with wide, equally disbelieving eyes.
"Yer right, Micky!" agreed one of the boys, the one with brick red hair and a carpet of freckles which were the only color on his pasty face. "It really is a flippin' baby."
I couldn't help but notice the resemblance this red haired boy had with Bull and his little bother Jasper. But the thought did not manage to stick with me for very long because I felt my temper building within me at having them call me a baby twice now.
Another boy chimed in, "Where do you suppose it come from?"
"Gee-whiz, how stupid can you get? Didn't your mum ever tell you were babies come from?" a fourth boy said with a comical sneer.
"He ain't got no mum, `member Peter?" replied Micky in what I guessed must have been a comical jab of his own. I was left guessing which of the boys that had spoke were named Peter and shuttered to think I now had another Peter in my life. I just hope this Peter isn't anything like the Peter I had known back at school.
"Anybody else got one? Timmy?" Micky asked.
"One what?" I thought.
The stubbly-haired, sallow-skinned boy addressed as Timmy shook his head violently from side to side.
The boy called
I was right on the edge of exploding and would have if one of them called me baby one more time.
"Jonathan?" Micky asked the remaining boy who was appearing to be staring directly at my diaper.
Jonathan widened his pair of washed-out blue eyes, then threw out his hands and shrugged. "Whyn't you just ask it?"
"Jeez Jonathan, `cause it don't appear to have no flippin' tongue!" replied Micky, "So far, it ain't said a word!"
The subject of their discussion did, of course, have a tongue, but it was glued so tightly to the roof of my mouth that for all useful purposes I might as well not of had one. I was further struck dumb by the fact that I was trembling violently within my slightly wet diaper, and terrified one of the boys would say something about the diaper I was wearing; which was in full view of each of them. So all I did was stare ahead like a rabbit caught in the glare of a ca's headlights. Never the less, I knew I must say something; I must!
Praying that no one could hear the quaver in my voice, I took a sharp breath and managed to blurt out, "I ... I d-do have a t-t-tongue! And ... I-I-I'm n-not a b-b-bab-by or a-a-an it!"
"Sure, an' if ye ain't no baby, why are ya all pink like a baby?" Micky asked me while, exchanging telling glances with the other boys.
My skin did in truth have a pink hue to it compared to these five gaukers who's skin seemed hard and somewhat leather like, but I had never thought a thing about it until they pointed the differences out.
"I ... I ... I," I hated more then ever that I was stammering, and then came to a stop.
"Wot kind of people got skin like that other then babies?" red headed Peter asked. "Where'd you come from anyway? Oof!"
His eyes popped as Micky gave him a swift, sharp dig in the ribs with an elbow. "Hey, wot'd you do that for? I ain't done nothin'!"
"Sure an' ye know we ain't supposed to ask no questions like that." Micky said, scowling at him, "Where's yer brains gone?"
"Sorry, Micky." Peter said, biting his lip.
"All right, then," said Micky. "Ain't nothin' we got to know but wot he's called. Wot name is it they give ya?" he asked me.
I recalled to myself last night in an attempt at remembering the name I was supposed to go by now and was overjoyed when my memory came to my rescue. "R-r-ron B-banch-chel-li," I said quickly, proud that I remembered it.
However, I had no sooner said the name than I saw the other boys look uncomfortably at Micky, whose eyes suddenly darkened strangely. Then Micky lifted one bare foot and shoved my bed angrily.
"Them murderin'..." he said something after that, that I did not understand because he had said it so forcefully through his clenched teeth. I picked up on the last part of his sentence, "...had to give out that name, didn't they?"
"We ain't never had it happen since we all been down here," the boy named Timmy had offered gently, "so we don't know but wot it's how they does it, Micky."
Jonathan, his pale blue eyes deeply mournful, nodded his chin to his chest. "That's right. Easier to keep us all straight, maybe."
"They should have waited!" Micky said. His voice broke, but he quickly swallowed hard and tightened his jaw.
Looking back up at me he said, "And look wot's got the name, a little pink baby! Just look at him. Don't know where he come from, but looks like he ain't even been teached to wipe his own nose. Don't know why we're standin' `round here. He ain't worth any of us gettin' the hole on his `count. Let's go!"
Without so much as a second look at me, the boys swiftly scattered and began throwing on socks and shoes, and in Micky's case, his other clothes as well. I was left standing alone by my bed; my eyes now perilously close to tears. Yet, I could certainly guess the result of the boys seeing me dissolved in tears.
It took all the strength and courage I could muster to tell myself, "I can't let it happen."
Furthermore, there was something else I must not let happen, and that was to be late. Cho, I had remembered the girls name finally, had issued a warning about it before putting me to bed and though not directed at me, but at the other four boys, so had Micky.
"The hole!" I thought on the words said just seconds before. It appeared that if any of us were late, we would get something called "The hole!"
Mr. Wriggle had said something yesterday upon my arrival here. Something about a day coming when I might wish I had never been born.
"Was `The Hole' to be part of that day?" I questioned within myself.
Well, it was definitely something I had no wish to find out about. Quickly I snatched the ugly nondescript garments from the nails on the wall, then pulled off my diaper as though it was a pair of very thick underwear and with shaking hands, scrambled into the baggy trousers and a rough gray shirt that fit me not much better than any flour sack would have. I found the shoes just where Cho had said they would be and dragged them from under my bed. They had been measured for my feet only by Cho's appraising eyes in a darkened room and as a result were hard, murderously uncomfortable, and far too large. I could not have kept them on had it not been for the socks of heavy, rough wool that filled a good portion of the space not occupied by my feet. With clumsy, cold fingers, I somehow managed to tie the laces of the shoes without getting them into knots.
Looking up I saw Micky; he was the last boy to finish dressing and was about to leave the room. As he stared through the doorway, he hesitated, reached out with his right hand and carefully turned off the two wall lamps hanging from bent nails on the wall. This left me to make my way through the dark room to the doorway with only the dim lights from the three tiny lamps in the hallway to guide me.
Oh yes, I saw how it was going to be once I was in the bathroom. It was all very clear indeed! Cho might very well have saved whatever breath she had in her thin, hunched chest when she had warned me against dawdling in `the facilities'.
I had not noticed last night, while Cho escorted me to bed, that in the hallway outside our room was where we were to wash up. However, the sink was only a sink in the crudest of definitions for along one wall was a long trough of sorts with faucets jutting out over it every two feet or so. The remaining facilities were located behind the same wall hidden from view by a single wooden door. The toilets at one time looked to have had wooden partitions dividing them but by the looks of them, it had been a very long time ago. I sighed when I realized there was going to be absolutely no privacy while doing my business.
Just about then the boy I remember the others calling Jonathan, let out one long and loud fart which got the other boys laughing.
I reluctantly sat down on the toilet closet to the door though I honestly did not think I would poop. The wall opposite the line of toilets was just as, blackened and stained as the other three walls.
Surprisingly, after sitting on the toilet for less then a minute I felt the familiar cramping within my bowels just before my bottom opened and a jet of diarrhea shot out of me with the force of a water cannon.
There was no hiding the fact either because when it came out of me it did so with all the right sounds to draw every eye my way but this time they were not laughing.
Not knowing what to say I shrugged my shoulders and looked down at the oversized shoes on my dangling feet.
Being the last boy to sit on one of the toilets, I ended up being the last one to leave, so once again I found myself deserted though this time in the bathroom. My heart pounded with fright at being left alone as I attempted for the first time in weeks to wipe my own butt.
I could feel my ribs straining and felt several twinges of pain but in the end I managed to wipe myself twice which I am sure was not enough.
After pulling my pants back up, I raced out and followed the sounds of the other boys ahead of me while cradling my ribs which were smarting a bit from the stretching and twisting I had done to wipe my bottom. The sounds from the boys, lead me up the stairs, through the kitchen, and into the dining hall where I finally caught up with the other boys. This is when I learned that there were more then just us six boys staying in this institution.
While dawn had not progressed enough to provide any light through the three tall narrow windows at one end of the room, the two small lamps noted earlier were now joined in the effort of eluminating the room by three ugly ceiling light fixtures. By their light I saw some fiveor six dozen boys, all but a handful of whom stood behind the benches that lined the tables, faces pale and leathery, hands dangling motionless at their sides. Other than being in an upright position, these deadly silent boys gave very little evidence of even being much for than lifeless manikins.
On the table in front of each one, lay a tin cup, a spoon, and something in a bowl that might or might not have been food. It was thick and sickly gray in color.
However, there was no question as to its origin; for at the end of the table nearest the kitchen stood a bald man of diminutive proportions. Oddly enough, for a man that was obviously a midget, everything about him screamed giant. His florid round face featuring a swollen heavily veined nose, and the rest carpeted with a dense black beard that hung midway down his chest. His bulging front was wrapped in a disgustingly filthy apron, presumed at one time to be white under the grease and other assorted food stains. With arms thick as posts and hands large and red as slabs of ham, he was ladling the sticky contents of a large iron pot into a bowl held by Cho. This was then handed to a boy waiting in line for it.
There were still four boys in line when I arrived. Only four boys, but enough to keep me from arriving to find no line at all. Breathless, I joined the line, keeping my eyes firmly locked on the neck of the boy ahead of me.
Standing there, I began to notice something curiously eerie. It was not the flickering lamps or all the boys, or even the unpleasant individual dolefully dishing out the food. What I now noticed was that other than the clink of the ladle against a bowl, or the sound of a boy's feet shuffling across the floor as he carried his bowl to the table, the room was bitterly silent. As I waited for a bowl to be filled and handed to me, I stole a quick sideways glance down the room and found myself gazing into the four pairs of eyes belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Wriggle!
Not two pair but four pair; there were the eyes of Mr. and Mrs. Wriggle in the painting and the eyes of Mr. and Mrs. Wriggle in person! For the two of them stood directly under the painting of their likeness. Four pairs of cold, cruel, pitiless eyes, hot as burning coals that seemed to be boring into the souls of every boy there, especially mine. To think that I had actually believed myself safe because some boys were still in line for their food when I arrived? Oh yes, those eyes would not have missed seeing me arriving last. Moreover, it was certain that this event had been duly registered with my two hosts.
Clump--Clump! Clump--Clump! Clump--Clump!
I and my two oversized shoes now provided the only sounds heard in the silent room as I carried my bowl to the place at the table that Cho pointed out to me as mine. Had my senses not been working on overtime I would have thought the sound was coming from my heart and not from the shoes upon my feet. When I arrived at the place reserved for me, I set my bowl down with trembling hands, which made the bowl clatter as it encountered the tabletop. This was undoubtedly noted not only by the Wriggles, but also by the boys nearest me, who turned out to be the same five I now shared a room with.
When at last there were no further sounds to be heard in the room, Mrs. Wriggle clasped her hands and raised her eyes upward.
"The blessing, please, Mr. Wriggle," she said.
As if defying his wife, Mr. Wriggle kept his watchful eyes securely bolted to us boys. It was almost as though he did not trust in any higher nor lower authority to do the job for him.
With a clearing of his throat he began, "For this meal which you are about to eat, you had better be grateful."
When this dubious prayer had been offered up, Mr. Wriggle then tapped a tin cup three times with a spoon, a sign for the boys to drop there bottoms onto the benches and I of course followed their example. However, there was still no talking, whispering, laughing or any other sign of liveliness.
After three more taps on the tin cup by Mr. Wriggle, the boys picked up their spoons and began to silently shovel heaping spoonfuls of the Oat Meal like substance into their mouths. Mr. and Mrs. Wriggle, apparently denying themselves the pleasure of sharing this sumptuous meal with us boys, sat with hands folded, glaring at us as if to ensure that we were indeed grateful for every vile spoonful.
Honestly, I had no interest whatsoever in the Oat Meal but I knew that I was expected to eat it. I took up my spoon and hesitantly put a small amount in my mouth. The second it touched my tongue my gag reflexes kicked in and it was all I could do not to spit the gluey, ghastly, fowl tasting lump right back out again. I knew that I could not eat this horrible concoction no matter how much I tried to force myself to do so. I just couldn't and silently vowed to starve to death before trying it again! With a gulp and a shutter that ran through my entire body, I managed to swallow. How long it would stay down was anyone's guess at that point.
Then I saw something that lightened my spirit considerably. Being passed down the table on both sides were tin pitchers. They of course, would be filled with milk, perhaps even juice. With the help of that, maybe I could get down a spoonful or two more and temporarily prove to my stomach that my throat had not been cut. However, as one of the pitchers drew closer, I saw that what the boys were pouring into their tin cups was nothing but water. So at the end of the meal, I was left with the full bowl and the fervent, though dim, hope that this had not been registered by the sharp eyes of Mr. and Mrs. Wriggle.
When three more taps on the tin cup signaled the end of the dismal meal, the boys all left the table taking their cups, spoons, and empty bowls, and left them at the end of the table. With this done, they all hurried to the jackets hanging on the wall and threw them on, but remained standing in place to form a line heading for the doors to the hallway we had all entered by. I set my bowl down with the others, relieved that Cho, still at the same post, did not remark on the fact that it remained full of the gray lumpy mass.
"Dat's yers, ten from da left." Cho whispered to me while pointing to one of the jackets. "You put it on, an' pull out wot's in da pocket. Din ya stays in da line wit da rest `n do wot dey do."
I noticed something just then about Cho. It seemed that at times her accent, whatever it might be, was sometimes stronger then at other times. It was almost as though her accent was an act. I made a mental note of it as I turned to retrieve the jacket from the wall.
After sliding my arms into the sleeves, which turned out to be about four inches to long, I then join the line without drawing any further attention to myself. It did not matter at all to me that the jacket was two sizes too big for me, nor that it had frayed cuffs and holes at the elbows. Nor did the fact that it appeared that it never had had the benefit of a cleaning either and was doubtlessly worn by at least one other Banachelli boy and probably a lot more then just the one. Was it not safer that way, to look like the rest of them? What if the whole lot of them knew of the diaper? It was not something I wanted to think about too long.
With the jacket on, I reached into the pocket and pulled out something resembling what the other boys held in their hands. It was a rag best described as being extremely well used and quite filthy. The line of boys moved toward the door, and as each one arrived there, they would hold out their rag to the bald, bearded dwarf who had earlier ladled out our breakfast. Now he stood with a tin tub resting on his left shoulder and braced with his left arm. From it, he was doling out lumps of a yellowish bread; one lump into each rag held out to him. The boys then folded their rags around the bread lumps and stuffed them into their pockets. I did the same when my turn came, wondering if the bread was part of our breakfast, and when we would be allowed to eat it. It, at least, looked like something I could swallow and keep down.
When I entered the hallway, I found that the line of boys had broken up and were forming into clusters around three older boys who were standing there as though waiting for us to emerge.
I remembered that Mr. Wriggle had said there would be `schooling'. Could it be that these boys, who looked to be on the cusps of manhood, had come to escort us to a school? I hesitated, not knowing if I was expected to join a group, and if so, which one.
Suddenly I felt a set of fingers snap around my upper left arm.
"`All right then, come with me!" My head jerked around and I found myself looking directly into the eyes of Mr. Wriggle!
Walking so quickly that, in my oversize clumping shoes, I could not keep up with him, Mr. Wriggle half dragged and half escorted me to a group of boys gathered around the only other man, aside from Mr. Wriggle. This man was standing nearest to a large door with flaking green and white paint. Assuming that this might have something to do with schooling, I honestly expected to see someone resembling one of my teachers back home. Maybe even someone like my school Principle, Mr. Freeman. What, in fact, I now saw before me was a weaselly man with shoulders that could only be compared to those of an Indian arrowhead, and a coarse, mottled red face, round and flat as a plate with ears that stuck out from either side of his head like duel coffee cup handles. At least two days' worth of stubble sprouted in uneven patches around his thick, cracked lips and a nearly non-excitant nose, which was in effect really just two small holes on a pimple that resided above his upper lip.
As Mr. Wriggle dragged me up to the man I felt a wave of terror wash over me as the mans' black-rimmed eyes locked on me with an apathetic stare.
"This the one then?" the man asked while picking at his left earlobe.
"The one, Harpo." replied Mr. Wriggle. "Delivered as promised."
The man called Harpo appraised me again with narrowed eyes. "What name did you give it?"
Mr. Wriggle seemed to stammer a bit before smacking me smartly on the back of my head and saying impatiently, "What's your name boy?"
With little stars twirling around my head, I managed to blurt out the right name, "Ron!" It came out stronger then I had meant for it but the smack to my head had rattled my brain more then a little. I can only imagine what might have happened had my real name came out instead.
"Ah yes, its name is Ron," repeated Mr. Wriggle.
Despite being dazed by Mr. Wriggle's hand upside my head, I was still keen to the fact that one again I was being referred to as an object and not a person.
With a small cough, Harpo's lips spread in an almost evil sort of grin as he spoke, "I might have figured that. Makes life easier, don't it?"
"Indeed it does my deer Harpo, indeed it does." said Mr. Wriggle who was now returning the grin as if the two men were sharing a secretive moment. "Oh yes ..." Mr. Wriggle said reaching into his coat, "here are the papers, all done up right."
Harpo snatched the folded pieces of paper handed him and jammed them into his pants pocket without giving them a single glance.
Looking down at us boys Harpo grunted, "All right then boys, let's git off this here ship!"
He flung open the green and white door and stood to one side as several boys trooped out past him.
"That means you too, Ron," he snarled at me not unlike Mr. Shafer, my gym teacher used to do. However even with the confirmation that I was going with him, I still stood there too petrified to move.
"Git goin'!" Harpo said grabbing me by the back of my hair and shoving me toward the door so hard that I nearly toppled head over heals. Had he not still had a hold of my hair and given me a firm tug I am sure I would have ended up on my face.
The fear of what might be the result of my not obeying was enough to keep me moving quickly through the door and following the other boys, none of whom were from the same group I had woken up with this morning. Not that it would have made any difference if one of them had been, for I am sure they still would have paid no more attention to me than anyone else had thus far.
Now had I been more alert I would have realized that Harpo had given me a clue as to my current whereabouts before tossing me out the door. He had said, and I think I am quoting him word for word, "All right then boys, let's git off this here ship!"
As we trotted away from the Banachelli Orphanage for Boys, I hazard to look back in hopes of possibly seeing an address or something that would tell me where in the world I had been brought. What I saw caught me by such surprise that for several seconds I was completely and utterly dumbfounded.
In my momentary dismay, I stumbled over my own two feet and fell against the boy ahead of me sending us both sprawling to the ground rather un-poetic like.
In the time that it took Harpo to stop, turn to see what had happened and stride to us I again had managed to flip myself over and look back for a second time.
Harpo had said it right, the Banachelli Orphanage for Boys was in fact a ship but it was a ship that was missing something very much needed for any sort of boat ... water!
As if it had been built right there in the middle of an otherwise vacant lot, sat the oddest ship I had ever seen. I mean, besides the fact that it was out of water and held off the ground by wooden poles as big around as a small car, it also had the most incredibly unusual design. Every ship I have ever seen in books or on television had a basic boat like shape but not so for the Banachelli Orphanage for Boys. It in fact looked more like the hideous sibling that everyone hears about being kept locked away and out of view of the rest of the world.
It had a haul like any other ship but over the hall was a very top heavy structure like someone had staked progressively larger wooden boxes one on top of another with the top box crowned in a green mold covered wooden shingle roof. The whole top-heavy structure looked like it had long since seen its best days, if it had any to start with. Any sign of paint that might have at one time decorated this aged vessel was long since weathered away leaving the bare wood looking gray and haunted. Randomly spaced across the ship were many windows, very few appearing to be of the same size or dimensions. Some seemed intact while others appeared be have pains busted out or boarded up completely. It became apparent to me that my short tour given to me last night by Cho was by no means the complete tour.
My appraisal of the Banachelli Orphanage for Boys lasted all of about five seconds before Harpo had reached the spot where I had fallen on the other boy who was now whimpering and holding his knee.
Harpo lifted me from the ground with a single hand clutched to the front of my jacket. I fully expected to be thrashed about in an angry tirade but he did nothing of the kind. Instead, he set me up right, straightened my jacket where he had taken hold of it before reaching down, and then brushed my hair from my eyes before helping the other boy to his feet as well.
As if nothing had happened, Harpo grunted and we were off again with me stealing glances over my shoulder at the ship as it disappeared into the darkness of predawn. The last thing I was able to see of the ship was the three tall narrow windows of the dining hall, which I had observed earlier just before being served my breakfast.
As we trudged along, I observed that though the other boys were as weary, beaten down and silent as they had been at the table this morning, each one appeared to be a friend to the one before him. I alone had nobody and even the boy I had fallen against was paying me no attention at all; not even to blame me for his sore knee, which I guessed, wasn't bothering him anymore since he didn't appear to be favoring it.
It was still quite dark out, but oh, what a terrible picture the streetlights revealed to me! The city back home had been a fearful enough place at night, but this seemed oh so much worse; and now I was not in the devoted care of friends or family keeping me safe from the sights, sounds, and smells that were so grim, harsh, deadly and caused my blood to chill in my veins!
Out in the open, trudging up one street and down another, cutting through alleys and slipping between buildings with a disheveled individual named Harpo and a pack of silent boys, not one of whom gave a sign that they cared if I were alive or dead, or even if I was keeping up with them.
We entered into an alley that seemed to disobey the laws of light and time. It was as though we had walked into another world, several years into the past. To one side of us loomed buildings of brick blackened with filth and defaced with graffiti. The building itself seemed to be breaking the laws of gravity as well; only crumbling mortar and the sheer desire to stay erect held it together. On the opposite side of the cracked, filthy, uneven pavement ran mini-torrents of something too unspeakably filthy to bare the name of water. Darkened windows looked down with blank unseeing eyes on our pitiful boy parade.
None of the pale, pasty-faced men and women, all intent on their own misery as they slept in doorways, paid any more attention to us boys than if we were the trash cans, the scraps of filthy paper blown about, or the rags and broken bottles that littered the gutters.
When our little procession stopped at last, it was before the battered doors of a high-roofed metal building encrusted with years of rust and neglect. Several large windows were spread across the front, but were filmed with dust and dirt so thick that their usefulness to admit light was doubtful.
When Harpo opened the doors to let us in, a blast of murderously broiling hot air hit me right in the face causing me to take a single step backward and hesitate before entering.
I soon found that we had entered a vast room so thick with fumes of burning plastic and dust that I had to gasp to draw a breath. If I was still expecting to enter a classroom, the thought left me at that very instant for there was not a desk, not a blackboard, nor any book in sight.
For nearly a full minute, all I saw and all I felt was the terrible heat, but before long I began to notice the glowing light of fires roaring in rows upon rows of open furnaces. The floor was littered with shimmering beads of plastic pellets, a silent testament to the fact that this was some sort of plastic factory.
With a swallow and a strained attempt to take another breath, the thought crossed my mind, "And what would we boys be there for if not to work before these deadly furnaces?"
A type of shovel I had never seen before was thrust into my hand by one of the boys who pulled me over to one of the furnaces. He and I spent the next few hours shoveling trash into the fires to keep them running.
Working quietly, I was able to look around and noticed dozens of boys working above us. They walked around on a grated metal floor and seemed to be poring more of the plastic pellets into what looked to me like witches cauldrons. After a while, the boys would then push the cauldrons away from the flames and away where I couldn't see what was done next.
There were no breaks to rest except for about five minutes to step away from the fire to eat the yellow bread that had been sent along with us and also for the occasional times when Harpo would come by and give us a drink of water out of a red bucket marked `FIRE' on the side of it.
As I toiled next to the fire, feeling like my skin was being baked right on my bones, a trickle of sweat rolled off my forehead, down over the bridge of my nose and dripped off but never reached the floor; it had evaporated the instant it had left my face.
As the sun went down our now exhausted band of boys had drug our sore and filthy bodies back to the Banachelli Orphanage for Boys where we were each stripped, washed by Cho and then escorted back to the dinning hall.
A gluey, gray, slimy mass of cold Oat Meal sat accusingly on the table before me. It was now the evening meal, but the same bowl of Oat Meal that had sat before me this morning now sat before me again.
When I had lined up with the other boys to receive my supper bowl, I had been handed the Oat Meal I had not eaten. It was clear to me, even without Cho's whispered warning, that I would be having this same Oat Meal served to me forever if I did not eat every horrible bite right then and there. The sharp, watchful eyes of Mr. and Mrs. Wriggle would see to that; of that fact, I had no doubts now!
What the others had been served was a kind of stew; it appeared to be mostly potatoes, with some odd bits of something of uncertain origin swimming around in a sickly pale broth. It hardly looked very tempting, but whatever it was, it could not have been worse than the cold Oat Meal that sat before me.
Aside from the yellow corn bread which one could hardly have called a meal, let alone lunch, I had had nothing to eat for over a day, maybe longer since I wasn't sure when I last ate. It was a wonder I had even managed to eat during the break, in the few minutes allowed us to consume our corn bread as we had crouched on the stone factory floor with the fires from the furnaces roaring at me continuing to burn my face with blasts of heat, and my throat choking from the dust and fumes. Why I didn't have an asthma attack in that place is a wonder!
Now I picked up my spoon and took one small bite of the cold Oat Meal. I could barely choke it down, but I finally took another bite as well. When I got the second glob swallowed, I laid down my spoon; there was no way that I could manage a third bite even if I had wanted too. Yet, it was not just because the Oat Meal was so sickening to swallow, it was that my chest hurt, my eyes stung, and there was hardly a bone in my body that did not feel as if it were going to break in two. In addition, I was so tired I could barely hold my head up. If only the meal would end so that I could go down and fall into my bed. Oh, to be able to fall asleep and have sleep erase all memory of that terrible day even if only temporarily.
Then at last I saw that the other bowls were becoming empty and heard the clink of spoons as the boys scraped up the last sickly drops of stew. However, before Mr. Wriggle had administered the three taps of his spoon on his tin cup to signal that the meal had ended, he beckoned to Cho, who went hurrying to his side. After a brief conference, Cho came rushing as fast as her dragging foot would allow her and came right up to where I sat.
"Yer to do dish duty now wit Paul," she said. "Ya `member? I show'd where it was." Then she dropped her voice, "Said you'd find out `bout it soon enough."
I didn't fully understand what she had meant, I was just too tired to think but a moment later, I, along with the boy called Paul, who had been the same boy I had stoked the furnace with all day at the plastic factory, staggered back and forth from the dining hall to the kitchen.
Our arms were loaded down with tipsy stacks of bowls, and trays holding tin cups and spoons. With me on one side of the black kettle that now held only the stiffening remains of the evening's meal and Paul standing on the other side of it, we lowered the bowls and other items into the kettle to be washed before the two of us attempted to carrying the whole lot off to the kitchen.
Kitchen! The very word, especially as it had been expressed by Cho, had a cruel sound to it. For me that night, it was a cruel place indeed! Sure, it had no roaring furnaces blasting out murderously hot air to burn and blister my lungs and fill them with deadly dust and fumes; however, it was still no palace. It was a rank, dimly lit, dingy, cold, damp, room featuring two large sinks sunk into a wooden counter, blackened with age, grease and who knows whatelse.
As I stumbled in with the final load from the dinning hall and into the kitchen, I collapsed against the wood counter, which was scarred from numerous knife wounds. This was the end; I could not move a muscle to do one more thing. It was all I could handle just to keep myself from falling to the floor.
Paul, rolling his shirtsleeve back up that had managed to work its way down, looked at me and shrugged just before speaking to me for the first time.
"Looky here, first day ain't easy. I seen you gettin' water four times to keep you goin'. Me? I only got it twice ma' first day."
This revelation was delivered with more then a hint of a bluster.
"But ain't none of it easy, no time, no how. I'm all wore out too."
He started to puff up a little as he spoke, "And I ain't got no plans to do all these by my self while you stand there and watch!"
He wiped his face with his bare arm, "You been resting long enough, get movin'! I ain't got no interest in spending the night here!"
I stared hopelessly at the stack of dirty bowls and the iron kettle. "H-h-how?" I stammered, wondering if I could muster the will to begin at all.
One thing was certain, there was to be no more sympathy from Paul than I had received from anyone else since arriving here.
Paul ran his fingers wearily through his floppy brown hair and sighed, "I wash half, you rinse; then we can switch. Okay?"
He waited for me to acknowledge, which I did with a tired nod of my head.
"Then we share on the kettle. After that, we dry everything with them towels," I looked to where he was pointing and saw a small stack of towels that didn't look any cleaner then the bowls and kettle did right now.
"When we are done we have to put them away." He paused to turn on one of the faucets over the sink and ran his hand under the water to check that it wasn't too hot. He shook his head despondently. "Ain't warm `nough; never is."
He was reaching under the sink for a jug of some kind of green substance that I soon learned was dish soap.
"Guess we better use the soap then!" Though his statement did register as odd with me, I was too tired to wonder why we wouldn't use soap in the first place.
Over an hour passed before we finished washing, drying and putting everything away. I was stretching to finish drying the inside of the kettle when Cho arrived to inspect our work. She informed us that one potato peel was left sitting on the floor, and if not picked up, Fyer would let us have `what for!'
Fyer, it appeared, was the bearded dwarf who dished up our food at meal times. Considering the filthiness of Fyer's apron and general appearance, I wondered at his caring about one potato peel on the floor, but I knew better than to voice my thoughts, at least that time. And on a side note, at this point, being more dead than alive, it didn't matter much to me but as soon as Paul had tossed the skin into his mouth with a grin Cho at last declared the job done.
"An' if you ain't goin' to dawdle," she said to me, "you can make it to yer room `fore the lights get put out. I ain't comin' with you `cause I already done my check down there an' you already know yer way. Just dun't make no mistake an' go inta da first door." She said looking my way to let me know she was talking to me and not Paul now, "It's Fyer's room, an' he don't like no one comin' in on him!"
I started to leave but when I seen that Paul was looking at Cho with the queerest expression I hesitated. Honest, all I wanted to do was to go to bed and sleep but something in me wasn't sure I could just yet.
Maybe two seconds had passed before Cho realized neither of us was budging.
"Well git!" Cho hissed and it was all the warning I needed but still Paul didn't move.
I took half a step toward the door but stopped again waiting on Paul who was still looking to Cho longingly.
With a sound that sounded like a hiccup Cho reached up and thumped herself on the side of the head, "Oh!"
Paul's face morphed into an obvious expression of relief and I am sure, though I could not see it, my own face had adopted his look of longing mixed with bewilderment.
"Well, come on ya two!" Cho said stepped in front of us both and heading out of the kitchen but not through the door I had expected but through the other door that I knew lead to the little room where Cho had bathed me last night and again this evening.
It was only then that I understood what it was Paul was wanting and for the life of me; I couldn't understand why he was so earnest to have Cho put me into a diaper for the night.
Seconds later everything was revealed as Paul laid himself on the small table on the far side of the big deep sink and Cho proceeded to put a cloth diaper onto him. I nearly swallowed my tongue when I gasped at the sudden realization.
Cho mistook my gasp to be a sign of impudents.
"Yer turn's af'er Paul." She said giving Paul a pop on his leg for giggling while she worked.
Despite Cho's physical limitations, she had Paul and I diapered in less then five minutes. Paul had been smacked on his leg three times for giggling and they didn't sound quiet or playful at all. The last swat got him to quiet down and while Cho had been diapering me, I saw out of the corner of my eye that he was rubbing his leg to ease some of the sting. Finally diapered and yet still extremely confused as to why Paul was diapered the same as me, the three of us headed for our rooms; Cho went one way, Paul another and I, alone, made for my bed while carrying my filthy clothes clutched to my naked chests.
I had only gone maybe fifteen feet when Cho called after me, "Ron!"
I jumped and spun around nearly dropping my clothes in the process.
"Ow are yer uh?" she began to ask as she drug her bad leg toward me.
As though she didn't know the word, she petted her chess and thinking she meant to ask about my body I answered meekly, "Very tired."
I had not noticed that she had something tucked under her other arm until she pulled it out to reveal my plastic armor. She held it out to me and I saw that she, well I assume it was her, had mended the crack in the front piece. The memory of how it had become cracked in the first place flooded my mind and filled me with rage.
However, seeing my armor now mended almost as though it had been made of fabric and not plastic. Cho had somehow managed to sew a strip of leather into the armor plate for me.
Without another word, she bent down, took my clothes from my arms and laid them on the floor in front of me. She had some trouble getting the armor onto me but with a little directing from me she got it into place. Just having my armor back and having it on made me feel safe again; safer then I had felt in days.
I started to say, "Thank..." but she put a finger to my lips to silence me. With a gentle butterfly kiss on my forehead, she handed me my clothes and sent me on my way.
Barely able to drag one foot after the other, I waddled away as quickly as my aching body would allow me. As it was, I had barely reached the bottom of the steep steps when the lights in the hallway, dim at best, flickered and went out altogether, plunging the hall and me along with it into total darkness. Up to that point, I had been certain I could find my way to my room, but all my certainty vanished with the light.
With heart racing and ears perked up for any sound, I stumbled blindly in the dark. I reached out for the wall, feeling my way along it until I came to the door to my room.
To my surprise, I found it closed but why should I have been surprised? It was just one more sign of how the boys felt about me. Then, suddenly, a great blast of sound came from behind the door. It was a rolling, rumbling, gurgling sound of vast proportions. Something akin to the sound of water being sucked down an enormous, powerful drain. Terrified, I jumped backward causing my shoes to tromp loudly against the wooden floor. The horrible sound came again, and in a flash, I recognized what it was.
Confused by the darkness, I had forgotten Cho's warning and almost entered the first door, where I would have walked in on Fyer, asleep and-snoring! Quaking in my oversized shoes, I continued down the dark hallway.
To my relief, I found the right door and it was open. Soft breathing sounds told me that this was not only my room, but that the boys were all in bed and asleep. I somehow managed to make my way to my bed without a sound and without waking my bunkmates. I managed to drag off my shoes, stow them under the bed along with the socks and hang my clothes on the nail before climbing into my bed and getting to go to sleep at last.
`To sleep?' Oh no, no, never believe such a luxury was yet to be allowed me! The moment I closed my eyes, my brain began to spin. Round and round and round, asking a million questions of `Why?'
"Why had I been put here, and how long could he survive in such a place?" I was still certain I was being held for ransom, but could I live through the few days until my rescue.
Unless I had been thoroughly hoodwinked by the Wriggles, how could one as sharp as Segal not know what might happen to a boy left in the loving care of the Banachelli Home for Boys? Could Segal have been so stupid as to believe that I could come out of here alive? And how much ransom would I be worth if I were to end up being delivered in a pine box? None of it made any sense; none!
Round and round and round. I wondered if my brain would ever stop spinning. How I envied the other boys in the room sleeping so peacefully. Though they each lived the grim life of a Banachelli boy too, perhaps they had found a way to get used to it. After all, I had seen how everyone lapped up their Oat Meal and dreadful-looking stew, leaving not much but the bowls when they were finished.
However, more than that, they had each other, friends, companions, and partners. Perhaps I could survive being a Banachelli boy if I had that, but I don't; I have nobody but myself!
Round and round and round; round and round and round; and then all at once I heard a strange sound.
My eyes flew open, but I could see nothing in the darkness.
There it was again!
From somewhere in the room came the sound of a whispered voice, "Is he asleep yet?"
I didn't make a sound, didn't even breath.
"Micky, can you tell?" It sounded like the same boy speeking again.
Another voice whispered, "Someone check."
I heard the sound of bare feet thumping softly to the floor from the bed next to me and quickly snapped my eyes shut. I heard what must be Micky padding stealthily over to my bed, so I started to breathe deeply and slowly, as if I were in a sound sleep. A tingling feeling inside me told me that Micky was leaning over the bed and breathing on my cheek but only for a second before I heard him padding away again.
"Ain't able to see `is eyes, but I think he's sleep'n all right," he whispered, "Ain't nobody breathes like that `less they are asleep."
A low conversation then took place though it was to far from my bed for me to hear what was being said.
Then Micky's voice rose a little. "Come on then, let's go!"
I opened my eyes a crack, enough to see a very dim beam of light from a small flashlight that seemed to need fresh batteries. It was so dim that it was hard to say it was on at all, but still gave enough light for me to just barely tell what was happening.
While one boy, I think his name was Jonathan, held the flashlight; Micky reached under the middle bed, and grunting softly from the effort, appeared to be moving something that made a scraping sound on the floor. He then reached up, took the flashlight from Jonathan and crawled with it under the bed. He did not reappear; instead, one by one, silent as prisoners of war escaping, each boy disappeared under the bed.
There came the scraping sound again and the dim glow from the flashlight disappeared. Now all that was left in the room were their empty beds, darkness, and me.
"Where had they all disappeared too?" I thought to myself.
Now sitting up in my bed staring toward the bed, though I couldn't see it now, and continued to question what I had seen.
"Surely five boys could not be huddled together under one small bed. Even if they could manage it, what would be the point of it?"
I was absent-mindedly stroking the leather patch job on my armor as I sat there in the dark wondering and then I thought suddenly of that odd sound of something scraping across the floor.
"I wonder if it could be the cover to an escape tunnel?"
My imagination was running wild again.
"A tunnel! A tunnel possibly leading away from the Banachelli Home for Boys!"
I felt my heart rate jump at the idea of escaping from this hellhole.
I started to wonder if they were escaping right now. A cold chill rolled over me as the thought that I could be missing my one chance to escape to freedom was quickly ticking away with each passing moment.
Anger started to well up inside of me.
"They must have been planning this all along, and not been too delighted to have me show up in the room last night."
I was rubbing the leather stitches on my armor so hard now that on the inside it felt like I was rubbing my knuckles on the plastic.
"Still, they had clearly decided to go ahead with the plan anyway. But why could they not have included me?" Anger was causing tears to form in my eyes.
"Well, do you really need to ask yourself that question?" a voice inside my head asked and then began to torment me, "Why would they have been so dim-witted as to include you on such a dangerous venture? Why, you are just some overgrown diaper wearing baby!"
I sat brewing over these words for a while before responding to the voice inside my head, "So, I have been left behind-alone; alone and faced with the prospect of having to explain to Cho and the Wriggle's what had happened to the rest of my bunkmates!"
"Maybe I will be rewarded for my goodness in not attempting to escape with them?" I said to myself.
Again that voice snapped back, "Hardly! It's more likely that you will be asked why you had not come to report the escape as soon as you knew of it."
I had to admit the voice inside my head had a valid point there.
I responded back with, "Then I will just say I had been asleep and had no idea of what had been going on around me. In other words-lie!"
The voice took on a smug tone, "Oh? So you think you can stick to a lie like that while you are standing before Mr. and Mrs. Wriggle with their accusing, cruel eyes piercing into your soul?" and before I could reply the voice added, "Why, you would be turned into a stuttering, guilty-looking bowl of quivering jelly in a matter of seconds."
I could feel my blood beginning to boil as the voice laughed at me in a high shrill quiver, "Oh what are you to do?"
I could hear my teeth grinding together and anger consumed me.
In a calm, almost placating tone the voice asked, "Well, why not escape with them? It's probably not to late yet; you can still catch up with them."
"Escape?" I whimpered aloud.
"Yes!" The voice said returning to its high-pitched tone. "All you have to do is crossing the room, find out how to get in and probably climb down a steep ladder, all in total darkness without benefit of a flashlight. If you could pull that off then it would be simple to just make your way down an equally dark tunnel, perhaps with dank walls and slippery puddles of foul water underfoot."
I was seething with anger now. The voice had paused for a brief moment before saying, "Come to think of it, you will probably have to craw on your belly like a snake!"
"Shut up!" I growled.
As though I had not said anything, the voice continued, "Suppose you made it safely through the tunnel, what then? Surely the boys would not have tried anything so daring if they did not have some place safe to go."
The voice and I were silent for a while but just as I had started to think that maybe it had left me, it asked, "By the way, have you managed to figure out where in the world you are?"
"L-l-leave m-me al-lone!" I had lost control and began to cry.
Not wanting to let me off the hook just because I was shedding a few tears, the voice continued instigating me, "If you did get out, where would you end up? Whom could you trust with such a wild story? Hmmmmm?" the voice rose even higher there at the end.
The voice lowered several octaves, "Seems to me that the one you trust the most, might just be the one you can trust the least not to come running right back here."
That was the chilling warning delivered by Mr. Wriggle. What chance did I have alone, outside the walls of the Banachelli Home for Boys? Without a doubt I would be quickly brought back to face something far worse than what I had already had to endure.
I asked the voice, "What could possibly be worse? What more could they do to me than what they had already been done? Beat me until I am dead? We both know that is how I am going to end up and you know it!"
"My, my! Don't you sound like the poster child for bravery?" the voice was egging me on now. "Oh my you are going to risk it, aren't you? I can see it in your mind you know."
Without answering, with my heart lodged securely in my throat, I put a tentative toe out from under the blanket, ready to climb from my bed but then I quickly drew it back in again. For suddenly, I had heard the same scraping sound come from the direction of the middle bed. A moment later, a faint light reappeared, followed by Jonathan.
One by one, the boys slipped quietly out from under the bed. The scraping sound came again, and seconds later the dim flashlight went out.
The second I had heard them returning, I had flung myself flat and faked that I was sleeping as I listened to the sound of their feet padding back to their cots.
"Night, Micky!" came a whisper from across the room.
"Night, Peter! `Night, everybody!"
"See ya in the mornin'!" someone giggled quietly.
With the sound of creaking springs, the five boys climbed back into their beds as the deep silence once again filled the room.
Where they had been, I could not begin to guess. All I knew was that I had been left here alone and now that they are back, I am still alone.
The last thought I had before sleep finally put an end to all my thinking was that everything was just as it had been; nothing had changed at all.