Orphaned (Commission) – Ch 4 – lostandwhatever
“Hey, kid?” a child’s voice said.
Charlie opened his eyes to see a dark-haired boy standing next to his bed. He looked to be just under ten years old, but he seemed enormous for some reason.
“Uh?” Charlie said, not really sure what the kid was doing in his bedroom.
“What’s your name?” the boy asked.
Charlie looked around himself and was surprised to find that he was not in his bedroom. In fact, he was in a room he had never seen before. The dim light coming from behind the window shades indicated that it was still early morning. He tried to remember how he had gotten there. He could recall a very realistic dream in which he had turned into a child. It had seemed a bit too real, in fact. He touched his face and felt the smooth, stubble-free skin of his cheek. Then, he touched his throat and found no trace of an Adam’s Apple.
“It wasn’t a dream,” he said, hearing a boyish voice come from his mouth.
“You deaf?” asked the boy standing next to him.
“Uh, no,” Charlie said. “My name’s Charlie.”
The boy gave Charlie a serious look, nodded, and walked off without another word, leaving Charlie to wonder what the other boy’s name was.
A door opened, and the lights were turned on in the room, eliciting groans from several corners of the room as boys woke up.
“Good morning!” said a chipper woman standing in the doorway. “Rise and shine. It’s time to start our day.”
Charlie watched as the other boys crawled out of their beds to stand swaying, half-awake at their bedsides. Realizing that this was probably a routine, Charlie did the same, being careful to keep his pants from falling down again. It worried him to find that he was probably one of the shortest, if not the shortest, boy in the room.
“Right,” the woman said. “Head down to breakfast, and then it’s time to clean up.”
The boys filed out of the room in a line. Charlie made to follow them, but was stopped at the door by the woman when she put a hand on his shoulder. “Hold on a minute, Charlie,” she said. “Let’s have a little talk. You’ll be needing an introduction.”
Charlie looked up at her, realizing that the woman had to be over a hundred pounds heavier than him and at least a foot taller than him. She seemed like a giant, but he was starting to accept that would be true for all adults. He tried to keep from feeling too intimidated.
“My name is Sister Francine,” the woman said with a pleasant smile. She did not look like a nun, he thought. She was dressed in ordinary clothes for a woman in her fifties. She seemed kind enough, though.
“I’m Charlie,” he said.
“Nice to meet you, Charlie,” she said. “I prefer to welcome the new children to The Wilson Youth Home personally, but you arrived very late last night after I had already gone to bed. Do you understand where you are?”
“This is an orphanage,” he said. “I’m here because I don’t have parents anymore.”
“Yes,” she said. “Unfortunately, that is so, but you can take comfort in knowing that we will take good care of you here. This is your home for now. We hope you will feel welcome here.”
“Thank you,” he said.
She looked at his ill-fitting clothes and said, “Well, before we send you to breakfast, we should find you some clothes that fit. Come with me.” She waved him to follow her down the hallway.
Charlie walked by her side and took his first good look at the building as they went. It appeared to be an old place, like something out of a black-and-white photograph. The peeling wallpaper and worn out carpets showed that it had seen better days, but there was something comforting about it. It seemed solid or tough, like it was ready to survive anything.
They passed by other children on the way, and again Charlie was reminded of how small he was. The kids were huge, yet they seemed to be only a couple of years older than him on average. He was reminded how much of a size difference a few years made when you could count your age on your fingers.
They came to a room full of boxes, which Sister Francine began opening, searching for an outfit for Charlie to wear. After a few tries, they settled on a green T-shirt and a pair of jeans that fit him properly. Thankfully, his underwear had fit him fine, and he had not needed to get naked.
Then, the sister led him down to breakfast.
Charlie decided that this might be a good time to start investigating how the orphanage was run. Maybe a simple question or two would be a good place to start.
“So,” he said. “What are the rules around here? Is there a schedule I have to follow?”
“We eat meals together three times a day,” she explained. “You will start attending classes tomorrow after we have a chance to talk with you today. There’s free time in the evenings for you, but we try to give you structured activities then as well if you want. You will sleep in your bed in room 23 with the other boys near your age. There will be a trunk there for you to store your personal effects.”
“Okay,” he said as he tried to keep up with her. She was not particularly tall, but she walked fast. There was an air to her of a person always on the move, full of activity and energy. “What about punishments?”
She paused a moment, and he nearly ran into her backside. She turned and looked down at him curiously. “Why do you ask?”
“Um,” he said. “I’m just curious. I want to keep out of trouble, I guess.”
“Well, then,” she said. “If you keep out of trouble, then you don’t need to worry about punishments. Now, do you?”
“You aren’t planning on causing any trouble,” she asked facetiously. “Are you?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head.
“Just ask if you’re not sure if you should be doing something. Otherwise, keep the golden rule in mind. Do you know that one?”
“Um,” he said. “‘Do unto others…’”
“‘…what you would have them do to you,’” she added.
“Right,” he said.
“Come on,” she said and started walking again. “Let’s get some food in you now. You can ask more questions later.”
They walked through double doors into a large dining hall with tall windows on one side. Boys and girls of ages ranging from about 6 to their early teens were eating breakfast, seated at tables. Sister Francine walked over to the food trays and took one to hand to Charlie, on which he added bacon, toast, and fruit juice. When they reached the end of the line, the sister turned to him and said, “I’ll leave you to eat your breakfast. Go out there and make some friends. We’ll talk later after you clean up. Okay?”
“Okay,” Charlie said.
“Make sure you keep out of trouble,” she said with a smirk and then walked away.
Now that he was on his own again, Charlie searched around the lunchroom for an open seat and found himself filled with unexpected anxiety. Memories of feeling out-of-place as a kid in a school cafeteria returned to him. “They’re just kids,” he reminded himself. There was no reason to worry about what they might think of him. Still, more than a few of them were considerably larger than him. At the very least, he would need to avoid aggravating them into beating him up.
Then, Charlie spotted the boy who had woken him up that morning. He was sitting with a couple of other boys from the same room as him. Charlie decided it was a perfect opportunity to get introduced to the kids in his room. They might be a good source of information about the orphanage, after all. He walked up to them, and asked, “Do you mind if I sit here?”
“Yes,” the boy who had spoken to Charlie before said. “We do mind.”
“No we don’t,” another boy said, this one was about a year younger than the other one and had sandy blond hair and wore glasses. “Have a seat.” He gestured with his fork towards the chair next to him. Charlie set his tray down and took a seat.
“I’m Jack,” the welcoming boy said.
“I’m annoyed,” the mean boy said again.
“Nobody asked you,” Jack said.
“So, I’m not allowed to speak?”
“Not if you’re just going to be mean.”
“You don’t get to tell me what to do, Jack.”
The other boy at the table said, “Let’s just chill out, guys. It’s breakfast. Let’s save the fighting until after lunch at least. Okay?”
“Fine,” Jack said. “I’ll drop it if he does.”
The mean boy just took a big bite of his waffle and chewed away his annoyance in silence.
“By the way, I’m Davion,” the third boy said. He was about the same age as Jack but had much darker skin and hair.
“Nice to meet you,” Charlie said.
There was a moment of awkward silence, which stretched on until the mean boy said, “So… Let’s change the subject, then. How about we get to know each other better? Tell me, new kid, what happened to your parents?”
“Eddie!” Jack said. “Shut up!”
Davion said, “Do you really think he wants to talk about that over breakfast?”
“We all have our stories,” Eddie said, defiantly. “This is a damn orphanage after all. We all have at least one thing in common. Don’t we?”
“You don’t have to say,” Jack said to Charlie.
“It’s okay,” Charlie said, taking the moment as an opportunity to ingratiate himself with the boys. “They died in a car accident. I was not with them. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had been there. Maybe I could have warned them.” He could feel the tears coming up again. “There’s nothing I can do about it now. I miss them. I…” He ran out of words, but he managed to keep himself from crying. “I’m fine,” he managed to croak out at last. It was a good story for this situation, he realized. Also, it had the added benefit of being true.
The other boys looked at him sympathetically. They knew. They had all felt the same way.
“Yeah,” Eddie said, and the others kept quiet, having decided that was enough said.
Jack passed a banana to Charlie’s plate. Davion handed over a cookie. Eddie sighed and slid an unopened bag of potato chips to Charlie. Charlie accepted his gifts with a soft, “Thank you.”
Charlie realized that friendship is a simple thing for children. Sometimes all it takes to become friends is having one shared interest or experience: playing the same video game, liking the same cartoon, moving from the same place… The trauma of losing your parents was more than enough for them. It was clear to them all that they would be friends.
“So,” Charlie said, cutting into his breakfast at last. “What can you tell me about this place?”
Breakfast was filling, and the conversation was satiating as well. He learned about a few new cartoon shows that he had to watch, plus who the coolest youtubers were and something called Twitch that he was supposed to check out. However, Charlie did not learn much more about The Wilson Youth Home from his conversation with the boys. All they told him were things that Sister Francine had already said.
Charlie did ask about punishments directly, but Eddie only responded, “Well, you see, they have their own system. They say they make the punishment fit the crime, if that makes any sense. But, uh… I suppose you’ll find out what I mean soon enough.”
Before the other boys could elaborate more, a bell rang. Charlie’s three new friends were called away to school, while Charlie was taken to a bathroom to clean up. Sister Francine gave him a new toothbrush, and he cleaned the few teeth he had. He was about to ask for some deodorant, but stopped himself when he realized that he would not need to worry about body odor at this age. When he was freshened up, it was time for a trip to the counselor’s office for a conference.
Ms. Judith, the counselor, read through his file while he sat on a chair in front of her desk. He had to consciously focus on not letting his legs swing, but that got boring after a short while. To keep himself occupied he looked around the office. There were smiling kids’ photos on the wall, probably current and former residents. That was a good sign. She clearly cared about them enough to save their photos. A diploma hung on the wall next to them and a certificate for some accomplishment. Next to that, there were motivational posters with words like PERSEVERANCE and TEAMWORK. And, in the middle of it all, there was Ms. Judith herself. She was a brunette woman in her late thirties, standing taller than average with a slim build, but she had a kind, soft-spoken nature, making her seem not at all intimidating. Again, Charlie found himself liking one of the adults here.
“Well,” she said at last as she set down his file. “How are you feeling, Charlie?”
“Okay, I guess,” he said.
“Well, that’s natural. It’s alright to feel nervous in a new place. You know what you can do to help with feeling nervous.”
“Ask questions. Learn something new. Feeling nervous and scared can be a reaction to uncertainty. Get to be more certain. What do you want to know?”
Charlie was thrilled to have this opportunity, but he worried about overplaying his hand too soon. He might draw too much attention by asking the wrong questions in front of someone so experienced in working with actual kids. He decided to keep the questions simple. “Are you a nun?” he asked.
“Uh,” she said, smiling. “No, actually, I’m not, but there are a few nuns still around here. Clearly you’ve met Sister Francine. You see, The Wilson Home used to be a Catholic orphanage when it opened. After a while, the church had decided that they could not afford to support us any longer, but we managed to survive after that. Now, we’re independently funded by a government grant and some private donors. Many of the nuns who worked here stayed on after the church left. They had made this place their home as well, you see.”
Charlie nodded. He was having trouble picturing what the dark secret of this place really was. So far, all he had seen were caring people with dedication for their work. He would have to dig deeper.
“Any other questions?” she asked.
He decided to go big. “Do you spank kids here?” he asked.
“No,” she said. “Never. We don’t believe that hurting kids helps them in any way. You don’t need to worry about us.”
“So, none of the nuns…”
“No,” she said. “Maybe a long time ago they did go in for corporal punishment, but now it’s strictly forbidden.”
“Then, what happens if I do something wrong?”
“We try to make it right,” she said, cryptically. “But, don’t worry about it so much now.”
Charlie nodded again. Once more, he was struggling to get a straight answer. It appeared that questions might not be good enough. He might have to actually step over a line to see what they would do. That would take some planning, he realized.
“You want me to take you to lunch?” she asked.
“Sure,” he said, and followed her back to the cafeteria, where they ate lunch and made basic small talk. All the while, he thought about what he could do to get himself in trouble.
Charlie passed the afternoon watching TV by himself on an old CRT TV in his new shared bedroom. Later, the other boys from the morning joined him after they came back from classes. They were a bit too worn out to talk. Ultimately, they just ate dinner together and headed off to bed. There was an awkward moment when the other boys changed into their pajamas. Charlie felt a bit weird about hanging out in a large bedroom with a dozen other boys changing clothes, but that moment passed quickly. Then, Sister Francine ordered them all into bed. Charlie lay on his mattress, wondering what school would be like tomorrow. He was surprised to find he felt butterflies in his stomach. Was he actually nervous about his first day at a new school? It had only been a day since he had changed, but he was already getting used to feeling like a kid again. That worried him a bit.
“Hey, Charlie,” a voice whispered to him in the dark.
“Eddie?” Charlie replied.
“What is it?”
“You want to know a secret about this place?”
“I know where they hide their files about the kids.”
Charlie half-smiled. “You do?”
Eddie chuckled. “You bet.”
Another voice said, “Would you two shut up? I’m trying to sleep.”
“Yeah,” some other voice said.
Charlie said, “Sorry.” And, the room went quiet. Soon there was only the sound of many boys breathing as they fell asleep.
But, Charlie’s mind was not ready to sleep. Instead, it was racing with ideas about what to try next. Tomorrow, he thought. I’ll find some answers tomorrow, one way or another. Eventually, though, he began to yawn and sleep took him at last.