Auner  can’t be still. He keeps shifting, tugging his hands against the rope. His left eye is swollen shut, a black and purple ring circling his dark blue eye.  His upper lip is split, too.  Bruises line his arms and legs. He hurts, but he doesn’t say nothin’.  I guess heroes never say nothin’; instead, they wear the bruises likes medals, proud that they stood for something, even if they lost.  Auner lost, and I lost, but so did Markus.  The only winner was Chimp and Noodle;  they beat us all and then tied us to the cribs so we couldn’t get out again. Kids never win.

            Snow falls outside.  On my knees, I can see some of the ground. Looks like a carpet of rabbit fur.  Once, when I was at the black house, there was a rabbit.  With the door locked, I couldn’t go outside, but I wasn’t in a crib, and I wasn’t tied up. The whole room was mine. I stayed near the window because outside was colorful.  The bare room was not. And because of the rabbit. He came most days, if it wasn’t too cold, hopping into the backyard.  The rabbit’s coat was the whitest thing I’ve ever seen, except for snow;  his nose was a pale pink. I loved watching Snowy hop. Sometimes I pretended to be Snowy’s friend, hopping from one side of the room to the other. I never touched a rabbit, I ooonever touched anything except the floor in the room, until I got here.

The mattress is not the same as the floor. When I first came, I thought it was soft. I don’t think that anymore; it is as hard as the floor now. We don’t get out of the bed, not unless they tell us to. Unless the Maybe Parents are coming. If Maybe Parents are coming, we are hosed off. That happened not long after I got here; kids said it was because Maybe Parents were coming, but they never did. We were hosed off, but no one came. We get forgotten a lot. We stay in the cots. We eat in the cot. We sleep in the cot. We bounce and shriek and cry in the cot. We talk to each other in the cot. Sometimes we fight in the cot. We use the bathroom in the cot. Now, we are tied to it.


            That’s what the man in the black house was, always.  Mad.  The whole house shook when he screamed; he threw things, and he painted bruises.  When I got out of the fire house, the right side of my face was one big bruise. My arms were colorful, too.  Black, blue, purple, yellow: the colors of mad.  I’m still these colors here, but I match everybody else now. 

When I was in the black house, I never thought about getting out, least not until it was get out or die. Fire scares me, and when I heard the swoosh and felt the heat behind the locked door, I panicked. Fire will find its way to you. It’ll come under the door, it’ll come through the windows, it’ll burn wood to find you. You can’t outrun fire. You can’t hide from fire. You can’t always put out fire. And, even then, I knew what happens when it finds you.

I look at my hand. The skin is puckered, the skin is wrinkled. The skin is melted. He caught me, that one time before the door was locked, he caught me taking a piece of bread from the table. I wasn’t supposed to be in the house; I was to stay in the garage. But I was cold. I have always been cold. I was even more hungry. It had been days since he’d given me the small bit of cabbage.

            That day, he left; he got on his bicycle and left, and he forgot to lock the inside door to the house.  By the time it took me to get enough guts to step inside and find the kitchen, he’d headed back. By the time my grimy fingers stuffed the first bit of bread in my mouth, savoring its warmth, letting it warm my belly, he leaned the green bicycle against the house. By the time I reached for a second bite, his larger fingers gripped mine, hard, and his other hand smacked my face, knocking my head to the side.  

            He didn’t use the belt that day. Or his fists. He turned the gas stove on, made me stand in front of it and laughed when the eye of the stove turned blood red.  He told me I belonged in the fire, that one day the fire would eat me alive and spit me out. Alina fears Silver Claw, but Silver Claw is not real.  Fire is real.   When the gas stove was burning hot, red hot, he yanked my arm so hard I heard a popping noise.  I kicked and screamed, I dropped my whole body to the floor and pulled backwards, but I was little.  I don’t know how old I am, but I was the size of some of the smaller kids here.  I was no match for him.  He gripped my armpit, hauled me off the floor and marched in front of the gas stove. 

            The fire ate my skin.

            He held my hand over the stove until the skin melted, until the world twisted and faded to black.  The burning shot through my fingers, up my arms and through my whole body.  I felt dizzy and then the world went black. When I woke up, I was in the room.  The door was locked. 

             I think about that day a lot.

            I could have gotten out.  Instead of getting the bread, I could have opened the front door and walked away.  I’m not real smart because I never thought of that. All I’ve ever thought about is food.   After that day, I was never let out of the room.  There was a window, but I never thought of breaking it.  Except when the fire came for me. I broke it then.

Bleeding, I watched the house burn from the woods. I was supposed to be in that fire. He said so. I heard him say he was getting rid of me “once and for all,” that “no son of his would ever talk like a retard.” That nobody would ever shame him by talking like me. I was meant to be in that fire. He waited in the front yard, sitting in the hospital truck, watching the house burn.

            It was the first time my toes ever touched grass. 

            I stood watching the house until I started shaking real bad;  my teeth chattered, too.  I didn’t want him to see me.  I didn’t know what to do, but I couldn’t stand where I was.  I hobbled deeper into the woods, stumbling over rocks and branches and stumps until I heard water. 

            Water stops fire. 

            The creek led me out of the woods. I wondered around until, a few days later, I tried to steal a pomegranate from the local market.  I’m not like Auner, I’m not good at stealing. I ran, but the police caught me.  I wouldn’t tell ’em my name cause I was scared they’d take me back to the fire house.  They didn’t think I could talk, said to each other, this one’s dumb.

I ain’t dumb. I got what I wanted; I was not taken back to the fire house. I was bought here. I ain’t ever thought about gettin’ out. Except sometimes.


***** ***** *****

            Alina went with Chimp.  They’ve been gone a long time now.

            “Wh-what ha-hap-pens to her?” 

            “I don’t know.” Auner’s voice is quiet.  He lays on his side, staring out at the walls.  He clucks his tongue and waves a fist in the air every few minutes. Alizabet sits against the corner of the bed, her eyes staring towards the door of the room.  Alizabet knows everything about all of us.  She knows all of our numbers and our names.  She knows what we like and what’s wrong with all of us. I bet Alizabet knows what happens to Alina when she goes with Chimp.

             “How long-long will she be-be gone?” 

            “Last time, she came back after three thousand six hundred and seven seconds.” 

            “How long is that?” Auner asks.

            “The time before that she came back after three thousand three hundred and two seconds. The fastest she’s ever come back was one thousand seven hundred eighty two seconds.” Alizabet’s eyes never move from the door. 

            “Does–does she g-get f-f-food?”

Alizabet is quiet so long I don’t think she’s going to answer. The stringy, dark chocolate hair falls over her eyes. She bounces when she says, “Sometimes.”

             “What’s the longest she’s been gone for?” Auner doesn’t know how long ten seconds is or a hundred seconds or three thousand.  I wonder if Alizabet just makes up numbers;  I don’t even know if one thousand is a real number.  

             “She was gone for five thousand eight hundred and eighty seconds the first time.” 

            “Why?  What’s she d-doing?” I ask, frowning.  Another kid, number 732, shifts in the crib next to me, rolling over. The kid that shares his bed hasn’t moved in a long time but blinks every now and then.  I wonder if she can sleep with her eyes open. 

            Alizabet doesn’t answer. Then she says, “It’s her turn.”

            “Her turn for what?”

            “Did – did you ever – ever go with Chimp?”

            Alizabet doesn’t answer, but I see her lips moving. She is counting. 

            “I want food. I’ll tell him I’ll go next time.” Auner is brave, but Alizabet shakes her head.  “You’re a boy.”  That explains nothing, but Alizabet says it like it does.

            “Have you ever seen a rabbit?”

            “Hey, retard.  How come you didn’t st-st-stutter just then?  Do you fake it?”  It’s the first time in awhile we’ve heard from Markus.  I ignore him, but only because I am thinking of the rabbit. “I s-saw one. S-S-Snowy.  They are white and-and they-they hop. They l-look like- like the snow.” 

            “Where was the rabbit?”  Auner asks, scratching his blonde curls. Our heads all itch.  Some of us don’t have hair. Hunger can make it fall out. And, sometimes, Noodle or one of the other guards cuts the kids’ hair.  But everybody here, even the kids who don’t have hair, have lice.

            “A – at the h-h-house. I seen it hop-hopping every day.”  I couldn’t fold my hands in front of me because I’m still tied to the bed for fighting Markus, but I bounce instead, still on my knees. Auner wants to know how big rabbits are, what they eat and if they live in Taramul Viselor.  Alizabet nods. “I’m sure they do. Most animals live there.”

            “I like the story of Freckled Fae,” Auner says.  I see Alizabet’s lips moving; she won’t tell us about Taramul Viselor right now; I don’t know that I remember all the story about the freckled doe who couldn’t find her fawn. “It’s Alina’s favorite, too.” Auner says, but I don’t think he’s right. “I don’t think it’s her very favorite. She likes the one about the tiny fairy.” 

“How long has it been?” Auner asks.

            “Two thousand four hundred and three seconds.”

I don’t know how long that is, but it feels like a long time.

            The sound of a kid screaming makes me turn my head. Noise excites everybody. Kids start chattering, bouncing, shrieking, moving.  It’s not allowed. The kid in the crib over plugs her ears with her fingers. When a different guard, not Noodle or Chimp, opens the door and yells for us to be quiet, the screaming kid doesn’t stop screaming. The guard walks to the crib, pulls the boy out, and carries him out of the room. If you can’t be quiet and you’re making everyone else be loud, they take you out. I don’t know where you go, but when they come back, they are very sleepy and they don’t make any noise.

            I bet they take you to a room and put you in it by yourself. Like the room in the black house, where I stayed alone. I could see the window, but there was no one else to talk to, no one else to see. When you’re alone all the time, you forget what real people are like. It makes these kids remember how to obey.  It made me mad.  Once, I banged my head against the wall so hard and so long trying to bust free that I dent the wall. A knot swelled on my forehead that became a dark purple bruise. Every time I saw the dented wall, I couldn’t help but rub the knot on my forehead — and I was proud. At least I tried.

            The sound of the jangling keys makes me turn to see.  There isn’t light in the room but, even in the gray shadows, I knew it was Alina coming back.

            She walks funny, like her legs are different lengths. The limp bothers me but what bothers me more is that Alina is naked. She doesn’t have the ragged, cotton shirt most of us have. There are some kids here that are naked. But I’ve never seen Alina without the long, cotton shirt.  Bruises curve like a necklace around her throat; her hair twisted into a knot. Her mouth looks swollen and bruised.

            Alina doesn’t climb into the crib with Alizabet.  She bends to her knees and drops beneath the crib. I can see her; she curls her feet in to her chest and folds her head into her belly; she puts a thumb in her mouth. 

            “Two thousand eight hundred twelve seconds.”