Chapter 1: Prologue
Rattlesnake shadow crawlin' 'cross my heart
Forever I am there, barefoot in the dark
They're beating that drum in the cemetery
My death lays awake there, whistling Dixie, yeah
If this is hell, well, then I'm lucky, yeah
- "Barefoot in the Dark" by Dax Riggs
It was vicious cold outside on the balcony, but she didn’t mind so much. It was just as vicious cold on the inside where Diana and Meg skulked and slithered; where Miss Martha the cleaning witch scolded and complained; where Mr Hoffman petted and whispered and slipped into the dormitory to watch them undress, insisting that he was simply there to keep them on task.
Hurry up and take off your dress, there’s no time for dawdling. When was the last time you changed your underwear, you dirty little wretch? No mummy and daddy is ever going to want a child who can’t take care of themselves. Here, give them to me, I’ll take them to the filth room for you…
Where everyone stopped what they were doing to point at her, the new girl, and hiss and snipe to each other as they stared at her with open distrust.
The new girl, they groused, as if though she’d done it on purpose.
Eleanor had been a resident of the Red Rose Orphanage for just two weeks, but already she was weary of it. She wanted desperately to go home, but of course, that was impossible -- Mummy had made quite sure of that.
The thought of her mother brought with it a torrent of confused and tangled emotions –- feelings she was in no way equipped to handle at her age. It created a tightness in her chest that shallowed her breathing and a terrible, traitorous heat erupted behind her eyes.
She busied herself at an old table, covered in gardening paraphernalia. She filled her hands with dirt and let it rain down through her fingers. She admired the crude lettering that had been scarred into the table by some deviant child with atrocious spelling. She arranged the rusted tools in the order she thought they should be used – the clawed thing first, which she imagined would help loosen up the stubborn earth, then the wee spade to dig the hole proper. She sorted through opened seed packets, most of them empty, and she stacked them on top of each other in alphabetical order, which was her preferred method of organization, and she didn’t think of her father, not even for a second.
Daddy, she knew, was no longer around to wipe away her tears, and so, it seemed only reasonable that there should be no more tears.
Especially not in this miserable place.
She turned away from the table, having run out of distractions, and peered over the edge of the balcony, down into the yard. They were fenced in like animals. Empty cages were stacked in a darkened corner. The grass was mostly dry and yellow. Long dead, then. Not like the lush emerald lawns she’d left behind. Enemy territory that her Mummy had forbade her to play on lest she get herself dirty.
Mummies and Daddies didn’t want dirty children; why, everybody knew that.
Closer to the front entrance, two slovenly boys –- Nicholas and Xavier, if she wasn’t mistaken –- wielded wooden swords against each other, clumsily jousting. She noted that they’d also made some hapless effort to construct a third opponent out of broomsticks and a bucket, which as far as she could tell, was the closest they’d ever come to actually using those cleaning implements.
Boys, she thought, and turned her face away. Was there anything on earth more sloppy and repulsive? She could hardly stand the sight of them.
Her attention shifted from the duel to the balcony floor, long obscured by crayons and chalk. Railroad tracks like endless centipedes, and crooked hopscotch squares. Ugly, doglike creatures with jaws agape, carefully rendered candy vomit suspended between rows of sharp teeth. Honestly, had any of these children had actual parents, or had they all been raised by wolves before coming here?
And just beyond the four-legged candy dispenser, a rickety, weather-worn chair, and it’s silent occupant waiting ever-so patiently for her to notice:
A cylindrical bird cage.
The sight of it made her forget, just for a second, her earlier pledge not to think about her father. As she found herself reaching for the hook affixed to the top, she was transported through time, back into her own house far away from here, back to her father’s lap where she had perched herself every evening after supper, the two of them enjoying the antics of her father’s pet bird Scarlet.
Ellie, my love, he’d say, rearranging her on his knees so that she was looking more at him than the bird, fluttering madly against the bars of her cage. Have I ever told you about Forever Land?
No, Papa, she’d lie, eager to hear the story again, as many times as he’d tell it. What is Forever Land?
Someday, but not today or any time soon, a bird – much like Scarlet, here – will come looking for you. The bird is from Forever Land, a wonderful place without sadness or pain. All you have to do, Ellie, is follow the bird. It will guide you to Forever Land, where I’ll be waiting for you. And then we’ll be together forever in Forever Land.
The cage was heavier than she’d anticipated. She winced as the cold metal bars thumped against her bare legs. Yet still she welcomed the weight of the cage; immediately it seemed to balance the scales. Where before one side had been weighted down with the twin burdens of sorrow and anger, now began to lift, outweighed by the still tender memories and fresh hope that the cage promised.
She would find the Bird of Happiness, and it would take her to Forever Land.
She would find everlasting true happiness.
Days went by without anybody fussing about her newest acquisition. Diana and Meg had eyed it with some interest, but had made no attempt to wrest it from her; the boys were wholly uninterested in anything having to do with her; Olivia and Susan didn’t dare test her, and Amanda… Amanda rarely ventured out of the sewing room, except at mealtimes, or if summoned to a meeting in the attic. She wasn't officially an Aristocrat, yet, but Diana enjoyed baiting her into failure, punishable by decree of the Princess of the Red Rose.
Only the orphanage’s nursemaid Clara had asked her anything about it (“Do you like birds?”), but Eleanor didn’t mind Clara. She was four years older than Eleanor, but she was a small, fragile girl, and her frailty lent her a greater illusion of youth so that she seemed younger and more innocent than Diana, who was only two years older than Eleanor.
“Yes,” she’d replied, and then because Clara had smiled so kindly at her, she’d told the older girl about Forever Land, and the Bird of Happiness.
“How wonderful,” Clara had sighed wistfully, staring at the empty cage dangling from Eleanor’s fist. She might have said more, but the speakers had crackled to life and Mr Hoffman’s voice had summoned her to his office. Clara had slunk away and Eleanor had wandered off herself, carefully skirting Thomas as he crawled on all-fours up and down the hallway, making quiet “choo-choo” noises as he gripped his toy train until his knuckles had turned grey-white, and the wheels scratched the wood floors.
Months went by, and Eleanor’s position as the much reviled “new girl” was usurped by a younger girl with a short, boyish haircut.
The new girl, they whispered, with all the venomous zeal of a curse.
Eleanor disliked her immensely.
“She was on the airship that crashed,” Clara informed her as she bandaged Eleanor’s bruised fingers. Diana had “accidentally” struck her with a hammer as they’d been building the box the Rose Princess had ordered. “Everyone died except for her, even her parents. She’s fortunate to have found her way here.”
Clara’s loyalty to the orphanage had annoyed Eleanor, and she hadn’t responded.
Rumors began to take hold in the orphanage, spreading through the dormitory like an especially contagious disease.
Stray Dog gives us sweets
Stray Dog kidnaps kids
Imps, they were all certain, would take them away if they failed to perform their chores.
Unnerving tales they passed back and forth.
Just scary stories.
Then Leo disappeared.
Clara, who she had taken to eating meals with, had begun to skip breakfast, leaving Eleanor to sit by herself, or with Jennifer.
Eleanor didn’t ask Clara about her disappearances, as it wasn’t her place, but she did take it upon herself to search for Clara as soon as Martha released them from the cafeteria.
Infuriatingly, she discovered that Clara was spending time with Amanda in the sewing room.
Because speaking to Amanda repulsed her, she didn’t ask her about Clara, either.
It was very frustrating, indeed.
Holidays and birthdays in the orphanage were largely ignored. Without money to decorate or provide gifts, Hoffman and Martha carefully avoided any occasion that called for them, although they allowed the children to celebrate Halloween among themselves, with masks they’d make with crayons and paper bags.
As a result, several of the children could no longer pinpoint the exact date that they’d been dragged screaming into existence. Some of the younger children merely guessed at their own ages.
Eleanor could remember both her birth date and her age, but she didn’t bother to share this information with anyone. There was hardly any reason to, unless she wanted to give Diana a specific reason to torment her, as she surely would.
She spent the day scrubbing floors and helping Jennifer with the laundry. Laundry was an unpleasant task, but it afforded her some quiet time – Diana and Meg never set foot in the filth room (it was beneath them), and Jennifer, useless though she was, didn’t pester or harass her. It was a tolerable situation.
As evening fell upon the orphanage, the children gathered in the cafeteria for supper, then to the dormitory to prepare for bed.
Mr Hoffman crept in and gathered undergarments for washing.
The hour leading up to bedtime was always rowdy. Xavier and Nicholas dueled; the girls scribbled, crumpled papers, and scribbled some more; and Thomas crawled, train in hand, muttering “choo-choo” and making disapproving noises as slammed the train into walls and bed posts.
Eventually, Jennifer would retire to the filth room where she was quarantined due to lack of space in the dormitory. The others would, one-by-one, sprawl across their bunks, and the dorm would give way to stifling silence and stillness.
It was in this silence that Clara tip-toed across the room to Eleanor’s bed, where she set herself gingerly at Eleanor’s feet, a lidded box in her lap.
“I heard Mr. Hoffman mention your birthday once when you first came to live here,” she explained, staring at the box. “It’s not much, but I did the best I could…”
She thrust the box at Eleanor, still refusing to look at her. “I hope you like it.”
Inside of the box was a small, red blob.
“I got the fabric from an old coat I found in the attic.”
Eleanor lifted it out of the box, holding it pinched between her thumb and forefinger. Whatever the material was, it was quite soft and smooth. Two black buttons had been affixed to what she presumed to be the face. The beak was shiny and hard, although she couldn’t imagine where Clara had found it, or what it had once belonged to.
“For your cage,” Clara said quietly.
Eleanor took the other wing with her free hand and held it up to get a better look at it. The black thread Clara had used to sew it together gave it a kind of pleasing contrast, even if it was unevenly spaced and inexpertly stitched. She remembered lamenting to Clara that there were no suitable toys in the entire building, but she had been complaining just to complain; she certainly hadn’t intended for Clara to rectify the situation. “Thank you.”
Clara had smiled down at her hands, muttered a shy “you’re welcome”, and scurried back to her own bed.
“It’s burning my eyes.”
“You’ll get used to it.”
Clara blinked and turned her head from left to right, wiping her eyes on her shoulders to the best of her ability. She was elbow deep in cold, dirty water, attempting to lighten the dirty patches on the knees of Thomas’s favorite pair of pants. “How awful,” she moaned, lifting the pants to examine them. They were filthy.
“It’s really not so bad,” insisted Jennifer, who was more than half-way done with her pile. Of course, Jennifer was making only half the effort Clara was.
Eleanor had learned to pull her own clothes from the laundry collection to wash herself, unless she wanted to wear last week’s stains. She didn’t admonish Jennifer for her laziness, though; the other children would have done even less.
Mostly they did just enough to keep the cleaning imps at bay.
“It’s nice in here,” Clara said after a while. She hadn’t quite settled into a routine yet, but her pile was steadily diminishing. “It’s almost as if though we’re the only ones living here.”
“If only that were true,” said Jennifer. She grimaced as she lifted a grey, threadbare pair of undergarments from her pile. Whatever pattern had adorned it had all but faded down to nothing, and the fabric was dotted with tiny holes.
Under other circumstances, they might have laughed, even though their own garments weren’t fairing much better. However...
"Those are Leo's, aren't they?" Clara asked, quietly.
They finished the laundry in silence.
It was a frigid November morning when Eleanor awoke well before anyone else and discovered Clara’s bed empty.
It wasn’t entirely unusual; Mr Hoffman often needed Clara’s help at unusual hours.
She meant to lie awake until Clara returned, but as she laid there in bed, she grudgingly drifted back to sleep, awaking a second time to find that most of the other children were already dressed and heading downstairs for breakfast. Clara, she assumed, had already gone to the cafeteria.
She dressed quickly, grabbed the cage with the red bird carefully perched on the little swing, and left the dormitory, pushing irritably past Susan and Olivia, who seemed determined to shuffle down the hallway at a snail’s pace. Perhaps they were having a contest to determine who could be more infuriating. Mentally, Eleanor declared it a draw.
Clara was not in the cafeteria, and Jennifer, speaking through a mouthful of what was surely over-salted porridge, claimed to have no idea where she was.
Nor had any of the other children seen her since the night before, when she’d tucked herself into bed.
“Who cares?” Said Diana, deliberately voiding her spoon onto the tabletop. The porridge puddle widened as she added another spoonful.
“Certainly not us,” Meg simpered, trying not to put her arm in Diana’s mess.
“She’ll turn up, I'm sure,” Mr Hoffman had said, sounding troubled. He waved them off, his attention already back on his diary. “Go finish your porridge before it gets cold.”
“She’s an adult,” snapped Miss Martha, slopping a dripping ladle of salty slime into Eleanor’s bowl. For all of her talent in the cleaning department, Miss Martha was spectacularly hopeless in the kitchen. "Don't you two worry about her; just stay inside and mind yourselves." She softened slightly as she scrutinized their faces, read the concern swimming in their tired eyes. "If I see Clara, I'll tell her you've been looking for her, but you two just focus on your chores and your studies."
But Martha's words did little to soothe them, and when the daylight retreated upon the night’s return, and Clara still hadn’t been found, a creeping kind of dread began to unfurl in the pit of her stomach.
“Maybe she got a new mummy and daddy?” Jennifer suggested hopefully.
“Don’t be daft,” Diana said, though no one had invited her to participate in the conversation. “Clara was way too old for a mummy and daddy. If anything, the cleaning imps finally came to collect her lazy bones to scatter them about the woods.”
"Clara wasn't lazy," Jennifer, who was something of an expert on the subject, protested.
“Or maybe Stray Dog got her,” Diana continued, ripping a hairbrush through her unwashed mane of red hair. Studying her more closely, Eleanor took note of the sloppy way her tie had been knotted, and that the laces on her boots were puddled at her feet. Odd. “What difference does it make? I, for one, am just glad that I don’t have to look at her gloomy puss anymore.”
Nobody dared to challenge Diana, as it was well known she was as mean as a snake and just as easily provoked. So they all silently allowed Diana to make her hateful proclamations, with only Meg agreeing that Clara’s disappearance was a welcome turn of events.
But when the rest of the children had gone to bed for the evening, Eleanor slipped from the dormitory, across the hall and into the filth room.
Jennifer was still awake, as if though she’d been waiting for her.
Eleanor shut the door behind her and stood at the foot of Jennifer’s bed, nervously twirling the cage at her side, completely unaware that she was only wearing one sock. “We have to find her.”
“Yes,” said Jennifer, grimly. She’d grown fond of Clara, who had slowly assumed a sisterly role for the both of them. “But how? What can we do?”
For that, Eleanor had no answer.
Chapter 2: Strange Hill
Eleanor and Jennifer begin their search for Clara.
Morning arrived to find Clara's bed undisturbed.
Eleanor, who had been up late with Jennifer, woke late and weary. With so little time to spare, she wasn't able to examine the bed as thoroughly as she would have liked, having time only to shake the blankets and check beneath the pillow -- for what, exactly?
She hadn't the slightest idea.
At any rate, she didn't find it.
"Quickly, quickly, Eleanor," said Mr. Hoffman, poking his head into the dormitory. He didn't bother to linger in the doorway; the other girls had already gone.
She located her orange dress bundled at the foot of her bed, and pulled it down over her head, smoothing her hair with her hands. Ordinarily, Clara might have been present and feeling charitable, she would have let Eleanor use her comb.
On that morning, however, there was no charity to be had; she was late, and if Mr. Hoffman didn't punish her, Diana surely would.
Breakfast was, predictably -- regrettably -- repellent.
Neither she nor Jennifer had much appetite to begin with, and the gruel placed before them did nothing to help stimulate them.
They were both excused last, anyway, and only after Miss Martha had a go at both of them for being stubborn and ungrateful little wretches.
History, and then English, with Mr. Hoffman passed slowly.
Though he fancied himself a clever teacher, his methods were an exercise in tedium. In the opinion of his pupils, the only saving grace of his lessons was that he rarely called on anyone for input -- he was only too happy to spend each course listening to himself lecture. The children weren't even required to take notes, lest temptation lead them to idle doodling in the margins; his voice -- melodious! and his stories -- riveting! would surely be enough.
Because of this, the children were able to relax, and though their bodies remained anchored to their desks, their minds were free to wander.
Diana thought of mermaids. Not dainty and lovely like they were in the storybooks, but massive and cruel and battle scarred. They overturned ships, and tore men in half, and disappeared in the foaming red water.
Meg had visions of similar brutality, although somewhat less grand and otherworldly. She thought of a large cloth sack, a bound and helpless victim, and an endless shower of insects. It made her feel almost as good as when she thought about Diana.
Amanda's thoughts were jagged and fragmented. She thought of Jennifer -- "the new girl," her mind insisted -- and she thought of blood, and she thought of Diana ("pretty, so pretty" and "what would she do if I touched her hair, her soft and pretty hair, would she let me" and "what would she do if I pulled it right out of her head, her soft and pretty hair, would she scream"), and she thought of the rags in the sewing room, bound together by thread, forced into a form that was terrible and wonderful, something that could not fight back.
Thomas thought of trains, and his mother, and little else, as was his custom.
Eleanor thought of Clara.
Had she missed something -- some peculiarity in Clara's behavior -- that could shed some light on her recent disappearance?
Eleanor could not recall anything unusual.
The problem, she supposed, was that Clara was always fearful and anxious; it was simply the specific alchemy of her particular personality, and Eleanor had accepted it as easily as Clara had accepted that Eleanor's personality seemed to consist of nothing much at all.
I envy you, Clara had confessed once. They'd been in the sickroom, just the two of them, and she'd sat herself on the cot beside Eleanor -- something she would not have dared if Mr. Hoffman had been present. She'd lain Eleanor's leg across her lap to blot at a scrape on the younger girl's knee, gently wiping away the blood that guttered in the shallow cracks of the purpling skin. Nothing ever seems to bother you. It must be wonderful to be so indifferent.
A sentiment that might have been offensive on the lips of another child, but Eleanor knew Clara well enough to understand.
It must have been miserable to be afraid all the time.
Eleanor was only just beginning to imagine what life in Clara's shoes must have been like.
"Outside, everyone, outside!" Mr. Hoffman called over the speakers. School had finished, lunch had been served, and chores were on the horizon, but for the time being, the children were expected to go outside and enjoy the weather.
Xavier and Nicholas gathered their swords and their nemesis, the undefeatable Bucket Knight, and burst through the front doors as if though the building itself had caught fire.
Amanda padded after Diana and Meg, who took their time sauntering through the foyer and out into the weak sunlight. They giggled and whispered and looked back at Amanda, who convinced herself, somehow, that this was a good sign.
Eleanor, who had been drawing in the dormitory and considering the possibility of a nap, found Jennifer waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs.
"Have you thought of anything new?" She asked. "About Clara, I mean?"
"No," Eleanor said, heading for the front doors, which had been left open in complete defiance of both the Headmaster and the Cleaning Witch, who would have matching fits when they saw it. "Have you?"
"Not really," Jennifer admitted. "Wendy thinks Stray Dog got her, but I don't."
"No?" Eleanor wasn't sure she liked the thought of Jennifer gossiping to Wendy about Clara's disappearance, but she supposed there was nothing she could do to stop it.
"It's just..." Jennifer hesitated, looking for the right words. "Clara almost never went outside, so how would he have gotten to her?"
"Suppose it was the imps, then," Eleanor said.
Except Clara worked harder than most of the other children combined, so why would the imps, who only selected the laziest, most worthless creatures, take her?
Nothing about it made sense.
The two girls passed through the front doors, down the front steps, and crossed the yard to the front gate, which was unlocked.
"They must have taken the lock off in case Clara came back," Jennifer mused.
Eleanor shrugged, unimpressed with the theory.
If Clara had the good fortune of leaving, why on earth would she come back?
"We should go look for her," Jennifer said, suddenly, and Eleanor looked at her in a rare display of surprise.
"We're not supposed to leave the yard," she said, not because she was opposed to breaking the rules -- she wasn't Meg, after all -- but because she'd never actually ventured outside of the gates before. Neither Diana nor Meg had ever shown interest in the world beyond the Orphanage walls, and Eleanor found herself suddenly -- unexpectedly -- alarmed.
How could Jennifer possibly think it was a good idea to go wandering around outside, with Stray Dog lurking about?
"Well," said Jennifer, reaching for the gate. She looked back over her shoulder to see if anyone else was paying them any mind, but the rest of the children were all engaged in games of hide-and-seek, and tag, and other frivolous activities. "We've already searched every inch of the Orphanage, and she's not here. What if she's wandered off and gotten lost?"
"She's not a complete peon," Eleanor protested.
The path beyond the gate looked narrow and aimless, entirely shrouded with overgrown shrubs and wild trees.
How easily it would swallow them up...
"I've been out there lots of times," Jennifer said, pulling the gate open carefully so that it wouldn't creak or groan and give them away. "There's an old, rickety shed not too far off -- what if she's gone and gotten herself locked in there?"
Jennifer slipped through the small opening she'd created, and held the gate open for Eleanor, who after a moment of hesitation, followed her through.
"We'd better not get caught," Eleanor said.
"Nobody cares what we do," Jennifer reminded her. She'd pulled the gate shut behind them without so much as a squeak. Eleanor wondered how many times, exactly, Jennifer had pulled off this little stunt. "We won't be gone long, anyway. We'll just walk to the shed and back."
"And if we come across Stray Dog?"
Jennifer looked troubled, but didn't answer.
Typical, Eleanor thought. She followed the new girl, anyway.
They waited until they were well out of sight of the Orphanage before they began to call out for the older girl.
"Clara!" Jennifer yelled, cupping her hands around her mouth.
Eleanor waited, listening for footsteps or perhaps even an answering cry.
The only response was the wind and the trees shivering within it.
"Let's keep going," Jennifer said. "The shed isn't much further."
They walked along the path, past shrubbery and trees and broken pockets of fencing that rose up from the dirt like jagged teeth, until they came to another, even narrower path.
"This way," Jennifer said, much to Eleanor's immense dismay.
She stayed close to Jennifer as she followed her down the path, wishing all the while that they hadn't left the Orphanage walls.
"Clara!" Jennifer called, again, and again, was met with silence.
It made Eleanor nervous, although she couldn't explain why.
By the time they finally arrived at the end of the path where a rickety shed did indeed stand, Eleanor was, for the first time in her life, thoroughly spooked.
"It's unlocked," Jennifer explained, as if though Eleanor had said anything contrary. The door creaked open, grudgingly, seeming every bit as displeased with its visitors as they were with it.
Together, they crept inside, and the door shut behind them.
Eleanor held her breath against the stale air of the shed. Her eyes traveled from one corner to the next, taking in the ancient gardening tools and dusty boxes that littered the dirt floor, and barren shelves that lined the walls. If she were better friends with Meg, she would have considered bringing the younger girl down here to explore; it was surely rife with insects and reptiles Meg would love to collect and dissect.
Alas, Eleanor found Meg insufferable.
"What's that?" She asked, pointing to what appeared to be a white sheet tied to a wooden beam in the middle of the shed.
Jennifer didn't answer.
In the silence that had settled between them, something was breathing.
Jennifer took a hesitant step forward.
"Clara?" She asked, her voice a whisper.
In response, the thing on the other side of the sheet growled deeply.
Eleanor hardly remembered grabbing Jennifer's hand, and if Jennifer had bothered to mention it later, she might have denied it altogether.
All she remembered of that long, terrible moment, was the sound of the thing growling, the rustle of the sheet as it was pushed aside, and the two glowing orbs in the darkness as it looked at them across the shed.
The rest of it -- wrenching open the door, running back down the path and the burning in her lungs and legs as she and Jennifer took turns dragging each other back to the Orphanage gate, Mr. Hoffman shouting at them and forbidding them from ever leaving the grounds again -- was a vague and ill-defined blur.
"That thing..." she said, later. After everyone else had gone to bed, and she had crept into the Filth Room, where Jennifer was lying awake. Waiting for her. "That wasn't Clara."
"No," Jennifer said.
"What was it, then?"
"I don't know," said the new girl. "It was hard to see in the dark."
Neither one of them said it outloud, but in the starlight filtering through the windows, they could read it on each other's faces nonetheless.
Outside, a long, lonely howl was carried in on the wind, and both girls shivered, and thought of Clara, out there with it.
Chapter 3: ashes and ghosts
Eleanor and Jennifer move forward in their investigation.
Uses excerpts from Hoffman's diary, as provided by the game. I have also taken the liberty of adding my own inscriptions.
We moved like ghosts after that day on Strange Hill.
Something changed between us, and around us, and inside of us.
The Orphanage was no longer -- or perhaps more accurately, had never been -- a safe place for us. It took that day on the hill for us to join together and use our combined strength to lift the veil and see that place for what it really was.
To use the candlelight to see through the shadows.
We were marked as troublemakers.
And nobody liked a troublemaker.
Not the Red Crayon Aristocrats, with their rules, and their hierarchies, and their unwavering loyalty to the Prince and Princess.
Not the Stray Dog Society, with their secrets, and their rituals, and their ravenous god.
We gathered and stacked the secrets and whispers like bones and kindling.
We got too close, and lost control of the flame, and watched helplessly as every scrap of innocence and childish dreams were left blackened and charred.
We moved like ghosts through the ashes.
Water dripped incessantly in the girls lavatory.
Drip, drop, drip, drop.
It was pointless to complain about it, though; the Orphanage was sorely lacking in any kind of handyman. All they could do was watch things fall apart around them.
She emerged from the stall furthest from the door, quiet as a church mouse.
That's what her father used to say, when he'd turn to find her watching him.
"Why, Miss Ellie, you startled me! How long have you been there? You're as quiet as a church mouse."
Diana didn't have to turn to see her; they could see each other just fine in the reflection of the mirror above the sink.
Even so, it was a long, uncomfortable moment before Diana spoke.
"Are you and Jennifer friends now?" She asked the Eleanor behind her.
Eleanor looked away, unwilling to give Diana any information that might be used against her.
"You know she's Lower Class, Eleanor. A Countess should not be associating with someone so far beneath her."
The lowest someone of her rank was supposed to freely associate with was a Baroness -- Meg.
An official Rule of Rose, as mandated by the Princess of the Rule of Rose.
Eleanor had worked hard to climb the ranks of the Red Crayon Aristocrats, and had always been a faithful adherent of the Rules.
If she didn't fall in line, she risked being demoted... among other penalties.
She would end up Filthy, like Jennifer.
The thought made her wince.
"We just get assigned to do chores together," she said, finally. Something to satisfy Diana, and Wendy. "Mr. Hoffman is still upset with us about wandering off to look for Clara."
The Diana in the mirror stared at her with cold, gray eyes. They glittered like shards of glass.
"I see," she said, finally. "Have you found out anything about Clara?"
"No," Eleanor said.
From the corner of her eye, she watched as the corners of the reflection's mouth seemed to convulse -- pulling down into a tiny grimace, before slowly curving up into a taunting smile.
"And you're not going to, either."
Eleanor's lips parted in surprise; before she could say a word, however, the Duchess strode out of the lavatory without ever bothering to turn around, leaving her alone with her confusion.
"Do you think she knows something?" Jennifer whispered.
They were alone in the Filth Room, no need to whisper, but Eleanor found herself answering back in equally hushed tones.
"It's hard to say with Diana," she admitted, carefully plunging her hands down into the cold bucket of sudsy water. She'd rolled the sleeves of her dress up to her elbows, but they were still damp in spite of her efforts. "She may know something, or she may just be horrible."
In all likelihood, it was a combination of the two.
"Do you think maybe she had something to do with it?" Jennifer asked, sloshing water out of the wash basin.
Eleanor froze, the dress she'd been scrubbing suddenly forgotten.
No, she hadn't really thought about it.
It was much too terrible.
"She's plenty mean enough," Jennifer whispered. "Remember what she did to your hand with the hammer? And then there was that poor rat..."
And the fish, and the rabbit, and Meg's letter.
Eleanor felt an icy sliver of dread wind its way up and down her spine.
Hadn't she seen the two of them together, sneaking through the halls when everyone else was supposed to be asleep?
Hadn't she watched, silent and undetected, as Diana, in a rare moment of docility, sat at the edge of Clara's bed and allowed the older girl to first gently untangle an especially matted clot of hair before weaving a smooth plait into her freshly combed tresses?
Hadn't she wondered?
"No," she said, more to herself than to Jennifer. "Not even Diana could be cruel enough for that."
"We can't rule her out, though," Jennifer argued.
Eleanor didn't feel like arguing.
"She'd never tell us anything."
"There are other ways," Jennifer said, examining a stain on one of Xavier's shirts. She made a face before gingerly picking at it with her fingernails.
"What do you mean?"
"I saw her and Mr. Hoffman in his office a few days after Clara disappeared," Jennifer said. "Through the keyhole, I mean. He seemed angry with her, I think, but he was trying to keep his voice down. She was crying, but you know how she is."
Eleanor said nothing, although it certainly had piqued her interest.
Diana was Mr. Hoffman's favorite little pet; he never got angry with her. Even after she'd killed his precious koi; he'd ended up consoling her as she wept inconsolably in his arms.
"I couldn't hear what they were saying, but I know he keeps a diary at his desk," Jennifer continued.
"How do you know that?"
"I've seen him writing in it a bunch of times," Jennifer replied. "He's always calling me into his office to yell at me for one thing or another, and he's always got that diary out, keeping a list of everything everyone does."
What a wretched, petty little man.
"And you think he's going to just show it to us?"
Maybe Diana was right; maybe Jennifer was a twit.
"Don't be daft," Jennifer said. She gave up on Xavier's shirt, wringing it out and dropping it in the growing pile to be taken out to the clothesline. Eleanor didn't blame her; he was just going to get it filthy again, anyway. "One of us will have to distract him -- I suppose that'll have to be me, since he already doesn't like me -- while one of us sneaks into his room and has a look." She paused for a moment, and looked at Eleanor, curiously. "You can read, can't you?"
Eleanor tried not to be too offended.
"Of course I can read," she said. "I'm twelve years old."
"So is Nicholas, and he can barely spell his own name."
"That's because Nicholas was dropped on his head at birth," Eleanor said. She wasn't sure whether or not it was an actual fact, but it was a prevailing theory throughout the Orphanage. Even Nicholas himself seemed to believe it.
"I'll cause a distraction, then," Jennifer said. She thought for a minute. "Maybe I'll break something."
"Don't get yourself in too much trouble," Eleanor said, quietly.
Jennifer shrugged, setting to work on an old scrap of a nightgown.
"It's not him I'm afraid of."
The next day, a terrible crash rang out across the Orphanage, causing the children scattered throughout the building to shriek and cower.
"What was that?" Meg cried, clinging to Diana.
"How should I know?" Diana replied, prying Meg's hands off of her dress. She smoothed the fabric back against her body, trying to rid herself of the other girl's touch. "It sounded like it came from upstairs, though."
"What in blazes?" Mr. Hoffman roared, bursting into the foyer. His eyes lit on Diana, and the anger softened into concern. "What happened? Are you hurt?"
"No, Mr. Hoffman, sir," Diana said, affecting the angelic facade she saved only for the headmaster. "I have no idea what's happened, though. I was just telling Meg to fetch me a broom, so I could get an early start on my chores, when suddenly I heard that horrible racket!"
"Stay here, then," he ordered.
Eleanor watched as he charged up the stairs, yelling profanity and abuses as he went. As she had hoped, Diana and Meg followed quickly after him, eager to see what had -- and would -- transpire.
She ducked quickly into the empty reception room (a grand and ostentatious room the children weren't normally permitted in, even for cleaning; Miss Martha alone was entrusted with the dusting and polishing), shutting the door softly behind her.
She winced as the cage thumped against her legs in her hasty movements as she crossed the room, carefully avoiding the expensive furniture and decorations. The red bird complained shrilly, but the commotion upstairs ensured that it would go unnoticed.
The Headmaster's room was unlocked, a fact that both pleased and frightened her.
She had never been in his room before.
To her surprise and dismay, it smelled.
A musty, sweet smell she associated with the old man himself, and a damp, fishy smell that emanated from the fish tank.
Empty now, except for the small model of the Orphanage that sat mired to the bottom. Ambulia swayed in the gentle current.
The mermaid had long since been captured.
She turned away from the empty tank.
Mr. Hoffman's desk was cluttered with paperwork and other writing instruments, but there was an orderliness to the arrangement that almost made it feel staged.
Mr. Hoffman and his posturing. Who did he expect to impress with such displays? Nobody came to the Orphanage anymore.
She found the diary lying on the desk, precisely as Jennifer had described, and without hesitation or guilt, Eleanor began to flip through the pages, the Headmaster's florid handwriting filling the pages in tidy, measured rows.
She skimmed over them, wholly disinterested in anything other than references to Clara or Diana.
16 August 1930
Today, I was busy catching up on my work, when Clara came by to offer me a hand. I guess my teaching paid off. I was grateful for her kindness. In the wee hours of the morning, she was still working, so I gently took her to bed.
I can hardly believe it. My little Clara, bless her heart, is already 16 years old.
She tells me she wants to stay in the orphanage and help with the daily chores. Maybe I should seriously consider the offer. Tomorrow, I'll discuss it with Martha.
Such arrogance! To attribute Clara's kind and loyal nature to himself and his teaching -- what a despicable, self-important old creep!
24 August 1930
This is simply inexcusable! My precious koi is gone. The children must be responsible. I won't stand for this. Where is Diana? What's she been up to? My opinion of her will suffer because of this.
Eleanor remembered, with no small measure of discomfort, how the Headmaster had handled the business with the koi.
Stroking and petting and rubbing as Diana cried and cried.
How Meg's breathing had changed as they huddled together behind the fish tank, watching the entire grotesque performance.
How Diana had pinned Jennifer to the bed...
Eleanor turned to another page.
30 August 1930
I am at a loss for how to describe Diana's behavior as of late.
She is not outwardly disobedient, or disrespectful, but there is something about the way she looks at me... it's as if though she is waiting for me to make a mistake.
Well, she'll be waiting a good while yet.
I'm afraid she underestimates me.
6 September 1930
Last night I watched from the window as they gathered around a small fire they'd built on the stone path between the entrance and the front gate.
Naturally, I could not hear them, or even see their faces as they all wore paper bags with crude faces drawn upon them, but if their movements were any indication, they appeared to be performing some sort of ritual.
This morning I woke to find Leo's bed neatly made, and Leo nowhere to be found.
7 September 1930
Still no trace of Leo, and now Ida has also disappeared.
Every one of the remaining children insists that they know nothing of Leo and Ida's whereabouts, nor will they admit to any knowledge of the occurrences late at night.
I've spoken with Martha, and she, too, will be on alert from now on.
9 September 1930
It is unfortunate what happened to Clara.
I will miss the comfort she brought me.
15 September 1930
Now we've lost Basil as well. It's the same as with Leo, Ida and Clara -- present at bedtime, as I personally oversee the nighttime formalities, but come morning, their beds are neatly made, and the children are nowhere to be found.
As our numbers continue to dwindle, I am more concerned than ever that
The entry ended abruptly.
He must have been writing it when Jennifer distracted him, Eleanor thought.
Blast; if only their timing had been better.
Still, she had more information now than she'd had several minutes ago; at least Jennifer's efforts were not entirely wasted.
Returning the diary to its original state, Eleanor collected the bird and slipped out of the Headmaster's room without incident.
Eleanor watched as Jennifer halfheartedly scrubbed the toilets in the lavatory.
Mr. Hoffman had condemned her to this gruesome chore as punishment for apparently obliterating the library.
"Of course Meg cried all over Diana, and Diana made a big show of comforting her, and now I've got to do Miss Martha's chores on top of my own, but at least you were able to read his diary," Jennifer chattered. She wished Eleanor would help, but Eleanor was of the opinion that she had already done more than enough.
"Tell me again what he wrote about the late night rituals," Jennifer asked, attempting to remove a fresh crayon drawing from the toilet seat with a faded and stained rag. It seemed, somehow, to make it worse.
"There really wasn't much," Eleanor replied. "Simply that they had gone outside and started a fire."
"It didn't say who?"
"Hm." Jennifer scrubbed at the colored, waxy scrawl for a moment, seemingly lost in concentration. "Do you think it's the Aristocrats?"
"I would have been notified."
She would have -- wouldn't she?
The Aristocrats had been quiet lately; the Monthly Gift hadn't been named yet, and the Princess had been ill. The most she'd really seen of the other Upper Class Aristocrats had been when she'd come upon Diana, who had callously informed her that she'd just destroyed a love letter Meg had written for her, and Meg, who had been preoccupied searching for her notebook.
Neither one had seemed bothered by the recent disappearances of their bunkmates, but that was hardly unusual.
"Stray Dog," they'd said with a shrug, and then turned their attention back to themselves where it belonged.
"Well," said Jennifer, dropping the rag back into the bucket of murky water at her feet. "What do you suppose we should do now?"
"I suppose," Eleanor said, not looking at Jennifer as she spoke. "That we could start by talking to Wendy."
"I don't know if we'll be able to," Jennifer said. "Mr. Hoffman has been keeping her room locked since Clara disappeared. He doesn't want anyone disturbing her while she's feeling poorly."
"Then we'll have to find out ourselves, won't we?" Eleanor replied. "I'll meet you in the filth room tonight after Mr. Hoffman and Miss Martha have gone to bed."
"And if they don't gather tonight?"
Finally, Eleanor turned to Jennifer, who looked haggard and exhausted already. How unfortunate that fate had cast them together as partners.
Abandoning Clara to whatever had befallen her was, however, an intolerable concept. Eleanor would not even begin to entertain the idea of it.
"Then we'll continue to keep watch until they do."
At night when I dream, Clara, I can still smell the smoke.