It was late, and the weather was poor. I should have been at home, half-finished with my nightly rituals, preparing myself for bed. Really, I should have been in my favorite nightgown, perhaps even crawling beneath the heavy blanket, sinking into the warm embrace of my glorious bed. Under less unusual circumstances, I certainly would have been.
Alas. I’m tired, but well awake, and instead of surrendering myself to the luxury of my soft bed, I have instead submitted myself to the indignity of the stiff, torn fabric of a bench seat at the back of a dreary bus. Trundling along at this indecent hour, looking for a girl I haven’t seen since I’d lead the dogman on the death march to the orphanage door, in the tender years of my own girlhood.
Even now, her name fills me with such terrible longing.
If only she hadn’t betrayed me… chosen that filthy creature over me. Humiliating me not once, but twice. Without even trying, I still plainly remember the feel of her palm across my face, the heat in my injured cheek. The poisonous swill coursing through me, spilling black and viscous from the cracks in my heart, as I laid pinned beneath her on the floor, like a butterfly.
The memories are automatic, and unstoppable. The anger in her voice and the furious tears in her eyes as she demanded that I “give her back her friend”, even though I had not been taken from her, at all.
No… if only she’d understood, as I had, as all of the others had, that nothing of value had been lost to her… that the only friend she truly needed - after the lengths I had gone to just to prove to her the immeasurable depths of my devotion - was there already… everything could have been so much different.
We could have been so happy. All of us.
Instead, she’d been selfish. Cruel. Unbearably cruel. And in the end, it was she who was taken away from me, a second time.
I won’t lose her a third time, however. This time, she will be mine, and no one else’s, ever again.
I have been so patient.
Through the dirty, discolored window, there wasn’t much to see. Trees, mostly. The tedious landscape stumbled past on an endless loop. Trees and bushes, bushes and trees. How putrid. I sighed and turned my head away from the glass; I’d never really been one for the supposed beauty of nature.
Finally, the bus shudders to a halt alongside a bench I recognize immediately.
Once upon a time, I’d found a Stray Dog sitting there, waiting for his son.
I do not pause to linger on those memories. They are worthless to me. I leave the bench behind me without a second glance, as I follow the worn, dirt path up to the Rose Garden Orphanage.
The orphanage is exactly as I remember it.
Dusty. Cluttered. Dark.
At night I wander from room to room, unable to sleep. I explore the once and still familiar surroundings, and look in drawers and closets that were once forbidden to me.
Mr. Hoffman’s room - mine, now, I suppose - still smells faintly of cigars. It is not a comforting smell. The lingering, smoky scent unlocks lingering, smoky memories of the Headmaster towering over me, his face contorted with anger as he called me names and reassured me, time and again, that I was filthy, worthless, a rat and a shiftless, irresponsible brute.
The sick bay, where Wendy had spent so much of her time, isolated from the other children so as not to spread her various ailments around the building, appears untouched, even after all these years. The bed where she’d been so often confined emits a musty, rotten smell. Peter’s cage, a disgusting, dirty prison even when we had all lived here, has grown so positively vile that I don’t know how I’m going to bring myself to touch it in order to get rid of it.
Clara’s drawer, which she had guarded so venomously when we were children, had either been emptied upon her decision to flee the orphanage, or had never held much of anything at all. I don’t know what I was hoping for when I finally did open it, but all that was left to discover was a couple sheets of paper with odd and somewhat unsettling drawings scribbled on them.
Mermaids. Of course. Clara had always loved mermaids, maybe even more desperately so than Diana.
But Clara’s mermaids had no faces. Or perhaps they did, underneath the heavy black scribbles that obscured them.
The dormitory is the one room, so far, that fills me with a terrible aching sadness. The short-legged, child-sized tables that had taken up the center of the massive room were still covered in papers, crayons, half-finished drawings left behind, to never be completed. The bunk beds were unmade, every one of them - once Hoffman and Martha had gone, we’d lost all reason to maintain them. Tidiness had been the first sacrifice in our new, and brief, society.
The filth room, where I’d been contained, despite there being accommodations available in the dormitory with the rest of the children, was as sterile and uninviting as it had ever been. Why had he put me there? Had his petty disdain for me, a child as broken and alone as any of the others housed here, really have been so consuming?
The attic… I still haven’t managed to revisit that horrible space.
It is possible, I think, that I never will.
From one end of the house to the next, I follow the crude train tracks Thomas had drawn on the floor. Thomas and his trains. How could he stand to play with them, after what had happened to his mother?
That’s unfair. After all, I had joined the others in multiple airship games and fantasies, hadn’t I?
We don’t always get to pick our obsessions.
Perhaps, in a world where Thomas controlled the trains, he was able to save her. I hope so.
I make a mental note to preserve them, Thomas’s tracks. Whatever else must be done to restore this wretched old mansion, I will not allow harm to come to those tracks.
Am I doing the right thing, Thomas?
In this world, this time with me in control, Headmistress Jennifer, will I be able to save anyone?
I hope so.
I have been so patient.
So terribly, uncharacteristically patient.
I was too quick back then, I know that now. I rushed so much, pushed too hard and took too much, much too fast.
But I learned my lesson, that night. When Stray Dog turned on me, his creator - his son - it was because I hadn’t waited. I’d rushed to Jennifer, revealed myself to her, desperate for her to understand why I had done it, half-mad with urgency and need for her to accept that my love for her had driven me into the darkness, where men and monsters dwelt and became one.
Her fault. All of it. Why hadn’t she loved me? Why hadn’t I been enough?
That night, as I lay bleeding in the mud and the rain, every inch of me alight with pain and rage, I had watched her… watched her walk by me without even stopping to check if I were still alive.
Watched her walk through the rain, through the gate, down the worn, dirt path, away from the orphanage… without me.
Help came, eventually. I watched them sift through the wreckage, looking for survivors. I don’t know what possessed me back then, but I was determined that no one should find me, that the massacre, as they called it, should have only one known survivor, and it was not to be me.
It was better that way, really.
She never once thought to worry about me.
There is so much to be done before I can reopen this place.
Cleaning, and repairs. The rubbish must be collected, and removed. I will salvage what I can, but still, it feels ghoulish.
I found an old friend in one of the closets downstairs. A pair of broomsticks with a bucket for a head.
Nicholas and Xavier had used it for sparring, deeming it “The Bucket Knight”. As a child, my imagination would sometimes get away from me, and I would imagine that it was a real knight, and whenever the boys weren’t around, stabbing at it with their wooden swords, I would sit and confess to it, entrusting it with my secrets and fears.
It’s silly, I know, but as with Thomas’s train tracks, I cannot seem to part with it.
It holds so many memories, I can’t just throw it away.
“What do you say, old friend?” I asked the Bucket Knight, as I gently straightened the pieces. “Will you stay here and keep me company?”
The Bucket Knight said nothing, which I took to mean he would be honored.
The door to the orphanage is unlocked.
Jennifer never did learn, did she?
It was truly fortunate for her that I had arrived. She clearly needed someone to take care of her, to look after her and make sure she didn’t make such silly mistakes anymore.
Honestly, leaving the doors unlocked.
What if someone had come in?
I took the picture of Mr. Hoffman off the wall. Not because it had been defaced, with a rather humorous looking mustache, but because I had no particular desire to continue to honor someone who would abandon a house full of helpless children.
He was supposed to protect us.
Instead he let his anger toward me, a nine-year-old child who had lost both of her parents in a terrible accident, build in him until he could no longer bear the sight of me, and left twenty-five children to die.
Compared to what cruel, slow fate awaited us, Gregory’s actions were almost charitable. At least his methods were quick. He spared us the crawling descent into death that would have been ours had we merely waited to starve to death.
Did he think Clara would be able to handle us? A child herself, no matter what sick lense he viewed her through?
Miss Martha, the “Cleaning Witch”?
Sometimes I look back on him with pity, but when I think of what became of them - my friends - and how it could have been avoided if he hadn’t crumpled beneath his own cowardice…
I will devote myself to sanitizing this place of his memory.
I owe them that much, at least.
The orphanage is almost untouched, a relic. Being inside of it, again, after all this time, it’s breathtaking.
I feel as if though the years that have passed have been a mere hallucination. A nightmare I was finally waking up from.
And then, I see her.
She’s carrying a carton out of Hoffman’s room; it’s large and unwieldly, and partially obscures her face. At any rate, she doesn’t see me.
Not right away.
I hold my breath and my tongue as she propels herself toward me, completely unaware that she is not alone.
Jennifer, my Jennifer. You have no idea how much you need me, do you? You’re utterly hopeless without me.
Then the box shifts. Her eyes meet mine across the room, and go wide with shock, and fear.
“Who --” she started, dropping the box at her feet with a heavy, rattling thud. Whatever was inside is surely ruined now. Careless Jennifer. “Who are you?”
The agony of it.
She hurt me. She made me hurt them. He hurt me because of her. All because I had wanted her to love me as I had loved her.
As I still do.
The words slip out of my mouth as swiftly, as dangerously as the carton from my hands.
Who are you?
I knew, I knew, the second I saw her, I knew.
She’s still alive, although I saw it, that night, Gregory crushing and tearing at her with his hands and his teeth. I saw her lying there in the scarlet mud.
Even in the weak light and the shimmering dust between us, I can see that soft cherub’s face that had smiled down at me as I cradled Brown, limp and broken Brown, in my lap. Smiling at me now through the scars.
Oh, my dear, sweet Jennifer.
I raise my hands, clasped around the gun I’d taken from the dogman on the night of wind and blood.
What part of “everlasting true love” did you not understand?