John doesn't remember much about the accident. In his head, it is all a blur of lights, loud noises and pain. He remembers screaming and later, soothing voices and foreign hands that pet his head and hair. After that there is a big hole of white nothingness, of blankness. They called it shock.
His memories begin again at the children's home.
The orphanage John now lives in is full of stories like his: car accidents are just as common as abusive parents or unwanted pregnancies. Each child has his or her own sad tale to tell and John's isn't the worst or most tragic by far. What they all have in common is that every single one of them is unfortunate enough not to have any remaining relatives suitable to raise them. Some children have been here for years, others just for a few months. John is nearly done with his first year.
To him though it already feels like it has been forever - and it might just be. Because John isn't stupid and he knows that nobody will ever want to adopt him.
Once a family - especially young couples - decide to adopt one of the orphans they usually look for the perfect package: good-looking, healthy and smart. John has observed the comings and goings of children here long enough to have ample proof and numerous examples for that.
John thinks he is rather average in both looks and intelligence. That alone wouldn't be too bad but then, there is John's shoulder to consider that is scarred and battered from the accident. Although the bad shoulder isn't an actual illness, the injured skin and flesh does have an impact on his range of mobility and everyday life. John will never be able to do any kind of strenuous sport or constant running and playing with other children.
That's why John is quite sure that he would have to be very lucky to be adopted.
As it turns out though, fate must have decided that losing your parents and only sister at the mere age of nine deserves to be outweighed by a bit of luck. At least, that is how John will later explain to himself the events of that fateful week that would change his life forever.
At first, it seems to be a Monday just like any other Monday at the children's home.
The breakfast is slimy porridge with just enough sugar to make it edible and John is sitting on his own with a book in his hands, just like he normally does.
John reckons that his only chance at ever having a better life is gaining a lot of knowledge and thus earning excellent marks in school. That makes him an outsider but John doesn't really mind. He hasn't been interested in making friends ever since the accident. Deeply engrossed in an encyclopaedia of human biology, John nearly misses the familiar tingle of a bell. Mrs. Plum, the home supervisor and surrogate mother to all of them, wants to make an announcement.
Sixty-seven children slowly fall silent and Mrs Plum smiles at them approvingly.
"All right everyone, listen up! There is a family interested in adopting one of you."
At once, excited murmurs run through the rows of breakfast tables. John looks up from his book, his curiosity piqued. Usually, Mrs Plum never tells them officially when a family is looking into adoption. There will be rumours, of course, but nobody will know for sure until a child has actually left the home with all of his or her belongings. Mrs Plum and the other social workers are mostly very careful to avoid any slips of information.
Mrs Plum raises her hand patiently.
"Yes," she soothes them. "I know it's all terribly exciting. The family is looking for a boy - sorry girls - to be a brother to their son. However, they have certain... ideas about what that boy should be like."
She makes a strained face that John has secretly christened her sour pickle face. Any observer can tell that Mrs Plum does not approve of those ideas she has mentioned.
"That is why the following children are to report to the office immediately after breakfast." She looks down, reaches for a piece of paper next to her plate and starts to read names off a list.
John turns his attention back to his book. He can imagine what kinds of ideas that family has set in their mind before contacting Mrs Plum. In the end, it is always the same. They are probably looking for a handsome little boy. A perfect prince with perfect hair and perfect white teeth and perfect manners and perfect-
John nearly jumps at his name being called. He sends a bewildered gaze up to Mrs Plum's table but the woman has already started on her breakfast once more. The room fills with excited talk between the boys and disappointed muttering from the girls. John doesn't know what to think.
In the last eight months, John hasn't been considered for adoption once. He knows that because sometimes children will get to talk to potential adoptive parents to see whether or not they are a match. Those children aren't supposed to tell anyone, of course, but usually they end up spilling it anyway. John hasn't met any adoptive families so far and hasn't expected to either. Now, he has been called to the office because he might be a likely candidate for that family. That family that has certain ideas.
John doesn't know which family's ideas would include a boy like him.
His porridge is mostly untouched by the end of breakfast which earns him a disapproving glance from their cook Mandy who doesn't like to waste food. John murmurs an apology and avoids her reprimanding look by hiding behind page 130 of his encyclopaedia. However, ever since the announcement John hasn't been able to concentrate on his reading. Almost constantly, the little word why is running through his head and distracting him.
Why him? Why now? Why the announcement?
Slowly, he makes his way to the office. Some of the other boys are already waiting in front of the door and John eyes them carefully over the edge of his book. They are all about as old as him and John actually shares a dorm with two of them. Other than that, John can't find any similarities between them all. None of them is particularly handsome or special in John's eyes, himself included.
The arrival of Mrs Plum interrupts John's train of thoughts. She smiles fondly at them as she unlocks the office door with her key and asks them all to enter. John comes in last and sits down on the rather lopsided stool that is closest to the door.
"Well boys, this is a first for me as well," she admits with a brief chuckle. "I really rather hope it is a last as well. We wouldn't usually do this but the family-"
She clears her throat and makes a dismissive motion with her hand.
"Ah, you don't have to worry about that. Let me explain why you are here instead. The family I mentioned earlier wants to adopt someone who is, to be frank, very smart. Apparently, the son is quite intelligent and his parents would like to adopt someone who can actually keep up with him."
She makes a very exaggerated version of her sour pickle face again and John forces himself not to laugh at that.
"You, my dears, are the boys that are about the same age as their son and have the best marks in school."
She smiles fondly at them, just like John's mother used to when she was proud of him. John tries not to linger on the memory because that always causes a tight feeling somewhere deep in his chest and makes his eyes itch unpleasantly.
"However, the family expects you to take an intelligence test. I'm going to be honest and tell you that I don't think those tests are in any way trustworthy or necessary because that is not what family is about. It's your choice whether or not you want to enter this..." She pauses and bites her lips in thought before continuing. "...competition. That's what it is, anything else would be a lie."
Around John, the boys look at each other questioningly, silently asking their friends whether or not they will agree to take this dubious test. John already knows his answer.
"I'll do it," he says confidently and calmly closes his book. "I will take the test."
Several small heads swivel towards him and the other boys look him over. Mrs Plum merely raises her pale eyebrows at him.
"All right," she states with an enquiring gaze. "You may do that, of course."
In the end, five other boys agree to take the test as well. John tries to measure their smartness from their looks and fails. He can't stop himself from seeing them as competitors, however. Mrs Plum is right: this is a competition - one John intends to win.
He knows this might be his only chance of being adopted. Clearly, this family doesn't care about his shoulder or his looks but only about his smartness.
John doesn't think he is very intelligent but he has been reading quite a lot more than the others. At least, he has never seen them in the small library down in the cellar of the home. It could be an advantage.
Also, an adoptive family looking for a smart boy will probably send their children to a really good school - a public school, even. John thinks a public school would be perfect and so much better than the state school he is currently attending.
Mrs Plum tells them that the test will take place the next day after lunch and dismisses them with a shooing motion.
Most of the other boys quickly disappear outside - a game of football has been started in their absence and they want to join. Nobody asks him to come along and John doesn't follow them. He retreats to the quiet that is the swing in the small garden behind the home. For some reason, no one ever sits on it. It's the perfect place for reading, John has found.
He cannot focus on his book, though. Instead of paying attention to the printed facts in front of him, John catches himself imagining the test, the adoptive family, the boy that could soon have a new brother.
Does he have a chance? Is he smart enough to be considered as an addition to that mysterious family that has such high expectations when it comes to intelligence?
John paints patterns into the sand beneath with his left toe-cap and doesn't find an answer.
The next day, John has a tummy-ache and only drinks chamomile tea for breakfast. He doesn't even attend lunch but takes a restless walk in the garden trying to calm his nerves. It doesn't really help.
When he finally sits in front of the test, John's hands are trembling. What if he doesn't succeed? What if the test says he is stupid and destroys all his plans for the future? He takes a few deep breaths to calm himself but the sick feeling doesn't go away. John really hopes he doesn't have to run to the loo and throw up.
The man that has earlier introduced himself as Dr Arnulfo who will evaluate their tests later looks at them through his horn-rimmed glasses and smiles a small and nearly toothless smile. It doesn't look friendly.
"You may start now, lads. No copying!" he warns them with a critical gaze and settles down into a comfortable armchair. John briefly wonders if he has brought it along as it looks way too comfortable to belong to the children's home.
Silently scolding himself, John focuses on the sheet in front of him. Shaking slightly, he picks up his biro and turns the paper over to read the first question. It is easy and John knows the answer immediately. It is the same with the next question.
John's hands slowly stop trembling.