The Friedman's Story: Prologue
"Have you finished watching your lessons yet?"
"Mom, why do I have to learn any of this?"
"Someday there will be jobs again and they'll be looking for smart people to do them." Though barely a teenager, he knows this isn't true, but doesn't say so. Things are already too far gone.
"Then why do I have to learn? I can't get a job if I have to hide." Younger than his brother by four years, he still holds onto scraps of innocence, but he is by no means dumb. The boys look to their mother for an answer, for assurance.
"That will change too, honey." The three of them sit in the cool, dark house simply looking at each other for a few minutes. The boys' father is in the city looking for work as he does every day. Soon this family won't be able to afford to stay here, whether saving on utilities or not.
Jessica's Story: Chapter 1
The lights flash on and all I want to do is go back to sleep. I squeeze my eyes tighter shut to block out the brightness and throw a pillow over my head. The room is full of quiet shuffling as the others get out of bed, but the most prominent sound is the clunk of boots slowly walking down the center aisle between the two rows of beds that line each wall.
"Jessica," someone next to me hisses. "Get up. She's coming."
The boots are getting closer. I can still hear them over the pitter-patter of bare feet moving around the rest of the room. This doesn't send me jumping out of bed though. I've only been there a couple hours and desperately don't want to wake up yet. My body is already protesting, especially my head which is developing a nasty ache.
"When you start behaving you can have the luxury of getting a full night's sleep," says a voice when the boots stop at the foot of my bed. I don't respond. "Be out of that bed with it made in ten seconds or you will not be sleeping tonight either." I hesitate for a moment, gauging her tone. She's not kidding. I don't doubt she'd find a way to keep me up all night again.
I slide out of bed as slowly as time will allow and pull the covers up sufficiently. I straighten up to face her with a second left. The entire room freezes and their eyes follow the sound of the hand-on-face slap.
"This room and everyone in it better be spotless when I come back," she yells, still inches from my face before lowering her voice and addressing me. "That means you too. Shape up. I'm tired of this." As soon as the door shuts behind her and I hear her boots on the stairs I fall back onto the bed.
"You're crazy, you know that?" I just laugh at Emilee's comment.
"Thanks for trying to get me up. Maybe next time I'll listen."
The rest of the morning is a routine and mundane one in the orphanage. As we're all getting ready for the day, it seems noticeably more crowded than only a month before. Lines for the showers. Crowds at the sinks and mirrors.
Getting worse, not better. The people on the television are liars.
Before returning to my bed, I look out the grimy window on the far wall of the bedroom, opposite the stairs. It's gloomy outside. No surprise there. The two rows of empty beds remind me of a hospital - something from an old war movie. The loud chatter of girls moving past me from the bathroom breaks the illusion.
I walk down the center isle slowly, running my hand on the metal footboards of the beds. My dull gray blankets don't look much better after I tug on the corner to straighten them. Dull is a good way to describe most everything these days. Dull and dreary.
As soon as I lay back down on my bed, I hear those boots on the stairs again. I kick my extra pair of shoes farther under the bed and smooth the wrinkles my rest just created. Good enough. I'm one of the last ones to take my place at the foot of my bed, but I'm in position before inspection begins.
Today may have started as a normal morning, but that normalness doesn't last through lunchtime…
Jessica's Story: Chapter 2
"I'm Jessica… Sanders"
I hear the knock on the front door and immediately move toward it, being sure not to let Mrs. T notice. I watch as she looks through the peephole then yells at the visitor, telling him or her that we "don't want any."
My heart drops, fearing she's not going to open the door. This has happened so many times before. I should be used to it. Whoever is standing outside continues talking but the voice is muffled. I dip behind the doorway from where I'm watching so she doesn't see me when she checks over her shoulder.
The door opens only slightly. I will the visitor to push the door farther open and step inside. This rarely happens; Mrs. T is too smart for that. My feet start moving before I'm even conscious of the action. Someday I'd like to thank that pushy salesman, but for now I'm running.
It's been so long since I've been outside. I can almost taste the pollution in the air as I fill my clean lungs with it. Even with this impediment, my adrenaline rush enables my legs to keep working faster and faster. That will be enough to carry me as far as I need to be. I'll reach the city soon.
House after house whizzes by in my peripheral vision. There are very few cars on the streets and most of the ones that are not locked up in garages have shattered windows and missing pieces. The buildings are quickly getting larger and larger.
I see the first people since leaving the orphanage after almost an hour of running interspersed with brisk walking. They're waiting at a bus stop on the farthest outskirts of downtown. Neighborhood shuttles will only bring residents this far and from here the city busses take over. I curse under my breath for not stealing some coins from Mrs. T for a bus fare.
A few people glance my way before returning their eyes to a newspaper or resuming their watch for a bus. Most don't even seem to notice me. That is, except for one small boy. I slow to a walk so as not to draw more attention to myself. My eyes catch the large, round ones of the boy. He quickly looks down and side-steps behind his father.
The adrenaline rush had ended and my body screams out in pain. My legs threaten to collapse beneath me. I keep moving though, have to keep moving. The amount of people gradually increases and my chances of being caught gradually decrease as I move deeper into the city. I can't remember the last time I was this far away from the orphanage.
Once sure that I am safely missing, I duck down an alley to search for a place to catch my breath. The alley is dark and dirty, not unlike the city itself and its surrounding areas. The buildings on either side of me tower high enough to reach the cloudiness of the polluted air which gobbles up the tops of the structures.
A small box hangs from one window near the mouth of the alley. Flowers used to grow in things like that… or so I'm told. This place was probably much less dreary when flowers could grow. The air kills them now much the same way it kills its human victims. The back of my throat tickles as if in response to my thoughts. My cough echoes back to me.
I walk through the twisty city-canyon for a while longer before another cough escapes my mouth. A head peeks from around the corner deep in the alley and asks, "How are you doing today, miss?"
"You look like someone who's looking for something… Either that or you're looking not to be found."
"I… I should probably be going," I respond as I begin to turn around.
"Don't worry. I'm not going to turn you in. You're a lot safer in here than you are out there." He motions for me to follow him and despite all the warning signs going off in my head, I do.
My new friend leads me around the corner to an odd group sitting around a trashcan fire. He looks to be in his late twenties. A raggedy hat sits back on his head, pushing his hair forward and down around his face. His companions include a girl seemingly around my age, two boys also in their mid to late twenties, a bearded older man and a thirty-something woman. All of them are nearly as tattered as the first.
"So what's your name?" he asks me.
"You have a last name?"
"Sanders," I tell him hesitantly. He turns to face me so quickly and aggressively that I would've fallen had I not backed into a brick wall.
"What are you playing at?" I look to the rest of the group who are all staring up at me with strange expressions on their faces.
"I… I don't uh… understand."
"Who told you to say that? Where did you hear that name?" my new bipolar friend demands. My mouth refuses to work properly as I move it soundlessly. "Please. I don't want to hurt you. Just answer my questions." My eyes follow his hand to a gun-shaped bulge in his pants.
"Hey! What's going on back here?" an authoritative voice shouts down the alley as a small light bounces off the grimy bricks. That was my cue - the distraction I needed. I take off running as fast as my body will allow and leave the freaks scrambling to pack up and get out of there so as not to get busted.
"Stop right where you are." Could I have any worse luck? I glance over my shoulder to make sure I'm not being followed.
"Officer, please. He had a gun. We… we…" The uniformed man who also clearly had a gun interrupts me before I can say more.
"Have you been using any illegal substances, young lady?"
"What? No. I just…"
"Walk toward me slowly, keeping your hands where I can see them." I obey, having no other choice.
"Please sir, I was just walking then he called me over and all of a sudden he was threatening me and…"
"What's your name please?" I debate silently about whether or not to use my real name. It didn't work out so well a couple minutes ago. "Hesitation. Don't bother trying to lie now."
"I wasn't going to."
"Where do you live?" I sigh and drop my eyes to the ground, defeated.
"The orphanage on Main. I ran away a couple hours ago."
"That explains things." He speaks into his radio as we leave the alley. I wait until he's finished before talking again.
"Please don't bring me back there. She's… she's abusive. That's why I ran away."
"Maybe she'll be able to teach you not to run away then. We can't have you kids roaming the streets, stealing, begging. Things are bad enough as is. Until someone figures out a way to fix things, we're going to have full hospitals and full orphanages."
"But… I won't… I can… another orphanage… anything… please."
"That's enough. Watch your head," he says as I'm pushed into the back of the police car. The drive is short. I hadn't gotten far. My stomach threatens to send up its contents throughout the entire ride.