It was about midnight when I crawled out of bed and headed for the window. And though I should’ve been exhausted from my last three hours of restless sleep, I wasn’t. I was wide awake, ready to pounce on my freedom. But I wasn’t yet free. There was more to do. I needed my incentive. I needed my moment of meditation. Without it, I was heading blindly into a scary place. Yet less than scary—exciting, amazing, life-changing. I needed everything I could muster to prepare for that moment when I could become me again.
As I reached for the cracked, wooden, termite-ridden windowsill, I peered through the glass. It was foggy, but I could just make out the distant image I was looking for. Lights, everywhere, sparkling, warm. The city was beautiful on that rainy horizon.
I took a breath. There was something better out there for me, and I knew it all so well, feeling it in my bones, but the old hags who ran this orphanage didn’t like us kids seeing that better place for ourselves. So they kept us here on the grounds, at all times. No matter how often we begged them for a trip outside, they always gave us the same reason for saying no: that the city was dangerous and little kids like us shouldn’t walk those streets. But I always thought they were just saying it to sour our fun. That was their job. They were hags. Miserable. Ugly. Terrifying. A horrible person of power thought it was a good idea to put them in charge of children.
I figured that any place outside these walls would’ve been better than in here, so I spent the last two weeks trying to figure out how to break out of the facility. I couldn’t stand it anymore: The food was nasty, the ladies were mean, and the other kids were all brats. During lunch this morning, when she bent over to pick up her spilt milk carton, which I must confess I had a little to do with, I stole a key from one of the old ladies’ pocket to open my window.
I rubbed my index finger across the glass and etched out the shape of a smiley face. Any moment, I would be free. As long as I could plan my escape quietly, I was set. I just had to be careful of Ms. Easterton. She was our nighttime security. She was actually very nice compared to the other ladies, but not nice enough to let me escape. If she found me, she’d tell the other ladies. I couldn’t let her spot me, so I needed to be silent.
I took my sheets and wrapped them around the railing on my bed. After fastening the knot and checking it with a tug, I looked around to make sure the other girls in the room were asleep so they wouldn’t rat me out later. Annie kept opening her eyes, but I could never tell if she was waking up or just one of those freaky people who slept with their eyes open, so I took her sheet and covered her face with it.
Once I felt the coast was clear, I crept to my window, unlocked it, and slid it open about a foot. It creaked, and I froze. I was sure someone would’ve awoken from the noise. But after taking another peek around the room, I realized no one had reacted, so I let out a sigh. No one ever told me how scary this would be. I suddenly felt my heart racing as I began to understand what I was trying to do here. I was trying to escape. Out through a window. In the middle of the night. In the rain.
Oh, the rain. It was serene enough to keep everyone else asleep. The pitter-patter on the other windows was calming. Perhaps I was overreacting to the creaking of my own window. This was going to be okay. I forced myself to laugh under my breath. I needed that good feeling to carry me through to the next part of my plan.
I ducked my head out and searched for a safe landing for when I reached the bottom of my sheet rope—I was on the second floor and didn’t want to hurt myself. A sandy mound sat near the flower patch under my window. The rain made it muddy, but I figured I could make the jump, so I put the key in my pocket and opened the window as high as I could reach. I shuddered again at the creaking it made, but I was certain now that no one would awake. I didn’t even hold my breath this time.
A gentle breeze blew into the room with some of the rain, which stirred the girl next to me. This time I held my breath. I held it for almost a minute. That itself was dangerous because I held it for so long that I nearly gasped when I caught my breath again. So many small things conspiring to become a big thing.
When I realized that she would stay asleep, I continued with the plan, hurling the sheet out through the window. As it outstretched and fell, the sheet stopped and dangled just above the window below mine, a few feet above my landing zone. No matter what, this would hurt me a little, but it would be a pain worth my while.
For two years I’ve lived in this orphanage, so I was glad to finally leave it. I didn’t care about saying goodbye to anyone since I didn’t like any of them, but they were all asleep, so it didn’t even matter. After taking a few deep breaths, I clutched the sheets with both hands, lifted myself over the sill, feeling the wood crack and crumble beneath my weight, and climbed through the window.
Immediately, I came to realize how badly I’d committed to this plan. I should’ve grabbed a chair first, or something to give me enough room to climb through feet-first. But I didn’t. So when I lunged forward, I spilled out of the window and nearly lost my grip of the sheet. My legs pitched sideways and flopped down past my head. The force of my correcting angle was so strong that I slipped.
I caught the sheet a few inches later, but I held on for dear life, panting, forcing myself not to scream with fright. I suddenly realized how stupid this was. But I needed to escape. I couldn’t stand the orphanage anymore. I would’ve been better off spending the rest of my life in a neck brace in some hospital bed where nicer people could wait on me hand and foot. But surviving the fall with all of my bones intact was the better choice, so I did everything I could to make sure I didn’t slip again.
The wall was slick from the rain, and my shoes were worn out from overuse, so I didn’t grip my climbing surface well. I had to use my arms to climb down to the bottom of the sheet. Once I reached the end, I still needed to clear the first-floor window and the bushes below, and that meant pushing off the wall. And my safe spot, the muddy mound, was about five or six feet from the bushes. This wouldn’t be easy.
I was still panting from my close call, but I was ready to make a run for it. So, after closing my eyes and telling myself that I could do it, I pushed off the wall with all of my strength. As the sheet swung outward a few feet, I released it, letting the momentum fling me toward the mound of mud. I barely cleared the flower patch.
When I landed, I fell, then rolled to my feet. The mud was icky, but I endured it for my freedom. My escape was urgent now, so I ran for the outside fence without giving any thought to the difficulties ahead, or the consequences of my possible failure. In my mind, there was no difficulty or failure. Only the greener grass, the better place. Upon reaching the fence, I scurried on up and hurled myself over. Finally, I was free from it all. I didn’t even notice the tear in my shirt until sometime later.
* * *
I had no idea what the road ahead looked like, so it surprised me to see a wide range of cow fields between me and my destination. Most of the fields were empty, but the few that had their cows outside really freaked me out. If you’ve never seen a cow in the dark, let me tell you, it’s scary. They look like these shadowy monsters who’d just finished eating the bogeyman. When they mooed, they sounded like angry ghosts ready to kill me.
But they weren’t ghosts, of course. They were cows. Harmless unless provoked, which I wasn’t about to do. Once my nerves calmed, and I realized that every bulky shadow I saw was most likely a cow, or a stack of hay, as was sometimes the case, I could refocus on my destination: the city.
My fears intensified, however, whenever I saw headlights coming down the road, especially from behind. Every time I saw the darkness getting lighter, I jumped to the shoulder and ducked down in the ditch beside it. I nearly panicked when I’d see a car go by, certain that the driver would spot me, know I escaped the orphanage, and attempt to drive me back. My heart raced whenever I thought about who the drivers were. The old ladies who tortured us. Ms. Easterton. The grumpy old man who put the ladies in charge. There were so many possibilities, and all of them terrified me. I wanted so badly to get far away from there. Yet every car that passed made me think I was doomed to return.
I eventually decided it was easier just to move along in the ditch, but it was muddy, and sometimes I had to wade in ankle-high water to get anywhere, and at one point I’d run out of ditch. Once I passed out of the farmlands and entered the place where the factories stood like smoking castles, I had to duck behind signs and broken machinery to keep out of sight of passing cars. And let me tell you, those cows behind me had nothing on the scary hulks that lived near the factories. In my mind, I knew they were just tractors and trucks and things, but I was so scared of them coming alive and snarling at me, I wanted a prince to come out of the shadows and rescue me.
But out there in the chalky rain, breathing in moisture and factory fumes, I wasn’t expecting any rescuers. I was expecting a kidnapper, one of the kind dressed as an old lady, or the kind that the old ladies used to worry us about, the kind that lured kids with smiles and lollipops. I didn’t know which would come for me in that dark, rainy night. I was afraid of them all.
Fortunately, I didn’t see any other cars pass through as I got to the end of the factories, so I stopped worrying about kidnappers. And as I got to the edge of a small town, I stopped worrying about the old ladies, too. The streets ahead provided plenty of cover, with small convenience stores every few blocks, and plenty of other buildings with narrow alleys I could duck down if I got desperate. I began to see people on the street, mostly scruffy men in thick clothing, so I got scared again. But I could see the large buildings in the distance getting closer, so I pressed on, eager to reach downtown. None of the scruffy men seemed to notice me. I think most of them were asleep.
A couple of hours after escaping from the orphanage, I made it into the city. I was soaked, and I was tired, but I’d made it.
The streets were quiet but not empty. The sight of passing cars kept me on edge, as any of them could’ve gotten suspicious of my late night aloneness and picked me up and taken me back. I nearly froze each time I heard tires sloshing through puddles as they rounded the curbs behind me. But I had to keep going. Freedom was out there. Somewhere.
Okay, I had no idea where to go, but I searched up and down the street anyway, seeing what I could find. So many buildings in the area were quiet, and none of them appeared open. Shops and restaurants were dark. Courtyards were empty. Then came the lonely apartments. It was there that I met my little brother floating along the side of the road.
* * *
It had rained for many hours already, and the only two things protecting the baby boy from drowning in the road river were a flimsy blanket and a hollowed-out piece of wood. His boat-like thing headed for the gutter at the corner of the street, but I ran up to pull it onto the sidewalk, just as the front end tipped toward the storm drain below. He was crying, naturally, because he was a baby, if I hadn’t made that clear, so I dragged him under a nearby awning to keep him from getting any wetter. I wasn’t sure what to do after that, though—I didn’t have a bottle or dry clothes or anything like that to help him. I wasn’t even sure how old he was, so I didn’t know if there was some special way to treat him to keep him from getting sick. My guess was that he was just a few weeks old. His head wasn’t much bigger than my knee.
As I shivered under the awning, I thought about what I could do to fix the situation. Jimmy and I would’ve been better off indoors somewhere—that much I knew. The rain hardened as I scanned for a place still open. My search was limited from under the awning, but I saw one dim light in a clothing shop up the street by the next corner.
I reached under Jimmy’s back and scooped him out of the boat and hurried through the rain to the store’s entrance. But when I got there, I discovered the door was locked. Then I spun around, trying to locate any shop that wasn’t locked. But the rest of the street looked the same. Dim lights. No one around.
Once again I didn’t know what to do. Jimmy continued to cry as the rain fell in his eyes, louder now than he had before, and I had no idea if his diapers were full or not. I needed to find someone who could help me. I just didn’t know whom to look for. The scruffy men in the thick clothing at the edge of town seemed wrong to me. The people driving by didn’t seem to notice me. My body shook beyond my control. Jimmy’s cry was turning into a frantic scream, and he started to hiccup.
Ever since my parents died, I stopped trusting people. From day one, I had adults taking me away from everything I loved, sticking me somewhere they could forget about me. Then the other kids picked on me when they noticed me, and the old ladies beat on me whenever I wanted attention. If I asked someone at the orphanage a question, they told me to look it up, and if I was hungry, the old ladies “satisfied” me by feeding me mashed potatoes and beets. They did this every single time. My memories of pizza and pancakes were faint. To find anyone who’d want to help me now was impossible; I was sure of that.
But I couldn’t let my fears stop me from trying. I didn’t want Jimmy to die out here, so I placed him in his boat, huddled over him to keep him dry, then dragged him to the main entrance of a nearby apartment to find our rescuer.
Once I reached the dimly lit front door, I knocked on it as loudly as I could. A couple of minutes passed before the door cracked open. Then I about fell to the ground in fright: an old lady peeked through the opening.
I wanted to run away as fast as I could. I was afraid she’d come chasing after me with her wooden spoon, or threaten to cram mashed potatoes and beets down my throat. But I couldn’t leave Jimmy alone there. I couldn’t allow him to go through the same torture that I went through at the orphanage. So I didn’t run, but I did drag his boat off the doorstep.
The old lady closed the door on us, but then I heard a chain sliding back. Next thing I knew, the front door was open, and she was standing there in the frame with a shocked expression on her face. She had her hand over her mouth.
“My goodness,” the old lady said. “You poor things. Come in, come in. Get out of this cold weather. Where are your parents?”
I didn’t want to say anything at first. She was scary in all of her wrinkles and flowers on her nightdress. But she didn’t growl at me or raise her hand like she was about to hit me. I gulped.
“I don’t know,” I said.
I must’ve looked pathetic to her, with my long, tangled hair dripping with water, and my clothes stained with puddles and mashed potatoes. But she didn’t give me that look of disdain that the old ladies at the orphanage used to have for me. It was more like surprise, or concern, or something less angry. She might’ve been half-asleep.
“When was the last time you saw them?” she asked. “They must be worried sick to have you alone like this. Do you have their number? How can I get a hold of them? Oh, this is terrible.” She waved us in. “Please, please, come out of the rain. You’ll catch your sick of it. Where are your parents, honey? How long since you’ve seen them?”
“Two years ago, I think,” I said.
The old lady was surprised by my answer. She dropped her hand from her mouth to her chest.
“Two years? Are you sure?”
“They died when I was six.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry, honey.” She shook her head. “Is there anyone around here who takes care of you?”
“Nobody cares about me.”
The old lady stared at me, clearly uncertain what more to say, or ask. Then she nodded.
“I see. Okay, go sit down then. I’ll try to figure something out.”
After the old lady took Jimmy from my hands and replaced his tattered blanket with one that was dry, I set the boat thing in the corner of the room so no one would trip over it later. Then I watched the old lady as she took Jimmy to the couch and sat down with him. She cradled him snugly in her arms and rocked him back and forth, singing a song that I hadn’t heard before. It was the most pleasant thing I’d heard in a long time. Before I saw this, I thought all old ladies didn’t care a thing about kids.
“You remind me of my little girl before she grew up,” she said sweetly in his ear. “I used to stay up late at night rocking her to sleep. Of course, I think I’m the one who ended up falling asleep.”
The old lady spoke to Jimmy for a long time, trying to keep him calm. I didn’t know how long this went on for, but I started getting jealous. For the life of me, I thought she had forgotten about me.
“Excuse me,” I interrupted.
She looked at me and smiled.
“Do you have something to eat? I’m really, really, really hungry.”
I rubbed my stomach and made a sort of sad face. She caught the hint very quickly.
“Oh my, of course. Do you want a sandwich and some milk?”
I nodded with that anxious nod the other girls did when they really wanted something. She made me a turkey and cheese sandwich, topped it with pickles, and coupled it with another identical sandwich. I scarfed my food down as quickly as I could. While I ate, I watched her head for her phone. After she picked it up and dialed it, she waited a few seconds before talking to the receiver.
“I’m done,” I said, as she spoke to the stranger on the other end.
“Hello?” she said into the phone. “Hi, my name is Edith Gearson. I live at Eight Fifty-two Blanchard Circle, in Apartment One. I’m calling because a young girl has wandered to my building with an infant boy, both without any guardians to speak of. I’m wondering what to do about this.”
I didn’t think she’d heard me earlier, so I told her I was finished again. She still didn’t hear me, so I walked up to her and tugged on her nightdress. She continued to talk on the phone, holding her finger up to her mouth to signal me to be quiet. Despite her fake generosity with the food, it seemed she wasn’t any different than the other old ladies, after all. I wondered if I’d made a mistake coming here.
“I’m finished with my sandwich,” I said again.
“Okay, thank you,” she said into the phone.
She hung up and looked at me.
“I called the police,” she said. “They said they would come by to help you figure out where you belong.”
A bubble rose from my stomach into my chest. The skin around my ears tingled. I could feel my neck getting tighter. I backed away from her.
“No. They’re the ones who stuck me in that awful place. Don’t make them take me away again. Hide me, please.”
“Honey, I can’t take care of you two. I can keep you here long enough for the police to get you, but it would be illegal for me to keep you here overnight. You know what illegal means?”
I shook my head as hard as I could.
“I don’t care!”
“It means I can get in trouble if I don’t follow the rules. You two have to go with them when they come, okay?”
“No! The orphanage ladies hate me. I don’t wanna go back there again.”
I beat my fists into my legs, then crossed my arms and pouted.
“If that’s where you belong, you have to go back. I can’t keep you here.”
I ran to the couch to grab Jimmy. He was still crying.
“I thought you’d help us, but you’re no different than all the other rotten old ladies. We’re leaving.”
As I bolted for the door with Jimmy in my arms, the old lady opened her refrigerator to pull out some milk.
“The baby’s hungry,” she said. “If you leave with him now, it would be very bad for him. If he hasn’t eaten in a while, he could starve. It would be much harder on you if he died of hunger than for you to go back to the orphanage.”
When she closed the door and headed for her cupboard, she turned her head to glance at me. Her left eyebrow was raised. I froze from her stare.
“Please don’t leave,” she said.
I tried to move again, but I couldn’t. I stopped at the door. Realizing I didn’t know enough about babies to justify taking him with me, I felt that maybe I should just leave him there. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I could gain more ground without him, anyway. My decision was final. I placed him in his boat.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll leave the baby here, but I’m going. I can’t take any more beets and mashed potatoes for breakfast. I hafta go.”
The old lady filled a skinny glass with the milk, then brought it to Jimmy. She knelt beside him.
“I’m sorry I don’t have a bottle for you,” she said to him, “but I hope this will do.”
She touched the skinny glass to Jimmy’s lips and tipped it lightly, allowing the milk to pour into his mouth. His mouth made a sucking motion.
“I mean it,” I said. “I’m leaving. Don’t try to stop me.”
The old lady glanced up at me and smiled.
“What’s your name, honey?” she asked.
“Beth, but what does that matter? I’m leaving.”
“Are you and the baby brother and sister?”
I wasn’t sure what to say. Until she said “brother” I wasn’t really sure if he was a boy or a girl. But I liked the idea of having a little brother, so I told her we were.
“What’s his name?” she asked me.
My mind was blank on this one. But I couldn’t let her think he didn’t have a name, even if he probably was nameless. So I thought of the few boy’s names I knew.
“Um . . . Jimmy,” I said. I liked that name. It was the last boy’s name I’d heard someone use. Couldn’t remember from where. It sounded nice enough.
“Do you really want to abandon your little brother like that, Beth? He needs you. Whoops, smells like somebody needs a diaper.”
I checked my pants, but everything looked okay down there.
“No I don’t,” I said to her.
“Not you. I mean Jimmy. I’ll be right back.”
The old lady got up, walked into the kitchen, and grabbed for some paper towels. I knelt next to Jimmy and whispered in his ear.
“It’ll be okay, Jimmy. She’s going to change you. Don’t cry anymore, okay?”
The old lady came back with a wad of paper towels. She unpinned his diapers, and I quickly looked away.
“It’s been a little while since I’ve done this,” she said, “but we’ll see what happens.”
After she cleaned Jimmy and wrapped him with the paper towels, she tossed his diaper into a plastic bag. Then she lifted him out of his boat and sat on her couch. I followed her and sat with them.
“What’s your name?” I asked her.
“My name is Edith.”
“I never met any old ladies named Edith before. All the ones I know are named Missus.”
Edith laughed at me. Then she “cootchy-cooed” Jimmy’s cheeks.
“Well, my name was Missus for a while, too, but I recently became an Edith.”
“My husband had cancer.”
I was getting tired. I rubbed my eyes.
“What’s cancer?” I asked.
“It’s something that makes people very sick and they can’t play with other people very well anymore.”
“Do you miss your husband?”
“With every passing day.”
She started to rock Jimmy to sleep. I could see her face weaken a little. I wondered if she was thinking about her husband now.
“I miss my mommy and daddy a lot,” I said to her. “They were supposed to tuck me in bed one night, but they never came home. My babysitter told me something happened and they wouldn’t be able to say goodnight to me. The next day the police came and took me to the orphanage. I really wanted them there that day.”
I pouted. Edith pulled me to her side as I rubbed my eyes again. She held me in one arm while rocking Jimmy in the other.
“It’s okay, Beth, honey,” she whispered in my ear. “I promise you’ll have a new family one day. Even if I have to find a way to bring you into my own.”
She kissed me on my forehead and brushed my hair back over my ears.
“Jimmy’s not really my brother,” I said. “I just found him floating along the street a little while ago. I just wanted to take care of him because I didn’t want somebody taking him to the orphanage, too.”
“You said you lost your mommy and daddy two years ago, honey, and I didn’t think Jimmy was more than two years old. But I don’t want you to worry about who is going to take care of him. Somebody nice will adopt both of you, eventually.”
“Nobody ever comes to adopt us anymore.”
“Well, I’ll make sure the police take you somewhere where you can get adopted. It’s a shame for a young girl like you and a little baby like Jimmy to not have a family.”
I wiped the tears from my eyes as I looked up at her.
“I don’t wanna get adopted by people who’ll forget about me and then feed me mashed potatoes when they remember I’m there.”
Edith chuckled again.
“Beth, I’ll tell you what I can do for you two. My daughter and her husband don’t have children right now, and they’re not sure if they’ll be able to. I’ve been trying to talk them into the adoption process. They’re nervous about the responsibility of raising other people’s children, so they’ve been resistant, but they’re getting closer to considering it. If they agree, I’ll send them to your shelter, and I’ll have them ask for you specifically. I’m sure you’ll like them.”
“Will they feed me pancakes for breakfast? My mom used to always make me pancakes.”
“I’m sure they’ll make pancakes for you.”
My stomach growled. I really wanted pancakes now. Pancakes would’ve been my heaven.
“Okay,” I said to her. “I’ll go back. But only if you promise I’ll get adopted. Tomorrow!”
“I’ll do my best,” she said. “But these things take time. If it doesn’t happen tomorrow, don’t fret. It’ll happen soon enough.”
I wanted it to happen tomorrow, but Edith seemed trustworthy enough with her words so far, so I decided I could wait for however long it would take. I just wanted to make sure that whoever adopted me could also adopt Jimmy. I didn’t want him going with awful people. Someone had already been awful to him.
I rested my head against Edith’s shoulder and closed my eyes. She continued to rub my head as I let my arms fall to my side. I fell asleep within seconds.