Stealin’ Apples – Auner’s Sketch
Sometimes, as writers, we have characters that mean a little something more to us. Sometimes, as writers, we have characters we don’t actually understand. Sometimes, as writers, we have characters we accidentally underestimate. For me, Auner is one of those characters. This new book I’m writing explores child abuse and neglect, but it also explores the complex friendship of children who endure tragedy and trauma together. Alizabet and Eli — these are the two characters that feel the most “normal” to me (normal in terms of they feel like “my usual characters”) — these were the two whose voices I thought I knew. And yet — when Auner spoke up, asking me to find his voice, I followed. I don’t anticipate these character sketches to be included in the actual book because these characters are asking me to write them to learn who they are as individuals. By the time I finished Auner’s, I wanted to know more about my little escape artist and thief. The new book, forthcoming in 2023, is as of yet unnamed, and already special to me.
Food is all we really think about. It’s all I think about. Maybe that’s ‘cause I’m the best at gettin’ it. Alina don’t see; she’d just knock things over and get caught real quick. Alizabeth can see, but she’s not real fast enough. The trick to stealin’ is speed. Speed, and pretending. If somebody lookin’ at you like they think you’re gonna do something you’re not s’posed to be doing, you gotta just pretend you’re not doing anything wrong. You gotta take the thing, fast, and then walk away, slow, like normal. It tricks people into thinkin’ you’re not doing anything different. Alizabeth can’t do that; she gets nervous when she knows I’m doin’ it. One time, she almost got me caught by being so nervous; I try not to let no one know when I’m on a run.
I can’t do it like I used to. It’s harder to get past the new attendant; she’s very tall, and round. She smells of cigarettes. She hates us. Sometimes she beats us even when we ain’t done nothin’ wrong; usually, she beats the older ones the worse ‘cause she says we think we’re smart. She yells at us ever time she sees us, and she’s always lookin’ for something we done wrong. If she caught me stealin’, my hand be cut off.
I only got the one. I had two hands, but one was messed up; two fingers was missing and the others curled up into my palm. They wouldn’t straighten out. It’s the curse; when I was born, I was cursed. A woman with dark hair swaddled me every day in blankets, making sure to tightly wrap that side of my body up so my hand couldn’t be seen. That’s what the note pinned to my blanket said when I was dropped off here. She tried, but ‘he’ found out about my hand, the malformed one, and said screamed it about the curse I’d bring to the family. He used an axe to chop off my arm at the elbow.
I don’t remember this, but the note from the woman said she secreted me away to a witch who wrapped my stump and stopped it from bleeding. The witch saved my life, then said I should be taken here. The note promised it was a hard choice, but there was no other way: If you don’t rid a home of cursed things, everybody in the home will pay.
Helen. Helen read the note to me. She was a guard, a nice guard. She’s not here anymore. The nice guards, they never stay. That’s somethin’ else you gotta know if stealing is the only way you can eat; being nice don’t get you nothin’.
The new boy hasn’t said a word. He’s sharin’ my bed, there’s only the two of us right now. Sometimes they put three to a bed. I liked it best when it was just me. His stomach’s growling: Alina’s is, too. Mine hasn’t growled in awhile but I feel it knotting up. The lights went out hours ago, and the only sounds are the restless legs of the kids, or the cough that sounds sometimes. The cold makes us all crowd near each other; usually, I move to lay in the bed with Alina and Alizabet ‘cause it makes us all warmer. I couldn’t tonight.
Moonlight shines through the window, making shadows along the walls. It’s time. I hold the rail off the bed with my good hand, then slip my leg over the top of the bars. A quick glance tells me Alina hears me; her eyes are open. I call to the hard floor with a thud, and wait, crouched, listening to see if anybody comes to check out the noise. When nothin’ changes, I rise.
The room is full of cribs. None of us are babies, but we’re all behind bars. A room full of cribs, nothing else. No toys. No television or radio for songs. No blankets. No food. We are all hungry, even the ones who are new, like the scrawny boy sharing my mattress now. It is always dark, even during the daytime, even though there’s a window, cause the lights go out.
I know the places I can’t step without creakin’. Still, I’m careful, always lookin’ down at my feet, countin’ my steps. One, two, three… seven… the creak is on the eighth step, so pretend Alizabet lays in my way and step over her.
“Hey!” The sound of one of the boys behind me makes my heart leap into my throat. “He’s up, walking around!”
Kids stir, bodies shift. Reflexes kick in; I don’t stop to think, I just race back to my bed. I launch myself up and over with one hand, breathing hard. The boy starts laughing as the guard steps into the room, telling us to shut up. My heart still races. If I’d been caught, she would have beat me. I feel my eyes narrow, tracking the traitor. The sound of a growling belly makes me determined: we will eat tonight.
You gotta be patient, willing to be still when you don’t want to be. I wait until the sound of Alina and Alizabet’s growling bellies are all I hear: no more noises, no restless legs, no random coughs. I stare into the darkness, waiting and watching. I don’t see anything, or anyone move. My heart is beating fast. I don’t want to get caught. But I do want to eat. I want the others to eat. I make no noise as I crawl to my knees; to get over the bars, I have to stand. I move, quick as I can, using my good hand to hold the top of the rail and my stump to give balance. It was much faster than the first time.
When I land on the floor, I stay down, waiting for the sound of the traitor.
“Go,” I hear the new boy whisper, his voice hoarse. I tilt my head, my eyes sliding over my shoulder. He hasn’t moved, but his eyes are open. He’s scanning the room. A lookout, a lookout for the traitor. I don’t trust him cause a thief knows better than to trust anybody, but I do believe him.
I inch across the floor, quick and quiet as a mouse. I step over the imaginary Alina on the eighth step so that it don’t creak. The most dangerous part of the mission is the door. The guard’s supposed to sit on the other side of the door. Most times, she don’t. Most times, she’s long gone by now. My heart beats faster when I put my hand against the heavy door. I push it open slowly. Strange noises, grunts, and giggles, come from the supply closet. The guard’s voice is the one giggling; the deeper man’s voice, I don’t know. I swallow past a new lump in my throat, then find the brave to move.
The kitchen is past the closet. The noises don’t change when I scurry past. The kitchen is huge and dark. Concrete counters, steel machines. There’s a huge oven, and a pantry. Windows line every wall. The concrete floor and the windows make it very cold. The concrete makes my feet colder. I don’t see the bowl that usually sits on the counter with fruit in it. I walk quietly to the pantry door; it is open. A few boxes sit on the shelves, but nothing we can eat without cooking. My heart starts to sink, but then I see the brown sack on the floor, filled with apples.
I drop an apple on the way back, just past the closet, but the noise in the closet doesn’t stop. I race back to the mattress. Apples lay wedged beneath my stump and side; apples press against my belly and hand. The new boy doesn’t speak, but watches me slide the apples through the rails; he watches as I climb back in. I lay on my back, staring at the ceiling. I hear his belly rumble, and my fingers slide over the smooth apple. He takes it from my fingers. “Th—th—thanks.”