This place probably has lots of ghosts. It’s dark, and cold, just the kind of place ghosts like to stay. Ghosts are everywhere. They live in my head most of all. Screaming ghosts. I sleep with my eyes open. Closing your eyes makes it easy to get you.
The boy’s crawling over the rail, escaping the bed. I watch him, wondering where he’s going. My eyes track him as he steps carefully, my bones shake when I hear a louder voice say, “Hey! He’s up, walkin’ around!” The boy races back, leaps into the bed. I hear his ragged breathing, feel his body shivering both from the cold and the fear.
The other boy laughs, the guard screams. The sound of the ghosts screeching in my head makes my own heart pound. I’m so mad at people stealin’ chances from people. I can’t talk right, it’s hard to get words out. I ain’t stupid, though, even though the ghosts thought I was. My ghosts, I ‘member when they poured water so hot it burned my face down my throat, tryin’ to fix the words. My mouth blistered, it left a burn mark. People just need a chance. When the boy tries again, climbing out the bed, his breathing short, his body shaking, I help him.
“Go.” The word came out fine. I don’t know why sometimes I can talk and not others. When he comes back, he has apples. I think about taking one-I helped him get them, after all, cause the rumbling in my belly hurts. I don’t have to steal it, though, he gives me one.
It is the first time anyone’s given me anything good. Things ain’t ever really silent: there are always sounds. I lie still, picking up the sounds of kids moving, rails creaking, whispers. The girl in the bed next to ours, the one who wants to know my name, the one who sleeps like a snail, curled up into a ball, she whispers to herself. The other girl, the one who don’t see, sleeps quiet. The wind batters the windows. The cold rolls over all of us.
Time crawls. It feels it has been dark out forever. My eyes feel heavy, but I do not close them. I stare at one spot, far over by the wall, until I sleep. The ghosts come back, flying around me. They bring the past with them, make me relive the black house. The crazy man, my father; he locked me in the room, told me I’d brought the curse to them. I heard him strike the match. There’s fire; the sound of crackling, the heat of flames, the screaming as I pounded on the locked door; the swell of the roar.
I use my feet; the sound of glass shattering bounces through my mind. If he caught me, he’d throw me into the flaming house, the house of secrets. I didn’t give him the chance; I ran on feet that bled from the glass. Ghosts chase me; I hear their footsteps behind me, feel them getting close. The sound of my jagged breathing is loud in my ears. I round the corner, and scream. The ghosts grab me; their eyes burning, turning black as they scream.
I bolt upright in the bed, awake now.
The same nightmare, every night.
“You better lay down.” The boy warns. His welts and the bruise on the side of his face tell me more. I swallow past the tightness in my throat, trying to wipe the ghosts with the burned out eyes from my mind, and lay back.
I lay in the darkness listening to the silence until the black fades from the window into white. Kids stir; the blind girl is one of the first to sit up. The boy, they call him Auner, offers the apples he stole during the night to the girls; he and I already ate ours.
“D-d-do we g-g-get food?” I know the answer is no because Auner stole food, but the rumbling of my stomach makes me ask. The red blister in the crease of my cracked lips makes opening my mouth painful.
“Sometimes we get soup and crackers.” Alizabet responds, her voice a whisper. The blind girl, Alina, flails her arms, bouncing. Auner rocks back and forth, screeching every now and then. I guess he’s not afraid to make noise in the daylight. Alina bends, lays her head on Alizabet.
“B-ba-bars.” I point at the windows. There are bars across the windows. What if there’s a fire? The ghosts fly through my mind, the sound of fire crackling makes my heart race. Nobody answers me.
“No!” Alizabet cries.
The older boy that tried to get Auner caught leaned over his bed into the girls, plucking the apple from beside Alina. Alina jerked, her hands flailing. Auner starts screeching. He starts to climb out, using his stump to balance, but he doesn’t have time. The boy’s already eating the apple. I reach out, grab Auner’s arm. He slaps my hand, but I hold on. “It’s too – too la—late.” I say. “Wait.”
“That wasn’t for him.”
I nod. “Wait.” Then, “His n-name?”
“He’s number 422; his name is Markus.” Alizabet answers; she’s given her apple to Alina. She’d eaten half of it.
“I’m not gonna let him just get away—“ it is hard to keep Auner patient. Here, he says, if someone thinks they can get away with something, they will. “He’s the one that did this!” Auner slaps his face with his good hand, pointing out the bruise.
“I don’t know. I try to leave the big kids alone. They get away with more cause they beat us.”
I slide my eyes across the room, stare at Markus.
“He picks on Alina all the time.”
My eyes slide to Alina. Her blonde hair is stringy, hangs over her face; her eyes are blue; bones show through her skin. She can’t be more than ten. I promise myself Markus will pay. When he lifts the edge of the mattress, I smile.
I have to go.
Nobody answers me. The smell of urine and the smeared poop on the bed hadn’t bothered me. Until now. The ghosts flash in my eyes; my legs twitch, restless. Panic rises in my throat; I shake the bars on the bed. “Hey!” I scream. “I have to go!” Nothing. Nobody speaks. When I scream again, this time adding, “Pl-please!”
Alizabet stands on her bed, walks until she can reach over and touch my hand. Still, she doesn’t speak.
The ghosts are back in my mind; I can’t…The feel of warm urine down my legs makes me stop screaming. I crowd away to the corner of the bed. Markus laughs. I don’t feel strong anymore. I am back in the black house; beaten until I bled for wetting the bed even though I wasn’t allowed to get up. Ghosts make my heart shake.
It’s taken all day.
But Markus finally moves. I don’t know where he’s going, and I don’t care. I watch him climb over the rail, and nod at Auner. We are ready. As soon as he pushes open the door, we both climb over the rail. We get to Markus’s bed; he shares it with another kid, but the boy is asleep. I lift up the edge of the mattress; a dimpled smile breaks out over Auner’s face.
We take the only things left: the banana and an orange. When Markus returns, we are back in the bed. I wait until he’s quiet, and settled, before calling out his name. He lifts his head in time to watch me and Auner eat his food. He lifts the mattress, sees his stash is gone and curses. When he stares at us again, there’s no mistakin’: it is war.