Voices echoed through the stairwell and into our darkened room. Troy and I paused our card game and glared at each other, ready to make a move if the chatter lasted longer than three seconds.
Troy and I sprang into action. Like experienced ninjas, we restacked the cards and shoved them into its wrinkled container. Troy stashed them under his lumpy mattress in one smooth motion. Careful not to wake the other kids, I silently climbed to the top bunk. The thrill of potentially being caught prickled the nerves on the surface of my skin as I fell back onto my pillow.
Before I shut my eyes, Troy had scaled the ladder. “What are you doing? Get in your bed,” I giggled out quietly while pointing downward to the bunk below mine. “I’ll be in the forest.” I snuggled under my covers, closed my eyes and searched for the fiery energy that Troy constantly emitted.
“Faye, wait,” Troy called. “Don’t.”
Too late. I fed off his energy before he could protest any more. It overwhelmed my senses, sending tingles down my spine like my soul was evaporating out of my body. Troy’s spirit intertwining with mine was my favorite feeling. Like a protective hug that allowed me to feel invincible. I embraced it and drifted away from the decrepit orphanage that I had been trapped in since birth.
The forest. My home away from…well, home. Trees full of life, rich soil, moss covered rocks, and climbable tree trunks. The ultimate jungle gym for an eleven-year-old like myself and a twelve-year-old like Troy. It was our play area most nights until the dark shadows emerged from the depths of the trees, deafening our ears with their screeches. If the dark figures weren’t busy roving, then they were busy charging toward us. Needless to say, we still didn’t know what would happen if they caught us nor did we ever want to.
Not long after my feet sunk into the soft dirt, Troy’s energy pieced together next to me. “You think they heard us back at the orphanage?”
“I think we are okay,” he huffed.
“We really got our stealthiness down to a science, haven’t we?” I snuck a peek at my best friend, hoping my favorite proud, cocky smile was plastered upon his face. It wasn’t. It was hard to see him clearly in the dim light, but his hazel eyes shined brightly, the way they did when he was troubled. “What’s wrong?”
“Don’t look at me. Keep an eye out for the shadows,” Troy reminded.
My eyes shifted back to the forest. “What’s wrong?”
“You came even though I asked you not to.”
“And that shocks you because…” I spoke, slipping attitude within each syllable.
“Nothing you do shocks me anymore.”
I sighed as I tried to shake Troy’s distraught mood overwhelming me. “Okay then. What shall we do tonight? Want to go sit at the edge of the cliff and stare at the city? Or, do you want to try and find a way down to the city?”
“No. We need to go back to the orphanage.”
“No,” I groaned in protest. “We just got here. I don’t want to go back. I had a dead cockroach in my water tonight. I deserve time away from that place.”
Just like that, Troy’s body dissipated from beside me. I grumbled and followed suit. I never desired to be in the forest without Troy. I closed my eyes, latched onto his burning emerald spirit, and followed him back to my body lying stationary at the orphanage on Earth.
Back on my misshapen mattress, I stared closely at Troy clutching the sides of the ladder until his knuckles whitening. “Are you okay?” I asked.
“We can’t go there anymore.” His voice grew quieter with every disappointing word.
“Oh, come on, Troy. Are you suddenly scared of the shadows or something?” I mocked.
His voice sunk to a low murmur, “No.”
“Then what is it?” I lazily sat up in order to study Troy more closely, not caring that half of my pilling blanket spilled over the edge of my bunk. “They won’t catch us? We’ve always been faster than them. Well, actually, you’ve been faster. I, on the other hand—” I rambled.
“It’s not because of that. Look, I have to tell you something, but you can’t get upset.” I stared at his straight golden hair, which framed his diamond-shaped face. He lightly grazed the freckles on my cheeks with his rough thumb.
“Well, out with it. I don’t want to be caught tonight.”
The seriousness of his expression ripped the smile from my face. “I’m leaving Central Falls tonight.”
“What? Are you being serious?” He broke eye contact, but only for the brief second that he needed to nod in confirmation. That sharp look away seemed to slice something in my throat, causing the words to burn as they escaped my lips. “You’re leaving me? Who would take you away now?”
“They said it was something about who brought me to the orphanage. How they need more room here and since I have a place to go—”
“Place to go? What place to go?” With each word, anger heated the air around me. He must have felt it too because his line of vision flitted over me and toward the back of the room like he knew I’d never understand.
Rustles of blankets sounded to the left of us. Troy and I were smack in the middle of thirteen sets of bunk beds. My carelessness for volume may have drawn unwanted attention. “Faye,” Troy hushed, “keep it down.” He lifted his gaze to make a quick scan of the room.
I tried to match his same quiet tone, but my voice caught and the words stumbled out of my mouth with disgust. “So, what? You’re just going to leave me here?”
“I wish I wasn’t.”
I took in a deep breath, swallowing my hurt and looked down at my bony hands, hoping they held the answer. He was right, I’d never understand.
He lifted my chin with the knuckle of his index finger. “I have to go.”
“Bu—but you’re the only person I talk to here. You’re the reason why the others have left me alone for so long.”
Flashbacks pummeled me. The way the other children treated me over the years was something I was not ready to face again. One time, four boys knocked me to the ground and dunked my head into a puddle of mud because they thought my scarlet hair was the mark of the devil. I tried not to imagine how far they would have gone if Troy hadn’t been there to end the madness. He was the only thing that prevented them from giving me more than just a black eye and a massive headache. From that point on, Troy never left my side. Troy was my wall I could hide behind, my bodyguard, my best friend.
“You’ll be fine.”
I narrowed my eyes to decipher what he truly wanted. “I’m coming with you.” I quickly grabbed my pillow and shoved it under my arm as if that was all I needed. My pillow and my best friend.
“You can’t.” He grabbed the pillow and tossed it back onto the bed.
“You don’t know that,” I argued, stretching out a hand to his shoulder and gently grabbing a handful of his shirt that was far too baggy for his slim figure.
“Yes, I do. Don’t make this more difficult than it has to be.” I could almost see a glisten in his hazel eyes, but before I got a closer look, he blinked it away.
“Troy…” And with that, I dropped my hand to my side, defeated. I wanted to remind him of the plan. He would turn eighteen, then I would turn eighteen, and we’d get out of this decrepit orphanage together. But, the words were coming up all at the same time and stayed jumbled in my dry throat.
“They said we’d be able to talk on the phone, so that’s good.”
“This isn’t funny if you’re trying to get back at me for something that I did.”
“I’m not trying to get back at you for anything. Now, stay put when Kenneth comes in. I won’t be here in the morning to help you with whatever punishment he gives you, got it?”
“Don’t say that. You can’t go,” I whimpered. “Please.”
To my surprise, Troy leaned in to lay a gentle kiss on my forehead before he pushed me away and slid back into the darkness.
I called for him again, ignoring the horrible ache that accompanied the lingering sensation of his first intimate gesture. Troy Tucker was the only family I had ever known. There would never be enough time in the world to accept the fact that I was saying goodbye to him. So, how could I possibly do it within the ten seconds he gave me?
I reached my hand out over the ladder, but there was nothing except empty space. “I know you can hear me.” My heart tumbled down to my stomach where there was a swirling ball of anxiety starting to take shape. “I hope you go to a really great home.”
“Thanks, Faye. You too.”
My temptation to climb down to Troy’s bed to make sure he heard me clearly was smashed when the door cracked open and the owner of the Hillbrooks Orphanage, Kenneth Woods, slinked in. I was lucky enough that the loud creaking of the hinges masked the sound of me repositioning the blanket and laying down. Kenneth reached our bunk, leaned over Troy and muttered, “Troy? Your adoptive parents are here.”
A part of me thought Kenneth was about to say the same words to me next. He didn’t—nor would he ever. I had no place to go. I grabbed a fistful of my pillow, swallowing the urge to get up and fight for him to stay. I knew better though. Obeying all of Troy’s request always kept me from harm’s way. And, that always made him happy.
Troy descended out of his bunk and followed Kenneth out. Right as the door shut, I threw the covers off and practically flew to the hole in the hardwood floor that allowed me to peer into the lobby.
I saw them. Kenneth’s arm was around Troy’s shoulders. They stood opposite from two adults. The female had a black, floppy hat on, which hid her face, and the old, bald man leaned heavily on a metal cane.
I was not sure what made my stomach turn most. Maybe it was the way they wouldn’t look at Troy, or the way they stood so far apart from one another, or that bright metal cane that seemed to whisper little deadly promises.
“This is Troy Tucker,” Kenneth said.
“Do you have the money, Mr. Woods?” the large man asked in a raspy voice.
Kenneth handed him an envelope and a suitcase. During this exchange, I glanced at my best friend. Troy didn’t seem as scared as I was, though I knew his brave face when I saw it. He cautiously peered up to the ceiling. When our eyes locked, he sent me a grin that caused a feeling of comfort to flurry through my whole body.
The two adults grabbed Troy’s collar and dragged him out the glass doors. A hard lump formed in the back of my throat, threatening to suffocate me. I shut my eyes tightly to keep my tears at bay. The walls I built around myself became more solid as the sorrow consumed me.
I snuck back into bed—not my bed…Troy’s. I pulled the covers over my head and began to weep silently. His scent of sandalwood still covered his pillow and sheets. I knew soon some new kid would be sleeping in this bed and no one would remember Troy but me.