“Number forty-seven! Stop chattering to thirty-four and get back to work, immediately!” Speckle shouted from across the room.
“Yes sir . . . back to work . . . right away,” Tom replied instinctively, pretending to be a dutiful servant.
He knew too well that talking violated the sacred Weatherly Rule Book, a seventy-five-page document of laws and regulations all orphans had to memorize when they arrived. Any violation of these rules resulted in punishment, the penalties varying in length and severity. However, some rules were made to be broken; it was the orphans’ only way to survive here. They did what they were told and got away with what they could.
Just then Speckle closed his laptop, walked over to Tom, and slammed his stick on the table. Everyone froze at the loud crack; the room went silent.
“One more word out of you, and I’ll send you outside!” hollered Speckle, looking around for other violators. No one moved an inch.
Speckle, the new supervisor, had arrived nine months ago. Over six feet tall with wavy grey hair, he had a deep, scratchy voice and a grip like a vice. He also managed Brewster and Sludge, two henchmen who helped keep order and discipline. These burly yet feeble-minded bullies followed his every command.
Tom grabbed a large piece of lumber, walked over to a table saw and ran it through the blade with ease. He then placed the wood on a workbench and started sanding the rough edges.
Every morning at 6:00, each orphan marched straight to this work area, referred to as “The Factory” because it was managed like an industrial plant. Their jobs consisted of putting together an assortment of handcrafted items: the girls made wicker baskets, and the boys built wooden chairs and tables. All these objects were hauled off in a large truck and sold by Brewster and Sludge in the local villages.
Glancing around the room, Tom quickly made eye contact with Sarah, who smiled and made a silly face. He began to laugh but stopped when Speckle trudged over.
“Is something funny, Tom?” he snapped, ready to strike with his stick.
“Ah . . . no sir, nothing at —”
“Perhaps you’d like to stand outside in the cold for five or six hours! Would that be funny?” he thundered in a threatening manner.
“N-no, it wouldn’t.”
Speckle lowered his gaze, closely examining Tom for any insincerity. Once again, the entire room went quiet.
Unconvinced by his answer, Speckle grabbed Tom’s arm, yanked him from his bench and dragged him outside. The door slammed behind them. The weather was frigid, a strong Yorkshire wind chilling the barren landscape. December was always a deadly time of the year.
“Don’t move!” ordered Speckle, his tone displaying a combination of contempt and indifference.
Tom nodded resentfully, his wiry twelve-year-old body shivering in the cold. Speckle angrily marched back inside, glaring at the other children as he hovered around their workstations. He randomly picked up an item, inspected it and tossed it back down. Every day he would find some flaw, tearing up a basket or smashing a chair. Speckle observed everything and missed nothing. No one dared to question him or make direct eye contact. But even Speckle could be outfoxed. The orphans feared his strengths and did whatever they could to exploit his weaknesses. Peering in from the window, his blue eyes glistening, and brown hair dampened by frost, Tom stood motionless. He’d been locked up at Weatherly for six miserable years, and this was the year he planned to escape.
Located in Aysgarth, Yorkshire, in Northern England, Weatherly was about three hundred miles northwest of London. Although it was the 21st century, the orphanage looked medieval. The main building was an enormous sixteenth-century Elizabethan castle constructed from bluestone. Towering seven stories high, it had four massive turrets, one in each corner. The entire estate was enclosed by a twelve-foot high granite wall, with a massive wrought iron gate at the entrance. About fifteen years ago, the property was purchased by the Grievouses and turned into an orphanage, which the British government helped pay for as long as it was run privately. Although the Grievouses were supposed to provide each child with new clothing, healthy food, heated rooms, and schooling, they kept the money for themselves.
Like many of the other orphans, Tom didn’t know anything about his parents, who they were or what had happened to them. But he hoped to find out someday.
After missing lunch, Tom was let back inside. He cautiously walked over to a workbench and sat down by Patrick, number thirty-four.
Known as the teacher, Patrick, at sixteen, was the oldest and wisest orphan, with nine hard Weatherly years behind him. If anyone needed to know something, he was the best resource.
“Got the book?” whispered Tom, scanning the room for Speckle.
“Yeah . . . you ready for the mission?” asked Patrick assertively, his eyes intense and focused.
Tom gave him a confident nod. “Of course. I’ve been planning for it all week.” “Good. See if you can find anything by Dickens or Hardy — and no more Shakespeare,” he said adamantly, leaning in closer. “Now remember, be extra careful. They’ve moved Wind to the east side of the house.”
“Got it,” replied Tom, ready to carry out his perilous assignment.
Patrick carefully removed The Count of Monte Cristo from behind his jacket and skillfully handed it to Tom under the table. It was a flawless transition, and Tom hastily stuffed the book in his shirt.
Speckle turned, mumbled something under his breath and continued to pace the room, searching for any sign of disobedience.
Tom returned to his work and started building another chair, his heart racing with nervous excitement.
If the orphans ever had a spare moment, they loved to read — it was their only way of escaping into another world. They had a total of eight books in their library, which consisted of a small dusty storage closet in the cellar. They had read each one probably twenty times, including a dictionary, an encyclopedia, and the history of the British Empire. But with so few books, they needed to come up with a strategy to get more, so they invented an exchange system. Each month, one orphan sneaked out at night, ran across the field, outmaneuvered a vicious dog named Wind, and climbed in a small window at the Grievouses’ beautiful Victorian mansion located close by. They borrowed one of the books from a well-stocked shelf in the study and exchanged it for one of their own.
When the clock finally struck 7:00 p.m., the orphans diligently put away their tools and cleaned up their workstations.
They filed out of The Factory two-by-two and down a long dark corridor.
This was one of the brief moments they weren’t monitored or supervised by any Deviants, a codeword the orphans used when describing authority figures.
Sarah ran up behind Tom and gave his shirt a swift tug. “So are you going tonight?” she whispered enthusiastically.
“I’ll head out in a few hours,” he replied nonchalantly, trying to mask his anxiety.
“You scared?” she inquired. “I’d be scared . . . especially of Wind.” “A little bit . . . but it’s got to be done, right?”
“Right,” she acknowledged, then hesitated for a second. “I wish I was going with you.”
“It’s always been a one-person mission — too risky for more.”
“Fine,” she said with a hint of disappointment.
“Although I wish you were coming,” he added earnestly.
Sarah smiled, then reached in her pocket and handed Tom a small golden locket.
“What’s this for?” he wondered, examining the delicate object.
“It’s for good luck. You’ll need it tonight.”
“I can’t take this.”
“Sure you can,” she said graciously. “Just keep it on you at all times.” “But it’s the only valuable thing you have.”
“There’s more to life than just objects, Tom,” she added philosophically. Sarah Wallace, age twelve, had arrived two years earlier from Edinburgh, Scotland. Coming from a wealthy family, she had led a privileged life before her parents died in a suspicious automobile accident. She didn’t have any relatives, except for a greedy uncle who only wanted the money, so she was shipped around to a few places and finally ended up at Weatherly. She had long, sandy-blond hair, hypnotic hazel eyes and an infectious laugh.
Just as they reached the stairwell, Mrs. Grievous appeared from behind a wall and advanced toward Tom. A cold chill suddenly came over him.
“What — do — you — have — there?” she snapped, her dark sinister eyes honing in for the kill.
Tom quickly switched the locket to his other hand and slid it into his pocket. Sarah faded back and watched intently, hoping her prized possession wouldn’t be confiscated.
“Nothing. Nothing at all,” he replied in mock puzzlement. “By the way,” he interjected, quickly changing the subject, “I made two chairs in the workshop —”
“Open your fingers!” she demanded, grabbing his hands and yanking them forward.
They were empty.
“See . . . nothing,” he retorted, playing innocent like a seasoned actor.
“Hmm, well they’re filthy.” She gave his hands a slap and pushed him aside. “I’ve got my eye on you, forty-seven. One misstep and you’ve had it. Now get to bed!” “Yes, Mrs. Grievous,” he muttered coldly, wondering why this awful woman was ever born.
Mrs. Grievous always seemed to appear whenever an orphan did something wrong. She had ghostly pale skin, kept her bright red hair compressed into a bun, and always wore grey flannel suits. Continually on edge, she had an explosive temper and made an unsettling clicking noise with her jaw. It was best to avoid her at all costs.
The children marched up the stairs and hastily retreated to their rooms. Speckle followed closely behind, making sure everyone was locked in and the lights were turned off. Standing by each door, he listened for any talking or movement. The orphans knew this, so they would wait about twenty minutes before they started exchanging stories and discussing the day.
There were fifty-six children at Weatherly, thirty boys and twenty-six girls, ages ranging from six to sixteen. If the number ever dropped below fifty-six, the facilities would be taken over by the government. The orphans hoped this would happen, because they couldn’t imagine anyone else allowing what went on there. As far as they were concerned, anything was better than the Grievouses.
The boys and girls were kept in separate rooms with the bunk beds spaced two feet apart. These cramped quarters had water-stained walls and plaster crumbling from the ceilings. When it rained, the roof leaked and flooded most of the castle. The summers were hot and humid. The winters were chilly and bleak, with the cold creeping in through loose stones and broken windows.
Their garments were tattered and sparse: the girls wore dark brown dresses, with their hair usually pulled back; the boys wore brown trousers, long sleeve shirts and at times, overalls. Their shabby attire felt more like prison uniforms than normal clothing. Most orphans hated these outfits more than the dilapidated rooms or horrible food.
After everyone was asleep, Tom patiently rested on his bottom bunk bed and watched the clock on the wall. The minutes slowly ticked away until it finally read 11:00 p.m., the perfect time to leave, for the Deviants were usually asleep by then.
Tom quietly slid off his wafer-thin mattress, got dressed, and snatched the book from under his pillow. As he tucked it in his shirt, the bedroom door slammed open. It was Speckle shining a flashlight directly in Tom’s face.