Wayne Holtan hadn’t wanted to spend the summer holidays picking up trash alongside dirty roads and highways. But as an involuntary member of Emergan Orphanage he didn’t have much control over his life.
He scooped old newspaper into his garbage bag. Squinting in the glare of the afternoon sun, he wiped his face with his faded shirt.
Wayne turned. Daniel Eliot, Wayne’s fellow orphan and only real friend, had an apple core and a grin.
“Not that desperate, Dan.”
A car thundered past, throwing up dust over the two-dozen orphans next to the road. When they’d stopped coughing and spluttering, the Orphanage Director stepped from the canary-yellow bus. Mr Valdemar Fannon was a thin man with a permanent scowl, as if sour milk had been thrust under his long nose. Despite the heat, he wore a narrow tie and a sharply-cut suit that mirrored his high cheekbones. He ordered them back to work in his dry, monotone voice.
Mr Fannon retreated into the bus, muttering something about laziness.
Wayne ruffled his hair. Dirt rained to the ground. He sighed. He was a tall but reedy boy of twelve, with ribs that strained against a thin coating of skin. His odd-coloured eyes – one brown, one blue – and his ruffled hair drew attention at the best of times, but with dirt and sweat coating his body, he looked like a dishevelled alley cat.
Daniel picked up the dropped apple core. “Amazing, isn’t it?”
“The apple. That something that small can grow so big … isn’t that amazing?”
“Couldn’t grow here.”
“Well, no. Not in the middle of summer and on the side of a highway, but if you gave it some water, y’know, and a nice place to grow.”
“Do you want to adopt it, then?”
Daniel snorted. “Fat chance.”
He threw it in his bag and looked for more trash.
Wayne brushed the remains of a broken bottle into his bag and was about to stand when a balled-up rag bounced off his face with a wet squelch. He turned.
Manual Phillips stifled a laugh. “Sorry, didn’t see you there. You blend in with the trash.”
Behind Manual, Rafael and Alonzo Castillo guffawed, hulking bodies shaking. Wayne glared at Manual and shuffled towards the bus.
There were a lot of downsides to life in the Orphanage. If Wayne wrote a list, he’d put hunger, getting bullied at school and being volunteered for two months of clean-up duty near the top.
Right after Manual Phillips.
Manual wasn’t big or strong. He had the Castillo twins for that. But he was cunning, ruthless, and altogether charming when the staff were nearby.
Metal glinted on the ground. Wayne bent and tugged a portable radio out of the dirt. It was broken, of course; the metal antenna snapped, the plastic casing scratched and the battery compartment empty. But if he could repair it and sell it at the markets …
Something cold and hard bounced off his arm. Sharp pain flared up his arm. Wayne whipped around. He pushed a laughing Manual, who stumbled back and cracked his head against a tree branch. A few kids nearby stifled laughs.
“Why the hell did you throw glass at me?” Wayne said.
Manual rearranged his sneer into a worried frown and looked behind Wayne.
“Holtan,” a quiet voice said from behind him.
Wayne turned. Mr Fannon’s thin face craned out of the bus’ window like a praying mantis peering over a twig. Wayne’s heart sunk.
“If see you lay one more finger on Manual,” said Mr Fannon in an even, monotone voice, “you’ll be scrubbing dishes for a week.”
“I’ll do it when you’re not looking, then,” muttered Wayne.
Mr Fannon’s eyes narrowed. “Are you talking back to me?”
Mr Fannon nodded, satisfied, and retreated into the air-conditioned confines of the bus.
Rafael shoved Wayne. He tumbled over a crouching Daniel and collapsed into the dirt, dust rising up around him. He groaned and shaded his eyes from the blazing afternoon sun.
Manual loomed over Wayne. “I’ll see you when we get back at the Orphanage, Holtan. You shouldn’t have pushed me.”
He rubbed his head and sauntered towards the group of kids who’d laughed. Rafael and Alonzo followed, cracking their knuckles.
Wayne pushed himself up. His hands sizzled against the blistering ground. Daniel stood a few metres away, looking very interested in a plastic shopping bag.
Wayne glared at Daniel. “Thanks for backing me up.”
Daniel didn’t look at Wayne. “I don’t want to get on Manual’s bad side! Remember what he did to that kid – Cody – who tripped and spilt his breakfast porridge on him? He got second-degree burns and when he got out of hospital Mr Fannon got mad because he brought negative press onto the Orphanage.”
Wayne swallowed. He remembered, all right.
“All I did was push him.” Wayne’s mouth was dry. “He’d not going to do – he won’t be mad at me for that.”
Daniel stood. “Yeah … probably best if we don’t hang out for a while. Nice knowing you.”
He strolled across the road. Wayne stared, his mouth slack. A car barrelled along the road and Wayne choked on the dust and heat and glared at the car as it disappeared around a bend. He dragged a hand across his sweaty brow. He kicked a takeaway container.
The bus’ horn blared. Wayne slouched towards the bus, staring at his tattered shoes. He slumped into a mouldy seat and glared at Daniel, who sat three seats in front of him.
Rafael rammed Wayne’s head into the window as he ambled past. Manual smirked behind him. Wayne’s nostrils flared. He clenched his armrest, knuckles white. He stuck out his leg and Manual tumbled onto the floor.
Manual picked himself up. His face was flushed red. Wayne’s heart plummeted.
Whoops, he thought.
“So dead, Holtan,” Manual hissed.
He stalked up the aisle. The bus rumbled onto the road, heading back to the Orphanage. Wayne cradled his head in his arms. I’m screwed.
When Emergan’s well-to-do thought of the Orphanage, their thoughts would amble down a nice smooth road into downtown Emergan, underneath the overhead highways and train lines. Their thoughts would stroll past the garbage dump and tip their hat to the smiling, well-fed orphans playing in the sun on a luscious lawn outside a cheerful brown-bricked house once belonging to Rodger Richie, the mining magnate, while pearly-white pigeons basked in a marble bird bath. Feeling rather chuffed, their thoughts would continue on.
When Wayne’s bus took the off-ramp into downtown, the roads were littered with potholes. Graffiti was scrawled on the rickety apartment block before Emergan’s dumping yard – Wayne was used to the smell – and when the bus parked on the grey wasteland of a lawn, next to a cracked, weed-infested bird bath, they were plunged into darkness by the monolithic concrete slab of the overhead highway.
The orphans were ushered off the bus by Mr Fannon (“Use the back entrance. I don’t want dirt on the front steps,” he said) and into the wood-panelled gloom of the orphanage. There was the usual scramble for showers. Manual got the biggest, airiest one by the frosted window, after making sure Wayne would have to wait along with a half-dozen other orphans.
Ten minutes after everyone else had started, Wayne walked to the dining hall and scraped the nicest-looking gruel he could find in the serving pans onto his plate. He slumped onto a table. As if he had the plague, the orphans around him stood and found somewhere else to sit.
Wayne stared at his bowl, glum. Everyone, it seemed, knew he had been marked by Manual.
When Wayne returned to his room, stomach unsatisfied by a dismal dinner, he wasn’t surprised to find his sheets stolen and his pillow gone. He thought, briefly, of apologising to Manual, but knew that would just make him look weak. Then he’d be a target for everyone.
Wayne’s stomach rumbled. He slid a hand under his mattress, pulled out two pieces of metal and slipped them into his pocket.
In their free time, most of the orphans headed up into the city or hung around the half-sized basketball court behind the Orphanage. Wayne crept down the stairs and peeked around the corner. The windowless corridor that led towards the kitchens was deserted, although voices and the clink and scrape of dishes being washed echoed from around the next corner. He licked his lips. He looked around again and slinked to a door with a sturdy padlock.
He took the two pieces of metal from his pocket and slid the first one into the lock. He’d made his lock picking tools from an old clothes hanger, and even with tape wrapped around one end they were still hard to grip. He slipped the other piece in as far as it would go and scrubbed it back and forth.
While he worked at the lock, he let his mind wander. He tried thinking of something that was solve his problem with Manual. If he planned it right, he might be able to take him, one on one, but Manual never went anywhere without the Castillo twins. Even if he caught Manual without his hulking enforcers, the staff would punish Wayne for hurting the Orphanage’s golden boy: the only one who’d ever got a scholarship to Emergan’s premier high school, Hartmont College. At least when Wayne started year seven at Buckside High, the lowly local school, he wouldn’t have to deal with Manual during the week.
The voices from the kitchen faded. The splash of water stopped. Wayne froze. Had they heard him?
Wayne felt the pins catch. He twisted the lock to one side and the padlock sprung open. Wayne slid through the door and closed it behind him, letting a gust of hot air escape his lips. He grinned. He’d done it. He’d broken into the pantry.
It would have made more sense, Wayne reflected, to have the Orphanage’s food storage in the kitchen itself. When the building had been refitted to house Emergan’s unwanted, they must’ve found it easier to put the food in this cavernous, windowless storage room here, and save themselves the cost of knocking down any more walls.
Wayne wasn’t complaining. Their decision meant he got food.
He plucked a packet of crackers and three tins of tuna from the shelves. He didn’t feel guilty. The staff accepted this food from charities with gracious smiles, then gave a fraction to the orphans. They ate the rest themselves. Or fed it to their pets. Wayne had even seen Mrs Lagounov, the assistant director, sell cans of spam at the Sunday markets – cans that had entered the Orphanage three days before.
Wayne spun, dry mouthed, staring through a shelf at the half-opened door. A gnarled hand appeared on the frame and swung the door open. Mr Fannon stepped into the room. Wayne gulped. The only thing blocking him from view was the towering shelf between him and the door.
Mr Fannon switched on the light. “Come out, whoever’s hiding in here. Make this easy for yourself.”
He walked forward, gleaming shoes clicking on the floorboards below. Sweat ran down Wayne’s back. This was it. He was done for. Mr Fannon would be around one end of the shelf in a moment and then he’d find Wayne, crouching in fear.
Mr Fannon reached the end of the shelf. Wayne crept to the other end, and just as Mr Fannon rounded the corner, Wayne did the same.
Wayne pictured Fannon’s eyes narrowing. There was a faint puff, as air escaped his nostrils.
Wayne snuck to the door, still bent double, and eased it open.
The hinges creaked.
Wayne wrenched the door open. He bolted down the corridor, through the laundry room and burst into the alleyway outside. He didn’t stop until he was around the corner and sitting behind a dumpster, heart racing. He forced himself to calm. Mr Fannon couldn’t have followed him, couldn’t have any idea where –
Mr Fannon rounded the corner. “Holtan!”
Wayne’s heart sank.
“Did someone run past?” Mr Fannon puffed. “With food?”
“Did you see anyone? This is important, Holtan.”
“Oh, yeah, I did, sir.” Wayne pushed the fish and the crackers further under the dumpster. “He went that way – down the laneway. Towards the train station, I think, sir.”
Mr Fannon’s thin face swelled like a balloon. “Very well – thank you.”
He headed back into the Orphanage.
Wayne waited, to make sure he was gone. He burst out into silent laughter, ribs aching as he tried to keep quiet. He couldn’t believe his luck. That had to be his greatest ever escape; Daniel would never believe him.
Wayne’s smile faded. He wouldn’t be able to tell Daniel, because Daniel didn’t want to be near him, let alone chat with him. All because of stupid Manual.
He munched on his crackers and stared at the grey wall, the ground cold and hard beneath his shorts. The sun above was setting, plunging the alley into dusky darkness. Cars rumbled over the overpass above. Wayne shivered and wrapped his arms around himself.
A scrawny, soot-stained pigeon with murky red eyes fluttered into the alley. It stared at Wayne and hooted.
“Sorry,” Wayne said. “But I don’t want to starve.”
The pigeon glared at him. It fluttered away. Wayne went back to staring at the ash-grey wall.
Now, more than ever, he longed for a way out of the Orphanage, for a long-lost uncle or aunty or brother or sister or anyone to come and take him away. He knew he was being wishful. No one had ever visited Wayne, or took any interest in him on adoption days – the only real chance for Orphans to escape. He was doomed to dwell in the gloomy Orphanage until he turned sixteen and aged out. Then … then what?
He finished the crackers off and put the tins of tuna in his pocket.
I’ll have to hide them, he thought glumly.
He stood, brushed off the crumbs, and trudged back into the Orphanage.
It was back to the same highway the next morning. The long, hard slog was made far worse than normal by Daniel’s refusal to talk to Wayne, and Manual’s constant harassment. Wayne’s garbage bag was torn twice (“Sorry, didn’t see you there,” Manual said, grinning), a mouldy hat made from discarded toilet paper was crammed onto his head (“It suits you – why take it off?” Manual asked, bewildered) and he was used for target practice by Manual and no less than eight of his accomplices (“I had no idea it was a rock – looked like papier-mache to me,” Manual said, mouth twitching).
Manual and his friends laughed. Wayne rubbed the side of his head, his face tomato-red. His hands, curled into fists, shook. His face was the colour of a squashed tomato, and his heartbeat hammered inside his skull.
The bus’ horn blared. Wayne slumped towards the bus, knuckles white, grimacing as his nails bit into the hardened flesh of his palms.
A meaty hand thrust into Wayne’s back. Wayne slammed into the side of the bus with a huge CLANG and fresh guffaws erupted from the crowd around Manual.
Mr Fannon emerged from the bus. He stalked towards Wayne, slumped in the dirt and rubbing his stinging shoulder, and stared at the deep indent in the side of his bus. Mr Fannon looked at Manual. “What happened?”
Manual wore a look of earnest concern. “Wayne tripped and fell into the side of the bus, sir.”
Mr Fannon spun and glowered at Wayne. “So you damaged this vehicle out of an act of common clumsiness, did you?”
Wayne scrambled upright. “Sir, I didn’t fall, I was pushed –”
“Don’t bother me with lies. You’ll pay for this damage. Let me think … no dinner for the next week. Yes. That should do it.”
Wayne’s mouth dropped. “But sir –”
“Hold your tongue,” Mr Fannon said, fixing Wayne with a dangerous glare.
Wayne fell silent. Mr Fannon climbed into the bus. The rest of the Orphans, who’d stood still while they watched, trooped in, Wayne amongst them. He dropped into his seat and slumped against the window. The bus rumbled down the road.
Wayne’s mouth was bitter. No dinner for seven days? Sure, he wasn’t missing out on much, but still … surely Mr Fannon’s punishment of Wayne broke some kind of law … if only Wayne could get the police to arrest Mr Fannon … but it would just be Wayne’s word against a much older and much richer man …
They were almost at the Orphanage when Wayne realised what had happened had been very odd. He was a thin, twelve-year-old boy. How could he have put a dent in the thick metal of the bus? Two years ago, he had been in the vehicle when an office worker, busy stuffing toast in his mouth, had reversed into the side of the bus. The dent from that would’ve only been a little deeper than Wayne’s, but the worker’s car must’ve been twenty times heavier …
The bus arrived at the Orphanage. After showering, the others swarmed into the dining hall, chattering and laughing. Still mulling over how he’d dented the bus, Wayne went into the alley behind the building, counted ten bricks along and six bricks up, and pulled the loose brick from the wall. He extracted a tin of fish from the cavity inside and slid the brick back into the wall.
It came down, Wayne realised as he ate the tuna, to two options. Either the bus was weaker than it had been two years ago, or somehow he’d weighed as much – or maybe more – than the car … no, that was ridiculous … the bus must’ve been weaker than before … after all, it was used almost every day and sat in the elements day and night … yes, that must’ve been it …
Satisfied, Wayne chucked the empty tin in a trashcan and went inside. He clambered up the stairs, blue light spilling onto the dark wooden steps through murky windows.
An indistinct figure lent against the wall on the landing, silhouetted against the open doorway of Wayne’s dorm. Too late, Wayne realised who it was. Manual.
“Holtan! How’s it going, buddy?”
Wayne reached the landing and looking around, wary. A few orphans were lying on their beds inside the dorm; no one else was in the corridor.
“Where’s your body guards, tough guy?”
Manual’s smiled. The light from the dorm cast streaks of shadow over his face. Some orphans inside the dorm sat up. They peered at Wayne and Manual.
“No need for rudeness – hey, what’s that on your face? Is that – fish!” Manual’s grin broadened as Wayne wiped a fleck of tuna from his lips. “Naughty boy. Stealing from the pantry – Fannon’s gonna be mad when I tell him.”
Wayne’s hands curled into fists. He took a deep breath and stepped past Manual into the doorway of the dorm. Everyone inside watched him.
“When you get kicked out of the orphanage,” Manual said, “Will you live down an alleyway or under a bridge? I suppose it doesn’t matter. No one’s ever wanted you, and no one will ever care.”
Wayne slammed Manual against the wall. He swung his fist to pound that stupid, smirking face from existence. Manual ducked. Wayne’s hand smashed through the plaster wall and slammed into a timber beam with a sharp crack. He howled and dragged his bloody, broken hand from the hole.
Manual laughed, stepping back up the corridor. Blood trickled down Wayne’s aching knuckles, white-hot pain lancing through his hand. Orphans piled into the narrow corridor like termites emerging from woodwork, eager to see the fight. Wayne was trapped with Manual. A mass of bodies jeered behind and ahead.
Wayne charged towards Manual, yelling and screaming, pent-up rage exploding like water crashing through a dam. Manual stepped to one side and stuck out a leg. Wayne tripped. He sprawled onto the floor at the feet of the crowd. A shoe swung out. Wayne’s head exploded with agony and the crowd cheered. Wayne scrambled backwards, fuzzy with pain, his raised forearm barely blocking vicious kicks from the many-legged creature that was the crowd.
An arm slipped around his throat. Manual hauled him up, Wayne’s bruised fingers scrabbling at his arm. Manual slammed him into the wall. Wayne’s hands fell away.
“Apologise,” Manual hissed into Wayne’s ear, “For hitting me.”
Wayne’s head pounded. His face turned purple and bile crawled up his throat.
“No,” he croaked, spit dribbling down his chin.
Manual released Wayne. Wayne crumpled to the floor and groaned as Manual loomed over him, foot raised. Manual stomped Wayne’s chest. There was a sharp crack and Manual pulled his foot away, frowning.
Wayne pulled himself into a sitting position. His chest ached. Manual didn’t even stop him; he backed away, confusion etched on his face. Wayne looked down. His eyes widened. Cracks spread through the floor, spread from right underneath Wayne’s body. The floor caved in, and Wayne and Manual and all the other orphans dropped, screaming, into the abyss.
Thanks for taking the time to read the (working) first chapter of the Aeon Academy! Obviously it’s not the final copy, but any feedback, thoughts or queries on it would be much appreciated. Feel free to use the contact form below.