The Boy With the Golden Eyes
by London Lampy
"This one is empty." The young nun pointed to a metal framed bed second to last in a row of ten identical other ones, all of them facing another row across a narrow strip of worn lino. It was made up with an over washed grey sheet, a scratchy looking blanket and a pathetically flat pillow.
"You will keep your clothes and other personal items in there." She pointed to a metal locker at the end of the bed.
Jack glanced at her then knelt and began to place his new garments into the box, along with some basic wash things and a threadbare towel that he had been allotted, he could feel his shirt tightening across his back and sincerely hoped that it wouldn't rip.
To his relief Mother Hardigan had taken the girls to find their dormitory and left the job of doing the same with him to Sister Mackintosh. Jack guessed that she couldn't be older than twenty and she was trying for an air of strict authority like Mother Hardigan, but the fact that she seemed a little nervous of him rather ruined it. Although not a single wisp of hair could be seen under her close fitting wimple he would bet any money that it would be bright red in colour if her riot of freckles and pale eyebrows and lashes were anything to go by.
It was cold in the room and before he shut the lid he selected the single sweater he had been given and pulled it on, it fitted as badly as the rest of his clothes but it was better than nothing.
"On cold nights you will get a couple of hours of heat." Sister Mackintosh said, pointing at a large corrugated metal object bolted to the wall with pipes leading into it that Jack guessed was some type of heater. "The lights go out at eight pm sharp." Jack followed her in looking up at three bare electric bulbs that hung across the middle or the room. "And back on at five thirty am. You will have thirty minutes to get dressed, perform your ablutions and have breakfast then it's time for morning prayers. After that you will have lessons until noon, then lunch followed by chores until five thirty pm when you will eat dinner. After that the time is yours, I suggest you use it to wash yourself, we do not tolerate uncleanliness here. You may also spend time in the chapel if you wish for a little private prayer and reflection, or go out into the yard. Father Frederick sometimes organises football matches for the boys, you look like you would be good at that having such nice long legs." She suddenly turned bright red and put her hand over her mouth, while Jack tried very hard not to smile.
"Please don't tell Mother Hardigan I said that will you?" She was still blushing furiously.
"No, I won't." Jack couldn't imagine any circumstances under which he'd do such a thing.
"Is she always such a bitch?" He asked conversationally.
The young nun stared at him, her face shocked, then he felt a stinging pain in his forearm as she slapped him with a ruler. "You will not speak about any sister in that way, or use such foul language. By rights I should report you to Father Frederick for saying that, he would most likely wash your mouth out with soap, but as this is your first day here I'll let you off with a warning."
Jack stood in the small toilet cubical breathing in through his nose and out through his mouth like Nanny had taught him, but it wasn't working. The rage was still there, he could feel it burning like acid in his chest and stomach. After they had left the dormitory and on the way to the kitchens, where despite it being just after four o'clock Jack was to be assigned his first chores, he had excused himself because he knew that he needed to deal with his anger.
He stared at the white washed brick wall where the pipe ran from the back of the toilet to the cistern overhead. He took a deep breath and gritted his teeth, this was going to hurt like hell but he knew from previous experience that it worked too, if only as a last resort. He balled his left hand into a fist and slammed it into the brickwork hard, the impact causing him to grunt. He then lent back against the door, the pain turning to nausea inside of him and he risked flexing his fingers. They still moved, since he had broken two of them doing precisely this a year or so ago he had learned to be a bit more careful. His knuckles were grazed, one had a thin trickle of blood running down it and he could see a corresponding smear of blood on the wall. He put his hand up to his mouth and licked it off, the ferrous taste wasn't pleasant but the act of doing it made him feel calmer and soon he felt able to rejoin Sister Mackintosh without fear of his temper erupting.
The kitchens were vast and steamy, filled with the smells of overcooked meat and boiling vegetables and all around Jack boys dressed identically to him were going busily about a whole host of chores.
"Ward!" Sister Mackintosh called across the floor to a boy who was stirring an enormous pot filled with grey cabbage, the boy looked up and trotted obediently over to her.
"Good afternoon Sister Mackintosh." He greeted her.
Jack regarded the boy, he was shorter than him, but then most people were, with a spare bony frame and a large head with prominent ears. His face, and indeed ears, were pink from the heat of the room and he had short, badly cut light brown hair and watery blue eyes.
"This is Jack, he's new. I need you to show him where everything is and what you do, Mother Hardigan wants to start him off in here."
"Yes Sister." He replied meekly.
Ward showed Jack around the kitchen, and he was surprised to discover that apart from one elderly nun named Sister Oakley who was sat on a stool overseeing things with a hawk like gaze it was entirely staffed by the children themselves.
"We only cook one meal a day." Ward explained. "Breakfast and lunch are cold, we just set them out." He led Jack over to the range. "We need to get ready for the first sitting now, the juniors come over at four thirty."
Between them they awkwardly carried a large pot of unpleasant smelling meat stew to the counter, followed by the cabbage and a pan of floury boiled potatoes, with Jack's hand throbbing all the way. Once they had set up a single line of young children started to troop into the dining room. Jack was put in charge of spooning out potatoes, only one each Ward told him, as the youngsters filed past holding out tin plates.
He spotted the twins first, they both looked red eyed as if they had been crying.
"Jack." Cale looked miserably up at him. "One of the nuns hit Cole so I hit her then she hit me, I hate it here." Cole nodded in rare agreement with his brother.
"Yeah, something like that happened to me too." Jack said as he put the largest potatoes he could find onto each of the twin's plates.
Both boys looked at him incredulously. "They hit you, but you could pulp them!" Cale breathed.
"What is the causing the hold up?" Sister Oakley barked from her stool.
"Go on, before any of us get into more trouble." Jack said.
"Don't upset Sister Oakley." Ward hissed at him as the nun glared in their direction.
A couple of minutes later Gary shuffled past, he gave Jack a tiny smile when he saw him, but he didn't speak.
Once all the juniors had finished eating and left they cleared the room and restocked everything in preparation for the next sitting.
"When do we get to eat?" Jack asked Ward as they hefted another pot of stew onto the counter.
The food was unappetising in every way but it was also several hours since he had last eaten and that had been a single sandwich and an apple that Mrs Harper had provided for their lunch on the train. Jack had a large appetite and liked to eat regularly, Nanny had always said that he ate enough for three boys, but she had never been stingy with the food or minded how much he ate so long as the others had their fair share too.
"When all the seniors have been served, and not before." The large eared boy replied.
"How long have you worked in the kitchens?" Jack quizzed Ward as they waited for the seniors to start arriving. He was getting hungrier by the minute and was tempted to start eating the grey cabbage. Up to now even properly cooked cabbage had never been something he liked much but he was hungry enough to eat the whole pot right then.
"Two years. I want to be a chef when I leave here but we don't get a choice, we just go where the sisters send us, I'll probably end up working in a factory or something."
Jack had no idea what he wanted to do with his life, but he sure as hell wasn't going to let the nuns decide that for him. The seniors soon replaced the juniors in the dining room and Jack was told this time that he was to give out two potatoes apiece.
He looked eagerly for Dana and Jane among the unfamiliar faces and eventually spotted them further up the line, the pair if them looked grim and when they finally reached him he could see that Jane too had been crying.
"I hate this place." Dana hissed at him, echoing the twins sentiments.
"Did the nuns hit you as well?" He quietly asked them.
"No." Dana shook her head as he served her.
"Some girls called me a fat pig." Jane sniffled.
"Stupid bitches." Dana muttered, looking over her shoulder and glaring at an attractive blond girl a little way from them.
"Don't let the line stop again." Ward said in an anguished tone, looking first at Jack then over at Sister Oakley
"See you later." Jack called after the pair of them as they moved on with their plates of food, Dana's hand resting comfortingly on Jane's shoulder.
The line seemed never ending and Jack was getting increasingly hungry, he was aware of his stomach rumbling but doubted that anyone else could hear it over the noise of the room.
"Only two each." Ward jabbed him in the ribs with his elbow and nodded to the plate Jack had just filled.
"It was two, one broke in half as I put it on." He frowned at the boy in frustration then down into the pot as he scooped two more potatoes onto his serving spoon in preparation for the next plate. When he looked up again he stopped dead, he was staring straight into a pair of eyes like none he had ever seen before. Where others had whites and coloured irises these were pure gold, and the pupils were black slits, startling against their golden background. He took in the rest of the face that when with them, it was that of a boy around his own age but nothing like any of the others here. His hair was an unusual shade of black that had a touch of blue in it where the light hit it and it looked like it would be soft to the touch, and the golden eyes were framed by lashes and brows of a similar colour. He had a small straight nose and a pretty mouth that was open enough to reveal two rows of very white teeth with canines that seemed slightly longer than was normal, and his skin was a light brown, almost burnished gold shade that Jack had never seen on a person before.
"If this line stops one more time there'll be no dinner for the servers." Sister Oakley snapped from across the room. Jack hurriedly plopped the regulation two potatoes onto the boy's plate, his heart suddenly hammering in his chest.
"That's Exit." Ward said to Jack as things started to move again. "He's an echoback, I know he's kind of funny looking, but you'll get used to him."
But Jack didn't think he was funny looking at all, he thought that the boy with the golden eyes was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
When they had finally finished serving Jack took a seat next to Ward at one of the trestle tables that filled the dining room. He had discovered that the one perk of eating last was that you got to finish up whatever was left over, and he had far more than two potatoes on his plate, along with a large helping of stew, and even a pile of the grey cabbage. The food wasn't exactly piping hot by now but his stomach was far too empty to care.
"So." He said as casually as he could . "How come an echoback is living in an orphanage in Parnell?"
Miss Osram the village school teacher had taught them a little about the so called "monkey people" that hailed from deep within the Reah basin forest on the Northern Continent. He remembered her showing them an illustration in one of her large black and gold bound encyclopedias of a group of ape like men and women with long hairy tails dressed in animal skins, waving spears and bearing their teeth angrily. The boy he had just seen looked nothing like that picture.
"Some priest brought him back as a souvenir when he was a baby, he's been here ever since."
Jack nodded, trying to ignore the rather suspect texture of some of the meat in his stew. He swallowed with difficulty then spoke again.
"What's he like? I was taught at school that echobacks are savages."
Ward shrugged. "He's kind of quiet, doesn't like it if you call him a monkey, but everyone does. Definitely not a savage."
Jack discreetly spat a lump of gristle onto his fork and deposited onto the side of his plate. "Does he have a hairy tail?" He asked.
"He has a tail, the sisters make him keep it tied to his leg I've seen it plenty though, he sleeps in my dorm. It's really weird, goes almost all the way to the floor, but it's not hairy or anything, it's the same colour as the rest of him. I think he can pick things up with it too."
The worst of his hunger sated Jack gave up on the cabbage which tasted like it smelled but continued to eat the meat and potatoes. The potatoes were powdery and flavourless, and the lumps of meat were at best chewy and at worst mostly gristle, but it was far better than going hungry.
"There was a rumour going round a couple of months ago that Exit was caught kissing Kyle in the book cupboard, but I don't think that can be true, why would a boy want to kiss another boy? I want to kiss Elodie, did you see her at dinner? She's the one with the long blond hair, she's lovely."
While Ward went into raptures over the charms of Elodie Jack's mind went somewhere else entirely, so much so that when Sister Mackintosh came in to find him she had to call out his name several times to get his attention. He finally registered she was standing beside him and turned round.
"Do you have a problem with your hearing?" She asked, frowning down at him.
"No, sorry." He shook his head, trying to pull himself back to reality and away from thoughts of a certain golden eyed boy.
"Father Frederick wants to meet you along with your two sisters in his study, I've been sent to take you there."
"I'll clear your plate." Ward offered.
"You're a good boy Ward." Sister Mackintosh said, putting Jack in mind of someone praising their dog. "Come along Jack, follow me." She ordered, and he had to very strongly resist the temptation to bark as she led him out of the room.
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