In the early morning darkness, Kevin tiptoed along the path. His toes crunched on the gravel, every step sounding like a blast of noise in the stillness, but he couldn’t seem to make them any quieter. His shoes were too heavy. Or maybe he was too heavy, he thought grimly.
A bird chirped, the sound inquisitive, uncertain.
Kevin paused. Go back to sleep, you dumb bird, he thought at it. The bird chirped once more, but then fell silent. Kevin resumed his tip-toed crunch, crunch, crunch, until finally he reached the gate. He stretched out his hand, his fingers actually skimming the cold iron handle, when a voice from behind him spoke.
“Going somewhere?” The tone was sickly-sweet, but he could hear the malice underneath.
Heart pounding, he turned to face his captor. “Just for a walk.”
“Outside the grounds? You know that’s not safe.” Madam held her head tipped to one side, beady eyes regarding him.
“I think I’ll be okay.” He lifted his chin, swallowing hard.
“You think?” She gestured with a wide hand toward the world outside the fence. The sky was beginning to get lighter, the deep blue turning to a gray. “You know nothing of what it’s like out there. Nothing of the dangers.”
“I’ve read books, I’ve watched videos.” Kevin set his chin. He wasn’t going to back down. Not now. “I know the risks.”
“From books?” Madam laughed, light, mocking. “You think words on a page can teach you everything you need to know to survive in a world gone mad?”
Kevin took a step back. Something was wrong with her face. Her expression was always one of gentle kindness, with smooth peachy skin and rounded lips. The venom was always only in her voice, only in the way he heard her voice. But her face was twisting now, creasing into wrinkled disgust. He took another step away from her.
“I’ve kept you safe,” she snapped. “Protected. Fed. This is how you re-pay my hospitality? Sneaking out in the middle of the night?”
Fed. That was the operative word. She kept them fed all right, all of them. Until the day when the biggest, the heaviest, disappeared. Kevin had seen it happen three times so far. First Joffrey. Then Katalina. Next Mercy.
Joffery had been talking about leaving. Wistful words about what might be outside the gates. None of the children remembered life outside, life before they arrived. The house, the grounds, they were all that was, all that ever would be. Except for the books, the shows, the pictures, all of which showed a much bigger world. Schools and shops, trains and planes. Joffrey wanted to see the ocean. So when he disappeared, it wasn’t so much of a surprise.
But Katalina… she wouldn’t have left. She wasn’t that kind of person. She wasn’t adventurous. She was quiet and solitary and she spent a lot of time looking out the highest windows, trying to see past the trees that surrounded them, but she wouldn’t have run away. She liked comfort too much, her snug bed and her books. But then she did. Run away, that was. Or at least so Madam said with a disappointed sigh and a shake of her head.
Now Mercy, she might have left. She had plenty of bad things to say about the house, their captor. She used to imitate Madam, coming in and imposing rules. “Children, children,” she’d squawk, waving her finger. “No noise. You must be quieter. No drawing attention to yourselves.” Was it drawing attention to yourself to disappear?
After Mercy, Kevin had started thinking. Where did they go? Why did they go? Why did they never talk about their plans? Sure, Joffrey had mentioned leaving, but wouldn’t he have packed a bag if he was actually going to go?
Kevin was the biggest now. And he’d seen the way Madam had been eyeing him. It didn’t look right. It didn’t look healthy.
“It’s not the middle of the night,” Kevin finally answered Madam, his hand reaching behind him, fumbling again for the latch on the gate. “It’s morning. I woke up early.”
He had. He’d woken up early with a presentiment. Last night, Madam had been kind to him. She’d offered him an extra dessert, because he was getting so big.
He’d looked at her and he’d seen it in her eyes. It was time.
“You foolish boy.” Madam shook her head. “Go back to bed.”
Maybe he should listen to her. He didn’t know what was outside the gate. Maybe all his suspicions were crazy thoughts, just paranoia. But her eyes were cold and he shook his head.
“No,” he said, hating the way his voice wanted to quaver. Firming it up, he repeated himself. “No. I’m leaving now and you can’t stop me.”
Madam gave a snort of laughter. “They all do it,” she said, shaking her head. “All of them. Why?” On the last word, she lifted her head to the sky, shouting it out as if someone, something, could hear her.
The sky didn’t answer, but the bird that had chirped before or another one just like it, decided that it was morning and began to trill its usual morning scales.
Madam looked at Kevin and shook her head again. “Fine,” she said, lifting her shoulder in a shrug. “I’ll have another in your place before nightfall. Feeding you was getting costly anyway. Maybe the next one will be less stupid.” She waved a hand at the gate. “Go on. See yourself out.”
Kevin’s lips parted in surprise. She was letting him go? But… “Weren’t you going to eat me?” he blurted out.
The wrinkled contortion was gone, her face returned to its usual smooth, sterile expression. She raised a mocking eyebrow. “What stories you children tell. What imaginations.” She shook her head, waving at the gate again. “Off you go, boy. Make your way in the world. Best of luck to you and good-bye.”