I slowly made my way across and sat on the bed. I could still see Shuell as clear as day, crouched as he was. His whole body shook, as if he were contemplating running away.
“Hi.” Everything started with a greeting. “I’m Arwen. You’re Shu, right?”
He didn’t say a word, but his shoulders twitched. It meant that he was listening.
I sighed quietly. “You’ve had it hard. I brought you food, so go ahead and have some. The bathroom is over there, but if you don’t think you can wash, you can call me. Oh, and don’t worry, the food isn’t poisoned.”
Maybe I shouldn’t have said that last part. He was trembling harder than before. Normally, my tone leaned toward harsh and aloof. I’d never really spoken kindly to others before, so my forced niceness sounded off even to me. From the looks of it, Shuell felt the same way.
I scratched my head and stared at him all balled up. Truthfully, I’d never really liked children. I only brought Shuell home because I couldn’t leave him to be abused. It was a shallow pity. Seeing him like this saddened me, but it was also very inconvenient.
How was I supposed to comfort him? There was no point in being nice to him since he was only staying here temporarily, but I couldn’t ignore him. He was shaking so much. He had to have been raised in luxury in his own house. What if he busted his head open, trying to wash by himself?
I was worried about him, but Shuell looked like he would have a seizure if I so much as touched him. In the end, I lay down on the corner of the bed. Maybe if I pretended to sleep, he’d start moving again.
Sure enough, after a while, I heard rustling, which then turned to footsteps approaching the table where I had set the food. I was fairly hungry, as that was supposed to have been my dinner, but I held back like a proper adult. I tried to twist around to stop my stomach from grumbling, but . . .
“Oh, yeah.” I suddenly remembered something and spoke without realizing it.
I looked up in surprise to see Shuell curled up again like a pill bug. He must have hit his head squarely against the wall in his hurry to get back to his corner. I couldn’t help but frown at the sight.
It must have hurt since a whimper escaped his lips. I felt a pang of guilt on seeing his shaking shoulders, but I had something to say. Two things, to be specific. After wondering which of the two to mention first, I opted to go with the more important one.
“I’ll take you home,” I stated firmly.
This house would be no different from the orphanage for Shuell, and I had no intention of keeping him here for the long term. All choices came with responsibilities, and I planned on taking him home to his parents before they passed. My words seemed to ease Shuell’s trembling a bit. I lay back down on the bed, trying my best not to look at him.
“So just stay in this room for now. It’s dangerous outside.”
Shuell didn’t answer, but I knew he had heard me. I listened to the clinking of cutlery against the plate, and soon enough, I drifted to sleep.
The only sound coming from the girl was her steady breathing as she slept, and Shuell took this chance to wobble back up to his feet. His head hurt from hitting the wall, but that wasn’t the reason his eyes watered.
He was scared.
Where was this place? How much time had passed? He had no idea. It felt like a hundred nights had gone by. For the first time in his seven years, Shuell was experiencing the “scary world outside” that his parents had warned him about.
All he had wanted was to buy another cotton candy, which he had just tasted for the very first time. So, he had snuck out of his house, and someone had offered to buy him some. However, as soon as Shuell held the man’s hand, he fell asleep.
When Shuell awoke, he found himself in a dirty little storage room, unlike anything he had ever seen. And he’d been to every corner of his house. The room was filled with white smoke that made him cough. When he asked where he was, there was no response.
He cried in fear and was slapped for it. Shuell had never been slapped before. All his punishments thus far had consisted of keeping his arms raised in the air or getting flicked on the head. Never had he been hit like this. Shocked and breathless, he looked up at his aggressor, who only clicked his tongue in annoyance.
“Stop crying. Don’t make a sound.”
Shuell tried his best to swallow his tears. Why had he left the house? Dad had said that it was dangerous outside. He should have listened. But he said he’d come find me.
His parents had taught him what to do if he were ever taken away by strangers.
“Do not anger them. Leave evidence that you were there.”
“We’ll come find you right away, so be brave and wait for us.”
Shuell stuck by those words and waited, but his parents hadn’t come. Ultimately, he had been hoisted into a carriage and taken elsewhere. When the carriage stopped, he found himself facing a small building filled with children like Shuell.
He had thought himself safe then but soon realized that this place was no different from the storage room. The man who called himself the director forced Shuell to do chores. From laundry to cleaning, they were all things Shuell had never done before.
He had tried his best but ended up making mistakes anyway, and mistakes earned him a beating or being locked in the isolation room. “Room” was a rather generous word—it was no bigger than a closet.
Shuell was often stuck in the isolation room because he couldn’t stop crying. In that small space, where not a trace of light peeked through, Shuell didn’t cry, but he couldn’t breathe. And he couldn’t forget that feeling.
The girl fast asleep in front of him wasn’t as big as the man who had hit him, but she slept the same way, sprawled across the bed. The man had slept like this after hitting Shuell.
“Dad . . .”
He should have listened and never left the house. Shuell regretted that day for the umpteenth time. Tears came to his eyes at the thought of never seeing his parents again, and he lay on the cold floor, sobbing quietly. He cried and cried until he heard a gurgling sound.
Startled, he looked around for any signs of threat, but nothing was there. The gurgling sound came back, and this time, his stomach twisted along.
He was hungry. Shuell sniffled and stood up.
When the girl had offered him food, he’d almost lunged at it. He hadn’t had food in so long that his stomach hurt from hunger. Afraid to make any kind of noise, Shuell tiptoed over to the table. His eyes widened when he spotted the bread and soup.
Forgetting his earlier caution about making noise, Shuell dove straight in. The food wasn’t plentiful in the slightest, but it was enough to satiate his hunger for now. After eating, Shuell felt a bit better. He stared at the plate he had emptied, wishing he could have more, then at the girl.
She gave me food.
Normal food, at that. None of the other people he had met had fed him properly. They would starve him until he thought he’d pass out from hunger, and only then would they throw hard, stale bread and moldy, soured soup at him to eat. Still, the food the girl had given him was good. It wasn’t much, but it was so delicious he thought he’d cry. Besides, she had spoken to him.
She’d said she’d take him home.
She probably had no idea where his home was, but she’d sounded so certain that he couldn’t help but trust her. Thinking of it now, he realized he had only ever thought about calling for help. He had never voiced that need aloud.
How did she know? How did she think to bring me here?
This made Shuell trust her even more. He had been terrified earlier. He couldn’t move, and all he’d done was quiver in fear. Still, this girl was sleeping soundly in a room he was afraid of. Shuell found this fascinating, even a little admirable. Then it hit him. She had spoken to him, but he hadn’t said a word back.
He hadn’t really been able to understand what she was talking about, so he hadn’t known what to say. However, the girl seemed to accept this and didn’t force him to speak. It was bad manners not to greet someone. He couldn’t do that to his savior.
He’d greet her in the morning, the moment she woke up. Shuell made up his ambitious mind and curled back up in the corner before falling asleep.
The morning sunlight drifted through the window. I rubbed my eyes, turning around to avoid the glare.
Ugh. Morning always came too soon.
I always woke up at seven in the morning on the dot. I had to if I was to get through everything I wanted to do in a day. I stretched my limbs and slowly opened my eyes when . . .
A pair of sparkling pink eyes greeted me.
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