I don’t remember when I first knew I had a secret life. It was a secret from me, a memory before any others.
When I was three I caught some sort of bug. The flu, or maybe just a bad cold. The doctor was sent for and he prescribed rest and lots of liquids. After calming the mothers and assuring them I would be fine, he turned back to me.
“Now then, do you have any other problems I might help with?”
He seemed sincere, so I trusted he was serious. “I feel like I’m someone else”, I told him.
What did I know? I actually thought maybe he could help me find whatever was hiding in the fog of my little brain. He was surprised, and then amused. He thought it was funny.
He leaned close and touched my cheek with his finger.
“Nope. You’re you alright.”
Oh, he thought himself quite clever. I didn’t think so. He treated me as if I was silly, and I didn’t think that was respectful. I resisted the immediate impulse to give him my three year old opinion of his professional capabilities. Instead, I grinned foolishly, because I knew that’s what was expected. Oh what restraint I had at that wise age.
That was half my lifetime ago and the only thing I learned from it was that some things should be kept to yourself.
That sense of ‘otherness’, has grown stronger ever since. I’m missing out on my real life., but I don’t know what to do about it.
Lost in my thoughts, I sat by the window, watching the children playing outside.
Miss Stemwedder opened the door and stepped in, automatically scanning the room for anything out of place. She held a clipboard in one hand and a sharpened pencil in the other. It was what we older children called her ‘infraction radar mode’. She seemed disappointed not to find anything amiss.
Awakened to the mothers presence I turned to face her expectantly.
Mother Stemwedder was a tall slender woman with a long drawn face that seemed cast in a stern look. She was one of the three guardians, none of whom were actually mothers, that cared for the nine children currently in care at the orphanage.
I had the impression the woman would crack apart if she dared to smile. She was a ‘by the numbers’ type. There were no extenuating circumstances in her world. Ever. Understanding that made it much easier to deal with her.
“Have you thought about what you did?” she asked, her pencil at the ready over her clipboard, lest she be treated to a reply that needed recording.
“Yes. I’ve been thinking about it.” I replied. I really had, too. Mostly about how even though I was technically guilty as charged, there was no justice in my being sentenced to isolation. None of that was going to matter with mother Stemwedder. It was just the luck of the draw. Had it been Mother Berump that came to evaluate me for parole, I might have at least had some hope of presenting my case.
“And what lesson have you learned?” The pencil was practically humming in anticipation as it hovered over the paper. I immediately thought of several responses, each of which I thought entirely true. They all boiled down to, “if you stand up for others you’ll probably be punished for it.”. Any of these answers would send the tip of the pencil into a furious attack that was sure to add time to my sentence. It simply wasn’t what mother Stemwedder wanted to hear. People usually didn’t want to hear what they asked you to tell them. For an instant, I considered if the battle, for the sake of my own values, was worth fighting. I really didn’t mind being confined to the room. It’s not that I’m a loner by choice, but the other children are all younger, and though I like most of them, we don’t share much in common.
But it was shopping day, when all the children were on display and interested potential parents visited. They would spend time getting to know any of the kids they might be interested in adopting. I had no illusions anymore, but it was still interesting to see new people. Truthfully, there was nothing to gain in aggravating the handlers.
“Girls shouldn’t hit boys and make them cry”, I said. It did the trick well enough.
After enduring a short lecture on how important it is for girls to be girly, I was set free to go back outside until supper.
Bounding out the front door and across the porch, I spotted David next to the tire swing. He was looking my way and though he was at a distance, I knew he wanted to gloat. He dared not. I wouldn’t hesitate to give him another wallop upside his head, and he knew it. He could pretend he wasn’t afraid of me and pretend that he didn’t hit me back because I’m a girl, but we both know that’s a lie for the house mothers. After all, it was his picking on Sarah, 2 years younger than him and half his size, that earned him the first wallop.
David is six, the oldest except for me. I celebrate my birthday in February. David’s isn’t until November. He’s a chunky kid with a natural tendency towards two things. Eating, and bullying the other kids. He’s good at both. It’s a source of constant amazement to me that the mothers never see him as he really is. David is an amazing actor and can hide himself behind a flattering mask in an instant.
He literally had walked up behind Sarah and pushed her violently to the ground with the greatest joy, just feet away from one of the house mothers. By the time the mother turned, he was kindly helping Sarah up, apparently with great concern.
I let him know I had seen the whole thing. I didn’t bother getting into any long drawn out conversations about how he should treat others. I just punched him in the face. That, of course, the mother saw, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The other children, nine in all, were scattered about the yard, most of the youngest in the playground area. They had been at the orphanage for various lengths of time, none as long as me.
From bits and pieces of information scraped together over my six long years, I have concluded the orphanage was made for me. I’m not vain. Consider these hard won facts. I am the only baby that has ever been ‘accepted’ at the orphanage. All the other children, those here now and those that have come and gone, were all at least a year old when they arrived. I was an infant. I am now, and have always been, the oldest child. Nobody is ever accepted if they are older than me. It’s all tied in with this secret life I have but don’t know about… I know. Weird.
Sometimes I think the entire orphanage is a front to keep me from knowing about my real life. I know what you’re thinking. A lot of orphans have these imaginative ideas about who they are and where they come from. Who their parents might be. I know all that. It doesn’t change the facts. Dozens of children have come and gone. I don’t usually see how they show up, but I’ve seen them leave with nice couples, sometimes with new brothers and sisters. Off to be part of family and live a normal life I suppose. But never me. The one time some shoppers seemed to have an interest in me, mother Berump had seemed to steer them elsewhere.
That used to hurt, but not any more. I knew my future wasn’t here at the orphanage.
A shiny blue minivan came down the horseshoe drive, lifting a thin dust cloud behind it. It took a spot just vacated and came to a stop on the sparse grass beneath the limbs of one of the huge oaks that followed the inside edge of the drive. A man, woman, and boy exited, stood for a moment as if composing themselves before entering church, and then walked across the drive to meet mother Berump, who had started towards them.
My first thought was that there was no way we would take the boy. He was at least as old as me, maybe a year older. But that was silly. They weren’t here to get rid of the kid. Probably looking to expand their family the easy way. Maybe a little Sarah for the boys sister.
The boy was curious, looking around and taking in every detail. Suddenly he was looking at me. Not just in my direction, but at me. He turned and spoke to the lady, his mother probably, and then started walking toward me.
I liked him right away. I hate to judge people at all, and especially too quickly. But there are times when you just know something, and it’s best to accept what you know instead of arguing against it. This was a nice boy. I could tell in the way he walked confidently toward me.
I turned and walked away toward the small field where we sometimes play ball. The last thing I needed was to meet somebody nice, only to have them walk back out of my life in a half hour.
I disturbed a batch of butterflies and they all flew up in a crazy tornado of colors. I spun in the midst of them and saw the boy had stopped, his hands on his hips. He was staring after me.
Among the butterflies my eyes were attracted to a small dot growing larger. It was a ladybug and it flew straight at my face, stopping a foot in front of me and hovering there. I could swear it was staring at me.
How odd, I thought. I had never seen, or even heard of a hovering ladybug. Those big fat bees hovered, always seeming so curious about whatever you might be doing, but ladybugs were more likely to be blown along to whatever was easy to land on. Even more strange, now that I thought about it, I had been seeing a lot of ladybugs lately. Either that or this particular ladybug was stalking me. For a moment, I saw the boy, still staring at me from a great distance. Then the ladybug landed on my nose and suddenly I was falling. The boy was shouting something but too much was happening for me to pay it any attention.
I was laying in the soft grass and staring up toward the sky when Mother Berump’s face blotted out the light.
Mrs. Berump was a short squat woman with a round, pasty face that always glistened with sweat. Heavy boned, as she called it, her arms and legs were enormous, and her feet pounded like jack hammers when she walked. Her mouth was invariably drawn in a straight line across her face, as if smiling was some kind of sin. Everything was a sin to hear Mrs. Berump tell of it, and she loved to punish the sinners. One good thing was that she could rarely sneak up on you, but I hadn’t heard her coming this time. The soft earth I guess, or maybe because of the most extraordinary dream I had been experiencing.
Mother Berump shook me gently, and suddenly, as if my internal speakers had just been turned on, I could hear her, and the birds, and the other people shuffling about me. The ladybug’s voice became very distant, and then faded completely away. I felt, rather than saw, the disappointment she felt.
“Are you alright?” mother Berump was asking.
“I’m fine.” I sat up. “I just tripped in a hole.” I lied.
Mother Berump wasn’t alone. The visiting man, his wife, and the boy, were all standing around me looking concerned. Actually, the boy didn’t look very concerned. I suspect he was simply curious. I looked at each of them somewhat sheepishly.
Mother Berump found it suddenly needful to introduce us, though I could sense she didn’t like being put in such a position. It was more uncomfortable for me I supposed. “Zoe, this is Mr. and Mrs. Taylor and their son,” she looked questioningly at Mrs. Taylor as she continued, “Booger?”.
I didn’t laugh, and I think I deserve great respect for that. How often do you hear an adult saying booger?
“Bugar” said the petite woman with a genuine smile. “He is named after his grandfather. The emphasis is on Gar”.
“Of course” mother Berump replied, “Boo Gar. It’s a lovely and unique name.”
Yeah, it’s unique I thought. And with good reason.
She turned back to face me. “The Taylors bought the property next to us and dropped by to introduce themselves.”
“Hello” I said, flatly.
My mind was racing. Next door. We hadn’t ever had anyone next door that I could remember. I knew where the place was. I had been exploring and found the house on the other side of the pond, but it was empty.
Now these people had bought it? So the boy would be living there? I might actually be able to make a friend and not worry about them suddenly disappearing. I very pointedly looked at the boy.
“So, Bugar. How old are you?” I asked.
He was caught off guard it seemed. I suspected maybe things were done differently in the city, but I hadn’t moved to the city had I? He moved here, so I guess he better get used to bold girls if he wanted my friendship.
“Seven” he finally replied. I stayed on the offensive.
“You like to fish?”
“Fish?” he asked. Oh dear, I hoped he wasn’t slow, or deaf.
“Yes. worms, hooks… fish.” I said. I didn’t think I was being impolite, but mother Berump found it needful to cut off my interrogation.
“I’m sure the Taylors would like to meet others, and you, young lady, appear in need of some cleaning and a change of clothes.”
I looked at my shirt and shorts. They were a bit dirty, but it wasn’t as if I was a total mess or anything. I started to protest, but catching the glint in Mother Berump’s eye I thought better of it. Choose your battles they say. No way I would win anything making a fight of this. Besides, if Bugar was going to be living next door, I would have time enough to see what he was made of.