Tuesday, May 3rd, 2016

            When the fat man who runs the orphanage rises from his armchair to attend to the fire, I have reason to fear. His clubs-for-hands and the meaty sausage links that extend from them handle the pot-over-the-flames so carefully that his yellow, sharp-toothed smile makes perfect sense to me.

            The fat man does what he thinks will make ends meet when money is tight and the children need food. He doesn't buy new suits or lavish sweets too often; sometimes he buys us new toys to make us happy. We fall for it, too. Panem et circi. The others accept happily.

            The fat man laughs like a frog and talks like one, too. His face rolls with his belly, which he grabs if his hands aren't holding anything else. The others say he holds his belly so it won't fall off, but I think it's so he doesn't eat his own fingers.

            The older ones, like me, are safe. People know me. They would miss me, he says. Besides, the younger ones are tender, especially the girls, since the fat man makes the boys work so hard all day. No one knows them. I'm the only one who misses them. I'm the only one who knows.

            Once, I found a dog, a small, brown, fluffy creature covered in dirt and with a propeller-powered tongue. I wanted to hide it in the orphanage, but I was scared he would cook it like the children. I think he did that to someone's cat once, a tabby that had come with the child. He told her it ran away.

            The fat man gives me special treatment and the others look up to me, but how can I help them when I live every day afraid for them? We can't run away: the fat away man will just call the police. I don't think I would know where to go: I'm the oldest, and I have been here the longest.

            Once, on one of my birthdays, the fat man gave me a doll and said it looked like my mother. It was thin with red hair and a sad expression. I don't have red hair; my hair is brown, like the fat man's. I think he's my father, but he hasn't told me that and I'm afraid to ask.

            When the fat man finishes attending to the pot-over-the-flames, he calls us all from the foyer and helps himself in the dining room before we even leave our rooms. I go last if I go at all to make sure everyone else gets enough. I handle it for them. Sometimes the fat man gives me sweets in private, so I hold on to them until I'm really hungry.

            Sometimes, I don't know who or what we're eating. I don't know what different things taste like or are even called because the fat man just calls it all meat. We don't often get tender meat, even when I know it's a young girl. I think the fat man just tries to convince us, but he can't convince me very well.

            We all have our spots at the table, except me. I stand up and watch everyone. The fat man doesn't care: all he cares about is what he's consuming. It's easier when he pays less attention to us, because then we can get away with talking and playing while we eat. The fat man says no one will adopt children who talk and play at the dinner table, but no one adopts us anyway. I think he would get hungry if people adopted us.

            When he doesn't pay attention to us, I pay attention to him. I know his routine. I know that when dinner time is over, he tells us to be quiet so he can sleep. He sleeps until late, and he rarely makes us breakfast. Even when he does it's usually only for certain people. Not me.

            The fat man doesn't always cook the young ones, but no one argues anyway. I don't think he knows I know the truth. I don't think he knows I'm planning to kill him. I can't kill him if he knows. I can't kill him on a full stomach. He can't call the cops dead.

            I also don't sleep at night. My stomach keeps me up. My fear keeps me up. My ambition keeps me up. Sure, I tire, but perhaps it is best I grow used to not sleeping. I think if-when-I flee from here, I might not sleep right for days.

            At night, after the fat man sleeps, I stare out the windows and dare to open the door. The door is loud, so I only stare at its dirty wood and rusted knob. The windows are coated with grime, but I think I can make out the trees and lights beyond the only prison we've ever known.

            I don't know what's out there really. I came here young, and the fat man never lets us outside the dark, fenced in back yard, if we ever get to go there. He says we will get lost-we will be confused and never be the same again. I think he wants us all to himself. I know.

            One night, the fat man went to sleep early. The other children laughed and played with their toys. I watched them for an hour before I wandered to the kitchen door. No one was ever allowed to go into the kitchen, but the door was not loud and the fat man was asleep. I could not leave the house, but I decided to explore what was within it. I opened the door into the kitchen and turned on the light.

            I don't know what kitchens should look like. It was so different from the rest of the house that I wasn't sure what to think. I saw a large box against one wall and a sink like the ones in our bathrooms, only larger. There were also cabinets on the floors and on the walls. I walked over to the sink and stared at a block of knives. They were the same ones we ate with. I grabbed one and returned to my room, where some of the others played still.

            I didn't have many things to call my own. I had a doll and some books, but I could barely read them. The fat man had never taught me how to read. He told me that my mother didn't know how to read either. I wanted to learn, but no one else with me could read or write. At night, I stared at the knife. It was my own. The fat man never asked us where the knife went. I think he forgot about it or else thought he lost it. I had taken the knife from the fat man for myself.

            I never shared the knife with the other boys and girls. I started to join them at meals again. The fat man started to pay attention to us because I sat with them. The boys and girls played less. The girls were yelled at for making any noise, and the boys were yelled at for not taking care of their hands. The fat man needed the boys and the girls to play their parts. I needed them to play their parts too. They just didn't know it yet.

            I stole another knife a week later. The fat man noticed it was gone and told us to find it, but no one found the knife. I hid the knife under my pillow. As punishment the fat man didn't let us into the back yard for at least a month. I thought to steal another knife, but instead I stole an apple from the box against the wall. The box was cold inside. The apple was hard to eat. When I stole any more apples, I used my knives to share the apples with the other boys and girls. They didn't ask questions.

            One night when I entered the kitchen, a boy was waiting outside the door for me. He was short, skinny, and far younger than me. He might have been one of the youngest boys we had for awhile. I was afraid he would be our next meal if he was caught out of bed. He asked me what I was doing, but I handed him the apple I had taken and told him to go back to bed. He left and ate the apple. It was very loud. I didn't return to the kitchen for many days.

            I stabbed my doll on purpose. I was upset because the fat man would not let us go into the back yard. We had all expected it because several months had already passed. He never found the knives, but I think the other boys and girls knew that I took them and did not say anything. They appreciated my apples, which turned sometimes into pears or bananas. I had even used a knife to steal some bread. They liked the bread and the fruit. I stole another knife and gave it to the second oldest, another girl with brown hair.

            One night I went into the kitchen and found the fat man. I thought for sure he was asleep, but he was standing at the sink. When he saw me I stopped moving. I didn't bring my knife. I didn't want any bread tonight, but now I didn't think I would get anything tonight. The fat man charged at me. I slammed the door shut and ran to my room.

            He ran up the stairs to me, but I made it to my room first and climbed into my bed. The other children were startled when the fat man banged on the door. While he shouted, he opened the door and stepped in. He was not happy with me. He told me to never leave my room again, not even for dinner time. When I opened the door a few hours later, he was standing at the bottom staring up at me.

            The second youngest girl asked me where to go. I told her what to do, and she did it while the fat man ate. She was sneakier than me. She was also kinder than me. She took more fruit. I think it was risky, but she wanted the other boys and girls to be able to eat more. She always gave me the first pick and used the knife I had given her to cut me some fruit. Sometimes there were crumbs on her knife. I think she stole bread for herself and gave all the fruit away.

            One day the fat man came to my door and asked me why I wasn't sick. He knew that someone was giving me food. I told him it wasn't true, but he didn't believe me. He threw me against the wall and searched my bed. He found the two knives I had put there. He pointed them at me and cut my arm on purpose. He left with the knives. I sank to the floor and put my hand over the cut. I think I was lucky.

            The second oldest brought me my own apple. The fat man no longer stood at the stairs, but I was scared to leave because he was probably in the kitchen. He could have been anywhere. I told the second oldest not to go to the kitchen anymore. She was upset. I knew she would be upset, but I had to tell her to stop. I could not risk her life for my crazy plan.

            During that week we lost the young boy I had found outside the kitchen one night. The fat man started letting me come to meals. He made me sit next to him, and he always pointed the knife at me before cutting his meat. I smelled smoke. I only smelled smoke when the fat man forgot he was cooking something. We all jumped from the table and saw smoke from the sitting room. The fat man dropped his knife and ran.

            I also ran. The boys and girls stayed put. The second oldest was nowhere to be seen. Then I saw her when I ran into the sitting room with the fat man. She stood next to the pot-not-over-the-fire. The sitting room was on fire. She stood next to the fireplace where the fire spread the most. Her leg caught on fire. The fat man jumped forward to rescue the sitting room. He threw the second oldest on the floor and kicked the pot-not-over-the-flames.

            I stared at fat man and the second oldest on the floor. I turned to look at the other boys and girls. Some of them had come to the entrance of the sitting room to see. Most were still in the dining room. I stared at the fat man. I stared at the second oldest, who did not cry at the fire or the fat man. I turned to the front door. It was shiny. The fire started to consume the room. I stared at the floor and the fire that was spreading.

I ran to the door, stepping over the fire and ignoring the pain. My hand touched the doorknob. I wanted to turn the doorknob, but my fear consumed me. My hunger and tiredness consumed me. The fire was consuming me.

I turned the doorknob but did not pull open the door. I stared only at the shiny wood. My legs felt hot. I wanted to pull open the door, but I did not know if I could. The fat man had told me never to leave the orphanage.

            As the fire ate my legs, I pulled open the door and fell backward. There was nothing outside. It was dark. There would be nothing inside the orphanage. The fire would die, just like the fat man. The other children would die. The doll that I had stabbed would die. The cold box would die. The second oldest would die.

            I would not die. When I open the orphanage door that the fat man has told me not to open, the fat man has reason to fear. I stand up, ignoring the fire on my legs.