Wendy padded back toward her room but paused when
she came to the main gathering hall. Pale yellow couches and sterile tables furnished the space. Metal bars secured the windows lining the far wall. On a sunny day, she could look out and see the dark woods surrounding the facility. The front of the room overlooked the cliff and the calm cerulean waters of the ocean.
Boys and girls ages six to twelve lounged about the main room, but Wendy knew there were kids even younger in a hidden away nursery. Every once in a while she’d see a nurse carrying a crying infant.
The room felt different. There were glances, stares, and more agitation than normal. That’s when she noticed who was causing the disturbance. Everyone had taken notice of the boy in an armchair in the corner of the room. About thirteen years old, he had auburn hair and the greenest eyes.
Some were upset, but Wendy’s heart sang with excitement—he was back.
That’s what she always called him, since they were forbidden to call each other by their given names. If they were caught using them, they’d end up in the containment room with no food for a day. Within the facility they were nothing more than numbers, statistics on paper instead of actual living beings.
She hated using their subject numbers, so in her mind she gave each of them their own unique nickname. She had thought the boy was gone for good since he was taken away a few weeks ago. She knew it was because he’d showed positive results to the treatments. Why was he back? What had gone wrong? He should have been taken out of this place and—if the rumors were true—given a home.
Wendy went and sat in the yellow armchair across from him and tucked her knees up to her chest, wrapping her arms around them. She held still and studied him. The boy scrutinized her as well, but his eyes seemed a bit wild. Like a scared rabbit. When their eyes met, he turned away and began to mutter to himself.
Oh great, she thought. He didn’t remember her. Being with Boy was the only thing that gave Wendy happy thoughts. She didn’t shake when he was around. And that made her want to stick by him until he remembered her. He looked over at her and she smiled wanly.
“Hey, Boy,” she said. “I’m glad you’re back. I was getting lonely.”
He rocked back and forth and looked away from her. Was he ashamed? Too embarrassed to talk to her? Determined, she stood and walked over to the bookshelf filled with timeworn books and board games and searched until she found their favorite game.
She brought the game back and set it on a coffee table. Wendy kneeled down, lifted off the battered lid, its corners held together by yellowed tape, and began to pull out the familiar game board and cards. She knew the boy watched her, but he stayed silent. Wendy barely knew the fundamentals of Monopoly and really hated the game. It was too long and involved for her liking. But it was a game they had played before, had spent hours playing, quietly whispering to each other and going around the board and passing go and collecting two hundred dollars.
The boy loved games, any kind of games, and the crazier the rules, the better. Most of the time they just made up their own rules.
They’d made extravagant future plans together, wasting ages playing games and dreaming: If it were real money, they would spend it on frivolous things like gallons of mint chip ice cream or swimming pools filled with macaroni and cheese. They laughed together for hours, and sometimes when they’d get really serious, they’d begin to talk of a future outside of Neverland. She’d open up a bookstore, and he’d become a teacher. But when she looked at the boy in front of her, he wasn’t the same person.
Her boy had been the epitome of joy, laughter, and youth. This boy displayed none of those attributes. She just had to bring it back, help him remember.
She nudged the coffee table closer to the boy’s chair and set up the board.
Wendy hummed softly and continued stacking the cards. The chatter of the other kids turned to white noise around them. The boy closed his eyes and listened to her sing. He seemed to relax. She liked taking her time.
After a few minutes, he leaned forward and helped her set up the bank. Then it was time to play. All of the main tokens had disappeared over time, and only one piece remained—the thimble. It was impossible to play with only one piece.
Wendy offered the boy the thimble. “Looks like we’re down to one token.”
“That’s never stopped us before, Girl.” He smiled at her, his eyes dancing as a dimple appeared on his cheek.
She breathed a sigh of relief at her nickname.
He reached into his pocket, and placed an acorn on the board. “You go first.”
“How long has that been in your pocket?” Wendy chastised. She tossed him a stern look.
The boy blushed and answered, “You really don’t want to know.”
Wendy stifled a giggle, and they began to play, just like old times.
A skinny boy with dark hair, glasses, and a slight limp came quietly and sat next to them, observing. He had a critical eye and frequently told them, “You’re playing it wrong.”
“No, we’re not,” Wendy finally answered.
“You’re not following the rules of the game.” He got out the tattered rules and read them aloud.
“Games are meant to be fun. This one just happens to have too many rules for my liking.” Boy said. He looked up at Wendy and winked, making her heart flutter. She tucked that away for the next time she needed a happy thought.
Whenever one of them had to pay taxes, they’d put it in the middle of the board and—if someone rolled snake eyes—they’d dive in and whoever snagged the most money kept it. It usually amounted to knocking the board over and wrestling for the money.
A few other kids came to watch—most gathered to observe the boy. He was entertaining to watch and he played to the crowd. Taking the acorn, he would make it disappear, only to reappear near a dark-haired boy with a serious expression and somber gray eyes, who Wendy called Gray.
Gray kept himself aloof from the other kids. He always watched and never really joined in any of the conversations. When Boy made the acorn appear out of Gray’s ear, Gray swatted his hand away and told him to grow up.
Boy laughed at Gray. “Never.
Gray occasionally rolled his eyes when Boy wasn’t looking.
Wendy grinned because her Boy was truly back. He launched into an outrageous story of a beautiful mermaid that lived near an island they all lived on, and Wendy liked it. Neverland didn’t seem so scary when he was around. She hoped he never left her alone again.
Wendy lay on the floor next to the coffee table and placed her hands behind her head. She studied the ceiling tiles and listened to Boy talk. His story became grim, with talk of kids being captured by Indians and imprisoned. Before she knew it, her thoughts had wandered back to that dark place she tried so hard to avoid.
Doctor Mee said they were here because of a trait they each possessed—a certain auto immune disease, and they were being treated with injections.
It actually seemed that they wanted the kids to be different. They praised the ones who could do things that weren’t part of normal human abilities. Some of the kids reacted negatively to the treatment—the ones who withdrew inside their heads.
Wendy didn’t know what they hoped for her. She’d had a negative reaction to the treatment and gotten really sick, and afterwards she began to see shadows in her peripheral vision. No one else could see them, not even Boy.
A rattling noise made her open her eyes to see that she was still lying on the floor. For a moment she had forgotten where she was. The air conditioning vent in the ceiling sputtered and clanged as cold air blasted down on her. She briefly smelled the salty ocean air. Wendy turned her head to the side and a single tear of disappointment slid down her cheek. She didn’t want to see things or be considered crazy. She wanted the shadows gone for good.
Boy still sat in the chair. He seemed to be having a disagreement with Gray. A staff nurse came and announced that it was time for dinner. Wendy stood and followed the other kids as they filed down a long hall to the opened doors. The staff blocked every exit except for the one leading to the cafeteria.
When the double doors opened, her mouth watered at the sweet and spicy aroma from the kitchen. She paused and spoke aloud to Boy and Gray.
Neither heard her. Boy had his feet planted, his hands on his hips. Gray scowled and, using only his thumb, cracked the knuckles on his right hand.
“There’s cinnamon rolls tonight.” She spoke enticingly and tugged on Boy’s sleeve.
By now the room was empty except for Boy and Gray, they still hadn’t budged. She turned to go back but was cut off by more kids lining up. They would only have an hour after dinner before they would be escorted back to their rooms for the night.
She stood in line behind 1-84, a girl with an attitude who ran with a rough crowd. Wendy took the red plastic tray and waited without making eye contact with the girl. Others had learned to keep their distance. In front of 1-84 stood a brown-haired boy, about seven, with a teddy bear stuffed under his arm. He had come the same time as Wendy had. He never spoke to any of the kids or staff, but frequently sat by himself and whispered into the stuffed bear’s ear. That’s how he earned his unfortunate nickname—Teddy. He always stared directly at Wendy, but he’d never speak.
Wendy picked up her tray, which consisted of a bowl of thick red chili, a warm cinnamon roll, green beans, and a pint of milk. She took her food and sat at a round table in the corner of the room. Keeping her back to the brick wall, she ate alone. She preferred the corner table because it gave her a sense of security when she didn’t have Boy watching her back. No one could sneak up behind her or steal her food.
Gray came in by himself. She tried to keep an eye out for Boy, but little Teddy drew her attention again.
He sat at a nearby table, propped the bear into a sitting position, and picked up his spoon to eat. One of the more aggressive kids came by and knocked over the bear, taunting Teddy. The boy panicked and quickly righted the bear, but when he turned back, his tray lacked his bowl of chili and cinnamon roll.
Teddy looked at his small portion of green beans, and his shoulders shook as he tried to hold back tears. Wendy watched the young boy. Her fingers curled around her fork, her knuckles turning white. She glanced toward the kitchen staff to see if they had noticed what was happening. They didn’t do anything about it. As long as the kids weren’t downright fighting, bullying was tolerated—even encouraged.
She leaned forward and watched as the bigger kid held the bowl of chili up in the air like a prized trophy, the cinnamon roll clenched between his teeth. Another kid walked behind with Teddy’s milk.
The cooks didn’t even bat an eye. They were, in fact, tearing down the trays and hauling the food away. They busied themselves filling a cart with more trays of food for those who were confined to their rooms. Wendy knew they kept the “dangerous” kids on a lower level—behind more locked doors and in padded rooms.
No, not rooms. Cells.
It was the threat of being taken to basement level two that kept the bullying in check. But she believed that bullying of any kind should never be tolerated.
Teddy’s lip quivered and his hand reached for his fork. He stabbed a green bean, brought it up to his mouth, and chewed slowly. In two bites, his small portion of vegetables had disappeared.
Come on, Teddy. Say something. Do something. She tried to mentally encourage him to act, to not let himself become the victim.
Teddy continued to sit and stare at his empty plate. His shoulders shook and the dull murmur of the crowd rose.
Disgusted and furious at the bullies, Wendy was even more upset at Teddy for not standing up for himself. She had only eaten half of her chili, but she’d lost her appetite. She stood and pushed her chair screeching across the floor, drawing attention. Wendy picked up her unopened pint of milk and her cinnamon roll, walked over to Teddy’s table, and placed both on his tray. She saw his wide eyes turn glassy as he tried to blink back tears. He looked at the food in front of him and then back at her.
She jumped up and sat on top of the table. “Eat,” she commanded. Wendy glared at anyone who looked their way.
Her body language was clear. Don’t mess with her. She was his protector. Wendy proceeded to watch over Teddy as he ate her roll and downed the milk greedily. When 1-84 stared at her, Wendy gave her an ugly glare and crossed her arms threateningly.
Gray had watched the whole exchange. He picked up his tray and moved to sit next them, as if there was a silent line drawn in the cafeteria and he had chosen a side. Wendy gave him a curious smile as he took over glaring at the group of bullies that stole Teddy’s food.
“Just because you can’t talk, or don’t, or choose not to, that doesn’t mean you can’t defend yourself,” Wendy whispered.
“It’s true.” Gray leaned over and spoke softly. “Rule one: Everyone is the enemy. Even me…even her.” He gestured to both of them.
Teddy swallowed a mouthful of cinnamon roll and turned his soft brown eyes to her. They flared with anger.
“Relax. We know how to handle ourselves.” Wendy winked.
Gray held up two fingers. “Rule two: Remember rule one.” Gray picked up his discarded fork and held it in front of Wendy, tines facing up. “This is eating position.”
He waited to be sure Teddy was paying close attention. “And when they come near you, flip it like this.” With a quick flip of the fork and his arm, the tines pointed down, and he brought the fork across Wendy’s chest in an aggressive stance. “Normally, it’s what you’d do with a knife, but since we aren’t given any, the fork will do.”
Teddy’s eyes widened in fear, but Gray smiled encouragingly. “Relax, kid. I’ve never had to stab anyone with a fork. Just the action alone will make them back off. But you have to toughen up here, be an army of one if you have to. There’s no room for weakness.” He gently placed the fork down on his tray. With a respectful nod to Wendy, he walked out of the room.
When Teddy was done eating, Wendy gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze, and he started to shake. Was he crying? He turned and wrapped his arms around her neck.
“Hey, chill.” She awkwardly extracted herself from his grasp. “It was nothing. No big deal. Just some notes for next time, okay?” Uncomfortable with his display of affection, she stood and heard his choked sob. She turned back.
He looked up at her, eyes full of accusation and anger, lips pinched in a tight line. He grabbed the bear and began to whisper to it again. Maybe it would be better if she distanced herself from Teddy, let him fight his own battles from now on. She put the dirty tray on the rack and headed out.
Wendy passed back through the main room on her way down the hall to her own room, and noticed that the boy was gone. Strange. She hadn’t seen him come into the dining hall to eat, so he must have gone back to his room. She was about to leave when she noticed the game board.
Even from a distance, she could see that another piece had disappeared from the board. Her thimble.
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