Bathed in the haze of twilight. Mark stood beside his younger sister at their father’s bed-side, their stepmother sat in a chair opposite them, reading. A dull hum and steady beep of machines accompanied the girl’s sobbing as her brother held her shoulder, their stepmother peering over the magazine and shaking her head.
She hadn’t cried this much since she was younger. She seemed to revert to her childhood as she wiped a mix of tears and snot on her sleeve. As she stood there, her brother tried to remain calm, his fingers digging into her as he balled his other hand into a fist.
“It’s ok, Grace. We’ll get through this; dad’s going to be just fine…ok?”
Grace nodded, collecting the end of her sleeve into her hand and wiping her tears away as her brother stared at their stepmother.
“Isn’t that right, A-dy-na?” His words spiteful.
Adyna looked up from her magazine and smiled.
“Why, yes of course he will Mark, you and Grace needn’t worry,” she said, softly.
Mark gritted his teeth, not realising how hard he was holding his sister.
“Mark, you’re hurting me!” Grace whimpered.
As he eased his hold, Adyna stood up dropping the magazine on the chair and moved towards the door.
“Come on, visiting hours are over, you can come and see him again after school.”
Mark glared at their stepmother as Grace left the room, following shortly behind her, as he kept his eyes on Adyna who closed the door behind them.
“Stop that at once Mark. That just will not do. What would your father think?”
“I don’t know…I can’t ask him!”
She sneered. Grace had wandered away towards the vending machines, leaving them alone in the corridor, Mark’s eyes fixed on her smile, his lower lip trembling.
“What happened? I thought you were with him!”
“I just turned my back for a second, and he fell.”
“You mean he got pushed!”
Adyna’s eyes narrowed.
“You wicked boy! How dare you!”
“You just wanted dad’s money!”
Mark thrust his finger at her, pointing it straight in her face. She reached out calmly and grabbed Mark’s finger, then jerked her wrist aside. A harrowing crack he could feel within her grip. Mark bellowed out in pain while she twisted his finger in the opposite direction.
“You really shouldn’t point at people so close to a door, my dear.”
Adyna let go and her expression quickly sunk, tears welled up in her eyes and her lip quivered as she began to sob.
“Doctor? Doctor! My son has hurt his finger, I think he caught it in the door!”
A doctor and two nurses rushed over to the crumpled boy that fell to the floor cradling his hand and groaning in pain.
“What happened?” the doctor asked.
Before Mark could stammer out an answer, his stepmother spoke.
“Oh dear, I hope Grace is ok, she’s been gone a while…”
“I, I closed the door on my finger on my way out, that’s all.”
As a nurse helped Mark to his feet, Grace came back down the corridor holding two cans of cola which she dropped on the ground the instant she saw his face, rushing over to her brother.
“Mark, are you ok? What happened?”
“Nothing, nothing at all…”
On the last Friday of winter term, when Mark and Grace came home from school, they approached the big white house that they had lived in all their lives, the house their dad had worked so hard to maintain since their mother died, now it had already began to show signs of disarray and as Mark tried to open the peeling oak door, he realised that his key did not work.
“C’mon,” Mark grumbled.
“What’s wrong? Is your key broken?”
Looking over his shoulder he forced a smile and as he turned back, the lock clicked before the door creaked open revealing their stepmother and a man they had never seen before. A weasel of a man, tall and thin, wearing a tattered suit and an unsettling smile.
“Are these them?” He sounded like a fox would, if one could talk.
“Yeah, these are the horrid brats,” she sneered.
“Alright. They won’t cause me any trouble?”
“Oh. I see.”
Mark and Grace were confused as the man left the house and the door shut behind him, the lock clicking back into place.
“Wh-what’s going on?” Mark yelled at the door, pounding on it.
Grace had begun to shiver, her arms crossing over her chest, her eyes widening in fear as the strange man slid closer to her, an arm creeping around her waist, his hand brushing against her side.
“Hey! Get away from her!”
The man turned to face Mark and as he got closer, swung his hand to slap him firmly across the face. Knocked to the ground, Mark clutched his cheek and looked up at the man, shocked by his ferocity. The man stood over him, staring down into his eyes while twisting his cheap, tarnished gold ring on his finger.
“Shut up, brat. You and your sister have been signed over into my care.”
“What!? You can’t do this! My dad would never allow it!”
Mark held his cheek as he scrambled off of the floor. An upstairs window opened and two bags landed on the ground nearby with jingle of zips and the sound a pillow makes when you hit it.
“You’re right, but he isn’t here anymore, so I can do whatever I like!” Adyna had spoken, slamming the window shut behind her.
“Come on, my dear. Let’s get you settled into your new home,” the man spoke to Grace in a disturbingly smooth tone.
He was more an animal than a man, resting his arm around Grace’s waist and easing himself closer to her. A beast. Mark struggled to his feet, picked up their bags and walked over to the man’s car, a convertible. He felt sick to his stomach and could tell Grace was shivering with fear, the arm around her waist and the creature holding her close was too much. The sting and acidic taste of vomit laced his mouth as the man traced a hand over his sisters back-side before he walked around the car.
“Throw your shit on the back seat.”
Mark swallowed his sick, grimacing as he slung the bags onto the back-seat of the open-topped vehicle, holding back the burning behind his eyes caused by the sting of his cheek. Realising they had no choice than to go with this beast, Mark leaned over to his sister.
“Sit in the back,” he whispered.
“Oi. What are you saying to her?” The man growled.
“Just asking if she’s alright.”
“Yeah, a real good brother, I’m sure.”
As Grace was about to open the door to the back-seat the man growled to himself.
“Aren’t you going to sit beside me, my dear?”
Grace looked to Mark, who shook his head, eyes red. Then she looked at the man, his eyes narrowed, an unpleasant smirk on the side of his mouth. She looked back at Mark, the man had already hit him once, what would stop him from doing it again? Slowly, her feet moved her to the front of the car, brushing past Mark she grasped his hand for that brief moment to claim some of his strength as the taste of salt settled on his lips.
“What a soppy little bastard. How’d you live with him for so long?” The man looked at Grace with a grin as she sat beside him.
As Mark opened the door to get in, the automatic roof began to cover the car and protect it from the rain which splashed upon his cheeks as he clambered inside to find the man holding onto the handbrake with his little finger extended to brush against Grace’s thigh.
“What took you so long?”
The man laughed as he started the car, released the hand-break and jolted them all back into their seats as he accelerated. Mark grappled with his seat belt, trying to put it on as the car swerved and braked, the relentless speed catapulted Mark to and fro as the scenery from their home blurred past the window. A chorus of sirens stung at their ears, a psychedelic light show of red and blue flickered through the rear window as the man checked his rear-view mirror.
“Shit! Get your damn seatbelt on! Quick!”
As the man slammed on the breaks, Mark slid forward off the back seat and collided into his sister’s, making her gasp. Looking over her shoulder to check on him, he pulled himself back onto the chair and attached his seat-belt, finally.
“Act natural, everything is normal. Got it?” The man sneered, looking directly at Mark.
The police officer approached the convertible and knocked on the man’s window which he lowered and looked out.
“Good evening, sir.”
“Something wrong officer?”
“Do you know how fast you were going?”
“Why, no, officer. I have no idea.”
“You were doing sixty in a forty area, I’m going to have to write you a ticket for a seat-belt violation too.”
“What? But we’re all wearing seatbelts.” The man tried to smile sweetly, which just made him look even creepier.
“He wasn’t wearing one when I stopped you, you could have killed him.” The officer gestured at Mark with a movement of their head while writing out the ticket.
Mark noticed the man’s fingers gripped the steering wheel and the eye that he could see twitched as the man was handed his ticket.
“So, what’s your story?”
“What do you mean?”
“Is he ok?”
Mark’s collision with Grace’s seat had left a small line of blood from his nose to the corner of his mouth.
“Of course he is.”
The police officer sighed.
“Could you step out of the car please?”
The man opened the door and slid out of the car, then leaned in and took the keys out of the ignition, glaring at Mark briefly before pulling out and slamming the door behind him. Escorted back to the police officers car, Mark looked out over the back-seat through the window as they talked.
“Oh God, Mark. Are you okay?” Grace stared into the rear-view mirror at him.
“Yeah. I’m fine, nothing’s broken,” Mark winced.
“If you’re sure.” She continued to stare at him in the mirror.
“I’m sure, Grace. I’m sure.”
Mark turned to face forward again as the police officer got back in their car and the man walked back over. The door opened and slammed closed, he scrunched up the ticket, shoved it into his cup holder beside the gear stick and waited a moment for the police car to pass by before unleashing his fury, battering the steering wheel as he frothed at the mouth like a rabid dog.
“What are you trying to do to me!? You little bastard! Learn to put your damn seat-belt on!”
The man swung out behind Grace at Mark trying to make a connection but just colliding with the chair as Mark backed away into the corner against the door. An awkward leaf caught in the wind, Grace’s hand trembled out towards the man and pressed her palm to his wrist, her fingers curled frailly around it and seemed to soothe the beast.
“Please, don’t hurt my brother. I’m sure he didn’t mean to,” she spoke, calmly.
The arm had stopped instantly and lowered to graze his hand along Grace’s cheek which made her shudder, but she forced a smile. Looking into the man’s eyes.
“Please? He’s just a kid and nothing compared to a man.”
“Yes. Yes you’re right my dear. He’s nothing like a man.”
The man’s hand moved back to the steering wheel and the car started again, beginning to move, Grace stared out the window and quiet streets sped by, the buildings getting larger and more frequent as they entered the city centre. Glancing in the wing-mirror at her brother, his face bloody and bruised. Mark looked into the mirror at her, she forced a smile and Mark nodded.
It was late before the journey from their old home in its tranquil cul-de-sac came to its end, Mark and Grace stared out their windows into the brightly lit streets until the car drew closer to a large building that hid in the darkness, a big metal fence and shadowy courtyard cutting it off from the city streets. The name ‘Glennwood’ arched over the looming gate that the car stopped in front of. Mark could just make out the name in the eerie glow of street lamps, he felt a shudder run through his bones.
“Get out and open the gate,” the man demanded, thrusting a large metal key in Mark’s direction.
“And quick about it, unless you’re wanting to get ran over!”
Mark took great care when taking the key from the man, being careful not to touch him, just in case his foulness was contagious and could rub off onto his fingers. But the man grabbed his wrist before he could move away, feeling instantly sick to his stomach and grimacing.
The man released Marks wrist after a few seconds staring at him, ejecting it from his palm and letting him get away. Mark opened the door and hesitated to get out. The building showed little signs of light, the windows like hollow eyes. It felt like he was being watched as he closed the door behind him, moving through the twilight of lamps towards the towering black steel gate. Mark wondered if holding a boy made the man feel sick and about how at ease the man was around his sister in comparison. He slowly pushed the key into the large metal keyhole of the gate and the fence hummed as he turned the key. The gates yawed back, parting open like a mouth, Mark jumped as the car horn sounded suddenly.
“Well? Get out the way! What’s taking you so long!”
Mark pushed the gates and they swung open into the grey and black of the courtyard. Taking the key out the lock as the car drove in close behind him. It stopped for a moment and Grace’s window rolled down, the man leaning across her, Mark noticed a hand on her thigh.
“Close the gates and lock up, then come to the car and get your bags,” the man spat as he spoke, and he was suddenly glad he wasn’t closer.
The car soon drove off into the gloom, highlighting its way through when the man finally decided to use the headlights after all this time. Mark tried to close the gates as quickly as he could, they were cold and damp. Locking them behind him, all he wanted right now was to have a nice hot shower and crawl into his warm bed, but this was it, whatever it was. He groaned, shoving the key into his trouser pocket before running over to the dim red brake lights of the car.
“Come on! We haven’t got all night.” The man held out his hand, waiting.
As the key laced the man’s palm he jerked his hand back returning it to his pocket before opening his door into Mark, making him stumble aside as the man pulled himself out of his seat, swinging his keys around his finger as he walked over to the factory door.
“Grab your bags.”
Closing the door, Grace got out the other side and looked over the roof at Mark, her eyes were red and Mark worried that he had left her alone too long with the man. She walked around the car to join Mark and opened the back door to pull their bags out and handed one to him.
“It’ll be ok,” he whispered.
“Yeah. I hope so.”
Mark looked dumbstruck as he watched her close the door and walk over to the man who stood in the factory entrance, walking past with a look on her face that he had never seen before. Slinging his bag over a shoulder he flicked the car door closed with a foot and stumbled over to the entrance and up the stairs, looking at the man who grinned at him with yellow teeth, their eyes met, sharing a moment of mutual disgust as he entered the factory and the man locked the car before slamming the door behind them.
“Right! Get your lazy asses down here you little bastards and greet the new-comers!” The man hollered.
It was quiet, the windows on the ground floor had been boarded up, the space had been divided up into several corridors, rooms and an entrance, Mark figured it must have been a factory of some kind before it was turned into whatever it was now, going by the concrete floor and the odd musk that hung in the air. It seemed homely, as homely as it could be anyway, with its lack of carpet and the dated wall-paper. But at least it wasn’t just a huge space with mattresses on the floor. Mark’s attention shifted from looking around the entrance as he heard footsteps coming from upstairs and from down a corridor. They weren’t running but whoever they were made it loud enough to sound like they were. Expecting more than those who turned up, Mark tensed as six girls and three boys showed themselves. Grace had backed into a wall covering her face with her hands as the man walk away down a corridor.
“Right, introduce yourselves and sort out the new-comers. I’m going to bed.”
As the man walked away there was an uncomfortable silence, Grace slid down the wall sitting on the ground with her knees in the air, face buried between her legs. Mark kept looking between her and the others, who waited until the man couldn’t be heard anymore.
“No. Wait,” hushed the oldest girl.
One of the boys crept down the corridor and then gave a thumbs up, waiting at the corner.
“He isn’t always gone. We have to be careful,” the youngest looking girl stammered.
“It’s ok Melody, I’ll handle this,” the oldest placed her hand on Melody’s shoulder.
“We need to be careful around Mr Reynard. He’s very…cunning.”
Mark nodded, looking back at his sister.
“Don’t worry about her, she’ll be ok, he does this to every girl who comes here…”
“Don’t worry? She’s my sister!” Mark looked back at the eldest girl, her face now pale.
“Your sister? Does he know?” Her words faltered.
“Of course he knows.”
“I’m so sorry…”
“What do you mean?”
“I-I’ve said too much…if he finds out…I, I’m sorry,” the girls eyes flicked around as she mumbled, checking the corridors.
“L-let’s go to the living room, ok?”
Mark’s brow furrowed, concerned, confused and frustrated. This girl seemed more than happy to ramble on just a moment ago, but now she keeps quiet? He nodded anyway as the group led him down a corridor. Checking over his shoulder, he saw Melody sat with Grace.
“Don’t worry, Melody will bring her soon.”
“But, what the hell is going on?”
“Just…wait until the living room, ok?”
They walked down the long corridor, they must have walked to the very back of the factory before they reached the living room. It wasn’t much, peeling wall paper, a couple of tattered sofa’s and an old television. The ground had a couple of small carpets but was mainly bare wood. The three boys ran over to a sofa and leapt onto it switching the television on, the volume muted as it flickered with explosions and flashes. The eldest girl walked over to the other sofa and sat on the end before being joined by Mark, the others sitting on the carpet in front of the boys and fighting for control of the remote.
“Oh. What’s going on, right?”
“Well, yeah. What’s your story?”
“I’ve been here three years now,” the girl sighed.
“As long as you do what he wants, things can go alright, you get used to it even…”
“Get used to it?” Mark looked at her and she smiled.
“Girls are his favourite. He takes care of us more, gives us whatever we want, as long as we don’t break the rules.”
Mark stared into her eyes, it felt like he was talking to a ghost, not a person at all. Shuffling away from her to sit on the arm of the sofa and gain some distance she followed him and placed her hand on his. Smiling weakly, the girl looked down at his hand in hers. It creeped him out.
“I was thirteen on my first night here, I had an older brother too…”
“What happened?” Mark pulled his hand free from hers and got off the sofa, standing beside it.
“He’s gone now. Mr Reynard said he couldn’t wait to leave this place, to leave his horrid little sister behind. Now he was old enough,” she paused and swallowed back the choke in her voice.
“You see, he only keeps us until we are eighteen. Then we can leave. He says we can look after ourselves.”
“So your brother has never come back?”
She shook her head and Mark’s eyes fell to the ground, looking at her feet before settling back on the arm of the sofa.
“I’d never do that to Grace.”
“Grace? Is that your sister?”
“Grace…she’s very lucky. I wish I had a brother like you.”
Her hand settled on Mark’s knee and gently squeezed it before she got up to stand in front of him.
“Keep an eye on your sister. I have to go now.”
As she turned to leave, she looked over her shoulder, her eyes blood shot.
“Oh. I’m Charlie by the way. We can talk more tomorrow.”
Before Mark had a chance to respond she hurried out of the room almost colliding with Grace and Melody as they entered. He smiled over to them and as he was about to stand Grace shook her head holding her hand out towards him to stop as she walked over.
“And then he gave me a ice lolly to suck on, Mr Reynard can be really nice, sometimes,” Melody chirped on cheerily to Grace as she approached. “He gives us lots of presents, if we’re good.”
“That’s nice. Go join your sister, it looks like she needs help with the boys.”
Grace patted Melody on the head and sat on the sofa as the young girl rushed over towards the television. She looked at Mark and they held eyes a few moment before they both looked away.
“Melody told me all of their parents are dead.”
“Do you think dad’s dead?”
“No!” Mark sprung up from the sofa, the others looking over at him before turning back to fight over the television.
“No. I won’t believe it. He’s alive…”
“Then why are we here!?” Grace choked out, tears already staining her cheeks.
” I don’t know. That bitch Adyna -”
“No, Mark. This is your fault! If you just got along with her, like dad begged you to!”
“It’s not that easy…” Mark growled out between gritted teeth.
“Why not? What has she done, Mark? What?”
“…she made my life hell, ok?”
“What do you mean? She didn’t seem that bad.”
Mark looked away and sighed firmly, not wanting to look at her, resting his forehead in his hand and leaning on his thigh to hide his face.
“You remember when we last saw dad?”
“At the hospital?”
“Yeah. At the hospital.”
“It was her. She did it.”
“She broke my finger,” Mark muttered.
“She broke my finger!”
Grace went silent, her eyes burned as she wiped her face and moved closer to him.
“It’s not the first, accident, either…I’d been hiding it all from you and dad because I didn’t know what she might do. But, then she did it anyway. I’m sure what happened to dad is her fault. I’m certain of it!”
Mark felt Grace’s arms wrap around his body as she buried her face into his shoulder.
“What are we going to do?” She mumbled.
“I don’t know. Charlie said we’re stuck here until we turn eighteen. But dad will come for us, just you wait.”
He could feel Grace nod as he removed his face form his hand and put his arm around her, the others had turned the television off and stood in front of the sofa.
“We should go to bed, it’s late and Mr Reynard doesn’t like us to be tired,” Melody tugged on Grace’s sleeve.
“Ok. I guess.”
Mark looked at Grace and the others. As soon as Grace stood up, she was led away by Melody who dragged her bag along as the other girls followed behind them. He stood up soon after, about to follow, when the boys got in his way and shook their heads.
“Where do we sleep then?”
“We sleep downstairs, only girls are allowed upstairs.”
The boy from before pulled on Mark’s sleeve and he followed, the other boys close behind, one carrying his bag.
“You don’t need to drag me, you know?”
The boy didn’t answer, keeping his hold and encouraging him to keep walking.
“So, what’s his problem?” Mark asked, looking over his shoulder.
“No tongue,” said the boy holding his bag.
“Mr Reynard didn’t like the way he spoke to him,” said the other boy.
Mark remained silent, looking down at the boy pulling him by the sleeve and the sick feeling returned. He was led into a dank, cold room, the walls bare concrete and a scattering of cheap metal beds in a row.
“Welcome to the Marine Corps,” announced the boy with Mark’s bag.
“C’mon ladies, stow your gear,” said the other.
His sleeve released, Mark’s bag was shoved into his chest and the third boy ran over to his bed, standing in front of it he saluted before pointing to the bed beside his. Mark took a deep breath before as he walked over to the bed, dropping his bag on the floor beside it he collapsed onto the hard mattress, a spring poking into his back, but he couldn’t be bothered to get back up.
‘I guess they have to pretend‘ he thought, staring at the ceiling and focussing on a damp spot, his arms crossed over his forehead.
“The princess likes you, she does,” the boy who held his bag now stood beside him.
“You know. The princess.” He smiled.
“Are you the prince then?” The other boy asked, stood at the end of the bed.
“Huh? No. What?”
“Come to save the princess and her servants.”
“Sir, yes Sir!” They chanted.
Mark groaned. Kids…he just had to be the oldest didn’t he?
‘Let them live in their own little world, it is probably for the best’ he thought before sighing and looking over at the boy without a tongue.
“So, what are your names anyway?”
“Private Robert, Sir!” The boy at the end of the bed saluted.
“Private John, Sir!”
“And, what about him?”
“Oh, he’s COM officer Joshua…” John responded, then they both laughed,
“Josh, huh? Is that why you’ve not gotten any missions?”
“Yes Sir,” Robert replied, taking his turn.
“I’m, uh…Captain Mark.”
“Yes, Sir. Captain Mark, Sir!” They chanted, again.
Mark smiled at Joshua, sitting up he saluted back to them all and rested against the head-board, looking around the room. Taking a deep breath he began to slip out of his clothes down to his boxer-shorts and slid under the duvet of his bed, it seemed clean enough.
“Private John, get the light. It is time to rest up,” Mark said in his most authoritative tone, playing along with their little game.
Once the light went out, he rolled about in bed a few times, trying to get used to the sound of other’s breathing in the same room. While resting his head upon his arm, his hand settled on his forehead, Mark took a breath and curled his legs up into his chest. Focusing on the darkness, he tried to synchronise his breathing with the other boys until he slowly drifted off to sleep.