The walls were made of corroded stone, a metallic shade of gray tinted blue, heavily chipped and covered with white spots where it looked as if graffiti had been scratched away. The floors were covered in a fine layer of almond colored dust that rose into my nostrils as I walked, and there were holes every few steps, some too small to notice, others large enough so that I could have twisted my ankle had I mistepped. In the corners, there were all manners of refuse, from rocks to occasional pieces of bark and twigs, each having expertly avoided being swept, and now so far out of reach in a place so dirty they would likely remain there for the life of the building.
The robe they had given me was too long, and I stumbled a few times as she lead me through the dreary hallway. Looking around, I had trouble convincing myself the building was real. It's only redeeming quality was that it felt as if it was from a bad dream, so there was always hope of waking up somewhere different. Had it not been for the intense anxiety I kept suspended in my throat and on the tips of my writhing fingers, I believed I'd have felt empty, so much so I could have faded away and never been seen again.
I fantasized about it, hoping that mercifully, I would, but each time I was lead past one of the residents of this place, each one more intimidating than the last, I was pulled back to reality, and the meager contents of my stomach would rise up to my throat, and my eyes would dart from the floor to the right, from the right to the left, and then to the resident, each more dreary than the last as well, and then again to the left, and to the right, and to the floor, and so on, until I passed him -- they had all been male -- and I would again return to the fantasy world in my head, where I could sleep away the throbbing feeling in the center of my bones that made me shake, and I could close my eyes and never have to worry about engagement or eye contact again. There was peace there, if nothing else.
I was left in what appeared to be a waiting room: three wooden chairs aligned against a wall, myself perched on the furthest right. The unevenness of the chair was uncomfortable on my bottom, and my toes wriggled as the throbbing in my bones made stillness unbearable. I pushed the nausea deep into my stomach, and it left me light-headed, incapable of uttering a word, no matter how desperately I may have needed to. The only good thing about it all, and the only thing that kept me from breaking out into tremors, was the very sweet woman who had brought me there, and regarded me with a smile and with a soothing voice each time she turned to face me.
Mrs. Shire is what I had been instructed to call her, and she was like me. She worked for the government, and due to her species, she had been the one tasked to take me to my new home, West End Orphanage. Her tail was longer than average, enough so that had it been pulled up, it could have easily extended over the back of her head and rested against her forehead, and the bushy fur -- which grew wider and visibly softer further down – could have sat in front of her eyes and obscured her view.
Her fur was like mine, black with occasional strips and blotches of white. The most notable detail was the stripe running evenly down the bottom of her tail, and then unevenly curling around toward the top as it got closer to the end, capping the tip with what looked like a furry snowball. Her face had a small assortment of white spots, and thick-white rose up from her chest and terminated at her chin, extending back toward the base of her right ear, looking like an ice cream cone growing out of her head.
When I wasn't fantasizing about non-existence, I was fantasizing about her, and I toyed with the idea of her being my mom, thinking about her raising me, and loving me, and above all, taking me from this nightmarish place.
I had been there for awhile, though I couldn't guess at how many minutes it had been. I spent the entirety of the time writhing uncomfortably on the chair, too shy to stand, and nearly too shy to move about at all. The room I sat in had another room inside of it, and when the door opened and Mrs. Shire finally emerged, a soft expression on her face, and a soft smile gently nestled on her soft lips, for the first time that day I felt excitement, for seeing her, for seeing that smile, and for finally being able to stand – though, I was still too shy to do so.
My excitement was short-lived, as I quickly realized what came next.
With an expression that was deceptively reassuring, she kneeled down in front of me and placed her hand on my shoulder. Looking back at her, the softness of her features and the expertise in which she guided me and said everything I wanted and needed to hear, it made me wonder if maybe she were an angel; though I'd have thought so regardless, even if God himself had come down and told me otherwise.
“Leo,” Her voice reminded me of bubbles, wafting, but upbeat: “I talked to the Headmaster, and they're gonna take you here. This is going to be your new home, okay? Now, I know it doesn't look like much, but trust me,” her smile widened, “you'll learn to love it.”
Hearing it from her mouth made me slightly more optimistic. I nodded my head lightly, so much so I wasn't sure she had noticed.
“There are a few things I want to say before I lead you back there, though. I want to give you...” She paused for a long moment. “... I wanna give you some advice. Life advice. And if you want to ask me anything, you're free to do that too. But, Leo, listen--” Her soothing expression faltered for a moment as she struggled for the right words. “There's gonna be a lot of challenges in this world – there are for all of us, but... you're gonna have a lot of your own struggles. And... sometimes when we struggle, we tend to lose sight of things.”
I nodded visibly this time.
“And... when we lose sight, we become the blind... you see?” She smiled, but I didn't catch the pun at the time. “And when a lot of people are blind, they look for someone to lead them, and when that happens, there are tricky people who come along, and they offer to lead. Some people are good, but some are blind themselves. Sometimes they know it, but most of the time, they don't...”
I wanted to ask her to clarify, but my voice was stuck in my throat and tears were beginning to form in my eyes. I didn't know why I was getting so emotional, but had her smile not been so reassuring, I feared I'd have sobbed. Thankfully, she seemed to recognize the confusion in my expression.
“Leo,” she sighed. “You're a very good kid. You're a great person, and you're gonna grow up to be an amazing adult, but life can be challenging. It can... and... it will, test your faith – many times. And, I guess what I want you to always remember, is that you're special. You're... there is nobody else who is exactly like you, and don't ever let this world or the people on it turn you into something you're not. You don't need anything other than God. Always have faith, and when your faith is doubting... pray to Him.”
I quickly wiped my eyes, thankful I had managed to repress my desire to sob, though still embarrassed at the tears that had formed for seemingly no reason. When her hand lifted from my shoulder I felt a sinister chill, and suddenly, that physical connection was the only in the world I could think about.
“Headmaster Daniel is going to show you around. He'll show you the cafeteria and the library – did I mention that? There is an entire library in here!” Her eyes lit up at this. “He'll show you where you'll be bunking, too... Don't forget to try and make some friends.”
Her brows rose in response.
“A-are you leaving?”
“Mmhm, there are other kids out there I need to help. And I have paperwork I have to do from helping you...” She saw my expression. “... Don't worry, sweety, you're gonna be okay, okay? It's gonna be strange at first, but you'll adjust. Just have faith and put your trust in God. It's all we can do.”
I remember feeling cold, as if I had suddenly broken out into a sweat and been hit by a cool breeze all in an instant. The nausea I kept pushed down all rose to my throat, but I didn't want to vomit. I wanted to beg for her to stay, and yet somehow the action itself seemed too demeaning, though I'd have done it in a second had I believed it would have made a difference. Instead, I sat in silence and let my expression say it all; and while it seemed she understood, I felt something foreign embodying everything around me, and everything I was and everything I would ever be; and in that moment, I believed I would never leave that place.