Leave the Window Open
Black smoke rose out of the ironclads as they carved their way through waves like grey steel sharks. The resounding thump of the engines carried them at the speed of conquest to the promise of battle, death, and misery. In the distance the lights of the city started to turn off one by one, the Parlians would not gift their enemies' guns an easy target. Then on that distant darkened shore there came a flash, one gave way to two and two became four as the volley started. The sea erupted with explosions, plumes of smoke, the shriek of torn metal, the screams of the dying and the silence of the dead. The ironclads returned fire indiscriminately and those who lived by the harbour knew that war had come to their city.
When morning rose only regret remained. Broken hulls jutted out of the bay, each a jagged metal tombstone that marked two scores of graves. Burnt out fires filled the city of Parla with smoke and ash, rubble filled the streets and everywhere there was tragedy. It was the burden of those that survived to endure the heartache. On a street whose name that did not matter two raccoons lay broken amongst the debris, their bodies white with dust save for the rivulets of blood that marked their mortality and though they held each other tightly, death now separated them. When the rescuers came they only expected bodies for the cart, but as the lovers were exhumed they turned them over to find two small bright amber eyes that gazed on back and two small paws that reached on up. Swathed in a blanket a baby raccoon, stunned into silence by horrors he could not comprehend, saved by parents he would never know.
Two strong ursine arms came down and picked him up and clung him tightly to a chest whose heart was breaking ``Come here little one I've got you'' The gruff voice trembled while others came on over to see the mute survivor, a sombre gathering of strangers united by the single solace of a life that had been spared. A haggard rat whose eyes and voice was burdened by the troubling events addressed the bear ``They're taking the children to the orphanage at Winterhill, if he has any relatives they will know to find him there'' The bodies of the parents were laid on the cart, white blankets were thrown over them in morbid dignity as their son was carried away. The orphanage was busy that day and would be for the three years that followed as Parla remained at war with Alyta. The boy raccoon that was taken to Winterhill that morning was never collected, a single blast from a single canon had robbed him of all his kin. His only inheritance came from the registry office, at least they knew what to call him.
Fourteen years would pass...
The orphaned raccoon was on his knees, a bucket of water next to him as he scrubbed the wooden floors. While he was working he had shrugged off his suspenders and popped the top three buttons of his white linen shirt, his trousers were damp from kneeling where he had been cleaning. Outside he could hear some of the younger children playing, it made him happy to hear them enjoying the warm summers day. At least it did until the door burst open with the cry of laughter and a fluffy of footpads stampeding across the dining hall. He threw his brush into the bucket in annoyance and looked up, ``Oh come on! I just cleaned over there!''
Three of them had already vanished upstairs, leaving behind a little fox girl. She stopped sharply and looked on over to see the annoyed raccoon. Paws on her back she walked over with her tail tucked between her legs, ``Sorry Diego''
Of all the younger orphans he had the softest spot for Millie. Just hearing her sweetly say his name and those perked up ears laid smoothly back and he smiled to her mischievously ``What are you?''
She giggled in response and hopped on her feet ``Pain in the butt!''
Diego laughed and grabbed the vixen, pulling her down to him, ``That's right!'' She playfully tussled with him as he mockingly savaged her, a brotherly kiss on her cheek forehead and finally into her hair. The two laughed for a moment before Diego then stood her back up again, ``You know some of us have to work right?''
She daintily put a finger onto her muzzle, and wore what was a wicked smile for a 10-year-old ``I know right? Glad it's not me!'' Diego's jaw dropped a bit, he had just got schooled by a junior. She gave him a little wave, then turned and skipped off.
Inch by inch he scrubbed over the floor, the dining hall was finished off before he moved elsewhere. Winterhill was a sizeable manor house, if only one family held residence it would be considered luxurious, but with 40 or more orphans it was instead just homely. His work took him to outside of the study, which belonged to Samuel their custodian and father figure. The lynx had been here since all the children could remember, though his hair and fur were now a charcoal grey as he matured in years. He had the strength of character to be firm and the wisdom to be fair but it was because of his gentle nature that Diego adored and respected him. It came as a shock when he heard the lynx talking in distress, ``You cannot be serious!?''
Diego's ears raised in alarm and he looked towards the door of the study. Next to it was a coat stand and on it was draped the long blue overcoat of a Parlian officer. It had evaded his attention when he first came down but now his senses were heightened and he panicked over what this could mean. ``Very, you must appreciate that there aren't enough apprenticeships to go around, especially for uneducated children, it isn't like the old days when you and I were younger'', an unfamiliar voice spoke back, it was dignified and eloquent, ``We build airships and dynamos, the city calls out for engineers, technicians, and scientists your orphans are not cut from that cloth?''
``But these children were orphaned by the war!'' Samuel's voice was distraught and the way he spoke made it sound like he was pleading.
``So, they shou - ''
``I can't do this'' the lynx interjects before the unknown stranger could finish. The distress was gone from voice, in its place was resentment.
``This manor was gifted to you by Lord Byron, do I need to remind you his Lordship was an admiral in the Parlian Navy?'', the stranger chastised the warden for his outburst, an uncomfortable silence was left between them. Outside and Diego took two hesitant steps back from the door, he couldn't decide whether to stay or go, ``This orphanage is sustained by patrons many of whom served their country''
``I know'', Samuel's voice was soft, defeated ``How many?'' Diego felt a welling in his throat, he knew there was only one commodity that came out of an orphanage.
``Anyone 14 or over, two years and we can get them trained up for the new air-fleet'', the stranger?s voice swelled with pride, like it tasted the power that came from the word, ``I trust you will impress upon them the virtue of serving their country?''
Another awkward silence before the lynx finally spoke, it now had the edge of someone open to compromise ``And you will ensure the orphanage will continue to be looked after?'' Diego picked up his bucket and started to walk away, then he dropped it and just started to run. He got to the yard where the children were playing before and started to pace around the high stone wall with the wrought iron trimmings. How quickly a change of perspective made everything seem different. The walls of the manor yard that once made him feel protected now felt oppressive and this place that had been his home for 14 years was suddenly his prison. It was only now he realised he could not leave this place. Desperate and frightened he slumps against that coarse wall and sits hugging around his knees. It was hard, but he refused to cry.
It wasn't long before Diego was aware someone was stood over him, he looked up to see the closest thing he had to a best friend looking down at him. Jake was a weasel, as slim as one could be he was a frame of bone with skin and fur tacked on. With his patched-up waistcoat and the flap-cap hung off of one ear at a jaunty angle he was the picture of a charlatan. A wry smile crossed his muzzle as he shoved his paws into his pockets, ``Is this a private sulk or can anyone join?'' What the weasel lacked in maturity he made up for with a pleasant demeanor. Had anyone else come they would have asked `what was the matter' and tried to be caring, Jake was best friend material because he knew what not to do.
``You're not going to like what you hear'', Diego said in the closest approximation to an invite Jake was going to get.
The weasel crouched down next to his buddy and then just sits on his ass, he sighed and looked over ``Why do I get the feeling this isn't one of your usual tantrums''
Diego huffed, ``I don't have tantrums''
Jake rolled his eyes, ``So it is one of your tantrums''
``They're going to ship me off to the navy'', he surprised himself by how dead his words were, flat and emotionless.
Jake flinched in shock ``You don't know that'', he said wanting to believe his own words.
``I overheard Samuel talking in his study with someone from the Navy right now'', distraught he stroked his paws over his young face, ``Everyone who is at least 14, and in return they keep paying for this place...'' he was shaking, ``I won't go''
Jake stared ahead, his smooth casual smile was gone, in its place a stern determination. As the two fell quiet they could just hear the sounds of the others playing, till Jake finally spoke, ``Then don't'' Diego looked to his friend who still just stared forward, his gaze was distant and unrelenting, filled with a tenacity Diego had never seen in him before, ``We'll escape, tonight''
``But - ''
``But I'm not 14?'' Jake said, having stolen Diego's words right out of his mouth and twisting them into a rhetorical question that he answered himself, ``Yeah sure I'm 13, but then next year it's my turn, right?'' that stern expression finally melts away and the weasel cocks his head to look at his friend ``We're in this together'' It didn't matter if they got out or not, Diego felt a closeness with his friend that he hadn't known with anyone else. He reached over and hugged tightly around the lithe frame of the weasel who froze up a bit in surprise his normally smooth fur standing on end ``Aw... Diego man...''
Confidence returned to the raccoon as he squeezed his friend affectionately ``If you didn't want the hug you shouldn't have been a good friend'' Jake relented and held him back for all of 3 long seconds, before pushing him off.
``If we're going to do this we will need two things'' his voice was clinical and it would be hard to believe he hadn't already been thinking about this, he holds up a single finger ``One, money I'm not leaving here to die on the streets'' Diego nodded as Jake held up a second finger ``Two, the keys to the front gate'' It sounded so simple but already a pit was forming in Diego?s stomach as he thought on what they would have to do.
``I know he has a set of keys on him pretty much all the time, but I think he keeps a second set in a bedside drawer'', Diego's voice trailed away as he went deep in thought.
``He keeps the money for the orphanage in his study'' Jake adds.
Diego's head lifts up and looks to Jake ferociously ``I'm not stealing from the others'', his voice was raised but projected so others wouldn't here, ``No way man it's not their fault''
Jake's paws come up defensively ``Ok ok, but we need something, can't we just take a little bit? You know, to get by?'' There was a hint of resentment in his voice, this was all so Diego didn't get press-ganged into the navy, now the raccoon was being noble.
Stealing from the orphanage was unforgivable in Diego's eyes, which was why he had to be the one to do it ``I'll get the money...'', His words faltered slightly as he thought on how Samuel trusted him and how that trust had been broken and how it would soon be broken again, ``I can slip in while he does the rounds, it'll have keys for both the study and the front gate''
Jakes tail coiled and flicked anxiously ``So what am I doing if you're getting the keys and cash?''
Diego gazed up and admired the vibrant cloudless sky, a stark contrast to the matter of fact way that he spoke, ``Put together two bags, clothes, food, water, all the things we are going to need and while I get the stuff you can get the bags to the gate ready to go'' He pushed off the ground to stand and dusted off his trousers ``After this we are going to be wanted Jake, we are going to need to lay low for a long time''
The evening would pass and the boys did not say another word to each other about what they had planned. They ate quietly and when the time came laid in their bunks as the gas lamps were turned out. There was no risk of either accidentally falling asleep, every fiber of their beings was on edge, hearts racing in anticipation. Laid on his side he gazed at the door through the gloom of his room. An hour passed and the others he shared a room with had fallen asleep, their gentle breaths sweet and innocent. He thought about Millie who he would leave behind, it tore him up inside to abandon her, to be the next in the line-up of people that let her down. He had to believe that one day he would get the chance to make it up to her, at least to explain himself.
From under the door there came the soft illumination of gas light as the old lynx did his rounds. The old manor floorboards creaked underfoot and Diego lay still, not even breathing as he waited for the lynx to pass. Samuel did his route by rote and Diego knew he did not have long to get the keys. He swung his legs from out of his bottom bunk and quietly got dressed before he stepped barefooted out into the hall. He had never done something like this before yet the motions came naturally as he slunk light-footed down the hall to the custodian's room.
The moment he crossed the threshold a shudder rattled its way up his spine. He knew what he was doing was wrong yet something about it thrilled him. In that boy's chest, the heart of a thief was beginning to stir. Samuels room had the aroma of spiced cologne, pungent and yet in Diego's mind fatherly. When he got to the bedside cabinet he cringed, a wave of guilt momentarily suppressing that criminal lust. His paw shook as he reached out and slid the drawer open, moonlight was all he had to see and when he gazed into that draw he was filled with dread, there were no keys. Frantically he tossed aside a worn leather ledger and the feeling of elation was palpable when under it he saw the iron key ring. He reached in and clasped the icon of his freedom, the claustrophobia that had gnawed at his soul all day began to abate. Swiftly he turned and left, leaving both the door open and the ledger on the bed in his amateur haste.
The key turned and the door to the study opened up as once more moonlight from the window paved the way, illuminating the dark wood of the bookshelves and grandiose desk with a silvered sheen. Rows of classical literature lined the selves, the finest writing of 10 generations, their titles proudly displayed, each and every one of them lost on the illiterate raccoon. He stood at the threshold hesitantly it felt different to be here, the bedroom he had been in before but the study was forbidden its contents sacrosanct. With nervous trepidation, he entered and defiled the room.
That one step turned into a mad dash to the window. He gazed out and his tail wagged behind him happily as he saw the nervously waiting weasel by the gate. Knowing he would not walk out onto that street alone lifted his spirits. His attention returned to the room as he pondered where the money would likely be, a cursory glance and his eyes fell upon a small wooden chest, that was where it had to be. One by one each key was tried until there was a satisfying `CLICK', tentatively he lifted the lid and saw velvet sacks of coins and a stack of papers and other mementos whose sentimental value was lost upon him. Just one of the bags would be enough for them to survive on for a month. As he took one out his paw was shaking under the weight of the coin and his own guilty conscience. Seizing it there was the metallic trickling noise as the coins shifted in the sack. Diego turned to leave but his eyes grew wide as light enveloped the doorway, he looks to hide behind the desk but it was too late.
Samuel stepped into the room holding up the lantern to banish back the silvery moon with the warm glow of firelight ``Diego, I least expected this from you'', his voice the epitome of disappointment. The lynx's head turns as he takes in the sight before him, the violated room, the open chest, the young boy caught red-handed with the money pouch, ``Just hand it to me and let's talk'' Diego stared back with hate-filled eyed, the older lynx pondered what had come over his ward, there was only one answer ``So you were listening in earlier? Diego I can explain'' He closed the door as he entered and Diego jumped at the dull wooden THUD, there was no easy way out now.
``What is there to explain? You're sending us to become soldiers'' he spat back with barely contained resentment. He had 14 years to hate the war that took his parents and everyone and everything to do with it, Samuels betrayal cut him deeply.
The lynx sighs ``It's a hard world out there Diego and you've been disadvantaged enough as it is, you can't stay here forever and what other prospects are there?'' He didn't know how to explain to what was still a child the truths of the world, ``And I know it's hard to imagine but you?re even helping the others, think of Millie and how she looks up you''
``Do you think I want to hurt her?'' tears welled in the corners of his eyes ``I don't even want to hurt you and your ready to send me off so they can make me a killer'' His nose twitched as he fought back the tears, his paws clenching into tight little fists ``How can you send us to be a part of that? I don't want others to feel like me, I don't want to live knowing I took someone's parents away, I don't want to know that out there some kid is having to go to his parents grave every year just so they can see how big he's got'' He remembered every time he had to do that, how it burned and made his heart ache to be stood starring at their names and not able to put a face to them. Diego bowed his head in shame, his shoulders shaking as he sniffled and sobbed, ``All I ever wanted to do was make you proud of me, but not this... I can't do this...'' his voice was hoarse and filled with fourteen years of sadness he had bottled up inside.
``I know Diego, it's unfair - no - it's not right of me to ask this of you'', his tone was genuine and caring, life was hard and imperfect but there was nothing he could do about it, ``Come here my son'' he stepped forward with his arms wide, willing to forgive. Diego however, was not so magnanimous. As the lynx took two steps forward, those tears dried up, the raccoon muzzle turns to a snarl and he reaches into that sack of coins and grabbed the biggest pawful he could to hurl into the lynx's face. The suddenness of it all takes Samuel by surprise, he flinched as he was struck by the dull metal coins and straight after Diego barrelled into him, pushing the larger male over. Dazed and teary-eyed he caught only a glimpse of Diego's striped tail as he ran on out ``Diego please!'', his plea passionate as he feared what would become of the boy, but it was too late and all he could do was listen to the sound of the fleeing footsteps grow quieter, ``I am so sorry my boy, I failed you'' Diego was already gone, but he needed it to be said all the same.
Diego and Jake ran away and never looked back. That night the only warmth they would know was each other's, two teenage boys curled together, scared and uncertain in a war-scarred city.