89: Googoltha in the Hall

Come to that, Edmund had never experienced a family before–perhaps this was normal behavior? His only understanding of the concept came from Mrs. Mapleberry, who didn’t really have a family. She seemed to get all her wisdom and understanding of family from her books of shirtless men, and from smelly older women who stopped by the orphanage every Tuesday around tea-time to complain. Of course, the periodically returning orphans never liked their parents, painting pictures of horrible houses and vile relatives, but his situation was nothing like that, so Edmund wasn’t planning on running back to the orphanage any time soon.

Was he?

Edmund turned the corner and stopped short. There, standing in the middle of the hallway just past the door to his room, was Googoltha, wearing the same blood red dress from before. She stood quietly, without moving, like a porcelain doll with her sharp-toothed grin still frozen on her face. They stared at each other for a few moments, before Edmund began to walk slowly towards his door.

She didn’t move an inch.

Finally, Edmund was standing only a few feet from her in front of his door. He looked at her, while she looked at him.

“You didn’t come to dinner with Tricknee,” Edmund said. “Are you hungry?”

Googoltha didn’t answer, but simply stood and smiled. Edmund shifted his feet back and forth.

“Are you lost?” he asked, wondering if she was feeling as confused as he had. “I had trouble finding my way around my first night too.”

His second attempt at hosting proved as fruitless as the first; Googoltha remained silent, grinning at him.

“Well, you can get something from the kitchen if you’re hungry,” Edmund said, “and Ung will be happy to show you to your room. I’m tired now, so I’ll be going to bed. Goodnight.”

She watched him silently as he opened his door and slipped inside his room. With a quick thought, he twisted the small key that was stuck in the interior keyhole, locking his door with a click. He pressed his ear to the door, and after a few seconds he could hear the sound of small hard shoes skipping away down the hall.

Edmund let out a sigh, and carefully began to pull off the layers of mismatched dinner dress.He slipped on a pajama shirt that covered his whole body, and lay down on his bed.

As soon as Edmund’s head hit the pillow, he realized he had never felt so tired in his life. He had never really been physically exhausted before, having never spent much energy running around the Orphanage, but now he knew what it meant to be tired to the core. His brain felt like a large lump of lead, and while his eyelids weren’t drooping his mind had almost stopped forming coherent thoughts. Without even bothering to pull up the covers, he closed his eyes.

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64: Eavesdropping

Edmund was about to return to his exploration when he heard Matron’s voice. Drawing his attention to the nearby door, Edmund crept closer and pressed his eye against the keyhole.

Sure enough, Matron was inside the room. She was seated in a black-leather chair, and was facing someone else who had their back to the door. Edmund couldn’t see anything else that was useful, so he pressed his ear to the keyhole instead.

“So that’s that,” said Matron. There was no mistaking her withered and weather-beaten voice, even though the door. “He’s backed down.”

“I’m afraid,” came the thin reedy voice of Mr. Shobbinton, “I cannot confirm nor deny any motives of my clients, even if they had been expressed to me, which, of course…”

“They haven’t,” Matron finished. “Good. At least he’s learning. What have you learned about my problem?”

“Which one?” Mr. Shobbinton asked dryly as the sound of shuffling paper met Edmund’s ear through the thin door.

“The boy,” Matron snapped.

For a moment there was silence, and then Mr. Shobbinton spoke again.

“It appears that the deed is quite explicit, as are the treaties you directed me to. Not only will the young master need to remain your next of kin, but also remain a resident of Moulde Hall.” There was a grumbling noise, followed by the loud thud of something striking the ground in frustration. Edmund felt the blood drain from his face.

“Peel back every document you can find, Mr. Shobbinton,” Matron’s voice cut through the door. “Root out every loophole you can find and scrape every corner you turn. The boy cannot stay, and that’s final!”

“I assure you I already have,” Mr. Shobbinton sounded insulted. “I have explored the possibilities of Summer homes, the long-lost-relative clauses, and any number of mysterious vanishing precedents. The laws are quite clear: The boy must claim Moulde Hall as his primary residence, under all circumstances.”

There was a pause, and then Matron spoke again, her voice soft.

“Then we must create a new precedent. Begin at once.”

“I shall do my best, allowing for my other duties, of course.” Mr. Shobbinton said, soothingly. “But I reiterate, you must begin resigning yourself to the truth of it–if you wish to maintain your control over the situation, the young master must stay.”

The sound of footsteps approaching the door prodded Edmund into movement. He pulled himself up and moved as quickly and as quietly as he could around a nearby pillar, and waited while he heard the door open and close, followed by the calm strides of Mr. Shobbinton fading down the hallway. There was a pause, and then the door opened and closed again, Matron’s footsteps following Mr. Shobbinton’s.

Edmund sank to the ground, his heart tight.

He wouldn’t be the first, he realized. Children returned to the orphanage all the time.

He could escape the endless twisting maze of huge hallways and empty rooms. He could leave behind the strange clothes and stern disgust of Matron, the snide patronizing of her cousins, and return to the familiar, if chaffing, smile of Mrs. Mapleberry.

In his mind’s eye he saw the orphanage door open wide, threatening to pull him back to the same old walls and rafters, the weevils and creaking floors calling to him.

Edmund bolted upright and continued to explore, a storm raging both outside the mansion and inside his chest as well.

8: Edmund’s Solitude

http://kittykitty-bangbang.deviantart.com/art/Haunted-104833363

Image: Haunted by KittyKitty-BangBang

It didn’t trouble Edmund, though; he enjoyed being alone. Of course, it was hard to find a place to be alone in the orphanage. The building would have been able to fit twenty children snugly, but there were often more than sixty children of varying ages waiting to be adopted.

When it was warm, and most of the other children were playing outside, he would stay inside and do his best to keep out of sight. In the winter, when it was too cold for the children to play in the yard, he would bundle himself up in his scarf, sneak out into the snow, and find a place to sit alone and read until his fingertips turned blue.

When Edmund wasn’t reading, he was watching. He liked watching things and listening to them too. When he was outside he would watch the snow fall, or the skyline of the city’s smokestacks as they faded deeper and deeper into the black clouds of industry. He would listen to the old autumn leaves crunching under animal paws, or birds singing as the first dawn of spring peeked its head over the hills.

When he was inside, he would watch the weevils burrow in and out of knots in the wooden floor or holes in the wall. He watched the leaves fall off the single thin tree that sprouted in the yard through the bent shutters. He would listen to the children play at their games of catch, tag, and stick-ball, or to Mrs. Mapleberry muttering to herself or scolding another child when they had done something ‘not befitting a Wayward Lad or Lady.’

He was so good at watching, in fact, that the children had a tendency — as did Mrs. Mapleberry, for that matter — to forget he was even in the room. Sometimes, while the children were playing inside or studying, Mrs. Mapleberry would enter the room and asked if anyone had seen Edmund around the orphanage. The children would always be very polite and say that no, they hadn’t seen him, to which Mrs. Mapleberry would cluck in exasperation and vanish again.

Most of the children would return to their games, while some of the crueler ones would immediately begin to guess where he was and what he was doing.

Had he run away? Was he digging up a corpse from the graveyard in the city? Was he being re-wound by his creator? Or had he run off into the sewers to grow into a monster that would feed on the flesh of naughty children?

Of course, Edmund was usually sitting in the corner of the room the whole time reading, but no one ever seemed to notice and he never thought of drawing attention to himself.

And so it was that Edmund lived his days in the drearily morbid surroundings of the orphanage, dealing with the depressingly cheerful Mrs. Mapleberry, and avoiding the speedily rotating roster of the other children.

4: The Children

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Image: Uncredited, VictorianChildren.org

For their part, the other children seemed to find Edmund just as odd and unnerving as the hopeful parents, and would quickly stop talking or avoid his gaze whenever he was near. They always found themselves playing on the other side of the yard from where Edmund sat, but if you asked them they wouldn’t be able to tell you why.

Once, at the ever insistent urgings of Mrs. Mapleberry, Edmund tried to join in a game of stick-ball. He had watched the other children play before, and it had seemed a simple enough game. The other children had reluctantly acquiesced, and Edmund found himself swinging languidly at a gently tossed leather ball.

Before long, he was bored. It wasn’t nearly as exciting as it had seemed from across the yard. No one was shouting or laughing, and they were definitely throwing the ball a lot more timidly than they had when he was watching.

No one seemed to mind when he set down the stick and walked away.

Edmund never tried very hard to make any friends. It wasn’t that the children were cruel (although some of them were) or stupid (which several definitely were), it was just that Edmund didn’t see the point. Why bother when they could be gone in a week, never to be seen again?

There were exceptions, of course. While many of the orphans who entered the Home for Wayward Lads and Ladies would vanish again within the year, quite a few would show up again. Some of them were orphaned again by industrial accidents, while others were returned by parents who asserted they had done quite enough of their patriotic duty, thank you. Others were picked up and returned by the local constabulary as vagrants, having run away from their new homes for any number of reasons.

A few just walked back through the wooden gate, as though they had never been away.

As fashionable as adoption seemed to be these days, turnover was quick, with some children leaving and returning as much as three times a month. They would always return full of stories about how marvelous or terrible it had been to have a family.

Edmund only partially paid attention; after a while, the stories had all begun to sound the same. Sometimes it was chocolates and clothing and three square meals a day. Other times, it was beatings and rotten bread. Sometimes there were siblings, other times dogs. Sometimes the houses were large, other times small. Sometimes it was a lovely tale, other times a horror story, but it ended the same way; the children came back to the orphanage.

It was an academic point for Edmund to say the least–everyone seemed sure he would never have to deal with it.

Mrs. Mapleberry, however, was unable to give up.

2: Mrs. Mapleberry’s Home for Wayward Lads and Ladies

http://chrisrawlins.deviantart.com/art/House-On-The-Hill-266347025

Image: House On The Hill by ChrisRawlins

The orphanage itself was falling apart, and by the time Edmund was six it was no better. It tended to sway in strong winds, and the ceiling would creak with effort when the dark snows of winter heaped themselves on the small roof. The faded wooden slats on the outside were rotting and warped. They clattered loudly in the breeze, keeping the children awake at night; or leaked in the winter, letting the dark rains drip inside and blanket the small beds with gray frost.

The inside of the orphanage was just as decrepit, with chunks of decaying plaster falling from the walls throughout the day like dying leaves. The children often had to flick large bits of white out of their food or off of their clothes. In the worst places the walls looked like a moth-eaten sweater, with large support beams and rafters sticking out like whalebone through the holes.

The floorboards were full of termites and wood-weevils, and would crack and creak quite loudly. Some of the nails had long since rusted away as well, and the floors rocked and twisted whenever a child stepped on them. When a large group of children ran from one room to another, the cacophony of creakings, bangings, and cries of pain as the children stumbled on the shifting floors was almost deafening.

Late at night, with the muddy darkness settling over the house, some of the children would share their dreams of large homes with five floors, fifty windows, and a set of wealthy parents and uncles and aunts and cousins who would feed them real roast chicken or duck.

Edmund never quite understood their aspirations. He had gotten used to picking plaster out of his food, and if the orphanage had been five floors high, he’d be worried about people falling through the rotting floors above and onto him while he slept.

Despite being the only house on Downs Hill, the Home for Wayward Lads and Ladies was enclosed by a thick oak fence. The small yard held only a single frail tree that rose from the middle of the yard like a sick flower. There was barely enough space for thirty children to run and play, and there were more than twice that living in the orphanage. Edmund had counted.

Mrs. Mapleberry seemed to not notice the decrepit nature of the building. Plaster could be picked out, bruises would heal, and the children had blankets, didn’t they? She would hear no complaining in her orphanage, and all of the children were of course grateful that they had a roof over their heads at all, weren’t they?

They were, and nothing in the Home for Wayward Lads and Ladies ever improved.

1: The Macabre Tale of Edmund Moulde

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Image by Max Bullock

Edmund was an orphan from birth, as was fashionable at the time.

His earliest memories were of a solitary and dreary life in Mrs. Mapleberry’s Home For Wayward Lads and Ladies, a sagging orphanage perched on top of Downs Hill on the outskirts of the smog-blanketed city of Brackenburg.

It was a crowded life with orphans being so plentiful. Brackenburg had been hit hard during the last war, leaving many homes vacant and many children parent-less. More importantly, at least to the Mayor, there were also fewer men and women to perform the necessary farm and factory labor to keep the city alive.

In response, the mayor began to devote his time and energy to subsidizing the experimental inventions that he thought would propel his beloved city into the twentieth century. This seemed to work, and soon a large black sooty cloud of industry began to grow over the Brackenburg skyline.

Sadly, as industry prospered there was a marked increase in industrial accidents as well, which led to even more orphans and vacant homes that began to dot Brackenburg like festering sores, while the black clouds of soot that hung over the city continued to grow larger.

Finally, as abandoned houses, decrepit mansions, and haunted lots sprouted up like weeds, the Mayor decided to donate them to the numerous orphanages that were becoming so necessary.

“A small price to pay for progress,” the mayor had said, closing his speech with a shake of his head in sympathy. “In these havens — these sanctuaries — our children will be cared for and grow up knowing that their parents died either to make this country safe in war, or to make this city great in industry. Either way, it is because of their sacrifice that Brackenburg is one of the greatest and most prosperous cities in the world.”

It had been the proudest moment in Mrs. Mapleberry’s life, standing on the rickety makeshift stage in the pouring rain, not an arms length away from the Mayor himself. Granted, she had been selected along with twenty two other proprietors of orphanages to stand with the Mayor, but she was next to him none-the-less. She couldn’t help but feel uniquely prized as he distributed deeds to the properties like Father Christmas.

After the speech was finished, Mrs. Mapleberry began the unsteady journey down the makeshift stairs to solid ground. She hadn’t gone more than five steps, however, when a pale thin babe was thrust into her arms by an unseen stranger from the swarming mass of citizenry.

Had she been inclined to think faster she might have been able to catch the arm of the mysterious figure, or at least catch a glimpse, as no one could have moved through the thick throng of onlookers with any speed. But she had been smothered with civic pride and a personal sense of duty by the Mayor’s speech, and looking at the child, who looked back at her with thick black eyes, filled her with a sense of purpose.

And so, instead of thinking twice about the mysterious benefactor, she went straight to her new home; the only building on Downs Hill.