The sweltering New Orleans sun departs a grateful sky, splashing orange and red hues across nature’s blue canvas. We’re running late, “Come on! Mama and Papa must be waiting for us,” I holler. Sammy, only three years old, struggles to keep pace with my longer strides. “Only a few more minutes,” I add soothingly.
Four years my junior, Sammy is my mirror image. His blond hair bounces as he skips awkwardly through the field of tall grass, propelling himself as fast as his stubby legs allow. He catches up to me and giggles, his blue eyes twinkling, and I can’t help but laugh along.
I slow down a bit in deference to my brother, but my pace is still deliberate.
Other thoughts intrude, stealing my attention. Papa says war has erupted in Europe. In rare displays of temper, he gets upset when he talks about someone named “Hitler.” I think he’s worried the fighting could come to America. I hope not.
When I finally look back again, Sammy is nowhere to be seen. My eyes dart urgently for some sign of him, heart racing.
“Sammy!” I scream. No reply. He might be lying injured. I frantically rip out bunches of grass; the blades will surely leave painful blisters on my hands.
“Sammy!” I pause, out of breath. Suddenly, a rough hand covers my mouth with a smelly rag, while another pins my left arm behind me. My vision blurs, then fades to black. The car seat digs into my right shoulder, waking me, as we drive over a rocky dirt road. Sammy sits beside me, his hands tied behind his back with a thick rope. A black handkerchief covers his mouth; his eyes bulge with fear. I stare back at him.
“I’ll figure out a way to get us back to Mama and Papa,” I say telepathically.
Where are we?
Glancing left, I realize we’re not alone — a small boy gawks back at me. He’s about Sammy’s age and shares many of his features: brilliant blue eyes, thin rosy lips, and tousled blond hair. I can dimly see the backs of two dark-haired men in the front seat, sitting on either side of a woman with gray hair, parted authoritatively to one side. She turns around sharply. Her cold, cunning eyes meet mine, sending a shiver down my spine. Her lips curve into a thin, tight smile.
“We’ll be there soon,” she says. Her tone is more threatening than informative.
The long, deafening silence that follows fuels our anxiety. When we arrive at our apparent destination several hours later, the woman quickly ushers us into a big house long deprived of paint, introducing herself along the way as “Mrs. White.”
“You’ll be sleeping here,” she barks, pushing the door open to reveal a room furnished spartanly with two chairs, a small table, and a bunk bed. Crumpled blankets are strewn on the wooden floor, which feels spongy with every step. The room is otherwise unadorned, except for the spider webs that decorate a corner.
“Hurry up! Dinner doesn’t last forever,” the woman growls, pushing me roughly.
She slams the door behind us. The walls shudder. I grab two clay bowls off the table in the dining room and head to the kitchen with Sammy trailing closely behind. When I push open the swinging kitchen doors with my hip, I see a young woman with long, brown hair hovering over the stove. She silently dishes scoops of mush into our bowls.
The long dining table is littered with dirty plates and crumpled napkins, so I gently set our bowls on the floor. Sammy plops down facing me, his wide eyes staring into mine. I lean over and whisper: “I’ll find out where we are. Don’t worry, we’ll be back with Mama and Papa soon. I promise.”
My words are suspect, even to me, but I need to reassure Sammy. I stroke his left cheek with my thumb, the way Papa would do if he were here. My heart aches at the thought of never seeing him again, but I push the notion away. Papa was always positive: he always knew how to make things right.
The boy who rode with us in the car, and later introduced himself as ”Owen” sits nearby, staring reluctantly at his food.
“What’s the matter? It’s not good enough for ya?” Mrs. White says, pushing his face into the bowl of gruel.
Fearing the same fate, Sammy quickly spoons the slop into his mouth.
It’s late. I grab my brother’s hand and lead him into the bedroom. Pushing the door open, I’m shocked to see a swarm of kids, perhaps 20 — the oldest about 10; the youngest, only a few months old. It looks like a puppy mill. The bunk bed has already been claimed. A chunky boy sits on the top berth, his legs crossed neatly and his eyes closed — perhaps thinking of better days. Another boy rests below him, arms and legs spread wide.
On the floor, there are more than a dozen kids sprawled out on wrinkled blankets. Most of them appear to be fast asleep. The only empty space in the room is beneath a small window. I pick up Sammy and clutch him to my chest, then tiptoe through an ocean of limbs, trying not to disturb the other children. Sammy tilts his head toward me, his eyes tearing up and his lips quivering. I stroke his cheek again and playfully muss his hair. Then, sleep finally beckons. His eyelids, at first resistant, now close slowly. For him, this hellish day is over.
I long for sleep, too, but my mind races and I’m heavy with sadness. A tear trickles down my cheek, pauses under my chin, and having no alternative, falls to the floor in desperation. I lean my head against the wall and close my eyes, praying that sleep will wash away this nightmare — at least for a while.
Over the next several days, we become acquainted with our surroundings, which brings a bit of comfort. But after two weeks, I still have no idea where we are — or our captors’ intentions. The door to our room suddenly swings open, and my thoughts flee in terror. Mrs. White stands menacingly in the doorway; “Wake up!” she orders, slamming two pots together. The other children, long accustomed to her cruelty, quickly scramble out for breakfast. But Sammy begins to bawl.
“I miss Mama and Papa,” he wails, thrashing his legs and banging his fists on the floor.
“Shhh,” I whisper, begging him to stop; “Please. We don’t want trouble.”
When he continues to sob loudly, Mrs. White stomps across the room, her beady eyes glaring straight into mine; “Give me the brat,” she snarls, ripping Sammy from my arms.
“No, please! He’ll never do it again. I’ll make sure of it. Please!” My voice trembles and I struggle to hold back tears. Ignoring my pleas, Mrs. White storms off, holding Sammy sideways under one arm. I wish the earth would swallow us.
The next morning, I sneak into the hall, searching in vain for Sammy, but pause when I hear a deep voice. “Make sure to have the boy and Marjorie ready tomorrow,” the man says, referring to me and my brother; “We’re having visitors.”
Will it be Mama and Papa? Are they finally coming for us?
I hear footsteps approach, so I race into the next room. It’s dark. In the corner, almost hidden, lies Sammy, his hands nervously fawning a tattered blanket, his body convulsing. I rush to my brother and cradle him in my arms. “Are you okay?” I ask. When I caress his back, Sammy whimpers, then reveals a large bruise between his shoulder blades. I flush with anger.
“Did she do this?” I demand. He nods. I hate that woman with all my heart. Why haven’t Mama and Papa rescued us?
We need to get out of here.
My head is awash with thoughts, all competing for my attention. For now, though, Sammy and I sit on the cold floor in silent anguish until we hear the call for dinner.
Sammy, Owen, and I usually have the bedroom to ourselves after dinner. Not tonight. The Old Hag barges in and walks over to Owen, who appears almost lifeless. The color is drained from his face and dark bags have taken up residence under his eyes. She picks him up and tosses him into a burlap sack.
“Where are you taking him?” I ask boldly, but fearing reprisal.
“Oh, boo-hoo,” she pouts mockingly, her caterpillar eyebrows scrunched.
“Don’t worry, sweetie. I’ll take care of him.”
Somehow, I know I’ll never see Owen again.
Mrs. White’s eyes squint and detect Sammy, hidden under my blanket. “He shouldn’t be here,” she snaps. The Old Hag wrenches Sammy from my grasp, throws him over her shoulder, and thunders out of the room. Tears rush down my cheeks. My jaw tightens and begins to tremble. I pray Sammy and Owen will be safe.
When the first rays of sunlight signal a new day in this purgatory, Mrs. White returns. She bends down a few inches from my face. “People are coming today,” she says. I recoil from her foul breath; “You need to look nice.”
The Old Hag grabs my wrist and marches me into the “office.” She drags me to the center of the room and digs through a pile of neatly-folded clothes. “Be polite to our visitors — or you’ll be sorry,” she warns; “When they ask about your time here, say that Mrs. Kelly has been a wonderful guardian and that you feel lucky she was willing to take you in.”
Who is Mrs. Kelly? I wonder.
The Old Hag pulls out a white crew-neck sweater and plaid skirt from the stack of clothes, “Change,” she bellows, throwing the clothes at me.
She stares at me intently, arms crossed. I assume she means here and now, so despite my discomfort, I undress. I slip into the sweater, which fits tightly, and zip up the skirt, leaving my old clothes in a pile on the floor. She steps back and slowly looks me up and down.
“I guess it’ll do. Wash your face.” She drags me to a nearby bathroom and hands me a soiled washcloth. I barely recognize the girl staring back at me in the mirror. My long, golden hair is frizzy and matted; my cheeks are pale. I press the cold washcloth to my face, wiping away weeks of dirt and grime. She grabs my wrist and hauls me back to the office, where Sammy is waiting outside the door, dressed in a mini-suit and penny loafers.
Peeking inside, I notice a smartly-dressed couple sitting directly across from a middle-aged woman I’ve never seen before. She must be Mrs. Kelly, I venture.
“This is Marjorie and Sam Olsen,” Mrs. Kelly says, introducing us to the couple. “We took the kids under our wing a few weeks ago when their parents were killed in a tragic car accident. We take young children with obvious potential, such as Sammy and Marjorie here, and help them find loving homes.”
Mama and Papa can’t be dead. We don’t even have a car!
I stand quietly, open-mouthed, a hundred questions on the tip of my tongue. Then, I catch a glimpse of the Old Hag glaring at me. I take shelter in an occasional nod and smile.
Finally, the couple stands and Mrs. Kelly, who strikes me as a headmistress of sorts, escorts them to the front door. The lady turns and winks at me. Mrs. Kelly walks the couple to their car, then returns and talks — out of earshot — to our chief tormentor. After a few minutes, the Old Hag approaches us brusquely, her face churning with anger. She grabs my wrist and locks an arm around Sammy’s neck.
“They don’t want ya,” she says to Sammy; “But we’ll onload ya on someone.”
At bedtime, the Old Hag summons me with important news, “The Collins family is especially interested in you from your photos and profile,” she says. “The woman’s a fashion designer and her husband is a well-respected merchant in their hometown. You’ll be leaving with them tomorrow morning. The paperwork is all filled out. You’d better behave. We don’t like returns.”
“What about Mama and Papa?” I ask timidly. It’s the first time I’ve found the courage to challenge her.
“Your parents don’t want you anymore. From now on, you will only refer to Mrs. and Mr. Collins as your Mama and Papa. Understand?” I begin to protest, but think better of the idea.
“What about Sammy?” I ask.
“They only want a girl,” she says with an air of finality; “We’ll pawn him off on someone else.”
They can’t be taking me away from Sammy. I won’t let them.
I feel tears well up, but fight them back. I wait until Mrs. White leaves and quietly tiptoe toward Sammy’s room. I’m almost halfway there when she steps out of the shadows and grabs me by the neck, pinning me to the wall.
“Why can’t Sammy come?” I gasp.
“They don’t want him! They only want you. Why, I’ll never know.”
She drags me to a small closet and throws me inside. I hear the lock click. I’m alone, trapped. My hands and legs grow numb. I fall asleep.
“Get up!” the Old Hag commands, kicking my leg. I adjust my eyes as light oozes past her towering figure.
“They’ll be here in ten minutes,” she says, leading me to the bathroom. She turns on the faucet and smooths out my hair.
“Can I see Sammy once more?” I plead. To my surprise, she agrees. I follow her to Sammy’s room, where he lays fetal, hugging a blanket.
“Hi, Sammy,” I whisper; “I have to go away.” I look at him with all the love my heart can muster, and squeeze his hand tightly.
“I’ll see you soon. I promise.” It takes so many lies to keep his fragile spirits afloat.
“That’s enough. They’re here,” the Old Hag says, her bullish frame leaning against the door. She hands me off to Mrs. Kelly. I hate myself for leaving Sammy behind, but I have no choice.
Mr. and Mrs. Collins are waiting for me at the front door. She smiles warmly. Her husband nods and shakes hands with Mrs. Kelly. “Thank you,” he says. “My wife and I are so excited to welcome Marjorie into our family.”
“It’s nothing. I find so much happiness helping these children,” Mrs. Kelley replies.
I nearly throw up. In fairness, though, if I didn’t know better, I’d probably fall for her spiel, too.
We pile into their waiting car. As we drive away, I press my forehead tightly against the window. A sign emblazoned, “Louisiana Children’s Aid Society” gradually disappears from sight. I whisper a tender “goodbye” to Sammy and remember my solemn vow. God only knows if I can keep my word.
Elaine Zhai is a high school Junior from the Harker School in San Jose. California. Her work has been recognized by the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers and elsewhere.