The Orphan – Wendi L. Wilson

It was a terrible idea, quickly planned and poorly executed, but sometimes circumstances force you to do things you would never do in another life. After walking in, I changed my mind seven times, backtracking toward the door before forcing myself to be brave and turn back around. So, gathering what little shreds of determination I possessed, I walked to the back of the store, my hands shaking as my eyes darted back and forth, all shifty like a Lox addict looking for his next fix. I stood in the personal hygiene aisle, pretending to compare the labels of two different brands of deodorant until the old lady with the curlers in her hair walked away. The orange cat embroidered on her sweater gave me the side-eye as the woman disappeared around a corner. My breath trembled as much as my hands as I tossed the expensive brand back onto the top shelf and grabbed the low-priced special from a basket near the bottom. If I was going to do this, I was going to make the store’s loss as small as possible. I shoved the deodorant into my backpack as I rushed to my left. I quickly swiped some cheap toothpaste, a bar of soap, and a bottle of conditioning shampoo from their respective shelves. Dumping the items in on top of the deodorant, I zipped the backpack, slung it over my shoulders, and walked out of the aisle. Keeping my steps slow and measured, I did my best to look casual as I headed for the exit. My best must not have been good enough, because while the other shoppers ignored me, the young man in the red vest eyed me curiously as I passed the candy aisle where he was stocking the chocolate bars. If I were a real thief, I might’ve stolen some of those bars. I’d never tasted chocolate, but I overheard a couple of girls at school talking about how amazingly decadent it was. At twenty dollars per bar, chocolate was a delicacy reserved for the rich.

And for them. As the thought crossed my mind, the automatic doors swished open and one of them walked in. She was tall, even taller than my height of five-foot-eleven. An obsidian waterfall of hair tumbled down her back, shimmering in the fluorescent lighting as she looked from left to right. Her charcoal eyes, already large and bright, widened further as they spotted the row of chocolate I’d just been daydreaming about. The guy in the red vest lost all interest in me, seeing the exotic creature rushing toward him. He straightened, an abysmal attempt to make himself taller, and puffed out his chest a bit. “Can I help you find something in particular?” he asked, his eyes roaming over her perfect features while she completely ignored him. And that was my cue to leave. No one attempted to stop me as I rushed through the doors, barely giving them time to open wide enough to let me pass.

No alarms sounded, no shouts rang out behind me, and no one chased me down the street like a common criminal. I made it. I could finally clean myself with more than just water and wouldn’t have to live my life with greasy hair, dirty teeth, and the stench of my own body odor anymore. At least for a little while, I would feel like a real human being. I rushed home, hoping beyond hope that Gretchen was out of the house. She would want to know why I was late, and chances were she would make me dump out the contents of my backpack so she could inspect them. If she found the stuff I stole…well, I didn’t even want to think about that. I slipped into our neighborhood, scanning the dirty windows of the run-down shacks, looking for suspicious faces. Our nosy neighbors loved to gossip, and if someone told Gretchen, or worse, Todd, that I slinked in an hour after school let out, there’d be hell to pay. I didn’t catch anyone spying, so I put my head down and increased my pace until I was jogging up the sagging aluminum steps to the front door.

Slipping my key into the lock, I turned the knob and tiptoed through the doorway, closing the panel behind me with a soft click. I froze for a moment, and the house seemed to exhale as nothing but silence met my ears. I was alone. Rushing to my bedroom, I closed the door and grabbed the metal patio chair pushed under the T.V. tray that served as my desk. Tilting it onto its hind legs, I shoved the backrest under the doorknob. I pulled the deodorant, toothpaste, soap and shampoo from my bag and walked to my closet. Setting my loot on the floor, I dropped to my hands and knees. I brushed my fingers along the floor tiles, finding the crack I’d discovered my first week in this awful house.

Wedging the tips of my fingers into the crevice, I jiggled the tile until it popped free. I pulled out the only thing inside, a threadbare white blanket with blue and pink stripes, and wrapped the items inside it before shoving it back into the hole. Replacing the vinyl tile, I hammered it down with the heel of my hand before smoothing my palm over it to make sure it was flush. “December, get your ass out here.” The bellowed words were punctuated by the slamming of the front door and the sound of shoes scuffing across the vinyl floor. Gretchen never picked up her feet when she walked. Careful not to make a sound, I pulled the chair from beneath the doorknob and set it beneath the T.V. tray. I was pretty sure neither Gretchen nor Todd knew I used that chair as an improvised lock to my door, as neither of them had ever tried to barge in while I was using it.

I was certain I’d lose the uncomfortable seat if they ever found out. Privacy was not something a lowly foster kid like me needed. Or deserved. “Yes, ma’am?” I said, my voice pleasant and eager to please. I’d learned early on that I always had to pretend to be happy in this house. If I showed the slightest bit of anger, sadness, or any other emotion that could be construed as anything less than perfect gratitude, the Holts would start taking things from me. Things like personal hygiene products, school supplies, and even food. They wanted to make sure I truly appreciated everything they provided for me—food, shelter, and…well, that was pretty much it. And the food part was sporadic. The last time I showed the tiniest bit of dissatisfaction, I lost all my bath products… and I never got them back.

“I got you something at the store,” Gretchen says, digging through a brown cloth bag. My breath hitched, remembering my own foray to the store and I counted myself lucky that I hadn’t run right into her. There was only one market within a reasonable walking distance, so it was there that I went to steal the things I needed. And it was surely where Gretchen had gone to make her purchases. “Well, what are you waiting for?” she demanded. “Come and get it.” She shook a small box in my direction, and I hastened over to take it from her. I read the label and forced my lips up into an appreciative smile. It was a twelve-pack of feminine pads, something you’d expect foster parents would be required to provide a teen girl, paid for by the monthly stipend they received for housing her. “Thank you, Gretchen,” I murmured, hoping my voice contained the required level of gratitude.

“Make them last,” she said. “It’ll be a few months before we can afford more.” With a wave of her hand, I was dismissed. I walked back to my room, closing the door softly behind me. Leaning against the panel, I stared at the box in my hand. I was actually feeling a little grateful. I hadn’t even thought of stealing pads when I was at the market. Gretchen actually saved me from either being completely humiliated, or having to use one of my few, threadbare shirts as protection. Of course, in her mind, it was easier and cheaper to buy the pads than to have to spring for new clothes and undergarments. Clothes were expensive.

Cotton was not one of the crops revived by them when they showed up, offering to save the planet after the human race pretty much destroyed it. It was not essential for life, like food or trees that make clean oxygen, so our clothes had to be made from more expensive synthetic materials. Because of Gretchen’s greed and Todd’s addiction, I had a minimal wardrobe that consisted mostly of ripped or stained pieces I found at the recycle center in the burn bins. And most of the pieces were men’s. Because of my height, the feminine clothes I found were never long enough. I was laying across my bed, studying, when the front door banged open and heavy footsteps pounded across the floor. A fist clenched in my gut, as it did every day at that time. I shut down my tablet and tilted my head, attempting to hear their conversation. A cold chill washed over me when I heard Todd’s voice and Gretchen’s subsequent giggle. He was in a good mood.

My hands shook as I slid my tablet into my worn-out backpack, and I took a few deep, cleansing breaths. Todd in a good mood only meant one thing—he got his Lox fix. When the Zephyrs showed up a few decades ago, promising to help the humans correct the damage we’d done to the planet, they brought with them a form of liquid oxygen that, when added to our water sources or mixed into our soil, reversed the acidity centuries of pollution and waste had caused. The acidity that, over time, had killed off most of the Earth’s plant life. Breathing in air composed of higher carbon dioxide and less oxygen eventually took out half the population, giving them respiratory diseases that couldn’t be cured. In return for saving us from our own destruction, we gave them dominion over all the farmland that skirts the big cities. They used their liquid oxygen to heal the soil, but only in the land they took possession of, so they controlled all agriculture. They imported wild cattle from the forests of Northern Canada, one of the few places on Earth that still supported trees. The Zephyrs grew the food, raised the cattle, and controlled the water supply to the city. They had unprecedented and undisputed power over us all.

Of course, some idiot farm worker got his hands on the precious liquid and figured out that if you aspirated it, it had a narcotic effect. And Lox was born. Lox addiction reportedly ran rampant in the few large cities still occupied, but ours seemed to be the worst. Maybe it was because we had the highest population of Zephyrs, giving drug dealers the most opportunity to get their hands on it. Maybe impoverishment breeds a need for escape, even if only for a little while, and our city had the highest poverty level of all, more than doubling that of any metropolis left in what used to be the United States. Nothing about us was united anymore. It had been “every man for himself” for more than half a century. “December! Dinner time,” Gretchen shouted, pulling me from my thoughts. I stood, smoothing my rumpled clothes before twisting my long black hair up into a knot at my nape. Todd loved to touch my hair, especially when he was high on Lox, so the style was strictly a defensive tactic.

If he couldn’t see it, maybe he wouldn’t think about it. “December, now!” I took a few deep breaths and twisted the knob on my door, letting the panel swing open a few inches so I could peek out and take stock of the situation. If I didn’t get out there, there would be no dinner for me and I’d go to bed hungry. Since I had no money to buy lunch at school, I hadn’t had anything to eat since breakfast, which was only one piece of dry toast and some water. My stomach growled at the thought of more food. Todd was standing behind Gretchen, his arms looped around her waist as they swayed back and forth and he whispered things in her ear that made her giggle like a school girl. While Gretchen loved it when Todd came home high, for me, it was a nightmare.

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