The true nature of humanity is that they’re born with nothing other than the desire to survive. Jean is disturbed by this thought as she watches Tom snatch the last piece of bread from her and quickly gobbles it before it finds a new owner. The bread is hard and dry, but she’s used to it, they’re all used to it. Jean doesn’t scream or try to get it back. She knows that’s a vain affair. In stead, she scans the other children. Maybe one of them will have a spare piece of bread to share, which she doubts, if not, she’ll have to wait till lunchtime. It’s unfair, and she knows it, but she also knows this is the best she’ll ever get. The best she’s ever gotten. That’s what she’s repeatedly drummed into her mind because she stopped hoping a long time ago.
After the meal. They say the grace and proceed outside. They have an hour to enjoy the sun before they go to their rooms to await lunch. After that, it’s time for work.
Time drags itself as if it doesn’t care whether Jean will die of hunger or not. She sits on one of the steps of the front porch and watches the other children play. She can’t afford to do that today. She’s saving her energy for later when she’s back in her room. She’ll need it then. Her eyes sweep the whole compound. There’s a small wooden gate that protects them from outsiders with the help of Simba, a German shepherd that is let loose at night by Martha, their caregiver. The whole compound is surrounded by poles chain linked together. Whatever space is left in between them has been filled by countless shrubs. The front of the house is covered with patches of dry brown grass. The house is a ground level mansion that initially had ten spacious rooms but has now been subdivided into twenty to accommodate everyone. Jean sighs as she gets lost in thought watching two boys chase each other around the whole compound. Boys.
Two hours later, she’s back in her room lying on her bed and looking at the ceiling, peering into her memories. Jean cannot see into the future, unlike the other children who fancy a beautiful life that will come someday. A word she deleted long ago in her dictionary. She looks into her past in stead, a piece of magic that we all have. This activity always drains her even when she’s on a full stomach – a rare event. Perhaps it’s her quest to search for answers in her mind that tires her. She cannot help it however. She needs to know.
Her earliest memory is of her playing with other similar little girls. It’s not so much the pleasure of playing that day that has etched this memory into her mind, but how she got interrupted in the middle of her turn, and then her life changed drastically from that day. A downward spiral into an abyss she’s been trying to come out of since then. She was only five years old then. Now, she’s twelve. She remembers the texture of the soil on her hands and the smell of the muddy mixture in front of her on that day, the type that she smells every time the soil is dampened by rain. The name of the game is a blur, but does it really matter? All a child wants when playing is to enjoy themselves. And she’s sure she was doing that to the best of her ability. But she does have recollections of some of the roles. The game is one in which they pretended soil is food, some of them are couples, and those who are ugly are animals. She smiles at this thought. She glances at the broken piece of glass she uses as a mirror and wonders which category she falls in. Couple or animal? Definitely couple.
She hops from her bed and onto the floor. She sits with her back on her bed, her head lying gently on the mattress, and then she remembers the voices of her companions as they ran around the small field yelling out random statements like; that’s mine…you’re a dog, you’re too ugly…I’m the mom and you’re the dad…Jean where’s the food…hurry up… And then a tall lady approaches them and calls out her name.
The lady is beautiful. She knows she can’t describe her face, but she thinks it’s beautiful. She must be. All kind people are beautiful. And that is something she is willing to stand up for. She’s clothed in a tomato-coloured dress that sweeps the ground around her clean. She must be very hardworking, Jean thinks to herself, to wash off all the dirt from that elegant skirt. Or she has someone do it for her like the way their clothes are washed on Saturdays by Martha. Yes, she looks like she can afford it. Jean doesn’t remember much of her face, actually her whole face is mostly a blur. For some unknown reason to her, she never remembers faces well. Even the faces of the new children who arrived last week are still a blur to her. Maybe it’s ignorance. She heard guardian Martha call Jim that yesterday. Jim must be new here, she thinks, because guardian Martha has never called anyone else such a word. Perhaps it’s better that she doesn’t remember all of those faces. She does not want to remember the faces of everyone anyway. All of those faces would fill her mind and bother her. The aroma of onions and tomatoes being fried in the kitchen finds its way to her room. Her tummy growls a little and her mouth waters. It reminds her of how nice the beautiful lady smelled. Then she sneezes. She just breathed in a fly. Gross.
Soon after meeting the beautiful lady, she ended up here, a children’s home of some sort. She’s heard people passing by the fence call it illegal. Is that what a good place that takes care of children not wanted by their parents is called? Her heart aches whenever she thinks of her parents. She wishes she knew them even if only for a moment, but she cannot remember them. Martha is the only adult she can call family, but even she cannot afford to be all loving. She’s struggling, and Jean can tell.
The pangs of hunger draw her attention to the position of the sun. The rays are almost receding from her room, so lunch is not so far away. She clutches her stomach and slowly slips onto the floor thinking of what could be. She relaxes her body and listens to the sweet melody of the birds and the wind. In her mind, it is her beautiful lady singing a lullaby to her. A smile forms on her lips as sleep consumes her. Maybe after singing to her, she’ll kiss her goodnight, or hug her. God knows she needs one.
The lunchtime bell pulls Jean from her reverie and she finds herself drooling on the floor. She hates when she falls asleep in the middle of reliving a memory. The last memory. However, it has too many gaps for her and no matter how hard she tries, she has never finished it. She always ends up asleep or worse, caught in a never-ending loop of what ifs. She wipes the drool from her mouth with the back of her hand and then rises up to her feet. She looks at the mirror and she sees her tear-filled and exhausted eyes staring blankly at her. She straightens her dress and walks out of her room slowly. She better get to the dinner table early if she wants to make it even with Tom.
Today is Friday, and on Friday they’re served with a fair portion of rice and beans because tomorrow there will be visitors. And visitors may choose who to take with away to their home. Home. A strange word to Jean. She’s grown so used to this place that she cannot fathom what it would feel like to have people kiss her goodnight, or read to her stories, or tell her they love her, or even just be there for her if she needs them. All of this is strange to her. But she does love how the thoughts make her feel something in her chest. Something she cannot quite put a finger on.
As she walks along the corridor, she looks at the other children and for split second feels pity towards them. Some are getting old so fast she wishes she could stop it. She’s heard that when one turns sixteen, they are let go to another home far away where they have to work very hard to even get something to eat. They could just be rumours or the economy. Something that Martha is always complaining about. Jean’s heard Tom turns 15 in a month’s time. She wishes he’d be chosen by the visitors who come, but that’s not up to her to decide. One time, she even refused to go with her new family so that they’d pick Tom. But they wanted a girl. So Tom stayed. And she never got chosen again. That lesson stayed with her. Now, she knows to think of herself first. Maybe tomorrow she’ll get picked. If she doesn’t, at least she knows she has a few more years before her deadline expires. Her only wish is that Tom gets picked.
Nights often pass swiftly for them. They’re usually exhausted from doing all the chores in the afternoon that after supper, if they don’t miss it, they drop on their beds like sacks of potatoes and forget about their miseries for a while.Martha says that hard work pays and so they all have to do it.
Tonight, Jean is not too tired to warrant immediate sleep. Tom cut a huge portion of the fence for her. She turns and lies on her stomach on the bed. Fortunately for her ribs, the mattresses have been stuffed with countless old clothes and sponges. She hugs her pillow tightly and looks outside the window. Some rabid dogs are howling somewhere in the neighbourhood and she uses this as background noise as she focuses on the darkness that engulfs most of the area. The moon is not up yet. A few starts twinkle in the sky and if one looks closely, they’ll notice her eyes are sparkling with unshed tears. She lays there in silence and allows her tears to roll down her cheeks. Her breathing, her heartbeat, the howls outside and her thoughts all merge into one dream. One beautiful dream where she’s loved, and wanted, and hugged.
Morning comes and with it the loving warmth that caresses Jean’s face causing her to wake. She gets ready and heads to the kitchen to help Martha out. She has a good feeling about today, but she supresses it. She doesn’t want to raise her hopes for nothing.
The visitors arrive at ten o’clock. They’re always punctual. They have a simple schedule. Arrive. Eat snacks. Survey children. The children go back to their rooms. They tell Martha who they choose and then those chosen are called from their rooms. The rest find out who got picked at four o’clock tea which is served whenever the visitors come. Jean has this schedule ingrained in her mind. They all do.
She does not bother looking at the visitors today. She waits until they are told to go to their rooms. Before entering into her room. She looks towards Tom and he smiles at her. She smiles back and enters her room. It will all go well, she thinks. She lays on her bed for what seems like ages until she starts to believe she will not get picked this time round. She goes to the window and just stares outside then she hears a gentle knock on her door. She opens it and sees Martha. She follows Martha to a young couple talking and smiling at each other. They stop talking when she gets to where they are and smile at her. She just stares not wanting to say anything that will upset them or spoil the moment. They scribble on a bunch of papers before the lady pulls Jean into a hug.
Jean stands there mesmerized her hands by her side. The lady, who is called Joana, and her husband, James, take each of her hands and they walk outside. At the gate, Jean breaks free and rushes back to the house. She accosts Martha while she’s heading to the kitchen. Before Jean can speak, Martha nods and tells her Tom was the first to get picked. She hugs Martha very tightly before running away shouting goodbyes. She can’t believe she will finally belong to a family. James and Joana have a white car with the name Corolla written at the back side. Jean sits in the back and they pull out of the driveway, she takes one more look at what has been her home for seven years.
On their way, she is loaded with information that she does not pay attention to. She just stares at the other cars on the road, and the buildings. She’s not interested in the speeches of James. She just wants to know what the economy is and if it’s bad as Martha says.
The day fades faster than she anticipated, but she doesn’t mind. After a long drive, they pull up in front of a tall apartment. Joana takes out a camera and rushes outside to open Jean’s door even before the car halts. She snaps a few photos of Jean then tells James to take a picture of her and her daughter. Jean is not sure what to feel but she enjoys the moment, especially when Joana holds her hand and tells her, “Let’s go up. It’s time to start this chapter.” She likes that. A new family. A new home. A new beginning. And to top it of, she’ll be living in the sky.