When my bowl of beef soup is placed in front of me, I bite my bottom lip. Along with the beef, vegetables float around in the dark broth. The soup is bitter and cold. I know from past meals. It’s not one of my favorites. In fact, none of the meals at the orphanage is very tasteful.
As time passes, my sister, Marley, nudges my side. I turn to her emotionless and she whispers, “Eat your soup.”
I don’t want to eat. I’m not hungry, and I just don’t want feel like eating right now. But I know why Marley wants me to eat. I know myself I would regret not eating afterwards. The staff would dispose of my unfinished soup and punish me. None of the staff are really nice. Most of them are strict.
After hesitating, I sigh and whisper back to Marley, “I’m not hungry.”
Marley is five years older than me. We were found by the orphanage in the village six years ago when I was five. I don’t even remember much of the day they brought us into the orphanage. But I do remember than we weren’t orphans. We had a mother and a father and a brother. Our family just wasn’t with us at the time. I remember mom going into a bakery with my brother...or was it our aunt’s house? I still can’t remember every detail.
Marley was trying to explain to them that we weren’t orphans. That we had a family. But at the time, Marley was only ten and to the orphanage, a confused child. They didn’t pay much attention to me. After that, they put a stamp on our arm. On my arm in blue numbers, was written 34. On Marley were 62.
They then explained to us the rules of being at the Orphanage. At the Orphanage, there are four groups. The girls A to M, the girls N to Z, The boys A to M, and the boys N to Z. This meant that Marley and I would both be in the girls A to M since our names started with letters A to M. They then told us that we were never, under any circumstances, to see any other group. This implies that girls and boys at the Orphanage will never see each other. With that in mind, it means that a boy and girl can never fall in love at the Orphanage unless they are gay.
Along with that rule, we’re never allowed to run away. That will result in a search party for you, and once you are found, your execution will be public and celebrated. Then, they will find a new child to replace your number. So if I ran away from the Orphanage, I would be killed and a new orphan will be number 34.
“Isabel. Isabel. Isabel!” shouts Marley.
I must have zoned out for a while. I wasn’t even paying attention to Marley. “Sorry, what did you say?” I ask.
Marley sighs and lowers her voice to a whisper again. “I said, you need to eat. They’ll whip you in front of everyone if they find you haven’t eaten.”
That’s true. I’ve seen it happen to a few girls before. They leave scars where they whipped them. It’s hard to look at. There have been times when I haven’t eaten, but I’ve always told the staff that I’m sick and not feeling well. I get away with it, but I can tell that they won’t fall for it next time it happens.
Quickly, I devour my beef soup leaving some stuck in my throat. All of the girls walk up to our bunks. Marley and I share one bunk. I’m top and she’s bottom. But it does switch up a bit sometimes but for tonight I was top.
Before getting into bed, I ask Marley, “Why do you think we are lucky to be here? Were treated poorly and we never get to see our family.”
“We don’t want to see our family,” Marley tells me.
“I do,” I say.
“Why?” Marley asks. “We’re the lucky ones. No kids these days actually get to spend time with their family. Parents either leave their kids for the Orphanage to find, like us, or they put their kids up for adoption.”
I think about this for a moment. Being put up for adoption isn’t nearly as bad as being an orphan. But when Marley puts a finger over my mouth just as I’m about to reply, I know she’s not finished. “When you’re put up for adoption, you’re advertised.” She says. “There is a column about you in a newspaper that basically says ‘hey, come and buy me.’ And when the children are bought, they are taken away from their real families and given to a cruel one that uses children as slaves.”
This scares me. I’ve never heard Marley say such a thing. Is it true? Would our mom have put us up for adoption if the orphanage hadn’t found us? And then would we really have been put into the hands of evil people? Where we would be worked to death? It seems so cruel that it’s unthinkable.
“How do you know?” are the only words I get out.
“The same way you do now,” She says. “The other girls have told me.”
I take this all in, but it confuses me. Our world isn’t cruel, is it? People can’t be so cruel. It’s complete madness.
Marley must have noticed my confusion, because the next thing she says is, “Don’t worry. We’re safe here, for now. Try to get some sleep.”
I nod and we share our goodnights. Before I climb into bed, Marley kisses me on my forehead and brushes a strand of my blond hair behind my ear. I can’t get any sleep after that. I keep thinking about what Marley told me. Then, I think about what she said after that.
“We’re safe here, for now.”
Does that mean we won’t be safe here forever? Will we be in danger? I leave that thought aside, but that’s pretty hard. I can’t imagine being in danger here at the orphanage.
King Williams stares in amusement at the sketch in my notebook. I use the notebook for drawing new inventions. Then, after the King’s approval, I build them.
“This one,” Williams says with his finger set on a sketch in the notebook. I stare at the sketch beside him. The Circumlator 57. A machine where someone stands inside of a circular box and his or her body experiences a series of waves of shocks which results in a very slow and painful death.
“The Circumlator 57,” I say to the King. “It’s a death trap.”
“I see,” he replies, his eyes still on the sketch. “It will work well on one of our prisoner’s execution.”
“A slow and painful death.”
“That’s what I intend on,” Williams continues. “How fast can you have it built?”
I certainly wasn’t expecting King Williams to say that. Yes, he may have fallen in love with many other of my inventions, but he usually leaves me criticism on the inventions.
“Maybe a couple months, but, are you sure this is the machine you want built?” I ask.
“Of course Thomas,” hearing the King say my name feels like a complete honor. “A couple months it is. Your due date will be.....August eleventh,” he takes out a small notepad and jots something down. “Don’t fail me.”
“Yes, my King,” I say as I kneel before him.
Williams leaves my lab which leaves my lab crew and me alone to discuss his suggestion of us building The Circumlator 57. I quickly head over to my working lab crew, each of them on a computer researching machinery. “Everyone, may I please have your attention,” I announce. All heads turn towards me and away from their computer screens. “King Williams has asked us to build the Circumlator 57 for him. We must start building now because the project is due on August eleventh.”
Gasps fill the room. A boy with dark hair and dark skin raises his hand to speak. I nod at him and he says, “But, Professor Thomas today is May twenty-ninth. We’ll never be able to finish the experiment on time,” with worry in his voice.
I try to remember this boy’s name. But I can’t seem to get my tongue on it. Something like Jeremy? Jamie? Justin? The point is, he is right about one thing. We don’t have very much time to build the Circumlator 57, but we must as it was suggested by Williams.
“I assure you....that we will finish the machine in time,” I say unworried. “Besides, it was suggested by the King that we build it, so we must.” Silence fills the room. Does my lab crew really doubt themselves? We’ve done tasks much more difficult than this it should be no problem. “Everyone back to work. We will start the machine tomorrow.”
With that, everyone focuses their eyes back on their computer screens. I stare from behind them and stare at all twelve computer screens. Eleven screens show research of machinery. One screen that belongs to a red haired girl named Sonja has a picture of a human body....or is it a human body? Either way, Sonja is not doing what she should be.
I walk over to her computer and ask her, “What is that?”
She’s startled by my sudden appearance. Her eyes show worry and I know I’ve caught her. “It’s the body of a shape-shifter.”
I stare at her computer screen and then back to her tinted blue eyes. “Get back on task,” I order. “Don’t let me catch you doing this again.”
Sonja nods and apologies. I walk away from her and to the front of the lab crew. It seems like a classroom here. Correction, it is a classroom here. The twelve of them at their computers while I stand in front of a chalkboard.
I think of the picture that was on Sonja’s screen. The picture of a shape-shifter’s inside body. But then I think about the Circumlator 57 and how the king wants to use it as a punishment. Part of me is glad that King Williams has asked me to make the invention for him as I will be paid a fortune for building it, but part of me has regret that I am building this death trap.