The Flower Box
The Friedman’s Story: Preface
“Have you finished watching your lessons yet?”
“Mom, why do I have to learn any of this?”
“Someday there will be jobs again and they’ll be looking for smart people to do them.” Though barely a teenager, he knows this isn’t true, but doesn’t say so. Things are already too far gone.
“Then why do I have to learn? I can’t get a job if I have to hide.” Younger than his brother by four years, he still holds onto scraps of innocence, but he is by no means dumb. The boys look to their mother for an answer, for assurance.
“That will change too, honey.” The three of them sit in the cool, dark house simply looking at each other for a few minutes. The boys’ father is in the city looking for work as he does every day. Soon this family won’t be able to afford to stay here, even if they continue only using the absolute minimum electricity, heat, and water.
Jessica’s Story: Chapter 1
The lights flash on and all I want to do is go back to sleep. I squeeze my eyes tighter shut to block out the brightness and throw a pillow over my head. The room is full of quiet shuffling as the others get out of bed, but the most prominent sound is the clunk of boots slowly walking down the center aisle between the two rows of beds that line each wall.
“Jessica,” someone next to me hisses. “Get up. She’s coming.”
The boots are getting closer. I can still hear them over the pitter-patter of bare feet moving around the rest of the room. This doesn’t send me jumping out of bed though. I’ve only been there a couple hours and desperately don’t want to wake up yet. My body is already protesting, especially my head which is developing a nasty ache.
“When you start behaving you can have the luxury of getting a full night’s sleep,” says a voice when the boots stop at the foot of my bed. I don’t respond. “Be out of that bed with it made in ten seconds or you will not be sleeping tonight either.” I hesitate for a moment, gauging her tone. She’s not kidding. I don’t doubt she’d find a way to keep me up all night again.
I slide out of bed as slowly as time will allow and pull the covers up as neatly as time will allow. I straighten up to face her with a second left. The entire room freezes and their eyes follow the sound of the hand-on-face slap.
“This room and everyone in it better be spotless when I come back,” she yells, still inches from my face before lowering her voice and addressing me. “That means you too. Shape up. I’m tired of this.” As soon as the door shuts behind her and I hear her boots on the stairs I fall back onto the bed.
“You’re crazy, you know that?” I just laugh at Emilee’s comment.
“Thanks for trying to get me up. Maybe next time I’ll listen.”
The rest of the morning goes on like a normal morning in the orphanage. I swear the bathroom where everyone is getting ready seems noticeably more crowded than only a month before. A line of girls stand shoulder to shoulder, looking in the mirror and using the sinks. Every shower stall is full too. Maybe it’s only my imagination saying this is different than a month prior. There are certainly more girls here than a year ago though and significantly more than past years.
It’s getting a little ridiculous if you ask me. Maybe someone should do something about it. Yes, the newscasters like to assure us that people are working on it. They like to tell us it’s not getting worse, but it is. I know it is.
Before returning to my bed, I look out the grimy window on the far wall of the bedroom, opposite the stairs. It’s gloomy outside. No surprise. The two rows of mostly-empty beds remind me of some kind of old-fashioned hospital – something you see in war movies. Of course, the loud chatter of girls moving past me from the bathroom breaks this illusion.
I walk down the center isle slowly, running my hand on the metal footboards of the beds. My dull gray blankets don’t look much better after I tug on the corner to straighten them. Dull is a good way to describe most everything these days. Dull and depressing.
As soon as I lay back down on my bed, I hear those boots on the stairs again. I kick my extra pair of shoes farther under the bed and smooth the wrinkles my rest just created. Good enough. I stand at the foot of my bed like most everyone else is already doing. Apparently they don’t mind staring at the equally boring girl standing across from them while they wait for the wicked witch to show up.
Today may have started as a normal morning, but that normalness doesn’t last through lunchtime…
Jessica’s Story: Chapter 2
“I’m Jessica… Sanders”
I hear the knock on the front door and immediately move toward it, being sure not to let Mrs. T notice. I watch as she looks through the peephole then yells at the visitor, telling him or her that we “don’t want any.”
My heart drops, fearing she’s not going to open the door. This has happened so many times before. I should be used to it. Whoever is standing outside continues talking but the voice is muffled. I dip behind the doorway from where I’m watching so she doesn’t see me when she checks for renegade escapees.
The door opens only slightly. I will the visitor to push the door farther open and step inside. This rarely happens - Mrs. T is too smart for that. My feet start moving before I’m even conscious of the action. Someday I’d like to thank that pushy salesman, but for now I’m running.
It’s been so long since I’ve been outside. I can almost taste the pollution in the air as I fill my clean lungs with it. Perhaps this running isn’t going to last as long as I had planned. My adrenaline rush enables my legs to keep working faster and faster though. That will be enough to carry me as far as I need to be. I’ll reach the city soon.
House after house whizzes by in my peripheral vision. There are very few cars on the streets and most of the ones that are not locked up in garages have shattered windows and missing pieces. The buildings are quickly getting larger and larger.
I see the first people since leaving the orphanage after almost an hour of running. They’re waiting at a bus stop on the farthest outskirts of downtown. Neighborhood shuttles will only bring residents this far and from here the city busses take over. I curse under my breath for not stealing some coins from Mrs. T for a bus fare.
A few people glance my way before returning their eyes to a newspaper or resuming their watch for a bus. Most don’t even seem to notice me. That is, except for one small boy. I slow to a walk so as not to draw more attention to myself. My eyes catch the large, round ones of the boy. He quickly looks down and side-steps behind his father.
The adrenaline rush ends and my body screams out in pain. My legs threaten to collapse beneath me. I keep moving though, have to keep moving. The amount of people gradually increases and my chances of being caught gradually decrease as I move deeper into the city. I can’t remember the last time I was this far away from the orphanage.
Once sure that I am safely missing, I duck down an alley to search for a place to catch my breath. The alley is dark and dirty, not unlike the city itself and its surrounding areas. The buildings on either side of me tower high enough to reach the cloudiness of the polluted air which gobbles up the tops of the structures.
A small box hangs from one window near the mouth of the alley. Flowers used to grow in things like that… or so I’m told. This place was probably much less dreary when flowers could grow. The air kills them now much the same way it kills its human victims. The back of my throat tickles as if in response to my thoughts. My cough echoes back to me.
I walk through the twisty city-canyon for a while longer before another cough escapes my mouth. A head peeks from around the corner deep in the alley and asks, “How are you doing today, miss?”
“You look like someone who’s looking for something… Either that or you’re looking to not be found.”
“I… I should probably be going,” I respond as I begin to turn around.
“Don’t worry. I’m not going to turn you in. You’re a lot safer in here than you are out there.” He motions for me to follow him and despite all the warning signs going off in my head, I do.
My new friend leads me around the corner to an odd group sitting around a trashcan fire. He looks to be in his late twenties. A raggedy hat sits back on his head, pushing his hair forward and down around his face. His companions include a girl seemingly around my age, two boys also in their mid to late twenties, a bearded older man and a thirty-something woman. All of them are nearly as tattered as the first.
“So what’s your name?” he asks me.
“You have a last name?”
“Sanders,” I tell him hesitantly. He turns to face me so quickly and aggressively that I would’ve fallen had I not backed into a brick wall.
“What are you playing at?” I look to the rest of the group who are all staring up at me with strange expressions on their faces.
“I… I don’t uh… understand.”
“Who told you to say that? Where did you hear that name?” my new bipolar friend demands. My mouth refuses to work properly as I move it soundlessly. “Please. I don’t want to hurt you. Just answer my questions.” My eyes follow his hand to a gun-shaped bulge in his pants.
“Hey! What’s going on back here?” A very official voice shouts down the alley as a small light bounces off the grimy bricks. That was my cue – the distraction I needed. I take off running as fast as my body will allow and leave the freaks scrambling to pack up and get out of there so as not to get busted.
“Stop right where you are.” Could I have any worse luck? I glance over my shoulder to make sure I’m not being followed.
“Officer, please. He had a gun. We… we…” The uniformed man who had his gun drawn interrupts me before I can say more.
“Have you been using any illegal substances, young lady?”
“What? No. I just…”
“Walk toward me slowly, keeping your hands where I can see them.” I obey, having no other choice.
“Please sir, I was just walking then he called me over and all of a sudden he was threatening me and…”
“What’s your name please?” I debate silently about whether or not to use my real name. It didn’t work out so well a couple minutes ago. “Hesitation. Don’t bother trying to lie now.”
“I wasn’t going to.”
“Where do you live?” I sigh and drop my eyes to the ground, defeated.
“The orphanage on Main. I ran away a couple hours ago.”
“That explains things.” He speaks into his walkie-talkie as we leave the alley. I wait until he’s finished before talking again.
“Please don’t bring me back there. She’s… she’s abusive. That’s why I ran away.”
“Maybe she’ll be able to teach you not to run away then. We can’t have you kids roaming the streets, stealing, begging. Things are bad enough as is. Until someone figures out a way to fix things, we’re going to have full hospitals and full orphanages.”
“But… I won’t… I can… another orphanage… anything… please.”
“That’s enough. Watch your head,” he says as I’m pushed into the back of the police car. The drive is short. I hadn’t gotten far. My stomach threatens to send up its contents throughout the entire ride.
Elsie’s Story: Chapter 3
“Elsie, come here. Your mother and I have something to tell you.”
“What’s going on?” Her parents stand before her, grinning and exchanging glances.
“Well…” The woman’s grin is so large, her eyes are Asian-like and her cheeks look stretched beyond capacity. Elsie glances down at her retro converse, tied with the bow near her toes. She’s always enjoyed being a little different.
“We’re pregnant!” His deep, naturally-loud voice booms through the open, airy house as if he screamed the words. Elsie doesn’t share the same excitement as her parents, crinkling her brow instead and narrowing her eyes.
“But the law…” She begins carefully as she shifts her weight uncomfortably.
“Darling, in case you haven’t noticed…” Her mother’s hand is resting on her flat stomach the way a pregnant woman would place her hand on the lump.
“Yeah. I know.” Elsie glances around the unnecessarily-large and expensive house in response. “Congratulations.” She can hear her parents talking softly as she walks away, up the huge staircase to her bedroom.
She notices the backpack – full and ready to go – as she shuts the door to her bedroom. Soon. The slim, purple computer is open and waiting on her canopy bed that is big enough for an entire family to sleep on.
Today’s lesson is playing muted. A moment of guilt occurs as she realizes most children are learning from old, out-of-date lessons found for free on the internet while she mutes her top-of-the-line, expensive ones just so her parents think she’s using them.
Things won’t be this way for much longer though. Definitely not for her. Hopefully not for them.
The Friedman’s Story: Chapter 4
“The Bus Stop”
“But why can’t we all go together?” The nine-year-old’s voice threatens to crack from frustration and fear. He knows he’s too old to cry like a baby, but tears threaten to fill his hazel eyes.
“It’s just for a while, Johnny. We’ll meet up with Mom and James later.”
“Does everyone have their bag packed? Just the basics, remember. Johnny, did you get your toothbrush?” Mrs. Friedman flies through the living room where the rest of her family is waiting.
Her husband reflects on the amount of weight she’s lost and the growing clusters of grey in her hair. She’s still beautiful though. The thought creates a smile in the corner of his mouth, unseen by his sons. James sighs at his mother’s obvious worry after she leaves the room.
“Be patient with her, James. This is not easy for her… for any of us,” Mr. Friedman pleads. His oldest son flicks his head so that the mass of dark, thick hair hanging in his face momentarily leaves, only to return seconds later.
“Hon, are we about ready?” Molly Friedman pokes her head back through the doorway from which she just left.
“I think so. I just… I just don’t want to forget anything.”
“Don’t worry. If we do forget something, we’ll work it out later. Boys, you ready?” They both jump up from the sofa in response. Mr. Friedman pulls four doctor-like masks from his bag.
“How did you…” Molly’s voice trails off when Curt gives a sharp shake of the head. The boys don’t seem to notice, both staring at the foreign objects, mesmerized. He passes them out solemnly and his family places them over their mouths without a word, handling the filters delicately.
“When you come across other people, take these off and keep them hidden. Wouldn’t want anyone to try to take them. You two go on out the front. Johnny and I will leave through the back in a little while.” Hugs are exchanged all around along with promises of seeing the other half of the family later.
Molly and James don’t talk much as they walk to the bus stop. After a glance at his mother, James notices her eyes might be watering. Not knowing the right thing to say, he says nothing. The masks muffle their speech anyway, reminding them of the dangerous air they are breathing.
A few blocks away, Curt and John are walking in a similar somber silence. Reassurance coming from behind the filter isn’t all that reassuring. Distorted fatherly comfort doesn’t seem like a good idea right now, likely doing more harm than good.
“Watch the glass,” Molly warns. Had she not pointed at the shattered car window, James wouldn’t have known what she was mumbling about. He gingerly steps over it. The buildings are growing larger now, but they still haven’t come across any people. The city looms in the distance. James glances up frequently, and the city never seems any closer.
Curt slows his pace and places a hand on his son’s shoulder, making the boy jump a little. A man is talking animatedly on a front porch down the block. The owner of the home is slowly shutting the front door, but the salesman doesn’t want to take no for an answer. He loses and turns angrily away from the closed door. Curt stiffens, anticipating conflict, but the salesman puts his head down, places a strange contraption over his mouth and moves onto the next house.
The mother-son pair removes their masks when they see the bus stop in the distance. A group of people are gathered around it - people who probably do not own the expensive filters they have been wearing. Molly and James position themselves toward the back of the crowd, not that anyone else seems to notice them at all. Most keep their eyes to the ground and James mimics the group. Molly doesn’t though. She nervously watches for her husband and youngest son.
“I see mom and James. We can’t act like we know them though, remember?” John nods, but stays silent. Curt and John join the antisocial gathering at the bus stop, standing opposite the rest of their small family. The foursome doesn’t acknowledge each other. The bus should be arriving soon. A young girl is jogging towards them, perhaps a bit behind schedule. She doesn’t have anything to worry about though because there’s no bus in sight. John watches her intently as she passes. Apparently she isn’t joining them on the bus.
The girl is long gone when the bus finally arrives. Curt ushers John towards the back while Molly and James find a seat up front. James smiles at a girl typing away on a purple laptop. Her feet are pressed up against the seat in front of her, showing off her uniquely-tied converse. She doesn’t notice him, but his mother notices the flirtatious smile he gave her. Pink spots appear on James’s cheeks when Molly elbows him playfully.
“The seat next to her was open,” she teases after they sit down.
“Mom!” he hisses, mortified. He sinks down into his seat and pulls his hood over his head for the entire bus ride. His mother simply chuckles, one of the first genuine laughs for a very long time.
The air in the bus is remarkably refreshing. The satisfied breathing is almost audible throughout the vehicle. That is, until it begins its journey downtown and the sounds of the engine and the road fill the quiet. John presses his nose to the window, taking in the sights he’s never seen before.
Converse girl stows away her laptop and jumps off at the first stop. James acts like he doesn’t notice, and Molly laughs a little again. It feels good. They both wonder where a young girl is headed by herself, especially with such expensive equipment. James figures one or both of her parents are part of the mess this country has gotten itself into. His initial attraction quickly turns to distaste.
Crowds of people board and exit the bus every couple of minutes. The Friedmans settle in for a long ride. Molly dozes in and out of sleep. John watches wide-eyed out the window. Curt observes his deprived son who has only left the house a handful of times. James can’t stop thinking about that girl with the purple laptop and the cool shoes.
Jessica’s Story: Chapter 5
“Now They Know”
“Thank you officer! I’ve been so worried.”
“Don’t let it happen again. We have enough trouble on the streets without those kids.” He hands me over to her and she pushes me inside.
“Yes sir. It won’t happen again.” She pulls the door shut and locks it up before even looking at me. I try not to act scared, but it’s extremely difficult because Mrs. T is fuming. I’ve disobeyed before. I’ve even attempted to run away before, but none of those things even compare to this.
“You ungrateful little brat!” Her hand connects with my face and I see stars. That’s going to bruise. The next one sends me to the ground accompanied by “How dare you embarrass me like that!”
I don’t dare stand up without being told to do so. My face stings painfully, and tears are gathering in the corner of my eyes, threatening to spill out. She just stands over me, breathing hard, making me wait. The anticipation rivals the punishment itself. I take my chances and glance up at her.
“Don’t look at me like that with those stupid puppy dog eyes. Your mother used to do that - got me in trouble every time. Mom and Dad constantly fell for that conniving little devil’s tricks.”
“Don’t talk about her like that,” I mumble before thinking twice. She takes hold of the front of my shirt collar and pulls me to my feet.
“What was that?” I don’t respond, scared of what she is planning to do to me. She heard me the first time. Saying it again will only make it worse.
“Answer my question, Jessica.” Her voice sounds surprisingly calm.
“I asked you not to talk about my mother like that,” I repeat quietly, earning me a quick, hard slap to the face.
“As her sister, I think I know a little more about her don’t you?”
I glance around, searching for eavesdroppers but knowing even though I see no one, people are listening. “I don’t want them to find out… please,” I whisper.
“Don’t want them to find out that I’m your aunt?” she asks loudly. My eyes are full of tears now and I blink to hold them inside. “Don’t want them to find out that your stupid parents gave me custody and the law prevents me from getting rid of you even though I’d love to?” The lump in my throat is waiting to make my voice crack.
She releases her grip on my collar and I fall to my knees. My legs aren’t strong enough to hold me. The weight of what she just announced presses down on me. I’m pretty sure that I’m about to throw up.
“Get downstairs now and don’t even think about coming back up anytime soon.” I don’t move immediately, which causes Mrs. T’s foot to assault my stomach. KICK. I steady myself with my hands as I begin to stand. KICK. I double over, folding my arms around my middle.
“Do as I say NOW.” I jump to my feet as fast as possible, ignoring the pain shooting through my body, and walk to the stairs silently and quickly.
Once in the unfinished, cement-walled, cement-floored basement, I find a corner as far away from the stairs as possible. I bury my head in my hands and cry. I can feel my face swelling, but I don’t have any ice to prevent it and don’t dare ask for any.
My stomach growls. It’s probably nearing dinnertime. She’s made me miss meals before so I don’t get my hopes up, but I escaped right before lunch so I haven’t eaten since the nasty lukewarm bowl of porridge stuff this morning.
I can hardly keep my eyes open, but the cement floor hurts my already aching body making sleep impossible. Not to mention how cold it is down here. I tuck my arms inside my shirt for the small amount of added warmth it gives me.
I’ve never spent the night in the basement before. A shiver runs up my spine at the thought. Surely she’ll let me up before then. I’ve never run away before though. This trumps any of the mouthy-ness or disobedience that usually gets me in trouble. My usual punishment for usual troublemaking is just a slap or two and a little time down here or extra chores.
“Jessica!” I flinch as my name is yelled from the top of the stairs. I don’t make her wait. “Dinnertime… Not for you though,” she adds when she sees my eyes light up ever so slightly. Great. I have a feeling the punishments are just beginning.
I follow her into the dining room where the other orphans are preparing for dinner. “Corner. Now.” I obey reluctantly. I’ve received this one before. Its torture and she knows it. I lean against the indicated corner. She shakes her head and motions for me to turn around.
“Face it and stay standing. Don’t touch the wall and don’t turn around.” Tears threaten to start again, but these are out of anger. I swallow any remarks that try to bubble up and get me in more trouble. I soon hear everyone take their seats and wonderful scents start floating to my nose.
“Turn around again and you can do this at tomorrow’s dinner too,” Mrs. T snaps when I steal a glance at the table. I can feel her eyes burning into the back of my head through the rest of dinner, which has to be the longest dinner of my life. My stomach get’s angrier by the minute and makes sure to let everyone within hearing distance know it.
“Thanks to Jessica, you’re all off kitchen duty tonight. Everyone is dismissed and no one is to return to the kitchen or dining room for the remainder of the evening. Hopefully this changes anyone’s mind who thinks running away is a good idea.” I remain facing the corner while the army of chairs scoots away from the table and are pushed back in.
“Get to it. You have a lot of work to do. When the kitchen, dining room, and every dish are spotless you can go to bed. Do it wrong and you can try again tomorrow. Understand?”
“Yes ma’am,” I mumble, hardly able to get the words out in an agreeable tone.
“Good. You’ll learn soon enough.”
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Copyright © 2013 Erynn A Louviaite