‘I bet you can’t climb this tree and jump from the highest branch!’ said the new boy. I sat there lightly caressing Candy’s back, and smiled when she purred in approval.
Tom, stared at the new boy with suspicion and anger. No one, and I cannot insist this enough, no one spoke to Tom in that tone.
“Of course, I can.” Claimed Tom. Although I had never in the twelve years of knowing Tom, watched him climb the peeple tree and jump from its highest branch. But then again, what the heck, who was I to contradict Tom, our leader?
Evening mist creeped up as suddenly as the sun threatened to set. Wasn’t it just ten minutes ago that we had our lunch and met at the creek, like every day? Or was it?
I shivered, and Candy’s warm fur felt good under my hands. Penny and Jay huddled close, just as their breath created patterns of clouds, thickening the mist that now surrounded us up to our necks.
Even Tom shivered, but the new boy seemed oblivious to the cold. His thick fur coat, hung with the front zip open. He challenged Tom to a dare. A dare that would finally decide who would be the alpha male of this group of teens.
I sighed, and rolled my eyes. Boys, they always got us in trouble. It was only four in the evening, and already Penny had scraped her knee and Tom had torn the sleeve of his jacket.
Aunty, would not be happy about this. Not at all. It’s not like a bunch of orphans, living in the hills, had an endless supply of clothes and first aid.
And I blamed the new boy, his constant challenging, had gotten almost all of us in trouble since the day he landed at the orphanage.
I knew Tom hated him, hated the way the new boy looked at me. I was Tom’s unofficial girlfriend. We were going to run away at eighteen, get married and travel the world. But the new boy kept trying to talk to me, and the things he said, the places he had lived in, fascinated me. He had been moved to five different orphanages in the fourteen years of his life. All in different states of America, and me, I had never stepped out of Colorado Springs.
“Can you go inside old man Pinto’s cottage, and bring a brick back from his basement?” Tom dared the new boy.
Penny and Jay gasped in shock, around the same time, as I screamed “NO!” in horror.
Tom turned to me, his eyes furious.
“Why Stella? Why do you care so much about the new boy?” His eyes a stormy shade of grey, threatening to drown me in their fury; I couldn’t look into his eyes.
I averted my gaze to the valley, heavy fog descended like a foreboding blanket of doom. Yes, doom it was. We would be doomed if we entered old man Pinto’s cottage.
“Lets go!” claimed the new boy, as Tom started leading the way. He seemed determined to prove his dominance over Tom, and hence over all of us.
I clutched Candy tightly to my chest, and put one unwilling foot after another.
Of all the reasons to avoid old man Pinto’s cottage, number one was that we were forbidden to go there. Any orphans caught loitering about the wrong side of the creek would be sent to the orphanage director, Mr. Moore. And we would be lucky if we got away with a beating of his leather belt and solitary confinement of one night in the attic.
The unlucky ones, I don’t know what happened to them. They never spoke of it. They never spoke of what Mr. Moore, did to them. Even Tom was always tight lipped about the horrors of Mr. Moore’s chamber.
And number two, the one that terrified me the most, was that over the years, many orphans disappeared, they were rumored to have run away. But I had heard stories about them being seen around old man Pinto’s cottage last. The place was rumored to be haunted. There were whispers, we would hear from the staff. Whispers of people going mad with what they had seen, whispers of ominous shadows flitting about the trees, whispers of screams, agonizing screams that would break the still of the night.
It took us not more than five minutes to reach the hollow, a hollow surrounded by trees, tall and threatening, and right in the center stood the abandoned, dilapidated cottage that once belonged to old man Pinto.
As we walked behind Tom, the new guy lightly held my hand and pulled me behind Penny and Jay. He pulled back a strand of my hair and tucked it behind my ear.
“By the way, the name is Adi.” He said.
“What?” I asked, bewildered.
“My name, its Adi. You never asked me my name.” He said, just as he took out a box of M&Ms and popped one into my mouth. It tasted heavenly. We were rarely allowed chocolates in the orphanage, and something like M&Ms was hard to come by. I had no idea where Adi got it. It seemed like he had been carrying it around for a while.
I smiled at him, and ran towards Tom. In less than a minute we stood outside the cottage. The run down cottage, it walls covered with weed and moss.
It was almost five.
Time for sunset.
The gloomy rays of light that broke through monstrous clouds did nothing to lessen my fear. The cottage inspired, in my imagination, a worst form of horror lurking inside its doors.
Tom, pushed Adi ahead, daring him to take the steps to the porch.
“We will wait here, you go and get a brick from the basement.” Tom said.
Adi smirked at Tom, and then gave me a wink with a wide smile.
“I’ll be back, Stella.” He said and blew me a kiss, much to Tom’s chagrin. Adi’s face in the fading light of that evening glowed with glee, mischief and determination. I realized then, I liked him. Had liked him from the minute I saw him, with his big brown eyes, longish hair that fell in waves over his forehead and that naughty grin. I hoped he would be back, I hoped we would all be back at the orphanage, eating dinner and laughing this day off.
I watched as Adi’s sure steps creaked on rotten wood. He went close to the door, a wooden door and tried opening a rusted latch. After what looked like a lot of effort, the latch gave in and the door opened to menacing darkness inside.
Adi stood there for minutes, with his back towards us. He stared straight into the darkness. I wondered what he saw in there.
“What are you waiting for….Chicken?!” Tom screamed. His words seemed to jerk Adi into reality. He turned around, and looked straight at me. For the first time, in this last week of knowing Adi, I saw fear, plain raw fear in his eyes.
“No…Adi. Don’t!” Penny, Jay and I screamed around the same time. But Adi just turned and walked in as the door shut itself.
Tom, gave us all a look of pure hatred and walked back towards the orphanage. But we waited, Penny, Jay and I.
The sun had set behind the mountains and all that lit the dark sky was the dying light of sun’s rays.
How much time would it take to go down to the basement and bring a brick back?
Agreed, Adi had no flashlight, he would have to find his way in the dark. But it was a small cottage.
It had been twenty minutes already. The three of us huddled together in the biting cold and waited for Adi to walk out.
Thirty minutes. The first of stars started twinkling as threatening clouds gave way to clear skies. But Adi was still there somewhere in old man Pinto’s cottage.
Forty minutes. My buttocks hurt, sitting on the cold rock, and Jay kept checking his watch. Penny started singing a song from Roza in her melodic voice. Occasionally her teeth would chatter. Adi, was yet to be seen.
Fifty minutes. Even the thick woolen sweater did not stop the cold from seeping into my bones. Every part of my body seemed to be freezing. I cursed Tom for leaving us here after challenging Adi to this stupid dare.
“Should we go in?” asked Jay.
“Maybe we should. What if he fell and injured himself?” mused Penny.
“Tom would be furious.” I said. Ever the faithful girlfriend; but was it worth Adi’s life? Maybe not.
“Lets go”, I said.
The three of us walked warily to the door. And just as my hand was about to push the door open, we heard the most heart-rending scream. It came from above, it came from below, and it came from around us, from everywhere and nowhere. It came from inside old man Pinto’s cottage.
And it did not stop at one scream, the screams continued, growing in intensity, growing in pain. It almost felt like Adi’s skin was slowly being ripped off his body.
All three of us screamed in response to the screams, and instincts kicked in. We ran, we ran as fast as we could, as furious as death itself was chasing us. We ran for our lives, because only death could make someone scream like that, only death had the power over unimaginable pain. We ran non-stop, without a break, Candy ran with us.
We only stopped once we reached the orphanage. We did not speak to anyone else, we did not eat and we did not sleep. We only wondered, should we tell Aunty? Was it worth going into Mr. Moore’s chambers?
Penny and Jay both thought it wasn’t worth it. And I had no choice but to follow suit.
We wondered what happened to Adi. A week went by, and we never saw Adi. Everyone thought he had run away, we never bothered correcting them.
Every night I would pray that maybe, just maybe, those screams were the screams of a rat scurrying over Adi’s foot or lizard dropping on his head. Maybe he actually ran away. Maybe a nice lady liked him and adopted him as her son. Maybe he one day he would come and take me away from this hell-hole.
Then two weeks after Adi disappeared, police arrived. Someone from a nearby town had come across a dog fervently digging the ground behind old man Pinto’s cottage. Later they found that the land was used as a burial ground for at least five boys and girls who had gone missing. Adi was one of them.
According to the whispered rumors we heard, he had been raped, repeatedly for days, tortured, mutilated and burned over and over again.
That day, as I watched Mr. Moore talk to the cops, I almost choked when I saw him take out a box of M&Ms and pop one into his mouth.