Follow Me into the Darkness
Phantom of the Orphanage
Seras fidgeted anxiously in a chair that squeaked every time she shifted her position. Although she kept her head relatively still, her eyes darted about the office as if she were trailing a fly's erratic movements. The ticking of the wall-mounted clock was the only other sound to cut through the tense silence while her judge, jury, and executioner examined the paperwork that represented her file.
As director and headmaster of the orphanage, Mr. Addison was a middle-aged man with snowy white hair, a thin frame, and a grim disposition. Though he always dressed in long sleeves and kept his quarters like a sauna, he never failed to find himself chilled to the bone. Seras peeked inconspicuously through her bangs at the man before lowering her gaze to her lap. The sticky layer of sweat on her skin was a testament to the heat perpetually contained within the confined area.
Mr. Addison frowned at her, pale green eyes examining her hunched figure with an icy stare. "You should know very well by now that violence is not acceptable at this institution."
"Yes, sir," the blonde said mechanically.
"And neither is telling lies, so let's go over this once more."
Seras balled her hands into fists and clenched the thin material of her skirt. She could feel his eyes on her no matter how purposefully she stared at her lap, and the vibes he was sending her just succeeded in making her more nervous.
The two had been at it for nearly fifteen minutes, and the girl was not wrong in doubting that someone would take her side. "I already told you, sir. There was a huge black dog. It had to have come from the woods, but it looked nothing like a wolf. And it—it had red eyes. I know what I saw..."
She hesitated, unable to confess just how many eyes she had counted on the beast's face. Trying to validate creepy red eyes to an adult who already thought she was mentally unstable was more than enough work. "I guess—it must have gone mad. It jumped on Liam and knocked him out. I had nothing to do with it. You must have scared it off when you pushed the doors open."
The older man sighed tiredly and tapped his pen a few times against his desk. "Even if a dog was really there—and I didn't see anything run off—it could not have had red eyes under any circumstances, Seras. To say such a thing, I think, is a cry for help," he refuted while scribbling some words on one of the papers sprawled beneath his arms.
"I know what I saw," the blonde insisted, furrowing her brows together.
"So you're going to stick to this story?"
"Yes, sir. I'm really not lying. Because I was facing Liam, he saw it first. He was looking at something past me that I couldn't see, and he seemed very frightened. That's when I saw it jump over me."
"Very well. And do you think, by any chance, that this unusual dog is connected to the 'strange encounters' you say that you've been witnessing as of late?"
Seras remained silent, sucking in her bottom lip and biting down on the skin until specks of blood began to well to the surface. So he really didn't believe her. She could barely believe herself, so she guessed she couldn't get that upset. Did the headmaster already talk with some of the boys, and if so, what did they admit to him? Were they so terrified that they were going to pretend that nothing happened? With trembling hands, Seras loosened her fists and smoothed out her crinkled skirt.
"I suppose, there has to be some truth in what you say..." Mr. Addison interjected wistfully before trailing off unexpectedly into silence.
The girl raised her head in curiosity to look at the headmaster. As she locked gazes with him, however, she immediately regretted it. He regarded her with a mixture of emotions, none of which made her feel at ease. Wariness, denial, apprehension, irritation. Was that fear she also saw in his eyes?
Mr. Addison cleared his throat before continuing with renewed confidence. "In the end, there is nothing that will prevent your misdeeds from being sentenced, Seras, as I'm afraid I can no longer overlook them. You do admit to attacking Liam before this 'dog' appeared and to giving Zachary that black eye?"
"They started it," Seras murmured, deciding not to question his actions and get into even more trouble. "I was minding my own business. I always do. I just...I want to be left alone."
"Are you sure they weren't just being boys? It seems as if they tried to make friends with you. Perhaps you've misunderstood their intentions."
"What?" the girl bellowed incredulously. "They hate me! All they do is pick on me! Can't you see that they hit me too?"
"Do not raise your voice at me, Seras Victoria. Sit back down." Mr. Addison's infuriated tone sent a wave of panic flooding through her body. The man looked about ready to pop, and his reddened face alone rendered Seras momentarily speechless.
Sit back down? The blonde blinked once as her mind registered his words. Looking down, she saw that she was standing rigidly in front of her seat, fists clenched tightly by her sides. She must have risen in a moment of anger while she was shouting, and her eyes slowly widened at the realization that she had lost control. Although a tough display of fury sometimes helped her in keeping her bullies at bay, she knew fully well that she could never win a fight against an adult who controlled her life.
The girl rapidly released her fists and plopped back down in her chair, cheeks flushed with embarrassment. "I—I'm sorry, sir," was all she said in response.
The headmaster gathered all the papers on his desk into one stack. "Do not forget that I have chosen to keep you here despite your antics. I could hand you off to a psychiatric ward right now and be done with you, but I understand that sometimes children's imaginations can run wild. Do not indulge in this nonsense, Seras, and I will give you one more chance. You've been with us for nearly two years. You will never get anywhere nor will you find yourself adopted until you change your attitude."
Unable to say anything without fear of losing her temper again, the blonde simply nodded her head.
"Now, as for your punishments, I am going to assign you some of the daily housekeeping chores for the next two months. Since we also like to value our teachers for being with us, you will act as their aid should they need a helper in the classroom. If your mannerisms do not improve, Seras, I will have to use more extreme measures, so please do not disappoint me again."
Seras glowered miserably at Mr. Addison's desk. Overcome with fatigue, the girl had finally begun to tune his voice out as he rambled away. She idly raised her hand to prod at the bottom of her wounded eye, but as her fingers ghosted over the swollen skin, she immediately withdrew. Touching the still sensitive area offered nothing more than odd sensations and shooting pains.
The only thought that came to her mind in that moment was the unanswerable question of why had her life ended up like this?
I'm not a bad person... These words became a silent mantra that she repeated over and over again, as if trying to convince herself. Seras wanted to make new friends, but no one would play with her. She strived to look out after the kids who needed help, but they shied away from her. Above all else, she dreamed about becoming someone important like her dad, but no one would listen to her.
It seemed like ages ago when she was but a naïve child in a happy and simplistic world. The young girl yearned for the pleasant days when she walked hand-in-hand with her parents at the park or in the city, but those days were lost to her. Not even two years had passed since then, and she had been forced to carry herself alone from the beginning, harboring a mending state-of-being with no room or encouragement to thrive. At times like these, she was just about ready to be done with everything.
Her good eye stung with unshed tears, but Seras refused to let them fall. She had to be strong. Her fall from innocence was not an easy ride, but ever since her childhood had come to an unexpected end, a relentless voice had materialized at the back of her head to continuously advise her not to give up. And that's exactly what she tried to do with every fiber of her being, even though most of her efforts landed her into hot trouble.
A sudden rap at the door interrupted Mr. Addison's lecture and jolted Seras back into reality. She slowly twisted her head, staring at the wall beside the doorway as a younger man, whom she recognized as her science and math teacher, entered the office. Without so much as a glance at her, the teacher approached the side of the headmaster's desk.
Seras slouched awkwardly into the noisy chair as she tried to make herself as invisible as possible. The last thing she wanted was to end the night looking like she was eavesdropping on the men's hushed conversation. All the same, she still caught bits and pieces of whispers that sparked her attention, so the blonde listened to what she could while holding herself as still as a statue.
"Sir—she might be right—"
"What did you—"
"Well, there were—coming from the woods—"
"—started from nowhere—"
Their conversation came to a halt as Mr. Addison hastily rose from his seat, which only alarmed Seras. "That's enough for tonight, Seras. I have other matters I need to address before the end of the night. Go get yourself cleaned up, and afterward head straight for the dormitory. Your first chores will begin in the morning, so be sure to get some rest."
"Umm, y-yes, sir..." Frozen in place, Seras watched the two like a deer caught in headlights. The manner in which Mr. Addison was holding himself reminded her of the way he looked at her just minutes before, only with added tension. Her teacher appeared pale and frightened as he patted his face with a handkerchief, careful to avoid eye contact with her.
"Right now, Seras," the headmaster growled impatiently when she did not move.
"R-right," the girl mumbled. "Sorry." She jumped up and walked in a failed casual fashion out of the office. Stealing one last peek inside the room, she closed the door on the two disturbed men and hurried away to do as she was told.
Luckily the female bathroom was empty, so Seras had the entire space to herself and with forty minutes to spare. All of the children in residence had a scheduled bedtime of ten. By this time of night, most of the girls had probably migrated to the dormitory to chat before lights out.
The blonde loner gazed hopelessly at her reflection in the mirror as she soaked a small rag beneath the faucet.
"Blimey, Seras, you look like some ridiculous raccoon..." she lamented, studying her face from different perspectives.
Though she tried to focus on other things, Seras could not ignore the damaged eye that stared back at her for the first time that evening. The eye looked far worse than it actually felt, which was pretty bad considering that although the pain had begun to subside, she was still much too aware of the throbbing in and around her head. The surrounding skin, which had erupted into various shades of black, purple, and blue, was still swollen in a way that overwhelmed the area and prevented the lid from opening.
Seras let out a slow breath and fixed her attention on the running water as she scrubbed her hands clean of dirt.
She hated to sound paranoid, but everyone at the orphanage was undeniably either nuts or out to get her. If only the faculty members would follow through with their so-called threats and transfer her to another orphanage. She lived in this "high-end" institution only because her father had been the highly revered Chief of Police. Other orphanages in the city of London may not have offered her as much in the necessities, but any other place would most probably treat her nicer. No, the bastards who kept her here only did so to give her hell in private and to come across to society as kindhearted caretakers willing to go the extra mile. They disgusted her far more than her bullies ever would.
Taking the wet cloth, Seras washed her face and relished the cool, refreshing water.
Rolling around in the yard had not improved her typical raggedy exterior. She shook the leaves and grass out of her hair, causing the already spikey strands to stand up wilder than usual. After attacking her hair with a brush, she was able to subdue the unruly mess at least a little.
It was too late to take a regular shower, so the blonde opted to wipe off the dirt from her arms and legs in front of the sink area, wincing as she realized that certain spots were sore to the touch. She changed out of her outfit into a pair of slightly worn but clean pajamas, noting the new formations of bruises on her skin.
Once she was as satisfied as she was going to get, she gripped the sides of the sink and gazed down at the tiled floor as she felt the remainder of her energy seep out of her muscles.
"I'm so tired..." the girl mouthed inaudibly.
Seras actually began to doze off in that position until something odd and furry brushed over her foot. A fresh jolt of adrenaline awakened her senses, and her one eye snapped open. The scene that greeted her was what had to have been dozens of rats scurrying about her feet. Some of the rodents advanced closer, propping miniature paws up on her ankle as if to climb her leg. The pack of twitching furballs stared up at her with beady red eyes.
"Huh? You've got to be kidding me!" The girl shrieked at the top of her lungs, jumping up and down as she shook her legs to rid herself of the clingy critters. She bolted toward the door, but her slippery foot slid across the tile, and she stumbled backward to the ground, bumping her head in the process.
"Owww! Bloody hell..." Seras groaned, trying to recollect her surroundings. She blinked away the haze from her vision, but before she was able to get anywhere, she felt hundreds of tiny limbs ascending upon her figure from different directions. Long whiskers trailed the length of her body, tickling her legs, her stomach, and then her chin. The blonde panicked, covering her face with her arms and thrashing wildly about the ground. "No, no, no, I don't like rats! Get off me! Get off, get off, get off!"
"What the bloody hell is going on in here?"
Startled by the unanticipated company, Seras shot up into a sitting position and grimaced at the worsening pain in her head. She turned her gaze to spot a teenage girl with curly, dark brown hair standing in the doorway.
Seras sat there comically, gaping at the girl with a single widened cerulean eye, until she realized that there was no movement around her. Flustered, she patted down her body and scanned every inch of the enormous washroom that she could see, but no rats met her sight. For a moment, the blonde could do nothing more than listen to the sound of her heart thudding within her chest.
"Libby!" she exclaimed pathetically once she was able to speak. "Ummm...there was just—there were a bunch of rats crawling all over me!"
The brunette clenched her jaw in an irritated gesture before rolling her eyes in response. "Oh, Seras, you can be such a freak sometimes...and here I thought something was actually wrong. Don't ever do that again! What a waste of time..."
"I'm being serious!" Seras hollered adamantly, slamming the palm of her hand against the ground in emphasis.
"Yeah, well, you certainly smell like one," Libby jeered halfheartedly. "I guess that makes you right." The teen wandered off, leaving the blonde to her own devices and letting the door swing to a close on its own.
Seras scowled dismally at the floor before she eventually rose to her feet and gathered her belongings. Sighing to herself, she smoothed out the wrinkles in her pajamas and trudged out of the bathroom.
The walk to the girls' dormitory was a quick and simple one. She never failed to find consolation in the fact that, for obvious reasons, the boys' dormitory was situated at the opposite side of the building. She weaved a path through the nursery, grinning at some of the slumbering infants, before entering the sleeping quarters.
As she strolled down the long aisle of bunk beds, she also passed by the clusters of gossiping girls. Though the chatter did not cease entirely, Seras instantly heard the noise diminish by several notches. She sensed multiple gazes burning into her back as she moved further away from the door. Stopping beside one of the bunks, she placed her clothes into one of the drawers that she shared with her bunkmate and plopped down on the bottom mattress.
While stretching out the stiffness in her neck, Seras cast a challenging glance around the room. All of the girls had quieted down and were practically glowing with the need for a little entertainment. Libby, on the other hand, turned her back on the crowd and pulled her sheets over her head.
A tiny girl about five or six-years-old gradually edged her way closer to Seras. The child's large, owlish glasses accentuated the scared but eager glimmer in her eyes. "What happened today, Seras?" she asked with genuine interest.
"Leave her alone, Lily," one of the teen girls chastised. "Anything she has to say is far from a bedtime story."
"But I believe her!" Lily cried. A few hesitant voices agreed sheepishly with the child.
"You're right, Madison," Seras agreed. "I have no bedtime stories to tell because it's all the truth."
"Oh? And I'm sure you're going to put all the blame on your ghosts for hurting Liam?" Madison accused.
"That sounds about right. I did scratch him up pretty good though," the blonde answered with a nonchalant shrug.
"Well, I've already talked to Zach and some of the others," divulged the teen. "They say you've really gone mad."
"Why don't you ask Liam what happened in the morning then?" Seras dared.
Before Madison was able to respond, another voice intervened. "Please tell me you've finally been kicked out?"
Seras cocked her head incredulously and settled her attention upon the meddler, recognizing her as Ava's friend. Ava, the ever quiet one, was sitting discreetly beside the irate girl, a mass of auburn-colored hair shielding her expression from all onlookers.
"I'm not going anywhere, Scarlett," Seras assured her confidently.
"Continue acting like you are, and we'll see about that," Scarlett threatened. "When are you going to stop being such a brat, grow up, and quit telling us garbage? You should be ashamed of yourself for hyping everyone else up for no reason at all."
Seras bounced off the mattress in a flash and strode angrily toward the girl. Furrowing her brows together, she surprised everyone by giving the older girl a good old-fashioned slap across the face. Some of the observers giggled at the scene while others simply dropped their jaws in disbelief. Ava tensed up beside the two quarrelling girls, but she neither moved nor said anything.
"You can believe me or not, but don't call me a liar like that," the blonde warned. "Let's be perfectly honest, ok? You don't have to tell me all the time that everyone here hates me. I'm not stupid. Now I ask you, can you tell me one good reason why I would purposely give everyone another reason to hate me if I wasn't telling the truth and just wanted all of you to leave me alone?"
Scarlett gawked at Seras in a trance, cupping her hand over her assaulted cheek.
"You just got schooled by a kid," Madison snickered, breaking the silence and earning herself a vicious glare from Scarlett.
Seras would have delivered more than a mere slap to Madison had she gotten the chance.
"Is there a problem in here?"
Everyone snapped their heads to the doorway as Ms. Pendry, otherwise known as the orphanage's nurse, peeked inside the room.
"No, Ms. Pendry," was the predominant reply.
"That's good to hear. In that case, it's time for lights out," the nurse announced. "Everyone into bed, please."
After a moment of exchanging various facial expressions, everyone accepted that all conflict had been postponed for the night. As groups began to break apart, each girl scattered about the area before settling into her own appointed bed.
"Good night, dears," the nurse ended before flipping out the lights and shutting the door.
Seras adjusted her eyes to the sudden blackness before lying down. The mattress felt heavenly as she molded her body into a comfortable position. Snuggling herself into the covers, she let herself succumb to one of those deep, exhausted slumbers.
No one had noticed the solitary rodent that had lingered near the blonde's bed. Once stillness filtered through the room, the rat scampered off to the nearest wall, phasing through the solid material and descending smoothly down the length of the building. Reuniting with the others in the yard, the rats coagulated together as they were devoured in shadow matter. Dark, resonant laughter filled the night as a tall man emerged from the fusion. The stranger raised his gaze to peer at one of the second-story windows from beneath a wide-brimmed hat.
"You may not remember me, little one, but we will meet again soon."