Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
She climbed, up and up and up, past the narrow beds of the others, climbing past the other girls, lying wide-eyed under thin blankets, waiting for it to tell them to sleep.
She felt like the climb would never end. All she wanted was her bed, hard and unwelcoming though the mattress appeared. She climbed on, careful to look neither up nor down. She stared steadily at the rungs, moving more quickly as she realised she was going to be late, that it would reprimand her if she wasn’t in her bed at lights out.
She paused for a brief second at the bed below her own. The towers of beds surrounding hers held girls she did not know, could not name, for they were forbidden to speak. But sometimes, late at night, after it told them to sleep, they would whisper, her and this girl beneath her. Risky business—one breath too loud meant it heard them, and they were reprimanded and punished the next day. But they had learned, over the years, to pitch their voices to slip in under its radar.
She gave the smallest of nods to the girl below her, signaling that she would be waiting up tonight. She received a nod in return, almost imperceptible. She didn’t know this girl’s name—too dangerous to speak your name aloud in this place, where it listened in every crevice and lurked around any corner.
She climbed into her bed, relief flooding through her at having gotten there in time, at surviving another day without a reprimand. She rolled over, careful not to look down at the ladder, knowing that if she took one look at the endless rungs she would never be able to climb down again. When it had found out that she was afraid of heights, it had assigned her to the top bunk, saying that her fears weakened her, that she must learn to overcome them so as not to be controlled by them. And so every day, she was faced with a climb that terrified her, to the top of the endless stack of bunks. They had built these hyper-efficient rooms to make better use of space, so that more girls could be fit into fewer rooms. As more and more orphans arrived, more and more beds were built on top of one another.
She had been there for three years. She could no longer remember the faces of her parents. She could no longer remember the feel of arms around her, or the sound of a voice above a whisper. She could no longer remember love. All she knew now was here. These girls, whose faces she saw each day but whose names she would never know. This bed, narrow and cold but familiar, at least, the closest thing to comfort she had. The ladder, stretching out below her, taunting her daily. And it, echoing through the room with its instructions and reprimands. And all that kept her going was the knowledge that her parents would come for her. They had to. They had never found their bodies. And one day, they would find her.
She rolled over, pressing her face against the crack next to the wall. “They will come.” She whispered so softly she wasn’t sure the girl had heard. But a moment later, she heard a reply. “They are dead. They will not come.”
“They will come.”
She rolled back over and closed her eyes, unwilling to risk reprimand for a conversation that would go nowhere. Every night, when she got to the top of the ladder, she allowed herself to imagine them coming, them running into the room and calling her name, throwing herself joyfully into their arms and knowing that it would all be all right, that she no longer had to listen to it. That her life was no longer governed by it, that she was free.
“They will come.” Every night, she whispered to herself until she fell asleep, finding her only comfort in those three words, willing herself to believe they were true. She faced the ladder each day only because she could let herself believe that they were true. Night after night, for three years, she had told herself. “They will come.”
She fell into a troubled sleep, tormented by the shadowy faces of her parents. “We will come,” they told her, every night in her dreams. “We will come.” She awoke in the morning, bracing herself for the long climb down the ladder, knowing that at the end she would find nothing. Facing the ladder, she was startled by the unexpected interruption of its voice.
“Rachel.” It said.
She had not heard her own name in three years.
“Rachel.” It said.
“They have come.”