Boots tapped against the stones. Olaf’s boots. I knew the sound of his just as I knew those of all the men who ran this place. It became mandatory to know, like that of every other part of my surroundings at all times. The smell of the guard’s body odor who watched this chamber room from dawn to noon. The squeaking noise the guard’s cigarette lighter made who guarded the chamber from noon to dinner. The swishing of guard number three’s long trench coat that always sounded like the rustling of a plastic garbage bag. These things were vital that I know because I was going to escape this place no matter what, and I needed to memorize every aspect of my environment.
I looked up from the edge of my elevated cot made of old wire and worn springs to see Olaf standing over me. My eyes still burned from the dirt I smeared in them. The other boys in the room were also sitting on their cots just as I was. Quiet. Scared. Each of them fearing that Olaf was here for them for punishment, and not for advancement like I was being treated to on this day.
“Come now,” he said with the subtle backward tilt of his head, “I’ll show you to your new quarters.”
It had been a day to look forward to, when Olaf, after six months of confinement, believed I had learned my lesson and would never try to escape again. I was caught just outside the tall brick wall that surrounded the massive property. My only friend, Eduard, who spoke only French, was with me. He was shot in the head next to me, his sentence for fleeing. I was left alive and Eduard’s death had been my final warning.
Olaf had always had a soft spot for me. He showed that by taking me away from the violent men and from the brutal beatings they inflicted on me. And he continued to show it by having me sleep in his quarters on some nights, sometimes on a cot on the floor next to his bed, while other times he insisted I sleep with him in his bed. I did not want to, but it would’ve been foolish to protest.
I stood from the cot and kept my eyes on the floor, my small, boyish hands folded together down in front of me. I smelled of urine and I was embarrassed. I had been wetting myself in my sleep the whole six months I had been imprisoned in this room. They did terrible things to the boys here. Unspeakable things.
Following Olaf past the tall iron door, my eyes finally began to adjust to the light in the hallway. The humid air stank of mold and garbage. I heard the pattering and squeaking of overfed rats scuttling down the hall in front and behind me. In this section of Olaf’s estate, the rats were fed better than the boys were.
Olaf was wearing cologne and this frightened me. He was also dressed in a suit, although his pants were an inch too short and he wasn’t wearing anything as distinguished as a tie. But the suit was a stark difference from the navy pants and wool sweaters he often wore. Olaf only wore suits and cologne for special occasions. And his special occasions almost always entailed teaching me the greatest of lessons, which I was always the most afraid to learn.
I dared not speak unless spoken to as he guided me down the long, dusty hallway and outside the building. I walked alongside him obediently toward the old, yet more immaculate building I had lived in with Olaf before I attempted escape. The sun was shining brightly overhead as my bare feet went over the prickly grass. The warmth on my skin was a godsend. The clean air filling my lungs. The sweet smell of the white flowers with bell-shaped petals that grew alongside the building.
But it was gone all too quickly, as well as the sunlight, when we stepped through another door and I was bathed in a harsh orange light in the foyer and the acrid smell of incense and cigars.
Willa, in her average height and average frame, greeted us wearing a long gray dress that fell just above her ankles, and a pair of flat black shoes over thin white ankle socks. Her arms were covered by the sleeves of a white button-up top that she wore underneath the dress, the collar fixed neatly around her neck with a little four-leaf clover broach pinned to the left side. I liked Willa. She was the only person other than the boys who were imprisoned here like I was, who I didn’t want to see die a painful and horrific death.
Willa was young, but older than me by at least five years. A kind and beautiful girl of about fifteen or sixteen. She was taken by Eskill at a young age, the same as I was. But she would never be sold and was treated kindly by the other men for the most part. I never knew why.
But Willa, also like me, put on a very different face in front of the men.
And as always when I saw her, I went along with it.
“Vhy geev me the runt?” Willa snapped in a heavily broken accent, her pretty natural pink-colored lips curling with censure as she looked down at me through harsh, but beautiful green eyes. “Vhy must you always geev me ze hopeless ones?”
“Because you are the only one here, my dear Willa, who can make the hopeless ones at least appear worthy.” Olaf smiled. I wouldn’t dare look at his face, but I could tell there was a smile on it without having to see.
My body jerked forward and I nearly lost my footing as Willa’s hand yanked on my elbow. And then I saw stars when she slapped me hard across the face with her free hand, and finally my wobbly legs came out from underneath me. My bare knees scraped against the wood floor, but I kept myself from falling further, bracing my free hand against it to hold up my frail weight.
“Geet up!” Willa pulled me to my feet.
“Willa,” I heard Olaf say in a forewarning tone, “I’ve told you, not in the face. Now go. Get him cleaned up.”
“Yes, sir,” Willa said, curtsied and then turned on her heels with my elbow still clutched in her hand.
She walked me up the winding staircase to the second floor. Passing other servants in matching gray dresses, Willa grabbed me by the back of my dark, filthy hair and wound her fingers aggressively through it, pushing me along in front of her cruelly.
“I said valk straight, boy!” she growled behind me.
When the door to her quarters was opened, she gave me a hard shove and I fell through the doorway onto my hands and knees.
The lock on the door clicked behind me and then Willa was sitting on the floor next to me, pulling me into her lap and rocking me against her chest.
“I’m so sorry, Freedrik!” she cried into my hair. “You vill forgive me?”
Tears soaked my cheeks, streaking through a layer of dirt I could feel on my face. But I wasn’t crying because of the way she treated me. I was just glad to see her again.
“I’ll always forgive you, Willa.”
I felt her lips on the top of my head and it sent a rush of warmth through my body.