Everyone told me I was a strange child. I was always “too” something. I was told I was too unladylike, too loud, or too giddy. When I was punished for my actions, I was too sulky. Their words built something inside of me, something that wouldn’t erupt until much later in childhood.
As I grew up, I spent my days terrorizing my nanny and hiding from my older, girlish sisters. I would run around the perimeter of our estate, creating a mud pie on every stump and stone before my nanny could catch me. Whenever my parents came home and found me covered in mud up to my nose, they said they were disappointed in my character. If it wasn’t my mud pies, it was something else. “Talia, your lack of gentleness concerns me.” My mother’s reprimand became a refrain.
One day my parents and two older sisters went on a trip – it was a funeral of a distant relative, an event deemed too mature for us young children. I was left behind with my baby brother and the nanny. Then it happened. That day I had a mother, a father, and two sisters, and the next day I was told a buggy crash ended it all. My only adult relative was an old aunt with dementia, and she wouldn’t have me.
My baby brother and I were sent off to New York Children’s Home. Overnight my life had turned into a ghost town. It was so empty, living in that dusty room at the Children’s home. I never got to see Elliot, my little brother, as he was so young he didn’t even eat meals in the same building I did. Every morning I got up to do my chores and sit through lessons only to go to sleep and do it again.
The ridicule I’d suffered worsened since I left home. Your hair is too frizzy, Talia. Cross your ankles. You shouldn’t speak so much. Really, Talia, you ought to know these things. It was constant, grating on my nerves, and all the tension built up inside me. Each comment was like the friction of one stick upon another, and I knew that one day I would start on fire.
Today is the day that sparks fly. I’d been at the Home for seven years. I was 16, but everyone said I looked not a day younger than 18 or 19. Somehow the orphanage had aged not only the inside of me but the outside as well.
I had a plan: escape, chop my hair off, buy trousers, and then join the military draft. It was, after all, 1917, and America was part of the war. It was my chance to get away from my old life and really be a part of something. It may be a rather ghastly and lonely experience, but it was everything I wanted.
The day before I planned to escape, a strange boy approached me.
“You’re Talia. I’ve been looking for you.”
I stared, waiting for an explanation.
“Lewis.” He stuck out his hand. I stood stock still. “I know your brother, Elliot.”
I’d been over this before. “Leave it alone. It’s not funny anymore.”
On the day I found out that my brother died, I cried in front of all to see for eighteen hours straight. No one would let me forget. “When will you all just stop? He died so long ago.”
“Who told you that?”
He seemed so genuinely confused that I explained. “A nurse. I asked her about him every day. Told me he caught the pox and didn’t make it. He was always a sickly child.”
Lewis blinked. “He’s still here. Alive. He heard that you were still here, and wants the two of you to break out together.” If there was anywhere else I could run to, I would have. He was spouting off nonsense. “He would’ve come himself, but he wasn’t feeling up to breakfast. You’re right – he’s always been sickly.”
“And how would you know that?” I had no reason to trust him.
“He’s my bunkmate.”
My voice rose, my face flushed. “You people are always trying to get a laugh out of me. I’ll have none of it.”
A nurse turned around and shushed us, but Lewis persisted.
“Listen, Talia. Elliot wants to get out of here.”
“If you two don’t quiet down –” The nurse turned on us again with an evil look in her eye.
“He tried to attack me, to hit me,” I announced loudly, for her to hear. “I was only trying to get him to leave me alone.”
“The nerve of some boys.” The nurse scuttled towards him, shouting. “Off with you.”
Lewis trotted off before he was caught. I couldn’t say I was sad to have him go. Lewis was just another mean, bullying boy who tried to use my past against me. He was a sadist, that’s what he was. Although that’s what I told myself, a tiny part of my mind chose not to believe it. Throughout the day, his words stayed with me. Elliot wants to get out of here.
That day, I did my chores. I sat through my lessons. Night fell, and the dawn was about to rise. I had stayed in the same position all night, upright and awake.
Finally, I got up. Peering far under my bed, I grasped at the darkness. I found it – my sewing kit. Opening the wooden box, I groped carefully until I found the one thing I needed – a scissors. We weren’t supposed to have those things – sharp objects could lead to a revolt, a riot, we were always told. Yet I took the risk of being caught because it was the last thing I had of my mother’s.
Scissors grasped tightly in my fist, I tiptoed out of the sleeping room and crept into the restroom in the hall. One toilet, a leaking sink, and a mirror the size of my palm. I pulled the string and the light bulb flickered on. I stared with resolve at my grungy face in the grungy mirror.
Tomorrow I would escape. After breakfast, I would slip away. A couple of the girls owed me favors, and so I would implore them to keep quiet as I vanished down the hall. They would tell the nurses an elaborate lie that I had been summoned to the headmaster’s office, and then they wouldn’t ask any more questions. I’d find a way to keep hidden until no one was watching and I could slip out the back door. I’d enlist and be in France before anyone knew I was gone.
I glanced at the scissors in my hands. This was my first step. I held my breath and began the tedious process of chopping off my hair. Once the floor was littered with my frizzy locks, I felt suddenly exhausted. I must have fallen asleep on top of my hair trimmings. The next thing I knew I heard shrieking.
“Talia, what have you done to yourself.”
“Where did you get those scissors?”
“Talia, your hair.”
Nurse Margaret appeared and pulled me off the floor with a painful grip. “Your behavior has warranted a visit with the headmaster.”
Perfect. That was part of my escape plan, visiting the headmaster. They made it so easy for me.
Nurse Margaret took it upon herself to escort me. She rushed me past the sleeping room, down the stairs. We walked beside the line of girls and then the line of boys waiting for their breakfast. I saw Lewis standing in line, talking to a shorter boy. The boy’s back was turned, but for some reason I knew. Lewis hadn’t been lying. I craned my neck to see him as Nurse Margaret pulled me along. Finally I wriggled out of her grip.
“Talia,” she screeched. “Come back here.”
I kept my eyes focused on the auburn boy next to Lewis.
The headmaster emerged from his office and strode towards us. “What is this all about?”
I heard Nurse Margaret explain my reckless behavior and blatant disobedience. Still, I could only look at stare down the hall.
Lewis turned his head. Elliot stood beside him, apparently jabbering away, still with his back to me. Elliot’s head of auburn locks reminded me of my own, and the way he held his shoulders was simply familiar. I swallowed around a lump in my throat. It had been no joke. He was my flesh and blood.
By now, other children had turned to look. Nurse Margaret was watching me, I was watching Elliot, and suddenly Elliot turned around. Down the hall, his dark eyes locked on mine. A look of understanding passed between us.
“Talia Daubney.” It was the headmaster now. “If you refuse to listen to me, I will have no other choice than to tell you it’s time you are on your own.”
I jerked my attention the headmaster. I was being kicked out?
“You are of age. It is your time.”
Other children heard this and gasped in terror, but I could’ve danced for joy. They forced me to leave before I could even escape. My original plan was working and freedom and France were so close I could almost taste it.
But then I looked towards Elliot and Lewis. Everything was moving in extraordinarily slow motion. They watched me with gaping mouths. I saw Elliot attempt to stifle a cough. My heart swelled with concern – Lewis was right. My baby brother was still a sickly child.
The headmaster motioned me back towards the stairs. “Go on now. Grab your things.”
All of my plans came flooding back. I would buy my own britches, join the army, fight for a cause, and never have to deal with the inconveniences of family. How I longed to be free, on my own, with no strings or pressures. I shook my head. “Confound it all,” I muttered to myself. I turned to the headmaster and Nurse Margaret.
“I will go,” I started, my voice strong. “But I will take those two with me.” I pointed to the boys’ breakfast line. The other boys parted around Elliot and Lewis to reveal who I referred to. Lewis’ eyes widened. I couldn’t just leave him. Without him, I wouldn’t have found my family.
“You can’t,” started the nurse. “They’re so young, only –”
“You said I am of age. They will be my responsibility, my ward.”
The headmaster and Nurse Margaret now looked at me with gaping mouths. They couldn’t find any real reasons to make me stay.
Already the wheels were turning in my heads. I would find a job somewhere, as a seamstress shop, perhaps. I knew how to sew decently enough. The rest of the details didn’t matter much at the moment.
“We’ll be off, then.”
That was when I knew I had a family again. Elliot, Lewis and I were an odd trio, but a family nevertheless. No more ghost towns for me.
Upon leaving the orphanage, we truly had no place to go. I had done what I could to locate my only known relative – old Aunt Bessie. She had died a few short months ago. She had left something to Elliot and I – her flat. It was dusty and rat-infested, but it was something. I found a job at a seamstress shop across town, and Lewis worked in a furniture shop. Elliot occupied himself with learning how to read and keeping his strength up.
“I’ve never gotten to ask you,” Elliot said one day. “What happened to your hair?”
“I chopped it off.”
Elliot’s eyes grew wide. “On purpose? What’d you do that for?”
I grinned and tousled his hair. “I was a different person then.” I left it at that. Life with my improvised family was far better than life could be on my own.