The stink of death filled the house. His mother and father lay in their bed, tucked away carefully as if asleep. His sisters were in their room, but not in their bed. Kaivu and Chort, weakened from thirst and hunger, had not had the strength to put them to rest. Chort had lain down in his final rest curled next to Kaivu. Kaivu despaired that he had not died of the plague like the others.
His brother’s body, once thick and heavy from working in the mines, was far lighter now. It felt delicate, like it would break if Kaivu moved too much. Still, fragile as it felt, it was far too heavy for Kaivu’s emaciated body to lift off his legs. He was well and truly trapped under his brother’s corpse, doomed to starve and die alone and abandoned, surrounded by the corpses of his family.
His legs had gone numb days ago, but he was afraid to look at them, afraid to touch them. What if they had gone putrid? What if they were slimy and white like the others? What if there were things in his legs? Inside him? Eating him? Fear rose up in him. His parched lips cracked in a whimper.
Rats came out of the wood, crawling over him, biting him. He tried to thrash them away but he was too weak. He tried-
A harsh light shone in his eyes, “Kaivu! Wake up!”
Kaivu’s eyes fluttered open. The rats weren’t rats at all. They were the pinching hands of one of the other orphans… Karls. The dream wasn’t now, it was just a memory.
His mouth bone dry, Kaivu had to try three times before he could reply, “Thanks for waking me up.”
Karls dampened the lantern he had in his hand, “You was thrashing again. It’s a damn good thing you’s quiet in your dreams or you’d bring the Madam on us.”
“Sorry.” Kaivu mumbled.
Karls nodded at the small window – a block cut in the wall with thin paper covering it – a glimmer of false dawn could be seen through the tears. It was time to be up.
“We got the kitchen today?” Kaivu asked huddled in his threadbare and patched blanket.
Karls nodded, “Course. It’s the same day each hand of days.”
Kaivu stretched. Glad to be awake from the dream, but sorry to still be here. Or alive. He couldn’t tell which. “Let’s get to it. Madam doesn’t like to be kept waiting for breakfast.”
Kaivu and Karls padded off to the kitchen. Karls kept the lantern shuttered so there was only a sliver of light on the floor to illuminate their path down the eerie hallway. Madam always knew when someone was casting light about. The key to the kitchen was in the lock for them.
“I think I’ll always wonder how that key gets there.” Kaivu said touching the key with a shiver of fear. No use being afraid he told himself, turning the handle and pushing the door open into the kitchen.
“I won’t.” Karls said following Kaivu in.
“What?” Kaivu exclaimed, stopping to look at his friend.
“Don’t know why you’re surprised. I don’t want to know why odd things happen here. This place is evil and the less I know the happier I’ll be. You ask too many questions. It’s why you spend so much time in The Box.”
The Box was an wooden chest. It was sized so that any orphan that went inside was curled in the fetal position for as long as they stayed inside. It would have been extraordinary, since the same box was used for grown ones like Kaivu as was used for young runts, if it wasn’t so terrifying. It was one of those things that led credence to the whispers that the Madam was a demon.
“The worst part of The Box is when the others drop things into it.” Tormenting whoever was in The Box was strongly encouraged.
Karls shivered, “I’ve been in there before. You don’t have to remind me.”
Kaivu checked the bread yesterday’s crew was supposed to bake. It hadn’t risen. “Oh no.”
Karls came over. When his eyes clasped on the fallen bread tears crept into his eyes.
Kaivu saw the fear in his friend and recognized it in himself. It wasn’t their fault yesterday’s crew had done a poor job, but they would certainly be the ones to pay for it. “I guess we spoke of The Box too soon.”
Karls’ head snapped toward Kaivu.
Kaivu shrugged as if had not a care in the world. “If I’m going to get crated, I’m going to have some fun with it.” He gestured to Karls, “I’ve been wanting to try something.” Kaivu began calling out directions to Karls. After a nightmare like the one he had just had, he longed for him mums breakfast cakes. He had helped her make them a few times, but he had never been able to make them before. He was going to make them for Madam and he was going to eat one.