Esmerie sat in an old armchair by the window, dreamily watching the rain strike the pavement. It soaked the blacktop and the wood border of the playground, and she could almost hear it ding as it hit the metal of the jungle gym. The voices of the children created a comforting din, mixed with the crackles from the fireplace the staff had lit to combat the cold seeping through the walls.
She twisted a curl around her fingers and took in a contented breath when the peace was interrupted by a harsh snap.
“You broke it!”
Her head turned to the sound of the young boy’s voice. Red faced, he held a robot toy, now in two. His features scrunched as he turned his anger onto another little boy, accusing him of the toy’s mutilation.
“You broke it, you broke it!” he screamed, throwing the plastic robot to the ground. “That was my favorite!”
Esmerie’s knees left the comfort of the chair’s arm and her feet found the floor. She scooched forward, watching the situation, readying herself. The first boy pulled at chunks of his hair, tears beginning to well in his eyes.
“I hate you!” he cried. “I hate you, I hate you!” He stomped his feet and his arms began to flail. Esmerie’s legs moved before her mind caught up. She crossed the room in a matter of moments and grabbed the hands of the first boy as he reached out to push the other down. The little boy’s tear-stained face popped open at her touch, and she settled gently to her knees.
“What’s going on?” she asked, her voice barely more than a whisper.
“He broke my favorite toy!” The first boy pointed at the second.
“Did not!” the other defended himself. It was the first time she had heard him speak. “I was playing with it, and he tried to take it away! He broke it!”
“Boys,” Esmerie regained control. “This is not a matter for shouting. We are going to solve this together. Have the two of you ever heard the story of the boy with beautiful things?” The boys both shook their heads.
“Once upon a time, there was a boy who had the most beautiful things. Everything that everyone wanted, he had. Everything that everyone had, he had one that was better. The boy knew how beautiful his things were, and he held it over the people of the town. He would mock them for their less beautiful things, and not allow anyone to touch or look at his possessions. Over time, the townspeople began to dislike the boy. They stopped talking to him, the other kids stopped playing with him, and whenever there was an event, he was never invited.
At first, he didn’t understand. He had the most wonderful things in town, shouldn’t the people want nothing more than to be around him? He tried everything to get their attention, but none of them even looked his way, so he went home. Then, one day, a child appeared at his door. He’d never met this child before, because even though the townspeople didn’t have beautiful things like him, they weren’t poor or dirty like this child was.
‘What are you doing here? What do you want?’ the boy asked the stranger.
‘My little sister and I need food,’ said the child, ‘and I was told you have the nicest of things. Surely you wouldn’t miss one loaf of bread if it would help a little girl?’
The boy was disgusted by the idea of giving one of his beautiful things to someone so filthy.
‘Yes, I have beautiful things,’ said the boy, ‘but I’m not about to give them to you. If I gave my things to everyone who wanted them, what would be left for me? I won’t give anything to you, so leave my house at once.’
The child’s eyes filled up with tears. ‘How can you be so cruel to someone who has nothing? You are so fortunate, and you keep it all for yourself. You must know nothing of love, or compassion. I pity you, friend, because that is the poorest life of all.’ And with that, the child left the boy alone with his beautiful things. Days passed, and the boy couldn’t shake the words of the child, or how he’d felt. And he didn’t understand what the child had meant about him being poor. He had all of the most beautiful things. The idea was absurd.
And so he sat alone in his home, and watched out the window as the townspeople celebrated an occasion he didn’t know. He didn’t understand how they could be happy when their things were so much less beautiful than his. He didn’t understand how they could be happy without him there and his beautiful things. He watched as the townspeople passed a cup between them, each drinking out of it in turn. They’re sharing their things, the boy thought, is that what makes them happy? The child’s words came back to him, and suddenly the boy understood. He grabbed the most beautiful of his things and ran out to the square to join the townspeople. When he got there, the celebration halted as the people caught sight of him. Nervously, he walked into the center of the square, and laid all of his beautiful things out in a row.
‘I’ve brought some of my things with me,’ the boy said. ‘If I share them, may I join you?’ He sat and awaited the response of the people. Soon, the music began to play again, and the townspeople invited him to dance. Everyone traded and admired his beautiful things, and for the first time he felt truly happy.”
The boys gazed up at her, their eyes shining with full attention.
“Now, I want the two of you to answer me honestly. Who was playing with the toy first?”
The first boy pointed to the second, and the second raised his hand.
“And,” she said, turning to the first boy, “you wanted to play with the toy, so you reached out and grabbed it?”
The first boy dropped his head and nodded.
“Did you ask nicely?”
“Yes,” he asserted.
“No!” the second boy shouted. Esmerie slowly raised one eyebrow at the first boy.
“Did you say please?” The boy watched his feet shift on the floor and he rubbed his arms.
“…no,” he finally said.
“Alright,” she said, adjusting her weight and sitting on the floor. She picked up the two large pieces of the toy that were left and gestured for the boys to sit down with her. “From now on, let’s agree to always ask nicely when we want to play with something that someone else already has. Sharing your favorite toy doesn’t mean you’ll never get to play with it again. Selfishness will attract bad karma. More bad things will happen.
“But…” she picked up another toy from a bin behind her. “If we share the things we love with others, the love grows, and so do we.” She placed one of each of the boys’ hands onto the toy. “Can you remember that for me?”
The two boys looked from their hands to each other, then to her. They nodded their heads in turn. She smiled and pushed herself up from the floor.
“Wonderful. You two have fun, okay?” She watched the boys run off, deciding what game they wanted to play together, and smiled.
She spun on her heel. Louis stood behind her, his eyes on the boys she’d been talking to. A blush rushed to her cheeks as she wondered how long he’d been there.
“They really respect you. And your composure is astounding. You must have wonderful maternal instincts.”
He said it all without looking her way, but his last comment made her face scrunch up. His eyes darted to her after only a moment. He must have noticed it, too.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “That was weird.”
She shrugged. “It’s fine. You rough-house with the children like a father would.”
He stared at her and she smiled, giggling.
“I apologized,” he said, and they laughed together. “Esmerie,” he said once he’d regained his composure, “come with me.” He tilted his head in the direction of the hallway as he started walking. She followed.
“What’s up?” she asked when they were out of earshot of the children.
“I’ve talked to the staff about that ghost the children keep talking about.”
“None of them have heard much of anything, so I thought we should check the hallway that the children said they saw it in.”
“Sounds like a plan. They said they saw it outside their rooms, right?”
“Yes. If that’s true, it should show itself somewhere down here. Unless it only comes out at night.”
She shook her head. “That’s not how it works. A resident is around all the time and can perform activity at any time of day. It’s more noticeable at night. The veil between the spirit world and ours is weakest at the early hours of the morning.”
“Well, the children are all in one spot, playing, so their rooms will be still. Will that help?”
“It should,” she shrugged. “A lot of times all you have to do is ask, and the resident will show themselves. Let’s go check things out.”
The two of them slid through the doorway of the front room and made their way into the darkened hallways. The emergency lights illuminated patches of the tile floors, and the hallway felt cold and unwelcoming.
They said nothing as they walked, and Esmerie tried to ignore the growing sense of dread. She tried to ignore sounds, too, like when she thought she heard water dripping eerily onto the floor. It was just the resident trying to frighten her, she told herself, until a water droplet landed on her head.
“Ah!” she said, surprised. She side-stepped away from the spot she’d been standing in and placed a hand on her head. She cast an accusatory glance up at the ceiling.
“Sorry about that,” Louis said. He’d made a few more steps down the hall, but had backed himself up like a delivery truck when she stopped. “The director is working on getting the roof replaced, but there have apparently been some snags in the progress.”
He pulled a familiar pad of paper out of his back pocket and made a note. “I’ll let them know to patch this or place a bucket underneath it.”
“The roof is leaking,” she said, unsure of why she was saying it.
“There are several holes in it, actually. That’s why it’s so cold in the hallway, and why such a big project was pushed to be done next. It’s certainly the right time of year to have it done, as long as they can get the final decisions set. The winter was awful on the staff and the children with this roof the way it is.”
“Hmm,” she said, unsure of how else to add to the conversation. There was so much she didn’t know about the orphanage, and her brain was still too focused on finding the spirit of it to comprehend much of anything else. They continued walking until a new sound began.
She stopped. She felt like a dog as she perked her ears, tuning her hearing to the new sound in the hall. Footsteps echoed off the empty walls, steady and rhythmic. Carefully, she searched for the source, trying to use the little light in the hall to catch a glimpse of a shadow on the wall. Finding none, she tried the other direction.
A few steps in front of her, Louis had noticed she’d stopped walking. He turned and stared at her, watching as she searched for the noise.
“Esmerie?” he whispered after several seconds had passed. No sooner had the word left his mouth, though, that he seemed to catch on to what she was doing, as she saw him turn his own head sharply toward the wall.
They listened together, searching the light pools for signs of life.
“Is it possible for a ghost to make sounds of footsteps?” Louis asked.
She nodded. “But it’s also possible for the living to make that sound. Which is why I’m looking for a shadow.”
Louis opened his mouth to respond, but stopped when another voice cut into his place.
“I’m working on it, but the old man won’t budge. …Yes, I know. I won’t.”
Esmerie caught Louis’s eye as they listened. She straightened her back. The footsteps didn’t belong to the supposed resident.
“I know that voice,” Louis said. The footsteps stopped immediately after, as did the talking. Esmerie and Louis exchanged glances, and right as she was about to ask, a quick whirring sound erupted in the hallway. She turned her attention back the way they came, and no sooner found her vision obscured.
She closed her eyes as she felt something soft make contact with her face, and her arm instinctively raised to bat it away. Her hand made contact and the item fell to the floor. Louis reached down to pick it up.
“A sheet.” He turned it around so she could see the comical monster face drawn onto it.
“What kind of—”
Before she finished her question, the sound of footsteps came again, louder and faster. Esmerie glanced around frantically, searching for the source, but the hallway was too dark for her to find anything.
“Move!” The voice registered in her head about the same time that she was pushed backward, shoved hard by something moving past her. She reached her arm out to brace her fall, but it was unnecessary. A set of firm hands grabbed onto her waist and pulled her back up.
Once steady, she looked over to Louis, about to thank him. He didn’t seem interested, however, and took off running back toward the front room. He speed was unbelievable, and within moments, he’d caught up to the other person in the hall. He reached out and grabbed the other person’s arm, then dug his heels into the floor to stop them both. The force of the stop ricocheted the mystery figure off balance and onto the floor. Louis stood over them, and turned on the flashlight on his phone.
Light flooded over the mystery man’s face, and he recoiled at the brightness. Esmerie made her way over to them, to find one of the orphanage’s counselors sitting on the floor. Louis’s stood with rigid posture, the gentle light in his eyes gone.
“You don’t sound surprised,” Esmerie noted. Louis didn’t answer, didn’t even look her way.
“Would you like to explain yourself, Favre?”
Favre squinted up at Louis. “Look, it’s tricky, okay? I owe some money to some people, and they want me to pay them back by getting Roland to use their company for the roof repairs. That’s all, okay? I’m not hurting anything.”
“Not hurting anything?” Louis said, his voice firm. “The company you’re trying to get Roland to use has a history of botch jobs. They don’t give a damn about the orphanage, or about fixing anything. They care about doing a job that will mean they have to get called back so they can get paid again.”
“I know,” Favre defended, “but—”
“This orphanage has limited funds. Replacing the roof at all will run them dry. It’s going to take everything they have to keep the children fed, and you want them to waste their money on them?”
“And on top of it all, you’re going around scaring the children. These children, who have no one and nothing, and you’re making them afraid in the only home they have? And you think that’s not hurting anything?”
“Louis,” Esmerie whispered as his temper grew hotter.
“You should not be allowed to work with children!” He was shouting now, his face gaining color from his anger. “You should lose your job. You should lose everything to those people you owe money to. You should… You should be jailed!”
“Louis,” Esmerie said.
At the sound of her voice, his eyes cleared, and with a deep breath he came back to himself.
“We’ll explain the situation to the director. He will decide what to do about it.” He turned off his flashlight and grabbed Favre’s arm, lifting him off the ground in one smooth motion. The three of them walked together to Roland’s office, though Esmerie had trouble keeping up with Louis’s pace.
When they arrived, Esmerie waited outside. After a few minutes, Louis once again emerged, and the rain outside ceased, as if on cue. The children wasted no time in pushing open the building’s doors and helping themselves to the soaked playground. She and Louis stood outside and watched them with the rest of the staff.
“You really got carried away there for a moment, didn’t you?” She brought the conversation up as gently as she could. Louis’s arms were crossed in front of his chest, and his gaze was somewhere far away. “Do you think you were a little hard on him?”
“No.” The light still hadn’t returned to Louis, and Esmerie reached out for his arm. At her touch, he turned, and his face softened to the Louis she knew. “I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have to apologize, Louis. You were an orphan. You understand these kids.”
“I never stopped being an orphan, Esmerie.” The muscles in his arms flexed as he watched the children try and keep their balance on the slippery jungle gym. “The Levancois took me in, and there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t appreciate that, but they aren’t my family. I don’t have a family.”
Tears pricked the corners of Esmerie’s eyes. She’d never seen Louis like this before. He was the most positive person she knew, and yet…
“I can’t imagine what those kids felt,” he continued. “Thinking that there was actually a monster in the only place where they’re wanted. Feeling unsafe in the only place that’s ever accepted them. It’s horrible.”
“Do you?” He turned to her, his expression full of something she couldn’t quite place, like a mixture of hoping she was telling the truth and daring her to try and relate.
“I do.” She didn’t shy away from the anger he was left with after dealing with Favre. “I spent my childhood in slum after slum. My parents tried to save money, but our apartments kept getting broken into or worse, and all the money that they saved went into repairing or moving.” Her arms crossed her chest, and she clutched her shoulders. “Or hospital bills.”
“We were finally able to get out of that life when I got my first leading role. I gave my parents all the money to get a house in a nice neighborhood. They weren’t happy about it at first because they wanted me to put the money away for college, but I told them I’d just get another role and use that money instead.”
She gave her attention back to Louis and found the gentle smile she’d come to love. “I can relate to not feeling safe in your home, so I get your anger, Louis, I do.” She reached out and placed her hands on his biceps, finding well-built muscles under her fingertips. “Just don’t let it turn you into something you’re not.”
They stood there together, in silence, for a long moment. Esmerie held her breath, not sure what to expect. Louis moved, like he wanted to tell her something, but he didn’t get the chance. A handful of the older children came rushing over to the two of them, and Esmerie took a step back.
“What are you guys talking about?” the eldest one asked, a strange glint in his eye.
“Nothing important,” Louis shrugged. “You guys ready for dinner?”
“I could eat a horse,” the other boy of the group said.
“That phrase is so gross,” the girl in the group shook her head. “Can we talk about something else?”
“What about the rehearsal on Friday?” the eldest boy asked.
“I completely forgot about it!” The girl turned her attention to Louis. “Are you gonna play, Louis? Is Lisette gonna sing with you?”
Lisette? Esmerie tilted her head, watching Louis. He laughed at the teenaged girl’s question.
“I guess you’ll have to wait and see.”
The girl threw her head back and groaned. “You’re the worst, Louis.”
The five of them reached the doors to the cafeteria, and the teenagers disappeared inside. Louis and Esmerie stepped aside as more children filed in from the playground.
“Well, I guess I’d better get you home,” Louis said.
“Mm.” Esmerie ran her tongue over her teeth.
She turned to him and smiled. “Sounds like a plan, let’s hit the road.”
They walked to the car together, saying their goodbyes to the staff of the orphanage as they went, and waving at Roland, still in his office. Esmerie hung behind Louis as they walked, not wanting him to notice her fingernails scratching at her skin.