What do you pack when you have only six minutes to leave?
I don't know if you've ever been challenged with a question like this. But if you want to know why I faced such a dilemma, you might need to know a few facts about this tricky situation.
Silence reigned over the orphanage. It was deep in the middle of winter, and the snow was falling with shining flakes, heavy snow that turned into a blizzard as if a giant pillow exploded in the sky.
For it was a cold night, and Hector, the dorm master on duty, had already turned off the lights. All the children were dreaming peacefully, wrapped in thick blankets like sardines in a can.
I mean, yeah . . . all. But not quite everyone. Someone was sneaking through the darkness and wiping some rather wet hands on the pajamas. Who could it be? Me, of course!
Wandering the corridors without permission after curfew is a foolish job. Many have suffered severe punishment because of it. Just not me. I trained myself to tread lightly, like a cat.
Truth is . . . I drank too much of that tea again. How much was it? One . . . Two at the most. Okay . . . I admit it! I filled the mug four times. Sorry. But I'm super into honey plus mint, and the kitchen lady knew that pretty well. She opened a honey jar, then left . . . There was no other way. I emptied it, got thirsty, the end!
The kitchen lady told me not to linger in the kitchen when she wasn't around, but I ignored her . . . I usually listen to her. Mostly because she gives me access to the jars of honey, but mainly because I realized she's right most of the time. However, that evening, I just didn't listen to her. Why? Because she worries too much. She worries about how I dress and what I eat. But mostly about me sneaking out into the hallways at night.
It's not like I want to upset her on purpose, quite the opposite. It's just that sometimes she worries for no reason. After so many years of wandering at night, I've gained excellent skills at sneaking and hiding if a teacher came my way. Seriously, I'm not a five-year-old anymore. The truth is, I'm already used to it. Sneaking around the hallways has long since become routine.
In the stillness of the night, the only noise was the patter of my bare feet on the cold bathroom floor. Then, just as I was making my way back to the bedroom, the silence was shattered by a short, sharp sound, like the jingle of a bell, then a man's voice shouted, "Delightful!"
When talking about something boring, grown-ups often say it's delightful. Probably because they confuse the words boring and delightful with each other. So I pretend not to hear them. However, when "Delightful!" came up three more times, I pricked up my ears.
I mean, really . . . no doubt about it, there are some pretty strange people in the orphanage, and I'm not talking about the children. The girls and boys in the orphanage are just struggling to get by. Not the children. The adults are strange.
White shirts, yellowed collar, tweed jackets with elbow patches. And — unless they wear hats — rumpled hair. When not in classes, they walk down the hallways with a pointer in their hands and mumble to themselves. Coming across one, you'd be lucky not to get flicked with the pointer stick. Even so, they also need to sleep at night.
The noises sounded like they were coming from the Headmaster's office. Only good to be investigated.
Running my palms against the walls, I carefully made my way through the darkness until I reached the door separating the Headmaster's office from the hallway. Then I stopped.
The door was ajar, and two men's voices came from inside. Their silhouettes were clearly visible in the light-filled room.
One was small, thin, and with a silly hat on his head — similar to what the characters in old history books wore. The other was tall, slightly hunchbacked, and with tousled hair. I recognized them at once. Hector, the dorm master, was the first one. He always wears a ridiculously tall hat to raise his height. The other was the Headmaster himself.
Even though they started talking more quietly, I strained my hearing enough to catch what they were saying.
"Hector, be more careful!" came the Headmaster's familiar voice. "You will wake them all up! Did you break something?"
"Excuse me, sir," Hector apologized as he picked something up off the floor.
"You better not have damaged it!"
The Headmaster snubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray, burying it in soot, then leaned over the desk toward Hector. Clouds of smoke puffed out of his nose.
"Fortunately, everything intact," Hector said, carefully turning a small jewel on all sides.
"Well then, sir, you were just telling me that you found . . ."
"Yes, yes, indeed . . . At the main entrance . . ." The Headmaster paused long enough to lean back and lift his legs up on the desk. "I found a baby in a basket. Also, there was some money, an envelope with a letter, and this amulet."
"And when was that, Mr. Headmaster? If you don't mind my asking . . ."
"Hmmm, about ten, or . . . maybe twelve years ago . . ." the Headmaster said with a bit of a huff. "When . . . when . . . Who cares when? What really matters is how much," he went on sharply.
As he listened, Hector's face began changing. His eyes popped out of their sockets, and his hands began to tremble as if he was holding the queen's crown, not a tiny jewel he could easily clutch in his palm.
"How much do you think it's worth?" the Headmaster asked, clearly annoyed.
"What, the letter? I don't know. I haven't read it," Hector replied, keeping his eyes on the jewel.
"Hector, you airhead, even flies have bigger brains than you! I'm not asking you about the letter. The amulet! I'd like to know how much I could sell it for. The money in the basket is gone. And nobody stays here for free."
"But this is an orphanage . . ." Hector muttered.
"where children are not supposed to have jewelry," added the Headmaster. "I remember you once told me about a friend of yours, a jeweler . . . Do you think he could help me?"
"Oh, sweet lights, Mr. Headmaster, but you have the memory of an elephant. Yes! Yes, I have a jeweler friend. I'll take the amulet . . . and tomorrow morning, I'll go to him and ask his opinion."
"No, no, no . . . No way!" the Headmaster said, snatching the small jewel from Hector's hand.
"You give him a call and ask him to come here!" then glanced around with a sneaky look.
"It's safer that way," he added.
"As you wish . . . What about the letter?"
Hector's eyes narrowed as if to read his mind. " . . . and the baby?"
"The baby? It's Nine . . ." the Headmaster replied with a dismissive hand wave.
"Nine? Do you mean Nimurel?" asked Hector, raising his hands and shrugging his shoulders.
"Yes, yes, Nimurel, Nine, whatever. That skinny, long-fingered, always honey-smeared thing. And the letter is full of weird, senseless rubbish. Obviously, I have it around here somewhere. Since you keep bugging me so much about the letter, I'll read it to you . . . then you'll be glad to know it was written by a mother who wasn't in her right mind."
My heart started racing. It pounded so hard it felt like it was about to burst out of my chest. The Headmaster put on his glasses, pulled the desk lamp closer to him, and rummaged in a drawer. He started to read a letter, but I could barely hear his voice. Because his words turned into the sounds of fingernails on a chalkboard.
Well, yes . . . of course, it was me they were talking about. I'm Nimurel. I'm the honey-smeared, skinny one with long fingers.
Beyond anything I expected, this dizzying news blew my mind.
Why didn't anyone say there was a letter from my mother? And the amulet . . . What right do they have to sell it? If it was next to me in the basket, it must belong to me. Right? I needed to find a way to stop them!
When I came to my senses, the Headmaster had just finished reading the letter. I only caught the last few words. ". . . therefore, this amulet knows its way to me. Please make sure my child wears it always."
"I don't actually believe in such things. It's just a bunch of lies. I waited years for this woman to return, but she never did. The money in the envelope is long gone . . . So I'll just sell the amulet, and that's it!""Oh dear, no, no. If that's the case," Hector said, "we must be quite careful. I'm sure it's all true." The tone of his voice deepened, his eyes darkened, and he began to shake his head.
"Nonsense, Hector! Come on! You're being ridiculous," the Headmaster said in a snarky voice. "Nothing's going to happen. I'll take care of you. Do as I ask! Tomorrow you're calling the jeweler! I'm going to bed now. It's late. And you, get back to work!"
Out of all this mind-numbing news, the good thing was that my mother wasn't dead when I ended up at the orphanage. She was breathing and living just like me. I wondered if she cried when she was alone, as I sometimes did in the late evenings, staring at the stained ceiling above the bed.
I found it hard to think of my mother in a fully positive way, yet it was clear that she didn't just abandon me. She left a letter, some money and a piece of jewelry. Maybe she was forced not to come back. I needed to find out the truth.
Suddenly the orphan status became quite odd, given the new prospect of having living parents. A mother of my own. A home. A place to belong. With honey cakes for lunch, maybe even mint. Potato chips, real ice cream, and no cauliflower mash.
The kitchen lady told me that if I were to leave the orphanage, I wouldn't have to sweep the kitchen floor on Monday mornings like I used to. But I'd do it anyway. And I could do the dishes too if I were to have a home of my own.
The choking curls of smoke rising from the Headmaster's cigarette as he locked the door and the sound of his footsteps in the corridor should have sent shivers down my spine. This time, however, my concern was elsewhere. I had to find a way into the office.
Sticking to the wall, I quickly hid next to a cupboard and waited for them to walk away.
In a flash, all the mystery books I used to sneak and read under the blanket at night came to my mind. Especially my favorite one: Veggie Vampy, Ghost Detective. And so a new investigation began.
"What are the things I know about the Headmaster?" I wondered in a whisper. Cause that's my thing. When I'm pumped or need to focus. Even when I'm counting. Hearing myself helps.
"Well . . . I know the Headmaster is obsessed with not losing things and always likes to have a backup. He has a lighter in every pocket, he has a pointer stick in every classroom, and he even has an extra pair of shoes under his desk. Ugh. Think. Think. What would Veggie Vampy do with that kind of information? A spare key must be hidden somewhere. That's it! So? What next? The Headmaster is tall. Oh yeah. Super-tall. Okay. That's good! It must be hidden somewhere on top."
I jumped onto a shabby old armchair, used by bored visitors who had to wait before they could be admitted, and you know what? It was there! The spare key was there! The spare key was lurking on the cupboard next to the door.
"Thanks, Veggie V! Well, I guess I'm not the worst detective of all time."
The key fit perfectly in the lock, and the door opened with a creak.
The kitchen lady says I'm a magnet for trouble. That wherever I go, the mishaps come with me. But also, she says all great adventures begin with a very simple step.
So, if I can't stay out of trouble, at least I know it's of my own makin'.
"No need to feel guilty. Nothing to worry about. Things will be . . . all good."
Taking a deep breath, I took the first step. Blue glowing was coming from the desk. Hmm, the Headmaster forgot to turn off his computer. Thanks to the soft lighting of the monitor, the room was bright enough, so there was no need to turn on the ceiling lamp.
I went through two or three drawers until I found the amulet and the letter. I quickly grabbed them but hit the ashtray, which flew straight into the paper basket. "Look at that! And I still brag about my sneaking skills."
I pulled it out, set it back on the desk, and tiptoed away. On my way to the door, though, I smelled burning paper. Looking back, I saw flames coming out of the basket, and the fire alarm started blaring. No doubt, in the ashtray were cigarette butts still smoldering.
"Here we go!"
All my super sneaky glory was gone. Oh, but it didn't faze me that much. I knew the Headmaster couldn't get from his bedroom to his office in less than seven minutes and ten seconds. And by that time, I should have already been out of the orphanage.
I needed precisely fifty seconds to get from my locker to the main gate. And another twenty seconds from the Headmaster's office to the locker room.
Out of tension, I clutched the little jewel in my hand. The pleasant glow of light from the moon made it sparkle, throwing off silvery glints. For a moment, it actually seemed to glow. It fit perfectly in my palm. Like it was part of me. Like it was meant for me to have. It felt heavier than it looked, a little warm, and a strange, unfamiliar shiver ran through my whole body.
With that gentle, almost undetected, strange trembling, I realized that a totally different life was about to begin. By the time I reached the locker-room, I was already burning with excitement to start on this new path of mine, and I only had six minutes left to pack and then go.