«No way you’d be left alone ever again, young lady!»
A woman, laughing and spreading her arms wide, tries to catch a horse by the reins. In the saddle, there’s a little girl, not afraid of height, absolutely excited about being a rebellious rider. The anxious stallion won’t stop jumping and running around, getting fun from playing with the girl’s mother. The woman keeps crying out a name, but her face is lightened up with happiness and joy.
«Annabel! Annabel, if you don’t stop right now, I’ll ask your father to never let you ride a horse anymore! Annabel!»
The woman is tired. She plays a strict mom, but her smile won’t disappear from her lips. The girl understands it: she doesn’t stop, not even for a second, to look around.
«Only to those trees, ma!» she shouts from the horseback, showing a path with her hand. «There and back, I promise!»
The woman sighs, then looks up at her dearest child, and nods at last, not able to fight her girl’s sweet eyes.
The wind, and huge green fields, and small pine forest right there, not far from home – what else does a person need to be absolutely happy? The horse beneath Annabel gets more and more excited by their unexpected trip, it breathes loudly, its head jiggles. Big white Storm has a mood of a real storm. Annabel feels its power and energy, she feels the fresh air on her face and sees a vast emerald meadow spotted by white, blue and pink paints which are jumbled on the canvas of nature. That picture is her joyful and peaceful life, with no problems or griefs, no arguments or wars. And who would say that that is the last picture of its kind Annabel will ever be able to remember?
Suddenly a very loud sound broke into Annabel’s head, destroyed the dream she tried to keep in mind, and spread all over the room with terrifying echo. She opened her eyes and stiffened: from behind the vast cracking door came a young boy with a whip in his hand. Right after him entered a man holding a saucepan and something long and shining, as if made of iron. The boy looked cold and tough, had no emotions on his face, but Annabel could feel ruthlessness and strictness in the way he walked and looked down at everybody.
«Wake up, little dopes, the new day has begun!» bawled the boy. His voice was high and icky, but it wasn’t the worst thing, because then the man behind him started beating the saucepan with that long iron tube (or whatever it was), or rather hammering it furiously, for the sound was absolutely unbearable. It pounded against the walls and caused awful pain in Annabel’s ears. She wasn’t the only one suffering – other children around her started to moan and even cry. Annabel sat down on her sheets, scared and not able to sleep anymore, and saw another boy in front of her doing the same. He got very annoyed with the noise that awoken him, so before he could give it a better thought, he muttered, «Put in on your head, moron.»
The young boy reacted immediately. He whirled and rose his hand, the whip made a sound like a whistle in the air, and the next instant the kid turned away, covering his cheek with his hand. Annabel could see tears in his eyes. The young boy crouched down before him. «One more word, and you’ll end up in the basement without food and water for three days, and your only listeners will be the rats.» He stood up and turned around. «What are you looking at? On your feet! I said, on your feet, you idiots!»
In that moment, Annabel realized the boy was only sixteen or seventeen years old, not much older than the kid he hit. His face was rude. Sometimes you know that people are dangerous from the very first glance; Annabel knew that boy would be their biggest problem. Children were afraid of power he seemed to have over all of them, so they left their hand-made beds and stood straight before the boy’s scary black eyes. He watched them and looked like he was ready to hit anyone else if they violated the discipline.
Annabel was very careful, she tried not to pay his attention and do everything he was saying. When she caught the moment, she looked around and saw approximately thirty kids of different age standing in two long rows. Two things were common for them all: fear and dirty clothes. The young boy with the whip was wearing a good suit, not very expensive, but definitely made only for him. The man with a saucepan disappeared, but the boy didn’t seem to need anyone’s support. He walked along the rows of kids with spine-chilling threat in his gaze. Suddenly, he started to speak.
«Listen to me now, all of you,» he said. «My name is Elijah. I am one of the major watchers in this house. I’m here to tell you what to do and how to behave. If you disobey my orders, or try to run, or fail, or try to fool me, – you’ll be punished. Your only task in this place is to do what you’re told. You’re not allowed to ask any questions about your home, family or friends. Right now you’ll go and have your breakfast, after that you’ll get your first job. Before you start, remember that the harder you work and the fairer you are with me and the master, Mr. Alferdo Morr, the better for you. Now follow me and keep quiet.»
Annabel heard the whip crack as it was tightened in Elijah’s hands, and her heart pounded deep inside her chest. That voice, that motion, that dreadful glance… She wanted to cry, she couldn’t bear the thought she’d been left with this monster, and she didn’t want to believe he was just a teenager. What was that place where children acted like beasts, and where you weren’t allowed to speak about your family? What was that place they’d brought her to? Was she dreaming?
Annabel hoped she was. For nothing could change so fast and become so unexpectedly awful. Could it?