Chapter One: The Hole in the Floor

Wayne Holtan hadn’t wanted to spend the summer holidays picking up trash alongside dirty roads and highways. But as an involuntary member of Emergan Orphanage he had zero control over his life.

He scooped old newspaper into his garbage bag. Squinting in the glare of the afternoon sun, he wiped his face with his faded shirt.

“You hungry?”

Wayne turned. Dan Eliot, Wayne’s fellow orphan and only real friend, had an apple core and a grin.

“Not that desperate, Dan.”

A car thundered past. Dirt sprayed onto the two-dozen orphans. When they’d stopped coughing and spluttering, the orphanage Director stepped from the canary-yellow bus. Mr Valdemar Fannon was a thin man with a permanent scowl, as if sour milk had been thrust under his long nose. Despite the heat, he wore a narrow tie and suit cut almost as sharp as his high cheekbones. He ordered them back to work in his dry, monotone voice.

Mr Fannon retreated into the bus, muttering about laziness.

Wayne ruffled his hair and dirt rained to the ground. He sighed. He was a tall but skinny twelve-year old with ribs that strained against a thin coating of skin. His odd-coloured eyes – one brown, one blue – and messy hair drew attention at the best of times: with dirt and sweat coating his body, he looked like a dishevelled alley cat.

Dan picked up the dropped apple core. “Amazing, isn’t it?”

“What?”

“The apple. That something so small can grow so big … isn’t it amazing?”

“Couldn’t grow here.”

“Well, no. Not in the middle of summer and next to a highway, but if you gave it, y’know, a nice place to grow.”

“Do you want to adopt it, then?”

Dan snorted. “Fat chance.”

He threw it in his bag and looked for more trash.

Wayne brushed a broken bottle into his bag and was about to stand when a balled-up rag bounced off his face with a wet squelch. He turned.

Manual Phillips stifled a laugh. “Sorry, didn’t see you there. You blend in with the trash.”

Behind Manual, Rafael and Alonzo Castillo guffawed, their hulking bodies shaking. Wayne glared at Manual and shuffled towards the bus.

There were lots of downsides to orphanage life. If Wayne wrote a list, he’d put permanent hunger, getting bullied at school and being forced into two months of clean-up duty near the top.

Right after Manual Phillips.

Manual wasn’t big or strong. He had the Castillo twins for that. But he was cunning, ruthless, and altogether charming when the staff were nearby.

Metal glinted on the ground. Wayne bent and tugged a portable radio out of the dirt. The metal antenna was snapped, the plastic casing was scratched and the battery compartment was empty. But if he could repair it and sell it at the markets …

Something cold and sharp bounced off his arm. Wayne whipped around. He pushed a laughing Manual, who stumbled back and bumped his head against a tree branch. Nearby kids laughed.

“Why the hell did you throw glass at me?” Wayne said.

Manual rearranged his sneer into a worried frown. He looked behind Wayne.

“Holtan,” said a quiet voice behind him.

Wayne turned. Mr Fannon’s thin face craned out of the bus window like a praying mantis peering over a twig.

“If see you lay one more finger on Manual,” said Mr Fannon in an even, monotone voice, “you’ll be scrubbing dishes for a week.”

“I’ll do it when you’re not looking, then,” muttered Wayne.

Mr Fannon’s eyes narrowed. “Are you talking back to me?”

“No, sir.”

Mr Fannon nodded, satisfied, and retreated into the bus.

Rafael shoved Wayne. He tumbled over a crouching Dan and collapsed into the dirt. Dust rose around him. He groaned and shaded his eyes from the blazing afternoon sun.

Manual loomed over Wayne. “I’ll see you when we get back, Holtan. You shouldn’t have pushed me.”

Manual rubbed his head and sauntered towards the kids who’d laughed. Rafael and Alonzo followed, cracking their knuckles.

Wayne pushed himself up. His hands sizzled against the blistering ground. Dan stood a few metres away, staring at a plastic bag.

Wayne glared at Dan. “Thanks for backing me up.”

Dan didn’t look at Wayne. “I don’t want to get on Manual’s bad side! Remember what he did when Cody spilt porridge on him?”

Wayne swallowed. He remembered, all right. Cody hadn’t been the same since that day.

“All I did was push him.” Wayne’s mouth was dry. “He won’t be mad at me for that.”

Dan stood. “Yeah … best if we don’t hang out for a while. Nice knowing you.”

He strolled across the road. Wayne stared, his mouth slack. A car barrelled along the road and Wayne choked on the dust and heat and glared at the car as it disappeared around a bend. He dragged a hand across his sweaty brow. He kicked a takeaway container.

The bus’ horn blared. Wayne slouched into the bus. He slumped onto a mouldy seat and glared at Dan, who sat three rows in front of him.

Manual strode down the aisle, smirking at Wayne. Wayne’s nostrils flared. He stuck out his leg. Manual tumbled to the floor.

Alonzo hauled Manual up.

Idiot! Wayne thought. Why’d I do that?

“So dead, Holtan,” hissed Manual.

He stalked up the aisle. The bus rumbled onto the road, heading back to the Orphanage. Wayne shut his eyes.

I’m screwed.

 

*

 

When Emergan’s well-to-do thought of the Orphanage, their thoughts would amble down a nice smooth road into downtown Emergan, underneath the overhead highways and train lines. Their thoughts would stroll past the garbage dump and tip their hat to the smiling, well-fed orphans playing on a lush lawn outside a cheerful brown-bricked house that once belonged to Rodger Richie, the mining magnate, while pearly-white pigeons basked in a marble bird bath. Feeling rather chuffed, their thoughts would continue on.

When Wayne’s bus took the off-ramp into downtown, the roads were littered with potholes. They passed the graffitied apartment block before Emergan’s garbage tip. Wayne was used to the smell. When the bus parked next to a weed-infested bird bath on the Orphanage’s wasteland of a lawn, the overhead highway plunged them into shadow.

Mr Fannon ushered the orphans off the bus. “Use the back entrance. I don’t want dirt on the front steps.”

They shuffled into the Orphanage’s wood-panelled gloom. Everyone scrambled for showers. Manual got the biggest, airiest one by the frosted window, making sure Wayne had to wait along with a half-dozen other orphans.

Wayne walked to the dining hall ten minutes after everyone else had started. He scraped the nicest-looking gruel he found onto his plate. He slumped into a chair. As if he had the plague, the orphans around him stood and found somewhere else to sit.

Wayne stared at his bowl. Everyone, it seemed, knew he had been marked by Manual.

 

When Wayne returned to his room, stomach unsatisfied by a dismal dinner, he wasn’t surprised to find his sheets stolen and his pillow gone. He thought, briefly, of apologising to Manual, but knew that would make him look weak. Then he’d be a target for everyone.

Wayne’s stomach rumbled. He slid a hand under his mattress, pulled out two pieces of metal and slipped them into his pocket.

After dinner, most orphans hung around the basketball court and skate park down the street, which meant the building should be empty. Wayne crept down the stairs and peeked around the corner. The windowless corridor that led to the kitchens was deserted, although voices and the scrape of dishes being washed echoed from around the next corner. Wayne slinked to a door with a sturdy padlock.

He took the two pieces of metal from his pocket and slid the first one into the lock. He’d made his lock picking tools from an old clothes hanger, and even with tape wrapped around one end they were hard to grip. He slipped in the other piece and scrubbed it back and forth.

While he worked at the lock, he let his mind wander. If he planned it right, he might be able to take Manual … but Manual went nowhere without the Castillo twins … Even if he caught Manual without his hulking enforcers, the staff would punish Wayne for hurting the Orphanage’s golden boy: the only one who’d ever got a scholarship to Hartmont College, Emergan’s premier boarding school. At least Wayne wouldn’t have to deal with Manual during the term when he started year seven at Buckside High, the lowly local school.

The voices from the kitchen faded. The splashing of water stopped. Wayne froze. Had they heard him?

The lock’s pins caught. The padlock sprung open. Wayne slid through the door and closed it, grinning. He’d broken into the pantry.

He plucked crackers and tuna tins from the shelves. He didn’t feel guilty. The staff accepted food from charities with gracious smiles, then gave a fraction to the orphans. They ate the rest themselves. Or fed it to their pets. Wayne had even seen Mrs Lagounov, the assistant director, sell cans of spam at the Sunday markets – cans that had entered the Orphanage three days before.

Footsteps. Outside.

Wayne spun and stared through a shelf at the half-opened door. A gnarled hand appeared on the frame and pushed open the door. Mr Fannon stepped into the room. Wayne gulped. The only thing blocking him from view was the towering shelf between him and the door.

Mr Fannon switched on the light. “Who’s there?”

He walked forward, gleaming shoes clicking on the floorboards below. Sweat ran down Wayne’s back. This was it. He was done for. Mr Fannon would be around the shelf in a moment and then he’d find Wayne, crouching in fear.

Unless…

Mr Fannon reached the end of the shelf. Wayne crept to the other end, and as Mr Fannon rounded the corner, Wayne did the same.

Wayne pictured Fannon’s eyes narrowing. There was a faint puff as air escaped his nostrils.

Wayne snuck to the door and eased it open.

The hinges creaked.

Wayne wrenched the door open. He bolted down the corridor, dashed through the laundry and burst into the alleyway outside. He didn’t stop until he was around the corner and sitting next to a dumpster, heart racing. He took a deep breath. Mr Fannon couldn’t have followed him, couldn’t have any idea where –

Mr Fannon rounded the corner. “Holtan!”

Wayne’s heart sank.

“Did someone run past?” Mr Fannon asked. “With food?”

Wayne blinked.

“Did you see anyone? This is important, Holtan!”

“Oh, yeah, I did, sir.” Wayne pushed the fish and the crackers further under the dumpster. “He ran down the lane. To the train station, I think, sir.”

Mr Fannon’s thin face swelled like a balloon and he stalked back into the Orphanage.

Wayne couldn’t believe his luck. That had to be his greatest escape ever. Dan would never believe him.

Wayne’s smile faded. He couldn’t tell Dan, because Dan didn’t want to be near him, let alone chat with him. All because of stupid Manual.

He munched on his crackers and stared at the grey wall, the ground cold and hard beneath him. The sun was setting, plunging the alley into dusky darkness. Cars rumbled over the overpass above. Wayne shivered and wrapped his arms around himself.

A scrawny, soot-stained pigeon with murky red eyes fluttered into the alley. It stared at Wayne and hooted hopefully.

“Buzz off,” said Wayne. “I don’t want to starve.”

The pigeon glared at him. It fluttered away. Wayne went back to staring at the ash-grey wall.

Now, more than ever, he longed for a way out, for a long-lost uncle or aunt or brother or sister to take him away. He knew he was being wishful. No one had ever visited Wayne or taken interest in him on adoption days. He was doomed to dwell in the gloomy orphanage until he turned sixteen and aged out. Then what?

 

*

 

The orphans were back to the same highway the next morning. The long, hard slog was made far worse by Dan’s refusal to talk to Wayne and Manual’s constant harassment. Wayne’s garbage bag was torn twice (“Sorry, didn’t see you there,” said Manual), a mouldy toilet-paper hat was crammed onto his head (“It suits you – why take it off?” asked Manual) and Manual and eight accomplices used him for target practice (“I had no idea it was a rock – it looked like plastic,” said Manual).

Manual and his friends laughed. Wayne rubbed his head, his face tomato-red. His hands shook. His heartbeat hammered inside his skull. He wanted to punch Manual so bad, but taking on Manual and his half-dozen cronies would get Wayne into deeper trouble.

The horn blared. Wayne slumped towards the bus, knuckles white, grimacing as his nails bit into the hardened flesh of his palms.

Only a week until school starts, Wayne thought. Then you won’t have to deal with Manual for months.

A meaty hand thrust into Wayne’s back. Wayne slammed into the bus with a huge CLANG and fresh guffaws erupted from the crowd.

Mr Fannon emerged from the bus and stared at the deep indent in the bus. “What happened?”

Manual wore a look of earnest concern. “Wayne tripped and fell onto the bus, sir.”

Mr Fannon spun and glowered at Wayne. “So you damaged this vehicle!”

Wayne scrambled upright. “Sir, I –”

“You’ll pay for this damage, Holtan. Let me think … no dinner for the next week. Yes. That should do it.”

“But sir –”

“Hold your tongue!”

Mr Fannon climbed into the bus and the orphans trooped in after him. Wayne slumped into his seat. Dan sat five rows away, avoiding Wayne’s eyes.

The bus rumbled down the road.

Wayne’s mouth was bitter. No dinner for a week? Sure, he wasn’t missing much, but still … surely Mr Fannon’s punishment broke some law … if only Wayne could get Mr Fannon arrested … but it would be Wayne’s word against an older, richer man …

They’d almost reached the Orphanage when Wayne realised how strange it all was. He was a thin twelve-year-old. How could’ve he dent the bus? He’d been in the vehicle two years ago when an office worker, busy stuffing toast in his mouth, had reversed into the side. The dent had looked like Wayne’s. But the worker’s car must’ve been twenty times heavier …

I have to talk to Dan, Wayne thought.

The bus parked at the Orphanage.

Wayne bolted down the aisle, shoving aside the other orphans. He stumbled out of the bus and grabbed Dan. “Oi! We got to talk.”

Dan pulled away, looking panicked. “Not near Manual!”

He pushed away from Wayne. Wayne went to grab him but a crowd of orphans swelled between them.

Manual bumped into Wayne. “Poor Holtan. Your only friend doesn’t even want to talk to you.”

Wayne’s face burnt. “He’s not even my friend.”

Manual sneered. “I don’t doubt that.”

He swaggered past Wayne.

Wayne stalked into the alley behind the orphanage. No good trying to shower. All the showers would be taken by now. Except the ones reserved for bloody Manual and his stupid cronies.

Hands shaking, Wayne pulled out the loose brick in the wall. He took out a tin of tuna from the cavity inside.

Trying not to think about Dan, he mulled over how he’d dented the bus.  It came down, Wayne realised as he ate the tuna, to two options. Either the bus was weaker than it had been two years ago, or somehow he’d weighed as much as the car … no, that was stupid … the bus must’ve been weaker … it did sit outside all the time … yeah, that must’ve been it …

Wayne chucked the empty tin in a trashcan and walked inside. He clambered up the stairs. Blue light spilled through murky windows onto the dark wooden steps.

Orphans crowded the landing above. Manual was shouting at someone. “–Using my shower cubicle? Who do you think you are, you little turd?”

A body slammed into the wall. Wayne winced. He reached the landing and edged through the eager crowd, glad he wasn’t on the receiving end. When he saw who was sprawled at Manual’s feet, though, he froze.

It was Dan.

“It was a mistake!” Blood leaked from Dan’s nose. “I swear, I was – Wayne! Help!”

Everyone turned to look at Wayne. Manual sneered. “Keep walking, Holtan.”

Wayne’s hands shook. Behind Manual, the Castillo twins cracked their knuckles and glowered at Wayne. The crowd of orphans stared at Wayne.

“Fine,” said Wayne. “We’re not even friends, anyway.”

Wayne stalked into his dorm and slumped into a chair, trying to ignore Dan’s yelping. Dan knew how things worked. He shouldn’t have been dumb enough to use anything of Manual’s. Besides, Dan deserved it. He shouldn’t have abandoned Wayne.

Wayne sighed. “Damn it.”

He stood, grabbed the chair and strode into the corridor. “Manual! Leave my friend alone!”

Wayne smashed the chair into Manual, who stumbled back. Seizing the distraction, Dan crawled away.

The Castillo twins slammed Wayne into the wall. He dropped the chair. Manual stumbled up, looking dazed. “You’re an idiot, Holtan.”

Manual grabbed the chair. Wayne struggled, but the Castillo twins held him tight. Manual slammed the chair into him and pain racked through his body. Wayne gasped.

“Apologise!” said Manual. “Or I’ll do it again!”

“I could do this all day,” spluttered Wayne.

Manual swung the chair again. And again.

The Castilo twins released him. Wayne collapsed. He groaned. He was sure he’d cracked a bone.

He struggled to get up. He felt like was carrying bags of cement: his body was too heavy to lift from the floor.

Manual loomed over him. “When you get kicked out of the orphanage, will you live in an alley or under a bridge? Guess it don’t matter. No one ever wanted you, and no one will ever care.”

Manual stomped Wayne’s chest.

Crack!

Manual backed away, frowning.

Wayne sat up, feeling wary. His chest ached. The crowd were quiet. Manual backed away some more, his face pale. Wayne looked down. His eyes widened. Cracks were spreading through the floor, spreading from underneath Wayne.

The floor caved in.

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