Theodora, called Tedd by everyone but her parents, was lying awake. It wasn’t that she wasn’t tired. She was exhausted from her run to celebrate the beginning of spring break earlier that day. But she wasn’t sleepy, and she couldn’t get the thoughts of what she could do with her short-lived freedom out of her head. The only problem was that tomorrow, Tedd would have to go with her father to the hardware store to get a new fire alarm. Their only one was broken.
Tedd was thinking all of this when she heard a noise similar to the one that she had been hearing all night, but had dismissed as the wind. But this wasn’t the familiar whisper of the wind. This was a roar. She rose from her bed slowly, giving the noise time to go away. But it remained, even increasing. Tedd walked to the door of her room and opened it. She was struck by terror at what she saw.
Instead of the darkness of the night, the hall leading to her parents’ room — along with her brother’s — was lit by fire. This was not a small fire. This was easily four and a half feet tall, around her own height.
Logically, Tedd knew what she should do: scream for her family to hear her and wake up. But she could not summon breath from her lungs. The scream would not come out, just a pathetic whimper. And the fire drew closer to her, and she could feel its terrible heat on her skin. She ran, ran back to her room, throwing books in her backpack that she could sell and books that she could not live without. As the fire drew closer, as she heard the screams, Tedd frantically banged on the window until it cracked open. She jumped out of the window, barely feeling the pain of the cut glass and the fall, too terror-stricken to feel anything.
As Tedd’s world burned, the eleven-year-old ran on to her school, sobbing, but unable to stop, unable to save her family. She finally arrived at her school, charging up the hill. Now, she had nothing to distract from her thoughts, not even her books, for it was night, and there was no moon. And she started hearing the screams in her head, how they were drawn out before they ended, cut off by death.
Coward, she thought to herself. You could have saved them all, but you were too concerned for your own survival to do anything more than run. I hate you, me. I want you to die. You deserve death, for failing them.
But if she died, Tedd realized, there would be nothing left of her family, nobody to tell their story, to remember them, to fulfill their hopes. So she had to survive, which meant she could never, ever think of tonight again, or she would be torn apart with the memory of their screams.
In the field where she had played as a happy child, she made a plan for survival. Goal: Survive. Her first long-term priority would be to never be sent to Open Heart Orphanage. Tedd had heard all too much about that orphanage, about the abuse and starvation the orphans went through. Too many children who went to the orphanage never came out. Her second priority was school. If she was able to eventually get a scholarship to college, she would be able to work up to a job where she would be in a position to tell her family’s story and be heard. She would also have access to a dorm. But for now, she needed to survive, and for that, she needed money. And it was spring break… Yes. Tomorrow, Tedd would need to get a job.
Tedd walked across the bustling street, trying to pretend that she was all right. She winced with every step. Having lost her shoes in the fire, walking across the jagged surface of the street pained her considerably. She could only hope that she wouldn’t be hurt before she could buy shoes.
After what seemed like an infinite amount of time darting between busy crowds, Tedd finally reached the used bookstore. She had previously volunteered there, as part of a program at her school. The owner had been friendly to her before, and she hoped that he would be as friendly when she told him that she wanted money.
The bookstore, as usual, was empty at this time of day, although the owner and his one assistant were in there getting ready for the day. Tedd could just barely see them vacuuming the floor as she stood on her tiptoes to peer through the window. Taking a deep breath and summoning courage, Tedd knocked on the wooden door. She waited a couple of seconds as the assistant, a tall young woman called Carol, opened the door.
“Oh, hello, Tedd!” Carol said. “If you want to buy anything, you’ll need to wait about ten minutes while we get the store ready.”
“Actually,” Tedd replied. “I’m here because I was wondering if I could work here.”
“Oh,” Carol said, realizing that Tedd wasn’t talking about volunteering. “You’ll have to talk with the manager about that.”
“Can I ask him now?”
“Sure,” Carol said, stepping aside to allow Tedd into the doorway. Carol tapped the manager, a bearded man named Josh, on the shoulder. “Josh, there’s someone who wants a job here.”
Josh looked up. “Well, if it isn’t Tedd Smith!”
“Sir,” said Tedd, “I came to ask if you might want an extra hand around the store.”
“That would be nice,” Josh said. “But it’s … unusual, to say the least, to hire a — how old are you again?”
“Twelve,” Tedd lied. While no eleven year old would be seen as mature enough to work for money, twelve year olds were seen as slightly more responsible.
Josh paused for a second, unsure of how to proceed. “Actually … then you might be more acceptable to our customers.”
“Look at how many books need shelving.” Tedd gestured to the endless stacks of books lying on the floor. “I worked for you for two weeks, so you know I’m competent. I won’t need any lunch breaks. And I wouldn’t ask for high wages.”
Josh nodded. “Let’s say five dollars an hour.”
Carefully, trying not to appear greedy, Tedd said, “Well, minimum wage is around seven dollars an hour. I was thinking more along that wage.”
“Minimum wage,” Josh argued, “is set with people who are independent in mind. You have parents to provide for you.”
Tedd wished that she could share the truth. Josh would probably not send her to Open Heart, but that was the thing: probably. She could not afford to take the risk of being sent there, no matter how small.
So she said, “How about we compromise on six dollars?”
Josh hesitated for a moment before nodding and sticking out his hand. Tedd stuck out her own and shook it.
Eight hours later, it was 4:00 PM. Tedd had worked hard, walking quickly away from every possible human gaze, afraid that they might see her bare feet or something in her face hinting at what she had lost. There had been close calls, but nobody had realized that they had an orphan in their store.
And Tedd had received forty-eight dollars. Maybe two days ago, she would have found some kind of thrill in having so much money, but now there was only the dull thanks. So now, she was headed to the shoe store. If any workers there asked why she had no shoes, she planned to say that she had lost them.
When Tedd entered the store, she didn’t wait for anybody to come up to her and look at her shoe size. Either her shoes would fit, or she would make them fit. She walked directly to the children’s shoe section, selected the cheapest ones that looked vaguely big enough, and bought them for thirty-four dollars, quickly exiting before the cashier could notice anything about her.
Finding an open bench, Tedd quickly sat herself down, stuffing the remaining fourteen dollars into her backpack as she slipped the plain brown shoes onto her feet. While she had had some limited feet protection with her socks, having shoes on felt much better against the pavement. And then, because she hadn’t had any food or drinks for twenty-two hours, her stomach rumbled ominously, and Tedd bent over in hunger pains.
Right then, she thought. I guess I’d better go get some food. Maybe Starbucks?
As she walked down the block, she noticed a slight decrease in the number of people. The streets were still busy, but not like before. People were probably going home — which brought up an urgent question. Where would her home be? Where was Tedd going to sleep? She could sleep in the city, she supposed, but that seemed like it would lead to getting mugged or catching a disease from the many, many people who spent their days there. Possibly the school campus? The fence was easy to climb, at least.
Tedd nodded to herself, deciding that she would check the school after she got food. She decided to have a grilled cheese for $5.25, leaving $8.75 left. Tedd then drank the rest of her water bottle’s contents, temporarily sating her.
Then, she began the long walk to the school. When Tedd arrived, the gate was closed, but she was able to easily climb through the small holes in the fence. She walked around the school, eventually selecting a small spot with hay scattered on the ground. Placing her backpack on the ground to use as a pillow, Tedd drew out Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, losing herself for a little while in Harry’s world.
She awoke from thirst and hunger. Apparently, half a water bottle around five hours before sleep wasn’t enough to satisfy her throat, which felt like a dry stone, and her stomach, which she had previously held at bay with grilled cheese, was joining in protest. Its growling was enough to awaken a nearby squirrel, which scampered off in fear of an unseen dog. Tedd decided that she could take the chance of Starbucks not being open yet and set off at a run.
Thankfully, Starbucks was open, and Tedd was just about to purchase another grilled cheese, when the cashier asked her why she was alone.
“Because,” Tedd said, thinking fast, “My parents say that it’s important to learn how to buy things on my own.”
The cashier raised his eyebrows, but didn’t say anything more. Tedd quickly took the sandwich and paid, leaving her with just $3.50 in her backpack. She didn’t want to think about the real reason she was alone.
As the day wore on, more and more people asked her about her parents. Carol asked her why her parents weren’t picking her up or dropping her off.
“Well, my mom and dad have jobs farther out, and I can walk here,” Tedd said, trying to remain calm.
“Oh, that makes sense,” Carol said, nodding her head.
Tedd took a deep breath and went back to shelving books. At the end of the eight hours, it was four o’clock again, and Carol gave Tedd her forty-eight dollars, meaning Tedd now had $51.50 to spend. Tedd went as quickly as she could to Starbucks, buying another grilled cheese ($46.25 remained) and hungrily devouring it. As she walked to the school, she realized that tomorrow was the end of spring break. How would she make sure that she awoke in time for school, and in time not to be seen by any other students?
Tedd’s musings were interrupted when she felt a drop of rain on her head. She looked up and saw the darkest, bleakest clouds she had ever seen, ready to pour buckets of rain. Tedd ran to the school, frantically climbing over the fence. She ran all over the school as she heard the first crack of thunder and flash of lightning, too close together for comfort. Tedd didn’t know what she was looking for, other than a place of shelter.
Then, Tedd saw what she was looking for. It was a fenced-off area with a big, metal, rectangular box-like thing in the middle, but what drew Tedd’s attention was the stairs going down from it, hinting at a kind of shelter.
Even more frantically than before, Tedd practically leaped over the fence, running to the stairs down below. As she clambered down, she found that she was protected from the storm by the ground above. Tedd huddled there, alone in the darkness of the stairs for what seemed like forever, too terrified of the lightning to come out until the rain had completely stopped. By that time, it was well into the night. As Tedd walked up to the entrance of the stairway, she wondered how expensive sleeping pads were. Maybe she could get a cheap one at at L.L. Bean tomorrow.
Tedd returned to her thoughts on how to make sure that she was awake in time for morning. She decided to try and stay awake, and returned to reading her book, squinting at the pages under the moonlight.
As the sun rose, a tired Tedd went to look at the clock. She couldn’t get inside, as the building was locked, but she could look through the window and see that the clock said 3:30 AM. So that meant five and a half hours before it opened. It would probably be best if she remained here so that nobody could see her and wonder what she was doing. At least the sun meant she could more easily re-read the book she had only read ten times. Tedd stayed there with a gradually growing crowd of other children until the doors opened at nine o’clock. Then, a horde of children walked grudgingly towards the gym for the usual assembly.
As usual, Tedd paid no attention to the long speech, instead looking for her friend, Alyssa. Spotting her over by the door, Tedd crawled over.
“How was your spring break?” Tedd whispered.
“It was good. How was yours?”
Tedd hesitated. While she trusted Alyssa not to give her up to the authorities, there were plenty of kids nearby who could easily overhear them. So she said, “It was good.”
Alyssa frowned, noticing the hesitation. She knew Tedd well and could easily tell when she was hiding something. “Why did you pause just then? Anything bad happen?”
Tedd was about to respond when the bell rang, and the stampede began. Tedd grabbed her ragged backpack and dashed off to homeroom.
After the usual announcements about lunch, the class transitioned into writing.
“Your assignment,” her teacher began, “is to write realistic fiction. This story must be at least twenty pages long, and at most fifty pages. You have two weeks to write the story. Go!”
This, Tedd realized, was her chance to write her parents’ stories. Tedd lunged for the nearest computer, barely beating two of her classmates to it. Ignoring their groans as every other computer was taken, Tedd began to write about her father’s career as a journalist, writing the story of his story about the presidential campaign, how he had traveled halfway across the country to not only speak with the presidential candidates, but also the delegates of swing states and a third-party, and had successfully predicted the outcome of the election, a feat which not many had been able to accomplish.
She was halfway through at twenty-three pages when the class ended, and they were shuttled off to their next subject. This continued on until lunch, when she finally got a chance to talk with Alyssa. However, she was forced to buy the awful school pizza ($41.50).
“So, what are you writing?” Alyssa asked.
“A story about a journalist who undergoes a deep investigation about the election and manages to defy its unpredictable nature. You?”
“I’m writing a story about how students rise up against a power-hungry principal. What happened over spring break that you’re not telling me about?”
“How about we talk about this after school?” Tedd suggested nervously.
Alyssa frowned. “Okay, but don’t run off without telling me.”
Recess came, and Tedd played chess with a classmate. He won, since he was a chess champion, but the game was closer than usual.
Science and music passed, and the school day was finally over, though not without a heavy helping of homework. Tedd searched for Alyssa, finding her near the usual crowd of children waiting for their parents.
“There you are,” Tedd said. “Come on, I’d prefer to talk on the blacktop.”
The blacktop was completely empty, and therefore perfect for Tedd’s purposes. Quietly, she told the entire story to Alyssa, though she could barely get it out without sobbing.
“Wow,” Alyssa said after a minute spent in awkward silence. “That’s awful!”
“Yes, it is,” Tedd said.
Alyssa hesitated for a second, a look of pity and confusion on her face. “Tedd, if you want, I could ask my dad if you could stay overnight at our house.”
“No, but thanks,” said Tedd after a moment of thought. “But if your dad could drop me off at the library, that would be nice.”
Tedd knew that while the library had books, they also had computers. If they had computers, then she could use them to access her story and work some more on it. And while a night under a roof would be nice, there would inevitably be questions from Alyssa’s parents about why Tedd’s parents weren’t picking her up. Besides, she needed to tell her father’s story far more than she needed a night with air conditioning.
“Okay,” said Alyssa.
An hour later, it was nearly closing time at the library, but Tedd had still not finished her story. And while she was concentrating on it to the exclusion of nearly everything else, she couldn’t help but notice that everyone else was filing out of the library. Tedd sat there for a minute trying to figure out what to do. And then she saw out of the corner of her eye, the bathroom.
The bathroom! That was it! If she went into the bathroom and hid behind the toilet, a feat which she thought she would be able to accomplish, then after the janitor left, she could continue writing her father’s story. She quickly walked to the bathroom, opening the creaking wooden door. Inside, the toilet was filthy, but Tedd couldn’t bring herself to care. She crawled behind the toilet, contorting her body into the fetal position, and waited, trying to ignore the stench.
Then, a growl issued from her stomach, and Tedd realized that she was hungry again. She supposed that her focus on the story had distracted her from her empty stomach. Tedd’s stomach growled again, a threatening sound, and Tedd heard the sound of footsteps drawing nearer. It had to be the janitor. If the janitor heard her stomach, then he would find her, and she would be sent to the orphanage. The stories of her family would never be told in there.
In desperation, Tedd tore an empty page from one of her books and started to chew quietly on it. The door creaked open. Tedd froze, hoping that the page would be enough to keep her stomach quiet for just long enough until the janitor left. She couldn’t see the janitor, but she could hear his steps on the floor drawing closer and closer to the toilet. The janitor halted. Tedd heard the sound of a brush scraping against the toilet. This persisted for about a minute. Miraculously, her stomach made no sound. As the door creaked open again, Tedd couldn’t hold back a sigh of relief.
“What was that?” the janitor said to himself suddenly.
“Is there a rat in there?”
As he approached the toilet again, Tedd held her breath and became totally still.
“Ah, it’s probably just my imagination,” the janitor said after what seemed like an eternity.
Finally, the door slammed closed as the janitor left. Tedd peeked out of her hiding place. Even in the dark, she could see that nobody was there. Tedd drew in huge mouthfuls of air and began to count inside her head. She decided that after she reached ten minutes, she would look out of the room.
Ten minutes came, and Tedd opened the door an inch or so. Nobody was in the library. She opened the door all the way to leave. Quickly, she walked over to the computer and began writing again. Around midnight, she finished her father’s story and her tribute. And then, her hungry stomach reminded her that it would love some food. Her exhausted brain replied that she hadn’t slept for two nights now. She decided to pick her mind, reasoning that if she slept, there would be a period of time when she wouldn’t be hungry. After she looked up directions to the school, she started running there, knowing that criminals could be out tonight. Thankfully, she reached the school without an incident. Falling asleep almost as soon as she lay down on the hay, Tedd’s last thought was that she had paid her debt to her father.
Tedd woke up at nine o’clock, awakened by the sound of the bell. While kids were gathered on the stairs next to the building, none of them had noticed Tedd lying asleep in the field. She rose, strolling as if she had come from the side of the field. Nobody seemed to realize that anything was out of the ordinary.
Later that morning, in writing class, she approached her teacher, who was sorely tempted to back away from Tedd’s stench.
“What do I do if I’m finished?”
The teacher raised her eyebrows. “You’ve finished already? Can you show me your story?”
Tedd got on the one computer left and brought up her story. The teacher looked through it carefully, pointing out some errors Tedd had made, most of them caused by working late at night while tired and hungry. Tedd was quick to fix them.
“This is a great story, Tedd,” her teacher said, impressed. “If it would be alright with you, I would like to print this out and add it to the classroom library.”
Tedd could not believe what her teacher was saying. If it was added to the classroom library, then generations of students would have the opportunity to read her father’s story.
“That would be great! Thank you so much!” Tedd said, overwhelmed by gratitude. “But there’s another story I would like to work on…”
The teacher nodded. “Go ahead,” she said.
Sitting down at the computer, Tedd began the story of her mother.
Soon, Tedd’s debts to both her mother and father were paid. She began thinking of life not as a simply necessary object to remember her mother, father, and brother, but as something enjoyable and full of opportunity. So she made sure that she continued life by working after school for the bookstore. She continued to live at the school, walking to high school later. Through determination and hard work, she was able to get a scholarship to college. She became a history writer, telling the stories of others who had lost their lives. And while her guilt over not waking up her family would always remain, while she had life, she had the opportunity to become a better person and overcome her cowardice. The world was not such a horrible place.