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Second to the Right

By Zach Neuman

Adventure / Fantasy

Blurb

To London's abandoned children, he was a myth whispered on the streets. To the Nuns of the Orphanage, he was a miracle. To a young family across the Thames, he was a hero. To other grown-ups, he was an outcast- a lost boy. Yet to the dreamers of the world, he became the boy who never grew up. This is the prequel Peter Pan deserves. This is where his legend begins.

The Priest's Apprentice

On that brisk Saturday, the leaves erupted in a slow pace from the trees, covered in raindrops like glittering stones on silver bark. The London fog drifted through the cobbled streets, blocking the skyline.

Green grass and grey stones coloured the playground square, surrounded on three sides by railings that scratched the heavens. Those fence bars intersected at various places on the fence, giving the outside world a chaotic pattern of black stripes. To those outside the orphanage, it looked like a prison. To the orphans of St. Augustine’s at Carmelite House, they saw their bleak playground as a refuge, even as a paradise.

The moment the bell for break rang, all of the young boys rushed out to enjoy a few measly minutes away from their forced labour. They even settled with half-filled balls and short sticks for games of cricket and violent games of rugby.

None of the boys cared to look beyond the bars- except him.

David gripped the cold fence like a prisoner. Carridges and motorized Wolseleys rumbled by as men in dark trenchcoats trod past his peripherals.

Some of them slowed to stare at his pale, freckled face like a window display, but never stopped to hear him. He knew living behind bars meant only casual glances from those outside.

Yet he kept looking, regardless of the stares. Maybe, just maybe, he would find his new family walking down the street and get him to join them. He always dreamed of what they looked like. The boy even envisioned where they would live; an exotic beach with sand as warm as the afternoon sun, places to run, trees to climb and the safe embrace of a mother’s arms as he drew pictures with the stars at night.

Maybe the outsiders thought he deserved to be in the orphanage. They didn’t know anything about him, yet he felt them judge. How could they have known he had no choice the moment St. Augustine’s took him under their wing?

Maybe the people judging him had become grown ups.

That new phrase disgusted him, especially after hearing it that day for the first time. Father Kenneth, with his cold eyes and short, narrow beard, addressed them at the first lesson of their Bible study between shifts. He declared their classes as the “first step to becoming what we all truly want to be- good grown-ups.” Whatever Father had to say, it never crossed well with him, even if he only spoke on Sundays.

David should have learned a lot that day, especially after what the class had been told at the beginning. The teacher blamed it on his daydreams and punished him for not reciting a passage. Yet those same dreams liberated him from the bleak world around him.

Those stories even enthralled his roommates at night. It warmed up the cold dormitory as he spun a tale about some place they had never seen or heard of before. Places where clouds flew below the ground, where water flowed upwards, where people could fly higher than birds; places where tiny people used prams to get around, or where ravens could talk and pigeons wore little suits and walked with canes and brown top-hats.

That day’s dream focused on those automized cars. He watched their clumsy shapes thump across the road, their passengers shake with every uneven bump on the ground. In front of his eyes, they stood on their hind wheels and bounced down the road, their headlights blinking like eyes and their front wheels grip the ground between enormous paws. Massive tails erupted from their tail pipes and big teeth from their grille plates. One of the cars even stopped to nibble on a pasty someone dropped onto the floor.

He giggled as one climbed the building nearby, cracking windows and scaring grown-ups away. The passengers didn’t seem to care as their car ascended a nearby tree and honked its horn at other cars. Soon, the exterminator was called about a squirrel infestation and witnessed his own car run away in fear of a neighbor’s dog.

Time always flew when he lost himself in daydreams. The end-of-break bell rang him into reality. His hands ached in anticipation as the overseeing adults forced them into lines from youngest to oldest. They marched in tight rows, their hard shoes clomping on the cobblestone floor underneath the arch with angels carved into the sides. He followed his row of workmates until a nun walked straight up to him and tapped him sharply on the shoulder.

“David, please come with me. Father Kenneth wants to see you.”

Sister Agnes looked secretively excited. The surrounding boys watched coldly as she jerked him out of line.

Out of the hundreds of boys here, why me?

David’s mouth became tighter as the nun’s chuckles sent shivers down his spine. They silently sped through the corridors, interrupted by shoes slapping the stone floor. She led him to the confessional, on the other side of the campus, past the huge sanctuary.

He heard rumours that Father Kenneth used the confessional booth to scare children into obeying. Blackness covered the front curtain, forbidding even hope from entering. When she opened the confessional, an odour of frankincense and myrrh rose up, burnt his nostrils and itched his eyes to tears. After the curtain closed behind him, a small votive candle stood in the corner of the cramped cubicle. It flickered, and shadows danced across the walls. Through the veiled compartment, he saw a door slide open on the other side of the decorative grating. As the silhouette of a person entered, David immediately bowed in respect. He heard whispers of Latin permeate the other side.

"In nomine Patris et filii et spiritus sancti... Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum, Et vitam ventúri sæculi...”

Father Kenneth droned the rest of the trinitarian formula. David never liked Latin. As soon as he had been able to open his copy of the Lily Grammar, Latin became the language of choice around higher administrating Nuns. Few nuns broke the rules, but never in front of the administrators.

Suddenly the mumbling stopped.

The shadows continued to dance.

“David, I presume?”

His voice rasped through the child’s bones as David’s neck hairs shot up.

“Yes, Father.”

“I’ve called you in here about something very important. So important that I needed to tell you in private.”

David gulped. “Of course, Father.”

He cleared his throat and sealed David’s fate.

“I always knew something special about you from the moment you came into our lives. I’ve been told that you were adopted twice. This is true, yes?”

He ought to have known that it happened twice, but said nothing.

“Well, every time you left, you found your way back here. That’s how I knew God had a plan for you. As you grow up before our eyes, I’ve seen you become the man that everyone else wants for you. I can safely say that you’ll be able to take my place someday, with proper training. You understand?”

David paused. His eyes narrowed in disbelief.

“I’m to replace you... as the high priest.”

Sister Agnes chuckled outside of the booth, low enough for David to hear.

“Correct, my son. As of tomorrow, you will begin training. After which you will be transferred to the proper seminary, then ordained. From there you will return here to replace me when I pass on.”

The seconds felt like days as David stared at his torn pants. Tears welled up and turned the whole room a big blob of black and dark red. He couldn’t hold back his tongue once Father finished.

“Tomorrow? No- But does that mean I can’t be adopted? I can’t leave the orphanage?!…Ever?”

After a tiny pause to clear his throat, Father made it clear.

“Yes, David. You will stay here.”

Crying wasn’t allowed in the booth. Hot tears fell down his cheeks as he rocked himself on the bench, legs wrapped in his thin arms. He would never get that family now, no warm beach, no hugs…

“Your name has already been taken you off of the adoption list. No one else will take you away from what God has intended for you. No evil shall taint your soul.”

He mumbled incoherently, urging his mouth to speak, to demand an explanation.

“No more questions, David. I must return to my own business. Sister Agnes will return you to your workstation.”

Sister Agnes stepped with delight, dragging the boy along. She never once noticed his head bent, his sad eyes staring at the ground.

As he returned to his workplace, the different parts of the toys blended together into messy sculptures. He always thought his family would come back to adopt him, take him into their world and he would make the most of it. But now he could never leave, doomed to become a man like Father Kenneth. Cursed to forever live his nightmare.

Sister Deborah stomped through the sunlit halls. Her steps could be heard all the way from the lobby. Sister Agnes told her the “news” about David, her precious David, and she couldn’t stand in place. She stormed towards the one person who could decree such a thing. She planned to demand an explanation, then scheme to get David back on the adoption list. She never reached his office that quickly.

She rapped twice on the door before she heard a surprisingly gleeful reply.

Venient in.”

“Come in.”

She forced a calmer smile as she entered.

“Good day, Father.”

“What can I do for you…Sister?”

He relished in calling her, or any nun, by their lower rank. She hated the unsubtle contempt for them that he wore around his neck like a gold cross. She closed the door and promptly lowered herself down to the ottoman in front of his desk.

“Well, Father, I heard you have chosen a successor.”

He leaned back in his chair, staring up as if contemplating a verse.

“Yes, Sister. I quite have. And you of all the Sisters should be able to understand why.”

She shifted in the backless red seat, in a desperate attempt to retain her furious dignity.

“Why what?”

“Why I chose David. Forgive me for not consulting you about my choice.”

Sister Deborah sat in silence, looking away from his pale gaze. She had not expected him to apologize; She hoped that he would monologue so when he spoke for too long she could satisfyingly interrupt him.

“Your silence is noted. Thank you for accepting my apology. Now then, off you go.”

Her eyes shot back at his reclining figure, small behind the mountain of books on his desk and shrouded by the dim light behind him.

“With all due respect, Father, I didn’t come here to forgive you.”

Oh?”

His bony hands gripped the armrests, his torso bending forward.

“What did you come here for, pray tell?”

Her her leg shook away from his view. She collected her thoughts and resumed the debate.

“I really don’t…I don’t understand why you selected him.”

He took a fast breath through his nostrils. “Well, that’s a shame. Everyone else knows. Why don’t you run along and ask them?” He lifted his hand and flicked it towards the door.

She tried again, to goad him into the trap. “Father, please explain it to me. I would like to know.”

“Alright… Sister. If you must know, then here’s why—”

He shifted forward again. “Because he’s the one. The chosen one. I can feel it.”

She needed more of a monologue, so she repeated her question.

“Father, Sir, what on earth are you talking about?”

“I just know it. Like the way God chose Moses, I just know. David is special, Sister.”

She couldn’t wait any longer. She’d have to spring the verbal trap herself.

“But how can you be so sure? Have you taken advice about any of the other boys?”

“Do you not think that I haven’t considered the other orphans?”

“No, not at all, it’s just that there are others who are better, more suited to be ‘chosen’.”

He shifted even further towards the desk, towards her.

“Are you questioning my judgment?”

Her heart thundered in her chest. She took quick breaths as courage.

“Well, is it right to keep a good boy from a family, Father?”

His anger grew as darkness crept through cracks in the room.

“How dare you—.”

She stood up in defiance, heart beating out of her chest.

“He’s just a boy, Father! And you are denying what God has offered him on His good green Earth! Do you think he wants to be here, Father? To be your little puppet to serve you after you pass on? That is a cruel, heartless thing to do, and I demand a good reason for it! You and I both know what would happen if you are wrong, and that sin is too great to bear, even for you!”

“Sister-”

“And how can you be so sure? What about the other boys?! Have you seen Julius? He’s the first one to offer grace, and he’s one of the older boys!”

“SISTER-”

“Or Jonathan, the lead choir boy? Or Maximillian, the star pupil-”

“SISTER! ENOUGH! SIT DOWN!”

She stopped in her tracks and gracefully situated herself. Fast breaths ran through her chest as her legs shook. She knew she made a mistake.

“First off, I NEVER SIN. How dare you find fault with me in such a way, as if I am an old fool! You may think you know this boy, but you’re just one stupid little girl! The rest of us see him as a king waiting to be crowned, as he shall be.”

He stood up and approached her chair. Defiance shone in her eyes, madness in his.

“No matter what you can say or do, that boy will stay here. The law shall not stand in the way of G-d’s Will, as you foolishly think it will. And I’m never wrong, Sister. Look at where I am and where you are. Don’t you remember to honour thy Father…Sister?”

Her courage ebbed further as he circled her like a bloodthirsty lion.

“So, should you see him again, I want you to tell him how wonderful it is to be a man of the cloth. Tell him why it is so important to stay here and what demons and dangers exist out there. Or do you want me to remind you of the forgotten corner you came from?”

She never expected him to use her secret as the ultimate blackmail. Her eyes grew wide and wet as she held down a sob.

“Good. Now I must pray for another soul that needs redemption. If I were you, I would watch what I say next time…Sister.”

He held open the door and watched her walk away on unsteady legs.

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