At the window she waited. She counted slowly. They’d promised each other that they’d wait a hundred count, but she’d hardly made it past forty and it was all she could do to stop herself from flinging open the shutters and leaping to her new life.
Around her the other girls slept soundly in their cots. All the same. Every last one of them. Short cropped hair, identical jumpsuits and cold crisp blue sheets tightly tucked. She grinned from ear to ear at the thought of not having to tidy up her cot in the morning. The Mister would be furious to discover her gone, and the crumpled sheets she’d left on the floor was her way of leaving him her own little message.
She’d have liked to have left him a note, maybe with a few swears that she’d gleaned from Thomas, but she didn’t have the nerve to swipe a stylus from the classroom. She came close though. She had wrapped her hand around it and was about to hide it in her jumpsuit when common sense kicked in. Don’t get caught like this Olivia. You’re almost home free.
One of the girls – the one named Jayne – a few rows down murmured and then rolled over onto her side. Olivia held her breath. She half expected to hear the alarm sound and for the Mister and his Boys to burst into the room. Of course, it was only a murmur, but this close to freedom every sound seemed to echo off the walls and down the corridors throughout the House.
Jayne seemed to have settled though and Olivia started to breathe a little more freely. Each girl was allocated one cot, one drawer, one cup, one toothbrush and a seven day pill strip. Lights out at twenty-two-hundred and silence fifteen minutes in advance. These rules, as with all the others, were never broken. Not since Ruth. Olivia grimaced at the memory and couldn’t help but glance over at her old cot. Another girl occupied it now. Ann or Annie or Annabelle. She wasn’t sure. All she knew was that it wasn’t Ruth. Ruth was gone.
There were fifteen cots in the room arranged in five rows of three. Each one filled, except Olivia’s of course. Perfectly functional and wonderfully cheap. Comfort was not a consideration. A thin mattress and a single pillow sat beneath a crisp cotton sheet. The metal frames were bolted to the ground. During Olivia’s first few months in the House she tried to rip the cot from the ground. She wanted to throw it at the wall, or through the window, or at the Mister. Or she just wanted to scratch the floor. Maybe just nudge it ever-so-slightly out of perfect alignment with the other cots. She just wanted to rebel. Those first few months. She shuddered at the thought.
This had been Olivia’s home for the last three years and the only time she had ever awoken to find an empty cot was the night that Ruth was removed. She wondered what the girls would make of her own disappearance. What would the Mister say? Would he tell the others that she’d fled, or would nothing change? She suspected that she’d be just another Ruth. An empty cot in the morning. The other girls would be shocked. They’d speculate and then the Mister would bring in a new girl by mid-morning and no more would be said. Of course that is what he’d do. There would be no excitement for the girls in the morning. They slept soundly now, all in neat little rows. Nothing would change for them.
Not so for Olivia. Tomorrow will be the first day in her life where anything could happen. It didn’t really matter what that might be, just as long as it was different. Even if it was just one thing. Just one small thing before they caught her, or before she lost her nerve. Something, anything, anything but the Routine.
Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. The clock stood all the way down the corridor, but Olivia could still hear it ticking. Everything was so quiet here. So still. She counted along in silence. She tucked her tongue between her teeth to make certain of it. Not a sound. Keep it together she told herself. Not a sound. Thomas is waiting on the other side of the fence. Keep it together.
Tick. Tick. Tick. Ninety-one. Ninety-two. Ninety-three. Close enough.
She held her breath and turned the crank handle. A slight whirling noise from the automatic cogs escaped from the mechanism, but it was barely audible. Olivia was worried that they’d be an almighty creak or groan as the very building itself conspired against her. She needn’t have worried. The House prided itself on attention to detail. Everything ran like clockwork. The students followed instructions to the letter and the maintenance workers made sure that the House was immaculate and pristine. Nothing ever creaked. Nothing ever groaned.
She smiled. It would be their undoing and her salvation. With each turn of the handle the window opened a little farther. Fresh air. Freedom. Cold. She should have stolen an overcoat but there was no time for that now. She leapt up onto the sill, murmured a silent prayer, and without a single thought to her brothers and sisters sleeping soundly around her, she dropped down into the night and into another world.