Mirin wakes up with a loud gasp as icy fingers gripped his arm in the darkness.
‘AHH–’ His screams get muffled as large hands cover his mouth.
As his vision clears, he sees 4 boys surrounding his bed bursting into laughter. ‘Hahaha! Did you see the look on his face? I’d pay a million bucks to see it again!’
Pushing off his quilt, he shoves his way through the gang of boys, and runs into the art supply closet. Making sure the door is locked, he slides onto the floor, leaning against the cold metal door.
Mirin pulls at his sleeves, wrapping his arms around him in his pullover. The air around him feels colder by the second, and before he realizes, he starts to shiver, and tears pour down his cheeks.
‘Kon’nichiwa, are you hiding in here, you Asian mouse?’
The door shudders behind Mirin’s frail frame with every kick.
‘Come out, come out, wherever you are!’
All of a sudden, their voices hush down, and a new raspy voice speaks up, ‘What’s going on here!?’
‘Oh- Uh… N-Nothing, Miss Brittle. We, uh, we were just uhm, we were just tidying up, and putting the art supplies in the closet.’
‘At 2 in the morning? Go to sleep! Right now!’ Miss Brittle screeches, and the boys quickly shuffle towards their beds.
Mirin swiftly unlocks the closet, and hides behind a storage unit, hidden from her view. Luck seemed to be on his side, because Miss Brittle left as quick as she barged in.
Following the hands of the clock, Mirin dozes off behind the storage unit.
‘Wake up! You free-loaders. You’ve things to do! Lazing around like a cow won’t do you any good.’
Miss Brittle’s voice echoes through the walls as Mirin squints, recognizing his surroundings.
Slowly twisting the handle, he peeks into the dorm room. Thin, scrawny pillows lie on the floor, replacing them are fluffy cushions; colorful blankets have replaced the worn out, faded quilts.
I guess the government officials are visiting, Mirin thinks to himself.
Sliding out of the closet, he tiptoes towards his bed, hidden between the other orphans rushing towards their own beds.
Miss Brittle’s eyes glare right into his as the crowd parts to let her through. Behind her, the bullies snicker, pointing towards Mirin.
Did she realize I was missing last night? Despite the thoughts rushing through his brain, he continues to tidy up his bed nonchalantly.
‘Mirin Itō, you’re on garden duty today.’
‘Oh-okay, Miss Brittle…’
‘And you, Diego… Diego!’ She storms towards a bed in the corner, with a boy snuggled right under the quilt. Tugging at the quilt, he groans, but opens his eyes when Miss Brittle screeches again, ‘Diego Ortiz, get up right now!’
‘You’re on garden duty with Mirin, and if you don’t make your bed this very second, you’re both on staircase duty too.’
Unbothered, Diego takes his time getting off his bed, despite the dirty glances from his roommates.
Miss Brittle’s heels tap against the wooden floorboards as she heads towards the door, ‘That’s it! You’re both on staircase duty. When I come back, everything should be squeaky clean! Understood?’
‘Yes, Miss Brittle.’ The orphans chorus as she sashays out of the room.
The bullies forget about Mirin for the moment, and swarm around Diego, ‘What’s your problem, huh? Can’t you just do what she says? You just have to be a jerk, right?’
Diego straightens up, stretching his long legs as he gets off his bed. Looking down at the bullies, he scoffs, ‘Me? Being a jerk? Try looking at the mirror once in a while.’ And with that, he pushes past the crowd.
Jogging to catch up with Diego, Mirin drags a bucket along with him and sets it at the top of the stairs.
‘What?’ Diego rolls his eyes, looking up and down at Mirin.
‘If you’ve got something to say, out with it already!’
‘I said, nothing. Let’s just get done with this.’
Diego picks up a mop and dips it in the soapy water. Sliding it across the dusty floorboards, he starts to whistle a tune.
‘You didn’t have to act like that, you know? You just got us an extra job!’
Mirin pauses, as Diego mutters, ‘I knew you’d say that.’
‘Ugh, just forget I said anything.’ He scowls, slowly making his way down the stairs as he swings the mop over each step.
‘I’m done!’ Diego yells, sliding down the banister.
‘HEY! Stop doing that! I literally just washed it.’
‘Oops…’ he shrugs, then picks up the bucket, ‘I’m gonna put this in the storage closet. You should head to the garden, I’ll meet you there.’
Slipping his hands into the gardening gloves, Mirin tugs on his boots, making his way through the spiky long grass.
The gate behind him creaks open and Miss Brittle saunters into the garden.
‘Did you finish cleaning the stairs?’
‘Yes, Miss Brittle.’
‘Where’s Diego? Did he leave you to do the chores by yourself!?’
‘No, he just went to put the bucket in the –’
‘I’m here…’ Miss Brittle jumps up as Diego sidesteps through the gate.
‘Get on with sorting out the garden then!’ She hollers, throwing an empty watering can towards Mirin.
Is she a witch? Mirin wonders, she always seems to show up from nowhere, then vanishes into thin air.
‘Hey,’ Diego waves his hand in front of Mirin’s face, ‘Earth to Mirin!’
Mirin grumbles, then turns away to the garden tools, ‘I wasn’t daydreaming.’
‘Where are you going? We need to pull out the weeds first, before planting new seeds…’
Mirin shuffles to the furthest corner of the garden, ‘Yeah, okay, I’m gonna start from this end.’
Diego pulls out a pair of gloves from the tool shelf and tramps towards Mirin, ‘Do you even know how to do this?’
With a chuckle, he squats beside Mirin and extends his hand, ‘Let me show you.’
He grabs by the base, and pulls out the roots with a hard pull. ‘You gotta wrap your fingers around the base, and pull each one individually, otherwise you’re gonna leave half of the weed stuck in the soil, and that’ll make it way harder to remove.’
Mirin follows, step by step, but the weed stays glued to the ground.
‘Hang on,’ Diego crawls over, putting all his weight on his knees as he bends over to pull out the weed. ‘Okay, do you see the bottom of this grass?’
‘Yeah, you pull it from the very bottom. Not the middle, not the top – the bottom. Got it?’
Mirin tugs at another rogue grass, and this time, it swings out of the soil, right from the roots.
A wide grin spreads across his face, ‘Got it!’
‘Alright, then! I’ll start from the other end of the garden.’
‘Wait! Can we just do it this way, towards the other end?’
‘Phew… well, that’s done. Good job, Mirin!’
‘T-Thanks…’ he shuffles towards the tool shelf, ‘Do we go back in now?’
Before he could react, Diego turns on the water sprinklers, drenching Mirin in cold water.
‘DIEGO!! Turn it off!’ Mirin scowls, turning towards him.
Diego laughs until his stomach hurts, stealing glances towards Mirin every now and then.
His lips grow into a smile, and Mirin chuckles, running towards the garden hose. Twisting the knob open, he sprays water over Diego, ‘Payback time!’
Instead of laughing, Diego’s eyes grow wide, and he points at Mirin. The water gradually comes to a stop and Mirin notices a towering shadow.
Slowly, he turns back, standing face-to-face with a wrathful Miss Brittle.
She snatches the garden hose out of his small hands and grabs him by the collar, ‘Did I say you could have fun?’
‘No-no, Miss Brittle.’
‘And you!’ She points at Diego, ‘Did you do any work, or have you been chilling on the floor the whole time!?’
Diego dusts his pants as he gets up, ‘I obviously did some work.’
‘some work?’ She drops Mirin to the floor and stomps towards Diego.
Tightening her grip around his arm, she drags him out of the garden.
Mirin squints as the sound of the shrill morning bell fills the halls.
Ugh, how did I miss the first bell!
His heart races as he rushes to the bathroom, hoping to finish his shower before the burly boys barge in.
Leaving his clothes in the changing room, he steps into the shower even before the water warms up. Goosebumps spread all over his body as he shudders under the icy water.
Phew… I guess they’re still asleep.
Mirin wraps his bath towel around his waist, water still dripping down his face as he slips into the changing room.
Just as he lets his guard down, a loud thud brings him back to reality.
Wait… what’s happening?
Despite his curiosity, he rushes towards the wooden cupboard, and swings the door open.
‘Where are my clothes!?’
‘It’s out here, you wimp! Come get it!’ A voice spoke through the door.
Mirin runs to the door, but to his dismay, the knob doesn’t twist. ‘Hey! Let me out!’
The muffled laughter is interrupted by a loud voice and a thud, ‘What’s happening here!?’
‘What do you mean? Nothing’s happening, just go away, get in trouble or whatever.’
Ignoring the bullies’ snarky remarks, the voice adds, ‘Mirin, are you in there?’
‘Diego! Yeah! Yes, it’s Mirin!’
Sticking his ear against the door, Mirin tries to overhear the heated conversation.
‘It was just a silly prank’
‘Okay, okay, we’re going! C’mon boys!’
‘I’m coming in now, move away from the door!’
‘NO! Just give me my clothes. DON’T come in!’
Diego leaves the door ajar, sticking his hand in with Mirin’s clothes, ‘Here you go…’
Snatching the clothes from his hand, Mirin shuts the door.
Putting on the last sock, he slips on his shoes and steps out of the changing room, ‘Hey, thanks for… Where did he go?’
Diego looks up from his book as Mirin rushes into the dusty library, ‘Hey…’
‘Where did you go after yesterday!? I wanted to thank you… for what you did.’
‘I couldn’t find you anywhere, though. I even asked Miss Brittle, she said she hadn’t seen you either!’
‘I told you, I was just hanging around! I gotta go.’
Mirin sighs, as Diego’s silhouette disappears.
Mirin trips over a bully’s leg as he heads to the dorm.
‘Where are you off to, little mouse?’
‘W-Why do you care?’ He holds onto his book, ready to run if he needed to.
‘What are you gonna do, now that he’s not here to protect you? Run away, like you always do?’
‘Who are you talking about?’
‘Your savior, Diego. Who else!?’
‘He doesn’t “protect” me, and he didn’t go anywhere!’
Hearing the commotion, the other boys surround him from all sides.
‘“He didn’t go anywhere”, ’ the bully mocks him, then pours water from his bottle over Mirin’s head.
The bully’s fist flies to Mirin’s face, throwing him onto the floor. ‘You don’t even know where he is, do you?’
‘W-Where did, where is he? Did you do s-something to him!?’
‘Did I do something?’ he cackles, bending down to grab Mirin’s collar, ‘He’s in detention. He’s exactly where he needs to be, and it’s exactly what he deserves!’
‘Yeah, and that’s his reward for butting in, and helping a little mouse like you!’ another boy adds.
Mirin strolls around the garden, swinging his feet as he kicks a small pebble around. Under the shade of a maple tree, sat Diego, leaning against the brick wall as he whistled into the wind.
There he is again. Should I go talk to him?
Diego smiled without twinkles in his eyes, ‘Hey… what’s up?’
‘What’s wrong?’ Mirin sits beside him, ‘Is something bothering you?’
‘Today’s my birthday. Or at least that’s what I know.’
‘Oh… Happy birthday!’
Diego shrugs, ‘Doesn’t really matter, but thanks…’
Mirin looks up into the sky, ‘I guess you’re lucky in a way. I don’t even remember my birthday. I’ve been here all my life. How long have you been here?’
‘Ever since I was 5… It’s been almost 10 years now.’
‘Wow, we’ve been here for about the same time…’
After a pause, Mirin speaks again, ‘Where have you been the past few days? I didn’t see you around…’
‘Oh, nothing much, I just needed to be alone.’
Mirin scoffs, ‘I know you’re lying, dude. The others said you were in detention…’
As their eyes meet, he notices the bruises all over Diego’s face and arms. ‘Oh my god…’
‘Yeah, Miss Brittle put me in detention for a while…’
‘Why!? You didn’t do anything wrong! If anyone should be put in detention, it should be them!’ Mirin points towards the raucous bullies, ‘You’re the nicest person I know, and you don’t deserve to be punished!’
‘I guess you know very less people then!’ Diego chuckles, pulling at the dry grass.
‘I’m being serious… Why did she punish you?’
‘Yeah, all those times when I got on their nerves, they’d tell tales about me to Miss Brittle. Remember when they locked you up in the changing room? I guess that was the last straw; she just got fed up and decided to “teach me a lesson”.’
‘Did you get punished… because of me? Because you did the right thing!? This is unfair.’
‘No, not because of you. I think Miss Brittle probably has some personal grudge against me… Maybe she hates me because I’m too good looking.’ Diego flips his hair, pretending to be Cristiano Ronaldo.
‘But to tell you the truth…’ he continues, ‘I hate it here. Heck, I hate my life. I hate, every single bit of it. Every morning, I wish I didn’t have to open my eyes, and every night, when I hit the bed, I wish I were dead.’
Diego looks away, avoiding Mirin’s eye, ‘Sorry… I don’t know what came over me. Let’s just forget I ever said this, okay?’
All this time… I was worried about my own life, when he has it worse… He can’t give up.
Mirin’s face lit up as if a billion-dollar idea had entered his brain.
‘No. No more pretend, and no more games. And no more having to hide from these bullies, and this wretched Miss Brittle. Let’s run away.’
As the sun sets below the horizon, two silhouettes escape under the purpled sky.
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