Erhard wakes up bright and early the next morning with his face plastered to a page describing the glossopharyngeal nerve. The sound of someone humming echoes throughout the boys’ cavernous room.
“Wakey, wakey!” David sings out almost maniacally, yanking the blinds of the window at the far end of the room wide open. Erhard squints at the sudden burst of sunlight, while other boys grumble, swear, and pull their pillows and sheets over their heads. David turns, silhouetted in the light streaming from the window, and belts, “Riiiise and shiiiine and give God the glory, glory, riiiiise and shiiiiine and give God the glory, glory—”
“Shut the hell up, Davey,” Jack groans, and lobs a pillow at David.
David takes a deep, theatrical bow, then rapidly dodges as the other boys follow Jack’s shining example. Erhard unsticks his face from the glossopharyngeal nerve and sits up just as Jack nails David in the face and a nun bustles into the room.
“Jack, what have I told you about throwing pillows?” she asks sternly.
“Mornin’ to you too, Sister Joan,” Jack grins rakishly. The nun rolls her eyes and turns to the rest of the room with a brisk “Up and at ‘em, boys; we’re going to church in an hour.”
Mumbled complaints follow, but every boy reluctantly throws off the covers and pulls nice clothes out of the foot lockers at the end of his bed. Bits of conversation filter through to Erhard as he fumbles in his foot locker for a church-worthy outfit. “I’m tellin’ you, this is a great deal, I smell money – nah, you smell foul – so I met this girl last night – David, move your elbow – hey, Keith, pass the towel – for a buck I might!”
Assailed on all sides by the sounds of teenage boys waking up, Erhard finally digs his suit out of the back of his locker; it’s slightly wrinkled but otherwise none the worse for wear. He hasn’t worn it since the funerals— a quick sniff reveals that it still smells of incense from the last time he went to church. Squeezing his eyes shut to ward off the memory of the weeping family gathered around the coffin, he turns his back to the other boys and quickly changes into the suit.
Fifteen minutes later, the boys are all attired in varying degrees of fancy dress ranging from a polo shirt over a pair of jeans (David) to a collared shirt, tie, and suit pants (Erhard, who’s deemed the jacket too fancy for this outing—that, and there’s a stain on it from when he and Rosalia bought hot dogs with ketchup and mustard after the last funeral). Another nun strides in and declares them all fit to head out. Shuffling slowly out of the room one by one, they troop down to the foyer, where all the girls are waiting. Five minutes of waiting later, the news trickles down from the boys closest to the door: the younger boys have apparently had some sort of mishap with the soap, and they’re all waiting until everything gets cleaned up. Erhard doesn’t ask.
While they wait for the younger boys to finish cleaning up, Erhard has received a crash course in orphanage workings from Rosalia, with Maria interjecting occasionally. The younger boys that they’re waiting for sleep in a large room next to the teenage boys’ room; likewise, the younger girls and older girls sleep in separate rooms. This is apparently to keep the teenagers from depriving the kids of their precious sleep. Rosalia opens her mouth to say something else, but the troublemakers appear, looking sufficiently contrite, and an older girl shushes them. They line up at the door in two straight lines of boys and girls.
Herded by a flock of nuns garbed in habits, they troop five blocks to the nearby church. Erhard doesn’t really know what to do when he gets inside, so he parrots the actions of David, who’s sitting next to him and seems to know what he’s doing—more so than Erhard, anyway. The service is mostly uneventful; however, as the orphans file demurely out of church like good little boys and girls, a Hispanic man stops Erhard for a moment. “You are Erhard, yes?” Erhard nods, frowning slightly in confusion—it’s not every day that a stranger stops him on the street and knows him by name. “I was friends with your father Albert. He gave me this to hold for him for a little while, but it doesn’t seem he’ll be getting it back for a long time.” He presses an envelope into Erhard’s hand and looks the completely confused boy directly in the eye. “I am sorry for your loss… You look like your father,” he says sincerely, and disappears before Erhard can even formulate a response like well, er, he’s not really my father you see or who on earth are you.
Erhard promptly sticks the envelope into his suit pocket, promising himself he’ll read it later, gives himself a paper cut, and forgets about it after two minutes because Rosalia falls down and scrapes her knee. As the wound begins to trickle blood slowly, Erhard sprints to catch up to the group. Things could go very wrong if her injury isn’t handled correctly. “Uh, you guys can go ahead,” he calls to Maria, David, and Teresa, who are hovering around in concern. “I’ll take care of her. Tell the sisters we’re right behind you.”
Maria frowns, but shrugs and gestures to the other two to follow her. As David drags Teresa away, Erhard gets to work. “You okay?” he asks his sister, bending down and pulling some tissue from his suit pocket. Handing it to her, he assesses how best to treat her knee. “Hmmm. Here, put that tissue on your knee—we’ll get Band-Aids and some Neosporin when we get back to the orphanage.” The blood flow is slowing gradually, but… there’s some on his hand? Oh. Well, this could be problematic. He squats there for a minute longer, thinking of what could happen if someone came into contact with the blood via inhalation or through an open wound. Would they contract the Rosalia virus? It would be a pretty big risk for them to just leave it there.
“Rose, do you think you can clean up the blood?” When she gives him a why don’t you get it, big brother, I’m bleeding here look, he justifies his claim by brandishing his left hand and explaining, “I have a paper cut on my hand, see. And someone else might catch it if you leave it lying around, you know? We learned from… that incident… that it might be airborne.”
A serious look comes over Rosalia’s face; she nods and quickly uses the rest of Erhard’s tissues to mop up the small amount of blood. They surreptitiously incinerate the tissues in the orphanage fireplace before the nuns notice their return, and get Rosalia’s knee bandaged up in no time at all.
“See? We didn’t get kidnapped or anything,” Rosalia beams at Maria as they reenter the main room, where a scene of barely organized chaos fills the room.
“I can see that,” Maria replies, grinning. “But hey, why’d your brother make such a big deal out of it? Is he the overprotective big-brother type? Wouldn’t have guessed it.”
“Oh, uh…” Rosalia looks around for help, but Erhard has completely vanished from the room. He’s disappeared down the hallway to his dorm room, where he’s examining his paper cut with a worried air. It seems as if a little of Rosalia’s blood has seeped into the cut.
Maybe I’m just imagining things, he tries to convince himself. Maybe… my papercut opened up again? I might have strained the skin as it was healing. Yeah. Yeah, that sounds about right.
David and the rest of the boys burst into the room at that moment and Erhard files his worries away for another time when he’s alone. He spends the rest of the morning and much of the afternoon helping his roommates scrounge together their school supplies from all corners of the room and finish their homework. School begins again the next day for most of them, save for Erhard and the very young kids.
“You mean he doesn’t have to go back to school?!” someone at the table yells at dinner. “No fair! I wanna be a college kid!”
“They’re still fumigating the campus grounds,” Erhard shoots back, and an awkward silence fills the room before Teresa starts talking too loudly about the latest new movie. Everyone else joins into the conversation as Maria elbows the offender in the ribs.
The next day, Erhard helps the nuns watch the little kids. It’s not that hard—he’s content to let the little kids climb all over him while he studies another page of Grey’s Anatomy, and he only has to get up to separate two fighting kids or bandage a scraped elbow or knee. The latter job leads to a new nickname for him, “Doc”. The babies and toddlers can’t pronounce his real name properly, so this moniker is much easier for them. Erhard’s fine with it, and so the nickname spreads until almost everyone calls him Doc.
The week goes by quietly, with Rosalia and everyone else off at school, and that Saturday, on the fifth, Erhard officially turns seventeen. Aside from being his first birthday as an orphan in eight years, it’s actually quite a nice birthday: the nuns bake him a cake, Rosalia and Maria team up to give him a couple of novels, the boys in his room buy him a new notebook, and Dr. Foster even sends him a birthday postcard with a picture of a koala on it.
“You’re seventeen, huh, Doc?” Jack ruminates, as the boys retreat to their dorm room for the hour of “quiet time” before bed. “So where you gonna go when you turn eighteen?”
“What do you mean?” Erhard responds, confused. He flops onto his bed, grabs Gray’s Anatomy again—he’ll read it when this conversation is over—and stares at an envelope addressed to him which falls out of the book. Hm. Did he leave it in there after his weird encounter with that guy on Sunday?
“Oh, come on! You don’t know? Haven’t you ever seen The Dark Knight Rises?” David asks incredulously. When Erhard only stares at him blankly, he clarifies. “When the guys at the orphanage in Gotham turned eighteen, they were let go from the orphanage because they couldn’t afford to keep ‘em anymore. Costs a lot to feed a growing boy, y’know?”
“It’s the same with us. Either when you turn eighteen or when you go to college, whichever comes later, they let’cha go,” Jack picks up the thread. “Kinda sucks, but what can you do? I’m gonna go to Santa Fe once I’m outta here! University of Santa Fe is calling my name right now, I bet.”
“I’ve always wanted to go to California. Or Texas,” David chimes in. “New York sounds pretty great, too.”
“Huh,” Erhard says. He doesn’t really know where he’d like to go—college in Cumberland has always been the only option for him, and he’s got a sister to take care of, anyway. “What about Rosalia? What will happen to her when I leave?”
“Oh, the orphanage always tries to keep siblings together. They’ll optimize your legal custody-gaining whatchamacallems, so you’ll get to keep your sister if ya want,” Jack explains. “Sometimes, though, the older ones leave their siblings behind ‘cause people will take better care of them here.” At this statement, David seems to withdraw into himself. Erhard surmises he’s been the subject of this practice.
The scowl on David’s face deters both Erhard and Jack from any further conversation, so Erhard turns back to Gray’s Anatomy to find the envelope staring him in the face. Might as well see what’s inside, he decides, and rips it open. Three pieces of paper fall out.
To my good friend Lorenzo—
I believe the research is nearly complete. The time is near, and this virus will save us all.
I have bought the house in Mexico; thank you for your help in the process. After all this is over, I plan to take my children for a nice, long vacation. I am sure they will enjoy Mexico, and I know I will be thankful for my time away from work.
Please hold the deed for me. Our apartment is very small, as you know, and it is more than likely Erhard or Rosalia will find this and ask me questions about it.
Thank you again for your help.
The next piece of paper is a simple deed to a house in Mexico, paperclipped to a photograph of a small cabin in the middle of a sprawling field of asclepias flowers. A note scrawled on the back of the photograph reads Gracias por hacer negocio con nosotros. Esperamos que a usted le gusta su casa nueva.
The last piece of paper is a simple note, dated two days before the Cumberland College Incident.
I fear things may go wrong, but I cannot stop now. I am so close it pains me to even think of giving up this dream.
Rosalia may save us all, or it may kill us all. Only time will tell.
If I should become incapacitated in some way, as I fear I may, give the deed to Erhard and Rosalia; hopefully, they will get some use out of it. And if such a situation occurs, please tell them I am sorry. I tried my best.
“Lights out,” one of the sisters calls from the hallway, and Erhard shoves the letters under his pillow as the boy nearest the door flips the switch, plunging the room into darkness.
He drifts into a sleep plagued by incessant nightmares. Dead friends haunt his dreams; they walk just ahead of him down busy streets, whistling “Happy Birthday” in merry tones, and when he runs to catch up to them, they turn to show blood streaming from their eyes, from their noses, from their mouths—
—and he screams and he screams but no sounds come out—
—and they press closer and closer, blood dripping from every orifice, whispering your fault your fault your fault—
—I’m sorry, he wants to scream, I’m sorry, but he’s still speechless, and they crowd him on all sides with the stench of the dead intertwined with the smell of asclepias—
—and he wakes up, shuddering and gasping and feeling like he wants to retch.
It is twelve-thirty in the morning.
The dreams do not stop.
He tosses and turns fitfully all through the night.