By Kevin Wasden
©2023 Kevin Wasden
(La versión en español estará disponible pronto)
The bell captain, who was a sturdy and methodical man with a dour face, rang the bell at Saint Philip’s Home for Orphans four times each day. The first ring was at nine, followed by another at twelve, and one more at three, each to remind the children to recite the Lord’s Prayer. But it was the fourth ring, at six-forty-five in the evening, that always sparked their fears. It was a warning that they had fifteen minutes before the bear’s arrival.
At first, the idea of a giant bear wandering through the halls of Saint Philip’s was considered preposterous. But as time went on, it became impossible to deny its existence. Despite the valiant efforts of great hunters hired to rid the orphanage of the bear—all of whom were savagely defeated—no one was ever able to put an end to this phenomenon. And so, like the rising and setting of the sun, it became a part of the daily routine at Saint Philip’s. From seven o’clock in the evening until seven o’clock the next morning, the orphans and caretakers would remain sequestered safely in their dormitories. And in the morning, the bear simply vanished until the next evening. No den could be found. No trace of the animal remained.
Tonight, the sound of the six-forty-five bell seemed rather loud as it echoed off the cold walls of the orphanage, jolting the children into action. In the common room, Sister Agnes, her voice stern and insistent, bellowed, “Hurry, the lot of you! To your rooms! Lock your doors!”
All the children scurried to the safety of their dorms like mice to their holes, except one.
“Come on, Jack,” said Arthur, a tall, noble-looking boy of twelve. “It’s not safe to stay here.” But the boy lingered, feigning interest in a set of tin soldiers.
Jack had arrived at the orphanage three days earlier. He was small for his age, irritatingly cocky, and a bully. He was a street urchin, here only because he had been caught by the peelers and forcefully dragged to Saint Philip’s. First chance, he would be back on the streets, but for now, he was assigned to Arthur’s dorm room, and, as the oldest bunkmate, Arthur was responsible for Jack’s safety.
“Best we avoid the wrath of Sister Agnes,” said Arthur. “She’ll have us off to detention for the night if we don’t hurry.”
After a long moment of contemplation, Jack finally abandoned the toy soldiers and trailed behind Arthur as he hurried to their chambers. Once inside, Arthur promptly bolted the heavy door behind them. Throughout the orphanage, the children in every room did the same with practiced swiftness—the girls in the east wing and the boys in the west.
Safe within their dorm, the boys began to talk.
“Oi, Ernie,” said Jack, reclining on his bunk with his fingers interlocked behind his head. Arthur was sure that Jack knew his name, but he seemed to find perverse satisfaction in pretending to forget it.
“He’s Arthur, and ‘round here we call him King,” said Stubbs, a round boy who admired Arthur fiercely.
“Just Arthur is fine,” said Arthur quickly.
The boys all had aliases that, among the orphans, were more meaningful than their given names. The use of nicknames, even the most diminutive or rude, was a sign of acceptance into an inner circle. And Arthur was not yet ready to accept Jack into that circle.
“So, Artie, this bear that wanders the halls of this orphanage at such precise times each and every night, have you seen it?”
“No one ‘as seen it lives,” interjected Stubbs.
“I’ve seen its shadow pass beneath the door,” said Chip, a nine-year-old, even smaller than Jack, who had been at Saint Philip’s for only a month.
“I’ve heard it, growling through the door, it was,” said Fizz, a freckle-faced boy who constantly fiddled with his oversized, wire-framed glasses because he never could sit still.
But Jack remained incredulous. “I bet it’s just the adults pullin’ a fast one on us, to keep us in our rooms at night. If you ask me, you’re all a bunch of scared dolts.”
“Mornin’ to you, Calissa,” Arthur greeted the girl who sat alone on the floor in the corner of the common room—cradling a tattered plush bear in her arms—at seven-o’five in the morning. Her long, unkempt brown hair fell about her face, a veil separating her from the other children.
Calissa and Arthur had grown up together at Saint Philip’s, both found together on the steps of the orphanage with one blanket and the plush bear their only possessions. It was obvious that they were not siblings, yet there was an inexplicable bond between them, a connection that transcended even familial ties.
In a few months, they would both turn thirteen and be transferred to separate homes for older boys and girls. The thought of being separated weighed heavily on the children, especially Arthur.
“How are you today?” Arthur smiled despite the weight of his thoughts.
Calissa said nothing. Despite her silence, or perhaps because of it, Arthur had always found comfort in Calissa's presence. He settled onto the floor beside her.
“Ooh, look who’s got ‘imself a girlfriend,” said a passing boy.
“Bugger off, Pickle!” Leaning close to Calissa, Arthur whispered, “No need to listen to that git. I already know I’m not your type–not enough muscle and not enough hair on my chest.” Arthur could never make her smile, but he always tried.
They sat comfortably in silence for some time until Arthur broke the stillness with a question that had been troubling him. “Soon, they’ll try to separate us and send us off to the older homes. What do you think we should do?”
Calissa remained quiet. Arthur didn't expect her to answer, but she listened, and talking gave Arthur a chance to organize his thoughts.
“Do you ever imagine life beyond these walls?” Arthur said after a pause. “There must be a place for us, with families who will love us like their own. Sometimes I wonder about my own parents, if they’re still out there somewhere. But then I think, if they wanted us, why did they leave us here? It hurts to think that way, but sometimes I can’t help it. It would be nice to feel wanted. We all want that—need that.”
Arthur trailed off, his heart heavy, longing for a life that he never had. It was a rare moment of vulnerability for him, and it surprised him when Calissa responded in her own way, not with words, but in the seclusion and shadow of the space between them, she took his hand. It wasn’t flirtatious but comforting. They stayed that way, hand in hand, until the nuns summoned the children for their morning classes.
“Oi, who’s that bird?” said Jack brashly as the boys sat down for their midday meal.
“Bird?” Arthur feigned ignorance.
“Don’t be daft, Artie! The lass you sit with every mornin’.”
“Oh, you mean Calissa.”
“Is she yer bird then?”
“Nah, she’s just my best mate,” said Arthur with a hint of fondness.
“She don’t say much, does she?” Jack took a big bite of his sandwich.
“Not often,” Arthur said. “She’s a girl of few words.”
“And that plushie! Ain’t that toy a bit bonkers for someone her age?” Jack said.
“You ask too many questions,” Arthur said, wanting nothing more than to bring the conversation to an end. “You best be off to afternoon classes.”
“You know, you ain’t in charge of me,” Jack retorted, his voice dripping with derision. “Ye’re always telling me what to do.”
“I’m just trying to look out for everyone, to keep you all safe.”
“Safe? From what? A fairy tale bear? Rubbish! The only one who can protect me, is me,” Jack declared. “And before they dumped me here, I did just fine,” Jack said, then pressed on with challenge in his voice, “You ever lived on your own?”
“Nah, never,” Arthur confessed.
“Well, I did for five years,” proclaimed Jack. “You ever lived anywhere else besides here?” he added, his dark eyes boring into mine.
“No,” Arthur said softly, his confidence wavering momentarily.
“You ain’t no bleedin’ king. That title should be mine,” Jack said defiantly. “It’s me, should be givin’ orders around here.”
In that moment, as Arthur fought against his rising anger, he found a glimmer of understanding and hope. He recognized the way forward, and, to Jack’s chagrin, he smiled.
Jack seethed with the desire to strike out at Arthur, that boy who thought he ruled them all. Jack, though small and useless in a physical fight, possessed a different kind of weapon—one that targeted vulnerabilities. He was determined to unravel the bond between Arthur and Calissa, but to do that, he needed to catch her alone. His opportunity came shortly before the six-forty-five bell, just outside the commons.
“Oi, you! Calissa,” Jack called out. The girl continued undeterred toward the east wing. “Hey, I’m talking to you.” He quickened his steps to walk beside her. “Arthur sent me."
Calissa paused, turning to face Jack. Beneath her long mane, Jack heard her sniff the air. “Smell lie,” she said, the words catching in her throat like a fishbone, emerging closer to a growl than speech.
“You do know how to speak!” Jack jeered, a malicious grin spreading across his face. But Calissa whirled away from him, showing no interest in further conversation. She pushed through the doors into the east wing, determined to escape the boy. Doggedly, Jack pursued her.
“Leave,” Calissa snapped, her voice so deep and forceful that Jack hesitated.
“Or else what? You gonna run to a nun? Or maybe seek refuge with your make-believe king, hoping he’ll unleash the bear on me?” Jack laughed. “That's nothing but a load of hogwash if I ever heard one. This plush toy is the closest thing to a real bear ‘round here.”
Jack snatched the toy bear from Calissa’s grasp. The girl lifted her head, and for a moment, her dark, almond-shaped eyes glinted with a fierce, simmering hatred. The eyes seemed almost inhuman, and Jack took a nervous step away from her.
Suddenly, the six-forty-five warning bell resonated through the halls, and all the girls would soon be rushing into the east wing. But first, a nun stepped through the doors, at once recognizing the young troublemaker. “What are you doing here? Be off with you this instant, you naughty child, or I will lock you in detention for the night.”
Jack tried to protest. “But it’s her fault…” he said, directing the nun’s attention to Calissa, but to his surprise, the girl was gone. He stood alone, clutching the toy bear, as the nun forcefully ushered him out of the east wing.
“Where’s Jack?” Arthur asked his bunkmates as he readied himself to lock the dormitory door.
“He was chattin’ up that lass, Calissa,” replied Georgie.
Arthur glanced at the wall clock. It was nearly seven.
“Stubbs, lock the door after me,” Arthur ordered.
“King, you're bloody mad! You’ll be done for,” protested Stubbs as Arthur stepped into the hallway.
“I’ll find Jack and be back soon. Listen for my knock.” Arthur said, demonstrating a pattern of five knocks on the door. “When you hear it, open up quickly, and let me and Jack in. Understood?”
With that, Arthur closed the door behind him, hearing the bolt click into place. The corridors were deserted, devoid of both children and adults. Arthur found Jack in the commons, sitting on a sofa, pulling apart toys, and flinging the parts across the room.”
“Oi!” Jack greeted Arthur with a malicious grin. “I’m conducting a little science experiment,” he declared, pointing at the clock. “Look, it’s five minutes past seven, and there’s no bear.”
“Come on, Jack. We have to go. The others are waiting to let us in.”
“I ain’t going anywhere.” Jack retorted, throwing the toy bear into the air and catching it.
“Where’d you get that?” Arthur inquired suspiciously.
“Your bird and I had a little chat just before the bell.” Jack revealed, rising from the sofa and stepping toward Arthur, once again flashing his hostile smile. “She gave it to me.”
“You’re lying, Jack.”
“It pains me that you don’t trust me.” Jack chuckled.
“You’re gonna get yourself killed, Jack.”
“By you? You know, I’m beginning to think it’s you pretending to be the bear, manipulating everyone to satisfy your own need to feel important,” Jack accused. “You been locked up in this place so long, I think you’ve actually gone crazy.
“The bear is real, Jack. And she’s angry. You stole her most prized possession.” Arthur indicated the plush bear that Jack held carelessly.
“What are you going on about? This belongs to Calissa.”
“Calissa is just a stupid girl. She ain’t no bear.”
“She is my protector, Jack. She has been for twelve years. And I’ve done my best to protect all of you,” Arthur stated firmly, “but now I need to protect Calissa most of all.”
Suddenly, a massive brown bear pushed through the door into the commons. Even on all fours, it barely squeezed through the frame. The animal fixed its dark, almond-shaped eyes on Jack with a fierce, simmering hatred. The eyes seemed almost human, causing Jack to retreat several steps in fear.
With unexpected speed, the bear lunged forward and swatted Jack with the pads of a paw, sending him hurtling to the floor. He landed hard on his back, and the plush bear slid across the tiled floor. As the bear stepped toward him, Jack closed his eyes and shielded his head with his arms. His voice trembled with terror as he repeated, “It’s not real. It’s not real.”
“Calissa, wait.” Arthur intervened, and the bear halted at once. Arthur tenderly picked up the plush toy and brushed it off. “We need him.”
The bear furrowed its brows and wrinkled its nose as if to say, “No one needs this twit.”
“Trust me,” Arthur assured, placing his hand on the animal’s shoulder. “I know what we must do.”
When Jack opened his eyes, he found Arthur standing between him and the bear, his hand extended. “Come with us,” Arthur invited.
Calissa growled her disapproval, but Arthur pressed forward.
“We are leaving here tonight. Calissa and I can no longer stay. But we’ve never known anything else. We need you to show us how to live out there.” Arthur waved his hand at the world he imagined beyond the walls of Saint Philip’s. “You managed on your own for five years, Jack. Show us how. We’ll protect you. You’ll be one of us.”
Jack gazed distantly in the direction Arthur waved his hand. If nothing else, he recognized the opportunity to escape Saint Philip’s. Taking Arthur’s hand, he allowed Arthur to pull him to his feet.
“I will,” Jack agreed, then added, “King.”
Arthur handed the toy bear to Jack and said, “I’m putting you in charge of this.” Jack accepted the plush toy apprehensively, and Arthur turned to the bear, smiling. “Jack needs a new name. What do you say, Calissa? Should we call him Teddy?”
The bear rumbled, the closest thing to a giggle that a bear could do.
“It’s time,” Arthur proclaimed.
Understanding, the great beast lowered itself, allowing Arthur and Jack to clamber onto its back. Jack safeguarded the toy bear securely in his arms as the real bear plodded to the orphanage’s entrance, effortlessly tearing the doors from their hinges. It carried the boys down the path to the gate, which it demolished with equal ease. The woods lay north, beckoning the children as twilight settled in.