“Julia, I’m sorry for what happened. I know how you’re feeling. Like everything has been ripped away and you have nothing solid to stand on. I just want you to know that if you need anything I’m here to talk.”
Angelica snorted with derision and Tommy sneered at me. I waited for a response from Julia, but when none came I turned away. I had done what Mrs. Thorpe asked, although I knew the worst was to come. As soon as Julia recovered I was going to feel the full brunt of her wrath and she was going to torment me and hound me until I broke.
But just as I was about to leave their earshot I heard a small voice.
“Leave us alone,” Julia said. Her voice was rasping. I thought she was talking to me at first, but then Angelica turned and questioned her. “Elsa. I want to talk to you,” Julia said. Angelica protested emphatically, but Julia wasn’t having any of it. “GO!” she yelled, and her three companions scurried past me. Angelica shot me a look of hatred, although I could tell that she was confused as well. Frankly, I was too. I crept into the dark room and as I grew closer I could make out Julia’s shape sitting on the floor with her legs folded. The curtains were open just a crack, and a sliver of sunlight ran through the middle of the room, ending just before it reached her. I closed the door behind me and sat down on the floor with her.
For a long time we sat there in silence, not saying anything. Then, she opened her mouth.
“You lost your parents when you were very young didn’t you?” she asked.
“Did you grasp then what it all meant?”
“Not really. I was confused about how exactly it had happened. Part of me thought that they just needed to get better, but I remember feeling empty inside. As I got older I understood more of what it meant. I felt so alone. My connection to the world had been severed. My parents were the people who were supposed to help me understand the way the world worked and to guide me through life. They were supposed to teach me, but there was just a hole where they should have been. The thing I’ve always hated is that I was denied the chance to know them.”
“I never knew my parents. Not really. They sent me away to boarding school when I was younger, and then when they had the opportunity they sent me here. I always felt like I did something wrong and nobody told me what it was. Even when I was home for the holidays they treated me like a guest rather than their daughter, and I never understood why. Why would you have a child if you didn’t want to love and cherish her? Why not just put me up for adoption so that I could actually be a part of a loving home?”
“It’s not that easy to get adopted. You might have been like me and be raised by nuns.”
“It can’t have been that bad. At least the nuns cared for you.”
“Yes, they did, but it hurt every time parents came to the orphanage and they picked everyone apart from me. I grew older, and the older I got the more chance I knew that I wouldn’t be picked. At least your parents cared enough to give you a good education and a good grounding in life. It can be hard though, knowing that there are always things left unsaid. There are so many times I wish I could have one last conversation with them, even if it only lasted a few minutes, just to say goodbye to them or tell them that I love them.”
“I don’t know what I’d say to them if I ever saw them again. I’d probably just ask them why they treated me the way they did. I don’t know if I’d like the answer though. But now I’ll never get to understand them.”
“How did it happen, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“They were driving across a mountain range in Europe. The road was icy and dangerous. A truck came the other way and its tires lost grip. It swung around and knocked them into the side of the mountain.”
“My parents died in a car cras
h too,” I said solemnly. Silence lingered around us for a few moments.
“You know, I don’t hate you,” Julia said.
“You could have fooled me.” I could sense a kind of kinship growing between us. We shared something deep and solemn, something few people could understand. Back in the orphanage we had all shared the same thing and even if we hadn’t liked each other there was still a bond between us, as we had all lost something precious. In this room, in this moment, I felt as though I could ask Julia anything. “Why do you do it? Why do you try and antagonize so many people?”
My eyes had adjusted to the dim light to such an extent that I could see the change in expression on her face. She looked almost apologetic.
“The stupid thing is that I don’t really know. Do you ever think that sometimes we get these roles thrust upon us? When I started here I was just the same as anyone, and I hated it. I hated being a part of the crowd. I wanted to stand out, and there were a few people who annoyed me. I decided that I wasn’t going to stand for it. I wanted to get what I wanted and I wanted to stand up for myself, so I started to push back, and I suppose I decided I’d see how far I could take it. I charmed the faculty and made sure I took calculated risks. It was easy when I actually did it, and I found that I soon had the run of this place. I can do whatever I want and people listen, and I don’t have to put up with crap.”
“But what about when it goes wrong? What about when you push people too far? Like Suzie?”
At the mention of Suzie’s name I saw Julia visibly flinch.
“I did go too far then. It’s like a drug. You push and push, and you keep wanting to see how far you can go, and then something snaps. I hated that day. I feel bad for her. I was too hard on her and I wish I could go back and change things, but I can’t. But then everyone thought that Suzie got expelled because of me and that added to my aura I guess.”
“If she didn’t get expelled because of you, then why did she leave?”
“She was ill. They were thinking about taking her out of the academy anyway. There’s a lot that people don’t know. Like a lot of people think I have the run of this place but I don’t really. I got into major trouble for what happened with Suzie. I had all of them yelling at me, telling me how this wasn’t how members of the academy behaved, how I had to read the code of conduct again and make sure I learned it by heart. I suppose, really, that’s the only thing I have to thank my parents for; their donations to this place helped keep me here. But one of the reasons I’ve been here for so long is because they wiped my credits because of what I did to Suzie. They don’t let me get away with anything at all. I had to redo everything.”
“Why don’t you tell people this?”
Julia scoffed. “Because it would ruin my reputation. I don’t want to be like normal people. I don’t want everyone else to know I’m struggling. Why do you think I’m staying in here? The only reason I’m talking to you is because you’ve been through the same thing and it actually helps to have someone who understands. But don’t think this means we’re going to be friends. As soon as you walk out that door we go back to the way things were. To be honest I don’t even want to talk about it. I just want to be with someone who knows, you know?”
“I know,” I said. And I did know. One unspoken rule that arose in the orphanage was that you never pressed anyone about their childhood or their tragedy, if they didn’t want to speak about it. It was enough, knowing that something had happened in the past. Some people didn’t like revisiting the gritty details, and some would rather try to pretend and forget that anything had happened. I still didn’t like Julia even though I understood a little better why she acted the way she did. Part of it was simply because she was allowed, and while I hoped that this incident would adjust her behavior I didn’t hold out much hope.