Chapter 1 – The beginning of everything (Baltimore)
16 years ago…
The soft purr of the car’s engine keeps me in a kind of trance that I wish would last forever. But of course, at some point, I will have to face reality and I am aware of that even though I am only eight years old. Like a vice acquired years ago, I curl up the fingers of one hand in one of my pigtails, insecure. Indeed, the fact that I’ve finally managed to settle in a foster home puts an end to a hellish time in my life, but… what’s gonna happen at school? What am I gonna do here alone?
The car just stopped and my new mom looks at me as if that would push me towards the door of the white building that stands across the street. I’m squirming on the spot. I don’t want to get out.
“Come on, Camille”, I’m encouraged. “You can’t be late on your first day.”
Poking my nose out just a few inches, I see through the glass how other children are crowding in front of the entrance door, waving to each other and forming groups. I shrink even more and hug my body as if that alone could protect me―I want to go home. The woman who is now my mother and has given me her family name strokes my hair, which I unwillingly resist. I’m not used to being touched―and when I am touched, I don’t like it. She sighs.
“Cam, honey” She calls me, making me bounce on the spot. No one has ever called me that before for anything good―and I’m suspicious, of course. “It’ll be all right, I promise.”
“Why? Why do I have to go in there?”
Suddenly, I see her face change―it looks like she’s starting to get angry.
“Camille, I have to go to work and you have to go to school” she orders me without raising her voice. “Come on.”
I bow my head, knowing I’ve lost the game, and I get out of the car. I still hear my ‘mother’ wishing me luck before she closes up behind me, starts up and disappears around the corner with the car. I feel my throat closing up as I look back at the building of what will be my new school―or torture center, as it may seem.
Inside, as I suspected, I am unable to find my way around. But fortunately, or unfortunately, a kind lady approaches at that moment. She is three times my height and weight, she wears glasses and a long skirt and smiles, which unwittingly puts me on my guard.
“Hello, darling. You lost?”
I try not to run away immediately and move my head up and down. She offers me her hand.
“Come on,” she points out to me. “Let’s go find your class. What’s your name?”
My throat looks like sandpaper.
“Ca… Camille. Gage”
My new surname seems strange to me to pronounce, but the woman smiles even more―is it compassion I see? Before she walks in with me in a small office full of papers. The woman leafs through a few until she finally says:
“Oh, yeah. Gage. I know where you need to go.”
Her comment makes me tense, scared, but her attitude is still not threatening. On the contrary, without losing her smile she accompanies me through a thousand corridors until we stop in front of a door and knock on her knuckles. A man’s voice says: ‘Go ahead’ and I notice how I start to sweat.
Calm down, Camille, I demand. You’re not going to put on a show on the first day of school, are you?
So, while the woman introduces me to my teacher, Mr. Travis, my new classmates greet me and he makes me get on the stage to introduce myself, I feel like I’m in a dream. When I have to perform, the words refuse to come out of my throat and I choke several times before I manage to vocalize my name. I notice how some of the kids laugh and I hold back the urge to cry by clenching my fists―if they only knew…
I don’t tell everything. I may be scared, but I’m not stupid. If I were to say out loud everything I’ve been through in my short life, most of my classmates would walk out of class scared―but then all hell would break loose for me. I’d already been through it and I wasn’t planning to repeat the experience.
However, when the class is over and we go out into the hallway, I have to go to the toilet if only to wash my face. I feel my skin burning and I breathe very fast. Unfortunately, someone cuts me off.
“Well, well,” says a boy with dark, greasy hair and ice-blue eyes―I recognize him, he’s in my class. “If it’s the adopted little girl…”
Trying not to get scared and feeling the blood boil, I raise my head and drill him with my glance.
“What is your problem, dude?”
As I was saying, it’s not the first time I’ve faced a situation like this, but I still hate being left alone. He, on the other hand, looks at me with his mouth open from top to bottom before laughing with a sound that makes my hair stand on end.
“Look at that,” he says, holding my arm before I can hear it and squeezing. “If the dead little fly knows how to respond…”
I’m twisting hard to get him to let go.
“Let go of me!” I scream, trying to get back. But his hand is stronger than mine and he ignores me. At the same time, his two friends surround me from behind and I fear what they may do to me―I am sorry, but I am helpless. “Let me go!” I shout louder as if it would do any good.
They continue to laugh as the two henchmen of the chief come closer and closer. But then someone shouts after them.
“Hey, Mulligan!” My captors turn at lightning speed and this Mulligan lets go, making me hold my arm unavoidably―It hurts like hell. “Leave her alone,” the voice says again.
“You…” I hear Mulligan hissing, clearly pissed off. “Always meddling, Prince Alexander?” He sneered, though I’m sure I noticed a hint of fear in his voice.
My savior, on the other hand, becomes visible at that moment and I am astonished. He is barely my height, and despite the baggy shirt he wears, I can see that he is rather scrawny. His head is covered with black curls and a cap with a moose sewn on the front, so I can hardly see his eyes. And yet, somehow, his presence makes the bullies seem to think twice about tormenting me.
My guardian angel, upon seeing this, puts his hands in his pockets as if it were such a thing.
“You know that if my mother finds out that you’re tormenting a student without a month has passed since the beginning of class, she’ll tell yours, right?”
I’m tempted to put my hands to my face, unbelieving―does that redeeming squirt think that works on bullies? To my surprise, in this case, it seems to be working. Although Mulligan clenches his fists for a moment before he gives his opponent a hateful look.
“Someday your luck will run out, little prince” he threatens him. “Let’s go, boys.”
His henchmen silently follow him down the corridor. Only my savior and I are left, face to face. At that moment, he lifts the visor of his cap and I finally see his eyes: two brown wells in a childish face that looks worried.
“Are you all right?” I’m fine. He asks me as he approaches.
A little more recovered from the shock of being cornered on my first day by the bullies on duty, I smile gratefully.
“Yeah, thanks for helping me out.”
He shrugs his shoulders as if it doesn’t matter.
“It’s all right,” he says. “Mulligan’s a bully but deep down, he’s more scared than ashamed of what his mother might say if she knew he’d done something at school that he shouldn’t have…”
I laugh unintentionally, though I suddenly shut up when I remember my own experience. Fear of parents. Something I’ve always lived with. My new, first friend at this school seems to notice that.
“I’m sorry, I may have said something that…”
“Don’t worry” I’ll cut it this time, back to reality at once. “Thank you.”
He then reaches out to me.
“Robert Alexander, at your service” he winks at me.
At which I smile and murmur:
“Camille Gage. Nice to meet you”.