Children of Exile
We weren’t orphans after all.
That was the first surprise.
The second was that we were going home.
“Home!” my little brother, Bobo, sang as he jumped up and down on my bed, right after the Freds told us the news. “Home, home, home, home . . .”
I grabbed him mid-jump and teased, “Silly, you’ve never even been there before! How do you know it’s worth jumping on the bed for?”
“I was born there, right?” Bobo said. “So I do know, Rosi. I remember.”
He blinked up at me, his long, dark eyelashes sweeping his cheeks like a pair of exquisite feathers. Bobo was five; he had curls that sprang out from his head like so many exclamation points, and his big eyes always seemed to glow. If he’d known how adorable he was, he would have been dangerous.
But there was a rule in Fredtown that you couldn’t tell little kids how cute they were.
It was kind of hard to obey.
“How could you remember being such a tiny baby?” I asked. “You were only a few days old when you arrived in Fredtown. None of us were more than a few days old, coming here.”
I tried to keep my voice light and teasing. I was twelve; I should have known better than to look to a five-year-old to answer my questions.
But no one else had given me the answers I wanted. And sometimes Bobo heard things.
“Edwy says home is where we belong,” Bobo said, stubbornly sticking out his lower lip. “Edwy says we should have stayed there always.”
“Oh, Edwy says,” I teased. But it was hard to keep the edge out of my voice.
Of course Edwy has an answer, I thought. Even if he just made it up. Even if he knows it’s a lie.
Edwy was twelve, like me—we were the oldest children in Fredtown. We were born on the same day. And we were the only ones who were moved to Fredtown on the very day of our birth, instead of waiting a day or two like everyone else. The Freds always told us it had been too “dangerous” for us to stay with our parents then. For the past twelve years, they’d said it was too “dangerous” for any of us children to go home.
I was maybe three the first time I asked, But isn’t it dangerous for our parents, too? Why didn’t they come to Fredtown to be safe with us?
The Freds always said, They are adults. You are children. Adults have to take care of themselves. It is our job to take care of you.
I didn’t think that counted as a real answer.
That was why Edwy and I had decided when we were ten—back when we still talked to each other—that we were probably orphans and the Freds just didn’t want to make us sad by telling us that.
We’d argued about this a little: I said surely the newest babies of Fredtown weren’t orphans. Surely their parents were still alive.
“But there haven’t been any new babies in my family since me,” Edwy said fiercely. He always got fierce when the only other choice was sounding sad. “And none in yours since Bobo.”
Once he said that, I could see lots of other evidence. If our parents were still alive, wouldn’t they at least send us a letter every now and then? Wouldn’t they have done everything they possibly could to come get us?
Didn’t they know where we were?
When I asked the Freds questions like that, they patted me on the head and told me I was too young to understand.
Or they talked about how life was made up of hard choices and, as our guardians, they had chosen what was best for all of us children. And what was best for civilization itself.
The way the Freds talked was tricky. You had to wrap your mind around their words sometimes and turn them inside out to try to figure out what they were really saying.
The way Edwy talked was tricky, too.
“Rosi!” Bobo said, squirming against my grip. “I want to jump some more!”
If any of the Freds saw us, I would be in trouble. I was twelve and Bobo was five; it was wrong for someone who was bigger and older and stronger to overpower someone smaller and younger and weaker. It was wrong to hold someone who didn’t want to be held.
“Fine,” I told Bobo. “But mess up your own bed, not mine.”
I turned and deposited him on his own cot. I was tempted to tickle him too, to try to bring back his glee and his ear-to-ear grin. But that would have required my asking him first, Is it all right if I tickle you? And I didn’t have the patience for that just then.
Bobo didn’t spring instantly to his feet like I expected. He didn’t go back to bouncing. He just sat in a heap on his own bed and asked, as if he’d just now thought of the question: “Rosi, is it safe to go home now? Why was it too dangerous before but safe now?”
I ruffled his hair and made my voice as light and carefree as a summer breeze.
“You know things can change, you little apple dumpling, you,” I said, using the baby name our Fred-parents had given Bobo years ago. “You know the Freds wouldn’t send us home if it wasn’t safe.”
I wasn’t like Edwy. I didn’t usually lie. Not on purpose.
So why did I feel like I was lying to Bobo now?