We spent the summer at the orphanage licking these sticks clean of their frozen sugar. Today we make god’s eyes in craft class with them. Any one of us could have sucked pink ice from the cross I am forming, maybe even Ronnie. I imagine him staring up into a pale July sky, his lips and tongue glazed with strawberry.
I glance over at him as I work. His fingers are going round and round with the yarn to make a small diamond of blue surrounded by an ocean of yellow. This is opposite of how I’d do it. Mistress Allen says Ronnie is closer to God than the rest of us, so he can do it how he likes. I think Mistress Allen likes to say things that echo so others don’t argue.
The trees dance in the sunlight beyond the window, and each leaf mocks me with a swaying waltz. My god’s eye is complete without me noticing I’d finished. The center red, and the outer diamond green. Martyrdom and freedom.
After we put away our supplies, we go outside. It’s one of those glorious September days when the sky is so blue it hurts to stare at it, but you stare anyway because you like the way it hurts. We are all wearing our eyes on strings. They bounce and tangle in our hair as we run and play. I run to the tree at the far end of the yard. It has fallen inside the fence, while every other tree managed to escape. It seems lonelier for it, and I like to whisper words of love and comfort, knowing what it needs to hear, because I, too, have fallen inside the fence. I take off my eye and put it at the base of the tree as silent proof of why I’ve been absent.
I lie down on my back and look up at layers of miniature factories gathering the afternoon sunlight. The leaves are beginning to yellow at the tips, and some are threadbare. The other children make joyful noises, and the earth smells of aging.
Our orphanage sits on the edge of town where the forest creeps close and leans in to listen. Potential parents come in waves and troughs, and we bob and recede on the foam of their attention. The beautiful orphans with seashell ears and eyes like fireflies leave almost as soon as they arrive. Others, like Ronnie and I, falter when we are laced up in collars and ties. We stutter and stiffen, and tiny cracks appear in our glaze. We fill those fissures with our own imagination until we speak a different language.
My eyes drift shut, and I relax in the soft grass. When the bell rings for dinner, I am replete. This over-full cup of contentment threatens to spill as I join the others in the race to the sinks. We wash and splash and keep crooked lines as the Mistresses herd us to ladder-backed chairs.
Jeanette sits across from me. She mixes together her mashed potatoes and peas. Is that enough to keep her from a family’s warmth? Hours can be spent this way, wondering what shibboleth betrays our origins.
As everyone readies for sleep, I realize I left my god’s eye at the foot of the lonely tree. I debate which will be worse: getting caught without it or getting caught retrieving it. I turn over and Ronnie pulls his own eye from under the covers and holds it up to me as if blessing my endeavor.
When I reach the yard, I stop in confusion. The tree is missing. I scan the dark as if the tree has simply wandered off. The air listens as I make my way to the fence corner. Yellow-tipped leaves are scattered on the ground like the feathers of a wounded bird.
The fence is upright and proper. The earth is soft and whole. There is no shorn stump. The eye is staring at the salty moon. My tree has found a new home.
I am running on a ribbon of red. Round and round, and at each turn I see Ronnie and his god’s eye with the inverted island, just out of reach. He is leaving me behind.
I wake exhausted. It’s raining, the thunder an exuberant drum. There will be assembly.
We gather to hear Mistress Farro read. This month, she’s chosen Treasure Island, and her earnest voice keeps us rapt while the wind outside shouts. Jim has run away from the mutineers for the first time, seeking shelter in the dense foliage. Ronnie makes an anguished sound, interrupting Mistress Farro. His face is pale, his eyes sorrowful. Mistress Allen leads him away gently.
Sometimes Ronnie gets frustrated when he can’t tell us what he needs. It isn’t a language I know, but he and I do speak. We have our own way. If anyone asked, I would tell them Jim’s fear is too familiar.
No one asks.
That night, I trade places to be next to Ronnie. He scrunches his cheeks at me in a wide smile as we hold hands. I wait until sleep gently smooths her fingers over his shining eyes, and his breathing becomes heavy and damp. Then, I loop the long string of my talisman over both our heads. His blue island tangles in my red. It is a slim hope, but the tree was trapped, and so are we.
Julie Reeser is the unintentional straight man to life’s comedy. Her work has been published in over a dozen venues, most recently Dreams & Nightmares and upcoming in Daily Science Fiction and Bards & Sages Quarterly. She runs a Patreon full of small joys.