A fog hung over our heads after my suspicions were confirmed by a weepy Claudia. A pair of wild dogs had breached the campus wall and had caught Eden out after curfew. This effectively put an end to my midnight excursions to the butterfly garden.
A heavy silence invaded our bedroom. The worst was seeing Liv's eyes, which were red and puffy. A close second was the gut wrenching feeling I got whenever I went to sleep at night and saw Eden's bed untouched.
The day of the Lottery came, and Claudia was convinced that it would do me good to attend. So I gathered in Central Plaza with everyone else, standing in the melting snow in our second-hand coats.
As usual, Miss Rowe stood in front of the Committee drawing names. She was about twenty names in when I knew that it was going to be a big haul this year. I started to feel a little more excited then. Maybe, me and Liv could leave the Angel House and go to a big city, start fresh.
"And finally, our thirtieth and last winner…Olivia Donor."
I didn't know who she was talking about for a second, until Liv took a dazed step forward. It was Liv? Had I really not known her last name until that moment?
She glanced back at me, looking stunned. I tried to smile, to appear reassuring and happy. But I couldn't, because I wasn't any of those things. Something cold and hard settled into the pit of my stomach at the sight of Liv being herded away with the other Lottery Kids. I tried to tell myself that Liv wouldn't abandon me like Art had. That she would write and call me, but all I could see in my mind was the emptiness in Claudia's eyes as she said robotically, "You shouldn't expect it."
I drifted into an uneasy sleep that night, watching Liv's empty bed.
The trees loomed overhead, their branches reaching down like gnarled fingers. Dogs snapped and snarled behind the garden gates, their eyes glowing red.
"They have complete power." Art's voice echoed around the decrepit buildings. I broke into a run, not sure where my feet were taking me. Suddenly, Eden was in front of me, crouched in the shadow of Mr. Archer's house.
"Isn't this what you wanted?" she hissed. "For me to go away? Then you could have Liv all to yourself!" She stepped into the moonlight, but she didn't look like Eden anymore. Her body was broken and bloody, and her scalp was pulled away from her cracked skull.
I stumbled backward, and Art's voice mingled with Eden's.
"No one is looking for us."
I jerked awake, covered in sweat and tangled in the bed sheets. Danni's music box ticked out a lullaby that I hadn't heard since I was little and a tree branch outside scraped against the window. My heart pounded beneath my ribs.
I kicked the comforter away from me and threw it off the bed. I pulled violently at the sheets, tears stinging my cheeks, when a soft thump against the floor startled me.
I peered over the edge, and there sticking halfway out from underneath the bed was that little brown folder that Art had found in the wall. I forgot that I had hidden it under my mattress when I was upset with him last year.
There was absolutely no way that I was going back to sleep, so I picked it up and began to read. The first page was dated with the year 2040 and written in a rough, clumsy handwriting:
Started lottery drawings for schools in the capital. What do they want with us? Orphanage is little, in the middle of nowhere, with kids that barely read and write. Not smart, won't last in the city.
The entry was short and vague, obviously written by someone who did not really enjoy writing. I went on the next entry:
2041 More money now. Better food, more buildings. Prudence is happy that we get dessert. Too good to be true.
It was dated a year after the first entry. I skimmed through the loose pages. All this Wyatt boy was doing was cataloguing the history of the Lottery. This is what Art had been trying to show me. But why? I remembered his strange behavior before he was taken away as one of the Lottery Kids. He had been nervous about something.
On to the third entry:
2042 Another lottery. Stupid kids, all of them. No good in the capital. What do they want with us?
2043 Prudence got picked. Will wait to hear news.
There was a pang in my heart as I read that sentence. I knew the feeling of hopelessly waiting well.
2044 More money, new teachers. More kids gone, no news.
2045 Where are they going? Where did they take Prudence? Kids are smarter now, good teachers. Capital is still over paying.
I flipped the page over.
2047 Heard something today. I know now. Not everything, but enough.
I turned the page, and there was one entry left. After that the rest of the page was blank. This entry was a message that was from the same year as the previous one. The message was comprised of one word:
My stomach twisted into knots, my head became achy, and my body shivered uncontrollably. The air was thick, and I couldn't breathe.
I leapt out of bed and threw my coat and boots on, not bothering to put on socks or zip my coat. The weather was beginning to warm, but the nights were still frigid. My blood was pumping so hard that the cold barely fazed me.
I ran without worrying about who might see me, or the fact that I was now locked out of Building 5. I only stopped to catch my breath once I had reached the groundskeeper's abode. I beat on his front door relentlessly, not caring about the time or that Mr. Archer was probably asleep.
After a minute or so, he opened the door, and I tumbled inside. My hands and knees hit the floor hard. I sat there, breathing raggedly.
"You got the devil on your tail?" the groundskeeper asked and closed the door.
I looked up, and he offered me a hand. "Something like that," I said breathlessly. I took his hand, accepting the help and winced. I now had a few splinters in my palms. Mr. Archer sat me down in front of the fireplace with a wool blanket. I shivered and stared at the wavering flames. My heart leapt when I felt the groundskeeper touch my shoulder, and he gently removed my hands from beneath the blanket. My palms were still an angry shade of red from the splinters.
Mr. Archer's calloused hand lightly cupped mine, and he held a pair of tweezers poised above my palms.
He didn't ask me to talk or explain myself as he pulled and dug the splinters from my skin. I sat on his couch, numb, watching the watery orange light cast from the fireplace. At some point, Mr. Archer stood and walked to the kitchen. When he returned, he placed a hot mug in my raw hands.
Expecting the smooth, rich taste of hot chocolate, I was snapped out of my daze when the spicy taste of cinnamon touched my tongue.
"Apple cider?" I asked.
The groundskeeper nodded. "I can get you something else if you don't like it."
I shook my head. "It's fine, thanks."
We sat in silence, each sipping our apple cider. Eventually, I said in little more than a whisper, "Did you show Art where to find that folder?"
Mr. Archer nodded.
"Was it yours? I mean, were you the one who wrote in it?"
He nodded again.
"So you know what happens to the Lottery Kids," it's not a question this time.
He shrugged. "I know a little. I know they don't come back."
I frowned at his vague answer. "You know more than that," I accused.
"Some of them actually get scholarships," he admitted and bit his fingernail, "but most of 'em don't."
"Where do the rest go?"
The groundskeeper didn't respond immediately. His face was carefully neutral, but a sadness glinted somewhere in the depths of his eyes. "I don't know, but I do know that the Angel House gets money from the military. I've seen receipts."
"Why is the Angel House receiving money from the military?"
"That's the question, isn't it?"
An image swam to the forefront of my mind: Art and Liv exiting the train, hopeful expressions on their faces, only to be greeted by the cold sight of soldiers. "What really happened to Eden?" I asked on a hunch. Mr. Archer's brow creased.
"She saw something she wasn't supposed to see."
"And the wild dogs were just a coincidence?"
"They weren't wild dogs."
"But you said—"
"I said," he stopped me with a firm tone, "it looked like wild dogs." His gaze drifted to a corner of the room. There I saw, half hidden by shadow and an oil rag, was what appeared to be the jaws of an animal attached to the ends of hedge clippers. Maybe I should have been afraid then, but I wasn't.
We didn't say any more after that, not until we had licked the last drops of apple cider from our cups. Even though my mug was still warm, and the fire was still roaring, and the wool blanket was still tucked around my shoulders, I still felt cold. I knew the answer to my question before I asked it, but I needed to hear the words from Mr. Archer's lips.
"What do I do now?" I asked and looked up at the soft spoken man next to me. He sat stock still and only his eyes moved to meet mine.
I couldn't just run, though. I had to find them.