They get up before the sun. They are between five and thirteen years of age, boys and girls both. They have a ways to go and limited time to get there, and so they walk, through the pre-dawn dark.
Now and then someone trips. Then someone laughs, pointing fingers, and soon the dark is filled with the harsh laughter of sleep-roughed voices. Someone reaches a hand, someone accepts, and they resume walking.
A bell shocks through the dim. Feet quicken their pace. Some start running. Shortly everybody runs. The gate rumbles and screams as it shuts its jaws. The last girl nearly loses her hair to the bite, stumbling.
A voice hrumps. Steel-rimmed eyes look down upon her. She cowers, bows low, and runs, nearly losing a shoe at the bottom of a stair.
She does not know what will come this day. She does not know whether the girl with the pigtails or the boy with the brown eyes or perhaps she herself will be plucked out. But she does know she doesn't want to go.
If only this place had colour. If only this place had warmth. If only this place had laughter, the real kind, the warm kind, not the harsh coughs of reprieve. She dreams.
They stand in rows and squares. Every person has a spot, and the open holes mark the missing. Seventy-two holes today. Seventy-one holes yesterday. Seventy the day before.
Clickety-clack the footsteps go. Clickety-clack down the floor. Clickety-clack. Clickety-clack. Clickety-clack-clack.
They stopped. Steel grey wool and steel grey nails. Black lacquer shoes. A hand to the steel rimmed glasses. Hair strict and tight, never a strand out of place. Nothing soft.
A thin, bony hand, with thin, bony fingers, with its long, steel claws, stretches, clutches, and wrenches on a shoulder. Blue eyes look up, fear apparent. Hands clenched, twisting. Knees shaking. Feet trembling.
No word is spoken. No breath spared. Just one thin claw, pointed down the hall, to a wooden door.
A pair of feet shuffling. Eyes shifting. Almost a movement, but soon quelled by a steel glare.
Clickety-clack the footsteps go. Clickety-clack down to the door. Clickety-clack. Clickety-clack.
Why does the room have hardwood floor? Why do the walls echo so? Why doesn't the door creak as it opens? Why is it so very, very dark on the other side? Why? Why?
A voice lashes out in steel tones behind her. It calls for attention. It calls for their names. It never calls her. It never seeks her name. She is forgotten.
The dark calls her. The door swings shut behind her. It has no sound. Soundless, it shuts. Soundless, it locks. Soundless, and she wishes it were not so.
A bit of colour. A bit of warmth. A bit of laughter filled with joy. It is all she wishes. It is all she wants. It is all she has never seen.