It was hard to get out of bed in the mornings during the winter. As I exhaled, white breath came out. I wriggled, not wanting to get out of the blanket. I could see the dark sky outside taking on a faint light.
‘I’m going to be late…’
I suppressed my desire to cling to the blanket’s warmth and hurriedly pulled myself out of bed. Today was a hectic day. Laundry and dishwashing; cleaning; and even running errands for the researchers.
After working non-stop for hours, I would only be able to take a break in the afternoon. The faces of the children, who were temporarily freed from hard labor, bloomed brightly. Five children, including myself, took turns taking a break. The children went to a corner and squatted down.
Researchers would play simple card games or sip tea during breaks to relieve stress, but for the children it was impossible. All we could do was sit still and rest, or talk in a low voice.
“Annis, where are you going?”
One of the chatty kids asked. Normally, I would have joined in on the topic, but I just responded with a troubled smile.
“Well, the researcher ordered something to do so…”
The children looked at me with pitiful expressions.
“It must be hard for you. You can’t even rest…”
Actually, I wasn’t going to do any work. Nonetheless, I smiled sheepishly at the kids and walked away, promising to return soon.
I hurried to the kitchen. Then I pushed my heels up as high as I could and reached deep into the shelf. After a while, I felt the cold touch of porcelain on my fingertips.
‘Here it is!’ I took out a plate hidden from the adults’ eyes and finally hurried out of the kitchen before anyone could see me.
I went to Emilian’s room. He was visible through the iron bars at the door. He was crunching down on the bed, looking through the palm-sized window.
He turned his head at my call. His full eyes were lively.
Clack~ A clicking sound resounded and Emilian moved out of bed. The kid asked, looking at me through the iron bars.
“What’s going on?”
I deliberately slurred the end of my words and held out what I was hiding behind my back.
“I brought it as promised.”
Emilian looked alternately at the cake on the plate and my face.
“Is that the dessert you were talking about?”
It was the perfect afternoon for a snack. While running the researchers’ tea errands, I snuck out a piece of chocolate cake. I’d get scolded if I got caught, but I’ve never been caught yet, so it was okay.
“…Thank you,” Emilian said, accepting the chocolate cake. His eyes folded prettily.
‘Ah… you smiled again…’
His smiling face was so pretty that I momentarily stared at him without realizing it and suddenly woke up from my daze.
“I… e- enjoy your meal.”
I said so and tried to go, but Emilian’s voice stopped me as I turned around.
Emilian’s lips hesitated as if he had something to say and, after pondering for a moment, he said,
“Cake… Would you like to eat it together?”
I blinked slowly at the unexpected suggestion. Staying in the subjects’ rooms was not allowed unless there were special circumstances. As I hesitated to reply, Emilian’s red pupils quivered.
“You don’t want to?”
He didn’t mean to force me. However, the look in his eyes made it impossible for me to say no. His long eyebrows drooped sullenly. Emilian, who had never shown any signs of weakness even during the experiments, appeared pitiful. It was a bit too shocking.
‘Is it because he’ll feel lonely eating alone…?’
Subject children were confined to their rooms all day except when going to the laboratory. Of course, he would be alone while eating. He spent those endless hours alone in his room, with no one to talk to. It was that type of loneliness that not even an adult could bear.
‘Even more so if you are only thirteen.’
I recalled my schedule. I had some time left before I went to help prepare dinner. Emilian’s experiment was scheduled for later, but it wasn’t an urgent matter so…
It wouldn’t take long to share a piece of cake.
I pondered for a moment, then finally nodded.
As soon as I agreed, Emilian’s face brightened, as if he had never been sulking.
‘By the way, what if he doesn’t like sweets?’
We sat facing each other at the small table. I looked at him with a slightly nervous—half expectant—gaze. Emilian cut the cake with a fork and brought it to his mouth.
“. . .!”
His eyes opened wide. Actually, it was like his wide eyes widened even more. The moment I saw that reaction, my useless worries melted away. I spoke with a proud smile.
“It’s delicious, isn’t it?”
“Mn… it’s… my first time trying something like this.”
Emilian’s ruby-like eyes shone brightly as he spoke. He gently tore down the cake with the fork.
‘You have to eat well!’
I felt so good seeing him like that. I smiled without knowing why.
“I’ll bring it to you again the next time I have the chance.”
Of course, I thought he would like it, but Emilian shook his head.
“It’s okay. This is enough.”
“You don’t want to eat it again?”
“It’s not that, but… You’ll be in trouble if you’re caught.”
“Mm… it’s fine if I don’t get caught.”
“There’s no guarantee that it won’t happen next time.”
“It’s True, but…”
“I don’t want you to be scolded.” The look in Emilian’s eyes was firm. “So, don’t do anything dangerous.”
‘Is he worried that I’ll be in trouble because of him?’
The last time I scratched my hand while bringing medicine, he looked displeased.
‘Are you the type of guy who doesn’t like to owe to others…?’
I don’t really mind, but if Emilian doesn’t like it–
“Okay, I get it. I’ll do as you say.”
Reluctantly, I nodded. Then Emilian placed his chin in his hand and looked at me languidly.
“You’re a good kid.”
‘You’re still a kid, too. What are you…?’ I giggled at Emilian’s words.
The piece of cake was enough for two.
‘Now I have to clean up.’
As I was about to clean up the empty bowl, I heard footsteps approaching. My body stiffened reflexively at the sound of an adult’s footsteps.
But the hesitation lasted a second. I hurriedly put the empty bowl out of sight. Almost at the same time, a sharp voice flew in.
“What are you doing here?”
The researcher’s sharp eyes regarded me coldly behind his glasses.
Senior Researcher Franz.
He was the one who was in a dispute with Emilian, on the first day of his arrival. From what I found out, he was Emilian’s researcher.
“It’s past lunchtime, so why are you here?”
Being held in such a cold and sharp gaze, I felt my chest tightening. I tried to remain as calm as possible and answered.
“I was careless and forgot to deliver something.”
Franz looked at me with suspicious eyes and then spoke in a dry voice,
“Go if you’re done.”
His attitude showed that he had not the slightest interest in paying attention to an errand kid like me. Franz walked past me and approached Emilian.
His chilling voice instructed dryly.
“Follow me. Let’s continue yesterday’s experiment.”
“. . .”
Emilian’s eyes, looking at Franz, sank coldly. Whatever had happened yesterday made him terrified. Nevertheless, he followed Franz without a word.
I looked anxiously at his back, moving away.
Franz would again torment Emilian with unreasonable and horrendous experiments. My throat felt as if I’d drank sand. I didn’t want Emilian to be taken by Franz
‘You’re powerless…’ Thinking like that, I called his name as if begging.
Emilian, who was diligently following Franz, stopped and looked back at me. Staying still, calmly holding my gaze, he said,
And as if trying to comfort me, he added with a smile,
“I’ll be back soon.”
You can’t go.
The words that threatened to escape my mouth got stuck in my throat in the end.
Meanwhile, the sound of their footsteps faded. I bit my lower lip hard.
Like an idiot, I couldn’t stop Emilian as he walked away.