An hour and a half later, they stood outside the gates of the orphanage, the building was just as he’d remembered it, or at least the outside was.
He walked a little further towards the entrance. But, as his stomach began to tie itself in knots and fear balled in his throat as they walked up the steps, Victor turned back towards the car.
“Victor, what are you doing? Where are you going?” Nikki asked confused. As the bright, warm sunlight shone down and a soft breeze blew through the trees, Victor looked at her, tears glistening in his eyes and whispered, “This was a mistake, let’s go.”
“No, we’ve come this far, we can’t turn back now,” Nikki said taking his arm.
As he pulled away, he lost his balance and so did she. Thankfully neither fell.
“Are you alright?” Victor asked worriedly.
Victor looked at her, clearly unconvinced.
“Victor, I’m fine.”
As the fear he’d held at bay for so long finally overtook him, Victor sat on the steps of the orphanage and sighed dejectedly. “Nikki, I don’t think I can do this. It’s too hard.”
“Yes you can. Victor, you’ve come this far, you can’t turn back now. If you do, you’ll always wonder what would have happened, what your life would have been like if you’d had the courage to face your past, to really put it behind you for good.”
Taking his hand, she whispered, “Come on, let’s go. Come on.”
Hesitantly, he took her hand and they entered the orphanage. As he looked around, he couldn’t believe it was the same place. The orphanage he remembered was dark, cold and dirtym with holes in the walls and paint peeling off of them. The place he stood in now didn’t even resemble the building that had haunted him for years. The bright, cheerful colours on the walls, stuffed animals and other toys overflowing from toy boxes certainly hadn’t been there when he was a boy.
As he walked through the building, he couldn’t help but smile at all the decorations adorning the walls; watercolour pictures painted on white paper and construction paper cutouts of starfish and other animals. Reading his mind, Nikki asked with a soft smile, “Not like you remember it, is it?”
“Not at all,” he answered, returning her smile.
As they walked down the halls, they passed a small group of children. As they recognized him one by one, the murmurs grew louder until one child walked up to him and asked, “Are you Victor Newman?”
“Yes I am,” Victor answered, surprised she recognized him.
Turning to the others, she said, “See, I told you it was him.”
Then, turning her attention back to Nikki and Victor, she asked, “Are you lost?”
Chuckling, Victor answered, “No, I’m not lost.”
“Then what are you doing here? Nobody ever comes around here unless they’re lost.”
“What’s your name?” Nikki asked with a smile.
“Carrie, what’s yours?” the young girl asked with a bright smile.
“Pleased to meet you.”
“You too.” They couldn’t help but smile at the charming little girl who stood in front of them smiling as she studied them, wondering what two people who were obviously very well off were doing in a place like this one. “You didn’t say, what are you doing here? You said you’re not lost, so what are you doing here?”
“Carrie! That’s enough! Run along and play, Mr. and Mrs. Newman did not come here so you could ask them questions about things that are none of your business.” The director of the orphanage told her sternly.
“Yes, ma’am,” Carrie replied sheepishly.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude,” she said before running off to join the other children.
“I’m sorry, Carrie is a little too curious for her own good sometimes. I’m Elizabeth Bennett.” The young woman, who looked to be in her late forties, wore a smart black blazer with black pants and her long chestnut hair in a bun. She had a bright, beautiful smile and her white skin held a healthy, warm glow. “Bennett?” Victor echoed. “Was your mother Erica Bennett?”
“Yes, how did you know?”
“Believe it or not, I grew up in this orphanage.”
“Wait a minute, you’re… no, you couldn’t be…Christian Miller? Is that you?”
“Yeah,” Victor said with a shy smile.
“I never thought I’d see you here. What are you doing here? Why don’t we go to my office and talk. I have a lot of questions to ask you.” “Lead the way.”
Before long, they sat in a modest office which, like the rest of the building was brightly coloured and cheerful with pictures from the children adorning the walls. “What brings you back here? You hated this place.”
“Yeah, I did, more than I can put into words, but I have some unfinished business I need to take care of.”
“Oh.” Elizabeth somehow knew not to press him for details.
“Well, it’s good to see you anyway.”
“You too. I was just a little boy when you last saw me, how did you recognize me?”
“Mom talked about you all the time, you know you were her favourite. When I saw that smile of yours, I knew it was you.”
“How is she doing?” Victor asked, remembering the one person in the entire orphanage who took the time to really get to know him, the one person who showed him any kindness.
A note of sadness crept into Elizabeth’s voice as she replied, “She died earlier this year.”
“I’m sorry, I…”
“Don’t be, you didn’t know. She talked about you often, wondered where you were. She always said she knew you were doing just fine, you were a fighter and you’d make it. She knew that about you from the moment she saw you.”
Uncomfortable with the emotion clogging his throat, making it hard to breathe, Victor changed the subject and said, “You’ve done wonders with this place, it’s nothing like I remember it.”
Beaming, Elizabeth replied, “That’s the idea. I remember how much you hated it here, Mom told me about it. It broke her heart to see you so alone and unhappy, she wished she could do something for you, but she couldn’t.”
“She did do something for me; more than I can put into words. If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t be who I am now without your mother’s influence.”
With a sombre smile, Elizabeth continued.“When I finished school I came here to work with her and when she got sick, I took over for her as director. I wanted to make sure that this place was nothing like it was when you lived here. You went through hell. All the teasing and taunting from the other kids, the constant yelling from the staff who had no time for a young, scared boy. I was determined that no child who walked through our doors would ever have to face that. I’m sorry you did. You didn’t deserve it.” Her voice was soft and sad. Although he almost always hated for anybody to feel sorry for him, somehow, he sensed this was different. Elizabeth didn’t pity him, she knew what he’d been through and that he never should have had to go through it. Somehow, on some level, he knew that, unlike most people, she neither despised nor feared him, she didn’t pity him either. She simply, wholeheartedly shared memories of her mother with him. And he knew, without her having to say a word, that those memories of her mother meant more to her than anything else ever could, ever would. Rising up from his chair in front of her desk Victor said, “Well, we’d better get going, we have a couple more places to go before we head home.” Nodding, Elizabeth got up from behind her desk and walked out into the hall with them. “I’ll walk you out.”
When they’d reached the entrance, Elizabeth turned to him and said as she hugged him, “It was good to see you, Christian. Next time, don’t wait so long to come back and visit.”
“It was good to see you too. I won’t.” Victor replied as he smiled tearfully and left.
As they stood on the steps of the orphanage, Nikki asked with a smile, “Not as hard as you thought it would be, was it?”
Returning her smile, Victor replied softly, “No, it wasn’t.”