Chapter 8

The children cry as they arrive, confused by the sudden reprieve. For miles, they walked in painfully straight lines, prodded forward by bayonets. No food, no water, no rest for them until they made it here. But now they’re free — at least temporarily — and they can’t stop sobbing.

Warm clouds form around them and quickly dissipate. A violet figure glides down a zipline, an ivory cape and clusters of candy trailing behind him. The kids sniffle and dry their cheeks as the man lands and unhooks his harness. Vibrant blue eyes clash with his feathered auburn hair. A mustache sits tidily on his pale, freckled face.

“Say, do any of you kids happen to know what time it is?”

Silence.

The man retrieves a gilded pocket watch and flicks the lid open with his thumb. He huffs out of the side of his mouth, clicks his tongue and taps the glass with a fingernail.

“Hmm,” he says. “It must be broken. I sure could use a helper.”

The children are still paralyzed. He approaches a girl, maybe 10, with a long brown pony tail. He crouches before her and smiles.

“What’s your name, sweetheart?”

“Nikki,” she says timidly.

“Nikki, I need to ask you a favor. Do you think you could wind this watch for me?”

“I don’t know how.”

“Here, I’ll show you,” he says, grabbing her hands.

He guides her fingers into position, helps her pull and twist.

“Do you think you could try on your own?”

“I think so.”

He nods. She pulls and twists. The gears click like injured vertebrae, grinding out a violet mist. The sky fills with glitter and confetti.

“You fixed it,” he says, grinning wide.

“I did?” she asks, sniffling.

“You sure did,” he says, patting her head. “I know that many of you are scared and confused. You’re probably wondering what you’re doing here.”

He pauses, grins. “Allow me to show you. We’ve been watching you for a long time. We’ve seen how sad your lives have made you, and we couldn’t bear to see you suffer any more. That’s why we built this place. For the next 24 hours, you can do anything you want inside these gates. There are no rules, only those that you make. All we ask is that you consider staying here with us to create the perfect places for kids like you. Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Till we meet again.”

The mist returns. He disappears.

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