Excerpt: Cleanly Wrong
“Wrong! Wrong! Wrong again!” the other kids cheered gleefully. Rung didn’t have to fight against a pout; he was used to this happening and could keep his own disappointment and sadness off his face from long practice.
“Wrong,” Teacher Broom said disapprovingly. Rung hated it when the teacher called him Wrong. The other kids at the orphanage had perfectly good shortened names like Thimble or Dustbin. Rung’s name was Ladder Rung, Rung for short, but the nickname Wrong had stuck so firmly Rung sometimes wondered if his teachers even knew his real name anymore.
“This is simply unacceptable,” Broom continued, scrunching his nose and smartly groomed whiskers in unhappiness. Rung hung his head as he was supposed to while being chastised. He wished the other kids would stop giggling at his continual misfortune. “The eighth time you’ve taken this simple test and the room simply isn’t clean, Wrong!”
Rung looked forlornly at the room he had spent the past three hours of the test cleaning. The test bedrooms in this wing of the orphanage were specifically mussed so the students could practice their hands at cleaning. Rung had swept and tidied until the place shone, and he had hidden himself perfectly whenever an instructor came into the room. Yet when it came down to the little things, he was always wrong. The books on the waist-high bookshelf were not in alphabetical order, nor had he color-coded them. Rather, it seemed to Rung that it was more prudent to put the ones with the creased spines, obviously read much more often, on the top shelf within easy reach. The books that still smelled like the press they had recently come off were also put on the top shelf, because clearly the owner would want to find the new reads with ease.
Rung knew what his instructors wanted: alphabetical organization by author, genre, and, if possible, cover color. Unfortunately, Rung couldn’t do it. He tried, test after test, but that bookshelf always ended up his way. He couldn’t manage to do it the way the teacher wanted, no matter how much he attempted to organize the damned shelf. He couldn’t help it!
“—and the desk!” Broom went on as Rung picked up on the next bit of the teacher’s rant. “How could you leave that stack of papers in such disarray?” Broom sighed to himself. “Wrong, you are to go to your bed and contemplate what you have done wrong. Do not bother coming to dinner.”
“Yes, sir,” Rung said softly, knowing that he had already missed lunch for another fault during class that day. Breakfast was a long time away.
Rung rounded his shoulders and walked through the crowd of students who had gleefully watched his punishment session. He ignored the jeers with long practice and managed not to gasp in pain when Needle shoved him into the wall on his way past.
The room where he slept housed six of the boys around the age of eighteen, and Rung was relieved none of them were present when he pushed open the door. Rung noticed his blanket was missing again when he walked past his bed on the way to the full-length mirror across the room to look at the new bruise forming on his shoulder. Needle’s shoves were never soft, and Rung hadn’t been braced this time.
The bruise was purpling, but it wouldn’t be too bad. The mirror gave him an unvarnished image that Rung tried to overlook as he inspected his shoulder.
Brownies were relatively short creatures, the tallest topping five feet if they were unlucky. Being small meant it was easier to hide when the owner of the home they were cleaning unexpectedly entered the room they were in. Brownies were short and skinny. Rung was skinny, certainly, but he had gained bulk that sat on his shoulders despite always going hungry, and he was around five feet six inches in height.
Brownies had a layer of short fur covering their entire bodies. The fur was always some sort of shade of brown that would camouflage them well against the wooden walls of the majority of the homes they serviced. Rung’s fur was a light tan color, not brown at all. He was human-colored, as Needle had so kindly pointed out when they had first seen pictures of the creatures who owned the houses that someday all good brownies would serve.
They had all declared that his father must have been human, which was something truly terrible, for it meant the human Rung’s mother was serving had seen her—a mother who had died not long after Rung’s birth. Parents were supposed to teach their children how to clean properly. When a brownie did not have parents, he or she was sent to the Orphanage for Cleanliness and Deportment, where the teachers would make the orphaned brownies into productive members of society.
And that, perhaps, was what was so wrong with Rung. He would never be a productive member of society if he couldn’t learn to clean correctly.
Rung sighed and turned away from the mirror. If he went to sleep, he wouldn’t think about his growling stomach. Also, if he were asleep by the time the rest of his roommates returned from dinner, they might give him his blanket back when they saw he wasn’t available for whatever torture they had thought up this time.
Rung curled up in his bed around his empty stomach and sighed. He would have to try harder to satisfy his instructors, but that could wait until the morning.