By Stephen Sottong
There was a rat in the soup. It was going to be a good day. Liss moved slowly, stiffly, from her privileged position on the top of the shelves in the drafty shed where the orphan girls slept. From this warmer height, she observed her tiny domain.
Liss walked the few paces in the morning chill to near the front of the soup line. She was never first. If a big girl like her was always first, the matrons would call her a bully and make her go without. She pushed two of her friends ahead of her. They’d give her some of their soup. It was worth it – all of the good parts were ladled out to the first few girls.
The gaunt, sad-eyed Head Matron broke the routine of the morning. She walked in pushing a dirty, reluctant, red-headed girl ahead of her.
The big woman who ladled the soup wiped greasy hands on her stained apron and pushed red hair from the new girl’s eyes and sighed. “So fragile.”
“So tragic,” the Matron said, prying small hands from her worn dress.
“How many more can we take?” the woman with the ladle asked.
The Matron shrugged, handed the girl a tin bowl and injected her into the line ahead of Liss.
Liss saw that the red hair was dirty but curled. The dress the girl wore was useless in the cold. Her muddy shoes were patent leather. The red-haired girl sobbed and trembled.
Shaking her head, Liss poked the red-haired girl in the small of the back when she did not move as the line progressed. She would have to learn the ropes.
On her turn at the vat of soup, the red-haired girl held out her bowl and started to scream when she saw the rat. Liss grabbed a handful of the red curls with her left hand and whispered, “Spill a drop of that and I’ll yank your hair out by the roots.”
The big woman mechanically ladled soup into the red-haired girl’s bowl. Liss held out her bowl with her right hand and guided the red-haired girl with the left. She moved the girl to a corner of the filthy shed. The red-haired girl looked at the soup with the rat leg floating in it and started to retch. Liss grabbed the bowl, and downed the soup, crunching on the bones, then sat to eat her own. The red-haired girl stared at Liss, sobbing. Liss tossed the empty tin bowl at her head. The red-haired girl retreated to a corner, crouching in fetal position, crying. Looking at the girl, Liss fleetingly thought of getting her something to eat, but dismissed it – she wouldn’t last long. Most didn’t.
Liss sat back, licked the last of the broth from her bowl and let the soup take the chill from her bones. There had been a rat in the soup. It was going to be a good day.
Stephen Sottong has been writing full-time for the last 14 years from behind the Redwood curtain in beautiful northern California. He was a 2013 winner of the Writers of the Future contest. More information about him and a list of publications can be found at https://www.stephensottong.com.