Someone, or something, had raided the kitchen garbage bins again. Kitchen personnel set traps each night. Next morning, the traps were either disabled or unsprung, and the garbage still strewn about.
After the third raid, Jun decided that traps weren’t going to catch the thief. She had examined the area thoroughly, and found a few small footprints. Tiny, like those of one of the toddlers. But all the babies were accounted for at night, and every morning, and they couldn’t get out, anyway.
When she tried to tell the administrators that the thief was a toddler, they made the sort of noises that adults make when they’re being polite to a child but not really listening.
Much later in life, she realized that they had other things on their minds. Right now, at age six, she knew only that they were ignoring her.
She knew how to get out of her room without anyone seeing her. The chronic money shortages meant the administrators had a choice between three meals a day, clothes, or medical care for the children, and buying the newest institutional hardware for the internal doors and keeping obsessively to the recommended maintenance schedules. Only the hospital wing, medication/treatment rooms, and outside doors had decent locks.
To get outside, she had only to wait for some of the night staff to go out to talk and walk around. They tended to block open one side door so that they didn’t have to fumble for keys.
That night, she took her position near the garbage cans. Not too close, in case she was wrong about the thief’s identity, but close enough to see.
Between the few outside lights and the three-quarter moon, she could see reasonably clearly. It was also a bit chilly, as autumn was turning to winter.
The night staff went indoors. She settled down, determined to wait all night if she had to.
Without a way to tell time, she didn’t know how long she watched before she saw the small shape creep towards the garbage cans. Oh, my.
A little boy, the size of a three-year-old, skinny, wearing nothing but a dirty, torn shirt, his hair tangled, made his silent way to the garbage bins. He avoided the snare that someone had set, and with unusual agility for a boy his age, climbed inside. A few seconds later, trash flew over the sides. Then he climbed out, clutching a crude bundle to his chest. As quietly as he came, he slipped back into the night.
Jun carefully noticed his direction. Tomorrow, she would try to find him. He could not be far away.
When a couple of staffers came out to neck, she slipped back indoors.
The next day, she saved some of her lunch and went out to look for the boy. She didn’t find anything that day, or the day after. Either he was really good at hiding, or he lived farther away than she thought. He had to have a place. A notch in the rocks, or under some fallen trees, or a burrow.
On the third day of her search, as she looked towards the foothills of the Jupiter range, Ms. Moonesinghe asked, “Jun, what have you been doing in the woods?”
“I saw who’s been into the garbage.” She figured her teacher was trustworthy.
“Do I want to know how you got out?” The teacher smiled. “Problem child,” she said affectionately. Then, worried: “Who did you see?”
“A little boy. He’s not much older than the toddlers.”
“From the village? We should call the authorities.”
“He’s too dirty. He doesn’t wear anything except a shirt.”
“We should still call the authorities.”
Jun shook her head. “You’ll just scare him away. He’s such a little boy.”
“You can’t keep going out there. Things are --- odd. A number of people have just up and left the village without saying anything. They left their homes and possessions behind. Some of the older folks are saying the demons of the mountains have returned.”
“Demons?” As if such things existed.
“All legends have a grain of truth behind them. There could be fugitives living up there. They might hurt you.”
“I want to find him. It’s getting cold, and he’s such a little child.” She could not imagine that people would want to hurt her. What could she do to harm them? Sure, she was taking lessons in karate, but she didn’t think she could really hurt an adult.
“I would not be doing my job if I let you go out alone.” Moonesinghe followed Jun’s gaze. “Where have you looked?”
“Mostly over here.” Jun pointed towards the thin woods.
“Not a bad idea. He could be hiding under deadfall. And the foothills are right behind the woods.”
“I thought he might be in a little cave. What’s ‘deadfall’?”
“You’ve seen it. A lot of branches and small trees that fall somewhere, making a sheltered spot. When it rains, he might hide in a cave.”
Two places. She hadn’t thought of that.
They headed into the woods again, carefully looking for anything that could be shelter.
I hope I didn’t scare him away. He can’t last the winter.
A scramble in the trees turned out to be a late-foraging squirrel. Things scurrying through the underbrush were too small to be a child.
She wondered how the boy ended up in the woods. Had he gotten lost? Were his parents so bad that he had run away rather than stay with them? Why hadn’t he come to the orphanage?
This day’s search turned up nothing. Jun left the little bit of food, knowing that an animal was more likely to find it than the boy, but determined to make the effort.
Two more days of fruitless searching. When the weekend arrived, Moonesinghe packed some food and suggested a longer search. Perhaps they could draw the child out with a picnic.
Jun had imagined that she would find the boy and bring him to the orphanage on her own. She even thought she might be able to sort of adopt him, although things like that only happened in stories.
They headed to the foothills, where the thin soil barely concealed up-thrust rocks. Jun made out several places that looked large enough to conceal a child.
“Act as if you aren’t looking,” the teacher advised. “He’ll come closer. If he is about three years old, he can think well enough to figure out that we aren’t going to hurt him.” She smiled. “I know I wanted to call the authorities, but I thought it over and realized you were right. If he’s out here because he ran away from a bad home life or people were chasing him, then he’ll run away from official search parties crashing around, and he might get hurt doing it. Two nice people might reassure him.”
“How long do you think it will take?”
“That depends on what else has happened to him. If he’s been chased away from places, he may never approach us. If he’s simply scared, cold, and lost, he might show up in a few days.”
They spread the cloth and the food, ate and talked of nothing in particular. At first, Jun had a difficult time not looking around, but she gradually became involved in identifying the few birds that hadn’t migrated, hearing Moonesinghe tell stories about her native Indelhia, and other topics.
So she was surprised when she happened to glance over and saw a pair of bright brown eyes, framed by tangled brown hair, peering over a rock. She gasped, but kept her place, even when the eyes vanished. “Did you see?” she asked, trying to stay casual.
“I did. Let’s stay a while longer. He may come back, or he may not. If he thinks we really came here for him, he may stay away.”
“I don’t know if I can not look over there.”
“Well, you managed to do so before. Besides, he may not return to that rock.”
“Should we leave something for him? Some of our food?”
“Nothing obvious. He’s used to scraps. If we leave too much, he may be suspicious.”
“He’s just a baby.”
“Toddlers can be quite clever, Jun. You were quite a handful when you arrived, and you still are.”
“You were here when I came here?” She barely remembered anything. “Did you meet my mother or father?”
“No. I was here, teaching. I had barely been here six months. I was wondering why the organization had sent me. This place is so isolated. I was at my wits’ end because the children in class were determined to make me miserable.” Moonesinghe chuckled. “Most of them have turned out better than I expected.”
“They had a good teacher.”
“Mr. Tetsunosuke brought you from the village. He said that a woman had appeared at the clinic there, terribly weak and dehydrated, with you in her arms. No identification, not even a prepaid traveler’s money-card. There was no place to keep you in the village, so you were to stay here until she recovered. Everyone presumed she was your mother. You were terrified, babbling in Japanese and English. You said your name was Jun. Apparently, nothing else you said made any sense.
“The police tried to find out more about her. A bus tour had come through a few days before, but the passengers they found were all Caucasians, and there were no Asians or toddlers on the passenger manifest. Nobody on the regular commuter bus line could remember a sickly woman and her child. No one reported finding an abandoned vehicle anywhere. They sent to the nearest villages, hoping to find your family or your father.”
“Didn’t the woman tell you anything?”
“She had passed out when she arrived, and never recovered. You were in excellent health, which was odd, given her condition. Then the DNA results came back.”
“And?” She knew about DNA.
“If she was a relative, she was one by marriage. You have a family somewhere.”
“When you grow up, you can look for them. I didn’t mean to make you sad.”
“I’m all right. I think.” She had so hoped to know more about her parents.
“Well, perhaps we should pack up and head back. We can do this tomorrow, after the Christian service.”
Another picnic, and she saw the boy more clearly. This time, he squatted on top of the rock, eyeing them. He didn’t run away.
“He can’t have been out here long,” her teacher said. “He’s dirty, and he’s thin, but he doesn’t look that bad. You try talking to him.”
Jun had expected Moonesinghe to take over. “Why?”
“You’re smaller than I am. You won’t scare him.”
“Okay.” She smiled at the boy. “Hello. Do you understand me?”
He cocked his head.
He shifted, as if he might run.
“I want to be your friend. I live at the orphanage. The big building over there.” She pointed.
“Jun,” he said. He pointed at her. “You. Jun.” In the local language.
“That’s right. Who are you?”
He looked puzzled.
“Your name. My name is Jun.”
“Well, that’s okay. Are you hungry?” She held out a sandwich half. When he didn’t come down, she put it on a rock close by.
He waited until she had backed away before snatching it up. To her amazement, he crammed the whole thing into his tiny mouth without the least difficulty.
“Typical boy,” Moonesinghe said with a chuckle.
“Want another?” Jun offered another half.
He reminded her of a bird, the way he bobbed on his feet and looked around. “Yes.”
This time, he took it out of her hand.
“There’s more of that at the orphanage. And a bed, and a bath.”
“How about bed?”
“Soft.” He looked almost wistful.
“Come with us.” She smiled at him. “Please?”
She knew some toddlers liked that word. “We have more food there.”
“Let’s pack up,” Moonesinghe whispered. “Maybe he needs a prod.”
He stayed on the rock as they collected the leftovers, utensils, and cloth. Jun smiled at him several times, but didn’t try to approach. If he was afraid, he might run away.
Just as they walked away, she heard a light thump, then a patter of footsteps. She resisted the desire to look around. Let him follow.
They walked the trail back to the orphanage, followed by the boy. Just as they cleared the woods, a tiny hand grabbed hers. She looked down into the boy’s bright eyes. “Hello,” she said.
“You still need a bath.”
Moonesinghe smiled. “Yes, a typical boy.”
He clung to her hand as they entered the orphanage. They took him to Mr. Tetsunosuke, who also didn’t learn his name, or much else, then to the infant wing. The doctors examined him and found him remarkably healthy, if a bit underweight and dehydrated. He happily babbled, mixing nonsense with real words, looking at Jun as much as he looked at everything else, until the caretakers announced she had to leave.
“No!” Said very firmly.
“They have to take care of you.” Jun was willing to help. “Wash your hair and give you a clean shirt.”
“You do it.” He crossed his arms and legs and refused to budge.
“I suppose it can’t hurt, this once,” the team leader said. “Until he gets used to this place or they find his family.”
Every once in a while, Jun knew, a runaway would appear at the orphanage. The parents would show up not long afterwards.
The boy still didn’t want a bath, but she coaxed him into the tub. It seemed that more water touched her and the floor than him, but he was clean when they finished. Combing his hair was harder, with all the tangles, but that was also finished with no loss of life. Then they dressed him.
“Gotta pee,” he announced.
He hadn’t forgotten the existence of toilets. She guided him.
But, no matter how she approached the question, he didn’t know his name. Plenty of endearments and pet names, but no given name.
“I’m not surprised,” one of the caretakers said. “I didn’t know I had a real name until I was in kindergarten. My parents were always calling me ‘Sweetie’ or ‘Little Pumpkin.’ Those are the ones I’ll admit to.”
“He babbles a lot.”
It was? She had wondered if it was because he’d been outside for a while.
As she listened, she thought she caught some patterns. “How about I call you ‘Jinpei’?” she asked. “That can be your new name.”
“Jinpei.” He cocked his head in that birdlike way again. “Jinpei. Jinpei Jinpei Jinpei.”
“I think he likes it.” The caretaker wrote the name on the top of the file. “It might be close to his name, or he might just like how it sounds.”
Jun smiled. The rhythm of the name seemed to suit him.
“Let’s show him to his bed and get him as settled as possible.”
It didn’t take long for Jinpei to convince everyone that he belonged with Jun. He refused to cooperate with anyone unless she was present. Despite her efforts, he did not seem to understand that he couldn’t have her with him all the time.
Tetsunosuke called the police, trying to find Jinpei’s family. When detectives and a social worker came to question the boy, he hid behind Jun and could barely answer. She tried, but could not elicit more than they.
Afterwards, he started crying and would not (or could not) tell her what troubled him. If he had the words, she thought, he would eventually tell her.
She checked the news on-line, but the local news site was uninformative. People had left the village, and there were a number of fires and assaults reported. If anyone had lost a child, they hadn’t reported the fact to the news media.
While Jun was in classes, Jinpei sat in the hallway outside. Unlike most children his age, he was fairly quiet as long as he knew she was nearby. When he wanted to, he could sit still for hours, then burst into a whirlwind of toddler hyperactivity.
So it was after classes that he had his lessons. The staff was well aware that giving in to his peculiarities would only reinforce them, but they couldn’t confine him if he did not want to be confined. Jun taught him Japanese and English. He learned both languages fairly quickly and used them when speaking to her.
They also ended up in trouble. Jun liked challenging the (to her) sillier rules, although she often learned the reasons for them as a result. Broken bones and sprains marked her medical record. With Jinpei, she tried to be a role model, but if it wasn’t her defiant streak, it was her attempts to contain his greater mischiefs that caused some of their difficulties.
Despite the best efforts of police, nobody ever found Jinpei’s family. So many people had moved out, families and all, that narrowing down which one might have lost a child was impossible. None had left forwarding addresses, and several had children in the right age range. And, contrary to stereotypes about village life, they weren’t all well-known to the neighbors who remained. Nobody would swear to knowing Jinpei.
So, it seemed that Jinpei and Jun would live out their lives in the Mt. Jupiter orphanage.
Some eight and a half months after Jinpei was found, the board of Children of Humanity voted to close the Mount Jupiter orphanage. The number of unusual local events, coupled with the lack of money, had decided this action. The orphanage was too far from the village for help to arrive swiftly in case of trouble, and there were no suitable buildings available in the village.
Jun and Jinpei had become a pair. They were sent to the Shirayuki Orphanage in Japan, also near the mountains.
“Behave yourselves,” Moonesinghe advised Jun. “I don’t think they’re ready for the two of you.”
“I’ll miss this place. I never thought I would.”
“It was your home for almost four years.”
She looked at her suitcase. Four years, and her possessions could all fit in the small case. As much as she had wanted to get away, the orphanage was home. “I’ll miss you.”
“The people at Shirayuki have a good reputation. They even have a couple of martial arts instructors there, so you can continue your lessons.”
Although they weren’t biological siblings, Jun and Jinpei were allowed to stay together when they reached Shirayuki. It was obvious to the staff that the two were as good as related, and they thought it best for Jinpei that he not be separated from the girl he now considered his sister.
Three months later, the playground bullies learned not to pick on the pair. Nobody ever told the staff just who had hoisted Gedde Fukuda, lead bully, five feet into the air on the flagpole. Jun and Jinpei had managed it with no witnesses, and Fukuda was too impressed (and intimidated) to reveal how it happened. His status was already endangered without being a snitch.
After the initial settling-in at Shirayuki, Jun’s grades picked up. After classes, she tutored Jinpei in English and Japanese.
Plenty of people came to the orphanage to adopt children, but few wanted two at once. Jun and Jinpei refused to be separated, so numerous potential parents came and went.
As she continued in classes, Jun discovered that she wanted to know how things worked. A particular interest of hers was explosives, begun when she discovered that the chemicals that made firecrackers could also make bombs. She also wanted to learn about machines and other technology.
Three years passed. Jinpei moved from preschool to regular school. He made some friends among his age-mates, which pleased Jun and those who had worried that he might be too attached to her.
He challenged the rules, while Jun now understood the reasons for them. From the beginning, Jinpei had shown what people called ‘ninja-like’ skills in self-defense, evasion, and escape (he made especial use of the latter whenever he didn’t like the rules). The Okinawan martial arts instructor was impressed that a toddler had such skills, and took Jinpei as his youngest student (and Jun as part of the package). At Shirayuki, after Jinpei pulled off a particularly clever escape from detention, one teacher called him the last of the Iga ninjas. As he sorely felt the lack of a family, he seized on it.
As children get older, they become less adoptable. Potential parents want infants or very young children. There are no memories of parents, no comparisons to deal with. Older children in state care may have emotional or psychological problems, or they may have difficulty adjusting to a new family. When organizations try to keep siblings together, the pair are even less adoptable than each separately.
Jun and Jinpei were never adopted. When Jun turned seventeen (her age was an estimate, and her birthday was the day she arrived at Mount Jupiter), she left Shirayuki. Jinpei kicked up such a fuss that he was allowed to accompany her. After working several dead-end jobs to pay rent and take care of Jinpei, she got an entry-level job with an Amerisian security firm. Patrons in a restaurant had started a fight, and she had impressed a recruiter when she managed to break it up without making the situation worse.