It’s said that once we’re adults, we don’t remember much of our life before the age of ten. The scientific term for this is childhood amnesia.
Some people talk about not remembering certain events in their childhood. They might look at old photo albums of their early years, and get this sad look on their faces. Often they don’t remember certain family gatherings or birthdays.
I’m not one of these people. I pray that many of these early memories stay hidden. You might ask why. It’s because I grew up an orphan. I never got to meet my biological parents. Instead, I was pushed around from family to family and orphanage to orphanage.
The foster system can work great if you’re lucky. I wasn’t. More than once have I been abused by people who’d promised to take care of me. Needless to say, I grew up to be quite the bad child, a troublemaker, really.
That’s why I ended up at Madame Rose’s orphanage.
It was a foster home for bad kids like me. It was a special place, quite popular in the area I was from. An orphan couldn’t find a foster home or had terrible behavior? He’d end up at Madame Rose’s eventually, to iron out all the wrinkles.
Madame Rose was a tall, haggard and stern old lady. I’d guess she was in her late fifties or early sixties when I moved into her orphanage. She valued nothing more than discipline and obedience.
I hated her guts ever since I first met her. When she stepped in front of me, her eyes were hard. She looked down at me with an expressionless face. The only thing she said was: “So, another one, hm?”
Without another word she led me inside and showed me the place that should be my home for the next years.
The orphanage itself was a testament of times long gone. It was an Old Prussian mansion, most likely dating back to the time when Prussia was still governed by kings. The place was huge from the outside and absolutely gigantic inside.
It was clear that the place had been remodeled countless times. All these changes had transformed it into a sprawling mess of hallways. There were endless corridors and hundreds of rooms in this three-storied monstrosity.
I found out that Madame Rose’s orphanage was actually just one wing of the building. It consisted of the dormitories, the common room, the kitchen, and a few other, smaller rooms. In her stern voice, she made it clear to me that my life would be restricted to this part of the building alone. The rest, she said, was off-limits for us kids.
Well, I was a kid, and like all kids, I loved to explore and sneak around. The more something was forbidden, the more attractive and compelling it became to me.
I spent most of my days studying or listening to Madame Rose’s countless lectures on how to be a good kid.
The few unattended hours of free time I had were spent exploring the maze of hallways and rooms. Hidden and secret passages were everywhere. I found my way into the crawl spaces, explored the attic and even the musky basement. At other times, I saw rooms that no one seemed to have entered in years or maybe even decades. They were old, dusty rooms, filled with nothing but old memories.
One such room I stumbled upon was the Room of Change.
My best and only friend at the orphanage was a boy named Tiny Joe. He got this nickname because he was a scrawny little boy, shy, frail and much too small for his age. I never found out what was wrong with him, but looking back, he must’ve suffered from some sort of hereditary disease. While his body was weak, his mind was always active. During my first days of the orphanage, the two of us would talk endlessly. He told me how much he loved animals, farms, fields and most of all tractors. He’d give anything to be a farmer one day and drive his own tractor.
We soon bounded and became brothers in crime. Whenever his health allowed it, we’d sneak out to explore the labyrinthine maze of hallways.
Of course, we weren’t the only kids who did this. It was just that I didn’t get along with most of the other kids.
I was a troublemaker, but I was far from the worst kid at Madame Rose’s, not by a long shot. There was Tony, a boy who suffered from anger problems and who’d beaten more than one foster sibling to a pulp. Stefan, a creepy tall boy, had a knack for animal cruelty.
None of them were as bad as Michael though.
He was one of the older kids. I’d guess he was about twelve when I moved into the place.
Michael was not just another bad kid. No, he was cruel, and what made it even worse, he was smart. There were also those two big guys, Rick and Jerry, who were always by his side. They were as dumb as a rock, but they looked up to Michael as a sort of role model.
The worst thing about Michael was that he always preyed on Tiny Joe. Of course, other kids made fun of him for being tiny and looking a bit strange, but Michael wasn’t satisfied by words alone.
He really struck gold, when I, new in the orphanage, stepped in. From that day on, he’d found himself a new victim, especially one he could beat up. With Joe he had to be careful, a flick against the ear here, a tiny push against a wardrobe there, but he couldn’t do much more. With me, he didn’t have to watch out.
He once even said it to my face, while Rick and Jerry held me up in front of him.
As I said before, Tiny Joe and I explored the rest of the mansion quite a bit. Curiosity was one reason, sure, but sneaking out also meant that we’d be away from Michael for a while.
Week after week, we’d sneak through empty hallways. Nothing was interesting about most of the rooms we found. One day though, by sheer accident, we found something else. It was a playroom filled with all sorts of toys and stuffed animals. The walls were of a bright green color and prop trees made it seem like we’d stepped into a magical forest. There was a low light from above without any discernible source.
I was utterly overwhelmed by it, and I saw how Tiny Joe’s eyes grew wide. His mouth stood open, and he let out a squeak of sheer surprise before he rushed inside. I followed him right away.
The room was amazing, out of this world. It was as colorful and lively as the rest of the mansion was bleak and dull. Everything inside was fitting the forest theme, even the stuffed animals. There was rabbits, foxes, raccoons, squirrels, and many others. I also saw a tent in one corner and a small hut in another.
As the two of us played there we could both see the bright lettering on the wall:
“The Room of Change”
It was written in glowing, magical letters. On another wall to our right was a rule board. There were only two rules on it.
1. Don’t talk about the Room of Change
2. Don’t take anything from the Room of Change
As we played, we were utterly oblivious to the time that passed. It was the loud, reverberating bell of the mansion that announced that it was dinner time.
We both looked at each other with shock on our faces before we rushed back through the mansion. Please, I prayed, don’t let Madame Rose be there, please. I recited this over and over again, but as I stormed into the common room, I almost crashed into her. She stood there, looking at us in pure outrage, tapping her foot. She gave us a stern lecture in front of everyone else. I could see how some of the other kids smiled and grinned at our misfortune.
“We were just playing in-” Tiny Joe started, but I was able to cover his mouth before he said anything.
“You were playing where, Joe?” she asked the little boy before she turned and glared at me.
“And you Mister Reinhardt, take that hand away,” she spat at me, “I want to hear what Joe has to say.”
I lowered my hand and stared at my feet to avoid her probing gaze. Please remember the rules Tiny Joe, I thought, don’t talk about the room.
“In the hallway,” the tiny boy answered Madame Rose in a low voice.
The old lady watched us, but after a few seconds had passed, she nodded and sent us to the dormitory without dinner.
It was almost a week before we were able to sneak out again.
During that time Michael’s antics got even worse. It got so bad that I snapped at one point. Of course Madame Rose was in the room next door when it happened. Michael played the victim, and with Rick and Jerry backing him up, he got away, and I was the one who got in trouble.
During these first months at the orphanage, I hated them all: the mansion, the other kids, the endless lectures and especially Madam Rose herself, who always seemed to single me out.
The only things I liked were Tiny Joe and the Room of Change.
When Joe and I made it to the room a second time, we first thought it was a different room. The walls were bright blue with waves painted on them. Even the floor of the room was a bright blue except for a few carpet islands. There were all sorts of stuffed ocean animals, toy boats and also a huge palm tree. The only thing that told us it was the same room were the glowing magical letters on the wall.
This time we didn’t dare stay as long as before. There was no way we’d risk being late again this time, especially since I couldn’t risk getting in trouble with Madame Rose yet again.
We always kept to the rules. We said nothing about the room and neither of us took anything. We didn’t dare break them. What if the room would vanish or the door would stay closed to us forever.
The room was a magical place. Each time we went there, it was different. Neither Tiny Joe nor I had any idea how something like this was even possible.
It was by sheer accident that the two of us learned that we weren’t the only ones who knew about the room’s existence. One day we entered the room and found someone else inside. It was Rudolph and Martin, two boys about my age. They’d recently become frequent targets of Michael’s as well. At first, we all were surprised to find each other there.
I confronted them right away. It was my and Tiny Joe’s room I said, but the two of them replied that they’d found it a long time ago when hiding from Michael.
In the end, the four of us agreed on a truce. No fighting or anything like that in the room. To my surprise though, we all got along great. We even ended up playing together, and when it was time to go back, we all did so as new friends. As we made our way through the long-winded hallways, we all exchanged whispers. Each one had his own ideas what the Room of Change would be like the next time we went there.
The moment we returned our little group was noticed. Michael had his goons on the lookout for us at all times. I could imagine how furious he was to find out that his punching bags had vanished yet again.
In the next weeks, things started to get a bit better. For the first time, I didn’t hang out with only Tiny Joe, but also with Martin. I even warmed up to Rudolph.
I should find out how wrong I was about him soon enough.
A couple of weeks later Martin wasn’t allowed to play with us. He hadn’t paid attention during the lectures, so Madame Rose forbid him from playing with the rest of us. So that day it was only Tiny Joe, Rudolph and me who set out to find the room once again.
When we arrived, the room had magically transformed into a giant farm. One wall resembled a barn, prop trees rested against another and stuffed farm animals littered the floor. There was even a plastic paddle tractor standing in the room’s center.
The moment Tiny Joe saw the tractor he ignored everything else and raced towards it as fast as his little legs allowed him to. I hadn’t even set foot in the room when I saw him in the tractor’s seat already. He was whooping with joy as he hit the pedals and started driving in a small circle. There wasn’t much room to drive it, but Tiny Joe didn’t seem to mind that at all.
For a moment I watched him before I went to the barn to see if there was any way to enter it.
It was right at this moment that the door sprang open behind us. My eyes grew wide when I saw Michael barge into the room, followed by Rick and Jerry.
“So that’s where you’ve been hiding all that time!” Michael yelled at Tiny Joe and me. “Almost forgot about this stupid place,” he added kicking a small stuffed animal aside.
Rick and Jerry followed him, both grinning and started to make a ruckus right away. They both went straight for the prop apple trees and started breaking them apart.
“Thanks, Rudolph,” Michael said laughing. As I looked to Rudolph, I saw him shuffle around, looking down at his feet.
The bastard, he’d betrayed us!
I stormed forward to punch him, but suddenly Rick jumped in front of me and pushed me to the ground.
Behind him, Jerry picked up some of the stuffed animals. He started tearing them apart while guffawing like an idiot.
“No! Don’t!” I screamed at him, but when I tried to get up, Rick pushed me down again.
From where I was I saw how Michael’s face distorted into a cruel smile. He’d only watched the destruction so far, but now he walked over to Tiny Joe. The tiny boy was still sitting in the tractor, frozen in fear.
“Now what do we have here…” Michael started.
“You know Joe, working a farm can be quite dangerous.”
Tiny Joe nodded, but I could see that he fought hard to hold back his tears.
“I know, Michael,” he said in a low, scared voice.
“Well, then you should know how easy tractors can get into accidents!”
With that, he stepped behind the tractor and pushed it forward with full force. Tiny Joe screamed up in terror and surprise as the tractor hurtled forward and crashed against the wall. The tractor tipped over, and Tiny Joe landed on the floor crying.
“Oh no, what happened, Joe?” Didn’t I tell you to be careful?” Michael said in his most sarcastic voice.
“You know what Joe, I think it’s best if we get rid of this thing!”
With that, he picked up the tractor and threw it to the ground over and over again in front of Joe’s eyes. The little boy was completely out of it. He jumped forward and tried to stop Michael from destroying the tractor. The older boy only laughed, almost giggled at Tiny Joe’s attempts. Again and again, he pushed him to the ground and in the end kicked him away. Soon the tractor shattered.
All the while I couldn’t do a thing. Rick was bigger and stronger than me and had no problem at all to pin me to the ground. Tears of anger streamed down my face as I watched the scene in front of me.
Finally, Michael turned to Rick and Jerry.
“Throw them out!” he yelled at them. Then he focused on Joe and me, “that was the last time you ever came here!”
With that Rick and Jerry pushed first me and then Tiny Joe out of the room. The little boy stumbled a few steps before his legs couldn’t carry him anymore and he fell to the ground. He was still crying.
“It’s so, so, so unfair! Why do they have to do this! Why did they have to destroy everything?”
He was out of it, crying hard, breathing heavily and I could almost hear his heartbeat.
I helped him and led him away from the room and the sounds of the still ongoing destruction behind the door.
The moment we got back to the common, Tony looked up and started to grin when he saw that Tiny Joe was crying.
“What’s wrong crybaby? You sad you’re so tiny?”
At that moment I lost it completely. All the pent-up anger was released as I jumped Tony and started to beat down on him with my fists. I screamed so loud that Madame Rose heard it from the classroom. She came over and dragged me off Tony in an instant.
“What is going on here?” she demanded to know.
Before I could even say anything, she let go of Tony and me and went over to Tiny Joe. He was laying on the floor, not moving.
Madame Rose’s face was serious in an instant. She picked up the tiny boy, trying desperately to find out what was wrong with him. Finally, she carried him over to the infirmary.
“What’s wrong with him, Madame Rose?” I asked trying to follow her.
“Stay were you are, Max! And if you don’t behave this time, I dare, I dare you,” she broke up. When she looked at me, I saw that her lips were quivering and I could have sworn I saw the hint of tears in her eyes. Without another word, she closed the door behind herself.
It was only minutes later that we heard a car arrive outside. Doctor Schmidt entered the room just moments later. Without saying a word, he went straight to the infirmary to take care of Tiny Joe. I’d never been so worried in my entire life.
For the next half hour, everyone in the common room was silent. No one even dared to move.
“Who died?” I heard Michael say as he entered the common room, Rick and Jerry in tow as always.
No one said a thing.
I’d have run over to him, if not for Madame Rose who returned to the common room in that instant. She looked different, tired, anxious and most of all, old.
Her eyes wandered over the room before they came to rest in Michael who was still smiling.
Tiny Joe mentioned his name and told her what Michael had done. When she turned to me, I too, explained to her that Tiny Joe and I’d been playing together. Then Michael and his friends came to beat us up.
Michael tried to wiggle his way out of course, but while he was smart, he was still just a kid. Madame Rose wasn’t stupid either. She’d noticed that Michael had been teasing Tiny Joe, but so far she’d thought it was mostly harmless.
After this whole ordeal, Michael was put into the solitary room for almost two weeks. Sure, he studied with us and got his meal with us in the common room, but he wasn’t allowed to interact with anyone.
He was supposed to learn from his mistakes and even got special lectures and talks by Madame Rose. Many times I could hear her yell at him from behind the door to the classroom.
Tiny Joe was transferred to the hospital after a day or two. He’d over-exhausted himself, and something inside his already broken body had ruptured. After another week though, Madame Rose informed us that Joe was doing much better by now. He’d not return to the orphanage though. While at the hospital one of the nurses had accepted him as a foster child and he’d be staying with her from now on.
I was a kid, so of course, I was sad that I’d lost a friend. For a long while I cried in the corner of the common room. Once I’d calmed down though, I was happy that he’d found a home and that he’d not be stuck in this place anymore.
When Michael was released from the solitary room, he had changed. I’d been terribly afraid as the day approached, but he was quiet and stayed mostly by himself. He talked to Rick and Jerry a few times, but avoided everyone else and, he seemed to be scared.
Things changed from then on. I stayed friends with Martin, and even befriended some of the other boys. It seemed that ever since Michael’s constant rule of terror had come to an end, we all started to get along better.
How dumb of a kid I was to think that things would change so easily.
Ever since Tiny Joe was gone, I’d not entered the Room of Change. It felt wrong to go there without him, and I wasn’t even sure if the room was still there. After all, we had talked about it, and Michael and the rest had made a ruckus inside.
In time though I couldn’t fight my curiosity anymore. I snuck out of the common room one day and made my way through the hallways of the mansion. It felt strange to do this on my own. At times I turned around to see how far behind Tiny Joe was before I remembered he wasn’t with me this time.
I felt a mixture of joy and fear when I found the sturdy wooden door. It was still there! I put my hand on the handle, but somehow I was too scared to open the door. What if the room was gone? What if all that awaited me behind was another empty, dusty room?
I didn’t get to think about it for much longer, because I soon heard footsteps behind me. When I turned around, I saw Michael, Rick, and Jerry.
“What a strange coincidence to find you here,” Michael said.
“What do you want?” I asked annoyed.
“It’s because of you that I got into trouble,” he said in a low, angry voice.
“What do you mean? You were the one who pushed and beat up Tiny Joe!”
Right at this time Rick and Jerry came forward and grabbed me. There was no way I could resist them.
Then Michael opened the door to the Room of Change.
This time the room was held in a darker, almost nightly theme. The walls were covered in stars, moons and other planets. The rest of the room was more mysterious as well. The only stuffed toys were suns and stars.
Rick and Jerry dragged me inside. Michael followed after us and closed the door behind himself.
In his eyes, I could see how angry he was. He hadn’t changed at all, no if anything, he’d gotten worse. He’d been fuming all that time and must have plotted his revenge ever since he got out of the solitary room.
“Hold him down!”
I saw something flash in the low light of the room. Michael was holding one of the knives from lunch in his hand. My eyes grew wide with fear.
“What are you-” but I broke up as he held the knife right in front of my face.
“What do you think I am going to do? I am going to cut you up,” he answered with an evil grin.
“Lift his shirt,” he commanded Rick and Jerry. The two of them did nothing. I saw how they both looked at each other anxiously, not sure what to do.
“Didn’t you hear me? Lift it up!”
When he pointed the knife at them, they looked as scared as me. Without another moment of hesitation, they drew back my shirt to reveal my naked stomach.
Michael grinned and then pressed the knife against my skin. He dragged the knife across my stomach one centimeter at a time. His eyes were glowing with an insane sort of satisfaction as he did it.
At first, there was a tingling sensation, but then I started to feel a stinging pain. I screamed up and tried to get away, but Rick and Jerry held on to me. Michael took the knife away, and I could see a tiny red line on my stomach.
As I saw it, I started to freak out. I twisted and struggled against my captors grasp, but there was no hope.
“Oh, that’s just the beginning…”
“Michael, we really shouldn’t-” Jerry started.
“Shut up fatass! I tell you when to-“
He broke up as all four of us heard a noise erupt from the room around us. Then, the light of the room became a tad bit dimmer.
“WHO DARES TO DEFILE THE ROOM OF CHANGE!” a voice thundered from behind us.
Then everything happened at once. Rick and Jerry both screamed up in surprise and released me. I came to my tumbling feet and was about to rush to the door when Michael grabbed my arm.
I turned around to get free and froze. I saw a big, towering figure, shrouded entirely in darkness behind Michael. All I could see was an emotionless white mask. Before he could even yell or lift the knife again, the figure grabbed onto him.
In surprise, he let go of me as he was dragged backward. The knife fell from his hand and clattered to the ground. The figure pulled him to the back wall. It opened up and before I could say anything the figure, as well as a screaming Michael, had vanished behind it.
It was at this moment that I ran from the room, pushing Rick and Jerry aside. Once outside I didn’t understand what had happened. Had the room punished Michael?
It was only seconds later that the door opened again. Rick and Jerry stormed out, both screaming and crying, their faces white as sheets. For a short moment, my eyes met the mask of the dark figure before the door to the room closed.
As imposing as the figure had been, in that last moment I saw it, it hadn’t seemed scary or evil. No, I felt as if it was the embodiment of the Room of Change itself who’d rescued me.
That night I slept better than ever before. When I got up the next day, everything was back to normal, except for one thing: Michael wasn’t around.
The moment Rick and Jerry saw me, they both hurried away.
It was later that day that Madame Rose told us that Michael wouldn’t be staying with us anymore. He’d left for a different orphanage that morning.
Many of the kids in the room started to smile, and some even laughed up in happiness at the thought of being rid of him. Madame Rose’s stern, angry glare shut them up in an instant.
I was about to say something, but in the end, I stayed quiet. I never mentioned what had happened the day before to anyone.
After Michael was gone, things changed, but not as much as I’d hoped. The orphanage never became a happy or lovely place. It didn’t matter how many friends I made with Madame Rose around. She was as strict and stern as always.
For the year and a half I spent at the place, I never developed an ounce of sympathy for the old lady.
As time passed on, things got better for me. My stay at the orphanage ended when I was adopted by a friendly couple who took care of me ever since. After all that had happened with Tiny Joe and Michael and especially due to the discipline Madame Rose had hammered into me, I had changed. I’d learned how to behave, and in time I grew to love my new foster parents.
It’s now been almost twenty years since I left the place. I am writing this all down because I recently learned what really became of Tiny Joe.
Madame Rose had told us he’d found a foster home, but she’d lied to us. The truth was in an old newspaper I read while doing research for a project at university. An article mentioned the unfortunate death of a tiny orphaned boy, only nine years old. He’d died at the local hospital due to complications. It was during the same year that we’d stayed at the orphanage together.
It was a week later that I paid his grave a visit. I’d brought some flowers, and for a while, I told him about my life.
I suddenly remembered the old orphanage and decided to visit it as well. Once there, I saw that the place had closed down. At the city hall, I was informed that it had been closed after Madame Rose’s death.
The old lady had no relatives, and so the property was transferred to city ownership. In the end, no one knew what to do with the old building. Even twenty years ago, it hadn’t been in great condition, and now it was almost a ruin.
It was during this talk with the city administration that I remembered the Room of Change.
It wasn’t hard to enter the old place. To my surprise, the front door wasn’t even locked.
Nothing remained of the place’s former glory. When I’d been living there, it had been a magnificent place. Now all I could see was dust, dirt and spider webs. The many winding hallways seemed odd and constricting to an adult.
The first thing I found was the old common room. There was none of the furniture left, but I was still flooded by nostalgia.
Then I went on my search for the Room of Change. I must have wandered through the hallways for hours before I stood in front of the door. As I opened it I was greeted by a room that now seemed almost small. It was as old and musky as all the others.
Now, as an adult, I recognized the backdrop on the walls. I smiled as I saw that it was a mountainous theme this time. The carpet on the floor was as white as snow, or at least that’s what it must have been years ago. A few prop stones were positioned against the walls. I found a single stuffed animal, a mountain bird, discarded in one of the corners. As I picked it up, I noticed something else on the wall behind the backdrop.
When I moved the fabric aside, I found a door that was almost perfectly fused with the wall.
The door led to a different room. When I moved my flashlight around, I was confused for a moment. Then I realized what this room was. It was a sort of backroom like in a theater. There were countless backdrops here, a variety of props and an innumerable amount of stuffed animals and toys.
As I paced the room, I noticed another door. When I opened it, I stepped into an old bedroom. A quick glance around told me that this must have been Madame Rose’s former quarters.
At this moment I understood the truth. The Room of Change was right behind Madame Rose’s quarters.
It hadn’t been a magical or supernatural place like we kids had thought. It was something the old lady had created for us.
She was a stern old teacher and caretaker. She taught us bad kids manners, discipline and how to behave. I guess it must have been necessary for her to keep up this facade, so we’d respect and even fear her. It was her own way of teaching us.
This room though proved, how dearly she must have loved us deep inside. She must have created this room, knowing that we kids would find it eventually.
It was a place where we could find the happiness we needed so desperately, and she couldn’t give us openly.
As I walked through the back room, looking at all the backdrop, I could only imagine how hard it must have been for this old lady to change the room herself. I could almost see her now. Long after we’d gone to bed, she was dragging the backdrops and everything else inside. All to change the room yet again into a different, unique nature.
I felt the tears coming to my eyes as I realized what she’d done.
Suddenly I remembered the dark figure I’d seen that day. The figure that had saved me and taken Michael away. Searching through the backroom proved my suspicions to be true. As I held the mask in my hands, it was clear that this figure had been none other than Madam Rose herself.