The small, dark-haired boy stood nervously, his back ramrod-straight against the drab, olive-colored wall of the city orphanage's main upstairs hallway. He was trying to appear brave, but as this was not the first time he had been in this situation and he knew exactly what was about to happen, he was having a hard time stopping the tears from falling.
"Tom Riddle," called a stern voice from within the office on the other side of the wall.
Taking a deep breath which sounded more like a ragged gasp for air, the seven-year-old boy walked on shaking legs through the white door which led into the office of the orphanage matron, Mrs. Hirsch.
Standing behind the desk was the woman he had come to fear above all others. She had blonde hair wound into a severe bun with not one wisp escaping its confines. She wore a plain dress of gray cotton, buttoned to the neck and sweeping the floor below her sensible black shoes. Mrs. Hirsch was not an unkind woman on the whole, but she had learned over her years of directing the orphanage that a stern hand was needed to keep her 329 charges in order. To the boy standing in front of her, however, she was nothing more or less than an executioner.
Forcing herself to ignore the pleading fear in his eyes, she asked firmly, "Why have you been sent to me, Mr. Riddle?" Of course, she knew the answer already, but she had found that she could be less harsh with children who were repentant and willing to admit to their crimes; therefore, she always asked the question in order to give them the opportunity to help themselves.
"I - I don't know," Tom stammered, looking at his feet, and he was telling the truth even though he knew the matron would not believe him; no one ever did.
"I'll get you good, freak!" the boy had sneered, raising his fists.
From Tom's vantage point through his crossed arms, Jackie Harrison had looked as big as a boulder, or even a mountain. His black hair hung in sweaty strands around his round, reddened and moist face; he'd had to chase the seven-year-old Tom all the way back from the school in town before finally cornering him in the recreation room of the orphanage.
"It's time you learned some manners," Jackie had continued, pulling his right fist back.
Even though his fear, which was pulsing through his body as tangibly as his blood, Tom had felt a surge of anger, even rage, as the bigger boy prepared to hit him. He wanted nothing more than for Jackie Harrison to get a taste of his own medicine. He closed his eyes in preparation for the blow and he hoped he wouldn't cry.
Tom hadn't opened his eyes until he heard the crash of Jackie's bulky body on the plaster wall some ten feet behind him. The large ten-year-old had slid to the ground silently, knocked unconscious when his head had hit the wall, which now bore a wide, diagonal crack.
He had not been able to restrain himself. A whoop of joy and relief had escaped his lips before he could stop himself, but before he had been able to go back to his room to replay the scene in his mind until supper time, he had felt the vise-like grip of Ellie, the upstairs maid, and he had been dragged forcibly to the hall outside of Mrs. Hirsch's office.
Shaking his head slightly to clear the memory, the child repeated, "I really don't know what happened, Mrs. Hirsch," in what he hoped was a sincere voice.
Mrs. Hirsch sighed. She had rather hoped for a different answer than usual from the boy standing in front of her. She had been forced to punish him more often than most of the others, and for crimes which were much worse than one would usually have expected from a child so young. Just two weeks before, he had been sent to her for causing a mysterious fire which had burned one of his roommates badly, and she had heard tell that it had been retribution because the other child had refused to give Tom their helping of pudding after dinner that evening. There was something not quite right about this child; she had never encountered one like him in all her years as the orphanage matron.
The only thing was, though the fact that the boy was at fault was unquestionable, no one could ever quite explain how he did the things he did. How, for example, could a child of seven have pushed a boy of ten into a wall with so much force? She sighed again, looking at the child standing in front of her desk, and hardened her heart. She knew what she had to do.
"Did you, or did you not, push Jack Harrington into the wall of the recreation room?" she asked sternly.
"I didn't," Tom stated flatly, looking up for the first time. "He was about to hit me; I was covering my head. He just flew across the room, and I don't know why." He was tired of being blamed for crimes that he hadn't committed, and the fact that he was most likely making things worse for himself never even entered his mind as he stared straight at the matron.
"Flew, did he?" Mrs. Hirsch asked angrily. Really, would nothing ever get through to this child? She shivered slightly as she looked into his eyes. For the first time in her memory, she saw something like defiance shining deep within them, and it was this, more than anything else, that steeled her resolve. "Ten-year-old boys do not fly," she declared, her voice hard. "Mr. Harrington would have been punished for striking you, Mr. Riddle, but since you saw fit to injure him in such a manner, it is you who will be receiving the consequences. Make yourself ready. I daresay you know what to do by now."
Tom's flash of defiance ended as quickly as it had begun as he prepared himself for the punishment he had received too many times in his young life. He was sobbing softly even before the first blow, and for several minutes there was not a sound in the room other than the swish of the cane and his cries as it found its mark.
* * *
After his punishment ended, Tom left the office and headed for his dormitory, in which he had been told to stay for the rest of the day. He was to have no supper. The children in the hallways jeered at him, his tearstained face and slow, painful gait evidence of what had just occurred. Almost every child there had been through a similar ordeal at one time or another, and no one felt any sympathy for anyone who had been disciplined by Mrs. Hirsch. It was simply a part of orphanage life.
His room, he was thankful to see, was empty, and Tom slowly closed the door behind him and threw himself face-forward onto his rickety metal bed, sobbing out the injustice of what had happened to him. Gradually, however, as he heard the sounds of the other orphans going downstairs for their dinners, his sobs subsided to be replaced by a cold, simmering anger.
He hated Mrs. Hirsch more than he had ever hated anyone besides his father, who had left his mother while he was still in her stomach, as the matron had told him whenever he asked about his family. In Tom's mind, it was his father's fault that his mother had died and that he was in this place.
Sometimes, late at night, Tom would close his eyes and try to remember his mother, even though he knew he had only seen her for a few brief moments after he had been born, the moments in which she had given him his name: Tom Marvolo Riddle.
He saw her as a tall, beautiful woman with dark hair, just like his. She would have been sweet and good, and she would never have let anyone hurt him...it had been during one of these imaginings that one of Tom's roommates, a scrawny boy called Louis, had come in.
"Why are you sitting there with your eyes closed?" Louis had demanded, laughing. "Trying to pretend you're not a little girl, or is that just so you won't have to see your reflection in the mirror?"
Tom had lain awake for hours after Louis had gone to bed, seething in anger, staring at the other boy's thin form wrapped in the moth-eaten cotton blanket issued by the orphanage. How dare Louis, who was just as much of an orphan as he was and who was much smaller and uglier, make fun of him?
It was well after midnight when the alarm had sounded, alerting the staff of the orphanage that there was a fire in the room shared by Tom Riddle and Louis Donaldson. Several of the staff members had rushed in to find Louis's bed aflame and the child screaming in pain as his pajamas caught fire, engulfing him in bright blue heat.
After Louis had been taken to the hospital, Tom had heard one of the governesses talking to Mrs. Hirsch, explaining that the fire had been much hotter than anything that could have been started by a match, but that "the other boy in the room, Tom Riddle, was just sitting on 'is bed, ma'am, cool as could be, watchin' it all 'appen."
He had stood before Mrs. Hirsch that night, too, not having even been allowed to change from his scrimpy pajamas into his more substantial day clothing, and then, too, she had not believed him when he told her he didn't know how Louis's bed had caught fire. She thought he had done it because Louis wouldn't give up his pudding, but he hadn't even asked Louis for his bloody pudding!
'They punish me for things that aren't even my fault,' he thought bitterly, brought back to the present by the acute pain on his backside and the backs of his legs. 'How could I have set Louis on fire, and how is it my fault that old Jack Harrington cracked his head on the wall?'
'They deserved it, though,' another side of him argued. 'It would never have happened if they hadn't been trying to hurt you.'
Tom's eyes opened wide at this thought, and he shifted uncomfortably on his bed.
Something had just occurred to him that had never occurred to him before.
'All these things happen when I'm mad,' he realized. 'Could they be happening because I'm mad?'
A teacher at school being struck dumb in the middle of telling him off...a shopkeeper sinking up to his ankles in his linoleum floor after he had refused to let Tom earn a couple pence shoveling his sidewalk...the cook finding his hands suddenly stuck together, rendering it impossible to ladle him another helping of the porridge he so hated...
'That's ridiculous,' he told himself sharply.
'But if it's true...'
His thoughts trailed into the possibilities before him and a slow grin began to spread across his face.
'I'm special,' he thought fiercely after several moments. There was simply no denying it.
No one will get the best of me ever again.
* * *
And for the next fifty-six years, no one ever did.