Sliding out from behind the desk, she gestured for the family to follow her into the hall. A long corridor stretched out before them; plaster stucco walls painted the same pale green-gray as the office. The paint flaked away in great chips near the ceiling. Several doors presented themselves on either side of the hallway. A young boy, Elsie’s age, stood mopping the checkerboard tile of the floor. He stopped to look up at them and smiled shyly.
“This is central hallway, this is door to cafeteria, and this one to common room.” She shoved each of the doors open following their description, though they swung closed too quickly to give the Mehlbergs more than a few seconds’ glimpse into the rooms they hid. “This is closet. This is to game room, this is bathroom, this is Edward.” The boy with the mop smiled again and waved. “And this is stairway to dormitories.” Here she paused and slouched against the open door, waving the family forward. She studied the Mehlbergs as they walked through the doorway and began ascending the stairs.
“Miss Mudrak,” spoke up David as they climbed, “what’s this about industrial machine parts? I saw it on the sign outside.”
“Side business,” said Desdemona.
David waited for a further description, but none came.
They arrived at the top of two flights of stairs, and Desdemona pushed open a pair of doors to reveal a gymnasium-sized room filled with cotlike beds, neatly arranged in four long rows. The beds were empty of sleepers; each was neatly made, their woolen blankets pulled taut across thin mattresses. A potbelly stove at the rear of the room provided what little heat there was. “This is where you will sleep,” said the family’s tour guide. A series of tall, dirty windows let the afternoon’s gray light into the chamber.
“Where are the other children?” asked Lydia. A concerned grimace had been developing on her face.
Desdemona smiled as she ran her finger along the edge of one of the cots. “They are out.” She turned to David. “Now, all I need is deposit and we will say good-bye.”
Rachel, breaking her silence, turned to her parents. “Please don’t do this,” she said. Elsie hadn’t seen her sister act so vulnerable before. What’s more, she’d pushed the twin veils of her hair aside and was looking them directly in the eye.
“Two weeks, darling,” consoled David, though his face betrayed his worry. “That’s all. And we’ll be back for you.”
Elsie felt the urge to step in. She knew there was nothing they could do; her parents had a flight to catch that afternoon. She turned to her sister and smiled. “Two weeks, Rach. That’s nothing, right?” In a moment of inspiration, she pushed on Intrepid Tina’s voice-box button, hoping for a pertinent slogan. “DON’T FORGET YOUR BINOCULARS! YOU NEVER KNOW WHEN YOU’RE GONNA SEE WILDLIFE!” Doesn’t quite cut it, Elsie thought. She did, however, notice that the look of concern had left her sister’s face;
Rachel was instead glaring at Elsie with an annoyed frown. That, at least, was a small improvement.
“What is this things?” asked Desdemona, looking down her nose at the doll in Elsie’s hand. It was like she’d seen a dead mouse. “Is it always talking?”
Elsie pulled Tina to her chest protectively.
“That’s Intrepid Tina,” explained Lydia. “You know, from the TV show?” When the reference didn’t seem to register, she continued, “Elsie’s really attached to her—she’s been a sort of comfort blanket for her since she was five.”
An unmistakable look of scorn was drifting across Miss Mudrak’s face. “It is not good when one child has thing other childs will desire. We do not advise childs to come with toys from home.”
Elsie felt her father’s hand massaging her shoulder; a feeling of terror was creeping up her spine. Would they try to take Tina from her?
“Miss Mudrak,” asked David, “can we make an exception, just this once? They’ll be here for such a short amount of time; I can’t imagine it’ll be a problem.”
Silence. Desdemona ruminated. “Very well,” she said at last. Elsie let out a breath of relief. “Just this time.”
A wave of Desdemona’s lithe arm ushered the family from the dormitory and back down the stairs to the corridor on the ground floor. The boy, Edward, was still mopping. He didn’t seem to be making much progress. As the group passed him on the way to the front door, Elsie heard him clear his throat. She paused and turned to see that he was holding a small, folded-up piece of paper in his hand. “Excuse me,” he said to Elsie. “I think you dropped this.”
Elsie looked to see if anyone else had heard him; her mother and father were lost in conversation with Miss Mudrak, parsing out the finer details of the payment due. Rachel was staring at her Converses. Elsie turned back to the boy. “Me?” she asked.
The boy nodded.
Strange; she didn’t remember carrying it in. At a loss, she reached out shyly and pulled the paper from the boy’s fingers, just as she heard her mother call, “Elsie! What are you doing?”
Elsie smiled a confused thank-you to the boy before stuffing the paper into the pocket of her skirt. She skipped back to stand at the ruffled hem of her mother’s dress, listening to Miss Mudrak say, “And I will leave you to say your good-byes.”
David knelt down and took his two daughters in his arms, clutching them tightly to his shoulders. His voice was quiet, choked. “My girls,” he said. “My girls. We’re going to find your brother. We’re going to find him, so help me God. And we’re going to bring him back so we can be a family again. A whole family.”
Rachel began to cry. Elsie stood with her face plastered into the fabric of her father’s corduroy sports coat, smelling his musky aftershave and wondering why she wasn’t crying too. She felt her mother’s hands on her shoulders. Lydia Mehlberg didn’t speak, but Elsie could feel her begin to sob; the convulsions sent little spasms down her arms.
“Be good, girls,” was all she managed to say.
Then, David and Lydia began to extricate themselves from their daughters’ arms and make their way back to the car. Rachel was the hardest to leave; she tore desperately at her father’s clothes, trying to hold on. And then they were gone, the family’s black sedan crunching down the gravel drive back into the dark, snowy corridors of the Industrial Wastes. Elsie and Rachel stood on the landing by the building’s front doors, watching them go. Their breath made little plumes of mist in the air above their heads. Remembering, Elsie reached into her pocket and pulled out the piece of paper the boy had given her. Slowly, she unfolded it and read the words that were scrawled on the yellowed surface:
The Corporal’s Story