“Mm-hmm,” said Mr. Unthank. “Not much to report, really. Things are pretty much as they were last time. Mixed sales. Up and down. That’s what I like about machine parts. No big surprises. Steady as she goes, right?” He looked at his fellow industrialists, expecting nods of understanding. Everyone was staring at Mr. Wigman. Mr. Wigman, for his part, was beginning to develop a facial tic. A loud POP suddenly sounded, and everyone in the room jolted in their chairs. Mr. Wigman calmly opened his hand; the shredded remains of the squash ball fell to the floor.
“Mr. Unthank,” said Mr. Wigman very steadily, “I don’t pretend to know exactly what goes on in that machine shop of yours. And I don’t really care. Using orphans for labor? Good move. More power to you.”
Joffrey smiled and displayed his hands to his fellow industrialists. Small fingers, he mouthed as he wiggled his digits.
“But if I don’t start seeing growth …” Here Mr. Wigman’s voice became louder.
“Growth!” he repeated, even louder.
“GROWTH!” Wigman slammed his fist on the table. “And soon, I’m going to come on over to that little section of yours and I’m going to bring some of my buddies here”—nodding to the stevedores—“and I’m going to make some GROWTH HAPPEN, GOT ME?”
Joffrey was plastered to the weave of his chair. A little line of sweat appeared at his brow.
“Now, you do what you want in your free time. But it better not interfere with your contribution to the Quintet; e.g.: I don’t want to hear anything more about this Impassable Wilderness. Is that clear, Machine Parts?”
“I said, is that clear?”
“Yes, Mr. Wigman. Sir.”
“Good,” said Wigman, sitting back down in his chair. He clapped his hands at one of the stevedores, who dutifully threw him another blue squash ball. “Now, I’m going to spend some time with the other Quintet members who have some real numbers to show me. Come back when you’ve got some too.”
Joffrey felt his chair jerk backward; one of the maroon-beanied stevedores had yanked it out from the table. Submissively, he stood up and, nodding to those present, walked from the room. Entering the foyer, he placed the fedora back on his head and tried with all his might to avoid the view out of the room’s large windows. It wasn’t until the elevator doors were slowly closing in front of his ruddy face that he caught a glimpse of that wall of green, jus
t barely visible through the haze of the Wastes. And it made him heartsick.
Once their suitcases were unpacked and their belongings stowed in the little gray lockers that sat at the foot of each of the beds, there wasn’t much for Elsie and Rachel to do. Initially, Elsie was chagrined to watch Rachel wait for her to pick a bed in the giant dormitory room and then pick a bed for herself as far from Elsie’s as possible. This caused Elsie to sit on her bed with her knees to her chest and whimper quiet sobs until Rachel had grabbed her green duffel and marched back to the bed adjacent Elsie’s. Several hours passed; they barely spoke three words to each other. Occasionally, an ancient-looking loudspeaker above the dormitory’s door would squawk some unintelligible babble, and the two girls would start at the noise.
“What’s it saying?” Elsie asked her big sister.
“I don’t know,” replied Rachel.
After a time, Rachel lay back on her bed and, tucking the thin pillow behind her head, listened to her iPod through little white earbuds. Elsie knelt at her bedside and made a volcano-topped island out of the blue blanket for Intrepid Tina to explore; the tinny distant sound of crash cymbals, struck repeatedly, issued from Rachel’s headphones. This was their joint activity for nearly an hour until Elsie, bored, reached over and tugged on Rachel’s pant leg.
Rachel popped one headphone out. Music blared. “What’s up?”
“Where are all the kids?” asked Elsie.
“Dunno.” The headphone went back in.
Elsie tugged at her sister’s hem again. Rachel rolled her eyes and pulled the headphone out. “What?” she asked, clearly annoyed.
“I mean, isn’t it weird that we’re here all alone? I thought this was, you know, an orphanage.” Elsie looked around the dormitory. “Where are all the orphans?”
“Just us orphans,” said Rachel caustically.
Elsie stuck out a lip. “I’m not an orphan.”
“Whatever. You’re kidding yourself if you think Mom and Dad are coming back. They’re gone.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Curtis left, and after they were all sad at first, they were, like, hey: This is pretty cool, not having so many kids. So they ditched us. Easy as that.” She pressed the white bud back into her ear; she slapped her hands against her knees to the barely audible drumbeat.
Elsie glowered. Without thinking, she leapt up and grabbed the headphones from Rachel’s ears and yanked the silver iPod out of her hoodie pocket. It clattered to the floor, and Rachel yelled.
“Take that back,” howled Elsie.