Another pause. “Oh. A shame. Well, get back on the chicken, Joffrey love.”
“Yes,” said Joffrey, turning and walking into the room with the bookshelves. “Back on the chicken.” The door closed behind him.
Elsie and Rachel froze as Desdemona turned toward them and began walking down the hall; they’d been so rapt listening to the two adults’ conversation that they’d neglected to plan their escape. If they made any sudden movement now, they’d undoubtedly be detected—and yet it seemed that Miss Mudrak was heading directly toward them. Elsie didn’t have a sense of what sort of punishment was handed down in the orphanage for eavesdropping, but she guessed it would be fairly severe. She could feel her sister tense behind her. “Rachel,” hissed Elsie, “what should we—”
The last word of this sentence was rendered unintelligible; a very loud bell suddenly sounded, and the hallway was full of its metallic clanging. Elsie and Rachel could see it; the bell was installed high on the wall in the middle of the hallway. Even Desdemona started at the noise. It rang for what seemed like an interminable amount of time, and Miss Mudrak stood looking at it with her hands planted on her hips, as if willing it to stop. While she was thus distracted, the sisters Mehlberg managed to make their escape, dashing up the staircase and back into the girls’ dormitory.
They barely had time to climb onto their beds and act inconspicuous (Elsie with her Intrepid Tina doll back atop the blanket mountain; Rachel with earbuds firmly in place) before a rhythmic tramping startled them: It was the sound of a multitude of feet pounding up the stairs. The dormitory doors flew open, and in walked a congregation of haggard young girls, their hair disheveled and their faces marred with black streaks of grease. They varied in age—some looked to be younger than Elsie, while the oldest were clearly teenaged—but they all had the carriage of weathered adults: Their shoulders sagged, and their brows hung over sallow faces. They all wore identical gray jumpsuits, which were similarly streaked with grease marks, and their hands were soot black. They paid no attention to the two new occupants in the dormitory, but rather marched straight to their respective beds and sat down heavily; they each carried little metal lunch boxes, which they slid underneath their bed frames. Several lay down, fully clothed, and appeared to fall immediately to sleep. Some sat with their heads in their hands. Others spoke in hushed tones to their neighbors. The footsteps in the hallway continued unabated; Elsie could see a long line of boys, dressed in the same kind of coveralls, file past the doors toward their upstairs dorm. Rachel and Elsie shared a look; it felt like the room had been invaded by ghosts.
The hiss had come from the bed next to Elsie’s; an Asian girl, Elsie’s age, was pushing a pair of plastic safety goggles from off her eyes to rest on her forehead, leaving a pale strip where the pitch-black grease hadn’t reached. Her hair was slightly matted from sweat and bunched beneath the elastic straps of the goggles. “What’s your name?” asked the girl.
“Elsie.” She instinctively offered a handshake. The girl smiled and shook her head, holding her hands up: There wasn’t an inch of clean skin on them. Elsie withdrew her hand.
“I’m Martha. Martha Song.” Her voice was tired, but assured. “Welcome to the factory.”
“You mean the orphanage?”
Martha laughed. “Oh, right. I forget they call it that, too.”
“Are you one of the orphans?” asked Elsie, puzzled.
“Orphan? Ha. Ain’t no adoptions happening here.”
“Really? But I thought—”
The loudspeaker above the doors barked into life: “BZZT CHVVVK XZZZT SILENCE IN THE DORMITORY.”
The girls complied; a hush fell over the room. After a short squall of feedback, the noise from the loudspeaker continued, but this time a new voice had taken over. It was Desdemona: “Attention to girls’ dormitory: We have today new members. Meet Rachel and Elsie Mehlverg. Beds twenty-three and twenty-four.” A loud click sounded, and the speaker fell silent.
Everyone’s eyes fell on Rachel and Elsie. Rachel scowled beneath her hair; she fiddled with her earbuds nervously.
The click came again. Another squeal of feedback. “Please give them best of Unthank Home welcome.” Click. Silence.
Elsie looked around her. The surrounding crowd of girls gave them both a feeble, exhausted wave.
The loudspeaker howled into life again. “It is brought to attention that quarter yield in shop must improve. As of tomorrow, we must reinstall extended hours.”
A collective groan greeted this announcement.
“And now some words from your host, Mr. Joffrey Unthank.”
The girls waited; the quiet extended into the room. Elsie felt a tug on her shirtsleeve. It was Martha. “Hey,” she whispered conspiratorially. “You should tell your sister to knock it off with the headphones during announcements. That’s an Unadoptable offense, for sure.”
Elsie looked at her, confused. A click came from the loudspeaker, threatening another burst of information. Before it began, Elsie managed to grab the headphones from Rachel’s ears. “We’re supposed to listen,” she hissed. Rachel glared but complied with her sister’s instruction.
The voice from the loudspeaker was now distinctly male. “Hello, boys and girls,” it said. “Residents of the Unthank Home, I understand you are looking forward to a moment of rest. And I understand how distressing it must sound to have your hours extended again. However: I ask you to remember all the good men and women—all those potential fathers and mothers—who are relying on your labor for all the machines of convenience on which their lives depend. Without you, dear children, there would be no washing machines, no alternator assemblies, no digital watches or electric fresh pasta makers. The very things that make our society work. The more convenience we allow into citizens’ lives, the more they are able to consider the idea of caring for children.”
A click. The voice paused; it seemed to Elsie that his line of reasoning required a good deal of careful thought.
“And the more these citizens consider the idea of caring for children, the likelier it is that you, boys and girls, will find a place in a comfortable, warm home with a caring family, a family surrounded by every amenity that modern life can afford. And now, before you’re given clearance for showers and supper, I’d like to ask that you put as much spirit into the Recitation as you can muster. The childless mothers and fathers of America are relying on you.”
The dormitory girls straightened their backs and spoke as they were prompted by the faceless voice, repeating each line back to the gray-green loudspeaker.
“MACHINE PARTS MAKE MACHINES.
MACHINES MAKE CONVENIENCE.