“Hmmph?” answered Rachel, her face burrowed into her pillow.
“BED TWENTY-THREE! RISE IMMEDIATELY!”
Rachel’s hand snaked out from beneath her thin blanket and began feeling around the side of the bed, presumably for the nonexistent alarm clock. “Mom!” she mumbled. “Ten more minutes.” This elicited a chorus of giggles from the surrounding girls.
“MISS TALBOT?” squawked the loudspeaker.
The gray-haired woman who’d been manning the projector tottered over to bed twenty-three and, taking a deep breath, lifted the metal bed frame, spilling Rachel’s dormant body onto the hard wood of the floor. Rachel scrambled to her feet, trying to reorient herself to her bizarre reality. The girls around her had ceased their giggling and were looking at their feet.
“MORNING REPAST, OH SEVEN HUNDRED HOURS. THEN ALL WORK CREWS REPORT TO MACHINE SHOP.”
An army of compliant souls, the girls in the dormitory began slipping their grease-marked gray coveralls over their woolen long johns. Some spoke in hushed tones to their neighbors; others prepared for their day in silence. Rachel and Elsie watched in awe, unmoving, until Martha kicked at Elsie’s footie’d foot. “Get your work clothes on,” she hissed.
“What, these?” asked Elsie, pointing to the coveralls she’d been given the night before; they were still shrouded in their plastic wrapping.
Martha rolled her eyes. “Yes,” she said, before adding, “Do I have to hold your hand through all this?”
An older girl, sitting on the bed next to Martha’s, spoke up out of the side of her mouth as she carefully laced a pair of black steel-toe boots. “Bein’ awfully charitable with the newbs, eh, Martha?”
“I’m a gracious person,” said Martha snidely.
“Are we supposed to go to work, too?” Elsie asked.
The girl in the boots stifled a laugh.
Martha: “Yes, you’re supposed to work. We’re all supposed to work.”
Elsie cast her eyes around the room, perplexed. “But I’ve never really worked before. I mean, I help out with chores around the house and stuff. But I’ve never been to, like, a job.”
“Well, welcome to the working week,” said Martha.
Rachel, still half-asleep, was taking this all in wordlessly. “Hey, goggles,” she said finally.
Martha gave her a look.
“I don’t know who’s told you what, but we’re only here for a couple weeks. We’re not officially ‘orphans.’” Here, she made air quotes with her fingers. “So I don’t think we’re going to be doing any work, thanks very much. ’Specially not in a machine shop.”
“That’s what they all say.” This came from the girl next to Martha, who’d just finished stringing the last eye of her boot.
“That’s what who say?” asked Rachel.
“Newbs. Newbies. Newcomers. They’re all like: ‘I’m not going to work; my parents are coming for me any day.’ Or: ‘I might get adopted today! I’m not going to muck around in some machine shop.’ It’s all the same. You’ll break. Trust me, you’ll break.” The girl’s voice seemed to have been long hollowed out, like a dead log.
“Or what?” challenged Rachel. “What if I refuse? There’s, like, laws against this stuff.”
Martha chimed in, “You’ll get a demerit.”
Rachel laughed. “Oh no! A demerit?” She held the back of her hand to her forehead, feigning horror. “What’ll I do then?”
“What’s a demerit?” whispered Elsie.
Martha ignored the younger sister, focusing her increasing annoyance on Rachel. “Well, you chalk up enough of ’em, and you’re Unadoptable.”
“Una-what?” asked Rachel, her hand falling from her face.
“Unadoptable. You know, like you. And no adoption,” answered the girl.
“But what does that even mean? I’m not an orphan! I’m not even up for adoption!” Rachel had abandoned her snarky tone and was instead beginning to sound genuinely upset.