“Everyone is an orphan, here,” said Martha. “It’s not like anyone ever comes for us. But if you’re Unadoptable, then you’re sent to the Mister’s study. And then we never see you again.”
Elsie stammered, “R-really? Never?”
“Never,” said Martha.
Rachel, still shaking the sleep from her head, looked back and forth between the two younger girls. “That’s ridiculous,” she said. “They can’t do that. We’re just boarding here. Mom and Dad are coming back in two weeks.”
“You said they weren’t, Rach, before,” offered Elsie.
Rachel shot her sister a glare. “I was joking. That’s not for real. Of course they’re coming back.”
Martha began slipping into her gray coveralls. She wiped some grease from the lens of her goggles and slid them over her hair. “Hey, then you’re fine,” she said, sounding indifferent to the sisters’ plight. “Just don’t rack up any demerits.”
Rachel’s temper was growing. Her face was turning the shade of a ripe, late summer tomato. Elsie had seen this happen before—a similar hue had risen to her sister’s cheeks in the wake of her mother sneaking into her room to throw away all her black lipstick; Elsie cradled Tina close to her chest, as if protecting her from the inevitable explosion.
“They … can’t … do … this,” said Rachel, enunciating every word, each one louder than the last, until she capped the phrase at the top of her lungs with: “We’r
e … Americans!” With that final declaration, she marched toward the front of the room. Her red woolens were a size too big, and she had to hike up the leggings as she walked. Positioning herself below the loudspeaker, she addressed the disembodied voice angrily.
“Hello?” she called. “I’m a, you know, temporary resident here. My sister and me. We don’t belong to the orphanage. And we’re not going to be working in any machine shop.”
“And for the record, I don’t think kids are being treated properly here. I don’t think it’s legal to make kids work in a factory. I’m pretty sure.”
“This is not fair. I’d like to get a phone call or something?”
A pair of girls could be heard whispering discreetly in the back of the dormitory.
“Okay, then,” Rachel said, stepping up her air of defiance. “How about this: I refuse to work at your stupid machine shop.” Then she stuck out her tongue and walked proudly back to her bed. Everyone in the room was watching her silently. Martha had frozen in place, her hands still on the goggles at her forehead. At a loss for what to say, Elsie pushed the button on Intrepid Tina’s back. “A GOOD DAY ALWAYS STARTS WITH A BALANCED BREAKFAST,” said the doll helpfully.
Before Rachel had reached her bed, the loudspeaker sputtered alive. She stopped abruptly at the noise. “BED TWENTY-THREE,” came the voice, and then: “ONE DEMERIT.” If a robotic voice could sound unfazed, it did so now.
Everyone gasped at the speaker’s denunciation. Rachel’s facial expression went from pride to shock back to anger in the span of a few seconds; Elsie witnessed them all. But before Rachel could turn and shout a damning retort, Elsie grabbed her by her arm.
“Please, Rach,” she pleaded, “don’t do anything! Just … be quiet!”
Rachel stared at her sister’s hand, her muscles twitching beneath the grip. Finally, like a dissipating cloud, the anger vanished from her face, and her eyes retreated again beneath her bangs. Elsie could feel the muscles in her arm relax; she let go her grasp and looked at her sister squarely.
“Just two weeks, remember?” asked Elsie. “Let’s just hold on.”
“Okay, Els,” Rachel said. “Okay.” She slumped down on her bed, defeated.
It was minutes before the aura of drama had dissipated from the dormitory; Elsie felt everyone’s eyes on her and her sister as they both obediently slipped into the gray coveralls. Miss Talbot was on hand to receive the clothes they’d worn on arrival, which they would be allowed to have back during adoptee visits—though there was no indication that these visits would actually occur. The Mehlbergs then fell in line with the rest of the girls and made the slow march down to the cafeteria, where a meal of soggy pancakes and watery orange juice awaited them. They were soon joined by the other dorm; a dour gang of gray-coverall-clad boys poured into the cafeteria and silently tucked into their breakfasts. Elsie and Rachel sat apart from the rest of the kids, across the laminate top of a long table, by no choice of their own: No one deigned to sit near them. Rachel picked at her food; she barely had two bites before she set down her fork resignedly. The spark Elsie’d seen in the dormitory was long vanquished; back was the Rachel she knew from before: maudlin and silent.
Once they’d finished and had deposited their metal trays in a dirty bus tub, a barked instruction from another loudspeaker in the cafeteria had the collected kids line up against one wall. From there, they marched single file out the door and down a wide staircase. Elsie could hear a hissing noise sounding in regular intervals, somewhere off in the distance. The stairway led to another long hallway, and the line of workers followed it, their syncopated boot-falls echoing along the walls, before finally arriving at a tall set of double doors. They must’ve been triggered automatically, because as soon as the first in line had arrived at the doors, they swung open with a hydraulic wheeze, revealing a sight that made Elsie’s stomach plummet.
It was a large room. A very large room. In fact, Elsie couldn’t remember seeing a building that could enclose such a large room when they’d first arrived at the orphanage. But it did exist, beyond doubt, and it was filled to the brim with what could only be described as contraptions. Small contraptions. Big contraptions. Copper and bronze contraptions. Wooden contraptions. Contraptions that spit steam from buglelike orifices. Contraptions that belched smoke and fire. Kettle-looking contraptions, with dials and gauges dotting their sides; square, boxy contraptions with tentacles of iron and copper piping sprouting from their sides. Spinning contraptions, static contraptions, contraptions that whistled, contraptions that farted. And all of them interlinked with a mesh of multicolored wire and electrical cable that gave the giant room the distinct aura of a dissected television set, like the one Elsie’s father had let Curtis dismantle in his bedroom, and which, once its myriad screws had been unscrewed, revealed an entire byzantine cosmos of unknowable circuits and wires. Oddly enough, the room smelled of raspberries. A long conveyor belt snaked around the room’s many machines, and it was along this belt that most of the kids assembled, wiping their hands in preparation for the day’s labor.
Joffrey Unthank stood in the center of the room, cast in the light of a few caged bulbs hanging from the vaulted ceiling. He held a mug in his hand and sipped at it absently as the kids took their places along the conveyor belt. When Elsie and Rachel arrived in the room, he approached them.
“I understand you’re the new ones?” he asked. “The Mehlbergs?”
Before Elsie could respond, Rachel stepped forward protectively. “Yeah,” she said. “You’re the owner, huh?”
He sipped at his mug before answering, “Joffrey Unthank. Mr. Unthank to you. Owner and chief operator.”