Unthank nodded, attempting empathy. Then, to the loudspeaker: “Carl Rehnquist.”
There was a moment of absolute silence, broken only by the sound of the machines slowly rebooting.
“Two demerits, this boy has,” came the answer from the loudspeaker.
Carl began to sob unabatedly. Unthank frowned. “It would seem, Carl, that you’ve managed to rack up a third demerit. You know what that means?”
The boy tried to respond between fits of crying. “Mm-hmm,” he finally managed.
“What does it mean? Help me here, Carl.”
“Unadoptable,” said Carl quietly.
“Why don’t you say it so the rest of the room can hear you.”
“Unadoptable,” said Carl, a little louder.
“Right,” said Unthank as he surveyed the room. “Listen up, kiddos. You break my machines, you pay with your freedom. Is that clear?”
The room murmured understanding.
“Now, if you wouldn’t mind, Carl,” said Unthank, putting his hand on the boy’s shoulder and leading him away from the factory floor, “I’d appreciate it if you went upstairs and got cleaned up. Miss Mudrak will then escort you to my office. Yes?”
Unthank turned to the rest of the children in the room. “Back to work, kids,” he said. “And let this be a lesson to you all.” And that was how Carl Rehnquist, machinist, orphan, Intrepid Tina fan, was led out of the machine shop and out of the lives of his fellow internees at the Unthank Home for Wayward Youth.
That night, Rachel steamed over the incident. She sat in her bed, her knees pulled tight against her chest, and glared into the half-light. The other girls were chatting with one another, enjoying what little free time they had after the long work day.
“I can’t believe it,” she said. “He’s just gone? Like that? I mean, what did they do to him?”
Elsie shrugged. She was combing Intrepid Tina’s hair; it had become somewhat of a pre-bedtime routine for her. She found it calmed her when she was most anxious, and that seemed to be just about every day. Her nerves felt particularly jangled this evening, and that was why she was combing Tina’s hair in an almost frenetic, distracted way. The Mehlberg sisters were nearly a week into their internment at the factory and Elsie wasn’t in the mood to ask too many questions.
“I mean, don’t you wonder?” asked Rachel.
“Yeah, I s’pose so.” She paused in her combing and looked at her sister. “Don’t you think they just let him go somewhere else? Like, he’d just go to another orphanage or foster home or something? Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.”
“Maybe, though I don’t know,” chimed in Martha from the other side of Elsie’s bed. She was lying on her mattress with her arms behind her head. “They all get taken to Mr. Unthank’s office. And then—who knows? But I never saw any Unadoptable be, like, escorted from the building or anything.”
“That’s the thing, huh, Goggles,” said Rachel, spinning sideways on her bed and dropping her feet to the floor. She looked at Elsie and Martha conspiratorially. “They don’t come back out. And you know why, I think?” Here she slid her finger across her throat. “Chop ’em up into little bits. Feed ’em to the stray cats in the neighborhood.”
Martha made a face. Elsie blanched. Really? she mouthed to her sister.
“Your sister’s weird,” said Martha.
“You guys are kidding yourselves if you don’t think that’s what happens,” said Rachel. “You think there’s, like, a magic chute in Mr. Unthank’s office and he just throws them down it and—poof!—they’re back in the outside world?”
“Well,” said Elsie, “whatever happens, we’ve only got another week here, huh, Rachel? So we should just try not to get any demerits.”
Rachel swiveled back on to her bed. “I’ve already got one. It’s like I’m marked. I could end up like that kid Carl at any moment.” She shivered visibly, her voice having grown low and serious.
“C’mon, Rach,” said Elsie, “cheer up. We really don’t have much time left.”
“Yeah,” said Martha. “Count yourself lucky.”
The three girls fell silent. Finally, Rachel said, “I’m going in there.”
“What?” said Elsie and Martha in unison.