Under Wildwood (Wildwood Chronicles 2) - Page 41

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“Give it a shot.”

“Okay.” They continued down the empty staircase. In a short time, they arrived at the office door. Martha kept an eye on the long hallway while Rachel pulled the key from her coverall pocket and fit it into the keyhole. The door unlocked with a low click. Martha heard the sound and watched as Rachel slowly opened the door; it gave a wheezy creak. A dim glow shone from within and illuminated the checkerboard tile of the hallway with a long, thin column of light. Rachel looked inside the room and sucked in her breath.

“What?” asked Martha, craning her head over Rachel’s shoulder to try and see past the crack in the doorway.

“What are all those things?” rasped Rachel, despite herself.

“What? I can’t see!” whispered Martha.

Rachel cracked the door open wider; Martha peered in. The sight was astounding. It was a large room, large enough to easily accommodate a huge wooden desk and, facing it, a set of leather chairs. The desk was cluttered with sheaves of paper and what looked to be glass vials. What was remarkable about the room, though, was the fact that the walls were lined with tall shelves, shelves that held a dizzying array of jars, bottles, and crocks. The setup reminded Martha of some wizard’s apothecary or an ancient Chinese pharmacy. There was, however, one section of shelving that was empty of these bottles and vials but instead stored about three dozen white metal boxes. A small red light on each of the boxes blinked intermittently, out of time from its neighbors, so as to resemble a Christmas decoration gone haywire.

In the center of the room, just in front of the shelf with the metal boxes, sat what appeared to be a dentist’s chair from some forgotten century. The imposing chair was built of a series of stiff-looking white cushions, all held together by a twisting black metal framework. On either armrest, an iron cuff lay ominously open; likewise, two similar clasps extended from the chair’s footrest. It would seem that whatever dentist had used this chair in the past, he had had to confine his patients to it by force. Martha, as if out of fear, pulled her goggles back over her eyes.

“Oh … my … God,” she said.

Rachel was silent. It was tacitly understood between the two girls: However much frightening stuff had been crammed into Joffrey Unthank’s office, there was one thing that was conspicuously absent: Carl Rehnquist.

Rachel waved the all clear. The two girls crept into the office and quietly shut the door behind them. The only light in the room came from a dim desk lamp. Martha wandered over to three windows in the wall behind the desk: The view beyond looked down onto the dormant factory floor. Rachel looked at her watch. “We’ve got ten minutes,” she said.

The desk brought that of a school principal’s to mind: It was industrial green and made of polished metal. Martha idly picked her way through the glass vials on the desktop, peering into their mouths; they were all empty. Her attention then fell on a stack of paper in the center of the desk, what looked to be a collection of maps. She leafed through the stack. The maps seemed to be from a variety of eras: Some were ancient-looking, their paper long turned tawny from age and their edges foxed with mildew. Others looked like contemporary topographical maps, with contours written in spidery lines. Martha didn’t recognize any of the places they served to illustrate; one looked to be a wide continent—almost European-looking—with a mountain range surrounding a central peak to the southeast. Another was of a long peninsula, its northern border marked by a rocky defile; a train track cutting through the canyon wall seemed to be the only thing connecting this strange country with its neighbors. One map caught Martha’s eye, its corner jutting out conspicuously from the bottom of the pile. Pulling it out, she saw that it was an older map (it was dated 02.24.75) and was titled “Impassable Wilderness (Conjecture).” Martha recognized a careful drawing of St. Johns’s grid of streets on the side of the page, the lazy sway of the Willamette River next to it, the little smokestacks and chemical tanks of the Industrial Wastes. But most of the page was dedicated to the Impassable Wilderness, set off from the world by a dotted border labeled “Impenetrable Boundary.” Martha had seen the I.W. labeled on maps before, but it always existed as a nameless, featureless oblong green rectangle. In this map, someone had included actual points of interest. A canyonlike gorge cut through the wilderness; a curious turreted house was drawn in the middle of the southerly section. To the north, the cartographer had drawn a gnarled tree and had scribbled little figures standing around it in a circle. A road, somewhat arbitrarily drawn, connected this northern part to its southern border. The map seemed to Martha the work of someone suffering from a fantastic bout of dementia.

Stepping away from the desk, Martha milled around the dentist’s chair, studying its lockable clasps with a knot in her throat, before she wandered over to the bookshelves and began browsing the many jars and canisters. She murmured the names, all neatly labeled in a fine cursive hand, as she went: “Bovine Adrenal, Myrrh Resin, Belladonna, Nux Vomica—bleagh. What is this stuff?” She grabbed one of the jars off the shelf and twisted open the lid. She took a quick whiff and her nose was filled with a smell not unlike a dog show’s worth of wet canines in an underarm deodorant factory. She quickly screwed the lid tightly closed. “Sorry,” she said.

Rachel was crouched down, studying the little metal boxes and their flashing red lights. Martha knelt down beside her. Each box had a kind of meter on the face of it, protected behind glass. It reminded Martha of a car’s gas gauge, but on each of the boxes, the needle was firmly buried in what would be the EMPTY position. A small black line made an arc across the gauge, and it was dotted with numbers: 1, 1.5, 3, 5, 10. Occasionally, a needle on one of the gauges would give a little flutter, and the red light below it would flicker dimly. Above the meter window on each of the boxes was a little square of white tape with two letters inscribed on it. H.K., one read. G.W., read another.

“I could not be more confused,” said Martha. Rachel was silent; she was tapping her finger against her upper lip in thought. Suddenly, her eyes lit up and she pointed at one of the boxes.

“Look at this!” she said. The box was labeled C.R. The writing was significantly less faded than that on the other boxes. It seemed to be freshly scrawled.

“What?” asked Martha, trying to puzzle it out.

“What do you think that stands for? C.R.?”

Martha puzzled. “Cranky Robot?”

Rachel rolled her eyes. “These are initials.” She tapped her finger against the tape. “That must stand for Carl Rehnquist!”

A chilly gloom fell over Martha. She began looking at the other boxes, their needles quivering and their red lights quietly winking; she started deciphering the names. “Harold Klein,” she intoned, “Leslie Brumm. J … Josh? Josh Tennyson. Greg Wheeler. Cynthia … Smith? No: Schmidt. Cynthia Schmidt.” She remembered them all, all their names. “Oh my God, Rachel. These are all the Unadoptables. As long as I’ve been around, anyway. Probably a bunch from before I came.”

Just then, there was a noise from the hallway. Martha and Rachel made quick eye contact as they heard the doorknob turning. They dove for the desk on the other side of the room; the noise of the door opening must have cloaked their scrambling, because they arrived at the shelter of the desk’s underside undetected. Huddled there, they listened as footsteps sounded into the center of the room and stopped. “Hello?” came the voice. It was old Mr. Grimble, the night watchman. “Mr. Unthank?”

Martha and Rachel refused to breathe.

Mr. Grimble grumbled (it was a hallmark of his—the Grimble Grumble, as the kids called it—and it sounded like the grunt of a hibernating bear with sleep apnea) as he surveyed the room. Satisfied, he turned and left, shutting the door noisily behind him. The two girls waited until the sound of his footsteps faded away before they let out their breaths.

“Let’s get out of here,” said Martha.

Rachel no

dded. “I’ll meet you in the hall.”

Martha crept to the door and slowly opened it, keeping her eyes intently on the space outside the room. When she saw there was no one there, that the hallway extended into quiet darkness, she pushed the door open and began tiptoeing out onto the checkerboard parquet of the hallway floor. It was a few moments before she noticed Rachel was not behind her.

“Rachel!” she whispered. “Are you coming?”

The girl appeared from around the office door; she silently closed it and threw the bolt with the key. She then turned to Martha and nodded. “Let’s go,” she said. Together they padded back to the dormitory, and Martha whispered a sigh of thanks to the heavens once she’d stowed herself underneath her blanket. In the rush, she hadn’t noticed that Rachel had left the office with something small and square tucked under her arm.

Elsie had just delicately removed a nut from the mouth of the RBO—an action that was almost involuntary now that she’d been in the machine shop for over a week—when Unthank came storming down the stairwell with a strange white box in his hand. Desdemona Mudrak, in tall heels, stepped gingerly after. Elsie hadn’t initially thought anything of it, but her mind quickly put two and two together. Both Martha and Rachel had been very quiet that morning over their hasty breakfast in the cafeteria; they hadn’t divulged anything from their late-night recon mission. They promised they would fill Elsie in that night, when there were “fewer prying eyes around,” as Martha had described it.

Tags: Colin Meloy Wildwood Chronicles Fantasy
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