“Girls and boys!” shouted Desdemona. “Please to listen closely.”
Unthank strode to the middle of the factory floor and raised the box high so that everyone could see it. Its black power cord dangled from it like a tail. Desdemona, standing at his side, held a wooden clipboard.
Elsie looked over at Martha, who’d removed her goggles and was looking fixedly at Rachel, who was, in turn, staring down at the ground.
“Does this look familiar to anyone?” asked Unthank. He had to raise his voice to beat the racket of the machines and it echoed in the cavernous space.
No one spoke. Unthank shook the metal thing in his hand. It made a kind of rattle.
“I’m willing to make an offer to whoever took this,” he said. “If you come forward and fess up, I’ll be happy to not punish everyone on this factory floor with three extra work hours a day. And even though this infraction is so great as to merit instant Unadoptable status, I will be merciful and give only two demerits for your honesty. Now: Who took this?” He surveyed the attentive children, who had emitted a collective groan at the suggestion of an even longer workday.
Elsie looked at Rachel and Martha; Martha was staring at her sister with wide, accusing eyes.
But no one spoke. Aside from the groan, the room remained silent.
In this vacuum of sound, Martha Song stepped forward.
“It was me,” she said. “I snuck into your office. I took that thing off the shelf. I’m really sorry, Mr. Unthank, sir.”
Elsie’s jaw dropped. She noticed that Rachel was shooting Martha a shocked look.
Unthank gave a smile. The beard and mustache portions of his goatee parted at his lips like a pair of stretching meerkats. “Very noble of you, Song,” he said. “And I’ll be pleased to hand you down two demerits for volunteering this information. Your first two, if memory serves.”
Martha nodded, putting on a despondent face.
Unthank had paused in his speaking as he scanned the room. He then said more loudly, “However, I happen to know that you are not, in fact, the culprit.” This observation elicited a few gasps from the crowd; Rachel was still looking at her shoes. Elsie felt her heart leap. “I have to say it disappoints me greatly to know that the real criminal, the trespasser, will not reveal themselves,” he continued. “Or herself, I should say. This piece of expensive equipment”—here he shook the metal box again—“was found in the footlocker of bed twenty-three. And bed twenty-three belongs to…”
“Rachel Mehlverg,” finished Desdemona icily.
Elsie let out a quick, high moan. She looked over at Rachel, whose shoulders could be seen shaking slightly. Her face was downcast.
“Miss Mehlberg, for reasons unknown to me, decided to deceive the staff of the Home for Wayward Youth—and, by extension, the entire workforce—by sneaking into my office and stealing this piece of valuable equipment. I ask you, children, what family would want to adopt a girl who would do such a thing?”
“I’m not up for adoption,” countered Rachel suddenly. She’d raised her head.
“Well, you certainly aren’t now,” said Unthank. “In fact, I’d go so far as to say that you’re quite … Unadoptable.” He laughed a little at his own joke; Desdemona cracked a thin smile.
Rachel’s hair fell back over her face; her shoulders sagged.
“NO!” shouted Elsie, the tears springing to her eyes.
Joffrey ignored the outburst, instead rounding on Martha, who was still standing stock-still. “As for you, Miss Song, your dishonesty is most distressing. I will have to award you an extra demerit for lying. That makes three demerits in as many minutes.” He then proclaimed flatly, “Unadoptable,” while Miss Mudrak made some scribbles on her notepad.
Elsie stared at Martha, whose face had grown sheet-pale, creating a stark contrast to the black smudges of grease on her cheek. A boy standing next to Martha whispered angrily, “He tricked you!” Desdemona shot the boy a glare.
Unthank gestured to Rachel and Martha to come to the center of the floor. They marched sullenly over to his and Desdemona’s side. He put his arms on the shoulders of the two girls and looked out at the rest of the children.
“At Unthank Machine Parts,” he said loudly, “we believe in worker solidarity, solidarity in making the best machine parts we can possibly make. When that fundamental value is undermined by wrongdoers, liars, and thieves, it is imperative that justice is served for the good of the company.”
The two girls at his either side carried themselves in two distinctly different ways: Martha’s head was held high, and a terrified look graced her brow; Rachel’s hair hung like curtains, shielding her eyes.
“I have absolute faith,” continued Unthank, “that this unhappy event will only make our productivity greater. The more demerits handed out, the more Unadoptables we create, the greater our discipline will grow. Good day.”
And with that, he began leading Martha and Rachel from the factory floor.
Elsie turned to her machine and pulled the lever on its side; a metal nut was spit out in its mouth. Immediately, she pulled the lever again and the machine’s teeth came down, crunching the newly created nut with a loud CLANK!
Unthank stopped at the stairs and turned. “What was that?” he asked, searching the room. His eyes landed on Elsie. “What did you do?”