Rachel interceded. “Yeah, they were only boarding us here. They went to Turkey to look for my brother. They’ll be back really soon. Plus, my dad’s really big and knows how to knife-fight.”
“He knows how to knife-fight?” asked Elsie, unable to stop herself. Rachel just shot her a glare.
“Well,” said Unthank, “that sounds scary. How about you? Should we be worried about your parents?” He had rounded on Martha.
Desdemona answered for her: “The Chinese is orphan.”
“My name’s Martha,” corrected the girl angrily, “and I’m Korean.” Her voice pitched down a somber octave as she said, “My parents aren’t coming back for me.”
“Well, that’s convenient, at least,” said Unthank. He looked back at the Mehlbergs. “As for you two, I’m sorry to say that your parents were well aware of the agreed terms and conditions associated with boarding children at the Unthank Home. I’ll show you.” He walked back to the desk and, rifling through an overcrowded file cabinet, returned with a piece of paper. It was an application of some sort. Elsie and Rachel’s names had been written—in her mother’s hand—at the top of the page. Both her mother and father had signed the document. Unthank traced his finger along a paragraph of text below the signature line, text printed so small as to be almost illegible.
“You’ll see here, at the bottom of the page, where it says (and I quote): ‘The Proprietors reserve the right to mete punishment at their discretion if the child is deemed a hazard to themselves or the greater population. Three such infractions will render the child Unadoptable, at which point the Proprietors reserve the right to remove such a child from the adoptive population of the Home.’” He looked up from the page. “Pretty clear, really. Wouldn’t you say, Miss Mudrak?”
“Clear as windshield,” said Desdemona.
“And you’ll see that it’s been initialed, right there at the bottom, by a certain …” Unthank screwed up his face to decipher the writing. “D. M. Your father, I presume?”
“David,” said Elsie flatly. “Yeah. But I don’t really know what that all means. How could he know?”
“And besides, they were in a big hurry—they had to catch a plane,” said Rachel. “There’s no way they would agree to this. You’ll see.”
“Hmm,” hemmed Unthank. “We will see, won’t we? For example, we’ll see how much traction that line of argument gets in a court of law.” He shook the document in their faces briefly before returning it to the filing cabinet. Back in front of the line of girls, he clapped his hands.
“Now,” he said, “let’s get started. I’ll need a volunteer.”
The girls remained silent. Unthank was standing at the dentist chair, wiping imagined dust from the seat cushion. “Anyone?” he asked. “Very well.” His finger pointed at the girls, he began counting off: “Eeny, meeny, miney, mo.”
The last word landed on Martha. She steeled herself and said: “I’m ready.”
“Very brave,” said Unthank. “Very brave indeed. Now, if you wouldn’t mind climbing into this seat, we can begin.”
Desdemona stood guard over Rachel and Elsie as Martha did as the man instructed. Once she’d been settled into the chair, a worried look draped across her face, Unthank threw the clasps at her hands and feet. He smiled apologetically. “Just a precaution,” he explained. “Once bitten, twice shy, as they say. Can’t afford a runner.” His specimen confined to the chair, Unthank walked to the rows of bookshelves and began browsing the contents, murmuring to himself. He held a dog-eared black notebook in his hand and flipped the pages eagerly, his fingers dragging over the book’s words. Glancing back to the shelf, he grabbed a handful of bottles and returned to the desk, where he proceeded to combine the bottles’ contents with a mortar and pestle.
“What is he doing?” Elsie whispered, as if to herself. She was promptly shushed by Miss Mudrak.
Having made some sort of shiny green paste (he had lifted the pestle and studied the resulting mixture; he seemed satisfied with having made, to Elsie’s best approximation, toothpaste the color of snot), he stepped back to Martha in the chair. “Now,” he said, “I’m going to put this in your ear.”
Martha flinched, her eyes wild. She shuddered in her binds. “What is that stuff?”
“Relax,” said Unthank. “It’s just a mixture of thimbleberry, tannis root, and squirrel bile. With a little peanut butter to keep it binding.”
Elsie heard Rachel gag a little.
“Harmless,” Unthank said. “Perfectly harmless. I have a suspicion, though, that this impenetrable boundary that keeps swallowing my specimens is, at its root, a biological function. Applied to the ear canal, so as to be in contact with the tympanic membrane—which, as no doubt you know, is a center of balance and equilibrium and thus dictates navigation and direction—this salve should grant you the ability to pass beyond the boundary.” He spoke while he was applying the stuff to Martha’s ear; she wore a quiet grimace.
“What boundary?” asked Rachel. No sooner had the words left her mouth than Desdemona went to shush her; Unthank raised a hand to Miss Mudrak and responded.
“A very good question,” he said, scraping more of the paste from the bowl, “and one that has been my chief concern for these past many years. I think we’ve all, since time immemorial, assumed that the Impassable Wilderness was just that: an overgrown stretch of woods that no one would care to explore, let alone try to develop. We were all complicit in our ignorance. And those over-curious enough to make the journey were rewarded with being lost forever, or else journeying through a seemingly endless repetition of the same landscape for days and days before finally breaking through and finding themselves just where they’d started.” He added a final dollop to Martha’s other ear before standing back to study his work. “I’d heard the tales, I’d even interviewed some of the survivors. Yes, they are still around, a few of them. Takes a little bit of persuasion to get them to sing, but I have my ways.” Evidently satisfied with the amount of salve he’d applied to Martha’s ear, he returned to the desk and retrieved what Elsie saw to be a kind of shiny metal gun. “Now,” he said to Martha, “hold very still.”
Martha’s eyes widened. Unthank held the gun up to her earlobe and pressed the trigger. A little snap sounded, and Martha gave a shrill yelp. Unthank pulled his hand away and there, freshly affixed to Martha’s ear, was a small yellow tag attached to a silver stud.
“Next!” said Unthank.
The clasps were thrown open and Martha stumbled out of the chair. Back in line with Elsie and Rachel, she felt at the piercing she’d just been given. “What is it?” she asked.
“Looks like a price tag,” said Elsie.
“Careful,” said Desdemona. “It may infect. Don’t be touching.”