Unthank gestured Elsie to the chair. “Mademoiselle?” he said, affecting a gracious tone.
Rachel pushed Elsie aside. “I’ll go.”
“Good girl,” said Unthank. He helped Rachel to the chair. As he concocted a new salve, he continued his monologue. “Turns out, every survivor of the Impassable Wilderness has the same tale to tell: No matter how far they walked in the woods, they got the strange impression that they were not, in fact, going anywhere. Bizarre, huh?”
This question was directed to Rachel, who was confined to the chair. Unthank had come back from the desk with a bowl of brown mush, and he hovered the applicator above Rachel’s face as he spoke. “The olfactory sense. Very important.” He took a deep, dramatic inhalation through his nostrils. “Something we might take for granted. In all fairness, it tends to pale in comparison with the other human senses. However, I happen to have done extensive research on the importance of the olfactory, and I’m given to understand that the nasal cavity is a direct conduit to the brain. Ninety-three percent of our total perception relies on the way things smell. Did you know that? I sure didn’t. But armed thus, I’ve got a good sense that were we to somehow treat that conduit with natural elements, harvested from the Impassable Wilderness itself, the perception of confinement would be dramatically altered, and, hopefully, allow the specimen to cross over, beyond what I’ve termed the Impenetrable Boundary.”
With that declaration, he promptly scooped up a bunch of the brown slime and shoved it, rudely, up Rachel’s nose. She sputtered helplessly.
“Mwat ith that stunff?” she said, talking around her slime-plugged nose.
“All natural. One hundred percent organic,” replied Unthank. “Pureed oyster mushroom, slug residue, and bark dust.”
Rachel had a horrified look on her face. “Slung wesidue?”
“Now,” said Unthank, taking up the piercing gun, “I have firsthand accounts—based on somewhat hazy conjecture, mind you—that there is a world existing beyond this boundary. An entire, vibrant, living world. One that we could see if only we were able to open our eyes to it. I don’t know what’s going on, or who’s running things in this forgotten country, but I have every intention of introducing them to the modern miracle that is free market capitalism. There will unlikely be any dissenters; if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a Titan of Industry, it’s that people love capitalism.” Without warning, he stuck the gun to Rachel’s ear and—snap—pierced her lobe with a yellow-tagged silver stud, identical to the one he’d given Martha. Rachel winced. “Provided they’re given the right incentives,” he qualified. He then undid the restraints on the dentist chair, and Rachel was returned to Martha and Elsie’s side, her nostrils brimful of a brown, brackish paste and a yellow tag hanging from her right ear. She looked miserable.
Then, like a barber preparing his stall for another customer, Unthank swiveled the chair to face Elsie. She felt a little push at her shoulder; it was Desdemona. Dutifully, Elsie climbed up onto the seat. Unthank’
s back was now to her; he was studying the jars on the shelf. He selected a small blue vial and brought it over to where Elsie sat. After twisting the cap open, he shook a tiny white ball, the size of a cake sprinkle, into the palm of his hand and held it at eye level.
“I’ve taken a single mote of dust that once graced the barbule of a feather retrieved from the Impassable Wilderness and diluted its essence one thousand times over with sterilized water; a single drop of that water has been placed on this tiny sugar pill, endowing it with the very memory of the place from whence the mote came. It is as sound as science gets; should my other experiments fail me, I have every confidence that this will give you the power to walk beyond the boundary and into the heart of this Wilderness.” He held the pill to Elsie’s mouth. “Open up, dear,” he said.
Elsie did so; Unthank dropped the pill into her mouth. It dissolved in a matter of seconds, leaving the fleeting taste of something sweet on her tongue. She, too, was given a piercing on her right ear—the sting felt like a sharp pinch—and returned to stand in a line with Martha and Rachel.
“Desdemona, if you would,” said Unthank as he wiped his hands clean on a nearby rag.
Miss Mudrak walked to the shelf and grabbed three of the unlabeled white boxes. She brought them over to Unthank, who proceeded to fiddle with the small black knobs on their faces. Then, taking a roll of white gaff tape, he placed a little square of the tape on each of the boxes and scrawled a few letters on them with a black marker. He set them each, carefully, on the desk next to the girls.
“I know what those are,” said Rachel. “Those are initials you just wrote.” With the brown paste stuffed into her nose, she sounded like she had a particularly bad head cold.
“Very intuitive,” said Unthank.
“Where’s Carl Rehnquist?” asked Martha.
“Carl Rehnquist?” Unthank paused in thought.
“Yeah, you know: C.R.”
“Right. Carl. That was last week, wasn’t it?” He stared at the shelf of white boxes, as if using them to jog his memory. “Copper,” he said finally. “A kind of copper wire crown. He wore it on his head. Sadly, didn’t work.” He took up his black notebook, and flipping to the back pages, he began to read: “Cynthia Schmidt: pine resin inhalant. Promising, that. Let’s see: William Hatfield. Oh yes: This was a good one. Underwear made of grape leaves. Went a little bit out on a limb there. Jenny Tummel, weighted shoes. Awfully sure of that one. Went to a lot of trouble building those shoes. Didn’t work.” He snapped the book closed and placed it back on his desk. “Every misstep, though, has led me closer to the true answer.”
“Tremendously brave, darling,” said Desdemona.
Unthank registered the compliment with a wan smile. He then surveyed the three girls like a sergeant sizing up his platoon. “You girls,” he said proudly, “are the front line of science and exploration. I salute you.” He abruptly held his hand to his forehead, his back rigid. “And now, unto the breach!”
They marched in single file, with Unthank leading and Desdemona taking up the rear. The three girls walked between the two adults, sullenly shuffling their feet through the gravel of the road that led from the Unthank Home. Rows of chemical tanks, with weird twisted plumbing extending from them like spiders’ legs, lined the way. Occasionally, some exhaust pipe in the distance would emit a giant fireball into the air, and the girls would spook at the noise. The air was thick with the smell of melted plastic; a chemical haze hung in the air and surrounded them like a heavy blanket. Elsie found herself coughing every dozen steps or so; the smog was so dense it felt like her lungs had been lined with Saran Wrap.
Finally, they reached a tall chain-link fence topped with Slinky-like coils of concertina wire. A gate barred their exit. Unthank undid a padlock and swung the gate open, letting the procession through before shutting it behind them. The distinctly man-made features of the Industrial Wastes stopped abruptly here at the fence line; beyond it was a wall of absolute green. They were on the border of the Impassable Wilderness.
The trees seemed to blot out the sky; Elsie couldn’t imagine any living thing could grow so tall. The in-between spaces were filled with a botanical garden’s worth of leafy things, of every imaginable hue of green, all dipped in bright white snow and growing into everything, as if the whole forest was caught in some kind of wild, familial embrace.
Unthank walked up the side of a culvert, just before the first row of trees. He peered into the woods, his hands on his hips. Elsie thought maybe he was looking for his other lost specimens, the children he’d sacrificed to the forest and its so-called impenetrable boundary. Instead, he looked down at the bracken at his feet and revealed a wooden stake that had been hammered into the frozen ground. Pulling a ball of twine from his pocket, he began spooling it out, measuring the length by his forearm. He made three such pieces of twine this way, attaching one end of each to the stake. Returning to Desdemona’s side, he grabbed the first of the three white boxes and began to adjust the dials. “R.M.—Rachel Mehlberg,” he said, “please step forward.”
She did so, her arms shivering beneath the army-issue trench coat each of the girls had been given for the event.
“This experiment requires one thing of its specimens. That you walk fifty yards into the woods and attempt to return to the very place you entered. You’ll have this piece of twine to measure the distance as well as to guide you back. I will be tracking you via the transponders. Should you attempt a very inadvisable escape, I will track you down, using your transponder, and you will be very sorry for your transgression. You no longer exist to the outside world; you are lost children. Your admission data has been erased and your records interred. Escape is not a judicious choice. However: If you return to me after walking the requisite fifty yards using the twine, I will be happy to grant you your freedom.”
Rachel and Elsie exchanged a look. Martha breathed deeply.