“That’s the thing, ain’t it,” countered Michael. The passion was rising in his voice. “You go back out there, you’re kids again. No drinking coffee. No swearing. No smoking. No staying up late. And you gotta go to school, every day. That’s the rules.”
The collective mood of the children was considerably tamped down by this very true observation. They began to grumble to one another, cataloging all the daily expectations thrust on them by the adult world. Here, in the Periphery, they made their own rules.
“Besides, where are we going to go?” This, again, was Michael, pressing his advantage. He paused to let the full implication of the words sink in. “We’re not going back to Unthank’s, that’s for sure. But we don’t have parents. We don’t have families. There’s nothing waiting for us beyond those trees.”
The youngest of the children, a girl named Annalisa, began to cry.
Michael continued, “No, I say we stay. Let the magic Mehlbergs leave if they want to, but I, for one, am not going with.” He looked over at his friend and hunting partner, Cynthia. “You with me?”
She hesitated. “I don’t know, Michael,” she said, after a time, her eyes downcast. “I just don’t know.”
Before Michael could upbraid his friend for not backing him up, Martha Song stepped forward. She’d been watching the proceedings quietly from the back of the room. She cleared her voice and spoke. “Why don’t we just make this, out there?”
The room quieted to hear Martha’s proposal.
“Who’s to say we can’t have this place, this family in the outside world? Things aren’t that much different, right? I mean, you guys are freaked out about being forced to go to school, and yet you’re fine with doing the chores that are assigned to you every day. I got a theory about that; it’s because it wasn’t given to you by an adult. Because we’re all taken as equal to one another, and you realize that the, you know, well-being of the house depends on what every kid does—it just makes sense. So what if you can’t smoke or drink or swear in the outside world? Big deal. I think we’ll all have plenty of time to do that when we’re grown up. And that’s another thing: While this whole time-stop weirdness is pretty cool and magic and all, I’d actually like to make it past nine. I was kinda looking forward to being a teenager, actually.”
A mumble of agreement came from the gathered children.
“I say we all leave. All of us. All together. And we find some nice, abandoned house on the outskirts of the city and we build this”—here she made a sweeping gesture with her arm—“again. But this time, we’ll have Starbursts and chocolate and skateboards and the whole lot. What do you say?”
Carl Rehnquist jumped to his feet and began applauding madly, his knitting falling to the floor. When he noticed that no one else had been so enthusiastically moved by the girl’s speech, he blushed and sat back down. “I think we should do that,” he said meekly.
But the speech had been persuasive. The Unadoptables gathered in the cottage now looked at one another in a new light, with a new hope. This thing Martha was proposing—it did seem possible. And perfect.
Carol, his wooden eyes staring out over the heads of the gathered children, could almost read their thoughts, so palpable was the desire in the room to leave their in-between purgatory and pioneer a new home. He cleared his throat and spoke. “Very well. A show of hands. How many would like to leave this place, start afresh in the outside?”
Though he was bereft of sight, his vision having been painfully stolen on the callous whim of an evil woman, Carol could hear the sound of dozens of jumpsuits rustling as nearly every kid in the house raised their hands in near-unanimous consent. He could hear the sudden in-breaths from each child as they reckoned with their future, surprised at their own ability to create a powerful consensus. He could then hear laughter—celebratory laughter, laughter in disbelief—trickling up from the youngest kids until it infected everyone in the room. What Carol wouldn’t have heard, though he guessed at it, was the newfound sadness that etched itself on the boy Michael’s brow.
He’d been the only holdout. When the vote had been called, his arm had remained fixedly at his side. He was watching the jubilant kids as they slapped one another on the back and swapped high fives. He stayed silent amid the celebrations. Inwardly, he mourned.
Unthank was holding the cog. It glowed mysteriously in his hand as its three gears moved smoothly around the shining core. It emitted a faint hum as it moved; an aura of turbulence surrounded it too, as his fingers felt the constant pull and contraction of the magnets at work. It truly was a thing of beauty. His eyes became wet with tears of relief and joy. He sniffled a little, smiling at the miraculous outcome of his hard work.
“Joffrey!” called his mother.
A look of confusion clouded his face. What was his mother doing here?
“Joffrey!” she called again. It was the unmistakable tone of Priscilla Unthank at her most petulant. “Come down for supper!”
Joffrey looked around him; he was in his childhood bedroom. Posters of comic book supervillains lined the walls. A calm blue fish swam in an aquarium on his desk. He’d gotten the fish when he was eleven. He’d desperately wanted to have a pet then, but his tremendous allergy to cat dander prevented him that simple childhood pleasure. He’d named the fish Harold, for reasons he could barely remember.
“Aren’t you going to go down?” asked Harold, the fish. “She’s made your favorite: Möbius Meat Loaf.”
“Oh no,” said Joffrey, a cold realization dawning on him. The beautiful cog still spun in his hands. “Please, no.”
“Joffrey!” yelled his mother. “Why will not you come down?” Priscilla’s voice had suddenly developed a distinctly Eastern European dialect, which Joffrey found odd, considering that she was originally from Salem, Oregon.
“Just a moment,” said stunned Joffrey Unthank, trying to work out his surroundings. He wanted the illusion of the finished cog to rem
ain just a little longer. The feeling of having achieved the impossible task was as true a bliss as he’d ever felt.
“Why will you not? You say we make movies. Hollywood movies. But you will not eat the meat loaf!” His mother’s voice had now morphed completely into that of Desdemona’s. The fish winked at him from behind the glass. It was clear what was happening.
“No!” Joffrey moaned to Harold. He looked down in his hands. The cog was gone; in its place was a giant, meaty heart. It beat calmly, spitting little fountains of blood onto his Star Wars bedsheets. Flecks of the warm, sticky liquid spattered on his face and his hands.
“Joffrey!” called Desdemona.
“Please, no!” he said again, increasingly desperate. The fish began laughing.