Carson Ellis/Courtesy of Balzer & Bray
The snow had given way to a heavy, cold rain, and the drops made thick streaks down the car's backseat window, distorting the already imposing metal buildings into bulging and fractured shapes. They'd crossed the boundary into the Industrial Wastes some time ago. It was a place Elsie'd never been; it was cold and ominous. The rusted white chemical tanks that lined the gravel roads, with their winding staircases and wiry tresses of plumbing, looked almost science fiction in their otherworldliness. Somewhere, deep inside this nest of clattering machinery, she imagined bearded dwarves at work, long removed from the sunshine of the above-world — only instead of broadswords and battle-axes, they were making refrigerator doors and motorcycle camshafts.
Elsie looked back again to her father in the driver's seat as he navigated the family sedan through the Wastes' narrow roads. There were filigrees of gray hair at his temples; Elsie was sure they hadn't been there the summer before. And those deep creases that made a kind of canyon landscape on his brow — certainly those were new as well.
All since her brother's disappearance.
The initial shock had been tremendous; a fog had descended over the house. Whatever joy had previously lived under that roof had all but disappeared. And Elsie hated her brother for it. First had come the police. They squatted down on the living room furniture like elephants in polyester and scribbled down little notes while her mother and father tearfully repeated everything they remembered since the last time Curtis had been seen. Then came the reporters, the news cameramen, the rubbernecking neighbors walking by the picture window and peering in at their broken, desperate family. Finally, Lydia, Elsie's mom, had drawn the curtains to block out the inquisitive, and the windows remained that way for months. The living room, all through the fall, stayed as dark and shadowed as their hearts. Elsie's dad, David, became withdrawn and spent hours on end in his home office, standing vigil on a variety of internet message boards, imploring anyone who would listen to help him find his son. Elsie would sit up at night in her bed, listening to her parents' hushed conversations in the room next door, and would alternately curse her brother and plead for him to return. "C'mon, Curtis," she'd whisper. "Just quit it already. Come home."
So when Elsie's dad came running into the kitchen from his office one day, announcing he'd gotten a lead, that someone in Istanbul, Turkey — of all places — had seen a young American boy who fit Curtis's description on the streets of this ancient city, the entire family erupted into a fit of unbridled celebration. It wasn't until they began investigating the cost of airfare and lodging that it was decided that the two girls, Elsie and Rachel, would have to stay in Portland while the elder Mehlbergs flew to Turkey to search for their son. And where would the girls stay? Without a suitable family member in town to take them in, the only option was the local orphanage, where, for a reasonable price, a desperate parent could board his or her children for however much time was needed.
"The Jamisons did it with their kids when they went on that scuba vacation," was all the reassurance the two younger Mehlbergs were given.
And so here they were, slowly winding the labyrinthine by ways of the Industrial Wastes, to arrive at the Joffrey Unthank Home for Wayward Youth. A neon sign shone in the dim light ahead of them,advertising as much — with the helpful addendum below it, a flickering string of words that seemed to be at the mercy of a lesser power source: and industrial machine parts.
Rachel, who'd remained silent the entire journey, looked up and gasped when the building came into view. Her pale face appeared briefly from between the twin curtains of her long, straight black hair, and her thin shoulders shuddered beneath her threadbare Corrosion of Conformity T-shirt. "I can't believe this," she said quietly. She fiddled with the little tangle of dark bands that encircled her left wrist.
"Now, honey," said Lydia from the front passenger seat, "we've been through this. We just don't have any other options." She craned her head to look at the two girls in the backseat. "Think of it this way:You're doing your part in helping to find Curtis."
"Right," responded Rachel glumly.
"Whoa," said Elsie, staring ahead through the whisks of the windshield wipers. "That place looks creepy."
Silence followed as everyone in the car gave tacit agreement. The gravel drive the car was following finally cleared the rows of windowless metal buildings and chemical tanks to arrive at an open space,fenced in by a wall of chain-link fence. In the middle of the clearing stood a drab building, seemingly transported to the spot from another era. Its slate-gray stucco walls were stained by lichen and soot, a surface broken regularly by tall mullioned windows. The roof,shale shingles sporting an impressive growth of positively iridescent moss, sloped up to a crest topped by a clock tower. A heavy oak door loomed just beyond a jumble of untidy blackberry bushes. The neon sign pulsated noisily just above this door, a strange modern juxtaposition to the building's decidedly nineteenth-century appearance.
A wave of nervousness overcame Elsie, and she reached down between her feet to undo the top zipper of her backpack. From within,she peeked the head of her Intrepid Tina doll from the bag and attempted a warm smile.
"It's okay, Tina," she whispered. "Everything's going to be just fine." Intrepid Tina was made of hard plastic, and her blond hair was cropped in a bob at her neck. Elsie snaked her fingers down the back of Tina's beige "Safari Sass" outfit to find the little button nub nestled between the doll's shoulder blades. She gave it a push and was calmed to hear the following affirmation, muffled as it was, coming from the little recorder in Tina's chest: "INTREPID GIRLZ NEVER SHY AWAY FROM THE PROMISE OF A NEW ADVENTURE!" Tina's voice had a kind of tough rasp to it.
Elsie heard her sister sigh and looked over to see that Rachel was watching her askance through the strands of her hair. Elsie waited for a snarky reproach, Rachel's usual response to having been within earshot when Elsie activated Intrepid Tina's voice box, but none came.The situation really was so bad, Elsie thought, that even Rachel was inspired by Tina's words.
Easing to a stop in front of the building, the Mehlbergs' sedan idled for a moment before David turned the key and the engine sputtered into silence. The whistling of the wind, blowing down through the corridors between the Wastes' structures, sounded through the car's windows. David craned his head and looked at his two daughters in the backseat. "Just two weeks," he said, attempting reassurance."That's all. Two weeks. And then we'll be back for you."
Elsie ran her fingers along the plastic flaxen hair of Intrepid Tina. Two weeks had never seemed like a longer span of time in her life.
From Under Wildwood by Colin Meloy. Copyright 2012 by Colin Meloy. Excerpted by permission of Balzer & Bray.