“Welcome!” Mrs. Crowbottom purred as Shel entered the orphanage. “You must be Shel Pecunious from The Happiness Company.” Mrs. Crowbottom tottered forward on too-tall, bright red heels that punctuated her outdated bouffant hairstyle, string of pearls, and light blue polyester skirt and blazer set. Were those horn-rimmed glasses on her face?
While her husband, Dan, was taking care of business elsewhere in the factory, Shel had slunk off to the orphanage to look for a child. It wasn’t that she loved children; in fact, it was quite the opposite. Shel thought it would be good business to put children to work rather than hire real employees who wanted real money to pay for their real lives. She thought she’d start with one and see how it went.
The orphanage was large. A great place to find workers to stock her factory, Shel thought. The office was clean and well maintained. She expected the children would be, too. “Well, hello!” Shel dripped with overabundant charm, gliding over to air hug Mrs. Crowbottom as though they had been friends forever. That mirrored armor Shel fashioned to hide her true nature was extremely effective, but how no one could pick out the odor of the toxic saliva dripping from her razor sharp teeth remained a mystery.
Shel’s own outfit, a pure silk little black dress, genuine mink wrap and very expensive designer heels – that’s what the armor made people see, anyway – contrasted harshly against Mrs. Crowbottom’s passe uniform. Shel stood back, a judgmental sneer taking the form of a single, nearly imperceptible tick at the corner of her upper lip, masked by a bright smile, “It’s a pleasure to meet you!” She said with the urgency of a starving woman at a department store chocolate counter. A more perceptive person would have been alarmed, but Mrs. Crowbottom seemed oblivious. She was a kind woman who cared about adopting out the kids in her charge, but this time she was missing some cues. When she turned around to lead Shel to the children’s rooms, Shel passed a scrutinizing eye from the top of the woman’s hair to the tips of her shoes. Shel inhaled deeply, rolled her eyes, then returned the fallacious smile to its place on her well-disguised face where it would remain while she was introduced to all the children.
And so many children there were. There were children of every color, shape and size. Some were long haired, some were short. Some had flaxen hair like little princesses, some had jet black mops. There was even one with a poofy shock of red, sticking out in all directions. Shel walked from room to room, watching the children play, read books or watch TV. There were so many to choose from. She looked at each and every one. That one was too tall, the other too short. The one over there might make a tasty snack, she thought (drooling ever so slightly) but otherwise wouldn’t do. Shel sighed. Too skinny over there, too fat over here. Too pretty, too ugly, too plain and too weird. Room after room they went, but none held the child she wanted.
“Do you have one in a studious model?” Shel asked, one arm across her middle, the other propping her chin.
“What?” Mrs. Crowbottom said in an incredulous tone. She had stopped in her tracks and was peering curiously at Shel. “A studious model?” She asked, “These are children, not cars.”
“I mean,” Shel corrected (humans were funny like that; they really didn’t like it when you referred to their children as things). “Do you have someone scholarly, academic, bookish? Someone who likes to read? Someone who appreciates the value of hard work, perhaps?”
Mrs. Crowbottom tucked her chin and peered over her glasses at Shel. “Hard work?” she asked, suspiciously.
“Well, I don’t want a lazy child.” Shel clarified, “The type who sits and watches TV all day, eating snacks and getting fat. Does anybody ever ask for a child like that?” Shel wrinkled her nose at Mrs. Crowbottom.
“Hm,” Mrs. Crowbottom considered, not entirely satisfied, but satisfied enough. She held up a finger and nodded, “I think I know just the child.” They walked to the middle of the long hall and stopped. Mrs. Crowbottom opened a coffee-colored door on her left.
Outside, it was bright and sunny. Children played everywhere: screaming, laughing and generally having a good time. These were exactly the kinds of children Shel did NOT want to buy. Seeing the look of horror on her face, Mrs. Crowbottom touched Shel’s shoulder, then pointed toward a tree on the far side of the yard. “There,” she said. “I think that’s who you’re looking for.”
Under the tree sat the tiniest, mousiest, brown-hairest girl she had ever seen. She was prettier than plain, but plainer than pretty. She wore unfussy clothes, gargantuan glasses and had her nose stuck in a book. It wasn’t just any book, it was a GINORMOUS book. The hugest of huge books, in fact. It hardly fit on her lap.
“Who’s that?” Shel asked.
“That’s Ellie.” Mrs. Crowbottom said, beaming with pride. Mrs. Crowbottom loved Ellie almost as much as she loved her own children. If she didn’t have so many already, she might have adopted Ellie as her own.
Shel stared for a while, watching the speed of the girl’s reading (it was fast!) and watching to see if she was easily distracted by the nonsense happening all around her (she wasn’t).
“She can read.” Shel said, matter of factly.
“Yes, she can.”
“Can she write?” Shel asked.
“How’s her math?” Shel looked pointedly at Mrs. Crowbottom.
“Why, it’s perfect,” Mrs. Crowbottom answered, a little confused.
Shel seemed satisfied with the answer. “She’ll do fine,” she said. “I’ll take her.”
Mrs. Crowbottom peered over her glasses again. “Wouldn’t you like to meet her first?”
Shel peered right back. “Do I need to?” She mocked.
Mrs. Crowbottom furrowed her brows and considered for a moment. What kind of person adopts a child they haven’t met? What was going on here? Was this something weird or was she just imagining things? She thought she smelled a faint musty odor of dirt and slimy spit that she hadn’t noticed before.
Shel cheerfully waved an arm in the air, “We’ll get along marvelously!” She chirped, changing her tone entirely. “I’ll take her shopping, we’ll go out to eat at all the best restaurants, we’ll see the animals at the zoo. It will be a wonderful time!” Shel plastered on her grinniest of grins. The one that would have terrified you, if you’d ever seen under her armor.
Shel was a master of deception, so Mrs. Crowbottom couldn’t help but be thrilled for Ellie. The dear girl was finally going to be adopted!
. . .
Ellie hoped they weren’t talking about her. She saw Mrs. Crowbottom point in her direction and quickly buried her nose in her book. “Don’t pick me, don’t pick me, don’t pick me,” Ellie thought to herself. Ellie liked the orphanage and she loved Mrs. Crowbottom. She was in no hurry to leave. Ellie turned the pages of her book one at a time, not reading a single word, pretending to be too busy to notice anything. She felt the woman staring at her. “Don’t pick me, don’t pick me, don’t pick me,” she chanted in her head. She dared not look up for fear that Mrs. Crowbottom would walk the woman to where she sat under the tree.
Ellie couldn’t quite place it, but something about the woman gave her the creeps. It was as though she was not quite who she pretended to be. Ellie even thought she caught a glimpse of something not quite…human when she glanced from under her bangs to see if the women were still watching her.
“Ellie!” Mrs. Crowbottom called, “Ellie, dear! I have someone for you to meet.” Ellie’s heart sunk. They were staring at her.
“Coming, Mrs. Crowbottom,” Ellie called with a sigh.