“What is this place?” I said. “Why do you call it the dollhouse?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know—that’s just what everyone calls it. Come on, we’re through here.”
We entered through a door that boasted a long word I couldn’t read, and on the other side was the strangest room I’d ever seen. The walls on either side of us were made of the normal solid materials, but the one directly in front of us was made of clear plastic. The only way through was a thin slit in the center, and I saw several more layers of plastic beyond it, creating an odd tunnel.
“You have to strip,” said Noelle, who had already taken off her jacket and was working on unzipping her jumpsuit. Half a dozen lockers lined the left wall, and I opened the one Noelle pointed to.
Growing up in a group home, I wasn’t shy about nudity, but it was still unnerving to undress like that in front of someone I’d known for less than a day. Noelle didn’t seem to notice—or maybe she had no idea that being naked was anything to be shy about—and once we had both stripped and shoved our dirty jumpsuits into our lockers, she led me over to the plastic wall.
“Go ahead,” she said. “It’s the sanitizing chamber. It’s a little loud, but it doesn’t really hurt.”
With that ringing endorsement in mind, I slipped through the tight plastic, wincing as it rubbed against my skin. As soon as I was fully inside, the plastic seemed to close in on itself, and a red light above my head began to blink.
“Noelle, what—” Before I could finish, thick steam spilled into the airtight chamber, engulfing me until I couldn’t see. On instinct I held my breath, and my skin began to tingle. If this was some kind of joke and I was about to melt into a puddle of blood and bone—
As quickly as it had come, the steam disappeared. The X on the back of my neck stung, but other than that, it had been painless. I glanced down at my hands. All the dirt that had accumulated under my fingernails over the past day was gone, and my skin was as pristine as it had been the day I’d woken up and discovered the Harts had had me Masked.
“My turn,” said Noelle brightly, poking her head through the plastic. “Just go into the next chamber and put on a suit. I’ll be right there.”
I slid through the second slit into another section, this one full of plastic suits, shoes, and masks. Frowning, I pulled on the one nearest the entrance, unnerved by the way it crinkled every time I moved.
By the time I’d managed to finish tugging up the zipper, Noelle stepped through, looking as clean as I felt. “There you go, you have the hang of it already,” she said, and she quickly dressed in a second suit. “You pull the hood over your head like this—you have to make sure you have every single hair inside, else they’ll reprimand you. And then you put on the shoes and mask.”
By the time we were both fully dressed, I felt like we were about to jump into a vat of toxic waste for a swim. But at least Noelle had been right about the heat—I hadn’t been this warm since arriving in Elsewhere.
“What is all of this for?” I said.
“So we don’t contaminate anything,” she said. “Come on, we’re already late.”
She slipped through the final piece of plastic, and I hesitated. This one was opaque, making it impossible to see what was on the other side until I was there. My heart hammered. If Noelle did this every day, then it was fine. I’d be fine.
Before I could figure out when I’d regained my survival instinct, I reached the other side of the plastic, and I stopped. It was a simple white room, completely unlike anything I’d expected. It was mostly empty, except for a pile of small containers stacked neatly along several shelves and a guard dressed in a similar suit, holding a long thin club made entirely out of plastic. In the middle of the far wall was a window with a plastic barrier separating us from what lay beyond it, and beside the stack of containers was the start of a conveyor belt.
But the strangest thing of all was the boy who sat on a plastic stool in the center of the room, dressed in the same suit we wore. He had no mask, however, and his hood was pulled back, revealing his bald head.
“Good morning, Teddy,” said Noelle cheerfully. The boy—Teddy—didn’t acknowledge her. I frowned. Her voice had been muffled behind the mask, but even when she hadn’t been facing me, I’d understood her. She turned and gave me a significant glance, one that was obvious even if I couldn’t see most of her face.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m Lila.”
Teddy didn’t answer me, either. I looked at Noelle uncertainly, but she didn’t seem fazed in the least. Instead she was sorting through the containers, setting several up on a long white table beside the conveyor belt.
“Did I do something wrong?” I said quietly, ducking my head near hers.
“Wrong? What do you think you did wrong?”
“I—” I hesitated, my gaze darting toward Teddy.
“Oh!” Noelle giggled. “It’s okay. He doesn’t talk to anyone. I’ve never heard him say a word his whole life.”
“His whole life?” I glanced at Teddy again. He sat perfectly still on the stool, his eyes focused on something I couldn’t see. His lips moved as if he were speaking to himself, but no sound came out.
Noelle nodded. “We grew up in the same section. We were in all the same classes, but he never did anything. He just sat there. Everyone knew he was going to be declared a I, but then a couple years ago, when we were learning about what we’d be doing once we left Section J, they discovered he was really good at—”