Jamie paid the vendor in front of her the correct amount of change, and as she walked back toward the other kids from the orphanage still under the close supervision of both Mr. and Mrs. Harkins, she popped a particularly large chunk of cotton candy in her mouth, enjoying the sugary, fluffy texture on her tongue before it promptly vanished into nothingness. It was delicious. She loved cotton candy. She only wished the local candy store down the street from the orphanage sold it. She'd buy some everyday if they did.
It was just past twilight, and The World Expo of Tomorrow was lit up with varied colors of spectral lights from the carnival rides and games, and from the great number of spotlights situated to draw attention to the vast amounts of modern wonders on display for the citizens of New York City. Wonders such as trains that could travel through the air, ships that would one day travel to the moon and stars, suits that could make people fly… Such things were all but unknown to people living in the nineteen forties, and they had come to be amazed, and for those who had yet to arrive, a great deal of multi-colored fireworks were dancing high above in the sky, enticing everyone in the city to come and visit the Expo.
It was nice of the Harkins to take all the kids to the Expo on a field trip. Despite being orphans, they felt like it was unfair to the children to be deprived of normal childhood events with families, the Expo being a prime example of such events. It cost them quite a bit of money to afford taking all orphans, often times they had to dip into their own personal savings instead of just relying on the money that the government sent to support all the kids, but they felt like it was worth it when they saw the kids smiling, laughing faces.
"Everyone here? Everyone got their snacks?" called out Mr. Harkins.
There was a great collection of "Yes, Mr. Harkins," from all the kids.
Julia smiled. "All right then, kids. Follow us, please. Our first stop is the presentation billionaire Howard Stark is presenting. Just straight ahead!"
Jamie gripped her cotton candy tightly in her hand, and followed the other kids moving along behind the Harkins. She knew all about multi-billionaire Howard Stark. Everyone knew about him. He designed all the weapon technology that the army was using right now during the war in Europe. Possibly even further east in Japan, too. He was supposed to be a mega-playboy, too, often seen with at least one girl on either arm whenever he left parties and government-sponsored social events.
Jamie grinned happily to herself as she munched on her sugary treat. The rumor circulating the Expo was that Stark's newest invention had something to do with flying. And Jamie loved anything flying related.
"Come Josephine in my flying machine," she sang to herself softly as she strolled along with the other orphans. "And it's up she goes… Up she goes…"
It was an old song, one that supposedly was released back in nineteen ten, but it was still pretty popular, and her mother used to sing it to her almost every night before she went to sleep. It always reminded her of her mother, and of her love of flying. She even had a small portable record player of her own back at the orphanage, and in addition to a record of the soundtrack from The Wizard of Oz movie, she also had a vinyl recording of this song, and she often played it every night before she went to bed, pretending it was her mother singing to her and not a recording.
"Balance yourself like a bird on a beam," she sang on. "In the air, she goes… There she goes…"
"Shut it, War Girl!" snapped Nick, suddenly appearing at her side and shoving her side hard. "No one wants to hear your stupid voice right now!"
Jamie didn't say anything back. For once, she just wanted the bullies to ignore her so she could fully enjoy herself. Even if that meant not saying or singing anything, she'd do it. She didn't necessarily want to be all alone, but she'd prefer that to being a punching bag.
Thankfully, Nick didn't continue to taunt her, nor did the rest of his gang or Becky approach her, either. They, too, had better things on their mind tonight than focusing on tormenting Jamie.
Mr. and Mrs. Harkins led the way to the crowd gathered around a large, raised platform being used as a makeshift stage for the presentation, and ushered everyone to gather around.
"One at a time kids! No pushing!"
"Stay together, everyone! We don't want anyone getting lost!"
Jamie tried to maneuver her way to the front of the large gathering of orphans in order to get a better view, but her tiny body was shoved aside. Not by the bullies, but by all the other kids. She was one of the tiniest kids there, and she was easily knocked aside by the bigger kids trying to make their way to the front. It took all her willpower during the hustling and bustling not to drop her cotton candy. She'd paid good money for this snack. She didn't want to drop it on the disgusting ground.
The kids got there in the nick of time. The curtain on the stage was just being raised, and lights flashed on to reveal a small line of five young woman that all appeared to be in their early twenties, and each one of them was wearing short skirted versions of female tuxedos with red flowers in their boutonnieres, and jaunty top hats. Directly behind them was a bright red, shiny Chevy model, and in front of them was a microphone and its stand.
One of them stepped forward, took the mic from its stand, and began to speak to the crowd.
"Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Howard Stark!"
Jamie adjusted her grip on her cotton candy to maneuver it to be directly between her thumb and index finger in order to try and awkwardly join in with the crowds' ecstatic, welcoming applause for the multi-billionaire as famed Howard Stark walked on stage. He was a young man in only in mid-to-late twenties, and he was incredibly handsome, what with his dark hair, dark eyes, and small mustache. Like the girls on stage, he too was dressed smartly in a flashy black tuxedo, and had a black top hat perched on top of his head. He grinned to the applauding crowd as he took his place on stage, and then smiled coyly to the girl with the microphone. She and the other chorus girls swooned when they saw his grin, and the girl with the mic stepped forward, allowing the playboy billionaire to sweep her off her feet, and into a quick, but very sensuous kiss. The crowd roared. They loved it.
When they finally broke apart, the girl swapped the microphone for Stark's top hat before walking off with the other girls toward the car in the back of the stage. Stark couldn't help but chuckle somewhat before finally turning and addressing the crowd.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Mr. Stark began. "What if I told you that in just a few short years, your automobile won't even have to touch the ground at all?"
There was a great amount of murmuring from the crowd at these words. Cars wouldn't have to be on the ground anymore? It was impossible. How could it be?
"He's gotta be joking!" Jamie overheard Becky whisper furiously to Nick as the women up on the stage began tinkering somewhat with the wheels on the car. "That's impossible! Cars drive on the street!"
"Nothing's impossible for Howard Stark!" Nick muttered, not bothering to look away from the stage, or rather, the girls' long, lean legs as he spoke. "He's done the impossible before!"
Jamie ignored them. She was awestruck at what Howard Stark was suggesting. Flying cars? She kept her eyes glued on the stage, not even allowing herself to blink in case she missed something.
The women finished whatever they were doing with the wheels, and quickly pulled them away from the red Chevy to reveal a series of metal electronics in their place. The crowd was silent, anxiously waiting to hear what they did.
"Yes," Stark went on. "With Stark Grativic Reversion Technology, you'll be able to do just that."
There was a panel with many complicated looking buttons on levers beside him on the stage, and he paused to turn away from the audience, and fiddle around with some of the buttons for a moment. The car, very slowly, began to rise in the air, and hovered there for everyone to see.
"Wow…" Jamie whispered, stars in her eyes and an excited smile on her face. She couldn't believe it. The car was really flying. Flying. She was going to live to see cars fly through the air rather than drive down the street. Maybe if she was lucky, she'd actually ride in one of those cars. It was just so amazing, so incredible; she couldn't get a single coherent thought running properly through her head.
Then, just as suddenly as the car rose up in the air, it suddenly dropped, rather unexpectedly, back down to the earth, and Stark, the women on stage, and everyone up close to the stage in the audience were showered in a great number of smoke and sparks. Everyone in the crowd instinctively backed away.
"Well, I did say a few years, didn't I?" Stark joked, and the crowd laughed and politely applauded.
As the crowd began to disperse, the Harkins gathered all the orphans around once again. As Jamie did her best to follow along, she suddenly spied a small, beige building in the exact center of the fair grounds. She knew what that building was. She went into one of its twins as often as she could every week in her efforts to join the army. An Army Recruiting Office.
"All right, children, next on the list is some of the rides," Julia called out for all the kids to hear.
"I'll be leading the way to the Ferris Wheel," shouted Mr. Harkins, "but if there's anyone who wants to go on the Merry-Go-Round instead, follow my wife instead. We'll all meet up at the Ring Toss in half-an-hour."
Immediately, kids began to separate, one group following Mr. Harkins to the Ferris Wheel, the other group following Julia to the Merry-Go-Round. Jamie was in neither group. She stayed right where she was, and stared eagerly up at the main entrance to the recruiting office. Maybe the reason why the doctors at the office she generally went to were so stingy about giving her an exam was because they were getting tired of her going to that particular office over and over again. Maybe if she tried getting admitted for an exam here, she'd have more luck.
She marched right up to the entrance, her entire being bursting with hope and each step filled with determination. It was a fair, after all. Why not try her luck?
A few people eyed her curiously as she entered. It was one thing to see adults enter recruiting offices, but children? That was unheard of. Jamie ignored the perplexed looks she was receiving, and approached the woman at the front desk.
"Um… excuse me? Ma'am?"
The young receptionist put down the newspaper she'd been reading, and glanced down at Jamie, seemingly confused to her here.
"Oh, can I help you?" the woman asked. "Did you get separated from your parents somehow out there—" she gestured vaguely towards the fronts doors. "—in the fair?"
"N-no, I'm not lost," Jamie answered. "But you can help me."
"How?" asked the receptionist, growing more confused by the minute.
"I'd like a copy of the recruitment paperwork," Jamie said brightly. "I want to enlist in the army, please."
For a long moment, the woman just stared at her. Then she began laughing.
"That's a good one, kid, but only adults are allowed to fight in the war."
"Ma'am, I'm not joking," Jamie said earnestly. "I want to enlist. Can you please give me the paperwork so I can see one of the doctors?"
"Of course not!" the receptionist exclaimed. "I could lose my job if I were to let a little girl like you try to enlist in the army!"
"Ma'am, please!" Jamie begged. "Isn't there anything you can do? I don't have to necessarily fight! I'd settle for just doing the laundry or something in one of the army camps! Please!"
"I'm afraid not," said the receptionist, now beginning to sound stern. "I know who you are, now. You're that little girl that's been going to that recruiting office on 11th every week for the past month, aren't you? Decided to try somewhere else for a change, did you?"
"All I want is a chance!" Jamie exclaimed. "One chance! My big brother is somewhere in Italy right now! I just want to help him! Please! Give me a chance to help my only brother!"
"Little girl, I'm afraid that's completely out of the question," said the receptionist firmly. "Now, why don't you go find your parents, or else I may have to find a nice policeman escort you to them, hm?"
Jamie glared. She was starting to lose her patience. Didn't this woman understand? Didn't anyone in this city understand? She had to get to Europe. She had to help Trent. Trent was the most important person in her life. She wouldn't be able to live with herself if she didn't do anything to help him while he was overseas, laying down his life for her. She opened her mouth to starting shouting angry things, but there was suddenly a firm hand clasped tightly on her shoulder.
"It's all right, Marian," said a rough, accented, but otherwise unknown voice from somewhere behind Jamie. "I shall take care of this child."
Jamie turned. Behind her stood a rather old man. His white hair was beginning to bald, and he wore a thin pair of round, gold-rimmed glasses. His face was covered in rapidly growing stubble, and he was dressed up in a very smart brown suit. He apparently was someone very important, because the receptionist immediately brightened upon seeing him.
"Oh, thank you very much, Doctor Erskine."
"No trouble at all, Marian," replied the man known as Erskine. Then he glanced down at Jamie. "Come along, child. I'll lead you back to your parents."
Forcing back an angry scowl, Jamie nodded, and allowed the man to lead her out of the building. Once again, she would never get her chance to go overseas. She would be taken back to the Harkins who would no doubt lightly punish her with a set of chores to complete tomorrow before being able to go out to play, and would be taunted by Nick, Becky, and all their friends upon seeing her being walked back by an army official. Could she never escape this endless cycle of repeated rejections whenever she entered recruiting offices? Would the only way for her to get to Europe be by stowing away on a ship with other recruits that had been cleared to fight in the war?
"Where are your parents?" asked Erskine, bringing Jamie back to the present.
"I don't have parents," Jamie told him. "I'm here with the other orphans in the city orphanage. The owners, the Harkins, brought us. Mr. Harkins took half the group to the Ferris Wheel, and Mrs. Harkins took everyone else to the Merry-Go-Round."
"You're an orphan?" asked Erskine, leading Jamie in the direction of the Merry-Go-Round. "And you want to go overseas? Kill some Nazi's?"
"What?" asked Jamie. She was surprised that she wasn't being ridiculed over trying to enlist. Everyone else she'd ever met had always had stern words to say to her once they found out what she'd consistently been trying to do.
"I am Doctor Abraham Erskine," said the man, pausing to smile to Jamie as they weaved in between bodies as they strolled toward the Merry-Go-Round. "I represent the Strategic Scientific Reserve."
"I'm Jamie. Jamie Elizabeth Harper. And I'm not an orphan! I still have a big brother! Sergeant Trenton Harper. He's serving right now somewhere in Europe. I'm just at the orphanage because the government says I have to be until he comes home, or… or he dies…"
There was a brief, tense silence at this. Jamie quickly latched onto the first topic that popped into her head.
"You don't sound American," she said.
Erskine briefly chuckled at this. "I'm German. This troubles you?"
"No, sir," said Jamie, afraid she'd offended him. "I was simply curious."
"I've heard of you, Miss Harper," Doctor Erskine continued. "You're the little girl who has been going to that recruiting office down on 11th Street repeatedly and asking to be enlisted, are you not?"
"I'm not gonna get arrested, am I?" said Jamie, suddenly nervous. "You're not taking me to the police, are you? I didn't think I'd broken some sort of law, I just thought—"
"No, it's not the fact that you broke a law that I'm currently taking you back to the owners of the orphanage," Erskine quickly interjected. "It's the fact that you keep trying to enlist. But, you didn't answer my first question. Do you want to kill Nazi's?"
Jamie blinked. She didn't know what to say to that. Stalling for time to think up a response, she thought up her own question.
"Does the answer really matter?"
Jamie chewed on her lower lip. Again, she really didn't know what to say. When she decided she wanted to join the war, she knew that killing people would probably be inevitable, but that didn't mean she wanted to do it. She wasn't even sure she could do it if the time came, but she still wanted to help somehow. Help Trent. Help the men overseas. Help America in general. She answered as honestly as she could.
"No, sir," she said. "I… I really don't want to kill anyone. Nazi or otherwise. I just… I just want to help Trent. He's all I have left in this world. I want to help him. Him and all of America. I want to help by doing more than just collecting scrap metal in a wagon…"
The doctor quietly contemplated her answer as they approached the Merry-Go-Round. Jamie could Mrs. Harkins at the front of the line, keeping a watchful eye on all the kids as they rode the backs of the wooden horses.
"Well," Erskine finally said after a long moment. "There are already so many big men fighting this war. Maybe what we need now is a little girl…"
Jamie blinked. She had no idea what he meant. "Sir?"
Erskine came to a halt no more than a few yards away from Julia Harkins, and Jamie stopped, too. Julia didn't notice them. The other kids were disembarking the carousel, and she was counting heads, trying to make sure no one had run off.
"If you were offered a chance," said Erskine slowly, carefully studying her facial expressions. "Only a chance, mind you, not a guarantee… would you accept it?"
"Of course!" said Jamie at once. "One chance is all I ask!"
"Interesting…" he murmured. He seemed to be contemplating something to himself, nodding to himself, even. When he finally glanced back down at the little girl at his side, he smiled.
"This conversation never happened," he finally told her.
Again, Jamie blinked. "Huh? But we are talking! Right now! You just met me in—"
"No," he interrupted. "You never went into that Army Recruiting Office tonight. You never met me. Tomorrow, you will stay inside the orphanage with the other children. Do not leave. Do you understand me?"
Jamie tilted her head to the side. "No. What do you mean?"
Again, Erskine smiled. "Just do as I say, and you might get that one chance…"
And with that, he nodded for her to head back towards the other kids, and strolled back in the direction of the Recruiting Office.
Jamie was left alone, puzzling over his words. Stay at the orphanage tomorrow? Don't leave? If she did that, she'd possibly get a chance to help Trent? She didn't really understand.
With one last curious glance at the strange old man from the army shot over her shoulder, she shrugged to herself, and marched back in the direction of the other kids as they followed behind Julia to the Ring Toss. She melted easily back in line, no one the wiser that she'd even left the group.
"Hey, War Girl!" shouted Becky mockingly as she and Nick strolled past her seat in the cafeteria. "Not planning on eating breakfast are you? You ate so much cotton candy last night at the Expo! Hate to see you lose your dream 'cause you got so fat!"
Jamie's cheeks reddened in embarrassment, but refused to look up from her page in her copy of The Wizard of Oz. She was doing her best to ignore them.
"Hey, pay attention, recruit!" snapped Nick, getting right up behind her and sneering into her ear. "In the army, you have to give people your full and undivided attention."
Jamie forced herself not to stiffen up or turn around. She just kept trying to read the same sentence on the page she'd been staring at for the past twenty seconds, trying to allow the meaning of the words to sink in.
Although she still didn't understand what Doctor Erskine meant last night, she was obeying his instructions and staying inside the orphanage today, even though she was sorely tempted to simply disregard what he'd said and go back to the recruiting office down the road, if for no other reason than to just escape her bullies. Still, what he'd told her last night had, at the very least, hinted towards her having a chance to join the army. She could gather up her courage and deal with Nick and Becky for one day.
The book was suddenly snatched from her hands, and held up high out of her reach by a smirking Nick.
"Hey! That used to belong to my Mom!" Jamie snapped, jumping to her feet. "Give it back! Right now!"
"No, I don't think I will…" Nick sneered. He flipped open the book to a random page, sneered at the words, and then proceeded to rip it from the book. "Oh, look, my mistake…"
Jamie stared, horrified, at what he'd done. Then she screamed.
"Mr. and Mrs. Harkins!" she wailed. She didn't care if her tattling would result in her getting bruised from head to toe later. She didn't care that Nick and Becky were glaring at her icily for her screaming to get adults. She wanted them to get in trouble this time. Her copy of The Wizard of Oz had been her mother's copy back when she was her age, and now it was ruined. They should be punished.
Julia came running over, surprise on her face when she saw what was going on. "Jamie, what is it? Why are you—?"
"Look!" Jamie screamed, fresh tears running down her face as she snatched her mother's ruined copy of The Wizard of Oz from Nick's hand, as well as the ripped out page, and thrust both items up in Julia's face. "Look what they did! They ruined it! My Mom's copy! This was my Mom's copy of this book! And they ruined it! They ruined it!"
Julia stared at the ripped out page from the book, and then at Jamie, who was freely crying out her misery. They she turned furiously towards Nick and Becky.
"You two better expect to be doing more chores around here until further notice," she told them sternly. "Last night at the Expo? That'll be the last group outing you two will be taking until further notice. Now, apologize to Jamie."
Nick and Becky both glowered. They were boiling mad. They wanted nothing more than to clobber Jamie in a whirlwind of kicks and punches, but they were currently in front of Mrs. Harkins. They couldn't do anything to her right now. With angry scowls, they turned back to Jamie.
Jamie accepted their grumbled apologies with a curt nod. She knew they didn't mean it, and she'd be paying for this later on this afternoon.
"What about Mom's book?" she asked, tears still running down her face. "Can it be fixed?"
"You could tape it back together for now," said Mrs. Harkins. "But I'll buy you another copy the next time I go out to run errands. I know it's not the same, but it's better than having a ripped up copy."
"'Kay," said Jamie, wiping away her tears on her sleeve. It wouldn't be her Mom's copy, but it would be replaced. That was better than nothing.
Just then, the doorbell to the main entrance of the orphanage resounded.
Instantly, the entire cafeteria went very quiet. There were guests. Guests. Every time the doorbell rang, it meant one of two things. There were government officials coming to check up on the welfare of the children, or there was possible parents looking to adopt children. The one thing that every child at the orphanage wanted more than anything.
Instantly, there was a great scraping of chairs on the floor as everyone hurried to the front doors. Government officials or possible parents. Either way, everyone was required to go to the main entrance and greet the visitors. Including Jamie. Even though she wasn't up for adoption like the other kids here, she was supposed to be present for when government officials showed up for surprise inspections.
"Look alive, kids!" called out Mr. Harkins as everyone gathered to the main lobby. "We want to make a good impression."
Jamie hurried along behind everyone else, hastily fixing her messy pigtails. She wasn't the only one trying to hurriedly primp up her appearance. Everywhere around her, girls of all ages were running their fingers through their hair, and boys were wiping their dirty hands on the back of their pants. If possible adopting parents were here, everyone wanted to look the nicest so they could be the child that would be adopted. To have a real family. Most children had been in the orphanage since they were newborns, and never knew what that meant. Others, like Jamie, had had parents that had unfortunately passed away, and although no one could replace their real parents, they wanted a new family, or at the very least to leave the orphanage.
As soon as everyone had gathered in the main lobby, Mr. and Mrs. Harkins quickly scanned their eyes over everyone, making sure that everyone was properly groomed and had not a hair out of place. They were satisfied, and they both smiled.
"All right, everyone," said Mrs. Harkins cheerfully. "Big smiles, now!"
And with that, the Harkins put on welcoming smiles of their own, and opened the door. Their cheerful smiles immediately turned to looks of complete bewilderment when they saw who was waiting on the front step.
On the front steps of the building was a military official whose army uniform depicted him to be of a very high rank, a young woman in her early twenties with big, dark brown eyes, bouncy, curled dark brown hair, and bright, ruby red lips who was also of military ranking but of a seemingly lower ranking than the man, and — to Jamie's complete surprise — Doctor Abraham Erskine. Behind them, there were a vast number of army privates, as well as a sheer number of trucks and cars, more than enough to cover the amount of people on the front steps at least twice over.
The Harkins were completely taken aback by the guests in front of them, and weren't even able to say anything in greeting, but loud whispering resounded from the children. What was going on? Were the Harkins doing something illegal? Could the mean, smelly cook that worked in the kitchens actually be a Nazi spy? Theories were bouncing back and forth faster than wildfire among the kids.
Jamie was stunned. She remembered that Doctor Erskine had mentioned something last night about him being in some of secret research group in the army, but this was over her head. What was going on? He'd told her last night she hadn't broken any laws by trying to get recruited into the army, but now she wasn't so sure. This whole array of army officials couldn't be here just for her… could they?
"Sir, ma'am," said the high-ranking man. "Good morning to you both."
"G-good morning!" chirped out a nervous Julia. "It's… you're a Colonel, right?"
The high-ranking man nodded. "I'm Colonel Chester Phillips, and these are my associates. Agent Peggy Carter," he paused and nodded to the woman beside him, who smiled pleasantly and nodded in greeting, "And Doctor Abraham Erskine." He nodded then to the Erskine, who also nodded. "We represent the Strategic Scientific Reserve."
"I'm Evan Harkins," said Mr. Harkins, still somewhat bewildered by the appearance of the Colonel and the small army platoon with him. "This is my wife, Julia. We run this place, but may I ask what you're doing here?"
"We're here to see and select any of your available children that are between the ages of ten to fifteen."
"See and select?" said Julia, her eyes widening. "Just what are you talking about?"
"We have authorization to take a select number of your kids until further notice."
"What?!" Mr. Harkins thundered, and many kids instinctively backed away. Mr. Harkins hardly ever yelled. "What authorization?! For what reason?! You have no right to come here and demand to take away any of these kids!"
"They are orphans!" Julia added, her voice just as icy. "They are just children! We are sponsored by the United States government to take care of them! The army has nothing to do with this institution! Leave our property at once!"
"Sir, ma'am," Agent Carter spoke up, her voice laced with traces of a British accent. "We understand that this request must come as a sudden shock to you both, but I'm afraid we are pressed for time. We have proper authorization and documentation from the government to take these children."
"I demand to see this so-called proper documentation," snarled Mr. Harkins. "Until I do, none of you are taking one step inside this facility and will so much as look at any of these kids!"
The Colonel reached inside an inner pocket of his uniform, and took out a sheet of paper.
"Signed by Senator Brandt himself," he said as he passed it to Mr. Harkins. "We've the right to take these kids. With your compliance, or by force, though if you two choose for us take them away by force, we have the right to have you both arrested for trying to stop us."
"What do you want these kids for?!" Julia demanded as Mr. Harkins' eyes scanned the words on the document. "They are just kids! What use does the army have for them?!"
"That's classified," answered the Colonel gruffly, his eyes firmly planted on Mr. Harkins, and Mr. Harkins alone.
Having finished reading the order, Mr. Harkins handed the form back to the Colonel and sighed, sounding very exasperated.
"Their order checks out," he muttered. Julia gaped at him. "We have no choice…"
"I'm calling our lawyer!" Julia shrieked. "We have rights! These children have rights!"
She all but ran from the main lobby to find the nearest telephone.
Mr. Harkins sighed, but stepped aside, allowing Colonel Phillips, Agent Carter, and Doctor Erskine to enter.
"Line up all the kids between ages ten to fifteen," the Colonel demanded.
Mr. Harkins didn't have to. Upon hearing the Colonel's demand, the every kid in that age range nervously stumbled out of the collected gathering of kids scattered throughout the room, and formed a long, single file line shoulder-to-shoulder across the entire expanse of the room.
Jamie stood among them. Now she understood why Erskine had told her what he'd had the night before about making sure she stayed here at the orphanage today. It was so she would be here right now. For some reason, whatever they wanted these kids for, he wanted her to be included in this gathering.
"I know you said that whatever you want with these kids is apparently secret," Harkins said as the three military officials began walking up and down the line and staring at the children, "But you really can't expect me to believe that you honestly need every single child between the age of ten to fifteen here in this building… That's crazy! That's at least a third of the entire population here in the orphanage!"
"We're not taking all of them," said Erskine, speaking up for the very first time. "We only require ten, nine of which will be returned to your care in a week and a day exactly."
"You're taking ten but will return nine?" Harkins repeated, shock plainly written on his face. "Why? What'll you do to the last one?"
"Again, that's classified," the Colonel repeated. He wasn't even looking at Harkins as he spoke. His eyes were sizing up a fifteen-year-old burly boy that Jamie had never spoken to before. After a moment's deliberation, he nodded to himself and then glanced over his shoulder at one of the army privates holding a cameo-colored duffel bag. "This one goes. Take him upstairs and get his stuff packed."
The army private nodded, and motioned for the boy to follow him upstairs to where all the bedrooms were.
Agent Carter, meanwhile, was looking over a thirteen-year-old girl at the end of the line. "Colonel Phillips," she called out. "What about this one?"
The Colonel nodded in approval. "Her too," he agreed, and another private with a duffel took that girl upstairs.
One by one, five boys and four girls were plucked out of line by either the Colonel or Agent Carter, and were then handed over to army privates with duffel bags who then proceeded to lead them upstairs to pack up their necessities before leading them outside to where the trucks awaited. Nick was among the boys, and Jamie couldn't help but scowl slightly when she caught sight of the smug look on his face when he was chosen.
Through all this, Doctor Erskine was surprisingly silent. He just watched as the Colonel and Agent Carter selected different kids. Only once did his eyes come to rest on Jamie, and Jamie saw him smile at her.
"We've got enough boys, we just need one more girl," the Colonel muttered as the fifth boy was dragged out of line and taken upstairs.
"Which one should it be, Colonel?" Agent Carter asked.
The Colonel eyes scanned the line at the remaining girls, thinking hard. His eyes came to rest on Becky.
"She'll do," he answered, and Becky's face broke into a wide grin. "Private! Take this one upstairs and—"
"No," Doctor Erskine cut in, and both Agent Carter and the Colonel turned in surprise. "Her."
He pointed sharply at Jamie.
"Her?" the Colonel repeated in disbelief. "Doctor Erskine, with all due respect… we need kids that will actually be able to endure training, and she looks like—"
"I have allowed you and Agent Carter to select all the other candidates," Erskine once again interjected. "All I ask is that you allow me to select at least one candidate of my own."
The Colonel pressed his lips together rather tightly, but then nodded in consent.
"Fine. Private, take that girl instead."
Becky shot Jamie a cold glare, one that went completely unnoticed. Jamie was in awestruck delight. This was it. She was going with the army. Doctor Erskine really was giving her a chance. The army private held out his hand, and Jamie reached out toward him—
"Hold it right there!"
Jamie froze, as did the army private. All heads immediately turned back to Julia Harkins, who was standing in the doorway leading towards her and Mr. Harkins main office, both of her hands firmly planted on her hips, and an icy scowl plastered on her face.
"I just got off the phone with our lawyer," she began, her tone deadly. "He's coming right now. He's going to validate whether or not your so-called authorization is legal, but regardless, that girl stays right here!"
"Ma'am, you can call your lawyers. They'll just confirm that we have the proper authorization. And this girl was chosen. She is going."
"No. My wife is correct. She has to stay," said Mr. Harkins. "Any of the other children are normal, but that is Jamie Harper. She is not a proper orphan. She is currently a ward of the state because her older brother is her only living family, and he was drafted and sent to Europe. She is merely an extended guest being forced to board here. You can't take her."
"If she is a ward of the state because her brother is in the army, then that places her in the care of the United States government," Doctor Erskine calmly deflected. "The government may have placed her here originally, but with these new orders, it now has the right to extract her from your care, thereby placing her in the care of the United States Army instead. She is coming."
"You just can't do this!" Julia shrieked. "I don't know what you want with these kids, but this is wrong! They have rights, too!"
The Colonel ignored her protests as he once again signaled for the army private to take Jamie upstairs, and help her pack her things. He led her up the stairs, and only allowed Jamie to give him brief instructions to her bedroom before leading her down the upstairs hall to her room.
"Pack whatever you need," the private told her as he tossed her the empty duffel. "Only one or two fun and games things. No room for that stuff at the military base."
"Y-yes, sir!" Jamie stuttered nervously as she looked around her bedroom for the past month.
She emptied her closet, stuffing as many of her clothes as she could into the duffel, as well as a spare pair of shoes and a set of hair ties. She grabbed her hairbrush from her desk, and her stationary set. That drew a brow from the private, and he opened his mouth to protest.
"My stationary set doesn't count as fun and games," she quickly said before he could demand her to leave it back on the desk. "My big brother is overseas right now! I'm allowed to mail him letters! I'm taking it with me, as well as his letters and the pictures I have of him and our parents!"
The private wasn't pleased, but he begrudgingly nodded. "Fine," he muttered darkly as she threw her stationary set and the framed photographs she had of Trent alone and the picture of the two of them with their parents before they died into the duffel with the rest of her clothes. "Then what are your fun and games things, then?"
"My stuffed panda, Pannie," she answered, holding her bear up so he could see. "My portable record player and two recordings, and my favorite book."
"No record player and no book."
"The record player helps me sleep at night!" She demanded. "And the book is an easy read! It takes up next to no space! Please!"
"Fine, fine!" he grunted. "Quit your bitchin'…"
"That's a swear word!" she said, her eyes wide.
"Better get used to it. You'll be hearing them a lot on the base. Now grab the last of your shit and let's go."
She scowled at his language, but did as he said. She still had the ruined copy of The Wizard of Oz in hand, and she threw it and its ripped out page on top of the other things in the duffel bag. There would surely be someone at the base who could loan her some tape to repair it. She collected her record player off her desk, and removed the vinyl recording of Come Josephine in my Flying Machine from its track. She put it back inside its protective sleeve, and then put it and her recording of The Wizard of Oz inside her duffel bag, too.
"That everything, then?" the private asked as she zipped up the duffel, and picked up Pannie.
"Yes, that's everything," she said, hugging her panda as tight as she could.
"Good. Follow me, then."
He led her back down the stairs. The Harkins' lawyer was in the main lobby, validating the order the Colonel had shown them.
"It's legit," Jamie overheard him say to the orphanage owners as the private led her through the crowd of kids that were watching this entire spectacle and towards the front doors. "I don't know what the army wants with your kids, but it's got the governments' stamp of approval. You've got no choice…"
Mr. Harkins swore under his breath, and Julia loudly screamed profanities about how unjust this was as the private dragged her outside. Jamie wasn't looking at them, though. Her eyes had caught sight of Becky's. Becky was glaring venomously at the younger girl. She was beyond furious that Jamie was leaving and not her. Jamie suppressed the urge to shudder. She had to be brave now. Nick was still going, and he was sure to make her life a living hell whenever they got to where the army was taking them all. He might not have Becky or the rest of his gang anymore, but he was plenty strong and scary on his own, too. He could still easily beat her up. He was more than four years older and had over fifty pounds on her.
"Will my brother's letters be forwarded to wherever we're going?" she asked as the private steered her down the paved pathway leading towards the trucks. "I want to be able to keep writing to him, and to get letters back."
"I'll mention it to the Colonel," the private muttered. "He'll find your file and get the letters forwarded to the base."
He steered her to towards the last truck, as all the others were filled with the other kids, and the last truck was the only one left with an available seat. Thankfully, Nick wasn't aboard this one. Only some other kids that had never bothered to talk to her before either because they were just plain indifferent to Jamie, or because they didn't want to get on the bad side of Becky, Nick, or Nick's gang by befriending her. The private helped her climb aboard.
"Get buckled in," he ordered her. "We've a long and bumpy road ahead of us today."
"Sir?" called out a boy of eleven as Jamie dumped her bag beside her seat and buckled in, keeping her panda bear on her lap. "Where are we going exactly?"
"And why do you want us?" shouted out a thirteen-year-old girl.
"You'll find out why you were chosen tomorrow," said the Colonel. He, Agent Carter, and Doctor Erskine had at last exited the orphanage, and were addressing the kids. "As for where we're going… ever been to New Jersey?"
"New Jersey?" repeated the first boy, his eyes wide.
"That's right," repeated the Colonel. "Camp Lehigh, New Jersey. The military base."