Her hands moving nimbly across her work, Otter peered out the factory window at the other children as they played in the park with their imaginary friends.
Otter never saw the other children except through that window from the narrow, gray space where she toiled. When she walked to the factory in the morning, and from the factory at night, those children were in their homes with their families, and the world was dark and still.
Otter didn’t have a family of her own. Neither did she have her own imaginary. Although she admired the great variety of imaginary friends she saw with the other children, none was perfect. She wanted an imaginary very badly. But she wanted hers to be perfect. So she waited. And she worked.
She looked momentarily down at the libertyslipper in her small, calloused hands. It looked just like all the others. Otter had sewn together dozens of libertyslippers already today, joining the bits of silk and magical hide as the conveyor belt slowly but continuously delivered them to her. Compared to the belt’s snail-like pace, Otter sped through the process. No one else in the factory could assemble libertyslippers as quickly as Otter. This was perhaps because no one else in the factory had been doing it as long as she had. Assembling libertyslippers could be dangerous work, so assemblers didn’t usually last long enough to become experienced. But Otter was always careful—she had to be.
She placed the finished libertyslipper back onto the conveyor belt beside its mate and, for a moment, watched the pair of them crawl away from her toward the packaging workers’ station in the next drab room down the line. Otter glanced again out the window as she waited for the next batch of material to arrive. And she thought of what it must be like to have her own imaginary. Or to play in the daylight.
“Enjoying the view, Odder?” Otter’s thoughts of other children and imaginary friends evaporated on contact with the reedy, nasal voice of Mr. Pickle, the factory manager. That voice erupted in an impish, self-satisfied giggle at the tired pun it frequently made of her name. With an equally tired lack of amusement, Otter looked up at the face producing that giggle.
Mr. Pickle’s pale face was dominated by its central feature—his nose. His face was, in that way, not unlike the town of Junkton, whose central feature was the factory that supplied all of Imbria’s libertyslippers. Both the town and the face were taken up largely by hulking, unsightly structures at their centers. For all intents and purposes, Junkton was the libertyslipper factory. For all intents and purposes, Mr. Pickle’s face was his nose.
Several high-pitched squeals chirped from behind Mr. Pickle as his imaginary, Greeble, echoed the gangly manager’s giggle. “You are so clever, Pickle,” Greeble gasped between twitters. “Clever, clever, clever!”
Greeble was a startling sight to the unaccustomed: as tall as a short adult, he was easily the largest grasshopper that most people had ever imagined, let alone seen. His greenish-brown antennae twitched with delight at the chance to praise Mr. Pickle. The duo was a perfect match. Both wore gaudy pink shirts that clashed with the neon yellow pinstripes of their matching jackets. And each had a loud plaid bowtie cinched tightly beneath his chin. If Greeble weren’t a giant grasshopper, the only way to distinguish him from his real would have been the clipboard clutched tightly to his segmented, insectile chest. And, of course, Mr. Pickle’s nose.
Heedless of the tense discussion, libertyslipper materials continued down the conveyor. Otter reached for them, picked them up, grabbed her sheers, and began trimming the narrow edges from the rough-cut strips. Her hands never slowed in their work as she continued to stare expressionless up at Mr. Pickle’s nose, focusing on the delicate veins that etched it’s wan, dimpled surface like a map. She ignored Greeble completely. For a brief moment, Otter considered imagining a friend to devour them both in a single, salivating chomp. But she restrained herself, as was her habit.
Annoyed at his inability to stir a reaction in Otter, Mr. Pickle scowled over the blob of his bold proboscis and planted his hands peevishly on his bony hips. “You know, Odder,” he said, again emphasizing the distortion of her name, “it’s quite impolite to ignore someone who is talking to you.”
Otter continued to stare.
Mr. Pickle was becoming visibly disconcerted by the girl’s intent silence. He nervously smoothed the five or six long, greasy hairs that arced across his head like the decrepit remains of a thatched roof providing only pitiful shelter for the massive nose beneath it.
“Ooh, Pickle,” chirruped Greeble eagerly, nudging his real with one of his spare arms. “Maybe that’s why it’s got no imaginary. Maybe it’s not a loner after all.” Pickle’s shoulders shook with a tiny, involuntary shudder at Greeble’s mention of loners. Few people liked to think too much about the pitiful souls whose imaginations could not give form to an imaginary.
“Maybe,” Greeble continued, “its personality is sooooo unpleasant that its imaginary just up and ran away!” And at this its large mandibles produced another spasm of mocking laughter, with Mr. Pickle’s thin giggle now echoing the grasshopper’s.
Now Otter turned her head to regard Greeble. Although she generally ignored Pickle’s ingratiating imaginary, she was amused that this giant bug would refer to her as it.
“Actually,” she said with only the faintest hint of a smile, “I’ve never imagined one.” She paused briefly for effect. “That means I could, if I wanted, imagine a giant shoe to stamp out any pests I might find around here.” Her smile grew ever so slightly. “If I wanted,” she repeated archly.
Greeble choked on his laugh. Had he been human, Otter was certain the color would have drained from his face. As Greeble blanched, Otter just finished sewing together one libertyslipper, set it aside, and began to assemble the second in the pair.
Mr. Pickle’s beady eyes widened with shock and outrage at Otter’s comment and, reaching over to place a hand on Greeble’s trembling shoulder, he quietly soothed the great grasshopper. “Don’t you listen to that nasty little—” But his words trailed off as he recalled the fact of Otter’s existence. Mr. Pickle whipped his thin neck around to face the dirty-cheeked girl standing before the perpetually snaking conveyor belt. His bulbous nose jiggled with the force of that sudden movement for an extra second after the rest of his head had come to a stop.
“Didn’t your parents ever teach you,” hissed Mr. Pickle through clenched teeth, “if you haven’t got anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all?” Then, as his beady, gray eyes glared around his nose, his pale, thin lips curled into a cruel sneer. He again smoothed his isolated strands of hair, but smugly now. “Oh, that’s right,” he intoned with mock pity. “You haven’t got any parents.”
Otter’s tiny grin, a rarity on her lips, deflated as though pricked with a pin. This seemed to satisfy her antagonists’ desire for a reaction. Greeble’s sobs melted into babbling eddies of giggles until the tears were completely replaced by a chorus of chortles. “That’s right, Pickle. Its nasty little personality probably chased them off, too!”
The libertyslipper in her hands now done, she placed it on the conveyor belt and continued to look at the matched pair of her tormentors as they turned their backs to her and walked away, laughing over her many misfortunes. When the lanky factory manager and his giant insect had disappeared around the corner, Otter turned again to look out the window.
But the other children were gone.
The day’s last rays of sunlight were beginning to retreat and—as they always did—the children had retired with them. The darkness growing outside the window was slowly turning back the light from inside the factory, and Otter’s hazy reflection was coming into focus on the dusty panes of glass. She tilted her head slightly as she examined her own face. Otter rarely made time to look at herself, although her restraint was aided by her lack of a proper mirror. But now she looked.
Otter felt a kind of awkward unease as her emerald-green eyes probed the unsmiling face that looked back. Her thick, black hair was pulled tightly away from her face, allowing her gaze to wander unimpeded from the almond shapes of her eyes, over her high, chestnut-colored cheekbones, and down to her prominent chin. Otter was surprised to see that her cheeks and forehead were smudged here and there with dirt. Rarely seeing her own face, she had little occasion to discover how unclean it was. Also surprising to her was that she found her face kind of pretty, in its own way—even with the dirt. If others also found her pretty, they had never told her so.
Otter returned her attention to the conveyor. Another batch of material had crept to her. She again picked up her sheers and began trimming the strips of magical hide. This time, when she pulled off the narrow scraps, she held one up for closer inspection. It was slightly wider than the others—just wide enough to permit careful needlework on each edge. Her breath caught slightly as realization dawned in her mind. This is it, she dared to think. This is it.
Otter looked around for a long moment, checking for unwelcome eyes. Satisfied that she was alone, she reached her hand into the front pocket of her overalls and pulled out a tight, little wad. She carefully, almost lovingly, unfolded the tiny package until she held in her hand a sad, misshapen libertyslipper sole.
One edge of the little sole remained unfinished, and to this edge she began sewing the scrap of libertylion hide. Next she added odd scraps of silk to form uneven sides for the misfit libertyslipper. Otter snipped the thread and then looked down at the strange object in her hand.
This libertyslipper was not identical to all the others. Pieced together from dozens of disparate hide strips and scrap silk, the libertyslipper in her hand seemed a mockery of the flawless footwear Otter sent repeatedly down the line every day. Otter had waited so long to have this single item. Now that she held it, she could scarcely believe it was real.
This is it, she thought again. Tonight is the night.
Ever so carefully, Otter folded the motley libertyslipper into a tiny triangle. Slowly, she replaced the triangle in the pocket of her overalls. And then she went back to work.
* * *
Hours later, the scream of a steam whistle signaled the end of Otter’s shift. She cleaned up the pile of libertyslipper scraps she’d amassed that day—those that remained, anyway—and shoved them down the chute that led to the factory’s enormous incinerator. She tidied her station as she always did and set up her supplies for when she would return the next day. As she always did.
But tomorrow would not be as it always was.
She tried to walk at a normal pace as she picked up her tin lunch pail and dented tin drinking cup, which she placed in the pail. She tried to look natural as she turned calmly toward the door. She tried to attract even less attention than usual as she walked down the hall past the grubby children coming in for the night shift and through the libertyslipper factory’s main exit for the very last time.
The cool night air washed over Otter’s face, bathing her senses in all the scents of the night. She looked up at the weak starlight, made dim by the factory’s glaring lamps. She stood there inhaling and exhaling slowly and wondering how starlight would look far away from the factory. Tomorrow, she thought as her legs began to move her once more, I won’t have to wonder.
She continued to stroll calmly down the concrete walkway that led from the factory to the Junkton Home for Unwanted Children. The Home (as people often called it) was little more than a barracks for storing the factory’s many child laborers. Children without families to care for them or worry after them made ideal workers in a hazardous occupation. If one day one happened not to return home from work, no one was bothered with mourning. It was just one less unwanted mouth to feed.
The Home lay in the gigantic shadow of the factory’s stark, unadorned walls. But even its proximity to that cold industrial giant could not make the Home seem inviting by comparison. It was rundown and poorly kept. In winter it was drafty; in summer it was stifling. And it was the only home that many of its residents—Otter included—had ever known. Otter hated the Home almost as much as she hated the factory. Maybe more.
Otter approached the Home’s only door. Blotch, the fat doorman who stood guard eyed her with contempt. He scratched his grease-stained shirt with his thick, dirty fingers and lazily spat on the ground in front of Otter.
“You almost didn’t make it,” Blotch growled in his gravelly voice. “A few more minutes, and you’d’ve been locked out and working another shift.” He spat again, this time striking the ground just beside the spiked, scaly beast that slept beside his chair. The beast raised its head to examine Otter with a look of bored hunger. It resembled a cross between a dragon and a bulldog. Its temperament seemed to confirm that blend. Blotch’s imaginary suited him well. Man and beast both sneered in quiet anticipation at the dirty orphan girl standing before them.
Otter didn’t make a sound. She didn’t look up. All she wanted was to get in and to her bed without any trouble. Blotch was vicious and unpredictable. Sometimes silence angered him; other times, only the silent could avoid his wrath.
Today seemed to be of the latter sort. “Well,” he snarled, “get in, then. You’re the last one in tonight.” Realizing that it would get no sport from her today, Blotch’s monstrous, green imaginary laid its head back down on its massively clawed paws and returned to its slumber.
Otter slunk past without a word. The door squeaked on its heavy hinges as she pushed it open and closed it behind her. No sooner had the door closed than Otter heard Blotch turn the bolt. A moment later, the low rattle of iron chains confirmed that the door would not open again until it was time to file back into the factory shortly before Junkton saw its next dawn.
The sound of Otter’s footfalls echoed dully through the Home’s dank halls. Deep into the bowels of the Home her feet carried her, past crowded room after crowded room of the factory’s young workers as they slept or readied for bed. Finally, the winding passageway ended at the Home’s deepest recess, where Otter turned into the last barracks room. Her bottom bunk was one of four identical bunks, each with an identical top bunk sagging low above it.
The other seven children in her room were already snoring softly, their threadbare sheets and itchy, woolen blankets rising and falling slowly in rhythm. Their various imaginaries, all stunted and dull products of the stunted and dull imaginations of children brought up in a factory, lay in seven rusty cages that lined the room’s walls. One cage sat open and empty, unused for all the years Otter had lived in the Home.
Otter tiptoed quietly across the quiet, musty room. Careful not to wake her softly snoring roommates or their slumbering imaginaries, she bent slowly down and reached under her bed. The sagging mattress brushed the top of her hand as her fingers groped for the loose board she knew was there. Finding the board, she gently pried it up and set it aside. Otter reached into the narrow space opened by the board’s removal. Her breath caught in her throat when at first her fingers found only air. But her lungs once again resumed their work as, a moment later, her hand grasped the clothbound bundle she sought.
She carefully drew out the bundle and laid it on her bed beside her tin lunch pail. Slowly, she unwrapped the bundle, checking each item within one by one.
She had squirreled away several small packages of stale bread crust, hard cheese, and dried meat—essentially all that meals in the Home consisted of. These she counted and recounted, knowing that her days might be numbered with them.
She checked the point on the bent sewing needle she had rescued from the trash. And she tested the strength of the tough thread that had nearly been incinerated with the scraps. Otter was always on the lookout for useful items that no one would miss. Needle and thread had been her constant companions at the factory; she was sure they would prove useful beyond its walls.
She also checked the edge of the tiny pocket knife she had saved up for and bought from the Home’s tiny store. The other children spent their paltry earnings on sweets and cheap toys that fell apart after a few minutes of play. But Otter had wanted the knife since the first time she saw it, knowing that this day would eventually arrive.
The inventory continued: a handful of coins, a few rubber bands, a thimble, and two short pencils. She pulled out Surviving in the Wilderness, the dingy, dog-eared book she had read and reread until she knew every letter of every page. The Home had few books, and none were the sort to appeal to the average child. Their bland titles were especially uninteresting to the Home’s exhausted laboring children, who were taught to read only so they could understand signs and instructions necessary for efficient factory work. Otter had never even picked up Knitting Projects for Imaginaries or Learning to Love Loners. But this book she had read in her every spare second—though her spare seconds were few and far between. She set the book apart from the other items in her pack.
The last item she removed was another tiny triangle of mismatched hide and silk. This she inserted with its companion in her pocket.
Otter gathered her things back up and rewrapped them in the old cloth that had bound them under the floorboard. The book she kept out. Gingerly, Otter picked up the old volume, turning several pages slowly to feel them between her fingers one last time. Then she walked over to the lone shelf on the room’s wall and placed Surviving in the Wilderness alongside the handful of dreary titles already there. Knowing every word of it, the book could do her no more good. Perhaps some other child would someday find hope in its yellowing pages.
Inhaling deeply, Otter returned with resolve to the pack on her bed. She hooked the lunchbox and the pack to her rough belt, double checking them to ensure that they couldn’t fall off. She reached into the pocket of her overalls and cautiously unfolded the unsightly libertyslippers she had hidden there, being very careful not to mishandle these powerful—and dangerous—devices.
Squatting low, Otter cautiously slipped her feet into the libertyslippers. Oddly made as they were, they were uncomfortable on her feet. Slowly, she rose to her full height, ignoring the discomfort around her toes. Fixing a steady gaze on the dirty wall of the only home she had ever known, she approached it until her nose nearly touched.
And then Otter walked through the wall, disappearing into the night outside.