Chapter 20

“You must be the children from the Short Stars Modeling Agency,” gushed the perfectly groomed receptionist.

“Um…yes,” replied Arden hesitantly. “That’s right.”

“Well…how clever of the modeling agency to send such, such…natural looking children,” said the receptionist in a tone that was clearly meant to be tactful. “This will make for some perfectly realistic advertisements!” She rang a bell on her desktop, and three men dashed into the room from one of the doorways behind her.

“Just a little spit and polish!” cried the man with a spray bottle and a handful of makeup brushes. He pulled out a comb and gave Ari’s hair a quick workover.

“Now,” said the man with a clipboard, pointing at the man with a television camera. “Look straight at the camera and say ‘Thanks Mom! Hunka-Vites are the greatest!’”

“Excuse me,” interrupted Arden. “But our agency promised us we’d get a tour of the factory.”

“No time! No time!” cried the man with the clipboard. “Now missy…look straight at the camera and say ‘I just love their orangy goodness!”

“WHO are THEY?” shrieked a high-pitched voice from the entryway.

The clipboard man dropped his clipboard, and the makeup man snagged his comb in Arden’s hair. Everyone stared at the front door.

“WE’RE your child models!” howled a girl with hair so perfect it almost looked like plastic. She was followed by a boy who appeared to be practicing grinning and pouting on cue. “Who are THOSE children? They’re scruffy!”

“Actually…” said Ari, “we’re really just here to…um, sell cookies.”

“That’s right,” added Arden. “But none of you seem like the cookie-eating type, so we’ll just be going.” She grabbed Ari by the arm and, hoping no one would notice in the confusion, pulled him toward a doorway behind the reception desk.

“Wait!” cried the receptionist. “Stop! Oh, I can’t believe this! Oh…if only the guards weren’t off duty today.”

But Arden and Ari didn’t stop. They opened the door and ran through as the receptionist’s panicked voice called “But nobody’s allowed in there! Oh my goodness, you’re so right! They are scruffy!”

Ari slammed the door behind them. They were in a hallway with several similar doors. There was no time to choose.

“Did you hear what she said?” asked Arden breathlessly. “The guards are off duty!”

“They must have gone to the fight,” said Ari, pushing through one of the doors. “Come on!”

“Please stand still for sanitizing,” came a prim voice from nowhere, as the small tiled room in which they were now standing began to mist them with a blue spray.

“Somewhere else!” cried Arden “Keep going!”

They ran through the spray toward a metal door on which were painted the words “sanitized entry only.” They pushed it open and entered a cavernous hall filled with glaring light, roaring equipment, and about two-hundred boys in blue jumpsuits.

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