It takes Rill two weeks to learn that all the kids in the house are wards of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Every day she sneaks to the window of Mrs. Murphy’s office to listen even though she knows she’ll be in trouble if she gets caught. After listening to Murphy’s conversations for a while, Rill realizes that “wards” are kids whose parents don’t come for them, and so they are given to new parents. Rill thinks this must be what happened to Sherry and considers herself lucky—Rill has parents who will come for her. One day Rill hears Murphy and Mrs. Pulnik talk about Stevie, who’s been wetting the bed. Murphy says he must be tied to his bed until he learns not to wet it.
Stevie is about three years old, so it’s not surprising that he might wet his bed, especially after the trauma of being separated from Sherry. The extreme punishment Murphy prescribes for him shows just how unfair her expectations are for the kids and how far she’s willing to go to try to correct their behavior.
Rill also learns that she and her siblings are being saved for a viewing. She doesn’t know what this means but thinks it might mean that Briny is coming to see them. However, this worries her because recently a man came to see his son, Lonnie, only to find out that Lonnie was adopted out even though the man wanted to bring him back home—the devastated man cried on the porch for his son until Mr. Riggs carried him away.
Even though Rill wants to see Briny, she doesn’t know if she, her siblings, or Briny would be able to deal with trauma of seeing each other again, but still being prevented from staying together. The episode with Lonnie’s dad shows Rill that even when parents come back for their kids, sometimes the kids are already gone. This means that Briny must find them before they disappear like Lonnie.
When Rill leaves the window, she takes care to hide her tracks both to avoid being caught by Mrs. Pulnik and because she’s afraid of what will happen if Mr. Riggs ever finds her alone there—there are rumors that Riggs hurts children and that if they talk about it then he kills them. Rill is becoming more and more worried about Riggs, who continues to leave peppermints for her and her siblings by their door (which is now locked every night). Rill is worried about what will happen if she and the younger kids are moved upstairs where there is no locked door between them and Riggs.
The rumors about Riggs and Rill’s fear of being caught alone with him imply that he’s guilty of sexual abuse. Rill recognizes that he is leaving peppermints for her and her siblings to earn their trust. Still, rather than talking about what kind of person Riggs might be, Rill just does her best to prevent him from catching her or the other kids alone.
Once she’s back with her siblings, Rill holds Stevie, who has a painful goose egg under his hair from a nurse hitting him. Camellia asks Rill what she heard at the window. Rill says she didn’t hear anything about Briny and Camellia says he must be in jail and Queenie must be dead. Rill yells at her and the two get in a fight. Camellia is about to punch Rill when one of the big boys comes out and shoves Camellia down. Rill gets mad at him and he threatens to hurt Camellia again if Rill doesn’t agree to be his girlfriend. Rill agrees, although it makes her uncomfortable. They hold hands and talk for the rest of the day—Rill even begins to like him and the protection he offers. However, the next day he is missing, and the nurses say he was sent away.
Rill feels helpless in the orphanage even though she knows her siblings are counting on her. She has such a violent reaction to Camellia’s statement that Briny is in jail and Queenie is dead because if it’s true, then nobody is coming to save them, and it would mean the end of life as they know it. The disappearance of Rill’s “boyfriend” is another example of how kids simply disappear from the orphanage; first Sherry disappeared without explanation, and now this boy has disappeared. However, in the boy’s case, it seems that his leaving might have been connected to his behavior with Rill, which sends the message that if you break certain rules then you might disappear, too.
One afternoon the kids are bathed and dressed for a special occasion: a bookmobile is coming, but only the most well-behaved kids can borrow a book. Mrs. Murphy makes Rill leave her siblings in the house while she picks a book for them to share. While Rill waits her turn at the bookmobile, she hears Georgia Tann tell reporters that all the kids in the home were “unwanted and unloved,” but are well taken care of while they wait for adoptive parents. In her mind, Rill screams to the reporters that she has loving parents and that they should go into the house and see the poor living conditions. Outwardly, she patiently waits until one of the women calls her over and helps her pick out a book—Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which reminds Rill of her parents and former happiness and offers an escape from life in the orphanage.
Of all the lies Rill hears Georgia tell, the one that sticks out to her most is that the kids are “unwanted and unloved.” Rill knows she and her siblings have always been wanted and loved, so if only “unwanted and unloved” kids belong in the home then it is proof that Rill doesn’t belong there and should be allowed to go home. However, she realizes that Tann is lying to make herself look good, even though evidence of her villainy is just steps away in the orphanage.
About a week later, Rill sees Tann’s car pull up at the home again. Rill finds a safe spot to hide and listens to Tann and Mrs. Murphy talk. Tann talks about an advertisement she placed in a paper about available blond children and that people are already calling to ask about them. Tann tells Murphy to have all the kids bathed, dressed, and ready to go to the viewing party on Saturday. She emphasizes how important it is for the kids to understand that they can’t do or say anything to embarrass Tann at the party because some of the best families in the nation will be there. Murphy agrees and Tann gives her a list of kids. Murphy is surprised to see the name “May” on the list.
“May” is the name Tann gave Rill when she first got to the orphanage, so this conversation tells Rill that she is going to have to go to the viewing party. The mention of an advertisement means that people at the party are expecting to be able to buy the kids there. In other words, Rill is now officially for sale. The mention of the best families in the nation also subtly hints at families like the Staffords, indicating that this viewing party might somehow relate to the mystery Avery is trying to solve.
Rill goes back to her siblings but doesn’t bother telling Camellia they might need an extra bath—Rill has a bad feeling Camellia won’t need one because she doesn’t have blond hair. When Saturday comes around, Rill realizes she was right. She, Fern, Lark, and Gabion take an extra bath, but Camellia doesn’t have to. Rill begs Camellia to be good as a worker yells for Rill to line up with the other kids. Once they’re dressed, the kids are loaded into cars and they silently drive over the river. As they cross the bridge, Rill senses “May fade” and her true self emerge as she stretches toward the window to catch the smell of the river.
While Rill is not particularly worried about going to the party, she is worried about leaving Camellia behind. Camellia is stubborn and violent, and if she talks back to a worker, a big boy, or Mr. Riggs then something bad could happen to her and Rill won’t be there to protect her. Briny’s last words to Rill were to take care of the younger kids, and she takes this responsibility very seriously.
The car pulls up to a large house and the kids are herded through the doors. Inside, couples mill about, talking to Tann and the children. Rill sees Lark coloring with one woman, Gabion playing with a couple, and a woman reading to Fern. The woman calls to her husband, Darren, and says that Fern is “perfect.” Darren excuses himself, saying he must talk to someone. He sits next to Rill, points to Fern, and asks if they’re sisters. Rill says they are, and he asks her how old she is as he sets his hand on her back.
Rill takes special note of Darren’s hand on her back because she’s becoming increasingly self-conscious about her body and how it’s seen by others, particularly men. She’s been humiliated by being forced to strip naked to bathe in front of boys and girls, and her suspicions of Mr. Riggs have also made her suspicious of other grown-up men. So to Rill, Darren’s possibly innocuous gesture has an insidious, hidden meaning.