Miss Mercy ‘d say go and play with the other children now.
If your grin appears too thin, you’ll lament what might have been.
Turn that frown upside down, if you want a home one day,
Or face your doom down inside the Smile Room.
The two jump ropes took turns grazing rhythmically against the hot asphalt. Lacey-Mae’s battered, once-white shoes scraped against that pavement with every perfectly timed jump she took. A fly buzzed and smacked into her ear, but she wouldn’t let that stop her. She’d been at it quite a while – long enough to draw the other girls’ interests. A crowd had gathered around to watch Lacey-Mae set the presumed “world record” for most consecutive Double Dutch skips. Even Amy-Grace had found it worthy of a hobble over. It was the first time in weeks she’d done anything but sat alone during outdoors time. A few of the girls even claimed to have heard her mumbling the rhyme. The two girls at either end of the rope, Kacie-Jo and Amelia-Rose, churned the rope with laser focus. It looked like their arms would give way long before they ever tripped up Lacey-Mae. Their sweaty lips flapped faster and faster with each iteration of the old rhyme. But Lacey-Mae barely showed a hint of exhaustion – no sweaty brow, no dampened shirt, not even a strained breath.
Then after what had to be 200 jumps, Kacie-Jo’s left arm appeared to falter slightly, and one of the ropes lost its rhythm. It whipped against Lacey-Mae’s sunburnt ankle and she let out a yelp. “Not fair,” she immediately claimed, grabbing at her ankle. The two ropes fell from the air and rattled against the pavement in a final end to the rally. Amelia-Rose collapsed into a squat, struggling for air. Her arms fell like two limp noodles, only supported by her bent and reddened knees. “I coulda got a thousand, but the rope was too fast.”
Most of the girls saw what she claimed in real time, but wouldn’t dare support the claim out loud. Kacie-Jo runs the show, and what she says will go. “No,” she barked back. “Amelia-Rose and I were right on time, you just messed up. Guess you’ll never beat my record.” As soon as she declared her stance on the matter, most of the girls backed her opinion with palpable fear. Amy-Grace felt it too. She’d never associate with Kacie-Jo, but she sure wouldn’t openly fight her either. Instead, she just shook her head and scoffed before hobbling off back to the far corner of the courtyard.
Lacey-Mae’s body faced Kacie-Jo, but her absent eyes wandered towards nowhere. She pointed viciously but rather aimlessly with her free finger, while her other hand was still occupied by the growing welt upon her ankle. “No, the rope hit my ankle at turn and it was supposed to cross at frown.”
Kacie-Jo’s notorious tongue flicked into devastating action. “Maybe if you weren’t blinder than a bat you could have jumped it either way.”
Barring the already distant Amy-Grace, all the other girls giggled and sang out oo’s at varying pitches. Even an exhausted Amelia-Rose cupped her sinister grin with a weak hand.
Lacey-Mae’s bottom lip trembled, but she tried to remain poised. It wasn’t the first time her blindness had been the subject of a nasty jeer, and it wouldn’t be the last. “You did it on purpose, didn’t you? I was about to break your record and you swung the rope too fast so you could stop me.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, you were thirty-seven jumps from my record – you weren’t even close,” Kacie-Jo snapped at her. Her viper lips weren’t about to let the blind Lacey-Mae say another word on the matter. Right as Lacey-Mae uttered a single syllable, Kacie-Jo interrupted. “You better watch what you say next, Lace. I might tell Miss Mercy you need a trip to the Smile Room.”
The blind jabs never bothered Lacey-Mae anymore, but a mention of the Smile Room inevitably sprung instant tears. Without another word, Lacey-Mae turned and ran away that day.
Though a rhyme maybe old as time, you’ll seldom hear it uttered. The only ones who’ll ever know it are those who dare not speak it. All the girls present and past at Miss Mercy’s Home for Neglected Girls know the Smile Room rhyme by heart, but after they discovered its origins they’d never sing it again.
Kacie-Jo learned long ago that she too could use Miss Mercy’s dirty trick: if ever a girl misbehaved or pouted too long, Miss Mercy would remind the girls of the dreaded Smile Room and they’d suddenly snap into their best behavior.
As soon as Kacie-Jo turned away, Lilly-Ann stood then ran to comfort Lacie-Mae. “Lacie-Mae, don’t cry. It’s okay.”
“It’s not fair!” Lacey-Mae whined. “I almost set the record…she did it on purpose.”
“The rope did hit your ankle at frown, Lacey-Mae,” she contested, even though she knew the truth. “But it’s okay, you’ll get another chance to beat the record.”
“It’s not fair,” Lacey-Mae reiterated. “Kacie-Jo is the only girl I know who isn’t sick in any way. I can’t see, Amy-Grace can’t walk, Amelia-Rose talks funny, you’re always sick – but Kacie-Jo is perfect.”
“I’m sorry Lacey-Mae, that’s just the way it is I guess. There’s nothing you or I or anyone can do about it. We just have to make do with what we’ve got. Is that what you’re sad about?”
Hearing the question, Lacey-Mae’s mind snapped back to exactly the words that upset her. Her head sunk deep between her shaking knees and she quivered in a hideous sob. “I don’t wanna…I don’t wanna…” she wailed. She didn’t have enough time between sobs to elaborate, but Lilly-Ann knew what she meant.
“It’s okay,” she repeated. “You won’t have to go in the Smile Room. Kacie-Jo says that to everyone, but no one ever goes.”
Lacey-Mae cried harder, unconvinced by Lilly-Ann’s tentative voice.
“Even if you did have to go to the Smile Room, I heard it’s not that bad. What if when you go in there, it’s just things that make you smile more?”
“It’s not,” Lacey-Mae sobbed.
“I heard it’s just got pictures on the walls of your real parents. You know what, Lacey-Mae? The Smile Room might even be a bit of fun.”
Lacey-Mae wiggled her bottom to squirm away like an inch-worm. Her tears didn’t let up for even a moment. “No, no, no,” she protested. “I knew Peggy-Sue.”
Lilly-Ann’s eyes fluttered in shock. She nor any of the other girls had ever heard this before. Many of them wondered whether Peggy-Sue was even a real person. “You mean the Peggy-Sue?”
Lacey-Mae’s shoulders jolted repetitively in a nod.
“Were you friends?” Lacey-Mae nodded again. She wiped her nose with her whole arm. The tears had softened.
“So then did she tell you what’s in the Smile Room?”
Lacey-Mae lifted her head and faced Lilly-Ann. The sight of her pale, wayward eyes frightened Lilly-Ann and even caused a silent gasp. “She told me…she told me I was lucky to be blind. And after that, she never said anything else. She just…smiled forever.”
Lilly-Ann didn’t have any more of her usual nauseating positivity left to offer. Instead she stood from Lacey-Mae’s side, and stumbled as she did. She started with a steady and silent walk away but it quickly turned to a jog.
Just then, the home’s old wooden side-door creaked open and outstepped Miss Mercy. Her thick 4-inch heels clip-clopped against the stoop like a horse’s hooves. They carried her body, which was somewhat designed like a horse’s too. Her bright red lip gloss sparkled against the summer’s sun. “Girls, lunch time.”
Lilly-Ann only stopped running when she met up with the larger group of girls, then kept pace with them as they filed inside. Lacey-Mae wiped her nose one more time, but didn’t know there was still a wad of snot on her arm. By the time she began her walk to the door, the courtyard was mostly quiet. The only things she could hear were the rubber bottoms of Amy-Grace’s crutches taking turns gripping the ground and the fly still buzzing in her ear.
“Hurry up, Lacey-Mae,” Miss Mercy called out. “Same to you, Amy-Grace.” Amy-Grace’s limp had never deterred Miss Mercy’s impatience.
Amy-Grace threw her shoulders harder as she dragged her feet towards the house with her two crutches. It was always a wonder why she insisted on sitting at the furthest end of the courtyard when it was so difficult for her to go anywhere.
But Lacey-Mae refused to speed up. If anything, she slowed down in spite. She didn’t want to be anywhere near the other girls. She found a divine tranquility in any time she could enjoy away from their harassment.
Miss Mercy squinted, attempting to see beyond the thin haze resonating off the asphalt. Lacey-Mae of course couldn’t see it, but Miss Mercy’s face contorted when she noticed Lacey-Mae had slowed down. “Lacey-Mae, get inside now.”
Amy-Grace hobbled slightly faster, but didn’t have much more to give. Lacey-Mae heard Miss Mercy clearly, but still had no intention of speeding up. She was too upset to care. Nothing could get her to walk even a little faster towards the others. That is, nothing except for the Smile Room.
That day, Miss Mercy had not a hint of mercy to spare for dissidents. Her nose flared, her thick eyebrows sank inwards, and her chest expanded, filling with air. “Alright, have it your way,” she bellowed to the two girls. “The last one of you inside is going in the Smile Room.”
In an instant, both Lacey-Mae’s and Amy-Grace’s hearts dropped below their toes. Despite the brutally hot afternoon sun blazing down on them, a chill whisked over both of them at once.
Those were the words Lacey-Mae needed to hear. She kicked up loose pebbles beneath her beaten shoes and sprinted as fast as she could towards the door.
At the other side of the courtyard was Amy-Grace, pulling her lifeless legs faster than she ever had before. She even surprised herself with how fast she could move. Though Amy-Grace could hardly walk, her preemptive urgency landed her closer to the door when the race began.
The girls inside reduced their chatter to pure silence and gathered at the door behind Miss Mercy. Their eyes poked out with varying types of anticipation: all of them were silently betting on the victor, but some held a stake in who’d they want to see in the Smile Room. Kacie-Jo would make no secret she wanted Lacey-Mae to lose in defense of her jump rope record. Either way it went, they knew they’d soon see their old rhyme come true.
And just as Kacie-Jo had hoped, Lacey-Mae’s legs didn’t carry her far. Soon after she started sprinting, the welt on her left ankle bit her nerves. She yelped, then raised her leg to wrap a hand around her wound. But when she pulled her left leg from the ground, her right foot slipped, unable to support her momentum on its own. “No!” she screamed out in a mix of pain and defeat.
Lilly-Ann gasped, but collected herself by the time Miss Mercy whipped around to see who dared murmur.
Lacey-Mae collapsed in a heap to the pavement. The harsh scrape of her fileted right knee echoed through the courtyard. Amy-Grace never thought to stop – she was determined to make sure she wasn’t the one in the Smile Room. She continued at lightning pace towards the door, even shocking Miss Mercy. Miss Mercy stepped aside to let her glide past and into the house. Amy-Grace’s head was throbbing by the time she got inside. She’d hardly noticed her opponent’s fall and could think about nothing other than what was for lunch.
The clip-clop of Miss Mercy’s heels pierced the otherwise silent courtyard air as she steadily ventured towards the fallen Lacey-Mae. Everyone but Amy-Grace crowded around the door entrance, but made sure to not even poke a nose outside the entryway.
Miss Mercy’s heels scratched to a halt next to Lacey-Mae’s bleeding knee. Lacey-Mae was still reserving hope that Miss Mercy would show even a hint of sympathy for her situation. She rolled over onto her back, and looked up at the foreboding shadow over her. She couldn’t see much of Miss Mercy’s face since she was standing right in front of the beating sun.
Miss Mercy didn’t offer so much as a glance at Lacey-Mae’s bleeding knee. The cut was around an inch in diameter, engulfing a large portion of her petite knee. She cried softly, attempting to hold back tears in Miss Mercy’s presence. “Please, please,” she said. “don’t make me go.”
“Blind and clumsy,” Miss Mercy’s smoky, shrill voice declared. “Just add that to the list of reasons why you’ll never get adopted.”
Lacey-Mae didn’t let the insults distract her. “Please, Miss Mercy, please. I’ll do all the chores you want. I’ll clean my room, the other girls’ rooms, even yours. I’ll cook dinner for a year if you want. Please!”
“I’m afraid it’s too late for that, missy,” she said as if she hadn’t a choice. “It’s been a while since a girl’s been to the Smile Room and I’m afraid my leniency has shown its effects around here. Besides, you’ve been here the longest, Lacey-Mae. Nobody is going to adopt you.”
Lacey-Mae couldn’t hold back her tears anymore. She shivered and jolted. Her head pointed towards the sky and her mouth opened to wail while snot drooped from her nostrils. She’d forgotten all about her gushing knee.
“Well then, no need to make a fool of yourself my dear,” Miss Mercy said. She grabbed Lacey-Mae by the arm and dragged her to her feet.
Lacey-Mae thrashed and punched at Miss Mercy’s legs with all her little might. “No, no, no, please,” she cried. “No, please. I’m sorry, I’ll do anything.” Her cries could be heard through all of Minnesota. Her protesting was useless. It hardly fazed Miss Mercy.
Within a minute they were at the stoop. The other girls scattered away from the entrance as if to make way for the approaching royalty. They headed towards their usual seats around the table for lunch, and only Kacie-Jo did so with a smile.
Miss Mercy’s heels clopped into the tile floor of the dining room and she tossed the drained Lacey-Mae to the ground. “Girls, listen up,” she said. “Now you’re here under my supervision to get adopted. And how do we get adopted?”
“Behave yourself and always smile,” they monotonously recited together.
“That’s right. Nobody wants a bratty orphan. Who’s even heard of such a thing outside this home? Well going forward, I’m going to make sure we don’t have any more trouble, understand? If I catch any of you acting like Lacey-Mae over here, you’re going straight to the Smile Room, no further warnings. You are all going to get adopted by the first interested parents whether you like it or not, so you might as well like it. Do I make myself clear?”
Some of the girls nodded, but together they all said, “Yes, Miss Mercy.”
“Good,” she stated. And then, in as matter-of-fact tone as possible she said, “I will be back shortly. You may start eating without me today. Just make sure you say grace before you begin.”
“No, no, please,” Lacey-Mae kept moaning. Her cries were much more muted than before, but she hadn’t fully stopped.
Miss Mercy nodded to the girls around the table, then grabbed Lacey-Mae’s arm again. Lacey-Mae’s pleading resumed with disturbing and screeching vigor. “Please, Miss Mercy. No, don’t do this. Please, please.”
Miss Mercy began dragging the resisting Lacey-Mae down the hall towards the basement stairs, but just before they left the dining room, Lilly-Ann raised her voice. “Miss Mercy,” she called.
The other girls’ heads whipped towards Lilly-Ann, their faces pale with transitive regret. Miss Mercy stopped and turned back towards the table. “What is it, Lilly-Ann?” Lilly-Ann looked upon Lacey-Mae’s petrified face. She sat with the full room’s attention on her, still not knowing what she’d say. All she knew was her promise to Lacey-Mae was about to be broken. That wasn’t something she took lightly. But with the daring glow from Kacie-Jo, the fatigued attention from Amy-Grace, the impatient focus from Miss Mercy, and the haunting rhyme tickling her mind, she froze. Lilly-Ann’s eyes darted to see the intense attentiveness around her, and then to Lacey-Mae’s arm reddening from Miss Mercy’s iron grip. “Perhaps you’d like to join us in the basement?”
Lilly-Ann shook her head and stammered. “N – No. I was just going to volunteer to say grace.”
Miss Mercy’s lips turned to a rare grin and she cocked her head. “Start without me, my dear.”
She spun back towards the hall. Her heels clacked against the wooden floor growing quitter with each step all the way to the basement door.
Amy-Grace let out a long-held breath and shook her head with a sly glance towards Lilly-Ann. Lilly-Ann recited her words of grace, but it was a good thing Miss Mercy wasn’t around to hear – she didn’t mean a word of it. They ate in silence, with the only joy at the table still coming from Kacie-Jo. But even she started to feel something resembling sympathy for Lacey-Mae. If you ask Amelia-Rose, to this day she’d say she heard screams from the Smile Room that afternoon.
A few days later all the girls were sitting around the playroom, split off into small groups huddled around board games. By now they’d mostly forgotten about the events of that fateful afternoon. Most had decided they were glad it wasn’t them. The girls noticed Kacie-Jo had stopped threatening the other girls with the Smile Room. The veracity of the room sat too sourly on their tongues for now. But that day in the playroom, they heard wet, bare feet shuffling in the doorway. Miss Mercy would never dare show herself without heels on, so they knew it wasn’t her.
Amelia-Rose stopped mid-sentence and dropped her dice to the gameboard, where it flopped around before landing on a 4. When Lilly-Ann turned to see who was at the door, she knocked into Kacie-Jo’s glass of milk placed precariously on the rug, but Kacie-Jo was too focused on the doorway to throw a fit.
The girl in the doorway, wasn’t new in the conventional sense, but she wasn’t quite the same as someone they’d seen before. There stood Lacey-Mae, with her pale unfocused eyes, her newly slouched shoulders like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, her loosely hanging arms, and a doll-like smile plastered across her face. Her cheeks rose around her drooling lips, but her eyes remained stagnantly wide. Her garments were soaked, and her hair saturated. After the dice cradled to a stop, the only sounds in the room were the thwacking droplets falling from Lacey-Mae’s hair. Without a word, she continued into the room, slapping her wet feet against the creaking wooden floor until they reached the rug’s edge. She sat beside the other girls and never stopped smiling – not for as long as she’d live.
The girls never did find out what happened to Lacey-Mae in the Smile Room, but the results were enough to scare them straight. Not a single girl who knew Lacey-Mae ever behaved poorly again. And even on the dreariest of dreary days, they’d always make sure to smile, no matter how shallow it felt.
It turns out, Miss Mercy was right: smiling and good behavior did help the girls get adopted, even Lacey-Mae. But years after they left Miss Mercy’s Home for Neglected Girls, the legend of Lacey-Mae faded from verified story to tall tale, and eventually to a rhythmic jump rope game. That is, until Miss Mercy decided to employ the Smile Room again.
Lacey-Mae always knew she should smile more.
Miss Mercy ‘d say come this way, its lunch time now.
If you’re too slow, then she’ll show you what’s below
Turn that frown upside down, if you want a home one day,