As I was typing out the list of words in Elizabeth’s short story prompt on Friday, the word “bucket” capitalized itself and I immediately knew what I wanted to write about. Anyone who is a fan of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or the movie starring Gene Wilder that was made from it, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, will recognize the characters below (except the new ones I created and even those apples don’t fall far from their respective trees).
Charlie Bucket opened the door of his chocolate factory and shivered. The courtyard was freezing. Overhead, a banner read, “Welcome Back Golden Ticketers!” Beneath the banner stood eight people. He rubbed his hands together. “Thank you all for coming today.”
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” A smooth-faced woman who looked like she’d been poured into her figure-hugging purple jumpsuit pushed forward, hauling a young girl along with her. The jumpsuit wasn’t the purple of royalty, but an obnoxious shade of puce that made Charlie want to squint, even in the thin winter sunlight.
She extended fingers encrusted with purple gemstones. “Amethyst Darlingstar.”
Charlie peered at her through his bifocals. “I’m sorry. I don’t recall inviting an Amethyst Darlingstar.”
The woman stretched her red lips into a smile, though not one other muscle in her face moved. “You knew me as Violet Beauregarde. I changed my name when I became an actress. Perhaps you’ve seen some of my films?”
Charlie shook his head. “I don’t get out much.” He smiled down at her companion. “Is this your granddaughter?”
The girl, who looked less like a child than an undersized adult, curtseyed. “Lavender Bloom, sir.”
Charlie tried to shake off the sense that he was looking at a grown woman in miniature. “Welcome.”
An extremely fit blond man in a leather jacket bounded forward and thrust out his hand. “Guten Tag, Herr Bucket.”
“Gus Gloop?” Charlie asked, amazed.
The blond man laughed. “Ja. You did not recognize me as the fat little boy who fell into the chocolate river, did you?”
“I did not.” Charlie shook his hand.
“I nearly drowned that day,” Gus said. “The experience turned me into an advocate of exercise and healthy eating. Today, I am the fittest sixty-year-old man in Dusseldorf.” As though to prove it, he grabbed a nearby bench and dead-lifted it over his head.
“Very impressive.” Charlie turned to an equally blond young man with ramrod straight posture. “And who is this?”
The boy clicked his heels together. “Augustus Gloop the Third.”
“Welcome.” Charlie turned to the remaining four visitors. A small man in a business suit gestured to a white-haired woman standing beside him. “After you, sweets.”
Veruca Salt’s face was lined, but her eyes were as luminous as a young girl’s. She was the same age as Violet, but she looked twenty years older, though not in a bad way. More like a woman who had chosen to flow with the river of time instead of swimming against the current. A little girl with brown hair and the same luminous eyes tried to hide behind her. She patted the girl’s shoulder reassuringly.
“You go ahead,” she told the businessman. Fifty years ago, Charlie remembered, Veruca had insisted on always going first. Perhaps, like Gus, her experience here had changed her.
“Mike Teavee.” The small man pumped Charlie’s hand, dragging his attention away from Veruca. “Thanks for the invite. Before I leave today, let’s talk about doing a show here. We can call it ‘Charlie’s Chocolate Factory.’”
Charlie shook his head. “I never allow cameras in my factory.”
“It would be a huge hit. Americans love candy and they love cooking shows.”
“No,” Charlie said.
“We’ll talk about it later.” Mike grabbed the boy with him by the shoulders and propelled him forward. “And this is Mickey.” The boy did not look up from his cell phone.
“Hello, Mickey,” Charlie said. Without removing his gaze from the screen, the boy lifted a limp hand in greeting.
Charlie turned to the woman. “It’s good to see you, Veruca.”
Blushing, she said, “This is my granddaughter, Vera.”
Vera gazed up at him with eyes that were too big for her thin face. Looking more closely, he saw that Veruca was also very slender. Their dresses were cheaply made and their shoes, though immaculately polished, were rundown at the heel.
Vera stepped forward. “Hello, sir.” As her gaze darted around the courtyard, her eyes widened.
Charlie beamed at her, pleased to see her creep out of her grandmother’s shadow and look around in wonder. He’d felt exactly the same way on that momentous day fifty years ago.
“I thought we’d start with a tour of the factory,” he said, “and end up with a bean feast.” Veruca, he remembered, had adored bean feasts.
Her face grew a shade pinker. “I was such a brat.”
Charlie didn’t know whether to be glad or sorry when Augustus interrupted before could respond.
“Not too many calories, I hope,” the German boomed.
“Not too many,” Charlie said.
Young Mickey snapped a picture of the front of the factory with his phone.
“Please put that away,” Charlie said. “I don’t allow cameras—“
“Yeah, I heard you.” Mickey shoved the phone in his jacket pocket.
Inside the factory, Charlie led them past the chocolate river where Gus had nearly drowned. On the far side of the stream, small orange figures filled test tubes from the river and held them up to the light.
“Oompa Loompas,” Mike Teavee poked his grandson. “Remember? I told you about them.”
“Oompabots,” Charlie corrected.
The visitors craned their necks. Mike goggled. “They’re robots!”
Charlie nodded. “After Mr. Wonka retired, the Oompa Loompas asked to return to their homeland. I wasn’t sure how I would staff the factory, but it turned out they’d been working on robotic replacements. Oompabots are excellent workers. They never need a day off. Even better, they can be sterilized to keep the candy germ-free.”
“Wasn’t Loompaland dangerous?” Veruca asked. “With Wangdoodles and Vermicious Knids?”
“Extinct,” Charlie said. “It grew too warm for them.”
“See what I’m saying?” Mike said. “Climate change hurts some things, but it benefits others.”
Mickey took his phone back out and aimed it at the Oompabots. “Wait till my followers see this!”
Charlie drew a miniature pan flute from his pocket and blew a lilting tune. A little orange robot rolled up and plucked the phone from Mickey’s hand.
“Hey!” The boy tried to wrest the phone from its grasp. “What are you doing?”
“No cameras,” the Oompabot said in a sing-song voice. It crushed the phone and dumped the pieces into a scuttle in its middle.
The boy’s mouth fell open. “You can’t do that!”
“You must leave,” the Oompabot said in the same sing-song voice. Taking the boy by the wrist, it dragged him toward the door.
“You can’t do that!” Mike Teavee tried to pry Mickey’s arm free but two more Oompabots appeared and hustled him out the door. His shouts could be heard all the way to the factory gate.
Their next stop was the bubble gum room where Violet had turned into a giant blueberry.
“Would you like to try the four-course gum?” Charlie asked. “We finally got it right.”
Violet laughed. “I’m not much of a gum chewer these days. I traded it for a worse habit.” She pulled a pack of cigarettes from her purse and took one out.
“You can’t smoke in here,” Charlie said quickly. “It will taint the candy with nicotine.”
Violet laughed. “That’s one way to ensure return customers.” She lit her cigarette.
An Oompabot appeared and removed it from her hand. “You must leave.”
“But I can stay, right?” Lavender asked.
“I’m sorry,” Charlie said. “We can’t allow unaccompanied minors.”
“I’m not a minor.” Lavender reached behind her back and fiddled between her shoulder blades. Two fulsome breasts rounded out her sweater. Then she unbuttoned her jeans and tugged her zipper down a couple of inches. A pair of womanly hips ballooned.
“Thank goodness.” She breathed a moan of relief. “I couldn’t have stood that much longer.”
“How old are you?” Charlie asked.
“You can’t possibly be Violet’s granddaughter.”
“I played her granddaughter in a movie once.”
“I’m sorry, but this invitation was limited to former golden ticket holders and their descendants.”
“I never had time to have a family.” Violet’s face came as close to sagging as her Botox and fillers would allow. “I sacrificed everything for my career.”
Charlie felt a pang of sympathy. He’d done much the same thing, and now he was an old man with only Oompa-bots for company. Rules were rules, though. “I’m sorry.”
“It was worth a shot.” Violet said as they walked out the door.
“Maybe we can sell the story to the tabloids,” Lavender said.
Charlie turned to the remaining adults. “Are these really your grandchildren?”
“Of course.” Gus grabbed Augustus by the shoulders and centered the boy in front of him. “Can you not see the resemblance?”
Both Germans were tall, blond, lean and fit, with steely blue eyes and square jaws.
“Vera’s parents were killed in a factory explosion that took their lives and erased our fortune,” Veruca said. “She’s not only my granddaughter, she’s my life.”
“She looks a lot like you did at her age,” Charlie said.
Next they came to the egg room.
“Did your grandmother tell you about her narrow escape from being incinerated in a huge blaze?” Charlie asked Vera.
Eyes huge, Vera nodded.
“I told her everything,” Veruca said. “I don’t want her to make the mistakes I made.”
They walked on till they reached a heavy wooden door labeled “Puppet Room.”
Vera’s eyes sparkled. She tugged on her grandmother’s sleeve. “Puppets!”
“This girl is crazy about marionettes,” Veruca said. “We’ve been to every puppet show ever offered in our town.”
“These are edible.” Charlie opened the door to a room filled with tiny marionettes. There were girl marionettes and boy marionettes, marionettes dressed like policemen and marionettes that looked like fairy princesses. Vera squealed with joy.
“We mold them from fudge,” Charlie said. “We use boiled sweets for eyes and candy floss for hair.”
“Their strings are licorice whips.” Vera looked entranced. “May I have one?” She reached one shy finger toward a little girl puppet.
“I’m sorry,” Charlie said. “They’re all spoken for.”
He hurried them out of the room. Vera trailed behind, looking over her shoulder wistfully.
The next room was marked “Flower Room.” Charlie opened the door to reveal roses and lilies, snapdragons and marigolds, all made from candy, all growing at the edge of a cliff overlooking the chocolate river far below.
“How lovely,” Veruca exclaimed, hurrying forward
“Be careful of the snapdragons.” Charlie called out a warning. “They can be very aggressive.”
But it was too late. One snapdragon had latched onto Veruca’s arm while a second wrapped itself around her ankle. They tugged her toward the cliff edge.
“Help!” She tried to pull free without success.
“Stop that,” Charlie said to nothing in particular.
A third snapdragon twined itself around her other ankle. She lost her balance, falling into the crushed chocolate cookie soil of the garden.
Vera rushed over to Charlie. “Please, Mr. Bucket, help her.”
“You heard me, snapdragons,” Charlie said without raising his voice. “Stop that right now.”
But the snapdragons dragged Veruca along the ground, kicking and screaming. The cliff was now mere inches away.
Racing to the garden shed, Vera grabbed a pair of secateurs from a hook and ran to the cliff edge. Lop! Lop! She freed her grandmother from the snapdragons, and helped her back to the path, where an Oompabot intercepted them.
“You must leave,” it said. “You have damaged my garden.”
“But that’s not fair.” Vera appealed to Charlie. “That flower was trying to hurt Grandma.”
“You killed my snapdragons,” Charlie said.
Veruca’s eyes filled with tears. “But she’s been looking forward to this so much.”
“That’s all right, Grandma.” Vera lifted her chin. “I don’t want to stay now anyway.”
They left the flower room under their own steam, heads held high.
The final door opened into a banquet room with nine place settings. An Oompabot with a serving cloth draped over its mechanical arm bustled up.
“Some of our guests won’t be joining us after all,” Charlie said. “Please remove all but three place settings.” The robot sped away to do his bidding.
Charlie and the Gloops took their seats at the table. The Oompabot waiter brought out steaming bowls of tomato soup and set one before each of them.
“Is this organic?” Gus poked at the soup with his spoon.
“I’m not sure.” Charlie turned to the Oompabot. “Could you send the chef out. please?”
A moment later. a second Oompabot wearing a white chef’s hat on its orange Plexiglas head rolled through the door.
“What can you tell us about this soup?” Charlie asked.
“It is tomato bisque,” the chef’s robotic little voice said.
“Is it organic?” Gus asked.
To Charlie’s surprise, Gus’s shoulders seemed to sag a little at this news. “Non-GMO?”
Gus deflated a little further. “Fair trade?”
The little chef hat tilted to the side. “Unknown.”
Gus pushed back from the table. His grandson copied him. “We eat only verified fair trade vegetables.”
“I’m so sorry,” Charlie said. He turned to the chef. “Send out the next course.”
The Oompabot waiter whisked away all the bowls.
But the next course, a frittata, presented even more problems.
“Are the eggs cage free?” Gus asked.
“Of course,” said the chef.
“Field-rasied? Farm to table?”
“We buy from the local market.”
They refused that course, too.
When the waiter brought out the blueberry tart, Augustus took one tiny taste.
“Too much sugar,” he declared.
The little Chef-a-loompa seemed to wilt where it stood.
“I’m so sorry the meal wasn’t to your liking,” Charlie said.
Gus drew himself up and stared down his nose. The boy did the same. “It’s not just the meal.”
Charlie shrank under their severe gazes. “It’s not?”
“Everything your factory produces is a health hazard.”
“When we take over, we will change to only healthy treats,” Augustus piped up.
“Take over?” Charlie asked. “What do you mean, ‘take over’?”
“That is why you brought us here, ja?” Gus asked. “To appoint a successor, just as Willie Wonka did fifty years ago today.”
“I’m only sixty years old,” Charlie said. “I’m not ready to retire yet. I brought you here to help me celebrate.”
“Bah.” Gus threw his napkin on the table. He turned to Augustus. “Let us go find something healthy to eat.”
They stalked out the door.
Sadly, Charlie sat back down at the table. The truth was, he really had hoped that among the grandchildren of ticket holders who had toured the factory the first time he would find a candidate to succeed him, but the only people who hadn’t tried to cheat him or vandalize his factory wanted nothing to do with making candy.
A tap sounded on the wooden door. Sunk in gloom, Charlie didn’t bother to respond.
Someone cleared their throat. “Mr. Bucket?” a shy voice said.
Charlie looked up. Vera stood beside him, her hand outthrust. From her fingers hung a candy marionette.
“I took this from the puppet room,” she said, hanging her head. “I know I was wrong, so I’ve come to return it.”
In the doorway stood her grandmother.
Charlie flushed with joy.
“My darling girl,” he said. “My dear woman. You have restored my faith in humanity.”
Veruca frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Despite being treated unfairly, you behaved with fairness. Vera is the perfect person to take over my candy factory.”
Vera clapped her hands.
Veruca shook her head. “She’s too young to make such a decision.”
“So was I, but it’s been a good life.”
“It looks like a lonely life.”
“A little bit,” he admitted. “I could have used more balance.”
Vera tugged on Veruca’s sleeve. “Grandma, if we accept his offer, we’ll have a place to live when the bank takes our house.”
Color flamed in Veruca’s cheeks. “Ssh, child. You can’t take over the factory. You’re still in school.”
“It doesn’t have to be today,” Charlie said. “You can move into the manager’s cottage. She can go to school while she learns the trade. When she’s twenty-one, she can take over, or I can sell it to someone else.”
“Would you really do that?” Veruca asked.
“Of course,” said Charlie. “What do I have to lose?”
Vera looked at her grandmother pleadingly.
“Only if you agree to let us make you dinner each night,” Veruca said.
“It’s a deal.” Charlie rubbed his hands together. “Waiter, bring these ladies some hot soup.”