Someone shouted in the kitchen. Tess Greenwood sat right up in the blackness. “Dad?” she gasped.
“Mom!” cried Tess as she stumbled onto the floor in a panic of pillow and sheets, in time for her door to fling wide with blinding light and a bang that shattered things on her dresser.
“Hey!” barked the silhouette in the doorway. “No way you’re running by me!” And with that, he tramped right in, jabbing her in the throat with the end of his e- truncheon.
“Aah!” she wailed with the throb of its electric jolt as she sat down hard on the floor.
“Like that, little witch?” he hissed through the mask of his plastic helm. “Now you’re going into the kitchen on your hands and knees, real careful or I’ll hold my stick against your stinking throat ’til y’ pass out. Move!”
As Tess rolled onto her knees, she could hear her sister’s squeals of defiance as she kicked at the pair of cops who had hold of her in the kitchen.
“Nia!” shouted her mother before crying out in pain.
“You vile bastards!” roared her father.
Tess leaped through the doorway in time to see two of the police from Children and Family Assistance squirt his mouth full of thick polymer from their gob stopper gun, as he gagged, bouncing and jerking against his restraints in red-faced fury.
“I told you!” bellowed Silhouette, grabbing Tess by the arm and yanking her onto the floor.
“Tess!” cried her mother. “Stop! They’ll kill you if y’ don’t quit!”
“That’s right!” shouted Silhouette.
“Nia!” cried Tess at the sight of the police kicking her.
“Hey!” shouted Silhouette. “That little whore’s going to the capitol. And they won’t take her all beat up! But this one,” he grunted, giving Tess a furious kick, “has earned it!”
“Tess!” screamed her mother in time to be silenced with a kick in the head.
Her father sprang from the floor in spite of his restraints, slamming into Silhouette in a rage that knocked over the refrigerator behind them. Suddenly police were everywhere, beating him senseless, dragging him and his dear wife out the door into the early light of dawn.
“Mom! Dad!” screamed Tess as car doors slammed outside.
Now they had Nia by the arms. “I’ll love Drake forever!” she wailed as they forced her outside.
Tess bit the hand that grabbed her mouth and dashed outside to leap down the steps as two of the police cars lurched into the roadway with a chirp of tires.
“Bite me again, little witch!” roared Silhouette as his truncheon came down behind her ear.
Beyond the front steps, the sun rose well into the morning, glinting on a green bottle in the bare red dirt of the yard. Sparrows cheeped everywhere in the noise of the traffic from the roadway. Tess sat up just long enough to see that she was in her room, caught herself on her elbow to keep from toppling out of bed and lay right back down with a groan.
At the bounce of her bed springs, an elderly woman pushed back a chair and stood up in the kitchen. “Whoa there, deary-do!” she called, stumping right in to look at her this way and that. “That might be a bit quick. You got two black eyes. And the nurse said the copper only whacked y’ one good one on the back of the head. And what I want to know is, can y’ even see out of either one?”
“I’m Maud, sweetheart,” she said, giving Tess’s hand a squeeze. “Maud Baxter. How ’bout some tea? So far, the only pot I’ve found has half the spout gone…”
“It pours. We’ve been using it… Please!” she said with a scald of fear as she sat right up. “Where’s Mom and Dad? And Nia?”
Maud stopped short with wide eyes. “Why Children and Family Assistance,” she said, scarcely shaking her head. “And I’m to be in here for a few days to help y’ adjust…”
“When are they coming back?”
Maud shook her head as if she were about to cry.
“No!” shouted Tess in a great wail of despair.
Old Maud had her in her arms at once, rocking her and smoothing her hair for a good long time. At last, she gave her a pat and sat up. “I’m going to go fix that tea,” she said.
Tess lay back with shooting pains in her head, in spite of the sedatives given to her by the nurse.
Maud was back in short order, finding a chair for the tea. “I hope you’re not too old for animal crackers,” she said. “I found this nice box. And it only had one teensy little maggot and some web. All I had to do was shake it out and put the crackers back in.”
Tess drew in a deep, shuddery breath. “Where do you live, Maud?”
“Up at the north end with Mort and Bart. That’s my husband and m’ crow…”
“I don’t feel so good,” said Tess handing back her half full cup.
“I should say! You’re white as a sheet. The nurse said that you’re to be sleeping. Just lie back and I’ll be right out here in the kitchen.”
Tess lay back more quickly than she had meant to. “Your husband and who did y’ say?” she said, wincing at the whirling ceiling. “I swore you said Crow somebody…”
“My pet bird is a crow…” said Maud from the doorway.
“And Mom and Dad really, really aren’t coming back?”
Maud shook her head and was back at Tess’s bedside at once, smoothing her hair away from the tears she was squeezing from her swollen eyes. It was not long until Maud could see that she was sound asleep. She stood, propping her hands on her knees for a moment before straightening up the rest of the way and shuffled quietly into the kitchen.
Beside the toaster under the cupboards rested a polished stone ball. The moment Maud stepped in, it gave a faint flash. “Yeh?” she said, looking right at the face which was appearing in it. “I know my place well enough not to discuss her family. I’m professional. Besides, I know very well that you saw the whole thing. Now, I want to talk to Mort.” She picked up the ball and sat with it at the table. “Mort?”
Mort was already peering out of the “skinny,” as everyone called these things. “I’ve got the rest of the day, Maudy,” he said. “They don’t have me spraying until tomorrow, first thing.”
“As you might’ve overheard before I left, I’m at the south end of the far south barrack, facing the road. I’ve got to scratch around before I know what I’m fixing, but I’m starting on dinner, right now.” And with that, she parked the skinny in a storage jar lid, so that it wouldn’t roll off the table, and set about to see what might be fixed to eat. There certainly was no meat of any sort. “I don’t know why I’m even bothering to look,” she was careful not to say aloud. It was rare for anyone to get his hands on meat except for the day before one of the world holidays. All of the world holidays were mandatory to observe. Disarmament Day commemorated the destruction of the last private firearm. Emancipation Day marked the outlawing of all religions. And Unity Day was the day when the World Alliance began its tyrannical rule everywhere. She found a few pounds of limp carrots in the bottom of the refrigerator which she and the nurses had managed to set upright, some black pepper and a box of very old-smelling milk powder.
While she was searching for a kettle without a hole in it, Mort was up at the north end, wheeling his bicycle out the door. He fiddled with the cuff of his breeches as the breezy whistles of the starling overhead gave way to a bubbling chatter. After a couple of tries, he was mounted. With Bart digging in his toenails and swaying ponderously on his shoulder, he gave a wild swing to the left, an immediate weave to the right, and with a rattle of fenders was underway with all the aplomb of a cyclist in his prime.
“We’re going to have carrots,” said Maud as Mort hauled his watermelon of a belly up the last step. “I just now put them on.”
“Smells like old refrigerator,” he said, backing stiffly up to a chair by the table, “but I expect it will be good…” He sat down with a sudden plump and let Bart shuffle down his arm to the back of the nearby chair to begin at once, sorting through his feathers.
“Maud?” called Tess from the bedroom. “Are you still here?”
“I’m on my way with just a cup this time, dearie-do.”
“I don’t think I can,” said Tess. “I feel like vomiting.”
“I hope y’ get over that. I’ve got carrots starting to boil.”
“I’m ‘way too sick. Is someone here?”
“Mort and Bart.”
“Well please go on and eat without me. I’ll just puke. But Maud, please stay.”
Maud gave Tess’s hand a squeeze. “I’ll be right here as long as y’ need me, sweetheart,” she said. And with that she returned to the kitchen.
“Just the girl?” said Mort, looking up.
“Well how is she?”
Maud went straight to the cupboards as if she had not heard him, unplugged the toaster and parked it directly in front of the skinny as she took a chair at the table.
“I said how is the young lady?”
“Oh she’s doing just fine. A nice long nap and she’ll be right as rain,” she said as she leant across the table with a roll of her eyes and an ear-to-ear shake of her head. “I think she’ll be ready to start her new life in no time.” She was still shaking her head as she glanced at the toaster to make sure that no one on the skinny had seen.
“And she understands what happened?” he said, ignoring the stone ball, since he had no toaster to hide behind.
“I think she’s anxious enough to get going in her new direction,” she said, closing her eyes with an even bigger shake of her head. “But I’d not know for sure, since it’s never our place to discuss such things. That’s for the councilors at Children and Family Assistance. But I think most young clients are quite ready for a change, long before it comes.”
Bart ruffled up his feathers and gave himself a thorough shake.
“Maud!” wailed Tess from the bedroom. “The wash basin! Got ‘o puke!”
“Oh my stars!” said Maud. “Where do you reckon they keep it?”
Tess thumped across her bedroom floor to the toilet in the bathroom with an explosive cough of yellow fluid.
“Oh deary-do!” said Maud as she stumped in. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t find the pan. Why you don’t have a thing in your stomach to throw up, do you…?”
“Gawf…angk…awmff…!” hooted Tess, nodding her dribbling chin over the iron stained porcelain of the toilet bowl.
Maud saw at once that there was no skinny in the bathroom and pushed the door to. “Those rotten coppers!” she said in a low voice as she daubed at Tess with a towel.
“I’ve cleaned up their work every blooming day now, for years. And I swear. I just don’t begin to know how they can do that to families.”
“I thought you worked for…” moaned Tess.
“For Children and Family Assistance? I do, but my job’s cleaning up after them.
And you didn’t hear one word I said, either. Now. If I help y’ up, can you make it back to bed, or do you need to steady y’ self a bit longer?”
“Unng…!” said Tess, leaning back over the water.
“Seems y’ do…” said Maud, looking up at the sudden pounding on the kitchen door. “Mort!” she hollered “Let me get it!”
Tess had a look of blanched terror as Maud got to her feet. “Oh deary-do,” she said, “that can’t be the coppers, unless you’ve had a skinny ball in here with us. You don’t, eh?”
Tess gave a rigid shake of her head, and Maud stumped right out past Mort and Bart. She hooked the chain and opened the kitchen door against it to peer out at two teenagers. She closed the door, undid the chain and opened it wide. “Yeh?” she said with her fists on her hips.
The young man dug the gum out of his cheek with his tongue and looked her up and down from under the tattoos of his shaved head. “You’re not Tess, lady,” he said, as his sister craned this way and that in her nose rings and Mohawk hair-do, trying to peer inside.
“Took y’ long enough to figure it out, but I’m glad y’ finally managed,” said Maud. “Now. Tess isn’t up to company, so you two are going to have to leave.” And with that, she closed the door and turned the lock.
“Hey!” shouted the pair outside as they pounded on the door. “You can’t do that! Children and Family Assistance sent us! We’re Trent and Jasmine Warren, her new roomies!”
Maud hooked the chain and turned away. She found Tess still kneeling by the toilet. “What’s wrong, dearie-do?” she said, when she saw that her nausea had been replaced by a look of dread.
“That was the Warrens?” said Tess. “They hate me.”
“Why on earth?”
“Well…they made me take my shots at school,” she said, frowning at her thumbnails. “But I’m just not at all ready for that. Trent knew about my shots and was after me all the time. Everybody always knows when a girl gets her shots. And I wouldn’t have anything to do with him, in spite of how pushy he got. And Jasmine? She calls me ‘earhole’ all the time and makes ugly faces, but I think she hates everyone at school.”
“Aw dearie-do,” said Maud with a grunt, as she strained to kneel beside her with a brush. “I hate what’s become of the schools. Y’ know, they actually taught me to read, when I was in school.”
“Mom and Dad taught me,” said Tess, stifling a sob.
“You didn’t let the school find out, did you? Something like that could very well have been what brought in the Children and Family Assistance.”
“Oh, they always told me that I had to keep my reading a secret.”
Maud nodded. “Well back to those two, I locked the door,” she said. “But if they do have orders, they’ll be back and we’ll have no choice but to let them in. Meanwhile, I can at least get a delay order in place until you’ve recovered enough to deal with them. Now if I can just get back on my feet, I’ll help y’ back to bed if you’re ready.”
Once Tess was back in bed, she closed her eyes and wondered if there was any way to flee. “But where would I ever flee to?” she thought as she drifted into a deep sleep.
She had not been asleep very long when Maud opened the kitchen door against the chain and peered out the crack at a blond young man in denim, whom she recognized at once to be Drake Evans, but knowing better than to give him away to the stone ball on the table, merely said: “Yes?”
“Maud Baxter!” he said in wide-eyed alarm. “Why are you…? Nia! She’s here, isn’t she?”
Maud closed her eyes with a quiet shake of her head.
“No!” cried Drake.
Maud immediately closed the door. She would not have him overheard, blurting out something that would bring the police. There was not another sound from outside the door. She squeezed shut her eyes for a moment, and with a totter, shuffled to the table to sit with a tired sigh across from Mort and Bart.
Tess awoke to the smell of bread toasting on the griddle and talking in the kitchen.
“Would you mind if I waited until she’s awake? I promise I won’t stay too long or upset her.”
“That depends on how she wakes up,” said Maud. “She’s been having quite a time with her medicine…”
“Maud!” cried Tess as she sat up. “I’ve got to puke and I’ve got the whirlies bad! Could Drake help me to the toilet?”
Drake was at her bedside at once, helping her to her feet. The moment he had her kneeling by the toilet, he let the door swing quietly to. He had long known that the bathroom had no skinny, but he waited for Tess to speak in case that they had just been forced by the authorities to add one.
“I heard one of the cops say that Nia was going to the capitol,” said Tess with an unexpected sob. “And the last thing she said was, she’ll always love you. And poor Mom and Dad! It doesn’t look like I’ll ever, ever know…” And with that, she threw back her head and wailed with despair.
Drake had her in his arms at once, tears streaming down his cheeks. He looked away, struggling to hide a sob of his own. After a time, he turned to study her. “What on earth did they do to you?” he said. “You’ve got two black eyes that I can see…”
“Oh, one of the coppers whacked me on the back of the head with his e-stick…”
“The back of your head! Not your eyes? He must’ve damned near killed you…”
“I don’t know,” she said, closing the lid and sitting on the toilet. “But they’ve got my middle all wrapped up tight. Do you suppose they broke a rib or two? That same cop was kicking me. Nobody’s said a thing.”
“Do you know where the capitol is?”
“I don’t think anyone knows,” she said, feeling of her middle. “Well, I reckon the coppers would have to know, wouldn’t they?”
“Yeh, but they aren’t people. Nobody ever talks to them, especially not the ones working for Children and Family Assistance. No one ever talks to any of those things…”
“And what I can’t figure out is why that old lady out there in the kitchen is so nice. She’s working for them. She said so.”
“I know why,” said Drake. “She and old Mort out there lost a daughter who’d be our age, had she lived. And they’ve not been able to have any more. They’re ‘way younger than they look, but they were living out in the country with all the spray for quite a while after the World Alliance took over.”
“How do you know all this?”
“Maud and Mort knew us. When Children and Family Assistance took Mom and Dad, Maud got assigned to me, so they helped me through my transition, just like they’re doing for you. And I don’t understand them taking Nia. Children and Family issued the license for us to be married in two more months and everything…” he said, coughing out a great sob in spite of himself.
He was dragging an eye down his sleeve when Maud pushed open the door. “If Tess is over being sick, it’s time we got her back to bed,” she said as she shuffled in with a towel.
When they had gotten Tess settled in bed, Maud saw Drake to the door and stepped outside with him. “I’m afraid Children and Family Assistance is only giving her a week before she has to let those Warren kids move in,” she said as she pulled the door to behind her. “And if I read her right, I can’t picture her managing with a pair like them, particularly not with the boy after her skirt.”
“That wouldn’t be Jasmine and Trent Warren, would it?” said Drake, turning about on the bottom step and looking up at her.
“It was Jasmine. I wasn’t sure about his name.”
“Oh I’ve got medicine for them,” he said. “Just a chat if you need me to.”
“Right away would be good.”
Drake gave a nod, came back up the steps, pecked her on the cheek and hurried on his way to supper, unaware that Trent and Jasmine were right above them in the spreading branches of the great burr oak by the steps.
As Tess got settled, the skinny on her dresser turned bright blue. “Tess?” it said.
“Give me a moment,” she said as she labored to sit up and throw aside her covers.
She rose and came back to bed with the glowing stone ball. It took a bit of uncomfortable shifting about, but soon she was sitting with it between her knees as its swirling colors gave way to a dour bald man in hospital garb.
“How are you Tess?” said the man.
“I’m not sure I feel like talking…” she said.
“You were well enough for time with Drake.”
“So he could help me in to puke. It’s a lot of fun, vomiting for company…”
“Tess,” said the man. “Have you any idea why it was necessary to resettle your parents?”
“I can’t imagine how anything like that could ever be necessary…”
“They’ve allowed you to become sarcastic and defiant when you should be expressing your respect and gratitude. The teachers and counselors at your school have been concerned. Your parents weren’t managing…”
“No!” she cried out in hoarse anguish, “No! No! No!”