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Castaway 2177
Chapter 1

     The morning they come for Bruno, he’s finishing his protein drink in the kitchen, sucking it down like any normal 15-year-old late for school. But he’s not a normal 15-year-old and he’s not late for school.

     The school reported him yesterday and called to inform me. I’m wary as a spiny lizard watching a circling roadrunner. I know they’ll come, just don’t know when. They’re close. I can feel it like I feel the heaviness in clouds before a rain or Beta’s disapproval before she raises her eyebrows.

     I watch Bruno from my post near the front door. He’s scraping the inside of the NutraPro emulsifier with the crylar spoon, getting out every drop of his favorite mocha berry protein drink. He’s bent over. Brown eyes intent. His sparse beginners’ beard patchy on the bottom half of his face. Already he’s as tall as most men in Newtopia, although his body hasn’t thickened into adulthood.

     I back away and close my eyes, trying to burn this image of him forever into my memory. When I open them again, I see movement outside the front window. Three men stride towards the house wearing snug-fitting black tights beneath the official white tunics, the double “X” gold insignia of the Emergency Controllers (EC) gleaming from their breast pockets. I know the Highlands EC. They are volunteers who wear ill-fitting, cast-off uniforms, some missing the gold insignia; and because they know everyone’s first name in town, they approach houses with apology. These EC are not from Highlands. They focus their attention on the front door and trample my purple and yellow pansies that spill over the walkway.  One of them, a burly man with a belly pouch, pushes a wheeled chair with thick straps and the rattle of hidden chains.

     I rush to where Bruno is draining the last of his breakfast drink. “You must go. Now!” I hiss. “Here.” I shove his school satchel at him and practically push him out the rear entrance towards the garden. “Remember what we talked about last night.”

     The door alert sounds, a bird call that I’ve chosen, similar to the trill of the black-throated sparrows that nest in the fragrant bushes behind the house. Once when a garden snake threatened a sparrow’s babies, the mother bird turned shrill and hostile, attacking the snake unsuccessfully with thrashing wings. I watched from the window and wept.

     I glance out the back to see Bruno leap easily over the fence and head towards the abandoned city dump. As planned.

     The door alert sounds again. I wait for the third alert before I open the front door in my sleeping robe and rub my eyes as if newly awakened. In reality my adrenalin is pumping and amplifying every detail.

     “Good morning,” one of Emergency Controllers says.

     I yawn. “Good morning,” I mumble.

     “We have an order to pick up Bruno Hastings.” The man waves an official-looking document.

     My eyes open wide. “An order for what?”

     “For repeatedly exhibiting aggressive behavior in school.”

     “But Bruno has already gone. He’s not here.” I’m not lying. I don’t say he’s gone to school, but it’s implied.

     One of them, the tallest with a smooth bald head, speaks into his wrist communicator. A detachable one. Not the imbedded ones I dislike that can cause infection, or even worse, possible cancer. “Highlands Higher Education Portal,” he says. “Detain Bruno Hastings if he arrives. Search surrounding two-kilometer radius. Notify me of progress.”

     My heart beats wildly. Is the dump within a two-kilometer radius of the school? Do I dare call Bruno?

Then I remember. Transportation to school is provided for all younger children outside the two-kilometer radius. Bruno had school-provided transportation up until he turned twelve. The dump is even further from school than the house.

     The bald EC says to me, “May we come in?”

     Slowly I breathe out my surge of anxiety through my nose and open the door wider.

     Like most people who come into the house for the first time, these EC stand in the entryway and gawk. Their eyes roll upwards to the ceiling designed by Beta that soars and folds like a billowing sheet, dotted with unconventional windows positioned to let in light but not heat from direct sun.

     Beta started her education in architecture before switching to sonic engineering. This house was her student project and I wonder sometimes if Beta doesn’t regret her change of profession. Our house is admired in the architectural world. Most Newtopian homes, those free for regular workers, are cubicles with rectangular rooms.

     I wait for their questions. They are too repressed to ask them. After an uncertain pause, the leader walks to the kitchen area that, like the other rooms on the first floor, are not divided by walls.

     They open cabinets and peer inside, even those far too small to hide a child, much less a 15-year-old. I wonder if they’ll tell their partners tonight about the strange house they searched and the unusual kitchen implements, mostly knives, they discovered in drawers because Beta and I don’t rely solely on the NutraPro for food as most people do. We prepare fresh food from the garden. We peel potatoes, shuck peas, and chop vegetables. Then we cook them in pots and pans we had to special order.

     The pantry is of interest to them. It’s large enough to hide several 15-year-olds. I see them rustle the hanging aprons and larger metal utensils I use for outdoor grilling; peer under deep shelves where cooking pots nest; and walk behind the rack where I hang herbs to dry. Of course, they don’t find Bruno.

     They move to the sitting area. Beta designed free floating longbenches attached to the two walls that form a corner. They kneel to look under them, bracing themselves by putting their big hands on the colorful cushions.

It’s obvious Bruno isn’t under the table, the long wood-like one surrounded by eight solid oak-like chairs, all designed by Beta; or inside the matching dish cabinet where they can see stacked white plates through the polyclear inserts in its doors.

     The leader points with his chin to the staircase leading to the bedrooms and the others follow him. I bring up the rear. The sight of them touching my things, violating my space, builds a rage within me. Yet I must continue to watch them. Not that I think they’ll steal anything. They are Newtopian officials and Newtopian officials do not steal. Most Newtopians don’t steal. I simply need to see what they do and how they do it. I need to see their faces as they look for clues about Bruno.

     Their big feet in desert hikers leave black prints on the white stair treads. They turn left at the top into Beta’s and my room. The bed is attached to the floor. No hiding place underneath, but their eyes brighten when they see racks of tunics visible from the clothing room. All three men fit inside and handle the tunics, peer into corners, trample the shoes.

     They spend the most time in Bruno’s bedroom. After the initial moment of surprise at the number of kickball and batball trophies on the specially-made shelving, they straighten their shoulders, tuck their chins into their chests and begin to take his room apart. He had left his room less than tidy--a pile of dirty tunics in the corner, his bed in a tangle.

     It soon becomes clear to me that they are not looking for a 15-year old, they are making an assessment of him. Every tunic is removed from the closet, pockets checked. They paw at the contents in every drawer, snap photos of the rotating wall monitor images of Eagle kickball players, and remove his bedding, tossing coverlets and pillows to the floor. One even appears to gauge the distance to the ground from his window.

     When they finished, the last one out of Bruno’s room acknowledges me by saying, “Athletic young man.”

I turn and pretend I don’t hear him, especially when he adds to his companions, “Probably why they waited so long to call us.”

     After they walk out of the house and reunite with their wheeled chair, I collapse onto the longbench and hold my head in my hands, breathing deeply. “Please, please let him be safe at the dump,” I pray to whatever deity might be listening.

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