The Street Child Protection Agency
Loosh was of age and he wanted a divorce. When his parents asked why, he said, “I don’t have to tell you, but I will.” When he’d told them, his mother said, “Are you sure about this, dear?” and his father said, “You ungrateful little—!”
When the conversation was over, Loosh called his lawyer, who arranged lodging for the night and set aside half an hour to meet with him the next day.
“That boarding house stinks!” Loosh commented when admitted to his lawyer’s cubicle the next morning.
“In many ways, yes,” the man said. “Divorced children are transients. They don’t stay long and it’s hard to get them to keep things clean.”
“Well, I don’t want to stay long,” said Loosh. “Have you got a new home for me?”
The lawyer tapped a few icons on his computer.
“I talked to the Child Replacement Agency earlier this morning and they said they have five openings, all contingent on the impression you give.”
“Yeah. What’s that?”
“Depending on. You’ve got to make people think you’re a wonderful boy—obedient, helpful, full of whatever promise they want.”
“Oh, boy,” Loosh groaned.
“That’s life, buddy.”
“How much money do I have?”
“Well, if you were somebody’s spouse—”
“Husband or wife.”
“—you’d be entitled to half their income after certain expenses such as a mortgage and child maintenance if any of the children remained with the other spouse. Of course, they’d be entitled to half of yours, too, under the same conditions, unless you had a nuptial agreement altering the terms.”
“But you’re not an ex-spouse. You’re an ex-child and as such you are entitled to nothing. You were a past, present and future expense. You contributed nothing to the family finances. In fact, you drained them. So, sorry, you’ll get nothing from your ex-parents, not by virtue of the law.
“Fortunately, though, you are, for the moment, a ward of the state, meaning the government will pay for that stinking boarding house, tasteless but adequate food, and assorted other bland necessities until such time as new parents offer you a contract you see fit to accept.”
“So that all means I’m screwed because my parents drove me crazy and I couldn’t take it anymore.”
“Your ex-parents. You should learn to refer to them that way. It makes you more appealing to potential new parents. No one likes to share divided loyalties.”
Back at the boarding house, gagging on the stench, Loosh read the printouts by flashlight. It was nothing romantic. Boarding houses for wards of the state are adequate but bland. The blandness kicks in at bedtime. Bedtime isn’t always when you want to go to bed. Loosh liked the fact that he could stay up with a flashlight. It was romantic.
From a kid’s point of view, the contracts were more or less the same. He wouldn’t be allowed to do things he wanted to, would have to do things he didn’t want to do, and would have to make sure his eventual career brought honor and financial security to his new parents. The third part would be guaranteed by his signing away control of his education and extra-curricular activities to his chosen mom and dad.
He might as well have stayed home with the parents he was born to. But no. He didn’t fit with them. Day after day, hour after hour, it was do this, do that, why can’t you this, why can’t you that. Sorry, buddy, I’m busy. We’ll play catch tomorrow. No, you can’t have your own computer, not until you actually need it for school. I don’t care what the other kids’ parents get them or let them do. You’re not other kids. Your our kid. These are our rules.
He couldn’t go back. But he couldn’t go to some other prison for the chronologically deficient, either. It would just be more of the same, only different.
The next day he squeezed another half hour out of his lawyer.
“These are no good,” he said. “What else is there?”
“Besides remaining a ward of the state with all the blandness and adequacy that entails? Well, there are always the sweat shops.”
“Dark, crowded factories where children sew clothes. You know, in countries where people have no money and no space and a child is for sale or rent. Would you like to go there?
“You would be independent—too poor and overworked to enjoy your freedom much, but you’d be out from under mom and dad. That was your first stipulation when you drew up your bargaining contract yesterday.”
“How would I end up in one of those places?”
“It can be arranged. Of course, once you’re over the border, the world works differently—different ideas, different rules. Nobody here could guarantee your safety and good treatment. It’s the big eat the small in some places. Over here, too, if you’re in the wrong crowd.
“Which brings me to the third option. You could play Oliver Twist and hope for a Mr. Brownlow. But you’re more likely to meet Fagen and Sykes—and get stuck with them for life. There’s no deadline on a new contract except majority—reaching adulthood. Contracts are illegal after eighteen. But the longer you wait, the more feral you will be deemed—wild, untamable, willful, a bad investment, a deadend for love. People get hard on the streets.”
“I’ll try that,” Loosh said.
Loosh’s next stop was the Housing and Group Allocation Section of the SCPA.
“Can I help you, little fellow?” asked the receptionist. This was an extremely rude greeting, but Loosh let it pass. Something told him that demanding respect now was going to make people difficult. He’d seen that at home. Of course, at home, people would relent if you said sorry or waited long enough, but the world outside didn’t seem quite so cozy. Being free of all that control meant having less control—the kind you could get with a pout or the right kind of smile.
“I’m looking for this person,” he said, showing the receptionist a card the lawyer had given him. The rude lady took it without ado and pointed to the elevator. “Second floor, like it says on the card, sweety. When you get off, turn right.” She returned the card.
Loosh loved elevators. They were fun to play with. This time he took the stairs, like his dad always did and his mother did when she was on a fitness kick. The stairwell doors were hard to open, but he got in and got out with a muttered imprecation about stiff hinges in a building meant for children and was soon knocking at the door on the card.
“Hello,” said the pudgy blond lady who opened the door. “You must be Loosh. Your lawyer said you’d be here about now. Come in and sit down.”
Loosh went in and sat. The Group Allocation Section was a long, narrow room with a window at one end and shelves full of nasty-looking books and binders on both walls. On a counter space were a keyboard, system unit and screen that looked two years out of date, though the mouse was newish.
The pudgy blond lady sat, too.
“So you want to go on the street.”
“Well, I’m a social worker. That’s a person whose job is to look after people whose lives are falling apart. My specialty is kids who can’t get new families.”
“I could if I wanted to.”
“Yes, I heard about that. Kids who like food with a bit of taste and who can’t stand a curfew. They end up on the street. The street is not nice. They have freedom, but they don’t have control. They need money. They need friends. Both are costly. One way or another, the street takes its toll. Have you ever read Oliver Twist?”
“No, but my lawyer has.”
“You go any further and you won’t have to. If you insist, I’ll give you an address. I’ll send you to the Harman Street Children’s Commune, better known to the police as the Itchy Fingers Gang. Accomplished pick-pockets. But at least they don’t do drugs. You might have a chance there. Of course, you’ll be pressured to do your share of the picking—and the time. Jail time. That’ll hurt if you decide to go to college, get a respectable job, or marry out of the business. And when you turn sixteen, your jail stays will be longer and nastier. Here’s my computer. Google whatever you like. I’ll be back in a minute.”
When the pudgy lady returned, Loosh was on the way to his lawyer’s.
“Can I make a call?” he asked when he arrived.
His father cried, “The presumptuous little--!”
His mother said, “That’s wonderful, dear. May I call you dear? We’ll have our lawyer talk to your lawyer to draw up the terms. But you’ll have to wait a month to move back in. We’re on vacation in the Maldives. Thought we’d never get to, waiting for you to grow up and move out and all. We’ll call you when we get back. Bye.”