It was a neat house, set in a row of neat houses, each indistinguishable one from the other. The same white recycled clapboard, the same solar conduits, the same porch swing swaying silently in the wind blowing across the same front porch.
I was tasked with investigating potential unrest at number 16 Acer Palmatum, the first of the A to Zed tree-named streets of Willard Orchard. It was one of three communities in New Pittsburgh for citizens exercising their right to have children, up to the two child maximum–though why anyone would want two children, let alone one, was beyond my wife and me. Why have a child when you have a community? But best not to question the choices of others lest one find oneself ticketed for a "confrontational" violation.
The Orchard is boundaried by four streets–Orchard North, South, East and West, with North, South and the tree-named streets laid out with a slight curve at midpoint. Viewed from the sky (because the houses bear alternating white and red slate roofs), the Orchard resembles a red and white striped flag frozen as it ripples in the wind. Slate, of course, is ideal for its heat absorption properties which, also of course, helps contain the necessary government outlays for heating these larger dwellings to house those superfluous juvenile occupants. A sad, wasteful, but necessary concession to the small (and growing ever smaller) Family lobby in the Capitol.
It was my first call to the Orchard and to appreciate the full effect from ground level, I stepped from my bike at the far end of Zelkova Carpinifolia and walked it slowly south on Orchard West toward Acer Palmatum, delighting in the fact that there were indeed no variations my trained investigator’s eye could detect. Even the identical shrubbery in the front and rear of each house was meticulously sculpted and trimmed by GGs (government groundspersons) to ensure that no one received more or less shade than the others.
"There is nothing that pleases like identical breezes, they are equal and upright and fair" came to mind from the Guide to Citizenship, which made my call on number 16 disturbing to my sense of inner peace. What dark secrets these serenely quiet houses sometimes contain. Yet another reason for random interior electronic monitoring which most assuredly will pass through Congress someday.
I parked my bike, jarred by the realization that by doing so I had disturbed the conforming tranquility of the neighborhood. The parked bike, before this house and no other, would draw attention–as well it should.
I mounted the stone porch steps, knocked on the door, waited a bit, then knocked again. She opened it quickly, like I’d caught her in the middle of something, which was one reason I knocked. Besides which, doorbells are a waste of electricity.
"Yes?" she said uncertainly.
"Mrs. Chance?"
"That’s right."
"Curt Teller, Interior Resolutions Service. We’ve had reports concerning your son."
The reaction I got was indeed the surprise I anticipated, but it lacked any trace of fear. If she was guilty of complicity, she hid it well.
"You mean Billy?"
"May I come in?"
"Yes, yes, of course, …Oh, wait; shouldn’t I see some form of identification?"
I smiled like I always do, like it’s a great inconvenience. She had to go through the motions, the last annoying bit of instinctual rebellion. I made a mental note of it for later inclusion in her EOS 682P.
I flipped open my card case, holding it up so she could see it. She was nine and three-quarters inches taller than me, but the card shrinks even the mightiest so that soon I felt I was looking down on her.
"Come in," she said, and I stepped past her. I was pleasantly surprised by the regulatory compliance of the living room. I had suspected I would find some deviation, but clearly this family was outwardly normal. Those are the ones who can become so haughtily confident that they eventually betray themselves with an innocent slip of the tongue. But here, everything seemed proper and correct. Even the three family photos taken by the GPs (government photographers) and framed by the GEs (government encasers) were positioned on the proper wall with the proper space between them, undisturbed since their original installation by the GDs (government designers). There were no additional random extraneous photographs. Glancing through the living room to the kitchen I detected no use of contraband refrigerator magnets.
"What about Billy?" she asked.
I switched on my transcorder and played the prerecorded explanation of her rights–that I had come in my official capacity, that this was a routine investigation, that anything she said could be used against her–waited for the beep, and then replied to her.
"I understand that your son, Billy, age 8, is not at school. That he hasn’t been for some time. Do you have a son named Billy and is that statement correct to the best of your knowledge and ability?"
"Why yes, he’s–"
"Please, this will proceed more efficiently if you confine your answer to the direct question. Do you understand?"
"Yes, but–"
"I’m sorry."
She waited.
"Good. Is your son, Billy, ill?"
There was a momentary hesitation which later showed up in the transcorder capture as a registered increase in discomfort and anxiety indicative of reluctance.
"Really? So then you have taken him to the doctor?"
A trick question as her failure to seek out medical assistance had been established in background investigation.
"Why not? Surely you understand that being entrusted with the care of a child you must ensure that the child is raised to become a productive member of the community?"
"Yes, I have been negligent in that regard."
"I fear I must cite you for violation of Revised Code Statute 1892 paragraph B, subparagraph ii, to wit–‘If illness should strike any time of the week, a physician’s review you must assuredly seek.’"
"I, I–"
"Please wait for my question. …Now, you are aware of this statute?"
"It is certainly clear. The government legislators and international board of poets spend considerable time writing these laws so that they are concise and easy to recall in compliance with the New Legalese Act. So that ‘Each citizen of ages from Jan to December, will find guidance which they can easily remember.’ Why would you then intentionally violate said statute?"
"I thought Billy would get better."
"You thought Billy would get better?"
"I see nothing in your background indicating medical training. Do you have some of which we are unaware?"
"No, I have no formal training." I shook my head, and she had the audacity to say, "You knew that. You didn’t have to ask."
"Oh, Mrs. Chance, you are narrowly navigating along the precipice of confrontationality."
"…I apologize."
"May I see the boy, your son, Billy?"
"Must you?"
"I must."
"It’s very embarrassing."
"Mrs. Chance, you are a mother and a registered home based computer programmer. I don’t believe you would care to jeopardize your career by standing in the way of an official investigator for the Interior Resolutions Service due to your allowing yourself to succumb to embarrassment, which, in and of itself, demonstrates an excessive devotion to self and a disregard for the collective balance of society."
"Well…when you put it that way."
Chastised, I allowed her the luxury of leading the way. Perhaps a mistake on my part. However, it seemed perfectly compliant with the "good cop/bad cop" training I had received in the Services’ Academy. I of course knew exactly which room the boy was in, as children always occupy the front room in order that any rebellious behavior might be registered by the spybots that roam the neighborhoods. But the boy’s curtains were drawn during the day as well as at night and this satisfied one of the secondary requirements for the launching of the investigation, the primary being his absence from school.
"I wish you would wait for my husband to come home," she said as we reached the top of the 19 wooden steps that led to the second floor.
"Mrs. Chance, your husband is at Headquarters being interrogated separately. We find this is more efficient."
"But it’s the culling season! He’s needed to monitor at the Agrarium."
"Yes, and it is a shame that the two of you have conspired to keep your son’s absence mysterious, necessitating this inquiry, thereby further creating a slowdown in society as a whole."
"I hadn’t thought of it like that."
I shook my head again. What could I possibly tell her at that point? That felons rarely consider how their individual actions affect others? Such a blatant, selfish disregard I had not encountered in some time.
Controlling my rising disgust, I stopped before the boy’s door and asked, "Shall I open the door, or will you?"
"Be my guest."
I opened the door and stepped into the room. I saw nothing amiss. All seemed in order, except, however, for any sign of the boy. I bent down and looked under the bed, but saw only a highly polished wooden floor beneath. I turned to the open closet and saw nothing save his neatly ironed and pressed school uniforms. I whirled around to face her.
"Madam, this is not amusing! Where is the boy?"
She had scrunched her eyes up tight and her head was bent towards the floor. I began to feel an icy dread as though something far more horrible than I could ever have imagined had occurred. MURDER flashed through my mind, and my knees became wobbly. Violent crime had become such a foreign concept that only a few old timers were knowledgeable and hardy enough, digestion wise, to perform a competent investigation.
I felt myself grow faint, and nearly collapsed, when a meek little voice said, "Why, I’m up here."
I looked frantically about, suspecting some form of hallucinatory gas might have been released.
"I said, up here, Mister."
I froze, then slowly looked up.
He was lying there, hovering in the air, with no visible support that could afford him that unique vantage point. Staring down at me, as if lying on his stomach, clad in snowman patterned pajamas with his chin poking over his crossed arms, was a damnably cute, tow-headed, freckle-cheeked child having a difficult time containing a fit of giggles.
I must have stared for some time, for soon the barely contained giggle erupted in force, and I reacted non-professionally with a flush of anger that only made him giggle all the harder.
"Billy, this will not do," his mother said. "This is Mr. Teller and he’s here on official business. You must not mock him."
"Ma’am, I shall handle this," I said with far more confidence than I felt.
"I am sorry, Mother, I had not meant to mock him," Billy said. "It is just such a delight to see the expression on his face."
"You see, Mr. Teller," she said, "this is why his father and I decided that we must keep Billy home from school."
"I am perfectly happy to go, just as I am."
"We felt that if others saw him this way, particularly his school chums, it could prove disruptive."
"How do you explain this?" I asked.
"We cannot explain it," she said. "He’s been this way for nearly a week."
"A week? That’s preposterous," I said. "This is impossible. Surely he must come down some time."
"I wish that were so, but he does not. He’ll lean down to grab his dinner, and float to the bathroom, but he refuses to come down. We have looked in on him at night, and even in sleep he is floating. Bill, Sr., my husband, tried to slip a rope around him to pull him down, but Billy is a light sleeper and dodged each toss."
"Young man, Billy…come down here immediately."
"People cannot float in midair."
"Because as an official of your government, I say so. I am ordering you to cease and desist."
"Is my being in this position a violation of some legislated statute?
He was a bright one, that boy. In utero testing had scheduled him for an eventual and brilliant career as a physicist. Because of his intellect, I realized he would prove a challenge to bring down. So I took a different tack. Perhaps sympathy for his mother being placed in jeopardy would cause this little rebel to land.
"Madam, for the good of society, children must be controlled, don’t you agree?"
"Yes, Mr. Teller. I do agree."
"It is apparent that you have failed. I need to draw the boy’s blood to check his level of Quietin," I said. Every child must take a daily dose of 10mg of Quietin; failure to do so was an egregious violation. Perhaps his dosage needed to be increased.
"I give him his dose every single day, and he swallows it with no complaints."
"Still I must draw blood. Billy, you’ll need to come down because I suspect your mother to be maliciously negligent in her civic responsibility. She is facing an extremely severe penalty," I said with as much calm officiousness as I could muster.
Billy began to lower a bit and said, "Why certainly, Mr. Teller, and I mean no disrespect, but perhaps you have forgotten my simple question? Is my hovering above you a violation of a legislated statute?"
Clearly I should have been far more threatening in my treatment of his mother. This chess match he was attempting to draw me into would never do. I took a deep breath, and went for a bold gambit.
"Young man, I am charging you with a flagrant disregard of the Law of Gravity!"
He stared down at me, the smile returning to his lips.
"This law about gravity, I’ll sure take a look," he said, "if you find it inside of your dusty code book."
I was horrified. Not only had he lured me in with his knowledge of statute versus natural laws, he was now mocking the very foundation of our entire legal system. He had rhymed in a most abominable parody of civilized discourse. This was absolutely intolerable. He most certainly had not applied for, nor been granted, a poetic license.
"You get down here this very instant!" I said. "I do not care if you want to float or fly, you have gone too far."
"I don’t care to float, nor much care to fly. It’s simply that law. I choose not to comply."
Attempting to catch him by surprise, I jumped up and threw my arms out hoping to snag the sleeve on the little bastard’s flannel snowman pajamas, but he caromed away to the other side of the room.
"Did my rhyming offend you?" he asked. "I was merely showing you how well citizenship class has prepared me for society: ‘Each citizen of ages from Jan to December, will find guidance which they can easily remember.’"
"Help me," I said to his mother, and she too leapt, and though she had a much longer reach, her years of stationary inactivity as a computer programmer had taken their toll on her strength and dexterity.
"Please, Billy," she pleaded. "Come down now. You have carried this much too far."
Though he looked at her sympathetically, the child continued to dart back and forth across the room, eluding our grasp.
I quickly yanked a blanket from his bed, attempting to use it like a net and haul him down. But he snatched the edge with his tight little fists and darted away with such velocity that the blanket was ripped from my grasp. Astonishingly, he paused in his flight, refolded the blanket, and tossed the neat package down to his mother. She clutched it tightly to her breast and looked up with tears in her eyes.
The exertion had shortened my breath, so I grabbed hold of his dresser and steadied myself. I was on the point of summoning the Special Tactics Squad.
But before I could call, Billy looked down on his mother with compassion in his eyes, and said, "Say farewell to Father. Goodbye, my sweet Mother. I must leave this home, and go find another."
And with that he shot through the curtains and out the window.
She ran after him, tearing the curtains aside and screaming, "Billy, come back! Come back!" But he was quickly growing smaller in the daytime sky. Shooting out above and beyond Ceanothus Thyrsiflorus, Dalea Spinosa, Exostema Caribaeum, Firmiana Simplex, Genipa Clusiifolia, on he went until he had become a mere speck on the horizon, and finally vanished completely.
Weeks passed, and inquiry after inquiry was made. Mr. and Mrs. Chance were eventually cleared of any willful or theoretic un-willful participation in their son’s rebellion. However, as a precautionary measure, the Department of Health increased their adult Quietin requirement to 100mg every four hours and had registers implanted in their vascular systems both to monitor compliance with the new dosage and provide them with a friendly mild electric shock to remind them when it was time to take a pill. Needless to say, their communications, electronic and verbal, were continually monitored should Billy attempt to reconnect with his parents.
Following an exhaustive review of the transcorder vid by Internal Affairs, I was cleared of any procedural violations but did receive the obligatory "Not adequately prepared for the unexpected" admonition on my EOS 682P, with the normal reduction in grade and seven months’ probation and retraining.
I wish that I could positively report that "Billygate," as it became known inside the upper echelon of government, had remained completely "Eyes Only." Most maddening is that there has been a small but noticeable spike in natural law violations by children, requiring the already overworked legislature and board of poets to codify these laws–everything from the duration of planetary orbit to the molecular composition of naturally occurring elements. Fortunately, none of the before code violations were gravity related. However, the best in IOPs have already developed new measures, such as tranq harpoons, to combat any future outbreak.
I had nearly forgotten the matter completely, having buried myself in the always demanding workload and my nightly retraining sessions. I volunteered for extra hours in hope that my dedicated behavior would allow me to reclaim my full investigatory credentials.
But then this morning, among the New Law Alerts and statistical reports crammed in my in-box, I noticed a postcard. I picked it up and immediately knew that it had been ferried back and forth through a variety of underground postal services to obscure its original sending point.
It was addressed simply to Mr. Curt Teller, IRS, Capital. There was no signature, but written on the back in crayon was, "Hope all’s well with you, I’m sure that’s attainable, as long as you know, there are things unexplainable."
I flipped the card over and was immediately repelled by the image. A blindingly white irregular coastal area where waves of an unimaginable hue lapped at the sand. Hideous, primitively constructed thatched huts were strewn willy-nilly among oddly curved trees laden with tumorous nuts, many of which had fallen–clearly an indication of the danger to those who dared to walk about without a helmet. I could not tear my eyes from this grotesque image. In fact, I found myself lulled by a strange calm as I gazed at the sordid scene. I could feel myself flying as I had seen Billy fly out past Thuja Occidentalis.
I quickly shoved the card into my pocket as I realized, with growing terror, that office cameras might register my fixed and vacant expression and alert the Internal Affairs division to an illicit reaction. I would destroy the card with extreme discretion at the earliest opportunity. My office recycling basket would never do, nor would the multi-shred in the corner. Instead I would take it home and after further consideration create a plan of action to rid myself immediately of its disquieting content.
(c)2011, by Ted Elrick