CONTROL part 5

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I don’t know where we’re going, but I’m more than willing to follow him. I vaguely hear him introduce himself as a social worker. The words safety and concern are pitched out to us. I don’t really care. I’m just relieved someone knows what to do right now.

Dyl and I follow him to a bleak room where we sign some forms by pressing our fingertips into the electronic pad. Our F-TIDS, or fingertip IDs. They’re the summary of our very existence—our identity, bank accounts, and medical records, shoe size, even our newly orphaned status—everything.

Afterward, the man takes us to his office down the hall. For the first time, I notice his brown hair badly needs a haircut, and he’s much younger than I expected—maybe in his early twenties. His dull clothes and dull reassurances give him the illusion of age. He sits in the center of a round desk and computer screen that almost completely encircle him. On a happier day, I’d joke that he’s got a bad Saturn complex.

“Sit down, ladies.”

I cringe. I hate it when people call me a lady. I’m anything but, so it feels like an insult. I sit down in a corner chair. Dyl pauses to wipe a wet eye and surveys the empty seats along the wall. She could sit far away, as she’s been apt to do this year, or in the chair beside mine. I feel like I’m about to win or lose some big prize. I hold in a deep breath, waiting.

Dyl shuffles closer and plops down next to me. My chest shrinks with a glad exhalation. As we try to cover up our sniffles, tissues sprout from the armrests of our chairs. Apparently we are not this room’s first weepy clients.

The social worker starts touching the screens around him, ignoring us.

I blow my nose, then sit forward on my chair. “I’m sorry. What’s your name again?”

“John. I’ve been assigned to your case. I am truly sorry for your loss, but right now my main concern is your safety.” He smiles at us with only his mouth, while the gray eyes remain hard as cement. It’s as if he’s only been given a one-feature allotment of sympathy. “Your F-TIDS again, please.”

Dyl’s on her fifth tissue already. One tumbles onto the floor, and a small four-armed bot shaped like a beetle picks it up, sprays the carpet with disinfectant, and fetches her an incinerator trash can from the wall.

“Thank you,” she whispers. Her nose is so congested from crying it sounds like “Dank you.”

A black shiny square pops up from our armrests and we press our fingers against them. The screens around Social Worker Guy (John is way too human a name) burst into various colors. He starts spinning around in his chair, searching the data. He coughs loudly, not bothering to cover his mouth.

“I see. Your mother died from influenza. Missed her annual vaccine packet. How irresponsible.”

It happened when I was only four years old. I barely remember her. Mom dumped our family when she couldn’t handle Dad’s moving-target jobs, then forgot her vaccines in the excitement of her newfound freedom. My resentment conveniently blots out any remaining memories. I’m even proud that I can’t recall her hair color.

Social Worker Guy does another nauseating spin, fixating on a new section of screen. “Yes, your uncle died two years ago. You have a third cousin in . . . Oh, no. That’s by legal fusion.” Hardly anyone calls it marriage anymore. Who’s fused to whom is always the newest stuff on gossip holo boards. Social Worker Guy keeps drawling on. “So, not a blood relative. Doesn’t count. Your grandparents had no illegitimate children, nor did your father, it seems . . .”

The soap opera of my family tree is less like entertainment and more like a frog dissection. The guy commands the screen to turn off, and it transforms to a frigid scene of winter snowfall. How warm and fuzzy of him.

“Well. I guess it does look like it’s the two of you.”

Two. A hopelessly small number.

He stands up and opens the door. “Come, we don’t have much time. Are either of you hungry? Thirsty? I’m going to get myself a Vitalyte anyway.”

We stand up to follow him obediently, shaking our heads. He walks us to a nearby capsule-shaped transport, where we all grab safety handles sprouting from the beige-colored walls. The door closes seamlessly. We speed up, left, right, and down through several buildings.

The doors open onto a dim concrete hallway. I wonder what café is in this dreary place. We pass by twenty closed doors, all the same gray color as the hall. Even the ceiling is gray. I start to wonder if I’ve gone color-blind or if this building is just pathetically devoid of color.

Social Worker Guy stops at an unmarked door and presses his finger onto a wall pad. The door clicks open. Inside is a room with a scattering of century-old rickety chairs and a plain desk. An elderly lady sits at the desk, scowling at the solitaire hand on her holo. A blond boy and a girl sit in a corner pair of chairs. The boy looks my age, and the little girl is probably ten. They both glance eagerly at us. The girl gives me the up and down, then goes back to staring at the floor, the buoyancy in her face now gone. Clearly we’re not who she wanted to walk through that door.

“Is this the café?” I ask, confused.

“Of course not. Have a seat. The assistants will be with you in a moment.” He rummages inside his shirt pocket and pulls out something. “Here, this is yours.” He drops Dad’s wedding band in my hand. I’m shocked to see it perfectly intact after the accident that tore my father to pieces.

Dyl looks at the ring but hesitates. I hand it to her, and her eyes water at the offering.

“Are you sure?” she whispers. I nod. After spending a week with dad in the ICU, it seems unfair that I’ve got memories she doesn’t. She needs something real to hold on to. Dyl sits in a rickety chair and turns the gold circlet in her fingers. The corners of her mouth pull down so far, I wonder if I’ll ever see them change direction. In the corner, the blond boy has his eyes fixed on Dyl. No surprise there. Even in her misery, she’s so pretty. I want to smack his glance away.

Social Worker Guy turns to leave. I’m afraid to ask him, but I force myself.

“Please. What are we doing here?” I ask.

“This is the New Horizons Center of West Omaha.” I must look as stupid as he thinks, because he enunciates his next words very slowly. “So you and your sister can be placed with a new family. A foster family.” He gives my arm an unreassuring squeeze, so he can push me away to click the door shut.

I back away from the door. Foster family? Each day this past week, I doggedly assumed Dad would recover. I never considered that the sky would fall, or that the earth would stop rotating. And here I am, detached, orphaned, and missing that person who used to tether me to the world. My bones feel loose and disconnected beneath my skin at the thought.

The old lady at the desk finally switches off her holo game and serves us a prunish smile.

“Names please,” she orders. I step forward and quietly give her our information. She bobs her head, telling us to sit and wait.

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