“This is it,” Shyla Webster, their new foster mother, announced when they were all on the sidewalk, ignoring the way the boys were gawking. Her red hair was piled up on her head in a severe, starched way that matched her clothes and manner.
“Everything inside to the right of the door is yours; everything to the left is mine. Kitchen, bathroom, and main rooms are communal. You share a bedroom. Breakfast is at 7:00, dinner at 6:30 in the kitchen. The dining room is formal and for special events only. You will never have reason to go in there. I don’t eat with you, and I don’t go into your side of the house. You don’t come into my side, and you leave me alone unless I ask to talk to you.”
She didn’t look at them as she spoke. She was talking to one of the benches lining the walkway. Kane wondered what drugs she was on. Users were supposed to be washed out of the Foster system. Looked like the Government of Child Welfare had missed one. Or she’d cleaned up long enough to pass the drug test. He wondered where she hid her stash, and if he’d be able to find it. Control the stash, control the user.
“Tomorrow I’ll take you to buy clothes and other necessary items. You’ll start school next week. Out back is stuff for you to do: Pool, basketball hoop, and playground. There is a playroom upstairs for when you can’t go outside. The music room is there to be used. The instructors will be here two evenings a week.”
She turned and fixed them both with a flat glare, looking at them for the first time. Kane noted that her eyes, dark brown, which meant the red hair was probably a dye job, didn’t have the normal glaze that indicated a user. So she was mental. Great. He’d rather she was a user. A user could be controlled. But a mental…that was dangerous. He’d have to keep an eye on her.
“Do as you’re told, leave me alone, and everything will be fine. You don’t have to like me. I sure as hell don’t like either of you. But when somebody’s around we will act like a family. Is that clear?”
The boys agreed with nods. Shyla told them they were to be ready to go shopping for clothes and other necessities the next morning. She added that whatever they’d had at Holding had been destroyed so they would have no reminders of their old lives. They were to wait on the bench she’d been talking to and would leave at 9:00. If they were not present she would purchase for them what she wanted. She walked into the house and shut the door, leaving them to stare after her.
“Welcome home,” Kane muttered. “This is bizarre. Huge house and we share a room? We’re assigned a ‘mother’ who wants nothing to do with us?” He shrugged. “Guess it means we can do what we want.”
There was no response. Kane shook his head and started for the front door. Might as well see what his half of the giant house, at least a good third the size of the housing block he’d lived in with his father, looked like. And get a snack. He hadn’t had anything to eat since that crap they’d called breakfast at the holding facility, and he needed something real.
A small hand caught at his shirtsleeve. He shook it off and glowered at the other, smaller boy. Best to lay out the ground rules right away. If he was going to have a little brother, that little brother was going to toe the line. Be useful, if possible.
“Don’t grab at me.” It was a voice he’d used many times to make sure others knew he was in charge. It worked even better than usual. Devin, light blue eyes wide, nodded as he shrank away. Kane felt a satisfactory surge of power. “What’d you want?”
Devin’s eyes shifted to the ground as he bit his lower lip. He didn’t speak. Okay. Great. The kid assigned to be his little brother was stupid or couldn’t talk. Or both. Either way Kane had no patience for dealing with him. He was hungry and had a new home to explore. Silent kid would have to fend for himself. Shaking his head, he again started for the front door.
Kane didn’t see his new brother again until dinner. He strolled in at 6:40, flushed from playing basketball and starving. Devin was sitting at the table trying to eat one-handed. It looked like he was having a hard time. Kane wondered why nobody had cut up the meat for him; then again, the piece was small to begin with. Their mother probably hadn’t even thought about the cast, that Devin would need help until it came off.
Kane pulled Devin’s plate over and cut the tiny piece of meat. Devin hadn’t made any protest when he’d taken the plate, not even to ask what he was doing. He did give Kane a quick, shy smile when the plate was returned, and started eating again. Figuring it was all he could expect, Kane turned to his own rapidly cooling food. The kitchen was silent.
Devin took Kane’s empty plate without a word and stuck it in the dishwasher. Then, with another quick, shy smile he left the kitchen. Kane followed to use the bathroom. He planned to check out the playroom and bedroom, claim the side he wanted and lay down the ground rules before he got his shower. He hadn’t looked around much before heading outside earlier.
The front hall looked formal, stuffy, and smelled like it was full of dust. Like it hadn’t been used in a long time, or was an exhibit at the history museum. Checking out the fancy furniture in the hallway had been enough to shrivel Kane’s curiosity. He’d been cooped up for almost a week in the holding facility; he’d had to get outside before he started breaking things. He’d always heard kids in Foster ended up worse off than before. Finding himself in this place, which screamed money, was bothering him more than he wanted to admit.
He didn’t trust this. Didn’t trust any of the Governments, didn’t trust the Foster system, certainly didn’t trust the mental mother he’d been assigned. Even the fact he’d been paired with a kid who, he was willing to bet all the money this place must cost, had been abused was cause for concern and to be on guard. Especially when there were only two of them. The other kids he’d met at Holding were going to be assigned four or more to a home.
Of course, most Foster parents were in it for the money. He had no idea why Shyla was in the system, but it wasn’t for the money. Not with this set up.
The playroom was upstairs from the kitchen. Kane looked in, surprised at what he saw. The room was an arcade crossed with a toy store and a small amusement park with a roller coaster! Who the heck heard of a Foster home with a room like that? The whole set up was getting more and more suspicious.
From the next room he heard running water. Following it, he found the bathroom with two of everything and a water wall in the middle. Seeing it reminded him how much he needed to pee and reinforced how bizarre the whole situation was. He’d thought something was up when they’d come to put him into Foster. The longer he dealt with the GCW, the stronger his belief became.
His father’s parents not wanting him had been no reason to stick him with this. He’d been fine on his own the first few weeks and with neighbors and friends after. It wasn’t like he needed much he couldn’t get for himself. Stupid laws. He hadn’t expected his grandparents to want him. They’d disowned his father for leaving the Special Forces and getting married. He’d never met them. Why would they want him?
He made his way to the bedroom after going through a room full of bookcases. Books? Who didn’t have a Reader? The books had to be for display. He saw two desks with computers and a 3D Holo TV. A smaller room next to the library or study or whatever was full of plants. He was willing to bet they were fruits and vegetables, meaning he’d get fresh food instead of reconstituted. The room had a fountain and, since it was made of all glass, he thought it was called a solarium. He’d heard of them, but never expected to see one, much less live in a house with one. His life had taken a turn toward the screwy since his father had disappeared and been declared dead.
Devin was inside the bedroom looking around. Both sides of the room were the same like Shyla had said. Except for the decorations on the wall, it could have been a mirror image of a much smaller room, one the size Kane was used to. One side was decorated more girly than the other, with pictures of things like flowers, and a giant teddy bear in the corner. The other corner had a big urn full of what looked like swords. Kane went to check out that side.
The whole room was at least half the size of the housing his father and he had been assigned. Like everything else, housing was assigned by one or more Governments. Everybody was allotted one hundred square feet of living space. More if you needed special equipment to get around or had money. As long as you worked you got to stay in the mandated housing. Quit working and you’d be assigned a different job, one that was supposedly based on your abilities. Didn’t matter if it was something you wanted to do. You had to work once you were of age. If you didn’t, or couldn’t, you’d be sent off to a “rest facility” to live out the remainder of your guaranteed-to-be-short life.
His dad wouldn’t have had to worry. He’d been in the Protective Forces twice: Once as Special Military and once as a cop. Working in the Protective Forces gave you certain benefits the rest of the society didn’t have. Like being able to retire from work and live out a normal life span in regular housing.
“This side’s mine,” he told Devin, sitting on the bed to test it. Devin perched on a chair and nodded. “You don’t mess up my stuff and I won’t mess up yours. Got it?” Another nod. “Don’t grab me or try to surprise me, either.” At the third nod Kane got angry. “Can’t you talk? Are you mute or stupid?”
Devin’s eyes had gone wide again. He shrank back until he was cowering in the chair. It did nothing to appease Kane’s anger. He hated cowards. After a few seconds, though, Devin sat up again, now looking in his direction if not directly at him. That showed a courage that Kane hadn’t expected.
“I can talk,” Devin said in a near whisper. “I…didn’t want to make you mad. People get mad when I talk.” He shrugged. “So…I…don’t talk.”
Shit. Kane had read a lot, more than people would be comfortable believing. What Devin was saying didn’t sound good. Didn’t sound good at all. Especially not in conjunction with the other stuff he’d seen. What had he been put into?
“I won’t get mad if you talk, as long as it’s not nonstop chatter.” He slid off the bed he’d chosen and started for the door. He needed time and space. There was a lot he needed to think about, including how he was going to play this whole stupid thing. He cursed the Governments again. They were always taking over and controlling, ruining, people’s lives. “I’m gonna get a shower, check out the playroom a bit. Later.”
Devin waited several minutes after Kane left before getting out of the chair. He walked back into the garden room. It had another name, but he liked calling it the garden room. It was warm and quiet there, already his favorite place in the house. There were plenty of hiding spaces; maybe this would be a safe zone. He hadn’t had many of them in his life, and treasured each one he could find. Earlier he’d stashed a book from the library in a hiding spot he’d found. He returned there now.
Kane passed by a little later, hair still damp and mussed from the shower. He was in his jeans, a towel bundled around his shoulders. Devin watched him pass by without drawing attention to himself, keeping tabs on the other boy without thought. It was safest to know where people were, the mood they were in. It helped him to sometimes figure out how to get out of the way before the pain started. Not often, but sometimes.
“Hey! Do you want to…where the…?”
Devin blinked in surprise. He scrambled out of his hiding spot and went toward the bedroom. If Kane was looking for him, he’d better be found and quickly. Kane was glaring around the room from between the two beds. Biting his lower lip, Devin entered the room, eyes on the floor. Kane saw him and relaxed, offering a half-grin at seeing what Devin had in his hand.
“You like to read too?”
Devin was still holding the book from the library, which he’d forgotten to leave in his haste. He nodded. Then, remembering Kane wanted him to talk, said he did. Kane came closer and asked to see the book. Devin held it out, trembling. It was hard, being with someone new. He didn’t know what to expect.
Kane hadn’t read the book Devin held, although he’d read the one that came before. Some adventure novel that had been made into a flick and television series. He’d liked the story, but not enough to want to pay money to see it. He’d only read the first one because the person who’d paid for him to “borrow” a story on his e-reader had downloaded it. He drew Devin into casual conversation about the characters and story.
Kane was careful to maintain a distance of at least a yard and to make no sudden moves or talk about anything personal. The conversation continued until Devin relaxed a bit. Kane sighed mentally. Definitely abused. He could work with that. He still wasn’t sure what angle he was going to take with the other boy, but he’d figure it out.
“You checked out the playroom yet? No? Let’s go then! C’mon!” Kane started away, brushing past Devin. Devin tensed with a sharp inhalation. Kane cursed to himself but acted as if he hadn’t noticed, once more urging the other boy to follow. He wasn’t sure what he had landed himself into this time, but he knew one thing; he was going to have to keep an eye out for Devin. Somebody had already messed the kid up way bad.
“Hey, Dad,” he muttered as he entered the playroom, “maybe I got that chance to set my life right after all.” Yeah. A second chance. That’s what this could be. A really bizarre second chance, with money, and a little brother already trained on how to behave.