by James R. Stratton
Noise! Raucous, giddy, clamoring noise pulled BoyTen’s mind six ways. He couldn’t think, couldn’t see, couldn’t smell, it was so overwhelming. He stumbled along buffeted by the crowd as his bare feet slapped the wet pavement. His head barely reached the waists of all these big people, so his view was blocked by the fleshy forest. A trail of angry shouts marked his passage. Seeking asylum, BoyTen’s gaze darted about but only found more people, more bewildering sights. The big people loomed over him, generally acting like he wasn’t there. An opening, dark and unpeopled, appeared between a man dressed in bright holiday colors and a gleaming silver cart pushed by a sad, withered woman. The boy leapt, startling the woman, and scrambled into the dark and quiet. Sighing, he crawled between two dumpsters smearing smelly filth on his oversized green coveralls. He hugged his knees to his chest and pulled his knit cap over the blue marks on his forehead.
“I’m a good boy, a very good boy,” he murmured. “But I done a bad thing.” He rocked as his gaze darted about. “KeeperJohn, I’m sorry. I wanna go home. Come find me.”
But how could that happen? He’d gotten so turned around that he had lost track of his turns and twists. How would KeeperJohn, or even ChiefKeeperSimon, unravel the trail if he could not? He’d treaded the path with his own feet!
As his breath slowed and his heart quieted, BoyTen worried at the puzzle. Try to remember the path back? He grunted and grimaced as he tried to remember. But the chaos of his passage defeated him. Follow his own tracks? No, there was no dirt to hold his tracks. He clutched his knees as his eyes burned with tears. There had to be a way!
He sat up and sniffed. Yes! He clasped his hands and sniffed again. The air was rich with exotic scents he’d never smelled. But laced in and through them was his own familiar musk. Normally he ignored it, but not today!
BoyTen stood and padded down the dark alley. If he could follow his own scent-trail back the way he’d come, he could find his way. Hot tears blurred his vision as a sob burst up from his belly. He needed to be home so bad! He missed his pen, the compound with its climbing structures, his fellow boys and girls. Oh, this crowded, dirty, noisy place was terrible!
BoyTen pinched himself. Not now! He needed to be calm if he had any hope. Breathing as he’d been taught, BoyTen stilled his mind and heart. He exhaled and wiped his nose on his sleeve. Sniffing, he smiled. Yes, it was there.
At the entrance, BoyTen stared wide-eyed at the swirling crowd. His trail turned to the right, back the way he’d come. He hugged his sides and took a cleansing breath, then slipped in between two men striding along and marched within the human canyon they formed. Good, a left here and straight ahead.
He walked a good long way, turning left and right, and only lost the scent once. With his eyes half-closed he ignored everything, threading his way through the sea of smells. The further he came, the fainter his scent grew. It was spreading and drowning in the sea of smells. Suddenly a hand grasped his shoulder, jerking him around.
“Got you, ya little bastard!” said a man with a face the color of a looming thunderstorm. “You knock over my table, you break my goods, you pay!”
BoyTen squirmed and pulled, but the man held tight. He twisted his one hand around to gather the loose cloth of BoyTen’s coveralls and punched BoyTen in the head so his knees buckled.
“Stop it! Hold still!” the man shouted. “You wait for the police.” He smacked BoyTen again so he saw sparkling lights before him. A cold breath on his scalp warned him he’d lost his cap. Before he could grab it, the man hoisted BoyTen up and thumped him on the side of the head so that everything blanked out. He returned to gasps and shouts as he spun helpless in the man’s hand.
“Look! He has blue numbers on his forehead.”
“It’s the meat bag! Like on the video. Hold him. There’s big money for him.”
“Yeah, grab him. Call the cops.”
Several of the big ones closed to pull and paw at him until BoyTen thought he would go insane. KeeperJohn had taught him to always mind keeper folk, but this was too much!
He shrieked so that his throat burned. Biting, clawing, kicking and butting, he cleared a space around himself. Several clutched bitten hands or bloody nail-scratched faces. He spun and screamed his outrage so they swayed back, then bounded forward. The fat lady before him fell, and the boy stomped across her belly and bust. His bare feet barely touched the pavement as he hurtled left, then right, under, then over. The pounding feet and angry shouts faded. Soon he huddled in a courtyard surrounded by tall brick buildings.
As he panted, BoyTen’s eyes froze and a sob hiccuped through his teeth. He’d lost them, sure, but he’d also lost his original scent trail! Worse, he couldn’t backtrack to pick it up. These big people were mean. They’d grab him if he went back. So he was truly lost now. Shivering, BoyTen dropped to the ground and wailed. The buildings around him echoed the mournful sounds until the courtyard rang with his sobs.
“Boy? Are you hurt?”
A soft, quavering voice jolted him to his feet. He jumped up and crouched, jaw jutting with teeth bared, hands raised with fingers bent to claw. Growling, he glared defiance at the woman standing in the nearest doorway. She was thin, so her wrinkled skin hung loose from her cheeks and neck. She was pale, so even her hair was the fluffy color of clouds in a blue sky. And frail! BoyTen had no doubt she would shatter into a dozen pieces if he touched her trembling frame. She was unlike any big person he’d ever met.
She called again. “Boy, are you okay? You needn’t worry. I won’t hurt you.”
He rubbed his nose on his sleeve and gulped. “Um, I’m lost. I was trying to go home, but a bunch a people grabbed me and hit me.”
She frowned and glanced at the blue marks on his head. “You can come inside if you want. I’ve got apples and bananas, and some cookies I was baking.” She held out her hand like KeeperSue.
The boy turned to flee, but stopped. Run where? The yearning to be someplace safe with a friendly person ached within him. He crept forward and took her hand. It was softer than any hand he’d ever held, and she smelled of clean and quiet. At the same time, his stomach knotted painfully as odors wafted through her open door. Yes, cookies and fruit like she said, but also bread and meat and fish and veggies, older smells from other days but all good. He shrank against her as he entered the house wide-eyed. The food-smell wrenched his throat until he whined. He grabbed an apple and banana from a bowl as soon as she sat him at a small table and laughed as he rammed first one then the other into his mouth until he cheeks bulged with the gooey fruit mush. Gulping, he cried as his stomach shuddered with pleasure.
The woman set milk and cookies in front of him and sat. “I think I know where you belong. Would you like me to call so your friends can come?”
BoyTen slurped the milk and shoved a warm sweet cookie into his mouth. “Yeth,” he mumbled and picked up another. She nodded and walked to a black phone thing by the door. She murmured at length into it. Smiling she turned back as he sat clutching the last cookie.
“They’ll be here soon. Are you full? You look tired. Would you like to lie down?”
His stomach bulged and his eyes were hot and heavy. He took her hand and she led him to a big couch in the next room like the one in KeeperDoc’s office, but lots softer. He curled up on it and the lady began to sing. KeeperSue sometimes sang, but not this song. It was about all kinds of silly things like babies and cradles and trees. He giggled even as waves of sleepiness washed over him. Soon he was afloat with a dreamy lassitude.
When he awoke, he knew a long time had passed from the way the light came in the window. BoyTen jerked up at the sound of voices. There was the nice lady’s soft quavery one, but whose was that deep booming voice? He smiled as his heart thumped. KeeperJohn! He kicked the blanket that covered him but just got tangled. Rolling, he thumped onto the floor, cutting off the voices. He grabbed the blanket and peeled it away as KeeperJohn filled the doorway.
“Hey, champ! I am so glad to see you.” The man walked over. The boy smiled, but his chin was quivering even as he did. Oh, he hated it when he blubbered and that just made it worse. Tears welled and the boy clutched the man’s heavy green coveralls.
“I’ve been such a bad boy. I snucked out the gate when KeeperBill left and took his hat and clothes, but now I lost his hat and I got lots of people mad at me…”
“It’s okay, sport. It’s all over. I’m not mad.” KeeperJohn rubbed the boy’s back and said this over and over until the tears stopped. Kneeling down, he looked the boy in the eye. “It wasn’t your fault. KeeperBill should have been more careful. You ready to go home?”
BoyTen panted at the thought. The compound, the other boys and girls, his pen! Oh, he couldn’t wait. “Yes! Now, please.”
“I’ll just be a minute. I have to finish talking to Mrs. McCarty.”
He stood holding the boy. “I really can’t tell you how grateful Universal Medical Supplies is, ma’am. This little fellow is worth a small fortune.”
The old woman frowned. “They had his picture posted at the store but the manager there called him a meat bag. I didn’t understand that.”
KeeperJohn frowned and snorted like he did when he was angry. BoyTen clutched tighter. “That’s a nasty word. This young fellow is a donor-clone. One of Universal’s clients paid us to grow a clone from his own tissues for use as an organ donor.”
“But they’re going to take his heart and liver and such someday, aren’t they?”
“Oh, yes. His owner has contracted for the normal array of transplants; organs, corneas, endocrine glands and marrow. But this little guy’s lucky. His owner also asked for a full skin transplant, and he isn’t big enough. We’ll start hormone therapy soon to force him to stretch out, but he still has years yet.”
“Oh, dear,” she sighed with a tremor in her voice.
“Don’t worry, ma’am. He’ll live a wonderful life full of fun and happiness, until one night he’ll go to sleep. And that will be it.”
BoyTen clutched KeeperJohn. There was so much he didn’t understand! And the tone of KeeperJohn’s voice was scary.
“Besides, you’re entitled to a sizable reward. You’ll be getting a call from the main office. Please don’t talk to any media people before then. Universal will pay very well for your discretion.”
The old woman smiled at last, and BoyTen smiled back. “You ready to go home?” KeeperJohn asked.
BoyTen nodded and pushed the big man’s chin around until he faced the door. KeeperJohn laughed and walked out the front door.
“Bye!” the boy called over KeeperJohn’s shoulder and waved to the nice lady.