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2. HOME TO ROOST
A well-dressed man sat behind a semicircular desk. One hand gripped a turkey leg while the other hovered over pans and bowls brimming with succulent food. In the wall, twenty feet to his left, a vertical seam formed and expanded into a rectangular opening. Two militiamen marched in, pulling a young woman in a tattered dress. She struggled to keep up, her tousled hair splaying in every direction. They yanked her toward the desk and forced her to stand opposite the yellow-suited man.
The man set down the turkey leg, dabbed his mouth, and wiped his hands with his royal-blue, cloth napkin. “Another perimeter violator?”
One militiaman bowed his head. “Yes, Supreme Mayor.”
The mayor stared at the woman. “I know you.” He shook an index finger at her. “Mintaka. You’ve done this before.”
Mintaka looked away, tears flowing down her emaciated face like rain down a window glass.
The mayor glanced at the militiamen as he tossed his napkin onto the desktop. “You may leave her with me.”
They stiffened. “Yes, Supreme Mayor,” one said. Executing a smart right face, they marched through the opening, and it closed behind them. Only the lift symbol remained on the wall, a gold rectangle surrounding two, back-to-back arrows, one pointing up and one pointing down.
The mayor stared at the woman. “Hungry, Mintaka?”
Saliva dripped from her dangling tongue as it flopped in time with her nodding head.
“I bet you are.” Picking up his turkey leg, he bit into it. Mintaka’s midsection growled as the Supreme Mayor swallowed. “You Vercundi would say that’s the sound of your poverty. The poverty we Albacronians know you deserve. Your history proves that.” He set his turkey leg down, retrieved the napkin, and wiped his mouth again. “When were you here last?”
“Six days ago, Supreme Mayor.” She drew a deep breath, devouring the succulent smells.
He cocked his head, squinted one eye, and pointed at her. “And you were here before that, I think.”
She nodded. “Two weeks earlier.”
Rising, he sauntered around his desk and thrust a hand toward her neck. She jerked her head back. “I won’t hurt you, my dear. I am, if anything, a peaceful man. You should be aware of that from my presiding over the daily ‘Nurturing’ gatherings.”
He grasped a brownish-red, hexagonal crystal hanging from a string around her neck. The lower end terminated in a point, and the string passed through a ring attached to a silver cap on the upper end. “I see you were awarded the ‘Crystal of Shame.’” His gaze shifted to Mintaka’s eyes. “Did you receive it after your second violation?”
“Yes, Supreme Mayor.”
“Just six days ago. That should have kept you from going beyond the perimeter fence again.” He strutted behind his desk. “And how long has it been since you’ve eaten?”
He rolled his eyes. “That’s odd.” Sitting, he eased his elbows onto the golden armrests and steepled his fingers. “We administered a punishment of no food for three days. Why the discrepancy?”
“I drew high numbers for my younger siblings and me at the last three ‘Nurturings.’”
“Poor, young Alheena and Bellatrix. And, with the ‘Crystal of Shame,’ you could not accept any food from other Vercundi.” He bounced his fingers off one another several times. “You understand you brought this on yourself by violating the perimeter fence?”
She stretched forward, her eyes on the food. “We were hungry. I thought there might be living things in the Big Sea.”
The mayor shook his head. “The sea is as dead as your dream of the Vercundi people ever being free, and there are no sizable animals outside the perimeter to speak of.” He lowered his hands and leaned forward. “We provide the food in exchange for your work in the textile mill. You make the clothing the Albacronians need and draw numbers for ‘The Nurturing.’ If your people meet the quotas, everyone who draws a number receives one day’s food ration for their entire family. It’s quite elementary.” He shrugged his shoulders, extended a palm, and smiled. “And it’s totally under your control. All directives originate from the capital in Adelphy.” He eased the outstretched hand onto his chest. “I simply administer them.”
Mintaka wiped the tears dripping down her face and sniffed. “I certainly am sorry. I promise I’ll never go beyond the perimeter fence again.”
He folded his arms. “You seem sincere, but you should have considered the consequences for your little brother, Bellatrix, and his older sister, Alheena. After all, they’re not yet twelve.”
“I know, Supreme Mayor. I’m all they have since our parents disappeared.”
His eyebrows peaked. “They wandered off, I believe … perhaps beyond the perimeter.” He shrugged and swept his palms outward, leaving them hovering. “Who knows what happened to them?”
Mintaka clenched her fists. “Maybe my father did, but I know my mother did not.”
Lowering his hands, he gawked at her. “What are you saying?”
“I saw her after a ‘Nurturing’ gathering, and she simply disappeared.”
He laughed. “Disappeared into the crowd, maybe. After that ….” He glared into her eyes. “Who knows?”
She grasped the edge of his desk and leaned forward. “Yes, but I know what I ….” She noticed him staring at her hands, yanked them away, and stood erect. “Yes, Supreme Mayor. That is how it must have been.”
He smiled and cocked his head. “I’m so glad you see it my way.” He rose and adjusted his lavender tie. “I think you have had enough bad luck.” He pointed at the desktop. “Have something to eat.”
Her eyes met his, and she waited.
He flourished his hand three times toward the food. “Go ahead.”
Mintaka bent forward, grabbed a handful of breaded fish, and crammed it into her mouth.
The mayor laughed. “That’s right. Eat up. Then we’re sending you home, and you will never again go beyond the perimeter fence.”
She turned her head toward him. “No, Supreme Mayor. Never!” Bits of food dribbled from her mouth as she turned back to her feast. Breaking off the end of a golden-crusted loaf of bread, she dipped it into a creamy sauce and jammed it into her mouth.
The mayor chuckled, walked to the left corner of his desk, and pressed a button. Minutes later, the wall opening re-appeared. Two militiamen marched in and snapped to attention.
“See to it this one is returned home to roost. She will be the first.” The Supreme Mayor’s eyes flared as he turned to her and smiled. “One day, you may be remembered for this.”
Mintaka swallowed and crammed more food into her mouth.
“To roost, Supreme Mayor?” one of the militiamen said.
Stepping behind her, each grabbed an arm.
The Supreme Mayor pointed to an identical symbol in the wall to his right. “You may use my personal lift. It is a more direct route.”
They escorted her toward the wall to the mayor’s right, and one of them placed a hand over the lift symbol. Part of the wall slid to the left.
The mayor lifted one hand and wiggled his fingers. “Say hello to Bellatrix and Alheena for me.”
Still chewing, Mintaka turned her head, tried to speak, and nodded instead.
The opening closed behind them, and the little room jiggled as it moved downward. It stopped, and part of the opposite wall slid left into itself. They exited and marched her down the passageway to their right.
Mintaka pulled back. “Wait. This isn’t the first floor.”
One militiaman yanked her forward and pushed a protruding knob, causing a door-shaped seam to form around it. He shoved the knob to the left, and the door slid open. “Wait in this room first. We must get clearance papers to let you go home.”
The other militiaman shoved her into the tiny, windowless room.
Mintaka stumbled toward a chair next to a round table and turned. The door closed, leaving an unblemished, white wall.
Outside, one militiaman swiped a hand over the center of the door at head height, and a window appeared. They stared through it.
Mintaka sat and gawked at the militiamen. One of them extended an arm toward his right as though reaching for the knob again. She waited, expecting the window to disappear. A bright-orange light filled the room, and she shielded her eyes with her arms. The light seemed to emanate from everywhere.
As her body warmed, she panted. Pulling out her collar as the temperature rose to an intolerable level, she screamed and collapsed to the floor.
Outside, the militiamen watched as Mintaka’s clothing singed brown, then ash-gray before bursting into flames. The orange color of the room changed to red as her body exploded. Ash debris plumed into the air, pulsating between orange and black. It drifted over the remaining flames before settling like a black and gray snowfall.
One militiaman twisted the knob triggering a sucking sound. After watching the flames extinguish and the smoke and ash race into the walls, he turned to his companion. “Well, she’s the first.”
The other nodded. “Home to roost.”
The first militiaman giggled. “More like home to roast.” They laughed as he swiped his hand across the window. The opaque whiteness of the door replaced it.
The other pulled the knob, and the door perimeter vanished. They spun and marched away.