Two straight lines of unwanted waifs stood at military attention by their cots. Matron L. R. Rus’ heels clicked as she marched down the rows, inspecting hospital corners, checking under the beds for debris, ordering hands held out so she could verify the children were properly scrubbed.
The last cot stood alone, the blankets folded at the end of the bed where the orderly placed them the night before. The cot’s tow-headed owner was missing.
Matron Rus scowled. “Justice Saber Rus, get out here this instant!” Not expecting much, she checked under the bed. Nothing. A twinge of clan pride kept her from screaming. He was a Rus, even if he was unwanted, the very least he could do for the clan was be intelligent.
She eyed his footlocker. With practiced ease she overrode his lock code and looked in side. Shredded uniforms and a shredded gray bag.
Furious, she turned to the boy across the aisle. “Where is Justice?”
“He left last night, ma’am.”
She scrolled through her mental list of names trying to place the dark-haired child. Yes, Virtuous Shield Pantros, another unwanted. Age six, large for his age and clan. Probably not a full Pantros. “Why, Mister Shield, did you not inform anyone when Justice left?”
“We were told not to make any noise, ma’am.” His dark brown eyes slid upward, watching her.
“You didn’t consider the consequences of allowing him to wander away?”
“I did, ma’am. But I can’t break the rules, ma’am,” he said with infuriating calm.
Matron Rus smiled. “Rebellion by obedience, how very charming. Unit!” she bellowed. “Move out to the cafeteria. You will be fed when Mister Saber joins you.”
The children marched out.
With a sigh, Matron Rus collected the sad gray duffel and dropped it in the carbon recycler. It was always the first thing he destroyed when he threw a tantrum.
She opened the hall closet looking for a replacement.
Terssa Camlin Fisher stepped around the corner. “Unit Five just arrived in the kitchen and the little Rondros Pantros girl told me they were waiting for Justice. Where is he?”
“A very good question, Miss Camlin. He’s run off again.”
Terssa sighed. “The poor dear. He was so upset when the claims list came in yesterday and he wasn’t on it.”
“He’ll never be on the claims list. He’s been here for six years and his name has never been listed.”
“Little Erinna Sandol Rus was listed this year, and she’s nearly nine.”
“Erinna’s mother brought her to the crèche. The enforcers found Justice wrapped in a bag in a trash can.” She slammed the closet door in frustration. “Children found in trash cans are not later claimed by their ecstatic family. Now, where are the gray duffels?”
“W-We’re out. I can put in an order for more.”
Matron Rus grumbled and opened the closet again. “No matter. If the boy didn’t shred his things every time he was upset, he wouldn’t need a new bag.” She pulled out a bright navy blue bag meant for the children two years younger than Justice. Each year group had their own color, a simple strategy to help the children find their things. Writing names on the inside was the other part of the strategy, and the major sticking point for the little Rus boy.
“I’m going to wait for Justice. Keep an eye on the other children. They’ll have to sleep in the cafeteria tonight. I don’t want one of his cohorts smuggling him food.”
She returned to the room lost in thought. If I were a six year old boy, where would I hide?
Fan-shaped leaves rapping the windowsill drew her attention. The Aral mountains rose in the distance. Thick copses of pine, snow in high summer, and bitter cold tarns. Yes. That would tempt a boy away as the frost cleared from the grass.
Matron Rus took a seat on the boy’s footlocker and waited.
Early morning light brightened to noon. Noon warmth faded into early evening. Cold wind rushed down from the mountain heights. As the supper bell rang she saw one shadow moving in the lengthening shadows.
Over the window sill two white ears appeared. A furry white face with distinctive black stripes followed. Ice blue eyes glared. Whiskers twitched.
Matron Rus stood up and brushed imaginary dust off her skirt. “Well, Mister Saber? Have you finally decided to grace the house with your presence?” She heard his stomach growl.
The little, white tiger cub slunk over the windowsill, green burrs clinging to him. Blood matted the fur on his left leg.
“Playing rough were we, Mister Saber?”
Justice sat down in front of her and deliberately licked his paw as if to say she had no control over him.
“Stand up, Mister Saber. I demand an accounting.”
The pale blue eyes narrowed. The cub straightened, shoulders arching back. He sat tall and kept growing taller. Stretching and flowing out of the form of a white tiger and into that of a chubby-cheeked blond boy with dark tan skin and ice blue eyes.
The burrs fell to the floor with a papery whisper.
“Give me your hand,” the matron ordered. He held out his left hand for inspection. “Neatly done. Why didn’t you shift the injury away before you came in?”
“ Didn’t wanna,” the boy whispered, his voice rasping.
“Hmmmm. Turn.” She inspected him head to toe as he pivoted. “No other signs of injury.” Although his ribs were showing. “How many times a week are you shifting?”
He shrugged. “Lots.”
“You need to eat more if you are changing forms on a regular basis, Justice. If you are shifting more than once or twice a week, I need to know.” Her heart bled for the pathetic little boy. Unwanted. Unheeded. And, may the ancestors forgive her, so unlovable. Prickly as an urchin. There were days she suspected the boy didn’t want to be loved.
He glared at the ground, nose scrunched and lips pursed.
So much for the nice approach. “Mister Saber, I asked you a question. I expect an answer. How often are you shifting?”
“Lots!” he wailed. The cub’s bottom lip jutted out in a pout.
“What’s that mean?”
“Do you shift every day?”
“More than once a day?”
Matron Rus sighed. “I expect you’re hungry.”
“Mister Rus, are you hungry?”
He shook his head. “I ate something.”
“I dunno. It hopped.”
She blinked. “A rabbit? You ate one of the school rabbits?”
“Not a rabbit!” Justice said, sounding insulted. “It was black, and kinda crunchy. And small.”
“Do they look like giant grasshoppers?”
He nodded. “It tasted funny.”
“You need more than a bug for dinner. Get dressed and I’ll take you down to eat.”
The cub nodded, looking eager, a small smile dimpling his cheeks.
She held out his blue duffel. “Your new bag.”
The smile vanished.
“Justice,” Matron Rus warned. “Every child at the crèche has their own bag. With name in it.”
“It’s no’ my name,” he muttered.
“Your name is Justice Saber Rus. You will write it in the bag, and then you may eat dinner.”
He took the bag between thumb and forefinger - and dropped it on the floor.
Turning, the cub went to his locker and pulled out his clothes. He dressed slowly, with a furrowed brow of concentration. He turned to her, jaw set in a defiant line. “My name is not Justice Saber Rus.”
“Yes, it is.”
“That is your name for me,” he said. “It’s not my real name. My real name is what my family calls me.”
Matron Rus closed her eyes. Would telling him the truth crush him? “Justice, the crèche is your family. We raised you. We named you. We’re here for you.”
“But you aren’t my real family,” the cub persisted.
“We’re as real a family as you’ll ever know.”
Pale blue eyes narrowed. Justice growled.
“You are not here because I enjoy these arguments, Mister Saber. No one in the crèche is holding you hostage. We welcomed you in your infancy and gave you a home.”
“Because no one else wants me,” he whispered.
She sighed and sat on the foot locker, holding out a placating hand. “Not everyone can keep a child. There are times- “
“When it’s okay to wrap a baby in a bag and put them in the trash?”
He’d been listening.
“No, Justice, there is never a time when that is acceptable.”
Justice nodded. “I was stolen. A bad man took me from my real family, and threw me away. When my real family finds me I’ll have a mommy and a daddy. And sisters. And cousins.”
As fanciful delusions went it wasn’t half bad. “No one stole you, Justice.”
“Yes they did! My real family wants me! They have a real name for me!”
Matron Rus stood and pulled a pen from her pocket. “We’re not arguing this. You are here. This is your life. Until such a time that your family arrives to rescue you, your name is Justice Saber Rus. Write it in the bag, and you may eat.”
“No.” He crossed his arms.
She held the pen out, adamant. “Write. Or you will go hungry.”
Justice stood in front of her, bag at his feet, and glared.
The sun set.
Night crawled past.
Terssa Camlin Fisher snuck into the room to get someone’s stuffed doll so the rest of the unit could sleep downstairs. And still the cub glared.
As dawn light filtered through the trees, fat tears rolled down the cub’s cheeks. He grabbed the pen and sat.
Another hour passed with Justice staring at the bag.
“Write your name,” Matron Rus ordered as the breakfast bell rang.
Shaking with rage, he opened the bag. She watched the tears fall as he scowled at the white tag.
He opened the pen, leaned forward, and scribbled.
Dropping it all, he stormed out of the room.
Matron Rus waited until she heard his feet running to breakfast before she bent down to inspect the bag. Only one word was inscribed on the tag:
She folded the duffel and put it in Justice’s foot locker. Forty years as a crèche matron taught her patience. And that, sometimes, to force a small bend would break the child. Justice could find his bag now. If he didn’t shred it then they were taking the first step toward healthy adulthood.
And, who knew? Maybe some day the boy named No would find his real family.