Are You My Mother?
Pray sympathy for poor me. Nothing ever goes right.
Take today as an example. I am a New Yorker, and today is the first sunny day that the Apple's seen in over three months, so you can imagine my joy when the producer called a wrap for the day. I was out of the studio and into the nearest Booth in seven seconds flat.
Well, maybe seven seconds is something of an exaggeration, so let's just say that I made damn good time for a supposedly over the hill talk-show host.
A thousandth of a second later, Paris was as good as a million miles behind me, and my eyes were basking in the glories of springtime in Coney Island.
My eyes were alone in their basking, unfortunately, because the rest of me was too busy with getting through passport control to have time to enjoy itself.
Luckily, Coney Island passport control procedures, like in most places these days, are brief. Nobody checks luggage any more – that's left to machines that make your suitcases wobble. I'm always careful to keep my ID and doc-cards bang up to date, so I zipped through the checkers without any hold-ups.
And then I was out. On the streets. Bouncing around on the local Booth network – compliments of the studio's credit card – and light-heartedly swimming through the crowds of people who, like me, Love This Town.
I have to say that if you are not a New-Yorker, who is used to the weather being not-so-great for most of the year, and you do not see what is so special about a little sunshine, then I feel sorry for you. Let's face it: these days, all you have to do is step into a Booth when it's raining, and step out again in Tahiti!
All this instantaneous transport was not around when I was a younger man. Try not to tell anybody, but I was thirty-two years old when the Horizon project went public, and started mass-producing Booths. Back in those days we all used to celebrate the arrival of Spring to the city. It was a happy time. Sure, there would be a few more murders than normal, a couple extra pile-ups on the freeway, but everyone was just that little bit nicer to one another.
So many of my happiest days as a kid were in those first few days of Springtime sunshine, that I always get homesick at this time of year.
And today, I was home!
I even felt like a kid! I thrilled at the sights, the sounds, and the happy faces. Even the smells: a touch of winter dirt; a brace of ocean breezes; fruity tangs from the market; and the occasional waft of petrol fumes from the goods delivery vehicles. That last odour used to be overpowering in New York before the Booths. These days the air was just about how you would expect it to be in a coastal town. Even the buildings were gradually cleaning themselves with the salt air. Another hundred years, and the stone they were made from would be visible again.
I was absently humming the "Hoo-ray for Hori-i-i-zon!" jingle to myself, when I saw a yellow cab. It was moving toward me, honking his horn at the pedestrians who were walking along the empty road instead of along the crowded sidewalks. I dashed out, arms outstretched, just in time to see the car pull up for a guy fifty yards up the street. Rats!
Cabs are like gold in New York, nowadays. The Booths are so much quicker and more efficient – but nowhere near so much fun. I decided not to let the car's loss bother me. I would stop by a few garages until I found another one. I headed for the nearest Booth cluster. Nothing was going to spoil my day for me. Nothing!
She steps out of the Booth that I'm waiting to get into.
She looks up at me with great big, 'little lost kid' eyes.
"H'lo." she says, with a voice that exudes more misery than you would believe existed in all the wide world. Her eyes are reddened and slightly moist, and it seems as if there are gallons of tears just waiting to pour out of them.
I figure she must be about five, maybe six, years old. Dirty hair. Dirty shoes. Her clothes are scruffy and look as though they came off the peg at a dozen different stores. Poor kid looks half starved. She has obviously had a pretty bad time. Must have been on her own for... Hold it!
What's the matter with me? I've seen these gypsy kids before. Kids that are sent by their parents to roam the streets and con money off of society's suckers. Smelly little kids brought up by smellier, littler parents, who live in smelly little hovels, and never do a day's work in their smelly little lives! Everybody hates them – me included! Nothing that anyone does seems to go anywhere toward making them change their filthy, scrounging way of life, so the best thing to do just let them get on with it, and hope that they leave you alone.
This particular one, however, seems to think she has found her mark for the day, and is blocking the entrance of the Booth, sniffling.
"I can't find my mother!" she wails, bursting into huge tears. Taking the act a little too far here, Kid, I think.
Then it hits me....
This is no act! Her accent is too good – and no gypsy kid would use the word 'mother'. Her posture is all wrong, too. She has a lot more natural poise than the usual hunch-shouldered drifter's kid.
The kid is no vagrant. She really is lost!
My lightning-like interviewer's brain kicks into top gear, and the story builds up in my mind...
...Mom takes the kids with her when she goes shopping. Skipping from Booth to Booth, shop to shop. Mom forgets to lock off after setting one of the jumps, and the kid hits the number pad instead of the repeat button. She panics, and instead of asking for help she hits transmit – No, must have hit up the local menu. She would have needed the luck of the devil to pick a valid public number at random – With the local menu, she could have got straight through to the wrong place! By the time Mom came back to find her, she would be long gone.
Hell, she may just have dropped her lollipop and ducked out of the Booth before the doors closed!
Wait a minute! She is really dirty!
When all did this happen?
An hour ago? A week? Ten days?
She could have started out from anywhere on the North American continent. No passport controls. No transport logs. Nobody to check on kids traveling alone. Nobody to care.
How many times has the poor little baby been in and out of transport Booths, hoping desperately that her mother would be there waiting at the other end, when she stepped out?
I know that I have to get as much information out of her as I can: How long has she been alone? Where does she come from? What are her parents doing to find her? How can I find them? What's her name? Hell, when did she last eat? – At least I could fix that last one right away.
Then the big question hit me!
...How many other kids are there, wandering the world, lost, looking for their homes..?
I stare into infinity for several seconds. There is one Hell of a story in this! A couple of specials, maybe!
But now, right now this minute, I honestly do not know what to do! Me, the sixth-highest-paid talk-show host in the civilized world – and where in the world is not civilized, since Horizon? I'm thrown into complete confusion by a five year old girl-in-the-street!
"Wh..where do you live?" I finally stammer. I
know that this is a dumb question, but I can't think of anything better to say!
"In a big house," she sobs. "With blue chairs."
I guess that I deserved that. Had she known where she lived, she would be there now! A baby like this could not be expected to remember things like addresses – but blue chairs do not a zip code make!
"Mmm..." I hum earnestly, playing for time while I frantically work out a course of action. "... Let's go have a coke." I wave my arm in the downtown direction.
A glimmer of hope – and hunger – shows in her eyes.
"There's a drug store just down this way." I lead off.
The terrible thing for me to admit to myself is that I genuinely am at a loss. I've got to help this child, but I don't know how! If I take her to the New York police, they will probably just farm her out to whatever crumby institution will take her first. Missing persons around here is well-known to be a joke. I did three reports on it at the end of last season, and I know in my heart that it is not the kind of thing I want to hand this baby over to.
I decide the best thing to do is call the research department, and get them to find me the numbers for local voluntary groups. But I know it's best to take things slowly. The poor girl looks too skittish to stand up to too much attention from too many new people.
Better yet: I could call up the studio, get a team sent over.
My reverie is interrupted by something cold and soft brushing against my fingers.
Oh, Lord! My heart thrashes wildly at the bars of its cage...
The poor, sweet baby wants to hold my hand!
I take the tiny hand in mine, ignoring the sticky stuff, and squeeze it gently. My eyes are clouding over, and I have to swallow hard.
I hope none of the competition is around to see me like this – standing in the middle of a crowded city street, holding back tears!
When did I turn this soft?
Oh, to Hell with the image!
This child is suffering and in need, and is not old enough to have done anything to deserve the fear and loneliness she has gone through. I think that I'm allowed to show a little compassion, under these circumstances!
I pick the little beauty up, and carry her to the drug store. She snuggles her tiny face into the side of my neck, as if trying to draw as much security from me as she can.
I cannot remember the last time – if ever – I felt so good!
I wait until she finishes scarfing down her second hamburger, before I ask her how long she has been alone.
I seem to be excelling myself with the stupid questions today. She is five years old, has no wristwatch, and probably would not be able to tell me if a calendar was upside-down!
I'm not even sure of the right time, myself.
Booth travel does that to you. You lose track of time zones, when daylight is always just a step away. At least jet lag is no longer a problem, in my trade, so Horizon has saved me a lot of headaches. Good ol' Booths. Good ol' Fred!
I got a huge pile of letters from viewers after my first Fred King interview. Everybody was so happy that I had got him to explain the Booths' functions so well. I remember it very clearly. He went to great pains to tell me how the statis effect stopped all movement in solid objects, and how that made the objects massless, but of infinite mass. Or was it indefinite mass? Anyway, it was something to do with making things to not exist any more, so that the universe stopped caring about where the things were.
I had not understood a word, so I kept asking the idiot questions that it turned out everybody wished would be answered. The result of this was that the show was repeated three times the same week alone, and bought up by every country in the world! Talk about money for nothing!
Now, of course, I know all there is to know about Horizon Booths:
If you get into one in Idaho, you can come out of one in Madrid!
She is well into her third hamburger by now. Boy, she was hungry!
She looks at me with those sweet little blue eyes.
"Where's my mother?"
I stroke her nose with my finger, and tell her not to worry, that we shall find her mommy – and I frantically snatch out my cellphone and call for help!
Two minutes later, Jerry, my assistant, comes bounding into the drug store. I confess to feeling a little – okay, a lot – relieved that he came so quickly.
Very quickly! Why is he running like that?
"I've got you this time!" he yells at the girl. She looks at me, and time slows to a crawl as I watch her first freeze, and then burst into frantic movement!
Coke goes all over me, and hamburger pickle sticks the remains of her sandwich to my shirt, as she jumps off of her seat and breaks for the other exit.
"Hell!" I shout, wondering what exactly is going on.
I leap from my seat – adding both to the mess on table and floor, and to the amusement of the store's other patrons.
"Wait!" I call after her.
She is almost to the door, with Jerry closing on her.
"Get stuffed, Stronzo!" she retorts, and she vanishes into the crowd.
I sink back into my seat – and my fries – stunned. I no longer know what to think!
With the girl gone, and Jerry gone, everyone looks at me as if the mess is all my fault! To the staff it seems water off a duck's back. They nonchalantly buzz around me, cleaning up, while I try hard to figure out what I have just been a part of.
Is she a member of Jerry's family? Had she run away from home and he was trying to find her?
No, that would be too much of a coincidence.
Jerry dumps himself into the seat opposite me before I get any further.
"Damn!" he tells me. He means it, too.
I flash him an understanding look, wishing I knew what the Hell it was that I was supposed to be understanding!
"She ducked away from me in the crowd! I shouldn't have let her know that we were on to her!"
'On to her?' Definitely not family.
"Humpfh," I declare, careful not to say anything that may reveal just how much I knew of the situation – that is: Nothing!
"Damned kid!" He clenches his fist in front of his mouth. "She's been over half the continent, fleecing suckers for money and food! Sorry, boss. You had her and I scared her off."
Suckers? Surely he doesn't mean Me?
Think fast! Say something!
"There'll always be a next time," I say, adding a touch of annoyance to my voice.
"Yeah," he says, hanging his head. "If we ever get another shot."
I finish my coke and stand up.
Me, a sucker!
"C'mon," I say, "let's go back to the studio."
Jerry follows sheepishly, as I head for the door.
I stroll to the Booth cluster. In my mind, I'm rehearsing how I am going to tell the gang about how Jerry blew my chance of catching a juvenile con artist.
Jerry's a nice kid, and all. But he has still got a lot to learn!