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Living Standards

by Bill Kowaleski

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3

part 1

“Come closer, boy,” a voice called from the window of the big black car — a woman’s voice, not young, ever so slightly frightened. “Put your face up to the glass.”

Her eyes scanned Jiri slowly, forehead to feet. As she examined him, a cool draft of air wafted from the car, chilling the sweat on his pale face. He heard the telltale murmuring of a gasoline engine, a most conspicuous indicator of wealth.

“Good, very good,” she muttered. “We will move up the road just a little to where it widens. Bring your mother to me there.”

He jumped away from the car and flew to his shelter, hardly touching the ground before he arrived at the lean-to abutting the litter-strewn road. It was framed with discarded lumber and covered with rusting, corrugated metal salvaged from the many abandoned warehouses nearby. His mother sat in the entrance before a smoky, coal-burning stove, stirring something in a small pot.

“Mama, Mama, a Wealthy wants to talk to you! Maybe I can work in her house!”

She pushed her stringy gray hair out of her face, struggled to her feet, wincing and puffing, grabbed a long stick that had been leaning against a flimsy wall and hobbled with him, coughing all the way, into the street. They saw the black car just a little up the road where it widened into what the residents had turned into a market space. Mother and son hesitantly approached the car.

Now the rear window glided down almost all the way, and Jiri could see the occupants clearly. The woman who had spoken to him was trim, perhaps forty years old, with elegant, flowing blonde hair, deep blue eyes, and the smoothest skin he had ever seen.

Though she was sitting, Jiri could see long legs that hinted at her height. She wore a halter top and very tight jeans, looking like she was trying to be one of those porno queens on the net. Despite her age, she created a stirring of excitement in him, something new that he had just started feeling when around certain girls.

Next to her was a large man, dark-skinned, dressed all in black, wearing wrap-around sunglasses and pointing a very conspicuous semi-automatic weapon toward the window.

“Your son seems suitable to work for me in my home,” the woman said. “I would like to hire him as a live-in servant. We will pay him ten dollars per day, and you will receive the same amount, paid weekly. If we can take him with us now, you can get a thousand dollars up front.” She spoke like the people on the Clavenet videos, with grace and assurance.

Jiri knew right away that this was a family of refinement and that he must take advantage of the opportunity.

But his mother hesitated. “Why do you want him? Is he going to become your plaything? I will not have my son abused.”

“No, Mother,” Jiri pleaded. “Please don’t talk to her that way! I want to do it. Just think, a thousand dollars!”

“Listen to your son,” the woman interjected. “This is a tremendous opportunity for him. He will learn to read, he will learn about the world beyond this—” she paused as if seeking the right words — “this very modest place you live. And if he does well, there will be more opportunities for him. We will not harm him. You can visit him if you wish and see for yourself.”

The woman in the car reached into a bag on the seat, pulled out a wad of notes, and counted them. She handed the notes through the car window to Jiri’s mother who snatched them, head down. Jiri’s mother first turned toward their shelter, then turned back to face Jiri. “Don’t forget us, son. And tell me if they hurt you.”

“It’s for the best, Mama. Don’t worry about me.”

He turned back to the car. “I’ll just get some clothes and my comm.”

“No need,” the woman said. “Please just come into the car. I will give you much better clothes. Here is a nice new comm for you. It’s the best model on the market, as I think a boy your age would know.”

The door shut with a dull thunk, and the world outside faded to nothing more than a soundless video. He sat erect in the front seat, shivering in the chill, casting furtive glances at the driver, another huge man in black with wrap-around sunglasses.

The driver smiled when he caught Jiri’s eyes. “How far have you been from your home, son?” His voice was deep, soft, soothing.

“We never cross the Interstate. It’s forbidden. Pasha tried it once, and the police beat him good. I’ve never been past there.”

“Yes,” the man said, talking more to himself than to Jiri, “where your world ends and ours begins.”

The woman in the back leaned forward and spoke into Jiri’s ear. “I am so rude. I should introduce myself. I am Claudia Gates. What is your name?”

“I’m Jiri Lee, miss. I’m most honored to meet you. Could you tell me a little more about what I’ll be doing?”

“Oh it’s pretty easy. You’ll do some cleaning, help with the cooking, maybe other things, too. Someone will show you how to do everything. These two gentlemen we are riding with began their careers with my family exactly as you are doing now.”

The driver said, “Yes, Miss Gates’ mother picked me out just a few streets from yours, five years ago. And DeShaun in the back there with that big gun, he came from the Maywood enclave. How many years ago was that, DeShaun?”

“Just one year before you, my man. I was in the car when Mariana picked you.”

They floated very slowly through the narrow, winding streets as if riding on a cloud, dodging dogs and people carrying huge bundles, winding around vendor carts and sleeping derelicts, passing by all the world as Jiri knew it, until they reached the Main Road, which the driver referred to as Ohio Street, though Jiri had never heard it called that before.

Now the world outside the windows receded to a disconnected blur as the car accelerated on the Interstate entrance and, for the first time, he rode on the highway that had defined the limits of his life. He swiveled his head from side to side trying to focus on all the wonders rushing by, his hands turning white from the tight hold he had on the right armrest, for it felt like the car must surely be out of control, so fast were they flying, so quickly was he receding from his home.

Finally he sensed a slowing, a change of direction onto a narrower street, and then a scene right from a Clavenet video: trees and grass everywhere; cars, some of them even larger than the one he rode in, whizzing by; not a single person or house visible.

The car slowed even more, to a walking pace, turning toward a large iron gate that suddenly pulled apart in the middle, letting them pass. Only once they were past the gates could he see the huge structure that Claudia Gates called home.

* * *

Claudia took Jiri’s hand, guided him inside, showed him his room, and invited him to look around. The house was enormous, an entire world. He knew he would never be able to find his way through its maze. His room, such a strange concept, was much bigger than the lean-to his family lived in, and there was a bed, another thing he’d only seen in the Clavenet videos.

“Please, take a few minutes to get used to our net here, Jiri,” Claudia said. “I think you will find a lot of cool games. Then come downstairs, go down the long corridor, into the kitchen, and get something to eat.”

Cool games, no, these were totally awesome games! He played them on the giant screen, deeply absorbed, completely outside of time, until the bright daylight from his windows faded to the point where the glow of the screen was his only source of light.

Realizing he hadn’t gone to the kitchen as Claudia had instructed, he stumbled for the door, groping his way into the doorway where he ran into a girl almost a head taller than he was. She grabbed him by the waist just as he bumped into her.

“You must have just got here,” she said with a giggle.

“How do you know?”

“You don’t know about light switches. Clavie kids never do. It’s right here on the wall, push up on it.”

He did and his room flooded with brilliant light. “Wow, how do they do that?”

She laughed again. “I’m Mira, and you are?”

“Jiri.” Now he could see her, and it was all he could do to stifle a gasp. She was perhaps a little older than he was, dressed in the skimpiest tight jeans shorts and a tiny top that did little more than cover her small breasts. Her bare midriff and legs revealed smooth, supple, olive skin that he longed to stroke. Yellow-dyed hair hung to her shoulder blades in braided strings, and her beautifully symmetrical face was painted with the black lipstick and blue eye shadow that teens on the net shows had been wearing the past year. To him, she was a vision of perfection.

“Hello, Jiri,” she said, slightly mocking. “Want something to eat? I’m headed down.”

He nodded, following her to the kitchen where they sat at a long table in brilliant light, grabbing food out of serving dishes that sat on hotplates. It was the most delicious meal of his life. Mira sat watching him, finally breaking out into raucous laughter.

“You look like you haven’t eaten in a year! Slow down. It’s uncool to eat like an animal in public.”

“Oh, sorry, it’s so good. I never had anything like this.”

“Here’s Lea, she’s my best friend forever. This is Jiri.”

Another tall, skinny girl in tiny shorts and halter top sat next to Jiri. “Hello, just in from Lakewood? You look like a Lakewood boy.”

“Yeah, just today.”

“Welcome, Jiri. You’re even more handsome than Claudia told us you were. She warned us we’d be amazed, and she was right! We’ve been assigned to take care of you. We’ll show you what to do, where everything is, who’s who.”

A dark-haired, muscled, handsome boy, maybe age 15, dashed into the room. “Hey, bro’,” he said, grabbing Jiri’s hand. “Carlo. Sorry, no time to talk now.”

He scooped something out of one of the dishes, shoved it into his mouth, turned, and ran into the corridor.

Lea giggled. “That Carlo, always in a hurry.”

“What does he do here?” asked Jiri.

Lea and Mira looked at each other a moment. Finally Lea said, “You’ll find out soon enough.”

After eating, they gave him a brief tour of the house, told him they’d be rousing him at the appropriate time next morning, and advised him to get as much sleep as he could.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2015 by Bill Kowaleski

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