Riko couldn’t believe his eyes. His nostrils or his ears either, for that matter. He stared at the gray-walled room filled with bassinets, child-sized beds, and three full-sized beds and promptly slipped into shock.
The cacophony of sounds smashed against his ears like an out-of-tune orchestra that has no intention of ever playing the same composition—each rising burst out-screaming, crying, whimpering, or wailing every other.
The stink gagged him. He pressed his hand to his nostrils and swallowed back bile. This is literally a shitty situation.
He tried to count the babies kicking their arms and legs, the tiny pale faces peering over the edge of their bed rails, and the little bodies running in circles in the center of the room, but dizziness engulfed him.
One teenager stood in the center of the room while the little ones ran circles around him gleefully. He waved his hand like a conductor and grinned, apparently unconcerned that madness reigned.
A middle-aged woman bustled forward, her hands extended. “You must be Riko!”
Nodding, unable to take his eyes off the insane circus, Riko merely assented to the truth of the statement.
“I’m Marge. Shwen told me all about you. I’m so glad you’ve come.”
Dragging his attention off the children, Riko peered at the woman. “Shwen?”
“She’s a Bhuaci healer. One of the best, if reports are true. Word of you met her ears, and she passed the information to me.”
With a shiver, Riko managed to focus on Marge. “I don’t understand. Why am I here?”
A screaming boy yanked his attention across the room. A short, buxom woman hurried over and swooped the distraught child into her arms, rocking him with all the force of a turbo engine at high speed.
Marge tapped Riko’s arm. “Come with me, and we can talk privately.”
Struggling against rising nausea, Riko marched after the matronly figure.
They exited the one-story building through a red back doorway and entered a lovely garden surrounded by multicolored rose bushes, flowering trees, and a tall, woven fence.
Marge led the way to a wooden bench and sat, heaving a relieved sigh. “Lord, have mercy. This is the first time I’ve been able to rest today.” A gentle, depreciating smile wavered on her lips. “I’m really too old to be a mother to such a brood, but someone has to love them.”
Riko shook his head. “Where do they come from?”
Marge shrugged. “Everywhere. And nowhere. At least no one will admit to their existence. Some are Ingot rejects. Others were lost in transport and forgotten.”
“They’re all Ingots then?”
“Not all, but most, yes. A few humans among the lot.”
“I didn’t see any techno-armor—”
“Most never had the implants, or those that did, didn’t adjust well. In any case, we have them now, and we’re trying to manage as best we can without such barbaric advancements.”
Despite the ironic humor, weary depression settled over Riko. “Why isn’t the Inter-Alien Alliance helping you?”
Leaning back, resting her hands in her lap, Marge looked into the sky and snorted. “No one wants them. The Inter-Alien Alliance has enough to manage without dealing with unwanted babies.” She shrugged.
Apprehension needled Riko. “But you asked me to come today—?”
Taking a deep breath, Marge sat up and slapped her hands on her thighs. “Yes. I have one Ingot teen that needs special assistance. Clearly, he is too old to stay here, but he’s not ready to move on his own.” She stood and started to stroll the parameter of the enclosed garden. “I found a good woman who is willing to take him in, provided that he finds gainful employment. She’s struggling to raise her own three after her husband was killed in a transport accident.”
Riko fell in step beside Marge and thought back to the room with the teen standing in the center. “You mean the boy—”
“His name is Wendell. We don’t know much about him, where he has been, or how he found us. He just showed up at the door one day looking lost and confused.” Marge stopped and laid her hand on Riko’s arm as if to emphasize her point. “But he never looked or acted pitifully. He has complied with everything we’ve asked. He was the one who started the children running in circles around him every day.”
Riko reared back. “Does that help?”
“Yes, marvelously! They are so much calmer after they’ve had a good run. I bring them out here sometimes but only in small groups, or they’d tear this place to shreds. They are still a bit out of control.” She sighed and reconvened her stroll.
Riko stroked his chin, pondering the question he knew was coming. How could he say yes? But more importantly, how could he say no? The datapad on his wrist chimed, alerting him to the lateness of the hour. He stopped. “Can we go back in?”
Marge nodded, solemn, and silent.
This time the noise and smell didn’t shock him as it had at first. Either it wasn’t as bad as he had imagined, or he was getting used to it. He hoped he wasn’t getting used to it.
Wendell stood leaning over one of the beds. He covered and uncovered parts of his face in a rhythmic pattern.
Perplexed, Riko strode closer.
The child in the bed grinned as she imitated Wendell’s every move. When he covered his eyes, she covered hers, at least partially. One eye peeked out, watching for the next step. When he covered his nose, she did the same, giggling.
A lump formed in Riko’s throat. He stepped up and laid his hand on Wendell’s shoulder. “I hear that you’re looking for a job.”
After patting the little girl’s head, Wendell turned his attention to Riko. “Need work for the new mom.” He smiled, innocence incarnate.
With an inward groan, Riko thrust his hand out. “I happen to be looking for a boy to help me at the café.”
Wendell stared at Riko’s outstretched hand and tilted his head, perplexed.
Sighing, Riko grabbed Wendell’s hand and shook it. “It’s a human expression, a way of sealing a deal. You’ll work with me at the Breakfastnook, starting tomorrow. That way your new mom can rest easy, and you can get out of this madhouse.”
“Madhouse?” Wendell glanced around. “Not mad. Only sad.”
For the first time since his mother died, Riko blinked back tears. “Yeah, well, you’ll come early, okay? Marge will give you directions. It’s not far.”
Wendell grinned. “I go there. Tomorrow. Work early. Come here. Run kids. Not sad.”
Swallowing the urge to sob like one of the babies, Riko nodded and cleared his throat. “A good plan.” He turned and hustled to Marge’s side as she placed a baby in a high chair with a plastic bowl filled with bright-colored cereal.
“I expect him bright and early in the morning.”
Peering through exhausted eyes, Marge smiled. “Thank you.”
Riko turned and fled out the doorway.
Once safely back at the café, Riko threw himself into the bustling dinner crowd as they ate and chattered, making a pleasant raucous.
He thought back to the orphanage. Funny, but he couldn’t recall the noise or the stink. Only the smiles. Not sad at all.
A. K. Frailey is the author of 15 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.
Make the most of life’s journey.
For books by A. K. Frailey check out her Amazon Author Page
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