On the Button
by Rachel Carter
“Zophar, listen.” Luna crouched before him on the pavement. “You can get out whenever you want, okay?” Zophar nodded, looking past his mother to the others. His body was poised in politeness towards his mother but in anticipation of the other children, his eyes looked ahead to his new schoolmates and he willed her to say goodbye.
“Did you Anti-Germ your hands?” Another nod.
“Where are your disposable toilet seat covers?” Zophar patted his backpack.
“And mask? Remember which pocket?” More nodding.
His father opened the driver door of the car and the airlock was released with a Clop. Shhhhhhhh. He stepped out carefully, holding a green canister, spraying into the air as he approached.
“Another squirt of Pollute Repel for luck.” He misted the air around Zophar’s head and tiptoed back to the car, as if trying to avoid making contact with the ground.
“One last button test, perhaps Luna?” he called, slipping back into the car and sealing himself in.
“Yes. Quick button run-through,” said Luna. “Tell me again.”
“Emergency Back-Off spray, emergency water purifying tablet.” Zophar’s fingers ran downwards over the buttons on his blazer at speed as he rushed through the list.
“Emergency anti-viral pill, emergency contact button, emergency detox spray button.” He touched his cuffs next. “Panic buttons. Now can I go?” The five-year old jiggled impatiently.
“Anytime at all, if you are worried,” continued Luna, “if someone touches you, if someone coughs near you, if the toilets are dirty. Any reason. You hear me? We’ll get you out straight away. Just press those cuff buttons. And when the car brings you back, remember: shoes in the porch, through the first entrance door, blazer off, then through the airlock and straight to the arrivals shower. Don’t come in with your shoes and blazer and don’t touch the cruise control in the car on the way home. You hear me?”
“I know, I know, you said. Now can I go?”
“Okay.” Luna kissed the air, not touching Zophar. “Go, baby. Take care. Remember: buttons!” She mimed pushing buttons as he ran off. “And don’t run or you’ll fall and touch the ground and I’ll have to take you home!”
Luna clasped her hands in front of her chin. “Good luck. Come home safely,” she whispered.
Zophar scampered up the steps as fast as he thought he would get away with. He was more happy and excited than he could ever remember being. This was better than birthdays. There were other children here. The entrance was massive. It took up one whole side of the building.
“Prevention Pharmaceutical’s Academy of Learning and Science welcomes you all and asks that when you enter the building, you do not share a door pod with anyone else,” came a voice from within the walls.
Robotic eyes shifted around and each pod spoke instructions through hidden speakers as one hundred children at a time were allowed to enter the first segment where they were instantly separated by screens that held the children in stalls as they were scanned for identification and viruses.
Immediately three boys were locked in and a voice told them to wait until cars arrived to remove them.
Some newcomers were familiar with screening and airlocks. They stood patiently while the eyes and scanners moved around them. But the others, from older housing out of the city had not experienced Entrance Pollution Prevention.
Zophar could hear cries of “I want to go home,” “I don’t like this,” while others sobbed and tried to back out.
Luna had told him about the entrance and how other boys weren’t used to it. “They’ll soon get domesticated,” she had said. “Everyone learns eventually.”
Next they were filtered into a huge glass cube. It was one of six on three levels. A voice told them to wait for the professors to collect them.
In this mix of trained and untrained five-year-olds, the difference was obvious to Zophar: the untrained boys had less shiny clothes and they didn’t have emergency blazer buttons. Zophar worried for them. But they didn’t look bothered. A few of them started talking to each other and they even tried to talk to the trained boys. Luna had said to keep away from untrained boys because they weren’t treated. He wondered if it would be safer to hold his nose, then he wouldn’t be sharing their air. He held his breath for twenty seconds and gave up.
An untrained boy had been watching him. “I can hold my breath loads longer than that.”
“Ludo’s the best at holding his breath. He swims underwater,” said another boy.
“He goes swimming?! Wow…” Zophar stared.
“Ye-ah, loads of us go. It’s really good for you.” The boy threw off his blazer and mimicked breaststroke. “Gives you strong muscles. My dad said so.”
Zophar, Ludo and some others took off their blazers too, giggling as they ran in circles pretending to swim.
“Why are your buttons so big?”
Zophar turned to see Ludo wearing his blazer and fiddling with the cuff buttons.
The airlock opened and a robotic sensor promptly identified Zophar’s blazer. Ludo was shunted gently towards the door pods.
“Please wait until your car arrives,” said a voice.
From the door pods Ludo was directed into Zophar’s family car and within minutes he was lowered out at Zophar’s house.
A woman’s voice from a wall speaker said he could try school again tomorrow and she was glad he was home. “And remember:” she said, “shoes in the porch, through the first entrance door, blazer off then through the airlock and straight to the arrivals shower. Don’t come in with your shoes and blazer on.”
Luna waited outside the bathroom with clean towels. She stared; horrified at the sight of the strange, untreated boy and then she hyperventilated.
Zophar’s father left Ludo in the entrance while he arranged his collection. Then the house and car were treated before the car was sent to collect the right boy this time. It had all been too risky and too stressful – Luna would home-school Zophar from now on.