Chapter 2 - A Changed City
The car ride to foster care takes me through a city I don’t recognize. San Francisco has changed. The cable cars are gone, and the office buildings aren’t just taller, they reach into the sky crowding out the sun. There aren’t any wall murals or street art either, nor trees or green space.
I stare out the window trying to identify other things that have changed. There are cars, but no drivers; delivery trucks, but no delivery people. The sky is filled with drones. There are hundreds of them of different sizes and shapes, flitting about as they drop off and pick up packages from specially designed enclosures.
I watch two robots that resemble the little droid from Star Wars as they zoom around picking up litter on the sidewalk. The man from Child Services chuckles at my wide-eyed awe. “They’re nothing special,” he says, “just a pair of low-level scrubbers.”
“That’s what we call the cleaning robots.”
As we near what used to be the Hunter’s Point district, the landscape starts to change. The streets and sidewalks are dirtier, the buildings more dingy. Even the people I see are less well dressed. They look worn-out, like the buildings they’re walking past.
A short while later, we slow and come to a stop. “Here it is,” the man from Child Services says. “Your new home.”
I glance out the window and gulp. “This is where I’m going to live?”
“It’s not as bad as it looks.”
In my mind, I had pictured the group home as a small house in a residential section of the city; nothing glamorous, but not this. The building we’re parked in front of looks like a prison. There are no windows. It’s nearly twenty stories high and covered in graffiti up to the second floor. A black plaque on the wall reads: San Francisco Group Home #39.
The man from Child Services notices me looking and says, “Count yourself lucky. This is one of the nicer facilities.”
I don’t feel lucky, and if this is nice, I can’t even begin to imagine what the other group homes are like.
“Why is it so big?” I ask.
He shrugs and says, “The city is full of kids who need help. There are another eighty-two homes just like this one.”
When we get out of the car, he grabs my luggage from the trunk. I follow him up a small set of steps to the building’s entrance. A small black camera mounted on the wall watches us. He waves to whoever is controlling the camera, and the door unlocks and opens with a loud mechanical clunk.
Inside there’s a small alcove with a glass security window along one wall. A guard sits at a desk on the other side of the window. He’s staring at a large console with multiple live video feeds. One of the feeds is from the stairs outside, another shows the inside of the lobby, and the rest are from different locations within the building.
I feel like I’m about to vomit. I was right. This isn’t a group home. It’s a prison!
“Let’s get you processed,” the man from Child Services says.
He walks to the glass and taps on it. The guard gets up from his chair and glances at me, disinterested. Then he leans down and speaks to the man from Child Services through a small opening in the window.
“Who do you have for me today?”
The guard grunts and goes to his desk and retrieves a tablet from the top drawer. Using his finger, he swipes a command on the device and says my name aloud. When my picture flashes up on the screen, he reaches across his desk to an open box full of small plastic envelopes and grabs one.
He returns to the window and slides the envelope through the opening. The envelope is marked: Sterile - Single Use Only. Inside, there’s a cotton swab resembling an over-sized Q-tip.
“I need a sample,” he says to me in a bored voice.
“Of what?” I ask, confused.
He makes a motion that I should swab the inside of my cheek. “When you’re done, put the swab back in the envelope, seal it, and give it to me,” he says.
I do as he asks, and he takes the envelope back to his desk and inserts the swab into a small machine resembling a laser printer. When the machine makes an error sound, he says, “She isn’t in the CIS. Where did you find her? The Sprawl?”
The man from Child Services chuckles. “No, somewhere stranger than that. Check the encrypted section of her file.”
The guard swipes on his tablet again, and the area of the screen below my photograph fills with text. I can see his lips move as he reads. It doesn’t take more than a few seconds before he spins around in his chair and stares at me like I’m from another planet.
“That explains it,” he says.
“Explains what?” I ask.
“Why there wasn’t a match on your genetics. You were on that plane. In all the years I’ve been doing this there’s only been a handful of kids whose DNA wasn’t in the Citizen Information System, but they were all sprawl-rats.”
“What’s a sprawl-rat?”
The man from Child Services looks at me and clucks sympathetically. “I imagine you have a million questions,” he says. “You can use your learning glasses to answer them once you’re inside.”
He turns to the guard and says, “I’ve got more home visits to make. Let’s get her processed and into the system.”
“Already done,” the guard replies.
My stomach sinks as the door at the far end of the lobby slides open. An older woman wearing a uniform is standing in the doorway impatiently tapping her foot.
The man from Child Services pulls me aside and says, “With Kyle Reid looking out for you, I doubt you’ll be here very long, but he’s right. The group homes can be a tough place for a newcomer. Keep your head down and mind your own business.”