The Project Gutenberg EBook of Juvenile Delinquent, by Edward W. Ludwig

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Title: Juvenile Delinquent

Author: Edward W. Ludwig

Release Date: April 26, 2019 [EBook #59368]

Language: English


*** START OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK JUVENILE DELINQUENT ***




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                          juvenile delinquent

                          BY EDWARD W. LUDWIG

                _When everything is either restricted,
                 confidential or top-secret, a Reader
                     is a very bad security risk._

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
              Worlds of If Science Fiction, October 1955.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


Tick-de-tock, _tick-de-tock_, whispered the antique clock on the first
floor of the house.

There was no sound save for the ticking--and for the pounding of
Ronnie's heart.

He stood alone in his upstairs bedroom. His slender-boned,
eight-year-old body trembling, perspiration glittering on his white
forehead.

To Ronnie, the clock seemed to be saying:

_Daddy's coming, Daddy's coming._

The soft shadows of September twilight in this year of 2056 were
seeping into the bedroom. Ronnie welcomed the fall of darkness. He
wanted to sink into its deep silence, to become one with it, to escape
forever from savage tongues and angry eyes.

A burst of hope entered Ronnie's fear-filled eyes. Maybe something
would happen. Maybe Dad would have an accident. Maybe--

He bit his lip hard, shook his head. No. No matter what Dad might do,
it wasn't right to wish--

The whirling whine of a gyro-car mushroomed up from the landing
platform outside.

Ronnie shivered, his pulse quickening. The muscles in his small body
were like a web of taut-drawn wires.

Sound and movement below. Mom flicking off the controls of the
kitchen's Auto-Chef. The slow stride of her high heels through the
living room. The slamming of a gyro-car door. The opening of the front
door of the house.

Dad's deep, happy voice echoed up the stairway:

"Hi, beautiful!"

Ronnie huddled in the darkness by the half-open bedroom door.

_Please, Mama_, his mind cried, _please don't tell Daddy what I did._

There was a droning, indistinct murmur.

Dad burst, "He was doing _what_?"

More murmuring.

"I can't believe it. You really saw him?... I'll be damned."

Ronnie silently closed the bedroom door.

_Why did you tell him, Mama? Why did you have to tell him?_

"Ronnie!" Dad called.

Ronnie held his breath. His legs seemed as numb and nerveless as the
stumps of dead trees.

"_Ronnie! Come down here!_"

       *       *       *       *       *

Like an automaton, Ronnie shuffled out of his bedroom. He stepped
on the big silver disk on the landing. The auto-stairs clicked into
humming movement under his weight.

To his left, on the wall, he caught kaleidoscopic glimpses of Mom's old
pictures, copies of paintings by medieval artists like Rembrandt, Van
Gogh, Cezanne, Dali. The faces seemed to be mocking him. Ronnie felt
like a wounded bird falling out of the sky.

He saw that Dad and Mom were waiting for him.

Mom's round blue eyes were full of mist and sadness. She hadn't
bothered to smooth her clipped, creamy-brown hair as she always did
when Dad was coming home.

And Dad, handsome in his night-black, skin-tight Pentagon uniform, had
become a hostile stranger with narrowed eyes of black fire.

"Is it true, Ronnie?" asked Dad. "Were you really--really reading a
book?"

Ronnie gulped. He nodded.

"Good Lord," Dad murmured. He took a deep breath and squatted down,
held Ronnie's arms and looked hard into his eyes. For an instant he
became the kind, understanding father that Ronnie knew.

"Tell me all about it, son. Where did you get the book? Who taught you
to read?"

Ronnie tried to keep his legs from shaking. "It was--Daddy, you won't
make trouble, will you?"

"This is between you and me, son. We don't care about anyone else."

"Well, it was Kenny Davis. He--"

Dad's fingers tightened on Ronnie's arms. "Kenny Davis!" he spat. "The
boy's no good. His father never had a job in his life. Nobody'd even
offer him a job. Why, the whole town knows he's a Reader!"

Mom stepped forward. "David, you promised you'd be sensible about this.
You promised you wouldn't get angry."

Dad grunted. "All right, son. Go ahead."

"Well, one day after school Kenny said he'd show me something. He took
me to his house--"

"You went to that _shack_? You actually--"

"Dear," said Mom. "You promised."

A moment of silence.

Ronnie said, "He took me to his house. I met his dad. Mr. Davis is lots
of fun. He has a beard and he paints pictures and he's collected almost
five hundred books."

Ronnie's voice quavered.

"Go on," said Dad sternly.

"And I--and Mr. Davis said he'd teach me to read them if I promised not
to tell anybody. So he taught me a little every day after school--oh,
Dad, books are fun to read. They tell you things you can't see on the
video or hear on the tapes."

"How long ago did all this start?

"T--two years ago."

Dad rose, fists clenched, staring strangely at nothing.

"Two years," he breathed. "I thought I had a good son, and yet for two
years--" He shook his head unbelievingly. "Maybe it's my own fault.
Maybe I shouldn't have come to this small town. I should have taken a
house in Washington instead of trying to commute."

"David," said Mom, very seriously, almost as if she were praying, "it
won't be necessary to have him memory-washed, will it?"

Dad looked at Mom, frowning. Then he gazed at Ronnie. His soft-spoken
words were as ominous as the low growl of thunder:

"I don't know, Edith. I don't know."

       *       *       *       *       *

Dad strode to his easy chair by the fireplace. He sank into its
foam-rubber softness, sighing. He murmured a syllable into a tiny
ball-mike on the side of the chair. A metallic hand raised a lighted
cigarette to his lips.

"Come here, son."

Ronnie followed and sat on the hassock by Dad's feet.

"Maybe I've never really explained things to you, Ronnie. You see, you
won't always be a boy. Someday you'll have to find a way of making a
living. You've only two choices: You work for the government, like I
do, or for a corporation."

Ronnie blinked. "Mr. Davis doesn't work for the gover'ment or for a
corpor-ation."

"Mr. Davis isn't normal," Dad snapped. "He's a hermit. No decent family
would let him in their house. He grows his own food and sometimes he
takes care of gardens for people. I want you to have more than that. I
want you to have a nice home and be respected by people."

Dad puffed furiously on his cigarette.

"And you can't get ahead if people know you've been a Reader. That's
something you can't live down. No matter how hard you try, people
always stumble upon the truth."

Dad cleared his throat. "You see, when you get a job, all the
information you handle will have a classification. It'll be Restricted,
Low-Confidential, Confidential, High-Confidential, Secret, Top-Secret.
And all this information will be in writing. No matter what you do,
you'll have access to some of this information at one time or another."

"B--but why do these things have to be so secret?" Ronnie asked.

"Because of competitors, in the case of corporations--or because of
enemy nations in the case of government work. The written material you
might have access to could describe secret weapons and new processes
or plans for next year's advertising--maybe even a scheme for, er,
liquidation of a rival. If all facts and policies were made public,
there might be criticism, controversy, opposition by certain groups.
The less people know about things, the better. So we have to keep all
these things secret."

Ronnie scowled. "But if things are written down, someone has to read
them, don't they?"

"Sure, son. One person in ten thousand might reach the point where
his corporation or bureau will teach him to read. But you prove your
ability and loyalty first. By the time you're 35 or 40, they might
_want_ you to learn to read. But for young people and children--well,
it just isn't done. Why, the President himself wasn't trusted to learn
till he was nearly fifty!"

Dad straightened his shoulders. "Look at me. I'm only 30, but I've been
a messenger for Secret material already. In a few years, if things go
well, I should be handling _Top_-Secret stuff. And who knows? Maybe by
the time I'm 50 I'll be _giving_ orders instead of carrying them. Then
I'll learn to read, too. That's the right way to do it."

Ronnie shifted uncomfortably on the hassock. "But can't a Reader get a
job that's not so important. Like a barber or a plumber or--"

"Don't you understand? The barber and plumbing equipment corporations
set up their stores and hire men to work for them. You think they'd
hire a Reader? People'd say you were a spy or a subversive or that
you're crazy like old man Davis."

"Mr. Davis isn't crazy. And he isn't old. He's young, just like you,
and--"

"Ronnie!"

Dad's voice was knife-sharp and December-cold. Ronnie slipped off the
hassock as if struck physically by the fury of the voice. He sat
sprawled on his small posterior, fresh fear etched on his thin features.

"Damn it, son, how could you even _think_ of being a Reader? You've got
a life-sized, 3-D video here, and we put on the smell and touch and
heat attachments just for you. You can listen to any tape in the world
at school. Ronnie, don't you realize I'd lose my job if people knew I
had a Reader for a son?"

"B--but, Daddy--"

Dad jumped to his feet. "I hate to say it, Edith, but we've got to put
this boy in a reformatory. Maybe a good memory-wash will take some of
the nonsense out of him!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Ronnie suppressed a sob. "No, Daddy, don't let them take away my brain.
Please--"

Dad stood very tall and very stiff, not even looking at him. "They
won't take your brain, just your memory for the past two years."

A corner of Mom's mouth twitched. "David, I didn't want anything like
this. I thought maybe Ronnie could have a few private psychiatric
treatments. They can do wonderful things now--permi-hypnosis, creations
of artificial psychic blocks. A memory-wash would mean that Ronnie'd
have the mind of a six-year-old child again. He'd have to start to
school all over again."

Dad returned to his chair. He buried his face in trembling hands, and
some of his anger seemed replaced by despair. "Lord, Edith, I don't
know what to do."

He looked up abruptly, as if struck by a chilling new thought. "You
can't keep a two-year memory-wash a secret. I never thought of that
before. Why, that alone would mean the end of my promotions."

Silence settled over the room, punctuated only by the ticking of the
antique clock. All movement seemed frozen, as if the room lay at the
bottom of a cold, thick sea.

"David," Mom finally said.

"Yes?"

"There's only one solution. We can't destroy two years of Ronnie's
memory--you said that yourself. So we'll have to take him to a
psychiatrist or maybe a psychoneurologist. A few short treatments--"

Dad interrupted: "But he'd _still_ remember how to read, unconsciously
anyway. Even permi-hypnosis would wear off in time. The boy can't keep
going to psychiatrists for the rest of his life."

Thoughtfully he laced his fingers together. "Edith, what kind of a book
was he reading?"

A tremor passed through Mom's slender body. "There were three books on
his bed. I'm not sure which one he was actually reading."

Dad groaned. "_Three_ of them. Did you burn them?"

"No, dear, not yet."

"Why not?"

"I don't know. Ronnie seemed to like them so much. I thought that maybe
tonight, after you d seen them--"

"Get them, damn it. Let's burn the filthy things."

Mom went to a mahogany chest in the dining room, produced three faded
volumes. She put them on the hassock at Dad's feet.

Dad gingerly turned a cover. His lips curled in disgust as if he were
touching a rotting corpse.

"Old," he mused, "--so very old. Ironic, isn't it? Our lives are being
wrecked by things that should have been destroyed and forgotten a
hundred years ago."

A sudden frown contorted his dark features.

_Tick-de-tock, tick-de-tock_, said the antique clock.

"A hundred years old," he repeated. His mouth became a hard, thin line.
"Edith, I think I know why Ronnie wanted to read, why he fell into the
trap so easily."

"What do you mean, David?"

Dad nodded at the clock, and the slow, smouldering anger returned to
his face. "It's _your_ fault, Edith. You've always liked old things.
That clock of your great-great-grandmother's. Those old prints on the
wall. That stamp collection you started for Ronnie--stamps dated way
back to the 1940's."

Mom's face paled. "I don't understand."

"You've interested Ronnie in old things. To a child in its formative
years, in a pleasant house, these things symbolize peace and security.
Ronnie's been conditioned from the very time of his birth to like old
things. It was natural for him to be attracted by books. And we were
just too stupid to realize it."

Mom whispered hoarsely, "I'm sorry, David."

Hot anger flashed in Dad's eyes. "It isn't enough to be sorry. Don't
you see what this means? Ronnie'll have to be memory-washed back to the
time of birth. He'll have to start life all over again."

"No, David, no!"

"And in my position I can't afford to have an eight-year-old son with
the mind of a new-born baby. It's got to be Abandonment, Edith, there's
no other way. The boy can start life over in a reformatory, with a
complete memory-wash. He'll never know we existed, and he'll never
bother us again."

Mom ran up to Dad. She put her hands on his shoulders. Great sobs burst
from her shaking body.

"You can't, David! I won't let--"

He slapped her then with the palm of his hand. The sound was like a
pistol shot in the hot, tight air.

Dad stood now like a colossus carved of black ice. His right hand was
still upraised, ready to strike again.

Then his hand fell. His mind seemed to be toying with a new thought, a
new concept.

He seized one of the books on the hassock.

"Edith," he said crisply, "just what was Ronnie reading? What's the
name of this book?"

"_The--The Adventures of Tom Sawyer_," said Mom through her sobs.

He grabbed the second book, held it before her shimmering vision.

"And the name of this?"

"_Tarzan of The Apes._" Mom's voice was a barely audible croak.

"Who's the author?"

"Edgar Rice Burroughs."

"And this one?"

"_The Wizard of Oz._"

"Who wrote it?"

"L. Frank Baum."

He threw the books to the floor. He stepped backward. His face was a
mask of combined sorrow, disbelief, and rage.

"_Edith._" He spat the name as if it were acid on his tongue. "Edith,
_you can read_!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Mom sucked in her sobs. Her chalk-white cheeks were still streaked with
rivulets of tears.

"I'm sorry, David. I've never told anyone--not even Ronnie. I haven't
read a book, haven't even looked at one since we were married. I've
tried to be a good wife--"

"A good wife." Dad sneered. His face was so ugly that Ronnie looked
away.

Mom continued, "I--I learned when I was just a girl. I was young like
Ronnie. You know how young people are--reckless, eager to do forbidden
things."

"You lied to me," Dad snapped. "For ten years you've lied to me. Why
did you want to read, Edith? _Why?_"

Mom was silent for a few seconds. She was breathing heavily, but no
longer crying. A calmness entered her features, and for the first time
tonight Ronnie saw no fear in her eyes.

"I wanted to read," she said, her voice firm and proud, "because, as
Ronnie said, it's fun. The video's nice, with its dancers and lovers
and Indians and spacemen--but sometimes you want more than that.
Sometimes you want to know how people feel deep inside and how they
think. And there are beautiful words and beautiful thoughts, just like
there are beautiful paintings. It isn't enough just to hear them and
then forget them. Sometimes you want to keep the words and thoughts
before you because in that way you feel that they belong to you."

Her words echoed in the room until absorbed by the ceaseless, ticking
clock. Mom stood straight and unashamed. Dad's gaze traveled slowly to
Ronnie, to Mom, to the clock, back and forth.

At last he said, "Get out."

Mom stared blankly.

"Get out. Both of you. You can send for your things later. I never want
to see either of you again."

"David--"

"I said _get out_!"

Ronnie and Mom left the house. Outside, the night was dark and a wind
was rising. Mom shivered in her thin house cloak.

"Where will we go, Ronnie? Where, where--"

"I know a place. Maybe we can stay there--for a little while."

"A little while?" Mom echoed. Her mind seemed frozen by the cold wind.

Ronnie led her through the cold, windy streets. They left the lights of
the town behind them. They stumbled over a rough, dirt country road.
They came to a small, rough-boarded house in the deep shadow of an
eucalyptus grove. The windows of the house were like friendly eyes of
warm golden light.

An instant later a door opened and a small boy ran out to meet them.

"Hi, Kenny."

"Hi. Who's that? Your mom?"

"Yep. Mr. Davis in?"

"Sure."

And a kindly-faced, bearded young man appeared in the golden doorway,
smiling.

Ronnie and Mom stepped inside.





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