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The office worker was a textbook government bureaucrat. He wore a shirt and trouser combo in neutral tones of a similar inoffensive palette as the office decor. Shortly cropped greying hair and shiny dress shoes gave him an air of low-level managerial authority. A name badge was tidily clipped to his shirt pocket, identifying him as an Immigration and Border Agency case worker named Mark. He sat at one of over a hundred identical office chairs, in front of over a hundred identical small desks, in one of over a hundred identical shoebox-sized micro-offices within the busy Agency. His eyes looked through a pair of wiry glasses at the display screen he was reading, containing the details noted down by reception. "Ok, can you please state your full name to confirm we have the correct files?"
"Flora, Jane, Everton" Flora bravely repeated. She sat upon a green, adult-sized chair. It was comfy, but a little too big for her. Davis opted to stand next to her, shifting his weight from foot to foot and stealing glances at the clock mounted over the door.
"That checks out," the worker confirmed in a steady, passionless voice. The sleek walls reverberated any sudden noises, but the grey carpeted floors and manicured office plants sulking in the corners would soak up excess sound. "And that makes you... her advocate, sir?" He asked the only other person present. Davis glanced back to the worker. 
"I Uh... Yeah. I am. Davis Adam Young, if that's important."
Mark nodded and set the screen down into a dock upon the table, switching it to double-sided view. 
Flora saw a file appear on the screen. Her name was at the top, along with the photo of her taken at reception. It wasn't a flattering portrait - in the image her eyes looked sunken, the neck of her sandy yellow t-shirt was frayed, and her bushy hair was begging to be combed. Details including her birthday, age, place of origin, and family status were displayed. On seeing her mother and father listed simply as "deceased", Flora once again felt a gloom fill her body. Averting her eyes once more and sighing in despair, she felt like she was getting smaller, ready for the floor to open up and swallow her. She kicked her feet beneath her chair, waiting for the meeting to progress.
"Ok, so fortunately now you've been added to our database, and we can get to the task of allocating you the measures appropriate to respond to your circumstances, in a whole-of-agency approach befitting our governing principles" The worker spoke in a convoluted dialect of English usually reserved for academic journals and government departments. Flora gave a non-committal "mm" in response without looking up. Davis Looked at the man, and discretely gestured a lowering motion to the man, hinting that he should take the explanations down a notch and be more concise, given the age of his audience.
Mark leaned forward slightly in his chair and tried again. "Now that we know about you, and know what you need, we're going to work towards getting you that help" Mark clarified. Davis nodded in approval. Flora looked back at the worker, hesitantly, wondering what would come next. Mark loosened his collar and rubbed his neck. "I'd like to give you better news, but our resettlement agents are unfortunately fully booked until next Thursday."
Davis growled back, "What?"
"The resettlement team in Centreport is small," the case worker explained "they usually only deal with a few refugees a week. It's pretty rare for asylum seekers to come all the way here - usually they stick to neighbouring nations on land, or if they come to Marinabridge they'll opt for the shorter route to the Sunrise Terminus or Dusk Interchange, right on the edge of territorial waters."
"So why the holdup here then?" Davis asked, visibly frustrated.
"There's been an increase in transfer applications recently - people looking to get resettled on other parts of The Bridge, or getting moved on from their first point of contact by the other stations, some of whom are concerned about approaching The Bridge's load capacity. Recent events on the continents are pushing more people to seek refuge in our country, and the waiting lists are growing by the day. It's a delicate situation, and we're doing what we can to try and balance the needs of everyone involved" The man continued with all the empathy of an algorithm.
"But what about me?" Flora asked, wringing her hands in insecurity, and speaking with a voice no bigger than her level of confidence.
"Exactly," agreed Davis. "What about Flora?"
The worker slumped back a little with a sigh. Making excuses for governmental failings was unlikely to be in his role description. He adjusted his glasses and continued. "Ms Everton will be seen by the resettlement agency in due time. But we're simply stretched too thin for that to be any time sooner than what has been offered. I can assure you that we are in discussions with the Assembly to secure additional resources, and we are also attempting to reach out to our neighbouring cities and nations to encourage them to collaborate on solutions to the concerns driving such movements."
"Sounds like a pair of dead ends to me" Davis commented bitterly.
The worker nodded in resignation. "Perhaps. We're trying, at least."
Flora continued to kick her feet anxiously. Davis rubbed his elbows. Mark leaned forward, re-reading the file on his screen in silence.
"So," Davis wondered, leaning a hand on the table, "is there someone who's role is specifically to oversee cases like this one? A social worker, or counselor or whatever? Given how vulnerable kids without family are, surely someone like Flora would be a pretty high priority? Even when things are this busy?"
The worker gulped and rubbed the back of his neck. With another sigh, he explained yet another difficulty in triaging an escalating number of concerns with only a finite amount of institutional resources.
"Our head of unaccompanied minor resettlement for Centreport has been temporarily seconded to Deeptowers to assist with a major incident there."
Davis's posture sunk upon hearing the news. He took a deep breath and shook his head.
"Is that... far?" Flora wondered.
"It's over two thousand k's from here." Davis answered. "More than a whole day's journey, even if the bullet train line wasn't being repaired right now. Three days by car, four by bus." No matter how much he may have been trying to maintain a neutral disposition, the disappointment was written all over his face.
"It was an emergency with a lot of people in need of their expertise," the case worker explained. "And I mean a lot. We wouldn't have sent them otherwise". It didn't make Flora's situation any better, but she understood that other people needed help too. 
"I hope those people are ok." she added, concerned.
"Indeed" agreed the worker, scrolling down his screen. "Now, there is the issue of Flora's welfare in the interim. Normally our resettlement agents would have scouted a suitable fostering arrangement in advance and liased with all the appropriate stakeholders in the welfare of a resettled child. However, there is now a backlog, and we're waiting on more foster carers to become available."
Flora's heart skipped a beat. "What does that mean?" she asked fearfully, recoiling slightly in her chair.
"Yeah, what does that mean?" Davis echoed in indignation.
"Please don't be concerned. We have a backup system in case carers are unavailable. The state welfare agency runs a variety of emergency shelters for people with nowhere else to go, for various reasons. People who have suddenly lost their home from a fire or accident, or who are escaping violence or crime in their homes, or are getting reintegrated after spending time in a correctional facility."
"You want to put an orphan refugee in a hostel with- with ex-cons or domestic abuse victims?" Davis spat back at the man. Flora began to curl up on her chair.
"We don't want to. I don't want to. I don't want any of this." the worker replied, throwing up his hands, a hint of humanity finally slipping though his monotone exterior. "In a perfect world we wouldn't need any of these things. Kids like her would be safe at home with their families, and the whole resettlement agency wouldn't need to exist. But we're at the end of our rope here, I'm trying to figure out any way we can get her somewhere safer than the disaster zone she came from, and this is all I've got left to work with." He took off his glasses and rubbed his face.
"Good Goddess." Davis shook his head, animated by the exchange. His voice began to bounce around in the confined office, and he tugged on handfuls of his short, light-brown hair in exasperation. "So, just so we're clear - there aren't any appointments available to even talk to a resettlement agent for more than a week. Your case manager in charge of unaccompanied minor asylum seekers is halfway to Sunrise dealing with problems elsewhere. Your pool of foster carers has just run dry. And the only real option for a roof over her head is to share one with people struggling with the kinds of issues no child should be exposed to?"
Flora hugged her knees and buried her face between her elbows. This meeting was not going well. She hadn't been expecting much, but now it sounded like there was little hope for even a safe place to sleep tonight. She started rocking back and forth, blocking out the adults in the room with her. Why did the adults always do this to her? Why couldn't they find anywhere secure, especially when someone promised her they would? Why couldn't she find something as basic as a place to be safe?
"It's the best I can do right now. I'm sorry." the worker apologised, before asking "Do you have any alternative solutions?" It wasn't a rhetorical question - for all his bureaucracy, the man seemed to want a better option to materialise than the one he had just outlined.
Davis rubbed his elbows, pacing the small room. He brought a hand to his jaw, ponderously. The clock ticked obnoxiously above the door. It felt like forever. An eternity seemed to pass. Had Davis thought of something that the worker had overlooked? Was he weighing his options? Considering something, unsure of whether it was a good idea or not? He looked at Flora, looked to the worker, and looked back to her again. Peeking out from her hiding pose, she watched him take a deep breath.
"It's a long shot, but... The person I live with, or rather, she lives with me... She's well retired now, but... she has fostered kids in the past. I might be able to talk her around, convince her to let Flora stay with us for a few days."
Flora's dumbfounded expression was still hidden from view. This was, at last, the first positive lead they had discovered during this entire meeting. "I mean," Davis continued, "if Flora prefers that option, and if that's even allowed?"
"Well, let's not get ahea-" The office worker tried to dampen the possibility, but was cut off by Flora shooting back upright and confirming suddenly "Yes! Yes I prefer that option!"
The worker observed her sudden change of outlook with keen interest. "Why is that?" He asked.
"Well," she started off, fidgeting with her hands as she looked at Davis. "He's nice. He offered to help me, and he answers all my questions." She started counting on her fingertips. "He listened to what I say, and asks what I want. And he kept me safe." She looked over towards Mark, his eyes watching her recount the reasons why she'd prefer staying with Davis over a shelter. "And he isn't trying to take advantage of me, or just get rid of me. Not like other adults"
The other two were more subdued in their appraisal of the idea. "Well, I guess that's one part settled." Davis pointed out. "What were you saying?" he maintained his stoic demeanour, awaiting an answer from the official. 
The man took a deep breath. "I'll have to double-check our policy..." He scrolled through his screen, taking a few moments to scan the pages, before happening upon the document he was searching for. "There is an option for private sponsorship of asylum seekers awaiting resettlement," he explained, flicking the document onto the other screen for the other two to see. "Essentially you'd need to cover any costs the government doesn't subsidise. Doctors, food, clothing, et cetera. Usually this option is used for reuniting families, but other advocates have made use of it too. In terms of housing a child without family, the usual fostering and child welfare regulations would also come into effect. Before signing off the placement, we would need to do a background check on household members, so we can be confident the home is safe and the child will be adequately cared for..."
The child looked up to Davis. Davis nodded. "We're both pretty upstanding citizens. No criminal charges. No involvement in criminal organisations, or with hostile regimes." he insisted. "The house is kept tidy, and we have no issues from our neighbours."
The worker nodded. "That is good to know. And you said your housemate is a retired foster carer?"
Davis nodded. "Yeah. It's been a few years, but she's probably still in the system."
Another nod. "Most likely. Ok, so, if you decide this is the option you'd like to pursue, then the next point of contact-"
"I can call her now if you want" Davis reached into his pocket for his wearable.
"Please do."
Davis opened the device and brought up his contact list, scrolling to one simply titled "Nan".
"Could you give us a moment?" Davis asked the clerk as he prepared to make the call.
"Oh. Yeah, of course. I'll be just outside." Mark got up to leave and pointed both index fingers at the door, faux-casually.
"Make yourself a drink or something, this might take a while" Davis advised, perhaps a little too tersely.
The worker closed the door behind him, and Davis slipped the wearable over his ear and double-tapped to make the call. He waited for a response before launching into the discussion. 
"Hi Nan... Yeah, things are fine. Well, mostly. I uh, there's something I was wondering if you'd be able to help with... No, it's not really work related. I mean, kind of, but not really. So there's this girl I met..." Davis laughed at something he heard before clarifying "No, not like that. She's a child, a refugee, about nine years old. A buddy found her at sea all alone, and I promised to help with getting her through the immigration service. Yeah. Yeah. Well it turns out they're a bit busy, a waiting list of more than a week, and to top it off their case worker who manages solo kids was called off to an incident near Deeptowers... Yeah, I said as much. So the best they can do right now is offer to bounce her off to a couple of shelters that aren't properly set up for cases like this... Yeah, exactly. So I was thinking, until they can catch up and sort out a transition to a more permanent placement that can meet her needs properly, she might be better off somewhere that's at least stable in the meantime. Yeah, with someone she's already met, who she trusts... Yeah. That's what I'm thinking. More importantly, she said she'd prefer that as well... Yeah... So, the thing is, you're an approved foster carer, and we both have clean records, so Immigration said that as long as you're willing to get involved... Yeah. Eh? What is she like?" 
He looked at Flora, sitting next to him, eagerly watching him with sparkling wide eyes of the deepest brown he'd ever seen. "I think you'd like her" He deduced, watching Flora with a smile. "She's a bit quiet to begin with, as could be expected. But once she settles she becomes a real quiz master. Eager to know about everything around her. I'm sure she'd remind you of someone. What's that? You'd like to talk to her? One minute." He cupped his hand beside his mouth, creating a barrier in the way of his mouthpiece. 
"Flora, the lady I live with says she'd like to speak with you for a bit. She's real nice, I promise."
Flora nodded to the proposal, and Davis moved his hand away from the mouthpiece to continue the call. "Yeah, she's keen. I'll hand you over." He unclipped the wearable from over his ear and handed the gadget to Flora, who held it to the side of her head.
"uh, hello?" she asked, her nervousness reverberating into the mouthpiece.
"Hi dear," The voice from the other side sounded weak, but that might have just been the effect of the call's lackluster audio. "I hope Davis hasn't been talking too much. He does that some times, you know."
Flora smirked at Davis. He smiled back, oblivious. "Just a little bit. I don't mind though" She insisted.
"That's good. Now, unfortunately it's been a while since I looked after any children, and I'm not getting any younger..." Flora's heart sank, and the joy drained from her face. The lady sounded like she was preparing Flora for disappointing news, the way so many adults tended to do. Flora slumped in her chair as she listened to the lady let out a sigh, and Flora waited to hear the confirmation that what she had hoped for wouldn't be happening. Typical. The adults always let her down.
"But," the lady continued, "I always said, maybe under the right conditions, I might come out of retirement, for a short while."
Flora shot upright again. Was the lady changing her mind, or just toying with her?
"What kind of conditions? Tell me" Flora demanded hastily, begging for an opportunity to say something to make this work out. "I'll have money soon, you can have some once Davis gets it for me. Please." she pleaded in desperation. Davis crossed his arms, and began rubbing his elbows as a stony expression crept onto his face. Was he getting anxious? Impatient? Flora couldn't tell, but she could definitely worry about it. He seemed the kind to wear a mask of neutrality when in actuality his insides were wringing and fear was creeping in.
"Oh, dear, don't worry about that," The lady calmly rebuffed the offer. "Look, I wanted to say, it sounds like you and Davis are getting along well." She stated calmly, matter of fact.
"I, uh. Yeah, he's real nice" Flora explained. "Made me laugh for the first time in weeks, maybe months. I hope we can stay friends." She watched as Davis smiled again and stopped fidgeting for now. "I was scared, but... he helped me feel like things would be ok." Her voice broke, and she fought back the tears as the fear began to claw its way back into her. She hadn't felt safe in what felt to a child like a lifetime. And now that it was almost in her grasp it seemed to be falling away from her once more.
"Oh sweetie," the lady tried to soothe her from across the ether. "It's going to be ok. Can you put Davis back on for me?"
Flora nodded, forgetting that it was an audio call, and held the wearable back out to Davis with one hand as she wiped away tears with the other.
"Yeah, I should have mentioned she's kind of fragile." Flora heard Davis state into the wearable. She felt his arm drape around her shoulders as he crouched next to her. The burning in her eyes was matched by a warmth in her body as his simple gesture of reassurance took hold of her. She tried to calm her ragged breathing, looking down, watching their shoes as Davis continued the conversation. She tapped her favourite tiny once-pink shoes along to no particular rhythm. Davis tapped his own rugged black boots once or twice as he made his own case for why the housemates should welcome her into their home. "Nan..." He said, with a sigh. "No, you're not too old for this. I'll take care of most of it. She's not a handful, you'll barely notice she's there.... Yeah, work's busy as always, but I can work while she's asleep, and then keep an eye on her for most of the day after. You just need to sign the paperwork, you don't even need to come into the office."
Flora sniffed. Her eyes were clear enough now that she could take another glimpse of Davis, the tall recycling man in greasy blue and orange overalls she'd met just hours before. He continued talking with the lady, trying to convince her this endeavour could somehow work. How long had it been since someone had been willing to put in any effort on Flora's behalf, let alone this level of determined advocacy? It felt like an eternity. Not since her parents had any adult offered up their home for her. She couldn't bear to imagine how she might cope if this possibility evaporated before it even got started. It would be the latest in a string of disappointments.
"A week, maybe two weeks tops. Just until we can get her settled in somewhere long-term." Davis promised. Flora leaned her head on his shoulder, dejected by her prospects. Surely if they hadn't agreed by now, it was a bad sign? 
"Ok. Yeah, of course. That's understandable. Yeah, no worries, sorry I brought it up... Spur of the moment? You could say that. I'd prefer to say carpe diem though... Yeah, we'll figure something out. Alright, I'll see you when I get home. Take care. Yeah, you too. Bye." Davis double-tapped his wearable to bring the call to a close, then took it off. He held the gadget in his hand for a moment, seeming unsure what to do next.
"Hey, Flora?" He eventually said to the girl leaning on his shoulder.
"Mm?" she grunted, not sure if she wanted to know the answer.
"I've got some good news. You can come stay with us, but-oof" He was interrupted mid-sentence as Flora erupted with glee and relief, and tackled him around his midsection with an impromptu embrace that knocked the air out of him. The beacon hanging from her belt swung from its carabiner and smacked him in his hip.
"Yay!" She squealed, oblivious to her excessive celebratory force. Davis waited a moment to gather himself before continuing. 
"Ow, that'll leave a mark. Ok, Flora there's going to be some rules you'll need to follow."
Flora beamed back at him. "That's ok. I don't mind rules if they're fair" she claimed. It was mostly true.
Davis didn't appear quite as enthused. Maybe there was something else on his mind.
"Nan is... pretty old. More than 80" He explained "She sleeps a lot, so you'll need to be quiet around the house." 
Flora nodded. People rarely accused her of not being quiet. 
"There's not a lot of room," Davis continued, "and her vision isn't great, so you'll have to keep things tidy and where they belong, so she doesn't trip and hurt herself." Flora nodded to this one too.
"One more thing, we have a policy of honesty in our home. So for example, if someone breaks something, or takes what isn't theirs, they have to be honest about what happened and help fix or replace what was lost."
"Ok" Flora was willing to agree - that sounded fair after all.
"Also, if someone is upset about something, or worried, or if something is troubling them, they're always allowed to discuss it."
"Ok" Flora still agreed. She realised her beacon was still dangling awkwardly off her belt, so she tucked the bottom half of it back into her pocket that wasn't quite big enough.
"The other thing," Davis carried on, emphasising this point even more than the others, "is that privacy is fine, but secrets that can hurt someone aren't. Our home is a safe haven - we don't allow harmful lies or conspiracies to take place there."
"Oh..." Flora wondered, hesitating for a moment.
"Is that... going to be ok?" Davis asked.
"Oh, uh, yeah, of course." she replied, scratching her head. "What's a conspiracy?" she added with a tilt of her head.
"When one lie turns into another, and then another. And that keeps going until a lot of people get hurt." he explained grimly.
"Ok. I promise I wont do that then" she declared with all the sincerity she could muster.
"Great." He grabbed her on the shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. "Since we're all in agreement then, I'll go fetch that office drone and let him know what we're doing"

Submitted: November 10, 2020

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