Wendell Millbern was parked outside the Principal's office again today — head down, sniffling, looking simultaneously tough and ragdoll-broken — while I was replacing light bulbs in 'A' hall.
He isn't a bad kid. He's just acting out. I decided the bulbs in his general vicinity needed special attention.
"Wendell; how are things?"
Wendell talks to me. Wendell knows me. Wendell isn't one of these kids who thinks of the janitor as less-than-human. "Sucks."
"What are you in for?"
Wendell shrugged as if to say it was nothing, it was beyond his control, it was a bum rap. But he answered because he knows I'll keep asking. "I talked back to Ms. Gomez in music class."
Surprising. "You like Ms. Gomez."
Wendell shrugged again as if to say that Ms. Gomez was all right, for a teacher; as if to deflect the possibility that he might have a bit of a crush.
"Come hold the new bulbs for me."
"I'm not supposed to get up."
"It's fine, I'll explain it all if Principal Ngai comes out."
I handed him the box of bulbs, which he took carefully, held delicately.
"How's your dad? Still mad all the time?" Wendell's father was a habitual drinker of overlarge quantities of beer.
"Yeah." Wendell watched me unscrew the bulb. "Hey, that one was still good."
"I have a feeling it was going to burn out soon. Call it a preemptive replacement. Watch out, it's still hot." I handed down the old bulb and he handed up a new one. I didn't feel bad about the waste: the replacements were all the more efficient compact fluorescent types. Still frustratingly primitive technology, to be sure, but better than the incandescent bulbs the school had been using. "Ever hit you?"
Wendell's a bright kid. "Where you're from, what do they do to people who beat up on kids and their moms?"
"Well, Wendell, where I come from hardly anybody does anything like that. It's not perfect. We've got our problems," haphazard quality control in navigational sensors and far-from-prompt rescue services being two that spring immediately to mind, "but drinking, that's just not one of them."
"What would they do?"
I re-affixed the cover to the lighting fixture and climbed down the ladder. "Well, Wendell, when someone is hurting someone else, we change them. We make them different."
Changing brain chemistry; changing brain structure; rewriting memory… "It's complicated."
"Would it work on my dad?"
I put my hand on his shoulder. "If it was something that would work on your dad, Wendell, I would have done it already."
Wendell deflated. "Too bad."
"Mister Millbern, I'm getting tired of seeing you outside my office." Principal Ngai's voice is deep and impressive and somehow reassuring. He's a good man. "Come on."
Wendell shrugged at me and went in. He knows I will keep his secret because he keeps mine.
Ngai will ferret it out. He'll pick up on the patterns. I did, after all, and I'm not even human.