It turned out that there wasn't anything wrong, at least with Eddy's digestive system. The next morning, when Tandra entered his room with a glass of warm milk, she found his sheets covered in feces.
"Aren't you too old to be crapping on your bed?" she snapped, but regretted it instantly.
An alarm bell rang inside the boy's smelly PJs. Curse words, even their mild equivalents, activated it and so did any kind of physical contact.
"That's one," he said, keeping a blank expression.
Tandra ignored his remark. "Clean your bed."
"I don't want to."
"Well, you are going to do it anyway."
Tandra retreated to the kitchen and considered her options. She didn't want to punish Eddy so soon, but she knew she had to do something. Handling that kind of situation was part of the test. One of the most important parts, in fact. Then she noticed the glass of milk still in her hand. Mealtimes routines scored highly in the evaluation process.
"Eddy!" she called out loud. "Come here and have breakfast. You can clean your room later."
He answered with a series of long, extremely loud burps.
She went back to his room. Eddy was still lying on his filthy unmade bed, nibbling on chocolate chips. Tandra wondered where he had gotten them.
"Come on," she pleaded. "Don't make it more difficult for both of us. Drink your milk."
"I don't want to."
"Drink it and I will clean your room…how's that?"
He burped again. A wave of rage swirled inside Tandra.
"Go to the kitchen now!"
"I don't want to."
She grabbed his right arm and the alarm bell rang again.
"You can't touch me," Eddy said. "Read the Code of Parental Conduct. Back off!"
Eddy spent the rest of the day devouring bonbons, brownies and ice-cream. They weren't supposed to be part of his diet, at least not in big quantities, but plenty of them had been stored in the kitchen. Tandra finally recognized that they were there to measure the parent's disciplinarian skills against the child's stubbornness. It was a battle, and he was winning it.
Eddy refused to go out or talk to Tandra. After cleaning his bedroom and washing the sheets, she phoned Uki again and told her what was happening.
"I swear that their intention is to discourage people from having kids," Uki said.
"But it's too late for me," Tandra whispered. She didn't want to be heard by Eddy, who was now in the living room engrossed in another 3-D movie that filled the apartment with aliens, rockets, crashes and the noise of explosions. "Besides, it's not fair! If he were my own son I'd make him obey me, no matter how. They simply want to keep all the babies! It's a plot!"
"You may be right. One more reason to come with me."
"I won't survive in El Yermo, Uki. It's a jungle out there."
"Don't be ridiculous! The commune is led by an educated couple. Most of its members are professionals. It's a civilized place."
"It will be hard in my condition."
"It will be harder if you don't pass the test. They will keep you at the Institute until you give birth and…"
"I will pass it."
Tandra hung up on her friend.
Sonya, the parental coach, exuded sympathy like a delicate lavender fragrance.
"I understand," she said. "My own grandkids are so smug. The 11-year-old girl looks down on me because I haven't learned how to use the new virtual reality movies. You know, those that allow people to see themselves as part of the action. I tell her, 'I don't care to be in the middle of a galactic war.' She thinks I am too slow, but the real problem is that they are too fast."
"So fast that it's going to cost me my baby," Tandra muttered.
Sonya patted Tandra's hand. She already knew of her last offense--taking an oversized bag of french fries away from Eddy, an inappropriate move that had set off the alarm bell and merited a complaint from him.
"Do your best, dear, and don't let it get to you. Remember that the kid's job is to push your buttons. It's nothing personal."
Tandra agreed. The whole experience was impersonal. Inhuman, actually. Despite the parental coach's kindness, or perhaps because of it, she burst into tears. Sonya hugged her.
"This is not real," she whispered. "Be strong and you may make it after all. Remember to stay calm. That's the secret of it."
But when Tandra returned to the apartment, it was impossible for her to stay calm. All her beloved books were scattered on the floor, their pages torn and stained. Eddy was getting ready to rip Aesop's Fables. Tandra lost it and started to scream.
The version of this story in Spanish is on Page C4.