Chapter 2: The Last Luncheon
The smell of the cafeteria at Sunev High School was quite similar to that of a dead rodent dipped in chili—and I had never even liked chili. I sat inside most days, though, mainly because that's where my friends preferred to eat. Besides, Beria—the country where I lived—rarely saw temperatures above freezing. Enduring the stench was more than a fair trade for avoiding the frost bite that awaited anyone foolish enough to eat in the courtyard.
I don't know why I remember this, but the specials that day were meatloaf and chicken fingers; fries were 50 cents off, probably because they were left over from the day before. Dear gods, the food in that place was terrible. Not as bad as what was about to happen to me, of course, but even a crappy institution like Sunev should've had the courtesy not trying to poison us. I grabbed a soda from the vending machine and headed over to the table where my friends usually sat, humming a bit. It had been a good day so far. The editor of the school newspaper, Gertrude, had accepted my article without complaint, despite the hideous topic she'd assigned me: the daily habits of the snails kept in the science wing. I'd been up half the night attempting to make it sound the least bit interesting, and apparently I had succeeded; either that or Gertrude had started purposely inhaling the news print again. Given her circumstances, I couldn't blame her; Trudy had only been thirteen when she met Fredrick, her Soul Mate. Being a bit of a nerd, she'd never been out with any boys before. She never got to flirt, or date; the most she ever got to experience was giggling with girlfriends over pictures in magazines. Then she met Fred, and any chance for her to grow and learn about romance evaporated; the moment she locked eyes with Fredrick, she knew she'd be with him forever, and so she'd never get to be with anyone else.
I tried not to think about this as I glided past Gertrude and Fred's table, focusing instead on all the makeup work I had to do. The previous few days, my mother had decided to keep me home from school because my nose was running. This in itself wasn't serious, but it was so cold outside that Mom didn't want me exposed to the elements; we did have enough money for medical care should my condition worsen.
According to my teachers, I hadn't missed all that much, which was a relief. Still, I had asked my boyfriend, Tristan, to bring his notes with him to lunch. He smiled up at me easily as I approached, sipping a juice box.
"Hey, beautiful," he greeted me as I pulled out a chair. "Missed you."
"Missed you, too," I replied, reaching for his mathematics textbook. "Okay, tell it to me straight, how dead am I?"
"It's just a couple formulas," Tristan said soothingly. "Look, Ax+By…"
Okay whatever, like I even knew what he was talking about back then, never mind all these years later. The point is, I was over the moon about Tristan. He was kind, funny, and laidback. He had this great hair; that was what attracted me to him, initially. We met at a New Year's party, when at the stroke of twelve these balloons filled with confetti fell from the ceiling. I'd been eyeing him from across the room all evening, but I'd been too nervous to go talk to him. When he didn't kiss anyone happy new year at the strike of twelve, I was reassured enough to walk up to him. My confidence faltered once I got near him, though; he seemed so out of my league, standing there laughing with his friends. So I waited until the crowd around him dispersed a bit and then walked up to him, cool as you please, and ran my hand through his hair. I'd never done anything so bold before.
"Hey, you got some confetti in your hair," I told him, lying through my teeth.
"Oh, thanks," he said, surprised. Then he smiled. I was prepared to run away as fast as I could if he hadn't said anything, or just stared at me like I was crazy. But no; he smiled at me. "I'm Tristan."
"I'm Harlene," I told him.
We got to talking, and I appreciated that he didn't try to do anything else. A lot of guys will hit on a bird as soon as they meet her, just because they're scared they won't get enough action in before they meet their Mate. But Tristan didn't; all he told me about his life and asked me about mine, made me laugh, and at the end of the night we exchanged phone numbers. As he walked me to the door, I told him the truth about how we'd got to talking. He thought it was flattering.
We'd been together ever since.
I can't remember what Tristan and I talked about, in those last few hours of peace. No doubt I was stressed about my makeup work, and I'm sure he did his best to reassure me. I don't remember how often we touched, or if he gazed at me with amused affection as he explained my homework to me, or whether snuck a little kiss when we thought the cafeteria monitor wasn't looking. All I remember is having the door held open for me after the final bell rang, blissfully unaware of all the events that were about to derail the course of my life, thinking that the hardest thing I was going to endure that day was a geography quiz.
These illusions were shattered as soon as I walked into literature class.