A little before six the girls were awakened by a pounding of feet in the hall and children’s voices shrieking, “Dinner time, dinner time, come and get it!”
Leila and Cassie combed their hair, straightened their clothes and headed down the stairs. They mingled with the others as they went into the restaurant and then hesitated, unsure where to sit.
David brushed past them. “No assigned seating, ladies. Anywhere is fine.”
Cassie wasn’t convinced. It clear to her eyes that the dining room was as cliquish as any high school cafeteria. Smaller children sat together chatting with their friends while their young leaders held court. The teenagers sat at their own tables, grouped by what appeared to be a combination of friendship and profession. Guards sat together, talking of training and tactics, while Alaina the teacher and some of the more fashionably dressed girls had their own table where they huddled together trading style tips, showing off their stolen jewelry, and casting flirtatious glances toward the boys.
One table was set apart from the others and this was where Mundo sat with two guards stationed behind him, as if he were a world leader in need of protection. He was flanked on each side by a pretty girl, one clearly pregnant and each casting hostile glances toward the other.
Cassie had just taken a few uncertain steps toward Alaina and her fashionistas when Doc waved to her. Glad to feel welcome, she hurried over with Leila in tow. But as Cassie slid into a seat, Leila became distracted by something going on at Sid’s table and went to his side with barely a wave of good-bye. Cassie considered following, but Doc’s eager conversation stopped her.
“I’ve been looking through that book,” he said. “And some of it’s pretty bizarre. There’s this one home remedy for the flu that involves a potato and powdered sulfur….”
Cassie listened to him ramble for a bit and pretended to be interested. Meanwhile, children in aprons came out of the kitchen with serving bowls. When her table got their bowl, Cassie leaned forward eagerly.
“The rule at dinner is the same as at other meals,” Doc said. “One scoop apiece until everyone has had some. Then if there’s enough, we can have seconds.”
Cassie poured a strange-looking blob onto her plate, concluding it was Spaghetti-O’s mixed with whatever else could be poured out of a can. She noticed though, that the guards’ table and Mundo’s group got extra food, including recognizable pieces of meat instead of little bits mixed into the rest of the food. Mundo’s table even had liquor. In spite of herself, Cassie found herself thinking of how everyone used to eat before the Telo. What wouldn’t she give to be back in her comfortable suburban home with her mother setting out a gourmet salad and plates of grilled salmon, and maybe some roasted potatoes and fresh bread picked up from the bakery that day. It had been so normal to have a table full of fresh food that it never occurred to her to be grateful.
“So what do you think?” Doc asked. “It would probably taste disgusting, but pine trees are easy to find and I bet no one else in town is harvesting the needles.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” Cassie said, wishing she had been paying attention.
“But honey is a whole other matter. Do you know anything about bees?”
“Not a thing.”
By now they had cleaned their plates and since there was still food in the bowl, they each got another half-ladle.
“Will there be dessert?” Cassie asked.
“For us? Probably not.”
“But you never know,” someone said. “It’s happened before.”
As it turned out, there was no dessert, except at Mundo’s table where everyone got a few teaspoons of something that looked like vanilla pudding.
“Don’t bother being jealous,” a girl said, seeing where Cassie was looking. “It’s mostly for show and probably not very good.”
“One time they all got sick,” Doc added. “I don’t know who got in bigger trouble for that—David for foraging bad food or Sandra for letting it get served.”
Someone else leaned forward like he was going to say something, but Mundo stood up and one of his guards took a swipe at a small brass gong. The room fell silent, everyone waiting to hear what Mundo would say.
“Regents! Thank you all for another good day. Our perimeters are secure, our foragers had two successful supply runs to the suburbs, and we have new water filters. We also have ideas for how to generate electricity, and an excellent lead on a free source of vitamins.”
He continued with an itemized summary of key events and concerns of the day, then asked each of his commanders to give a report. The group heard what goods had been foraged, what security breaches foiled, and what plans had been carried out. When all the reports had been given, new plans were voted on and assignments given for the following day. Then Mundo thanked everyone for their cooperation, led them in a chant of “Keep the Faith,” and dismissed everyone for the evening. On the way out, they were each given a flashlight with their room number on it and a mark indicating the date the battery had been replaced. Each flashlight had to be returned at breakfast if the owner wanted to eat.
Since food rations would be docked if the batteries had to be changed more than once a month, Cassie kept her light off and followed someone else up the stairs, only turning her light on when she got to her room. Leila arrived a few minutes later and they agreed to take turns using their flashlights while they washed and changed into fleece and flannel to go to bed.
“I can’t believe I’m on honey bucket duty tomorrow,” Leila said as she washed her face.
“I’m on for Thursday. It looks like everyone but Mundo and the pregnant girl has a rotation, so you can’t say it’s a job that’s not assigned fairly.”
“In the suburbs we could go outside.”
Cassie nodded. In their old neighborhood there had been more options for sanitation, even if it had been harder to find food. “I wonder where they dump the buckets?”
“I guess I’m going to find out.”
Leila finished washing up, then Cassie washed too and lay down. When she turned off her flashlight the darkness overwhelmed her. She had become accustomed to it months ago, but tonight she found herself missing street lights. The dark of the room pressed in around her, not malevolent, but not particularly friendly, either. “I’ll be glad when Sid gets those generators working.”
“Yeah. He’s smart.”
“You should get him to teach you how to make them. It’ll be a good skill and will make you valuable to the group.”
Leila sighed. “I don’t want to do stuff like that. I’ve spent my whole life doing math and science things because I was fat and ugly and it was all I was good for. But everything’s different now. I’m better off making one of the important guys my boyfriend, don’t you think?”
Cassie raised herself on an elbow and looked toward Leila’s bed, even though all she could see was darkness. “We can be important people all by ourselves if we play our cards right.”
“No. Your way is hard.”
Cassie lay back down. “I think your way would be a lot harder.”
Leila didn’t answer, and after waiting and hoping they could talk frankly like they used to, Cassie closed her eyes to sleep.