This week’s writing challenge:
Things were much different, of course, before the Great Decision. Kara was sure of it, although her memories of her childhood were growing hazy and it was forbidden to read the books or watch films from that period. Still it did not keep people from talking about it, and the lunch time conversation in the cafetaria was often dominated by talk of the Time Before, carried out in hushed tones, so that the Monitors would not overhear.
“Yes, yes, I’m telling you it’s true,” Lalina was saying, trying to convince one of the younger girls of some outrageous fact that could not quite be believed. “They made pictures of it, with the males and the females together, without any clothing on at all!”
Malika tore off another bit of bread and pushed it into her mouth, eyeing each of them around the table in turn, to see if someone might give away Lalina’s joke. She was new to the division and had already been the victim of one of their pranks, when she had been sent into the men’s section to give Miglano, the supervisor there, a note that read, “I have a big round bottom.” Miglano had flushed red, and immediately alerted the Monitors. Two female officers arrived some forty-five minutes later, the crumbs of their lunch still clinging to the front of their uniforms and their breath stinking of onions.
“What took you so long?” Miglano whined. “I’ve had to wait here with her all this time, and hold this note.” He spat out the word like it was an epithet.
In the end, the Monitors convinced Malika not to pursue a complaint against the pranksters. There should have been repercussions, of course, but the Monitors insisted she could not possibly identify which of her co workers had given her the note and the instructions to deliver it, since she was so new there. And, since she was so new there, she didn’t want to stir up any trouble, did she? Still, Malika was on guard and suspicious of her co workers, lest she be made a fool of again.
“I don’t believe a word of what you’re saying,” Malika said to Lalina.
“It’s true,” Kara said. She rarely spoke, but when she did, the others listened. Kara was a Committee member, after all. “My father had a stack of magazines like that, hidden in his office.”
“Oh, so they had to hide them, even then?” Lalina asked. This was a new bit of information which she planned on adding to her story.
“Yes, I think so, but they weren’t forbidden then. I’m not sure why he hid them.”
“A magazine full of pictures of men and women without any clothes? I don’t know whether to believe you or not,” Malika said, but it was clear her doubt was fading. “Who would want something like that? It doesn’t sound the least bit useful.”
No one at the table offered an answer, so the conversation drifted to the new standards for producing the XL-487, which the women had just been informed of that day. Kara didn’t bother to listen. She was a member of the Committee that Develops New Standards, and she was tired of hearing about them.
It was on the Committee that she had met Darlo, and last week he had confided to her that he had stopped drinking his daily ration of the Most Powerful Energy Drink.
“I can’t blame you. It tastes like piss.”
He was stunned by her admission. “You’ve drunk it?”
Kara nodded. “Just a sip. They sent several cases of it in the rations for the women’s quarters last year. I was put in charge of repackaging it and shipping it back out, which I did, but not until after I tried a bottle.”
“But it’s forbidden for women to drink the Most Powerful Energy Drink.”
“It’s also forbidden for men not to drink it, so unless you want me to inform the Monitors on you, I suggest you don’t inform the Monitors on me.”
He reached out and took her hand. “I would never inform the Monitors on you.”
Kara let him hold her hand for a bit before she pulled away. “The Monitors might see us,” she whispered, but she wasn’t really worried about the Monitors. The truth of it was Darlo had become a bit of a pain, always expecting her to spend the fifteen minute Committee breaks with him, and even sending her secret notes delivered to her housing unit that said silly things like
Thinking about you
Can’t wait to see you again
While it had always been exciting to Kara to garner the attention of another Committee member, Darlo, with his beady eyes and his sausage fingers, had become tedious.
“The funny thing is,” Darlo explained as they walked back inside to resume their work, “I really feel like I have a lot more energy since I haven’t been drinking it.”
“Is that so?” Kara took her seat at the table and began unnecessarily studying the pile of papers in front of her.
“Kara . . .” Darlo began, but Kara cut him off.
“Shhh,” she said, her finger to her lips. “I have to read.”
That night, Darlo sent her another note.
I can’t stop thinking about you.
Kara, for her part, had stopped thinking about Darlo immediately after the committee business had concluded for the day. She sighed after reading the note, just as Lalina passed by her in the hallway.
“What’s got you sighing?”
“Just another Committee note,” Kara lied and wasn’t sure if Lalina believed her.
“You and your Committee business,” Lalina lingered in the hallway. “Still it must be nice getting to work on the different projects. I swear if I have to assemble another XL-487 . . .” Her voice trailed off.
“I don’t know if my job is any better. I still have to assemble XL-487s.”
“Only three days a week, though. The other two days you get to do something else, get to talk to different people.”
“It’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Anyway, keep your chin up,” Kara gave her friend a half-smile. “The XL-488 is due to be released soon!”
Lalina laughed. “Now that’s something to look forward to.” She hesistated, and then spoke again. “Say, what’s really in that note, Kara?”
Against her better judgment, Kara showed Lalina the note. Lalina read it, and then read it again, before clasping her hand over her mouth to conceal a grin. “I’ve heard about these mixed gender relationships! I never thought you would be involved in one!”
Kara grabbed Lalina’s arm and dragged the woman down the hall and into her room. She locked the door before she said, “I’m thinking I ought to be offended by that remark. Why shouldn’t I be involved in a mixed gender relationship?”
Lalina shrugged. “You’re always so much about business, and your Committee. I didn’t think you even noticed the men. And this Darlo. He’s the chubby one that wears the belt cinched too tight about his waist?”
Kara put her head into her hands. “Yes, he is.”
“Oh, I know him.” Lalina looked off into the distance, her eyes dreamy. “I like his smile.”
“I don’t like his smile, and I wish he’d stop sending me these notes.” Kara tore the note into tiny bits before throwing it into the fire.
“Stop answering them, then. That should put an end to it.”
“I don’t answer them.”
“How I wish I had someone sending me secret notes,” Lalina said, her voice tinged with sorrow and envy. “It seems so exciting!”
Kara had an idea. “Why don’t you answer his notes?”
“Me? It’s you he’s keen on.”
“I’m not sure it’s me. I think it has something to do with the Most Powerful Energy Drink.” Kara explained her theory to Lalina, and before long she had convinced her friend to respond to Darlo’s note.
Hello. You don’t know me, but I’d like to get to know you. My name is Lalina, and I’m a friend of Kara’s and she’s told me all about you.
Together, they marked the outside of the envelope DARLO and sent it off to the men’s quarters.
Within the hour, there was a response.
Hello, Lalina. I think I do know you. You’re the one with the melodious laugh I see sitting next to Kara in the cafetaria, aren’t you? Thank you for this note.
“Look at that,” Lalina showed Kara the note. “I’ve got a melodious laugh.”
“Are you going to write him back?”
Lalina held the note up to her nose and inhaled deeply. “It smells like sausage.” She held it out for Kara to smell, but Kara waved her off. “Of course I’m going to write him back.” She turned and went back to her room.
At the next Committee meeting, Darlo nodded at Kara, but he didn’t pass his share of the mid-morning snack to her, and he completely ignored her during break, when he did not bother to even go outside for the fresh air. Kara wandered out to where each of the various cliques congregated: the Smokers huddled together at one end, far from the rest, the Candy Chompers with their lollipops and breath mints that they offered to Kara as she walked by, and those who didn’t smoke or eat candy, but instead had pencils stuck in their mouths. It was amid the Pencil Gnawers that Kara saw him, the new member of the Committee, tall with curly brown hair and very white teeth that he was using to chew a pencil.
“Hello,” Kara said. “Welcome to the Committee. My name is Kara.”
He took the pencil out of his mouth and held out his hand. “Hello. I’m Tyro.” He smiled at her with those gorgeous white teeth.
She took his hand and held it longer than was necessary for the handshake. They stood alongside one another for a moment before Kara turned to him and asked, “So, Tyro. Have you ever thought about not drinking the Most Powerful Energy Drink?”
Tyro hunched down close to her and said in a voice just loud enough for her to hear, “Well, now, Miss Kara, between you and I, I don’t drink it. I think it tastes like piss.”
Kara looked straight ahead and smiled, rocking slightly back and forth on her heels, content to be a member of the Committee.