I pulled her out of line and we backed up against the wall. “I feel like I need to say something.”
“O-kee-dee,” she said. “Say something.”
“I don’t know how you see me, but I am not a kid.”
She smiled. “I knew that, Tig.” She pushed by me and got back in line. “I just wondered if you did.”
It was our turn at the dispenser. Cheza flashed her sixes-and-five to the automated servers and grabbed every plate she could carry: tasty pastes, leafsies, darkalots, whatever she could get her hands on. Me and my twos-and-two got a stinking bowl of veg-a-rice and a cleardrink. She carried her overstacked tray to a corner table and began to eat. As I watched her, I forced down my lunch, silently cursing my low tongue.
“My fulls would never let me get all this,” I told her, “even if I could taste it.”
In between extended grunts of delight she mumbled through her mouth, “Don’t have both my fulls, just Daddy. He does his part … I do mine.” She crammed in a glob of sweetcream and swallowed. “I mean, if I didn’t spend all this cred and I still managed to pull top marks, he’d know I don’t really need any of it to be my brilliant self.” She shook her head. “I am not going to let that happen. This way we both feel better about my educational experience here at Fairchild Penitentiary—I mean, Institute.” She over-grinned and pushed a salmon-colored mush out between her teeth. I teeheed so hard the cleardrink nearly shot out my nose.
Cheza Gregory is even cooler than I thought.
She corralled another bowl with her arm and pulled it to her. “If I’m being truthy though, my dad’s Grade-A all the way. It’s not his fault I’m the way I am.”
“What do you mean?” I said. “He’s got to be the proudest full ever. You’re Cheza Gregory! You’ve got the most sense in school, everybody loves you. All the girls want to be like you. And all the boys, well, they want to be like you, too.”
Cheza groaned. “Try being me some time, it’s exhausting. The sensors and all their expectations—I’m the only stud in school who’s never allowed to slack off. And what do I get the more work I do? Even higher expectations. It’s a shit-cycle, Tig. I just want to get off the wheel sometimes and enjoy myself.” She took in another spoonful. “And the other studs here, always thinking they’re going to be the one who figures me out.”
I wiped my hand across my face. Mental memo: Stop trying to figure her out. “If it’s so hard being you,” I said. “Why don’t you just stop?”
She tilted her head and gave me that look. That Cheza look. The one I was already beginning to get used to. The one that said you should know the answer to your own question, dumbass.
“And who would you have me be?” She dropped her spoon and pushed the tray aside. “Sometimes I wish I was different, more content, but it’s not in my nature to wait for things. I’ve got to have them now. Daddy says it’s the Veruca Salt in me.” She grabbed my forearm. “You know what it feels like when you can sense a whole world is out there just beyond your reach and you just want to touch it, no matter the cost.” I gave her a pensive nod and a long mmmm-hmmm.
I have no idea what she’s talking about. Don’t let her know though. Quick, flip the discourse, Tig.
“So, tell me, what’s sixes-and-five taste like?”
She let out a rapturous grunt. “I bet you’d like to know.”
“I’ve been in the twos for so long it’s like I’ll never know what real food is.”
Cheza slid the half-finished package of fruity-knot-fruits across the tabletop. “Try it. Who knows, you might catch a taste, even at twos-and-two.”
“You are manic,” I said. “My tongue’s so dead I’m surprised I don’t speak Latin. And what if I get caught?”
Cheza pouted at me. “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you weren’t a kid?” She swiveled her head around the room. “There’s no sensors here yet to catch us. Go ahead and do it. Even if you get caught, you’re with me,” she said. Big smile.
I realized at that moment it was true what they said about femmys always wanting the bad boy. Cheza Gregory wanted a rebel, and at Fairchild nothing says rebel like sneaking a spoonful of forbidden knot-fruit. I quickly grabbed up the bag, took out a knot, and eased it through my lips. I rolled it over my tongue and waited.
“I don’t taste it,” I said, tossing the bag back across the table. “Kuffing twos-and-two!”
That’s when, behind Cheza, I caught sight of a sensor practically goose-stepping his way over to our table. He slid back the hood of his cloak to reveal his pale, withering skin and sagging flesh. Both hard and soft at the same time. “Tig Fynch, what are you doing? You’re not cleared for knot-fruits, understud.”
I put up my hands. “Yes, I know Sensor Cull, I—I don’t—”