Anne yanked her backpack onto her shoulder and entered the restaurant, formally called the Squeeze Inn, which was tucked between a laundromat and a consignment shop. A bell tinkled, announcing her arrival. A radio somewhere in the kitchen played Asian country. A sign on a pedestal said “Seat Yourself.” All ten of the tables and booths were empty, and she picked one of the booths, laying her pack heavily on the bench seat and sliding in beside it.
“Hello.” A plump woman wearing an apron appeared. “What can I get you?”
“I’m waiting for a friend. He’ll be here in a minute.”
“No problem. Just order when you’re ready. I can answer any questions.”
“Thanks.” Anne let her com connect to the restaurant’s local network, and the menu appeared in her minds-eye. The fare consisted of variations on vegetarian burgers and Szechuan, and the restaurant remembered her last order of a vegetable stir-fry.
The bell over the door tinkled again and Mike came in with a searching look, until he spotted Anne and beamed. He had removed his work apron and combed his curly hair. A com stud sat high on his right ear. His shoulders were broad and neck thick but not disproportionate; Anne remembered that he had played football in high school. For an instant, she forgot the burdens of the last few days and smiled back, surprised at her own response. An unheard voice deep in her subconscious sent a “Stop” message, and she put her serious face back on.
Mike slid into the bench seat opposite Anne. “Have you ordered yet?”
“No. I was waiting for you.”
“Sorry I took so long.”
Anne noticed that he was pleased, despite his polite apology. “It’s fine. I was just going to order a stir-fry.”
“Let’s see.” Mike paused. Anne knew by the look on his face that he was logging in and checking the menu. She switched to her c-tribe readout and saw his current activity noted as “lunch.” He drew a breath. “That looks good. I’ll have that too.”
In each of the patrons’ minds-eyes, the restaurant noted their orders and gave a list of ingredients, estimated cooking time, and estimated delivery time.
A moment later, the waitress brought out two iced colas. “Here you go. Your orders will be out in a jiff.”
Anne took a sip of the cola, and her mind wandered back to home and the magpie eggs.
“Something wrong?” Mike’s concerned face was disarming.
“I was just thinking about a project that I’m working on, back home.”
Mike nodded. “I heard all about the fire. That’s pretty awful. Funny that it didn’t make the news feeds. But it’s hard to tell what’s going on these days. What’s your project?”
Anne struggled with her feelings. He’s Gary Schmidt’s son. But he’s just asking about what I’m doing. How much should I tell him? How can I keep myself from telling him? “I found some bird eggs in an abandoned nest. I don’t know why, but I just couldn’t leave them there, so I’m trying to hatch them.” She explained the set-up in the coop.
“That’s amazing. I mean, with the fire and everything, you’re still doing that.” Mike grinned, showing perfect teeth. “I think I’d be going crazy.”
“It’s pretty important to me.”
“I heard your dad took off.” The statement came out like a bullet from a gun.
Anne straightened. “He did not…take off. He wouldn’t abandon me.”
“Oh, hey, sorry! I didn’t mean, didn’t say that he just took off…” Mike coughed. “I mean, he’s gone, right?”
Anne glanced away.
“I was just thinking that it must be hard without him, right after the fire and everything.” The words came out staccato, as if Mike was trying to erase an earlier mistake. “I mean…”
Anne regretted her assumptions about Mike’s statements. He’s only being sympathetic. She took another sip of her drink. “Yeah, he left.” Anne sighed. “He had to go find work.”
“Yeah, I know what that’s like.”
Anne was uncertain about Mike’s meaning, but before she could ask, the serving robot rolled up to the table. Anne and Mike removed their plates. On smelling the spices and the steamy warmth, Anne’s appetite increased exponentially, and she dug in. Mike followed suit.
After a few bites, Anne found herself studying Mike’s face with its roman nose, hint of stubble, and occasional acne scar, the modest tattoos on his upper arms, his t-shirt–clean, if faded–and his soft eyes. She wanted to know more about him.
“So, I haven’t talked to you for a long time.” Anne doubted she had ever spoken more than 10 words to him in the past year. “What are you doing these days?”
“Well, I’m working at the Feed and Seed. But I guess you know that.” He offered a timid grin. “I’ve also got a blog byline on the Post-Record site. Mostly sports in the Valley and a few pictures.”
“Does that pay?”
“Half-penny a word.” He said it proudly. “And I’m about halfway through the PWU English degree courses online.”
“You’re a writer.”
“Try to be. But they don’t make much money. I’d like to get a web job or maybe find something with one of the new comfeed companies. There’s public relations work, too. But I’d have to move to the Bay Area or New York West to get a really good job, and, well…” Mike poked his fork at his food. Is he upset? “Dad needs me. Mom’s not well, you see.”
Anne remembered something her father had told her about the Schmidt family. Mrs. Schmidt had an inherited genetic disease that destroyed her brain. “I’m sorry about your mom.”
“Oh, it’s okay.” Mike’s face brightened. “I’m working on a novel, my first one. It’s about life in the Valley, my friends, and things. I’m almost done.”
“Can I read it?” Anne loved to read, though she was months behind on her book list.
Mike’s face flushed and he coughed.
Anne was alarmed. “Did I embarrass you? I’m sorry. If it’s not ready, I mean, don’t feel like you have to, just for me…”
“Oh, no!” He lifted his brows, making it even easier for Anne to lose herself in his eyes, which promised comfort, if only Anne asked. She chided herself for imagining anything beyond mild interest in Mike. He lifted a hand in reassurance. “No, I’d love to show it to you. I was about to send a note to the c-tribe looking for alpha readers. You’ll get the first copy. Any ideas you have to make it better, please tell me…”
“Does it have a title?”
“Well, that’s one of the things I need ideas on.” He laughed, and so did Anne.
Mike paused, and Anne recognized again the minds-eye stare. He spoke up. “Crap, I’m going to be late to work. I’m sorry. I have to go, Anne. Wait one…”
Anne noticed in her minds-eye that he paid the lunch bill. “Thanks, Mike. Thanks…”
“Oh, no problem.” He grinned. “I’m glad you missed your bus.”
“Me, too.” The words came out of Anne’s mouth before she realized it.
Mike slid out of his seat and waved.
“Wait a minute! I’ll walk you over.” Anne tugged at her pack and slipped it over her shoulders. The door bell tinkled as Mike opened it. A robot busboy arrived to clear off their table.
The powerful sun forced the pair to squint as they headed for the Feed and Seed. Then Anne noticed two black cars jump away from the curb on the far side of the store. They raced toward her and Mike and she slowed her pace to watch what was unfolding. They stopped in front of the pair and four green-shirts–two from each car–exited the vehicles and surrounded Anne, pushing Mike out of the way. The cars had BES logos on the doors. They didn’t bother to deploy the security ‘bots.
“Anne Penn?” The question came from a burly man with a buzzcut.
“Yes?” Anne was frozen in place.
“You’re under arrest. Please come with us.”
Mike spoke up, challenging the bessies. “What for? She hasn’t done anything!” A second man put a huge hand on Mike’s chest and pushed him away. “Anne, don’t go with them.”
Before Anne could protest, a third man had removed her backpack. He walked to the open trunk of the first car and tossed it in. The first man had her by the biceps of her left arm and directed her to the open rear door on the passenger side of the first car.
“Stop! Stop!” Mike’s yelling irritated Anne, mostly because it was useless. The car door closed on her, and all sounds from the outside halted. But she could see Mike’s mouth moving as one of the green-shirts pushed him back. Then the BES cruiser sped away.
Comments or suggestions welcome!