The daily lunch break was a nerve-wracking affair for the adults who supervised the canteen as the sound of too many people and the clanging of cutlery turned the place into deafening chaos. The small group consisting of Susan, Caleb and Mina, too, was impervious to the noise level, their heads surmounted by a large, faded banner reading IN CASE OF AN ATTACK, REMAIN UNDER TABLES. They laughed and threw napkins whenever someone said something stupid or made a joke.
“I think I’ll take another trip to the old shopping district. Maybe I’ll find something useful,” Caleb said while relishing a greasy chicken nugget. He had always been fascinated by the old records and books that had been left behind in the empty halls under all the discarded junk. For as long as Mina could remember, Caleb had been searching forbidden places for treasures, as he called it.
“You very well know you shouldn’t be doing that,” she chided him, but Caleb would laugh it off as always when he was too careless and Mina too careful.
Susan, a tall, blonde girl and a friend of theirs since freshman year, joined in the conversation, “The government is a bunch of pathetic idiots who are afraid of words sung and written by people who are long dead. I say try your best, Caleb, and get every available record out of these ruins.”
“Not so loud.” Mina pressed a finger to her lips, which only elicited a shrug from her friend who had a notebook she had been scribbling all day in in front of her. Mina peered at Susan’s notes, recognizing the word meeting and a time written next to it.
“Relax, it’s not like they’re putting microphones on us.” Susan looked at Mina, her left eyebrow forming a high arch as it always did when she was annoyed. She closed her notebook firmly and let it disappear in her bag while her gaze was fixed on Mina, challenging. “Or should I start patting my clothes down every morning?”
Mina wouldn’t answer. A shiver ran down her spine as she remembered the boy who had once been severely punished for being caught on the school grounds with a poem written by a man called Ginsberg. The thought that this could happen to Caleb made her nervous, uneasy, yet she also knew when not to disagree with Susan.
Suddenly, the loudspeakers came on, and music with trumpets and drum beats echoed throughout the canteen. Everyone went silent, hundreds of eyes locked on a display hanging on the end wall. Red digital numbers flickered on and off, but all those present knew that the very last number was the most important in the sequence. A murmur went through the rows as nothing seemed to happen—had there been a mistake? Then, a clicking noise resonated, slowly and mechanically, and the last number switched from an eight to a nine. Loud music roared from the speakers, its sound of a screeching, grinding quality, and the room came into motion. Chairs were pushed back, knives and forks laid aside as everyone stood and listened to the recorded song of joy, while some students brought their right hand to their left shoulder—many of them wearing the pin with the triangle on their chest.
The tribute song was pompous and theatrical, and the blowing of the trombones punctuated the doings of heroes of the past and those of the present. FOR COUNTRY AND PEOPLE, it boomed for about ten seconds from all directions, over and over again before it became quiet again. For a short moment, nothing could be heard except a whirring from the loudspeakers when teachers started to walk past the tables, clapping their hands enthusiastically, some of them crying silently, “A new baby was born.”
Students started to do the same. They clapped and cheered at the news of another citizen.
“What a bunch of ignorant morons,” Susan said, her words a muffled murmur in the din.
Mina drew in her breath and glanced at the now-static red number on the display. She wondered if a song had been played for her too, though birth rates had been going down only in the last couple of years. When she came into the world, there was probably no need to celebrate each baby so lavishly, and her thoughts switched to the sick girl she had observed at the security checkpoint the other day. Do they play the song before or after the parents can prove enough money for medical care? Mina sat down again and stared at her cold food, her hunger now gone. Next to her, Caleb moved closer, and for a brief moment, it looked like their faces were about to touch.
“I have to tell you something,” he said, holding back a smirk. Mina, unsuspecting of what was to follow, just looked at him in anticipation and nodded as if to tell him, Go on.
“I had Vodka yesterday.”
Susan grinned, and she leaned in, stating her words under her breath, her expression serious if it were not for her sparkling eyes. “Where did you get it from?”
Caleb smiled at the sanction of his friend while Mina waited, curious yet anxious to hear what he would say next.
“One of the older boys on the team gave it to me.”
Susan’s smile vanished in the blink of an eye at the mention of the basketball team.
“We went to that pizza joint, downtown, together with the cheerleaders to celebrate. It was fun.” Caleb turned to Mina and awaited her words with childlike contentment.
“Uh-huh,” was all she could say, pretending not to be surprised, let alone bothered, by the news. Caleb had spent the night partying with his new friends. He had drunk alcohol—even worse—the illegal one.
“Next time, you should come with us.”
“Sure.” Mina was putting on a brave front, and she wished Caleb would put some distance between them when someone spoke up behind them.
“Hey dude.” It was Eric Mayer—captain of Sunpalm’s infamous basketball team, self-proclaimed school heartthrob, and one of the most notorious bullies in this town. “I just wanted to let you know that we’re in.”
Caleb did not react immediately. Instead, he looked at his plate for another moment before turning to his teammate with a put-on smile. “Cool,” he replied, his glance wandering to Mina for a split second.
“Okay, see you at training then.” But before Eric left, his stare lingered on Susan who returned his gaze with disgust. Then, the captain was gone.
“If he is coming to your party, I’m out,” Susan addressed Caleb with an accusing finger.
Caleb threw his fork onto the table with a moan. Lunch was over for him. “I have invited the whole team, which includes Eric as well. You don’t have to talk to him, because as far as I know, he has no intention of chatting with you.”
“Guys, please stop,” Mina tried to smooth the water, for she expected an éclat in a room full of people. But what she did not expect was Susan, who, now fuming, took her belongings and got up. “There comes a time when we all have to make a choice for the greater good. However, you decided to invite one of the biggest assholes into your house just for the sake of being popular.” She flipped Caleb the bird and left without giving them another glance.
Caleb looked after Susan, speechless, his jaws clenched. After a long silence, he, too, stood up and took his food tray away, Mina following him like a silly little girl. They left the canteen and stopped in front of the school’s main staircase.
“I have to go to art class,” Mina said quietly and started to walk up the stairs.
Hope flooded her chest as she turned and faced Caleb with a trace of a smile.
“I hope you don’t mind the basketball team and cheerleaders coming to my birthday party?” Caleb looked at her with a steady gaze, waiting for a reaction, but when the girl didn’t move or speak, he just turned and set off down the hall.
Mina inhaled sharply and let out a whispered, “Fuck.”