Before Jack has a chance to even catch anyone’s eyes or get a lay of the land, one of them jumps off the couch and shakes his hand. He’s a young Asian guy with short hair and muscles bulging out of a tight blue long-sleeve shirt.
“Another victim,” he says with a big smile. “Chris.” His handshake is firm and confident.
On the couch facing away from him is a fountain of nappy brown and orange hair. It turns around to face him, and frames a beautiful face with caramel skin. “Hey partner,” she says with a smile. She drops the r in “partner.” Jack can’t place where her accent is from.
“Okay, partners. Yeah,” Jack says, feeling like he couldn’t have possibly said anything stupider to a cute girl.
He glances around the room. It’s spacious and clean, like the inside of a rich kid’s house.
Chris takes the initiative and points out a small girl with straight blonde hair sitting on a bench against the wall at the back of the room. “Jack, that back there is Sabine. I think she’s a little nervous.”
Sabine is small, maybe eight or nine years old, with pale skin. She doesn’t look up when Jack waves at her.
Jack walks around the small room. There’s a huge TV against one wall. A pool table in the next room. A full shelf of books lines one wall. As he passes the bookshelf he trips over a rug. He catches himself before he falls, but it’s a close one. He almost falls flat on his face.
“Watch yourself,” Cutie says.
“That was—I meant to do that,” Jack says, pointing to the floor, and not sure if he’s able to stave off the rush of blood to his face.
Chris jumps over the couch from behind it and lands in a sitting position on it in one slick motion, almost as if to purposefully contrast Jack’s clumsiness. He’s probably already made moves on Cutie, Jack figures.
“So, Jack, where do you come from?”
Jack looks around. “Seems like really far away from here. How about you guys?”
“The Bay Area. Maya here is from—where did you say again?” He looks at her and smiles, making his dimples show.
“I didn’t.” She stands up and shakes Jack’s hand.
“No propers. Where are people’s manners?” She looks askance at Chris. “I’m Maya.”
“Yes you are,” Jack says, feeling extremely unimpressed with his lack of wit so far in this interaction with her, and his general nervousness. But one thing he’s glad about is that it seems Maya is not too interested in Chris. Jack’s initial assessment of them was way off.
“That’s a good name,” he tells her.
“Thank you. It’s always worked for me.”
“And that accent. Let me guess . . .”
“Oh, this never ends well,” Maya says, sitting on the arm of the chair and smiling big at Jack. She bounces on her calves in seeming anticipation of his bad guess.
“Well, now, I don’t know what to say,” he demurs.
“Oh, you have to guess, now. Chris wouldn’t even try.”
“Wait, I’ll try!” Chris protests.
“Jack first, now,” she cuts him off.
Jack thinks for a moment, and then blurts out, “England.”
“About thirty thousand kilometers off.”
“Whoa. I give up then.”
“I got it,” Chris chimes in, although the conversation is really between Jack and Maya now. “Australia.”
“Ding ding. Sydney. We don’t all talk like we’re from the outback, you know, mate.” She hits mate with a hard accent, like “might.” “That’s a stereotype. In the city, we’re more refined, don’t you know.” She playfully tosses back her wild mop of hair.
Jack is relieved to be in the presence of this incredibly appealing girl at a time when he needs something to get his mind off the sickening events of the past twenty-four hours. But the group dynamic in this lounge is taxing his skill at being able to case out the vibe in a room. He has to admit to himself that he’s feeling a little intimidated by these new peers of his. He tells himself what he already knows is the trick to coming off as confident around strangers, and that’s to pretend they’re not strangers. But a big part of him feels underwater.
Who are these one-in-a-billion kids?
It doesn’t help to know that he’s one of them.
“What do you say we go somewhere, have some fun?” Chris says, sitting up. “I think they’re really going to put us to work here. We should hang loose before it all starts. Maybe go check out the clubs around here.”
“I’m pretty tired. I’m going to take a nap,” Maya says. She turns to walk away. Jack wonders what her real motive is. To get away from Chris?
“You all just arrived, too, huh?” Jack asks.
“Aw, no. Come on. We should see the town. D.C.’s not far,” Chris continues.
“I don’t think Sabine wants to go out to any clubs,” Maya says, laying out the obvious. Sabine still isn’t looking up.
Jack walks over to her. “Hey, Sabine. You doing okay over here? Don’t be scared. We’re not going to bite you.” Jack can relate to Sabine. He thinks maybe he and she feel the same on the inside. She just happens to be showing it more on the outside.
“She doesn’t talk much,” Chris says.
“Sabine, we’ll stick together, us girls, right?” Maya gives her an air fist-pump. Sabine glances up, but then quickly looks back down.
Jack’s heart goes out to her. Like him, she’s among strangers, but due to her tender age, probably a lot more intimidated.
“This is like summer camp, sort of, isn’t it?” Jack says.
“Maybe. A messed-up government-run camp,” Chris says. “Did you guys do summer camp as kids? I did. Had so much fun.”
“No, not me.” Jack recognizes that Sabine needs more space, so he moves away and browses the bookshelf.
“We’re all going to get to be spending a lot of time together,” Maya says. “It would be so sad if you guys both turned out to be jerks.”
Chris gives her the “moi?” gesture.
Jack wonders what she’s implying. Chris is coming on pretty strong. He doesn’t seem to get that the over-confidence act isn’t playing with her. She likes a more brooding guy, Jack surmises. So, he taps into his inner brooder. Lucky for him, it’s not much of an act.
He slides a book off the shelf and flips through it. She probably likes readers.
“Okay, maybe you guys are the stay-in kind of crowd. That’s cool,” Chris says. “So, let’s get into this. Let’s talk about what none of us want to talk about. What do you think they’re going to do with us here? You first, Jack.”
Chris really knows how to position himself as the guy in charge, putting Jack in a position to follow his lead. He has to give him credit.
“I don’t know. I guess we’re going to find out.”
He notices Sabine peek up for a moment. He walks over to her, “I bet you’re the one who’s got this all figured out. That’s my bet.” He looks for a smile. He can’t quite peer low enough behind the golden hair that cascades down the sides of her slight features.
“She’ll come out of her shell,” Maya says. “She’s just a little scared right now, aren’t you, Sabine? It’s okay. We understand.”
Chris looks at Jack and over-enunciates a whisper: “I don’t know if she speaks a lot of English.”
Sabine’s face turns red. She starts crying.
“Aw, what’s the matter, baby?” Maya says, slapping a hand in the air in Chris’s direction, silently admonishing him for his comment. She walks over to Sabine, kneels down, and hugs her.
“It’s okay, baby girl. We’re all friends here.”
Sabine really lets it out. Jack feels terrible. Did he contribute to this by paying too much attention to her? Did he put her on the spot? He hopes not. He mostly blames Chris’s insensitivity.
Chris walks over to her, crossing Jack. “What’s the matter, Sabine? I’m sorry. That wasn’t the most sensitive thing to say.” He’s surprisingly tender.
Jack feels like a third wheel now. The last thing he wanted to do was make Sabine feel exposed. He was trying to play the room, but now he’s afraid he’s come off as a cad. He relates to Sabine even more now. She probably just wants to go home to her family, wishing none of this ever happened to her.
I’m right there with you, Sabine.
She tries to push some words out.
“What is it, honey?” Maya says. “What’s on your mind? You can say it.”
Sabine breathes rapidly, and then forces her words out powerfully. “We will all die!” she says in a thick accent. She sobs.
The tension in the room transforms into something approximating an avalanche.
Chris slowly stands up and pivots away. “Okaay.”
“Nobody’s going to die, sweet thing. Nobody’s going to die,” Maya whispers.