Crys missed his best friend. He was switched to kitchen crew after Brad disappeared. Kitchen crew was different than other occupation crews; women were included. Being around them took some getting used to for the first month or so; Crys felt weird among their presence. He couldn’t look a single woman in the eye. He never knew what to say and he constantly felt like they were watching him. He pictured himself as a naïve, little boy in the eyes of women.
Crys usually had dish duty, since he was the fastest and the most efficient at cleaning dishes. Pretty soon he had been on kitchen crew for eight months, and for the previous seven, he had experienced actual conversations with women. Sure, they only talked about kitchen related topics, but Crys enjoyed every word exchanged, especially when Pearl shared her recipe secrets with Crys while she informed him of the daily menu. Her gentle voice nearly sang in Crys’ years. Her wide, glamorous brown eyes gleamed with joy and happiness every day− the contagious type that Crys couldn’t help but catch in Pearl’s presence.
One day like any other day, Pearl and Crys were among the first to arrive in the kitchen. On his way, he couldn’t stop thinking about Pearl. He thought about her passion for cooking remarkable food and how the special entrees she created for the kitchen crew made the food served in the dining hall taste mediocre. Crys’ stomach flopped with airy wisps until he punched the security code into the keypad that unlocked the back door to the kitchen. Then his palms began to sweat profusely. He continuously wiped them dry on the outside thighs of his pant legs. Pearl was busy at work over a huge stove pot.
As usual her dark brown, nearly black hair was pulled back into a neat, pristine bun. She wore a white, crisp, clean apron over her dark gray, one-piece uniform with white seams. Normally, Pearl hummed an upbeat tune, swaying her hips softly to her melody as she prepped the daily menu. That wasn’t the case this morning. She stirred the stew that she had fashioned quietly. Crys cautiously approached her. His heart raced, panicked that something was wrong. Worst of all, he didn’t know if he should ask what was wrong or how to ask. The nerves sucked the hydration out of his mouth. He didn’t dare gulp or smack his lips to attempt to rehydrate, causing cottonmouth to form badly, even on the brim of his lips. Pearl acknowledged Crys by looking at him; he stood only inches from her.
With a forced smile, she greeted Crys.
Crys gave her a nod and agreed, “Yes.” Awkwardly he added, “It is a good morning.”
Coarseness began to take root in his throat. He had no choice but to gently cough to force the coarse tickle in his throat to flee. Saliva slowly conquered his cottonmouth making it easier for him to talk.
He asked Pearl, “How are you?”
Pearl’s face winced with a touch of distress; not in any way fretful or troubled, perhaps more worried than anything else. Pearl cleared her throat. She opened her mouth to speak but no words emanated. She closed her lips and went back to brewing her stew.
She managed to add a false, “I’m fine.”
Crys could tell by the cadence in her voice and by her mannerisms that she wasn’t fine. Pearl was known to stand tall and proud with excellent posture. Today she stood with slumped shoulders and pathetic posture− she was slouching. Crys wanted to ask what was wrong, but before he could, Gayle entered from the back door. She greeted Crys and Pearl as she slung her apron around her neck. She walked to her station while tying the apron around her waist.
Gayle’s brown-haired braid hung down the middle of her back. She crouched low and the cabinet doors slid open as she pulled out a couple of pans. Crys found it peculiar Gayle knew the menu for the day. Crys got here first, and Pearl had yet to tell him about today’s delights.
“We should make a couple more pots of stew for the lunch crowd.” She said to Pearl. Then to Crys she said, “Could you make pancake batter? After you’re done with batter, start cutting lime-peaches.”
Crys didn’t ask why Gayle gave cooking orders like Pearl used to. He just did as Gayle ordered.
Up to lunch, Crys pondered the possibilities that could lead to Pearls discontent. Did Gayle steal her position in the crew? Was Gayle now the head cook? Were there new rules? Would everyone get a chance to be head cook and run the kitchen? Was Pearl having trouble outside work and she asked Gayle to cover for her today? Since Pearl and Crys were first at work, they got their lunch break together.
They had two choices. They could eat out back together or they could join the same sex in the proper dining hall. Crys couldn’t recall a single memory of dining alone with Pearl. When they had lunch outback a little after noon, they were always accompanied by other kitchen crew members like Tad and Bea. They’re usually among the first that arrive at work, but today they didn’t show. The kitchen crew had been two short, but the change in crew size hadn’t affected the atmosphere. Meals were completed on time for each group of diners that came in, in 45 minute intervals from 8:15 am to 6:45 pm. Each group ate in 30 minutes. That left 15 minutes between each group for the cleaners on the kitchen crew to pick up the dining halls.
Crys had a bowl of beef chuck stew and a glass of water. He thought lunch in the men’s dining hall would distract him from focusing on worrying about Pearl.
Pearl blocked the door that led to the men’s dining hall. A genuine smile sprang to life on her face as her eyes locked on Crys’ eyes. She had a bowl of stew and a glass of mango-carrot juice.
“Eat with me,” She said confidently, knowing that Crys would agree. As she brushed past him and walked down the gray, slated hallway toward the back door, Crys remained where he stood. The scent of Pearl, an invigorating whiff of honey-milk, lingered in Crys’ personal space. He terribly wanted to follow her, yet a gut instinct told him not to. Ignoring the advice of his gut, he rushed to follow Pearl. They walked to a picnic table in the alley they called, ‘the back’. He sat opposite of Pearl for the purpose of engaging in conversation.
In silence, they enjoyed their food for a few minutes. Crys, inwardly, felt incredibly impatient. He wanted her to speak. He eagerly wanted to know why today was not an average day. He wondered if she knew where Tad and Bea were.
Did they escape? If so, did she choose not to go? Crys thought to himself.
“I wonder why Tad and Bea aren’t here… Do you think they’re sick?” Pearl asked.
I hope they’re sick… Murmured a thought in Crys’ head, which was entirely foreign and made his head ache. He somehow felt it didn’t come from him. Finally, the slight headache faded and he answered Pearl’s question by simply saying, “Perhaps.”
They continued to eat in silence. Crys grew annoyed by the awkwardness that ensued. As he took his first drink of water, he thought of plausible dining topics. The second he set his glass down with a soft thud, Pearl beat him to begin a point of conversation.
“What do you do after work?” Pearl asked.
Crys wondered what she meant by her question. Was she asking what he’d do after work today, or what he did after work every day? Well, he realized it didn’t matter what she thought. He did the same thing every day at 7 pm after work.
“I go home,” he told her.
“You live in building 1004 right?” Pearl asked curiously.
“Yes,” Crys answered.
“I thought so. I live in the next building over, 1002,” She said as her information was the best news in the city.
Crys found it peculiar she knew they lived near each other but he didn’t. He’d observed tenants of building 1002 and building 1006, the two buildings beside his, leave and enter frequently, but among all the regular tenants he noticed, Pearl wasn’t one. He did see that unlike building 1006 and 1004, building 1002 had male and female tenants.
“Have you seen me enter my building?” Crys asked.
Pearl giggled, “Oh no, I’m not a stalker. Your holo-file told me so.”
“You have access to my holo-file?”