I’m waiting in line in the meal room.
The new girl, who calls herself Peni, is behind me looking pale.
I want to comfort her, but have nothing to say that will.
We take our bowl of mushed oats and sit at our assigned seats; Peni next to me.
Despite her pallor, Peni eats the mush quickly, showing no affect of the grotesque smell from it like the rest of us girls, who wince and force a few spoonfuls down our throats.
I can’t help myself. I watch her.
Eventually, she looks up from her bowl and despite a little dab of mush on the corner of her mouth, she smiles at me.
On the Line?
“Hi!” she says. “I’m Peni. What’s your name?”
“Nice to meet you,” she says, and eats another heaping spoonful of mush.
I can’t help staring.
Nice to meet you?
Is she insane?
Doesn’t she know where she is?
She senses me watching and smiles at me again.
“You going to eat that?” she asks.
I look down at my mush. I’ve eaten maybe two bites.
“May I have it?”
This girl is nuts. “Sure,” I say.
She reaches over and takes my bowl. I find myself grinning at her and I have no idea why.
“Why are you eating that?” I ask.
The question appears to confuse her. “What do you mean? I’m hungry.”
“So am I but, it’s…it’s gross.”
“It’s not so bad,” she says. “Besides, we need to keep our strength up.”
This stumps me. In my experience, the less energy you have, the better. There is no where to exercise. No free time. Nothing but appointments, cold showers and a sleep compartment. What good is energy when there is no where to put it?
“Why?” I ask.
Peni looks concerned. She places a hand on my shoulder and leans in closely so she can whisper. “Don’t tell anybody, but I’m not going to be here that long. My parents just put me in for a little while, so they could pay off their debt. I’d rather not be here, of course, but I know it’s only temporary. So, in the meantime, I want to be sure to stay healthy. You know, for when they come to get me.”
I realize she’s not nuts. She’s innocent. Truly. And naïve. And pure. And maybe more than a little in denial.
I feel sorry for her. Sorrier for her than for all the other girls who are on the Line and know they’re here until they die.
“What if they don’t come for you?” I ask. I can’t help it.
Peni isn’t phased. “They will.”
“What if they don’t?”
A momentary flash of worry crosses Peni’s face, but I see she pushes it away quickly, eating another spoonful of my mush and shaking away the tears that threaten to invade her eyes.
“Then someone else will,” she says.
Peni shrugs, trying to appear nonchalant. “Family. Friends. I don’t know. But I’m not here forever. I’m not.”
“If you say so,” I say.
“I do say so,” Peni says, a hint of anger in her voice. “I say so.”
“Okay,” I say, with more than an obvious amount of sarcasm.
Peni stands up from the table, looking a little indignant. “Life without hope isn’t worth living, Naya. Remember that.”
She walks away, squaring her shoulders and crossing the room to stand in the row of girls waiting to be escorted back to the Line.
Peni smiles and shakes the hand of the girl next to her, who looks like she’s on the verge of collapsing from shock.
I can’t help it.
Maybe Peni can’t live without hope.But, I don’t think I can live without hers.