By Holly Schofield
Get there early: that’s the number one lesson for an interpreter's kid. Thanks to Mom's work in the Canadian embassy, I had a complicated life. This was my fourth high school in three years and, crap, it had a lot of hallways.
Eventually, I found Room #128 near a sunny courtyard complete with maple trees. It was good to be back on Earth, and especially back in Ottawa, my original home town. But now I had no friends.
I pushed open the door, slowly.
Empty. Good. I raised my phone to take a picture of the classroom to comm to Mmolmorr, my best friend back at Moon Base One.
"Welcome to our class." The deep voice behind me sounded happy, too happy.
I held in my sigh and turned around. The teacher wore a simple sleeveless coverall like mine—that was good. But he had a wide, welcoming smile and he was holding out his arms for a hug—that was bad.
"Uh, hi," I said and stuck out a hand. "I'm Geri."
"And I'm Frank." The teacher lowered his arms. They were even whiter than mine and had lots of fine red hairs. He solemnly shook my hand, clearly used to adapting to the different cultures he'd have run into at this school. Wonder what he'd make of Ssliberrs' greetings; most Earthers didn't like multiple face licks at first meeting.
"Have a seat anywhere." Frank gestured to the two big tables while he went to a side wallscreen and began to swipe up the day's lessons.
No way was I doing that. Most kids would have their favorite spots.
Frank saw me hesitate. "Take one of those," he said, pointing at two chairs opposite the wallscreen. "Piotr and Pawel won't be in today. I'll bring in another chair for you tomorrow."
I eased into a seat. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad. Maybe I'd fit in and even make some friends. Maybe I could find someone that liked coding and playing with language as much as I did.
The bell rang and a chattering bunch of kids swarmed in.
"Hi, I'm Lulu." A slender Asian girl with purple hair and a trendy slash-hipped coverall threw herself next to me.
"Welcome to our hovel, eh. I'm Abayomi." The dark-skinned girl slid in opposite us and grinned over. Leopards slithered around her active-all and her head wrap was full of glittering holo-jewels. A soft Nigerian accent fluttered her vowels although the phrasing was pure Canadian.
"Love your holos," I said, knowing that if I tried to wear clothes like hers I'd just look foolish. Instead, like always, I wore the plainest coveralls I could print and my mousy brown hair was brush cut in the same style I'd had since I was ten. That's the second lesson interpreters' kids learn: play it safe.
Twelve other kids introduced themselves and then Frank started the lesson. We did math (I rocked), science (I rocked again), and history (not so much). Then, just as I was getting hungry for lunch, he said, "We're going to emphasize sociology this term, in particular, the concept of heritage." He beamed at all of us. "Roots, people, roots!"
Abayomi caught my eye and winked. I shrugged back, unsure what she meant. Probably that, with my bland appearance, I could be anyone from any country, ever. Well, except I couldn't be a Ssliberr. The humanoid aliens were still the only signs of advanced life we'd found, despite all the exo-planet probes and studies in the last twenty years. I shoved aside thoughts of Mmolmorr's smile—best to forget about her. Mom's job took us where it took us, and I'd better learn to suck it up. Mom did her best.
Not that Mom cared about our family's cultural background—to her, our family reinvented ourselves every generation.
"Heritage! What is it? Anyone?" Frank beamed.
There was nowhere to hide. I pretended to study a poster on the wall about Canada's 250th birthday celebrations happening later this year.
"Clothing?" said Abayomi, stroking her active-all, making the leopards jump. "Hair styles?"
I stuck up my hand, then quickly shoved it back in my lap, realizing the others had just spoken naturally without the formality of a hand raise. "Religion?" Mom was such a strong atheist that I was a pro at that assignment—I probably still had some notes on it.
"All good!" Frank bounced to the wallscreen and flicked our words onto it. "What else?"
I did a mental shrug. My thing was computational linguistics, not sociology. Any heritage topic was fine with me, just so long as it wasn't food. Mom had no special food traditions or culture and those projects were always tough. Her idea of heritage food was squirting ElectrikOrange cheese on her printed GravyFrys and calling it poutine.
Across from me, a skinny kid in a hockey jersey—Alain?—shifted in his seat and his stomach gave a loud gurgle.
Everyone laughed. Alain looked sheepish. "Sorry, I missed breakfast because of an early ice time and I'm starving. But food is heritage, right?"
"Food!" The others chimed in. "Yeah, let's do food!"
Frank clapped his hands. "Sure! Sounds like a plan! Let's have a potluck and call it homework!"
Earth was supposed to be a fresh start. A new chance to shine. Instead, I was to fail at fitting in and the first homework assignment. I was a total loser. Only Mmolmorr thought I was special and she was 384,000 kilometers away.
At least my desk was big enough to let me bury my head in my arms.
"It's not the worst day of your life, Geri." Mom rolled her eyes just the slightest.
Yeah, right. What did she know about the complexities of high school life?
She kept talking right through my scowl. "You're caring too much about social acceptance. Just be yourself."
She'd insisted I prop up my slate on the far side of the small hotel-room table and set her image to be actual size. She even made me print the same ChicknBit-and-Biskit dinner from the hotel suite's food printer as she'd printed at her office. That way, it was like we were eating the same meal together at the same table, instead of her being in the translation headquarters thirty floors below.
I explained to her in great detail how I didn't care about hockey or clothes but I did want to connect with these kids somehow. She kept glancing over at her other screen, though, and I knew she was only taking this meal break because of me. Finally, I just sat there silently stabbing at my ChicknBits. I slid my feet up onto the other chair. If I had to eat alone in this anonymous hotel room, I might as well be comfortable.
"The sociology project doesn't have to be so hard. How about Métis food? That's your heritage too. There's bannock, and, er, things like that? You could research what other Métis food there is." She wasn't going to let go of the subject.
Now it was my turn to roll my eyes. "Bannock is just fried dough, every culture has that. And you don't really know my dad is Métis." We'd been through this before when I'd failed yet another heritage project back in elementary school. My father had told Mom during their one-night stand when she'd gotten pregnant with me, that he had some First Nations blood way back on his side along with plenty of Caucasian. Trouble was, Mom couldn't remember much more from what she creepily insisted on calling their "night of passion."
"Well, I know he either has Cree or Ojibwa blood," she said, forehead wrinkling.
"But, Mom, that doesn't necessarily mean he's—"
"Just pick something and go with it. You're overcomplicating things. Your teacher just wants you to learn some history and meet his curriculum requirements." Mom swallowed a piece of Biskit and shrugged.
Great. The only thing I could be certain about our family genetics was that we had an abundance of cynicism.
I shrugged right back at her. "I'd rather do British. Or Irish." I was sixth-generation Canadian on Mom's side and I'd never been to the UK. But Frank didn't have to know that.
"Oooh!" Mom set down her coffee mug. "I just remembered a dish your Great Granny used to make right up into her nineties. I had it once as a small child. She invented it in the nineteen-forties, after World War Two. You take some toast—"
"Toast!" I cut her off. "Heritage foods don't involve toast!"
"P'raps it's derived from a British dish, or maybe Scottish." Mom kept talking with her mouth unmotherly full. "One of those EU countries, anyway."
"Scotland and Ireland aren't part of the EU anymore, Mom. What marks did you get in history?"
Thankfully, she was busy tapping something out on another screen and didn't seem to hear.
"Darling, I really have to finish this speech. Friday's the big day—Ssliberrs from different embassies all over Earth are being flown in for this meeting. Then there's going to be a huge social get-together in this hotel, in the big ballroom on the main floor. Come by right after school, okay? I want to show you off to my Ambassador. It's such a shame you never got to meet her on the Moon."
That was because I'd weaselled out of all the boring adult events up there. "Mommm! I hate having to wear a slit-all and face sparkles."
"It's only for an hour, Geri. I want more time with you before you head off to university or other endeavours. Promise me you'll get presentable and stop by?"
"Fine, okay, whatever. As long as there are snacks."
"I'll be sure to save you some Nanaimo bars. Hey, how about making those for your project? They're Canadian, you're Canadian, Canada is a culture in its own—"
"Mommm! I don't even know what a Nanaimo is!"
"It's a city. On the coast somewhere?" Her eyes drifted leftward again. "I'll say good night now. Make sure you get to bed on time."
"I'm nearly fifteen, I think I can do that. Just make sure you don’t stay up all night. Old people need their rest." I clicked off and immediately commed Mmolmorr but she didn't answer. I missed her wide face and thick lips, cute as a frog's. She was probably off on a spur-of-the-moment trip with her first mom, second mom, and three sisters, visiting her many aunts, eating Vootll cakes and drinking fizzy Dadaww juice. Her family life had so many holidays and celebrations and customs, I hadn't learned them all yet.
I couldn't finish my Biskits. Things made with Earth flour tasted dirty somehow—must be all that actual soil the wheat grew in. My six months away sure had changed me. I dumped the rest in the recycle chute, grabbed a bowl of Mega-Crunch cereal, and picked up my slate.
Time to focus on my secret coding project. Mom's type of work involved memorizing a whole bunch of words and sounds. Oral stuff wasn't for me. I preferred text. The human and SSsliberrian scientists had cobbled together a prototype of a translation program—that was what Mmolmorr and I commed with—but I was going to ramp it up with extra coding until we could exchange even our deepest thoughts.
I checked my slate every ten minutes all evening. Still nothing back from Mmolmorr.
Doggedly, I started coding. The prototype dbase the scientists had made already had a bunch of phrases, but I wanted to add things that were more relevant to me and Mmolmorr—we didn't want to talk about the weather, we wanted to talk about teenage life, feelings and everything. I added a whole bunch of segments—sentences and clauses—until my eyes got too tired to focus.
I checked for new messages from Mmolmorr again. Still nothing.
I put on my pyjamas only two hours later than I'd told Mom I would, then I hunted through my suitcase for the one item I always packed first: my scruffy old teddy bear who had travelled with me through every move.
I clutched her tightly as I crawled into my too-soft hotel bed.
By Friday, I still hadn't started the heritage project. I spoke up before Frank could start the class. "Um, my family history is complicated so I don't have anything that stands out. Can I pick a culture that's not mine?" I did make a mean taco.
"Well, adopted kids can," said Frank and a freckled white kid whose name I couldn't remember nodded.
"However, everyone here has a mixed background," Frank continued, "and they're making it work." He looked at Lulu.
"Take a banh mi sandwich, for instance, it's a combination of Vietnamese and French cuisine from colonial days, yet Lulu's not complaining about the complexities of that." He immediately looked abashed. "Sorry. That was unkind of me, but, Gerun--er, Geri, the project's due Monday. You have to pick something soon."
"Yes, Frank," I muttered. Crap, he'd almost used my full name. I'd never live that down!
But he wasn't done yet. He fixed his blue eyes on me. "Everyone has culture. I mean, my own family makes a mean Yorkshire pudding, even without having access to any authentic cow meat. I'll be bringing some of the ol' pudd on Monday." He turned to face all of us. "And just a reminder, folks, no programming a food printer. Or having your parents make your dish." He swung into the next lesson, coding, and I got every question wrong.
At lunch, Lulu sat next to me. "Tell us about the Moon!" she said, black eyes shining like her hair.
Piotr, one of the twins who'd been away on my first day, overheard and slid in next to her. He stared intently at me. "Yeah, tell us!"
I got lost in his kind eyes for a moment but then Pawel shoved him along the bench so he could squeeze in and clatter down his tray.
I launched into a story about the time Mmolmorr and I had taken a rover and spent the night "camping" in a collapsed lava tube just outside the dome. "No one around us for a hundred klicks!"
"Woah, that's cool!" Piotr flashed a grin through his thin red lips. "You're actually friends with a Ssliberr!"
"They're just dumb Froggies," said Pawel around a mouthful of grilled cheese.
I started to stand up.
"Just ignore him. He's an ass." Lulu shot him a look.
I decided to take her advice and unclenched my fist. Pawel didn't seem as popular as Piotr. I pretended to smile. "Oh, yeah, I'm good friends with them. Mom is pretty high up in the Embassy, you know." That wasn't exactly true but Mom always said that everyone treated her as an equal, even ambassadors. "I'm pretty much half-Ssliberr" I added, jokingly.
"Ooh, have you eaten Ssliberrian food! Don't they eat live rodents or something?"
"Gross." Pawel shuddered melodramatically.
"Yeah, sure. I've eaten lots!" I said, even though that wasn't quite true. But it was too complicated to explain to these kids. Mom had told me a few months ago there'd been exhaustive tests in the labs on the Moon and all the Ssliberrian food tested so far had been safe for human consumption. But Ssliberrian food was strange. So strange that I'd rarely seen anything beyond a few snacks, and only nibbled on a few. Mmolmorr always hung out at my quarters, saying her meals were too weird to share.
I drew in a breath and continued, "Pretty tasty, actually. Once I ate twelve rodents at a sitting." Now that was a straight up lie. But it was worth it—Piotr's eyes lit up.
"No way! Hey, Abayomi, listen to this!" Lulu waved the cool crowd over.
I embellished the lie a bit more, even as I was regretting the whole messy story. Pawel jumped in to one-up me with a tale about his and Piotr's grandmother's cheesesteak-perogies, and how their great-grandfather had run a bed-and-breakfast in a stone castle somewhere in Europe. Or Asia. Or somewhere.
I didn't have much to contribute after that and basically sat there like a Moon rock, admiring Piotr's wit and sneaking glances at my slate.
I'd commed Mmolmorr four times yesterday, like best friends do.
She still hadn't answered.
My sparkled face itched the whole elevator trip down to the embassy, and I was embarrassed my slit-all was showing too much skin. How did grownups know how to be stylish? It seemed so complicated. Plus I'd had to hustle straight from school so I didn't have time to grab a snack. My rumbling stomach kept time to the elevator's rattling air vent during the long ride. I'd brought my slate though, in case Mmolmorr commed me, stashing it in a large gold-sequined bag I'd found in Mom's travel box. I grimaced in the elevator mirror. Ssliberrs were known to be loose with their timing, but where could Mmolmorr be after this long?
Ssliberrs are not quiet people. The noise level almost blew the sparkles off my face when I walked through the double-doored entranceway to the hotel ballroom. There must have been about sixty of the short stocky aliens milling around in their fancy scarves and muumuus, making boring small talk. And all in glittering, eye-straining colours. I didn't spot Mom right away. I should have asked her what colours clothes she'd printed.
Tables of food lined the walls so I headed there, grabbing a plate from the stack beside a vase of flowers and an ice sculpture of a maple leaf. The hotel cooks must have been told to showcase "Canadian" food because I grabbed lobster rolls, quiche, nuegados, falafel in tiny pitas, and a little bowl of laksa. I stood against a wall and gobbled it all down before reloading with maple sugar candy, mille-feuille, timbits, and, of course, several chewy coconutty Nanaimo bars.
No one spoke to me, although an old lady tsked at me for no reason I could see. Finally, after four refills, I felt reasonably full. The next five tables along the wall were Ssliberrian food.
I snagged a handful of familiar crispy little fish things that were Mmolmorr's favourite. Then I worked my way down the line, loading my plate with only items I recognized. I took the last few Gawarr chips from a basket to the annoyance of a squat Ssliberr in an unusually dark and tight dress perusing the platters beside me.
Showcased at the end on a tiered thing, like the timbits had been, were some pale blue balls, surrounded by crushed ice. The weird balls pulsed, like light bulbs were being turned on and off below their shimmery surfaces.
I held a hand over the display, hesitating. Maybe the balls were decorative, like the flowers and ice sculptures were on the human food tables. The little Ssliberr next to me put two balls on her already-overflowing plate then shook her shoulders at me before moving away, muttering, "Nazzz." Her disapproving glance back was almost enough reason for me to try them.
A better reason was that the balls—whatever they were—might help with my heritage project. I could just take a few and show them to Frank and the kids. I didn't have to actually eat any. And neither did anyone else. After a week in Frank's class, I knew all his rules. He was scrupulously fair about paper supplies and art tools—if everyone couldn't have something, then no one could.
A sign in Ssliberrian script was propped beside the display. I felt a grin spread across my face. Guess who just happened to have some newly improved translation software?
I yanked my slate from my purse and aimed its sensor at the complicated handwriting, triggering a scan. Ssliberrian text consisted of swooping lines and circles, the angles and arcs giving as much meaning as the characters themselves. The slate beeped and I hunched my shoulders, trying to keep it from the nosy glances of the people around me.
QUEEN NATURAL GIVES BENEFIT, the slate display said, with an eighty-five percent probability of accuracy.
I knew that the first two words meant the equivalent of the natural world, like our "Mother Nature." Ssliberrs were big on that. And if the balls were beneficial to the person eating them, they had to be all right.
I danced a little jig, shedding face sparkles all over the tablecloth.
Not only did my program work, but it had now also given me a solution to the heritage project!
Quickly, before anyone could notice, I grabbed an empty chip basket, put in five balls, then stuffed the whole thing in my purse along with my slate.
"There you are, Geri. Come and meet Ambassador Boovarzun!" Mom grabbed my elbow. I hastily tucked the purse into a handy side opening in my slit-all.
The Ambassador had the widest face and biggest lips I'd ever seen on a Ssliberr. I shook her damp hand and licked the downy hairs on her broad cheek the requisite six times. "Vrrutth, mmobahh", I said carefully, the only greeting I knew.
She chuckled. "I shhpeag Engglishh, younghh pperrsonn."
I laughed in surprise and Mom nudged me. They spoke in rapid Ssliberrian with a lot of laughter and glances over at me, and then Mom excused both of us.
"Now it's time for just us," Mom said, snagging two glasses of faux-champagne from a waiter. "Thanks for coming, Ger." She pulled me into a quiet alcove.
I sat on the upholstered loveseat, careful not to squish my purse, and took a sip. Maybe if I pretended the faux-champagne was the real stuff, my head would get fizzy and my life would seem simpler.
Mom plopped down wearily next to me. "How's your heritage assignment coming? I finally remembered Great Granny's full recipe."
"Mom, who cares? We're at a party!"
Her purple cheek sparkles did nothing to soften her stern stare. "Just listen, Geri. You spread peanut butter on toast, cut it into squares, and then you make a béchamel and mix in canned peas. Then you pour the mixture over the toast squares."
"Sounds gross!" Nobody had cans anymore, because things in cans sucked. And whatever béchamel was, it couldn't be good.
"Gerund, I do try, you know." Her face tightened and she stood up.
"And how could you name me Gerund?" I jumped to my feet, too. "It's just a word. It doesn't mean anything! It has no culture!"
"I thought it was cute for such an active baby," she said. "Interpreter humour." She smoothed her dress. "You can always change it when you're an adult."
Her eyes grew wet. "And now I've got to go. I've neglected the Ambassador long enough and I think I have a sparkle caught in my eye."
I sat back down with a thump as she walked away, heels clicking.
All around me, Ssliberrs danced, talked, and laughed, one big happy cultured group. Why couldn't I have been born Ssliberrian? I would have aced this assignment, Mmolmorr would still remember me, and Mom wouldn't have gotten so mad at me just now. I hadn't even gotten a chance to ask her what "Nazzz" meant.
A tear ran down my face. Crappy sparkles. Always getting in people's eyes.
Our class's spread wasn't as luxurious as the embassy's party layout had been, but it covered both of the classroom tables. I spotted satay pork, calzones, and what looked like homemade jerky. Everything looked delicious except for some anemic-looking lumps of soggy dough that must be Frank's Yorkshire puddings. I patted my stomach. The handful of Mega-Crunch I'd shoved in before heading out the door would have some good company soon. I hadn't made a better breakfast because I was afraid the beeping sounds of the food printer would wake Mom. She was still sleeping off the effects of the weekend-long party, and we hadn't talked since I'd left the ballroom Friday evening.
I placed my tiny lidded basket two-thirds of the way down the table, so it would be dwarfed by the plates and bowls of the others. With luck, we'd run out of time for all of the presentations.
"Who wants to go first?" Frank was bouncing on his heels, rubbing his hands together. How people got so enthusiastic about things was beyond me.
Surprisingly, half the kids grinned back at him. Earth was a funny place to me, even though I'd grown up here. Even Piotr looked excited under his sweep of black hair. It was like optimism was the new cool. I wasn't sure I liked it—enthusiasm complicated things and I just wanted everything to be simple.
"Lulu, how about you?" Frank gave an encouraging smile and she jumped to her feet. Her two-minute lecture took five minutes because of all the questions about the many ingredients and then she began handing out sections of banh mi. The meat-filled bun was to die for. "My po-po's recipe but I did it all myself," she said proudly before sitting down with a flourish of her green and fuchsia slit-all.
Corned beef hash, stinky blue cheese with flaky croissants, Tibetan buttered tea, Egusi soup, eggplant parmesan; I was getting really full but, sadly, we were making good time.
"Geri?" Frank eyed me.
I edged to my feet and picked up the lidded basket. "I'm sorry I was only able to obtain a few of this extreme delicacy of my people," I began.
"Your people?" Frank crossed his arms.
"My people, my adopted people, the Ssliberrs!" I said, too loudly.
Frank frowned but then nodded at me to go ahead. And, really, I hadn't broken any rules. Mmolmorr was the closest thing I had to a sister.
I recited the short history of the Ssliberrs and their general food habits that I'd pulled off WikiQuick last night.
"But what did you bring to eat?" interrupted Pawel. "And is it any good?"
"I call them Nazz Balls!" I pulled open the lid of the tiny basket and tipped it towards them. They all crowded closer to look, oohing and ahhing. "I couldn't get more than five. They're rare and special. I'm sorry! Not enough to serve everyone. We can smell them though, and look at the pretty blue colours as they wiggle." I hid my grin. Frank's own rules meant we couldn't share them.
Apparently, I didn't know all the rules because Frank said, "Not a problem. Open your sortition apps, everyone. We'll pick four of us randomly, the usual drill." They all tapped their slates as I felt myself shrink into the floor. The winners of the random lottery were Lulu, Piotr, Pawel, and Abayomi. Great. The cool kids. I was ruined. I might as well stick my head into my too-firm hotel room pillow for the rest of the term.
"Do we eat them while they're alive?" Abayomi looked really scared and I almost spoke up and spilled the truth. What if my translation was wrong? What if they tasted nasty? Or were poisonous?
"Let's pop 'em in together!" Pawel said and the other three grinned. Each of them picked up a ball. I took the fifth one and it squiggled in my fingers, like a baby mouse. Pawel opened wide. "Ready, set, go!"
Piotr shoved the slimy thing in, the others did too, and, Queen Natural forgive me, so did I.
It tasted minty, sort of clean, like mouthwash.
Not bad! I chewed gingerly.
A sharp pain hit the inside of my lip, like a knife cut.
My mouth was on fire!
I grabbed my jaw. Lulu shrieked. Piotr and Pawel moaned, and Abayomi was coughing hard.
"Spit it out! Spit it out!" I said, but it came out "Sfffit it out." Like I had frog lips or something. I felt Frank's fingers in my mouth, yanking, but my whole jaw clenched shut.
My lips grew numb.
I huddled on the floor for almost forever.
When the paramedics swarmed in and all during the ambulance ride, all I could think about was that I'd been wrong in what I'd told Mom. Getting the assignment last week hadn't been the worst day of my life.
I didn't open my eyes again until I was at the hospital along with the other four kids and Frank. Mom rushed in, trailed by Ambassador Boovarzun. The three of them crowded around my bed and I felt like a small child.
Mom said, "You'll be all right, honey," and put a cool hand on my forehead. She leaned to kiss me just as the doctor strode in.
"Careful. Sterility." The doctor was all brusqueness and frowns.
Mom changed direction and kissed my shoulder instead of my weird-feeling face.
"Lpss," I mumbled. "Muh lipss." I sounded just like Mmolmorr when she tried to speak English.
"Pathogen transfers are minimal. Just have to wait for ova maturity," the doctor said.
If ever I needed an interpreter..."Mohm?"
"He means that you won't get infected by Ssliberrian germs. But your lips will be as large as, er, as handsome as a Ssliberr's until the eggs hatch." She glanced at the Ambassador.
"Egggss?" I tried to sit up but various tubes and wires pulled me back.
"Easy." Frank smiled down at me. "Try to relax. This is going to be a fun experience!"
The Ambassador leaned in. "Wrrreket heppp to assisssting in Queenn Naturrrall. The sssign verrry explllanatories it, nooo?" Her words were so jumbled and sibilant that I looked at Mom again.
"She means it'll be okay, honey. You'll just talk a bit mumbly until the annelids pop out. The Wrrreket, a subculture on Ssliberria's southern continent, use their, er, ample lips as a host mechanism for the annelids as part of their, er, nature worship. Sort of a 'pay it forward' thing."
I hadn't even known there was more than one culture on Ssliberria although it seemed obvious once I thought about it. People were complicated.
Wait, what was that other word? "Annnnellid?"
"Like earthworms, only they don't live in the dirt." said Frank, happily. "Fascinating, really." He bounced on his toes.
I sank back into the pillow. Great. I'd infected my new friends with worms. I was going to be the least popular kid in the history of history assignments.
"Geri, you're in luck." Frank bounced again. "I've decided to cut you a break. You can do a fresh heritage food assignment. I'll give you a further two weeks after you get out of the hospital."
Mom beamed. "Well, that's kind of you, Frank. We have an old family recipe that—"
"Happy to oblige. The learning never stops." They smiled at each other, and Frank bounced again.
The hotel room's tiny corner table was set with two plates and the old cracked vase of dried pansies that we carried with us everywhere. I took a suitcase off my chair and sat down. Mom laid out two pieces of whole-wheat toast embossed with the hotel logo along with a squeeze tube of peanut butter. The food printer pinged and she took out a bowl of bright green steaming peas. "They aren't quite like canned peas," she said doubtfully, wrinkling her nose. "They're too fresh. They're supposed to be grayer. And the cream sauce came out lumpy." She pointed at a second bowl, full of congealing white paste. "I don't think the printer understood my inputs."
"It looks fine," I enunciated carefully. After ten days in the hospital, my lips were still flappy and would be until the end of term, but at least my taste buds had recovered. And the kids at school had forgiven me—in fact, they even thought the whole thing was kind of humorous.
Lying in the hospital, I'd had a lot of time to think. At first, I was mad at myself for taking the Nazz balls, failing the assignment, and infecting my friends. All this had happened just because I wanted to fit in, to be cool.
Then I got ashamed. Cultural differences were things to celebrate and enjoy together. By stealing from Ssliberrian culture and trying to pass it off as my own, I'd been the exact opposite of cool. What if I'd violated a tradition in a way I wasn't aware of? I made a promise to myself to find out and then apologize to every Ssliberrian who'd been in the ballroom.
And, I'd made a decision, too. I was going to become more optimistic, like the Earth kids, and like Frank. It couldn't hurt, I figured. And it might actually make me happier. I still hadn't heard from Mmolmorr, but I was choosing not to let that get me down. Not much, anyway.
Earth was rubbing off on me, I guess, or at least adding to the complex person I was becoming.
Besides, this combination of peas and sauce and peanut butter and toast did smell interesting. This was only a trial run before I'd try making the dish from scratch for the homework assignment, but it might actually taste good.
Mom started to spread the peanut butter on the warm toast.
My slate beeped.
Mmolmorr! I scanned through her message quickly. She'd been at a spontaneous no-comms-allowed Queen Natural celebration concert, was sorry she'd had no time to comm before they left, and had oodles to tell me.
I relaxed into my chair while Mom stirred peas into sauce. Mmolmorr's wide, cute face filled my slate screen as I replayed her message over and over. Sure, Piotr's eyes were nice but Mmolmorr's were so much nicer.
I commed back that the concert sounded amazing and I wanted to hear all about it. Not only would listening to her describe the event bring me closer to her, but I'd realized I had a lot to learn about the many cultures and peoples that made up Ssliberria.
I signed off saying, "Things have been busy here, too. I have lots to tell you, no kidding." My translator software even got the "no kidding" part right, as far as I could tell.
I knew then that Earth kids were fun and cool, but Mmolmorr was my super-special friend, part of my future family. I knew it deep in my heart of hearts.
It was easy: with her, I fit in.
Sure, my life was about to get a lot more complicated but, suddenly, it wasn't hard to feel truly optimistic.
"Okay, honey, let's do this." Mom handed me a fork and we both gamely stabbed at squares of sauce-covered toast. A gluey pea plopped down on my plate as I shoved in a lumpy white-and-brown mouthful.
I put down my fork. "Uh..."
"It's...different, isn't it. I'd forgotten that taste." Mom propped an elbow on the table and rested her head in her hand. "Maybe some ketchup?"
"Ketchup isn't part of our heritage, Mom. It might be popular but you don't always have to follow the crowd, you know." I spoke as I chewed. "I'm optimistic that the second bite will be better."
And, no kidding, it was.
About the Author
Holly Schofield travels through time at a rate of one second per second, oscillating between the alternate realities of city and country life. Her stories have been published in Analog, Lightspeed, and Tesseracts; used in university curricula; and translated into several languages. She hopes to save the world through science fiction and homegrown heritage tomatoes. Find her at hollyschofield.wordpress.com.
What Our Readers Are Saying
Would you like to give us a brief (1-2 sentences) comment on this wonderful story? If so, shoot us a line and we will put it up here with your first name and last initial.