Kya read Sam’s message over and over, trying to decipher his tone. She was fairly sure that he was not impressed with her for causing him to have to hide out for a few days, and she knew they had not spent much time together recently. She worried that he would want her to move out and that was what he wanted to discuss. The notion of leaving the apartment felt like a lead weight inside her, dragging her down. Kya tried to push it aside and focus on getting ready for dinner.
A bundle of clean clothing from the community was waiting in the room Kya was assigned to. Her jeans and GEEK t-shirt were folded on top. She moved them aside and chose a moss-green skirt with a slightly tattered hem line that went to her knees, a beige tank top and a plum coloured long sleeve shirt that wrapped across the front and tied at the side. She brushed her hair, and then pulled back the strands around her face. She looked in the mirror and was happily surprised by the version of herself staring back at her. Sun-kissed skin, well rested looking eyes, a faint smile at the corners of her lips. She was more than satisfied with her appearance and went to meet Henry and the rest of her new friends in the mess hall for dinner.
“Kya.” Henry called with a wave when she entered.
The room was long and narrow, but it looked more like a school gymnasium, from half a century ago, than a room that was originally designed for communal eating. Over three dozen chairs, many of different sizes or construction, surrounded the two long rows of tables. Off to one side was a small group of tables with large metal trays of food. Behind each tray was a server, smiling to each person as they doled out a serving.
Henry was sitting with two guys and two girls that Kya knew from the village. They were all in their late twenties or early thirties, and they were singing along while one played the guitar.
The one with the guitar had curly dark hair. Kya remembered his name was Jeremy. He had a rather pointy nose and the same sparkling green eyes as Callidus. He had a deep singing voice, and the only time she had seen him without his guitar was when he was working.
Kya sat and was greeted by smiles all around. Brooke was short, skinny, absolutely covered in freckles, and had blond hair that was always tangled. The boys sometimes teased her about it, but she did not seem to care. Leslie was tall and reminded Kya of a swan, with a long neck and graceful features and sleek straight brown hair. She could spit and swear with the best of them though. Gabriel was quiet, he was the smallest of the three guys, and had mousey brown hair. He had a quicker wit than anyone Kya had met.
As Kya greeted her new friends, it struck her that she would be heading back to her life in the city in the morning. A frown touched her mouth for a moment.
“You okay? Leslie asked.
“Yeah, I’m good.” Kya replied, intentionally smiling.
Henry gestured for her to sit beside him. She smiled and accepted.
“You clean up nicely.” He said.
“Thanks.” Kya replied.
The double wide doors at the end of the mess hall swung open, and a small group of Shadow Striders entered. Kya was fairly certain that leading the group was Callidus, but with such a similar set of outfits, and an air of confidence surrounding all of them, it was hard to know for certain.
“Hey, Jer. When are you gonna drop your guitar and join the big boys?” Callidus asked, confirming Kya’s suspicion, before clapping Jeremy on the back. Callidus removed his hood revealing a playful smile.
“When every last string I can get my hands on has worn out, and all the rest of you big boys are gone.” Jeremy said, playing a quick little tune. “And even then, I’ll only head out to get more strings.”
“Face it, Cal. Your brother’s an artist. He’s gonna change the world with his songs.” Esurio said with a smile. Esurio was tall, lanky, and if the woven leather and bandages added any appearance of bulk at all, Kya swore he would be transparent underneath. Removing his hood revealed fair skin, high cheekbones and a shaved head. His eyes were small, almond shaped, and recessed, hiding under the shadow of his heavy brow.
“You’re brothers?” Kya said, glancing between Callidus and Jeremy.
“Yep.” Jeremy said, still playing a happy melody. “I remember when he was just my big brother Jonah.”
Kya stared between the two brothers, confused. “Jonah?”
“That’s what mom named him.” Jeremy replied.
“Callidus is the name I assumed when I became a sociology professor.”
“Oh, Cal, let it go!” Brooke said with a friendly laugh.
Gabriel, keeping his head down, broke into the conversation, his voice came across as less confident than the others. “We’ve all seen what happens when you try to teach someone something, Callidus.”
Everyone burst into laughter, and Kya had to stifle hers as Callidus shot each of them a look of mild embarrassment. The group of Shadow Striders, continuing their conversations, sat down next to Kya and the rest of the group. The area where the Shadow Striders usually sat to eat immediately seemed very far away to Kya.
When it was their tables turn to eat, everyone stood and lined up, grabbing a plate, cutlery and napkin. Kya grabbed a small piece of chicken, a large heaping of roasted vegetables, some salad, and some flatbread. A simple but filling meal. She couldn’t help but notice that Esurio, who was next in line, had two plates of food, and each of them were quickly overloaded.
“Hungry?” Kya asked.
“Always.” Callidus answered before Esurio had a chance to. “His chosen name literally means to hunger.”
Everyone began to laugh again, and Kya felt her face slightly redden.
The conversation flowed easily over the meal. Kya tried numerous times to say goodbye to them all, but the words just never came to her. The conversation focused on how the crops were doing, gossip about people wanting to join the Shadow Striders, and those looking to start families. Finally giving in, she just took it all in and enjoyed it. She tried to memorize everything and store it away in a special place both in her mind and in her heart.
When the meal was done, Kya excused herself and walked outside. The air was sweet and clean, there was a bite to it though which chilled her skin after the warmth of the mess hall. She breathed deeply and hugged her arms close.
Dawn signalled the start of a new day. Kya went to get ready, but instead of putting on the clothing given to her by the community, she wore the laundered clothing she had arrived in. It was finally time to leave New Eden, and go back to the world she had left. She felt concerned. Kya had become used to being a citizen of the First Gen village, and she felt like she was needed.
Upon descending down to the kitchen, Helen was waiting, coffee in an outstretched hand. “I heard you are leaving us today.” Despite being in a different kitchen than when they first had met, Helen seemed completely at home. There was an ease about her that was comforting.
“Yeah, I have to get home and ready for my new job. I wish I could stay longer.”
“Well, I hope you won’t forget your time here. Never forget that you can always come back.” Helen’s face softened, even more than normal, and Kya felt a warmth radiating off of the woman. Both women’s eyes welled up, seconds away from tears.
Kya caught herself first and took a breath to stabilize herself. “Thank you. I appreciate that.”
Helen wiped the edge of her eyes, and then shot Kya a wide smile.
Turning around towards the front door, Kya noticed Henry filling the frame of the open door. “You didn’t think you’d leave without saying goodbye, did you?”
“It’s such a cliche, but goodbye’s have never been my strong suit.” Kya chuckled lightly.
Henry moved his lumbering frame quickly, as though a magnet was dragging him along the ground. He smashed into Kya, almost knocking her down, but before she could fall, his arms held her in a strong embrace. Due to their height difference, she couldn’t help but hear the rapid beating of his heart through the top of his chest.
Kya knew Henry’s feelings were stronger than the ones she harboured for him, but she embraced him just as tightly. “I’ll be back soon. I just need to get my life back on track. Then we can race again to see who can pick the most carrots.”
As Kya left, without looking back, she heard what she knew to be Henry’s voice, quietly pleading, “your life could be here.”