Graham ushered Peggy Lee and Ian over to the food line. The small cafeteria was full and loud – in a pleasant, lively way. About thirty soldiers sat at the two long tables in the middle of the room. Multiple, animated conversations bounced around the tables and filled the room with a congenial buzz. The overhead sunlamps had been turned on high throughout the cafeteria to give the soldiers the sense of a clear and sunny morning. Large and hearty potted plants added to the illusion that the room was connected to outside world.
Graham looked at Peggy Lee out of the corner of his eye as they stood next to each other in line. He could feel Ian’s eyes on him from behind. He didn’t know what to say to her, and he wished that Ian would disappear again. He wanted to go back to the planetarium with Peggy Lee and keep talking, or just sit there in the dark, heavenly silence, soaking up her scent. This morning, she smelled like cinnamon – or maybe it was clove. Their conversation had been so easy last night. Now, his friendliness felt forced. He felt like they were right back at the beginning, standing and waiting for the elevator in that terrible awkward silence. Graham was worried that the rest of the day would be similarly strained. His palms were sweating, and he swallowed hard against a rising tide of anxiety. He felt on the verge of saying something stupid or foolish again.
But then, Peggy Lee playfully prodded Graham with her elbow and asked, “Hey soldier, what are you thinking about? You’re quiet compared to last night.”
“I guess I was unusually talkative last night. Must have been the beers. Or do you reporters have a way of extracting information from even the shiest of interviewees?” Graham quickly wiped his brow with the back of his hand. It was only slightly wet. A bead of sweat dripped down his spine.
“They say I can squeeze information from a turnip,” Peggy Lee answered. “And I must say, I have extracted some pretty juicy tidbits from the toughest of Alaskan warlords. But last night I was just being my normal, friendly self – no hidden tactics, just sincere interest.”
“Glad to hear it,” Graham said as he took three trays from the top of the pile. He handed Peggy Lee one and stepped aside. “After you,” he said gallantly.
Graham held out a tray to Ian. The big hologramographer thanked Graham brusquely and stepped forward, knocking up against Graham with his large camera bag.
Graham did not know what to make of Ian. Everything Ian said had an undertone to it. It was as if he had something more to say, but always stopped short. Perhaps, it had just been so long since Graham had been in a position of vying, however innocently, for a young woman’s attention. Perhaps, he had forgotten how men challenge each other for a chosen female – the archetypical two rams butting heads. But it felt more complicated than that. Graham could not quite put his finger on it. He felt like he was trying to remember a dream – a dream about Ian – that had faded quickly in the morning light, leaving a vague, lingering undercurrent of unease.
They headed over to Graham’s table. Almost all the soldiers in the room gawked at Peggy Lee as she crossed the room. She did not seem to notice. Or perhaps she was so used to such attention that she was not affected by it. Graham felt goddamn lucky. He was the guy talking to, walking with, and hanging out with the beautiful girl. He knew that the feeling would not last, that it wasn’t even a reflection of his character or prowess, but simply a temporary benefit of his position. But he relished the envious looks. No one was ever jealous of Saint Snow. Today, however, was a different kind of day.
Most mornings, Graham ate at his table by himself, often continuing his review of the daily reports. It was nice to have company for a change. He sat directly across from Peggy Lee, and Ian sat next to her.
“Let me open that for you,” Graham said, reaching across the table and taking a syrup package out of Peggy Lee’s hands. “They can be tricky, and if you don’t do it right, syrup will get all over your fingers.” Graham was surprised and pleased by his assertiveness. She smiled at him. He felt like they might be sliding back to that comfortable place. Why he had been so worried?
Ian tossed three syrup packages onto Graham’s tray and said, “Hey, Graham, since you are such a pro, will you open mine too?”
Graham bristled. “Sure thing, Ian. We wouldn’t want you to get all of that expensive equipment covered in syrup before the big trip, right?”
“Exactly,” smiled Ian.