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Lunchtime Conversations by Hallan Mirayas
by Hallan Mirayas
Hallan Mirayas -- all rights reserved

"So, what's in the mystery meat today?"

I chuckled across the lunchroom table at the standard greeting. "I'm guessing... raccoon," I said as I grinned at the guy across from me. His name was Chris Erikson; I'd known him since freshman year, when he'd picked up raccoon colored hair, a raccoon paw for a left hand, and an excuse for his habit of dunking his food in anything liquid and also edible. (Even before SCABS, my school pariah status led me to pick my friends out of the weirdest groups...) At the moment, he was busily puncturing a pair of juice boxes and pouring them into a bowl. "So what's your dipping sauce today? Cranberry?"

"Cranapple. It's got a nice sweet 'n tangy flavor to it."

A cafeteria tray rattled onto the table to my right, and a massive grizzly bear settled carefully into the chair, which gave a loud squeak of protest. "Anybody bring straws today?" the bear asked, his thumbless paws unsuited to picking things up, and his loathing of paw cups well-known. From where I was sitting, I could see the dent he left in the wall when he chucked the last one he tried. I still have no idea how he managed to avoid suspension for that one...

Two straws skidded their way across the table, one from me, one from Chris, and were joined by two from the girl who'd carried his tray for him.

"That should be enough, David," she said, sporting a small, wry smile as she set a short stack of textbooks and a sack lunch across from him and sat down. Fishing an apple out of her lunch bag, she buried herself in her German textbook, studying.

Katie Tucker had been my brother's friend for many years, and she'd taken to keeping an eye on me for him when he went off to college. Her classically elegant British features and status as class valedictorian probably would have made her very popular, but her habit of being unsettlingly direct and slightly bossy tended to put people off before they got to know her. Those few who learned to see past that found her to be honest and a good person to seek for advice.

David, meanwhile, was busy adjusting the prosthetic attached to his forearm. It sported a pair of hooked claws, like a prosthetic limb, that projected beyond his paw and opened and closed with a flex of his wrist. It wasn't up to carrying things, but it was definitely strong enough to hold a fork. He'd gotten the Flu and SCABS one right after the other in his sophomore year, and had nearly dropped out of school from frustration at not being able to use his hands. His parents, acting on equal parts of hunch, desperation, and inspiration, had taken him to the hospital's prosthetics ward, where the doctors had come up with the attachment. Over the year and a half he'd been working with it, he'd gotten pretty good at using it, and, I'm told, has designed a webpage for the prosthetics ward detailing how it works, titled 'The David Kent Prosthesis.' Once his 'hand' was adjusted for a tighter grip, he nudged the can of pop on his tray toward me. "Open that for me, would you?"

"Sure, no problem," I said as I swooped the can up and punctured it with a tooth, ignoring the pop tab.

Katie didn't even look up, but you could almost hear her rolling her eyes. "You're going to break a tooth if you keep doing that, Harry."

I grinned and handed the can back to David, who plunked a straw through the hole with a deft stab of the claw. "Maybe," I replied, "but it's got style."

"Showoff," she snorted.

"Just because you can't do it," said a laughing voice as Roger McKinness slid into the seat to my left. SCABS had taken the nicest guy in the entire school and wrapped him up in the pelt of a wolverine on the tail end of his junior year. If you could get past the really toothy grin he kept forgetting he had, and ignore the slightly skunk-ish smell he got at times, he could be the most loyal friend imaginable. He wasn't particularly bright, but he made up for it by being steady as a rock. Nothing fazed him. I met him in biology class, sophomore year, while he was still gangly, freckled, and fair-skinned, and found that out when somebody poured the wrong stuff down a sink in the lab and half the drains in the room went up in a 'whoosh!' of flame. He leaned over from his seat, grabbed the fire extinguisher, put the fire out, sat down, and went back to writing like he'd never stopped. Now he's built like a brick and tends to make people flinch when he smiles, but he's still the same unshakable nice guy underneath. "On a completely different subject, how's your summer been, Hall?" Of the people at the table, only Katie still called me Harry.

"Pretty good, but I'm glad for it to be over. Mom's been kicking her renovation plans for the house into high gear, and I am so glad to be getting away from, quote, helping pick out wallpaper and curtains." David snorted, and his voder laughed.

"Anybody seen Matt?" Chris asked suddenly, looking around the room.

Roger thumbed over his shoulder. "Yeah, he's still back in line. Somebody was fooling around and cut themselves, and he dropped out of line to help." Matt Ryans was our resident chronomorph and self-appointed medic. I'm told he's really rare: he could actually 'loop' a person back to how they were one minute ago, effectively erasing injuries.

I spotted him heading toward us, looking a little tired and shaky. "Yeah, he looped somebody," I said, and nudged Chris. "Run and grab him, would you, before he-Oh, wait, Mrs. Hazeltine's got him." Mrs. Hazeltine was the lunchroom's chaperone, and she was good at it. If you messed around or tried to pick a fight, she'd drag you off to the detention room faster than you could blink, and you'd eat the rest of your lunch there. But if you needed help, something she could spot from about five miles away, she was there at your elbow. Right now, she was helping Matt keep from dropping his tray all over the floor.

I could pick out her voice over the lunchroom buzz. "You okay, there? You look a bit done in." I didn't catch what he said, but she replied, "Okay. You just be careful getting to your table." She patted him on the shoulder with a fine-boned hand and went on to the next person. Matt was already starting to look better by the time he'd gotten to our table and settled down. "Chris, that's really gross," he said, and I glanced over to catch him in the act of dunking a doughnut stick.

"No, it's not!" the raccoon-haired dunker replied defensively. "It tastes good! You should try it sometime."

Matt shuddered in disgust. "Thanks, no, I prefer my food tasting like it's supposed to taste, thanks."

Katie broke into the argument with, "Buzzard inbound at 4 o'clock."

'Buzzard' was our nickname for Eric Neumann, whose nose, after I broke it, had developed a crook in it that looked like a vulture beak. Eric swaggered up to the table, to the collective scowls of everyone there, and tossed a Milkbone in front of Roger. "Hey, stinky-boy, I hear wolverines will eat anything," he taunted, just before David and I rose from our seats.

"Get out of here, Eric, before I eat you," David's voice growled from his voder.

"I broke your face once before, Eric... don't think I won't do it again," I said, claws out.

Katie chimed in quickly. "Heaven knows either choice couldn't possibly make you any uglier, you pasty-faced moron. Best leave before Mrs. Hazeltine gets over here and slaps you with detention for trying to pick a fight. Or were you just lonely for all your detention-room pals?" she sneered.

David and I sat down and watched Eric stalk off, pursued by our snickers. That's when I heard something go 'crunch', followed by Roger speaking with his mouth full. "You know, this really..." He took another bite. "Isn't that bad."

Katie looked up from her book for the first time in fifteen minutes.

"That is so disgusting, Roger..." Chris agreed with an 'ewww...' (as he tried to dunk a slice of pizza in his fruit juice...)

Roger's ears dipped as he plaintively replied, "Well, it is..."

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