The first vestiges of summer emerged throughout the parcel of land affectionately known as 'Lovers' Common.' Trees and wildflowers grew unchecked save for periodic mowing, and branches hung low over the wooden benches lining the path that slithered through the landscape. Aside from the hum of vehicles passing through a nearby intersection, the place had an eerie feeling of isolation from the outside world.
Perhaps it was this feeling that attracted students looking for the occasional midnight rendezvous. Of course the Academy had policies against that sort of thing, but teenagers in the throes of adolescent puppy love rarely gave rules and regulations much thought. The only thing of importance was finding a secluded place to indulge themselves. For that, Lovers' Common was perfect. Staff members rarely visited the area, and when they did, it was generally for a lunch break and always during daylight hours.
Now, the sun dipped toward the horizon and bathed the scenery in garnet-hued rays. Not many people remained, and most of those who did had begun making their way back to civilization. Soon, the curfew bells would sound, and anyone caught out after hours was sentenced to a month of hard time scrubbing floors, picking up trash, and scraping gum off the undersides of tables. It was far less pleasant than it sounded.
One person showed no sign of leaving. The boy, no more than sixteen, sat staring into oblivion as a gentle breeze tousled his dark hair. He wondered what it would be like to have one of those romantic midnight encounters, to sneak out of the dorms and know someone was waiting for him right there on that very bench, the familiar combination of hunger and need blazing in their eyes…
…but the thought turned bitter in his mind. Those things could happen for other people, but not him. Not here, at least, and not anytime soon.
He looked at his wristwatch.
Sure, he was here to meet someone - someone who should have been here by now - but romance wasn't on his agenda. Because he was here to meet a girl.
Brooks Bradley just happened to be…batting for the other team.
A little light in the loafers.
His entire body cringed.
No matter how well he kept it hidden, constant fear of discovery plagued him. It wasn't shame that silenced him; rather, it was a fear for his own well-being. Already, his vocal inflections and mannerisms betrayed him, which gave way to ruthless taunting and torment by his peers. They came up with such lovable (if not original) nicknames as 'Butt Pirate,' 'Pole Smoker,' and his personal favorite, 'Cadet Creampuff.' If they knew the truth? He shuddered to think what horrors might befall him. Better to keep quiet than to open his mouth and suffer a world of hurt.
He threw another impatient glance at his watch and sighed. For three years, his nightly ritual included meeting Simony Knox at Lovers' Common and hiking amongst the trees until dusk. They poured their hearts out and complained about one damned thing or another, but they were always there for each other. Lately though, she had been arriving later and later, and now, she might stand him up completely.
The sun disappeared past the horizon, leaving behind only residual light. Dusk was upon him and Simony was nowhere to be found. If Brooks lingered much longer, he would risk incurring the wrath of the Academy, and scraping the undersides of the Mess Hall tables was not his idea of a good time.
He grunted as he rose; he had been sitting long enough for his legs to stiffen. He had given Simony all the time that he dared. If he didn't leave now, the dorm staff would catch him on his way back in. Oh, Simony was going to hear it when he saw her again. She was-
"Hope you haven't given up on me yet."
Brooks's heart leapt out of his chest and a yelp escaped his throat.
"Didn't mean to give you a heart attack." Her voice sounded playful, but when she stepped around the bench to sit down, he saw the weariness on her face. Any admonishments disappeared from his mind as soon as they came.
"You're late." he said without reprove as he plopped down next to her.
"I'm so close, Brooks. So close." Her voice became soft and vulnerable.
"I really wish you would tell me what it is you're close to."
"You know I can't," she said. "Curtis would hang us both."
"Yeah? What do you think she's gonna do to you when you're finished? Give you a medal?"
She looked at him with tired eyes. This was an old argument. Simony never told him exactly what she was working on in the basement of the main building, but he knew it was something big - dangerous - and Sgt. Curtis wanted it. Had, in fact, provided Simony with the tools to finish it. And Sgt. Curtis wasn't a woman known for her generosity.
"I don't know, okay?" She ran both hands through her hair. "I don't know."
They sat in silence for a moment. Brooks knew she was trying to make the best of a bad situation. He didn't know why she continued the project knowing that Curtis would ultimately usurp it from her. But then again, if you lock a musician alone in a room with his instrument, would he not eventually play? He supposed the same was true of scientists and research.
"Listen, I'm sorry for not showing up sooner." She broke the silence. "You know how I get when I'm on a roll…"
"It's no big deal." He paused. "So…how close to finishing this thing are you?"
"Close." She gave him a sober expression. "All I have to do is…" and she lapsed into a string of techno-babble she knew he wouldn't understand. Brooks tried to nod in all the right places, but she didn't notice. She was too absorbed in her explanation.
She went on for what seemed like forever until he realized that she wasn't talking anymore.
"What?" he asked.
"That's exactly what I need!" She jumped from the bench with excitement gleaming in her eyes. "Come on!"
"Whoa, wait!" He stood as well. "What do you need?"
"Just come with me to the Mess Hall."
"Simony…" He looked at his watch. "Oh, sh…" A loud ringing in his ears cut him off.
It was the curfew bell.
"Great," he said while the last echoes of the bell were still sounding. "Just great. Now I'm going to be stuck scrubbing floors for the next four weeks."
"So you might as well come with me." As usual, he couldn't argue with her. He was already going to be strung up; what difference did it make if he went back to the dorms now or later?
He rolled his eyes. "Fine."
"Fine," came the voice from the other side of the trees where Lucas Sergeant took refuge. Lieutenant Yeager couldn't be counted on for much when it came to paperwork, but when it came to other people's business, she knew it better than they did.
Simony Knox made it a point to visit Lovers' Common every evening for the past three years, and this did not go undetected by Yeager's eagle eye. It didn't take a great deal of persuasion on Lucas's part to uncover this information. The woman had no qualms with telling anyone's business to anyone else. Had she known about Lucas's clandestine mission, she might have held her tongue…but probably not.
Lucas had waited behind his tree for what seemed like hours, watching people come and go. He was about to give up and call it a night when he noticed the girl from the surveillance videos sneaking up behind the boy he knew to be Brooks Bradley. He couldn't for the life of him figure out why she would be meeting that fruit fly in Lovers' Common, but he doubted it was for anything amorous. Most likely she had taken pity on him but still couldn't bear to be seen with him in public.
By now, any semblance of daylight had gone, and the curfew bells had rang. Lucas toyed with the idea of heading back to the dorms (he could probably come up with a plausible reason for his lateness so as not to be put on cleaning duty) but Simony and Brooks were heading in the opposite direction. He had to know what they were up to.
He waited until the shadows swallowed them up and set off after them. He had heard her mention the mess hall, and assumed that's where they were headed, but he didn't want to lose them, just to be safe.
As he tailed them, he thought about Curtis's little assignment. Doing her bidding left him feeling unclean. Which was saying a lot, considering that tales of his debauchery regaled even the senior cadets. Yes, he could charm the pants off anyone he needed to when the situation called for it, and he could probably sell a catsup popsicle to a man in a white suit, but this deal with the devil gnawed at him. He was better than this.
Obviously not, the voice inside his head said.
The last thing he needed was to be expelled. And this…this 'mission' was merely a means to an end. It was just like playing 'spy' when he was a kid. He told himself that the moment he had the information Curtis wanted, he would wash his hands of the entire thing, go home for the summer, and forget about it. He told himself that there was nothing wrong with what Curtis asked of him; it was completely understandable that she thought she wouldn't get a straight answer if she herself asked the questions. And since Curtis was the one who authorized this project in the first place, wasn't she entitled to know what was going on? He told himself these things in order to justify his covert surveillance, but he only half-believed them.
He could justify spying on an enemy for military purposes.
Right now though, it felt like it was the enemy he was spying for.
He wouldn't lurk around in the shadows for long.
The Mess Hall doors weren't locked because the kitchen staff hadn't finished clean up after dinner. The cafeteria tables (the very same horrendously uncomfortable fold-up tables that plague schools everywhere) were folded up in the middle and pushed off to one side. A lemony aroma rose from the floors, and the scent of bleach and sanitizer emanated from the kitchen itself. All but the most essential of lights were shut off, giving the dining room a theatre-like quality.
"You two shouldn't be here." The voice echoed from behind the serving counter, where its owner was busy scrubbing. Lieutenant Candi Beneviedes was a tall, thin woman who bucked the stereotype that all lunch ladies were short, frumpy, elephantine women who aged neither gracefully nor classily. Brooks knew from experience that she ran this place like a drill sergeant - he had been on kitchen duty more than once.
"We know we're out past curfew, Lieutenant," Simony said quickly as Lt. Beneviedes stepped closer to them. "We were on our way back from the park and I realized I'd lost one of my notebooks. The last place I remembered having it was here."
She looked them over closely, as if expecting them to disappear. Adrenaline was already coursing through Brooks's veins, and her scrutiny made it worse. He couldn't believe what they were there to take, and right then, he had trouble believing they would get away with it.
"Well," she began, "no one's turned one in, and I haven't come across one, so I'd have to say it's not here."
Simony feigned disappointment. "Are you sure?"
"Yeah, I'm sure honey. Haven't seen it."
"Can I use the restroom?" This time it was Brooks's voice.
Beneviedes studied him for a moment. "Make it a quick one. You two need to get to the dorms."
"I will," he said and took off toward the restroom. He saw the Lieutenant glance over her shoulder long enough to make sure he was going where he said he was going, then turn her attention back to Simony.
"So, Lieutenant," he heard Simony say, "how long have you been working for St. Johns?"
Brooks did not, in fact, have to use the restroom. The facilities in the Mess Hall just happened to be close to the kitchen entrance, which was his real destination. He turned back to Simony to make sure the Lieutenant still had her back to him, then pushed the bathroom door open. As it whooshed shut, he rushed into the kitchen.
The bright lights in the kitchen took a little getting used to after the dimness of the dining room itself, but Brooks knew exactly where he was going. He zigzagged around the prep areas and cleaning stations and headed directly to the walk-in freezer. He gave the large metal door an incredulous look. He simply could not believe he was doing this.
The stark cold of the freezer surrounded him the instant he walked in. He stood there a moment, rubbing his arms and looking around.
It wasn't there.
Maybe they were out.
Oh, God, what now?
He was just about to cut his losses and leave when he spotted the lone item in the bottom corner of the freezer. He snatched it with both hands, and bolted out, heading for the back door. He would drop it just outside, and they would pick it up when they left. Simple as that.
When he got back to the dining room, Brooks peered around the corner, and sure enough, Lt. Beneviedes hadn't budged while he was gone. Once again, he pushed the bathroom door to support the illusion that he used the restroom, then strolled back to Simony and the Lieutenant like nothing happened.
Inwardly, he sighed relief.
"All right, you guys get going," Lt. Beneviedes said when she spotted Brooks walking back from the restroom. "You're gonna be in enough trouble as it is."
The minute they were out the doors, Simony started in, "Tell me you got it."
"Yes, I got it, but it was freaking cold in there!"
"Poor baby. Where's it at?"
"Outside the back door. C'mon," Brooks said as he lead her around the building.
Darkness hung around the Mess Hall like a shroud. Brooks could see where he was going, but just barely. Simony followed close behind, and when they rounded the corner to the rear of the building, light poured out of the kitchen windows, giving Brooks enough illumination to see that their prize was not where he left it.
"It was right there!" he whispered to Simony. "I swear! I don't know what hap-"
"This has got to be the strangest thing I've ever seen someone steal."
Simony and Brooks both jumped.
"I mean…are you gonna cook this or something?" Just then, Lucas Sergeant stepped through the light of the windows. In his hands, still frozen solid, was a round, vacuum-sealed package containing a whole roasting chicken.
"What the hell are you doing here Lucas?" Brooks said when he found his voice.
"Cadet Creampuff!" Lucas said with the impression of seeing an old friend after ten years. Lucas was not an old friend. In fact, he was almost single-handedly responsible for most of the torment Brooks endured these days. "How've you been? Where's your fairy wand, by the way?"
"You're an idiot." This voice was Simony's. When Lucas turned his attention to her, she thrust her chin out, daring him to make a snide remark.
Instead, he flashed his smile and strode close to her. "The fairy I know, but I don't believe I've had the pleasure of your acquaintance."
"That's right, you haven't," she said.
If he was put off, it didn't show. "I'm Lucas Sergeant. My friends call me Sarge, but you can call me anytime you want."
Simony stared at him. "Are you serious?" She plucked the chicken from his hands. "I don't know what disgusts me more: The fact that you were obviously stalking us, or the fact that you really think that you have a snowball's chance in hell with me after what you just did."
Lucas's smile never wavered. "Alright, I guess I'll just have to let Lt. Beneviedes know that the kitchen is missing tomorrow night's main course."
Simony narrowed her eyes at him.
"Unless you'd maybe consider taking in a movie with yours truly this weekend."
She stood in front of him nose to nose. "If you want to tell Lt. Beneviedes, you be my guest." Her voice was low, and Brooks had to strain to hear her. "But you just remember that you'll be in just as much trouble for being out after curfew as we are. Now we're leaving. You do what you want."
Lucas watched dumbfounded as Simony stormed off toward her lab, chicken in hand. Brooks, for his part, wore a wide grin as he followed, and Lucas found it somewhat irritating. He waited until they disappeared, then followed in their general direction. He would get Heidelman to escort him back to the dorm and tell the staff member on duty he was helping out with security issues. And if he wouldn't do it? Well, Lucas would hardly have enough time to make burger runs if he was on cleaning detail.
You can call me anytime you want? he thought. Smooth. Real smooth.
As he walked, he continued chiding himself. Why was he so caught up on this girl anyway? She seemed so out of place at a military school, and he thought that was part of it. That she was a goldfish in an aquarium full of minnows. He really wanted to get to know her, and that was the strangest thing of all. He wasn't known for being particularly monogamous, or for being interested in a girl above the neck, but damned if he wasn't this time. This time, he was so enamored with her that he forgot just how bizarre it was to steal a roasting chicken from the Mess Hall.
Oh, well. She may have rebuffed him tonight, but tomorrow was another day. Strike one, as they say.