“So, do you think Holiday Bob will be in the crew this year?” Terra asked Hiltz.
Hiltz focused on his console. Terra saw him smile, from the side of his face. She knew better than to press the question when he was deep into a project. She turned her attention back to her monitor.
“I think I might be able to find that out for you,” he answered in a distracted voice. “Let me finish this up, and I’ll consult my mystic oracle.”
Terra laughed. “Oh, you’ve been holding back! When did you get an inside line on the production crews?”
Hiltz laughed, still facing his screen. “Dear woman, while I tell you nearly everything, I have to hold back something to maintain my air of mystery.”
Terra raised her eyebrows. “There ain’t nothing mysterious about you! You read like an open book.” She shook her head.
“Not so,” he answered. He lifted his nose in the air. “And you keep talking like that, with your down country double negatives, and you’ll have Holiday Bob purring in your lap.”
Terra had a response waiting, but slapped her hand over her mouth. “Not gonna go there.”
They cast a sideways glance at each other and smiled.
“Holiday Bob’s not that uncouth, is he?” she asked. “Do you think?”
“For News sake, Terra, he was wearing socks with sandals when we saw him last year,” Hiltz said.
Terra blushed. “Yeah, but he had such a nice face. And those hazel eyes. I could get him to wear shoes when the situation called for it.”
“I would think you wouldn’t want too many situations with him that required shoes,” Hiltz said, one side of his mouth in a smirk.
“Oh, stop. What if Holiday Bob’s the one?”
A hint of surprise passed over Hiltz’s face, lit by the glow of his monitor. “I’d say your odds are two out of three that Holiday Bob will be back,” he said.
“What, really?” Terra rolled backwards in her chair. She arched her back and walked over to Hiltz’s station.
Standing over his shoulder, she could smell his Old Spice. She loved the scent, it made her feel comfortable and safe. She’d always found it funny, somewhat incongruous for him, though she never told him so. It seemed like he should wear something that smelled fussier.
“You’re breathing down my neck,” he said.
“Sorry.” She slapped her hand over her mouth again.
“I brushed my teeth this morning,” she said, muffled through her closed hand.
“I’m sure Holiday Bob will break you of that habit, but quick,” he said.
Terra couldn’t see if he was smiling when he said it.
“Look, here’s the crew that’s set to come this week.” He pointed to a list of names.
He opened another window on his screen. “And here’s last year. Camera and sound are all the same, save one.”
Terra chewed her fingernail. “How’d you get access to this? Who are you sleeping with?” she asked with an edge in her voice.
“Settle down, woman,” he said. “The Big Man has me working on a side project, and as such, I have access to some files heretofore saved for Level 3 clearance and above.”
Terra put her hands on her hips. “You have Level 3 clearance now?” she asked in a hushed tone.
Hiltz didn’t answer. He turned his head toward her and put his finger over his lips. His eyes told her everything.
She felt a pang in her gut, and suddenly didn’t feel so safe anymore.
Terra ate her lunch in the usual spot. On the bench with Wilshire Boulevard behind her, she could hear the regulated whoosh of the air cars. They sounded like waves, and made her feel like she was at the beach. In front of her, the bubbling of the La Brea tar pits made her think of the insignificance of her small concerns.
Watching the tar pits also kept her from crying, which she hadn’t done since Primary Development. Tears were wasteful in the current climate. And tears would be noticed.
The fiberglass mammoth with the hole in his side was still there, as it had been since before she was brought into the world. She’d always imagined it was the Daddy Mammoth mired in the tar, with the Mama and Baby Mammoth crying on the bank. It was okay to think that, because animals were still allowed to have families. Unlike human animals. Terra had always felt relieved that the baby still had its mother.
She had heard that during the time the park was closed, right after the Regime Change, they tried to remove the statue. Rumors were that it was supposed to be replaced with depictions of key figures from the Old Republic, showing them sinking into the bowels of the earth. Which would have been gruesome.
Rumor continued that they couldn’t remove the old mammoth without suspending a crew to saw him off just above the tar surface, craning away his top half, and leaving his disembodied lower half still stuck in the tar. Which would have also been gruesome.
At least, that’s how the rumors went. Terra had always been too afraid to go online to check their verity.
However it came about, the Mammoth family was still there, with a new monument erected that said something about the “Order of the New,” blah blah blah. Terra was thankful it was on the other side of the pit from her bench. She had walked over to see it once, and didn’t feel the need to ever read it again.
She pulled her protein bar from her pocket and bit into it, joylessly. So Hiltz had Level 3 clearance. It meant a lot more than seeing who had been cleared to film the Big Man for his antiseptic “Happy Holidays from the New West” annual special.
It meant he had more leeway to search online without raising interference from the Guardians.
She washed down her protein bar with her water ration. She emptied the contents of the silver pouch into her mouth, then carefully folded it from the bottom up. She squeezed the last few drops onto her tongue. She was still thirsty.
Maybe if she thought less about Holiday Bob (and the Hot Shot delivery guy, and the guy who came once every three months to service the edit bays), and more about doing a good job like Hiltz, she could secure more of a future for herself in the West Central Communications Ministry.
The thought of climbing the ranks there depressed her more than the ignored propaganda on the other side of the pit.
She put the thought out of her mind, and pulled from her other pocket the bright spot to her day. Mrs. Mask from her shelter complex slipped it to her this morning. Terra knew better than to ask how, or where, she got it.
Mrs. Mask had given it to her in a used water ration pouch, folded over at the top. Terra knew what it contained from the shape and texture of the bulge. She tucked it away gently, and gave Mrs. Mask a big hug. The elderly woman was still wearing her head scarf, and seemed surprised at the sudden show of affection.
Mrs. Mask gave Terra a wide, gap-toothed grin when Terra broke the embrace. They exchanged no words.
She peeked into the pouch to see if it was green or red. She hoped it was green. She couldn’t quite tell, and didn’t dare hold it out to the light in case there was a cloaked Guardian Eye overhead.
It looked somewhat translucent, which bade well for green. She said a silent thank-you to Mrs. Mask, and to the nameless farmer who grew it, and to whatever sense of goodness was left in the world.
She popped it into her mouth and smiled as soon as she bit. The sweet tartness of the green grape was unmistakable. She held the liquid from its interior in her mouth for as long as she could.
Check this space next Wednesday to find out what happens when Terra meets Holiday Bob.