I looked over the menu. It all looked like junk to me. “What’s edible here?” I asked, keeping up the joke.
Liz gave me a look over her own menu, clearly over it. “Generally the stuff on the menu. That's why it's on there. What, you never have cheap food before?”
I stared at her, refusing to dignify that with an answer. Why would I have ever had a reason to enter Pearl Kitchen before? It was full of everything I worked hard to avoid since I’d turned 18. Large crowds. Cheap food. Happy people.
Liz caved under my stare. “The chicken parmesan is pretty good.” She said, almost meek.
“Alright, I suppose that will be fine.” I closed the menu and pushed it far away. “What will you be ordering?”
“Same thing” Liz folded her menu and leaned back in the booth. She had relaxed a bit, good. “Sounded good when I said it.”
Grinning, I flagged down the waiter and ordered for the both of us. “We’ll have two Chicken Parmesans, and two cokes.” I made up the drink order on the spot, hoping that it would annoy her, but Liz just smiled at the waiter until he left.
“So, what happened to the place you were staying?” She asked.
I fiddled with the fork on the table, trying to decide how much I should tell her.
“It’s not a good story. You sure you want to hear it?”
“I can handle any story, trust me.” She replied. I almost raised an eyebrow there. I certainly did not trust her, any more than she trusted me. Probably less, since she had conceded to let me drive her here. I decided to tell her the same story I had told Jeff.
“I lost my place on Monday. Chemical fire. Hazardous materials. When the firemen showed up it was already blazing out of control. I lost almost everything I had.” I lifted my shoulder in a shrug. “So I had to do some last minute apartment searching, and here we are.”
Liz raised an eyebrow at me, almost the same look I had nearly given her less than a minute ago.
“Seems like there’s a lot of those lately. There was a house that burned down last Saturday outside the city. Oh, and the news said some lab burned down as well.”
I kept my face carefully neutral as she mentioned the lab, but inside, I was seething. That Gravity Girl had cost me everything, and she would pay for that.
“What was the house that burned?” This time, it was genuine curiosity that triggered the question. I hadn’t heard about it, and I hadn’t caused it. What a coincidence that it had burned up the same week as my lab.
“Just a kitchen fire that went out of control. Luckily, no one was hurt.”
Oh, I had heard about it.
“Oh, I remember,” I said. “It was the one with the city official. Why they named the park after that—Gravity-whatsit. Superheroine.” It had been all over the news on Sunday, which I had watched from my lab as they had renamed the park near the university to Gravity Metro Park. The mayor even mentioned erecting a statue in her likeness, but due to the last minute and budget cuts, it wasn’t going to be soon. I shook my head. It was hero worship. Pure and simple, and stupid. “People these days will celebrate anything.”
“Gravity Girl? So that’s why they changed the name…” Liz muttered, barely loud enough for me to hear it. That struck me as odd. Anyone who knew about the house burning would have known about the park’s name change and the reason for it. Something wasn’t adding up.
“What I can’t believe, is that they let some jumped up girl in a cape take all the credit for saving that guy like it wasn’t his own fault for setting the house on fire.” I made the jab at Gravity Girl on purpose, to see Liz’s reaction.
“Stuff happens. I don’t really follow the news, though.” Liz’s expression was distracted and absent. Her response didn’t make sense. Besides…
“I heard you watching the news last night. Something about a bank robbery.” I straightened slightly as I mentioned the robbery. It was a clean heist, and I was proud of it. No one had any clue where the money went. There, Liz looked at me, her face calculated and stony.
“Yeah, they air the weather right after that. Didn’t want to go jogging in the rain.”
I remembered what I’d heard through the paper-thin walls of her apartment. There had been nothing about the weather.
“You turned it off before the weather.” I stared at her, matching her stony gaze with one of my own. ‘Lying to me may be the last thing you ever do, Lumin.’ I thought, but I pushed it away. It wouldn’t do for her to disappear before the beginning of the school year. I needed to lay low until I could rebuild my lab and supply of robots and devices.
Liz was saying something, holding up her phone. “—Was more useful anyway, and I was sleepy.” She looked at me suspiciously as I came crashing back down to earth. “What’s with the inquisition act.”
I realized I had been pushing too hard, focusing too much on a single subject. I relaxed my posture, and sat back against the corner of the booth, my arm over the back.”Nothing,” I replied. “Just trying to figure you out, Lumin.”
“Good to know you’re trying,” Liz replied. I shrugged as she continued. “So, tell me about yourself, or something. I’d like to know more about the guy I’m having to share an apartment with.”
What the heck for? I didn’t want her to know anything about me. It was better in the long run. “What do you want to know?”
“I don’t know…” She said, sitting back and crossing her arms defensively. “I’m not exactly used to having these kinds of conversations.”
I twirled my fork on the table between us, looking at her. I kept my posture relaxed, and forced out a chuckle. “Alright, we’ll play a little game.” At least, this way I could steer the conversation. “You ask me one question, and then I ask you one question. We continue on from there. You know I already study chemistry.”
“Sounds good to me…” She didn't sound so sure. “Um… do you have any hobbies?”
“I’m a pretty decent mechanic,” I replied quickly, not letting her think. “Why did you decide to study physics?”
“Always was interested in how physics work. Movement, force, gravity, and all that jazz. Where were you born?”
I almost wanted to name some city from the comic books, but I didn’t.
“A small town outside of New York. You’d never have heard of it.” Not like I’d spent much time there. My family had moved almost immediately to a larger city. “What happened to your last roommate?” To up and leave someone with an apartment and rent, I’d hoped it was something unusual, like… she’d tried to blow up the apartment or got expelled for misconduct.
“She graduated. Off to a better life, I guess.” I was disappointed. “How did you injure your stomach?” Liz said, smiling at me snidely.
“Shop accident,” I was quickly getting tired of this game. “It’s just a bruise, it will heal. Why did you let me live in your apartment?” This at least had some interest for me. Liz sighed, and that gave me hope for an interesting answer.
“To be perfectly honest, I really needed help with the rent. It was really starting to pile up. Otherwise…” She didn’t finish. I didn’t care if she finished. I was watching the waiter approach with two steaming piles of white mush as Liz asked her question. “Anyway, how do you know Jeff?”
“An acquaintance. Despite his stupidity,” and general unkempt nature, “he’s a man with a lot of connections. Here’s our food.”
Liz thanked the waiter, but I didn’t look up from the plate. It was a plain white ceramic that had been scratched by metal silverware so many times it was nearly grey. The white mush I’d seen from a distance was the parmesan cheese, which was slopped generously over a lump of chicken breast and some rubbery yellow noodles covered in marinara sauce. Upon seeing it, I immediately lost my appetite. Liz however, dug right in and took a bite.
“Your turn,” she said with her mouth full. I looked at her, preparing to end the game when the discrepancies tugged at my mind again. She didn’t follow the news, but watched it each night to get the weather. She knew about the fire, but not about the reward.
“I’m curious, Miss Lumin,” I began, using an extra formal tone. “Most everyone in this city seems to worship Gravity Girl, and you seem to barely have any clue who she is.”
Liz laughed, and took another bite of her chicken. I shuddered as she swallowed and answered me. “I've only been here for two years and I generally focus on studying and staying in shape. I mean, it's cool, but after a few weeks you grow numb to it and start ignoring the talk..”
“Funny,” I replied when it wasn’t at all. “Because I thought you would defend her.” Nearly everyone else would. I had used it to start an argument with her, a debate. No more of these questions. Sighing, I took a bite of my own food. Despite its unappetizing look, it was palatable.
“Why? I tend not to worry about anyone but myself these days. Gotta focus on getting through college and getting a job.” She continued to eat with relish, and I put my fork down, looking out the window at the crowded parking lot. I could hear the crowd in the background, talking loudly, conversations going on just like this one.
“Because one leads so easily to the other…” I replied to her ‘getting through college and getting a job’ statement. Impatiently, I checked my watch. 11:45. We’d been here fifteen minutes.
“You got somewhere to be?” Liz asked, and I pounced on the opportunity.
“No, I’m just checking to see how long it will be until you bore me to death.” I shot back at her icily. I’d had enough polite conversation. I stood up and pulled a fifty out of my pocket, dropping it on the table. “I think I’ll eat somewhere else.”
Liz rocked back in her seat and looked up at me. Her expression was annoyed. “So you’re the type who pushes everyone away?”
I slammed my hands on the table, getting right into her face.
“I don’t much care for people in general.” I hissed. “They are rude, selfish, and insignificant. I wouldn’t be in this position if I weren’t forced into it. We can either leave each other alone and live amicably for the next four months, or we can hate each other for that amount of time. Your choice.” I straightened, thinking the conversation over, but Liz stood up to glare at me. I watched her curiously as she began.
“Look, boy. I’ve been trying to be nice to you since you showed up at my door.” I scoffed, and she continued. “You’re lucky I needed a roommate, else you would probably still be looking around. Now it sounds like you suck at actually getting to know people so I'll give you some advice. One, you're rude, selfish, and, as far as I'm concerned, insignificant. So, keep talking from that glass house of yours. And two, I'm not the kind of girl you mess with.” She picked up her purse and pulled out some small bills to cover her half of the check. “I’m walking back. It’s your choice whether or not you want to continue being an ass.”
She brushed past me as I scooped her money off of the table again. I caught up with her in a few long strides and offered it back.
“You over tipped,” I said. When she didn’t respond right away, I sighed. “I’ll give you a ride back to the apartment. You don’t want to make that cold of yours worse.”
“Keep the change.” She glared at me and refused to take the money. “I’ll manage.” She moved towards the door. I stepped in front of her, blocking the doorway.
“I insist.” I tried looking her in the eyes, but she wouldn’t meet my gaze.
“Move. Now.” Liz nearly shouted, her voice breaking. From behind her, somebody made a comment. I stiffened my resolve and didn’t move.
“Let me give you a ride home,” I repeated, but she just ducked under my arm and continued walking. I followed her out to the parking lot and retrieved my bike. I didn’t bother donning the helmet as I swerved it in front of her with a growl. “Get on the bike, Lumin,” I ordered.
“You just don’t give up, do you?” She asked, and I adjusted my seat on the bike.
“Unstoppable force, meet immovable object. It’s a physics problem, figure it out.”
“I’m a physics major, but even a child can solve this,” Liz said, moving around the bike. “Go around.”
I swerved the bike in front of her again, barring her way down the sidewalk. “I will not be responsible for your being sick on the first day of school. Get on the bike, and I’ll take you home.”
Liz looked at me for a long second.
“For the love of—fine!” She shouted, and took the helmet from me, climbing on behind me, and squeezing my stomach, hard. Her fingers dug into my bruise and I had to hide a grunt of pain. No weakness could be shown.
Without another word, I revved the bike and we flew back down the street. Once we reached the building, I waited for Liz to dismount, which she did, putting the helmet on its hook on my bike, without a word.
I watched as Liz went inside. I had been working to get her to snap, but she had made me act out first. Civilians, I swear. Give me a good battle any day, but an ordinary sit-down meal in a crowded restaurant, with boring conversation, and I lost my cool. I sat there for several minutes, looking up at the window that marked her—our—kitchen, and the one beside it that was her bedroom.
I would let Liz cool off for a few hours before I headed back to the apartment. She was the kind to sit and fume, I could tell. But it didn’t mean I didn’t return unarmed. I stopped to get a few choice things first.
I entered the apartment with the items in a brown paper bag tucked under one arm. Liz had locked herself in her room. She was probably napping again. Shrugging, I moved to the kitchen and started searching for her cookware. She didn’t have much, just a barely used saucepan and a pair of old frying pans. I pulled both frying pans out and unloaded the paper bag onto the counter.
It was a pair of choice cut steaks, and a number of different fruits and vegetables, as well as some staple, supplies like salt, pepper, flour and sugar. I cut up some onions and tossed them into the frying pan with a generous amount of butter. Other things soon followed, asparagus, sweet potatoes, good healthy things, and I had a good stir fry going. I cooked the steaks in the other frying pan, and soon the smell of cooking meat and vegetables filled the apartment. While the steaks simmered on the stove, I took one of her larger bowls and dropped in two eggs and a good amount of flour, a little salt, and some sugar. Cutting up a fresh peach from my supplies, I laid the slices in the saucepan and set the oven to preheat. Baking was just chemistry after all. Cooking was more of an art.
I was sliding the dessert into the oven as Liz emerged from her room, her nose twitching slightly.
“Hey, I thought you said you weren’t—“ She began, then looked at the steaks and stir fry cooking. “What’s that?”
“Dinner,” I replied, serving myself and taking the plate to my room. I would eat in there.