That night at dinner, Toliver no longer sat at the front. His seatmates called it the hot seat, and not somewhere you wanted to sit. Today the honor belonged to a woman, though he could only see the curly, brown hair on the top of her head and hear her murmured responses to Sawyer’s booming questions.
“Poor Aggie,” someone said. Toliver hadn’t seen who and decided he didn’t particularly care. The others at his table acted friendly, but didn’t push or pry. He figured that wouldn’t last. Still, he suspected that most of them had been where he was now. He hurt. He didn’t think any part of his body didn’t feel sore, topped off by a splitting headache. His back flirted with spasming and locking up and his fingers were raw, thick and clumsy.
None of this stopped him from eating when the food finally arrived. He hunched over and wrapped his free arm around his bowl as if someone might steal it. He thought they’d better not try. Just then, a hand entered his peripheral vision. His head snapped up and he turned with a snarl and a curse on his lips. His curse died when he recognized Janeannie. She smiled down at him, but he read the concern in her eyes.
“Just a buttered role and a glass of water,” she said. “The water will help with your headache.” She leaned forward to place them beside him. As her head neared his, she whispered in his ear. “Easy. Trouble at dinner will have you in the hot seat again before you know it.” She straighten and started to move down the table. Toliver gave her a sheepish nod and did his best to turn his snarl into a smile.
“Thank you again,” he said quietly, but she’d already moved on with no indication she’d heard him.
Toliver’s days blurred into weeks as the deadline for cleaning the yard approached. He finished sorting the wood in three and a half weeks. Joad had him restack it in another place, a different pattern. Toliver tried to explain why the way he had stacked it would work better, but all he gained him was another dinner in the hot seat and more enmity from Joad. And so the pattern held. Toliver tried to improve the yard while Joad staunchly ignored him. Though he never openly challenged Joad, he did his best to get under his skin. He knew he was being stupid, he just couldn’t help himself.
More cautious, now, Toliver slowly moved down the tables and over to one farthest from the center. Janeannie had explained to him that time under Sawyer’s direct gaze might find you gone, the vats the rumored destination. So, outside of needling Joad, he did his best to do his work and not draw attention to himself. He found himself more or less permanently seated next to Janeannie, her serving duty over for another hundred days. Toliver felt sure she’d had more to do with his seat assignment than she would admit. She gave him her rapt attention and offered him extra food from his plate. He politely refused, though she persisted. One evening as they were leaving the hall, a hand fell on his arm, holding him back. He resisted the urge to slug whomever it was, but turned with a knife-edged look. Wil, a skinny, greasy guy with shadowed eyes, quickly released Toliver’s arm. Toliver knew he sat on the opposite side of the table three places closer to the front.
“Take it easy, Toli,” Wil said stepping back. “I didn’t mean nothin’. I just wanted to talk to you.”
“Toliver?” Will asked after several moments of silence, clearly confused.
“That’s my name. Not Toli, not Iver, Toliver.” Some of the people behind them flowed around them like a stream encountering a boulder. Others started backing up behind the, creating a jam. Toliver grabbed Will by the arm and pulled him away from the door. Janeannie looked a question at him, but he shook his head and she left with the others slowly trickling out.
“Well?” Toliver asked. When Wil made no sign of responding, Toliver went on. “You said you wanted to talk to me, so talk.”
“It’s about Janeannie.”
“What about her?”
“I don’t mean nothin’ bad,” Wil said holding up his hands as if warding off a blow. “Just, if you ain’t interested…. Well, some of us are.”
“What are you babbling about?” Toliver asked.
Will seemed to screw up his courage as he took a step closer to Toliver. “None of us here is looking for a permanent,” he said softly, “Janeannie included. She’s trying to tell you she wants to have sex with you, but you ain’t readin’ her signals.”
Toliver laughed, shaking his head at his own stupidity. “You’re right,” he said, “I wasn’t getting that. She’s been more helpful than most. I thought she had a crush on me.”
The last of the diners filed out and Wil and Toliver followed them. Both knew it would be better not to be noticed, not to be singled out, though Toliver suspected Joad would find out. As they moved away from the building and stepped further apart, Wil raised his voice to a normal volume.
“A crush,” he spat. “You sound like some uporbit schoolboy.” Though Toliver bristled, Wil continued. “Someone said you didn’t have an InnerAI, but it didn’t seem possible. How do you survive?”
“It hasn’t been a problem so far. Maybe I don’t know what I’m missing,” he replied. “Still, I don’t see why anyone would need me to say whether I’m interested in Janeannie.”
“She’s a serial monogamist,” Wil said. “She’ll only be with one partner at a time.”
“Well, Wil, thanks for letting me know. I’ll make intentions clear to Janeannie.” With that, Toliver quickened his pace and strode to bed.