Elliott woke with a start the next day, soaked in sweat and breathing hard. The dreams had done that but the immediate thought that he might have overslept was even worse. He squirmed uncomfortably to untangle himself from the sheets. The appointment with the higher-ups wasn’t until noon and he hadn’t slept past nine a day in his life. He rolled over, staring at the numbers on his clock, frantically forcing his brain to comprehend their mythological meaning through the haze of nightmares he was still trying to shake off. It was 8:30. He still had plenty of time.
With a snort at himself for being ridiculous, he swung his legs over the edge of the bed. He cringed when his feet touched the cold floor, a reminder that the bed was not part of the floor covered by the area rug. It woke him up though.
This late in the morning he would likely have the barracks and the shower to himself aside from his own friends. He pulled a clean change of clothes out of the closet and padded as quietly as he could to the communal bathroom. He was in no mood, today of all days, to share banter with anyone. He was blissfully un-accosted on his way.
The bathrooms were stark white tile and plaster. There were no comfy embellishments or decorations. It was strictly utilitarian. There was a stack of bleached white towels on the bench and he grabbed one as he passed. The shower helped clear the fog of bad dreams and sleepiness. By the time he shook the water out of his hair he was feeling more focused. What he faced today would require him to be on point. He wasn’t sure if he saw the higher-ups as his enemies or what. But he knew they were not going to want the same thing he did. Still, he was not going to let this chance to defend McNabb pass him by. He would speak up and make himself heard on that issue no matter what they wanted to hear. He was done backing down.
Fresh from the shower, he got dressed. He tugged the t-shirt over his head and grimaced when he saw the words “Billabong” across the front. He didn’t even know what that meant but suspected very highly that he was not nearly cool enough to be wearing it.
He left the bathroom and wandered towards the mess hall. He wanted to see Junie but hoped she hadn’t heard about his most recent escape attempt. She was so unpredictable, he couldn’t guess how she would react. After the first attempt, she teared up and ran from the room, disconsolately sobbing that she couldn’t bear to lose her best friend as she had Higgins. Most of the time she was stoic or oblivious but the loss of the big policeman had hit her hard. Another time she giggled so hard she couldn’t breathe and sought Thomas to tell his side of the story. Once she had simply shrugged, mumbled something about begonias that he didn’t quite catch and went back to reading “Taxidermy for Dummies.” The only consistency had been the level of caffeine in her system. She was as likely to repeat a previous response as to slap him with a cucumber and challenge him to a juggling contest. He actually smiled thinking of it though; that was one of the things he loved about her. Life was never dull.
When he entered the mess hall, Junie was there and, as expected, with a crowd of soldiers around her. She was, of course, at the coffee machine, her hands moving the portafilters and milk carafes and knobs on the espresso machine with a clever dexterity. She was in the middle of a story, Elliott could tell by the men’s rapt attention to her every mad word. He approached in time to see her flip up the steaming wand and dip it into a carafe labeled “2%”, cupping her other hand around the exterior. She preferred to gauge the temperature of the milk by hand rather than a thermometer, which she referred to, with a nose wrinkled in disgust, as a “crusty milk stick.” She did all this without ever taking her eyes off the person she was talking to.
Elliott heard her say, “And that’s why harbor seals will never drive trucks.”
The young woman in front gaped at her. “The Higgs boson? The Higgs boson is why harbor seals will never drive trucks?”
Junie shrugged. “Makes perfect sense,” she said, as though it possibly could. When the woman continued to shake her head disbelievingly, Junie shrugged again. “I don’t make the rules, I just-“
“Make the coffee,” the entire group of soldiers finished for her. She looked around at them delightedly and put the freshly steamed milk down to clap her hands.
“How did you all know I was going to say that?” she asked with a smile. All the soldiers grinned and claimed they just knew, dispersing with fond head shakes and rumbles of laughter.