On the bright side, she’d have the apartment to herself tonight, instead of sitting across from her mom at the high-top table where their knees bumped each other, eating noodles and veggie broth in silence.
Eris had been alone a lot recently. Ever since her disastrous birthday party, when everyone learned the truth about how poor she was, she’d felt isolated and left out. Of course, all her friends kept saying that everything was fine; they’d all texted her supportive messages the next day, still hung out with her at school, repeatedly asked if she needed anything. Not that Eris really believed them. Being friends with Avery was staving off the worst of it, but she still walked through the hallways at the center of a storm of whispers, eyes following her every movement. She could hear people murmuring in pitying tones about how terrible it must be, even though many of them, Eris knew, were probably glad to witness her fall from grace.
She’d come straight home from school every day for the past week, actually doing her homework for once—she had nothing else to do—and going to bed early, where she lay blinking up into the darkness. Even after she finally fell asleep, her dreams were filled with locked rooms and frantic chases down endless dark hallways, a far cry from the flying dreams and Technicolor fantasies she used to upload to the Dreamweaver.
Overall, it had been a pretty awful week. Eris wished she had someone else to bother aside from Avery. If only she and Cord were still hooking up, she could at least escape to his place. She kept pausing at Mariel’s apartment each time she walked home, only to sigh and keep going. Given the way she’d ignored Mariel after that night two weekends ago, she couldn’t exactly knock on the door and just ask her to hang out.
She shifted her weight impatiently. Everything was so much faster on the upper floors, where robots scanned groceries and charged for them via contact-link in a matter of seconds, then whisked them away to be delivered by drone. But she was learning that nothing down here was automated or efficient.
Finally Eris stepped up to the register, and the grizzled old cashier began clicking at her items with an ancient-looking handheld scanner. Eris zoned out, her gaze traveling over the dusty displays of cheese product; the nut-butter dispenser grinding its loud gears; the girl working the next cash register over, with a long sand-colored braid and wide, sad eyes. She looked about thirteen.
“That’ll be sixty-two dollars and twenty-six cents,” the cashier intoned. Eris dug her tablet out of her bag to wave it over the scanner, and the machine gave an angry beep. “It looks like the transaction was denied,” the cashier said, irritation creeping into his voice. “Do you have another account you can use?”
“Oh, um—” Eris looked down, her fingers flying over the screen as she pulled up her account balance, and felt suddenly nauseous. She had less than fifty NDs in her account. When the hell had that happened? “Sorry,” she mumbled, her face turning bright red, “let me just take out a few things, then you can ring me up again.” She heard muffled complaints from the customers in line behind her, and wished she could just sink into the floor and disappear.
She kept the meganoodles and pasta sauce, hesitating between losing the chicken or the chocolate–key lime ice cream cup. Finally, with a little sigh of defeat, she put aside the ice cream. “This should go through,” she said as a hand reached from behind her to pluck out the ice cream.
“You know you can add up the price of everything while you’re shopping.” Mariel rolled her eyes. “And if you can’t do the math, there’s a program for it on your tablet.”
“Hey,” Eris said quietly, unsurprised. “How’s it going?” She took her bag of groceries, the transaction approved now, and stood aside as Mariel’s few items were scanned.
“Like you care.” Mariel swiped her tablet and tossed Eris the ice cream cup. “Here you go.”
“It’s okay, you don’t have to do that.” Eris followed Mariel down the hallway, feeling discomfited. She hadn’t quite realized Mariel was buying the ice cream cup for her.
“I did have to. You looked so pathetic about it.” Mariel shrugged. “Consider it a late birthday present. I saw on the feeds that you celebrated last weekend.”
Eris felt a stab of guilt. “Look, I didn’t—”
“Forget it. You don’t owe me anything.”
A few heads turned to look at them, curious, and Eris lowered her voice. “I’m sorry,” she said again, fumbling the words; she wasn’t used to apologizing. “What I did was shitty. It’s been a rough month for me. I didn’t mean to …” She trailed off helplessly. “Anyway, I really am sorry. Thank you for the ice cream.”
“Whatever. It’s fine.” They had reached Mariel’s door. She pushed on it with her hip; it was unlocked, and she started to step inside.
“Wait!” Eris hated begging, but she was already here and what the hell. “Do you want to maybe do something tonight?”
Mariel laughed once, darkly. “Sorry, Eris, I can’t just clear my schedule every time you need a hookup.”
“I meant as friends.” Eris tried not to sound defensive. “I just … I don’t know anyone else down here. It’s been lonely.”
“I have plans tonight. And I don’t mean a party,” Mariel said, but her voice had softened a little. Eris wondered if she’d struck a chord.