As I soared through the air on my hoverboard and approached the mall, I held my phone up in front of my face and brought up the window with Johann again. "Are you guys there yet?" I asked—although, once I glimpsed the window and saw the background of his location, I already knew the answer.
"Yeah, we're here," said Johann. I could tell he was inside the mall because of the familiar walls, stores, and rooms behind him, and the masses of people milling around.
I shifted my legs slightly to control the direction of the hoverboard. "Where are you?"
"Burger Bed. You almost here?"
"Yeah, I'm on—" I felt a slight impact on my side. Another passing hoverboard user had bumped against me.
"Why the heph don't you watch where you're going?" called a voice that was now several feet past me.
"Sorry!" I shouted back, then turned forward to face Johann again.
"What a jerk," Johann muttered, staring past me.
I shrugged. "He's got a point. Maybe I shouldn't be talking to you while I'm trying to maneuver."
"No way," said Johann. "Everyone does that. You're good, dude."
"Yeah, I guess."
"So, you're almost here?"
"Yeah. I'll be there in like a minute or two."
"Cool. See you soon!" The window in front of me closed and I stared at the landscape in front of me again. The mall was directly visible up ahead, and I could see a small patch of bluish sky peeking out from above the building.
Burger Bed was the name of a restaurant I had been to many times before. There were probably about eleven or twelve of them in town. The one at the mall was on the fifth floor. I tilted my feet upwards slightly, and the hoverboard ascended with me. I drove it into the fifth floor entrance and slowed down a little bit so I wouldn't hit anyone else walking or hovering around inside the mall.
As I drifted past, I eyed a group of dancing girls to my left. One of them took off her outer shirt and shook her torso back and forth. She was a nice sight. I watched her for a few moments, and I kind of wanted to stay longer, but I knew I had to meet Johann and Sheba. Behind the girls was playing a giant, holographic preview for the new Raging Gunman movie, showing the hero holding his partner close to his body and jumping out of a flying car where they both crashed into the water below. The whole display was exciting, and I decided I might come back and watch a little longer on the way back.
I glided into Burger Bed and stepped off the hoverboard. "Collapse," I said. The device clunked to the ground and the two halves folded themselves back together into one circular disc. I picked it up and strapped it onto my back.
"Martin!" Johann called. I walked over to him. He was sitting at a table with Sheba, his partner, on his lap, and a dark-haired girl I didn't recognize sitting next to them.
"What's up, Johann," I said, giving him a high five. I turned toward Sheba. "Hey, Sheba."
"Martin," she said. She stood up and quickly pressed her lips to mine. Her wavy brown hair brushed against my face as I kissed back.
"Martin, this is Lilah," said Sheba, sitting back down and gesturing toward the other girl.
"Hi," I said. "I'm Martin. Nice to meet you."
"I'm Lilah," said the girl. She had black hair pulled back neatly, bright green eyes, and a handful of freckles on her face that helped to bring out her smile. She stood up, embraced me, and kissed me on the cheek. I returned the embrace and kissed her as well.
"Can we eat?" asked Johann. "I'm starving."
"Sure," I said. We all got up and walked to the workers behind the counter at the front of the restaurant. Johann and I stood in line in front of a female worker, and Sheba and Lilah got in line in front of a male.
Lilah spoke up as we waited. "So, Martin, do you go to our school too?"
I looked up at her. "Yeah," I said. "Well, I go with Johann and Sheba, I mean. You go there too?"
She nodded. "Yeah. That's how I know Sheba."
"Yeah," Sheba added. "We had economics together."
"Okay," I said. "Economics. Huh. I haven't had to take that."
"Be glad," said Sheba. "It's like super boring."
"Oh, I don't mind it so much," said Lilah.
"Well, that's good," I said.
"What are you taking this term?" Lilah asked me.
"Mostly the usual stuff," I said. "History. Math and science. You know, stuff like that."
"So how many years do you have left?" asked Lilah.
"None," I said. "This is my last one."
"Nice!" said Lilah. "Mine too."
"Oh, good," I said. "Yeah, it's nice to be so close to the end."
"Are you eighteen, then?" I asked her.
"Almost," she said.
"Next month!" Sheba put in, smiling at Lilah.
I quickly glanced down at Lilah's midsection, where her hands were resting by her sides. It was true. There was no band of joining on her finger, so I knew she must not be eighteen quite yet.
"Wow," I said. "Very good. You must be very excited."
"I am," said Lilah, her voice rising slightly in pitch. "It'll be wonderful."
I think I started to say something else, but couldn't quite find the words. Instead I just smiled back at her, then briefly glanced down at the floor.
"So Martin, what will you do after you finish school?" Lilah asked me.
"Well," I said, "I've applied to the college for next year, so hopefully that's what I'll be doing."
Sheba looked up at me, her eyes growing slightly wider. "You're going to the college?" she asked.
"Hopefully," I said. "I mean, it's not definite yet, but—"
"Are you, like, really smart?"
I shrugged. "Well, I don't know about that. I just have always wanted to go."
Johann patted me on the back. "Don't listen to him," he said. "He's just being modest. Martin always passes all the tests and stuff at school. He's pretty much a genius!"
"Wow," said Lilah. "That's really impressive, Martin."
"Thanks," I said quietly, smiling weakly at her again.
"Yeah, really," said Sheba. "I could never go to the college. I'd pretty much flunk out on the first day!"
"You could do it if you really tried and worked at it," Lilah admonished her.
Sheba rolled her eyes. "No way. Have you seen what they do there? I had a cousin who went to the college. She had to do really hard math, and type, like, two or three pages of written words just to get in!"
"Yeah, I know," said Lilah. "I did the same thing when I applied."
Sheba's eyes got even wider. "You're going to the college too?"
"Yep! I got accepted earlier this month."
"Holy falp!" Sheba exclaimed. "I'm surrounded by geniuses. I feel like an idiot!"
"Don't worry about it," said Johann. "I'm an idiot, too." He reached to embrace her across the two different food lines. They started kissing.
"Uh, congratulations on getting in," I said to Lilah. "That's quite an achievement."
"Thanks," she said. "Maybe I'll be seeing you there in the fall." She smiled.
"Maybe," I agreed.
We moved up to the front of the line. Johann was in front of me. Sheba was next to him in the next line, and Lilah was behind her. Sheba was first, and she got a small order of just one burger, a salad, and a large drink.
"And how would you like to pay for that?" asked the male worker behind the counter.
"The regular way," Sheba answered. "How much is it?"
"Just one," said the man.
"Okay." Sheba leaned forward, grabbed the man, and planted one firm kiss on his lips. After several seconds, she pulled away and stepped slightly back from the counter.
"Thanks," said the man. "Your food will be ready in a minute."
Johann ordered three burgers and a large drink, which cost him two long kisses. He pressed his lips tightly against those of the female worker in front of him, came up for a moment to gasp for air, then promptly began on the second kiss. Sheba leaned against the front of the counter, waiting for him, a bored expression on her face.
When Johann was done, I stepped up to the front of the line. The worker was a fairly young blond girl wearing a black bra. "What can I get for you?" she asked.
"Um, I'll just have two burgers and a drink," I said.
"Okay. One kiss, please."
"Sure." I leaned forward, pressed my hands against the counter, and quickly brushed my lips against hers, then came back up again.
"I'm sorry, sir, but it costs more than that," she said.
"But that was a kiss," I said.
"Hardly. It's got to be a little longer for it to count."
Johann elbowed me and grinned. "Yeah, come on, Martin. Don't be cheap. Give the lady her payment."
"Sure. Sorry." I brought my lips to hers again and lingered a little longer this time. Before I could lift my head up again, the girl grabbed me by the shoulders, pulled me in closer, and pressed her face harder against mine. Our lips stayed locked for several more moments before she let go.
"There you go. Thank you very much, sir."
"Uh...sure," I said.
I could feel my face growing a little redder as we moved down the line to get our food.
"Don't you know how to kiss a girl, Martin?" Sheba asked lightheartedly.
"Sure I do," I said. "I just..."
"Someone ought to teach you one of these days!" Lilah interjected. She and Sheba giggled.
"I mean...why doesn't just a quick kiss work?" I asked. "Does it always have to be so long and hard?"
More giggling, and a deep laugh from Johann. That had not been the right thing to say.
"Well, when you're being joined, it sure does!" Johann said between laughs.
I narrowed my eyes. "That's…not what I meant."
"Don't worry about it, Martin," said Johann. "Come on. We paid for our food, now let's go eat."
Once our food was ready, we sat down at an empty table and began to eat.
"So, Lilah," Sheba said in between bites of her burger. "Are you still able to come to our joining?"
"Of course!" Lilah said. "I wouldn't want to miss it."
"Our joining?" asked Johann, putting an arm around Sheba. "I believe you mean my joining."
"Well, it'll be mine, too!" Sheba protested.
"Ah, but I'm the one turning eighteen," Johann said. "And besides, I haven't told you who I'm choosing yet." He playfully stuck his tongue out at Sheba.
She rolled her eyes at him. "Oh, come on. It's obviously gonna be me. Who else could you possibly choose?"
"You're right," said Johann. "Of course I'm gonna choose you." He kissed her. "You're the one who makes me the most happy."
"Aww, you're sweet," Sheba told him. "You make me happy too."
Lilah gasped. "Johann!" she said in a mock-scolding tone. "Did you just reveal who you're gonna choose to be joined to? It's supposed to be a surprise!"
"'Supposed to be'," Johann repeated sarcastically. "Nobody follows that anymore. I mean, I guess it kind of is part of the tradition. But I mean, come on. Sheba and I have been pretty much partners for months. And when was the last joining you went to when anyone was actually surprised at who was chosen?"
"Hmm...I can't think of one," said Lilah.
I put my hand to my chin. "Me neither," I said.
"Exactly." Johann patted me on the shoulder. "Now, Martin here is an exception," he said. "Because nobody has any idea who he's gonna be joined to." Sheba giggled. "Heph, I'm pretty sure even he still has no idea!"
I looked down at the table and one of my half-eaten burgers. "Thanks for the reminder," I muttered quietly.
"Don't mention it, old buddy," Johann said. "Just trying to help you out. Hey, you'll be able to make it to my joining too, right?"
"Yeah," I said. "Of course I'll come."
"Great! And feel free to bring whoever you end up finding too." Johann and I had been friends long enough to realize that we were less than two weeks apart in age. His eighteenth birthday and joining ceremony would be on March 13th, just a little bit before mine. It was generally expected by him and by everyone else that I would certainly have found someone I wanted to choose by that time.
"Well, sure, if I do find someone by then," I said.
"Of course you will," Johann said. "And yeah, bring him along. I'm sure he'd like it."
I glanced at him. "He?"
"Yeah," said Johann. "I mean, you never seem too passionate about kissing girls, so I thought maybe your preference was for guys. You know, if I didn't already have Sheba, I would totally go for you."
"Come on!" I said, lightly punching him in the arm. "You know that's not true."
He grinned. "I know. It was a joke. Don't worry about it."
"I know," I answered. "But..."
"It's okay, Martin," said Sheba. "Sometimes I think Lilah's kind of in the same place you are."
Lilah's eyes widened at Sheba. "Excuse me?"
"Not that you like girls," said Sheba. "I mean, not that it matters. Whether it's guys or girls, I just hope you can find someone you can be happy with. But I just meant that your joining's coming up soon, and you haven't really picked anyone yet...have you?"
"Nope, not yet," said Lilah. "I mean, I've got options, but...nothing definite."
I looked up at her. "Soon? When is your joining?"
"Next month," said Lilah. "February 20th."
"Whoa," I said. "That is soon!" I considered that my joining was March 21st, a month and a day later. "I don't feel quite so bad anymore."
Lilah looked at me. "Thanks," she said.
I suddenly wished I hadn't said it. "Sorry. I was just kidding."
She giggled and kissed me on the cheek again. "I know. You're fine."
"Oh," I said. "Well...good." I looked back up at her. "So...you don't know who you're gonna be joined with either?"
Sheba smiled slightly and glanced silently at Johann. He smiled too.
"Nope," Lilah repeated. "But it's okay. I'm not really too worried about it."
"Yeah," I said. "Me neither."
"I figure I'll just know when the time comes," said Lilah. "Whoever feels right...well, I guess that's who I'll pick."
"That...sounds like a good plan," I said. I took another bite of burger. The conversation died down for a few moments as all of us continued sitting and eating.
"So...what are you guys doing after this?" Johann asked eventually.
I shrugged. "Not much. Weren't we gonna hang around here for a while?"
"Yeah, I thought we could maybe see a movie or two," Johann said.
"What's playing?" Sheba asked.
"Well, I wouldn't mind seeing the new Raging Gunman ones again," said Johann.
Sheba looked up at him. "Oh yeah. Did we see those yet?"
"I did. I don't know if you did or not. It's the first two parts of his origin story and how he became the top Agent. Sound familiar?"
"A little," said Sheba. "But I still totally want to see them!"
"Eh, I saw those," I said. "They were okay."
"Okay?" Johann repeated. "Dude, they were awesome!"
"I liked them, but I didn't think they were anything special. Besides, I've kind of been wanting to see Tower Attack."
"Oh, yeah, I've heard that's really good!" said Lilah. "I'd totally go see it."
Johann glanced at me. "Tower Attack? What is that?"
"It's supposed to be an old period piece," I said. "It takes place around the 1990s or 2000s. It's about a guy working for the government against like terrorist attacks and stuff."
"I don't know," said Johann. "I mean, it sounds kind of cool, but old-fashioned stuff like that can get pretty boring too."
Sheba scowled. "Yeah, I don't really wanna see that. I can never understand all that old-style language they use. Plus, it seems just like school, learning about history or something. It's totally boring."
"What?" Lilah asked her. "I love that kind of stuff! I never thought the language was that hard to understand."
"Yeah, well, you're going to the college," Sheba pointed out. "Like we said before, you're pretty much a genius, but some of us are a lot dumber than that."
"You're not dumb," Lilah told her. "Don't be so hard on yourself."
Johann leaned in closer to Sheba. "Hey, Sheba, how about this."
She turned to him. "Hmm?"
"Me and you can go see Raging Gunman later on," he said. "But I think Martin and Lilah would really like to see Tower Attack...what do you say we go see it with them?" He nudged his arm against hers slightly.
Sheba scowled for another second, but then opened her mouth and began to smile. "Oh! Um, yeah, that's fine. We can go see Tower Attack. I'm sure I'll probably like it."
"But you just said—" Lilah began.
"Don't worry about it," said Sheba. "We can go."
"Are you sure it's okay?" I asked her.
"Yeah, it's fine," she said. "Let's go!"
"Lilah, you want to come?" Johann asked.
"Sure," she said.
"Great! Well, I'm pretty much done, if you guys are ready."
We were. The four of us got up from the table, walked out of Burger Bed, and began toward our next destination.
The mall had movie theaters on the first, second, and third floors. The one on the third floor was the newest, and also the closest to us. We took an elevator chute down and arrived there quickly.
"Can we get Tower Attack in a room for four?" Johann asked the worker at the front.
"Sure," she answered. She glanced casually at the four of us. "Two two-seaters for couples?"
"Well, actually—" I began.
"Sure, that's fine," said Johann.
"Okay," said the worker. "And when would you like that to start?"
"Just as soon as we get in is fine."
"And how will you be paying?"
"The usual way." Johann looked back at the rest of us. "I got this, guys."
"Oh, are you sure?" I asked. "I don't want to make you pay for all of us."
"I think you've paid enough for one day," Johann said, snickering. "Don't worry about it. It's on me. I don't mind."
"Well, okay," I said. "Thanks."
"Yes, thank you," said Lilah.
Johann stepped up against the counter. He leaned forward, grabbed the woman by the shoulders, and kissed her for several seconds. She pulled up his shirt and began to run her hands along his chest and torso. Lilah, Sheba, and I leaned against the wall, waiting.
"I hope this movie is as good as I've heard," said Lilah. "I've been looking forward to it."
"Yeah, I'm sure it will be," I said.
Sheba gazed toward the ground, not saying anything.
When Johann was finished paying, he came back to us. "Okay. We're good to go."
We filed into the room we had reserved for the movie. Everything was almost completely dark, but we could see well enough to find our seats. Johann and Sheba quickly sat down on one of the two-seater couches. The other one was a few feet away from them. Lilah sat down on it, and then I took a seat next to her, resting my body against the arm at the far edge of the couch.
For a moment the room got even darker, but it lit up again with the sudden appearance of a bright, life-sized holographic image of a pretty girl eating a handful of candy and drinking a large soda. "Welcome to Senses-Shattering Cinemas!" said a loud, automated male voice that did not match the girl in the image. "We hope you have a great time and are as comfortable as you could possibly be. Sit back, relax, enjoy the movie, and enjoy the person next to you! And remember, if you get hungry or thirsty during the show, just press the button on the side of your seat to order snacks delivered right to you!" The image changed to a wide assortment of foods—burgers, fries, hot dogs, sandwiches, chips, cookies, and candy—all in bright color and much bigger than they actually appeared in real life.
"Oh, that looks good," I heard Johann say. He turned to Sheba. "Do you want anything?"
"We just ate!" she reminded him. "You don't need anything else."
"But I love food! Wouldn't that just make the movie even better?"
Being a few feet away, I tried not to listen in on their argument, but I couldn't help but roll my eyes and snicker softly. Lilah leaned over to me. "Yeah, I think it's silly too," she whispered. "You don't want any food, do you?"
"No," I answered, also speaking quietly. "I just had two burgers. I should be good to go for a while."
"Exactly! Same here."
"I figure we should just sit back and enjoy the movie without worrying about anything else."
"Yeah," said Lilah. "Just like the commercial said. We should just enjoy everything we've already got right here in this room." She shifted in her seat.
"Yeah. I agree."
After several more commercials and clips from other films, Tower Attack actually began. The holographic image of a huge skyscraper from back around the 21st century shot up from the ground and moved closer to us, pulling us into the action. Some primitive aircrafts flew around it and we heard the buzzing, whirring noises coming from all corners of the room.
The main hero of the movie was introduced and shown to be on a secret, dangerous mission for the government. Soon I forgot about my surroundings, or at least pushed them to the back of my mind, and got caught up in the action of the story. I could still see Lilah out of the corner of my eye, resting gently on the soft couch next to me, her bright green eyes taking in everything on the screen, her mouth curved upward into a pleasant smile—but other than that, I was in another world from hundreds of years ago. Probably an hour passed, or even more. I didn't think too much about Sheba's yawning or Johann kissing the waitress for a sandwich. I found the movie exciting and enthralling, and I was thinking only about it—and Lilah.
The movie reached its climax. The government agent hero bested the villain, an international terrorist, in a huge fight that lasted for several minutes. Then, once his enemy was dead, the hero rushed up to the top of the tower and rescued his love interest before the villain's underlings could push her off of the roof. He sent their bodies soaring several stories down to the ground, then embraced his lover tightly. They wrapped each other in their arms and pressed their lips together, kissing passionately and not separating for several more minutes.
My focus on the movie was interrupted when Lilah nudged my arm.
I turned to her. "Hmm?" I whispered.
She pointed to the holograms. "That is how you kiss a girl," she whispered.
I remembered her earlier comment after my incident at Burger Bed. "What? No, I know how to kiss a girl," I restated. "I've done it plenty of times. I just, um…" I couldn't find the words I was looking for.
"Well, just so you know," she said. "I wouldn't want you to embarrass yourself again."
"Well, thanks," I said. "That's nice of you…"
She giggled and patted my arm. "Don't worry, Martin, I'm just teasing you. I'm sure there's nothing wrong with your kissing." Her hand didn't leave my arm.
"Thanks," I said. "Yeah, I didn't think there was anything wrong with it either, but apparently—"
She interrupted me. "But still, it never hurts to practice a little bit."
I looked at her. "Practice?"
She grabbed my other arm as well, placing her hands on my shoulders, and leaned in closer to me. Before I could react, she touched her lips to mine and pressed in firmly.
I hadn't been expecting that. I hesitated. I had just met Lilah today, and she seemed like a nice girl, but I wasn't usually one to kiss a girl a whole lot the very first time I met her.
But I couldn't deny that Lilah looked beautiful, and had an attractive personality as well—at least from what I could tell based on the short time I had known her. I also couldn't deny that it felt good to be kissed by her. It felt warm and alluring and right. Before I knew it, my hands were on her back, and I was pulling her closer to me, returning her kisses in full force.
Minutes passed. The movie ended. The credits began scrolling through the air and a few dim lights came back on.
"Well, what did you think?" Sheba asked Johann.
He shrugged. "It was okay. I mean, I guess there were some pretty good fight scenes and sex scenes, but the rest was pretty boring."
"Yeah, I didn't like it that much," Sheba answered.
Johann got up and began walking over toward our couch. "Well, it looks like someone had a good time."
Lilah brought her mouth away from mine and untangled her arms from me. The room felt a little bit chillier. I took a deep breath, then sat up straight in my seat.
I looked up at Johann. "Oh, yeah, well…I thought the movie was pretty good."
Johann punched my arm. "Shut up, you dork. You know that's not what I was talking about."
"Yeah, I know. But really, I did have a great time. With the movie and, um…the company." I looked at Lilah and grinned. "Uh, did you like it?"
"It was wonderful. We should do it again sometime." She smiled at me. "The movie wasn't too bad, either."
I could feel my face burning up.
"Well, do you guys want to see Raging Gunman with us?" Johann asked. "We're probably gonna go get that one next."
"Sure," I said. But then I thought about it for a moment. "Well, I mean, I'd like to, but maybe some other time, actually. We've been out for a couple hours already, and I told my mom I'd try to be home for dinner."
"Well, okay, if you're sure…" said Johann. Lilah cast her eyes downward and frowned a little bit.
"Yeah," I said. "Sorry. I'd love to, but I can't."
But then I remembered what else I had told Mom.
She looked up at me again.
"Are you doing anything else tonight?"
"No, I don't think so," she said. "Probably just homework and hanging out at home."
"Well…do you maybe want to come over to my house for dinner?"
She smiled widely and gave me another quick hug and kiss on the lips. "Of course I do!" she said. "Thank you for asking!"
"Sure," I said. "Thanks for coming."
We both stood up from the couch as well.
"Well, this was a good time," said Johann. "I guess we'll see you two later?"
"Yeah, see you," I said. Johann lifted his hand in the air and I high-fived it. Then he and Sheba walked away, arm-in-arm—but with their free arms, Johann high-fived her as well, as if they had just succeeded in some great accomplishment.
I looked back at Lilah, still reeling from our experience of excitement and passion. "So…are you ready to go?"