What the hell? I’m awakened by reveille, a very loud version of it, piped in over speakers.
Shaking my head, I sit straight up in my bed, shocked I ever got to sleep last night. All the stress hormones flying through my veins must have finally faded and let me get some shuteye.
After the bizarre meet and greet, as the Colonel called it, we were shown to our dormitory as if we hadn’t just witnessed the most mind-boggling thing in the history of the universe. If there had been musical accompaniment, it would have been reminiscent of the cantina scene in Star Wars. At least none of those males resembled Jabba the Hutt.
Though the Town Hall was either constructed in the late 1800s or made to look that way, the barracks connected to the rear is modern. From the Town Hall’s rear exit, we walked through a large lounge that reminded me of something you’d find in a college dorm. It was dotted with couches, with a big screen TV on one wall, and a few small tables with chairs on the other side.
Off the lounge, one door exited to what staff informed us was the male dorm. We were escorted into the female side, which housed a women’s-only lounge that emptied onto a hallway with our dorm rooms.
We were assured the men’s hallway was locked and they wouldn’t have access to our private lounge or our rooms. I’m still going to keep my door double-locked.
The dorm seems brand new and is nicely appointed in happy shades of yellow and blue. They probably spent big bucks on a research project designed to discover what makes freaked-out women feel calm.
My room has a comfy double bed and a private bathroom stocked with all the sundries they inquired about during the vetting process. They even sprung for the fancy shampoo and conditioner I asked for.
“Rise and shine, ladies.” I know that voice. It sounds like my Alexa from home. “We’d appreciate your presence in the dining hall for breakfast in thirty minutes. Your closets are equipped with Hawaiian shirts and khaki pants. Research has shown that this casual attire is comfortable, pleasing to the eye, and projects a feeling of calm and optimism. Please wear the close-toed shoes we’ve stocked in your closets.”
A feeling of calm? No amount of fuchsia hibiscus flowers could enhance my calm when looking at the animal-guys’ fangs.
Just like out of some odd, dystopian movie, there are seven hangers, exactly two inches apart. Each is filled with a different Hawaiian print shirt. I imagine the small beige dresser contains khaki pants. This feels like an episode of some surreal game show where nobody makes it off the island alive.
As I pull on my clothes, I’m surprised they fit. When they asked my measurements months ago, I fudged the numbers because I meant to lose a few extra pounds.
Did last night really happen? Am I certain I didn’t dream the animal guys? The military men with guns? The lion-man who very distinctly said the word “mine” nwhile staring at me like I was a delicious, juicy steak?
When I open my door to join the other women on their way to breakfast, their shell-shocked faces tell me all I need to know about whether what I remember from last night was a dream.
Amber and Riley make a beeline for me. I think we all feel better when we’re together. Safety in numbers or something.
“Did that actually happen? Are we really here to socialize with those animals?”
Although Amber just said what I was thinking, there’s something about calling them animals that rubs me the wrong way.
Except for that lion-guy. He freaked me out.
“Yes. It really happened,” I say. “I wonder if thinking of them as animals might not be a good idea. Too bad the Colonel hogged the mic and didn’t have them talk. That would have been way less weird than having them just stare at us.”
“Just stare?” Riley asks, her eyebrows rising halfway up her forehead. “You must have missed the part where the fox-guy… uh, marked his territory.”
There’s something about this conversation that, rather than scaring me, makes me decide to give this project a chance. Besides, we’re here for the next two years. We might as well make the best of it.
“Let’s forget last night. It wasn’t the finest hour for any of us. I was terrified and tucked into the fetal position. The males slid into their animal selves. Let’s see what today holds.”
“Welcome,” the computerized voice announces overhead as we enter the dining room. “Please notice three sets of tables. On the far side of the room are tables for males who wish to remain separate. The middle column is for those who wish to safely mingle under the watchful eye of our helpful guards. The nearest column is for females who do not wish to mingle. Enjoy your breakfast.”
“Big surprise,” Amber drawls. “The males are all in the mingle column.”
The buffet table is at the front of the room, and though all the males have food on their plates, none of them are eating. They’re all on the side of their tables that has a perfect view of us women entering the room.
“I’m glad the tables are covering their crotches,” Riley says. “Just like last night, I imagine they’re all sporting wood.”
We all fill our plates and, except for the little redhead with the pixie cut, we all sit on the women-only side. None of us have taken our first bite before the petite thing is swarmed by the males, who abandon their plates and squeeze next to her at one of the three co-ed tables.
I must admit, though they’re crushed together because twenty males are trying to sit at a table built for ten, they’re all taking pains to keep their distance.
Oh. Did I think all twenty of them were swarming the woman I think is called Avery?
“Nineteen,” I mumble.
Nineteen males are crushed together with Avery. The twentieth? He’s at another of the co-ed tables, his gaze glued on me.
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