The camp was busy with people getting ready for dinner. People were dragging benches into places around the smaller social fires, pulling pots and pans off the bigger cooking fires, and laying out stacks and stacks of bowls and towels for the people to come and get in a few minutes. Three dozen people all moving around each other with ease. It was fascinating. I was never going to be able to figure out how to fit in here.
“Stick with me,” Alexa laughed at my shocked face, “I’ll show you what to do for now, and I promise that you’ll pick it up faster than you think.” She wrapped an arm around my shoulders, carefully to avoid the bandage near my neck, and dragged me forward into the throng.
I mimicked her exactly, getting a bowl and spoon and a small square towel, and then letting one of the cooks fill it up with a potato stew of some kind. “Make sure she drains that bowl, Alexa,” one of the cooks said, waving a ladle in my direction, “She looks like her skin is about to fall right off her bones.”
“Yes ma’am,” Alexa grinned, “We’ll make her a useful member yet.”
“Have a good night, Dearie,” the cook said to me, “And welcome to the group.”
“Thank you,” I muttered more to the bowl of soup then to her, and followed Alexa away from the food toward the many benches slowly filling with hungry people. At some point, Alexa came to a stop, and I almost crashed into her with my bowl. She dropped down unceremonially onto one of the benches and started shoveling stew into her face. I sat down next to her, trying to balance the bowl on my leg and keep my napkin away from the slightly grimy benches before I took my first bite.
I wasn’t as hungry as I had been the day before, they had fed me well since they found me, but it was still an amazing feeling to have proper food. And the fact that this stew was properly warm and freshly cooked—I could have wept.
“You look like you want the stew to have your babies,” Alexa commented. I didn’t even realize my eyes were closed until that moment, opening them to find Alexa studying my face carefully. “It’s just potato stew.”
“It’s the most food I’ve had to eat at one time in months,” I answered honestly.
Alexa’s face fell. “Right. Sorry. Right. Most people joining are running away from cities or have been turned out by families because there are too many kids or something. None of us were overfed by any sense of the imagination, but a bowl of stew was easy to come by.”
I took a second and then shrugged. “It’s okay. I…” I trailed off, unsure how to finish. It had been a long time since I had food or social interaction, and I was having a weird reaction to both.
“I am sorry. Feel free to eat your food like you want to have its babies.” Alexa turned back to her bowl for a second before looking back up at me. “But—Don’t start like—actually trying to have its babies. That’s where I think it crosses the line from reasonable to crazy.”
I didn’t know what to do with her joke, so I just ignored it and put another bite in my mouth. Delicious.