Mina studied the artwork hanging at the foot of her bed. A line of pre-evolved wild animals and birds sat on the back of a wild-bear, appearing to ride it. “Daddy? Why is the blue bird on the wild-bear’s head?”
“She’s giving the wild-bear directions.”
“Oh.” Mina thought for a second, then asked, “Why is the wild-mouse sitting in front of the owl? Isn’t he worried about getting eaten?”
“No. That would violate the wild-bear’s Terms of Service.”
“What are Terms of Service?”
“It’s an agreement between the user and the service provider. In this case, in order to ride the Wild-Bear Bus, you have to agree not to eat any of the other passengers.”
“Cool. Is that one of the Terms of Service on the school bus, too?”
“Yes.” Mina’s father smiled, showing just a hint of tooth. “Are you nervous about tomorrow?”
“No. I was just wondering if I’d be allowed to eat any of the other kids.”
“Well, you’re not.” He tucked the sheet around his cub the way she liked it and gave her fur an affectionate ruffle. “And you tell a grownup if anyone tries to eat you.”
Mina laughed at the idea of someone eating her. Looking back at her preschool self the night before her senior year, she realized it had been incredibly naive to think that her status as a lion put her at the top of the school hierarchy just because wild-lions are at the top of the food chain. She’d be taking neither the Wild-Bear Bus nor the school bus tomorrow and would be riding her bike in. Although the bike had been a birthday present a month before, she was certain the scurry of squirrels that actually ruled her school would find several dozen faults in it, probably including an assertion that it was already out of fashion.
Sometimes Mina wondered about what Earth had been like before the rapid evolutions of the late human era, back when a group of extinct primates had somehow managed to be in charge of everything. When everyone was the same species, did everyone get along? Was high school somehow harmonious? Or were there still mean kids who didn’t literally eat the weak but metaphorically had them for lunch? Too little of their literature survived to know for sure.
She sighed as she laid out her uniform for the morning. There was undoubtedly a cool way of altering it this year that no one had told her yet. Last year it had been rips on the sleeves. The year before, it had been bleach stains on the skirts and trousers. Back in middle school, it had been the addition of pins. Mina and her best friend Yentl still wore a button on their headbands proclaiming them besties for life. Yentl’s had a lioness from an ancient book about a wild-lion who was also a king and Mina’s featured a wild-skunk in a flowerbed taken from an equally old artwork. Mina slid her pin into her new headband, the one in Senior Class Plaid that replaced her Junior Class Polkadots. She smiled faintly, reflecting on how much she’d missed Yentl over the summer and how awesome it would be to see her in the morning.
When Mina made it to school the next day she was at first relieved that she’d made it in early enough that none of the squirrels were there to spot her. Then she saw Yentl.
Yentl stood near the entrance with a troop of lemurs with similar fur patterns to her own. She had ribbons dangling from her belt and her headband was devoid of pins. She saw Mina looking at her, glared, and turned away. She walked off as Mina approached.
In homeroom, Yentl still refused to speak to Mina or meet her eyes. She did, however, slide a note across the aisle.
Mina opened the missive with shaking hands. “Our friendship was unnatural,” it said. “Herbivores and carnivores shouldn’t hang out together. You should go talk to the hyenas or something.”
Shaking her head, Mina took out a pen to scrawl out, “You can’t mean that. We’re not wild animals! We’re people!”
Yentl didn’t write back.
“I don’t even eat meat! I only eat synth! You know that!” Mina tried again, this time speaking in a hushed tone designed to carry to her neighbor and no further.
This time Yentl took pity. “It’s not about what you eat, Meens,” she whispered. “It’s about nature. And we’re only friends because we sit next to each other in home room, which we only do because we’re sorted by alphabet. If I had a different last name, we never would have spoke. And that would have been better for both of us.”
“No, it wouldn’t!”
A few heads turned because Mina had said that last bit much louder than she’d meant to.
Yentl gave her oldest friend a gentle look. “We’re going to different colleges anyway. Let me have a decent senior year instead of being a freak for my entire high school career.”
The skunk waltzed to the front of the room to talk to the teacher, who nodded and directed one of the front row students to move to Yentl’s old seat under the premise of Yentl’s tablet having poor reception in the back of the room. It wasn’t a great excuse; everyone was issued the same type of tablet and the coverage was universally good throughout the school.
A fellow lion named Deshaun slid into the recently vacated spot, adjusting the seat to accommodate his taller size. “Been there, done that,” he whispered to Mina. “It sucks.”
Mina’s thoughts were reeling enough that it took her a while to remember what Deshaun was talking about. He dated a deer sophomore year, until she dumped him for “aggressive potential” even though he was the chillest and most mellow person in their class and had never so much as bared his teeth at her. “Yeah,” she said as he rummaged through his bag for something.
A moment later, Deshaun held out a ribbon to her. It said, “Preds for Peace” on it, advertising the school club he was president of. “Come to our meeting today. Three o’clock in O’Kent’s room.”
Although she’d been somewhat derisive about the group before, calling them hippies and accusing them of spending more time smoking weed than actually promoting coexistence, Mina took the ribbon and tied it to her belt. “Yeah. I’ll try.”
“And…” Deshaun paused for a deep breath before saying in a rushed jumble, “Feel free to eat lunch at my table if you want.”
The offer made Mina want to cry all the more, but she nodded. There was no doubt the day was going to suck. She reached up and took the pin off her headband, not caring if it left a hole. It was appropriate for it to leave hole to match the hole in her heart.
Hole in her heart? She drew herself up straighter. That was not the kind of thought Mina Saint Clair was going to have.
The male leaned toward her with poorly contained eagerness. “Yeah?”
Mina pointed at Deshaun’s belt, which had about two dozen ribbons tied to it. “Think you could spare a couple of those?”
He gave her the careful large carnivore smile, the one that managed to cover his teeth so as not to alarm smaller people. “Sure thing. Although in some cultures, I think that would mean we’re married.”
Taking the clump of shiny strands he handed her, Mina smiled back with a less careful smile, knowing Deshaun could handle her teeth. “It’s cool. Giving them back tomorrow will make us divorced.”
Deshaun snorted out a laugh. “As long as no one owes alimony, I’m down with that.”
In the front row, Yentl turned to look at her old seat with a frown. Mina stopped smiling, but didn’t stop showing her teeth.
Quickly, Yentl turned back to the front, obviously spooked. It made Mina feel a little bad, but not bad enough that the more aggressive side of her mind didn’t snarl, “You shouldn’t have provoked a carnivore if you didn’t want to get eaten.” She gasped at the thought, took a breath through her noise, and said out loud, “Yeah, I’ll definitely be at the Preds for Peace meeting this afternoon.”