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Sonuachara Chapter 2

The next day, Trina went out of her way to be friendly to Zoe, even going so far as to invite her to sit at her table— where the 'in'crowd ate lunch. Zoe refused, politely, and slipped away to her usual lunchtime haunt, an area behind the school which was technically off-limits. A few minutes later, she saw Trina heading in her direction, carrying two lunches.

"You aren't stupid, so don't act like it," Trina said, holding out one of the lunches as if daring Zoe to refuse.

Zoe stiffened. "Did you consider the possibility that I might be on a diet? Thanks for the thought, but I prefer to avoid temptation."

Trina's eyes narrowed, and she glared at Zoe. "I'm not stupid either, dammit. It's not fucking charity, so deal."

"Then what do you want for it?" Zoe asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Nothing," Trina said. "There's a difference between charity and doing something to be nice to someone, you know."

"No, there's not," Zoe snorted. "Or there shouldn't be, anyway."

"Oh?" Trina raised a skeptical eyebrow. "C'mon. From what I've seen,'charity' is usually someone trying to make themself feel better by doing something for an 'unfortunate'."

"Exactly. And like I said, it shouldn't be."

"Maybe not, but it's what most people mean by 'charity', and it's what you assumed I was doing, wasn't it?" Trina asked.

Zoe gave her a tiny quirk of a smile. "Maybe. Wasn't it?"

"Nope." Trina held out the bag. "So take it before I get mad."

Zoe sighed and took it. "Okay, but it's just a small debt. Not something I asked for, or couldn't do without."

Trina shook her head. "It's not a debt. It's just me being my usual fabulous self."

Zoe laughed, short and abrupt. "Everything has a price. Every action... or lack of one... has a cost or a reward. An ethical person recognizes that, and does her best to maintain balance."

"Maybe so," Trina said, tilting her head. "But maybe I'm just balancing out my own karma, so you don't owe me anything."

Zoe shook her head. "It doesn't work that way. If I accept the reward, then I owe the debt. Doesn't matter if you're an axe-murderer trying to work off your sins. You get a credit, I get a debit, even if you're in the red to start with."

Trina straddled the bench next to Zoe, facing her. "So you think life is a zero-sum game?" she asked, opening up her bag.

Zoe leaned back against the trunk of the tree behind her, lighting a cigarette as she peeked into the bag. Pulling out a carton of milk, she said, "At best."

Trina shook her head. "I think you're wrong. I think in the end it's a positive-sum game. In the short run it might be zero-sum, or even negative-sum, but in the long run it's positive-sum."

"Hah. Yeah, right," Zoe said. "Maybe for some people. A very few people. But not for most. They live, they try, they suffer, then they die."

"Oh?" Trina asked. "You think most people's lives are unadulterated misery? Or do you only see success in monetary terms?"

Zoe shrugged. "Not unadulterated. There's enough good to keep them trying. It doesn't take much. Intermittent reinforcement is the most powerful behavioral motivator. Look at all the people with gambling problems."

"True. But I don't think that, on the balance, people's lives are pure misery. Some people have it better than others— like me— and some people have it worse, like you. But for most people, it comes out positive, and even for people like you and me, it might not come out the way we expect. I mean, how many stories do you see in the news about this rich girl or that rich girl going into rehab, or getting busted for possession, or having an eating disorder?" Trina asked.

"You don't get it," Zoe said. "You're not guaranteed to have it any better than me. Yeah, you've got a different set of possibilities. But it doesn't matter, because you've also got a different set of liabilities. Right now, things might be going your way, but that doesn't mean they always will, and it definitely doesn't prepare you for when they won't, and it'll be worse for you than for me because of that. Because at least I don't expect it to be any different."

Trina nodded. "That's my point. Maybe life's great for me right now, and maybe it sucks for you right now, but at the end of our lives, who's to say you won't be the happier of the two of us, overall? And chances are that both of our lives will be more good than bad, and even if not, next time around we get to try again, with a different starting position."

"It's not a competition. No way to tell who's happier in the end. Doesn't matter. The only constant is that almost everyone will have all the pain they can deal with, or more. The only way to 'win' is to live through it, anyway." Zoe looked away, sighing. "I think. Sometimes I think the winners are the ones who get out before it hurts too much. But if you do that, then you've lost the chance to do any good you might have done."

"But you also get all the joy you can handle, or more," Trina said. "Maybe it doesn't look like it, not in the short term, but if you look at it in the long term, you do. Don't just focus on the century or so you get this time around, look at the big picture."

Zoe laughed suddenly. "So that's it... you think you get another go'round? It's okay if some poor little thing gets beat to death in this life, because in the next one, she'll be born a princess and have everything she wants? Yeah, sure. That's just another way to feel good about things, to make it all seem bearable and pretend it makes sense."

"Who says she'll be a princess next time around?" Trina asked. "She might be. She might not be. All I know is that in the end, things average out to a positive sum. That doesn't mean that what we do doesn't matter; how we treat other people does matter. It just means that we get more than this one lifetime."

Zoe shook her head in disagreement. "Nice thought, but no more reason to think that than to think all the poor little waifs'll go straight to heaven. People made up religion because reality was too much for them to face without it. That doesn't make it real."

Trina shrugged. "I can't prove it, of course, but I'm certainly not having any trouble facing reality. I've got evidence that's enough to convince me. That's all I need."

"People can find 'evidence' for anything. Anecdotes, hallucinations, dreams, sometimes even just wanting to believe it. But I'm not going to argue with you. If it makes you feel better, it's your fucking business, not mine."

"I'm fairly sure that it's not a hallucination, and I don't think it's self-selection bias. I've tried to account for that. I can't be sure I've succeeded, but I've done what I can," Trina said.

"Look," Zoe said. "I said what you believe isn't any of my business. I don't go around trying to change people's beliefs. But I have the right to the same courtesy."

Trina nodded, giving Zoe a sheepish half-smile. "You're right. Sorry."

"S'okay. Everyone feels some burning need to convert atheists. Even pagans. It's fucking weird sometimes. Then, some people assume I'm 'one of them' because I'm not Christian, and get pissy because I don't buy into their theories, either." Zoe shrugged. "I'll tell you what I do the rest of them... appearances can be deceiving. I've known people who dressed and acted just like me who were hard-core fundamentalists. Dangerous to make assumptions around here. Talking the wrong beliefs to the wrong people can get you hurt."

Trina gave Zoe a slightly puzzled look. "Yeah. I know. I'm... not sure why I mentioned it to you."

"My overwhelmingly compassionate and understanding nature, no doubt," Zoe said, rolling her eyes.

Trina smiled slightly. "I'm sure."

Zoe slipped the trash into the empty sack and tucked it into the top of her backpack to throw away later. "Cool. As long as you do realize it."

"Yeah," Trina nodded. "So... do you want to ride with me? Means you don't have to wait on the bus."

"Well... since you're going that way anyhow. If you're leaving right after school, that is," Zoe said.

"Yeah," Trina said, nodding and tucking away her trash.

"All right, then. You drive, I'll give you gas money."

Trina waved her hand dismissively. "Don't worry about that."

"Balance, remember?" Zoe asked. "It's not for you, it's for me."

"But I don't need it," Trina said.

"So?" Zoe asked. "What does that have to do with anything?"

"So what's the point in giving me something if I don't need it? Do something useful with the money if you don't want to keep it."

Zoe shrugged. "Give it away to someone who needs it if you don't want to keep it. I had it budgeted for bus-fare, anyway, so it's no change to me."

Trina sighed. "Okay."

Zoe hopped to her feet. "Good. It's a deal, then."