Samuel's thumb hovering over the 'call' button on his cellular phone was like a gun on Aster's neck.
"Samuel, don't," Molly said, standing between Aster's bed and her mate like a buffer. "He said not to call 911. Just… hold on. Can we please figure out what's happening first?"
"If you would please exit the room," Aster said, trying his best to sound light-hearted, and failing to do so. "I am just fine, I assure you."
"People having heart attacks say that they're fine." Samuel clicked his phone off, and the screen went black. Aster knew it was just temporary. He was damp from sweating. It had been an hour since he'd awoken, and twenty-five minutes since Molly and Samuel had come into the bedroom to yell at each other.
"You can't move at all?" Molly's voice was high-pitched. "Aster, this is not okay."
"It is. This is expected with my condition. Not… expected, but possible. Perhaps even probable." His head was pounding, and all this Late English was not helping. The language was a pain. He just wanted them to go so he could be furious with Cassia in private.
Exasperated, Samuel grabbed Molly's arm and pulled her into the hall, where he thought he was out of hearing range. Maybe hearing range in this century.
"Do you even hear what he's saying?" Samuel insisted in a hushed tone. "Half of the technology he mentioned before doesn't even exist! He's making stuff up. He's probably an illegal immigrant drug dealer with coke stuffed up his butt and that's why he can't go to the hospital!"
Through the slit in the door, Aster saw Molly put a hand on her hip. "An illegal immigrant drug dealer?"
"I'm serious. Dr. Moskowitz told me to watch out for that guy."
Aster perked up his head. The Doctor who'd given him the equipment?
"He did say he's from some kind of weird society with different technology," Molly was saying. She shut the door, which didn't make much of a difference. "Or maybe he works for the CIA."
"Yeah, that's more plausible than a drug dealer."
The conversation was interesting enough, and easy information that Aster found useful, but his mind kept drifting. The reality of his situation was sinking in. It wasn't so much that Cassia had done something wrong while operating, it was that she was gone. It was so cowardly of her that it disgusted him.
Molly and Samuel returned, and even if he hadn't eavesdropped, their expressions gave them away.
"Apparently, Samuel doesn't believe you," Molly said, looking more at her mate than at Aster. She was still in her bathrobe. It didn't look like she or anyone else in the house was going to work that day.
"I'm just being rational," Samuel said.
"He want you to prove what your saying," Molly said. "That this is a technical glitch or whatever. So please do, because I'm starting to freak out as well."
"Very well," Aster said. "What is the name for a person who has a similiar affliction from natural causes?"
"You mean names of diseases?" Samuel said. "I know of a couple. Muscular Dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gherig's disease. But there are tons more."
"What is the rate of degeneration in these diseases?" Aster said. He didn't like the way the two of them were standing over him. He wished they'd at least sit down somewhere.
They all knew the answer: years, or months. "Maybe you're having a stroke," Samuel said.
"Wouldn't his speech be slurred?" Molly said. "And he doesn't appear to be droopy at all."
Samuel shook his head, regarding Aster as one would regard a naughty child. "I know he's lying," he said, but he clearly knew that he'd lost. "What do we do now?"
The dreaded question. Molly touched Aster's shoulder. "Aster?"
"I will wait until my mate returns," Aster said.
Molly and Samuel exchanged glances. "I'll be right back," Molly said.
Aster heard her dialing on her cellular phone, but this time, the conversation was too remote. He did catch the words 'doctor' and 'paralysed,' as well as his own name.
She did not come back for a while. As he waited, motionless without choice, his skin began to irritate him, a giant itch that he could not relieve. He yearned to sit up and stretch, to scratch his scalp, to wipe the sweat from his neck.
When Molly came back, she was by herself. She closed the door softly as if he would break from the noise, and padded to his bedside, where she lowered herself by his pillow. He couldn't guess her intent by looking at her face, which filled his field of vision, and could only lie still as she brushed his hair back and kissed his forehead. "I'm so sorry this happened," she said softly.
"Please do not touch me in that manner." Aster's voice was dead, like the robot he was.
"How long will this last?" Molly asked. Her fingers stayed in his hair, raking it back as if she hadn't heard him.
"As soon as Cassia comes back, she will fix the problem," Aster said.
"Did she…" Molly sounded embarrassed to say it. " Did your girlf- your mate do this ? You said that your recovery was 'reversed,' whatever the hell that means." She dropped her hand when Aster didn't answer. "I think either I'm crazy, or, or you are, maybe, but I believe you about all that tech stuff. You can trust me. So please tell me."
Aster shook his head on the pillow.
Molly stood up abruptly. She cleared her throat. "Right. God, why would I suggest such a thing? Um. Dr. Moskowitz said we should get you out of bed. Otherwise you'll get a rash."
The idea was so fanciful that Aster actual smiled, half his lips curving up. "I will be alright, thank you. Cassia will fix the problem when she returns."
"What if she's not back soon?"
"She will be." He turned his head to the other wall.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Molly shrug. "If she's not back in an hour and a half I'm coming back. And you have to eat something."
He closed his eyes and heard the door creaking open. Before Molly left she said, "It's no big deal, Aster. It's just for today."
Three out of five storefronts seemed to be permanently closed. Constructions in this century didn't repair themselves, as was evident when Cassia peered through the dusty glass windows. One had been a shop for acquiring written books, one had been a tattoo shop, and the other had lettering in Proto-Mandarin, which she could not read. All three were adjoining, and were empty inside.
It was exactly what Cassia was looking for. She checked the parking lot, and still no vehicles. It was bitingly cold and not yet light, more of a somber purple, and she felt utterly alive. Her breath came out on puffs against the glass. This is what they'd come for, and she was sure she'd found it.
She had had an organic memory last night, remembered the time when Aster had come to Rhodium after being 'unconscious.' She'd told him one of the leading theories on where Croton had built a genetics lab in this century- beneath a strip mall.
This dilapidated row of shops, she believed, fit the description. The strip mall, she remembered, was supposed to be nearly vacated, and would close completely before the start of the year 2017.
She sat down on the curb, excited to return to Molly's home and tell Aster. But she didn't want to go back just yet. The threat of failure hung over her- what if he woke up and found himself just as he had been the night before? It was his first reaction that she feared most, the way his face would change when he would try to move him legs. The way he would hide his disappointment in front of her.
She couldn't be there when he woke up. She would be so ashamed if she failed.
Cassia rubbed her forehead, as if to clear the thoughts. She had to act quickly. The leftmost shop was easy to open- she lasered the door lock, fixing it as soon as she slipped indoors. She was inside one of the two shops that hadn't permanently closed yet, and she tried to fathom its purpose.
It was very dark. Unfortunately, she was wearing clothing from this century, and presumed that none of it glowed, so she was forced to tread carefully. In the almost nonexistent light, she saw the dim shape of raised salon chairs, although there were no hair products on the shelves or in the cubards. One of the walls was lined with tiny glass bottles. She knelt, feeling the floor for breaks in the wooden boards, then stopped. Even in a century of simple-minded people, Croton wouldn't be so sloppy. She would have to detect the whereabouts of the lab remotely, somehow.
When she heard an approaching engine, she straightened, almost dropping a small glass bottle she didn't remember lifting. There was nowhere to hide, so she strode out the door, coming face to face with an elderly gentleman. He had features she was used to seeing at home- in this century, he would be dubbed 'Asian.' He was small and bent, with rheumy eyes that glared at her.
"I work at this establishment today," Cassia said to him.
He didn't move, his eyes jumping. There was a key in one hand. He was trying to assess what to do with her.
"You should not leave your door unlocked," she said. "It invites the risk of burglars."
"You the girl my wife hired?" He said. His voice was raspy. "Why you no show up yestahday?"
"I was terribly ill," Cassia said. The man didn't seem to care for an answer, pushing past her. He flicked on the fluorescent bulb.
He shuffled across the room, towards a tiny hall that Cassia hadn't noticed. It led to three rooms.
"You answer phone," he said, already inside the back. "And take customahs who come until ten o'clock. You are alone till then."
Cassia nodded and sat down behind the desk on the right side of the doom, on a chair that swiveled like the ones in Molly's living room and office. The fake wood paneling on the back of it was peeling. Next to the desk, there was a scruffy pink sofa, and a pile of printed magazines beside it. The historian inside of Cassia stirred. She would love to have a good few hours to peruse them. Popular culture had been a main focus in her research.
But she didn't touch them. The next forty-five minutes were very long and very boring. She considered leaving, but such an action wouldn't be wise, and she needed to befriend this man. No one telephoned, and no one came through the door, except for a short white woman with a springy ponytail.
"Hey I'm Cindy!" She said, bouncing up to the counter. "I'm new here. Who do I speak to?"
"Where were you yesterday, Cindy?" Cassia said sternly, crossing her arms on the desk.
"I was, like, really sick," Cindy said, tilting her head, trying to appear pitiful. She was wearing scantily short pants, and her skin was a strange shade- almost orange.
"Well," Cassia said with a sigh, "We found you a replacement for the entire week. You may return to your dwelling."
Cindy frowned. "Are you firing me?"
"No. You may return next week on the first working day. Goodbye."
"Uh… Okay." Cindy revived her chirpy face momentarily. "See you then, I guess!"
The next women to enter the door seemed to be employees as well. Cassia still could not fathom the purpose of the shop. She speculated that it was somehow art related, as the bottles lining the wall were filled with differently colored liquids.
One of the women, stocky with dark hair and freckles, saw Cassia and gasped. Cassia's heart sped up, but the employee only said, "You can't work here with brows like that!"
The other women gravitated towards the desk. "Girl, you got a bush up there!" This worker, tall and twiggy, was chewing on something. "You the new receptionist?"
"Can't believe they hired new people," the third woman, still taking off her coat, grumbled. "Meanwhile they pay us nothing."
"Your employer is in there," Cassia said. She pointed to the back.
"Mr. or Mrs.?" Chewing-woman asked. "Eh, it's probably Mr. Lee. He's basically deaf, so I wouldn't worry. What's your name?"
"Cassia." Cassia withheld the urge to run her fingers along her eyebrows. These women all had symmetrical, low arches- the fashion of the time. She was starting to suspect the purpose of this place, and it didn't make her feel any better.
"I'm Linda, and this is Sophie and Mila. Okay, so come on," said Chewing-woman. Big loops swung from her ears as she talked. "I'll fix up your eyebrows."
"But I must guard the telephone," Cassia protested.
"Please," Linda said. "As if anyone ever calls. I'll do your eyebrows quick, and then Sophie will do your nails."
"I would prefer not."
"You've got caterpillars up there. Sorry to break it you, honey. Come on." Linda curled her finger toward herself, in what Cassia remembered as the 'follow me' gesture. Linda walked backwards and patted one of the white salon chairs. "Take a seat, please," she said. Cassia glimpsed something small and pink in her mouth when she smiled.
With a feeling of dread, she stood up, and came around the desk.
"I said no."
"Aster, please." Molly resisted the urge to check her phone for the time. Today felt like that day last year when her flight from New York had been cancelled- it was a day of just waiting around, time stuck in limbo, nowhere to go just yet. The most Aster let her do was wipe down his forehead with a damp cloth, which she did now, crouched beside him.
"I mean, we're friends, right?" She said.
Aster raised an eyebrow. "One typically doesn't not undress a friend."
Molly tried not to react to that. Aster's bluntness was ridiculous sometimes. She kept dabbing at him. "Special circumstances," she said. "I called Dr. Moscowitz to come help, but he's booked solid til four. So it's going to be me, Samuel, or Cassia, if she ever shows up. Take your pick."
"I'd never said I'd do anything," Samuel's voice floated in from the living room, where he was clacking away on the computer.
"Not helping, Sam!" Molly yelled back. When she turned back to Aster, he'd closed his eyes.
Her first thought was to shake him. Did he faint? But then he cleared his throat.
"Alright," he said. "Remove the blanket. And you can stop wiping my forehead. The cloth is no longer cool in any case."
Molly scrambled up, before he could change his mind. She pulled back the covers. Aster lifted his head, nodding towards his crotch. "Open that up, take it off and put on a new one. The package is under the bed."
"Do you need to go to the bathroom?" She asked. Her voice was almost shaking.
"No." Aster sounded bewildered, as if such an occurrence was strange. Molly didn't ask.
She did as she was told, almost mechanically. She couldn't let herself think about seeing Aster naked up-close for the first time. Not that she hadn't fantasized about it. But never like this.
"Do I have wipe-"
"No, just put on a new one."
Molly yanked the white undergarment from beneath him. Aster eyes were dead and focused on the ceiling the entire time. She had to roll him to the side to fit the new diaper underneath him, and he was surprisingly heavy.
When that was finished, she took a pair of light jeans and a white button-down from the neat pile in the dresser drawers. Aster refused to wear anything dark, and the only reason Molly could get out of him or Cassia was that black was 'disorderly.' Since Aster didn't want to accept his salary, Molly tried to compensate by buying them clothes and basic amenities. These bleached jeans were the most normal thing she'd coaxed him into wearing so far.
She bunched them up and cajoled his feet through the holes. That was the easy part. The hard part was getting the jeans all the way up, especially since Molly realized she was trying to touch Aster as little as she could. Even so, it was impossible not to. The nerves running up his body barely stuck out, but they were cold when her hand brushed against the soft flesh of his leg. She had to roll him on his side again, tugging the top of the jeans up his hip. It was hard work. By the time she zipped up his fly, she'd worked herself up.
The shirt came next. "Let's see how I'm going to do this," she said, mostly to herself.
"You will need to sit me up," Aster said.
Molly lifted his legs to the side so she could sit on the bed. "You're going to have to help me."
"Thread your arms beneath mine, and with your palms on my upper back, lift me so that I can lean on one side of you." Aster's eyes wouldn't meet hers. "You don't have to be so afraid. You aren't going to drop me."
Molly nodded, and lifted Aster, leaning him against her chest like he described. It was kind of like they were hugging, except that Aster was totally limp, a dead weight pressing against her. Her hands still behind his back, She threaded his left arm into the hole of the shirt. The other side was harder to reach. She had to shift so she was on his other side, and hold onto him with a tight, one-armed grasp as she moved. When both arms were in, she lay him back gently to button up the shirt.
"You said this happened before, right?" She said, stiffening his collar.
Aster looked at her as if to say, I thought we weren't talking unless we have to, but he said, "Yes."
Socks were next, and Molly figured she'd stop there. She found an unopened package in the second drawer. "Who did this kind of stuff for you then?"
"Half the time it was my younger brother. The other half, I had voice activated technology for the menial tasks."
"I didn't know you had a brother," Molly said. "You've never told me about your family."
She relocated to the chair next to the bed, and Aster rolled his head to that side. "Do not feel obliged to ask, just because I have confirmed that we are friends."
"Don't be grouchy, Aster. I'm just curious."
"I have good reason to be." He turned his head away. His hair was mussed from being dragged around on his pillow. She combed her fingers through the top of it.
He sighed, seeing that she wasn't going away. "I have one brother, Albanius, or Albie," he said. "He is a- there is no word for it in your language, but the closest I can find is 'monk.'"
"Oh my god. Your brother's a monk?"
"Not in the sense you know it. He is…" Aster paused, struggling the way he did when words weren't translatable. "He has devoted his life to the study of the Book."
"No. We do not believe in religion. The Book is the collection of all known knowledge. Albie studies that. We believe that the people who are most equipped to advance society are the ones who know the most."
"You said you had voice activated technology," Molly said, picking up on that detail. She loved hearing about Aster's life. There was something so… otherworldly about it. "Why did you need your brother if you have that?"
"Albie does not believe in extraneous technology," Aster said, making a face. "Neither does most of my village, but he is quite extreme in his views. He insisted in coming and caring for me."
Molly processed that, and when she realized she was staring at him intently, she dropped her gaze. "Aster, you're from somewhere… really, really different from here, aren't you?"
Aster thought for a while. "Yes."
Molly stood up. "Well. We should probably get you up. I don't think I'm gonna be able to lift you myself."
And that's how, two minutes later, Molly found herself holding the back of Aster's head as Samuel carried him over to the wheelchair.
"That is not necessary," Aster said to her. She dropped her hand. Samuel dumped Aster into his chair, and his hands drooped over the side. Molly knelt and lifted his legs into the footrests, and crossed his hands on his lap.
She and Samuel stepped back to check their handiwork. Aster's back was hunched forward. Molly caught him in barely enough time as he began to tip forward.
"We may have a problem," Molly said. Aster was quietly sullen, and not offering any more suggestions.
"Samuel," she said, "Go into my closet and get me a long scarf from the top shelf."
"This is insane," Samuel said, going off on his errand. Molly was still holding up Aster.
"Sorry about him," she said. Before, while lifting Aster, her boyfriend had huffed and said, "Jesus, he weighs like a million pounds," as if Aster wasn't even there. Maybe Samuel was trying to lighten the mood. Maybe he was just being a dick about the whole thing.
Samuel returned with a scarf. He'd gotten the girliest one Molly owned, a ruffly, white and pink knit, frilly by even her standards. It had been a gift from Molly's grandma, and Samuel knew she never wore it.
She took it wordlessly, and threaded it under Aster's armpits. She tied the two ends to his handlebars with fat double knots.
"There," she said. "For now."
Aster was still droopy. "Thank you," he said.
On to the next thing. It was a surreal day, that day. "What do you want for breakfast?" Molly asked. "Or should I say lunch?"
The thing Cassia hated most about the past was the agonizingly slow routes. Wherever you went, you had to walk across the flat stretch of earth between any two points. And it was worse than that. You had to follow the boxy shapes of the roads, so that any given set of directions looked like 'go straight, turn left, turn right, turn right, turn left…' Directions were in one dimension only, since buildings were not connected in the Twenty-first century. No 'take the 84th floor walkway down to the 22nd floor of the Rose Residential Building…'
These were her thoughts as she hurried along the bike path behind the University. Someone at the nail place- she couldn't remember who- had told her about this shortcut. It was still a long walk, but a substantial improvement. A small creek shimmered in the sun next to the path, and she had to keep her eyes down to sidestep all the goose droppings. Every minute or so, an older man or woman on a bike would whiz past her. It was midday, so all the students were in class. As were her students, but such a sentimental thought was foolish, as none of her students or their grandmothers had been born yet.
She found herself slowing her pace. Every step brought her closer to Aster, a step closer to bring yanked out of this blurry state of not-knowing. Usually she had to know everything- her personality demanded all the knowledge she could muster- but this was different. A different kind of knowing.
She thought back to her life, her career as a whole, and realized that this was the single most monumental thing she'd ever done. Not travelling to the past, or even surviving the trip. Touching her mate like that. Touching his brain. Her heart sped up just to think about it.
Her feet were practically shuffling along by now. There were small trees planted on the bank of the river, and each one had a plaque beneath it with the name of a dead beloved. Some had a small, plastic American flag amid the twiggy roots. She rounded the bend, away from the river, where on both sides of the path there were chipped tombstones. Cassia had never seen a cemetery, had never been in the presence of rotting dead bodies, even if they were under the ground. She stopped to read the names. Florence Abner, 1856-1932. Beloved daughter, beloved wife, beloved mother. George O'Reilly Jr., 1889-1934. May God rest his soul. It was no one she knew and no one she cared about, which as a historian was shameful to admit.
She turned onto Frontier Road. A jogger with saggy, wrinkled arms and a bushy white beard trudged past her, wheezing. Cassia looked back at the cemetery one last time. Some of the tombstones were on their sides. She took in a lungful of cold autumn air, and broke into a run.
She ran all the way to Molly's house. The skin below her forehead was still burning where the tall woman, Linda, had applied hot strips of wax and then tore them off. Cassia had a hard time believing that people did such things to themselves voluntarily. The shiny nails inside her clenched fists were easier to appreciate, though. But still nothing to spend money on.
Cassia had gotten so good at blocking Aster out of her thoughts that he was only brought to mind once Molly actually opened her front door. But instead of letting Cassia in, Molly stepped out onto the cement path.
"Where the hell where you?" Molly said. "Oh my god. You got your eyebrows done? Do you even know what's been going on here all day?" More than her flamboyant hair, it was Molly's way of overstressing words that irked Cassia the most.
"While it is not you business," Cassia said, trying to look past Molly into the house, "I was at my place of work."
"You don't have a job," Molly said.
"Judging by the time of the day and the fact that you are in pyjamas, neither do you," Cassia said. "Now, I would like to see my mate."
"I should warn you."
"I believe that is not for you to do either."
Molly glowered at her. "If Aster wasn't such a nice guy I would have kicked your ass out weeks ago."
"Of course," Cassia said. Molly was half a head taller than her, so she couldn't see anything. "His amicable personality allows me to be myself."
"Well, your amicable boyfriend is fucking paralyzed, so maybe you should go deal with that." Molly turned on her heel and stalked back inside. She was, to use a native term, 'pissed.'
Cassia watched her go as the news filtered through her mind.
It didn't work. She'd failed.
It didn't work. She'd failed.
Aster wasn't in the living room, but she found him in the kitchen, the second room she tried. She knew instantly something was wrong. There was a scarf tied under his arms, and a bowl of lettuce and tomatoes on the table, halfway between Aster's wheelchair and an empty chair. The fork lay near the empty chair. Aster didn't turn around when she walked in.
She felt her knees begin to wobble.
He knew she was standing behind him. Only Cassia's breathing was so measured, so calm. She did that when she was stressed. She refocused.
He heard her retreating back and he called her name. Only Molly came. "Bring me to her," he said. Molly looked like she wanted to object, but she didn't. She pushed him slowly, and even still his shoulders weaved forward and back. Cassia was sitting on the rug in front of the sofa, back straight, legs crossed, a dazed look on her face.
She didn't know what she'd done. All this time, Aster had assumed that Cassia knew. But she didn't.
All his anger faded away. Molly parked him right in front of her, and either left or went out stand somewhere out of his line of vision.
Cassia's cheeks were red from the cold, and the edges of her nostrils glistened.
"This isn't your fault," he said in Menghish to the top of her head. "You were just trying to fix me."
Her breaths were a perfect tempo. But her body was shaking. He'd never seen it before. She was shivering completely, uncontrollably.
"Cassia, come here," he said. She was centimeters away. He needed to reach out and touch her. "Come here. Please."
It was like talking to cement. She couldn't hear. But then she let a small sound, like half a whimper. Her arms unfolded from her lap hypnotically, and she grasped him by the pants and pressed her face between his knees, gasping, like she'd come out of the water. Her hot breath came through the fabric of his pants and was wet on his skin. Aster didn't say anything.
After a minute, she stopped, leaned back to look up at him. The voice that came out of her mouth was not hers, was timid and hesitant.
"I don't know what to do," she said. "Aster, I don't know what to do. Help me. Help me."
"Come here." He said it as a command. He would be commanding a lot in the coming days. Cassia sat on his lap.
"Now hold me," he said, "As tightly as you can. And listen. I love you, okay? I love you, Cassia. I love you very much."
Cassia listened, and her fingers crept behind his back and squeezed, and she curled her body against his. "I'm so sorry," she whispered. She repeated it over and over. She was crying all out, tears down her cheeks and dripping down his neck. He felt his eyes grow glassy, but he swallowed down the tears. It wasn't Cassia's memories that surged into him, but a mangled bunch of emotions, turbulent and rollicking. He felt her arms securely around his chest while his hands lay limp. He tried to imagine that it was him holding Cassia close.
When Aster looked up, Molly was on her way out of her bedroom, and she'd stopped at the neck of the living room. She was just watching them, with that lonely look on her face that was present with every gesture she made.
∆∆ To be Continued...