Spinning, spinning, then a take-your-breath away surge that made her squeeze her eyes shut and grit her teeth. Not wind, exactly, but a force like a thousand gusts, knocking into her at the speed of light. Stars whipped by like luminescent strings. She gasped.
The world spun and spun around, patches of green, patches of sky. Cassia tumbled to the ground and retched onto a patch of grass. She'd been warned not to eat before the journey, but no way was she going to arrive in the past in anything but the fittest health. And she did feel quite healthy. Aside from the retching.
She scrambled up, clearing her throat and dusting off her dove white vest. A strong breeze brought the smell of damp moss and pollutants as a spell of dizziness held her captive. Untamed, polluted trees looked down at her, and she wasn't sure if they were swaying, or if she was. Luckily, there was no one around to witness her less-than-inspiring arrival. Her mate was nowhere in sight, either.
She tapped her Q-band. Her mind filled with a stable feel for the latitude and longitude of the earth. She spread out her legs to steady herself, swaying as she got situated, closing in like a whirlpool on the eastern side of the Americas. When she fell into the correct spot, it felt like she was momentarily weighted down. Perfect. The coordinates were right: 42.8864 degrees North, 78.8784 degrees West.
Next, she felt for her mate on the band. Of course, she looked around for him first, but if he'd wandered into the forest she wasn't going to go in there after him. The small building neighboring the trees had the presences of two people in it, neither of which were Aster. Aster's presence through the Q-band was distinguishable, as it had a tangy taste to it because of all the wiring, and that was besides for the personal associations she had for him.
One thing was sure: as much as he liked forests, he had most probably not stuck around. As the Book said: '…gyrating matter generates outward spreading spirals.' And while Aster wasn't moving in circles, he was definitely matter. Absent-minded matter in any case. Cassia decided she had better explore the area outside the forest in circular paths, making a larger circle each time she finished a round. She set her mind also on finding fresh water, to rinse the taste of vomit from her mouth.
Smoothing down her perfectly whitened hair, she stepped into ancient civilization.
It was anti-climatic. A cluster of small buildings surrounded a lengthy black lot with white stripes painted on it. Chunky vehicles sat within the stripes, and they were all empty. Despite the lack of activity, she felt a thrill: all her studies, coming alive! She could observe ancient people just living their squanderous lives, and watch them as they mindlessly laid waste to the planet. Her dizziness all but faded behind a wave of excitement.
But first: locate Aster. Obviously finding and shutting down any activities by Croton, the madman, was of primary importance. But Aster would be of no use, searching on his own. He needed her.
Luckily they had arranged a meeting spot, in case they became estranged: a nearby fro-yo establishment, which records show had opened two years prior to the current year. They would meet a day after her arrival, or at the same time every day afterward, until they found each other. The establishment went by an unimaginative name, Danny's.
Cassia strode across the black lot. Beyond it was a strip of grass, then more concrete, then more grass. Admittedly, the infrastructure wasn't all too impressive. She crossed the road, and upon reaching the other side, she heard a whistle come her way. Four young men were crowded around a bench, wearing clothes that ended by the knee and high above the elbow. They had dark brown bottles in hand.
When she turned toward them, a short one with black hair whistled again, and the others laughed or made loud exclamations. She did not hear the exact words, but they seemed jovial and friendly. She approached them, and waved, the polite gesture. The short one laughed.
Fortunately, her Late English was impeccable. "Hey there," she said. "Can you he-"
"What's your name, pretty lady?" A taller man, wearing a black shirt with a stain on it, stood up and swaggered up to her. Cassia stepped back stiffly. "That's kind of you, but all I need is directions to the nearby fro-yo establishment."
"Hear that, guys?" The tall man took a swig of his drink. His throat made noises as the liquid went down. "Come on, baby, what's your name? You got any hot friends hiding behind you or what?"
Hot? Quswàk, she knew what that meant idiomatically but she couldn't remember… "I am searching for a friend. I will share my name if you will point the directions to the fro-yo."
The man chuckled. "You got a deal."
Cassia smelled something intoxicating on his breath. "My name is Cassia," she said. "The name of the establishment is Danny's."
The three men still sitting on the bench hooted with laughter. Cassia frowned. The tall man's eyes widened. "You're looking for Danny's?"
"Yes," Cassia said.
"Hey, uh, we can take you there. But they only open at nine, so you can hang with us until then." The man winked. There were too many gestures and not enough time to interpret them. "I can take you on a little tour of the campus. Whaddya say?"
A fro-yo eatery that only opened at nine? How strange. And she'd always assumed fro-yo had been a child's delicacy.
"Alright," she said. "Yes. I would like to see your campus."
Aster had reasonable evidence to believe that he was dreaming. Partly because the morning's events were horrifically humiliating, worse than any nightmare he could have cooked up himself. In addition, he'd said the wrong thing at the end, and then Molly was gone. He was alone with two useless legs and a Q-band that was broken.
He formulated a list of priorities:
1. Obtain food.
2. Get to the forest behind Molly's workplace in time for Cassia's arrival.
3. Meet Cassia, get her to fix his wiring.
4. Find Croton.
Item Four would be tricky. Croton was the reason he and Cassia had been sent to this Age of Folly. The combination of insanity and advanced technology went together splendidly in novels, but it would only bring anguish to the people of the twenty-first century.
Aster crawled toward the kitchen. His ribs hurt from getting out of that cursed washbasin. When he finally reached the food room, he was greeted with closed doors of all sorts, but no food. It was quite disappointing.
Turns out Item One wasn't going to be too easy, either. The first cabinet he pulled open held 'Ziploc,' 'garbage bags,' and 'Palmolive dishwashing liquid.' The latter featured a photo of cucumbers and lemon, but Aster suspected that the bubbly liquid inside was not edible. The next cabinet had similiar results.
He craned his head back to look up. Perhaps Molly kept her food in the cabinets that descended from the ceiling, way out of his reach. Anger bubbled within him, but he shut it down. Adrenaline would do him no good right then. He continued, scraping his way across the checked floor, until he reached the largest cabinet of all- it was white, with small ornaments stuck to the front. He pried it open.
Oh, wonders! It was a chilled food chamber- the refrigerator. He pulled open a transparent drawer, the only one he could reach, and grabbed an apple. He pulled out an orange, another apple, and a case of tiny berries he didn't recognize.
It astounded him how small the produce was. After eating his fill, he dragged himself back into the living room, and even managed to climb up onto a rolling chair. He inspected his sleeves- they were rubbed out and gray, as were his pants, although he saw no dirt on the ground. He felt his genitals and thighs- they still had sensation, but there was no voluntary movement at all. He didn't know if he needed to urinate or not, and for some reason, that thought gripped him with fear more than anything else. He resolved to try and relieve himself again in an hour.
The table that faced him had an instrument atop it, one that he was actually familiar with. It was an early computer, not yet quantum and with paltry processing capabilities, but Aster recognized it as new technology for this era. He spent the better part of an hour learning how to control it. Perhaps he could learn of methods for renting a vehicle to transport himself to the forest.
There was also the option of meeting Cassia after her arrival, at the fro-yo establishment. Aster searched the Internet, but could not find a fro-yo called Danny's. The only listing for Buffalo, New York was a chain of strip clubs. This lead him on a parallel search on the words 'strip club,' the results of which were quite enlightening. Cassia, in all her scholarly expertise, had never mentioned this concept to him.
Danny's. Denise? He searched for a program to read the words aloud to him. Perhaps he had gotten the spelling wrong.
He was startled when, with insistence, his stomach made an alarming sound. He wasted no time in pushing away from the desk, still on the rolling chair, maneuvering with the help of surrounding furniture. The entire trip still took almost thirty minutes. Then it was back to the search.
Aster was fully immersed in a check on the software when he chanced to check the time on the edge of the screen. It was three pm and seventeen minutes.
Mr. Glasgow, short, bald, master of Valentine Speed Dating finances, snapped his laptop shut. Across the gleaming table, Molly raised a finger. "Wait, that's it? That's all you can tell us?"
The accountant gave her a flare of his nostrils. "Sweatheart, that's all there is to say. I'm not going to change the numbers to your liking. You're spending more than you're making. Can't get plainer than that."
Molly shot Samuel a look. He'd been polite all morning, and now he just looked bored. Mr. Glasgow was a friend of his father's, and had offered his services as a one-time favor. Neither Molly nor Samuel were adept at the bookkeeping aspects of the business, and clearly, they were doing worse than they'd thought.
"Thank you," Samuel said, standing up. The accountant gathered his things, and stood up to shake their hands and wish them luck. Then he was gone.
"Thank you?" Molly repeated as soon as the door closed, moving from the table, back into their little office. "How about, 'help us?'"
"No one ever said this idea of yours was going to work out," Samuel said coolly, taking a sip of his coffee, his second cup that morning. This was the biggest exchange they'd had since last night, as Molly had been consciously ignoring him. "You heard the man. We're both going to be in deeper debt if this gets any worse."
"But we're handling it. We can fix it." Molly's eyes couldn't glance away from the printout on her desk, the numbers adding up to an ugly negative. So it was that simple.
Samuel set down his cup when he arrived at his desk. "Like the way you handled that Greek restaurant ordeal?"
Molly's fist clenched. She wanted to fucking punch her smart-ass boyfriend, but a sad truth was dangling in front of her eyes: if she wanted this business to stay afloat, she needed Samuel. She had no choice. Instead, she swallowed and asked, "How's it going on that replacement for the tenth woman?"
Nothing yet? Not a single woman in Buffalo, or in all of New York State for all it mattered, wanted to find love? Or more specifically, love through a well-organized speed dating event in a homey local restaurant?
Deep breaths. Deeeep breaths.
Molly was pointedly focused for the next few hours, so it wasn't until she pulled out a tupperware filled with last night's lasagna for a late lunch that she thought about Aster. Now that her head had cleared slightly, she realized that she'd left a man who couldn't walk alone on her bathroom floor. Aster hadn't even done anything wrong, just gotten himself caught up in the crossfire. Was she really so awful of a person? After picking at the crusty cheese on her lunch for a few minutes, she snapped the container's lid shut, and reached across the desk for her car keys.
It was cloudy that day, so the bit of space beneath the drawn shades didn't let in much light. Molly swung the door shut behind her and dropped her bag at her feet. Aster was still there, bathed in shadows, sitting on the desk chair with his head resting in his hands.
She was self-conscious of the clicking of her heels as she approached him. Aster didn't move a muscle. His hair, silvery white in the dark, was mussed.
"You didn't contact your girlfriend, did you?" Molly asked.
He cleared his throat, and leaned back. His eyes were dark. "No. Cassia, her arrival, it is gone. I cannot… traverse."
"Aster, I am so, so sorry." Molly hovered by the desk, and finally sank down on the couch behind him. She needed to say more than that. "This morning… It was awkward," Molly attempted, lacing her fingers together, "Worse even, for you. It's just, Samuel, you know? My boyfriend. He's just like that. He's…"
Aster didn't swivel around.
"Okay, look," Molly said. I'll drive you to the office. Okay? Maybe Cassia is still there."
"The time is passed."
"You never know. Maybe she's waiting for you."
Aster finally turned the chair around to face her. He seemed to consider this.
"How will I traverse to yourself's vehicle?" He said finally.
"Maybe… I'll just push you out. On that chair."
It was a miserable solution, not that either of them had any better ideas. Aster drew up his legs off the ground so they wouldn't drag. Molly opened the door, grabbed her purse, and took hold of the back of the desk chair. It looked like it would be easiest to pull him backwards. There was a snag at the threshhold, but she managed. On the concrete driveway, the little wheels rattled, angry to be on rough terrain. Molly opened the car door, and Aster managed to transfer himself inside.
The ride was quiet until they reached the first main road, John James Audobon, which was multi-laned, and mostly empty pre-rush hour. Aster stared out at the geese that flapped around in an empty patch of grass next to the police station.
"I'm just going to say this once," Molly announced. Aster turned his head.
"It's not 'yourself,' it's 'you;' it's not 'herself,' it's 'she' or 'her;' and it's not 'ourselves,' it's 'we.'"
Aster cracked a smile. "Ah. Always?"
"Unless whoever it is is the recipient in the sentence, like, 'she baked a cake for herself.'"
Aster nodded. "I understand. For example, 'he embarrased himself.'"
Molly turned onto the winding side street that held a dozen scattered business, including her own. "You could've locked the door, you know."
Aster shrugged. Molly bit her lip. Why did she always have to do that? What was wrong with her, that she never had anything nice to say? The freakiest part was that her mother had been the same way, with a criticism always ready, and nary a kind word. Even though her mom had been dead for ten years, Molly had only insults ringing in her ears when she thought of her. And she'd always sworn never to be like her.
The Mazda rode into the parking lot, which was empty save for Samuel's car and the minivan belonging to the optometrist in the next office. There was no sign of any woman.
"I'll check the hiking trail," Molly said. "Wait right here."
Aster glared at her. "That is the plan."
She checked the spot where Aster had been waiting, or doing whatever he'd been doing, the previous day. A squirrel darted up a tree, and an older man with earbuds jogged by.
Molly returned to the car. "She wasn't there. She doesn't have a phone?"
"Can you email her? Do you know where she's staying?"
"No. Ourse- we are travellers."
"Then we'll wait. She's probably gonna come back soon." It seemed like they had no other choice, and honestly, Molly had no idea what to do with Aster. During the one night he was under her roof, she'd witnessed him lose the use of his legs and the whereabouts of his girlfriend. For the most part, he was infuriatingly calm. Why was he so calm?
"So, Aster," she said, turning off the ignition. "Tell me about where you're from. England, right?"
"North, there. The name of the town whithin which I reside is called Astragalus. It is different from here."
Molly followed his gaze to the park across the street, which they faced directly. It wasn't a park, really, just a pathway with some trees and a bench behind it.
"My town… It is hard to say, it is… it is within the forest. Not inside, but, it is the trees."
Molly shifted in her seat to face him. "You live in a forest?"
Aster wrinkled his brow, looking like he was trying to find the right words. "Yes. The houses are formed like this." He raised his hands, palms straight up, then laced his fingers in the air.
"Oh my god. Your house is a tree?"
"Many trees, joined together."
Before Molly could digest this, there was a knock at the window. Molly jumped, and hurriedly rolled down her window.
It was drizzling outside. The drops tickled her face. Samuel bent down. '"I'm heading home," he said. He glared frostily at Aster, who glared right back.
"You know, I was going to apologize, Moll, but I guess I don't need to." He turned around, heading straight for his car.
"Hey!" Molly called, leaning out the window. "Don't you fucking jump to conclusions again. Sam!"
Samuel was halfway across the slicked parking lot by then. "You know what," he said, raising his voice, "I did sleep with other people. Happy? And guess what, I don't even feel guilty about it."
Molly's eyes widened. She threw open the car door, and stalked right up to him. Samuel folded his arms, leaning back against the hood of his car. "Oh, yeah. And it was like, good, hot sex. Like, really good."
On the other side of the lot, Mr. Moskowitz, the eye doctor, clipped to his convertible as quickly as he could. He waved on his way out. Samuel and Molly waved back, smiling, and as soon as he was gone the smiles dropped.
"You can do what you want," Molly said, her voice dropping scathingly low. "I'm not going to bring myself to care anymore."
"Oh, come on," Samuel said, giving his holier-than-thou face. "Doesn't that just make your blood boil? Huh? Doesn't it just make you so, so angry, imagining me with a woman, her big tits all over my-"
"Fuck you, Samuel. Fuck you."
"That's all you've got? I'm disappointed." He smiled triumphantly. "You still care a lot, Molly. You can't help yourself." He held up his car remote, and his car beeped. Molly huffed and stalked back to her car. Aster was staring at a spot on the ceiling.
"What?" she demanded.
"You have quiered me," he said, still staring at that spot with abject fascination. "May I return with a question of my own?"
"Samueh is your mate, correct?"
"But you do not live together."
"We were planning on moving in together… Samuel's got a nice place. His parents are well-off, so they pay the rent, I think." She fiddled with the heat. "I don't know, we just never got around to it."
"I see. And also. Why have you chosen Samueh as a lover if he angers you?"
Molly shook her head. "Okay, enough questions, I think. My turn. What's the deal with your legs?"
Aster was quiet before answering. He ran his fingers along the dashboard. "You have previously been told by myself that this topic is sensitive."
"You never said it in those words."
"Alright," Aster said, leaning back against the window to face her completely. "I will answer your query if you will answer mine."
Molly folded her arms. "Fine. You first."
"I was born, by accident of nature, completely without use of my limbs, or in fact any part of my body."
"Oh my god," Molly murmured.
"It was actually due to human tinkering. I believe the words here are 'genetic engineering?'"
"You're genetically engineered?" Molly said dubiously. The whole girlfriend story was starting to become hard to believe, but now he was pushing it.
His expression changed instantly. "You've- heard of such things, correct?"
"I guess. A little."
"Continuing. I was operated on, and inserted with a network of artificial nerves and muscles that upkeep my regulatory systems and allow me voluntary movement."
"And now they've been damaged?"
"Yes, to some extent. I assume it is a communication issue between the artificial nerves, nothing larger. Mendable, but Cassia will have better luck in repairs than I."
He was totally bullshitting her. Artificial nerves? Even if such texhnology existed now, it certainly didn't exist twenty-five, thirty years ago.
"You do not believe me," Aster said. "That is alright."
"What the hell, it's so not! Can't you prove it or something?"
"I believe you must first answer my question."
Molly rolled her eyes. "Let's see. I love him. That's why."
"That is not how it seems."
"Let me ask you something," Molly said. "How many girls have you been with?"
"One. Cassia is my mate."
"You might have mentioned that. And she was your first?"
Now Aster seemed more hesitant to answer, maybe because he sensed she didn't believe him. "And last. Where I am from, mates are preselected based on qualities such as-"
"Hold up. You and Cassia, that's an arranged marriage?" After he'd said he lived in a treehouse, she'd assumed he was from some kind of Irish hippie commune. But she was pretty sure that hippies didn't believe in arranged marriages.
"No. We were chosen for each other on the basis of genetic compatibility and maximum mutual happiness over time."
Molly sighed. "Wouldn't that be great, if you could just know if someone is right for you."
"It is." Aster frowned.
They waited another hour, during which Molly discovered that Aster had a super-dry sense of humor, and that he and Cassia didn't actually know each other very well, but that "her and I will become close, soon, and we will have maximum mutual happiness. The system never fails." Yeah, right. There was no foolproof dating system. Even the one she ran herself.
Molly explained the concept of speed dating to Aster when he asked what she did. You rented out a venue and had ten women seated at ten tables for two. When the hour began, each of ten men would take a seat at his first table, moving to the next one after five or six minutes. After each meeting, both partners had to check off a 'yes' or a 'no' by the other's name. After the event, any two people who both wrote yes were given each other's contact information.
Eventually, they both came to terms that Cassia wasn't going to make an appearance. Even so, the drive home was relaxed, be cause Aster had a Plan B. He had arranged to meet with Cassia tomorrow, so there was that. The issues began with getting Aster out of the car.
Molly brought out the desk chair, but Aster couldn't get onto it. The plush blue seat kept swiveling, and even Molly couldn't hold it still, because he was trying to put all his weight on it.
"Let me help you," she said, after five minites of vain attempts.
"So, what? You're gonna crawl into my house?"
Aster regarded the distance between himself and the front door. There was half the driveway and a muddy front lawn to be crossed. "I do not believe you possess the strength to lift me."
"Thanks a lot. I can at least get you onto the chair."
That, Aster allowed, but just barely. He sat limply, and Molly positioned herself behind the chair so it woudnt roll away. Then she reached forward, and managed to lift his butt off the seat for a split second, just long enough for him to grab the back of the chair and haul himself onto it.
The journey to the house wasn't any easier. The wheels got caught with mad and grass, so they had to go around, down the sidewalk and the front walkway. Neither of them were in good moods when Molly finally pushed him through the door, bringing little tracks of wet dirt in with them.
"Do you want to see the bedroom?" She said, shrugging off her jacket.
Aster looked dazed. "The sofa is adequate."
"Okay. I'll go make us something to eat, then."
Molly made fettuccine Alfredo that night, a dinner more extravagant than usually made. But Aster just picked at the pasta, and the meal was mostly silent. Whwn he was done, he thanked her, and rolled himself into the living room without a word.
Reckless Behavior: A guide to the early Twenty-First Century
Chapter Three: Mannerisms
…although the handshake is an all-around accepted gesture in many parts of the world, it is used in formal environments. For a more casual greeting, the following gestures are acceptable:
•the 'high five': slapping the raised palm against the palm of another. May be done using one or both hands.
•the 'fist bump': bumping one's fist against the fist of another.
•hugging: In many places, women tend to give longer, tighter hugs, while men give a one-arm hug, using the other arm to lightly thump the other's back. Exact hugging customs vary from decade to decade.
Note: the term 'casual' has many contexts. For example, 'casual sex' describes the relations between…
Cassia came to Aster in the night. She was wearing her university robes, the long, flowing maroon making an awful racket as it whipped around in the wind. You don't need that here, he wanted to say, but Cassia just rolled her eyes and held up the Book. The Book says so, she said. It was her favorite refrain. She turned around to look, to look for Croton, and Aster tried to come after her but his legs weren't working, so he called after her. Cassia! Cassia! But she couldn't hear him, because his words were soundless. Come back, Cassia.
The room was dark, the clock ticking madly away like a hypnotist's weapon. Threee am, twelve minutes. Aster closed his eyes, hoping to find her again. But she wouldn't come back into his conscious imagination, and anyway, she would scoff if she saw him like this, crippled and alone, trying to conjure up things that weren't there.
He transferred himself onto the desk chair. It was getting easier now, although he still had no way to propel himself, aside from pushing off of other objects. He managed to reach the kitchen, where the remains of Molly's dinner escapades lay on the table and counters in the form of crusty bowls and cups, onion and garlic peels, a spatula and pans. Pulling himself along the table, he piled the utensils on his lap, bringing them to the sink. Aster was already fairly familiar with the workings of Molly's house, since he hadn't been able to do much else but explore her dwelling. The thought depressed him.
He reached under the chair, cranking the handle to raise the seat. Then he turned the sink knobs, allowing water to rain upon the dishes. Squirting Palmolive on the sponge, he got to work.
The warm water flowed between his fingers, and he felt like he was back home, washing up at the indoor stream. In this century, there were different water sources for different activities, but in his dwelling the stream served as a cleanser for hands, body, and for after relieving one's self. But that was because his stream had many sources: the ceiling, spouts in the wall, or an upward spray from the ground. This sink had but one source. Although, he supposed, the water from the bathtub had the same source as this water. Then why did Molly insist only on retrieving drinking water from the kitchen? It was quite curious.
He scrubbed hard. Water sloshed around the clogged drain, gurgling as it went down. Behind him, there was a knock at the doorway, even though there was no door, and it was all Molly's domain anyway.
"Hey," she said, in a thick, sleep-ridden voice. She pulled up a chair beside him, in front of the rack where he placed the clean utensils. She was wearing her night garment, a faded, fuzzy thing that was tied in the front with a bow. She tucked some hair behind her ear.
"Hey," he said, the polite response. Aster scrubbed away. For once, he had to look down at her face. There were black particles below her eyes, meaning she had forgotten to remove her face makeup. She watched him wash the dishes, and sighed. The water seemed to have a calming effect even from a distance.
Aster ruined the silence. "You know I do not want to be here," he said. "It is not my desire to impose upon your house."
Molly sighed again. She rubbed her eyes. "I can imagine. It's not that I don't want you here, really. I just… I don't really know what to do. I've never been in this situation before."
"Nor have I."
She stared at the counter in silence, picking at a cracked spot.
“Have you reconciled with Samueh yet?” Aster shook off a few forks and put them in the drying rack.
“What? Oh. Not exactly.” Molly yawned. The light in the kitchen made the lines of her so stark- the creases under her eyes, the little indent above her lips. “Sorry, I’m just tired.”
“I’ve awoken you.”
“Nah, it’s fine. Samuel is… Well, we haven’t made up exactly. We’re cordial with each other. Have to be.”
Molly folded her arms on the counter and rested her chin on them. She smelled like that coconut soap he’d used on the first day. “We’re running a business together, and a failing one, at that. We can’t afford to be fighting. That’s just how it is.”
Aster turned off the water. “I would imagine you are adept at business. You possess such qualities as assertiveness and intelligence, I believe.”
“You’re really sweet, Aster. But I’m actually not doing too well. More like, I’ve messed up, big time.”
Aster took hold of the edge of the sink and swiveled to face her. Her face was right below his, and she looked up at him with tired, half-closed eyes.
“Oh," he said, "Is this in referral to the ‘Greek restaurant ordeal’ that you have mentioned?”
“Oh god.” She buried her head, muffling her voice. She looked so frail, and Aster just wanted to stroke her curls and comfort her. Instead, he grabbed a towel and a dripping plate.
“It wasn’t an ordeal, really.” Molly’s face was still hidden. “More of a misunderstanding. We’d rented ten tables at this restaurant for a speed dating event, one I'd heard good things about. For some reason, we were under the impression that all the tables were together, on one side of the restaurant.”
She sat up, and Aster felt her gaze on him. The towel squaked as he rubbed the plate dry.
“Turns out,” she continued, “The tables weren’t anywhere near each other, and the manager wasn’t helpful at all. So no one really knew where to go, and it got really chaotic, and then other patrons started complaining. And me and Sam are just standing in the middle of everything, try to help, but we weren’t doing very much. By the time everyone figured out where they were meant to be, we’d lost time and the clients were crabby. It was… uch, it was so bad.” She looked dazed.
Aster put a hand on her back, then retrieved it hurriedly. “I think, this story…”
“What?” Molly said.
“I think that you are convinced that this ‘Greek restaurant ordeal’ proves your incompetence. It does not.”
Molly chuckled. “Well, thanks for saying so.” She stood up, surprising him by giving his shoulders a squeeze. “Goodnight, Aster.”
The next few days were stagnant for Molly. At work, Sam was cold and the customers were frustrated because Molly had to rearrange some of them due to more cancellations. At home, Aster kept to himself, spending his days on Google Maps, looking for… something. He kept saying he was going to leave, that his girlfriend would come. As if.
But something funny was happening. The more Aster expressed his wish to leave, the less she wanted to kick him out. Plus, it was nice to have someone to come home to. She missed the emotional closeness she used to share with Sam, and while she had other friends, Aster was steadily becoming a source of comfort.
That Friday, Molly returned to a dark living room. Aster was sleeping on the couch. He sat up when she came in, and asked her to turn on the lights.
Molly did so, and plopped down on the couch at his feet. Aster got into a sitting position, which involved pulling his legs off the couch and placing them on the floor. He was wearing blue sweatpants with a green stripe down the side, an old pair that Molly had given him, and the shirt that he'd arrived in. Molly had to teach him how to use the washer and dryer, as well as the dishwasher and the oven. Apparently, they didn't have much technology in Astragalus, a town which by he way didn't exist, according to Google. Aster was at least teaching himself to use the computer.
Molly kicked off her silver flats and propped up her feet on the desk chair that Aster had claimed as his means of getting around. "Whew. I had a long, long day."
"As did I." Aster had an elbow on the back of the couch , and he was looking at the computer across the room, pensively. "But for different reasons."
Molly yawned. "Sam still won't tell me who the other women he slept with are."
She stood up, and stretched. "I'm making eggs. How do you like yours?"
"I do not wish to eat, but thank you. I will sleep now."
Before going to bed that night, Molly Googled 'signs of depression.' She also typed out an email to Mr. Moskowitz, the optometrist in the building over.
I recall that you put up a sign in front your office about having a wheelchair available for sale. Is that still available? I know someone who's looking for one.
Reckless Behavior: A Guide to the Early Twenty-First Century
Chapter Six: Sex in Society
… one of the phrases in common use is to 'get some,' denoting that sex is a commodity to be obtained. And while using sexuality as entertainment is always prevalent, in the earlyTwenty-First century whore houses and 'strip clubs' (where dancers, commonly women, danced sensually while scantily clad for entertainment) were sometimes legal. Prostitution was legal in some countries and illegal in others, to various degrees...
Cassia sat at a ridiculously high stool at the edge of the club, fuming. The lights above her were dim, and flashed all the colors of the rainbow in quick succession, giving her a headache. She didn't see any fro-yo, she didn't see Aster, and the only thing she'd learnt so far was what a pole dancer was.
A drunk man approached her, with slicked back hair and a toothy grin. All he said was "Hey," breathily, before he sat next to her and reached for her hair with his fat fingers. Cassia sloshed her alcoholic beverage in his face. He stumbled back, fists pressing his face.
"My eyes!" He howled. "Crazy bitch!"
The early Twenty-First century had been the topic of Cassia's thesis in university. So far, she was unimpressed with the real thing.
And then she saw him.
Croton. Whistling as he poured different liquids into a glass, he seemed right at home behind the beverage counter. He looked younger than she remembered him, and he'd dyed his hair a dark red color. But she would recognize that dimple anywhere, that square jaw and broad shoulders.
Cassia remembered from the records that he'd changed his name to something with an M. Moskowitz. She should've spent more time practicing pronouncing the name, and she would have, if Aster wasn't so slow at picking Late English in general. She'd spent hours with him, just repeating words and sounds over and over. And he always got stuck on the pronouns, for some reason.
From her few hours' experience, Cassia knew not to approach him or appear friendly in any way. That sent only one sort of message in this kind of place. But- how else to get him to trust her? Cassia patted down her hair, and made her way to the bar.
Thirty minutes later, but only five minutes after Croton's shift was over, she was sucking at his mouth like she meant it. She had him sitting on one of those elevated red stools. Croton's hands travelled up her shirt.
Her hand travelled into his back pocket, pulling out a thin black piece of plastic. This, she knew, was where he kept all his secrets.
To be continued...