Science Fiction

Modern Love

By M. Darusha Wehm
2,510 words · 10-minute reading time

“Good morning, Marian.” Her alarm clock’s voice was soft and androgynously sensual. “You have three new messages,” it continued as she slowly woke. “The bank would like to offer you several investment choices for the busy professional, the government has ten tips to help you quit smoking and your mother wants you to call her.” She lay in bed, sunlight angling through the space between her curtains, the clock yakking away on the nightstand, but she ignored it all. She was thinking of him. 

It had only been going on for a couple of weeks, but she could barely remember a time before him. He really was the first thing she thought of when she woke and the last thought on her mind before falling asleep. He consumed her; she breathed his breath. Just thinking his name could make her completely lose track of time. Graeme. Spelled with Es, not like Gray-ham. Somehow more dignified that way, she thought. Graeme. 

She could hear her alarm at the corner of her mind, but she was overwhelmed by her excitement at the thought of seeing him so soon. She felt like a teenager with a wicked crush, but it was so much more than that. She was a grown woman, he was a man, and this was no schoolyard infatuation. No, this was the real thing. 

She sighed, and whispered his name. Graeme.

Marian didn’t remember the first time she’d met Graeme, and that drove her crazy. He worked at a coffee shop, the one she visited most afternoons after work on her way home, and that was how she knew him. But she couldn’t remember if he was already working there when she first walked in, looking for a latte and a quiet half hour, or if he started sometime after she’d become a regular. She didn’t even remember the first time she noticed how beautiful he was, standing behind the bar, frothing milk or serving up sandwiches, his coffee coloured skin set off against the creamy white of the ceramic mugs. It was like one day he was just another service worker that you hardly even notice, then the next day he was the centre of her life.

Obviously, it wasn't that sudden. She'd noticed him at some point, in that way you realize someone is attractive, and wonder how you could possibly have ever missed it before. And it had just gone from there. She wasn't exactly sure how it had begun, but one day she'd walked behind the red haired barista with the tattoos checking the online staff schedule. Marian had just happened to glimpse the site's URL over the redhead’s shoulder, and her next move had suddenly seemed obvious. She'd hit up the site on her phone, and paging back a few days plus a little deduction yielded his name. Graeme Blake. Graeme. She just happened to copy his next month’s schedule to her phone. It was almost like public information, anyway, on such a poorly encrypted site as that.

She waited a full week before following him home after his shift. She left the coffee shop before he did, not wanting to draw attention to herself. She walked to the 7-11 on the corner, and bought a pack of cigarettes. She didn’t even bother using cash to avoid the annoying public health warning emails she’d get by using her bankcard. She could see into the window of the coffee shop from the counter at the Sev, and watched as he—as Graeme—cleaned up the coffee bar and tidied the tables. 

She was lighting up her first outside on the curb as he came out of the cafe and locked the doors. The sun was setting as he started walking toward downtown. Marian waited until he was a half block ahead before she got going. She glanced at the CCTV camera on the corner and told herself that it was the way she walked home every day anyway. So what if she was a couple of hours later than usual. And why would the cops be watching her? She had never done anything wrong.

It wasn’t a long walk, maybe twenty minutes, but it felt timeless to Marian. Watching him, the way his beat-up old messenger bag—the one he always hung on the coatrack at the coffee shop—bounced on his backside. The motion was almost mesmerizing, and Marian had to check herself to make sure she stopped for the red lights. She was stopped at a corner watching, while he walked into a shabby walkup. His place.

She sat on the bench at the bus stop across the street from his apartment. On the bus stop’s wall, a public service announcement reminded her that terrorists are neighbours, too, and exhorted her to report any suspicious activity to the local police. She wouldn't have noticed if a rebel militia marched by, so transfixed was she by his window. 

She barely moved, except to light cigarette after cigarette. She watched the light and shadows playing on the other side of his window, wondering if he noticed the glow of her cigarettes in the dark. 

By the time the third number eight bus had gone by, and no one else had entered the apartment, she decided that he must live alone. The thought both thrilled and saddened her. A man like that shouldn't have to be on his own. She made a note of the address of his apartment complex on her phone. She got on the next bus, and rode the dozen blocks back to her neighbourhood, fantasizing about what might someday happen on the other side of his apartment's window.

She eventually silenced the alarm’s chirping and got out of bed. She showered, dressed, and was out the door in a half hour, walking a few blocks down the street to the little diner on the corner. She'd never been there in the morning before, but she knew they served pastries and coffee, and more importantly had a window on to the street. She hoped she was early enough to get a booth.

She walked through the diner's door, almost unconsciously glancing up at its security camera. Not the obvious one with the blinking red light above the door. She looked for the tiny fisheye lens over the counter that scanned the entire room. She knew it was there, because she'd been in the restaurant only a week before for a routine service call on the camera. 

The AI chip had started identifying perfectly ordinary customers as possible terrorists, and after the fifth set of cops showed up with nothing to do, the diner called Panoptitech, Marian's employer, to fix it. Marian was assigned to the job and she'd had the upgrade installed between lunch and afternoon break. That was when she noticed the window and the proximity to the street corner, and she decided to come back some morning before work.

She tried not to look at the hidden camera while she ordered a coffee and a bagel, paying with a wave of her bankcard over the store’s reader. The whole transaction took about a minute. She walked over to the booths with her plate and cup and was pleased to see an empty seat by the window, a perfect vantage point to watch the crosswalk. She sipped her coffee and waited.

Nibbling her bagel she glanced at the clock on her phone, and exactly at 7:26 am she saw him crossing the street, his tired old book bag slung over one shoulder. She wondered if it was too soon in their relationship to buy him a gift? She didn’t think so. Marian had never believed in things like fate before, but it was hard not to think in those terms now. It was so obvious that he was meant for her; there were just too many happy coincidences conspiring to bring them together—her apartment so close to the university where he was studying, this diner she’d only just found with its perfect view of his walk to class in the morning. 

She had noticed him reading a textbook on cosmology at the cafe, and when he was in the washroom she casually wandered past and looked at his notes. His notebook was covered in the logos of the university, and she saw a page from a class syllabus sticking out the back cover. An hour on the university's website confirmed that he was a grad student in the physics department, and his class schedule was easy enough to infer after another hour of studying the department's website.

She smiled over her coffee cup as she watched him walk to campus. She hadn't had the patience for school; as a result, she never got the grades for university, but she'd always liked science. Her occasional smoking buddy at work, Susan, was an engineer; Marian liked to hear her talk about the new, cool things she was working on. She imagined nights in Graeme's apartment, listening to him explain some complex theory to her.

Yes. At lunch, she could pop in at a trendy store in the mall near the Panoptitech office, and take a look at the bags. He worked so hard, he deserved something nice. She'd miss looking at the worn canvas bumping against his thighs as he hustled to make his eight o'clock Non-Euclidean lecture, though. She picked up her phone and took a quick video, a little souvenir to add to her collection. The memory on her phone was starting to get pretty full.

She wasn't ordinarily a weeper, but when she walked into the cafe she nearly burst into tears. He wasn't there. How could this be? The schedule clearly showed that he was supposed to be working the afternoon shift. Then her eyes caught sight of his familiar messenger bag on the coat rack and Marian began to breathe again. She ordered a latte from the red-haired girl behind the bar and took it to her usual seat. She sighed as she saw Graeme emerge from the men's washroom.

Under her chair was a wrapped parcel from Cooper's, containing an outrageously expensive bag. Marian couldn't remember the last time she'd spent as much on something for herself, but that didn't matter. Graeme was worth it, and as a student he'd hardly be able to afford something like that for himself. It made her happy to be able to give him something nice. Besides, she'd be getting a nice bonus for the extra overtime she'd be putting in. That morning she'd offered to take on one her of colleague's overtime shifts once she saw where the job was going to be. 

She sipped her latte and smiled. She knew that Panoptitech held the maintenance contracts for most of the CCTV cameras in the city, but it still seemed like some kind of a sign that they had a job in Graeme’s apartment complex coming up. It had been easy to convince her cube mate Simon to give her the shift; she’d told him that she needed the extra cash, but she knew he hated overtime anyway and would always be happy to get someone else to take his turn. 

She stole a glance at Graeme as he squirted whipped cream on a hot cocoa. Would she leave the bag here for him to find at the end of his shift, or would she find a way to get into his apartment and leave the gift there? She was no locksmith, but you could learn almost anything online these days. If she put her mind to it, it wouldn't be that hard. She looked out the window, but the sun was going down earlier every day now and she only saw her own reflection. And the reflection of Graeme's face from behind the bar. She was sure she saw something there, something in his eyes that told her that what she felt was real. And that was enough.

He watched the woman, Marian, as she sipped her latte. He was polishing the milk frother, and could see that she was looking at him, too, using the window and the darkening sky as a mirror. She didn’t see him watching her, but he looked away anyway.

Graeme knew her name from going through the electronic receipts on the till. She always paid with her bankcard and her name and address were logged by the system. Employees weren’t supposed to have access to that level of detail, but it wasn’t well hidden. And coffee shop baristas often have a lot of time on their hands.

So, Graeme knew her name and where she lived and that she’d been leaving larger and larger tips for him in the past weeks. He smiled at that, though the money didn’t mean much to him. It wasn’t her cash that he wanted.

It had taken a long time for him to get the data he’d needed, but he’d finally swiped a Kleenex she’d used about a month before when she’d had a bit of a cold. It was gross, but loaded with the DNA that the lab had needed to concoct the serum. He didn’t really understand how it worked, but they needed samples of his DNA and hers in order to tailor the drug for her and to code it for him. Something about pheromones, he thought he remembered the website saying. He didn’t care abut the details so long as it worked. 

He’d spent a month’s worth of his coffee shop salary on the stuff, but he had a decent stipend from school and on top of that he was a “watcher”, a paid informant. He never had anything to tell the cops, but he’d spend the few hundred bucks that showed up in his account without worrying about it. They’d cut him off eventually, he knew, but until then he could afford a dose of a designer drug to get what he wanted. What he needed.

His hands had been shaking when he’d broken open the ampoule over the cup for her latte. What if he screwed up the order and it got thrown out? What if someone else took the drink by mistake? What if she spilled it, what if… Of course, he worried for nothing, and he managed to sneak a look at her eyes as he handed her the large bowl-shaped cup she preferred. She hadn’t looked at him then, hadn’t even said thank you. But none of that mattered now. 

Because now he was wanted. Now, her eyes lingered over his body with an intensity that he could feel burning on his skin. Now, she watched him, with a hunger that even she couldn’t understand. And, finally, in her eyes he felt alive. 

He set down the silver milk frother and let his eyes meet hers in the reflection on the window for the briefest moment. He saw her cheeks flush and he allowed himself a small smile, then turned away as he very softly, reverently, whispered her name. Marian.

This story originally appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.


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