Humor Love Science Fiction

Love & Mandarins

By Sean Williams
10,839 words · 40-minute reading time
Bookmark


 

Snapshot: No Future In Regret

 

Spring hit with all the subtlety of an explosion in a hormone factory.

Most of the time Julie didn't drink, but that year she developed a habit of Friday night benders.  Not in public -- she'd never let anyone else see her like this, witness her pain.  She was alone in her crisis.  If anyone was going to pull her through, it would be her and no-one else.

She was past the 'Why me?' me phase and well into 'Let's just forget about the whole thing, okay?'  Besides, there was no-one to tell.  Who would possibly believe her?  Sometimes she hardly believed herself -- and perhaps that was for the best, in the long-run.  One thing was certain: she never wanted to see another mandarin for the rest of her life.

 

Snapshot: Viva la Similarité

 

She first met Roger Worth through Viva Agencies, an introduction service that catered to the needs of the city's middle class lovelorn.  For $520 per annum (only $10 a week, went the ad, but the full amount had to be paid in advance) Viva ran Julie's file through its list of bachelors every day, hoping a new name would jump off the list -- someone whose references and attributes matched the ones she had specified.  In terms of microeconomic theory, where her supply met his demand, and vice versa, equitable exchange could occur.  And true love, so went the blurb, was all about exchange.

It sounded simple.  Sadly, it rarely was.  In the nine months Julie had been on Viva's books, she had met five men.  All had had potential on paper, but all had disappointed before long.  Either they had bored her or she had bored them; there seemed to be no middle ground.  For all the things they had in common, no guarantee existed that the spark would be there.  And now, with another lonely spring looming large before her, she was beginning to wonder if she would ever find someone to love.

But she hadn't quite given up hope.  Her face was well-known in the office, always browsing through the client profiles the computer selected for her, waiting for the right one to leap out at her.  Most times, though, she ended up experiencing nothing more exciting than lunch with Kate, Viva's fortyish receptionist with whom she had become close over the fruitless months.

"He's an odd one," said Kate about the latest match.  "Not odd-strange but odd-different.  Unique."

Julie scanned the man's details.  Thirty-five, never married.  Non-smoker, didn't drink, vegetarian.  He liked reading, and meeting new people.  His interests were anthropology and mandarins.  His photo was not unattractive; he certainly didn't look strange.  So far, so okay.

"You met him?" she asked.

"When he came in for his interview last week."  Kate nodded.

"What sort of vibe did he give off?"

"Huh?"

"Doesn't matter."  People gave off vibes, Julie knew.  She'd been a natural at reading them since the age of ten.  One glance revealed if someone -- well-known or stranger -- was happy, sad, lonely or coiled taut like a wound spring.  Although she couldn't explain where the impressions came from -- she preferred to believe in body-language than psychic powers -- she had learned that she was rarely wrong.

Kate rolled her eyes, realising what Julie meant.  "You and your vibes."

Julie smiled to herself.  Dear, pragmatic Kate.  How odd that someone who worked in such an industry could be so blind to what people were like beneath their skin.

"Are you going to call him?"

Julie glanced at the photo again.  Roger Worth had sandy hair trimmed short around unobtrusive ears.  His smile was hesitant but honest.  He looked harmlessly charming, like a teenager waiting for his first date.

"Probably."

"Good on you.  Let me know how it goes.  I'll be curious to hear what you think."

So will I, Julie thought as she tucked the profile into her handbag and drove home.  Maybe this time I'll get it right.

 

Snapshot: Desperation Is An Ugly Word

 

His voice on the phone was breathless.  He had been working in his greenhouse, picking fruit.  Mandarins? Julie wanted to ask, but didn't.  Instead they talked about nothing in particular: their days, the weather, how nervous they both were.  After about a minute, she decided that there was nothing to be gained from idle chat.  She wasn't picking anything up from his voice.  She would have to meet him in person.

They arranged lunch for the following day.  Julie hurried to the restaurant, five minutes late, her mind coiling around itself like a hungry snake.  Who was he, this man who listed anthropology and mandarins as his primary interests?  Did he dislike tardy people?  Had she ruined the date before it had even begun? 

She stopped to straighten her skirt in a mirror-finished window.  She looked good, she thought, but not flashy.  The trick was not to try too hard.  Desperation was not necessarily a turn-on, for men feared leeches just as much as they desired an easy lay, and at times she did feel too lonely for her own good.  It had been a long time since she had been intimate with someone.  Maybe this one --

Stop it, she told herself.  Along that route lay nothing but disappointment, and she had been bitten enough in the last couple of years to have learned to shy away from self-inflicted pain.  The most she could assume was that he was looking for a relationship as well -- only potentially with her.

He was seated in a corner of the cafe, reading the menu with his head bowed.  A quick survey of his scalp showed no sign of balding.  His suit was plain but well-tailored, a slight cut above the average businessman's.

"Hi," she said, stepping up to the table.  "I'm Julie."

He looked up, startled, and stood.  Putting the menu down, he held out his hand. 

"And I'm Roger.  Pleased to meet you." 

They shook hands firmly.  His eyes were pleasantly green and lingered on hers.  He smelled faintly of citrus fruit.  She could discern no blemishes, no deformities, no hidden secrets lurking behind his eyes.  His expression was open and friendly.

She looked away, not wanting to stare too blatantly, and took the chair to his left.  "Sorry I'm late," she said.  "I hope you haven't been waiting long."

"No."  He sat when she did, large hands falling flat on the white table cloth.  His nails were clean and well-maintained, knuckles wrinkled like a child's attempt at cursive writing.  "I am hungry, though."

"Good, so am I."  She scanned the menu.  "I've eaten here before.  They do a fabulous lasagne."

"Do they?"

"And their fresh fruit mixes are to die for."

"I'm always keen to try something new."

She glanced up at him, and he was watching her, smiling slightly.  She quickly looked back at the menu, thinking: Sprung!  Then: No -- he was looking at me first, which makes it okay.  "Um, the serves are fairly large.  I suggest we skip the entree.  We can have dessert afterwards, if we're still hungry."

"Whatever you say.  Or maybe -- "  He hesitated.  "Maybe we could go elsewhere for coffee, if you liked?"

The questioning tone in his voice made her look up again.  It was then she noticed it: the smile was still in place but there was nothing behind it.  No humour, no pleasure, no joy.  He looked like a ventriloquist's dummy.

You poor bastard, she thought. 

"This is your first time, isn't it?"

The smile tightened another notch.  "I'm sorry.  Did I say something wrong?"

"No, no.  Just relax.  That's all you need to do."  She wanted to pat his hand in reassurance, but didn't just in case the gesture was misinterpreted.  His inexperience didn't give her a firm advantage but it did allow her to relax slightly.  "I'm an old hand at this sort of thing.  I'll go easy on you, I promise."

He cleared his throat.  "Thank you, Julie.  I'm very grateful for your thoughtfulness."

"My pleasure."

He went on: "I guess I'm still a little unused to being out in public places."

Huh?  The comment provoked an involuntary frown.  What was he, an agoraphobe?  An ex-con?  She searched his face again, this time for negative vibes.  Again, nothing.

Before she could ask him about the comment, a waiter arrived to take their order.  She forced herself to concentrate and ordered a chicken salad with a glass of water.  He ordered vegetarian lasagne and a Mandarin Deluxe. 

"This is a lovely place," he said, looking around when the waiter had taken their order.

"Yes, it is," she said.  Go for it, she told herself.  "You don't get out much, then?"

"Not as often as I'd like," he said.  "Until recently, work has kept me indoors."

"Oh?  What do you do?"

"I, well, that is -- "  He adjusted his suit self-consciously.  "Actually, I work for the government.  I used to write case studies.  Now, I've been promoted to the field.  It's interesting work, but time-intensive and involves a lot of travel.  My social life has suffered." 

"I know that feeling," she said.

"Do you?"

"That's why I'm enrolled at Viva."  It was true, too.  She had been a desk jockey in the same advertising firm for what felt like an eternity.  Her circle of friends had narrowed as she got older, to the point where, at thirty-two, it consisted entirely of co-workers and couples.  She had fallen into the gap between first marriage and first divorce -- and having an affair really wasn't what she was after.

He, it turned out, was new to town and didn't know the ropes well enough to make new contacts

"You said you like meeting new people," she said.

"I do."  He shrugged stiffly.  "I'm still learning how to, though.  It's hard here."

It's hard everywhere, she almost said.  She found his naïvete intriguing, even endearing in its own way, and the last thing she intended to do was frighten him away with cynicism.

The conversation drifted until their meals arrived.  Most blind dates were awkward in that respect, so she wasn't disappointed; she spent most of her time trying to be either witty without being frivolous or intelligent without being threatening, and she felt safe assuming her companion was feeling just as self-conscious.  As he talked, she watched him, hunting for his vibe.  Was he interested?  Bored?  Shallow?  Deep?  He responded naturally to what she had to say -- laughing when she cracked a joke, sobering on a serious note, raising an eyebrow if she uttered an obvious exaggeration -- but underneath it all, he was ...

What?  She had met men who were reserved before.  He was different.  She couldn't even decide if he was acting or behaving naturally.  Only time would tell, she supposed.  Time and a whole lot of perseverance.

And she only had until the end of her lunch to decide if she could be bothered.

 

Snapshot: Entry Wound

 

"Well?" asked Kate the following day, when Julie came to fill in her feedback card.

"Well what?"  There was no harm in playing coy.

"How'd it go?"

"Oh, that.  Not bad."

"An improvement on the last one, then."

"Definitely."  Her previous match had been both a bore and a bigot, and a liar too if the discrepancy between his profile and the reality of him was anything to go by.  Her hackles had gone up within minutes of meeting him, and they still rose now, just at the thought.

Not so with Roger Worth.  The rendezvous had been a success overall, despite a lack of sexual stirrings, yearning aftertastes or trumpets.  Could a relationship be founded on something so insubstantial?  Once she wouldn't have thought so, but now -- maybe.  She was definitely curious about him, and that counted for something.

The turning point had come after the meal.

"My mother died two years ago," she'd confessed, interested to see how he would react.  "She had cancer, and the chemotherapy didn't take."

"That must have been a dreadful experience," he said.

"Well, yes.  The worst thing about it was the time it took her to die.  She hung on for twelve months before giving in.  She was always a fighter, but in the end it killed her anyway.  Dad's still getting over it."

"Do you have any siblings?"

"A sister.  She lives in Melbourne.  We're not close."  If she had been expecting a gushing display of sympathy, she would have been disappointed.  Instead, he'd casually skirted the topic.  No hang-ups there, obviously.  "You?"

"I have a brother."

"Older?  Younger?"

"Actually, we're the same age."

"Twins?"

"Yes.  He and I are very close.  We work in the same area, although he's chosen not to leave home.  We exchange data as often as we can.  His project is going well."

"I'm glad to hear it."  She took a chance and probed more deeply.  "Where's 'home'?"

"A long way from here."

"Interstate?  Overseas?"  He didn't have an accent, but that was not necessarily an indicator either way.

"Overseas, yes."  He nodded.  "I miss it deeply, sometimes.  It'll be several years before I'm able to return."

She put her cutlery down on the plate, the meal finished.  Was it her imagination or was he evading the question?

"What about your parents?  Do they still live there too?"

"No, I don't have any parents."

She could've kicked herself.  "I'm so sorry."

"No, please don't be distressed.  I don't mind."

"You don't mind?"

"Wait, I didn't mean it that way."  His expression was mortified as he hastened to explain.  "I simply meant that I'm used to the idea.  I've never know what it would be like to have a mother or a father, so I can't miss them.  That's what I was trying to say.  Please, Julie.  Don't concern yourself for me.  It's nothing, honestly.  I'm sorry if I offended you."

Nothing?  The guy was an orphan and she'd asked about his parents!  He was begging forgiveness from her?

Back-pedalling furiously to make up lost ground, she said the first thing that popped into her head:

"How about we settle the bill and get a coffee elsewhere?"

His expression eased; he relaxed so suddenly that he seemed to deflate.  "Yes.  Yes, Julie.  That's a good idea.  Thank you."

"Don't thank me, Roger.  It was your idea, remember?"

"Yes, it was."  The smile returned, just as bright and innocent as ever.  "Fancy that.  I got something right, at least."

And --

Yes, she thought, standing in Viva's reception area with the blank feedback card in her hand.  Although she couldn't quite pin down the reasons why, she honestly thought he might have ... got something right, at least.

"You're looking very thoughtful," Kate said.  "Does that mean you'll call him again?"

"I don't know."  Julie shrugged.  "I'll think about it." 

She dropped the feedback card on Kate's desk.  'Pleasant enough,' she had written.  And to tantalise, she'd added: 'But what is it with the mandarins?'

 

Snapshot: Glutton For Punishment

 

"Would you like to get together again?" she asked him that night, over the phone.  It was late; she had vacillated for hours before finally deciding to call.

The question seemed to take him by surprise.  "Yes, of course."

"Honestly?"

"I'd be delighted -- if you want to.  There's no reason to feel obliged."

"Believe me, Roger, I don't.  I'm doing this because I'd like to get to know you better.  Does that put your mind at ease?"

"Well, yes, naturally it does."

She gave him an opening to suggest a venue, seeing she'd chosen the first one, but when he said nothing the silence threatened to become all-consuming.

"How about a movie?  Or dinner?"  She heard her voice echo down the line.  She sounded so much less substantial, less sure of herself: How about a real date this time?  "Or both?"

"I don't really know what's on at the moment."

"Then let's take a chance.  Meet me outside Boltz Cafe at six tomorrow and I'll bring a paper from work.  I'm sure there's something we'll both be interested in.  Is tomorrow okay for you?"

"Yes.  I'm flexible.  I mean, that would be wonderful."

Did he really mean that?  She couldn't tell.  It was even more difficult reading him over the phone than in person.  All the positive signs she had thought she'd seen over lunch were now gone.  Or had she imagined them?

Frustration made her uncharacteristically blunt: "Are you sure of that, Roger?"

"Julie, I could want nothing more.  This is very important to me.  If I sound uncertain, it is only because I am nervous."

Very smooth, she thought, then cursed herself for being suspicious -- and pushy.  Just because she had decided that she was interested didn't mean he had.  "Okay then.  Tomorrow it is: six o'clock at Boltz."

"Yes.  I'll see you then."

"Have a good night," she went to say, but he was already gone.

 

Snapshot: No Escapism For The Lonely-Hearted

 

The movie he chose -- after she steadfastly refused to express a preference -- was a science fiction flick involving aliens invading Earth.  He laughed through most of it.  She found it vaguely exciting but not really to her taste.  And why did every Hollywood film these days come complete with a love story?  Wasn't reality depressing enough without raising everyone's expectations?

Roger, on the other hand, didn't seem too bothered.  In fact, he was fascinated by it.  They chatted pleasantly for an hour after the movie, over a pizza and a bottle of orange-flavoured spring water (the closest to mandarin he could find).  He cracked a couple of jokes which she laughed along with even though she had heard them before.  He was trying, at least.  She must have called too late the previous night, that's all.  Gradually, she began to relax.

"It's amazing how we colour everything with our own experiences," he said at one point.

"How do you mean?"

"Well, take the film for example.  The antagonists are portrayed as bad through their inability to negotiate.  Is that such a terrible thing?"

"For us, yes."

"In that situation, but in principle?  All that species was doing was being itself.  We have no right to impose upon it our own standards, our own ethics, which might not be universal."

She liked the frown that dented his forehead when he focussed on a thought.  "I'll agree with that -- unless you're saying that we should let ourselves be exterminated simply so another race can exercise its individuality."

"No.  That's where the invaders were in the wrong.  Both species had a right to exist, regardless of their differences."

"Just like people."  She owned up to her response to the film, the way the romance had made her feel: that every person's genetic heritage wouldn't tolerate even happy loners.  "There's so much pressure to conform these days.  If we're not careful, we'll all end up clones of each other."

He smiled at that.  "I guess we're lucky we haven't met any aliens, then.  Can you imagine how different they could be?  Not just mechanical models with slime added for verisimilitude, but real, living creatures possessing their own unique biology.  Everything we take for granted -- justice, morality, life, death -- could be irrelevant to them."

"Even love?"

"Why not?  Lust, after all, is just a biological trigger to encourage procreation.  Imagine a non-sentient species that divides like amoeba, sending out gametes in the form of intelligent drones.  Each drone has half the parent's genetic code, and a new parent is formed only when two drones of different stock combine.  What we regard as being wonderful sex would mean the end of the drone, so if it is intelligent it'll have none of the illusions about procreation that we have -- or death, for that matter.  Instead, the two will be intimately linked.  That paints quite a different picture than the one we see here on Earth."

"Lust isn't love," she protested, only just keeping up with him.

"I know.  Love -- the bond between two parents as it is traditionally regarded -- probably evolved to ensure that offspring receive sufficient care to survive childhood.  But in the case of these aliens, there is no childhood after the drones have combined.  There's just a new, dumb parent -- more like a plant than an animal -- and it can take care of itself.  It's irrelevant to the drones, except as a breeder of more drones, since the drones that created it are now dead.  So why feel sentimental about it?  There's no room for love in this scenario, which is much more alien than the one we were looking at earlier."

She stirred the dregs of her coffee.  If this was his version of dirty talk then it was a little too intellectual for her.  "I think it's sad," she said.  "And it's all hypothetical, anyway.  Humans need love, and that's the most important thing to me."

"Yes.  You have a good point, there."  His expression was one of intense concentration.  "I'm sure it's more complex than the way I've described it.  There are so many shades of grey, so many dead-ends -- it's a wonder sometimes that humanity hasn't died out completely."

"It's lucky, then, that lust is all it really takes to make a kid."  Which has its own set of rules, she added to herself.  He looked awkward for a moment, and she found herself wondering what his rules were.  Maybe she would find out, one day.

"Do you read much science fiction?" she asked to change the subject.

"I've tried it, yes."  His eyes met hers, and he smiled.  "But it doesn't have the same charm as real life."

They walked off the meal through a park on the outskirts of the city.  A cold wind rustled through bare trees like fingers through thinning hair.  She wanted him to take her arm, to give her a body-signal that she couldn't possibly misinterpret, but he just walked beside her, matching her step for step across the damp grass.  She wasn't about to take the risk herself, even though she wanted to.  She had arranged both dates; it was about time he did some work.

"I'm cold, Roger," she eventually said.

"Would you like to go home?"

"I, uh -- "  His response took her by surprise until she realised that it was almost eleven.  "Maybe that's not such a bad idea," she said.  "I left the car at home today and the last bus will be going soon."

"How about we share a cab, instead?"

She stopped and turned to face him, unsure exactly how to take the offer.  With any other date she might have suspected -- or hoped for -- an ulterior motive.  "I live in Dulwich."

"That's not far out of my way.  And even if it was, money isn't an issue.  A cab will be much more comfortable for both of us."

"Are you sure?"

"Positive."  His smile was captivating when he thought he had pleased her.  "Let's go.  How does one hail a cab in this part of town?"
She flagged down the first taxi they saw and gave the driver directions.  They sat together in the back seat, he watching in fascination as the traffic rolled by while she watched him.  Lights gleamed in his eyes, painted his skin with fleeting, iridescent watercolours.  He looked exotic, out of place, vulnerable -- like a child.  She wondered if that was that what she found so fascinating about him.  There was something a little perverse about liking someone because they had the same effect on her as a four-year-old.

But maybe that was why she couldn't read him very well: he had no vibe to read yet.  He himself didn't know who he was or what he was thinking.  Or maybe he was going through a premature mid-life crisis.

The cab pulled to a halt outside Julie's home with a squeak of brakes.  Neither of them had said a word throughout the ten-minute journey, although she wouldn't have said that she'd been bored.  His hand touched hers, and she felt something tighten in her chest.

"It's been a lovely evening, Julie," he said.

"Would you like to come in for a coffee?"

"Oh, I couldn't.  It's much too late, and you have work in the morning."

"I know, but I'm still inviting you in."

He shook his head.  "Another time, perhaps.  I really must update my report."

"Okay."  She turned her hand over so their palms touched.  "Next time, then."

"Yes."

She gave him another second to kiss her goodnight, but he didn't budge.

Eventually she withdrew her hand from his, feeling like an idiot, and opened the door.

"Thanks for the ride," she said, and climbed out.

"My pleasure!"

The cab pulled away from the curb, and she embarrassed herself with half a wave before realising he wasn't even looking in her direction.

 

Snapshot: Push Comes To Shove

 

She forced herself not to ring him the next day, or the next, or even the day after that.  Instead, she rang Kate at Viva Agencies on the fourth day to ask if he had handed in his feedback form.

"I've got his file in front of me, as a matter of fact," Kate began.

"And has he?"

"Julie, you know I can't tell you that."

"Please, Kate.  He's driving me crazy."

"Well, well."  Kate's voice was amused.  "Sounds like we might be onto a winner at last."

"Don't."  Julie bunched her fist around the phone.  "Just don't, okay?"

"Listen, if this is really bothering you, meet me for lunch and we'll talk it through."

"Kate, any help at all would be wonderful."

"Let's just say you've come to the right place."

She smiled.  "Viva never had a better receptionist."

"Enough with the compliments.  See you at twelve."

She made sure she was early for lunch, this time.  She found a seat at the front of the cafe, where she couldn't possibly be missed, and waited impatiently for her friend to arrive.

"What did he say?"

"Not so fast, Julie.  Tell me what you think of him, first."

She tried as best she could.  He was courteous, considerate, attractive in conservative kind of way, not overweight, tall, pleasant company --

"He doesn't sound like much, so far," Kate commented.  "What's the hook?  What is about him that reels you in?"

"I don't know.  To be honest, I don't know much about him at all."

"His hobbies?  His job?  His jokes?  His smell?  His background -- "

"He's not from around here.  Maybe that's it."  Julie contemplated the possibility as she had a dozen times already.  "He seems so different."

"What does your vibe say?"

"I don't know.  He's hard to read."

"Because he's different, do you think?"

"Perhaps."  She couldn't pin the feeling down.  It wasn't as though he was locking her out.  More as though he was transparent, or a mirror -- made that way.  "I just don't know, Kate," she said, frustration rising again.  "I can't tell if he's interested in me or not.  He has no vibe at all!"

She spoke more loudly than she intended to, and a number of diners glanced at her.  She looked down into her lap, flushing.  The waiter, however, didn't blink as he served their lunch.  So close to Viva, he was probably used to such emotive scenes; they probably happened every day.

Kate patted her with one hand while the other shoved a portion of meatball past her lips.  "Listen, Julie," she said around the food, "you've got to get a grip on yourself.  Like this, you'll only scare him away.  And you don't want to do that, right?"

She shook her head.  No, she thought.  Not until I've worked him out.  "But what if he's not interested?"

"C'est la vie."  Kate produced a piece of paper from her jacket's interior.  "Read it and you tell me what you think."

Julie studied the photocopy of Roger Worth's feedback form for a long minute before actually daring to read it.  There was only one line, written in precise, fluid handwriting.

"'She seems quite lovable'?"  Julie looked up at her friend.  "That's what he said?"

"That's it.  I think that tells you all you need to know."

Does it? she wondered.  What the hell did 'lovable' mean these days?  That he loved her?  That he didn't but someone else could?  It made her sound like a teddy-bear, not a woman.

"What should I do?" she asked, still slightly shell-shocked.

"Go for broke," Kate said, pointing with her fork.  "Give him an open goal and hand him the ball.  If he scores, hooray.  If he doesn't, look for another goal-kicker.  You've got nothing to lose."

"No."  She didn't.  Another four days of stewing, hoping that he'd call, would drive her crazy.

"Believe me," Kate said.  "You have to do something to force the issue.  There's a big difference between playing hard to get and being hard to take."

"Yes,"  Staring down at her untouched meal gave her the inspiration she needed.  "How would dinner at my place this weekend be, do you think?"

"That depends.  You live alone, don't you?"

"Yes."

"And he knows that?"

"I've mentioned it, yes."

Kate nodded emphatically.  "Sounds fine to me, then.  The implication is obvious, and if he says yes, that means he's keen.  If he doesn't respond immediately, encourage him a little.  He might be nervous when it comes to the crunch.  Lots of men are.  They want control but they're terrified of the responsibility.  You have to take their power away and give it back to them at exactly the right moment, or else they panic."

Julie nodded, even though she doubted it could possibly be that simple.  But then she remembered the sort of experience Kate must have had at Viva: thousands of lonely men, all looking for that elusive quality called love.  Some of them must have been successful in their search.  Given long enough, patterns could emerge from the chaos of human interactions.

Kate's vibe was unambiguous, at least.  She radiated helpfulness and confidence.  With every gesture she made, she was encouraging Julie to forge ahead.

Maybe it was that simple.  And if so, Julie could do worse than try.

 

Snapshot: Too Much Rope Is Never Enough

 

She took the Friday off to prepare.  Although Roger had agreed to the date with his usual reticence on the phone, she had emerged from the conversation slightly reassured: he had said yes.  If Kate was right, that was a positive sign.

But her nerves only worsened as the day wore on.  She cooked solidly from mid-day until six, preparing every course with meticulous detail.  The first course was pumpkin and mandarin soup; for main she cooked a vegetarian dish in a spicy mandarin sauce, dusted with chopped spring onions and sesame seeds.  Dessert was the pièce de résistance: mandarin nut waffles with mandarin dessert sauce.  She laid out a bowl of fresh, glossy mandarins on the table, just in case he felt the urge.  Finally, she spent over an hour squeezing the juice from the mandarins she had left over and putting it in the fridge to chill.

Her greengrocer had looked at her as though she'd gone crazy.  Maybe she had.  The only concession she made to her own tastes was to buy a handful of peaches, which she also placed in the bowl, and a bottle of wine for Dutch courage.  If this wasn't a make or break effort, she didn't know what was.

He arrived at seven on the dot, knocking with a precise, almost measured tempo.  Her heart caught the rhythm and fluttered in her chest.  Christ -- had she forgotten anything?  The soup was on the stove, the main dish cooking nicely in the oven.  Her house smelt pleasantly of fruit.  She whisked off her apron and threw it into the sink.  "Coming!"

"Hello, Julie," he said when she opened the door.

"Roger, come in."  She ushered him ahead of her, into the house.  His hands were empty: no flowers, no wine.  Not necessarily a bad sign.  He didn't drink, and they hadn't reached the topic of hay-fever in their two dates so far.  Chocolates would have been good, though.

"Can I get you anything?"

"No, thank you.  This is a very comfortable room."  His eyes roamed the polished floorboards, the pastel fabrics, the tastefully-framed prints.  They perched next to each other on the wide, stuffed sofa.  "It says a lot about your personality."

"It does?"  She too looked around.  "Like what?"

"You are very ordered, Julie.  Everything is in perfect harmony with its surroundings.  Were I to move something out of its proper place, you would feel an urge to move it back -- not necessarily because it looked wrong in its new position, but because it belonged where it was.  You must have lived here a long time."

"Relatively."  She thought about mentioning the frantic tidying up she had performed that morning, but decided not to.  Ordered was good, wasn't it?  "Four and a half years, now."

"I imagine your life to be much like this room.  Neat, convenient, aesthetic.  Don't you ever feel stifled?  Do you ever long for change?"

Wait, she thought.  This wasn't so good.  Or maybe it was the prelude to a proposal.  She didn't want to blow it if it was.

"Change is good," she said cautiously.  "But it has to be for the right reasons.  That's why I'm at Viva: I want something extra in my life, something I can't supply myself."

"Yes, of course."  His green eyes were fascinated by her expression.  "The love of another person.  You would sacrifice your ordered life for that?"

"Well, not sacrifice, exactly."  She looked down at her hands, avoiding his stare.  "There's always room for negotiation."

"If you say so."

"It's not me that says so, but all the books I've read on the subject.  'Negotiation is the oil in the engine of any relationship.'"  She remembered that line clearly because it reminded her of her first boyfriend's motorbike and the way it had throbbed between her legs on their first date.  The oil in that relationship certainly hadn't been negotiation.  "But what about you?" she asked, turning the subject back on him.  "What do you want from someone else?"

It was his turn to look away.  "I really don't know," he said.  "To be honest, I'm new to this of stuff.  All I have is books.  I've never loved anyone else before, except my brother."

"And he doesn't count because he's family, right?"  All of a sudden, she felt sorry for him.  His whole life a loner?  It didn't seem fair.  For all his oddness, he didn't deserve that.

He nodded slowly -- miserably, she thought -- in response to her question, but said nothing.

Before her sorrow could become pity, she suggested they eat.  In the dining room, he admired the photos of her with her family.  "This must be your mother," he said, pointing at a portrait on a side table.

"No.  That's an old friend of the family.  Try over there."  She indicated another snapshot while she ladled soup into the waiting plates.

"Remarkable.  You don't look at all alike."
"My sister inherited her looks.  I take after my father instead.  That's him next to Mum.  Some people say I'm a younger, female version."

He compared her to the photo.  "Remarkable," he said again.  She received the distinct impression he wasn't referring to the family resemblance.  "It's amazing how genes work, isn't it?"

"I guess so.  Never really thought about it, to be honest."  She waved a hand over the full bowls.  "Grub's up, Roger.  I'll get you a drink.  Do you mind if I have a little wine?"

The first course went well enough.  They talked about current events -- about which he was far more knowledgeable than he was about love -- and politics.  Religion wormed its way briefly into the conversation until she told him that she was an atheist; he stated that he was, too, and promptly lost interest.  While she refilled his glass and pulled the main course out of the oven, he complimented her on the excellence of her cooking.

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

"No, Roger.  Just sit back and relax.  Let me treat you, this time.  I don't do this often."

"Why not?"

She returned to the table with a casserole dish in gloved hands.  "Well, there's not been any reason to, lately."

"I don't understand."

"No?  Don't tell me you cook like this for yourself every night."

"Oh, I see."  He looked embarrassed, then.  "I'm sorry, Julie.  You must think me incredibly stupid sometimes."

"Not stupid, exactly."  She felt warmth rising from the pit of her stomach.  She had never realised before how sexy it could feel to play the perfect housewife for such an awkward naïf.  "Just a bit slow."

"Oh, that's all right, then."  He studied his plate with interest as she loaded it full of food.  "This looks delicious, too."

"Thank you.  I'm glad you think so."

Over the main course she shifted the conversation to his work.

"Today?  Worked on my report, mostly," he said around a mouthful of orange-stained cauliflower.

"How's it coming along?"

"Fine, I think.  Because it's my first, I'm not one hundred percent certain, but I'm doing the best I can."

"That's the main thing."

"Yes.  I agree.  And if I do make any mistakes, I'll have learned something new in the process.  Next time, I'll do better."

"What's the report about, exactly?  Anything I'd be interested in?"

"I -- doubt it."  He squirmed as though his seat had become uncomfortably warm.  "I'm making notes on a recently discovered untouched culture."

"I didn't think there were any untouched cultures left to be discovered."

"No, not many.  Not around here, anyway.  But the ones that are hardest to find are always the most interesting to study."

"I suppose."  She imagined him trudging through the Amazon jungles looking for lost tribes of pygmies; the picture didn't quite ring true.  "It's good to know that there are some people out there who haven't heard of Coke, TV and the Olympics."

He chuckled at her joke, and the warm feeling grew stronger.

"Tell me about them," she said.

He choked.  "Ah, no, I'd better not."

"Why not?  It's not secret or anything, is it?"

"Well, it might be.  It's certainly sensitive."

"Oh, come on, Roger.  You can tell me, can't you?  Who am I going to blab it to?"

"No -- no, really I shouldn't.  It wouldn't be polite."

Polite?  "Get real, Roger."

"I'm sorry, Julie."  His face was pale.  "I've offended you.  I didn't mean to, honestly, it's just I -- I -- "

She reached across the table and put her hand on his arm.  "Okay, okay.  Relax."  His flesh was warm under her palm and tantalisingly solid.  "I'm sorry I pushed.  We can talk about something else if you'd rather."

"Yes, please."  He put down his knife and placed his hand over hers.  "Perhaps -- do you think I might have another drink, Julie?"

She nodded, squeezed her hand and let go.  As she went to the kitchen, she barely resisted the impulse to smell her palm.  They had touched hands again.  It wasn't exactly progress, but it wasn't regression either.

She let him dictate the conversational trends from then on.  When they talked, it was about meaningless things: the wood the table was made of, the age of her house, how real estate prices had gone up in recent months, whether there would be a rise in interest rates before Christmas, if the election would next year would go the way everyone expected it to.  As they chatted, she tried one last time to detect anything at all from all the things he wasn't saying, but failed yet again.  His words were meaningless; his body-language was superficial.  He might have been a robot for all the subliminal signals she was picking up.

Still, she thought, smiling to herself, even a robot might have its uses.  If it could be programmed not to leave the toilet seat up or pubic hairs on the soap, she would consider it over an ordinary man any day.

Finally came dessert.  She turned down the lights and lit a candle.  The wine had given her head a pleasant buzz.  She felt bold.  What did it matter if she couldn't read him?  Wasn't the surface enough?  Right then -- enamoured by his mysterious charm, or his charming mystery, whatever -- she decided that it was.  Tomorrow she might think otherwise, but hey, it was a Friday night.  She couldn't remember the last time she'd been impetuous with a man on a weekend.

"Roger."  She held her glass with the rim at eye level.  Light sparkled playfully across all the refractive boundaries: air and glass, glass and wine, wine and air.  "I hope you're having a good time."

"I am, Julie, yes."  His eyes met hers through the dance of light.  "The meal has been excellent -- and your company, too, of course.  I can't imagine a better evening."

"Good."  She put down the glass and folded her hands.  "When you've finished, let's go into the lounge.  I'll put some coffee on, if you like."

"Actually -- "

"I have herbal tea, if you prefer."  No mandarin, though, she realised.  Orange pekoe would have to do.

He smiled.  "Yes, that would be lovely."

"Good.  I'll go put the kettle on."

"What's the hurry?"  You've hardly touched your dessert."

True, she realised.  If there was no hurry, she could afford to wait.  Anticipation, as they said, did increase the pleasure -- especially when she felt like this.  When had she ever been so relaxed, so aroused, so sure of exactly how things would go once they settled on the couch together?

He brought the bowl of fruit with him.  She kicked off her shoes and put the tea next to the bowl on a coffee table next to the sofa.  She made sure she sat closest to the table, so he would have to lean past her to get at it.  Folding her legs beneath her, she put her head on one hand and waited to see if he would make a move.

"Have you ever noticed how people ask a lot of rhetorical questions?" he asked, sitting next to her.

She hummed vaguely.  Then, realising that an answer was actually required in this case, added: "Yes."

He looked over her shoulder at the bowl of mandarins, then down into his lap.  "Relationships are like that.  We ask the same questions over and over until someone answers, and when they do, we know they're the right one."  He shrugged.  "At least, that's what I've read."

Encouragement, she decided: that was what he needed.  "Are you any good at giving foot massages, Roger?"

"To be honest, I don't know.  I've never tried."

"Well, here's your chance."  She slid one stockinged foot from under her buttocks and offered it to him.

He stroked it half-heartedly.  "How's that?"

She didn't know; his touch was feather-light.  It certainly wasn't ringing any bells, yet.  "Good, don't stop."

"They must be aching," he said.  "You've worked so hard today, putting all this together.  I really didn't expect you to go to so much trouble.  If there was only some way I could repay the honour ... "

"Yes?" she prompted, letting a sly smile curl one corner of her mouth.

"I don't know.  How does one repay something like this?  Am I expected to reciprocate?"

"Do you want to?"

"I don't know.  Cooking isn't really my speciality, and where I'm staying at the moment -- "  His fingers became more urgent.  "It wouldn't be appropriate, I guess."

She leaned into his caress.  Yes, that was better.  Her taut sole was beginning to relax.  "You don't have to cook me dinner, Roger."

"Oh, good."  His fingers resumed their earlier tempo.

She withdrew it from his grasp.  "Just tell me something," she said, leaning closer, deeper into his orangey scent.

"Of course."

"Do you find me attractive?"

His eyebrows flew upwards like startled pigeons.  "I -- well, you're a very beautiful woman, Julie -- "

"I'm not asking for compliments, Roger.  I want to know how you feel about me."

"I feel -- well, yes, attracted, if that's the correct thing -- "

"I'm not talking about correct, either."  She couldn't help a small laugh at his expense.  "Roger, please, let yourself go for a moment.  I want to know what you want, deep down, underneath the facade."

"You do?"  His eyes were unbelieving.

"Yes."

"But it'll sound so stupid.  I know it will."

"Maybe, maybe not.  Until you tell someone, you'll never know."

"I guess so."  Taking a deep breath, he shyly met her stare.  "Julie, I -- I want to know what love is."

She kissed him.

For a moment he responded.  His mouth was moist, warm and tasted as orangey as his breath.  His tongue was soft and gentle; his teeth were a deliciously hard contrast.  Their breath mingled hotly for a moment before she remembered to breathe through her nose.

Then suddenly he was on his feet, away from her.  He moved so fast she hardly had time to realise that he was gone before he shouted:

"No, Julie, no!  What are you doing?"

Surprised and hurt, she retreated back into the lounge.  "What do you think I'm doing?"

"You -- "  He wiped his hand across his mouth then looked down at his palm.  "Oh my.  I didn't realise that I could be -- that this body -- "

"I thought it was what you wanted!"

"No, no -- this all wrong, wrong, wrong!"

His words cut her.  "Why, Roger?  Why is it wrong?"

"Because -- "  He stared at her in dismay.  "I'm sorry -- I really am, but I have to leave."

"Wait -- Roger!"  On her feet now, and beginning to get angry, she followed as he fled up the hall.  "Roger, damn you!  If you didn't want me to kiss you, why did you come tonight?  Why did you massage my foot?  Why did you lead me on?"

"I didn't know what I was doing!"  He wrenched the door open.  "I didn't mean to hurt you, Julie -- "

"You bastard!"  She felt exposed and vulnerable, backed into a corner.  Grabbing the first thing that came to hand -- an owl carved from wood -- she threw it at him.  "Just get the hell out of here!"

"I will, Julie."  He dodged another projectile.  "I'm sorry!"

She slammed the door on his retreating, entreating face and staggered back into the lounge.  She didn't want to cry -- she wasn't a schoolgirl dumped after her first date, not any more -- but she could feel it coming anyway.  Incipient tears made the room swim.  She picked up a peach from the bowl by the couch and threw it as hard as she could.  It slid down the wall like a broken heart and fell with a splat onto the carpet.

Everything had been perfect for an instant, then had fallen apart so quickly.  If only she hadn't tried to kiss him!  Self-hatred burned in the wound his rejection had made.  He had vindicated every negative thought she had ever entertained about herself.  It wasn't his fault -- it was hers.  She was no good, unattractive, unlovable.  She always would be.  There was nothing left to hope for but lonely old age and death.

Through the lounge windows, she saw Roger stagger onto the street, clutching his head where the carved owl had struck it.  She hoped he was seriously injured, that he would wake tomorrow with a lump the size of a mandarin in his temple.  Or maybe he'd never even make it home.  He would be struck down by a brain aneurism instead, caused by the blow.  That would be fair.  That would be just.  That would please her.

He raised his hands to the sky, shouting something.  She shook her head in denial.  Too late for apologies, Roger.  Too late to say you've changed your mind.  Just get in your car and get the hell out of my life!

But ...  Where was his car?  For the first time she realised that the street was empty, and with that observation came a twinge of alarm.  She hoped he wouldn't come back to ask her to call for a taxi.  He could walk home for all she cared.  If he did come back for another try, she swore that the next owl would fly with lethal intent.

"You pathetic sonofabitch," she hissed, watching him plead with the stars.  As though he had heard her, he glanced over his shoulder, back at the house.  "There really is no God, if that's what you're looking for."

Then a flash of light made her blink, and suddenly there was no Roger, either. 

She stared at the empty road for a good minute before going out to check.  He was nowhere to be seen.  The tarmac where he had been standing was hot to the touch.  She could smell oranges on her fingertips, and ozone. 

She went back inside, locked the door, and drank until she passed out on the bathroom floor.

 

Snapshot: Time Is a Poor Band-aid

 

It hadn't taken her long to piece it all together.  His naïvety, his lack of vibe, his anthropological studies.  And then there were the things he had said: this body, new to town, still learning -- and, of all things, I want to know what love is ...

Whoever had sent him, wherever he was now, she hoped the field report read to their satisfaction.

Life went on, but the barriers were up again.  She kept her answering machine on when she was home and ignored calls from Viva Agencies.  She tossed their mail into the bin.  She gave up dating entirely and threw herself back into her work.  For the June to September quarter, she achieved higher productivity than ever before.  Her life was going down the toilet, but her bosses were pleased.  That was some comfort: as aftermaths went, she could have had it much, much worse.

Things were looking up on the fourteenth of September, a Saturday.  She was cleaning up after her latest Friday night binge when the phone rang in her study and the answering machine took the call.

"If you're looking for Julie, this is the right number."  Beep.

"Hi, Julie Katz?  This is Narelle Benson from Australia Parcel Delivery, Norwood office.  If you could call me back before five today that would be terrific.  My direct number here is 8444 5678.  Thanks."

She replayed the message and wrote down the number.  A parcel?  Her birthday wasn't far away, so it could have been an early present from her father.  Or something from her penfriend in Houston, even though she hadn't written for over six months, now.

The fact that the voice was familiar didn't ring any alarm bells.  Neither did the fact that most transport companies didn't deliver on the weekend.

She dialled the number the woman had left within thirty seconds of the machine clicking off.

"Hello, Julie?" said the voice that answered it.  "Don't hang up, whatever you do!"

Now the familiarity of the voice nagged at her.  "Who the hell is this?"

"It's me -- Kate from Viva."

"Kate?"  She was too stunned at first to feel angry.  They had got through her guard!  "What -- how -- ?"

"I've just had a new extension put in my office, and you're the only person I've given the number to so far.  I knew you'd call me back!"

"Your office?"  Mentally she reeled.  The sound of Kate's voice, so excited and pleased, had knocked her off-balance.

"Too right.  There've been quite a few changes since we were last in.  Old Jacowicz -- remember him?  The sleaze?  Well, he's gone.  We've got a couple of new people to replace him, and they've been really good.  It's about time they moved me upstairs.  You wouldn't believe how busy -- "

"Wait, Kate -- wait!"  She put a hand over her eyes.  Why?  "Why are you calling me?"

"Your twelve months are almost up, Julie."

"I know, and I'm not interested in renewing, if that's what -- "

"No, I guessed as much.  We'd still like to see you, though.  It's been ages.  I want to hear all the gossip about that mandarin guy.  You cooked him dinner, right, like I suggested?  Did you to get it together?  Was it something kinky?"

Julie rubbed her temples.  "Not exactly."

"Then what?  Come on: you can tell me."
"I'd rather not talk about it at all.  I'm sorry, Kate, but -- "

"Julie, listen to me.  I'll be honest, now.  You're sounding really weird.  If you don't come down for lunch on Monday, I'll be on your doorstep every night afterwards until you let me in.  I think you need to talk to someone, and why not me?  I promise not to bring him up, if you prefer.  Just let me see you, make sure you're doing okay, then I'll get out of your hair.  Forever, if you want it that way."

She thought about it.  Kate sounded hurt, mistreated, lonely -- exactly the way she felt most of the time.

"Julie?  Are you still there?"

"Yes, I'm here.  And yes, I'll come.  But for God's sake don't give me a hard sell.  I'm done with Viva.  I really don't want to sign up again."

"Hey, no problem.  I understand.  Personally, I wonder sometimes if it does anyone any good -- but there you go.  That's only sometimes.  And it's a job, right?" 

"Right, Kate.  I'll see you Monday, I guess."

"One o'clock.  My lunch hour's changed."

"Okay.  'Bye."

"Have a good weekend!"

Julie hung up.  A headache had begun nailing its way through her skull from the inside out.  Not a hangover, this time.  This pain had been there for weeks, buried by everyday life like a dead cat under a rug.  Although part of her was amazed at how little it took to revive the experience, a greater part wasn't surprised at all.  Roger Worth -- or whoever he really was -- still had a lot to answer for.

 

Snapshot: Exit Wound

 

She walked into the lobby of Viva agencies feeling like she was going to vomit at any moment.  A typically superficial receptionist directed her up the stairs to Kate's office.  As she went past an open door on her right, she glanced through it and saw him sitting behind a desk.

She froze in mid-step.  It was him!

"Julie?"  He stood up and smiled.

Except it wasn't him any more.  His face and hair had changed; he was a brunette, now, with a moustache, and his eyes were brown.  His body was taller, heavier, more athletic.  He looked like a stranger, but wasn't.  She almost flinched as his vibeless transparency hit her, and with it came his distinctive scent of citrus.

"Roger?"

He held a finger to his lips.  "It's David, now.  David Wain -- new body, new name.  I retired the old one with little regret, I must admit."

"Oh my God."  She felt distant from herself, beyond panic.  "You've changed!"

"Yes, I have."  His smile and voice were both warm and confident.  He seemed more certain of himself, more natural in every regard, although his suit was dark and gleamed like plastic.  "I've learned a lot in the last couple of months."

"Good for you."  She couldn't help the bitterness in her voice.  It was too much -- much too much.  She had to get out of there.

Catching her sideways glance up the hallway, he raised a hand.  "Look, Julie, I understand this must be difficult for you -- but please give me a moment.  It won't take long."

"What won't?"

"I just want to talk.  That's why I asked Kate to bring you here.  So I could explain.  That's all."

Silently swearing revenge on her ex-friend, she asked: "Why?"

"Come in and close the door.  I'd rather no-one overheard.  The walls are thin enough in here as it is."

She hesitated.  It wasn't too late to escape.  What if he planned to dispose of her, to shut her up?  She knew too much, that was for sure.  But she'd never told anyone before now.  And they'd had plenty of other opportunities to track her down.

Dazed, she stepped into the office and shut the door behind her.  He waved at a seat and she let herself sink into it.  His smile didn't waver, but she couldn't look at him, didn't want to confront the emptiness behind his face.

"Thanks, Julie."  He folded his hands on the desk, and she stared at them instead.  His voice radiated reassurance.  "I really bungled my analysis of you.  I've been wanting to apologise for a long time, but never knew how."

She shook her head.  The truth, although she had guessed it already, sounded ludicrous spoken aloud.  "'Analysis'?"

"Yes.  I was sent to study interhuman relationships specifically relating to reproduction.  Love and lust, in other words.  This aspect of your species' behaviour is not easy for us to understand.  I decided that the best place to start would be through an introduction agency, since finding love was their prime objective.  It was the wrong approach, though, the worst possible angle.  I could never be a participant -- the situation was too alien, too unnatural for me -- but it was my first time in the field and I didn't know that.  It came as something of a shock to realise that I myself could be the object of desire.  I'm sorry for hurting you, Julie."

Her mind reeled.  "You don't have love where you come from?"

"Not as you know it, no."

"Then how -- ?"  She stopped, embarrassed.  The unfinished question hung in the air between them.

"How do we reproduce?"  He shrugged.  "It'll sound weird, no doubt.  My species has more in common with amoeba and moths than mammals.  Are you sure you want to know?"

She nodded.  Despite everything, she had to admit that she was still curious about him.

"Parents split to produce two offspring, each containing half the total number of the parent's chromosomes -- a mix of meiosis with mitosis, if you like.  The drones are sexless, but are intelligent and active; it is these drones, like me, who do such things as build civilisations, explore space and make contact with other species.  When the drones reach the end of their life span, they merge with a drone from another parent to form a new adult.  The adult leads a sedentary, plant-like life until the time comes to begin the cycle again.  It splits, sends out its drones in search of others, and so it goes."

"You're telling me you're a sperm?"

"Or an egg, if you prefer.  I do not mate, except upon my death -- and even then, it will be without my knowledge.  Once, in the days of my distant ancestors, when adults were widely scattered across the home planet, mating would occur automatically upon meeting another non-related drone.  But these days we are not so desperate.  We may even choose not to mate with another, but to recreate the original parent by joining with the other drone it created.  That way, we achieve a kind of immortality -- although at the cost of species diversity.  My parent has done this several times, and we will probably do so again."

She felt vaguely ill.  "'We' means you and your brother, doesn't it?"

"Yes, although your word 'brother' does cloud the issue.  We don't have enough concepts in common to allow me to explain the process properly."  He shrugged.  "At least you can see now why I was confused by your system."

"But you're here, now, studying us?"

"Yes.  We are curious about other races and they way they work, but we will not interfere with an uncorrupted race unless it is deemed necessary to do so."

She recalled the word 'uncorrupted' from the night she had last seen him.  How strange to be thought of as a primitive culture deserving protection from its peers.  She'd been brought up to believe that humanity needed protection from itself.  "What about us?  Will you interfere in our case?"

"I doubt it very much.  You've managed well enough on your own."

"But -- "  She didn't know what she wanted to say, she was such a tangle of anger and sorrow.  "You interfered with me, surely?"

"Unintentionally -- "

"I saw you leave, that night, when you disappeared into thin air."

"Yes, I thought you might have.  Ordinarily I would never have transported in public like that, but I wasn't thinking straight.  I was upset."  He folded his hands in a classic bank manager pose and leaned over them.  "Julie, I can't deny that I made a terrible mistake, that night.  It has weighed heavily upon me ever since.  Even though I've finally found the right means to conduct the investigation -- from the inside, as a privileged observer -- the memory of that bungled first attempt still haunts me.  And so -- "  He hesitated, and for the first time he looked uncertain.  "And so, Julie, I'd like to make it up to you."

She stared at him suspiciously, yet his remorse seemed sincere.  "How?"

He reached into a drawer and removed an envelope.  "I want you to have this."

"If it's money -- "

"No, it's not money.  It's a gift, Julie.  I think you'll learn to appreciate it, if you give it a chance."

She reached out and plucked the envelope from his outstretched hand, rubbed it nervously between thumb and forefinger before bringing it closer.  The contents were insubstantial, maybe nothing more than a piece of paper.  A secret?  A chemical formula guaranteeing eternal life, perhaps, or the solution to some obscure mathematical conundrum?

She raised it to her nose and sniffed.  It smelt like him.

"Thank you," she said automatically, "I think."

"It's the least I can do.  Honestly.  But, please, don't open it now.  Wait until later, when you've had time to think about this conversation.  Then I'm sure you'll be in a better frame of mind."

She nodded, unwilling to commit herself to anything remotely like forgiveness.

They sat in silence for a long moment.  As though an enormous weight had lifted from her shoulders, she felt more calm than she had for months.  Even the headache was gone.

Almost.

"Why the mandarins?" she asked.

"For the chemicals they contain.  They help sustain this body.  And they taste good, don't you think?"

"Yes.  I suppose they do."

He smiled.  "It was a lovely dinner, Julie.  I'm sorry it didn't end the way you wanted it to."

"So was I, then."

"But it was for the best.  I'm sure you'd agree."

"Yes."  She stood, and they shook hands again.  His was slightly moist.

"Goodbye, Julie.  If you ever need me, I'll be here, somewhere."

She nodded and left the office, feeling like she was stepping into another world.

"Julie!"

Kate barrelled towards her from the end of the corridor, waving customer profiles in one hand and a mobile phone in another.

"Is lunch still on?" Julie asked.  "I thought it was just a ploy to get me in here."

Kate pfff-ed in dismissal of the suggestion.  "Nonsense.  You don't get off that easily.  We've got a lot of catching up to do."  Kate winked.  "You're going to give me all the gossip whether you want to or not."

Julie caught Roger's -- no, David Wain's -- eye as Kate propelled her towards the stairs.  All of the gossip? she wondered.  No.  Most of it would do, for now.  The rest I'll just have to make up.

She almost waved goodbye.

 

Snapshot: Ricochet

 

It wasn't until she got into the car and started the engine that she remembered the envelope.  Letting the car idle, she ripped it open with a nail and unfolded its contents.

"Dear Julie," said the note stick-padded to the single piece of paper, "I'm not breaking any rules giving this to you.  You still have a week left on your enrolment.  You've paid for the service, so why not make the most of it?  Roger."

She couldn't help but notice that he hadn't signed it with 'Love'.

I've learned a lot, he had said.

Folding the client profile and putting it back into the envelope, she pulled out of the parallel park and drove away.

This story originally appeared in Eidolon.


Data?1533064609

Like this story? Tip or subscribe to Sean.