My grip tightens as I stare at the name embossed on the navy cover. All I had wanted was a friend. Someone to talk to, someone to laugh with and someone to sit silently with. I’d known from the beginning that a child of Death and Sagacity was ill-suited to the pursuit of friendship. But it made me desire it all the more. If even the sun had the moon and the waters the sky, should I not too be entitled a companion?
So I entreated, and was granted the occasion of speech three times to seek out a willing companion. She was my third.
There’s still time to stop this foolery. You have but one last chance and you’re throwing it away on a fickle, short-lived, unpredictable creature? Are you so desperate to return to your life of solitude that you choose so ill?
Ignoring the responsible, saner part of me, I push the cafe door open and see her sitting at the outer seat on table six, drinking a brown foamy liquid, typing furiously away on a tiny laptop in front of her. The tinkle of the bell attached to the door draws her attention; she looks up and gives me a brief distracted smile before returning to her laptop. Just as it did five Mondays ago when I first stumbled upon her, her smile strikes me like an asp bite to the chest. The sharp, painful sting welled in a crescendo, and subsided into an odd aching bruise. One I did not like or understand. One that haunted my hours and dogged my days. I slide into a booth across from her and try not to be too conspicuous.
Clickety-clack. Tap tap. Clack clack clack.
Her petite fingers race across the keyboard as they pummel the tiny keys into submission, halting their determined pursuit momentarily to swipe aside the middling brown hair that had fallen across her face. As the sound of her frenetic typing continues, I lean back, close my eyes and tune into the frequency of her thoughts. I was used to the sudden onslaught of words and ideas that screamed as they flew into my mind with rushing force. Sifting through the noise to find the skeletal force behind it took a mere moment.
No, no, no! My eyes fly open. Instinctively, I reach out even as indignation launches me out of the booth and propels my feet. I watch as her fingers slow and a dark scowl steals across her fine features as she mashes the backspace key with frightening violence, erasing any evidence of her earlier text. She stares at the screen, taking a large gulp of the brown foamy liquid. Perhaps it was the unimpressive height or unexceptional visage of this body, but whatever the reason, she does not notice me. A pointed cough fixes that; she swivels, startled and flushes as she realises a stranger hovers next to her a little too closely.
“Excuse me, miss,” I say. “Don’t do it. It doesn’t work,” I blurt.
“What?” she pauses, confused. I see her fingers twitch as they halt their nefarious march in polite protocol. Her brows draw together as she looks me up and down.
“This love at first sight business. You’re only fooling yourself.”
She stares at me in consternation. “And how would you know?” she demands hotly. “Have you ever been in love?”
Love. What a cruel impossibility.
“I know it doesn’t work that way.” I hedge, “Not real love anyway. Lust at first sight, sure. But love? How can you love a person you’ve never met and don’t know? What if he or she turns out to be a psychotic murderer with a fetish for rusty bells?” I snort in mild amusement at the thought.
She glares at me for a moment and I feel a secret thrill at the connection before she breaks it, slumping into her seat. “Gah, of course it’s terrible, Ally. Even the weirdo in the cafe thinks it’s sappy.” She continues her mutinous frown at me even while gesturing for me to sit across from her.
I frown and my heart sinks a little. “You think I’m weird?”
“Of course you are. I don’t know you and here you are giving me the craziest speech on love. If that’s not weird, call me looney.”
“But you want me to stay?” I ask, puzzled.
“I said you’re weird. I never said I wasn’t crazy. Stay if you’d like. It’s not like my love life is going anywhere anyway.”
Relieved, I sink into the vinyl and polyester seat and cross my arms. “So, what are you going to do?”
“I don’t know,” she sighs and and her hair falls across her face as she shakes her head. She tucks it away again. “How did you know I was writing about love at first sight anyway? Was I…” she grimaces. “…Was I mumbling like a deranged person again? Sorry about that, it drives my roommate nuts. It’s the main reason I come to this blasted cafe to write.”
I found it adorable, the way her cheeks pinked as she realised she was rambling. “Sorry. I don’t usually… do you always stare at people this much? It’s very unnerving.”
It was my turn to apologise. “My apologies. Talking to another is new to me. I don’t usually… talk.”
“Why not? You’re talking to me right now and you seem fine.”
“Not two moments ago you told me I was weird.”
“Yes well, launching into a spiel on love at first sight to a stranger isn’t usually how we greet another.” Her lips tip upward. I find mine returning the motion.
“Noted for future reference, ma’am.”
“So why don’t you talk to people?”
I consider and discard several answers before I finally reply, “In my line of work, talking’s not considered necessary.” I don’t dare say more. I don’t want her to find out the truth about me just yet.
“Talking’s not nece— oh dear lord, what a regular Tom you are. I suppose grunt noises is all you think the rest of us need.”
It takes me a moment to catch on, and when I do, I feel my face flame. “That’s not what I— that is, I’m not a—“ I feel my cheeks and neck burn.
She smirks. “It’d explain your earlier remark about lust at first sight. I should ask. Should I be worried about rusty bells?”
This was not how I thought this meeting would’ve gone. “For the love of—”
“— rusty bells?” she interjects.
“—all things sacred,” I say, frowning at her, “I don’t sleep with women. Or men,” I add hastily, at a speculative gleam in her bright eyes. “Not that it’s any of your business,” I say rather impatiently.
“Fine, fine. It was all in jest,” she says placatingly, smiling at me. “I don’t think I’ve had such interesting company in ages. Tell me more about yourself. But first, let me order some food.” She holds up a hand as I make to stand.
“No, it’s my treat for being so rude.” She notes my hesitation, and points to my seat; like an obedient hound, I sit. While she’s gone, I feel a little churlish for snapping at her. I haven’t had this much enjoyment with anyone since… well ever.
When she returns, she pushes a little petri of green to me and snickers at the look on my face. “Eat up.”
I wrinkle my nose. “What is it?”
She shakes her head playfully. “Not telling.”
Fine. How bad could a very sad, very wrinkly, very green bean-thing be? I pick up a piece and gingerly bite into it. The thick green skin refuses to tear apart. I pop the whole thing into my mouth, and began the arduous process of chewing and munching and then masticating on it some more. The blasted thing must be some sort of tree bark. I see her watching with a small smile and rather self-consciously, I swallow it whole. It went down the pipe as well as one might expect of an undigested piece of tree.
“So? What do you think?” she asks.
“Good, if you like that sort of thing,” I respond, not wanting to offend her.
“Well, go ahead. It’s all yours,” she replies solemnly, waving her hand at the bowl under my nose.
I spend the next five minutes alternately chomping and choking down the next piece of devil-bean.
“So,” she finally breaks the silence, in between a bite of her infinity more palatable looking potato fry, “what do you do for work?”
My chest constricts. No, not yet.
“I’m not sure I want to answer that,” I say. Please don’t ask me to.
“Because for the first time in my life, I have company. I’m not alone. I don’t want to spoil this by telling you what I do, because when I do, you’ll hate me.”
The tips of her brows knit together, and her fry pauses midway to her mouth. “Are you a criminal?”
“Part of the mafia?”
“A sex worker then?”
“No!” I reply a little too forcefully, the thought of rusty bells coming to mind.
Her brows release their tension as she considers my answers. “If you’re none of those things, I don’t see why you’d think I’d hate you for what you do.”
“Alright, what if I promise not to hate you. You can tell me what it is you do, and I promise not to hate you. Please?” she pleads. “You’ve made me so curious now. I can’t not know.”
I feel myself softening. I.D.I.O.T. A professional idiot, that’s what you are. She isn’t ready to know.
“If I tell you, can we swap food?”
“Fine, now stop dallying and answer the question. What do you do?”
Deciding I preferred to answer rather than face the thought of finishing the small dish of green in front of me, I lick the salt off my fingers and lean forward.
“I am a cultivator. My job is in quality control,” I say quietly. “I sort the weak from the strong and the sickly from the healthy. When my subjects exhaust themselves, I put them in enforced rest until they recover.”
“That doesn’t sound evil at all; I don’t see why others would hate you for it.”
“Thank you. I believe it’s because they do not understand what I do, and only see the worst parts of me.”
“Oh? Is that different to how your friends see your job?”
“I wouldn’t know,” I say quietly. “I don’t have any friends. Comes with the no-talking thing.” I shrug.
“No friends?” she pushes, surprised. “Surely you have some at work. Neighbours? Family?”
I shake my head. “There are some I would love to call ’friend’, but none of whom would consider applying the same term to me.” I meet her sympathetic brown eyes earnestly. “Perhaps you would be the first?”
She chews a lip and returns my gaze seriously. “I don’t even know your name.”
“But you know far more of me than anyone else does. Doesn’t that count for more?” I counter.
“I suppose,” she admits reluctantly. Then she brightens. “Let’s play a game. We’ll each write two names on a serviette, one of which is our real name, and then we’ll exchange and guess which is the real one.”
Her excitement level spikes and I don’t have the heart to refuse, or to tell her that I already know her name. Perhaps she would be different from the others when she learns my name. She digs around in her bag for a pen, scribbles her name in a piece of serviette before handing me the pen to do the same on mine. The ballpoint ink glides smoothly onto the flimsy textured fabric as it spills the secret I do and do not want to hide. One truth and one lie.
My heart ricochets around my chest cavity as I fold the serviette in half and hold it out. She grins as she snatches it from me. I take hers, but I make no move to open it. As I watch her, my palms grow slick and my heart pounds a furious blast beat to rival any metalhead drummer. Her excitement dims and a giant fist squeezes me.
“That’s not fair. You made it too easy,” she grumbles disapprovingly.
“Did I? I thought it was rather good.” At least she’s still here.
“Please. You must think me an idiot. You’re Ian A. Gardiner.”
I try to smile, but my face wouldn’t cooperate. She catches the look on my face, and her pout turns into a genuine frown. “You did write down your true name, didn’t you?”
I nod, incapable of speech.
“And you’re not Ian?”
I shake my head slowly, my tongue clinging to my palate.
“Then… but… the other… it’s not—” She stops as realisation dawns. Her eyes widen as her mind replays the events of our meeting. She stares at me, and all I see in reflected through those brown eyes are horror, disgust and fear. The small spark of hope flickering in my chest for millennia blinked and died.
I don’t blame her. No one’s ever reacted any differently. I was not born for love or even friendship. I should have known better than to foist myself on others.
“Why?” she whispers in a strangled tone.
“Why are rivers wet? Why do stars shine? We just are. We all have our functions and that is mine.” I try desperately to make her understand. “Please understand—”
“What is there to understand? You… you’ve extinguished life even before it begun. You’re a murderer!” Her voice rises and wobbles and her eyes fill with angry pearls.
“I only remove the ones that don’t deserve to live. I do what I do to make people like you better. To make the future a better one.”
“Who are you to judge what is better? Perhaps we deserve to be our own judge of what’s good and bad, the worthy and the unworthy.” She pauses as another thought hits. “It was you earlier, wasn’t it?”
I don’t need to ask. I know what she means, and I see that she already knows the answer. Anger is the predominant expression on her features she stands. She swipes a stalk of green from my bowl, taking three quick bites to work out the small beans inside the pod and pull the uneaten husk out of her mouth.
“For future reference,” she says icily, “that is how you eat edamame. And stay away from me. You disgust me.” Then she’s gone.
Fire crackles and hisses as I stare at the book with her name in my hand. It’s been some time but the hurt and regret still burns. Not that I used my last attempt on her, but that it was not to be for one like me. It was too much for her to understand, I see now.
Every Monday for months, I returned to the cafe, hoping to see her even if I could no longer speak or be seen. I never sought her out through the thread that bound those like her to me even though I could have, easily. I allowed her that much. When summer passed into winter many times over and there was no sign of her return, I permitted myself to acknowledge that she was not coming back. It hurt, knowing that I’d been rejected again, that despite all the millennia of my work I was still unwanted and misunderstood.
I continued my job. It was who I was after all. A cultivator. And the intrinsic part of me that exists to complete this role understood the vital importance of propagating knowledge and the arts for future life. So even though I feel wretched knowing my subjects hated me for what I did, I still do it. For the most part, humans were resilient. Those who found a way around the restrictions I placed, thrived. Those who didn’t, well, they moved on to doing other things for a living.
I wonder how she fares. My hand shakes as I open the book. It falls opens to a page with my name.
“Dedicated to Writer S. Block. It has taken me too long to understand, and I may never have understood had it not been for what you did. I’m a slow learner. It took me years of gardening to understand a tiny part. Does a plant resent the gardener for pruning its growth? Perhaps. But the gardener does it anyway, to keep the plant healthy and to cultivate the best possible life out of the plant. You trim the worst parts of us. The boring, the sad, the uninspired. You nip them in the bud to allow for new ideas to take their place if we have the patience and perseverance to allow them to grow. Thank you for nipping mine. You’re right, love at first sight stinks, and if you give me another chance, I promise there’ll be a bowl of edamame waiting on Monday. Your friend, Ally Carr.”
Salt leaks down my face and my cheeks reach to touch my eyes as I check the date of publication. She called me friend. I see that the book was published thirty years ago and leap from my chair.
I stand at the pavement where the cafe used to be. It’s now a tall residential apartment, full of humans that are not my friend. It’s gone. She’s gone. I swivel, ready to leave when the tiny little store across the street catches my eye. Writers Block Cafe. A sign on its front window announces all-you-can-eat edamame every day.