Getting straight to the point, I asked, "Do you want to hear our story?"
"That depends," Mr. Author said. "What sort of story is it?"
Mr. Author and I sat at a table in Cosmic Pizza, the town's most famous restaurant. It was a gigantic establishment that was a cross between a very large office space and a Denny's. Like a typical family-friendly restaurant, there were small walls and cubicle partitions separating some of the tables, except here they're tall enough to conceal a seated person from their cubicle neighbors. Placed strategically throughout the restaurant, these cubicle partitions created about a hundred or so small eating areas with only a few tables and chairs in each. The building itself was actually a converted warehouse with who knows what above the ceiling, and the only indication of the resteraunt's size is the building's exterior. Each little area had its own electronic kiosk that could be used to order and pay for food, internet access, or to rent one of their “luxury chairs” at a college-student-affordable price.
An inordinate number of these “luxury chairs” were actually just exotic cushions imported from who knows where, or beanbags made suspiciously flat as if a large amount of stuffing had been removed.
During the school year, Cosmic Pizza would be packed at all hours of the day and night, with the flat beanbags being their most popular “luxury chair.” It was a legitimate pizza establishment that made great pizza, but it also doubled as an illegitimate overnight hotel for poor college students.
The eccentric owner is actually a friendly guy I met on a few occasions. His name is "Cosmo," but it isn't entirely clear if this is his first or last name, nick name, or some sort of pseudonym. Nonetheless, his name is perhaps, the least sketchy thing about him. Apparently he either was, or still is, the town's only health, building, and safety inspector—or so he claims. It's actually one of his most favorite topics to discuss with his patrons, as in he mentions this at every possible opportunity. Even though I've heard this each and every time I've encountered the portly man, the actual details still eluded me.
The problem is that I often can't understand what the hell he is trying to tell me. Whenever he spoke, his voice was rough, and his always-slurred words came out at an unusual tempo. His disorganized thoughts were conveyed in a stream of consciousness that came directly out of his mouth. To me, he sounded like a lifelong chain-smoking Scotsman who'd recently been kicked hard in the balls during some perpetual search for more booze. The only thing about him that was more difficult to understand was how he could possibly be a fully functioning human being.
"Well, it's my story; a true telling of the past few months of my misguided attempts to help a cute guy with a very gay problem."
"So, no werewolves, then?" he asked, but didn't wait for an answer.
The "What!?" I gave him was practically involuntary.
This had apparently been the response he was looking for because he then said, "Goood … ," drawing out the word like a house cat drawing out the suffering of a captured mouse. On the other hand, he sort of sounded like a comic book supervillain trying to hide his Bible Belt accent, and that invoked its own imagery. In that case, had there been an actual cat present, I would've been severely disappointed if he didn't pet it while saying, "exxxcellent."
I struggled to find for an appropriate response to give Mr. Author, so the best I could do was mumble the obvious, saying, "Um, … like I said. It's about real events that—" but then Mr. Author interrupts me. "You'd be surprised at the number of gay werewolf stories that claim to be true accounts. Admittedly, some of them are just furries with very active imaginations."
Really, I had no idea what the fuck he was talking about, but I could work with that because he wasn't anything like Cosmo.
Before I could actually say anything, he asks, "Do you always sound like you're narrating a Budweiser commercial?" and then nodded once at me as if I actually answered his question.
I considered the possibility that we weren't having the same conversation, but I discarded that idea in favor a simpler explanation. As far as I could tell, Mr. Author will interpret my face as being a direct response to his questions. From this I reasoned that he was probably treating my “what the fuck” expression as a complete and valid statement.
"Maybe I should call him ‘Mr. Sassy Author,’ " I thought to myself.
"Mr. Author" was just the name I used in my notes to refer to a selected handful of people who shared the same function. There were six writers in all living nearby, but any one of them could have been here, coincidentally, dining at the same time we were. For my purposes they were basically interchangeable.
I gave him a brief, but polite, chuckle in response before waving that nonsense away with a gesture. It was only a figurative gesture, but I strongly wished was literal.
Mr. Author asked, "So, … then, … what's it about?" in a way that was definitely sassy.
Given how tall he was, the aging Caucasian fellow spoke more softly than I would've expected for someone of his height.
Answering him, I began to say, "It's about the lies we told ourselves and—" but then Mr. Author broke in again and said "Is this poetry or prose?—Because if it's the former then I'm not interested," without giving me any chance to respond. "So can the poetry please, and just tell me why your story is so interesting." Then, after looking at his expensive watch, he added, "You have about a minute left."
This guy was either very impatient or very intolerant of bullshit. It was either that or he was severely over-caffeinated. Despite being nearly three times my age, Mr. Author spoke quickly with the energy of a youth that should've long since passed.
He had that unnaturally smooth face that comes from an overuse of Botox, and his hair was dyed in a rainbow of colors and styled stiffly against the top of his head. It almost looked like he styled his hair first, and then painted a rainbow on his head. When I first walked up to him, I noticed the distinct absence of reading glasses, and only now do I realize that this was a possibility I totally forgot to plan for. It was a sloppy mistake, even though it worked out in the end.
Since Mr. Author preferred gestures over words, I reached into my bag to grabbed a small box, like the sort that might hold a ring, and a portable video player. In it's current folded form, the video player was a bit smaller than a typical tablet computer, but still larger than a cellphone. On the outside it appeared to be a thick version of one of those mini-notepads that waiters in normal restaurants use to take orders.
It actually has two screens that act together like one large screen when unfolded. The screens were designed to sit flush against each other so that there's only a thin physical gap in the middle that was easy enough to ignore. Most of the video on the player is in HD, and this more than makes up for the small size of the viewing screen. I didn't want to waste any more money buying something bigger for a one-time use item like this, especially given how common it is for people to watch video on their much smaller cellphone screens.
I rose and placed both items on the table in front of Mr. Author, but without pushing away the book he'd been reading. There was plenty of room on the table for my purposes. Earlier, just before he closed the book and set it aside, I saw the title, “Raunchiness in the New Millennium,” so I did my best to ignore it. I gestured to Mr. Author, asking if I may sit beside him.
In response, he says, "This is how my husband should've proposed to me."
I laughed genuinely at this, and sat down. There was no point in asking for a more direct answer to my simple request.
In any case, it really was unintentionally funny. I had deliberately picked this particular video player due to its folded appearance, which I thought would be perfect for a meeting with Mr. Author. However, I hadn't thought about what it would look like when both it and the box were on the table.
Now that I was seated beside Mr. Author, I noticed that he opted for a rocking chair. This was somewhat surprising, but I didn't let myself get too distracted by it. Thus far, he'd been still enough for me to think that he was in a non-rocking chair, which means that I could probably rule out the over-caffeinated hypothesis. I made a mental note to review this later.
When I opened the little fake-notepad to reveal the double-screened video player, Mr. Author “ohhed” and “ahed” sarcastically because, of course he did. Even though I'd only just met him, it didn't take me long to figure out that aspect of his personality. The player was on and already set to the relevant footage that needed only to be unpaused. It showed a still image on the screen of one of the campus' lesser-used cafeterias. The scene was centered on two young men—students—seated next to each other, and unknowingly facing the camera.
While I was propping up the video player, using its built-in stand, Mr. Author reached over to grab the small ornate box.
Before he could take hold of it, I said, in a comically polite way, "No, no, no. Allow me," and then presented the box in the manner one might for a marriage propose. I said, using his actual name, "… will you … put this in your ear?" and opened the box at the appropriate moment.
Rather than a ring, the box contained a white wireless earbud sitting in shaped black velvet. This was apparently the right thing to do because Mr. Author laughed so raucously that I feared it would be loud enough for my friends—the putative couple—to hear. As far as they know, I'm either gushing over my favorite author, engrossed in some arcane literary discussion, or that I was trying to hit on him. Regardless, it mattered little what they thought at this point. My primary concern was whether they would try to approach us sooner than I had planned for this scenario.
"Hya, hya, hya, heh. And here I thought your were some humorless fan."
"Ouch," I said jokingly, but with a smile Then, to myself, I noted that, "Technically, I am neither."
"So, Ahmed," Mr. Author says with amusement, and then very sassily, he asks, "Do I get to keep these?" as he fiddled with the earbud I gave him.
"Yes," I said, plainly. "Consider this a gift of appreciation; a ‘thank you’ for giving me the time to talk to you."
He looked at me sideways in disbelief, and I nodded. I smiled again, more genuinely this time, because I was surprised at how extremely satisfying it was to evoke his bewildered expression.
I pointed to a larger earbud, that was already in my own ear, in case he hadn't noticed it yet. It was a shade of brown that matched my skin tone, but it was also plainly in the ear that was currently visible to Mr. Author, and notably not to anyone that might pass by.
I then added, "But first, let me show you some of the footage that is already stored in the video player."
Echoing me, he said, "Footage?" and raised an eyebrow while I resisted smiling.
"Yes. Footage," I say, and then pause for dramatic effect. "You see, I have this hobby, … people watching—like going to public places to watch the crowds go by."
I can practically see Mr. Author's bullshit detector coming up with an error, and only now do I allow myself to smile.
"I'm very good at my hobby," I tell him, because it was true.
I took out my phone—the one I use for casual surveillance—and opened up this program-turned-app that my cousins and I made for connecting to computer networks we'd compromised.
"It's similar to some of the work I used to do for my family. But we'll get to that a little bit later."
After selecting a security camera pointing at the putative couple, and then another covering some of the intervening space, I also selected the camera currently pointing at Mr. Author and I, but I quickly put that video feed in a different tab. I switched back, returning to the original tab with the view of the putative couple. Very unconcernedly, I place my phone down in front of me, like I would if I wanted to keep track of the time. Of course, and in accordance with my family's traditions, this was technically true because, after all, my scenario was on a schedule. As the saying goes, "we are like glass in the dark; both technically transparent and hidden in plain sight," but I keep that to myself.
Mr. Author did a double take when he saw my phone, and any humor that remained, drained visibly from his face.
"Is that? …" he asked, pointing to my phone.
Rather than say anything, I switched to the other tab and waved at our security camera. There was a slight delay between my action and its appearance on my phone, but as soon as that happened, I switched back to the original tab.
Gesturing first to the video player, and then to my phone, I quietly said, "Before. … After. The putative couple," and then pointed to each in succession, "my friends, Shin, which is short for Shinjiro Nezu-Rivera, and Kit Miller, which isn't short for anything."
I huff once at my little pun.
Between the gifts and my unveiling, I was certain that I now had Mr. Author's complete attention.
But then he leans in towards me—actually over me—and says in a harsh whisper, "Are you some sort of spook?" which was predictable and unoriginal.
I do not react immediately to his question, but I do suppress the need to role my eyes.
It was a rabbit hole that I didn't want to fall through quite yet, and so for fun I turned and gestured for him to remain silent with a gentle and barely audible "Shh …".
My act, rather than being enigmatic and ambiguously serious, was likely ruined by my bemused smile. However, at the very least, it was creepy as fuck. Still, in the end, anything he might've been planning to say, died quietly in his mind.