Chapter 3 of SWIFTSAILS.
6:40AM. Just a few minutes after sunrise.
I look at the screen of my phone, completely stunned that I woke up at my natural time today. Yesterday, I went to sleep almost as soon as I got home. Not just because I was exhausted from running around town all day and that bowling game against Riley, but also because I was emotionally drained from those parting moments with Riley.
When was the last time I showed that kind of weakness to someone?
I shake my head and try to think of what Riley would say about someone who cries in front of another man:
“Tears are for betas, man. Alphas thrive off of the salt of weaklings.”
And yet, yesterday, he patted me on the back over and over again while telling me that everything was okay. He didn’t once mention that it was getting late and that he had to wake up early for an exam. He simply stood there while I borrowed his shoulder and opened the floodgates.
Speaking of which—
I go to send a text to Riley wishing him good luck on his exam. When I open our messages, I see that the last thing I sent him was a shopping list from a few weeks ago. Makes sense; I see him so often in person that we pretty much never have conversations over text. I’m also the type of person who isn’t that used to texting etiquette and so would prefer a call any day.
I try to word everything I have to say into one short text in order to make it seem nonchalant and spontaneous:
Hey, man. Thanks for everything yesterday. Good luck on your exams; tell me how they go!
Looks good. I’m a natural.
Almost immediately, my phone vibrates and I see a torrent of short texts flowing in:
Lol since when did u ever write courtesy texts
Yo I couldn’t sleep at all last night, had a stomach ache
I am so done today XD time to fail my exams yo
Oh yeah happs bb!!!!
—followed by a flood of cake emoji.
I reply back to his messages, once again using pristine grammar.
A stomach ache? Are you going to be okay? Let me know if there’s something I can do for you.
No need bday boi :3 I’ll kill the exam ezpz
Hey so for ur groceries, is it gonna be the usual
Yes, that would be nice. Just like last time, feel free to add more if there is something you want me to make for you.
Yum :O how bout a bday cake so we can celebrate ur bday
Sure. Just find a cake recipe online and buy whatever’s needed. I’ll pay for it all, so make sure to pick out some good ingredients.
Lol imma just buy some cake mix and whatever it says we need on the back of the box
Sure, if you’re okay with that.
Ily hun ❤ ❤ ❤
Only 4 u 😀
C u 2nite
I pull myself out of bed and head immediately to the bathroom for a shower. Something about my birthday—and my talk with Riley last night—makes me want to start off being twenty-three on the right foot.
As I let the water run through my hair and down my back, I think about all of the things that have to be done before Riley’s parents move to Montreal. We’ll have to get his bed and desk over here somehow, along with all of his other stuff. Should we call a moving company? Or maybe Uncle Canary will help us out somehow?
And then my thoughts wander to tonight. I wonder what kind of mischief Riley is going to pull this time? Every year since we were young, Riley would come up with some horrific way of tormenting me on my “special day”. Some of his pranks fell flat on their face, and most of them were just mild inconveniences if anything—two years ago he put a bag of flour on top of the doorway to the basement, which ended up just being me having to clean up my house on my birthday. But thinking back, there were some that really got me; among the more disturbing ones is the time when he rang my doorbell dressed in a tight black dress, a wig, and stiletto high heels then talked his way into my house with a silky, rehearsed, feminine voice. His freshly-shaved legs and naturally pretty face, paired with a makeup job that I can only assume he got Aunt Liz to do for him, actually got me thinking that Riley had called me an escort for my birthday.
Of course, in typical over-the-top Riley fashion, he gave the big reveal at the most sensitive of times: right when I closed my eyes for an anticipated kiss. Riley’s voice emerging from “her” throat with a delighted “Gotcha” was truly the stuff of nightmares.
I shudder, in spite of the warm water running all over my body. I am excited for—but also bracing for—whatever tonight has to offer.
Wait. Isn’t there something that I’m forgetting?
I plop down in my computer chair after drying myself off and wearing some comfortable clothes. As I enjoy the coolness all over my body as warm moisture evaporates off of my skin, I boot up my laptop and go to check out the latest episodes of the anime on my to-watch list.
A relaxing day of anime, followed by an evening hanging out with Riley. The perfect birthday. Or at least, the best birthday I could reasonably expect.
I check the usual anime message board to see which discussion threads have popped up. This is how I see which episodes have been fan-subbed and uploaded. I and most Western anime fans have become stingier with our limited funds as the paywalls on premium sites have gone through the roof, and this has led to a mass exodus to illegal streaming sites which are carefully managed by other diligent members of the community. Special audio editing, animation fixes, play-through speed controls, re-dubbing of egregious “Engrish” dialogue, optional community comment overlays, and even stream-while-download are just a few of the innovations of the modern age of anime piracy. And these days, with cops not bothering with trying to prosecute international copyright violations and with some countries even outright declaring themselves sanctuaries for illegal hosting of ripped content, some say that the worst place in the world to be as an anime fan would be in Japan itself—where their pitiable people have to deal with budget issues, rushed cuts, sound quality problems, and high subscription fees.
But still, with the sheer amount of anime being pumped out every day, it becomes hard to keep track of what episode of which anime was released when. Often, many sites are racing to see who can get out the latest episode out first in order to secure all of the initial flow of ad revenue and courtesy donations. For the many nerds who live voraciously through the lives of those 2D characters on-screen, watching the latest episode as soon as humanly possible has become a daily mission which would require constantly refreshing the search bars on all of the major pirate sites until something finally pops up.
And that’s where the message boards come in handy.
After all, where there’s smoke there’s fire. In order to avoid spending my precious anime-viewing time on button-spamming and praying for the fan-subbers to hurry up, I figured out that the best way to know when to start looking for the latest episode is when the discussion thread start popping up. Of course, the moderators do not allow for discussion of piracy sites by long-followed principle. But by then, all I need to do is go a quick engine search and pick the hottest result; after all, the rush of desperate otaku wanting to see their waifu in action as soon as possible have already done all of the hard work for me.
For me, watching anime for free and as soon after release as possible has become a science.
But, like all science, sometimes the results are not in your favour. And right now, there seem to be no discussion threads about any of the anime I’m following. Drat.
Well, no use crying over spilled milk. Time to watch some Anne of Green Gables.
I go to the bookmarked page on my taskbar and begin watching from where I left off last time. As the familiar introduction plays, I reach over to the old book lying open and face-down on my desk and bring it in front of me to compare with the anime as I watch.
The story of how a Canadian classic became a sensation in Japan has always enthralled me. Apparently, some missionary from New Brunswick went to Japan and gave the book to a children’s book translator shortly before the start of the Second World War, and then the translated version became a huge hit once it was published sometime after the war. This leaves one to wonder: what if Loretta Shaw, the missionary, had given a different book to Muraoka Hanako, the translator? Or, what if Loretta Shaw had given a book to someone who was not Muraoka-sensei, who didn’t have the will to spend the entirety of the war translating said book and the years after the war championing it in spite of anti-Western sentiments?
It would be interesting to imagine a parallel universe where an unfinished translation of Moby-Dick lay beneath the rubble of the war, surviving its translator for only a short while before being lost forever to history. But the fact is, we live in a world where Anne of Green Gables—or, “Red-Haired Anne”—is an enduring icon in Japan and one of the only ways the people of that small island country even know what Canada is.
This, of course, is just historical trivia which shouldn’t overshadow the beautiful narrative of Anne. The noble tale of an orphan whose life is transformed after her adoption by an elderly brother and sister on Prince Edward Island is the only one from my childhood which has stayed this close to my heart throughout all of these years. This book—given to me by a dear friend from long ago—is in a way a lifeline to the happiest time in my life. Not only through allowing me to re-live the events of Anne over and over again, but also as a physical reminder that I once knew someone who meant the entire world to me—that I once had my own bosom friend, a Diana Barry.
But of course, I have Riley still with me, and he’s already much more than I’ll ever deserve. Nevertheless, I have never opened my heart to him in quite the same way that I opened mine to Alex.
There is no use in loving things if you have to be torn from them, is there?
…Maybe the little bit of distance I always keep between me and Riley is for the better.
Now, enough of these depressing thoughts. Back to Anne.
Checking the message board, I see that the episodes I was waiting for are being discussed fiercely by the online anime community.
But instead of jumping for joy and scouring the Internet for the location of the elusive videos, I start the next episode of Anne. Today, my birthday, will be a quiet day of reflection. And what a better way to spend it than to, in true otaku fashion, compare the anime adaptation of my favorite book line-by-line with its source material?
I check the small digital clock in the corner of my laptop display. 2:24PM. The day passes by lazily without me having a single worry in the world. Other than to flip the pages of the book, pause the video from time to time, jot down notes in the margins, or change the episode, my entire body is immobile except for my head which bobs up and down to read the original text while watching the scene play out in front of me on-screen.
Somehow, even spending the day almost completely still isn’t enough to stop me from getting hungry.
I’m famished…better eat those onion rings from yesterday.
I stand up and make my way downstairs while skimming through Anne of Green Gables. My mother always told me to never eat in my room, and no matter how dismal my lifestyle has become I’ve kept to the doctrine of eating meals downstairs properly seated with a plate and utensils. Usually, I take down my laptop so that I can browse through some memes while eating, but in celebration of today’s dive into the past I decide to make this precious book my lunchtime companion. I’ll flip through it as a bit of light divertissement. A fine throwback to a simpler time, when I would escape to new worlds through a few hundred pages of bound paper.
After tossing Anne onto the dinner table next to Riley’s stuff from yesterday, I go to the fridge and open it to find: a carton of spoiled milk, the rubbery stalk of a head of broccoli, a few ketchup packets, and a half-eaten chicken salad sandwich.
Oh, yeah. I forgot to put them in the fridge.
I go out of the kitchen and make my way to the sofa behind the dinner table. I pick up Riley’s book bag and dump all of its contents out. Five tightly-wrapped packages tumble out, along with a black spiral notebook and a few ball-point pens. I put the notebook and pens back into the bag and throw it on my shoulder, then pick up the five dinner towels and bring them with me to the kitchen. Four of them go immediately into the fridge, while the fifth is untied, unceremoniously dumped onto a plate, and put into the microwave with the timer set at an alarming amount of time.
Much to Riley’s chagrin, I always had a habit of overheating food that has been left out. In my mind, the threat of eating some bad bacteria is much more repulsive than the idea of eating hot, dry leftovers. I mean, then again, I’m the type of person who makes his steaks well done—”like a brick”, in Riley’s own words”—while Riley always insists that I only sear both sides of the meat before serving the red, bloody heap to him.
Speaking of Riley…his book bag is really nice.
I go to the dinner table while marveling over the quality of Riley’s bag. Standing before Riley’s mess, I decide to help him out by organizing it for him before he comes tonight—and so that I don’t get grease all over it while I eat.
I gather all of the lecture notes lying around and put them off to one side. Then, I push Riley’s laptop and the pile of mock exams next to the mountain of loose leaf papers. After making sure that no stray sheets are lying around, I start putting Riley’s textbooks back into the book bag which hangs at my side. At last, with just a few moments of sorting, the table is ready for mealtime. Now, I just have to wait for the microwave timer to go off.
I pick up Anne, the only book left on the table, and crack open the pages to where I left off—
—The doorbell rings. Probably a salesman or something.
I puff up my chest and stride over to the door, with the book bag hanging from my shoulder and Anne held in my left hand. Unlocking the front door with my right hand, I assume the look of someone who has been interrupted in the middle of some serious business and push open the door to come face to face with:
A delivery worker holding a sealed cardboard box. Huh. I wasn’t expecting to receive anything. Maybe I accidentally ordered something from an online retailer? Or maybe I forgot to cancel that monthly loot crate subscription?
“…Hi. Is that a package for me?”
“Yes, sir. Please sign right here.”
The delivery worker hands over a clipboard with a generic-looking shipment receipt attached to it. Quickly putting Anne and the book bag on the shoe rack behind the front door, I scan over the page and find where my signature should go, then pick up the pen attached to the chain leash and quickly scribble in my initials. I offer the clipboard back to the worker, but they step back and shift the package to their side, wrapping their arm around it tightly.
“A tip, please.”
The unexpected brashness of the request catches me off guard.
“…I beg your pardon?”
“I think I deserve a tip, sir.”
“…Did it ever occur to you that asking for a tip makes it far less likely that someone will give you one?”
“Of course, sir.”
“Then, why do you think anything would be different now?”
“Because, Mr. J, you are the type of person who always returns a favour.”
My mind goes blank when the delivery worker’s voice changes from its even, unremarkable tone to the uniquely silky speech of that mysterious stranger I met just yesterday.
The delivery worker removes her cap with her free hand and bows deeply while the corners of her lips creep upward in barely-hidden delight. Her hair tumbles from where it was held in place by her hat and falls around her face like a picture frame.
“At your service, Mr. J.”
“I already told you last time, just J is fine…but more importantly, why the hell are you here?”
An unashamed Ishmael closes her eyes as if deep in thought, then opens her right eye and observes my face with an innocent smile.
“Would you believe me if I told you that I just want to play pretend?”
“…Do I look like an idiot?”
“My master forbade me from insulting you at your place of residence, so for that question I have no choice but to withhold my humble opinion.”
“Wow, sick burn. Now, mind telling me who this famous master of yours is?”
Ishmael ignores me and instead steps forward to place the package in my hands. It is fairly light and seems to have a lot of room inside of it. I also notice that there are no shipping labels on it; instead of a return address or a destination address, all that there is on the box is a message written in permanent market:
“‘To J, from me.’ What the hell kind of a joke is this supposed to be?”
Ishmael giggles for a short while before replying in a refined but cheeky manner.
“My master is a most serious character.”
I roll my eyes at this entire farce and decide to end this little interaction right here. Not in the slightest do I care to ask how Ishmael knows my address or why she is at my house with a package from her enigmatic master. I’ll probably get all of the answers I need when I examine the contents of the package, anyway. If anything, it’s probably either just a harmless misunderstanding on behalf of Ishmael or her employer, or just a sort of extended prank which they will soon decide to stop pursuing once I cease taking their bait. Either way, it would not do for me to stand here and continue this verbal waltz with a woman who not only expertly dodges my clumsy feet but also steps on my toes in playful fashion.
“How much do you want for your tip? I’ll give you the equivalent of a taxi fare from the police station to my place, to thank you for driving me the other day.”
“Such a proposition cannot be entertained, Mr. J. All I ask for and am willing to accept is that book over there.”
Ishmael peeks through the doorway and gestures towards the aged, paperback book which sits atop my sneakers on the shoe rack. Anne of Green Gables.
That is out of the question. This is not a suggestion that I will even bother entertaining.
“Mr. J, is that not just an old book? One which you’ve already read countless times?”
“It might be only that to you, which is precisely why you wouldn’t understand how much it means to me.”
“So then, it was a gift from a dear friend, I presume?”
I gape my mouth for a second while I try to come up with a suitable parry. I can’t.
“…Was being a mind reader part of your training as an assistant to the elite?”
“It is the easiest thing in the world for a man to look as if he had a great secret in him.”
“That was from Moby-Dick, wasn’t it.”
“Astute observation, Mr. J.”
Even though she is speaking to me as politely as she did when we first met, she is evidently becoming comfortable with her routine of unabashedly teasing me. While before she had a careful, diplomatic air to her playful attitude, I can see that now she is diving right into giving me a hard time. But even now, it seems to be with the friendliest of intentions.
“…Why do you even want this book? If you just want to read it, you can easily find a free version of it online. Does your master not have it in his—er, her—collection? Are you going to just hand it off her or something?”
“My master has nothing to do with this. It’s just that I prefer enjoying a good story when it’s printed with ink on paper. Surely you understand the joy of having a book in your hands.”
I can’t bear to turn down her request when she has such a disarming look on her face. But I cannot give in on this issue.
“…I’m sorry. I can’t bear to part with it.”
“I’ll make sure to take good care of it. You have my word that I will return it in the same condition as when I receive it.”
Wait…she wants to borrow this book?
“Are you saying that you’re asking me to lend you this book as payment for the ride home?”
“That’s right, Mr. J.”
I sigh deeply in relief when it becomes clear that I have misunderstood her once again.
“Sure, take your time reading it. It’s my favourite book, so I hope you’ll enjoy it. You know where I live, so just stop by whenever you’re done with it.”
“Thank you, Mr. J. I will be sure to discuss it with you at length after I finish reading.”
After putting the box down, I pick the book up from the shoe rack and hand it over to Ishmael. As she receives Anne, I notice that her hands are bare and not gloved like they had been yesterday. Her fingernails are clipped very short, yet the shape of her fingers and palm look distinctively feminine.
“You have really pretty hands.”
Ishmael looks taken aback for a second, but then giggles at my compliment.
“I have never met a man with such peculiar tastes.”
“Hey, they’re just the first thing I noticed. It’s not some weird fetish or something.”
“Oh? Mr. J, are you telling me that my outfit doesn’t flatter my figure?”
I glance over her uniform, which indeed does not seem to immediately indicate anything special about the body wearing it. After all, I did not immediately realize that it was a woman at my door until I recognized the worker as Ishmael.
“You’re much more handsome in a suit.”
Ishmael shakes with laughter as she bunches up her hair on top of her head before putting her cap back on.
“A suit might do you some good, too.”
“Unfortunately for you, I’ve only ever borrowed a few cheap suits from my father.”
“Well, then, I hope you enjoy my little gift. Goodbye, Mr. J.”
Ishmael waves with the hand holding onto Anne of Green Gables and turns to leave before I can say anything in reply. I watch her briskly make her way to the black car parked by the curb and get in before speeding off.
I doubt a real delivery worker would do a package drop-off while driving a luxury car. So, it looks like she just got the uniform from somewhere and decided to dress up to have a little fun with me.
Chauffeurs seem to have a really weird sense of humour.
I bend over to pick up the package and bring it into the living room—or, to be more precise, to the area behind the dinner table with two sofas and a coffee table which my family always called the “living room”, despite it being in the same room as the dinner table. I sit on the sofa cross-legged with the box in my lap and begin to peel off the tape on the top side. After bunching the removed adhesive slip into a little ball and putting it on the coffee table, I open the flaps of the box and remove its contents:
A white envelope, on top of black clothing wrapped in a clear plastic bag.
I open the envelope and look over the handwritten letter:
You can have this back, since you parted with yours so easily. Jerk.
Meet me at Natureworks Kitchen at 7PM sharp. Dress well.
By the way, don’t worry about your court case tonight. I’ve got that settled.
A simple letter, with three lines. None of these three lines register properly in my brain.
The first line: have what back? The only other thing in the box is this black thing…
I remove the clothing from the bag and see that it is a pair of dress pants wrapped around a suit jacket. Packed inside of the jacket are an ivory-white dress shirt and a crisp black tie. A quick glance lets me figure out that this outfit is the same one that Ishmael was wearing yesterday. Wait, Ishmael said something about a suit doing me good—is this some sort of gift from her?
Now, the second line: isn’t that a super expensive restaurant? It’s also pretty far away. Since I don’t drive and mostly get around by bus or on foot, it would take me almost an hour to get from my place to Natureworks.
And finally, the third line: how does this person even know about that—
“—Shit. I completely forgot.”
My mind flashes back to the conversation with my public defender back at the jailhouse. He told me that I would have to appear in court today, and yet I had completely forgotten it after just a day of fun with Riley. That was a really close call. If it hadn’t been for this letter—
—How does this person even know about this?!
Bringing the letter and suit with me, I go up to my room and check the phone sitting on top of my bed. One missed call, plus a message from a contact named “Mr. Lawyer”. I unlock my phone and check what he wrote:
Don’t worry about coming to court today. I’ll deal with it myself. Enjoy your birthday date!
I can’t get back in the mood to watch the Anne anime. I would find my mind wandering while my eyes trail on the screen, resulting in me having to constantly restart each episode or back up to check what I missed.
I realize after a while that I should just stop for today. In the first place, I don’t have the book anymore, so I can’t even compare the two versions if I watch it right now.
…Maybe I should just take a nap.
I lie on my bed and close my eyes, but my thoughts continue to race.
Ishmael’s master has something to do with my bail payment. I just know it. It would all make sense; it was a beautiful woman who paid for my bail, and Ishmael just happened to have known that I was on my way home from the police station. Moreover, Ishmael’s employer is supposedly female, and unless I am suddenly under observation by two different rich women, it should be safe to assume that the babe who showed up at the police station and Ishmael’s employer are the same person.
Everything would suddenly fit together. It’s quite likely that Ishmael drove me home only because of orders from her boss. Then, given that this employer of hers is powerful enough to influence my court case, she probably managed to get a hold of my address by investigating my personal details.
But then, why wasn’t her master in the car, even though she was confirmed to be at the station? Why didn’t Ishmael just pick me up directly from the station in the first place, if she was instructed to pick me up? And then, perhaps most curiously, why would this employer of hers now invite me out to dinner at an expensive restaurant?
There must be some hints in the letter. I reach over to where it sits beside my pillow and bring it above my face to examine it. The last two lines are a lot to think about, but the first line is just simply puzzling:
You can have this back, since you parted with yours so easily. Jerk.
There was only the suit inside that box, and it definitely isn’t mine. Also, what of mine did I part with, and how does it make me a “jerk”? I lent Ishmael my copy of Anne as a form of compensation for the lift she gave me, but why would this matter to the person writing this letter?
Although, there is one person in the world who might care if I gave this book to someone else…
But it can’t be her. After all, I can’t recognize this handwriting.
Okay. Let’s gather up the important facts:
Early yesterday morning, someone went to the police station and paid my bail. Those who saw her described her as very attractive. By the time I arrived at the police station, she was no longer there. Then, on my way home, a mysterious stranger—Ishmael—drove up to me and gave me a ride home without needing to ask for directions. And just around an hour ago, Ishmael came by my house to deliver me a package from her employer, which contained a suit and a letter.
The letter makes no sense. But the suit…
Wait. Maybe…Ishmael doesn’t actually have an employer, and the beautiful woman at the police station was her?
It fits the facts way better than my previous hypothesis. After all, it would explain why only Ishmael was in the vicinity of the police station when this “employer” seemed to intend on making sure I got a ride all along. It also explains how Ishmael seems to know so much about my personal life despite not knowing anything about me. Furthermore, the suit in the box is the same brand as hers, and she seemed to know exactly what was in that package given that she mentioned something about me in a suit. After all, would a rich employer really tell so many details to a chauffeur?
Which would mean…this was all a roundabout way for Ishmael to ask me out on a date tonight?
This doesn’t resolve the issue of why Ishmael seemed to be clueless about my court case when I was in her car, or why she seemed so serious when we were talking about her employer. Also, it still is strange that she picked me up off of the streets instead of waiting for me at the station if she intended on giving me a ride. Equally perplexing, still, is the first line of the letter in that package. But, seeing as she likes to muddle the water with her mind games and make-believe, maybe those were all pretenses and misdirection for the sake of luring me in and confusing me about the situation?
I close my eyes and doze off with the letter in my hands as I imagine going on a date with a woman who probably wears a suit better than I ever can.
My phone is ringing.
I struggle to open my eyes as I feel around me for my phone. I find it under the covers by my side. While I focus my mind on bearing with the headache caused by sleeping in a well-lit room, I answer the incoming call on my phone. As I bring the receiver to my ear, I note that the time right now is 5:37PM.
“Yo, J! I swear my dad is full of shit. I completely blanked out on my exams today.”
“…Hey, Riley. How are you doing?”
“What do you think?! This is gonna kill my GPA. I dunno why I ever thought this whole movie-before-an-exam business was a good idea.”
“Did you actually follow the method described by your father?”
“I mean, yeah! I went around town with you for the whole day, so the set-up was all—”
“No, I mean…what about the whole thing about learning the material ahead of time?”
“Oh, my father only told me about this last night. So, no time for that.”
“…I think you have your answer now.”
I don’t feel bad for this moron at all.
“C’mon, J! Cry a river or two for me, will ya? I’m near a supermarket right now, so I’ll buy everything and then head right over—”
“Actually, Riley. Remember the thing you found out yesterday? About me being in jail?”
“How could I not?”
“Well, uh… I was supposed to be in court today.”
“On your birthday?! Doesn’t this qualify as cruel and unusual under the Geneva Conventions?”
“Maybe. Maybe I’ll file a grievance.”
“Well…good luck, I guess. Want me to drop off the groceries for you tonight?”
“Don’t bother. You were saying how you didn’t sleep well last night, right? Get some rest for today and we’ll talk tomorrow or something.”
“Aw, I wanted to celebrate your birthday with you…”
“Yesterday was plenty. I’ll still bake you a cake next time you come over if you fetch all of the ingredients, though.”
“Roger that. I’ll head over in the morning to study for the exam tomorrow evening.”
“Okay, got it. See you then.”
When I hang up, I immediately am overcome with guilt from my fib. But, I guess it can’t be helped. After all…
I need to prepare for this little date with Ishmael.
Tying my tie took longer than getting the rest of the suit on.
I stand in front of the bathroom mirror, utterly amazed by my own lack of ability in this area.
“…When was the last time I put on a suit, again?”
Probably prom back in high school, now that I think about it.
Back then, as soon as Riley saw me in my formal outfit, he strode over and immediately pulled me into the closest washroom where he re-tied my tie and made me re-tuck my shirt, all the while giving me an earful about my lack of style and ignorance of societal norms.
After much pestering from Riley, I finally learned how to properly tuck in a shirt military-style. But, alas, I never did learn how to properly put on a tie.
Now that I look more carefully, this tie knot is definitely crooked.
Well, whatever. Not gonna do it again.
I make my way downstairs and into the kitchen. I open the door on the microwave oven and peek inside at the onion rings I put in earlier:
Beautifully cold and moist. Delicious.
Grabbing a fork from the dishwasher, I scarf down the plate of food while standing in the kitchen. After swallowing and downing a glass of water to wash down the pre-date snack—don’t want to eat too much in the presence of a lady, after all—I place the plate and fork in the sink and run a bit of warm water over them. Then, leaving the kitchen and heading over to the front door, I pull the letter out of my jacket pocket and turn it over to look over the directions to Natureworks—
The door rings. I unlock the door and open it to see a suited Ishmael standing there, holding a bouquet of roses and beaming a delighted smile.
“Looking dapper, Mr. J. Except for that tie.”
“Is it really that noticeable?”
Ishmael steps over the threshold, places the flowers in my hands, and immediately begins re-doing my tie. As she deftly flips up my shirt collar and gets to work, I begin to get a little nervous about the whole situation.
Now that I examine her up close, it would make perfect sense if she were the beautiful woman at the police station. After all, even with her hair tied up in a tight bun, her face has the air and grace of a noble. She is almost as tall as I am—though that may be because of her standing before me in dress shoes—and has conspicuous swells on certain parts of her body that seem to be perfectly accentuated by the snug fit of her outfit. I notice that her bust, which I realize for the first time is quite ample when seen from an angle, is awfully close to my chest. All that separates me and her is a couple inches of space and a bouquet of flowers.
…Am I really going on a date with this woman? On my birthday?
Speaking of which…
“…Hey, Ishmael. Did you know that it was my birthday?”
She finishes up straightening my tie and collar, then steps back and gives a little wink.
“I took a little peek at the police report on my master’s desk.”
At this point, I shift the flowers to my right hand as I proudly flash the letter with my left.
“I already figured it all out. Your master doesn’t exist.”
“Oh? Quite a bold statement, Mr. J.”
“I thought about it, and it’s the only explanation that makes any sense. After all…”
I stand there in the doorway and run down all of my reasoning from earlier. The bail payment, the ride home, her knowing my address, the suit in the package. I link them all together in my elaborate explanation while Ishmael stands there and listens intently with an amused smirk on her face.
“…and that’s why, dear Ishmael, I am convinced that you have no master, and are simply engineering this situation to mislead me. Am I right?”
To my surprise, Ishmael begins laughing uncontrollably. Unlike her usually somewhat reserved playfulness, right now she looks like she just heard the funniest joke in the world and can’t stop getting a kick out of it. I stand there as she doubles over, wrapping her arms around her midsection as she visibly shakes with laughter.
“You are quite amazing, Mr. J. What a riot.”
She wipes away the tears in her eyes and re-assumes her usual disciplined way of speaking.
“Your belt doesn’t match the rest of the outfit. Do you not have another one?”
“Nope. I’m just using the one I always wear with my jeans.”
“And what about shoes, Mr. J?”
“I just have those dress shoes over there.”
I point at the pair of black shoes on the shoe rack, right below Riley’s book bag which still sits on the top shelf. They were left behind by my father before he and my mother moved to Montreal, and I have worn them from time to time when my usual pair of shoes get wet or dirty. Years of casual use without any proper care have left them looking a bit dull and worn, which Ishmael seems to immediately notice given the pensive look on her face.
“Here. Take these.”
Ishmael kicks off her shoes and takes of her belt, which she throws at me before heading back out to her car.
“I have an extra pair of shoes and a belt in the car. Put those on for now.”
I catch the belt with my arm and put down the flowers and letter so that I can put the heavy leather strap through the belt loops on the dress pants I’m wearing. After doing so, I bend over and pick up one of the overturned dress shoes to examine. It seems to be my size, surprisingly enough. I undo the shoelace and slip the shoe on my foot, only to immediately feel a bit of perverse satisfaction:
The insides of the shoe are still warm from being on Ishmael’s feet.
I touch my hairline and bemoan how much colder it feels with my ears fully exposed for the first time in years.
When I make my way to the car from the hairdresser’s boutique, Ishmael is already standing outside the back door and holding it open with a servile pose. On her waist and feet are an identical set of belt and shoes to the ones that I am now wearing. I nod my head and utter a quick “thank you” before climbing in and seating myself comfortably before Ishmael closes the door and gets into the driver’s seat. I put the letter and flowers beside me as the engine roars to life and the mighty machine of a vehicle begins moving.
“Off we go.”
Ishmael’s driving is just as fluid and even as it was yesterday. In the same way that she directs conversations just how she wants them to go, she has a gift for making a car ride feel almost as serene as a ship gliding on water. Although, isn’t it a little weird that I’m sitting in the back if she and I are going to dinner together?
“Should I move up to the front?”
“I have a feeling that my master would disapprove of such an arrangement, Mr. J.”
“Oh, sure. Your master must be the jealous kind, right?”
“More than you could ever imagine, Mr. J.”
“I couldn’t even begin to imagine what kind of person your master is.”
“Mr. J. I feel that I ought to fill you in.”
“Come on, Ishy. Didn’t I already tell you that I figured it all—”
“Your theory was quite entertaining, Mr. J. Which is why I regret to inform you that it was wrong.”
“Aw, come on. No one likes a sore loser.”
“I can assure you that being a sore loser will not be one of the things for which you are about to dislike me.”
Not even a hint of humor in her tone. She isn’t kidding around.
“…Huh. Are you serious or are you just continuing with your mind games?”
“I can once again swear on my life and name if you cannot trust me.”
“It’s fine. There’s no need.”
Drat. So, I didn’t get it quite right?
“…So, you’re saying that this isn’t you taking me out on a date for my birthday?”
“How scandalous, Mr. J. My master would not appreciate your advances on her loyal servant.”
Her tone suddenly gains a light touch of chiding in it. But despite the disapproval in her voice, I can see from her eyes in the rearview mirror that she is enjoying this shift in the conversation. I decide to try teasing her back a little bit.
“She’ll never have to know about our little fling. You and I can probably finish things up before your master arrives at the restaurant.”
“My, my, how ungentlemanly, Mr. J. It is most detestable for a man to finish before he even starts.”
“After all, my master is already seated and waiting for you.”
I check the time on my phone and am quite confused.
“…It’s not even a quarter to seven yet.”
“Let’s just say that she’s quite excited to see you.”
Excited to see me? Is this one of those matchmaking sessions, where a powerful lady sends her servants out to find the perfect husband for her? But then, why would they want to summon me of all people?
“Do rich people really have the time and luxury to expend so much mental real estate on someone they haven’t even met?”
“As you might expect, they do not, Mr. J. However, they do value their old friends.”
“An old friend?”
Do I really have an old friend who’s rich enough to hire a chauffeur?
“I must admit something, Mr. J. I knew a lot about you before I met you yesterday.”
“—So it was all an act.”
“I apologize profusely, Mr. J. It’s just that I was so very curious about the person my master was so set on meeting again.”
“Wait, so are you saying—”
“The reason why my master wasn’t there to receive you at the police station is because she never intended to provide you a ride. I did that of my own accord.”
“…Meaning, you acted against orders?”
“Not quite. She never said to not sneak back out after putting her to bed for the sake of meeting her friend.”
“…How would she feel about that if I told her about all of this?”
“You wouldn’t, Mr. J. You couldn’t bear to bring trouble upon this poor, humble servant.”
Such a melancholic, pleading vibe. The usual sparkle in her eyes has dwindled away and become replaced with an uncharacteristic serenity.
“So, Ishmael. Who is this person I’m meeting today?”
“Are you asking earnestly, Mr. J, or are you simply avoiding reality?”
“My master told me that you are her precious boyfriend.”
I suddenly feel very, very sick. My stomach begins churning as my palms sweat and my feet grow cold.
“…I-I’ve never had a girlfriend.”
“My master told me that you two have been together since the start of high school, and that you started ignoring her starting from sophomore year. Of course, anyone else would consider that to be a de facto breakup.”
“What the—are you saying that—”
No, no, no. It can’t be.
“It seems that my suspicions are correct. It seems that I was right to meddle in this situation.”
There must be a misunderstanding. There’s no way that what I’m thinking is possibly—
We reach a traffic stop. While the light is red, Ishmael reaches into the glove box on the passenger side to produce a book. After a brief moment of palpable hesitation, she throws it over to me. At first glance, I think it’s the copy of Anne of Green Gables that I lent to her today, but I quickly realize that it is significantly thicker than the book I held in my hands this morning.
As soon as I catch the book in my hands, I immediately realize that I recognize this particular hardcover binding:
It’s Alex’s copy of Moby-Dick.
After so long, it’s once again back in my own two hands. The present that I bought for her, the book that she destroyed on that horrible day seven years ago, the pile of loose pages that I saved up to have rebound and sent back to her.
Does this mean that the person at Natureworks Kitchen is—
I immediately reach for the door handle and try to open the door to escape. However, Ishmael moves faster than me and locks the door using the automatic switch in the front. Before I can unlock it again, the light turns green and Ishmael speeds off.
“Let me out! Stop the car!”
“Calm down, Mr. J.”
“Don’t tell me what to do! You lied to me! You tricked me!”
“Mr. J! This is dangerous. Please take your hands off of me.”
Snapped out of my rage by Ishmael’s urgent tone, I realize that my arms have reached around the headrest of the driver’s seat and are tightly grasped around her neck. Horrified, I remove my hands immediately and sit silently as Ishmael completes a turn.
Ishmael sighs, and turns back to give me a comforting smile before returning her eyes to the road.
“I should be the one apologizing. I knew all along that my master was completely out of it.”
Ishmael sounds…different. It almost feels like she’s breaking character or something. Maybe her usual way of speaking is a deliberate act, and this is how her normal voice sounds?
Or maybe that’s what she wants me to think—
“Mr. J. Do you hate me?”
The car has stopped in a parking lot in front of a huge gaudy building. Ishmael looks at me with a smile on her face, but her eyes glisten with sadness. My boiling rage quickly turns into disgust as I mentally scream at myself for not keeping myself in control. Seriously, what’s my problem? I raised my hands to someone who has never shown any ill intent toward me just because I got duped into a dinner with my ex-girlfriend? I need to see a shrink or something.
“…If anything, I hate myself. I’m sorry, Ishmael. I probably scared you.”
“Don’t worry, Mr. J. You deserve to be angry at me.”
“I don’t know. If anything, I should be angry at her.“
I motion in the direction of the restaurant right outside the car. The words “Natureworks Kitchen” are sprawled above the front entrance in cursive script. This place stinks of pretentiousness and uptightness. Just like Alex, now that I think about it.
“Please direct your grievances at me. After all, I was the one who exercised my own will in the matter instead of following my master’s plan.”
“She should know better than to try speaking to me again after all this time. Her plan was doomed to fail in the first place.”
“That’s what I inferred from the circumstances. Not having contacted her supposed boyfriend for years and urging me to rush to the hotel after she paid his bail at the station struck me as rather odd.”
“…And so, you snuck back out to investigate.”
“Correct. And after you denied ever having had a girlfriend despite being so well-versed in Moby-Dick quotes, my suspicions were confirmed. I figured that the original plan of me going to your house to deliver a letter to you in her handwriting wasn’t going to turn out too well, so—”
“Wait. A letter in her handwriting?”
“The letter you received was a transcription written by my hand.”
All at once, the pieces fall into place.
“…You were supposed to demand that I turn over Anne of Green Gables in exchange for the letter. And then I was meant to receive Moby-Dick in return.”
“Well done, Mr. J. That is exactly right.”
“And the suit—”
“Just a little personal touch. My master always told me about your poor sense of fashion, so I decided to dress you up a bit for tonight.”
“But why did you even copy Alex’s letter word for word if you didn’t want me to suspect anything? If you wanted to keep your little operation a secret, why not just rewrite the whole thing?”
“Because, despite my wish to keep my master’s identity a secret, I was secretly hoping that you would figure it out before we got here.”
Wow. What a train wreck of an intrigue. It would have been plenty interesting had it just been the story of an old friend coming back into my life or of a mysterious stranger trying to set me up with her master through false pretenses. Turns out, it’s a little bit of both, added with the dramedy of me being led around by Ishmael like a dog on a tight leash.
“If I were this good at cracking plots, I don’t think I would ever be able to watch any TV show.”
“Did you honestly not suspect that it was Ms. Rose who wanted to contact you?”
“…You caught me.”
I knew very well that Alex’s family is rich enough for them to provide her a personal chauffeur. After all, it was because of her father’s newfound fortunes that I became wary of Alex and ended up ruining our friendship. There was no way that the thought of Alex standing at the police station waiting for me with open arms was not the scene I was hoping for when I heard of a beautiful girl paying for my bail.
But sometime in the past couple of years, I learned to disregard any hopes I have about ever seeing Alex ever again. We both graduated from high school without saying a single word to each other about each other’s plans, and then I heard that her family moved to Montreal from my parents. In fact, Alex’s parents moving to Montreal directly influenced my own parents to follow them at the insistence of my mother. We were supposed to be “one big family”, and yet at the first opportunity I had I left that precious ideal behind by holing myself up alone in my parents’ house back in Waterloo. Both my mother and Uncle Canary insisted that I reconsider my choice and try to make amends to Alex, but I disregarded their concerns and set my heart on erasing her from my memories.
And now, just four years later, here she is again, sitting in an upscale restaurant waiting to celebrate my birthday with me.
Ishmael and I sit in the car in silence for a very long time. At some point, I hear the door beside me unlock, but I don’t reach for the door to escape. My first instinct when I found out that the mysterious woman was Alex was to get out of the car and run as far away as possible, but now that I’ve recovered from the initial shock and am sitting right outside of the building where Alex is waiting for me, anticipation of our reunion is overtaking my fear of facing the past.
It seems like nothing has changed even after so many years of pain and regret: I still want to see Alex. I want her back.
“Mr. J. Should I take you back home? I can make up a cover story if you’d like.”
“…No. I’m going in.”
“Are you sure?”
The lingering dread in the pit of my stomach makes me anything but sure. Even so, I cannot bear to run away from her for any longer.
“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.”
“That’s right. I think I have my own Moby Dick that I need to take down.”
Ishmael looks equally shocked and amused by my bold statement. I unbuckle my seatbelt as I continue:
“Getting treated to dinner on my birthday wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.”
Ishmael smiles and opens her door to get out of the car. She moves to open my door and let me out, but before her hand reaches the handle I grab the bouquet of roses next to me and scramble out. She and I stand there and look at each other in the face. The moment of tension passes and is released with her playful smirk returning to her face.
“Let me fix you up.”
She adjusts my shirt collar and then my suit jacket, then paces around me to examine me from every angle. Her gloved hand moves to my head and gently brushes my hair before giving me a friendly tousle.
“Be sure to put on a big smile for Ms. Rose.”
“I dunno if I can. I was really looking forward to going on a date with you.”
Ishmael scoffs and gently punches my shoulder.
“I’ll take you out for drinks sometime after everything is all over.”
Ishmael gives my arm a light squeeze before stepping back and giving a curt bow with her hand on her chest.
“Let’s not keep my young master waiting.”
This restaurant is just as lavish and high-class as I imagined.
Ishmael waves away the waiter who steps forward to guide us when we enter the reception. Leading me by walking a few steps ahead while glancing back to make sure I am matching her pace, she breezes by the many tables and through several halls as if she owned the place. I figure that since she is Alex’s personal attendant, she probably escorted her master to her seat before coming to pick me up. Though, even if this were the case, her fluidity of movement is not something that a layman can accomplish.
What a lady she is.
Ishmael stops in front of a room near the back of the restaurant. At first, I think that we are in front of the washroom or staff entrance, but glancing around Ishmael’s shoulder I see the sign hanging on the door:
By reservation only
“What was that, Mr. J?”
Ishmael snickers to herself before giving two sharp raps on the door. There is no response. Ishmael strikes the door a couple more times, but again there is only silence that follows.
“Maybe this is the wrong room?—”
A phone suddenly buzzes. Ishmael fishes a phone out of the inside of her suit jacket and takes a quick glance before pocketing it again. Then, without any warning to me, she pushes open the door and steps in.
“Why are you back again? I thought you said you were going to take care of—”
That voice. Her voice.
As if in a trance, I step forward into the room. I breeze past Ishmael, who steps off to one side and gives a shallow bow as if heralding my entrance. Right before me, sitting on the other side of a round dining table way larger than necessary for two people, is the person who has haunted the back of my mind for the past seven years.
“Master. I’ve brought him here for you.”
“I can see that. I don’t remember telling you to do so.”
“My apologies, Ms. Rose. I shall take my leave.”
“Do not disappoint me.”
Ishmael takes a bow, but this time it looks much more rigid. Instead of her usual humorous grin, her face is grave and morose. As if she couldn’t wait to get out of there, Ishmael turns on a dime and quickly brushes past me toward the door, but not before giving me a terse warning:
“Watch your step.”
The door shuts gently behind Ishmael, but to me it sounded as foreboding as the dropping of the lid of a coffin, sealing me off from the world and forcing me to confront my past.
Stunning my entire being, my “past” smiles at me without any reservation and greets me as naturally as one would an old friend:
“Happy birthday, J.”
I narrow my eyes at the beautiful woman in an elegant evening gown, immediately wary of the entire situation. My fingers tighten around the bouquet in my hands as if desperately trying to hold back from throwing the flowers right in her face. With feigned bravado, I utter her name with an unexpectedly bitter venom:
“…Alacrity Nemo Rose.”