The Value of a Second
The Hyperectus malmadonus has a life span of 23 seconds.
What? Charlie turned to Eve. She was sitting across the rickety table from him, sipping her coffee slowly. He had been looking out the window, watching the endless stream of people walking by.
The malmadonus, a single-celled animal living in the intestines of the swamp cows of Zavijava IV. They are born, reproduce, and are eaten by their offspring, all within 23 seconds. Eve wound her finger around a long strand of her black hair.
Oh, Charlie replied, his attention already drifting back to the passersby again. All of them were different. Some short. Some tall. Black, white, brown. But they all seemed to merge together. Neo-metal punk hippies with staples in their eyelids somehow blended in with the goofy college kids donning white baseball caps and Phi Theta Kappa sweat shirts. Even the corporate suits in their pin stripes and big ruffed collars and satellite dish fedoras melted peacefully in the scene, diffusing like a poorly fueled Zippo on a misty new mooned night.
Charlie, do you ever wonder if the malmadoni ever take a second or two and evaluate their lives?
The stupidity of her question sucked him back into the murky coffeetorium. Her pale face stared at him as she dipped the end of her dark hair into the beige coffee and sucked it dry. She had such a lovely round face, but her eating habits left a lot to be desired.
Honestly Eve, Ive never once wondered about that, he sipped his dark coffee. He liked it black.
Think of how long a second would be to it, she said with a slurp. A couple of years to us, at least.
Its just a cell, hon. It doesnt need to evaluate its life.
What did you do yesterday? She suddenly said. Charlies neck twitched. It always twitched when she changed the subject like that.
I dunno. Worked. Like always.
When was the last time you did something different? His neck twitched again. Maybe it wasnt just the subject change. Maybe something was up.
Christmas, I guess.
She opened her mouth to say something, but paused. Then she took a proper drink from her mug.
When was the last time you did something you really liked? She set down her coffee and stared at him. More twitching and the hair on the back of his neck rose up. He felt she was maneuvering somewhere very dangerous. Relationship crashingly dangerous. Planet explodingly dangerous. So dangerous it might rip the sun from the sky.
Um. He had to get this right. "I like, love, every minute Im with you, hon, he reached out to her hand, but she snatched it away.
Im serious, Charlie. When was the last time you did something you really enjoyed?
Frankly, he couldnt remember doing anything he enjoyed, ever.
I dunno. Christmas was fun. Meeting all of your friends. Your old ex-boyfriend Roj was just a blast to talk to.
She crinkled up her nose. Very funny. You hated every minute of it. But really, when? When?
Charlie shrugged. I cant think of any.
Exactly my point, Eve jabbed a finger at him. Great. He was guilty of yet another one of those things he had no idea what was.
Im sorry, he said reflexively. So, um, where did you hear about those bacteria things?
Matildas daughter did a report on them for school. She was telling us about them just before supper. Charlie, what would you enjoy doing?
Being five hundred mile away from here. Being in an alternate reality where Eve hadnt started this conversation. Being forced out of the coffee shop by a bomb threat from the Pecos Freedom Fighters.
There has to be something.
This was stupid. He didnt want to talk about it. Couldnt she see that? It was pointless drivel. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the endless stream of people wandering the drag, but he couldnt turn to look. She would slap him or something.
He looked up over her head at the wall. It was all confusing and mottled. A collage of pictures.
Or not a collage. Not intentionally, at least. He had never noticed it before. Layer upon layer of band posters pasted to the wall, and to each other. The building was ancient and the layers must have been building up for centuries. Perhaps there was no wall, just a papier-mâché shell.
Well? There was a clinking as she stirred a spoon in her coffee. Just above her head was a molding black and white poster of a dirty, greasy, hairy musician playing a guitar. Or not. No, he was playing the moon. A moon with a long fretted neck and twelve strings. Charlies face cracked into a smile.
What? she sat up.
I dunno. Maybe . . .
Well, it sounds silly now that I think of it.
Come on, out with it.
Charlie took another drink of his coffee. Well, when I was in the boy scouts, we were always planning on going to the Lunar Jamboree, but we never could come up with the money.
Whats a Lunar Jamboree? she asked.
Charlie smiled. Well, its just basically a camping trip to the Moon. I always wanted to get kited out in a space suit and explore. Sounds silly now.
Eve grinned and leaned in towards him. Its not silly at all. It sounds fun.
Out at Tranquility National Park. Go spelunking. Jump around a lot and kick up a bunch of dust that wont settle for centuries. He grinned back.
Eve waved her finger across the data juke box that was loosely wired to the wall and strolled through several screens.
There is a shuttle to Apollo City heading out of Austin Interplanetary at 8:45 am tomorrow. Lets go.
Charlie inhaled his coffee and had to cough it back up. Red-faced, he grimaced at her. Are you crazy?
Its just an hour to get there and back. We could be home by ten tomorrow night. It would be fun.
I dont have the money.
Ive got the money.
I couldnt ask you . . .
You are not asking. I am. Come on. Lets go, she smiled.
I used up my vacation days on Christmas.
You have sick days left.
But I might get sick.
Ha, she shook her head. You are too anal to get sick.
I cant afford to loose that that days work. Mr. White will have my balls. Besides, rent is almost due and I will barely be able to pay it without a late penalty as is.
She twisted her mouth and leaned back.
It doesnt matter, hon. Its not important. He wiped sweat from his brow. It was just another stupid idea of mine that doesnt mean anything. I cant help it if Im too busy.
She continued to stare at him . . .
Why are you always doing this, Eve? There is no problem. Nothing is wrong. Why do you have to make such a big deal out of everything?
And stared . . .
I dont really want to go. Even if I had time, it wouldnt be any fun for us. Bad airline food. Wed be tired and cranky and yelling at each other. And what if there was an accident? I couldnt live with myself if something happened to you.
She didnt even blink.
Just calm down, hon. Nothing is wrong, she said.
He stopped looking at her. The moon guitar was above her. He couldnt look at it. Charlies eyes glazed over the posters on the wall, not stopping to look at any single one. He took a sip of coffee.
Eventually, his head turned and he began watching the people outside again. He could feel her stare on his neck.
Very well then, Eve stood up and kissed him on the forehead. Ive got to get back.
Okay honey, he kissed her on the cheek and she put on her coat. The change in her pockets jingled as she crammed her hands down deep inside. Eve did not turn back as she walked out.
He watched her through the window as she walked down the street. In a second, she had melted in with all of the other passersby and was gone.