Justin had long since arrived home and nursed away his caffeine-induced headache when Alice replied to his e-mail. Alice’s reply was maddeningly short and cryptic. Justin had written ten pages, and all Alice said was, “you make some interesting points. Do you have a skype account?”
Justin closed his laptop and stood up. “I solemnly swear that I will never, ever e-mail Alice again.” He took Alice’s card from his wallet and tore it to bits, and then threw the pieces into the fireplace for good measure- never mind that is was summer, and the fireplace was unlit. Afterward, Justin felt comfortable enough with his resolution to send Alice his skype info.
A few minutes later, he got a private message from Alice, herself.
~Hey! I’m sorry I took so long. I have three cats, and I wanted to get them out of the room. They like to play with my keyboard.”
~That’s fine, Justin replied. What did you have in mind?
~If you want, we can do a video chat. Then I can show you my new kitten. She’s a calico I just rescued from a shelter. Her name is Gamera, and she’s really sweet.
~Not much of a cat person?
Just then, Justin’s bedroom door shook as his own cat, Tibby, pawed at it, asking to come in.
~Not really, no. Let’s just get to the point.
~Fair enough. I was thinking that we should have a live debate. You put too much information in your e-mail for me to address in the comments section of my blog. I’ll let you choose the moderator, and you can set whatever rules you feel are necessary.
~No. Just forget it. I probably shouldn’t have sent you that e-mail to begin with. I don’t want to validate the nonsense on your website by granting you a debate.
A few moments went by with no reply, and Justin sat back in his chair, feeling triumphant. There it was- the final blow to the solar plexus. This conversation was over.
Then came the next reply.
~Are you sure you don’t want to? You made some really excellent points, and I have a very large audience.
-Sometimes, Alice, there aren’t two sides to an issue. The pro and anti “rodents on Mars,” points of view aren’t equal.
There was one last pause, and then the final reply.
~ I don’t think you really understand what I’m trying to accomplish with my blog. Why don’t we discuss this in person- maybe over coffee?
Justin’s next mistake was not insisting that they meet at a Starbucks, like normal people.
When he’d ducked out of the steamy, summer rain and under the pink scalloped eaves of the appointed building, he’d barely had time to check the address Alice had given him before he was accosted by three girls in maid uniforms, who lined up by the door and said, “Okaerinasaimase goshujin-sama,” In bright, girlish voices. The tallest girl, who had long dark hair and glasses, took his umbrella, drawing him through the door in the process. The shortest girl attempted to take his coat, but tripped and fell on her face instead.
Justin turned to the tallest girl. “Hi- is this the Momo Tea house? I was supposed to meet a girl named Alice…”
The shortest girl stood up and started to giggle, and soon the others were joining in as well- though the tallest made an effort to hide it. Then the tallest bowed and gestured into the shop.
“This way, milord. I will take you to her usual table.”
Justin followed her into the bright pastel tea shop, which was filled with mismatched tables and even more mismatched patrons. A group of kids in fancy clothes sat near the front, drinking bubble tea and laughing. On the side, two large tables were dominated by a group of men in ragged tee-shirts, playing dungeons and dragons.
“Give me one good reason that my paladin can’t use his armoire of invincibility,” one of the role-players shouted.
Next to the dungeons and dragons game was a television hooked up to a Nintendo, where a young couple was playing Mario cart. On the other side, next to the empty table where the tall maid seemed to be leading Justin, a boy with long dreadlocks was showing a heavily tattooed girl a series of photos.
“You see-“ he was saying, “if you say nice words, like ‘love’ and ‘peace,’ the ice crystals are prettier…”
Justin pinched the bridge of his nose as he sat with a plop at the table.
“Here is a menu, Milord,” the maid said. “I will inform Alice of your arrival. Is there anything else you require?”
“Ah- no. Thanks.” Justin said.
Justin glanced at the menu when the maid left, but it was difficult to concentrate when a fast-paced vocaloid song started, and all of the maids began to dance. At the same time, a young man at a nearby table shouted at his laptop. “-No, you idiot! That’s how you get a universe tiled with paper clips.” In the distance, the dungeons and dragons group cheered, “take that, legion of undead!”
“You’ve chosen a lively evening to visit,” a quiet but heavily accented voice said just over Justin’s left shoulder. Justin turned to see an older gentleman in a grey suit and bowtie. The old man smiled, and sat across from Justin, uninvited.
Something about the man’s shadowed eyes and lopsided smile seemed familiar to Justin.
“I’m sorry- but do I know you?” Justin ventured.
“I don’t believe we’ve met,” the man said. “We have a mutual acquaintance.”
At the words “mutual friend,” something clicked in Justin’s mind. The man’s accent was definitely Russian. Justin suddenly thought of the article in The Voice, and the Wikipedia article he’d read afterward.
“You’re Yuri Volkov, aren’t you.”
“I am. Pleased to make your acquaintance,” Mr. Volkov reached across the table to shake Justin’s hand. “I read the e-mail you sent to Alice, and I must say I like your style. Will you be engaging her in a debate, soon?”
“I- I don’t think so.”
Mr. Volkov began to laugh. “You needn’t look at me like I’m crazy, you know. As the Cheshire cat said, ‘we’re all mad here,” he said, gesturing around the café.
“I’m sorry, but you did claim to find ancient ruins on the moon. What am I supposed to think of you?”
Mr. Volkov leaned on the table, interlacing his fingers and staring into the distance, as though in deep thought. Then he smiled and leaned back in his chair.
“Well, Justin, if I hadn’t said I’d found ancient ruins on the moon, would you think of me at all?”
The song ended, and the maids dispersed amid scattered applause. A second later, Alice approached the table, wearing an “I ❤ Pluto” T-shirt and a broad grin.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe how much time it takes to count all of the angels on the head of a pin, even with an electron microscope.