“He can’t be serious.”
Rosa set down her lipstick-stained mojito on a paper coaster on the bar. “They are. Quite serious.”
Before Oliver had another chance to question Rosa about her brother (or twin siblings or whatever was going on), Rosa’s eyes lit up as she spotted Theo sidle through the door of the Taurus Brewery, leading with his left and clearing the door by a few feet before letting it swing shut.
Rosa called to him, to them—“Theo! Ebixix!”—doing something strange with her mouth when she pronounced the invisible one’s name. Rosa hugged and kissed her brother, and then repeated the same gestures for the side of space to her brother’s right.
“Hello, Theo.” Oliver said, shaking hands with the one he could see.
A beat of silence pressed upon him.
“Hello, Ebixix,” he added, not offering his hand this time.
“Nice to meet you.” Theo was slender, a smidge taller than his gamine sister, with the same dark eyes and black, wavy hair, suit cut stylish, tie a Pollock distraction. Though Oliver would be hard pressed to admit it, the man was beautiful.
“Would you two like a drink?” Oliver asked.
“What are you having?”
“Mojito and boring.” Rosa elbowed Oliver for emphasis.
Theo consulted with the secret person there, then turned to Oliver: “Two mojitos, please.”
As Oliver ordered the drinks, the hostess informed them their table was ready, so he had the new drinks sent over to the table and carried the half-drunk mojito and IPA over himself, following at the end of the train of the hostess, Rosa, and Theo—and the impenetrable space that was Ebixix—paying close attention to the curious movements of Theo as he navigated through the crowd, crab-walking and jinking out of the way of parties of diners making their exit, always maintaining a double-wide girth.
They reached their table before Theo and Ebixix’s drinks. The two took up one booth, and Rosa and Oliver squared off across from them.
A toast, Theo lifting Ebixix’s mojito with his right hand and his own with his left. He sipped both glasses—apparently his mouth was somehow connected to Ebixix’s digestive system. Oliver stifled his objection.
After the waiter materialized and recited the specials, and they began to consult the menus, Theo turned to Oliver. “We apologize for any inconvenience we may be causing.”
“How do you mean?” Oliver snapped his menu shut. A charade to look through it—aside from the beer, the prime rib burger was the only reason to come to this restaurant.
“The situation that Ebixix and I have found ourselves in has produced a number of uncomfortable incidents in the past. Rosa’s been beautiful in accommodating us, but others (family included) have found it difficult to accept.”
Rosa double-air-kissed her siblings.
Oliver scratched his chin. “How exactly did this ‘situation’ come about?”
“Ebixix is from the Second Solar System, a reality superpositioned over ours, splitting off as a result of the Chicxulub impactor, the comet that brought on mass extinction millions of years ago. In this reality, Earth survived the impact, but in the superpositioned reality it was shattered into what Ebixix and Ebixix’s people refer to as the Terra belt.”
Oliver cleared his throat, mind plucking at words blindly, awkwardly as if from a Scrabble bag—when the waiter appeared. They performed the ordering ritual: Rosa a Brussel sprout salad, Theo the glazed salmon and after quiet consultation a prime rib burger for Ebixix.
The waiter, tugging on his beard with a tattooed hand, played along, though not without a twinkle in the eye.
He turned to Oliver. “For you?”
Suddenly, Oliver had lost interest in the prime rib burger. “Blackened chicken looks good.”
The waiter indicated Rosa and Oliver’s empty glasses. “Can I bring you two more drinks?”
When he split off from their space, Oliver clasped his hands together and glanced around the restaurant. Rosa and Theo chatted in Spanish for a bit about their parents and an extended family Oliver had yet to meet. When he turned his attention back to the table, it was with some reservations that he descended from the comfort of the noisy, hip environment to the strangeness Theo had been discussing earlier.
Theo smiled, swirled the muddled mint of Ebixix’s drink. “So.”
“Umm, where were we?”
“The Terra belt.”
“Right.” Oliver didn’t intend it to sound like a sigh.
“The largest remnant of the catastrophe, a dwarf planet called Apollo, supported life—though a very different kind of life than what we know. Apollonians are giant multi-lobed brains, shrouded in baleen—”
“Let me stop you there. Apollo. They’ve got Greek gods in this other reality of yours?”
“You mean Roman. And it’s Ebixix’s reality, not mine.” He paused while Rosa coughed the warning cough Oliver knew so well. Theo glanced her way. “In any case, Apollo is a rough translation of one of the ancient deities of Ebixix’s world. Ebixix’s name, which means something akin to ‘one whose baleen is composed of the silken threads of the firmament’ doesn’t have a ready translation.”
“You’re uncomfortable, we can tell. We don’t have to keep discussing this topic if you don’t want.”
“No, no. It’s very interesting, but …”
“Well, this is the first I’ve ever heard of any of this—” Nonsense, he wanted to say, but charitably cut himself short.
Rosa bumped shoulders with him. “Never encountered the Terra belt in any of your astrophysics classes back at Keg Stand U.?”
“Don’t gang up on me.”
“We’re not ganging up on you, Oliver. Why don’t we discuss something else?” Theo took two sips from his drinks. “Rosa hasn’t told me what you do for a living yet.”
Oliver shrugged, trying not to feel demeaned. “Nothing too glamorous. Supply chain for Mars. Candy—not the Red Planet.”
“Can you get us free candy?”
“You like M&M’s?”
Theo nodded, eyes widening.
“Consider it done.”
“How have you not mentioned this up till now?” Theo asked Rosa.
She thanked the waiter as he placed their drinks on the table. Oliver thought he detected a smirk twisting inside that beard, but couldn’t be sure. When Rosa turned back to the table, she mimed an explosion out of the side her head. “Slipped my mind.”
“She’s not very good at communicating important details, I’ve noticed,” Oliver commented, dodging a kick from Rosa’s heel under the table.
Theo smiled. “Apparently not.”
“We don’t talk so often,” Rosa said, failing to indicate whether she meant her brother or fiancé.
Oliver studied his hands for a second, then, looking up, said, “So, okay: How did she cross into our reality?”
“Ebixix isn’t female. In fact, they don’t employ pronouns in their language. Instead, they speak of someone using their name—infinitely simpler.”
“Okay, well, how did Ebixix cross into our reality?”
“You can address Ebixix directly. Don’t be shy.”
Oliver blinked, then turned to the left, to the red leather of the booth seat, where Ebixix sat, awaiting the question. “Ebixix,” he said, studying the leather. It seemed to stir, as if some curious wind rippled the taut fabric.
“You’re pronouncing it incorrectly.” Rosa commented into her drink.
He cleared his throat. “Ebixix, how did you cross into our reality?”
Theo listened. They all listened, but Oliver only heard indie rock and drips of tantalizingly mundane conversation leaking into their bubble from the surrounding tables.
Theo translated: “A stream of reality possesses its own gravitational force—when divergences occur, they almost always conclude with an inspiral, one reality twisting back into the other. Similar to how the Moon may billions of years from now collide with the Earth. Eventually, all of Apollo and the Terra belt will remerge with Earth, but it’s a gradual process.”
Oliver sipped his beer, casting a sidelong glance at Rosa. Unfazed Rosa. Must have already asked them similar questions when Theo and Ebixix had first joined together—
Then it clicked in his mind—new, offensive colors toned the threads of the past conversation.
He smacked his face, chuckling, and glanced from Rosa to Theo. They stared back.
“I gotta hand it to you. You had me going. Christ, I’m slow.”
“We’re not joking,” Theo said, offense creeping in.
“Honey, get a hold of yourself.” Rosa squeezed Oliver’s meaty arm.
Oliver’s expression darkened, he growled as he brought his glass to his lips, then downed his beer in one gulp. Several seconds later, their entrees appeared. The waiter did not fail to set the prime rib burger before Ebixix—the man knew how to earn a tip.
“Anyway,” Theo continued, a quaver in his voice, “we didn’t want this evening to be about Ebixix and myself. We hoped to learn about our future brother-in-law. Tell us more about your job.”
Oliver’s fork touched the blackened chicken. Tough, impenetrable. He let the silence stew until just the right moment. “Well. At Mars. I’m involved with … everything involving peanuts—Peanut M&M’s, Snickers, Kudos. We’ve actually outsourced peanut butter production to a smaller company, so I only oversee the actual nutsss.” Then, “You wouldn’t believe how many tons of nuts I deal with.” He dropped his cutlery, leaned back in the booth, leather squeaking. “Take a guess. How many nuts do you think?”
Theo stared down at his salmon, toying with it. Oliver caught a glance from Rosa in his peripheral vision. Didn’t acknowledge it.
“Come on, Theo. Have a guess. How many nuts?”
“Uh”—he shrugged—“a million tons … of nuts.” His voice grew quieter with each word.
“You know what? That’s not a bad guess. Actually, I can’t tell you how many nuts. Trade secret. But you can imagine. A lot of fucking nuts! What I have to deal with on a daily basis. Except weekends. Weekends I don’t talk nuts. Don’t think nuts. In fact, on weekends I hate nuts—helps me maintain a balanced lifestyle.”
“We weren’t mocking you,” Theo protested.
“Like hell you weren’t.” He leaned back over his food, seizing knife and fork, preparing to tear apart the chicken. “Eat your food.”
Theo set his fork down, cleared his throat, and stood. “We’re sorry, Oliver, but we don’t have to take this. Maybe in the future we can speak more civilly with each other. Rosa, it was lovely seeing you—as always.”
“Theo, baby, don’t go. Don’t listen to him. We need to talk this out.”
“Ebixix feels ill. It’s best we left.”
As Theo and Ebixix departed, Rosa reeled towards Oliver, swinging her considerable purse into his chest, and let fly a thrashing of incomprehensible Spanish. The words he did catch were not encouraging.
Oliver shielded his head from a few more blows, then watched Rosa huff out of the restaurant to catch up with her brother and Ebixix.
He stood, to his credit, and took a few abortive steps from the table.
Through the plate glass window, he spotted his fiancée beneath the street lights hugging the two of them. Separately. After a few words, they all walked off. He sat back down, aware of the many eyes scrutinizing him, but as his own anger and embarrassment faded, the eyes, pair by pair, inspiraled back to their meals, to their realities.
The waiter appeared at his side.
“Sir? Will you … um ….”
“Another beer, please.” He reached across the table and swapped the prime rib burger with his blackened chicken. “And box the rest of these, would you? Sorry for the trouble.”
Back at his one-bedroom apartment, he stuffed the leftovers in the fridge and pulled out a six-pack. Clicked on the X-Box in the den and stormed through online death match after online death match, till the beer was drained, till his eyes felt shriveled into prunes.
He woke several hours later to total darkness.
No, a dim green pulsed from his X-Box.
His head throbbed.
As his eyes adjusted to the lighting, he sensed the couch slumping unusually at the opposite end.
Though nothing intervened to cast a shadow, the X-Box light didn’t penetrate into that inscrutable corner of the couch.
He wanted to reach out into the darkness, explore it with his fingers, but something held him back.
The quality of the air had changed, as if something had sliced open the earth, stirring up the warm, moist odor of loam.
A quiet rasp.
He wondered how a mouth lined with baleen would sound when it approximated speech.
Oliver sat up, breath quickening, staring across from him into the nothingness. His eyes refused to adjust to its incredible weight, but it seemed to pulse and bend, drinking up the alien X-Box light.
He lifted his hand and slowly cast it off from his body, reaching farther and farther away from his body.
The hand vanished and the wrist, the elbow, the meaty bicep, his armpit. He leaned forward, to reach farther. He was so close now that the nothingness grazed his nose.
He kept reaching, expecting any moment to make contact.
His fingers caressed … air—and darkness bloomed around him.