“The next stop is… Bayview Station…” Announced the oddly mechanical female voice of the train’s announcement system, as per its job description, which happened to coincide with the exact moment my assistant raised her hand to her mouth in order to cover up a giant yawn.
“Yesterday was tiresome,” She stated at last, probably as an excuse, and I could only nod in agreement.
“Yeah, but it’s okay every once in a while.”
I smiled at her thoughtful answer and checked the time. It was a little past 10:00 AM and we were sitting in the jewel of the local public transportation system, the first class of a brand new bullet train. Well, okay, maybe it wasn’t exactly ‘bullet train’ per se, as it ran on traditional rails instead of mag-rails, but it was a sleek, white machine that nevertheless ran through the mountainous landscape at scary speeds. Speaking of the landscape, the view outside our tinted windows was truly scenic, with rolling hills, sharp mountain cliffs, dense green forests and the occasional sparkling white shoreline. I had no idea how all of these geographical features would even begin to make sense on an island of this size, but after a while I decided to just turn off my brain and enjoy the scenery.
“I still don’t think that show was particularly outstanding,” Judy opened a conversation at my side only a minute or so later, drawing my attention away from the window.
“I don’t know… Sure, it wasn’t as great as the guys made it out to be, but it was fun to watch.”
“Not for eight hours,” My assistant griped with what I was pretty sure I could label as a ‘sulky voice’, though as usual it didn't show on her face.
“Now, now. We didn’t just watch the series for eight hours, we did other things too. It was five hours at most.”
As a matter of fact, the previous day’s ‘Trucy the Werewolf Huntress’ marathon had less to do with the show than the small, usually random trials and tribulations that kept creeping up on us. We started a little before noon, when Angie got back from her tennis practice. Josh and the class rep arrived a little later, while the princess arrived exactly at 12:00, delivered by a limo, no less. Judy of course had been around since the morning, as she made me promise during our late-night phone-talk that I would pick her up in the morning (which was actually on its way to become a habit… the phone conversations, I mean, not the picking up part).
We originally wanted to order pizza for lunch, but the princess declared that she would cook for us even if she had to use ‘commoner ingredients’ (if you asked me, she just really wanted to do something useful for a change but was too embarrassed to just do it normally). It also turned out that we faced our first big hurdle right at the beginning, as I didn’t actually have a VHS player. That's right, I said VHS player. … The random technological discrepancies of this world were baffling, to say the least.
Anyways, at the end we broke into two groups: Josh and I were in charge of buying the equipment (in the end I actually bought all the seasons on DVD in the supermarket instead, as it was both simpler and cheaper) while the girls were doing the cooking.
“Speaking of which…” I decided to breach a subject I have been curious about for a while. “Can you actually tell me what caused the ‘Calamity Lunch’ incident?”
The name came from Josh, but it was descriptive enough so I started using it too. To put it bluntly, when we returned from our shopping trip we were welcomed by not one, but four different meals (which was quite shocking considering I wasn’t even sure there was enough time to make one, let alone four), out of which three were complete disasters while the fourth was… well, a plateful of ham sandwiches. You can have three guesses about who made those.
“Where should I begin…?” Judy pondered for a moment before she continued with, “Eleanor wanted to make a kind of soufflé. I decided to make some sandwiches in the meantime. She questioned why I was making those and accused me of having no trust in her cooking skills.”
“That sounds like her all right. How did you answer?”
“I didn’t. I continued preparing your ham sandwiches.”
I stopped her with a move of a hand. “Wait, you made those sandwiches for me in particular?”
“Yes. I thought you might want something edible and I knew you like those.”
I looked at her flatly while trying to suppress a rueful smile.
“Doesn’t that mean you really didn’t trust her cooking skills?”
Judy returned my flat stare with one of her own before she shook her head.
“… At this time I cannot confirm nor deny such accusations. Please consult my lawyer.” For a moment I didn't know how to react to that, so I just let it go and gestured for her to continue. “All right. So, she told me she would challenge me to a cooking contest.”
I sighed. “Yeah, in retrospect I should have warned you about that. That’s another of those typical developments in harem comedies, where the girls compete in cooking.”
"Really? I thought she was just competitive as usual."
"Nah, it's actually a thing," I told her as I crossed my legs and rested my chin on my hand. "It has something to do with scoring femininity points."
Before I noticed it, she already had her phone in her hand, so I let out a small breath and continued:
"It's this thing where girls in harem comedies compete with each other based on different attributes they have. The cook-off is one of those clichéd developments where they all make food for the guy in the middle to see who is the best cook and would make the best housewife."
"I see…" My assistant nodded while typing, then he glanced up at me. "I guess I should have put in more effort then."
"Hm?" I tried to imitate Josh's single-eyebrow-raised expression, but I quickly gave up and just shook my head. "If you wanted to enter the race for Josh, then sure, be my guest."
"No," She bluntly answered with the tiniest of frowns on her forehead.
"Then there is no problem," I answered with a smile, and then added, "Plus the sandwiches were perfectly fine anyway."
"I'm glad to hear that." She nodded to herself, like she often did, and then gave me a questioning look. "Does that mean I scored some feminity points?"
I couldn't help but chuckle.
"Yay," She answered with her usual deadpan, and this time I only shook my head."So, back to the Calamity Lunch? What happened next?"
“Oh, right." Saying so, she put away her phone and returned to her explanation. “After Eleanor made a scene, the others came into the kitchen. Then Angeline and Amelia also decided to accept the challenge, and they all tried to make complex dishes to overcome the others.”
“Ah, right. The cordon bleu and that seafood-pasta thing…” I didn’t even know where they found the ingredients for those. My fridge was pretty mysterious sometimes.
She nodded once again and mysteriously said; “The rest is history.”
With that we both fell silent for a while and I returned to my window-gazing. There was an announcement about the next stop, but I didn’t pay it much attention to it. We were only getting off at the last terminal and that was still a good twenty minutes away. I would have probably continued looking at the scenery until then if not for the sudden tugging sensation I felt on my shoulder. I looked over and found Judy delicately pinching a fold on my coat and pulling on it at regular intervals even after I returned my attention to her.
“Yes?” I asked without even trying to hide the bemusement in my voice.
“Chief, I have a question too.”
“Really? I’m listening.”
Still tugging at my clothes she leaned closer.
“What were you and Joshua talking about?”
“… When, exactly?”
“Before Eleanor arrived,” She clarified as she leaned even closer. “You seemed awfully secretive about it.”
“Oh, that?” I grinned and carefully pushed her back to get some breathing space. “It wasn’t really a secret. We were discussing his experiences at the princess’ mansion the day before.” Judy looked at me expectantly, so I continued; “Apparently, they were not only under constant supervision, but Sebastian was interrogating him about me.”
“You left an impression.”
“It seems so.”
“Why were you whispering about it?”
“Well… let’s just say some of the old guy’s questions were pretty weird and they made Josh nervous.” Once again my assistant didn’t speak aloud, but it was obvious she wanted me to continue, so I did so after a quick sigh. “He was asking after my family, where I lived, what kind of people I hung out with, whether or not I was related to the British royal family…”
“One of those things is not like the others.”
“One of these things just doesn’t belong,” I answered reflexively, but she only gave me a flat look. “Oh… sorry, I thought you were doing a thing…” There was an embarrassed pause, after which I cleared my throat and proceeded like nothing happened. “So, Josh wanted to know why he would ask these things.”
“Maybe he wanted to see if you had the pedigree to marry into the family.”
“… That wasn’t a funny joke.” I paused for a moment to think. The previous day was so hectic I didn’t really think about it, but looking back at it with a clear head, those questions were odd. I made a mental note of them and decided to ask the butler the next time I would have the misfortune to meet him, then I shrugged my shoulders at my assistant. “It’s more likely he was checking if anyone would care if I went mysteriously missing.”
I chuckled at her instantaneous answer.
“Thanks. That’s reassuring.” Still smiling, I casually glanced over my shoulder and sighed. “By the way, they are still following us.”
“Yes,” My assistant nodded without looking. “It was probably Eleanor who paid for the tickets.”
As a matter of fact, the rest of the gang has been following us all morning, and they were about as subtle as the last time. I pretty much expected this since the moment Judy blurted out that we would be going on a trip, but it still surprised me how all four of them trailed behind us, including Joshua. Though again, maybe he was dragged along by one of the girls; this did sound like one of those wacky episodes you would get into in a harem comedy after all… Which made me all the more determined not to get involved; hence why I bought a prohibitively costly train ticket that took us on a round-trip around half the island. As you might have gathered, they still followed after us like bloodhounds, except less subtly.
I slumped my shoulders and returned my attention to the girl at my side. “So, should we keep trying to get rid of them or should we take them for a ride?”
Her brown eyes seemed as flat and uninterested as usual, but by this point I was well on my way to master reading the tiniest changes in her expressions, and this time they added up to a single word: ‘mischievous’.
“Why not both?” Her words confirmed my reading of her and it painted a grin of a similar manner onto my face.
“I like the way you are thinking.”
“I will take that as a compliment.”
“… Yes, that’s how I meant it.”
“Really? Then… Yay, I was complimented again?”
I sighed and shook my head.
“Let’s try expressing overt joy another time…” I rubbed my hands together and cracked my neck as a show of intense preparation. “So, we have about fifteen minutes until we reach our destination. Let’s see the ideas.”
As if we rehearsed it beforehand, we reached for our phones in unison and began poking at the screens. I hated to admit, but in the short time since she had hers Judy became something of a virtuoso with her machine and worked much faster than I did.
“What are the essential stops?” She asked without looking up, her tone dead serious.
“The Northern Piers, The Critias Museum and Library, the Central Monument Park and The Black Baron’s Multiplex Cinema.”
She looked up from her phone on the last one.
“What are we researching there?”
“Nah, they just have a good movie at 18:00. I thought we should watch that at the end of the trip. You know, to end on a high note.”
“I see…” She nodded firmly and returned to her screen. “I will put that one to the end of the timetable then. Any other points of interest?”
“A few small ones I thought we could visit if we had the time. I’m sending you over my initial plan.”
“So you had a plan,” Judy looked up from her screen while I was trying to send the file over. “Very diligent of you.”
“Thanks, I think…” I answered just as the list got through. “It’s just a few interesting-sounding curiosity-shops and restaurants. Most of these wouldn’t pose much of a challenge to the guys, so we should spice things up a little.”
“Hmmm…” My assistant visibly pondered while absently swiping her screen. “How about the amusement park?”
“There is an amusement park out there?” Well, ‘out there’ didn’t say much in this case. Technically we were only going to the outskirts of the town, but because of the huge (and in retrospect, pointless) round trip that took us back practically to the same part of the town where we started it felt like we were going to the backwoods. Anyways, I used my built-in browser to look up a map, and sure enough, there was an amusement park not far from our primary destinations.
“According to this site it has a number of attractions, including a rollercoaster, a haunted house and a lovers’ tunnel.” Judy informed me with the efficiency of a sales-clerk.
“Hmmm… All of those sound like nice places to give the gang a run for their money. I especially like the haunted house idea.” I could totally imagine the princess going around and screaming at everything while futilely trying to look brave and dignified. It was in her character.
“I am partial to the lovers’ tunnel…”
“I don’t know…” I scratched my chin awkwardly. “I think that’s too early for them. It would probably lead to friction in the entourage, and that’s not funny.”
For a second or two we both fell silent, so I hastily put my phone away before it could become awkward.
“Okay, is there anything else?”
“I don’t think we need any more sites.”
“… Yeah, I suppose the park should keep us busy for the afternoon.” Just then the mechanical voice of the train announced our next stop, and we both stood up in unison.
“Act natural, don’t look their way and stick to the plan.”
“Got it,” Judy nodded solemnly at my side and we headed for the doors while trying to ignore a totally conspicuous group making a commotion in the other car as they scrambled to their feet…
Our first stop at the apparently renowned Critias Museum and Library was one of the more relaxed and at the same time perplexing experiences I had. The exhibits, which mostly dealt with the island’s history, were housed in a large baroque building that would have fit right into any old European capital if not for the unsettlingly new state it was in. It didn’t even make sense; why would someone try to emulate an antique building style and then make it look brand new? Wasn’t the patina half the point? But then again, it wasn’t like this was even close to make it onto my list of the ten most glaring absurdities this world had thrown my way, so I decided not to get too hung up on it, especially since I was just in the process of reading something even more baffling as we spoke.
“So the island’s traditional claim to fame and chief source of income is its extensive mining industry?” I scratched my chin in a most intellectual manner while leaning forward to get a better look at the eye-strainingly tiny letters engraved into the surface of the bronze plaque. It was fastened onto the stump of a Greek-column in front of a series of large pictures depicting gaping mineshafts and eerily happy miners. After some time I straightened myself and shook my head. “That’s just silly.”
“How come?” Judy inquired while also straightening herself. I didn’t even notice that she was leaning forward the same way I was.
“This is a volcanic island,” I stated dryly.
“Yes. What else could a small island in the middle of an ocean be?” I stated confidently, then after some hesitation I cleared my throat and added; “Also, that other plaque said so.”
“Oh.” Judy’s voice sounded faintly impressed either way.
“Anyways, the point is that volcanic islands are fairly new geological formations, so there was no time for ore veins to accumulate, and let’s not even mention fossil fuels like oil or coal. I have no idea what they could be mining that would warrant an industry… Maybe sulfur?”
“It’s unobtanium,” Judy stated at my side and the word immediately managed to skyrocket my brows.
“Bullcrap,” I caught myself responding flatly and quickly cleared my throat. “Pardon. What I wanted to say was: ‘Ha ha, yeah, we just talked about that yesterday, not falling for that.’”
My assistant let out a soft ‘tch’ sound, though as usual her face didn’t show any irritation.
“I was found out.”
“It was a good try though.”
“I see,” To my relief she seemed to perk right back up and calmly walked over to the next plaque in line. “Ah!”
I was startled from the unusually excited noise she made and quickly made my way to her side.
“What did you find?”
“The actual answer,” She told me as flatly as ever, but in contrast to that I couldn’t help but notice that she puffed out her chest. It wasn’t proper to stare though, so instead I leaned closer to take a better look at the information tablet in question.
“Well, I’ll be damned… It says the island has large deposits of nickel, gold and… diamonds? Really?”
“It says so.”
“Yeah, but…” I scratched my head while trying to keep my mouth from grimacing. “Damn, I should really look into this on the net once we get home.” I was about to move on, but my assistant’s relentless stare made me stop and raise a curious eyebrow at her display. “Is there a problem?”
“Why did we come here then?”
“I just don’t see the point of visiting a museum if you are going to search the internet for information found there anyways. Why did we come here in the first place?”
Somehow she made the otherwise confrontational question sound reasonable. I opened my palms and shrugged.
“It’s all about the experience.”
“Yep. Sure, if you are only looking for just the particulars, then the net is much faster, but doing the legwork like this has its charm too.”
“If you say so.” She looked around, probably looking for the right words to let me down gently. “I just think it’s inefficient. And… boring.”
“Wait, you are bored?” My reaction was, of course, in no way panicked or defensive. “I’m not bored. Are you bored?”
My assistant awarded me another of her long deadpan gazes (which didn’t look much different from her usual look, but I was pretty sure it was the intention behind it) before she decided to answer.
“I’m not bored,” She paused to inconspicuously nod to the side. “… But they are.”
“Oh...” I had to remind myself to only look from the corner of my eye, and it didn’t take long to locate the entourage. They were hiding behind one of the large round columns upholding the ceiling of the exhibit-hall... except for the class-rep, who was out in the open and reading one of the plaques in the back. It said something that she was the least conspicuous of the entire bunch.
“So?” I returned my attention to my assistant with said inquiry. “No one is forcing them to follow us around.”
“But they do, and if we keep loitering around they will think we are boring people. We should hurry up.”
“Oh, come on. Could we not time our trip to the whims of our stalkers, please?”
“... I just feel sorry for them. It’s probably not very interesting to watch us viewing an exhibit.”
“I don’t know...” I tried to object, but she was actually kind of right... Yet a stubborn streak in me just didn’t want to give in like that. In the end I clicked my tongue irritably. “Damn, now you made me wonder what they are thinking about.”
“You can ask them tomorrow. We should move on.”
I shook my head. “No, I was rather thinking about listening in on them right here and now.”
Judy discreetly glanced at the still hiding entourage, and when her eyes returned to me there was a look in them that I figured must have been skeptical in nature.
“They are pretty far from us. Do you plan to sneak up on them?”
“Depends,” I told her as I looked around the hall. I could practically count the people around me on one hand, and they were all silent. In fact the place was eerily quiet, though in this case it was a good thing. “Let’s act like we are wandering around and get a little closer to them. We might be able to hear something if we focus really hard.”
“If you say so...”
Ignoring the unbeliever at my side I closed my eyes and tuned my ears on the direction of Josh and company. Figuratively, of course. To my surprise I managed to pick up something right away. At first there were only small snippets, word-fragments masked by minor environmental noises I didn’t even notice before; yet slowly but surely I was able to make out more and more. I held my breath to reduce the background noise even further and, with the suddenness of a popping soap-bubble, everything came into perfect focus at once. So much so in fact that I involuntarily gasped when I thought the princess was right beside me. I opened my eyes, but only Judy was at my side, and she was looking at me with her usual deadpan expression colored by a tinge of incredulity.
“I can totally hear them,” I whispered while trying my best to reign in my shocked excitement. “I can hear them loud and clear.”
She still didn’t sound convinced, so I instructed her to focus like I did. After a few seconds she shook her head.
“I can’t hear anything...”
“Maybe it’s the acoustics,” I hypothesized, “Try standing over here.”
My assistant followed my instructions without any complaints, but she didn’t seem to hear anything. I decided to try and show her the ropes.
“Listen closely. Right now Angie is complaining that I didn’t buy you any snacks at the kiosk. ... And now Josh is talking about how said kiosk wasn’t nearly expensive enough and that I should have brought along some kind of dish I can’t pronounce.”
“That sounds like something they would say...” She agreed tentatively, “But I still can’t hear them.”
“Seriously? They are completely audible. Try closing your eyes.”
My assistant obediently did as I instructed, scrunching up her eyes in concentration.
“What are they talking about now?”
“Right now? The princess is saying that I must have tricked you into closing your eyes so that I can molest you.”
Judy opened one of her eyes at me.
“No, and one of these days I really have to sit down and talk with that girl before things get out of hand.”
The answer seemed to satisfy her, for she closed her eyes and began concentrating again. It was apparent Judy tried her best to listen, but in the end she shook her head all the same.
“Sorry, couldn’t hear anything legible.”
“Seriously? But they are talking so loud, and...” I paused as a disappointed frown settled onto my face, “Oh, you looked their way.”
“Yeah, Josh just pulled the princess back. He has his hand clapped on her mouth and... Wow, that’s so typical.”
“Did something happen.”
“Hm?” I grunted groggily as I glanced over, then shook my head. “Nah, it’s just that the princess apparently got a nosebleed. It’s one of those trope things. It’s supposed to signal arousal or something.”
“... How did you know that?”
“It’s on the site I showed you last time. Just search for nosebleed; it apparently has something to do with an old wives’ tale.”
Judy shook her head so abruptly her hair whipped around her face. She quickly straightened her hairdo and continued without missing a beat.
“No, I mean that she has a nosebleed.”
“I told you, I’m listening to them. It’s not that hard.”
“Chief, they are behind the column. Literally out of sight. How can you tell something like that?”
“I...” The words got caught in my throat and instead turned into a confused grunt. “That’s... actually a very good question. How the hell can I tell that?”
As a matter of fact, I had a crisp picture of exactly what was going on behind that column, in glorious HD resolution no less. I was just about to ponder whether I was seeing the actual events or I was just hallucinating when my arm got hijacked by my assistant, pulling me along and instantly bursting whatever vision I had like the previously mentioned soap-bubble.
“Let’s move on, we need to have them think we didn’t notice them.”
“Fine, fine! I’m coming, no need to pull! Geez...” I agreed automatically, but after a few steps the gears in my head finally caught up and made me knit my brows in puzzlement while simultaneously planting my feet and stopping the girl dragging me with a sudden jerk. “Wait, why do we need to make them believe that? The cat’s out of the bag, I think we could just ignore them pointedly until they leave.”
“No. If we do that, it would make the rest of our destinations pointless,” My assistant argued while still trying to pull me along. I noticed that there was something wrong with that argument, but at the moment I found myself strangely preoccupied with the sight of Judy tugging at my arm. She didn’t actually put her back into it; in fact she was only pulling on my sleeve with two slender fingers pinched on a crease and she was ineffectually tugging at it at regular intervals while staring holes into my face with the closest thing I have ever seen to a wounded glare on her face.
I was probably staring weirdly at her for a couple of seconds, but in the end I just shook my head.
“So...?” I asked her, and she gave me a strangle look in return, so I added, “So what if our plans are torpedoed? We still have my original timetable.”
“No,” She answered reflexively between two tugs, but then she seemed to be thinking for a few seconds before she continued with; “It would be wasteful.”
“I really don’t see what you are getting at...” I admitted, but then it turned out my mouth was one step ahead of my brain once again, as a second later the realization hit me like a sackful of bricks. “Oh. Ooooooh... I get it now.” I flashed a toothy smile and she visibly twitched. “You were looking forward to going to the amusement park, weren't you?”
Judy didn’t answer; instead she tried to show no reaction whatsoever. I say tried, since at this point I was so used to her natural poker face that her efforts to appear level and stoic manifested as the most overt reaction I have ever seen on her face. It was pretty ironic.
“You know you could have just said so? This entire trip is for your sake in the first place.”
“And the research?”
“That’s just a side-benefit,” I told her while gently un-quenching her still absent-mindedly tugging fingers. “In fact, I guess we can skip the memorial park too. Let’s head for the amusement park.”
“Are you sure? I don’t want to get there that much, and...”
Completely disregarding her protests I clasped her hand in mine and began dragging her along in a mirror opposite of the situation just a minute ago; all the while trying to ignore the strange snippets of excited conversation from the other side of the column hiding the entourage.
“I love it!” I exclaimed with a grin that threatened to split my face.
“It’s not funny,” My assistant smoldered at my side in return, pointedly avoiding the piece of polaroid wonder in my hand.
“No, of course it’s not. I never said that.”
“Then why do you sound so happy about it?” She continued to fume with a pout thoroughly ruined by the piece of cotton-candy stuck to her face.
“Because it’s amazing! Look,” I showed her the picture, and she was just a split-second too slow to look away. She twitched and quickly turned her back to me, though I was sure I saw some blood rush to her cheeks.
“I told you I don’t want to look at it,” She stated coldly, another expression ruined by the mountain of sweets she was burying her face into.
“But you look really good on it! I didn’t even think you could make that kind of face...”
My assistant didn’t answer; instead she lightly kicked my shin and pointedly turned away from me. It didn’t really hurt, but I let out an obligatory ‘ouch’ anyways before I returned to gazing at the picture in question.
Speaking of which, the previous conversation requires some context, doesn’t it? At this moment the two of us were sitting on a bench near the huge central fountain of the amusement park; its finely choreographed jets of water behind us sparkling vigorously in the midday sunlight.
Since our arrival to said fine establishment, we have been on a non-stop campaign to conquer all the rides in the park before closing time. The picture in my hand was a trophy of one such conquest, belonging to the world’s sixth tallest rollercoaster (which sounds less impressive than the actual ride was, but that’s beside the point).
It was everything one could have expected from a coaster, and one thing I didn’t: as it turned out there were cameras set up around the track that engraved the image of every customer’s expressions upon reaching the hairiest turns and dips into the annals of history; or at the very least onto photographs of various framing-compliant sizes, only for the low-low price of five Jens, tax included. Normally I wouldn’t have been interested in souvenirs like that, but when the clerk presented us with this particular picture, I knew I had to get multiple copies of it.
The scene itself was pretty much what one would have expected. It was of the front car of the coaster as it was in the process of plummeting down the rails of the world’s sixth tallest... whatever they call those peaks. They must have a name for that too, like ‘reverse sidewinder immelmann butterfly inversion’ or something. Either way, the point is that there were two people in the focus of the picture; one ruggedly handsome, intelligent, charming and criminally humble young man and a girl whose pretty face was in the process of displaying a terrified grimace so profound that cartoon characters would stand in line to get performance advice on replicating it.
I must have spent more time admiring my assistant's photographic likeness than strictly necessary, as she found it appropriate to remind me of her presence by delivering another feeble kick at my shin. Needless to say, this one was more like a small tap than an actual kick as well, which momentarily made me wonder about the various other peculiar ways she employed in the not so distant past to get my attention at times like this. I didn't have much time to ponder though, as she demonstrated yet another of them on me in the form of poking my cheek with the end of her empty cotton-candy cane. It wasn't particularly sticky, so I presumed she used the clean end. She was thoughtful like that.
Anyways, I turned to the still quietly fuming girl at my side with an awkward smile. “Please stop that. It hurts.” Of course it didn't actually hurt, but it was only appropriate to display the proper reaction in situations like this.
My assistant puffed her cheeks imperceptibly, which still had that piece of cotton candy on them, by the way, and stared daggers at me for a good five seconds... Though, on second thought, she might have been just squinting against the sun. What can I say; my ‘Judy facial expression translation suite’ still had some bugs in need of hammering out, but it was still under development, so it was only to be expected.
“I will stop when you stop looking at that picture,” She stated dryly, and she was true to her words, as she kept relentlessly poking my face even as she spoke.
“Oh, fine,” I sighed in defeat and pocketed my treasure of the day. “I am totally going to frame it and hang it in my living room though.”
“If you do that I will start hating you.”
“Ouch, the lady is driving a harsh bargain,” I grinned as I pinched the end of her stick in between my index and forefingers and yanked it out of her hands with an effortless motion. Before she could say a word I used the still sticky end to skillfully pick off the loose piece of cotton candy still sitting contently on her cheek and presented it to her with an apologetic smile. “Would you take this as a gesture of peace?”
She glanced down at the piece of sweet fluff offered to her and then, without any warning, she leaned forward and snapped her jaws around the end of the stick so hard I thought she would bite the entire thing off. Thankfully she just scooped off the actually digestible part at the end and then proceeded to also lick the fingers she used to hold said stick, kind of like a well-fed cat.
“That offer was suggestive in nature and could have been easily misunderstood as intentional innuendo for fellatio,” She told me in the same tone one would report on the weather. Now that she mentioned it, she kind of had a point.
“Why did you take it then?”
She gave me one of those looks that people reserve for really oblivious questions.
“You never turn down food for silly reasons like that. Also, I was reasonably certain it wasn't intentional.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” I chuckled and pointed at a nearby kiosk. “Wanna grab one of those chocolate-covered banana treats? With extra cream?” She didn't even bother to answer, instead she kicked me again. I didn't even mind. “Yeah, yeah. Sorry, had to do it.” She still seemed peevish, so I decided to change tactics. “By the way, did I mention I had other pictures too?”
“I am really going to start hating you. Just you watch.”
“No-no. Not pictures of your reactions, that one I have is enough.” Since I subscribed to the 'one picture > thousand words' school of thought, I reached into my breast pocket and presented her with a set of pictures I also pilfered from the booth after our ride, though getting these required a bit more convincing, as they didn't actually depict us.
“They followed us onto the ride?” I couldn't tell if she was impressed or annoyed, so I decided it must have been both; or as I like to call it, improyed. ... Wow, after this I am totally going to get arrested by the grammar police for word abuse. Anyways, I waved the pictures like a fan and answered with a similarly disposed grin.
“Yup. We have dedicated stalkers.”
The first picture naturally depicted the first half of our less-than-sneaky shadows in the form of Josh and Angie huddled together in the small cart about halfway down the train. My dear friend was in the process of clutching the safety belts with a white face while his childhood friend was having the time of her life at his side, her smile so wide it threatened to slip off her face.
The second picture, on the other hand, was of the princess and the class rep in the car behind them, and it was arguably the more interesting of the two. On the left, the class rep had the excited, if slightly guarded expression I expected, while the blonde girl on her side... Actually, her expression was almost a mirror image of Judy's at the same time.
I was about to voice my observation to the girl in question, but she beat me to the punch by pointing at the picture and stating; “That is hilarious. I love it.”
For a moment or five I could only blink at her suspiciously, unsure whether her comment was genuine or another of her sudden sarcastic outbursts, but she seemed too preoccupied with gazing that the picture to care.
“Let me guess; you want to frame it and put it on living room wall too, right?”
“If you let me,” She answered without missing a beat.
“... You are aware that she makes the exact same face as you did, right?”
She glanced up with another of those 'I have no idea what the hell you are talking about' looks she was so good at dispensing and shook her head.
“Now you did it. Now I hate you.”
“... A little.”
I shrugged my shoulder.
“Well, I suppose that decided who would not get this month's 'Employee of the Month' bonus.”
Judy paused before answering.
“And if I didn’t hate you I would get it?”
“Probably. I have no other employees to give it to.”
“I see.” Judy nodded sagely before pointing at me. “You are trying to make me like you by threatening to withdraw benefits. That is psychological abuse, chief. We have an abusive relationship.”
“Oh, the horror.”
“Oh, the humanity?”
Done with our customary bouncing of the random-ball between the two of us we both leaned back on the bench and basked in the sun for a good five minutes. I was just about to get up and try to move on to the next ride when I found my assistant still looking at the picture in her hand (which, I just realized, she snatched away from me during our highly abusive argument).
“If you really want to put it on your wall, you can keep it. I have backups,” I teased her, but she shook her head in response.
“No, I was just wondering what they are doing right now.”
“Right now?” I asked suggestively, but she raised a hand to stop me.
“Wait a moment.” I did so, during which she pocketed the picture (which didn't make me confident of her denial about framing and hanging it later) and retrieved her phone from its customary nest in her breast-pocket. She turned on the machine and gave me the go. When I didn't start right away she flashed the screen towards me and told me; “I am documenting what you say so I can cross-reference it with the others later.”
“Diligent as always,” I told her with a smile, which she actually returned, much to my shock and surprise. Loud surprise. “Whoa! Did you just smile?!”
Her lips straightened in an instant and she consequently gave me a look so flat you could build an airport on it.
“I am not even allowed to smile now. Truly, our abusive relationship has reached a new low, chief.”
“No-no-no! You can smile all you want! In fact, you should smile more.”
“Then you should praise me more often.”
I hid my smirk behind a polite nod and gave her a composed 'Duly noted' before I returned to the task of locating our beloved stalkers, our main source of amusement throughout the day. It didn't take long; not that it ever did. These guys were so bad at shadowing us I sometimes thought they might have been acting clumsy on purpose. Anyways, I found them idling near a food kiosk selling an assortment of traditional amusement-park sweets and other related calorie-bombs.
I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and extended my senses towards them. It was the best way to explain the experience, as it definitely wasn't just listening very hard. Repeated attempts and experimentation had proven that I could do it anywhere, be it in a quiet museum, on a crowded train or in the noisy amusement park. I still called it 'listening in' though, mostly so that I didn't have to try and explain it to Judy again. Either way, I did so for a few seconds and then turned to my expectant assistant.
“Right now they are talking about the roller-coaster. The princess and Angie are arguing because she said it was boring.”
“Which one?” Judy interrupted.
“The princess. According to her it was, I quote; 'just not fast enough'.”
“She is full of it.”
“The proper term is ‘boasting to save face’. As for the others, Josh is eating an ear of corn. The class rep... she is buying something from the kiosk. A hot-dog, I think? It's shaped weird.”
“Nothing in particular, let me try for a little longer.” I did so, and after a few short minutes a smile creeped onto my face against my will. “And now the princess and Angie made up over their hopes that we wouldn't want to head for the haunted house next.”
By the time I opened my eyes Judy already put her phone away and was ready to move. I followed suit. Neither of us had to say anything at all.
The aforementioned haunted house was tucked away in one of the quieter corners of the park. It was easy to locate, as from the outside it looked like a giant warehouse made of uniformly painted grey shipping containers. The actual haunted house was inside said building, and after a surprisingly short waiting in line we entered with our stalkers following close behind us. Apparently, they thought that by putting on huge, reflective mirrored sunglasses we wouldn't recognize them. Instead they just looked like four inept undercover cops from a cheesy eighties TV show.
The most amusing thing was, however, that despite all their efforts they still couldn't follow us directly. As it turned out, unbeknownst to us, the attraction was holding a special event. Normally, people would go through the house (which actually looked like a dilapidated family home from the outside, though it was hard to make out the fine details due to the mood-lighting) in groups of five to ten. However, when we got to the front of the line, the young female clerk looked at us, flashed a snow-white smile and simply asked; “Couple’s promotion?”
I had no idea what she was talking about, so I glanced at Judy. She only shrugged her shoulders… or at least that’s what I thought at the time, though in retrospect it’s possible she was just tense. Anyways, I took that as her silent agreement and nodded to the attendant. She smiled again, displaying more teeth than I thought a human mouth could even hold (which made me question whether she was already part of the attraction as some sort of humanoid teeth-monster) and pressed a button on her panel. Following that, the turning bars in front of us unlocked with a loud clang.
“Please follow the green line and have fun,” She told us with robotic enthusiasm.
“Thanks, I think…”
We stepped through and, to my momentary surprise, the bars locked back down behind us, meaning it was only the two of us. Judy stayed unusually close to me, so I smiled at her reassuringly.
“Come on, let’s get going. They cannot let in the next group until we are at the first checkpoint.”
My assistant nodded, and we walked up to the creaky door of the home inside the pitch-black warehouse with only a fluorescent green line of the floor telling us which way to go. I was surprised by the lack of tour guides, but I supposed they were keeping an eye on us with IR cameras or something. We entered the house, passed by the first few, admittedly cheesy-looking jump-scares, and I was just about to turn to my assistant and grumble about the lack of creativity when I was interrupted by an ear-piercing shriek coming from behind us.
For a moment I was almost impressed, as it really did startle me, but then I found it strangely familiar. I glanced at Judy, and her expression told me she had the same idea. We stepped back to see what was going on and carefully glanced around a corner covered in what I really hoped was artificial slime, and we found the princess standing over the decapitated body of a decidedly cheap-looking vampire-animatronic right by the entrance.
Upon noticing our gazes she let out another yelp, this time one of her overly-cutesy noises instead of a shriek, and dashed out of the haunted house with the rest of the mirror-glasses brigade in tow, pushing people aside and jumping over the bars like wanted fugitives. A moment later the lights came back on, momentarily blinding me as the hidden lamps flared to life, and from some unseen speaker a pleasant female voice announced; “We are experiencing some technical difficulties. Please stay where you are until an employee would come and get you. We are terribly sorry for the inconvenience.”
I looked at Judy, then at the decapitated vampire robot, and all I could do was laugh and laugh.
It was around four in the afternoon when the cabin of the Ferris wheel carried us to the top of its never-ending circular journey for a truly scenic view of the area. On my left I could see the long white ribbon of the sandy shoreline of the island, its outline made even sharper by the dark waters of the ocean beyond it. On my right there was a city that should have been bustling with the after-work rush of an army of workers... except I wasn't sure there were any placeholder workers out there in the first place. A good excuse for another research trip down the line, I supposed.
Anyways, neither of those were important, nor did I pay much attention to them, as I was still hard-pressed to hold back my chuckles.
“I still can't believe she did that,” Judy responded to my snickers. She sat in front of me, as it wasn't comfortable to sit side-by-side in the small cabin, and while she looked as deadpan as ever, I liked to imagine she was just as amused as I was.
“Yeah, it was insane,” I agreed heartily. “I didn't even know those things' heads come off.”
“I don't think they are supposed to,” She mused thoughtfully. “Do you think they can be repaired?”
“I'm sure they have a few spares lying around in case people want to punch Dracula,” I answered, which reminded me of the scene once again and I nearly burst out laughing.
“I can't understand why she reacted like that,” Judy shook me out of my reminiscence with these words and I raised an eyebrow to urge her to continue. “That vampire wasn't particularly scary.”
“Wasn’t it?” I grinned playfully while leaning forward. “I can distinctly remember a certain person jumping behind me when it popped up as we passed by it.”
“I wasn't scared, just startled,” She retorted.
“Suuure, let's go with that.”
As I said that my assistant began swinging her legs. For the next few seconds I watched her with an expression I could only hope wasn't too dopey before she exhaled sharply and looked me in the eye again.
“Come over here. You are too far. I can't kick you.”
I won't lie, her saying that with a dead serious face while framed by the distant horizon in the window behind her was pretty dang cute. Of course I would have never said that to her face...
“Aw, you are so gosh darn cute.”
... Except my mouth was once again working ahead of my brain. I should fix that one of these days. Nevertheless, she continued kicking at the air without stumbling for even a moment.
“Don't try to sweet-talk me. I still hate you a little, remember?”
She tried to give me a nod, but she was also swinging her leg at the same time, so she almost fell forwards. I decided that allowing her to keep doing this was dangerous, so I raised a hand to stop her.
“Okay, I can go over, but it will be cramped.”
She only stared at me, so after a few silent moments I awkwardly shuffled over next to her. As I predicted, it was cramped. For some ungodly reason the designers of this particular Ferris wheel decided that the closed gondolas should be too wide for one person but too narrow for two, and our efforts to take seat on a single bench resulted in a lot of fidgeting, squeezing and ultimately Judy sitting on my lap sideways. Yeah, I didn’t know how it happened either.
For the next minute or so there was complete silence. At last, after some awkward 'ums' and 'ahs' I finally remembered the reason why I came over to this bench in the first place.
“Weren't you supposed to kick me?” I asked innocently. She just glanced back over her shoulder and shrugged.
“I don't feel like it anymore.”
“Really? Don't you hate me a little?” In lieu of an answer she actually kicked my leg this time. “Ow. You see, I knew it you had it in you.”
“That was different. It was for failing to read the mood.”
I laughed awkwardly and automatically scratched my cheek.
“Yeah, sorry. I'm not good with these kinds of situations.”
What followed was another bout of slightly awkward silence only punctuated by the creaking of the Ferris wheel. All things considered, it wasn't a particularly unpleasant experience.
“Hm?” It took me a long second to get out of my stupor and actually process the question. I looked out the window and mused; “We should get back to ground-level in about ten minutes. I guess we should have a dinner and then head to the cinema right after that.”
“I see,” After such a non-committal answer I was ready for another walk down awkward silence lane, but instead Judy steered the conversation right into non-sequitur avenue by uttering a soft “Thank you.”
“Err... You are welcome? … Wait, why are you thanking me again? I am a little confused here.”
“For the entire day. You didn’t actually have to take me out on a date like this to get my mind off certain things, but I really appreciate it.”
“Nuh-uh.” I wagged an insistent finger in front of her. “Not a date, research trip.”
“We didn’t do much research though.”
“True, but we did some. Also, that doesn’t automatically make it a date either.”
“We spent the entire day fooling around in an amusement park while followed by our very own comedic date-stalkers, ate in suggestive contexts, got a couples’ discount and capped it all with a scenic ride on a Ferris wheel.”
“That’s... I mean...” I tried to protest, but after ineffectually opening and closing my mouth for a while I just buried my face in my hand with a groan. “Dear spaghetti monster in the sky! That is a date...!”
“I thought you realized that a while ago.”
“I should have. I’m smarter than this!” I paused while looking for a plausible sounding excuse and actually found one really quickly. “I was just too preoccupied with my newfound ability to see and hear people through walls. That must be it.”
“Your alleged ability,” She corrected me with a poke.
Speaking of which, I was curious what the others were doing during all this. I didn’t even know if I could listen in on them when I had no idea where they were, but I tried it anyway, and to my surprise it worked as well as before. My elation over the fact that I apparently had a potent peeking ability swiftly turned to disbelief as the image solidified in my head.
“Wow… That’s a bit too much.”
“What are you talking about?” Judy inquired while looking over her shoulder.
“Josh and company are currently spying on us with one of those coin-operated telescopes they put near sights.”
“That goes beyond dedicated.”
“Yeah, it’s a bit creepy, isn’t it?”
Judy nodded. There was a brief pause, then she asked, “What are they talking about this time.”
I tried to listen closer and I could only shake my head.
“You don’t want to know.”
“It’s not nice to tease people. Now I only want to hear it even more.”
“Oh fine,” I relented in record time with a sigh. “They are betting on whether there’s going to be a kiss before the ride ends.”
“I see. How much?”
I didn’t see how that mattered, but I answered anyway. “Ten Jens.”
“I see. And who’s betting on what?” She continued her interrogation while taking out her phone.
I gave the girl sitting on my lap a critical look, but I figured it was probably another of the questions she would use to see if my ability was for real, so I answered; “Josh and Angie for yay, the princess is for nay, the class rep doesn’t play.”
“I see. Give me a minute.” With that she began poking her phone, and while at first I thought she was typing she subsequently raised it to her ear. I could hear a phone ring on the other end, which was weird, and I could see the class rep pick up her mobile. “Vote for yes.” That was all Judy spoke into her phone before she put it down, pocketed it again and then faced me. I wanted to ask her what she meant by that, but before I could say anything, she gave me a single peck on the cheek.
For a second or two I could only blink at the sudden development, but then I finally figured out what this was all about and sighed.
“You know, I don’t think it counts as a kiss unless it’s on the mouth.”
The look Judy gave me looked somewhat troubled, but in the end she shrugged and turned her head around.
“I’m not doing that for ten Jens. I have standards.”
I stared at the back of her head for a while, trying to figure out what made her tick, but in the end I just rolled my eyes and leaned back on the bench. Judy soon followed my example, which in her case meant that she laid her back against my chest. When we sat like that the top of her head was roughly in line with my chin and her hair was actually tickling my lips. We stayed like that for a while, during which I was trying my best to stay calm and gentlemanly, but at some point I couldn’t bear it any longer and gently blew at her hair. She turned her face to me in response, and for a couple of seconds we were just staring at each other from a couple of centimeters away.
Things were just about to get awkward, but before I could think of something snappy to ease the mood, Judy softly cleared her throat and asked; “What kind of movie are we watching after this?”
It was a transparent ploy for changing the topic, but I immediately grasped it all the same.
“It’s a sci-fi action-comedy. It’s about a group of misfit space-adventurers trying to find the space-holy-grail before the evil space-pirate with the space-galleons could catch up to them. It looks hilarious.”
“I see.” She nodded again, though didn’t seem particularly enthusiastic about it. I tried to think of something else to say, and there was one other thing that came to mind.
“Do you think they would follow us to the cinema too?”
“In that case, do you want to watch a horror movie instead?” Her eyes narrowed momentarily, but a second later they returned to their usual shape except with a mischievous spark in them. I liked that, so I added; “It has vampire mimes.”
“Then it is not a question. It’s an imperative.”
With that we both nodded, which once again threatened to end with both of us receiving cranial trauma due to the way we were seated. For the time being though, I decided to lean back again and enjoy the ride while it lasted.