Turned around and saw it was Paula.
You could tell the humans from the robots in that moment: the people who turned to look were real people. The robots kept doing their work.
That also highlighted something else for me: the robots were the ones doing jobs, the people weren’t.
Had to ignore them, though. I looked up at Paula.
Paula. She’d come to tell me about Alex.
Alex. Alex was a good person. I missed her a lot, these days.
“Sorry,” I said. “You startled me.”
“Didn’t have to try hard,” Paula said, voice smokey. She let out a bit of a laugh, then rubbed my shoulders.
I started to relax. Let out a sigh. Thank god.
“I’m gonna get some coffee, then I’ll sit down with you, okay?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m good.”
Needed to say that, to remind myself.
“I’m good,” I repeated, but Paula had already gone off to get coffee. It was just me talking to myself.
I drummed my fingers against the coffee cup for several seconds, then finished it off.
Set the cup down.
Alex. What could’ve happened to Alex?
God, she’d never been responsible. Drinking, drugs, hanging out with the wrong people. I’d seen her steal things. Hang out with her for more than twenty minutes and you’d be bound to see her committing some sort of crime.
Paula sat across from me at the small table. She was wearing a leopard print coat and green high heels. Her ears were stretched out by the 38” gold gages she was wearing.
In short, she looked nuts. But a part of me actually liked that. Made me feel normal, if nothing else.
“Sorry I was late,” Paula said. “This lady I was working on wanted a third eye, you know? And you wouldn’t believe how nuts eye implants are. There were some potential complications, but we got it on, just like she wanted.”
“How’s Alex?” I asked.
Paula leaned into the table, grabbing my twitching hand with both of hers. “Chris, you know it’s not healthy to think about someone like you think about Alex. You and her haven’t been a thing for a long time, now.”
I pulled my hand away from Paula’s. Didn’t want to be mean, but I really didn’t like people touching me.
Deep breath. “I’m not crazy for wanting to know how Alex is. You’re the one who wanted to tell me over coffee, Paula. Something might’ve happened to her, and I want to know what that is. Not weird for me to want to know. So stop screwing around and tell me what’s up.”
“A lot of the alumni have been talking. They’ve been saying that Alex is missing.”
I pushed my seat back. It scraped against the floor. My head fell into my hands. Closed my eyes.
“We don’t know why or how, really. All we know is that there’ve been people asking around, going through Alex’s whole social circle. She didn’t have a family, and none of the AI Corp staff knew where she was. And they really wanted her to be around ‘cause of the new game she’s got out, right? They want it to make a lot of money.”
“Throne Quest,” I said. “Been playing it myself. It’s interesting.”
“Yeah,” she said. “You know I don’t really care for all that, but I’m sure she did a good job. Look, what I’m saying is, we don’t know what’s been happening to her. But I just didn’t want you talking to somebody else and finding out about this. You’re gonna be fine. You and her haven’t even talked in a long time. Tell me you’re going to be okay, okay?”
I didn’t take my head out of my hands. “I’m gonna be okay.”
“Look at me, Chris.”
Took my head out of my hands. Looked her in her emerald green eyes.
“I’m going to be okay.” The words didn’t sound true, but I said them anyway.
“You’re going to be okay,” she reminded me. “We don’t even know where Alex is. There’s a good chance she’s just off on one of her crazy adventures.”
“Yeah.” I rubbed my nose, which was feeling sniffly. “We’ll figure it out. I’d like to help. Is anybody–”
“You can’t help,” Paula said. “AI Corps has a lot of money invested in Alex’s crazy project. They’ll find her.”
“She’s probably just busy. Holed up somewhere, so focused on Throne Quest she forgot to check with anybody.”
“That’s not likely, Chris,” Paula said. “I don’t want you to get worried, but you shouldn’t get your hopes up, either. We just don’t know what’s going on. And that’s okay. AI Corps will figure it out soon.”
“Yeah. Of course they will.” I got up out of my seat. “This has been fun, but there’s stuff I wanna do today, so I’m gonna go.”
“You gonna be alright?” Paula said. “I just wanna make sure you’ll be alright.”
“I’ll…” I wanted to give Paula a hug, but no dice. Not today. “I’m gonna be good.”
The smile was fake, but it served its purpose.
I left Moe’s and went home.