I first saw her one evening near the start of my senior year in college. I was waiting at the bus stop when she pulled up. Her silver-white sports car resembled an elongated clamshell with a boxy rear. She hopped out wearing a spandex jumpsuit in the same color.
"Do you know where they sell Star of Sumatra Gold Coffee?" she asked, her jet-black hair blowing in the late-September breeze.
If I was expecting any question from this tiny, pale woman, that would not have been it. But I could only nod, that brand being a favorite of mine, and often difficult to find in area stores.
"South-Central Market usually has it in stock," I replied.
"Show me," she said, getting back into her car, and opening the passenger-side door. She must have grown impatient. "Come on, Wes," she said, "I haven't got all day."
"How do you know my name?" I asked, looking inside.
"You're Wes, I'm Zoe," she said, extending her hand over the available seat.
"Greek for life," I muttered stepping inside.
"Very good," she replied, smiling.
Another moment and we were pulling out into the street. Her foot was soft, gently prodding the powerful engine into action. Yet I couldn't help thinking she was far too petite for this vehicle. I could not find a manufacturer or model name, but it struck me as being Italian.
In half the time it would have taken me to drive there, we were entering the market parking lot. While I casually walked to the entrance, Zoe seemed more studious, as if making a detailed survey of the area.
She smiled when I asked what she was doing. "A sense of place is important. How many accidents happen every day because someone takes some sort of wrong step?"
"Do you always dress that way?" I asked, noticing the way shadows revealed more about her attire than direct light.
"It's either this or get a new paint job ever day," she joked. "I think this is cheaper.
We passed through the automatic doors, quickly moved past the produce section and into the long hallway of freezers along the wall, with row after row of groceries on the other side. Finally we came to "Coffee, Tea, Drink Mixes."
I leaned over, picked out one of the deep-copper colored bags, and handed it to her.
"Thank you," she said, smiling. "Anything you need to get?"
"I don't think so," I replied.
"Too bad," Zoe said, shrugging her shoulders, "I enjoy watching people shop. Anyway, let me get this paid for and I'll drive you home. West Aurora Avenue, right?"
She did not answer any questions that night regarding who she was or how she knew so much about me. And as I thought about the experience later that night, I found everything about her that much more confusing. Waifish but clearly adult. Confident and more than a little proud. But her face still had a fresh innocence that most of my female friends lost after high school. Her voice also seemed lower than one somebody that short should possess, a soothing alto, urban but sweet.
At first, I seemed to obsess a little about the whole experience. My parents' warnings about getting into a car with strangers crossed my mind. I doubt if I would have complied had the driver been male.
As the months passed, I thought about her less and less. Then in April, just as the winter gave up and decided to let the sky turn blue, she was back, along with the car and jumpsuit.
"Does the address 89 Covered Bridge Road mean anything to you?"
The flood of memories that simple question unleashed. 89 Covered Bridge Road was my grandparents' old home. A childhood of Christmases, birthdays, weeks spent sleeping in that spooky old attic. Tears filled my eyes as I realized how much I missed the place.
"Anyway," she said, inviting me to accompany her, "I just bought it. Want to see?"
It usually took my father two hours to drive there. Zoe made it in less than ninety minutes. But there it was; so changed from the place of my memories, but still so much intact. The wide field where my grandfather tried to raise corn. The woods where I would intentionally get lost in order to delay having to go home. And the high tension line, the fee the power company paid my grandfather for permission going to his Christmas fund.
Zoe saw I was looking up and commented, "They tried to squirm their way out of continuing payment. My lawyer was able to change their mind."
We went inside and I was surprised by Zoe's taste in décor. Despite the sports car and spandex attire, the furniture was mostly Pennsylvania Dutch, with a little Shaker and Colonial thrown in. My grandparents would not be uncomfortable here.
The kitchen was fairly empty. Besides the major appliances, a drip coffee brewer and coffee grinder were all there was on the counter. The old double oven had been replaced by a single with microwave oven in the upper position. Judging by that and the near-empty shelves, it seemed to me that Zoe did not spend much time at home.
As I lay in bed that night, I began to realize how my life took a surreal turn whenever she showed up. She was obviously from a wealthy family, the car and clothes, and now her ability to buy a twelve-room house on fifteen acres of land.
Again, though, the weeks passed without a return visit, and my thoughts moved to more pressing matters.
With graduation and searching for a career, the next few months were busy ones for me. "1929 Redux", one newspaper warned. Here I was, a college graduate with a respectable, although hardly stellar, grade point average, and I was beginning to look at minimum wage jobs.
"Be glad you're not flipping burgers," an old college buddy told me, moments after I asked him for just that -- with fries. I could console myself with the fact that working in an office supply super-store was better than that. And at least now I had a car.
It was a slow afternoon and I spent a long while with him, reminiscing over the just-ended "good old days"; beer-soaked days of endless parties and sex, or at least the usually unsuccessful quest for a coed to spend the night with.
He looked up suddenly. "Get a load of that," he said, smiling, looking toward the door.
I turned and saw the short black-haired woman in a silver-white spandex jumpsuit. But now there was a kid with her. A three-year old wearing blue jeans and red tee-shirt.
"Zoe?" I asked, rushing up to her.
"Oh, hey Wes," she said, cheerfully. "Been meaning to drop by, but things have gotten a little crazy lately."
A little crazy? Now I'd been all through her house four months earlier and there was no sign of a kid. There wasn't even any sign that a child would be living there anytime soon.
Then I felt an odd twinge of jealousy. There was a man in her life? For how long? Three or four years? Maybe all those little hints I picked up that she saw something in me were wrong?
She seemed to realize my discomfort. "There's a lot we need to talk about," she said. "This isn't a good time."
She was right. I really was not ready to talk about it. Of course, I really did not understand my own emotions. This was only the third time I'd seen this person. There was a lot of small talk while riding in her car, but nothing really substantial. Maybe it's simply that every guy views every woman as a "possibility" until some facts make him cross her off the list. Yet as unlikely as Zoe now seemed, I could not yet cross her off.
At work it was one seasonal crisis after another. August was the prolonged agony of the weekly "Back to School" specials. We were expected to dress up for Halloween, while handing out erasers shaped like pumpkins. I was a zombie, which was not too much of a stretch given my daily routine of rising, going to work, coming home, and going to bed.
But the Christmas season was the most brutal. Who would have thought people actually enjoy receiving index cards and 24-packs of roller pens as gifts? Then came the "Twenty-Four Hour, Christmas Eve Madness Sale".
I slept through most of Christmas Day, having vague memories of gifts and food. Then the next morning, I was back at the store for the onslaught of returns and the questions from those receiving computer components as gifts.
During one of those days between Christmas and New Year, I got a phone call. "Wes," a familiar voice said, "it's Zoe. Could you come out here this evening?"
I nodded my head, as though she could see that gesture. "Okay," I said, noticing the somber tone in my reply. There was already a lot on my mind. Rumors of layoffs after the New Year, my parents discussing moving to Virginia to be with my mom's ailing aunt. That and the fact that I had not been involved with anyone since college. This was turning out to be a miserable holiday season.
Unlike Zoe, it took me a full two hours to drive out there. When I got there, I felt a little better at first, seeing the Christmas tree and other decorations. I was surprised to see Zoe in a pair of snug, black jeans and thick, brown pullover sweater.
"I'm off-hours," she said, grinning.
I was more surprised to see her son, who in less than five months seemed to age from three to seven. And I was shocked by the presence of a four-year old daughter.
Besides the obvious, there was something else strange about these children. They resembled Zoe in many ways, but there was something odd about the eyes. As I passed a mirror it hit me -- they were my eyes.
"Yes," Zoe said, noticing how I kept comparing my own eyes with theirs. "They are our children."
"Do you keep any liquor around?" I asked, for the first time in my life actually needing a drink.
She led me into the kitchen where she had a very well-stocked liquor cabinet. I also noticed more dinnerware and cooking appliances. The spotless home I had seen that past April was now a well lived-in home.
"Reproduction through advanced DNA manipulation," she explained, as we sat down at the counter. "Everything, from conception to delivery, done in a laboratory. Very useful as it's the only way to guarantee a complete pre-natal education; which was vital."
"For what?" I asked, completely confused.
"Well," she said, her voice hushed, not wanting the children to hear, "eventually they will save the Earth from an intergalactic invader."
How exactly does one respond to a statement like that?
"Look," Zoe said, "you don't have to believe any of this; it isn't really your concern. But I was really hoping you and I could be friends. To be honest, maybe even more. I suppose that's a little tough if you think I've lost my mind."
I finished my drink and went into the living room to look at the children. The boy, Christopher, was at a white board writing out an advanced equation.
"Isn't that difficult?" I asked, my mind getting lost in the collection of numbers and symbols.
"It's a puzzle," he said, sounding like a normal seven-year old. "I like puzzles."
Andrea, my supposed daughter, was sitting with a portable electronic music keyboard. She was improvising, but showing an innate understanding of both scales and rhythm far beyond her four years.
Could these really be my children? That painful question would not go away. I both wanted it and was terrified by the possibility.
"But why?" I asked, returning to the kitchen. "Why me?"
"The people I work for," Zoe said, calmly, "have scanned tens of millions of DNA samples looking for the right elements to match with mine." Then she put her hand on my shoulder. "Maybe it is better if you simply think I'm crazy. The sad truth is it won't be that long before the kids are on their mission and out of my life. You see, time is different for us than it is for you."
"Why tell me all this?" I asked, not knowing whether to be angry or hurt.
"This is your only chance to see your children as children," she said, tearfully. "I thought I owed you that much."
I had no idea what to say. Offering only, "Are you okay?"
"Yes," she sniffed. "It's our emotions that make us human, and we're doomed as a species if we ever lose that."
"Do they know I'm their father?"
"Sense it, definitely. Able to guess, possibly."
I left that house feeling emotionally wrecked. As I stepped out the door, I swear I could hear little Andrea saying "Bye Daddy." No, I decided, while I had no idea where she got the kids, it was clear Zoe was mad. Her story fell apart too easily. Any secret agency that could create children using the DNA of both parents would not allow their most important agent to talk so freely. And if they did, I would never survive the drive home.
Which I did without incident.
2009 started one setback after another. I got the layoff notice the second week of January and spent weeks searching for another job. My mom moved to Virginia the beginning of February with my dad planning on joining her come summer. It would not be long before I needed a new place to stay.
Of course, the thought of asking Zoe if I could stay at her place crossed my mind. But there was no way I could do that. I had spent weeks focusing on every one of her idiosyncrasies one might find annoying. She was pushy, manipulative, and completely mad.
In March I took on temp work. It was a simple routine. Show up at 5am, pile into a van, and work until 3pm putting together plumbing fixtures. It was easy work and the pace was not too bad. Of course, looking at my co-workers -- the druggies, drunks, and mentally-challenged -- I realized I needed to do better.
Easter Monday, I was walking to work in the darkness when that dreaded silver-white sports car pulled up. I tried to walk away, but Zoe would have none of it.
"Get in!" she shouted. "Our kids are in trouble and I think you're the only one who can save them."
"What are you talking about?" I asked.
"I told you about their mission," she said. "Well the space-baddies had an informant here on Earth. He was keeping tabs on you."
"Who?" I asked.
"Len Fischman, your middle school gym teacher. He must have been testing his student's DNA and yours raised red flags."
Now my memories of Len Fischman were not positive ones. Six feet of meanness with a crew cut and a tattoo of a spitting cobra on his upper right arm, he despised students he felt were weak. He often gave a failing grade if a student took too long to run a mile.
Seeing that building silhouetted against the pre-dawn sky brought back some of the worst memories of my entire life. A cold, concrete structure where teachers were unable to tolerate any of their peers, let alone their students. And while corporal punishment was officially banned, the administration looked the other way when the wooden flogger, euphemistically called the "board of education" were employed.
"Put this on," Zoe said, as she stopped the car and handed me an outfit identical to her own.
"You must be kidding I said."
"Company policy," she replied. "Besides, there is a reason superheroes wear these things."
"It is not fair," I protested. "This is not a lot of space. Besides, I really don't like undressing in front of people."
"Here," she said, pulling down her zipper, exposing her breasts. "If you want to see any more, just slide your hand under."
There was something frightening about her determination.
"Tell me what I'm supposed to do," I said, realizing it was pointless to refuse.
"You'll need to find his office. Take the keys and go up to the top floor storage area. Do you remember the way?"
"Yes," I said, nodding, struggling to undress. I remembered every inch of that accursed place. "I assume the alarms will be deactivated."
"In a manner of speaking." she said, handing me the key to the main entrance. "Time will be slowed down. You'll have fifteen minutes to get out with the kids. Otherwise you'll have the local police to deal with."
The suit went on easily enough. Zoe did not look away as I was putting it on. Then again, I rarely took my eyes off her breast. I guess fair's fair.
As I stepped from the car, I realized I did feel different. I could move faster, lift more weight, and jump higher than I could normally. Not superhuman abilities, but a real improvement.
I got to the door and motioned for Zoe to do whatever magic she was doing. She smiled and gave me a thumbs-up. Then I unlocked the door and went inside.
I quickly ran down the hall and down a flight of steps. I turned a few corners and entered the boy's locker room. And there it was, old bastard Fischman's office, a crusty jockstrap hanging on a hook.
I found the keys in his pen drawer and went back out into the hall. I decided to use the side hallway to one of the few stairways that went up to the top floor. Normally, a rush up four flights of stairs would have winded me badly. But the suit made it an almost pleasant run.
I was glad that Fischman was never one for thinking ahead (our football squad was lucky to win a single game every season, for which he always blamed the team, not his coaching). I opened the door and was surprised to find Christopher now appearing a year or two older than me and Andrea in her late teens. We were dressed in identical outfits.
"Daddy!" Andrea cried, wrapping her arms around me. Christopher simply patted me on the shoulder and shook my hand.
We rushed out of the building where Zoe was standing outside her car.
"Time deviance stopped," she said. "And with eight minutes to spare, the alarm probably won't even sound."
"Well we have work to do," Christopher said, taking the car key from his mother. Then he and Andrea got into the car and took off.
"Hope this works out," Zoe said, cautiously. "So what do you want to do?"
"My dad will be asleep another two hours," I said. "I guess we can hang out at my place for a while. I got a fresh pound of Star of Sumatra Gold yesterday.
"Sounds good," Zoe said, sounding happy, but worn.
As we walked, I noticed Zoe seemed a little depressed. I asked about her mood and she was quiet for a long moment. "How old do you think I am?" she asked.
That was something I had wondered about since meeting her. In reality any guess from around 19 to 35 might be in the ballpark.
"I'm 85," she said, glumly. "Oh it isn't that big a thing, overall. My life expectancy is 150. It's just I'm at the end of my usability period."
"Your what?" I asked, as we crossed a broad, but empty street.
"The ability to exist safely in accelerated time," she said, softly. "When we met, I was 30. Now in a little over a year real-time, I've aged fifty-five years. Depression is a common side-effect."
"You can still pass for a teenager," I said, reassuringly.
"And I will continue to do so for years to come," she said, her humor improving. "This is just a rite of passage most humans won't experience for another thousand years."
We arrived home shortly after sunrise, and I went into the kitchen to make coffee. My father hobbled down the stairs a while later, probably hearing talking. He looked at me, dressed in this bizarre manner. Then he looked at Zoe, dressed the same. Finally he shook his head. "About time," he said. Then he went back upstairs.
About an hour later a strange sound went off in Zoe's boot. She pulled out the cell phone hidden in a compartment within the boot. "Text message," she said, flipping open the lid. "It's from the kids," she said, excitedly. "Baddies defeated, Earth safe."
"I guess that's a relief," I said, still unable to accept her story.
"Over one hundred of the best minds from Earth and elsewhere," she said, excitedly but with a hint of disappointment for it being over. "Three hundred years of research, experiments, successes and failures. And that's the end of it. We win."
"Just like that?"
"Just like that."
I shook my head. "And what if I still think your crazy and used children actors?"
"And the suit?" she countered. "You must have noticed the difference."
"This?" I asked, pinching up the fabric and letting it snap back. "It may be within the realm of current scientific knowledge. All I know is you cost me a day's work."
Zoe broke out laughing. "We save the earth from alien conquest and all you're worried about is losing a day's work?"
"I have my priorities," I said, trying to keep this facade up.
"You know the room where your Grandmother had her knitting tools? That's my office. Be there tomorrow by 10am. I need an assistant. Twenty five dollars an hour to start, room and board."
"And where will I be sleeping?" I asked.
"We'll start you off in the guest room," Zoe said, sounding like a dutiful employer. Then her voice became seductive. "But there will be plenty of room for advancement."