Later that afternoon, I sat on a bench in the dog park and dazedly watched my Golden Retriever, Jack Russell, playing and running about with some of the other dogs. Thoughts piled high in my mind, all stemming from lunch from earlier that day.
- Cassiopeia is aware of how you feel about her.
- How did she know?
- Did you exhibit some sort of behavior that was out of the ordinary?
- After all, you’re careful. You don’t stare; you keep things casual.
- She said I was transparent. How?
- What happens next?
It went on and on like this; attempting to organize my thoughts like a college research paper, attempting to understand the whole situation. And, of course, there was the $64,000 question:
- Does she feel the same way about me?
“That your Retriever over there?”
Instinctively, I looked up to see if something had happened to my dog. On the contrary, Jack Russell continued to run around with abandon. “It is, yeah,” I replied to the guy who now sat next to me on the bench. I glanced at him. Crew cut; steely expression; shaped like ten bodybuilders. He didn’t look familiar; most of us who frequented the park had come to know each other well. He crossed his arms over his massive chest and watched the dogs, remaining silent, as if he hadn’t just spoken to me moments ago and/or hadn’t heard my reply.
“Don’t look at me again,” he then said, his voice lowered. “Call your dog over. Look distracted and look down; you’re not talking to me.”
Something told me not to question it. I didn’t. Quickly, I acquiesced and called Jack Russell over, who bounded into my arms. I busied myself with petting and playing with him.
“You can’t trust her,” Crew Cut then murmured.
At the sound of “her”, an alarming knowledge quickly settled over me. Cassiopeia.
“She’s not who you think she is,” he continued.
“It’s obvious that you have feelings for her. If you want to live, fight those feelings and get rid of them. Don’t go near her. Keep to yourself. You get my drift.”
I nodded faintly, my chest twisting itself into painful, unceasing knots.
“She will notice the shift in your behavior, by the way. And she won’t allow it. She was trained to be unrelenting, to force you to admit things. When you make admissions, they come after you. Resist.”
With that, Crew Cut was done with me. I watched peripherally as he surveyed the park for a few moments before he stood up and disappeared down the sidewalk. Now numb, I remained in the park long after the sun had set.
The next day, she came to my office door minutes after our daily staff meeting ended, a meeting I had joined virtually.
The knock on my closed door—a door I didn’t typically close—seemed to reverberate throughout the room. I remained still in my chair, both willing her to disappear and wanting, so badly, to see her.
“El?” I heard her call from outside the door.
I didn’t move. I wasn’t breathing, either.
“Elliott, are you in there?” she called again.
Just go, I silently implored her. Moments passed. Cassiopeia knocked again. After a long while, I ventured that she had walked away. For now. Quickly, I accessed my personal iPad and Googled Cassiopeia Benson.
Most of the results dealt with stories about her mythical namesake and the ensuing constellation. Nothing about a living person with that name. I then wondered: was Cassiopeia even her real name? After the conversation with Crew Cut, I presumed that Cassiopeia was working for Zachary Jupiter’s team of hoods; perhaps she had been planted among us to determine who was going against the policy. I shook my head. The entire matter was ludicrous when one considered it: enacting violence on employees that simply chose to become romantically involved with each other. I even laughed despite everything. Insane. I then searched for Professor Alfred Benson, “Cassiopeia’s” deceased father. No viable results.
She had lied to me from the beginning, I thought. The story about her name, the extraordinary way she told it, the person she had quickly become to me: all lies.
CB: Where are you?
I gazed at the Instant Message that had just popped up on my work computer, the letters swimming before my eyes.
CB: I didn’t see you at the meeting. Are you okay? Are you here?
I turned off my monitor and sent a text message to my manager indicating that I was placing a request for a personal holiday for the rest of the day and for the remainder of the week. As soon as he replied that he would approve it, I left the office.
I decided to head to Palm Springs for my days off. I needed distractions: golf, relaxation, anything. I needed to clear my head. The next morning, after hastily throwing a few things into a bag, I guided Jack Russell outside, ignoring the incessant voice in the back of my mind that demanded that I stop and think. Why I had so quickly believed the words of a stranger with a crew cut? the voice insisted. Why was it acceptable that the woman I thought so highly of would be involved in nefarious behavior?
She was waiting for me on the sidewalk.