Cindy and Cragg
Saturnites were notoriously difficult for Terrans to read. It said something about Cindy and Cragg’s relationship that she could tell he was nervous. It wasn’t obvious, but he was frowning. He frowned a lot since his wide mouth was naturally bent in that direction. But there was a difference to his normal frown and his nervous frown.
She took his hand. “We don’t have to do this if you don’t feel up to it.”
Cragg shook his head. “A warrior doesn’t allow fear to rule the battlefield.”
She smiled. “I’m a grown woman with a divorce and a kid. How bad can it be, right?”
He smiled back at her. She liked the way his emerald eyes twinkled when he did.
The front door opened, and Cindy’s parents and her sister stood at the ready. They’d been prepared for this. Mom grinned with a little too much force.
“Why, you must be Cindy’s lucky fella,” said Mom, dialing up the folky charm to dangerous levels.
Cragg thrust a wine bottle at Cindy’s family like a shield. “These are for you.”
Mom took the bottle and handed it off to Sarah. “Why, isn’t that lovely?”
“Lovely,” agreed Sarah.
Mom elbowed Dad, who grunted. “Yes, lovely.”
Mom took Cindy’s hand. “Come in, come in. Dinner’s almost ready.”
Once inside, the door shut with a grim finality. There was no escape for at least another fifteen minutes. Laura had a standing order to fake an emergency call as a failsafe should things go awry. Until then, only their wits and the thin veneer of civilization was all they could rely on.
“Why don’t you boys go into the living room while we set the table?” said Mom.
“Why do we have to set the table?” asked Sarah. “This isn’t the fifties, Mom. The menfolk can do something.”
“It would be my honor to set the table,” said Cragg.
“Oh, shush. Go on now. It’s just an excuse for a little girl talk.” Mom pushed the males toward the living room, and they trudged away like obedient children. Cindy and Cragg had one fleeting moment of eye contact where they silently wished each other good luck. Dating Cragg had changed her outlook at life. She saw even the most ordinary of events as a mission, an engagement with its own rules and victory conditions.
On Saturn, this would have been easy. Cragg would challenge Dad to a fight. They’d beat the hell out of each other until one relented. Boundaries defined. Respect earned. Terran custom was more difficult.
Everything was ready in the kitchen, but Mom puttered around as if there were more to do, stalling for time. “So he seems . . . nice.”
Mom never said anything mean about anyone. She said less nice things, and everyone knew what she meant.
“Do you guys . . . y’know?” asked Sarah.
“Sarah,” chided Mom, but of course, she’d invited Sarah to dinner exactly because she would ask the questions Mom wouldn’t.
“Hey, I just wondered what it would be like. Like is it cuddling with a big pile of boulders or something?”
Cindy glanced to her phone as if it might save her. Maybe Laura would have a real emergency. But Cindy wasn’t that lucky.
“Yes, we have sex,” said Cindy.
“Oh, Cindy,” said Mom, as if Cindy had spat out the worst vulgarity.
“Like . . . do you get on top or what?” asked Sarah. “I read somewhere that you’d probably need a harness or something for safety reasons.”
Cindy sighed. “You’re making it sound weird.”
“Your boyfriend is a rock monster from outer space,” said Sarah. “It doesn’t sound weird. It is weird.”
“He’s not a monster,” replied Cindy. “And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t make him uncomfortable.”
Sarah reached for an olive, but Mom smacked her hand. “We’d never dream of it, dear. If you think he’s safe to have around our granddaughter, who are we to question your judgment?”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“Why, nothing dear. He seems perfectly stable to me.”
“The war has been over for years, Mom.”
“Oh, and I’m sure he holds no grudge for what Warlord Mollusk did to his planet. Why would he?” Mom grabbed a stack of plates and left the room.
“What did you expect?” Sarah leaned closer. “So . . . like . . . how big is it? I bet it’s pretty big, right?”
Groaning, Cindy grabbed a handful of silverware and went to the dining room. Mom hummed as she set things in order. Cragg and Dad were in the living room, not saying anything. Dad sat in his recliner, watching a football game. Cragg was too heavy to sit in regular furniture, so he stood to one side, staring straight ahead. Terran sports were too sanitized for his tastes.
“He’s not very talkative, is he?” said Mom.
“Neither is Dad,” said Cindy.
“We do like the strong, silent type, don’t we?”
Sarah laughed from the kitchen. “She’s got’cha there.”
Cindy studied her boyfriend, a mound of stone with a slab of a face and an affinity for silence. Dad might have been a flesh-and-blood Terran, but he wasn’t much different. Even his flat top haircut resembled the sheer flatness of Cragg’s head.
“Son of a bitch,” mumbled Cindy under her breath.
“What was that, dear?” asked Mom.
They gathered around the table. Cragg sat in a reinforced chair that her parents had been nice enough to purchase. Dad and Cragg sat across from each other, and the resemblance was stronger with each passing moment.
Sarah kept smiling.
“Would you like to say the honorific to our glorious former Warlord Mollusk, Cragg?” asked Mom.
Cindy said, “Mom, that’s a bit insensitive.”
“I would be honored,” said Cragg.
The family held hands.
“A warrior is measured not only by the glory of their victories, but the humiliations of their defeats. We Saturnites are a proud people, and we were humbled by our foe. His methods, dishonorable as they might have been, tested us and we were found wanting. But in such tests, strength shall be found. We shall have our revenge. Emperor Mollusk shall fall, and but until that day, we honor Mollusk for making us stronger before we execute him and conquer his world. Hail, Mollusk.”
“Hail, Mollusk,” said everyone else.
“I do hope you like gravel and agate,” said Mom as she scooped it onto Cragg’s plate. “I had to look up the recipe online. I hope I made it right.”
Cindy rubbed her hand across Cragg’s gray, slate cheek and he smiled. It wasn’t obvious, but it was there. She couldn’t ask for better backup on this mission.
Her phone rang, offering her its escape route. She didn’t answer it. They had this.
“So, Cragg,” said Sarah, “Do you ever worry you’ll crush Cindy when you’re . . . uh . . . y’know?”
“Oh, Sarah,” said Mom, though she did lean forward to hear the answer.
Cragg shoveled a mouthful of gravel and agate salad into his mouth as Cindy put her hand on his.