Chapter 5: The Ladder starts to Clatter
Somehow Karen (who was actually named Lauren), Nassim, and Sheldon ended up sitting across from each other at the rickety picnic benches in Nassim’s courtyard. Lauren and Nassim laughed over some obscure joke while Sheldon poked at his food. The burgers were simultaneously burned (literally) on the outside, raw on the inside, and absolutely disgusting.
Nassim elbowed him. “Go ahead. Try it.”
“I don’t… I don’t eat cows,” said Sheldon.
“It’s only part of a cow,” said Lauren, halfway through her own burger. “Ohmigod, this is delicious.”
He eyed the spicy chicken livers. There was no way any of this was going in his mouth.
“You have to try it,” said Lauren. She had speared a chicken liver with her fork and was staring at him expectantly. Sheldon poked his burger. How was he supposed to hold this thing? Maybe he could take just one bite–for politeness’s sake–and be done with it.
The burger crumbled as he bit into it, half melting in his mouth. This was… amazing. Yes, parts of it were burned and parts of it were crusty and most of it he definitely did not want to think about, but there was this juice and this flavor and… he couldn’t even describe it. “I think this is the most wonderful thing I have ever eaten,” said Sheldon.
“Sure beats slurry, doesn’t it?” She popped one of the livers in her mouth. “Oh, that’s spicy.”
“Well, I don’t know if I’d say that,” he tried to mutter around the burger. “Slurry has its benefits. It’s ethically sourced, carbon neutral, doesn’t require murdering sentient creatures…” The burger disappeared and he found himself compulsively licking his fingers. What the hell was he doing? He grabbed a napkin and wiped them clean like a civilized person.
“I can’t say much for the liver,” said Lauren, “but the zucchini is worth a try.”
“Right, zucchini.” He eyed the grilled strips of vegetables. He was probably going to get cancer from all of these carcinogens. “So, uh. I think we live in the same building. I see you heading to work sometimes.”
“And at the bodega,” she said.
“Oh. Yeah.” He took a bite of the zucchini. Whoah. Did choking hazards always taste this good, or was nearly burning all of your food to cinders a form of magic? “I volunteer on Sundays, teaching English. We were doing a field trip to practice using English in a real-world environment.”
“Really?” Lauren looked impressed.
He decided to chance one of the spicy livers.
Some things really were disgusting.
“I told you,” she said.
“Yes.” His mouth was on fire. He desperately wanted to spit it out, but Nassim and Lauren were both watching him. Where were the drinks?
He grabbed the beer. He didn’t want beer; he knew beer was terrible and caused thousands of deaths per year, but it was the only drink on the table and he needed something to wash down the liver.
That was a mistake.
Beer and liver, he realized, were acquired tastes. Thankfully the kids screaming through the courtyard decided to set off a pile of fireworks, distracting Lauren and Nassim.
“What about you? What do you do?” asked Sheldon. He tried to lean nonchalantly against the table. He hoped she hadn’t seen him gagging.
“I work in medical sales.” Somehow she took a sip of the beer. How did she do it? “Ventilators, syringes, masks, PPE–you can never have too much, that’s what I say.”
“Definitely.” He tried to match her sip. If she could drink it, he could too, right? “I’m in IT–data protection. Do you work nearby? I used to see you riding your bike in the mornings.”
“Oh, no, I don’t. I’m was just trying to save money, until those pigs took my bike away. Now I’m stuck paying or walking.” Sip.
“Well, at least you’re safer, now.”
“Safer?” Her eyes narrowed.
“Well, yes. A thousand people a year die in bicycle accidents.”
Her bottle thunked against the table. “You know, there was a study, in China. People were randomly given either a car or a bicycle and then weighed a year later. The people who got the car gained an average of 20 pounds a year over the bicyclists. Six hundred and forty seven thousand people died of heart attacks last year. People who don’t ride bikes will just switch to riding in cars, gain weight, and die.”
Sheldon took a strong drink. “But there was a terrible accident just last month. An electric AI collided with a bicyclist–that’s why the council finally outlawed riding on city streets. The bikes are too small; the AIs can’t see them properly.”
“If the AIs can’t see the bikes, then get rid of the AIs,” fumed Lauren. “Riding bikes is healthier, would save thousands of lives–”
This was a ridiculous argument. “The autonomous cars have cut accident deaths tenfold. You could save thousands of lives just by giving people stationary bikes to ride inside their apartments, where it’s safe–”
“I bet you can’t even ride a bike.” Lauren stood up, angry.
Shit. Sheldon realized he’d fucked up. “That’s not true. I can, I can.” Well, he had ridden one once, at his aunt’s in the country. When he was ten.
“You don’t understand because you haven’t done it.”
Nassim stood up, waving his hands. “Wait. Wait. Calm down. It is not problem.” He pointed to a bike rack in the back of the courtyard. “You can use mine.”
Sheldon stood, not sure if the alcohol was affecting him. Alcohol was known to make people make terrible decisions, and he realized just after he spoke that he had made a big one. “All right. I’ll prove it.”
The courtyard rack was filled with what could only be described as crackhead bikes: no paint, mismatched wheels, and only a fifty/fifty chance of handlebars. At least it was legal to ride here, off the street. Nassim pulled a bike out for him. The wheels spun. That was a good sign.
He mounted shakily. This was a terrible idea–he didn’t even have a bicycle license. He almost got off, but Lauren was staring at him, hands on her hips. He pushed off with his feet and fell immediately. A crowd had gathered by the time he got back up. She was laughing. Nassim helped him back on the bike and gave him a shove.
Sheldon found himself moving much faster than he had expected. It was only by some miracle that nothing was directly in front of him; he pedaled madly, terrified of crashing, desperately hoping the steering would take care of itself.
The bike careened down the path, down the hill, out of control, and for one eternal, transcendent moment everything melted away and he felt nothing but pure fear and exhilaration. He was flying.
Then something exploded.