Asher sat in Starbucks, and vaguely stirred his double shot cappuccino with a wooden spoon. He didn’t bother to drink it. It was too hot. No, more than that. It simply wasn’t fun anymore - coffee just didn’t taste right. He still drank it every morning, not to mention several times during the afternoon - it was, after all, something to do - but all the flavour had somehow left it. And so he sat here, more for a change of scenery than anything else, flicking through web pages, and stirring his coffee.
And it wasn’t just the coffee. Mechanically, Asher found himself eating toast and jam every day for breakfast, a tuna salad for lunch, bolognese for dinner. He drank water and coffee, sometimes eating an apple around 4pm. Sitting on the sofa, letting daytime TV drift over him, cycling through Reddit, Facebook and the BBC. Somehow he was stuck in this same rhythm, following the dirge beat every day. He hadn’t spoken to any of his friends.
It was six months ago that his father had died. Six months since Asher had that strange waking dream of devils and warriors. Sometimes he caught himself about to call his Dad for advice - he would have known what to make of the king of the demons, the symbolism of the gold and silver figures. But Dad was gone, and his mother would be no help at all.
They had spoken just yesterday, early afternoon for him, late at night for her. His mother had shared some gossip from her synagogue in Netanya, talked about their young rabbi and repeatedly asked him if he was okay. Asher had said that he was fine, and perhaps he was.
He sipped at the drink, scanning monotonous job sites that all promised his dream job faster, easier, cheaper. Sign up now! Asher had already signed up but it wasn’t getting him anywhere. The night of the dream he had quit his job with the Midnight Astrological Hotline. It was a student job, really, not something to do with bills to pay and a life to lead. It was time to grow up and get serious - he heard this in his mother’s voice, not exactly scolding him but still difficult to hear. He had no real experience, no plan.
And so Asher sat in Starbucks, and stirred his coffee.
His phone rang. Asher ignored it. It was probably his mother, checking up on him again. Asking when he would start work. It could wait.
It stopped for a minute then rang again. A glimmer of irritation appeared.
Asher got out the mobile but the number was unknown. Strange.
“Do you believe in fate, Asher?” A familiar voice asked him. “Because destiny is knocking.”
“Who are you? How did you get my number?” It had to be the same woman, the one who had called the first day he had been working for the astrology hotline.
“Meet me in Grand Central Station. Twelve noon.”
Her accent was hard to place but it seemed to have something of an English edge to it, though in the main it hovered around the east coast.
“Why should I come? Give me one good reason.”
“One good reason? Because since a hot summer’s night six months ago your life has dulled? Because you can barely bring yourself to rise in the morning? Because you haven’t been able to write a song or play the guitar since your father passed away?”
Asher couldn’t speak.
“And if these reasons are insufficient, come because I have a job for you, and you have nowhere else to be.”
The phone went dead.
She had a good point. Whoever she was, however she knew so much about him, she was certainly correct - he had nowhere else to go.
Gathering up his coat, scarf and gloves, leaving the coffee unconsumed, Asher got up and went to hail a cab.
It was a Monday afternoon and despite the snow that still lay thick on the sidewalks, Asher couldn’t imagine it would take that long to get downtown. The first taxi didn’t stop, nor did the second. The third seemed likely to go straight by as well, despite having no passenger.
Asher waved frantically - it was too damn cold to be outside this long. The driver ignored him, then seemed to change his mind at the last moment and pulled over to the sidewalk. Asher flexed his fingers against the cold, opened the door and climbed in.
“Grand Central, please,” he said, breathing on his hands and rubbing them, pain seeping into the bones as they regained their feeling.
“Sure buddy. Y’know, I wasn’t going to stop for you - been up since 4 and I was going to call it a day.”
Asher nodded and made a positive sound.
“Thought I’d get home, see my family.”
He seemed like a nice guy - a smile always helped. It was hard to get a good look at him but Asher caught flashes of bright white teeth and glittering eyes whenever the driver turned his head. Asher looked at his ID. “Andre?”
“That’s me,” the driver answered.
“My name’s Asher. I really appreciate the ride.”
“Hey, no problem it’s my pleasure. You from England?”
Asher laughed. “No, I’m from the Bronx, I just put this accent on to sound clever.”
Now Andre laughed. “Well it’s working! Whereabouts you from?”
“London, but I’ve been here for over seven years now. I came to study at Columbia - never quite managed to leave again.”
“I understand, man. It’s this place, you know? It pulls you in, sucks you close and keeps you here till you’re good and done with it. If you ain’t careful, it can suck the soul from you too.”
They caught a red light and waited. It was foolish to try to race the lights with all the ice on the ground.
“Hey, you have a family, man?” Andre asked.
“Not here - my mother lives in Israel.”
“That’s cool, man. So no wife or girlfriend?”
“No boyfriend neither?”
“No, just me.”
The cars in front began to move. Andre lifted the brake and followed.
“That shit can get pretty lonely, man - especially in the winter - if you ain’t got no one to go home to, no one to look after you - it bleeds you dry.”
“I think I know what you mean,” Asher said thoughtfully. “What about you? You said you wanted to go home to your family?”
“That’s right. My wife, my two daughters. Sweet kids - cause me no end of pain but I wouldn’t trade them, you know?”
“How old are they?”
“Turning five, my twin princesses. You got to keep those you love close to you, make the memories while you can. Who knows what the wind will bring tomorrow?”
“That’s a fact,” Asher said. They sat in silence for a few seconds. A few fresh snowflakes began to fall.
“To tell you the truth, my wife ain’t doing too good. Got a problem with her eyes.”
“Have you been to see a doctor?”
“Would have, man, but we don’t got the insurance. I’m trying to pull extra shifts but you know how it is.”
Asher agreed. The fifty dollars in his wallet represented a sizeable chunk of his current life-savings. If things didn’t work out today, or at least in the next week, he wasn’t sure how he was going to pay this month’s rent. He would probably have to ask his mother for money, something he hated doing.
“You should go to her, look after her.” Asher said.
“I am. Lucky for me you were going my way.”
“Lucky for us both.”
They sat in silence once more. The snow fell faster now, forming a fresh blanket on the black asphalt. And before he knew it, he had arrived.
“Grand Central Station! That’s eight dollars twenty.”
Asher looked at the fifty dollar bill in his wallet. What the hell - she said that she had a job for him. Hopefully he would have more money soon.
“Here you go, and keep the change.”
“Thanks,” Andre began. “Wait, are you sure? You know this is fifty bucks, man? I can’t take that.”
“It’s not for you, it’s for your wife, for your twin princesses. Look after them.”
“I sure will. You take care now, and walk safe. You have an air about you, man, a weight. Something big is coming your way.”
“I’ll do my best,” Asher said, clambering out of the taxi. “And you’d better get home before you get stuck in a drift.”
“Yes sir, I’m on my way.”
The door closed. The cab sped into the growing darkness, disappearing in a swirl of white and black.
Asher stepped out of the cold and into the main hall of Grand Central Station. He had been here many times before, of course. In fact it had been one of the first places he had visited when he arrived in the city for the first time, over seven years ago. There was something about this place, the central point at which every journey met - a wealth of possibilities. Usually, Asher found the energy uplifting - inspiring even, but today was different. The hall seemed to grey and pall, and despite the crowd, Asher felt small and alone.
She hadn’t said where to meet him, nor how they would recognise each other, but for some reason Asher wasn’t worried.
And then he saw her, emerging from the grey undifferentiated mass of people, strolling as if she owned the place, as if there was no one else there but the two of them. Her brown skin glowed in the light, shining and radiant, hair, black as night, was pulled back. She wore reds and golds, soft flowing fabrics with hard lines woven in. In her right hand, she carried a tall staff, taller than she was, seemingly carved from a single branch of dark, worn wood. She was the most colourful thing he had seen since his father died, and while Asher didn’t know how he knew her, he did.
Virgo recognised him immediately, of course. Though he was skinnier than she had expected, and he’d let a straggly beard grow across his chin that was decidedly unattractive. His blue eyes still held their sparkle, even while much of the life seemed to have drained from Asher’s face. The deep blue of his shirt had long-since faded to grey. A tiny smile hover on her lips.
“Virgo.” The name came to him almost from nowhere, remembering a strange conversation from years before.
“It’s good that we have met at long last - and now that you are here, I have a job to offer you.”
“What kind of job?”
“The only kind that matters,” she said, “you and I are going to save the world.”