I stood in the frigid air for several moments, stretching my arms and legs. Dallas had gotten colder since I left. My hand found the door and I was able to walk into my home again. I’d barely been here a week and it was already feeling like a place I could relax in. I threw my clothes in the wash and then walked into the bathroom. Thankful for a tankless water heater, I turned the handle all the way to the hot side. I stepped into the steaming waterfall, sighing as the stinging waves washed over my skin. The gooseflesh on my arms and legs quickly subsided. My skin was an angry pink from the heat, but I paid it no mind. It was a good sting that warmed down to your bones.
I wasn’t ready for what the day held. It was the first time in my life that I had to face something this real. A lot had happened this past week, way more than I ever wanted to deal with. Suddenly I was very envious of people that lived in blissful ignorance. Why was I chosen to be a part of all this? In ways I felt thankful, I at least am able to spare myself the horrific death I was shown, but in other ways it was a burden that no person should have to bear.
I didn’t even believe in whatever all of this was. I was so sure of all the articles and scientific journals I poured over. In all the witty talks I listened to detailing evolution, it left me hanging with the burning question of why─ why in the hell is it possible for any of this to happen? Sure, we could chalk it up to some sort of freak phenomenon that I experienced by myself and question my mental state. Yet that leaves out the fact that Zedd saw it too. He believed it so much that he had ended his life over it. I looked over at the cool tile on the floor, the pattern somehow soothing against the morning light. We couldn’t have both fabricated the same, exact thing.
If this were true, there had to be others.It’s a shame I couldn’t find them.
I finished hooking the last button on my slacks and stared at my reflection. I frowned at the obvious dark circles beneath my eyes. I looked like hell. I dabbed on some under-eye concealer and brushed a little blush across my cheeks to liven up my face. Not that I was really trying to gain anyone’s attention, I just wanted to appear functional. Not like some sleep-deprived lunatic. I hated being in this position, it was my worst nightmare─ just the thought of having to approach all these people with an air of confidence I’ve never possessed in my life. I often wondered what it would be like to be someone else, comfortable in their own skin. I sigh, frowning at my thin frame. I never seemed to grow into my body. I’d hoped as a teen that I would fill out a little more, but in the end I was stuck in this childish body. Barely any hips, and small, humble breasts. My face didn’t do me any favors, I had wide eyes but a narrow jawline. I was as baby-faced as they came. I got carded everywhere I went and they would eye my birthdate and then study my face dubiously. I suppose I would have learned to enjoy that, if I was going to live past another week.
Just the thought of how I would be ending my own life was making my chest tight. Sure, I can fantasize about it, but the truth was I didn’t want it to hurt more than it had to. A gun sounded so harsh and so awful for anyone that found me. A knife sounded─ painful and what if I missed my heart? No sense in any of that. I had done several hours of research and decided that I was going to go with pure nitrogen. All I needed was an oxygen mask, some good, strong tape to seal it around my face and I would drift away into nothingness. Death in my sleep. That sounded much better. Way better than being tortured alive.
I hopped on the next train and sat quietly through the next few stops. It may have been cold, but the sky was bright and blue. Even through the tint of the train I could see just how blue it was. Blue like a dream. I blinked as the wetness gathered in my eyes, and then tilted my head to dab at them with my finger. I was going to have to be strong today, and even stronger later when I live streamed all of this. People needed to believe that I had my shit together. I couldn’t become overly emotional. This wasn’t a foreign concept to me, but it was especially important given the gravity of the situation. Time to put on my big-girl breeches.
I crossed over to the building and gulped down as much air as I could, suddenly feeling very nauseous. By the time I was on the elevator, full-blown panic mode was edging its way closer to exploding from me. I bit down on my lip as the doors opened to at least a hundred people, if not more. I swam through them and made my way over to my desk, careful to not make eye contact. I needed to steady myself before the service. The email had mentioned that we were going to meet here first and then travel over to the service at ten. I imagine it was probably a way for people to remember him, but not have to attend the service. It was uncomfortably quiet as I logged in and checked my email. I frowned at the screen as an instant message popped up. It was from Devon.
Devon: Hey, can you please meet me in my office asap?
I hesitated, then responded: Sure, be there in just a minute.
I quickly made my way over to his office, then stopped at the door. I knocked quietly and waited.
“Yes, Jeff I’m sure. Look, we’ll talk about it later─ hold on a second. Come in” he called loudly. I waited half a beat and then opened the door. He muttered something else inaudibly and then hung up the phone. I promptly blushed, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude” I offered quietly. “No, no” he said waving his hand, “please, have a seat.” I eased into the chair and smiled nervously, “you, uh, needed to talk with me?” He nodded, absently running his hand through his hair. His gaze was fixed on the shelf behind me. I glanced over and smiled at the picture. It was Devon and Zedd holding up an award. They both looked to be at least a decade younger. Devon hadn’t changed much, maybe his hair was a tad longer but he still had that youthful smile and sparkle in his eyes. But Zedd, though I recognized him, looked completely different. His beard was missing and his hair was nearly to his shoulders in the photo. He wore a black hoodie and there were several piercings on his face. He was thin before, but he was impossibly thin in this photo. Like, unhealthy thin.
“We hadn’t slept in three days,” Devon said quietly, “it was our first real competition and we were graduating during the recession. No one was hiring and we were fighting to find a place in the field.” I turned back to him and smiled. I remember my dad mentioning it happening a little over a decade ago. “Instead, my dad co-signed on a loan for me and Zedd and we opened our own company.” Devon stood and then walked over to the photo. He picked it up, rubbing across the frame absentmindedly.
“The thing is, I know Zedd. He wouldn’t have done this unless he had a reason. A big reason.” He set the picture down and turned toward me. His face was calm, but I could see a strange fire building in them. “I hope you’ll forgive me, but I got curious the day before he called in and checked the cameras.” My mouth went dry. It would have shown me and Zedd talking and then leaving the building together. Devon was quiet for several moments. “I don’t think you did anything to him, Kate.” I relaxed a degree, but my shoulders were still tense. “But, I would like to know what the two of you talked about. You left in his car, so I assume you at least rode home with him.” I sat up and shifted my legs to cross in the other direction. I fidgeted with my fingers, unsure of what to do with them.
His voice came out calm, soothing, “you don’t have to answer me if you don’t want to. I just can’t imagine what he could have been going through to make him do this and you were the last person he talked to. I’m asking as a friend, Kate. Not as a boss.”
I look up at him and nod. I’m not sure what my plan is here, but I can’t just keep things from him. It was very apparent that Zedd meant a great deal to Devon. They graduated college at the same time, they started a company, they had to have gone through a tremendous amount of life together in that time.
I chose my words carefully, “We went out to eat that night and he seemed pretty upset,” I paused, searching for the right words, “he kept pointing out that our drawings were very similar even though I hadn’t seen his before later that day. When we had met earlier in the day, he wanted me to use my character as a main, which I said someone else should do it,” I add hastily, “but he said that it wouldn’t be an issue and that he had decided to keep me as a lead designer.” Devon smiled and nodded, “Zedd has a good eye for talent, he was right in deciding that.” I flush and look at the ground, “but─ I dunno, he just was fascinated by the fact that ours looked nearly identical and asked if we could talk more about it over dinner.” Devon raised a brow, “were you two─” I blinked a few times and then my eyes widen as I realized what he meant, “oh goodness no,” I say quickly. “I see,” he says, “did he say anything else at dinner?” I’m really torn, I’ve never been good at hiding the truth. I’d be a horrible poker player. I bite my lip and shake my head, “not really. I mean, he did seem like something was bothering him.” I trail off and look at the ground.
Devon is quiet for a while. He’s so quiet that I sneak a peek at him. He’s turned to the side and looking out the window. His eyes look misty, I’m starting to lose my nerve. I want to be strong but I hate lying to him. I know he won’t believe me though. Just like the waitress he would rationalize what I tell him and he would definitely look at me different. Somehow the second part stings worse than the first. “I’m sorry, I wish I could be of more help,” I offer quietly. He turns back toward me and smiles that gut-wrenching smile. I can feel my stomach turn in knots. He deserves the truth, that’s why before I blurt it out I stand and excuse myself from the room.
I can’t bear any of it anymore. The look on his face, the betrayal and hurt so wildly apparent. I want to throw up at my lie but I manage to push it down and walk over to my desk. The service will be in less than an hour and I needed to pull myself together.