For the better part of the evening I manage to avoid eye contact as we sit across from each other. I’m mortified that he stumbled into me like that. I still haven’t been able to vocalize what I have seen. Thankfully, he helped me onto the elevator and we drove to the restaurant in silence. In less than fifteen minutes we pull up to the restaurant. I am feeling a bit self conscious about my body odor so I excuse myself to the bathroom and wash up. Nothing makes you feel classier than taking a bath in the sink. To my utter relief, no one walks in during the process. I even have a chance to wash and dry the pit stains from my blouse. When I come back Devon smiles at me and we order our food. After only a few moments the waitress returns with our appetizers and drinks. I suspect they probably have them under a heater since it is fried. My suspicions are confirmed when I take a small bite out of them. They are soaked with oil and taste a little stale. Devon frowns after trying one of his too. “I guess they forgot to toss these, they taste a bit stale” he says shaking his head, “let’s hope the main course isn’t sitting under a heater as well.” I thought he would leave it at that, but when the waitress comes back he politely asks if we can please have fresh spring rolls. The woman seems mortified and assures him that she will return with something better. He has done it in such a way that doesn’t sound entitled, or angry, it is simply a request. There really is something I respect about a person that is both nice and confident. Maybe there is hope for me yet.
After some prodding and awkwardness, Devon has me gushing over the project and how excited I am to be working on a main character. He asks about how I am getting along learning Maya and integrating photoshop. In no time I am feeling relaxed and have almost forgotten the incident at the office. We devour our meals, which really surprises. Normally I eat like a bird. I have been teased about it my whole life. Though to be fair, I have always had more on my mind than eating. Especially when I am working on a project. We order some sticky rice pudding for dessert and a round of hot tea. I sigh in content at the combination of sweet and sticky and then the roasted, clean flavor of the tea. I close my eyes and lean back savoring the last of the tea. “A fellow tea lover, I see” Devon remarks. I grin and open my eyes then nod my head. He smiles back at me warmly. A movement catches my eye behind him and I look over his shoulder. The booth behind us has been empty and the restaurant is winding down. I frown staring intently at the dark corner. Devon turns behind him and then looks back at me, “everything OK?” I shake my head, “yeah, sorry I thought I saw something.” The waitress walks up with the check and says to stay as long as we would like and that they will be open until ten. We both thank her, Devon orders another round of tea and then hands her the card. We wait quietly for her to bring them back. My anxiety increases as the silence stretches between us. I know what is coming, we have reached the end of pleasantries. I surprise myself by speaking first, “listen, I’m not really sure what happened back there but something spooked me. A shadow, movement, I don’t know. The next thing I know, I was booking it down the hallway and I ran into you. I feel completely embarrassed.” Devon looks at me and nods, “I could tell, but I can tell you what it was. I don’t mean to make you feel self conscious, but you’ve been losing sleep.” I look up at him in shock. “How can you tell?” He points up to under his eyes. I must have dark rings under them for him to notice. “With Zedd gone, and our project still needing to meet this tight deadline, all of our nerves are shot to hell.” I press my lips together but manage a tiny nod. I don’t like all of this lying, it isn’t me. “When we all,” he pauses for a moment, “get back to a normal routine I think things will start to fall back into place.” His voice wavers and I reach out to grasp his hand and give it a tiny squeeze. I keep it there but look away, unable to look him in the eyes. The waitress walks up and smiles then hands the black card holder back to Devon. I pull my hand away, embarrassed to display affection in front of her. Plus, I am not even sure what we are. It’s not like we are dating. He could be involved with someone or possibly even married. I haven’t seen a ring on his finger but a lot of people do that now. Jewelry can be very uncomfortable. I fidget with my fingers, then reach out and clasp the warm cup of tea. I am eager to put something between the two of us and I have been far too open with this man. Well, except for the lying about the end of the world and what I have seen.
“Kate.” I look up and realize the waitress is gone. “I was hoping we could talk about Zedd, but I realize I’ve been far too pushy today.” He draws in a shaky breath. ” I am irrational and emotional.” I can feel tears starting to form but I tilt my head to the side and blink rapidly, trying to shoo them away. “Don’t apologize Devon, it must be hard to go through all of this without many answers.” I hesitate but decide to share, “A friend of mine a while back had taken his own life. For the longest time I blamed myself.” My eyes met his, “I kept thinking ‘if only I had paid closer attention‘ or that I was a horrible friend. But─” I shake my head, “it wasn’t anyone’s fault. He decided that it was what he wanted to do.” Devon is quiet for a moment but manages a small nod. “It took a while for me to accept that he was in pain. And while many people are very against my mindset, I can sympathize with them. No one should just kill themselves on a whim, but what if they had thought on it for many years and came to the conclusion that they were ready to end the suffering.” His eyes harden, “Kate while I understand your sentiment it isn’t right to hurt others like that. Especially the way he did it.” A sob escapes and he quickly covers his face with his hands. I’m never good with these sort of things, but I know that he is in pain. I move to his side of the booth and wrap him in a hug. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you.” Devon reaches down and unties a napkin. His breathing has somewhat turned back to normal. I move back to my side to give him a bit of space. He wipes his eyes and face then folds the napkin and sets it on an empty plate. “Sorry,” he says, “please excuse me for just a moment. I’ll be right back.” He quickly stands and walks back toward the restrooms. I feel like such an idiot. People have told me that I should be more careful of what I say and to not always speak my mind. I hope that we can still be friends after this. I’m worried that he’ll never speak to me again. I look across the restaurant at all the staff bustling about to fill drinks and take orders. I hadn’t taken the time earlier to see how lovely the space is. There were beautiful vibrant paintings on the wall with separate canvases making up the entire scene. It is a modern but classic painting of a flying Eastern phoenix. The towns below are dotted colorful specks and it looks as if a festival is taking place. The warm glow mirrors the color of the phoenix as it stares at the city below. The walls are cream colored with a few accent walls in gold and red. It isn’t the sort of tacky or garish red walls I’ve seen before. It’s a rich, deep seductive red that blends in flawlessly with the golds and browns. The entire room is finished with ebony stained wood trim and crown molding. Even the doorways had intricate wood designs bordering the top. How had I missed this? It is so beautiful.
Suddenly there is a flurry of movement that streaks in the same spot I had noticed earlier. It stops and I can feel It watching me. I don’t want to turn my head, I don’t want to breathe. I just want all of this to go away. Where is Devon? It feels like he has been gone for quite some time. Just ignore It. Maybe if you don’t act like you notice the demon They will go away. My limbs are frozen in place as I feel the cold creep along my legs. It travels along the length of my thighs, groin, up to my belly and then finally chest. My teeth chatter as I try to fill my lungs with air. It’s becoming hard to breathe. It’s as if even my insides are covered in a thin layer of ice. I grit my teeth and fight the urge to bolt from my seat. Still, I ignore the Thing’s presence─ hopeful that It will give up at It’s prey not responding. I yelp as Devon slides back into his seat. Relief washes over me as the frigid sensation immediately goes away. Thank god he is back. “Whoa. Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.” I let out a big sigh and then shake my head, “no, no it’s OK I was just lost in my own thoughts and didn’t hear you coming.” He smiles and nods, “my friends always used to call me a cat. I have scared quite a few people in my day.” The corner of my mouth draws up as I chuckle. “I can see that.”
Devon taps his fingers on the table and then says, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap at you. It’s just─” he struggles to find his next sentence but finally adds, “I just can’t wrap my mind around why he would do something like this. Zedd wasn’t the sort to even entertain those thoughts.” I wait a few moments, trying to think about how to word my next sentence. “I felt the same way back then. My friend Michael had come from a really loving family, his mom was a caring and nurturing sort. The kind of woman that made you feel as if you have known them your entire life.” I expected him to interject but when he didn’t I finished my thoughts, “the reason I felt so awful back then is that I had no idea he was even thinking about doing it.” I shake my head sadly, “he was brilliant and kind. His heart went out to those that suffered and he always knew just what to say. For a while I searched online for suicide support boards that helped others with the very same thoughts. I was angry at how selfish he had been to leave his family finding him that way. At how hurt and awful he had made others feel.” I bit my lip and tilted my head downward. “But then I read through. A lot of them seemed to just want attention and many of them were young. There were several though that caught my eye. Some were people feeling as if they hindered their friend’s life or family’s lives. I cried at how useless those people felt. I made an account and tried to post a response to one lady, telling her that she shouldn’t take her own life and that her family would be devastated.” My breath came out shaky, “I was immediately bombarded with responses from the community telling me that the board was designed to be supportive and not preachy. I felt attacked and angry at how callous the remarks were.” Devon’s eyes were transfixed on my face. “But one really stuck out and it made me think. They said how selfish it was for others to make someone go on living when they were in pain every single day. How awful it was that we lived in a society that suicide was illegal so it came to them having to do it themselves. That made me realize that I never knew what it was Michael had been going through. I know it isn’t something a survivor wants to hear, but I find that it is a form of comfort knowing that at the end they made a choice and I had to respect that and make peace with it.”
Devon’s response was shaky but controlled, it was softer than before, “I appreciate you sharing that with me. It does make me feel a lot better and while I can understand, I think it will take me a while to not be hurt over it.” I nod sympathetically. “But, enough of that. Let’s just relax and enjoy the rest of the evening. I really am sorry Kate, I’ve been a bit difficult to deal with today.” He smiles sheepishly at me. I swallow and respond, “I really appreciate you thinking about me. You are a good person and that’s a rare thing to find in people these days.” He chuckles, “well I don’t know about all that. My patience comes from years of bad experiences.” My eyes widen, “oh. I’m sorry I reminded you of that. But, the bright side is it made you who you are today.” He reaches for my hand and squeezes it gently. My body reacts and I can feel heat radiating from my face. If it wasn’t the fact that a funeral is why we are here right now it almost seems like a date. A cold feeling slithers along my belly as Devon calls the waitress over to order another round of tea. He turns toward me and asks me if I would like anything else. I manage to shake my head no as a sharp pain feels as if it is ripping at my insides. I squeeze my eyes shut, drowning out Devon’s words as he talks about how he had found this place. Please not now, I beg silently, he already thinks I’m a nutcase. Just open your eyes and act like a damn human being. When I finally do open them nothing can prepare me for what I see. Dozens of Them fill the space, staring at me. The room is silent and a thin trickle of ash and debris float around us. I keep my face straight fighting not to react. I know if I show any hint of what is going on, Devon will only see me freaking out over nothing. I focus on my breath, drawing air in and out. It’s not until I really look around that the horror unveils itself. All the people are crumbling to ash. This is the first time they haven’t made me experience the horror of the bomb. I can handle this, it will end at some point. Breathe in.
I again force myself to look at Devon and nod. My stomach lurches and I swallow back the rising bile. He’s not like the others, there are bits of flesh still clinging to his face, chest, and arms. It sloughs off of him in a gooey pile, falling on the table and into his lap.
I sound like a bad exercise video, but it’s comforting me. The creatures notice and move closer they are puzzled by my reaction. They are literally feet from me. I look up at the closest one and grit my teeth. I won’t give you the satisfaction, I yell in my head. I’m hoping that they can hear me loud and clear. A horrible vibration comes over me in waves, bathing me in unimaginable pain. It is taking every ounce of my concentration to not yelp in agony.
I’m coaching myself to fight through it. At last it’s too much and I wrap my arms around my belly, rocking back and forth. I remind myself again that Devon is still there in the real world staring at my every move. “Sorry,” I say, “I need to run to the restroom.” I don’t wait a second longer than I have to before I’m out of my seat. I try and walk normally toward the back, but I know I will have to walk past these awful beings. I expect them to move aside, but they don’t. They just stare at me through the swirling darkness of Their hooded cloaks. I groan at the immense pain but put one foot in front of the other.
I manage to release the air again and realize that I have been holding my breath the entire walk. Now for the real test. I hesitate a moment, hoping that I can get past this thing and not run into anyone else in the process. If I can just make it. I press my jaw together and step forward. Warm, dense air surrounds me like walking into a sauna. The air is cloying with the scent of dirt and decay. I’ve never smelled anything like it. Don’t stop, I urge, keep it up. I let out a sigh of relief and finally step into the bathroom. I had managed to walk through at least ten of them, all with the same peculiar sensation. I run to the nearest stall and then lock it. I sit on the toilet and put my face in my hands. I made it, I actually made it here. I know I have acted strange to Devon but I could just blame it on nerves or feeling ill. I rock back and forth, trying my best not to make a sound. I’m still not out of the vision and someone could be in here with me. None of the creatures are here with me as I try and pull myself together. Maybe they will let it go, maybe the vision will end. Just as I manage to think this, a warm, clammy sensation fills the air. It surrounds me from every angle. I can’t see them, but I know they are here. Waiting. I can feel the outrage from them, as if they are angry for showing an ounce of defiance. The waves of pain suddenly stop but in its wake it leaves fear. If the pain was unbearable a moment ago, what will they have in store now? Please, I reason quietly, none of us have much longer. I’m just one person. I can’t be worth this trouble. I know trying to reason with them would be a shot in the dark. Whatever I thought might happen doesn’t. There are a series of flashes, the room is stripped from me, and I am thrown into the open city. I float in front of several buildings near downtown. I watch with growing dread, knowing what is to come. Instead of it happening within seconds, they drag it out. I can tell by the movement in the city below. Everything is moving at a snail’s pace. I orient myself looking at our office building behind me and I know I am facing North. From the right of me, I see the bright light crawling toward us. Why do I keep seeing this? Over and over from every angle. Again and again.
I foolishly thought that it couldn’t have gotten any worse. I was wrong.