A man stepped out of the shadows just in front of me.
At least, it seemed that way, though I couldn’t see how. It wasn’t overly dark on this leg of the sidewalk. The shadows were diffused by the overhead streetlights, which did a good job of illuminating the walk and street.
Yet he was there when he hadn’t been but a moment before.
He nearly ran into me, swaying. I wondered if he was drunk or sick.
His head was bent so I couldn’t really see what he looked like, but he didn’t seem much older than me. He was dressed in a dark trench coat over dark trousers and dress shoes, all very sophisticated and high-end. But his hair was unconventionally long and unbound, raven-black, falling past his shoulders.
I thought he was a stranger, but there was also something about him that was familiar.
And he looked like he was about to go down fast.
“I’ve got you,” I said quickly, and caught him just in time.
I staggered under his weight – he was taller than me and probably outweighed me by a good sixty pounds. I managed to maneuver myself and my satchel, and slip under his arm and brace the two of us, miraculously keeping us upright.
He didn’t smell of alcohol or weed, just laundered clothes and briny soap, and something more elusive, very masculine. Nice. And oddly familiar.
Very soon, he steadied himself.
Then he abruptly pulled away from me as if I’d burned him.
He lifted his face toward me so I got a better look at him. He was definitely a complete stranger to me. He was very striking, so I would have remembered him.
But the niggling sense of familiarity remained, as if I should know him.
His eyes were in shadow but I thought his pupils were really dilated. His eyes seemed to meet mine, or perhaps went through me.
I wondered again if he was drunk, stoned, or otherwise under the influence of some drug.
He looked not many years older than me at all. I judged him to be in his late twenties. He was tall and lean. Under the white LED streetlights, his complexion was waxen, with fine lines of exhaustion etching his face, but, despite this, he was still incredibly good-looking, with straight features and high cheekbones. I couldn’t place his ethnicity. There was something rather exotic about him to my American eyes, perhaps the tilt of his eyes or the shape of his head, or the golden undertones of his skin.
Maybe, I thought fleetingly, we even shared some ethnic background. I was an orphan and had no idea what mine was, but I thought there might be a passing resemblance. My skin color was similar to his. Under the shaggy brown mop of the wig I wore, my real hair was black, very fine and straight, like his, too, and our eyes tilted similarly. Or maybe I just imagined it. His eye color, from what glimpse I had, was light, while mine was unambiguously brown. And I had a generous dosing of freckles. His too-pallid face was perfectly clear of any blemish.
So, no, probably not.
“Do you need to go to the hospital?” I asked cautiously.
He didn’t answer me right away. I sensed his eyes were beginning to focus on me, taking my measure, and I hoped he saw what I meant him to see, just a drab-looking woman, hardly worth a look at all.
His gaze lingered too long for my comfort. I worried that my makeup was beginning to thin and some of my actual coloring was showing through; I hadn’t bothered to check before I’d headed out of the office.
I was getting careless.
He averted his eyes as if dismissing whatever he saw.
Good, I thought, relieved, though, perhaps for the first time, I also felt a hollow tinge of disappointment.
He straightened slightly, and I was aware of his height and the breadth of his shoulders in his tailored coat. He wasn’t big and bulky, but he had an imposing, commanding presence.
I wasn’t sure if he would answer my question about going to the hospital, but presently he said, “No, I thank you. I shall be well.”
He had a deep, rich voice, and spoke with a very heavy accent, one I didn’t recognize.
He turned to walk away.
Even as he did, though, he swayed again.
“I don’t think so,” I said, and I slid myself under his arm once more, supporting him. “Think you can make it across the street to those steps and sit down?”
And so I could call for an ambulance, I added to myself. As much as I had an aversion to hospitals and doctors, it seemed a good idea for this man.
“Yes,” he said dazedly.
I wondered, despite his assurance, if we would make it. It was the entrance to my apartment complex. I highly doubted he was faking illness for some ulterior motive, but there was no reason to inform him I lived there.
He seemed to rally enough so I could lead him the short distance. Then he pulled away from me as we reached the opposite curb, again giving me the impression that it couldn’t be soon enough that we broke contact. It wasn’t as if I’d clung to him at all, though at the same time, I could feel my own face and neck burn with a blush as if I had.
For, even through the layers of both our clothes, I had been able to feel the movement of his muscles, smell the briny soap he’d used and that elusive, alluring scent of his.
I usually didn’t think twice about what people smelled like, unless they smelled bad, yet here I was, overly aware of this stranger’s scent.
And he smelled really nice.
It was, quite improbably, ridiculously more than that; a kind of warmth or energy seemed to radiate from him, penetrating physical barriers as if they weren’t even there, and resonating deeply within me.
Why did he seem so familiar?
He reminded me, I thought, unexpectedly, a little of the beautiful female doctor who had saved me, years ago. I wasn’t sure why. My memories of her actual appearance were hazy at best. There certainly was nothing feminine about him.
It was, I told myself wryly, unlikely they were related, or that I even remembered her with any accuracy.
In any case, it was obvious he had quite the opposite reaction to me.
He presently sat down on the steps of the apartment complex, leaning his arms on his knees with his head bent, his hands before him. He had elegant hands. I wondered if he was a pianist. His long, fine hair, blacker than the shadows, fell forward, curtaining his face.
I forced myself to look away and focused my attention on digging through my satchel for my cell phone.
“If you please. Do not call for help. Wait a moment,” I heard him say.
I couldn’t help but turn my eyes back to him. He had lifted his head and was looking at me. I saw that his eyes, still quite dilated, were a very light blue, almost translucent, like ice. Beautiful.
They were the color of the doctor’s eyes, I realized with an odd certainty.
He said, “I shall be well very soon. You may leave me.”
I blinked back at him before I registered exactly what he had said, still mesmerized by his eyes. My fingers found my phone and I pulled it out, but I didn’t dial.
Then I told him, “I’ll leave you in a few moments if you’re looking well enough. Or call for an ambulance if you’re not.”
“There is no need,” he said, his voice becoming cold to match his icy stare.
“A few moments,” I repeated, returning his look with a sudden grin.
I had no idea why I’d smiled. He didn’t smile back.
Ironic, I thought muzzily, that as a rule I did my best to avoid people, and here I was imposing myself on someone who clearly didn’t want my company.
He would get his wish very soon, though. Already, I thought, he was looking better, not quite so ashen and drawn.
I looked down at my phone for lack of something better to do, checked the time. It was almost eleven at night. I didn’t usually work quite this late, but tonight I had stayed on because some new requests for modifications had come up at four in the afternoon; as of the last year, I was a junior web designer for the Westerly Corporation, which imported and distributed Aurian precious metals and gems. The modifications had been “priority” ones that had to be completed for the quarterly board meeting set for the day after tomorrow. The meeting included not only the usual VIP Aurian Consulate delegate but also a Special Guest, with capital letters. As for tomorrow, there was also a number of meetings scheduled with the higher-ups which would prevent me from getting any further work done. So the requests had to get done tonight. And so I had made sure they did.
I checked the temperature and weather forecast for kicks. It was 48 degrees Fahrenheit. Clear. No rain expected for the next week.
No rain was unusual for late September in Portland, I thought idly.
Above us, sure enough, the sky was clear of clouds, and, past the glare of the city lights, I could see some smudged pinprick stars and the moon. The moon wasn’t quite full.
Next to me, the man sat motionless, rather with a preternatural stillness. A slight breeze stirred his long hair.
The breeze stirred the short curls of my wig, too, brushed against my face, and I shivered, though I wasn’t cold.
The street remained empty but for an occasional car going past.
Then the man stood up.
From what I could tell, he looked perfectly recovered, just like he’d had a power nap and was ready for a night out on the town.
He gave me a slight bow, very foreign, hardly looking my way, and then strode off without a glance back.
I, though, watched him go. He was heading the way I’d come, moving with rapid, graceful strides, until he disappeared into the night.
For some reason, there was an empty feeling in my chest, which grew deeper, into a gaping pit, the further he walked away.
When I got back to my room, I did my best to ignore the empty feeling and went ahead with what I usually did, pulling off my wig, unraveling my coiled hair, and shedding my horrible, shapeless business suit in favor of a tank top and pajama bottoms. Then I washed all the concealing and contouring makeup off my face.
This time, I stood for a moment before my bathroom mirror, just looking back at myself.
The doctors had given me medical names when I was a teenager, but the internet memes and tabloids that came later called me Beast in the Beauty, linked with some tasteless jokes. The “before” and “after” pictures had been reversed, so “Beauty” became the Beast and stayed that way.
But by now, six years later, my bit of my medical infamy was buried deep under layers and layers of more novel internet curiosities and freaks.
I turned away from my reflection, leaving the bathroom.
I found myself wondering for the first time in six years if I could start easing off on the makeup. I didn’t appear that different without it, did I? Younger, less faded, less tired, maybe.
It was probably safe by now.
If I kept on wearing the wig and the dull, boxy clothes, I mused, perhaps no one would even notice any changes in my face, or would just think I’d lost or gained weight or had followed a makeup tutorial.
Maybe I could even stop wearing the mouse-colored wig and people would think I’d dyed my hair black and gotten it straightened. And wore extensions.
A non-makeup makeover.
Perhaps, then, people like that man I’d met wouldn’t just look through me like I wasn’t there.
Even though that was the whole point of my disguise.
Did I really have to remind myself that I couldn’t let anyone get too close or see too much?
If they did, they would find out that I was still the Beast.
And, of course, I didn’t want to attract guys like him. Sure, he was incredibly good-looking. And smelled nice. But he hadn’t been particularly friendly, and he was probably a drug addict.
Or perhaps he had just been ill.
I hoped he was alright.
I needed to stop thinking about him.
Rubbing the region over my heart absently, I went over to my newly purchased electronic keyboard. Then I gathered up music books I’d borrowed from the library and took a seat on the stool.
The keyboard was an indulgence – a gift – to myself, celebrating my year of gainful employment at Westerly. I knew it was extravagant, especially since I was still paying off student loans, but I’d managed to justify its purchase to myself with lots of good reasons. It was the closest I could come to a real piano for now.
It took up a good amount of space in my most efficient of efficiency flats, using the only remaining bit of wall adjacent to my daybed and a small desk. The room was on the second floor of an old brick apartment complex. It had a view of ventilation pipes and, beyond the twisted clump of trees and shrubs, the parking lot. I took it because it was close to work and I could afford it. And having my own studio offered me some privacy. It was a lot nicer than anywhere I’d lived before. The floors were a laminate blond wood, and the tiny kitchenette and bathroom were “modernized” with not-so-high-end fixtures.
I turned the keyboard on, donned the headphones, and opened up a music book. It was a volume of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, a classical music staple. I’d left off with it over a year ago, when I’d finished my master’s degree and no longer had access to the university music practice rooms.
I lay my fingers on the keys and started playing.
Playing on the keyboard was like returning to an old friend, and I momentarily forgot the stranger who’d brushed me off, forgot my self-imposed solitude. Forgot me.
Yes, I thought with a happy sigh, as I reached the end of a piece, the cost of the keyboard had been well worth it.
Nevertheless, a few hours later, when I finally retired for a bit of sleep, I thought of the man again.
Eventually, I assured myself, I would stop thinking of him.
Eventually, the empty sensation would go away.
When I woke again at the sound of my 5:30 a.m. alarm, the emptiness was still there.
I’d get used to it, I told myself.
I never required much sleep at all, but just having a little time to not think usually cleared my head. I wasn’t sure if it had worked so well this time.
Back in my disguise in the light of the new day, I told myself it was safer this way, to remain hidden.
Even if I could never hide from myself.
I tugged on my raincoat and headed out the door.
I showed up at work at seven, earlier than usual, to meet with my supervisor, Jan. She was a large, kindly-looking woman who wasn’t particularly kind. But there really was no margin for kindness at Westerly. There was only the company bottom line, which was whatever our employer, the King of Aur, wanted.
It was enough that I was functioning as expected or exceeding expectation as one tiny cog in the corporate wheel.
So far I had managed to avoid a lot of interactions with people beyond getting the work at hand done. I considered myself very lucky that I had Jan as my supervisor because she was completely uninterested in me other than for my qualities as a worker-ant. It was also lucky that most people in my department were either socially awkward or introverts.
To my mind, Westerly Corporation had turned out to be an ideal place to work. Because it had direct dealings with the island nation of Aur, security and secrecy were written into the employment contract; we were prohibited from having any conversations about Aur beyond its walls, and also strictly forbidden to participate in any internet social media. That discouraged a lot of prospective employees, but, for me, it was a match made in heaven. I wanted to remain as far from any social media as I could get; I’d had a lifetime of it six years ago. That was even before it had exploded into the monster proportions it was now, too. Luckily, my lowly position didn’t merit disclosing anything from when I was a minor, though they would have if criminal charges had been filed against me.
I thought I’d found something of a haven – albeit an impersonal, corporate, grinding one – at Westerly, and the isolated bubble existence I created around it. With time, so I told myself, my past would stop creeping up on me at odd moments, and I would finally be able to leave it well behind me, buried deep under a different name, a different identity, a different life.
Really, though, I knew I was just fooling myself. The internet notoriety had shown no more than the truth of what I was, something I would never escape.
I was the Beast.
When I arrived at work that morning, Jan and I went through everything to her satisfaction, and then she went over to the next cubicle to have a similar talk with one of my co-workers, Matt. Matt had only been working at Westerly for a couple of months and was still in the probationary period.
His one-to-one with Jan didn’t fare so well, and I was in the uncomfortable position of having to hear Jan upbraid Matt’s work point by excruciatingly painful point, and I could almost hear Matt sweat.
I put on my earphones and turned up the volume of my music, but Jan’s voice, which carried remarkably well, filtered through, progressively rising to fill the entirety of the second-floor cube-land. Everyone heard.
I did my best to concentrate on some tedious data-sifting.
The empty sensation in my chest also remained with me throughout, a constant ache that felt like loneliness. I had to keep reminding myself that loneliness was the path I’d chosen.
The meetings started up at nine o’clock and lasted until three, so I had plenty to distract myself with for a solid six hours, especially since I was presenting for part of it. I thought it was a true testament to my disguise that I was as boring a presenter as everyone else.
Then, after that, there was more catch-up and last-minute changes and modifications that took me and a number of my other cube-mates long past the usual quitting time. Eventually, everyone trickled out of the building and into the chill of the early autumn night.
Matt unexpectedly joined me as I started heading down the walk, back in the direction of my apartment complex. He startled me as he came rushing up next to me, huffing and puffing, and I’d almost bashed him. I was relieved I hadn’t.
“Hey,” he gasped. “Inda.”
“Hey. Matt,” I replied.
Matt was perhaps about the same age as the stranger from the previous night, but the similarity ended there; he was a little overweight, masking his puffed face with a beard, and he smelled of fast food and sweat from earlier in the day. He was a flashy dresser but erred on the side of everything being too tight on him.
He’d tried to start conversations with me now and again, talking about the Portland “scene” as if he was the epicenter of it. I’d thought he’d finally concluded I was too stupid and unattractive to be impressed by him, because he’d stopped talking to me at all and concentrated on more appreciative, discerning people.
“Long day, huh?” he presently said to me, trying to sound casual. “Does it get like this every time they meet with the Aurian delegate?”
It probably made me sound like a prig, but I reminded him it was company policy not to discuss anything remotely related to Westerly outside the office.
“Yeah, sure,” he said, a little irritated, glancing my way and looking me up and down. “You tow the company line, obviously.”
I didn’t reply. I kept walking. He kept walking with me.
I wondered, a little uneasily, if he intended to follow me all the way to my apartment building.
I guessed, though, that all he wanted was to feel me out about how much he’d blown it today with Jan.
“How ‘bout grabbing something to eat?” he said.
“I’m meeting up with my boyfriend,” I lied, not very well. I could feel my face suffuse with a blush under my makeup.
“He must be a patient guy since it’s later than quitting time,” Matt said with a smirk, and in a way that made me think he didn’t believe for a moment I had a boyfriend. “You sure work long hours. You’re always there late. A glutton for punishment.”
I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t sure what to say.
“You’ve been working at Westerly for a year, haven’t you? Yeah, I know, we’re not supposed to discuss anything, even that.” He added with a slight, forced laugh, “Well, at the rate I’m going, maybe I won’t be long at Westerly.”
When I still didn’t say anything, he asked, “You live near work, don’t you?”
“Pretty close,” I answered reluctantly.
“Easy to be at their beck and call,” he said with another smirk.
If he had hoped to get my reassurance about his prospects at Westerly, he wasn’t exactly approaching it in the right way. Not that I could give him any reassurance even if he’d asked nicely. I thought the likelihood that he would survive his probationary period at Westerly very low, indeed, and I doubted he would thank me for telling him; he just wanted to hear that everything was good.
Maybe he wasn’t a bad person and just wasn’t handling the stress so well right now. Despite the social media restrictions, jobs at Westerly were considered to be quite coveted because they were hard to get and Westerly paid its worker-ants very well. But we worker-ants earned our keep.
I wondered if I would be able to get away from Matt this time without making much of an impression on him, without garnering his resentment. The longer he had been at Westerly, the more it had become apparent that he had come to regard me as his competitor.
“I know your type. You’re such an ass-kisser, aren’t you?” he started saying, then progressed to some other unflattering terms about my deviousness and physical unattractiveness.
I interrupted, “See you tomorrow,” and took an abrupt turn on the corner.
And nearly ran into someone.
Hands briefly steadied me. I could feel the electricity of their imprint through the layers of my clothes, and the ever-present emptiness within me was gone as if it had never been.
I was looking up at almost translucent blue eyes. I would have drowned in them if they weren’t so icy cold.
It was the stranger from last night.
His eyes weren’t dilated this time. They were completely focused on me.
He looked as handsome as I’d remembered him, perhaps even more handsome than I remembered. It was obvious that he’d completely recovered from whatever had affected him last night. In the waning daylight, he hardly seemed real.
He was wearing something similar as the previous night, only this time his hair was braided back.
And he was too close. I could smell that briny soap and more elusive scent that was his alone.
For a long moment, there was just the two of us taking up the entirety of the universe. Or at least it felt that way to me.
Then he let go, stepping back, his ice blue eyes cursorily glancing over my face – which I had touched up before I’d left the office – over my shaggy wig, and over my sack-like, drab-colored coat.
He gave a critical sweep of Matt, as well, who had made a chortling noise when I had run into the man. Matt sneered at me, enjoying my expression.
“And you can’t even watch where you’re going,” he almost jeered, but then stopped when the stranger gave him a particularly glacial look that could freeze blood.
As if the stranger had heard earlier my lie about having a boyfriend, he said, “I’ve been looking for you, Love,” his deep, rich voice a gentle caress.
“Yes,” I managed to say, looking up at him quizzically, attempting to quell my flip-flopping heart.
His expression was hardly lover-like, but he placed a hand very lightly on the small of my back and propelled me to him and away from Matt, who had turned a puce color.
“And who is this purple-faced man who has laughed at you?” he said, raising his fine dark brows.
“What is his name?”
“You will let me know if Matt treats you with such poor manners again?” the stranger said, turning his cold eyes full on Matt.
Matt’s face color deepened a shade. He appeared to have forgotten to breathe.
In the next moment, he started gasping and choking on some of his own saliva.
Then he turned and walked quickly off, stumbling on his own feet.
After a moment, the man began escorting me down the street. We walked for two city blocks. He said nothing, hardly registering my attempts to thank him.
As we approached the next intersection, he turned off without a goodbye or a look back.
The empty, aching feeling returned full-force, hitting me like a high-speed train.
I needed to forget him. I really did. It was good that the likelihood I’d see him again was almost non-existent.