I closed my eyes, rubbed them, then opened them again. The blond sex-god was back, stroking his companion’s jaw with his hand, brushing his fingers to her lips—with sharp yellow talons that protruded from a hand that looked as if a thin layer of rotting gray skin had been stretched over a corpse’s bones!
I shook my head brusquely, covered my face with my hands, and thoroughly rubbed my eyes this time, hard enough to smudge my mascara. I’d had two beers with my meal, and although I can usually handle three or four before copping a buzz, Guinness dark is stronger than what I drink back home. “When I open my eyes,” I told myself, “I’m going to see what’s really there.” Meaning a man, not a hallucination.
I guess I should have specified that last part out loud, because when I opened my eyes again I nearly screamed. The sex-god was gone and the mousy woman had her mouth turned into the palm of a monster that was straight out of a horror movie, and she was kissing it.
Gaunt, emaciated to the point of death, it was tall—and I’m talking like nine feet tall. It was gray and leprous from head to toe, covered with oozing, open sores. It was sort of human, by that I mean it had the basic parts: arms, legs, head. But that was where the resemblance ended. Its face was twice as tall as a human head and squished thin, no wider than my palm. Its eyes were black with no irises or whites. When it spoke, I could see that its mouth—which consumed the entire lower half of its hideous face—wasn’t pink inside, it had a tongue and gums that were the same gray color as the rest of its rotting flesh and covered with the same wet sores. It had no lips and double rows of teeth like a shark. It was, in a word, putrid.
The blond sex-god was back. And he was looking at me. Hard. He was no longer conversing with the woman, but staring straight at me. He didn’t look pleased.
I blinked. I don’t know how I knew what I knew in that moment; it was like it was programmed into me on a cellular level somehow. My mind was split into separate camps. The first camp was insisting what I’d just seen wasn’t real. The second was demanding I scramble up, grab my purse, throw money down on the table, and run out the door as fast as I could. Camps one and two sounded mildly hysterical, even to me.
The third camp was calm, cool, composed. And icily insisting that I had better do whatever I had to do to convince whatever was sitting at that table masquerading as human that I really couldn’t see what it looked like beneath its facade—or I was dead.
That was the voice I obeyed without hesitation. I forced myself to smile at him/it and duck my head as if blushingly flustered to find myself the focus of such a sex-god’s attention.
When I looked back up, it was the gray leprous thing again. Its head was way higher than where the sex-god’s would have been, and it was all I could do to focus on the thing’s navel (it didn’t have one), which was where the sex-god’s head would have been if I were still seeing it. I could feel its suspicious gaze on me. I gave its navel-region what I hoped was another flustered, self-effacing smile, then returned my attention to my fries.
I have never eaten french fries since. I forced myself to stay there and eat the entire platter, one by one. I forced myself to pretend the rotting monster was a gorgeous man. To this day, I believe it was only because I stayed that it found my bluff convincing. I still have to swallow the urge to vomit every time I see a plate of fries.
It was feeding off her each time it touched her. Stealing a little more of her beauty through the open sores on its hands. As I ate my fries, I watched her hair turn duller, her complexion muddier, she grew plainer, drabber, grayer, each time it touched her. I suspected she’d once been a stunningly beautiful woman. I wondered what would be left of her when it was done. I wondered if she would wake up tomorrow morning, look in the mirror and scream. I wondered if her friends and family would recognize her, know who she’d once been.
They left before I did, the short ugly woman and the nine-foot monster. I sat for a long time after they’d gone, staring into a third beer.
When at last I paid my tab and rose from the booth, I headed straight for Jericho Barrons.
It was only seven-thirty, but the relentless, driving rain had ushered in the night while I’d been sitting in the pub. The streets were dark and mostly deserted, with few tourists thirsty enough to brave the downpour for a pint of stout when their hotel lounge would serve just as well. Tips in the pubs would be light for bartenders tonight.
A sodden, folded newspaper clutched to my head, I sloshed through puddles. I was glad I’d changed from the pretty yellow linen suit I’d worn for my interview with the inspector, into jeans, a lime-green V-neck T, and flip-flops to clean Alina’s place, however I wished I’d had the presence of mind to grab a jacket too. The temperature had dropped sharply with the chilly rain. July in this part of Ireland wasn’t real warm to begin with, especially for a girl used to the steamy summers of southern Georgia. Dublin’s summer topped at highs of sixty-seven and could sink to as low as fifty. Tonight was barely that.