“Alright, let me show you,” said Marcus, fiddling with his cell phone. “Just one photo, I promise.”
After flicking through his phone, he showed us the screen, where a two-year old girl sat on a high chair, covered in a bib and bits of what looked like porridge. She looked curiously at the camera with a spoon sticking out of her mouth.
“Heh, she’s growing so fast! And she’s looking more and more like you,” I smiled, handing the phone back to him.
“God, I hope not! She’s better off taking after her mother, rather than getting this ugly mug.” He grinned as he put the phone back in his pocket.”
“Oh, you have a daughter? That’s the first I hear of that,” said Randall, looking curiously at Marcus. This brought our conversation to a halt, as both of us remembered the third person sitting at the table, although only I knew that ‘person’ might be stretching the term.
“Um, yeah. Her name’s Linda, and she’s two years old by now. Me and Cody keep in touch on Facebook, so I’ve already told him all about it.”
“And also the flood of baby photos you keep posting,” I sniggered. “Kinda hard to ignore.”
“Hey, can’t help being a proud parent,” he smiled. “Better get used to it, buddy.”
“So, any plans for her future? She must be going to daycare soon,” said Randall, smiling innocently.
“Well… It’s still early,” chuckled Randall, now looking uncertain. “But we’re looking for a good daycare soon. For now, we leave Linda at my mother’s house when we can’t look after her.”
“That’s nice,” nodded Randall. “Even then, be sure to spend a lot of time with her. It’s amazing how quickly time passes, and she’ll only be two once.”
He said those words with a friendly smile, but my heart sank as I absorbed the meaning behind them. Little Linda would not live long past her 3rd birthday, if the end of the world did come to pass. I swallowed hard, averting my eyes.
A silence settled over the table and Marcus looked at Randall with an odd expression, as if studying him. At last he asked, “so... How did you two meet?”
My mind froze dead in its tracks, but the King in Yellow was already replying in a casual tone, “at the university. We took the same intro to humanities course. Although we’ve only recently been hanging together,” he smiled at me. It was scary how normal he seemed. At least he was not intentionally being creepy, although his presence still unnerved me.
“Yeah, how’s that?” My friend was acting polite now, but he still stared fixedly at Randall as he spoke.
“Uhh, he’s coming with me on the trip I mentioned. As a co-worker. In fact, he’s the one who indicated this new job to me,” I said, relying on the same lie I had told my brother. It hurt more lying to Marcus though. He was always the one person I could always trust, the one I never had to lie to. Until today.
“That so?” Marcus looked at Randall, resting his elbow on the table and propping his chin with his hand. “And how did you find out about that job… Randy, was it?”
“Randall,” corrected the King in Yellow. “Well, truth be told I know the guy running the company. Not close with him or anything, but when I heard he was looking for two people unconnected to the company to travel the world evaluating different branches and stuff I though ‘sign me up!” He laughed, the lies flowing as easily as honey. “Needed someone else to team up with me and Cody here was the most responsible guy I could think of.”
“Huh. Sounds like a sweet gig,” said Marcus, turning to me and frowning. “But I don’t understand, you won’t be able to communicate with me while on the job? Not even a quick e-mail?”
“It’s umm… Company policy,” I replied, thinking fast of a good lie. “They’re afraid of us spilling sensitive information to other people so… Our internet activity is strictly monitored.”
“Damn! That sucks, man.” He took his glass of beer and finished it in silence, while I nodded in agreement. We were all in contemplative silence for a moment, before Marcus turned to Randall. “Hey man, can you go and order us something special at the bar? Ask the bartender for three Bermuda rum swizzles, please. They take a while to make, but they’re great!” He pointed to his empty glass and grinned.
“Mixing beer and cocktails?” The other asked, eyes twinkling with a hint of mischief. “You sure you want to do that?”
“Well, I won’t force you if you don’t want it,” my friend replied, addressing me as well as Randall. “But you guys should try it, at least once.”
Randall kept a calm, polite expression, but the way he looked at Marcus sent chills down my spine. Then he got up and shrugged. “What the hell. I like to live dangerously!”
“That’s the spirit!” Marcus laughed as the King in Yellow walked to the bar to get our drinks. As soon as he was out of earshot, however, his smile vanished and he leaned in and spoke softly at me. “Hey man. You alright?”
“Uh, yeah. Yeah, why do you ask?” I replied. He looked unconvinced.
“You look really, really tense. Especially around him,” he pointed his thumb in the direction of the bar, where Randall was waiting as the bartender prepared someone else’s drink before ours.
I deflated, cursing silently. “Am I that easy to read?”
“I know you for a long time,” he replied. “And no deflecting the question. Is everything alright?”
Helpless, I looked at him, and my supply of lies and twisted truths, so plentiful most of the time, suddenly ran dry as I stared at his concerned frown.
“Not really,” I conceded. “Things have been kinda shit lately.”
“And you’re still clean, right?” he asked, looking concerned. “You can be honest with me, you know I don’t judge.”
“Yeah. Yeah, still clean since I stopped. It’s nothing to do with that,” I replied, feeling uncomfortable. Was I looking that bad?
“Does it have anything to do with this Randall?” He asked, checking quickly to see if he was still far from us. Randall noticed Marcus staring from across the bar and gave us a little wave, smiling. No sign he had heard us, but I knew better than to trust appearances.
“No, no, it’s… Umm. This girl I knew. She passed away recently,” I spoke, and Marcus seemed to wince sympathetically.
“That’s rough, man. Wait… Is it your mother?” He asked.
“No, it’s… It’s someone I loved,” I replied, staying as close to the truth as possible. Didn’t have to fake my voice cracking at the end. The pain still felt raw, even speaking of it was hard. And my friend seemed to pick up on that.
“Oh… That’s terrible, man.”
“Look,” I replied quickly. “I have to go on this trip, alright? It’s a rough time now, and it will do me some good to get away from stuff for a while. I REALLY have to go.” I winced even as I spoke. Using his sympathy to feed him that lie left a sour taste in my mouth, but the faster he dropped that line of questioning, the better. The King in Yellow was always hard to predict, let alone understand, but if he somehow got angry at my friend…
“Alright, man,” he nodded. Then he leaned in to emphasise his next point “But. You promise to take care of yourself, ok?”
“Yeah, sure.” As best as I could, when trying to save the world, I thought.
“And you are sure you can trust this guy?” He insisted. “I mean… You’ll be gone for a year! No communication! I wouldn’t even know if you’re alive or dead or...”
He frowned, searching for the right words to voice his concern, and I couldn’t help but chuckle. If only he knew what was going to happen, I would be the least of his worries. Then I remembered the photo of his little girl eating porridge while looking at the camera and my chuckle died in my lips.
“Don’t worry about me,” I told him. “Seriously, I’ll be alright. Worry about yourself instead.”
He replied, “hey man, what do you mean...?” But I cut him off before he could finish.
“You have a family now. So. Worry about them. Be sure to spend lots of time with them and… And do fun stuff. Take a vacation if you have to. ENJOY the time you spend with them. Because...” I looked into his increasingly worried eyes, furiously thinking of a way he would take me seriously. A way I could convey that his time could be limited, and that he had to make the most of it now.
“Jeez… You’re scaring me, man,” he said, looking spooked as he put a hand on my shoulder.
“You never know how much time you have,” I whispered to him. “You could be happy and carefree one day, and then gone the next morning. It’s… I know the ‘live every day like it was your last’ thing is a cliche, but… Please. Make the most of the time you have.”
He still looked worried, but silently nodded back at me. There was no telling if I managed to really get to him, but I felt my heart lighten a notch. Whatever little I could do to help…
“You must have really loved her,” he said, quietly.
“The one who you said passed away,” he continued, looking at me with sadness in his eyes. “You never told me about her, but… Looks like her death really affected you.”
“Yeah… Yeah, I… I guess it did,” I spoke weakly, remembering that her existence had been erased. “Sorry for not mentioning her to you.”
“You must have had your reasons.” He let the silence linger slightly before asking, “were you two close?”
I missed her. The pain came suddenly, and felt as real as a knife or a blow. A brief panic as I realized that she was not there. That for the rest of my life she would not be there. I could almost fool myself into forgetting her, not noticing her absence, then suddenly I remembered that she was gone and I missed her so horribly it hurt.
“Yes...” I replied, looking away and blinking my eyes furiously. Didn’t want our last evening together, me and my friend, to be like this. Getting all weepy over someone he couldn’t even remember…
“Well, I leave for ten minutes and already you’ve made him cry! That was fast, wasn’t it?” said a cheerful voice above us, and after carefully putting the three cocktails in front of each of us, Randall fell into his seat and smiled cheerfully. “What did I miss?”
“Cody was telling me about someone close to him who passed away,” replied my friend. Although still polite, his tone betrayed a certain coldness that he no longer bothered to conceal.
“Oh yeah, Regina, right?” The King in Yellow asked, his grin melting into a more neutral expression. “Yeah, that was a shame.”
“You knew about her?” Asked Marcus, surprised and a little hurt.
“I knew her better than anyone.” Randall said, still keeping his expression neutral, which then broke into a wry grin. “They say someone never truly dies until they are completely forgotten. So, in a way, she still lives in us, right Cody?”
I got up from my chair, my anger taking control of me for a second. Then I looked at Marcus, now staring at Randall with open distaste, and my anger quickly turned to fear. The King in Yellow had my friend at his mercy. That thought sent chills down my spine as I stood there, paralyzed, my mouth opening and closing, before sitting down again. Dejected, I looked away. “I guess you could say that,” I muttered.
“What do you think of that sentiment, Marcus?” Asked the King in Yellow, still calm and polite, despite my outburst.
“I think… It’s not something that helps when someone recently lost a loved one.” The reply was quiet, but there was hostility in Marcus’ voice.
“Memories still matter. Remembering matters.” Randall’s reply was also quiet, but firm. His eyes now narrowed to slits, focused on my friend.
The silence struck the table like a cleaver, freezing time for a moment as my heartbeat quickened and my eyes darted back and forth between my closest friend and a monster that swallowed lives and memories.
“A toast then! To Regina’s memory!” I said, grabbing at my glass and lifting it. The two turned to me sharply, but then each nodded in agreement. The tension unwound a notch as we all raised our glasses.
“To Regina,” said Marcus. “I might not have known her well, but if you liked her, then I’ll drink to her passing.”
“To Regina’s memory. May it last eternal,” said the King in Yellow.
We all drank deeply from our glasses. The drink was cold, and tasted bitter as it burned down my throat.
“I can see you’re very worried about him. And his family,” said Randall. It was not phrased like a question.
When I put my glass down, the first thing I noticed, almost subliminally, was the silence. Too quiet. Absurdly quiet. No conversation, no drunken laughter. Silent like the grave.
My friend was holding his own glass to his lips, about to drink from it, yet he did not move. He stood there, frozen in place, his drink sitting in the glass, a simple tilt away from being drunk. He did not move.
Glancing around showed it was not only him. Everyone else in the bar was frozen in place, eyes closed, unmoving. They sat or stood as they were, and nobody moved but me and Randall.
“We need to have a talk,” he said. “In private.”
“What have you done to them?” My voice was a low growl as I gripped my half-empty glass so hard I was afraid it might shatter. “What the fuck have you done to my friend?”
Randall chuckled amusedly. “They’re fine, just… Frozen in place, so they won’t disturb us while we talk. They still breathe, see?” Pointing out to Marcus, whose chest was indeed moving ever so slightly. The calm, rhythmic breathing of deep sleep.
Yet I still slammed my hands against the table in helpless frustration. “I wanted one night. One good night with my best friend. Was that so hard to ask?”
“So temperamental!” he mocked. “I even let you two talk alone for a bit behind my back, which by the way was kinda rude. And I behaved as normally and inoffensively as possible. And yet, you still blame me?” He shook his head, grinning in amused disbelief, as if laughing at an unruly child or inappropriate joke.
“Then why are you doing this?” I retorted.
The King in Yellow blinked calmly, and then grinned as he explained. “You made your friend suspicious of me by acting nervous, and he had already reason to be slightly jealous of me. Neither of which is my fault, you’ll agree. So don’t blame the argument on me.”
He was right. Of course. Stupid me, how could I have thought bringing this thing here was a good idea?
“Look. Unfreeze them. Let them all go and I can say my goodbyes and leave. We can get started right away, no more delays. Just…” I tried swallowing, but my throat was dry. “Please. Let them go,” I begged him.
“But you are worried! I can see that you’re concerned about your friend! And his family too. So let me help you and them,” he said, opening his arms, pleading at me now. His expression was serious, kindly even, with a warm smile and sad eyes.
“You can help them?” I asked. He nodded in response.
“Yes, I can,” replied the King in Yellow with a saintly, distant smile.“I can absorb them unto me, as part of the whole. I can make sure that they are never forgotten.”