She seemed normal to him. There wasn’t really anything all that special about her, that he could tell. Maybe if she’d looked different. Maybe if her eyes had been blue instead of the dull brown, maybe if her hair was just a couple shades darker, her skin lighter, she might have looked like something. And she was quiet. She didn’t really talk much and when she did, she seemed to struggle for words one minute and then come gushing out with complex poetic language patterns the next, as if those were all she could muster, like she couldn’t talk like a normal person.
But he’d asked her out anyway. Maybe because he felt sorry for her. Maybe because he felt sorry for himself. He was lonely and she seemed to have a quiet kind of appeal.
—Do you like the pasta? she asked him, and he nodded and offered her a bite. She had ordered a chicken thing, something with quaint presentation, but said she liked his better.
He wondered casually as she moaned her appreciation with his fork still in her mouth, whether he would get lucky tonight. He wondered even more urgently whether getting lucky tonight was even something that he would enjoy, whether he could stand it. Could he ever appreciate this girl who probably deserved better than his scorn, or would he be too caught up in his own memories?
“L’addition, s’il vous plaît?” He paid their meal just a few moments later and escorted her back out into the cold Brussels winter, towards the metro.
The night air bit hard after the warmth of the restaurant, its jaws squeezing the shawl around his neck so hard he could almost feel its teeth.
—You’re not cold? he asked her, his concern genuine although he wasn’t sure what he could do with her answer.
She shivered in response, but it seemed like an afterthought, like he’d reminded her of the cold with the question, which made him wonder if the answer would have been different if the question hadn’t been posed.
—Does it bother you, she asked him, the color of the sky?
He looked up. The sky is always red in downtown Brussels.
—It’s the lights, he said. They say Belgium is the brightest country in the world.
—It’s not just the lights, though, she darkened.
Just then, on Arenberg, where the gallery looked out on the little side-street behind the theatre at the Mort Subite, there was a toussle, a rustling sound like someone was sifting through a garbage can of broken glass. It caught her attention.
—If it’s not the lights, he asked, ignoring the sound, then what—
—Did you hear that? she interrupted.
Was she changing the subject?
—I hear something, but… It was just the sound of Brussels, what did she want?
—No, but listen, she said.
The sound came again, but this time there was more to it, there were layers that didn’t quite fit together, there was a chaffing sound with something underneath, a faint sucking, but they didn’t make sense together.
He told himself it was her safety he was concerned for when he took her by the hand and said
—Come on, let’s get out of here.
But she pulled back her hand and held up a finger to wait.
Who is this girl? he found himself thinking.
She went towards the sound, into the dark area behind the Monnaie, where a capsized trashcan seemed to wiggle. A squirrel? A squirrel couldn’t do this, and certainly not a pigeon. It must have been a cat or a small dog.
—Cathérine… He went for her hand again, when suddenly the creature emerged.
At first, all he could see were hairy tendrils that wrapped themselves along the edge of the can. What were they? Tentacles? But then he saw its face. That was not a face that belonged on Earth. Maybe at the very bottom of the ocean, but not here on the surface.
—But what is that? he found himself asking. He hadn’t been asking her, as such, but she answered.
—I don’t know… As though she felt that she should. As though she was making a decision to get to the bottom of this.
Another moment and he’d have looked at her and maybe asked her <<Who are you?>> incredulously, but he didn’t have the chance. There was a jungle-sound, like a warbling screech that didn’t belong on a city street this side of civilization, and the thing launched itself at them. He couldn’t tell how, he could tell what it used to leap, but he wasn’t paying attention, was he? He was too preoccupied with this thing that couldn’t exist, and how despite the fact that it couldn’t exist, here it was not just existing but flying through the air at—
Cathérine raised her arms and a blue flame appeared out of nowhere. He couldn’t even tell what direction it was coming from, it just wrapped itself around the creature, suspending it in midair. Cathérine still had her hands up and she waved one like she was throwing a ball in slow-motion, and the blue flames seemed to disappear inside the creature and turn it to ice.
It fell, but she caught it. She caught it with her bare hands, this ice sculpture. He was so shocked by the gesture, it took him a moment to wonder at how small it now seemed, no bigger than a football—smaller, even—until you saw the appendages coming out behind it, like something between a tentacle and a leg. What was this thing?
—Who are you? he asked her, and she steeled herself.
—I have to get home.
—Who are you? He caught her arm.
She looked into his eyes and for the first time, he felt like he was truly seeing her. There was something there, behind the brown—like they were contact lenses, and the true blue was finally showing.
—I have to go, she told him. I’m sorry, but I can’t let you walk me home.
It wasn’t till she said that that he asked himself if he even wanted to, if that would even be wise. So he let go of her arm.
—I’ll contact you, she promised, not that she’d call, not like this was still just a date. Then she headed for the shadows, leaving him to languish in a suddenly alien world.