I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a game. It was more of a ritual. Suzanne and I would meet each Halloween at a small restaurant in Kalk Bay. The place had been there for ages—one of those spots that kept their doors open over the years despite the downturn in economic climes.
“You’re looking amazing!” the manager told me when I arrived. He was one of those rare ones, I gathered, with a gift for recalling faces. If he knew what was good for him he wouldn’t remember me the next time. He’d shown me to my table last year, and the year before that. I liked the view. I liked the memories. I came here even if Suzanne couldn’t make it.
“I stay out of the sun,” I told him with a pointed smile. “You have no idea how harmful UV radiation can be.”
I shouldn’t take such risks but the older our kind became, the more prone we were to being creatures of habit. And I was keen to see Suzanne. We hadn’t gotten together in more than a decade because she’d been living overseas with her second husband. Foreign travel understandably posed difficulties for those of us who were night dwellers.
Although I no longer had a pulse, I couldn’t help but feel a small lurch of excitement as I made my way to our usual table—one that overlooked the tidal pool. And, as promised in her last communiqué, Suzanne was there. She had her back to me, so did not see me until I slipped into the seat opposite hers.
“Oh!” Suzanne pressed a hand to her chest. “You startled me.”
“I’m sorry.” I grimaced, partially from giving her a fright but also because of her appearance. Even more lines marred her face and her once nut-brown hair was streaked liberally with grey. “How are you?” I held my hand out to her and she took it, squeezing lightly. Her skin warmed mine. The last time we’d met, she’d thrown herself at me and we’d embraced, squealing like young girls.
“I’m fine,” Suzanne replied. Her eyes glistened and I could smell the sour burst of emotion from her. “You haven’t...” She wanted to complete the sentence with “aged a bit”.
We never discussed my condition or, indeed, the special needs that accompanied it. It was enough that she was aware of it, and that she didn’t judge me.
The skin around her eyes tightened briefly. “Charles was diagnosed with colon cancer last month.”
“That’s terrible,” I said, but I meant the words more for her than for the husband I’d never met.
Suzanne withdrew her hand then waved the waiter over, not quite meeting my gaze. She ordered us both a glass of red wine then waited for the man to get out of hearing. “I’ve filed for divorce. I can’t go through this a second time.” She meant living through the slow death of a loved one. The second husband had eventually died of a series of strokes, but he had been bedridden for almost two years. She’d gone through an almost literal hell.
I inclined my head. “I won’t think ill of you.” I was the last one to pass judgment. Especially since I’d long lost track of how many I’d killed. Some inadvertently. A few not.
Suzanne’s laugh was shallow and bitter. “I thought you’d like to know I went to our school reunion.”
I’d been unable to attend. For obvious reasons.
She dug in her handbag and produced a tablet in a slick leather binder. I watched with interest as she scrolled past icons to bring up a folder of pictures.
“You’ll laugh.” She handed me the thing. “One of the teachers made up a series of before and after pictures. I thought you’d be interested.”
I hardly recognised the faces, even of the photos taken when we’d been younger. A surprised hiss escaped me when I encountered the first images of me. My hair long, straight hair had been almost white. The colour now was more that of burnished gold and it looped in lazy ringlets through its own perverse will. The better to be more beguiling, my dear.
My eyes were wide and innocent in a sun-kissed face, a faint sprinkling of freckles across my nose. I looked like a baby. Not this dead white thing I was now. I paused at a picture taken on our valedictory day. Almost a hundred girls posed on the stands by the hockey field with Table Mountain in the background. Our beige uniforms couldn’t quite detract from the vibrancy of our smiles.
“Remember that day?” Suzanne said. “Mrs De Wet made us all take our jerseys off so we could look the same. We just dropped them in a scattering of discarded knitwear.”
“And I recall telling you they looked like empty skins, like cocoons or something that had hatched.” For some peculiar reason I felt ill. I could feel the ghost of sunlight on my skin, and the salty tang of the sea breaking on the rocks below the window made me think of blood, thick and hot on my tongue.
We shared a silent moment and I couldn’t help but think how we were both victims of time, and how differently things had turned out for each of us.
Suzanne gave a nervous laugh. “None of us were butterflies, were we?”
I shook my head. “And there are no knights in shining armour, either.”
We’d be back next year. I knew it. Suzanne would be a year older. I’d still be the same. She’d never ask to be turned, and I’d never offer.
* * * *