From the author: On Celia's way to an afternoon cocktail date, a lightning strike takes her on a journey into the Twilight Zone.
"I'm delayed," Tom said, calling from the airport. Celia could barely hear him; the airport loudspeaker played an endless stream of announcements in Spanish, a language she didn't understand. The announcer's voice sounded ethereal and discordant over the cellular network, like an off-tune harp being plucked.
"I'll be home tomorrow," Tom continued. "Don't get bent out of shape, okay?"
What a bizarre thing to say. She never complained when he was delayed.
"Okay, can't wait to see you, love you," she replied, but he'd already hung up. She tossed the phone in her purse and shut the car door, hoping the coming storm would hold off a bit longer.
A lightning bolt struck across the street, and Celia jumped. She could have sworn it hit the empty bus stop, but there were no sparks or smoke coming off its metal roof. She reached inside the car for her umbrella while the thunder clapped. A flash of color caught her eye—a woman at the bus stop wearing a skirt splotched with red like the peel of a blood orange. Her hair, the same hazelnut brown as Celia's, fell to her shoulders and obscured her. Her skin tone also matched Celia's, tanned to a light bronze that appeared gaudy against the bright skirt.
She could be me, Celia thought. Except the woman was at least a decade too young and Celia would never wear an orange skirt. The way she stood was familiar though, slumping to the left like Celia sometimes did, one leg shorter than the other. The woman's fitted white blouse seemed a size too small, made her appear distorted, poured into it and about to seep through the seams. She looked up and Celia turned away, not wanting to be caught staring. She didn't want to see what stared back, either.
Celia shook off goose flesh as the first drops of rain fell, and she hurried down the street to meet her friend, Dorothy. The doorman at Chez Mer smiled. He had a chipped tooth in the same place as the one Celia had broken in the Bahamas last spring. She lowered her sunglasses to get a better look, but the doorman had turned to the next patron. She considered waiting outside a moment longer, maybe asking him a question, but the wind grew more frigid by the second. Besides, her unease was nothing a martini and girl talk couldn't fix.
The room was as hazy as her remembrance of life before day drinking. Celia figured her eyes needed to adjust to the light. She blinked a few times then spotted Dorothy talking on her cell at a nearby table, gesturing wildly as always. Celia smiled at her gray-haired friend, the only one in their circle who eschewed hair dye, claiming she had nothing to hide.
Celia slipped into the opposite chair. "I'm here," she whispered.
Dorothy nearly lurched out of her seat. "Oh!" For a moment, she paled like she'd seen a ghost but recovered posthaste. "Hank, darling," she spoke into the phone, "I need to go, Celia's here now. Can't wait to see you, love you."
Funny, Celia always ended her calls to Tom the same way.
Dorothy closed the phone and hugged her over the corner of the table. "It's not like you to slip in so quietly! How are you?"
Celia soaked up the warmth and charisma that emanated from her friend. Dorothy could make a tiger forget it was in a cage if she wanted to. "I'm fine. It's been a weird day, though. I think this horrid weather's getting to me."
"Well, you'll have to tell me all about it after we order." Dorothy motioned to the waitress. "Two cosmopolitans, please."
The waitress nodded from the bar.
Dorothy learned forward to pat Celia's hand. "So, tell me what's going on?"
"Well, it started with an odd phone call from Tom a little while ago."
Dorothy peered over the top of her cat-eye glasses, "Do you think he's cheating on you?"
"What?" Celia recoiled and felt a sharp pain above her brow. "Why would you say something like that?"
Dorothy turned red. "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to suggest that—well, I'd never suggest such a thing." Her voice oozed contrition. "I was only joking."
The pain above Celia's brow spread to her temples. "No, I'm sorry." Of course, Dorothy would never seriously imply something like that. "I'm out of sorts today, I think. Tom sounded a bit off, that's all, like something had happened."
"Where is he?"
"In Peru, he just finished up a research project near Lima." Dark spots obscured the edge of her vision. She must have something in her eye.
"Sounds fun. You know, we just got back from the Bahamas on Monday."
Celia had not known that at all.
The waitress placed two cocktail napkins on the table, followed by their drinks. They were saffron-tinged, as though the bartender had added blood orange juice in with the cranberry.
"Didn't we order cosmopolitans?" Celia asked the waitress.
The woman's voice sounded tinny as Celia's often did in the morning, a sleepy vise cutting her off from her lower register. "Those are cosmopolitans. Can I get you anything else?"
She shook her head no. It pulsed as if she'd already had too many drinks, though she'd yet to take a sip. The waitress sauntered away, her feet clomping on the floor. She wore a pair of cream loafers, the twins of ones Celia had bought on sale last week. Celia's breath caught in her chest and a strand of her shoulder-length, hazelnut hair stuck to her bottom lip.
"Celia, you are not yourself today." Dorothy's eyes filled with concern.
Celia croaked out the words, "No, I'm not." But everyone else is, she thought as the nebulous patches in her peripheral vision spread, sweeping away the lights of Chez Mer. The color drained from Dorothy's face as Celia's head hit the table with a thunk. Her last thought was of a blaze of lightning and ducking into a bus stop for shelter to take a phone call. Tom had said something, hadn't he, about one of his vapid grad students, before...
This story originally appeared in Flashes in the Dark.