On a hot July evening, the promenade should have been empty and devoid of people, but to Melissa’s surprise, there were people all around her. She could spot families with little kids having picnics on the small patches of lawn under the palm trees and college kids either talking on mobile phones or studying from their thick textbooks.
She crossed her arms as she walked with her best friend, Jennifer, who was talking to her about shoes, but Melissa found her thoughts wavering. She knew that Jennifer wouldn’t really notice that she wasn’t paying attention, because she talked endlessly.
Melissa nodded and smiled at her, pretending to feign interest before turning to look at the boutique across the street. Everything was so beautiful on this street. There were two more boutiques alongside the small grocery store, a fast food joint, a small café and a movie theater across the road. On her left was the vast lagoon that spread before her. Every tiny ripple on the water surface shimmered from the lights of the buildings and street lamps. She gazed up at the sky and saw that it was lit up with twinkling stars and the crescent moon.
Everything was so serene, and Melissa should have felt exactly like that, but her thoughts returned to what had happened two months ago. The memory refused to leave her mind and let her enjoy this beautiful evening.
“You are so not wearing that dress,” Jennifer said and Melissa almost jumped.
Jennifer frowned at her. “You weren’t paying attention, were you?” she complained. “Anyway, I was telling my roommate, Riya, the other day that she shouldn’t be wearing that new dress she bought. We’re studying fashion for heaven’s sake, so how could she even consider wearing that awful dress?”
“Maybe—” Melissa started to say, but Jennifer shook her head quickly.
“You should have seen it,” Jennifer said. “There was blue and red and pink and yellow all over it! It was ghastly.”
“Well, then it’s a good thing you gave her some fashion advice,” Melissa said and looked toward a group of college kids sitting on a nearby bench. The girl giggled about something her two guy friends told her. She saw a couple join them.
“So, you’re coming right?” Jennifer asked.
“Hmmm? Coming where?” Melissa asked.
“My party,” Jennifer said and cocked an eyebrow. “I’ve been talking about it forever!”
“I don’t feel like it.” Melissa sighed and stared down at her shoes. It was time she discarded her old sneakers and bought new ones before the soles came off.
“If it’s still about Mark, I think it’s time you got over it already. He’s not worth it.”
Melissa hugged her handbag. “You don’t understand what it’s like. I left everything for him to come here so we could be in the same school only to find out that he was cheating on me.”
“Screw him,” Jennifer said out loud. A family sitting nearby looked up at them as they walked by and Melissa felt her face getting warm.
Jennifer had never been in love like she had been, so obviously her friend wasn’t going to understand how heartbroken she still felt. Her parents had wanted her to go to law school; instead she had fought them on this decision and told them she was going with Mark to a culinary school even though she had no interest in it all. Mark had wanted to be a chef and open his own restaurant someday, and that had been enough for her. She would help him with his dream even if it meant going against her parents. They didn’t understand her or her love for Mark. So, right after graduation, she had applied to the culinary school and been admitted to the spring batch alongside Mark. Her parents were furious with her decision, but all she could think of was her future with Mark.
“If you ask me,” Jennifer said, breaking into her thoughts, “he was way too dominating. He wouldn’t even let you go anywhere by yourself. I mean, if Riya hadn’t told me about this place, we would have never even found it.”
Melissa smiled at her but said nothing. Mark had been like that. Ever since they had come here, Mark had taken her to malls and drive-ins, but never for a walk in such a beautiful place like this. She could feel the extra pounds she had put on after the break-up melting away in the July heat. Even now as she thought about all the ice cream and éclairs she had hogged on, she could feel nothing but contempt at her herself. How could she have let herself go like that?
Jennifer paused suddenly and leaned against the railing. “The lagoon is so beautiful,” she remarked.
“It is,” Melissa said and put her hands on the railing. Her hands were sweaty and her hair hung down in damp tendrils. Her T-shirt clung to her uncomfortably, but Melissa felt invigorated. She could feel the pain in her heart subsiding as a drop of sweat rolled down her face. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply.
“Dude, that’s an urban legend,” she heard a boy guffaw.
A gust of cold wind brushed her face and Melissa opened her eyes and blinked.
“Did you feel that too?” Jennifer asked.
“That was weird.” Melissa turned around and saw the group of college kids she had seen earlier. One of the boys looked serious as he explained something to his friend. The girl with him appeared sullen.
The cold wind brushed against her again and Melissa shivered. She turned to look at her friend whose face was contorted in puzzlement. Melissa followed her friend’s gaze across the road and knew why her friend looked so confused. People left the shops and theatre in large numbers]and walked down the street in a hurry. Shops were closing down and people hurriedly got into their cars and drove away.
“This is absurd,” Jennifer said, watching a car pass by. “Is there a fire or something?”
Melissa saw a family who had been sitting on a bench frantically gather their things. She walked over to them and handed them a plastic bag that had dropped from their table. “What’s wrong?” she asked the woman.
The woman looked at her husband as he caught the hands of his two young sons. She saw fear in their eyes and they seemed to be communicating telepathically.
“Nothing’s wrong,” the man said. “We just have an appointment elsewhere and we completely forgot about the time.”
Melissa looked back at the woman who was busy stuffing everything into her tiny bag. “Everyone is in a hurry all of a sudden. We were wondering if there was an emergency or something.”
“It’s nothing,” the man said. “It’s always busy on these streets.”
“Yeah, but people tend to be busy on the streets rather than running away,” Jennifer added.
The family ignored them and left without another word. Melissa felt a shiver run down her spine as the wind blew on her.
“I must be coming down with something because I’m starting to freeze,” Jennifer said. “What’s gotten into everyone?”
Melissa shrugged. Even though almost everyone around them was leaving, the group she had spotted earlier was still there huddled and talking.
“I think we should go to,” Jennifer said. “This is just too weird.”
Melissa nodded in agreement and felt her skin crawl with gooseflesh when she heard the low howl of the wind. The streets were empty now, except for a few abandoned cars and the group of people she had seen earlier. The buildings behind the shops looked deserted too.
Jennifer took her arm and started to walk faster as the temperatures started to drop lower.
“Did you hear that?” she asked and Melissa looked at her, not understanding at first. Seconds later, the night filled with sounds of approaching motorcycle engines. Jennifer’s mouth dropped open.
“Run,” she screamed and both girls started to sprint.
Melissa could feel her heart thudding rapidly and she tried to tell herself that the motorcycles belonged to the cops, but her gut told her otherwise. Something was wrong and something bad was going to happen.
They had barely taken a few steps when they heard a loud crackle.
Jennifer let out a scream and Melissa hugged her. They turned around to see the street lamps going off one by one. The rows of houses across the lagoon were suddenly plunged into darkness and Melissa put her hand on her mouth.
They heard another loud crackle as the street lamps shut off and before Melissa could catch a breath, the last of the lamps went off, leaving the street in complete darkness.