[:en]I blinked, trying to see in the dimmer light inside the – where was I? Oh yes, the restaurant. A multi-faceted crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling, drawing my eye. I turned around, looking at the décor, and caught a glimpse of a server drawing a curtain over a painting.
“Oh wow,” I murmured under my breath. I could recognize the swirls in the painting anywhere. “Hey!” I raised my voice slightly. “Is that another painting in Van Gogh’s Starry Night series?” I squinted, trying to see through the dim foyer, while moving towards the painting.
He hurriedly finished drawing the curtain, blocking my view.
Disappointed, I stepped back. Something about the painting was not quite right. Before I could concentrate on what, I heard my name.
“Sophie! You finally made it!”
I spun, stepping into my husband’s arms. “George!” My eyes unexpectedly filled with tears. “Sorry I’m late.”
“Nothing to cry about, darling.” He brushed his fingers under my eyes to wipe away the tears. “We’ve only just been called to our table.”
I smiled shakily up at him. The light refracted through my tears, making his blond hair glow.
We followed the maître-d’ into the dining room. The various aromas tickled my nose, the combination making my stomach churn a bit. The tables were teardrop shaped, tucked into rounded booths that provided privacy to the diners. There was a surprising amount of room inside each section. On the walls were exquisite paintings; Monet, Rembrandt, Picasso, and Da Vinci.
I tugged on George’s arm as we navigated our way through the maze of tables. “Can we look at the art after dinner? You know how much I like Van Gogh.”
“Of course, sweetheart,” he replied.
The maître-d’ stopped at a table with two other couples and pulled out a chair. “Madame?” He gestured for me to sit, and placed George at my side.
“This is different,” I said, smiling at the other guests after sitting in my chair. “Sophie,” I introduced myself. “And my husband George.”
“Daphne and John,” replied the redheaded woman to my right. “We just got married three days ago!”
“Congratulations!” I exclaimed.
“Andrea and Felix,” said the blonde across from me. She had thin, angular features. “How far along are you?”
Startled at the question, I looked down at my slightly protruding belly and gave it a tiny rub. “Just past twelve weeks,” I said. “I’m not used to people noticing. It depends on what shirt I wear.”
“Humans have such an interesting gestation period,” said John.
“I’d rather the nine months than the elephant’s two years!” I said, and we all laughed.
“Do you know the gender?” asked Daphne.
“Oh, no, not yet,” I smiled ruefully. “I don’t get to find that out until sometime around week twenty.”
A waiter appeared between George and Felix. “Something to drink, Madame?” he asked me.
“Just water, please,” I replied. A painting on the wall across from us caught my eye, and I pointed it out to George. “Look at that Monet! It looks so vivid, I could almost jump into the river.”
George laughed. “Such an imagination!” He kissed my hand.
The waiter brought me a glass, and I left it in front of me without taking a sip.
“Not thirsty?” asked Andrea.
“No, not really.” I paused. “Actually, I feel rather full at the moment.” I frowned, confused. “Did I eat before coming here?” I didn’t think I had, but I couldn’t remember.
“You probably just need to visit the ladies room,” interjected George. He ran a soft hand over my belly. “You are pregnant, after all.”
My thoughts cleared. “You’re probably right. Where is the washroom?”
Fortunately, it was within sight of the table, so I would be able to find my way back on my own, as the paths between the booths were as twisted as a maze.
As I sat on the toilet, I examined the painting on the back of the door and considered the other art in the restaurant. “Van Gogh,” I murmured. “I haven’t seen any other Van Gogh here. That’s weird. And the one in the front lobby was one I’ve never seen before.” I thought about the part of the painting that I caught a quick glimpse of. “There was a large full moon, over a meadow.” I shook my head and got up to wash my hands. “I wonder what the name might be.”
I headed back to the table, but didn’t sit down. When George stood up to let me by, I said, “I’m really not hungry yet. Can we look at the paintings now?”
George gave a sigh and smirked at our tablemates. “Whatever you want, darling.” He took me by the hand and we started walking from painting to painting, admiring how realistic the paintings looked.
“These look so perfect!” I exclaimed, astonished. “Surely they can’t all be originals?”
A waiter passing behind us overheard me, and interjected, “Oh yes, Madame. All the art pieces in our restaurant are originals. The ones in the Hu-“
George coughed sharply.
“Museums are just copies,” smoothly continued the waiter.
“Wow!” I stared around, wide-eyed. There were at least fifty paintings within my sight, and I knew there were more beyond that. “Those are some impeccable forgeries in the museums, but I can definitely see how these paintings are more…” I searched for the right word. “Full. Three-dimensional, almost. Are there any other paintings by Van Gogh?”
“Other?” asked the waiter, swallowing hard. “We don’t have any paintings by Van Gogh. The quality of his work wasn’t enough to stand with the masters.”
I stared. “Are we talking about the same painter? The genius who died not knowing the brilliance of his work? I definitely saw a painting by him at the entrance.”
“You must have been mistaken, dear,” laughed George, his hand tightening on mine. “If the waiter says there are no Van Gogh paintings here, he would know.”
“I know what I saw.” My chin jutted out stubbornly, and I tried to let go of my husband’s hand. “I’ve never seen that particular painting, but the style was obviously by Van Gogh. It was of the same feel as his Starry Night series, except in this particular painting, the moon dominated the scene, over a meadow. Don’t you remember, George? You were there too.” When George shook his head, I sighed impatiently. “It was beautiful! I wonder what he named that painting. Moonlight over Meadows, perhaps? Or Moonlight over the Moor? Or ooh!” I wiggled in excitement. “We’re in Ireland! Maybe it’s Moonlight over Faerie!”
A piercing alarm went off.
“What’s going on?” I clapped my hands over my ears, trying to drown out the sound. I looked for the waiter we had been talking to, but he’d disappeared.
Guests were rushing past us, towards the exits, I assumed, since I couldn’t actually see the doors.
“Come on,” ordered George, his mouth tight with worry. He grabbed my elbow and directed me along with the others, not towards the lobby where I’d seen the painting, but towards the back of the restaurant.
Outside the restaurant were several vans. The maître-d’ was directing people into straight lines, waiting for the vans to pull up at the bottom of the stairs.
“What’s going on?” I repeated my question to him when he reached us.
“Fire in the kitchens,” he replied, glancing at my husband. “We’re evacuating you to another location to keep you safe.”
George wrapped a protective arm around my waist. “Thank you,” he said, and the maître-d’ rushed off to the next couple.
“I wonder what happened to the others,” I mused. “I hope they got out alright.”
“I’m sure they did, sweetie,” replied George. He rubbed his hand gently over my belly. “But I don’t really care about them. As long as you’re both safe.”
I smiled. “I was safe the whole time, because I was with you!” My eyes filled with tears again.
“Your hormones are acting up again,” teased George.
“Next group, hop in!” shouted a driver.
George helped me into the van, and settled in beside me. The van wobbled as others got in after us, and then the engine started up.
“George,” I whispered. “I don’t feel so well.” The van lurched forwards, and I clapped a hand to my mouth. “Stop!” I cried. “Stop, I need to get out!”
The driver looked back at me. “What seems to be the problem, Madame?”
“I’m going to throw up all over the back of your seat if you don’t let me out right now,” I said, and my stomach heaved again.
“It’s not much farther…” he began.
“Now!” I screamed.
The van screeched to a halt, and I opened the door on my side of the car. I fell to my knees on the grass beside the road, dry heaving.
The van drove away – good riddance – as I felt hands pulling my hair back from my face. George’s voice filtered through the blood pounding in my ears. Eventually, as my stomach calmed, I was able to make sense of his words. “We don’t have to go to the other restaurant, we can go home and stay in, just the two of us, Sophie and George.”
I froze, my blood turning to ice in my veins, though I didn’t understand why. “And the baby,” I said cautiously. Something was niggling in the back of my brain, trying to make itself known.
George nodded at me, a half smile on his face. “Sophie, George, and the baby.”
I sat down, my legs too weak to hold me on my knees. I looked at George, my thoughts whirling quickly as the thought thrust itself into the forefront of my brain: my husband was French-Canadian; he always pronounced his name with a French accent, Georges. This impersonator Anglicized the name. I, however, never used his French name. On top of that, what was with all the nicknames? That was unlike him. What on earth was going on? He looked like my husband, but wasn’t him. Which brought me to my next question; if he wasn’t my husband, then where was George?
“I think a bit of a walk will help me,” I said calmly. “Help me up?”
George reached for my hand and pulled me to my feet. “Which way would you like to go?” he asked.
“Away from the restaurant!” I laughed, trying to show an outward calm, although my insides were screaming at me to run. “How about towards the forest?” I pointed in a direction that veered away from the road. “We don’t have to go in,” I continued, interpreting the look of apprehension on fake-George’s face, which I took to mean that this was a good direction to go.
We started walking slowly, as I was still a little shaky from the nausea. What had been with that vehicle? I sometimes got motion-sick, but rarely that quickly. I shrugged; the oddest things affected my body now that I was pregnant.
About halfway between our starting point and the forest, a short metal fence blocked our path. It barely reached my knees, so I went to step over it but fake-George yanked me back by the arm.
“We shouldn’t go that way!” he exclaimed, eyeing the fence anxiously.
“There’s no sign saying to keep out,” I tried to reason with him. “What’s wrong with you? We’ve gone places we shouldn’t before!” I attempted to pry my arm from his grip. “Let me go, you’re hurting me!” I could feel a prickly burning sensation on the inside of my wrist.
“No! We shouldn’t cross the barrier!” he pressed. “You can’t cross it.” He didn’t release my hand.
“Why can’t I cross it?” I asked, exasperated. I stopped struggling. It was only making things worse.
“You…you just can’t,” he retorted.
I took a deep breath and stepped closer to him. “Watch me,” I said, and kneed him in the groin. He dropped to the ground, letting me go.
I ran the two steps back to the fence and stepped over it. I kept going a few more paces before looking back at him, writhing on the ground.
I took one glance at the sickly blue-purple tinged creature that had been masquerading as my husband, and had to turn away. Seeing him in his natural form brought my memories back in a rush, and my head started to ache. I was in Ireland, but I was alone. George had died a month ago in an accident. My eyes filled with tears, and I started gasping for breath. No wonder I had been so willing to accept that monster as my husband in the restaurant. I missed him.
“How did you cross the fence?” the creature wheezed. “You shouldn’t have been able to cross the iron barrier!”
I glared at the creature. “You should be incredibly grateful that I could cross, liar! You…you kidnapper!”
He staggered to his feet, and I backed up a couple steps. He was slightly taller than I was, with shiny scales covering his body. They were a sickening, swirling purple and blue colour that had no discernable pattern. He had a tail that curled down to the ground, sharp teeth in a mouth too wide for his face, and four eyes; two on the sides of his hairless head, and two at the front.
“What are you?” I gasped.
“A liar,” he smirked. “A kidnapper.”
I growled at him. “I knew that already. Tell me something I don’t know.”
“I don’t have to tell you anything,” he retorted.
“Even though I bested you?” I mocked. “Taken out by a human? A pregnant one, at that!”
His two forward facing eyes flicked down to my belly, and a green tongue came out to lick his lips. I shuddered.
“I can tell you whatever you want in exchange for one thing,” he offered.
“You’ll get nothing from me,” I spat at him. “You owe me for kidnapping me.”
The creature scowled. “Under what pretense? I didn’t kidnap you. You walked into our cavern. I was first in line to take care of the next human who came to us.”
A trickle of memory started to come back to me. I had been exploring the caves north of Belfast with my tour group after lunch. The tour was supposed to help get me out of my cycle of depression. “What did the painting have to do with anything?” I asked. “The Van Gogh. You were deliberately avoiding talking to me about it.”
“We are bound by law to give every human a chance to leave,” he sighed. “If you say the name of the painting, it activates an alarm. That gets you out of the restaurant, and you have the chance to get away. The Van Gogh is not seen by many.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Exactly how many humans have managed to escape?”
“Very few.” The creature grinned cruelly. “Most humans don’t even realize that they’ve been trapped, or they eat something and that keeps them from crossing the barriers.”
I was suddenly very grateful that I had not had any water. “So Van Gogh is a good painter?” I wanted to have the record set straight on that point.
“Van Gogh’s original paintings are so powerful that they have their own magical capabilities. A human that sees one will not be able to get it out of their mind. It will call to them.” He glared. “You shouldn’t have seen it. We get so few pregnant humans in our world.”
I glared right back at him. “And whose idea was it for you to impersonate my recently departed husband?”
“When humans step through our gateway, we can briefly see into their minds and hearts. Your husband featured prominently in your thoughts, so we knew he would be the one most likely to set your mind at ease.” He shuffled his feet. “How did you realize I was not him?”
“Oh ho!” I cried. “It seems you don’t know everything. You’re going to have to die not knowing the answer to that.”
“I will die shortly for allowing you to escape, for the colony must eat,” he said.
“Do you really think I care?” I replied in disgust. “Wait, you were going to eat us? No,” I raised my hand to stop him from answering, and my stomach roiled at the thought. “I don’t want to know.”
I turned and squinted at the sun, deciding which direction I should walk. I placed it behind me and started across the meadow, away from the creature.
“You and your child are marked. Death would have been a kinder fate.” On my wrist where he’d grabbed me was a crescent moon mark that could have been a tattoo.
“Screw you, monster,” I snapped at him over my shoulder. “I hope I never see you again.”
“You won’t,” he said, his voice a mixture of anger and sadness. Moments later I heard his screams and a noise like angry dogs ripping apart an animal.
I didn’t look back; I didn’t dare.
The savage sounds faded behind me as I continued on my way back to human civilization. It wasn’t over, the mark on my wrist was proof of that, but for now I’d won. Everything else I could worry about later.[:]