Violet waits. A half an hour isn't so late, she convinces herself. A glance at her phone tells her the service is still as spotty as when she arrived. Not even one lousy bar. It's in SOS mode now.
She tries in vain to open the app again to check if Lee sent a "Sorry, running late" message. She knows it's useless. And yet…
The app tries to load.
The sweet scent of freshly warmed cookies wafts her way, and she ignores the rumble of hunger. She won't eat. Not yet. She didn't even grab a drink. It'd be cold when Lee arrived anyway, and she'd have to get another. Better to wait.
So, she does.
The small chrome napkin dispenser on the table reflects a funhouse mirror image of Violet's round, cherubic face with her rosy cheeks and pug nose. Her chin-length acid-green hair makes her reflection look like an alien.
She tears a napkin free and starts to fold it and unfold it. What in Siri's name did people do before cell phones? They just sat and waited in silence? Violet checks the table's menu stand for a WiFi password, but it just lists the day's specials. She pulls out another small, square napkin and tries to twist it into a flower. Maybe it would be a cute thing to give Lee when they show up.
A mother towing three small children in her wake passes by Violet's table. The smallest child wearing a Grandma Loves Me shirt bangs into Violet's chair hard enough that he lets out a wailing sob.
Immediately, the mother is on Violet. In her face. Shouting. Violet blinks, confused, and blurts out a half-apology. "S-sorry."
The mother, dressed in a beige athleisure romper, arranges her plush pink lips into a snarl. "You should be and shouldn't take up a whole table if you're alone. It's rude."
"I'm waiting for someone," Violet supplies dumbly. Like this Insta-mom cares.
"Still, you shouldn't take up a table. People like me need the big ones. You could just sit at the window bar and wait. I have three kids here."
Violet is about to relent. Lee is blowing her off. Ghosting her like every other date she set up through this app. Of course, she's being stood up.
Before she gets the words out, a thick whirring from behind the counter starts. A release of steam fills the area with fog for a count of five. Both the mother and Violet's attention swing to the counter for a brief moment. It's enough, though. Lee will show. She's not giving up her table.
"Well?" The mother asks expectantly.
"Have a nice day," Violet says, pulling her phone out again and pretending to answer a text message. She feels the woman hover for a minute, but she refuses to glance up. Finally, the children are so raucous, begging for chocolate milk, that she leaves and takes her place in line at the counter.
Violet scans the room self-consciously when she locks eyes with a college-aged man working on a laptop, headphones hanging around his neck. He smiles weakly at Violet, half-apology, half-commiserating about the rude mother. He nods once and returns his gaze to his laptop screen.
Pathetic. This is pathetic. It's nearing the forty-five-minute mark. Violet flicks a few crumbs off the table as she considers the sympathetic look her roommate, Clara, will no doubt wear when Violet returns dateless again. As much as she loves her roommate, she can't stand another pep-talk or a Bridget Jones binge night.
The bell over the door chimes. Violet tries to school her expression into something thoughtful but sexy. She waits for a beat before glancing up to see if her date has finally… it's an elderly woman using one of those walkers with the seats on them.
She smiles at Violet and says, "I just love this smell, don't you?"
Violet nods. "One of the best."
The woman winks at Violet, then heads for the counter, and Violet is alone again. Waiting again.
A group of teens get up from one of the other big tables, each wearing some version of the same outfit. Graphic t-shirts, ripped jeans, vans, or Doc Martins.
Violet longs for her docs and their comfortable, broken-in leather. She curls her toes inside the borrowed heels that match the borrowed LBD or Little Black Dress. Her roommate's style leaned more toward young, hot lawyer, so the dress's fabric sat thick and heavy against her skin.
People move past the giant glass window, and Violet thinks people watching might be more entertaining than thinking about how Lee is the sixth person in so many weeks to match with her on the new-age dating app, Blind Swipe, that doesn't use pictures in the profiles. It claims to be a better way to online date. Get to know the person before you see them.
After each match agreed to a date, they exchanged a photo so they'd be able to recognize one another. She'd done the same with Lee. They'd sent back a heart eyes emoji, so Violet felt confident this time, hence the borrowed outfit.
But it seems the heart eyes were a lie.
Lee is nowhere to be found.
It's been over an hour.
Violet sighs once, letting the breath empty from her diaphragm, then scoots the metal chair back. The angry Insta-mom eyes her as she stands, gathers her crossbody bag, and heads toward the door.
Outside, the early fall air feels crisp on her exposed arms. She shivers and hugs her arms over her middle. For a moment, she doesn't move. Still hopeful that Lee might walk up and be so grateful that Violet waited.
She decides to lean against the brick facade of the building long enough to call her mom now that her service is back. She waits as the phone line trills.
"Hey, Peanut! Is the date over already?"
"Um, yeah. Didn't go well," she hears herself lie. Like Clara's hyper-positive after-date debriefs, her mom tends toward the "they don't know what they're missing" end of the spectrum, and Violet can't hear it tonight.
"I'm sorry. Dating is terrible. Always has been. Even before all the dang apps."
"Yeah," she says, letting her mom rant for a few minutes about how she went on one date with Violet's father and knew he was the one. Violet knows her mom thinks she's helping, but all she's doing is reminding Violet that she's a failure.
"And anyway, you're too amazing to settle. Wait for the right person, Peanut. It will be worth it."
Violet tells her mom she loves her and hangs up.
The fifteen-minute walk back to her apartment passes quickly. Lost in her thoughts, Violet even walks past the gated alleyway that leads to her apartment door. She realizes this when she smells Miguel's empanada truck.
"Damn," she curses and turns heel, walking a few doors down until she reaches the red gate. She pulls the latch but hesitates.
Is someone watching me? The hairs on her neck stand to attention. She doesn't want to turn around. A feeling like dread hits her the way it used to whenever she had to turn off the hall light and race to her room so the dark couldn't catch her.
Here and now, she knows that's foolish, but when honeyed words reach her ears, she turns around. "Violet, I'm sorry for being late."
And there she is—or rather, there someone is—because it's not Lee. It can't be. Violet didn't tell Lee where she lived. Plus, the face is all wrong. Nothing like the picture. Dark circles under darker brown eyes. Greasy hair matted to a sweaty forehead that glistens in the golden hour sunlight.
"Violet," comes the honey-toned voice again, but the mouth didn't move. It's set in a tight line.
"The hell?" Violet says, yanking on the latch until it clicks. Her heart pounds like a runaway train. A cold sweat washes over her and then she's darting behind the gate just as she sees the figure's blurred movement. In a flash, she's face-to-face with Lee. She can see it now under the exhaustion, sweat, and grime—it is Lee.
"I saw you leave and followed you," Lee says before a body-shaking coughing fit overtakes her.
Violet steps forward, concern outweighing the ick factor emanating off Lee like an electromagnetic pulse. "Are you alright?"
"I will be," Lee says through wet coughs.
"You could have just told me you were sick. We could've met when you felt better," Violet says, confused but relieved. She hadn't been stood up. Lee wasn't exactly what she pictured, but Lee showed.
"No," Lee stands to her full height, a good foot taller than Violet, "it had to be today. You're ripe now."
Violet is prepared to be flattered. Lee wants to meet her even though she's too sick to be outside, but then she hears the rest of what Lee says. "Um, what the hell? Did you say I was ripe?"
"Yes, you're misery." Hunger glitters in Lee's eyes, misty but unmissable hunger. "I need it."
"Lee, I think maybe you're having like a fever-induced hallucination." Violet pulls out her phone, unlocks it, and adds, "I can call 911 for you or something. You're not making any sense."
"You, you're misery, I need it to survive. All those times, you were stood up. You're finally ready to consume."
Violet scrutinizes Lee's pallid face. "Okay, now you're really not making sense. How do you know I got stood up? I never told you that."
"You didn't need to. I knew it. Every time we talked, I knew you’d be there waiting."
”Wh-what?” Adrenaline pours into her. This is so completely freaky that she’s sure, positive, she isn’t hearing Lee right.
Violet is mid-dial when Lee reaches across the gate with a spindly arm and wraps cold, damp fingers around the phone in Violet's grip. "Don't… don't do that."
"Wh-why not?" Violet is properly scared now. Down to her toes scared. Concern for Lee dissipating like fog, replacing it with that bone-deep fear that something was standing right behind her.
Tears fill Violet's eyes. Suddenly, she knows Lee isn't hallucinating, and neither is she, as she catches flashes of features from all the dates that ghosted her flicker across Lee's face. It's odd to realize, but in every conversation with the people who stood her up…they were all so similar. Clara chalked it up to Violet having a type, but this, this is who she'd talk to every time.
"You stood me up?"
"I had to."
Lee shrugs. "You swiped right."
Violet lets out a choked sob. "Please, I don't understand."
"It'll be over soon," Lee assures her, opening her mouth wide. Jaw bone cracking open, unhinged like a serpent. Rows and rows of pointed, jagged teeth reach back to the dark of Lee's throat.
Violet has a moment to think "shit" before an incandescent white beam reaches out of Lee's mouth and eats away her misery.