The Promise

The last time I saw her the world was draped in midnight shadows, the stars shimmering like crystals, hovering above a rhythmic ocean whose heartbeat never ceases.

And when I read the note the next morning, the apartment that I was renting on the outskirts of that hidden alcove along the coast, a place where only the most elite hackers are known to congregate en masse, was covered in light shades of umber, the rising sun pulling earthy tones from the tobacco-stained walls.

When she stepped through the door to that apartment for the first time, earlier in the week, her slender body was hugged by an oversized jacket the color of raw honey, and beneath it a thin black dress cut off at the thighs. Her eyes were a feline green that cursed me from the moment they found me. And they found me long before I found them.

In the love-sick haze I was in, I remember bits and pieces better than the rest: the sound of her laugh as we flipped through the few dozen channels of the monolithic television that rested like a boulder on the antique dresser; the feel of her smooth skin, goosebumps prickling up as I ran my finger along the small of her back, drawing out a smile and a shiver; the smell of the cheap cigarettes we shared blending with the sweet and salty wind that carried in from the ocean.

And one of those nights, in the darkness of that murderously hot room, moonlight shining down through the scuffed glass window, she whispered to me, told me that she’d have to leave in a few days; she made me promise that I wouldn’t forget her. 

And I did what she said without a second thought.

If I hadn’t been so consumed with the zero-day exploit I had written, I might have seen her coming. But I had just spent eight days locked up in my room, chain-smoking until my lungs burned, drinking terrible coffee and living solely on ramen noodles for sustenance, all while my eyes strained against the harsh blue-light of my laptop, crafting a script that would penetrate the security systems of one of the largest utility companies in North America; and my child-like excitement at the prospect of selling it for more money than I had any right to have was caught in a violent tug-of-war with the stark knowledge of what such code might be used for in cold and remorseless hands.

My nails were bit to bleeding by the eighth day, and I was riding that exclusive high which comes from breaking through a wall that should technically be unbreakable. Honestly, I was looking for an excuse to think about something else for a week, give my conscience time to figure a way out of the ice-covered water I was scrambling beneath.

And then she showed up, at a quiet underground bar, sitting beneath neon lights with her legs crossed. She glanced at me for just a moment, but that moment was all it took. 

And I might have told her about the code I wrote, breaking the one rule that anyone who writes something that dangerous knows and abides by.

But I honestly can’t remember. And if I did, I’d rather not know for sure.

I’ve dealt with my fair share of devils, but she was more sly than any I’d ever met, sharp teeth hidden behind a bulletproof facade of mascara, scents of a citrus perfume that made my fingers tremble, causing a gripping euphoric sensation that cut upward from my groin to my heart, where it settled in and smothered me. 

And even after all that went down, I have to admire her theatrics. She was a professional. 

I thought I was smart; she was smarter.

I actually thought we were in love. 

I still might be.

That final day was like every other day that week. We spent the afternoon in bed, leaving in the late afternoon for pastries and espresso at a local shop with a chalkboard menu that smelled like roasted beans and powdered sugar. 

When the evening came along, against the backdrop of distant thunder, the sounds of the local nightlife floated through the thick air above the narrow streets, reverberating like plucked strings. And the smells of chorizo and steak rising from the carts on the corners mixed with the faintly gratifying scents of nicotine and gasoline.

I thought I must have been dead or stranded in a dream. Either way, I didn’t mind. 

If this was paradise, I didn’t ever want to leave.

As we walked, our hands close enough to conjure a subtle electricity, the hairs rising on the edge of my skin, she told me about her last gig, a run on an offshore database that went bad. It belonged to a corporation with enough influence to buy their way out of any criminal charge thrown at them, and just hearing about that kind of heat was enough to make me want to run right there and then. 

But I couldn’t. I didn’t want to.

That thing they say about listening to your instincts when they’re writhing in your gut like eels—I was never any good at that. Is it a voice that everyone can hear? Am I the only one who seems to have it muted?

She spun the tale in quick beats, leaving out all the details that mattered, leaving my imagination to write the rest. Someone talked, let a few words slip around a phone that should have been tossed out a thirty-story window; or maybe they were being tapped from the beginning and it was all a setup; or maybe he should have known better and kept his fucking mouth shut. 

In any case, it didn’t matter in the end. He died. She set fire to her trail, let the smoke cover her escape. She hopped on a flight to somewhere in Southeast Asia, hacked the local server on the layover and cut the cam footage, a place she never named, a place I knew better than to ask, and transferred to another flight that led her to the other side of the world, to me.

Now that I can reflect on the sheer intelligence that rested behind those emerald eyes, I wonder if it was a force all its own, like gravity, or time. There’s an attraction that humans have to higher states that can’t be denied, and we move towards those higher places like moths making a fatal pilgrimage to a lantern’s flame, a gentle fiery glow in the pitch darkness, unable to understand that the light we seek is a light we’ll never reach.

Age-old tale, I know. But you didn’t meet her, and I was blind as a deaf bat beneath a blazing desert sun. 

We ended up spending half the night in a wine bar smaller than my apartment, trading war stories with black hats out of Eastern Europe. And I think one of them even told me to watch out, that she wasn’t worth following down the rabbit hole, but I just shook my head and smiled, my head already swimming pleasantly from the wine.

Afterwards, we headed down to the beach, cool sand beneath us, the moon a silver sliver in the star-laden sky. We listened to the sounds of the dark waves rolling softly on ancient shores, shores where tragedy had befallen at least one other fool besides me. 

And as she rested on top of me, I was caught in a moment of timelessness where nothing mattered, everything felt insignificant except for being with her. 

I didn’t even feel the prick on my skin as the injection pen bit into me.

The chemicals rushed through my blood with preternatural speed, reacting and spreading and converging on my brain and my nervous system, and I was powerless to fend it off.

When I woke up, my eyes ached against the soft glow of the rising sun, a wave of nausea smacking me like a child who forgot to dive beneath a breaking wave.

It didn’t take me long to figure it out, despite the sludge of thoughts I waded through.

I ran across town to my apartment. When I arrived, the door was unlocked. And when I entered, the room was immaculate. It was as if she hadn’t even been there. 

The bedspread was perfectly made, not a wrinkle on it. The ashtray cleaned out and washed.My laptop, gone. The drive with the zero-day I had broken myself writing, gone. And she even took my wallet. It felt like my entire identity had been purged from me, surgically gutted, my own file deleted and unable to be restored.

And then I noticed the note on the nightstand, hand-written letters scribbled in a half-script scrawl: Remember what you promised?

In a whirlwind of heartache and fury and aching lust, her pheromones still hovering in the room, ripping at my tender heart, I remembered: I promised that I wouldn’t forget her.

And now, smiling bitterly as I go over it incessantly, a part of me never even wants to.

Culled from by Branden Sherman

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