Local author Ryan Nilsson was struggling to reach his wordcount goals when a stranger tapped him on the shoulder. She said, “Hi, I’m Riley,” and extended her hand. “You must be Kevin.”
“Riley was beautiful, outgoing, and most likely farsighted.”
Before Ryan knew what he was doing he was shaking Riley’s hand and she was parking in the seat beside him. Riley looked around the room, like a secret agent checking for a tail. Her face turned red as she turtled into her collar. “Sorry. This is the first one of these online things I’ve been on.”
“Me too.” Ryan concurred.
“Really? Oh, good, so it’s not just me. What are you working on?”
Ryan recalls he crisis of conscience. “I saw the conversation branch into two distinct paths. One where I fessed up that I wasn’t Kevin and another where I pitched my novel in vivid detail. I’d resolved to tell her the premise and the make my exit, then she leaned in with those big bright eyes and asked the three words every writer longs to hear, ‘Then what happens.’ So I kept going until I was in too deep.”
When it occurred to Ryan that the real Kevin must be right around the corner he packed up his laptop, ready to make a swift albeit awkward get away. That’s when Riley suggested a charming restaurant around the corner.
“I got swept up in her enthusiasm.”
When the hostess sat the couple in a booth by the bar Riley realized something and cupped her hands over her mouth. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry. I just remembered you don’t drink.”
“I was quick to surmise that the real Kevin was two years sober, a diabetic, and vegan.”
Ryan kept Riley talking while he struggled to cobble together an order.
“The menu was a mine field.”
Ryan read things aloud non-committedly and Riley shot them down.
“That has feta cheese.”
“Fried Brussel sprouts.”
“It looks like they fry them in fish sauce.”
“Don’t you know that diet soda is really bad for diabetes?”
Riley left her phone on the table when she went to consult with the hostess about the menu. A series of texts from Kevin streamed down the screen.
Is this the right place?
Where are you?
Ryan spat out his gum, pressed into a fingerprint Riley left on her glass and used the impression to unlock her phone. He discreetly blocked Kevin’s number and entered his own under Kevin’s name.
“When Riley came back I settled on the field greens salad and a water, but it was the steak frites and the Sazerac that were calling to me.”
Throughout the meal Ryan did his best to keep the conversation on Riley’s side of the table.
“I assumed Kevin had already cycled through the basics: favorite bands, places to travel, career goals, and all that, so I had to get a little more abstract.”
Ryan combed over his salad and asked. “What was the weirdest thing you saw this week?”
As it turned out Riley was studying abnormal psychology and she had seen quite a bit. “I was reading a study on the bystander effect. The subjects were sorted into large groups and small groups then one actor in each group pretended to have a seizure. People in the small groups tried to help, but people in the large groups pretty much let the actor drop dead.”
Ryan had come across the same study doing research for his writing. The conversation became game of ping pong with Riley serving up the unethical experiment and Ryan hitting back with how he’d already fictionalized it.
“I had no idea Yoga instructors were so well versed in clinical psychology.”
Ryan nodded, swished the water around his mouth, and took his time formulating a response. “Oh yeah, with all the mindfulness there’s a ton of overlap.”
“It’s refreshing to see you’re not adverse to the scientific side of things. I was afraid you were going to be much more metaphysical.”
Ryan and Riley had a lot in common, but scrolling through Kevin’s Facebook profile in the bathroom Ryan found he and Kevin did not. “We have similar hairstyles until you look at Kevin from the side profile and you see the manbun.”
The real Kevin was also not as science friendly as Riley had hoped. Ryan reported. “I was less than one page down before I stumbled upon an anti-vaxxer meme, two pages when I found a video questioning the moon landing, and I’m pretty sure the Dalai Lama never said, ‘Depression is a choice.’”
After a few slices of gluten free carrot cake the couple set out for Riley’s apartment for a non-alcoholic nightcap. When they passed the coffee house where Riley’s date was supposed to take place Ryan positioned himself to obscure the real Kevin’s view. When Riley knelt to tie her shoe Ryan knelt with his back to the window, lengthening his coat like privacy curtains.
The couple capped off their evening with two cups of chamomile tea and a sleepy eyed conversation about how worried they’d been about the evening with Ryan drawing from previous blind dates for inspiration.
At a certain point Riley propped her cheek up in her hand. “Here I was fretting I’d have buyer’s remorse, but you’re like the opposite of that. You’re like pride in ownership.” Riley yawned. “That came out wrong.”
Ryan didn’t pressure Riley for a farewell kiss. He didn’t insist they plan out their next date, nor did he linger beyond his welcome. He hugged Riley goodnight and showed himself out. He was a perfect gentlemen apart from that whole grand deception thing.
At the time of this writing Ryan is rigorously preparing for his second date, learning vegan recipes, studying yoga, and surveying the best colognes for covering the smell of alcohol. Behind the scenes he’s been forging a Facebook profile for his interpretation of Kevin, populating it with fake friends, and scientifically positive memes. He’s also been tracking the real Kevin, getting a sense of Kevin’s favorite places so he and Riley can avoid those parts of town.
Meet Noelle, a Hollywood transplant that’s been subsisting on instant ramen and false hope. She’s on the verge of moving back into her mother’s trailer when her agent convinces her to take a meeting at the Oralia Hotel. Enchanted by the art deco atmosphere Noelle signs a contract without reading the fine print.
Now she has one month to pen a novel sequestered in a fantasy suite where a hack writer claims he had an unholy encounter. With whom you ask? Well, he has many names: Louis Cypher, Bill Z. Bub, Kel Diablo. The Devil.
Noelle is skeptical, until she’s awoken by a shadow figure with a taste for souls.
Desperate to make it Noelle stays on, shifting the focus of her story to these encounters. Her investigations take her through the forth wall and back again until she’s blurred the line between reality and what’s written. Is there a Satanic conspiracy, is it a desperate author’s insanity, or something else entirely?