"Did you know a group of bats is called a colony?"
The voice was right in Claire's ear, soft and warm. She didn't turn away from the window, which glowed purple with fake nocturnal light, despite the thrill that tingled in her fingertips at his voice. Black shapes fluttered beyond the glass, and her eyes followed them as they flitted back and forth. "Is that so?"
"Hundreds of them, living together. And yet they're mostly solitary hunters. Alone, even in a group."
His hand slid around her waist, gently, sending shivers up her spine, and she gasped slightly. His lips brushed her ear, and he tugged her backwards, away from the subtle light of the bats' cage and into the total darkness of the slight recess in the wall opposite it.
"Together but alone?" she whispered between his feverish kisses, her fingers pressing into the back of his neck, his short hair poking at them. "Is that how you want to be, M?"
She couldn't see him in the darkness, but she could tell he was tall because she had to stand on her toes to reach his mouth. He was thin, but lean; she could tell by how his body felt pressed against hers. His hair was short and soft, but she had no idea what color it was.
It hadn't bothered her at first, this not knowing. But the longer their trysts went on, the more she wondered.
M shrugged beneath her arms. "People disappoint you. Why bother?"
She pulled back from him, her eyes straining against the darkness. She could faintly see one shoulder outlined by the low light of the bat display behind him. "But you never know, unless you give them a chance, right?"
Another shrug, then a pause. "This is about us, isn't it?"
She relaxed back on the flat of her feet, her hands sliding down his arms to take his hands. She flipped her dark hair away from her face. "Don't you wonder?"
"What I look like? What my name is?"
His hand squeezed hers. "Talking to you has told me everything I need to know about you. You're beautiful."
He stopped her by stepping forward, crushing her against the back wall. Behind him, voices echoed -- a group of kids, Claire realized, coming toward the bats. She sighed and rested her head on M's chest. They waited until the kids, who barely lingered near the bats, had passed by, oblivious to their presence.
When their voices faded again, his lips pressed against her forehead. "Look, I like you," he murmured. "A lot. Relationships tend to end badly, and I don't want to ruin what we have. But if it means that much to you..." A sigh. "Next week. Meet me here, and this time we'll leave together."
She smiled and pulled his head down to hers. "Thank you."
M's arms tightened around her waist, and he lifted her, pressing her back into the rough wall. She wrapped her legs around his waist, her skirt hiking up to her thighs, and gasped as, with an ease that came with practice, he pushed inside her.
Claire was crying the first time she met M, tears running down her cheeks as she stared at the bats. It was her place of comfort, the zoo. Close to campus, so easy to get to, and she loved watching the animals. Especially the bats. She didn't know why, but she loved the darkness in this exhibit, the thought that the bats navigated by sound and did it gracefully.
She'd discovered she could sit in the little hole in the wall across from the bats and nobody would realize she was there. There was light, yes, but it was dim, barely there, and the other zoo visitors were looking at the exhibits, not at a poor girl hiding in the corner.
At the moment, though, she'd emerged, resting her forehead on the glass case and sniffling as she thought about her jackass boyfriend Scott.
"Are you okay?" The voice from her side startled her so that she jumped, banging her head on the glass with a reverberating clang.
"Oww," she groaned, her hand flying to her forehead.
"Oh God, sorry." Fingers touched her shoulder gently, and she looked up at the young man standing next to her. She could faintly make out half of his face -- an eyeball reflected light back at her -- but the purple light bleached out any color. She knew she was blushing. "I didn't mean to scare you," he said, with poorly concealed laughter in his voice.
"It's okay." She stepped back from the glass, shaking her head and hurriedly wiping the tears from her cheeks. "I'm just having a bad day."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
She stared at his dark form for a moment. Did she want to talk about her love life with a complete stranger? Why would he even care? But he sounded like he cared, his voice soft and intent. "It's nothing. Really."
"I'm a good listener." She could see his head moving, as if he were looking around. "So are the bats."
A choked laugh escaped her throat.
He continued, "And sometimes it's easier in the dark. No faces, no names."
She hesitated, her mouth slightly open. Oh, why not? "My boyfriend cheated on me and then dumped me."
Voices echoed to them then, another group approaching.
His hand slid around her shoulder, and he moved her gently back, out of the way of the newcomers, into the recess she'd started calling "her" space. Before she knew it, she was spilling everything to him, and he was listening, his arm warm around her shoulders. It was nice, somehow right, and even though groups of people kept walking by, nobody ever seemed to see them there.
When he said he had to go, she fought down panic. "Will I ... see you again?"
He squeezed her hand and leaned forward, kissing her gently and sending her pulse through the roof. "Meet me here next week. Same time, same day."
When he straightened, she said, "I don't even know your name." She cleared her throat, feeling suddenly awkward.
A pause, then, "Just call me M. First letter of my middle name."
She nodded, her skin burning. "I'm E, then."
"Looking forward to it, E." And then he was gone, vanished into the darkness.
Claire didn't know what was going to happen, but she knew one thing: There was no way in hell she'd be anywhere else this time next week.
Scott? Who was he?
Two months. They'd been meeting here, same time and same place, for two months now. And M had never been late. Ever.
But now, when she was finally going to see his face, an hour had passed with no sign of him. In the first 10 minutes, she was calm, though excited. Then she was nervous. Then she started pacing, back and forth in front of the bat exhibit, ignoring the funny looks she was sure the people passing by were giving her.
Oh, God. He changed his mind. That had to be it. He didn't want to reveal his identity to her. And there was no way she could find him if she searched.
She leaned back against the wall and closed her eyes, admitting to herself how much she'd opened herself to M, despite the casual appearance of their meetings. She'd come to depend on him, and, yes, she had hoped it might go somewhere more serious.
Somewhere that had names and faces.
But it was clear now that it hadn't meant the same thing to him. He probably would never show up here again. She opened her eyes and stared at the bats, dark shapes against the night light. "Alone, even in a group," she whispered.
Feeling depressed, Claire trudged back outside, the brightness searing her eyes. As she made her way back to the parking lot, her eyes scanned the face of every reasonably tall boy with short, spiky hair, her mind wondering if it were M. She probably always would wonder; she could walk right by him and not even know it.
The next morning, feeling a little more optimistic -- maybe something had come up and M would be there next week -- Claire sat down at the kitchen table with a bowl of cereal.
"Better day?" her roommate, Lana, asked, apparently noticing that Claire hadn't moped into the kitchen as she had the night before.
"Yeah, I..." The newspaper in front of her caught her eye. A story at the fold mentioned the zoo in the headline. She pulled it to her, unfolding it. The happy face of a man grinned up at her, his smile easy, his blue eyes gleaming. Light blond hair ... spiked.
Claire's heart skipped a beat, and she swallowed hard, reading the caption: "Andrew Michael Jamison, 22, died Thursday of gunshot wounds he received after intervening in a domestic dispute in the parking lot at the zoo."
She stared at his face, her mind imagining her hand stroking that face. It was the right shape. And the man was tall, if the woman standing next to him in the photo was any indication of perspective.
Her mouth fell open, and she struggled to breathe.
No. There's no way to know. It's probably a coincidence. It has to be.
Lana was shooting her a concerned look and leaned over to look at the paper. "Oh, that's so sad. Claire, do you know that guy?"
Claire stared at the picture, as if seeing it for the first time, feeling paralyzed with remorse. Somehow, she managed to shake her head in response, unshed tears stinging her eyes.
Together but alone? No, just alone.
Author's Note: Hey, check it out, a rare short-short story! I hardly ever write these, much less without some kind of prompt from my writing group, The Write Away. This just came out of nowhere. I tried to ignore it for a few days but it just kept growing in my brain. I hope you like it!