One Night by Audrey Hendrix
Her chucks hit the ground hard, kicking gravel and leaves out of her way. She dropped her bag in a heap next to the spot she had chosen. Her sneakers scraped the railing of the bridge. It was a chilly night and she wished she had brought a jacket, though it wasn’t exactly necessary. Cars whizzed by, unaware of her overhead. The wind blew her hair all around her head, getting the dark strands stuck in the moisture on her face. She squeezed her eyes shut and willed herself to take deep breaths.
His feet dragged. His head pounded. He pulled his jacket tighter around him to ward off the chill of the night air. His vision wasn’t blurred anymore, which he was thankful for. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be able to walk straight. He pushed a long strand of dark hair away from his eyes, which were tired and bloodshot.
She held onto the wall of the bridge, staring down at the asphalt below. One slip and it would be over. She wasn’t quite ready. She really did wish she had brought a jacket. Her arms were numb and her fingers were icy. Breathe in, she told herself. Breathe out. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to do anything. That’s just how it was now. She pulled her eyes up from the ground and looked out to the city skyline. She loved the way the sky could be so dark but it was still light as day from the lights of the skyscrapers. It was a beautiful sight. The wind pushed her hair away from her face and chilled the tears there.
He pulled his head up and willed his eyes to focus. He was still buzzing just a little bit, but it was mostly just a throbbing in his head. When he saw her his heart and brain kick-started into motion. But the last thing he wanted to do in that moment was scare her. She might let go. He continued across the bridge slowly, carefully. She didn’t hear his footsteps or soft breathing. She was too busy staring at the night sky.
“Hello?” His voice was soft.
She whipped around, her hair flying everywhere, and stared at him. Her eyes were red and puffy and clumps of hair were stuck in the tears on her flushed cheeks. “Go away,” she croaked out. Her voice was raspy, the kind of strained it gets when someone has spent a long time crying.
He put his hands up but didn’t take a step back. Get her talking, he thought. “What’s your name?”
Her grip on the railing tightened. “I said go away.” Her voice was pleading now, wanting nothing more than to be alone. To fall. He took a tiny step forward, his face softening. “Cassie,” she said quietly.
He took another step forward. “I’m Luke.” She stayed quiet, her eyes locked on his. “W-what’s wrong?” He couldn’t think of a better way to phrase the question.
“I just can’t do it anymore,” she said. She looked back at the ground. “I’m just tired.”
He nodded his head, making him sway a little. But he demanded his hazy brain focus. “I get it,” he said. She shivered, chills running up her arms and pain surfacing in her freezing fingers. “C’mon,” he said, extending his hand.
She looked back at him and shook her head.
“C’mon,” he repeated. “It’s cold out here.”
He kept his intense gaze on her as she turned, ever so slowly so as not to fall, and reached for his hand. Her fingers were stiff and icy and he gripped them hard. He pushed away the feeling of fear that he was going to drop her. Her breathing was shallow, panicked. Every move seemed to be in slow motion; turning towards him, gripping his hand. Her foot slipped on the slick concrete of the bridge's edge and her face flashed with terror for a moment before he caught her. She didn’t really want to fall, and it took her almost tumbling over the edge to finally realize that. She clung to his arms as he hauled her over the edge, heart pounding much too loud. Once her feet were firmly on the ground she sunk down, her back leaning against the wall, gasping for breath.
They were both quiet for a moment, their breath coming out in tiny puffs in front of them and then whisking away. He turned towards her, getting his first clear look at her face. She was young, younger than him. She had delicate features and a splash of freckles across her nose. Her cheeks were red from the cool wind and damp from crying. Her eyes drooped, the kind of tired you feel when you’ve felt hopeless for a long time. The irises were a dark brown, a contrast to the blazing red around them. She pushed her tangled dark curls away from her forehead and stared back at him.
He was older, not old, but an adult, older than her. His dark mangy hair hung down a few inches past his chin. Despite his unkempt hair, his face was clean shaven, displaying a strong jaw that added to his mature look. His eyes were drooping just like hers, tired and a little bloodshot. The green in them was sharp though, staring intensely.
"You smell like a tequila bottle," she said, her nose wrinkling.
"Yeah. I'm coming off a bad binge."
"I'm coming off a bad life."
They fell silent again, staring out at the skyline. She closed her eyes for a moment and tried desperately to push away the tears that hadn't let up in days. He put his head in his hands, pushing on his temples in efforts to stop the throbbing. She gathered her bag, ready to stand and leave and he brought his attention back to her.
He spoke before she could get up. "It's cold. Let's go get some coffee or something."
She narrowed her eyes. "I don't even know you."
"Come on. You're cold, I'm hungover. We need coffee."
"Why?" She asked quietly, looking at the ground and not him.
He sighed. "Truthfully, I just pulled you off a bridge. I'm pretty reluctant to let you go off on your own."
"I'll be fine," she said, brushing a tear away. "It was a just momentary lapse. I'm fine now."
He knew better.
It was warm in the coffee shop, cozy. People milled around lazily. There was no urgency in any movement, no hurry for anything. It was quiet, people’s soft voices and the lilting music creating white noise in the background. The coffee grinders and makers hummed from their places behind the counter. Outside, car beams and traffic lights flashed. There was yelling and honking and the sound of tires on asphalt. It was a direct contrast to the quiet atmosphere surrounding the two. The calm and the chaos.
The two were quiet until the waitress came, asking what she could get the two of them even though her eyes never left Luke. He ordered two coffees and looked to Cassie to see if she wanted anything else. She declined. Luke flashed the waitress a dazzling smile. She was pretty. Her hair was dyed a light purple and curled neatly. She was tall and leggy and had a flirty smile. Her hips swayed the tiniest bit as she left and Luke watched her go.
It was quiet again. Cassie stared at the table, her fingers making patterns in the spilled sugar.
“So, how old are you, anyway?” He asked.
“Twenty.” She brushed the tiny specks of sugar off her fingers and looked up. “You?”
“I’m twenty-six.” He picked up a sugar packet, suddenly feeling the need to busy his hands. “Just six years.”
“Six years is a long time,” she said quietly.
He shrugged. “It can be.”
After a few more minutes of awkward silence, the waitress returned carrying two cups of steaming coffee and a small cup of cream. She set them down on the table and turned to Luke again. She eyed him up and down. “Can I get you anything else?” Luke said no. She gave him a smile. “You know, I get off at eight.”
“Sorry,” said Luke, much to Cassie’s surprise. His eyes flicked to her. “I have plans. Maybe another time.”
The waitress looked between Luke and Cassie, apparently not believing that he wanted to spend the night with Cassie and not her. “Oh,” is all she said before she turned to leave. Cassie poured a splash of cream into her coffee, watching it blossom and lighten up the black liquid. She stirred some sugar in, willing her irritation to fade. She realized she had no reason to be upset. She didn’t even know him. They had met less than an hour ago. He didn’t belong to her in any way, shape, or form. It wasn’t a crime for women to flirt with him. But it still bothered her that the waitress had been brazen enough to hit on Luke while Cassie sat right across from him. She wondered if Luke was intentionally flirting too, or if he was just charming and didn’t realize the effect it had on people, mostly women.
Luke took a drink of his black coffee and listened to the clink of Cassie’s spoon against the side of the mug. She tapped her fingers against the table and Luke examined the chipped purple nail polish. She was a pretty girl, she just hadn’t been taking care of herself. That was obvious given the tangles in her thick mane of hair and the bagginess of her clothes. “Do you want to talk about it?” he asked. “Anything?”
She took a drink of coffee and contemplated her answer. She didn’t even know this guy, but he was asking. He was there. “I’m tired,” she said as she set her spoon down on the table. “But I can’t sleep.”
“Why not?” he was looking at her intensely, his eyes starting to wake up from the caffeine.
She looked down at the table and examined the scratches on the surface. “I don’t know,” she said with a shrug. There was a moment of silence and then she turned and looked at him for the first time since they had walked into the coffee shop. “Do you want to know what it feels like?”
He nodded softly. “Sure.”
Her fingers started tapping again. “It feels like someone threw me off a boat into the ocean, but I can’t swim.” She ran her fingers through her hair, getting them stuck in the knots there. “And I just keep sinking. And the farther down I go the darker it gets and the pressure gets harder and harder until I feel like I’m being crushed. And all I want to do is scream and let the water in and drown so it’s finally over.” She took a deep breath.
Luke was very conscious of the fact that his mouth was hanging agape. He closed it quickly and gulped. “Wow,” he said softly, still trying to process her words.
Her eyes flicked back down to her cup of coffee. “Sorry,” she whispered.
He shook his head, trying to find the right words. “No, don’t be sorry. It’s just…that’s something I can’t understand, you know? I want to help, but I don’t know how.”
She shrugged. “You asked what was wrong. That helped.”
He smiled and they fell into silence again, more comfortable this time.
Cassie drained the last few drops of overly sweet coffee, cringing as she swallowed the undissolved sugar crystals sitting in the bottom of her mug. His eyes were brighter now and she could appreciate the green more. He had smile lines and a chin dimple. She pushed the thought that he could be dangerous away. He had pulled her off the side of a bridge. If he wanted to kill her he wouldn’t have taken her for coffee first.
“So,” she said. “What’s with the drinking?”
“Huh?” he questioned through his gulp.
“You said you were coming off a drinking binge. Sounds like a regular thing.”
He pursed his lips as he tried to come up with the right answer. She waited. “It always starts out as fun, it’s just one crazy night of drinking to laugh about with your friends. Then one night turns into two, then three, then a week straight. Then you’re drinking during your days off.” He sighed and brushed a piece of hair out of his face. “It’s not even because I’m upset or going through a hard time. I just can’t stop. It’s routine now.” He let out a humorless chuckle. “I can’t remember that last time I went a day without having a drink.”
“Why don’t you get help?” she asked, realizing he probably wanted to ask her the same question.
He gave that sardonic chuckle again. “I gotta work. And before you ask, yes, I do work.”
“What do you do?” she asked.
“I work at a bookstore.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Yeah. Is that a problem?”
Cassie chuckled and shrugged. “No, not at all. You just don’t really seem like the ‘bookstore’ kind of guy.”
“What’s that mean?”
“You know, you don’t have the whole ‘I wear ironic t-shirts and go to funky coffee shops’ vibe to you.”
He gestured to the coffee shop around them. “I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Yeah,” she said, still smiling. “But you ordered regular coffee and drank it black.”
His eyes crinkled at the corners when he laughed and his head tilted back. “Come on,” he said, slapping a few dollars on the table and standing. “I’ll show you I’m a bookstore guy.”
She liked books. She really liked books. Luke liked the way she stood on her tiptoes and still couldn’t reach the top shelf. He liked how her hair fell back over her shoulders. He decided to help her out when she started climbing on the shelves. He pulled the book she wanted down and examined it.
“The Great Gatsby,” he said. “One of your favorites?”
“I’ve never read it,” she admitted.
He gaped at her. “You’ve never read it?”
She snatched the book from his hands. “No, I’ve never read the nineteen twenties, every character sucks, horrible ending book.”
“So, if you already know what happens why are you reading it?”
“I’m not,” she said. “Just…examining the book to make sure I don’t really want to read it. Ever.”
“It’s a classic,” he argued.
“Fine,” she challenged. “I’ll read your stupid, overrated book. But I get to pick a book for you to read.”
He agreed and followed her around the store as she pulled book after book off the shelf, asking if he had read it. He was surprised to see how happy she looked in the store as she flitted from shelf to shelf, prattling on about which ones she loved, which ones she hated, which ones were overrated. He figured it was a common misconception, just like the way people saw him. Just because he was an alcoholic didn’t mean he couldn’t live day to day life. Just because she was depressed didn’t mean she couldn’t smile. It took her about twenty minutes but she finally found one he hadn’t read.
“Isn’t this book for teenagers?” Luke asked as he examined the cover.
“No,” she said. “It’s about teenagers, but anyone can read it.”
He held the book up. “The Outsiders? Really?”
“Just because it’s not a ‘classic’ doesn’t mean it isn’t a masterpiece.”
He sat down in his favorite striped armchair in the front window and cracked the book open. “Ponyboy?” he asked in disbelief. “The main character’s name is Ponyboy?”
Cassie didn’t look up from her book. “Yep.”
She crossed her legs under her and flipped her hair over her shoulder, her eyes quickly skimming over the words on the page. After a few minutes, she looked up at Luke to find him completely engrossed in the book. He was reading quickly, his eyes displaying tiny pieces of emotion as he read, all coming together like a mosaic across his face. He pushed his dark hair away from his face and kept reading. Cassie liked the way his eyes squinted when he focused and how he licked the tip of his finger before turning every page.
“Oh my god!” Luke exclaimed, after over an hour of silent reading. He shut the book and looked directly at Cassie. “If Johnny dies I swear to god…” He didn’t finish his threat but she got the message. She had to look away to try not to spoil anything for him. After a moment he asked, “What do you think of Gatsby so far?”
“Well,” she contemplated. “Gatsby is an interesting character, though I find his obsession with Daisy very creepy. Tom is a racist piece of shit. Jordan has a stick up her ass and Nick is annoying.” She skimmed over the page she was on again and then continued. “It’s like he idolizes Gatsby, it’s so weird. And don’t get me started on Daisy. She’s so manipulative. She plays stupid but she knows what she’s doing.”
“So, you like it?”
Cassie grimaced. “Yes.”
Luke let out a loud laugh. “I told you it’s good.”
“I feel so bad,” she said. “I hate everyone and that’s why I love it.”
“There’s not one good character in that book and it’s still considered one of the best novels.”
Cassie shook her head and turned back to the book.
Luke closed his book and put it down on the coffee table. “I said,” he started, catching Cassie’s attention. “That if Johnny died I would be devastated and yet you let me keep reading!” He dried his eyes on the fabric lining of his leather jacket.
Cassie gave the most innocent shrug he had ever seen. “Sorry…?”
“He saved those kids and then he just died. And Dally too. What kind of horrible author makes you love two characters so much and then viciously kills them?”
“All the good ones, I think.” She closed her book, finally finishing the last sentence. “So, you liked it?”
“Yes,” he said. “I liked your stupid teenager book.”
“And I liked your stupid everyone sucks book.”
Luke smiled that dazzling smile, his dimples popping out of his cheeks. “Look at us, expanding our minds.”
He gathered the books to put them back on their shelves. Cassie let out a huge yawn. Luke stopped and examined her, her eyes drooping as she burrowed into her chair.
“Do you have a place to stay tonight?” he asked.
“What does that mean?”
“I just don’t want to go home,” she said softly. “Roommate issues.”
“Come on,” he said, stretching out his hand.
Cassie looked at him hesitantly. “I just met you a few hours ago.”
“What, you think I’m some kind of ax murderer? I just cried reading the freakin’ Outsiders. What kind of serial killer does that?”
She cracked a smile, then took his hand.
His apartment looked exactly like what Cassie imagined a single guy with a drinking problem would live in. Minimal furniture, bottles littering the counter, bare walls, all furniture facing the TV. She stood awkwardly in the doorway as he dropped his stuff and sauntered in.
“You can sit down,” he said, grabbing a bottle from the countertop and taking a swig. He held the bottle out for her as an offer but she declined. “You don’t drink?”
She shrugged. “I’m only twenty.” He gave her a knowing look and she continued. “Plus, I’m afraid it’ll fuck up my already inadequate antidepressants.”
“Ah,” he said, as if he understood, even though they both knew he didn’t. “You want some water?” She nodded.
Cassie turned the TV on as Luke sat down on the couch next to her. “What’s your poison?” she asked.
He held up his glass. “Alcohol.”
“Nothing specific?” she asked.
“No,” he said, taking a sip. “At the moment it’s whatever’s cheapest.”
They watched TV in awkward silence for a moment. Luke draped his arm absentmindedly over the back of the couch and Cassie became very aware that she was alone in an apartment with a man she met about six hours ago. She stood up quickly, declaring that she was hungry, and began rummaging in his pantry. She pulled a bag of chips out of the cupboard, put them on the table, and turned back to Luke.
“Can I ask you a question?” she asked hurriedly.
He gave a concerned look. “Sure…”
“Why did you talk me off the edge of the bridge?”
He set his drink down on the table and stood so he was facing her fully. “I wasn’t just going to let you jump.”
“Yeah,” she said as she ran her fingers anxiously through her hair. “But there are people you can call. You could have called the police but you didn’t.”
It was strange. Her anxiety seemed to make him calmer, more level headed. “Honestly,” he said. “That thought didn’t really occur to me. I just acted. I just knew I couldn’t let you do it.”
“Okay,” she said. “But why did you take me to get coffee? And then to the bookstore? And then offer me a place to stay? Huh? You definitely didn’t need to do that.”
He gave his easy-going shrug again. “At first, you seemed like you needed someone. Then it kind of seemed like I needed someone. And I was just trying to help. That’s what friends do.”
“We’re friends now?” she asked. “We’ve known each other for six hours!”
She turned away, brushing angry, overwhelmed teas off her blazing cheeks. “Why do you want to be my friend anyway? I’ve got…issues.”
“So?” he repeated. “I started drinking at nine this morning, you don’t think I have issues too? We just gotta keep moving.”
“Keep moving,” she repeated softly. “Sometimes it feels like everything is moving too fast. I just wish it would stop for a just a second so I could take a breath and try and catch up.”
They were face to face now, standing right in front of each other. He could count the freckles on her rosy cheeks. “Catch up to what?”
“Life,” she said.
He wiped a tear off her cheek. “What are you talking about ‘catch up to life’? It’s not going anywhere.”
“Neither am I.”
“That’s why you just keep moving.”
She took a step closer and wrapped her arms around his middle in a tight embrace. He ran his hand through her hair as he hugged her back, gently kissing her on top of her head. After several moments he pulled away, then took her hand and pulled her back over to the couch. “Just take a deep breath.”
Cassie collapsed onto the couch and he pulled the ratty blanket from the back over her shoulders. She took a deep breath, held it for a moment, then let it out loudly. Luke sat down next to her, propping his feet up in the coffee table next to his empty cocktail glass. He resisted the urge to go refill it. He turned to her and pushed a stray piece of hair behind her ear as she laid her head back. After a moment of watching her face get calmer, he laid his head back too and let his heavy eyelids fall shut. She fell asleep first.
Luke woke first. His eyes opened slowly, squinting in the light of the TV. It was playing a rerun of a popular sitcom, one of those shows that everyone has seen a million times but somehow never gets sick of. He left it on for background noise. Carefully, he moved Cassie’s legs off his lap so as not to wake her and stood up. His head hurt again, but it was a feeling he had long since gotten used to.
Softly, his bare feet padded into the kitchen and he opened up his fridge. It was a sad sight; leftover pizza, expired orange juice, a six-pack of beer, and a carton of eggs that he didn’t remember buying. He pulled the orange juice container out of the fridge and opened it up, examining the sticky residue on the cap. He dumped it down the sink, crushed the container, and threw it in the general direction of the trash. Now his fridge looked even sadder.
Cassie let out a snore that made him jump. He clamped his hand over his mouth to silence his laugh as he wondered how she hadn’t woken him up. She looked so peaceful bundled up in that blanket. He promised not to tell her how long it had been since it had been washed.
He pulled the eggs out and set them on the counter, deciding to cook them if they were still in an edible state. He cracked one into a bowl, examined it to find it seemingly okay, and dumped it into the pan on the stove.
There was a shuffling behind him and he turned to watch Cassie kick the blanket off of her legs and stand up. Her hair was even messier than when she fell asleep and her eyes were tired. She rubbed the sleep away and walked over to him.
“Whatcha doin’?” she asked.
“What does it look like I’m doing, hunting elephants?”
She let out a sleepy chuckle. “I’m just surprised you know how to cook. Or consume anything besides alcohol for that matter.”
“Hey,” he said, pointing his egg covered spatula at her. “You saw me drink coffee last night.”
She smiled. “Okay, okay, you got me on that.” He nodded.
Quickly, easily, as if she were a little kid, he picked her up by the waist and set her on the counter next to the stove.
“There,” he said. “Now we’re eye level.” She scoffed, irritated. “So, what do you do all day?” he asked. Her eyebrows scrunched together in a questioning manner. “You know that I work at a bookstore. And drink. What do you do all day?”
“Sleep,” she said as she looked down at her blue painted toenails. “Not much else.”
She shook her head.
“It got to a point where I couldn’t get out of bed to go to work. Sucked. I liked my job too. After a while, it started to get better, but I’d had to leave work and I couldn’t pay my rent anymore. My roommates are trying to get me to move out cuz it’s taken me a while to find a job.”
Luke gave his eggs one more poke with the spatula and then dumped them onto a plate. “Screw ‘em,” he said. “People go through hard times. You need support, not to be kicked out.” He grabbed a fork from a drawer and started eating, still standing in front of the stove and her.
“Where did you work?”
“At the gift shop in the zoo.”
He cracked a smile. “So, do you just know about the stuffed animals, or do you know about all the animals too?”
“I have a few fun facts about them,” she said with a grin.
They fell quiet again until Luke’s curiosity got the best of him and he asked, “Do you know what started it?”
Cassie shook her head. “I’ve been told it doesn’t have a preference, doesn’t care how rich or poor you are, what race or gender or anything you are. It just happens.”
He nodded, realized he was being rude, and held his plate out to offer her some of his very early breakfast. She shook her head.
“It comes and it goes,” she continued. “And last night it hit me hard. That’s what’s so scary. You can never tell when it’s going to rear its ugly head. Or how hard it’s going to hit you.”
Cassie rested her head against Luke’s shoulder and he laid his arm over her back. Her legs draped lazily over his, comfortably. The TV was on, but neither of them were watching it. Their eyes were focused on the orange beams breaking between the skyscrapers, brightening the sky and casting shadows simultaneously.
“It’s a new day,” said Luke quietly.
“Yeah,” Cassie agreed. “That’s usually what happens when the sky lights up like this.”
“I’m not doing anything today. Since we went to my work, maybe you could show me the zoo. I’ve never been.”
Cassie looked at him with those big dark eyes, the ones that had been bloodshot from tears twelve hours ago. They were lighter now, though starting to fade from sleepiness. “Really?”
“Yep,” he said. “You doing anything?”
Cassie gave a soft smile. “I don’t have any plans today.”