Authors: CeeCee James
oday is the day
, today is the day.
The mantra had been running through her head all morning.
This time it has to be him.
After a quick shower, she’d applied the barest amount of makeup, jammed a handful of Jolly Ranchers into her pocket, grabbed the bible, and headed out.
The second address led her to an apartment building in downtown Freymere, just over a half hour away from her hotel. Cassie parked in the underground garage and grabbed the pepper spray.
Not doing that again.
Its weight in her pocket gave her extra confidence as she took the stairs back to the main floor.
Hugging the book close, she yanked open the building’s front door and entered the main hall.
Rows of silver locked mailboxes lined the entire left wall. To the right was a stairwell, its red carpet stained and worn thin from traffic. Stale cigarette smoke hung in the air. Cassie took a deep breath to calm the flutters in her stomach, and headed for the stairs.
Cassie hurried up two flights and then down a long hall. Her heart beat faster as she approached the apartment door.
Don’t think about it, just do it.
Reaching out, she knocked hard on the door, then wiped her clammy hands on her pants for the fifth time.
What was that?
She peered down the dark hallway and held her breath to listen. Someone’s baby was crying. Exhaling, she clutched the bible to her chest like a shield and lightly bounced on her toes. A bubble of excitement rose inside, batting away the fear.
Leif, I’m finally here, I’m doing it!
She tried to picture Leif’s smile. His face slowly blurred, and she struggled to recapture his look even as it faded away. Frowning, she turned back to the door and knocked again.
A noise behind her had her spinning around. The apartment door across from Luke’s opened, and a young man looked out. He gave her a quick once-over as his mouth relaxed into an easy smile.
Cassie bristled at the stare. “Can I help you?” she asked.
“I was just about to ask you the same.”
“Uh, I’m looking for a guy named Luke.” She bit her lip before continuing. “Is he home?”
He smirked, glancing at Luke’s door. “You’re going to have to knock a whole lot harder than that to get his attention.”
“Why? Is he hard of hearing?” Cassie asked.
He snickered and shook his head. “You don’t know him very well, do you?”
Cassie straightened to her full five-foot-two. “No,” she answered. “I’m just trying to return something that belongs to him.”
He glanced at the book in her hands. “Yeah, you could say he’s got some hearing issues. Pound harder.”
Exasperated, Cassie turned back to Luke’s door and pounded with all of her strength.
“Keep going, keep going,” the guy across the hall encouraged.
“For crying out loud!” The door vibrated under her strikes.
A loud curse from inside the apartment stopped her knocks. Something heavy smacked against the other side of the door and tumbled to the floor with a crash.
Cassie took a step back.
“He’s up.” The neighbor said with a snort, before closing the door.
Footsteps thundered through Luke’s apartment. Squaring her shoulders, Cassie steeled herself.
The door flew open.
Standing there was a man in his late twenties. Ratty clothing hung off of his muscular frame. Towering nearly a foot over her, he staggered unsteadily on his feet before the palm of his hand slapped against the door jamb for balance. Blinking hard, he struggled to focus as he looked at her. “What do you want?” he growled.
Cassie’s mouth dropped open.
It was the guy from yesterday, the one that had chased her away from the burned house.
Luke’s face was blank and closed off. He didn’t look like he remembered her.
“I— uh—” she began.
“I— uh—” he imitated with a sarcastic grin. “You better have a good reason to be waking me up.” His beet-red face broke into a yawn, and he dragged his hand through his hair, tousling it into a mountain of black peaks.
“I have something of yours.” She swallowed. “For Mr. Stanzione.” She lifted the bible.
Luke glanced at it. He opened the door wider and took a step back. “You come bearing gifts, huh? Well, I guess I better let you in.”
Cassie’s feet, rooted to the hallway floor, didn’t move. Her gaze darted down the building’s empty hallway before returning to search the dark depths of his apartment. From where she stood, she could see the floor was cluttered with debris.
She offered the book again. “Here, from Leif.”
His head jerked up at her words, and his eyes narrowed. “Come in here.” He reached out and took her arm.
Almost against her will, she stepped in.
He shut the door behind her and a wave of his boozy breath drifted over her. She pulled at the oversized sweatshirt she wore, the weight of the pepper spray comforting her.
“What do you know about Leif?” he asked, looking her up and down.
“He was my boyfriend,” she whispered, before clearing her throat. “Why are you being so rude?”
“Rude?” He snorted. “I was born rude. Sorry to have offended you. Come in.” He waved her inside with his hand. “Let’s go have a chat about Leif.”
Drunk and sarcastic. Awesome.
Luke gestured toward a messy couch. “Have a seat right there.”
Cassie looked down at the couch, her gaze slowly taking in the huge pile of laundry. A flush crept over Luke’s face, and he appeared embarrassed as he watched her shift uncomfortably. He cleared his throat and crossed his arms over his chest.
“Um.” Cassie’s glance flicked around the room. It was dark; depressing. The smells assaulted her nose: fried food, cigarette smoke, spilled alcohol. She lifted her chin and could see that she was in a studio apartment. A bed sat in the far corner, its tangled sheet exposing the bare mattress. In another corner, a black guitar was propped against a bookshelf.
Her knee bumped into the coffee table, overrun with cigarette butts, ashtrays and beer bottles.
Oh Leif, I don’t know if I can do this.
A spot of brilliance caught her eye. Sunlight spilled from a crack in the blinds and lit on a metal frame. The wall was filled with frames, commendations of some sort.
Glancing up, she saw a fishing pole hanging on the wall. Her heart softened, reminded of Luke’s sad face at nine years old.
She turned back to Luke. “You know, I met you yesterday.”
He squinted at her. “That’s right, the little investigator. Tell me again, what were you doing at that house?”
Cassie walked to the end of the couch and began shoving at the clothing to create a space. He sat across from her in an easy chair. She swallowed. “I was looking for you.”
“And why would you do that?” he asked. His expression dropped its drunken confusion as he studied her. Her skin prickled under his scrutiny. “Tell me, Principessa, what do you have in your hands?” he asked, his tone tinged with curiosity. His feet thumped up onto the coffee table, knocking over two beer bottles. He didn’t bother to look at them rolling along the floor.
Cassie’s mouth went dry. “I, uh….” She shifted on the couch, fighting every instinct to just get up and run. She eyed him and decided against it. He looked like the type that would chase after her.
Luke’s eyes closed as his head listlessly drifted back against the chair. His Adam’s apple moved as he swallowed, the paleness of his throat appearing vulnerable. The chair’s arm was torn, with a fluff of stuffing poking out. His fingers, nails bitten close, nervously twisted the stuffing, her first sign that he wasn't as confident as he was attempting to appear.
“You make me ask again, and you can leave,” he said with a barb of impatience.
Fire ran down Cassie's spine at his tone. “Hey, now, you don’t need to speak to me that way. I'll tell you when I'm good and ready.”
He opened his eyes and looked at her clearly. “Are you ready now?” His eyebrows arched, but a smile played at the corner of his mouth.
“Leif was in Afghanistan and.…” The dreaded lump appeared in her throat. She struggled to talk around it. “He died last year, I don’t know if you knew that….” her voice trailed off, as she watched his face.
“I’m so sorry. Um, Leif’s friend brought this to me last year.” Cassie moved the bible to the edge of her knees. “I thought his family should have it.”
He brushed his hair off his forehead and sighed. “Well, now, that’s interesting. How do you know I’m family?”
Cassie twisted the clasp of her necklace. “Leif had been looking for you. I just followed your trail from where he left off.”
“Where's my manners today?” He wiped his hand down the front of his t-shirt and held it out to her. “Well, you found me, sweetheart. Luke Stanzione.”
She couldn't hide her expression of fear. He pulled his hand away with a look of shame before the drunken smile returned.
“Sorry to have bothered you. Maybe I can bring it to his dad,” Cassie said.
Luke slowly shook his head. “You’ll need to go to the Crownsville cemetery then. His dad’s been gone six years now.”
Cassie took a deep breath.
Great. What do I do now?
He held his hand out for the bible. “Let me see it.”
She passed it to him, and he balanced it against his knee. A quiet sound came out of him, almost a groan.
Cassie’s stomach twisted. She scooted to the edge of the couch and eyed the door. “It’s his family bible,” she said.
“I know what it is.” Luke took a shaky breath. “I remember it from my Grandma’s house.” The muscles in his forearm flexed as he flipped the cover open. Scanning the pages, his hazel eyes darkened with pain.
He chucked the bible onto the coffee table, spilling the ashtray. Ashes and cigarette butts went flying, some settling down like crematory remains on top of the bible.
Cassie’s hand flew up to her mouth. She wanted to snatch Leif’s precious family relic up and run from the apartment. Biting the inside of her cheek, she tried to calm down.
Luke stood up and stalked into the corner of the studio that held the kitchen, and pulled a beer bottle from the fridge. After cracking it open, he took a long swig and stumbled back to his chair. Leaning forward, he balanced the beer bottle on top of the bible.
“Nice coaster. Thank you.” He smiled at her shocked face and then laughed. “Aww, what’s the matter? You come here expecting a big sappy thank you?”
“I came here for Leif.” She straightened her back. He winced at her words. “You meant something to him, so you meant something to me, too. I can tell he thought you were a good guy.”
His hands came up to rub his forehead, and then his eyes. A quiet curse dropped out of his mouth. “Stop. Please.”
“So, since you keep asking me, what were
doing at the house yesterday?”
Lifting his head, he looked back at her, his eyes wet.
“Time to leave, sweetheart.”
from the apartment with Luke’s hand at the small of her back guiding her out. He slammed the door on her heels.
What just happened in there?
Reaching for the wall to steady herself, she stood shaking in the hallway.
Breathe. Just breathe.
Instead she wanted to puke.
Across the hall, the neighbor’s door cracked open again. This time the man was joined in the doorway by a young woman hanging on to his waist. The blonde woman wore a belly shirt and low cut yoga pants. She curled around her boyfriend as she eyed Cassie. “You okay?” she whispered in a baby voice.
“That guy,” Cassie jabbed a thumb in Luke’s direction, barely able to get the words out. She’d never been treated that way in her life. Gone were her dreams of settling things for Leif. Her mouth tasted sour. She glanced at the neighbors. “I mean, he’s a head case.”
The boyfriend kissed the top of his girlfriend’s head before wandering back into the apartment. The girl wrinkled her nose at Cassie. Her pink nails tapped the edge of the door frame as she seemed to consider if she wanted to share something. “You know, he used to be really different.”
“He’s been like that every time I’ve met him,” Cassie said. She pulled down the hem of her hoodie and jammed her hands into its pockets. Finding a Jolly Rancher, she unwrapped one and stuck it in her mouth.
“Yeah, I know. He’s a wreck. But he wasn’t always that way.”
The memory of his tortured eyes, before he slapped the angry expression back on, flashed through Cassie’s memory. “Okay,” she conceded sucking on the candy, thoughtfully. “What’s his story then?”
The girl eyed Luke’s doorway nervously, before opening her own wider. “Come in here and I’ll tell you. My name’s Allison, by the way.”
“Um.” Cassie eyed her apartment.
Allison gave a shy smile. “I don’t blame you if you don’t want to come in. I just don’t want him”—her eyes darted toward Luke’s door—“to hear me.”
Cassie considered her invite for a milli-second.
I’m here, might as well find out what’s wrong with him. Go big or go home.
“I’m Cassie, and thanks.”
Allison led Cassie into a brightly lit kitchen. Their apartment layout was bigger than Luke’s. The thick smell of weed permeated the air. From the living room her boyfriend called, “Baby, what are you doing?”
“Just filling her in on the neighbor,” she called back, still in a high voice.
“Aww, come on. Leave the guy alone. He don’t need no busybodies butting into his business.”
“Don’t worry about it, Dave.” Allison glanced at Cassie, eyes appraising, as she casually leaned against the white countertop with her arms crossed. “So, how do you know Luke anyway?”
Cassie felt the lump return to her throat. She sighed, not wanting to answer Allison. Talking about Leif to a stranger felt like it was cheapening his death. That was hers alone. She wouldn’t share it. Cassie grabbed another candy from her pocket, stalling for time. Finally, she said, “I’m a friend of one of his cousins. I was supposed to return something to him. But it didn’t go over well.” She nodded her head in Luke’s direction. “As you heard.”
“And his cousin didn’t tell you about him?” Allison dipped her eyebrow curiously.
“No. They’d lost touch.”
Allison nodded then and poured herself a cup of water. “Want some?” she offered.
The cup was smudged with fingerprints and lipstick marks. Cassie shook her head. She rested against the counter before slowly pulling away when her hand touched something sticky.
“I don’t know Luke well, myself, but he has a reputation around here,” Allison continued. She took a long drink.
“After what I’ve seen, I’ll bet he does,” Cassie murmured.
Allison laughed. “No, really. I mean a good one. Before last year, anyway. He was one of the best cops in the city.”
Cassie’s mouth dropped open. She shut it quickly before her candy fell out. “Come on. Seriously?”
“Yeah. I’m serious.” Allison shrugged. “He had a reputation for being a real good guy. It’s sad, really. It was his girlfriend who died in the house fire a while back. Did you hear about it?”
Cassie shook her head.
“Okay. Well, it was big time news around here. Supposedly, it was drug related, or something like that. I never can tell with that stuff, but the story goes that it was a hit after a busted mob deal. There were threats, I guess. Then, nothing more came out of it. That sort of thing. Anyway, after she died, Luke tried to keep working, but he couldn’t hack it. He took some weird mental health leave and moved in here.” Allison frowned. “He was just a mess. I tried to help him the first few weeks, but he’d barely answer me when I talked to him. I even brought him some of my famous chicken parmesan. He just thanked me and shut the door. Left me standing there.”
Allison set the cup in the sink. “I found the clean dish sitting outside my door the next day. The only time I’ve seen him since is about three in the morning, on my way home from my split shift. He’s out running on the streets. He doesn’t talk to nobody. Can’t really help someone who doesn’t want help.”
Cassie had chills from the story. “Oh, the poor guy. How long ago was it?
“Baby?” Allison called to her boyfriend in the other room. “When did Luke move in?”
“How would I know? It was before I moved in with you.”
Allison tapped the counter, her forehead wrinkling. “Hmm, I guess it was just about two years ago. I was planning to go for him, but he was just too sad. So I ended up with Dave instead.” She looked towards the other room and laughed.
“Thanks for making me sound like I came in second place,” he called.
“Aww, babycakes, you know you’re my one and only. My snuggle bunny.”
There was a thump from the living room, and then he wandered in to the kitchen. Wrapping his arms around Allison, he kissed her neck.
“Staaahp,” Allison giggled, pushing him away. Her hands rested on his chest as she looked up at him with a smile.
Cassie’s eyes widened. “Okay then, I guess that’s my cue to leave. Thanks for filling me in. At least I know it’s not just me.”
Allison took a step away from Dave. “You’re fine. He’s just showing off.” She gave him a wink before opening the overhead cupboard. After shoving cans aside, she pulled out a box of macaroni and cheese. “Nah, Luke’s like that with everyone. Luke’s a true hermit.” She filled a pot with water and set it on the stove. “It’s sad, like he just doesn’t want to live any more.”
“Maybe he doesn’t know how?” Cassie said, remembering her own dark place trying to lure her back.
“How do you forget something like that? I mean, the human body just lives all on its own.” She ripped open the box and dumped the elbow noodles into the pot.
“You’d be surprised what depression can do.”
“Oh honey, I know depression.” Allison waved a wooden spoon at her. “You’ve got to take responsibility for yourself. Pull yourself up by the ol’bootstraps and get yourself moving.” She stirred the noodles.
Cassie gently shrugged. “I don’t know. Sometimes everything can feel so flat you don’t know how to move forward.”
Allison frowned and tapped the spoon on the pot edge, before replacing the lid. “I guess so.”
“I feel terrible for him. It’s horrible to live like that.”
“Let me guess, you think you can change it?”
Cassie pictured her return home. Failure. Miranda’s disappointed face, possibly being fired from her job.
Death in pajamas. Probably the ones she hated the most.
The National Anthem blared from the TV.
“Baby! The game’s about to start! Hurry up!” Dave called.
The singer’s voice rose. Images of Leif in uniform flooded Cassie’s thoughts. Biting her lip, she thought about the last time she’d seen him. His graduation. The hidden fear, the one she held locked up so long, lifted its head before she could stomp it down. Nausea rolled up her throat. The fear breached the point of no return and screamed through her mind.
Leif knew I’d wavered, could feel how I’d been growing away from him during that last year. Eighteen months! We’d both changed so much! Maybe he was afraid to come home, that I’d break up with him. Maybe it’s my fault he died.
“Hello? Cassie? Earth to Cassie?”
Snapping fingers made Cassie look up. “Uh.” She rubbed the back of her neck as a cold sweat broke out over her body. “Sorry. Spaced out there for a second.” She swallowed hard.
“I’ll say you did. You don’t look so good. You okay?” Allison picked up a towel and fanned it at Cassie’s face.
Cassie smiled weakly. “I’m fine. Just felt weird there for a moment.”
Allison frowned, not looking convinced. “You’re just a little bitty thing. I’m thinking if you can’t take care of yourself, you definitely can’t help him. I know it’s sad, but he’s a mess, girl.”
Cassie nodded. The fishing pole on Luke’s wall popped in her memory, possibly the same one he’d held in the picture as a little boy.
I can’t save your life, Leif, but maybe I can save his.