Authors: CeeCee James
up outside the hotel at eight o’clock on the dot. His silver Camaro glimmered under the vacant sign and idled loudly. Cassie had been watching from the lobby and ran out to meet him.
“Hey,” she said, as she breathlessly fell into the passenger seat. The car, or maybe Luke, reeked slightly of alcohol, but his hazel eyes sparkled clear and sober. “How are you feeling?”
He took a deep breath in and shrugged. “I’m okay.”
“Yeah. And I’ll keep saying it until it’s true.”
Cassie raised her eyebrows at the last comment but let it pass. “Where we going, again?”
“To Freymere’s city park. It’s kind of on the outskirts of town and has a pretty decent view of the sky.”
She gave a doubtful nod. “Okay. Sounds good.”
He took a swig off a plastic bottle.
“Water, right?” she asked, eyeing the bottle.
“Wow. You must really think I’m some kind of scumbag.” He started the car and dropped his arm across her seat, looking over his shoulder as he backed out of the stall.
“No, I just, you know… don’t want to die or anything.”
He flipped her a sarcastic look. “Yes, it’s water. Now, buckle up, sweetheart.”
She ignored the tone and buckled the belt. The car leaped forward with a jump and she grinned.
“Awesome car!” she yelled over the roar of the engine.
He smiled. “Yeah, I’ve had this baby since I was a teenager.”
“That old, huh?”
“You’ve got the chops for compliments, I’m telling you.”
She laughed and relaxed, feeling the power suck her into the seat. They raced up Main Street with the radio cranked, the bass vibrating through the seats.
After a few minutes, the city fell away, with just their headlights cutting swathes in the darkness. He took a sharp right turn, leading them uphill through a small housing development. A few more turns and they arrived at the park which was located at a dead end. Luke angled the Camaro to look out over the valley, and parked.
Quiet settled over the car. Far below, the city glowed with orange sparkles. Cassie felt a tickle of anxiety in her stomach at the sudden silence. She shot him a quick side glance from the corner of her eye.
“You want to get out?” Luke asked.
Cassie nodded, and they both climbed from the car. He waited for her by the Camaro’s bumper.
A breeze stirred her hair. She zipped her hoodie to her throat and pulled the hood up over her ears.
“Kind of a bit.”
He popped open his trunk and tugged out a flannel blanket.
“You just conveniently had that back there?” Cassie asked.
“Yeah, what’s the problem? You cold or what?”
“Give it here.” She smiled and took the blanket from him, tucking it around her shoulders. “Thank you.”
“Better?” he asked, his eyes focusing intently on hers.
Man, he has gorgeous eyes.
She shifted under his scrutiny.
Quit staring, Cass!
Together, they trudged toward the row of swings, the equipment gleaming in a wash of moonlight.
“So, no easy way to say this. I was a jerk. I’m sorry.” Luke shoved his hands into the pockets of his leather jacket. The leather creaked as he moved.
“Don’t worry about it.”
They reached the swings, both grabbing one. Cassie gathered the blanket around her as she sat. Pushing off with one foot, she sent the swing gently in motion.
Luke reclined back in his swing and stared up at the stars. His face was still, contemplative. “All so big, so vast. Makes all of us humans and our lives here seem like nothing.”
The sky was rich black velvet dotted with millions of white diamonds. A smoky swatch cut through the middle of the sky. “The milky way.” Luke pointed.
Cassie covered her mouth with the blanket and nodded. The blanket smelled of campfires and cologne. She sniffed it again and snuggled into it deeper.
“And over there,” he said, indicating a group of stars, “is Orion’s belt. Follow his sword to Taurus.”
“You know a lot of constellations.”
“Those are the easy ones. Now look right there.”
She lifted her chin, trying to follow the line of his finger.
“Squint a bit. See that fuzzy patch? That’s a star cluster called the Seven Sisters. They’re a part of the constellation Taurus.”
She squinted. “How do you know so much?”
He quickly glanced at her, before facing the sky again. “From my Cub Scout days. We had to learn all of this stuff. Leif and I were in a troop together.”
“Aww,” At Leif’s name, Cassie’s heart squeezed. “I bet you two were cute Cub Scouts. Did you still have the little uniform?”
He shook his head. “Laugh it up. You probably were a Brownie or something like that.”
The air caught in her throat with a choke.
“Ahhh, so I’m right? I knew it!”
“No comment,” she murmured into the blanket.
He smiled, his gaze brushing over her. “I want to hear more.”
“Not a lot to tell. My big sister, Miranda, signed me up when I was six. I remember eating a lot of cookies.”
“We had to sell popcorn. Leif had the big idea of selling it for a dollar more and pocketing the difference.”
“He did not!”
“Yeah, it would have worked for him too, but he sold the first tin to the mom of another Cub Scout. Our leader was not pleased.” His voice took a cold, indifferent tone. “It was pretty soon after that I ended up in a foster home.”
Cassie’s attention fixed on the sky. Something about the darkness, the stars, made everything feel safe. Almost anonymous. “When was the last time you saw him?”
He leaned back in the swing. “A long time ago. Nearly twenty years, I guess.”
Her mouth fell open. “How old are you, anyway?” As soon as the words came out, she felt her face heat up.
“Twenty-seven,” Luke said sarcastically.
“Don’t say it like that. It’s not like I’m over the hill.”
“No, I’m just surprised. Leif was—would have been twenty-four.”
“Yeah, my little cousin.”
“What happened, Luke? How did you end up in a foster home?”
“Dad left my mom and me to go start a new family. Mom got sick. Stepmom didn’t want me. I come from good stock.”
“Your mom?” Her words came out in a whisper.
“Gone. My dad’s still kicking around somewhere. Not that I care.”
“You ever try to get back into contact with him?”
Luke looked at her like she was crazy, and she regretted the question. “Hell, no! He made his choices in life, just like I have to make mine.”
Cassie frowned. “I’m sorry.”
“Life. It is what it is.”
you at the house that day?”
A heavy exhale escaped his lips. The silence between them lengthened. Finally, he said, “I go there to look for a sign that wherever Jennifer is now, she’s okay. I’ve never been able to make it all the way from the driveway to the house since it happened. Then, seeing you that day, I couldn’t help but hope.”
“That you were her, offering to forgive me.”
Cassie felt the air rush from her lungs. “Luke….”
“I know. I know.” His words were slow, as if he were trying to soothe her.
She relaxed a bit, although her pulse still thrummed in her neck.
“Although, I’ll admit, the whiskey did help to blind me.”
“Um. How do I respond to that?”
“You don’t need to,” he answered.
Cassie crammed her hand into her pocket and felt the crucifix, the chain still in a tangled ball. She looked over at him. He rubbed his temples with one hand before blinking hard and staring back up at the sky. Slowly, she removed her hand, leaving the necklace behind.
“It’s funny how you think you’re doing okay,” she said. Slowly, she twisted in the swing and the metal chain spiraled together. “Like, I’m past the worst of it. Then, out of the blue, some small thing will knock me to the knees. It could be a smell, or a song. Once it was this guy who looked just like Leif, driving a truck that passed me on the highway.” She smiled sadly. “I don’t know why. It’s like all rational thought left me in that moment, and I was convinced it was him. I actually sped to catch up to him.”
“No, of course not. But I didn’t get to see Leif after he died. So a part of me still doesn’t completely believe, I think.” The story made her feel foolish. She released her footing and the swing twirled to unwind. When it stopped, she nervously glanced in his direction.
Luke's eyes studied her intently. He nodded. “I get it. Once, I chased after a girl in the supermarket because she looked so much like Jennifer.” He clenched his eyes sheepishly. “I seriously thought they were going to call security. In my defense, I was pretty drunk that day.”
“What did you do when you found out it wasn’t her?”
“Ahh, apologized. Went home to my friend, Jack Daniels, and tried to drown out the embarrassment.”
She reached over and rubbed the back of his hand which was hanging onto the swing’s chain. “It’s okay to grieve, Luke.”
“You, too. Now do you feel better? It’s not just you.”
“Yes, I guess so.”
“You know, you’re the first person I’ve talked to who has any idea of what I’ve gone through."
Cassie’s eyebrows flickered and she nodded.
“But you’re surviving.” His voice held a hint of incredulousness.
“I’m pretty sure you’re the only one to call what I’ve been doing surviving.” She laughed sarcastically.
“You don’t have hope?”
“I have ‘trying to take the next step, and then the next.’”
“Weird, because being around you makes me feel something like hope.” He nudged his swing into motion. “I want that.”
“Maybe I’m still living on the love Leif left behind. Maybe you can, too?”
“I don’t know about that. Living on love sounds like a bad country song.” He grimaced. “You ready to get going?”
Nodding, she stood up and gathered the blanket around her. Back in the car, she pushed the recline button, and the seat fell back with a clunk.
The car’s engine hummed smoothly as Luke headed down to Freymere. After a minute, she yawned. Closed her eyes.
The next thing she knew, Luke was gently shaking her shoulder. “Hey,” he whispered, as if trying not to scare her. “Wake up, Principessa.”
Cassie opened her eyes, forgetting where she was for a moment. Shifting, she turned towards him. “I did not just fall asleep.”
“Yeah, you did,” he said, with a slight smile.
She sat up and looked around. “Where we going now?”
His face lit up with a big grin. “You’ll see.”
, really?” Cassie glanced around the parking garage as she shut the Camaro door. “That’s your surprise?”
“Patience, Principessa.” Luke reached for her hand and led her into the lobby.
Cassie’s hand felt strange inside his. It had been so long since a man had grabbed her hand and confidently led her anywhere. Guilt stabbed her, making her want to pull away. “I’m not sure I think patience is a good thing,” she murmured.
He smirked back at her and drew her up the stairs. After fumbling with the keys for a minute, he finally opened the apartment door.
Walking down the little hallway, she entered the studio area. The house was cleaner then when she’d been there before. The carpet had stripes from being vacuumed recently.
She wandered over to look at the bookshelf, and checked out the books. Tucked into one of the shelves was a silver ornate frame that held a picture of a dark-haired young woman. The woman squinted as she smiled into the camera, her hand lifted to ward off the flash.
Cassie traced the scrolling artwork of the frame with her finger. She held it up with raised eyebrows to Luke.
“That’s Jennifer.” His words were clipped, as he spun for the kitchen area. His hand trailed down the neck of a bottle of Crown Royal sitting on the counter. He pushed it away and reached for something under a stack of mail.
Cassie carefully returned the frame to the shelf, aligning it with its dust-free outline. “She was beautiful.”
He gave a noncommittal grunt.
Cassie looked around the apartment for the thing she’d seen the last time she’d been there. Still tucked in the corner was the black Gibson guitar. “You play?” She pointed at the instrument.
Following the direction of her finger, he nodded. “It’s been a while.”
“I’ve always wanted to play. Does it have a name?”
Luke raised his eyebrow curiously. “How’d you know it has a name?”
She shrugged. “Don’t all great guitarists name their guitars?”
He walked over to the Gibson and hefted it off the stand. His fingers softly strummed a chord. “Lucy. She’s pretty out of tune now. I need to get some new strings.” Sighing, he set it back. “I have something I wanted to show you.”
Luke stepped back toward the counter and picked up the thing he’d been fumbling for earlier. A patch. Gold threads fluttered from its unraveled edges like sunrays.
He walked back to the bookshelf. “It’s for compass navigation.” His eyes crinkled as he smiled. “Leif and I were competing over who would get theirs first. That little creep won.”
Cassie reached for it. She spun the patch in her hands, imagining seven-year-old Leif’s triumphant smile when he received it. “I bet he really rubbed it in.”
“Yeah.” Luke laughed. “He sure did. He gave it to me, later, when we found out I was moving.”
“Awww,” Cassie murmured. She passed it back. “I have something for you too.” Sliding her hand into her pocket, Cassie caressed the pendant. Her fingers closed around it as she drew it out.
She held it out to him.
Arching an eyebrow, he slowly opened his hand. Cassie noticed the callouses across his palm, as well as a deep red scar that disappeared up the sleeve of his long johns top. She shivered, suddenly afraid of his reaction, then turned her hand over and dropped the crucifix into his palm.
Luke stared at it for a moment. A ragged breath escaped him and he pressed his eyes shut.
“Where did you find this?” he growled.
“I—at the house.”
“Why’d you go back there?”
Cassie swallowed hard, fear making a cold track down her back. “You said you hadn’t been back. I wanted to see if I could find something for you. I’m sorry there wasn’t more.” She bit her lip.
Luke exhaled deeply out of his nose, his eyes still shut. His thumb caressed the pendant, turning it over in his hand. He looked down at it for a second before bringing up a blazing glare to meet her. His eyes were rimmed in red. “You had no right.” A shudder went through him, and his hand clenched around the crucifix. His knuckles turned white from the effort. “No right.”
Cassie stumbled back. “I’m sorry, Luke. I thought it would help you. Help to have—”
“Help me how?”
The softness of her voice seemed to catch him off guard, making him stop and glance at her. “Ahh, hell.” He dropped the pendant on the table with a clatter. On his way to the couch, he reached for the bottle of Jack Daniels on the coffee table. He sagged down onto the cushions as though his muscles had lost their strength. Unscrewing the cap, he took a long swig. His eyes were bloodshot when he turned his attention back to her.
“A memento, huh?” He eyed the crucifix on the table. “Jennifer was a good girl. Used to drag me to church, too. I quit after she died. Didn’t know where to put God in all of that.”
Cassie nervously tucked her hair behind her ears and nodded. “You don’t have to tell me life doesn’t make sense. But—”
“Life does have a beauty to it that I can’t explain.”
“Not so beautiful for Leif, though, right?” His lip curled sarcastically.
Cassie shrugged. “I don’t know. Leif died doing what he loved. Not everyone gets to say that.” She sat next to him on the couch. “You still mad at me?”
His lip twitched at her words. “How can I be mad when you were trying to do something to help me?” He reached for the pendant, his fingers running along the knotted chain. A frown grew on his face. “But this isn’t Jennifer’s.”