Authors: Lila Felix,Rachel Higginson
He snorted. “You didn’t scare me.”
“You all but threw me off your lap! Am I just that repugnant?”
He snorted again and his eyes darted down to my little red skirt- that had ridden up higher than it should have.
. I smoothed it down and raised an eyebrow at him.
repugnant, Darlin,’” he said in a deeper-than-usual tone. He kept his eyes focused on mine this time, without another inappropriate glance. We stared at each other, locked in some kind of unspoken staring contest. Somehow this was more intimate than anything else that had happened tonight. This burned into me as hot as fire and flickered with some secret of his that he would never tell me. A secret so deeply buried, I wondered if I would ever find out.
This time the tremble started in my ankles and slid upward over my thighs and across my belly. I shook out my curls to hide my reaction, but the shade of red his face turned made focusing on anything but his lips extra hard.
“There you are!” Carter’s happy voice shouted behind me. “You just ran off, I didn’t know where you went!”
I forcefully tore my eyes from Bridger’s and back to my best friend who was now flanked by those same two guys that could not have been more different from my childhood nemesis than if they were aliens and Bridger was a grizzly bear. They silently screamed of different upbringings and flashed with dissimilar impending-futures. Bridger on one cliff, Sawyer and his friend on the other. An endless gorge of contrasts and convictions kept them separated.
The thing was, it wasn’t even money that separated these guys. I knew Sawyer and his friend had money just from looking at them. They were clearly well-classed and not wanting for anything. But my Grams had told me the same thing about Bridger. Stockton, Bridger’s older brother, had recently expanded his father’s business and the entire Wright family had benefited.
No, it wasn’t money that separated them, it was something much more intrinsic, something innately them, something they couldn’t separate from who they were if they tried.
Carter’s guys were all refined gentlemen and clean-cut pretty boys. Bridger was salt and earth; southern gentlemen in a way that proudly wore hard work and honest labor like a badge of honor or a blue ribbon around his neck. Carter’s men were gym-muscles and name brand clothing. Bridger boasted hard-earned strength and just enough rough edges to make him sharp enough to do serious damage.
Carter’s guys were safe.
Bridger was the pinnacle of a precipice and the top of a mountain.
Carter’s guys were bright, happy and boring.
Bridger was a dark, swirling abyss of something dangerous and forbidden.
I had given up playing it safe when I was fourteen-years-old.
And then I’d given up gambling with my life when I’d turned seventeen because I needed all the life I could get.
So why-oh-why was I ready to take a flying leap off Bridger’s brink just to see if he would reach out one of those carnal, masculine hands to catch me?
“This is Jake,” Carter hitched a thumb at the guy on her left. “And this is Sawyer, the guy I’ve been telling you about!” She winked obviously. Typical Carter. To the guys she said, “This is Tate and her friend Bridger.”
Sawyer- a guy with wavy, pomade swept hair and two dimples that offset his chiseled features- reached for my hand and shook it firmly but familiarly. “Hi, Tate, I know we just met, but I feel like I already know you from how much Carter is always talking about you.”
Not a pick up line.
I smiled politely and turned subtly so that Bridger could be included, too. “Don’t believe a word of it,” I ordered Sawyer.
Bridger leaned in and shared a conspiratorial look with Sawyer. “Believe every word of it,” he told the guy. “This one’s trouble.”
My mouth came unhinged and I stared at Bridger. Had he really just passed me off to some random guy from Carter’s Econ class?
I had just been dismissed. By Bridger Wright.
Sawyer laughed at Bridger’s joke and then the two men reached out and shook hands.
Before I go on, it is important to note the boy-behavior in this particular scenario. They did not growl at each other, they did not gnash teeth or throw me over their shoulders like caveman or bucks fighting for the doe they both set their sights on during rooting season. They simply shook hands, made jokes at my expense and went on with their lives.
There were some men that would have acted like alpha-douchebags if presented with that awkward introduction. And there were a lot of catty girls who would have acted worse.
But the truth was that neither of these guys had any claim over me or my dating life and instead of baring their knuckles and smashing beer bottles over each other’s head, they’d tucked whatever aspirations they had for me away and made an effort to be cordial with each other.
And in the end it worked.
Because not only had they been kind to each other, but they’d forced me respect the hell out of both of them!
I tuned back into their mundane conversation when Bridger announced, “Thanks for the invite, Tate, but I should get going.”
“Yeah?” I asked with a hand on my hip and fingers tapping impatiently against the silk of my skirt. “You got things to do?”
“That I do,” he nodded and took a step back.
I didn’t believe him, but I wasn’t going to make a public scene about it.
“Homework?” I pressed.
“You’re leaving this for homework?” I asked incredulously.
He shrugged a helpless shoulder and I noticed for the first time how tortured his eyes looked. Hmm…
“I’m leaving this place before you make me perform Celine Dion,” he tried to joke. “Careful, Sawyer, she’s been trying to make me sing female power ballads all night. Don’t let her con you into it.”
Butt out, Sawyer! Can’t you see I’m in the middle of something?
“Fine, leave!” I shouted playfully. “I’ll sing
It’s All Coming Back to Me
He had made it almost to the door when he called out. “I’m just sorry I’m going to miss it.”
“Don’t worry,” I warned him. “I’ll call you tomorrow and tell you all about it!”
He didn’t say another word. He just turned and left. But not before I caught the look of pure terror on his face after my threat.
I wanted to toss my head back and let out an evil cackle.
Oh, Bridger. We were
not done with this.
Well, metaphysically I meant that.
Practically-speaking, we were definitely over. He’d already left. And I had been forced to turn back to Sawyer and have a grownup conversation that required me to refrain from making all those classic Mark Twain jokes that sat idling on the tip of my tongue.
Like I said, Sawyer was perfectly nice.
Perfectly nice just wasn’t what I was looking for.
Bridger might be the darkest rain cloud on the darkest day but now that he’d removed his presence from the bar, I felt more down in the dumps than ever. Was that how this worked? Or just how Bridger worked? Did he somehow superheat his raincloud so it gave off warmth instead of chill and safety instead of paranoia and fear?
If so, that was what I missed. Not anything but that comfortable heat I felt whenever I was near him and the mostly-uncomfortable tingling he brought out of me.
“Are you really going to sing Celine Dione?” Sawyer shouted at me over the screeching background vocals.
I smiled at him and shook my head. “Not for another…” I glanced at the clock and then at my drink, “five drinks. At least.”
He threw his head back and let out a big laugh. When he met my gaze again, he was smiling a very charming grin at me and seemed to be genuinely amused. “In another five or so drinks, you might be able to convince me to join you.”
I laughed too just as my stomach took a sharp dip and a cold line of sweat broke out on my forehead. No…
No, no, no, no, no
! The nausea hit me so hard that I swayed forward and just barely caught myself on the edge of the table.
“Whoa, there,” Sawyer, grabbed my arm to steady me. “You alright?”
Crap. This was not exactly first date material.
I looked up and tried to smile at him. “I, uh, man, that drink really caught up to me! I’m such a lightweight! I was so kidding about all that before.” I pressed my lips together and swallowed like thirty times in quick succession to keep from puking all over poor Sawyer’s jeans.
“Oh, no!” And to give him some points, he sounded really bummed out. “Are you sure someone didn’t put something in your drink? I don’t mean this in a bad way, but you look really bad.”
I let out a bark of bitter laughter. I knew he was right. Going by experience, I bet I was a lovely shade of putrid yellow right about now and the sweat beading on my upper lip probably the most attractive thing he’d seen all day.
“Someone definitely put something in my drink,” I mumbled. “Just not tonight.” I stood up on shaky legs. It was only going to get worse from here on out. The actually being sick part of my treatment wasn’t supposed to hit me so soon. I’d only just gone in. Dumb, stupid, life-saving drugs that screwed with my social life.
“You alright, T?” Carter asked from across the table.
I shook my head and pulled on my earlobe casually- our signature sign for I-have-to-leave-now-don’t-try-to-stop-me. “I hit a wall. I need to get back to the dorm before I start making really bad decisions.” I winked at Sawyer. He looked terrified. I didn’t know if it was because clearly something was wrong with me and I was trying to play it off or if he was that disturbed by my attempt at sexy.
“Do you need help?” Carter was already standing and gathering her purse.
“No!” I all but screamed at her. The last thing I wanted was for my smoking hot, super healthy roommate to spend her Friday night trapped in a stuffy room the size of an outhouse tending to me and all my stupid needs. She was young and gorgeous and her white count was normal, she should definitely stay out and make the best of that. “I’ll be fine,” I promised her. “As long as I leave now.”
I cut her off with a wave of my hand. “Carter, for real, it’s just a couple blocks. Stay. Have fun. Sing Celine! I’ll catch up with you later, yeah?”
She nodded slowly, her resignation to my wishes the sign of a true friend. “Yeah.”
Another intense wave of nausea crashed over me and I closed my eyes to fight off the dizziness. “It was really nice to meet you, Sawyer. I’m sorry I’m such a drunk lush.”
“It’s fine, Tate,” he rushed to assure me. I heard him stand and then his big hands cupped my biceps in an effort to steady me. “I’m really glad we got to meet though. Carter has been telling me so much about you. I’m just sorry you feel so-”
My eyes popped open and I sprinted from the bar. I could not hear him say the word “sick” out loud or I really was going to be sick. As horrible as I felt, the motivation to throw up in my own toilet was enough to spur me on.
I flat out refused to puke in the bushes.
It looked like Bridger wasn’t the only one going home early tonight. I had a late-night date with the porcelain bowl and my hot water bottle.
Something is seriously wrong with that girl. Something is seriously wrong with my brother.
Everyone around me is bat shit crazy.
Every damned one of them.
I didn’t go straight home. Instead, I opted for The Pit, a pool hall close by. The place was full of pompous frat boys who thought they could play pool. They’d learned by lessons from their butler or some shit and then came to college thinking that they were the Black Widow. I was happy to take Daddy’s money off their hands and watch their bleach blonde hair deflate along with their smile and their pride.
And their collars.
Heavens above, who told them it was okay to wear their collars popped up?
As I entered the place, it smelled like cake and peaches which was the opposite of how a pool hall should smell. A pool hall should smell like cigar smoke and double fermented beer and mud. That was the country boy in me.
There was a reason the place smelled like a cake bakery.
A group of girls to my right was smoking those vapor electronic cigarette contraptions. I remembered in the first grade when Mrs. Barr made us play the recorder for music class. I broke mine on the second day of class. That may or may not have been an accident. But if you asked anyone in my family, it wasn’t an accident and we all knew it. That’s what they looked like. Like a group of grown girls, dressed like they were going clubbing but playing smoking recorders.
And as I scanned the room it just got worse. Scouring my face with my hands, I tried to wake up from this douche bag filled dream. In the corner, all holding their cue sticks as if they could all take turns at the same table, were four Ken dolls. Three of them didn’t look so bad, but the other one looked like a particular Ken doll whose father didn’t let him play with Daddy’s very special train collection when he was little. He was smoking on one of those recorder things with such veracity, he could’ve given Amtrak a run for their money.
He could use the pick-up line, “Wanna take a ride on a real steam engine?”
The only reason I stayed was because I didn’t want to go back to the dorms just yet. I perched myself on one of the leather stools and ordered a Scotch rocks just for show.
The steamhead approached the bar and ordered some drink that looked like a frog vomited in a glass. The bartender didn’t charge him, probably because he didn’t want to admit to anyone that he’d actually known how to make that drink.
Alien piss, that’s what it was.
“Hey man, you play?” Steamhead was now talking to me and I could feel the money already in my pocket.
I drummed up my hillbilly accent. If these boys thought you were from anywhere that wasn’t city, they automatically took me for a sucker. “Yeah, I sure did play a little when we was in them hills back home.”
Okay, maybe I took it a little too far.
“Oh, well, we have a little wager going on over there. Care to join us?” He talked really slowly which only accented his very city demeanor. Then he blew some of his cotton candy steam in my face.
“I could try.”
Here was the thing about taking someone’s money. The first game had to be botched. You wanted to really prove to them how bad you were. Then the real fun started.
“Well, come on then.” He motioned me towards the pool table in the corner and I proceeded to completely fail at pool. I made pool balls fly all over the place and hit the eight ball in three times before they decided I’d lost. I gave up my twenty dollar bill with a fake smile.
“You know, maybe this time I can do a little better.” My hillbilly got stronger and stronger. It was like my inner Podunk roots were rebelling against being in the presence of so much douchiness.
“Well, let’s try another game.”
“Okay,” I dug in my pocket, “All I got is this hundred.”
“Well,” Ken shrugged and took another puff of his magic dragon, “Why don’t we all put in hundreds. That way it’s fair.”
Now we’re talking.
Five crisp hundreds sat on the corner of the table. Beau, the kid’s name was Beau, broke first and then tried to high five me. I sneered in his direction. And ten minutes later, I was fiving myself, five hundreds in my back pocket.
“Hey!” Ken was really upset now. When he yelled at me, puffs of steam came out of his nostrils too.
“You’ve got a little” I touched my mouth, “Stupid on your face. Next time don’t assume that just because I’m wearing cowboy boots and talk a little slower that I’m your next target. Y’all have a goodnight now, you hear?”
One of the girls stood from the miniscule circular table and approached me as I tried to leave.
“Hey, sugar, you’re going home alone?”
I looked her up and down. A pink strapless dress so tight and short that if I got her home, I wouldn’t be surprised at anything she had to show me. She left nothing to the imagination with a dress like that. And I was a guy who liked surprises. Her blonde hair was long and fell down to land right at the curve of her ass which she flicked in my direction in reaction to my once over.
But it was her shoes that slammed the ‘no’ door in my face. Not that I was interested in the first place, but when I looked down at her silvery, more sparkly than a show pony, shoes—all I could think of were purple cowboy boots.
There was nothing sexier in the world than a girl in a skirt and a pair of cowboy boots.
I bowed out of her invitation as politely as possible and went straight home and attempted but failed at falling asleep without the picture of Tate on my lap pulsing through my mind.
The next morning, my phone rang way too early and normally I would’ve let it go to voicemail, but the caller ID read Tate.
After several clearings of the throat, she spoke, “Bridge, I need hospital.”
“Are you drunk?”
She sounded like a sliver of her normal, boisterous self and something about the heaviness of her breathing scared me awake and into action.
“Call an ambulance, Tate!”
Which meant she couldn’t afford an ambulance.
“Text me your address, now.”
I grabbed the keys to my truck and took off in the direction of the parking lot. She was still stubborn I’d give her that. Who cared about the cost of an ambulance when you were in trouble? I wondered what was wrong with her. She hadn’t seemed sick last night. She’d seemed the opposite of sick.
Her dorm was only a few blocks down from mine and I left the truck running while I went to her room. Her dorm wasn’t co-ed like mine was, but this was an emergency. I tried my damndest to look at the floor and only up to see the numbers on the doors. Finally, I got to her door and walked right in without knocking. By then she was on the floor, looking whiter than Preacher’s picket fence and her hair clung to the sides of her face and her neck with sweat as their glue. Her t-shirt and pajama pants stuck to her torso and legs like her hair and the closer I got, the more she began to shake.
Two seconds was all it took to decide that an ambulance just wasn’t going to be fast enough for me. I grabbed her purse, some little leather thing with a knuckle duster on it, picked her up through a slew of pitifully pale cussing and protests, and bee-lined to my truck.
That’s when the shivering started again. By the time I climbed in behind the steering wheel, the teeth chattering could be heard above the roar of the engine. I reached over and buckled her seatbelt across her lap making sure not to clothesline her in the process and cranked on the heat.
I made a mental note to keep a blanket in the back from then on.
“Cold,” she tittered out, desperately grabbing for the vents.
“The heat’s on. Hang on.”
And that’s when I went against the cardinal rule Stockton had doled out when he bought me the truck.
I was sure he meant, “don’t speed for the joy of speeding.” Certainly he didn’t mean ‘don’t speed when there’s a sick girl in the passenger seat. Even if he did—what Stockton couldn’t see wouldn’t kill him.
That was West’s wisdom.
Her breaths became more and more labored as I drove and it seemed like the closer I got, the worse whatever was wrong with her became.
“Talk about something else,” she said with closed eyes.
I didn’t want to talk about anything else. The only real thing I wanted to discuss was why she didn’t call 911 as soon as she knew something was wrong. And what kind of roommate leaves her like that without taking her to the doctor.
That’s what I wanted to talk about.
But I also didn’t want to upset her any further.
“Um—instead of studying last night, I went to a pool hall and swindled some city boys out of Daddy’s allowance.” I patted my pocket. “Five hundred bucks.”
“Dirty.” She managed a faint smile
“It was dirty. But they deserved it. They had the collars of their Polo shirts popped up. It was too much. I couldn’t help myself.”
When I looked over for her response, she’d passed out.
People passing out scared me. And the really weird thing was, it made me think about my parents. I hoped to God, every time I thought of the way they died. I hoped to God they’d gone quickly.
And that’s when the emergency room with all its red crosses and reassuring signs came into view.
As soon as I parked at the entrance of the emergency room and pulled her from the passenger’s side, scrub-clad women barreled from the automatic doors with a slim white bed and a wheelchair. After seeing her condition, they decided on the bed.
“Don’t worry, Tate, sweetheart. We’re gonna take you right in.”
But Tate didn’t respond.
One of the nurses asked me to move my vehicle—and with robotic motions I somehow managed not to wreck it.
When I went inside, the same woman pointed me towards those horrific waiting room chairs. The emergency doors that led to the place where she was refused to tell me anything, regardless of how long I stared at them.
Wait, how did they know her name?