“The main character is opposite of me in many different ways, the main one being morals. This isn’t the kind of story I would usually write, so I decided to try and branch out a little. I’m hoping that by not using any specific names for my characters, I am helping the reader connect to the story and not taking away from it.”
By Callie Wollenburg
I couldn’t remember his name. It was Andrew or Austin or something equally forgettable. He’d fallen asleep with one arm flung over my waist while I stared at the ceiling. The cell phone next to the bed lit up with a message. The screen had a picture of the boy with his arms wrapped around a beautiful girl. I looked back up at the ceiling. It wasn’t my problem.
I moved his arm and slid out of the tangle of sheets. He snored softly. The floor was cold under my feet as I shuffled to the door. I grabbed a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from a drawer and stepped outside. The cold air curled around me, it was still dark. A pair of headlights appeared at the far end of the street. They illuminated the spot on the cement stairs where I sat. The car passed and I heard the door behind me open and close again. I didn’t turn around.
“I um… I should get going probably.” He sounded sad.
“Yeah,” I agreed as I flicked ash from the cigarette.
He walked past me then turned around. “I’ll text you?”
I closed my eyes and exhaled, “Yeah.”
I kept them closed until I was sure he was out of sight. If we were lucky we’d never see or hear from each other again. I drug the cigarette across the ground until the embers were dark and then tossed it into the brown lawn. I wrapped my arms around myself against the cold. I stayed that way until the sun began to creep into sight.
It wasn’t until a few weeks later that the real problem arose. The two red lines on the bathroom counter glared up at me. Mom’s voice on the phone said, “I raised you better than that.”
She said “Your dad isn’t gonna talk to you.”
She asked what I was going to do with it.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Have you called him?”
“You know who,” she said.
“Are you going to?” There was hope in her tone, like maybe I would call him and everything would work out and we’d be a happy little family.
“I don’t know.” I could call him, but then I remembered the girl on the front of his phone. It wasn’t worth ruining a relationship. “No.”
“What happened to you?”
“Everything. Nothing. I don’t know,” I shrugged.
“You could go back to school, it’s not too late.”
“Yeah,” I said. We both knew I wouldn’t.
“I love you,” she said. There was pause as she waited, then “Bye.”
I hung up the phone and pushed the test into the trash. The reflection in the mirror looked back at me with disapproving eyes. In the glass they weren’t rimmed in red, they were the sharp eyes I’d had before my life spiraled out of control.
I hadn’t been back to campus since he died. I didn’t want to think about him, but I found myself doing it anyway. I knew what he’d say right now. He had always been the careless kind. The night he died I remember him telling me, “Things always work out the way they’re supposed to.” That’s bullshit.
People like him aren’t supposed to get shot for the money in their wallet, they’re supposed to finish school and save people’s lives. People like the naïve, ambitious girl I had been aren’t supposed to press useless fingers to a bullet hole and watch someone’s life drain away. I should have been able to do something.
I opened the small cabinet next to the mirror and grabbed one of the small orange bottles lining the shelf. I slipped one of the yellow and green pills from the container and let it sit on my tongue for a moment. I don’t think they ever really helped, but it did take the edge off. I picked up the phone. Set it down again. Reached for a cigarette, then stopped.
Months after that conversation with my mom I stood behind the counter of a small coffee shop, the strings of the uniform apron barely tying behind me. The bell above the door rang as a couple slipped through. They brushed snow from each other, their noses red from the cold and faces smiling. The burst of winter air from their entrance met me at the same time I recognized the man.
“Miss? Excuse me miss, are you alright?” A middle-aged woman stood in front of me with soft eyes.
“Sorry ma’am, yes I’m fine. What can I do for you?”
She smiled kindly at my rushed words. “I was just hoping for a cup of hot chocolate please.”
“Of course.” I smiled at her but didn’t meet her eyes. As I poured the steaming drink into a cheerfully decorated mug, I let my eyes wander back toward the couple. They sat at a corner table with hands casually linked across it. He looked happy. Not like the sad, lost man who’d walked past me on the stairs all those months ago.
I wanted to hate them for their happiness, but I couldn’t. I envied them. Those were the kind of people who could raise happy, healthy children. Not me. I couldn’t give anyone that kind of love. Anything I had to offer would be broken in comparison.
I slid the mug across the counter and this time sought the woman’s eyes. “This one is on me,” I smiled.
I found my thoughts drifting back to that moment frequently. Maybe I should have told the man, he did have a right to know. But I couldn’t force myself to take something that didn’t belong to me, and his attention wasn’t mine. I could only hope I made the right choice. God knows I’d already made enough of the wrong ones.
Now, with my fingers looped through a chain-link fence, I’m glad I put the phone down and didn’t light a cigarette. The cool metal of the fence presses into my forehead as I watch her tumble down the yellow plastic slide. Her cheeks are red and a smile lights up her face. She looks over to where I’m standing and sees a stranger watching. Her pudgy little hand waves to me, and I can’t help but smile back at her. She is beauty and innocence and all the things I’ve lost in life.
A woman’s voice behind me asks, “Do you want to meet her?”
Without looking at her I shake my head. “I can’t. I shouldn’t have come.”
“It’s okay,” she whispers, placing a gentle hand on my shoulder.
“She’s beautiful,” I say. I finally look at the woman, hot tears sliding down my face.
“I know,” she says. “We love her more than anything, you know?”
I nod, and as I turn to walk away, I light one last cigarette and hope like hell I never have to see that angel face again.