Last call was an hour ago. Since then, the street has cleared, and our friends have walked home. Mickey, the cook from the bar across the street, steps out onto the sidewalk, locking the door behind him. When he spots us leaning in a dim pool of streetlight, he waves. We nod. It’s silent, save for Mickey’s shuffling footfalls through the gravel parking lot. He starts his beater, backs onto the street, and then we’re alone again.
The moon is full, and the stars are so bright that it doesn’t seem like 3 a.m. at all. It’s more like what I imagine daytime is for the colorblind. I pull my gaze from the now vacant parking lot across the street and look at him instead. He flicks his cigarette on the ground and shoves his hands into his pockets. Hunching his shoulders, he blows the last puff of smoke slowly from his lips. His eyes look everywhere but at me. I lean, my back against brick, watching his face. His efforts to remain stoic aren’t quite successful.
He’s normally so good at playing indifferent, but I can see him wishing for darkness to cover the feeling in his eyes. He doesn’t like to feel. He avoids it at all costs. So did I—before I met him. We’re similar, I think, and becoming increasingly more so as the days go by—minus the darkness in him I know he silently prays won’t reach me.
Emotions battle on his face. He’s trying to decide between walking away and staying right where he is. It’s the same argument he has with himself every now and then, when he realizes I’m as real as the powder in his pocket. It always ends the same. I won’t walk. Neither will he, and if he does, he’ll come back.
“You should really just forget about me,” he says, his voice even and without feeling.
He means it, to some extent. He’s been saying things like that since the beginning.
“You should really stop wasting your breath,” I tell him.
“Every day that we continue like this, it’s going to get that much harder.”
More truth. He says what he thinks because he’s got nothing left to lose—except me, and if he were strong enough, maybe he’d even let me go. Instead, he tries to convince me to cut the cord for him.
“It’s already hard, and I don’t care.”
“I’m not worth—”
“I think you are.”
“I can’t even be myself for you half the time.” He reaches into the pocket of his flannel for his cigarettes, but then runs his hand over his buzz cut instead.
“You’re always yourself. You just hide behind all of this.” I gesture to him, to the body he floods with stimulants.
“I’m not hiding. I need it.”
There are certain things he says that leave absolutely no room for the sweet denial I usually resort to. I look at him and know addict, but it’s still not what I see.
“Well, it began with you hiding,” I say.
“And it’ll end with me dying." He holds my gaze, finally, but now I want to look away. “One way or another," he says. "And, I don’t want to take anyone down with me.”
“Stop trying to scare—”
“I’m not trying to scare you.” His voice climbs, but he doesn’t yell. He never yells. “I’m trying to save you.”
My heart contracts, but I call on my stubbornness. “Don’t do that. Don’t act like you are responsible for me.”
“I’ve always felt responsible for you. You know that. I want to protect you from this.” He points at himself, then between us, because this is an intangible, intoxicating thing that has proven inescapable ever since we discovered it.
I close my eyes and travel back to the second night I ever lay next to him. “Don’t fall for me,” he said, his fingertips dancing across my bare skin. “I’ll try,” I told him, my head on his shoulder. But I didn’t try. I was already caught up in this.
“I can protect myself,” I say, just to fill the silence.
“If you could protect yourself, you wouldn’t be standing here right now.” He takes one of my hands in both of his, then runs his thumbs over my knuckles. “You should never have taken my hand in yours that night,” he whispers, shaking his head.
I turn my hand over, lacing my fingers with his. “But I did.”
His brown eyes appear charcoal in the colorless night. He peers at me through long, enviable lashes. “You know, I’m not only worried about this getting harder for you. It’s getting harder for me, too.”
There are days he can’t see anyone, even me. There are nights we can’t be together because he’s futilely attempting to put distance between us. He’s constantly at war—him against the drugs, his brain against his heart and his heart against his brain, and sometimes, him against me. He’s deeper in the pits of denial than I am, and sometimes, I wish his pupils were small enough that he could see this isn’t something that can simply be turned off.
I sigh. The power often shifts between us, and tonight, it’s mine. “Then walk.”
“I think that would be best—”
I press my hands against his chest and shove him backward. “Then go.”
Before I can step back, he takes my hands in his fists and pulls me close.
“Wait.” His voice is firm, but his eyes are pleading. I roll my eyes, even though my heart cracks. He claims we shouldn’t be doing this, but he can’t stop, and he can’t walk away.
I focus on the spot where his jaw clenches and unclenches. “If this is that hard for you, if you really don’t want this anymore, I want you to turn around and walk away,” I say.
“Tell me you love me.”
He falls quiet, and his wide eyes hold mine for what seems like an eternity before finding the ground. That was unfair. We don’t talk about love, even though it may actually be there. Love means commitment and expectations. Love means that this is real. He says he’s incapable of love, but he’s wrong. It’s written all over him. Sometimes, that drives me mad.
I pull my hands from his and turn, shoving them into my jacket pockets and walking up the empty sidewalk, headed for my own bed. Pinching the bridge of my nose, I curse myself and I curse him. I’ve never been able to put my finger on what it is about him. Flashes play behind my eyes. That night—my head on his shoulder, my gaze tracing his face—I think I inhaled him. He’s a drug with irreversible effects. He breathed me in, too, and now I’m the only good thing flowing in his bloodstream.
His footfalls echo behind me. I keep walking, the heels of my boots scraping the cement. His pace quickens to a light jog until he’s walking beside me. He falls in line, but doesn’t try to stop me, so I keep my gaze ahead and keep moving. His calloused hand finds mine, and his fingers find their places between my own.
“I love you,” he says.
And we keep walking.
Chelsea Cambeis spent four hard-working years as a mail carrier in West Virginia after earning her BA in English. Now, she’s the Vice President of the Oghma Book Group of Oghma Creative Media and Publisher of Arbroath Abbey, their nonfiction division.