Perhaps it was the way of the city for things to disappear quickly and without warning. Rust spread across the metal shutters of the closed down café. The sign that once read Books & Beans loomed overhead like a knocked-out set of teeth, leaving behind a far less welcoming Boo & B ans in its place. If Cass didn’t know any better, she would’ve thought that the café had been out of business for at least a year, but that couldn’t be right. She reached inside her bag for her phone to double check Nick’s text, cursing quietly when she realized she left her phone at home in her rush to see him. Still, she was relatively certain that this was the café Nick had told her about, the one he had eaten at just a week before and couldn’t wait to share with her.
She peered down the street, but there were only a few other shops peppering the sidewalk. As far as she knew, there were more stores on the other streets in the area. Here, there were mostly single-story houses hidden behind large iron gates and a handful of nondescript buildings with graffiti sprouting on their walls. Cass sighed, resigned to waiting in front of the café for a few minutes until Nick showed up. He shouldn’t be too long, especially since between the two of them, she was the one who was always late. She rocked back on her heels and grinned as she enjoyed the rarity of her own punctuality. Without her phone, Cass had no way of knowing if she was exactly on time, but she was earlier than Nick. She could even tell him that she got here a few minutes early, though she doubted he’d believe her.
Cass watched the people walking on the faded pedestrian lane, looking for Nick and hoping to catch his expression once he saw her. She could already hear his mock praise, see the amused quirk of his lips and the exaggerated eye roll he would give her once she told him that she arrived just in the nick of time, but Nick wasn’t among the group of people crossing the street nor the few milling around. He wasn’t any of the passersby and after one too many moments of awkward eye contact, Cass kept her gaze on the sidewalk across the street. She half-expected Nick to materialize if she stared hard enough, as if the growing shadows would merge and coalesce into the shape of him. It didn’t happen, of course, but the longer she stared, the more it seemed like the shadows had begun to reach for each other, as if night didn’t fall but crawled and nestled into the cracks of the street, the spaces between buildings, and built itself upwards. The thought made Cass shudder and she forced herself to look away. She decided to refocus her attention, listening for Nick’s footsteps instead. He had a way of walking that left the toes of his sneakers perpetually scuffed and she strained her ears for the familiar scrape of rubber against concrete.
None of the footsteps sounded right. They were either too light or too heavy, pace always quickening as they walked by her. Her cheeks flushed as she caught snatches of their conversations. Their voices were loud enough to hear their whispers of “Don’t look” and “Did you see her?” Cass could only imagine what she must look like to them, a wisp of a girl in front of a closed down café looking very much like she had been stood up on Valentine’s Day, but she told herself that her worry far outweighed any potential embarrassment she might’ve felt. The butterflies in her stomach had long since morphed into something harsher, something cold with claws and teeth and weight like an anchor that kept her tethered to her own small slice of the sidewalk. She imagined the weight pulling her down, tried to shift the image so the weight would also be pulling her up. She pretended she was suspended, the top of her head and the tips of her feet being pulled taut between two opposing forces and she was somehow caught in between. The thought made it easier for her to stand a little straighter. Cass would not fold under the curious gazes sent her way. If she couldn’t be confident, then she’d be stubborn. Nick always said that she wore stubbornness well.
Just a little longer, Cass decided. She’d wait just a little longer, which turned into a little longer and a little longer, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d show up. How long had it been? An hour? Two? Thirty minutes? Cass began to tap her fingers against her thigh to the rhythm of a metronome, trying to keep track of the seconds with each press, but her nervous energy constantly threw her off beat. She couldn’t decide if the action helped pass the time or if it stretched the minutes even further, but the streetlights were turning on. They beamed down on Cass like a spotlight in a play she’d rather not be in.
Cass considered heading home, even if it was just to check her cellphone for any texts or calls. Nick had never been this late before, so something must have happened. She dreaded the thought of what his text might say or worse, that there might not be any text at all. Still, Cass was certain that the moment she turned away, he’d take her place waiting.
The stirring in her stomach grew until it felt like something tangible, like a monster had taken shape and was crawling its way out, using the grooves in her spine as footholds as it hauled itself up before settling at the base of her throat. She didn’t know if she wanted to scream or cry or vomit. She wished she hadn’t left her phone, wished that payphones were still a thing so that she could call until she got sick of hearing the dial tone or until she heard Nick’s voice break through the ringing in her ears. She yearned to search for him, to look for him at all their favorite haunts, to find him and make sure he was okay, but she couldn’t leave. If she did, something terrible would happen. Or maybe something terrible already happened and venturing to find out would make it real.
Cass shook her head. She refused to even consider the worst case scenario, not only because she had a tendency to overthink, but because any sort of life without Nick was something she couldn’t fathom. He had always been there, from the moment they met as two kids who hadn’t realized what they’d found in each other yet to every moment after, every birthday, every “I hope we’re classmates this year,” every bad haircut, every study session-cum-movie night, every recognition ceremony, every midnight street food craving, and everything in between. For as long as there was a Cass, there would be a Nick. It was a truth she had long accepted as fact.
The streetlight next to her began to blink as if her agitation was contagious. The steady pulses of momentary darkness were dizzying, her eyes unable to process her own blinking with the flickering. She closed her eyes, but felt the flickering like an external heartbeat. It was almost enough to make her give up completely, but then she heard it—the unmistakable scrape of rubber against concrete, the slight stumble of toes hitting the ground too hard.
Hope thrummed through her, light and painful and real, pushed itself through her veins as her heart beat so strongly that every part of her was shaking. Her hands trembled, breath quivered, body spun so fast as she turned on her heel that her soul rattled with the movement. The monster in her throat lost its grip and fell into the depths of her being. Cass could see him now. He kept his eyes trained on the ground, watching his steps as though he thought his feet would stop moving if he didn’t watch them closely. It was ridiculous, but so Nick that Cass released an odd half-laugh, half-sob. She’d kill Nick later for scaring her to death, but right now all Cass could feel was relief.
She was about to say his name, but something made her hesitate. The light, or maybe the darkness, warped him somehow. Cass recognized the tilt of his head, the slope of his shoulders, but not stretch of his legs and the sway of his arms. The Nick she knew was all awkward long limbs that he hadn’t quite grown into yet, shy and made up of soft edges. The man walking towards her held himself with sureness, his silhouette built with straighter lines and held together with a stiffness she was unfamiliar with. Cass would’ve mistaken his posture for confidence if she hadn’t seen him tugging incessantly at his sleeves, a nervous tick that he learned from his sister. The figure was Nick, but he was not Nick. Cass would recognize Nick anywhere, but she did not recognize him at all.
The man stopped walking a few feet away from her. He took a deep breath as if the air was courage and if he inhaled enough of it, he’d be able to look at her. Cass had been here long enough to know that the air was not courage. It was fear and worry laced with the smell of decay in the city.
He finally lifted his eyes to meet hers, dark irises framed by long lashes she had always envied, and whatever courage he had gathered left him in a single reverent whisper of a syllable.
“Cass,” he said. She had never heard her name spoken in such a way before, like the tail end of a sigh released after relaxing strained muscles, like the beginning of a gasp after your first taste of sugar. He licked his lips once, twice, sucked in another breath and said, “I can’t believe you’re still here.”
He gave a terse nod. “Yes, it’s me. Of course it’s me,” he said. He shifted his weight from foot to foot and Cass couldn’t tell if he wanted to take a step forward or take a step back. “Jesus, I can’t do this,” he said.
“What are you talking about?”
“How long have you been here?” he asked.
The words sounded like an accusation and Cass flinched at the question. “I—I don’t understand,” she said.
Nick’s gaze softened. He moved forward to brush the hair off of her forehead like he always did when she was upset, but he faltered at the last moment. He kept his hands closer to himself, fingers fluttering for a moment before he placed them in the pockets of his jacket. “How long do you think you’ve been here? Please. It’s important.”
She frowned, pushing down the knee-jerk reaction to snap at him and say, “I wouldn’t have been here for so long if you had just shown up on time.” Instead, her gaze flew upward as if she could divine the answer from the sparse stars that punctured the sky. The sun was still out when she arrived, but now night pervaded every inch of the street. Enough time had passed for her to start worrying about Nick’s safety, but there was no ache in her legs from standing for so long and the streetlights only turned on a while ago. “A couple of hours, maybe,” she finally said. “I’m not entirely sure. I left my phone at home.”
“A couple of hours,” Nick repeated, nodding to himself as he accepted the information. Cass was about to ask where he was when he continued with, “Do you remember how you got here?”
“The same as anyone else. I walked,” she shrugged. “Well, I ran actually. I was up all night yesterday working on a paper. You know, the one I told you my group mates left for me to cram? Anyway, I took a nap, but I guess my alarm didn’t go off, so I was rushing and you know how I am when I’m in a hurry. I get clumsy and there was just one disaster after another, but I tried to make it here as fast as I could and I, well, here I am,” she finished awkwardly, waving a hand as if to physically cut off her own rambling.
When Nick didn’t say anything, Cass fidgeted in discomfort. She hated the heavy atmosphere that settled around them, hated the invisible chasm that kept them separated. She tried for a smile, maybe she just flashed her teeth, and as carefully as she could, she said, “Nick, what’s going on?”
To her horror, Nick’s expression crumbled. With his lips quivering and his eyes squeezed shut, he almost looked like a child, small and vulnerable. Cass’s first instinct was to place a hand on his shoulder, but she barely grazed his jacket before he started pulling away. “You have no idea. This is all my fault,” he said.
“The fact that you’re not really here!” he cried.
Cass staggered back as if she’d been slapped. “What are you talking about? I’m right here. I’m literally standing right in front of you.”
“I’m going to tell you something and I need you to listen—”
“I am listening, but you’re not making any sense!”
“Cass!” he yelled, and it was the loudest that he ever raised his voice in all of the years she’d known him. His face was contorted in pain, his eyes like glass. “There was a car. You weren’t looking. He was going too fast and it—I mean, he—you never even made it here.”
“No,” she said, the dizzying feeling was back and the flickering of the streetlight grew frantic before going out altogether. “I don’t understand. Of course I made it. I’m here. I’m right here.”
“And you’ve been here, haunting this street every Valentine’s Day for the past five years, Cass. You’ve been dead for five years.”
Dead. The word was like a bomb exploding between them, erasing everything but the stillness of their silhouettes. Wasn’t she breathing? Heart beating and adrenaline pumping, head spinning with confusion and mouth parted in disbelief? How could she be dead when she felt all the hallmarks of being alive?
Except that wasn’t quite true. The tether to the sidewalk still tugged at her each time she took a step. The foreboding feeling that something terrible would happen if she left was still there, even now that Nick was standing right in front of her. She watched the shadows, still crawling, still reaching, and realized that Nick couldn’t see them at all. Cass thought of all the passersby, the whispers, their averted looks and sometimes overt pointing.
And then she looked at Nick. He was crying freely now, body beginning to quake, tears creating the illusion of fissures running down his face. There was no denying that he was older, only fragments of the Nick she knew left behind. She wanted to comfort him in some way, but she was afraid to touch anything. Clenching her hands into fists, she drummed them against her forehead to reassure herself that she was more than just air. “If all of this is true,” she said, “then why am I still here?”
“It’s my fault. All of this is my fault. I’m the one who asked you here. I’m the one who showed up a year later and wished more than anything to see you again. Then when you started showing up, I couldn’t even face you. Every year, I would tell myself that I was going to approach you, but every year you just kept waiting and I kept backing out and spending the rest of the year waiting for another chance,” his voice caught, fingers tugging on his sleeves again like he was trying to shed some of the hurt that the years layered onto him. “And now I find out that you didn’t even know. You’ve been gone for five years and you didn’t even know it. I’m sorry, Cass. I’m so, so sorry.”
Cass tried to remember all the time she spent waiting, but she supposed they were all the same. All the memories of staring at nothing, of day bleeding into night, of eventually disappearing until the next year, it all blurred together in a timeless blank. She began to feel cold, so cold, and for a moment she was tempted to reach for the shadows as well, to hide herself in them and stay in the only world she knew. She could stay. She knew she could, but she looked at Nick, lost in his own darkness, and understood.
“Nick,” she said. She was unafraid to reach for his hands and this time, he let her. Callouses on the tips of his fingers, pale white scar on his right index finger, and wonderfully warm, this was a part of him that she knew. Cass smiled. “I don’t blame you for any of it and if you really thought I would, then the past five years have only made you a bigger idiot.” His eyes widened and he opened his mouth to interrupt her, but Cass shook her head. “I need you to know that you’re going to be fine. I love you. And thank you.”
She did not say anything, simply stared at him, taking in every detail of his face. There was so much darkness now, but the light had not gone completely. For as long as there was a Cass, there would be a Nick, but not the Nick she knew he could be, not the Nick he deserved to be. For there to be a Nick, there could no longer be a Cass, so she squeezed his hands tighter before loosening her grip and taking a step back. She felt a burst of warmth explode in her chest and then she felt nothing at all, disappearing quickly and without warning.