Cort was asleep when the car crashed into the side of his building. He’d lost his job only a week and a half earlier, and had taken to sleeping until the early afternoon. In the summer heat he’d started sleeping on the screened-in porch.
When he thought of it afterward, he didn’t know that he’d actually heard anything. He didn’t remember being shocked awake by the shriek of metal or anything so dramatic. Rather, it was the smell he noticed, heavy rubber that reminded him of picking at tarred cracks on a playground, of new shoes. He was then aware of a steady, threatening hiss, and as he became fully conscious was, for a moment, convinced the sheet tangled around his legs was a python. He could not see what had happened, even with the advantage of being on the second story, but he could see smoke coming from the opposite side of the building, thick like soiled cotton. He stepped into his jeans and hurried downstairs barefoot, pulling his shirt on over his head.
The front of the car was crumpled against the brick wall, and a light post had sheared a long strip of blue off the side. The street was empty. He walked quickly around to the driver’s side, picking his way around fragments of glass and red plastic. The scent of gasoline was dizzying.
Through the window, he could see that the driver’s head was resting on the steering wheel. Her face was turned toward him, pale and round. Her eyes were wide; bright blood was smeared at the corner of her lips, like a shredded petal.
“Oh my God,” came a close voice.
Cort jerked away from the door. He recognized the girl behind him; she worked at the coffee place across the street. “Is she okay? Is she dead?”
“I don’t know. I think so.” Cort shook his head. The barista seized his arm and looked past him into the car.
“Oh my God” she said again, all of that caffeine pep suddenly blasted out of her. Cort looked across the street and saw people emerging from the coffee shop. He didn’t know why they were moving so slowly, or how he had made to the car first.
“I’m gonna see if she’s okay,” Cort said, though the barista was already running back across the street.
The light on the ceiling turned on as he opened the car door. The girl’s arms hung at her sides.
“Hello?” His hearing was muffled, as though the pressure in the car was much lower than outside. “Are you okay?”
Her keys were still swinging in the ignition, a cluster of brass with a thin bracelet of peach stones looped around the ring. The inside of his elbow touched her back as he twisted the keys out and into his palm. There was a strange, wintry smell in her car, like sugar and shortbread. Something a little too sweet; something that almost made him sick.
“Move it.” Fingers hooked around the collar of his shirt and yanked him backwards. The paramedics had arrived and were pushing him out of the way, peppering questions and shouting in one loud, meaningless voice. Cort backed out of their way, watching as they unbuckled her seatbelt and lifted her limp body out and onto the ground. Her mouth had dropped open and blood poured over her bottom lip and onto her shirt. He saw that the tip of her tongue was gone.
“Excuse me,” said a young police officer who had appeared at his side. He was frowning. “What were you doing in there?”
“Oh, hi. Hello. Sorry. I was just taking the keys out of the ignition in case it might blow up or something.”
“Do you know what happened here?” The cop asked.
“I didn’t see anything,” Cort said. “I don’t know what happened.”
Cort sat on the curb, still holding the girl’s keys. He detached the bracelet as she was pronounced dead, rubbing the polished pebbles between his fingers.
He found the police officer who had questioned him and gave him her keys. The officer had her purse slung over his shoulder.
“What was her name?” Cort asked. He could hear the metal legs of the stretcher unfolding behind him.
“Nico Daznewski. Or…” he squinted at the sky. “I don’t know. Something foreign.” Cort nodded and turned away.
Though he’d brought his book, Cort wasn’t reading. He sat with his back to the picture window, amid colorful and seemingly random paraphernalia, objects that were replicated in each of the coffee chain’s numerous locations. He was watching the girl behind the counter, the one who had reported the accident. Her hair was drawn up in a high ponytail, the back all poufed out like a Bridgette Bardot bouffant.
Cort wanted to talk to her. He wanted to ask her questions about the accident, but he didn’t know what to ask.
“Why don’t you just go talk to her already?” He jerked his head toward the voice, picking up his drink.
“Peter, hi. What are you doing here?” He took a sip to cover his mouth. Peter lifted his eyebrows.
“Getting a cup of coffee, what else? Although it looks like you’re here to check out the staff, huh?” Peter laughed. “What have you been doing with yourself, Cort? Found another job or are you just chilling for a while?”
“No, I’m just… you know, seeing what my options are. Nice to see you, Peter.”
“Listen, some friends and I are going to the city tomorrow night, to Blue. If you think that girl,” he tilted his chin toward the counter “is something, you will not believe the women at this place.”
“Oh, thanks, but that’s not really my scene.”
“I know that’s not your scene. That’s why you’re sitting here pining after the Starbucks girl. How long has it been since you’ve gotten some ass? I am making it my mission to get you laid this weekend, Cort. I won’t take no for an answer. What do you say? It’ll be fun.”
“Great. I’ll call you tomorrow from work. Don’t let me down, Cort.” Peter joined the end of the line and Cort got up, leaving his coffee on the table.
He returned to the couch, but he didn’t go back to sleep. He sat instead with his book teepeed on his thigh, running a finger along its spine. Cort wondered where the girl—where Nico—was going. He remembered her slender legs and he decided she must have been a dancer. Perhaps Nico had been driving to an audition. She wanted to twirl in the Russian ballet, to tiptoe across stage with flowers balanced in her arms. She spoke quietly but with great passion, especially about her dancing. And when she was discussing something that really excited her, she might spontaneously grab your hand.
He wondered if she was lonely. If she sought solitude in her companions and was looking for someone with whom it would be as though she were alone.
They would have been friends. Maybe lovers. He thought he might already be a little in love with her.
“Yes, choose potential mates from the dead,” he said aloud. “Brilliant idea. Very sane.”
Still, he wondered, what if they had met? Where would he have found her before today? They might have collided outside the coffee shop, she laughing as he apologized for spilling her drink, feeding her with napkins. He’d pay for another of whatever she was having—Chai? That was what he was drinking, too—and they’d sit together and he’d get her phone number.
She’d been in that accident on a different street, on her way to see him. The door opened and he stood, book splashing to the floor.
Nico took a few steps into the apartment and stopped. A goose egg was swollen on her brow and her chin was quivering, face near collapse.
“Jesus, are you all right? What happened?” He started toward her, stomach tight.
“I don’t know,” she shook her head slowly. Her voice was thick and she kept her eyes on a space on the carpet a few feet in front of her. “I got in an accident. They said I’m okay, but…” It didn’t matter then, whatever she was going to say, because his hands were on her hips and his lips were against her temple and he was whispering It’s all right, it’s all right.
“You’re not going to find some skinny cage-dancer and leave me, are you?” Nico watched him get dressed from the bed, propped back on her arms.
“Yeah, because that’s totally my type,” Cort laughed, picking his watch up off the dresser. “There’s nothing to worry about, Nico. I’m going to have a few drinks and then hit the road. I doubt anyone will even look twice at me.”
“And modest, too!” She wagged her legs over the edge of the bed.
“What? It’s true. The clubbing-kind has never been very interested in guys like me.”
“What does that mean, ‘guys like you’? Cute guys? I think that’s an international favorite, Cort.”
He crossed to the bed and leaned down, sliding his arms under hers, his hands dimpling the mattress. “You said I look like a bulldog.”
“Bulldogs are cute! And I said you looked kind of like a bulldog. Your face is longer.” She pressed her palms to his face and pulled his faintly pockmarked cheeks into sagging jowls. “I’m kidding about the cage dancer thing. I want you to have fun tonight. Don’t come back here unless it’s after one and you’re piss drunk. Got it?”
“Yes ma’am,” he said, and kissed the bruise on her forehead.
“Hey! Cort!” a voice pressed in his ear, and he felt a hand close around his wrist. “I can’t believe you came! I mean, I’m glad you did, but I didn’t think you’d show!”
“Well, here I am,” Cort said, but his voice was lost in the pulse of music. Peter shook his head, bending the shell of his ear with a finger. Cort wondered how clubbing could strengthen friendships, how it could be considered a social activity, when you couldn’t even hear what was being said. There were other ways, of course, to communicate. Grinding your ass into someone seemed to be a perfectly acceptable way of saying “Hello.”
“We’re sitting over here,” Peter guided him to a table near the back, crowded with bodies. “Everyone, this is Cort. We used to work together.” Though Peter matched each face with a name, Cort couldn’t remember anything but that too many ended with an “i” or “y.” He lifted a hand by way of greeting.
“What’ll you have?” Peter asked, drinking from a clear glass that was mostly ice.
“Oh, nothing for me, thanks.” Cort glanced over his shoulder, scratching the back of his head.
"Come on, you have to have something! It’s not like you have to be up early for work or something, right?” Peter laughed. “Let me buy you a drink.”
“All right. Uh, I’ll just have whatever you’ve got.”
“Vodka tonic. I’ll be right back.” He clapped Cort on the back and was swallowed by the crowd. Cort stared after him.
“What was your name?” The girl sitting on the edge of the booth asked him. She had blonde hair that looked like it had been ironed flat. He thought the color of lip gloss she was wearing was probably called Cotton Candy. He told her his name.
“I’m Vicki. Nice to meet you, Cort. I’ve never seen you out with Peter before.”
“No, I don’t really go out very often.”
“No shit,” she laughed. “What do you do instead?” She was wearing a very short skirt. She crossed her legs, and there was a sucking sound as the vinyl seat separated from her skin.
“Um. I just kind of hang around, I guess. I like to read. Do you come here often?”
She laughed again, tugging the hem of his shirt. “I’ve heard that before. Where did you get your lines from, a dating book from the 50’s?”
“It wasn’t a line,” he said. “Where’s the bathroom?”
“Over there,” Vicki pointed. “Just past the bar.”
“Thanks. I’ll be right back. Um, good to meet you, Vicki.” Cort turned and moved sideways between the people, men in suits and striped shirts, girls with boots up to their knees. He slid past the bar, past the bathroom, and to the exit.
“Cort?” They were sitting on the couch, Nico with her legs stretched across his lap, an arm draped over her eyes. The sun was angled directly across the porch and, though two fans hummed and pushed air in their directions, their backs were sticky with sweat.
“Mm?” He was dozing, head resting on the back of the couch.
“Let’s go out today. To a museum or something.”
“Are you serious? It’s too hot to even breathe.”
“I’m sure it would be air conditioned. Or we could go to the pool or something. We’ve been sitting around here for days. Come on.”
“You go on ahead,” he said as she slid off the couch, pulling her hair up in a spiky ponytail.
“Fine, you stay here and roast. Why don’t you look for a job while you’re sitting there? I’ll even get you the paper.” He watched her walk across the apartment in just a tank top and her underwear. She began leafing through the heap of papers on the kitchen counter.
“Yeah, maybe. I’m still waiting to hear back from a couple places, so…” He let his head drop back again.
“All right. Well, don’t wait too long.” She clacked back onto the porch in shorts and wooden sandals. Her lips were cool against his brow. “I’ll be right back.”
“Okay. Be safe.” He grinned and stretched out the length of the couch. He closed his eyes. He did not hear her go out.
“Here,” she said, tossing a folded newspaper onto his belly. Cort feigned injury as he caught it, grunting and pitching his shoulders forward.
“Thanks, but I don’t really feel like reading.”
“Open it. Look at page 7E.” She sank onto a wicker chair at the table just inside the apartment.
“All right. What is it, the want ads?” He thumbed through the pages, scanning headlines. On page 7E there was a pocket-sized picture of her smiling over her shoulder. Her hair was longer and blonder than it was now, and twisted up into a messy bun. Nico Davidov. He clicked his jaw. “The obituaries. Very funny.”
“I want you to read it,” she said, leaning forward. She cupped her calf and began massaging the muscle. “And I want you to go.”
“Where?” he asked, though he knew the answer. He looked at the picture as she spoke, focusing and unfocusing his eyes, watching the lines of her face blur.
“To the funeral. Where else?”
“I don’t think so, Nico.” He folded the paper and stood up, stretching so that his elbows almost met behind his back. He walked past her into the kitchen, opening cupboards until he found his cereal.
“Why? Big job interview that day? Meeting with friends? Putting on a clean pair of pants?”
“This is stale,” he said, his mouth full of wheat flakes. “Because I don’t want to. It doesn’t really interest me.”
“How can it not interest you, Cort? You were interested enough to think me up, weren’t you? This is an opportunity to actually know something about me. Something real.”
“That’s why I’m not interested. I like you as you are.” He ate another fistful of cereal. “Now I know your full name, and that’s too much.”
“That’s bullshit, Cort. How long are we going to keep up here? How long since you’ve spoken to anyone besides delivery boys?” Cort didn’t answer but to chew his cereal and watch her, hands spread on the counter. “Come on.”
“This is fucked up,” he muttered.
“It’s not that bad. You’re not a total hermit yet.”
“No. That I’m arguing with you. That you’re making me feel guilty. That’s fucked up. That’s really fucked up. I must be a masochist or something.”
“Then wouldn’t it make sense to listen to me? I think it would make this a little less ‘fucked up.’ If you went, I mean. Please go, Cort. For me.”
“Fine. Bring me that paper, would you?” She retrieved it for him and he scanned her obituary, carefully avoiding words like “survived by” or “was an employee at.” He wrote the time (11 am) and place (First Presbyterian, now he knew her religion) on a sticky note and stuck it to the fridge. “Happy?”
“Yes!” she laughed, tugging a fistful of his hair so that it stuck straight up. “And now we can enjoy the rest of the day without worrying about it. You won’t have to think about it until…” She glanced at the paper “Thursday. We’ll have fun till then, yes?”
“Yeah,” he said and closed the paper.
At 10:30 on Thursday morning, Cort realized he didn’t have a suit. He owned one, black with too-short pants, but he’d dropped it at the cleaner’s months ago and had not claimed it. By the time he found a pair of khakis, balled in the corner of his closet and crossed with thick veins of wrinkles, a suitable shirt and a tie, he was twenty minutes late. When he pulled into the church parking lot, the clock glowed 11:45. The post it note was stuck to the dashboard, flipped up by the air conditioner. He made a face in the rearview mirror, patting his hair down. He opened the door and slid out.
The church looked new, white stone and glass with a short bell tower. Cort wondered if the funeral was still going. He had only been to one before, his grandmother’s, and he had been too young to remember anything except that his mother had worn a large black hat; its brim kept hitting him in the face as she held him. He took a seat on the trunk of the car, feeling it bounce under his weight. He found a pack of cigarettes in his pocket and lit one.
“So,” Nico asked, perched beside him. “Are you going in?”
“I’m late,” he croaked, holding the smoke in his lungs. “It would be rude, don’t you think?”
“No. I think you should go in, Cort. You came all this way.” She took the cigarette from his fingers. “I have sisters, you know,” she said quietly, nudging him with her shoulder.
“And a husband and a job selling luggage and you were pregnant when you died. I don’t want to know, Nico. I don’t care.”
“You do care. Too much. Trust me, going in there can only be a good thing. Please, Cort. Please go.”
Cort took the bracelet from her keys out of his pocket. The stones were cool in his hand. He rolled each between his fingers, as though telling a rosary.
“Nico,” he said, and the doors of the church opened and a procession began to trickle out. Six men (fathers brothers husband?) carried the casket. A short, gray-haired woman followed behind them, and holding her arm was a woman who looked like a polarization of Nico, the same features but with dark hair and pale eyes. She looked a little older, and her arms were tan and freckled. Cort slid off the car and watched them move toward the hearse, saw not-Nico look across the parking lot at him. She cocked her head slightly, raising her hand in his direction. Maybe shielding her eyes. Maybe waving him over.
Cort slipped the bracelet around his wrist and opened the car door.
Brooke Ferguson lives in San Francisco with her dog. She writes, edits, and decorates cakes.