I

Starting across a bridge in her small American city, a girl—call her Kara—thinks she might be done with swimming. For any number of reasons. Maybe she’s developed a sudden aversion to chlorine. Maybe the sport takes up too much time, time better spent studying, or playing guitar, or fantasizing about her crush. It could be her teammates are incredibly boring or petty or stupid, or her coach is. Or some psychological thing, a matter of separating and individualizing oneself from one’s parents: Both Kara’s moms are swimmers; in fact, they met at the pool. Whatever, why. Doesn’t matter why. All Kara knows is the idea occurs to her as she steps onto the footpath and once she reaches the middle of the span she’s pretty much made up her mind.

So she stops, and gazes out and down, and there’s the river. Now, that’s water. Dark, deep, the current like the dreams of a fiend. Check out that tugboat—it’s got guts, all right, but after a long day all it wants is that snug berth already. The sun is going down, and it’s October and Kara’s loose curls are still damp. She pulls up her hood but still she stands there, musing. She’s like that, thoughtful, with wide eyes in a narrow face; gray eyes, the color of bad weather and worse news.

And then that’s it. Yup, yeah, yes: She’s done with swimming.

Once the choice is made, she flicks on her parents. One mother will definitely be upset: “You’re quitting swimming?!” The other, more like, “So? Onward!” Then she’s over them. On impulse, she digs in her backpack for cool, round, metal…there it is. Kara pulls out the lock, whizzes through the combination (right-left-right), pulls out the shackle and attaches it to the bridge through a loop of chain link. A symbolic act, to underscore her decision. That’s all it is—but not all it will ever be. Not by a long shot.

 

II

It’s official. Auden and Danita are together. As in, in a relationship. Things kicked off the second week of school, when the juniors and seniors, who have late session, were hanging around the rotunda, and she started singing—out of nowhere, a quirky, off-the-cuff take on a popular tune—and he went over to listen. They got to talking, and then texting, and then thinking about each other non-stop. Then, ultimately, acting on those thoughts. So it went for weeks till Danita demanded a definition.

“I just want to know what this is,” she said.

And he said, “What do you mean, ‘this?’”

She answered by leaning into him and walking forward until he was up against a wall and then laying one on him. “This, this,” she said.

And he said, “What do you want it to be?”

Good question. Danita knew the answer but it got stuck between her heart and her mouth. That didn’t happen often—Danita could speak her mind—but it had been happening lately, in regard to Auden.

Who just leaned against the wall and let her get it out. He smiled, a little. He’s got one of those easy smiles, despite the somewhat crooked teeth, and dimples, a smile’s partners in crime.

“Fine,” she said. “I want us to be going out. For real. The right way. Just us and total honesty, so if there’s ever a time when it’s not just us—before it’s not just us—we tell each other. Cheating is wrong.”

And he said, “I want that too.”

That being that, they are now inseparable. Although Danita lives near school, in the nicer part of town, they usually go to Auden’s house, because both his parents work long hours, affording them privacy. Sometimes Danita has access to a vehicle, or they take the bus, or their bikes.

On this particular day—having missed the bus—they’re walking, and when they reach a certain spot on the bridge, Danita says, “Look. Check it out. A lock.” Danita has heard about this. “People…couples do it,” she says. “They put the lock on the bridge and throw away the key to symbolize their forever bond.” She manages to relate this without the word love, since they haven’t used it yet.

“But it’s a combination lock,” Auden points out.

She shoves him. “It’s symbolic,” she says. “They do it all over the world—Paris, Moscow, New York; couples all over the world cover their bridges in locks.”

“Paris, Moscow, New York and now here,” he says. “The City of Light to the City of Blight.”

Danita snickers, shoves him again. Still relatively new in town, she’s already formed an opinion.

Auden’s into it though. “You want to do one? We can do both our locks.”

Danita makes a huffy sound. “We can’t do two locks for one couple; it’s got to be one lock—that’s the point.”

“All right, let’s do it with mine.” He fishes in his pack. He doesn’t take his eyes off her if he can help it.

“Why yours?”

“Because I’m the man,” he says, and laughs, and she laughs too. “Besides,” he says, dangling the lock, “mine actually does have a key.”

They pick a spot on the chain link. Close to the first lock but not too close. Higher up on the fence, too. They make a show for each other of attaching the lock together, which makes the simple act awkward but, hey, who said this—this thing they have—would always be easy. Together they click the shackle; together they remove the key.

“Are we supposed to say something?” Auden asks.

Danita waits for the three little words, but when they don’t come, she shrugs. “There are no rules.”

Since they can’t fling the key as a unit, they simply let it drop. So small it disappears from sight instantly.

He says, “Cool,” and pulls her in for a kiss she’s happy to receive. Like, ninety-seven percent happy; three percent unidentified feeling object. The whole ritual goes down without her informing him that what they have just performed is known throughout the world as love locking.

 

III

It’s not that Radigan considers the guy as a rival. Radigan’s the way better athlete, and better looking, and comes from money. Everyone knows this, Radigan especially. Yet throughout Radigan’s high school career, Auden has been at the nucleus. Which makes no sense. The dude doesn’t vie for attention; it’s like a gift, the dumb luck of being at the right place at the right time. Now, for example, with this locks thing.

It’s a thing, all right. The girl started it, his girl, Danita. She told a few friends what the two of them did on the bridge, and word spread, everybody thinking it was so cool. So, now, what ordinarily would be a hookup at a party has people declaring undying devotion, just so they can go to the bridge and attach a cheap piece of crap made in China. Popular kids, goobers, gays, all coupling up to put locks on the bridge.

Within a month it went viral. Beyond their school; beyond kids, too—adults doing it. There was a picture in the paper. And of course Auden had been first. Auden who, like a handful of students who “get in” every year, makes the technically short but metaphorically long trek from the east side of the river. Auden, a sun among planets, a planet among moons.

Even though, no doubt, it was all her idea. That Danita. She has an air, her being from California, which everyone equates with glamour. It’s not like she’s from L.A. or Silicon Valley. Still, she has that air, that way. Not pushy, exactly; just like she’ll do or say anything without a thought to what others will think. The female equivalent, Radigan surmises, of balls. She looks the type: tall, lean, quick on her feet—what’s known as rangy. Not Radigan’s preferred choice of female. He likes petite girls, longhaired and big on top, with droopy eyes and droopy lips. That Danita, she’s boyish, and has the amber eyes and tawny skin of indeterminable ethnic origin.

Not that it matters. She could be a cow. Finally…no, not finally, just for shits and giggles, Radigan’s going to do something about ordinary old Auden from the wrong side of the river. Radigan’s going to steal his girl. Steal her, do her (sully is the word; it makes him smirk) and then toss her aside. Which ought to make this whole love-lock thing go away, or better yet, still stand, a testament to a sham. Perfect.

 

IV

The true identity of the Angstronaut is and forever shall be a mystery. Male or female, gay or straight, virgin or whore—could even been the janitor, one of the lunch ladies, for all anybody knows. Not even the teacher-advisor who supervises the student-run website has a clue. Questions come in via email or text, are forwarded to an inbox and then sent back, complete with counsel, which the teacher-advisor checks to ensure the advice isn’t crazy (it never is; it’s always uncannily, common sensibly on target) and then it goes live on the site, all within 48 hours. Everyone reads the Angstronaut. S/he is so funny, so profound, and the advice s/he offers always manages to be specific to the angst-ridden askeee yet somehow universal, a grain of truth in every answer that could apply to the entire planet, not just the entire school.

The subject matter is all over the map: academic stress, psycho siblings, helicopter parents, tyrannical teachers, bullies both verbal and physical, the lure of illicit substances and, of course, romance. Only today the Angstronaut gets a query that gives her/him pause:

Something’s wrong, very wrong, although everything’s all right. I’m losing something—or it’s being taken from me—but everything I have is here. I’m suspicious of everyone, most of all myself. I must be screwing up somehow but I’m not doing anything different. Except writing to the Angstronaut. Not that you’re not great; just that I never had a problem of such magnitude before. This is some serious magnitude…I just don’t know what it is. I do know it’s making me think dark things, and feel really stupid, and it has to stop. So what can I do?

What, indeed. The Angstronaut is smack-down stymied. Problems tend to be concrete, solutions obvious. But this…this is amorphous, insidious, a colorless, odorless gas sneaking up and around and into the poor askee. So the Angstronaut breezes through the rest of the easy issues on her/his plate, takes care of some other business, zones out in front of the TV, tosses and turns in bed—and then it comes to her/him:

The logical approach to your problem is to gently but firmly interrogate everyone you know about what seems to be going on. Get leads, follow through, hone in, figure it out forensically. In other words, get Locard on their asses. But I don’t advise that. Instead, I suggest ignoring the situation for the moment and finding a way to be of service to someone you don’t know. Reach out at random to a kid in a class you never noticed before, or a neighbor you’ve barely given a nod to, or the proverbial perfect stranger. Not to distract you from the issue but to allow you—via the positive energy you release—to correct or circumvent it sideways. My sense is that yours is not a problem to be attacked head-on. Change up your focus and trust, if not yourself then the universe, to work it out for you.

People cry, “Foul!” People moan, “Noooooo!” This is not the sort of advice people turn to the Angstronaut for. People agree: The Angstronaut has totally lost it. And maybe s/he has.

 

V

Unbelievable! Inconceivable! Impossible! Yet true. Kiernan’s at the playground with his earbuds in, slamming the beat against his legs, his chest, the monkey bars, benches, slide, fence. This grindcore thing he’s into lately, really fast. Of course he knows he looks like a freak but so what, he doesn’t care. Well, maybe he does care, hence the playground—pretty much deserted at this time of day, this time of year.

Except for this guy coming up to him—this guy who’s maybe been watching him. Which might be creepy, except the guy doesn’t look creepy and besides, Kiernan can take care of himself. He pulls out an earbud and gives the guy a look, like: What?!

The guy says, “Hey, man—don’t hurt yourself.”

And Kiernan says, “Good advice. Thanks for that.” But he doesn’t plug the earbud back in.

“What’re you listening to?”

Kiernan names the band, and the guy nods appreciatively. “So you play? Drums?”

“Well, yeah. I mean, I would. I mean, I will.”

Another nod, one that says he gets it—gets everything. “I play drums. Or I used to; I switched to bass.”

It’s as if Kiernan’s head cocks with interest all by itself. “How come?”

“Various reasons,” the guy tells him. Then he looks at the darkening sky, psychedelically pink and orange with pollution, and at Kiernan again, who’s got to be cold, since he’s no longer smacking himself silly. “You want to jam?”

Dumbstruck, Kiernan stares.

The guy laughs. “What do you think I’m a child molester? I’m not a child molester.” Does he tell Kiernan that some invisible monster is siphoning his lifeblood and that, lame-ass loser that he apparently is, he wrote to an advice columnist who counseled practicing random acts of kindness? Hell no.

Does Kiernan get pissed at the inference that he’s a child? Hell yeah. Because he’s not a child; he’s thirteen, only small for his age. Not too pissed, though, his head still cricked in that angle of intrigue. “You have drums?”

“Yeah, I have drums.” The guy turns in the easterly direction. “I live on State.”

“I live on Bond,” says Kiernan.

And just like that, three measly blocks from his house, Kiernan has a kit to play, and an older guy to teach him, and even though the guy is into some crappy bands (Kiernan would never say that, though—to each his own, right?), he is pretty cool, and it was incredibly nice of him to step up and basically change the course of Kiernan’s entire life.

 

VI    

The holidays are practically here—already! Like every year, they sneak up on Cybelle, because Cybelle is always so busy, and then she turns around and—boom!—it’s the week before Christmas and she still has presents to buy, and stuff to get for herself; she needs makeup and some kind of headband because her hair is in that awkward growing-out phase (bangs—what was she thinking!?). And she’s not going to do it online, like some people, because that’s not what the holidays are about. The holidays are about real shopping!

Only not the mall. She’s sick of the mall. There’s this fun, funky area on the other side of the bridge called the Horne. So ghetto when Cybelle was growing up but then it got gentrified, turned all hipster-ish with coffeehouses and a yoga studio and boutiques no bigger than Cybelle’s bedroom closet. She’s bound to find some real one-of-a-kinds, plus she wants to turn Danita on to the place, since Danita’s still relatively new in town.

Cybelle calls Danita from in front of Danita’s house. “I’m here,” she says, and Danita lopes out and gets into the car. “I want to go to the Horne,” Cybelle tells Danita. “Hope that’s okay.”

“Sure,” says Danita, like she knows all about it.

And Cybelle realizes that Danita probably does know all about it. After all, she’s with Auden and Auden lives on that side of town. Or maybe she just knows by osmosis, because that’s Danita. It bums Cybelle out a little but she doesn’t let it show. So they just chitchat mindlessly, which is also annoying because Cybelle and Danita have something serious to discuss. Only Danita doesn’t bring it up—and it’s her problem.

Forcing Cybelle to say. “So how’s it going with you and Radigan?”

Danita makes a noise that Cybelle cannot decode. “There is no me and Radigan.”

This is getting ridiculous. Not to mention infuriating. Danita not only snags one of the nicest, sweetest boys in school—a boy Cybelle never really paid any mind to until Danita did—but now she’s managed to pique the fancy of their small world’s ultimate badass bitch-magnet.

“Uh-huh,” Cybelle says. “Right.”

“No, really. I think he finally got the point. He stopped asking me out, anyway.” Danita glances out the window so as not to betray the fact that although Radigan has stopped asking her out he’s started talking to her as if she were already his. Which Danita finds funny, in a funny way, like being tickled in a spot where you didn’t know you were ticklish. “We’re just friends.”

“Uh-huh,” Cybelle says, thinking: And the Trojan horse was just a great big piñata. But now they’re going over the bridge, and Cybelle hasn’t been this way in a while, so she says, “Oh my God, Danita! Look at them all!” It pains her to look, because Cybelle hasn’t got a boyfriend anymore—she broke his heart (not on purpose!) and now he’s with another girl, and they have a lock on the bridge.

Danita laughs, shrugs. “I know—crazy.”

“I bet you couldn’t even find yours and Auden’s!”

“Oh, I bet I could,” Danita says quickly, though she’s not sure.

“And to think, you guys started it all.”

“Yeah…” says Danita, though that’s not exactly true.

“So what are you getting him for Christmas?”

“Huh? Oh…we’re not exchanging gifts.” Danita turns to the window again.

Now, to Cybelle this is sacrilege. Yes, she’s aware that Auden’s family cannot have a ton of money, but Auden has a job or something, hasn’t he? How could he not get his girlfriend a Christmas present? A token, a trinket, even something handmade—since after all it’s the thought that counts. Especially when your girlfriend is currently in Radigan’s line of vision, and Radigan, as she would like very much to tell Danita—if Danita didn’t already know everything—is the devil and will destroy her. Only all Cybelle says is, “Really.”

And Danita affirms, “Really.” She’d rather not get into it with Cybelle. Cybelle’s great but it’s none of her business that instead of a present on Christmas Danita intends, on New Year’s Eve, to give Auden the most important present of all.

Herself.

On one condition.

 

VII

The kids on this stretch of Bond Street have a name for the old geezer, and he knows it: They call him Mr. Snarls. His real name is Charles, Burton Charles, but he’s been Snarls since his wife died young, and left him to raise a disappointment of a son. The son is grown and long moved away, so Mr. Snarls turns his dour disappointment on just about anyone. Especially, for the sake of convenience, the family next door. Only, family? Ha! Bunch of miscreants and deviants, as far as he’s concerned.

And, goddamn, has he got a reason to now! Dragging his garbage cans to the curb, what does he see? The neighbors’ garage door is open, and there’s the kid—the boy—and some other teenage hooligan, and what are they doing? Assembling a set of drums, that’s what! The younger one is practically bouncing off the walls while the older one is telling him to pay attention—“Watch and learn, whack-job! I’m not going to be here every time you want to adjust the stool.”—while Snarls turns a righteous shade of purple because if those people think he’s going to put up with that kind of racket at all hours of the day and night, they’ve got another thing coming!

Frozen in the spot, transfixed by the boys, Snarls’ mind races ahead to the heavy metal heroin parties inevitably to ensue. And the prostitutes. Homosexual prostitutes on heroin moaning to the rumble of heavy metal drums! How many times is he going to have to call the cops? And what are they going to do about it? Nothing, that’s what! And when the motorcycle gangs show up—

“Hi there, Burt!”

Snarls snaps from his roiling reverie, still clutching one of the garbage cans.

“How’s it going?”

The boy’s mother, the pretty one, burdened with bring-your-own canvas grocery bags. Her, in that little blue hat with the pompom on top. Her, smiling, wearing cherry-red lipstick—like that fools anyone.

“Fine! It’s going fine! Fine and dandy!” Snarls hurls each syllable like a curse and then marches back to his house, eyes straight ahead; he won’t give them the satisfaction of turning to see if they’re laughing at him.

Which they’re not. The boy’s mother has never found amusement in the misery of others and would like to believe she’s raised her kids not to either. Besides, now her attention is on her son’s friend, whom she’s heard about but never met. “How about some help here?” she says.

The older boy, embarrassed that he had to be asked, trots over and reaches for the shopping bags, but the woman says, “No, no, I’m good.” How sweet, she thinks; how nice: This kid is giving—even if only a loan, so incredibly sweet, so enormously nice—her son a drum set they certainly cannot afford to buy him. “There’s more in the car.”

As the boys hump the bags up the front walk, the younger one says, “You’re going to have to have cookies and cocoa, man—there’s no way out of it. My mother’s been in there baking all day, so just grin and bear it, okay?”

This has the older kid a little confused, since it seems like his friend’s mother just got home from the store. Only it’s all right. No disrespect, but the fact is his own mother couldn’t bake her way out of a paper bag. “No problem, man,” he says.

The small kitchen is high-caloric heaven, smelling of butter and sugar and spice. Baking sheets cover every surface. Kiernan, barreling in ahead of Auden, says, “There’s no place to put this stuff.”

And his mother says, “I’ll make room…just give me a second…”

And his other mother says, “No, no; I’ll do it. Here, let’s just move these—”

“No, hon, don’t—they have to stay on the cooling racks…”

Now, Auden isn’t a moron but he must look like one right now because Kiernan, who’s dumped his grocery bags on two vinyl kitchen chairs, says, “Dude: I have two moms. I don’t have two heads.”

And Auden laughs, a loud, joyous sound that surprises him—it feels like he hasn’t laughed in a while. “Yeah! Right! Wow! Sorry!”

The mom who came with the groceries pulls off her little blue hat with the pompom. “I’m Claire,” she says.

“And I’m Janine,” says the cookie mother, who’s got this hippie vibe, long hair in a braid and wearing overalls. “Jani.”

“Nice to meet you. I’m usually not a complete cretin, really. I’m—”

Auden?”

It’s Kiernan’s sister. It’s Claire and Jani’s daughter. It’s the girl who—for some reason—quit the swim team early in the season. She’s come into the kitchen to find, amid an armada of peppermint bark, cinnamon stars, et al, the boy she has been painfully, secretly in love with since seventh grade.

 

VIII

He texts her: Coming for you.

She ignores him.

Then a few minutes later: In the car. Drivn n textn.

She doesn’t text him back. She does, however, subconsciously switch her part from one side to the other and give her hair a fluff.

And now: In front of your house.

He doesn’t suggest she come down, yet it seems that she has shoes on, that she’s floating into a jacket and wafting some sentence towards whoever about being back later.

It’s Saturday afternoon, almost cold enough to snow—and that would be pleasant, a white Christmas. But she couldn’t know that it never really snows in this city. It sleets, it slushes, it fogs heavily, like a caul of weightless steel. But snow? No. She climbs into his car, a nice enough ride yet not worth commenting on, just a car.

“So?” she says.

“It’s good to see you,” he tells her, adding, “Thanks for coming out.”

“No problem,” she says, looking at him and noting, not for the first time, that he’s very good looking. Technically so, with the strong jaw and broad brows, as if drawn by an engineer. “Are we just going to sit here?”

“No.” He puts it in gear and drives off.

She doesn’t ask where they’re going. She doesn’t care. She has a cell phone and a credit card and an air about her like armor. It never failed to protect her in the past. There’s music playing; she has no idea what it is beyond an alternative to silence. As he goes over the bridge, her mind picks out the exact location of the lock she and her boyfriend placed there in testament to their whatever.

He parks in an unfamiliar neighborhood; shuttered buildings—warehouses or some such.

“What am I doing here?” she wonders mildly. Not “we,” not “you.”

Hands resting on his thighs, he turns to her. He doesn’t make a move except to say, “Danita.” And then, “I love you.”

It’s like being punched with a pillow. He loves her? Him? She could laugh. Or throw up. Still, the words have got a ring to them. Maybe he won’t repeat them. She eyes him steadily; her face betrays nothing.

“Don’t ask me how, or even why.” It’s remarkable, his stillness. “It just…is. Just so you know. I love you, Danita.”

Internally, his countdown begins. Ten…nine…eight…

The words are a drug. The words are a poison.

Seven…six…five…

The worst words ever. But there they are, dangling in the air.

Four…three…two…

There’s nothing else she can do.

One…

Her whole body moves at once, slowly but inevitably, her brain and spirit dragged along with it, traversing the center console, until she is on him, just as he knew she would.

 

IX

 

It’s a beacon, a bolt, a geyser sparkling with white and golden light—that’s how hope is. And in its brilliance Kara believes that Auden is here, finally, to claim her; that he’s been in love with her, too, since middle school (or maybe he fell recently—equally good). Then, in a flash, the hope disintegrates, because it’s fickle that way.

“Heyyy…” Auden says.

Must he really wrack his memory for her name?

“Kara…”

Nonchalantly as she can—the saving grace, she’s not in her pajamas at 3 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon—she plucks a cookie from the cooling rack. “So you’re the guy.” Striving for a tone a few levels above lead. “My little brother’s mentor. Who knew?” Shouldn’t she have figured it out? She knew Auden played drums—remembers him being in some band a while ago that played the community center, remembers that acutely. Maybe she should pay closer attention to the stuff that comes out of Kiernan’s mouth.

“Wow,” Auden goes on. “This is weird. I feel like I haven’t seen you in a while.”

Right, he hasn’t. Because he’s a senior and she’s a junior and they have no classes together; they used to see a lot of each other, wetly and nearly nakedly, but then she decided she was done with swimming. For one reason only: It had been perfectly fine to pine for him when he was still a possibility. Then he beelined for the new girl—her busting out in an a cappella riff in front of the rotunda—and the next thing Kara knew he was a complete impossibility. Seeing him wet and nearly naked was no longer something she could bear.

Seeing him now, dry and fully clothed in her kitchen is…about a million different things. “Weird, yeah,” she agrees, regarding the cookie—a snowman.

“Let’s all have some cocoa,” Jani says, and resistance is futile. Claire piles and pushes crap from the table to make room.

Kara bites the head off her snowman, which is…liberating. A series of seismic shifts seem to take place inside her. She’s actually able to observe Auden objectively for the first time. And he doesn’t look so good. Those indigo half moons under his eyes, like he hasn’t been sleeping. His Y-shaped swimmer’s physique, generally so attractive on someone with a Y chromosome, seems tense, a body in rebellion. Something about him is adrift, and Kara’s heart goes out like a hunk of sturdy flotsam, because she still loves him. With a difference, a whole new quality to her love, and she isn’t sure what that is yet.

Meanwhile, Kiernan is close to imploding with impatience. He really, really, really wants to be hitting on those hand-me-down Tamas. Only he’s not going to push Auden, who knows his sister somehow, and the way she’s looking at the guy is making him, Kiernan, squirmy. So he gulps cocoa and cookies till the sugar ejects him from his seat. “I’m going into the garage!”

“Yeah, cool,” Auden says. “Be there in a minute.”

And then one of the moms tells the other one she needs her upstairs and Kara says, “Don’t worry, I’ll clean up.”

So now they are alone.

He says, “Man, your mother can bake, huh?”

And she replies, “You’ll be taking a batch home with you—don’t even try to protest. What you’re doing for Kiernan and all?”

“What, the drums? Nah. I don’t mess with them anymore.” He stares into his mug like it’s the Oracle of Nestle.

“What’s going on with you, Auden?” Kara asks, and it comes out wrong, and he looks up sharply, so she plays it off. “I mean, you have big plans for the break, you and Danita?” There, she pronounced it, out loud, the name of the cool, confident Californian who’ll burst into song at the drop of a dime.

“I don’t know,” he tells his cocoa. Then he looks up at Kara and sees that she sees, knows that she knows: He’s a mess. “I don’t know.” Big, dark irises start to bob inside suddenly brimming eyeballs. “I don’t know.”

“It’s okay,” Kara says, her voice so soft, too soft, just soft enough.

“Is it?” he wonders. Because he’s supposed to be chill about everything, that’s his niche in the world, his modus operandi: Whatever, man—it’s all good.

“Uh-huh,” she assures him. “It’s definitely okay. It’s confusing,” she says, “love.”

And he says, “Love…oh, it is…it’s love, I love her so much, Kara! She’s amazing, she’s just—she’s got this way about her, you know? Just so effortlessly cool and nice; a naturally quality person; she doesn’t have to try, she just is…”

And Kara thinks, He could be describing himself. Which would make theirs a narcissistic kind of love. Which isn’t necessarily negative, is it? Only what happened to him, the original Narcissus, the son of the river god from the ancient myth? Didn’t he come to no good?

“But then, deep down, she’s…deep, she’s…I don’t know…I don’t know, that’s the thing, so much I don’t know, that I want to know, and…” He trails off.

Kara watches from the rim of her mug. The inside of her mouth feels thick with warm milk, but the inside of her brain is pristine. “Auden,” she says. “Why are you telling me this?”

“I don’t know. Because you asked? Because…I can?”

Kara’s mouth is small, so her smile is, too—a rosebud opening. “Well, sure, you can. But you seem upset…and I’m not sure…” And then she is sure, thanks to her brand-new, spanking-clean clarity. “You haven’t told her.”

He looks at her, and he shakes his head.

“You think if you tell her it’ll ruin it somehow.”

He looks at her, and he nods his head.

“Yeah, well,” she says. “Sorry, Auden, but you’re a moron.”

The tears recede and his smile—that wide, easy thing—appears. “You’re right, Kara,” he says, standing up. “Thank you. You’re absolutely right. I am a moron. I’m a moron!”

And he’s into his jacket and out her front door, without any cookies to go.

 

X

The expense, the responsibility, not to mention the carbon footprint—who would really want a car? Right now, Auden. Right now, a car would be useful. Well, too bad. He runs the few blocks from Bond to State, hops on his bike and in five minutes he’ll be at the bridge and then ten more to Danita’s front door. He doesn’t waste time calling or texting, but it’s not just about time—he doesn’t want or need to preface this. He’ll see her, and he’ll tell her. That he loves her. He loves her so much.

Only he doesn’t make it to her door.

Because here she is, on the bridge. All alone. In the cold. Among the locks. Staring down at the deep, dark river.

He’s going so fast, his mission so urgent, he doesn’t even see her. He doesn’t have to see her. It’s her essence that stops him. He says her name and, now that he does see her, sees that she’s crying. Her? Crying?

He hurries to gather her up but she resists him. In fact, she recoils—although it’s herself she finds appalling. How can she get out of her skin, out of her soul? Only one way, and it’s down.

Except he’s got her now. “Danita, I love you,” he says. “I love you so much.”

A small, horrible thing has emerged from its cave inside her, hot-faced and hopping, and screaming, “Too late! Too late! Too late!” But in Auden’s arms, against the fine, true length of him, Danita can ignore the awful creature no one would expect her to harbor. What happened a little while ago—what she did or didn’t do, why, why, why she did or didn’t do it—doesn’t matter. Because she’s here, on the bridge, among the locks. She’s with Auden. And they are in love.

 

XI

Happy New Year. It feels distinctly possible to Kara. Because last night was a party, a fun party, and there was this boy, who seemed cool, and nice. Cool and nice. And he’s going to call her. She believes this, because there’s no reason why she shouldn’t.

It’s cold out, but bright, and since it’s still early on New Year’s Day the streets on both sides of the river are fairly empty, everybody sleeping in. Kara’s pretty tired herself; she got home late. She’s keyed up, though—due to the boy, she’d be first to admit, her brain and heart replaying their flirtation, brain and heart together on this. Besides, there’s something she’s got to do.

With so many locks on the bridge, and lots of them looking alike, it takes her awhile to locate hers. In fact, she fiddles with few different discs, wondering if maybe she forgot the combination. But then—right-left-right—the numbers hit their marks and the lock gives up a tiny satisfying sigh of a click.

Let them be the first ones, Auden and Danita, the ones that started it all. Let them be happy, for as long as they can.

Kara takes the lock from its brethren, and gazes out and down, into the river, the current quiet, barely rippling—the fiend asleep without any dreams. For a moment she deliberates snapping the shackle back into the collar and closing it. No, she decides. Leave it open. At this moment she’s open to anything. And so she lets it fall.