I quickly understood what was going on when I arrived at the rehearsal dinner and the place card with my name on it was next to Cole’s. At the least, Corrina was trying to make sure I had someone to entertain me all weekend so I didn’t sit silently by myself because she knew me well enough to know that is exactly what I would do. Cole was already hovering around the table when I arrived.
“Sadie,” he smiled. He was very relaxed. I was jealous.
“Cole,” I smiled back. My smile seemed to put him even further at ease. I had noticed this at the church, too. He was holding a cocktail. “Can I get you anything to drink?” he
“Sure. What you’re having,” I said. I had seen girls do this at times, and the men they said it to always interpreted it as some sort of compliment about their choice of beverages. It seemed strange to me that that mattered. It didn’t matter to me, of course. Though I didn’t need it, I could eat or drink anything and it all tasted about the same. Since it was irrelevant to me, I thought I’d try it on Cole. I didn’t feel hunger anymore, but I could eat (as I would tonight, for appearances) and I could drink anything I liked as well. Since alcohol had no effect on me, it was safe to drink without fear of losing my inhibitions.
He returned a few moments later and pressed a cloudy, pale drink into my hand. It smelled like lemons—a smell I liked—and alcohol—a smell that burned the inside of nose. I took a sip. “It’s great,” I said, sensing he needed reassurance.
People around us were beginning to sit down. This part made me nervous. Standing alone, I managed to avoid people’s direct eye line and thereby usually avoided speaking to them. At a table, it wasn’t so easy. We all faced each other, a design that forced communication. But I did look forward to those around me talking to each other, giving me the chance to be completely quiet unless someone asked me a question.
Cole pulled my chair out for me, sliding it underneath me as I sat down. “Thank you,” I said.
“Of course,” he said. I looked down at the table, unsure of how much longer I could continue this one-on-one conversation. I hoped someone would speak to him so I could just listen politely.
I wasn’t so lucky. “So you know Corrina from Nashville,” Cole said, his body angled toward me. I didn’t felt anything radiating from him, no emotion at all, though earlier he was easy to sense. I looked up at his eyes to get a read. They were smiling at me, but I couldn’t sense anything else.
“Right,” I said, still getting nothing from him. It was very weird.
“But you didn’t go to school with her?” he asked. He knew the answer to this question, his tone demonstrated, but I wasn’t sure how he knew it. I looked at him very intensely for a moment, trying again to get a read. Nothing.
“Right again,” I said. I was having to focus on keeping my facial features in a friendly expression. I’m sure the mix of my actual emotion and the one I was trying to project made me look a little strange.
“So how’d you meet?” he asked.
This one was easy, the truth. “We met at a coffee shop. Her credit card wouldn’t go through, and she didn’t have any cash on her. I was next in line, so I bought hers.”
“Sounds like you were trying to hit on her,” he joked.
“You’ve seen right through me,” I sighed, and he laughed. “She thanked me, and I asked her if she wanted to join me,” I said, but Cole cut me off.
“Again, trying to hit on her,” he interjected. I laughed this time. “Obviously,” I said. “And we just got to talking. It was right after Felix had moved from Tennessee, and she was pretty upset about it. I guess I’m pretty good at listening because she started telling me her whole story. She talked about everything. And you know, she is marrying Felix tomorrow, so my attempts at picking her up were all in vain,” I joked, then laughed at how this was coming to me so naturally. I sounded more human than I ever had.
“So why were you in Nashville?” he asked. This was a harder question to answer. I was the first to admit that I didn’t know how or why Nashville had become my home base. I felt drawn to it for reasons I couldn’t explain. It wasn’t even practical; there were no direct international
flights in and out of it, and it was often warmer than I liked. But two days after I arrived in Nashville, when I was in a coffee shop just to be around people—something I did often to sharpen my sensing skills—I met Corrina. She was the first human friend I had made, and I was hesitant to abandon that relationship. So I rented a suite in a hotel near Corrina’s school, and I made that my home. I stayed there until Corrina graduated nearly a year later.
“Family,” I said to Cole, thinking that was a weird reason for me to choose. Funny that no one else had ever asked me why I was in Nashville, not even Corrina.
“Are you from Nashville?” he asked.
“No, I’m from up north,” I said honestly, knowing that was enough of an answer for this Southern boy not to press the issue any further.
“But you’ve got family down here,” he said, confirming.
“We’re spread out,” I said sheepishly. That was the biggest lie I had told him yet.
“What do you do?” he asked.
“Travel, mostly,” I said. I had standard answers ready for these kinds of questions, a lot of which were truthful on some level. They gave people a mistaken impression of me, but I didn’t much mind that.
“For your job?” he asked.
“No,” I said. I had not yet mastered being able to tell when I needed to add more to my answers and when it was okay to say little. My inability to further interpret Cole’s responses by sensing him was making that even more difficult.
He frowned. “You don’t work,” he said. It was a statement.
“No,” I admitted. This was the precise moment when people got the wrong idea about me. One of Todd’s friends had referred to me as a trust fund baby, and I had no idea what he meant. When I learned later that, as best I could gather, trust fund babies were people who didn’t have to do much—at least not what they didn’t want to—because their families had set them up financially, I was amused. This was not my case at all, but I did understand that living the life I led, traveling as I did, driving the car I had, even dressing the way I did, had added to people’s perceptions of me in this light. I had not bothered to correct any of them, but I could see that many of them found this highly unfavourable. I was hoping Cole wasn’t one of them.
“What do you do?” I finally asked, when I couldn’t tell what he was thinking at all.
“I’m into I-banking,” he said. I had no idea what this meant.
“Where do you live?” I asked, following his lead.
“I’m out of New York now, but I don’t know if I can stay there. The city’s tough for me. I miss my family a lot,” he said. It was endearing that he missed his family, even though it alienated me a bit.
“So why don’t you come home?” I asked.
“And do what? I come from a town in Tennessee with fourteen thousand people in it. Not exactly the investment banking capital,” he mused. Investment banking—that must have been what he meant by I-banking.
“Oh,” I said. I wasn’t sure how to react to this. Happy for him that he had a job that was important to him? Sad for him that he hated the city and was homesick? Admiring of him because he was going to stick it out?
“Is there one place you always visit, or do you go all over?” he asked, going back to me.
“I go…a lot of places,” I said, vaguely.
“Like…” he said. This was one of those odd cues humans gave each other: one-word prompts to continue. When I wasn’t careful, I’d miss them.
“Like all over. A lot of other countries,” I said. He scrunched his brow together a little, like he was thinking very hard. I had no idea what was going through his mind, and that killed me.
“You don’t like giving anything away, do you?” he said. His words stung, but I was sure he didn’t mean them to. Todd had said the exact same thing when I had returned to Nashville from my most recent trip, tight-lipped about what I had been doing, only accidentally slipping on
where I’d been. He, of course, had said it with more frustration and had drawn an obvious parallel to something far more personal that I knew Cole and I were not talking about.
I bit my lip. “What do you want to know?” I asked. He was about to speak, and I added, “Specifically.”
He frowned. “Last place you visited,” he said.
“Tupelo,” I smiled.
“Doesn’t count,” he said. “Last place you went to on a plane.”
“Last plane I was on was from LAX,” I said, and this was true. What did I have to lose by admitting this? Cole was barely more than a stranger, and I had learned that strangers were a special kind of confidant; after all, one of the most peculiar things about humanity was how much you could trust strangers when you kept so much from the people you loved.
“You were in LA? Or you connected through there?” he asked. He was quick. It made my job more difficult, but I liked that about him. That was five points for Cole Hardwick—I had been counting—six if you counted Felix’s highlight of “traditional.”
“Connecting,” I smiled faintly, relenting. This brought a grin to his face. I was playing along.
“So you flew into LA from…” he let his words hang. Another cue for me to finish his sentence.
“Sydney,” I said, now totally smiling. Why did he make me smile so readily?
“Interesting,” he said. He leaned back and crossed his arms, arched his eyebrows, and let his eyes linger on me. “Sadie, answer me this,” he said, leaning in so close I could feel my face warm from his breath.
I gulped, an unnecessary instinct. “All right,” I said, watching him carefully.
“What do you want most out of life?” he asked, his voice a whisper. He had to be joking. Who would ask a question like that of a girl he just met? I didn’t suppose people could answer that question on the spot.
I, of course, knew the answer. To die, I thought. No, that wasn’t it. “Mortality,” I said, freezing as I realized too late that I had said it out loud. Time stood still around me. I was aware of every emotion in the room, every fork clinking, every burst of laughter radiating in the air. What had I done?
But Cole Hardwick only laughed.