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**PRINT: FRIENDS FROM CINCINNATI: Installment 24 features this part coming-of-age short by Chicago's Patrick Somerville, author of the Trouble collection of shorts out in 2006. | PAST BROADSHEETS |

Columbia College Fiction Writing Department

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Steven J. Dines

Steven J. Dines lives in the granite city of Aberdeen, Scotland, where he has been writing short fiction for many years. His work has appeared in Dark Tales, Buzzwords, The Writer’s Post Journal, Word Riot, Noo Journal, Underground Voices, Outsider Ink, Eclectica and many others, including TQR, where this story first appeared.

I stopped on the bridge, considered turning, climbing, and dropping myself like a pebble into the waters below.

Valentine's Day squatted just around the corner, when the city would wake, yawn, and stretch beneath a rosy sky, the air smelling of new perfume and cream-centred chocolates. But the moment would never come again when an envelope adorned with love poems and tiny heart-dotted is seesawed down onto my hallway rug.

Walk on, I told myself. Forget the big sleep, the small good-bye. You have a debt to collect.

So, across the coat hanger I went, to search the pockets of a city I'd once thought of as a favorite winter coat. My feet stepped quick, their prints swallowed by darkly shimmering puddles, washed away by cold January downpour, and I could have walked all night and left no trace of where I'd been. In an ever-shrinking trailer in a park on the city's outskirts, separation's claw-fist around my heart, wishing there was less of me, Joel Haversham, more of Ray Chandler's Marlowe.

Memories returned, chain-linked together, the first from four and a half years ago. We were sitting in Dalgarno's bar, where the buzzing neon invariably gave me a headache. Shelley, wanting to avoid eye contact, rummaged in her purse and produced a smoke, which she set in the crook of two fingers.

"I need a spark," she said. "Wait here."

I knew she kept a disposable lighter in her purse, but I bit my tongue and waited while she approached three guys at the next table. Wink-flash, one held up a lighter. When she sucked on the filter a little too hard, I knew I was in for bad news.

She returned to our table. Eventually.

"What is it?" I asked.

Feigning surprise, her eyebrows sickled.

"Why are we here?" I pressed. Due to my daily 4AM start at the post office we stayed out of bars until the weekend. It was Tuesday and ten to midnight.

"I figured you were less likely to make a scene in here when I told you it was over."

"Over? Are you crazy? We only just got engaged."

"I'm sorry," she said. "I have no choice."

"What's going on here, Shell?"

"Don't raise your voice," she said, nicotine calm, while next to her I fizzed like a salted slug. "What you said that night -- I've been thinking about it a lot."

"What I said? But what could bring this on? I take it back, every word. Please, don't do this."

The bridge behind me, I walked swiftly through the city's outskirts, an industrial ghost land of vacant factories and warehouses and ruptured fields on "developmental hiatus." Moonlight spilled through a rip in the clouds and illuminated the way.

The city. By day it sported a painted face, all courage and smiles; car horns were braying laughter. Then the shops closed, their insides darkened but for spot-lit storefront displays where treasures sparkled and winked through chain-link shutters. Nightfall poured those with demons onto the streets, while day people double-timed it back to warm lounges behind secure doors and windows, chased by their own -- and perhaps other -- shadows. Those not homeward bound chased their fears with pints and shots. And bubbling under the glassy-eyed patina of sociability dwelt a city afraid, a city holding its breath till morning.

By my hands it would wake tomorrow minus one of its people.

That night--

"Will you marry me?"

Three weeks before our breakup in the bar, Shelley proposed while we spooned on the living room couch. I remember lying there for a few seconds, not blinking, scrutinizing the back of her head.

"You know what?" I said. "You have no respect for tradition. The guy's supposed to ask the girl."

"Yeah, well, tradition hasn't come through for me so far. I'm taking over."

"We hardly know each other." A quick mental tally: five months.

"We know enough."

"We're too different," I said. "You like theme parks, thrill rides. Me, I like country parks and bike rides."

"They say opposites attract," she answered.

"Well, whoever they are, let them get married."

"Quit sidestepping the question, asshole. Will you marry me or not?"

I laughed. "Real romantic, Shell. But it just wouldn't work between us."

"And why's that?"

"Because you're one of life's blind optimists, while I'm-- I'm not."

"Sweetie, there's only one of us who's blind and he can't see a good thing when he's got it." She worked her buttocks naughtily against my groin. "Besides, I think our differences work for us. You love me, don't you?"

I did. I told her so. "Truth is I'm not sure I deserve you, this -- us."

"Why don't you let me be the judge of that?"

I had no ammunition left. Besides, I had not wanted to put up a wholly convincing argument. "OK. Let's do it."

"OK what? You'll--"

"Of course," I said, squeezing her.

We made love. But something I'd said planted seeds of doubt, because in the bar weeks later, Shelley, buoyed by wanderlust, untied the anchor and set forth to find a man-kite instead, a life-is-but-a-day kind of guy. And I tried to explain that love, like gravity, dragged us all back to its dark, earthy bosom in the end, but she made the big scene, crying and yelling that I was boring, depressing, that she desired freedom's wings. And what else would she do with them but climb giddily up, up, and up?

Her dreams, cotton-candy clouds, unravelled and fell apart.

All so far, far away time-wise, but I could not seem to put any tangible distance between myself and those pit bull bite memories. Besides, I did not want to forget, to move on. That's why some evenings I climbed the fire escape to the roof of the apartment building across the street and sat, blanket-wrapped, willing her drapes to open. They never did.

Now I had to go in there. Tonight.