by Jake Christie

a story.

“Four-letter word for 'baked dinner bread,'” said Cassie, her hand extended over the table. She said this kind of thing all the time, but she barely ever did crossword puzzles. If she wanted a pen she would say, “Three-letter word for 'writing implement.'” If she felt somebody had impugned her honor or good decency she'd ask, “What's a five-letter word for 'apology?'” If she wanted to express her love for somebody she'd say, “Eight-letter phrase for 'extreme, everlasting affection,'” and then add, “three words.” She somehow managed to express herself without making explicit statements, inquire without asking questions, and drive people nuts without explaining why.

Like so many quirks, Troy found it endearing... at first. When they were at a party and she'd say, in the middle of a conversation, “Freshen my seven-letter word for 'a cocktail made with vodka and vermouth,'” he'd take the martini glass from her fingertips and and smile.

“It's this thing she does,” he'd explain. It intrigued him. It made her interesting. But the more she did it, the more she seemed like the questions on a game show, hidden behind a number or a category and lacking any answers.

And now, as he picked up a dinner roll from the basket, he had to resist the urge to chuck it at her head.

“What's wrong?” asked Cassie.

Troy thought he had been perfectly casual, but when he looked down and saw the squished roll poking out between his fingers he realized that he had tipped his hand.

“Cass,” he said, “we need to talk.”

Cassie reached across the table and put her hand on his arm. He placed the abused roll on his plate and splayed his hands on the table, as if to steady himself.

“What is it?” she asked.

“This isn't working out,” said Troy. “Us, I mean. It isn't working out for me.”

Cassie's jaw hung open. She moved her chin from side to side, testing the tension, as if she'd been struck. She took her hand off Troy's arm.

“You're a great girl, Cass,” started Troy.

“You took me out to dinner,” she said, “to four-letter word for 'garbage disposal site' me?”

Troy's hands flew from the table to his forehead. He gripped his hair with tight fists and looked down at his plate. “I said we need to talk,” he said. “Talk. Not play word games.”

“This is a game to you?” she said. The fire from the candle mixed with the blaze in her pupils. She leveled them on Troy. “Is that what this is?”

“I don't know,” said Troy. “I don't know what you really feel, what you're really trying to do. Do you like what we have here?” he asked, looking at the flickering in her eyes. “Or do you just like the puzzles in the Sunday Times?”

“That's what this is about?” she said.

“Of course!” His hands flew up momentarily, imploring, and the roll spun in the middle of his plate.

She bit her lip. “I thought you liked it,” she said. “Nobody's ever... I mean, nobody's actually told me... it's just this thing I do. I can stop, really.” She smoothed her skirt in her lap, and to Troy she suddenly, for the first time, looked small and frail and genuine, like she'd been sketched in pencil. “Does it really bother you that much?”

Troy reached across the table and placed his hand on her arm. She even felt raw, and for the first time he felt like he was reaching past the clues, past the facade. He squeezed her arm and said, softly, “Three-letter word for 'affirmative.'”

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