Survive the Night Page 2

“I think it’s too late to back out now.”

She grabs her coat. Well, Maddy’s coat. A hand-me-down from her grandmother accidentally left behind when the rest of her belongings were carted away. Charlie found it under Maddy’s bed and claimed it as her own. It’s vintage—from the fifties—and uncharacteristically dramatic for Charlie, who usually favors anything that makes her blend in with the crowd. Made of bright red wool, the coat has a massive collar shaped like butterfly wings that come together as Charlie buttons it to her chin.

Robbie takes her suitcases, leaving Charlie cradling the box and the JanSport backpack she uses instead of a purse. She doesn’t lock the door behind her. Why bother? Her last act before departing is to wipe away the names scrawled in erasable marker on the whiteboard affixed to the door.

Charlie + Maddy

The words leave a smudge of ink on her palm.

They depart quickly and quietly, unnoticed by the other girls on her floor, most of whom are gathered in the TV lounge down the hall. Charlie hears the braying voice of Roseanne Barr, followed by canned laughter. Even though she never understood her dorm’s television obsession—why watch TV when movies are so much better?—tonight Charlie welcomes the distraction. Her plan is to skip the goodbyes. Although she used to be good friends with many girls on her floor, that all ended the moment Maddy died. Now it’s best to simply vanish. Here one moment, gone the next. Just like Maddy herself.

“This will be good for you,” Robbie says as they ride the elevator to the first floor. Charlie notes the hollowness of his voice, making it clear he thinks the opposite. “A little time away is all you need.”

In the three days since Charlie announced her intention to leave school, Robbie has remained sweetly in denial about what it means for them as a couple. Despite promises to be true to each other and hastily made plans for Robbie to visit Youngstown over Christmas break, Charlie knows the reality of the situation.

Their relationship is ending.

Not in a both-going-our-separate-ways way. Definitely not in a Rhett Butler “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” way. But Charlie understands that some kind of breakup will be the inevitable result. She’ll be two states and four hundred miles away. He’ll still be at Olyphant, remaining, to use Maddy’s phrase after she’d first met him, a catch. Robbie Wilson, the campus math nerd and assistant swimming coach with the Richard Gere chin and the Brad Pitt abs. Already, girls are circling, eager to take Charlie’s place. She can only assume one of them will eventually succeed.

If that’s the price she must pay to get out of this place, then so be it. Her only hope is that she won’t eventually come to regret it.


The dorm lobby is empty when they step out of the elevator. So is the snow-dusted quad they cut across on their way to the parking lot. Despite winter’s arrival, windows are open in a few of the upper-floor dorms, leaking out the now-familiar sounds of campus life. Laughter. The beep of one of Olyphant’s infamously unreliable in-room microwaves. Music played louder than dorm rules allow. Charlie recognizes the song. Siouxsie and the Banshees. “Kiss Them for Me.”

Maddy had loved that song.

Once they’re out of the quad and at the curb, Robbie drops her suitcases next to a streetlamp—the designated meeting spot.

“I guess this is it,” he says.

Charlie braces for another variation of the conversation they’ve had a dozen times. Is she sure she needs to leave? Is there any possibility she could stick it out until the end of the semester?

Her answer’s been the same every time. Yes, she has to go. No, she can’t make it to finals. There was a time, shortly after Maddy died, when she thought such a scenario was possible.

Not anymore.

Now Charlie understands with soul-deep certainty that she needs to get the hell out of Dodge.

She’s stopped going to class, stopped talking to friends, stopped almost every aspect of her previous life. A constant pumping on the brakes of her existence. Now it’s time to start moving again, even if that movement is really just running away.

To his credit, Robbie doesn’t make one last-ditch attempt to get her to stay. Charlie suspects she’s worn him down. Now all that’s left to do is say their goodbyes.

Robbie leans in for a kiss and a tight hug. Wrapped in his embrace, Charlie feels a stab of guilt about her decision to leave, which was caused by another, far different sense of guilt. It’s a Russian doll of remorse. Guilt tucked into guilt that she’s ruining the only thing that has yet to be ruined.

“I’m sorry,” she says, surprised by the hitch in her voice that she’s forced to swallow down. “I know this is hard.”

“It’s been worse for you,” Robbie says. “I understand why you need to do this. I should have understood sooner. And what I hope happens is that your time away will be exactly what you need and that when the spring semester rolls around, you’ll be ready to come back to me.”

Charlie’s hit with another pang of guilt as Robbie looks down at her with those huge brown eyes of his. Bambi eyes, Maddy used to call them. So round and soulful that Charlie couldn’t help but be mesmerized the first time they met.

Although she suspects that initial meeting was probably mundane, her memory of it is like something out of a classic romantic comedy. It was at the library, she a sophomore strung out on Diet Coke and midterm stress and Robbie a ridiculously handsome first-year grad student simply looking for a place to sit. He chose her table, one that comfortably sat four but had been commandeered by Charlie and all the books she’d spread across it.

“Room for one more?” he said.

Charlie looked up from the Pauline Kael book she was reading, saw those eyes, and promptly froze. “Um, sure.”

She didn’t clear space for him. Didn’t move at all, in fact. She only stared. So much so that Robbie swiped a palm across his cheek and said, “Do I have something on my face?”

She laughed. He sat. They started chatting. About midterms. And college life. And life in general. She learned that Robbie had been an undergrad at Olyphant and chose to remain there for his graduate studies, well on his way to becoming a math professor. Robbie learned that Charlie’s parents took her to see E.T. three times in the theaters and that she bawled all the way home after each screening.

They ended up talking until the library closed. And talking more after that at an all-night diner off-campus. They were still talking when they strolled up to Charlie’s dorm at two a.m. That was when Robbie told her, “Just so you know, I wasn’t really looking for a place to sit. I just needed an excuse to talk to you.”


“Because you’re special,” he said. “I could tell the moment I saw you.”

Just like that, Charlie was smitten. She liked Robbie’s looks, obviously, and how he seemed to be oblivious to them. She liked his sense of humor. And that he didn’t care at all about movies, which seemed so refreshingly foreign to her. It was a far cry from the Godfather-obsessed man-children who populated most of her film classes.

For a time, things were good between them. Even great. Then Maddy died and Charlie changed, and now there’s no going back to being the girl she was that night at the library.

Robbie checks his watch and announces the time. Five past nine. Josh is late. Charlie wonders where that should fall on the worry spectrum.

“You don’t need to wait with me,” she says.

“I want to,” Robbie says.

Charlie knows she should want that, too. It would be normal to want to spend as much time with him as possible before they part. But, to her, normal is wanting to avoid a rushed goodbye in front of an almost complete stranger. Normal is desiring a sad, quiet farewell witnessed by no one else but them. Bogart putting Bergman on the plane at the end of Casablanca. Streisand sweeping a hand through Redford’s hair in The Way We Were.

“It’s cold,” she says. “You go on back to your apartment. I know you have an early class tomorrow.”

“You sure?”

Charlie nods. “I’ll be fine. I swear.”

“Call me when you get home,” Robbie says. “No matter how late it is. And call me from the road, if you see a pay phone. Let me know you’re safe.”

“We’re driving from New Jersey to Ohio. The only danger is dying of boredom.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

Charlie knows, because she’s thinking what Robbie’s thinking. The thing neither of them wants to articulate because it will ruin this goodbye.

Maddy was killed.

By a stranger.

One who’s still out there. Somewhere. Likely waiting to do it again.

“I’ll try to call,” Charlie says. “I promise.”

“Pretend it’s one of those movies you were always making me watch,” Robbie says. “The ones with the French-sounding name.”

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