MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
THE NIGHT I became the youngest person—and the only female ever—to win the Austin Fire Department’s valor award, I got propositioned by my partner.
At the ceremony. In the ballroom. During dinner.
By my partner.
There we all were, the entire B-shift from Station Eleven, in our dress uniforms, using salad forks—and there I was, in my crisscross tie, getting more and more nervous at the prospect of having to walk up on that stage in front of all those people under all those lights. The winter before, a busload of schoolchildren had slid off an icy road into a ravine, and I had climbed inside to push the kids out through a window, one by one, as the water rose. That’s why we were here. The newspapers were calling me the School Bus Angel.
And Hernandez, of all people, chose this moment to hit on me.
Hernandez, my partner of three years. Hernandez, who I’d never once thought of that way. Hernandez, who was so perfectly, mechanically handsome that he didn’t even register as handsome anymore.
He was like a Latino firefighting Ken doll—so bizarrely perfect, he wasn’t even real. He lifted weights, and flossed, and preened, and he used his washboard stomach and perfectly aligned white teeth to snare more unsuspecting ladies than I could count. He wasn’t just in our department’s calendar—he was on the cover. Picture-perfect Hernandez, the last guy on earth I would ever think of as anything other than a health-food-eating, CrossFit-training ladies’ man, leaned over close to my ear, right there at the banquet table, and asked me to spend the night with him.
“Maybe tonight’s the night,” he said.
I kept chewing. I honestly didn’t see it coming. “Tonight’s the night for what?”
He looked at me like, Duh. “To finally do something about all that sexual tension.”
I looked around to see if the other guys had heard him.
He had to be joking.
Somebody had to be making a video, or taking a photo, or poised to jump out and start laughing. There was no way this was anything but an epic firehouse Candid Camera prank. I surveyed the rest of the crew. Pranksters all.
But everybody was just sawing away at their chicken.
I decided to call Hernandez’s bluff. “Okay,” I said. “Great idea.”
He lifted his eyebrows and looked delighted. “Really?”
I gave him a look like, Come on. “No. Not really.”
“I’m serious,” he said, leaning closer.
He gave me a look like, And who are you to judge?
I gave one back like, You know exactly who I am. Then I said, “You’re never serious about anything. Especially women.”
“But you’re not a woman. You’re a firefighter.”
“Yet another reason I’d never go home with you.”
“I think you want to.”
I shook my head. “Nope.”
“I could dare you,” Hernandez said.
I never backed down from a dare. But I shook my head, like, Not even that, buddy. “I don’t date firefighters. And neither do you.”
“This would hardly be a date.”
I tilted my head. “You’re like my brother, dude.”
“I can work with that.”
I flared my nostrils. “Gross.”
“Seriously. Why not?”
I squinted at him. Was he serious? Could he possibly be serious? I glanced up at the stage. In a few minutes they were going to start the awards ceremony. This was a big night for me. Huge. The biggest night of my career. Did we really have to do this now?
“We work together, man,” I said. I shouldn’t have even had to say it. Firefighters don’t date other firefighters. It’s not just against the rules, it’s against the culture.
He didn’t care. “I’d never tell.”
“That doesn’t change anything.”
He gave me a serious, evaluating look. “You need to let yourself have some fun.”
I shook my head. “You’re not my kind of fun.”
He leaned in a little closer. “You never date anybody. How is that possible? It’s such a waste of a good woman. Stop holding back.”
“I’m not holding back,” I said, like we were discussing the weather. “I’m just not interested.”
He glanced down at himself, approvingly, and then met my eyes. “You’re interested.”
I shook my head.
“You’ve thought about it,” he said.
“Pretty sure I haven’t.”
He lowered his voice. “You’re thinking about it now, though, aren’t you?”
“Not in a good way.”
“You need to stop living like a nun,” he said. “What if I’m the cure for all your loneliness?”
That got my attention. I stabbed a carrot in my salad. “I’m not lonely.”
He frowned like I was certifiably insane. “Guess what? You’re the loneliest person I know.”
To be honest, that smarted a little. I pointed at him with my fork. “I am self-sufficient,” I corrected. “I am independent. I am in charge of my own life.”
“You are also in need of some…” He gave a meaningful pause. “Company.”
I refused to take his meaning. “I don’t have time for company,” I said. I had my shift at the station, my second job as a self-defense instructor, ten hours a week of volunteering with Big Sisters, a marathon to train for, and weekends helping my dad build an addition to his house. I barely had time for sleep, much less “company.”
“Whose fault is that?” Hernandez asked.
Was that a real question? “‘Company’ is not a priority for me. I’m not romantic.”
“This is not about romance. It’s about warmth. Connection. Human closeness.”
“Sounds like romance to me,” I said.
“Call it what you want. You need some.”
What was happening? This was Hernandez. There was no way he could be serious. And yet his face looked so earnest. I kept scanning for some tell—maybe a little side smile, or a spark of mischief in his eyes—but all I could find was that intense, unwavering, weirdly earnest gaze.
I hesitated. “You are kidding, right?”
He had to be kidding.
It was beyond off-putting for this person I’d been in mutual disinterest with for so long to suddenly, out of nowhere, claim to be interested. It was as if we’d agreed to play checkers and he suddenly announced it had been chess all along.
He lifted his hand to the edge of the table and absentmindedly touched his finger to my unused knife handle. “What if you’re wrong about your entire life?” he asked then, lowering his voice almost to a whisper. “What if I’m exactly what you’ve needed all this time? Don’t you want to find out? Won’t you always wonder if you don’t?”
I repeat: This was Hernandez.
This was the guy whose favorite joke was to try to throw me on the couch and fart on me. There was not one moment that had ever passed between us that could be classified as flirty or suggestive—or even personal. But now he had me locked in this crazy conversation. His intensity with women was a famous hypnotic force. I’d seen him use it on countless targets with near-perfect success. He’d just never tried it on me.
I should have been immune. But I was a little off-balance, in this fancy hotel, anticipating walking up on that stage. It’s a hell of a thing to be recognized, to be honored, and it was clearly stirring my emotions in unexpected ways. And truthfully, Hernandez wasn’t a hundred percent wrong about me. Despite everything I knew about him, and life, and firefighters, and myself, I confess: Something about his whole shtick right now wasn’t entirely not working.
I guess you can’t keep your guard up all the time.
Maybe I was lonelier than I’d realized. Maybe I did need something more. Maybe nothing in my life was quite what I thought.
The problem was, he’d just said things that were surprisingly true. Which seemed unfair—to know me so well and then use it against me. Trapped in this strange moment, I was suddenly blinking at my entire life through a different lens. Was he right?
Maybe I didn’t even want to play checkers.
It was the strangest moment of all the time I’d spent with him. Stranger than the disco party, and stranger than the pie-eating contest, and stranger even than the karaoke night that went off the rails.
Hernandez. Of all people.
We both watched his finger on the knife handle. He pushed it closer to me. “You’re tempted.”
I wasn’t. Or maybe I was. Just a microscopic fraction. I thought about my sad, spartan apartment and its neat little row of herbs on the kitchen windowsill. I thought about my bed, always made with military precision, hospital corners and all, and how I’d never once had anyone in it besides me in all the time I’d lived there. I thought about how quiet it would be when I got back, just the tick-tick of the kitchen clock.
I knew exactly what going home to that apartment tonight would look like, and feel like—the slight tightness I always felt on my face after I’d washed it with soap, the whiff of my laundry detergent as I slid my pajama top over my head, the sound of the sheets as I pulled them back and slid between them and tucked them carefully under my arms. The same bedtime routine, over and over, endlessly—as safe and repetitive and dull as always. I could play it out to the minute in my head.
I could even tell you what I’d think about as I fell asleep. The same thing I always did: I’d imagine making chocolate chip cookies, each step in soothing detail, from mixing in the butter to adding the vanilla, from cracking in the eggs to stirring in the chips. I’d watch the mixer blades spin, and scrape the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula, and scoop the dough with little half-sphere tablespoons, dropping them one by soothing one onto the cookie tray in neat, perfectly spaced rows.
I hadn’t baked cookies in years. But I thought about doing it every single night.
What would it feel like to shake up that routine?
You’re the loneliest person I know, Hernandez had said.
Suddenly, I knew that was true.
But that wasn’t a reason for me to sleep with him. Sex was hardly a cure for loneliness. More likely the opposite.
Hernandez. It was like if your high school chemistry partner suddenly propositioned you. Or your dry cleaner. Or your doctor.
I was not, absolutely not, going to sleep with Hernandez. That would definitely never happen.
Without even realizing it, I held my breath.
And then, off to the side, three seats over, across the table, I heard a familiar, distinctive, telltale sound: the muffled, closed-mouth snort that our engine operator, Big Tom, always made whenever anybody got pranked.
My eyes snapped toward it.
There was Big Tom, hand clamped over his mouth and nose, hunching down into a guffaw that he couldn’t contain any longer.
I’d seen him do that a hundred times. He was the one who always broke.
“Oh my God,” I said, turning away.
I scanned the rest of the table. The guys from our shift were all there to cheer for me on my big night. They’d been perfect gentlemen all night long, chewing with their mouths closed and everything. But once Big Tom broke, they all broke. In one scan, I saw it on every single face: glee. Triumphant, practical-joke-infused glee.
They’d gotten me.
I turned back to Hernandez and punched him on the shoulder. Hard. “Seriously?”
They’d never gotten me before. And not for lack of trying.
What can I say? Nobody’s perfect.
Once the guys’ restraint collapsed, it collapsed hard. They all started pointing. And raising their arms in victory. And cackling so hard they made the table shake. Reichman, Nolan, Trey, Big Tom, and especially Hernandez—now hooting with delight, leaning back for air, turning red.
I let them have a minute. They’d earned it.
Then I started laughing, too—at the relief of it—as the world shifted back into a recognizable pattern and became familiar again. I took a deep breath of comprehension: Hernandez had not propositioned me. He had pranked me.
Only a prank. Thank God.
When Hernandez finally settled enough to talk, he pointed at me. “You totally bought it.”
I punched him in the shoulder. “You freaked me out, dude! Tonight, of all nights.”
“We thought you could use a distraction,” Hernandez said. Then he pointed at Big Tom. “You torpedoed me, man! She was about to say yes.”
“I was not,” I said.
“You were,” Hernandez said. “If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s getting girls to say yes—”
“I’m not a girl. I’m a firefighter.”
“—and you were one second away.”
I threw a dinner roll at him. “You wish.”
But he’d made some good points, I’d give him that. Maybe a few too many.
Hernandez dug into his pocket for his wallet. “Man! I just lost twenty bucks.”
The other guys pulled theirs out, too. “Never bet against Hanwell,” Big Tom said, giving me a wink.
The money came out and got shuffled around the table as the guys paid up, counting bills and collecting them.
I watched Hernandez pay out and punched his shoulder again—harder this time. “You bet against me?”
He shrugged with a sly smile. “I know what I know. I’m irresistible.”
Up onstage, the program was starting.
An emcee fired up the mic as the waitstaff cleared away the plates and people rerouted their attention to the stage. “It’s my great pleasure,” the emcee said, “to help honor our city’s fire and rescue heroes here tonight.”
A huge cheer roared up from the room. Then the guys at my table started chanting, “Cassie! Cassie! Cassie!”
I shushed them and made a “cut” gesture at my neck.
But I smiled anyway. Knuckleheads.
I gave Hernandez one last glance. Just a prank. And it had been a good distraction.
Then we all got quiet, I sat straight in my chair, and all my nervousness roared back. I clasped my hands together on my lap, noted how cold they were, and then took a second to appreciate the ridiculous fact that nothing scared me—except, apparently, stages at banquets.
I stared straight at the podium as they started calling up the honorees—fully dreading the moment when I’d hear my name.
I was wearing pumps, of all things, with my dress uniform, and I was having a few issues with balance. I was not exactly a person who loved the spotlight. Plus, I’d have to speak. We’d been given two minutes each to say our thanks at the microphone, and two minutes seemed impossibly short and impossibly long at the same time.
I had conscientiously typed out a paragraph I figured I could read out loud. How hard was reading, after all? Though as I watched the other honorees come up and read their prepared remarks, I started to think it must be harder than I remembered. They stumbled, mumbled, lost their place, and tripped on simple words over and over. I found myself wishing I’d practiced in advance.
Because I was the youngest-ever honoree for my award, and a female, of all things, and because this was the most prestigious award the department gave, and because the School Bus Angel was all over the news, they’d saved my award for last. I was the grand finale of the night. The mayor himself was going to come out, hand me the award, and bask with me in the glory.
I counted down as all the others walked up and then back to their places, my chest feeling tighter and tighter with nervousness.
Finally, it was my turn. Almost done. I just had to get through the next five minutes, and I could go home to my plants and my smooth sheets and my quiet, locked apartment.
“Folks, we’ve saved the best for last,” the emcee said, as the guys from my shift all started whooping and drumming on the table. “Our final honoree is the top of the top, and to present this last award, we’ve got a very special treat. A VIP is joining us tonight. We had hoped to have the mayor with us, but even though he got called away at the last minute on city business, never fear! We’ve got the next best thing! It’s now my pleasure to cede the podium to Austin’s very own homegrown city councilman—”
The emcee turned to gesture toward the side of the stage, and in that second’s pause, I heard myself say, “Oh, shit.”
Not the mayor.
This was bad.
Because I just knew—somehow—the name he was about to say next. I felt it coming.
And I was right.
“Heath Thompson!” the emcee called then, in a loud Price Is Right announcer’s voice as if some lucky audience member had just won a new washer-dryer.
And then it was like everything downshifted into slo-mo. The sounds of the words got deep and syrupy, and the clapping started to sound like five hundred people beating on snare drums, and I watched in disbelief as the guy himself, Heath fucking Thompson, walked out from stage left to join the emcee there.
Actually, strutted was more like it.
I’d know that strut anywhere: The utterly infuriating gait of a man who fully believed the world would always let him have anything and everything he ever wanted—and had never once been told any different.
Should I have seen it coming? Should I have known better than to dare to want something for myself? Should I have assumed from the start that life would find a way to ruin this moment?
Because I didn’t. I hadn’t. I was so gobsmacked to see Heath Thompson step onto that stage that I forgot to breathe. Entirely. Until Hernandez saw me frozen there and slapped me on the back.
Then, everything I knew blurred into one tiny pinprick of comprehension: At the proudest moment of my entire life, one that was supposed to honor everything I had worked so hard to achieve and become, I was going to have to receive my award from Heath Thompson.
The only person in the world who could ruin it.
Copyright © 2019 by Katherine Pannill Center