liminal : characterized by being on a boundary or threshold, especially by being transitional or intermediate between two states or situations.
Northmoor University’s campus had always felt like a strange new world to Sara in the midnight hours, a thousand streetlights lighting every inch of the sprawling maze of roads and old brick buildings in a way that sunlight just couldn’t match. This time of year, when the temperature was starting to drop to freezing, the only sounds were the wind and the hum of cars gliding around off-campus. It carried the promise of potential, like the breath before an orchestra begins to play.
Or maybe that was the English major in her taking over.
Sara left her dorm sometime after midnight. The oversized hoodie and sweat pants she wore weren’t exactly the best choice for braving the chilled night, but it wasn’t a long walk. Besides, the strange unreality of campus at night was enough to make the weather bearable.
She walked through campus alone, lost in her thoughts until a street lamp at the foot of a clocktower came into view. The clocktower was one of the most recognizable landmarks at Northmoor, a spire of aging bricks and snaking ivy that rose well above every building in its vicinity. The perfect meeting spot. And it looked like someone had already beaten her to the punch.
The man she had come to meet was waiting for her in the warm glow of the streetlight, eyes closed and head tilted back against the cast iron pole. Cooper had had his head in the clouds as long as she had known him. It was one of the things that drew her to him— not being the only one with a wandering mind.
She was smiling before she even reached him. “Cooper!”
His eyes opened and he grinned, stepping forward hold her tight to his chest.
“Sara,” he whispered, almost reluctant to let something as priceless to him as her name leave his mouth. Sara buried her face in his chest and exhaled, feeling all the stress and loneliness of the week leave her body with her breath.
“I missed you,” he murmured into her hair.
It had only been a week, but it had been a week of all-nighters and stress for both of them. Sara hadn’t even realized how much she had missed him until he had said that. How much she missed the light, warm feeling that had trickled back into her heart the moment she saw him. A weight lifted.
He pulled back, his fingertips tracing her jaw as his eyes looked down into hers. The soft reverence she saw there surprised her as much as it always did. She still didn’t know why he looked at her like that. But she didn’t need to know. Just knowing that he did was enough.
Say it, a voice in the back of her head urged. You know it’s true, you know this is a good time. Say it. She pursed her lips. The words rose up her throat like bile, threatening to push past her fear.
Cooper kissed her, warm and gentle, putting away the burden of her saying something she might regret later. Sara let herself sink into his touch. She could stay in this comfortable, riskless place for a while longer.
He laced his fingers with hers. “Wanna walk around for a little while?”
Sara didn’t have to think about it. “Yeah.”
The last traces of autumn were slowly slipping away from campus as winter arrived in Northmoor. The dead leaves were swept off the streets. The reds, oranges, and yellows were fading into muted browns and grays. Sara could already feel the first freezing winds of the season.
They didn’t speak as they walked, crunching leaves underfoot. There was no one else around to hear them, but it felt wrong to interrupt the eerie silence. She was comfortable enough just being with him again. The cold and the stress were all very far away.
If only she could just say the words.
“You alright?” Cooper asked.
Sara realized that she had started to scowl as the thought had crossed her mind. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
He seemed to turn over her words in his head. “I’m not very good at this, am I?”
“What do you mean?”
They came to a stop beneath a tree stripped bare by the cold. Orange light filtered through the branches from a streetlight built inches from the old tree.
“I mean— I’m not very good at this dating thing. It’s thirty out, and I’m just making you around in the cold with me.”
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to be,” she said, pulling him closer. “And this is perfect. Really.”
He glanced away from her, toward the tree. “I just thought there was supposed to be more fire and sparks. More excitement. I don’t know if I’m doing this right.”
Fire and sparks weren’t how she felt about him. It felt like coming home. Like coming home in a snowstorm to a roaring fireplace and warm soup. Like stepping into arms that were always open for her. It was quiet and stable.
“Does it need to be fire and sparks for you?” At the expression on his face, she elaborated with, “does this feel right to you? Are you happy?”
“Of course it does,” he said, reaching out and resting his hands on her arms. “I’m the happiest I’ve been in a long time.”
“Then it’s enough.”
Cooper smiled and pressed his lips to her temple. “Thank you, gorgeous.”
“It’s nothing,” she said, grabbing his arm and tugging him with her before they have another moment, and she ruins everything. “C’mon. If you really want excitement, there are one or two things we can do.”
Over the years, the campus had amassed a hodgepodge collection of public artworks. One of the most infamous was Decay, a tilting tower of concrete and steel that looked more like a health hazard than sculpture. It was a commentary on society’s lack of moral standing amongst its technological growth. In reality, it had become forbidden ground that drunk students climbed until they got caught.
Sara loved it. It was a surrealistic, tall eyesore that looked like some remnant of an ancient civilization. Sandwiched between the brick and ivy of Northmoor, it might as well have fallen from the sky.
“You’re kidding me,” Cooper said as they entered the park that housed the giant art piece.
“You said you wanted excitement,” she grinned, stepping up onto the statue and offering him a hand.
They climbed it together, steadying and helping each other wherever they could. Sara gained serious respect for everyone who had made the hike drunk. It took a few minutes to navigate to the top over the twenty-feet tall slope of misshapen steel and concrete. They sat down in a giant metal loop that stood precariously at the top, moments away from crashing to the ground (if it wasn’t welded and held down by a couple dozen bolts).
Between the steel they were sitting on and the wind, they had no choice but to huddle together tightly to stave off the cold. “Very exciting,” Cooper said dryly, earning a jab in the ribs from her.
“We can’t just leave right after we climbed up here,” she said, her teeth already starting to chatter.
“Fine, but no point letting you freeze.” Cooper wrapped an arm around her waist and lifted her into his lap so that she wasn’t sitting on the metal. Her heart leapt in her chest when, before realizing what was happening, she was looking into his eyes again.
It took her a moment to speak. “We can go back if you really want to,” she murmured, “I just wanted—“
“I just need to be with you right now,” he said, more confidence entering his voice as he spoke. “I don’t care as long as I can be with you.”
The cold felt very far away. Sara loved this man. Loved the way he treated her and spoke to her. Loved the way he moved, he thought, he lived. She could fall into his eyes forever and chase his heart for eternity.
But she didn’t have to. He was right here and all she had to do was just say it—
“Look,” Cooper said, eyes moving past her. “It’s snowing.”
She turned her head up and saw them. Endless little flakes falling out of the bright darkness of the sky. She shivered as the little specs of white melted on her skin and caught in her hair and on her coat.
Winter was here. That little period between seasons was drawing to a close, pulling them into the coldest season. If there was ever a time she needed to open herself up to more warmth, it was now. She looked back at Cooper, who was keeping her glued to his side.
“My dorm is closer,” he whispered to her, “come on before you get frostbite.”
Sara agreed mutely, letting him help her down from the top of Decay.
Snow was already beginning to stick to the ground, slowly washing the darks out with white. She watched with growing, detached numbness. The seasons changed and moved on fearlessly and endlessly. Why couldn’t she?
Sara knew she loved Cooper, but what if she was wrong? Wrong about her feelings, wrong about Cooper. She had been wrong before. She had put her trust in the wrong people and burned herself. But could she let this slip away?
They hurried down the quickest way to shelter, dodging through alleys and side streets. All the while, the snowfall thickened and thickened until it was a curtain of white flakes surrounding them. The roads grew slick, which forced their pace to slow.
They reached his dorm and she waited, shivering, as he unlocked the door and they spilled into the empty lobby of his hall. Cooper moved toward the elevator, but her arm shot out and caught his. “Wait.”
He looked at her with those eyes, and she froze. Could she live without those eyes in her life? But which choice would take them away faster? Sitting on her words until they tore holes in her heart? Or sit on them until the sweet peace of their relationship ran thin?
Her heart was racing, and her breath was heavy. She was too aware of her hair brushing her face, too aware of her achingly freezing hands.
“Hey, hey,” he said, his touch light. “It’s OK.”
“It’s not.” She stepped away from him, clenching and unclenching her fists. “I need to tell you something.”
The snow continued to fall on the other side of the glass doors, cementing winter into the streets. The half-light of the lobby engulfed the both of them. Silence stretched out.
Cooper stepped closer to her and took her hands in his. “I know,” he said. “You’ve had a look in your eyes all night. But gorgeous, you’re shaking. Let’s just get you warmed up. It can wait.”
“No,” she snapped, then winced at her tone. “I’m sorry. I just— I don’t think it can wait.”
Those two words made her close her mouth. Why? What part of her tangled mess of thoughts could she share with him?
“Because… because the whole world is moving on around me. The seasons are changing, I have assignments due tomorrow, I’m losing old friends and making new ones, and I don’t know how much time I have to say what I want to say.
“Everything is changing and moving forward and I don’t want to be left behind because I’m too scared of things changing.”
Neither of them said anything. The seconds stretched out, feeling like hours as she watched Cooper’s face like it was the only thing left in the world. He seemed to be looking for the right words to say.
Cooper gestured outside the door, where the snowfall was nearly opaque.
“Do you know why the seasons never hesitate to change?”
It wasn’t the reply she was expecting. Sara shook her head.
A smile reached his lips. “It’s because they know they have forever. They always have time to make up for what things they miss. They aren’t going anywhere.
“I’m not going anywhere either, Sara. Whatever you want to say, whatever you don’t want to say. I want to be here with you, and I want to stay here with you.”
He offered his hand to her. “You have time to say what you need to. Trust me.”
Sara took a shaky breath. It wasn’t the end of her worries. But it was a start. She took his hand, and it was warm.