“Hi! Mrs. Stetson? I’m Max. I’m here to see Bridget.”
“Yes! The tutor, yes.” Max embraces the cover. Unsure what the mothers have been told, upon arrival she always follows their lead. Mrs. Stetson flips the towel over her shoulder. “Her friend Shannon just called to let me know you were coming, which was strange. Do you tutor many of the kids at Stuyvesant?”
“I tutor all over the city, actually. I work by referral, so, yeah.”
“Can you see if you can get Bridge to come down for some food? I really think she should eat something. She skipped dinner. She’s been locked in her room since I got home. Probably on the phone with her boyfriend.” Bridget’s mother holds the door open, and Max steps into the front hall, where a day’s worth of the family’s bags and shoes have been discarded.
“I brought some snacks.” Max points to her bag. Bridget’s mother looks at it, the imposing red leather, the iconic H clasp, and then to Max, her impeccable knockoff and professional attire working to their opposite desired effect. There is a beat of distrust as the two walk to the staircase leading to the second floor.
“It’s a huge test,” Max offers. “A lot of kids are really freaked out about it. Don’t worry, I’m an expert.” Bridget’s mother nods uncertainly. Max aims for a lighthearted shrug and heads up. Her attuned ears pick up the muff led sobs as her toe lifts from the last step. Max walks quickly down the carpeted hall, following the fuzzy thump of a bass beat meant to obscure the keening from those who were ignorantly devouring tacos below. Throwing her shoulders back in a way that her best friend, Zach, says reminds him of Angelina-channeling-Mary Poppins, Max turns the doorknob, stepping inside a blast of Adele, to find Bridget Stetson in a heap. Her laptop open before her, she is staring at a hundred tiny JPEGs of a carrot-haired boy riding a skateboard. Around her lie a box’s worth of wadded Kleenex, like a bed of wilted roses. Bridget looks up from the screen and is met with the flash from Max’s camera.
“Bridget, Shannon sent me.” Max drops her bag on the blue bedspread and opens it, exchanging the camera for a sterling flask. She swiftly pours a shot of Kombucha into the cap.
“I’m Max Scott, and I want you to drink this. It’ll take the edge off.”
“Where is Sh-Shannon?” Bridget chokes out as she mushes her damp, blond bangs off her puffy face with the back of her sweatshirt-covered hand. “I thought she was coming with you.”
“She just made the referral. Drink.” Overwhelmed, Bridget swigs the shot and hands back the top with a burning cough. Max pulls a chocolate bar from her bag, opens the wrapper, and hands it off to Bridget.
“N-no. I can’t even think about—”
“Eat.” Max appraises the collage-covered walls and, leaning over Bridget’s desk, unlocks the window. Cool air rushes into the room, clearing the salty scent of tissues and tears.
“I c-can’t—my st-stomach—I may n-never eat again. I don’t understand. How do you know Shannon?” Bridget peers around Max to the closed door as if her friend might appear. “I was just talking to her after . . . after—” But Max knows she can’t bring herself to finish the sentence, to say, “he dumped me.” Not yet.
“One bar.” Max places both hands on her hips. Bridget raises an eyebrow, but does as told. Max has never been met by resistance on an Hour One house call. Girls are too desperate for relief to put up a fight.
“You’ll see Shannon tomorrow. Right now you just need to focus on what I’m telling you.” Max watches Bridget bite into the dark chocolate intended to fill her dry mouth with sweetness. Bridget chews with hollow eyes as Max sweeps the room, stealthily dropping framed photos of the couple into her bag along with the obvious “Taylor and Bridget” mementos. She picks up Bridget’s cell and reprograms Taylor’s number to direct dial Max’s cell. She unplugs Bridget’s laptop and—
“Hey!” Bridget coughs, crumbs spurting from her mouth. “What the hell?”
“It’s not safe staying here tonight. No contact with the outside world.” Max slides the machine into her bag and withdraws a bottle of water just as Bridget finishes off the last bit. Max takes the wrapper and hands off the bottle. She then pulls a Limoges box from her bag. “Valerian. All natural megadose.” Bridget takes the pill and slugs it down with a sip from the bottle. “Okay.” Max picks up Bridget by her elbows and gently steers her along the carpet. “Into bed.” Max can tell the pill is taking effect, dulling Bridget from the shock of the stimulants and, Max hopes, flat lining her from a high that skirts the prior excruciating low. Helping her to lie down, Max puts a hand maternally on Bridget’s forehead. Bridget mumbles something.
“Yes?” Max encourages.
“It feels like . . . like . . .”
Max turns out the lamp. “It feels like everything they say. . . . Like he reached into your ribs and ripped your heart out with his bare hands. Like a giant boulder has been dropped there in its place. I know.”
“It, it physically hurts.” Bridget sounds surprised as she rubs the skin just to the left of the zipper on her sweatshirt.
“It feels worse than a boulder. It’s like, like . . . there’s an . . . elephant standing on my chest.” Max nods acknowledgment as Bridget turns on her side, tucking into a ball as tears trace the vine pattern on her pillowcase.
“My head is getting thick,” she murmurs, and Max prays that Taylor’s flaying words are also getting harder to rerun. Max lowers the volume on the iPod dock until it’s off. The lulling sounds of traffic return to the darkened room. Max stays with Bridget until her breathing is slow and rhythmic, until she is asleep. Max knows it’s what the body wants in moments of such devastation, to shut down and recharge the adrenals. The tiny hit of fermentation, the magnesium in the chocolate, the homeopathic tranquilizer are just enough to signal permission to the brain to step back from what is far too painful to make sense of just now, in the immediate aftermath of impact. Max stands, covers Bridget with the blanket, relatches the window, and secures a red card on a red cord over Bridget’s wrist. CALL IMMEDIATELY UPON WAKING. Max flips the card right side up. EX, INC.