After hello, p.1
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       After Hello, p.1

           Lisa Mangum
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After Hello


  After Hello

  Lisa Mangum

  © 2012 Lisa Mangum.

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the publisher, Shadow Mountain®. The views expressed herein are the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily represent the position of Shadow Mountain.

  Table of Contents

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Chapter 37

  Chapter 38

  Chapter 39

  Chapter 40

  Chapter 41

  Acknowledgments

  To Heidi

  Fellow writer, fellow dreamer

  Friend

  Chapter 1

  Sara

  I shouldn’t have noticed him. I wasn’t even looking in his direction at first. I was dazzled by the sunlight reflecting off the glass buildings that lined the busy sidewalks of New York. It was only when I turned away that I saw him—though, to be fair, it wasn’t him I noticed first. It was his zip-up gray fleece hoodie with the black stripe that ran down the sleeve and around the collar and the faded, fuzzy letters that said Zebra Stripes across his chest.

  I didn’t think anyone but me listened to their music, let alone spent money on swag.

  The bookstore door stayed open behind him, though a small bell still rang when he stepped outside into the spring sunshine. He tucked a book wrapped in brown paper into the military green messenger bag hanging at his side, then shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans. A rolling cart of bargain books hid most of his body, the tops of the titles hitting him hip-high. Tall, then. And lean.

  Say what you want, but I’m a photographer so I get paid to notice details like that. Well, not yet. Amateur photographers don’t get paid, but the pros do, and someday I’m going pro.

  Zebra Stripes twisted slightly, scanning the street, and I caught a glimpse of sandy brown hair cut short and darker brown eyes. Tall, lean, and cute.

  He stepped back, letting an older woman walking a dog pass by, then fell into step behind her and headed into the crowd.

  Almost on instinct, I powered up my point-and-shoot camera and snapped off a picture before he disappeared. I reviewed it on the screen, zooming in as much as I could on the small image, hoping to see more of his face. No luck. I’d missed his face, capturing only a shoulder, a sliver of his back, his leg extended mid-stride. Still, there was something interesting about the picture. Something that spoke of movement and purpose. And isolation. I thought he looked oddly solitary even as the crowd had pushed in around him.

  I’d heard stories about the crowds of New York, and so far they were all true. Given that it was lunchtime, there were probably even more people out than usual, but since this was my first day here, it was hard to know for sure. After I’d been jostled and bumped and pushed one time too many, I finally pressed my back against the brick wall of the building behind me, feeling small and trying to stay out of the way.

  Thinking about lunch made my stomach rumble. Dad had promised to meet me here at 11:30 sharp for our first big date in the Big Apple, but he was already late—almost a half hour late. I sighed, wondering why I was surprised. He had warned me at breakfast that his meeting might run long, but still, we only had the one day to spend in New York and I didn’t want to spend it alone.

  Dad was the only family I had. It had been just the two of us for a long time now. In the beginning, Mom had been part of the family dream, but when I was eight, she must have decided she wanted to be part of someone else’s dream, someone else’s family. And just like that—she was gone.

  My cell phone sounded from where it was buried deep in my shoulder bag. The marimba music of an incoming call interrupted my thoughts. Keeping my eyes focused on where the Zebra Stripes boy had disappeared, I fished out my phone. The cars and buses and trucks sped past me like film flickering through an old-fashioned camera. They were just flashes of metal, of color. Blue. Black. Silver. Red. I felt the energy pulse around me like a living thing. I closed my eyes, and the sound transformed from traffic to ocean inside my ear.

  “Sara?” My dad’s voice echoed through my phone, sounding thin and metallic. Speakerphone. I hated that. Couldn’t he just pick up the phone and talk to me? I opened my eyes, and the fleeting moment of inside stillness slipped away like a speeding car. Or like a boy with a book under his arm.

  “Hey, Dad,” I said. I wondered who was listening in on the other end. Probably his new boss and a room full of company men in suits and ties. The thought made me claustrophobic. I’d much rather be outside than inside on a day like this. The weather was all blue skies and sunshine, and the city was alive around me. I felt the urge to move, to tap into the energy of the day and just go. Somewhere—anywhere.

  “Is everything okay?” I asked. The whole reason we were in New York was so Dad could finalize the sale of his company. Not only would the sale bring in a nice chunk of change for us, but it meant that Dad would be able to cut back on his hours. He’d been working eighty-hour weeks for a long time, building up his SEO company—FindersKeepers.com—into something a bigger company like SearchEngineDrivers.com would find attractive enough to acquire.

  “Yes, everything’s fine. It’s just that the paperwork is taking a little longer than we planned.” Dad hesitated. “Listen, Sara-bear, I’m sorry I’m not there yet, but I don’t think I’ll be able to get away for lunch this afternoon.”

  His words dropped on my heart like a lead weight. So much for our perfect day. I knew this meeting was important, but I had really hoped that it wouldn’t take all day.

  I concentrated on the phone and heard the sound of papers rustling against each other, the clink of a glass hitting the tabletop. A door closed—or opened; I couldn’t quite tell. A muttering of voices ebbed and flowed, lost in the sounds of a wailing siren that roared wildly in my other ear.

  “Sara? Are you there?”

  “Yeah.” I let the moment stretch out. I heard Dad inhale, prepare to speak. I rushed to fill the void. “It’s okay. I don’t mind. I’ll find something.”

  This time it was Dad’s turn to pause. “Are you sure?” He didn’t wait for me to answer. “We’re still on for dinner—promise. And I haven’t forgotten that you wanted to go to the top of the Empire State Building. We’ll do that, too. Double promise. It’s just that right now—”

  “It’s okay, Dad,” I interrupted. “Seriously. I know you’re busy. Your meeting is more important than lunch.” More important than me. I didn’t have to say it; we both heard it anyway. I looked down the street, clogged with people. “And if I can’t find a place to eat in this town on a Saturday, then I deserve to starve.”

  “But—”

  “Dad.” The single syllable was enough to kill the rest of his sentence. He knew that tone. The one that said, Pay attention because I’m only going to say this
once. The one that warned, Don’t push it. The one that I learned from my mom.

  “Okay,” he acquiesced. Because he knew I wanted him to.

  “I’ll call you later,” I promised. Because I knew he wanted me to.

  “Have fun.” It was almost a question, but I chose to hear it as a directive.

  “I will,” I said. I hung up without saying good-bye. I never said it. Not if I could help it. Good-bye was final. Painful. It was the sound of a door closing. Of footsteps walking away.

  It was the last thing my mother had ever said to me.

  I shook off the bitter thought. I wasn’t going to let her invade my day. Not today. Not this day.

  This day was for breathing deep and looking ahead. So I did just that, gulping down a lungful of hot, sweet air until it filled my entire body. I tasted the metallic tang of exhaust, listened to the rumble and thrum of throngs of people moving around me, and drank in the sight of green leaves scattered on the trees hidden between the buildings.

  Freedom. That was what I felt standing there on the corner with a park on one side of me and a cluster of shops on the other, the small bookstore with its open door and rolling carts of books beckoning me from across the street. The freedom to go wherever I wanted, do whatever I wanted. I was a single person in a city of millions and the one person who wanted to keep tabs on me had just told me to go to lunch without him.

  I absently pushed the power button on my camera, listening to the smooth hum of the lens as it woke and stretched before settling into its standard halfway position. I glanced down at the last picture I’d taken. The one of the boy in the gray hoodie with the gray-green messenger bag. I lifted the camera, lining up my surroundings until they matched the image on the LCD screen. It was like looking into a portal of a moment that had been snatched out of time. The mysterious boy was the only difference. Here, then gone.

  I snapped another picture, just to hear the reassuring click of capture, and then looped my camera around my wrist.

  Glancing over my shoulder at the steady stream of traffic flowing around me, I headed off into the unknown, trailing the fading footsteps of the boy I’d glimpsed only briefly through my camera eye.

  Chapter 2

  Sam

  Someone was following him. It was a crazy idea; there were always people walking along the narrow sidewalk, so it was impossible to believe there could be just one person intent on following him, but he knew it as surely as he knew the exact contents of his messenger bag. When he glanced over his shoulder, his eyes found her immediately. Yep, that was her. The girl with the camera.

  He’d noticed her the instant he’d left the bookstore. Maybe no one else would have paid her any mind, but there was something about the way she leaned up against the building—a black band of sunglasses resting across the top of her head, her hand wrapped tightly around the strap of her shoulder bag—that called out to him. She wasn’t just a tourist—those he could spot a mile away and avoid with ease. No, she was something else. Something more. Something—he almost didn’t dare think the word—kindred.

  He hunched his shoulders, ducking to avoid the prickling sensation running up and down his back. She was still there. He didn’t know if that was good or bad.

  Approaching the corner, he hesitated. She was close. Turn left and he could duck into Scoops Ice Cream Shoppe and out the back door and be gone. Or he could head straight, linger at the row of concert posters and ads on the makeshift construction wall, and let her catch up.

  No. That was a bad idea. He had a job to do.

  Paul was waiting for him back at the Plaza, and the sooner he dropped off the book, the sooner his afternoon would be his again. He had no time to spare for the strange girl with the green eyes.

  But instead of quickening his step and turning left, he hesitated at the curb, deciding to wait for the official walk sign to flash before he crossed the street. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d actually obeyed the crosswalk signs.

  The prickling between his shoulder blades intensified, and he shifted the strap of his messenger bag across his chest. Bad idea or not, he lingered at the plywood wall, studying the colorful signs and flyers that had been tacked up there despite the clear instructions prohibiting such postings.

  His brain screamed at him to keep going, to move. He hated standing still. Questions bubbled up inside him the longer he stood there: Why was he waiting? For the girl?

  Yes. He could admit that now. Just as he could admit that the whole idea was crazy. Crazy, but he didn’t care. It wouldn’t be the first crazy thing he’d ever done.

  His eyes roamed over the posters, the names and addresses and numbers blending together into a steady stream of data.

  Buy one lesson, get one free at Moosmuller Music.

  The Fall of Night—now playing at Glass and Coasters. Tuesday night is ladies’ night.

  Missing dog. Black with white paws. Very friendly. Answers to the name of Nedra. Please call—we miss our baby girl. Reward!

  She stepped up next to him, pretending to study the posters as carefully as he was. He could feel the nervousness sliding off her body.

  He flicked his eyes in her direction. “You stole something from me.”

  She blinked, almost taking a step back. “What? I did no such thing.”

  Nervous, yes. But also brave. An interesting combination.

  He pivoted on his heel, walking away from her. Fast enough to quiet his inner demand for motion, but not so fast that she couldn’t catch up if she wanted to.

  “Hey!” she shouted at his back. “I said I didn’t steal anything from you.” In a flash, she had matched his pace, step for step. She gripped her bag and frowned. “You owe me an apology.”

  “And you owe me my soul.” He stopped, allowing her to outpace him by a step.

  She turned, her mouth open in a small, silent protest, confusion in her eyes.

  He held her gaze—the green irises were the darkest green he’d ever seen—and gestured toward the small silver camera looped around her wrist. “You took my picture without my permission. That’s stealing.” He lifted the shoulder not burdened with the strap of his bag. “And in some cultures, taking a man’s picture is the same as taking his soul.”

  “How—?” She clutched the camera close to her chest and shut her mouth. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”

  He read the lie in the bones of her face as she adjusted her expression. But it was an innocent lie, if such a thing were possible. “Yes, you did. And you’re not sorry about it.”

  She shifted her weight, one hip jutting out just enough to knock her body out of alignment. She looked better that way—more curves, more dimension.

  She looked him up and down, then matched his determined gaze with her own. Her eyes were the green of the jungle, of camouflage. “So what if I’m not?” she challenged.

  He grinned as though she had passed some sort of test, and held out his hand. “Sam.” She looked at him warily, but the nervousness he’d sensed before was gone. “For the caption.”

  “Sara,” she declared, touching his hand quickly, coolly.

  “Without the h,” he murmured. Her palm was smooth and soft against the rough-worn touch of his fingers.

  “How did you know that?” she asked, her hand dropping to her hip, her elbow forming a triangle.

  “Because you didn’t say it.” Yes, she definitely looked better with some angles to her.

  “I don’t know what game you’re playing at, Sam, but—”

  “I don’t play games,” he interrupted quietly but firmly.

  “Then what do you call this?” She gestured with her free hand to the space between them.

  Sam shrugged. “A conversation. You should try it sometime. They can be quite enlightening.”

  A flash of a smile played across her lips, just a spark of amusement before it was squirreled away.

  Ah, so she was a girl who was careful with her smiles. He liked that.

  “My dad taught me n
ever to talk to strangers,” she said lightly.

  “We’re all strangers in the beginning.”

  “Then what are we in the end?”

  “We’ll have to see when we get there. Walk with me.” He’d been stationary too long. It was time to move.

  “Where are we going?” she asked.

  “Where do you want to go?”

  She shrugged.

  “I don’t believe that. A smart girl like you knows exactly where she wants to go.”

  “How do you know I’m smart? You don’t know anything about me.”

  “I know you’ve never been to New York before. I know you appreciate beauty when you see it. And I know you’re equal parts stubborn and brave.”

  His lips twitched upward when her mouth dropped open.

  “Before you ask,” he continued, “I’m observant. I look. And I see. And, yes, keeping people guessing is one of my specialties.”

 
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