After hello, p.10
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       After Hello, p.10

           Lisa Mangum
 
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  “You”—he jabbed a finger at Biker Man—“get away from her.”

  Biker Man hesitated. He looked down at Sara. “You okay?”

  She nodded.

  “You sure?”

  She nodded again.

  “Who is this guy, anyway?”

  Sara’s green eyes met Sam’s brown ones. Sam held his breath and wondered what she would say. “He’s my friend.”

  “Okay,” Biker Man said. “If you’re sure—”

  “We’re friends,” she said again, her voice strong and firm. “Aren’t we, Sam?”

  He felt tears burn in his eyes, but he forced them not to fall. It was all he could do to nod.

  “Fine. Then she’s all yours, man,” Biker Man said, leaning back and rocking to his feet.

  “I’m all right,” Sara said again. “You don’t have to stay. It was just an accident. A couple of Band-Aids and some Tylenol and I’ll be back on my feet in no time. Promise. I didn’t dent your bike, did I?”

  Sam knelt by her side and cracked open the kit. His hands shook; he hoped Sara wouldn’t notice.

  Biker Man’s mouth quirked in a wary smile. “No, you didn’t.”He took a step away. “Are you sure you—?”

  “Go!” Sam snapped. “Just go. You don’t need to be here. You aren’t wanted here. I can take care of her. I can fix this. I can. I will.” He muttered the last few words under his breath.

  Again, Biker Man looked to Sara for permission.

  She mouthed the word Go but softened it with a smile.

  He picked up his helmet and his gloves, clearly unhappy at being sent away, and wheeled his bike down the path. After a few steps, he jogged back and set down a water bottle next to Sara’s hand. “At least take this. You’ll want to wash out those scrapes.”

  “Thanks,” Sara said. “I will.”

  Biker Man left for good, and then it was just Sam and Sara, alone on the pathway. The wind blew through the high trees.

  Sam sorted through the kit with hurried fingers. Sorting and discarding and choosing what to use. Bandages. Gotta have those. Gauze—might help stop the bleeding. What else? What else could he do to save her? Scissors—yes—he’d need those to cut her out of—

  He curled his fingers into a fist, concentrating on steadying his breathing and his heart rate. Now was not the time to panic. Not yet. Now was not the place to break down. Not yet.

  “You’re going to be okay, Alice,” he said. “I promise.” His voice caught, but he didn’t stop. “Just hold on, okay? Just stay with me.”

  “Sam.”

  He ripped open one bandage and reached for another.

  “It’s going to be okay. Help is on the way.”

  “Sam.”

  “No, don’t talk.”

  “Sam.”

  Her voice cut through the noise that filled his head with static. The sound of a siren in the distance. The sound of metal screeching in protest. The sound of wind sighing down a dark highway.

  She touched his hand, her fingers warm.

  He hadn’t realized how bad the quake had been until her touch stilled the aftershocks.

  He looked down at where they had made contact. The polished dog tags swung free in the space between them. St. Christopher looked up at him from the circular medallion with unforgiving silver eyes.

  “Sam?” Sara’s voice was gentle and soft. “Who’s Alice?”

  Chapter 19

  Sara

  I wasn’t sure if he’d heard me so I asked it again. “Who’s Alice?”

  Something was very wrong with Sam. I’d never seen him like this. Granted, we didn’t have a long history together, but I hadn’t expected him to crack at the sight of my blood. Sure, I had some decent scrapes, but I had come home with worse when I was learning to roller blade.

  Sam blinked and leaned back on his heels. His eyes looked blurry. His face paled. “Where did you hear that name?”

  “From you. Just now. You called me Alice.”

  “I did?” For a moment, his eyes started to clear, and then he looked down and returned to the work of bandaging the cuts on my knee and ankle. I worried he wasn’t going to say anything else. Then he said, “I might have to cut a bigger hole in your jeans—is that okay?” His voice sounded hoarse.

  “That’s fine. What happened to Alice?” I tried to keep my tone low and even, gentle. I didn’t want to spook him even more.

  He still wouldn’t look at me. He picked up the scissors and snipped the air a few times as though practicing. He placed the blades next to the hole in my jeans, trying a few different positions but never actually closing the handles.

  “Here. I can do it.” I took the scissors from him. Even with my scraped-up hands, I was able to snip three or four times, enlarging the hole enough so I could rip the ruined pant leg away from my actual leg. I clipped through the side seams as well and tore again. I handed the scissors back to Sam. “Now will you tell me about Alice?”

  Sam took his time, fussing with the first-aid kit, arranging and rearranging the bandages, tucking the scissors point-down through an elastic loop. He drew Biker Man’s water bottle closer. Aligned it parallel to his knee. Turned it a quarter of the way around.

  He took a deep breath.

  “She had just turned sixteen.” The words slipped from Sam’s mouth, as quiet as a confession. As he spoke, he carefully pulled on my shoelaces, unraveling the knot.

  Cradling my wounded hands to my chest, I held my breath. I watched Sam’s fingers gently smooth the laces long and straight. He stayed focused on his task, as if making sure they were perfect was the most important thing in the world.

  “I never saw her without a smile.” He loosened the top cross. “You should know that about her—she was always smiling.” The second cross.

  His hands, which had been shaking before, became steady whenever they touched me.

  “Her family had this huge house on the edge of this wide, wide field. There was a barn out back. It was the perfect place to have a party. Everyone came.”

  He slipped one hand around the back of my ankle, supporting it in his palm while he carefully gripped the heel of my shoe with his other hand.

  “My three best friends were there: Todd Saunders. Chris Allred. Jeremy Davis.” With each name he listed, he wiggled my shoe a little looser, a little looser, a little looser, until he could slowly slip it off my foot. “But that night it was all about Alice.”

  He set my shoe to the side but continued to hold my leg. His hand was warm where it touched my skin, but his fingers were cool and strong.

  “It seemed like she was everywhere I looked that night. Her parents had decorated the barn for her birthday with streamers and banners and lights. They’d hired a DJ. There was dancing. Music. Cake.”

  He hooked the tip of his finger under the edge of my sock, being careful to avoid the blood spots that had soaked into the white cotton.

  “I had a massive crush on her. But then again, so did Todd Saunders, Chris Allred, and Jeremy Davis.”

  Again, with each name he listed, he peeled my sock a little lower on my foot.

  “It wasn’t until the party was almost over that Todd brought up his idea. He said the four of us should drive Alice into town for a late-night ice cream run. One last unexpected birthday present from the four of us to her.”

  He brushed some of the loose gravel away from the path before setting my foot down carefully as if it might shatter on contact.

  “I think we were all a little crazy that night.”

  Sam slipped his hand up the back of my leg, all the way to the bend of my knee. He unstoppered Biker Man’s bottle with his teeth and, holding me steady, he poured lukewarm water over my wound. The clear liquid turned pink as it ran down my leg, over my foot, and through my toes. Setting the bottle down, Sam reached for a cloth in his bag and wiped away the water and the blood with long, smooth strokes.

  “I know what you’re thinking, but we weren’t drunk. We weren’t high. We weren’t anything—j
ust sixteen and stupid.”

  The skin around the scrape on my knee had turned a dark pink, striated with faint white lines; the wound oozed a few more sluggish drops of blood. The thin scratch on my ankle itched with fire.

  “My car couldn’t hold all five of us—it was just an old VW bug—but we all crammed inside anyway. Alice sat in the front with me. Jeremy sat behind her, then Todd in the middle, then Chris behind me.”

  His voice adopted a flat tone, cool and professional, as though he was recounting details he had told many times before. He peeled the backing from a salmon-pink Band-Aid and positioned it over my ankle.

  “Having Alice near me made Todd jealous. The trip was his idea to begin with, so why did I get to sit next to the pretty girl?”

  He opened a packet of gauze pads, withdrew one, and covered the wound on my knee with it, pressing lightly along the edges to make sure it was secure.

  “Todd kept leaning between us, trying to talk to Alice, make her pay attention to him, make her like him. When she started laughing at his jokes . . . that made me jealous.”

  He covered the square of gauze with a larger bandage, smoothing the sticky wings with the edge of his thumb. I could feel the small, rough calluses as they brushed against my knee.

  “But then Alice touched my arm, she said my name, and I didn’t care what Todd did or said or thought. I just . . . kept driving.”

  He moved closer to me, his knees on either side of my leg. When he leaned over to reach for my hands, the silver dog tags landed gently against my newly placed bandage.

  “I remember driving through the intersection where the back road crossed the main road, and I remember turning to her and saying her name, and then . . .”

  He held my hands with one of his and poured a small measure of water into my cupped palms with his other.

  “He came out of nowhere.”

  His hand beneath mine began to tremble, a faint fluttering like a bird not quite ready to take flight.

  “One minute, she was turning toward me, her hair backlit against the oncoming headlights. I knew her mouth was open, but . . .”

  Reaching for the cloth, he used a clean corner to wipe the palm of first one hand, then the other.

  “It happened so fast—she didn’t even have time to scream.”

  Chapter 20

  Sam

  Sam’s heart was on fire.

  His skin had turned to paper. His bones had turned to glass.

  He felt strangely disconnected from himself. Like there was no body around him anymore—just a heart, charred and blackened, beating in space.

  It had been a long time since he had said anything at all about the accident, let alone said Alice’s name out loud.

  He drew in a long, deep breath, inhaling the scent of Sara’s hair, trying to remember that this girl who sat before him smelled like sunshine and spring.

  Focusing on the task before him—cleaning Sara’s wounds—he kept his hands moving. Gotta keep moving; can’t stop; stagnation kills.

  “The front of the pickup truck looked like it had been crumpled by a giant fist. There were pieces of metal and broken glass everywhere. I heard a sound like screaming in my head. It wasn’t from Alice—she never made a sound—and it wasn’t from anyone else. Todd and Chris were pinned in the back, moaning, but not screaming. Jeremy was strangely quiet; he had been sitting behind Alice, and . . . I don’t know—maybe I was the one making the noise.”

  Sara’s fingers shivered delicately in his. He had told this part of the story so many times. So why did it still feel like it had happened to someone else?

  “Do you still hear it?” she asked, low and careful.

  Sam looked at her. Her eyes were green. Alice had had blue eyes. As long as he stayed focused on the green, he wouldn’t confuse Sara for Alice again. “Sometimes,” he admitted after a long minute.

  Her shiver turned into a tremble.

  She licked her lips, biting down on the bottom one. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered, her eyes never leaving his.

  “I felt like my whole body had been scratched up and torn. I couldn’t move my hand. Blood filled my eyes.”

  He unconsciously touched the spot where a neat row of stitches had once closed up the gap between his forehead and his hairline.

  “But I could still see enough to dial 911. After calling for help, I blacked out. When I came to, the police and the paramedics had arrived. They had to cut my car apart to get to everyone. Chris had broken his arm in two places. Todd had a broken arm too, plus lacerations all over his face and neck and hands—like me. Most of the paramedics were working on Jeremy. When they wouldn’t tell me what was wrong with him, I knew it was bad.”

  He folded and refolded the blood-spotted cloth into ever-smaller squares.

  “I remember looking at my friends, battered and bleeding, and at the single white sheet covering a gurney off to the side, and . . . and then the police officer pulled me aside and asked me a few questions about the accident. About Alice. He told me that the four of us were lucky to be alive. He said that the other driver had admitted to hitting my car and was already in custody.” His voice cracked. “The police said it wasn’t the guy’s first drunk driving charge.”

  “What happened to him?” she whispered.

  Sam looked away. “We should probably get you off the ground and someplace more comfortable. Do you think you could make it to that bench?” he asked, nodding to a spot across the way.

  Sara’s eyebrows came together, her frown clearly communicating her displeasure at his deflection. That small dimple appeared again. “I think so. You’ll have to help me, though.”

  Standing up, he reached for Sara’s forearms, careful to avoid her scraped-up hands, and pulled her to her feet. Helping her to the bench, he quickly returned to the side of the path, gathered up the scattered bits of the first-aid kit, and shoved everything into his bag.

  He wished he could gather up his scattered thoughts and hide them away as easily. He had always believed in moving forward, but sometimes he wished he could go back. Back to before he had called Sara by the wrong name and all those words had spilled out of him like sand from a punctured bag.

  As much as he wished that, though, there was another part of him that didn’t mind being rid of the weight of those words.

  He wondered if the fact that Sara’s green, green eyes had never blinked, never wavered, while he had told her the story that had burdened—and burned—his heart for the past eighteen months meant that he could tell her the rest of what had happened.

  Was he strong enough? Was she?

  Lots of people knew pieces of the puzzle—both at home and here in New York—but only Sam knew the entire story, top to bottom, inside and out.

  Not even Paul knew all the details. All he knew was that Sam had graduated early and Mom and Dad had sent Sam to live with him “for a change of pace.” Sam didn’t offer; Paul didn’t pry.

  Paul had allowed Sam to help him with his job, and Sam had started finding things for people. He had started keeping his eyes open, always on the lookout for those small but special things that would fill the hole in someone’s life, always looking for that elusive item that would fill the hole in his.

  He sat down next to Sara, who wiped at her eyes with swift fingers. The high color in her cheeks was a dusky, dark rose, hinting at a deeper, sadder emotion.

  “What happened to Jeremy?” she asked.

  “He slipped into a coma. He woke up a few months later, but the doctors said his head injury was bad enough that he’d be in rehab for a long time.”

  “And the others? Todd and Chris?” She touched the torn and frayed edge of her jeans where it ended above her knee, straightening the threads into neat lines.

  “Chris was in rehab for a while too, for his broken arm, but his injury was bad enough that he couldn’t play on the tennis team anymore. Todd did better—his injuries weren’t as bad as the others—but he had a hard time with the scars.”

 
She stretched out her wounded leg, wincing, and propped up her ankle with the toe of her other shoe. “You seem to have made it through okay. That’s good, right?”

  “I guess.” Sam reached for his bag, pulling it closer to him on the bench. “After Alice’s funeral, her parents wanted to celebrate the good things about her life. They opened up their house to the whole neighborhood. Everyone came.” He closed his eyes, remembering the lights, the crowd, the sounds. “Her parents thanked me for calling 911. They said they understood that it was too late for Alice, but that they didn’t blame me, and that they were glad I had been able to do something to help everyone else.”

  “It was good that you could help your friends. It sounds like it was a really hard time for you.” She leaned against his shoulder.

  Sam’s burning heart cracked open with heat and guilt and shame. The blood drained from his face.

  What would happen if he told Sara the secret that lay beneath the smoldering coal of his heart? What would she do with the information? He feared he already knew. He had only met her today, but he wasn’t sure he was ready to lose her just yet.

  He wanted to shift Sara off his shoulder, turn her so he could see her eyes. If he did tell her, then he wanted to be able to see the exact moment if things changed. That way, in that split-second flash of time, he could decide what to do next. To brace himself—or to bolt.

  Sam’s muscles along his shoulders, his arms, braced for action, and his legs trembled with the tension of holding still for so long. Time to choose. Time to move? Or time to stay?

  The remaining words coated his tongue like ash, choking him.

  “There’s more,” he managed.

  Sara shifted, sitting up a little straighter and turning to face him.

  A slight breeze passed over them. Sam heard the sounds of the park as static through a tunnel: the whisking zip of a kid passing by on skates, the chattering laughter of children, the hurried click-clack of a dog on the run.

  “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” Sara said, her voice barely louder than the breeze.

  “I know I don’t.” He leaned back against the bench. “But I want to.”

 
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