After hello, p.11
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       After Hello, p.11

           Lisa Mangum
 
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  He realized suddenly that those four small words were the truth. He had been circling around the truth for some time now. Avoiding it, but knowing that it was time to take hold of it and see if it still hurt. And how much.

  And who better to tell than Sara? A girl he’d never seen until today; a girl he might never see again. In this one moment, he was free.

  The words wouldn’t come, though. No matter how many times he framed them in his mind and held them in his mouth, he couldn’t make himself say what he had never said to another soul.

  She must have sensed his struggle to find the words he needed, because she bit her lip again and said, “I’ll trade you for it. A story for a story—wasn’t that the deal?”

  Sam shook his head. “You don’t have a story like this. It wouldn’t be fair.”

  After the moment of silence had dragged on into minutes, Sara shifted on the bench. “It’s okay. You don’t have to tell me. Or you can tell me later.” She touched the dog tags resting on his chest. “Tell me about these.”

  He lifted the tags in his hand and fanned the three silver ovals across his palm. “I had them made once I came to New York.”

  Sara touched each tag with the pad of her finger, reading the names out loud one by one. “Todd Saunders. Chris Allred. Jeremy Davis.” She swallowed. “You wear them as a way to honor your friends?”

  Sam shook his head. “I wear them as penance.”

  She looked at him silently, confusion written across her face.

  He wrapped his hand around the tags, grateful for the sharp bite of the metal. He looked directly into Sara’s green eyes and saw what he needed to see. He let the pent-up words tumble out of his mouth.

  “That night. The night of the accident. When Todd was flirting with Alice. I knew I couldn’t let Todd win. I knew I had to raise the stakes. So before we reached the main road . . .” He cleared his throat, trying to draw in enough air to breathe. “I . . . I turned off the headlights. It was just for a minute—a second. It was a dark night, and I thought it would make me seem cool and dangerous. I wanted Alice to be impressed by what I thought was bravery. But she wasn’t. She grabbed my arm and screamed my name. She begged me to stop.”

  Noise filled Sam’s ears, a whirring whine that might have been a distant siren, or the moment before a worried whimper broke into a shout.

  “Everyone yelled at me to turn the lights back on. Everyone said I was crazy. But I kept driving. I kept saying, ‘Don’t worry. I can handle it. Trust me.’” He let go of the dog tags and his hands fell, empty, into his lap. “That was the last thing I said before the truck hit us.”

  He stopped speaking, breathing heavily through his nose, his lips suddenly as cold and heavy as lead. He had taken his locked-away memories and traded them for something else. Something that, to his surprise, felt like a kind of freedom. He hadn’t known that letting part of yourself go like that could be so liberating.

  He hadn’t known this kind of inside quiet existed.

  “It was my fault,” he said simply, finally—gratefully. “All of it was my fault.”

  Chapter 21

  Sara

  “But I thought you said the other driver was drunk?” I asked. I was having a hard time processing everything Sam had told me, but I could sense that telling me the whole story had made him feel better.

  “He was.”

  “I don’t understand. How could it have been all your fault, then?”

  The lines around Sam’s eyes tightened a little, and I wished I’d kept my mouth shut. He had just busted through some heavy emotional walls. I didn’t want to give him a reason to put them up again.

  “Because if I had kept the lights on, he might have seen us. He might have had time to swerve, or maybe even stop. Things might have been different.”

  Before I could say anything else—what did you say to something like that?—Sam’s phone rang, a utilitarian chime of three repeating notes. I had a lot of questions about what Sam had told me, but it didn’t seem like I was going to have a chance to ask any of them.

  He yanked the phone from his pocket, swiping his finger across the screen with look of trepidation. “Hi, Paul,” he answered carefully. “How—?” Sam’s voice cut off and he shot me a look. “Yes. . . . What? When? . . . No, Paul, listen—”

  Sam angled his body away from me, pressing the phone closer to his ear. All of his earlier open vulnerability was gone, freezing like ice the longer he listened to his brother. The walls were going back up; I hoped they wouldn’t be built as high or as thick as before.

  “Paul, listen to me, I’m sorry. No. . . . Yes. . . . Would you let me explain?”

  It sounded like bad news. And if Paul was calling, there was only one thing it could be. Piper. My head reeled. My leg throbbed at knee and ankle. Sam had done a good job bandaging my wounds, and I didn’t think the cuts would get infected, but I still felt banged up both physically from being hit by the bike and emotionally from listening to Sam’s story. And now this? I wasn’t sure I could handle another disaster.

  Sam turned off his phone and clutched it in his fist. He squeezed his eyes shut and ran his free hand through his hair.

  “What is it?” I asked, my heart sinking lower in dread with each passing moment. I was afraid I knew what he was going to say before he even opened his mouth.

  “She did it. She fired Paul.”

  My heart hit bottom, where it shattered. “But she said—”

  “I know what she said.”

  I drew my bag closer to my side, my hand automatically touching the spot where Piper’s head shot was stashed. “I agreed to help her,” I said, clinging to the one thing that seemed to matter most. “She said she wouldn’t fire Paul if I agreed to help her. I did that. So why would she—”

  “Paul said that Piper told him she had given you until six o’clock to bring back the artwork. You weren’t there when time was up, so she handed him his walking papers.” He turned his phone toward me. The clock showed 6:37 in stark, white numbers.

  Tears of anger, frustration, and fear burned in my eyes. “That wasn’t the deal. She never said that. If she had said I had a six o’clock deadline, I would have written it down.”

  Sam chucked his phone back into his bag. “It doesn’t matter anymore.”

  “Yes, it does.” I swung my legs off the bench, wincing as the movement pulled at the bandages. “It’s not fair! She’s a liar and a . . . a cheat!”

  “She’s Piper Kinkade. She can do whatever she wants.” Sam scrubbed the back of his wrist across his forehead. He exhaled and rolled his shoulders. Then he grabbed the dog tags and shoved them back under his shirt. “Paul’s already home. We need to get there as soon as we can so I can explain. Do you think you can walk?”

  “I think so. Do you have my shoe?”

  Sam checked his bag and withdrew my shoe and red-stained sock. He handed them back to me with a quiet “Sorry about the blood.”

  “Not your fault,” I said, leaning over to slip the sock back on and then tying the shoelaces with a vicious knot. I was still fuming about Piper’s betrayal. What she had done wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. And I wasn’t going to let her get away with it. But how did you stop something that had already happened? Gotta keep moving.

  I levered myself up off the bench, making sure to keep as much weight off my bad leg as I could. I looked down at my knees, one still covered by my jeans, the other bare but bandaged.

  “Pretty fashionable, huh?” I asked, pointing my toe and modeling my torn jeans. “The half-pants, half-shorts look will be all the rage next season, I’m sure.”

  Sam didn’t laugh at my dismal attempt at humor. He held my arm just above the elbow, keeping me steady and making sure I didn’t fall.

  I took a tentative step forward. It hurt to walk, but I could do it. I had to. I hated feeling like everything was my fault, and I had to find some way to make it right.

  “I’m really sorry, Sam,” I said. “Piper talked so fast. I thought I
had written everything down.”

  He sighed heavily. “It’s okay. We’ll figure something out.”

  “Was Paul mad?”

  Sam shrugged. “Paul doesn’t like it when things are broken and he can’t fix them. This . . .” He sighed again. “This is a pretty big break in his life.”

  I grimaced again, but not from my injury this time. “Did you tell him we can fix it?”

  Sam slipped his arm around my waist and let me lean on him. “I didn’t have a chance.”

  I shuffled along next to Sam, trying to hide my pain. We managed to make our way out of the park and back to Central Park North. I concentrated on matching my breathing to my steps. At least now I was only wincing at every fourth step.

  When we paused at the corner, I asked, “How far away did you say your apartment was?”

  “Not too far. The subway station is west of here. We can take the subway to 125th Street and walk from there.”

  “Oh. Okay.” I tried not to let my despair color my voice. There was more walking? How big was this blasted city?

  Sam turned to look at me, concern drawing a line across his forehead. “Are you sure you’re going to make it?”

  “Yeah, I’ll be fine.” I felt a light tickle of liquid start to slide along my shin. Oh, no. “Um, Sam? Do you have a tissue I could borrow?”

  His glance dropped to my knee and his eyes widened. “Sara!”

  “I’ll be fine,” I said again, bluffing. “Look—the light’s green; let’s go. Paul’s waiting for us. We don’t want to be late.”

  Sam frowned, the movement pulling his jaw tight. “Hold on.”

  He made sure I was steady on my feet, then stepped to the curb and scanned the street in both directions. Raising his arm, he signaled, and a bright yellow cab pulled out of traffic.

  Sam helped me hobble forward and opened the back door for me.

  “I can’t afford a taxi,” I whispered as he slid into the seat next to me. “We can take the subway, it’s okay.”

  “It’s not okay. And don’t worry about the taxi.” Sam leaned forward and rattled off an address to the cab driver. As the car merged back into the stream of traffic, Sam opened his messenger bag and handed me a pack of tissues.

  I blotted up the thin line of blood seeping from beneath my bandage, then kept as much pressure as I could bear on the spot.

  “Would you rather I just take you back to your hotel?” Sam asked, looking out the window at the buildings passing by. “That might be for the best anyway. I’m not sure you should be walking around anymore with that scrape. I’d hate for it to get worse.”

  For a moment, I considered saying yes. Going back to the hotel sounded so nice. I could take a hot bath, eat a hot meal, and fall asleep in a soft, comfortable bed. But then I thought about Paul and Piper. And Sam. And I shook my head.

  “No. I said I’d see this through, and I will.” I closed my eyes and rubbed at my forehead. “Though if I had just left the book on the table like I’d been told to do instead of trying to be nice to Piper, none of this would have happened.”

  The setting sun filled the back of the cab with light.

  Sam hesitated, then said, “What if it’s too late to fix it? I don’t know that anything we do will appease Piper enough to make her give Paul his job back. It’s not like we already have what she wants and we just have to deliver it to her.” He fell back against the seat. “And the longer we wait, the harder it will be to convince her to change her mind, no matter what we bring her.”

  “We can’t give up now,” I said. “We just need to find that magic ring and take it to the wicked queen and save . . . well, Paul isn’t exactly a damsel, but he is in distress, right?”

  Sam’s mouth lifted in a small smile that faded almost as soon as it appeared. He sighed and rubbed at his eyes. “I feel like I’m running out of ideas,” he admitted in a low voice.

  “But you’re not completely out of ideas, are you?”

  Sam slanted a glance at me, that smile peeking through again. “No, not completely.”

  “And didn’t you say that you could find anything you wanted in New York?”

  “I did say that.”

  “Then I’m staying,” I said, my anger at Piper solidifying into determination. “This”—I nodded to my knee and assumed an air of noble confidence—“is just a flesh wound. It can’t stop me from completing my quest.” I bumped his shoulder with mine. “What do you say, partner? Are you going to give up? Or are you still in?”

  Chapter 22

  Sam

  The cab fare took the last of Sam’s money. He handed it over, feeling guilty that he had to short the driver a decent tip. He slipped in the envelope of movie ticket gift certificates from his bag to make up for it.

  “This is where you live?” Sara asked.

  Sam looked up at the gray stone building. Metal fire-escape ladders and landings crisscrossed the outside walls. The middle of the building was set back from the sidewalk, creating a front walkway that was flanked by two towers. A couple of trees stood guard along the sidewalk. Most of the windows were open, and Sam could hear music drifting down from an apartment on the third floor. The apartment he shared with Paul.

  “Yes,” Sam said. “I live here. Is there something wrong with it?”

  Sara shook her head, her eyes sparkling. “No, nothing. It’s just so . . . I don’t know. It just looks the way New York buildings do on TV.”

  Sam laughed lightly. “It should. This is New York.”

  She laughed back and slapped him lightly on the arm. “That’s not what I meant.”

  “What did you mean, then?”

  “Just . . . that it’s nice. That’s all. It looks like someplace you could call home.”

  Sam noticed that she kept shifting her weight off her bad leg, and that she was clutching her bag with both hands.

  “Are you nervous about something?” he asked.

  “I’m just imagining what my dad would say if he knew I was about to go alone into the apartment of a boy I just met today.” She covered her mouth with her hand. “Oh, that sounds really bad.”

  “But you won’t be alone,” Sam pointed out. “Paul will be there. And from the sounds of it, he brought friends.”

  “Great. So I’m going to a party at the apartment of a boy I just met today. This is sounding better and better.”

  Sam glanced up at the open window. “Something tells me it won’t be much of a party.”

  “How can you tell?”

  “Paul is listening to Fall of Night. He only plays their music when he’s depressed.” Sam held out his hand to Sara. “C’mon. At least my building has an elevator.”

  Sam was grateful they only had to go up three floors. The sooner Sara could sit down again, the better. He helped her down the hallway and then unlocked the apartment door.

  As soon as he opened the door, he heard Paul shouting from the living room. “Sam? Is that you?”

  “Yes, it’s me.” He hung his bag on a nearby wall hook. He opened the bathroom door and ushered Sara inside. “Give me ten minutes. Then come into the living room. It’ll be okay. I promise.”

  “Wait—” she started, her face pale, but Sam closed the door.

  Taking a deep breath and squaring his shoulders, Sam crossed the small foyer and walked into the living room.

  “Sorry I’m late—” He stopped in his tracks.

  Paul was stretched out on the couch, his eyes closed, an ice pack on his head. Will sat on the chair next to the couch, the jacket of his Plaza Hotel uniform unbuttoned and open, displaying the plain white T-shirt beneath. He had kicked his feet up onto the coffee table. Rebecca was standing in the small kitchen, pouring out several glasses of water and setting them near a stack of plates that stood on the counter. Her eyes were swollen and a little red, like she’d been crying.

  “So glad you could join us,” Will said with a tight grin. “We’re always ready to welcome another member to our illustrious party of the recently une
mployed.”

  “What?” Sam looked around the room. “Were you all—”

  “Fired?” Pointing his index finger at Sam like a gun, Will lowered his thumb. “Bingo.”

  “But Piper can’t fire all of you,” Sam protested. He sat down in the open chair across from Will.

  “Can and did.” Will shrugged his shoulders. “One of the perks of being a monster is that you can devour whoever you want, whenever you want, and no one will stop you.”

  Sam pressed his fingers to his eyes and rubbed, hard. “This can’t be happening. This is impossible.”

  “It was bound to happen, I guess. We all knew Rebecca was on the chopping block after the Bootsie fiasco—” Will lifted his head and called out, “Love you, Becky,” to which she replied, “Drop dead.” Will laughed, then returned his attention to Sam. “But Paul was totally blindsided by whatever it was your little friend stirred up.” Will shook his head. “I told you not to take her upstairs.”

  “And I told you to leave as soon as the book was delivered,” Paul said from the couch. “I’m not surprised the girl screwed it up, though. She didn’t look all that bright when I met her.”

  “Hey, be nice,” Rebecca said. “I’m sure she was trying her best.”

  “If this was her best, then I’d hate to see her worst,” Paul retorted, lifting his ice pack and glaring at Rebecca.

  Sam clenched his jaw. “Shut up, Paul.”

  “Where did you even find her, Sam? I thought you avoided tourists. And bringing her on a job? That was stupid. I hope you ditched her the first chance you got.”

  “Leave it alone, Paul. You don’t understand anything.” Sam turned to Will. “Why did Piper fire you? How? You don’t even work for her.”

  Will plucked at the collar of his uniform. “But I work for the hotel where she is staying. And when a guest is as rich and unhappy as Piper was, then someone has to take the fall. And since yours truly was on duty tonight . . .” He drew his hand across his throat and made a face.

  “Oh, man, I can’t believe it,” Sam groaned.

 
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