After hello, p.12
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       After Hello, p.12

           Lisa Mangum
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  “I wouldn’t worry about Will too much. He always lands on his feet,” Rebecca said. “I bet he already has a job interview lined up.”

  “I hear there’s an opening at the Plaza. Maybe I’ll apply for my old job again,” Will said, buffing his nails on his shirt.

  Rebecca made a face. “Count your lucky stars, boy. You can work at any hotel. It’s not so easy for the rest of us. It’s not like celebrity personal assistant jobs open up all the time. And if Piper decides to blacklist me and Paul?” She shuddered and downed a glass of water in one swallow. “We’ll be lucky to find work in Manhattan by Christmas.”

  “There’s always Jersey,” Will suggested.

  Rebecca stuck her tongue out at him.

  “Guys—Paul, Will, Rebecca—I’m so sorry this happened,” Sam said. “I’ll make it up to you, I swear. I just need—”

  “Stop,” Paul said. “Just . . . stop. I don’t want to hear about it.” He moved the ice pack from his forehead and sat up on the couch. “I just want to have dinner with my friends, listen to some music, and not think about how I don’t have a job to go to in the morning.”

  “That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Rebecca chimed in. “Working for Piper wasn’t the best job in the world.”

  “No, it was exactly the best job in the world. It paid my rent.” He stalked into the kitchen and threw the ice pack into the sink. “Do you know how long I’ve worked for Piper Kinkade? Four years. All I’ve done for four years is take care of her, and I’m damn good at it. The best. I didn’t deserve to be dismissed like some stupid errand boy because of someone else’s mistake.”

  Sam refused to take the bait. “We’ll figure something out,” he said again, feeling like his words were stuck in a loop.

  “Really? We will?” Paul said, turning on his heel. “Think you can trade enough junk from that bag of yours to cover the gas bill, too? If not, you might as well pack up now and head back to Mom and Dad.”

  Sam flushed hot and looked away, only to see Sara standing in the entrance to the living room.

  She looked so much younger than seventeen. She gathered up her hair, smoothing it with her hands and then flipping it over her shoulder. Strange that her nervous habits had already become familiar to him.

  Paul looked up. “What is she doing here?” he growled.

  “I brought her with me,” Sam said. “I couldn’t just abandon her.”

  Paul closed his eyes and was silent for a long moment. Then he fixed Sam with a hard gaze and pointed a long finger at his brother. “I don’t want to talk to her. I don’t want to look at her. You keep her away from me.”

  Sara shifted her weight as though preparing to dart toward the door, her eyes wide and shimmering with unshed tears.

  Rebecca set down her glass and gasped. “What happened to your knee?”

  Sara glanced down quickly, but before she could answer, the front door rattled as someone on the other side banged hard three times.

  Rebecca hurried around the counter, giving Sara a concerned look. “That’ll be Jen,” she said to no one in particular.

  Sara stepped back to allow Rebecca to pass and then remained pressed up against the wall as though desperate to disappear.

  Paul walked over to the stereo, switching it off midsong. “It’s about time. I’m starving.”

  Rebecca returned to the kitchen, followed by a girl with short brown hair and glasses. They both carried white plastic bags with a few characters of Chinese calligraphy marked on the outside.

  Will wrinkled his nose. “Chinese? How original.”

  “Paul said I could order what I wanted,” Rebecca said. “And I wanted egg rolls.” She turned to Jen. “Thanks for picking up dinner.”

  Jen set her bag on the counter. “No problem; it was on my way. Oh, and Becca, I got that green curry you like.”

  Will’s eyes lit up in appreciation and he grinned at Jen. “I love green curry. Is there enough to share?” He joined Paul in the kitchen. As the girls began unpacking the containers of food, Sam moved to Sara’s side. She had wrapped her arms across her chest as though trying to hold herself together. Her eyes kept darting to the bathroom; Sam could see where she had left her sunglasses with her bag. He knew how unpleasant unwanted exposure could be when all you wanted to do was hide.

  He touched her arm, just above her elbow. “You hungry?”

  “I should go—” She made a move toward the door, but he increased the pressure of his hand and kept her in place.

  “You should stay.”

  “But Paul—”

  “Will get over it.”

  “But . . . I don’t know what to do or say . . .”

  Sam held her eyes, trying to set her at ease without letting her know how much he wanted her to stay. Needed her to stay. After what had happened at the park, he wasn’t sure he was ready to let her go. “Say you’ll stay.”

  Chapter 23


  I held his gaze for a long moment. “Okay. I’ll stay,” I said. The words were out before I could pull them back. I’d heard what Paul and Will and Rebecca had said about me, and I really didn’t want to hang around and hear anything else, but Sam’s eyes were surprisingly persuasive. Gentle. Soft.

  He had opened up to me at the park with a story that was so personal and painful. The least I could do was grant him this favor in exchange.

  “Sam? Sara?” Rebecca called over. “You guys hungry? There’s plenty.”

  I took a quick breath, tasting the flavor of ginger and soy in the air. “I’ll stay,” I said again. “But you go first, okay?”

  Sam nodded and led the way into the small kitchen, careful to keep himself between me and Paul. I mirrored Sam’s movements almost exactly. He took a plate; so did I. He dished up a spoonful of rice, a scoop of chicken, and a serving of some dark noodles; so did I. He grabbed two egg rolls; I took one.

  Jen held out a set of chopsticks to me, and I hesitated. “Um, is there a fork I could use?” I asked her quietly, trying to ignore the fact that everyone else had taken a pair—even Sam—like it was no big deal. I felt stupid and clumsy, but it wasn’t like I used the chopsticks at Panda Express back home, either.

  “I know—I hate them too,” she said, pulling out two black plastic forks from the bag. She handed one to me with a kind smile as she headed toward the couch to sit next to Rebecca.

  “Thanks,” I said, grateful to think that at least one person in the room didn’t hate me. Sam had balanced his plate of food on top of his glass and reached out to pick up a second glass for me. I amended my thought: at least two people in the room didn’t hate me.

  Rebecca lifted her hand in our direction. “Sara, come sit by me and Jen.”

  I glanced at Sam, who nodded for me to take the lead, and we made our way across the small room. Three.

  I took the last spot on the couch while Sam sat on the floor next to me. I could feel Paul’s hot anger and Will’s slightly less-abrasive annoyance, and, for a while, we all ate in semi-uncomfortable silence. My stomach churned with more than just the unfamiliar spices.

  I was twirling a strand of noodles around my fork when my phone rang. The marimba music sounded loud in the quiet apartment—even though my phone was still in my bag, which was still in the bathroom. I blushed in unnecessary embarrassment and quickly set my plate down on the coffee table.

  “Sorry,” I apologized to the room in general and limped as quickly as I could to the bathroom to answer my phone. I was going to have to do something about my ruined jeans, and fast. I felt awkward enough without sporting such unflattering fashion.

  Paul muttered something under his breath behind me, and I heard Sam’s quick response, demanding that his brother be quiet.

  Fumbling open my bag, I yanked out my phone. “Hello?” I answered as I swung the door partially shut behind me.

  “Sara!” Dad’s voice was loud on the other end.

  “Dad? What’s wrong?” I pressed my hand to my stomach, hoping he didn’t have
bad news. Though, if he did, maybe it was good that I was already in the bathroom in case the few bites of dinner I’d managed to swallow didn’t stay down.

  “Nothing’s wrong, baby. I signed the papers. The deal is done.”

  “Really?” A wave of relief passed through me. “That’s great.”

  “I know. I’m so glad it worked out. Now, where are you? We need to celebrate.”

  “Oh, um . . .” It had been a long time since I’d heard that level of happiness in my dad’s voice. I didn’t want to ruin this moment for him, but, at the same time, I couldn’t just leave Sam and Paul to face their fate with Piper alone. I still had to fix it; it was still my responsibility.

  “I know that ‘um.’ What’s going on? Are you in trouble?” Dad asked cautiously.

  “No, nothing’s wrong, Dad. I’m fine.” I didn’t look at the bandage plastered across my knee. “It’s just . . . well, I’m kind of in the middle of something and it might be a while before I can wrap it up and—”

  “Sara.” Dad’s voice deepened, his good humor fading fast.

  “I promised a friend that I would help him with something, and I really need to see it through to the end. You understand, right?”

  “No, I don’t understand. What are you talking about? What friend? What are you doing?”

  My anger flared, hot and sudden. “I’m having dinner without you—like you told me to.” I winced at the harshness in my tone. I remembered what Sam had said about choosing my emotional reactions and I decided to choose to be nice. Or at least nicer. Dad had called with good news, after all. Taking out my own frustrations on my dad wasn’t the answer; it wasn’t like it was his fault Paul was mad at me. “Sorry—I’m having dinner,” I said again, calmer. “With some friends.”

  “Friends? What friends? You don’t have any friends.”

  I told myself that he didn’t mean it the way it sounded, but I wasn’t sure I believed it. “I do now. I met some people today while I was out. They’re nice”—some of them, I thought to myself—“and they invited me over for dinner.” It wasn’t exactly how it had happened, but I didn’t want to go into all the details with my dad.

  “And you said yes? I thought you knew better than to talk to strangers.”

  “This is New York, Dad. Everyone is a stranger.”

  His sigh clogged the line. “I knew I should have kept you with me today. If you had just stayed in the hotel, you wouldn’t be in this kind of trouble.”

  My choice to be nice felt slipperier with every word he said. “What kind of trouble do you think I’m in?” I turned my back to the bathroom door. I could hear the low murmur of voices from the living room. I wondered what they were saying, then decided I didn’t want to know. It was probably about how mad everyone was at me. Well, they could get in line. My hand shook around the phone pressed tight against my ear.

  I could practically hear Dad gritting his teeth. “Please don’t be difficult, Sara. I don’t want to fight with you. I thought you’d be happy that I sold my company. It’s kind of a big deal to me.”

  “I am happy for you, Dad. But I made someone a promise, and I can’t just walk away from that.”

  Dad was quiet for a long moment. “It’s been a long day, and I’m exhausted. Just tell me where you are so I can come get you.”

  “You don’t think I can make it back to Times Square on my own? I’m not a child, you know.”

  “I know that, and I’m sure you can go wherever you want—you always do—but I don’t want you wandering around the city alone anymore. It’s late. It’s getting dark. And I want you to come home.”

  I didn’t say anything. My mind caught on his last word. I picked at the edge of the bandage on my knee with restless fingers. I knew Dad meant the hotel we were staying at in Times Square, but that wasn’t home. I thought about all the places I’d been today, all the people I’d met and the things I’d done and seen. It had been an incredible day—not counting the most recent disastrous turn of events—and maybe even one of my best days ever.

  Why did New York feel more like home to me than home did? I’d heard of love at first sight, but I didn’t know it could happen with a whole city.

  Arizona was nice enough. I loved the heat and the desert and the days when the sky turned so blue it almost hurt to look at it. I loved the fiery sunshine and the smoky clouds that warned of late-afternoon storms.

  But I hated that when Mom had left, she’d taken the warmth with her.

  “Sara?” Dad’s voice was quieter now. “You still there?”

  I nodded, then, realizing he couldn’t see me, I said, “Yes. I’m still here.” And, I realized, I wanted to stay here. I’d told Sam in the cab that I wanted to finish our quest, and I did. I would—even if no one cared about it but me. I wanted to finish what I’d started instead of abandoning it, leaving it undone. I just didn’t know how. I didn’t know what to do next.

  “These friends of yours? They’re nice? You feel safe with them?”

  “Yes.” I looked at the bathroom door as though I could see through the wood all the way to where Sam sat in the living room. I sighed and summoned the tone of voice I had perfected in eight years of being raised by a single dad. “Everything is okay, Dad. Honest. I’m not in danger. I’m perfectly fine.”

  “When are you coming back?”

  I heard the echo of my own voice asking that same question once, long ago. It was the question I had asked my mother the night I’d sat underneath the kitchen table and watched her shoes turn and walk away from me. From us. But she’d never answered me. She’d only said good-bye.

  Dad and I had never talked about that night—not in any meaningful way—I realized. We’d never talked about how she was there one day—and gone the next. I wondered if he still had as many questions as I did.

  When I didn’t answer right away, Dad sighed again, but I could tell that his earlier irritation—and his earlier joy—were gone. This sigh sounded of defeat. Of acceptance.

  This was how most of our fights went: a flash of anger and accusations, then resigned silence, followed by unrelenting guilt.

  “After dinner, okay? I’ll come back after dinner. I promise.” I peeled back a corner of the bandage, revealing a small triangle of angry red skin. “I won’t be long.”

  “You’ll be careful?”

  “Always. And Dad?” I sensed his attention pick up through the phone. Be nice. Try to see it from his perspective. “I’m sorry if I made you worry about me.”

  “I’m your dad, Sara-bear. Don’t you want me to worry about you?”

  And there was the guilt, right on schedule. Some things never changed.

  A soft knock opened the bathroom door an inch. “Sara?” Rebecca peeked around the corner.

  “I gotta go, Dad,” I said. “I’ll see you later, okay?” I turned off my phone and tossed it on my bag, grateful for the distance in both space and technology.

  I opened the door wider and gestured for Rebecca to come in. She had changed out of the blue and gray uniform she’d worn when I’d first met her at Piper’s place and into a dark purple sundress and strappy sandals that looked easy and comfortable.

  She glanced at my phone. “Is everything okay?”

  “Yeah, just . . . family stuff. Sorry.” I looked down and away. I didn’t want to cry in front of Rebecca.

  “Sam thought you might need these.” She placed a pair of folded, dark blue jeans on the counter. “He wanted me to make sure you knew they were clean.”

  I smiled, touched by his thoughtfulness.

  “How’s your knee?”

  I straightened my leg out in front of me. The bandage was a little ragged around the edges where I had picked at it, and some blood had seeped through the gauze and dried, creating a dark red bull’s-eye marking the epicenter of my wound.

  “Does it hurt?”

  I shook my head. “Sam did a good job.”

  “He always does.” Rebecca opened the medicine cabinet above the sink and rummaged
through the boxes and bottles. “It’s about the only thing he has in common with Paul.”

  “Aren’t they brothers?”

  “Sure, but they’re nothing alike.” Rebecca pointed for me to sit on the edge of the bathtub, which I did. She tossed me a box of bandages and then turned on the sink faucet and ran a washcloth under the water. “Paul is seven years older than Sam, did you know that?”

  “No, I didn’t.” I wasn’t even sure I knew how old Sam was. He had to be at least sixteen if he’d been driving the car that night . . . I forced my thoughts away. I wasn’t sure I could process everything he’d told me about Alice and his friends, and now wasn’t the time to try. I remembered that Daniel had said that he’d known Sam at least eighteen months. Could it be we were the same age? Then why did Sam seem older than I was?

  Rebecca handed me the damp cloth and leaned against the sink. “Paul is nice, don’t get me wrong, but he’s so . . . focused, you know? Single-minded. Give him a goal and then get out of his way.”

  I picked at the torn corner of the bandage until I could peel the whole thing off. I winced as the gauze pulled away from the wound. “Sam can be pretty focused.” I thought about how he sometimes looked at me like he was trying to figure out where I belonged in the world. I was starting to wonder that myself.

  “Sure, but Sam has a different kind of focus. He’d rather make other people happy instead of himself.”

  “You don’t think Sam is happy?”

  She lifted her shoulders in a gesture that was both an answer and a dismissal at the same time. “Sam is who he is.” She glanced down at my leg. “That’s a pretty bad scrape. You might need to use two bandages.”

  I followed her advice and dabbed at my knee with the washcloth. “Why are you being so nice to me?” I asked as I fixed the new bandages to my leg. “I mean, you lost your job because of me. You and Paul and Will.”

  Rebecca shrugged, leaning closer to the mirror to check her lipstick. “Do you have any idea what it’s like to be around someone like that all day, every day? It drains the life right out of you.”

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