After hello, p.14
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       After Hello, p.14

           Lisa Mangum
 
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  He brushed past me, leaning down to step back into the apartment.

  I stood for one more moment on the landing, looking up at the sky above me and feeling the tingling spot on my body where our shoulders had touched.

  Chapter 26

  Sam

  Sam stepped into his bedroom, the phone already at his ear when he heard Sara climb back in through the window. As he listened to the ringing go unanswered on the other end, he pressed his back against the wall, grateful for the momentary isolation. It was a small apartment, and there were altogether too many people in it.

  Will and Jen were still on the couch, talking, and Paul had flipped on the TV, watching the news with a glazed expression. Rebecca was wiping down the kitchen counter. He reminded himself to thank her later for that as he closed the door to his room.

  The phone buzzed one more time in his ear, followed by a click as Vanessa’s voice mail picked up.

  “If you know who you’re callin’, then you know what to do,” her throaty voice purred on the recording.

  “Vanessa? Yeah, it’s Sam,” he said after the beep. He quickly explained about the Mardi Gras mask but didn’t go into detail about why he needed it. “Call me back if you get this message tonight, okay? Doesn’t matter what time. It’s important.”

  He hung up and shoved his phone back into his pocket. He scrubbed his hands through his hair.

  What was his problem? He thought back to that moment earlier in the day when he’d had the chance to walk away and didn’t. It was too late to go back and change that moment, so the only thing to do was to take his own advice and move forward.

  But he wasn’t sure moving forward with Sara was a good idea. He’d seen her face out on the landing, and when she’d asked him what he wanted, he’d heard her unspoken words.

  What did he want? It was the easiest—and the most complicated—question in the world. If he was being honest with himself, then, at that moment, standing there on the landing with Sara so close, there had been only one answer. And he knew she had seen it written all over his face.

  He should have taken that step forward—toward her—instead of away.

  But again, it was too late to go back and change it.

  Story of my life, he thought, a bitter taste in his mouth.

  Through the wall, he heard Sara say something, followed by Rebecca’s muted reply, and just the sound of her voice made him close his eyes, frustrated with himself. What was it about her that made him feel like he could say whatever was on his mind to her? And why did he suddenly have so much to say?

  Eighteen months he’d lived here with Paul. Eighteen months he’d worked in the city and wandered the streets, looking and searching and finding. He’d been from Battery Park to Washington Heights and all points in between. He’d met all kinds of people. But no one in all that time and in all those places had clicked with him the way Sara had.

  Was it because he knew that she was literally here today, gone tomorrow? Did knowing she was just passing through make it easier to trust her? Was he giving her bits of his story, his past, so that when she left, she would take them with her?

  He drew in a slow, deep breath. He pulled his hands away from his head, his face, and concentrated on stopping the trembling in his fingers. Don’t look back. Gotta keep moving.

  “Rebecca?” Sara’s voice was clear, close to the door to his room. “I just wanted to say thanks. For being so nice to me.”

  He cocked his head, listening, hating the lift he felt in his chest knowing she was just on the other side of the wall.

  “What’s this?” Rebecca’s voice wasn’t as close, but it was still as clear.

  “It’s a coupon for a free manicure at Knives and Nails. I know it’s not much, but . . .”

  “You don’t need to give me anything. Honest. I can’t take this.”

  “Then don’t take it,” Sara said. “Trade me for it.”

  Rebecca laughed. “Sam has you trading now?”

  Sam rolled from his back to his shoulder and pressed his ear closer to the wall.

  “Maybe.” Sara’s voice was a touch defiant.

  “I don’t think I have anything to trade. Well, wait—let me see . . .”

  Sam heard the faint sound of Rebecca rummaging in her purse, of keys clicking together.

  “Ah, here. What about this?” Rebecca asked.

  There was a brief pause, then Sara said, “You’re sure you want to trade that?”

  “For a free manicure at the best salon in the city? You bet.”

  “But it’s so pretty—”

  “It’s not really my style.”

  “Okay. If you’re sure. Thanks.”

  “You already said that,” Rebecca’s voice held a smile.

  “I still mean it,” Sara said.

  “Hey, Paul,” Rebecca called out. “Where did Sam go? He didn’t leave, did he?”

  Sam stepped back from the wall and ran his hand through his hair one more time. He opened the door and reentered the living room. “Nope, still here.”

  Sara hurriedly shoved something into the pocket of her jeans.

  He offered her a curious look, but she didn’t quite meet his eyes.

  “Good,” Rebecca said. “I didn’t want to leave without saying good-bye.” She leaned in and kissed Sam on the cheek. “Take care of your brother for me, okay?”

  Sam glanced at Paul, who had leaned back in his chair, his eyes closed and his hands folded on his chest. “I will.”

  “And take care of Sara, too. Make sure she gets home okay,” Rebecca continued, pulling Sara in for a quick hug. She leaned close and spoke in a mock-whisper. “And forget about Piper, sweetie. She’s not worth your time.”

  Sara’s eyes darted to Sam, and even though she said, “I know,” he saw in them the determination that she would finish the job.

  “Jen,” Rebecca called out, looping her purse over her shoulder. “It’s late. Let’s go.”

  Jen didn’t look up from where she and Will were kissing on the couch, but she waved a hand indicating that she would be happy to be left behind.

  Rebecca rolled her eyes. “Oh, for the love of—” She crossed to the couch and yanked the back of Will’s shirt. “She’ll call you tomorrow.”

  He coughed and rubbed at his throat. “Enough with the manhandling, Becky.”

  Rebecca swatted him on the back of his head. Jen laughed, and the two friends swept out of the apartment with a final wave at Sam.

  Will scooped up the remote from the coffee table and stretched out on the couch with a grin that would have made the Cheshire Cat jealous. “Well, aside from the whole losing-my-job thing, this turned out to be a pretty nice day.”

  Sara giggled behind her hand.

  Sam nudged her elbow with his. “Hey, so I had to leave a message at Vanessa’s. Do you want to wait for her to call back, or—”

  She shook her head. “I promised my dad I’d check in with him—in person—once I was done with dinner. I . . . I don’t suppose you want to come with me?” Her green eyes were bright with hope.

  “To meet your dad? That seems a little sudden.”

  She narrowed her eyes in mock anger. “No, not to meet my dad.”

  “What? You don’t think I’m good enough to meet your folks? Are you ashamed of me?”

  “Should I be?” she countered.

  “Not today.” He looked over at Will, who had kicked off his shoes and was flipping through channels on the TV. “Hey, Will? Sara and I need to run an errand. Keep an eye on Paul for me, okay?”

  Will waved the remote without breaking his gaze from the flickering lights. “Have fun. Don’t get arrested.”

  Sara giggled again as Sam led her back to the front door. He was careful to match his steps to hers, careful to keep some distance between them. He had let himself get too close too quickly. He reminded himself that she wasn’t going to be there in the morning. He still didn’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

  Sara detoured i
nto the bathroom to grab her bag and her sunglasses, and then, at the door, she paused, one hand on the doorknob, one hand on his arm.

  “Sam?” she said, and he felt that lift in his chest again at the sound of his name. “Thanks.”

  He nodded, not trusting himself to speak, not daring to look at her hand on his arm but acutely aware of it all the same.

  She smiled and slipped out the door into the hallway.

  He grabbed his bag from the hook by the door and slung it across his chest, like it was a shield that could protect him, before following her out.

  Chapter 27

  Sara

  “Are you sure we’re on the right subway?” I asked. I found the different colors and numbers and letters for the trains confusing and was glad Sam was still my guide; I wondered how long it had taken him to master the intertwining transportation system.

  “We are, if you still want to go to Times Square.” Sam and I sat facing each other along the row of seats that lined the wall of the train, our feet propped up on the middle seat between us, our toes and our knees almost touching.

  A handful of people were scattered in seats throughout the train, but most everyone else was listening to music or reading or sleeping. The bright fluorescent lights that ran down the center of the ceiling cast a brightness over us that felt harsh and artificial.

  “I don’t mind going to Times Square,” I said, absently folding and unfolding the frames of my sunglasses.

  “You mind seeing your dad.” Sam spun his subway metro card between his fingers.

  “I mind having to check in with my dad,” I clarified. “I told him on the phone I was okay. It’s like he only believes me when he wants to.”

  “Maybe he needs to see it to believe it,” Sam said with a shrug and a smile. “He’s your dad; he’ll always worry about you.”

  I grimaced. “He said that on the phone too.”

  “How’d his deal go? Did he say?”

  “Yeah, it’s all good. Signed, sealed, and delivered.”

  “You don’t sound that happy about it.”

  I flipped my sunglasses over in my hands, staring down at my reflection in the curved lenses. “No, I am, it’s just that his business took up so much of his time. It dominated everything. Some days it was all we talked about. When we bothered to talk at all, I mean.”

  Sam’s fingers tapped against the side of the seat. “Sounds like, now that it’s gone, you’ll have more time to spend together.”

  “That’s just it. Now that it’s gone, what are we going to talk about?” I looked out the darkened window. “What if we don’t have anything left to say? What if all we have is worry and silence and guilt?” I nudged his toe with mine. “It must be nice not to have your parents worry about you all the time.”

  “Are you kidding? All my parents do is worry about me.”

  “But they let you move to New York and stay with Paul.”

  “It was more like they were relieved when I said I wanted to move here and stay with Paul.”

  “They didn’t want you at home anymore?” My heart stung at the thought.

  “I didn’t want to be at home anymore.” Sam looked out the window at the passing black walls of the tunnel. “The worse things got at home, the more attractive the option of sending me away became. It’s why I worked so hard to graduate early. Everything changed after the accident—and not for the better. I had to get out of that life. I had to get away.”

  I curled my fingers around my sunglasses, hiding my reflection from sight. “How bad did it get?”

  Sam’s hand reached for his throat where the dog tags hung hidden beneath his shirt. “Bad.”

  I was quiet for a moment. An automated voice announced the next stop.

  “I hadn’t told anyone the truth about that night, you know,” Sam said, still staring out the window. A tiled wall appeared, the street name written in blue blocks and surrounded by green squares. “I wasn’t sure if Todd and Chris remembered what I had done, and there wasn’t exactly a good way to ask. Jeremy was still in the hospital, so . . . anyway, if I brought it up and they didn’t remember, then what could I possibly say? And if they did remember, then I didn’t want to risk bringing it up and making it worse. Besides, after a month or so, I figured if no one had said anything by then, they weren’t going to.”

  “You didn’t tell your parents?”

  He met my gaze, hard, and didn’t look away. “Would you?”

  I tried to imagine what it would be like to carry around a secret so big and so bad and not be able to tell anyone.

  People shuffled in and out of the train. The doors hissed closed, and we continued through the underground.

  “I think Todd and Chris remembered something—maybe not everything, but they started avoiding me. They still hung out together, and once Jeremy was out of the hospital, they would go see him, but never with me. I remember I saw them at the mall once, but before I could say anything, I saw them see me, and they ducked into the nearest store so they wouldn’t have to talk to me.”

  “Are you sure? Maybe they were—”

  “Somehow I doubt they were shopping the sales at the Baby Gap.”

  “Oh.” The walls slid by almost silently, the black flickering past like film. I looked down at my hands, picking at my fingernails. “That’s why you wanted to get away. Because it’s easier to be the one to leave instead of being the one left behind.”

  Sam didn’t say anything. Then he bumped my foot with his until I looked up at him. His eyes had lost the hard edge they had held and had softened in surprise. “Yeah,” he said. “It is.”

  I cleared my throat, hoping it would also clear my mind. Memories crowded in close: Mom and Dad singing together at my birthday party. Mom twirling, showing off a bright blue dress, her toenails painted to match. The sound of Dad mowing the lawn on a hot summer’s evening. The rumbling of the motor suddenly transformed into the grating sounds of arguing, yelling. I always thought the brittle silence that followed a fight was somehow worse than all the noise.

  My thoughts and emotions knocked against each other like rocks and flint. I didn’t know which one would be the spark that would ignite them all, but I could feel the pain coming.

  “You know, you never told me about the medallion on your chain,” I said, shoving my glasses into my bag. My fingers closed around my camera and I pulled it out almost on instinct.

  The understanding in Sam’s eyes just about undid me. Clearly, he knew a desperate evasion when he saw one. He didn’t call me on it, for which I was profoundly grateful, and instead he pulled the chain free from his shirt, separating out the circular medallion from the oval dog tags.

  “It’s St. Christopher,” he said reverently. “It was my grandpa’s. He wore it while he was in the Navy during World War II. He died almost five years ago and left it to me in his will.”

  “St. Christopher is supposed to be good luck for travelers, right?”

  Sam turned the metal circle over in his fingers before letting it drop to his chest, where it clanged against the dog tags. “Supposed to be.”

  I winced. Here I had been trying to avoid emotionally touchy subjects, and I’d blundered headlong back into the worst one possible.

  “I think it’s cool that you have something from your grandpa,” I tried, hoping to steer the conversation to safer ground. “What was he like?”

  “He was amazing. He loved to hunt and fish and hike in the mountains. He could speak four languages—well, he could curse in four languages, at least.” Sam tucked the medallion and the tags under his shirt again. “He was the one who taught me how to trade.”

  “He did a good job,” I said.

  Sam leaned his head against the window, his reflection only a sliver of a face in the shadows of the subway. His eyes were distant, his expression lost in thought.

  The shadow-Sam had darker hair, black holes where the eyes were supposed to be. The strap of his bag was a band of shadow bisecting his chest before tapering off in
to nothingness.

  I carefully and quietly lifted my camera, angling the lens through the narrow space between my knees and his, and pushed the button, grateful that the rumble and clack of the train was loud enough to cover the click.

  Checking the back screen, I caught my breath. The image that flashed past me was quiet and honest and strangely intimate. I felt like I really had stolen part of Sam’s soul. And there was a part of me that didn’t want to give it back.

  We rode in an unexpectedly comfortable silence for another stop.

  After a new group of people had boarded the train, I knocked his knee with mine. “Hey, can I ask you a question?”

  I waited until Sam roused himself from his thoughts and settled back against his seat.

  “Is there anything you wouldn’t trade away?”

  “No,” Sam said instantly. “Everything is on the table. Everything is up for grabs.”

  “Really?” I asked in suspicion and in surprise. “There’s nothing you would keep for yourself? What about St. Christopher? You’d trade him?”

  “It only has value because I say it does. If something came along that I thought had more value, I’d trade it.”

  I stared at him in disbelief. “You’d trade away part of your past, just like that?”

  He shrugged. “You’ve got to keep things moving. If leaving behind the past means you can have a better future, then, sure, why not?”

  Why not? I repeated to myself. The answer dropped on me without invitation: Because when all you have is the past, it’s hard to let it go.

  My mom had left when I was eight. I had lived more than half my life without her, but she was still there, present in my mind and my memories. Even today, when I had promised myself I wouldn’t think about her, I couldn’t seem to let her go. Yes, it had been bad—those days and weeks and months before she had left, and the days and weeks and months after she’d left—but before that, there had been some good as well. That was what I wanted to hold on to: the good memories of my past. Even if they sometimes felt more like a dream than reality.

  “You know,” I started slowly, wondering if Sam would believe what I was about to say. I wondered if I believed it. “Sometimes it’s okay to hold on to the good things—like your grandpa’s medallion—and not trade everything. Sometimes it’s okay to slow down and be still.”

 
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