After hello, p.17
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       After Hello, p.17

           Lisa Mangum
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  I blinked. That wasn’t the question I was expecting. “We needed to give Lauren something for the tickets.”

  Sam kept his eyes on his hands. “True, but I had given that angel to her as a gift.”

  I felt an embarrassed heat rise up in my face. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

  “I hadn’t been in the city very long before I met Rebecca. She was new too, and I think we both felt a little out of place. She mentioned once that she wished she had a guardian angel to watch over her, so I found that pin for her.”

  “She didn’t say anything about that when we traded.”

  Sam waved away my words. “Remember what you said on the subway? That sometimes it’s okay to hold on to the good things?” He swept his gaze back over the city. “I guess part of me thought Rebecca would hold on to that pin as a good thing. That’s why I was surprised to see it in your hand. And then in Lauren’s. But I guess it meant more to me than it did to her.”

  I folded my arms across my chest, holding onto my elbows with both hands. “Do you want me to try to get it back?”

  The breeze ruffled Sam’s hair. “No. You traded it fair and square.” He lifted his face toward the dark sky, a small, slightly unsettled smile appearing on his lips. “You’ve sent it out into the world. Maybe it’ll come back to you at some point, but maybe not . . .” He looked at me directly, his brown eyes filled with shadows but reflecting pinpricks of light. “Yes, sometimes it’s okay to hold on to things. But sometimes it’s okay to let them go, too.”

  Chapter 32


  Letting go. It sounded so easy. He had even tried to make it easy, trading away whatever came across his path, but he knew that letting go of emotions and memories was something altogether different. Harder. He wasn’t sure he had mastered that yet.

  But after today, after Sara, he felt like he was getting closer.

  “You think I’m holding on to something I should be letting go of?” Sara asked, her crossed arms tightening like a shield. The angles of her body—shoulder, elbow, hip—sharpened, kept him at bay.

  Sam shrugged. “You tell me.”

  She was quiet for a long time. He stood next to her and they both stared across the city at the tallest building in New York.

  “You know,” he ventured into the quiet, “I’ve learned that sometimes you can only see what you want to see by changing where you stand. And standing somewhere unexpected can lead to unexpected discoveries.”

  She kept her gaze fixed on the buildings rising into the sky. After some time passed, she said, “He promised he was going to take me there today. After he signed the papers, we were going to celebrate by going to dinner and then to the top of the Empire State Building. ‘Just you and me—just like in the movies,’ he said. But that didn’t happen. Do you know what did happen?” She didn’t wait for Sam to respond. “We spent the whole day apart, and every time we talked today, we fought. The minute we were together again, we fought. We stood in Times Square and yelled at each other and screamed and said—” She shook her head once, sharply, as though physically forcing her thoughts in a new direction.

  Sam bit down on the inside of his cheek to keep himself quiet. He didn’t want to interrupt the flow of her words and risk her closing down instead of opening up.

  “So maybe it’s good that we’re here instead of there,” she said, nodding to the building across the way. “If he comes looking for me, he’ll go there. And I won’t be there.” Her voice held a dark note of pride and anger.

  “Do you think he’ll come looking for you?” Sam was keenly aware of the weight of his phone in his pocket. Should he suggest she call her dad, if only to let him know she was okay? Was she okay?

  “Not in a million years. Not after what he said. Not after what I said—”

  There was that sharp shake of her head again.

  “I didn’t think it was that much to ask, you know?” she said softly. “I know his business meeting was important, but I guess I thought he’d still be able to get away for lunch—or dinner. Or something. I thought we’d still be able to do a couple of sightseeing things. Explore the city.”

  “You did explore the city,” he said just as quietly.

  “With you.” She turned her back to the skyline. “But somehow I’m the bad guy for having fun today.”

  “Is that what he said?”

  “No, but it’s how I feel.”

  Sam took a chance. “What did he say?”

  “That he was worried about me. That he wanted to make sure I was safe. You know—basic dad stuff.”

  Sam took a bigger chance. “What did you say?”

  “During the fight or after?”

  “After.” Sam knew from experience the importance of what happened after. What you said—or didn’t say. What you did—or didn’t do.

  Sara looked down at her feet. Her long hair swept across her face like a curtain. Her body trembled, and her voice, when she finally spoke, was thin and high. “I said that if I had known what kind of man he really was, I would have left with Mom and I would never have come back either.”

  Sam sucked in his breath as though he’d been punched.

  “I know, right? Daughter of the Year award, right here. It’s no wonder he told me he’d need some time alone after I said that.”

  The wind gusted past them. A group of tourists wandered up, talking and pointing out landmarks. Their laughter was light and carefree, but the noise felt abrasive to Sam. He gently touched Sara’s arm and led her down the walkway toward an empty spot. She walked automatically, directionless, willing to be guided by his hand.

  “When did your mom leave?” he asked once they were alone again. Or as alone as they could be in the heart of a popular tourist spot.

  Sara’s mouth twisted. “When I was eight.”

  “Why did she leave?”

  A bitter laugh escaped. “You know, it took me half my life to summon up the courage to ask that question, and it took you, like, half a second.”

  “Do you know the answer?”

  “I do now.” She shuddered and looked away. “Dad told me. He told me everything.”

  “You don’t have to tell me,” Sam offered gently, remembering when Sara had said the same thing to him in Central Park.

  “Yes, I do. We traded—fair and square. You told me your story; I promised to tell you mine if you waited for me. You did. Now it’s my turn.”

  She drew in a deep breath. Sam waited, trying to ignore the itch in the soles of his feet that made him want to move, to walk—maybe even to run—away. But no. As much as it scared him, he knew he needed to hear Sara’s story. He needed to help her shoulder the burden of her past the same way she had helped him with his.

  “I was a love baby. That’s what Mom and Dad always said. They said that they loved each other so much that it couldn’t be contained in just the two of them, so it spilled over into me. For a long time I thought that was how babies were made. I imagined a hospital full of little empty baby shells and when they were filled up with enough love, they came alive and then the mom and dad took them home to be a family.”

  Sam smiled, but tried to keep it small.

  She caught him anyway and echoed his smile, though a bit self-consciously. “I know—I wasn’t the brightest kid growing up.”

  “At least you had an idea. When my parents gave me ‘the talk,’ it came out of nowhere. It was like they were speaking another language. I was horrified.”

  “How old were you?”

  Sam shook his head. “Not old enough, that’s all I can say.”

  Her shoulders relaxed, and she loosened the death grip she had on her arms, which was what he’d been hoping for.

  “We were a good family—at least, I thought we were. We did stuff together: vacations and parties and holidays. Dad was a businessman—suit and ties to work every day—and Mom worked in an accounting firm. She was great with numbers. One of my earliest memories is of being curled up on the couch next to Mom and watch
ing her do her math problems for work.”

  “I thought you said you weren’t very bright as a kid,” Sam said with just the hint of a tease in his voice.

  She let the comment slide, her eyes focused into the distance. “When Mom did her accounting, something special happened. She made math look like magic. I mean, where else can you take two different numbers and turn them into something else? Something bigger. And together they always seemed stronger than they were separately.”

  “Do you still think math is magic?” he asked. It was strange—he had spent all day with her, had opened up his heart a crack to her, but he still hardly knew her at all.

  “No. When Mom left, it was like she took the magic with her. No more addition—just subtraction and division.”

  Sam rolled his shoulders, feeling the weight of her words settle over him. He wanted to say something, change the subject, change the story, but this wasn’t something he could take and trade. This was something he needed to learn how to take—and keep.

  “I thought for sure she would come back.” Sara leaned as far over the wall as she could go, which wasn’t very far.

  Sam saw a nearby security guard take note of Sara and shift his weight as though preparing to come over if she needed help. Sam knew that when you invited people this close to the sky, you had to keep them safe and secure, and somehow keeping her safe had become his job for the day. He stepped closer to her, feeling oddly protective of Sara, and the guard relaxed.

  “Even though she had said good-bye, I honestly thought she would come back. I made up all these stories about where she was and why she left. Like, maybe she was just on a business trip. Dad took lots of those—all the time, to California, to computer conferences—and sometimes he took Mom with him. Sometimes we all went. But I remember wondering, if it was a business trip, why we all hadn’t gone with her.”

  It was easy for Sam to imagine an eight-year-old Sara, her face crinkling up with confusion and worry, her small fists hitting her hips in frustration. He’d seen her do the same thing more than once today.

  “Lots of nights, I waited up for her, thinking of all the places she might have gone. The store. The movies. I even dreamed that maybe she’d gone out to a ranch to pick out a pony for me. When she hadn’t come back by morning, I would ask Dad where she’d gone, but all he ever said was that she had gone somewhere she couldn’t hurt us anymore. I didn’t understand that at all. I mean, Mom had never hurt me. She was my mom. She loved me, right?”

  Sam knew it was a rhetorical question, but the raw pain in her voice compelled him to answer it anyway. “Of course she did.”

  Sara looked at him, those green eyes of hers cutting him like a laser. “‘Of course’? You make it sound so easy. So obvious. But I was eight. I wasn’t so sure. When you’re eight, all you have are questions. What if she left because of something I did? What if she left because I didn’t love her enough? What if she left because she didn’t love me enough?”

  “I’m sure that’s not why she left,” Sam started, but his words faltered under the heat of her stare.

  “I know that,” she said. “Now.” She took a deep breath. “She left because Dad told her to. And what’s more, he told her never to come back.”

  Chapter 33


  I couldn’t believe I had been able to say the words. Tonight, when Dad had finally, finally, explained to me the truth behind why Mom had left, it felt like all the words in the world had turned to dust and ash and bone. The lights from Times Square burned my eyes like fire. The noise roared in my ears like a train. My throat closed up and I feared I might never be able to speak or breathe again.

  “What?” Sam said, the lines of his face moving and shifting through horror to fear to disbelief.

  “I know,” I said. “I spent my whole life thinking that it was my mom’s choice to leave, and it wasn’t. She left because Dad told her to.” The idea still rattled through me, as if a rock had been tossed into a well but hadn’t hit bottom yet. I looked down the long slide of the building at the small flickers of lights below as cars and busses buzzed along the dark streets. It made me dizzy, but the spinning felt good, almost as though if I turned around long enough, or fast enough, I’d be able to change what was around me. Or, better yet, return to where I started, back before all of this happened.

  “Did he say why? I mean, he must have had a reason.”

  I looked at Sam, whose forehead was buckled with worry, and pulled back from the edge. I sat down and leaned against the stone wall. Pulling my knees to my chest, I locked my hands around my wrists. I hadn’t realized how much my fingers had been trembling until they stopped.

  Sam sank down next to me, folding his long legs under him, tailor-style. He swung his bag across his hips, tucking it low behind the small of his back so he could lean against the wall with me, side by side. But that left his hands unoccupied, and Sam, never one to stay still for long, tapped his fingers on his knee. I found his familiar fidgeting calming.

  I leaned my head down. Sam’s profile slanted in my vision, his image distorted where my eye pressed against my knee.

  “Dad’s reason for sending her away was so obvious, I probably should have guessed it a long time ago. She was cheating on him.”

  Sam’s eyebrows rose, but he didn’t say anything.

  “The summer before my seventh birthday, Mom stopped going to work. I thought it was because she wanted to spend more time at home with me—she even told me that was the reason—but tonight I found out that she was home because she’d been laid off from her job.”

  I closed my eyes, trying to remember what she had looked like the day she came home from work for the last time. Had she been crying? Was she mad? The only memory I had was how she’d sat down at the kitchen table and taken off her shoe, only to find the heel had split clean in half. I remembered how she had sat at the table for hours, the broken heel in her hand, crying.

  “Mom loved her job. She loved working and being a part of something important. Dad said he tried to tell her that being part of a family was important too, but I guess there was something in her that wasn’t happy at the thought of settling down, of being a stay-at-home mom.”

  Sam scratched at the side of his neck, but he didn’t interrupt.

  “Dad said he encouraged Mom to look for another job. He said he wanted her to be happy, and if working—even part-time—could give her that happiness, then that was a good thing.” I shook my head, remembering the look in Dad’s eyes when he told me this part of the story. The sorrow. The guilt. “So Mom started looking, checking the job listings online, signing up for networking sites. But I guess she had a hard time finding anything that was a good fit. The pay was too low, the commute was too far. There was always something. And then . . .” I trailed off. I didn’t want to say it. I couldn’t.

  “She found what she was looking for?” Sam offered, his voice hesitant, laced with fear.

  The knot in my stomach moved into my throat. “More like who she was looking for.”

  “The guy? The one she cheated on your dad with?”

  I unraveled the knot enough to speak. “I guess she met him on one of those online networking sites. They were both looking for the same kind of job and they would share tips and review each other’s resumes. I guess it got pretty serious pretty fast.” I swallowed. “The more time Mom spent looking for a job, the worse things got between her and Dad. And the worse things got between them, the more time Mom spent on the computer, looking for a job. And I guess, at some point, Mom stopped looking for a job and started looking for something else.”

  “A way out?” Sam suggested quietly. His hand reached for the dog tags around his neck, but he bypassed the chain and rubbed the back of his neck instead.

  “Something like that. I guess the relationship was mostly online, but Dad thinks she met the guy at least twice in person.”

  “He’s not sure?”

  “Mom said she was going out with friends, but by then Dad
had his suspicions. And then he found the proof, and that’s when they started fighting about it. A lot.”

  “What kind of proof?”

  “Internet history logs. Messages. E-mails. Dad knows everything there is to know about computers, but I guess, there at the end, Mom wasn’t trying very hard to keep it a secret anymore.”

  Sam looked down at his hands which were suddenly still on his legs. “Maybe she wanted to be found out. Secrets can be hard to hold on to.”

  “It’s hard to hold on to a family too.” I felt a small rock of rage harden in my chest, and I sat up straight. “But Dad didn’t even try. When he found out the truth, he didn’t fight for his wife, or his marriage, or for me—he just told her to go, and she left.” The rock turned jagged around the edges. The laugh that escaped my lips was bitter. “Of course, she didn’t fight either. Most divorces end with some kind of custody case, but she didn’t fight to keep me with her. I haven’t had any contact with her for more than eight years. The last thing she said to me was good-bye, and then she left, and she never came back. We’ve never talked about her until tonight. Not really. Dad doesn’t even know where she is anymore. It’s like she just vanished. It’s almost like she never existed.”

  Tears burned the rims of my eyes, the hot salt stinging like needles. My fingers dug into my wrists. The pain felt good, clean and honest.

  “I don’t know if I’m madder at my mom for being stupid and selfish and for cheating on my dad or at my dad for not trying to save our family. I always knew he was weak, but I didn’t know he was that weak. He just gave up and watched her walk away.”

  If I’d known what kind of man you really were, I’d have left with Mom. And I wouldn’t have come back either.

  The memory of my last words to my dad filled my mind like tar—hot and sticky and suffocating. But I wasn’t sorry I’d said them.

  My dad’s last words to me were “Then go.” I had a hard time imagining that he was sorry for those words either.

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