After hello, p.20
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       After Hello, p.20

           Lisa Mangum
 
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  I thought back to that moment when I had taken his picture. I smiled, thinking of all that had happened because I had chosen to follow him. Such a simple decision, almost impulsive, but it had changed everything. It had changed me.

  I reached up my arms, stretching my back, and ran my fingers through my hair. I could hear Vanessa and Sam talking about the mask they were working on. It sounded like they were making good progress, and I didn’t want to interrupt them. If we gave Piper the mask, then maybe these pictures could be for me.

  I bent to the task at hand, feeling the fire of creativity start to burn in my fingers, begging to be unleashed. I gave in and focused on the files in front of me. I tended to each one individually, running them through a gauntlet of Photoshop treatments. Check exposure. Balance color. Crop and straighten and tighten. Highlight. Polish.

  For the picture of my hand with Daniel, I pushed the black and white into even starker contrast.

  For the picture of the double-decker bus, I bumped up the red.

  The cathedral birds were softened until the leaves around them looked like a watercolor.

  I debated whether or not to crop out the slivers of Sam that kept appearing on the edges of my pictures. In the end, though, I decided to keep them all. He was too important to the story to pretend he hadn’t been there.

  The individual pictures prepped and ready, I turned my attention to assembling them into a collage.

  First I centered the picture of Sam at the bookstore. I wanted the eye to be drawn to him right away. Then I replicated the picture of the same shot—sans Sam—and surrounded the center photo with a ring of identical images. I rotated and layered the images so they looked as though Sam was walking into a tunnel where three distinct branches broke off and led him in three different directions.

  One path led him to St. John’s Cathedral and the black-and-white picture of my hand in Daniel’s.

  One path led him toward Central Park, past two birds that sat close enough to share secrets, their wings feather-light against the green.

  One path led him to Top of the Rock and a view of the city I had fallen in love with. That path also led to the two pictures Sam had taken: the one of me sleeping, and the only one that showed us together.

  Along the way, I scattered in the pictures I had taken of movement, of transportation: the bus, the subway, the man walking through twenty-four identically framed pictures.

  For the background, I zoomed in on some of the details of my photographs, washing them out into gray and silver and turning the recognizable images into repeating shapes and patterns.

  I worked without stopping. My back ached from sitting hunched over the keyboard; my eyes stung from staring at the screen.

  The low murmur of Sam and Vanessa’s voices reached me, but they weren’t loud enough for me to make out individual words or phrases. I thought I heard my name, but I couldn’t be sure. I didn’t care; I needed to finish the collage. I needed it to be perfect.

  I weighed all the options Photoshop offered. I tried new techniques I’d never used before. I placed pictures together, only to move them when I realized they would look better here, look stronger like this. I moved on instinct. I made decisions with confidence. I knew what I wanted it to look like when I was done, and somehow I knew exactly what to do to make it happen.

  Eventually, the voices behind me grew quiet and I risked a glance over my shoulder. Sam was stretched out on Vanessa’s couch, his arm over his eyes, his breathing deep and even. I wondered how long he’d been asleep. I realized I didn’t have any idea what time it was.

  Vanessa remained at her worktable, a pair of tweezers in her hand and a box of sequins at her elbow. She looked up and met my eyes.

  “Finished?”

  “Almost.” I yawned, feeling the fingers of fatigue coaxing me toward exhaustion.

  “Happy?”

  I glanced at the file on the screen. A sense of peace settled over me. “Yeah,” I said. “I am.”

  “That’s good.” Vanessa set down her tools and dusted her hands together. “What can I do to help?”

  “Can you help me print this off? There are a few other things I’d like to add, but I’ll need to do it on a flat surface.”

  Vanessa stood and stretched. She glided over to the computer and studied what I had done.

  She was quiet for so long, my heart started hammering in my chest. I felt like it was good, but Vanessa was a real artist. What if she didn’t like it? What if she didn’t understand it?

  She set her hand on my shoulder and squeezed.

  I looked up at her, surprised to see tears in her eyes.

  “I see the muses have been singing to you tonight,” she said.

  “Do you really think it’s good?”

  “I think it’s amazing.” She selected a few commands, and the printer on the floor clicked and hummed into life.

  The paper was slightly warm when it finally emerged from the printer. The collage looked even better enlarged and on paper than it had on the monitor screen. I helped Vanessa clear away the dishes, and she helped me spread out the print on the kitchen table. I stood back, trying to see it from a different perspective. It looked like a real work of art.

  But it wasn’t quite done.

  Reaching for my bag that was still on the floor under the chair, I asked Vanessa if she had some glue I could borrow. And a black marker. And maybe one of the feathers she’d selected for the Mardi Gras mask.

  When she returned with the supplies, I withdrew from my bag the red beads I had received from Aces and the small branch I had taken from the tree in Central Park.

  Pressing a drop of glue next to the picture of the birds, I added the leaves to the paper, smoothing them down and overlapping them against the birds’ wings so that it looked like they were really tucked into a tree.

  “Very nice,” Vanessa murmured from behind me.

  I moved the glue to the picture of the New York skyline. At every point where there was a glow of red light against the black, I dabbed a spot of glue and added a red bead in its place. When I was done and the glue had dried, the effect was exactly what I wanted. The lamplight reflected off the beads; not only did it make the picture glitter like it was infused with real lights, but it also gave the image a three-dimensional texture.

  Aces was right, I thought. The answer is passion.

  I picked up the black marker and carefully traced the faded handwriting on my palm—the directions from Daniel that had taken Sam and me to Central Park. And to Sam’s story about Alice.

  With the ink still damp, I pressed my hand against the paper in a blank spot next to the picture of Sam on the subway. Aces. Cathedral Parkway 110th Street station. The letters were imprinted backwards, and not all of them transferred cleanly, but I liked the effect.

  I placed a white feather along the bottom edge of the collage.

  There was one item left to add.

  I stepped to the narrow kitchen counter and picked up Sam’s discarded pink sugar packet. It was crumpled along the edges and the top was ripped off, but I didn’t mind. In fact, the texture it added was perfect.

  I could feel the thin line of granules of sugar still caught in the bottom of the packet, and that made me happy. It was almost like Sam had left a few wishes inside just for me, a few sweet treats that could be traded for something even sweeter.

  I glued the packet to the collage next to the single picture of me and Sam. The placement felt right, and, as I stepped back, I knew in my heart that it was done.

  “What are you going to call it?” Vanessa asked.

  I clicked the lid of the pen in my hand, thinking. After a moment, I leaned down and wrote in the open space along the bottom edge of the picture near the feather: After Hello. Then I signed my name with today’s date.

  Vanessa and I looked at my creation for a long time in silence.

  Finally, I touched the edge of the collage with the tips of my fingers and spoke. “Do you like it?”

 
It doesn’t matter what I think,” Vanessa said. She moved her dark eyes from the picture to me. “You didn’t make this for me. You made this for you.”

  She was right. I had poured my heart into the pictures. It was my whole day spread out before me—it felt like my whole life—and I shook my head.

  “I made it for Sam, too,” I said quietly. “I couldn’t have done any of this without him.”

  I glanced over at the couch where Sam still slept, one arm propped over his eyes. Spending the day with him had been amazing. He had taught me how to see the world around me with new eyes, and how to trade. And together we had learned how to keep, and how to embrace letting go.

  I returned my gaze to the collage, letting my eyes travel over the pictures and remembering every moment of this unforgettable day.

  “I have to say good-bye to it, though. I have to give it away.” It hurt to say the words, but the longer I looked at the collage, the more certain I was of what I needed to do.

  “Are you really going to give it to Piper?” Vanessa’s gentle voice just about undid me.

  I felt a catch in my throat, but I said the word anyway. “Yes.”

  “Even though she couldn’t possibly appreciate it the way you do—or the way Sam would?”

  “Yes,” I said again.

  “Why?”

  “Because I promised Piper I would find something amazing for her. Because saving Paul and Sam requires a sacrifice, and Sam taught me that sacrifice means giving up more so that the other person can get what they need. And Piper needs this more than I do. I have it all in here.” I touched my chest right above my heart. “And maybe, if I give this to Piper, she’ll feel some of what I have felt today. And that would be a good thing to give her.”

  Vanessa brushed at her eyes with the edge of her sleeve before wrapping her arms around me in a hug.

  I drew in a shivering breath, feeling like both crying and laughing at the same time. “I guess I won’t be needing the mask after all. I’m sorry you went to all the trouble to make it.”

  “Ah, but art and trouble go hand in hand. If you cannot be troubled to create art from your heart, than your art will never trouble the hearts of others.” She stepped to the worktable and returned with the finished mask in hand.

  The mask was designed to cover the forehead, eyes, and nose and was a marvel of color and texture. The sides curved upward into points that ended in shimmering golden ribbons. Strands of beautiful red beads and clear crystals were woven between the green feathers that lined the entire rim of the mask. One pure white feather rose up behind the right eyehole.

  “Oh,” I gasped. “It’s beautiful.”

  “It’s yours,” Vanessa said, setting it on the table in front of me.

  “Oh, no, I couldn’t take this. You worked so hard on it. You should keep it or sell it or—”

  “Give it to you,” she finished. “If you are going to trade away an original work of art, then you should have something original to replace it. That seems only fair, wouldn’t you agree?”

  I wanted the mask, I couldn’t deny it, but when I reached for it, I found myself hesitating. “Are you sure?”

  In answer, Vanessa selected a black box from off a nearby shelf, placed the mask inside, wrapped it with a bright white ribbon, and handed it to me. “The muses are sure.”

  Chapter 38

  Sam

  Sam woke in time to see the sunrise through the wall of windows in Vanessa’s studio. As he watched, the stars seemed to fade behind a screen of sky that gently turned from gray to blue. He could see a few scattered clouds, just faint white lines above the rooftops. The room was still and quiet.

  He blinked and rubbed at his eyes. He checked the time on his phone: 5:43. Sitting up, he yawned. He felt like he could have used a few more hours’ sleep, but at least he no longer felt beaten down with exhaustion. The last thing he remembered was Sara still sitting at the computer and Vanessa working on the Mardi Gras mask and the clock ticking closer to 3:00 a.m. At some point Vanessa had ordered him to bed, an order he had reluctantly obeyed. He felt bad that he’d fallen asleep while everyone else had stayed up, but it had been a long day.

  And being the first one asleep meant that he was the first one up, which had its perks.

  He padded past the four-poster bed, being careful not to wake Vanessa or Sara, who were both still asleep, and headed to the small kitchen corner. He had intended to forage for breakfast—maybe some toast or cereal—when the large frame resting on the table caught his attention.

  He slowed his steps, then stopped, then dropped into the chair. This must have been what Sara had been working on all night. He couldn’t look away. Not that he wanted to. The collage was interesting and intricate. Beautiful. It was strange to see his face in so many pictures and in so many places, but he had to admit, the overall effect was impressive.

  He followed the different paths in the pictures to the different destinations, wondering if his life had always had so many options and if he had simply been blind to them until now. He couldn’t help but notice how many of the pathways ended up with a picture of Sara.

  The buzz from Sara’s phone sounded loud in the quiet room.

  She had left her bag next to the framed picture on the table. A black box with a white ribbon had been shoved inside, and her phone was balanced on the lip of the bag, threatening to fall out.

  Sam snagged it and checked the incoming text. As he suspected, it was from her dad.

  Sara? Where are you?

  Sam could sense the worry and fear in those four words. Then he noticed that the same message had been sent every ten minutes since five o’clock.

  He had promised Sara’s dad that he would bring her home. It was time to make good on his word. Part of him felt guilty using Sara’s phone without her permission, but he couldn’t let her dad worry in the dark forever.

  Hey. This is Sam. We’re at my friend’s place in SoHo. On our way to TS soon. Need to make one stop first, OK?

  The reply appeared so fast Sam knew Sara’s dad must have been waiting by the phone.

  Sara’s okay? She’s safe?

  Yes.

  She’s coming home?

  Yes.

  When?

  Soon. Sam didn’t want to commit to a time. He wasn’t sure how long it would take to arrange a meeting with Piper.

  Sam expected another instant question, but when there was a slight delay, he wondered if Sara’s dad had said all he was going to say. Then the next text appeared, and Sam understood the hesitation.

  Has she forgiven me?

  Now it was Sam’s turn to hesitate. He didn’t know the answer and he didn’t dare bluff and say yes, even though he knew that was what Sara’s dad wanted to hear.

  His thumb hovered over the keypad, then he quickly typed the safest message he could manage.

  We’ll be there soon.

  There was another pause, then two more texts in quick succession.

  Okay.

  But our flight leaves at noon.

  Sam blew out his breath. That changed things. JFK was always busy—figure two hours at the airport, plus at least an hour to get there. Add in the time it would take to get from SoHo to Times Square—twenty minutes; no, better make it thirty—and that left approximately two and a half hours to meet up with Piper at the Plaza and get Sara back to her hotel with enough time to make her flight with her dad.

  And that was assuming they left right now.

  Sam glanced over his shoulder. Sara stirred in her sleep, her hand rubbing at her nose.

  He didn’t want to wake her—she’d been up all night—but it looked like he didn’t have much choice. The familiar demand for urgency stirred inside him, erasing any lingering weariness he felt.

  Got it, he texted, then set the phone back in Sara’s bag.

  Even though he was acutely aware of the time slipping away, he couldn’t help but spend a few minutes studying Sara’s picture. He’d never seen anything quite like it. He supposed i
t was possible that Sara had saved the file on Vanessa’s computer, but even if she printed out another copy, it wouldn’t be the same. It would be close, but it wouldn’t have the green leaves, the red beads, the white feather. It wouldn’t have Sara’s fingerprints—literally—on the canvas. It wouldn’t be infused with her memories or her life the way this one was.

  He brushed his fingers over the last picture he’d taken—the one of the two of them together—then traced the path back to the center picture, the one of him outside the bookstore.

  As he leaned over the table, his silver chain slipped free and swung from his neck. The rising sunlight caught the flat surface of the engraved dog tags and made them shine. He caught them in his hand and ran his thumb over the names. He had worn them for so long as his own private burden of guilt and secret shame. But Sara had taught him that letting go was sometimes as important as holding on.

  With a swift pull, he yanked on the chain, feeling it snap. The ends slithered free. He separated the tags from the St. Christopher medallion and weighed them in his palm, considering his options, choosing the path he wanted to take.

  Reaching for his messenger bag, he placed the tags into a small zippered pocket so he wouldn’t lose them. Letting go didn’t mean throwing away, after all.

  Glancing back at Sara, still sleeping, he rolled the circular medallion between his fingers, thinking deeper, longer. Then, reaching for the half-empty bottle of glue that stood by the picture, he added the token of St. Christopher to a small white spot next to the center picture, pressing down hard to make sure it wouldn’t slip or fall off.

  He liked how it looked. What’s more, he liked how it made him feel.

  Chapter 39

  Sara

  “I can’t believe you did that,” I said, tracing the medallion with my finger.

  The taxi slowed for a red light, and Sam reached out to brace himself against the front seat.

  “I can’t believe you did everything else,” he said. “I’m amazed you finished it all in one night.”

 
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