The hourglass door, p.4
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       The Hourglass Door, p.4

           Lisa Mangum
 

  I had to get away. Now.

  I whirled around and ran for the doors, crashing through them blindly.

  “Abby!” I heard Jason call my name, but the closing door cut his voice in two.

  I stumbled to a halt in the hallway, leaning against the cool metal lockers. I cradled the clipboard to my chest.

  Jason had followed me out. He caught up to me and touched my arm. Worry lines crossed his forehead. “Are you okay? You look a little—”

  “Can you wait here with me a minute, please? I don’t think I . . .”

  “Of course,” he said, gathering me in his arms. “As long as you need.”

  I listened to his steady heartbeat until I felt the heat subside from my cheeks. “I’m sorry,” I whispered.

  “What for?”

  I shrugged. I didn’t have to say anything more; Jason knew what I meant better than I did sometimes.

  “It’s okay, Abby. Dave may have been your first kiss,” he said with a rumbling laugh, “but you’ll be mine.”

  Annoyance flared as hot as my embarrassment. Sometimes Jason’s unfailing honesty was more than I could take.

  But then I tilted my head back to look at him. His face was as familiar to me as anything in my life. He hadn’t meant to be arrogant or annoying. He had meant to tell me how special he wanted our first kiss to be. It was sweet, really, in a clumsy way. I felt my negative emotions drain away as the moment stretched out between us.

  Ten-second rule, I thought distractedly, hope bubbling up in my chest. If he kisses me now, it’ll be close enough. It can count as my first kiss. I closed my eyes and held my breath.

  “Tomorrow,” Jason whispered and pressed a kiss to my forehead.

  The moment was over. Again.

  I let my head fall forward onto his chest and swallowed a sigh. Hadn’t we already been here today once before? Would this day never end?

  Jason hugged me around the shoulders. “You okay?”

  I nodded and stepped out of his embrace. “Thanks, Jas. Listen, I probably ought to get back. Rehearsal’s almost over and Dave will want my notes.”

  “Do you need a ride home?”

  “No, Valerie seems to think I won’t be able to survive another day without a pedicure. We’re supposed to go right after rehearsal.” I wiggled my toes inside my boots. Stupid, unlucky nail polish.

  “Okay,” Jason said, tapping my nose with his finger. “In case I don’t see you later—see you later.”

  I slipped back on stage, praying no one would notice me. Everyone did.

  My face hot, I scurried to Dave’s side. I shoved my clipboard at him, muttering something about the notes I’d written down, and was turning to leave when he caught my arm.

  “Abby, would you do me a favor?” Dave said. “I told Dante you’d get him all set up with a script, costume, schedule—the works. I’ll need him up to speed on the play by next week. We don’t have any time to waste. I know he’s just an extra, but even extras have to carry their weight in the show. I’m not having this production go down in flames because of a last-minute addition to the cast.”

  “Oh, okay,” I stuttered, looking across the stage to where Dante stood surrounded by a flock of giggling girls. Valerie said something to him and he laughed. Dante caught my eyes with his and I felt that same strange sensation of time slowing down between us. He seemed relaxed, but in that one drawn-out moment I could see how tense he was in the way he held his body, how carefully he kept his hands from touching anyone. I could see the strain of maintaining his control reflected in the frost-white rims of his eyes.

  “You’re the best,” Dave said, breaking the moment. “I knew I could count on you.”

  But long after Valerie and I had left rehearsal for the spa and our pedicures, I found myself thinking of the look in Dante’s eyes, wondering what it was that had made him so tense, so careful, so afraid.

  Chapter

  4

  The bowling alley was packed Friday night. Of course, since Willie’s Bowling Bonanza had only eight lanes, our group with four lanes (reservations made, but ultimately not necessary) essentially had the run of the place. Besides my family of four, Jason had his entire family of ten (though that included several aunts, uncles, and at least one first cousin). Add in Valerie and Natalie, her brother, Robert, the rest of the stage crew, and one of Hannah’s friends, and the party officially accounted for more than half of the people there.

  Mom and Cindy must have gone over earlier in the afternoon to prepare because when Jason and I walked through the front doors at five o’clock sharp to the claps and cheers of our family and friends, I thought the place looked like a party store had decided to hide a bowling alley among its streamers and balloons. Cindy had even hung up her homemade “Happy Birthday” banner, which had made an appearance at every birthday party for every member of either family for the last five years. The blue butcher paper was torn and the silver letters faded, but Cindy insisted a birthday just wasn’t a birthday without the banner.

  “Oh, look, it’s the birthday banner,” I said to Jason, rolling my eyes a little.

  But Jason grinned and swept his mom into a hug. “You found it! I thought we’d lost it after Kevin’s birthday.”

  Cindy patted her son on the back. “I pulled out all the stops for you, sweetie. You only turn seventeen once, you know.”

  Jason looked around at the decorations littering the bowling lanes. “Thanks, Mom, it’s just the way I like it.”

  “It’s just like last year,” I sighed under my breath.

  “What’s that, Abby?” Jason asked.

  I plastered a smile on my face and shook my head. “Nothing, Jas. Let’s go bowling!”

  ~

  “You, darling, are a better person than I am,” Valerie said as she sat down next to me at the empty scoring table for Lane 5. She held a plate of birthday cake and two forks in her hand.

  “Tell me something I don’t know,” I grinned, taking one of the forks and attacking a corner of the chocolate cake.

  She shook her head. “Every year you invite me to your birthday party and every year I come and every year it’s . . . this.” She waved her fork in random circles, encompassing the chaotic festivities around us, the crowd of parents and siblings and friends happily bowling and cheering each other on. “How can you stand it?”

  I shrugged, licking the frosting off my fork. “It’s not so bad, I guess. I never have to plan the party. I never have to worry about what to get Jason for his birthday. I never have to worry about anyone forgetting my birthday.” I ticked the points off on my fingers.

  “You always do the same thing. You always invite the same people. You always get the same presents.” Valerie listed her own points on her manicured nails.

  “Not true.” I nodded to the small pile of wrapped presents on the table behind Lane 1 where my parents were bowling with Hannah and her friend McKenna. “I don’t know what’s in that small gold box on the edge. Obviously, the flat pink box has a sweater from Aunt Marge—two sizes too big, but still, it’s the thought that counts. The square one with the ribbon is from Hannah. She’s trying to make me join the Cult of the Bront‘ Sisters, so my guess is it’ll be either a giant volume of collected works or an illustrated edition of Wuthering Heights. No, wait. Jane Eyre. And you can take that to the bank.” I grinned and ate another bite of cake.

  “That’s just what I mean. Where are the surprises in your life? Where is the unexpected hero arriving to sweep you off your feet and turn your world upside down?”

  A loud cheer went up from Lane 2 where Jason, Natalie, Robert, Cindy, and Jason’s brother Kevin were bowling. All ten pins were down and Jason had his hands raised in victory. Natalie squealed and hugged him tight.

  “Jason can be surprising,” I said, but it didn’t come out as convincing as I wanted it to. I didn’t look at Valerie; I could never slip a lie past Valerie.

  “Ah, yes. Jason is full of surprises. Let me guess. He’ll bowl a perfect 300 game
tonight. He’ll come over and kiss you on the forehead and say something like, ‘How’s my best girl?’ like you’re some kind of pet. He’ll get you what he always gets you for your birthday: a journal and a new pen, with a card that says, ‘May all your dreams come true.’ And then he’ll take you home tonight and kiss you on the doorstep for the first time”—Valerie swept the back of her hand to her forehead, feigning a swoon, and then dropped her hand and looked me square in the eyes—“but instead of the fireworks you’re expecting, Abby, it’ll just be a kiss. A perfect, textbook, unsurprising kiss.”

  I toyed with my fork, scraping the last of the frosting from the plate.

  “Jason’s a great guy, Abby, don’t get me wrong. He’s got a good heart and he’ll make some girl really happy. But let’s face it. He’s not making you happy. Ever since you guys switched from ‘being friends’ to ‘dating,’ you’ve lost something, Abby. You’ve lost the spark that kept you curious and daring and willing to branch out and try new things.”

  “I’m trying new things!”

  “Like what?”

  Like applying for Emery College, I thought. But I couldn’t tell Valerie that. Not yet. I didn’t want to jinx anything by saying it out loud. I pushed the empty plate away from me, worried that Valerie might be right.

  “All I’m saying, Abby, is you need to take a hard look at your life, at your dreams, and decide if this is what you really want. Now, before you run out of time.”

  “Can we talk about something else, please? This is my birthday party, you know.” I frowned. “Anyway, you already gave me a present, you don’t need to give me this dose of reality, too.”

  We watched Natalie bowl another frame, shaking her head and laughing as she scored two gutter balls in a row.

  “Is Natalie dating anyone right now?” Valerie asked me.

  I shrugged. “If she is, she hasn’t mentioned it to me. Why?”

  Valerie tapped her fingernails against the table. “I was thinking of setting her up on a date.”

  “Who with?”

  “The new guy—”

  “Dante?” I blurted. “You want to set her up with him?”

  “What? No, not him. I was thinking of the new guy who just transferred to my math class.” Valerie turned her piercing blue eyes on me. “But now why would you think of Dante Alexander so quickly? Has the Italian hunk been on your mind lately?”

  I blushed. “It’s not like that. Dave asked me to get him set up for the play, help him rehearse . . .” My voice trailed off as Valerie shook her head.

  “No, you can’t. Tell Dave to find someone else.”

  “What are you talking about?”

  Valerie cut a glance right and left. I almost laughed; I didn’t think anyone really did that outside of the movies. Valerie leaned close. “He’s dangerous, Abby.”

  “Dante?” I thought back to the end of Thursday’s rehearsal and the fear I had seen in his eyes. He hadn’t seemed particularly dangerous. In fact, he had seemed desperately in need of help.

  Valerie nodded. “He’s not really an exchange student from Italy at all. He’s from New York and he’s been living in Leo’s apartment above the Dungeon for the last year. I think Leo is his uncle or some other relative. Anyway, I heard he was in some kind of trouble with the law in New York. Abby—they say he killed someone.”

  “Are you insane? Where are you getting this?”

  Valerie sighed. “Honestly, Abby, it’s all over the school.”

  “He arrived yesterday.”

  “I know. And Amanda’s friend Ashlyn talked to James who heard it from Troy’s girlfriend, Melissa Cooper. As in Officer Cooper. As in her dad.”

  “I know who Melissa Cooper is,” I said. “It’s just gossip, Val. Besides, think about it: If Officer Cooper knows that Dante has been hiding from the law for the past year in the Dungeon, why doesn’t he just go over there and arrest him?”

  “He’s not ‘hiding from the law.’ He’s on probation or something like that. As long as he doesn’t commit any crimes, there’s nothing the police can do about it.”

  “But—killing someone?”

  Valerie shrugged and reached for her purse. “I’m just telling you what I heard.”

  “It’s nonsense.”

  “Just be careful around him, okay? Please? For your very bestest friend?” Valerie batted her eyelashes innocently.

  “Fine. I’ll be careful. But I still have to help him with the play. I’m the assistant director. It’s my job.”

  “Whatever. Here. I got you this.” Valerie slid an envelope across the table with my name written on it in her looping, swirling handwriting. “It’s a gift certificate to the spa.” She smiled at me brightly. “It’s like cash—only more restrictive.”

  I rolled my eyes. “Thanks, Val. You’re the best.”

  “Tell me something I don’t know, darling.”

  ~

  “How’s my best girl?” Jason asked, reaching over to squeeze my hand before shifting his truck into third gear.

  I shrugged, a flash of annoyance leaving a bitter taste in my mouth. “I’m okay.”

  “Really? You seem kind of quiet tonight.”

  It was after eleven; we’d been the last people out of the bowling alley and I was more than ready to go home.

  “Sorry. No, I’m fine. Just tired.”

  Jason smiled over at me. “Well, I hope you’re not too tired to open one more present.”

  I felt myself blush in the darkness. “You know you don’t have to get me anything.”

  “I know. But I wanted to.”

  He turned onto our street. I could see lights glowing from both my front porch and his. Great. Looked like we’d have an audience for this kiss. I swallowed a sigh and tried to muster up some excitement, but all I ended up with was a twinge of a headache behind my left eye and a deep weariness in my whole body.

  Jason pulled into my driveway and set the brake. He left the engine running, though, and the heater warmed up the truck’s cab to the point where I could take off my gloves. The porch light hinted at a glint of gold around my wrist. I had truly been surprised at the gold watch my parents had given me and I hadn’t taken it off all evening.

  Jason reached into the backseat where he had stored the box of my other presents. He fished out a small, square gift from between the sweater from Aunt Marge and the illustrated edition of Jane Eyre. He gave it to me with hands that shook a little.

  Some of my exhaustion vanished at the sight of Jason’s trembling hands; I was flattered that he would be nervous.

  I felt a swell of affection for him. Jason was a good guy—a good boyfriend. Valerie was wrong. Jason did make me happy. This kiss would be something special, something I would remember forever. It had to be.

  Smiling, my heart warm in my chest, I slid my finger under the envelope flap and pulled out the card. A pastel sunset covered the top half of the card. Soft waves lapped at a golden beach. Written in raised, flowing script were the words “Happy Birthday.” I opened the card and read the message inside: “May all your birthday wishes come true.” No inscription. No personalized note. Just Jason’s signature at the bottom.

  I quickly unwrapped the present. A journal and a pen.

  I felt my smile freeze on my face and my heart sink a little.

  “Do you like it?” Jason rubbed the back of his arm with his hand.

  “Y-yes,” I stammered. “It’s great. Thank you.”

  “I know I got you one last year, but I figured by now you’d have filled it up and might need a new one.”

  “It’s really nice. Thanks,” I said again, trying to inject some brightness into my voice. Didn’t Jason know by now that I liked to keep my journal electronically instead of handwriting it in a book?

  I coughed and swallowed hard. “I have something for you, too.” I reached into my coat pocket and pulled out a slim CD jewel case. “I hope you like it.” I had drawn “XVII 4 XVII” on the cover in dark blue ink and then written underneath it
in block letters: “Seventeen for Seventeen.”

  Jason flipped the case over to read the playlist. He frowned and immediately flipped it back to the front. He popped it open and looked at the unlabeled CD. “What’s on it?”

  “That’s the surprise,” I said smiling. “You’ll have to listen to it first. That way each song is like a mini-present you can unwrap . . .” My voice trailed off at the slightly panicked look on Jason’s face. “I’ll e-mail you the set list,” I sighed.

  “Thanks,” Jason said, his smile sincere. He popped out the CD from his truck’s player and slipped in the one I’d made for him. “What’s the first song?”

  “It’s a cover of ‘Time after Time’ by a singer named J. J. O’Hare. She’s from Ireland and has this great jazzy-bluesy voice. Valerie downloaded a bunch of her songs for me, and when I heard this cover I thought of you.”

  “Leave it to Valerie to find the weirdest music on the Web.”

  “It’s not weird,” I protested, stung. I didn’t mention that I had been the one to introduce Valerie to J. J. O’Hare’s music.

  “Hey, listen, I didn’t mean it like that. I’m sorry.”

  “It’s okay,” I said, looking out the window. A swirling snow had started to fall, soft and silent. The heat in the cab was stifling. I wanted to open the door and lie on my back in the dark and let the snow fall onto my face, but the clock on the dashboard warned me that it was almost midnight and I knew Jason had other plans. I knew he was going to kiss me before midnight no matter what.

  Sure enough, I heard Jason gently whisper my name. I felt his thumb stroking the back of my hand until I turned to look at him.

  His nervousness was back. So was my annoyance. This was so obviously not the right time for a kiss. He had missed the perfect opportunity yesterday—twice!—waiting for this moment and now it was all wrong. The mood was all wrong—my mood was all wrong—and I felt frustrated that Jason couldn’t see that, couldn’t feel that.

 

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