After hello, p.7
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       After Hello, p.7

           Lisa Mangum
 
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  “Mm-hmm, I see, I see,” Daniel said, his dark eyes dancing. “’Cuz you’re all about helping the pretty girls in distress, aren’t you?”

  “You know it.” Sam rolled his eyes. “Listen, I need a favor.”

  “’Course you do. These days, you never stop by unless you’re on a job.”

  “That’s not fair.”

  “Doesn’t have to be fair—just has to be the truth. We’re in a church, my man. No lies allowed.”

  Sam blew out his breath. “I’m not in the mood for one of your guilt trips, Daniel.”

  “Then stop holding on to your guilt.”

  Sam had to turn away from the softness in Daniel’s voice. His eyes fell on Sara—all angles on the outside, but filled with quiet on the inside—and he had to look away from her as well.

  “Aw, hey, man, I’m sorry,” Daniel said, touching Sam’s shoulder. “I didn’t mean—”

  “It’s okay,” Sam said, shrugging off the touch. He heard the snap in his voice and shook his head. “It’s okay,” he said again, this time softer. “I know what you meant.”

  “We good?”

  “Yeah.” Sam shifted his bag. “Always.”

  “Good.” Daniel smiled. “Then tell me what this favor of yours is and how ol’ Danny boy can help.”

  Sam returned the smile, though it still felt a little brittle. “I’ll let Sara tell you the details.” He slapped Daniel on the back again and turned him toward the choir seats, hoping to regain some of that inside quiet that he’d felt once upon a time.

  Chapter 13

  Sara

  “This is a tricky one,” Daniel said, handing Piper’s head shot back to me. “And this is all you have to go on?”

  “Sam seemed to think you’d have some ideas that might help.” I risked a glance at Sam. I hadn’t been able to overhear his conversation with Daniel, but whatever they’d talked about had made Sam uncomfortable. A wall had come up around him that hadn’t been there before.

  “And if you don’t make it back with the goods, then Paul’s head will roll?” Daniel ran his palm over the top of his shaved head. “That’s brutal, man.”

  “My first thought was to see if you were finished with your sonata yet,” Sam said. He sat on the other side of Daniel but kept his eyes fixed on his boots.

  “My baby? Naw, I’m not done yet. Why—what did you want with it?” A cautious tone had entered Daniel’s voice.

  Sam tapped his fingers on his knee in a roundabout rhythm. “When Piper said she wanted something ethereal and original, I thought of your music first.”

  “You did?” Daniel’s face lit up at Sam’s compliment. His smile took years off his age. Not that he was old to begin with, but now he looked to be about fourteen or fifteen instead of the mid-twenties I suspected he really was.

  “I thought, if your sonata was done, we could make a copy of the score and frame it and give that to Piper.”

  Daniel’s eyebrows came together. “Oh, I don’t know about that. My music is personal. And my baby is shy—you know how art is.” He bumped his elbow with mine as though we shared a secret.

  I liked Daniel instantly.

  “You write music?” I asked.

  Daniel wiggled his long fingers. “Every day. You can’t play for as long as I have without the music in your soul demanding to be released.” He reached into his pocket and withdrew his phone. He touched a few buttons, and suddenly the screen was filled with staff lines and notes crowding together. “I’m still working on this one, but I think it’ll be my best one yet.”

  I took Daniel’s phone and scrolled through page after page of music. Partway through the last page, the notes stopped, but clearly Daniel had more he planned to write.

  “I wish I could do that,” I sighed.

  “Write music?” Daniel retrieved his phone and slipped it back into his pocket.

  I nodded.

  “You play at all?”

  I shrugged. “I used to play the piano—a little. Took lessons when I was a kid and everything.”

  “Why did you stop?” Daniel angled his body toward me, but I could see over his shoulder that Sam had sat up a little straighter as well.

  “I stopped because—” My words caught in my throat. Because my mom had been my teacher and when she left, she took the music with her. “Because I just did, I guess,” I finished, feeling lame. Heat encircled my neck. I ran my fingers over the camera in my lap, wishing I could delete a bad memory as easily I could delete a bad image.

  “And because you found something else you were good at?” Daniel suggested kindly.

  “What?” I looked up. “Oh, this? Yeah. I started taking pictures a while ago. It’s fun, and I am good at it.”

  “I bet. Here. Take a picture of us.” Daniel leaned in close to me. The scent of his cologne on his skin—something woodsy—mingled with the faint tang of fabric softener from his clothes was nice. “Cheese!” he said in preparation.

  Laughing quietly, I lifted my camera and angled it as best I could, hoping to catch both of us in the frame. The flash blinded me for a moment, and I rubbed my eyes, trying to ease the afterglow I still saw.

  “How’d we do?” Daniel asked. He left the camera attached to my wrist but turned it over to see the back screen. “Aw, that’s pretty good.”

  I leaned over the screen to see for myself. The picture was pretty good, considering that I had essentially shot it blind. We were both in the frame, but our foreheads seemed huge from the forced perspective angle. Daniel’s smile was wide and bright, and his dark skin looked like chocolate next to my tan. The top of Sam’s head rose up behind us like a slightly blurry ghost.

  I laughed. “Yeah, but I can do better. Here.” I adjusted some of the settings on my camera, then reached for Daniel’s hand and held it tight. I zoomed in and took another picture. When the image flashed on the back screen, I studied it, then turned the camera toward Daniel. “See? This is much better.”

  It was a shot of our hands clasping, but since his hand was much larger than mine and his fingers were longer than mine, my hand was almost completely lost in his. And since I had taken the picture in black and white, the contrast in our skin color was even more pronounced. But there was a gentleness in Daniel’s fingers as they were wrapped around mine that came through even in the picture.

  He whistled low. “You’re right. That is better. Hey, Sam, take a look at this.” He leaned back so Sam could take a peek, but Sam didn’t look at the camera; he looked at me as though he had to once again change where he placed me in the filing cabinet in his head.

  I cleared my throat and withdrew my hand from Daniel’s. I hadn’t done anything wrong; why did I feel like I had? I tried to shake off the feeling, but Sam wouldn’t stop looking at me.

  “You know what, Daniel, I just remembered,” Sam said, his voice curt. “Piper wants an original, so framing a copy of your sonata won’t cut it. You can keep your music all to yourself after all. I guess coming here was a bad idea.”

  “Don’t say that,” I said, saving the picture of our hands. “He didn’t mean that,” I said to Daniel. I leaned around to glare at Sam. “Tell him you didn’t mean that.”

  Daniel waved his hands in front of him as though washing away Sam’s insult and my words. “No, no, it’s okay. I understand.” He looked at me and touched the back of my hand. “I’m sorry I couldn’t help you more. But, here—” He turned my hand palm up and fished a pen out of his back pocket. He wrote down a name and an address on my hand. “Go see Aces. He’s always working on something new and original.”

  Sam muttered something under his breath, then stood up and walked across the aisle to the other side of the choir seats.

  “What’s his problem?” I asked Daniel. Even writing on my palm, Daniel had very meticulous handwriting.

  “For as long as I’ve known him, Sam has been trying to outrun his demons. But he can’t see the truth. His problems—they never sleep, never take a break. They’ll wear him down before
he can wear them out.”

  I studied Sam, trying to see him through Daniel’s eyes. He was still the same tall, lean boy I’d met earlier outside the bookstore, but now that I knew him a little better, I could see the fatigue in his shoulders. The ragged cuffs of his jeans. The scuffs on the heels of his boots. It was like Sam said: gotta keep moving. I wondered how long Sam had been moving. I wondered if he would ever feel like he could stop. And if he really believed that if he stopped, he would die.

  “How long have you known him?” I asked Daniel quietly.

  “About eighteen months. He showed up at the church one day, looking for all the world like the devil was on his shoulder, whispering in his ear.” Daniel slouched, stretching his arm around the back of my chair. “He’s better now—a little—but some days I wonder if he’s really getting better. Or if he’s just getting better at hiding it.”

  I nodded slowly. I knew how that felt. I had been a single exposed nerve after Mom had left; the smallest thing set me off. Dad learned to walk on eggshells around me or else suffer days on end of my wild crying. He wasn’t prepared to deal with that—not after the divorce—so he did his best to pretend like nothing was wrong. Eventually I followed suit, and eventually I stopped crying, and eventually we both learned to hide what we couldn’t bear to talk about.

  “Thanks for your help,” I said again. “And I didn’t get to tell you this before, but I really enjoyed your music.”

  Daniel ran his hand over his smooth, shaved head, eyes downcast with a hint of false modesty. “Thanks. When you find something you love, you just gotta share it, ya know.”

  I watched Sam take a few steps toward the massive altar at the front of the cathedral. “I know,” I said. But I wondered if I was really telling the truth, or if I was just getting better at hiding the lies.

  Chapter 14

  Sam

  He knew they were talking about him. He couldn’t hear their words, but he could hear the hissing whispers of his name as it passed between them.

  Coming here had been a mistake. He knew in his bones that it had been a mistake. But learning that Piper might fire his brother had added an unexpected danger to the day. If Paul lost his job, then Sam was out of luck too. No job meant no apartment meant no more living in New York. And Sam wasn’t ready to move back home—not now. Maybe not ever.

  He wondered which was the worse sign: that he felt like he needed help, or that Daniel had been the first place he had turned to for help. Daniel had been a good friend in those first bad days after Sam had arrived in New York, and Sam had found plenty of solace and peace sitting in the quiet of the cathedral, but things were different now. He didn’t need so much help anymore. He had figured things out and moved on.

  The metal dog tags burned with a cold fire beneath his shirt. He deliberately kept his hands at his side.

  He drew in a deep breath and held it, tasting the faintest trace of incense and smoke from the candles. He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to center himself, before he exhaled.

  “Sam?” Sara touched his arm. He flinched and she jumped. He hadn’t meant to react like that and he felt bad that he had startled her.

  “All done?” he asked, though he immediately berated himself for the stupid question. It had been his idea to come here. Stupid all the way around.

  “Daniel suggested we talk to someone named Aces. He said you would know him.” Her voice rose up at the end, but hesitantly, as though she didn’t want to burden him with too many questions.

  “I do know him. We probably should have gone there first.”

  “I don’t know . . .” Sara looked around at the giant golden cross, the towering candelabras, the small arched hallways leading away from the altar in orderly spokes. “I’m glad we came here. I’m glad I got to see this.”

  He looked at her sharply, wondering if there was a double meaning to her words, but her gaze had traveled back down the length of the hallway and lifted toward the massive stained-glass circle above the bronze doorways.

  Daniel stood as they returned to the choir seats. “Always good to see you again,” he said, holding out his hand.

  Sam clasped it on instinct, gripping firmly, before Daniel surprised him by pulling him in for a rough embrace. “Hold on, my man. Things will get better. And this Sara-girl? She’s something special. I know you know what I’m talking about.”

  “Thanks,” he said, hating the scratch in his voice.

  “See you Sunday?” Daniel asked, releasing Sam and clapping him on the shoulder.

  “Maybe,” Sam said.

  “I’m going to pretend you said yes.” Daniel smiled, then extended his hand to Sara. “A pleasure to meet you, too. Wish I could have helped more.”

  Sara quirked her lips in an almost smile. “Well, there is something I wanted to ask you . . .” She dug in her shoulder bag and offered up a slightly crumpled pink sugar packet. “What will you trade me for this?”

  Daniel looked from the sugar packet to Sam to Sara. His laugh echoed in the high rafters of the cathedral. “Sam told you the secrets of his trading game, too? Man, girl, he must really like you.”

  This time it was Sam who turned red. He felt the heat of it in the back of his neck and along the tops of his ears. “Daniel—” he warned.

  But Sara just laughed too. “He hasn’t told me any secrets yet. Not really. I just thought I’d get a head start on the game.”

  “Good plan, good plan. Let me see what I have.” He dug in his pockets, but didn’t turn up much. His phone. A pen. His wallet. Thumbing through the contents of his wallet, Daniel suddenly stopped. “Aha! How’s this?”

  He handed Sara a slip of paper with the words “Good for One Free Manicure at any Knives and Nails salon.”

  “A gift certificate for a manicure?” she asked, turning the paper over in her hands as if there might be something printed on the other side. “Why do you even have this?”

  “How do you think I keep my hands looking so good? Besides, I need to take care of these babies; it’s how I make my living.” Daniel held up his fingers and wiggled them in her direction. “Call it an occupational requirement.”

  “But this doesn’t expire until the end of the year. Are you sure you don’t want to keep it? It seems like it’s worth more to you than the sugar packet.”

  “I thought all girls liked getting their nails done. And for free? That’s too good to pass up.”

  “But I—”

  “This is the part of the trade where you say thank you and move on,” Daniel mock-whispered.

  “Okay. Thanks,” Sara said. “I mean, really—thanks!”

  Daniel took the sugar packet from her hand and tucked it into his pocket. “You have a free manicure, and I have something sweet to remember you by. We both win.”

  “If you two are about done, we’ve gotta go,” Sam cut in. His hand was wrapped around the strap of his messenger bag so tightly that his knuckles had turned white. A familiar tingle had started in the bottoms of his feet. It was time to move. And fast.

  Sara giggled and rose up on her toes to brush a kiss against Daniel’s cheek. “Thanks again.”

  Grunting, Sam turned and headed for the main doors. He’d been wrong: it was past time to move. His lungs burned with the need for fresh air. Despite the wide open spaces of the cathedral, he felt like the stone bones of the building were closing in on him. He knew that if he didn’t get out under the wide blue sky, he’d be trapped forever.

  On the edge of his hearing, he could hear Sara quick-stepping along behind him.

  On the edge of his memory, a darkness stirred.

  “Don’t be a stranger,” Daniel called out after them.

  Sara caught up with Sam, a little out of breath. She brushed her hair back behind her ear. “That was rude. What’s your rush?”

  He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t breathe. The doors were coming closer with every step, but they still felt so far away. Too far. He was alone and afraid and the darkness in his memory was coming c
loser—too close—and he wasn’t going to make it—

  The doors crashed open beneath the force of his hands.

  He was through. He was safe.

  “Sam, are you okay?” Sara touched his arm and a zing of electricity passed through him, obliterating the darkness and grounding him back to the present.

  He drew in a long, shuddering breath and dragged the back of his wrist across his eyes. He managed to pull an “I’m fine” out of his throat.

  “No, you’re not,” Sara said flatly. “I—”

  A ripple of marimba music sounded, a repeating measure that announced an incoming call.

  “What now?” Sara muttered, letting go of Sam’s arm and digging into her bag. She grabbed her phone and held it up to her ear. “Dad? What’s up?” She pressed her free hand to her ear and turned away slightly, her shoulders raised like hackles.

  Sam concentrated on breathing—in and out—and pushing away the panic attack that had threatened to overcome him in the cathedral. It had been a long time since an attack had come on that strong, that fast.

  “Yes, Dad, everything’s fine.” Sara glanced at Sam as she said that, and he tried to reassure her with a smile. “Yes, I’ve been having a good time.” A pause. “I did have lunch, yes. . . . Now? I’m at St. John’s. . . . Yes, that’s the one.” She caught Sam’s eye and mouthed Sorry.

  He nodded and rolled his shoulders forward, then back. He almost felt back to being his normal self. At least, as normal as he ever felt.

  “Really? Still?” Sara sighed. “No, no, it’s okay. I understand. No, Dad—Dad—” Her voice took on a sharper tone; Sam looked up in concern. “Listen. It’s fine. I’m fine. I’ll just . . . see the sights. Have dinner somewhere. Whatever.” Her body tightened, her elbows jutting out like flared wings. “I don’t know what to tell you, Dad. Just . . . do what you have to do, okay?”

  She threw her phone back in her bag. Her wings fluttered and folded back on themselves. Her shoulders rounded under a weight Sam couldn’t see, but still shared all the same.

 
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