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Living out loud, p.1
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       Living Out Loud, p.1

           Staci Hart
Living Out Loud

  Table of Contents






  Sweet and Salty

  Come Sail Away

  Hearts On Fire

  The List

  Go On And Jump


  Wishes And Dreams

  White Knight

  That Motherfucker

  Practically Perfect

  Take What You Can Get

  Bigger Problems

  Some Magic

  Do vs. Feel

  Welcome to Hell

  All That Glitters

  Anywhere But Here

  Did He?

  Old Lies





  First and Last


  Also by Staci Hart

  About the Author

  Living Out Loud

  Staci Hart




  1. Arrival

  2. Mittens

  3. Sweet and Salty

  4. Come Sail Away

  5. Hearts On Fire

  6. The List

  7. Go On And Jump

  8. Alley-oop

  9. Wishes And Dreams

  10. White Knight

  11. That Motherfucker

  12. Practically Perfect

  13. Take What You Can Get

  14. Bigger Problems

  15. Some Magic

  16. Do vs. Feel

  17. Welcome to Hell

  18. All That Glitters

  19. Anywhere But Here

  20. Did He?

  21. Old Lies

  22. Heartbeats

  23. Waiting

  24. Yours

  25. Beholden

  26. First and Last

  27. Epilogue


  Also by Staci Hart

  About the Author

  Copyright © 2018 Staci Hart

  All rights reserved.

  No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Cover by Quirky Bird

  Photography by Perrywinkle Photography

  Editor: Jovana Shirley, Unforeseen Editing

  Proofreading: Love N Books


  To those who have survived the storm:

  Here’s to finding sunshine

  after the rain

  Happiness, not in another place but this place…

  not for another hour, but this hour.

  -Walt Whitman




  The first thing I recognized was the Chrysler Building.

  I think I noticed it because of how it shone, the sunlight setting it ablaze like a silver beacon in the midst of a maze of steel and glass. There was nothing else I could compare it to, certainly not anything I’d seen in Texas, and the truth was that I hadn’t been anywhere else.

  I reached for my little instant camera, adjusting the settings before aiming it at the city and clicking the button. It spat out the familiar white-framed photo, black in the center where the memory would appear.

  Meg’s mouth hung open, her eager ten-year-old eyes as big and wide as ping-pong balls as they bounced across the horizon.

  “Whoa,” she breathed. “It’s so…big. It takes up the whole sky.”

  My face was close enough to the window to feel my breath against my cheek when it rebounded off the glass, my own eyes as big as Meg’s as they did their best to drink in everything I saw like I’d been thirsty my whole life.

  “How many square miles is it?” Meg asked.

  “Let me look.”

  I reached for my phone, glancing at Mama. She was less impressed than Meg and me, the normally invisible lines between her brows and the corners of her mouth pronounced. For her, it was a homecoming, one that was as unwanted and unwelcome as it was absolutely necessary.

  My older sister, Elle’s, expression was unreadable, her hands on the steering wheel and gaze in front of her as she drove us toward the Lincoln Tunnel. The only betrayal of her sadness was reflected in the rearview mirror, buried in the depths of her eyes.

  I pulled up Wikipedia and read through the city’s statistics. “Manhattan itself is twenty-two square miles, and one-point-six million people live there.”

  “Whoa,” she said again, her breath fogging up the window. “How big is San Antonio?”

  A quick search and a brain-crushing second later, I said, “Four hundred sixty square miles and one-point-four million people.”

  “No way.” Her eyes were still on the horizon. “There aren’t any trees.”

  “Probably only in Central Park.”

  She frowned. “Can I climb them?”

  I offered a smile, but it was sad. “I don’t know, kiddo. We’ll find out.”

  Meg sat back in her seat and unfurled her map of Manhattan, marked with a red marker at places of her interest and blocking of sections of the city for a purpose unknown to me. She dug her old calculator out of her backpack and, lost in thought, began punching out numbers and jotting down notes in the corner of her map over the Bronx.

  There wasn’t much to see in Boerne, my little hometown just outside of San Antonio in the hot Texas Hill Country. It was beautiful in the way wild country was—with scrubby mesquite trees, rolling grasses the color of a sun-faded paper bag, and forests of oak with pine-lined spring rivers. The area boasted the only hills to speak of in the entire state. Those hills were rocky and craggy, the definition of untamed land, making it easy to think back a hundred years, two hundred years, and imagine what it was like to live on the frontier.

  But when you lived your whole life in a place like that—one untouched by time, one that never changed, even when you did, even when you lost the things you held most dear—it sometimes didn’t feel like enough. You could feel your insignificance in that sort of place.

  I was reminded of the time my family drove down to Galveston to go to the beach. I’d stood at the shore and dipped my hands in the gritty, silty sand, letting it slip through my fingers as I considered how small I was. I realized my life was just a single heartbeat in the life of the universe.

  The world was infinite, and I was not.

  You see, my heart was full of holes.

  The one I’d been born with destined me to a life indoors with my family, my books, and my music to keep me happy. It stopped me from running barefoot through the fields behind our house, like Meg. It prevented me from tubing down the river with the kids my age. It restricted me to a life of physical inactivity, so I put everything I could into occupying my heart and soul and mind instead.

  The hole in my heart where my father used to be wasn’t so easy to accept. People kept telling me I would survive his death just as I survived my physical condition—with patience and acceptance and that ever-marching time. Part of me believed them.

  The rest of me knew better.

  My only comfort was a vow I’d made from a pew in the tiny church somewhere far behind me; I would honor my father’s life by living mine.

  I thought I’d been doing just that. I’d read thousands of books. I’d spent even more time with my fingers on ivory piano keys. I’d visited every spot on the globe through Meg's voracious explorations with thanks to National Geographic and the internet. But as we drove into New York City, I realized I hadn’t seen or done anything at all.

  That would all change soon enough. I was eager and ardent, armed with a list of firsts to check off, diligently jotted in the notebook in my back pocket where it had been since Daddy died.

  Through the tunnel we went, under the Hudson, into the city. Meg and I were the only ones who spoke; the car had otherwise gone silent since the city came into view. She busied me with questions I could only answer with the help of the internet.

  When was the Lincoln Tunnel built? 1934. How did they build it? With enough difficulty that the lead engineer died of a heart attack at forty-one. What kind of metal is on top of the Chrysler Building? Non-rusting stainless steel.

  And on and on.

  Unlike the silent front seats, I was happy to fill the air with something, anything to separate us from the truth of our feelings, which followed us like a balloon nearly out of helium, hovering too close to the ground to be joyful.

  It took us an hour to get to the Upper East Side where my uncle lived, passing so many people, so many streets, so many buildings that the magnitude of the city set my mind spinning. Through Central Park we went, looping around Madison to Fifth Avenue, the park on one side and beautiful old buildings on the other.

  My heart skipped and skittered as Elle pulled to a stop in front of the building where we’d live now that we had no home.

  A doorman in a forest-green suit that matched the building’s awning smiled amiably, moving to open Elle’s door and mine at the same time.

  “Hello, ladies. Might you be the Daschles?”

  “Yes,” I said with a smile as I took his offered hand and stepped onto the curb.

  “Oh, good. Mrs. Jennings has been anxiously awaiting you. I think she’s called down a dozen times.”

  I laughed.

  “This hour.” He winked and snapped to attention, following Elle around the car to the trunk. “Name’s George,” he said, touching the bill of his hat with two fingers. “Oh, let me get that, Miss Daschle.”

  “Thank you.” Elle stepped back as he unfurled Mama’s wheelchair.

  Meg slid out of the seat and into my side, her lips together and hands twined, her eagerness gone so completely, it was as if it had never existed.

  George unloaded our suitcases as Elle helped Mama into her chair, but when he closed the trunk and I caught sight of Mama’s face, I found it touched with pride and pain and a smile that didn’t reach her eyes.

  He rolled all four of the suitcases to the door with the four of us in his wake. The elaborate foyer of the building was a landscape of marble and mirror and soft lights and glass fixtures, like a palace out of a fairy tale, lavish and rich and utterly alien.

  When we were in the elevator, George asked about the drive and what we’d seen. Elle dutifully answered him, but the rest of us were turned so inward, we weren’t listening. But when the elevator doors opened, we found ourselves in a tornado of chaos.

  The door in the entryway to the penthouse swung open, and half a dozen barking dogs bounded out, tails wagging and tongues lolling. Behind them was our aunt Susan, her cheeks high and flushed, hands clasped at her breasts. None of her attention was paid to the dogs as they jumped and licked and barked in a chorus.

  Meg knelt and threw her arms around a golden retriever’s neck, her smile wide and eyes shining. A little Maltese hopping around my feet was too sweet for words. I had to pick him up and let him lick my face.

  The comfort and joy I felt was immediate, second only to the hug our effervescent aunt gave me.

  “Oh, I’ve just been waiting for you all day. I’ve nearly driven myself mad. I think I fluffed the couch pillows a thousand times,” she cooed as she rocked me, holding me against her soft body.

  I felt like a child, warm and protected and right and good, and I found I couldn’t stop smiling or shake the feeling that I might also burst into tears.

  She leaned back, proudly looking me over before moving to my sisters. We were still half in the elevator, though Elle had managed to push Mama into the entryway.

  Susan greeted Mama last, kneeling in front of her with her eyes full of tears and a smile on her face.

  “Oh, Emily,” she said, holding Mama’s hands in hers.

  “Hello, Susan.” The words trembled. So did my heart.

  “I’m sorry. I’m just so sorry.”

  Mama didn’t answer, just looked down at their hands; her chin flexed as she nodded.

  “Well,” Susan said as she stood, not dwelling, not pressing, “I am so happy to see you, I can barely stand it. Come, come in. Let me show you around.” She ushered us in, the dogs running around our feet like a rolling ocean of fur.

  George put our suitcases inside, and with the tip of his hat, he left.

  “John!” Susan called. “John, they’re here!”

  My uncle walked in, tall and handsome with hair the color of graphite. His hands rested casually in his slacks pockets, and the smile on his face merrily crinkled his eyes. “Oh, I heard. I’m sure the whole building heard,” he said on a chuckle, stopping in front of us to look us over. “It’s only been a few weeks since the funeral, but it feels like ages.” He turned to Mama, kneeling like his wife had.

  “Thank you so much for this, John,” Mama said.

  “Please,” he offered gently, “I’ve been trying to help for years. I’m just glad you finally accepted.”

  We had no choice, Mama’s eyes said.

  He squeezed her hand and stood. “We’ve been hard at work getting your rooms ready. And by we, I mean Susan.”

  Susan laughed at that. “It’s true. My children are all grown and gone, and I find myself so very bored. Redecorating was a welcome distraction, and now, I’ll have your company to occupy me.” She pulled Meg into her side and smiled conspiratorially. “And I’ll have someone to eat cookie dough and ice cream with. Mr. Jennings hates sweets; can you imagine? I’m convinced he’s not human.”

  Meg smiled back, though her lips were together, her spirit muted.

  We followed Aunt Susan through the massive house, through rooms that felt rich without being overbearing or stuffy. The living room with its tall windows and grand molding, framing views of Central Park below. The library with every wall packed to the ceiling, which was so high, a ladder on a rail was necessary to reach the top shelf. A large room that seemed to have no purpose other than to house the grand piano. My heart ba-dumped at the sight of it, my fingers itching to brush the cool ivory keys, my ears perking with imaginings of the rich sound they would make.

  But Susan didn’t stop, just chattered on, sweeping us through the house. We met the cook and the maid, who both had friendly faces that wore warm smiles, though they said nothing. It was impossible to; Susan filled the air in her genial way, in the way you felt compelled to be silent and attend without frustration, as it seemed to come from her very heart.

  The bedrooms were on the other side of the house, she explained as I tried to grasp how a home of this beauty and magnitude existed at the top of a towering building.

  Our rooms lined a hallway that dead-ended, marking the end of the eternal space.

  Susan had repurposed and redecorated all the rooms with each of us in mind. Her cheeks rosy and face alight, she told us of the details and watched our expressions for our approval. And approval there was.

  Meg bounded into her room, her excitement found at last and bubbling out of her. A four-poster stood in the middle of the space with a beautiful old world map hanging over the head of the bed. One wall was lined with bookshelves, which seemed to be geared toward exploration, stacked with almanacs and National Geographic books, encyclopedias and atlases, books of discovery and adventure and mysteries of the world. Curios dotted the
room—antique globes, ships in bottles, compasses, and more. In the corner near the window stood a small table topped with a huge Victorian goldfish bowl with fat, goggle-eyed fish swimming inside.

  “Fish!” Meg gasped as she ran over to peer inside. “Have you named them?”

  Susan laughed. “That honor is all yours, my dear.” She motioned us on.

  Elle’s room was lovely—simple and practical and classic—with crisp white sheets and pillows and blankets in creams and grays of various textures—linen and velvet and silk—which gave the room a depth the inattentive eye might miss.

  And my room…well, it was, for lack of a better word, perfect.

  The ceilings in all the rooms were high—fourteen feet or more, if I had to guess—and in this room with its dove-gray walls against snowy white trim, they seemed even taller. The curtains pooled on the ground, the bedskirt made of chiffon whispered against the rug, and the bed itself was tall and piled high with decadent pillows. The quilt looked to be made of layers of lace, like a petticoat. A wardrobe against the wall was painted with a quiet branch, dotted with broad leaves and magnolia flowers with a little wren on one jutting crook.

  But the best part was the antique piano.

  I rushed over to the spinet, breathless as I opened it and laid my fingers on the keys, my heart thumping and hands tingling. It was too beautiful, too generous, too much. And I was overwhelmed with feeling—with my losses and pain and hope and gratitude. Tears fell, unashamed and unabashed, as I turned to my aunt.

  “Thank you,” I said on a whisper, the two simple words not nearly enough.

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