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When I'm Gone
Author's note: Actually, my friends all inspired this story. I feel like everyone is searching for their one true love and this is a story that shows, that anybody can find it.
I heaved the black duffel bag onto the window sill and let out a sigh. A slight breeze blew through the window, caressing the back of my neck. I shuddered involuntarily. It was unseasonably cool for this spring night in Georgia.
Suddenly, my dad’s snores ceased and I froze one leg already over the sill. I heard them start up again and I released a long breath. I eased my leg back in and shoved the bag out of the window. It landed with a soft thump on top of the other bags already on the grass below.
I let myself have one last look at my room. The full moon outside cast shadows against the bare white walls. A lone mobile hanging above my bed twirled as the wind hit it. My closet door was open, showing me bare shelves and an empty clothes rack. My darkened grey eyes landed on my bed. The sheets were made and propped up against my pillow was a small piece of paper. I recalled carefully writing the letter, wanting my brother to find it first. Now, it sat on my bed, waiting to be read.
Before I could stop it, a tear slid down my bruised cheek. Soon, more followed and I choked back a sob. Scowling, I angrily wiped the tears on my face, wincing as I touched my swollen eye. I could feel it throbbing with pain as I took my hand away. It’s been a few hours; it has to be turned black and blue now, I thought bitterly.
I jumped out of the window and for a minute it felt as if I could fly. I landed softly on my pile of duffel bags. Scooping them up, I ran towards the black car idled at the corner of the street. I could hear muffled rap music coming from inside and when I opened the door, it poured out onto the streets. Eminem. I could faintly remember seeing him in a concert a few months ago.
“Can you turn that crap down? You’re gonna wake up my dad,” I called inside. I threw my bags into the back seat and shut the door. I jumped in the passenger seat and wiped one last tear off my face.
“I still don’t see why you’re doing this,” said a familiar voice in the driver’s seat. I glanced over at my friend Natalie as she started driving. Her dark hair was pulled up in a messy bun and her usually radiant brown skin was pale and glistening with tears.
“Nat, I can’t stay here. It’s gotten worse,” I replied pointing to my eye. I watched silently as Nat’s grip on the steering wheel tightened, making her knuckles almost turn white. Her breath came in short bursts as she tried to calm down.
“You can stop it, Claire. Call the police.” Nat’s voice was clipped. I sighed and tried to push back the tears threatening to overflow down my cheeks.
“Then Alex and I will be separated. I can’t let them take my brother.”
Nat sighed in agreement and I turned away. Black streets passed by along with a few cars driving with us. After a few minutes of silence, I could finally see the airport ahead.
“I’m going to miss you.” Nat’s voice cracked and I could hear her sobs as she pulled into the line of cars waiting to reach the entrance.
When we finally got to the entrance Nat stopped and held her face in her hands. Her shoulders shook and I wanted to reach out and hug her. However, my flight left in two hours.
“I know. Same here,” I murmured as I slid out and grabbed my bags. I sat them on the sidewalk and looked into the rolled down window. Nat was staring straight ahead, but the tears were still flowing down her cheeks. “I love you Nat.”
I jumped back as she started to roll up the window.
“Love you too.” Came her muffled reply as she drove away. I stood on the sidewalk for a few minutes, thinking that Natalie would turn around and come back to give me a hug, like a real goodbye. I soon gave it up and gathered up my bags once more.
The tears started to flow freely as I took a last glance at the city lights. The skyscrapers lit up downtown and I felt a small smile grace my lips.
“Happy birthday to me,” I said as I walked into the building.
Smiling, I pushed a lock of my cinnamon colored hair behind my ear. I slid the key into the door and unlocked it. Pushing it open, I let out a happy sigh. The hallway led to a large, open living room and kitchen. I rolled the rest of my boxes in and set them in the living room. I placed my hands on my hips and surveyed the room.
The walls were bare and waiting to be painted on. The apartment came with the necessary furniture, such as a sofa, an armchair, and a coffee table. Each bedroom had a bed, side table, and a dresser. I couldn’t wait to start decorating.
“This is so cool,” a voice exclaimed behind me. I jumped and rolled my eyes. I still couldn’t get used to the idea of my brother living with me. I turned towards him and smiled. His dark brown-almost black-hair was getting longer; it hung below his brow, almost into his eyes. I made a mental note to get his hair cut before school started. His green eyes were brightened and his smile lit up the room.
“Isn’t it?” I laughed and spun in a quick circle. “It’s hard to believe that we are actually here. That I actually have a well-paying job.”
“You were always a hard worker, sis,” he said softly. I grinned at him and for once, saw my face in his.
People always asked how we could be brother and sister. Alex had dark hair, green eyes, and olive skin while I had cinnamon hair, grey eyes, and tanned skin. Alex was the quiet one, while I was more outgoing. Sometimes, I would find myself wondering if he was switched with another baby at the hospital. But the blood work proved that he was my brother and I would never feel differently about him.
“Thanks, bud,” I laughed and tousled his hair. “Now we need to get to work. School starts in a few weeks and I would like to be settled in by that time.”
“Okay, let’s do it,” he stated and started hauling boxes into one of the bedrooms. I followed suit and soon every box was separated into the room in went with. We started in Alex’s room and got most of the boxes unpacked.
“You have a lot of junk,” I breathed as I fell onto his bed. He did the same and took in a breath.
“I know. But, I can’t seem to get rid of any of it,” he muttered. Laughing, I sat up and glanced around the room. Drawings were scattered all over the floor along with clothes, shoes, and his art supplies.
“It does look like a boy’s room,” I commented. Alex chuckled and gave me a shove. I shoved him back.
“Now, let’s do your room,” he said quickly and pulled me to my feet. I followed him into my bedroom and walked over to one of the boxes marked “High School Memories.” Opening it, I coughed as dust flew into my nose. I could hear Alex rummaging in a box across the room. I picked up the yearbooks and slid them onto the bookshelf I had bought for my room. Soon, the shelves were filling up with the books from my teenage and college years. As I was setting a picture of Natalie and me on one of the shelves, I heard Alex gasp. At first I ignored it, but then I heard him trying to smother his laughter.
“Um, Claire?” he called out. I turned around and saw him holding up a ragged-looking bear by the arm. “What is this?”
I hopped up and reached out for it. Alex held it away from me, laughing.
“Is this ‘Beary’?” he asked. I winced as I heard the bear’s name. I kept trying to pry it out of Alex’s hands.
“Yes, now give it to me,” I shot back.
“Why do you still have him?”
“I’m very sentimental,” I replied and got a hold of the bear’s leg. I got it out of Alex’s grip and cuddled it against my face. The rough fur scratched my cheek but I didn’t care.
“Weirdo,” coughed Alex. I shoot him a look, but he just laughs.
“Thank you Alex, for making fun of my childhood,” I said sarcastically. “This was the only thing that I could hold after dad......after he hit me.”
Alex got silent as I held my bear. When I looked up at him, his body had gone rigid and he was clenching and unclenching his fists. He was breathing low and hard, the gusts of air ending at a sharp note.
“Alex,” I said softly. When he didn’t answer, my voice became urgent. “Alexander.”
“I can’t believe he did that to us,” he said through clenched teeth. I walked over to him and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder.
A memory came to me in a flash. Alex had knocked on the door of my old apartment, with day old scratches on his arms and face and a swollen eye. At first, I was shocked to see this boy at my door step and then when I figured out it was Alex, I cried. I was ecstatic to see him, but I couldn’t believe what our dad had done to him. I had taken him in immediately and let him live with me. It wasn’t until a few months ago that I had gotten the idea of getting a larger apartment for both of us to live in.
“Alex, it’s okay. We are away from him. He can’t find us,” I soothed and rubbed my hand against his back. Silent shudders rippled through his body, but he wasn’t crying. I had never seen my brother cry once.
“I just hate that he is getting away with it.” Alex’s body went rigid again and he turned towards me. I could see fire glinting in his green eyes. He was still angry.
“Well, we can’t do anything about it, unless you want to get sent away,” I warned him. He nodded in agreement and then shrugged out of my touch.
“Let’s finish your room,” he whispered and started unpacking boxes again. I set my bear on my bed and went to finish putting up pictures. I could feel that bear watching me; just as I was watching Alex, waiting for him to crack. We made it through my room and he never did. Even though I knew he never cried, I was still surprised that he made it for a few hours with breaking down.
When we left my room, my dresser was filled with my clothes, my bookshelf was complete, my bed had sheets, and my closet was close to being full. Only one box was left and I was hesitating to open it, just as I was hesitating to open it a few years ago when she sent it to me. As I turned off the light and closed the door, I could still see the words on the box. They were branded in my mind, even though I didn’t want them there. Throughout the time we were unpacking boxes in the living room and kitchen, I couldn’t shake those words. I winced every time I thought about them. The words, “Family pictures-with mom.”
“Let’s go out to dinner,” Alex announced suddenly, sitting up on the couch. Smirking, I looked up at him from my position on the arm chair. His green eyes bored into my grey ones and we sat like that for a few minutes. I was the one who broke the stare.
“Let’s do it,” I agreed and leaped out of the chair. I slipped on my Chucks and took a look in the hallway mirror.
My hair looked as if it was windblown and my eyeliner was smudged, giving it a dark, sexy look. I straightened my vintage tee and grabbed my purse from the kitchen counter. My brother was waiting by the door and when I saw him, I struggled to keep the laughter from bursting out of my lips.
Alex was wearing a white wife beater and jeans. You could distinctly see the blue and green dragon encircling his upper arm. His hair was styled with gel to make it look like a casual arrangement. He smiled at me with a question in his eyes.
“What’s wrong?” he asked innocently. I let out a laugh and pushed him back towards his room.
“Go put on an actual shirt,” I commanded. He shot me a glare over his shoulder.
“The ladies like a tattooed man,” he answered quickly. I giggled again and leaned against the front door. He returned with a light blue button down over his wife beater. The short sleeves gave some imaginations to the little sliver of color seen on his arm.
“Ladies also like a mystery.” I wrapped my arms around him in a hug and he chuckled. We finally made it outside and I locked the door behind us. We stumbled down the stairs, pushing each other around. When we reached the sidewalk, I turned towards my brother, a half grin on my face.
“Where do you want to go?” I inquired. Alex put on his thoughtful face with a smirk gracing his lips. I gasped. “Not…KFC?”
“Nice one sis,” he teased. “I wouldn’t put you or me through that. I work there enough throughout the week. I was thinking more of Brick Oven.”
“Brick Oven? What is that?” I was actually surprised that he knew of a place that I didn’t.
“A guy at work told me they had some of the best pizza you have ever tasted,” Alex said. He waved down a taxi and opened the door for me. I smiled and slid into the cab, cringing as the sticky seats touched my jeans.
“Brick Oven, please,” Alex told the driver. The guy nodded and drove off. I smiled; tonight was going to be great.
“That was amazing,” I moaned as we got into a cab. Darkness had fallen upon the city and the buildings lit up around us.
“Told you so,” Alex said and passed the leftover box to me. The pizza aroma rose to my nose and I took in a deep breath. The smell alone made my mouth water. Alex laughed at my expression and gave the taxi driver our address.
“I can’t believe they cooked our pizza right in front of us. That was so cool,” I grinned again.
“The only complaint I have is about the size of the place. It was no bigger than a closet,” Alex burst out. I looked over at him. He was smiling, but his eyes told me he was annoyed.
“It was still good,” I reminded him. He nodded and we were both silent for a few minutes. I watched the cars pass by and found myself missing Atlanta. I shook the thought out of my head and grimaced.
“Do you hear that?” Alex asked suddenly. We were quiet again and I could faintly hear the sounds of a siren. “It sounds like a firetruck.”
Right after he said that, the rancid smell of smoke reached my nose and I coughed.
“Roll up your window Alex,” I commanded. He did as he was told and I turned to my left, where bright lights were flashing.
The building was consumed in flames. Windows were shattering and the flames leapt out like giant flags. Smoke poured from every opening; thick, dark smoke. Faintly, I could hear screaming and crying. Frowning, I watched as a dozen firefighters or so ran from the firetruck, holding a large hose. Water shot out from the end and attempted at putting out the fire. My gaze focused on a tall man slipping on a helmet. The back of his firefighter’s coat was emblazoned with a large 38. The man ran inside after hooking on a bulky oxygen tank.
“Save that little child,” I found myself whispering as we passed by and the fire faded from sight.
Look at this puppy, I thought staring into the flags that waved across the sky, lighting up the street around us. The sirens were still loud in my ear, making my head ring. I felt a nudge against my arm and saw my buddy, Andrew, staring at me with his dark green eyes. He mouthed something to me and I shrugged, not understanding. He leaned in and I followed suit.
“It’s you turn,” he shouted above the noise. Even though I had been a firefighter for a few years, those words made my heart stop. My blood drained from my face and I looked back up at the building. I could now hear somebody screaming and crying from inside. I took in a breath and grabbed my helmet from where it sat on the truck. I stuffed it on my head, making a mental note to get my hair cut. The black strands were now hanging in front of my eyes, making it hard to see. I pushed them underneath the helmet and let Andrew put on my oxygen tank.
“Be right back,” I promised him and placed the mouth piece over my lips. I took one last look at Andrew who was smiling at me before turning back to the fire. I jogged inside and I could already feel the heat sinking through my protective overcoat. It was hot in there. Very hot.
“Help me!” A girl screamed. I focused my attention on the room to the left. I could see the wooden door, where a never ending pounding came from. I slowly walked through the debris around me and finally reached the door.
“Stand back,” I warned loudly. I heard some movements and stepped back a few feet. With all of my might, I ran into the door and winced as it fell from the weight of me. That was going to hurt in the morning. I looked around for a minute, taking in everything.
The dresser and desk were burnt to a crisp and I could see the bed started to beckon the flames towards it. Whimpers came from the other side of the bed and I walked towards it.
When I rounded the bed, my heart dropped and my breath left me. A small girl, around the age of 9, was curled in a ball on the floor. Her light blonde hair was singed black and I could see burns on her arm, rising to where her shoulder was exposed from her nightgown. She looked up at me with frightened blue eyes and I felt a tear race down my cheek.
Gently, I picked her up and cradled her in my arms. She pressed her face against my chest and I tightened my grip on her. I carefully found my way back outside and I could hear cheers from the onlookers.
“Angela! Oh, Angela!” a woman shouted from the crowd. She pushed her way through, saw her daughter in my arms, and started to weep. She found her way to me and threw her arms around my neck. I pulled the mouth piece of my face and smiled softly. The woman’s small body shuddered violently as she sobbed.
“It’s okay, mam. She is right here,” I soothed. The woman pulled back and looked up at me with admiration. “We just need to get her to the hospital. She has had severe burns to her arms.”
“Thank you. Thank you so much,” she said and lightly touched her daughter’s cheek, which was smudged with ashes.
“It was my pleasure.” Smiling at her, I led her to where an ambulance sat at the curb. I handed her to the medics, who strapped her on a gurney. Her mother turned to me again and I finally could see the resemblance between the two.
The mother’s light blonde hair hung right above her shoulders and her bright blue eyes shone with affection. She wasn’t very tall, but she was a cute petite. Her smile lit up her face and she had a dimple in the right cheek. All in all, she was pretty cute.
“Thanks again,” she said in a hoarse whisper. She laid her hand on my arm and left it there for a few seconds longer than a friendly touch. Her eyes held secrets that she wanted me to uncover. I pulled my arm away and nodded.
“It was my pleasure, mam,” I repeated and walked away. The ambulance sped off into the night and I was left with a burnt building that needed some serious cleaning. The outside was charred and I’m pretty sure the inside was irreplaceable.
“So what did the mother have to say?” Andrew elbowed me knowingly. I grimaced at him and his expression changed to bewilderment.
“She’s not my type,” I replied bitterly and turned away from him. I felt a strong hand on my shoulder and I sighed.
“Sorry man. I know you have been waiting for a while now,” Andrew said behind me. I spun on my heel, embarrassed about the water threatening to overflow in my eyes.
“When is it going to my turn? You are married with a gorgeous wife and two small girls. And here I am, at 27 years old, with nobody.” I clenched my mouth shut and wiped the tears from my eyes. I took in a ragged breath and pushed away from Andrew. I stormed to the truck and hopped in, waiting to be teased at by the other guys for my tears. None of them uttered a word and my anger began to leave me. Taking in another deep breath, I relaxed my shoulders and looked at Andrew, who was now sitting beside me.
“Michael,” he started. I put my hand up to stop him.
“It’s cool Andrew. I’m sorry I freaked out at you. I’m tired and want to get the heck away from here,” I interrupted and ran a hand through my hair. My hazel eyes swept the inside of the truck, pausing on each guy there. Most of them were already married with kids. Only a few of the rookies were single and care free.
“Why do you care so much Michael?” A rookie asked. I looked over at him, trying to remember his name. I noticed the name on his shirt and laughed silently at myself. His name was Seth.
“You know Seth, I really don’t know why I care. I mean, I might find somebody someday but I guess, it just isn’t my time. You rookies don’t have to care about it. Y’all are in your early twenty’s.” I winced when my southern drawl leapt from my lips. “Y’all can have fun without caring about a girlfriend or a wife.”
“Well, that isn’t entirely true,” Seth admitted. “I have a girlfriend at UCON right now. It is a pain to try and get together with her. But, we have made it for three years now. I planning to ask her to marry me this Christmas.”
Seth started to get pushed around by all the guys congratulating him. A few rookies booed playfully and gave him a thumbs down.
“Dang, Seth. You just proved me wrong,” I said, admiring him. He shrugged and even I could see the blush creeping up his neck. That caused him another round of teasing.
“It will all work Michael. Just wait and see.” Seth smiled at me and I grinned back.
Looking out the window, I frowned slightly as we passed the hospital. I thought of the little girl and the burns on her arms. She was going to have lifelong scars that would make her different than the rest of the kids. Without realizing it, a tear slipped down my face.
We rode in silence for a while and when we reached the station, it was already two in the morning. We piled out of the truck and rushed inside, waiting for the next call.
“Who wants breakfast?” I heard someone call out. I sat up groggily and looked at my surroundings. Beds were lined up in rows, sheets made and pillows propped up. I turned to my clock where the bright red numbers gleamed 8:29. Yawning, I stood up and stretched. With my eyes still closed, I reached out for the pole and slid down it, my stomach rumbling.
“I do,” I moaned and opened my eyes. I was standing in the kitchen where the guys were chowing down on some pancakes. I took in a breath and let the sickly sweet smell of syrup rush to me. I sighed in contentment and I heard Andrew laugh.
“Somebody’s hungry,” he commented. I shot a look at him.
“Somebody needs to shut up,” I shot back and grabbed a plate. I stacked three pancakes on it, four pieces of bacon, and a mountain of eggs. After drizzling syrup on my pancakes, I made my way to the table. I eased into my chair and dug into my breakfast. Andrew was right. I was hungry.
“Did you sleep well?” Andrew asked after I was more than halfway finished with my food. I cleared my throat and smiled.
“Actually, I did,” I replied and took another bite of bacon.
“He was dreaming about that hot blonde from last night,” Seth snickered. I glared at him and set my fork down. I took my plate to the sink and washed it off. Then, walking silently, I came up behind Seth. I was pleased as he jumped underneath my touch. Gripping his shoulder, I leaned down to his level.
“How about a little one-on-one in the gym?” I inquired, tightening my grip. Seth swallowed loudly and looked up at me. His usually shining eyes, had turned dark and frightened. “Or are you chicken?”
I mimed a squawking chicken and that’s all it took. Seth slammed down his fork and stood up. His head only came to my nose, but he had a look that could freeze anything.
“Let’s do it,” he agreed and gestured for me to go first. I did and I could hear the other guys whispering excitedly. It was like high school again, where the bully told you to meet him in the parking lot to fight.
We strode into the gym and I led the way to the mats. There were two guys going at it, but when they saw me, they backed away and left us the mats. I smiled wickedly and put on my gloves. Seth did the same and we stood on opposite sides of the mat.
“Boy, you messed with the wrong guy this morning,” somebody from the crowd warned Seth. Seth laughed quickly, but I could see the beads of sweat forming on his brow.
“I can take him,” Seth grumbled.
“Five on Michael,” I heard someone bet. Others chimed in and Andrew took in everybody’s money.
“Ready when you are pipsqueak,” I teased and crouched into a starting position. We circled each other for a minute, daring the other to make the first move. Seth was the one who tried to reach out first, just like I thought he would. He wasn’t that patient.
I dodged his hand and wrapped him in a quick headlock. His arms swung, looking for purchase. I pushed him onto the floor and straddled him. He was already breathing hard and struggled beneath me. Using the little strength he had, he pried an arm free and snapped it at my face. It hit right beneath my jaw and I jumped back, my head pounding. There were murmurs of surprise in the crowd.
“Give up yet?” I breath. Seth shook his head and drops of sweat flicked towards me. I ran for him and was able to bring him down again. I held his legs together with mine and locked his arms together. We were both breathing hard and I had sweat pouring down my brow. He glared up at me and tried to catch his breath.
“Uncle,” he said through clenched teeth. I stood up, cheerful and took a bow. Some of the guys whistled and clapped while others grumbled about Seth’s loss. Turning back to Seth, I offered my hand to him. He took it and I hauled him to his feet. He laughed and playfully punched my arm.
“Who’s the best?” I grabbed him in another headlock and ruffled his hair.
“You are,” he managed and I let him go. Still laughing, we were walking back to the kitchen when the bell started to ring. I looked at Seth and nodded.
“Let’s do this,” we said in unison and ran to get our clothes.
“I’m going to get my hair cut,” Alex called out. I glanced at my watch. It was only 8:29 in the morning. I giggled quietly and looked in the direction of Alex’s room.
“And do what?” I yelled back. I could hear Alex’s laughter from where I sat on the couch. I marked my place in my book I was reading and stood up. Alex came out, dressed in khaki’s and a tucked in polo. His hair was recently washed and it looked as if he had combed it.
“Going to breakfast,” he admitted. I smiled at him knowingly.
“This girl I met a yesterday while we were moving in. She lives in the floor below us,” Alex explained.
“Everybody lives below us. We live on the top floor of a three story building,” I reminded him. He chuckled and nodded.
“Well, she invited me to breakfast this morning and I agreed. Do I look okay?” His voice was strained, wanting my opinion.
“Yeah, but untuck that shirt. You aren’t going to a freaking country club,” I scolded. He did as I said and instantly looked cuter. “Okay, now you look better.”
“Thanks Claire.” he smiled at me.
“So, who is this girl?” I wrapped an arm around his shoulders and he chuckled.
“Her name is Emily and she is so pretty.”
“Yeah,” he had a dreamy look on his face and continued. “She has gorgeous blonde hair that is super long and straight. Her eyes are a shining green, like mine, and she has the cutest little smile. You would like her, Claire. In a way, she is a lot like you in her personality.”
“Really?” I asked, impressed. Alex nodded his head vigorously.
“She has a rebel-like feel to her. She wears skinny jeans and vintage tees. Yesterday, she was wearing the coolest fedora. It was black with a purple belt.” He looked lost in his memory of her.
“I wonder if I could borrow that from her,” I wondered aloud. Alex came back from his daydream abruptly and stared at me.
“No,” he stated. I pouted and gave him my puppy-dog eyes.
“Because it would be weird if you shared clothes with my ‘possible’ girlfriend,” he complained. I laughed and ruffled his hair.
“I’m just kidding Alex,” I said. He shot me a sarcastic look.
“I’m sure.” He looked at his watch and his eyes widened. “I have to go. She is meeting me in fifteen minutes.”
“Have fun. She would be a fool not to like you,” I called to him as he grabbed his cell phone. “I mean, you have a dragon tattoo and everything.”
“Haha. You are too funny.” He smiled at me. I gestured for him to go.
“Go. Now,” I commanded and pushed him towards the door.
“Love you sis,” he tossed over his shoulder as he left the apartment.
“They grow up so fast,” I laughed to myself. I sat back down and my phone began to ring. I flipped it open and saw a text from Alex.
“Looks like miss valostro burnt another pie.”
I laughed and went to open the door. I could faintly smell something burning and shrugged to myself. The old owners said that Miss Valostro burnt pies all the time. They said that the smell was awful but went away quickly. I sat back down and stuck my nose in my book again.
Thirty minutes later, the burnt smell was a lot stronger and I closed my book and set it on my table. Standing up, I put my shirt over my nose and looked at my front door. Black smoke was pouring through the top and entering the living room. My eyes widened with alarm and I coughed.
“Oh no,” I said aloud. “A fire in the building.”
I sank to me knees and crawled to the front door. I pressed the back of my palm to it, not feeling any heat. Taking my chances, I opened the door and looked out into the hallway. Smoke was coming from the floor below me and it entered through the stairway. Black smoke, thick as night, rolled towards me. Scared, I crawled back into my apartment and shut the door.
Sirens could be heard faintly and soon they got louder. In a few minutes, they were loud enough to be outside the building. I crawled back to the door and pressed the back of my hand to it. The wood was quickly heating up, and I was scared to open the door and see.
The smoke was entering my nose and it was getting harder to breath.
“The window,” I said to myself. With the little strength I had, I crawled to the window where I unlocked it and threw it open. The sirens were louder and people were shouting.
“Help me!” I cried out, my voice hoarse. I felt my strength leaving me. All I wanted to do right then was sleep. I wanted a good, long, and deep sleep that would take me forever to wake up from. “Help me! Help! I’m trapped.”
I had not noticed a fire escape anywhere on the building. I sank lower on the floor and had trouble breathing. I could hear people screaming for me, telling the fire fighters that there was a girl on the third floor and she needed help.
Then, there was a whirring noise close to my ears and I tried to keep my eyes open. Footsteps were climbing on something metal and them a loud thump made me snap my eyes open as wide as I could.
A large thing loomed over me and I tried to utter a cry of help. Nothing came out of my dry lips and I closed my eyes again. When I opened them again, the thing was right next to my face, talking to me. I could see a man’s handsome face, smeared with soot and smiling all the same. Why was he smiling? There was a mouthpiece that he took from his lips and placed over my own. Instantly, I breathed in a gust of oxygen.
“Don’t give up,” he screamed. “Stay awake for me.”
Why you? I wanted to ask. But, my brain wouldn’t function correctly. The man picked me up and cradled me in his strong arms. I squinted and saw a white 38 written on his yellow helmet. I tried to remember where I had seen that number before.
Everything was going into a black abyss, and that’s where I wanted to be and stay.
It wasn’t until after we pulled up, that we heard the screaming. It was hoarse and hard to hear over the sirens of the truck. I looked up at the top of the building, where a hand was trying to wave for attention.
“Help! I’m trapped!” She screamed again and her hand disappeared. There were frightened whispers in the crowd around us. I watched them point up at the now empty window and give each other a scared look.
“Save her,” somebody commanded us. “She is trapped up there and you guys are just standing around here.”
There were murmurs of agreement while the other men tried to desperately put out the raging fire.
Within minutes, Andrew had me on the lift, with my helmet fit snuggly around my head and the oxygen tank strapped to my back. It felt like years before I finally reached the window where the girl was. When we reached it, Andrew called my name from below. I looked down at him, trying not to think about the height.
“Go and do your thing,” he told me and gave thumbs up. I grinned and nodded before turning back to the window.
Carefully, I peered inside and a body to my right. I scrambled in, almost coughing because of the smoke.
“God,” I muttered and bent down to see better. When my eyes adjusted to the smoky room, I practically gasped. Lying before me was this beautiful girl who looked to be in her mid-twenty’s.
Her tanned skin stood out on the pale floor and I could see the soot clinging to her, making her look a tad darker than she really was. Her long arms and legs were both lithe and motionless.
Please, no, I thought as I bent lower towards her. I grabbed her wrist, barely noticing the music notes inked into her skin, and checked her pulse. It was there, shallow and slowing. I dug my fingers into my palm, stopping myself from reaching out to tuck a strand of her cinnamon-colored hair behind her ear.
Suddenly, when I was about to run a finger against her cheek, her eyes opened and I was staring into the most beautiful, unsettling pair of grey eyes I had ever seen. They watched me curiously, burying secrets deep beneath the surface. I knew then that I had to save that girl.
Thinking quickly, I placed my mask over her chapped lips and heard her suck in a breath. Relief washed through me and I smiled.
“Don’t give up,” I yelled to her over the sirens. “Stay awake for me.”
She opened her mouth as if to say something but then closed it, realizing she couldn’t. Her eyes closed slowly and red lights flashed before my eyes. Oh no. God, no.
“No! You will not leave!” I shouted mostly to myself and bent down to slide my arms under her lean, but tall body. “Hold on.”
I picked her up, surprised at her light weight, and cradled her against my chest. When I glanced at her face again, her eyes were locked intently on my helmet. I watched confusion turn to nervousness and back again.
Those grey eyes.
It took me another minute to tear my eyes away from hers. When she closed them again, all common sense rushed back to me. I had to get her out of there. Letting out a gruff sigh, I climbed back outside and into the metal box. As we were lowered to the ground, the crowd applauded me and I smiled.
After getting out of the box and back onto solid ground, I heard someone call out from the crowd.
“Claire! Oh, God! Claire!” A tall, lean boy emerged from the group of people, a blonde in tow behind him. He ran to the girl in my arms and tried not to cry. I removed the mask from her mouth, trying to let her breath normally. The boy ran a hand through his dark brown mop of hair and uttered a harsh sound. “Claire.”
The boy looked up at me with panic in his dark green eyes. I handed the girl to one of the paramedics and turned back to the boy.
“Is my sister....is she going....going...,” he broke off, trying to control his tears. For a minute, I wondered how those two could be related at all. Except for the tall and lean body, everything about them was different, even their skin tone. I placed a strong hand on his shoulder and lowered my eyes.
“She is going to be just fine,” I reassured him. He turned back to me and surprisingly, tears weren’t streaking his cheeks. “They are going to take her to the hospital for smoke inhalation. She passed out in the building.”
He nodded as if he understood and stumbled towards the ambulance. The blonde who was with him placed a tentative hand on his arm, but he pushed her away forcefully. Turning on her heel, she ran away from him, her hand wiping tears off her face.
I watched the ambulance drive away, Claire and her brother inside, when I started at a touch against my shoulder.
“Great job today, Michael,” Andrew congratulated me. I forced a smile and nodded my thanks.
When I finally turned to face him, I saw a curious look plastered onto his face. He studied me for a minute before the corners of his mouth lifted.
“What?” I asked, blush already climbing up my neck. Embarrassed, I cast my eyes down and looked at the street.
“I think somebody has a little crush,” Andrew sang in my ear. I coughed out a laugh and glanced at him.
“You wish,” I said under my breath.
“Michael, you don’t even know a thing about that woman,” Andrew reminded me. I nodded, thinking about his statement.
“True, but I want to get to know her,” I told him. We were quiet for a few minutes while I remembered Claire’s short hair, her small tattoo, and her stormy grey eyes.
“Do you think she could be the one?” Andrew asked, breaking the silence around us. Distantly, I could hear the hose being wrapped up, and the crowd dispersing.
“Honestly? I don’t know,” I admitted. “I mean, she was beautiful, Andrew. Right when I saw her, my heart dropped and I had trouble breathing. I have never seen anyone this beautiful in my life.”
“Okay,” Andrew pronounced the word slowly and studied me again. He contemplated my answer and nodded. “I can see what you mean.”
“Isn’t that what you felt when you saw Anna?” I wondered, referring to his wife.
“Actually, I hated her with a passion when we met. We always argued about something. But, she was pretty and I guess it’s true when they say opposites attract.”
“Then, all I have to do is go and talk to her, right?” I smiled wide.
“Well, I would be careful, Michael. I mean, you just rescued the girl. She could be in the hospital for a few weeks. Wait a few days, then go in and check on her.” Andrew scratched his head, leaving a black streak in his blonde hair from the soot.
“Thanks man,” I gave him a slap on the back and smiled again.
“Before you go all googly-eyed again, let’s check for a fire escape first, to make sure this building is safe.”
We walked around the building, until we found a small fire escape on the right. I pulled the ladder down and climbed up. Andrew followed behind me and we climbed to the third floor where Claire was.
“Would you look at that,” I murmured and nudged Andrew. The fire escape was next to the bathroom window and was hardly noticeable. I tried the window; it was unlocked. I threw it open, coughing when smoke streamed out.
When the smoke cleared, we climbed inside the window and decided to check her apartment.
Everything looked pretty good; it was just gray and smelled like smoke.
“It looks like all of her stuff is just fine. Nothing was burned,” Andrew said aloud to himself. “Michael?”
I found myself walking towards an open door to the left. I noticed a large ‘C’ painted on the wood and I ran a finger over the perfect calligraphy. Trying to stay quiet, I pushed open the door and smiled. Claire’s room.
It was about medium-sized, not too big and not too small. Her bed was covered in a plain black comforter and had a small, ragged bear propped up against the pillows. I almost laughed when I saw her bookshelf, filled from top to bottom with books. As I ran my finger across some of them, I noticed that they were mostly mysteries and romances.
There was barely any room for anything else. But, on the top shelf, sat dozens of pictures, all in simple black frames.
I picked up one of the pictures, intrigued by the girls in it. One of them was in a short sleeve tee and had long black hair that was in curls around her face. Her dark skin shone in the sunlight that was warming their faces.
The other girl was Claire. I noticed her grey eyes right away. Her smile lit up the picture and her eyes shone with, not happiness, but sadness. I frowned, but continued looking at the picture. Claire’s cinnamon hair was longer and had blue streaks in it. I could see three piercings in her ears and a diamond stud on her nose. She was wearing a tight vintage tee, showing off her curves. I longed to reach in and touch the skin around her hips. In the picture, she looked ten years younger and still beautiful all the same.
“What are you doing?” I spun around, the picture clutched to my chest and saw Andrew watching from the door. I set the picture on the shelf again and turned back to him.
“How long were you standing there?” I countered. He smiled softly and I relaxed.
“Long enough,” he answered and motioned with his hand for me to come. “We need to go.”
I followed him out of the door, catching a glimpse of a can of blue hair dye on her dresser top as we passed by.
I could feel my body convulsing violently. I opened my mouth to let out a scream but nothing came out. Suddenly, there were strong, tan arms constricting my own. I looked up into the handsome face of a man’s and drew in a breath. He smiled and I wanted to scream again. Frantically, I gazed into the man’s hazel eyes and watched as they shone with excitement.
“Shh,” he whispered, putting a finger to my lips. My eyes widened and I thrashed, trying to get free. His arms were iron fetters, making it impossible for me to move. His head bent down and he pressed his lips to my throat. I let out a cry and he looked up. His face was covered in soot.
“Agh!” I shouted as I sat up in bed. Sweat poured down my body and I took in deep breaths. A rapid beeping caught my attention and I looked to my left. Machines were lined up against the wall and lines showed my heartbeat and my breathing. I let out another breath and tried to slow my frantic heart.
It was just a dream, Claire. Just a dream, I told myself. A slight movement made me turn my head towards the chair in the corner of the room. A lanky body was curled up in what looked to be an uncomfortable position, sleeping. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see Alex’s black hair, newly cut, at the top of the chair.
Smiling, I laid back down and closed my eyes. The man’s face came back and branded itself in my mind.
I flicked my eyes open and saw that it was now light outside. I could hear the sounds of the city outside of the window. Panicked, I looked back to the chair, but nobody occupied it anymore. I cleared my throat and winced at the pain it brought me.
To my right, the door opened and a doctor walked in. She saw my eyes and smiled warmly. I shrunk back, wondering where I was.
“Well, look who’s awake this morning,” she greeted me. “Good morning, Claire.”
“Who are you?” I asked, my voice direct and demanding. The doctor laughed and walked to my side.
“I’m Dr. King,” she said. “Claire, you are in the hospital. Do you know why?”
“There was a fire in my apartment and I passed out,” I stated as if it was obvious. Dr. King smiled and nodded.
“Good job. Now, you inhaled a lot of smoke, so we took you in to treat your lungs. How is your throat?” she asked, changing the subject.
“It hurts,” I croaked, rubbing my neck.
“How much hurt?”
“It feels like I can’t swallow and it hurts to talk,” I answered. She nodded again and scribbled something on her clipboard she had brought with her. “Why is that?”
“Well, the smoke had dangerous chemicals in it and so your lungs reacted to it. Your throat will feel like this for a few days, but your lungs are all clean and ready to be used again.”
I stared at her, wondering if she was telling the truth, when Alex came in with a food tray. When he saw me, his eyes widened and his lips broke into a grin. He set the tray down, and ran over to me.
“Claire,” he murmured and hugged me. I laughed and hugged him back.
“I will leave you two alone,” Dr. King said and left quietly. I smiled at Alex and ran a hand through his hair.
“You got your hair cut,” I commented and he nodded.
“I went straight to the house after that. That’s when I saw you in the fire fighter’s arms. You scared me half to death, Claire,” he reprimanded me.
“I’m sorry,” I choked out. He smiled sadly and placed a hand on my shoulder.
“Don’t scare me like that ever again,” he told me.
“I promise,” I said and sat up a little more. I wanted to change the subject. “So, tell me about Emily. Did she like you?”
“Well,” he started. Instantly, I saw the hurt in his eyes and my heart dropped. “I couldn’t be with her. I told her to leave me alone.”
“What?” I asked, surprised. Usually, the girl was the one dumping him. “Why?”
“She was way too clingy,” he grimaced, “and she whined a lot. I had to push her away when she followed me all the way home.”
“Aw,” I said. “Well, if it makes you feel better, I won’t ask to borrow that fedora from her.”
Alex laughed and shook his head. He grabbed the food tray and set it in front of me. He opened it up and I could smell fried chicken, my favorite.
“God, you must be so hungry. You need to eat, sis,” he complained. I glanced at him.
“Why?” I was utterly confused. “I ate yesterday morning. I had cereal and a banana.”
“Claire, you have been out for three days now,” he said softly. I’m pretty sure my eyes widened as he said that.
“Are you serious?”
“No joke,” he said and placed his hand on his heart. “I promise you.”
“That’s crazy,” I admitted and took a bite of the roll. I grimaced as I tried to swallow it. “And you stayed here every day?”
“Well, I had to go and get us clothes from the apartment. They are in the closet,” he added glancing at my hospital gown. I scowled and he looked away.
“The apartment? How is it?” I asked nervously. Alex looked back at me, his eyes saddened.
“We have to move again, Claire.”
“No!” I interjected. “But, you brought us clothes. So it must be fine.”
“Oh, all of our possessions are fine. Great, even. It’s just that the bottom floors of the building are in ruins. Everything is burnt and they are going to have to remodel. I talked to the owner on the phone, yesterday. He was the one who suggested we move,” he explained. My heart started to sink lower and lower, until I thought it couldn’t drop anymore.
“Where are we going to go?” I cried, wiping a hand across my cheeks, streaking the tears. Alex sat down in the chair and put his head in his hands. Once again, I wondered if he was going to cry. Of course, he didn’t.
“I honestly don’t know, Claire,” he whispered in agony. “It took us over a month to just find that apartment for our budget. We start school in a week and a half. We need to find a place before that.”
“I know,” I said and held back a sob.
We sat in silence for an hour; me, eating my food, and him, staring at the floor. Finally, Alex looked over at me with anguish in his eyes.
“I guess we should start looking,” he stated and walked out of the door. I struggled, listening to his footsteps until I couldn’t hear them anymore. I collapsed back onto my pillow and saw a button to page a nurse. I pressed it, hoping that it worked.
A few minutes later, a sweet looking nurse came in and smiled at me. I took in her blonde hair pulled up in a pony tail and her light make-up that looked as if it was just applied, before looking back into her blue eyes.
“Do you need something Claire?” she asked in a light voice. I smiled.
“Could you help me get my bag? I want to change into some actual clothes,” I asked, pulling at the collar of my hospital gown. The nurse laughed and walked over to me.
“Sure,” she said and pulled one of the machines around the bed, towards me. I noticed the tubes hooked up to my wrist, where a large bruise was starting to form.
“The bag should be in the closet,” I told her, hoping I was right. She opened the door and I saw my blood red canvas tote on a shelf. “The red one.”
She gave it to me and I grabbed a pair of sweats and a black tank top. I stood up with the nurse’s arms around me, helping me balance. After a few steps, I was able to walk by myself and the nurse showed me the bathroom. She snapped a part of the tube off, so I could put my shirt on and I thanked her.
When I returned, the nurse was still there and she snapped the tub back on. She saw my grimace and shrugged.
“It sucks, but you need it,” she apologized and I smiled to let her know I was fine. I climbed back in my bed.
“Thanks,” I said and she smiled at me. After she left, Alex reentered and smiled when he noticed my new clothes.
“I knew you wouldn’t be able to stay in that gown for too long,” he said. I laughed and he handed me two of the five books he had brought in. They were realty magazines. When I looked up, he smiled sadly. “I thought we needed to get a head start.”
He went to sit back down in the chair and opened a magazine. I did the same and for the next few hours, we marked pages for possible apartments and even houses. When I was done, I leaned my head back on the pillows. I rang the button for the nurse and the same one reappeared, a smile softly gracing her lips.
“Could you get my brother a pillow and blanket please?” I questioned and ignored my brother who was shaking his head in denial.
“He said he doesn’t want one,” she said quietly. I laughed and shot a look at my brother. He glared at me.
“I’m the patient right?” I asked the nurse. She nodded carefully and I continued. “Than, I want him to have a pillow and blanket.”
“Okay,” she said and I smiled in victory. When she left, I turned to Alex.
“I hate you,” he said under his breath.
“You will love me when that pillow stops you from hurting your neck,” I giggled and smiled as the nurse brought in a pillow and blanket. She handed them to Alex, who took them politely and unfolded them.
“I love you,” he spat out sarcastically. Still giggling, I laid back down.
“I’m going to take a nap and I think you should too,” I stated pointedly. He glared at me from underneath his blanket, but within minutes, I heard him snoring softly. I settled into my own blankets and soon enough, I was drifting into a deep sleep.
I took in a deep breath, and tightened my hold on the bouquet of flowers I was holding. I glanced at the little note card written in Anna King’s loopy script. On it was Claire’s name and room number.
The elevators opened and I stepped inside looking for the correct floor number. I smiled, my eyes landing on a bright nine. I pressed it, and waited impatiently for the elevator to start rising.
“Come on,” I sighed gruffly, glancing at my watch. It was 11:36. I had 44 minutes.
The doors reopened on a new floor and I stepped outside. The faint smells of medications and latex drifted towards me and I looked down on the card again. Room 917.
“Do you need help sir?” a light voice asked me. I turned to my right and saw a pretty nurse watching me. She was wearing a slight, suggestive smile on her lips and her blue eyes bored into mine.
“No thanks,” I said and turned away. I started to walk down the hall, pausing every now and then to look at a sign.
After a few minutes, I finally found her room, decorated with a nine by eleven inch painting. As I walked closer, I could see that it was a collage of multiple things all hand painted on the rough canvas.
On the top right corner, a family was smiling and holding hands. The kids, an older sister and younger brother, looked nothing alike, but were smiling all the same. One of the girl’s hands was reaching down and soon faded away to where a picture of the mom from the happy family was walking away. The street turned into a large black heart, broken and poorly stitched up. I traced the outline of it, following one of the stitches into a large grey eye, dotted with silver and blue. The eye was crying and was wonderfully painted. I glanced down, looking for a signature, when to my own surprise, Claire’s name was written in gorgeous calligraphy in the corner.
“Hm,” I muttered to myself and tore my eyes away from the painting. I knocked on the door, low and tentative, hoping not to wake her.
When nobody answered, I pushed the door open and softly stepped inside. I heard the erratic beeping before anything else. I looked around the corner and saw Claire asleep in the bed, snoring lightly. My lips tugged upwards into a soft smile and I walked further inside.
To my left, was a table where I sat the bouquet down along with a short card that I had written the night before. I turned back around to face Claire.
Her lips were graced with a soft smile and even though her eyes were closed, I could still see that beautiful grey. Mournfully, I forced myself to not reach out to stroke her cheek. Her skin had a slight rosy glow to it, brightening her tan.
“Oh, Claire,” I whispered in anguish. I longed to hold her hands, to place my arms around her waist, to kiss those soft lips.
I turned away, aggravated. When I did, I noticed a sketchbook, lying on a small table next to her bed. I picked it up, surprised by the expensive leather that was covering it.
I sat down in the empty arm chair next to the window and opened it up. At first, there were only amateurish sketches; ones of dogs, cartoons, and household items. After flipping through the first twenty pages, I got to these drawings of this woman. They weren’t colored in but they were beautiful all the same.
The woman was tall, graceful. She had long dark hair, and according to the shading, bright, attentive eyes. She was always smiling and in almost every picture she was standing with her arms opened wide, inviting you to come to her.
After I got past the pictures of the woman, the sketches got more elaborate and better looking. I smiled, flipping through the pages of the sketchbook, realizing that I was getting to know Claire better.
“Who are you?” A defensive voice sounded from the bed. Startled, I looked up and saw Claire staring at me with distaste. She opened her mouth again. “Answer me. I asked you a simple question. Who. Are. You.”
“My name’s Michael,” I offered setting the book down and standing up. Fire flashed in her eyes and she scowled.
“Why are you here?” she growled. I held my hands up trying to get her to back down.
“To make sure you are okay,” I answered truthfully. And to see your beautiful eyes again, I added in my head.
“But, I don’t know you.” Her voice was tight but feral.
“I know,” I started, “and I’m sorry. I will just be leaving now.”
I picked up my roses and card and started for the door.
“Wait,” she called out. I stopped and looked at her. “I want to know the truth. Why are you here and who are you?”
I walked towards her and handed the roses to her, a peace offering. She took them, inhaling deeply. I also handed her the card, which she took carefully and and set it on her lap. She watched me take in a breath and let out a haughty laugh.
“I’m waiting,” she said impatiently. I glanced at her, and she glared back.
“My name is Michael Herring and I am a firefighter.” I waited for a moment to gauge her reaction. Anger turned to confusion and then to recognition. “ I was the one who rescued you four days ago. I was the one who carried you out of the building and got you to the hospital.”
“Okay,” Claire said slowly, “but why are you here?”
“To make sure you were okay. Our station normally does this if the victims are sentenced to an extended stay at the hospital. How long are you staying here, by the way?” I tried to change the subject.
“Another five days,” she said in a strained voice. “You don’t need to be changing the the subject either.”
Dang, she is good, I thought and stared at her.
“Your station always does this?” she asked incredulously. I nodded and she thought for a minute. “What is your number?”
“Excuse me?” It was like she had asked what sign I was. A virgo or a cancer?
“You know, your station number...or whatever that number is on your coat.” She rolled her eyes and grimaced.
“38,” I answered and watched her smile wickedly.
“So, if you visit everybody that has an extended stay, did you visit that little kid you saved six days ago?” Her grin widened when confusion covered my face.
“Who?” I flipped back to six days ago. I tried to remember what fire that was.
“Six days ago, there was a fire in a tall brick building. There was a little girl about four floors up, screaming for help. I watched as you put your oxygen tank on. By the time you reached her, she had to be burnt severely. So did you go and visit her?” She leaned back on her pillows with a smug look spread over her sweet face.
“I didn’t go to visit her-”
“Ha! I knew it! You are here because you-” she interrupted me and and I shot her a look.
“But my teammate did,” I lied quickly. She frowned and studied the card still in her hands.
“Okay,” she said in a defeated voice.
“Okay?” I repeated. She nodded and I took a look at my watch. It was already 12:10.
“Whatever,” she retorted and glared up at me. “Something is very wrong with you.”
“Well maybe you’ll figure it out soon enough,” I said and smiled gently.
“You wish,” she said with a harsh laugh. “I will never see you again.”
“You hope,” I added. She stared at me in astonishment. “You never know when an opportunity will present itself.”
“Oh, how I despise you,” she shot back. I was the one who laughed that time. I slid my hands in my pockets and watched her studiously.
“You might be wrong about that,” I managed between chuckles. Her eyes were in slits as her face turned red. “Now, I have to go. Bye, Claire.”
With that being said I strode out of the room, ignoring her protests. I walked past the young nurse who was calling out to me and entered the stairway. After walking down a few flights of stairs, I eased down, until I was sitting on one of the steps.
“You were right, Andrew,” I said to myself. “Opposites do attract. Even though she is nothing like me, my heart is still pounding in my chest.”
I smiled and pulled myself to my feet, starting down the stairs again.
Clearing my throat, I glanced down at the hand-written note clutched in my fingers. I looked back up at the sign on the building, making sure I was in the right place.
“Twenty-second street,” I wondered aloud. The large brick building loomed over me, bigger than it seemed. I pressed on the button for the owner. The speaker crackled to life and I could faintly hear a lady’s voice shouting on the other end.
“Who is it? Who’s there?” she shouted. I swallowed my laughter and pushed the speak button.
“Hi. Mrs. Trinity?” I asked.
“This is her,” the lady said sharply.
“My name is Claire and I was wondering if apartment 2B was still up for rent.” I rushed to get my words out, stringing them all together into one sentence. Mrs. Trinity let out a throaty laugh.
“Of course, dear. Let me buzz you in.” Instantly, her voice was warmer and I could detect a smile as she said it. There was another crackling sound and I heard the click of the lock on the door. Pulling it open, I walked inside and found a larger lady sitting behind a window to my left. She smiled at me; a few of her teeth were missing.
“Mrs. Trinity?” I guessed, walking towards her. She nodded.
“You must be Claire,” she laughed and stood up. I took a step back as she came out of the little room. As she gave me the once over, I was doing the same to her.
Her graying hair was pulled into a tight bun and her pale skin was wrinkly and looked rough to the touch. She had bright eyes, that never seemed to sadden.
“So, about that room?” she offered. I nodded, glad to get back on topic. She led me to an elevator and pressed a button that had an arrow pointing upwards.
The doors opened and we stepped inside. Mrs. Trinity looked at me again and I smiled shyly. She laughed and I forced out a giggle myself.
“The apartment is three bedrooms, two bath. It has a large kitchen and living room. It also has an extra room that the old tenant used as an office, but you can use it for whatever you like,” she explained as the elevator doors opened again. She led me down a hallway to a door, emblazoned with a black ‘2B’. When I took a step inside, I gasped.
The apartment itself was gorgeous. It was furnished completely and the walls were a beautiful maroon. I walked into the living room and set my purse down.
“Why don’t I show you around?” Mrs. Trinity said. I nodded, speechless.
“It’s perfect,” I said as we walked back into the living room. I grabbed my purse and smiled contently.
The bedrooms were larger than the ones in our old apartment and were all furnished completely. The ‘office’ was large, bare, and had a hardwood floor. I decided that it could be the art room for Alex and me.
“I thought you would like it,” Mrs. Trinity touched my arm gently and I looked at her. I was starting to like her more and more. Throughout the hour we were together, I had gotten to tell her why I was in New York. I also learned about her; how she was an orphan as a child, but went to be a fabulous business woman before retiring to work at this apartment complex.
“The only question I have is about the price,” I sighed. Her mouth was set in a flat line and she seemed to consider this.
“It’s $831 for a month,” she said. I bit my lip, wondering how that was going to work.
“I’ll take it,” I said suddenly, surprising even myself. Mrs. Trinity stared at me for a moment before turning away.
“Okay,” she agreed and led the way out of the apartment.
Once back on the first floor, she went to her little room and found a stack of papers She handed them to me, along with a pen.
“You need to fill out these forms before you leave,” she said with a apologetic smile. I shrugged and took them from her. She pointed to a cluster of chairs in the opposite corner from her. I smiled graciously and walked over there.
I sank down into one of the chairs and set the stack of papers on my lap. As I started to fill them out, I let my mind wander.
The name entered my mind and I tried to immediately push it back out. However, it stayed there, branded in my mind like a stupid jingle.
“Stupid fire fighter. Stupid rescue. Stupid roses,” I muttered angrily. I found myself pressing down with the pen harder than necessary. Relaxing my grip, I tried to continue writing, slowly and with better composure.
Michael’s bright hazel eyes came back to me, full force. Groaning inwardly, I let myself think about how much I despised that man.
I doubt that his station really visits every person they rescue, I thought to myself. He just wanted an excuse. He is probably a big jerk who messes around with girls before throwing them away like a used tissue. God, how I hate him. Although, I haven’t heard from him a five days. Maybe he decided I wasn’t worth it.
Yeah right, another part of my mind argued.
He was cute, though. He had that whole ‘bum’ look going to him. Shaggy, black hair. A hint of a beard on his chin. The crumpled clothes.
I sighed and tried to push these thoughts from my mind.
“Why do I care so much?” I asked myself. “It’s not like I like him.”
I shuddered violently at the thought. As I started to finish up the application I heard Mrs. Trinity talking to someone on the phone. Careful as not to be obvious, I slowed my writing, wanting to eavesdrop.
“Yes Mikey,” Mrs. Trinity contiued. I saw her smile into the phone. Pausing, she looked at me and I shot my eyes down, blood pooling in my cheeks.
The ‘Mikey’ on the other end said a few things and she laughed.
“Actually, you will never believe what happened today?” Her voice rose a notch and excitement masked her usually flat tone. I stood up and walked towards her. She smiled at me and gestured for me to wait a few minutes. “I sold the apartment today. You know? 2B?”
A low voice on the other end was also excited and I could tell it was a man’s low tone. Mrs. Trinity glanced at me again with another smile.
“Yes. Her name is Claire...” she trailed off and confusion masked her face.
“Barnes,” I offered and shrugged.
“Claire Barnes,” she told Mikey and he said a quick reply. “Okay Mikey. Uh-huh. Okay. Bye-bye.”
She hung up the phone and held out her hand. I gave her the application forms and frowned.
“When do you want me and my brother to move in? I really need to get everything here before the seventh. That’s when school starts for both of us,” I explained quickly. She nodded and tucked away the papers in a manila folder.
“Whenever you want is fine with me. Another one of the tenants, Mikey, said that if you needed it, he would help you move in. He is strong and really good looking.” I smiled at her and laughed.
“Oh, please call me Joy,” she said.
“Okay then,” I started. “Joy, I have only known you for about two hours now and you are already trying to set me up?”
“Don’t be silly,” she scolded, but I could see a little twinkle in her eye. I stared at her while she gave me an innocent smile.
“Well, I will be back tomorrow to start moving in. Tell Mikey to be ready out front at 11 tomorrow morning,” I said and hitched my purse higher on my shoulder.
“Okay, bye Claire,” she called out as I walked out the door and into the blinding light.
“Claire, you will not believe this,” Alex shouted as he ran into his room. I was seated on the floor packing his things into boxes once again. I looked up and saw him clutching a packet of paper in his hand.
“I’m pretty sure I will,” I assured him. He handed me the packet and I glanced at the heading. It was from the school where Alex was going to go to and where I was going to teach.
“Okay, flip a few pages to page four,” he said and I did as he told me. When I got to the page, I noticed a schedule of his classes.
“Okay...” I still didn’t get what he was trying to tell me.
“Look down at first period on ‘A’ and ‘B’ days.”
I scanned the list quickly and when I reached first period, I had to do a double check. My eyes wide, I looked up at Alex who smiled widely.
“Told you that you wouldn’t believe it,” he said smugly.
“There is no way-” I started.
“That you could be my art teacher?” he finished for me. “I think there is a way because it is legit.”
“Well, you better be good in my class,” I warned him. “That means no endless flirting with girls, okay?”
“You wish sis,” he laughed.
“That’s Ms. Barnes to you, now,” I commanded.
“Whatever. Good one,” he shouted over his shoulder as he walked out of the room. “Good one, sis.”
“Where is he?” I groaned, glancing at my watch for the fifth time. It was already 11:30 and I was starting to get annoyed. Sighing gruffly, I picked up a few boxes and tried to balance them on top of one another.
“I’m sure he’ll be here soon. He’s probably running late from his job.” Mrs. Trinity opened the door for me and smiled.
“I’m sure,” I said as I rolled my eyes. She laughed and held the door open for my brother. He was struggling under four boxes, probably all filled with my crap.
“Ungh,” he grunted and shifted his weight.
“Why are you carrying that many boxes?” I asked, smothering my laughter. Alex peered around the tower and glowered at me.
“Just in case,” he said and went back into hiding.
“In case of what?” I slid into the elevator with him right behind me. Mrs. Trinity was helping bring in the other boxes one by one. The doors closed and Alex set the boxes down with another grunt.
“In case of girls,” he gasped and tried to catch his breath. I gave him a nudge with my boxes and smiled. He glanced up at me and let out a laugh. “You think I’m stupid, don’t you?”
“Nope,” I laughed at the expression of doubt he gave me. “Just desperate.”
“Well, that makes me feel so much better about myself. Thanks,” he said sarchastically as the elevator doors opened again. He picked up the boxes again and sighed under the weight.
“Oh, Alex.” I shook my head and laughed.
We made it too the room and set the boxes down in the living room. I had to pull Alex out of there before he could wander off to do some exploring.
“Later,” I promised as I dragged him out into the hallway again.
“Where are you going?” he called out as I headed for the stairway.
“I need exercise,” I told him and continued my way. Soon enough, I heard his footsteps descending the stairs right behind me.
When we reached the bottom, only seven boxes were left. I shot a strange look at Alex who volleyed in back.
“Mrs. Trinity?” My voice echoed in the empty lobby. Mrs. Trinity came outside of her little room and smiled.
“Mikey is here,” she sang and smiled her toothy smile at us.
“How did he get all of those boxes up there so fast?” Alex inquired, amazed.
“he took a cart,” she explained as if it was obvious. She gestured to a rolling cart situated by the elevators. I smacked my hand against my forehead and looked at Alex.
“Why didn’t we think of that?” I asked him. He shrugged and grabbed the cart.
“We should fill this,” he commented. I nodded and together, we stacked all of the boxes on the cart.
As we finished, Alex drug it over to the elevator. He pressed the button and soon the elevator reached the bottom floor again. We drug the cart in and I flattened myself against the far wall.
“He had to fit, like, three of these in here with him. How did he do it?” I wondered aloud. Beside me, Alex shrugged.
When the elevator reached our floor, I rode the cart to our room. Literally. Alex was the one who pushed me.
“That was so much fun,” I eclaimed as I climbed off. Alex responded with a laugh and I noticed that our front door was open. My heart raced increased, until I realized it must have been Mikey.
“Sweet home, Alabama,” sang a voice inside. I swallowed my laughter and walked inside. Facing away from us was a tall man with pitch black hair, dancing around the room. He was still singing. His voice was actually really nice; it was deep, yet soothing to my ears.
“Trying out for American Idol are we?” I laughed cynically. Mikey froze and turned to me. When he did, my breath left me and I stared at him.
There was absolutely no way he could be here. Not after what I said to him. I mean, I was cynical, rude and sarchastic. Who would come back after that?
I couldn’t tear my eyes away from those liquid hazel eyes.
“Hey Claire,” Michael Herring said easily. I continued to stare until Alex nudged me. I shook my head and coughed.
“What are you doing here?” I gazed critically at his jeans and faded tee. Michael actually had the nerve to laugh at me.
“Helping you move in,” he explained. “Welcome to 2B, neighbor?”
“Neighbor?” I repeated, staring at him increduously.
“Yep. Apratment 2A.” He patted his chest as if this proved anything. I rolled my eyes and started pulling boxes off of the cart. I set them beside the couches and when I was finished, I looked back up at him. He was still staring at me, a crooked grin softening his expression.
“Your nickname’s Mikey, huh,” I laughed and placed my hands on my hips. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Alex ducking into one of the bedrooms.
“Only Joy calls me that,” he said. “She has known me for a while now. I’m like her own son.”
“Okay.” I waved his statement off as if I didn’t care.
“I see you read my note,” he commented, trying to make small talk.
“Yeah, I did,” I noted obviously. “And I wouldn’t have taken this place if I knew you were my neighbor.”
Michael raised his eyebrows and his grin flickered. I shook my head and let out another laugh.
“And honestly? I don’t like you. You’re just a jerk who leads innocent girls around and then when they finally are ready to love you, you toss them in the trash. I despise guys like you. All you care about is yourself. I’ve dealt with enough of your kind, you stupid, arrogant, self-centered jerk.”
When I finished my rant, I realized that I was standing in his face. My fists were clenched and calming down, I relaxed my stance. Fire glinted in my grey eyes and I glared into Michael’s hazel ones. He was now frowning and after taking a step back he sighed. I could hear my breath coming and going in short angry bursts.
“You don’t know me at all, Claire,” he muttered and took one last look at me before walking out of the room with the carts trailing behind him one by one.
“Ugh,” I groaned and sat down, placing my head in my hands. “I hate him.”
I don’t know how long I sat there, but after a while, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked up and forced a smile at him.
“You gonna be okay?” Alex asked, taking a seat next to me.
“I guess,” I replied and leaned my head against his shoulder. He placed his arm around my shoulders and comforted me.
“You wanna start unpacking our boxes to get your mind off of him?” He tugged on a strand of my hair and jumped up. He spun back around and held his hands out to me. I took them, smiling, and let him pull me to my feet.
“Okay, but we have to listen to music this time,” I insisted. Eyes gleaming, Alex nodded and gestured towards the sterio sitting beside the television. I sauntered over to it and turned it on. A blast of static nearly knocked me off my feet until I was about to turn the volume down.
“Dang Claire,” Alex moaned, taking his hands away from his ears. I laughed, a real laugh, and shrugged.
“Wasn’t my fault,” I admitted and started changing the stations. I finally found one that had rap music playing and turned it up. Alex had already started dancing and I joined in, laughing.
After four hours of unpacking, dancing, and listening to rap music, we had gotten my room, Alex’s room, and the kitchen all ready for use.
I walked into the living room where Alex was shimmying around, while stacking movies on the television stand. I laughed and ripped off the tape of another box, which held our Xbox 360 and games. I slid the box over to Alex who looked inside and grinned.
“We’re going to need to see if that Michael character can play some Halo. I bet we can whoop his butt,” Alex shouted over the music.
“I bet we could,” I said and nodded numbly. He mouthed an apology to me and I shrugged. I could get over him. I turned to another box which held our DVD player. I picked it up and placed it below the T.V.
After plugging it in, I started to help Alex put our games in alphabetical order.
I was OCD and so was he, but we liked different things in different order. Alex liked to arrange things by color, size, and grouping. I liked things either in alphabetical order or arranged by date. We had to compromise with everything, so he got to do the DVD’s, while I got to organize the video games.
As we were organizing, another Eminem song came on. My favorite. I pulled Alex to his feet, who groaned in response.
“Sing it with me,” I pleaded. Alex glared at me.
“No,” he stated.
“Please?” I pleaded.
“Just the chorus?”
“Fine.” When he gave up, I grinned in triumph. I enveloped him in a hug and started to sing,
“And when I’m gone, just carry on. Don’t mourn; rejoice every time you hear the sound of my voice. Just know that everytime I’m lookin’ down on you smilin’ and didn’t feel a thing. So, baby, don’t feel my pain. Just smile back.”
Her stormy grey eyes flickered and I sucked in a breath. Smiling, she ran a hand through my shaggy black hair. Wherever her fingers touched my skin, a trail a fire was left behind.
“Michael,” she whispered, her lips against my hair. The hairs on the back of my neck bristled. I sighed and I could feel her breath next to my ear. Turning to her, I could see her eyes brightened with excitement.
“Cl-” I started, but she pressed a finger against my lips.
“Sh,” she murmured, mocking me. My lips slipped up into a crooked grin and I reached out to grap her wrist. She tried to yank it free, but I held on tightly. Panic flooded her eyes and the corners of her mouth dipped down.
“Sh,” I repeated and pulled her to me.
“Let go,” she mouthed and closed her eyes. I watched her expression turn to grief and she struggled to get free. I relased my grip and watched her fall backwards. A tear ran down her face and she glanced at me.
“Sorry,” I said, but she was already running away into the darkness. “Claire, wait!”
“Claire!” I shouted and flicked my eyes open. I looked around wildly and noticed I was on the floor of my bedroom. My sheets were tangled around my legs and I could feel the sweat pouring down my face. As I unwrapped the sheets, Claire’s cynical smile entered my mind.
Groaning, I eased onto my feet and padded into the kitchen. I glanced at the clock; it was only five o’clock at night. I opened my fridge and tried to find something to eat. All I had was a bottle of water, a tomato, and a bag of bagels.
“Ugh.” I wrinkled my nose in disgust and shut the door. I wasn’t feeling like eating a bagel for dinner. I sat down in a chair at my table and held my head in my hands.
“Please?” A soft voice came from the other side of the wall. My head snapped up and I pressed my ear to the wall. I remembered that the walls were thin enough to hear through them. I had a loud neighbor a few weeks ago.
“Teenagers,” I muttered to myself, but kept my face pressed up to the wall.
“No,” another deeper, yet teasing voice answered.
“Just the chorus?” the girl, I now recognized as Claire, pleaded. The boy, her brother I was guessing, laughed.
“Fine,” he surrendured and I heard Claire muffle a yelp. It was silent for a moment, but it was long enough for me to hear the beat of a rap song.
“And when I’m gone, just carry on. Don’t mourn; rejoice, everytime you hear the sound of my voice. Just know that everytime I’m looking down on you, smilin’ and I didn’t feel a thing.”
“So, baby, don’t feel my pain. Just smile back,” I found myself singing along. Smiling, I stood up and stretched my arms behind my head. I grabbed my wallet and shoved it in my pocket as I walked out of the door.
Once out of my apartment, the beat got louder and more pronounced. I bounced in step to the rythym as I made my way to the next apartment over. I knocked on the door, my knuckles pounding against the wood to be heard.
“Alex! Turn that down,” Claire yelled from inside. Instantly the sound disappeared and the silence was almost deafening. The door opened in front of me and Claire’s eyes widened in surprise. Then, they hardened and I could see fire burning dimly in the dark grey.
“Hey,” I said and smiled easily.
“What do you want?” she snapped and placed a hand on her hip. Her brother, Alex, walked up behind her and leaned against the wall. He studied me for a few seconds; checking out my torn jeans, faded tee, and vans. Finally, his eyes met mine and he nodded.
“I wanted to see if you two would go to dinner with me tonight,” I invited.
“No,” she answered immediately. Behind her, Alex frowned and cast his stare down to his feet. Suddenly, he looked back up.
“We would love to,” he stated and took a few steps closer. Claire turned towards him, a look of anger on her face.
“But,” she stuttered. Alex shot her a look and she backed down.
“Where to?” he asked me. I laughed, a hint of a smirk on my lips.
“Surprise,” I said and gestured for them to go first. With forced anger, Claire grabbed her purse and pushed by me. Alex shrugged and closed the door behind him.
It was quiet as we took the elevator down to the first floor. Claire stood in the corner, not waning to speak to either of us and Alex tried to comfort her even though she didn’t want it. I stood awkwardly to the side, not wanting to interfere.
Once we reached the lobby, I led them outside noticing Joy in her little office.
“Good luck,” she mouthed and pointed at Claire. I rolled my eyes, but smiled.
“Thanks,” I said and opened the door. “Bye Joy.”
“Bye Mikey!” she shouted as the door closed behind us. I whistled for a cab, while Claire and Alex waited behind me. A young woman passed by in front of me, her eyes shining as she looked me up and down. I nodded at her and she smiled. A cab pulled up and I opened the door. The woman walked away quickly after stuffing a paper in my back pocket.
“I saw that,” Claire muttered as she eased into the cab. I threw on an innocent look as I slid in behind her.
“What in the world are you talking about?” I grinned and settled into the sticky seat. I told the driver the directions and he set off.
“That girl who stuck her number in your pocket,” she fumed nad crossed her arms over her chest.
“I don’t know who you are talking about.” I replied defensively. Alex reached out and I felt his fingers close around the piece of paper and pulled it from my pocket. “Wait.”
“Her name is Rachael Adams,” he announced after unfolding the paper. Claire watched me with a curious look on her face.
“It has her number on it, doesn’t it?” she asked Alex.
“Yes, it does,” he said and grinned at me. “Nice going, bro.”
“Um, thanks. I guess,” I shrugged and slapped my hand against his. I could already feel the blood pooling in my cheeks.
“Told you,” Claire shot out, glaring at me. When I turned her way, she quickly looked out the window.
The rest of the ride consisted of Claire watching the city pass by. Alex admired the phone number scribbled on the piece of paper the girl had given me. I was the one trying not to make it obvious that I was watching Claire’s every move. I think Alex caught on at the last minute though. He kept giving me sly looks when I glanced at him.
“Waffle House?” Claire sneered as the cab slowed down in front of the yellow building. I glanced at her and saw that her mouth was hitched up in a smirk.
“I was hungry for some waffles,” I admitted. Alex smiled and nodded his agreement. “Don’t you like waffles for breakfast?”
“I’ve never been to Waffle House before,” she sighed. Alex and I stared at her, our eyes wide with shock. She made a face at us. “What?”
“You’ve never been to Waffle House before?” Alex repeated. She nodded.
“I’ve never had a craving for waffles. I do pancakes,” she told us as we hopped out of the taxi. I paid the driver and turned back to her.
“Of course you haven’t had a craving for waffles,” I said as if was obvious. Claire watched me as I continued. “You haven’t had these waffles before.”
Claire had nothing to say after that. We walked into the restaurant and I was greeted by a few of the workers.
“Popular, aren’t we?” Claire uttered as we sat down in a booth by the window.
“Just a little,” I teased and handed her a menu. Alex slid in beside her and glanced at me. I shot a wierd face back and he just laughed.
“What can I get you guys today?” A skinny girl with bright blue hair walked over to our table. She looked at me and smiled. “How are you today, Michael?”
“Good, Sarah. And you?” I replied. She laughed and Claire looked over her menu at us.
“Waiting to catch a break,” she exclaimed and patted my shoulder. “The usual?”
“Sure,” I replied and looked at Alex.
“What about you two?”
“I want two waffles and a tea,” Alex stated. Claire noticed that it was her turn and coughed.
“I guess, I will take two chocolate chip waffles with a glass of water,” she muttered and pushed the menu back to me. I took it graciously and put it with mine. I set them to the side and smiled to myself.
“What are you so happy about?” Alex laughed and shot a glance at Claire and then one at me. I rolled my eyes.
“Just thinking about the face Claire is going to make after tasting these waffles,” I confessed. At the sound of her name, Claire glared at me.
“It’s just a waffle,” she waved my comment off with a flick of her hand, “not the second coming.”
Sarah came back with our food and I laughed at Claire’s expression as the two gigantic waffles were placed in front of her. I watched her swallow loudly.
“Scared Claire?” I mocked and took a bite of my own waffle that was doused in strawberry sryup. Her eyes shot daggers at me as she poured maple syrup over her own waffles.
“Not one bit,” she said and cut her first bite.
I watched silently as she put it in her mouth. Alex turned to watch too and a smile lit up his face. I muffled my laughter as a bright light lit up her eyes and she glanced down at her waffle, which was oozing melted chocolate and syrup. She swallowed and I grinned in triumph.
“So?” I took another bite of mine and she was jolted back to reality. She glanced at me.
“So what?” she shot back defensively.
“You liked it.”
“It was okay,” she mumbled.
“What was that?”
“I said-” she started.
“I can’t hear you,” I taunted. She shot me a look and I silenced.
“It was great,” she finally said. I let out a shout of triumph and she went back to eating her waffle.
“It’s not the second coming, but it’s close enough,” I said and watched Alex dig into his own plate.
“Sure is,” she agreed, looking down at her plate, her cheeks turning red.
Laughing, I tried to finish my dinner, but a thought was nagging me in the back of my mind. The fact that I was getting through to her.
It was time to paint my classroom. I glanced around the room, noticing the bare walls and empty desks. I had asked the principal beforehand before I went to buy the paint. He agreed under one condition; that it was school appropriate.
“Ready Alex?” I smiled at him. Alex had just carried in the last can of paint. He eased into one of the desks and held up a finger.
“Give me a minute. Those paint cans are heavy. And I had to carry them across the school,” he breathed. I laughed and ruffled his hair. He pulled away, a grimace on his face.
“Let’s do this,” I said and pulled him to his feet. Together, we laid out tarps along the wall and set two cans of paint beside each one.
“What are you going to paint them like?” Alex rested an arm on my shoulder. I pulled on the hem of my painting shirt and smiled.
“You’ll see,” I told him and handed him a paint brush.
“Ugh,” he groaned. I let out a laugh.
“Now, let’s get to work.”
A few hours later, we had painted the bases of the walls. They were all pitch black and a little menacing-looking.
“Are you going to do anything else to them?” Alex asked with a pained look on his face.
“Of course,” I replied. “But, that is for Sunday. Let’s just finish painting the backgrounds.”
“But, what about that wall?” he asked, pointing to the far wall beside my art easel. It was still the pale yellow the other walls were before we painted them.
“That wall?” I repeated. He nodded. “Come on.”
I led him to the wall and picked the top off the can of paint. Inside, the paint looked like the same black the other walls were.
“It’s just black,” Alex commented and looked at me. Smiling, I poured the paint out into a pan.
“It may look like ‘just black’, but actually, it is chalkboard paint,” I explained. I laughed at his blank look.
“Chalkboard paint?” He looked doubtful.
“Yes, chalkboard paint. After it dries onto the wall, you can write on it with chalk and then erase it when needed. I thought it would be cool for my students to write on the walls.” Excitement lit up his face and he grinned.
“Cool!” he shouted and grabbed his paint roller. He dipped it into the paint and rolled it onto the wall. Soon enough, we were both going at it on the wall and on each other. Black was everywhere, even on us. Laughing, I placed a streak of paint on Alex’s chest.
“Excuse me?” A loud voice interrupted our laughter and I turned towards the door.
A petite girl around my age leaned against the door frame with a smirk on her face. Her fiery red hair was in curls around her heart-shaped face. She had bright blue eyes and very pale skin that sparkled in the flourescent lights.
I placed my roller on the pan and wiped my hands on my jeans. I walked over to her and stuck out my hand. She returned the gesture and we shook hands.
“Claire Barnes. You teach art for the seniors,” she finished for me. When she saw my expression, she just laughed. “I saw your forms on the principal’s desk. She never files her stuff.”
“Oh,” I murmured.
“Who’s behind you?” She sounded too curious.
“Oh, that’s my brother Alex,” I stated and Alex nodded at her. Her grin flickered but only for a second.
“I’m Lauren Elizabeth,” she introduced herself. “I teach theater.”
“Oh yeah,” I said. “I just recalled that this is a school for the arts.”
“Yeah,” Lauren laughed.
“Oh, I’m just waiting to see how you do on your first day of class. These students are serious about their work. And I mean serious.” She put a lot of emphasis on the last word. I shrugged.
“So am I, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have fun with it,” I said. Lauren shook her head and laughed at my comment. Underneath my skin, I felt my blood start to boil.
“Honey, you must not know a thing about rich teenagers,” she teased me. The blood drained from my face and my eyes narrowed into slits.
“Well, I’m sorry that I grew up by myself, poor and alone. I’m sorry that I wasn’t rich like all of these other teenagers,” I retaliated. Lauren’s eyes widened and she took a small step back.
“I-I’m so sorry. I-I didn’t know,” she stammered. I rolled my eyes.
“Of course you didn’t know. Who cares to ask about somebody’s past?” I raised my voice an inch. She took another small step back and lowered her eyes.
“Claire,” she started.
“Don’t even worry about it,” I cut her off. She looked back up at me and frowned. Even I knew that there was still fire in my eyes.
“Lauren?” A deep voice called out.
“In here, Jeff,” she shouted back and turned to me, an apologetic smile gracing her lips. A few seconds later a tall man came into view and placed an arm around Lauren’s shoulders.
He had dark wavy hair and molten brown eyes. The smile on his face lit up the room and made the corners of his eyes crinkle, making him look younger than he really was. He was well built and about a half of a foot taller that Lauren. She smiled up at him, with a look of adoration.
Behind me, Alex cleared his throat. Startled, she looked back at me. She placed her left hand on his chest and I noticed a slight sparkle on one of the fingers. Looking closer, I realized a small three carat diamond rested on her ring finger.
“Um, Claire, this is my fiance, Jeff,” she said. “Jeff, this is the new senior art teacher, Claire Barnes.”
“Nice to meet you,” he greeted me and we shook hands.
“Same to you,” I told him through clenched teeth. He smiled tightly and turned back to Lauren.
“Honey, we have to go. We have an appointment at the church in half an hour,” he murmured and gave her a kiss on her forehead.
I turned away and looked at Alex. I stuck my finger down my throat and made a gagging noise. He shot me a look and shook his head. I quickly spun around to find out that Lauren was now alone and staring at me.
“Sorry,” she said, trying to catch my eye. I knew there would be hurt in them, so I kept looking at my Vans. “But, I have to go. The wedding is in a month and we have to do last minute details.”
“You don’t have to explain to me,” I replied, trying to get her to leave.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she repeated.
“You don’t have to apologize all the time either. It’s really annoying,” I shot at her.
All of a sudden, her stance hardened and she tensed up. I glanced at her and she glared back at me. I raised my eyebrows and watched her carefully.
“What?” I asked. She let out a long breath and kept staring at me.
“People can call me many things, Claire. They can call me ugly or weird or even a slut. But, when people start trying to judge me right after I meet them, gets on my last nerve. You don’t know me, Claire, and yet, you are judging me completely. You know what? I can do the same thing.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked with a blank look on my face.
“I can judge you the same way you are judging me. Honestly, the first time I saw you painting your walls, I thought that you were a freak. That you weren’t mature and that you acted like a kid. I thought that there was no way you could be a teacher to seniors and yet the principal hired you.”
I felt my cheeks get hot and I glared at her. She let out a haughty laugh.
“See, Claire? I can be just like you. And when I am, you don’t like it so much. So stop being so freaking cynical and distant and act like an adult.”
With that being said, she stormed off. I looked back at Alex who just shrugged and looked away. Then, I noticed the wall which was done.
“I finished it while you two were talking,” Alex said with nonchalance. I laughed and pulled him into a hug.
“I love you, you know that?” I exclaimed.
“I think you’ve told me that a few times before,” he teased and pushed me away.
“Now, we have to clean up,” I groaned and Alex chuckled.
“We can do it.” He flexed his arms. “We’re strong people.”
I did the same and said in a low voice, “We are, aren’t we?”
Somehow, in only an hour Alex and I were able to throw away the paint pans, the rollers and the paint brushes. We had picked up, folded the tarps, and put them in the supply closet. And we were also able to put up the paint cans for future use.
“Let’s go sis,” Alex said, tugging on my arm. I laughed and let him lead me out of the school and into the blinding sunlight.
I couldn’t get my mind off of her. She consumed my every thought, overpowering me. I found myself remembering even the little details of her; like how whenever she was annoyed, she twisted a lock of her short cinnamon hair around her finger.
I wanted to see her again, but she wanted nothing to do with me. I thought I had gotten through a little bit that Wednesday night. However, she was avoiding me more than ever. Whenever I saw her in the lobby or in the hallway, she would look away and hurry off.
“Herring, where are you?” Somebody snapped their fingers in front of my face and I snapped out of my trance. I looked over at Andrew who was lowering his hand. His eyes detected a hint of confusion, but it may have been sadness too.
“Sorry, my mind has been going in a million directions,” I confessed. Andrew laughed and slapped a hand on my back.
“We all know that, Michael,” he said, gesturing to the rest of the men there. They all nodded and some chuckled.
“Oh,” I paused, trying to come up with an excuse.
“Claire on your mind?” Andrew guessed. I was about to lie, until I saw his expression. I cast my eyes downwards and looked at my socked feet.
“A little,” I complied and Andrew let out another laugh.
“A little?” He repeated with doubt in his voice. Rolling my eyes, I groaned.
“Okay, a lot,” I admitted. Andrew nodded.
“See? Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?” he asked.
“No,” I replied. I eased into a seat and faced Andrew. He gave me a sad smile and sighed.
“What’s up, bro?” he inquired sincerely. I shrugged.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” I started. All of a sudden the bell started ringing. I let out a moan and stood up.
“We’ll finish this conversation later, okay?” Andrew asked as we ran to the truck. I jumped into my pants and nodded.
“Okay,” I said and pulled on my coat. We jumped into the firetruck and sped off into the night.
“That was a bad fire,” I commented as we walked upstairs to the bedroom. Andrew and Seth grunted in agreement behind me. After finally reaching the top, I flopped onto my bed. Andrew and Seth did the same and we sat in silence for a few minutes.
“Ugh, I smell like smoke and fire,” Seth groaned sniffing his shirt.
“Don’t we all?” I muttered. I heard Andrew stand up and I looked over at him. He grinned and motioned towards the locker room.
“I’m going to take a shower. Anyone with me?” He laughed and Seth jumped up.
“I’ll go too,” he agreed and they turned to look at me. I shook my head and shrugged.
“I like the smell of smoke,” I said and they laughed.
“Peace out,” Seth shot back and they walked off. I smiled and leaned back on my pillow.
“I’m glad they are gone,” I mutered to myself. “Now, I can get some peace and quiet, even if it is just for a little while.”
I closed my eyes and drifted off.
I was running. At first, I didn’t know where I was. It wasn’t until I noticed the trees blurring beside me, that I realized that I was in a forest. The greens and browns all blurred into one disgusting color as I ran past them.
“Michael,” someone called out behind me. I let out a shout and picked up my pace. There was the sound of footsteps coming up behind me. I felt a hitch in my ankle as I almost tripped over a branch.
I had to run faster. I didn’t know why, but I knew I was in danger. I could see a bright light ahead and I ran towards it. As I got closer, I could see grass and a bright blue sky.
“Michael,” the voice called again; it was high-pitched and playful, a girl’s voice. I shuddered violently as I ran.
“Leave me alone,” I yelled over my shoulder. A soft laugh drifted towards me and I willed myself not to stop, to see who it was.
I burst throught the light and stopped suddenly. The light had led me to a cliff that hung above a dark abyss. I swallowed loudly and heard the soft crunch of leaves behind me.
“Michael?” she inquired. I spun around to face her when she attacked me, knocking both of us off the cliff. I screamed for help as we tumbled into the darkness, her hand wrapped around my wrist.
I could feel a pair of lips at the base of my neck.
“Michael.” A loud voice yelled into my ear. I sat up quickly, knocking my head against someone else’s.
“Good God,” I yelped and opened my eyes. I saw Seth rubbing a hand against his forehead, his sandy blonde hair still wet from the shower. I squinted and saw Andrew behind him, smothering his laughter with his hand.
“Told you not to yell at him while he’s sleeping,” Andrew warned him. Seth shot him a look and sat on the bed next to mine.
“Yeah, usually Andrew just throws something at me,” I explained. Suddenly, a pillow hit me on the side of the head. I flicked my eyes to Andrew who stood with his hands behind his back, whistling. “Just like that.”
“What?” Andrew looked back at me, a glint in his eye. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Sure, you don’t” I muttered sarcastically. Andrew laughed and sat at the foot of my bed. I sat up and ran a fist over my eyes, making any sleep disappear.
“So,” Seth started, making the room get a little awkward.
“So,” I repeated.
“So, about Claire,” Andrew finished for us.
“What about her?” I asked a little over-protectively.
“Michael, you have been thinking about her for days on end, now. You get distracted easily and you are heard in your sleep, mumbling her name,” Andrew said softly.
“I do not!” I exclaimed, looking at Seth for reassurance. He shrugged and gave me an apologetic smile.
“Actually, you do,” he reavealed. I sighed and put my head in my hands.
“Oh, that is fantastic,” I mumbled.
“Could he be...you know?” Seth asked. I glanced at him; he was looking at Andrew. Andrew shrugged and comtemplated Seth’s question. Suddenly, he snapped his fingers.
“You know, I think he is,” he said and smiled. Seth’s face lit up in a grin and Andrew laughed.
“I’m what?” I interrupted them. Their laughter subsided and they studied me. “I’m what?”
“Do you want to tell him?” Andrew gestured to Seth.
“I might as well, since that is the way I felt too,” he replied and turned to me.
“What?” I raised my voice, getting aggravated.
“I think that you’re in love,” Seth whispered. I stared at him with a confused expression on my face.
“You think I’m what?” I asked, not believing him.
“We think you are in love with Claire,” Andrew restated. I shook my head.
“That can’t be possible. I’ve only known her for a week and a half,” I stated.
“Michael, how do you feel about Claire?” Seth asked. I felt my cheeks heat up and I looked down. I started to fiddle with my leather bracelet.
“Well, when I think about her, my stomach flips upside down, my mouth turns dry, and my palms get sweaty. And when I see her, all I want to do is wrap my arms around her waist and press my lips against the base of her throat. Her eyes always leave me breathless and when she speaks, it’s like I’ve gone to heaven.”
“Michael, face it. You’re in love with her,” Andrew said. I sighed and watched him. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Seth nod.
“So what if I am?” I shot back. “I know she doesn’t like me.”
“You are in love,” Seth said, raising his voice.
“So what?” I yelled back.
“So, go do something about it!” Seth and Andrew shouted at me and walked out of the room.
“No way,” Alex exclaimed looking at the black walls in my classroom. He flicked his gaze back down to the small object in my hand. I laughed and nodded.
“Yep.” I tossed the yellow balloon in my hand. I was careful as not to pop it. Alex glanced at me, dumbstruck.
“I don’t know,” he started doubtfully. I cut my eyes at him and stuck out my tongue.
“Do you want to go first? or shall I?” I interrupted him. He shook his head.
“Um, you can,” he said and took a few steps back, away from me and the wall. I laughed again; that time, making me sound like an evil prowess.
I gripped the balloon in my hand and took aim. Forcing myself to let go, I threw the balloon with all of my strength and grinned. The balloon popped as it hit the wall, splattering the black with a bright neon streak. I scooped up another balloon, that one being blue. I tossed it a little higher than the last one and heard the satisfying pop as it hit the wall. Electric blue spotted the wall and a few drops fell onto my arms, making it look like I had a weird case of the chicken pox.
“That is so cool!” Alex reached down and picked up a green balloon. “So, they color-code with the paint inside them?”
I nodded. “It’s that simple.”
“Hm. I wanna try,” he stated and and threw the balloon and the wall. Neon green paint stained the spot where the balloon hit. Drops of paint dripped down the wall, blending in with the other colors. Alex looked at me, excitement written all over his face. “Are they all neon colors?”
“Pretty much,” I explained and picked up two more balloons. “They stand out more on the black background rather than other colors.”
“Oh, yeah,” he muttered and cleared his throat.
“Just try and leave some black visible. It’ll look better that way,” I told him.
“Okay,” he laughed. “This is going to be awesome.”
He hurled another balloon and his laughter increased in volume.
“I know, right?” I murmured and ran a hand through my tousled hair, probably leaving blue and yellow spots in the strands.
For the next hour, we continued to throw balloons at the walls. The dark, menacing black had turned bright and punk-looking. In the end, we were left with a leftover bucket of balloons and a gigantic mess.
“What now?” Alex questioned and laid a hand on my shoulder. I shrugged and surveyed the room once more.
“I guess we should start to clean up,” I suggested. He nodded thoughtfully and picked up the corner of a tarp on the floor. He gestured to the other end and I shuffled over there.
Slowly, we started to fold up the tarps and then stacked them on top of one another in the supply closet. As we were picking up the last tarp, I heard a small, distant cough. Thinking it was Alex, I continued to fold the edges. The cough sounded again and I noticed that it was to soft and light to be Alex’s.
“Claire,” Alex muttered and tugged on my arm. I looked up, expecting to see the principal, but instead, Lauren stood in the doorway, a small package in her hands. Her eyes found mine and a shy smile lit up her face.
“Hi, Claire,” she called out and waved. I managed a small wave back.
“Hey,” I said and stood up, wiping my dusty hands on my paint-splattered jeans. Lauren swept her gaze over my walls and her darkened eyes lit up with surprise. She let out a twinkling sort of laugh and I raised my eyebrows in confusion.
As she looked around my room, I took the chance to look at her appearance. She looked more proffesional than a few days ago. She wore a pair of dark wash jeans tucked into a pair of gorgeous brown boots that I immeditely wanted. Her top was a slouchy, blue sweatshirt over a white tank top. Her hair was straightened, and she wore a white flower headband that stood out from the bright red. She opened her mouth but I didn’t hear her at first.
“I’m sorry,” I apologized. “What?”
“I said that I love what you did to your walls,” she cooed. “It’s so cool and looks like something a teenager would do.”
“That was kinda the point,” I stated. Blood pooled in her cheeks and she opened her mouth to apologize. I put up my hand. “It’s okay.”
“Oh,” she murmured and glanced at Alex. He smiled warmly and she grinned back.
I flicked my gaze to the package in Lauren’s hands. It was long and flat, wrapped with shiny, navy blue paper. A wide yellow bow was tied to perfection at the top right-hand corner. A small card was attatched to the gift but I was too far away to read it.
That looks kind of like her, I thought to myself. She looks rich and she wraps her gifts like they’re rich too. Usually, I just throw it in a bag and be done with it.
Lauren noticed my stare and held it out to me. She laughed again when she saw my expression. “I meant to give this to you a few days ago, but I forgot after our little disagreement yesterday. So, I brought it today.”
Disagreement? I shouted silently. You were close to calling me some unmentionable names. And you call that a disagreement? Wow, you have a skewed version of life.
However, I took it in my hands, surprised at the light weight of the gift. Sighing, I held up the card and looked at it. Gorgeous, caligraphy letters exclaimed:
Welcome to the family!
Cute, I grimaced and laughed silently. Suddenly, I noticed Lauren watching my every move.
“Do you want me to open it here?” I wondered aloud. Startled, she glanced at my face.
“You don’t have to, if you don’t want to,” she exclaimed, looking sheepish. I shrugged lightly and placed the gift on the table closet to us.
I slid a finger underneath the wrappings and pulled it off in one swipe. Lauren and Alex watched me, impressed at the feat I had just acconplished. Underneath the wrapping paper was a long white box. A box that would usually hold some type of clothing. I picked the top off and was greeted by a swarm of black tissue paper. I threw it to the side and picked up the garment that laid in wait underneath them.
In my hands, was the beautiful art smock. It was a navy blue with pockets positioned all over the place. I slid it over my neck and marveled at the way it fit my body perfectly. I glanced down and noticed that on the center of the chest, more caligraphy letters stated my name.
“Do you like it?” Lauren’s voice brough me out of my trance and I looked up at her.
“Like it?” I asked. “No.”
“Oh, I’m-” She took a step back and cast her eyes to her boots.
“I absolutely love it,” I gushed. She looked back up, surprised. I grinned and took the smock off. “I’ve been looking for something like that, but I could never find one that I really liked. This one is perfect.”
“Oh, thanks,” she mumbled under her breath.
“Did you do it yourself?” I wondered.
“Um, yeah, kinda,” she admitted. “I wrote the caligraphy, but I found somebody to embroider it onto the smock.”
“That’s so cool,” I awed. “Thank you so much.”
“No problem. It was my pleasure,” she said and gave me another shy smile. I had to smile back and Alex laughed.
“I’m going to put this on a hook on the wall,” he told us and went off in search for one. I bit my lip and glanced down.
“I feel really guilty now, since I didn’t get you something,” I confessed to Lauren. She giggled and touched my shoulder tentatively.
“You don’t have to get me anything,” she said. “I just got this as a welcome present for you.”
“Well, I’m still going to get you something. Would you like a sign for the door to your classroom?” I suggested. Her eyes brightened and she nodded.
“You would do that for me?” she inquired. I nodded and smiled slightly.
Suddenly, her arms were around me and she was giving me a hug. I felt my posture stiffen and I kept my arms where they were; right by my sides. I don’t think she noticed my tense body, because she let go and smiled up at me.
“Thanks, so much,” she exclaimed. “I would really like that.”
“Well, what should I use as your last name since you are getting married?” I questioned.
“Jeff’s last name is Richards, so you could put ‘Mrs. Richards’,” she proposed. I nodded thoughtfully.
“Okay, I will get right to work on it,” I said. Lauren turned to leave, but looked at me when she got to the door.
“Thanks again,” she said softly.
“Well, thanks for the smock,” I replied and watched as she turned the corner and left.
“Wow, you really are breaking out of your shell,” Alex muttered as he came up behind me. I jumped at his voice and turned towards him.
“No,” I answered defensively, “I’m not. I’m just trying to be nice since she got me a gift. It’s not like I really want to make this sign. It’s the only thing I could think of off the top of my head. God, just leave me alone.”
Alex laughed. “Now there’s the Claire I know and love.”
“The Claire you know and love is going to smack you upside the head if you don’t shut up,” I warned. Laughing, Alex walked to the door.
“I have to leave anyway. I need to go get supplies for school.” He winked at me and left.
“What a weirdo,” I laughed to myself and opened the supply closet. I grabbed an eleven by thirteen canvas and set it out on a table. Next, I toted my basket of paints and set them next to the canvas. I placed my brushes on the side along with a cup of water and a few paper towels.
As I started to slowly paint the canvas, I heard footsteps by the door. I paid no attention to them, concentrating only on the thick white streaks of paint gliding across the canvas. It wasn’t until I heard the creak of my door opening, that I actually looked up.
I listened silently, as my boots clomped across the tile hallway. I kept glancing at the doors, trying to find the one I was looking for. Finally, I saw a door with a sign hanging on it that had Claire’s last name on it. I studied the painting for a minute.
It was dark blue with yellow letters-the school colors-and along the edges, faces were painted. There were different races and they trailed along the outside as if they were a connect-the-dots problem. I ran my finger along Claire’s last name. When I got the the loop of the ‘e’ and pushed on the door, wincing as it creaked.
Inside the classroom, Claire was working at a table-probably painting something. But, when I stepped inside, the first things that I noticed were the walls. I could tell that they were freshly painted and done beautifully. The background was black and there were neon paint splatters covering most of it. The far wall, though, was completely black and someone had written Claire’s name on it in chalk.
Chalkboard paint, I thought to myself as I looked at it.
“Can I help you with something?” Claire’s voice traveled across the room clearly and I glanced over at her. She stood up with her hands on her hips, a white spot of paint on her forehead. I smiled and walked over to her.
“Hey Claire,” I said easily and looked up at her ceiling. “I just came to check on your sprinklers in your classroom.”
“You do this to every classroom?” she asked. I nodded.
“Yep,” I lied quickly and looked around her classroom. “You have a ladder around here somewhere?”
“In the supply closet,” she said and pointed at a closet next to the desk where she had been painting. I sauntered over to it, pulling the door open. My eyes wandered over to her painting where she only had painted the canvas white. I pulled the ladder out and set it in the middle of the classroom. I could feel Claire’s eyes on me as I tightened my grip on the clipboard I brought with me.
“Could you help me?” I asked, pointing to the ladder. She shuffled over to it, then looked back at me. Confusion clouded her face and she raised her eyebrows. I almost wanted to laugh at her, but swallowed it back.
“What do I do?” Her hand went up and she started twirling a lock of her hair. I could tell she was starting to get annoyed.
“Just hold the ladder. I don’t have anyone to spot me,” I explained and grabbed her hand. I placed them on the ladder where they were supposed to be. When I dropped my grasp, she hesitated, shooting me a look.
“Is this safe? It’s very high,” she said haughtily as if she didn’t believe me.
“It’s fine,” I soothed and lightly touched her shoulder. She stiffened and slid from my grasp. I shrugged and started to climb up the ladder.
Once I reached the top, I took a ceiling tile off and placed it on the top of the ladder. I started to mess around with the wires up there, making it look like I actually had something to do. I “made a note” on my clipboard. Laughing silently at my little doodle dog, I looked down at Claire.
“How is it?” she inquired carefully. I could hear fear taking over her voice. Her grey eyes widened and she swallowed loudly.
“Perfect.” I smiled and doodled another dog on my clipboard. “Let me just chack one more thing.”
“Okay.” Her voice flooded with relief. Suddenly, she cleared her throat and glared back up at me. “Well, make it quick. I have to finish my painting.”
“What are you painting?” I tried my best to stay nonchalant.
“A sign for another teacher’s room.”
“What does she teach?” I heard her exhale hard and let go of the ladder. It wobbled a bit before she placed her hands back on the metal. The ladder stilled and I sighed.
“God, are you always this nosy?” she interrupted. I looked back down at her. Her eyes had a hard glint to them and her mouth was set in a tight line.
“Sorry,” I muttered and turned away. She exhaled again.
“Why do you want to know so much about me?” she asked.
“Why do you keep pulling away?” I countered. She laughed softly.
“It’s a long story,” she managed. That time, I laughed.
“I like long stories,” I told her, and looked back down. She watched me warily and tensed her shoulders.
“Okay,” she murmured.
“How about you tell me this ‘long story’ on Tuesday?” I chose my words carefully, as to not let her think it was a date.
“Tuesday?” Doubt filled her voice.
“Yeah. Tuesday afternoon. What time do you get off of school?”
“I can get off at two after lunch. Then the rest of the afternoon is free,” she said.
“Then I will pick you up at two,” I replied.
“I think Alex will be okay with it. He doesn’t have anything to do,” she continued. I let out a surprised gasp and climbed back down.
Once down on the floor, Claire glanced at my shocked expression.
“What?” she questioned.
“I actually meant that it would just be you and me,” I explained. Surprise flashed in her eyes and she looked down with embarassment.
“Oh, sorry. I didn’t know,” she said.
“It’s cool,” I forgave and smiled slightly. She glared back up at me.
“Is this a date?” she seethed. I laughed quickly.
“Of course not. This is two friends having an outing,” I lied through clenched teeth.
“Good,” she uttered. “Because, I don’t date.”
“I just don’t, okay?” She raised her voice. “I wish you would just leave it alone.”
“Okay, sorry.” I shrugged and started to make my way towards the door.
“Wait,”she called out. I turned back to face her, “so Tuesday? Two?”
Smiling, I nodded. She let out a breath and relaxed her stance. I raised my eyebrows, waiting for her to say something.
“You better be on time. Two o’clock sharp,” she warned. I laughed and nodded.
“I will. Don’t worry. See you Tuesday,” I said and walked out of her room.
Oh, Claire, I laughed to myself. You just wait to be dazzled.
I sighed and looked into my closet. I ran a finger over all of the shirts, trying to decide what to wear. I felt awkward in my sweats and tank; I kept running my hand up and down my bare shoulder.
“Would you stop fretting,” my brother complained as he flopped on my bed. I looked over at him and stuck out my tongue.
“Sorry,” I apologized. “I just don’t know what to wear. I mean, he said it wasn’t a date.”
“Hold up,” he interjected. “When a guy says it’s ‘not a date’, then he is just covering up for the fact that it is a date.”
“Really? Okay then.” I paused and sucked in a breath. “He said we will be going somewhere nice so I don’t know what to wear.”
“A dress?” Alex suggested as if it was obvious. I rolled my eyes and looked back in my closet. I found a black lace dress and pulled it out, holding it up to my body. Alex nodded his approval.
“I don’t know,” I muttered and turned to put it back on the rack. Alex grabbed it out of my hands and stepped away from me. I scowled at him and he just laughed.
“Wear it,” he ordered. “It is a date and you are going somewhere nice. Wear it with some red or black heels.”
“I didn’t know you were so into fashion, Alex,” I teased and reached over to ruffled his hair. He chuckled and handed the dress back to me. I took it graciously and laid it on my bed.
After Alex left, I drug out a pair of strappy red heels. I slid on the dress and laced up my shoes.
Before leaving, I glanced in the floor-length mirror on my door. My dress was a little short, but it would have to do. The shoes popped out on my tanned skin and gave a splash of color to my outfit. I checked my make-up making sure that my liner was even on both sides and my lipstick wasn’t smudged. I ran a hand through my newly straightened hair and smiled at my reflection.
Why am I so nervous? I asked myself as I walked out of my room.
I glanced at the clock; it was only 1:55. I was already ready for my first classes the next week and I had packed up ten minutes ago. I was perched on one of the stools, trying to tug my dress down without making it too low on the top. I grabbed my compact mirror from my bag and reapplied my lipstick, blotting it afterwards.
“It’s just a friend outing,” I warned myself. “It isn’t a date.”
I slid my mirror back into my purse and uncrossed my legs. I stood up and walked around my room, taking in everything I saw.
The chalkboard wall was newly cleaned and I had written my name in big loopy letters in the center. I smiled and looked over at the desks. They were lined up in rows, waiting to be covered in paint and other miscellaneous streaks. I was running my hand over my new smock when there was a knock at the door. I looked at the clock; it was two o’clock sharp. I sucked in another breath.
“Come in,” I called out and smiled slightly.
He was dressed in nice slacks and a light blue button down with a sports coat slung over his arm. His usually dark eyes seemed brightened and the corners of his mouth were upturned in a smile as he took in my outfit. His black hair had been recently washed and still looked damp to the touch.
“You look great,” Michael murmured and walked over to me. Heat flooded my cheeks and I laughed.
“You don’t look so bad yourself,” I shot back and plucked at his collar. He laughed nervously, placing a hand on my shoulder. I shrugged out of his touch and looked down at my shoes.
“You ready to go?” I heard his voice crack with anxiety. I nodded silently and let him lead me out of the school.
Outside, a bright yellow taxi was idled at the curb. The anxious driver glanced at his watch and shot a cold look at Michael. We slid in and Michael gave the driver directions. I swallowed nervously and glanced over at him. He was watching me adoringly, as if I were a precious jewel waiting to be bought.
“Please tell me we aren’t going to Waffle House today,” I burst out sarcastically. Michael’s eyes lit up and he chuckled.
“I thought you liked that place,” he said. I rolled my eyes and shoved him.
“I don’t want to go to Waffle House in a dress and heels,” I explained gesturing to my outfit. Relax rolled off his shoulders and he shrugged carelessly.
“Why not?” he suggested. I stared at him.
“Michael,” I said with a serious tone.
“Claire,” he repeated with equal seriousness. Then he laughed. “Actually, I thought we should go to somewhere a little nicer.”
“Good,” I stated and turned away to watch the city pass by.
“We’re here,” Michael commented and nudged my shoulder. I looked to his side, where he was opening the door. I eased out behind him and looked at the building in front of us.
A large sign stated the name, 21 Club. It was a large building; maybe two stories. Michael led me inside and I gasped. Inside, the restaurant was exquisite. Table-clothed tables were pressed up against the walls and in the far back, I could see a bar. In the center of the building, rested a large, open dance area. Couples were pressed up against each other, moving to the beat of the music blaring out of the speakers.
“Claire,” Michael called out and tugged on my arm. I looked over at him; He was walking towards an empty table in the back. I followed closely behind, aware of how close we were pressed up against each other. I could smell a spicy scent ovepowering his body.
I flopped into the cushioned chair, grateful for a break of walking. Michale smiled at me and I grimaced back. Shock flashed in his eyes and I shrugged.
“This is pretty cool,” I said-actually I had to yell. The music was pounding over the speakers and I could barely hear myself think.
“Yeah,” he agreed. “Let’s go ahead and order before it gets crazy.”
“Okay,” I replied and glanced over my menu.
“You guys ready or what?” A waitress sauntered over to us, a bored expression on her face. Once she caught sight of Michael, her expression turned to a flirty one and she turned away from me. I looked her up and down, jealous of her slim figure outfitted in a short black skirt and white button down.
“Yes we are,” Michael told her and smiled. Something tugged at my heart and my eyes widened. I could feel jealously start to take over my mind.
How can I be jealous? It’s not like we’re together. God, I need to stop worrying, I chastised myself. Michael ordered for both of us and the waitress left. I watched him warily as he stood up.
“Want a glass of wine?” he asked and I nodded gratefully. He left and I placed my head in my hands.
“What is going on with me?” I whispered in agony.
“That was so much fun,” I exclaimed as we burst out of the restaurant. Michael chuckled.
“It was wasn’t it?” he asked and whistled for a taxi. I leaned onto his shoulder and giggled mindlessly. I could feel him smiling as he placed a hesitant arm around my shoulder.
“You need to stop being so careful,” I scolded. He froze and looked down at me. “I’m just a girl. It’s not like you haven’t had a lot of us around you.”
“What are you talking about?” he inquired. I stared up at him, shocked.
“I mean, like that waitress in there.” I pointed towards the restaurant as a taxi pulled in to the curb. We got in and Michael gave the driver another set of directions.
“What about the waitress?” He was still staring at me in bewilderment.
“She was flirting with you nonstop all night. That’s why I dragged you to the dance floor. I was pretty sure you were flirting with her,” I explained quickly. Recognition dawned in his expression and he smiled.
“I thought we aren’t on a date,” he said. I shook my head in denial.
“We aren’t,” I stated. Michael laughed.
“Oh, so you were jealous,” he managed between chuckles. Blood pooled in my cheeks and I frowned.
“No,” I started.
“Yes, you were,” he interrupted. I glared at him and he stared back with a knowing look.
“No I wasn’t,” I proclaimed.
“I think you were,” he stated. “And I’m not arguing with you about it anymore.”
I opened my mouth and then closed it again. Turning away, I once again watched the city pass by through the window.
On our way to the museum, the silence was palpable. Claire sat as far away from me as she could, anger rolling off of her in waves. I grimaced slightly and watched her with aprehension.
Her cinnamon hair looked a little longer then the first time I saw it; the ends were starting to curl away from her face. Her dark red lips were pursed and her grey eyes hinted at anger and defeat. Her legs were angled away from me, looking long and lithe. The black dress she was wearing started to ride up her thigh and I gulped.
Calm down Michael, I warned myself. I tore my gaze from her and smiled as the taxi pulled up to the large white building.
A wide red carpet donned the steps leading to the entrance. Light were set up along the edges, showing the guest where to go. Velvet ropes lined the ends, keeping the wannabees out. Photographers stood around, taking pictures every moment they got. Lights flashed around me as I noticed the darkening sky; I glanced at my watch which read 5:45. Had we really been at the restaurant for that long?
“Where are we?” Claire asked as I put on my jacket. I looked over at her to see that she was staring in astonishment at the building.
“An art museum,” I replied and slid out of the cab. I held out my hand and Claire took it tentatively.
“A new one?” Surprise colored her voice. I helped her out and quickly paid the driver. He sped off; I turned back to Claire. She was still staring at the cameras and the red carpet.
“Brand new. It’s the grand opening.” I said. She nodded, speechless. Without thinking, I grasped her hand and she started at my touch. She shot an accusing glare at our intertwined hands and I laughed nervously. I extracted it and shrugged. “I was going to help you through the paparazzi.
“I can walk myself up to the entrance, thank you very much,” she seethed, tightening her grip on her purse. “I don’t need your help. Besides, I like the cameras.”
I could tell she was lying but smiled anyway. I started to walk ahead of her and it took her a moment to catch up with me. I tried to listen to her hesitant footsteps behind me, so when they stopped I spun around to face her.
She was a few feet back, a look of panic in her eyes. A group of photographers surrounded her; flashes popped in front of her face. She used her free hand to cover her eyes. Her lips formed my name and I snapped into action.
I ran over to her and stuck my hand out. She grabbed it and I pulled her away from the cameras. The men grumbled to themselves but I didn’t listen as I took Claire away. Her grip loosened as I tugged her up the steps, but I continued to hold on.
Once inside the museum, I released my grip and ran a hand through my hair. Claire let out a breath of relief and smiled tightly at me.
“Thanks,” she said. I nodded and chuckled softly even though she was glaring at me. “You better not say ‘I told you so’.”
“I wasn’t,” I promised. She gave me a pointed look and I laughed again. “I’m telling you the truth. Well, sort of.”
“Uh-huh,” she muttered and rolled her eyes.
“I was just going to tell you ‘You’re welcome’,” I explained.
“Whatever.” She shrugged and took in a deep breath. Her eyes started to take in the room and I did the same. Smiling at the familiarity of it, I spun in a circle, looking at everything. The bright walls. The silence of the air. The gorgeous chandelier in the center of the ceiling. I took in a breath and could faintly smell newly applied paint.
“Champagne?” A waiter held out a tray and I took two flutes. Handing one to Claire, I smiled.
“Ready?” I raised my eyebrows and waited for her response. She nodded quickly, still taking in everything. I took a sip from my glass and gestured for her to follow me.
She followed quietly behind me as we walked through the exhibits. Sometimes, she would hold onto the tail of my jacket, hoping not to get lost. We strolled through slowly, taking in all of the art hanging on the walls. Claire seemed very interested and I knew I had scored big for bringing her here.
“I love this one,” she said pointing to a Van Gogh landscape. I nodded and studied it for a minute. I had already seen it, but seeing it again with Claire, made me look at it differently. I had someone to share it with.
Throughout the night, I could feel Claire relaxing as she looked at each painting and made comments. I even got her to laugh.
We were walking past another opening when I saw one of my favorite paintings. I ran ahead and grinned at it.
“Claire, look at this Monet,” I exclaimed pointing at the painting. When she didn’t answer I looked back to where she was.
She was standing at the opening that led to another exhibit. Her eyes were wide, taking in whatever piece of artwork she saw there.
“Claire,” I called out.
“Wow,” she mouthed, ignoring me. She walked towards the exhibit, wanting to see more of the paintings. I wondered which exhibit could have her so interested. I followed behind her, quickly but silently, not wanting to disturb her. I turned the corner and finally saw what had captured her attention.
“Oh,” I murmured and froze in my place.
A large mural stared back at me, covering the full wall of the exhibit. It was very colorful and stood out from the rest of the paintings in the room. On the top half of the wall, you could see tall buildings, trees, people, animals, etc. It was a peaceful half and looked pleasing to the eye.
On the bottom half, the painting turned dark and dangerous. You could see the grease and grime underground along with a subway train, rats and sewers. The only colors were black and white, making the half look bland but disgusting.
I didn’t have to go to the plaque on the wall to know what the name of the painting was. It was named “New York: The Beautiful and the Grime.” I smiled to myself and turned away from the painting.
I noticed that a lot of people were walking up and down the room, comptemplating the mural. Most of them were nodding, pleased with it. Couples were whispering about it, talking about the different halves. I could tell by the fingers they pointed at the mural.
Finally, I found Claire. She was standing at the end of the mural, close to the plaque. I wondered if she had found out who painted it yet. She was studying it intently, a faint smile gracing her lips. She let her eyes wander until she found me. Excitedly, she waved me over, smiling widely.
“Michael, look at this painting,” she cooed. I nodded. “It is so inspiring. I wish I could have done something like this.”
“It is pretty cool,” I agreed. Claire gasped and I glanced at her. She was staring at me with astonishment.
“‘Pretty cool? This is amazing!” she exclaimed. “I have to know who the artist is.”
I was about to stop her, but then realized it couldn’t hurt anything. Her finger scrolled through the words until she found the sentence she was looking for. Then, after reading it, she laughed.
“That’s funny,” she giggled. “It says that ‘Michael Herring painted this’.”
She looked at me, a silly expression on her face. I was serious as she started to read again.
“He works as a fire fighter at Engine 38,” she paused. “Wait, that’s...”
“Me,” I finished for her. Her eyes found mine again and I shrugged. “I painted this in my free time. That’s why I was invited to the grand opening.”
“You paint?” she asked. I nodded sheepishly. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“The topic never came up,” I reminded her. She grimaced and looked down at her hands, tracing over the tattoo on her wrist. “And I only paint murals like this. I don’t like small things like you do.”
“Oh,” she muttered and sighed.
“What?” I wondered. She didn’t meet my eyes as she wrung her wrists.
“It’s nothing,” she uttered under her breath.
“Tell me,” I urged and hooked a finger under her chin, making her look at me. Her grey eyes were bright, her cheeks flushed.
“It’s just that I have always wanted to meet someone that knew and loved art as much as me. I have never found anyone like that until now. You know so much about it and you even painted that,” she pointed to the mural. “But, I can’t be with you. I just can’t....I guess stress has just been setting in and I haven’t realized int until now. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
She looked so vulnerable right then.
Against all better judgment, I cupped her cheek with my hand and she froze. She stared into my eyes, making me forget everything about myself. Before I could decide against it, I leaned in and pressed my lips to hers. She gasped before melting into me. I snaked my arms around her waist and she hooked hers around my neck.
The kiss was better than I thought it could ever be. Her lips were soft and they fit against mine perfectly, like a puzzle piece. She shuddered violently and it took me a moment to figure out she was crying.
I tasted the salty tear on my tongue and pulled back. Tears were streaming down her cheeks and I frowned.
“Are you okay?” I whispered, not wanting to break the bubble around us. She nodded and mumbled something under her breath. “What did you say?”
“Just hold me,” she muttered again and pressed her face to my chest. Sobs racked at her chest and she wrapped her arms tightly around me. I looped my arms around her and stood silently as she cried, wondering if I did something wrong.
“.....I don’t know what I’m going to do,” I finished and looked into his green eyes. Fire burnt passionately in them and he cupped my cheek with his hand. I froze and swallowed loudly.
He wouldn’t, I thought right before he pressed his lips to mine. Startled, I let out a gasp. Then, without thinking, I melted against him, my body fitting against his perfectly. I looped my arms around his neck and he wrapped his around my waist. I kissed him back with abandon and freedom.
I loved the way his lips moved against mine; they was firm but soft. A tear slipped down my cheek and before I could stop them, they were flowing down my face. I shuddered and he froze, tasting the salt water on his tongue. He pulled back; I could feel him studying me.
“Are you okay?” he asked, concern masking his voice. I nodded and murmured my reply. “What did you say?”
“Just hold me,” I said a little louder and tried to muffle a sob. I pressed my face into his chest, letting myself get lost in his spicy scent. As I sobbed, I snaked my arms around his waist and kept him anchored there. He loosened his grip on me, but didn’t let go.
If only he knew.
“Claire.” A voice interrupted my dream and I flicked my eyes open. A guy was sitting beside me, fingers resting against my cheek. As my vision became clearer, I could see the guy’s black mop of hair and his frightened green eyes. Michael.
“Huh?” I groaned and straightened up. I noticed I was sitting on the couch and there was a large blanket wrapped around me. I shivered even though it wasn’t cold and grimaced as I popped my neck.
“Are you okay?” he asked, his voice frantic. I laughed hoarsely at the question.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” I questioned. Michael shifted his gaze to his hands which were somehow intertwined in mine. I took my hand away and tried to get him to look me in the eye.
“You were screaming in your sleep,” he stated. I covered my mouth with my hand and stared at him in horror.
“I was?” I tried to remember any screaming in my dreams. There wasn’t any.
“Loud. And you said Alex’s name multiple times along with ‘dad’.” He searched my eyes before handing me a cup of coffee. Black.
“How did you know what coffee I like?” I asked suspiciously. He laughed and shook his head.
“Alex told me,” he said and pushed himself into a standing position.
“What time is it?” I looked around for a clock, forgetting that I hadn’t put one in the living room yet.
“Around six in the morning,” he told me. I groaned and took a sip of the coffee. The bitter taste washed down my throat and I felt more awake than I had a few minutes ago.
“God, that’s early,” I commented.
“No kidding,” Michael replied. I glared up at him and stood up.
“Why are you still here?” I accused walking around him to my room. I heard him follow behind me.
“I wanted to make sure you were okay after the museum last night,” he paused. “I guess we both fell asleep.”
“Where’s Alex?” I inquired pulling a drawer out from my dresser. I grabbed a pair of shorts and a tank top and shuffled into the bathroom.
When I came out, Michael was back in the living room sitting on the couch. I sat down beside him, warming myself with the steam from the coffee mug.
“Where’s Alex?” I repeated and looked over at him.
“He left about five to go exercise,” he explained and smiled at me. At that moment, I could still feel his lips on mine. I shook the thought from my head and shifted a little bit away from him.
“Oh, okay,” I said and took another drink from my coffee.
“God,” Michael groaned and took the mug from me. He set it on the coffee table and took my face in his hands.
He crushed his lips against mine and I almost lost all coherence. His lips moved with mine as if they had a purpose. They were just as I remembered them; soft, but firm. I locked my arms around his neck and he snaked his around my waist.
I don’t know how long we sat there kissing, but sooner than I wanted, I pulled back. Michael opened his eyes and watched me warily. I leaned back and swiped at a tear running down my face.
Michael caught my wrist and pulled it towards him. He used his finger and traced the outines of the music notes inked onto my skin. Then, he took my hand and pressed his lips into my palm.
I closed my eyes for a moment, trying to enjoy the moment. Suddenly, my eyes flicked open and I snatched my hand away. I tucked it against my chest and rocked back and forth.
“Claire,” Michael whispered in agony. I shook my head and stood up. I started to pace back and forth in front of him muttering under my breath.
“I can’t do this. I can’t. I can’t do this. I just can’t. I can’t do this,” I moaned. Michael shifted so he was facing my and grabbed my waist as I passed in front of him. He turned me so that I was facing him.
“Can’t do what, Claire?” he asked. I shook my head, unable to speak. “Claire, you have to talk to me.”
“ I can’t do this....us,” I explained quickly. I could tell he was confused by the sadness in my eyes.
“Why not?” I could hear the disappointment in his voice and I tried to stay strong.
“It’s a long story,” I said. He laughed; it was short and mocking, unusual for him.
“I told you, I like long stories,” he shot back and pulled me towards him. I collapsed on the couch beside him, my breath hissing through my clenched teeth. “I have time.”
“You won’t want to hear it.”
“Claire.” I could hear the exasperation catch in his voice. “Try me.”
“You won’t be able to handle it,” I said. I was trying desperately to get him to drop the subject. Unlucky for me, it wasn’t that easy.
“Claire, you tell me right now. You are mine and I care about you. Let me in,” he pleaded. “Please, Claire. Just let me in. Let me know your life. I want to know you.”
“Okay,” I whispered, feeling defeated. “Here goes nothing.”
“My mom was nineteen,” Claire started after taking in a deep breath, “when she had me. My dad was twenty-nine; ten years her senior. He was her college professor. When my mom found out that she was pregnant, she was genuinely happy. She said that she had always planned to keep her firstborn, no matter how old she was. After my dad found out, he proposed and they got married the winter before I was born. In March of 1976 I was introduced to life.
They found a little home in Atlanta, Georgia, thinking that they could do it. They thought that they could have jobs and have a family at the same time. But, by the fall of 1976, my mom had dropped out of college. She said that it was too hard with a newborn. She always promised she would go back after I got old enough. She never did.”
Claire paused and looked down at her hands. She fiddled with a bracelet around her wrist before continuing.
“When I was seven, everything was going fine. My dad was paying for everything and my mom had a part time job at a restaurant. Then, she found out she was pregnant again. My dad ordered for her to get an abortion. He said that they didn’t need another baby in the house. My mom disagreed and it was the first time I had ever seen my dad hit my mom.
But, my mom didn’t care and went ahead to have the baby. Later that year, my brother, Alex was born. I was so happy. I had someone to play with, other than my stuffed animals. I was told that I had to wait for Alex to grow up before I could play with him.
I was still a wild child even then. I alway broke the rules. So, almost every night I would crawl into his crib with him and sleep next to him. My mom would alway find me in there and scold me, but she laughed while she did it, so I knew it was okay.”
Her voice cracked and she cleared her throat. I handed her the coffee mug and she took it graciously. She took a sip and smiled shyly at me.
“When I was nine, the fighting started. At first it was little things, like how my mom was home later than she was supposed to be. Then it got down to the fact that my dad thought that my mom wasn’t paying her share for the house and everything. At night, I could here them arguing. It would start quietly until my dad started yelling at her.
It usually ended with a crash and my mom coming upstairs into my room. She would crawl in bed with me, tears coming down her face. Sometimes there was a new bruise on her face or her fingers would be crooked.
A few days after I turned ten, the divorce papers were signed and she was on her way to California. My dad, Alex and I stayed in Georgia, trading our old house for a smaller, cheaper one. I would then be the one to take care of my brother. I would feign sick so that I could be there for him when the babysitter couldn’t. Somehow, I was able to slip through middle school without getting caught.”
I watched as she took a few deep breaths. I could see that it was hard for her to open up. I wanted to tell her to stop but I knew she wouldn’t listen to me. So, I let her continue on.
“The beatings began after I turned 12. First off, it was because I was coming home a little late. It would only be two minutes but he didn’t care. We were nothing to him. He would yell at me. Soon it go to the point where he would hit me. Then to the point where he would beat me mercilessly.
One day, when I was 14, I had had a really good day at school. I came home at the same time I usually do and I was smiling for a change-a cute guy had asked me out. When I got inside, I realized my dad was on one of his drunk rampages. I tried to steer clear by going into my room to start on my homework. I was halfway through my work when my dad threw my door open and attacked me.
Micahel, he....he,” she stuttered and then fell silent. I placed a hand on her shoulder and smiled warmly.
“Go on,” I urged, wanting to hear the rest of the story. I saw a tear slip down her face and she nodded silently.
“That night he raped me,” she whispered. I knew she felt my body go rigid. Fire burned dimly in my eyes. She watched me carefully, to see how I would react. I took my hand away and stood up. “Michael.”
“Give me a minute,” I managed through clenched teeth. I paced the room for a few minutes trying to calm down. Finally, I took a deep breath and sat back down. Claire placed a hand on my arm and left it there.
“You okay?” she asked. I nodded, my lips in a tight line.
“Go ahead,” I told her.
“A few weeks after he raped me, I noticed something was missing. So I went to the doctor and found out that I was pregnant.” She watched my expression turn from anger to shock. “At fourteen. I couldn’t be pregnant at fourteen. So, I didn’t tell anybody and went to a free clinic to get an abortion. A couple of days later I was doing fine, like nothing had ever happened. I still have scar from it too.”
She lifted her tank top and I gasped at the pale lines crisscrossing down her flat stomach. They ran all along her skin and looked like they continued on her back. She ran a finger across one, wincing as she did.
“He would cut me when I yelled at him,” she explained. I leaned back and gasped in horror. The lines crossing her body spelled out the word ‘ugly’. I closed my eyes and grimaced.
“Oh my God,” I whispered in agony.
“He would spell it out over and over again with his knife. I got used to the pain after a little while.
Four days after getting the abortion, I turned 15. That afternoon I went out with my friends and went shopping and got our nails done. When I got home, my dad was waiting for me. He beat me, saying that I was worthless. I ran away that night.
I had already planned to run away, but after he beat me, I knew that my decision was the right one. That night, I packed the rest of my stuff away and left. My friend took me to the airport and I took a flight to New York City where I live now.”
She stopped talking for a minute to wipe at the tears coming down her eyes. She took in a shaky breath and looked at me.
“Claire, that’s-” She held up a finger and I stopped, watching her.
“I’m not finished yet,” she explained. I nodded sympathetically.
“Sorry,” I apologized and held my arms open. She slithered into them and rested her cheek against my chest. She took my hand and squeezed tightly, telling me not to let go.
“When I got to New York, I called my mom. I barely had any money and I looked like a mess with a newly made black eye. When she picked up, I told her everything. She listened quietly and when I was finished she told me one thing before hanging up. She said, ‘I’m going to help you.’
Later that week I was applying for a high school. She had sent all my papers to the principal, stating that I lived with my ‘aunt’ here in New York City. We lied through our teeth. And they believed it all. Two weeks later, I was a new student with a part time job as a waitress at a diner. I didn’t make any friends and stayed away from people as best I could.
Oh, they tried. They tried to be my friend, but I couldn’t let them. I couldn’t open up because I felt like I was going to be betrayed again.
I know it sounds silly, but I felt that if I disappointed anybody, then they would hit me or beat me. Because that’s what my dad would do to me. So, I was distant and did my school work and went to work right after school let up.”
“Where did you live?” I asked, interrupting her. She laughed coldly.
“Here. There. Everywhere. Usually, I slept on the streets.” She shrugged at my shocked expression. “I would have to get up before a cop noticed me though. My kind wasn’t allowed on the streets. I remember one week, this lady let me share her ‘home’. It was a couple of cardboard boxes and blankets, but I didn’t care. I was going to be warm that night.
The next morning, I left at sunrise. I knew not to get close to people.
Somehow, I made it through high school without any problems. I graduated with all A’s and had gotten a diploma. At the time, I hadn’t known what I wanted to do. I couldn’t go to college. I didn’t have any money saved up. So I took two years off, trying to get money to go to college. By then, I had a full time job at the diner and I had finally found a place of my own.”
“Where?” I had to interrupt again. She smiled weakly at me.
“This run down apartment. It was dirt cheap and easy to access. Although, it wasn’t the safest part of the city. There were a few shootings and a stabbing on the floors around me.
Right after I turned nineteen; that was when the money came. My mom sent me loads of cash, telling me that she was a wealthy lawyer in California. Her dream. I used a lot of it to pay for college. I had wanted to be a teacher. An art teacher.
So, four years later, I had a teaching degree and a new, better apartment. That’s where I lived before coming here. I found a job at an art high school and here I am today.”
She smiled up at me through her tears and I let out a sigh. Using my finger, I wiped a few tears of her face and ran a hand through her hair.
“I don’t see why you can’t do.....us,” I said.
“You don’t see why?” she questioned. I shook my head and she frowned. “I don’t want to be hurt, Michael. My mom was hurt and she left. My dad beat her. They didn’t love each other. They just said they did. In the end, my mom left with nothing. And she left us there. She left us there. It was as if we didn’t matter to her.”
She realized that she was ranting and clamped her mouth shut. I cupped my hand around her chin and she looked up into my green eyes.
“Claire, I will never beat you. That is wrong. Truthfully and honestly? I love you and I will never do anything to hurt you,” I proclaimed. Suddenly my eyes widened and I looked down at her. She was staring at me in bewilderment, but her eyes detected at happiness. “Never.”
“Hm,” she murmured.
“Where does Alex come into this?” I asked quickly. She froze after I asked the question and grimaced.
“Alex,” she muttered and sat up a little straighter, making it impossible for me to hold her. “Oh, Alex.”
“Yes, Alex,” Michael repeated. “How did he end up with you?”
“This is a shorter story,” I explained and he nodded, smiling mockingly at me. I rolled my eyes and dried another tear.
“Go on,” he said and waited impatiently for me to start. I took in a deep breath.
“After I moved here, I rarely spoke or heard from Alex. He was always quiet; encased in his own little world. But, he loved music and art. He is a great drawer and can play the piano really well. That’s all he wanted to do since he was little. At age four, he got his first instument; a little piano. He started playing and we were amazed at how quickly he learned new pieces. I had always thought that he would end up somewhere big.
Once Alex turned sixteen, he went out to celebrate with some of his friends. They snuck into a bar and caused a great deal of trouble. The police showed up and arrested him and his friends, taking them to jail. My dad showed up and put on a good front for the police. Hugging Alex and saying that he was glad he was okay.
The ride home was silent. Alex knew what was going to happen when they got home. He was trying to prepare himself for it.”
My breath was coming out in short, shallow gasps and I closed my eyes. I couldn’t let the tears come out again. Not now.
“What did your dad do?” Michael muttered. Even he knew what was coming. I smiled weakly.
“After they got home, my dad started yelling at him. Alex picked a bad decision and started yelling back. My dad hit him and they got into it. It stopped after my dad threw a glass vase at him. It shattered and Alex had to go the the hospital, with shards covering his arms.
The next week he showed up at my doorstep with stitches in his skin and bruises all over his face. I let him in and he started high school here. We haven’t heard from our dad yet.”
I noticed that I was crying again and groaned.
“You okay?” Michael asked. I looked over at him and noticed tears brimming his eyes too. I nodded numbly and tried to smile at him.
“I just can’t believe he did that to us,” I stated. Michael nodded his agreement and frowned.
“Why can’t you go to the police?” he asked.
“Because they will take Alex away. I can’t let that happen. He is all I have left. The only person I can trust and love. He would never hurt me. He is like my twin. My other half,” I sobbed. I covered my eyes and I let the tears fall. Michael placed a hand on my back and started rubbing.
“I’m sorry, Claire,” he murmured. Suddenly his voice got hard and tense. “But you lied.”
“What?” I was astonished. “No I didn’t. That whole story is the truth. I would never lie to you.”
“I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the part where you said that he is ‘the only person you can trust and love’. That is a total and complete lie. You trust me. I can see it in your eyes. And you trust me enough to tell me these stories of you past. And I know you love me. I know it.” He finished his little rant and leaned back on the couch. I stared at him for a moment before answering.
“I may trust you, but I don’t love you,” I shot back. Michael shrugged and smiled.
“I think you do,” he said and leaned closer to me. He pressed his lips to my cheek, leaving behind a trail of fire. He pulled away too soon and stood up. He dropped my hand and smiled wistfully.
“But,” I started. He raised his eyebrows and I fell silent.
“I won’t see you until Friday,” he stated. It was my turn to raise my eyebrows. “I have to work today and tomorrow. I will be here at seven to take you and Alex to breakfast on Friday. Oh, and Claire?”
“Yeah?” I looked at him expectantly, waiting to hear a sarcastic remark.
“I love you,” he said and winked at me. Without saying another word, he walked away, letting himself out of the door. I looked down at my empty mug of coffee and frowned.
I took a quick glance at the kitchen clock; it said that it was already 9:30. Sighing, I stumbled into my bedroom. I jumped onto my bed, pulling the blankets up to my chin. Soon enough, I was falling asleep, my snores echoing through the empty apartment.
“Claire,” someone called my name. “Claire, wake up. It’s Thursday morning.”
“Ungh. Leave me alone,” I mumbled, waving the person away. My blankets were yanked from me and I could feel the chill of the air coming through the vent in the ceiling. “What?”
“Claire you have to get up. You stayed in bed all day yesterday, crying and sleeping. Today, get up and move around. Go read a book. Go to the school. Go do something!” Alex exclaimed and tugged on a strand of my hair. I opened my eyes and looked pointedly at him. His green eyes hinted at disapproval and I groaned. Sitting up, I stretched my hands over my head.
“Okay. Okay, let me get dressed and we will go to the park,” I compromised and he smiled in victory.
“Fantastic, I will go get dressed too,” he said and ran out of my room. I laughed to myself and slid out of bed.
I put on a pair of shorts and a tight, running t-shirt. I pulled my hair back into a small ponytail, making a mental reminder to get it cut before school started. I threw on my running shoes and walked out of the door.
Alex was waiting by the front door, a grin on his face. He was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. A baseball cap rested on his head and he had put on a pair of Vans. He smiled as he picked up our backpack, which was filled with the essentials. I laughed and pushed him out of the door.
A half hour later, we were walking into the park. I noticed it was busy for a summer day. Families were picnicking on the grass, teens were hanging out by the fountain, and kids were playing on the swingset.
Alex and I found an empty spot and set down our stuff. I grabbed my iPod from a pocket in the backpack. I plugged in my earbuds and glanced at Alex. He was watching these two girls work their way across the clearing.
“Alex,” I called out. He looked over at me, startled. “I’m going to run around for a while. I will meet you back here in a little while.”
“Okay,” he said distractedly. “I will see you later.”
He turned his attention back to the girls and smiled. I giggled silently and left him to his teenage antics. I walked onto the walkway, stretching my legs as I did so. I pressed play on my iPod and as the music started to play, I began to run.
I listened to loud rap music, making it difficult to think about anything else. It was just what I needed. I pushed myself faster whenever I began to think about him.
After the first lap, my calves began to burn, but I paid no attention to them. I turned the volume up and listened as Eminem rapped about his life. Suddenly, my mind wandered to Michael.
I don’t love him. I may trust him but I don’t love him. Do I?
“I think you do.” Isn’t that what he said. How does he know what I think or feel? Why am I so out a wack with my emotions. Maybe I should just pass this off as a sign of PMS. Or maybe I should listen to my brain.
But I can’t love him. I can’t. I won’t be hurt, like that again. Ever. Ugh. What do I do? Help me!
I stopped thinking about him as I caught sight of Alex sitting down on the clearing. He was sitting with a girl that looked to be his age. She had long brown hair, with bright streaks of red, blue and purple in it. She had dark skin-I think she was a latino-and had wide eyes. She was smiling and laughing at something Alex said.
He touched her bare shoulder and she flipped her hair over her shoulder. She laughed again and pressed her lips to his cheek. Then, she stood up and walked off. Alex watched her go with longing before turning away. He spotted me and waved excitedly. I waved back and he gestured for me to go over there.
“No,” I mouthed and pointed to the track ahead of me. I wanted to continue running. He nodded as if he understood and turned his head back to the book he was looking at. I continued on, trying to let my mind wander.
At least Alex can love. He wasn’t old enough to remember mom and dad fighting. God, how I envy him.
I wish I was strong enough to let myself love Michael. I don’t need to be afraid anymore. I will not be scared of love anymore.
Because I do. I love him. With all of my heart.
Suddenly, I froze in my tracks and gasped. I replayed the words over and over again, trying to find the hidden meaning in the letters. Then, I decided to try them out on my lips.
“I love him,” I muttered. “I love Michael Herring.”
“Claire,” I murmured and jumped into the shower. It was 6:30 in the morning and I had thirty minutes before I was supposed to meet Claire and Alex outside. In the shower, I scrubbed fiercely, erasing away all remains of smoke on my body.
Once I got out, I shrugged on a brown polo and a pair of cargo shorts. I ran a hand through my damp hair and shrugged. I really didn’t care how I looked as long as Claire was with me. I smiled at my reflection in the mirror before grabbing my wallet and heading out of the door.
I tried my best not to run down the stairs. My adrenaline was going through the roof and I felt my heartbeat quicken as I thought of her. When I got outside, I saw Claire waiting by a cab at the curb. She turned, saw me and waved.
She was wearing a white, flowing skirt-something I was surprised that she owned-and a tight, black tee that rode up her stomach showing a sliver of exposed skin. I found myself wanteing to reach out and touch her. She wore a pair of black flats and her hair was in curls around her face. Her eyes were bright and excited, coated in a shade of black that made the grey pop.
I walked over to her and gave her a quick hug, trying not to hold on for too long. She grinned at me and pushed a lock of hair behind her ear. I brushed a finger tip across the stud in her nose and moved down to her lips. I traced the outline of them and she opened her mouth slightly. An invitation. I shook my head and pushed her into the cab. Laughing, she did as I told and patted the seat next to her. I slid in and waited as she gave the driver directions.
“Waffle House?” I asked. She nodded and laughed.
“Yep. I was craving a waffle for breakfast this morning,” she explained. She slid over on the bench seat and laid her head upon my shoulder.
“Where’s Alex?” I questioned.
“He couldn’t make it. He has a date,” she laughed. Suddenly, I heard her let out a breath and I smiled slightly.
“You okay?” I wondered aloud.
“Never better,” she replied and took my hand in hers. I tried not to show my surprise, but I couldn’t help to look down at our intertwined hands every once and a while.
“You sure?” I mockingly pressed a hand to her forehead, checking for a temperature. “You don’t feel warm.”
“Would you quit,” she told me and pushed my hand away. She sat up and I immediately regretting making fun of her. I wanted to feel her skin against mine again. “I can’t hold your hand without there being something wrong?”
“You can’t,” I reminded her. She laughed haughtily.
“I told you I trust you,” she shot back. My eyes saddened and I looked away.
“But you don’t love me,” I stated. Claire was silent as we pulled up to the restaurant. We got out and I took her hand. She glanced at me with an exasperated look and I shrugged. “I never said I couldn’t hold your hand without there being something wrong with me.”
She laughed and all tension was lost. We walked together hand in hand into the restaurant. I led her to the bar and slid onto a stool. She hopped on the one beside me and looked at the menu. I tried to look at mine, but I was too distracted by the way she tapped her nails on the bar.
“Michael.” A waitress walked over to us, a pencil and pen in hand.
“Sarah,” I replied and smiled. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Claire stiffen a look away. I frowned and nodded at Sarah. “The usual.”
“Okay, and for you?” She turned to Claire. Without meeting her eyes she looked over the menu and then over at me.
“Same as him,” she muttered. Sarah left and I watched Claire. Her body was turned towards me, but she wouldn’t meet my eyes.
“Claire,” I said. She looked at me for a brief second before looking down again.
“What?” she whispered with anxiety. I tilted her chin up until she looked me in the eye.
“I am here with you. Not her,” I explained. She nodded but stayed silent. “I love you.”
“I know,” she replied. “I’m sorry. It’s just hard for me.”
“I understand,” I murmured and took her hand. She squeezed it and smiled weakly.
“Thank you,” she mouthed. I nodded and Sarah placed our food in front of us. I nodded gratefully and she left us alone.
It was silent for a little while. The only sounds were of our forks and knives scraping against the plate and our moans of enjoyment. Finally we leaned back, our plates empty.
“Better than I remembered,” Claire said aloud. I nodded in agreement and stood up. I left some bills on the bar and took Claire’s hand. Together, we walked out of the restaurant and to the street.
I whistled for a taxi and one eased up next to us. We got in and Claire gave the driver another set of directions. I watched her, an impressed expression on my face.
“The park?” I wondered again.
“Yeah, I have something to tell you.” She grinned at me and settled back into her seat. Her hand stayed grasped in mine and we stayed that way until we arrived at the park.
Once out of the cab, she led the way, taking me to a spot under a tree. We sat down, me with my back against the tree, her with her head in my lap. I toyed with sections of her hair and she laughed.
“This is nice,” she commented. I murmured in agreement and touched the tip of her nose.
“What did you have to tell me?” I asked, curiousity bubbling inside of my voice. She giggled again placing one of her hands over mine.
“Okay, well I was actually standing over there on the walkway when I realized something. I was running. Well, sprinting actually. I had a lot to think about. Anyway, I was sprinting on that track, listening to rap music and suddenly it came to me.”
“What did?” I asked again. I knew she was enjoying this.
“I was thinking about you and how I couldn’t love you after my past. Then I saw Alex flirting with another girl and I realized that I shouldn’t be afraid of you. That I shouldn’t be afraid to let go.” She paused and smiled up at me. I felt as if I was going to burst if she didn’t tell me what happened.
“And,” I started for her.
“And I love you,” she whispered. The color drained from my face. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. She let out a laugh and placed a hand on my cheek.
“What?” I managed.
“I love you,” she repeated. “I love you and only you.”
“Really?” I grimaced at the doubt in my voice. She nodded and pulled my head towards hers. Right before her lips met mine, she smiled.
“Definitely,” she murmured and pulled me in the rest of the way.
Our lips met and I could see fireworks. I closed my eyes and let myself be lost in the moment.
The bell rang and I turned my attention to the door. I could hear students conversing in the hallway, but so far no one had stepped into my room. I sighed and tried to stand up straighter. Behind me, my name was written in big loopy letters along with the assignment for the day.
“Where are my students?” I wondered aloud. Suddenly, a large group of students stumbled into my classroom. I smiled slightly and watched as they took their seats.
“We have a new teacher.”
“What happened to Mrs. Jewel?”
“I heard she retired after last year.”
“Dang it. I loved her.”
“I wonder if she is good enough to be our teacher.”
I silently listened to their conversations and frowned as they criticized me. I tugged on the hem of my vintage tee, pulling it down over my black skinny jeans. I checked out my high tops and lowered my hand, making the bangles around my wrist jingle. I sighed as the bell rang once more.
Alex ran into the room, an apologetic smile on his lips. I stared at him in disapproval as he took his seat next to a tall latino girl.
“I hope you aren’t late like this all of the time, Alex,” I warned. Blush crept up his neck and he shook his head.
“I won’t,” he said. “I promise.”
“Good.” I smiled at him and clasped my hands together. “Hey, everybody. My name is Ms. Barnes and I am your new senior art teacher.”
“Are you any good?” A boy called out from the back. He had short blonde hair and bright eyes that were lit up with anticipation.
“Any good at what?” I asked.
“Art?” he replied. I laughed and turned to my desk. I pulled out a large canvas and kept its back to my students.
“Well, who here believes that if I wasn’t good at art, then I would be teaching you all,” I suggested. I watched as a few students raised their hands tentatively. I smiled.
“Well, can you?” the boy called out again. I turned my canvas around and propped it up on my easel which was centered at the front of the room.
“You tell me,” I said and stepped away. I heard gasps of disbelief and a few murmurs here and there. The boy who called me out, stood up in the back and walked closer to get a better look.
“You painted that?” he asked in a shocked voice. I nodded.
“I did,” I muttered and placed a hand on his shoulder. “You like it?”
“Definitely,” he answered and smiled at me. I took a step back a studied the painting myself. I had done it yesterday after being bored for two hours straight. Michael was working and Alex had another date.
The painting was of a man in his late twenties. He had long black hair and bright green eyes. He was wearing a fire fighter’s uniform and in the background was a building that had caught on fire. It was a really good painting if I did say so myself.
“Was there a model for it?” A girl walked over to us, also studying the painting. I shook my head.
“Actually I did this from memory,” I explained. She nodded her agreement before looking back at me.
“Who is it?” she asked. I paused and my gaze swept over the classroom. The students were waiting for my answer; they all looked to be on the edge of their seats.
“Um,” I mumbled. “It’s my boyfriend.”
“Aw, that’s so sweet,” she cooed and went back to her seat. The boy followed her and I faced my class.
“Okay, well let’s start by getting to know each other,” I said and smiled at them. A few smiled back and I laughed. I walked over to the first table and pointed to a small girl with long blonde hair pulled into a high ponytail. “Starting here, let’s go around and say our names as well as the medium we like to paint in. You can start.”
I nodded at the girl and she swallowed loudly.
“Well, my name is Jennifer and I like charcoal,” she managed. I smiled at her and listened as the next boy went. We did this for a few minutes and when we got to the back where Alex was sitting I froze.
“I’m Alex and I like colored pencils,” Alex proclaimed and smiled at the girl beside him. She blushed and looked over at me. Her dark skin shone in the flourescent lights and her long brown hair hung straight right below her shoulders. She had streaks of red, purple and blue in the strands of hair and her eyes were a dark brown. They were wide, set in a small, but open face.
“Hi. My name is Hope and I like colored pencils as well,” she murmured and pushed her hair behind her ear. I noticed she had multiple piercings in her ears as well as one in her nose. I smiled at her and watched as Alex grasped her hand under the table. She laughed nervously and grinned at him.
The other students went through their names and at the end, I went back to the front of the room.
“Okay, so today I think that we should decide on our project for the first four weeks. I have heard great things about you guys, so I am expecting a masterpiece.”
Everybody looked at one another, fear taking over their expressions. I laughed, making them jump.
“I’m just kidding,” I giggled. They let out sighs of relief and laughed along with me. “But I am expecting something decent. I don’t want you slacking. I know all of you are great artists.”
“What do we do? Like, what’s our subject?” Hope asked. I shrugged, causing a few students to shoot me strange looks.
“Whatever you want,” I told them. “It can be realistic or abstract. It can be of people or of animals. I can be watercolor or acrylic. You decide. You are the artist and I am giving you reign over everything.”
“Wow,” Jennifer muttered. “Thanks, Ms. Barnes.”
“All of the supplies are in there,” I pointed to the supply closets. “And the aprons are hanging up by the door.”
There were a few whispers around the room and students started to stand up.
“Okay guys. Let’s get to work.
At hte end of class, I started to walk around the room, glancing at everybody’s work so far. I was thouroughly impressed as I strolled through the room.
“Wow, Jennifer, that looks really good,” I cooed as I watched her put some finishing strokes on the bird she was working on. She had done it in charcoal and so far, it looked amazing. It was beautifully drawn and the wings were spread into a graceful pose.
“Thanks,” she said and put down her piece of charcoal. “I love birds.”
“I can see,” I laughed. “Good luck on the rest of it.”
“Thanks,” she said again and stood up to clean up the rest of her mess.
I walked over to the back of the room, where Alex and Hope were hard at work on their own drawings. I stood behind them and cleared my throat. They looked up at me, startled.
“It’s almost time to go. You guys need to start cleaning up,” I warned. They nodded and walked away, leaving me to look at their drawings.
Hope’s drawing was of a large dragon. It was intricately drawn; the details were exquisite. She had started to color the face green and the shading was perfect.
I never meet anybody who can shade like she can, I thought and smiled to myself.
Then, I looked at Alex’s. He had drawn a large butterfly, which was also exquistely detailed. He had already colored the body of the butterfly and his shading was very nice. But it wasn’t as good as Hope’s. They walked back over, hand in hand.
“Guys, these are amazing. What gave you the ideas for these?” I gushed. They gave each other a look before turning to me. Hope spoke first.
“Actually, got the idea from Alex’s tattoo on his arm,” she explained and nudged Alex. “Show her.”
“No thanks,” I interrupted and recieved a strange look from Hope. Laughing, Alex rolled his eyes.
“Hope, Ms. Barnes is actually my sister,” he explained. A knowing look crossed over her face and she smiled.
“That’s crazy,” she exclaimed. “You two look nothing alike.”
“Everybody says that,” Alex and I said in unison. We laughed and I touched Alex’s shoulder.
“What about your drawing?” I asked. He blushed and I immediately regretted asking him.
“Um, well Hope has a butterfly tattoo on the small of her back,” he mumbled, rubbing a hand on the back of his neck. “That’s my inspiration.”
“Aw, that’s cute,” I said. “Are you two official?”
“Yes,” Hope stated immediately. Alex laughed at her excitement and tightened his grip on her hand.
“Well, Hope,” I started. Alex groaned and I shushed him, “you will have to come over for dinner sometime. Or we can go out. I would love to get to know you.”
“Thanks,” she replied. “Same here.”
The bell rang-a shrill sound- and everybody grabbed their bags. They called out their goodbyes to me and left my room. I sighed and leaned against a table.
“Today is going to be a long day,” I said to myself as another group of students walked in the door.
Flames flew into the air. Smoke poured out onto the streets. I could hear screaming, as people ran towards me. Moms clutched their little kids to their chests; tears streamed down their cheeks.
“What’s going on?” I called out, stopping a woman with my arm. She stared at me, her eyes wide and bloodshot. With a shaking finger, she pointed behind her. I looked up and felt my breath leave me. Two tall skyscapers towered above me. Their tops were not visible under all of the black smoke. I lowered my gaze and saw what everybody was scared of. Two gaping holes were drawn into the sides of the buildings, fire leaping out. Faintly, I could hear people screaming for help from the hole.
I looked down and noticed that I was in my fire fighter clothes. My helmet was situated on the top of my head and I took in a deep breath. It was time.
“It’s the big one, bro.” I heard Andrew’s voice beside me and glanced over at him. He, too, was in his uniform, an oxygen tank strapped to his back. I nodded.
Firefighters would always say that to one another. We would say it as a goodbye. “See you at the big one.” I never thought it would actually happen.
The smoke was thickening in front of us. Andrew nudged me and together we ran into the black abyss.
“Argh!” I shouted and sat up. Sweat poured down my chest and my breathing was harsh; it hissed through my clenched teeth. I ran a hand over y forehead, wiping off the sweat that had beaded there. I glanced at my clock; it was time to head to work.
I eased out of my bed, shivering as my feet hit the hardwood floor. I stumbled into my bathroom, grumbling all the way. Glancing into the mirror, I grabbed my mouthwash. I gargled for a minute before spitting it back out into my sink.
Whistling to myself, I turned on the shower. I jumped back as the cold water splashed onto my face.
“At least I’m awake now,” I muttered and took off my tshirt.
After getting out of the shower, I slid on a pair of shorts and my FDNY t-shirt. I towel-dried my hair, then threw the towel on my bed. I slid on my tennis shoes and walked out of the room.
I went to the kitchen, where I grabbed a banana from the bowl on my counter. I peeled it quickly, stuffing half of it in my mouth. I took a piece of paper and a pen from a drawer and set it on the small table in the kitchen. I quickly wrote a note to Claire.
Dinner tonight? See you at 7.
I folded it and stuck it in my pocket. Smiling to myself, I went to the living room and sat on the couch. I finished my banana and thought of nothing else but Claire. Her stormy grey eyes. He short cinnamon hair. The way she smiled when I surprised her.
“Oh, Claire,” I murmured and stood up again. I threw the banana peel into the trash and walked out of the door. I stopped by Claire’s apartment to slide the note under the door and then was on my way.
I took a quick taxi down to the station. On the way we passed by the Twin Towers. I marveled at their gorgeous structure and then we passed by them.
I smiled to myself as I got out of the taxi. I checked our station’s building up and down before going inside. Once inside, I was greeted by a round of applause. I froze in the doorwayand watched as all of the fire fighters walked towards me. I raised my eyebrows in confusion.
“Good job Michael,” somebody called out.
“It’s about time,” another one teased.
I saw Andrew snickering in the corner and I snatched him by the wrist. I pulled him over to me and stared hard at him.
“What is this?” I asked. He chuckled for another minute before speaking.
“I might have told a few people that you found your soulmate,” he managed between snickers. I gasped.
“You did what?” I yelled. Andrew started laughin again and patted me on the shoulder. “Why?”
“It’s all fun and games,” he said. I continued to glare at him until he stopped laughing. He stared at me with a peculiar expression. “What’s wrong?”
“I have a feeling something is going to happen today,” I explained. I told him about the dream I had had that morning. He listened silently, nodding at some places. When I finally finished, he just smiled.
“I am pretty sure that you are just freaking out,” he told me. I shook my head.
“No. I am not,” I fumed. “I have never had a dream like that before.”
Andrew watched me carefully.
“Never,” I added for emphasis. He chuckled and slapped me on the back.
“Yes, you are,” he stated and walked out of the room. Grumbling under my breath, I followed him into the kitchen. There, I was greeted by more applause and a few whistles. Seth sauntered up to me and stuck out his hand.
“Congats man. I’m so happy for you,” he exclaimed. I returned the gesture and we shook hands.
“Thanks, bro,” I replied.
“You think she’s the one?” he asked, trying to make small talk. I grinned a tight smile and shrugged my shoulders.
“I don’t know, Seth,” I admitted. “I think so, but I know Claire. And it will take her a while to realize it too. So, we will have to wait and see.”
“Well, at least she loves you,” he commented. I nodded and smiled for real.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “That makes things a whole lot easier.”
I grabbed a plate from the kitchen and made myself an omelet. I sat down to eat and thought about the day ahead. The guys were bustling around, but I tuned them out.
Is there really going to be ‘the big one’ today? I asked myself. Andrew thinks I’m crazy, but I know I’m not. I just know it.
I was interrupted in my thoughts when Andrew sat down beside me, his plate filled with eggs, toast and bacon. I smiled at him and took my last bite.
“What happened last night?” I asked. He frowned, sighing towards his plate.
“We had a lot of false alarms. Kids were messing with us. We went back to the same spot three times, before calling the police to stop the calls,” he moaned. “There was a fire in a grocery store a little after midnight. No lasting damage, if you don’t count the whole fruits and vegetable section is demolished.”
“You finished the report?” I wondered aloud.
“Not yet,” he said. “I have a few more things to write down.”
For every call, we had to write a report. We went through them all later, checking things over, handing them to the chief.
“Chief Parsons here yet?” I asked Andrew. He shook his head and shrugged.
“Not yet. He called and said he would be a little late,” Andrew stated. I nodded thoughtfully and took my dishes to the sink. I rinsed them off and stuck them on the drying rack. As a fire fighter, you never had time to fully wash the dishes. You never knew when you were going to eat.
“Hey guys,” a guy called out from the front door.
“Speak of the devil and he may appear,” Andrew uttered under his breath. I smothered my laughter and rolled my eyes at him.
Chief Trey Parsons walked into the kitchen and smiled at all of us. He was a large man in his late forties. He had thinning hair on the top of his head and today, he was sporting a five o’clock shadow. He was wearing a pair of khakis and a dark green polo.
I caught his attention and he waved at me. I waved back and smiled. He neared and I heard Andrew cough behind me.
“Suck up,” he coughed again and I kicked him under the table. I grunted and a smiled at my victory.
“How you doing, Herring?” Chief Parsons asked, shaking my hand. I nodded.
“Just fine, sir,” I answered. “And you?”
“Great. Just great. You ready to fight some fires?” he teased. I laughed weakly at his cheesy joke.
“You know it,” I said. He slapped me on the back and went over to Andrew. He nodded strictly at him.
“King,” he muttered.
“Chief Parsons,” Andrew replied. He shook his hand numbly and the chief walked away. I snickered into my hand and Andrew turned his clare on me.
“Tell me again why he hates you,” I inquired. Andrew said nothing, but continued to glare at me as he cleans up his plate. “Come on. Tell me.”
“You know why,” he stated. I laughed and stood up with him.
“Tell me again,” I pleaded. “Please?”
“I stole his ‘girlfriend’ in twelvth grade,” Andrew mumbled.
“And who is that girlfriend now?” I sang.
“My wife,” he shot back. I laughed and slapped him on the back.
“See? Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it?” I asked.
“Don’t push your luck, Herring,” he warned and walked out of the room. Still laughing, I followed him to the weight room.
“I love Michael,” I sang as I moved about my room. I threw on my leather jacket and sat down on my bed. I pulled my legs up to my chest and tied the laces of my Chucks. I ran a hand through my unruly hair and shrugged. It would have to stay that way for the day.
I walked out of my room and knocked on Alex’s door. There was a crash and a muffled yelp right after wards.
“Alex?” I called. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” came the muffled response. The door swung open and Alex was on his knees rubbing the back of his head.
“What happened?” I wondered, trying not to laugh.
“I slipped in my bathroom, after you knocked and hit my head on the floor. It hurt too,” he grumbled. “Thanks a lot, sis.”
“Sorry, bro,” I apologized and ruffled his hair. He scowled and started to shut the door.
“Can I finish getting ready?” he asked, a hint of annoyance in his voice.
“Go ahead,” I told him. He grinned and closed the door. I turned around and noticed a piece of paper by the front door. I skipped over to the door and picked up the paper. I flipped it over in my hand smiling at the sight of my name on the front. I opened it and my smile grew.
Dinner tonight? See you at seven.
Laughing, I refolded the note and stuck it in my back pocket. I walked into the kitchen where I grabbed an apple from the counter. I bit into thinking about Michael’s note.
I wonder where he is taking me? I thought, smiling wryly to myself. Or is he going to cook dinner this time? He said that he is a really good cook. Hm.
I finished my apple and tossed it in the trash. I shuffled around the kitchen for a minute until I realized that I had nothing left to do. I picked up my cell phone from the table and dialed a number I knew by heart.
“Hello?” A woman picked up the phone, her tone business-like.
“Mom,” I replied warmly.
“Hey, Claire,” she exclaimed. “I haven’t heard from you in a while. How is teaching? Didn’t you guys start yesterday?”
“Yeah,” I answered. “And I love teaching. My students are so sweet and not at all snobby like I thought they would be.”
“That’s good, honey. How’s Alex?” Her tone was cautious, hoping to not cross a boundary line.
“He’s good,” I chattered happily. “He has a girlfriend now and they are both in my first period class. I really like her mom. I think you would too.”
Her voice instantly warmed and she laughed. “I’m sure I would.”
“How are you mom? How is your job going?” I aasked curiously.
“Great,” she cooed. “I am actually in D.C. right now on a business trip. It is so pretty here. I have already visited the White House.”
“That’s cool,” I replied. “Did you see the president there?”
“No,” she laughed at my teasing. “He is down in Florida right now at an elementary school.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Did you need something, honey?” she asked, concern masking her voice. I chuckled and shook my head even though she couldn’t see me.
“No thanks mom,” I said. “I just wanted to hear your voice.”
“Well, thanks, Claire,” she cooed again. “How are you? I mean, you as a person.”
“I am really good. There is something you should know though,” I paused.
“What is it?” Anxiety colored her voice.
“I kind of, maybe, sort of have a boyfriend. And I sort of love him,” I explained. On the other end on the phone, my mom laughed; loud and mockingly.
“Claire, how can you sort of have a boyfriend and how can you sort of love him?” she managed. I surpressed a groan and smiled into the phone.
“I mean, I do love him. And yes, he is my boyfriend. We have been dating for a few days now,” I said.
“A few days?” she exclaimed. I cringed at her shrill voice. I hoped she wasn’t in a public place.
“Well it is actually a little more complicated than you think,” I told her.
“Okay,” she sighed.
“Trust me?” I asked. She laughed again and I grinned.
“Always,” she replied.
“Good,” I said. Suddenly, Alex’s door opened and he walked out, glancing at me. He scrunched up his nose and shot a questioning look at me. I waved it off.
“Well, honey, I have to get going. I am going to the Pentagon today,” she blurted.
“Okay. Well, I have to go too. School starts in about an hour,” I answered. “I’ll call you later, okay, mom?”
“Okay honey. I love you!” she shouted.
“Love you too,” I whispered as the line went dead. I slipped the phone into my back pocket and turned to Alex.
“Mom?” he guessed. I nodded and he shrugged. “I couldn’t talk to her?”
“She had to go. She had business at the Pentagon in a little while,” I explained. Alex dropped his gaze and shrugged again.
“Oh, okay,” he mumbled and walked off. I followed him and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“She does love you, Alex,” I whispered. He shrugged out of my touch, but didn’t face me.
“Oh, I’m sure,” he shot back, sarcastically. I trapped him in a hug and he struggled to get free.
“She does,” I replied. “She asked about you.”
“She did?” He turned to me, his eyes lighting up. I nodded, smiling at him.
“Yep. I told her about Hope and how you were. She seemed relieved to hear that you were okay.”
After saying that, Alex smiled slightly and tugged on my arm.
“Come on, sis-” he stopped. “I mean, Ms. Barnes. We have to get to school.”
“I’m coming. I’m coming,” I muttered and followed after him. I grabbed my purse adn walked out of the apartment, a nagging feeling tugging at the back of my mind.
“Go see your girlfriend,” I told Alex as we walked through the courtyard. He glanced at me and smiled slightly.
“What are you talking about?” he asked, laughing nervously. I shoved him, causing him to stumble to the side.
“You made me come out here twenty minutes earlier than I need to be here and you say that you aren’t going to see Hope?”
“Um...,” he hesitated trying to think of an answer. I laughed.
“That’s what I thought,” I teased. “Now, go.”
“Thanks Claire,” he called over his shoulder as he ran off. I could see Hope on the other side of the courtyard, waiting for him. He ran up and hugged her, visibly laughing. They bent towards each other, kissing quickly. Alex grabbed her hand and they walked off into the building.
Smiling to myself, I kept walking towards my classroom. I stopped by Lauren’s room, admiring the sign I had painted. I had given it to her yesterday afternoon and her reaction was not surprising at all.
I walked up to Lauren’s room, hesitating before knocking on the door.
“Come in,” Lauren shouted and I opened the door. She was on top of mini stage, fixing the curtains hanging on the sides. I cleared my throat, startling her. She turned towards me and a smile lit up her face.
“Hey,” I called out and waved the canvas in the air. Her smile could probably be seen from the courtyard.
“You finished it,” she exclaimed and jumped off the stage. Her hair was pulled into an unruly ponytail and she was wearing a pair of black pants with a cute red ruffled top. Her red flats echoed across the floor and bounced off the high walls.
“Just a few minutes ago,” I confessed and held it out to her. She took it a turned it around. She gasped, before clutching it to her chest. Tears welled up in her eyes and she smiled softly.
“This is the best thing anyone has ever made for me,” she murmured. “Thank you.”
She walked over and hung it up on her door, facing us. The dark red director’s chair stood out against the white background along with the black masks. Her name was written in loopy cursive in the top righthand corner. Right underneath her name were the words “Theater Class”.
“It was no big deal,” I said. She shook her head and rolled her eyes at me. “Really-
“Yes it was. Thank you, again,” she interjected. She wrapped her arms around me and enveloped me in a hug. I cautiously hugged her back and felt a tear slip down my cheek.
“Hey Claire,” Lauren shouted and knocked me out of my day dream. I peeked through the door. She was on her stage again, this time setting up a cluster of chairs. I waved at her and smiled.
“Hey Lauren,” I called back. “Ready for the second day?”
“Bring them on!” She rolled her eyes and stuck out her tongue. “I can take them.”
“I’m sure you can,” I shot back. I waved bye to her and walked away.
Once I got to my room, I stowed my purse in my desk and started to pull out the artwork from my first class from yesterday. I set them on the desk admiring them once again. Then, I pulled out my own canvas and set it on my easel. I gathered my black and red charcoal, setting them beside my canvas along with my other necessary tools.
Before I started, I pulled out my cell phone, pressing a number on speed dial. I waited until I heard the beep and left a quick message ending with an “I love you”.
I decided to start working on a drawing of the Twin Towers for my mom. I started out by sketching two large rectangles on the canvas. A few minutes later, I was lost in my own little world of art.
“Fifteen more, Herring. Fifteen more,” Andrew yelled into my ear. I grunted, pushing the dumbbell above my face. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead, running down my face.
“He can’t do it,” Seth called out. I stole a quick look at him. He stood a few feet away with his arms crossed over his chest. He had a smirk on his face, and his eyes showed victory. I let it down and pushed it up again.
“He might,” Andrew said thoughtfully. I did another rep, my face turning red from exertion.
“He will never beat my record,” Seth replied with more force. For another three reps, everyone was silent, watching me push the 225 pound dumbbell up and down.
“127 is a hard record to beat,” someone shouted from the back. There were murmurs of agreement as I pushed it up again. For a few more reps it was silent; only the sound of my harsh breathing was audible.
Suddenly, a large plane flew overhead. It surprised me because there were warnings about flying next to the Twin Towers. You had to be a certain height and distance away from them. Every guy in the station paused and looked up at the ceiling.
“That’s way too low,” Andrew murumured. A loud, but muffled explosion cut the silence around us and I set the dumbbell down.
“Yes! I won! I beat Michael Herring!” Seth exclaimed. Andrew hit him on the back of the head while following me.
“Shut up, rookie,” he said over his shoulder and continued to follow behind me. I pushed out of the station door and and froze when I got outside. Everybody crowded around me and looked up into the sky.
“Oh, God no. It-it can’t be. There is no way,” I whispered in agony.
The top half of one of the Twin Towers had a gaping hole in it. Smoke billowed out from it along with brilliant orange, red and yellow flames. People on the sidewalk were frozen, all of them pointing up at the sky.
All of New York City seemed to be holding its breath. It was like the disaster was too hard to believe that it was real. Cars swerved off the road, people getting out and holding each other. Pedestrians watched as more smoke flew through the air. Across the street, I watched silently as two ladies hugged each other and cried.
In an instant everybody sprung back to life and the sound was defeaning. People were screaming and crying, running away from the buildings. The group of fire fighters around me were stunned into silence as people manuvered around us.
“A plane......a-a plane flew into the North Tower,” a man screamed beside us. He looked over at us and then ran away. He didn’t even notice that all of his papers were flying out of his laptop bag.
What are we going to do? I wondered. That fire is too big.
I could faintly hear smaller muffled explosions as the upper floors caught on fire. The smoke was polluting the air by now; the sky was turning pitch black. I could feel the panic start to set in.
I didn’t know how we were supposed to put out a fire that massive. That high off the ground. Even with all of the fire departments in New York City, we still weren’t going to be able to put it out.
Another thought hit me. The plane was probably a passenger plane. that meands that innocent people died. They had no idea what was going to happen to them that morning. I swallowed loudly and looked around.
I spotted Chief Parsons at the edge of the group, watching the disaster unfold. Andrew placed a hand on my shoulder and I looked over at him. His eyes were saddened and the corners of his mouth were turned down.
“What are we going to do?” he asked hoarsely. I shook my head and grimaced.
“It’s time for the big one,” I stated. Andrew nodded in agreement.
“It is, isn’t it?” he murmured, his voice still hoarse with shock. The chief cleared his throat and, surprised, we all turned to him expecting a long speech about how we are going to save lives.
“Okay men. This is it,” Chief Parsons spoke up. “We are going to go inside and wait for our call. Today is going to be a devestating day for everybody. I don’t know how everything is going to turn out, but it will be okay, because we are going to be saving lives while we are at it. But, I am going to go ahead and say this: a lot of people will die today.”
“Come on guys,” I shouted over the noise and walked back into the station. The men followed me and soon, we were all crowded in the front hall. I sat down on the steps that led to the bedroom and placed my head in my hands.
“Michael.” I looked up to see Seth standing beside the stairs, looking down at me.
“You need to call Claire. She is going to be worried sick,” he stated. and held up his cell phone. He started dialing and soon enough I could hear him talking to his girlfriend.
I pulled my own cell phone out of my pocket and flipped it open. I noticed that I had one new voicemail. I hit play and pressed the phone to my hear. Claire’s voice filled the phone and I listened carefully to her message.
“Hey Michael. I just wanted to let you know that I am willing to go to dinner with you tonight. Have a great day. Oh, and please be safe. I can’t afford to lose you now. I love you.”
I checked the time; it had only been sent an hour ago. I moaned and pressed ‘recall’. Once again, I pressed the phone to my ear, wanting...no...needing to hear Claire’s voice again. It went straight to voicemail and I realized that she had a class. The voice recording lady came on and I pressed a button. I waited for the beep before speaking.
“Claire. Listen to me, everything is fine here. We haven’t been called in yet, but I know we will. Soon. I promise you that I will be hime in time for our dinner tonight. I’m going to be cooking. I-I love you, Claire. Talk to you soon.”
I pressed ‘end’ and slipped it back into my pocket. I laid my head on my knees and listened to the hysteria build up around me.
A few minutes later, Seth came back over and sat beside me. I glanced over at him, surprised to see tears glistening on his cheeks.
“You okay bud?” I asked, placing a comforting hand on his shoulder. He nodded tensly, thought for a moment and then shook his head. “What’s up?”
“What if we don’t make it today, Michael?” His voice cracked and he swiped at the tears on his cheeks. I sighed and watched him carefully. “I mean, that fire....it’s bigger than any fire any of us have been to before. This time...what if, this time we just don’t make it and we end up dying.”
He broke off, shuddering violently. Sobs racked at his chest and tears dripped off of his nose.
“Seth,” I said. I waited until he looked up at me before I continued. “Some of us won’t make it today. I know that sounds bad, but it’s true. Now, I don’t know who won’t make it, but I sure as heck know that we will all try to make it out alive. You don’t have anything to worry about. All we need to do is kick some fire butt and save some lives.”
“Aren’t you scared though? of never seeing your family again? of never seeing Claire again?” When he asked that last question, something inside of me snapped. My body tensed up and the blood drained from my face. It was the first time I had ever thought of never seeing Claire again. I didn’t know if I could go through with it.
“I am scared. I am scared half to death, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to do my job. I love saving people and if it is to save someone’s life, then I will gladly risk mine,” I declared. Seth smiled underneath his tears and lightly punched my arm.
“Thanks Michael,” he said. “I feel a little bit better now.”
“No problem, Seth,” I shot back warmly. “Now let’s go see what’s going on. You head into the kitchen and I’m going to see the chief.”
“Okay. See you in a few,” he called out as he walked away. I made my way upstairs and down the hallway to a large wooden door. I knocked quickly, hoping for him to be in there.
“Come on in,” he yelled and I opened the door. Chief Parsons was sitting at his desk, rummaging through a stack of papers. Behind him was his ceiling to floor glass window.
I could see the North Tower still burning profusely in the background. I grimaced and turned back to the chief.
“What can I do for you Herring?” His voice was clipped and hurried, as if he was trying to push me out.
“I want to know if I can go home today,” I sugeested. The comment made him stop what he was doing and look up at me. I repeated, “I want to go home for the day.”
“Herring, that is crazy talk,” he exclaimed. “You can’t go home today. This is the worst day in history and you want to go home? Why?”
I took in a deep breath to steady myself. “Becasue, I have someone that I love. And I can’t lose her. Not today. Not now.”
“You think that we don’t love somebody at home too, son?” he asked. I quickly shook my head. “Because we do. Andrew has a wife and two kids. There are men down there with their own wives and kids. And what do you have? A silly little crush.”
“Claire isn’t a silly little crush,” I seethed, clenching my fists. Parsons watched me carefully before standing up from his chair, blocking me from the view of the tower. Part of me relaxed and the other part was still rigid with anger. “I love Claire. And I will do anything to stay with her. I want to marry her someday, Chief.”
“Okay, but does she want to marry you?” he shot back. I felt my heart drop and he pointed towards the door. “Now you get your sorry little butt back downstairs and wait for orders.”
“Yes, sir,” I grumbled and turned to walk back downstairs. On the way out, I hit the door frame with my fist, causing the floor to shake. As I walked away, I could hear the chief mumbling to himself about something.
When I hopped off the last step, everybody was silent, watching me. I shrugged and stared back.
“There is nothing to look at,” I said and stomped off into the kitchen. Nobody followed me and I finally got to relax but only for a minute, because right after I closed my eyes, Seth ran into the room.
“We just got the call. It looks like we are going to be back-up,” he announced. I nodded numbly and closed my eyes again.
I was secretly relieved that I didn’t have to go at that instant. But that was before I heard the second explosion that knocked me off my chair.
I frowned at the canvas in front of me and used my finger to smudge a line. I picked up my piece of charcoal and started in on the streets below the towers. I was starting to shade them in when someone tapped me on the shoulder.
“Ms. Barnes?” Jennifer said with anxiety. I glanced over at her and smiled warmly. Her blonde hair was piled into a bun on the top of her head and she was wearing a charcoal smeared apron. She was wringing her hands in anticipation.
“Yes, Jennifer?” I replied, standing up. She led me to her desk area where her own charcoal drawing was resting on the top.
“I need your help,” she stated. She pointed to the top of the bird cage where it was blank. Then she gestured to a piece of paper beside her canvas. She had attempted at a lot of hands but it looked like she was having trouble. “I just can’t seem to get the hand right. I want a guy to be holding the cage but I am no good at hands. Could you help me?”
“Sure,” I told her and took her piece of charcoal. I flipped the paper over and drew a quick sketch of a hand. I pointed out the key parts to her before handing her the stick of charcoal. “Now, you try.”
She sat down and studied my hand once more. Then, she started drawing. Soon enough, a beautifully drawn hand was on her canvas and she leaned back, looking proud of herself.
“See?” I laughed. “I told you that you could do it.”
“Thanks, Ms. Barnes,” she replied, her eyes lighting up. I patted her on the shoulder and walked over to one of the other tables where a boy was working on an acrylic painting. I silently watched over his shoulder as he painted a realistic piano on his canvas. Suddenly he turned around and noticed me. Blush crept up his neck and he glanced down at his shoes.
“Hey, Ms. Barnes,” he muttered.
“Jonathan,” I greeted him. I looked back at his painting and grabbed his paintbrush. I took a piece of paper and painted the keys of a piano on it. “The pattern is three, two, three, two.”
“Oh,” he murmured. “I knew something wasn’t right. Thanks, Ms. Barnes.”
“No problem,” I replied and smiled.
“Ms. Barnes,” Hope called out from behind me. I turned around and saw her waving me over. I walked towards her and my smile widened.
“What do you need Hope?” I wondered. She laughed and pointed to her colored pencil drawing. The beautiful dragon was coming to life by the minute.
“I need some help on the background.” She sat down on her stool and picked up her pencil. “I want to do a castle or something like that, but I can’t seem to get the turrets just right.”
“Okay,” I murmured. I took the pencil from her and leaned over the canvas. Within minutes, I had drawn a realistic-looking castle equipped with a moat, a drawbridge and even flags.
“Wow,” Hope whispered in awe. “Thanks so much.”
“No problem, Hope,” I said.
“Claire,” said a breathless voice. I looked around, wondering who called me by my first name. I finally noticed Lauren who was standing in the doorway. Her hand was on her chest; her eyes were wide with fear. Her skin was a chalky pale, not her usually flawless pink.
“Lauren, what is it?” I asked, my voice carrying across the room easily.
“Turn on the television. Channel 9,” she breathed. “Twin Towers. Attacked.”
I turned away as one of my students pressed the power button on the television in my room. She changed channels quickly, stopping on channel nine. I knew the color had already drained from my cheeks, but when I saw the news report, my whole body went cold.
The camera man was pointing his video camera at the Twin Towers. One of them, the South Tower, was fine. But, the North Tower was up in flames. There was a large gaping hole in one side and smoke poured out of it, making the sky turn black.
“Oh my God,” I heard Jennifer whisper. There were a few murmurs here and there but for the most part it was completely silent as we watched the tower burn. I told the girl to turn the volume up and she complied quickly.
“...and we have just gotten word that it was a passenger plane that hit the North Tower,” the reporter was announcing. He stood off to the side, a controlled expression on his face. But I could see the fear in his eyes. “A group of men hijacked the plane and flew it into the tower, causing a loud explosion.”
Suddenly, you could hear a loud rumbling sound and another large passenger plane came into view.
“Dear, God, no,” I choked out. It hit the South Tower and the explosion was deafening. The reporter and camara man ducked as smoke flew in their direction. When they got situated again, you could hear the sirens wailing as fire fighters drove towards the destruction. People were running away from the towers, screaming and crying.
I felt a tear slip down my face and I choked back a sob wanting to escape from my throat. My gaze swept the room and I noticed thet a few girls were crying, along with some guys. Finally, my gaze landed on my drawing of the Twin Towers.
In my drawing, the towers looked fine and safe. Nothing was wrong with them and they stood tall and proud. I tore my eyes away from it and looked back at the television screen. On it, the towers looked anything but safe. Smoke billowed out from each tower, flames licked the sky.
The reporter was still talking but I tuned him out. I didn’t want to hear about it.
There had to already be tons of casualties. A passenger plane could hold a lot of people. Poor, innocent people. They had no idea what was going to happen to them. They just got on the plane, thinking they would be home by morning in time to see their families.
I shook the thoughts out of my head and looked back at the door way. Lauren was still there, a hand pressed to her mouth. Silent tears streamed down her cheeks and her shoulders shook. I caught her eye and motioned for her to come over to me. She did and I placed my hands around her and she sobbed.
“Claire, what’s going to happen?” she managed. I shrugged.
“I don’t know. But I don’t think anything bad could happen. These are the Twin Towers. It would be impossible for something really bad to happen to them,” I explained. Lauren nodded at my explanation and then pulled away from me.
She crossed her arms over her chest and started to walk away. Then she turned back around and forced a smile to me.
“Let’s hope for the best,” she said, before walking out of my room and down the hall. I stared after her and then tore my eyes away and watched the news. I pulled out a stool and sat down on it, my hands trembling. A lot of my students were already on their cell phones with their parents letting them know that they were okay.
“Mom?” Jennifer yelled into the phone. “Where are you? Did you get out? Please call me when you get this.”
She noticed me watched her and she frowned, a tear slipping out of ther corner of her eye.
“She works at the North Tower,” she explained. I nodded, my eyes wide with shock. A lot of parents must have worked at the World Trade Center.
“I’m okay dad,” Hope said into her own phone. “I’m going to stay here at school until they find out that everything is okay. Tell mom that I love her. I love you too. Okay, bye.”
She hung up and slipped the phone into her back pocket. Alex enveloped her into a hug and held her as she cried. I caught his eye and he frowned.
“Ms. Barnes?” Someone tapped my shoulder and I spun around. A boy that went by the name Richard was wringing his hands. He stared into my face with scared eyes.
“Yes Richard?” I placed a hand on his shoulder.
“My-my dad isn’t answering his phone. He works in the North Tower. I’m scared that he hasn’t made it out,” he stuttered. His voice broke at the end and I sighed.
“It will be okay, Richard. Call him again in about an hour. It might be hard to answer in all of the chaos happening there right now,” I soothed and tried to smile for him. He nodded thoughfully and walked off muttering to himself.
“I have just gotten word that two other planes are on their way to Washington D.C. Let’s all pray that something happens before they get there,” the reporter guy said into the camera. Smaller explosions were still going off in the towers; even us in the school could hear them on the television.
I immediately thought of my mom and I paled once again. I placed my head in my hands, whispering to myself.
“Please no. Please, God, no. It can’t be,” I whispered in anguish. Murmurs of hysteria were building around me and I tried to shut them out. I rocked in my stool and let the tears slip down my cheeks and onto my apron.
A nudge on my shoulder brought me back to reality and I looked up. Alex stood beside me and grimaced down at me. I wiped the water off my face and wrapped him into a hug. I looked around, surprised that a few of my students were already gone. Alex noticed my tension and he sighed.
“They left to go home. They said they needed to be with their parents,” he explained. I nodded, suddenly exhausted. I noticed that most of the teenagers were circled in a group, their heads bent towards each other. Most of the girls’ shoulders shuddered with sobs and the guys squeezed them in tighter.
“Oh,” I sighed and let another tear roll down my face. I blinked and felt Alex stiffen beneath my arms. I took them away and looked up at him. Fright colored his eyes and he let out a short gasp of air. “Alex?”
“Michael,” he whispered. Just the name brought butterflies to my stomach. But this time, they left quickly and my stomach lurched. I blanched and stared at Alex in horror. I stood up and wrapped my arms around myself as if a black hole would open any moment. Worried, I paced the room while Alex watched me cautiously.
“Michael,” I repeated and ran to my desk, wanting my cell phone.
“Claire, we are about to be called in. I love you, baby. I will be back, safe and sound, by seven tonight. Don’t worry. I promise you that everything will be fine,” I said and flipped the phone closed. That was the third call in the past ten minutes. Andrew watched me warily and shook his head.
“Michael, it will be okay. That’s the third call in ten minutes. Calm down,” he warned and placed a hand on my shoulder. I stared down at my phone, flipping it in my hands. Finally, I stuck it back in my pocket and turned to Andrew. Behind him, I saw Seth try to call his girlfriend again. That was his fifth in the past ten minutes.
“Yo, Seth,” I called out. He glanced over at me, before putting his phone away. He shuffled over to us and tried to smile.
“Everything will be fine,” Andrew told him. Seth’s tight-lipped grin flickered and he sighed.
“I’m just worried,” he admitted.
“Aren’t we all,” Andrew replied, shooting me a look. I rolled my eyes and felt my hand twitch, wanting to pull out my phone. I forced myself to keep my hand on the table.
It had only been a few minutes after the second explosion and Chief Parsons was on the phone trying to get them to let us go down there. I sighed and fiddled with my leather bracelet, like I always did when I got nervous. I swept my gaze over the men in the kitchen. Most of them were on their phones with wives and a few were watching the damge unfold on a news cast on television.
“This is it guys.” Chief Parsons burst into the room. “Everybody get their stuff on. It’s time to go. They need all hands on deck.”
We all moved at once, running into the garage. We threw on our jackets, pants and shoes and were on the trucks in less than five minutes. We turned on the sirens and sped down the streets. Outside, the destruction looked worse than on a television screen. The sky was still black, thick with the smoke pouring from the buildings.
We passed by people screaming and cars speeding away. In the truck, there were frightened murmurs from the men. We stopped about a mile away from the foot of the buildings. There was too much debris to try a manuever around. We all climbed out, oxygen tanks in hand.
“Men, put on your helmets. People are going to get hurt,” Parsons yelled over all of the noise. We did as he said, noticing chunks of building raining down around us.
Down at the site, the screaming was increased and people poured out of the doors of the Twin Towers. Sirens blared all throughout the streets and other fire fighters were running around, trying to get people to safety.
Chief Parsons went to talk to the person holding a clipboard, asking where we had to go. I took the time to glance around. There was bits of the wall lying on the streets , some of them still smoking from the impact of the planes.
I looked up to the buildings and watched as large black objects were falling from the top of the towers, where the fire was. I looked harder and noticed that the objects were flailing about as they fell.
“Are those people?” Seth choked out beside me. I looked at him and then back up at the towers. He was right. Those ‘large black objects’ were people falling from the building. Or were they jumping?
My stomach lurched and I looked away. The rest of the men were staring, wide-eyed at the buildings. None of them were uttering a word and I didn’t dare to. Chief Parsons came back over to us and clapped his hands together.
“Okay, we are to go to the South Tower. There are people from the 78th floor and below that are evacuating right now. The people above floor seventy-eight are the people that we should be worried about. We need to get up there and start helping people get out.”
He glanced at every one of us-his eyes hardened when they landed on me-and held up his hands.
“Let’s go, guys. Let’s go out and save some lives,” he shouted and took off. We ran after him, sweating under the intense heat from the fires and smoke.
The oxygen tank on my back weighed me down and I struggled underneath it. But I took gigantic steps, wanting to get in and out of the towers as quickly as I could.
“Oh my God,” I muttered.
As we neared, the sights were horrible. Boodies were strewn all over the streets; some of them brunt to a crisp and others that were bleeding to death. Some were even still alive and called out to us. Asking for help. It took all of the strength I had to ignore them and continue on.
Right beside the South Tower, I was struck at what had actually happened that day. I couldn’t count the number of bodies that were laying on the pavement around us. People were running around, still screaming in terror. Paramedics were carrying bodies on stretchers where an endless line of ambulances waited.
Who would do such a thing that would cause this much devastation? Why the heart and soul of New York City? Who would attempt such a mass murder on this Tuesday?
Emotions ran through my body like a huge gust of wind and I felt a tear slip down my cheek. I shook the thoughts from my mind and continued on. I suddenly tripped over a large object in the middle of the street.
I thought it was a piece of the building until I caught another glance. The sight froze me in my tracks. The thing I tripped over was a body burnt way beyond recognition. You could see the white bone on of the arms and I blanched at the sight.
“Herring,” Andrew tapped me on the back. I turned away, grateful for the distraction.
“Right behind you,” I replied and started to walk away. I didn’t make it far before throwing up on the sidewalk.
I straightened myself, wiping my mouth on the sleeve of my coat. Andrew watched me with concern and gestured impatiently for me to hurry up. I complied and ran after him. As we were about to walk inside the building I heard screaming.
I looked over and saw the expression of horror on a woman’s face as she fell in front of me. As I turned away, I heard a sickening thud. The thud of her body hitting the pavement. I shook it off and followed Andrew into the lobby of the South Tower.
“You guys will have to use the stairs,” a guy explained. “There is only one elevator running and it is being used to transport victims down here. So, you can’t use it. Your station will be on floor 83. Good luck to you all. God bless you.”
I nodded at the man and ran after Andrew to the stair well. We walked inside and started up the steps. People were tripping down the steps, trying to evacuate. Faintly, I could feel the building trembling, but I paid no attention to it as we started up the steps.
Four. Five. Six. Seven.
The floors passed by slowly and by the tenth floor, my breathing was labored. We passed by a man passed out on the eleventh floor, but ignored him just as the pedestrians were doing.
They were pushing by us, crying out for help. We pushed ourselves up the steps, one floor at a time.
Fifteen. Sixteen. Seventeen. Eightteen.
On the twentieth floor, a lady stopped me, pushing me to the side. I stared at her in astonishment. She pulled a man behind her and gestured at him.
“I’m scared about his heart,” she explained. Thoughts ran through my mind and I watched him glare at her.
“Now, leave me alone,” he wheezed. He was a little out of breath and he pounded his chest. “I am as healthy as a horse. Now, leave this young man alone and come on.”
He pulled her away as she screamed out for me. She tried to pull away from his grasp but stopped when the reached the next floor.
I was about to start up the steps when something-or I should say someone-knocked me to the ground. I stood up and brushed myself off.
All around me, hysteria was building up. I stuck out a hand and pulled the man up. I noticed that my helmet had fallen off and landed in the man’s hands. He was staring into my helmet where I had placed a picture of Claire. My throat closed up.
“That’s my love,” I choked out. The man nodded and handed me my helmet back. I stuffed it on my head and turned away. I blinked back the tears and started climbing the steps again.
“Help us!” A woman shouted out running past me down the stairs. I didn’t let my gaze stray from the stairs in front of me as everybody started screaming for help.
“Oh Claire,” I sighed under my breath. The name alone made my skin tingle and I tried to shake the feeling off.
I can’t think about that right now. I have to get up to the 83rd floor first and save people. Then, I can think about her.
I frowned and pushed myself forwards, up the steps. I caught up to Andrew and trotted behind him.
“How many more floors left?” A guy called out.
“About forty,” Andrew replied. Everybody moaned and started pushing each other to move faster.
I started to count the floors again, letting that be the only thing my mind was focused on.
Forty-one. Forty-two. Forty-three. Forty-four.
I reached out and grabbed the handle to my drawer. I yanked it open and pulled out my purse. I rummaged through it for a minute before producing my cell phone from its depths. I turned it on, tapping my foot impatiently.
The screen lit up and it showed that I had four new voicemails. Frantically I listened to them all. They were all from Michael. The first three were calm and his voice was soft and loving. But the fourth was the one the caught me off guard. I replayed it and listened to Michael’s voice fill my ears.
“Claire, we are about to be called in. I love you, baby,” his voice broke and he took in a shuddering breath. “I will be back, safe and sound, by seven tonight. Don’t worry. I promise you that everything will be fine.”
I fell into my desk chair and dropped my phone onto my desk. Surprisingly, the tears weren’t coming.
“He must be okay. I know he is,” I whispered violently. I shuddered and my hands clenched into fists.
Suddenly my phone rang and I snatched it off the table, flipping it open.
“Michael,” I murmured into the phone.
“Honey, it’s mom.” My mother’s voice was frantic and I snapped to attention.
“Mom!” I exclaimed. “Are you okay? How is everything?”
“It’s fine. I’m fine. They just order us to evacuate. I am standing about three miles away from the Pentagon. I keep waiting for something to happen, but so far nothing has.”
“Mom,” I whispered again in agony.
“Honey, how are you? I heard about eveything that is happening in New York. Are you safe? What’s going on there?” Her voice slipped up a notch and hysteria built in it.
“I’m safe. I am at school right now and we are watching everything on the television. Mom, its horrible,” I said. “There are people that are jumping from the towers. Jumping.”
“Oh, honey, I know it must be frightening-”
Suddenly everything went quiet and my mom whispered, “No.”
Just then, I heard an explosion through the phone and my mom screamed. I took in a sharp breath and looked at the television screen. The reporter was still on, giving updates. He paused mid-sentence and gasped.
“I have just been informed that the Pentagon has been hit, I repeat, the Pentagon has been hit. It appears we are under some sort of terrorist attack.”
“Mom!” I yelled into the phone. Some of my students gave me frightened looks and I frowned. I could hear harsh breathing from the other end. “Mom! Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” she gasped. I felt relief flood through me. “The Pentagon was just hit by a plane too. It was the worst thing I have ever seen.”
“I’m glad you are away from it all,” I whispered.
“Me too,” she agreed. “Back to you though, how are you holding up about the Twin Towers?”
“Mom, Michael is in there,” I told her.
“Michael?” I could hear the confusion in her voice. I swallowed loudly before answering her.
“My boyfriend. The one I love,” I explained. She gasped and I listened as she let out a sob.
“Oh honey, I’m so sorry. Does he work in the towers?” She asked. I shook my head even though she couldn’t see me.
“No, he is a firefighter,” I said. “And I don’t think he is going to get out alive.”
My voice cracked and I let a few tears fall onto the floor below me. My mom made a tsking noise with her tongue.
“I have always told you to stop being so pessimistic about everything,” she warned. “Now, I believe that he will come out alive and you will see him later tonight.
“I really hope so, mom,” I replied, swallowing a sob.
“Don’t worry,” she cooed. “Now, I have to go. I have another call coming in. Love you.”
“Love you too,” I said and heard the click of the phone as she hung up. I placed the phone back onto the table and placed my head in my hands.
All of a sudden, a pair of arms were around me. I looked up into Alex’s face and choked out another sob. He frowned at me and placed his head on my shoulder. Suddenly, he froze and let out a breath.
“Mom,” he stated. I nodded through my tears and he stared at me in shock. “What happened to her? Is she okay? Please tell me she wasn’t in the Pentagon.”
“It’s okay,” I soothed. “She is completely safe. They evacuated her before it hit.”
Alex relaxed and took in a deep breath. I studied him carefully as he took a step away from me. The tears were not coming down his cheeks and I wasn’t surprised. Even though, this was the most devastating day in history. He stiffened again and glanced at me with aprehension.
“Michael?” he asked. I shook my head, letting more tears stream down my cheeks.
“He left four messages and they came in a few minutes ago. But I’m scared. I can’t lose him. Not now. Not when I have finally found what I have been missing. What if he doesn’t make it out alive? What if-” I stopped, unable to speak anymore. Alex placed a comforting hand on my shoulder.
“It’s okay,” he told me. “Everything will be okay. You just have to believe it. Claire, he will come out alive and he will be at the apartment tonight. I promise you that.”
“Promise?” I repeated. He nodded and crossed his heart.
“Promise,” he declared and I immediately felt a little bit better. I knew Alex and he never broke his promises.
“Okay,” I said and slumped back into my chair.
I turned to watch the news and as I did, I could feel a memory tugging at the back of my mind. One that I have remembered ever since I was that age.
It was the spring of 1988. I was only eleven years old.
One night, my dad had gone out to drink away his ‘sorrows’ as he called it. He claimed to be upset over the divorce between he and my mom. He left and I was at home alone with Alex, who was four at the time. I was doing my homework and Alex was coloring on a piece of paper beside me.
“Claire?” he asked. I looked over at him and smiled. He had a stripe of red marker on his nose and his long dark hair was falling into his eyes.
“Yes, sweetheart?” I cooed, setting down my pencil. He reached over and lightly touched the purple encircling my eye.
“What happened to your eye?” he asked curiously. I laughed tensely and hesitated. I never lied to my brother and he deserved to know the truth.
“Daddy hit me,” I explained and forced another smile at him. Alex frowned at me and crossed his arms over his chest. He studied me for a moment before picking up his marker again. He started to color and I let out a sigh of relief.
I went back to working on my homework when Alex tapped my arm. I looked over at him, expecting him to ask about dinner. It was almost six and I could hear my stomach growling.
“I promise that I will keep you safe,” he declared. “I don’t want daddy to hit you again. You don’t look as pretty with the purple.”
I watched him silently for another minute, while tears welled up in my eyes. I set my pencil down again and reached over to him. I took his hand in mine and squeezed it gently.
“Thank you Alex,” I said and smiled warmly at him. He smiled his toothy grin back and pulled his hand out of mine.
“You’re welcome,” he replied and went back to coloring.
Later that night, I had tucked Alex into bed and was headed back to my room when I heard my dad come into the house. I froze in mid-step and listened as he stumbled into the kitchen. He made himself another drink and I rolled my eyes. The bar was never enough for him.
“CLAIRE,” he bellowed and my name echoed off the walls in the hallway. I shivered and backed up, trying to get to my room. His large frame filled my vision and I cringed into the corner of the wall.
He stumbled towards me and I could smell the alcohol rolling off his body in waves. I wrinkled my nose in distaste and curled my lip up.
“Why wasn’t my stuff ready when I got home?” he asked, raising his voice. I glared up at him under my lashes.
“I was on my way to do it right now. You got home early,” I hissed. “And be quiet. You will wake up Alex. I just got him to go to bed.”
“Don’t you use that tone of voice with me young lady,” he slurred. “You don’t wnat another one of those eyes would you?”
“Do it if you dare,” I warned. He reared back and was about to lunge forwards when Alex stepped in front of me. My dad froze in his tracks and stared hard at him. My eyes were wide as I contrasted my brother’s toddler frame, with my dad’s bulky football player frame.
“Move son,” he said. Alex shook his head and stood his ground. He crossed his arms over his chest and glared at our dad.
“Leave her alone,” Alex replied harshly. “You don’t need to hit her anymore. You are being a big meanie.”
“Why, you little,” my dad fumed and lunged at Alex. Closing my eyes, I screamed and heard a crunch.
When I reopened my eyes, Alex was laying beside me, clutching his arm. Tears rolled down his face and I noticed that my dad was gone.
“Oh, Alex,” I muttered and rubbed my hand over his back.
“It hurts,” he whimpered and rolled over. I smiled sadly and kissed his cheek.
“Come on,” I said and lifted him into my arms.
I shuddered violently and shook the memory away. I glanced over at Alex who was standing beside me. His arms were crossed over his chest and he stood as if he had a purpose. The pose reminded me of the way he protected me that night. I smiled slightly and touched his arm. He looked down at me and his eyes lit up.
“I love you,” I mouthed. He smiled sadly and nodded.
“You too,” he whispered. I turned back to the television, watching people running for their lives. It made my heart drop and I felt myself yearning to pick up the phone to call Michael. It used a lot of strength to stop trying to.
“Help us. Please. Somebody help us.” People were screaming all around me. It felt like everything was moving in slow motion. I took each step one by one and tried to ignore the cries beside me. I took in a shuddering breath and hesitated for a minute.
“Come on, Michael,” I uttered and pushed myself forwards. I followed close behind Andrew, trying not to lose him in the midst of the hysteria.
Seventy-nine. Eighty. Eighty-one. Eighty-two.
We reached the eighty-third floor and stopped. The flow of people had slowed and I could hear yelling on the other side of the door. Somebody tried the door but it would budge.
“It’s stuck. It won’t open,” they called out. I frowned and let out a gruff sigh.
“Okay, men,” Andrew shouted above the noise. “On three.”
I braced my shoulders and took in another breath. I closed my eyes for a brief second and saw Claire’s smiling face. Grimacing, I tried to push the picture out of my mind. It proved to be a difficult challenge.
“One.” Those eyes-the eyes of a Dorian grey.
“Two.” The soft smile that lit up her face, making her expression look almost harmless.
“Three.” I knew Claire. Inside and out.
We all heaved on the door, making it fall down with a loud thud. Once the door was down, the smoke exited the room, causing all of us to cough brutally. I covered my mouth and tried not to breath in the nauseous fumes. I placed my mouth piece over my lips and sucked in a breath of oxygen. Smiling grimly, I shuffled inside and glanced around.
The ex-office area was now up in flames. The heat snuck through our sleeves and I started to sweat profusely. I clapped my hands together and sighed. Small fires were set upon desks and the flames licked the ceiling. My gaze swept the floor and I grimaced.
Bodies were laying all over the hardwood floor. A lot of them were moving about, trying to get to the stairs. Others were consumed in the flames, being burnt alive. I shuddered violently and tried to look away.
It was impossible. The bodies were everywhere.
“Michael,” Andrew called out. I glanced over at him and saw that he had two men over his shoulders. Both were unconcious, but Andrew held them none the less. “You need to grab some victims and start down the stairs. We can’t get the elevators to work.”
I nodded and walked off, looking for someone to carry down. I stooped down under the thickening smoke and eased onto my knees. I crawled forward, taking in deep breaths from my tank.
“Help,” a hoarse voice cried out. I looked to my left where a hand waved out. I crawled over to it and noticed a young women in her late twenties watching me. She had severe burns on her face and arms and the tips of her long black hair were singed. Her large blue eyes watched my every movement and her lips parted. No words came out.
She was dressed in a stylish pinstripe suit and high heels. I slipped the shoes off of her feet and slid my hands underneath her. I heaved her up into my arms and got to a standing position.
Turning around, I looked for the door we came through, but I didn’t see anything. I couldn’t find my friends anywhere and I panicked a little.
“Andrew?” I called out. As I started to move around the office, a memory from a few years ago was emblazoned in my mind.
My senior year of high school. It was the end of the school year and I was getting ready to go off and be a fire fighter for the rest of my life.
One particular day in April of 1992, I was in my chemistry class. I was working on my homework for that night when the door squeaked open. I looked up from my desk and saw a young girl enter the room. She walked up to the teacher and handed her a small pink note. The teacher nodded and the girl turned to walk to the empty desk behind me.
As she passed by me, her eyes met mine and I froze. She wasa one of the most beautiful girls I had ever seen. She had short cinnamon colored hair that hung right at her shoulders. Her lips were graced with a shy smile and she raised a hand to push a strand of her hair behind her ear. I noticed multiple earrings in her ear and a silver stud in her nose.
The thing that caught my attention the most was the color of her eyes. They were a dark stormy grey and a fire burnt dimly in them. The only thing off about her was a brown and blue circle covering her right eye. Anger burst through my body and I immediately wanted to know who had hit her.
I opened my mouth to speak to her but she hurried by me, dumping her stuff on the floor beside her new desk. It took all I had to face forward and continue working. I could hear her behind me. The scratch her pencil made on a new sheet of paper. Her harsh breathing and murmurs under her breath when she got an answer wrong.
At the end of class, I stuffed my binder in my bag and slid it onto my shoulders. I smiled softly and turned to the girl, but her body was already turned away from me. Her face was turned downwards and pieces of her hair fell into her eyes.
I ran a hand through my growing black hair and opened my mouth.
“I’m,” I started but the bell started to ring. The girl ran off without another glance at me and my shoulders sank. I sighed and trudged out of the classroom.
Once in the hallway, I was seized by arms that didn’t quite fit around my waist. I looked down into a pair of dark blue eyes-the color of the sea.
“Michael,” she murmured and smiled longingly at me.
I swept my gaze over her petite body. She wore a tight tee and a short skirt showing off her tanned legs. Her heels gave the impression that she was taller than she really was. Her long black hair was curled around her heart-shaped face and her dark eyes were brightened with excitement.
“Lucy,” I replied and hitched the corners of my mouth up. She grinned back knowingly.
She pulled my head towards her and her lips met mine. I kissed her back passionately and snaked my arms around her waist. She locked hers around my neck and shivered beneath my touch.
After a few minutes of kissing, I pulled back and stared at her lovingly. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eyes I could see the new girl pass by. She glanced quickly at me, then at Lucy in my arms, before running off to her next class.
The bell rang again and I took my arms away. Lucy’s lips formed a little pout and she whimpered. I chuckled and kissed her cheek.
“We have to get to class,” I warned. She held onto my hand and stared into my dark green eyes.
“Let’s skip English,” she muttered and pulled on my hand. I shook my head.
“We have a test,” I explained. “And if I’m not there, then I will get in big trouble. I need all A’s to get into school next year.”
“Okay,” she grumbled and walked along side me to our English test. We were tardy and as I signed the sheet, I looked towards the back of the room. The girl with those impossible grey eyes was smiling at me mockingly. She rolled her eyes and went back to the book she was reading. I fumbled wtih the pen in my hand before handing it to Lucy, who took it and quickly signed her name.
She smiled back up at me and pressed her lips to my cheek. I felt the blood pool in my cheeks and I smiled shyly.
“I love you,” she whispered and flounced off to her desk. I frowned and walked over to my desk, taking one last look at the new girl. I looked down at my desk and grimaced.
This is going to be a long month, I thought and clenched my hands into fists.
“Help me,” the woman cried in my arms again. Tears were streaming down her cheeks and her petite body shuddered with violent sobs.
“I’m here,” I told her. “I will get you to safety.”
The smoke was thickening around me and I could barely see my own hands. I trudged on and I could feel a wall against my hand. I followed the wall before finally finding a door. I threw it open and saw the stairs to my right. People were still falling down the steps and didn’t notice the burnt woman in my arms. I flowed along with them and started running down the steps.
Eighty-two. Eighty-one. Eighty. Seventy-nine.
I let my mind be focused on taking the girl to safety. My breathing was still labored and I coughed from the smoke that had entered my lungs.
Suddenly, the building trembled and I could feel it down to my toes. My eyes widened and everybody in the stair well froze.
“It can’t be,” one guy shot out. The building trembled again and my breath left me. My heart hammered in my chest as I realized that I wasn’t going to make it. My thoughts went straight to Claire.
“I won’t ever see her again,” I whispered to myself. I set the woman on the stairs beside me and put my head in my hands. My body shuddered with silent sobs and tears flowed in a steady stream down my cheeks. “Oh, Claire.”
A hand was placed on my shoulder and I looked up. Andrew was standing on a step below me, staring at me. His eyes were saddened and his smile flickered.
“Herring. We aren’t going to make it this time,” he stated. I nodded in agreement and moaned. “I just wanted to let you know that it was a great five years brother. I-I’m going to miss you.
“Andrew, same here. I-I am going to miss Claire. I just....I just wish I could see her once more,” I stuttered. He smiled again, but it was a sad smile that didn’t fill his face.
“Oh, Michael,” he sighed and sat down in front of me. the building trembled and I knew that the tower was about to fall. “I love you brother.”
“I love you too,” I replied and hooked my arm through his.
Suddenly, the floor crumbled underneath us and I fell to the ground. As I was falling, I thought of nothing but Claire. People fell beside me and I tuned out their screams of terror. I could feel Andrew’s arm still hooked in mine. Seth wouldn’t be able to propose to his girlfriend. We wouldn’t see our loved ones ever again.
Goodbye, Claire, I thought to myself.
Finally I hit something hard and I saw nothing but a bright white light.
A few minutes ago, I had taken to pacing my room. I knew that Alex was watching me with concern, but I didn’t care. Some more of my students had gone home and the rest were still watching the news cast.
I had my phone in my hand and I shot worried glances at it, wanting to call Michael. I knew he was there, probably saving somebody’s life. I frowned and looked at the television.
The towers were still burning profusely. There was no way that the fire fighters were going to be able to put that out. It was way too big.
Come on, Michael, I pleaded silently. I flipped the phone in my hand and contemplated throwing it against the wall. I tightened my grip on the little phone and sighed. I looked back over at Alex.
He stood with Hope off to the side. She was still crying but the tears had slowed some and she was holding onto Alex’s hand tightly. She had turned away from the news and spoke to Alex. He would nod every once in a while and sometimes even shook his head. But his eyes, we trained in on me, flicking every now and then to look at the news. At that moment, his eyes caught mine and he grimaced.
“You okay?” he mouthed. I shook my head and bit my tongue to keep from crying out.
“No,” I mouthed back and let a tear slip down my cheek. He nodded as if he understood and turned back to the television.
The reporter kept us updated, telling us that hundreds were already dead and that the numbers were estimated to reach a few thousand. I shook my head in denial, not wanting to believe any of it.
Abruptly, my phone started to ring. My eyes widened with shock and I looked at the screen. An unknown number flashed at me and I frowned, confused. I flipped it open and pressed the reciever to my ear.
“Hello?” I asked carefully. There was deep breathing on the other end and I was about to hang up when the person spoke.
“Claire Barnes?” It was a man’s voice; deep and cautious.
“Yes,” I said in a clipped voice. The man was starting to scare me.
“Its,” he paused searching for an answer, “it’s your dad.”
I froze, the reciever still pressed to my ear. My knees buckled and I fell onto the floor. Alex ran over to me but I waved him off.
“I’m fine,” I mouthed at him. Concern masked his expression, but he walked a few feet away. To my dad I said, “Dad?”
“Yeah,” he muttered. “Look, I know this is bad timing, but I wanted to make sure you were okay. You and Alex, I mean.”
“You were wondering if we were okay?” I repeated. And then it hit me. “Where did you get my number?”
“Your mother gave it to me. I called her a few minutes ago. She gave me your cell number and I just wanted to make sure that you guys weren’t hurt in the explosions,” he explained. I nodded slowly into the phone.
“Wait,” I told him. “You wanted to check up on us? You mean, we actually matter now?”
“Claire,” he whispered. I laughed; it was short and haughty-the way I used to laugh.
“No,” I told him. “Let me finish.”
“Okay,” he murmured, knowing that he was defeated.
“For four years, you beat me. You would hit me, kick me, and even through things at me. You would scream at me, saying that I was a worthless brat. You broke my bones. You gave me black eyes. You etched the word ‘ugly’ into my skin. You got me pregnant.”
“Pregnant?” he asked in disbelief. I smiled grimly into the phone.
“Yes, dad,” I said the word mockingly. “At age fourteen, you got me pregnant and I had to get an abortion. I couldn’t raise a child-your child by the way-at age fourteen. I was way too freaking young. I didn’t tell anybody though. Because if you found out, then you would have beaten me, wondering why I didn’t use birth control.
Fourteen year olds do not use birth control, dad. We just don’t. And after that, you continuously raped me. Oh believe me, I tried to stay away, but you always got in. Always.”
“Claire, I’m sorry. I-I didn’t know,” he stammered. I forced out another laugh.
“You didn’t know?” I asked icily. “Oh that’s right. You don’t remember because you were stinking drunk when you got home. Then, after I left, you started hammering in on Alex. You broke his first bone at age four. And it got worse for him. No wonder he ran away too. God, you....you were awful. And now....now you call me to make sure that we are okay? You actually care about us now? Or is it just the guilt building up inside your black soul. Oh, that’s right. You don’t have a soul. Do you?”
It was silent on the other end, but I knew my dad was still there. I could hear the air hissing through his clenched teeth.
“Claire, I have changed,” he said. “I have been sober for six months now...”
“Oh my God. Six months? That must be a new records for you. Congrats,” I interuppted with a sarcastic voice. He let out a gruff sigh.
“God, Claire. I have changed. You can come see for yourself,” he offered.
“No thanks,” I scoffed. “I don’t want another black eye.”
“Would you stop?” he interjected in an angry voice. I frowned and rolled my eyes. “Claire, I have changed. Please, believe me.”
“Whatever,” I shot back.
“Please just tell me that you guys are okay,” he pleaded.
“No dad. We are not okay. America is under attack and Alex is dead. You happy now?”
“You’re kidding,” he stated. “You have got to be kidding.”
“I am, okay? But only about the ‘Alex being dead’ part. God,” I muttered.
“Don’t ever scare me like that again, Claire,” he warned. I laughed humorlessly.
“Like you care,” I shot back. “Look, I have to go. Alex wants me.”
“Okay, give him my love,” he said.
“No thanks,” I told him, getting annoyed.
“Okay,” he complied. “But I do love you, you know. I always have.”
“Yeah. Sure. Whatever,” I commented and hung up. I placed the phone back into my pocket and stood up. I wiped a few stray tears from my cheeks and forced a smile onto my face.
“Let me guess,” Alex stated behind me. “Dad.”
“Yeah,” I answered. “He wanted to ‘check up on us’ and to tell us that he changed.”
“What a two timing lyer,” Alex spat. I grinned and put a hand on his back.
“Now, that is why I call you my brother and why I love you,” I said and gave him a hug. As we hugged, a few students gasped and pointed at the television.
We pulled away and I looked over at the news report. Visibly, you could see the South Tower trembling. Suddenly, the top of it caved in and the whole building collapsed. It was like one second, it was there, and then right when you blink, it was gone. A massive cloud of dust filled the streets and suddenly the camera went dead. The screen turned black and there was silence throughtout the room.
Everybody in the classroom was crying except for Alex. Part of me was mad at him for not crying. How could he not cry when this many people were dying. He could have at least shed one tear.
“Stupid boy,” I muttered and turned away from him.
I placed my head in my hands again and choked out a sob. All of those innocent people were gone. They died. That put the deaths in the thousands. Business owners. Secretaries. Officers. Police. Fire fighters.
Suddenly, I froze again.
“Fire fighters,” I whispered in agony. “Michael.”
My stomach lurched once again and I ran to the nearest sink. I vomited and Alex came over to hold my hair on the back of my neck. He twisted it into a pony tail and then let go. I straightened myself, wiping my mouth with a towel and turned to him.
“Michael,” I repeated and started to sob.
“Oh, Claire,” he sighed. “You don’t even know if he was in the South Tower. He could be in the North Tower for all you know. Or he could even be in an ambulance with a victim. Think positive, Claire.”
“Sorry,” I apologized. “I am just worried sick and after seeing that, I don’t know if I can take it anymore.”
“Um, Claire?” Hope called out trough her tears. I looked over at her. She was on her phone talking to someone.
“Yeah?” I wondered. She let out a sob, her gaze fixed on me.
“The North Tower just collapsed too.”
The world abruptly disappeared and I started running. I didn’t know where I was going, but I just ran.
I felt my knees buckle and I sank down onto the wet grass. I sniffed and ran a gloved hand through my damp hair. I could feel the water seeping into my boots, but I didn’t care. I swallowed loudly and rocked back.
I sat like that for a moment; kneeling on the grass, thinking about everything. I placed my hand in my jacket pocket and fingered the small blade nestled in the warmth.
“Hm,” I murmured and closed my eyes. A tear slipped out from my closed eye lids and I shivered violently. The wind was a whiplash against my cheeks; they were turned red from the rough breeze.
The cold was sneaking into my sleeves and into my skin. Goosebumps rose on my arm and I rubbed another hand over it. I was instantly warmed and sighing, I watched my visible breath rise into the air in white whisps.
I glanced behind me and saw Alex and Hope standing at the gate’s entrance. Behind them, a car was idled, still running. Just thinking about the warmth in the car, had me longing to get up and walk away.
I can’t leave him, I told myself. I wrapped my long arms around my body as if I was going to fall apart any moment. It feels like that, anyway.
“Claire, you don’t have to do this,” Alex called out. I cut my gaze towards him and glared at him through narrowed eyes. He held his hands up in a ‘back-off’ manner and I turned back away.
“Yes, I do,” I said back. I said it again to reassure myself, “I do.”
“Just leave her alone,” Hope whispered harshly. He voice broke on hte last word and she stifled a sob. I rolled my eyes and ran my hands together, then taking the leather gloves off. It was getting colder as the sun went down.
Slowly, I ran my fingers over the stone’s edge. It was icy to the touch. I shivered again and pulled back. I reached behind me and pulled out a single rose. I set it on the stone and felt a frozen tear cling to my cheek as I fingered the block lettering on the front of the stone.
Michael Herring. July 30, 1974 to September 11, 2001. A loved son, brother, and hero to many.
“Oh,” I choked out and pressed a fist to my mouth. I swallowed a sob and tried to get my mind on something else. Sadly, I couldn’t think of anything but him.
They found his body two days after the Twin Towers collapsed. His arm was hooked through his best friend, Andrew’s. Over a dozen other fire fighters were found on that day too.
When they found him, they had to pull a large piece of the wall from the top of his body. They believe that that was what killed him. He was hit with that piece of debris and it crushed him against the rest of the destruction. He was killed instantly; his spine breaking in two and his spinal cord snapping.
I let out another sigh and let the tears fall. I clearly remembered the day that I found out that he was dead for real.
It was only three days after the devastating day, millions would remember. A day that would go down in history as one of the worst attacks in the United States.
I was in my apartment cleaning up the kitchen from my breakfast when I heard a faint knock against the door. At first, I thought Alex had invited Hope over, so I waited for him to get it. After a minute or two, there was another knock; one that sounded urgent and impatient.
My heart swelled and I ran to the door, thinking that he had finally come home. I had always pictured him dead, but that could have been the best surprise of my life.
I threw the door open, looking for a tall man with shaggy black hair and bright green eyes, but what I got wasn’t what I wanted.
Outside, stood a heavyset man in his late forties. He had thinning blonde hair on the top of his round head and had small blue eyes that scanned me over. He was wearing a nice, official-looking suit, complete with a wooden cane.
“Yes?” I wondered aloud. My heart was still pounding in my chest and I tried to relax.
“Claire Barnes?” he stated in a deep, booming voice. I nodded slowly.
“That’s me,” I replied and placed my hands on my hips. “What is this all about?”
“Are you the girlfriend to a,” he scanned over the clipboard he had clutched in his hand, “Michael Herring?”
Once Michael’s name was uttered from the man’s lips, my heart kicked into overtime, pounding against my chest in such a way that I was certain that the man could hear it. I swallowed loudly and placed a hand over my fluttering heart.
“Yes,” I choked out. The man watched me with a twinge of sadness in his eyes. he tightened his grip on his cane before speaking.
“I am so sorry to tell you...,” he started. My eyes widened and I let out a sob.
“No,” I muttered in agony. I bit my lip and tried not to let the tears flow. “Please God, no.”
“...that Michael Herring died in the collapse of the South Tower on September 11, 2001,” he stated. His eyes saddened and I could feel my bottom lip trembling.
“No,” I shot out again, this time with more force. His eyes widened with surprise. “He isn’t dead. I know he isn’t. He promised me that he would be back. He loves me.”
“I’m so sorry Miss Barnes,” he whispered and nodded his head. I reached out and snagged the end of his coat. I pounding my fists against his chest, but he seemed unmoved.
“No.” I was shouting now, my voice echoing throughout the apartment. “He isn’t dead!”
The man was trying to pry me away from his coat tails, but I tightened my grip. Suddenly, there was another pair of arms underneath mine, pulling me away. Fingers that weren’t mine pryed me from my grasp on the man’s coat. The man huffed and muttered something unintelligent before walking off.
I was dragged back to the couch in the living room before the person let me go. They walked back to the door and closed it, but not before locking it first. They came back over to me and I closed my eyes.
“Claire,” a soft voice murmured. I looked up into my brother’s dark green eyes and felt the tears start streaming down my face. I burried my face in my hands and sobbed.
“It isn’t fair,” I cried, my voice muffled through my hands. “It just isn’t fair.”
“Sh,” Alex soothed. I heard him sit down on the floor next to me. His arms were suddenly around me, trapping me. I turned towards him and cried into his shoulder.
We sat like that for a couple of hours. My tears soaked through his t-shirt and he ran his hands over my back. He murmured the same words to me over and over again. They replayed again and again in my mind as I sobbed into his shoulder.
“It will all be okay, Claire. It will all be okay. It will all be okay.”
I let out another sob and ran a hand over my face. I wiped the tears off my face, but they continued to stream down my face, splashing onto the already damp glass below.
“It won’t all be okay.” I uttered under my breath. “It won’t.”
I reached into my jacket pocket and pulled out the pocket knife I had stashed in it an hour ago. I hid it from Alex and when I knew he wouldn’t be able to see it, I looked down at the samll red case.
I found the knife in Alex’s sock drawer. I guessed that he kept it for safety purposes. I had taken it from him and kept it, waiting for the perfect time to use it.
I flipped the blade out again and took in a deep breath. I ran a finger against the sharp edge, wincing as a stabbing pain flew up my arm. I looked down again and saw a drop of red, sitcky liquid on the tip of my finger. I touched my tongue to it and shuddered at the taste. It tasted like rust and salt.
“I’m going to be with you soon, Michael,” I declared and tightened my grip on the handle. My hand shook as I pressed the tip of the blade to the inside of my wrist. I quickly slid the knife across my skin, before I could think otherwise.
“Argh,” I cried out in pain as I dropped the knife. I clutched my wrist and could feel the blood seeping through my fingers. I took in short, labored breaths and tried to look around for the knife. My vision blurred with unshed tears as I groped the ground for the blood stained blade that was going to end it. End me.
“Claire!” Alex shouted in my direction and ran towards me. He reached out and grabbed the knife before I could and threw it out of sight. “Claire!”
He took the scarf from around his neck and tied it around my wrist. I looked up, my vision still clouded and could only make out his figure as he frantically worked over me. Pain shot up my arm again and I screamed out in anguish.
“Sh, Claire,” Alex yelled again. His lips were right next to my ear; his breath hot and harsh. “It will all be okay. It will all be okay. We are going to get you help.”
“Alex,” Hope showed up beside him and I noticed that she was wringing her wrists. She shot a look at me and blanched at the drops of blood covering my skin and clothes. “What-what...”
“I need you to call 911,” he commanded. “She slit herself pretty deep and this scarf isn’t going to hold off much longer.”
Hope hesitated for a moment, watching me cry out with pain.
“Hope, go now!” shouted Alex. She ran off, fresh tears running down her face. Alex turned back to me, placing my head in his lap.
“Alex,” I muttered, reaching my free hand out towards him. He snatched my hand and wrapped his fingers around mine. He grimaced down at me and sighed.
“Why, Claire?” he asked. “Why did you try to kill yourself? Why?”
“Because, I can’t live without him. A person can’t live without their heart,” I stated and closed my eyes. Alex was silent for a moment and all of a sudden I tasted salty water on my tongue.
My eyes flicked open and I frowned. I wasn’t crying, was I? I looked up into Alex’s face and gaped at the tears trailing down his cheeks. He muffled sobs, making his shoulder shudder violently. I squeezed his hand and he looked at me through bleary eyes. My brother was actually crying for the first time in years.
“I love you,” I murmured and closed my eyes. I let out a long breath and could faintly hear sirens edging closer. But I focused on the voice next to my ear.
“God, no,” Alex sobbed into my ear. “Claire, you can’t die now. What will I do now? Please don’t leave me, Claire. I need you. Claire, I love you.”
I smiled softly and felt new pairs of hands tugging at my body. I finally fell into a deep sleep, seeing Michael’s face in my mind.
It had already been a year since the terrorist attacks. There were rescuers still finding bodies amongst all of the rubble on Ground Zero. Sometimes I wondered if the death toll would ever end.
“Oh, Michael,” I murmured, running a hand over a large painting on my bedroom wall. The canvas was rough to the touch, but the layers of paint splattered on it, gave it a bubbly effect. I traced the outline of the the man’s lips and sighed softly. The corners of his mouth were hitched up in a shy smile; his green eyes lit up with happiness. It felt like I could just reach out and run my hand through the black hair piled on the top of his head.
I coughed and left my hand drop to my side. I walked away and into the living room where another large canvas sat upon the wall above the television.
The Twin Towers stood side by side, looking proud and tall. Then, when your gaze reached the top, red and yellow flames jumped into the skies; smoke billowed out of two large gaping holes. The words, ‘We Will Never Forget’ were enscribed on the bottom of the drawing.
I smiled sadly and reached up to tuck a strand of hair behind my ear. As I did so, a lond white stripe of skin caught my attention. I pulled my wrist back to eye level and studied the scar that wrapped around the inside of my wrist. I frowned slightly and ran a finger over it, wincing at the painful memories it brought back.
I pulled up my loose black tee and placed my wrist against the rough skin of stomach comparing the two. The scars covering my stomach matched the one on my wrist almost exactly. It could have been done by the same person. With the same knife.
Through bleary eyes, I could see his silhouette aginst the bright light that intruded my bedroom. I squinted and could make out a sharp object gripped in his right hand. I gasped and my heart starting pounding against my rib cage, wanting to burst out of my chest.
“What are you going to do to me?” I whispered in a shaking voice. He laughed mockingly and pressed the knife against my skin. I whimpered lowly and he pulled the blade away.
“Something that will teach you to never yell at me again,” he warned in a low voice.
He snatched my wrists and tied them together with a piece of rope that he produced from his pocket. Then, he climbed on top of me, straddling me so that I couldn’t kick my way out.
Grunting, he ripped my tank top off my body, leaving me in only a bra. I flushed at the exposure. He ran a callused hand over my skin, making me shudder involuntarily.
“Please don’t,” I managed. His gaze flickered to me and then back to the skin on my stomach. He tightened his grip on the knife and leaned over my body.
Suddenly, pain erupted on my stomach and I arched my back. He slapped the back of his hand across my cheek and I winced at the stinging sensation. He pressed his free hand onto my chest, trapping me from rearing back.
He then made another line down my stomach with the blade of the knife. I cried out in terror and squeezed my eyes shut.
“Priss,” he muttered under his breath, making another line.
“Brat.” Another stroke.
“You are completely worthless.” With every insult he spat at me, he made another line across my stomach. I could feel the warm blood pooling underneath me. I whimpered again and tried to pull away.
“Stop it,” he screamed into my ear. I froze and he stared at me long and hard. Finally, he went back to cutting my skin; deep enough for me to bleed, but not deep enough for me to die. I bit my lip, waiting for it to be over.
When he finally left an hour later, I jumped out of bed, stumbling to the ground as I did so. On my knees, I crawled towards the bathroom looking for something-anything-to stop the bleeding.
On the counter top I saw a towel and I reached up to grab it. At first, I slipped and fell inches short of reaching it. Eventually, I was able to knock it off the counter and onto the floor. I snatched it, pressing it against my stomach.
It stopped the bleeding, but it definitely didn’t stop the pain.
I could feel myself slipping in and out of conciousness as I feel back onto the tile floor. My cheek hit the cold tile and I shuddered violently. Right before I slipped into a deep sleep, I noticed that the lines spelt out a word.
“Claire,” someone called out from behind me. I turned, pulling my tee back down over my puckered skin, and saw Alex waiting by the hallway. He gave me the once over and smiled softly. I sighed and he nodded as if he understood.
He was wearing a pair of khakis with a dark brown polo. He had on his nicest shoes and his dark hair had been recently washed; it looked damp to the touch. I tugged on the hem of my black tee, making sure it fit perfectly over my dark-wash jeans. I brushed my fingers over the bright red scarf which hung loosely from my neck.
“You look fine,” Alex promised. I nodded slightly and walked over to him. He hooked his arm through mine and we walked out the door.
“Is Hope still coming?” I wondered aloud as we stomped down the stairs to the lobby. Alex shook his head and smiled at my confused expression.
“I told her that today was going to be family day. She understood,” he replied smoothly. We entered the lobby and were about to go out the front door when I caught the eye of a familiar woman.
“Claire,” Mrs. Trinity greeted. I smiled at her and she walked out of her little office. “How are you?”
“Taking it one day at a time,” I admitted as she hobbled towards me. She stopped right in front of me and took my hand in hers. I could feel the bones in her fingers as she rubbed them over my scar on my wrist.
“Me too, deary,” she replied. “Me too.”
“Well, I have to get going,” I said and took my hand away. “We are going to dinner and then to an art musuem.”
“Okay, Claire,” she laughed. “Have fun and say hello to Michael for me, the next time you go and see him.”
I blinked back tears and forced a smile at her.
“I will,” I promised and waved. She nodded and I went out the door, finding Alex waiting with a cab at his side. He gestured for me to get in and I did, smiling gently.
“How is Mrs. Trinity?” he asked. I swallowed loudly and looked over at him through bleary eyes.
“She is doing great,” I lied through clenched teeth. Alex took my hand and I weaved my fingers through his. He squeezed my hand and smiled at me.
“How are you?” He stared at me, waiting for an answer. I frowned and bit my lip.
“Not so good right now,” I confessed. Alex nodded looking relieved and I sighed. “It’s just so hard, you know? I mean, it has been a year, but a long year at that. I barely made it through the first school year. God, I barely made it through the first day of school this year.”
“It must be really hard for you,” Alex stated. My bottom lip trembled as a tear slipped out of the corner of my eye and down my cheek.
“It is,” I murmured through my tears. Alex sat up straighter and let go of my hand. I looked up at him and saw that he was glaring back down at me. “What?”
“For one,” he said, “I want you to stop crying. We aren’t going to do that tonight. Second, I want tonight to be one of the most fun-filled nights you have had in a year, okay? And third, I want you to throw out all thoughts of Michael right now. You won’t be able to have fun if you keep thinking about him.”
“I can try,” I whispered. Alex relaxed a little.
“Good,” he stated and looked out the window. I did the same and just ahead, I could see the small yellow building. The same one I had been going to every week so far in order to remember him. I could faintly smeel syrup and waffles.
“Here it goes,” I muttered to myself as Alex opened the taxi door. I started to slide out after him and as I did, I heard my favorite song come on the radio.
“And when I’m gone, just carry on. Don’t mourn; rejoice every time you hear the sound of my voice. Just know that everytime I’m lookin’ down on you smilin’ and didn’t feel a thing. So, baby, don’t feel my pain. Just smile back.”