Knowing her mother would find out soon enough, Sarah forced herself to say, "Calvin and I met tonight. To catch up." The words were sticking in her throat. "And to talk about my project."
Again, her mother was silent for a few moments before gently saying, "You two haven't seen each other in quite a while. How was it?"
All her life, whenever she'd had problems, Sarah had gone to her father for advice. Of course, her mother had always been there with cookies and Band-Aid strips and hugs and bedtime stories, but Sarah had just never felt as connected to her mother, not when they were so different. But tonight she wanted to blurt out everything that had happened with Calvin. She wanted to cry on her mother's shoulder. She wanted to ask for help, for guidance, for some salve to patch the old wound in her heart that had just been reopened. But she couldn't. Her mother was still grieving, still reeling from her father's death. Sarah didn't need to add in her problems too.
"It was fine. I'm just surprised by how tired I am. I haven't spent that many hours on my feet, like I did today in the store, in a very long time." She got up and kissed her mother's cheek. "Good night."
Up in her childhood bedroom, she changed into her pajamas, sat down on her bed with her open laptop, and tried to focus on answering the dozens of e-mails that had come in during the day. But she was hard-pressed to focus on work with all of the things Calvin had said zinging through her mind.
You knew I could never say no to you.
You're not from here anymore.
I know all about your promises, Sarah.
Do you really sleep at night telling yourself these lies?
No, she thought, as she replied to an e-mail from her assistant. It was unlikely that she'd be getting any sleep tonight at all.
Calvin couldn't stop thinking about Sarah, about the things he'd said to her at the tavern.
As mayor, he often peacefully disagreed with friends and neighbors over issues, but he never lost it. Never. So then, why had he all but blown apart when Sarah had pushed those condo plans across the table to him?
She wasn't the one who had made it personal--she'd been all business. He was the one who'd taken their discussion from condos to their screwed-up past.
And to the fact that he didn't trust her anymore.
He hadn't known Sarah would still have the power to rock his world as much as she ever had. He should have known that the first shock of seeing her, talking with her, touching her was going to be bad, but like a fool with his head stuck in the sand, he hadn't.
Ten years ago...
"Sarah, he's dead."
"Calvin? Is that you?"
He sat in the dirt outside his trailer. He'd wrapped Jordan in a blanket and had the phone propped against his shoulder. He could hear the sounds coming from Sarah's dorm room at Cornell, music and laughter, so different from the almost perfect silence that surrounded his trailer by the lake, a silence broken only by an occasional frog...and his infant sister's whimpers.
"Wait a minute," Sarah said. "I can't hear anything. My roommate's stereo is too loud. Let me go out into the hall."
He could hear her walking past people who said her name in greeting. Her college life was a whole other world he knew virtually nothing about.
"Okay, silence. Finally. That's better. I'm so glad you called, Calvin. I was just thinking about you. I was just missing you. Can we start this call again?"
"He killed himself, Sarah. He put a bullet through his brain."
"Wait, what are you talking about?"
He knew he wasn't making any sense, but it was hard to make sense after what he'd seen.
After the way his life had just imploded.
"My father. He shot himself."
"Oh God. Oh no."
All he wanted was for her to be here with him, to put her arms around him, to tell him everything was going to be okay, to see her and know that they'd figure things out together.
"I left to get some groceries and diapers, and when I came back, he was on the floor and there were brains--" He almost threw up again, barely swallowing down the bile. "Jordan was in her crib. She was crying. Her diaper was dirty."
It was still dirty. He needed to get back inside and grab the diapers he'd bought to change her. But he couldn't. He couldn't go back inside.
"Have you called the police?"
He'd needed to call her first. Needed to know that there was still someone left who loved him, that there was still someone left who cared about him, who wouldn't leave him when the going got too rough.
"I'm going to hang up right now, Calvin, so that you can call 911 and tell them what happened."
"I need you, Sarah."
"I know. That's why I'm coming right now. Right away." He heard a sob in her voice before she said, "I love you. Be strong and wait for me. I'll be there soon."
She hung up and he called 911. The paramedics and police would help him and his sister. His neighbors would help.
But Sarah was the reason he would make it through.
As long as she was by his side, he'd be okay.
Calvin woke from his dream, sweat coating his skin, his heart pounding almost through his chest, the sheets kicked off.
He had to force himself to look around his bedroom, to see the house he'd built on the lake four years ago. He wasn't that kid anymore whose whole life had changed in an instant. He wasn't the boy waiting outside in the dirt for someone to come save him.
Still, he couldn't stop thinking about those first hours after he'd discovered his father on the floor of the trailer. Right after getting off the phone with him, Sarah had called her family, and Denise had come to take him and Jordan to live in the cottage behind their big house. By the time Sarah had gotten back to the lake, the trailer had been closed off by the chief of police while they investigated whether there had been foul play.
Sarah ran to him, held him, rocked him in her arms. Calvin could see how badly she wanted to help, only he was already way beyond help. Because, somehow, seeing her made things worse, reminded him of all the things he could no longer have.
From the moment he'd found his father lying on the floor, everything had changed. His sister became his number-one priority, and any dreams that he'd had for himself--dreams that had always included Sarah--had to be stuffed away.
He didn't remember falling asleep on the couch between questioning from the police and practically being force-fed by Sarah's mother. All he remembered was waking up to the sounds of his sister's wails--and seeing Sarah calmly changing Jordan's diaper, even though he knew she'd never done much babysitting. It was a messy job, but she was calm and collected and methodical.
And Calvin knew he couldn't do any of this without her.
Over and over he'd told himself not to ask her to stay. It wasn't her life that had exploded. It wasn't her mess that needed to be dealt with. But in that moment, it was less courage than desperation that had him asking. Begging.
"Stay with me, Sarah."
She had looked at him with such shock, as if what he was asking of her was so utterly unexpected, that he knew he shouldn't say anything more. He should have told her never mind, that he didn't mean it, that it was the exhaustion--and grief over losing his father--that was making him say crazy things.
But he hadn't done or said any of that. Instead, he'd decided it was a test. A test to see if she really loved him, or not.
"Defer college for a year. Help me with Jordan. Help me get my feet on the ground. I don't know if I can do it without you."