“Joe, I swear to God if you don’t stop drooling over my sister, I’m going to deck you,” Max hissed in my ear.
“Terri?” I gawked.
Terri gave me a small smile and a nervous little wave. “Hey,” she greeted weakly.
Something was wrong. I could just tell. This wasn’t the Terri I remembered. The woman standing before me seemed tired, exhausted. I’d even go so far as to describe her as beaten down. She’d only uttered a single word, but her voice sounded thin enough to break. This wasn’t the same bright, optimistic, carefree Terri who liked to deliberately throw her toys over our shared fence to have an excuse to come over. This wasn’t the same chipper, energetic, fun-loving girl who’d waved wildly at me through her bedroom window as I moved out all those years ago. This was someone bitter, someone vulnerable. And it didn’t sit right with me at all.
“Thank you for finding me this apartment,” she said quietly to Max. “I know it must have been really last minute.”
“Not a problem, kiddo,” he replied. Max slapped me across the back of the shoulder. “Joe here happened to know the old man moving out.”
“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” I grimaced, rubbing my shoulder where the skin now stung. “Do you have the key to let us in?”
“Yes,” she mumbled as she reached into the back pocket of her shorts. Terri pulled out a small silver key and placed it in the center of Max’s outstretched palm. “I need to go tell the landlord I’m here.”
“We’ll start moving things upstairs for you,” I offered.
The smallest, weakest smile ghosted across her lips. “Thanks, Joe. I really appreciate it.” She turned on her heel and started toward the front door of the apartment building, texting while walking.
Max nudged me hard in the ribs with the tip of his elbow. “Hands off, Mantaglio.”
“What?” I scoffed. “I wasn’t doing anything.”
My friend rolled his eyes. “I know you better than anyone, Joe. You’ll try to sleep with anything with a pulse.”
“I would never,” I huffed. “But on a completely separate note, since when did your sister turn into an absolute babe?”
“Do you know if she’s single?”
“Seriously, Joe. Drop it. If you care about our friendship at all, you’ll leave her alone.”
I clicked my tongue. “Do I have to return the friendship bracelet you made me?”
“I hate you.”
“I know,” I chuckled.
“I’m not joking, man. Quit drooling. You’re freaking me out.”
The rest of the day was spent in relative silence, save for the occasional order Max barked at me with regards to which boxes went where. Terri didn’t have a whole lot to move to start with, and most of the boxes were lighter than they looked. After what must have been the fiftieth trip up and down the six flights of stairs, all of her belongings had been successfully delivered. I clapped my hands together once I’d placed the last box in the kitchen, patting myself on the back mentally for a job well done.
“Thank you,” whispered Terri from where she stood in the hall. She reached into her pocket to pull out a few bills. “How much do I owe you?”
I shook my head. “No, no. Put that away. It’s cool.”
She lifted her sunglasses off of her face and settled the frames atop her head. I was right before when I suspected her of being weary. Not only did she sound exhausted, but she looked exhausted. Her big blue eyes didn’t seem to have the same spark, the same light quality to them, though they were astounding all the same. They used to remind me of bright skies on a spring morning, but now they were more like a quiet stream flowing over a rock bed.
Terri raised a curious eyebrow. “Are you sure?”
“Positive. Think of it as a neighbor helping out a neighbor.”
“You live around here?”
“In the next building, actually.”
“Oh, you were being literal. That’s, um… That’s cool.” The faintest dusting of pink colored her cheeks. “I guess I’ll see you around.”
“Mantaglio!” exclaimed Max from the hallway. “Get your ass down here and tell me what you want on your pizza. And don’t you dare say pineapples.”
“I want nothing but pineapples,” I shouted back.
“You’re a freak.”
The lightest, softest giggle escaped Terri’s lips. I looked to her, partially stunned and mostly amazed. It was the sweetest sound I’d ever heard, but it left an uncomfortable feeling in the base of my throat. How could such a wonderful laugh belong to someone who appeared so sad?
“Do you want in on the pizza?” I asked her. “Between you and me, I think your brother needs to cut back on the calories.”
Terri shook her head, once again returning to her quiet state. “No, thank you. I’ve had a long day. I think I’m just going to relax and try and put a few things away.”