Leif didn’t show up last night to finish his speech and it was due today. Not showing up wasn’t like him. The later it got without a call from him the angrier I’d become. In the end, I finished the speech myself and printed it out. Deep down I believed he would have a good excuse and letting him make a bad grade had seemed cruel. I reached into my bag to pull out his speech as I made my way down the hall. I just hoped when I found him and handed him this paper he would have a legitimate excuse for last night. Admitting to myself that I needed him to have a really good excuse hadn’t been easy. I’d let myself care about Leif Montgomery way too much.
“Hey girly, what’s up? I miss you.” Miranda slipped her arm around my waist and laid her head on my shoulder. I missed her too. Last year when she and Wyatt had been dating I’d been with Jay. It hadn’t made me feel isolated from my friends when they’d become an item. With me being single and the other two in my trio being a couple, I couldn’t help but feel like the third wheel.
“I miss you too. We need to go out together one night.
Maybe a girls’ night out,” I suggested while searching through the crowd of students clogging up the hallway for Leif.
“That sounds wonderful! Let’s plan on doing it one night this weekend.” She paused and frowned. “Or maybe next weekend.” The uncharacteristic frown was proof enough she hated telling me she was busy.
I shrugged and forced a smile. “No worries. Whenever you have time.” I glanced back down the hall and this time managed to get a glimpse of Leif at his locker. His back faced the crowded hallway. I turned back to Miranda. “I need to get this to Leif. I’ll catch up with you at lunch.” The crowd seemed to thin out as I reached his end of the lockers. Once I broke through the last group of students standing between us, I noticed Kendra leaning against his locker, smiling up at him. I thought about turning around, not wanting to hand this to him in front of her when I remembered he went to Speech first period. I slowed down and stopped behind him. As I reached to tap him on the shoulder, Kendra reached up and ran her fingers through Leif’s hair. It was sickening to watch. He was such a good guy and she was pure evil.
“You sure coming over last night wasn’t a big deal? I would hate to mess things up with you and your girlfriend,” she cooed.
“You know she isn’t my girlfriend, Kendra. Stop calling her that. You’ll start talk.” His voice sounded annoyed. Was the idea that someone might think he liked me so repulsive to him? A sick knot formed in my stomach and I started to turn and leave before he noticed me.
“You spend a lot of time at her house and she is always looking at you.”
“She’s my tutor and no, she isn’t looking at me. You’re just being paranoid when you have no reason to be.” I clinched my empty hand into a fist thinking about all the times he had fooled me into thinking he was a nice guy.
He was just as mean and calculating as Kendra. Was he even adopted or had that been a big elaborate lie to get me to feel sorry for him? I’d actually convinced my stupid self that Leif might be potential relationship material. The next time he came to my lunch table and asked if I was going to go to his game, I had intended to say yes and see if it led to where Wyatt had seemed to think it was leading.
“You sure she knows she isn’t your girlfriend because it looks like she is stalking you?” Kendra purred. I turned back around hating the heat I felt in my cheeks. My face was probably bright red.
“Oh, uh, Pagan. I was going to come find you and explain about last night.” I nodded, not wanting to discuss this after all I’d heard, and handed him the paper. “Thought you might need this.”
He stared down at the paper in my hand before reaching out and taking it. I turned to walk away. “Wait, I was going to call you last night. I just got tied up. Thanks,” he said holding up the paper.
Kendra slipped an arm inside his and smiled sweetly up at him. “That’s not true, Leif, I never tied you up.” She then directed her gaze at me and gave me a smile of triumph.
While I’d sat up late finishing his speech, he’d been with Kendra. How stupid could I be? I’d wasted my time writing a speech for someone who I’d thought needed my help, all this time thinking he was a good guy I could, possibly, really like.
Maybe I hadn’t judged him so unfairly before. Maybe Leif Montgomery fit the description I’d placed on him all these years. It hurt to find out the guy I’d built him up to be was an illusion. That I’d made an idiot of myself by staying up and writing the paper for him. It made me look like one his love-struck groupies.
I managed to get my locker open and find the books I needed for first class through my haze of anger. I stopped, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath. I’d just learned a lesson and I didn’t need to forget it. Two tears squeezed through and I quickly wiped them away before closing my locker door. Now he had me crying. Perfect.
Crap! He’d come after me. I couldn’t let him see me crying. Humiliation wouldn’t be a strong enough word for what I’d feel if Leif knew I’d shed a tear over this. I forced a nonchalant expression on my face and turned around. “Yes?” He appeared upset. I wished I could convince myself of his sincerity. “Look, about last night, I am really sorry. I hadn’t expected you to finish the speech for me. I messed up and I was going to take the bad grade. I should’ve called, but—”
I shook my head to stop him. “It’s not a big deal.
However, from now on would you please let me know in advance when you won’t be able to make it to the appointed time for your session? Now, if you’ll excuse me.” I stepped around him and started for class.
“Pagan, wait, please.”
I stopped and considered telling him to go to Hell but decided against it before turning back to face him. “What?”
“I was coming over and Kendra called.” I shook my head. “I don’t care. Just call next time, please.” I turned and headed toward my class but when I reached it, I didn’t stop walking. Going into a classroom late with everyone’s eyes on me didn’t seem possible at that moment.
I opened the front door of the school and stepped outside.
I normally didn’t put myself out there for anyone. Today I’d made the mistake of doing so and got burned. I just wanted to go home. I could deal with my wounded pride alone.
“Don’t leave. He isn’t worth it.” The familiar deep voice almost sounded as if he were pleading. He was walking beside me. His face was tense and the smirk I’d grown accustomed to was missing.
“I don’t want to stay. I’m angry and I just want to leave.”
“Please, Pagan, don’t get in your car. Go back inside.
Forget the stupid kid and enjoy the rest of your day. Don’t let something that idiot did send you running.” I stopped walking and looked at him. “Why do you care if I leave? Are you the new hall monitor and I missed the memo?”
His frown deepened; blue eyes turning icy blue as if a fire had ignited behind them. “I’m begging you to go back in the school.”
“Why?” He ran his hand through his dark, silky hair and growled in frustration. “Do you have to question everything?
Can’t you just listen for once?”
That was it. I’d had more than enough for one day. First Leif proves he’s a grade-A jerk, and then the soul who won’t leave me alone decides to get annoyed with me. “I’m leaving here. You can’t stop me. I don’t have to listen to you. If you don’t have a good excuse then there is no reason for me to stay.” I twirled around on the balls of my feet and stalked to my car. Guys were annoying, alive or dead, it didn’t seem to matter.
I quickly cranked the car and focused on getting out of the school parking lot. I didn’t want anyone to see me and report me before I could get out of here. I couldn’t believe I’d actually shed a tear over this. Crying wasn’t my thing. It had to have been the humiliation. I wasn’t accustomed to it and obviously didn’t know how to deal with it.
I adjusted the rear view mirror to see if I looked as bad as I feared, in case my mother came out of her writing burrow when I got home. If my mascara was smeared my mother would notice. I wouldn’t be able to hide the frustration. Fake smiles weren’t a talent of mine.
Sighing, I glanced back at the road. Attempting to fix my face without the help of soap and water was a hopeless cause.
The stop sign I’d stopped at a million times surprised me. I hadn’t been paying attention and I’d forgotten to slow down.
It was too late to slam on the breaks. I glanced over just in time to see a truck coming directly at me and in one split second the realization hit me: I wouldn’t be able to stop in time.
Everything went black and the screeching wheels and honking horn fell silent. A spinning sensation and a sharp pain shot through my body. I tried to scream for help but nothing came out. I began suffocating. Something heavy was pressed against my chest and I couldn’t breathe. I gasped and reached into the darkness for help. I would suffocate if I didn’t get the heavy weight off my chest. I fought to open my eyes but the darkness held me under. Warmth spread over me as I grabbed something in the darkness. I froze, not sure what I’d found when I realized I could breathe again. The lights suddenly came back on and the world became blindingly bright. I couldn’t open my eyes because of the pain. Someone carried me a short distance and then I felt the cool ground under my back. The abnormally warm hands cradling me disappeared. I tried to protest. I didn’t want my rescuer to leave me, but I couldn’t find my voice. I tried to sit up and intense pain overtook my body. The world went silent.
A hauntingly sweet sound played in the darkness. I turned my head to find the source of the music. My neck was stiff and my head began pounding so loudly it dulled the sound of the melody I’d been trying to find. I stopped moving and kept my eyes closed, waiting for the pain to stop.
“And she awakes,” a voice said in the darkness. I recognized it and instead of fearing it the sound soothed me.
The music started playing again and I realized it was the soft strum of a guitar. A low hum joined in and I lay still, listening in the darkness, and glad that the music filled the void, assuring me I wasn’t alone.
Needing to see him, I opened my eyes and realized the lights were off. I lay still while my eyes adjusted to the dark room. I wasn’t in my bedroom. The machine beside me and the needle in my arm were the only clues I needed. I was in a hospital room. The guitar stopped playing. Afraid to turn my head again, I carefully shifted my body instead.
The soul sat in a dark corner, watching me. “What are you doing?” I managed to ask in a hoarse whisper.
He smiled, stood up, and walked over to me. “Well, I’d have thought it would’ve been obvious.” He held up the guitar in his hands. Not only could this soul speak, he also played musical instruments. I wanted to ask more but my throat hurt too badly. He sat down in a chair someone had pulled up beside my bed. “You probably don’t need to talk.
You were in a car accident and you’ve suffered a serious concussion along with a broken rib. Other than that, you’re just badly bruised up.”
I remembered the stop sign, and the truck had been coming at me too fast. I’d known it would be unable to stop in time.
“You were wearing your seat-belt and the truck hit the back end of your car and it flipped you a few times.” Did my mom know? She would be terrified. How long had it been? And why was a soul the only person with me? I glanced over to the machine my wires were hooked up to and, if I were reading it correctly, then I was indeed alive.
The sudden fear at the prospect I might be dead eased and I stared back into those intense dark blue eyes.
“Mom?” I managed to ask through my dry sore throat.
The soul smiled. “She just stepped out for some coffee a few moments ago. I expect her to be returning soon enough.” Mom was here and I would see her in a few minutes. I felt like a little girl, afraid of the dark. Tears stung my eyes as I glanced toward the door, hoping it would open to reveal my mother. A woman with short brown, curly hair drifted into my room without the use of the door. I studied her and she smiled at me but gazed right past the other soul in the room.
Once, when I was ten, I had been put in the hospital for pneumonia and I’d realized then that lost, wandering souls were in abundance inside hospitals. This one drifted over to some flowers I hadn’t noticed before by the window. She seemed to be smelling them and she gave a gentle tug to the bunch of ‘Get Well’ balloons attached to a dozen yellow daisies. I glanced back at the soul who sat beside me. He seemed to be studying me intently.
“You see her, don’t you?” he asked, and I nodded. He watched the lady as she glanced back at me one more time before drifting back through the wall. “Have you always seen them?”
I managed to smile at the way he referred to souls as if he was not one himself. I raised my eyebrows and stared at him pointedly. “You’re one of them,” I said in a whisper.
“Yes, I guess, to you, it would seem that way. However, there is a difference between souls and me.” I frowned. “What?” I knew he could talk to me and souls never spoke to me but he was still a soul without a body.
“I can’t tell you what I am. I’ve broken enough rules already.” He studied the machine beside me instead of meeting my gaze. The door to my room opened and my mother walked in.
Her eyes found mine and she gasped before running over to me, “Pagan, you’re awake! Oh, honey, I’m so sorry I wasn’t here when you woke up. All alone and confused in a dark hospital room.”
I peeked behind her and saw the soul standing there watching with the sexy smirk I was beginning to get attached to on his perfect lips.
“I just needed a little coffee and then I ran to get this magazine,” she said holding up a plastic green bag. “Let me get the nurse. You just be still. You’re a little busted up but you’re going to be okay.” Tears sprang to her eyes and she covered her mouth with her hand. “I’m sorry,” she said gazing down at me with watery eyes. “It’s just, I keep thinking about your car and how it would have completely crushed you if you hadn’t been thrown from the driver’s seat.
I always tell you to wear your seat-belt and the fact you didn’t listen to me saved your life.” She let out a small sob and smiled apologetically at me. “Oh, baby, I’m just so glad you have opened your eyes.”
I smiled at her trying to mask my confusion. “It’s okay,” I whispered.
She bent down and kissed my forehead. “I’ll be right back. I need to get a nurse. They’ve been waiting for you to wake up.”
She headed for the door and I stared back at the soul standing in the corner with the guitar in his hand. It struck me as odd to see him hold a guitar. Did people see a guitar floating in the air? Mom hadn’t seemed to notice, but then she hadn’t looked anywhere but at me.
“The seat-belt,” I whispered through my dry lips. I’d been wearing my seat-belt. I always did. He’d even said it was a good thing I was wearing it. Why did my mother think I hadn’t been, and that not wearing it had saved my life? He stepped forward, watching me closely. The expression on his face said he didn’t know how to answer me. Before he could reply, the door opened again and he retreated back to the corner. A nurse came bustling in with my mother behind her.
The answer to my question would have to wait.
* * * *
The soul left before the nurse finished with me and he hadn’t returned. The next time I woke up I quickly checked around the room, hoping he’d come back, but my mother now sat in his corner working on her laptop. She gazed over at me and smiled.
“Good morning!” The fear I’d seen in her eyes last night was gone...she looked less tense and more like my mom again. Now that I’d awakened and the nurse had assured her I would recover just fine, she seemed less tense and more like my mom again.
I smiled. “Morning.” My throat felt a bit better thanks to all the ice cubes I’d eaten. I reached for my cup of water and Mom jumped up quickly.
“Don’t move. Your broken rib is going to require that you be still for a while.” She put the straw to my lips and I took small sips of the cold water. It felt wonderful on my sore throat. “Miranda has already called this morning and I told her you woke up last night. She is on her way, with Wyatt,” Mom paused and glanced back at the door, “and Leif Montgomery has been in the waiting room all night. He even slept in there. I went and let him know you’d woken up and I told him to go on home because you couldn’t have visitors, but he stayed. The nurses felt bad for him and gave him a pillow and blankets.” She trailed off as if not sure exactly why he’d wanted to stay in a waiting room all night. The memories of his not showing up for our study session because of Kendra resurfaced. I didn’t feel sad anymore or disappointed. The tears I’d shed over him had been pointless.
Mom chewed on her bottom lip. “He said he was the reason you left school upset. I haven’t asked you why you weren’t at school or what happened because I didn’t want to upset you.” She stopped talking and studied me, waiting for me to say something. What could I say? I really didn’t want to see Leif. I’d almost killed myself acting like a silly girl with a crush.
“He’s been here all night?” I asked, wanting to make sure I understood her correctly.
She nodded. “He’s been here since he found out about your accident. He came with Miranda and Wyatt, but he wouldn’t leave with them.”
“Okay, um, if he wants to come in, then that’s fine.” Mom appeared relieved. I guess she’d worried I might tell the poor boy who’d waited all night in an uncomfortable waiting room that I didn’t want to see him. She hurried out the door and I heard Miranda whisper something as they passed each other. No doubt they were discussing my agreeing to let Leif in to see me. Miranda walked inside and put her hands on her hips and gave me a big cheery smile.
“Look at you, all awake and gorgeous,” she said, walking over to me and sitting in the chair beside the bed. She grabbed my hand and I saw the glistening in her eyes as she fought off tears. I squeezed her hand and her bravado cracked. She let out a sob as tears started running down her face. I glanced up at Wyatt, who stood behind her watching me. He shrugged and gave me what I could tell was a forced smile.
Miranda choked on a sob. “I’m sorry. I said I wasn’t going to cry. I really had myself all worked up to be bright and cheery but I keep remembering your car and hearing the words ‘she was rushed to the hospital unconscious’ over and over again in my head.” She wiped her wet face and smiled through her tears. “I’m just so glad you’re okay. Yesterday was the worst day of my life.” She took our joined hands up to her mouth and kissed them.
“I know,” I said simply. Because I did. If it had been her in this bed instead of me I would’ve been terrified.
“Ironic isn’t it. The one day you decide to break the rules and skip school and not wear your seat belt, which is weird since you’re the Seat Belt Nazi, it all blows up in your face.
Makes you want to keep walking the straight and narrow doesn’t it?” Wyatt asked with a grin on his face.
I smiled because laughing hurt, and Miranda rolled her eyes but a smile tugged on the corner her mouth. “Yes, I guess so.” I wanted to clarify the fact I’d been wearing my seat belt but I couldn’t explain something I didn’t understand, so I kept my mouth shut. A knock sounded on the door and Miranda stared at me, chewing her bottom lip nervously.
She lowered her voice to a whisper. “He hasn’t left since he got here with us yesterday. He even missed football practice.”
I watched as Leif walked inside the room. His eyes met mine and he paused a moment before walking into the room farther. I wasn’t sure exactly what to say to him or what he could possibly say to me. He was a guy I tutored and he’d slept in the waiting room all night because I’d acted ridiculous over his blowing off our study session. He was obviously nervous and I knew Wyatt and Miranda’s presence wasn’t helping matters. I didn’t intend to tell everyone my accident was his fault. I didn’t believe that. I knew I’d caused this. Letting him off the hook would be easy enough.
However, with my two best friends in the room it would be awkward. I didn’t want them to leave me because having them here felt like a security blanket. I glanced back at Leif and I could see in his eyes he wanted to talk to me without the audience but he wouldn’t ask them to leave. The thought of him sleeping in the waiting room all night because he felt guilty seemed unfair. I needed to ease his conscious so he could go home.
I turned to Miranda and Wyatt. “Could you two give us a minute?”
Miranda glared over at Leif and nodded. I watched as she stood up. Staring at Leif wasn’t something new for Miranda but glaring at him was. After I rectified the situation with Leif I would need to clear things up with my friends as well.
Once the door closed behind them, I turned my attention to him.
“Yesterday, I…. God.” He ran his hand through his messy, blond hair and closed his eyes. “You’re here because of me. I know you left because you were upset. I could see it in your eyes but I didn’t know how to make you talk to me.” He stopped again and gazed down at me. “I can never express to you how sorry I am.”
I shook my head. “This wasn’t your fault. I made a stupid decision.”
“No, it is my fault. I could see the tears in your eyes, Pagan, and it was killing me but I couldn’t find the right words. I wanted to explain but I did a poor job.” I couldn’t let him take the blame for my stupidity. “Stop blaming yourself. I will admit that I acted foolishly over you not showing up or calling. I did let the fact you were with Kendra upset me and that was silly. I don’t know why I let it upset me like it did. Crying over a guy isn’t something I do.
The fact I was fighting back tears confused me and I left.” He reached out and gently touched one of the two dozen pink roses sitting on a table by the window. “You left because I hurt you. That makes this my fault,” he replied simply. I didn’t want him beating himself up over this. He needed to get over it and go home.
“Leif, I’m your tutor. We aren’t even friends. You can miss a session and forget to call me, and I shouldn’t let that hurt me. I read more into our relationship than I should have. You have never insinuated we were more than study partners. We don’t speak at school; we don’t see each other except at my house when we are working. This was my fault.
Stop blaming yourself and go home.” I said the last with a softness to my voice so it didn’t sound rude. He frowned and walked over to stand beside my bed.
“You think I only see you as my tutor?” he asked. I nodded, unsure of his meaning. He gave me a sad smirk.
“That would be my fault too. I have never had a problem letting a girl know I’m interested...until you.” I wasn’t sure what he meant so I remained silent. He sat down in the chair Miranda vacated moments ago.
“I knew you didn’t like me when you agreed to tutor me.
You didn’t have to tell me that day in the hall when you said you’d turned me down because you didn't like me. I’ve always known you didn’t like me, but I wanted you to be my tutor. I wanted you to be the one to know my secret. Never did I expect the one girl who looked at me with disdain would be so much fun. It came as a surprise to find out the girl I’d been watching since our freshman year in high school happened to be just as beautiful on the inside as she was on the outside. You surprised me and it didn’t take much to hook me.” A sad smile touched his lips. “Yet, at school you still seemed as untouchable as always, so I kept my distance.
I tried speaking to you and even got up the nerve to ask you out but your disinterest scared me. I didn’t want to make our nights together uncomfortable, so I didn’t ask for anything more. I looked forward to our nights all day long. I couldn’t mess those up.”
He dropped his gaze down to his hands, which he’d fisted in his lap. “Then Kendra called and she started crying, saying she needed to talk to someone and I was the only person she trusted. I told her I had somewhere to be but she cried harder and begged me. I agreed to stop by her house. She is dealing with some things in her home life that I already knew about and she needed someone to listen. When I realized I wasn’t going to be able to leave her, I wanted to call but I couldn’t call you in front of her and explain it. So, I didn’t. I was just going to deal with the bad grade. I had no idea you would even care.” He glanced up at me with a pained expression on his face. “I was wrong and I’ve never been so mad at myself.” He stood, shoving his hands in his jeans pockets with a look of defeat on his face.
I smiled. “Please don’t be mad at yourself. I don’t blame you for anything.” I wanted to say more but I couldn’t. He watched me a moment before nodding.
“Is there a chance I haven’t completely screwed things up between us?” he asked.
“What is it you’re worried about screwing up? I’ll still tutor you, if that’s what you’re asking.” He chuckled softly and gently took my hand. “I’m really grateful that you’ll remain my tutor but that isn’t what I’m asking. I was scared before of messing things up but I don’t think I can mess anything up any more than I already have.” He sat back down in the chair beside me and gazed at me with baby blue eyes that were framed in such thick lashes it made it hard not to sigh. “I don’t want you to just be my tutor. I want you to be the girl I look for in the halls every morning and save a seat for in the cafeteria. I want you to be the one waiting for me when I walk off the field at my games.
I want you to be the one I pick up the phone to call just to make me smile.” His eyes watched me. Leif Montgomery actually appeared nervous.
He was waiting for me to say something. I could see the question in his eyes. Leif wanted to take this to a level I’d thought I wanted before, so why was it so hard to accept now? Fear flickered in his eyes and I managed to nod my head. I’d agreed to let things change between us, but somehow, deep down, something didn’t feel right.