What He Doesn't Know(6)

By: Kandi Steiner


“You two know each other, I presume?” Mr. Henderson interrupted, jolly as ever.

“We used to be neighbors,” I answered when she didn’t. “Charlie and my little sister were best friends growing up, and I was friends with her brother. Before we moved, that is.”

“Splendid! That saves me a lot of silly introductions then,” Mr. Henderson said, checking the gold watch on his wrist before clapping me on the back again.

His eyes found Charlie next, and I noticed then that she was staring at me, though her expression hadn’t changed. Her gaze found Mr. Henderson with a blink as he spoke her name.

“Charlie, as we discussed, please give Mr. Walker a tour of the campus when you have a chance. And you’re still okay being his lunch buddy for the next week?”

Her eyes skated to me briefly. “Of course. I’ll take it from here.”

“Wonderful. If you’ll excuse me, I have an unfortunate meeting with a high school mom who can’t possibly believe her sweet son vandalized the bathroom before winter break.” He rolled his eyes, but gave us each a wink on his way out the door.

There were at least a dozen other teachers in that lounge, but I only saw Charlie.

We might as well have been alone, the way the air picked up a charge in Mr. Henderson’s absence. I wondered if she felt it, too. I only had her expression to go by, which gave away nothing. Either she hid her emotions well now, or she didn’t have any at all.

I wasn’t sure which would bother me more.

“Charlie Reid,” I mused, hoping she would lighten up a little now that we were alone. “A tadpole no more. What happened to the braids and oversized t-shirts?”

“I imagine thirty-year-old’s wearing pigtail braids would be a little silly,” she said. “And t-shirts aren’t exactly dress code appropriate.”

I couldn’t tell if she was trying to make a joke or if she was as serious as an obituary. I smiled anyway, hoping it was the first option, but the smile fell quickly at her next words.

“And again, it’s Pierce now.”

Pierce.

Of course, she was married. It shouldn’t have been a shock. It shouldn’t have even solicited a single blink from me, let alone the dry swallow that torched my throat next. She was thirty now, and even with the light gone from her eyes, just as beautiful as she’d always been.

I repeated it to myself, the fact that she was married, over and over again like a curse.

But I still couldn’t tear my eyes away.

“Right. Pierce,” I said finally, clearing the rawness from my throat in the next breath. “Sorry about that. Habit, I suppose. Married for long now?”

“Almost eight years.”

I whistled. “And here I can barely fix myself a bowl of cereal in the morning. I thought I was supposed to be the more mature one.”

We both knew that was a joke. She’d always been the more mature of the two of us, even when she was just a pre-teen and I was supposed to be heading off to college.

Charlie was five years younger than me, and neither of us would ever forget that. It was those five years that had kept us apart, that had been a constant reminder of what we both wanted but could never have.

Now, at thirty-five and thirty, those years were no longer a road block. They weren’t even a speed bump.

But the ring on her finger that she played with obliterated the road altogether.

“Still burning water, huh?” she said after a moment. “At least one of us hasn’t changed.”

She managed something of a smile then, just the slightest twitch of her lips, and that made mine double in size. Maybe on the outside, I hadn’t changed much to her — sure, my hair was longer now, curling over the edge of my ears, and my chest was broader, my arms, too, thanks to a friend I met in Juilliard who convinced me we’d land more tail if we spent more time in the gym than in the classroom. But I was mostly the same, I supposed.

I couldn’t say that about her.

I tried to do anything but stare at her, but I couldn’t stop myself from searching for the girl who’d stood before me fourteen years ago on the night before I left Pennsylvania for New York. I think she’d hated me that night, and I’d never forgotten the way her eyes had filled with tears that pooled and never fell when we said our goodbyes.

She’d asked me to kiss her, and I’d said no — letting those years between us keep me from her like an electric fence.

Even now, I kicked myself for that mistake.

“You hungry?” I asked, gesturing to the café behind us. It was the kind of teachers’ lounge I’d only seen in movies, the kind no public school would ever have. My teachers most certainly brought bagged lunches and microwave dinners, but the Westchester teachers’ café had an entire buffet selection — from salads and hot sandwiches to grilled chicken and vegetable plates.

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