Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Chapter 24

The door towered, solid and imposing. On it hung a sign which said “Li” with decorative vines painted along the edges.

Caleb shifted his weight from one foot to the other. What if she left for work already? If he knocked, her mother might answer. He hadn’t seen Mrs. Li since the break up. It would be awkward.

Caleb wiped his sweaty palms on his pants. He raised a hand to knock on the door. It opened before he had the chance.

Leana looked at him, eyebrows raised. “Caleb?”

“I brought you these.” He held up flowers.

Her face flushed. “I have to go to work.”

“I know. I, um- Can I walk you there?”

Leana smiled. “Sure.” She took the flowers and smelled them. “Let me put these inside.” She disappeared back through the doorway.

After she returned they headed down the sidewalk. Caleb opened his mouth to speak more than once but kept changing his mind and diverting his gaze. Why was he so nervous? Earlier he couldn’t wait to see her. Now he could hardly talk.

“I knew something was up when you texted me to ask when I worked,” she finally said. “You could have just asked to meet.”

“I wanted to surprise you.”

“If I left earlier, though, you would have missed me.”

“I’d try again tomorrow.”

She smiled at him. “There are times when I’m not at work, you know, or on my way there.”

“I figured you might be nervous about starting your new job. Having someone to chat with on the way could be nice.”

“You’re right. Thank you.” Leana looked into his eyes.

“Not a problem, buddy.” He gave her a nudge on the shoulder with his fist and immediately regretted it.

Leana bit the inside of her cheek and looked at the sidewalk.

“Sorry,” Caleb said almost inaudibly.

Two blocks passed.

The emotion trapped in Caleb’s chest soon pushed itself out.

“I messed up,” he said. “I messed up big. I lied to you. I had no good reason to but I just let it happen.”

Leana stood straighter and pushed her hair out of her face. “I don’t want to talk about it. I made that clear the other day.”

“I don’t really want to talk about it, either. But we need to.”

Leana stopped to face him. “No. What happened is what happened. We can’t change it now. Let’s just move on.”

“It’s true that we can’t change what happened—I wish I could—but that doesn’t mean it’s over. I should have told you that the head of the honors club didn’t like you and talked crap about you behind your back, but you wanted to join so badly. I couldn’t ruin that. You deserved to know, though. I definitely messed up, but at the same time, it wasn’t the end of the world. Even though you had a right to be upset, I feel like you blew things out of proportion, and I’m still a little mad about that.”

Leana sighed and walked away. Caleb hurried after her.

“I’m not trying to throw blame, I just want to be honest.”

Leana picked at her nail polish and didn’t say anything for a moment. Then she threw her hands down at her sides.

“It wasn’t the end of the world, but joining that club meant a lot to me. You knew that. It took a year to get my grades up high enough to join. Then I had to befriend the members so they could vote me in. If I knew the leader had some dumb grudge against me, I could have gone about things differently. Instead you hid that information from me and acted all supportive.”

Caleb took her hand to stop her.

She glared at him. “What?”

“I’m sorry.”

Leana’s face softened. Caleb realized he still held her hand and let go. People passed as they stood in silence.

“Caleb, I’m sorry, too. All of my anger over not being voted into the club got directed at you, which wasn’t fair. I shouldn’t have lost my head like that.”

“I understand why you did,” Caleb said. As an afterthought, he pulled out his phone to check the time. “Hey, we should keep going or you’ll be late.”

“Right. Thanks.”

The subway entrance was only a block away. When they got there, Caleb stayed at the top of the stairs as Leana descended. Halfway down, she realized it and turned around.

“Caleb?”

“Hey, if you want, we can split here.”

“What? Who else am I going to talk to on the train—Miss Cabbages?”

Caleb couldn’t help but grin. Miss Cabbages was the nickname they made up for some old lady who they saw on the subway almost every time they rode it. She always wore a dark green coat and smelled like boiled cabbages.

“You’re right,” Caleb said. “That would be too cruel.”

He followed her down the stairs, and they came to the turnstiles which only allowed people with prepaid subway cards through. Leana swiped hers then pushed through the rotating bars. Caleb swiped his own card. He moved to follow, but the turnstile didn’t budge—it shoved painfully into his stomach and knocked the air out of him.

“What the hell?”

“Are you okay?” Leana asked.

“Yeah. This thing is busted.” Caleb ran his subway card through again, but the turnstile remained locked in place. The screen beside the card reader flashed the message ZERO BALANCE in red letters.

“No way,” Caleb said to himself. When he used the same card to pay for his trip over here it still had over ten dollars left on it. Now, like his phone and debit card, it was dead. Caleb closed his fist around the card, crumpling it into a ball.

“Don’t worry,” Leana said, “you can use mine.” She leaned over to hand him her own card.

He took it, did his best to smile, and swiped. The turnstile let him in. After stepping through, Caleb took a deep breath. This was becoming a serious problem. What else could Obscurity do? Hopefully the jerk would realize he made his point and leave Caleb alone. Caleb didn’t want to imagine the alternative. 

“I hear the train,” Leana said. “Hurry!”

Caleb and Leana rushed down to the platform and made it through the doors just before they closed. The subway car rumbled into motion.

Caleb couldn’t even get another subway card now because his debit card had also been disabled. He might have to bike from now on. That would take him at least twice as long to get anywhere.

“Caleb, can you hear me?” From Leana’s tone, Caleb could tell she’d been trying to get his attention.

“Huh? Sorry.” She didn’t appear angry, instead she was smiling and holding back a giggle.

“Look who it is.” She nodded down the subway car where a familiar figure in a long green coat sat, reading a book.

“Miss Cabbages.”

“I wonder what she’s reading,” Leana said, leaning in to whisper. “A Thousand Ways to Cook Cabbages?”

“I don’t care what she’s reading, I’m just glad she’s doing it down there so we don’t have to smell her.”

A laugh burst out of Leana so loud that it surprised even her. A couple of people looked over but Miss Cabbage remained too interested in her book to notice.

“Caleb! That’s so mean.”

“But it’s true.” Of course Caleb didn’t mean it. He just knew saying it would make Leana laugh and couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

Leana laughed again but kept it mostly under control. She snorted, though. Her hand landed on his.

They enjoyed their ride then Caleb walked her the rest of the way to the mall. The day seemed so nice that Caleb almost forgot about the corporate hacker working to systematically derail his life. Almost.

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