TITLE: Sara's Summer of Truth
By Celeste Ammirata
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Did you ever have a day that started out just like any other day? But then something happened, something so big, it changed the course of your life? And at the time, you didn’t realize it, but when you looked back, it was like…wow…that’s the day everything started to change?
I had a day like that. Thursday, June 15, 1978, my junior year of high school. School went by pretty much like any other day, except that Ray Kaplan offered to help me work on a portrait for a contest by the Philadelphia School of Art. The grand prize was a full scholarship. Its my fantasy to get into a school like that.
Ray is the only guy in school who ever talked to me. He’d been in my art classes since middle school. He’s gorgeous. I’ve had a crush on him since the eight grade, though I’d die if he ever found out. He’d been going out with Nancy since our freshmen year. She’s a year older than Ray and me. She’s beautiful, popular, and they’ve been the IT couple at Steinbeck High for the last two years.
Oh… and Mike Mulligan, the super-gorgeous, lady killer captain of the football and baseball teams caught me staring at him in History class. He smiled at me and I turned all shades of red. I am so smooth. Cindy, my cousin, saw what happened and couldn’t wait to rub it in after class.
Later that day, after studying for my History final for a few hours, I’d had enough. The words were fuzzy and running together. I needed a break, so I took Duke, my dog—a mixed breed, black with white paws and a white patch over his left eye—for a walk to the park.
It was a picture post-card summer evening. A warm breeze blew as pink clouds sailed past the bright orange sun hanging lazily below treetops. Lawn mowers droned and I breathed in the scent of fresh cut grass as we headed toward the park. Sprinklers watered lawns. Their choreographed drops tapped against the warm cement of the sidewalk. I love the smell of water on warm cement. It’s a summer smell.
Duke’s tail wagged in constant happy motion as he pulled me along. “Guess what Duke? Mike Mulligan smiled at me today.” In response to my exciting news, Duke stopped and sniffed a fire hydrant. He’s always cheering me on.
Some neighborhood kids cooled themselves running through a lawn sprinkler. They laughed and yelled at each other when one of them fell as they played a game of catch with an old tennis ball. They saw Duke and ran over to pet him, who indulged them for about a minute before giving in to the temptation of the many smells just waiting to be investigated. I smiled at Duke, thinking about how lucky I was that he came into my life when he did.
“So, what are you so happy about?” a voice said from behind me.
I jumped, stumbled over my own feet, and then turned around to look into the gorgeous face of Mike Mulligan.
“Um, what do you mean?” Smooth response, Sara. I kept walking, as I had no choice, with Duke pulling me along.
“You’re smiling. What are you so happy about?” he asked, matching his pace with mine. He grinned down at me, looking sure of himself with his hands pushed into the front pockets of his jeans. Oh, and he looked really good.
I felt the heat in my cheeks and could swear he could hear my heart pounding. “I was just thinking about Duke, my dog.”
“Oh yeah? What about him?”
I love him. He’s been a real blessing to me.”
“What do you mean; a blessing?”
“Well, you know…a gift from God.”
“God,” he said, turning his head to follow a red firebird racing by. “I don’t believe in God.”
“Oh.” Duke stopped to sniff a large bush and leave his mark on it. I prayed that he wouldn’t leave a mess that I’d have to pick up in front of Mike.
I caught the light scent of honeysuckle and breathed in deep.
“What are you doing?”
“I love the smell of honeysuckle.”
“Oh, I thought maybe you were trying to smell what Duke left on the bush.”
My cheeks burned and I opened my mouth to speak, but closed it when I couldn’t think of anything reasonable to say.
“Boy, you love a lot of things don’t you? Your dog, the smell of honeysuckle, and drawing; anything else I should know about you?”
I couldn’t help feeling excited that he knew even a tiny bit about me. “How do you know I love to draw?”
“I saw your work in the cafeteria, and sometimes it’s in the halls. You’re pretty good.” He smiled and leaned over to pet Duke. I resisted the urge to pinch myself to see if I was dreaming.
“Thank you.” Okay Sara, even though he likes your art, and he is talking to you and petting Duke, it does not mean that he is interested in you. He probably has nothing else to do. Just stay calm, and do not do or say anything stupid.
“Those pictures of the lighthouse are really good. Have you ever been there?”
“Yes, they’re from the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. I spend summers there with my dad.”
“Does it take you long to do one of those paintings. That is what you use, paint, right?”
“Sometimes, and I also use pastels, charcoal, or colored pencils. When I see something I like, I make a quick sketch and then work on it later when I have more time.”
Duke took off, pulling me with him, and Mike kept up with us. “Do you ever sketch Duke?”
“Yes, I’ve done a lot of pictures of him.”
“How about me? Did you ever sketch me?” His eyes locked on mine as a cocky grin spread across his lips.
I was so not ready for this conversation. I stammered, “No…I’ve never sketched you. I like I said I sketch things I like.” I tried to sound cool, felt anything but.
“But I’ve seen you looking at me, like today in history class.” His grin broadened.
I tried to turn the tables and embarrass him. “So you were looking at me today?”
No such luck. He arched his brows. “Yeah, I was.”
It was obvious he was just playing games with me. He knew I liked him and he wanted to make me look like a fool. What a jerk! Like I’d really believe that he, Mike the magnificent had been looking at me, Sara the nobody.
I looked away from him and called Duke, pulling on his leash. “Come on boy, we have to go.” I felt a little guilty because Duke loved his walks. If not for Mike, I probably would have stayed out at least another half hour.
Mike’s eyes clouded over with confusion. “Hey, why are you leaving now? What’s the matter?”
“Nothing’s the matter. I just have to get home to study for our history test.” I turned to leave, but Duke had other ideas. He would not budge from Mike’s side. I tried to coax him. “Come on Duke, you want a treat?”
“I want a treat,” Mike said.
I smiled, in spite of my resolve not to. “Sure here,” I said, handing him one of Duke’s favorite pleasures. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were a dog biscuit kind of guy.” I decided to play it cool to see what would happen.
“Thank you,” he said, taking the treat. “Here buddy.” He handed it over to Duke, who inhaled it in less than two seconds. Mike straightened up and looked at me. “But I didn’t mean that kind of treat.”
Determined to hide my embarrassment, I tipped my chin up, looked him in the eye and asked, “What kind of treat did you mean?”
“I thought maybe a kiss.”
It took a few seconds for me to respond. I folded my arms across my chest and rolled my eyes before narrowing them at him. “Oh please—a kiss? All year long, you were in my history class and never said a word to me. Now after gracing me with your presence for a whole ten minutes you want a kiss? You think I’m just another one of your Steinbeck groupies, don’t you? Well guess what…I’m not.” I grabbed Duke’s leash and yanked hard. “Let’s go Duke.”
Duke refused to cooperate.
Mike arched his eyebrows. “Steinbeck groupie?” He pulled a leaf from a branch above his head. I tried to ignore how good he looked doing it. “I never heard that one before.” He walked up to me with the leaf in his hand. He cleared his throat. “Well I guess I was a bit forward. Actually, I have noticed you. But you’re so quiet, none of the guys had the guts to go up and talk to you. You seem different outside of school. Not as shy. I really didn’t mean it about the kiss. I just wanted to see what your reaction would be.”
Gee, why didn’t that make me feel better?
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to offend you.” He handed me the leaf. “Friends?”
I willed my hand not to shake as I took the leaf from him, and prayed he couldn’t hear my heart pounding. I wished he would leave. But I didn’t want him to leave. I caught myself chewing my lip and stopped. Not knowing what to do or say, I followed Duke as he walked. When we got to the trail that cut through the woods, I wasn’t sure what to do. Mike seemed harmless enough, in a kind of bad boy sort of way. I said a quick prayer, knowing that if I shouldn’t go on the trail; my guardian angel would let me know. I got no bad feelings, so I followed Duke onto the trail.
I love everything about the woods. The animals, trees, bushes, and the wildflowers and their sweet aromas. These walks with Duke were my favorite time of the day. I always felt closer to God on those trails of vibrant colors.
“Do you always walk through these trails alone?” Mike asked.
“I’m not alone. Duke is with me. I love it here. ” I inhaled. “Can you smell the hydrangea?”
“Yeah, I guess it’s pretty nice.” He looked around, and said, “I don’t think it’s safe, even with Duke. You can’t see what’s around the next curve with all the bushes and trees.”
Now that surprised me. “You’re afraid of the woods?”
I tried to not to smile when his face turned a little red. Good. He deserved to be embarrassed.
“No, I’m not afraid,” he barked, “I just don’t think it’s safe for a girl all alone, that’s all. Bad things do happen sometimes, you know.”
“I know they do. But I love it here too much to stay away just because something bad can possibly happen. I say a quick prayer for protection before I turn onto the trail. If I’m to die on a certain day, staying off the trail won’t change that.”
Mike shook his head. “That’s just stupid. Being killed isn’t the only bad thing that can happen to a girl, you know.”
“I know that, and when I say the prayer, if I get a bad feeling, which I have at times, I know my guardian angel is warning me to stay away. I always listen to my gut feelings.” I tried to read his face, but couldn’t. I bit my lip, waiting for his response.
“Did you pray just now?”
“Yes, and I didn’t get a bad feeling, so I knew I could trust you.”
“You can,” He nodded solemnly. He looked around. “Do you think everyone gets those gut feelings?”
“Yes I do.”
“Then why do good people sometimes get hurt?” His jaw clenched and a raw pain flickered in his eyes for just a second before disappearing.
I didn’t want to sound preachy, but he did ask… “Well, I think that sometimes people ignore when they get a bad feeling. They try to rationalize or ignore their fears. They just don’t understand where the feelings come from.”
“You mean from angels?” Mike asked, without sarcasm.
“So you think that nothing bad will happen to you if you listen to guardian angels? If that were true, then nothing bad should ever happen to good, God fearing people, right?”
“No, that’s not true. Bad things happen to everybody. Even to people in tune with their angels. Sometimes bad things just have to happen. I don’t know why. I’m not an expert, but I know that God exists, and that he uses his angels to help us here.” When he didn’t say anything I asked, “Does that make any sense?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “I guess, but I don’t know. I just know that if God does exist, He doesn’t care about us.” He cleared his throat. “At least not about me.”
We came to the end of the trail, and when Mike walked over to a picnic table, I followed. I didn’t want to push him away, but the guy had some serious painful issues going on, and I knew that God was the only one who could help him.
“He does care about you Mike. Have you ever seriously thought about all you have been blessed with?”
He shook his head and let out a bitter laugh. “I haven’t been blessed with anything.”
“No? What about your athletic talent? You were offered a scholarship in both baseball and football. Michael, do you know how many kids in school would do anything to be you, with your looks and abilities?”
His head snapped towards me. His back straightened and I couldn’t read his eyes as they stared at me. Maybe I crossed some sort of line. The tension grew so thick; I could literally feel it pushing on my chest. Then he sighed and let out a long breath. He hopped up and sat on the table, resting his feet on the bench. I climbed up and sat next to him. No one was around, so I let Duke walk freely.
“I know that I have more going for me than the average kid, you know, and that’s cool,” Mike said, raking his hands through his hair.
“But….” I said for him.
“But, I don’t think it’s from God. I mean, if it is, it’s all a big joke to Him. I believe that He is the creator of the universe. But I can’t believe that He cares about us. We’re insignificant in His eyes,” Mike said, looking at me as if willing me to understand.
I thought about the pain I had seen in his eyes.
Someone called Mike’s name and we both turned to see Sammy, Mike’s friend, walking toward us.
“Mike, there you are, I tried calling you but you weren’t home.” He stopped short. “Hey, who’s this?” He asked, looking at me. “Aren’t you Sara, the artist, from school?” He sat down next to me. “Hi. I’m Sammy.”
“Hi, Sammy,” I said. I started chewing on my bottom lip and then stopped.
“What did you want?” Mike asked.
“What?” Sammy asked. He kept staring at me.
“You said you called my house. What did you want?” Mike leaned forward, with his hands resting on his knees.
Sammy pulled his eyes away from me and glared at Mike. “I wanted to know if you wanted to go to the field for some BP.”
“What’s BP?” I asked.
“Batting practice.” They answered in unison.
The night was just getting too weird. “Well guys, I have to go. It was nice talking to you.” I stepped down off the picnic bench and called Duke.
Mike and Sammy jumped down too. “You don’t have to go. It’s too dark now for BP anyway.” Mike said. He sounded like he wanted me to stay.
“I have to finish studying for the test tomorrow.” I wanted to get out of there before I did something stupid to ruin the night.
“I have to take that test too, want to study together?” He put his hand on my arm. It felt so warm, where his hand rested against my bare skin. Little sparks of energy shot up my arm and made their way to my belly.
“Mike, you’re acing that course, why do you need to study for the test? Come on. I’m starving. Let’s go get something to eat,” Sammy said.
Mike’s dark eyes shot daggers at Sammy, who held up his hands up in defense, “What?”
“I can help you study, Sara.” The way he looked at me made me nervous. I pulled my arm away and took a step backward.
Sammy said, “Yeah, Mike, as if studying is what you want to help her with.” He held up his hand. “We’ll all be at the quarry when you’re finished.” He looked at me and said, “See you Sara, take it easy.”
“Bye, Sammy.” I smiled at him, though Mike’s presence seemed to fill up the whole park. I had no idea of what to make of him.
“Mike, I appreciate your offer to help me, but I study best when I’m alone. I have a little system worked out. Thanks anyway.” I looked over to the parking lot, where Sammy sat in his car, revving up his engine. “If you hurry, you could still catch up with him. I have to get going anyway.” I reached down and picked up Duke’s leash.
“I can walk you home.”
Sammy’s words came back to me. “Like studying is what you want to help her with.”
What was up with him?
“No thank you. I know the way.”
“You’re mad. Why? Sara, I only offered to walk you home.”
“What did Sammy mean? What exactly do you want to help me with?” Not used to confrontations, I couldn’t calm my pounding heart or cool the heat in my cheeks. And that made me madder. “Look, I know you think I’m just another stupid girl who will fall for your stupid act, but I’m not. I can’t help but wonder why, after three years at the same school, without so much as a hello, you are now so interested in getting to know me.” I reached down to pet Duke, trying to get control of my emotions. I am usually not an emotional girl. When he just stood there, staring at me as if I just sprouted horns, I said, “You think I’m just going to fall all over you, like all the other idiot girls at school, don’t you? You really thought I would kiss you, didn’t you?”
At first he looked confused, then his eyes darkened and he looked mad. “First of all, Sammy is a jerk. He’s jealous because I got to talk to you first. Secondly, like I told you before, I have noticed you in school. I just never had the chance to meet up with you. Thirdly, I wanted to help you study, because, yes, I do want to get to know you better.” He put his hand on my arm, and quickly pulled it away. He shoved his hands into his pockets. “What’s so wrong with that? You seemed nice, like someone who is easy to talk to.” His eyes softened, “And I wanted to walk you home because I wanted to make sure you were safe.”
“Oh… Thank you.” Boy, talk about smooth. This guy was way out of my league. I had to be very careful with him. I let out a long breath. “I’m sorry if I insulted you. I just don’t understand your interest.” Duke pulled me toward the parking lot. Mike followed.
“It’s okay. No hard feelings.” He hesitated, looking a little unsure of himself. I never thought I would see that look on Mike Mulligan’s gorgeous face. “I still want to walk you home, though, if that’s okay.”
“Okay, thank you.”
“Are you always so polite?”
“Usually, does it bother you?”
He grinned at me. “No, I think it’s nice.”
“Thank you.” I smiled up at him.
Darkness settled in as we walked. The warm wind rustled through the leaves of trees lining the streets. Before I knew it, we were at my house I looked up at Mike. “Well, this is my house. Thanks again for walking me home.”
We got to her house way too soon. I needed more time with her. I walked her up the porch to her front door. I knew I had to tread carefully or I would blow it. She was different from most girls, and I had to use a different tact with her. She bit her lip and only looked at me for about a half a second at a time. Did she think I was going to try to kiss her or something? Lord knows, I wanted to, but I restrained myself. I had a feeling she would be worth the wait. When she reached for the door, I panicked. Without thinking, I wrapped my hand around her wrist. It felt so tiny and delicate, like it would snap with the slightest pressure. I could feel that her heart was racing. Her skin was baby soft. I wanted to run my fingers up her bare arms. My heart rate quickly caught up to hers. I let go of her wrist.
“Sara, can I have your phone number? So I can call you some time.” I watched her eyes as she thought about it. She moistened her lips with the tip of her tongue. If she had been any other girl, I would have taken it as a come on. But she didn’t look at me with inviting eyes. In fact, she looked everywhere but at me. And she did it so quickly; I figured it was a nervous reaction. Like when she bit her lip. She was just too cute. I wondered what was going on behind those big brown eyes of hers.
When she tipped her head up to me and smiled, I thought for sure she would give me her number.
Instead, she said, “I’ll tell you what, if you ask me for my phone number tomorrow, I’ll give it to you.”
I couldn’t believe it. Girls always gave me their numbers, most times without me even asking.
I had to play it cool. I wasn’t about to let her see how she had thrown me. I moved half a step closer and rubbed her forearm with the side of my thumb. So soft. “Wow, you’re tough.” I felt her heart hammering near her wrist. Another step closer. Her eyes grew wide, like a mouse that just caught sight of a Tomcat inching its way toward her. She had a cute smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose. Her eyes grew even wider, and, not wanting to scare her, I took a step back.
She gave me a quick, shy smile and said, “Well, good night Mike. Thanks for walking me home. I have to get Duke some water. It was nice talking with you. See you tomorrow.” She hurried into her house and looked at me only after closing the screen door between us.
Like I was the big bad wolf.
I smiled. “Good night, Sara. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I took my time walking back to the car. I hadn’t felt that excited about a girl in years. She made me feel like the guy I used to be. The guy I had been with Kit.
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