Nina sat on the burgundy leather chair by the desk in the corner; spatters of light sifted through the tattered drapes drawn across the window. She twisted a smoldering cigarette into the overflowing ashtray, the smoke spiraling up through the begrimed, tasseled shade adorning a desk lamp.
“How could I let this happen.” Her raspy voice broke into a familiar hacking cough.
She pulled a box from the bottom drawer, dust spilling onto her robe.
“Was it really that long ago?” She slid the top off the carton and retrieved a small plaque. “Oh, Patrick. Why did you go?”
“It’s for you.” Patrick held a small wrapped package. “It’s not much.”
Nina unfolded the paper with meticulous care, her eyes glistening with anticipation. “It’s gorgeous.” She caressed the wood carving with her fingers. “I love sunflowers.”
“Mr. Thompson let’s us use the scraps if we’ve finished our assignments.” A sheepish smile tugged the corners of his mouth. “I’m glad you like it.”
“You made this? You’re really good.”
A honking horn distracted the two.
“Hey, we’re hittin’ the mall.” Tammy and Rhonda leaned through the T-top of their Camaro. “Wan’a come?”
Nina waved. “I got-a go. See ya later.”
Nina flinched at an abrupt clamor from the street. She pulled back the curtain with her nicotine stained fingers and peered out. “Saint Augustine’s, it figures. Always somethin’ goin’ on at that church.”
She heaved a disparaging sigh.
Propping another tobacco stick between her lips, the middle-aged lady ran her fingers passed her graying temples. “Where has it gone?”
She returned her attention to the box. A dog-eared ticket slid into view. “I remember.”
“Nina, wait up.” Patrick jogged along the path.
“Hi.” She stopped under a shade tree.
“I was thinking.” He shifted his weight with an uneasy rhythm. “Umm, maybe you might be interested, if you’re not busy.” He pulled two vouchers from his jacket pocket. “They’re for the Keith Green concert.” He gave a quick glance, trying not to make eye contact. “You know, next Saturday.”
“Are you asking me on a date?” Nina giggled.
“A date? No.” Bashfulness rushed to his cheeks. “It’s my church, a group of us.” He took a long breath and leaned against the tree. “It’ll be fun.”
“I’m usually not the church type.” She plucked a ticket from Patrick’s hand and slid it into her purse. “But I’d really like to spend the evening with you.”
“I made something else for you.” Patrick unzipped his backpack. “I hope you like it.” He pulled a small cross dangling on a chain from a pouch.
“It’s really nice.” Nina stared with amazement, steadying the charm with her fingers. “Such an intricate design on something that small. You’re amazing.”
“Ain’t that sweet,” Rhonda scoffed.
Nina winced at her friends’ unexpected arrival.
“That’s real touching.” Tammy tugged the gift from Patrick’s hand. “But it’s just not our style. And if I know Nina, she’ll be partyin’ with us Saturday night.” She dropped the amulet into a trashcan. “C’mon, let’s go cruisin’.”
Nina stood in stunned silence, sadness welling in her eyes.
“Is this what you really want?” Patrick’s voice cracked.
“Patrick?” Nina murmured.
“You got-a make a choice,” Tammy demanded. “We’ve known each other a long time.”
“I’m sorry.” Nina stepped toward the two girls. “They’re my friends.”
“I’m sorry, too.” Patrick turned and walked away.
Nina flicked her ashes toward the receptacle. “Why did you go?”
“Why did I push you away?”
Her hand combed through the memorabilia; a small chain hooked onto her finger. “I should have gone with you.” She raised a small crucifix into the light, a yellowed newspaper clipping in tow. “You made this for me.”
A tear traced the contour of her cheek.
Her hands trembled as she fumbled the article away from the necklace. Nina smoothed the crumpled piece on the desk.
Local boy killed in drive by shooting.
She clutched the amulet to her chest. “Why did it have to be you?”
The cigarette slipped from her mouth; smoke ribbons fluttered from the glowing embers as they faded into the singed carpet.
She blinked her dampened lashes.
“I’ve dealt with this guilt all my life.” She captured a teardrop with her finger. “How can I move on?”
The bell from Saint Augustine’s rang, as if in reply.
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