Home > Hands Down(9)

Hands Down(9)
Author: Mariana Zapata

I had kept the picture after we cleaned out her house years later. I had it sitting in a drawer in one of my nightstands. Me with one of my favorite people and a childhood friend who had grown up to be a superstar. I could tell my kids about it someday. I saved his life once, I could tell them too.

Well, for now, my job was done. I could go home, watch some more of the Turkish romance, and brainstorm my chocolate and banana recipe some more. I could call Boogie tomorrow and see how Paw-Paw was doing.

“Zac—”

“Could you drive me back home?”

I froze.

He wanted me to drive him? When he had a house full of people?

Blue eyes met my own, filled with worry and distress and probably a dozen other emotions I didn’t know how to classify or what to do with.

“Please?” Zac asked in a quiet voice that snuck straight into the place inside of me that had managed to hold on to the love I had for Zac even after so long.

The memory of him surprising me at my high school graduation, holding up a Mylar balloon and waving at me like a lunatic while I’d approached my family, hit me right then. He’d been living in Dallas at that point. I had been staying with Boogie’s parents for a couple months. He’d warned me via text that he wasn’t positive if he’d be able to make it or not, but he had.

It had been one of the last times we’d seen each other, but that was beside the point.

He had come when he didn’t have to, and now….

“Sure,” I told him, only a little reluctant, watching his face. I was surprised he still felt comfortable enough around me that he would ask me. And if I wondered again why he didn’t hit up one of the many people at his house—or whatever this place was—I kept the question to myself. It wasn’t my business, and he wouldn’t ask me unless there was a good reason.

His hand went up to his face, and he dragged the back of it across his forehead. How he could still look like an innocent boy and a full-grown man at the same time was beyond me. He swallowed hard as he quietly zipped his suitcase, giving me a tight smile afterward before gesturing toward the door.

He wasn’t crying, so that was a good sign, right? That meant nothing could be so bad. Maybe I should text Boogie and ask him once we traded phones.

I headed down the hall in silence, down the stairs the same way too. At the bottom of them, I stopped and glanced over my shoulder at the tight, strained face that was busy focusing on the floor. His cheeks looked hollow, that light pink mouth thin. “Do you need to talk to anyone before you leave? Or kick everyone out or something?”

The man I had known looked up with eyes that were more distressed than kind at that moment, his forehead furrowed. “No.”

All right. He knew what he was doing.

I nodded before handing him his cell, which I’d stuck in my back pocket while he’d been talking to his mom. He took it with a dip of his chin, then handed mine over. We kept going, and I couldn’t ignore the stares from the strangers in the house as they watched Zac carrying his carry-on suitcase around and through them. If I’d expected some expensive luggage with initials and designer logos all over it, I would have been disappointed. His suitcase was black and looked like it had been around the world a couple of times.

Maybe it had.

“Hey, man, where you going?” one guy asked him as we walked by.

He looked familiar….

“Out. See ya,” my old friend responded distractedly.

I really did need to know if there was any news on Paw-Paw.

Neither one of us said a word—in my case, I didn’t know what the hell to say—as we left through the front door, a couple more people calling out greetings to Zac that he answered vaguely and in that weird voice that sounded like it belonged to another human being—a human being that was weighed down by a concrete block attached to his feet.

Down the street and at my car, I popped the trunk so he could drop his suitcase in it. He closed it as I watched him, those high cheekbones straining against his skin. Upset and worried were stamped along the surface of them. Years ago, I had known just how much he adored his grandpa. The same way I’d adored my mom’s mom, my Mamá Lupe.

Completely and totally, because that was exactly how they’d loved us.

I could never forget how I’d felt when she’d had her heart attack. Helpless. Desperate. Like the world had been kicked out from under my feet.

Maybe Zac hadn’t been my friend for almost a third of my life, but he had been there for me time and time again for the first two-thirds. When Mamá Lupe died, he had hugged me while I’d sobbed against him, worried about what I was going to do from then on. And I could never forget that he’d cried too. He’d cried over the woman who had babysat him for a decade. Who had kept on making him birthday cakes even after he’d gotten so busy with after-school activities that he didn’t need another set of eyes keeping tabs on him. I couldn’t forget that he’d promised me then that I’d be okay.

I knew what my grandma and my cousin would want from me. I knew what they would want me to do for someone they loved so much. This wasn’t about me and what I wanted and needed.

So I did it. I offered the only thing I could then, what they would want, but braced myself to get rejected just in case.

“Hey,” I said to him, telling myself again to prepare for a hell no. “You need a hug? You can say no.”

The lean, beautiful man in front of me—with the weight of an entire solar system bearing down on his shoulders it seemed—stared at me for a moment.

Then he nodded.

It was me who cut the distance between us until I was staring up at him, like I had so many times while I’d been growing up. I would have smiled if this had been any other circumstance, but his grandpa was in the hospital, I wasn’t sure what his mom had told him, and he may or may not know what he was doing with his career now that his NFO—National Football Organization—team had signed someone else to his position. On top of all that, I was confused and hurt and relieved all at the same time. So I settled for looking right into those eyes that were and weren’t familiar anymore.

I went up to my tiptoes and slid my arms around his neck. He was a stranger and yet not a stranger, and I pulled in his heat and the strength of his chest against my own that, in a way, felt almost frail right then.

And it just made me hug him even tighter.

Yes, he had hurt me. His distance had wounded me. But that wasn’t what this was about. This was about further back than that, back when things had been good between us. The best.

Zac waited a few seconds before wrapping his arms around the middle of my back, and then it was him pulling me in even closer to that body of his, like I wasn’t some girl he hadn’t seen in forever, like time hadn’t passed and it had just been yesterday when he’d spot me after his high school football games and introduce me to whoever happened to be around as Peewee. When he’d come home to visit from college and lay around the television at Mamá Lupe’s, throwing pillows at me when I was being a pest.

I wanted to ask him what his mom had said, but I didn’t.

As I felt his chest expand with one breath after another, hearing a sigh here, followed by another one there, I let this moment be enough for right then. I hesitated for a second before sliding my hands up and down the muscles along his back like I would have done to any of my friends or loved ones if they needed comfort. Because a third of my life ago, I would’ve given him a kidney if he’d needed it.

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