Finally getting the nerve to ask Sarah out, Tom finds his best day might just be his last
| Tom Mitchell moved next door to Sarah Nicholson when they were both six years old. That was ten years ago. Sarah could just make out his white peeling house from her front yard. In upstate New York, next door was generally more than a stone's throw away. She could just about reach it with a stone if she really tried, which she did from time to time. Her father said she had a better throwing arm than most boys her age.
Back then, it wasn't an unusual occurrence for her to torture boys verbally and sometimes physically. She realized later that she was probably just a bit jealous that they were able to play sports and fill Tonka trucks with dirt without getting comments that they should be playing with dolls instead.
She thought Tom was nicer than most boys she met. That is, he didn't give her a hard time every time she played in the mud or picked up a baseball bat. He didn't seem to care that she had scraped knees and long, brown hair, which was tousled more often than not. So she refrained from torturing him like she did the others.
Even all those years ago, shortly after they met, she remembered entertaining the notion of being Mrs. Thomas J. Mitchell. Of course, she would never let him know that. Although he had an inkling of her feelings at one point early on. They were about nine at the time. "House" was a "girly-girl" game Sarah usually detested, but she knew if she played Tom's wife, maybe, just maybe, she would get to hold his hand. And it worked... for about twenty seconds.
"This is boring, Sarah," Tom said slipping his hand from her's while they sat on the couch watching Tom and Jerry cartoons. When she looked at him, his face was veiled by a curious shade of red. He sprung off the couch before she had a chance to respond.
"Aren't you gonna stay and watch the cartoon?" She really didn't want him to leave. He was the first boy her age that she didn't want to drag her fist across his face at one time or another. "We don't have to play house anymore, I promise."
"That's OK. I gotta see my mom now. I'll see you tomorrow." And like that, he bolted from the living room towards Sarah's front door.
"Bye, Mrs. Nicholson," Sarah heard him shout out to her mother.
"Come back soon, Tommy. Tell your mother I said 'hello.'"
Sarah listened as he opened the front door and slammed it shut. He wasn't mad or anything. He'd just been to Sarah's house enough times to know that the door wouldn't shut properly without putting a little muscle behind it.
She sat there watching Tom and Jerry alone. It was the first time she wasn't mesmerized by the TV screen while a cartoon was on. She wished Tom was still there to play.
This was the memory that surfaced on Sarah one morning when she and Tom were in their junior year at Jefferson High School. It was the day before Christmas break; a Christmas they would never see.
She was standing with a paperback in her hand along a row of multicolored lockers that had lost their luster long before she was born, when Tom snuck up behind her. He touched her left ear, and as she swung to her left, he was already on her right.
"You're hilarious," she said when she turned to face him, giving him a push in the shoulder with her free hand.
"I know," he said smiling.
She lifted the latch on her locker and slammed it shut. Like the front door to her house, her locker required a little extra coaxing to close. The metal against metal reverberated through the empty hallway. She slipped the padlock through the hole and clicked it shut before turning back to him.
His hair was dark brown and his eyes were a liquid green that threatened to hypnotize you if you stared in them too long. He had his braces removed over the summer, and when Sarah first saw him again, she told him he would put any leading man in Hollywood out of business if he flashed his new smile too much. She was pretty sure he hadn't stopped smiling for more than five minutes since she said it, and sometimes wondered if it made his jaw ache.
They began walking down the empty hallway to their homeroom. They were always at school earlier than most of the students. There was something they both enjoyed about being there while it was nearly devoid of teenage life.
During school hours the old brick building seemed tired with the bustle of teenagers clogging its hallways. But early in the morning, it still seemed to have a hint of the pride it once possessed when it first opened four generations ago. A pride that slowly dwindled each time a student wrote on a locker, desk or bathroom wall.
In the morning, before the students arrived, it took its deep cleansing breath to get it through another day as its halls echoed with rumors, jealousy, and the angst of teenage popularity, either because you were popular or because you wished so much to be so.
"I'm going to see my dad over the break," Tom said as they walked.
"Yeah, I know. You'll be back a couple days after Christmas, right?"
"Should be. That's the plan." Tom grabbed his black backpack off his shoulder and unzipped the smaller pocket in the front as they continued leisurely down the hall. "Anyway," he continued, "I wanted to give you this before I left."
He pulled out a slim box wrapped in metallic red Christmas paper encircled with gold ribbon. They stopped walking. With an anxious smile he handed the gift to her and said, "Merry Christmas, Sarah."
Suddenly Sarah felt a rush of guilt. "Tom," she said in protest, "I left your present at home." Which she did; two large Pearl Jam posters were laying across her unmade bed for him. "I figured we were gonna do this after school today."
"Don't worry about it. Go ahead. Open it up," he said as he zipped his backpack up and slipped it over his shoulder.
She began pulling the ribbon carefully, but when she wasn't getting anywhere, she pulled it hard until it snapped. She removed the crinkling red paper to reveal a slender gray jewelry box with the inscription of Jay Jewelers on the top.
She looked up at Tom with a slightly pained look. "Tom, you shouldn't have."
"You haven't even opened it yet. Maybe it's just a stick of gum in there."
Sarah laughed and lifted the top. Inside was a gleaming, slender gold necklace with a design that made the links look like waves. When she pointed this out, he was thrilled.
"That's why I picked it out, because I know how much you love going to the ocean. It's real gold too, so you don't have to worry about it turning your neck green or anything," he rambled with a chuckle that contained more nerves than laughter.
"My gift for you isn't nearly this nice," she said remembering the posters on her bed.
"Will you stop worrying about my gift, please? Come on," he said holding out his hand. "Let's put it on and see how it looks."
He put his backpack on the floor between his legs and took the box from her. He took the chain out of the container and balanced the case on top of his backpack.
"Turn around," he said. She watched his hands go over her head as he held each end of the necklace. She moved her long, brown, now not-so-tousled hair off her back while he latched the chain. She was never nervous around Tom, but as his hands brushed up against her neck, she was suddenly too aware of her heartbeat.
"So, let's see," he said.
She turned around to face him as she swept her hair onto her back again. She felt the wavy design of the chain with the undersides of her fingers. "How's it look?" she asked with a smile.
"Beautiful," he said slowly. That's when she noticed him looking in her eyes and not at the necklace at all.
Embarrassed, she looked away from his face and down at the necklace. He had taken a step; the first real step. A step she had put off for so long. "Thank you so much, Tom. I really don't know what to say."
He picked his bag up off the floor. "Say you'll go to the movies with me tonight."
"Sure," she said. They always went to movies together. No big deal, right?
"But as a date," he continued.
"A date?" she said with a little laugh that she hoped didn't sound as nervous to Tom as it did to her.
"Yeah, a date," he replied as he folded his arms across his chest.
Little did he know, or maybe he did know, just a little, that she had been waiting for this moment for two years.
She took his hand in hers, like all those years ago, before he ran terrified out of her living room. "Tom, we've known each other for over ten years. Do you think dating is really necessary?" she said in an effort to sound clever, but which instead made her body temperature jump ten degrees when the words reached her ears. It felt like a line from some cheesy romance movie.
Before Tom had time to process her response, and before he noticed her cheeks turning red, Sarah grabbed him by the sleeve of his favorite black Metallica shirt and leaned in for a kiss.
Her motions being quite unexpected, Tom leaned uneasily into the kiss at first. But their nervousness soon slipped into the lambent, tender kiss she'd been imagining over the last couple years. Neither of them took notice of the students who were then trickling into the hallway.
"OK, you two. That's enough," said their homeroom teacher, Mrs. Johnson, who stood with her arms folded by the classroom door ten feet away.
They both broke away as ordered, and Mrs. Johnson walked into the classroom. Sarah and Tom looked at each other for a long moment and then burst into laughter at seeing how each of their faces burned rash red.
Tom picked up his bag and the jewelry box before he took Sarah by the hand. They walked into their homeroom where Mrs. Johnson had begun marking papers on her desk. "We all wondered when you two were finally going to make it official," she said without looking up. They walked over to their desks without replying, embarrassed that this middle-aged woman, who wore only skirts that completely covered her ankles, had opinions on student relationships.
Tom and Sarah usually sat on the long rectangular desktops across from each other when they hung out in the morning, but now Tom sat next to her on the same table as they talked about their upcoming break.
"I'll call you from my dad's house over the break," he said.
"Sure," she said swinging her legs back and forth under the table as they were unable to conceal her happiness.
"I wish I could just stay here instead. It's always depressing spending Christmas with him," Tom said.
"He's just lonely, Tom. I think he really needs you over the holidays."
It was a bit awkward now, but exciting. And though Sarah was thrilled that the kiss finally happened, she hoped in the back of her mind that this step wouldn't someday end their friendship.
The familiar, annoying, electronic 'booooop' came over the intercom, informing everyone the school day was officially underway.
"Alright ladies and gentlemen, let's get settled," Mrs. Johnson said.
Chairs scraped the linoleum floors, while bags and backpacks rustled as they found their way to the floor by their owners' feet.
Mrs. Johnson began taking attendance. Murmurs of diehard conversations could be heard as she read the alphabetical list of names off her paper and sleepy hands raised one by one. She made it down to 'Roberts' when the first volley of shots was heard from somewhere down the hall.
The room fell into taut silence as everyone looked in confusion toward the open door, including Mrs. Johnson, whose eyes appeared searching, like the ears of a dog when it senses something afoot.
After a few seconds, "What the hell was that?" came slowly from one of the boys in the back of the room.
Another few seconds; another round of gunshots. This time followed by piercing screams. The eyes of the students went from confusion to wide-eyed panic.
"Everyone, quickly, get under your desks!" said Mrs. Johnson.
Twenty-three students wasted no time; tables squeaked and chairs grated and banged as a mad rush of bodies scrambled under the tables.
"Put your schoolbags all around you," their teacher continued in a loud whisper. "Hurry!" She walked over to the classroom door to look down the hall when a young man ran smack into her. The students looked at him from under the tables.
"It's Tim Bolan and Jeff Nash," the boy said panic-stricken.
"This can't be happening," Sarah said to Tom as they moved under their desk; stalactites of gum peppered beneath it.
"Everything will be OK," he whispered to her.
"Get under my desk," Mrs. Johnson told the boy who just ran in. She walked to the door and peered just around the doorway to look down the hall when a fresh battery of blasts amplified in their ears. They were closer now. Very close. She slowly closed the door not wanting to draw attention to it.
Sarah crouched down on the beige linoleum with her knees tucked under her. Tom arranged their schoolbags between them and the door before leaning his body over Sarah's back. The rattle of shots and screams continued.
The classroom was three stories up, so escaping through the windows wasn't an option, but Sarah felt compelled to mention it to Tom anyway.
"We're too far up," he said as she expected. "Besides, those old windows are a bitch to open. We're better off here. They're too close now. They come in while we're wrestling with the windows, we'll just be larger targets."
Sarah knew he was right, but hated just sitting there, waiting. She picked up her head and looked under the other desks. Most of the boys' eyes were glassy while several of the girls proceeded to whimper. Mrs. Johnson feverishly tried to shush them from behind her desk.
"Everything will be OK," Tom whispered to her again. Then he kept saying it over and over. Sarah wasn't sure if he was trying to convince her or himself. "Everything will be OK," he repeated, but his runaway heartbeat against her back betrayed his words.
In the past, Sarah had her doubts about whether God existed. Once in a while she prayed to Him for something, something generally foolish, like praying for her algebra teacher to be out sick after she didn't study for an exam or praying that her mother would buy her the CD player she begged for. Never had she prayed for her life. Now she found herself not only praying for her own life, but for the lives of the other people in the room. A room that belonged no longer to a high school but to bedlam.
The gunshots and the outcries were practically on top of them. Tom pushed closer against Sarah's back as he wrapped his arm around her stomach. She was never one to cry, but suddenly she couldn't help herself. It was then that she thought back to that day on the couch when she first held his hand.
"I love you, Sarah," he whispered in her ear.
She closed her eyes and tried to tell him she loved him back, but the air abandoned her lungs. She squeezed his hand so tight she thought she might break it. Tom laid the side of his head on top of hers, then the door to the classroom crashed open.
2nd Place-Great Short Stories Contest-April 2007
1st Place-Round 1-Crazy Insane MegaContest
News! The screenplay adaptation of this story just got picked up by Freewater Productions. May be coming to a film festival near you someday. Woohoo!