Book Excerpt Saving Toby by Suzanne McKenna Link
My new uniform felt a little itchy, but I was whistling as I pulled inventory from the stockroom to load the small delivery truck that belonged to AB’s Appliance and Electronics.
“What are you so chipper about this morning, Mr. Faye?”
Abraham Bernbaum, the owner, stood next to me, checking over my list. He was dressed in his own ‘uniform’ of creased khakis, plaid button-up, and despite the warming temperatures, a sweater vest. I looked down at his gray, balding head and figured him to be about five foot, five inches. Similar in height to Claudia Chiametti.
“Possibilities,” I replied, not able to keep the smile from my face.
“Regarding?” he prompted.
“A girl I used to know.” Sort of, in the loosest of definitions.
“One of the young ladies in here last week?”
He was talking about two old girlfriends that had stopped by when they heard I was in town. They’d left me their numbers. I wanted to tell Abe, “been there, done that,” but I knew the old codger would only ‘tsk tsk’ me with the disapproving face I’d already seen more times than I cared to count.
“No. Someone different,” I said. Changing the subject, I reminded him about my schedule next week.
“Yes, yes, you have to leave early for a doctor’s appointment on Tuesday. How is your mother doing, by the way?”
Canned reply. “Julia is good.”
He made the face, and I knew he was put off by my use of Julia’s name.
“Give your mother my regards,” he said. Finally, he left me to continue alone.
It had been only a month ago that I’d come into the store looking for work. Abe sized me up with a calculated eye and offered me the position. I could tell he saw a sturdy guy, six-foot-one, that was strong enough to move the large, heavy boxes that the delivery job required. It was only minimum wage plus tips, but Abe had agreed to be flexible about me coming in late or leaving early whenever Julia had treatments or doctor visits. Abe had been cool about it because he knew my mother. I didn’t ask how. I didn’t want to know.
Until yesterday, I’d considered coming back home only an obligation, something I needed to do because I was all Julia had. Behind bars, my brother would be no help.
Taking care of Julia was not something new. Coming home, I assumed I’d just fall back into routine. The rotating flock of churchwomen volunteering care shifts during the week was unexpected. There was even talk about hiring someone from the local adult home to cover a few nights so I could go out, too. I pictured having to move around some mom-type lady in shapeless scrubs and told Julia it wasn’t necessary, that between the Internet and Major League Baseball season starting, I didn’t really need to leave the house. But she knew me well—knew I’d lose my mind if I stayed holed up for too long.
Dreading the return to an unremarkable existence, I had tried to come up with some good things about being back, like the weather this time of year being so much cooler on Long Island than it’d been in Florida. After busting my ass the last eighteen months taking whatever jobs that would keep me afloat—most of which involved hard, sweaty labor intensified by the southern state’s blistering heat and mind-altering humidity—the milder weather here was a definite plus.
After yesterday though, the cross island breeze held no light to Claudia Chiametti.
She used to sit in the front row of every class and raise her hand to answer the teachers’ questions. I used to stare at the back of her head, at the shiny brown hair that poured down her back like dark liquid. Sometimes she twirled it around her fingers, and the teacher’s voice would fade away. In the hallways, I kept my eyes peeled for even a glimpse of her, hoping for a smile to float my way, even if it was only in my general direction. My body responded to the curve of her lips, tensing in a way that left me almost unable to walk.
Once, in seventh grade, I dropped my science folder in class. Red pen-slashed tests and class notes scattered in every direction. I was furious, but noticing, Claudia laughed and helped me chase down every last page. When she moved closer to hand me the papers, I intended to say something funny to make her laugh again, but her nearness made me lose my nerve. Not visible from our usual distance, up close, I could see a trail of freckles across her nose, and her creamy caramel skin looked so smooth. I could almost imagine touching it.
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