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Despite being a nurse, Hayden hated the way hospitals smelled. It had nothing to do with antiseptics and medicines—as a nurse she was used to those scents. No, it had everything to do with the odor of fear that clung to the patients.
A fear of an illness.
A fear of pain.
In some cases, a fear that came from knowing that time was short.
Hayden's fear wasn't for herself, but for the woman in the wheelchair she was pushing. Kathleen Conway. Her surrogate mother. Her mentor. Her friend.
Hayden wanted to say something reassuring. She wanted to say something that would comfort Kathleen, but she couldn't think of anything. Kathleen had always had a way of finding the right words. Hayden remembered one of her own most vulnerable moments, and Kathleen had been so eloquent. Even after all this time, the words had stuck.
"Kathleen, I've been thinking about the past." Kathleen nodded. "Me, too. I keep seeing the little girl who knocked on my door. I'm so proud of the woman she grew into, despite all the hard times she lived through."
"You once told me Life isn't about where you go—it's about the journey. You can live life quietly, watching the world go by too afraid to take a chance and fail. Or you can throw caution to the wind and live life to the fullest. Take chances. Sure, you'll fall on your face sometimes, but sometimes you'll reach new heights. Either way, just trying will take you to new, unexpected horizons.
"Take the chance.
"Live life out loud.
"Don't just watch it from the sidelines."
The automatic doors swung open and the hospital smell was blown away by an April spring breeze as they headed for the ambulance bay. "Do youremember telling me that?"
Kathleen looked back over her shoulder at Hayden. The older woman's once bright red hair had faded to a steely gray, but her eyes still sparkled bright blue. And her smile carried all the warmth and caring that it always had, despite her current condition. "It was so long ago. I can't believe you remember."
"I haven't forgotten any of it. The good times and the bad. I remember them all." Hayden leaned around the chair and tucked the blanket tighter against Kathleen's legs.
When she stood up again she immediately spotted her husband as he came into view at the back of the van. Brian towered over the transport driver who lowered the big steel ramp, which was accompanied by a loud beeping noise.
Despite all the years, despite everything they'd been through and everything Hayden knew they were going to be going through, seeing Brian settled something inside her, filling a void that was present whenever they were apart.
Hayden pushed the wheelchair onto the ramp. "It's time to go home, Kathleen."
Brian leaned down and kissed Kathleen's cheek. "Hi, Mom." The ramp lifted the chair level with the floor of the van.
"Every day, I try to look back and remember a happier time. Today, I was thinking about Halloween," Kathleen said, more to herself than to Brian or Hayden, who, along with the driver, pushed the chair into place, then clamped it into safety straps.
The driver went up to the front and started the van leaving the three of them in the back. Silence weighed heavily in the small space, bearing down and pressing against Hayden's heart. She felt as if all her words had now dried up, especially in Brian's presence.
The van moved from the hospital parking lot onto the busy Pittsburgh street.
Kathleen finally broke the silence. "Do you remember when Hayden came to the door that Halloween, Bri?"
There were a few things Brian Conway was sure of. One was that he was probably too old to go trick-or-treating.
Well, no probably about it.
Twelve was too old to knock on strangers' doors and beg for candy. He should be out with his old gang of friends, running around his Upper St. Clair neighborhood, toilet papering people's houses.
But his mother had actually smiled when she started talking about trick-or-treating last month. And one of the other things Brian was sure of was that his mom hadn't smiled very much since his dad left them. Her happiness was why Brian found himself dressed like someone from a biker gang.
He looked into his bedroom mirror with disgust. This certainly wasn't his proudest moment, but his mom seemed excited about driving him into Bridgeville and watching him go from house to house. And since they'd moved from their old house after his dad left two months ago, he didn't have anyone to really go out with around here anyway.
This was all his father's fault.
Brian hated his dad. His stomach felt pinched and it burned when he thought about how much he hated his dad.
His mom told him that the divorce was between her and his dad, and she went on and on about how even if she wasn't going to be married to him anymore, his dad was still his dad.
He could tell his mom didn't like him hating his dad, so Brian stopped talking about it, but that didn't change how he felt. He still hated him. He was only twelve, but he wouldn't even call him Dad anymore. He called him Adam. Adam hated that and said Brian had to learn to show respect, but Brian didn't care.
Adam had never had time for him. Brian could live with that. But Adam had hurt his mom because he had a girlfriend. His mom didn't think he knew that, but he did. And it just showed how stupid Adam was, because there was no girl better than his mom.
He glanced into the mirror one more time, and pasted a smile on his face.
"Mom, you ready?" The doorbell rang before she could answer. "Hey, someone's at the door." He took off down the stairs.
"Don't you open that door until I'm there," she called, hurrying after him.
He gave her a grim look. "I'm almost thirteen." "Yes, but we're new to the neighborhood and you need to be careful."
She paused, and gave him one of those mushy mom smiles. "Your costume is cute." She kissed his forehead.
"Mom." He wiped at the spot, hoping there was no telltale lipstick marks as his mom opened the door.
"Trick-or-treat," a small ghost cried out.
Now, he could only see a dirty sheet and sneakers, but Brian knew who it was. Cootie MacNulty. She lived down the block in an old, beat-up looking house. The school bus picked them both up at the corner, but they never talked to each other. She was several years younger than him. And she kind of hung around by a row of hedges, and only stepped out when the bus approached.
Her costume was sad. A sheet with two holes for her to look out of. She hadn't even cut the holes. There were rips where the cuts should have been.
Brian felt a funny twisting in his gut when he stared at her.
"Here, kid." Brian grabbed a Snickers bar from the bowl nearby and held it out to her. "Where's your bag?"
"I don't got one."
"How can you trick-or-treat without a bag?"
She held out her hand. "I'll just stick it in my pocket."
"But it will get mashed."
"My pants are way too big for me, so it won't, least not much."
"But what about the other houses you'll go to?"
"There's only a couple more I can walk to." Brian felt worse. He knew the kid had it rough. Her clothes were never right and they were always dirty. No one ever sat by her on the bus. When she got on each day the sing-song taunts of Cootie MacNulty would start.
Brian was the new kid at the school, but it didn't take much to see that she was the one every kid picked on.
It had been a few weeks before he even knew she had a name other than Cootie. One of the teachers had called her Hayden.
His casual disinterest had changed that very morning. By the time they were on the bus, most of the seats had at least one person in them. He'd found a spot midway back, but no one would let Cootie sit with them. When she got to the back of the bus, Marc Barrister, one of the cool eighth graders who always took the best, very back seat, tripped her. She fell and smacked her head pretty hard. While she was on the floor, Marc had whacked her on the head again, because he said he wanted to see if the cooties would fall out of her hair. The whole bus was laughing as Hayden got back up.
Brian knew all about the pecking order on the bus and in school. And he knew Marc was at the top, and Hayden was at the bottom. If Brian hoped to stay somewhere safely in the middle, he knew he should just shut up and let it go. But for some reason that he didn't understand, he'd not only told all the kids to lay off Hayden, but he'd punched Marc in the face. Hard.
After that, the other kids cleared a seat for him and Hayden.
His mom wouldn't get the detention slip until Monday. But Brian wasn't going to dwell on that. And there was no way he was going to tell her about it and ruin the weekend. He figured the detention was worth it because on the bus ride home today, the empty seat was waiting, and everyone had left Hayden alone. He just wasn't sure his mom would agree that this was a case where fighting was a good thing.
Brian still felt funny when he looked at Cootie… Hayden. Sort of guilty. It was the same sort of feeling he got knowing he had detention and wasn't about to tell his mom. It was a feeling like maybe he should have done more sooner, should do more, but he didn't really want to.
So there she stood on his porch and the feeling was only getting stronger. She had to trick-or-treat in a dirty sheet with nothing to even hold her candy in?
"Mom, that's Hayden. She lives down the block. Can I get her a bag or something?"
"Sure, honey." His mom turned to the ghost. "Hayden, if you'll wait a minute Brian will go get you a bag from the kitchen."
The kid tugged at the sheet, straightening out the eyeholes enough to see out of, but didn't budge from her spot on the porch. "That's okay. My pocket's fine."
"It's just a bag," Brian said sort of angrily.
"I'm okay," she replied in her squeaky voice.
He didn't know what else to say or what to do, so he opened the screen door and handed over the candy bar.
She grabbed it by the opposite end, as if she were afraid he was the one with cooties. "Thank you. And thanks for on the bus."
Brian didn't answer her. Instead, he allowed the screen door to slam back into place with a satisfying thwack.
"You're welcome," his mom finally said, giving him a have-you-forgotten-your-manners? sort of glance.
Brian still didn't say anything as Hayden turned and stepped off the porch, then walked down their drive. He closed the big door with far more force than necessary as his frustration bubbled over. "The other day I was in the yard working on my tree house and heard somethin'. It was her. She had a half sandwich, so I asked if she wanted a pop. I'd snuck a few from the house."
He realized what he'd admitted, but his mom didn't say anything about it. She stood waiting for him to finish. "So I asked if she wanted one. She was eating peanut butter."
His mom quickly nodded. He knew she'd understand that. His mom just got things. Well, most things. She didn't understand why he hated Adam. And he wasn't sure she would understand that he had to hit Marc on the bus. But she got most everything else, like how you needed a drink if you were eating peanut butter.
"She wouldn't take it, like she wouldn't take that bag. Guess she was right, though. She won't get much candy on our street. You think she'll try to go farther by herself?" Brian couldn't help worrying about her. "She's just a kid, you know."
He was in seventh grade, she was only in third. She was little and couldn't even take care of herself with bullies like Marc. What if someone messed with her while she trick-or-treated?
His mom ran her hand through his hair and gave him a repeat of that warm, mushy smile. He eyed her, trying to ward off the kiss that would surely follow. It must have worked because she didn't kiss him. His mom asked, "Maybe we could find out if she'd like to come with us?"
"Ya think she would?"
"We'll never know if you don't ask. Why don't you go catch up to her and see?"