Living Out Loud (Austen, #3)

Living Out Loud (Austen, #3)

Staci Hart

To those who have survived the storm:

Here’s to finding sunshine

after the rain

Happiness, not in another place but this place…

not for another hour, but this hour.

-Walt Whitman




The first thing I recognized was the Chrysler Building.

I think I noticed it because of how it shone, the sunlight setting it ablaze like a silver beacon in the midst of a maze of steel and glass. There was nothing else I could compare it to, certainly not anything I’d seen in Texas, and the truth was that I hadn’t been anywhere else.

I reached for my little instant camera, adjusting the settings before aiming it at the city and clicking the button. It spat out the familiar white-framed photo, black in the center where the memory would appear.

Meg’s mouth hung open, her eager ten-year-old eyes as big and wide as ping-pong balls as they bounced across the horizon.

“Whoa,” she breathed. “It’s so…big. It takes up the whole sky.”

My face was close enough to the window to feel my breath against my cheek when it rebounded off the glass, my own eyes as big as Meg’s as they did their best to drink in everything I saw like I’d been thirsty my whole life.

“How many square miles is it?” Meg asked.

“Let me look.”

I reached for my phone, glancing at Mama. She was less impressed than Meg and me, the normally invisible lines between her brows and the corners of her mouth pronounced. For her, it was a homecoming, one that was as unwanted and unwelcome as it was absolutely necessary.

My older sister, Elle’s, expression was unreadable, her hands on the steering wheel and gaze in front of her as she drove us toward the Lincoln Tunnel. The only betrayal of her sadness was reflected in the rearview mirror, buried in the depths of her eyes.

I pulled up Wikipedia and read through the city’s statistics. “Manhattan itself is twenty-two square miles, and one-point-six million people live there.”

“Whoa,” she said again, her breath fogging up the window. “How big is San Antonio?”

A quick search and a brain-crushing second later, I said, “Four hundred sixty square miles and one-point-four million people.”

“No way.” Her eyes were still on the horizon. “There aren’t any trees.”

“Probably only in Central Park.”

She frowned. “Can I climb them?”

I offered a smile, but it was sad. “I don’t know, kiddo. We’ll find out.”

Meg sat back in her seat and unfurled her map of Manhattan, marked with a red marker at places of her interest and blocking of sections of the city for a purpose unknown to me. She dug her old calculator out of her backpack and, lost in thought, began punching out numbers and jotting down notes in the corner of her map over the Bronx.

There wasn’t much to see in Boerne, my little hometown just outside of San Antonio in the hot Texas Hill Country. It was beautiful in the way wild country was—with scrubby mesquite trees, rolling grasses the color of a sun-faded paper bag, and forests of oak with pine-lined spring rivers. The area boasted the only hills to speak of in the entire state. Those hills were rocky and craggy, the definition of untamed land, making it easy to think back a hundred years, two hundred years, and imagine what it was like to live on the frontier.

But when you lived your whole life in a place like that—one untouched by time, one that never changed, even when you did, even when you lost the things you held most dear—it sometimes didn’t feel like enough. You could feel your insignificance in that sort of place.

I was reminded of the time my family drove down to Galveston to go to the beach. I’d stood at the shore and dipped my hands in the gritty, silty sand, letting it slip through my fingers as I considered how small I was. I realized my life was just a single heartbeat in the life of the universe.

The world was infinite, and I was not.

You see, my heart was full of holes.

The one I’d been born with destined me to a life indoors with my family, my books, and my music to keep me happy. It stopped me from running barefoot through the fields behind our house, like Meg. It prevented me from tubing down the river with the kids my age. It restricted me to a life of physical inactivity, so I put everything I could into occupying my heart and soul and mind instead.

The hole in my heart where my father used to be wasn’t so easy to accept. People kept telling me I would survive his death just as I survived my physical condition—with patience and acceptance and that ever-marching time. Part of me believed them.

The rest of me knew better.

My only comfort was a vow I’d made from a pew in the tiny church somewhere far behind me; I would honor my father’s life by living mine.

I thought I’d been doing just that. I’d read thousands of books. I’d spent even more time with my fingers on ivory piano keys. I’d visited every spot on the globe through Meg's voracious explorations with thanks to National Geographic and the internet. But as we drove into New York City, I realized I hadn’t seen or done anything at all.

That would all change soon enough. I was eager and ardent, armed with a list of firsts to check off, diligently jotted in the notebook in my back pocket where it had been since Daddy died.

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