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Authors: Sarah Pekkanen

Catching Air

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For Robert, Saadia, and Sophia Pekkanen

Part One

Chapter One

DAWN ZUKOSKI WAS SCARED
of lots of things—spiders, lightning bolts, the way New York cabbies drove—but only once in her life had she known true terror.

She was eight years old back then, and visiting her elderly neighbor. Mrs. Rita’s home was cluttered with gold-framed photos of her long-grown children and towers of
Reader’s Digest
magazines, and it smelled of dog pee from her two yippy terriers. But Dawn loved going there because the cookie jar was stocked with Nilla wafers, and the television was always tuned to game shows.

Lacy curtains over the windows hid the sight of other kids on the street playing kickball or hide-and-seek on summer mornings, but Dawn could hear their shouts and cheers. She didn’t care, though; she and Mrs. Rita were busy competing in their own games of Plinko or One Away.

“You’re overbidding by a thousand!” Mrs. Rita would admonish the contestants. “Dawn, we would’ve walked right off with that camper!”

Dawn would nod and reach for another cookie, savoring the sweet crumbles on her tongue and the feeling of safety she never experienced at school, where her classmates put two straws in their mouths to imitate her buck teeth, or held their noses and giggled when she walked by, no matter how hard she willed herself to become invisible.

It happened when a young guy spun the big wheel at the end of the first half of
The Price Is Right.
Dawn was sitting cross-legged on the maroon wall-to-wall carpeting that itched her bare legs. A plate of cookies rested on her lap, and the dogs—who enjoyed Nilla wafers as much as she did—were watching her from a few feet away. Staring, really.

Dawn stared back. It was funny at first. The dogs, who were usually hyper, had become as still as statues. Dawn locked eyes with one of them. It was just like the no-blinking contests the boys in her class loved to hold. How long could she last? Five seconds . . . ten . . . Then Mrs. Rita let out a whoop and clapped her hands sharply—“He landed smack-dab on the one dollar! Did you see that, Dawn?”—and at the sudden noise, the spell was broken and the dogs charged.

Dawn fell backward, cookies spilling all around her. “No!” she could hear Mrs. Rita yelling from what seemed like a great distance away. Dawn thrashed and screamed, but every time she pushed one dog away, the other found its way forward, raking her face with its teeth. The attack seemed to go on forever.

Mrs. Rita finally managed to get up and whack at the dogs with her cane, and then Dawn was flying out the door, past the cluster of kids in the street. The kids stopped playing and turned to stare at her, too.

Her vision grew blurred, but she managed to run up three flights of stairs and get inside her apartment and slam the door before collapsing into her mother’s arms. Her mother was a nurse’s aide, the one neighbors called when their children spiked a high fever or their elderly parents tripped on the stairs.

Her mother didn’t scream or hesitate. She lifted Dawn up and carried her to the sink and cleaned her face—luckily the dogs had small mouths and their bite marks weren’t deep, and it was blood running into her eyes, not trauma to them, that had impaired her vision—and then she took Dawn to the hospital to get a half dozen stitches.

Even though her father explained that the dogs had thought Dawn was issuing a challenge by staring into their eyes and that they were only trying to protect their home, Mrs. Rita’s living room never felt safe for her again. But that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was being trapped under the snarling, biting mass, terror weakening her body as her heart threatened to explode. The inability to escape; that was the sensation that still haunted her.

So much had changed for her since that long-ago day, though. She was twenty-seven now, and gone was the girl who sat at the last table in the lunchroom, at the end closest to the bathrooms, so she had a ready place to hide. Braces had pulled her teeth straight, and even though the rest of her hadn’t transformed—her thighs were still a little pudgy, her dark blond hair remained lank despite the fact that she’d put misguided faith into every shampoo in CVS that had the word
volumizing
in its description, and she had two slim, silvery scars forming parentheses on her right cheek—she felt beautiful for the first time in her life.

All set for tonight?
her boyfriend, Tucker—her boyfriend!—had texted her that morning as she’d waited for the bus to take her uptown to her job at the investment firm on Sixth Avenue.

All set,
she’d texted back, giddiness welling up inside of her. It was a rainy, dreary morning, yet she felt as if she were standing beneath a sunbeam. Tucker was the reason why she felt beautiful; he told her she was, every single day, while she drank up his words like a parched plant taking in water.

A guy holding a cup with the Starbucks logo was waiting beside her, and Dawn smiled, remembering how Tucker had taken her to the coffee shop after he’d dropped a huge pile of papers on the floor directly outside her cubicle on his third day of work.

“I’m such a klutz!” he’d said when she rushed to help him.

“So am I!” she’d said, feeling her cheeks heat up. Maybe that wasn’t her most flattering confession, but looking into his navy-blue eyes made her dizzy. She’d noticed him the moment he’d walked through the etched-glass doors of the investment firm. What female wouldn’t? His hair was sun-streaked and slightly rumpled, his nose was long and thin, and when he smiled, twin dimples flashed. He looked like a J. Crew model, or a Kennedy, like the type of guy who was born knowing how to sail and play croquet, who drove a zippy red convertible, who was always throwing barbecues on the beach. He wasn’t just a man—he also carried the promise of a golden life.

Dawn had been working at the firm as an assistant to a vice president ever since she graduated from Queens College. She lived in a studio apartment next to a couple who drank, fought, and made up with equal enthusiasm—then kicked off the cycle all over again. She bought her suits at Macy’s and her pink lipsticks at Duane Reade, and she ordered tuna-salad sandwiches or chicken Caesar salads at the corner deli for lunch. A lot of people came to New York for excitement—nightclub hopping and Broadway shows and shopping sprees—but Dawn followed the city’s quieter rhythms: weekend walks in Central Park, trips to the grocery store, girls’ nights out with the other administrative assistants. Before Tucker Newman blasted into her life, twirling it upside down, her biggest excitement was debating whether she should join Match.com.

Tucker was, without a doubt, the sweetest and most considerate man she’d ever met. The last guy Dawn had gone on a date with had watched the Knicks game on a television above her head at the bar the whole time, but Tucker wanted to know all about her. He asked lots of questions about her job and her boss, and leaned in to hear the answers.
What do you see in me?
Dawn wondered as she watched his long, elegant fingers encircle his coffee cup. She stopped herself from asking the question because she could practically hear the women’s magazines she subscribed to chastising her:
Don’t sell yourself short! He’s lucky to have you! Now sit up straight and project confidence!

Maybe those magazines were onto something, because after they’d had coffee, he’d invited her to dinner that very same night.

“I’m sorry, you probably already have plans—” he’d started to say, just as she’d blurted, “I’d love to!”

They’d both laughed and had quickly become inseparable, at least in the evenings and on weekends. At work they still kept up a façade of barely knowing each other, because Tucker’s father was a founder of the firm and Tucker didn’t want him to know. “He’s too controlling. And your boss might not like it either,” Tucker had said.

“Controlling?” Dawn had repeated, hungry to know more.

Tucker had sighed, then he’d told her everything: the harsh spankings his father had administered when Tucker was a little boy; his dad’s insistence that Tucker learn lacrosse, because that had been
his
sport, even though Tucker yearned to play the piano instead; the hefty donation to Yale during Tucker’s junior year of high school to ensure the college’s acceptance letter. Tucker’s life had never truly been his own.

“He wanted a son who was exactly like him. That’s why I changed my name to Tucker Newman when I turned twenty-one,” Tucker had confided as Dawn stroked his hair and made sympathetic noises. “I couldn’t bear being John Parks Junior.”

Then he’d kissed her, and swooped her up to carry her into the bedroom—she prayed his back wouldn’t give out from her weight—and later, as they gobbled cold cereal for dinner, he’d answered the question that had been buzzing around in her mind: Why had he decided to come work for his father?

“I want his respect,” Tucker had said. “I’m going to show him I’m not the screwup that he thinks I am.”

“Of course you’re not!” Dawn had said, her voice loud. “And he’s an idiot if he thinks that.”

Tucker had started to laugh—it was such a beautiful sound—and he’d pulled her close, giving her a kiss that tasted sweetly of Cap’n Crunch. “Do you know you’re the first person to ever take my side against him?”

Dawn hadn’t told Tucker that she’d once been walking behind him in a hallway, and she’d seen his dad pass and give him the briefest of nods. How painful that must have felt, as if Tucker was somehow beneath him. Tucker’s father seemed to be much harder on his son than on his other employees—despite the fact that Tucker had a degree from Yale, he’d insisted that Tucker begin work as a mail clerk.

Tucker had asked about her family then, and when she’d told him that her parents had died in a car crash several years earlier, she could’ve sworn she saw tears fill his eyes.

“So you don’t have anyone?”

“Just a few aunts and uncles and cousins, but we’re not close,” she’d said. “Most of my parents’ families are back in Poland. They got married really young and immigrated here when they were both nineteen.”

Tucker had brushed her hair away from her face and looked at her as if she was a movie star. “Let’s be each other’s families from now on,” he’d whispered. Happiness had buoyed her like helium.

They’d been dating only four weeks. How could someone like him fall for someone like her? It was a miracle.
Her secret lover
, Dawn thought, a smile playing on her lips. It was a title snatched from the romance novels she adored but never had the chance to read anymore because she was actually living the story. Tucker brought her red roses every single week, even though she protested that they were too expensive, and he kissed the insides of her wrists. He winked whenever he passed her cubicle at work, then showed up at her apartment hours later, pressing her against the wall and kissing her hungrily.

Her iPhone was buzzing again:
Nine hours and thirty-eight minutes to go until I see you . . . and then in four days, we make it official.

Tucker loved to divide time into segments like an orange; he was a whiz with numbers. She could see him taking over the entire company someday. Dawn knew his father would regret doubting Tucker.

Where was the bus? Dawn ducked out of the shelter and peered up the street, but she could see only a snarl of yellow taxis. The rain was picking up, soaking through the bottoms of the blue Keds sneakers she wore for commuting. Dawn was tempted to take a cab, but she always rode the bus to work and it was important that she go about her usual routine, that she act as if this was a normal day.

She’d pick up a triple espresso for the vice president on her way in, filter his calls, send his faxes, manage the stream of visitors to his office, and order a tuna-salad sandwich for lunch, though she doubted she’d be able to eat a single bite. Then, at precisely 2:00 P.M., she’d take a stack of clients’ checks to the bank. Simple.

She heard something that made her blood freeze: a bark. A German shepherd was straining against his leash, bearing down on Dawn. She froze and averted her eyes while the dog sniffed at her.

The owner finally seemed to notice Dawn’s fear. “Hey, he’s friendly,” she said.

Get him away from me!
Dawn wanted to scream. She always kept an eye out for approaching dogs and managed to evade them; how had this one slipped through her vigilance? Her heartbeat thudded in her ears. The giant, hairy beast was still there, sniffing all around her, when the bus finally pulled up, its brakes squealing. Dawn almost slipped on the steps in her haste to board. She took a deep, shuddering breath when she was safely in a seat. It was as if that dog had sensed her anxiety, had been drawn to it. Hadn’t she heard somewhere that dogs could smell fear?

Four days,
she repeated. She only needed to get through the rest of the week, and then it would all be over. No one would be harmed, no one would be upset with her. And her golden life with Tucker could officially begin.

She leaned her cheek against the cool glass of the window and watched the heavy raindrops slide past, turning the city into a blur.

• • •

Heavy raindrops pelted down on Kira Danner as she grabbed her purse, her briefcase, and two bags of groceries out of the trunk of her Honda Accord. She felt one of the brown paper bags begin to slip out of her grasp as she hurried toward her apartment building and climbed the steps to her second-floor walk-up.

She twisted her key in the lock and pushed the door with her shoulder just as she lost her grip.
It had to be the one with the eggs
, she thought as she watched the contents tumble to the floor.

“You know how to make an entrance,” her husband, Peter, joked as he walked into the living room.

Kira rolled her eyes at him and wrestled her phone out of her purse as it began to buzz. She checked the caller ID: It was Peter’s older brother, Rand. Rand didn’t phone often, but he had a sixth sense when it came to picking the worst possible moments. The last time he’d called, he’d interrupted the first nap she’d managed to take in three years, and the time before that, she and Peter had been in the middle of repainting the living room.

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