Anywhere But Here, Chapters 40–42

This novel is an experiment in fiction + serial posting on Medium. I wrote the first draft during NaNoWriMo 2012.

It’s a draft. Leave me highlights and notes on what you like, and tell me when things don’t make sense.

Chapters 1–3 | Chapters 4–6 | Chapters 7–9 | Chapters 10–12 | Chapters 13–15 Chapters 16–18 | Chapters 19–21 | Chapters 22–24 | Chapters 25–27 | Chapters 28–30 | Chapters 31–33 | Chapters 34–36 | Chapters 37–39


Chapter 40Emily

Orbit jumped on the bed and batted Emily’s face with her paws, claws extended.

“Ow! Dumb cat!” Emily pushed Orbit onto the floor, who landed gracefully as if it was part of her grand cat plan. “Mrrroooow!”

“Okay, okay, your pitiful servant will attend to your needs.” She glanced at the clock: “Ten! I’m going to be late to meet Livie!” She rushed to put on clothes and let Orbit outside.

Would she have an adventure planned today? Emily wondered, looking out the window of the bus. She hoped so, because she still didn’t feel comfortable wandering around by herself and avoiding homeless people.

Emily arrived at the front of the library and saw Livie pull a bicycle from the front rack of a bus.

“Livie!” Emily yelled.

“Hey Emily! Come help me get your bike!”

Emily ran over to her, “What do you mean, my bike?”

“It’s my mom’s bike, but it’s yours today. Now will you help me, please?” Livie grinned, her spiky magenta hair lighting up hot pink in a ray of sunshine. She was wearing clogs with yellow and black striped tights, and a pleated tan corduroy skirt that ended above her knees and a short black bolero jacket. Emily had never shopped somewhere that carried those kinds of clothes. She felt drab wearing jeans, a plain gray t-shirt, and darker gray hoodie.

They took the bikes off the front of the bus, and rolled them to the sidewalk as the bus trudged away.

“What are we doing with bikes?”

“Riding them, silly. I brought you a helmet.”

“A head injury was the least of my life-alleviating concerns. Im not that miserable!” If Emily thought taking the bus or walking in the city was life threatening, riding a bike escalated danger to a new level.

“I’ve been riding in the city since I could hold my head up. When I was a baby I was on the back of my dad’s bike. We’ll be fine.”

“Everywhere I look there are really big hills!

“Not everywhere. I know secret tricks.”

“Tricks that make hills disappear?” Emily said, skeptically, “Let’s say, hypothetically, that I agree to this inane idea,” Emily said, “which I haven’t. But if I did, where exactly would we go on these bikes?”

“Down the crookedest street in the city!”

“Lombard Street?” Even Emily knew that famous street, “No way I’m riding down that.”

“Lombard is not the crookedest street in the city.”

“For real? All the tourist guides are wrong?”

Livie nodded, wheeling her bike to the sidewalk.

“So, there’s a more crooked street than Lombard, and that’s what we’re riding down?” Emily weighed her options: go home, no, back, read the last chapters in her book about someone else having an adventure that involved swords, blood, possibly death; or have a real-life adventure that involved bikes, possibly blood, but probably not death. “Remind me to give you my mom’s phone number in case I end up in the hospital or morgue. If I end up in the hospital you have to visit.”

“Deal!” Livie ignored Emily’s concern. “I’ll even bring you lilies and quinoa.”

“What?”

“Never mind, let’s go!” Livie mounted her bike and took off towards the back of the library. Emily hesitated, looking at the shiny metallic green bike. She hoped it would still look pristine at the end of the day. Her own bike was trapped in the storage cube somewhere in Sacramento, safely away from magenta haired girls and hill-infested cities.

Emily mounted the bike automatically, then pedaled to catch up to Livie at the bus stop. “We’re taking the 19-Polk?”

“Yes, that way,” Livie pointed towards Market Street, the opposite direction Emily took from her neighborhood. They waited in silence for ten minutes until the bus arrived. Emily’s thoughts percolated every worst case scenario that involved bike riding and crooked streets. Reading her book looked more inviting, even if it meant abject boredom.

“That’s our bus. Help me put the bikes on the rack.”

Emily watched Livie pull down the black grille on the front of the bus and lifted first her bike, then Emily’s and secured them with a black bar.

“What if someone steals them?”

“They will be fine! The bus drivers keep watch. I think.”

They sat down, and Emily stared out the window as her thoughts resumed their spinning tornado of doom. Maybe the bikes would get stolen. That would be good, sort of. Then she didn’t have to worry if her brakes failed or if she fell and tumbled down this crookedest street, where not even a panoply of foreign tourists existed to call an ambulance. Did Livie have a cell phone? What if she lost consciousness, her mom didn’t know where she was, or even know Livie’s name or number.

“Breathe, Emily!”

Air burst out of Emily’s mouth.

“You’ve been holding your breath since we crossed over Market Street. This part of town can be dodgy and all, but during the day nobody will bother us. Besides, we’re not stopping here.”

Livie thought she was worried about this part of town? Should she be? She looked out the window at the sidewalk of 8th Street with homeless people laying in doorways in filthy sleeping bags and blankets.

“For the next minute, just breathe. I mean only breathe. Fill up your lungs with air while you think the word “so” in your head and let the air go while you think the word “hum.”

“You want me to breathe while thinking ‘ho hum?’ And isn’t this meditation? I told you I can’t do this.”

“Not ho hum, so hum. You can’t try a thing once and say you’re not good at it.”

“Ho hum makes more sense. Being bad at washing dishes got me off the hook for a couple years.”

“You got away with that? I got ‘practice makes perfect’ and it’s not English, it’s Sanskrit. Try for one minute.”

“Fine.” Sooooo… she thought, she drawing out the sound in her mind, filling her lungs, and hummmmmmmmm, as she let go of the breath.

“Good, again! I’m going to be quiet now.”

I’m being peer pressured to breathe. That’s a first, Emily thought, smirking inwardly. She tried to return to “so hum” but felt distracted by the words. Was it too soon to open her eyes? She filled her lungs and then let the air escape. In and out, Emily thought, not noticing the bus around her, everything disappearing. Idle thoughts tried to sneak in, but she pushed them away, returning to In and Out…; In and Out

“Emily,” Livie whispered, “this is our stop.” Emily could hear the smile in her friend’s voice and slowly opened her eyes, it felt like she’d been asleep but different.

Emily followed Livie off the bus, helped her unload the bikes, not noticing the edge of her anxiety had disappeared. She wasn’t keen on riding down the crookedest street, but guessed she could always walk her bike down if necessary.

The first block was flat-for-San-Francisco with a steep hill ahead. Emily stood on the pedals and pumped hard, wondering how Livie could pedal slower but reach the top first. The hill flattened out at a park with a playground, with a sign declaring McKinley Square. Through the tall pine trees Emily saw glimpses of colorful houses and wondered if she could see the park near Parker’s from here.

“My Dad and I used to ride all the time in the city.”

Dad. Her dad probably lived in the same house as her mom. Emily swallowed down the thought. “Weren’t you scared?”

“Not with my Dad; I always felt safe.”

Tears filled Emily’s eyes, and she tried to turn away to hide.

“What did I say?” Livie asked. “Wait … is it about your dad? Is he still in India?”

“Yes, but he’s coming to see me next weekend.”

“What do you mean, coming to see you, he doesn’t live with you?”

“No.”

“Oh, wow. I’m sorry. There I go putting my cart before my foot, or whatever.” Livie paused. “Is that why you moved?”

“Yeah, we moved to San Francisco because,” Emily swallowed, uncertain, “my Mom has a new boyfriend.”

“Yikes. I just thought your Dad was traveling for work.”

“He is but, I don’t think he has a place to live now. I don’t know where we’ll stay when he’s here.” He wanted to go somewhere, anywhere but here, he tried to joke.

Emily sat silently. She’d missed him but the loss was tangled into everything she missed: her house, her room, the heat of the valley in the summer, lazy moments at the pool, and her Dad calling her “Emi-bear,” hugging her tightly and lifting her off her feet, despite her objections.

Emily hugged her knees to her chest, hiding tears. Livie waited, holding a lavender cloth napkin out to Emily when she looked up.

“Sorry I’m such a downer,” Emily said after a few minutes, wiping her nose on the napkin.

“You’re not a downer. You’re a person with emotions in a hard situation,” Livie responded.

“Thanks,” Emily half smiled. “Where is this hill?”

“Right in front of us. Want to check it out?”

“Okay.”

They rolled the bikes over to the top of the hill. A yellow diamond sign showed a curvy road ahead. Emily swallowed and looked down the slithering street; she didn’t even want to walk down it.

“Um…” Livie started, “Maybe this didn’t need to be on my someday list.”

“You haven’t done this before?”

“No. My dad wouldn’t let me.”

Emily laughed. “Maybe because it’s suicide?”

“Maybe?” Livie blushed. “Want to walk down the hill?”

“Not a chance.’”

“Okay, let’s go back the way we came. The regular hills will be challenge enough.” Livie looked disappointed.

“Let’s do this. Let’s ride down this hill.”

“Really?” Livie looked hopeful. “There is a hospital right there.” She pointed at a large campus of red brick buildings, “Not that we’ll need to go there, but it’s close anyway.”

“What does 15% grade mean?” Emily asked, looking at the slope. But Livie was already around the first turn. She followed as slowly as she could, gripping the rear brake so hard they squealed against the metal rim. Even the brakes didn’t slow the bike down enough, and after the first two tight curves Emily jumped off the bike, scratching her leg on the pedal but landing on her feet. Walking the bike down, she realized two steps later, wasn’t easier than riding but it would be impossible to get back on mid-hill. When she reached the crest of the final curve, she found a flat-enough spot to mount the bike again and rode the final hill to where Livie waited.

“Woooooo hooooo!” Livie’s face was flushed with delight. “We did it!” She shouted to the whole city.

“You did it; walking my bike doesn’t qualify.”

“Sure it does!” Livie exclaimed. “First thing I’ve crossed off my Someday List all summer! Wait until I tell my Dad!”

Emily knew this was one thing she would not tell her dad.

Livie noticed the scratch on Emily’s leg. “You’re hurt! Crazy idea gone bad! Do we need to go to the hospital?”

“No, I’m okay, just a scratch and not even bleeding.” Emily said. “How do we get back?”

“Down this hill is Potrero Avenue, we can take that and cut across to Valencia.”

“No more hills, right?”

“No big hills.”

Chapter 41: Sandra

Two hundred and eighty-seven email messages awaited Sandra when she arrived at work Friday morning; 280 were from people she didn’t know. She read through the first few messages to understand they were people applying for the part-time IT position. They would have to wait. She’d gone from no work to overload in a day. She also needed to research help desk systems if she was going to have any kind of answer for Cesco in a week. She looked at the vendor’s name Tad had scratched on a sticky note, and went to the website.

As she clicked through the web pages, she realized what help desk software did. At HealthCo they had a system, but since it was integrated into the customer information system, she didn’t think of it as a separate program. For the first time since starting, something made sense. She made a list of all the features this product had, the benefits, and the costs.

When Tad arrived an hour later, Sandra caught him in the kitchen as he was getting coffee. “Hi Tad, can you get me the list of other vendors to consider this morning?”

“Yeah. Give me an hour to wake up.”

Sandra went back to her desk, and looked down at the pile of laptops, taking the top one and putting it on her desk. New hires first, then the flood of job seekers.

If Drew could see me now, Sandra thought, opening the box. He used to complain I needed instructions to turn on the computer, and now I’m setting them up. She’d done well, too, figuring out the setup tasks that had taken her days when she started. Dana was using her checklist, adding her own steps for the HR and office related steps. Next week was the first time all of the managers had agreed to have their hires start on Tuesday.

Drew was arriving in a week and refused to leave her thoughts. A pang of sorrow thumped and rolled over her. She’d tried to keep thoughts of Drew away, pretending like he was on a normal trip that was taking longer than usual. Denial, perhaps, but the enormousness of his absence called for some kind of fanciful story; at least until she could gulp down the reality that her marriage was over? Was it? Should she tell Drew that Parker wasn’t her boyfriend, again? She felt familiar puffiness on her upper cheekbones, the precursor to tears which arrived on schedule every night as she lay down alone in Parker’s immense bed, without even the illusion that Drew would be home at the end of the week. She wondered where Parker had been, but had no claim to ask.

Woman, you have work to do, Sandra berated herself. At least that was the positive of volunteering to help so much: it gave her less time to think about Drew. She got up from her desk and walked to the kitchen, wondering just how many packages of Oreos she could eat before the waistline of her pants would pinch.

“If you see Parker, tell him he owes me a drink,” Dana said, interrupting Sandra’s guilty kitchen scavenging.

“Why?”

“Because I introduced him to Benjamin.”

“He’s been gone a few nights now.” Sandra regretted the words as soon as she’d spoken.

“That’s because of Benjamin. We were at the same party on Wednesday, and they were inseparable.”

“Wow,” Sandra said, surprised.

“He’ll be back when he needs clean clothes. Anyway, Cesco can’t do the new hire intro next week because he’s traveling. I’ll hit up Janessa, our Marketing Director, she’s next best to deliver a pep talk and summary about what we plan to do.”

Sandra hoped to sit in on this talk. Even after frequent reading of the business plan Parker had given her, she still didn’t know what this company was going to do for money.

Would Parker really have met someone and stayed with them for three days? Sandra couldn’t help her maternal instincts from kicking in and festering obsession and worry. Maybe he was staying away on purpose, because his house had been taken over by women.

“How did your trip to the school district go?”

“Okay, I guess. I signed Emily up for a school that looked sort of close but last night she said she wants to go to a charter school her new friend attends.”

“Mission thwarted then?”

“Sadly yes. Do you know anything about charter schools, and are they free?”

“I know practically nothing about schools, but predict another busy lunch in your future.”

Chapter 42: Emily

Once Livie and Emily descended the hill, they made a right turn onto a wide four lane road with a bike lane.

“Watch out for people in cars throwing opening their doors,” Livie cautioned.

Emily rode with trepidation as cars sped past, suspecting this was more dangerous than the wild ride they’d taken earlier. But the road was pretty flat. The cars either passed Emily with inches of space between them, or cut wide into the lane of the oncoming traffic to avoid her. Livie rode slowly, allowing Emily to keep up without panting. They rode through a dozen blocks, it seemed, passing Victorian houses painted in bright, vivid colors. This area didn’t look as clean as Parker’s, with chip wrappers in the gutters and graffiti-like paintings on exterior walls.

Emily had to focus on staying upright, avoiding the cars, and didn’t think about much. She was happy to be on a bike again, despite the proximity of danger.

Livie turned onto Valencia Street, with dozens of bicyclists riding in the Bike lane. Cyclists appeared around her and in front of her, making her feel like she belonged to a private, exclusive club. She couldn’t believe so many people rode bikes in the city.

Emily felt exhilarated and powerful as part of the bike pack. Livie stopped for a red light as Emily caught up.

“Looking good!” Livie exclaimed.

“So fun!” Emily responded. “I can’t believe we’re in San Francisco. There are so many bikes!”

“Cyclists love Valencia Street,” she pulled her water bottle from her bike frame and handed it to Emily. “We have a decision to make in a couple blocks when we get to Market.”

“Anything but hills…” How could they be close to Market street? Emily was all turned around.

“So we can avoid a lot of hills, but there will be some, or we can take a bus.”

“Definitely bus.”

“Okay, follow me.”

Livie made a couple quick turns until Market Street was in front of them. Emily glanced at an art store with an enormous wooden model emerging from the storefront and wished she could stop. All of her paints were in the Cube in Sacramento somewhere.

Emily didn’t have time to ask Livie to stop before she watched her dive across four lanes on Market Street, briefly devoid of traffic. Emily froze as cars approached.

Livie waited at the front of the left turn lane, and looked back to see Emily cringing on the other side of the street. Livie frowned with concern, then yelled, “You can do it, Emily! Wait for the next break in traffic and go for it!”

Fueled by an unexpected burst of courage, and a break in traffic, Emily raced across the lanes, panting heavily as she rode up to Livie’s side. Emily was beaming, proud and happy as she followed her friend up Franklin Street. It wasn’t slaying the enemy like her fantasy novel heroines, but she wondered if this was like the adrenaline rush of battle.

The golden dome of the county seat peeked behind other buildings. Emily knew they were close to the library, but had no idea how they got there.

They took a couple more turns, until Livie hopped off her bike at a bus stop.

“And now, the easiest, or the hardest part: we wait for the bus, which looks like it’s 20 minutes away,” Livie said.

“How did we avoid all those hills? I didn’t think there were any flat streets on this side?”

“Remember I told you my dad likes to ride? He taught me how to avoid the hills; there’s even a city map that shows all the hills and best paths for bikes.”

Emily tried not to cringe as Livie mentioned her Dad again. You’ll see Dad in a week, she chided herself.

“If you could help me get these bikes back to my house, my Mom can give you a ride home.”

“In a car, right?” Emily teased.


Up next: Chapters 43–45. Thanks for reading!