Anywhere But Here, Chapters 19–21

a young adult novel, 3 chapters at a time

AWBH is a work in progress and an experiment in crowd editing + serial posting. I wrote the first draft during NaNoWriMo 2012, this is the fourth revision!

The story is told in alternating points of view between Sandra (mom) and Emily (teenage daughter).

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 | Chapters 40–42 | Chapters 43–45 | Chapters 46–48 | Chapters 49–50 | Chapters 51–53 | Chapters 54–57 | Chapters 58–60 | Chapters 61–63

Chapter 19: Sandra
(Summer 2012, San Francisco)

“Never thought I’d miss that big, empty king bed,” Sandra complained to herself, “Victorians don’t know much about comfort.” Her back ached from sleeping on the Victorian sofa.

She walked into the kitchen looking for a coffee maker. Coffee grounds she found easily in the near-empty cupboards, but no coffee maker. She pondered chewing the grounds of the dark roast in her desperation for caffeine when Parker walked in, stretching idly. He looked at the coffee grounds, opened a cupboard, and pulled out a glass pitcher-looking thing. “You’ve never seen a French press?”

Sandra eyed the contraption and wondered how that could make coffee. She watched while Parker put the kettle on to boil water.

“If you don’t want to share a bed with your kid, you can sleep on the other side of my bed, I won’t even know you were there.”

“Maybe tonight, I want to give Emily some space,” Sandra said. “She’s having a rough time with all this.”

“I can imagine. She’s pretty aloof, but maybe that’s normal for a teenager?” Parker scooped coffee into the bottom of the glass pitcher and poured hot water over the grounds, stirring with a plastic chopstick.

“Did I do the right thing, Park?” She gestured broadly about the kitchen.

“By coming into the kitchen?” he joked, “that’s the only place I have coffee, so yes.”

“You know what I mean — this whole thing, moving here, taking this job, uprooting my family,” Sandra said, “dismembering my family.”

“Don’t get all emo on me, it’s done, isn’t it? The only thing you can do is move forward, get dressed, and show up to your new job today.”

Sandra frowned. “You’re right about that, my house is sold and I quit my job.”

“Did you pull an Office Space and tear down the walls of your cubicle? Or did you take the fish out of the aquarium, because ‘they have manners’, like Jerry McGuire?”

Sandra laughed, surprising herself. “Neither, but I did eat the going away cake my colleagues brought. A sheet cake from Raley’s never tasted so good.”

“Everything will be okay, San.”

“How do you know that?”

“I don’t. Would you rather I say everything is going to get worse?”

She chuckled. “Good point.”

“More important, do you have your bus route figured out?”

“You said to take the 1-California, right?”

“It’s a clean crowd of people; there’s nothing worse than eau de homeless person first thing in the morning. I need to go downtown today so I’ll ride with you.”

Sandra sighed with relief. One less thing to worry about, for now. She nodded thanks when Parker passed her a mug of dark brew. “I’d offer you milk and sugar, but…”

“You have an impressive selection of take-out menus, but your refrigerator is woefully bachelor. Ordered Chinese last night.”

“Emily couldn’t be tempted by Vietnamese or Pakistani?” Parker laughed. “That Chinese place is one of the best deliveries I’ve found, decent prices too.”

“That was also a consideration,” Sandra cringed, “which reminds me, you didn’t tell me how much I owe you for rent.” She hoped he would say something she could afford. What would she do if he named a price that ate up her whole income?

“Sandra, let me do you a favor. I’ll give you the first month free, and if you still can’t find somewhere else after a month then we can discuss some reasonable rent. You can pitch in for the cleaning service if it costs more with two extra shedding humans and one extra shedding cat.”

Sandra mumbled, surprised. “Are you sure?”

“I feel a bit responsible for the demise of your marriage. This may be the first time I’ve ever broken up a straight couple.” Sandra laughed and then choked on a cry.

“I’m going to shut up now and drink coffee,” he sipped briefly, “I’ll be home late tonight, by the way, date with this lovely man I met last night!”

A date. Sandra didn’t want to think about dates, dating, and any other man besides Drew. He would be proud, Sandra thought, to see me drink coffee black, even out of desperation. He’s always complained if I really liked coffee it wouldn’t taste like candy. Would he call tonight at 8:30? She missed him in a way that made her heart hurt, like part of it was missing.

“Now, darling, what are you wearing for your first day of work at your start-up?” Parker interjected.

“A suit?” Sandra questioned, “I’m a manager, right, and I should wear a suit? I have a navy one somewhere.” No doubt wrinkled beyond belief, she thought, if I can find it.

“Absolutely not! Maybe to an interview, but wear a suit on your first day and you’ll feel as conspicuous as a parrot among pigeons. Most people dress in jeans, but you can wear a skirt or pants if you have them.” He looked at the clock, “Relax, we have another hour. Most people don’t arrive a the office until after nine.”

Chapter 20: Emily
(Summer 2012, San Francisco)

Emily’s eyelids twitched, swollen from too much sleep. She rolled out of bed and saw faint light through the glass in the double doors to the front room. Feels like a dungeon, Emily thought. There was no confusion; she knew all too well she was in San Francisco, in Drew’s Victorian flat. She grabbed her sweatshirt at the foot of the bed, then wandered into the hall, hoping and dreading she was alone. Orbit meowed, complaining, either wanting to eat or go outside, or escape from this tiny house nightmare.

The kitchen was brighter, lit with partial sunshine from the back windows, but not warm in the slightest. She saw a note on the kitchen counter with directions to the grocery store, close enough to walk, her Mom wrote, along with a key on top of a $10 bill.

“The farthest I walked at home was two blocks to Lauren’s house,” Emily told Orbit, who meowed at the back door, eyes following a bird on the fence, “but she thinks I’ll walk here?”

After opening every drawer and cabinet, and finding only tonic water, coffee, and a jar of green cocktail olives, she figured out why. There’s nothing resembling food in this whole place. At home the cupboards were always full of something, though never junk food, except possibly behind the row of canned tomatoes and soup, where her mom thought she wouldn’t look.

She opened the freezer. Two frosted bottles of vodka lay on their sides. Emily unscrewed the top of one bottle and sniffed. Her face puckered up, “Naaa-stee!” She looked at Orbit. “Why would people drink something that smells like paint thinner?”

She tried to imagine Orbit’s placid response, but her imagination had taken a vacation.

“I wish you could walk to the store with me, like a dog,” she said to her cat, “maybe I can find you a leash, and pretend you’re a dog?” Orbit looked up, with a wide cat stare, then continued licking her belly. “Or, not,” Emily shrugged.

Walking back to her dungeon bedroom, she pulled on her single pair of jeans and zipped up a hoodie. She checked three times that she had the key in her pocket, finally keeping it in her hand as she closed and locked the front door.

Walk down the hill and turn left on California St., the note read. She passed a few houses before realizing what was missing. A few trees were planted between squares of sidewalk, some large terra cotta pots held flowering shrubs, but no lawns. I’ll never have to mow the lawn again, she thought with surprise delight, and then cringed. As she mowed there expansive blanket of green grass, her dad followed her with the edger. Every Sunday, unless it rained. She’d pretend to run him down with the mower, making erratic lines in the grass until he’d take over, in mock complaint, until the lines were perfect parallel stripes. More calming than church, she and her dad said, simultaneously.

Would he call at 8:30 tonight? What could she even say? I’m in lawn-less hell, come rescue me? He was probably halfway to India by now.

Her old neighborhood was abandoned by 9AM on weekday mornings, even in the summer, but as she approached California she saw cars, fast moving and tons of them in the four-lane road. People walked in every direction. Going where? Emily wondered.

“Left on California, then walk up a few blocks, store on the right side of the street,” she read her mom’s note aloud. A car would hit her for sure, if she jaywalked, and San Francisco in a hospital bed would be unendurable misery.

She started to walk around painters’ scaffolding that created a ceiling over the sidewalk, until she saw a woman walk directly under it. Familiarity tickled her nose. New house smell. Emily blinked away a surprise tear and remembered walking through Lauren’s newly built house before they moved in; the walls soared up into vast peaked ceilings, the floor was bare concrete. Wide empty space and the earthy-chemical smell of drywall surrounded her. She wondered what Lauren was doing today. Probably making plans to meet at the mall, or hang out by Natalie’s pool. Definitely not wandering solo around a busy, unfamiliar city.

She walked past two gas stations, crossing over when a street light turned green. Gas stations were miles from houses at home.

Market Grand Central, a sign announced vertically, sticking out like the handle on a mug on a rectangular short building. Not a grocery chain Emily knew, but she hoped they had groceries. As she approached she saw an unexpected storefront that brought a burst of relief: a green mermaid in a circle. Starbucks!

Mom’s not around to tell me to eat something healthy, so hot chocolate and a chocolate croissant are my breakfast future. She sat at a small table with her back to a wall, comforted by the warm cup.

Two girls her age stared her way, as Emily glanced quickly and looked down at the croissant. When she looked up again, the girls were gone. She wished she had somewhere to go. She lingered over the last few sips in her cup, wishing she’d ordered a larger size, something so big she would have an excuse to stay the whole day.

Natalie and Lauren might be at Starbucks at home already, drinking something frozen and flirting with boys. Or getting ready to lay by the pool, trying to tan, but knowing without SPF 45 she’d be a shade closer to lobster than latte within an hour. She wouldn’t be sitting by herself in a Starbucks drinking hot chocolate. She exhaled in a burst of anguish, and got up, looking for the garbage bin. Blue — recycling, black — garbage, but green? What goes in a green garbage can? She read the sign: Compost. Isn’t that some kind of dirt? She looked quickly left and right and tossed everything into the black bin before hurrying outside.

“Street sheet!” A bedraggled man enthused. “Street sheet!” Emily felt him lurch towards her, his bloodshot blue eyes wild under matted dirty brown hair. He may have been white under the dirt streaks on his face. “One dollar, I know you got one dollar, kid, I just saw you come out of Starbucks.”

Emily gasped, eyes jerking wide, and sprinted up California, the opposite direction of Parker’s house. She imagined his footsteps behind her falling in loud smacks on the sidewalk as he chased her. At best he’d demand that dollar, but at worst? She didn’t even know what were the worst things that could happen here. She should have stayed home. Home, home, miles away next to pools and frozen drinks and pretending she cared about which boys liked Natalie.

After a block of dodging pedestrians she looked back. The man was still in front of Starbucks waving a thin newspaper at pedestrians who blatantly ignored him. Not following her.

She realized she forgot to get food for lunch at the store. She crossed the street and headed back to Parker’s house on the opposite side from the homeless guy. She eyed him warily, but he was oblivious; more focused on the people exiting the grocery store, waving his newspaper at them. A stationary threat, Emily thought, thinking of pretty paper stationery made into knives forging an attack against … the ball-point pens?

She wished she could call Lauren. She loved Emily’s descriptions. Natalie, of course, thought they were childish.

She fast walked back to the house, trying the key in the lock to the door, which didn’t turn. “Crap!” Emily swore. She sat down on the front steps. A few people walked by on the sidewalk, looking up at her briefly and continuing on their path. After a few minutes she tried the key again, pushing it further into the lock, and jiggling as she turned. Success! The key circled in the lock, clicking as it released. Emily shut the door loudly behind her, to see Orbit walking out of Parker’s room.

Chapter 21: Sandra
(Summer 2012, San Francisco)

“Your building is all brick,” Parker said, “a rarity in the city. You’re close to Chinatown, and not stuck between banker skyscrapers.”

Sandra didn’t respond; her arm muscles were rigid from holding the vertical pole to avoid plopping into the lap of the man sitting next to her. She eyed Parker, holding loosely to the pole next to her, swaying with the movement of the bus like he could hear the music.

“Clay and Grant,” an automated female voice announced.

“Our stop,” Parker said.

Sandra followed Parker as he wove a path from the back of the bus to the exit doors. She hadn’t noticed anything outside during the ride in her desperation for stability. She followed him as he crossed the street to pause in front of an eight story brick building. “Here we are!”

Sandra wished she could match his enthusiasm, but couldn’t remember if she put on deodorant. Didn’t feel like it.

They took the elevator to the sixth floor, doors opening to a wide, open office with warm red-brown wood desks in library rows. Burnished Autumn, Sandra thought, the name of the designer color in her warm, inviting kitchen. Past kitchen. Sandra swallowed down memories before they could surface.

Exposed silver pipes and gray bundles of wires ran across the ceiling. At HealthCo, white acoustic tiles hid the ceiling, and square fluorescent lights ran endlessly from one end of the building to the other. A mundane road to nowhere, Emily said, on her one and only visit.

“No cubicles?” Sandra asked Parker.

“Never! They stifle the imagination. Or they would bite too much into a start-up’s cash balance.” Parker walked through the empty foyer, passing a pair of brown leather couches that created the illusion of a living room. A copy of Fast Company magazine lay on top of the oval glass and black metal coffee table.

“Is that Francesco?” Sandra asked, pointing at the picture on the cover.

“Yeah,” Parker said, after a quick glance, then looked around the office, as if people he knew were always on magazine covers. “There’s Dana.”

Sandra held onto a fraction of dignity as she followed Parker as he weaved through desks and walked up to a beautiful woman in her late twenties, who had blonde hair in ringlets bouncing against her shoulders.

“Dana, my darling, here is your new Customer Service Manager, Sandra Jameson who starts today.”

“Parker! How are you?” Dana stood and kissed him on each cheek. “I didn’t know we had a customer service manager.”

“Um,” Sandra interrupted, cautiously, “It’s Sandra Michaels.”

Dana tilted her head tilted to the side and looked at Sandra. “Still doesn’t ring a bell.”

Sandra inhaled strongly through her nose and felt her stomach clench. Throughout this tragedy, my one lifeline was this job. What the devil am I going to do now?

“Francesco didn’t tell you? He hired Sandra at the party?” Parker regarded Dana’s blank stare. “At his house? After the launch party?”

Dana looked at Sandra again, pausing, “Vaguely familiar, Francesco may have mentioned something in passing. Did you get an offer letter? I usually see all of those.”

“It’s buried in a box somewhere in Parker’s hallway,” Sandra cringed, swallowing back tears.

“Breathe, Sandra, this happens all the time in new companies,” Parker said.

Sandra couldn’t breathe; dread had sucked all of the air out of her lungs. Drew was right. Nobody would hire her at a party. Nobody would hire her ever. She and Emily would be on a street corner, begging, by next month when Parker kicked them out…

“Well, we don’t want it to happen, but it does sometimes,” Dana said, extending her hand, “by the way, I’m Dana Carter, Office Manager, HR Manager….”

“Person who stocks the kitchen…” Parker added.

“Snack slave, yes.”

Stocks the kitchen? Sandra wondered, shaking Dana’s hand. Why should she care about an office kitchen and what it was stocked with if she didn’t even have a job. She was not going to be eating these snacks. Maybe she could break in and rob it when she and Emily were starving and homeless? “I’m Sandra Michaels, possibly your new Customer Service Manager,” she hoped she sounded more confident than she felt.

“Let me call Cesco now, his flight leaves in 2 hours,” Dana smiled, her face blonde shining light.

Sandra hoped a smile was on her face, but she couldn’t be sure. It might be a grimace.

Dana turned to Parker, “Why don’t you show Sandra the closest coffee shop and buy me an hour to get organized?”

“No problem, Dana, see you in a bit.”

Sandra wasn’t sure if she was hyperventilating or holding her breath in the elevator on the way down. “Tell me I didn’t just move, sell my house, lose my husband, make my daughter hate me, and I don’t even have a job.”

“You have a job, Sandi. Remember I was standing next to you when Cesco offered you the job? This happens a lot in the companies I work with. They’re moving so fast they have no structure or processes and things get missed. It will be fine. Are you a latte or mocha or …?”

They were in front of a Starbucks, and to Sandra the beckoning mermaid was an old friend who promised comfort. “Double tall skinny vanilla latte, please.”

They sat for an hour as Sandra stared out the window, watching people walk with purpose and determination to jobs that existed, praying that Parker was right. She checked her watch every ten minutes, worried about being punctual. “It’s almost an hour, we should go.” She stood up abruptly, knocking over her empty cup.

“Relax, Sandra, it was a soft hour, not a hard hour. Dana’s good, she’ll have you ready to go if we give her enough time. She may even have their IT guy wrangled into place by the time they get back, though that could take a cattle prod. You didn’t bring one from the suburbs did you?”

“An IT guy?”

“Cattle prod.”

“We don’t have cattle, Parker.”

“You don’t?” Parker asked with mock surprise. “I thought cattle were required in the suburbs?”

One hour and nineteen minutes later, Sandra urged Parker back to the office, up the elevator, where she saw half the office desks were filled with people hunched over laptops, mostly males in their early twenties. She saw a room full of people wearing t-shirts and jeans. No suits.

Dana walked over. She smiled at Sandra, extending her hand, “You must be Sandra Michaels, our new Customer Service Manager?”

Sandra forced a laugh and shook her hand. “Yes,” Sandra responded, “yes, I am.”

“Welcome, we’ve been expecting you! Have a seat and I’ll bring over your paperwork. I have you set up with our IT guy in an hour to get your laptop, and your desk will be ready about then as well. We have an all hands meeting this afternoon at 2pm where we’ll introduce you to the team.”

Relief softened the hard edges of Sandra’s breathing, “Thanks Dana, I’m happy to be here.”

Next: Chapters 22–24

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