Previously on Finding Anna: Sophie and Tony break up, Anna meets up with Taysom at Starbucks, invites Chase to Thanksgiving dinner, and has a girls night with Sophie.
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“So, Anna, tell me about yourself.”
My boss, Mr. Darnell, lounges back in his chair, a plush orange basketball in his hand. He tosses it into the air and catches it again. While I don’t understand the appeal of throwing a ball just to catch it yourself, it seems to release some of the tension in his shoulders after a lengthy phone call with Ghana.
“Uh, what would you like to know?” I ask, closing a file drawer with my hip. I’m standing at the receptionist’s deck, a stack of papers in hand. He squints at a ceiling tile before tossing the ball again. His pattern never fails. Throw with the left hand, catch with right, reverse.
“Why did you want to work here?”
“I’d love to teach English in third world countries,” I say, and open another file drawer. The metal creaks as it moves, revealing a neatly organized mass of folders that had just occupied the last hour of my life. “I thought I might as well figure out how offices like this run. Maybe it will give me a foot in the door, kind of thing.”
“Are you learning?”
“Where do you want to go?”
He nods his head to the side, as if to agree with me, and runs his tongue over his teeth, making it look like a small rodent lived underneath. My heart flutters in a dangerous way. There must be a reason he’s asking me these questions, and I hope it has something to do with a permanent job or the GoTeachGo scholarship Taysom mentioned.
“You have an impressive resume,” he says. “I remember looking over it when you applied. Have you really been working since you were twelve?”
“Yeah. Mowing lawns, working at snow shacks, cleaning houses for rich people. You know. Teenager stuff.”
His eyes narrow. “What is it you’re working so hard for?”
“To travel. To work for companies like GoTeachGo. My parents don’t have a lot of money to spare. I’ll never see the world if I wait for them to pay for it.”
He tosses the ball one last time. It lands with a soft plop on his briefcase, scattering several papers to the floor. He straightens and leans his elbows onto the desk, giving me the full power of his stare.
“Have you heard about our company scholarship?”
My heart quickens, but I force myself to keep cool. “Yeah, Taysom mentioned something about that.”
“It’s a pretty good size.”
I swallow the lump in my throat. “How many people usually apply?”
He shrugs and leans back again, rocking the seat back and forth slightly. “Oh, I don’t know. A couple hundred. There are different levels of scholarship, though. Some of them pay for a trip abroad with GoTeachGo. Some pay for college, some for books. It really comes down to your essay, I think, amongst other things. Like your resume.”
A couple hundred? The odds could be worse. While I’d gone up against worse chances when applying for scholarships during my senior year of high school, I couldn’t help but feel like this scholarship trumps all others.
“Can I apply even though I just started working here?”
“Oh, sure. No problem.” Mr. Darnell’s forehead creases into deep lines. “The paperwork is in the drawer of your desk if you want to take a packet and fill it out. The final deadline is coming up in three days. Thought I’d mention it. The committee meets next Monday evening after Thanksgiving.”
“Oh. So soon?”
“Think you can have it finished?”
I’ll stay up all night. Swim every ocean. Climb the nearest mountain.
“Yeah, no problem.”
His phone chimes and he stares at it with an intensity that suggests he’s expecting something to crawl out of it, but he doesn’t pick it up. He sits there, waiting. A full minute into his staring contest later, the phone rings. He grabs it before the first little chime ends with a chipper, “This is Darnell.”
Once he’s fully occupied with that conversation, I turn my back to him, my heart pounding. Getting that scholarship would save me so much time. It would get me out of town. It would prove to Ma that my dreams weren’t just dreams, that I could have a life outside the tailor shop.
No matter what happened, I had to win that scholarship.
“It’s nice to see you some place other than holed up in our room,” Sophie remarks a few days later. “You’ve been working on that stupid essay non stop. Did you turn it in?”
“Yes,” I say with a relieved sigh. “It’s done.”
Chase claps a warm hand on my shoulder. “And it’s extremely well written. She let me read through it.”
Sophie beams. “I know. She had me proof it for errors.”
It’s cold as we walk up the path leading to the front door of my parent’s house in the late morning of a chilly Thanksgiving day. Clouds rolled through the sky, leaving a gray carpet to block out the sun. Our breath fogs out in front of us, leaving white puffs of smoke for us to walk through. Chase is walking on my left side, looking handsome in a casual pair of jeans and a long sleeve shirt. Natural yellow highlights illuminate part of his red hair, which shines in the low light. The sound of Pop yelling rings through the yard before we even ascend the stairs. I stop at the door, spreading my arms to block either of them from going through.
“One warning,” I say, eyeing both of them. “Pop—”
“Doesn’t like to wear pants, yeah, we know,” Sophie says with a sweet smile meant to reassure me. “You’ve only told us like twenty times. I’ll bet your Mom makes sure he does. He was wearing them when we came over a few days ago.”
Her point doesn’t reassure me. Pop says holidays are the time to let go and having people in my own house won’t change what I want to do.
“Oh he’ll start the day wearing pants,” I mutter, my voice low. “It’s keeping them zipped and buttoned that’s the problem half the time.”
One step into the house douses us with the heady scent of turkey, stuffing, and cornbread. The sound of a football game blasts from the living room. Despite the pit in my stomach telling me I shouldn’t have invited my friends over for several consecutive hours in the company of my parents, home is still home, and I’m excited for food and tradition. There’s comfort in routine, even when it involves Ma waving a spatula and Pop throwing empty soda cans at the television.
“Ma?” I call, closing the door. “We’re here.”
She appears out of the kitchen with a warm smile, but ducks her head into the living room to hiss, “Zip your pants up!” to Pop. Her subtle attempt at being quiet is lost, but Sophie just shoots me a secret smile, while Chase studies a nearby painting of a daisy. I love them and their discretion already.
“Sophie!” Ma cries, her flabby arms spread wide. “I’m so happy to see you again!”
They reunite like two friends that have been apart for ages. Flour freckles Ma’s apron and arms. When she embraces me in her familiar hug, I smell cloves and cinnamon.
“I’m always happy to see you too, Anna, dear,” she says with a gentle pat on my shoulder. Her eyes are drawn as if she’d been up all night baking her famous pies, and I can’t help but notice that her shirt is looser through the shoulders than I remembered. Before I can ask if she’s feeling well, her shrewd gaze drifts to Chase, whom she openly appraises with little shame. Heat floods my cheeks, and I hope he doesn’t notice.
“Ma, this is my friend Chase.” I send her a warning glare that I know he can’t see. “The one that worked with me at the deli counter.”
She ignores me, although I know she’s received the hidden message, and smiles. “Chase!” she calls, extending her hand. Her fingernails are painted red hot cinnamon, her favorite color. “Thank you so much for coming to our home for Thanksgiving.”
Pop shouts at a commercial break, and Ma’s smile becomes a little rigid. “Please forgive my husband,” she says. “We don’t get much company.”
“I’m grateful to come, Mrs. Buchanan,” Chase says as he shakes her hand. “Thank you so much for having me. It smells delicious.”
Ma beams. There’s nothing she loves better than a crowd. “Come on in,” she says, waving an arm. “I just set out the appetizers. Anna will show you where they are. Just help yourself.”
“Be warned,” I say, wandering down the hall toward the kitchen. “You’re never going to make it out of here alive. The food is just too good. Hey, Pop.”
He waves, but doesn’t peel his eyes away from the television screen.
“And there’s plenty of food,” Ma calls after us. “I always make enough for a week of leftovers.”
“It’s her life's pursuit to find as many people as she can and stuff them like Thanksgiving turkeys,” I explain as we enter the kitchen. “So gobble your way into her heart.”
“Whoa,” Sophie says, rearing back. “Mrs. Buchanan, you’ve really outdone yourself.”
Dishes clutter nearly every inch of counter space. A copper pot simmers on the stovetop, emitting clouds of steam. The outline of a turkey sits in the oven, which keeps the kitchen stuffy warm. I pop a green grape in my mouth from a tray of fruit on the small side table. A bag of potatoes sits in the sink, some of them peeled, no doubt just waiting to turn into creamy mashed potatoes. My stomach turns on with so many appetizing smells, and I’m ready to eat.
“Looks great, Ma,” I say.
She smiles with a little upturn of her lips, but it doesn’t quite reach her eyes. “I know,” she says, grabs a spoon, and turns her attention to the bubbling brew that smells like broth.
I watch her closely. Something’s amiss.
Chase’s eyes go wide. “I’ll be more than happy to help you eat all this, Mrs. Buchanan. You can count on me.”
Our 1970’s décor extends to the kitchen, where the cupboard doors are bright orange, and the linoleum so old it’s curling up in the corners despite Pop’s many attempts to superglue or nail it down over the years. Although it’s not perfect—or even up to date—it’s home, and even I can appreciate all Ma’s hard work.
“Give me twenty minutes,” Ma says. “And it’ll be ready. I’m just finishing the taters.”
Sophie, Chase, and I make ourselves busy helping with the finishing touches. Chase sets the table, Sophie helps finish the mashed potatoes, and I fetch extra chairs from the basement.
“Clive!” Ma yells, startling Sophie at the sink, as she unties her apron. “It’s time for dinner!”
Pop joins us in the kitchen—pants zipped up, thankfully. Ma waves us around the table with a bright orange napkin, barking a seating arrangement that puts me across from Chase. No accident, I’m certain.
Ma reaches her loose arms out. “Let’s say grace, then Clive can carve the turkey and we can dig in.”
Pop settles into the chair, his bushy mustache twitching, but balks no protest at Ma’s request for grace the way he usually does. Odd. He’s always hated prayer, though he puts up with Ma’s seasonal request for grace during the holidays. He takes her hand and mine, and when I reach across the table and slide my fingers in Chase’s palm, my skin lights up with a thousand little stings of electricity. I keep my eyes on the neon orange napkin filling my plate, folded in the form of an origami turkey.
“Dear Lord,” Ma starts, as if we were a family that prays more than twice a year. “We thank you for this food, for our home, and for all the many blessings we have. Amen.”
Hidden underneath Ma’s simple prayer is an undercurrent of emotion. Her voice quivers for half a second, long enough for me to notice, but short enough no one else does. When she let’s go of Papa and Sophie’s hands, a little tear sparkles at the edge of her right eye. With a blink, it’s gone.
“Here,” Ma says, shoving a long knife at Pop. “Get to work.”
Sophie and I start passing food trays while Pop carves us pieces of turkey, and the room fills with a warm chatter. Sophie is positively beaming, her cheeks flushed and smile wide, as if she wasn’t experiencing any heartbreak over Tony at all. I pass the cranberries while Chase asks Ma about her gravy recipe, and Sophie tosses me a roll.
“You need to eat more than that,” Ma tells me as she scrapes a load of dressing onto my plate. “You’re getting too skinny. What do you wear now, a size eight?”
While my pants are noticeably baggy, I’d been working so hard on the scholarship essay that I’d forgot to weigh myself. Working every morning so early has sped my dieting prospects along nicely.
“Ma,” I mutter under my breath, motioning with a subtle tilt of my head toward my friends. “Later.”
Ma rolls her eyes. “It’s no secret, you know. You’re losing weight. So what? Who cares? Anyone here care? You care, Chase?”
Sophie purses her lips as if she’s trying to hold back a laugh. Chase’s lips twitch as he shakes his head.
“See?” Ma asks, flipping a hand. “No one cares. Eat your stuffing.”
A booming cheer comes from the living room, and Pop is off his chair and away from the table in seconds. He doesn’t leave the kitchen, but stands in the doorway.
“Come on!” he cries, throwing his hands in the air. “Keep the d—”
“Clive!” Ma snaps. “No swear words on a holiday, you know that. Now come back to the table so we can eat like every other happy family in America!”
Pop’s nostrils are flaring when he returns, but he dutifully returns to his seat without complaint. Another first. He picks up his fork and attacks his overflowing plate with new zeal.
“So,” Ma says, spearing a piece of turkey and glancing my way. “Do you want to take your little friends down to the tailoring shop and show them around?” She leans over to nudge Sophie in the arm. “Anna’s going to take over the family business, you know.”
Sophie smiles, but sends me a furtive look when Ma’s attention redirects to asking Pop to pass the gravy boat. Chase sends me a question with his eyes.
“Uh, no thanks, Ma. I think we’ll just head back to campus after dinner,” I say, tearing my roll in half.
“What?” Ma cries. “You’re not going to stay for a movie and pie?”
“We must stay for pie,” Sophie insists. “It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without it.”
“Agreed. I brought a pumpkin pie made from my own recipe. I left it in the car,” Chase says as an aside to Ma. “I figured it would keep well in the cold.”
“His own recipe,” Ma says, poking her fork toward him as if I hadn’t heard. “Cool your jets, Anna. We have things to do today, don’t we? Let’s spend time together as a family.”
My friends nod, as if she’s the reason they’ve come together. I force a long breath through my nose and imagine myself on a beach in Bermuda. Before the daydream materializes with enough strength to really take me away, Ma is bursting my bubble again.
“I don’t know if she’s told you, Chase, but Anna’s going to major in business,” Ma says, clearly oblivious to the fist clenched so tight around my knife my knuckles have turned white. “Aren’t you, Anna Banana?”
The sound of my childhood nickname feels like a cheese grater across my skin. Sophie’s lips tilt in amusement until she catches a glimpse of my face, and she quickly ducks her head down to study her yams.
“I haven’t declared yet, Ma,” I say through clenched teeth. Chase is watching me from the corner of his eye, but says nothing. Ma’s oblivious to the tension in the room.
“Anna’s very sensible, you see,” Ma continues in a conversational way. Her eyes flicker to mine, and there’s a definite note of steel in her gaze. “She’ll make a wonderful seamstress. I started Buchanan’s Tailor and Trim when I was a year younger than her. Clive and I were just married and we needed a way to pay for rent.” She looks to Pop, and her eyes go distant. When she returns back to the present with a shake of her head, her lips seem a bit tight and thin. “Anyway, Anna’s going to keep it going. It’s been our life work.”
“Ma, can we—”
“Although I haven’t taught her to use some of the machines yet.”
“Ma, this is hardly—”
Ma’s voice rises a pitch to drown me out. “She’ll be very happy working there, I think, and living at home with her father and I. We so love having our only child around.”
I slam my fork onto the table. “Enough!” I cry. “What has gotten into you?”
Pop stops chewing to stare at me through his haggard eyebrows. Ma sets down her spoon and regards me with unequivocal surprise.
“Why, Anna! What’s the huff about today?”
“I don’t want to talk about the tailor shop, Ma. I don’t want to talk about majoring in business. You know I don’t want to do either of those things. Can we save this for a time when my friends aren’t here to enjoy themselves?”
Ma pales, a sure sign of anger. Pop reaches over and puts a hand over hers as if to say keep cool, which only makes me more livid.
“Anna,” she says in a controlled tone, though she sounds a bit breathless. “You know how much this means to us. I simply couldn’t handle the thought of the tailor shop going to a stranger. You live in a world of dreams, Anna. I’m trying to help you see reality. You’re lucky we have a plan for you. Most parents don’t give their children such an advantage.”
“They aren’t dreams, Ma!”
Ma slams both hands onto the table, making the silverware and dishes rattle. “They are dreams! They aren’t real, Anna. Reality is a mortgage and car payments and children and doctor bills—”
She breaks off, turns her head, and presses a fist to her mouth. All the anger inside me dies away, shriveling like a burning piece of paper. My mouth is as dry as sandpaper.
“Doctor bills?” I whisper. “What do you mean?”
Ma and Pop exchange a look. “Don’t worry about it,” Pop says, sending me a stern glare.
“Of course I’m going to worry about it.”
Ma is attempting to compose herself by smoothing her napkin over her lap again and again. The feeling of a heavy stone drops into my stomach, making me sick.
“Ma?” I whisper. Her swimming eyes meet mine. Sophie, Chase, and Pop fade away, leaving me in a tunnel where all I can see is Ma’s tired face. “What’s going on?”
“I didn’t want to do this today.”
She stares at me, paler than ever. “I’m sick, Anna,” she says quietly.
“W-what does that mean?”
Ma swallows. “It’s cancer.”
The word echoes in my head, bouncing over and over and over again. It’s cancer. It’s cancer. It’s cancer. I lean back in my chair, breathless and weak.
“Where?” I ask. “What . . . what kind?”
“Pancreas. We found out about it last week. I hadn’t been feeling well and . . .” She trails off, looking out the window, where snow has begun to accumulate on the windowsill. “We’re going to start treatment Monday.”
“So there’s hope?” I ask, reaching for something concrete before it all slips away like the roll of the tide. “You’re not . . .”
“Yes, of course,” she says, but doesn’t meet my eyes, “there’s always hope.”
But her tone doesn’t reassure me. The tunnel slips away and I realize that Sophie is sitting on my chair with me, her arm around my shoulder. Pop has set his fork down and is staring at his plate.
“Mrs. Buchanan,” Sophie whispers, breaking the strained silence, “please let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.”
Ma gives her a warm, sincere smile, helping some of the darkness to fade. “Of course, Sophie, dear. Thank you so much. If you’ll excuse me for a moment, I’m just going to clean up. When I get back, this nonsense is over! We’re going to celebrate Thanksgiving as a family and that’s that!”
Later that night, the sound of Sophie playing a quiet lament on her violin bleeds through the crack at the bottom of the door. It’s hauntingly beautiful, a perfect testament to the wails of my heart. I’m lying in bed, tears soaking into my hairline. There are so many questions running through my head, I can barely keep up. How will we pay for cancer treatments? Will Ma make it? What would Pop do without Ma? What would I do without Ma?
A gentle knock on the door startles me from my thoughts, and I realized the beautiful violin music has stopped. A ray of light spills onto the floor when Sophie peers inside.
“You all right?”
I wipe the tears off my face with the back of my wrist. She’s been in the music room for hours, playing non stop, giving me space. “Yeah. I’m fine. You can come in.”
She closes the door behind her and sits on the edge of her bed. I can barely make out her rumpled form in the darkness. “I’m so sorry, Anna. It’s . . . it’s awful hearing news like that.”
Despite the hour of tears already behind me, more well up to replace them.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
It’s all I want to talk about, but I don’t want to even acknowledge it at the same time.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I don’t . . . I don’t know what I want.”
She shifts, and for a moment we sit in the silence together.
“No matter what happens, you know I’m here for you, right?” she asks, and I can’t block out the haunted tone in her voice. “Not just until the end of next semester. Forever.”
Despite the painful swelling of my heart, it beats a little easier.
“Thanks, Sophie,” I say. “That means a lot.”
Mr. Darnell is sitting at the receptionist’s desk when I wander into work the next week, still feeling sluggish—despite several naps—from all the leftover turkey and time at home while Ma starts her treatments. A cardboard box is sitting on my keyboard, taking up most of the free desk space. He’s staring at it with a tired expression. When he leans back in the chair, I can see his eyes are bloodshot and red.
He shakes his head. “Too much turkey. Way too much turkey.”
I set my bag underneath the desk and motion to the box with a nod. Mr. Darnell and I have fallen into a comfortable sort of back-and-forth now that I’ve been working there for a couple of weeks. He nudges it closer to me.
“Christmas decorations,” he says. “Thought we could spruce things up a bit around here. It’s quite drab.”
With the current state of affairs with Ma, I like drab. It echoes my own mood. “But we just finished Thanksgiving.”
He glowers at me, making his bald head wrinkle. “Hey, Scrooge, show a little spirit. I don’t get into much, but I do like Christmas.”
I hold up my hands in a gesture of surrender. “All right, all right. I’ll put your twinkle lights up.”
“Soon. We have a teleconference with China, and I want you taking notes. I’m trying to work out some accommodation details for the new group we’re sending over in February.”
My heart clenches with a shot of jealousy. What will happen to my dreams now? Ma won’t be able to work soon, which means my help providing income will be needed. I push the thoughts aside, knowing that when that day came, I wouldn’t be able to keep my internship, which meant I would lose my scholarship. My resolve to pull my application for the GoTeachGo scholarship surfaces again. It wouldn’t be fair to take it.
“Sure,” I say, sorting through a stack of letters set on top of the copier. “I’ll get right on it. I need to talk to you about something. Maybe after the call with China?”
“Uh, sure.” He makes a sound in the back of his throat that I can’t interpret. “So, Anna. The scholarship board met last night.”
I pause, my hand halfway to the desk. He’s half smiling, half grimacing when I look up.
“Oh?” I ask, feeling my insides quake.
He pulls in a deep breath. “Yeah, and I have some news for you.”
Does Anna win a scholarship from GoTeachGo?
If there's a book you really want to read but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.