Previously on Finding Anna: Anna celebrates Thanksgiving with her parents and friends, and finds out her mother has cancer.
Does Anna win a scholarship from GoTeachGo?Click To Reveal Results
“The committee decided to award you a scholarship,” Mr. Darnell says with a goofy, wide smile that makes the top of his bald head wrinkle. “Congratulations!”
My jaw drops. “What? I . . . I got a scholarship?”
The words echo in the air once I release them, and I enjoy the sound they leave behind.
“You got one of the scholarships, yes. I told you that you had an impressive resume. Anyway, they decided to give you the free trip abroad through GoTeachGo. I believe it’s an African one? Anyway, you’ll need to agree to do some promotional stuff for them, and maybe a video journal or something. We’ll go over the details later.”
A wave of weakness moves through my body, so I reach over and hold onto the wall. My body slumps into it with a mixture of emotions. Did he say Africa? He could have said anywhere: Costa Rica, Mexico, Uganda, and I wouldn’t have cared.
He’d just given me freedom.
My excitement quickly faded into despair when I remember my mother. How could I leave at a time like this?
“Thank you, Mr. Darnell,” I said, realizing he was waiting for me to speak. “I . . . I can’t tell you what that means.”
His eyes narrowed. “You don’t sound very excited.”
“Oh, I am. There’s no way you could understand how happy this makes me. I’m very excited. It’s just that . . .” I swallow the heavy lump stuck in my throat. “I’m not sure I can accept.”
The words stick in my throat, caught with the web of emotions that I can’t seem to get rid of ever since Ma’s unexpected declaration. The tangled feelings just sit there, heavy and hot, unable to get free.
“Ma has cancer,” comes the whisper from my own lips. It’s the first time I’ve said it out loud, and somehow it makes it more real. “She’s just started chemotherapy and my family doesn’t have any money.”
Mr. Darnell’s face softens. “Oh, Anna. I’m so sorry.”
“I just found out at Thanksgiving,” I continue, still fighting the discordant emotions in my chest. “I had no idea she wasn’t feeling well. I don’t even know her odds of survival.”
“What kind of cancer?”
He winces, and I know why. I’ve spent the last couple of nights researching pancreatic cancer, the monster that brought down Patrick Swayze and Joan Crawford. Ugly, and fast, it often consumed patients before they could even comprehend their fate. While the reality frightened me, knowing the truth made me feel calmer. An unknown foe was scarier than the truth.
“I’m sorry,” Mr. Darnell says. “That’s . . . horrible.”
“I need to stay and help Pop earn money,” I say, and I can tell that I’m rambling because my words slur together, but I can’t get them to stop. “We’ve always been kind of poor, but Ma has brought in the most money through the tailoring shop. I don’t know a lot about sewing but I could probably keep things going while she’s recovering and—“
He reaches over and puts a large, paw-like hand on my arm, stopping my frantic words. To my surprise, the weight is reassuring. “It’s okay, Anna,” he says. “Everything’s going to settle down.”
Even though he has no way of knowing Ma’s future, the compassion and authority in his voice calms me. He doesn’t make the mistake of promising me that things will be all right, but his belief helps the hot knot retreat to explode another day.
“Thanks,” I say. “I appreciate that.”
He studies me for another moment. “Keep me updated, and let me know whatever you need. Your schedule can be flexible if we need it to be, okay? In the meantime, let’s at least look over the scholarship information. Talk to your parents and give me your final decision in a week.”
The parking lot to the mall is packed with cars the next day.
“Christmas already?” I ask, glancing at the glowing strands of Christmas lights strung around a small forest of fresh grown trees. A sign declaring Christmas Trees for Sale flaps in a light wind. “We just finished Thanksgiving.”
Sophie claps her hands together and twirls on the spot, which makes her bright red skirt flutter out around her knees and thighs. She sparkles like a twirling snowflake, and I’m insanely jealous of her boundless, charming innocence.
“I just love Christmas,” she declares, reaching out to touch the falling snow with an open palm. Little pricks of water form on her palm. When she turns her face to the churning gray sky, flecks of white dot her lashes like miniscule confetti. Taken with her cream coat and her white flats, she’s a winter wonderland of her own.
“Don’t you love Christmas?” she asks, turning to face me with rosy cheeks. “It’s definitely the happiest time of the year.”
“Uh, sure,” I say. “It’s great.”
She shoots me a skeptical look. “I don’t believe you.”
Christmas had never been a very grand occasion at our house. Pop drank egg nog watching Christmas movies while Ma bustled around wearing tinsel as a bracelet, happily decorating our sad little half-tree. Every year she tucked a car scent tree near the trunk to make it smell like real evergreen. Except for homemade paper chains strung along the walls and the same tired old door wreath that Pop hauled out of the attic every year, Christmas was usually bland and ritualistic.
Although Ma went out of her way every year to decorate and spread the Christmas spirit, I’d always dreamed of cuddling up into a wintry cabin with snow piled as high as my waist and frost on the windowpanes. I slip into a daydream of skiing in Vermont and sidling up to hot chocolate afterwards until Sophie snaps her fingers in front of my face.
“Earth to Anna?”
“It’s just . . .” I hesitate, glancing aside at her. Sophie says so little about her family that I’m afraid to be totally honest about mine. Her eyes widen, and I blurt out the rest before I lose my courage. “My family is so boring.”
She snorts. “Boring? Your dad spent half of Thanksgiving day yelling at the television. Your mom cooked more food than the Salvation Army, and she guessed my correct dress size just by looking at me. Your family is anything but boring.”
I can’t believe what I’m hearing. “They’re crazy.”
“They’re as normal as any other family,” she says, stopping to let a car drive past us, tires hissing through the slush. “Aren’t all parents embarrassing to their kids?”
“Are yours?” I ask.
Her face falls slightly and her smile becomes wooden, as if she has to force it. “Of course. Ooh! Look! I love this store!”
She dashes into the mall, ducking through the doors before they close behind an older couple. By the time I catch up with her, a sales associate is already turning Sophie onto an outfit, and I know I’ve lost the opportunity to ask her more. I slip in between a rack of cocktail dresses with a sigh.
“We’re here to cheer you up!” Sophie says, plucking a dress shirt off a rack and throwing it over her arm. She’s already garnered eight other ensembles, and I wonder how she’s so fast.
“Excuse me,” a thin, middle aged woman says to Sophie. “Do you carry flannel pajama pants here?”
Sophie laughs. “Oh, I don’t work here.”
The woman eyes the tower of clothes over Sophie’s arms. “Oh, sorry,” she says, backing away with a sheepish smile.
“That happens all the time,” Sophie chirps, continuing on her way. She tosses a scarf into the growing mound. “Anyway, let’s find you a new outfit, Anna. I promised your mother I’d pick out something for you for Christmas. Something nice. Maybe something you could wear on a date? With Chase?”
“Chase? What do you mean?”
She rolls her eyes. “C’mon, Anna. You’re a smart girl. Surely you’ve seen the way Chase looks at you. He’s definitely crushing.”
Christmas—or the uncertainty of Chase’s relationship toward me—is the last thing I want to focus on. All the holiday cheer makes it difficult to be depressed, and depression requires less energy. Then I think about Ma and it comes back in living color.
“Look! What about that outfit over there?” Sophie asks.
I turn, and to my surprise, find a simple skirt and top combo that I like. “Oh,” I say, stopping. “That’s not bad.”
Sophie shoves a bright red shirt at me. “Try this, too,” she says. “I need to figure out your color wheel or this entire trip will have been wasted. Go on, already. Claim a good dressing room. We’ll be in there for awhile.”
I emerge from the close little dressing room an hour later, exhausted but exultant. Sophie’s eyebrows lift and her eyes light up.
“Anna!” she cries, “that’s it! That’s the outfit!”
Sophie has dressed me in a long sleeved, sapphire blue dress that falls just above my knees and flows in soft, fitted perfection. A pair of tight black leggings hug my legs, and black boots complete the ensemble. It’s two sizes smaller than I used to wear, and makes me feel like a thousand bucks. Sophie bustles over, eyes glowing, and uses clips to pin my hair away from my face.
“Just lovely!” she says, clapping. “Oh, I love fashion. Blue is definitely in your color wheel. Look what it does to your eyes!”
I spin around, facing the wall of bent mirrors that reflect every angle of the new dress. It’s perfection. It’s confidence. Despite the gloom of my mother’s news, this dress makes me feel beautiful. My hands snag on something inside the sleeve, and I pull out a small white price tag.
“Whoa!” I cry, releasing it. I stare at Sophie in horror. “Sophie, this dress! It’s . . . it’s too much.”
She waves a hand through the air. “Are you kidding? You are too much in this dress. Anna, you have to buy it. It’s practically made just for you.”
“No,” I say, backing away. I close my eyes. Why had I even tried it on? I should have checked! “We cannot afford this dress. Not with Ma’s chemo and all the bills. . . I won’t get it!”
Tears scald my eyes when I’m in the dressing room again, peeling the perfect dress off as if the fabric were on fire. When I return, my comfortable old jeans, sneakers, and sweater back in place, I can’t bring myself to look Sophie in the eye.
“Let’s go,” I say, whispering. “Let’s just go.”
Sophie storms past me into the dressing room, emerges with the fabulous dress, leggings, and boots in her arms, and tosses them at the clerk. “Ring ‘em up!” she says. I step forward to protest, furious that she’ll make this more difficult, when she pulls out a plastic credit card. She smiles at me. “This outfit’s on me.”
“You can’t possibly!” I say, watching helplessly as the clerk scans each barcode. “Sophie, they’re going to cost more than two hundred dollars all together. I—”
“Two hundred fourteen dollars and twelve cents,” the clerk says, eyeing both of us. My eyes bug out. Sophie swipes the card.
“Worth every penny.”
“Trust me, Anna,” she says, slipping the card back into her purse. “I have plenty of money to cover it. Just promise me one thing.”
I hesitate. “I can’t let you—”
“Promise me,” she insists, and her jaw tightens with a current of steel I’ve never seen in her before.
Her eyes are both sad and firm. “Never ask me about it, okay? I don’t like talking about money.”
“Say you promise.”
“I promise I’ll never ask you about your money.”
She relaxes as the clerk hands over a receipt to sign. All vestiges of her stubbornness slide into the usual, easygoing Sophie I’ve always known. “Fabulous. Now it’s time for a drink. Let’s go buy a slurpee.”
I walk into Buchanan’s Tailor and Trim later that week to find Ma sitting behind her favorite sewing machine, a long black dress in her hands. A needle sticks out from between her front teeth with a black thread streams from it. The place smells like old cotton and reminds me of a fabric store. It’s more modern than our house, but not by much, wedged in between a florist and a hair salon downtown.
Ma looks up from her work. “Hello, dear daughter,” she calls. She’s a moving puzzle these days. Even Pop is acting different. The day before, I’d caught him doing the dishes. He’d thrown a soggy dishcloth when he saw me peering around the corner and told me to take his secret to the grave.
“What do I owe the pleasure?” she asks.
My stomach rattles just thinking about why I had come, so I fidget with the end of my jacket. Although Mr. Darnell asks me daily if I’d discussed the scholarship with Ma, I still didn’t have the guts to bring it up to her. I sit on a chair at the end of her sewing area with a sigh.
“I just came to talk with you about a few things,” I say.
She studies me, then uses her teeth to break a thread. “Things?”
Her eyes travel to my pants. “You need to alter your clothes, Anna, now that you’ve lost so much weight. I know you can do it. I taught you when you were a little girl.”
Ma was right. I could do it. But I didn’t want to. For the first time in days, I look right into her eyes. There’s a jumble of emotions moving through them, like peering into a kaleidoscope. Fear, uncertainty, and despite her sadness and need for control, I can see how much she cares about me.
“I need to talk to you about school, Ma,” I say quietly. To my surprise, she sets down the dress and gives me her full attention.
I swallow back the lump in my throat. “I’m dropping out.”
She doesn’t show any visible reaction at first, which means I’ve taken her by surprise. She leans her elbows on the table. “You’re what?”
“I’ve been thinking about it all week,” I say, scooting to the edge of the seat. “It’s the right thing to do. I can help work full time, maybe even two jobs, to help you and Pop stay afloat and pay the medical bills. I’ll move home to help take care of you and take over the shop.”
My eyes drift around the walls, the racks of finished clothes in plastic bags, the piles awaiting attention. It’s always been the symbol of a prison, but now I just see a living testament to Ma in all of it.
“You can’t do that, Anna,” she says, her forehead furrowing. “You hate the shop.”
“I don’t hate the shop, Ma,” I say. “I just don’t have a lot of interest in hemming. At least, I didn’t. But now things are different.”
“Because I have cancer?”
My nostrils flare. I hate hearing it spoken in such a conversational tone, as if we were discussing dinner. “Because you need me now, and you didn’t need me this much before.”
She leans back in her chair with a sigh. “You can’t quit college because of me. If you’re going to quit college, fine, you’re an adult. You make your decisions. But you won’t be doing it because of me.”
I stare at her in disbelief. “Ma, you’ve always tried to control my future. Now that I’m giving you what you want, why are you acting like this?”
“I wasn’t trying to control your future,” she says. “I was trying to help. Mothers are strange people, Anna. We need to fix things. We’re really just busy biddies wrapped up in business that isn’t our own. But you’re right: things are different now.”
Her eyes go distant, and I want to know what’s behind them, but I don’t dare ask.
“What does that mean?” I ask.
“It means that I don’t expect you to take over the shop. It’s not what you really want, and I mostly wanted it so we could work together. I don’t want to leave you with a legacy of guilt if I die from this cancer. Which, if you think about it, is most likely.”
I shoot to my feet. “I’m done talking about this.”
“I’ve already made my decision, Ma. I was just here to tell you. I’ll finish out the semester because it’s already paid for, and so is my rent. I’ll be by tomorrow to take you to chemo. I’ll move back in before Christmas.”
“Anna!” she calls after me, but I’m already out the front door and act as if I haven’t heard.
Does Anna quit school to move home or does she stay in school?
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