Previously on Finding Anna: Anna receives a GoTeachGo scholarship to teach in Africa, Sophie buys her a new outfit, and Anna informs Ma that she’s dropping out of college to help pay medical bills.
Does Anna quit school to move home or does she stay in school?Click To Reveal Results
“Anna, we need to talk.”
I stop scrubbing the casserole dish left from dinner and peer over my shoulder. Pop is standing in the doorway, one eyebrow raised. Suds from the foamy water drip off my hand when I turn around, reaching for a towel. He throws one at me, and I catch it mid air.
He motions to the table, and my curiosity increases. It’s been awhile since Pop and I have sat down to have a heart-to-heart, as Ma would call it. It’s not that he wasn’t interested in me or my life, but we didn’t have much in common. He’d always been the stoic, loving-from-a-distance kind of man, something that worked out well when I was constantly meandering through my daydreams. He leans back in the chair, and I’m suddenly struck by how old he looks. He opens his mouth, closes it, and opens it again.
“You can’t quit school,” he says.
He holds up a hand in a silent command which I obey. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt like a little girl in his presence, and I’m surprised to find that it’s reassuring. Despite Pop’s imperfections, he’s a good man, and I can see the strain in his eyes. Losing Ma would be, for both of us, like suddenly losing gravity.
“Listen to me before you try to make any argument,” he says, putting one hand on the table. “You are not quitting school.”
He pauses to see if I protest, but I’m holding my breath. Of course I didn’t want to quit college. Flowing down the drain of leaving college was a dangerous path. While I trusted myself to have enough motivation to eventually get back to it, I couldn’t know for sure. Life threw too many curveballs to plan on anything concrete.
“Your Ma and I have been talking about our situation and discussing our options. We have some rainy day savings that we can fall back on to help get your Ma through this time. Our insurance will cover everything but the deductible.”
He stops to take in a heavy breath, looking as if he’s carrying the world on his shoulders.
“But Ma won’t be able to work every day,” I say. “The tailoring shop will—”
He’s staring me down with that intense, hawk-like expression that makes me feel pegged to the chair. I hadn’t expected this from Pop, and I’m a little uncertain on what to say.
“Pop,” I say, “I want to help.”
“You can help us by staying in college.” He folds his arms across his chest. “We can’t help you, of course. You’ll have to pay for everything from this moment forward, but you can do it. You always seem to find a way.”
His confidence in me is sweet, but I don’t want a sappy father experience. “I’m part of this family,” I say. “You have to let me help.”
“Then help. Do what you’ve already been doing.” He nods to the dishes. “Come over and clean so your Ma doesn’t have to. Go to the store. Come check on her. I’m picking up double shifts at work for the next couple of weeks so she won’t have much company around.” His eyebrows furrow. “Bring that roommate of yours over. Your Ma loves her.”
I crack a slight smile, and it eases some of the tension in his shoulders. “Sophie,” I say. “Her name is Sophie.”
“Whoever. I need your help, Anna, not your money.”
He waves a hand at me and growls. “Stop. I’m the father. I will provide for this family. Do you understand?”
I stare at him in surprise. Pop and I haven’t always been close, and Ma and Pop haven’t always had a perfect relationship, but I realize that I’ve grossly underappreciated him. Something this big has never happened to our family before, so I’ve never had the chance to see him under pressure. I see him with new eyes.
“I understand,” I whisper.
He leans forward and props his elbows on the counter. His look is so intent that everything else fades away, and it’s just me and Pop, in a way that’s never happened before.
“You aren’t giving up on all those dreams you’ve always carried around. If we have to, we’ll sell the tailor shop. Your Mom has talked to some friends who are going to help keep it running a few hours every day, and most of the regular customers she’s spoken with understand. She’ll do the work from home. You can help with that too. We’re going to be fine, Anna.”
He clears his throat, just a touch of huskiness lingering in his voice. I blink away the tears collecting on the rim of my eyelid, unable to get rid of the suspicious feeling that his we is speaking to only me and him.
“Thanks, Pop,” I say with a smile. “I appreciate it.”
He nods, business concluded, and stands up.
“I’m going to bed,” he says. “I have an early shift in the morning.”
The scent of Old Spice follows him into the darkened hallway. He turns into the spare bedroom where he’s sleeping so he doesn’t disturb Ma and leaves me alone with my thoughts. I stare at the table top and let out a big sigh, surprised to feel relief instead of the heaviness of fear.
Snow is falling hard and fast the next night when I return home from a shift at GoTeachGo. The snow falls almost as wet as rain, leaving puddles of slush everywhere. I shiver when a chilly wind blows the cold right through my bones.
“Sophie?” I call, stepping inside.
I pull off my gloves and toss them onto the kitchen table to dry out. The sweet strains of a violin melody are humming through the walls. Sophie had been playing when I left for class over eight hours before, but it didn’t seem possible she was still playing now. I knock softly on her door. The music doesn’t stop.
She doesn’t answer, so I leave her to her musical reverie. Ten minutes later, the music stops. The shuffle of her brightly colored monster slippers follow her into the kitchen, and I turn around to find an unexpected sight. Except for her slippers, Sophie is wearing all black, from a long sleeve shirt to black tights to a fluffy black skirt that sticks out like a tutu. She looks like a ballerina with her slender form. A black bandana wraps around her head, keeping her hair out of her face. I’m used to Sophie wearing strange outfits, so it’s her bloodshot eyes that have me worried. She reaches for a first aid kit in the cupboard over the sink and pulls out a bottle of liquid bandaid. The tips of her slender fingers are blistered. One is cracked and bleeding.
“Are you all right?” I ask quietly, afraid that if I speak too loud, she’ll startle like a deer. She nods once, and does it with such grace that I wonder if she’s really Audrey Hepburn’s child. When she offers nothing more, I ask, “Do you want to talk about it?”
She firmly shakes her head, takes the bottle of liquid bandaids, and disappears into the music room. That night, she doesn’t come to bed.
Later that week, I escape to Starbucks.
The warm smell of coffee and scones makes my mouth water, but because I’m scrimping every dime, I walk past the counter and head for a booth in the back, sitting on the side that puts my back to the store. Getting out of the apartment and heading for a coffee shop makes me feel like I’m living the life of someone in the movies, even though I’m just faking it. I imagine myself wearing a new outfit, with the confidence of a new haircut. Soon, a handsome man will walk up, ask if I’m using the newspaper on the seat across from me. We’ll start to talk about current events and—
The sound of a car horn outside startles me from my reverie. It’s not exactly a dreamy view from where I’m sitting. Beyond the parking lot, I’m staring out at a busy street where cars are throwing slush onto the sidewalks and the lamps cast ugly yellow cones of light on the sidewalk. Although not as grand as Hollywood would make it, the coffee shop is cozy and no one will see me here, which is just what I want. With a sigh of relief, I put some music on, crack open my books, and try to forget how tired I am.
Twenty minutes later, a steaming cup of chai and a raspberry scone is suddenly sitting in front of me. I look up from my textbooks to find Taysom standing there, looking perturbed.
“Oh, hey,” I say, pulling my earbuds out. “I didn’t know you were coming here today.”
Taysom doesn’t smile. “I came looking for you. We have a lot to talk about.”
He flicks the newspaper away and sits down across from me, a red and gold knitted scarf wrapped around his neck. He’s wearing an expensive black coat that makes him look like a male model from a Dillard’s ad, and I can’t help but be impressed at the style of his new haircut. As always, his hair is gelled to perfection.
“Taysom,” I say, “you look great. What’s going on with that new guy you ran into?”
“Stop changing the subject,” he says, though he winks at me to soften the delivery. “I just heard the news. Why didn’t you call me? I can’t believe your mom has cancer. Seriously can’t believe it.” He spreads his hands, palms up, and looks up at the ceiling. “What the hell, universe? Anna has to work as a janitor and now her mother has cancer. Like you haven’t made life hard enough for them?”
“Ah, thanks, Tay,” I say, smiling. I hadn’t realized how much I missed him until he sat in front of me, his eyes wide with sorrow. Taysom had a way of viewing the world so clearly. I envied his sight.
“Sorry I didn’t call,” I say, closing my textbook and clearing my throat. “It’s just . . . it’s been a madhouse getting Ma started on chemo and working with her sewing circle. They’re helping out with the tailor shop. Pop is working extras so he’s never home and . . . anyway . . .”
His lips pull down into a worried frown. He reaches across the table and threads his fingers through mine. “I’m worried about you. You look exhausted. Those bags under your eyes are probably holding twenty pounds of sand. Are you all right?”
Tears fill my eyes. The knot of emotions that had been resting in my chest start to migrate into my throat again, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to hold them back. He’s taken me totally off guard. I hadn’t prepared myself for honesty, just a quick hour or two of homework so I could sleep a little before work at two that morning.
“No,” I whisper, but it comes out as more of a choked sob. “I’m not.”
He slides around the table, sits next to me, and wraps his skinny arm around my shoulders. “Let it out, Anna. Tell the universe that you’re pissed. Sometimes it needs to know how you feel.”
I’m grateful for the privacy of the booth when the tears start to fall, and even more grateful for Taysom’s ranting dialogue at how unfair the whole situation is. He puts my own thoughts into words I would never have found on my own.
“I’m scared, Tay,” I say, wiping tears off my cheek even though they’re quickly replaced. “I’m . . . I’m terrified that the chemotherapy won’t work, or the cancer will spread.”
He keeps a tight arm around me, but doesn’t force me to talk or look at him. I put my face in my hands and let the tears seep through my fingers.
“I’m afraid to live without Ma!”
“Just let it out, girl,” he says, stroking my hair. “Tell the damn universe that it doesn’t know what it’s doing.”
Letting all the pent up emotion out feels good, so I don’t stop. By the time my steam runs out, Taysom has a napkin waiting to mop up my face.
“Good for you, Anna,” he says with resolution. “I’m glad you’re not holding it inside. Not that you could hide it from me anyway, right? I’m way too observant. By the way, do you guys need money?”
His fast shift in conversation startles me. “Wait, what?”
His eyebrows life in an earnest, serious expression. “Is insurance covering the medical bills? We could help out. An interest free loan even, since I know all of you have too much pride to just take the money.”
“Oh, no. Pop says we’re okay.”
He studies me, as if he doesn’t believe it, but finally gives in.
“Okay,” he says, grudgingly. “But you let me know or I’ll just start buying things and sending them to your apartment.”
I laugh, and it feels good.
“So?” he cries, holding his own cappuccino. “Aren’t we going to talk about my new haircut?”
The sweet, husky taste of chai slips down my throat. “Yes,” I say, relieved to have the emotions vented and a best friend on my side. “Let’s talk about your new haircut.”
Later that week, I walk into our bedroom to find Sophie sitting on top of her bed, painting her nails a bright yellow. She’s wearing leg warmers with blue, pink, and purple stripes. A Pat Benatar song is blasting from the music room, and if she’d put her ponytail any higher on her head, it would have hovered over her bangs.
“Sophie,” I say, setting down my backpack, “what are you doing?”
“Channeling the 80s.”
She looks up at me through her dark purple eyelash extensions. Matching eyeshadow fills her eyes all the way to her eyebrows. “Because it’s January tenth.”
I sit down on the edge of my bed. Sophie reaches for a remote and turns down Love is a Battlefield.
“What’s so exciting about January tenth?”
“It’s Pat Benatar’s birthday. Doesn’t everyone know that?”
“Uh, no. I don’t think so.”
“Really?” she asks, straightening. “Well, that’s too bad. She was the only reason I kept my hair dark as a teenager. If she’d been a blonde, I would have bleached my hair. I listened to this song eighty times after Tony broke up with me. We Belong makes me swoon aaaaand I want to look as good as her when I’m older.”
Before I can form a coherent response, a knock sounds at the front door.
“I got it!” Sophie screeches, bounces off her bed, and disappears into the hall before I can move out of her way. “Anna!” she yells moments later. “It’s for you.”
Chase is standing in the doorway, his hands tucked into his front pockets. He smiles when he sees me, and my stomach curls.
“Chase,” I say. “Uh . . . hey. What’s up? Come on inside.”
“Oh, nothing,” he says, stepping in. “I was just in the area and wondered if you were busy? I work at the candy cottage just down the street and tonight is the night I make fudge. It’s just me there, so I thought it might be fun if you wanted to come help.”
Sophie smirks at me as she flounces back to the bedroom, humming Shadows of the Night under her breath.
“Uh, yeah,” I say, glancing at the clock. Two massive textbooks await my attention at the table, but I blithely ignore them. “I’d love it. Let me just get my coat.”
My breath fogs out in front of me as we walk, side by side, down the street. Car tires hiss as they pass, and every now and then a college student passes us wearing a backpack and headphones. I feel awkward and keep my hands tucked in my coat.
“How is your mom doing?” Chase asks, and I’m grateful that he breaks the silence first.
“She’s had her third round of chemo. It makes her so tired, and pretty nauseated, but so far she’s handling it well.”
I watch him closely, not surprised when an expression of empathy crosses his face. If anyone could know how this feels, it’s Chase.
“Chemo,” he says, shaking his head. “What a rough patch.”
“How many times did you have chemo to treat your leukemia?”
He makes a sound like a snort under his breath. “Too many to count, that’s for sure. Look, I’m not going to ask you a lot of questions about your mom because I know how exhausting it can be to think about and live nothing but cancer. Just know that I’m thinking a lot about her—and you—and hoping it turns out for the best.”
I’m so surprised that I don’t know what to say at first. “Thank you,” I manage to spit out. “That’s . . . thank you.”
He smiles in a crooked way that makes my breath catch. “Now, let’s go have some fun with fudge.”
The candy cottage is a regular haunt for many students. It’s small and petite, like a real cottage, and build with old wood and shingles. For being in the middle of a college town, it’s exactly what I’d expect a cottage to look like: sweet, quaint, and brimming full of tempting candy. Every time I pass by it, I can’t help but think of Snow White.
Chase lets me into the back, and I step into a small entry with a massive sink and a tiled floor. He hangs up my coat and gestures me into the back of the store, where the floor turns to polished wood and the smell of sugared almonds assaults me.
“I’d work here just for the smell,” I say, and Chase laughs. He tosses me a white apron and ties one on himself.
“A family friend owns the place. I just work here a few nights a week when they need new fudge made. It’s given me a lot of experience making candy, which can be difficult.”
“That’ll help your culinary degree,” I say. “At the very least, you can put it on your resume.”
He grins. “That’s the hope. Have you ever made fudge?”
I shake my head. “No. Ma does, and I’ve watched, but it always seemed like an intense process.”
He shrugs. “Fudge can be made in the microwave, but the best fudge requires a bit of a process.” He flips a small gadget out of a drawer. “Candy thermometer,” he responds to my unspoken question. “The magic wand of the candy world.”
“Ah,” I say with a smile. “Of course.”
“But first: music.”
He fiddles with a cd player in the corner, and within moments Michael Buble is playing over the speakers throughout the cottage. Snow is falling lightly outside and collecting on the windowsills in a light, fluffy pillow. With the smell of sugar on the air, and barrels full of candy to explore, I can’t help but feel totally enchanted.
“So,” I say, hands out. “What can I do to help?”
He directs me to a pantry, where I dig out massive amounts of ingredients like walnuts, vanilla extract, and a huge container of cocoa. Chase reminds me of an orchestra director, carefully tuning, tweaking, and organizing his audience of ingredients into the perfect symphony of taste. By the time our first batch of fudge has finished, and is cooling in three different cookie sheets, he’s ready for the next round.
“Rocky road is next,” he says, snapping his fingers. “Marshmallows please, assistant.”
We move quickly through each batch of fudge, and whatever had tied my tongue into awkward knots before was gone. The conversation flows loose and easy. We speak about our worst professors while making cookies and cream, his strange family traditions while pouring cherry almond fudge into sheets, and he gives me a lesson on cutting the perfect fudge squares with a very big knife.
“Feel free to sample any of the candy,” he said, gesturing to the display. “There’s a little bit of everything here.”
I moved around the cottage, eyeing everything from gobstoppers to chocolate dipped pretzels to caramel covered apples topped with every candy bar imaginable. Despite his free ticket, I don’t want to out eat my welcome, so I decide to find just one thing. In the end, I stick with what I want to taste the most: the fudge we made.
“Sophie told me that you might be planning on dropping out of school,” Chase says as he slices a piece off a confetti covered cake batter fudge for me to sample. He has deep grooves in his forehead and I’m glad I’m standing next to him so I don’t have to meet his eyes. “Are you still leaning that way?”
The fudge melts on my tongue, tasting like vanilla and frosting and fudge, all at the same time. After not eating much sugar, it’s overly sweet at first, but my taste buds acclimate almost immediately. Tasting it gives me a moment to find my response.
“No,” I say, shaking my head. I point to the Snicker’s fudge and he shaves off another small piece. “I was thinking about it to help my family, but I had a really good talk with Pop and it won’t be necessary. It was a . . . pleasant surprise, actually.”
He exhales, looking relieved, and turns to face me. “Good. I’m glad you’ll be able to keep working toward your goals and . . . and will, you know . . . stick around.”
“Thanks,” I say, smiling. “Me too.”
We’re only a few inches apart, putting our faces at a convenient breath away. I can smell butterscotch on his breath, and flecks of gold interrupt the green of his eyes. His gaze locks with mine, and I can see the reflection of the white Christmas lights in his eyes.
“Anna?” he asks, swallowing. His eyes flicker to my lips.
“I . . . I need to ask you a question.”
He’s closer now. “Sure,” I whisper. He smiles.
“Can I kiss you?”
Does Anna let Chase kiss her?
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