Surviving San Francisco by Susan Oloier

Leah Newland pushes the frilly pink curtains of her bedroom window aside for the last time. Outside, it’s a typical winter wonderland in the suburbs of Chicago: gray, blustery, and wet. Even the once-fluffy whiteness that edges the roads has turned to charcoal black. Leah will leave it all behind.
Surviving San Francisco
Surviving San Francisco by Susan Oloier
Inside, stuffed bears sit idly on her frilly pink linens, and her BS in Marketing degree from Northern Illinois University hangs on the wall beside an Assistant Buyer of the Year Award. She doesn’t think she’ll miss any of it. Neatly stacked boxes reside in the corner of a room, which is nearly bare and void, save an open U.S. map. A matching set of luggage leans beneath the valanced window. Leah lingers at her dresser where a letter is folded closed. The only visible portion is the closing, scrawled in a male’s handwriting. I’m sorry I hurt you. Love, Charlie. Leah runs a finger over the name, pushes it away, and then finally swipes and pockets it. Leah hears voices in the living room and decides to go downstairs to join her going-away party. She touches the San Francisco dot on the map one last time before folding it. She plans to study her route again, just to be sure. As she descends the stairs like a not-so Miss America in her stuffy Liz Claiborne, hair in a French twist, a deflating helium balloon hits Leah in the face. She recovers, only to be molested by a renegade streamer arranged near the stairs. Its brothers hang limply from the guardrails. Leah can’t wait for all of this to be over and to start her new life. She musters her courage and creeps toward the living room. A few of her family members sit around, waiting. She first spies her cousin, Jay. Not a hard thing to do considering he screams at the television set. “Rip ‘em a new one!” His Bears jersey rides up in the back, giving Leah an unwanted glimpse at his butt crack. His girlfriend, Tara—whom Leah barely knows—sits beside him rolling her eyes, studying a Tostito like it’s a Rubik’s Cube. Leah wonders what she and Jay are doing here at all. It’s not like Leah spends any time with them. Ever. She wishes her friend, Paisley, were here instead of being at an obligatory wedding in Florida. Leah picks up one of her mom’s Precious Moments statuettes and wiggles her way between her grandmother, who crouches in her wheelchair, and her older brother, Glen, who seems to not want to make any room for her on the love seat. Leah feels awkward, so she opens up her road map again. “In twenty-four hours—” she says to her grandmother. “You’ll be back,” Glen says. His smile is smug. Leah looks at Glen, and then she searches around the room. Painted wood furniture, upholstered chairs, country-style everything, snow outside the windows, Bears on TV, and butt cracks. “No way.” “You say that now—” “I’m not coming back, Glen,” she puts the Precious Moments down, “I’m not. This job transfer is everything I hoped for.” Glen picks up the figurine and assesses it. “You know, you’ll be living with the gays.” “Good. Less chance of being hit on.” “You have nothing to worry about,” Glen smacks the figurine down on the painted end table; Leah’s sure it’s going to break. “No one’s going to hit on you.” Then Glen stands and leaves the room, headed for the kitchen where Leah hears her mom humming along to Barry Manilow. Fifty-five year-old Lorna Newland dances, Copacabana-style, into the living room. She carries two packages. It’s clear she lives for her two children. Unfortunately, they don’t live for her. But Leah knows her mother went out of her way to make the going-away celebration memorable. Singing a throwback 70’s song, Lorna sets the presents down right on top of Leah’s map. “Make your grandmother happy. Open them now.” Gina, her grandmother, beams. Leah studies her grandma for a moment. She seems so small: Dentures too big for her mouth, hands curled in on themselves. Maybe she’s physically fading. Lorna clears her throat, and Leah moves the map from under the gifts, checking it for creases. She hates creases. When she finds none, Leah folds it. “Open it,” Gina demands. Leah sets the map aside and unwraps the package along the seams of the paper, not wanting to tear the gift-wrap: Just another thing to drive her crazy. “A sewing kit!” Leah says with mustered enthusiasm. “Buttons pop off at the worst times,” Grandma Gina says. Leah opens the pouch and removes a whistle on a chain and a butterfly pin. No sewing items. “I was dancing with a fellow—not your grandfather,” Gina says. “He twirled me so hard that a button popped off and my boob flew out.” The shock of the experience shows on her face. “I could have used a sewing kit then. Instead, I danced all night like this.” She closes her arms over her chest. Lorna shakes her head at Leah—the tell-tale sign that Lorna thinks her grandmother is making up memories again. “Thanks for the tip, Grandma,” Leah says while twirling the whistle. “That’s in case you get into a spot.” Leah nods. Glen picks up the butterfly pin, and his face is a question mark. “My father bought that pin for me when I was a girl,” Gina reminisces, “so that I’d stop chasing butterflies and pinning them.” Glen winces. He looks as though he’s going to be sick. Gina turns to Leah. “I want you to have it.” Leah ponders the item before taking it from her grandmother. “His famous saying was ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.’” Leah opens her mouth to speak, but is interrupted. “What does that even mean?” Glen asks while trying to puzzle it out. “That doesn’t even make sense. Unless it’s some sort of weird hybrid bug.” Glen fingers the sharp end as if it’s a dangerous weapon, as if putting himself in a scenario with the mythical creature. Disgust spells out on his face. Leah clears her throat. “Grandma, I actually think Muhammad Ali said that.” “Muhammad who?” Gina asks, leaning in toward Leah and turning up the volume on her hearing aid. Lorna points to her temple, does a swirly-whirly thing with her finger and rolls her eyes. “It looks expensive, Grandma.” “Real rubies and emeralds.” Lorna shakes her head. “I want to play some Yahtzee,” Grandma Gina blurts. “Not right now, Grandma.” Lorna steps in the center of the conversation. “This is from your father, Glen, and me.” “Touchdown! Yes!” Jay jumps up. Leah’s eyes move to the television set, but Lorna chooses to ignore it. “It’s not from me,” Glen says, leaning back in his chair. “Where is dad?” Leah asks. “Open the gift.” Leah removes the paper, revealing a glass, heart-shaped music box. As she lifts the lid, Chicago chimes. Leah gives Lorna a wide-eyed look. She’s clearly moved by the gesture. “So not from me,” Glen says. Leah, so much like her mom, ignores her brother. “Where did you find it?” “We found it,” Lorna answers. “Music Box Company,” Glen says as if spilling the news about Santa Claus. Leah shoots her brother a look. “I’m going to find dad.” *** It’s dark in the den, except for the flashing screen where the stock quotes scroll along the bottom of the television. The anchorman drones in his monotone voice. “Intel’s stock showed a sharp increase today…” Leah tunes it out and focuses on her dad, who tips back in his recliner. Darrell Newland is a distinguished man in his mid-fifties. He wears his glasses on the tip of his nose, making him look either like an east coast scholar or a washed-up newspaper reporter. As Leah creeps in with the music box, she notices that her dad’s stern demeanor remains unchanged. “Dad?” Darrell continues to look straight ahead. Even Leah’s voice is a tiptoe. “Thank you for the music box. Mom said—” “Shhh. I’m trying to listen to the stocks.” Leah hesitates, and then sets the gift on the end table and leaves. Chapter Two In the waxing light of a new morning, a snowplow hums in the distance. Curls of chimney smoke thread through the brisk air, and the muted headlights of a plow prowl along a street riddled with vehicles. The truck buries the Illinois plates in a blanket of white, sending a burst of flakes into the air. A set of tire marks cuts through the newly-fallen snow, the only thing left behind by Leah Newland’s Honda as it trails out of town before the rising sun. The song Chicago pipes through a tinny car stereo. Then the plow trudges through, sweeping away any sign she was there at all. *** The music box lay on the passenger’s seat of the Honda. On the radio, I Left My Heart in San Francisco replaces the melody of Chicago. Traffic rushes past as Leah navigates her way along the I-101. She spies the Golden Gate Bridge up ahead, and Leah’s heart races. Her fingers grip the steering wheel as she listens to the mapping software guide her to her destination. Even with the monotone voiceover, Leah feels frazzled and afraid of making a wrong turn. After all, she’s never been to San Francisco before. By the time she makes it into the city, Leah’s head throbs and her shoulders ache from tension. She really needs pain pills—something—but everything’s buried in the bottom of her bag. She presses fingertips to her temples, lets her hand drop to the butterfly pin fastened to her blouse, and then decides to blindly dig for the bottle. It can’t be that hard to find. “In one mile, turn right,” the navigation software says. “One mile, right,” Leah repeats, her hand deeply embedded in her bag now. “Where is it?” she says aloud. “It has to be here…” Leah turns for a moment, finally unearthing the prescription bottle. When she refocuses on the road, Leah sees a streak of fur dart in front of the Honda and feels a light thump on the front tire. She slams on the brakes, and they squeal. Leah flies forward. Traffic screeches to a halt. Car horns beep. Angry voices yell, but Leah ignores it all. Instead, she works hard to breathe and settle her raging heartbeat. Leah scratches for the glove compartment and a paper bag inside. She opens it like clockwork and presses her mouth to the opening. Breathe in and out, in and out. Another horn blare startles her back to reality, and Leah rushes out of the car. A limp cat lies in the road. Traffic pulls up behind the Honda. A hippy emerges from a V.W. bus and arrives at her side. The cat meows sickly. “He’s still alive! Get a towel,” the hippy says. He’s pretty bossy for someone who is supposed to practice peace and be all Namaste. Leah stares at the tie-dyed throwback to the 1960s. He smells of hemp and weed. She shakes herself from her trance and goes to the trunk to rummage through her luggage. She pulls out a Calvin Klein blouse, hesitates, and then tosses it aside. “I don’t have anything.” Not a lie. Who would use a designer label to administer first aid to a cat? The hippy seems to teleport to her side. He now holds the injured cat in his arms. Blood trickles from somewhere beneath its fur. Leah winces at the sight and averts her eyes. “How ‘bout this?” He lifts a scarf from her bag and swaddles the cat in it. Leah makes a reach for the garment. It’s her favorite. Lambs wool. Handmade. Designer. Irreplaceable. “That’s artisan craft—” She cuts off her own words at the guy’s furrowed brow. One more head-to-toe of his attire, and she knows the argument is fruitless. “Never mind.” “Better rush it to the hospital.” He dumps the cat into her arms as horns continue to honk and the whoosh of traffic in the distant lane zips by. She’ll be lucky if she makes it back to the driver’s side door without being taken out. The hippy rushes back to his bus, and Leah—cat in hand—follows on his heels. “I can’t take this cat,” she says, peering down at it. It makes a sound. Was that a whimper? “I have to be somewhere by six.” The hippy stands with his hand on the passenger’s side door, ready to pull it open and roll back into his henna-colored world. The hippy rakes his full-on scrutiny over her. “I’m sure your pedicurist can wait.” Disdain taints his voice. “You don’t understand…” The guy climbs inside, starts his sputtering engine, and labors into the street. Leah stands in the middle of the road with the cat. “I’ve never been late for anything in my life,” she says, calling after the disappearing V.W. Leah loads the cat into the passenger’s side of her car. She punches animal hospital into her phone’s navigation system, then grabs hold of her headache medicine, which she downs without water. She glimpses the cat. It looks to be on death’s door. “Please don’t bleed,” she tells it. “It’s full-price designer.” Chapter Three Leah scrambles through the front door of what is supposed to be an animal hospital and comes to a dead halt. Instead of ER triage, the room looks like a lackadaisical clinic. People loaf in lobby chairs as if in no hurry, no place to be. A woman cradles a cat carrier, as the man next to her dozes off into his magazine; a terrier nose pokes out of the kennel at his feet. Classical music pipes into the room through built-in speakers. Leah backs up and glimpses the stenciling on the glass door: Pacific Coast Veterinary Clinic, Dr. Everitt Grady. There are no hours listed on the windows or the door. Stupid navigation app. Leah wades into the room with the cat dangling from her arms. She has no other options. She steps around a caged something or other, and her eyes light on a poster on the opposite side of the room. It contains some obscure message (Bob Barker from vintage The Price is Right is in it), but the print it too small to read. Leah peers down and feels the shallow breath beneath the scarf. As the couple in front of her step aside, Leah approaches the counter. A thirtyish man wearing surgical scrubs and in need of a shave sits behind reception. “Excuse me,” Leah says. The guy looks up. “Do you have an appointment?” “No.” “Of course you don’t. Thing is, we’re not accepting any more patients today.” He sets the closed sign on the counter in front of her. “This can’t wait,” Leah says. “As you can see…” He sweeps a hand toward the waiting room and the clock on the wall, which reads 5:20. “We’re busy and we close at 5:30. Of course you’d know that if you took off your I’m the most important person in the world goggles and actually scheduled an appointment.” “It’s an emergency,” Leah says, holding the swaddled cat up for him to see. He squints toward the bundle in Leah’s arms. The cat is hidden in the recesses of her designer scarf. The guy heaves a sigh and continues to sort through files and shuffle papers in search of something. “Everything’s an emergency. Now where did she put Sparky’s file?” he mostly asks himself. His eyes remain plastered to the paperwork in front of him. Leah is rendered speechless for a moment. Then she musters the acumen to speak. “This cat got hit by a car.” This garners immediate attention. “Well, why didn’t you say so?” He scrutinizes Leah, narrows his eyes. The guy stands up and steps out from behind reception and through the side door to the lobby. He shoves the scarf aside and assesses the cat. When he’s through with his physical examination, he meet her eyes. If he weren’t such a jerk, he’d be kind of cute. “Why didn’t you take her to the veterinary hospital?” Leah pulls herself away from the distraction of his eyes—more green than hazel, not that she noticed—to the sound of his accusatory tone. “The mapping software…” she struggles to form a thought. “This is the first place I found.” “Mary?” the guy calls toward the exam rooms. She doesn’t answer. “Forget it.” He opens the door and escorts Leah and the cat to the back. “Hey!” the man with the terrier calls out. “What about us?” The veterinary employee holds up his hand and closes the door behind him. “Room 3,” he says, pointing out the way for Leah. “We’re a little short staffed, but we’ll do what we can.” Leah relaxes a little as she steps into the room. “Will this take long? I have—” But the door closes on her words. Leah tries to glimpse the watch on her wrist, but the cat lies like dead weight over her arm. Gosh, she hopes the feline isn’t dead. Beyond that, she hopes she’s not too late to meet with her landlord and get her apartment keys. Because come 6:00, no one will be there to let her in, and she has no idea where in San Francisco she and her stuff will stay. She glances around, thinking of leaving. But the cat needs help as soon as possible. And it’s her fault they’re both here. Leah settles into a hardback chair and moves the scarf aside to take a quick glimpse of the cat. Its breaths are shallow, but they’re still there. Leah diverts her attention to the layout of the room: new pine cabinetry, stainless steel counters and exam table, the requisite hand soap, and a computer in the corner. The place looks brand new. Then her eyes fall on one of those inspirational posters on the wall. It’s a photo of a fluffy kitten. She leans in to read the saying. The smallest feline is a masterpiece, Van Gogh. So sappy. Where in the world did her navigational software lead her? She fingers her butterfly pin, which makes her think of Grandma Gina and the safety of her Illinois home. Tears prickle her eyes, but she sucks them away. You’ll be back. As much as she loves her grandmother and as much as she misses the safety net of home, she won’t return. She can’t. Chapter Four The cat meows as it lies prone on the examination table. Leah checks her watch. Five-thirty. She only has a half hour to get to her new apartment and pick up her keys. Though Leah feels sorry for the cat, she pats it like it has an infectious disease. More than anything, she feels most sorry for herself. The guy from behind the front desk enters the room. This time he’s wearing a lab coat. Obviously he’s not the receptionist after all, but a medical tech. Nonetheless, he’s so not the person she was hoping to see. Leah straightens up and crosses her arms, ready for confrontation. The male tech snags latex gloves from a box and slaps them on. Leah studies the guy’s movements as he examines the feline. “How did this happen?” he asks. His eyes skate over Leah’s. “Driving too fast? Texting?” His tone and words are accusatory. “No.” Leah grows defensive. “He just…darted out.” The veterinary tech locks eyes with her, but doesn’t say a word. Leah knows he doesn’t believe her; that this is all her fault. “Lacerations. Some neurological impairment, hopefully temporary.” He seems to talk to himself. “Possible fracture on the tarsis.” He lifts up a tuft of fur. “Geez,” he says, his voice a study in admonition. “I’ll have to keep her for at least 24 hours. X-rays, blood work, observation. You can pick your cat up in a couple days.” “It’s not my cat.” The tech quirks a disbelieving eyebrow. “It is now.” “Can’t you find a nice home for it?” He stops what he’s doing and simply stares. “I can’t take her,” Leah says. “Well, this isn’t the Humane Society. We can’t take her either.” Leah does not want to be sidled with this animal. Not when she’s embarking on a new chapter in her life. Her hand goes to the butterfly pin, and she withers with guilt. Her eyes move to her watch again. She’s down to twenty minutes. “Don’t let me keep you,” he says, noticing her gesture. “Listen, this isn’t personal—” Leah bites her thumb nail and then steps toward the door. “You can pay on the way out,” the guy says. “I don’t have cash.” The tech doesn’t look up from the cat. “We accept credit cards.” Leah thinks of her dad, the stock quotes on the financial channel, his lectures about money. The tech lifts the tag on the bloodied scarf and reads. “This isn’t about the fees. I’ll pay for what I’ve done to…” Leah’s eyes flit to the animal, and she can’t finish her first thought. “It’s just, I need to be on my own. Not responsible for someone else, no attachments.” “Yeah, I get it.” Leah places a hand on her hip. “I don’t think you do.” “You’re going to abandon the cat—the animal you plowed down with your car.” “I didn’t plow it down.” He pretends not to hear. Leah massages her temples and steals a glimpse of the cat again. If it weren’t so mangled and on the verge of death, it would be kind of cute, too. “Maybe the vet knows of a good home.” The guy pushes the flap of his jacket aside to reveal his nametag. Leah wonders how she didn’t see it before. Dr. Everitt Grady, Veterinarian. “I am the vet.” Everitt stands up and scoots past Leah to the door. “Mary,” he calls out into the hallway. “I need x-rays and a blood work-up for room 3, please.” “Right away, Dr. Grady,” the nurse says. Everitt leads Leah back to the front office. He glances at the books. Everitt sits at the reception desk. “It’s…” He looks around for something, maybe a price sheet. He taps the keys on the computer and scans the screen. “Let’s just says it’s $100 for an emergency visit.” “One hundred,” she says to herself while fishing out her credit card. Everitt begins to take it, but then stops. “On second thought…” He looks at the credit card machine as though it’s a high-tech device, “you can pay when you pick her up.” Leah pulls the card back. “No, I’m not picking her up.” “In the meantime, you’ll need to fill this out.” He passes paperwork across the counter to Leah. Everitt looks beyond Leah to the waiting room where the terrier and its owner still wait. Leah doesn’t want to make a scene, not after she cut in front of scheduled appointments. As Leah opens her mouth to speak, he stops her. “And…I need your phone number.” Leah furrows her brow. “To update you about the cat.” “I told you, it’s not my cat.” Yet she jots down her cell. “I should know more tomorrow.” Leah collects her things and heads for the door. “Hey!” Everitt calls to her. Leah turns. “You forgot to write down your name.” He holds up the sticky note. “Leah.” “Thanks for doing the right thing, Leah.” Leah says nothing in return, knowing the right thing may have cost her the apartment, her freedom, and so much more. “By the way,” she says, appraising the décor and the meaningless posters on the wall, “your marketing plan sucks.” Everitt’s mouth opens, but he catches it before it drops. He recovers and turns his attention to his clients. “Hey buddy. How’re you doing? Thanks for waiting.” As Leah pushes the chiming door outward, she looks back and sees Everitt stoop down, open the kennel door, and scratch the terrier’s ears. Chapter Five Rain patters on the Honda’s windshield. Emergency lights flash. Squad cars and fire engines navigate the vehicular maze. Leah is part of the traffic jam, and she white-knuckles the steering wheel. She’s definitely not going anywhere. The clock on her dash ticks away the minutes, and once six o’clock hits, she lets her head fall forward into the steering column. The horn lets out a long blare, which startles her upright. Leah glances at her handbag, considering the possibility of a headache pill, which she’s not due to take for another—she calculates the time in her head—four and a half hours. Yikes. Traffic inches along. It’s down to one lane because the left is blocked by a splash of emergency lights across the wet pavement. As she creeps forward, Leah spies crunched cars and their occupants milling around. Two EMTs load a stretcher into the back of an ambulance. By the time Leah parks curbside, it’s late. She kills the ignition, and the digital dash lights die on 6:33 PM. Distracted by both her tardiness and the epically-falling rain, she fails to see the No Parking sign looming a few feet ahead. She exits, only to be immediately doused with water from a passing car. The air is filled with petrichor. Leah has no time to worry about her dry-clean only blouse or the fact that her dripping hair makes her look like she’s strung out on drugs. She has to get her keys. Leah approaches the apartment building and hits the call button, ringing water from her clothes as she waits. A man’s voice comes over the intercom. “Yeah?” Leah leans in toward the receiver, practically yelling into it. “I need to contact…” She digs in her pocket and unfolds a wet piece of paper. The ink has run, and the words are illegible. She clears her throat. “The landlord.” “You that girl from Iowa?” the man asks, his words crackling through the dated system. “Illinois.” “Same thing. She said come back at 9 AM.” “Is there a number—?” Her words are cut off by a click. Leah stands on the steps, saturated by the rain. She takes a moment, and then buzzes again. “Yeah?” “Is there any way to get the keys tonight?” “Wait,” the voice says. “Is this the same girl from Idaho?” “Illinois, but whatever.” Leah will be just about anyone right now as she blinks against the spill of rain. There’s a huge sigh. “Unless you’re carrying a mushroom pizza, there’s no way you’re getting in tonight.” Silence. “That’s what I thought,” the guy’s voice says. Then he clicks off again. Leah returns to the car. She locks the doors and chokes back tears. Her hand wanders over to her cell phone seated on the passenger’s seat. She should call her parents. They would know what to do in this situation. But then she thinks of her dad who would lecture her about responsibility. Leah considers her mom, who would tell her to come home. Never mind the chortles of laughter from Glen. This would be reality-show entertainment for him. She moves her fingers away. She can’t call. Leah’s breathing grows shallow, and she definitely feels a panic attack coming on. She removes the bottle of Xanax, for those critical moments, and takes one. If she weren’t already drenched, Leah would be able to feel the sweat pooling at her armpits. She tries her breathing exercises: deep breath in, count to three; deep breath out, count to three. She remembers to visualize, so she closes her eyes and leans back against the headrest, working hard to block out the sound of the raindrops. She pictures her house, walking down the hallway to her bedroom. She steps inside and spies her childhood bed, the curtains, her stuffed animals. She feels safe because she’s back in Illinois where there aren’t any cats darting out into road, where mean veterinarians don’t exist, and where she sleeps in the comfort of her own bed, safe from anything strange or foreign. She falls asleep. Chapter Six The sun beats brightly on Leah reclined in the driver’s seat. A thumping on the window awakens her. She opens her eyes and moves a hand to her stiff neck, slowly turning her attention to where a police officer looms alongside the window. He speaks, but his voice is muffled. Leah shakes herself from sleep. Anger registers on the policeman’s face. Leah turns the ignition key and rolls down the window. “I said move this car!” “Sure, officer,” Leah says, trying to tamp down her frazzled demeanor by fumbling for her keys—which are already in the ignition—and fastening her seatbelt. “I couldn’t hear—” But he cuts her off, handing her a ticket through the window and stalking back to his vehicle. She pulls away and searches for a legal place to park. Leah turns off the ignition and pulls down the visor mirror. Her hair lays limp, she has dark circles under her eyes either from lack of sleep or smeared mascara—maybe both. She puts on a dab of lip-gloss, rakes her fingers through her hair, and puts the visor back in place. Leah glances over and spots the music box on the passenger’s seat. She opens it to the tinkling sound of Chicago. Leah bites her lip and leans her head on the steering wheel. She will not cry. She can’t. Because if she does it’s the same as admitting she’s a failure. Things will get better. They have to. Leah straightens up with one final, deep breath. When she steps from the car, she triple checks the parking signs on the road before leaving her vehicle at a new curbside location. Ticket in hand, she meanders along the street and eventually stumbles up the apartment steps. Before buzzing, she digs for another headache pill and forces it down her throat. A bus stop bench catches her attention. It reads, Can You Make It in San Francisco? An ad for insurance. She approaches the same intercom from last night. This time when she buzzes, someone lets her in. *** The building interior is carpeted in 1970s camel. A lone, tilted mirror hangs on the wall. Apartments hug the sides of the snaking staircase. Clara Puccini, a short fireplug of a grandmother draped in a muumuu, guides a disheveled Leah through the first-floor corridor. She speaks in a heavy Italian accent. “I almost give apartment away.” Clara points nonchalantly to apartment 1A as Leah trails behind her. “He never pay rent on time.” They reach the second floor. “This nice apartment—2C.” Leah heads for the door. “Not yours.” Mrs. Puccini gestures toward another door. “She ... eehhh ... weird boyfriend.” Clara waddles up the stairs. “Yours on third floor next to single man.” They labor to the third floor where Clara approaches 3A and unlocks the door. “This yours.” Once inside, the two move along the narrow hallway. The bathroom is a cavern on the right with cracked porcelain. The toilet runs. Clara steps in and jiggles the handle to make it stop. She shakes her stubby finger at Leah. “Do after flushing.” Inside, a small kitchen adjoins the living room. The bedroom, with a view to the busy city street, sits alone at the back corner of the apartment. The place is bare. “This it. Here key. Rent due first of month.” “But…” Leah works to form her words. “Where's the furniture?” “No furniture. Unfurnished.” “No. This can’t be,” she says. “I requested a furnished apartment.” Clara clicks her tongue in a disapproving way. “This not luxury hotel. This apartment, furnish self.” Clara makes her way to the door. “But I have nowhere to sleep, nowhere...” She stops, realizing she’s really only talking to herself. “Important rule,” Clara says, jabbing a finger in Leah’s face. “No pet. Get pet, both out on street.” Clara leaves. Leah looks out the window. On the street below, a man unloads items from her car. Leah pounds fruitlessly on the glass. “Hey! That's my stuff!” Chapter Seven Cars honk incessantly on the street below the apartment window where the day gives way to night. Leah sits with an opened day planner in the middle of her empty bedroom. She’s grateful for her emergency sleeping bag—one of the few items not stolen from her car. It’s only her first day in San Francisco, and she feels exhausted. Leah crosses through today’s date. The following day reads Granberry Apparel—8:00 AM. She pushes the calendar aside and turns off the flashlight on her phone, dousing the room in darkness. Despite her chaotic arrival in the city, Leah manages to float into sleep. But it doesn’t take long for her to be awakened by the zoom of traffic and the muffled voices from outside. Leah lies on the floor, eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling. She springs up, slams the window shut, and lies back down. She tosses and turns, finally closing her eyes. They immediately reopen with the sound of muted traffic and muffled voices. She stares at the ceiling again for what feels like an eternity. But some time in the night, she winds up spiraling into sleep until yet another reprehensible noise awakens her. Leah rises and thinks to rush to the window for the bazillionth time until she notices the morning light sifting in through the blinds and realizes the sound is coming from her phone. The screen shows unidentified caller, so she lets it go to voicemail, but she plays it back the instant she hears the message alert. “Hi Leah, this is Everitt Grady from the veterinary clinic. I was calling to give you an update about your cat. Please give me a call back. Thanks.” Leah waits for more details—in the very least, a callback number—but they don’t come. “Call back? How can I call you back?” she says to the phone. “You didn’t even give me your number.” She goes through the ritual of showering and getting ready, all the while fuming about Everitt’s message. “What kind of business are you running anyway?” she says to the phantom veterinarian while lathering her hair. “Don’t leave a call back. Hmph!” “I’m not even going to look up your phone number,” she says while pushing a toothbrush into her mouth. “My cat?” Leah says as she snatches her car keys from their designated spot near the door. “In case you don’t remember, I don’t have a cat.” She exits the building and traverses the street toward her car. But Leah stops at the sight of a homeless man curled up on a cardboard box alongside one of the neighboring buildings. Her eyes flit back and forth; she’s rendered motionless. Then she reaches inside her purse. Maybe there are crackers, some mints. But she comes up empty-handed, with only her prescription bottle and a tube of lip-gloss. And while the anxiety meds may prove beneficial, the lip-gloss probably won’t go over too well. Leah opens up her wallet. No bills, just some loose change. She puts it inside the man’s empty cup. Then she inches along. Before Leah knows it, she stands outside the door to the veterinary clinic. She takes a cleansing breath and pushes her way inside. The lobby and reception area are empty and darkish. Is the place even open yet? “Hello?” Leah takes a couple of hesitant steps inside. “Anyone here?” “Sorry, I was just in the back…” Everitt enters the front office. He is five-o-clock shadowy, and his hair is a bit mussed. He halts in the midst of drying his hands. “Oh hi.” “The door was unlocked, so I assumed you were open.” Everitt balls the paper towel and tosses it in the trash. “Soon,” he says, glimpsing the clock. “I didn’t expect to see you here.” He flicks through items at reception, and then picks up a patient file and tucks it randomly into the library behind the desk. Leah winces. “You called, but didn’t leave a number.” She looks around. “Plus you didn’t show up on caller ID. I assumed your receptionist would be here to take my payment.” “No, Stacy’s still out. Family emergency.” Leah doesn’t know what to do with this information. “Your cat’s doing better today. Want to her see her?” Everitt pushes the door open that leads back to the exam rooms. Leah hesitates, but then she walks through. “I…” She stops herself. How many times does she have to tell him it’s not her cat? Everitt disappears inside a door. Leah follows. She sees Everitt gently lift the feline from its kennel. “I want to apologize for being short with you yesterday. Things have been kind of…” he searches for the right word, “hectic. My office manager’s daughter is sick. How can I say no to that, right? Anyway…” Everitt stands up with the cat. Her back leg is bandaged, and she appears to be sleepy. Everitt nuzzles against the cat’s ear while cradling it like a baby. “So I’m sorry.” He gestures toward the feline. “She’s not out of the woods yet, but I’m hopeful she’ll make a full recovery.” “Did I do that?” Leah asks. She cringes at the sight of the wrapped leg. “Technically your car did, but yeah. Want to hold her?” Leah takes a step back. “No. I mean,” she clears her throat, “I only came to pay.” She reaches into her bag and draws out her credit card. “Um.” Everitt rests the cat back in the cage. “Honestly, I haven’t a clue how to operate the credit card machine.” He puts his hands up. “Is Mary here?” Leah looks around. “Maybe she could do it?” “She doesn’t come in until 9:00.” “That seems inefficient.” “I…” Everitt’s eyes meet Leah’s. “Yeah.” “Okay then.” She fishes a pen and a notepad from her purse and writes while she speaks. “When someone is here who actually knows how to process my payment,” she tears off a sheet with her address scrawled on it, “then send me the bill.” Everitt squints at Leah and assesses her for a moment. “You really don’t like animals, do you?” The cat meows from its cage, which draws Leah’s attention to her. “Come on,” he says, kneeling down beside the kennel and scratching the cat’s ear through the wire door. “She’s really sweet.” Leah’s vision seesaws between the cat and the exit. After a moment, Leah pads over to Everitt and the kennel and hesitates before kneeling down. Leah eases her hand toward the cage and pets the cat with her finger. “She’s soft.” Leah relaxes and continues to stroke the cat’s ear. The animal meows. “She likes you.” His eyes shift to hers and linger for a moment. “I thought this wasn’t an animal hospital.” “It’s not.” Leah studies Everitt’s expression, his disheveled appearance. Everitt shrugs. “I live down the street and stopped by to check on her a few times.” He messes up his hair in what seems to be an attempt to fix it. “Actually, I fell asleep on the exam table.” “You did?” Leah studies him, softens. “How long until she’s better?” “Until she can go home?” Everitt searches the room. “Few days.” He scrutinizes her. “Not much time to find her a home.” “No,” Leah says. “You better get busy.” Everitt stands back up, followed by Leah. “Why don’t you take her?” Leah asks. Everitt opens his mouth to speak, but then closes it. “You’re a vet. You love animals.” “I do, but…” He tugs on his shirt collar. “It’s complicated for me right now.” “Allergic wife?” Everitt’s laugh is nervous. “No.” When she realizes that’s all the information she’s going to get, she gathers her purse closer to her. Before heading to the door, Leah steps back toward the kennel and puts her fingers against the cage. “What did you mean when you said my marketing plan sucks?” Leah pinks up. “Oh, well. I was just angry.” “Hmm.” He doesn’t believe her. “In the meantime,” Everitt says as he takes a business card from the counter and hands it to her, “take this in case you need it.” Leah glances at the card. She twists her face at the dog-only picture on it. She opens her mouth to say something, but all that comes out is thanks. Chapter Eight Leah’s hair lacks style. She looks down and cringes at her wrinkled Donna Karan. Both her hair dryer and iron were stolen from her car. She sits in the waiting area of an executive office lobby. The sign in reception reads Granberry Apparel with its trademark G and A, a sewing needle running through the letters. Her phone buzzes. She grabs a look at the screen. Her parents. She touches the dismiss button and pushes the phone deep into her purse. Then Leah tucks a strand of hair, runs a finger over recently glossed lips, and straightens her skirt. Things couldn’t get much worse than this: showing up to the first day of a job in just-out-of-the-suitcase clothes and flat hair. Leah catches a whiff of a less-than-pleasant something. She showered. God no. Not… Leah discreetly drops her nose to an armpit. Not her. At least she hopes. A buzzer sounds at reception. The woman behind the too-broad desk looks over at Leah. The placard in front says she’s Julie Hooker. “Mr. Frazier will see you now.” Julie escorts Leah into the office. All the while, the only thing Leah can think of is that she hopes Julie—and anyone else she comes in contact with at Granberry—doesn’t notice her unpolished appearance. Leah’s attention turns to a thin man in a debonair suit. “Ken, this is Leah Newman,” Julie says, directing Leah forward for the requisite handshake. “It’s Newland,” Leah says. Julie shoots Leah a dirty look. “That’s what I said.” Ken winks at Julie as she slinks out. He watches her a little too long. Then Ken gestures toward the open seat across the desk from him. Leah perches on the edge of the chair while Ken examines a file in front of him. “First day as a buyer in the junior's department.” Leah nods. “Hmm,” is all Ken says. Leah sits forward. “If it's the transfer paperwork—” Leah digs through her purse. “No,” he says, his voice a singsong. “It’s not that.” He sets her file down. “Thing is, there’s been a mistake.” “Excuse me?” “The position’s been filled.” “But Mr. Jamison—” “No longer works here.” Ken leans back in his chair as if he only described the weather outside rather than deliver what Leah hears as ominous news. “Is this some kind of joke?” She looks around for something. Maybe a hidden group of people who will break out in laughter and then show her to her desk. “I never joke about business, Miss Newman.” “Newland.” This can’t be happening. Leah fends off a burgeoning anxiety attack. Struggling to catch her breath, she claws through her purse for a rescue. Where is her pill? The rectangular white one? Where are the calming breaths when she needs them? Instead, her lungs labor under shallow puffs of air. Either Ken doesn’t notice or he ignores her physical reaction altogether. In fact, he stands and extends his hand. “I apologize you came all the way over here.” “I came from Illinois!” Again, he doesn't hear. He strides over to the door and directs Leah toward the lobby. “If you can handle an eight-line phone, a receptionist position is available.” Leah’s too stunned to say anything. “Miss Newman?” She’s too shocked to correct him. Leah turns and gapes at Ken. For the first time, he studies her. “You know, you really ought to get some sleep.” On the way back through reception, Leah yanks the bottle of Xanax from her purse, not caring when she last took a tablet. Chapter Nine Leah sulks up the stairs toward her apartment, paying no attention to her surroundings. A woman rushes down from the second floor and crashes into Leah. She’s Bohemian-looking: flowing skirt, headband, and she smells like weed. “Oops. Apologies.” She gives Leah the peace sign and takes off. Leah re-gathers herself and lumbers upward. Somber music resonates through the door of apartment 3B as Leah steps onto the third floor landing, fumbling with the key to her own apartment when the door to 3B opens. A relatively good-looking guy drags a 36x48 canvas into the hall, but halts when he spies Leah watching him. A Red Vine dangles from his lips like a cigarette. Leah gives him a quick smile. He removes the licorice and points to her, pistol-style. “New girl from Idaho.” “Illinois,” Leah says with her key poised in mid air. “Sorry about the music.” He rushes back inside to turn down the volume. A chair holds the door halfway open. Leah tilts her head and studies the painting: a perspective of poppies blowing in the wind along a fence. It’s unfinished. “What’d ya say your name was?” the guy asks from the innards of his place, eventually finding his way back to the hallway. “I didn’t, but it’s Leah.” “Hey Leah, you want to help me with something?” Not waiting for an answer, he pulls her inside. He shoves the uneaten licorice into his back pocket, catching Leah’s watchful eye. “Just gave up smoking. I’m Clint, by the way.” Clint wipes his hand on his painter’s pants, and the two shake. The inside of the apartment is laid out like Leah’s, except Clint’s has wood flooring and there are painting canvases propped around the room. Palettes and paint cans line the base of an easel like soldiers. Clint’s furniture situation is sparse, which makes the apartment look vastly larger than Leah’s own. She’s pretty sure there’s a sofa buried beneath heaps of magazines and clothes. Elsewhere, drop cloths cover the floor in lieu of rugs, each one decorated with colorful spatters in abstract patterns. If they were purposeful, they might just be considered art. The ugliest chair she’s ever seen—an orange tub—appears to be the centerpiece of the room. Leah stops in front of Clint’s work-in-progress. Clint pushes on the orange tub chair. “Do you mind helping me move this out of here?” Leah moves toward it, reaches for it. “No, silly. Not that. This.” He lifts one end of a completed painting. It’s a finished work in a tapestry of pastels. Another perspective, but of a fork in the road with an apartment building in the middle. One side leads to a lush side of town, the other to graffiti-ed and dilapidated buildings. Leah holds one end, and Clint twists it out the door. “Are you taking it to an art show or something?” “No. Trashing it.” “What? You…you can’t do that.” She absorbs the painting with sudden sentimentality. “I can, and I will.” “But why?” “I’m through. I breathe my everything into these paintings, and what do I get in return?” He doesn’t wait for an answer because the question is rhetorical. “I’ll tell you what. Nothing. I can’t sell one of these to save my life. Or feed my addiction.” He picks up the abandoned Red Vine from a nearby table. They wobble into the hall. Leah sets her end down; Clint dumps his. He faux dusts off his hands and closes the door. Leah seems to look through the wall toward the abandoned pieces of art outside. “What are you doing to promote your work? If you don’t mind me asking.” “I sell some stuff on websites. I’ve given some things away for exposure. I don’t know.” “Business cards?” “Don’t have those. Don’t have a business.” Leah assesses the place. “But you do.” “It doesn’t matter,” Clint says with a sigh. “I’m done with it all. I really am.” Clint pushes his hands into his pockets and pulls out a licorice piece. He looks satisfied with the state of his near-empty easels now. “That’s too bad.” Leah stoops over and picks up her purse. “So I was wondering, could I borrow a few things?” Clint shakes himself free of his somber thoughts. “Sure. What do you need? Cup of sugar?” He smiles. “Blanket?” Clint removes a throw from the couch and hands it to her. “This okay?” Leah takes it. “A pillow, maybe a towel.” She hesitates for a moment. “Shampoo. Really any toiletry-type items you can spare.” Clint quirks an eyebrow. “Someone stole a few things out of my car.” Clint goes about gathering items while Leah looks around. “Broke the window, huh?” Leah falters as Clint searches. “Not exactly.” Leah glances around the apartment as she waits. Clint’s in the bedroom now, rummaging. “Must have jimmied the lock then,” he calls out. “If that means they opened it because it was unlocked, then yes.” Clint reemerges. Leah shuffles. “Listen, I have to drop something off. Can you point me in the right direction?” Clint studies Leah. “They stole my map, too.” She pulls a sheet of paper from her purse and shows Clint the address. “That’s right around the corner,” he says. He hands over a towel and some toiletry bottles. “Thanks,” Leah says. Then she heaves the items up. “For everything.” Leah heads for the door, but then turns back. “You know, you really should consider getting business cards.” “Noted. See ya.” Leah goes into her apartment and unloads her things. But then she comes back out and lingers over the paintings. She stares at Clint’s door, waiting for it to open. When it doesn’t, she drags the fork-in-the-road painting toward her place and takes it inside. Chapter Ten A stack of classified ads lays crumbled on Leah’s apartment floor. Leah pinches the space between her eyebrows, trying to will away the intensifying headache. She grabs hold of another newspaper page, scans the ads once again, and then cinches it in her fist. She tosses the wrinkled page, and it lands near the business card Everitt gave to her. Leah tries to ignore it, but her eyes keep reaching back toward it. Finally she crawls across the floor and picks the card up. “This is all wrong,” she says, studying the picture of the dog beside Pacific Coast Veterinary Clinic’s name and information. “All wrong.” Her cell phone rings, and she wonders if it’s her parents again. She knows she has to return their calls sooner than later. Local number. “Hello?” The lilt to her voice is a little too prominent. “Leah Newland?” “Yes?” “This is Desmond Stanislovski, Merchandise Manager at Mraz Department Store. I was wondering if you are available to interview.” Chapter Eleven Leah exits her apartment building dressed in a black suit with strappy high-heels. Gina's whistle dangles around her neck. Leah slows when she spots the homeless man tucked in the recessed area of a building. She considers, reaches in her purse, and stoops down to slip a few bills beneath his jacket. Then she walks away. When she arrives at Mraz, the first thing Leah notices is the splash of emblems everywhere: on the wall, in the picture frames, on coffee mugs. Leah sits before a middle-aged man dressed in an ensemble that’s worlds away from Leah’s—a flamboyant, pin-striped suit with a fluorescent pink shirt. His hair is spiked, and he wears half glasses. The name placard on his desk reads Desmond Stanislovski, Merchandise Manager. “So you've worked for Granberry in Chicago.” Desmond looks at Leah. “Well, Zion.” Desmond appears extremely confused. “Is that in Switzerland?” “Illinois.” Desmond peers over his glasses. “Ever worked in New York?” Leah sits a little straighter. “Um, no.” “Paris?” “I know a few words of French. Does that count?” She proceeds to demonstrate. “Bonjour, au revoir…” Desmond searches her resume for something to appease him. “Hmm. And you're no longer at Granberry.” “Well, I received a job transfer from the store in Zion,” she looks up at him, “which is in Illinois. And then…” He raises a hand to silence her. “Fired?” he asks, lifting a sculpted eyebrow. “They gave my position away.” Desmond scans Leah, looks at her shoes, her outfit. Leah launches forward. “The manager used nepotism...” she reconsiders with a knit of the brow, “or eroticism to hire his secretary. I think they were..,” she clears her throat to fill in the missing explanation, “you know.” Desmond stands. “Thank you for coming in. We'll...” Leah slides out of her seat while Desmond melts with disgust. “ in touch.” He extends a limp hand. “I didn’t get the job, did I?” “No.” *** Leah sits cross-legged in the middle of her living room floor with a laptop opened to a job-search site. When there are no prospects, she sinks back, glancing over the top of her computer to lay eyes on Clint’s painting. She must admit, she’s smitten with it. In fact, she’s convinced Clint’s sorry sales have nothing to do with lack of talent and everything to do with poor marketing. She gets up and frames a shot of Clint’s art. She snaps some photos, uploads them to her computer, and gets to work designing a mock-up business card. Just for fun. Nothing more. Then she opens up a Word document and titles it Marketing Plan. She takes notes. In the midst of jotting, Leah stops. She fishes in her bag and pulls out the business card Everitt gave to her. She squints at it. Then, after a moment, she opens another design project and gets to work. Chapter Twelve Leah’s not sure how long she’s been out in the hallway, but the sound of footsteps on the creaky staircase wakes her up. She resituates her oversized bag and straightens. Clint notices Leah and freezes. Even the brown grocery bag he carries appears riveted to the spot. “Locked out?” “Well,” Leah says, tapping a newspaper in her lap. “My cell phone with the flashlight app died, so it was the only place with light. Then I sort of fell asleep.” Clint's eyebrows twist in confusion. “It’s been a rough day. Plus,” she gestures toward her door, “I rented unfurnished.” Clint moves to his door to unlock it. “Wanna come in?” Leah drags herself up. “I might have a lamp you can borrow. And I just bought some Merlot.” He lifts the arm that holds the bag. “To die for.” Leah follows Clint inside. “Have a seat,” Clint says, clearing off a section of his hidden couch that previously stood covered in books and CDs and clothes. Leah reins in her shock when he unearths a dizzying sofa. It’s a block contemporary in myriad colors and patterns. Leah’s sure she has stepped into a time machine and traveled back to the 1960s—maybe even been force-fed some LSD on the way. There are blues and reds and greens and flowers and polka dots and even a leopard print. She grabs a decorative pillow and hugs it to her as Clint hands her a glass of wine and plops down on the other end of the couch. Leah takes a small sip. “So,” Clint says, as if searching for something to talk about. “What were you really doing out in the hall?” He looks in the direction of the door, then back to Leah. Leah pulls the classifieds. “Looking for a job.” “Yawn,” Clint says, taking a large gulp of wine. “You could at least lie and say you were looking at singles ads.” “Never.” Leah tells him. But mostly she’s caught up in her own thoughts. “The thing is, I had a job. It’s why I came to San Francisco.” “What happened?” “Long story.” She bites back tears. Clint notices. “You’ll find something else,” he says, draping his arm across the back of the sofa. “There are lots of jobs in the city.” “Yeah.” Her tone is unsure and she chases it with a gulp of wine. “Buskers and waiters and tourist shops.” “A friend of mine got a job with this temp agency. It’s not perfect, but if you need a way to pay the bills…” “Maybe.” Clint takes his cell from his back pocket, does a search. “On the Mark Staffing.” He gives Leah the number. “Thanks. Maybe I’ll give them a try.” Leah slips inside herself. “Something else wrong?” She shrugs as if to say nothing, but then she simply lets go. “So many things.” “Like?” “Like this veterinarian I met.” Clint leans in closer. “He’s exasperating! I mean just because I hit a cat with my car—” “You hit a cat?” “Doesn’t mean I want to keep it.” Clint scrunches his face. “O-kay?” “Or find a home for it. How am I supposed to find a home when I just moved here and know no one? Except you.” Clint leans back, almost pushed by the force of Leah’s anger. “I mean, he should offer a foster system for animals, don’t you think?” “Sure. Is he cute?” She doesn’t hear Clint. “And then his business card—” “What does a business card have to do with anything? You’re not making any sense.” “And everywhere I look I see Valentine’s this and Cupid that. It’s only January, for goodness sake. Plus, how am I supposed to get away from Charlie when I’m constantly reminded of love?” “Who’s Charlie? Is Charlie the vet?” Leah pulls herself out of her thoughts. “Huh? No. My…ex.” “Then who’s the vet?” “Ugh,” she says, taking a sip of wine, “I don’t want to talk about him.” “Sister, I think you need more than a sip.” He taps the rim of her wine glass, and she downs it in one gulp. “Sorry,” Leah says. “Hey, no problem. Just glad I can be a listening ear.” Leah sweeps the room with her eyes. There’s another painting in progress. “I was thinking about your business,” Leah says. “I don’t have a—” “All you really need is a marketing plan.” She tugs a file folder from her bag and hands it to him. Clint sets his glass down on the floor and opens up the folder. A full portfolio is laid out before him with the sample business card picturing his perspective painting on top. “What’s this?” “There’s the business card, followed by an assessment of the marketplace—” “No, I mean…why?” “Because your art is good. The problem is…” She stops herself. Clint freezes and raises an eyebrow in wait of the finish to her sentence. “You. Well, not you per se. But your marketing.” Clint leafs through the papers. “Social media. Website. Investors.” He looks up at Leah. “My art is not that good.” “It’s great.” “You should do this for a living,” Clint says, waving the file folder. Leah thought that’s what she was doing when she moved to San Francisco. Chapter Thirteen The classified ads are barren and fruitless. When Leah’s phone rings, it is a much-needed distraction from all the reasons she should have stayed in Illinois. “Hello?” In the kitchen of her house in Zion, Illinois, Lorna Newland talks into the phone. In the other room, Darrell sits in his recliner, watching television. “Leah, is that you?” Lorna asks, doing nothing to cover over the terror that racks her voice. “You're alive.” “Mom?” “Your father and I have been worried sick.” Lorna peeks from the kitchen to the living room to glimpse her husband. “Haven't we, Darrell?” She turns her attention back to Leah. “We've been calling for the last few days and you haven't answered.” Leah rolls her eyes. “Mom...” “We thought someone abducted you. Did someone abduct you?” “No, Mom. I’ve…” She thinks to tell her mom about how crazy things have been since she arrived in the city, but then reconsiders, conjuring an untruth. “I…misplaced the phone. How's Grandma?” “Misplaced the phone?” Lorna directs her attention to her husband who is not at all listening. “She said she misplaced the phone, Darrell.” Leah holds the phone away from her ear. “How do you misplace a phone?” She doesn’t wait for an answer. “Anyway, we have good news.” Leah lightens. “Your father and I are coming for a visit.” Leah slumps against the wall. “Where? To San Francisco?” Leah’s eyes dart around her bare apartment, from the empty room and white walls to the bathroom with the toilet handle that must be jiggled to the vacant room. “Of course San Francisco.” Leah bites her thumbnail. “When?” Lorna’s voice is filled with excitement. “Next week.” Leah’s breathing becomes erratic, and she works hard to keep each inhale and exhale under control. “But I'm not settled in yet.” “We won't get in your way. We promise. We’ll even sleep on the sofa.” Leah looks. There’s no sofa. “Your father wants to know how your job is.” Lorna directs her statement to Darrell who remains oblivious in the den. “Don't you, Darrell? You want to know how her job is?” “My job?” “Yes. Have you met a lot of friends?” Leah begins to speak, but her mom doesn’t wait for an answer. “We'll be in on Monday at three-thirty.” Instead of rummaging for a pen and paper to jot down the information, Leah searches for her medication. She’s definitely on the brink of a panic attack or, at minimum, hyperventilation. “Frontier flight 874. Can you pick us up? We know you're working, but we thought Granberry would make an exception for your parents.” Leah sets her teeth against the pad of her thumb now. “Leah?” her mom says with a touch of panic. “Did we lose you?” “No. I mean, yeah, I'll be there.” “Goody, goody. We love you. Grandma says hi. She misses you.” Leah’s heart leaps a little at the thought of her grandmother. She begins to ask about her, but then she hears Glen in the background. “She doesn’t even remember who Leah is.” “Shh!” Lorna says as if Leah can’t hear her. She turns back to the phone. “Remember to hold your key between your fingers like they taught us in—” Leah doesn’t finish listening. Rather, she hangs up in mid-conversation and looks around. “Great. Now I need to get furniture.” Chapter Fourteen Leah doesn’t know why she carries the business card in her hand. Or why she meanders out onto the sidewalk and heads in the direction of Pacific Coast Veterinary Clinic. It’s not as though she cares at all if Everitt’s business is successful. It must be his unsound marketing plan that causes her to venture over there. She has better things to do with her time like look for a job or go furniture shopping with the money she doesn’t have. In truth, Leah wants to go over to see how the cat is doing. Leah slows alongside the homeless man who now sits propped up against the wall of the building; his eyes are open. She sets down a five-dollar bill, and he nods his thanks. Leah offers a quick smile and continues on. She really can’t afford to keep doing this—giving away her money. Soon, she’ll be the one on the street without a place to live. Or, she’ll be back in Zion. Either scenario doesn’t appeal to her. She pushes into the lobby of the clinic. This time, a receptionist sits behind the desk. “Good morning,” the woman says, glancing around for Leah’s pet. “Do you have an appointment?” Her eyebrows arch into a question mark. “Actually, I was wondering if Everitt—Dr. Grady—is available.” “I can find out. May I have your name?” Everitt meanders into reception. “Oh. Hi.” He abandons the file in his hand, spellbound. “I didn’t expect—” The receptionist volleys her attention between the two. “I shouldn’t have stopped by without calling.” Leah reconsiders the business card. “No, no, it’s fine. Stacy?” He turns to the receptionist. “Will you take care of the bill for this patient?” “Sure.” Stacy hides a waxing smile. “Come on back,” Everitt says to Leah. He takes Leah to another white-washed and sterile room. “Look,” Everitt says. Leah glances around, but doesn’t see anything. But then she hears a mew, and the cat slinks from around the back of the exam table. Leah’s eyes reach up to Everitt. “She’s walking?” “She’s walking.” Everitt bends down, lifts her into his arms, and strokes her fur. Her meow turns into a purr. Without giving it a second thought, Leah walks over and pets her, too. She stuffs the business card in her purse. “She’s a fighter,” Leah says. “Nine lives.” “So she’s better?” “Yeah. In fact, she can go home. Well, if she had a home.” “No luck?” Leah scratches behind an ear. Everitt shakes his head. “You?” “No. But I only know one person here in the city.” The two continue to shower the cat with affection, but stop when their fingers brush. Leah freezes and pulls away. She clears her throat. “I came over to—” A knock. “Sorry to interrupt, Dr. Grady. But,” Stacy stands halfway inside. She reigns in her words at the sight of Leah, but then snaps her attention back to Everitt. “Tess is on the phone. She says it’s urgent.” Everitt runs the palm of his hand over his forehead. “Tess?” “Yes.” “Please take a message, Stacy.” “I tried.” Stacy’s eyes flit to Leah again. “And…?” Stacy shakes her head. “Will you excuse me?” Everitt asks. Leah nods. Everitt passes the cat into Leah’s arms as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. Leah stiffens, not sure how to hold an animal, much less an injured one. She slides her purse off her arm as she takes the animal. Everitt and Stacy leave the room. It takes a while, but Leah finally eases into the idea of holding the feline. “You’re very sweet,” Leah says, pressing her nose into the top of the cat’s head. “I’m sorry I hit you. Sorry I can’t take care of you. But I need to be on my own.” The cat sinks into sleep. “Is someone missing you, little kitty? Do you have a name?” She studies the cat with its tan fur and smudge-of-charcoal face. “Should be something creative like…Mrs. Mistoffelees or Princess Meow or—” “Fur Elise.” Leah startles and whips around to see Everitt leaning against the doorjamb, watching her. The cat wakes up. “You scared me. You shouldn’t sneak up on people.” “Mrs. Mistoffelees, huh?” “You know, T.S. Elliot? Cats?” Everitt shakes his head. “The musical?” “Ah.” “I really need to go,” Leah says. Everitt’s cheerful demeanor disappears. There’s too long of a silence. Leah picks up her purse. “I have to look for a job, go furniture shopping, pay a parking ticket…” “Why’d you come by?” Everitt asks as Leah heads for the exit. “Oh.” She touches her bag, considers the card. “It’s not important.” Leah hands the cat to Everitt. “She won’t…get put down, will she?” “No. I was thinking of calling the Humane Society. They’re better at placing animals than I am.” “Humane Society? But if they can’t adopt pets out, don’t they…?” She doesn’t want to say the words. “Sometimes, but there’s really no other option.” “You.” Leah pleads with Everitt. He glances toward the door. “I told you. I can’t.” “But why?” “I lost a cat recently,” Everitt says. “He didn’t die, but… I’m not ready for that kind of commitment right now.” His eyes sweep toward hers. That’s not what Leah expected to hear. “So unless you know of someone…” Leah strokes the cat, taking time to weed through the countless reasons she shouldn’t speak her next words. “Well, maybe I do.” Everitt raises an eyebrow. “Me?” “I thought you said—” Leah gazes down at the animal. “Thing is,” she says as she looks back up to meet Everitt’s expectant eyes, “what if she never finds a home or a family who loves her or anyone to call her Fur Elise?” A smile edges the corner of Everitt’s mouth. “She’ll need a day or two for final tests.” Leah purses her lips and takes a deep breath, unsure of what she’s doing. Yet she nods. “I can give you the kennel. Gather some supplies. If you want, I can bring her over.” “That would be nice.” “She’s lucky to have you.” He reaches out and touches Leah’s arm. His hand lingers, and he holds his breath. Leah’s fingers go to the pin on her shirt. For some reason, she trembles. Everitt pulls away, takes a moment. “So is that her name?” Everitt asks. “What?” “Fur Elise?” Leah’s lips part, and she studies the animal. “Yeah.” Chapter Fifteen Leah double-checks the lock on her car before she steps onto the sidewalk in search of the temp agency. As she reads the building numbers, Leah’s mind wanders. She can’t believe she agreed to take the cat. Her goal was to be independent, and now look what she’s done: sidled herself with a dependent in a foreign city where she has no job and an apartment lease that clearly prohibits pets. What was she thinking? She’ll have to tell Everitt she can’t do it after all. She can’t take on that kind of responsibility, not when she’s just starting a new life and gaining her independence. Leah pulls herself out of her thoughts. She holds out the written address and matches it to the number on the building’s front. An office with a dangling, weathered sign reading On the Mark hides in the cubbyhole of a building. Inside, the walls of the room sit too close to one another. There’s a bank of computers, a couple of small offices in the back. Leah considers turning around and abandoning this whole ridiculous idea. In fact, it has crossed her mind to pack up what little she has and head back to Zion. But then Glen will lay the I told you so cliché on her, and she’ll never be able to live down her failure. Leah touches the outside of her purse. The Xanax is inside, but she takes a deep breath, not ready to take one just yet. She signs in at reception where the woman has a small Valentine’s tree on the corner of her desk. It makes Leah sick. There’s nothing to celebrate about love. She wishes it were already February 15th. “Leah Newland?” a voice says. Leah snaps free of her thoughts and follows the woman to the computers. “You’ll need to take a typing and ten-key test before the interview.” “Ten key?” Leah says, unsure of what that might be. The woman gestures for Leah to take a seat in front of one of the monitors. She leans over Leah’s shoulder to type something onto the screen. Leah gets a whiff of her faux floral perfume and is pretty certain she’ll have an asthma attack if the woman doesn’t beeline it out of here ASAP. Leah glimpses the door. It’s not too late to make a getaway. But her brother’s voice—like the devil on her shoulder—resonates through her mind. The woman flips open a laminated booklet. “Hit start when you’re ready and type as much as you can before the computer timer ends.” Leah feels the pinch between her brows. “Okay?” Leah hammers out words before the timer locks her out of the program. On cue, the woman reappears, waving Leah from the room to another slightly bigger one. “Have a seat. Irma will be right with you.” Irma? Sounds…old. Leah straightens across a weathered desk from Irma Sheridan, an underfed woman who looks sixtyish, but is probably in her mid forties. Desperation hides behind her glasses. Irma thoroughly inspects the paper in front of her. “Hmm, Granberry. Objective, Assistant Buyer. Purchasing, sales floor experience.” She sets the page down and turns to her computer. “I think I may have something for you.” Her hooker-red nails click on the keyboard. “Here we go. Divalia.” Leah acts like an anxious child. She loves the clothing lines at Divalia. She literally sits on the edge of her seat. “Can you make it there today?” “Today?” “If today's a problem...” Irma says, turning back to her computer screen. Leah bites the pad of her thumb. “No. I can make it.” A printer rattles and spits out a paper, which Irma hands to Leah, avoiding eye contact with her. “Ask for Sharon Weber.” Leah gets up to leave. “Out of curiosity, why did I have to take a ten-key test?” Irma continues to look at the computer as if she didn’t hear Leah. And that’s the only answer she gets from the woman. Chapter Sixteen A ten-key looms in the corner of the snack bar. Leah glances beyond the tables and slickly-waxed floor to the name Divalia, which is printed in reverse on the glass. The eating area looks out onto the upper tier of the department store where Leah longs to be. Instead, she stands behind a broad, burley woman who wears a crisp white shirt and tie. Her nametag reads Sharon Weber, Refreshment Liaison. Leah is clearly overdressed. “This is the ten-key machine. You’ll need it to calculate the employee discount, which is twenty percent.” “Shouldn’t Divalia be able to afford software that auto calculates?” Sharon sighs. It’s not the first time she’s heard this. “As I was saying, the discount’s twenty. Not fifty, not forty, not even thirty. It is twenty percent. No more, no less. The last guy who worked here had a problem with that concept.” Leah glances at Sharon's nametag. “Listen, Sharon...” Aggravation registers on Sharon's face. Leah gulps and starts again. “Listen, Ms. Weber. There's been a mistake.” Sharon shakes her head. Leah is a pinned rabbit in Sharon's predatory territory. “There hasn't been a mistake?” Leah puzzles. Sharon hands an apron to Leah. “The lunch rush should be starting at...” She looks at the clock on the wall, “twelve sharp. So suit up.” Leah stares at the apron in hand. It is so far south of fashionable. Sharon walks away, and then turns back. “One more thing.” She fishes something out of her pocket and hands it to Leah. Leah palms it. “What’s this?” “Hair net.” The last accessory Leah ever dreamt of wearing. “Do I have help?” But Sharon has stepped out of earshot to study a blouse in the women's department, so Leah is completely on her own. *** Leah turns to the clock on the wall, which shows 12:20. The line to concessions extends into the junior's department. A haphazard grouping of patties and hot dogs sizzles on the grill. One of the burgers chars. Leah, apron stained, hair falling out of an oversized hairnet, slouches over the ten-key. She struggles with the calculation while an employee from men’s world—wearing a suit and a tie—leans forward in frustration against the counter. There is a great deal of commotion and complaining among the masses. “Twenty percent. Hit the percentage key,” a guy with the nametag of Frank barks. “Hit the percentage key!” Leah becomes unnerved as he reaches over the counter. Behind Leah, smoke billows into the air as the burger catches on fire. Leah notices and abandons Frank and the calculator. She searches for something to dampen the flame. Desperate, she dashes into the women's department and takes a blouse from its hanger. She smacks at the fire, but only manages to aggravate it. A female employee from the floor yells out. “It's made out of acetate. It's highly...” But her words are cut off as the fire flares, sending licks of flames into the air. A male employee throws his hands over his mouth. “That's my burger!” The hungry employees act as though they've never seen a kitchen fire before, so Leah has a captive audience. “The extinguisher,” someone says. “Use the extinguisher!” Leah locates it behind it's fragile glass casing. She tugs, but the door won’t open. “Break the glass!” The smoke detector emits a high-pitched scream. Leah grabs hold of the ax and takes a swing. Shards soar in all directions. Leah wields the extinguisher. “Pull, aim, squeeze, sweep. Pull, aim, squeeze, sweep,” she says to herself. She goes through the actions. “Pull.” She pulls the tab. “Aim.” She aims the mechanism at the fire. “Squeeze...” Sharon steps in the way as Leah squeezes and fires on Sharon. The waiting employees applaud. Leah cringes as Sharon grabs the extinguisher from Leah and easily puts out the flames. Leah turns a wide-eyed and innocent look on Sharon. “Sweep?” Sharon shakes her head. The sound of the smoke alarm dies down. “I'll just get my things,” Leah says. Chapter Seventeen Leah knocks on Clint's apartment door. He opens up, and there’s the Red Vine again, hanging from his lip. He tears off a bite and extends it to her. Leah shakes the offer away. “Any chance you like to shop?” He raises an eyebrow. “Is this a trick question or a euphemism for something else?” “No.” “You know I don’t fit the stereotype, don’t you?” “Stereotype?” “You know, the gay man who likes to decorate his apartment, wear flamboyant colors, and shop.” “You’re gay?” “Last time I checked.” “I thought you were—?” “They all do.” “Sorry, I didn’t…” He waves off her unneeded apology. “What are we shopping for?” Clint stuffs the remainder of the candy into his mouth and steps into the hallway. “I love to shop.” *** It’s lunchtime. The café buzzes with patrons. Leah and Clint share a bistro table along the street. Leah picks flakes from her croissant sandwich. “Furniture is so expensive.” “Welcome to San Francisco,” Clint says before he stuffs a huge bite of his double-stack sandwich into his mouth. “I just hope they make the delivery before my parents arrive.” “You paid extra for expedited delivery,” he says. “Besides, what do you care? So you have no furniture. It’s not like you’ve been evicted or…” he searches the bustling street for his next thought and spies a musician on one of the corners, “decided to become a busker.” “You don't know my dad. If he doesn’t have a recliner to sit on when he gets here, I don’t know what will happen.” Clint wrestles the top off a ketchup bottle. “And my mom. I’ll never hear the end of it if I don’t have the apartment furnished in time.” “What you should worry about...” Clint dumps a blob on his plate, “is finding a job. Leah rustles the newspaper in front of her. “I tried the temp agency, but…” Leah doesn’t finish her sentence because she catches sight of a hostess who escorts Everitt and a pretty blonde onto the patio. Clint follows the path of Leah’s attention. “Who’s that?” “Oh, no one.” Clint curls an eyebrow. “Someone.” “Just the vet.” “Very cute.” Leah averts her eyes to hide the rising blush that she hopes isn’t there. “What? He is.” Clint pivots to catch another glimpse. “Looks like he’s taken, though. Bummer.” “I don’t care.” Clint studies her. “No, not at all.” A sarcastic thread is woven through his voice. Everitt and the woman take a seat. Everitt doesn’t see Leah because he appears too preoccupied with his date. There’s a seed of jealousy planted in the pit of Leah’s stomach, something she hasn’t felt since her relationship with Charlie ended. Clint shakes the paper gently. “Job.” “He never mentioned a girlfriend.” “Was he supposed to?” “Or a wife.” “I thought you didn’t really like him. I remember something along the lines of a bad marketing plan. Plus, all you’ve ever done is complain about him.” Leah’s attention is completely drawn to Everitt's table. When Everitt looks up, Leah gives him a slight smile and a wave. Everitt lightens at the sight of Leah, but only for a moment. He too quickly returns to his conversation. Clint shakes his head slowly back and forth. His mouth is a straight line. “What?” she says. “I’m not interested.” “Right.” Clint rolls his eyes. “Now about those jobs.” Leah's eyes shift slowly from Everitt to the newspaper in front of her. “You know,” Clint says, pointing to a sign in the café window, “they’re hiring here.” “You’re funny.” “Just saying. You need a job, this place needs a waitress. You can put your recent Divalia experience to use.” “Such a comedian. I’m done with food.” She takes a final glance in Everitt’s direction. “And with men.” Leah eases her attention back to Clint. “Except for you, of course.” “Of course.” Chapter Eighteen Clint gives Leah’s door a cursory knock, but then walks right in with a package in hand. Leah holds a roll of blue painter’s tape and is squaring off sections of her floor. Too engrossed in her task, she barely notices Clint is there. “Looks like the store delivered the wrong furniture,” Clint says. “I don’t remember picking out the invisible suite.” “I’m laying out the room.” “O-kay.” He takes a beat. “I brought you something. To liven the place up.” Clint stops when he sees his painting propped against the wall. “What’s this doing in here?” Leah wanders over to the picture. “I kind of…took it.” “Why?” “Because you were getting rid of it. Because it’s really good.” Clint hands the package he’s holding to Leah. “Housewarming gift.” His vision trails over to his painting, assessing it through new eyes. “I tried some ideas in your plan, you know?” “And?” “And you pretty much know what you’re doing.” “Can I?” she asks, tipping the present in his direction. Clint nods. Leah sets the tape down and gently pulls away the wrapping. Clint studies her. “Just tear it for goodness sake.” Leah pauses and then does just that. It’s liberating. Clint meanders around the room and picks up a prescription bottle just as Leah unveils a fuzzy blanket. “So I can have mine back,” Clint says. “Thanks.” She feels the texture. “I love it.” She gives Clint a hug just as another knock sounds on the open door. Someone pushes inward. “Oh, sorry.” It’s Everitt, holding a bag. A cat toy peeks out of the top. But Everitt steps back at the sight of Leah and Clint exiting their embrace. “I should have called.” “No, um…” Leah’s arms fall to her sides like a wilted flower. “We were just…” She doesn’t know how to explain, so she doesn’t. “Everitt, this is Clint. Clint…Everitt.” “I was in the neighborhood, so I thought I’d bring some things by.” His expression is a question mark asking to come in. “For Fur Elise.” “Right. You can set it…well, really anywhere.” “Fur Elise?” Clint says mostly to himself. Everitt scans the main room. “Bare minimum.” “We bought furniture,” Clint says. Everitt gives Clint the head-to-toe. “Oh. Right.” Everitt goes to the bag. “Well, everything you need should be here.” He picks up and sets down random items. “Cat toys, litter box, food, medicine.” He touches his face, and then puts his hand in his pocket. Leah’s attention darts to Clint, who she is quite certain knows the no-pet rule in the apartment building. “Thanks.” “She’ll be discharged tomorrow. Just give Stacy a call at the front office, and she can arrange everything.” Leah’s expression fades. “Stacy?” “She’ll take care of things from this point on.” Everitt steps back toward the door. “I think your bill’s all settled, but if you want to set a follow-up appointment for a few weeks from now, I think that would be a good idea.” “Um, yeah. Okay.” Leah tries not to show how crushed she is. “Have fun furnishing the place.” He looks at Clint again. “Nice to meet you.” He waves to Leah and slips out of the apartment. Once Clint sees Everitt’s gone, he goes to the door and closes it. Then he sets his back against the frame and stares wide-eyed at Leah. “What…was that all about?” Leah paces. She goes to the cat items and barely touches them. “I know, I know. Mrs. Puccini is going to kick me out on the street. I just couldn’t let Fur Elise get put to sleep.” “Mrs. Puccini? I’m not talking about Mrs. Puccini, sister. I’m talking about him.” Clint points toward the hallway. Leah narrows her eyes, not sure what Clint’s getting at. “I told him I’d take the cat. I’m a sucker, all right?” “Forget the cat. He likes you.” Leah stops and glares at Clint. “No way.” “And you like him.” “Do not.” “Really?” “Really. Besides, you saw. He’s taken.” “Maybe he’s unhappy with the blonde. Maybe he likes brunettes.” “Stop.” Leah scrambles around, looking for something. “Have you seen my…” Clint shakes the prescription bottle, and Leah snatches it. “What’s that for anyway?” “Anxiety.” She twists off the cap, takes one. “Does it cure infatuation? Because if I were a doctor, that would be my diagnosis.” Leah sits down in one of her cordoned-off squares and sighs. She fingers her butterfly pin. Chapter Nineteen “I wish I could come with you, but I have an appointment. Potential investor.” Clint’s tone is optimistic, and he makes an outward display of crossing his fingers. “Your art is amazing. I told you it wasn’t lack of talent.” “I don’t have her commitment yet.” A cool breeze picks up and carries trash along the sidewalk. Leah jangles her keys in her gloved hand, and then wraps her scarf tighter around her neck. “Can I at least give you a ride?” she asks. “I’m good. I like hoofing it through the city. But I’ll walk with you to your car.” As per routine, Leah bends down and places a few bucks inside the homeless man’s tin cup. “What are you doing?” Clint asks. He eyes Leah like she’s an alien—a role she often feels she fits. “Giving him money. Is that wrong?” “Uh, yeah.” Leah tugs Clint’s coat sleeve to get him out of earshot of the sleeping man. They head toward Leah’s car. “He’s going to use it to get hammered.” Clint stops for a moment and pivots back to take a glimpse of him. “He’s already passed out.” “Well, what he does with the money is his business. Maybe he’s buying food.” “He’s not. Besides, who are you to be giving him anything? You’re unemployed and living in an empty apartment. To make matters worse, you’ve now taken on a dependent. Do you know how much the vet bills alone are going to cost you?” Leah hadn’t thought that far ahead. She glances over at the man, tucked beneath a cardboard box. “It’s the right thing to do. Plus, it’s good karma.” Clint raises an eyebrow and throws on the sarcasm. “Yes, I see how much good karma you’ve generated since moving here.” They arrive at Leah’s car. “Well, this is me. Good luck with your meeting.” Leah opens the car door, but Clint snags hold of her coat. “Hey. Whatever you do, don’t let Puccini see you with that cat. Otherwise, you’ll be the one sleeping under the cardboard box.” Leah nods and slides into the driver’s seat. Things really cannot get much worse than this. Chapter Twenty Leah sits on the edge of her chair in the waiting room of Pacific Coast Veterinary Clinic. Stacy is making telephone confirmation calls at the reception desk. Leah fidgets with the fringe of her designer handbag, wondering how much she could get for it if she pawned it at the shop down the street from her apartment. She knows Grandma Gina’s pin is worth a fair amount. But there’s no way she can part with it. It reminds her of her grandmother’s dancing story and how anything is possible if you find a way to make it happen. The front door opens, and Leah looks up. A woman checks in with her caged tabby that meows over and over again like a loop recording. Gosh, she hopes Fur Elise isn’t noisy. Leah pinches away the budding headache that arises at the memory of Clint’s warning about Mrs. Puccini. The last thing she needs—or can handle—is an eviction. “Ms. Newland?” Leah glances up to see Mary standing at the open doorway, waiting for her. “Want to come back so we can go over everything for Fur Elise?” She stands. “Isn’t Everitt here?” “Dr. Grady is out this morning. But I can go over the specifics with you.” As Leah allows herself to be led back, she takes a futile gaze at the entrance door, but no one walks through it. Back in the room, Mary removes Fur Elise from her kennel and puts her on the table. “Dr. Grady removed the bandage last night. He wants you to keep an eye out for any stiffness of the limbs, any unusual gait.” Leah’s not sure what the typical gait for a cat is, but she’s too distracted to think to ask. Instead, she eyes the room and lands on Everitt’s framed degree on the wall. Beneath his Doctorate designation is a second line that reads First Class Honors. Her eyes skim to the counter where a bouquet of fresh flowers lays with a card stuck in the holder. “She’s been tested for feline leukemia and FIV.” Mary’s words draw Leah away from her speculation. “She must have been living indoors for a time because she’s free of fleas. But maybe Dr. Grady told you this already,” Mary says. “I think he mentioned you have accessories. Litter box, bowls, food?” Leah thinks of the bag Everitt dropped off. “Yes.” “She needs to finish up her antibiotics, and make sure her wounds don’t reopen.” Mary shows Leah where the healing lacerations are. “Other than that, Fur Elise is all yours. In fact, she’s even been micro chipped for you.” Mary smiles over at Leah, who works hard to muster even a grain of enthusiasm. “She can go home now,” Mary says, trying to elicit a happier response. Leah pets the cat and finally looks at her for the first time. “You hear that?” she says to the cat. “We’re going home.” Mary puts Fur Elise back in the kennel. “Ev—Dr. Grady said I should make a follow-up appointment?” “You can do that at the front desk with Stacy.” “Okay.” “See you up front.” Leah rummages through her handbag for keys, but her attention is almost magnetically drawn back to the flowers. She pads over and sneaks a peek at the card. It reads, Forgive me. Love, Tess. There’s a sinking in Leah’s chest. She takes the kennel handle and lifts Fur Elise out of the room and back to the lobby. Mary hands paperwork to Stacy. “If you have any questions,” Mary says to Leah, “be sure to give us a call.” Us. Leah nods. It’s all she can manage. Stacy reads from the sheet. “Says we should see you back here in one month.” She clicks in the computer. “We’re looking at February 14th. How sweet! Valentine’s Day.” “You know,” Leah says, “I don’t have my calendar with me. I’ll just call and schedule it later.” “Sure.” Leah picks up the cat carrier, ready to leave and find herself another veterinarian. But then the door flies inward, and Everitt walks through. His jacket collar is pushed up and his hair is a mop from the wind. The gusty weather keeps the door wide open, and Everitt fights to close it. He prepares to move straight to the back exam rooms, but stops when his eyes meet Leah’s. “Hi,” he says, brushing back his bangs. “Hi.” He swallows hard, and then tears his attention away from Leah to Fur Elise. “She’s going home.” He kneels down and teases a finger through the wired door to the kennel to stroke the tip of Fur Elise’s ear. He stands back up, now a little closer to Leah than he was before. “I was getting used to having her around.” Everitt scans the room. “You by yourself?” Leah squinches her eyes. “Yeah.” “I thought…” His sentence trails off. “What?” “Nothing.” He looks outside at the whipping wind. “It’s blustery out there. Do you need some help?” Everitt reaches for the carrier handle as Leah moves to cinch it, too. She gets there first, but their fingers meet. “I’ve got it,” she says. His hand rests over hers, and he doesn’t take it away. He inhales. “I want to be able to help.” “Mary went over everything.” Everitt pinches his eyes closed for a brief moment. “About that—” Leah shakes her head. She doesn’t want to hear about his girlfriend, fiancée, whoever the blonde may be. She doesn’t want another rejection. The job loss was already enough. Charlie back in Zion was already enough. “Don’t. It’s okay.” She touches her temple. Everitt lets go of the cage and lays a hand on Leah’s arm. “Are you okay?” Leah’s eyes wander to Everitt’s hand—to the fingers that were just touching her own. “Yeah. I mean, no.” He studies her and waits for more. “I’m thinking of going back to Illinois.” Everitt forces away the frown that commandeers his expression. “Why?” “I think I made a mistake coming here. Things aren’t working out.” “You’ve only been here a few weeks.” Everitt ransacks his mind for reasons, spills them out in front of Leah. “You’ll find a better job, find…” he stops himself and then redirects his thoughts, “something that makes you happy.” Leah latches on to Everitt’s eyes. “Besides, what about Clint?” “What about him?” Stacy clears her throat. “Dr. Grady? You have a patient waiting in exam room two.” “Sure I can’t help you outside?” he asks Leah. “I’m sure.” Everitt studies Leah and gives her a slight nod before tearing himself away. “Coming, Stacy.” He hesitates before heading further into the room. “You’re not leaving tomorrow, are you?” “No.” “Because I’ll need to say goodbye to Fur Elise.” “I’ll make sure of it.” Leah watches him walk away. Forgive me. Then Leah walks away, too. Chapter Twenty-One The sun casts a spotlight on Leah’s apartment floor. The suitcase and sleeping bag are tucked away, and Leah is more than ready for her furniture to be here. She checks her watch for the hundredth time and paces back and forth through the room, her footsteps echoing against the naked wall. “They’re late.” Leah announces the obvious. She works to quell the panic rising within her by clasping her prescription bottle. She twists the cap, but then rethinks her decision and puts it away. Clint gets up from his place against the wall. A piece of paper sits on the floor in front of him, and he picks it up. “Seriously,” he says, “don't worry. I'll take care of it.” Leah takes a deep breath, and then stops moving long enough to assess whether or not she believes Clint’s statement to be true. “You know where everything goes, right?” “Well, it’s marked off with tape on the floor, so I don’t see how I could miss it.” “Make sure they follow the layout exactly.” “You’re freaking out over five pieces of furniture.” “Six.” He glimpses his own watch. “If you don't go now you're going to be late.” Clint pushes Leah out the door, but she digs her heels in. “The sofa goes along the wall that adjoins—” Clint fans out his arm across the laid-out room. “Leah?” Clint’s voice contains a caliber of seriousness now. “Just go get your parents already.” Chapter Twenty-Two The airport terminal bustles with activity. A flood of people ripple through the corridors. Seats are filled with lethargic travelers. Leah waits nervously. She bites her thumbnail as she dodges moving passengers to look beyond airport security. She finally spies her parents as they reach the end of the moving walkway. But then they suddenly stop. Lorna appears to struggle to get her luggage off the belt, and it looks like a piece of Lorna’s clothing is stuck. Darrell tugs and tugs. Leah studies their expressions and body language, her dad’s irritation at having to pull something free that’s caught. She sees her mom’s fretful expression: her hands splayed across her face with worry. Then Darrell pulls Lorna’s cardigan sweater free, handing it to her as he marches past the TSA and out to freedom. Lorna spots Leah and waves her arms in the air, rushing over. Darrell, devoid of emotion, approaches as Lorna ensnares Leah in her arms. Lorna releases her daughter, and then holds her at arm’s length. “You're so thin. Did you lose weight?” She steps back and spins Leah around to examine her from all angles. “Have you been cooking?” Leah ignores her mom and looks at her father. “Hi Dad.” He pats her on the shoulder. Darrell redirects his wife, and the three of them meander to baggage claim. During the walk, Lorna inundates Leah with questions. “How’s your new job? Have you met many friends?” “Give her a chance to breath, for Christ’s sake,” Darrell says. Lorna shoots a quick and almost imperceptible look at her husband, and then chooses to ignore him. “Have you found a supermarket you like?” “Mom, it’s really not like that here.” They reach the baggage carrousel for the flight. It slowly spins as hordes of passengers fish for their luggage. People push and shove in a relentless pursuit of their baggage. The sudden chaos releases Leah from the clutches of her mom’s interrogation. Lorna stands behind the crowd, watching Leah and Darrell fight their way to the luggage belt. “It’s the big red one. You remember,” Lorna shouts after Leah. Darrell pulls a few pieces free. Leah spots the suitcase her mother described. She remembers it vividly. It’s red, for sure. But it’s not just big. It is gigantic and looks to contain all of her mother’s possessions. Leah struggles to yank the thing off the moving belt. But it’s heavy. She follows it around, bumping into other people. Finally, she’s forced to let go. On the second go around, Leah manages to heave the suitcase off the belt and lug it over to her parents. “I'll have to fatten you up while I'm here,” Lorna says. “You look like Twiggy. Men like women with meat on their bones.” “Mom. Twiggy? Really?” “You know, you always have a home with us.” Thank goodness the humungous red bag is a roller. Leah pulls the handle out and pushes it toward her mother. Then the three of them head down the corridor. *** Leah drives while Darrell sits in the passenger's seat. Lorna rides in the back. Leah maneuvers through the winding streets. A Chevy pulls out in front of her, and she swerves to miss hitting it. “The people in California drive like maniacs,” Lorna says, holding on for dear life to the door handle. “You want me to drive?” Darrell asks his daughter. “I'm fine.” The Honda stops at an intersection. An unkempt man spits on the windshield and smears the saliva with his hand. “Hurry!” Lorna cries. “Roll up your window, Leah.” Lorna jams the locks on the back doors. “And lock the doors.” The light turns green and Leah makes her way to her street. But the furniture delivery truck sits at the front of her apartment building, so Leah makes an abrupt turn down a side street. Darrell crashes into the side of the car; Lorna tips over in the back seat. “Sorry,” Leah says, clearing her throat. “Wrong way.” She drives in an intricate maze through the twisting San Francisco streets. “You always knew your way around Zion,” Lorna says. Leah pulls into an open parking space along the curb. Lorna and Darrell look at the building, at each other, and then at Leah. “This is where you live?” Lorna asks. She pulls the two sides of her cardigan closed and clasps them at her neck. “I thought you lived north of here,” her dad says. “I do.” “I don't think I like this neighborhood.” Lorna only takes side-glances out the window, following the principle if I can’t see you, you can’t see me. “She doesn't live here, Lorna.” Lorna seems not to hear. “It doesn't seem safe for a young, single woman.” She lowers her voice to a whisper. “I don't live on this block, Mom.” Leah gets out of the car, followed by her dad. They collect the luggage. “So why is it you don’t park on your street?” Darrell asks. “Um…” Leah clears her throat. “Are you coming, Mom?” Lorna glances around, and then follows her family. As the three trudge up the street, Darrell and Lorna labor more than Leah. “Why'd we park so far away?” Lorna asks. “It’s just the way the city works.” “The city is backward. In Zion you park in driveways.” She looks around. “I don't see any driveways around here. Do you, Darrell?” “Zion has three hundred people,” Leah says. “24,339,” Darrell says without cracking a smile. “There's a parking space. Why didn't you park there? This has to be murder on your feet.” “I’m fine, Mom.” They finally arrive. The furniture delivery truck still looms in the road. Leah turns so that her parents face away from the apartment building. Leah reaches for her anxiety med. “You’re having an attack,” Lorna says. “I knew it! This city is affecting your health.” “I’m fine. I just need to rest.” “I think she's having a spell, Darrell. We should go to the hospital.” Lorna turns to Leah. “Are you having a spell?” “No, Mom. I just need to rest a minute.” Leah looks past her parents at the delivery truck. Lorna glances around. “It's the polluted air. I can barely see past my fingers.” She splays them in front of her face. Leah sits down on the filthy curb. “Oh, we're resting here?” Lorna asks, trying to be flexible. Lorna removes a tissue from her purse and places it on the concrete planter before she sits down. Darrell continues to stand. Leah notices the driver get into the delivery truck and pull away. She jumps up. “Okay. All better now.” “That quickly?” “That quickly.” Lorna stands. “Usually you don't recover from attacks that fast.” “It wasn't an attack.” The three take off toward the apartment and climb the stairs. “Isn’t there an elevator?” Lorna searches around for one. Finally they reach Leah’s floor. Lorna and Darrell, both breathless, dump their luggage inside. Leah rushes into the living room to examine the furniture as Lorna and Darrell peruse Leah’s new place. Lorna’s head pivots like an owl scanning the place for a predator. “It's ... cute.” “How much are you paying in rent?” Darrell asks. “Darrell,” Lorna scolds, “that's personal. Besides, she's got a big-city job at Granberry.” Darrell fixes a stare on his daughter. “How is your job?” Leah sucks in a breath of air to help answer the question. “Fine.” Darrell appears unconvinced. “You don't like it,” Darrell says, “you come home. Lorna walks the apartment like a real estate agent. “You could stand to get some Oriental rugs in here.” Lorna opens the closet door and inspects. “I don't want any rugs.” Without realizing her racial faux pas, Lorna spits out her next statement. “They should be easy to come by with all the Asians living here.” “I like wood floors.” But Lorna is unrelenting. “Rugs really spruce up a place.” “Do you want anything to drink?” Leah asks her parents. “Beer,” Darrell says. “Pop,” says Lorna. Leah opens the refrigerator. It's empty. She grimaces. “How about water?” Lorna hones in on the sound of running water. She enters the bathroom. Leah hears the toilet handle jiggle. Out of sight, Lorna speaks. “The toilie runs. Why is it running?” “Just does.” Leah turns on the tap and fills two cups. She lifts one of the glasses to the light, watching the grayish particles swim in the water. “Where's the television set?” Darrell asks. “I don't have one.” “We’ll get one for you,” Darrell tells Leah as if television is a necessity. “Really,” Leah insists, “I don't want one.” Lorna goes into the bedroom. The cat stares at her from the windowsill. “Leah,” she says from out of sight. “What is this?” Leah, not having looked in the bedroom yet, rushes in. She calms herself at the sight of the bed. Fur Elise meows and jumps down. Lorna startles. “I got a cat.” Darrell stands in the doorway. Lorna feigns a chipper smile. “But they climb curtains and walk on counters.” “I don't have curtains,” Leah tells her. “We'll have to get you some pretty pink ones. Just like your room in Zion. Won’t we, Darrell?” Darrell says nothing. “It will make you feel at home,” Lorna says. “That's okay, Mom.” “We insist.” Now Leah remembers why she left Zion in the first place. Chapter Twenty-Three The lamps Lorna and Darrell recently purchased for Leah light up the apartment. An Oriental rug covers a huge section of flooring. The window is open, letting in the cool night air and the sounds of rushing traffic from the street below. Darrell stares at the new television positioned along the wall of Leah’s living room—something they also purchased. Leah works her way toward the door, handbag strapped over her shoulder. Lorna looks up from her cross-stitch. “Your father and I thought it would be nice to go to Sees Chocolates on the waterfront. Want to come?” “Ghiradelli. And I can't. I have…a class.” In reality, Leah just wants to get away and breathe for a while. Lorna sets her project down. “Oh? What kind of class?” Leah looks around, hoping to find the answer on her bare white walls. “Painting.” “Like Bob Ross?” “Something like that,” Leah says. Lorna scurries for the television remote control and grabs it. “He may be on right now.” She surfs through the channels, completely obliterating the news channel Darrell was watching. “You don’t need to take a class.” Darrell huffs. “Is nothing sacred?” He reaches for his wife. “Give me that!” He snatches the remote from her as Leah heads for the door. “I'm just trying to find PBS,” Lorna says to her husband. “Did you paint this one?” Lorna asks, gesturing toward the stolen perspective. “No.” “Oh, good.” Leah skirts around her mom toward the door. She can’t get out quickly enough. “All right,” Lorna says. “Have fun.” In the hallway, Leah leans against the wall, closes her eyes, and takes a deep breath. “I don’t need my Xanax,” she chants. “I don’t need my Xanax.” The door opens up. “Do you have your Xanax?” Lorna asks. “Yes.” “Since you don’t have pots and pans yet,” Lorna says, “will you pick up dinner on the way home? Maybe something exotic, like Italian.” Chapter Twenty-Four The Café Nana Banana buzzes with customers, clanging plates, and conversation. The smell of oregano permeates the air as the kitchen sizzles with a mixture of fried mozzarella, grilled chicken, and stone fired pizza. Leah pays for and picks up her order, and then steps back into the waning light of another San Francisco day. An egg yolk of sun dips through a smattering of orange and yellow sky. She wears Grandma Gina’s whistle around her neck and a warm, end-of-January coat. Exhaustion shows on her face. Leah glances across the street and catches sight of a familiar figure—Everitt descending the steps of a mint-green apartment building. Leah stands motionless, long enough to capture his attention. He sees her before hitting the sidewalk in stride. A wash of headlights spreads across the smear of black road. Once it passes, Everitt scans for traffic, and then jogs across. This time he is clean-shaven. When he reaches Leah, he points to the bag. Leah looks at it like an extra appendage. “Dinner.” “Eating alone?” “My parents are in town. I don’t cook, so I picked up calzones and lasagna al forno.” “I hope the lasagna’s for you.” “It is. Why?” “It’s my favorite dish.” Leah glances at the apartment building behind Everitt. “You live there?” Everitt turns back to study the place. “Yeah.” “We’re almost neighbors.” She shifts the bag to her other hand, touches the whistle around her neck. Everitt gestures toward it. “New fashion?” “My grandma’s.” Everitt waits for Leah to elaborate. “She gave it to me…before I moved here. She was worried. At the same time, I think she was the only one who believed I’d make it here.” “You miss her.” It’s a statement. Leah looks at it, and then folds back the top part of her coat to show the butterfly pin. “This is hers, too.” She takes a beat. “I know it’s silly, but I wear it all the time.” “It’s not silly. How’s Fur Elise?” “Great. She’s been great,” Leah says. “I noticed you didn’t make a follow-up appointment.” “Well,” she avoids eye contact, shifts her feet. “I’ve been…busy.” “About Fur Elise,” Everitt says. “I didn’t take her, not because I didn’t want her or anything, but—” “Right,” Leah interjects. “You already told me. You lost a cat. You don’t have to explain.” Leah’s eyes crawl back up to meet Everitt’s. “I want to,” he says. “My girlfriend and I broke up. She took our cat—well, it was really her cat. I’m just not ready to—” “I get it.” She thinks of the letter from Charlie. “Listen,” Everitt says as he assesses the darkening street. “You want to come back to my place. I mean,” his face would show a blush if not for the diminishing light, “I can give you a ride home. You know, so you don’t have to use the whistle.” “Really, I’m only a few blocks down.” Everitt touches the bag. “It’s no trouble. I was heading in that direction anyway.” When he realizes the potential intimacy in the gesture, he pulls away. Leah peruses the inking sky. “Knowing grandmas, I imagine that thing’s pretty loud. I don’t want you to wake the neighborhood.” “It’s 5:30.” A smile plays on his lips. Then Everitt tips his head in the direction of his apartment. “You coming or not?” “I suppose.” The two cross the street and stroll to Everitt’s place. But he stops mid-sidewalk, and his vision lands on a woman sitting on the steps leading up to his apartment building. She lifts her head when she spies him. First she turns the flap up on her knitted hat and brushes back a stray, blonde hair from her face, and then she stands and scrutinizes Leah, soon refocusing on Everitt. “Can we talk?” Everitt looks between Leah and the new woman. “Now’s not a good time.” The blonde’s eyes move back to Leah. This time, they are an assessment of both the situation and the competition. “It’s about Daisy.” Everitt lets out a deep breath, torn by what to do. “It’s okay,” Leah says. “I was going to walk anyway.” “But—” “I’ll see you around.” “Leah, wait!” He moves to trail after her. “Don’t worry about it, okay?” Leah glances over his shoulder at the woman. “I have my whistle.” She musters a smile and lifts it up for Everitt to see. Then Leah turns away and heads up the street. She sniffles, which may be due to the unseasonably cold weather, maybe her hurt feelings. Either way, she puts up her hood and rushes toward her apartment, set on putting the night, and the twist of hurt in her stomach, behind her. She sets off at a crisp gallop, but slows when the neon sign of the now-closed pawnshop catches her eye. The store is an eclectic place located on the bottom floor of a historic building. Leah stops and glances in the window, taking in the collection of guitars and the cornucopia of antiques. In the recesses of the darkened room, Leah spies a cache of jewelry under glass. She grasps her pin, wondering. Finally, she tucks her hand in her coat pocket, hitches up the plastic bag of food, and hurries along the walkway. A gust picks up, and the loose strands of Leah’s hair whip around her face. An empty water bottle bounces across the pavement like an urban jackrabbit. Leah crosses the street on the last seconds of a pedestrian light, scuttling toward the curb. As she rounds the corner building, she feels a snag at her coat. She’s moments from the front steps of her apartment building. This can’t be happening. Between the ribbons of streetlights on the sidewalk, a figure dressed in black shoves what feels like a gun in her ribs. “Hand it over.” Maybe because of instinct, maybe because of the dreamlike state she seems to float in, Leah freezes and doesn’t do what she’s told. The wind carries everything away, including the sound of traffic and the memory of what to do in these situations. She drops the Italian food. The takeout containers hit the pavement. The guy doesn’t wait for her. He wrestles the purse from her arm, yanking on her bent elbow. It feels like it will be torn clean off. Somehow he steps on her foot, which affects her more than the possible gun in her ribs. Her shoes are expensive, designer, items she can no longer afford. The thought of them being ruined propels Leah into motion. She pulls the chain out from her jacket, sets the whistle between her lips, and blows. Over and over and over again. “Shut up!” the guy yells. In the mêlée, he manages to capture her purse and run with it, crunching the container of food as he darts away. The only thing keeping Leah upright is mere adrenaline. She simply watches as the man speeds off along the sidewalk with her purse. She drags her mind for the contents: wallet, credit cards, keys, and—probably worst of all—the letter from Charlie, which is totally irreplaceable. But in the distant shadows, Leah sees the purse-snatcher trip and fall. At least that’s what it looks like until another figure emerges from the recessed partition of an apartment building. The second person holds something that looks like a pipe, threatening to hit the purse-snatcher with it. But then the thief clambers up from the ground and scrambles away into the night. Leah’s apartment is down that way, but she hesitates to approach. For the briefest of moments, she looks back toward Everitt’s building, wondering if she should go back to him for safety. No. Not with her there. She needs to have courage. It’s the reason she came to San Francisco to begin with: to be independent, to do things for herself for a change. She looks around. There’s nothing to be brave with except her ruined Italian meal, her whistle, and—she touches it like a totem—her butterfly pin. She undoes the pin from her shirt, holding the sharp end like a weapon. Then Leah picks the ruined dinner from the ground and proceeds up the street. Each step is excruciating. As she nears the recessed section with the looming shadows, she realizes this is the place where the homeless man lives. She pads closer by a few steps. “Hello?” Her voice is hesitant and afraid. A man steps out of the darkness. He’s weathered, tattered, and he looks cold. Leah meets his Saint Bernard eyes, which look both kind and warning. The homeless man. “This is yours,” he says, handing Leah her purse. She stares at it, and he has to extend it to her further in order for her to take it. “Thanks,” Leah says on a swallow. “I don’t have any money or I’d…” He waves the gesture off with a fingerless glove. Leah remembers the bag. “I have this, though. If you want it. It’s a little smashed, but it should still be good.” The man takes it. “Thanks.” She looks him over a bit longer. “I’m Leah,” she says, extending her hand. The man takes a step back, but then finally reaches out and takes her hand. “Name’s Ernie.” Before Leah takes the steps to the third floor, she reaches in for the letter. Still there. She heaves a relieved sigh. *** Darrell sits on Leah's new couch, watching television and drinking a beer. Lorna sings Barry Manilow as she comes from the kitchen. Cleaning gloves on and rag in hand, Lorna crosses in front of the television as she weaves her way to the window. “You had to walk in front just as Intel stock comes up,” he says. “Where is she?” Lorna says to no one as she meanders in front of the screen again. “Can't you go through the hallway?” Darrell exaggerates the movement of trying to look around his wife. The door clicks open, and Leah strides into the living room without the takeout bag. “Where have you been?” Lorna asks as she rushes to her daughter’s side. “We thought you were kidnapped.” “We didn’t think you were kidnapped.” Darrell’s words are a mutter. “I…” Leah looks back toward the door. She cannot tell her parents a thing; they’ll insist she return home. “Ran into a friend.” “How nice!” Lorna says. “You made a friend already. Darrell,” Lorna turns to her husband, “Leah made a friend.” “I heard.” “Where’s the food?” Lorna asks. “About that,” Leah peels off her coat, looks at her dad as she conjures a lie. “It was too expensive. Best to save money.” Lorna holds her growling stomach. “What’d I tell you, Lorna? My girl is business savvy. She’s going to make it in the big city.” “I never said she wasn’t going to make it.” Lorna plasters on a smile, which she hands to Leah. “So what are we going to eat?” Lorna asks, tight-lipped. “Cat food?” She gazes over at Fur Elise, almost cringing at the idea of a feline in her living space. “How about sandwiches?” Leah says, waltzing toward the kitchen. “Sandwiches. How lovely.” Lorna grits her teeth. Chapter Twenty-Five An alarm breaks the morning silence. Leah throws a pillow over her head. The beeping continues. Lorna bursts into the room. She turns the alarm off and opens the shades. “Good morning, Sunshine! Time for work.” Leah takes inventory. No, she's definitely not thirteen. Lorna whips the cover off of Leah and folds it. “I took the liberty of setting my alarm.” Leah struggles to prop herself up. She's exhausted. Lorna sits on the edge of the bed. “You don't want to be late for work.” Leah buries her head in her knees. “Work?” She combs her mind for a real reason to get up—since there’s no job, only the occasional and going-nowhere interview. So this should be fun. After an irrelevant shower, an egg and bacon breakfast, and a much-needed cup of coffee, Leah heads out the door with a messenger bag. The only thing inside is her cell phone and wallet. “Don’t forget this,” Lorna stops her. Leah assesses the item in the palm of her hands: her prescription bottle. Leah drags herself out the door. She hasn’t a clue where to go. She stands in the middle of the sidewalk. Her outfit is rumpled and uncoordinated. She looks up and then down the street. When she glances back at the building, her parents are heading her way. Lorna wears a visor, a camera around her neck, Bermuda shorts with matching top (despite the chilly sea air), and a broad smile. Darrell’s expression is unreadable, at best. “You don't mind if your father and I borrow the car, do you? We want to drive down the famous crooked street and stop by that park you have here. What’s it called?” Leah glances at her car and blinks. “Muir Woods? Sure. Why not.” She’s getting used to walking in the city, despite the nefarious personalities. Lorna and Darrell get in, but not without episode. Leah looks on, watching her parents struggle over the seat adjustments, the rearview mirror, and the sun visors. She witnesses their inaudible mumblings and shakes her head to clear away what must surely be a nightmare in the making. Out of the blue, Clint is at her side, munching on a Red Vine. The two watch the events inside the car play out. The clutch on the car grinds, and both Leah and Clint grimace in sync. “Do they know what they’re doing?” Clint asks, his eyes riveted to Darrell and Lorna. Leah turns toward Clint as if noticing him for the first time. Clint extends a package of Red Vines. Leah looks at them for a beat, and then takes one. Who cares that it’s early o’clock in the morning. “I have news,” he says. “Yeah?” “Get ready for it.” He puts his hands up in showman-like fashion. “I have an opening.” “What does that mean?” “A gallery is showing my work.” Without thought, Leah jumps into his arms. “Oh my gosh, that’s…awesome.” “I know, right? And it’s all because of you.” Clint pulls a folded invite out of his back pocket. “You have to come.” “Of course.” He looks Leah over from head to toe. “I’m sure, with your sense of style, you have the perfect outfit already in your closet.” “I have assistant buyer clothes, not art clothes.” “Then we’ll have to go shopping.” Dollar signs dance in Leah’s mind. “Oh I don’t—” “And you need a date.” “Can’t you be my date?” “No silly. It’s my event. I don’t have time for a date.” “Um…” “Just ask that cute guy. The one who takes care of your cat at the place with the stuff.” “The vet? Everitt? No way.” “I thought you said he was cute.” Leah reaches for her butterfly pin and fidgets with it. “I… never…said that. Plus, he’s taken. Remember?” “I thought he would have broken up with her by now.” “I wish.” She surprises even herself with the words. And as soon as she speaks the thought, she pushes it away. “I mean, no. I don’t need the complications of a relationship. Especially not after Charlie.” She throws a hand over her mouth. She doesn’t talk about Charlie with anyone. “Who’s Charlie?” “No one.” But she can’t keep tight-lipped. “My ex,” she sighs. “The reason you left Illinois?” “Yes. And no.” Leah falters and finds herself confessing the things she normally wouldn’t confess. Refusing to say them always meant they wouldn’t be true. “He met someone else. At a Laundromat. Too many of the machines at his apartment were broken, so he went to a place nearby. He wasn’t supposed to be there.” “Or maybe he was.” Leah frowns. “Whose side are you on?” “Yours. It’s just…maybe you were supposed to hit Fur Elise.” “No. I don’t believe that.” “Still, too bad about the vet,” Clint says. “If he wasn’t taken, he could be your rebound guy.” “I don’t want a rebound,” she says to Clint, to no one. “I want the one.” “We all want the one. You should still come to the opening. And you should do it feeling like a million bucks.” “Maybe.” “Definitely.” “When do your parents get back?” “Not sure. They drove to Muir Woods.” “God help the animals. I say we go shopping.” “I do love shopping,” Leah says with a smile. “I haven’t known you long,” Clint says, “but I know you do.” *** Leah and Clint are on a mission. Clint pushes his way into the doors of DoTell Vintage. On first appearance, it’s a kitschy place with a dank and musty smell permeating the inside. As Leah skims the interior, she thinks maybe she has been teleported to the attic of someone’s grandmother, maybe sent back in time to the early twentieth century. Clothing is hung within the open doors of 1920s wardrobes, the shelves of which are decorated with antique clocks and throwback lighting fixtures. “I’ve never shopped at a used clothing store before,” Leah says to Clint. “Well in San Francisco, there’s a first time for everything.” “I don’t know,” Leah says. “What about Pacific Heights? Can’t we go there?” “I thought you were on a budget.” Leah tugs on a fabric here, pulls out a shirtsleeve there. “You don’t really need me at your opening.” She heads for the door, but Clint catches her by the jacket cuff. “I want you there.” She studies his expression, which is tinged with hurt. “Fine.” Leah spends the afternoon moving in and out of fitting room doors, pirouetting in an array of designs, until she finally finds the perfect cocktail dress for the occasion: an embellished, cap-sleeved flare dress. Clint whistles. “Look,” he says, “you have legs.” After Leah’s DoTell bag is stuffed with the dress, a midi coat, and matching handbag, they dart off to their next stop: makeup. “Really,” Leah says as they peruse the perfumed aisles of the department store makeup section, “I’m totally fine with my drug store mascara.” “Nonsense. You asked for Pacific Heights. Now’s your chance to shop Pacific Heights.” After the last of the merchandise is packed in bags, and her receipt is squirreled away in an attempt to pretend it’s not there, Leah and Clint head home. Chapter Twenty-Six Leah and Clint trudge up the apartment steps to their floor. They’re ready to crash, but instead find two people outside Leah’s apartment: the Bohemian woman from downstairs and a guy Leah recognizes. She takes in his dreads, his handmade fabric necklace, and his woven hoodie, and then she knows. The hippy with the VW bus. There’s a clear and consistent sound coming from inside Leah’s apartment. “Is this your place?” the woman asks as the hippy works the lock with a bobby pin. Leah tears her eyes from the guy. “Yes?” “We heard the crash, so we rushed up here.” The gypsy-ish woman approaches Leah, invading her personal space. “You’re one sick mama to leave your baby inside, you know that?” This time Leah smells burning incense and patchouli. “You know that’s child endangerment, right? If we had a cell phone, we’d be calling Child Protective Services.” “Maisy’s right,” the hippy says, sidling up beside his girlfriend. “You don’t just go…” He glances at the shopping bags, “on a shopping spree and leave your kid behind.” Now that he sees Leah up close, the hippy narrows his eyes and studies her. “Wait a second. I know you.” “No. No you don’t.” Leah pushes past them and goes to her door. “Yeah, yeah. I know her, Maisy.” Maisy crosses her arms over her chest. “Like Biblical know her?” Leah’s back is to the hippy as she works hard to extricate her key from her purse. “Yeah, yeah. You’re the animal cruelty girl. The one who biffed the cat with her car.” Clint steps between Leah and the couple. “Maisy,” he says, looking at the woman. “Whatever your name is,” he says to the guy. “It’s not a baby. It’s…” Clint searches his mind for an excuse that won’t get Leah in trouble with CPS or Mrs. Puccini. “It’s my…alarm clock,” Leah interrupts. But even she doesn’t believe her lie. “I must have set it for PM instead of AM.” “No, no, no.” The boyfriend pulls Maisy closer. “It’s that cat.” He turns to Leah. “The one you hit. Isn’t it?” “No?” “It is. She has a cat in there.” “There’s no cat. No baby,” Clint says, taking the key from Leah and unlocking the door. He opens it just enough to let Leah through before he squeezes inside himself. They shut the door on Maisy and her boyfriend’s complaining words, and Leah drops all of her bags. Leah spots the music box her parents gave to her on the floor. The lid has a chip in it. “No.” Her voice is tinged with pain. When she turns the bottom, the music no longer plays. Chicago is gone. “This isn’t good. You know that, right?” “I know,” Leah says, but she refers to the trinket, not the knowledge her neighbors now have. Crushed, Leah sets the music box back on the table and stoops to pick up Fur Elise. Initially, the cat is skittish. But Leah coaxes her closer, and then cradles the feline in her arms. “It’s okay.” She nuzzles Fur Elise’s fur much like Everitt did. “I’m sorry I left you all alone.” She almost coos. Clint glances through the peephole. The couple seems to be gone. Clint cracks open the door. Leah takes Fur Elise to the couch, stroking her fur. But she stops Clint before he leaves. “Thanks for being my only friend in San Francisco.” “You’re welcome.” Once Clint has gone, Leah pulls the Pacific Coast business card from her coat pocket, and then shakes off her jacket. She divides her attention between Fur Elise in her lap and the card. She runs a finger over the photo of the dog and then flips it over. Everitt’s name and cell number are scrawled in his handwriting. Leah considers her purse sitting by the door. She sets Fur Elise down, and gets her phone. She hesitates, finally typing in the number. Her finger hovers over the call button. But the thought of the woman on the stoop returns, how he chose her over Leah. So she hits the home button instead and puts her cell back down. Charlie’s letter peeks out from the recesses of her purse—a resurfacing memory. She pulls it free, returns to the couch, and reads it. Again. Words in his familiar inscription jump off the page: don’t know how to tell you, met someone else, hope you find someone, friends. Leah doesn’t have to look at it; she has it memorized. She starts to rip it, but then stops and puts it down. She doesn’t know why she can’t be rid of Charlie for good. Leah picks up the business card again and doesn’t know why thinking of Everitt makes the rejection she felt with Charlie resurface, but it does. She doesn’t even know Everitt. Doesn’t care about him. At all. Chapter Twenty-Seven Leah’s parents only have two days left in the city, and she’s ready for them to go home. Part of her is ready to go back to Illinois, too. Tired of pretending to have a job, tired of interviews and rejections—both professional…and personal. She pulls out her checkbook and looks at the register for the umpteenth time. The numbers haven’t changed; they’re still diving oh-so close to zero. She has no clue how she’ll pay her rent next week, much less afford groceries or cat food. Her phone rings, and Leah recognizes the number as Everitt’s personal cell. Her heart races for an instant, but she tamps down any flutter of excitement. Those feelings only lead to disappointment and betrayal, so she lets the call go to voicemail. After the chime, she listens. “Hi Leah, this is Everitt. I was calling to set up a follow-up appointment for Fur Elise. I’d really like to see her and…” there’s a hitch in his voice, “call me, okay?” The guise of a follow-up appointment. To what? Explain the other night? How he can’t offer her a ride home because he’s in love with his ex-girlfriend? He doesn’t owe Leah an explanation, just like she doesn’t owe him anything either. They’re nothing to each other. Not even doctor and patient any more. Leah wanders back toward her apartment, but stops outside the pawnshop window. She takes a breath and pushes inside. Before reaching the counter, Leah unlatches the butterfly pin. She holds it in her hand as though a real monarch has lighted on her palm for the briefest of moments. Emotion catches in her throat, but she sucks it back down. She has no money for anything—not enough to stay; not enough to get back home. Yet she has no choice. “How much for this?” she asks, laying the broach on the counter. No matter how much the guy offers, it won’t be enough. And yet, it will be so much more than she has. When the excruciating exchange is over, Leah heads out with a wad of cash. As she walks home, it starts to rain. *** The sound of a laugh track can be heard from Leah’s living room television. Leah stands in the foyer, drenched. Lorna looms in front of her, holding a piece of paper. “Darrell,” Lorna says, “she's here.” She rushes over to Leah, reaching out her hands, but restraining herself from touching Leah’s face or removing her wet jacket. “Look at you. You should carry a rain scarf.” Darrell meanders into the hallway. He and Lorna wear concerned looks on their faces. Leah throws her hands up. “What?” Lorna extends a piece of paper toward Leah who takes and reads it. A disturbed expression plays out through Leah’s eyebrows and across her forehead. “Eviction notice?” She skims the document further. Seven days. Not long. Lorna looks at her, a pained expression on her own face. “The cat.” Leah folds the notice in half. Damn the hippy. “Were you aware there are no cats allowed in this apartment?” Darrell asks. His arms are crossed over his chest. Leah is suddenly a thirteen-year-old girl again. Lorna puts a hand over her heart as though cardiac arrest is imminent. “No child of mine has ever received an eviction notice.” “What about the time with Gordon and the—” Lorna clears her throat and interrupts Leah. “Nonetheless.” “Were you aware of this policy?” Leah cringes at her dad’s voice. Of course she was aware, but… Leah only has the nerve to look away. For Lorna, it seems medical intervention might be necessary. “What am I going to tell the women at Bunco?” she asks. Darrell glares at Leah. “You broke the lease agreement.” Lorna wipes tears from her eyes. “I feel dizzy. I need to sit down.” She searches for a place to sit, but there are no chairs in the vicinity. “Very disappointing,” Darrell says. He turns and leaves the room. Lorna, beside herself, scurries to the bathroom and shuts the door. A retching can be heard from where Leah stands, stunned, in the hallway. Then there’s a flush and a jiggling of the toilet handle. *** The drama from earlier has subsided. The darkened living room is illuminated by the glow of the television screen. Darrell reclines, watching it. Leah tiptoes to the edge of the room. “Dad?” Darrell stares ahead. Leah inhales deeply, mustering her courage. “Dad? Can I talk to you?” Nothing. Leah tamps down the nervous flutters in the middle of her stomach—the ones running relays from her core to every other part of her body. With one bold move, Leah grasps the remote control and mutes the television set. Darrell turns. Leah inches onto the end of the sofa, talking to her feet at first, but then finding courage somewhere within. “I know you’re disappointed in me. But…” she blinks hard, “I want you to know that I've always tried to live up to your expectations: to work hard, to do what's right. It seems as though…” She looks her father straight in the eye, “I'm a disappointment to you.” She catches her breath and lets out a sigh. “I'm sorry I failed you. Even more sorry I failed myself.” Leah hangs her head as Darrell absorbs the information. “Did you know your Grandma Gina played the trumpet?” “No. She did?” It hurts to think of Grandma Gina, the hocked pin. “She was very good. Even played with a group when she was younger. She wanted to be a professional musician, but that wasn’t the life of a woman back then. So she gave her dream to me. Thing is, her dream wasn’t my dream. I was better with numbers. I appreciated money not music. I don't think she ever forgave me for that. She’s never said she was disappointed. Didn't have to. When I was older, I asked her if she was proud of me.” Leah purses her lips together, cautious. “And?” “Nothing. I had my answer.” There’s a moment of silence between Leah and her dad. She never knew this about her grandmother. Never saw this side to her. Darrell looks Leah directly in the eyes. “I don't want you to think I'm disappointed in you. I've just wanted what's best for you—what I thought was best for you.” Darrell holds out his arms, and Leah moves into his hug. “I'm sorry you believe you've failed yourself. But you haven't failed me.” Darrell pulls away and clicks off the television set. “Get some sleep.” He hands the blanket to her. “You want to give it your all at work tomorrow.” Darrell waits for Leah to say something. She warily takes the blanket. Darrell turns to leave, and Leah is ready to confess. “Dad?” When he spins back, fear settles in on her. Leah gulps. “Good-night.” Darrell nods. “Leah?” “Yes, Dad.” “I meant everything I said. But if you stay here, you have to get rid of the cat.” Chapter Twenty-Eight People swarm through the airport. A long line forms at the security checkpoint. Leah stands at the line entrance next to Darrell, who holds the carry-on luggage, and Lorna, who wears an "I Love San Francisco" t-shirt. “I don't feel right about leaving,” Lorna says to Leah, getting all misty eyed. “Where are you going to stay?” “Mom, I'll work it out. I'll talk to Mrs. Puccini, find a home for Fur Elise. Something.” “I don't want you winding up in a homeless shelter.” She grabs Leah in a vigorous embrace. Tears well in her eyes. A security guard motions Darrell and Lorna forward. “Next.” “I love you, honey,” Lorna says. Leah feels a tug inside at watching her parents move away. “I love you too, Mom.” Lorna hurries forward. Darrell lingers behind. He looks at Leah a moment, and then hugs her. “We stopped by Granberry,” he says. Darrell extends his hand and places something inside Leah’s palm. When she opens it, she sees a plane ticket back to Illinois and a wad of cash. “You still have your bedroom back in Zion.” He turns toward the line, leaving Leah standing with the ticket and the roll of bills. On her way back outside, she spots the advertisement again—the one she saw on her first day in the city: Can You Make It in San Francisco? “What a horrible slogan,” she says out loud. “That company needs a new marketing…” Leah stops herself. Digs in her purse. Fishes out the Pacific Coast business card, which is now getting soft from overuse. There’s something she has to do. *** “How’s Fur Elise?” Stacy asks as Leah marches toward the reception desk, a file folder in hand. “Is he in?” “Dr. Grady?” Stacy’s caught off guard. “Yeah. Um, hold on.” Stacy scoots back to the exam rooms as Leah, chin up, assesses the waiting area. There’s a small poster in the middle of a huge wall. The words are illegible, so the message is meaningless and ineffective. Leah glances at the table at the end of a row of outdated chairs. The tissue box is empty, the magazines askew, the lightning uninviting and all wrong. The blinds are half drawn on the windows and there’s dust on the slats. She doesn’t know why she didn’t notice all of this before. And then back to the old card. The slogan: Where Pets Come First, but there’s only a dog in the picture. And the pets shouldn’t come first; they should be equal to their owners. The people who pay need to come first, too. She also sees how Everitt’s missing out on capitalizing on the P and C in his slogan, which can easily double as the leading letters of Pacific Coast. Then Leah looks at the new card—the one she created in her design software: a photo of multiple pets, an altered slogan, and a pretty amazing use of the P and the C to highlight Pacific Coast. Much better. She really is good at this. The waiting room is empty during what should be a busy part of the day. “Leah.” Everitt stands within the open doorway to the back rooms. Stacy is back at reception, but Everitt acts as though Leah’s the only one in the room. “Hi.” Leah takes in the scrubs, the dark hair. She loses all train of thought, and she can’t ignore the way her heart catches when Everitt looks at her. She shakes herself away from those renegade thoughts and feelings. It’s not what she came here for. “I didn’t have you down for a follow-up appointment.” Everitt doesn’t comb the room for Fur Elise. Instead, he keeps his eyes directed at her. “I’m not here for that.” Everitt steps into the waiting area, and the closer proximity makes Leah’s pulse race. He takes a moment, swallows. “Then what are you here for?” Leah rubs her fingers together to wick away the sweat, and then realizes the folder in her hand. “This,” she says, extending the folder to him. He gets close enough to take it, and Leah closes her eyes briefly to the scent of his olive soap. He opens it. “My business card? This is what you came for?” “It’s all wrong, really. Look at this one.” She moves beside him, shows him the new card. Her arm brushes against his. “Yours only has a dog, but you’re treating other animals, too.” Everitt opens his mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. “Despite popular opinion, not everyone likes dogs. Some of us,” she looks up to meet his eyes, “like cats.” Everitt sits down in one of the waiting chairs, floored. He assesses the new card, hears what she’s saying, and nods. “This is really…amazing.” Leah gets comfortable beside him. She’s in her element now. “And your waiting area…” She sweeps a game-show arm across the space. “To put it delicately, it’s the worst.” Everitt takes in the room as if seeing it for the first time. “There’s dust on the tabletops.” She runs a finger through a layer of it. “The tissue box is empty.” She picks it up. “Does anyone read this?” She taps the poster over her head. “Wow.” He scratches the side of his face and looks at the business card again. “Listen, this is what I do. I market things. It’s what I moved here for. I mean, I’m terrible at marketing myself, but with other things, I’m actually pretty good.” “So what? Changing my cards, jazzing up the room, it will bring in more business?” “Yes.” “I do need more business.” “Everybody does.” “I wouldn’t know where to begin,” Everitt says. “You can start by using the new business card. Then you can replace these crappy posters.” “Crappy? This one’s about spay and neutering. Plus, I’m sentimental about the cat.” He glances up at the poster over his head. “It has Bob Barker in it. You need to update to something a little more current.” “I wish I could but I can’t afford new materials or a marketing campaign right now.” “Maybe we can come to a compromise,” Leah says. “You treat Fur Elise for free, and I help you with your marketing.” “I’d like that.” Everitt grazes his finger over her hand, and a kaleidoscope of butterflies quiver from Leah’s heart to her throat. “There’s one more thing,” she says. “Anything.” His voice is a breath. And the word—the way he says it—makes Leah crave more than just the glissade of his hand on hers. Leah unearths the art opening invitation and hands it to Everitt. “I need a date…to an art opening. Just friends,” she says before he can protest, before he can tell her he’s not hers for the taking. “Friends?” He deflates. “What about Clint? Shouldn’t he be your date?” “No.” Leah’s eyebrows twist. “Why?” “You bought furniture together.” “I bought the furniture. He helped me shop. We’re just friends.” Everitt processes the new info. “Oh.” There’s a lift in his voice. “Like you and I are just friends,” Leah adds. Everitt’s tone takes a downward spiral. “Oh.” Everitt scans the invite. “No scrubs, huh?” “No scrubs.” Everitt’s eyes catch on Leah’s lapel. “Hey, what happened to your pin?” Leah looks to the place it once was. “I hocked it.” “Why?” He sounds genuinely concerned. “It was the only thing of value I owned.” Everitt tries to puzzle out her words. “So my place? 7:00?” “7:00.” Leah nods, wishing for the tenderness from before, but the moment has dissipated like a rabbit in a hat. Chapter Twenty-Nine Leah stands at the bathroom mirror, assessing her appearance. She looks the same as she did when she left Zion, but somehow something is different. Sure, there’s a more modern flair to her hairstyle, and she wouldn’t have been caught dead in thrift store clothes a month ago. But it’s more than that. Something she can’t pinpoint. Leah spots the prescription bottle on the counter. She moves to pick it up. Instinct. But despite all the troubles San Francisco has handed to her, she finds she doesn’t want the meds right now. Her mind isn’t racing. Her heart feels steady. Leah emerges from the bathroom in her designer, thrift store dress. Her last hoorah in San Francisco unless a miracle happens. She’s down to five days until eviction, and goodness knows she can’t afford to fight Mrs. Puccini. She has no legal legs to stand on anyway. But she hasn’t told anyone. Not Clint. Certainly not Everitt. “You look like a princess,” Clint says. “Albeit a chic, San Francisco one. You’ll turn the head of every man in the city.” “Unless he’s gay.” “Even if he’s gay.” Clint takes a beat. “But I suspect there’s only one head you want to turn.” Leah blushes “What do you mean? We’re just friends.” “Not after he lays eyes on you.” Clint pulls Leah into a hug. It’s the only consolation he has to offer. Leah draws back. “You look amazing yourself.” Leah gets reacquainted with her designer heels. She clicks over to Fur Elise, pets her, and then moves to put the cat in her kennel. She spies the broken music box; Leah won’t make the mistake of leaving Fur Elise out again—at least not until she can be trusted. There’s a knock at the door, and Clint goes to it. He nods to Everitt who stands in the hallway wearing a single-breasted suit jacket with a vest. Instead of tousled, Everitt’s hair is sleek with pomade. Leah pivots and becomes completely arrested by the sight of Everitt. A deluge of words rushes across her mind. Dapper. Handsome. Beautiful. She sets the cat down and touches a hand to her face to hide her rising blush. Her nerves tremble. Clint assesses one and then the other. The chemistry is obvious. “I’m off. Don’t want to be late for my own party.” Leah cannot tear her eyes from Everitt who steps past Clint into the apartment. “You will be there, right? You’re not going to, um…” Clint’s attention continues to volley between the two. Everitt tucks his hand into his jacket pocket, maybe to hide his own nervousness. “You look…” There are no words to complete Everitt’s thought. He breathes out a sigh, cannot lift his attention from Leah. “Beautiful?” Clint prompts. “Oh yes.” “7:00,” Clint says as he scuttles out into the hall. He fans himself before closing the door on the couple. He opens up one final time and peeks his head inside. “Don’t be late.” Then the door latches. Everitt collects himself and drags his vision away from Leah to Fur Elise who preens herself on the floor. “There she is.” Everitt goes to the cat and picks her up, no concern for the impeccable suit he’s wearing. “How have you been, sweet girl?” Leah watches, near drunk on Everitt’s looks, his charm, his everything. “She’s been good. Healing well.” Leah moves to Everitt’s side and strokes Fur Elise’s back. Her eyes reach up to meet Everitt’s. “Looks like it,” he says, but his focus moves away from the cat to Leah. “Gorgeous night for an art opening,” Everitt says. He nods toward the window, its curtains pulled back to reveal the sun as it slips behind the buildings, leaving a blend of sangria and creamsicle across the sky. The lamplights blink their eyes and sparkle. Leah watches Everitt tuck Fur Elise in her cage. She wants to tell him that she can’t keep the cat, that she’s already considered putting an ad online; she’s even driven past the nearest humane society. But she can’t because of the ache she feels at his tenderness and the way he touches a finger to the feline’s nose as if she’s a child. Another time, because telling him now would spoil the magic of the night. And Leah needs a fairy-tale evening no matter how temporary it may be. “All set?” Everitt asks, scooping up Leah’s midi jacket from the back of the chair and draping it over her shoulders. They drift toward the door, stop just shy of it. Leah loses her balance, clutches the end of the table. “Darned heels,” she says. The music box almost teeters and falls to the floor, but Everitt catches it. “Almost a goner,” he says. He’s set to give it to her, but then he studies it. “Pretty.” “The prettiest thing I have,” Leah says. Everitt’s eyes dance up to meet hers. “I wouldn’t say that.” There’s interplay in their looks, but Leah withdraws. “It used to play Chicago, but Fur Elise broke it.” Everitt opens the top to confirm. The box is silent. “Mind if I take it. I think I know someone who can fix it.” “Really? If it’s no trouble.” Leah is close enough to smell Everitt’s soap and a hint of aftershave. She’s close enough to study his dark lashes and the smooth line of his jaw. “It’s not.” He runs a finger over the decorative inlay. “You miss home?” “Yes.” She outlines his features with her eyes. “And no.” “What do you mean?” “I miss my family—most of the time, especially my grandma. My brother, not so much. Do you have siblings?” “A sister.” Everitt is hooked on Leah’s words. “But…” “But what?” “I need a new beginning. Unfortunately, my new beginning seems to be the opening of a horror story. “San Francisco can’t be that bad.” He bridges the gap. Leah swallows down her surfacing feelings—the ones she promised herself she wouldn’t give into again. “I guess not everything about it is bad.” She bites her lip. “We should…” Everitt’s hand lingers in the space between them. It seems as though he’ll caress her cheek, but his fingers graze her jacket instead. He helps her into it, and she sinks with disappointment. “Ready? And then Everitt rests the palm of his hand on her back, and she knows she has lost all urge to resist. “Ready.” Chapter Thirty Everitt parks on the downward slope of a road on Potrero Hill near the gallery, which is tucked in a string of both residential and commercial buildings. He exits the car and zooms to the passenger’s side, opening Leah’s door for her. He offers his hand, and she takes it. The wintery air prickles Leah’s skin and she shivers. But Everitt’s hand is a study in contrast to the brisk night—unwavering, solid, an invitation to warmth. Leah and Everitt stand face-to-face, basking under the glow of the streetlamps and the waxing moonlight. The gallery is lit up behind them with a plethora of Chinese paper lanterns. Downhill, the lights of downtown San Francisco twinkle against a now inky backdrop. But they hardly notice the enchanted view as they glide toward the gallery hand in hand. The refurbished, wooden door to the gallery is thrown open, the window a looking glass into the mingling art aficionados, artists, and their works. A light accompaniment of piano jazz plays, and there is the hum of chatter. Leah shrugs free of her coat, and Everitt takes it, his vision lingering a moment too long on the bare skin of her shoulders. Someone whisks the coat away, another hands glasses of crimson wine to each of them. Leah’s insides quiver. But this is different than the anxiety she’s always felt. Different even than with Charlie. This time, it’s something she wants to sink into, not medicate away. The walls are lined with paintings in a deluge of color. The paper lanterns are actually part of an artist’s exhibit, and each one dangles from the ceiling in a dizzying combination of blues and purples. They look like candles in the sky. Leah spies Clint leaning against a wide section of piping, which is painted in white and designed to look like an Ancient Greek pillar. He chats with a guy dressed in beatnik black, and Leah wonders if that’s his investor. “Want to say hi?” Everitt asks. But it’s too late. Another patron wrangles Clint’s attention. “Later.” She sips her wine, drinking in every moment of the night. Leah and Everitt drift in and out of conversations about art and relationships and life. They peruse a section of nature-themed oils. “Looks like Van Gogh,” Everitt says when they stop in front of a painting of a moon-bathed tree. “Starry Night.” Everitt slides over to the next exhibit. Leah recognizes the style right away. The painting is the one that was dumped in the hall. But this time it’s finished, bold, and rich in perspective like the one in her apartment. “Red poppies,” Leah says. Everitt surveys her. “With butterflies.” Guilt takes a bite out of her. “Maybe it will come back to you,” Everitt says. “The pin.” “Maybe, but I don’t see how.” “You never know.” He glimpses around, spies a patio out the back of the gallery. “Want to go outside? Get some air.” Leah nods, and Everitt guides her out. His palm rests against her back again. It’s an awakening, a scorch. Leah leans over the railing, glimpsing the San Francisco skyline in the far distance. The chill of an early February wind isn’t enough to cool her down. “You know what keeps coming back to me?” Leah asks. “What?” “How much she loves to play Yahtzee.” “That’s what happens when we miss people,” he says, studying the contours of Leah’s profile. “We remember the quirky things about them.” “Are you saying Yahtzee is quirky?” Leah pretends to be hurt. “No, not at all.” A smile waxes. “In fact we should play it some time.” Leah gives Everitt a playful push, and the touch sobers him. He leans in beside her. “I’m glad you asked me to come.” “As friends.” She dares to gaze at him. “As friends.” Leah absorbs the city as it basks in the aftermath of sundown. “It’s so inviting from this distance,” she says. “From here, you don’t see the imperfections, the homeless people, you don’t have to worry about rejection.” “It’s safe.” “The illusion of safe,” Leah says. “You can feel safe here.” Leah’s not sure if he means here in the city or here with him. “I want to. But it’s not just that. I came to San Francisco expecting more.” A new song filters through the speakers. Everitt takes Leah’s wine glass and puts both of them down. He rests a delicate palm at her waist and pulls her near. He closes his eyes, dips his nose toward the perfume of her hair and breathes in. Leah glimpses the cityscape, wishing things could stay this way for so much longer than they will. “This is nice,” Everitt whispers. It is. Leah draws back abruptly at a tug at the front of her dress. The button has popped open. Her hand flies to it; she’s mortified. “Clint wanted me to buy thrift store,” she says. “This is so embarrassing.” Everitt’s not embarrassed. He maintains his cool. I was dancing with a fellow—not your grandfather. He twirled me so hard that a button popped off and my boob flew out. I could have used a sewing kit then. Instead, I danced all night like this. She’s not Grandma Gina. Yet she cinches the front of the dress, not knowing what else to do. “Come here.” Leah raises an eyebrow. Everitt pulls Leah close to him, and then he removes one of his cufflinks. He asks her permission with a glance. Leah nods. Everitt feeds it through the open button hole. “I might ruin your dress,” he says. “That’s okay.” He pierces a hole and locks the cufflink in place. “There.” His touch lingers, and Leah’s breath catches. He studies her. “You said you wanted more.” His voice is so soft, Leah’s not sure she heard him. But then he brushes his arm against hers. The words, the gesture, electrify her. Her takes her chin in his hand and turns her toward him. “I want it to be more.” “You don’t even know me.” “I know enough.” Leah angles away. “Your heart belongs to someone else.” “What are you talking about?” “I’ve already been down that road, a road I don’t want to travel again.” Everitt tries to piece together Leah’s words. “I don’t understand.” “The flowers in the exam room, the woman on your apartment steps. If I’m with someone again, he has to be all in.” Everitt’s jaw firms. “She and I are over. Have been for a long time.” He moves away to take in the distant lights. “She cheated on me, left. Then she took her cat—something I actually loved, which is more than I can say for her. In fact, I’m more heartbroken over the loss of the cat than I am her. It’s the reason I’m not ready to take Fur Elise.” He looks away from the view and back to Leah. “I know about being fully committed to a woman. I do.” Everitt pauses, ensnares her eyes. “I want all in with you.” He takes in his surroundings as if for the first time and eases for a moment. “You’re strong, independent, feisty, beautiful. Thing is, you have me 110 percent if you want me. But, honestly, I think you’re the one who doesn’t want all in.” The words smart, and tears come. Leah brushes one away, but another plummets. Leah’s throat is too tight too speak; the surge of emotion strangles her words. She needs to tell him about Charlie, but she can’t revisit that right now. “I’m giving Fur Elise away,” she says instead. “What?” “My landlord found out. I’ve been evicted.” “Geez.” Everitt runs a hand over his forehead. “But you can’t—” “I have to. Even if I stay in San Francisco, I can’t afford to keep her. I don’t even have a job.” “Wait. You’re thinking of leaving?” Leah says nothing. “I thought you were going to help me with my marketing plan. I thought…” The feedback of a microphone interrupts their conversation. Leah and Everitt are forced to turn their attention inside where a woman speaks. “Thank you for coming tonight. I am honored to be a part of this exhibition…” “We should go in,” Leah says, heading for the lit-up innards of the gallery. Everitt follows, but he freezes at the sight of the woman at the microphone. “…enjoy the wine and the art of Eliana Vinstein, Marco Rossi…” The woman’s eyes connect with Everitt’s, and she beams, “and Clint Holloway.” She hands the microphone off and waltzes over. “Everitt.” “Tess.” At the exchange, Leah recognizes the woman for who she is: the one on the steps; the one who sent the flowers; Everitt’s ex-girlfriend. “Is this your…friend?” Tess asks. Everitt doesn’t know how to refer to Leah, especially after their exchange outside. “This is Leah. Leah, this is Tess.” Leah extends her hand in polite, midwestern fashion. Tess’s shake is limp and weak. “My pleasure,” Tess says. Clearly, it’s not. “Are you stalking me?” Tess sets her hand on Everitt’s arm as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. Everitt ignores the comment and only stares down at the unwanted clasp on his arm. Tess doesn’t remove it. Quite the opposite, she strokes the texture of his suit jacket—an intimate gesture. “I’m not here to see you.” “So this isn’t an impromptu visit.” Tess looks at Leah. “Like the other night?” The color leeches from Leah’s face at the words, the implication, of what Tess just said. She searches Everitt’s face. “I thought…” But she’s too thrown to finish her sentence. So Leah doesn’t stick around. She takes off through the exhibit room and out the front door into the night air. “Leah!” It’s Clint’s voice beckoning her back. But she can’t return. She has to keep moving forward, away from the hurt, away from everybody. She hasn’t a clue how to get home, so she simply runs. Eventually, she takes off her high-heeled shoes and hoofs it barefoot through the streets of Potrero Hill. With no butterfly pin, no whistle, she keeps running. She stops down the hill and looks back. She sees Everitt’s silhouette looking up and down the road for her. She pushes back her fallen bangs and bursts into tears. *** Leah reaches the bottom of the hill and stops outside a wine bar. She doubles over, trying to catch her breath. The adrenaline abates, and she now gets the full effect of the icy, winter sea air of San Francisco. She left her coat at the gallery. Leah sidles up alongside the wall of the building and digs for her phone. Two messages: one voice, one text. She reads the text from her friend, Paisley, back in Zion. There’s a photo attached. “If you need to talk, I’m here.” The attachment is a newspaper announcement from the Zion News with a pixilated photograph of a pretty girl with long hair in the arms of an oh-so-familiar guy. Charlie. Leah skims the article. Announce the engagement of their daughter…to Charlie Masterson. Her arm with the phone falls to her side. She tips her head back and stares at the sky. Things cannot get much worse than this. Leah lifts the image back up and studies Charlie’s smug face. “Why do I even care? I don’t even love you. It’s just…it’s just…I deserve to be happy, too. You left me, you jerk. You don’t deserve happiness. I do.” Someone steps out of the wine bar, and Leah goes silent. She nods to the guy who crosses the street in what looks to be a very warm coat. Leah clicks off her text messages, searches for the number of a taxi service and orders a cab. While she waits, Leah listens to her voicemail message. “Hi Ms. Newland. This is Scott with Beaker Marketing. I’m sorry to call at such a late hour. But I wanted to offer you the Marketing and Communications Coordinator position at our firm. We were impressed by your innovative ideas and think you’re the ideal candidate. Please call me back…” Leah ends the message before it’s over. Chapter Thirty-One Pink curtains billow in the breeze from the opened window. Leah lies in bed, staring wide-awake at the ceiling. Breaking free of her thoughts, she slides into slippers and a robe and creeps quietly toward the door. Out in the hallway, the muffled sound of dismal music comes from inside 3B. Leah taps on Clint's apartment door. The melody abruptly ends and the door opens on Clint, an unlit cigarette perched on his lip. “Wait. Where’s your licorice?” “Well, look who’s here.” Clint shoves away from the open door and marches into the living room. “I thought you quit.” Leah grabs for the cigarette, but Clint jerks back. “Don’t lecture me. Where the hell did you go? I counted on you to be there and you deserted me.” Clint rampages through the apartment, throwing open drawers and overturning cushions. “I’m sorry. I…” There’s no excuse for leaving, no reason to try for one. “So how did it go, Clint,” Clint says in imitation of Leah. “Thanks for asking. It would have been great, except for the fact that my best friend ditched me and my investor got rip-roaring drunk, apparently had a fight with her ex, and threw up all over the floor.” Clint searches around again. “Doesn’t anybody have a light in this place?” “I’m your best friend?” “Of course.” Clint throws the cigarette down. “So what happened tonight?” Everitt. Tess. Leah breaks down. “He said he was over her, but she kept touching him in this sexy way, and he didn’t stop her—” “What the hell are you talking about?” “Tess. Your investor. She and Everitt were—” Clint holds up his hand. “Wait. She was the one at the café with him. Your vet and my investor were an item.” Leah nods. “And he dumped her on my opening night?” “No. I mean he already dumped her. I guess.” “Well your boyfriend messed everything up for me. I was so close to a sale. It would have validated my work, put me on a whole other level. And when I needed a friend to talk to, you weren’t there.” “I’m sorry I left. I was hurt. And…jealous.” She sinks into a chair. “He was my date. He was supposed to be with me. But you’re right,” Leah reaches out and takes Clint’s hand, “I suck as a friend.” “You don’t suck.” He doesn’t let go. “Well, you kind of suck, but mostly because you screwed up.” He rolls his eyes. “And all over love.” Leah jerks her hand away. “I’m not in love with him.” “Whatever you say.” Clint stands up. “I’m not.” “Well, the least you can do is buy me breakfast.” “It’s…” She looks at the clock. “1:00 in the morning.” “Exactly.” “All right,” she says. “It’ll give me a chance to tell you about my job offer.” He raises an eyebrow. “Just let me change.” “Sweetheart, this is San Francisco. Jammies can be chic. Let’s go.” “I’m not in love with him,” Leah says again as they step into the hallway. “Whatever.” Chapter Thirty-Two The next morning, the sun waxes. It sends shards of light across Leah’s apartment while the sound of hostile traffic resonates from the street. She’s used to it now. Boxes lay scattered throughout the apartment. A disorganized assortment of shoes, clothing, books, and kitchenware rests outside the packages. Fur Elise observes the mess from her perch on the sofa top. Leah sits on the edge of the sofa. She takes Gina's sewing kit and removes the wad of bills that Darrell gave to her. With great temptation, she unfolds the money, counts it, and then places it back into the case. Her cell phone rings, and she snatches it. “I told you, the cat is no longer for adoption. I took the ad—” “Well I’m glad to hear you’re not getting rid of your cat.” “Everitt?” “Can I see you?” A lump forms in Leah’s throat. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” “Leah.” There’s a plea in his voice. “Everitt, I have to go.” Silence. Leah clicks the end button. “So you’re going to leave without saying goodbye to him?” It’s Clint who has edged his way into the apartment through the open door. He carries Leah’s music box. “Please, don’t lecture me.” Leah shoves items into a box. They’re half-wrapped. “The truck will be here soon.” “I guess this means you turned down the marketing job?” “I can’t stay here.” Clint opens and closes the music box as a distraction, and then extends it to her. “He wanted me to give it to you. Says it’s fixed.” “Tell him thanks.” “You run away from Charlie, run away from Everitt. Funny thing is, you can’t run away from yourself.” Leah marches over and takes the box from him. She slots it into the top of her carry-on bag without a care. “I’m not running away.” “What are you afraid of?” “Nothing. Everything.” The Hummel and Meyers delivery truck pulls up curbside and honks. Leah goes to the window. “They’re here already?” Clint says. “Why weren’t they this fast on delivery?” Clint glances out the window at the truck, then he runs the back of his hand over his eyes. “It’s stupid to get sappy and sentimental over furniture, right?” he says, trying to hide the tears. “It’s not forever goodbye, is it?” Leah asks. “Sister, unless you’re planning to come back to San Francisco, I doubt we’ll ever see much of each other. It’s not like Indiana’s the art capital of the world.” “Illinois, but point taken.” Clint softens. “I'm going to miss you.” “I’ll miss you, too.” Two moving men exit the truck. “Well,” Clint says, pulling a Red Vine from his pocket. He picks a piece of lint from it before shoving it into his mouth in lieu of a cigarette. “I hate good-byes so I'm out of here. He points toward the hallway. “Wait!” she stops him, and then throws her arms around him and holds on tight. He closes his eyes, savoring the embrace. Clint backs out of the hug, but spins back at the last moment. “I almost forgot. I have good news after all.” “Oh?” “A patron bought my painting.” “The one with the poppies?” “An abstract piece: Cotton Candy.” “Congratulations. Lucky for me, I snagged an original Clint Holloway before you became famous.” She motions to the fork-in-the road oil. “Stole is more like it.” “From the trash.” Clint tilts his head. “Well, it’s in good hands. That’s all that matters.” “I know I'll see your paintings in a museum someday,” Leah says. “As long as it’s not the Zion Art Museum.” “I don’t think the town has one of those.” “Bye country girl.” “Bye city boy.” “Stay in touch, okay?” “Okay.” Chapter Thirty-Three Before getting into her burdened Honda, Leah travels down the street to the pawn shop. Before entering, she recounts the wad Darrell gave to her. It’s enough to get the butterfly pin back. Leah marches up to the counter, combing the trinkets under glass for Grandma Gina’s pin. She doesn’t see it. “I want to buy back a piece of jewelry,” she says. “What’s it look like?” the guy asks. “Butterfly pin with rubies and emeralds on the wings. About this big.” She spreads her fingers. “Yeah, yeah,” the guy says. “We sold it.” Leah deflates. It’s like someone kicked all the air out of her. “That can’t be.” “I’m really sorry. We have this butterfly broach right here, though.” But Leah doesn’t even look at it. “Thanks, but…I have to go.” She slumps out of the shop and back to her car. The Honda labors in stop-and-go traffic. Leah finally inches curbside to the veterinary hospital. Pacific Coast Veterinary Clinic, Dr. Everitt Grady. Reading his name makes her heart trill. Leah notices the hours now etched on the door. There’s also a new poster with a cat, a dog, and a bird in the window. He listened to her advice. She thinks to get out, but something inside her freezes. Reluctantly, she turns the ignition key and drives away. *** Back at the apartment complex, the door to apartment 3A stands ajar. Everitt looms outside and hesitates. Finally, he knocks lightly. The door swings inward to a vacant apartment. “Hello?” His voice echoes against the walls and hardwood floor. He steps inside and investigates. No evidence of a lived-in residence remains. Disappointed, he turns to leave as Clint appears. “She's gone.” They both stand and look longingly into the empty apartment. “Did you give it to her?” Everitt asks. Clint’s blink says he did. “And?” “She told me to say thanks.” “Where did I go wrong?” Everitt asks. “You didn’t.” Chapter Thirty-Four The Honda cruises down a stretch of freeway. It zips away from the city and takes a detour toward the Golden Gate Bridge. Leah parks and steps out, taking in the view of the lighted International Orange set against the backdrop of a cobalt sky. “I never wanted much from you,” Leah says to no one, to the bridge. “A job, a place to live, a little freedom. But that’s not what you gave.” She balls her fists. “I didn’t do anything to deserve this,” she says quietly at first. “I didn’t do anything to deserve this!” she shouts. The Golden Gate is the same: beautiful, and yet unmoving and rigid—not easily broken. Not like she is. “I’m glad I’m leaving. You’re cold and unforgiving and…” She glances to the city beyond, remembering what—and who—she left behind. “You’re not worth it.” Leah looks on for a while longer, and then she gets back in her car and drives away from San Francisco. *** In the parking lot of a motel, vehicles hibernate for the night. Leah carries a bag and the kennel into room 123. She lets her bag drop from her shoulder to the floor. She bends down to pick it up and notices the top is partially unzipped. The music box peeks out. She pulls it free and sets it on the table. Fur Elise meows at her, and Leah opens the crate and lets the cat out. Leah runs a hand over the feline’s fur, but Fur Elise is too interested in checking out the surroundings to care about affection. Leah stands up and meanders into the bathroom. Flicking on the light, she stares in the mirror. She scans the ins and outs of herself, trying to decipher what causes her to fail at love. Leah spies the place on her shirt where the butterfly pin would normally be. Sure, the thing is gaudy with all its gemstones and sparkles. But it was meant for her. Grandma Gina gave it to her, not to one of her cousins. It was supposed to mean something, not just be a glaring fashion faux pas for the world to see. Leah slips into her flannel pajamas as Fur Elise finds her way to the bathroom and winds her body around Leah’s legs. Leah glances down. “Maybe she gave it to the wrong grandchild,” Leah says to the cat, but mainly to herself. “Glen was right about me all along.” She touches a vacant spot where the pin used to be, and then kills the light in the bathroom and goes to the bed. Her eyes light on the music box across the way. Leah opens up her handbag and takes a few things out. She sets her pill bottle on the nightstand. But then she opens it, pops one. Leah takes out her cell phone and types in the passcode, but hesitates before dialing. She finds her parents in the contact list and presses their number. “Hello?” the groggy voice of her mother says from the phone. “Mom, it's me.” “Leah?” It sounds like her mom just woke up. “We've been worried about you.” Fur Elise has jumped on the bed, and Leah pets her. Leah forces herself to hold back the tears, but they nudge at her voice. “Did something happen? Did that homeless man attack you?” “No. Mom...” “Do you need us to send you some money?” Lorna continues. “Did you talk to your landlord about the eviction notice?” “Mom, I'm calling because—” “You know, you really should consider coming home.” Leah pulls back the things she wanted to say. “Leah,” Lorna asks. “Are you there?” Leah directs her attention to the music box. “Leah?” She cracks it open. I Left My Heart in San Francisco now chimes from it. “Oh my God!” “What?” Panic rises in Lorna’s tone. “Is everything okay?” And inside is Grandma Gina’s butterfly pin. “Yes, everything’s fine. It's that...” “Leah?” “It's just that I don't need the money Dad gave to me. I'm sending it back.” “You found a job?” Leah hears her mom’s voice address her dad in the background. “Darrell, she found a job!” “I have to go. I'll call you later.” Leah ends the call. She listens as the song winds to a close, but then another piece of music picks up after it—Für Elise. Perfect. Without warning, Leah storms through the motel room like a cyclone. The cat awakens and leaps from the bed. In a totally disorganized fashion, Leah packs. She snatches the cat and stuffs her in the kennel. Fur Elise mews in protest. After one last check of the room, Leah darts out the door in her flannels: San Francisco chic. But through all of her rush, Leah pauses for a moment. She digs through her bag and takes Charlie’s letter out. It’s no longer bittersweet to hold it. In fact, it’s the last thing she wants. Leah opens up the page and tears it into tiny pieces, letting the scraps of her past bounce along the motel blacktop, carried away by the wind. Before Leah pulls away from the motel, she reaches into Grandma Gina's sewing kit and takes something out. Chapter Thirty-Five Claps of thunder drown the silence of the neighborhood. The distant howl of a dog resonates through the air. The Honda clings to the curb in desperation. Everitt’s mint green apartment building towers over Leah who stands outside of it in her flannel pajamas. All the windows are darkened. Cautiously ascending the stairs, Leah rings his apartment number and waits. Nothing. She looks toward the Honda, debating a departure. She buzzes again. No one answers, so she retreats to her vehicle. Another boom of thunder as the front door opens. Everitt, wearing boxer shorts and a T-shirt, his hair ruffled from sleep, stations himself in the doorway. Leah turns back. “I thought you went back to Illinois,” he says. “His name was Charlie. We met in college. I loved his stupid sweaters and ridiculous math jokes. I laughed when they weren’t funny. I changed my homework answers to match his, even though they were wrong. I gave so much, and then he met someone else and told me about it in a letter. Broke up with me. Broke my heart. So I ran away.” “Why are you telling me this?” “Because I’m tired of running, and because…because you’re not Charlie.” Leah inches toward the house as rain lightly falls. “I left,” Leah says, “ And I forgot to give you something.” She slides up the stairs toward him. She digs in the pockets of her flannels until she stands immediately in front of Everitt. The drizzle dampens her. Leah removes the cufflink from her pocket and hands it to Everitt. “You could have mailed it to me.” “You gave me the wrong box. Mine is supposed to play Chicago.” “Oh yeah?” he says. “I think it was meant to play I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” His eyelashes lift and his guilty look meets hers. “The cufflink isn’t the thing I forgot to give you,” Leah says. She steps up to Everitt’s level, takes his hand. “I should have given this to you a long time ago.” As soon as Leah leans into Everitt, she feels every nerve awaken, and she can barely keep track of the pulse of her heart. His breath is already warm on her skin, but Leah shutters as Everitt’s fingers brush her cheek, trace a contour line along her jaw. She almost unravels. “Leah,” Everitt breathes. As her name escapes his lips, she falls up toward him and moves her mouth to his. They fold into the other's embrace, and the kiss is long and passionate. It is safety and trust—all the things missing with Charlie. Leah reels back and draws in a burst of oxygen. The rain stops, and they look up at the sky. “Did you know tomorrow’s February 15th?” Everitt asks. “It is?” “We still have a few hours left in today,” he says. “Who needs Valentine’s Day when we have…” She stops. “Forever?” “I didn’t say that.” “Want to come inside anyway? We never did play that game of Yahtzee.” Leah smiles. Rainwater spills from the street into a run-off drain. The billowing water ebbs and a car's headlight reflects off of the butterfly pin attached to Leah's pajamas. “It’s the only place I want to be.”


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