The Way Back Round: Chapter 1
The day was Friday. I watched the clock on the corner of my computer screen as the last-minute call from a customer brought me five, then ten minutes past my departure time, and closer to the beginning of the game. With a barrage of thanks-yous and goodbye’s from the person whose name I had lost since the beginning of the call, I was finally allowed to hang up. I slipped my phone into my pocket and felt at my waistband and butt for my wallet and keys. With my belongings firmly attached to my body, I made my way to the exit.
“James?” came the call from behind, the squeaky female voice belonging the team leader below me. “Can you give these a once-over, pretty please? Before I submit them to the printers?”
I spun around and shrugged. “I’d love to, but the weekend calls.” I said, offering her a sad face and glancing to my watch as if I were late for an important date. “I’m sure what you’ve got is perfect. Those guys can deal with any leftover kinks.”
She placed her hand on her hips, smacking the papers against her leg. “I suppose you’re right.”
I offered a waive back with my hand on the way out the door. My first stop was the store, with a short list. I exited with everything I needed in just over five minutes: A six pack, two frozen pizzas, a tray of muffins, and a bottle of antacids. With at least a good fifteen minutes before the kickoff, I headed home.
As I pulled up to my driveway, I caught a glance of something upon my doorstep. The walk up from my driveway revealed what is was: a girl that I had once known, albeit when she was much younger. Beside her, a tall, fancy suitcase in black leather and scuffed silver buckles. As I set my shopping bag on the ground before the step, she looked up. “What are you doing here?” I asked, looking into her familiar brown eyes. “Where is your mother?”
“Back in New York,” She replied, looking up from her seat against my door. Her eyes sagged with tired circles and her long hair was split down over her shoulders and forehead.
“…Why?” I shook my head, announcing the only response I could mouth at the time. “Well, come on, let’s get inside.” I concluded, picking up my groceries again and fishing for the keys in my pocket.
Hanna pushed herself up, her ankles teetering upon the heels taller than I assumed a girl her would dare to wear. Her gaze transfixed on me as I unlocked the door and pulled it open. With a weak yank, she pulled her suitcase over on its wheels to force them over the landing. Her head moved back and forth to examine the interior of my house which had been, unfortunately, not cleaned in some time.
“Well, have a seat.” I said, waiving my arm to the couch on the wall opposite the kitchen.
I planted my grocery bag on the kitchen counter and followed after her, sitting before her as she unzipped the sides of what I may have called ‘designer’ boots. “Well, to start off… how old are you now, Hannah?”
“Thirteen,” She muttered, hardly looking at my face.
“And your mom sent you all the way here by yourself?”
“The airplane attendants said I was a… unaccomplished minor.”
“Unaccompanied minor…?” I said, hoping to jog her memory of the correct term. She glanced at me, and then to either side, down my hallway, with a shrug. I pursed my lips and finally asked the question I had been wondering for a while. “Why would your mom send you here without even getting in touch with me?”
My ex and I had been separated for years, and while we had dual custody, her escape out of LA across the country made any visitation impossible, which no party had been terrible perturbed about, including Hanna herself. It had been many years since then that any sort of communication had been attempted.
Hannah’s face twisted up and her first glance at me turned to a scowl. “I won’t talk about it!” She huffed, shoving herself back against the couch’s backrest.
I leaned back on my hands and let out a long sigh. I glanced back at the clock on the oven that was obscured by the edge of the counter. Looking back to my long-missing daughter, I noticed the vague resemblance to my ex: meticulously straightened black hair, brown eyes, and a slender, pointed nose. “You have a phone, don’t you?”
“Of course,” She groaned back, pulling at her back pocket. “It’s dead though. I used up all the battery on the plane and waiting here by your door.” She offered the wide device at me, and flipped it around to examine the port at the bottom.
“Same as mine.” I said, shoving my tired muscles up off the carpet. “We’ll get it charged.”
“So we can call your mother.”
“She won’t answer.”
“She’s not that bad of a person.” I walked to the wall beside the TV where the long USB cord was poking out from behind the shelfing unit.
“Don’t you have her number yourself?” Hanna asked with a frown.
“Not since my old phone got dunked in one of the toilets at work.” I shrugged.
“Gross.” Hanna replied, leaning back into the couch. I stood up deposited my phone beside hers, sighing as the time indicated that the game had long since started. “Speaking of the bathroom…” She spoke up again.
“Down the hall,” I said with a point of my finger. “First on the right.”
Hannah shot up from the couch and fast-walked off. “I’ve been holding it since like an hour ago.”
I cringed at the sudden idea of Hanna coming across the whiskers upon the sink from when I had shaved that morning, or having to deal with the toilet seat that was still left up. The images of my unfeminine bathroom were pushed out of my head and replaced by the present image of my groceries sitting on the table to warm up. The thin cardboard of the six pack and the frozen pizzas had began to glow with a layer of condensation. I deposited the beer in the fridge and turned to the oven to preheat it. Just as I set the temperature, I caught sight of Hanna wandering back out into the living room.
“I suppose…” I began to ask, looking between the two frozen disks, “You’d like three-cheese rather than barbecue chicken?”
Hanna shuffled her across the linoleum to the counter and tilted the box up in her hands. “Are these… frozen? And why are they so thick?”
I pursed my lips and grabbed the closest one out of her hands. “You’ve been in New York too long. I’m sure some extra carbs won’t kill you.”
Hanna shrugged and wandered back to the living room, taking time to crouch before her phone, still tethered to the charging cable. She was back on the couch by the time I had unpacked the pizza and put on the tray, ready for the oven. While I sorted the final bits of groceries into the cabinet, I heard the TV buzz on and immediately tune into the game I had hoped to watch. The channel switched by a few times before finally turning off again. “You don’t have any of the same channels we do.”
I grabbed a beer from the fridge before returning to the carpet in front of Hanna and her perch upon the couch. “What are we going to do with you?” I said with a sigh, staring at her.
Hanna jutted, finally, a look at me. “You’re not gonna’ toss me out like mom did?”
I bumped off the cap of the beer on the corner of my TV stand before taking a big gulp. “First let’s ask her what this is all about.” I said insistently, setting down the bottle and grabbing up the phone. The fancy device had returned to life with just enough power to get through a call. The lock screen showed a picture of the little girl before me making peace signs with a much older seeming boy. I fiddled with the icons on the screen before handing it over to Hanna.
“You want to make the call or should I?” I asked as she stared into the sensor. With a minute flash, the phone clicked and Hanna latched her eyes to it. After a few swipes of her thumb, she presented it back to me. The calling message flashed at me, connecting to a number labeled ‘mom.’ The time it took for the cross-country call to connect allowed me the time to take in a breath and organize my thoughts.
“I hope you’re simply calling to tell me you got there, ‘cause I don’t have any other words for you.”
“Caleen, why did you send her here?” I blurted out, barely having the time to process her previous words.
“James? She’s your problem now.” The call finished with a click. I pulled away the screen from my ear to confirm. The battery icon remained red. As I plugged it back into the charger, I caught Hanna staring at me, her eyes slightly turned down.
“Well,” I said, gathering my courage, “We really do have to find something for you to do.”
Hanna nodded slowly, keeping silent.
“At least she gave you some money to get settled here, right?”
“Like… a hundred.”
“That’s better than nothing.”
“I spent like… sixty to pay the cab driver guy.”
“You took a cab… all the way from LAX?” I muttered. “Well, at least you didn’t get one of
the creepy ones… Don’t you have school?”
The oven beeped loudly, meaning it had reached the set temperature. I took another swig of my beer and shoved myself up to return to the kitchen. The blast of the heat of the oven hit my face as I placed the pizza inside. I took another drink from the bottle and glanced to Hanna once again. Her face had not moved up from her legs on the couch.
“It’s been some time since you were out here, huh?” I asked, hoping to cheer her up. “You were just a little one.”
“Like a year…” She shrugged, looking up to me.
I studied her face. “Now, that doesn’t seem quite right. It’s been a good three years since I’ve seen your mom.”
“We came out here for one of her company’s product thingies… a launch.” Hanna said with a shrug.
“And you didn’t even come and see me.”
Hanna leaned over the armrest of the couch and peered out the window at the passing cars before slumping back down and staring up at the ceiling.
“You’re going to be nothing but bored here, I’m afraid. And plus I have to go back to work on Monday, so you’ll be cooped up here. Think you can manage making lunch for yourself or something?”
Hanna rolled her head toward me with tired eyes. “Do you have a Lycée Pita around here? I like eating there for lunch.”
“It’s a restaurant.”
I headed back to the carpet slowly, contemplating my words. “No way you’re heading out in some town you don’t know to go and blow your last forty dollars on some fancy lunch. You won’t even last a week.”
“What do you care?” Hanna sat up, shoving her arms across her chest. “I went out plenty back at home.”
“This is your home now, it seems.”
Hanna let out a big sigh, but offered up no further words of rebellion. “…my friends are going to wonder where I went off to.”
I leaned back on my arms before realized that my beer had left me behind at the counter. “I’ll tell you this,” I began as I retrieved the tepid drink. “No way I can afford a plane ticket to send you back there where you should be.” I said, clanking the glass bottle down loudly. “Perhaps your mom will come to her senses.”
“I doubt it.”
I leaned down to look into the oven for the browning crust of the pizza. With oven mitt on hand, I opened the door and slid the food out onto an awaiting tray. With a series of arduous jabs through the crust with the cutter, I managed to divide up the round into a series of nice slices.
I carried the plates high in the air as I brought the food out to the living room. “I’m sure you’re hungry,” I said in the most exciting voice I could muster. “There’s more on the stove, too.”
Hanna glanced up to the plate as I set it down on the coffee table. Just as I readied to down my own serving, a loud buzzing came from beside the table. I glanced back to see that it was my phone, and not Hanna’s, that was ringing. The number in cold, white text on the screen were from my work.
“Hello?” I spoke into the speaker after mashing the answer call button.
“James, it’s all gone to hell!” The voice of the team leader cried at me.
“Hold on now, what’s gone wrong exactly?” I asked, looking up to Hanna as she caught up to my half of the conversation.
“The internet in the office is out!” The voice inside the speaker said. “The router caught on fire or melted or something! Management has some emergency guys on it.”
“Well,” I said, eying my pizza on the table. “Did you at least get the files submitted?”
A loud sigh found its way through the phone at me. “That’s why I’m calling! I can’t submit them!”
“You can’t do it from home?”
“It’s like… many, many gigabytes! A half tera…byte, someone said? By the time it went through, we would be in… the end of the quarter!”
“Okay, the library, maybe?”
“Like hell! The internet would cut out before even half it went through. If you can think of a way to get it to the printers, short of driving some damned flash drive all the way to Dallas, please please let me know.”
“Fedex.” I said plainly, preparing myself to disconnect the call.
“We need a guaranteed delivery by Monday to get our spot in the queue.”
I glanced up at Hanna, who had lost interest in the conversation and turned her attention to the limp slice of pizza. “What if I drove there?” I asked the phone.
There was a short silence before the woman spoke again. “You’re… volunteering? What are you trying to get, James?”
I shook my head instinctively. “I was just thinking about going on a road trip. If I drop by tomorrow morning, pick up a drive with the project, and drive the next two days, It’ll be in Dallas right before noon Monday.”
“You would- you would do that?” Came the hesitant reply.
“As long as you back me up on the expense report for the gas and travel.”
“Anything. Thanks, James. Tomorrow at uh… 8:30- I’ll be here.”
“You’ve got it.” I said, ending the call and taking a final glance at the screen.
“Who was that?” Hanna said through an arduous mouthful of crust.
“Don’t unpack any more than you need for the night here.” I said, standing.
“Why? What for?” She said back, leaning forward and setting the final bits of pizza on her plate.
“I can’t fly you back to your mom, especially without getting an earful from her. But I can drive you back. By the time we end up there, maybe she’ll have come back to her senses.”
Hanna stared at me, mouth-opened. I dragged my plate toward me and took a bite of the pizza. After swallowing it down, I stood and returned to grab my beer off the counter.