Read sample: Lucky Find
© Julie Mornelli – All rights reserved.
1 – RAIN
Tuesday, 8:45 am
I woke up late and started the day on the wrong foot. Outside, grey skies were spitting their bad mood on the City of Angels, its streets oozing boredom, drab and dirty from the unusual non-stop drizzle that had been plaguing us for nearly two weeks. Los Angeles didn’t quite look like itself, deprived of its picture-perfect, year-round sunshine. Then again, Angelenos know this is a legend, as we get bouts of winter and bad weather like the rest of the world, not to mention this thing called June Gloom. Except this was April, supposed to be one of the best months of the year, not too warm, not too cold. Well, I guess this year someone didn’t get the memo, because for the 14th day in a row, I reached out for my umbrella.
For a moment, I considered calling in to work with a phony excuse, a last-minute, urgent, and personal something, tell them not to expect me for the day, and too bad if they didn’t like it. I did no such thing of course; I had already used every excuse in the book, used up all my sick days and then some, and most of all, used up my boss’s patience and understanding. My job was hanging by a thread, as was my life, my finances, and everything else. I needed this job. I needed the money. Especially now. Suck it up, girl, it’s only for a while… Until you get back on your feet. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve been talking to myself, a motivational and reassuring habit.
I broke my personal record on get-ready-quick, but that wasn’t enough. I still had a brisk 15-minute walk to the outdoor parking lot on Madre Street, where Jack was waiting for me. Or so I hoped. He was doing me a favor by making a detour on his way to work, to pick me up and drop me off downtown, where we both worked, though not in the same building. Because, of course, I didn’t have the luxury of a car at the moment.
My car had decided to die on me the same day the rain started. “Nothing major, a little glitch in the transmission,” said the mechanic who towed it to his garage. “I’ll have it ready for you in 2-3 days.”
“How much is that going to be?” I asked, upset by the prospect of a repair bill I could hardly afford.
“About 200 bucks,” he said.
With the towing, it added up to $325. I could manage that, but not much more. “Okay,” I said, relieved that the total was something I could actually pay —besides, I did not have a choice. But later that day, he called to say it was going to be more expensive than initially quoted, and it would take longer. Something about the whole transmission requiring a major overhaul, and he needed to order parts. Bottom line, that little nothing major now had a price tag of $800 and at least ten days without wheels. Maybe he was lying and ripping me off, but I was stuck—I needed my car. I also needed a way to get to work, and money to pay for the damn repair. Renting a car wasn’t an option; all my credit cards were maxed out. I wanted to cry. I hated this life. I had grown accustomed to much better, much easier. “I want my life back,” I said out loud. “I’m not cut out for this.”
I swallowed my pride and resorted to calling and begging help from a few old buddies from the time I had a job that paid handsomely and I was living a carefree, seemingly happy life, absolutely convinced it was going to last forever. Until it crumbled and crashed, and I was forced to trade my cool office with swanky furniture and a view to die for, with a gloomy job at a lousy second-rate marketing agency, stuck in a cubicle with a direct view to a grey plastic panel that had seen cleaner days. From hero to zero in no time. Maybe someone from my former life would throw me a bone, a quick little gig, a few hundred bucks worth of freelance—just enough to get my car out of the shop and survive another week. You can’t live in L.A. without a car. Not for long. Not if you want to remain sane, and that’s not an easy feat even under normal circumstances.
One of them came through. He was in a bind and needed a quick turnaround, which, by the way, paid extra. Nothing exciting, just some articles and a couple of reviews. Yet it felt better than writing boring brochures, my current assignment. Obviously I’d have to work in the evening, but did I have a choice? Did I have anything better to do? Nope. I said yes—beggars can’t be choosers—and stayed up late. Too late I imagine, because I passed out on my couch with my laptop by my side, and woke up the following morning sore and beyond late. Now what?
Now, walk. Walk to the meeting place as fast as I could and hope to God that my ride—Jack, my boyfriend from days long gone but a friend still, perhaps my only one—had not left, that he’d been kind enough to wait an extra 10 minutes after I failed to show up when I was supposed to for the umpteenth time. Jack had been very clear. “Next time, be there on time, sweetie. I won’t wait; I also have a job to get to, you know.” I could just hear Gayle, his girlfriend of the moment—who’s always hated me with an undying passion—going on and on about how he was doing me a favor, that he wasn’t my personal driver, that I needed to learn to live within my means now, which were much reduced from what they’d been at the time he and I dated, and why was he at my beck and call and so on… She must have been so elated when she heard of my personal debacle. She always had an eye on Jack, and when we split, she was right there, first in line to comfort him. The hell with Gayle.
I almost made it on time. I power-walked the entire way in under eight minutes. Not even the light drizzle suddenly turning into a downpour halfway through the distance could slow me down. Yet, as I got to the waiting zone, Jack was long gone, as he’d warned, and there I was, dripping wet in the rain, 30 minutes from work, at the very least, without a ride, without a plan B, and without any means to get Downtown in a reasonable amount of time. I wanted to cry. I was about to have a meltdown right there in the empty parking lot. I felt light-headed; from the effort of walking so fast, from the rain finding its insidious way into my clothes, my hair, my face, through every inch of my body. I felt chilly inside, chilly outside, shivers running down my spine. I needed a few moments to compose myself and decide what to do next. So I slumped onto a little wooden bench by a tree, mindless of the puddles—I was already drenched anyway—and put my head in my hands, to try and think. That’s when I saw it. A pouch with a zipper and a hand strap. It looked like the kind you sometimes get as a gift from a purchase in department stores, as a thank you token for spending money you don’t have on things you don’t need, though this one did not bear any logo or brand, nothing distinctive about it. It lay on the ground at the bottom of the tree, as if someone had accidentally dropped the pouch while getting in a car and drove off. I bent down and reached out to grab it. It was a little dirty, a little wet, fairly light, and didn’t seem like much of a loss.
I looked around. I was alone in the parking lot. I could count less than ten cars scattered around; it was too early in the morning for the mall stores to open. I picked up the pouch. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. I wanted to look inside, but it wasn’t mine. Maybe I should just leave it. Maybe the owner would come back to see if it was still there. Maybe… Oh, what the heck, now that I had it in my hands, at least I should have a look, right? It was nicer than I had first thought; in fact, it was a lovely wrist clutch made of a soft, charcoal-color leather, not at all the cheap kind I assumed it was. No wonder whoever lost it didn’t notice, since its color blended in quite well with the asphalt. I was lucky I even noticed it.
I opened it and looked inside. There wasn’t much: a phone, some loose change, a few 20 dollar bills, a set of keys, and an envelope. No wallet, no I.D. The phone was one of the latest generation of smartphones. Expensive, as was the leather case protecting it. The key ring—a Tiffany silver tag with two regular keys and an electronic one attached—had no name or address on it. Then there was the envelope: standard number ten, manila, side closure, rather bulgy… I felt it; thick and dense. I couldn’t resist. I opened it. Sure enough, there was money in it. Cash. Hundreds and fifties. By the look of it, about ten to twelve thousand, give or take, most of them still in bank wraps. I paused for a few seconds, suddenly short of breath, with my heart racing. This was not right. This wasn’t my money. I might be in dire straits at the moment, but I still had principles (a sparse few), the remnants of a proper education (more like shreds, really), and a faint notion that being dishonest could land me in trouble. At the same time, I reasoned, I wasn’t stealing anything. Finders keepers, right? Although legally, if you find money on the street, you are supposed to make reasonable efforts to find the owner, otherwise you are guilty of theft by default—like when you lie by omission. I could put the little clutch back on the ground, content and all, and be as it may, its owner could come back, or someone else could find it. I could take it to Lost and Found at the next police station and let them find the rightful owner. Let it be someone else’s problem. At the same time, I had been praying, dreaming, hoping for something —anything— to happen, to help me get a fresh start. And here it was—my lucky find. The one bright spot in an endless streak of bad days. Still, I decided not to decide anything for the time being. The urgency was to get to work. Fast. Real fast. And my only option now that I had missed my ride with Jack, was a cab. Problem, a cab would set me back a good 40-50 dollars, a sum I could hardly spare at the moment. But…
But there was enough money, and then some, in the envelope.
Though, technically, this money did not belong to me.
Come on, girl. Fifty bucks isn’t the end of the world. Who’s going to know?
I didn’t know where it came from or who it belonged to. It could be drug money, someone’s savings just cashed out of the bank, cash from a business, a wealthy girl’s shopping allowance—it could be anything. I had no way of knowing. But it didn’t matter. What mattered, though, was that time was flying fast.
The longer I waited to make up my mind, the later I’d get to work. I called a cab, tried to fix my face, hair, and clothes while sitting in traffic—I looked a mess from the rain—and had the driver drop me off at the corner of 9th and So. Los Angeles St., and ran the short distance to my office building, hoping I could make my way to my desk without drawing too much attention to my tardy arrival.
2 – JUST ANOTHER DAY AT THE OFFICE
Tuesday morning, 9:45 am
As I feared, I was beyond late. I headed straight to my drab desk, gaze fixed on the blurry horizon of rows of cubicles just like mine, trying to avoid direct contact with my supervisor, whom I could see from the corner of my eye, pointing furiously towards the big clock in the hall —that silent, ticking witness of my belated arrival. No doubt he wanted to signal to my attention that I once more stood out from the rest of the working crowd by my absolute absence of punctuality and my equally absolute disregard for my duties. Those were the words he had used, exactly, when he took me aside last week to admonish me for my chronic shortcomings. “We’re not the Networks,” he’d said with a smirk. “You’re not in the big league anymore. Here, you have to produce, day in, day out, your quota of work. You have to meet your deadlines. If you are not committed to this job, you should leave. We don’t need slackers.” I wanted to strangle him, to spit in his face, to tell him how much I hated his worm-like features and the nauseating smell of garlic on his breath. I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t going to rot in this lousy job for much longer, that it was so beneath my abilities I could do it in my sleep, but I bit my tongue instead, simply uttering a “Yeah, yeah, I understand—won’t happen again” before I went back to work.
I sat down at my desk, hung my purse on my chair, and opened my computer. Twenty emails to answer, and a deadline to meet. All of that preferably before 2:00 pm. I sighed. I had a long, challenging day ahead of me.
At that exact moment, Steve, my supervisor, decided to add his own personal touch of hell to my already miserable day.
“So, Anna, do you think there is ANY chance in the near future to get it through your damn head that you must show up for work on time, meaning 9:00 and not 9:30 or 10:00 or whenever the heck you feel is a good time? What was it this time? Your coffee wasn’t brewed right? Your alarm clock was set on Japan timezone? Or maybe your hair dryer fried? I’m guessing it’s the hair dryer, judging by the way your hair looks.”
“Well, it’s raining, in case you haven’t noticed,” I snapped, and regretted it immediately. This was not the time to play smart.
“Don’t be fresh with me, Anna,” said Steve with a mean look. “I’ve pretty much had it with you. You’re lucky we are in a bind at the moment, otherwise I’d tell you to grab your stuff and get the hell out of this office. So here’s the deal: I don’t give a shit what’s wrong in your life. I don’t care if you have to walk, crawl, or fly to work. I don’t care if your goldfish or your best friend dies. You show up on time, period. You leave at the end of the day with the others. If you need to stay longer to meet a deadline, you stay. Those are the rules. Take it or leave it.”
I looked at him with a blank stare. That was the best I could do, short of closing my eyes. I simply wanted to take off, leave, run down the stairs, into the streets, or out the window, or to the roof, or anywhere but there, away from Steve, away from that claustrophobic place. I had to snap out of this funk, back into my life from before, back into the game. Into the big league I had been in, once—almost. If only I could get a little friendly push, a little help from the universe. I briefly thought of the money in the envelope…
“Anna? Did you hear me?”
“Yes,” I whispered, my voice full of want and longing, which Steve mistook for contrition.
“All right, then. Go back to work. We need the brochure for A.P.C.S. now. Or rather, we needed it yesterday. So get to it and get it done. I’m counting on you,” he added with a crooked smile that made me want to throw up. I hated that kind of cheap pep talk. He was no motivational speaker. I was no cheerleader. I hated this guy. I promised myself, if I ever wrote again, I’d make sure to craft an obnoxious and repulsive character after him and name him Steve, for small revenge, but for now, I nodded and did as I was told.
Writing the content for the A.P.C.S. brochure was boring, making the task harder. I couldn’t find the motivation to write about an obscure Real Estate developer selling overpriced condominiums disguised as luxury residential property, let alone find inspiration. If I wanted to write business reports and brochures, I would have stayed home in Wisconsin and gone to work for one of the health insurance companies there. There were plenty of well-paid writing gigs in that field. But this was not how I envisioned my writing career. Or my future. I had dreams and ambitions, like every other young adult does. Some of us are prepared to go further than others to fulfill them. I went as far as Los Angeles. I know it’s an awful cliché, but I was lured by the glitzy appeal of Hollywood. The movie studios, the TV networks, this was where I belonged, where I could give tangible form to the career and lifestyle I envisioned. I think it is called the American dream, but I am not so sure anymore…
On my very first job interview, I met a woman who offered me the best piece of advice I ever received: “If you can’t make it here, you’re never gonna make it anywhere. This is the place where your dreams can come true. If you want it bad enough. If you work hard enough. Otherwise, go back while you still can.” I was determined to stay.
It took me a few years, but eventually, I got close to where I wanted to be. I wasn’t famous. People didn’t know my name, did not recognize me in the streets or at the grocery store. That was fine with me, I did not crave this kind of attention. I didn’t expect it. All I really cared about was recognition from my peers. One day, I used to tell myself, I’ll write a great book, everybody will love it, it will become a movie or a series, and my life will be perfect. In hindsight, it sounds so vain, now that I had all this, and then lost it.
I should have known better.
After the debacle, the vapid crowd I once called my friendly circle would ask: “What happened?” “How?” “Why?” What was I supposed to answer? “What” was unimportant, really. “What” was simply the consequence of “how”, which was itself the natural child of “why”. “Why” was the heart of the problem. Everything else after that was just a matter of chance, for lack of a better word. A twisted one, if you want my opinion. If necessity is the mother of invention, it is also the not-so-fairy godmother of opportunity.
How can I explain it? I am not sure there is an explanation. It could have gone so many different ways. Life isn’t a predefined, linear script. Out-of-the-blue events, random meetings, fortuitous circumstances await you on your path. When they occur, what you do, how you react, makes the difference and can turn a seemingly inconsequential event into a big opportunity, maybe the chance of a lifetime, or not. That’s how you write the script of your own life. But between “seize the day” and “force the day,” the lines are blurred. To make the most of what life throws your way, you have to adapt, which is another word for compromise. Compromises… little ones, big ones, no one really likes them. We’d rather call them choices, a softer, nicer word, and so much more elegant and benign. You feel better about yourself, knowing you’ve made a choice, not a compromise. Yet the result is the same; eventually, your so-called choice comes in conflict with your beliefs and your principles; it’s like making a little nick on your soul. You bleed inside, but you tell yourself it’s a necessary sacrifice for a good cause. You do it, time and again, until you’ve made so many cuts and compromises that you don’t feel them anymore. You don’t even notice you’re gradually losing sight of yourself, of who you are, or rather who you were, because you’ve already become a different person.
In hindsight, I think this is what the woman meant by “If you want it bad enough.” Because sooner or later, your I-want-it-bad-enough is coming to look you in the eye. And you’ll have to make a choice.
As I did.
It all started the day I met Isabel.
What will Anna do next?