Co-workers gathered around a cake on the conference table and waited for the knife to be passed. A dot matrix banner over the dry erase board read, We’ll Miss You, Trish!
Jen looked forward to the absence of another employee’s daily heap of correspondence in the morning sort pile. Most of it was junk mail. All of it would be forwarded north to the new address.
“You gonna get sick of all them rainclouds in Oregon?” someone asked.
“I’ve already mapped out the tanning beds in the area,” said Trish, her orange arms dripping with gold and silver chains. “Chad’s boss told him the transfer might only be temporary. So, thank Christ and all his disciples for that!”
“It’s not so bad,” said Jen. “The rain there kind of grows on you.”
Trish coughed up her cake. “You’ve been?”
“Not since I was ten.”
Jen drifted back about fifteen years to the deserted shoreline on the morning of the move. Her mother’s voice could no longer be heard above the waves churning onto sand. Instead of packing her suitcase, she had decided to follow the footprints and peanut shells left behind by a stranger on the beach. They led her around a big rock and then to the wooden steps that ascended up a hillside trail. Clouds hung low over the Pacific, pregnant with precipitation, but she imagined the canopy of trees over the trail would shield her from the mist.
“Aren’t you going to eat the icing?” someone asked.
Jen frowned and shook her head. She had scraped the thick white layer off to the side of her plate.
More co-workers agreed it would be a waste not to eat it.
“I’ll eat it,” said Trish.
She scooped up the pile of sugary lard and shoved it in her mouth. Jen watched, nauseated, as her co-worker’s clenched facial muscles moved in circles until she swallowed.
“I’ll miss Phoenix,” she said, licking her teeth clean.
Jen felt herself sinking.
Mud from the trail, gritty and gray, had a jealous hold on her ankles. A hard pull of one leg sent the other down deeper, and so she stood still. There was a nearby branch. She reached for it. It was covered in moss and slid from her palms, leaving them green and wet and blistered. Farther up, at the top of the hill, she could see someone, possibly the stranger whose footsteps had led her to this point. He was leaning over the railing, throwing peanuts at a pair of seagulls in the grass. She called out for help. The man heard her and pulled her out. When she got home, she tossed her peanut shells in a box of empty cigarette cartons and found her mother in the bathroom angrily cleaning the toilet.
“This better not happen again,” she scolded, wrapping gauze around each of her daughter’s hands so tightly they started to throb. “I can’t seem to keep you out of places where you don’t belong.”
Jen pulled down a helium balloon from the ceiling of the conference room and observed what remained of the cake. Missing letters from a message written in pink icing made it appear more like a code.
“Phoenix never felt like home to me,” said Jen.
Trish had already started a new conversation with someone else.
Five o’ clock found Jen gripping the steering wheel with her oven mitts on and the AC blasting. The parking lot swayed behind her like a mirage under the southwestern sun. From the rear view mirror, she kept an eye on her souvenir. It floated in place like a child anticipating their next stop.
Julie Vitto is a freelance writer and photographer from Lancaster, PA. She has written for Philadelphia Weekly, Fly Magazine and TheBurg. Follow @vittopowr for updates.