A chill traveled through Alanna McCarthy as though icicles dripped down her spine. “How do I get over this pain?”
She pushed her bedroom window lace curtains aside and gazed out at the green and partially yellow leaves carpeting her front yard from one side to the other. Last night’s storm sure had ravaged the trees and plants. Houston trees didn’t usually lose so many leaves the first of September, not to mention several branches. But the damage matched her shattered heart. Since December twenty-second, the first day of winter last year, sharp pain like piercing icicles had replaced the warmth of Jake’s love.
How could a healthy, vital man have a heart attack at such a young age? Ten years into their marriage. Tears sprang to Alanna’s eyes—her usual ritual in the early morning when she rose from a fitful night’s sleep. Too often, her mind replayed that horrible phone call. “Mrs. McCarthy, I have some bad news. Your husband…” She had to stop dwelling on it. Alanna breathed a bitter laugh. Like that would ever happen.
She pulled a tissue from the box on her nightstand and dabbed at her eyes. How appropriate for the weather to remind her so she could prepare herself for more heartache as she approached another winter of memories. He’d turned thirty the day before it happened, only two years older than she. Had they celebrated too much that day? She’d wanted to give him a birthday he’d never forget. But she was the one who would always remember.
Would she ever get over this depression?
The white curtains fell back across the window, and Alanna trudged across the thick carpet to the bathroom. She sighed. The house was so quiet. Why had they put off having children? They’d have filled her life in Jake’s absence. Maybe they would have had two. She shook her head. Best not think about that either.
A disgusted huff came out of her. How could she be so callous, thinking of herself? If they’d had children, the kids would have no father. And how would she take care of them all alone? They’d be so young. Others had done it, but could she have managed? Surely not with the grief that engulfed her. How did people do it?
After a shower, she changed into a blue tailored suit and pale cream blouse. She sat on the antique desk chair Jake had given her two Christmases ago. It occupied a special place in the corner of the room next to her antique chifforobe he’d bought for her on their first Christmas. She’d always wanted one. The chair creaked as she moved, even with her light frame.
He’d bought her these shoes too. She stroked the soft leather of the blue one-inch heels in her hand and then slipped them on her feet. He’d been so good to her. Spoiled her, really.
Alanna heaved another heavy sigh and peered into the mirror over the six-drawer, lowboy, walnut dresser. She was too young to be a widow. “Oh, snap out of it, Alanna! Enough is enough. It’s past time you got back into the real world.”
Her shoulders slumped. She’d already tried. Time after time over the past months. The hole in her heart kept growing. Nothing…no one seemed to fill it. “Why can’t I move on?”
And now this. Laid off from her job at North Houston Regional Hospital and three months before the holiday. Another rotten Christmas. She sniffled.
Two weeks’ severance pay. How generous. Sarcasm was unbecoming, but she couldn’t help herself. Cutbacks. How could they afford to cut back on employees when there were so many sick people at this time of the year?
She brushed her long blonde hair as if it were responsible for her problems. This year’s flu epidemic alone should make the need for health care more crucial. They’d been shorthanded last year when Jake contracted the flu. If they hadn’t been, he wouldn’t have died. No doubt, the flu and its complications had taken a toll on his heart.
Alanna stopped torturing her hair and stared at the brush. She tugged at the strands she’d ripped out, tangled in the bristles. Blaming the hospital wasn’t fair. It wasn’t their fault he had complications. Nor that his heart wasn’t able to cope. She dropped the brush to the dresser top. But he’d been so healthy. No one had ever diagnosed him with the heart problem that caused his death.
“Don’t go there, Alanna. You’ll upset yourself more.”
But why lay off people now? Sure, she was a mere secretary to the nursing department. But they needed clerical assistance. Didn’t they?
Big business, that’s all it had become to the powers-that-be. Cutting back on the employees who had worked there long enough to make a decent living and doubling the work for those paid entry-level wages.
As she left the bedroom, she grimaced. Was she exaggerating? Maybe. Anyway, she had to find a new job. And good jobs had become scarce in Houston for her area of expertise. She’d thought clerical work would always be in high demand.
In the kitchen, Alanna poured herself a cup of coffee and dropped a slice of rye bread into the toaster. And what was with their telling her she had the least seniority at her pay level? She knew for a fact they gave a new hire the one open job she’d have been happy to fill. “But how does one compete with the best friend of the department supervisor?” Her brows puckered.
The toast popped, and she flipped it onto a waiting plate. “Ouch. Hot.” Today she’d see what kind of jobs were out there. She lifted the plate and mug and plodded to the living room desk.
While she nibbled dry toast and sipped coffee, Alanna opened her computer and scanned employment sites. Should she go to an unemployment agency and let them find something for her? Not so sure. She’d heard horror stories from others about the places they sent applicants. Didn’t matter what distance a person limited their job search to or the type of work they had listed. “What a mess I’m in.”
Weeping made an encore appearance. “Oh, Jake, why did you have to leave me? We were so happy.”
Alanna’s cell rang. She wiped the tears from her eyes with the paper towel she’d grabbed for a napkin and picked up the phone from the edge of the desk. “No. Not Steve Brenner.” He’d become a dreaded annoyance. She had no time for his nonsense.
After allowing the call to go to voice mail, Alanna placed her dirty dishes in the sink, rinsed them off, and loaded them into the dishwasher. No need to check the message. It would be the same one he always left, asking her out for dinner.
She glanced out the kitchen window. The backyard was as covered in leaves as the front. Bet the roads would be slick until they dried. Did the heavy rain flood the streets that usually do? Maybe she should avoid them altogether.
Alanna stepped into the foyer and swung a knitted shawl onto her shoulders. She picked up her briefcase armed with copies of her resume and a reference letter from her now-former boss. She took a deep breath and locked the door behind her. Her feet trudged over the wet stepping-stones to the driveway, and she slid into the driver’s seat of her white Honda Civic.
She deposited her purse and briefcase on the passenger side floor, then ran her hand over the light blue, leather dashboard. What a wonderful birthday present this had been from Jake five years ago. She’d never had her own car before. The man had been so good to her. Stop your blubbering. She didn’t want to forget Jake, just remember the good things without feeling the terrible loss…and move on. Is that so much to ask, God?
The cell rang. She reached for her purse, yanked it onto the passenger seat, and fumbled for the phone. She pulled it from the purse and checked the caller ID. Steve again. Alanna shoved the cell back into the bottom of her bag and started the engine. “Why can’t that man leave me alone?” She’d told him over and over she wasn’t ready to start seeing anyone. Yet, he continued to ask. “Who on earth gave him my number?” So far, no one had owned up to it.
Alanna backed out of the driveway and drove down the street. Steve had been pretty chummy with Alicia from Human Resources, but she wasn’t supposed to give out personal information without the employee’s consent. Ha! Since when did rules prevent people from doing things they shouldn’t when there was an ulterior motive? But what would Alicia’s have been? Oh, well. It didn’t matter. It was done. He had the number and persisted in calling. She would simply persist in not answering until he got the message.
She should change her number, but it was such a hassle. Then she’d have to tell her sister why it was changed, which would cause an entirely different problem. No. Better to ignore the calls.
“Get your mind off him and onto your job hunt.” She had her days free to search for a job since the hospital had immediately released everyone they laid off. Forget about it, and get on with your life. That’s what she needed to do.
* * *
Alanna’s hands grew clammy as she waited in front of a desk while the lady in Human Resources perused her resume and application. At least this time someone bothered to look at them instead of showing her where to drop the papers, to be reviewed later.
“Miss McCarthy, your work history is excellent, but you’re overqualified for the position we have open.” She wiped a stray curl from her forehead.
“But ma’am, I can do the work. Starting over in a new job doesn’t bother me.” She was so tired of hearing that phrase—the fifth time today.
“You seem to be a hard worker, and the reference letter from your last boss tells me you’d pour your entire work ethics into this job, but still.”
Alanna glanced at the woman’s name plaque on the desk. “Miss Gerrard, I really need the job, and entry-level for the position would be within the salary range I’d need to provide for myself.”
The woman smiled at her, paper clipped Alanna’s application to her resume and laid it in a tray at the corner of her desk. “We’ll be in touch.” She stood.
Alanna pressed her mouth shut to avoid saying any more. She didn’t want to sound desperate. End of interview.
Half an hour later, she parked in her driveway and turned off the engine. Her first day of the job search had proved fruitless. What did, “You’re overqualified,” mean, anyway? If she heard that phrase one more time, she’d scream. How could she be overqualified for work she knew how to do? What they meant was, they were afraid she’d keep looking for a better paying or more prestigious job and leave them in the lurch.
She got out of the vehicle and shoved the car door closed with a whoomph. There was no way she’d apply for something with a salary too low to pay her bills each month. And she wouldn’t leave a new job right away as long as she could live on what she earned. Besides, there was always the chance she could move up within the company.
As she entered the house, she threw her keys and purse on the hall table, and let her briefcase fall to the floor. She hung her shawl on the coat tree, entered the living room, and plopped into the armchair. She’d better file for unemployment. They’d have resources to help her find work. Maybe she could do that online.
The people working in government agencies came to mind. When she first came to America, married Jake, and looked for a job, the government employees struck her as rude. But that was ten years ago, and she’d heard things had changed since. Government employees had lightened up, as one girl at the North Houston Regional Hospital put it. She could only hope. Her depression was bad enough without angry words assailing her ears.
She went to her desk and opened the lap drawer, took out a legal pad and pen, and began a list. What were those tips she read recently? When looking for a new job, find the best job listings. And where would she find them? Online. “Okay, number one.”
Several minutes later, she went over her list. Keep your job search focused. Build your professional brand. What did that even mean? She scratched that line off. Connect with your contacts. Contacts? A deep groan escaped her lips. She’d been so distant from everyone since Jake died. It was hard to see the pity in their eyes. Easier to avoid them. She scratched that line off too.
Use job search apps and tools. Her brows pinched. That meant the computer again. As secretary to the head nurse at her old job, she knew exactly where to go online for things the nurses needed. But for her personal needs, she’d avoided the computer as much as possible. Not an option anymore.
Create a list of companies where you'd like to work. Now that one she’d do. She loved working in a clinical setting. Though not a nurse or doctor, she contributed in the effort to help people get or stay well. And clinic settings were everywhere in town.
Take the time to target your resume and cover letter. Target them? She didn’t understand that when she first read it either. Okay. She’d find sites that explained how to make her resume stand out. Maybe that’s what they meant. She also had to come up with a cover letter, if needed. Another item to check for online, she supposed.
Prepare to ace the interview. Right! Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. Her spirit and desire shriveled. All she could think of at the moment was making a big cup of hot chocolate, cutting a huge slice of chocolate cake, and dousing both with the entire can of whipped cream she had in the refrigerator from—when had she bought that? Probably too old.
What she needed was a pet to keep her company. People with pets always seemed happy. An animal would give her something to take care of, to talk to. She could handle that, couldn’t she?
But first, chocolate.