Anonymity

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“Anonymity is an insightful and compelling novel of young people adrift on the streets of Austin, Texas. Janna McMahan’s new novel is her best yet and will no doubt find a wide and appreciative audience.

–Ron Rash, New York Times bestselling author of Serena and Burning Bright, SIBA 2010 Book of the Year.

She’s not just a random homeless girl. Lorelei is street smart, elusive and manipulative. She’s a survivor, always on the move. Always one step ahead of the danger in her past.

Emily’s a hard-partying bartender in downtown Austin with problems of her own. When she meets a handsome reporter looking for a photographer, Emily volunteers her camera skills. As she follows him into the sordid world of gutter punks, Emily finds an unexpected friendship that will redefine her life.

But Emily realizes too late that each of her attempts to help only puts her new friend in ever increasing peril. Can she unravel the mystery of Lorelei’s past and find a way to protect her? Or would the girl be better off unknown and on her own?

Anonymity is a gritty, harrowing account of young people who live life on the edge when all they really want is a safe place to call home.

“Anonymity brings to life the gritty, harsh realities of life on the streets. Janna McMahan skillfully juxtaposes compassion and heartlessness, entitlement and helplessness. Though set in Austin, be mindful this story could be set in your city.”
–Mary Alice Monroe, New York Times bestselling author of The Butterfly’s Daughter.
_______________

Excerpt

Lorelei

            Passengers began to collect their bags from overhead storage long before the dusty bus lurched to a stop in the terminal. Lorelei pressed her forehead against the window and peered out through the ghostly fingerprints of previous riders. People bumped into each other and apologized as they shuffled around. She followed their reflections in the smudged glass as they inched toward the exit.

Mothers caressed the damp curls of their heavy-eyed children. They planted kisses on smooth cheeks to rouse their babies. Longing drew sharp on Lorelei’s heart, but she pushed it down. Emotions were the enemy.

The bus driver eyed her in his rearview, the young straggler with no one waiting for her, nowhere in particular to go. She expected him to be impatient, but he seemed content to merely watch her make her way toward the front.

“Good luck, honey,” the driver said when she finally stepped off. “Girl like you, you got to be careful out there.” The accordion doors hissed closed and she was left in a gas-flavored fog.

She could use a little luck. And food. She could definitely use some food.

Lorelei tried to ignore hunger, to force her body to forget the purpose of that ache. The times she was able to endure the black gnaw in her gut she felt strong and in control.

This wasn’t one of those times.

She had eaten her last Slim Jim in the Phoenix Greyhound terminal while she waited for some guy to pay her fare through to Austin. She had picked him because he seemed gentle, like he would help her when she told him about searching for her brother. She could read people now, which ones were easy targets, which ones to avoid.

For more than a year she had been walking and hitching, cramming into rattletrap cars and vans with other worn out travelers. She left home for Portland then worked her way down the coast to L.A. and across the rocky flatlands of the Southwest. If she didn’t have luck in Austin she’d move on to New Orleans, maybe Miami before winter. Being homeless in winter sucked.

Outside the station she spotted kindred spirits, a group with tattoos and lived-in clothes, packs and bedrolls. One had a thin dog on a frayed rope. She waited, hoping they would be cool, but one of the girls gave her a warning look, so she moved on.

Austin’s heat blanketed her. The sun was low in the sky but still strong enough to force her into the shadows of buildings and trees. The sidewalk radiated heat. A digital bank sign read 107 degrees. She was parched. Her mouth, even her eyes were dehydrated. Texas was the sort of dry hot that smothered a person’s spirit.

The Salvation Army was close to the terminal. She waited a block away, watching. Dozens of men were hanging around outside smoking. Some stood on the corner peering up and down the busy street as if waiting on their limo. But she knew they were just drunks and mentals, the usual down-on-their-luck scary losers.

The dazzling glass towers of downtown promised better opportunity, so she moved on. In a few blocks she was on the famous Sixth Street. Pubs, coffee bars and Mexican restaurants lined the sidewalks. Pulsing neon marked the clubs—guitars, tilted martini glasses, funky retro signs. Music pounded out of open doors. Light poles were plastered with hand flyers for bands. The road was blocked and happy hour humanity flowed down the sidewalks and pooled in the wide streets, laughing, staggering along.

She stopped to admire an historic hotel with arches and a large columned balcony. It reminded her of a castle or a wedding cake. A valet jogged out to meet a sleek black sedan and beautiful people emerged.

Musicians strummed guitars and sang in front of a music store, an open instrument case at their feet littered with a few dollar bills. The tangy air outside a barbecue joint made her stomach throb. She searched the crowd for someone to help her, a mark.

Amidst the movement stood an eddy of blonde girls in short dresses and slouchy boots. Their enormous earrings brushed their shoulders. One held out her phone and her giddy friends leaned into the picture. They froze in a parody of their drunken happiness, colorful birds chirping away.

“Can you please help me?” she asked.

Four sets of coal-rimmed eyes turned her way. She saw the moment their fuzzy minds focused. Their eyes flashed up and down her dirty cargo pants, her scarred Doc Martens, her tats. She could hear their thoughts—street rat, gutter punk, trash.

Would they freak or would they help? You could never tell with college girls.

One clutched her purse tighter.

“Is there a church around here that serves food?” Lorelei asked. “Or may a shelter, you know, for young people?”

“Oh,” one said. She snapped her fingers trying to recall. “I know that place. It’s by the University Tower. What’s it called?”

“It’s some plant name, right?” the one with the phone said.

“Yeah. Like Tumbleweed or something. Look it up.”

The girl touched her phone with glistening nails. “Here it is. Tumbleweed Young Adult Center. It’s not far.” She held the screen forward. “It’s like, um, a fifteen minute walk or something. It’s right by the university, along The Drag.”

It seemed wrong to press for money after they had helped, so she thanked them and walked on.

Lorelei worked her way toward campus. She didn’t bother to panhandle on the way since she was focused only on food and something to drink. As she walked, the University of Texas grew around her, pale stone buildings and walks, an important place for important people. The grounds were trimmed and impressive, although the whole city seemed to need a good watering.

To her left, pockmarked sidewalks fronted student bookstores, taco stands, churches and food co-ops. In a barren space between two buildings a cluster of kids were hunched over paper plates. She had arrived.

The drop-in entrance was down concrete steps tucked into a corner of a church basement. She’d done this enough to know that on the other side of that weathered steel door would be a ratty couch, mismatched chairs scattered around and inspirational posters of kittens and puppies and sunsets.

And food. There would be no mouth-watering barbecue. Only foil containers of salad and pasta. Brittle cookies. Fake lemonade.

She hesitated. Going in meant revealing herself. Usually she could hang in a new place for weeks before she had to find the shelter, but once her presence was known things had a way of changing fast. Counselors would want to talk. She never gave them her real name, never told them where she was from. Still, information would start to spread. A white girl, under eighteen, alone on the streets worried certain people. Sometimes the cops got involved, or worse, sometimes parents got found.

There were clear advantages to keeping a low profile, but the double blades of thirst and hunger had long ago carved caution from her empty hull.

 

 

About the Author

Janna McMahan is the national-bestselling author of three previous novels—Calling Home, The Ocean Inside and Decorations. A finalist for the Flannery O’Connor and the Mary McCarthy awards for short fiction, McMahan’s short stories and non-fiction have been published in numerous magazines and journals. Visit www.JannaMcMahan.com for more information or visit her on Facebook.com/JannaMcMahan and twitter.com/JannaMc.

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