Escape (Random House Large Print)

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9780739377642: Escape (Random House Large Print)
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In her luminous new novel, Barbara Delinsky explores every woman’s desire to abandon the endless obligations of work and marriage—and the idea that the most passionate romance can be found with the person you know best.

Emily Aulenbach is thirty, a lawyer married to a lawyer, working in Manhattan. An idealist, she had once dreamed of representing victims of corporate abuse, but she spends her days in a cubicle talking on the phone with vic­tims of tainted bottled water—and she is on the bottler’s side.

And it isn’t only work. It’s her sister, her friends, even her husband, Tim, with whom she doesn’t connect the way she used to. She doesn’t connect to much in her life, period, with the exception of three things—her computer, her BlackBerry, and her watch.

Acting on impulse, Emily leaves work early one day, goes home, packs her bag, and takes off. Groping toward the future, uncharacteristically following her gut rather than her mind, she heads north toward a New Hampshire town tucked between mountains. She knows this town. During her college years, she spent a watershed summer here. Painful as it is to return, she knows that if she is to right her life, she has to start here.
From the Hardcover edition.

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About the Author:

BARBARA DELINSKY has more than thirty million copies of her books in print. She lives with her fam­ily in New England.
From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

 
Chapter 1

Have you ever woken up in a cold sweat, thinking that you’ve taken a wrong turn and are stuck in a life you don’t want? Did you ever consider hitting the brakes, backing up, and heading elsewhere?

How about disappearing—leaving family, friends, even a spouse—ditching everything you’ve known and starting over again. Reinvent­ing yourself. Rediscovering yourself. Maybe, just maybe, returning to an old lover. Have you ever dreamed about this?

No. Me, neither. No dream, no plan.

It was just another Friday. I awoke at 6:10 to the blare of the radio, and hit the button to silence it. I didn’t need talk of politics to knot up my stomach, when the thought of going to work did that all on its own. It didn’t help that my husband, already long gone, texted me at 6:15, knowing I’d have my BlackBerry with me in the bathroom.

Can’t make dinner tonight. Sorry.


I was stunned. The dinner in question, which had been on our calendar for weeks, involved senior partners at my firm. It was impor­tant that James be there with me.

OMG,
I typed. Why not?

I received his reply seconds before stepping into the shower. Gotta work late, he said, and how could I argue? We were both lawyers, seven years out of law school. We had talked about working our tails off now to pay our dues, and I had been in total agreement at fi rst. Lately, though, we had seen little of each other, and it was getting worse. When I pointed this out to James, he got a helpless look in his eyes, like, What can I do?

I tried to relax under the hot spray, but I kept arguing aloud that there were things we could do if we wanted to be together—that love should trump work—that we had to make changes before we had kids, or what was the point—that my coyote dreams had begun when I started getting letters from Jude Bell, and though I stuffed those letters under the bed and out of sight, a tiny part of me knew they were there.

I had barely left the shower when my BlackBerry dinged again. No surprise. My boss, Walter Burbridge, always e-mailed at 6:30.

Client wants an update,
he wrote. Can you do it by ten?

Here’s a little background. I used to be an idealist. Starting law school, I had dreamed of defending innocent people against corpo­rate wrongdoing, and by graduation was itching to be involved in an honest-to-goodness class action lawsuit. Now I am. Only I’m the bad guy. The case on which I work involves a company that produces bottled water that was tainted enough to cause irreparable harm to a frightening number of people. The company has agreed to compen­sate the victims. My job is to determine how many, how sick, and how little we can get away with doling out, and I don’t work alone. We are fifty lawyers, each with a cubicle, computer, and headset. I’m one of five supervisors, any of whom could have compiled an update, but because Walter likes women, he comes to me.

I’m thirty-two, stand five-six, weigh one-twenty. I spin some­times, but mostly power walk and do yoga, so I’m in shape. My hair is auburn and long, my eyes brown, my skin clear.

We gave them an update Monday,
I typed with my thumbs.

Get it to me by ten,
he shot back.

Could I refuse? Of course not. I was grateful to have a job at a time when many of my law school friends were wandering the streets looking for work. I was looking, too, but there was nothing to be had, which meant that arguing with the partner-in-charge of a job I did have was not a wise thing to do.

Besides, I mused as I slipped on my watch, if I was to put together an update by ten, I had to make tracks.

My BlackBerry didn’t cooperate. I was hurrying to finish my makeup when it began making noise. The wife of one of James’s partners wanted the name of a pet sitter. I didn’t have a pet, but could certainly ask a friend who did. Thinking that I would have had a dog or cat in a minute if our lifestyle allowed it, I was zipping on a pair of black slacks when another e-mail arrived. Why won’t sharks attack lawyers? said the subject line, and I instantly clicked delete. Lynn Fal­lon had been in my study group our first year in law school. She now worked with a small firm in Kansas, surely having a kinder, gentler experience than those of us in New York, and she loves lawyer jokes. I do not. I was feeling bad enough about what I do. Besides, when Lynn sent a joke, it went to dozens of people, and I don’t do group e-mail.

Nor do I do anything but blue blouses, I realized in dismay as I stood at the closet. Blue blouses were professional, my lawyer side argued, but I was bored looking at them. Closing my eyes, I chose a blouse—any blouse—and was doing buttons when the BB dinged again.

Okay, Emily,
wrote my sister. You booked the restaurant, but you haven’t done music, photography, or flowers. Why are you dragging your heels?

Kelly, it is 7 am,
I wrote back and tossed the BlackBerry on the bed. I turned on the radio, heard the word “terrorism,” and turned it off. I was brushing my hair back into a wide barrette when my sister’s reply arrived.

Right, and in two minutes I have to get the kids dressed and fed, then do the same for me so I can get to work, which is why I’m counting on you for this. What’s the problem?


This party is over the top,
I typed back.

We agreed. You do the work, I pay.


Mom doesn’t want this,
I argued, but my sister was relentless.

Mom will love it. She only turns 60 once. I need help with this, Emily. I can’t hear myself think when I get home from work. If you had kids you’d know.


It was a low blow. Kelly knew we were trying. She knew we had undergone tests and were doing the intensive-sex-at-ovulation routine. She didn’t know that I’d gotten my period again this month, but I couldn’t bear to write the words, and then—ding, ding, ding—my in-box began filling. It was 7:10. I had to get to work. Burying the BlackBerry in the depths of my purse so that I wouldn’t hear the noise, I grabbed my coat and took off.

We lived in Gramercy Park in a condo we could barely afford, and though we didn’t have a key to the park itself, we had passed Julia Roberts on the street a time or two. I saw nothing today—no Julia, no pretty brownstones, no promising June day—as I hurried to Fifth Avenue, sprinting the last half block to catch the bus as it pulled up at the curb.

I was at my desk at 7:45, and I wasn’t the first. A low drone of voices already hovered over the cubicles. I awoke my computer and logged in, then logged in twice more at different levels of database security. Waiting for the final one, I checked my BlackBerry.

Are you going to yoga?
asked the paralegal who worked two floors below me and hated going to yoga alone. I would be happy going alone, since it meant less chatter and more relaxation, which was the whole point of yoga. But if I had to go home to change before the firm dinner, yoga was out. Not tonight, I typed.

Colly wants Vegas,
wrote a book group friend. Colleen Parker was getting married in September, and though I had only known her for the two years I’d been in the group, she had asked me to be a brides­maid. I would be one of a dozen, paying three hundred dollars each to wear matching dresses. And now a bachelorette party in Vegas? I was thinking the whole thing was tacky, when I spotted the next note.

Hey, Emily,
wrote Ryan Mcfee. Ryan worked one cubicle down, two over. Won’t be in today. Have the flu. Don’t want to spread it around.

This should have been important. It meant one man-day of lost work. But what was one more or less in a huge cubicle room?

Logged in now, I set to gathering Walter’s information. It was 7:50. By 8:25 I had a tally of the calls we’d received from last week­end’s newspaper ads—and I could understand why our client was worried. The number of claimants was mounting fast. Each had been rated on a ten-point scale by the lawyer taking the call, with tens being the most severely affected and ones being the least. There were also zeros; these were the easiest to handle. When callers tried to cash in on a settlement with proof neither of harm nor of having ever pur­chased the product, they stood out.

The others were the ones over which I agonized.

But statistics were impersonal and, in that, relatively painless. I updated the figures on how many follow-ups we had done since Monday, with a numerical breakdown and brief summaries of the claims. At 8:55 I e-mailed the spreadsheet to Walter, logged in the time I’d spent making it, shot a look at my watch, and dashed down­ stairs for breakfast. Though I passed colleagues in the elevator, being competitors in the game of billable hours, we did little more than nod.

Going from the thirty-fifth floor to the ground and up again took time, so it wasn’t until 9:10 that I was back at my desk with a donut and coffee. By then the cubicles were filled, the tap of computer keys louder, and the drone of voices more dense. I had barely washed down a bite of donut when the phone began to blink. Hooking the earpiece
over my head, I logged in on my time sheet, pulled up a clear screen on my computer, and clicked into the call.

“Lane Lavash,” I answered, as was protocol with calls coming in on the toll-free lines listed in our ads. “May I help you?”

There was silence, then a timid “I don’t know. I got this number from the paper.”

Frauds were confident. This woman sounded young and unsure. “Which paper?” I asked gently.

“The, uh, the Telegram. In Portland. Maine.”

“Do you live in Portland?” I readied my fingers to enter this information.

“No. I was there with my brother last weekend and saw the ad. I live in Massachusetts.”

I dropped my hands. Massachusetts was prime Eagle River dis­tribution area. We’d received calls from as far away as Oregon, from people who had been vacationing in New England during the time the tainted water was on sale. Strict documentation of travel was required for these claims, well before we looked at documentation of physical harm.

I cupped my hands in my lap. “Do you have cause for a claim against Eagle River?”

Her voice remained hesitant. “My husband says no. He says that these things just happen.”

“What things?”

“Miscarriages.”

I hung my head. This was not what I wanted to hear, but the din of voices around me said that if not this woman, someone else would be getting pieces of the Eagle River settlement. Miscarriage was definitely one of the “harms” on our list.

“Have you had one?” I asked.

“Two.”

I entered that in the form on my screen, and when the words didn’t appear, retyped them, but the form remained blank. Knowing that I wouldn’t forget this, and not wanting to lose the momentum of the call, I asked, “Recently?”

“The first one was a year and a half ago.”

My heart sank. “Had you been drinking Eagle River water?” Of course she had.

“Yes.”

“Can you document that?” I asked in a kind voice, though I felt cold and mean.

“Y’mean, like, do I have a receipt? See, that’s one of the reasons my husband didn’t want me to call. I pay cash, and I don’t have receipts. My husband says I should’ve made a connection between the water and the miscarriage back then, but, like, bottled water is always safe, right? Besides, we were just married and there was other stuff going
on, and I figured I was miscarrying because it wasn’t the right time for me to be pregnant.” Her voice shrank. “Now it is, only they say there’s something wrong with the baby.”
 
My mind filled with static. I tried to remember the company line. “The Eagle River recall was eighteen months ago. The water has been clean since then. It wouldn’t harm your baby.”

I heard a meek half-cry. “The thing is, we try to buy in bulk because it’s cheaper that way. So we had a couple of twenty-fours in the basement and kind of forgot about them. Then I got pregnant, and my husband lost his job, and money was really tight, so I saw the water and thought I was doing good by using what we had instead of buying fresh. I didn’t know about the recall.”

“It was in all the newspapers.”

I don’t read newspapers,
the ensuing silence said. “Newspapers cost money.”

“So does bottled water.”

“But the water from the tap tastes so bad. We thought of putting a filter on, but that costs more than the bottled water, and it’s not like we own this place.”

“Maybe your tap water is tainted,” I said, playing to script. “Have you asked your landlord to test it?”

“No, because my husband drinks it, and he’s healthy. I’m the only one with the problem, and I only drink bottled water. I noticed your newspaper ad because I always drink Eagle River.” Her voice was a whispered wail. “They say the baby won’t be right, and my husband wants to get rid of it, and I have to make a decision, and I don’t know
what to do. This sucks.

It did suck. All of it.

“I don’t know what to do,” she repeated, and I realized she wanted my advice, but how could I give that? I was the enemy, an agent for the company whose product had caused a deformity in her child. She should have been yelling at me, calling me the most coldhearted per­son in the world. Some of them did. There had been the man whose seamstress wife had developed tremors in her hands and was perma­nently disabled. Or the woman whose husband had died—and yes, he had a pre-existing medical condition, but he would have lived longer if he hadn’t drunk tainted water.

The names they called me weren’t pretty, and though I told myself not to take it personally, I did. Thinking that this job definitely sucked, I swiveled sideways and lowered my eyes. “I’m Emily. What’s your name?”

“Layla,” she said.

I didn’t try to enter it on my form. Nor did I ask for a last name. This had become a personal discussion. “Have you talked with your doctor about options?”

“There are only two,” she said, sounding frightened. I guessed her to be in her early twenties. “My mother says I shouldn’t kill my baby. She says God chose me to protect an imperfect child, but she isn’t the one who’ll be paying medical bills or maybe losing a husband because of it.” Losing a husband . . . Not on the formal list of “harms” but a plausible side effect, one that had to resonate with any married woman in this room.

Or maybe not. We didn’t talk about this—didn’t talk about much of anything, because we were being paid by the hour to do our work, and time sheets would only allow for a lapse or two. What I was doing now was against the rules. I was supposed to stick to business and limit the time of each call. But Layla was talking quickly, going on about the bills that were piling up, and I couldn’t cut her off. Somewhere in the middle of it, she said, “You’re a good person, I can tell by your voice, so my husband was wrong when he said I’d be talking to a robot. He also said we’d have to sign away our lives if we...

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