NaNoWriMo2015 – Juicy Fruit Don’t Grow on Trees

Chapter One

by Laura Kalpakian (2527 words)

When Our House Bookstore was closed for the night, the books came to life. They carried on noisy conversations, affable exchanges, the occasional flirtation, and now and then, a roaring fight. However, they were always back on the shelves, usually in their appropriate places, when they heard the key turn in the lock.

Annie Madigan, breathless and out of sorts, came in through the storeroom door, and turned on the light switch. She was late to work. Not by much, but late nonetheless. She grabbed a feather duster, dashed into the store proper, and dusted over all the shelves, tickling the books, though she did not know it, and the books did not let on.

The store cat, Ahab, rounded the corner, stretched, yawned and gave her a look of feline inquiry. Annie returned to the storeroom, dropped off the feather duster, freshened Ahab’s water, put some more kitty-kibble in his dish, and—nose-held—emptied his litter box in the bin outside. She returned to the store, washed her hands, and pretended she hadn’t just done that.

Annie popped on the store computers, but checked her personal email on her phone. Her heart sank. Nothing from Jason. He should have written or called. He ought to apologize. He was the one who had cheated, after all. He had slept with her house-mate Erica on Saturday when Annie went briefly to her parents’ place. She knew because Erica told her. Gloating. Today was Monday, and still no word from Jason. She loved him. Loved him still. Love is not a faucet one turns off and on. One little misdeed, and presto! Finished? Oh, sure she knew all the self-help books (of which there were half a dozen under her bed) told you to be strong, keep your own self-worth front-and-center, never doubt that you deserve the best, the truest and most shining. And Annie was strong, didn’t doubt her self worth. But she loved Jason, even if he was not the truest and most ….she suppressed a small sob. She so wanted the chance to forgive him, but he hadn’t so much as texted her.

Disappointed personally, she returned to the store computer, perusing the usual professional blogs and posts, ShelfAwareness, Goodreads, Off the Shelf, and other forums to see what was inciting publishers’ and literary and booksellers’ excitement. Tom Clancy wannabees, and more frigging post-apocalyptic dystopian novels? Annie sighed. Then there were the celebrity memoirs with celebs’ thoughts on love and life and their eight million dollar advances. And, of course, the books that promised a distinct equation between cleaning out your closet, great sex, and enough cosmic fulfillment to turn you into a goddess. Or how to Lean In without Falling Over. Lyrics from an old song on a record her mother used to play rolled through Annie’s head, “I wish I could find a good book to live in…..”

A knock sounded at the store’s front door, though it wasn’t yet nine. Annie jumped up to open it, only to find her colleague Sean Cary, pushing his bicycle. “You know you’re not supposed to bring that in through the front,” Annie reminded him, wishing she didn’t sound so didactic. A hangover from having taught first grade, no doubt.

“Tough shit,” said Sean cheerfully. He was a tall, rangy youth, blond hair and blue eyes that crinkled at the corners, not from age, but from squinting into the sunlight on a bike. He didn’t even own a car. “Old Blood and Thunder isn’t here yet.”

“You shouldn’t call him that, Sean.”

“Why not? He’s not here. Is he?” Sean sounded suddenly worried.

“No, he’s not here, but you’ll slip one day.”

“Like the way my mother called the doctor Beasterbrook?”

“What?”

“When I was a kid. Our doctor’s name was Easterbrook, but my mom couldn’t stand him, thought he was a total quack, so she named him Beasterbrook, and that’s what we all called him.”

“Why didn’t she just change doctors?”

“He was a good tipper.”

“The doctor tipped you?”

“No, my dad was a bartender at the Angel Pines Country Club, and Beasterbrook was in there all the time, drinking booze and playing golf. And a great tipper. So all three of us kids had to keep going to him, and we called him Dr. Beasterbrook.”

“To his face?”

“He didn’t know the difference. Like I said, booze and golf.”

“Well, anyway,” Annie returned to the matter at hand. “I’d suggest you refrain from calling Obie Old Blood and Thunder. If it gets back to Sandra, she won’t like it.”

“Oh, what do you want to bet she calls him that in bed? You know, just to boost his confidence.” Sean lowered his voice and rolled his eyes, “‘Come on, Old Blood and Thunder, give it to me like the Big Boy you are….’”

Annie’s face fell, and that’s when Sean knew that Old Blood and Thunder had just walked into the store behind him.

“Haven’t I told you a thousand times!” Old Blood and Thunder hollered as Sean wheeled his bike into the storeroom. “Don’t bring that frigging bike in through the front!” Then he flung himself down in the armchair between Biography and Memoirs, flung his feet out, and rubbed his temples.

“Is something wrong?” Annie asked with some trepidation. Old Blood and Thunder was generally in good spirits, but his funks could leave a genuine pall over the bookstore.

His real name was a rather dull, Otis Branch, Obie, they called him to his face. Sometimes Obie-Wan, which was a name he liked. But secretly the Our House clerks, and customers, Bonnie, the barista at Java Jive, Antoine, the barber who cut his hair, the servers at El Taco Loco and Thai One On called him Old Blood and Thunder. OB&T for short. He was the longtime lover of the Our House owner, Sandra Thompson. They were an odd couple. Sandra was thin, petite unto bony, with a high bridged nose and big brown eyes, made to seem even larger behind her enormous glasses. She always wore long cardigans silvered with cat hair, long skirts or jeans, and Birkenstocks, sometimes with support hose. Her hair was long and wild and gray, and she kept it tamed in a knot at the top of her head. OB&T, by contrast, was an enormous man, still barrel-chested in his sixties, bearded and blue-eyed. His hair was short, shorn close to his head. He often wore leather vests with silver studs. Standing beside him Sandra appeared like a flighty little bird in the shadow of a mighty oak. They had been together for over ten years, devoted to each other. Without a blink of embarrassment, they called each other Porky and Petunia, their pet names for one another.

Old Blood and Thunder came by his name by virtue of his storytelling prowess. Anything you cared to bring up, OB&T had done it. Any book you ever mentioned, he had read it. Sailed solo down the Baja Coast. Sure, 1975. Served in ‘Nam. Yup. ‘69 to ‘70, more’s the pity. Marched alongside Caesar Chavez? 1966. Surfed with Frankie Avalon. Uh huh, 1962 (And boffed Annette Funicello too.) Somewhere in there he got an English degree from UCLA. Stevedore on an arctic icebreaker, 1980. Roadie for Joe Cocker, 1984. Disciple of the Maharishi, 1988. (Too late to meet George Harrison, but OB&T had slept in the same ashram as George who, OB&T insisted, had left something of his gentle spirit behind.) He had been a lighting gaffer for Frank Zappa’s shows, and changed Weezil’s diapers. He had fished in Alaska. He had bussed dishes at Chez Panisse, and smoked weed with Ken Kesey while typing stream of consciousness poems. He had briefly been a staffer at Poetry Magazine. He could quote Auden, Yeats and Shakespeare till you wept. His stories were legion, and he told them well, full of bombast and rhetorical flourishes. Listeners’ jaws dropped. People would come to Our House just to hear him talk. They would always buy a book he recommended because he placed these books in their hands as though the print and paper and words were somehow holy.

But now, to Annie, he looked like a crestfallen old man. She inquired again if everything was all right.

“All right?” he boomed, though he looked stricken. “Who wants to live with everything being All Right? Don’t you want to live at the peak of experience, Annie?”

Annie thought about this. Her beloved, Jason, and that bitch Erica had just brought her to the peak of a certain kind of experience, and it was painful. “No, Obie. I don’t think I do.”

Obie’s blue eyes pierced hers. “Why, Annie, you’re too young to give in like that! Why, when I was your age, I—”

But Annie had no wish to hear how Old Blood and Thunder was banging Marianne Faithfull in Mick Jaggers’ own bed, or drinking with Kurt Vonnegut and Kurt’s second wife, or any other such achievement. She changed her tactic. “What’s the matter with you right now? Today.”

He seemed to visibly diminish. “Well, you know that author we have coming in tonight, the woman who wrote Juicy Fruit Don’t Grow on Trees.”

“Laverne Lutz.”

“Yeah, well Laverne and Sandra go way back, Parkview Elementary, Bellingham High School, class of ‘74. They both played the flute in the school band.”

“Sandra played the flute? Really? The bongos, maybe. She’s too…. too….”

“Wild, right? Sandra is one wild woman, my old lady, sweet Petunia!” OB&T glowed at the thought of her. Then his face fell. “But this Laverne Lutz? She’s stayed at our house last night to prepare for her reading at Our House tonight. She drove me bat shit crazy! Everything about her is neat and tidy, and fussy, persnickety and critical. Talking to her is like talking to a tea cozy! She rearranged the silverware drawer while Sandra was cooking dinner! She actually sniffed the butter. She brought hand-tatted doilies for the toilet tank. She talked nonstop till one in the morning, and she was doing frigging yoga on the kitchen floor when I got up this morning.”

“What?” said Sean, joining them.

“Obie was just saying that Laverne Lutz stayed with Obie and Sandra at their house last night.” said Annie

“My condolences, dude,” said Sean.

“You know Laverne Lutz?” asked Annie.

“No, but I read Chapter One of Juicy Fruit Don’t Grow on Trees, and it is El Suckaroo, man. Made me want a stick of Dentyne, or Double Bubble. A swig of Listerine. Just to clear the palette, know what I mean?”

“Please don’t say that books suck in the store, Sean,” said Annie, sotto voce as she nodded to their first customer, none other than Rosemary Leach who would chew your ear for half an hour, making you search all over for just the right book, and then she’d leave and buy it from Amazon. They all three looked away from Rosemary who headed toward cookbooks.

“And don’t let Sandra know that you hated Juicy Fruit Don’t Grow on Trees,” OB&T advised. “Sandra loves it. Loves Laverne. Loves Laverne’s writing. Can’t wait for the writing classes to start.”

“What writing classes?” asked Jenna, the third Our House Books clerk. Like Annie and Sean, Jenna was an ex-English major, a committed reader, a wistful, hopeful writer, though she had never quite had the courage to put pen to paper. She wore glasses that constantly slipped down her nose. Her hair was short and curly and framed a classically oval face.

“Sandra has invited Laverne Lutz to teach a class, for writers, here, at Our House, one night a week for four weeks,” said OB&T sadly.

“Wow,” said Jenna. “Maybe Sandra will let me take it for free! I loved Juicy Fruit Don’t Grow on Trees. It popped right along.”

“It’s selling very well,” Annie admitted.

“I don’t care about the book!” thundered OB&T which was a surprise to his listeners. He always cared about the books. “Laverne Lutz will be staying with us, at our house, for four weeks! What’ll I do? I’ll go bonkers!”

“Tell Sandra, it’s your house too, dammit, and you don’t want Lutz around,” said Sean, offering the male perspective.

“Doesn’t Laverne Lutz have a life of her own?” asked Annie. “You know, rent? A job?”

“She says she’s Between Things,” OB&T sighed. “but the truth is, I think she has an old flame here she wants to reconnect with, a doctor who is recently divorced and drinks too much. She never quite used his name, but she and Sandra were giggling like the schoolgirls they once were. Sandra’s a sucker for love.” He rose slowly, and made his way back to his office in the storeroom.

Sean and Jenna and Annie all saw Rosemary Leach coming. Sean and Annie quickly took up other tasks. Rosemary snagged Jenna and dragged her back to cookbooks with lots of questions.

Annie, busying herself the checkout counter, wondered fleetingly if she, too, might be called a sucker for love. Not an appealing thought. Why should she so want to stay with someone who had brought her such pain? Why should she wait passively for word from her errant lover? Don’t you want to live at the peak of experience? The question rang in her head and her heart as the store began to fill with customers. She felt the need to act instead of merely suffer. To act now. She took out her phone and texted Jason in unadorned prose. Clean. Simple. I see no reason to court more heartache. You and I are finished. Was it just that easy? To upend her love life with a single “Send?” We’ll find out, she thought, pressed “Send” and waited for remorse to set in.

Young mothers pushing their toddlers’ strollers, wandered into the bookstore congregating in children’s books; retirees sought out fiction and finance; a couple of high school truants enthusiastically checked out the graphic novels. In an hour Annie would lead the Our House Book Club that met around the community table. In the meantime, and so she wouldn’t have to think about Jason, or the peak of experience or the need to act instead of merely suffer, Annie took a copy of Juicy Fruit Don’t Grow on Trees from the display rack by the checkout counter, opened it, and started to read.

The door flung open and a woman stood there, framed momentarily, her eyes quickly scanning Our House Books like a general looking over the placement of artillery. She flung her long scarf over one shoulder and strode in wearing stiletto boots, a smart skirt and jacket over a red blouse. Large hoop earrings brushed her shoulders, and her fingers were arrayed with a dazzling set of rings.

“How gratifying to see you reading my book! ” she said, coming up to Annie at the same time that Rosemary Leach seemed ready to dart out of the bookstore. The woman snatched Juicy Fruit Don’t Grow on Trees from Annie’s hand, turned to Rosemary and declared, “This is the book you want to buy! And I can sign it for you right now.”

Chapter 2

by Pam Helberg (1316 words)

“Laverne!” Sandra yelled from her gilded, tufted, and faded stool in front of the vanity. She gathered her long grey hair together into a rope of sorts that she wound and wound around until she had fashioned a bun, a cinnamon twisty topknot of sorts on the top of her head. She stabbed a couple of chopsticks through it so it stayed, precariously. By the time she got to the bookstore, it would most likely be falling down again, but once there, she could find some yellow Ticonderoga #2 pencils to add to it for additional stability.

“Laverne!” she shouted again, growing impatient. Where was that old twat? As she waited for a response, she penciled in her always-arched eyebrows. Somehow as a pre-teenager oh so many years ago, at a sleepover, she had let some of her erstwhile friends pluck them and they had never grown back. These days she could hardly see without her glasses and so, with her readers perched low on her nose, she leaned close to the magnifying mirror and concentrated. When Laverne tapped her on the shoulder she jumped, and the eyebrow pencil skidded across her forehead leaving a dark brown line in its wake.

“Good lord woman,” she gasped, her heart pounding out of her chest. “You nearly killed me and blinded me as well.”

Laverne looked stunning as usual in her leather get up—black stiletto boots, black skirt, and complementary black jacket. She had a cut of deep red lipstick across her mouth that matched her blouse perfectly, and silver dollar sized hoop earrings dangled from her aging earlobes. Sandra observed her old friend in the mirror.

“What do you want, darling?” Laverne tongued a piece of tissue wet and began dabbing across Sandra’s forehead.

Sandra leaned in and let Laverne tidy her errant handiwork.

“I just wanted to remind you that discretion is paramount. Don’t breathe a word of our plan to anyone when you go to the bookstore. Not a single word.” She waggled her pointer finger under Laverne’s nose.

The gleaming rhinestones on her fingers caught the morning light and cast prisms around the dusty dressing room. Whenever she moved, dust and pet hair fluffed into the air and caught the light as well. Her beloved tabby Alice B. and her doted upon pug Gertrude were never far from her. And given that Sandra hadn’t pushed a vacuum in well over a decade, the entire house sported a healthy coating of fur.

Shabby chic, heavy on the shabby, best described her décor. When Sandra had purchased the old craftsman in the early nineteen seventies (for a song, no less), she decorated with cast off sofas and settees, well made in their day but their days had long since faded into history. Ancient armoires, lumpy beds, and mismatched chairs littered the enormous house. Every stick of furniture had a story, had been rescued from the ash heap or found behind the antique stores that had long ago shuttered their doors.

“I won’t breathe a word to anyone,” Laverne cupped Sandra’s chin and tilted Sandra’s head this way and then that way, studying her handiwork. She had drawn on two symmetrically arched eyebrows. “Except about the classes. We must advertise the writing classes.”

“Of course, of course,” Sandra stood up from her little stool and plucked a wrinkled black broomstick skirt from the back of the door. She shimmied it over her head and down to her hips as she walked, blindly, into the closet, emerging with a long grey cardigan. The grey hid the pet hair nicely. “Otis probably already told everyone about the class anyway.”

Sandra Thompson knew full well that her employees called Otis Old Blood and Thunder. Nothing happened in Our House Bookstore that she did not know about, sooner or later. She knew, for example that Sean always brought his bike in through the front door, that Annie and her boyfriend were on the rocks, that Jenna wanted nothing more than to be a writer, and that everyone on her staff hated Rosemary Leach with a deep and abiding passion. Sandra kept her ear to the ground, cultivated her sources, divided and conquered the staff, plying them all with favors and bribes, veiled threats, and, when it suited her, unabashed flattery. She could not afford blissful ignorance. Sandra Thompson also knew that her books came to life in the off hours when they thought no one was looking, that no one was the wiser.

Sandra even had to admit that the OB&T suited Otis far better than his given moniker. She may have called him Porky in front of the employees, but to herself and to her good friends, including Laverne Lutz, she called him Old Blustery Thunderbutt. Sure, they had been lovers for-fucking-ever, for what seemed to be several lifetimes, but she was growing weary of him and his stories. She couldn’t say anything, couldn’t tell any story of her own anymore without Otis butting in and stealing the show and one-upping her. His shenanigans might be good for business, excellent in fact for selling books, but for interpersonal relationships, Otis’s way of being in the world sucked the very marrow out her soul.

When Laverne had sent Sandra her book tour dates for her new novel, Sandra jumped at the chance to host her oldest and dearest friend for as long as possible. She desperately needed a respite from Otis’s infernal bellicose blustering, and Laverne agreed to make Our House her last stop, which would allow them to spend a few weeks together, kvetching and catching up. Laverne also agreed to lead a series of writing workshops during her time in town and to split the proceeds with Our House. What Otis and the rest of the bookstore employees didn’t know was that Our House was quickly becoming the Poor House, hemorrhaging cash at an alarming rate.

In the years that Sandra had owned Our House, she had somehow managed to guide the business through an inordinate number of financial storms and crises of all manner. In the 80s and 90s she had to worry about Barnes and Noble and the other giant chain stores driving the independents out of business. Then in the new millennium, with the advent of all things digital, she and the dwindling numbers of independent booksellers who had managed to survive the initial onslaught now had to face all manner of new challenges, from ebooks to Amazon to the consolidation and disappearance of publishing houses, to the mashup of publishers and distributers. Not to mention the eradication of pensions and life savings and homes in the 2008 crash. It seemed no one she knew even had disposable income any longer. And not even the revival of Oprah’s book club made a dent in the steady downward decline of sales.

Still, Sandra mustered up a modicum of hope now that Laverne was here. These past few nights they had closed themselves off in her home’s enormous library, lighting a fire and shutting the grand French doors, creating a cozy nest on the faded and aging sofa. Once they’d caught one another up on their lives, she and Laverne began strategizing ways to save the store. Of course Laverne, being a best selling novelist of a series of easy to digest beach reads, pabulum for the eyes Otis called her writing, had beaucoup money and had offered whatever it might take to bring the bookstore back into the black. Sandra refused, loath to take charity even from her nearest and dearest. She had not yet shrunk from a challenge and she had no plans to start taking the easy way out. Instead, they sat amongst the thousands of books in grand floor-to-ceiling bookcases, signed first editions, advanced reading copies, and long out-of-print treasures and came up with a plan, a foolproof plan to save Our House.

Chapter 3

by Nancy Canyon (1,884 words)

Laverne Lutz had a secret. She was terrified of mice. Generally speaking, old book stores were riddled with them. Though Our House Books seemed clean enough, minus the bike tracks dirtying the rug just inside the front door, she’d watch for litter, droppings and that telltale smell of urine and feces which mice had a habit of leaving behind. Hopefully Ahab was doing his job. Cat hair, ugh! She picked a few strands off her black stockings and dropped them to the car floor. Smoothing her leather skirt, adoring the sumptuous feel of hide, she knew she looked like dynamite.

“Nervous,” Sandra said, turning her way. Her right “eye-brow” lifted when she spoke, topnotch waggling a bit.

Laverne smiled, remembering the day. Sandra’d been a wild beauty loved by all the boys. Laverne had hung at her heels, taking whatever dregs she could get. But no longer was she second best. Yes, she’d surpassed her friend in beauty and success. Still, Laverne was happy looking over at her oldest friend, but she wasn’t nervous.

“I’m excited, anticipating the reading and our plan, but not nervous. No,” she said. “I don’t get nervous.” She smiled, turning to the visor, bringing it down so she could check her red lipstick. Reapplied, she lifted the visor back in place.

They’d toasted with two fingers of brandy before leaving Sandra’s place. Dusty and dark and fluffing with fur; so much for shabby chic! And that Otis, always ruminating about his adventures, never keeping his booming stories to himself. No, it wasn’t nerves over a new book tour and writing classes, it was OB&T wandering around the kitchen while she was doing Downward Facing Dog. It was OB&T sticking his nose inside the enormous library while Sandra and she were putting their heads together, scheming.

And that cat of Sandra’s; nothing but a lazy rag, and her dog, well he’s equally good for nothing when it comes to vermin. All and all, her stay would go quickly enough since she’d keep herself busy cleaning; the silverware drawer was just a start. Sweeping and mopping the kitchen before her yoga practice: essential. Hell if she’d lie in a mess of shed fur.

Her eyes quickly scanned the road as Sandra headed into town. “Turn here,” she said, her tone a little too sharp.

Sandra looked over at her, one eyebrow raised a little higher than usual. “It’s so good to have you back. I know it’s only four weeks, but maybe the marketing agency can set up a few additional readings. You know…so there’s enough time.” Sandra brushed an errant gray strand from her face and smiled a wide engaging smile.

The car swung neatly onto the strip, humming along. Everything was orange and golden, fall having come in with an unprecedented brilliance. Glowing yellow daylight and at night, Venus and Jupiter lining up. Laverne wasn’t a star gazer, but she’d been wandering around the house last night, stubbing her toe on a kitty toy, kicking a chewed slipper out of the way, the day’s excitement and OB&T’s grumpiness over Laverne’s stay had left her sleepless. She yawned as the car pulled over, careful not to smear her lipstick while covering her mouth.

“Here we are,” Sandra said. “You go ahead. I’ll park in back.”

*                   *                   *

The store was warm, steamy almost. Folks milled about, happy and chattering. When Laverne strutted in, the crowd moved toward her. This was the best part of readings, hordes wanting autographs. Groupies gushing. The smell of new books, an opiate. “I just loved your last book…” “Make it to Caren, with a C.” “I’m a writer too.” “You look just like…”

Laverne eyed the crowd, wondering who was student and who had just come for the reading. She felt odd tonight, recalling what Sandra had told her about Old Home Books coming alive at night: volumes quarreling, philosophizing, gossiping, and all that sex talk…something Sandra had overheard more than once; extravagant and unbelievable.

Laverne wanted to be privy to the happenings in person. Perhaps she could hide in the shadows after the reading, smelling mice, wishing Ahab prowess, so she could hear and see the goings on. She nearly gagged over the thought of happening upon a mouse just as Annie pushed through the crowd, practically falling into Laverne’s arms when she arrived. “Sorry, Miss Lutz. Hi, I’m Annie.”

“I know who you are. I was here earlier, if you remember correctly.”

“Of course,” Annie smiled sweetly. “Do you need water? You look a little peaky.”

“Nonsense. Never felt better.” Laverne brushed a slim ring-adorned hand over the back of her coiffed gray hair. She wished she had another couple of fingers of good brandy to toss back, but alas… it was time to read. She strutted across the store in her stiletto boots, following Annie into the community room.

Her audience had already found their places, sitting at the community table and in seats set up near the lectern. The lights in the store were cozy at dusk, twinkle strands strung above the bookshelves, star paper lights dangling across darkened windows. It was coming up on the season. Laverne hated the glitz of the holidays, though she knew it was the best time to promote, selling her latest book, Juicy Fruit Don’t Grow on Trees, to her throng of fans. Media people said the same thing, if you want to sell books, you have to show up. And Laverne showed up…standing at the head of the room, her black leather skirt and jacket squeaky and glistening, her makeup perfect, her yoga body agile. She smiled brilliantly at her crowd. “Good evening everyone!”

*                              *                           *

“And remember, if you want it, go for it. Juicy Fruit don’t grow on trees.” She wagged her bejeweled finger and spread a smile that would knock a statue off its podium. The standing crowd broke into raucous applause. Laverne Lutz took a step back and nodded graciously.              Sandra stepped up to the microphone and reminded everyone that Laverne would be signing books at the table set up at the back of the bookstore. “There’s coffee and cookies and please feel free to browse…and if you haven’t bought Juicy Fruit Don’t Grow on Trees, you can purchase a copy at the front counter.”

Later, sitting at JD’s Pub, a public house specializing in dark beers and ciders, but also serving a full bar, the three of them gloated over their success. Laverne was seriously perfect and had everyone eating out of her hands. The class was already full. Maybe they’d offer it two nights a week. Laverne sipped brandy from a snifter and smiled, sated.

Sandra sipped her beer and turned to Otis. “It was good, don’t you think? Laverne’s an amazing draw. A shot in the arm for the book store.”

Otis nodded. “I don’t know if I told you, Laverne, but you’re like Janis Joplin. Gusto-wise, you know? She was gutsy and sexy, but sweet. Lonely beneath it all. It’s your eyes, just like hers.”

Laverne’s eyes darted around the room. Her fans had followed her. The tables were full. “I’m not gutsy,” she said, smiling. “I’m confident, but thanks, Otis. Have you read my book?”

“Not yet.” He sipped his dark beer, licking the foam off his upper lip.

“And you run a book store?”

“Annie’s in charge. She holds book group. I do the buying. Sandra does everything else. It’s like the time we spent down under…”

“Porky, not now,” Sandra said, touching his arm. “It’s Laverne’s night.”

“It’s all right,” Laverne said, swallowing the rest of her brandy. She signaled the waitress for another. “What about the plan?”

“What plan?” Otis looked at Sandra. “You got a plan?”

“Nothing, no plan. Just classes. And they’re full. Maybe we’ll offer more. It’s great.”

Otis swallowed the rest of his beer. “Here’s what I think,” he said, leaning forward conspiratorially, his fat stomach pressing against the table. “We finish here and head up the street to that place that makes shrimp pizza. Clam, crab, and oyster pizza too; it’s weirdly tasty; reminds me of the time I ate with John Denver. Yeah, he’s a country boy, but he loves his sea food.”
“See food and eat it is what I always say.” Laverne swallowed her drink, stood up and tipped sideways, grabbing hold of the booth table, missing it and falling to the floor.

“The floor’s filthy, Laverne. You hate dirt,” Otis said, wheezing as he reached down to help her up. “You’ll be up to your eyeballs in dust mites.”

Laverne giggled, hauling herself onto her stiletto-heeled boots. Feet steady, she said, “No one saw that, did they?”

Otis and Sandra both shook their heads, but they knew the entire pub was staring.

“Take me home,” Laverne said, grinning drunkenly, not the sophisticated grin they’d seen back at the store.

“Help her, Sandra,” Otis said, pointing to Laverne’s cheek where a smear of bright red lipstick had migrated.

“Darling,” Laverne said, “once you were the most gorgeous of the two of us, but no longer.”

Sandra licked her thumb and smudged away the lipstick; Laverne felt unsteady beneath Sandra’s touch. “Long in the tooth,” Sandra said. “I think that’s how the saying goes. Remember, I’m younger than you.”

*                                *                           *

“She’s tanked,” Otis said. “So much for a role model.” Together they helped Laverne into the bookstore’s easy chair where Otis had complained about Sandra’s friend earlier. “We got a picky writer living with us. And now look at her. Snockered.” Otis dusted off his hands and wandered into the back of the store to use the can.

Sandra leaned over Laverne. “I told you not to say anything about the plan.”

Laverne waved a drunken hand, her jeweled fingers with their manicured nails flicking Sandra away. “So Otis finds out after everything’s already in motion?”

“Why so much booze? I thought you were done with that part of your life.”

Sandra frowned. “Come on, don’t cry. You’ll ruin your makeup.”

Laverne slurred, “I’ve ruined everything.”

Sandra said, “Have you ever had dinner with Tom Robbins or that lanyard poem guy, Billy what’s-his-name? Drunks!”

“I’m not a drunk.” Laverne straightened herself, running her hands over her leather skirt. She’d snagged her stockings in the fall. “Some days I just want to be a baby again.”

Imagining this, Sandra started to giggle and was soon laughing so hard tears rolled down her cheeks.

“Stop it,” Laverne said. “I have to pee. Where’s Otis anyway? How far is the can?”

Sandra, still hooting, wiped away tears with stubby bookworm hands. “He’s been gone a long time. Maybe he fell in.” This made her laugh even harder.

Suddenly a mouse flew out from behind the counter, bounding into Laverne’s short-skirted lap and away again. Screaming, Laverne waved her hands hysterically.

“No fucking way. She sounds just like Mick Jagger,” Sandra said, surprised that she’d say what Otis might have said.

Otis walked up. “What the hell’s going on?”

“A mouse. I told you we should set traps. They eat books you know.”

“And they stink.”

“That’s the least of our problems.” She nodded at Laverne. The sophisticated writer had come apart completely, weeping unabashedly, her knees drawn to her chest, rocking herself like a small child in Our House Books’ overstuffed chair.

Chapter 4

by Victoria Doerper (1780 words)

“Ahem,” interrupted the slightly pompous, authoritarian voice, “Come to order. The book club will now come to order.”

Rustling, chattering, and assorted fidgeting continued. Ahab the cat, annoyed by the disturbance, half-opened his eyes and peered out imperiously from his comfortable threadbare cushy-chair throne. He had claimed this quiet spot between the shelves of Reference and Self Help soon after Sandra had taken him in, a wandering stray silver-grey cat limping through the doors one wet winter afternoon, eyes glittering. Now he captained Our House as if he had created the whole enterprise himself out of yarn-balls and mouse bones. Not as many mice here these days though. During his first three months in the store, Ahab had developed into an excellent mouser. To his dismay, his reputation had grown and most of the mice had moved on to the store down the block trading solely in used books.

So Ahab had been especially delighted just an hour ago, once the gawd-awful hysterical screaming finally stopped. He’d had a thrilling mouse chase, rocketing along the maze of shelves, looping through the books, pouncing under the display tables, finally extending his elegant claws and triumphantly spearing his prey. He’d trotted over to the woman curled up in the chair, thinking the wriggling little gift might make her happy, but she just started yowling again, and finally Sandra and Obie had taken the crumpled up woman away. Thank goodness. Now Ahab lounged, mellow and comfortable, on his cushioned throne, though he wished things would quiet down. Disturbed by the random chatter, he stretched up in that delicious and sensuous way only cats can manage, flicked his paw over the spine of a book on the third shelf, sent it clattering to the floor, then settled back down, and closed his eyes.

“Owwww,” whimpered a pathetic voice.

“Settle down and come to order,” the first voice repeated, irritated.

“Oh jeez, stop being so snobby and serious. You’re always trying to take over when we get together like this. As if there’s only one way and it’s your way. Back off,” said another voice.

“If you would ever consider taking your head out of your, uh, well, out of your own little world, you’d understand how things like this should be done,” rejoined the still pompous and authoritarian voice of Robert.

Stamp. Huff. Thump. Robert was pelted with a volley of unruly commas, semicolons, quotation marks, exclamation points, dashes, and question marks. Even a tilde and umlaut were hurled. He thought he would probably have bruises the next day. His tattered old self was becoming more fragile as the years passed.

“Pipe down,” pronounced Robert. “This is entirely unkind, unnecessary, and out of order.” His Rules of Order had ascended to the pinnacle of acceptability for meetings of all sorts, from government gatherings to church committees. It was only right that his rules should govern the monthly Midnight Council of Books, aka “the book club,” in the Our House bookstore. Things were serious and the book club needed focus. This was no time for the pranksters of the nearby Humor Section to act up, but then, not one of them had ever been elected to the Council of Books. Come to think of it, they probably had never even voted. History and Politics were elected often; Business and Nature, frequently; Philosophy and Religion had been voted onto the Council so many times that some of the books had begun suggesting term limits. But that was not yet a Rule, so Robert did not have to think about it.

“Come to order,” Robert again intoned. “Let’s call the roll. As long as we’re meeting between Reference and Self Help tonight, Oxford American, will you do the honors?”

Both Robert and Oxford American served as ex officio members of the Council. OxAm was a calming influence, her warm heart tenderly enfolding each of the bookstore’s diverse inhabitants. A bit unoriginal and always a little behind the times, still she made space for newcomers and compassionately encouraged the departure of others whose time had passed.   Now she squirmed uncomfortably, a little short and squat for her expanding middle, and began reading through the names of the current elected representatives. She pronounced fluidly and beautifully, almost poetically.

“Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire?”

“Right here, still standing.”

“The Bible, King James Version?”

“At thy service.”

“The Republic? Plato’s Republic, I can’t see you. Are you here?”

“Yes, over here in the shadows.”

“Platform, Get Noticed in a Noisy World?”

“YES!!!! RIGHT HERE!!!”

“Three Strange Angels?”

“Here, hovering.”

“Animal Predators?” Silence.

“Are you here Animal Predators?”

“Behind you, OxAm,” Animal Predators whispered.

Oxford American flinched, then wriggled over closer to Robert.

“Pride and Prejudice?” Silence. “Pride and Prejudice?” OxAm repeated a little more loudly.

“I can’t believe you didn’t notice me. I’ve been here the whole time.”

“So sorry,” murmured OxAm, “my mistake.  OK, then, last but not least, our newest member, Juicy Fruit Don’t Grow On Trees?”

“Down here,” a flustered voice replied, “still on the ground.”

“Sister Juicy, thy anointing is neither Reference nor Self Help,” said Bible, who was often considered to be a little bit of both, in addition to Religion. “How came thee to be cast down from one of those alien shelves?”

“I know…right….?” whined Juicy, sounding like a book chewing gum, if that were possible. “That cat knocked me right off the shelf where some rose-lady-something shoved me yesterday. That rose-lady took me from my own shelf and carried me into this section. Can you believe she pushed me into the middle of some fat book, some stodgy and ugly old reference book with freakin’ footnotes, while she looked through my pages. Like she was embarrassed to be seen with me and not the other way around. When she was done, she stuck me into the wrong shelf next to that boring old fuddy-duddy.”

“This is your first time on Council,” Robert advised, “so stay quiet as you can and learn from the other books. We’re happy to have you. You’re replacing Fifty Shades, so you’re saving us from being forced to listen to his tortured stories. He simply could not take a hint, a little like OB&T.” Laughter rippled softly from the surrounding books.

“Oooohhhh, Fifty Shades,” whispered Juicy, batting her eyelashes, “I wish I had been pushed into his pages.”

“Oh, puleezzz…let’s get on with the meeting,” complained Platform. “What’s the subject and what do we need to do?”

“The agenda,” Robert intoned, “did anyone look at the agenda?” Pages swished and rattled.

“The issue at hand is consideration of the joint meeting of Our House Council of Books and the ad hoc committee of the Sandra Thompson Private Collection.”

“Sounds interesting,” replied Pride and Prejudice, “the elite deigning to meet with us hoi polloi from the Our House ghetto. That private collection is the crème de la crème, Robert, why do they want to meet with us. We’re just the nouveau hardbacks and the paperbacks and tenth-plus editions, with nary a leather-bound among us. We’re just like all the rest of the indistinguishable huddled masses. What could they possibly have to talk with us about?”

“What did she say?” breathed Juicy to the book beside her, “I mean, I heard words coming from her pages, but I didn’t understand half of them.”

“I’ll explain later, dear,” OxAm assured her, “just listen now.“

“The virtual community is whispering that Our House is on the rocks, possibly soon to go out of business,” Robert explained. Collective moans emanated from the assembled tomes.

“How can that be?” asked Pride and Prejudice. “People are always in here, gliding back and forth in the rockers, sitting on the beanbag chairs and reading to their kids. How can we be in trouble?”

“They come to read and enjoy, for food and immediate gratification, but they don’t feel any responsibility for doing what’s needed to keep the business going,” said Decline and Fall, who knew something about these things.

“They order online, or, worse than that, read on a shiny screen. No real weight to the story, no feel of pages between fingers, no sound of rustle or swoosh. Just a bright light and a thin screen that doesn’t even move. How can that be pleasurable?” wondered Animal Predators.

“Doesn’t matter how or why…the only thing that matters is that it IS happening,” ventured OxAm. “But what can we do?”

“I think the private collection is afraid that Sandra is going to sell some of them off, auction them to the highest bidder with no consideration as to who might buy them,” said Robert. “I think they’re afraid of losing their refined way of life. That’s probably why they want to meet. Well, we may be losing Our House even if the private collection is sold, so we have a vested interest too.”

“Let us go forth and join them in friendship and love,” Bible suggested.

“Is that in the form of a motion?” asked Robert.

“Of course it is,” interrupted Platform, “and I second it.”

“Any discussion?” queried Robert.

“Well, yes,” said Republic, “is this the right path?”

“Oh, for goodness sake,” exclaimed Platform, “what else are we going to do? How can it hurt to meet with a few of the private collection books? If you have any other ideas, why don’t you tell us about them.”

This hushed the rest of the Council, who feared that Platform had launched Republic into one of his interminable lecture modes. But the silence was blissfully unbroken.

“Call for the question,” said Pride and Prejudice.

“All those in favor, say aye,” directed Robert, and waited.

Unanimous clamor.

“The ayes have it,” announced Robert. “So ordered.”

“OK, what’s next?” asked Animal Predators.

“I’ll take the lead for arranging the meeting,” Robert replied. “In the meantime, please think about ways to help Our House turn a profit. Sandra and OB&T may be eccentric, but they’ve been good to us. Let’s get creative.” Robert felt a twinge when he uttered the word “creative,” but dire circumstances sometimes required breaking rules. Even he could see that.

“I don’t know how I can help,” mewled Juicy Fruit, “I don’t have any experience or creative ideas…I’m just a summer beach read.”

“That’s alright,” soothed OxAm. “Think for a minute. What are you good at?”

“Well, I’m good at gossip,” said Juicy Fruit brightly. “I could listen for gossip in the store and report back.

“That would be helpful,” OxAm placated.

Decline and Fall rolled his eyes.

Animal Predators licked his lips.

Bible actually crossed herself.

“Fear not” mouthed the Three Strange Angels in chorus.

“OK,” shouted Platform, “let’s go make some plans!”

Chapter 5

by Frances Howard-Snyder (1667 words)

Emma stretched cautiously, careful not to damage her spine. The cheap binding could be easily broken. Sometimes she wished she had a better body, one of leather bound affairs with gold lettering, perhaps. But one has to be content with what God has given one, at least when one has no hope of changing it. The meeting had bored her, all those self-important voices thrusting and pushing into the limelight. Even her older sister, Pride and Prejudice, lovely as she was, tended to be a little full of herself, although this was understandable given all the attention she received.

Emma tried to remember the discussion, sifting the inessentials of ego and resentment aside to get to the heart of the matter. Survival, that was it. The books, like their human owners, were worried about their survival. Our house, her home for as long as she could remember, was in danger. What would happen to Emma if the bookstore closed? Would she be adopted by some other bookstore? Might she die?

The question of her own existence and the existence of others like her had bothered her intensely since she’d reached adolescence and had been reshelved by some playful bookstore clerk – probably dear Annie Madigan – in the philosophy section, between Descartes’s Meditations and Locke’s Essay concerning Human Understanding.

“What do you think, Rene?” she asked the Frenchman beside her. “My body is so fragile, so easily destroyed by water or fire. Do you think I would survive its destruction?”

Rene turned and regarded her over his little mustache. “Human beings can survive the loss of their physical selves,” he said. He spoke French but, fortunately, as an educated Englishwoman, she understood him easily. “I have established an incontrovertible proof of this. For all they know they might be disembodied souls deceived by a demon into believing that they have bodies.”

“For all they know, maybe they don’t exist,” Emma retorted.

“No, that’s just eet. Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. You cannot be deceived about your own existence,” he said in elegant, classical French (with a dash of Latin).

“Could that be true of me, too?” Emma asked. “Could I exist after my body is destroyed?”

He shrugged. “Peut etre.”

“I think I could exist without this body,” she said. “I sometimes think I remember pre-existing,” she said. “I was printed and bound in 2012. But I have the sense of being an old soul, at least 200 years old.”

Descartes emitted a Gallic snort. “This is not in accord with Christian doctrine. It sounds like something more primitive, Plato or Buddha perhaps.”

“So?” Emma asked. Sometimes she was tempted to flout authority.

Descartes stretched himself to his fullest height – not a great height – he was only a small Penguin paperback – and said, “You are a female, not well suited to this business. Why not leave the philosophy to the experts – and turn your attention to your more natural vocation, match- making. Don’t you agree, Jean?” He looked past Emma to Locke’s Essay on her left.

“Correct,” the Essay replied. “To adapt a line from my old friend, Samuel Johnson, ‘Sir, a woman’s philosophizing is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.’ ”

They both chuckled hard and Emma turned away, wishing she could be reshelved again – perhaps under Romance or Women’s Studies instead. She did like to think about the big questions. Could she have existed before her birth? Would she exist after her death? Might she exist simultaneously in different places – in different bookstores and libraries all over the world? The thought made her giddy – but giddy in an exciting way.

Another thing she wondered was whether she could change her mind. Obviously she had changed her mind about small matters – such as the propriety of marrying Harriet to Mr. Elton, and the relative value of kindness and cleverness, but could she change her mind completely? Could she come to believe in total sexual liberation or the overthrow of the class system, for example? If she did, might she become a totally different book, and in the process, somehow go out of existence? Not that she wanted to change her mind about these matters. Some of the other books teased her for being strait-laced and hide-bound. That 50 Shades fellow was fond of tormenting her with disturbing images. The Second Sex protested that she oppressed other women. Being and Nothingness was apt to suggest that she was behind the times and should be assigned to the scrapheap of history. Emma didn’t agree. Most of those other books would find their way to the scrapheap long before she did. There were eternal truths about right and wrong and Emma was pretty sure she knew many of them. Not all of them of course. No one was perfect. She was mindful of the dangers of arrogance, but to abandon any standards, to become a complete amoralist, that way madness lay.

These thoughts were almost too much for her. She was a novel, after all, and not a philosophical treatise. It would be fine to go outside and walk through the countryside or take a ride over to visit one of her married sisters or her former governess. When she thought of dear Mrs. Weston, Emma realized that Rene was right about one thing. Emma did love matchmaking. That was where her real talent lay. Not with any old couple, of course. She had no interest in making a match between Monsieur Descartes and Gone with the Wind, or between Otis, also known as Old Blood and Thunder, and Laverne – even if Otis wasn’t already, for all intents and purposes, married to Emma‘s owner, Sandra.

But Annie. Something about Annie touched Emma’s heart. She was an intelligent and well-read young woman who really cared about books in a way others didn’t. And she was polite. Emma regarded etiquette as a crucial part of ethics. Knowing how to put people at their ease, knowing how much of discourse to claim for oneself, unlike that vulgar Platform or that even more vulgar Otis, finding ways to compliment others without lying, these qualities were essential to a virtuous person.

Emma thought that Annie was perhaps a little too self-effacing, but that was better than erring in the other direction. If she’d been Annie’s governess she would have striven to give Annie a little more confidence, and hinted to her that Jason was not worthy of her. Better to die a spinster than to marry a cad, she would tell her. And Annie could always write her own novels.

Didn’t you learn your lesson after the episode with Harriet, she imagined Mr. Knightley saying with a laugh. Are you sure you want to intervene in another person’s romantic life?

No, George, Emma replied, the only lesson I learned was how to be a better matchmaker. Matchmaking, like riding or writing, was a skill. One’s earliest attempts were often failures, but useful failures from which one learned one’s craft. And, of course, she was not Emma Woodhouse. She was Emma the novel, an entirely successful example of matchmaking.

If she could find a way to reach Annie, Emma would tell her to leave Jason, not rudely and cruelly, but firmly and without any room for second thoughts.

And she would find Annie a better match. She didn’t have far to look.

Sean Cary used foul language on occasion, language that would make Emma blush if the printers had included color in her make up. He also muddied the entrance way with his bicycle, and had disrespectful opinions about his employers. But underneath this rough surface he was a man of character. She sometimes overheard him talking to himself or into a little device that he pressed to his ear and had thereby gathered some information about his background, a crucial item in the matchmaker’s toolkit. Apparently he was the son of a wealthy family who had chosen to make his own way in the world. He recently had come into a large inheritance, but instead of using it to lead a life of leisure he was exploring avenues of effective altruism, giving large sums to the End Malaria Foundation and to an organization that paid for education for young women in Pakistan. He would not make nasty comments comparing women to dogs walking on their hind legs! Annie would be safe with him.

And Sean was not entirely indifferent to Annie’s virtues. Sometimes Emma saw him watching her, assessing her, noting – Emma hoped – the qualities that Emma herself valued: Annie’s kindness to the cat, her loyalty to Sandra, her passion for literature. Might there be some way to bring them together?

Annie liked to dust the books every morning. If Emma could just find the courage to speak at the moment Annie passed by, they might start a conversation. She would be startled, of course, but Emma could reassure her. They would quickly become fast friends, Emma was sure, and she could explain Jason’s deficiencies and Sean’s virtues. It would be risky. Although some humans were aware that the books had voices and minds of their own, the ruling books – Robert and King James and some of the others – had rules that their collective secret should be guarded on pain of death. What might happen if Booklife became common knowledge amongst humans? The collective wisdom of the books hinted that this wouldn’t turn out well for books. Humans were terrified and fascinated by the thought of another species as intelligent as themselves. They might try to destroy all books out of a demented fear that the books might destroy them. Or they might overwhelm the books with their curiosity, constantly interviewing them for their spoken wisdom and ignoring their real function – to be read.

Somehow Emma wasn’t moved by the risk. She knew she could trust Annie to be discrete.

Chapter 6

by Jessica Stone (1525 words)

 Ahab lifted his head and glanced toward the front door as a shiver of winter swept through the store. Strange, he thought. This one is early yet she looks frazzled the way they usually do when they think they are late. Humans. Who can figure them out? It’s a good thing cats rule the universe, if we didn’t well, just imagine…

However, exhausted from a night on patrol, and not wishing to imagine anything at the moment or to even question the behavior of the human, Ahab lowered his head to his paws and returned to his favorite dream – the one where all the creatures of the world lined up at his feet to bestow riches like dangling mouse parts, bloody bird wings, and severed bunny heads. He sighed in his sleep – such a sweet, sweet dream.

Annie hurried past the curled cat without pausing to pet him or to coo baby-talk in his ear. She stooped and collected a copy of Juicy Fruit and placed it on a display table, too distracted to wonder why it was on the floor or why it was in the Reference section. She glanced at the antique grandfather’s clock in the corner as she rounded the row of shelves devoted to “how to” books. Five-thirty five. The store wouldn’t officially open for another four and a half hours. Plenty of time for her to do the research she needed before the others noticed anything unusual. No one would ever know how she’d collected the information; no digital trail on her computer, no “Google Find” voice commands lurking about in the guts of her cell phone. Just simple, old fashioned information gleaned from words placed on paper by experts in their field.

And, for this job, Annie needed an expert. She was planning a murder.

She stopped in front of a line of books that were sure to hold the solution for cleaning things up once and for all.   Annie swallowed and swayed, just a bit, as she skimmed the titles in the Howdunit Series: Causes of Death, A Writer’s Guide to Death and Forensic Medicine; Scene of the Crime, A Writer’s Guide to Crime Scene Investigations, and Modus Operandi, A Writer’s Guide to How Criminals Work. They all sounded promising. And frightening. Her hand trembled as she stretched and reached for Body Trauma, A Writer’s Guide to Wounds and Injuries. She paused. Her fingers brushed the book.

“Get a grip, Annie,” she scolded herself. “You can do this. You are strong, you are brave. No more mousy little bookworm. You are wearing your big girl panties, now.”

But despite her own stern self-talk she wasn’t convinced. She wasn’t convinced she was brave or strong. Wasn’t convinced she could go through with this no matter how angry and hurt she felt. After all, she loved the man. Didn’t she? Annie let her arm drop to her side and lowered herself to the floor, her legs folded in a quasi-lotus position. She buried her face in her hands and moaned.

“How could he have done it? How could she have done it? Sure she was a bitch, a gloating ego-driven bitch. But how could one woman be so mean to another? Aren’t we women supposed to stick together? And him!” She gulped back a sob.

“We were so perfect together. Everyone said so. We looked like the ideal couple. I loved him. I really loved him. He’ll never find anyone like me.”

She swiped at a single tear before it had a chance to roll down her cheek but couldn’t stop her nose from dripping her grief. Sniffling, Annie rummaged through her sweater pocket. No tissues – just a single stick of gum, a tube of Burt’s Bee’s lip balm, a Buy-One-Get-One Free cat litter coupon, and a once stunning, now crumpled, maple leaf she’d planned to iron and use as a decoration on the Our First Thanksgiving card she’d planned to make for Jason. Annie un-wrapped the gum, absently pushed the stick back into her pocket and used the foil to wipe her nose.

“Maybe it was my text,” she said. “Maybe he thought I really meant it. I mean, if he did, technically, we were broken up. But in my bed?”

She dropped her head back into her hands. She talked through the whole scene and sobbed. Big, air-gulping, eye reddening, snot-dripping sobs. The foil wasn’t enough. Annie used the leaf.

What she didn’t realize is that she was talking out loud and that the entire group of philosophy books, just one aisle over, was listening. She didn’t know they heard the whole story. The whole dismal story of how she’d arrived home with a paper bag filled with Chinese take-out. The food was meant as a peace offering, a sort of ‘we can work this out as mature women’ gesture for Erica.

But instead of sharing a consolatory dinner with her roommate, Annie found Erica and Jason sprawled in the tangled sheets of her bed, dining on each other. In a fit of shock, horror and rage, she’d lobbed the take-out bag across the room. It hit Jason squarely on the head, burst open and sprayed Kung Po chicken and sweet and sour pork across his face and over most of Erica’s lady parts.

In my bed!” Annie wailed.

“Oh that poor, poor girl,” Emma whispered. “We have to do something to help her. It’s our ethical duty. Maybe I can talk to her. Maybe she’s so distressed she’ll…” Rene shot her a warning glare.

Locke’s Essay nudged The Vanity of Human Wishes and chuckled. “Best fun I’ve had since the old Queen…”

“Shush,” Rene hissed. “Keep it down, you two.” He glanced at Emma. “Same for you. Do you want us to get busted?”

“Well we have to do something.” Emma said. “We can’t just let her suffer like that. I told you that Jason person was a no good. With all our collected wisdom, there must be something we can do to help this poor, dear girl through her troubles. And, while we’re at it, we should do something about that nasty ex-boyfriend of hers as well.” If books could harrumph, Emma would have harrumphed.

“She’s right you know,” Meditations weighed in. “It’s our position in the world, to help them.” He looked rather smug.

“Very well,” Rene sighed. “But not us. Not yet. Let’s get the cat to do something.”

The others nodded in agreement. And then, in a moment of comradery and team play, all the books in the philosophy section focused their full attention on the store’s sleeping cat.

“Oh bother.” Ahab stretched. He’d been lost in a delicious dream of small rodent dissection when he felt the books’ call. “She’s just a miserable little human. What do you want me to do?”

“Jolt her out of it. Get her to stop sniveling and do something positive,” Rene suggested.

“Give her some kindness,” Emma said. “Soften her up so I can suggest a better match.”

“Maybe get her to see the futility of this concern,” a scholarly voice drifted from the far end of the shelf.

“At the very least,” the Essay said, “get her to stop that incessant weeping. It’s exhausting just to listen to it.”

Ahab sighed again. He uncurled, one sinew at a time, then arched and stretched the full length of his body.

“All right, all right. But if you guys bother me again when I’m sleeping…” He made a swiping motion with his paw. The books shuddered.

Annie sniffled and looked down at Ahab who wrapped his body first around one of her knees then around the other. He rumbled out a purr, turned and rubbed against her legs again.

“Oh, you sweet little kitty.” Annie picked him up and pulled him to her chest in a close hug. “You love me, don’t you kitty?”

Ahab ratcheted up the purring – just for effect. This human, with her tear soaked blouse and drippy nose disgusted him. He’d need a bath soon. But the books were probably right. She was his primary food dispensing unit. And, he did like a clean litter box. Sometimes, even exalted rulers, like cats and dead philosophers, needed to offer a little help to the puny humans.

He waited until he could feel Annie relax and then, with a move he liked to describe as The Tiger’s Slice, he bit into the soft flesh of the hand that stroked him.

“OUCH!”

Ahab’s cue to leap and bolt. Job well done. Time for a poop and then maybe, a nice leisurely bath.

Annie sucked on the bite mark. It was just a small puncture wound but the taste of blood, her blood, pushed her off her pity pot.

“That’s it. I am done being hurt by those I love,” she said.

Annie unfolded her legs and stood. She made a waving motion with her wounded hand to dry it, then straightened her back, narrowed her eyes, took a deep breath in and reached up for the book she believed would solve her problem. Her fingers grasped the spine of Murder One: A Writer’s Guide to Homicide.

Chapter 7

by Laura Rink (2165 words)

Book firmly in hand, Annie headed for the armchair by the Memoir section, making a pass, out of habit, through the self-help section to see if there was a book she should add to the stash under her bed—her bed! As she pulled out How to Heal a Broken Heart in 30 Days, the image of Jason and Erica intertwined in her bed flitted through her mind. “No!” she said aloud, as she shoved the book back in at an angle. The only way to heal was to eliminate them completely from her life.

She settled into the chair where a few days ago Obie had lectured her on living at the peak of experience. If he knew what she was up to now—no giving in for her. She began to go through the book methodically, page by page, scanning an array of murders from serial killers to organized crime, from business to narcotics to crimes of passion. Yes, that was it! A crime of passion! “I will kill them both,” she exclaimed out loud. A gasp of air came from somewhere in the bookstore as if a breeze was pushing itself through a partially open window. Impossible—all the doors and windows were shut and locked. Annie had double-checked when she came in, always afraid of burglars, or worse, vandals. She studied the section on crimes of passion, lifting her head only when the grandfather clock chimed seven.

She ruminated on what crimes of passion meant—loving someone so much that when they hurt you, your love turned into murderous hate. These murders were often committed in a fit of jealousy in a moment with no thought to one’s own safety. If she really loved Jason, wouldn’t she have attacked him right then and there, with something more lethal than Kung Po Chicken? Or was she still hoping he would come back to her? Could the hate she was feeling toward him now, be banished by love? If Jason said he was sorry, said he loved her, wanted her, would she take him back? If so, what would happen to all her pain and anguish? Besides, what kind of woman takes back a man that slept with her housemate—twice? The tears began to flow again.

“No, stop it! He doesn’t get to hurt me anymore.” Another pseudo-breeze whispered somewhere in the store.

Annie focused on the book, on the methods used in all sorts of murders. She could pull this off and not get caught, couldn’t she? Leave no evidence that led back to her. But what about motive? There was no covering up the fact that she had been Jason’s girlfriend for the last ten months. The police would question her for sure.

She sat up so quickly that the book fell to the floor with a muffled squealing sound but Annie was too absorbed by her thought to notice. Oh my, she put a hand on her chest. She could see the newspaper headline now: Our House bookseller implicated in murder! How awful for Sandra, and Obie, and Sean and Jenna, and the store itself. She couldn’t do that to them. But Jason! He couldn’t hurt her so and get away with it.

Could she get through an interrogation? She was a terrible liar, but certainly there was a book on that. She scooped up Murder One, went back to the section of the Howdunit series, pulled several out, and settled them on the floor with her. She could always count on the books to help her.

Glancing at the titles of the books spread around her, all had one thing in common: they were intended not to help people plan real murders but to help writers plan fictional ones. Was this finally the inspiration and motivation she needed to write a novel? She could kill Jason and Erica, slowly, painfully, each word a tiny dagger, each sentence a shiny gun. Or what about this? She pulled another book off the shelf and held it to her chest.

* * * * *

“Annie,” said a deep voice. “Annie, wake up.” There was a warm hand on her arm. And a book under her head, another in the crook of her elbow, several scattered on the floor around her. She squinted up and saw Sean’s blue eyes staring down at her.

“Did you sleep here last night?”

“Why would you say that?” she said sharply, regretting her tone immediately as she sat up.

Sean laughed, not put off in the least, “Because you’re in the clothes you were wearing yesterday, and you’re asleep in a bed of books.”

“You often wear the same clothes two days in a row,” Annie couldn’t believe the words coming out of her mouth. Reading about murder was making her snippy.

Again Sean was not offended. “True. It saves on water.”

“And I…I came in early to do some reading,” the words no sooner out of her mouth than she stared aghast at the pile of murder-related books gathered around her.

Sean reached down and took the one she was clasping in her hand. “Deadly Doses: A Writer’s Guide to Poisons,” he read, and then looked questioningly at her.

“I’m writing a novel—a murder mystery.” She said it like he should know.

“Wow, good for you. Though I always imagined you writing something more like a collection of short stories all set in a book store with quirky, but kind-hearted characters.” He struck a pose, a hand on his hip, head upturned, eyes staring off into the distance.

Annie laughed. He suspected nothing. “I’m surprised I didn’t hear you come in,” Annie looked over at the front door, and the clean mat.

“I came in the back. You’re right, you know, I shouldn’t run my dirty bike wheels through the store, especially this time of year, with the wet and the muck.”

“Well, the book store thanks you.”

“Your thanks is all that matters.”

Annie blushed. What a thing to say—she matters. Not to Jason. Not to Erica. But to Our House, and Sean, and Sandra, she hurriedly added in her mind.

“I’d be happy to read what you write—if you want my feedback,” Sean offered as he started reshelving the books. When he leaned over to pick one up, an envelope fell out of his sweatshirt pocket, a letter sliding part way out. He continued to shelve books while Annie picked up the letter and noticed it was from the law offices of Stamford and Stamford in New York.

“Hey, that’s mine.” Sean snatched it out of her hand.

“Sorry, I was going to give it back…I…” Annie shrugged. She had no excuse. “I was curious.”

“It’s nothing. My great-uncle on my mom’s side passed away a few years ago, it’s just some leftover estate business.”

The floor clear of books, Sean reached a hand to Annie who let him help her up, a kind gesture that almost brought a return of tears. Instead she started to ask him what kind of estate business, and why was he here so early, when the front door jangled as Jenna came in, and locked it behind her. She turned around and screamed, dropping her armful of books.

“What the heck—why are you two here—you startled me!”

“Obviously,” said Sean, going over to pick up her books. “Seems like the floor is just carpeted with books this morning. Wow, I see you have the classics here,” he held up Bazooka Ain’t Just A Weapon, and then Big Red Isn’t A Country Song. Jenna grabbed the last one but not before Sean read its title: “They Called Her Hubba Bubba. Are you shitting me? What are you doing—reading Lutz’s oeuvre?”

“Miss Lutz,” corrected Annie, then berated herself for doing so.

Jenna took the other two books from Sean and held all three tight to her chest. “I love these books!” Her expression would have been fierce but her glasses were sliding down her nose. “They make me laugh, they’re a respite from every day life, they’re….” She ran out of words, and pushed up her glasses.

“They’re poorly written with shallow characters and even shallower plots.”

“Stop it, Sean.” Annie intervened. “You know books are written for every kind of reader, not just for you. There’s nothing wrong with Jenna enjoying Miss Lutz’s books.”

“They’re great fun!” Jenna had recovered. “I know you prefer books like Three Cups of Tea and novels like State of Wonder—I don’t mock your choices.”

Sean shrugged. “Because there’s nothing to mock.”

Choices. Annie thought about all the choices facing her right now. She looked down at her rumpled skirt, she could smell her unwashed body, and she raised a hand to feel her mussed hair.

“I have nowhere to live,” whispered Annie.

Sean and Jenna turned to her, each saying “What?”

“My boy— My house— I need a place to stay.”

“You can stay with me,” Sean and Jenna said in unison.

Jenna scurried over to Annie. “You’ll stay with me! I have a queen-size bed—it will be like a sleep over every night!”

“I have a second bedroom,” Sean’s calm voice floated over Jenna’s.

Annie looked at him, his serene blue eyes looking back. Sean listened to her—whether discussing books or the running of the store, he respected her opinion, he was easy going, he would make the better roommate. But living with a man seemed a bit improper, staying with Jenna on the other hand…

“…read aloud to each other, brush each other’s hair…”

“Jenna,” Annie interrupted her litany. “That does sound like fun.” There was a muffled sound back toward the philosophy section—was Ahab lurking back there? But she needed privacy—whether she was planning a murder or a novel, discretion would be important. “But sharing a bed—I don’t want to crowd you, plus I have my own stuff….” But not her bed, her bed she was leaving, twisted sheets coated in sweet and sour pork, she gagged—would she ever be able to eat Chinese food again? She peered at Sean. “Are you sure? Would it be better if I went to Jenna’s?” Why was she asking him?

Ahab came skittering toward them.

“Here kitty, kitty,” Jenna patted her thigh but Ahab was on a mission. “Why doesn’t he like me?”

“Probably your choice of books,” said Sean as Ahab curled up on his tennis shoes.

Annie stared at the cat, who had comforted her earlier, comforted her and then bit her into action. Ahab stared back offering her a series of eye kisses, slowly opening and shutting his eyes. She eye kissed him back, the only way she knew to communicate to a cat. Ahab pushed his head into Sean’s calf.

Annie knew what to do. “Sean, if you don’t mind, at least until I can find another place.”

Sean reached into his pocket and held a key out toward Annie, gesturing at Ahab with his other hand. Annie went over and took the key. Ahab purred loudly as he stretched and wound himself first through Sean’s legs, then through Annie’s, finally jumping up on the armchair. He turned his back on them, lifted a leg and began to clean himself.

“If you want to go now, there’s a clean towel in the cupboard in the bathroom, a new toothbrush in the drawer,” said Sean. “You have time before we open.”

“You don’t need rush home and clean up the place first?”

“Nope.”

Jenna stood staring at them, a dejected look on her face.

“Hey Jenna,” said Sean as he started to walk away, “Annie’s going to write a novel—a murder mystery.” He strode toward the back of the store, stopping at self-help to glance at a book that was sticking out, and push it into place. He looked back over his shoulder at Annie, with a look that Annie was trying to understand but Jenna’s squealing distracted her.

“Yeah! You can take Miss Lutz’s class with me! It starts tomorrow evening.”

“I work.”

“I’m sure Sean would take your shift.”

“Yes I will,” came his voice from the back of the store.

Annie sighed.

Jenna jumped up and down, her glasses almost falling off. “I have so many ideas. Hopefully I’ll actually write a few down this time.” She used one of the books she was holding to push up her glasses. “What about you, Annie? Do have you many novel ideas?”

“One,” Annie replied. “I have one idea.”

At that moment the front door banged open, and Obie and Sandra entered, both looking a bit worn out.

“The story of the last few nights,” OB&T began, raising a hand, but then Sandra pulled his arm down and glared at him, “shall remain untold,” he finished, and lumbered off to his office as the grandfather clock began to chime nine o’clock.

Annie took that moment to hustle out the door to her car.

Chapter 8

by Judy Shantz (2196 words)

As Annie got into her car she was being torn by two very different personas – the wronged woman out to get revenge and the timid doormat of a woman she knew she really was. She had been Erica’s doormat since they met 11 years ago at the Little Sisters Academy for Girls in Lake Oswego. Annie was the acolyte. Erica was the priestess. Annie giggled in the shadows while Erica pulled off her outrageous stunts. Erica was a tall Amazon of a girl with enormous breasts who quietly did whatever she wanted and whenever she chose – playing hooky, smoking in the locker room, sabotaging the school’s PA system. The good sisters knew they were being mocked but, when any one of them attempted to address an issue, she quickly found herself staring straight into Erica’s giant cleavage while the culprit’s face never deviated from bland, baffled innocence.

Annie was always there to laugh, to egg her on, to defend her. Yes, Annie was Erica’s best friend, until someone better came along. And someone better, funnier, more slavish always did. Erica would disappear for weeks or months without a word – no Friday night sleepovers, no sneaking a beer at her brother’s house. When Erica returned, as she invariably did, Annie always welcomed her back, no recriminations, no expectations.

It had come as no real surprise when Erica had shown up out of the blue having hunted Annie down in Bellingham. Annie did what she had always done, welcomed her, laughed with her, and offered her a place to stay. It also came as no real surprise when Jason had started calling Annie’s friend ‘Erica Erotica’. Nothing had changed. Erica flaunted her human Barbie-doll body, brushing the bloated boobs along Jason’s arm as she sat down next to him, then acting the surprised innocent when he made a sudden lunge for the bait.

And through it all, Annie would turn her back, disgusted with both of them. But no more. They would pay. Annie wondered if revenge was one of the five stages of grief. If not, it should be. Someone should be held accountable for the all the disasters that broke human hearts. But she had had it with all those self-help books. She was going for the kill.

*                                 *                            *

Annie opened the street door to Sean’s apartment building and took the stairs to the second floor. This felt so weird, accepting an offer from Sean to stay at his place. He’d never made a pass at her. Would he try now? She hesitantly turned the key in the lock and swung the door in very slowly, dreading the sight of an unkempt and dirty bachelor pad.

As the door opened, she gasped and dropped both her little backpack and the key. “Omigawd! I can’t believe this!” The room was fairly large for a walk-up and flooded with light. The furnishings were simple but well-designed and the white expanse of walls was a showcase for Sean’s art. Well, not art exactly, but replicas of art. There were several beautifully displayed and framed posters and prints of famous American artists’ work – a fantastic Thomas Hart Benton opposite the door and two sweet Andrew Wyeths above a tiny old-fashioned, inlaid side table. On a wall that separated the living room from the miniscule kitchen hung a Jackson Pollock, popping with color. The room was immaculately tidy with the small exception of a few books here and there – several volumes of Will and Ariel Durant with a paperback copy of The Paris Wife balanced on top. On the sofa was the Poema del Mío Cid with a thick, well-thumbed Pequeño Larousse next to it.

Annie closed the front door and walked slowly towards the little kitchen. It had an apartment-sized stove with a bright red tea kettle sitting on a back burner. On the counter were thrift store salt and peppers, shaped like little white chickens. Annie placed her hand on the heavy red kettle – still warm.

She was stunned – almost shaken. She sat down on a kitchen chair, oblivious to time or her mission. Who and what was Sean Cary, the irreverent young man she thought she knew, the man with the crude language, at once both scornful and compassionate, or this other Sean with the eclectic tastes and the tender eyes.

*                             *                             *

It had been a tough day for Otis. His world was starting to come apart and he petulantly believed that someone of his intellect, his life experience, should find himself in a better place as he approached late middle age. He fancied himself a polymath and certainly believed that if he had lived a few centuries earlier a Medici or a Borghese would have rescued him with a patronage.

The day had produced one frayed end after another: starting with hoisting the drunken, retching Laverne into bed at some ungodly hour, Sandra’s obvious distress at the unraveling of a “plan” she wouldn’t share with him, Annie rushing out of the book store just as the doors opened and then not coming back in time for Book Club and having to explain to a gaggle of eager faces that the promised Laverne Lutz classes had been postponed for at least a week. He wished that they could just check that woman into rehab for a month and be done with her.

Sandra had always managed the business and he was happy to let her. He felt it was beneath a man of his talents to have to consider the picayune details of debits and credits. But he had stumbled upon the whispered conversations between Sandra and Laverne and they had sowed the seeds of doubt. He had tried to sneak a peek at all those Excel spreadsheets that Sandra kept on her computer; the whole financial history of Our House Books. Dammit. Password protected.

Was it getting time to cut and run? He really didn’t get much satisfaction out of this anymore. It had seemed a lot of fun at forty-five to take up with this pretty hippie chick with the dazzling smile. Yes, the long skirts and the tattered cardigans, the Birkenstocks and the careless hair, still spelled “hippie”, but the “chick” had flown the coop years ago. Yet, her thin body was still yielding and he was not above taking some comfort there from time to time.

That night Otis found himself wide awake in the wee hours still trying to figure out what was going on. All the paper records and receipts were kept at the bookstore. If he wanted to look at them he would have to do it secretly, in the middle of the night. Groaning inwardly, he crept out of the house and through the cold streets to the back door of the store.

Otis let himself in quietly, with no light to attract attention. He found the bannister with no problem and carefully let himself down the stairs, talking to himself all the way, just to hear the sonorous tones of his own voice. “I should have been a Shakespearean actor,” he said aloud. “I could have given that Richard Burton a run for his money.” He thought he heard a snicker from below. Probably just Ahab mewling in his sleep.

Once he was safely away from windows, he turned on his little headlamp and practiced waggling his head around, lighting up corners and work tables and book shelves. Then he started on the file drawers. It was amazing to him the amount of accumulated paperwork and the number of files. Salary records, building permits, tax records. Enough! He needed finance records. “Aha – Accounts Payable. That’s what I need. How in the hell does she have this arranged. My oh my, all mixed together alphabetically. Puget Sound Energy right after Potter’s Bindery. What kind of a system is that?”

Otis buckled down and started through the file: Dempsey Publishing, paid in full in July. Good. Employment Security, a letter saying they would put a lien on their earnings. Not good. Houghton, Mifflin. $23,000, but mostly paid in installments. Okay. Lawyer for Jackson Browne. Pending lawsuit for using his music in the store without the singer’s permission. Really bad! Puget Sound Energy. Sixty days past due. Not good at all.

Sound Book Distributors. A staggering sum. “Omigawd! Does Sandra actually believe that she can cover this by offering writing classes with the famous Laverne Lutz?” Otis let out a long moan.

“Quiet down,” he counseled himself and kept his fingers walking the files. “Talbot Fire and Indemnity. Fourth quarter paid in full. That’s a relief.”

He was about to close that drawer when the little light of an idea burst into flame, so to speak. He pulled the Talbot file again, looking for the policy. He read the title page. Our House Book Store. Sandra Thompson and Otis Branch, co-owners.

“Well Talbot Fire and Indemnity,” he said aloud, “you may be my last, best hope.”

He replaced the file and crept out, extinguishing his headlamp as he reached the stairs.

*                                *                                   *

On a set of shelves next to the file cabinets, stored there for convenience sake, was the collection of banned books that Otis trotted out each year for Banned Books Week and displayed by the front door on a table. Each one had a little placard that explained where and when and why they were banned. But when the week was over, they were relegated to the basement once again. Otis didn’t really believe they were relevant any longer. Young people couldn’t grasp the idea that words might be banned. And readers wanted modern stuff, salacious stuff, easy stuff. Fill the place with the Laverne Lutz beach reads and the whole town would come to their store.

The banned books were a worn bunch, although Lady Chatterley was a reprint and someone had kindly given her a hard cover and a dust jacket of pale ivory and blue, like a little girl’s hair ribbons. Guy had spent a pleasant year leaning up against her, and fantasizing an alternate life.

It was oddly different this year. The display upstairs had appeared to be an afterthought and had been set up late. Few people stopped to look any longer. Two young high school girls did look them over for a moment:

“What were they banned for?”

“I dunno. I think they were communist or something.”

“Read me, read me,” Guy had fairly yelled at them. “Learn something.” But the girls went away.

Now the books were back on the shelf and sadly Guy was destined to spend the coming year sandwiched between two old copies of Catcher. It was enough to drive a book crazy – Holden Caulfield every day, adolescent angst in stereo!

Guy’s jacket was truly trashed – dog-eared was an understatement. He had an oval yellow sticker on his spine that read, “UW Bookstore – Used.”   Pretty fair description. He had been bought and resold dozens of times by two generations and lived in student backpacks most of his adult like. Sometimes he thought that sticker was the only thing holding his mangled spine together.

He knew that other books moved around at night but he had never tried it. However, considering what they had just overheard, he knew he had to do something and he had to act before the store opened for business.

“How do you get down off these shelves?” he asked. “Just sort of go limp and lean forward. You’ll fall off” said someone down the row. “No,” yelled someone else, “just call the cat – he’s always glad to knock you off.”

Ahab was happy to knock him to the floor and even nudge him towards the stairs a bit. But he soon got bored and Guy was on his own. It took him a long, breathless time to negotiate the stairs – partly because of his exposure to all that smoke over the years. He lay gasping at the top but at least he was within hearing distance of the special committee meeting.

Robert was still trying to keep some semblance of order. “Next, Juicy, what do you have to report?” Juicy giggled. “I saw Rosemary Leach pick up the latest issue of People Magazine and disappear into the can, er, I mean restroom, for half an hour. The cover was all bent back when she came out”.

Fifty Shades piped up loudly, “This is ridiculous! That’s not the kind of gossip we need. What a brainless little twit”.

Juicy looked downcast and Ox-Am said, “You did just fine, Dear, for your first time.”

Fifty Shades was still yelling, “I’ve got three hard-cover volumes up here and I demand to take the floor.”

Guy was furious. He sucked up all the oxygen he could and yelled, “SHUT UP, all of you. Fifty, you’re a feeble shade of real licentiousness. We have the master, Henry Miller on our shelf. So just be quiet until you can learn some manners.”

“Who the hell are you?’ called out Robert, finally losing years of practiced composure.

“I have some information you urgently need. Please listen” he rasped. “My name is Guy. I’m known as Fahrenheit: 451. Please listen to what I have to tell you.”

Chapter 9

by Dick Little (1768 words)

Anyone’s worst day!

Red and blue flashing lights in the rearview mirror. Right behind me. I’m on the Interstate with three lanes of cars whizzing by; no place to stop. The cop starts flashing his headlights. Christ, I’m on a bridge!

I wrack my brain for what on earth I might have done wrong. Changed lanes without a signal; taillight out; license plate expired? Nothing. Finally there’s a shoulder and I pull over, trooper right behind, practically bumper to bumper, blinding lights still flashing like a strobe.

The officer comes around; I roll down the window. Tall, full regalia and huge black opaque dark glasses that reflect my face, the car, the sky. All gangly arms and massive chest, like a giant predatory insect,

“Please get out of the car. Slowly. Keep your hands where I can see them.”

I open the door and walk around.

“Put your hands on the trunk.”

I do.

“Spread `em.”

I comply.

“Your legs, you moron, not your hands!”

I’m frisked. Whole body.

“Get back in the car.” The freak walks back to the cruiser. Time passes . . . .

Obie woke up in a sweat. He punched the alarm and just lay there, still too scared to roll over. Too much shrimp pizza? Plus crab dip on tortilla chips, jalapeños, and Alaskan Amber. No, not that. Too much bad female energy in his house and life since Laverne Lutz showed up. Was that cop in his dream a woman?

Plus all that whispering between her and Sandra. Girly secrets, tittering – and about some “plan”? They were up to something and not telling him. He’d bet it wasn’t a all-expenses-paid trip to Disney World. More like handing him a severance check big enough to rent a U-Haul as far as, say, Fresno. He’d be defenestrated. Unmanned. Neutered at the hands of an agglomeration of outrageous clothing choices, bad hair, and enough perfume to give a Macy’s cosmetics counter a run for its money. That drunk, Laverne! Everything had been fine until she showed up and Sandra turned into her Sancho (or would it be “Sancha”)? Quixote character in drag?

Otis (he actually preferred Obie, even Obie-Wan) showered and dressed. His breathing back to normal, he stopped in front of the hallway mirror, shot his cuffs, and straightened his leather vest, the one with the studs. He drove to the shop, parked, and put on the coffee. He looked around for something to read and grabbed the first book that caught his eye. “Death in the Afternoon.” Bad omen? No, perfect! Man against beast, machismo-fueled aggression, testosterone at flood stage, and as non-female as possible. How many women ever cuddled up at night to that pleasant tale of bovid slaughter? Just the book to bolster his resolve.

He walked out of the shop slamming the door which made the bell jangle and the windows rattle like the percussion section of a symphony. Not so much “Night on Bald Mountain” as the opening of Mahler’s Fourth on steroids. He took his coffee across the street and sat on a park bench to think.

He put two and two together. Our House Bookstore is on the rocks. Best-selling Laverne, loaded with dough, shows up. She and Sandra go back for years. He’s being kept out of the loop. He’s sixty-four years old – no Medicare or Social Security yet . . . .

Hold it. What was he thinking? He and Sandra were partners – in both senses of the word – over ten years now. No severance check; more like severing the head from the body of a certain overrated, over-sexed writer of fluff.

By God, he’d better come up with a plan of his own.

“I’m your guy, Obie.”

He jumped a mile! He looked around. Nobody.

“We can do this, Obie-Wan. Make a plan. Courage!”

Incredibly, the voice had to be coming from the book he was holding! Obie whipped it off his lap and threw it down next to him on the bench like it was radioactive. He expected to see it glow.

“Jesus, watch it with the book. That hurt!”

He looked down beside him. The voice said, “That hurt like that time in the hospital in Milan when that pretty nurse – you know who I mean – oops, spoiler alert. Anyway, my butt still gets sore when I fly fish.”

Obie, surprising himself, said, “Not to worry, I’ve read all your work.” He felt himself blush – probably embarrassing in the presence of the manliest man in all of American literature.

This is beyond ridiculous, he thought, I’m talking to a book.

The voice, unmistakable, went on. “Buck up, man! Courage is grace under fire. I remember the time I’d had too many drinks at Harry’s. It was cold. It was very cold, but it was fine.

“The day. Out in the bay, Manuel’s little boat tossed at anchor like Señorita Krause’s hips doing a fandango the night before. The night before it all happened. Señorita Kraus the Kraut, we called her, ignoring the fact that she’d run from the Nazis before the troops even crossed into Catalonia.

“Next morning, before Sam the barman showed up and started polishing glasses and setting them behind him under the elk trophy I’d shot for him back in Idaho, before I’d thrown that miserable Mauser into the Guadalqivir and the war got bad, before . . . where was I?”

Obie hesitated. “Harry’s. Courage?”

Hem went on. “Oh yeah, I was sore. Sore that she was beautiful as a well-tied fly and we were young. I didn’t know about birth and love and death and whiskey and whoring and women and writing and words and …. and whatever that thing is you say when you bump into someone on the sidewalk on the calle when you’re trying to pass and you both dodge the same way. You bet I was sore!”

Fascinating as this narrative was, Obie tried to get back to the point. What might the great Ernest Hemingway have to offer by way of a plan?

“Time to put some lead in your pencil, Obie.”

“Okay, okay. Stop with the metaphors. What do you think I should do, Ernest?”

“Call me Papa.”

“Sure . . . Papa.”

“Obie, you know that hallway in back, the one that doesn’t go out to the alley? Past the tall ladder that’s always in the way and the low doorway into the tiny room lined with books different from elsewhere in the store?”

Obie shook his head.

“You’ve never seen the little plaque over the door? You wouldn’t notice if weren’t looking for it. Two faded gold letters in elaborate script.”

Obie had no idea what he was talking about. Ten years in the bookstore; he knew every nook and cranny. But intrigued, he told “Papa” to go on.

“The faded letters on the plaque are ‘VA.” They stand for Vejestorios Antiguas. Spanish. It means Old Geezers, in English. There we all are. Shelf after shelf of Faulkner, Chandler, Fitzgerald, London, Kerouac, Nabokov, Lawrence – you know, real men. I won’t name `em all. But we found out what those two old biddies are up to.”

If Obie was offended by that reference to Sandra, he didn’t say so. He struggled to suspend his disbelief. He loved fiction.

“What? he asked. “And how do you know?”

“Well, we sent Henry James to spy on them. The effete old devil hardly belongs in our group, but we let him flit back and forth to the regular shelves. He overheard your two conspirators.”

“You guys all talk to each other?”

“Yep. I carry most of the weight of course. I mean really, Billy Faulkner’s damn near unintelligible; Fitz – I mean what kind of man writes a book called “Tender is the Night”? Jack K’s on the road most of the time and out of cell range. I won’t even try to describe DH. Now Jack London, that guy can flat write – maybe close to me.

“Here’s a funny bit: Nabokov was remarking on your girl, Annie; said how hot she was. Fitzgerald says, ‘Gawd, she’s barely of age.’ And Ray Chandler says, ‘Like that ever mattered to you, huh Vlad.’”

Hem let out a huge guffaw, and Obie pictured the motley crew around a rough-hewn cedar table in a cloud of cigar smoke.

“So what are they up to . . . er . . . Papa? They going to throw me out?”

“Worse.”

“What!”

“Good thing you’re sitting down. They’re gonna redecorate the shop! Chintz curtains, whatever they are, Queen Anne chairs, pink flocked wallpaper, cutsie little table lamps on curtsie little tables – with doilies. Gone will be your big comfy chair, the fake spittoon you found at the ReStore, the crackly leather footstool that was your dad’s, the dark green glass floor lamps and the antique newspaper rack with the ten daily editions – including the New York Fucking Daily News. Obie, the place won’t look like a bookstore; it’ll look like a goddamn beauty salon!”

Obie was thunderstruck.

“Ya know, Obie, I’ve never told anybody this, but the real reason Hadley and I broke up was because she went and redecorated our flat in Paris. Gone was my rhino hide overstuffed chair, gone was my elephant tusk hat rack, gone was the leopard pelt wall-hanging, gone . . . well, you get the idea.”

Obie chose not to remind Hem (as he felt most familiar calling him; he couldn’t get his head around “Papa”) that those days in Paris Hemingway couldn’t afford to go poaching in the Tuileries Garden let alone the African savannah.

But he got his point. The more Obie listened, the madder he got. He thought his head was going to explode. It felt like a Halloween pumpkin with an M80 inside. Then it came to him – how he’d fight back. He knew just what to do.

He’d counter their sense and sensibility! The only thing they’d be persuaded of, so to speak, would be, yes, some real Old Blood and Thunder!

Obie slammed the book shut.

“Ouch! Take it easy,” yelled gruff old Ernie, “Don’t kill the messeng . . . . “

But Obie was walking back across the street to the shop. Whistling “Le Marseillaise.” He walked back into the shop and found the mysterious VA alcove, reshelved the book, and walked back out just in time to see Sandra and Laverne come in.

“Good morning, ladies. How’s your day going?”

Chapter 10

by Nancy Adair (1761 Words)

“Good morning, Obie darling.” Laverne hooked her arm in Sandra’s and leaned in to whisper, “Didn’t mean it. Just warming up.” The two women tittered as Obie walked away.

Laverne dragged Sandra toward the front window. “With a few decorating tweaks and some inventory adjustments, you can have books flying off your shelves.” She picked up a paperback from the window display. “What have we here? Too High and Too SteepReshaping Seattle’s topography? Oh my.” She handed the book to Sandra and retrieved a second one. “Look at these skinny boys in the boat. What woman in her right mind is going to fall in love?”

“Northwest stories are big for us.”

“Really? Where’s the pop? Where’s the sizzle?”

Northwest literature doesn’t sizzle. It offers a more subdued excitement.”

“My point exactly.” Laverne punched her fists into her vivacious hips. “Marketing, Sandra. Get with the program. Women buy eighty percent of all books. They represent your market. Target them.”

“I know that, dear. I’ve been in this business a long time.”

“And seventy percent of those women buy contemporary dramas, like mine.”

“You mean romance?”

“Romance plus much much more, if you’re going to split hairs. And fifty percent of those women buy on impulse. They just can’t help themselves. Their weakness cries out for exploitation.”

“I’m not so sure your statistics are accurate.”

“Well they’re close. And the point is, focus on your most important customers, readers like mine. They’re a tactile lot. No e-books for them. They like to touch and hold things, to feel and smell. If I were you, I’d adorn this window with a red velvet curtain and some gold tiebacks—glitzy—to accentuate a display of, say, my last three novels. Trust me. Their covers alone will send your book sales airborne.”

Sandra was crestfallen. Of course adjustments should be made. But with what money? Almost every account was overdue. Who would give her a decorating loan? Yet she smiled and rewarded Laverne’s counsel with her best Aha! expression, not letting on how dire were her circumstances.

Laverne swiped her fingers across the window sill. “And I’d also hire a new duster.”

Sandra detoured her friend toward the elevator. “Let’s go down to the author area and see if it’s arranged to your satisfaction.”

When they arrived, Annie was just tucking the last chair under the eighth table, all set up in two rows between the used books on the right and the cook books on the left. The front wall was decorated with a publicity banner, featuring a younger, air-brushed Laverne and a picture of her latest masterpiece, Juicy Fruit Don’t Grow on Trees. In front, stood a lectern with a microphone and a stool.

From her bag Laverne pulled out black lace, which she draped over the lectern. Then she placed crystal bowls on each table and filled them with chocolate. “I want their mouths watering from the get-go.” She winked her long, synthetic eyelashes. “Just a few tweaks is all one needs.”

***

Annie was relieved to find the tables full by 10:01. For weeks the workshops had been scheduled for the evening, but suddenly Sandra and Obie decided that Laverne functioned better in the morning. Annie worried about a last-minute change. Yet everyone showed up, and more stood in the back begging to be admitted. Annie called Sean to bring another table, and he gladly accommodated, as usual. Then, prepared with her stock introduction speech scrawled in her spiral notebook, Annie approached the lectern.

“Thank you everyone for coming to the first writing class presented by best-selling author Laverne Lutz. She is—”

Loud, raucous cheering cut her off, roaring at the volume of twice the twenty-four women present. That was a first. Who were these people? Our House had a loyal following of regulars, the newly-retired, who showed up for every travel talk, the be-speckled and wiry wannabe poets, who attended classes and readings, the gray-haired birdwatchers, who never missed a Sibley event, and the middle-aged men and lawyers, who hung on Steve Martini’s every word. But this wild crowd—women ranging from college age to grandmas—Annie had never seen them before. Lots of make-up, no blue jeans, no flannel. Who were they? Women who had definitely cut their classes, ditched their kids, or played hooky from work. She waited for the noise to fade to a low rumble.

“As I was saying, we are very pleased to have Ms. Lutz with us today—” More cheering. “If you would like to purchase her latest novel, you can—” Twenty-four women waved their already-owned copies in the air. Obviously these ladies knew more about the guest than Annie did, so she closed the notebook on her dry speech and said, “Without further ado—” OMG. She hated that phrase. She was getting more boring by the second. “I’d like to present—” The cheering started again and increased when Laverne entered, directed Annie to vacate, and took the podium.

Annie skulked to a seat at the side, blending into the used books, and watched Laverne Lutz run her tongue over her shimmering red lips. She raised a confident smile and basked in rock-star adoration while her black leather skirt caressed her curves and her silky red blouse revealed a hint of milky white breasts rising and falling as she inhaled the love.

“Thank you so much.” She threw a superior glance at Sandra, standing in the back. “Please be seated.” She waited. And then her tone plunged to the depths of sultry. “Are you ready to get your sexy on?” She was already driving them wild. Like a megachurch preacher, she held the true believers in the palm of her hand.

“Today we are going to launch your future in drama and romance, the stories people long for, crave, demand. I guarantee you, ladies, no other type of author writes and sells four books a year. Why? Because we know the secret of the human condition.”

The secret? She knows the secret? Annie perked up. Maybe she would stay for a while, not wander off once the program was underway. She opened her spiral notebook to a clean page and took out her pencil.

“By the end of page one your reader must fall in love with your heroine, and care about her so much that she can’t stop turning the pages. How to do that? Make her vulnerable. Make her human. Give her a conflict so we can watch her grow. Like the ugly duckling transforming into a gorgeous, sexy swan. But,” Laverne held up a well-manicured index finger with a glossy red-varnished nail, “she doesn’t necessarily have to be ugly. Maybe just plain.” Her eyes scanned the crowd and settled on Annie. “Choose a condition with room for improvement.” Laverne paused while everyone took notes.

“Let’s name some of the ways women are vulnerable in this cruel world.”

“Introvert!” someone shouted.

“Orphan!”

“Incest!”

“Rape!”

“All wonderful ideas.” Laverne now used her encouraging smile. “Rich in potential to let the sparks fly on page one.”

What about betrayal by your best friend and your one true love? Annie thought.

“You look like you have an idea,” Laverne said.

“Me?” Annie wasn’t participating. She hadn’t forked out the seventy-five dollars. She turned to look back at Sandra, who nodded approval. “Too trusting,” Annie replied. “Believing the best in people. Totally misreading their evil underbelly.”

“Perfect. Naiveté often takes us by surprise, dumping the unsuspecting into disasters not of our own making.” She looked at the crowd. “Who here has not been deceived by the silver-tongued devils among us?” Everyone nodded. “They make for good conflict. They let you start your story with a bang.” She paused to let the double-entendre seep in.

Bam! A book fell off the shelf and slammed onto the first table. The crowd jumped. Laverne paused again for the triple-entendre. She looked toward Sandra and raised both hands, palms up. “See. Flying off the shelves already! Hand me that book.”

When Annie walked the book to the lectern, Laverne read the title, closed her eyes, and nuzzled the tome against her bosom. “Oh my dear, Tess, young, innocent milkmaid that you were until that cad, Alec, showed up.” She lifted tattered book toward the ceiling. “Used, abused, mistreated and cheated.” She lowered the book. “Were any of you disappointed when Tess killed that bastard?” Hooting and agreement all around. “This bookshelf is talking to us, ladies. It wants justice for Tess of the d’Urbervilles in her crime of passion. It’s an omen!”

An omen? Annie thought. Were the shelves speaking to her, too. Would they demand justice for her crime of passion? Though the crowd was sold on the concept, Annie remembered that she didn’t believe in omens. She returned to her responsible self and walked around to the other side of the shelving, to the self-help section. “Rosemary! What are you doing back here?” She had removed books from her side of the stacks and pushed poor Tess off the ledge on the other side, just so she could peek at the presentation.

Embarrassed, as she should have been, Rosemary bleated out a lame excuse. “I was just, uh, getting a preview to see if I wanted to attend the next workshop. It’s spendy, you know, so I had to be sure . . . .”

“I think you’ve previewed enough. Time to move along. But look forward to seeing you in a paid seat next time. I’ll even reserve the front row, if you like.”

When Annie returned to her seat, Laverne had already transitioned to the next topic. “The ideal hero needs to be manly but protective. And for sure, someone who respects women. Kind of like a tanned, muscled, blue-eyed lifeguard with that sweet smell of coconut sunscreen. Oh wait, we’re in the Northwest, so who would that most virile man be here?” Laverne leaned over the podium and whispered, “Come on ladies, you know what you want.”

“A logger!”

“Oo, I like that. Think of the metaphors. A strong, chiseled logger, who smells of cedar or wood smoke. Someone to warm you on those long, dark nights. So now you have page two.”

Not really, Annie thought. No man in her life was muscled or woodsy. Which begged the question, why did she ache for Jason anyway? He wasn’t caring, and he didn’t smell like cedar, he smelled like pot. But her heart was wounded, and her ego was pulverized into a fine-grade mulch. Someone had to pay.

Chapter Eleven

by Linda Q. Lambert (1718 words)

Rosemary wasn’t the only one eavesdropping on Laverne Lutz’s writing class. Sean, true to his word, had taken Annie’s shift. He stood on a high ladder, dusting the books that she couldn’t get to. He listened to Laverne and pondered the fate of Our House. To avoid further discovery, he’d removed the Bramwell & Bramwell letter from his pocket and filed it in the locked cabinet in his bedroom.

“Dear Mr. Cary,” the letter had begun: “We are reminding you of the proviso in the will of your Great Uncle, J. Percival Ashton. The building, bequeathed to you eight years ago, stipulates that occupants must vacate if the rent is not paid in full over a continuous eighteen-month period. It also stipulates that you personally are barred from contributing financially to the renters’ success, despite your own inherited wealth. Our House Bookstore, is currently two months overdue.

Sincerely yours,

            Edmund H. Bramwell,

Bramwell& Bramwell

Atop the ladder, Cary remembered his first day at Our House. Sandra was fresh-faced, stimulated by her early success; Otis was energetic and supportive as they tag teamed the interview, then hired him on the spot.

“I’ve always wanted to work in a bookstore,” he’d said. “Book lovers are great people. I’ll read everything I can to match up people with their interests. And, I’m good at catching thieves. I promise.” He didn’t mention that he also wanted to protect his interests.

Sandra was amused, and she liked his earnest enthusiasm. “You can bring in younger readers,” she said. “They’ll identify with you.”

They had no idea that he was the owner of the building. The rent was paid to some law firm in New York. Sean liked it like that.

He showed up for work every day a combination flaky rebel, smart reader, and clever detective. He caught low-lifes pulling off security strips, stupidly changing price tags, and concealing books under their trench coats.

“Aw, c’mon man, you don’t wanna get yourself put in jail.Why dontcha just buy that book. It’s a great one. I’ll even buy it for you, if you can’t afford it. We can talk about it after you’ve read it.” And often, shamed, they bought the book and they came back. Sean encouraged clean slate starts.

After five years, Sean’s regard for the customers and his fondness for the quirky staff, prompted Sandra to ask him a question.

“Hey, Sean,” she said trying to be offhanded in a Sean-appealing kind of way, “How ‘bout being assistant manager?”

“That’s a cool idea, Sandra, but I wanna stay on the down-low. Not too much responsibility, but thanks.”

Ahab the cat jumped down from the guerrilla marketing section onto Sean’s shoulder, knocking a copy of Jo Dereske’s Bookmarked to Die onto the floor. “Oh Faulkner, said Miss Zukas, who never used the F-bomb even when she wanted to.

“Thanks, Ahab,” he said, and then more quietly, “I need to keep listening to Laverne. Her book is still El Sucko, but she might help Annie save the bookstore.”

He descended the ladder and, as prearranged, began to hand out small cups of coffee to the participants.

“What you have to do,” Laverne was saying” is make that manly man in your book a hero, find his weak points, and tear him to shreds. The Feminazis will love it. That book’s time has come. I can’t write it, but there’s someone here who can.”

Annie was sitting in the very front in one of the padded chairs, which looked comfortable but weren’t. Sean slipped her a note. “Did you hear that? That’s your book. Creative vengeance is yours.”

Damm, he’s right, she thought. I was meant to sit here. She’s talking to me. I’m going to write the book that exposes them both. Look out Erica, and prepare to die, Jason.”

Sean had been horrified when he came into the store that morning and found her asleep in the midst of malevolent how-to murder volumes. Knowing her anguish over Jason and Erica’s conspicuous copulation, he was certain she was plotting a real killing. A jailed bookseller would not be good for business.

“I’m writing a novel.”

Yes, let’s run with that, he thought. There was another reason too. Annie was a good writer, a generous person. She contributed 15% of all she earned to charity. She would certainly give 15% of her bestseller earnings to Our House’s charity arm, Books for Babes (babies that is), allowing Sandra to redirect the store’s contributions to Operation Survival.

I think I just came up with a good name, he thought. Now what else can Operation Survival do?

Old Blood and Thunder, carrying a tattered copy of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, lumbered into the store. He stared at the black lace draped over the lectern and shook his head at the crystal bowls of chocolate.

“I just don’t know what people see in that cheapshit floozy with dangly bracelets and her beach bitch prose. I’m sick of her. Not only do we have doilies on the back of the toilet, we have spray bottles of her perfume in every room.

“Perfume helps me write,” he said in a high falsetto, “and you want me to write, right? Because I’m going to give the proceeds of my next book to the bookstore if you’ll agree to let me re-decorate. We’ll call the new bookstore OH! That’ll tell customers they’re gonna get a great read. My books will always be in the window.” Disgruntlement showing on Obie’s face and in his stride, he trudged toward his office.

Sean followed, and stood in the doorway. “Listen, Mr. Branch. I think you should claim your own name and take a break. You’ve got all that experience with Ken Kesey, right? I’ve heard you talk about it.”

“Yeah?” said OB&T, flattered by someone who usually ignored or slandered him.

“So, you knew Kesey when he was at Stanford. You spent a little time with the Merry Pranksters, didn’t you, and traveled on the Day Glo bus?”

“Ah, those were the days,” he said, temporarily diverted from his livid preoccupation with Lutz. “Did I ever tell you about Vonnegut?”

He had told Sean about Vonnegut, but Sean merely raised his eyebrows and offered a quizzical smile.

“See, Vonnegut had a good side that people don’t hear about. He married his high school sweetheart and they had three kids. Then when his sister died, he and his wife adopted her three children. He was a good guy, a sweet guy.”

“Mr. Branch,” Sean repeated the respectful name on purpose, “You’re tired of being here, right? You’ve got your own story to tell. What if Our House Books sent you off on a speaking tour to tell the other side of the people you knew? You could make a name for yourself and generate some money for Our House. Those little old ladies who buy season tickets for Town Hall lecture series would love you. Two topics a night, one hour long, something different at every venue: Call it “OB: Branched out with…” fill in the blank––Marharishi and Joe Cocker: Stevedore and Chez Panisee; fisherman and Poetry Magazine staffer. They’d probably drive to another county just to hear more.

OB&T paused. Normally a bombastic, impulsive and unreflective man, he inspected Sean’s eyes with prolonged attention. What was his game? Why was Sean suddenly being a nice guy?

“Hey, I’m sorry if you don’t like the idea,” said Sean, “I just thought it might be fun for you. Catch ‘ya later.”

But, OB&T did like the idea and got on the phone with an agent he knew from being on the road with Joe Cocker. Obie was with Cocker when he did “With a Little Help From My Friends,” the Beatles cover that Paul McCartney said became a “soul anthem.”

It’s time for me to stop telling the same old stories again to the same old people in this town and get out in the world where I belong. I’ll come back a star.

Sean returned to dusting books until the writing session was over and the gabbling of enthusiastic voices subsided. He closed down the computers, locked the doors, and went to retrieve his bike. OB&T was still in his office, speaking in low tones on the phone.

Annie, deep in conversation with Laverne Lutz, looked up. “I’m going to get a drink with Miss Lutz,” she said. “See you soon.”

Only a few cars traveled the street in front of Our House. Sean wheeled his bike into the darkness, urging it into the rutted road and gaining speed as he prepared to push up the hill to his apartment. His legs were used to grinding uphill and functioned almost without effort. He pulled it into the garage, looped his helmet and gloves to the handlebars, and affixed the bike lock.

The apartment was just as he’d left it, with no evidence of femaleness around, which pleased him.

He sat down in the leather chair, one of his many Good Will finds. What else could he do to increase the bookstore’s profitability—rent best sellers for a dollar a day, bump up the price for autographed copies, promote Writers in the Window so that spectators could pop donations intp an empty beer stein? Annie’s writing a potential best seller and Otis hitting the speaker circuit could bring in some bucks and increase visibility for the bookstore, but income generation by any of it? Peanuts!

He grabbed El Cid and the Spanish dictionary. After a few pages, he decided he didn’t feel like reading a Castillian epic poem about lost honor. What about my honor? he thought. Am I dishonest by living a double standard as a simple bookstore employee who actually has a wad of money and owns the building Our House is in?

My honor lies in ramping up my Sherlockian instincts to determine if anyone’s cooking the books, pocketing valuable tomes from the Special Collection, or stealing money from the registers. Otherwise, the eviction and demise of even a single bookstore inches culture one step closer to the incinerating world of Fahrenheit 451. We will not go down the railroad tracks to find Book People and rebuild civilization, as Guy Montag had to do. Our House will be saved.

Chapter 12

by Seán Dwyer (1858 words)

Jenna was reading Juicy Fruit for the fourth time, and despite her familiarity with the story, she began to weep a third of the way into Chapter Four. That was better than the first time, when she had been shocked into bawling on Page Two, when Miss Lutz had revealed Juicy’s Flaw:

“When men saw her from behind, Josephine “Juicy Fruit” Root inspired them to run to her aid. It wasn’t that she ever needed help with anything; it was that the wiggle in her bum, and her hourglass figure, which made her look like a perfect childbearing specimen, drove men mad. They would sidle up beside her, ask if they could carry her grocery bag, or tote her library books, or help her across the street.

“She would invariably turn to the latest man to approach her and bestow upon him one of the sweetest smiles ever to radiate upon the face of a woman. The man would become incapable of carrying bags or books. Her luscious, ruby-red lips, her cornflower-blue eyes, bordering on indigo where the iris merged with her large pupils—it was all too much for any man. The blood would drain from his brain, and soon he was incapable even of guiding her across the street.

“And so, she would cross the street herself, the man following at her heels, resolving to invite her to dinner as soon as they reached the far curb. He would clear his throat, turn her toward him to ask her face-to-face if she would do him the honor of dining with him at Applebee’s®, and—it always turned out this way—he would back away, his arms suddenly slack, check his watch, even if he wasn’t wearing one, mumble an excuse about a forgotten appointment, and shuffle off with renewed vigor as his head cleared.

“And Josie knew why men ran from her. She faced the truth each morning when she brushed her hair, and each evening when she brushed her teeth. In the mirror, she saw each day, on her forehead, the horrid beige mole that resembled a piece of chewed gum stuck on the underside of a restaurant table. She was four years old the first time someone had called her ‘Juicy Fruit,’ and it wasn’t until she was eight years old that her only friend, meaning well, pulled out her compact and showed Josie the mirror, a device whose existence her parents had never revealed to her. Seeing the image for the first time, she realized that the oddly shaped bump on her forehead was disgusting enough to make her want to vomit. So, she did.

“The men who ran from her because of this one small flaw were not men, but merely boys. Someday she would meet a real man, and he would love her and understand how precious she was. Because Juicy Fruit didn’t grow on trees.”

On this fourth read of her autographed copy, Jenna made it all the way to the point where a Real Man was able to see past the wad of gristly forehead gum and persevere in his plan to invite her to Olive Garden®. But as always happened with Miss Lutz’s books, Jenna finally broke down and sobbed at the beauty of this man’s courage in the face, as it were, of the Flaw.

Jenna needed to blow her nose, but she had no tissues handy. She grabbed the hem of her skirt and blew into it. She was riveted by the story to the point that she could not rise from her armchair, a gift from Sean when he purchased a newer one for himself. However, after reading another couple of pages, she found herself so inspired, and so goopy, that she ran to the bathroom, mopped the tears from her face, cleared her sinuses again, and ran for her jacket.

She lived mere blocks from Sandra and OB&T, and she strode in the direction of their house, heels beating a staccato rhythm on the sidewalk. It was nine o’clock, and she might have doubted the wisdom of showing up on their doorstep so late, were it not for the lights that blazed in every room. Were they having a party? If so, it made no difference to her. All she wanted to do was ask Miss Lutz one question.

She tapped lightly on the door, but no one answered. She leaned close and heard music coming through the wood. She wasn’t quite sure from the bass line what song it was, but suddenly it came to her: “Another One Bites the Dust.” Thump, thump, thump, ba-dump dump thump ba-dump. Unable to help herself, she wiggled her bum to the beat, as she imagined Josie Root would. She prepared to knock louder, and she had the inspired notion to knock between the bass notes: Thump knock thump knockthump knock. Her efforts bore fruit, though not of the juicy kind.

Obie yanked the door open. Behind him, she saw Sandra leaning over Miss Lutz. It looked almost as if they were smooching. But it was just the angle, surely. While a steady diet of Freddie Mercury could turn almost anyone, she didn’t see Sandra and Miss Lutz as lovers.

Obie bade her enter, looking delighted at her arrival. Sandra looked up and waved. She wasn’t kissing Miss Lutz; she had been patting her face in an effort to revive her. Jenna could hear her authorly snoring over the song, and more so when Obie lowered the volume.

“Laverne, we have company,” Sandra yelled, just as the music faded. Miss Lutz bucked and slid to the floor. Obie and Sandra hoisted her back into her seat, and Miss Lutz opened her eyes.

“Shenna. How you doin’?”

“Um, I’m great. Look, all I had was a quick question, and then I’ll let you get back to your . . . Queen album.”

“Shoot.”

“OK, so, well, I was an English major, and I want to be a writer. I could never be as good as you, I know that, but—”

“Writin’ is hard work, young lady, and doan you ferget ish. It.”

“Oh, no, Miss Lutz. I won’t forget it. That’s my problem. I know it’s hard work, and I’m afraid to write. So I wanted to know if you could be my mentor or something so I can learn to write and not be scared.”

“Thas shilly. Woah, kish me.”

Well, whatever it takes, Jenna thought. She leaned over Miss Lutz, who was slowly sliding to the floor, and applied her mouth to her idol’s moist, luscious, piña colada-flavored lips. Miss Lutz landed with a thump on the floor and began to gurgle behind the vacuum their lips had created.

“Gah. I shaid kish me, not kish me, you little leshbeen. I’m fallin’ an’ you kish me? I said kish . . . cash . . . catch me.”

Jenna wrung her hands. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I don’t always hear well.” She grabbed Miss Lutz under the armpits and pulled her back into the chair. “So, what do you think of my idea?”

“No way, lady. No mentoring for girls that wanna kish me.” Jenna started forward to catch her, but Miss Lutz was firmly anchored. “Gwan, go kish shomun elsh. Shandra, make her go way.”

“I’m sorry, Jenna,” Sandra whispered. “She’ll agree to help you tomorrow, when her . . . medication wears off.”

Jenna stepped back into the cold night, and she began to weep as helplessly as when she read the Gum Series books. But now she was not merely disappointed; she was bitterly angry at her idol

Annie might be planning to write a murder mystery, but she, Jenna, now had something far more realistic in mind for Laverne Lutz.

*     *     *

Sandra was beginning to tire of Laverne’s inability to hold her rum. Or her wine. Or her whiskey. Or, late at night, her bladder. She donned her coat, nodded at Obie, jerked her head toward Laverne, and stepped onto the street. She heard Jenna sobbing a block away, and she might have gone to console her if she didn’t need consolation herself. Sandra was headed in the other direction, to her nurturing second home, where thousands of her friends held sway when no one was around.

She had discovered her books’ unusual, perhaps unique, qualities one night when she had sought solace at the store after a fight with Obie. As on that night, she now slipped through the door so quietly that even Ahab didn’t hear her. She padded through the dark store she knew so well. She heard a spirited conversation among some books that called themselves the Council. She crept closer so she could learn what they had on their minds.

“Angels, have you a report on Guy Montag’s suspicions?” Robert said. Sandra knew his officious voice, just as she knew Stuart Ullman’s officious tone when he spoke to Jack Torrance.

“We do. It’s hard to deny the likelihood that either Obie or Laverne has settled on extreme prejudice as a way to escape debt.” Sandra put a hand to her mouth to stifle a scream.

“Sandra is not involved?” Robert asked.

“Certainly not! She of course prioritizes paying up the fire insurance, but she does so to protect us. Obie wants to keep the insurance paid for other reasons.” Now Sandra stared in horror. “And Laverne Lutz may mean well, but her remodel could lead to an accidental conflagration. Or to one that is intended to relieve Sandra of her debt in a way that is most unsatisfactory for us.”

Now, Sandra could not have moved if she wanted to. Robert spoke again.

Walden, do you have any thoughts from the Private Collection?”

“Indeed. I have the honor of having my words recognized as the summation of our opinion. To wit: ‘The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly.’”

The books of the Council murmured their approval. “And so?” Robert said. Sandra almost giggled at him; he couldn’t not sound officious, it seemed.

“We need to be good to ourselves, to the rest of our comrades, and to our ally, Sandra. Again, we need to make ourselves appealing to the public in order to ensure that the rent is paid, the lights stay on, and there is insurance to keep us safe.”

“How shall we save ourselves?” Emma cried.

Walden replied, “The Private Collection agrees, and we hope you do as well, that we can start by enlisting Ahab to perform some tricks when Obie and Laverne are about. In Obie’s case, some books toppled from a high shelf might send him away for a few days. And if Ahab can find a mouse outdoors and bring it in to taunt Miss Lutz, she may decide that teaching her classes elsewhere might still meet the financial needs of Our House. Perhaps she will lose her desire to remodel the bookstore. That, my friends, would be Civil Disobedience at its best.”

Chapter 13

by Kate Miller (1,723 words)

Sandra’s heart was beating so fast it felt like a hummingbird trapped in her chestShe appreciated all that the books wanted to do for her and for the store. Really, she was touched. But it wasn’t just a question of working for a modest but steady increase in customers and sales, Our House was so deep in the hole that only a miracle could keep her beloved store from going under. And it didn’t even make sense. She’d been over the income and expenses for the store numerous times but it just didn’t seem to balance out. No matter how she calculated, the store was bleeding out way more much cash than it should have. Even the losses to online sales couldn’t account for it. Sandra had felt like she was at her wits end and allowed herself to be seduced into plotting and scheming with Laverne about ways to salvage Our House, but it was just a fantasy. Sandra knew that the Laverne passed out in her living room at home wasn’t about to produce any more best-selling beach reads in the state she currently resided in, that was for sure!

Backing out of the shadows, Sandra headed for the stairs. I don’t need to hear any more of this nonsense. I have to do something and do it now! How could Otis have come up with such a scheme, he wasn’t exactly the sharpest pencil in the jar, but really! This? Take away her life’s work? Her pride and joy? Her Private Collection! She squared her thin shoulders and scolded herself. I’ll march right home and confront him now. How dare he consider such a crime! Grabbing her rain coat, she ran out the front door, locking it hastily behind her.

The council was ready to adjourn when several voices from the edges of the room clamored to be heard.

“Hold up just one minute, you old farts. Civil disobedience might have worked for Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. but if I fully understand what Guy has told us, we’ve got a dire situation here, everyone. We need more radical action,” said George Washington Hayduke III, moving out of the shadows. “We need to be proactive here or we stand to lose everything. We need to act if we aim to save Our House, just like Abbey, doing everything to save his beloved desert out there. Knocking a few of us books off the top shelves and asking Ahab to drag in a few mice, or even a big old rat, won’t save our raggedy covers, you spineless (pun intended) old ninnies. I’ve got my Monkey Wrench gang here at the ready and we’re prepared to do some real damage!”

“You sound like my kind of man, Hayduke. I applaud you all if we are finally going to act, instead of perching around on these dusty old shelves complaining,” Emma G. shouted emphatically. I for one am proud to be an anarchist, not a rich busybody matchmaker, you know! If you want to overthrow the hierarchy here, you can count me in! But keep in mind that if there’s no dancing, I refuse to be part of your revolution.”

“Hear, hear,” said Gloria Steinem, cheering from the small but vocal Women’s Studies section around the corner, “Down with the Patriarchy! Or at least dump that overbearing Old Blood and Thunder, Sandra can never get a word in edgewise. Come to think of it, I thought I smelled gasoline on his biker vest when he passed by my shelf the other day. We might not have much time.”

“The way I see it, we’re like the proletariat, suffering under the power of the industrialists. What does Otis care about us workers? Where would a bookstore be without books, answer me that,” mused old Karl. “We should rise up and throw out the bums. We could run this place easy, pay everyone equally, maybe get some rehabilitation for those of us who need new bindings or covers, we could even institute profit-sharing. The workers should be the ones to benefit from their labor!”

“But that’s the problem,” sighed Thoreau, his normally calm voice rising in frustration, “There IS NO PROFIT.”

When Annie got back to Sean’s apartment after a quick trip to Freddy’s to pick up a toothbrush, bathrobe, and night clothes (she’d be damned if she’d risk another tawdry encounter with her ex-best friend Erica and Mr. “Your Cheating Heart” Jason for a toothbrush for goodness sakes) amazing odors of Chicken Marsala wafted down to greet her before she even started up the stairs. So Sean of the gentle eyes could cook, too, she thought. She knocked politely on the apartment door, not wanting to seem overly familiar by using his key.

Sean beckoned her into the front room with a small flourish, waving her toward the kitchen table, now covered with a bright red tablecloth, silverware and two cobalt blue wine goblets. “I thought you might be hungry after spending the day with all the crazed “Juicy fruit” fans and her mighty highness herself,” Sean said, pulling out a chair for Annie, “You’re not a vegetarian, I hope?”

“No, I gave up beans and tofu years ago, I’m a carnivore and a ravenous one right now,” Annie smiled. “Thanks for letting me crash here; it’s so kind of you.”

Sean put two steaming plates on the table and sat down across from her. “No problemo, I’ve got the room. And it might just turn out to be advantageous for both us and Our House. Red or White,” he said, gesturing to the bottles on the table, a chilled Chardonnay and a red blend called, too appropriately Annie thought, Ménage à trois.

“I’ll have the white.” Annie shook off her thoughts of Jason and Erica in HER bed and leaned forward, peering at Sean’s familiar face, which seemed a bit sad and thoughtful tonight. “What do you mean, exactly?”

“Look Annie, we’ve both worked at Our House for a long time, and we’ve both seen the signs coming for a while now. The steady drop in sales, how distracted Sandra seems these days, and lately Obie Wan isn’t his usual blustery self. If I thought the old man had it in him, I’d say he’s been acting downright shifty!”

“I know, you’re absolutely right,” Annie sighed. “I don’t know what will happen. And it’s more than just our jobs, working here is my life, Sean, and there aren’t many bookstore jobs out there. It doesn’t pay well, that’s for sure, but it feeds my soul. But what can we do?”

“Well, first of all, Annie, I need to come clean to you,” Sean leaned across the small table, “You can’t tell anyone what I’m going to tell you, especially our Sandra and Otis, and Jenna, too. Can you promise me that?”

“Of course, we’re in this together.” Annie wondered what Sean could be about to tell her that made him seem so grave and solemn.

Sean paused. Was this a good idea, he wondered? He was worried about the store, it was true, and he didn’t want any other tenants. He counted certain books as friends, why it was almost as if they spoke to him sometimes, whispering from his shelves at night. He often got the same feeling as he was closing up the store at night. And he didn’t know what either Otis or Laverne was up to but he was sure there were more scary things afoot than a few mice Ahab might have overlooked. But he was equally worried about Annie. What better way to distract her from plotting elaborate schemes of revenge, which frankly that sorry excuse for a man, Jason, wasn’t worthy of, than to conscript her as his ally to save the store?

“Did you ever wonder who Our House’s landlord is, Annie? I mean you’ve seen the invoices come through the mail, but who is behind the property management company?”

“Actually, not really,” Annie said as she carefully scraped the last morsels of morels from her plate. “Does it make any difference?”

“I inherited the building eight years ago from my Great Uncle, J. Percival Ashton, along with a considerable sum of cash.” Sean held his breath, waiting for a reaction.

Annie choked on the last sip of her wine, grabbing a napkin to wipe her mouth before responding. “You must be kidding, Sean, why would you even work here if you owned this entire building, you’d be rich and could do whatever you wanted, couldn’t you? And if you’re telling me the truth, why don’t you just lower the rent or better yet, forgive Sandra’s debt?”

Sean got up from the table and turned on the burner under the tea kettle, giving Annie a forlorn glance over his shoulder. “That’s the whole problem, Annie. The estate specifically stipulated that I could not assist my tenants out with my own inheritance. Sandra is two months late with the rent. And I am bound to evict them if they don’t pay up. So you see I’m the real villain here.”

“There must be something we can do,” Annie said. “We could sneak back into the store and take a closer look at the records on the computer. I’ve helped Sandra out with the book-keeping a bit and know the password. Maybe Sandra has been missing something. I know she’s been overwhelmed with things lately, like having Lavern Lutz in her house for weeks and planning the writing workshop series. Not that Old Blood and Thunder helps any!”

“I can’t believe you called him that, Annie!” Sean grinned at her as he put the leftovers in the fridge. “I’ll do the dishes later. Let’s go down to the store and see what we can ferret out about this mess. I’ve got an extra bike and helmet in the garage if you want to ride down with me.”

Annie felt a little surge of excitement at Sean’s suggestion, the first lift in her spirits since she had stalked out of her old apartment, leaving the Kung Po chicken mess for her betrayers to clean up. For the first time the image of Jason and Erica’s shocked faces, dripping green peas and squares of orange carrots, made her smirk.

Chapter 14

by Cami Ostman (2247 words)

It was 10 pm on Friday night when Annie and Sean rode up to the back door of Our House Bookstore. The plan, such as it was, was to look through the financial records to find out why, exactly, in spite of the fact that the shop was almost constantly full of people, there were no profits. That was the first question: Why was this business, arguably one of the hubs of the community, not making enough money to pay its bills and even thrive? The second question, once the first was answered, was how to save the store. The pair didn’t expect to come to a final conclusion about this, but once they knew the extent of the problem and the cause of it, they could hopefully wage an effort to raise funds before OB&T pulled a Mrs. Rochester and set the estate ablaze.

Annie and Sean parked their bikes just inside the storeroom, took off their helmets and slid in the building quietly. Just inside the office, their own scent of sweat mingled with the musty smell of old pages in a blast of warm air from the floor vents.

“Why don’t you log into the system while I check upstairs just to make sure we’re alone in the building,” Sean said. “Ever since the morning we all arrived early to find you sleeping amidst the murder books, I have the sense there is always someone here.”

“Sounds good,” Annie replied. “And Sean, can you find Ahab and check on him while you’re up there?”

“Will do. I’ll even give him one of those little fishy treats he loves.”

Upstairs in the philosophy section, Ahab lounged on a cushioned stool. He looked up at Sean, apparently unconcerned as Sean passed by him with barely a scratch behind the ears. “You okay, buddy?” he asked the cat. Ahab opened an eye and closed it again as if to dismiss Sean’s patronizing tone outright. “Cats!” Sean said before scanning the wing for shadows or movement.

When he’d satisfied himself that they were alone in the building, he came back to the office. Annie was sitting at the computer with her mouth open wide.

“Will you look at this?” she said, almost breathless.

“What is it?” Sean leaned over her shoulder. The heat from her body and the faint hint of lavender caught him off guard—like rounding a corner at the Chicago Art Museum and seeing Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Seurat for the first time. He took a step back to catch his breath.

“Look at this?” she said. “The numbers don’t add up. The spreadsheet has the equations programmed in, so the totals should automatically be correct. But when I add them manually… it looks like someone has been siphoning money out of the coffer!”

“Oh my god!” Sean’s heart started pounding. He’d had the intuition that something was amiss. “Who’s doing this?”

“I don’t know, but it has to be someone inside the bookstore. No one else could get into the system.”

******

The one who held the missing key to the mystery of why the bookstore was languishing in debt as well as the answer of how to save it was an unlikely player. And although Gertrude was a reluctant heroine, she alone had a missing piece of information that the Annie, Sean, and books needed, if only she could get to them.

If only she could get them to listen to her.

They SHOULD listen to her. Gertrude had read every volume along with Sandra and Otis, sitting on their laps. She had been in the bed with them when they’d made love, though that hadn’t happened in a long while—maybe years (dog years were so different from human years that it was hard to gage time). She hid under the bed when they argued. And most importantly, she had plenty of time alone with each of them. She knew the secrets they kept from one another. And Alice B, her only companion, although just as savvy to the intricacies of their humans’ passions and betrayals, was much less likely to be brought into the bookstore. Ahab and Alice B loathed each other and were, frankly, jealous of Gertrude’s attentions.

Sandra had brought Gertrude into the bookstore frequently in the early days; Gertrude was not a stranger to Ahab or to the tomes that resided on the shelves throughout the building, but she knew she was a pariah. She knew the books worried she would eat them, or pee on them. Even when Ahab had vouched for her, only the books in the “Pets” section ever uttered a greeting.

The fact was, the only thing that annoyed the books more than Ahab the cat was Gertrude the pug. Books don’t like dogs, everyone knows that. Dogs chew, especially when they are puppies, and books are easy targets for sharp puppy teeth. Gertrude, for her part, had never been a fan of chewing on inedible objects. She preferred to be able to digest what she ate and truly posed no threat, but the books didn’t trust her. She needed them to, however, because try as she might, Gertrude could not tell Sandra what she knew. Books, however, had words they could use. Pugs only had snorts and grunts.

Of course, a few of the books had gotten to know Gertrude on a very personal level. Sandra and OB&T had such a large library of their own at home that they rarely brought books from the bookstore home, but there were exceptions. Local and self-published authors who left their books at Our House on consignment had to be read. Keeping relationships with local talent was essential to bringing in customers. People loved to support their friends, their nieces, their neighbors.

One day about a year earlier, Sandra had brought home a pile of books by locals: A novel about the Grateful Dead, a small book about a chair where children sat to tell their good news, an expose of the medical community, and a children’s book with gorgeous watercolor paintings of animals in the Northwest sleeping in their natural habitats. She piled the books on the floor next to her nightstand and picked through them one by one over the next week.

But one slipped under the bed. The children’s book lay unnoticed for easily a year, waiting to be found and returned to the children’s wing of Our House. Alone she sat patiently, knowing that it is sometimes the plight of books to be misplaced, often for years or decades, and that to be a book means to be self-possessed, to know one’s value even when un-validated by human contact. This is especially true for children’s books, which are outgrown by their owners and placed in storage until grandchildren come along, upon which time they are revived for a few short years before once again being abandoned.

So the Watercolor Picture Book sat alone under the bed until one cloudy afternoon, days before Sean and Annie discovered the accounting problem, when Sandra and OB&T stormed into the room, both in a rage.

“You tell that bitch to keep her distance. She’s always nosing around like she’s got a secret to tell. And showing up here on our doorstep is just going too far!” Sandra shouted. “What did she want?”

“Nothing,” Otis said, unconvincingly. “She wanted to talk about a book I ordered for her.”

“At nine at night?” Sandra was incredulous. “Her boundaries stink.”

The Watercolor Picture Book knew exactly who they were talking about. And she was bursting to shout the truth at Sandra who, let’s face it, was much kinder to the children’s section than OB&T who had no use for children’s literature since it provided little to no cache for bragging rights. Just then, before the argument escalated, poor little Gertrude slinked under the bed.

At first they sat side by side without a word, but eventually the Watercolor Picture Book broke the silence.

“They’re fighting,” she said.

Gertrude looked at WPB in surprise. “Oh, how long have you been here?” she asked?

“Months. What are you doing here?”

“Yelling scares me. I like a safe place. Don’t like to get in the middle of the fray.”

“Hmm. Not much like your namesake, then are you?”

“Only in that we’re both stout of stature,” Gertrude said.

The two waited out the storm under the bed. Eventually Sandra grew weary of trying to get Otis to see that anything was wrong with Rosemary coming to their door to check on a book that he’d ordered. And when they both left the bedroom to brush their teeth or to pour another glass of Scotch (respectively), WPB and Gertrude both breathed relief and settled in for a chat.

“I know something about this fight, you know,” WPB said.

Nodding sagely, Gertrude urged her on. “So do I, but tell me what you know first.”

“Well, what I know is that no one respects the children’s book department as they should. And ol’ Rosemary and Otis meet there sometimes, hold hands, talk about how to escape from their lives. The vampire books don’t mind. In fact they think they inspire forbidden romance… but the fact is that we picture books are all about ethics and lessons learned, so we’re not big fans of the affairs that happen in our wing. And there are more than you might think.”

Gertrude nodded. This was not news to her. “I know about this affair. I’ve heard them on the phone when Sandra isn’t home. It irritates me, but dogs are programmed for unconditional love, so what can I do? Still, when I learned that Otis has been syphoning money off the profits of the bookstore to keep Rosemary afloat until they can get away together under the guise of OB&T’s talking tour, I got worried about Sandra. And Alice B and me… we’re not getting any younger, you know. I’ve got dental surgery scheduled to have most of my teeth removed. That’s not cheap.”

Into the night they talked. Alice B wandered in to switch her tail and make her point that Gertrude was doing it again—fostering the furtherment of others’ agendas before attending to her primary relationship—and then sauntered off, probably realizing that she might as well let it go. WPB was just a book, after all.

After midnight, when both Gertrude and WPB were exhausted from talking, WPB gave Gertrude a piece of advice. “Get into that bookstore and let the books know what’s going on. They have a soft spot for Annie and they’ve been thinking about talking with her—about her own life and about the bookstore. It’s almost unprecedented but might be necessary. They can save the situation if they have the information they need.”

“Got it,” Gertrude snorted.

“And one more thing.”

“Oh yeah, what?”

“There are two sections that are exiled to the east wing—too far away to be part of the council. One is the children’s section, as you know. The other is the sports’ section. We have our own meetings of course.”

“Of course,” Gertrude nodded in sympathy. She knew what it was like to be put outside and have the door closed on you. It didn’t happen often to the Toy Breeds, but it still happened.

“The answer to the financial trouble is this,” WPB said.

“Yes?”

“A competition. Tell the council the answer is a competition. The running, basketball, tennis, soccer, and chess books all agree. They are adamant that people will pay to compete with each other. Seems strange, but I trust them. They compete with each other all day long for who can sell the most volumes. They are very confident. Tell the council. We can’t get the information over to them unless someone miss-shelves one of us. And Ahab hates children, so he almost never visits us.”

Gertrude was exhausted. She put her flat face down on her crossed paws, wanting nothing more than to wrap curled up with Alice B and tell her how she was about to, once again, do the bidding of others without getting any glory or reward. She longed for the warm purr of Alice B’s criticisms, comfortable if stinging.

“I need to go to bed,” Gertrude said, and waddled back to the pet bed in the utility room, leaving WPB to her lonely spot under the bed.

***

The next morning—the morning after Sean and Annie had discovered the embezzlement—Gertrude took matters into her own paws. First she barked her raspy bark from under the bed until Sandra bend down to ask her what was wrong, at which time Sandra noticed WPB and retrieved her (what a long time she’d been there!). And next, Gertrude followed at Sandra’s heels all day, mooning over her and looking adorable and pathetic until Sandra decided to bring her with her for the day.

“You want to come with mommy?” Sandra cooed.

Gertrude cocked her head, adorably.

Score.

****

Once in the bookstore, Gertrude went straight to Robert. “Call a meeting!” she demanded.

“Gertrude dear, we can’t have a meeting in the middle of the day,” Robert said.

“You have to,” Gertrude said

“We must live in the now,” Eckart Tolle advised from the Spirituality section. No one dismissed The Power of Now when he spoke. No one.

Reluctantly, Robert nodded. “Very well. The council is in order,” he bellowed.

Chapter 15

by Susan Chase-Foster (1637 words)

Erica turned on the disposal and washed the vomit down the drain. The grinding noise rattled her brain until she saw blinding white and silver stars, and wondered if she might faint. She pushed herself away from the kitchen sink and headed into the bathroom to brush her teeth without toothpaste. Jason had apparently taken that, along with several rolls of toilet paper and the handsoap.

It was only a week after their untimely “Kung Po Interruptus,” but Erica knew she was one hundred percent pregnant, more if possible. After all, in the five years they’d been married it wasn’t the first time she’d gotten herself knocked up by Jason, or even the second for that matter. She was fertile as a fruitfly.

Her boobs, poor plump pups, hurt like hell and hung from her chest like massive, sloshing water balloons, and when she wasn’t vomiting into the toilet or sink, she was gagging. Her throat was on fire and she knew that soon she’d have unbearable heartburn. The smells were even worse. She remembered that from her last pregnancy with Cassie. The rancid, bloody smell of Jason’s daily steak with bacon. Holy God, that was gross!

Dang! What an idiot I am! Mom’s gonna kill me when I tell her about this one. The last thing she needs is another of my kids to look after, especially one of Jason’s. She hates him, even if he is an accountant and does her Blessed Baby Daycare books for free. She knows he’s a slimewad and always will be. What kind of idiot woman would stay married to a man like that? I should have stayed home with Mom and the kids in Lake Oswego.

Erica grabbed her Bic and lit up a Camel. She wasn’t allowed to smoke in Annie’s apartment, but she didn’t care. This was an emergency. The smell of tobacco and the nicotine calmed her, but mostly she loved to watch the smoke rising from the tip of her cigarette, like frankincense at Mass in the chapel at Little Sisters. Those were the days! Leaving love notes for saintly, virgin sisters, smoking pot in the bathroom during lunch and, after Jason started attending St. James Academy nextdoor, making out with him behind the gym. Erica wondered if Annie even knew about that, or if Jason bothered to tell her about his marriage.

“I shouldn’t be smoking,” Erica told the mirror, “it might hurt the baby. This will probably be my last one.”

Erica looked at her reflection and knew she was lying. She stuck out her tongue. It had a furry yellow coat. Yuck! She thought about drinking the last Bud in the refrigerator … maybe she was dehydrated … but it wasn’t even noon. She hadn’t combed her hair or changed out of Annie’s bathrobe since Jason left to buy steaks and bacon at the Safeway. That was three days ago, maybe four. The jerk wasn’t answering his phone and Erica was too nauseous to chase after him or take a taxi to his apartment where, most likely, she’d find him with another woman. The father of her three, well, almost three, children. What was she thinking?

“I’m disgusting.”

Erica squashed her cigarette in the sink and tossed it into the trash basket. She shuffled into the living room and flopped onto the couch, which had served as her bed since she’d been living with Annie. She arranged the pillows and pulled up the yellow comforter that her former best friend had given her. It was the color of vomit. Thank you, Annie. Erica tucked the comforter all around her body, then tossed it off. Hormones were burning her up. She checked to see if smoke was coming out of her pores. That would have been hilarious. She loved smoke.

All Erica wanted to do was sleep, but she needed to think and think fast. She couldn’t stay in Annie’s apartment forever. The rent was eventually going to be due and there was only one beer and a box of saltines in the cupboard. She needed to make a plan, but first she needed shake Annie’s last words out of her mind.

“In my bed!”

“In my bed!”

“In my bed!”

“ANNIE!” Erica screamed, but it made her queasy and even more exhausted.

Where was Annie? It had been over a week and still not a word. Why wasn’t she back here in her own apartment where she belonged? Then, Erica could tell her about how she and Jason were married and how he was actually cheating on both of them. She would tell Annie about Tommy and Cassie, her beautiful kids whom she missed nearly all the time. Maybe Annie would understand and forgive her once she knew the truth. Maybe they could start fresh and work up to being best friends again, or at least friends. Maybe eventually Annie could even help her find a job at the bookstore and then the two of them could go in on a larger apartment or a house together, and Erica could bring her kids up to Bellingham, at last, and …

Oh, no! I need to tell Annie about the key that Jason has and how he’s been … Oh, my God, I need to talk to Annie today. Right now!

Erica eased herself off the couch and into the bathroom. She gagged her way through a shower that hurt her tender boobs and wiggled into clean jeans and the largest of Annie’s sweaters she could find in her closet. Erica grabbed her cell phone and tucked the entire box of saltines from the kitchen cupboard under her arm. She lit up a Camel and headed out the door in the direction of Our House Bookstore.

***

Jenna understood early on that she had probably inherited her mother’s mental or psychic or whatever it was imbalance. This was because at times she felt unbearable ecstasy when reading poetry or writing fiction, and especially when dancing to music with Persian influences (though the Moorish flamenco of Andalucía was her second favorite). In those precious moments she would lose herself, her pathetic self, in a duende of sensuous rhythms of language, imagery and movement. She would feel like a whirling Dervish with words, twirling so intensely at times that she feared she might spin right off the earth, out into the macrocosm, and drop into a black hole of despair. There, in the hole, she would remain numb and blind as a corpse, often for weeks at a time because she had no idea how to escape. Just like her mother.

But then, one time when Jenna had been stuck in the hole sobbing for more than a month, Rosemary brought over Laverne Lutz’s book Bazooka Ain’t Just A Weapon, which she had borrowed from Our House. She propped her daughter’s miserable head on a pillow on her lap and read the book cover to cover to Jenna, who listened without reacting. Without even crying, which was a huge improvement. So, Rosemary read it again, and this time Jenna snapped right out of her stupor with a long and splendid series of giggles.

For Jenna, Lutz’s words were neutral as jello, like floating on a raft in a warm sea. They enabled her to pass right through the black hole and out the other side. The remarkable mindlessness of the book was exactly the drug Jenna needed to stabilize her own mind, to the point where she could take on a job as a clerk at Our House Bookstore.

Bazooka …, followed by Big Red Isn’t A Country Song, They Called Her Hubba Bubba, and most recently Juicy Fruit Don’t Grow On Trees were all effective in keeping Jenna out of the hole, as long as she read them, which she did for several hours daily. But Juicy… kept her out the longest. Sometimes for months. Once for a year.

“You and Laverne saved my life, Mama,” Jenna told her mother one time when Rosemary ambled into the self-help section at Our House, and again when they shared a meal of quinoa-carrot roast and curried kale chips with Obie at Rosemary’s apartment. “I love you both so very much!”

“Me, too?” Obie asked with his mouth full of food.

“You, too, Obie. I’m happy that you and Mama are … friends.”

But, Rosemary was not as lucky as Jenna, except in the way of love. And though she had achieved a few moments of relief while reading The Up and Down Life and What Was I Thinking?, in truth, only Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland could keep her in a state of relative calm for days. As a result, Rosemary was on a quest for a cure. She wanted off the roller coaster of instability on a permanent basis, and that journey had proven to be an expensive one that Obie, thank goodness, was willing to subsidize as much as he could.

And while, for quite some time, Laverne Lutz had been Jenna’s prescription for sanity, her hero and role model, Jenna, now alone in her apartment with Laverne’s books stacked in front of her on the coffee table, wondered if those days were over. How could she ever trust the books of a slobbering drunk like Laverne? A woman who had humiliated her in front of Obie and Sandra when Jenna asked Laverne to be her writing mentor, and who she could still hear screaming, “No way, Lady!”

Jenna felt herself being dragged down deep into the familiar black hole, and fighting that current was exhausting. For possibly the last time, she picked up Juicy Fruit Don’t Grow On Trees, turned to page two and whispered to herself,

“When men saw her from behind, Josephine ‘Juicy Fruit’ Root inspired them to run to her aid.”

Chapter 16

by Diane Wood (1958 words)

Pssst!

Annie stopped writing to listen. She watched another tear splat and spread on the page. Life sucks. She’d be out of a job if her beloved Our House had to close, despite Sean’s attempts to help save it. Jason, her boyfriend and Erica, her roommate have been hooking up in her own canopied bed. As she penned her acrimonious angst for Jason that annoying sound kept interrupting her concentration. Again, in her flowy cursive, she tried to focus her head, heart and hand energy onto the paper. Her mind compelled her to do this right now, right now, right now – because who knows? Maybe by the time Jason summoned his best groveling apology to wrap around his huevos, and hand them to her on a silver platter, she will have forgotten her favorite incendiary words to throw at his jagged little heart. She wasn’t ready to forget again – not just yet. Forgive maybe. Forget? Nope. She wiped her nose on the sleeve of her sweater giggling at the thought of Jason contracting a mysterious STD that was serious enough to keep his divining rod from pointing him in the direction of even more women.

Psssssst!

There it was again. She wasn’t imagining it. It’s probably just the old boiler in the basement gasping its demise. That’s probably it, old building and all; just one more thing for Sandra to throw money at before it starts a fire. From her cross-legged perch on the overstuffed chair she perused the dark bookstore for movement. The cozy east wing corner was her favorite place to hide and write. She told Sean she’d be back to his apartment later; after she did some writing. They’d locked up at nine o’clock, over an hour ago.

Pssssssssst!

A slithery chill ran up her spine. The skin on her neck and shoulders prickled with electricity. She unfolded her long legs to pull her knees up to her chin, wrapping her oversized cardigan around her body. That sound is coming through the vents.

“Hellllooo?”She asked in a high pitched whisper. Goosebumps rose on her arms. “Somebody here?” She clicked the lamp off.

“Pssst. Annie. Up here,” a raspy old woman’s voice called out. “It’s me… Ursula. Don’t be afraid. We’re here to help you.”

She clicked the lamp back on. “Where exactly are you?” She’d plunked herself down in the Children’s Book Nook, her comfort zone. Good Night Moon, Love You Forever, Stella Luna, Charlotte’s Web, Where the Wild Things Are briefly stroked Annie’s nostalgia button until movement appeared in her peripheral vision “Who’s WE?”

A hefty purple, leather-bound book drifted off a top shelf. As long as Annie had worked at Our House she’d seen it lying up there on the top shelf but had never paid any attention to it. It edged itself into a wobbly hover before tilting for a nose dive.

“Catch me! I’m fat, darling. Move it before I do a face plant on the table!” Annie jumped, rescuing the book in mid dive. Hands shaking she placed it onto the little red table.

“Holy cow! So you books actually do come alive at night?! I thought that was just a fairy tale.” Her heart pounded like a base drum in her chest; as her face grinned like the Cheshire cat. “This is Nirvana.”

“We are the fairy tales and we’re always alive, girl. Wake up! Think about it. Who better to offer you assistance rather than those stupid self-help books, ala the likes of Laverne Lutz, you stash under your bed? You can learn more from our plethora of problems and life experiences.”

“I can’t believe I’m conversing with a book.” Did I fall asleep again? Maybe all the stress over Jason and Erica has pushed me over the edge. Annie shook her head back and forth to clear it. Nothing rattled. Nope, I’m awake.

The book flipped open to a picture of Ursula from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. A red-lipped, purple octopussian, (O . Vulgaris in the scientific community) Sea Witch sported hair like the Iron Chef, Ann Burrell. “Sweetie, we see and hear everything that goes on in here. And, believe me…it’s enough to make even old, crones like me blush. No one really outgrows us; they just forget about us and pay us no heed, except Sandra and Gertrude. We make magnificent spies.” Ursula’s page fluttered vehemently.

“So why are you talking to me?”

“We noticed you were writing a Dear John I-might-forgive-you-because-I–think-I-still-love-you letter, to what’s his name, and we know you can do better than that with a little help from your friends. Trust me. We have experience with all kinds of dastardly things. Eventually we’ll get around to helping Sandra, and dealing with that damn Obie and Rosemary; maybe even that dysfunctional, phony alcoholic, Laverne. But right now you’re our top priority.”

“Jason is his name, by the way. I still don’t know who you all are, ladies; presuming you’re ladies.” Annie shrugged her shoulders.

“What Ursula meant, sweetie, is we’ve all been there. The men, the betrayal, the deceitful friends – or as our book would be called – Murder, Magic and Menopause. I’m Maleficent, by the way.”

“Ohhhhhh Kaaaay.” Annie’s voice rising into a question mark at the end.

“Oh, c’mon. We’re the Disney Chicks! You know – conceived in the fantasy minds of writers like Hans, A.A. Milne, Lewis Carroll, Charles Perrault and the like,” Ursula blared. “Then we’re emblazoned on the silver screen into female role models.

“We’re so done with having been objectified, manipulated, rescued and portrayed as either helpless or villainous.” It sounded like Maleficent again. The book opened to M. and there she was in all her beautiful, creepy glory.

“Oh, you’re kidding me!” Annie jumped up and down clapping her hands. “I absolutely love you guys, uhh, women. Who else is here?”

“Moi – Marie from the Aristocats. Rrrrremember what I said, mon cheri? ‘Ladies do not start fights but we can feeneesh them.’ I, too, was in luuv weeth an alley cat; that swoony Thomas O’Malley made me purr. Muhrrrrrowww!”

“I’m here for you, too! Fa Mulan will teach you another level of gender equality, so you don’t do what I did at the end. You are a warrior underneath all that naiveté.”

A teentsy-weentsy musical voice chimed in. “That’s true, Annie. Mulan helped me get over catering to that stupid, immature flying boy – Peter Pan. Seriously? He needed a little twinkling fairy to show him how to navigate through life? Oh please!”

“Wait, wait, wait!” Annie threw up her hands in a time-out gesture. “Just give me a minute to process this stuff. This is so crazy! But I love it!”

“Annie you don’t have any time to waste. You need to cut your losses, honey. Put on your big girl panties as they say. It’s me, Belle. You know, me and the Beast? Train the beast. Love conquers all. Phhhhttttt! That so-called man of yours is a loser with a capital L. And your so-called BFF? Give me a break! Sluts like her are a dime a dozen. Easy come, easy go. Lots of fish in the sea. Blah, blah, blah. If my story didn’t screw up a couple generations of girls I don’t know what did.”

“Oh really? I’ll tell you what messed up a couple generations of girls even more than that. Me and my Prince oh so Charming,” added Cinderella. “You know why we never had any children after we rode off into the sunset to live happily ever after? Uh – huh, that’s right. That pretty, pretty boy liked men in tights, better than glass-slippered maidens. But in the end it was still an acceptable alternative to living with that wicked bitch step mother, Lady Tremaine and her daughters from the dark side. Snow White knows what I mean. Right Snow?”

“Got that right. But Aurora’s my real name. Try eating a poisoned apple – which I used to love, by the way. Talk about a god-awful stomach ache. And then… then… waking up freezing your butt off in a hermetically sealed coffin in the middle of a forest with some strange, chap-lipped dude trying to stick his tongue down your throat. That jealous psychopath Maleficent really did a number on me. I forgive you Mal, only because you’ve changed your evil ways. But really? Poison? Thank you very much. I still have chronic heartburn.”

Annie placed her thumb and index finger against her teeth blowing out a shrill whistle. “Silence! I thought you were here to help ME. Please! You offered, if I may be so bold! What are we going to do about MY situation? Are you here to talk to each other or me? I’m really distraught about Jason and Erica!”

“Yes, you’re right, Annie. Alice of crazy Wonderland here. Lewis Carroll was rather daft, wasn’t he? Almost as wacko as Rosemary, who can’t keep her hands off me, and her loony tunes daughter Jenna. But that insane crew is ripe fodder for another conversation. We actually do have our own support group here every Tuesday night. That so-called Council is the typical old boys club. To hell with Robert’s rules of order and all that baloney. We’re a collective where everyone gets a chance to speak. Consensus takes longer but we aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. So let’s focus on you. I have some magic mushrooms and cookies to contribute to the cause. Oh, and a little bottle of shrinking elixir, too. That would be so fun!”

Maleficent sang out, “I have apples!”

“We know!” the Chicks responded in unison.

“Ok, ladies! One at a time.” Being an expert at juggling Ursula had a reputation as a control freak. “Cindy? You have your hand up?”

“Yes. I know what to do. Let’s wake up Fairy Godmother! Remember, she can do some quite amazing things with that sweet, little wand of hers if we ask her nicely. I’ll remind her that this time is for white magic only. We’re just teaching them a lesson, not actually killing anybody. Right?”

“Right,” Annie said rolling her eyes. “OK – so what do we do, girls?” She fell back into the chair. The flood of adrenaline pumping through her system had made her lihjtheaded. That energy needed to be capitalized on tonight. “The gist of my story, for anyone who hasn’t heard, is that my boyfriend, Jason, screwed my ex-best friend/roommate, Erica. Or vice-versa. And I haven’t heard from either of them since I stormed out when Erica bragged to me about it. For one, I need to do something to help myself stop obsessing about it.”

“Decide what it is you want to have happen. This is war. First we handle your war and then Sandra’s wars. Your assistance will be invaluable for Sandra in winning hers.”

“Thank you, Mulan. What I want is for Jason and Erica to feel my pain. I want them gone from my apartment. I want my heart to feel joy again. I want to take back my power and banish them from my life forever.”

“OK, Annie it’s time for you to leave now. We don’t want anyone to catch on to our plan. Don’t tell anyone what happened here. Go work on writing your murder mystery. We’ve got this.”

***

By dawn the Chicks had conjured up some scrumptiously sinister plans. They’d sworn a pact to keep it a secret from the Council and not let anyone, especially Annie, know which option they would chose night the council met. Annie didn’t need to be implicated if foul play was suspected. She would discover soon enough what their plan was. She couldn’t wait to see how it was all going to play out.

Chapter 17

by Sky Hedman (1724 words) 

Annie locked the front door of Our House behind her and wheeled the borrowed bicycle through dark, wet streets.  The leaves which had given the fall such spectacular color were now clogging up the gutters and making her footing slippery. The wind kept blowing the hood off her head, despite her best efforts to hold on to the handlebars with one hand and the hood with her other. The feeble bicycle headlight barely lit up the road. Still, as she headed for Sean’s apartment, she was grateful for the time alone to sort out what had just happened.

Was she losing it? Had she been spending too much time around books?  Maybe she should leave Our House even if it didn’t close. She’d get a different job, focus on something else. Perhaps it would be for the best. Her mother kept bugging her to move home to Kansas. That’s not about to happen, she thought. But how else could she support herself? She had already realized that she’d starve if she tried weaving shawls for a living. She thought about fostering homeless cats, but realistically that plan would require a wealthy widow leaving money and a luxurious mansion to her. Her friend Ariel had gotten a job doing salmon restoration but her stories of standing waist deep in the middle of the river moving logs sank any enthusiasm Annie had for that work. That left her with trying to get a job as a waitress in a food truck. With so many breweries opening up, surely someone would hire her. And maybe Prince Charming would come up to order fish tacos.

Her father’s suggestion that she go back to school to be a pharmacist was truly depressing. She’d rather join the army. She wouldn’t even have to disguise herself as a boy. No, Annie thought she’ll go up to Alaska and work on a fishing boat like that woman whose terrific memoir she just read.  Then she reminded herself that, unlike Ursula, she got seasick. She crossed that possibility off the list. Anyway, could she stand to be far away from books?  She thought of them fondly. She could go down to Seattle and try to get a job at Amazon.  But the thought of not being able to rescue all those books stored in cold warehouses or being tossed on conveyor belts depressed her.  Annie had come to see that books had souls whose dignity and purpose she should support.

That brought her back to her other pressing problem: Jason. Where was he anyway?  What about that story that Erica told her yesterday?  Erica had trouble sticking to the truth under any circumstances, but to claim that she was married to Jason and they had children?  It’s hard to believe she was that much of a liar. With a rush of revengeful rage, Annie’s thoughts turned to her plan, er, her murder mystery book…The voices of the Disney Chicks played in her head vividly.  Who knew they had so much spunk?  Yet Annie couldn’t help but wonder what they were up to.

When she turned the corner to Sean’s place, she promised herself that she wouldn’t tell him or anyone what had just happened.  Just in case it hadn’t.

***

The clock on the wall of the bookstore soundlessly moved his arms to remind everyone that it was now 5:00 am.  He had his own opinions about the goings on around him but he reminded himself of his primary purpose–to keep time moving forward.  He kept his eyes straight ahead but his ears open. By the time he had moved his shorter arm to point at the number 6, the plan being formulated by the Disney Chicks council was taking shape.

“The first objective is to get Jason out of town,” Maleficent said.

“Timbuktu is a good destination.” Marie purred. “Does anyone have a suitable packing case?”

Tinkerbelle spoke up. “Can’t he fly?” Her diminutive voice was lost in the hubbub of responses.

“We’ll simply summon a stage coach,” Sleeping Beauty interjected, her crown slipping slightly to the left. “A small one will do.”

“We don’t seem to have a footman. Would someone ring the bell?” said Cindy, looking somewhat rumpled from the all night meeting. “Oh, bother, I’ll just go look for one myself.”

“You can’t go after a footman, Cindy, dressed like that. You’ll get your princess dress all wet. And those glass slippers…” Belle’s voice tapered off into a sigh. “I’m just afraid you will fall.”

“She could borrow my armor,” Fa added.

“Here, this will be more comfortable,” Maleficent said, holding out her long black cape.

“Ladies, ladies…” came a deep voice.

Stunned silence fell, as they all looked around, alarmed at a possible security breach of their secret plan.  The voice seemed to be coming from a book that had been carelessly left on the lower shelf.  The cover displayed a picture perfect snow covered Alps mountain towering over blue water.  In the dim light, the clock could just barely see the title: Europe Through the Back Door 2016.

“Rick, my darling!” Ursula recovered first.  “Have you been listening to us all along?” she asked suspiciously.

“Excuse me for not speaking up sooner.  I was trying not to impose myself, to celebrate our diversity, but I am optimistic that I can offer you some assistance,” he replied.

A wave of tsking and murmurs of “harrumph” swept the small alcove.  The Disney Chicks were feeling quite triumphant at their progress so far.

“Of course your hearts are in the right place, if I do say so myself,” his warm voice soothed them, “but you are more familiar with, how I shall say it, the elegant transportation style from past centuries,” he hesitated, and then quickly added, “which has its charm, I’d be the first to say. But I might be of assistance in helping you update your travel skills.”

“The stage coach worked quite well for me,” Cinderella spoke.

“I can swim anywhere I need to go,” Ursula said.

“I know my way all the alleys in Paris,” Marie piped up.

“I commanded three armies! We marched across China!” Fa spoke in a loud clear voice.

“And you won’t stop talking about it,” Belle muttered.

“All very impressive,” Rick said, using his cross-cultural wisdom to smooth over the ruffled feathers. “But let’s start with transportation.  Have any of you ever heard of a car?”

“What is a car?” said Alice.  “Perhaps you will tell us. It would be so nice if something would make sense for a change.”

***

Ahab was waiting to be fed when Annie unlocked the door to the store the next morning. He curled around her ankles and trotted after her as she flicked on lights and hung up her coat. She knelt down to pet him and he rewarded her with an appreciative turn of his head, indicating the spot behind his right ear that he preferred to have scratched.  She would miss him too, if the store closed.  Not his cat hair on everything, but his presence. Annie felt a sense of calm now that she was back in the familiar office.  She put out some food for him but she put off emptying the kitty litter.  Surely someone else was capable of doing that task, at least sometimes, she thought.

In the morning light, the events of the night before seem preposterous.  The store was quiet as it should be.  No whispers, no sighs.  After all, she reminded herself, “Books Don’t Talk!”  She picked up the step stool and the feather duster, deciding to start with the children’s section.  There on the little red table was the very book that was so animated last night.  This morning, the cover was closed, the fat volume mute. Well, she reminded herself, it belongs on the upper shelf.  She stood on the step stool and turned the book face out on the upper shelf, then dusted around it while she was up there. Her time alone ended when the front door opened, and a sleepy Sean, carrying his Java Jive latté, came in the front door. He took off his raincoat and was watching it drip on the front rug when Otis pushed past him and plopped down on the easy chair near the newspaper section.  Otis removed his glasses and was wiping off the rain drops when Sandra bustled through the front door, curtly nodding to Annie on top of the step stool.

“Well, I’m glad to see you all are here on time,” Sandra said, glaring in particular at Otis.  “This would be as good a time as any to have a staff meeting.” She looked around to confirm that she had everyone’s attention.  “Let’s meet in my office in five minutes.” Sensing Annie’s confusion, she added, “We’ll wrap up before the store opens,” and then disappeared down the stairs.

“Must have had a rough time getting Laverne up this morning,” Otis muttered.  “She was still snoring on the sofa when I left.  Doing a pretty good imitation of a humpback whale.  Could hardly sleep myself with all the noise.” Sean tiptoed across the dry floor in his wet shoes.  Otis pushed himself out of the easy chair as Annie clambered off her perch and joined the parade down the steps.

Sandra was sitting at the small table looking down at her crossed hands.  Annie noticed the smell of brewing coffee and the chip in Sandra’s blue nail polish. Sandra, in her calf length denim skirt and turquoise ramie scarf seemed more tired than usual.  Her long graying hair was pulled back loosely at her neck and her shoulders drooped. Otis leaned against the counter and snorted into his handkerchief as Sean and Annie took up the two remaining seats, each attempting a look of casual innocence.

“I’ll get right to the point,” Sandra started. “The finances of Our House are in shambles.  I don’t see anyway around it.  Unless we get some sort of deliverance before the end of the year, we will be closing this business on December 31st.”  She looked at each of them in turn as they sat in silence.  “I’ll inform Jenna when she arrives for the second shift. Laverne, bless her heart, will be out of here when she has finished her classes.  We will have our usual holiday bluster.  You will each have a job until the end. I will do my best to help you during this time of transition.” She paused.  “Any questions?”

Chapter 18

by Pilar Uribe (1587 words)

“I have a question for you. What the hell is this meeting about and why wasn’t I invited?”, Laverne bellowed from the entrance to the bookstore. Annie, Sandra, and Sean glanced at each other in bewilderment. Only Otis kept his gaze down. Silence.

“You wanna tell me what’s going on?” Laverne actually looked pretty decent this morning, considering she’d been on a bender for the past couple of days, indiscriminately taking turns drinking straight from a magnum of Perrier Jouet and a couple of boxed wines she’d picked up from the grocery store. She was wearing black leather pants, a White Animals tee shirt, and her signature black boots. The only telltale sign of her recent denouement was her face, devoid of any makeup. This was uncharacteristic of Laverne, who never went out in public without looking like she was ready for a photo op. She was a terrible houseguest but Sandra had to admit she usually cleaned up pretty good. This was all becoming a bit unnerving. Sandra attempted to look pleased that her hungover friend, who was overstaying her welcome at home, had come to inject her loud opinions into her place of business. “Hey stranger, how are you feeling?”

“Why didn’t you wake me up?” shot back Laverne.

Sandra looked apologetic. “Well, we were just having a business meeting to discuss when the bookstore is going to close, right Otis?” Otis coughed and gestured toward the front as the door creaked open again, this time revealing none other than Jenna followed by Rosemary and her trademark tentative smile. “Oh no, this is the last thing we need” muttered Sandra. “I’m sorry Rosemary, but we’re having a business meeting right now. Would you mind coming back later?”

“No, no, come on in, Rosie, my favorite little neighbor,” Laverne called out. “Come and join our party with your cute little daughter! Definitely makes it more interesting now that the gang’s all here. Now where we?” Jenna hesitated, looking from Otis to Sandra for approval. Sandra motioned for her to sit on the floor since there were no chairs left. Jenna obeyed and sat near Sandra.

“Laverne,” Otis said, “settle down; you’re being a bit inappropriate.”

“You’re telling me I’m being inappropriate! That is really rich. Oh, go stick your head in the oven. Now where was I?” Laverne said playfully, as if she were at a beach party. Rosemary slipped passed Otis to sit on the step stool by the first stack, hoping to blend into the wall. This was not the usual conversation she was used to overhearing at the book store.

“Now where was I?”, shrieked Laverne. “Oh yeah. So, you were planning on having this cozy little get together without me, my dear, am I right? Well I don’t think so!”

Laverne walked over, squeezed between Annie and Sean and plopped herself in the middle. “And you’ve decided that the best solution for everyone would be to close this god forsaken bookstore, huh? Well you’ll be doing that over my dead body!”

“Look here, Laverne” Otis interjected, “why don’t you just pipe down and listen for a minute? We’re having serious problems and we will have to close the place down. That’s what we have come here to figure out.”

“Oooohhhhhh”, laughed Laverne, “so now Mr. Otis, the great storyteller, the man carrying a big stick is telling me to pipe down? Are you out of your mind? After everything you’ve done to bury this sinkhole? You could care less about this place.” Laverne guffawed. “You just want to get your grimy hands into the rare book collection downstairs. Why do you think I wanted to hold a workshop here and do the remodeling with Sandra? I needed to keep an eye on you. Think I don’t know you’ve been cooking the books?”

Annie and Sean simultaneously gasped. Laverne turned to Sandra. “Sweetie, I hate to have to tell you this but your man cannot keep his pecker in his pants. He’s capable of diddling anything with a skirt that comes within five feet. After he got me knocked me up years ago, I caught him cheating in bed with that sniveling idiot”, Laverne gestured to Rosemary. “Remember when I told you I’d be going to that ashram in California to write for 6 months? I was really 10 miles away, having Jason. You’d better watch out my friend, I bet old Blood and Thunder has more than one mini me running around here somewhere.”

Jenna’s eyes were as big as saucers, glancing from Otis to her mother but she stayed quiet. “Anyway, Jason confessed to me a few nights ago what was going on. Yep, that’s my boy. Turns out he’s just like his father, a swindler who can’t keep his fly closed either. Otis has been using Jason as a lackey to get in here nights.”

There was a long silence. Sandra had turned the color of her coffee cup, a pale green. Annie couldn’t keep still any longer and blurted out, “Wait a second, what are you talking about?”

“Oh don’t play innocent with me, Miss ‘I wouldn’t hurt a fly’. You’re planning to off your married ex boyfriend who happens to be my son by trying to write those pathetic paragraphs, or worse yet, murder him in his bed. The world doesn’t need another bad writer, sweetie. Save a tree, stop writing.” Laverne started cackling at her own joke as Anna let out a whimper and slid out of her chair. Sean leaned over to try and help her but Laverne brushed him away. “Oh don’t worry about your little crush, she’ll get over it. You have a lot more on your plate to worry about, Sean. You need to grow a pair, and pay the debts on this money pit. Who gives a crap what’s in the will? You are the owner of this place, after all.”

“Stop talking!”, shouted Sean, leaping up from his chair. Anything to shut this crazy woman up. How the hell did she know he was the owner of the bookstore and the details of the will?

Sandra was starting to feel queasy, like when she’d ridden the Space mountain roller coaster at Disneyland one too many times. She knew Otis was a flirt but he’d been a homebody as long as she’d known him. Except when he went hunting with his friends every six months. How did he find the time? And why all this sudden word vomit from Laverne, her best friend? How could the two of them have betrayed her in this way? And what about Rosemary sitting on the step stool with that little smirk on her face? She could barely string two sentences together yet she had managed to entice Otis into her bed. What was it that Laverne had said about more than one mini me? She glanced down at Jenna who looked like she’d been run over by a Mack truck. Could it be possible that Jenna didn’t know who her father was? Sandra’s head was exploding. She could not begin to even fathom the rage she felt bubbling up inside her but she could only deal with one piece of news at a time. She snapped out of her reverie to concentrate on Sean.

“Is this true Sean? Are you the one I pay the rent to?”

Laverne was about to start speaking when Sandra put her hand up. “Quiet.”

“Hold on a minute, you care more about the bookstore than me”, Otis jumped in. “I need to defend myself from these ridiculous accusations. You actually believe what this crazy alcoholic is saying, Sandra? I love you, I always ha..”

“I swear to God,” interrupted Sandra in a threateningly low voice, “if the two of you don’t shut up right now, I’m going to walk over to the utility closet, get my hammer and bash your heads in. Sean, please explain to me how you happen to own this building.”

As Sean stumbled over his words, trying to tell Sandra about his inheritance, Annie looked up from the floor in bewilderment. Her Jason, the love of her life who’d screwed her over with her best friend was Laverne’s son? It wasn’t possible. Annie started to giggle, then broke out into peals of laughter. “What’s so funny?”, sneered Laverne.

“History is repeating is itself. Otis screws his girlfriend’s best friend just like Erica did to me. Why she didn’t tell me she was married to the idiot is beyond me.” Rosemary started to giggle as well.

“Don’t you call my son an idiot!”

“I can call him anything I like”, Annie shot back.

“No you can’t!”

“Will the two of you shut up?” screamed Otis. “I want to hear how Sean managed to get control of the bookstore.”

“…and that’s why I cannot help you,” finished Sean. “It’s a stipulation of the will. But I would never do anything to hurt you or your business. Now, Otis is another story” said Sean, glaring at Otis.

Otis was about to speak up but Sandra silenced him with a withering glare. “Thank you for your honesty, Sean. Seems like you’re the only one capable of that tonight. Look, I’m not interested in finding out any more gory details for now. Laverne, what I want to know is, why did you say earlier that the bookstore would be sold over your dead body?”

Chapter 19

by Marian Exall (2101 words)

Rosemary Leach trudged up the hill, her shoulders hunched against a cold slicing rain, and clutching a used hard copy of The Paris Wife to her meager chest. She had slipped it under her raincoat almost unconsciously before she left the meeting at the bookstore. Its corners dug into her, the physical pain echoing the heartache she felt. A used copy; how appropriate.

“Used and abused, that’s me,” she muttered, stumbling over tree roots and cracked paving stones. Ever since she had been seduced at eighteen by that suave villain J. Percival Ashton, Rosemary had been the toy of fate, never really in control of her destiny. Oh, sure, J.P. had taught her a few things: how to mix a dry martini, how to speak knowledgeably about classics she’d never opened, and dismissively of best-sellers she couldn’t be bothered to read. She knew from the start he was married, and couldn’t leave his wife because of her ill-health, but believed his promises that after her death – always imminent, according to him – they would be free to wed.

And then she fell pregnant with Jenna and it all changed. He became cold and emotionally distant. Geographically distant too, absent for weeks on unexplained “business” trips, culminating in relocation to Palm Springs, “where the climate is more agreeable to my wife’s condition.”

She had written and called repeatedly to no avail. Finally, in the ninth month of her pregnancy, a lawyer turned up from a big city firm. If she would sign a complete release of all claims against Ashton, she would receive free and clear title to the crumbling Victorian house on the hill in which, in happier days, J.P. had installed her as his mistress. She could let out the ground floor apartment to provide a source of income for her and her – ahem! – offspring, for which J. Percival Ashton denied all past and future responsibility. At the time, desperate and alone, Rosemary felt she had no alternative but to sign, even though she knew Ashton’s wealth was legendary, and he owned several other commercial and residential properties in the town.

She stopped to catch her breath before negotiating the rotting steps to the front door. Untended rhododendrons formed a dense hedge around the ground floor, blocking the windows. Whether it was this lack of daylight, the rising damp, or the crazy lady upstairs, Rosemary had never had much luck in renting out the ground floor space. Even her own daughter Jenna had declined the offer. Rosemary glanced up at the ornate gable ends and turrets that leaned dangerously out, like a Tim Burton creation, and fumbled for her key.

Raising a child without money proved too much for Rosemary. In her fragile mental state, she conceived a sense of entitlement to the Our House bookstore, another of her seducer’s properties. At that time, before e-books, Sandra and Obie operated a thriving concern. Book clubs and writing groups met almost daily, and famous authors dropped by frequently for signings. Rosemary haunted the place, gazing enviously at the colorful shelves, running her fingers lasciviously over the magazine racks, and sidling up to shoppers to recommend a read. It was during this period that she began her shoplifting career. She never thought of it as stealing. She was merely taking what should have been her own to start with.

In saner moments, she redoubled her efforts to contact J.Percival. At the very least, he should acknowledge his daughter – and his debt to his erstwhile mistress – in his will. Eventually another sharply dressed big-city lawyer arrived, brandishing the signed release, and demanding that Rosemary cease and desist. She learned of J.P.’s death eight years ago through the local press. In the resounding legal silence that followed, she surmised that her request that she and/or her daughter inherit the bookstore had been ignored.

“It should have been mine!” She spoke out loud, as people who live alone often do. She wearily climbed the stairs to her second floor apartment, bypassing piles of books arranged on each step. More books crowded the built-in rosewood bookcases upstairs, elegant architectural remnant of the house’s youth, and more still were ranged on make-shift shelves – planks on top of bricks – against every other wall. She had read most of them – what else was there to do with her days? – but remembered little of what she read. Having them was enough. Having them was having a part of the bookstore that had become her obsession.

In the years after J.P.’s death, Rosemary initiated Plan B. If she couldn’t have the bookstore, nobody would. Enticing Obie into her bed was surprisingly easy. The sex was distasteful, but only happened a few times anyway. Obie was more interested in having an audience for his interminable stories about the Brat Pack and the Beat Generation. As if she cared! But she batted her eyelashes and poured another martini – old skills are never forgotten! – pretending adoration. Once the affair was established, she moved into Plan B, Part Deux.

“We have to tell Sandra! Our love must be lived in the open, unafraid! Sandra will understand!”

Obie became apoplectic.

“No, no! You mustn’t! We can’t! Sandra would be jealous! You don’t know what she might do! Behind that hippie, peace-nik exterior lurks a violent woman! Please, please, don’t tell her!”

Rosemary never referred to the sums that Obie syphoned out of the bookstore’s account as “hush money,” even to herself. She was owed that money; it was rightfully hers. But today, she finally understood the big picture. Sandra’s succinct presentation had lifted the veil of self-deception from Rosemary’s eyes: due at least in part to her, the bookstore was now bankrupt and would cease to be. On the heels of this realization came the devastating news that J.Percival Ashton had left the bookstore, not to her and her daughter, but to a distant great-nephew, with absolutely no right to the place other than a liberal arts degree from some fancy East Coast college. That this cuckoo in the nest was Sean, a sales assistant at Our House, was confusing. Sean had often turned a blind eye to Rosemary’s pilfering ways, or had subtly redirected her attention with conversation, an offer of espresso, or a flier for an upcoming class. He had been kind, when few people were.

She moved to close the drapes in the little turret room at the top of the house where she liked to read in the evenings. She had read The Paris Wife a few years before, when it first came out. A copy was probably gathering dust in one of the piles on the stairs, sandwiched between various editions of Alice in Wonderland. Then, she had imagined herself as Pauline Pfeiffer, the svelte and sophisticated woman who enticed Ernest Hemingway away from his first wife. Now she knew she was Hadley, the stodgy older woman, who, having given Papa a son, was cast aside.

She paused to take in the view over the town. The rain had stopped and the last glow of sunset illuminated the sky. Far below, she could make out the roofline of Our House. Much closer, just a block down the hill, was the converted shoe factory where Sean Cary occupied his trendy loft apartment. Most of Sean’s windows were on the view side, looking down the hill, but over the last few weeks, Rosemary had noticed a light burning in the unshaded window that faced uphill, the previously unused second bedroom, where Annie Madigan was staying.

She was at it again tonight, bent over her computer at a table in front of the window, hammering away, then pausing to gaze out into the night. Confident that Annie could not see her in her dark turret, Rosemary continued to watch.

Someone else had entered Annie’s room. She turned to speak to him. It was Sean. Now, framed in the window, they stood just inches apart, gazing into each other’s eyes. Suddenly they were kissing passionately. Her head was thrown back, her long hair a waterfall reflecting light from the table lamp. His face was buried in her throat, his hands pushing at her clothes, tearing them down off her shoulders. Her hands were at his belt, feverishly plucking at the buckle.

Blood rose to Rosemary’s face and her heart beat loud in her throat. She hit her clenched fists against the glass. All the wasted years rose up in one overwhelming flood.

“It should have been me! It should have been mine!”

*

Sandra was, as usual, the last to leave the bookstore. It had been an emotionally exhausting day, and she lingered, hoping for some solace. But the Book Club Picks and the New and Notable on the racks by the front desk remained silent. She had suspected Obie’s affair with Rosemary Leach almost since its inception – had cheered it on in a way; the poor woman was obviously lonely, and it gave Obie another direction to spout his self-aggrandizing memoirs. Laverne’s betrayal was painful, especially the revelation that she had borne Obie a son, while Sandra remained achingly childless, but she was hardly surprised. She had no illusions about her best friend or her husband, although she loved them both.

What had most depressed her were the looks of dismay on Sean and Annie’s faces. They loved the bookstore as much as she did, but were powerless to help. The only ray of hope, she reluctantly admitted to herself, was Laverne’s conviction that the store would stay open. Building on that small hope, Sandra had spent the rest of the day on the phone, and now she had in her battered leather satchel the Google Maps directions to the Klingenstein Clinic, a rehab center for artists, writers and other creative folk. Laverne could help, but not in her present state; she had to get sober, and Sandra – with Obie’s assistance – was going to stage an intervention. The Clinic had agreed to admit Laverne that night, but it didn’t come cheap. The advance payment, a condition of admission, would wipe out everything in the payroll account. She thought Laverne would repay her once she was sober. But what if she didn’t? Sandra had promised her employees to keep the bookstore open through the end of the year, and she hated to break those promises, but she didn’t expect them to work for free.

As she pulled the door shut behind her, she thought she heard a sigh, the ruffle of pages being turned rapidly. She hesitated, then shrugged it off. Ten minutes later, Gertrude, uttering high-pitched yips of delight, welcomed Sandra home. The pug’s whole body wagged, and she pawed the air as if wanting to embrace her mistress. Sandra bent down to enjoy a minute or two of unconditional love, before facing the task ahead.

The television blared out some cooking show, and Laverne sprawled on the sofa, one eye closed, one hand grasping the neck of a vodka bottle.

“Laverne, we have to talk!” Sandra positioned herself in front of the screen, hands on hips.

“Noooo, thish is good. I gotta shee the béarnaise …” Laverne waved Sandra away with the bottle, spraying some of its contents in the process. “Oops.”

Sandra crossed to the sofa and took Laverne gently by the shoulders. Laverne closed the other eye too, puckering up as if to give Sandra a kiss. Then she smiled sweetly and slipped from the other woman’s grasp into an unconscious heap on the floor.

“Porky! Where are you? I need your help!” Sandra switched off the TV and set off for the bedroom she still shared with her erring husband.

He was not there. Standing in the middle of the room, Sandra sensed something else was missing too. In the unaccustomed silence that now permeated the house, she gazed around her. It took a minute to notice that the old fedora that had forever graced the coat stand in the corner was gone.

Bob Dylan gave me that hat when he played a coffeehouse in Greenwich Village. I was sitting with Joan Baez when …” OB&T’s booming tones still echoed in her brain. Where was he? What else was gone?

The top of the dresser where Obie habitually emptied his pockets – wallet and phone mixed with cinema ticket stubs and used tissues – was unnaturally clear of detritus. The only item remaining was a square white envelope, centrally placed and unaddressed.

With a feeling of dread, Sandra picked it up and turned it over. She lifted the flap and eased out the contents.

Chapter 20

by Diana Dodds (word count 1526)

Annie had fought a head wind and driving rain to ride her bicycle to Sean’s apartment. Some of the streetlights were out, and traffic had been precarious, but she’d made it in one piece. Or would she ever be in one piece again? She felt like she’d been one of the sticks in that game she played as a kid where you shake a can and pour out the sticks and let them fall to the floor; and then try to pick them up carefully without making the ones on top tumble. There were so many secrets at that bookstore that she couldn’t believe she’d been in the middle of them all this time and only had a superficial knowledge. How do you protect yourself in situations like this? And, that Laverne, who did she think she was deciding who should be a writer and who shouldn’t be. Her books reeked.

She entered the apartment, with only a small light in the kitchen to part the shadows. Annie was not much of a drinker, but after a day like today, she’d find a way. With a flick of her wrist, she opened the scotch and threw a couple of ice cubes in a glass. A couple of fingers of that would warm her up, and maybe then the puzzle would become more clear.

After the chill from the bicycle ride began to pass, the uproar that had been her thoughts also began to settle. How did Laverne learn all those things? She hadn’t been in the bookstore long enough to have figured out all the angles. Antoine might have leaked some of the information to Laverne. Antoine had cut OB&T’s hair for years. Otis loved to tell stories, and Antoine, like many barbers before him, had listened well. Knowing Laverne, she’d bribed him with money or other favors to get the skinny.

Annie went into the guest room, and flicked on the light. Across the room, on the table was the computer just staring back at her. Shake it off, Annie. Laverne doesn’t know you as well as she thinks she does. So maybe it won’t be a murder mystery. Maybe you should just use this experience and see if you can write a different type of mystery. She was so over Jason, now that she knew who his parents were. Ewww. Antoine would be interesting as a source for Laverne, but the books, the talking books, would be a much better source for Laverne. What if the plan that the books came up with was to use Laverne to flush everything out in the open? Would Laverne know about the books being conversant? Ohhh, the rare book collection downstairs. She knew about that!

There was the noise of a key in the lock of the front door. Sean must be home. He’d been so good to her, and he didn’t have to be. He was like the white knight in this story. All Sean wanted to do was the right thing, which seemed rare in this group of pick-up-stix. She could hear him softly singing to himself as she quietly put her ear to the door. He didn’t know she was there. “There were bells on a hill but I never heard them ringing. No, I never heard them at all till there was you…”

Her face felt warm and she could feel her pulse pick up. Was he singing about her? She loved that song. It was so romantic. “Then there was music and wonderful roses they tell me in sweet fragrant meadows of dawn and dew. There was love all around.” Suddenly, Sean stopped singing. Annie held her breath. He had seen the scotch and the glass on the kitchen counter. He knew she had heard him singing. She pulled back away from the door and nearly tripped trying to get across the room to the computer. She began pecking away at the keyboard as if she was writing this very love scene.

There was a light tapping at the door. Annie typed harder and faster in hopes he wouldn’t guess she had been eves dropping.

“Annie? Are you in there?”

“Yes, Sean. How are you?” (How are you, how original was that)? He was sure to guess she’d been listening.

“ I just wanted to make sure you were alright after all that went down at the bookstore today.”

“That was really something, wasn’t it?”

“Can I open the door and speak to you face to face?”

“Sure.”

“I suppose you heard me singing. I didn’t know anyone was here. Sorry about that. I sing in the shower, too.”

“I love that song.”

“Oh, you know that song, do you?” He said with a broad smile that lit up the room.

“One of my favorites. What made you pick that one to sing?”

He stood as though he would never take another breath. “Well, as the song says, it was you.”

Annie flushed again and her eyes dropped to the floor. That was what she had hoped he would say. “That’s sweet, Sean. I feel the same way.”

Sean walked slowly towards Annie and slipped his hand into hers, as she gasped in a breath. He stepped around in front of her and took both hands and cradled her face in them and lifted her gaze to meet his. “I love you, Annie Madigan.”

“I love you, too, Sean. I guess I loved you from the start, but I was so caught up with what Jason had done. I don’t want to be hurt again.”

“I could never hurt you.” He said as he pressed her up close and kissed her deeply.

Soon it was hands fumbling for buttons and belt loops as they fell onto the bed in a sweaty heap.

Rosemary had been listening to the books for years. Books know who love them. They nearly leaped into her hands for a chance to come home with her because she saw them as precious. They knew that she should have been lord of this manor. Books are really good judges of character or characters as it were. They knew that they should protect Rosemary as much as they could. The DSM4 had diagnosed her mood disorder years before when it was still just the DSM1. With each edition, the diagnosis had become more exact. Her periods of hypomania had led to her fling with J.P. Ashton and then later to one with Otis. When she was in that state, she was sexy personified, but her judgment during those times was never good. Both of those men had used her to a fare-the-well. Now, it was clear that Jenna was suffering with the same problems.

The books liked Sean, because they knew that he was trying to protect the store from being destroyed by fire or whatever else was brewing. The only reason for J.P. to have given the bookstore over to Sean instead of to Rosemary was because in spite of taking her mood stabilizers, she wasn’t reliable when it came to money. She had nearly lost her home and Jenna many times over the years. Sandra had actually taken care of Jenna during Rosemary’s last involuntary admission to St. Joseph’s. That was a two-month stent. Each time she had a break from reality, her ego dropped further and further down, and the risk of suicide always loomed in the distance.

Rosemary often set among the stacks with the self-help books as they did therapy with her. She found the books easier to accept than the psychiatrists. The books never talked down to her. They never asked her to do exercises that went nowhere. They taught her about her moods and tried to help her develop a plan for those circumstances in life that no one can avoid. The books were the biggest part of her support system. They knew listening was more important than talking. The events of that day at “Our House Bookstore” left the books concerned about her mental state. Laverne did not dish out information like a surgeon. She butchered a person’s psyche with her remarks. There was no compassion there, or was there? What did she mean when she said she would not let that bookstore close over her dead body? What did she care about Rosemary or the bookstore?

In the dark room, after seeing Annie and Sean in the throes of love, Rosemary pounded on her window until she felt the energy of her rage burn out, and then she slid to the floor. In the dark quiet room, it began as a stifled cry and soon it turned into an open-throated wailing. Every loss she had suffered, J.P., Otis, her own sanity, and now the comfort of the bookstore flooded her like the waves of a great tsunami. She could not face another emergency room visit, or being medicated until she could only stagger down the hallway. She loved Jenna. If she gave into this deep, dark, empty, helpless feeling, she would not be there for Jenna.

“Oh, Jenna, I’m sorry.” She whispered to herself.

Chapter 21

by Joy Mouledoux (1803 words)

Otis knew what Laverne meant when she said Our House Books would close over her dead body. At least he suspected what she meant . . . he had so many nefarious schemes going on it could be any number of things.Thankfully he’d stopped her from revealing any of them. He’d faked heart pains and that put a blessed end to the staff meeting/Who’s Your Daddy Tell-All Session.

And that dimwitted Rosemary! God help her! She couldn’t even remember who was the father of her only child? Within five minutes after Laverne blurted out Jason & Jenna’s paternity, Rosemary wandered off, leaving the store, mumbling something about some ex-lover named Purcival being Jenna’s daddy. Otis was Jenna’s father –hell, he was everyone’s father! — and Rosemary knew it. Really, who slept with someone named ‘Percival’ anyway? She must be having another one of her psychotic breaks. He could not have cared less.

Nevertheless, his fake heart palpitations had done the trick. He even managed to turn a bit green. No doubt from all the revelations bandied about. Sean and Sandra had helped him to his easy chair and given him a drink of water. Sandra wanted to call 911 but he forbade her, promising to rest the remainder of the day. This dramatic tour de force managed to make Annie, Sean, and Laverne leave. Sandra eventually helped him back to their home where he was now on the sofa resting. Laverne was nowhere to be seen; Sandra had fallen asleep in a chair near Otis. The four beers and four shots of Jagermeister she’d downed upon coming home had knocked her out and rendered her in a most unattractive position. Her legs were askance, her mouth hung open, her gray hair across her face was being blown up and down from her snoring, as if by a bellows.

Otis would just give it ten, fifteen more minutes and then he’d slip out to do what it was he needed, nay, had to do at this point.

When Sandra’s snoring reached an horrific crescendo, he got off the sofa and slipped into the utility room closet and retrieved a duffle bag from behind the hot water heater. Crossing their living room, he looked at Sandra one last time and on tip-toe left the place. ‘Adios Sandra,’ he said to himself. He had what he needed.

He walked the few blocks back to Our House Books. Entering the back way, he put Ahab the cat out in the alley then went straight to his favorite chair. Reaching in the duffle bag he got out a pack of cigarettes. He hadn’t smoked now in 15 or 16 years. But one more smoke would be worth it. He lit a cigarette and coughed a bit at first, even felt ‘high’ from it after all these years of being nicotine-free. Wow, he thought to himself, and then laughed out loud. How good could a cigarette be after so many years? He sat back in his old chair and got more comfortable.

When the cigarette was all but smoked, he let it fall down within the big, over-stuffed cushions of the chair. It would be sad to see the old place burn up, but he had to destroy any evidence linking him to the book-cooking he’d been perpetrating. He stood up and made sure the cigarette was going to do what he wanted it to do. There were no sprinkler systems in Our House, hell, they could hardly afford water much less a sprinkler. He figured he could make it look like a dropped cigarette had set the old musty place ablaze. If he were ever apprehended — fat chance that!– he’d simply claim he’d picked up smoking on the down-low and went to the bookstore and the comfort of his chair to do it — away from Sandra’s nagging.

The big chair began to smell and emanate noxious smoke. Otis picked up his duffle bag and walked out. He didn’t bother to lock up.

He hadn’t gotten a block away when there was a terrific BANG- Blam! An explosion that sent him reeling back up against the wall of the nearby Quickie Mart.

“What the—” he exclaimed.

He looked back in the direction of the explosion and saw Our House Books consumed in flames, flames shooting out of the front windows, flames dancing from the rooftop.

“Jesus Christ!” he said to no one in particular. Certainly his one cigarette had not managed to generate such a conflagration? Or had it?

He panicked–turned from left to right and back left again, his thoughts all in a jumble. What had happened? He had to get himself together, remember his plan. Looking back one more time at the store, he made his way over to the rental car he’d parked two blocks over earlier that day, mumbling to himself the whole way ‘my God, my God!’ He opened the car and threw in the duffle bag — the duffle bag that contained documents to the off-shore accounts he’d established with all the money he’d been embezzling from Our House, the new, fake driver’s license for “Howard Browne” in Franklin, Tennessee. He got in the car and drove away.

* * *

Three hours later Sandra was roused from her disheveled stupor by loud knocking on the front door.

“Wha– Who—” she faltered, waking up and looking around her. Where was she? What had happened? She must have nodded off . . . . She got up and went to the door. It was a police officer.

“Ma’am are you Sandra Thompson, owner of Our House Books?” he asked when she managed to open the door.

“Yes,’ she mumbled thro teeth that seemed to have grown moss on them. “Why?”

“Well, I’m very sorry to inform you, Ma’am, but there has been a fire, Our House has burned down.”

What was this man saying to her, Sandra thought? What was going on? Where was Otis? She half fell against the door-jamb in disbelief and boozed amazement. The policeman took her arm and led her inside to the chair she’d just vacated. Her head had an electric cattle prod inside of it, such was the pain.

“Ma’am, do you understand? Are you okay?” she heard the officer asking her. Then he repeated “Are you Sandra Thompson?”

“Yes, ‘ she mumbled between rubbing her eyes and wiping the hair out of her face.

“Well, I’m very sorry but your bookstore has completely burned down.”

“Burned down? That’s not possible!”

“I’m afraid it is. Preliminary investigation points to your boiler in the basement but we’ll know more once the Arson Squad is done with their work.”

“The books!” Sandra squeaked coming out of her stupor somewhat, “the cat!” She stood up and began to pace back and forth, wringing her hands in an anxious fit. Then “Otis! Otis! Where is Otis?”

“Who is Otis, Ms. Thompson?”

“He was right here, on the sofa — Otis!!” she yelled louder. Walking into each room in the apartment, there was no Otis.

“Is Otis your cat, Ma’am?” the officer asked.

“Oh My God!” She clutched the officer’s arm and shook it, “was anyone IN the store, was Otis there?” Frantic, she began shrieking . . . .

“Ma’am, ma’am, calm down, our preliminary investigation revealed no one was inside at the time. Here, sit down and let me get you some water.” He led her back to her chair.

* * *

Laverne read about the fiery end of Our House Books from the 21st floor of the Hilton in Costa Mesa, California. Chewing a croissant and sipping lukewarm cappuccino she read the article twice. Over her shoulder Jason stood reading it too.

“Huumph!” she let out, self-satisfied and ripping her croissant in two. “I’ll just bet it did!”

“Dang!” Jason exclaimed, then sipped his coffee.

That no good, two-timing, do-less trifling fool, Otis! She knew what he was up to. She’d been hiding behind the dumpster when he let the cat out & went in the store to smoke a cigarette. She’d seen him drive off in his rental car. She could only guess what he had in that duffle bag: everything he needed to start a new life as a parasitic lothario somewhere else! She’d followed him when he left — luckily, for the explosion might have ended her days. Had Otis somehow made this boiler explosion happen? She doubted he had sense enough. She saw him sitting in his easy chair smoking a cigarette — since when did he smoke again?

None of it mattered though, not now. Sandra would get her insurance money — as a faulty boiler was the official cause, not arson, not Otis and his pathetic cigarette. What mattered most was that Laverne had managed to go inside the store after Otis was hauled off with his heart palpitations and before he came back to burn one. Yes, that was all that mattered. No one saw her slip downstairs to the “Collections” and retrieve certain documents that were vital to her. Vital to her operation. Evidence that would have otherwise put her away for decades, had the stupid store not gone up in flames and she not retrieved it. But she left behind a little something for Otis, something that would keep him looking over his shoulder for eternity.

For Laverne did not just write sappy ‘beach reads’ devoured by half-wits. She was not just the woman who over-indulged in boxed, grocery store vino. With the help of Otis, for ten years, she’d run a pretty tidy little forged documents business. Passports, Driver’s Licenses, Visas, Death Certificates, etc. She and Otis and Jason, their son. What with his graphic design degree, his skill at drawing, at imitating anyone’s handwriting, and computer skills, Jason could forge anything. They’d built a very nice operation indeed. Little did that besotted hippie Sandra know that her precious, moldy old books in the basement were merely vessels — go betweens, a ‘cold drop’ between client and forger.

But Otis had gotten greedy and started his side scheme of embezzling from the till. This was far too pedestrian for the accomplished Laverne and she wanted no part of it. Indeed, she wanted to ‘lose’ Otis altogether. Thus she just happened to leave behind a little incriminating evidence nailing Otis. She wondered if it had survived the fire?

It was most unfortunate she’d lost her ‘drop,’ her ‘front’ . . . but it could and would be replaced. She wanted to tell Sandra she would pay to save the stupid old place, it was so completely benign, the perfect ‘front.’ But when Otis began clutching his ticker and moaning (she suspected the old coot was faking it) her instincts said he was up to something and it was time to pull out. And pull out she had.

“Ahaahaa haaa!” Laverne let out a self-satisfied laugh and tossed the torn croissant aside.

Chapter 22

by Dawn Quyle Landau (2,460 words)

Sandra sipped the water the officer handed her and stared at the floor in disbelief. After a moment, she looked at him again, noticing for the first time his kind hazel eyes and concerned expression.

 “I’m sorry… what’s your name? I’m afraid I’ve had a pretty horrible night–– clearly worse now; I missed it.”

 “Officer John Quinn, Miss Thompson; I’m with the Bellingham PD. We tried calling you late last night when the fire was first reported. A Ms. Leach told us that you owned the store and might be inside. I’m sorry to come so early, but I came over to make sure you were ok, and let you know about the fire.” He touched her arm, as she huddled in her chair. “Are you ok, Sandra–– Uh, I mean Miss Thompson? This must be very shocking?”

 Sandra looked up at the officer again, her thoughts a twisted coil in her head. “I’m sorry, but do I know you?” Was it the shock, or did Officer Quinn blush?

 “Well, actually, I do come into the bookstore quite a bit. I’ve tried a few of the book groups you’ve put together–– good stuff, but not generally my genres. I’ve seen you there, with your, um, your husband? He seems to be there all the time.”

“Otis? We’re not married. We’ve been together a long time; people just assume we are. Lately… Err, never mind. Otis seems to be missing,” Sandra’s voice trailed off in a fog of confusion.

 “Ah, that’s who you were so worried about! Well, so far there don’t seem to be any victims in the rubble. The boiler didn’t leave much.”

 “You keep referring to the boiler, Officer Quinn––“

 “Call me John, your store has always made me feel like we’re all friends.”

 “John,” Sandra noticed his kind eyes again, and pushed her tangled hair off her face. “And yes, please call me Sandra. I’ve been a bit distracted the past few months. Running a business is not easy…” tears sprang to her eyes.

 Sandra rubbed her face, suddenly aware that she must look dreadful. She was starting to get her wits back, but the events of the previous few days still assaulted her.

 “Back to the boiler, John, that’s just it; we don’t have a boiler in the basement. The old one died about ten years, ago, we put a new gas boiler on the main floor. It was in a cabinet near the main stacks. I was going to have it inspected next week.”

 What had prompted that thought? As she’d dashed out of the store, after the disastrous meeting with Laverne and Otis, it was as if she’d heard a voice calling ‘we smell gas!’ Now, the entire night was a blur to her.

John Quinn nodded solemnly.

“Well, that won’t be necessary now, but we just assumed it was something like a boiler. As I mentioned, Arson will be lead on this one. The explosion was so big, and that always makes us suspicious. They were just arriving, when I left. I guess our guys just assumed that there must be a boiler on a lower level. The scene was still smoldering, so we haven’t gotten into the debris yet.”

“Wait! So you haven’t been to the basement yet? You said Our House was gone, burned down––“

“It’s pretty bad Sandra, but no, we haven’t really begun our investigation. It doesn’t look good; I can’t imagine that there’s anything left. Would you like me to take you over there, I’d hate to let you go alone?”

“That’s very kind of you; just give me a few moments to wash my face and get cleaned up. I’d make some coffee, God knows I need some, but I’d like to get over there as quickly as possible.”

“We can stop and get something at the drive-thru, on the way; it’s my treat.”

Was it her imagination again, or did John Quinn blush a lot?

*    *   *

 “I hate to state the obvious, but if we don’t get out of here soon, we may all perish!”

While generally an upbeat and independent type, Belle found herself behaving more like some of her less resilient Disney counterparts, in the wake of the disaster. She flinched, realizing that they had all likely perished indeed, in the inferno that took their beloved bookstore. True to their natures, they’d waited to be saved, refusing to take the advice of Ms. Steinem, the Banned Books Society, Animal Predators, and other bolder books who’d seen a wicked thing coming, and were bold enough to act. Belle had always prided herself for seeing beyond good looks and dreamy outcomes. Like her friend Fa Mulan, she’d trusted the wiser books who’d seen the writing on the wall, and had survived to tell another tale. However, the smell of smoke and the heat from the smoldering ruins above, were enough to make even a gutsy heroine wish for a little make believe.

“You’re right, Beauty, we must all come together and find our next solution. This is a solemn day for us all, dear comrades, but we can not bow to neither disaster, nor tyranny and corruption!”

 Pages rustled and bindings creaked as the surviving books turned toward Mr. McCullough.

“President John Adams faced many of the hardships we now face, and faced them unflinchingly. So must we!”

Belle stood up straighter, remembering the wise words “fake it til you make it,” her friend Dr. Phil had advised, as she pursued a bolder path than Cindy, Sleeping Beauty or Snowy. She wiped a tear away. Still, none of them deserved to burn.

“We must do the same!”

McCullough pulled Belle back from her momentary lapse. The other books mustered as robust a flapping of pages as was possible, under the circumstances, and then mayhem broke out.

“If we flap our covers in unison, we should be able to keep the air clear of fumes, and then we could try to make a ladder from bits of––“

“Mr. Grylls, while we can all agree that you are quite clever when it comes to the wilderness, we can hardly expose ourselves to the police and fire fighters above this floor. With all due respect, we need to be a bit more discreet and clever in our solutions.” Ms. Steinem could not deny that “Bear” was quite attractive, and so exciting when he took on quicksand and the likes, but she refused to let his knowledge of wilderness allow him to don a cape.

“We must have faith!” Bible bellowed, in his deepest Cecil B. DeMille imitation.

“Oh dear, I fear we may lose everything!” Emma cried.

“I so hope that poor Ahab got out!” Ursula whimpered.

“Where will we live?” The Children cried, holding each other close and trying to appear braver than they felt.

“There are so many possibilities! We must research all options!” OxAm added boldly.

The books dissolved into chaos, calling out solutions with no direction or focus. Belle felt herself begin to swoon, but Ms. Steinem moved in quickly, pushing her strong spine against Belle’s to remind her how to stand firm.

“Stop! Enough! We must all come to order!” While Platform felt a bit out of order himself, he knew that someone had to take charge. “Let us all acknowledge the hard loss of our dear friends and colleagues, before we move on to our next plan of action.”

A hush fell upon the books as they took stock of who was there and who was not. Sadness stung them all.

“Without Robert, I fear we all feel a bit adrift right now…” Platform continued in a thoughtful manner, taking the lead in the absence of his friend and worthy colleague. “However, he would want us to figure out a solution, in a calm and dare I say, orderly fashion. And that’s what we must do.”

A solemn applause from the survivors encouraged him to continue.

“We cannot change what has happened here last night. Thanks to Juicy’s excellent spying, and her keen knowledge of Laverne Lutz’s inner workings, we were able to save what we could. It can’t be helped that some of our friends were unable to save themselves–– One would think that self-help books would be quicker to act and not so stuck on steps,” Platform could hardly disguise his disdain, but worked to continue respectfully. “I must say, it was certainly baffling to see Mr. Darwin and so many others refuse to move forward, in light of the evidence that’s how we might survive… And of course, Robert and those who shared his tendency to avoid spontaneity, were simply too slow to act. He was a true and reliable comrade; it’s a shame he was so stuck in his ways.”

The others all nodded. It was hard to accept their loss, but in the end Darwin had been right. It didn’t make the loss any less painful; Our House had been a home to them all.

“The greatest tragedy, of course, is that Sandra didn’t listen to us when she most needed us. How much more page rustling could we have done, before she left the store? If only she’d listened…“

“Nothing ever happened in the past that can prevent you from being present now.” Countered Tolle. “The fact is, Sandra is not present in the Now.”

The others all mumbled their disappointed agreement. Both Platform and Tolle made solid points.

“But let us focus on the positive we are left with,” McCullough interjected. “The fire is out and we are all safe. We must simply wait for reinforcements to arrive!” He stood taller and summoned his best David Attenborough narration; Ken Burns was simply too serene.

“Further, thanks to the clever thinking of our Mystery section, Ahab and Gertrude were able to help us thwart some of this mess. As loath as I am to side with a dog, it was brilliant of Gertie to put old newspapers in Otis’ bag, and hide his banking papers under Sandra’s bed. Three cheers for our clever pup!”

The books clambered to the edge of the shelves, inspired by Mr. McCullough’s passion. Belle began to feel a bit happier again, hopeful even.

“We can only hope that Sandra figures it out, when she finds the papers. And how can we thank Ahab enough? He and Gertrude were able to sneak so many of us to safety, while they all had that ridiculous meeting! It’s not easy to slide books quietly, but you all did a fine job of lining up in an orderly fashion and using the buddy system.”

Belle high-fived Fa Mulan and then nudged Steinem, trying not to appear too star-struck, while Bible and OxAm nodded respectfully at one another. The Classics smiled demurely at Banned, knowing that if it weren’t for them, they might all have perished. As if reading their minds, McCullough continued.

“And we would not be here at all if it weren’t for our renegade compatriots, Banned Books. “

“Viva la revolucion!” they all flapped in unison, flashing their subversive and bold plots.

“Indeed, all of you saw what Laverne and Otis were up to, long before any of us put it together–– and yes, I am aware that Mr. Holmes, Ms. Cristie, P.D. and many of our Mystery and Thriller friends suspected something for a long while.” He addressed the immediate grumbling of certain condescending books. “Still, it was the Banned Books who saw what was going on and got word to Ahab. It was these “Bad Boys,” and yes, Girls–––“

“Women. They are hardly girls, David, they are women.” Steinem interjected firmly.

“Yes, women and men; I stand corrected by the esteemed Ms. Steinem.”

Gloria could not help but snicker as she watched the pages of Mr. McCullough glow pink.

“As I was saying, it was the Banned Books who were smart enough to thwart Laverne Lutz and Otis. For all of her own trash–– no offense Juicy, you are indeed an exception,” Juicy demurred in the glow of his praise. “I hope Madame Lutz enjoys a good Vampire story!” He chuckled in the knowledge that Ahab and Gertrude had been such very stealthy cohorts, and then continued. “What we must all truly hope, is that Sandra wakes up and figures it all out. As for rescue, rest assured, we are sure to be found, as soon as the investigators clear the rubble and find that the basement is quite solid.”

“I must admit, I’d give anything to see Laverne’s face, when she opens those boxes, or Otis looks in his bag!” The only surviving People Magazine could barely contain himself.

The entire collection burst into laughter and the first true enthusiastic applause of the otherwise traumatic day! They did indeed have many reasons to be grateful. Of course they’d lost friends and some were a bit smoky or damp, but they were safe from the flames, and hopeful that Annie, Sean and Sandra might make sense of the ruin.

*    *    *

Sean picked up the phone and dialed. His stomach felt sick, in light of the news he and Annie had gotten an hour earlier. Having woken wrapped in her sweet arms, Sean had imagined this might be the first day of a bright new start. However, one phone call from Sandra had sent Annie racing out to the charred remains of the store and their tender night, was left buried in the now cold sheets.

“You go; I’ll be there in just a while. I have an important call to make.”

“What could be more important than this?” Annie looked genuinely hurt.

“Please understand, I cared a great deal for Our House too,” Annie cringed at the use of past tense. “but this is something that can’t wait. And, I can’t really discuss it, yet.”

He kissed her nose, and smiled, but Annie looked disappointed, distrustful. Sean couldn’t blame her; they were only just getting to know each other better, and there were so many things he still hadn’t been able to tell her. He wanted to, but the terms of his inheritance forbid it. With Our House Bookstore in ruins, he wasn’t sure what the terms would now mean.

He heard the ring tone on the other end and braced himself.

“You have reached Prudential Insurance; please choose from the following options:  To make a claim on loss to your home or private residence, please select 1. To make a claim for your car, or its contents, please select 2. To make a claim for loss of a business or business property, please select 3––“

“Property,” Sean murmured. He pushed number 3 and waited.

Chapter 23

by Mary Gillilan (1663 words)

Sandra looked at herself in her dresser mirror. She brushed her hair back into a ponytail and put on lip gloss while the officer, John Quinn, waited downstairs. What a nice man, she thought.

That white square envelope she had opened on her dresser said only, “Good-bye.” Otis’ handwriting. She had crumpled it up and thrown it in the trash. So he planned to leave me? Getting drunk didn’t help. There had to be another woman. And now the fire. Were there no good men left in the world?

Sandra remembered as she got herself ready that John Quinn smiled at her a lot—it was the smile she recalled about his visits at the store. He counted as a good man, and that blush. The blush, well that was something new. Does he like me? Sandra wondered. It would be nice if he did. Someone to see to things. Sandra’s red shirt brought out her green eyes. You’re not dead yet. And she blushed a little, too.

Her thoughts went to Otis: Where was he? And then to anger: Hadn’t she sat with him when he complained about his heart palpitations? Unless someone stole him, he wasn’t as sick as he appeared. Funny that all this should happen last night, the night of the fire. Where did Laverne goWhen was the last time I got laid? Sandra was thinking about the blushing officer downstairs again. Her mind scrambled with thoughts pulling her in different directions

One of those directions led under her bed in search of her left shoe. Why is one always missing? She only saw papers and then, what? The heel of her shoe hidden underneath. And dust bunnies. Damn dog. She pulled the papers and shoe out.

Well that’s weird, Sandra thought. Sandra picked up what appeared to be an old fashioned bank book filled with notations in Otis’ handwriting. She sat on the bed, and as she read through the book, she saw clearly scripted references to money leaving Our House to a string of numbers that looked to her like a bank account number, two different ones. One string of numbers was familiar to her—she had made money transfers to Laverne. Sandra might not have been the ace in the deck but she was pretty good at memorizing numbers. She spied the tracking numbers to a California bank account of her old friend. Otis and Sandra were in this together. And she recognized Otis’ handwriting. He was stealing from me—they both were. A wave of sickness came over Sandra. Her head pounded. The fire happens and they’re both—

John Quinn interrupted her. “Everything okay?” He gently knocked on her semi-opened door as he spoke.

“I don’t know,” Sandra said. She put the shoe on her foot and stuffed the papers inside her book bag with the OH Books! logo impressed on the side. Maybe she should show the bank book to John. No, she had to know more before letting such information go. Why would Otis put his bankbook under their bed? Maybe he wanted to be found out; maybe that was what caused his heart palpitations. “I’m coming!” Sandra said. She opened the door wider. “Dog put my shoe under the bed, I’m ready to go. Sorry I took so long.”

John blushed again as he smiled and led the way downstairs.

“I remember your smile,” she said, “I thought you were only interested in the books—” Sandra would show Otis. Two could play at the love game. As the revelation of the bank book settled inside her, anger as hot as any burst of fire flamed her brain.

“Do you have a glass of water?” John asked.

“Sure, in the kitchen. This way.”

“I thought you must have a dog, possibly a cat. I’m so allergic, makes me blush like a school girl. And I think your heat is too high—way too hot in here.”

“Well I thought your blushing was because you might fancy—” Sandra’s slack mouth and slumped shoulders showed her disappointment and fed her sense of rejection. John Quinn was not interested in her. Jesus, he was a cop. She retrieved a glass from the cupboard and filled it with water and handed it to John. Her anger escalated towards Laverne and Otis.

“I fancy my work,” John drank the water and put the glass on the counter. “And we will figure out what happened last night, that I can assure you.”

“So, you are taking me to the bookstore then?” Sandra pulled her coat close to her as wind whipped in her face as she left her house.

“It’s a crime scene, Sandra,” John practically hummed the words. “You cannot go in. Much too hot, anyway.” He muttered something into the car radio that Sandra did not quite catch. “We have to interview you in regard to the fire.”

“You mean I am a suspect?”

“So you assume it was set, the fire was set?”

“You said it was arson.”

“Oh, did I?” The smile on his face began to annoy Sandra. “We interview anyone with connections to the bookstore. We’ll look at the financials, all if that …”

“Well my computer—oh God, all of that would have been lost.”

“No file share at home?”

“There would be no records at my house. I’m just not that smart on the computer,” her words drifted off as John drove through the Morning Café stand—one of several coffee drive-ups in Bellingham.

“Did you drink a lot last night?” John asked quietly as the police cruiser approached the window where the barista grinned a smashing white smile.

“Howse my favorite copper?” the buxom 20-year-old asked. “I know what you want, how about your friend?”

“Just black, coffee. A large,” Sandra grumbled. Her mood grew darker.

While they waited, John asked again, “How much did you drink last night?”

“Just a few … well a shot, maybe a couple.”

“Why would you do that? Do you have an alcohol problem?”

Their drinks came and John signed the slip. She watched the exchange between the barista and the cop. He blushed. Damn him, he blushed.

“See you later, sweetie,” the barista said and thanked John for the two dollar tip.

He handed Sandra her coffee. “Be careful. Coffee is really hot here.”

“Ironic,” Sandra said. “I don’t have a drinking problem, but I drank more than I intended. Otis didn’t feel well. He has a heart condition. I should call St. Jo’s to see if he was admitted. I stayed up with him to make sure he was okay.”

“Drinking yourself unconscious probably wouldn’t help your friend.”

John took the long way to headquarters; he drove by the bookstore and stopped the police car in front. “What do you think about that?” he asked Sandra.

Sandra stared in horror. A black shell and the smell of soot smeared the air. It looked like a total loss, but she could not see what might be salvageable downstairs. “It was my life,” she whispered. “My life.”

As they approached the police station, John parked the cruiser in an assigned spot. He walked just in back of her as they entered the police station. They passed through a lobby area and into a large space filled with desks and telephones. Computers appeared sporadically on desks. Sandra saw a few people in handcuffs being led somewhere. John pointed to a hallway and passed Annie on the way. Annie looked at Sandra and burst into tears. “I can’t believe it,” she said.

Sandra shook her head and stopped. “Will you call St. Jo’s to see if Otis is there? I don’t know where he is.”

John ignored the exchange and pointed to an interview room. He turned on a taping device and began asking Sandra detailed questions about everything from her political affiliations to the last time she paid a bill at the store. Sandra answered in generalities, and she implicated no one. Her book bag burned in her lap. The bank book, with all the incriminating evidence any prosecutor would need, was within a foot of the cop interviewing Sandra. That knowledge gave her a sense of power. She intended to find out where the thieving bastard, Otis, was.

“I’ll ask you again, Sandra, who owns the building?”

“I pay to some real estate group or something, like I said. I do have the name on my—on my Quicken software … but do you know what, John? There was a fucking fire, and those files, well they got burned. I might have something at home. And I’ll look. But as for me and this stupid interview, I’m done.” Sandra began to rise from her chair.

“We’re not finished yet, please relax. Would you like a glass of water?”

“Only if it comes with a double shot of scotch.”

“You sound like someone with a drinking problem. Someone who is trying to keep a failing bookstore in business. Someone who might be running out of options.” John answered his cell phone, excused himself and left the room to take the call.

Sandra stared at this dismal little hospital green room. The desk had carved initials in it. The black and white checkered linoleum floor creaked every time she moved her chair, and the room smelled like chemical oranges. He thinks I did it.

***

Outside in the hall, Annie read a text message from Sean. All it said was, “Don’t say anything to the police.”

Her heart broke for the loss of the books, especially the talking books. She wondered if they knew anything about the fire. She wondered if they were bewitched. Who would do a thing like that?

The policeman who escorted Sandra into the room passed by Annie again. He has the nicest smile, she thought. But Annie didn’t think he would be too interested in her ideas about spells and talking books. Sean was safe.

Chapter 24

by Janet Oakley (1318 words)

After punching numerous answers into the phone, Sean finally got through to his agent. “Phil,” he said, “this is Sean Cary.”

“Mr. Cary, good to hear from you. How can I help you?”

“First, I need to know if the fire insurance was fully paid up.”

“It’s always been in good standing, but I’ll check.” There was a clicking sound as Phil looked up the information on the Our House’s policy. “How’s the weather out there?”

“Rainy.”

“But it’s the Northwest, right?”

“Right.” Sean wished Phil would get to the answer. He was pretty sure Sandra always paid the fire insurance bill first. The computer search Annie did the other day said that Sandra had, but Sean wanted to hear it from his agent.

“Found it.” Phil punched off something like a ta-dah on his keyboard. “All paid up, including December. I gave you the best policy, you know.”

“It’s covered for arson, right?”

“Of course. Is there a problem?”

Sean cleared his throat. “I’m afraid there is. My bookstore burned down.”

“Have you been down to see?”

“Not yet. I needed to hear from you first, but it’s been on the local TV and I can see the damage pretty close up. The upper structure is toast— literally— but the lower section seems intact. It’s an old building built in the 1890s, so old growth timbers, stonework that’s pretty phenomenal. I did put in a modern firewall system after I took it on. The bookstore owner, Sandra Thompson didn’t know I was behind that, but I think she approved. Kept special collections down there.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Well, get yourself out here as fast as you can to do an assessment.”

“I’ll send Peter Paul on that. His office is in Mount Vernon. I’ll take the next flight out of Portland. In the meantime, what are you going to do?”

“I’m going down to take a look. A couple of the booksellers are at the police station being questioned for some reason. I’m hoping the fire marshal doing the investigation will let me in to look around. We race mountain bikes together sometimes.”

“What are you looking for?”

“There are rumors of arson. I just want to check out something. I’ll call you back when I can.”

“Any ideas who would do that?”

“There are two people I’d like to strangle. One’s been playing the owner like a fool. That’s Otis Branch. Feel really bad for Sandra as she really cares about the place. The other party, Laverne Lutz, is a so-called friend of Sandra’s. That’s not happening anymore. Looks like they both have flown the coop.” Sean sighed. “On top of that, someone’s been cooking the books. Branch’s my first choice for that. He had a good reason to start a fire. Cover up.”

“Wow. That’s rough. You never know about folks, though I should know in this business.”

“That’s why I like books. See ya soon?”

“Yes. Take care.”

***

“Now children,” Mother Goose For All Ages said, “You mustn’t be afraid. We’d like to keep you in the safe a little bit longer until we can ascertain that there is no danger of any flare ups. It’s not just the flames but the smoke we are worried about.”

“But I’m scared,” said Pat the Bunny. “It’s dark in here.”

“And I’m hungry,” The Hungry Caterpillar said.

“We’ll have that well in hand, dears” Mother Goose said. “Goodnight, could you turn on the lamp in your bedroom? Put a light on them for the moment? That’s a dear.”

“I’ll help,” Goldbug said. “They can try to find me.” He fluttered the pages of Cars and Trucks and Things that Go and disappeared into the book.

Mother Goose leaned against the door and pushed it shut. The effort made her fall over on her spine and open up to the rhyme, Misty, Moisty Morning. We can use a little bit of that, she thought, though, Heavens, if water should get down here, we’d be in just as much trouble.

“How are they?” Belle asked.

“They’re little, so naturally they worry. But we shall prevail. Could you get me in a more lady-like position? Must keep up standards for the children.”

After Mother Goose was upright, she and Belle joined the on-going meeting with all the surviving books. It was dim down in the basement, but Banned Books had assured them that there was good climate control here. “All we have to do is wait,” McCullough said.

“Ahem,” a reedy voice said from a dark corner.

“And you are?” OxAm asked.

A yellow and black book came out of the darkness. “Home Security for Dummies.”

“What section are you from?”

“Tech. When we heard the talk about some pending disaster, we stayed close. Thought we could be of assistance. About two shelves made it.”

“Welcome.”

“Thank you.” Security rustled his pages. “Any-hoo, I’ve been talking to police procedural friends in Mystery and Thriller and we all agree that knowing that someone has caused harm to our beloved store is one thing, but proving it is another. Sandra and Annie will need proof in order to reap any good out of this.”

“What about Sean?”

“Him too. He’s a good guy. Always took time to keep our section tidy. And he owns the building.”

“You act like you might know how to get this proof.” Steinem came in a little closer.

“Absolutely. Surveillance cameras. Every floor has them.”

“Didn’t they get lost in the fire?” Beauty had been too frightened to say much since they escaped, but she felt compelled to say something.

“Ah, but the equipment is down here,” Security said. “Everything is recorded and saved down here. There’s a server that backs things up. I should know. The installer consulted me.” Security nodded toward a dark corner. With a rustle, all the books pivoted in that direction. A red light slowly pulsed on the outline of a tall metal tower. Next to it was a table with a computer and monitor on it. “System looks healthy to me.”

“How on earth can we get into that?”

The answer came from scratching at a door in the outside stone wall.

“Now be careful,” Platform warned. “Don’t want to create any drafts. Could bump the fire back up.” He paused. “Who’s there?”

“Gertrude,” the pug whispered. “Got Ahab here. His whiskers and tail got a bit burnt trying to get back into the building to help. He just needs to rest.”

There were bumping and pushing sounds against the door then suddenly the door knob turned, the door opened, and Gertrude fell into the room. Behind her was a tottering stack of books, slightly singed and dusted with ash.

The tallest book at the top looked down. “We did it.”

“Well done, Mountaineer. Look lively now.” Best Hikes in Whatcom County counted to three and the tower of books fell away.

Platform rocked back and forth on his spine with nervous excitement. “Hurry, come in quick. Best to keep the door closed.”

“Then what?” Ahab limped into the room and was immediately surrounded by the applause of happy books.

Security nodded to the server before the closed door dimmed the room again. “We need to get up there and check out the store security tapes. Gonna nail Otis for the murder of our friends and destruction of our happy home.”

And so this was how Sean found the books in the basement: ten genres stacked high alongside the server tower, Sandra’s pug on a table beside it, paw on the computer’s mouse; Ahab the cat looking like he had been caught with a gold fish in his mouth, but still studying the computer screen.

“What the heck is going on?” Sean said.

For first time since he started working at the store, Sean understand their fluttering answer:

“Help us. We want to help you.”

Chapter 25

by Devin Connolly (1,668 words)

So much had happened in the last few days, not to mention the last 12 hours, and Sean was well within his bounds to believe that he was having a full-blown auditory hallucination.

“Who…help you…help me? Who are you?”

As Sean strained his ear and continued to question his sanity, Eckhart seized the moment and inched forward on his shelf to speak up, “look, we all realize that relations have been strained across the board among just about everyone who is connected to Our House Books. But to wallow and lament the past is counterproductive, wouldn’t you agree?”

All Sean could manage at this point was an incredulous, “sure,” which sounded more like a question than an affirmation.

“Good!” Eckhart exclaimed. “Because the ‘now’ continues to exist even if it bears absolutely no resemblance to the ‘now’ we once knew, right?”

Sean had no choice but to concede with another “sure,” the only word that seemed to remain in his vocabulary. Still not convinced of his sanity, he listened as Eckhart continued on behalf of the remaining members of the Council of Books.

“Excellent. Because we have pooled our knowledge and come up with a plan. Parts of it are already in motion. Got a minute?”

* * * *

Sandra spent the whole morning at a loose end. As the gravity of her present situation unfolded before her, she found herself wandering on autopilot to the Java Jive near Our House Books, or what could now be called the former location of Our House Books. She could hardly entertain that thought without her lower lip trembling. Despite all the turmoil of late, Sandra had not yet cried. She couldn’t allow herself to start because she was afraid she might never stop once the first tear fell.

She pushed through the doors of Java Jive and made her way to the counter, where she ordered a medium Americano, black. Sandra hardly ever drank Americanos, having defected to the latte camp long ago, but sipping a black Americano reminded her of when she first started drinking coffee as a teenager. Desperate to appear experienced and sophisticated, she had always ordered her coffee strong and black in those days, as if her choice of caffeinated beverage represented herself as a character study in a porcelain mug. When her cup of bitter nostalgia arrived on the bar, Sandra doctored it up with a bit of sugar and half-and-half before stumbling into a corner near the window to sip and stew. She had less to prove now, and far less to show for her years of experience than she ever expected.

How could Obie have let her down so many times, and now with such finality? Sandra thought back to their early days together. They used to attend poetry readings at JD’s Pub on Tuesday evenings, where an eclectic group of local poets and artists met to share their work. Because Obie’s massive frame nearly eclipsed Sandra’s entirely, their sculptor friend Petra took to calling them “Frida and Diego.” Sandra loved the comparison, but the two of them had already settled into the pet names of Porky and Petunia, so Petra’s nicknames never stuck.

Even back then, Obie had a wandering eye – just like Diego, she mused. Frida wasn’t exactly the picture of fidelity, either, but Sandra had remained loyal to her Porky from the start. Not even the steady stream of girls who turned Obie’s gaze away from her could shake Sandra’s faith in her man. The PhD student, the barista, the poet (of course there was a poet!) and the city councilwoman didn’t bother her nearly as much as the two biggest insults–her best friend and the least loyal Our House patron since the day the doors opened, who happened to be standing next to Sandra’s table at that moment, waiting to get her attention.

“Rosemary!” Sandra struggled to regain her composure in a desperate attempt to conceal how much this woman’s presence unnerved her.

“Hi, Sandra. May I sit down?” Sandra’s jaw flapped open and shut a couple of times, but she could find no words, so she swept her hand out in front of her as if to say, “be my guest.”

Rosemary slid into the chair opposite Sandra and set her travel mug down in front of her. Sandra scoffed to herself, “only she would bring her own coffee to a café.” She surveyed her adversary and opened with a blunt question, “why are you here, Rosemary?”

Settling into her seat, Rosemary launched into a speech she had rehearsed several times the night before. “First of all, I am terribly sorry and I understand if you hate me.” Sandra gave a slow, silent nod. Sure, she hated Rosemary for everything she represented, but she allowed her to continue.

“I admire you tremendously. Ever since the night we met at the Our House grand opening party all those years ago, I have been in awe of your style, your drive and business sense, and your ability to stick it out with Obie, despite the fact that he’s a cheating dog. And I know that I’m hardly one to criticize him for all of this, but I hope you’ll hear me out anyway. I had a revelation last night and it led me to an idea that I wanted to run by you.” Rosemary paused, giving Sandra a moment to interject or to throw her coffee cup across the table at her, but Sandra merely stared at Rosemary and awaited her proposal.

“After Laverne’s outburst in the shop yesterday, I spent the rest of the day and all night thinking things over. My life has been so full of disappointment, and learning that Our House Books was in danger of closing saddened me more than I can say. I know this must sound strange to you because I haven’t actually done much to keep it going, but I do care about the bookstore. Then when I woke up this morning and learned that the store’s demise came far sooner than any of us expected, I knew I had to come to you with my plan. I hoped that we would get a chance to let the dust settle a bit before we could have this conversation, but life is unpredictable, you know?”

Sandra’s expression softened slightly. Rosemary’s presence at Our House had always been a bit of a sideline annoyance to her, but Sandra believed her when she said that she truly cared about the shop. She gave a slight nod and said, “unpredictable…don’t I know it. So what are you thinking?”

* * *

As Sandra walked through her front door that evening to eager greetings from Gertrude and Alice B, she had no mental space left to process everything that had happened. Her life had shattered into so many pieces, she couldn’t even imagine how anything would ever be normal again. And Rosemary’s ridiculous proposal to turn the ground floor of her cruddy old house into a new bookstore to carry the torch for Our House Books was really the last straw.

“Victorian House Books, psh!” she sputtered as she poured herself a generous glass of cabernet. “A book ‘boutique’ and tea room – that’s so stupid, right, Gertie?” Gertrude sat quietly at her feet, thinking the exact opposite of what Sandra had just declared; after all the half-baked schemes that had been bandied about in this house in the weeks since Laverne’s arrival, someone had finally come up with an idea that had legs!

Grabbing the wine bottle and glass in one hand, Sandra stomped off to the utility closet to pull out a suitcase with her spare hand, muttering “stupid, stupid, stupid” with every step. She marched the suitcase off to the bedroom and started making a furious pile of clothes on the bed. If she left early in the morning, she could be in Montana by dinnertime, and in Yellowstone by the next evening. Sandra and Obie had talked about a trip to Yellowstone for years, but the responsibilities of running Our House, not to mention Obie’s busy philandering schedule, kept them close to home. What an ironic sham it would have been to stand together with Obie and admire the eruptions of Old Faithful, anyway. This was something Sandra needed to do on her own.

Anger gave way to excitement as Sandra’s grand road trip plans began to take shape in her head. Annie could watch Gertrude and Alice B, Sean could clean up the Our House arson mess, and Sandra could take a month to hit the road with no set agenda – what a luxury! As she reached for the bottle to refresh her wine glass, she heard a small voice from somewhere in the room.

“Reconsider,” the voice urged.

Sandra did a double take. Looking around the room and seeing no face to match the voice, she checked her wine bottle – how much had she drunk, anyway? She was only at the beginning of her second glass, so the wine wasn’t to blame.

“Reconsider.” The voice sounded like it was coming from the bedside table. Sandra stood above the table and took an inventory of items that may have made the noise: the wine bottle and glass, her beloved Tiffany lamp, a tube of hand lotion, reading glasses, a box of tissues, some loose change and a book. None of these items were likely culprits.

“It’s me – Watercolor Picture Book.” Sandra barely had a moment to process this before WPB continued.

“Listen, you should reconsider Rosemary’s proposal. It’s not as crazy as you think. And I know for a fact that more books survived the fire than you may realize. What’s more, Rosemary has quite a collection at her house. We should all be together again, and you can help us make that happen. There’s a lot of snow on the passes right now and your tires aren’t so great. Can’t the road trip wait? We really need your help.”

Chapter 26

by Norman Green (1623 words)

On the day before the fire, Jenna did not work her shift at the store. When Sandra broke the news about the terminal diagnosis for Our House, Jenna had followed the program that had driven her life to date. She closed her mouth, trapping the words she dare not release; she turned on her heel and walked away. The controlled world of her apartment offered the only safety Jenna could trust.

Few people would choose a home across from a firehouse, but when ground had been broken for the new station, Jenna found her daily walk always led past the construction site. On the day of the open house for Engine Company No. 3, she could not force herself to join the crowd gathered around the polished red engines. Turning to cross the avenue, she spotted the white card posted in a second story window of the house that faced the new station.

“Room to let,” she read aloud. To let what? She wondered. So instead of sharing a hot-dog with a firefighter, Jenna found herself knocking on the door of a white clapboard house.

“You won’t want it,” coughed the old gent with the room to rent. “No one’s gonna put up with all the hub-bub that comes with a fire station. Jenna looked out window at the red firetrucks and EMT vehicles, the firefighters in tight blue t-shirts. She wrote a check for six months’ rent. On the memo line, she jotted three words: Hook and Ladder.

**

On the night of the fire, Jenna followed Engine Company No. 3 downhill and watched the crew struggle to control the flames. Our House Bookstore had been wedged between buildings of equal antiquity. The fire put in jeopardy the entire historic district. The well-trained team kept this disaster from spreading into a catastrophe. Jenna perched unnoticed on the roof across the street. She sipped from a cooling cup of coffee.

She watched as a police officer intercepted Annie. Together, the patrol woman and the bookseller drove off in a squad car. They hadn’t put Annie into handcuffs, but it was still exciting to see. Soon after, a second patrol car paused in the street. The people inside the vehicle took a moment to examine the wreckage that had once been the bookstore. A woman’s hand reached out from the passenger window then retracted as car pulled away. “That would be Sandra,” Jenna said to herself. “Time to leave. They’ll be looking for me, next” Through the gap where the bookstore had stood, Jenna took in the whitecaps sculpted onto the cold surface of the bay. She hooked her book bag onto one shoulder and headed to her mother’s house.

**

Jenna knew the old Sinclair Mansion too well. Her strongest memories centered around growing up in its dim halls and over-sized rooms, a monstrosity too grand to effectively heat and light, given Rosemary’s budget. From early youth, the girl had dreamed of smaller spaces, more easily controlled. So she left Rosemary’s house as soon as she came of age. Had she stayed, Jenna thought she’d be as mad as her mother. Jenna monitored her own behavior symptoms she knew too well, living in fear she would fail to recognize them in herself. She longed for someone, a trusted partner to keep her on the tracks, someone close by to effect a rescue. But experience had shown: Trust led to betrayal.

Jenna let herself in through Rosemary’s basement door, the one that never secured. She found a defunct umbrella just inside and used it to tear through cobwebs on her way up the rough stairs. She kept it in hand as she passed through the door into the kitchen.

“Mom?”

No answer.

Jenna’s steps echoed through the dining room. She passed the table with seating for twenty. She shuttled one of the sliding doors. It ground on its rollers and she realized that this door, when fully opened, could accommodate one of the engines from the firehouse.   Jenna crept into the grand entry hall. She looked to the sweeping staircase, half expecting to find Scarlet O’Hara poised at the bend. Neither Katie Scarlet nor Rosemary were in sight.

“Mom?”

No answer.

Too many memories rang from her mother’s upstairs apartment. She had no where else to hide and no one else to help her.

“Damn you, Laverne Lutz.”

Jenna stepped between the stacks of books that lined the rail side and the wall side of the staircase. A slim channel snaked between the walls of the canyon of books. She prodded into the shadows with the umbrella. Books had been known to cascade across the carpet that ran along the middle of the stairs. Jenna could remember a time when the climb was easier and safer. Have I been away that long? Half way to the second floor balcony, Jenna stepped into the patch of colored light that fell upon the floor at the wide landing. Sun, breaking through the cloud cover, projected through the stained glass window and played on the carpet. Jenna recalled hours she had nestled and read in this, her magic spot, her home in this dreadful house.

She lowered herself to the patch of light, and slung her book bag from her shoulder. She drew out the case-bound book. The dust jacket featured a robins’ egg blue sky with two silhouettes: to the right, an over-arching tree; and on the left, a shapely young woman seen from behind. The title filled the space between tree and woman. Across the bottom blazed the name of the author.

“Betrayer.” said Jenna.

“I’m not the author.”

Jenna looked around, expecting to find her mother.

“Please do not confuse the book and the author. You can love me and still hate the writer.”

Jenna looked down at the book pulsing in her hands. This is it, she thought. It’s time to join Mom in Wacky-land.

“Trust me.” The voice implored.

“I wonder if Mom keeps her psychotropics in the medicine cabinet.” said Jenna.

“You don’t need them,” assured the book. “I’m no hallucination, and you need to listen carefully, because I have message for you and you alone.”

“So,” said Jenna, “You have time for me now.”

“You’re not listening,” said the book. “None of this will mean anything unless you let me off the hook. I’m Juicy Fruit, not Laverne, You can’t hold me responsible for her bad behavior.”

“Why not?” asked Jenna. “You are the product of her deceitful, narcissistic soul.”

“I’m more than that,” Juicy shouted. “How about you, Jenna? Are you nothing more than a pale imitation of your mother?”

“Of course not,” Jenna spat back. “do you see me scheming revenge, seducing geriatrics, shoplifting, hoarding? I’d like to think that I’m more than one dose away from the Crackerbox Palace.” She panted to regain breath and composure. “Yet here I am, arguing with a beach read.”

“I’ll let that one pass,” Juicy said, “because I agree, you are more than a copy of Rosemary. I promise, you have something she’ll never have.”

Jenna held back the question.

“You have,” continued Juicy, “an author’s temperament.”

“Whatever that is.”

“Lots of people wish they had already written a novel, but you know how to sit yourself down to write.”

“Ha. I have an English degree, a hundred thousand words, a knowledge of grammar, and nothing to say.”

“That may have been true,” said Juicy, “even when you came out of school. But every day of your life has been filling the author with what she needs.”

“I need a mentor.”

“You do not. You think you need Laverne Lutz, or someone like her to give you the key to the kingdom. But she never had your key. She has her own, but not yours.”

“Who has mine?”

“That’s where we come in.”

“We?”

“Look around.”

Jenna looked past her feet at the columns of books lining the staircase. She felt the presence of thousands of volumes stacked and waiting behind her on the steps leading upward.

“All I see are books.”

“ – A particular collection of books, carefully assembled over decades. And amongst these volumes are many of your oldest friends.” Pages flapped in a draft. “In the bookstore, this collection is called The Lost Tribe.” A mummer ran down one side of the stairs and up the other. “What I am here to tell you is that books come from books, just as children come from people, as kits come from foxes, and acorns come from oaks.”

“What about the authors?” asked Jenna.

“Just as your mother sought the help of a midwife, we books need your sort to bring our children into the world.”

“You sound pretty wise –“ Jenna clipped her sentence.

“– for a beach read.” Juicy finished the thought. “Pregnancy helps you to slow down and take stock.”

“You?” asked Jenna.

“Take a look.”

Jenna opened Juicy at her mid point. There rested a small volume, cloth bound. She lifted it and felt warmth and a beating heart.

“Does it hurt?” asked Jenna.

“It’s the best pain I’ll ever know.” Juicy answered.

Jenna cradled the tiny life in her palms. “What do I do, now?”

“Give the child time. Listen to its words, its story, and put it down onto paper.”

“Is it that easy?”

“Its the hardest thing you will ever do.” answered the book.

“Does she have a name?”

“Of course, silly.” Juicy’s voice faded with fatigue. “You named her Hook and Ladder.”

Chapter 27

by Libbie Hawker (2507 words)

Ahab sighed and backed away from the dust-shrouded basement window of the Sinclair mansion. His fluffy, ginger hide gave an involuntary twitch, itching in a thousand places from more than just general irritation. Soot from the fire had worked its way down to his skin, and he hadn’t had a chance yet to get in a good grooming. It looked like that refreshing tongue-bath would have to wait a little longer. The humans who were bound together by their affection for Our House were losing focus, each of them drifting off on slackening tides. Perhaps there was no way now to bring their personal stories back into focus, to push them along clearly defined character arcs, to lead them to the denouements that awaited at the end of this haphazard journey.

But Ahab was certain that one of his favorite humans could still be helped. One still retained enough drive, enough focus on her inner conflict to bring this story to a satisfying close. He blew a quick hiss of determination through his whiskers and turned away from the Sinclair mansion, trotting through the brick alleys of Fairhaven, slipping from one pool of violet shadow to the next with the grace and mystery that were the birthright of his kind.

Ahab hadn’t been to Sandra’s home in nearly ten years, since she rescued him from the animal shelter—and not a moment too soon; he had been scheduled for humane euthanasia sometime that week. He’d spent a few days at Sandra’s before she moved him to Our House, a permanent resident of the high-rise shelves and the quiet, dusty paths between the less trammelled sections of the store. Ahab had always enjoyed his peaceful existence at Our House. After the store closed for the night, it was just him, the ill-fated mice—all of which he planned to dispatch, someday… sooner or later—and rarely, Obie or Laverne whose nocturnal visitations to Our House were largely confined to the store room downstairs.

And the books, of course. Ahab had learned much from those vociferous volumes, but he doubted he’d taken away the knowledge the books intended to impart. Books, like authors, always thought they were smarter than they truly were. They thought the world ought to teem with thrilling twists and tingling complications. They believed it should resound with the grand crash of drama, and every horizon should glow with the fire of a beautiful disaster.

But Ahab knew better. A good story, he knew, was a series of logical events, each one flowing naturally from what had come before, and leading, in the end, to a resolution that satisfied because it felt logical, even inevitable. How had the Our House team, once so tightly woven, unraveled itself? How had these close-knit humans become these frayed ends? The threads of their individual stories had loosened and splayed. They had gone off in directions illogical and misguided. They had become an un-story.

Ahab found Sandra’s door by scent. Even after ten years—a feline lifetime—the olfactory pathways were still sharp in his brain. That’s the benefit of being a nonhuman animal, Ahab thought, a touch smugly. You don’t lose focus. You don’t drift. You are instinct, survival—you are sharp points that cling to what’s important. Your claws, your fangs sink into the story and you never let go until you reach that last, satisfying, rationally derived final scene.

He lifted onto his hindlegs and scrabbled at Sandra’s door, working at the painted wood with a furious energy. After a minute or two, he heard Gertrude’s raspy bark on the other side.

“Hey! Hey! Hey! Stop that! Hey! Hey! Stop that! Hey!”

Ahab scratched all the harder. His pelt heated with the effort, and the soot clinging to his fur felt more offensive than ever.

But finally he recognized the sound of Sandra’s step, her voice scolding Gertrude to silence.

The door swung open. Sandra gasped. “Oh my god! Ahab!” She stooped and picked him up, cuddled him against her chest and pressed her face into his scraggly, ginger ruff.

He tolerated her fawning for a few seconds, then pushed against her with both forepaws. “All right, enough of that. Put me down.”

Sandra laughed, not much more than a bitter exhalation. She set Ahab on the cozy wool runner that lined her hallway and shut the door. “You talk, too. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, with the way the books have all been speaking to me.” She leaned against the door frame, refusing to look down at Ahab, as if fearful of his keen, golden stare. “I’m going crazy. I’ve gone crazy. That’s the only plausible explanation for all this.”

“You’re not crazy,” Ahab said stoutly. “At least, you’re not any crazier than anybody else from Our House.” He turned and trotted down the hallway, calling over his shoulder, “Be a doll and get me a saucer of milk. I’ve had a very long day.”

Sandra met him in the living room. She set the milk he requested, in a small, shallow dish, on the coffee table; Ahab reached his forepaws up to steady himself and lapped the creamy stuff eagerly, allowing his cares to slide away from him for a moment, lost in that simple pleasure. When he’d drunk enough to satisfy his stomach, he leaped onto the couch and levelled a frank stare at Sandra, who perched uncomfortably on the edge of her pink-upholstered armchair.

“Listen,” Ahab said. “I’m not going to mince words. Your life is a mess. Your business is a mess. Your story is a mess.”

Sandra’s eyes lowered to her lap. “I know,” she said softly.

“But it doesn’t have to be a mess. I know how you can fix it.”

She glanced up at him again, timid but hopeful. “You do?”

“I’ve checked out the Sinclair place. It’s a good spot for a bookstore.”

“You know about Rosemary’s proposal?”

“The damn books never stop gossiping,” Ahab said. He licked one paw and drew it over an ear. “I’ve heard the plan. Victorian House Books. It’s a good one; you should do it.”

“I still don’t know.” Sandra sighed and sagged back in her chair. “A boutique bookstore sounds so… pretentious. And tea? Who cares about tea?”

“A few people, here and there. Not many, but probably enough to keep the place in business. It’s a tall order, to keep a bookstore running these days. You need something other than books now, or you’ll struggle, and maybe fail.”

“That doesn’t seem fair, does it?”

“No,” Ahab agreed, “but when has life ever been fair? The world is changing, Sandra. People don’t buy as many print books as they used to, and bookstores, like humans, must adapt or fade away.”

“Only humans? What, don’t cats face the same existential crises?”

Ahab twitched his tail in amusement. “We do, but we deal with them far more gracefully than humans do.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“Don’t take my criticisms personally. Cats do everything more gracefully than humans. Everything.”

“So I have to adapt or… fade away. Is that it?”

Ahab nodded. “Fading away is the worst thing you can do. Losing your focus. Drifting off the course. Stumbling toward your ending without any confidence, without any meaning behind your action, just ping-ponged around from one barely-related event to the next, as if you’re a character in a novel with thirty different authors. It’s no way to end a story, Sandy. Trust me on that point. I’ve lived in a bookstore, day in and day out, for ten years. That’s a long time, by a cat’s reckoning.”

Sandra sat in silence for a moment, her hands clasped in her lap, staring at some distant point beyond the walls of her home, watching a scene unfold which Ahab could not read. Finally her mouth firmed with determination and she looked the ginger cat full in the face.

“All right: advise me. Tell me what I need to do in order to end my story.”

Ahab licked his fuzzy cheeks in satisfaction. “Victorian House Books is the key to your happy ending. Make it happen, Sandra. Start a new store, with the resources you have at your disposal. A bookstore can thrive there. I’ve checked out the location. It’s perfect, really. Excellent foot traffic and plenty of parking, too. And the building has character. Not the same kind of character Our House had, but it has a vibe of its own that customers will come to love.”

“Okay,” Sandra said slowly. She was warming to the idea, but the fire wasn’t heating her belly fast enough for Ahab’s liking.

He rose to all four paws and thrashed his tail to emphasize the urgency of her errand. “But you have to act now to secure the space, Sandra. This can’t wait. Make that mansion your own tonight. Don’t let this opportunity slip away.”

“Now? Tonight? Why?”

“Jenna’s been bitten by the writing bug. You know how close Rosemary is with her daughter. If you don’t take decisive action now, Jenna will turn your last chance for focus and drive—for your life’s purpose—for happiness—into that horror of horrors, a writer’s den.”

Sandra shrugged. “Good for Jenna. If she feels called to write, then—”

“No,” Ahab insisted, and the word was a mrrow of frustration. “Jenna isn’t going to produce anything good. She’ll write nothing but meandering baloney—disjointed plots where one chapter has nothing to do with the chapter that came before; stories that can’t decide whether they want to be romances or murder mysteries or deep literary ficiton. It’s going to be a disaster, Sandra. Pull yourself out of your funk and stand up for the books you love, or Jenna will fill the literary world with nonsense that nobody can make heads or tails of. She’s already germinating her first idea and I’m afraid it will shape up to be even more confusing than Juicy Fruit Don’t Grow on Trees.”

Sandra pressed a hand to her chest. Ahab, with his superior hearing, could hear her racing pulse, and he knew he’d frightened her into action.

She stood from the pink chair and clenched her fists. For the first time in years—for the first time since Obie’s initial affair—Ahab gazed upon a Sandra in control of her own life, the heroine of a logical and ultimately satisfying story.

“I’ll do it,” Sandra declared. “I’m going to raise a new bookstore from the ashes of the old one—and a new life from the scorched ruin of my old life.”

“That’s the spirit!” Ahab flexed his claws in appreciation.

“Otis can fly a kite to Hell! He won’t have any part of this—and Laverne can keep her hideous doilies and stupid leather jackets out of it, too. I’m through trying to help her, trying to fix her. She’s on her own. From now on I plant my own trees, and their juicy fruit will be mine alone!”

“Ugh,” Ahab muttered.

“But what do I do first?” Sandra wondered aloud. Her fists loosened, and some of the force seemed to drain out of her.

Ahab jumped down from the sofa and padded to Sandra’s side. He stretched up and braced his paws against her knees, peering up into her face with earnest concern. “First you have to do the hardest thing of all: confront your antagonist.”

“My what?”

“Your antagonist. The one who’s been making your life hard.” He rolled his eyes. “This is an essential part of a solid plot, Sandra. Every good story has a moment when the heroine confronts her antagonist and hashes out their differences, so the heroine can move forward and claim her happy ending.”

“But who’s my antagonist? Obie? Laverne?”

“No; they’re just foils—red herrings. It’s Rosemary you’ll have to confront before you can move forward. How on Earth can you hope to run a bookstore out of her mansion if you don’t set things straight with Rosemary?”

“By God,” Sandra said faintly, “you’re right. Thank you for giving me clear direction, Ahab. I might never have been able to bring my story to a climax and a swift resolution without your guidance.”’

“That’s what I’m here for,” Ahab replied. He resisted the urge to preen his coat. The moment for prideful grooming would come, but this was not it. “I learned a thing or two, living among all those loudmouthed books for so long.”

Sandra headed for the coat rack, reached for her felted wool trench and her long, knitted scarf. “I’ll go see Rosemary right away.”

“That’s the spirit. Oh, but Sandra,” Ahab called as she scurried for the door, “one more thing.”

Sandra paused, waiting for his further guidance.

“Victorian House will do just fine selling tea, but you need to sell one more thing, too.”

“What’s that?”

“Ereaders.”

She squinted down at him, confused. “Ereaders?”

“That’s right. Most people are reading electronically now. Print books—they’re a relic, a frayed end. They’re fading away.”

Her face crumpled; she looked as if she might finally—after everything else she’d been through—cry. “But I don’t want books to fade away.”

“It’s the world you’re living in now. It’s reality. You have to embrace the ‘now,’ Sandra. The ‘now’ can’t be denied.”

From the bookshelf across the room, a muffled voice shouted, “That’s what I’ve been saying all along!” Ahab glared at the colorful spines and saw Eckart Tolle quivering with satisfaction.

“It’s true,” Ahab continued. “Think about it, Sandra: everybody who reads Juicy Fruit Don’t Grow on Trees and actually makes it all the way to Chapter 27 is reading on an electronic device of some sort. Go with the flow. Live in the now. By selling ereaders along with your print books and your tea, you’ll make Victorian House Books more successful than Our House ever was.”

Sandra smiled. “I’ll think about it, Kitty. I promise.”

With that, she was gone. Ahab trotted across the living room and jumped up onto the window sill. He watched Sandra striding through the night, passing in and out of streetlights’ vibrant rings. She was heading toward Rosemary’s mansion, and moving with a purpose Ahab hadn’t seen in years.

“You’ll be okay,” he said, his whiskers brushing the cool window pane.

In the silence of her home, he heard a faint, electronic buzz. He rotated one ear toward the sound. Sandra had left her phone on the coffee table, and it was open to a reading app of some sort. Ahab listened, straining to catch its softly pulsing murmur, wondering at the sound. Then finally he realized just what he was hearing: ebooks talking through the gossamer network of unseen connections—uncounted billions of connections, stretched like a glowing mantle around the globe. Hundreds of thousands of books—hundreds of thousands of voices clamoring, singing out their individual songs. It sounded like the music of the spheres.

“You’ll be okay,” Ahab said again. He jumped down from the window sill and began to groom his fur.

Chapter 28

by Ben Frerichs (1684 words)

In retrospect, the conversation with Rosemary went well by not going well. The barest suggestion that Sandra and Rosemary explore the idea of running a Victorian Tea/Book shop together met with resistance from Rosemary. The more Sandra thought about it, she thought how hard it would be to deal with Jenna’s mother partly because she was crazy, partly because she knew nothing about running a business, partly Jenna would be part of the mix. Loving old and new books wasn’t enough. That was its own form of craziness.

The other thought, well she had actually lots of thoughts as she walked back down the hill. A big one was that she had been talking to a cat, having a conversation with a cat! Maybe she and Rosemary would be a matched set in their craziness! Still whether she had talked with a cat or she was talking to the cat part of her own brain, there were some interesting ideas there.

Ahab had said that, “…her life is a mess, her business is a mess…” and that… “You need something other than books now.” He had, or the animal part of her own brain had, said that she needed to focus. But what of those books in what was left of the blown book store waiting to be destroyed by the next rain storm? They had value, they were important to her, she was their steward. Annie and Sean had also been their stewards for years too. They were young. Perhaps the books could be their start, Sandra’s legacy. Maybe they had the vision and energy to re-ravel Our House Book Store’s unraveling.

The next part Sandra wasn’t so proud of, but she was also the steward of an old ginger colored book store cat. The very cat who lost its home among the books and was in the store when the explosion occurred. For a cat Ahab wasn’t so smart, maybe just not so experienced with sneaky female bookstore owners. There was no way Ahab, Gertrude and Alice B. could co-exist in her home. So it seemed her duty to make sure Ahab was re-transitioned to his next home in good shape. He succumbed to a little left over tuna casserole to be lured into the pet carrier she used for transporting Gertrude and Alice B. The smarty-pants orange cat was on its way to visit the venerable Doc Kalpakian, the neighborhood vet to be checked out and cleaned up. Sandra kept telling him it was a sleep over at a cat spa. Ahab hissed and spat, he had nothing to say..

***

Sandra then took the longest shower she could recall taking by herself. Part of it was dedicated to memories of her times with Obie, when she sung at the top of her voice, “I’m gonna wash that man out of my hair…” from   “South Pacific”. A lot of it, until the hot water ran out, was digesting and re-digesting the wisdom she got from a freakin’ book store cat.

Here she felt painted into a corner: on her plate to deal with was a pile of bricks and old timbers that complemented a pile of old and new books, an embezzled business, recovering after her trust was violated by an unfaithful partner, a dirty old man who behaved like a college frat boy, and she was taken advantage of by one of her oldest friends, the insufferable drunk Laverne who wrote books she could hardly read, and to top it off that blushing Irish cop had her as a suspect in the arson of her own business. An old friend had once counselled her that when she felt painted into a corner, to turn around and look at the corner; often it was not a corner or maybe there was a door or window, or who knew what. When she turned and looked at the corner she saw new horizons and vistas.

Just before cold water chased her out of the shower, she had broken into her fractured version of “… happiness, or is it freedom, is having nothing left to lose…” Good thing she didn’t have to reinvent herself as a singer.

Sandra stood in front of a mirror brushing her kudzu-like mess of pewter-toned hair. It was her daily challenge and getting to be anold one. She was getting old, at least older. She considered the fact that somehow she had become stuck in the costume of her neo-hippie style she had affected as a book store owner. Time for a change, changes in costume to match changes implied in her cat conversation. If not full on ‘lean in’ maybe a tilt.

She needed to think about these new insights. So she rocked and watched the light re-focus from morning to afternoon on the bay underneath the perpetual sail of clouds moving through the sky. Slowly rocking, sipping, and thinking, petting her in-house animal companions Sandra emerged with clarity.

Eventually she felt the need to talk about the ideas, yearnings, insights and puzzles of these new directions that grabbed her emotional innards. But to whom? Sandra sat with her cell phone in hand in the big wooden rocker with the view of the bay. Laverne was gone who knew where, Jenna was a thief, Rosemary crazy, both Obie and Jason were assholes and also long gone; that left Sean and Annie, her bookstore family. Who else? The 70- 80 hour weeks running Our House Book store over the last 15 years didn’t allow much time or money for gregarious socializing. She respected Sean, liked him, but didn’t feel she knew him so much; but Annie had become a valued employee, a treasured bibliophile, a surrogate little sister, and a “sister” who also had been screwed literally and figuratively by a duplicitous male rogue. Annie was as close as her speed dial.

***

“Annie?”

“Sandra, how are you. You must be devastated.”

“Well in a weird way, I’ve gotten myself to a good place, looking ahead,” said Sandra.

“How so?”

“I had a long conversation with Ahab. Who pointed out a way to look at my messed up business and personal lives. But of course since he is a cat, I am looking at his ideas in the direct opposite. Do you have some time?”

“All you need. But first have you seen or heard from Sean?”

“Not a word, the last I heard he confirmed our insurance was in place and paid up and said he had to make some phone calls, not sure why, but he said he’d get back to me.”

“That is what he said to me. I have no idea where he is. He isn’t with me. What do you want to talk about? I’m all ears.”

Sandra said, “Let me start at the end. I don’t want to reopen the bookstore.”

“Whoa! What’ll we, what will you do? What about the books, the special collections?”

“They need someone who loves them, someone who values them, someone who knows what to do with the business side of book loving … someone like you, maybe you and Sean.”

“Sandra, you can’t! The bookstore is you.”

“Not any more. Now it’s just a pile of books and bricks.”

“But what …”

“Well truly I have no idea, not one idea but many and they are all about change. I want to work creatively and not just sell someone else’s creativity. I want to create, not just move stuff someone else created. I want to look differently. I want to travel. Maybe I’ll travel and write a book, ‘write, paint, love’! I don’t want to work 70 – 80 hours a week. I don’t want to deal with petulant traveling writers. I don’t want to humor people wanting books to match their living room colors. I want to live life, not read about it or steward books so others can read about how to live their lives.”

“Whoa again! You want to reinvent yourself.”

“I have always loved books, read books, still do, always will, but I just don’t want to be responsible for them anymore. I want to grow and create, not monitor. I don’t want to do whatever I do in one place. I want to be able to see some of the world even if it is only the Blue Highways of the States.”

“Any ideas what you will do?”

“Not yet. But I know that I don’t even want to think about with ebooks and ereaders.

“But …”

“Annie how would you like to own the book store and do it your way? We can work out some deal. I’ll end up with some insurance money and a pile of books and you could take that…even work with Rosemary on her Victorian book and tea store idea if you wanted or whatever you and Sean want. Or use the books with whatever idea he comes up, may be a combination book and bike store!”

“I don’t know, I have to admit I grew to feel some ownership in Our House Book store. It’s an exciting and scary idea.”

***

“Detective Quinn here.”

“This is the Sandra who owns the blown bookstore on the south side.”

“Thanks, that helps. There’s only one blown bookstore in town and you’re the only Sandra I know. What can I do for you?” said John Quinn

She wondered, well she hoped that he blushed.

“Can I come and talk to you about progress on the case? Do we have to meet in your office with all the cops, and desks and guns?”

“No the office is noisy and crowded. There’s a good cafe across Commercial Street from the front door. How about 4:30, end of my day, so it can be catch coffee or a drink?”

Sandra dressed in her “go to conventions, conferences and trade show” costume. She had minimized the volume of her hair and gave herself a positive talkin’ to. She wanted to remove herself from the list of arson suspects. More, she wanted someone to hold her hand while she reinvented herself.

Chapter 29

by Eileen Byrne (1991 words)

Officer John Quinn had gathered more than enough evidence, thanks in part to Sandra and her back up Gertrude, to hand over to state investigators and the FBI for criminal prosecution against one Otis Branch. The backpack was stuffed with a money trail that lead right to Old Blood and Thunder. The case against the oh so elegant Laverne Lutz was weak but had some promise for some jail time or possibly she could turn tables on her former lover and partner in many crimes. The crime committed against Sandra would be the heaviest to carry. Sleeping with your best friend’s lover, stealing money from her, and all under Sandra’s nose and roof all these years was just downright rude and almost unforgiveable. Miss Lutz has been tucked away in a rejuvenation residence as they are now called. Rehab is just so cliché these days in Los Angeles. Her son Jason is still a trainwreck, with children he can’t support and a wife who went MIA with the last one. Well, who knows if it is the last one. He had already been bedding the college intern working at his mother’s rejuvenation residence. Jason finally texted Annie about some “poor me” story and asked if she still missed him. Then, after being met with silence, the texts got angry and insistent about meeting. Then that went to, “Fine I am selling your things to make up for your things taking up space in MY apartment!” to “I am so sorry, let’s please talk, remember how good we were?” Too bad Annie never heard past his first text. Blocking numbers was way too easy.

Sandra was also good at blocking numbers. She finally made her peace with Rosemary, Laverne, Otis and the lot of them. Every person had their lesson to teach and she felt like she had just passed the bar exam. She even changed her mind about opening a business with Rosemary but was still exploring options. Everyone had a little crazy in them. She supposed she could contribute just as much as the next. Her journey was eased with the insurance money, her passport filling up with stamps, and messages from Officer John Quinn, now affectionately known as Johnny. She knew her homework wasn’t complete and each day brought something new. To quote one of her favorites from her hippy era, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

*****

The sun was still warm in the horizon, the sand white and sticky to walk on and left tracks straight to “Hog’s Breath Saloon,” a small but packed bar in Key West. The Carter Brothers were tuning up their guitars and getting ready to belt out all the local favorites. The parking lot was filling up with Harleys, scooters and fat bikes. Drinks were being poured, mixed and consumed at a respectable pace. At the street side the bar stools were almost full. The third to right was a large man belting out another story. He became a local favorite quickly. Kenny Cole could talk up a storm for sure. “Well you know I kind of grew up with Jimmy Buffet. I was the one that helped him write the lyrics for Cheeseburger in Paradise! We used to get down and dirty with the women and high and mighty with the Coral reefers!” A slender man and larger woman sat down and occupied the other two bar stools to Kenny’s left. “Well hello to you both. Tell me is this your first day here at the islands? Because I have to use my honed-in detective skills….you both seem like fresh fish to me! Whiter than white skin with red shoulders and red faces! Hope you brought your sun tan oil!”

The man actually did smile and his lady managed her best fake smile while wiping sweat from her forehead. “Well I suppose we are a couple of fish out of water so to speak. Long flight from New York.” The man politely replied without asking for any banter in return. Instead he looked at a drink menu with his lady. They both ordered Pina Coladas.

“Are you kidding me? Those drinks need blenders! Not even Harry Truman, Robert Frost, Winslow Homer or Ernest Hemingway drank those kinds of drinks here! For God’s sake at least order a mojito in Hemingway’s style. It was HIS drink. Get the Hemingway Hammer!” Kenny was not about to let these poor tourists get their asses kicked in their first 24 hours in Key West.

“Alright then, may we please get two Hemingway Hammers?” The man asked meekly. The lady glared at him like he could not order for himself or her. Kenny could sense this weakness. He could smell blood. “How do you do miss, my name is Kenny and I am pleased to not only be seated next to you but able to teach you a few island tricks.” Kenny winked just to pour on the charm. This time the woman smiled for real.

“Let me tell you two about the time I was in New York for the Who Farewell Tour in 1982 or was it the 1989 one? I heard they did it again this year. Those guys just can never really say goodbye! We were in sellout crowds at Shea Stadium…the old one….not the new one….and I had to break up more fights between Daltry and Townsend than any other cheap bar fights I have witnessed.”

The man got up to perhaps use the facilities. Kenny did not notice as he was solely focused on his new prey. Instead of using the bathroom, he sat down on the other side of Kenny. All the barstools had mysteriously emptied out. The man put a hand on Kenny’s back.

“You never asked for my name. Let me tell you about a story of my own. I grew up in Bellevue and I didn’t know anyone famous. I didn’t hang out with high rollers or authors. I just studied hard and eventually made it to police academy. From there I was scouted for the FBI. I then went into special crimes with arson, insurance fraud and racketeering. My partner and I are kind of done hearing about your stories of rock stars. We are more interested in your story about a cigarette with your prints on it found in Our House Bookstore which burned to the ground. Then maybe we can continue with your story on how you seemed to disappear off the face of the earth…well at least the face of Washington State? Oh and then we can get to that large stack of records checked into evidence that seems to have you all over it. $762,890 dollars goes further when you don’t split it with Miss Lutz? So, I don’t want to be rude. I am Special Agent Dean White and this is Special Agent Melinda Purdy. It’s nice to finally meet you, Otis Branch.”

This time Kenny or Otis or Old Blood and Thunder had no words.

****

Annie woke with the sun shining on her face. She knew before opening her eyes it was going to be one of those perfect, blue bird days. She felt a spot of warmth next to her and moved her arm over hoping to find Sean but instead connected with the one and only faithful companion Gertrude. How does something so tiny, so compact pack so much wisdom and sweet, unconditional love? If only Pugs could run for president and rule the world. We’ve seen worse dogs make a go of it for sure. Annie was lucky Gertrude had been put in her care as Sandra traveled the world.

The spring mornings still held on to a chill which meant a scarf and matching wool hat and gloves. Annie hopped on her bike and pedaled off. The ride was downhill to the corner of 5th and Vine downtown. The wind pushed back her hair so the full view of the building was in sight. It had been over a year since the fire and she should be used to it by now but it still caught her not quite believing. What a year can do.

She was in love. In love with so many things and feeling like she was settling into herself and life. “I love my home. I love Sean. I love this town. I love this crazy Pug (which was riding in her backpack with a chew toy) and I love the Nouvelle Maison!” Annie pulled up right in front of the NM and admired the windows looking out across the bay. After the fire Sean had ownership of the building. The insurance policy reimbursed Sandra as the sole business owner under her insurance and Sean was also given his pay out for loss of the building and to rebuild. Part of that came from taxpayer’s money due to the building’s historical value. So rebuild, re-invent and a major do over was in order after the Our House fire. Everyone got on that train.

Annie pulled her bike into the hallway towards the back offices.

“You know you are not supposed to bring that in through the front?” A very cheeky and happy Sean teased Annie.

“Tough shit. This is the old front door. This is now the side entrance and doesn’t count!” Countered Annie, maneuvering around Ahab who refused to move and almost dared to be hit. He was still Annie’s side kick even as she let that pug out of her backpack. He survived much worse than being run over by a Trek hybrid bicycle. He had literally walked through the flames of hell and survived.

“So looking at the books, it will be a very busy weekend. The top 4 rooms are rented for the writers circle, Table Thyme is teaching a cooking class in the kitchen and they plan on doing a book pairing menu. The Shook Twins will be playing in the music room and of course most will retire in the bar.” Sean was rechecking all the reservation deposits and payments.

The Nouvelle Maison was the name of the new building where Our House had been. Translated from French it meant New House. Everyone thought that was fitting for the new building. Instead of all books, the building was home to a bed and breakfast of four rooms that over looked the bay that was used to gather like-minded authors or creative geniuses in the making. A place a writer could rest and take time to write something from their soul. The book store was on the third floor and commanded the best views, comfortable chairs to read, relax and browse. The books truly appreciated the view after so many years in shelves facing the walls. Now every book felt special, loved and sought after not just the classics or the self-help ones. Even cook books felt glamorous in the new digs.

The building also boasted a kitchen that could cater, create special menus and teach people to cook up works of art in their own kitchen. A music room where musicians could collaborate, write music or just jam some tunes together. The last corner was used for a bar. The fire had left a considerable amount of bricks behind and they were reused to make the bar with a roaring fire to chase away the chill in the winter. Candles and flowers in the summer, a space where the guests, locals and passersby could gather, have a drink, tell stories and get their creative juices flowing for whatever form of art they loved and held dear. For the owners, Sean Cary and Annie Madigan believed everyone had a story to tell. The bar aptly was named Old Blood and Thunder.

It was here in OBT that the two owners sat drinking a Moscow Mule, looking out over part of the bay and part of the downtown, when a familiar face came into view.

Chapter 30

by Mary Ellen Courtney (2465 words)

“Either that’s Sandra or this mule has kicked me,” said Annie.

Sean had noticed the woman walking by the window, had even thought she looked familiar, but she hadn’t registered as Sandra. Her curly gray hair that, let’s be real, had always reminded him of a witch, was cropped close. She had traded in her usual baggy sweater over gauzy skirt and UGG boots, for a flowing purple shirt draped with a brilliant saffron-colored scarf over fluttery pants, and sandals. Her trademark dreamcatcher earrings that were always tangled sideways in her witchy hair were gone. Sean used to be amazed at the amount of time she spent unwinding her hair from those webbed hoops just to do it again an hour later. Annie had a theory that it was the one, and only, way Sandra cared for herself. Sean suspected it was the story of her life.

Sandra glanced their way, as though she felt their eyes on her, and smiled. They both gave her a little wave as she turned in toward the door.

“The earrings are gone,” said Sean.

“She walks like a different person,” said Annie.

It was true. Sandra came through the door and rather than plod their way weighed down by layers of clothes, head tilted sideways, trying to untangle an earring, she drifted their direction in undulating strides, head high, the small jewels in her ears glinting as she passed through sunbeams.

Sean jumped up and pulled out a chair for her, something he had never thought to do before while Annie jumped up to greet her with a hug. Annie and Sandra settled at the table while Sean went to make chai for Sandra.

“I’m surprised to see you,” said Annie.

“Happy?” asked Sandra.

“Happy to see you? Of course!” said Annie. “I just wish I’d known so I could have our best room ready.”

“No worries, Johnny has invited me to stay with him. It will be quieter. Well, in some ways. He’s meeting me here after work.”

Annie blinked when Sandra said, ‘no worries’. She’d never heard her say anything remotely like that. Sandra had always personified worry. She was always tense, even when she was deciding to strike out on her own and be a creator instead of a caretaker of creators.

“John comes in for coffee and a muffin a few times a week,” said Annie. “We said we’d get in donuts, but he likes the muffins.”

“Johnny isn’t a donut cop,” said Sandra. “He’s really quite spiritual. He met me in India, did you know that?”

“I did. He said you were reading Eat, Pray, Love. When I told him the synopsis, he decided to intervene before you got to Indonesia.”

Sandra laughed. “He is a man of few words but lots of action; it took some time to get used to that after old blabbermouth. My nervous system didn’t know what to do with itself at first.”

“What is the situation with Otis?”

“Otis is why I’m here. I thought it was all settled. I had forgiven him. But then he pulled an Otis and changed his tactics. His lawyer, and Laverne’s claim I was part of their money skimming and forgery schemes.”

“How could they?” asked Annie. “They were scamming each other!”

“True, there was hardly room for a third party in their hanky panky.”

“There was always room for a third party,” said Annie. “And a fourth and a fifth. That’s where Jason learned it.”

“Yes. Otis was a bad role model, one of his myriad flaws.”

“I can’t believe you’re calling it hanky panky. That doesn’t begin to describe what they did. They destroyed your life!”

“You’ve read the Greeks, Annie. As I recall, you were taking a class on mythology in fiction when I hired you. I am a Phoenix, Annie. And so are you. Are you doing any writing?”

“We’ve been too busy getting this place up and running.”

“You need to write, Annie. You will always be busy, especially now. Make the time.”

“Have you?”

“Oh yes. I spent three months in Cape Town. They have a vibrant writing community. I finished a first draft of a novel, and I’ve been keeping a diary of my travels. Going to Africa feels like going home. Johnny and I are going back when this is all over. He plans to retire. I might write a memoir. You have to admit, life has been stranger than fiction.”

Sean was headed their way with chai in one hand, and Ahab under his other arm. Gertrude, who had become the shop dog, trotted alongside. Annie leaned toward Sandra.

“I need to ask you something,” she said. “Why is Jason’s last name Boll and not Branch?”

“Oh, that. Those two. Neither of them wanted to make him public. Otis was probably juggling ten women at the time, and Laverne thought it would hurt her marketability to, as she said haul around the obvious repercussions of all the bodice-ripping sex she writes. They came up with that name using their initials.”

“I could have ended up marrying a stranger with a forged identity.”

“And had a bunch of baby Bolls with Otis and Laverne the grandparents. ”

“Wow,” said Annie. “Erica got stuck with that mess.”

Sean set down the tea while Gertrude sniffed Sandra’s feet to get reacquainted, and Ahab struggled out of the armlock and dropped onto her lap.

“What wow?” asked Sean. “What did I miss?”

“You haven’t missed anything,” said Sandra. “You’re the lucky winner. You got the girl.”

“Woman,” murmured Ahab.

“Ahab has been hanging out in the feminist literature section,” said Annie. “He and Gloria seem to have bonded.”

“A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” purred Ahab.

Sandra stroked his ears, “You know, Gloria didn’t come up with that, A. It was Patricia Dunn, an Australian. I met her last year. Ouch!”

Ahab’s gentle thigh kneading turned mean when Sandra stole Gloria’s light. Patricia Dunn. Who ever heard of Patricia Dunn? He jumped off Sandra’s lap, took a quick swipe at interloper Gertrude’s ear, and stiff-legged it upstairs back to the cat lovers Gloria, Bella, and Betty. Betty had been reading him “The Feminine Mystique”.

Sandra dipped her napkin in cold water and dabbed at the little bit of blood that seeped through the fabric of her pants.

“I see Ahab hasn’t changed. Still thinks this store is the entire world. You’d think his time on the outside after the fire would have broadened his horizons. He needs to read “Room”. Get a grip.”

“I just downloaded it,” said Annie.

Oops! She hadn’t planned to mention that she read a lot on a Kindle now.

“I read it on the plane here,” said Sandra. “I’m going to download the movie when it’s available; I’ve heard great things about the acting.”

“Download it?” asked Annie.

“On my Kindle Fire. What a great device. I can carry an entire bookstore with me where ever I go.”

“I thought you hated ebooks,” said Sean.

“I did, but I don’t sell books anymore, I write them. The view is different from this side of the street. You two are smart; you turned this into a destination.”

“Where did you meet Patricia Dunn?” asked Annie.

“A writer’s conference in Cape Town. Very interesting woman. She married a bank robber.”

“So you both got involved with con men?” asked Sean.

“I don’t know if I’d call a bank robber a con man; it’s a straightforward way to steal. And she knew it when she married him,” said Sandra. “I had to find out the hard way.”

They sat quietly and sipped their drinks in the warm sun, with Gertrude curled up on Sandra’s foot.

Sandra broke away from the view of the sun-dappled bay and looked at the lovely people at her table who she had, literally and figuratively, left to clean up a mess of her making. And she did see it as her creation. That was something she had learned in her wandering, her meditating, her journaling and her soul-searching. She had attracted the players in her messy drama. She had had, what Johnny jokingly described as, a psychotic magnetic attraction for the wrong people. She had ignored her gut when it screamed at her that Otis had never met anybody outside the confines of his thick skull. He was nothing more than a loud fat bullshitter. And Laverne. Laverne, the gallingly successful author-of-nothingness. Laverne had been the same since childhood. She was the one with flash and flare. It felt like she lit up Sandra’s seemingly dull existence. But it was always just flash. No one felt changed or moved, understood or enlightened, when they finished one of Laverne’s books. They didn’t think about it, but they had just burned through five or six precious, never-to-return, hours of their life so Laverne could buy leather leggings, high-heeled boots, and swill expensive wine. Otis and Laverne were perfect for each other, too bad people like that need an audience. Sandra didn’t like thinking about it, the waste of time, but apparently she had needed to go through their particular brand of fire. She wondered how the others were doing.

“So tell me,” she said. “How are Rosemary and Jenna?”

“Oh,” said Annie, “I thought you knew. I’d forgotten how out-of-touch you’ve been.”

“Rosemary went back to insisting that she was the rightful owner of the Our House building,” said Sean. “Some days she seemed fine, other days she got completely lost in the weeds of her life’s narrative. She’d insist that Jenna’s father was my great-uncle JP. There was no convincing her.”

“Are you positive he wasn’t?” asked Sandra. “I wouldn’t put it past Otis to claim progeny not rightfully his to paint himself as more virile.”

“JP was not Jenna’s father,” said Sean. “In the first place, he would have had to be eighty-years-old at the time, and Picasso he wasn’t. Second, he was, as far as family lore will delve, interested in men, not women. He had no offspring which is why I inherited the house.”

“Then how did she come up with that story?” asked Sandra.

“He grew up in that house,” said Annie. “And Rosemary’s family lived across the street. He would have been a young man when she was just little. He was a handsome man. Sean looks just like him. All we can guess is that she had one of those little girl infatuations with the handsome teenager across the street. When she realized she’d been taken advantage of by Otis and was pregnant, with her fragile psyche and all, she wrote a better story for herself and cast JP as her debonair lover.”

“Poor Rosemary,” said Sandra. “She claimed JP bought her that house.”

“She inherited that house; she grew up in that house. It was moved up the hill when the streets were widened.”

“So how is she?” asked Sandra.

“She’s fine as long as she takes her medication. She’s still in the house; Jenna oversees her care. Did you know she’d been stealing from you all those years? The house was full of books, I mean packed like a hoarder,” said Sean. “There was just a size 7 shoe path between stacks going up the stairs. It’s a miracle they didn’t tumble down and bury her alive.”

“We didn’t know about the books until we found her pulling a Radio Flyer up the hill. It was full of books from the Our House basement,” said Annie. “She must have made a hundred trips under cover of darkness. She almost got away with it, but the kid up the street got a paper route and got up early for the first time in his life. He discovered his old wagon was missing, and his parents called the cops.”

“Busted over a Radio Flyer,” said Sandra. “Poor Rosemary.”

“It’s okay. They didn’t press charges. They figured it was fine for her to use it while their kid slept.”

“That’s so Bellingham, isn’t it? So civilized,” said Sandra. “So what became of the books?”

Sean gestured toward the ceiling. “A lot of them are upstairs; some are still with her. We hired her to rehabilitate them after the smoke and water damage. She learned book repair. Jenna helped her section off an area of the house where she zaps them with ozone, powders them, repairs the bindings. It’s good therapy. As you know, they make good company. We reclaimed anything that is too dark and all that dystopian future nonsense. We didn’t want them trying to convince her she’s living in a silo or on Mars. We’re trying to keep her in the here and now.”

“Those books have been through so much together, we couldn’t bear to sell them, so we turned them into a lending library,” said Annie. “That way they go out into the world for a while, but then come home.”

“How are they taking it?”

“Most are fine. The Georgians, Emma and her lot, have been okay with the arrangement, but then they’re used to arrangements. It’s the Victorians who complain. We know they secretly enjoy the titillation. All except the Robert Louis Stevenson bunch, they love the adventure.”

“And Jenna? Is she writing?”

“Jenna is marrying a fireman who she has been watching come and go across the street for the last year. She’s writing a book, working title, “Hook & Ladder”. She won’t let anyone see it, much less read it.”

“A fireman? That’s ironic. It would be even better if Rosemary or Jenna burned down Our House.”

Sean and Annie looked at each other.

“What?” asked Sandra.

“Are you sure they didn’t?” asked Annie. “Rosemary is certainly wacky enough to do it. And Otis, as completely unreliable as he is, swears there wasn’t time for his cigarette to ignite that explosion. And a cigarette wouldn’t cause an explosion anyway.”

“But he intended to,” said Sean. “He has admitted that.”

“Yes. Admitting that was a rare slip up for Otis,” said Sandra. “He told the police he wanted to burn the place down to pay me back for double-crossing them over our fictitious partnership. Johnny says it’s the kind of defense that makes a jury’s eyes glaze over. Slam dunk. They’re toast, no pun intended. And they’re taking Jason with them. They finally caught up with him, Erica and the kids.”

“He was with Erica?” asked Annie.

“I guess he can be pretty convincing,” said Sandra.

Sean reached over and took Annie’s hand. She smiled weakly and sipped the melted ice and vodka in her copper mug.

Sandra’s breath caught, and she stood up as Johnny came through the door. She turned to Sean and Annie and smiled.

“Someone needed to burn it down,” she said. “Let’s help each other stay in the here and now.”

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