Friday, May 6
Shane Devlin yanked the nightgown over her head and groaned as she caught her reflection in the full length mirror mounted to the back of her bedroom door. Irish girls are supposed to be cute…soft and curvy. Not like this.
She moved closer to the mirror and sighed. Her fingers twisted the limp, shoulder length, auburn hair that framed her lightly-freckled, but otherwise ordinary face. Stepping back, her gaze dropped to where her breasts should be then followed the line of her waist which dropped straight down where her hips should have been.
She never understood how someone who looked as she did from the hips up could have the legs of a model—long, coltish legs, with smooth thighs, dainty knees, gracefully curved calves, delicate ankles, and perfectly formed feet. A long sigh escaped. I look like a sculptor began a statue of a goddess from the bottom up but ran out of inspiration before he could do a proper job of finishing the top. If it wasn’t for my legs, I could put on a man’s bathing suit, pull back my hair, and pass for a guy on the beach. She grinned. Well, maybe not in a Speedo.
“Why do you keep doing this to yourself?” she asked her image, then donned her robe and headed for the bathroom, hoping neither of her roommates would be awake yet.
When Shane interviewed for the third of the three bedrooms, Gail Washington and Carol Navarro had lived in the first floor apartment for almost two years. She expected to have to adapt to their routines, but when they explained they would all have to share the single large bathroom, she never imagined they meant at the same time.
She discovered her roommates’ lack of modesty the first morning, as she was drying her hair, when Carol walked into the bathroom, said good morning, pulled off her nightshirt, and jumped into the shower. A few minutes later, Gail came in to pee. Then, shower done, Carol pulled back the curtain and began drying off as she asked Shane how she slept last night. Though she was terribly embarrassed that first day, now, four months later, she envied the freedom they felt and wondered if she might be less self-conscious about her own body if she were blessed with the curves Gail and Carol possessed.
Walking down the hall, she heard the toilet flush. As she neared the door, it opened, and a man, clad only in tight, grey briefs, stepped into the hall.
“Oh, hi,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “You must be Shane. I’m Malcolm, a friend of Gail’s.”
She blushed at the sight of his hairy, muscled chest and arms, trim waist, promising bulge, and strong legs and felt her face growing hotter as she realized she was looking down when she should be looking up. But by the time she lifted her eyes to meet his, he was already looking past her as he started back to Gail’s bed. Despite her discomposure, her eyes followed him, feasting on the sight of his tight butt and the way his body moved down the hall until he glanced back when he reached Gail’s door, catching her stare. Mortified, she spun around and hurried into the bathroom.
“There you go,” Shane said, sliding the stack of children’s books across the counter to the young mother. As she greeted the next person, she noticed the line had grown. Where are they all coming from?
A quick glance at her watch told her it was eleven-thirty. This was usually a slow time, a time when she could do things that didn’t require concentration, when she could let her mind wander.
Darn. Still an hour to go before lunch. An hour before she could sit quietly and daydream about him.
She shifted into efficiency mode, using all her tricks to speed up the check-out process. A few minutes later, the line had shrunk to three. When she heard the front door slide open, she instinctively glanced over.
Mark DeLuca unzipped his jacket and ran his fingers through his windblown, light-brown hair. He stretched his six foot frame and started toward the desk to drop off a book. I wonder how many titles there’ll be in the card catalogue.
One side of his mouth curled into a lopsided half-smile as it did each time he caught himself using the old term he learned as a boy and could not seem to shake, even so many years after computers replaced the massive chests of drawers stuffed with cards.
A few minutes later, he surveyed the results of his keyword search. There were more volumes on hydroponics than he anticipated. He always began his research for a new book with an overview of what others wrote about the subject. After jotting down a list of titles, he lifted his denim-blue eyes from the screen and regarded the young librarian at the desk as she scanned library cards, books, tapes, and videos and tucked the return slips under the covers.
Several times over the past few months, he caught her watching him. At first, he assumed it was because she recognized him from the photo that accompanied the short biography at the end of each of his books. But lately, he noticed she seemed just the tiniest bit flustered if he smiled at her when he was checking out research volumes.
She looks about twenty-two or twenty-three, the same age Suzy was when I first met her. But what a difference. Suzy’s hair always looked stylish, even after jogging for an hour. Hers just hangs there, as if it’s too tired to fluff or curl. Hmmm…she looks a little taller than Suz, maybe five seven or eight. Too bad she doesn’t have even half of Suzy’s curves. The poor girl wouldn’t draw a wolf-whistle from a guy who just spent ten years on a desert island. But her smile…wow!
It was only in their smiles Mark thought the two equal. Suzy was beautiful to begin with. When she smiled, it only added to her allure. Shane, on the other hand, was not blessed with great beauty, but when she smiled, her entire face transformed into a radiant beacon that drew your eyes and held them. He only caught her smile a few times, but each time left an indelible impression. On several occasions, he considered telling her how amazing her smile was, but he was afraid she would think he was coming on to her, or worse, patronizing her, and did not want to take the chance of embarrassing her.
He shrugged and gathered his notebook and pencil. As he turned, he looked her way again just as she glanced over at him. Their eyes met for a second and he caught her almost panicked reaction as she quickly looked away. Grinning, he headed toward the shelves to find his books.
“Come on, Shane,” Gail wheedled, “it’s Friday night. Why stay home alone? Come with us. We’re going to D’s.” Shane clearly was not convinced so Gail persisted. “The Leon Roberts Band is playing…great rhythm & blues! And there’s always a lot of cute guys there.”
Johnny D’s was Gail’s favorite nightspot. The club had a knack for finding exceptional performers, many of them virtually unknown until D’s gave them their first break. On a given night, you might find blues, country rock, R&B, folk—even westernized dance music from Zimbabwe.
“I don’t know,” Shane finally said. “I just started this really great book about…”
“Book, shmook. Books are for rainy Sundays. How are you supposed to meet guys if you sit home all the time?”
With a matter-of-fact look that matched her voice, Shane said, “Guys aren’t interested in me.”
“Well I can see why with that kind of attitude!”
“Leave her alone, Gail,” Carol said as she walked into the living room. “Shane’s a big girl and if she doesn’t feel like clubbing, she doesn’t feel like clubbing.”
“Thank you.” Shane half-smiled her appreciation for the support whereupon Gail threw her hands up and almost stomped down the hall to her bedroom.
“She means well,” Carol said, taking a seat on the sofa next to the chair into which Shane had curled.
“I know, but I’m just not into that kind of thing. I don’t know why it upsets her that I’m not like you guys.”
“What do you mean?”
“What do I mean? You’re kidding, right?”
With a shake of her head, Shane said, “Look at the two of you. You’re both beautiful, you have these great bodies and great personalities. Guys are all over you. Then look at me. Skinny, ugly, and shy. If I went out with you two, guys wouldn’t even notice me. Heck, they don’t notice me when I’m alone. I could probably stand naked in the middle of Main Street and nobody would even step on the brake to look.”
“Shane! That’s a horrible thing to say about yourself. And it’s so not true. You have a nice face. Maybe you are a little skinny, but I’d be happy to trade these boobs for yours any day.”
That Shane did not believe her was obvious.
“You think I’m kidding? Do you have any idea what it’s like having to carry these around all day? How heavy they are? Half the time my back hurts. And look at this…” Carol pulled the collar of her sweater to the side then moved the bra strap as well. “Grooves. I’ve got grooves in my shoulders. How attractive is that? If I wasn’t scared it might screw up breast feeding when I have kids someday, I’d have half of them lopped off tomorrow.
“As for having guys all over me, how do you think it feels knowing guys are only interested in me for my boobs? When you talk to men at work, do their eyes always drop down to check out your chest?”
Shane snorted. “What’s there to check out?”
“So they pay attention to what you’re saying. You can have a real conversation with them. You think I can do that? Especially in my business?
“I love the work, but sometimes I hate going into body shops for the first time. The guys take one look at me and think I’m an easy mark…that I’ll never catch on to their inflated damage estimates. I can almost see the dollar signs in their eyes when I introduce myself.” She laughed. “But there is the fun of watching their faces as I go over the vehicle and pick apart their estimate, item by item. I have to admit I get some grudging respect from them after that. But I also know that as soon as I leave, they’ll be joking about throwing me over a fender and fucking me.”
Shane blushed at the vulgarity.
“Sorry. I know you don’t like that. It just slipped out.”
“That’s okay. But I really had no idea about, well, any of it.”
They chatted for a while longer, until Gail returned. She was wearing a short black skirt and scoop-neck top.
“Wow!” Shane said. “You look hot! Malcolm’s going to love you in that.”
“Who’s Malcolm?” Carol asked at the same moment Gail asked, “How do you know Malcolm?”
“I sort of met him in the hall this morning when I was going to take a shower.”
“Who’s Malcolm?” Carol repeated.
“He’s a salesman for one of our suppliers. We went out a few times, and last night he picked me up after work and we went into Boston dancing and then we came back here. You were gone before we got up.”
“Well, well! Why didn’t you tell me he’d be with us tonight?”
“Because he won’t be. He’s okay, but…” She glanced over at Shane. “…we really didn’t click in bed. He’s one of those guys who thinks slipping me some tongue and pinching my nipples a few times is foreplay.”
Shane colored a bit, but just sat and listened while Carol clucked her sympathy. “You could teach the guy, you know.”
“I know. But geez, how does a guy get to be twenty-seven years old and not know his way around down there. Besides, he wasn’t all that funny, and he wasn’t all that crazy about R&B.”
Both Shane and Carol knew that not loving rhythm & blues was the kiss of death for any guy’s chances with Gail.
“Are you sure you won’t come with us?” Gail asked. “What if we have a no-guys night? It’ll be just the three of us. We’ll have some drinks, listen to some music, and just have a girls’ night.”
“Sure,” said Carol, “that’s a great idea. Come on, Shane. It’ll be fun.”
“Really? Just us?”
“Absolutely. You’ve been here almost four months and we’ve never gone out just the three of us,” Gail said. “I think it’s about time.”
Shane was smiling now. “Well…okay. Just give me a few minutes to change.” She jumped up and hurried down the hall to her bedroom.
Carol watched her go. Why have I never noticed how different she looks when she smiles? Have I ever seen her smile before? I must have, but if I did, it never made an impression. Or maybe I just never paid attention. She stood and smoothed her skirt. This girls’ night is a good idea. It’s time we got to know more about our Miss Devlin.
Mark pushed around the papers on his desk, searching for the Northern Exposure bookmark Suzy gave him long ago. He was a big fan of the original series and lapped up reruns for years after. Late one afternoon, Suzy returned from the mall with a mischievous smile. She told him he could either have a kiss or what was behind her back. Mark was no fool. He opted for the kiss, which turned into an evening of lovemaking so amazing he completely forgot about what might have been in her hand. When he awakened the next morning, he found on his nightstand the bookmark, with a freshly-tied blue ribbon around it.
He was about to start cursing when he mumbled, “Oh, what a dope” and turned around to find it on the table behind him, right where he put it three hours before so it would not get lost in the shuffle of papers on his desk.
He leaned back and put his feet up. I wonder if such forgetfulness could be a sign of early senility. His soft chuckle was interrupted by the phone.
“Hey, buddy, how’s it going?”
“I knew it had to be you, Deek. You’re the only one who calls after eight.”
“Hey, I just got home from the shop. Haven’t even kissed my wife yet.”
Dikran Bedrosian, one of Mark’s two best friends, lived across the street from Mark when they were kids. These days, he made his home in San Diego, where he operated a network installation business.
Five years ago, after almost seven years of trying, he finally convinced his college sweetheart and longtime roommate, Brooke, to marry him so they could start a family. And start they did. Justin, their oldest, was born ten months after the wedding. Fourteen months later, Shannon came along.
“If you haven’t kissed Brooke yet, she’s either out or has finally come to her senses and dumped your sorry ass.”
Deek laughed. Before they were married, Brooke would regularly threaten to dump him every time he went more than a day without making love to her. Now, with two kids tiring her out and a thriving business keeping him busy, he only heard the threat if he let a week go by.
“She and the kids are out back. I figured I’d give you a call before I joined them.”
Despite Mark’s protestations about having too much research to do for his next book, Deek spent the next ten minutes trying to convince him to fly out for a visit.
“You know it’s been, what, a year and a half since you’ve been out here. I’m starting to forget what your ugly face looks like.”
“I know, I know.”
Four years ago, when the love of his life was diagnosed with cancer and chemotherapy caused her hair to fall out, he went to his barber and had his head shaved in a show of sympathy and solidarity. When he returned home that day, and Suzy got her first look at her newly bald husband, she collapsed with laughter. Then, as he knelt in front of her chair, her laughs turned to tears—tears of love for his sweet gesture, tears of hate for the disease that made it necessary, and tears of frustration at her helplessness.
She fought valiantly through five rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, but the cancer would not give in. When her chance of recovery became so slim even she lost hope, she simply said, “enough” and went home to prepare for the end.
Mark was by her side every day for nearly four months, holding her, loving and comforting her, cheering her as best he could until the night she woke him just before four AM and told him it was time. He begged her not to let go, prayed for just a few more days, a few more hours with her, and cried with her as they whispered their love and their final good-byes. Then, with tears streaming down his face, he held her close as she closed her eyes for the last time.
Now, almost two years later, Mark’s heart broke anew each morning when he awakened and realized his Suzy was not next to him.
His world began to contract the day he buried the woman who came to define happiness for him. Slowly, but persistently, he withdrew from friends and situations that reminded him of the ten wonderful years he shared with her, until all who remained were his two oldest friends, friends who, despite the distance between them, would not give up on him no matter what.
His world became his study, the grocery and a few other stores, and the library, where he did much of his research, and where he would occasionally borrow an old movie, usually one Suzy loved to watch.
He knew his life was unhealthy, but could not muster the ambition to do anything about it. At least twice a week he told himself that one day soon, he would clean out the closets and drawers where all of Suzy’s stuff sat untouched, exactly as it was the day she died.
Mark’s last trip west was just four months after Suzy passed. He had enough of everyone’s well-meant, but constant consolation and inquiries about how he was doing and how he was feeling and what a tragedy it was. He hoped Deek and Brooke would be able to just let him be for a few days, but they knew he was devastated by Suzy’s death and could not help being solicitous.
Five days after arriving, Mark had to get away. He bought a cheap, old, used car and spent three weeks driving home. He desperately needed to be alone, but also to be with strangers, people who would not feel sorry for him, who would treat him like any other guy, like a guy without a gaping hole in his heart, a guy who had not lost the love of his life. The road trip was just what he needed.
Not only did the time alone allow him to begin healing, he found the subject of his next book in a little town in Indiana. He never did learn the name of the place, but when he drove through what passed for the center of town, he was captivated by a large public green with three beautiful footbridges spanning the small stream that gurgled its way from a small pond on one side to a larger pond on the other. He spent several hours sketching the bridges, walking around in the sunshine, and lazing on the grass watching the children play.
“Maybe in the fall,” he told Deek. “Maybe we can get Greg out there, too, and the three of us can take off for a few days. Maybe hit wine country or go out to Death Valley.”
Gregory Maldonado was the third point on the friendship triangle that actually began with a triangle. When they were kids, Greg lived two doors down from Deek, and it was he who, at age eleven, displayed a bit of his budding skill at engineering when he recognized that the front doors of their three houses were located on the points of a equilateral triangle. A chemical engineer, he lived in Carroll, Ohio with his wife, Elaine, and their four children.
“Are you serious? That’d be great! You think he could get the time off?”
“A better question would be, can he convince Laney to let him go?”
“Hell, he can bring her with him. The kids, too. They can stay here with Brooke and the kids. It’ll be fun.”
It was Mark’s turn to laugh. “Oh yeah? Well you better make sure Brooke thinks it’ll be fun before you go inviting them. If you don’t, she may do worse than throw you out. She may cut you off!”
“Thank you very much,” Leon Roberts said to the audience, acknowledging their wildly enthusiastic applause. “We’ll be back in a few minutes, so don’t go away.”
Shane, Gail, and Carol sat around a small table. Shane was the last to stop clapping.
“They are so good!” she gushed, two strawberry margaritas having overcome some of her shyness. “Thank you for getting me here tonight. I really am having fun. It’s been a long time since I went to a club. And thank you for keeping it a girls’ night. I mean, I knew you guys were popular, but I never imagined what it was like for you.”
All night, guys stopped by their table, always with some line directed at Carol, Gail, or both. As Shane predicted, none of the guys even noticed her, or if they did, they did not think it necessary to acknowledge her.
After a while, Carol noticed it, too, and found herself feeling terrible about it. It must be awful to be ignored like that. All these years, I thought I had it bad having to put up with guys hitting on me all the time. What must it be like to never have a guy pay attention to you? She shuddered just the slightest bit.
The pained look on her face came and went in an instant, but Gail noticed and asked, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Just thinking about stuff.” She had an idea, but she’d talk to Gail about it later. “So Shane, who do you think is the cutest guy here tonight?”
“Heck, they all look good to me.” Did I just say that? It has to be the alcohol talking.
Her eagerness drew a laugh from her roommates.
“But no one in particular who, you know, makes you think about doing the nasty with him?” Gail asked.
Shane blushed, but was amazed to find herself saying, “Well, there is that guy at the table near the door.” Carol and Gail glanced over. “He’s wearing a blue shirt.”
He was slim and tall, with sandy blond hair, and looked a bit like Matt Damon. The girls oooed and ahhed their appreciation of her selection.
“I don’t think I’d mind it if he, I mean, if we…you know. But I could never, I mean, he’d never be interested in me.” She didn’t normally stumble over words like this unless she was talking to a man. It must be the drinks again.
“Well,” Gail said, “what if I went over there and whispered in his ear that you would like to take him home, get him naked, and show him a level of ecstasy he never imagined existed?”
Horror flashed across Shane’s suddenly beet-red face. Words flew from her mouth. “Oh god, no. You wouldn’t. I could never… I wouldn’t know what to… Please, don’t… Oh god…”
“Hey! Calm down, girl,” Gail told her. “I was only kidding. I said, ‘what if,’ not that I would actually do it.”
Shane clutched her glass and took a long drink, her hand visibly shaking. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. God, I’m such a…” She took another long drink, draining the glass.
“Shane, sweetie, slow down,” Carol told her. “We’re supposed to be having fun tonight. Why are you getting so upset? He’s just another guy and we’re just fantasizing. And it’s not like you’ve never done it before.”
As soon as she said the words and caught Shane’s eyes, she realized the truth.
Shane and Gail sat transfixed by Roberts’ performance of his new piece, Broadway Blues. Carol was only half listening. The other half of her brain was processing all she was learning about her new roommate. Once she realized Carol would not pursue the sex issue, Shane relaxed and the band’s second break an hour ago was filled with even more conversation than the first. As the song wound down and applause filled the room, Carol suppressed a laugh. Shane was actually bouncing in her chair as she clapped her appreciation of the performance. Then her glee turned to a grimace at the announcement of another break.
“Hey, G. It looks like you have a new convert.”
Gail laughed. “The girl does seem to like R&B. Shane, are you faking all this enthusiasm just to make me happy or are you really that into it?”
“You know, I never listened to much music when I was a kid other than the Irish folk songs my mother would play all the time. In college, there was always someone playing rock or pop or something in the dorm or in the quad so I heard a lot then. But I never just sat around listening like most kids did. One time I remember hearing a few girls arguing about oldies like The Beatles and Elvis Presley and about where rock and roll came from. Now, after listening to this, I can see how a lot of the rock songs I used to hear have their roots in R&B.”
Gail laughed again. “Leave it to you to come out to a club and end up learning something.”
“Well she’s not the only one,” Carol said. “Think about all we’ve learned about her tonight.” One by one, fingers popped up as she continued. “Born and raised in Medford. Saint Joseph’s elementary school. Medford High. Graduated from Simmons College summa cum wicked smart with a Masters in…crap…what was it, Shane?”
“Library and Information Science.”
“Right. Too many margaritas to think straight. Masters in Library and Information Science. Now you’re a librarian. One sister, one brother-in-law, and one nephew. Loves to read. Okay, we already knew that.”
Gail interrupted her. “Do we really need a recap of her life story? It’s not like we weren’t just talking about it. And if you forget some detail, there she is.” Her fingers splayed as her arm waved in Shane’s direction. “And…you know where she lives.”
That drew the first giggle either of her roommates ever heard from Shane before she said, “I have to pee. And I might be a little, teeny bit drunk.”
Gail snorted. “You think? Maybe even a little more than a teeny bit?”
“You guard the table,” Carol said, “and I’ll go with her to make sure she doesn’t end up in the men’s room.”
Sunday, May 8
“Shane Devlin,” Carol said. “How does a girl get to be twenty-three years old without ever having sex?”
Shane’s complexion set a new record by racing from healthy pink to Delicious-apple red in just under two seconds. She was sitting at the kitchen table reading the newspaper and enjoying her second cup of coffee when Carol shuffled in, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. They made small talk for a few minutes, while Carol poured herself some of the strong brew, split an English muffin, and popped it in the toaster. Then, cup in hand, she plopped down across from Shane, told her she just had to ask her something, and dropped her verbal bomb.
Shane’s inexperience occupied Carol’s thoughts all day, yesterday, but between jobs and dates, their paths had not crossed. She knew it was none of her business, and she knew Shane would be mightily embarrassed, but she simply could not go another minute without asking. It might have been different if Shane was still just the person living in the third bedroom, but Friday night changed that. Carol began to think of her as a friend, but that wasn’t all of it. There was more to Shane than either she or Gail realized these past months.
They knew she loved to read, for that was all she seemed to do at home, but never imagined the breadth of her interests. The girl seemed to know a little bit about everything and quite a lot about such disparate subjects as horses, modern art, psychology, electricity, and the gourmet jelly beans she introduced them to when she moved in. Later that night, Shane had them laughing with stories about the nuns in elementary school, but the laughter died as she hinted at the loneliness she endured during high school and at Simmons.
There were layers to Shane’s personality, a depth Carol found intriguing. She knew people like Shane in high school and college, but never got to know them. She was pretty and popular, and smart enough in her own right, but much too aware of her own social standing to spend time with the geeky kids. Now, she wondered what she might have missed. Perhaps if a real friendship with Shane developed, she would find out.
“I…uh…” Shane covered her face with her hand. She could feel the heat of her embarrassment burning her palm.
Damn! Will I ever learn to be more tactful?
“I’m sorry, Shane. I didn’t mean to spring it on you like that. It’s just, well, I saw a side of you Friday I didn’t know was there. Maybe two sides. I don’t know with all we were drinking. But I’d really like to get to know more about who you are. But this revelation about your inexperience is like an elephant in the room. I just can’t ignore it and I’m never going to be able to concentrate on anything else until I know how and why it got there.” She scrunched her face a bit. “You know what I mean?”
“I guess so. It’s just…I’ve never really been comfortable talking about…you know.”
“That’s okay,” Carol grinned. “I have no problem at all talking about it, so if you average us out, we’ll both just be mildly uncomfortable.”
That drew half a smile from Shane, whose color receded somewhat.
“Look, if you really don’t want to talk about it, just tell me to mind my own business. I won’t be offended. It’s just that you really freaked for a minute there the other night, and…”
“It’s okay. I’ve been thinking lately that maybe I’ve let my shyness define me for too long. It was one thing when I was in high school and even in college I could pretend it was the studying that kept me in my room all the time. But now…well…it was a huge deal for me to move in here with you guys. And I’ve been sort of watching you and Gail and feeling like I’m missing out on things, on life. Friday night just confirmed it for me.
“I read somewhere that the best way to overcome a fear is to do what you’re afraid of until it becomes ordinary. I think last year, I might have run and hid in my room if someone asked the question you just asked.” One corner of her mouth turned up as she shook her head. “To tell the truth, that was my first instinct a few minutes ago. But here I am, a little embarrassed maybe, but I’m still alive, I can still talk, and I’d like to ask you a question before I answer yours. Okay?”
Carol’s eyebrows arched with curiosity before her lips curled with mischief. “Sure. Ask away. You want the details of my first time or something?”
Shane’s blush deepened, but she returned the smile. “Maybe another time. I want to know why you and Gail let me move in here.”
“Because you seemed quiet and responsible. And you had a good job.”
“But I’m so different from the two of you. You must have had calls from other girls with good jobs who were more like you two. So why did you pick me?”
Carol looked away, but could feel Shane’s stare. Damn! She knows there’s something else. Something I really don’t want to tell her. Damn! It seemed so reasonable four months ago, when she was just a girl who’d be living in the other bedroom. But now…what do I do? I really want to be friends with her but telling her might hurt her. But not telling would be like lying, and lying is no way to begin a friendship. But if I tell her, will she even want a friendship?
She met Shane’s gaze again and knew she had to be honest. Prefaced by a resigned sigh, she said, “The truth is that it was between you and two other girls. And when we were talking it over trying to make a decision, well, all things being equal, and they were, we chose you…” She could feel her face begin to burn with embarrassment. “…because we figured you wouldn’t be competition for the guys we might bring home.”
Carol winced as she said the last part, anticipating almost every reaction except Shane’s simple nod.
“I thought it had to be something like that.”
“You thought… But how? Why?”
“I put myself in your place, looked at it from every angle I could think of, and that made the most sense.”
“But it was a horrible way to make a decision.”
“Not really. You just did what you thought would be best for you. I’d have done the same thing in your place, although my criteria would have been different.” She smiled, but didn’t look happy. “I don’t know if it will make you feel any better, but if I really had been in your place, I probably wouldn’t have offered you the room.” She noticed Carol’s eyes widen. “I’d have been looking for someone like me, you know? And it would have been a huge mistake because I’d have remained the shy bookworm who sits at home letting life pass her by. Living with you and Gail and going out with you two the other night has really opened my eyes.”
Carol sat back in the chair and regarded her housemate. This girl keeps surprising me. By all rights, she should be insulted and furious with us for what we did. But she isn’t. She wasn’t sure how to react to her indifference so she said, “Shane, I really am sorry. I…”
“Please. Forget it. As I said, I’d have done worse.” Shane indulged in a deep sigh before continuing. “What you said earlier, about why you want to know about me. Is that true?”
“Of course. Why?”
“It’s just, well, nobody’s ever been that interested in me before.”
“I don’t believe that. You’re exaggerating.”
“Not really. But it’s my own fault. I’ve always been shy. Really shy. Mostly I’ve lived inside my head, you know? I kind of accepted early on that I was never going to shine physically, so I stopped trying. I concentrated on learning, on things that interest me. I know if I was willing to sleep with just anyone I’d probably find some guys who’d…you know…but that’s not what I want. If I’m going to have…ahh…sex, it’s going to be with someone I really care about and who cares about me. That’s old fashioned, I know, but that’s what I want. And if I can’t have it, I’ll stick with reading and learning.”
“So you really are a virgin? Wow.”
Carol watched Shane shift uneasily in her seat and knew something important would come next if she could find it in herself to say it.
“I guess, technically, I’m not really a virgin. I…” She closed her eyes and took a breath, letting it out slowly. “Remember, Friday, I told you about my only date? The night of my senior prom?”
She opened her eyes in time to see Carol nod.
“Well, after the prom, we rode around awhile, then he asked me if I wanted to go to his house and hang out, play some music, maybe dance some more. I was so happy just to be with a boy and it sounded like fun, so we went. His parents’ house was huge and they had a really great family room in the basement. His father worked nights and his mother was asleep, so it was almost like we were alone at his place. We danced for a little while, then he said he was making himself a drink and asked if I wanted one. As you saw Friday, a couple of drinks loosens me right up, and I had way more than a couple. When his father came home and found us, we were both passed out. He wasn’t wearing any pants and I wasn’t wearing any underwear.” She was blushing furiously again. “So you see, I’m not really a virgin, although I don’t actually remember doing it.”
“Oh, sweetie, that’s sad, not remembering your first time. Did he…”
Shane was shaking her head. “No. He never called me again. I sort of hoped for a few days, but I never really expected he would.” Her eyes clouded over as she remembered that painful time. “I don’t think he ever told anyone about it, either.” She sighed. “He was probably too embarrassed.”
Madeline O’Brien strolled into the living room looking for two-year-old Sean. She found him sitting on the sofa, staring at his aunt who appeared to be lost in a book and unaware of his attention.
“For the love’a Mike,” Maddy said, “don’t you ever do anything but read?”
At the sound of her voice, both Sean and Shane glanced up and she saw what could only be exasperation on both their faces. Then Shane turned to Sean, tilted her head and pouted for a second before she returned her attention to her sister.
“Thanks, Maddy. You ruined our game. Sean bet me he could sit silently and look at me longer than I could sit silently and read without looking up at him.” Shifting her attention back to Sean, she smiled and reached over to ruffle his hair. “I say it’s a tie. We can play again to see who’ll be the champion the next time Mommy and Daddy go out and I come over to watch you. That way there won’t be anyone to interrupt us.”
“Well, how was I supposed to know you were playing a game. Every time I see you your nose is stuck in a book.” There was the slightest tinge of jealousy in her voice as she wondered why Sean always seemed to save that particular smile for Shane.
“I like to read. Why does that bother you so much?”
“It doesn’t bother me. I read, too, as you well know. But I don’t waste my whole life in books. There’s a real world out there, Shane. With real people. Guys, even.”
Shane sighed. At least once a month Maddy felt compelled to tell her what was wrong with her life. “Will you stop, please.” Sometimes, that simple request actually worked. Today wasn’t one of those times.
“All I’m trying to say is…”
From the recliner next to the fireplace, she heard her husband say, “Maddy, if you don’t stop now, I’ll have to call Ma in here.” She could see he was serious, even though he was grinning. It wasn’t often Sean, senior or junior, actually got the last word with her.
She and her husband argued many times over the concept of letting grownups live their own lives and Maddy would not have minded another go-around with her sister present, but the threat of “calling Ma in here” was serious. Very serious. Especially when she was in the middle of cooking dinner. Nobody wanted to hear her go off on one of her lectures. Ma’s lectures were more like rants and could go on indefinitely, and she was hoping to be home before bedtime.
Bloody hell. She’s standing right behind me. Thank the good Lord I didn’t say something. “Yes, Ma.”
“Please get everyone ready. Dinner will be ready in five minutes.”
“Yes, Ma.” Did Ma just choose to not treat me like a child? “Sean, please help Junior get his hands washed.” She turned to Shane, smiling. If Ma can do it… “Would you mind calling Daddy?”
“Daaadyyy!” Shane half-yelled.
“Geez. I could have…”
“I was just kidding, Maddy. As if Daddy would hear that even if he had his hearing aid turned on.” She jumped up and headed toward the door to the basement.
Maddy’s lips curled into a smile as she turned, nodded toward the kitchen, and said quietly, “Come on, Ma. Let me help you.”
Rose Marie Devlin looked around the room and thought how wonderful her life was. I’m healthy and comfortable and have my family around me. And what in this world could be better than that?
Monday, May 9
Shane was getting desperate. Monday mornings were usually busy, with moms coming in to return the books and DVDs their kids enjoyed over the weekend. But today, there were less than a dozen in the nearly three hours since the library opened. She hated standing around doing nothing so, in-between the infrequent patrons, she kept herself busy with other things. The only task left was the returns—three carts full of books from late Saturday and today that needed to go back on the shelves. She knew Mrs. Renya, one of the volunteers, would take care of them when she came in at one o’clock. Still, she pouted. Doing the returns would kill the hour until lunch, but she was stuck at the desk. Unless…
She picked up the phone and dialed reference. “Hi, Anna. It’s Shane. Are you busy?”
“Busy? I wish. I’m doing the crossword puzzle in the newspaper. What’s up?”
“I’m so bored up here. I’ve done everything except the returns and I was wondering if you wanted to switch until lunch so I can shelve them.”
“Why not. I can do the crossword up front as well as I can back here.”
Annakiya Manu loved crossword puzzles. She discovered them at the age of eleven, when her family emigrated from Nigeria. By the time she graduated high school, she could complete most daily newspaper puzzles in about an hour. Now, twenty-one years later, the daily puzzles were simply time-wasters for her.
Most of the staff disliked the tedium of shelving returns and books that had been left around the library, but Shane enjoyed seeing what people were reading.
Three years ago, when she began working part-time at the library, she was amazed at how so many people would suddenly be interested in a particular subject. She puzzled over it until one Monday afternoon, when it seemed like every third person who came in wanted information about the Civil War. She mentioned it to Anna, who looked at her curiously and asked, “You don’t watch much TV, do you?” The mystery was solved.
Except for occasional big news stories where visuals were important, Shane had not watched any commercial television since entering high school. Now and then, she did enjoy a movie on DVD, but most of her free time was spent reading.
Shane was bent over at the waist, replacing a book from the second cart on the bottom shelf of the rack when a faintly familiar voice behind her said, “Excuse me?”
“Yes, can I help y…” She almost choked as she straightened up and turned her head. Ohmygod, it’s him! And he saw me all bent over like that with my butt in the air and… She coughed and cleared her throat to provide a few seconds to compose herself.
“I’m sorry. Can I help you find something?”
Mark held out a slip of paper. “The card ca…the computer said this was available but I couldn’t find it. The person at the desk thought it might be on one of the return carts. She checked the one up front and it wasn’t there so she sent me to find you.”
She glanced at the proffered note. It was a title on hydroponics. “You must be a fast reader,” she said, surprising herself with her boldness as she turned and crouched down to peruse the remaining books on the cart.
“Why do you say that?” he asked, amazed she actually spoke to him. She never said anything more to him than ‘hello’ and ‘there you go’ when he was borrowing books. She was still checking the returns on the cart, but he noticed she seemed slightly flushed.
“Well, you borrowed three books on hydroponics last Friday. You have two in your hand and are looking for a third which means you must have returned the other three because you can only have three out at a time on one subject.”
His raised eyebrows betrayed his surprise. “Do you keep such a close watch on everyone’s reading? Or am I under some kind of special surveillance?”
He hoped to elicit one of her smiles, but instead he saw the flush deepening. “No, no,” she said quickly, without turning to face him. “I’m not watching…I mean, no one is watching you. I just…”
“Hey, I was kidding. I was just impressed you noticed and remembered so I tried to make a joke. Sorry. I never was good at jokes.”
“Oh…well…I…I’m sorry, too. I sometimes…well, sorry.”
Shane stood and faced him. She knew her face was still red, but what could she do?
“It’s not here, either. It could be lying around on a table, or someone could have put it in the wrong place. Or someone might have, ahh, borrowed it without checking it out.”
Mark smiled at her. “Boy, you’re nice. I would have said, ‘Or some lowlife scumbag stole it.'” He was gratified when he saw the corners of her lips curl. “I really wanted that one, but I guess I can do without it for a while.”
“Actually, it’s not very good. Lots of general stuff you can find anywhere, but not much in the way of instruction and technique. Have you read Hydroponics From H2O?”
He noticed it listed on the computer, but thought it was a book for kids.
Shane caught the question that flashed in his eyes before he could give voice to it. “I know, the title’s too cute for its own good, but the book is packed with information.”
“Are you a gardener?” he wondered, curious how she came to know which book was better than which.
“No. A few years ago, my father wanted to try growing hydroponic vegetables and asked me to find some information on the subject, but by the time I read all the books the library had, he changed his mind. He decided it would be cheaper just to grow them in the dirt as he always did.”
Mark grunted. “You really read all the titles on hydroponics in the catalog?” Is she pulling my leg?
“Just the eight on the shelf here. And after the first few, I was able to skim through most of the rest. I have a pretty good memory and Hydroponics From H2O was the third one I read. It was so comprehensive the other seven were really just a waste of reading time. What are you thinking of growing?”
Mark stared at her for a few seconds. Did she really read eight books on hydroponics? When she was probably just a teenager? “Well, I’m not sure yet what I’ll be growing. Right now I’m just doing research to see what’s been written in the field. I plan to write a book about the subject.”
“Oh…well…in that case, you really should read Hydroponics From H2O first.”
He could tell she left something unsaid. “And…” he prompted.
“It seemed as if there was more you wanted to say. If I’m wrong, then it’s me who’s sorry. Should I be sorry?”
Shane looked right into his eyes as she as she said, “It’s just, well, I’m not sure what else you could say on the subject that hasn’t already been covered in that book.”
“I didn’t realize you were an expert on the subject.” As soon as he said it and saw her flinch just the slightest bit, he realized how harsh it sounded.
The blush that had faded reappeared as she began, stiffly, “I didn’t mean to imply…”
“Wait!” The urgency in his voice, rather than the word, cut her off. “That didn’t come out right. Shane…your name is Shane, right?”
He knows my name. He knows my name! Her stomach seemed to reach up and grabbed her throat. First he sees my butt in the air and now he knows my name! She nodded, praying her blush wouldn’t deepen any further.
“I thought so. I’m terrible with names, but I was pretty sure I heard the other librarians call you that. Anyway, I really didn’t mean that the way it sounded. I was trying to make you smile, but…well…my mouth is not always in direct communication with my brain and I’m as bad with extemporaneous humor as I am with jokes, so please forgive me again.”
Shane watched carefully as he apologized and could see the sincerity in his eyes. Unsure about her voice, she just nodded and smiled and saw a change in his face and eyes. It was not just relief at forgiveness, it was something she never encountered before.
Ten minutes later, as he turned from the front desk after checking out Hydroponics From H2O, Mark glanced over his shoulder toward the bookshelves where Shane was working. “Where the hell did that come from?” he muttered under his breath as the doors slid open before him.
Thursday, May 12
The large dining room was crowded and it took Gail a minute to spot Carol sitting at a table in the far corner. At her wave, Gail held up one finger then dashed into the cafeteria to grab a sandwich and coffee.
“You’re not eating?” she asked as she set down her lunch tray.
“No, just coffee. I’m trying to lose weight.”
Gail rolled her eyes. Carol was always on a diet, though she never seemed to get any slimmer. As a nutritionist, she understood the constant dieting was her friend’s way of regulating the healthy intake of calories she consumed at breakfast and dinner. But the pragmatist in her could not understand why so many women like Carol were always so unhappy with their perfectly fine and lovely bodies.
“So what’s up? The last time you met me here for lunch it was because that guy…”
“I want to have a party,” Carol said, interrupting.
“This news couldn’t wait until we got home tonight?”
“I didn’t want to talk about it in front of Shane.”
Gail’s eyes widened. “You want to throw a party and not have Shane there?”
“No, no. I want to have the party for Shane.”
“For Shane? Is it her birthday or something?”
“No. I want to get her laid.”
Gail almost choked as she exclaimed, “What!” through a mouthful of half-chewed turkey on rye.
Carol related the details of her Sunday morning conversation with Shane. Since then, the idea of finding a guy for Shane had been marinating in her mind. “I don’t think she’d ever go on a blind date or anything. It has to be someone she meets sort of naturally, you know? So I figured a party would be just the thing. There must be lots of smart guys here in the hospital you can invite. Guys who would appreciate Shane for her brain.”
“Well…I don’t know…yes. I mean, she’s really a nice girl, Gail, and smart. Seriously smart. I’ve been talking with her a lot lately and you know I’m no slouch in the smarts department, but Shane makes me look average at best. But she’s never going to walk the runway in Atlantic City, you know? So I was thinking that if we had a party, we could all go shopping for party dresses, then we could help her with her hair and get a little makeup on her and maybe one of the brains here will want to hook up with her.”
“I don’t know, Carol. You don’t think that’s a little condescending? I’m not sure we should be sticking our noses into her love life.”
“But she doesn’t have a love life. That’s the problem.”
“Maybe so, but that still doesn’t mean we should be…”
“Come on. What can it hurt? The worst that happens is that none of the guys want to hook up with her, in which case all she had was some fun at a party.”
“Are you going to tell her why we’re having the party? Or tell the guys.”
“God, no! Of course not. I don’t want to embarrass her or make her the object of someone’s pity. I just want to give some guys the chance to notice the good things about her.”
It was clear from the expression on her face that Gail wasn’t entirely convinced.
“Look,” Carol said, glancing at the clock on the wall, “I have to get to an appointment. Please, just think about it and talk to her more. You’ll see what I mean about her being smart, even funny sometimes.”
“Are you going to tell me what’s wrong or are we going to waste another fifteen minutes talking about nothing?”
It was nearly nine-thirty when Greg’s phone rang. He almost let it go to voicemail, but was glad he decided to check the Caller ID when he saw it was Mark.
“What do you mean?”
“Come on, buddy. We’ve been friends our whole lives. As soon as I heard your voice I knew there was a problem. That’s why I didn’t give you the bum’s rush and hang up nine minutes ago.” He lowered his voice nearly to a whisper. “Here’s the thing. With four kids, it’s hard to find time to spend alone with Laney, if you know what I mean. Well, tonight, Jessie and Lois are having sleepovers at friends’ houses and Frank and Kelly are sound asleep. So as much as I love you man, if you don’t tell me why you really called in the next minute, I’m hanging up and getting naked with my wife.”
The silence continued for about fifteen seconds. Greg was just about to give up when he heard, “It’s…well…it’s this girl.”
“A girl? You mean, like, a girl girl?” Greg was focused now. Never once, in the two years since Suzy died, had Mark even acknowledged other women existed. “Who is she?”
Mark sighed. “She’s one of the librarians here in town. I’ve seen her, I don’t know, dozens of times, but I never really talked to her until Monday.”
He gave Greg a rundown of what transpired that day, right up to the point where she accepted his apology and smiled at him. “That’s when it happened. I…” He paused, and the pause dragged on.
“What? Come on, man, what happened?”
“Greg, I started to get wood. When she smiled at me like that, my gut suddenly felt empty and I started getting hard. If she hadn’t gone to get a title she recommended…” A chill ran through him. “As it was, I had to stand behind the damn book cart and try to look nonchalant so she wouldn’t notice when she returned with the book.”
“So what’s the problem? You saw a pretty girl and got a hard-on. That still happens to me, sometimes. It happens to every guy.”
“No, no. You don’t understand. It wasn’t just my dick. I mean, she’s not really all that pretty. Except when she smiles. Then…I don’t know. It was like the way I felt the first time I met Suzy. But that can’t be. This girl is, I don’t know, maybe early twenties. She’s just a kid. And I’m still in love with Suzy. I think of her all the time. How could someone else do that to me?”
Greg sighed and silently cursed his luck. “Buddy, I don’t know what to tell you here. You know I’m not good at this touchy-feely stuff. Why didn’t you call Deek?”
“I did, but he’s not home. They’re out for the night. And this has been going round and round in my head all week and I can’t stand it anymore. I had to talk to someone.”
Again Greg sighed. “Yes, I can see that. Hold on a minute and let me get Laney.” He glanced at the clock as he pressed the hold button. It was almost ten. Laney lived for this kind of stuff and would keep Mark on the phone for hours. He shook his head as he climbed the stairs. There’s no way I’m getting lucky tonight.
Three minutes passed and Mark began to wonder if Greg might have decided to have a quickie first when he heard a receiver being picked up. “Hey, sorry, Buddy. Laney’ll be right here. Hang on for another minute or so.”
“Hello, Mark,” he heard about ninety seconds later. “I’m sorry you had to hold on for so long, but Greg insisted on giving me a rundown of your conversation. But knowing Greg, he got half of it wrong anyway, so how about starting at the beginning for me.”
Mark returned the greeting and repeated the story he told Greg almost word for word until he got to the part about the erection. “And then, ahhh…I uhhhh…”
“Yes, I know, you popped a woody. Not only have I heard of them, I’ve even seen a few. Go on.”
Mark chuckled before explaining that what bothered him most was not the physical reaction but the emotional one. “I mean, the whole thing came out of nowhere. It…it made me feel like I was cheating on Suzy, you know? And now I can’t get the girl out of my head.”
Laney’s voice was soft as she said, “I know, Mark. You loved Suzy very much. You still do.”
“Then how could I…”
“Mark, it’s been two years since Suzy died. She was a bright, beautiful woman. And last Monday, you ran into someone who reminded you of her. You said yourself it was the girl’s smile you first noticed about her. Then…did you read the book she recommended?”
“Yes. Most of it later that day. Why?”
“How was it.”
“Exactly as she said. Encyclopedic on the subject.”
“I thought so. Okay, look at it this way. You meet a girl whose smile rivals Suzy’s. Then you interact with her and discover she’s at least as smart as Suz was. So your body, and your emotions, sensing a familiar combination of input, reacts to it. I don’t think it’s so much this particular girl that has you confused as it is the feelings you’ve not experienced for so long. That particular sequence of events made your subconscious think of the woman you love, and you reacted like a man in love. I’ll bet if you return that book tomorrow and see her, there won’t be as much as a splinter to be found in your boxers.”
“Huh.” It makes sense, I guess. “But why can’t I get her out of my head? She’s just a kid.”
“Mark, you’ve been living like a monk for two years. I know you’ve not been with a woman, but do you, you know, take care of business other ways?”
“Geez, Lanes. What a question!”
“Okay. Pardon my indelicacy. But the question stands. How long has it been?”
Mark sighed, knowing she wouldn’t let it go until she got an answer. “Not since just after…not for a long time.”
“Well there you go, dummy. You and Suzy had a great sex life. I know. She used to brag about how often you two did it and how you could…well…you know. Anyway, you’ve been denied that particular release for a long time, so of course you can’t get this new girl, with her smile, out of your head. Your subconscious has associated her with those feelings.”
“So I think you need to get laid a few times, but since I know you’re not about to do that, I suggest Internet porn and your favorite hand lotion.”
Greg must have walked into the room just as she said that because Mark heard the surprise in his voice when he asked her what was going on. As he waited for her to shush him, he marveled at how easily such talk came to most women. Maybe I should branch out and do a How Women Talk book?
When her attention returned to him, they spent the better part of an hour talking about the past, about Suzy and his loneliness, and about how the recent episode was tied to all of it.
“Still here, Laney.”
“I just had an idea. Are you going to pursue writing the book on hydroponics?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe. If I can find a new angle.”
“Then why don’t you get the librarian to help you?”
“I don’t think so, Laney. I don’t want to…”
“Look, she already knows way more than you do about the subject. And, as you say, she’s a just a kid. You could hire her as an assistant. She could probably use the money to help pay off her student loans.”
“But what? Look, Mark, you can’t hide from women for the rest of your life. Working with this girl will be a nice, non-threatening way to ease back into interacting with them again.”
“What do you mean? I interact with women.”
“Sure you do. You say hello to the checkout girl at the grocery store and you talk to me and Brooke for a minute when you call Greg or Deek. You need regular, ongoing interaction. Actual conversations with real female types and…what’s this girl’s name, by the way?”
“Well, I think this Shane is just the ticket. Look, go to the library tomorrow. If you get another hard-on when you see her, then forget it. But I’ll wager all that’s going to happen is she’ll be flattered you want her to help with your research.”
“I don’t know, Laney. I don’t think I’m ready to…”
“Mark, I loved Suzy, too. She was one of the nicest people I knew. I was closer to her than I am to my own sister. You know how much we talked, so believe me when I tell you she did not want your life to end with hers. She wasn’t afraid of dying, Mark, but she was afraid you’d do exactly what you have been doing for the past two years. Maybe I should have said something to you sooner, but I know she made you promise to find someone else after she was gone. I know she wanted you to live your life with joy and make someone else as happy as you made her. You’ve shut yourself off from life for too long. And now fate has given you a chance, a nice, safe way to get back into living a life that would make Suzy proud. Hell, it wouldn’t surprise me if she was sitting up in Heaven arranging the whole thing.”
Mark felt an ache in his chest as he remembered Suzy extracting that promise, not once, but at least half a dozen times. He still missed her so much, sometimes he couldn’t bear it. But he knew Laney was right. He had to start living again.
“Mark? You still there?”
“Yeah. I’m still here. I was…I was thinking about what you said.”
“So maybe tomorrow I’ll try.”
“Good. I’m proud of you. Suzy would be proud of you. Now hang up, ’cause all this talk has made me horny and I’m either going to go jump Greg’s bones or pull out the vibrator. Which would you pref…”
Friday, May 13
When he awakened, snippets of a dream echoed in Mark’s consciousness. He and Suzy were walking across a field of grass. She was saying something, but he could not quite hear her. The recurring dream began just before last Christmas. Even in the few instances where he realized he was dreaming, and tried to focus, he could never quite catch what she was saying.
As he lay in bed, the images fading, his thoughts turned to last night’s conversation with Laney. He wondered if she, too, still dreamed of Suzy. Though separated by a thousand miles of highway, the two grew so close over the years, thanks in large part to being cut from the same cloth when it came to things like family, politics, and spirituality. The only really big difference between them was food. Suzy lived for heat and strong flavors while Laney was a steak and potatoes girl. Kindred spirits, he called them once, and soon after they began calling themselves the “Kindred Sisters.”
He glanced at the cell phone on the nightstand, tempted to call Greg to find out just how late Laney kept him up last night. That led to memories of how Suzy used to keep him up half the night, how she would refuse to let him sleep until he satisfied her to the point of exhaustion, and he felt the familiar emptiness hollow him out.
“Don’t do this to yourself,” he said aloud. “Nothing will bring her back. Laney was right…they’re all right…you have to move on…you can’t hold onto a ghost forever.” But as he rolled out of bed, he knew his heart did not want to give up the ghost—her ghost. Still, the life of a recluse was a lonely one, and lately, he could feel the loneliness wearing him down.
His reflection, with its three-day growth of beard, stared back at him from the bathroom mirror and he noticed a few of the whiskers were grey. With a sigh, he pulled off his tee shirt, stepped out of his boxers and into the shower. “Maybe,” he said as the stinging-hot water cascaded down his body, “maybe it is time.”
“Afflictive,” Mark muttered under his breath, “that’s what this damn thing is.”
Two hours ago, he parked himself in the only spot in the library that kept him reasonably hidden, thanks to some revolving book racks full of science fiction paperbacks, yet afforded a nearly complete view of the front desk. Naturally, the chair was worn and uncomfortable, which only added to the discomfort he felt about what he was here to do.
“Afflictive,” he repeated, summing up the whole situation.
Laney’s advice consumed him all morning. Denials and rationalizations made the path tortuous, but ultimately, it led where he had not wanted to go since the moment he turned away from Suzy’s grave two years ago.
Maybe that’s why I keep having that dream. Maybe Suz is trying to tell me to get on with my life, but I won’t listen.
Glancing down at the open book he was pretending to read, he realized he could not remember the title. With an uncaring shrug, he lifted his eyes and resumed watching Shane move back and forth behind the front desk, scanning bar codes, answering questions, issuing new library cards; always keeping herself busy.
She was in the back room when he arrived and scoped out the layout, then settled into this torturous butt-bucket. About half-an-hour into his vigil, he decided to donate the cost for some new, comfortable armchairs, but for now, he was glued in position, unable to muster the courage to approach her, afraid of how his body might react and how she might react when he voiced his proposition.
What the hell’s wrong with me? I’m acting like a pimple-faced teenager who wants to ask the prom queen for a date. Geez, if Suzy is up there watching, she must think I’ve turned into a total loser. Even imagining Suzy telling him to get his ass off the chair and get on with it didn’t work. I need an icebreaker…something to get a conversation going so I’ll feel comfortable. But what? I can’t just… Then he realized he was sitting on the answer.
She was arranging the shelf of books being held for patrons when behind her she heard, “Hello, Shane. May I speak with you for a minute?”
As she turned, Mark caught the same moment of panic in her eyes he saw Monday, and though it made him feel odd, at least he wasn’t getting aroused again. Looks like Laney was right.
“May I help you?” she asked, praying her face was not betraying the butterflies churning in her stomach.
“I’ve uh…I’ve been sitting over by the windows reading for awhile and I wanted to let the library know, well, frankly, the chair was pretty uncomfortable.”
“Oh, you must have been sitting on Lord Rich. Why didn’t you just move to another chair?” Thank you, Lord, for not letting me trip over my tongue again.
Oh, crap. I was so focused on getting my ass up here, I didn’t prepare for the most obvious question. What can I say. I can’t tell her it was the best seat to spy on her. I know…
“Lord Rich? Do all the chairs here have names?”
Mark drank in her smile as she said, “No, just that one. Rich was a 16th century baron who didn’t mind getting his hands dirty, so to speak, when it came to torture. He was one of the people who prosecuted Sir Thomas Moore. People have been complaining about that chair for a long time, but the director says there’s no money in the budget for new furniture.”
“Well, if someone wanted to make a donation so the library could buy some comfortable reading chairs, to whom would one speak?”
She grinned at the formal sentence structure as she looked around to see who might be within earshot, then lowered her voice and said, “The truth is, if you make a donation, odds are they’ll use it for something more pressing than a new chair. If you really want the library to get a new chair, my advice is to buy the chair and have it delivered as a gift. Just make sure it’s vinyl or leather—something easy to keep clean.”
“I see. Thanks.” He noticed the panic was gone now, replaced by something else. “You’re not going to get in trouble for telling me that, are you?”
“Only if you squeal on me.” Ohmygod, did I really just say ‘squeal on me’ to him? She was relieved when he chuckled softly.
“Don’t worry. Your secret’s safe.”
There was a long pause during which Shane held his eyes and suddenly realized he looked as uneasy as she felt inside. Why would donating a chair make him nervous?
“Look, uh, Shane, I uh…” Just say it, stupid! “I was pretty impressed the other day by how much you knew about hydroponics. I mean…well…I guess I just mean I was impressed that someone your age would have read so much about a subject like that and remembered it all.”
The butterflies in Shane’s stomach shifted into overdrive. No man except Daddy ever said he was impressed with me! She felt her face flushing but strangely, she didn’t care. And I’m carrying on an actual conversation with him and haven’t stumbled even once!
“Thank you,” she said, unconsciously treating him to another smile. “I’ve always had a good memory and, well…” Her hand swept in an arc between them, indicating the main part of the library. “…books are my life.”
That drew from him another soft chuckle. She’s actually pretty easy to talk to. Maybe this wasn’t such a bad idea after all. “Look, I read Hydroponics from H2O and you were right on the money. It really does lay out everything one needs to know. Still, I’m not ready to give up on the subject. I just need a different hook. Do you know what I mean?”
“Sure, you want to find something new about the subject.”
“Exactly. But that’s going to take a good deal of reading and research, along with some brainstorming. The truth is, brainstorming is almost always more productive when you have someone to bounce ideas off of.”
He paused, and took a deep breath, knowing what came next would be hard for him. Shane noticed a sadness come into his eyes as he said, “I used to bounce ideas off of my wife…”
He’s married. I should have known.
“…but she’s not with me any more and…uh…what I’m trying to say, or ask, really, is…”
Not with him? Okay…so he’s divorced.
“…well…you already know so much about hydroponics, and you work in a library, so I’m guessing you’re good at doing research, and you’re obviously pretty smart, so…well…I was wondering if you’d be interested in helping me with the new book?”
– * – * –
Thanks for reading the beginning of Plain Shane.
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