“I can’t take it anymore!” I cried out as my alarm began to buzz. Feeling that I was losing all hope and direction in my life, I wondered: Where am I going? Where is my zest for life? Why can’t I just be satisfied?
Grabbing a jacket, I drove to my favorite hiking trail for fresh perspective. As I started along the path I heard a strange sound coming from behind me. I glanced over my shoulder, but nothing out of the ordinary caught my eye. Continuing on, I breathed deeply, taking in the damp, natural, earthy fragrance of the woods early in the morning.
Nothing felt rushed in the forest. Plants didn’t argue for more sun or rain. Trees didn’t shed leaves or grow them according to the latest fashion. The sound of a sigh broke through my thoughts. My glace caught the sway of a plant as if some creature had just leapt away to avoid detection. Continuing along the trail, I grew uneasy. Rounding the bend in the path, I heard the scattering of pebbles behind me. I spun around, anxious that some animal might be about to strike.
In that instant, the sun pierced through the trees and illuminated a cascade of moss-covered rocks. A shimmering path appeared between the rocks. My eyes traced it to a stone archway, heavy with the same luminous moss. The sun began to dim and the pathway to fade. Was this the answer that I had been looking for? I threw caution to the wind, ran up the trail, and dove under the arch.
“Oh, mom, I want the one that looks like a flower!” the small, curly—haired girl said excitedly while hopping from one foot to the other.
Reaching down with a tissue, I plucked the appropriate cupcake from the display case, commenting, “Good choice.”
“Can I have it now?” she pleaded, grasping her mother’s hand sweetly.
In return, her mother asked, “What’s the magic word?”
Frowning in concentration, the little girl paused. Then a look of knowing blossomed across her face, and she answered, “Please!”
With a nod of thanks, the child’s mother took the cupcake from my hand and placed it in the eager hands of the child. “Now, what do we say, Kristen?” she coached.
Flashing me her sparkling eyes Kristen chirped in a voice all little girls seem to possess, “Thank you.”
The longing for a child raised a familiar lump in my throat as I replied, “You’re welcome, honey.” Jealously, I watched as mother and daughter left the bakery hand in hand.
“Penelope if you’re through with your customer, I could use a hand back here,” Émile called from the kitchen, interrupting my wandering thoughts. I smiled to myself, because Émile was the only one in Willow Reed who called me Penelope, instead of Nell, the nickname everyone else used. It occurred to me that Émile’s parents had done the same until they passed the bakery on to him two years ago.
“Penelope?” Émile asked urgently, “Are you coming?”
Hustling back to the kitchen, I hummed along with the holiday music playing overhead to distract myself from my thoughts. Émile stood resting his ample belly against the counter, busily mixing batter while his two young daughters, trying to help, buzzed and bumped around the kitchen like a couple of fireflies in a mason jar.
“Nell, will you help me?” Hannah the older of the two girls, asked grumpily as she separated cinnamon rolls and placed them on a tray for the display case.
“You’re fine, Hannah,” Émile answered for me, briskly, while motioning with his bald head toward Macy, who was doing her best to put a heavy tray of loaves into the oven. I grabbed the side of the tray just before it crashed to the ground.
“Thanks, Nell.” Macy said gratefully as we pushed the tray into the hot oven. Then, without missing a beat, I scooped up the tray of divided cinnamon rolls from Hannah and called over my shoulder, “So, there’s this class I want to take Friday evening, Émile.”
I seamlessly slid the tray of warm rolls into the display case, retrieved one and put it on a plate, and continued, “It’s actually a writing group that meets at the community center.”
“Oh?” was the only answer Émile had time to give as the jangling of the bells at the front door signaled that another customer had arrived. I smiled warmly as I held out the cinnamon roll to Hasan, my Monday morning regular.
Hasan greeted me as he accepted the offering, “Good morning, Nell.”
As I returned the greeting, Émile asked loudly, “Is that Hasan?”
Without waiting for an answer, Émile appeared in the kitchen doorway, wiping his hands on a towel.
“Bonjour, Émile,” Hasan said cheerfully.
Émile grabbed a croissant from the display case and said invitingly, “Come sit with me Hasan.” Émile motioned to a booth. He nudged me as he passed and said, teasing, “It’s so nice to be able to speak with someone who knows French.”
Hasan smiled at me again with twinkling eyes behind his round glasses and said, “Thank you, Nell. Are you free to walk this evening?”
I nodded to break the gaze that sent a tingle along my arms and replied, “You’re welcome, Hasan. Yes, I’ll meet you by Rosewood Lake.”
After Hasan and Émile sat down, they began a lively conversation that, despite my two years of French in high school, I was unable to follow. Tourists began to file in and I gladly lost myself in serving baked goods and listening to the travelers’ stories about my charming town, Willow Reed. I easily agreed with the comments, all the while feeling a little superior because I had lived all thirty years of my life in Willow Reed. I knew every nook and cranny of the regal mountains encircling the valley town, and the history of each home, dotting the landscape laced with willow trees, snugly nestled among my earliest memories. The only thing that seemed to change in the town were the seasons, not that I minded in the least; I loved walking along the town square during my lunch break, knowing that I would run into several familiar faces.
“Penelope, Hasan is a member of that writing group you were talking about,” Émile called over the din of munching customers, in his thick French accent.
Grimacing uncomfortably, I wiped the already spotless countertop and recalled how Hasan and I had met nearly a year ago, when he began building a house on the outskirts of Rosewood Park. I often go walking in the park to clear my mind. One morning, Hasan was working on his home and he waved as I passed. He was wearing raggedy jeans, a stained t-shirt, and worn boots. Normally, I wouldn’t have taken a second glance, but I actually had to look up to meet this man’s gaze. At nearly six feet tall, I often felt like I towered over everyone in town, especially the men, and here was a brown-eyed, dark—haired man ripe for the plucking. I left the trail and walked to the work site and introduced myself. Having a gift for the gab, I found out in a matter of moments that he was a professor, linguist, and published author, in addition, of course, to his carpentry skills. Instantly, my low self-esteem shifted into gear, and I decided that he was way out of my league. Despite my misgivings I invited him to join me on my walk and we have been meeting once a week to walk ever since.
“It was just something I was thinking about, Émile,” I said softly.
“Dad, the bread’s done!” Macy yelled.
I waved a hand in relief. “I’ll get it.”
Once in the kitchen, I felt the familiar routine of removing the loaves from the pans to let them cool wrap around me like a security blanket. Hannah leaned against the counter next to me while I worked and asked curiously, “What writing group was dad talking about?”
“You ask too many questions,” Macy, her younger sister, declared as she sauntered out of the kitchen to sit by her father. Hannah muttered under her breath, “Pest!”
Chuckling, I sympathized. “I remember when my sister was five and she drove me crazy.”
I rolled my eyes in an exaggerated fashion, and Hannah giggled, wrapping her arm around my waist. Returning the hug, I said, “That reminds me; –my sister Sydney is coming into town.” I smiled down at Hannah and then asked, “Would you like to help me bake a special cake to welcome her home?” Shrugging, Hannah looked longingly at her sister laughing with their father and Hasan. “Come on,” I encouraged, “and I’ll tell you about the writing group I want to join.” Hannah grinned up at me and nodded.
The string of bells above my door jangles one last time as I close my book shop for the evening. I hear a questioning meow from behind the door that separates my shop from my upstairs apartment.
“Yes everyone is gone, Jasper.”
I open the door for him to make his nightly rounds through the bookshelves. His favorite section in the store to prowl is Mystery, of course. My musing is interrupted by two single knocks followed by a triple knock on the front door. My friend Liz and I had come up with that secret knock after a late night chat about Fibonacci. I hurry over to door and let her in.
I feel some raindrops hit my pant legs as Liz gives her umbrella a final shake and walks in. She takes off her rain coat and lays it over one of the chairs in the Children’s section.
Liz and I met a few weeks ago through an online dating service and unfortunately even though I felt immediate sparks, Liz wanted to be the dreaded, just friends. Every Thursday we have a standing “undate” as Liz calls it. We discuss anything and everything that comes to mind. Recently, Liz is particularly fond of telling me her doomed stories of online dating. I gesture towards a chair.
“Have a seat Liz. I’ll be right back.”
I dart upstairs to my small apartment and retrieve two mugs of tea. When I return I notice Liz has gathered two chairs and a table. Jasper is comfortably settled in her lap and eagerly Liz reaches for the cup I offer.
“Thanks, are you ready for the dating recap, Jacob?”
My cup clinks when it makes contact with table between us. I sit back, steeple my fingers under my chin and ready myself for the show.
Liz leans forward with a mischievous glint in her eyes.
“Well, this week’s contestant was Bob.” Liz smirks and rolls her eyes.
I give an encouraging chuckle.
Liz tilts her head to the side and pouts.
“Do all men lie about their height?”
I rub my chin feeling stubble despite having shaved this morning.
“Well, I was honest about my 5’ 8” height.”
Liz smiles and scratches the end of her nose before continuing.
“And your strawberry blonde hair, with blue eyes that hide behind glasses of bookish intellectual.”
I laugh at the recital of my online profile. Liz joins me with her boisterous guffaw. I envy the freedom of her laugh.
“Anyway, Bob is not 5’4” because I am.”
Liz leans back and strokes Jasper’s fur.
“His head barely came up to my nose.”
Liz waves a hand at my expression.
“No, I’m not that shallow. If he had been a nice guy it wouldn’t have mattered.”
I raise an inquiring eyebrow.
“Tell me what was wrong with Bob?”
Liz tickles Jasper’s chin and he purrs in response.
“Bob is in town for some geology convention, and so I agreed to meet him in the lobby of his hotel. After we hugged he asked me what we are going to do for our date.”
My jaw stiffens.
“Wasn’t he the one that asked you out?”
Liz nods and licks her lips.
“He suggested since neither of us had a plan, that I should join him in his room, so we could get to know each other better.”
I feel sick.
“Liz you didn’t, did you?”
She narrows her eyes at me and I feel like a naughty child.
“I’m not stupid, Jacob. I suggested that we stay in the lobby and get to know each other there.”
I slurp my tea wishing I had a story I could tell her in return. Liz rolls her eyes and trudges on with her tale.
“He stole a kiss and had the nerve to say he’s not looking for love. He walked me to my car and told me he’d be in touch.”
My knee bounces as my heel taps the floor.
Liz takes a long sip of tea closing her eyes in pleasure.
“Anything exciting happen around here today?”
I wave my hand across the room.
“You know bookstores are practically night clubs.”
Liz widens her eyes and looks down at Jasper.
“Is that true?”
Jasper looks at Liz for a moment with his golden eyes and then yawns.
I pretend to be offended.
“What does a cat know?”
I nod toward the sales counter.
“I did fit in some reading today.”
Liz stands letting Jasper spill onto the floor. With an irritated twitch of his tail, Jasper escapes upstairs.
Liz walks to the counter and carefully picks up my tattered book.
“You’re reading The Count of Monte Cristo, again?”
I adjust the cushion behind my back.
“Good reading is hard to come by so I comfort myself with the classics.”
Liz returns to her seat cradling the book casually flipping through the pages.
“I thought you said you have a friend that writes books.”
I linger over the lovely picture Liz makes. Short, blonde hair just above her shoulders, and eyes that have the strange ability to shift colors depending on what color she wears.
I shake my head and flash a grin.
“Sorry Liz, I guess I was somewhere else.”
I clean my glasses with the edge of my shirt.
“Yes my friend Nell writes books, but they are for a much younger audience, I’m afraid.”
Replacing my glasses I steer the conversation back towards Liz.
“How are things going at the pharmacy?”
Liz frowns momentarily.
“As well as can be expected, I suppose.”
“Come on tell me the latest in the Trisha and Nathan saga.”
Liz lets her head fall back in laughter.
“Much like always. The poor guy still hasn’t got the girl.”
I silently empathize with Liz’s coworker. I know what it’s like to be in constant contact with someone you admire without the feeling being reciprocated.
“This week was a tangle of the usual ‘help me I’m a feeble woman’ act from Trisha. It makes my skin crawl.”
I shift in my seat bracing for the tongue lashing I know I’m going to receive after I speak.
“Well, she’s doing a good job of making Nathan feel needed and smart. If she’s pretty too Nathan doesn’t stand a chance.”
“That’s what a man wants? He wants to be lied to?”
I take refuge in sipping my tea while I consider how I can answer politely and truthfully.
“I don’t like to lied to, but if a woman doesn’t show me that she needs me in her life why would I stay?”
“Men just want to play hero and live in a land of fantasy.”
“We all live in a world of fantasy and can only see through our own lens of experience. We assume that others can see what we see.”
Liz raises an eyebrow.
“Diplomatic response, Jacob.”
We banter for the next hour until Liz looks up the clock on the wall.
“Oh my, it’s late.”
She stands and shrugs on her coat while I look down shyly.
“Can’t you stay a little longer?”
Liz slings her purse across her chest.
“I need to get up for work tomorrow and you need to finish your daily invoices.”
I follow Liz to the door and she gives me a quick peck on the cheek and disappears into the night.