We didn’t move far from the thrift store. Cameron bought me a coffee from the café and then, warm apple cider when I said I never had it, a water and a chocolate pastry too. I was getting the feeling that people from this town just knew to feed people when they were upset. I had to stop him from buying me a sandwich when I finished the pastry.
Cameron couldn’t stop pacing while I sat on the bench outside. From here, we could vaguely hear the puffs and clangs from the café working hard, the chatter of people inside and a playlist of acoustic music. Cameron fussed with his hair over and over again. He zipped up his jacket and then, unzipped it. He asked, “How do I look?”
“Good,” I said, struggling to hold my drinks. “But stressed.”
He groaned and took the water like it was vodka.
A few minutes later, a man approached. I figured it was Mark by the way Cameron described him, a tall Japanese man with neatly trimmed hair, styled out of his face. Cameron said he was a middle school literature teacher, which made sense with his semi-formal wear and tie, underneath a dark blue sweater. He wore a long gray peacoat over it all and a leather briefcase was strapped to his back.
“Well, I’m disappointed. You had the balls to call me and the town isn’t burning down,” Mark said. He came close, but still an arm’s length away from Cameron’s touch and crossed his arms. There was a wall that even I could see. “I wanted a light show.”
“I need a favor,” Cameron said. He held his breath, filling his whole chest.
“Hold on...” Mark raised his hand. He tilted his body to look around Cameron’s chest to see me. “Who’s this? Show me some manners.”
“Right! Mark, this is Drew. Drew this is Mark.”
“Nice to meet you,” Mark said. It seemed like he meant it too. He approached and joined me on the bench, offering me his hand. I took a moment to work up the courage to accept it. Closer, Mark’s pale skin couldn’t hide the dark circles around his eyes and yet, there was something so regale about him, something also so cold like marble.
He asked me, “I hope this isn’t rude, but are you one of the rogues?”
“Um, yes,” I admitted it and offered one of my drinks. He took the coffee.
“Welcome to Dearest, then.” He turned his attention to Cameron, sipping on the drink. “Is this guy bothering you, Drew?” He motioned at the blonde. “If you think he’s about to do something stupid, he is. Get out. Leave.”
“He’s actually been a gentleman,” I said, glancing at Cameron. This made Mark’s eyes widen just a little bit, but the shock faded. He hummed, leaning against the bench and inspecting his distant mate.
“You make me sound so sinister,” Cameron feigned being insulted, touching his chest.
“You’re not cunning enough to be sinister. What’s the favor?”
“It’s actually a favor I need from your mom and she hates me. She loves you, so she’s more likely to be nicer to you.”
“I would hope so-” He touched the wrinkle forming between his brow, trying to sooth it. “Not the hate part, the loving me part.”
“I want to get Drew a job at the bookstore.”
Mark and I blinked in unison. We didn’t speak, waiting for a coherent explanation. Cameron sighed. “He needs the job and I think it would be good for him....” Cameron sat on the armrest of the bench, next to me. He rubbed his legs, sort of talking to me, sort of rambling to himself. “I don’t know, I just thought it would help. I should have asked over the phone.”
“Drew,” Mark turned to me. “Do you want to work at a bookstore?”
“What a crazy question, who would say no?”
“Would you kill Cameron for me, in order to work there?”
I smiled. “Do you have a preference for the murder weapon?”
Mark laughed and I sipped on my apple cider. Its warmth spilled down my tired bones. After all the crying and walking around the town, I longed for a nap. I sighed as reality knocked back on my door. I said, “It’s a weird feeling. I thought... I thought something like that wasn’t an option for me anymore. I don’t think it’s possible at all. I’m a rogue.”
“My mom cares more about the last book you read and if you’ll show up to work on time.” Mark explained. “Oh, and don’t talk to her about the weather. She always says if she wanted to know about the weather, she’d stick her head outside.”
“But...” I reached for my bite marks. “No one wants me here.”
Mark smiled softly, a bit of that ice melted. He moved my bangs a little and fixed my collar. “I am an excellent judge of character, present company not included. It’s been only a few minutes since I’ve met you and I already like you.”
“This town is full of good people,” Cameron spoke up. He walked up behind Mark, who reacted with his entire body. He closed his eyes and sat up straighter. Cameron continued, “and I know they’ll come around, but you can’t wait for anyone to give you permission to live your life.”
“Come on,” Mark said, breathlessly and stood so fast, Cameron had to jump back to give him space. Mark patted my shoulder. “Let’s go get you a job.”
I stood inside the Bookmiser and it felt like a homecoming.
The place was filled with shelves and books and there was a staircase that led to another floor with more books. I walked up to a shelf with a note from a twelve-year-old girl named Rosa and it was a list of all her recommendations. There were tons of notes. One shelf was dedicated to a “blind date” with books covered in parchment. Only little goodies of the stories were handwritten on top.
Everywhere I looked there was places to read on mitch-matched furniture and quaint reading nooks. I felt as if Jess had lost me forever.
The arguing didn’t even bother me. For a few minutes, Mark and his mother, Reiko were going back and forth in Japanese. Reiko was a lot like Mark in the way they both had slim, tall silhouettes and boney fingers. However, there was a softness to Reiko with her fuller cheeks and her wrinkles. Her black hair was piled high in a messy bun. She wore a chunky cardigan that laid more like a robe. She straightened her arm at Cameron, but she was still shouting something to Mark. The only thing I recognized was the Japanese word for “idiot” and Cameron’s name.
Mark finally sighed and crossed his arms. It was a chore to turn and tell Cameron, “You have to go outside. You’re still banned from the Bookmiser.”
“But- I- What about-” Cameron pointed at me.
“Cam, go outside.”
“Fine,” Cameron muttered. He walked out of the bookstore, meandering in front of the large store front window. He gnawed on the side of his thumb, peeking into the scene as best as he could, like a little kid kicked out of class for being naughty.
“This must be a very strange first impression.” Reiko cleared her throat and redid her bun. “And I’m sorry, but I’m not really looking for help right now.”
“Mom, please,” Mark sighed. “Do it for me.”
She looked between us, measuring her son up. She read him as closely as any of these books. She dropped her hands in a huff and said, “Fine. Drew, why do you want to work here?” They all looked at me, but it felt like more than enough attention and my throat went dry. I wanted to reach back and take Jess’ hand, but he wasn’t here. It was just me.
Taking a deep, quivering breath, I steadied myself. I just told her the truth, “I’ve been a rogue for... gosh, I don’t know how many months and I’m tired. I want to be me again, but I don’t know how to do that without being surrounded by books.”
Reiko sighed, sadly. She stared at me for a moment in silence, but Mark quickly broke it. He was aghast. “If you don’t at least give him a chance, you’re a monster-”
She pushed him, insistent. “I was! Give me a second.” She walked towards me and motioned around the room and up the stairs. She said, “I want you to pick out two books. Pretend I’m a girl, a teenager who doesn’t read a lot, but I really like Disney movies. Also pretend I’m a college student that stopped reading, but I want to get back into it. I need an escape. Now, go explore. You don’t have a time limit, but we do close at eight.”
She didn’t have to tell me twice.
I dashed up the stairs. The weight on my shoulders went from boulders to pebbles and I thought I’d be able to lift off the ground. There were books everywhere. I could walk between two shelves, expecting to hit a dead end and find another corridor. I nabbed a copy of The Name of The Wind by Patrick Rothfuss and approached the stairs, when I heard Mark’s voice.
Mark sighed. “What? I’m not a mind-reader, mom. Just say it.”
“It’s interesting seeing you and Cameron together...” The subtext in her voice said more than anything. They shared the same raspy tone. It was gritty, like everything they said held a sprinkle of cynicism. “Don’t think the town gossip doesn’t reach me. You like to pretend you’re not as dramatic as the rest of this town, but I know you best. I know that big heart of yours drives every action.”
“I’m not in high school anymore.”
“We’re all still in high school, my love. Seeing you two together takes me right back to that time. How are you feeling about all this?”
“I can’t just...” The restrain in Mark’s voice made my own heart ache. “I can’t ignore him if he asks me for my help and... it was nice to hear he even needed my help.” Before they could open the book on Mark and Cameron’s torrid love affair, Mark quickly switched topics. It was an elegant side-step, learned from years of practice. “You should really let Cam back in here. If he wants to learn a little something from books, who are we to stop him?”
“I just can’t do that. Mark, you tortured yourself in high school because it was inconceivable that Cameron could be your mate. You wanted to be with him so badly and when you two were finally together and secure, he left. I thought I was going to lose you... if you forgive him, I will too, but not before.”
“I miss him and that’s the frustrating part...” He let out another sigh. I had a feeling Mark was going to be completely deflated soon. “It’s hard to fight it out when that idiot doesn’t even understand why I’m angry...”
The bookstore couldn’t soak up the silence. It thickened the air. I took one step, the floor board creaked, and I thought about throwing myself over the railing to end my embarrassment quicker. Mark’s mom called from the bottom floor, “How are things going up there, Drew?”
“G-great!” My voice cracked and I hurried down the stairs as if I didn’t hear anything, even though I’m pretty sure my red face gave me away. I kept my eyes on the floor and less on their faces. “Just one more book to go!”
Mark’s mom laughed. “Like I said, get lost a little. I’m in no rush.”
This time, I took her advice. I must have walked every row two or three times, half bent over to read each and every title. My fingers tingled, touching the spines. I’d pull one or two off, examine the cover and the pages. Some books were signed first editions, some books were used with scribbles and some books were from local authors trying to make their dreams come true. I could breathe in this bookstore better than I had been able to in a while.
I wanted Jess to be here. I wanted to go back to the Inn and drag him right back over. I wanted him to see everything. To see the me he fell in love with again.
Eventually, I wandered back to Reiko and showed her my picks. She had taken residence behind the counter, sipping tea and reading a mystery novel. Throughout the day, people wandered in and out of bookstore, buying things or simply taking a second to get out of the cold. Some high-schoolers waited in the lobby to do homework and hangout until their parents picked them up. I would have been one of those kids for sure. The Name of Wind for College student longing to read again. Half panicked, I quickly explained myself, blabbering on and on. “Um, it’s a used copy. That way he wouldn’t have to spend a lot of money and it’s long, so he’ll be entertained for a while and um,” I let out a trembling sigh, working past the lump lodged in the middle of my throat. “It’s just such a good book. I think everyone should read it.”
For the girl that wasn’t a big reader at all, I handed over a copy of Cinder by Merissa Meyer. My hands were strung together, getting sweatier and sweatier as I played with them. “It’s like this book was made for this girl. I mean, fairytale retellings with such a great cast of characters. With this book, I will make her a book nerd for sure-”
“You’re hired.” Reiko smiled.
“What?” My chest inflated. I thought maybe I lifted from the ground. It couldn’t be that easy. Nothing in my life was ever that easy. Shaking, I asked her, “Really, that’s it? You don’t need anything else from me?”
This made Reiko laugh. She walked around the counter and gave me a hug. I stiffened at first, but I folded my arms around her too. She smelled like tea leaves and lavender oils. She was warm too and this gentle touch alone made me want to cry. She reminded me of my grandmother. I had avoided thinking about her since the diner, since Jess last spoke to her because thinking about her alone would break me into pieces.
“You’re a good kid,” Reiko explained. “And I’ve been thinking about rearranging a few things, so I could use the help. It’s still a job, so don’t thank me too much.” She let me go. “We open at nine am every day, except Sunday. We’re closed on Sundays. Regular days we close at eight pm. I’ll call you when I have a schedule figured out, probably tomorrow. Do you have a-”
She was about to ask me if I had a phone but caught herself. To avoid any awkwardness, I said, “I’m living at the Dearest Inn, so you can call me there.”
“Congrats, Drew,” Mark said with a smile. He raised his hand and gave me a solid high-five. “Don’t think I didn’t hear you say Cinder and The Name of the Wind. We have lots to discuss. Grab your coat. We should join up with Cameron before he dies of hypothermia and anticipation.” It was then I realized Cameron had been standing outside this entire time.
“Thanks again, Reiko!” I spouted and scrambled to put my coat back on. I hurried outside, running up to Cameron. “I’m sorry it took us so long! I lost track of time and-”
“Don’t sweat it.” Cameron shook his head. He had zipped up his coat all the way, burying himself in his jacket, but his cheeks, nose and ears were still pink. He smiled and I realized, this was the first time I had been able to look Cameron in the eye. That made me look down. Cameron asked, “Did you get the job?”
I beamed. “I did.”
“I knew you could,” Cameron grinned wider. He put an arm around me in a quick hug. He really felt frozen. Letting me go, the Bookmiser door opened and Mark walked out. Cameron perked up, like a dog greeting his master. He said, “Thanks.”
Mark shrugged. “What are you two up to now?”
“We still have to get Drew some clothes,” Cameron said, his brow furrowing from the realization.
Mark was taken back. He looked at me. “Drew, no. You can’t let him pick out your clothes. If it were up to him, he’d dress liken 80′s movie villain. I don’t even let him pick out his own clothes.” The more he spoke, the more Cameron’s eyes seem to sparkle. They resembled the top of the ocean waves that reflected the sun, glimmering and almost blinding. Drew said, “I have to come.”
“Are you sure you can stand being with me all day?” Cameron teased, his voice suddenly low and flirting. It was new to me. Apparently, he reserved certain levels of charm for certain people.
Mark smirked. “Are you sure you can keep up?”
With that, Mark strung his arm with mine and he pointed us for the end of the sidewalk. I glanced behind my shoulder in time to catch Cameron clutching his fist up in victory. He hurried along behind us, trailing Mark by his ankles. Covertly, I reached behind with an open palm. Making no sound, Cameron accepted my low-five.
At times, I forgot what brought me to this town. I forgot about Jacob and his bite. I forgot about the word those women called me. I was just being me, talking about books with Mark as we scrounged up some acceptable clothes. I enjoyed myself as I watched Mark and Cameron bicker and Cameron coaxing a smile or two out of Mark. I felt like a part of this. I even asked the cashier myself if I could wear the clothes outside. They fit. My own pair of pants slightly rolled at the bottom. My own dark grey sweater, button up and dark blue winter coat. They all fit and for the first time in a while, I was fitting into this world too.
Here’s an announcement! I’ve started uploading my Novella for this book called “Please, Let it be Me” that’s all about Mark and Cameron’s relationship in high school. You can find it on my profile now! The first Part is up and I’ll probably update weekly!