Noémie shut the door of the station wagon harder than she intended. The worn-out Rambler she’d affectionately named Mimi clanged and bounced side to side, indicating the shock absorbers were about to give up. She shuddered. This vehicle, with an overloaded U-Haul trailer in tow, had safely moved the Bellerose family from Louisiana to North Carolina and had been a helpful friend ever since. She’d better treat Mimi with a little more care; otherwise, the car wouldn’t last.
Please, dear heaven, she needed Mimi to last.
With a light pat to the roof in silent apology, she tucked the umbrella under her arm and walked as quickly as the wet sidewalk and scattered puddles would allow. It had rained buckets last night. She didn’t need a twisted ankle or a nasty fall to compound her tardiness.
She turned right at the corner of Pine and Maple, entering Summitville’s commerce district, a charming four-block stretch lined with old-fashioned buildings—businesses and shops occupied the bottom half, residences the top section. Noémie remembered reading an article in a local magazine about a devastating fire in February 1905. The conflagration had razed the original wooden edifices. But the gutsy residents didn’t give up or move away. They dug in and rebuilt their town with sturdier brick structures while preserving the original design and quaint atmosphere. Their success had been so great that in 1911, the Summitville Clarion had raved about the “Wonderful Growth of Summitville.”
Nevertheless, whenever she walked along this section of Maple Street, she couldn’t help the eerie sensation of entering an ancient era, or maybe a shadow world, where specters of shop owners, dressed in black garb and white aprons—clinging stubbornly to this earthly plane—watched as she passed by.
She picked up her pace as she rummaged one-handed inside her bottomless purse. Her set of store keys loved playing hide-and-seek among the countless doodahs she carried. She arrived at the front door of Stories Forever and stopped dead. Mr. Thornton had beaten her to the punch. The bookstore’s lights were on, and the OPEN sign faced outward. Controlling her rapid breaths, she walked inside.
The raspy voice of Mr. Thornton, the owner of Stories Forever, came from behind a tall pile of books on his desk. A disembodied hand appeared, waving a pencil.
“Good morning, Mr. Thornton.”
“Heavens, child. Fred, the name is Fred.” As Mr. Thornton’s weathered face popped up from the mound of paperbacks, a lock of silver hair fell over his forehead. “I didn’t realize you had such a tough, stubborn streak. We’ve known each other too long. Formalities are for strangers.”
Noémie hung her jacket on the coat-tree, hooked her umbrella on top, and walked toward him.
“I know. I know. You and your wife, Diane, assumed the role of grandparents when I needed help the most. I’ll never be able to repay the love and support you’ve offered Gerry and me. But using your first name during business hours, especially when customers are present, don’t feel right. Some folks might object. Find the familiarity between us offensive. It’s the way of things.”
“Pshaw. Ridiculous. I don’t believe in that nonsense, and neither should you. ’Sides, times are changing. The old customs are dying, and it’s about time. Most people in town share my views.”
“Uh…your friends do. The rest of Summitville ain’t as open-minded. Your crazy ideas amuse the townsfolk, and that’s why they tolerate you. And don’t you forget, Maple Street is the way north and south. Not everyone who comes shopping is from these parts. Fred.” She whispered the last, leaning close to his face. “Are these the latest arrivals?” Changing topics, she picked up a thick recipe book.
“Yes, my dear. And today, you’re going to be quite busy restocking the shelves. A box full of DC and Marvel comics is next to my feet, which means a throng of kids will invade the store after school. Vogue and Good Housekeeping issues are in the back room. We received an assortment of New York Times’ fiction best sellers. Take a look at the stack, from detective stories to thrillers and spies. I haven’t unpacked all the boxes yet. And…ta-da…” He beamed, holding up a paperback with an unusual blue-and-white cover.
“Mr. Thornton, the title is in Spanish. And what the heck is that on the cover?” She squinted at the junglelike design. “It…looks like… Is that the skeleton of a Spanish galleon?”
“Yes to both, chère. Sort of a confusing, mishmash drawing, I’ll admit. Still, I’ve died and gone to heaven. This…this beauty right here is a treasure, one of the most important works to come out of Latin America in recent years.”
She snickered at the reverence in his tone.
Mr. Thornton frowned. “Make fun of an old man if you like. The literary world has gone gaga over this book. I’ll give you my flawed interpretation of the title. ‘A hundred years of solitude.’ Marvelous concept. I could wait until it’s officially translated, but I’m going to test my Spanish skills and dive right in. Might as well, since you won’t help with French.”
“Now who’s being stubborn? I’ve told you, but you won’t listen. I speak a few words of French. That’s it. Gram was the expert, not me.”
“Here’s one you might find interesting and compelling.”
He lifted a different book as if she hadn’t spoken. “The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron. It’s about the 1831 slave revolt in Virginia. I think you’ll find it interesting. However, you’re not reading it until you’ve finished with Shakespeare’s King Richard the Second.”
“Aha. John of Gaunt’s immortal speech.”
Noémie dropped the cookbook on the desk and extended her arms wide. Gliding in exaggerated dance-like steps, she slipped to the center of the room. Inhaling dramatically, she spoke. “‘This fortress built by Nature for herself…this blessed plot, this earth, this realm…this England.’ Act two, scene one.” She bowed and laughed.
“Brava. Encore, encore.” Fred applauded. “So, I guess you’re finished?”
“I’m halfway through. Confession time. I remember the words from watching Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon. My mother loved the film. Every time it came on TV, we’d sit together and watch. He cheated, you know, Basil Rathbone. In the movie’s epilogue, he skips around Gaunt’s speech. But I’m going to memorize it the right way. At least the famous parts, for Mom…”
“Aww. Don’t get upset, chère. I know you miss her.”
Tears stung her eyes. She pulled her brows together, trying to hold them back. “I miss them both, Gram and Mom.”
“Uh-oh. She’s heading this way.” Mr. Thornton’s disconnected comment and worried grimace erased her sad thoughts.
“Serena and her two suck-ups, your alleged friends. I saw them go into Bart’s drugstore. Eventually, they’ll come here. I don’t understand why you humor them.”
“Humor? I can’t avoid her.” Noémie glanced across the street. “She is the county’s social queen and official gossip. Gotta stay on her good side, even if it’s nothing but pretense. Otherwise… Ah, why bother talking about it. How do I look? ’Cause she’s gonna check me up and down. I’m not in the mood to give her more ammo than she already has.”
“You look fine to me. But I’m a reading man and not a fashion expert, as my wife will tell you. A week will pass before I notice she’s cut her hair or changed her color. Better check in the mirror.” Mr. Thornton pointed his thumb to the archway connecting the store to the back room.
Noémie rushed to the tiny warehouse. One side was packed full with unopened boxes, the contents waiting to be sorted and distributed. To her left, next to the shop’s bathroom, a full-length mirror had been installed when the office space was remodeled into a storage area.
Staring at her image, she smoothed down the cotton aquamarine dress with capped sleeves. Not exactly the height of fashion, although the hemline followed the trend, two inches above the knee, and the color worked with her golden café au lait skin tone. Gram had sewn it for her, and she would wear it until she could see through the fabric. So far, her long mane behaved. It had a mind of its own and could get unruly with rain and humidity. She’d pinned up her curly tresses at both sides, keeping the hair out of her face and eyes for work. The rest, as she’d hoped, cascaded in soft coils to the middle of her back. Makeup checked out, not too much, not too little. Serena’s catty nitpicking might be stymied today. She nodded in approval and returned to the store just as the terrible trio—whose remarks instilled terror in the hearts of Summitville females—entered Stories Forever.
“Belly, girl… There you are,” Serena murmured, signaling for the two women behind her to follow. A monarch in her domain—her regal bouffant perfectly coiffed—she surveyed the room and the occupants, smiled, then nodded, once. She continued toward the bookcases, adding a slight shift of hips to her step. She trailed a finger from one shelf to the next. The smooth, oily drawl and condescending attitude gave Noémie the creeps.
Mr. Thornton groaned, hiding his disapproving face behind the books he’d stacked. Noémie stood at his back.
“Good morning, Serena. What brings you around?” Noémie asked.
“Oh, nothing much. I thought Vogue might have arrived.”
“Glamour is always the first to come out. I don’t see it.” Betty—sycophant number two and the most ill-mannered—pouted. She stood next to the empty shelf that was usually overloaded with every conceivable magazine in the country, from Seventeen to Popular Mechanics.
“If you come back later, ladies,” Mr. Thornton intervened. “All the fashion mags will be out and available. Everything was delivered this morning. Noémie and I haven’t had a moment to sort them out yet.”
“Shame, shame. Belly girl getting lazy on you, Mr. Thornton?” Serena tapped a finger at the corner of her lips.
“Young lady, that’s no—”
“Not lazy, Serena. I was late, that’s all. Gerry’s school bus was running behind, and I drove him.” Noémie spoke before Mr. Thornton got involved in a useless verbal tussle with Serena.
“Why, sugar… I was only joshing. No need to get all huffy and stuff. Right, ladies?”
With perfect synchronicity, Serena’s entourage stretched their necks, turned to Serena, and nodded.
“Huffy? Not me. I know you like to kid around.” Noémie agreed for the sake of peace. She could almost see steam streaming out of Mr. Thornton’s ears.
“You haven’t told her yet, Serena,” Sue said, moving to the cookbook section.
“I’ll bet she doesn’t know.” Betty winked, last month’s Harlequin novel in hand.
Noémie wanted to roll her eyes. Serena’s minions did their best, but the temptation campaign didn’t work. Whatever held their interest, she didn’t care one whit.
“I declare. You’re both so right. I guess…”
Serena left the sentence hanging while she continued sashaying from shelf to shelf—her strange way to attract attention and build suspense.
Noémie’s bored mind wandered off. Two weeks ago, an unfortunate woman had worn the wrong dress to church, an outfit a little too risqué in a style that belonged in the previous decade. Serena’s gossip machine ran full tilt. No one saw the lady in question again. Then last week, Serena discovered an upcoming betrothal before the Summitville Daily had a chance to publish the event. The couple quarreled, postponed the wedding, and the editor of the social pages threatened to sue. Serena shrugged it off. What could the paper do when Dan Long was a member of the board of directors? Today’s target could be anything just as inconsequential. Had anyone been jilted? Had a drunk been spotted stumbling within the town limits?
Had anyone slighted Serena?
Woe to the soul who snubbed or disrespected her royal highness, Serena Long. Noémie included herself in that observation. Serena flaunted Noémie Bellerose as her token colored friend, and as much as she hated being used, she had to swallow the treatment under a meek smile and lowered humble eyes.
Mr. Thornton’s optimistic statements were not as popular and widespread as he claimed, and life’s unkind lessons had taught her a little pragmatism. A measure of levelheadedness she hoped would keep her afloat in these troubled times. She lived south of the Mason-Dixon line, where the racial divide was still an abyss. The big wheels in Washington DC could pass a ton of well-intended civil rights acts, but a piece of paper with fancy lettering and impressive seals didn’t sway minds or unlock hearts.