“All right, boys and girls, you have ten minutes to finish and clean up before your rides get here. Great job today!”
I grinned as the small gathering of kids groaned and grudgingly took their handmade puppets to the storage area they’d been using all week. When they’d first shown up on Monday, one or two had been excited to participate in the playwriting summer camp, but I suspected the rest had been signed up by their parents as a way to keep their child occupied during part of the summer break from school.
I smiled at Willow, one of the two who’d been excited from the start. She’d had the cutest ideas as we worked together to write short plays for which we were now making puppets to perform their plays. “Yes, honey.”
“This has been the funnest week. I can’t wait for my mom to see our show next week.”
“I know she’s going to be super impressed,” I promised her.
“I want to be a writer when I grow up.”
So do I. “I think maybe I better get your autograph now so I can show it off in a few years when you become a best-selling author.”
Her pretty hazel eyes lit up. One eye was a little greener than the other, recalling another set of eyes that were uneven in color, but I pushed that thought away. He was long gone by now. I hadn’t been back in town long, but it wasn’t that big. Surely I’d have already encountered him by now if he still lived here.
Willow threw her arms around me. “You really think I can do it?”
There was no point in creating disillusion in her young life. She’d learn soon enough. “I do, sweetie. You can do anything if you work hard.”
I sighed as I watched her run off to help put away all of the glue, yarn, and other materials that the kids had been using to make their puppets. Next week, after they were dry, we’d rehearse and put the finishing touches on their scripts before presenting their plays to their families. I’d spent so many moments like these at this very same library. Starting with story time when I was little and moving on up to classes like this as I grew older. And every week I’d beg my Aunt Heidi whom I lived to bring me here so I could return the books I’d read and get new ones. When I was older, I rode my bike, at least three times a week here, always filling the basket on the front with books. I read anything—mysteries, classics, science fiction, biographies…it didn’t matter. I loved being taken away to other times and places, experiencing through another’s eyes. I loved the smell of the paper and the feeling of being surrounded by book friends.
One day, sometime when I was in middle school, Mrs. Hinkley, the head librarian, joked that I was going to run out of books and have to write my own.
Her words stuck with me.
My basket continued to be filled with books each week, but now it also included pens and spiral notebooks so I could try to capture all of the ideas that filled my mind. Aunt Heidi, my mom’s sister who took me in when my parents died in a boating accident when I was in third grade, worried that I spent too much time with the fictional characters and not enough “real” friends. She didn’t understand that in my room, curled up with my pillows and soft blankets and Arfy, the stuffed dog I’d had since I was a baby, I had the best friends. There in my room, I could be the smart kid that no one made fun of. I could stand up against bullies through the actions of a character.
I walked behind the large curved checkout counter to oversee the kids who’d run to grab books—many at my recommendations—before their ride arrived to take them home. It was different than when I was little and the librarian had to do most of the work. Now the kids could scan their books themselves. No wonder my previous job had been cut, forcing me to move back here when the opportunity arose. But no one could replace the personal touch of helping them find a love of reading.
One by one, the kids left. I looked across the open main room of the library and saw Willow swinging her legs as she sat on a bench, her eyes glued to a book she held in front of her nose. I frowned, curious why she was still here since she was usually one of the first to be picked up. Leaving Wren, the other librarian, to monitor the counter, I walked over to Willow and sat beside her.
“Mom’s running late today, huh?”
She dragged her eyes from the page, reminding me of how I used to resent any interruption to the scene I was engrossed in. “Mom has to work. My uncle is picking me up.”
“Oh.” I peered through the glass doors to the front of the library. A couple of moms and kids I recognized stood in the warm sun and chatted. The only other person I saw was a man who was leaning against a lamppost while he chatted with a pretty woman. She tucked her hair behind her ear, then pulled her phone out and typed something. Within seconds, he pulled his phone out, and said something causing her to smile before she walked away while he watched, a catlike grin on his face. He used his shoulder to push away from the pole, appearing to whistle as he strode toward the main doors.
I rolled my eyes and subtly shook my head. I’d seen those kinds of men before. The kind who was used to checking out women rather than books. The library was an easy place to try to snag a date. They simply had to appear to be interested in reading, ask an unsuspecting woman for book recommendations, then appear fascinated by what she answered. It could have been a book on computer coding, but suddenly that was his secret interest or his “job.”
I expected him to strut on past us, but his eyes landed on Willow.
“Hey, Will-o’-the-wisp. You ready to head home?” He focused on her, barely glancing at me. It gave me time to study him. There was something familiar about him.
Willow’s head snapped back up from the story she’d quickly returned to reading. “Yep.” She snapped her book shut and hopped up. “Bye Miss Joelle. See ya Monday.”
“Bye, sweetie. Good work today.”
The eyes of the uncle who’d mostly ignored me snapped from her to me. That was the trouble of having an unusual name—it was always recognizable, and it obviously was to him. Just like those unusual eyes I stared into, left and right both defined as hazel, but one was greener than the other. Just like Willow’s. Now, both of those eyes grew darker, or maybe it was just because he narrowed them, just like his smile thinned out.
“Well, color me surprised. Little Mouse. What are you doing back in town?”
My hackles rose at the old name that had sprung up around the time I’d first gotten to know Devin Dunlap. Keep it civil. Short answers. Don’t poke the bear. “I work here.”
“Since I moved back a couple of weeks ago.”
“Guess the big city didn’t work out so well for you.”
My shoulders drew back at his snarky tone. “About as well as your NFL dream it appears,” I snapped. So much for keeping it civil.
“You been keeping tabs on me?”
“Not the kind of research I like.”
His face grew taut and his grim smile turned into a distinct frown. “Let’s go, Will. I’m sure Jo has better things to do. She always did.”
His words hit their mark, but instead of retreating into myself and saying nothing like I used to, I fired back. “Some things are just more worth my time. Always has been, always will be.”
Poor Willow looked confused by our terse exchange, but she headed toward the exit, a little skip in her step. Her uncle took a step closer. “I’d say it’s nice to see you again, but we both know that would be a lie.”
He spun on his heel and followed his niece out of the building. I watched as they climbed into a dark blue pickup truck, with a bright red sticker on the back for the Clover Fork Fire Department, the same logo that had been on the front of his T-shirt.
It took the entire Saturday of cleaning the house and painting the living room to work through the frustration of seeing Devin Dunlap again. How long would it take before he filled in his buddies that I was back? How long before people would pass me on the street or in the aisles of the grocery store and go squeak whenever they saw me?
Honestly, I’d assumed he’d moved away. I knew he had big dreams, too, one of the only things we had in common. While I’d been the book nerd and honor student, he’d been the school jock and one of the popular kids. I think he starred in every local girl’s dreams, even mine for a short time. When a teacher reached out to me to tutor Devin to help him keep his English grade up, I’d been intimidated by the idea of spending so much time around him. But I’d done it–until I found out he was the reason other kids would “squeak” at me whenever they passed me. And by other kids, I meant nearly the entire popular gang. It had been a miserable senior year, and graduation and moving away to college hadn’t come soon enough.
It was only a little past eight o’clock in the evening, but I was tired, and the next chapter of my book was calling my name, along with a nice glass of wine. Lucy, my cat named for the author of my favorite series, Anne of Green Gables, purred and rubbed against my legs as if she, too, was looking for some cuddle time. I was just about to turn off my last lamp when I remembered I hadn’t watered my outdoor flowers yet, and the day had been a scorcher. Lucy followed me outside, but I didn’t worry. She never wandered too far and always came back home.
Suddenly, there was a streak of black as Lucy darted across the yard as if the hounds of Hell were on her heels. In fact, maybe there was. A huge, floppy-eared, brown beast chased after her. Startled by the commotion and fearful that Lucy might become the next meal for the dog, I jumped and whirled around, forgetting that I was holding a hose, and managed to spray myself in the face as well as soak the front of my shirt. Dripping, I hurriedly twisted the valve and shut off the water, then took off after them.
Lucy veered into the yard of a house, shot through an open gate, and ran into the backyard where she scrambled up the first tree just off a massive deck. The dog continued to sniff around the base of the tree trunk but set his sights on me as I drew near.
I waited to be pounced on, to be devoured in one bite by his drooling jaws. I held out my trembling finger, and in a shaky voice told him to sit.
To my utter surprise—and relief—he did. He cocked his head as if he expected me to ask him to do something else. “Go home,” I commanded. But this time, he just continued to look at me. I wasn’t sure if he was curious or daring me to make another move. I took a tentative step toward the tree, but he quickly stood. I didn’t trust his wagging tail. He “woofed” at me, then took a step closer, but halted as I yelled, “Stay.”
“Lucy,” I called, hoping by some miracle she’d just come down from the tree. But of course, she didn’t. If I, a creature multiple times bigger than her and the dog that separated us didn’t want to pass him, why would she?
I glanced over my shoulder, hoping maybe the owner or a neighbor would come to my aid. No one. However, this time I noticed a dark blue truck backed into the driveway. A truck that had a Clover Fork Fire Department sticker. A truck identical to the one Devin drove.
I hung my head. What were the odds he’d be at the same house where my cat decided to run? What had I ever done to deserve this?
Keeping a wary eye on the dog, I crept closer to a window on the side of the house. Sure enough, through some sheer curtains, I saw a shadow of a man the same size as Devin. Worse, there was a woman standing with him, and they looked like they were about to kiss.
I closed my eyes and drew a deep breath. The dog sat right in the middle of the gated yard. I wasn’t sure which beast I should take my chances with. Either had the potential to bite.
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