by NT Franklin
Mark perused the book titles at the Second Chance Bookstore in Phoenix. The one book on scrimshaw was already in his collection. Checking out used bookstores was one of his joys and the reason he arrived a day early for these dreaded actuarial accounting conferences.
He strolled empty-handed along the sidewalk, glancing in shop windows. He was nearly past the Salvation Army storefront when a box of books on the counter caught his eye. Usually books at Salvation Army stores were bodice-ripper romances, not his style, but he had lots of time.
The clerk was a silver-haired woman in a green cardigan who looked like everyone’s grandmother, volunteering to occupy her day.
Mark smiled. “Good afternoon…books?”
“Far back left-hand corner. Kinda sorted by interest. And this box, it came in today. Mainly astrology and that sort of thing. I haven’t priced them yet.”
“Slide it over. I’ll have a look. Maybe save you some shelving.”
Mark looked at the spines and grabbed ‘Astrology for Nonbelievers.’ He knew the book. His hands shook when he opened the cover.
There it was: ‘For Ellie, use this to teach me the way. Love always, Mark.’
He gave a little gasp and tried to slow his racing mind.
“Where did you get these books?”
“Oh, a lovely young lady has brought a box in at lunchtime every day this week.”
“How much for this book?”
“Is one dollar too much?”
“Here’s a ten. Keep it, I’ll go check out the shelves in the back.”
Mark clutched the book to his chest. His life began when she moved into his apartment with just a few clothes and a box of books. His life ended two years ago when she left. Could she be in Phoenix? It was him, not her, who loved the heat. He closed his eyes and remembered the day he gave her the book. I almost gave you a book on the healing power of crystals but chose this instead. You can use this to guide me. Her serious expression to what he thought was a joke was still vivid in his mind.
He could hear her voice in his head, ‘Good choice, everyone knows crystals don’t work.’ That was four years ago.
Life was everything it was supposed to be when they lived together until he came home one day and saw the bare space in the bookshelf where her astrology books had proudly resided. A check of the closet showed her few clothes were gone as well. She left with what she brought and none of the things they acquired together on trips. Hell, he had a ring on order at the jewelry store.
No note. No goodbye. No reason. Just gone.
He’d spent two years asking why. Two years trying to get over her. Two years pining.
Mark looked at the book titles without seeing them. Ellie. Here in Phoenix. Why? Mechanically pulling a book off the shelf and returning it, he mulled over options. He had so many questions for her. Ten minutes later, he knew what he was going to do. With ‘Astrology for Nonbelievers’ under his arm, he nodded to the clerk on his way out.
Damn the morning session and lunch presentation, tomorrow he’d be in the store before lunchtime, hoping she’d stop in.
Mark was up before the sun, pacing in his hotel room. He looked at the conference agenda. Nothing came close to the importance of a chance of seeing Ellie. Another hour before the restaurant opened. He paced. And thought of what he would say to her, what he would ask her. Finally, a chance to ask some questions, get some closure.
He was the first one seated in the still-dim restaurant. The waitress filled his coffee cup before he settled into the booth. She promptly brought him two eggs over easy, hash browns, bacon, and rye toast.
He looked at his plate. Empty. Must have eaten it but I don’t remember.
“Are you okay?” the waitress asked.
He shook his head and blinked a couple times.
“I’m fine, thanks. Just trying to sort some things out.”
“I’m glad. I spoke to you three times before you came out of your trance.” She smiled at him. “And I don’t know CPR.”
As the restaurant filled up, Mark jotted in his pocket notebook. He rewrote his notes, trying not to be confrontational. He needed some answers, but didn’t want to upset her. Did he still love her? He managed to duck out before any of the conference attendees showed up.
Back in his room, he tidied up and thought about his actions before the store opened. He reread his notes and paced. I can do this.
The Second Chance Bookstore was about a twenty-minute walk. To bide time this morning, he would thoroughly go over the volumes in the crafts as well as the art books, in case some there were scrimshaw books in both areas.
The third time he had studied the title of each volume, it was time to leave the bookstore and go to the Salvation Army store.
The same clerk looked up when the bell chimed. She nodded to Mark as he entered.
Mark pointed, “Books, left side in the back, right?”
“Yes, same place as yesterday.” She cracked a smile.
He positioned himself so he could lift his head without turning around if Ellie or the person with her books came in.
The shelves had the astrology books from yesterday and many sported 50-cent price stickers. The yellow price stickers were ten percent off on Tuesday. Who would wait to buy a 50-cent book on Tuesday to save a nickel?
The bell on the door chimed and brought him back to focus. A scruffy-looking man entered with a cheery, “Morning, Mabel, what’s new?”
“Some summer shirts came in and they’re on the rack. They look like your style, Robert.”
Mark turned his attention back to the books on the shelf and became lost in his thoughts of Ellie, rehearsing what he would say to her. Was it me? What did I do wrong?
“Another box of books?” the clerk asked.
“Yes, this is the last one.”
Mark froze and dropped the book he was holding. He knew that voice. It was Ellie. He picked up the book and put it back on the shelf and started toward the front of the store.
Even with her back to him, he knew it was her. Black hat with shoulder-length brown hair, white peasant top over a long, pleated skirt. Boho style. Ellie turned and looked at him. Or more correctly, right through him.
He started to say something, but she turned away and left the store. Mark stopped in the aisle with his arms at his side and his mouth gaping open.
Gathering himself, he left the store in time to see her turning the corner. He picked up his pace and followed her. When he reached the corner, he saw her entering a stationery store.
He reached the stationery store and watched her through the window. There she was, as beautiful and graceful as ever. Two years disappeared into two seconds. When she finished dealing with a customer, he put his hand on the door handle but stopped.
Mark retraced his steps to the Salvation Army store and smiled at Mabel when the door announced his entrance.
“Mind if I look at the box of books that lady just dropped off?”
Mabel slid the box across the counter. “Sure, take your time.”
The first book he opened was inscribed, ‘For Ellie, the love of my life. Yours forever, Arthur.’
Mark returned the book to the box and stepped back. “Uh, thanks.”
He turned and left before Mabel responded.
Outside, he leaned against the building and gasped for air. A full five minutes passed before he could catch his breath and his legs stopped shaking. He knew where he had to go.
Back at the stationery store, he caught Ellie’s eye as his hand was on the door handle. She looked at him and gave him a sales-clerk smile. No recognition, just a mechanical response.
Mark let go of the door and headed back to the hotel. Time to start healing.
About the author:
NT Franklin has been published in Page and Spine, Fiction on the Web, 101 Words, Friday Flash Fiction, CafeLit, Madswirl, Postcard Shorts, 404 Words, Scarlet Leaf Review, Freedom Fiction, Burrst, Entropy, Alsina Publishing, Fifty-word stories, Dime Show Review, among others.