by Laurel Dowers
“We had a great week!” I announced to my cousins as I slammed the cash drawer closed.
Another tidy stack of cash and checks were ready to drop, and it was time to go home after a satisfying week. I flashed a triumphant smile at Steph, who was supervising Audra’s window-cleaning progress.
“Well, yeah!” Steph retorted with a hint of hostility. “Auntie Liv hasn’t been around to scare off the customers—crazy old bird.” Audra stepped aside as Steph leaned into the window and examined it closely, frowning. “You missed a spot.”
Audra huffed and stepped back to the window, pretending to be offended while wildly scrubbing at the glass.
I surveyed the store with appreciation. Seattle’s chilly, rainy, late-fall weather hadn’t dampened the holiday shoppers’ spirits, and the atmosphere within the store had never felt more cheerful. Our aunt had migrated south to Hawaii a month ago, abandoning us to prepare for the Christmas season on our own. We went on a cleaning and organizing adventure, determined to improve the look of the store. Liv enjoyed that overstuffed, junky bookstore look, but it was a dusty nuisance for customers and coworkers to navigate. I took my newly appointed managerial responsibilities to heart and decided to change that.
Now the shelves and displays were more streamlined. The overall look of the store was cozy and inviting. We even found enough room to bring in a pair of overstuffed chairs and a couple of tables Steph had found in her mother’s attic. My cousins and I became a team as we worked toward a shared goal: to take over the store when Liv finally did humanity a favor and retired her scrawny butt to an old folk’s home.
“Oh, Tara, I forgot to tell you the toilet’s stuck again,” Audra remarked offhandedly.
Steph’s shoulders slumped as she let out a groan. “We need to call that plumber my mom recommended.” She started toward the back room to survey the damage.
“After the week we’ve just had, we might be able to do that,” I agreed. When Liv ran off with that fat oil slick she married, she also cleaned out the store’s bank account. We’d barely had enough money to cover the utilities and our paychecks. We scrimped where we could, but the profits were small and the problems were many: ancient toilet, crummy electrical wiring, leaky roof. The saving grace was that the landlord—owner of the building and Luigi’s Deli next door—didn’t charge much for rent. As long as the place didn’t flood or burn to the ground, we could make it.
“Sooo much overstock!” Steph complained. “I can’t get through!”
“Squeeze through the path along back wall!” Audra called to Steph. “Over by the sale signs!” Audra squealed and stopped mid-swipe across the glass. She whirled around to face me, her flippy red ponytail slapping her face, eyes wide with sudden excitement.
“Blow out sale!” she whispered with uncontrolled exuberance. “Get rid of it all!”
Why hadn’t we considered this before? Aunt Liv hated sales—or any event where she had to discount something. She hated even more anything termed a blowout. Said it reminded her of greasy truck drivers leaving their tire parts all over the freeway.
“I don’t think we’ve cleared enough to cover a toilet and a big advertising campaign.” I envisioned fancy-pants ads in local papers, periodicals, TV stations. Pipe dreams.
“Fliers. Put them in, like, libraries and grocery stores and stuff.” Audra cleaned faster and harder as she lapsed into thoughtful silence. “Dante can help.”
I snorted. They couldn’t be serious. Dante? That short-stack? That second-generation Italian, salami-slicing spawn of Luigi? The creep who whistled at my cousins and verbally abused my parking skills every morning? Audra always dissolved into childish giggles at his attentions. Steph was smart enough to blow him off, but she smiled when she thought no one was looking. He just completely infuriated me.
“Well…he is good with graphics!” Steph pondered aloud.
“He’s good at being an ass,” I spouted. “And we’re not asking him for help.”
Dante contributed to the downfall of my relationship with my ex-boyfriend. In retrospect, though, I wondered if we weren’t already headed for disaster. Andrew and I were already on rocky ground last summer. The last straw was when he wouldn’t spend July 4th with my family—with Liv, specifically.
There was no better place to watch fireworks than from Liv’s houseboat on Elliott Bay. I tried to convince Andrew to go, but he wouldn’t budge. He spent the holiday land-bound with his family. I spent the holiday dodging Dante’s advances, needling Liv about why Dante was there (she refused to answer).
When Dante saw Andrew and me a week later, standing outside the Space Needle arguing about whether to have dinner in the SkyCity Restaurant, Dante just couldn’t resist being an ass again. He spent five minutes taunting Andrew about missing Liv’s houseboat party. He winked at me numerous times, constantly touched my back, squeezed my shoulder…and then planted a big, sloppy kiss on my mouth! Shocked, I staggered backwards while Dante made some crack about getting to know each other better over the holiday. All I could do was stare as he strutted off like some Italian stud.
Andrew thought my surprise meant I was besotted with Dante. I tried to explain that it was Aunt Liv’s hair-brained idea to include Luigi and his spawn—to no avail. Now I’ve heard Andrew has started dating Crazy Daisy, the creepy girl from high school. Crazy Daisy, who had stalked him all during high school, fawned over him, called him Andy Pandy. That ditz with her Cyndi Lauper skirts poking out everywhere.
“Oh, let it go, Tara!” Steph interrupted my thoughts. “Andrew was too stuffy for you.”
“Yeah, and quit being mean to Dante,” Audra joined in on Steph’s verbal bandwagon.
Who was being mean to whom? I was the one left looking unfaithful that day. I was the one who lost her boyfriend.
I sucked in a large breath, ready to state just that, when the door to the shop flew open. A frigid burst of fall wind swirled through the store. We all looked up. There she was in all her vintage-inspired splendor, from her red A-line dress to the black, high-heeled, fur-trimmed ankle boots encasing her feet. Her wild red curls were slipping out of a French twist. For a moment I couldn’t believe she was really there, standing in the store she’d abandoned in her wing-flapping frenzy to get to Hawaii with her new husband. Aunt Liv.
“Hello my little birds!” she crowed as she sized us up. Her eyes landed on Steph as she tumbled out of the backroom, dust bunnies clinging to her apron and her hair. “Oh my, this is how you dress for customers? What would our male demographic think?”
The three of us held our breath. We seemed unable to reconcile the vision before us with the fact that Aunt Liv was so totally…not supposed to be here right now. Especially now, when we’d been discussing options for getting rid of her junk.
Liv glanced at Audra and made some off-handed comment about her “frizzy hair.” (The same frizzy hair we all possessed, Liv included.) Next, she looked me up and down.
“I see those diet supplements I gave you didn’t work?”
An odd sound filled the air. A soft ffffffffffffffff, like air being slowly squeezed out of a tiny hole in a plastic bag. It took a moment before I realized the sound was coming from me. My face burned and my body twitched as I made the sound again. Ffffffffffffffffffffffffffff!
“Aunt Liv,” Steph began calmly, but I horned in.
“What the fffffff—!” My voice creaked under the weight of suppressed rage as I managed to bite off the rest of the word. “What the hell are you doing here, woman?” The words spewed from my lips.
Liv’s pale copper eyebrows quirked up at the outburst. Her only reply was to smirk as her eyes roamed around the now-clean store. Indignant outbursts only served to amuse Liv instead of censure her. There was no such thing as shaming Aunt Liv.
“What have you girls done to my store?” Her eyes widened as she took in the store. Looking past me, she gasped. A pale, claw-like hand tipped with crimson talons waved toward the back counter. “Where are all the books?”
She continued to turn, look, turn, look. Stringy muscles and bulging veins rippled under the skin of her neck as her head swiveled.
“Tara, are those the horrid chairs your mother bought when you were still in diapers?!”
“We cleaned,” Steph cut in flatly. “We made it cozy.”
Aunt Liv cocked her head and pursed her beak-like lips. Her beady little eyes lit on each of us.
“Well!” our aunt chirped after a moment’s silence. “I’m closing the store, so all that work was for nothing. What a pity.” A skinny arm shot out, red claws snatching up the deposit bag before I knew what she was doing.
“In fact,” she added as she stepped toward the door, “I’ve already sold. To Luigi.” Liv yanked the door wide open and swept back outside, chuckling as she left.
The weekend that followed was terrible. It’s not every day your hopes and dreams, your future plans for the rest of your life, are smashed to pieces in the space of a few minutes. Not only had I lost any chance of buying the store, but now I couldn’t even have the blasted toilet fixed.
To say I was upset would be an understatement. I cried. I sobbed. I bawled my eyes out. When I was finished crying, I started over. Sometime Sunday afternoon, I realized I hadn’t eaten, so I rescued the half-gallon of vanilla ice cream from the freezer, covered it in Rice Krispies, and had dinner. Then I cried a little more.
I couldn’t understand what an Italian deli owner who barely spoke coherent English would want with a second-hand bookstore. Was he planning to expand his deli? Maybe he wanted to clear out the books and rent the spot to someone who would pay more rent. Was the old coot exacting revenge because he hated Liv so much? Or, was he seeking revenge because he was secretly in love with Liv and she had run off with the grease ball?
Liv didn’t give any instructions on what to do next. Steph, Audra, and I agreed to show up Monday morning and take it one day at a time. Now, here I stood, staring at the front door of what was once going to be my life.
“Hey, Bookworm!” someone called from several feet away. Oh, gosh, no! Not Dante. Not this morning. “Fine parking job today. You almost parked that barge between the lines.”
I couldn’t get in the store fast enough and lock the door behind me, putting that barrier between us, at least for a few minutes. Audra and Steph wouldn’t be in until after lunch. Mondays weren’t as busy, so I took the time to dust a bit, straighten a few skewed books, and look at the empty cash register. I was glad I’d left the register fund in the drawer Saturday night. If I hadn’t, Liv would have gotten away with that, too.
I waited on a few customers, and then resigned myself to call the plumber so I could at least get an estimate on the toilet repairs. Maybe I could convince Luigi to fix the toilet since he now owned everything.
“Hey, Bookworm, what’s the deal with running off like that?”
“Not in the mood, Dante,” I snapped. “Go back to slicing salami and leave me alone.”
Dante leaned against the counter, apparently not leaving anytime soon.
“Hey, Tara, it wasn’t my fault.”
“Excuse me?” I squawked. “Everything is your fault! You wrecked my relationship with Andrew! Your father bought my store out from under from me! I wanted to buy this store! This was my future! My dream!” My voice wavered, tears were seeping in.
“Chill? I’ll chill when you get out!”
Dante turned for the door and I breathed a sigh of relief. Instead of leaving, though, he locked the door and flipped the closed sign. I bit back a frustrated scream, certain I couldn’t take another minute of his presence—of his mere existence.
“Hear me out, okay?”
I crossed my arms defiantly and glared at him. I sniffed—what I wouldn’t have given for a tissue right then!
“Andrew was already gone. He’d been flirting with my sister, and I saw him out with a couple of different women. They weren’t business associates, Tara. He was two-timing you. All I did was help end it before it turned ugly. Sure I coulda done it differently. But do you think if he really loved you, he would have dropped you so fast? He just needed an excuse.”
I started to call him a few names, to tell him to go to hell, but he held his hand up to silence me.
“Dad knew that Liv was going to unload the store. He’d been talking to her about it for a while. She wanted the money so she could take up permanent residence with her new squeeze.”
Bleh. Mental images I didn’t need.
“He outbid four other people. Four, Tara. He knew the importance of this store to the area, and to you.”
Why was he standing there looking at me? Why wouldn’t he leave?
“You keep running the store just like you always have. What you’re doing is working. Once you are ready financially, come talk to Dad about buying it.”
“What?” I managed to croak—barely audible.
“You come talk to Dad about buying it back. Until then, nothing’s changed.”
And now, Dante was heading back toward the door.
“Oh, I almost forgot. Dad called a plumber—he’ll be here this afternoon to replace the toilet.”
Dante had flipped the sign and unlocked the door, casting a long glance out the window as he eased the door open.
“Who taught you how to park, Bookworm? Gee whiz!”
Then he was gone.