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       Lost Girl, p.10

           Chanda Hahn
 
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  Peter unwrapped a sandwich and slid the yellow wrapper in front of Wendy. The aroma of fresh biscuit, bacon, and cheese made her stomach growl. She hungrily scooped it up and took a humongous bite. Part of the biscuit crumbled, and she had to cover her mouth to keep all of the goodness within her lips. Peter either pretended not to notice or didn’t mind her manners.

  After she had chewed and swallowed, Wendy asked. “So what’s below me?” She tapped the floor with her foot. “I saw the trapdoor in the floor but didn’t open it.”

  “We’re above an old print shop. The owners went out of business. It’s a historic building and needs tons of repairs to get it up to code. Nobody has the money to renovate, so it sits empty.”

  Peter eyed his watch and jumped up, bumping the table.

  “What’s wrong?”

  “You’re going to be late for your first day of work.” Peter picked up his sandwich, shoved the rest into his mouth, and climbed out the window.

  “What do you mean?” She followed him.

  “Bernard Books.” His grin grew wider.

  She stopped. “But I didn’t apply.”

  “You didn’t have to.”

  “Peter,” Wendy said his name heatedly. “People don’t just hire other people, without interviewing them or having an application.”

  “Bernard Books does.”

  “That’s utterly ridiculous. Don’t tease me like that.”

  Peter turned around on the fire escape, leaning on the window frame as she crawled through after him. “I’m not teasing you, Wendy. Who’s to say you weren’t interviewed? I interviewed you for Mr. B.”

  “But…” she waved her hands in front of her. “I’m not qualified.”

  He stared at her. “You love stories. You get along with the most important person in the world to Mr. Bernard—his dog Nana. And she likes you. I’d say you are more than qualified. I overheard most of the interviews from the loft, and I found you the most interesting of the candidates.”

  The way he said interesting, and hung on the last syllable made her look away in embarrassment. She could feel heat rising to her cheeks.

  “But how? Why?”

  He crossed his arms over his chest and pointed his thumb at himself. “Because, we go way back, me and Mr. B. And I told him that you were the best for the job. He would have told you in person if you hadn’t run out the store.”

  “Is that so?”

  “I want you to trust us. I thought maybe this was a good way of earning it. You start today at nine.” He took off down the stairs.

  She grabbed her backpack, slung it over her shoulder, and scrambled out of the attic after him. He was waiting for her on the last landing. When she got there, she noticed the dumpster had been moved and the ladder was pulled back up.

  How had Peter gotten up there with breakfast? Tink wouldn’t have pushed the ladder back up. Where was she anyway?

  Not that Wendy missed her.

  Peter breezed past her and jumped onto the ladder, his weight pulling it down with a jolt. He dropped to the pavement below and pushed the dumpster back over so Wendy could follow.

  When she was safe on the ground, she made it a point to memorize familiar landmarks—she needed to be able to find this place again. She didn’t recognize any of the buildings or street names.

  From the alley, she and Peter jogged to the bus stop. They made it just as the bus pulled up. He paid for both fares. The trip to the bookstore—without Tink’s monologue—was much more enjoyable than the walk the night before.

  Peter sat close to Wendy on the bench seat. Whenever the bus would shift or hit a pothole, his leg would brush against hers, setting her own leg into a frenzy of nervous tingles.

  “Where’s Tink this morning?” she asked.

  “At our secret hideout,” Peter answered seriously.

  “What? You have a secret hideout?” She didn’t believe him. “Where is it?”

  “If I told you, then it wouldn’t be a secret anymore. It would just be a hideout, and that doesn’t sound as mysterious, now does it?”

  “Oh.”

  “Besides. You don’t really want to go to the secret hideout, because once you do, you’ll see how awesome the place is and decide you can’t possibly ever leave. Then you’ll do the girl thing.”

  “Girl thing?” Wendy asked, her voice filled with irritation.

  “Yes, you know. The girl thing.” He wiggled his hands for emphasis.

  “This I’ve got to hear.” Wendy crossed her arms. “Please elaborate.”

  Peter laughed and pulled his foot up to rest on his knee. “Oh, you know. You’ll start acting like a girl and put things away and organize stuff, and we just can’t have girls messing up our secret hideout.”

  “Our? So there’s more than one who know about this hideout.”

  “Of course, but they’re all boys.” He answered as if that was enough explanation.

  “But Tink is there…and she’s a girl.”

  “Well, Tink doesn’t count.”

  “Ah.” She had a feeling Tink would hate to hear Peter say she didn’t count. But it bugged Wendy too. She didn’t like being excluded from things because she was a girl. She shifted in the seat.

  Peter’s odd sense of humor was becoming familiar to her, but then he’d say something like this, pushing her away and making her feel like a stranger. She scooted as far away from him as the seat would allow and stared out the window. Her breath made little patches of misty condensation on the glass.

  She was cold. Moving those precious few inches made her miss their connection, but he had hurt her feelings, and she wasn’t quite sure how to respond.

  Peter moved next to her and draped his arm across the back of her seat. He leaned in, and his breath tickled the side of her neck as he whispered. “Don’t be upset. Tink predates the secret hideout, so she kind of has to be allowed there. I’d love to take you.”

  She turned to look at him, and their faces were almost touching. Peter’s eyes flicked to her lips before he dragged them away to meet her gaze.

  “Really?”

  “Yeah, except that I can’t.” He actually seemed sad that he couldn’t.

  “Because it’s secret,” she repeated.

  Peter shifted again, without moving away this time. In fact, he maneuvered himself even closer. Color rose in his cheeks, and he looked down in shame. “No. The real reason is because Tink really… really…” he emphasized each word, “does… not…like you. She has threatened to burn the place down if,” his voice took on a higher pitch, “that Wendy girl sets foot in it.”

  Wendy punched him in the shoulder teasingly, and he made a pained noise in response. “Peter. You could have just said that in the first place.”

  “No, I couldn’t. Then you’d know that Tink doesn’t like you and you’d end up hating her. I probably shouldn’t have told you…’cause now you will.”

  “Tink doesn’t exactly make her feelings toward me a secret.” Wendy caught the distress etched across his face. He really was trying to protect his friend. She sighed. “And that does make it hard to like her.” Peter’s shoulders dropped before Wendy finished. “But it’s impossible not to.”

  Peter squeezed her hand and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. “I knew you’d understand.” He stood quickly, seconds before the bus pulled up to their stop.

  Wendy, still stunned by the kiss, had to shake her head to clear it. Understand what? That Tink was unique? His care for the petite firecracker of a girl was quite obvious. But what was she supposed to make of the kiss on her cheek?

  “Come on, gorgeous, you don’t want to be late,” Peter called from the steps. And he jumped onto the sidewalk and took off running.

  “Wait up!” Wendy grabbed her backpack and ran after him. Peter seemed to have boundless energy. His path to the bookstore resembled that of the little boy from the old Family Circus comic—meandering even as he made his way toward the book shop. He’d loop around a pole just to come back and run
backward with Wendy.

  Wendy found his energy infectious—and maybe that was his plan. Peter winked at her as he nimbly dodged the walkers without even looking. She laughed. How good that felt! Her abs hurt from laughing by the time they made it to the front of the bookstore.

  Mr. Bernard, shop keys in hand, walked up with Nana just as they arrived.

  “Oh, so you decided to take the job. I’m glad to have you,” he said.

  Nana huffed and leaned heavily against Wendy’s legs, demanding attention. Wendy reached down to scratch her head.

  Mr. Bernard chuckled. “Nana’s never been wrong about somebody, and she likes you.”

  “Well, I hope so.”

  He smiled and pushed the door open, beckoning her in. Peter flew by them both and ran up the stairs to the loft where he had been watching her from the day before. His head disappeared up the stairs, and she felt a little saddened by his departure.

  “Today, I’ll start you on the register and teach you opening procedures for the shop. I’m pretty flexible, so we will see if the opening or closing shift is more to your liking.” He spoke over his shoulder as he headed to his office in the back.

  She followed, taking note of the small office with an antique desk. It looked like Mr. Bernard spent most of his time in here. Old coffee cups, magazines, and notebooks littered around the office. The bookshelf couldn’t possibly hold any more books. Vertical, horizontal, and in every crevice, the shelves were crammed with books of all shapes and sizes. Off to the side of the bookshelf stood a safe bolted to the ground. He knelt down to open the safe and pulled out a till, full of cash and rolled coins. Mr. Bernard closed the safe and carried the cash drawer out to the register, and then he turned the key to the on-position.

  He spent a few minutes going over transaction procedures as well as cataloging what was purchased throughout the day. This was a small-scale bookstore, and they didn’t have an electronic check out system to track inventory. It had to be manually calculated.

  “It doesn’t get busy during the fall, but I try to schedule a few local authors for readings and such. Still, you’ll have plenty of time to do your reading for school.”

  Wendy just nodded and continued to follow him around the store. She was a bit bummed that there wasn’t more to the job. He showed her the back storage room with an old desktop computer and more boxes of books.

  “Your main duty will be to clean up after story times and whenever the young families come in browsing. Lots of books get put back in the wrong places. We can’t have our murder mysteries shelved with our poetry, now can we?” He chuckled to himself.

  Wendy just smiled wanly.

  After a few more hours of too-easy training, he left Wendy to organize and straighten the shelves while he went to do bookkeeping. Alphabetizing was a breeze for a book-aholic like her, and she found the time passed quickly, as long as she was able to stop glancing up at the loft, where Peter disappeared. A few times, she caught him watching her as he leaned over the banister. Her face flushed when she met his gaze. He watched her like a hawk, a hungry hawk. Hungry for what exactly? She wasn’t sure, but he definitely knew how to make her heart skip a beat.

  The door jingled, and she walked to the front to find the two girls who had come in to apply yesterday. One was busy checking her phone for messages, and the red-head leaned against the counter, snapped her gum, and rang the silver bell impatiently.

  “May I help you?” Wendy asked politely.

  “I’m Desi, and this is Penny. We’re just checking to see if Mr. Bernard hired someone yet.” The girl with the red hair turned to Wendy, and a look of disappointment flittered across her face. “Oh…I guess he did.”

  “Yes, he did,” Wendy answered simply, uncomfortable saying anything more.

  “Isn’t that what you wore yesterday to the interview?” Desi snapped her gum and wrinkled her nose in disdain.

  Wendy looked down at her rumpled clothes from the day before, and she could feel their condemnation. She straightened her shoulders, held her head high, and looked them square in the face. She had no reason to be ashamed of the clothes she wore. She may not have a home or a lot of money, but that would change with hard work.

  And what she did have was her pride.

  Penny looked up from her phone and her eyes went wide when she finally connected the dots. “Oh, I’ve seen you around the park. I recognize you. You’re homeless, aren’t you?”

  Did these girls not understand manners?

  “Shh, Penny! That’s not polite.” The other girl swatted her friend in the arm.

  “Ouch. Well, I think she lives in the park, Desi. I’ve seen her sleeping there often.”

  “I’m not homeless,” Wendy answered with more emphasis than needed. Both girls stared at her. “I’m not homeless,” she repeated.

  “Are you a runaway? Did you get kicked out? I bet you have a record. Does Mr. Bernard know this? Did you tell him?”

  When Wendy didn’t immediately answer, Penny continued. “I guess you didn’t. Someone should notify the poor old man that he’s likely to be robbed because he hired a hobo.”

  Wendy’s temples started to hurt, and the headache was back, meaner than ever. All she saw were flashes of white. The drone of the girls’ accusing voices faded out. She saw a room, bright lights, heard the sound of a compressor, felt a jarring stab. Her hands locked onto the counter top, because she knew if she let go, she’d fall. The book next to her fell off the counter and clattered to the floor.

  She felt a warm presence against her back. Peter’s right arm came around her waist to steady her. It was an intimate gesture for someone she had just met, and it probably sent all the wrong signals to the girls, but at that moment she didn’t care. She leaned backward and let Peter’s strength hold her. Without it, she’d probably have fallen already.

  Penny’s and Desi’s mouths dropped open when they saw Peter, and they looked a little dejected at the fact that their eligible bachelor looked to be taken already.

  Peter smiled at them. “Can I get you anything? Coffee, tea, some manners perhaps?”

  That snapped them out of their befuddlement. Desi coughed, grabbed Penny by the jacket sleeve, and marched out of the bookstore, the door slamming behind them.

  As soon as they left, Wendy pulled away from Peter, and let herself lean fully on the counter, pressing her face against the cool wood.

  Peter’s strong hand gently pushed her blonde hair out of her eyes. He leaned forward to whisper to her. “Are you okay? Wendy? Please talk to me.”

  Wendy had a perfect view through the bookstore window and into the park.

  She could see them.

  Standing perfectly still in broad daylight. Bold, unaffected, fearless—as if to mock her.

  She counted them.

  Seven perfect, unmoving shadows.

  Chapter Nineteen

  Coffee helped. Wendy’s jittery hands had problems grasping the ceramic Bernard Books mug. Still, she realized simply wrapping her hands around the cup as it sat on the table calmed her. Well, maybe it was the coffee. It could also be the fact that Peter hadn’t left her side and was even now rubbing his hand along her back.

  “What just happened, Wendy?”

  She shivered. Okay, this time it was from his touch and definitely not from being terrified out of her wits.

  Peter quickly pulled away. He must’ve mistaken her shiver as revulsion. Immediately, Wendy missed his closeness. He sat there with her, not saying a word, although she knew that he wanted to ask her a million questions. She hesitantly glanced up and met his green eyes. “I saw them. The shadows…there were a lot.” She pointed out the window and wasn’t surprised to see an empty park.

  She expected to see pity, or the wary look of someone trying to study her, to see if she was crazy. But in Peter, she hoped for a friend who understood. She needed him to believe her. He stood and stared out the window where she had pointed.

  It was obvious he hadn’t seen the shadows, and she p
repared herself for the rejection. But a look of contemplation battled with some other inner turmoil as he glanced back at her.

  Her heart pounded, and she willed him to believe her. He had to. He pulled out his phone and studied the screen for a second and let out a long, audible breath. He put his phone away.

  Peter reached forward, squeezed her shoulder and then gently commanded, “Stay here.”

  She let out a sad laugh. “Uh, plan to.”

  He smiled, the corner of his mouth lifting as he left. It was a placating smile, one people gave to reassure small children. The shadows had disappeared or moved on, and now Peter was outside with them. Was he really going to follow the shadows?

  Her neck itched, as it always did when she felt weird like this, and she absently scratched at a small scar on the side of her neck.

  Not wanting to be caught sitting down on the job, Wendy carried her coffee cup back to the desk and proceeded to wipe down the tables and straighten the chairs. A few customers came in over the next hour, one looking for bird books, another a gift for her grandson’s birthday. Someone else wanted a copy of the school’s summer reading list. Wendy found all of them without having to bother Mr. Bernard.

  Nana had frequently come and leaned against her for company. Another hour passed, and Peter hadn’t returned. Wendy walked to the back of the shop and peeked into Mr. B’s office. He faced the old typewriter and the clickety-clack of the keys filled the small room. She knocked but he didn’t hear her, so she entered and stood in front of his desk.

  She’d seen him throughout the morning bustling about the store, carrying old books into his office. An oddly assorted stack sat precariously on the end of the desk, and she pushed them back—books on flying, mermaids and Indians, pirate ships and tropical islands.

  Mr. Bernard turned in his seat.

  A sketchbook lay open on the desk, and there, in pencil, was a young man with a mischievous smile. The young boy, wearing pants and shirt made of leaves, looked oddly familiar.

 
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