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Fiction

I cracked the spine on a book that hadn't been opened in two decades.

"Wonder what mystery Dad's working on now." Joe Hardy asked.

His brother Frank looked eagerly down the platform of the Bayport railroad station. "It must be a very important case, the way Dad dashed off to Detroit. We'll know in a few minutes."

Joe looked at his watch impatiently. "Train's late."

Both boys were wondering, too, about a certain surprise their father had hinted might be ready for them upon his return. Waiting with Frank and Joe for Mr. Hardy's arrival was their best friend Chet Morton.

"Your dad's cases are always exciting-and dangerous," the plump, ruddy-faced boy remarked. "Do you think he'll give you a chance to help out on this one?"

"We sure hope so," Joe replied eagerly-

"Well, if I know you fellows," Chet went on, "you'll get mixed up in the mystery, somehow- and so will I, sooner or later. There goes my peaceful summer vacation!"

My Carolina-blue dress flowed around my ankles as my boots clicked on the sidewalk. "Ma'am," I looked up, completely startled. "You should be watching where you're going."

"Yessir." I waited for the tall, handsome man to pass and put my nose back in the book as I continued my journey home.

"CJ!" I turned towards the voice. "Get your nose out of that book and help me out here! Your Pa would have your hide if he knew you went back to the library without your brother!"

"Yes, Ma." I ran into the house and put the book under my pillow for later. "Potatoes, carrots, peas. Same thing. Every night." I heard my pa coming into the house, his boots stomping on the hardwood floor.

"CELESTE!" He roared. I went into the kitchen, my head down. Immediately, I could smell the brewery on him, and knew whatever was about to follow would be horrible. In the following hours, days, and weeks, my book was forgotten, lost in the shuffle of everything.

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"Ma, I'll miss you dearly." I'd packed my last boxes, and was ready to leave again.

"One thing you forgot, CJ." She pulled out a blue-backed book. "I think it's about ten years overdue." I could feel my eyes widening in shock and surprise.

"Lord help me! I forgot all about this thing! I can't return it now! Do you know the looks I'll get?"

"You can and you will. You checked that out when you were fifteen. Nobody will think bad of you if you just tell them it got lost in the middle of everything going on. They'll understand."

"Going on," I thought. "Yeah, Pa gave me a good thrashin' for nothin', among other horrible things, because he came home drunker than ten skunks. Then, he's dead and nobody knows why."

"Honey, don't even. I know what you're about to say. You're not at fault. You were a young girl defending yourself from a drunken man, who happened to be your father. Nobody blames you."

"Okay, so Ma knows," my mind reminded me. "You may not, but I do. I should've just taken the thrashin' as I'd done so many times before. Then you'd still have a husband, Davie wouldn't have avoided me like the plague, we'd still have a father, and I'd not be a murderer!" I didn't mean to yell, but my voice rose as I continued to talk to her.

"I never did live him anyways. I had no choice in marryin' him, CJ." That's all she would ever tell me on the matter.

"Okay, I promise I'll return it, Ma." She smiled fondly, wrapped her arms around me in a hug, and shooed me out the door.

I made my way back to the small town I'd grown up in and made the familiar trip to the library. Only, it wasn't there. I stopped the first man I could find. "Sir, what happened to the library?"

"It burnt to the ground six years ago, CJ. Now, where you been holed up at these past ten years?"

"Nowhere, Sir. Do y'all have another one that I could return a book to?"

He scratched his head and looked to the sky. "Now that I think of it, yeah. Over in Brown County."

"Thanks." I climbed back in my truck and rolled out once more. I went to Brown County and found the library with a few directions. "Ma'am, I've come to return a book from over in Almanance."

"Sorry, Ma'am. We don't take them anymore. Try the next town over."

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I'd been married for ten years and had two sets of twins. Life was absolutely great. We ran a successful ranch, where horses we bred were sold for rodeos and races for miles around. "Honey." I turned to Arlo. "Let's go somewhere. Just you and me. Cassidy said she'll watch the kids. Her husband can care for the ranch a few days."

"Where to?" He smiled, and I knew I would know when we got there. Two bags packed and an hour later, we were on the road. An hour after that, we were back in my hometown. "Why here, Arlo?" I wasn't upset, per se, but I definitely wasn't overjoyed. "Why Almanance?"

Again, I saw that blue-backed book on the dash. "Oh no, Arlo. I tried returning that thing years ago. It's twenty years too late to return it."

"Celeste, darling, nobody will think bad of you." His voice was soft. "Besides, all you're doing is returning it to the new library they have, no overdue charges or anything."

"It can be returned after I die then." I crossed my arms over my chest.

"Okay. If you insist." He drove through Almanance onto another town in the middle of Nowhere, USA.

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"Mama, I don't think this is going well." I glanced over from my book to see what fifteen-year-old Dawn and Dusk were building this time.

"Of course it's not! I told you to nail that in this part! You don't listen to me 'cause I'm a girl!" I smiled at the two. So alike yet so different.

"You know, Dusk, she's right." I put my book down and walked over to the table. "Take the hammer, and pull the nail back out."

"But that'll leave a hole in the stool!"

"Yes, but think of it as unique. Besides, it won't affect the stool as much as it will if you don't build it properly." Obediently, he pulled the nail back out. I heard Arlo come up behind me and felt him wrap his arms around my waist. "Now, nail it where your sister told you to."

"Mama! I found something!" I sighed as seventeen-year-old Saffron whizzed into the room. "It looks really old." Again, there was that blue-backed cover and dusty yellow pages. "And is stamped as July 27, 1960."

"Yes, Honey. Now, put it back where you found it."

"It needs to be returned to..." She squinted at the fading small print of the town library's name. "Almanance town's library."

"After I die." She gave me the same look my mother used to give me. "Fine! I'll return it!"

I went outside to make the hour-long drive. Forty-five minutes later, my truck stopped in the middle of the deserted road. "Damnit!" I didn't know the first thing about vehicles and could see it wasn't the gas. With no way to contact Arlo, I sighed in frustration and got out of the truck. I figured I'd pop the hood and see what I could see.

"Something wrong, Missy?" I turned at the voice from long ago. "My Lord, CJ? My how you've grown!" It was the man who'd stopped me at fifteen while I was reading in the streets. "Problems with the truck?"

"It just stopped. No clue what's wrong with it." He pulled up behind me and got out. Within a short time, he had it back on the road and running smoothly. "Thanks in a million, Mr. Atkins."

"Any time, CJ. Tell your family I said hello." I nodded and was off again. Finally, I made it to the library. I looked around for the book and groaned in irritation when I couldn't find it. What a waste of gas and time! I made the hour trip back home and found my daughter immersed in the very novel I'd just failed to return. Another time then.

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"Happy birthday, CJ!" I sat up in bed and smiled at my wild-haired husband of 30 years. "You ready to greet the rest of the family?" I shook my head, then processed what he'd said.

"The rest of the family's here? It's only seven o'clock!" He raised his dark brown eyebrows and shook his head. I glanced at the clock. "Damn! It's ten! Why didn't you wake me?!"

"You know why, CJ." He helped me out of bed, let me get dressed, and walked with me down the stairs to the front room. I smiled at my family, from my mother to my small grandchildren.

"I figured I'd start the show here." My seventy-five-year-old mother handed me a small package. I glanced at her curiously, as I'd not requested anything from her, or anybody for that matter, other than a clean house. "Go ahead. Open it up." I unwrapped the package and was once more staring at a blue-backed book. I could hear Saffron's laughter echoing off the walls.

"Thanks?" How does one respond to this? It was forty years late now, and there was no way I'd return it at this point. "You know, I've tried returning this thing, Mama. Several times."

"I know. Once every ten years." She smiled and laughed. "It's a new decade. A new century. It'll be better this time around. You'll see."

So, I made the familiar trip back to Almanace, with my husband by my side this time. "You can do this, CJ." I smiled and climbed out of the truck. "Or not....It appears the library is closed today." I shook my head and turned to him. "Welp, we'll try it later then." Yup, in another 10 years, I mused with a smile.

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"Don't leave us, Ma." I clutched her hand in both of mine. She'd just turned eighty-five last week. "Please."

"I'm ready to meet the love of my life, CJ. You got lucky and married yours. Mine died when I was twenty, went off and joined the war for four years, and died just before the end. Your father wasn't my husband, CJ. That's why he hated you so." After sixty-five years, that was the first I'd heard that bit of information, but looking back, it explained a lot. "Just promise me one thing."

"Anything, Mama. Anything." She smiled as her eyes went to the table by her hospital bed.

"Open the drawer." I did as I was told and groaned inwardly. "Return it, please. Fifty years is a long time to wait."

"Okay, Mama. I promise I'll return it." The words from fifty years before echoed through my lips.

"I heard that once, a long time ago."

"But, I never promised when I'd return it, only that I would, Mama." She laughed softly, acknowledging the truth in my words.

"I can hear them angels singing. Can you see them, Celeste?"

"No, Mama, I can't. I can't see them."

"They're so beautiful. I can see them pearly gates, Celeste. I'm going home. I love you, Celeste." She took a final breath and exhaled as her hand momentarily tightened then slackened. The heart monitor went crazy with a long beep. A doctor and nurse came running.

"Mama..." I choked on a sob. "Oh, Mama..." I felt Arlo's hands gently on my shoulders.

"Come on, Honey." I let him lead me away, unsure of where we were heading. "Honey, we're here." I lifted my head from the truck's leather upholstery and opened my teary eyes. "It was her last request, CJ." I regarded him with somber eyes and nodded. It was time to put this book back where it belonged. With him at my side, I entered the library, on August 10, 2010.

"I'm here to return a book." The librarian turned around. "Celeste? Long time no see! Let's see that book."

"You're still the librarian?" She laughed and smiled as I handed her the book. "It's fifty years late, to the day." Her eyes widened and she handed the book back to me.

"What nobody noticed was missing can stay missing."

"I promised..." I choked back a sob. "I promised Ma...I promised to return it." She gave me a sympathetic look and smiled softly.

"How about this? I'll stamp it as returned and you can keep it? Then, you ain't broke your promise and your children's children's children can read it. Sound okay?" She stamped it as returned and handed it to Arlo.

"Your book is returned, Honey. Come on. Let's go home so you can grieve." I cracked open the spine that hadn't been opened in two decades.

April 26, 2021 14:27

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