“Ahhhhhhhhh…” A girl around age eighteen sang to herself. “Ahhh…hmmmmm… oh yeah, those are words all right.” She pinched the spine of a book and dangled it in the air. “Not thought I know what any of them mean…”
“Do you need any help, ma’am?” I asked while leaning against a crooked bookshelf.
“No, I’m quite fine. You don’t need to worry about me.”
She accidentally dropped the book. “Oh, nuts!” She cried as she fell to the floor it get it. Her body banged against the bookshelf, knocking the column off-balance.
“Hey!” I exclaimed as the book shelf started toppled over. “Watch out!”
I grabbed the main supports of the shelf and held them still as a few books slipped out of the leaning bookshelf. One bounced off the girl’s head. After I got it standing on its own again, I asked her. “Are you alright, ma’am?” I offered her a hand.
“Oh, thank you,” she said as she took it. “I’m so sorry for making you worry about me. If you ever need anything, just let me know.”
“Umm, I don’t need any favors,” I said skittishly. “What book do you need again exactly?”
“Oh, I don’t need any help. I don’t want to be any trouble. I wouldn't want to waste your time.”
I crossed my arms. “Lady, I’m literally paid to help you. Plus, just trying to get you to answer is taking longer than actually helping you would.”
“Oh, well.” She fiddled with her hair nervously. Her voice was shy and hushed. “Do you know where self explanatory books about plumbing are?”
I pulled one off the shelf for her. “Here. This one’s recommended for beginners.”
As I rang up it for her, I glanced at her petite, but calloused hands. There was a fine layer of dirt under her nails and few scars dotted her palms. “If you don’t mind me asking, what do you need this book for?”
“I’m fixing my neighbor’s toilet.”
I cocked my head to the side. “Why?”
She shrugged. “Well, he asked me and I wanted to help. I must me a pretty annoying neighbor to have so it’s the least I could do.” As she walked out, she called out to me. “Thanks again! I’m sorry for wasting your time.”
I slouched against the counter. What a strange girl.
It was two days before I saw the girl back at the store again. Well, sort of at the store. She was pacing outside. I could see her cross, worry-struck face through the windows. I opened the door. The door’s bell made her jump. With her hand over her heart, she said. “Geez louise! You really startled me there.”
“Were you planning on opening the door yourself, or were you hoping you could brew up a nice cross wind to open it for you?”
Her face turned pink with embarrassment. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. It’s just that I usually don’t go to the same store twice, but yours is the only one open today--”
“Because the owner doesn’t care about his employee’s personal lives, but go on.”
She stammered. “I--I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to bother you…”
“You’re not bothering me.”
Her fingers fumbled around each other. “Did you need to get a book?” I asked.
“Then come inside,” I coaxed. For some reason, I felt like I was trying to convince a child to come out of hiding.
Slowly, the girl followed me indoors. “I just need a book on how to file taxes.”
I whistled. “Hitting the big stuff, huh?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah. I promised my step-mother I would do her taxes for her.”
I paused, dumbstruck. “Why? Taxes are a pain in the ass. I don’t even want to do my own.”
“Well, she asked me and I just couldn’t say no.”
I handed her The Dummy’s Guide to Avoiding Accidental Tax Fraud. The long title was skewed across the cover.
“Thank you,” she muttered.
As she left, I couldn’t resist but ask. “Earlier, you said you didn’t go to other stores twice, why?”
“I just don’t like to bother the same employees. I’m sure they have enough to deal with.”
The girl came back three days later with panic in her eyes. Before she even opened her mouth, I said. “Let me guess, you need another how-to book to take care of someone else’s problem?”
She nodded. I signed. “What is it this time?”
“Because your friend needs help with a science problem?” I guessed.
“No, my step-sister wants me to do her semester project for Physics 101 and it’s due tomorrow.”
“What!” I exclaimed. “There’s no way you’ll get in done in time.”
Her eyes widened. “But I have to! I just have to!”
“Just tell her no. Make her do her own work. It’s almost ten pm. You’re gonna go crazy doing things like this.”
“But I already promised her!”
I exhaled and ran my fingers through my hair. “Fine, but I’m helping you.”
She waved her hands in the air. “That’s not necessary.”
I plucked the only physics textbook in the store from the shelf. “Shame, because this is the only book on physics we have and I doubt you’re going to find another store open at this hour.”
Her face crumbled.
“Just let me help you,” I said. “Then it’s yours.”
Her eyes darted from the book to me to the book to me to the door. Then the book went from me to her to the door annnddd she stole it and was running away with it.
The girl came in the next day with a soggy expression and pools of black under her eyes. She yawned and put the book on the counter. “I’m sorry I took the book, but I finished the project.”
She sneezed and didn’t bother to get rid of the dripping snort from her nose. I held back a gag. “Are you okay? How much sleep did you get last night?”
She laughed and stretched out onto the counter. “It’s alright. I’m fine. I can sleep during my breaks at my part-time jobs today.”
“Jobs?” I repeated. “As in multiple?”
“Yeah, but it’s fine. I’m fine.” Her eyes slowly closed. “I just want to make people happy,” she whispered as she fell asleep with half her body sprawled across the front counter.
The girl whose name I don’t know woke up just as I started closing up and found my jacket draped across her shoulders. “What? What happened?” She mumbled.
“You fell asleep after being brought to the brink of exhaustion by overextending yourself.” I gave her a cup of tea. “You need to take a break. Take a day off.”
“No, I can’t--”
I handed her her phone. “Too bad, I already called every person labelled ‘boss’ in your contacts and told them you had the flu. Oh and, you should probably get a password for your phone.”
The next day, the girl came into the store again. “No, no, no! I’m putting my foot down. Not more books today. It’s a break day,” I demanded.
She twirled her hair. “Umm, I’m not here for a book.”
I stared blankly at her. “Then, why are you here?”
“I don’t know. Can I just stay here for a while? Or would that be too annoying…”
I already cleared off a chair for her before she finished talking. “Not at all.”
The girl spent the day reading fantasy novels I recommended. We gossiped about stupid things like which elf would make the best reality show contestation. Before she left for the night, I handed her a worn book. “I know I said no books, but I want you to have this one. On the house.”
She flipped it over in her hands. “No: A How To Guide.”
“Yeah, it used to be mine, so it’s a bit worn.”
The girl smiled. It was the first time I’ve seen her smile. “Thanks. I’ll be sure to read it.”
The girl didn’t come in the next day. Instead, some bratty girl with a fake tan, fake nails, and an even faker attitude waltzed in like she owned the place. But, she was holding the worn self-help book. “Can I help you?” I snapped with my eyes locked on the book.
“Yeah, I’d like to return this book,” she snapped back.
I crossed my arms and narrowed my eyes. “Really now.”
“Duh! That’s what I said.”
My face twitched. “That’s funny, because you didn’t buy that book.”
I leaned against the counter. “What happened to the girl I gave it to?”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh, Ella? She doesn’t want it.” She paused before a devious grin crept across her face. “In fact, she’s the one who asked me to return it.”
“And who might you be?”
“I’m her step-sister.”
I smirked. “I bet you are.”
“The hell is that supposed to mean?!”
The bell of the door silenced both of us. Ella froze when she saw us. “Um, hey, Sharon,” she greeted as she put on a plaster smile as fast as she could. It was nothing like the one I saw when I gave her the book.
“Hey, Ella.” I flashed her an authentic smile. The plaster melted a little when she saw it. “This basic white bitch is trying to return your book. Do you know anything about it?”
Her step-sister slammed her hands on the counter. “I already told you! She doesn’t need it!”
I slammed my hands down too. Harder. “Based on the way you take advantage of her I’d say she does!”
She gawked at me. “Aren’t you doing the same?! Telling her she needs to read this book. Telling her she needs to be more assertive?! Telling her she needs to be someone else?!”
My mouth gaped open. She shoved the book into my hands. “She doesn’t need it. Ella has me.”
I slid the book back across the counter and looked directly at Ella. “Why don’t you let her speak for herself. Ella, if you don’t want this book, tell me. Tell me no.”
Her eyes widened and she took a subconscious step back, ramming into the door. “I don’t think that’s necessary…”
“Ella, just tell the stupid employee!” Her step-sister exclaimed.
Ella locked eyes with me. “Just tell me,” I whispered.
She closed her eyes, and desperately tried to remember what little she read. Taking a deep breath, she opened them and said. “No. I don’t need that book, anymore.”
Then, she walked out the door and I never saw Ella or her step-sister ever again.
But, in that one instance, I saw a new, burning look in her eyes. A look that told me that wasn’t the last time she’ll say no.
And that was good enough for me.