The wooden Juniper Bookstore sign hanging above the entrance squeaks and trembles as Jude stands underneath it, watching it with a peculiar look. It’s not like he hasn’t seen it a thousand times before, every afternoon once he’d finished his last class -- American Literature, how boring -- but today he just stood outside the door to stare at the weak sign. He felt a whoosh of air behind him from a car speeding downtown, causing him to grip his coat to keep it from flowing up around him. He made a noise of annoyance and adjusted his round glasses before reaching forward and opening the door, the small bell above him jingling as he walked in.
The old, dusty book store that has more book spines falling apart than daily customers is the same as it always is and always has been. He glances over at the cash register’s counter to see Elsa, the owner. She’s an elderly, silver haired woman who reads the same four Nicholas Cage books every week when he shows up to clock in. She's nice, don’t get him wrong, and she doesn't talk much, but she definitely isn't the most observant to the fact that her store is falling apart from the dismantling book spines to the coffee stains on the carpet; or maybe she chose to ignore the faults, Jude wasn't sure. Either way, she lowered her book and squinted over her glasses to greet him with a small, warm smile like she routinely did.
“ ‘Afternoon, Judy.” The nickname was unnerving at first, it reminded Jude of the kids from elementary that would pick on him for “looking like a girl” because of his longer, blonde curls. He still had them, nine years later, if only out of spite. He’d come to appreciate the dumb name when coming from the sweet old woman, even if he had wondered for the first month of his job if she had mistaken him for a girl.
“ Hey, Elsa. Anything new come in today? “ It was delivery day: a younger man brings a shipment of new books every Tuesday, just fifteen or so minutes before Jude arrived. He wished he could meet him one day and thank him for bringing him the new books, even if they weren’t really for him. Elsa looked over her book’s pages again and propped a thin eyebrow as if she was mocking him, feigning a deep in thought expression.
“ Hm, I don’t know, kiddo, there’s a few boxes back in the biographies section. “ She insisted, going back to scanning her book after taking a weirdly longing glance at the cover art of a shirtless, dark haired man with visible sweat on his abs. “ Sort them for me, will you? “
“ Yeah, I got it. “ Jude replied, cringing slightly at the book cover and fast-walking through the store to give Elsa her privacy. He didn’t need to look at the directories over each section of bookshelves, he’d memorized the layout within four months of working there. He rounded the corner of the shelf in the biography section, dropping his backpack on to the floor, an instant smile spreading on his face when he saw the two boxes stacked on top of each other.
He kneeled down in front of the boxes and noticed that the top one was already opened, Elsa and her Nicholas Cage addiction, he thought to himself with an eye roll. He used one hand to hold back his hair as he dug around in the box with the other. His eyes skimmed over the covers of several books before finding one that had one that intrigued him. He pulled it out to further examine it, and almost instantly recognized it as the same shop front that he had just been staring at not even ten minutes ago. It was the Juniper Bookstore, just in a grainy photo, and the sign was brighter, looking as if the blue paint was fresh. The lighting was a little more yellowy, Jude pieced together that it must have been taken in the past, back around when the shop had first opened up.
The title was in thin, cursive letters, reading: Juniper Bookstore. Well, Jude thought to himself as his face scrunched, that’s kind of a lame title. When he opened the book, it was like he’d opened an ancient tomb with the amount of dust that flew into the air at an instant. He coughed and waved his hand around to clear it before falling back off his feet and leaning against the bookshelf. The publishing date read 1962, and it was written by someone named Oliver Hudson, this information was printed on the opposite side of the dedication page, which itself read “For the Juniper Book Store and to those who find love in and at it”. The pages even felt old, in that way where, if you held them between your fingers and rubbed, it felt crisp.. It was strong, not flimsy, like most paperback books were nowadays. It was infused with the generic ‘smell’ of books, too, how authentic.
Jude decided to begin reading, not bothering to read the synopsis on the back like he usually did to get an idea of what he was delving into. This time, though, he felt obligated to read it, no matter what it was actually about, just because it had the bookstore’s name and picture on it. How could he work here and not give it a read? He was a fairly quick reader, too, which was a blessing and a curse, the latter mostly when he wanted to actually waste as much time as possible; some days he could read up to eight whole books during his shift while putting away and organizing the new deliveries. The store was always empty enough for him to do that without getting looked at by any angry, middle aged women that places like the convenience store across the street usually had to deal with. Elsa didn’t yell at him for doing it, he didn’t need some random customer doing it for her.
Oliver Hudson is my name, and I have a secret. An interesting first line. I have a secret, hidden within these walls, between the shelves and spines, underneath the dim lights and standing on the plush carpet. I have a secret that is six feet tall and is kind. I have a secret that likes black coffee and watching baseball. I have a secret who survived the war and lives in the apartment above this very bookstore that we met. My secret’s name is James, but insists on being called Jimmy.
Jude continued reading, eyes scanning each page and each beautiful description Oliver gave of his ‘secret’, until he got to the second chapter.. He knew he should probably be multitasking, putting away the new books and cleaning the shelves, but this was a story he felt he had to focus on completely.
I met Jimmy on a less than memorable day. I remembered getting up and cooking breakfast like I always did on Sunday mornings. I wasn’t one for the early church service, I preferred doing it on my own within the temple that is my home. After I ate, I headed downtown, passing one of those new Chevy Impalas everyone was raving about lately, before I made it to the rinky dinky bookstore that sat neatly between the coffee shop and a daycare. I walked in and took my sunglasses off, glancing over at the owner, Elsa, and waving to her. She was a beautiful woman, if I had to describe her in a word: timeless. I would’ve thought she was Marilyn Monroe’s reincarnation had she not been celebrating her 22nd birthday last year when the model passed.
She waved back but was busy with a customer, so I went about myself and began to head back towards the crime and mystery section that I occupied most weekends. It was near the very back of the store, which I didn’t mind; I preferred to be alone when reading, and that way Elsa couldn’t yell at me for reading the entire book in the store rather than buying it. However, as I walked past several of the other categorized shelves, I heard a loud thumping noise and the quiet shout of a curse.
I stopped in my tracks and found myself standing at the entrance of the sports section, looking in to see a young man around my age struggling to stand as he gripped on to the shelf to pull himself up. I realized I must’ve looked like an awful person for just standing there, so I hurried over to him and grabbed his arm, earning a quick head turn before he nodded in understanding. Together, we brought him to his feet, and I took notice that he didn’t even bother to dust himself off.
“ Hey, thanks, “ He said as he bent down to pick up the book he had presumably dropped when he fell; I took this moment to drink in his appearance. He had short, clean cut ginger hair that was barely visible under a reversed baseball cap that sat on his head, and he wore a matching navy and white baseball jersey.
“ Uh, yeah, no problem, um- “ I eyed the name on the back of his jersey as he rose back up, raising a brow I tried, “ Arroyo? “
“ Huh? “ He asked, a confused look on his face, which I could now see was full of light freckles and a peculiar scar through his eyebrow. He followed my nervous eyes to his jersey and let out a small laugh when he realized, waving dismissively, “ Oh, no, that’s not my name, just someone I admire. I’m James, but I tell everyone Jimmy because, well, it sounds cooler. “
“ Oh. “ I responded blankly, feeling a little dumb that I didn’t recognize the player’s name, but I quickly recovered and held out my hand to him, “ I’m Oliver, no cooler nickname or anything. “
As he shook my hand with the brightest grin I’d ever seen, I could feel my ears burning, so I dropped his hand as smoothly as I could, gestured to the Babe Ruth biography he held and questioned, “ So, you play baseball, too, or just a fan? “
“ Heh, maybe in another life. “ He replied vaguely, and I propped an eyebrow at that answer. Jimmy held on to the shelf with one hand again and leaned down to roll up his right pant leg, revealing a wooden prosthetic that ran from just below his knee all the way down to his sneaker. My eyes widened and I tried to hide the shock from my face, but he didn’t seem to mind, in fact, I think I heard him laugh, “ I was in the war two years ago, got discharged because of this little incident. No biggie. “
No biggie, he had said.
Jude had read through most of the book at this point. After Oliver and Jimmy met, they started going for coffee every Sunday after visiting the bookstore together, where Oliver was disgusted that Jimmy only drank black coffee. They went to local baseball games together, and even went to see a real Yankees game for Jimmy’s 21st birthday. Jimmy got to meet Oliver’s father and sister, but Jimmy insisted that he and his family didn’t speak anymore so they spent Thanksgiving at the Hudsons’. It got to the point where if Oliver talked about Jimmy in vague descriptions, people assumed he was talking about a wife or girlfriend, and that’s when Oliver realized he could never truly be what he wanted to be in this life with Jimmy. However, that didn’t stop either of them from going out to eat to watch the World Series or picking up new coffees to try every weekend.
Everything was about as perfect as it could be in the year 1961, until it wasn’t.
Jimmy had been sick for a while, but every time I would tell him to have a doctor check him out, he’d refuse. Stubborn asshole. It took up until he began uncontrollably vomiting for him to let me call an ambulance. We were there for maybe an hour and a half before the doctor told us Jimmy had colon cancer. Stage four. There was nothing they could do for him at this point, and patients usually only had a handful of years left to live.
They tried to make him comfortable, but I knew better. I knew Jimmy could never be confined to a hospital bed for the rest of his physical life. He hated feeling useless. As much as I thought I knew about him, though, I never imagined he would ask me this.
“ Please, Oliver. “ He pleaded weakly.
He asked me to sign a DNR. It was as if he knew, if somehow he’d had a premonition. We argued tirelessly for what felt like hours before I looked into his eyes, his once shining, ecstatic eyes that were now dull and tired. Seeing all the pain he’d been dealing with the past few months made me sign it, reluctantly, but when he realized I’d listened to him, he smiled. He smiled, just like he had the day we met in that bookstore. His heart monitor was starting to beep faster, but he didn’t lose that smile as he grabbed my hand and pulled it to his body.
“ Thank you, Ollie. “ The sudden nickname took me by surprise more than it should’ve, but he explained, “ I think it’s about time you get your own cool nickname. It fits, yeah? “
He was quiet for a moment, and I realized then that he was crying, and he quietly said, “ I love you, you know that, right, Ollie? “
Why did he say that? Why did he say that right then? I could barely open my mouth to respond when his monitor became a monotone beep, and his eyes fluttered closed. A team of nearby nurses rushed in, and I remember being pulled away, out of his hands. I remember crying. I remember hating myself for not saying it back. I wanted to say it.
I loved him, too, and a part of me has to assume he knew that.
Finally, Jude closed the book, finger brushing over the back cover as he stared at the picture of the author, of Oliver. He had apparently written the book when he was 21, a year after meeting Jimmy...and leaving him. He had a ghostly smile on his face, as if he couldn’t fake the emotion anymore. He had slicked back black hair and dark brown eyes, and a baby face if Jude had ever seen one. Jimmy’s impactful words were the only things written on the back in place of a synopsis. As Jude let the book fall close into his lap, he lifted the back of his hand to his face to wipe the wetness from his eyes. He didn’t even realize he was crying. He looked down at his phone and realized he’d only been at the store for a few hours, but he still got up and left the boxes of books to go back towards the entrance. Elsa looked over at him with a look of both concern and confusion, so he stopped just before the door.
Without looking at her, he pointed outside and asked in a strained voice, “ Um, I know it’s early, but can I take my break now? “
She nodded, and Jude didn’t wait to hear her question why he was leaving the store, since he never did that on his breaks, instead, he rushed outside and sucked in a deep breath as the cool air hit him. Jude began walking down the block, hoping none of the strangers walking the other way would stop and say something about a teenage boy with a reddened face and bloodshot eyes. He wasn’t sure what he was doing, mostly just trying to get some fresh air. Oliver’s story had hit him a little too hard, and he wanted to tell himself he didn’t know why, but it was as if fate was laughing at him in that moment; his phone began to ring, a picture of a dark skinned boy wearing the most ridiculous, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles beanie he’d ever seen appeared. His cheesy smile was bright and above his head read the contact name Kev :).
Jude shoved his hand and phone back into his pocket and threw his head up to the sky, squinting up at the clouds covering the sun as he muttered, “ Oh, hilarious, you’re so punctual. I mean, seriously?! “
As Jude began almost shouting at the sky, looking like a deranged man, surely, he took a step back and fell back into another body that had been coming out of the coffee shop he stood in front of. The boy felt a pain shoot up his spine but dismissed it as he looked up to see a taller, much older man standing over him. How did I fall, but he didn’t? Jude questioned himself as the old man reached his hand out to him.
“ Oh, I’m terribly sorry about that, kid, “ He apologized as Jude took his hand, rising back to his feet; the man made a face and crookedly smiled as he added, “ maybe standing in the middle of the sidewalk yelling at the sky isn’t a good idea, though, trust me. “
“ Yeah, sorry, I just- “ The younger man cut himself off instantly when he made eye contact with strangely familiar, dark brown eyes. He then realized that the man was wearing a uniform that read Love’s Beans, the name of the coffee shop. Jude felt his heart racing in his chest as he stared at the man’s name tag.
“ You know, a friend of mine always said that a good cup of coffee could cure any problem, how about you come in for some? On the house. “