The bookstore was dark, covered in a thin veil of dust. She coughed as quiet as she could, allowing her thin jacket to shroud her face as she coughed again. A clerk looked up, disinterested, and continued to read her book. CLEOPATRA (and other Egyption romance stories), the title read. Coco coughed again, louder this time.
“May I help you?” The clerk tried, plastering a fake smile on her face.
“Yes, actually, you can. I was wondering if you could point me in the romance section,” Coco asked with a British voice that echoed around the empty bookstore. The clerk perked up.
“It is in the back of the store, over there.” The clerk pointed to a large shelf of books underneath a peeling poster that read “FICTION REVEALS TRUTHS THAT REALITY OBSCURES”. Whatever that meant, Coco wasn’t sure.
“Do you like romance?”
“Yes! That is why I am here, to fix my romance with my husband.” Coco smiled bashfully, proud of her statement in a child-like way. The clerk winced.
“You might want to go to the self-help area.”
“The… self help?” Coco cocked her head.
“Yeah, um, it’s not very big, but we have a small stack behind the romance.” Coco nodded, discarding her pale pink jacket on the coat rack before stepping further into the store. She smiled as she walked, letting her white fingernails skim across the spine of books, some bearing glossing covers and bold titles, others ancient and wearing a coat of dust.
“Is it back here, you said?” Coco called, but her voice was lost among the sea of books and dust bunnies. Finally, she found a small metal sign that read “SELF HELP BOOKS”. There was a measly, terribly ravaged stack of books, if one could even call it a “stack”. Coco still grinned, taking off her hat with a small blush coloring her cheeks. She fingered a small piece of paper that had been pinned to the corner of her hat. It read we will get through this.
Coco crouched, scrutinizing the titles: As a Man Thinketh; How to Get a Husband; Think Big; You Can Heal Your Life; A Comprehensive Guide to World War II for Sixth Graders (though Coco didn’t know how that qualified as a self-help book); How to Fix the Passion In Your Marriage… that was it! Coco grabbed the book quickly, glancing behind her before leaning backwards against the bookshelf to read it. She didn’t see the clerk standing in the shadows, watching her curiously.
“Oh, darling.” Coco eased open the book as if the pages were about to fall out. “I will fix this, I promise you.”
She began to read, engrossing herself in the brittle pages, flipping through them after absorbing the information.
“It’s perfect,” Coco declared, standing up suddenly, hiding her dark bob under the hat as she flipped it onto her head. The piece of paper fell to the ground as she stood up. The clerk shuffled backwards, her back pressed up against the spines of Greek mythology lore.
Coco checked out quickly, thanking the clerk many times over again, handing her the money as she was leaving.
“Au revoir!” Coco smiled, shrugging her jacket around her thin frame.
The clerk looked at the money in her hand: fifteen euros? The book had only been four!
“Ma’am,” The clerk tried, running out of the store and looking down each end of the quiet block. Nothing. The quiet woman with the pink jacket and British accent had disappeared.
“Damn,” the clerk muttered, absent-mindedly folding the bills into the small tip jar that they had.
The clerk looked around the store once, recognizing that she was truly alone again. Then, she paced to the back of the store, ducking under a swinging light chain. There, on the ground, was a small slip of paper. The clerk picked it up. It really was quite small. Once side bore the message (we will get through this) and the other had the name of a local hospital, like a scrap of a business card.
The clerk rushed back to her desk, shuffling through the papers until she found the thick, dark phone. She picked it up, dialing the hospital phone number on the back of the card.
“Hello, this is Larochette Hospital, how may I assist you today?”
“Hi, I was calling because my sister’s husband is in the hospital right now, and I was wondering what room he was in.”
“Sure! What is his name?” The clerk startled for a minute, coughing into the receiver.
“Give me one minute.” She shuffled around some papers, looking for Coco’s last name. All that Coco wrote on her receipt was: Coco W.
“Um, my sister’s name is Coco. Coco W?”
“Right… let me look through my records. Do you know his name?”
“I have dementia.” A pause.
“We have seven patients with a last name that starts with W.” The clerk sighed, collapsing into her chair. “Wait, ma’am, we only have one patient with a wife named Coco Woods.”
“Yes, that sounds right!” The clerk sighed with relief, almost letting out a little laugh. “What is his room number?” There was a long hesitation after this, and the clerk almost wondered if she was still on the phone. Something felt wrong.
“Ma’am, Jean Woods died two years ago.”
“Oh. I see.”
“He rests at the Ennergang Cemetery, down the street from that small bookstore. Is there anything else I can do for you-”
“No, no, thank you.” The clerk hung up abruptly, pressing the screen onto the stack of papers. The phone was ringing, but by then, the clerk was out the door, letting the quiet bookstore settle.
She walked briskly down the snow-dusted streets, skipping around the small pebbles and potholes that she had known her whole life. Church bells were ringing in the distance, a somber echoing.
As the clerk rounded the block and saw the gated entry of the cemetery, she realized that she didn’t know how she would find Jean Wood’s grave. It proved to be easy.
Coco was kneeling next to a small gravestone. It was clean of snow, and there was a small hat at the base of the stone. The stone itself read: JEAN WOODS (1954 - 1987) LOVING HUSBAND AND BROTHER. The clerk crept behind a large oak tree, watching silently. Her footsteps made no noise.
“I miss you a lot. I got this book today, and it should help. You told me that we will get through this. I believe you.” There was still that tinge of hope in her voice, a smile that lit up her delicate face. “I know it has been hard, probably harder on your part than mine, but I am absolutely positive that this will work. I will read this to you. Chapter one…”
Coco was crying softly, tears streaming down her face and melting the snow caved in around her knees. The clerk sighed, taking off her own hat respectfully. After thirty minutes, Coco kissed the grave and left, collecting her hat as she went. The clerk studied the grave, inching closer to the disturbed snow.
The clerk placed one hand on the gravestone, like rubbing the head of a child, before padding off, following Coco’s small footsteps.
Coco had laughed when she left, like she was sharing a secret with her love. She must have been cold, out in the snow like that with nothing on but a pink jacket and a small hat.