Jolted from a deep sleep, I reach to the nightstand for my ringing phone, fumbling to answer. Who the heck is calling in the middle of the night?
“Stella? It’s your mom.”
I sit up straight when the sound of her teary voice registers. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s grandma, honey. She’s at the hospital. Your dad and I are on our way to pick you up.”
“Why is she at the hospital?”
“It’s not good. Get dressed. We’ll be there soon.”
“Okay, mom.” I hang up and climb out of bed in a daze. Finding my jeans and a sweater, I throw them on, and pace in the living room for my parents to show up. I grab my coat when I see the headlights flash into my living room. Opening the door, I rush out and hop in the backseat of my dad’s SUV. “Is she okay?”
Mom doesn’t even respond but sobs into a tissue while dad backs out of the driveway. As we ride, I stare out the window at the heavy snowfall, my forehead creased with worry. The only positive being out at two in the morning, there’s no traffic to slow our pace. We pull up to the hospital thirty minutes later, and as we get out of the car, my dad pulls me aside.
“We don’t have long with her, Stella.”
I cover my mouth as my eyes open wide. “Why?”
“Heart attack. She’s in very critical condition.”
Tears sting my eyes as I’m faced with the reality of no longer having my best friend in the world. We hurry inside and up to her floor. When we find her room, my breath catches at the sight of my mighty grandmother connected to machines keeping her alive. Her eyes are closed, but as we approach, they open slowly. She focuses on me and a smile pulls at her lips. She looks pale and weak; two adjectives I’ve never used to describe her. I reach for her hand and hold it as tears streak down my face.
“Don’t…cry…Stell—” Her words are strained and break as she speaks. “It’s oh…kay.”
“No.” I shake my head. “I’m not ready to do this without you.”
Her eyes shift to my parents. “Alone. Please. Alone with Stel…la.” My dad nods, escorting my sobbing mother from the hospital room. Once they’re gone, my grandmother takes a deep breath. “Listen.”
I nod. “I’m listening.”
“The…store…” She swallows hard. “Don’t be scared.”
“Not…dang…” She closes her eyes for a moment. “Not dangerous.”
“What’s not dangerous? I don’t understand.”
“Trust.” She implores me with her eyes. “Trust. Believe.”
She’s not making sense. I wipe my tears away. “Don’t go yet. We have more to do. You’re strong. You can pull through.”
She shakes her head. “No. Not strong.”
“But you’re my Grand Memose. I’m not ready.”
“Ready.” She nods. “You are. You are…strong. Believe.”
“What won’t hurt me?” Her eyes flutter as her breath rattles. “Grand Memose? Don’t go yet.”
“Must. Go. Get Liz.”
I rush to the door and call my parents back into the room. My mom hurries to her mother’s side and holds her hand against her cheek. “Mom?”
“Love…you.” Grand Memose smiles slightly as tears slip from the corners of her eyes. “I go now.”
My mom sobs as grandma slips away. The nurses rush in, but it’s too late. The sound of the machine going from slow beeps to one steady tone breaks my heart, and I stumble out of the room into the hallway, where I lean against the wall clutching my stomach. I’m not ready yet. She was so strong. How did this happen? I find a bench and sit with my arms wrapped around myself. She was my best friend. My only friend, and now she’s gone. What do I do now?
Two weeks later, sitting in the attorney’s office, I stare out the window not at all interested in listening to who gets what from my grandmother’s will. With such a small family, my parents get most of it, save for a few heirloom furniture pieces she leaves to her sister. My attention is pulled back when my dad nudges my arm.
“To Stella,” the attorney begins. “My beautiful granddaughter, I leave The Storied Nook in its entirety.” Everyone looks at me for a reaction to finding out I’m now the owner of an antique bookstore. I don’t have one. I didn’t expect this. “You already have the extra set of keys,” Attorney Davis continues, “so let yourself in as you always did. I hope you will love it as I do and that it will bring you comfort when I am no longer here to do it. You’re probably thinking you don’t know how to run it, but look inside yourself and know that you do, and you’ll make it even better than it was.”
I brush a tear off my cheek. I don’t want a bookstore. I want her.
The attorney finishes some final details and once the paperwork is finished we file out of the office just as somber as we went in. We are a close family and her loss is felt in everything we do. Burying PopPop was hard. Burying her was excruciating. PopPop was sick for years. We knew it was coming, but Grand Memose, she was strong, vibrant, so alive. Now she’s gone and there’s a gaping hole where she should be.
My dad wraps his arm around my shoulder. “How you holding up, Stella Bell?”
“Okay, I guess. It just doesn’t seem fair.”
“No, it doesn’t.” He offers a slight smile. “She left a strong legacy. Her love is still with us. Her spirit and joy for life is something we can always hold on to.”
I stop walking and lean into his chest as he embraces me. “She was my best friend, dad.”
“I know, honey. I know.”
A moment later, I feel my mom’s arms around me too and the three of us stand in the parking lot near the car trying to console each other from a pain that will never heal.
A few minutes later, after saying goodbye to my great aunt, we pile into the car ready to return home. My thoughts are swirling knowing at just twenty-three I now have the responsibility of running the store that made her so happy. A smile pulls at my lips as I remember all her informal lessons and how someday it would all be mine. I think we both thought it would be a long time from now. All I know for sure is I have to make her proud. It’s the least I can for everything she did for me.
“I think it’s sweet she left the store to you,” mom says as we drive.
“Yeah. It’s nice. It’ll be hard though without her there. It’s full of so many memories.”
“I know.” She turns in her seat to smile at me. “She knew you could do it, though. She knew you were strong enough.”
“I have to be.” I exhale slowly. “I’ll go in the morning and try to make sense of it. It’s already been closed two weeks.”
“We’ll help in any way we can.”
“I know, mom. Thanks. If I know her, she left a lot of instructions for me to follow.”
Mom laughs softly. “I’m sure she did.”
Staring out the window, I think of her as her face dances in my mind. I remember thinking, even as a young child, she was the most beautiful woman in the world. Even more than my mom, who is very pretty. As Grand Memose aged, her beauty took on a supernatural quality. Her long white hair flowed in waves around her face, highlighting the blue sparkle of her eyes. She stood five inches taller than my five foot two inches, which seemed amazing to me. I never saw her without her bright red lipstick, which looked great against her porcelain white skin. Sometimes she would rub my arm remarking how she envied my Mediterranean beauty. With my thick black hair, petite frame, and olive skin, we were opposites in looks, but completely alike in our souls.
She refused to be called grandma or nana, creating the term Grand Memose. I never understood it was unusual until my school friends commented. It was just another unique trait to a unique woman. Now I have to figure out how to live and function in a world she’s no longer in.
Copyright © 2018 Jaelyn LaStoria
Jangling the keys in my hand, I take a deep breath and stare at the glass door leading into the bookstore. I read the printed note on the door put there by dad stating the store was temporarily closed along with several handwritten condolences on it from regular customers who heard the news. I peel it off carefully wanting to preserve it as tears cloud my eyes. She loved this place as much as she loved her family. I unlock the door and step inside, immediately hit with a thousand memories.
“Stella Bell! You’re supposed to be in school, child. What are you doing here?”
I rush into her waiting arms as she soothes me. “He likes Cindy, Grand Memose. Cindy.”
“Oh dear. You got your heart broken.”
I nod, crying into her bosom. “He told me I was pretty and smart and then he asked Cindy to Homecoming. She’s a slut.”
Grand Memose chuckles softly. “Well, it works out that way sometimes. Look at me.” My eyes shift up as she brushes tears off my cheeks. “Crying over a boy who didn’t value you is like saying you don’t value yourself. You have to have standards, Stella, in every part of your life. Someday the man will come along who makes you feel like you are the only woman in the world because to him you will be. Wait for that man. He’ll be worth it.”
I was just sixteen when we had that talk, and it was a lesson I embedded in my heart. Have standards, Stella. I have them and so far no one has been able to meet them, a fact I’m perfectly okay with. I’m young enough to wait. The man that wins my heart will have to be like no other man I’ve ever met. Love will find me when it’s time. I believe that with all my soul.
I walk further into the store, pausing at the front counter and reading the note she left reminding herself to order more paper towels. Such a menial note, but it’s one of the last things she did before she passed. I start to walk to the back, but stop when I hear a knock on the glass door. Turning in that direction, I see a handsome young man with a concerned look on his face peering in. I approach and open the door slightly.
“Sorry. We’re still closed.”
He nods. “Will you reopen?”
“I believe so. I’m the new owner, I guess, and I have to figure things out. My grandmother passed.”
“Yes, I heard, and I am so sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you. I’m not really sure of my timeline, so I guess at this point, just check back.”
He searches my eyes so intently I almost look away, but find that I’m not able. He’s unbelievably good looking, but it’s more than that. There is something strikingly familiar and comfortable about him.
“I hate to impose on you during this difficult time, but by chance, is there any way I could just look at something Margie ordered for me? It’s for a research project. It would help me a great deal, and I promise I won’t stay long.”
His words are polite and his slightly accented tone so pleading I find it difficult to say no. Plus, I can’t shake the feeling I’ve seen him before. “Have we met?”
“I don’t believe so.”
“Oh.” I smile. “You just seem familiar. You can come in. Do you know where the book is?”
“I do not. She told me it was to arrive last Wednesday.”
“It might be in the back then. My dad was checking for deliveries. Follow me.” I don’t know why I trust him, but something tells me I can. As we walk through the store, I engage him in conversation. “I notice you have an accent. Where are you from?”
“I’m not really from anywhere, but I was raised in Europe as a boy. I’ve traveled a lot in my life. I’m in Boston now for work.”
“Neat. I’ve always wanted to travel. Where’s your favorite place?”
“Oh, I love Italy.” I smile, but he just continues intently watching me. “It’s so strange, but the time I went there I felt like I was home.” I shrug. “I guess I felt the presence of my ancestors. Does that sound weird to you?”
“Not at all.”
“Cool.” I pause in front of the office as a wave of grief hits me causing me to step back slightly.
“Are you okay?”
I nod. “I’m sorry. I haven’t been here since she passed. We were very close.”
“I’m so sorry to put you through this.”
“It’s okay. I have to do it eventually.” I exhale slowly and open the door finding three packages and a pile of mail sitting on the desk. “Looks like it might be over there.”
“Would you like me to look?”
I gaze up into kind eyes. “What is your name?”
“Julien. You must be Stella?”
I raise my eyebrows. “How did you know that?”
“Margie mentioned your name. I just assumed.”
I smile and nod. “Ah, well, it’s nice to meet you, Julien. We’ll look together.”
I approach the desk slowly and lift the first package. Tearing it open, I notice how Julien watches me. I’ve never had a man, especially one as good looking as him, look at me like this. When I pull the lid on the box open, his shoulders drop when he reads the title.
“Let’s try this one.” I open the next box, trying not to stare at the man beside me. He’s very tall, at least six feet I’d say, and his clothes are nice like he just came from an office job. In his long wool coat with matching charcoal gray scarf, he looks like a model. His features are nearly perfect, from the slope of his nose to the pout of his lips. His thick black hair falls slightly in his face as he watches me with light brown eyes. Surprised when he grabs the package I’m holding, I blink hard, breaking the almost hypnotic gaze I had fixed on him.
“This is it.” He actually smiles, knocking me almost off balance from the sight of it. Wow. He is one heck of a man. “She found it. This is incredible.”
“I’m glad you’re happy.” He doesn’t respond as he flips pages clearly looking for something very specific. I peer over his shoulder at the pages wondering what could be so important in a book about Ancient Greece. He looks like a business man, but maybe he’s a student or a professor or something. “What’s your research project about?”
He glances up at me. “Temples.”
“For?” His brow creases from my nosy question. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to pry. I was just interested.”
“You’re not prying. I’m writing a book.”
“Of course. Do you need some paper or anything? Or if you want to take the book, you can. I’ll figure it out later.”
He pauses his reading and gazes at me. “Your eyes are the same.”
I tilt my head. “The same as what?”
“You are just as kind and generous as Margie said you were. She spoke of you all the time. I’m sure you know you were her absolute joy in life.”
“It’s nice to hear.”
“Thank you for letting me read this. May I return it to you in a few days? I’ll leave money if you feel better about it.”
I shake my head. “No, it’s fine. It’s obviously important to you, so just read what you need.”
“Thank you.” He’s so close to me I can actually feel his warm breath on my cheeks. He smells good too. If a man like this asked me out, I would jump at the chance. “Are you happy, Stella?”
His question takes me by surprise. “I’m sorry?”
“I mean, apart from your recent loss, of course.”
“Why do you want to know if I’m happy?”
I notice how he swallows hard. “I don’t know. I guess I just hope you are.”
I’m both amused and touched by this stranger’s question. “My grandmother meant the world to me, so life is sad right now, but overall I’m a happy person.”
He smiles. “I should have known a reciprocal question would come.”
“It’s only fair.”
“It is.” He nods, glancing at the book and then back at me. “I am not, Stella, nor have I been for a very long time, but I am working on it. Every day of my life, I work on it.”
“I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
“I’m very close. Closer than I’ve ever been.”
The sudden shift in his voice sends a shiver of desire through me. I clear my throat. “Is that why you’re writing a book? Does it make you happy?”
“It does. I’ve taken enough of your time. Thank you for letting me in.”
“No problem. I hope to have it up and running again soon.”
“I’m sure you’ll do fine.”
“Thanks. Let me walk you out.”
We head to the front of the store again, but the energy between us is palpable. I wish I was one of those outgoing girls who could invite him to coffee or something, but I’d sooner die than ask a man out.
Julien pauses with his hand on the door, still studying me with those intense eyes. “Be well, Stella.”
“You too, Julien.”
He bows his head slightly before exiting. Once he’s gone, I press against the door watching him walk briskly down the sidewalk realizing he never answered me why he said that about my eyes. But what a man. If Grand Memose were here, we would have a cup of tea and giggle about his good looks. It warms my heart to know she spoke about me to a perfect stranger. Knowing her, she probably had plans to try to set me up with Julien. On a positive note, he promised to bring the book back, so at least I know I’ll see him again.
When I turn around again, I’m faced with the emptiness the store evokes. I have to chin up and be strong. Grand Memose deserves it. Straightening my shoulders, I walk to the office. It’s time to get started.
Copyright © 2018 Jaelyn LaStoria