I drifted off to sleep and woke with an hour to spare. Gus knocked on my door thirty minutes later, and we headed to the shop on foot—normally I would hate to get sweaty before an event, but here, it seemed to matter less. Everyone was a little sweaty in North Bear Shores, and the stiff black event dress hadn’t appealed to me after a summer in shorts and T-shirts, so I’d put the white thrift-store sundress on again, with the embroidered boots.
At the bookstore, Pete and Maggie took us into the office to have a glass of champagne. “Scare away any jitters,” Maggie said sunnily.
Gus and I exchanged a knowing look. We’d both done enough events to know that in towns like this one, the turnout was pretty much local friends and family (at least when it was your first book; after that, most of them couldn’t be bothered) and people who worked at the bookstore. Maggie and Pete had moved the display table up to the counter and set up about ten folding chairs, so clearly, they had some understanding of this too.
“Shame school’s not in session,” Pete said, as if anticipating my thoughts. “You’d get a full house then. The professors like to make this sort of thing mandatory. Or at least extra credit.”
Maggie nodded. “I would’ve made it mandatory for my students.”
“From now on, I’m putting labradorite in every book,” I promised. “Just to give you a good excuse to do that.”
She clutched her heart as if that was the sweetest thing she’d heard in months.
“Go time, kids,” Pete announced and led the way out. There were four more chairs lined up behind the counter, and she ushered Gus and me in between her and Maggie, who would be “interviewing” us. Lauren and her husband were in the audience, along with a couple of other women I recognized from the cookout, and five strangers.
Generally, I preferred not to know so much of my audience. Actually, I preferred not to know anyone. But this felt nice, relaxed.
Pete was still standing, welcoming everyone to the event. I looked over at Gus and knew right away something was wrong.
His face had gone pale and his mouth was tense. All the warmth in him was gone, shut off as if by a valve. I whispered his name but he kept staring right into the “crowd.” I followed his gaze to a tiny woman with nearly black curls and blue eyes that tilted up at the corners, complementing her high cheekbones and heart-shaped face. It took me a few seconds to puzzle it out, a few blissfully ignorant seconds before my stomach felt like it had dropped through my feet and into the floor.
My heart had started racing, like my body understood before my brain could admit it. I looked toward Maggie. Her lips were pursed and her hands were folded in her lap. She was stiff and still, completely unlike herself, and while Pete was carrying on confidently, I could see the change in her body language too, something of a mother bear’s posture: a vicious protectiveness, a readiness to spring.
She sat and scooted her chair around while she readied herself. It was a casual enough gesture, but I thought she might be shaken.
My heart was still thudding against my chest so hard I figured the whole audience could hear it, and my hands started to sweat.
Naomi was beautiful. I should’ve known she would be. I probably had. But I hadn’t expected to see her. Especially not alone, here, looking at Gus like that.
Apologetic, I thought, then, hungry.
My stomach lurched. She had come here with intent. She had something to say to Gus.
God, what if I threw up here?
Pete had kicked off the questioning. Something along the lines of, “Why don’t you start by telling us about your books?”
Gus turned in his chair to face her. He was answering. I didn’t hear what he said but the tone was calm, mechanical, and then he was looking at me, waiting for me to answer, and his face was entirely inscrutable.
It was like the master bedroom of Dad’s house: impersonal, scrubbed clean. There was nothing for me in it. I really felt like I might vomit.
I swallowed it and started describing my last book. I’d done it enough—it was practically scripted. I didn’t even have to listen to myself; I just had to let the words trickle out.
I really felt sick.
And then Pete was asking another question from a handwritten list she had in front of her (Tell us about your books. What’s your writing process like? What do you start with? Who are you influenced by? etc.), and in between them, Maggie contributed her own lofty follow-ups (If your book were a beverage, what would it be? Do you ever imagine where your books should be read? What is the emotional process of writing a book like? Has there ever been a moment from your real life you found yourself unable to capture through words alone?).
This moment would probably be pretty damn hard, I thought.
How many different ways could you write, Eleanor wanted badly to puke up everything she’d eaten that day?
Possibly a lot. Time was inching past, and I couldn’t decide whether I wanted it to move more quickly or if whatever came afterward would only make things worse.
The very question of that seemed to break the curse. The hour was over. The handful of people who’d come were milling forward to talk to us and get books signed, and I was gritting my teeth and trying to socially tap-dance while inside, tumbleweeds were blowing through my desolate heart.
Naomi hung back from the others, leaning against a bookcase. I wondered if she’d picked up the leaning from Gus or the other way around. I was afraid to look at her too long and recognize more of him on her, when I’d spent the last hour trying desperately to find some trace of me on him, proof that he had whispered my name fiercely into my skin even that afternoon. Pete had cornered Naomi and was trying to lead her from the store, but she was arguing, and then Lauren was joining them, trying to keep a scene from breaking out.
I couldn’t hear what was being said, but I could see her curls bobbing as she nodded. The group around the table was dissolving. Maggie was ringing them up, her own clear gaze cutting between the register and the conversation by the door.
Gus looked at me finally. He seemed poised to offer an explanation but the expression on my face must’ve changed his mind. He cleared his throat. “I should see why she’s here.”
I said nothing. Did nothing. He stared back at me for no more than two seconds, then stood and crossed the store. My face was hot but the rest of my body was cold, shivering. Gus sent Pete away, and when she looked at me, I couldn’t meet her gaze. I stood and hurried through the door to the office, then through the office to the back door into a back alley that was nothing more than a couple of dumpsters.
He hadn’t invited her. I knew that. But I couldn’t guess what seeing her did to him, or why she’d come.
Tough, beautiful Naomi, whose unknowability had thrilled Gus. Naomi who didn’t need him or try to save him. Who he had never been afraid to break. Who he had wanted to spend his life with. Who he would have stayed with, despite everything, if given the chance.
I wanted to scream but all I could do was cry. I’d burned through all my anger, and fear was all that was left. Maybe that was what had been there all along, masked in thornier emotions.
Unsure what else to do, I started to walk home. It was dark out by the time I got there, and I’d forgotten to leave the porch light on, so when someone stood from the wicker couch, I nearly fell off the steps.
“I’m sorry!” came the woman’s voice. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”