The moment I walked into his used bookstore and saw him seated behind the counter, his head bent over an open hard back book, a thrill rumbled through me like a 9.2 earthquake.
He looked up and asked, “Can I help you?”
For a moment, I found myself reverting back to that same shy little girl with the thick glasses who, at nine years old, had begun devouring his books like a hungry lion.
Swallowing hard, I replied, “Yeah . . . I was wondering, do you have anything by or about Thomas Malroy?”
His thick, almost whitish blonde eyebrows scrunched together, and his pale blue eyes studied me like I was a curiosity of some kind. “That’s an unusual request for someone in a used bookstore. Are you taking Professor Langston’s course at the college?”
“I was thinking about it,” I lied.
“Well, I don’t have anything here on the Arthur legend, except for one children’s picture book, but if you go to the college library, you’ll find all the information you’ll need for Bob’s class.”
Bob, of course, was Robert Langston, English Studies professor and close friend of T. K. Stark’s. They had grown up together and had even attended the same local college, both becoming academics—though Stark’s career had taken a somewhat more tragic turn.
I continued to stare at him, taking in his scruffy Nordic-like features, and thought of a security chief I once apprenticed under, which is probably why the words just kind of popped out of my mouth without me thinking about them. “Can I go next door and get you a pumpkin latte?” Immediately, I realized the mistake I had made. How could I have known he liked pumpkin lattes if we only just met?
When he looked at me again quizzically, I told him. “The girl in the bakery next door told me you liked them.” I just hoped he didn’t check with her.
Satisfied with my explanation, he reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out some bills and some coins. He began to separate the change from the paper money. “Here, let me give you something for it.”
I held up my hand. “No need. It’s my treat. I know you don’t make that much money around here.”
Once again, he looked at me curiously, so I said to him, “My father once owned a second hand book shop. He hardly made any money. That’s why, he eventually went into hydroponics.” It was another lie, at least, partially, anyway. My father never actually owned a bookstore, but he did collect a lot of books, some of which he gave away or sold for pennies to the town’s younger citizens.
“And where was this?” Thomas asked.
“Montana,” I said. At least that part was true; it was where I had grown up.
He nodded then smiled, and that was the moment, I think, I fell in love with Thomas Kensington Stark, the man, not the legend.
Six O’clock that evening found me back at the bookstore after running some errands, one of which was finding a place to stay.
I had been invited by Thomas to sit in on one of his Tuesday night writing group sessions. He told me about it earlier when I came back with his latte after Peggy, from the bakery, had me pass on to him that she had a couple of errands herself to run first, but she would try to be there on time.
“You should stop by,” Thomas prodded. “Professor Langston will be here.” I knew he added that last bit for my benefit.
The last thing I wanted was to share Thomas Stark with even a small group of people, but it was either come to the meeting, or wait until much later.
I would have wanted to begin my plan at that moment, but as soon as I got back with his latte, customers (mostly women) started showing up right and left, so I smiled and said, “I think I’ll probably be able to make it. Six, you say?” He nodded. “OK, see you around six.” Then I turned to leave, taking my purchase of the children’s picture book with me.
When I got there around ten minutes to six, I was surprised to find Peggy already there, seated in a chair, cradling a notebook on her lap. A pot of coffee was brewing on a card table nearby, while a couple of plates of mini muffins and cookies, I presumed from the bakery next door, also sat on the table.
Thomas smiled warmly when he saw me enter the shop, which sent my stomach a flutter. Then his expression changed slightly and he became a little more serious. “Bob called. Said he’s not feeling too well tonight, so he won’t be able to make it.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” I said, trying to sound sincere, but almost ending up sighing out loud with relief.
The other people in the group began arriving shortly after I did. There were two other young-looking women, plus one middle age man who kind of reminded me of the lawyer I had to deal with when I returned home to help settle my father’s estate. He had that same corporate, stuck-up air about him.
As it turned out, his story was about (you guessed it) lawyers and their shenanigans, both in the office and in the courtroom. His narrative was a little hard to follow, since he kept switching back and forth between the two locations, sometimes almost within the same paragraph.
The two women, meanwhile, were both doing stories about the struggles of family life. The only one I was really impressed with was Peggy. She had a real command over the language, and it showed in her writing. I could sense Thomas was also impressed, which made me slightly jealous, but I was able to keep it together enough not show any signs of my true feelings.
All during the readings and subsequent critiquing of their manuscripts, I sat quietly listening. Then afterwards, while helping Thomas clean up, I asked him if he would like to go for a drink? “There must be a bar somewhere nearby?”
He hesitated a moment, then replied with a sly, little grin, “I think I know of a place.”
Part of me was hoping he meant his apartment, but instead, a mantel of disappointment settled over my shoulders when I realized we were heading toward the town’s harbor.
After parking in the lot, we walked past a couple of the restaurants and all the little tourist shops, and began strolling along the walkway that paralleled the harbor’s docks. Because it was such a warm evening—even though it was well into October—there were many more people strolling the paved walkway than I would have thought.
Hardly a breeze blew, which meant you could really smell the brine in the air. I also found myself enjoying the sleepy sounds of the tiny, almost non-existent harbor waves as they lapped against the wooden docks and the sides of the various boats tied up there.
On any other night, this would have been an amazing experience, seeing all the sail and motorboats resting in their berths, their masts creating a forest of metal against the harbor lights and darken sky; but on this night, I couldn’t stop old habits from interfering, which was why I kept looking around, trying to make sure I knew where everything and everyone was.
Seeing my head turn this way and that, Thomas must have thought I was trying to absorb all the sights at once. “Magnificent, isn’t it?” I heard his honey-dipped voice say next to my left ear.
“Yes, it is,” I breathed, then turned and found myself staring into his liquid blue eyes, our faces only inches apart. Suddenly, my grownup feelings for Thomas Stark over-road my childhood obsession, and I found myself leaning forward so that our lips could meet.
It was the kind of kiss my grownup self had always imagined it would be—soft, yet filled with desire; a kiss that sent heat into places that had not felt that kind of warmth in a very long time.
Afterwards, with the remaining heat a warm afterglow, we started walking again. I asked him, “Why didn’t you read any of your own stuff tonight?”
Thomas hesitated. His face fell. When he spoke, it was almost a whisper. “I don’t write any more.”
“How come?” I asked, even though I knew the answer.
It took a while for him to reply. Finally, he said, “It’s a long story.”
“I’ve got time.”
Over the next half hour, I let him go through his entire litany of disasters, starting with the death of his former college sweetheart who, after they had gotten married, was killed in a car crash while driving to (of all places) McDonald’s. Then there was the six-month sojourn through South East Asia and India, trying to find peace and enlightenment. When that failed, he returned to the states and attempted to restart his academic career, which turned out to be another disaster, along with the two novels he tried writing. So, next came the bookstore, which seemed to be his only success, so far.
Thomas hesitated. He looked down. “I wish I had a time machine,” he said in a low, sad voice, “so I could go back to the day she died and stop Sally from getting in that car. Maybe then, none of this would have happened.”
But it did, I thought; and could see how raw the memories still were for him, which is why I decided to abandon my original plan of slowly feeding him bits and pieces of his books, and come right out and tell him.
Looking into Thomas’ eyes, I said, “I know you’re still hurting, and you probably feel like you’ve failed both yourself and her, but trust me; in the very near future, you’re going to become the most celebrated children’s author of all time.”
Thomas’ eyebrows shot up. “What are you talking about? How?”
“You’re going to write the ultimate fantasy series. There will be seven books in all. They will be about children who fight demons while attending a school for wizards. From the very first volume, you will be looked upon as practically a God by just about every child and adult who reads them, or sees the movies.” Thomas continued to stare at me as if I had gone insane.
“I know this sounds crazy, but trust me, it’s true. I ought to know; I was one of those children.”
As he stood there continuing to stare at me, and I finally saw the acceptance of what I had just told him register in his eyes, I knew then that his future, but more importantly, my future as his maven and much more, was secure.