A law professor gets a family and a bookstore owner offers advice.
Previously in Par Angusta Ad Augusta":
After his brother and sister-in-law are killed in a car accident overseas, NYU law professor Jefferson Thomas brings his young nieces and nephew to live with him in Manhattan. Meanwhile, local bookstore owner Monique Vasquez runs her family business while recovering from a recent robbery.
Eric entered the restaurant and quickly located Jefferson, already seated in a booth with Presley asleep on his feet. He greeted his friend as he slid in across from him just as the waitress came by.
"Will you be joining him?" she asked.
"Yes," Eric said, looking past the waitress at the specials board, "and I'll have a Coke and the shrimp pasta."
Jefferson knew the shrimp pasta came along for about a week every couple months and Eric never missed the opportunity. And Eric called him a creature of habit?
The waitress took a moment to write down Eric's order after having given Jefferson his water. When she was gone, Eric looked across the table.
"I worry that if they ever shut this place down, you'll go hungry," he remarked. "You are aware that Manhattan has other places where you can go for lunch, right?"
"I am," Jefferson said, "but how would you find me?"
"I'd probably take the easy route and find new friends," Eric said as the waitress brought his Coke.
"Always nice to know I'm so easily replaceable."
"Well, that's life," Eric said, raising his glass. "To this year being over sooner rather than later."
Jefferson chuckled and raised his glass as well. They never actually toasted, just raised their glasses for whatever reason which struck them at that moment.
"Thank God for it," Jefferson commented after having taken a long sip. "The sooner Paula Franks graduates, the happier I'll be."
"She's still pursuing you?" Eric asked.
"Like never before. I tell you ... I think I'd rather stick my head into a pool of hungry piranhas."
"Hey. let's not get crazy here. I mean, she isn't bad looking."
"Aren't you married?" Jefferson asked, a sudden reminder of his fling with Amy flying into his head. He was able to keep a straight face, but so much for "burying" it. Maybe that plan had been easier the last time thanks to geographic distance.
"No harm in looking," Eric said innocently. "But I know what you mean. Paula Franks is very smart, but she's also a perfectionist to the extreme. I remember when I gave her a low grade on a midterm paper. She spent three months trying to get it changed."
Jefferson emitted a slight chuckle.
"So how is your love life?" Eric asked, somewhat changing the subject. "Any prospective candidates?"
"Not right now," Jefferson said. "I figure I'll put the brakes on that for a while. I'm having better luck finding a good nanny."
He had narrowed the field of candidates a little more, but it was still difficult to choose.
"You hear from Nancy at all?" Eric asked.
"Nope," Jefferson said without a hint of regret.
"So it's over? You're just gonna throw five years away like that?"
"Yeah. She was pretty adamant. I had to make a choice, which I did."
Nancy had been a mistake long before Stan and Maggiedied.
"Then you did the right thing," he commended. "Besides, you're a handsome guy. The women will throw themselves at you soon enough."
"Thank you for adding that last part," Jefferson remarked. "Being called 'handsome' by my best friend is something I want to be striving for."
"Glad to help."
* * *
Monique sat in her living room, still strapped into her chair. She waited patiently as she watched the weather channel, checking on tomorrow's forecast. It looked like it was going to be a beautiful spring Saturday, perfect for enticing people to leave their homes and perhaps come down to her bookstore for the readings. She wished there was a park or a courtyard or something nearby where they could hold the event outdoors. But alas, there wasn't, so she'd have to settle for people simply being driven out of their homes by the nice weather.
She froze, hearing the door to her apartment being unlocked. She looked over and relaxed when she saw Joan's temporary replacement, a young nurse named Erika Stoult, entering. The woman was now well into her second day of working with Monique and things were going okay so far. True, Monique preferred Joan, but this woman wasn't so bad.
"Same routine as last night?" Erika Stoult asked and Monique nodded. "What do you want for dinner?"
"Is there any chicken in the fridge?" Monique asked.
Erika Stoult checked and found some. So she set to work on making chicken tenders with mashed potatoes, peas, and gravy. As she worked, she began asking Monique about her day, which required some background information about Monique and the bookstore in order for everything to make sense. At the least the longer-than-usual conversation helped pass the time.
"There we go," Erika Stoult soon said. "The chicken's in the oven and everything else's on the stove. I'm just gonna go make sure your bed and pjs are ready for you."
She left the main room and Monique turned her attention to watching the evening news. She was watching a story about a possible cutback in the city's funding of public schools when Erika Stoult came back out and joined her.
Dinner was ready about fifteen minutes later. Monique ate while Erika Stoult went about loading the pots and pans into the dishwasher and occasionally making small talk with her temporary patient. After Monique was finished eating, they headed into her bedroom and the nurse began helping her get ready for bed.
"Would you like me to come by sometime tomorrow to put you in the standing frame?" Erika Stoult asked at one point.
"No, I'm fine," Monique said, seriously doubting that this little person had the strength for that task. Joan always required help when doing it and she could probably take this woman with one hand behind her back and a debilitating disease crippling her. In fact, Monique herself could probably shock-put this woman out to Long Island.
Despite her small stature, Erika Stoult was able to somewhat help Monique get into bed. She then checked to make sure her water bottle on the nightstand was full, asked if Monique needed anything else, and, when everything was set, wished her patient a good night and left. Now alone, Monique couldn't help thinking that, despite this woman not being so bad, she still missed Joan. If nothing else, it was because the usual routine was disrupted.
* * *
Jefferson allowed himself to sleep in that Saturday morning and therefore didn't get up until around eight. Nevertheless, he found the kids awake and playing in their bedrooms, which finally actually looked like kids' bedrooms, with the exception of the bare walls. He hadn't even thought about getting them painted.
During breakfast, Taylor pestered him about the bookstore's readings and he explained he had looked into the matter and found out the first reading would take place at eleven for the younger kids. the older kids would have their turn at noon. Since all three kids seemed interested in going, they would be sticking around for basically the full two hours. None of the kids had a problem with that, finding the bookstore pretty interesting. I'd hate to see what they think of a toy store, Jefferson mused as he cleaned up after breakfast.
* * *
At 10:30, the group left the house. It was a sunny morning with a spring breeze blowing through the neighborhood, so they decided to walk the few blocks to the bookstore. Jefferson was sure he had the route memorized, but kept his phone's GPS on, just in case.
* * *
With Monique supervising, Kathy, Frank, and Samuel Bridges began setting things up for the readings around 10:00. The store's children's section wasn't big, but then, the store itself wasn't that big. Still, size wouldn't be a problem. They'd always managed and received positive feedback for it.
They arranged large colorful cushions in a semicircle for the audience to sit on. All makeshift seats faced a stand equipped with a small frame and page turner for Monique to use in order to show the kids the pictures in the books she would be reading to them. The books themselves were stacked up in one corner.
"I just hope my arms will stay in check so I can hold them," Monique commented with a half smirk.
"You'll be fine," Kathy told her.
"If you're worried," Frank chimed in, moving a table out of the way and dragging another large cushion into place, "you can test yourself by actually lending us a hand with this stuff."
"I would," Monique retorted, "but I need my hands to sign your paycheck."
Frank didn't say anything else and as he kept working.
* * *
Families began trickling in around a quarter to eleven and browsed the shelves while they waited for the first reading to begin. Leaving Frank and Kathy to finish setting up, Monique sent Samuel Bridges off into the shelves to be available if anyone needed anything while she went up front to watch the register.
It was while she was there that she saw the man named Jefferson Thomas come in with his guide dog, his two nieces, and his nephew. One of the girls noticed her almost immediately. Which twin was she again?
"Hi Monique," she said, waving.
"Hello," Monique said back with a smile.
Jefferson was then momentarily distracted by a small boy coming over and asking if he could pet Presley.
"No, she's working," he replied, being polite about it. "She can't be pet when she's wearing this harness."
The boy wandered back towards his mother, who was reading the back cover of a novel, and Abigail's attention was captured by this topic.
"Why can't people pet Presley when she is wearing the harness?" she queried, watching the dog with curiosity.
"Petting distracts her," Jefferson explained. "She needs to pay attention to do her job. People can't distract her by petting her. I could get hurt otherwise."
"Oh," Abigail said, these potential consequences seeming to not concerning her. "Okay."
Monique watched all of this, finding it interesting. She had always played around with the idea of getting a service dog to help her out, but she had never seriously pursued it. It was interesting to see one in action, even if it was for someone with a different disability.
* * *
Eleven o'clock soon rolled around and Frank took charge of the register while Monique headed back to the children's section. Kathy had already set the first book into the frame and handed Monique an identical copy to read from along with the remote for the page turner. Monique then maneuvered her chair around so that she was facing her young but captive audience. She was sure that it was her chair that was holding their attention.
"Hello," she said. "I'm Monique and I'd like to welcome you to my store."
Her greeting received some responses from the kids and the parents who were sticking around rather than browsing through the shelves.
"I'm going to tell you right now that I love books," Monique continued. "I love them because they allow each of us to have adventures and to see and hear things we never would have thought possible. Now, we're going to go on some adventures together. Are you ready to get started?"
* * *
Jefferson, Presley, and the twins browsed the bookshelves in the unoccupied area of the children's section, hearing Monique reading but not really keeping up with what she was saying. Jefferson was sure Matthew was having a good time though. The boy hadn't come looking for him yet.
* * *
Matthew watched and listened with fascination as Monique read a story about knights and dragons while using a remote to turn the pages so everyone could see the book's pictures. He sat on a big bright red cushion, currently not caring where his uncle and sisters had gone off to.
* * *
Monique finished around 11:50, leaving a ten-minute break before the reading for the older kids was to begin. The younger kids began rising from the cushions, some coming up to thank her while others went to find their parents. Some parents who knew Monique also came over to make small talk, generally about upcoming releases due to appear on her shelves.
Around noon, the older kids, mainly ranging from seven to ten, began sitting down on the cushions as Kathy set up a new stack of books. This stack was a bit shorter than the earlier one, but since the books were a bit longer, it evened out in the end.
While Kathy put the first book into the frame and page turner, Monique again introduced herself to the group. She then began to read while the frame allowed the audience to see the accompanying pictures.
When it was over around 12:50, the kids got up from their cushions and began rejoining their parents. Abigail and Taylor quickly found Jefferson and Matthew, who had been sitting in the back and listening in.
"Do we have to go already?" Taylor asked.
"I'll give you guys ten more minutes," Jefferson said. "Then we're definitely leaving."
Taking advantage of the opportunity, the three kids headed off to look around some more.
* * *
With the readings over, Monique was once again moving through the aisles and mingling with customers. A brief change in her routine came about when she had to help convince a little boy that "The Silence of the Lambs" was not a book about a farm. It seemed he hadn't yet learned the meaning of the word "silence", but "Lambs" had grabbed his attention.
As she was moving towards the front of the store, Monique ran into Taylor. The little girl had a book in her hands and explained she was going up to the register to meet up with her uncle.
"Come on," Monique offered. "I'll go with you."
Taylor's uncle and siblings weren't at the front of the store yet, so Monique suggested they wait, figuring the others would be along shortly.
"So you live with your uncle?" Monique queried.
"Uh-huh," Taylor replied, nodding her head.
"Where are your parents?"
Taylor's eyes very suddenly and very quickly went to her feet.
"They're dead," she said in a small voice. "Uncle Jeff came and got us to live with him when they died."
Monique was stunned. Never in the world could she have seen this answer coming. Sure, asking about parents was sometimes a touchy issue, what with the divorce rates out there. But this was something different.
"I'm so sorry," Monique said.
Taylor said nothing as her uncle came up behind her with the other two kids in tow. Only now remembering his subtle hand gesture from last time when the subject almost came up, Monique knew he had heard everything. he didn't look thrilled.
"Go wait by the register," he told the kids, steering Taylor off in that direction with one hand. The other two obeyed without question. Maybe they hadn't overheard anything.
Monique looked at Jefferson and saw no anger in his face, but rather stress and some anguish.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't know ..."
"Forget about it," Jefferson said. "Just forget about it."
He went to the register, where Samuel Bridges was currently working, and paid for the books the kids had picked out. Monique silently watched them go, feeling terrible. She noticed Taylor was on the verge of tears.
* * *
"Hey," Jefferson said, stopping about half a block from the bookstore and crouching down to be somewhat at eye-level with Taylor. Even he could tell she was ready to cry. Abigail and Matthew, who'd missed what happened earlier, waited but were rather impatient about it.
"Hang on a second," Jefferson told them and turned back to Taylor. "You okay?"
"She didn't mean anything by it," Jefferson assured her. "She didn't know."
Taylor continued to sniffle and Jefferson hugged her tightly.
* * *
Though she never started crying, Taylor remained subdued for the next few hours, only coming around by 4:00. She was relatively cheerful again by dinner and joined the others in a game of Candyland.
* * *
"Everything okay?" Erika Stoult asked as Monique ate her dinner. "You're usually more upbeat than this. Did your reading not go well?"
"No, it went fine," Monique replied. "It was afterwards where I really screwed up."
"I made a little girl relive the fact her parents are dead. That really doesn't fall into the 'Highlights of My Life' category."
* * *
"And that's all there is," Jefferson said. "The story's over."
"So they got to keep the dog?" Matthew asked.
"Yep," Jefferson told him as he stood up. "Now go to sleep."
He quietly left the room, feeling thankful to have found a digital version of the story online. His mother had read him all the stories from the series when he'd been that young. he was right in thinking Matthew might like them now.
Checking in on the girls and hearing nothing, Jefferson went back downstairs and sat down on the couch. he switched on the TV, figuring he'd listen to the news for a while.
* * *
"Anything else you need before I say good night?" Erika Stoult asked as she set Monique's full water bottle down on the nightstand and adjusted the straw slightly for her patient to have easy access.
"Yeah," Monique said. "my iPhone's on my desk back in the main room. Could I have it please?"
* * *
The phone rang and Jefferson got up to answer it, leaving the TV on for the time being. He hoped it was a wrong number.
"Hello?" he queried, hoping he sounded weary enough.
"Hi," a voice he didn't recognize said. "Can I speak to Jefferson Thomas?"
"This is him."
"Oh hi," the voice said, sounding a little surprised. "Sorry, I didn't recognize your voice. It's Monique, the horrible woman from the bookstore."
Jefferson realized who it was. He figured she found him in the White Pages. And, he was sure what subject was on her mind.
"I'm sorry for intruding like this," Monique continued. "I just wanted to apologize again for upsetting your niece today. I didn't know."
"It's all right," Jefferson assured her. "Like you said, you didn't know."
"Is she okay?"
"She's fine. She bounces back."
"Good. I'm glad to hear it. And I hope you guys will come back to the store sometime soon."
Jefferson had no idea when that might happen.
"Sure," he said. "Thanks for calling."
He was sure she sounded genuine. that this wasn't just to try to get some good PR.
"Um," Monique said. "Could I ask you a question ... something personal?"
"Sure," Jefferson said, nonetheless cautious.
"I got the feeling the kids lost their parents recently. Is that the case?"
Jefferson took a deep breath.
"Yeah," he confirmed.
"I'm sorry," Monique said. "If you ever need anything ..."
Her voice trailed off as she wondered if she really should be saying that to someone she barely knew.
"I don't think I ever really introduced myself," she said to cover her silent pause. "I'm Monique Vasquez."
"Jefferson Thomas," Jefferson said. "But you already knew that."
"Sort of. Nevertheless, it's nice to meet you."
"Same here. Thanks for calling."
* * *
Monique disconnected the call, having used the speakerphone function on her iPhone instead of trying to keep it pressed against her ear. After all, she was alone for this call.
She set the phone on her nightstand, still thinking about those kids. She knew it was wrong to pry, but her curiosity got the better of her. Now she couldn't get them out of her head. And she couldn't help wondering what happened to their parents. Then, she thought of her own parents.
Adjusting her body as best she could on the bed, Monique drifted into an uneasy sleep, her mind still locked on those kids and her hope that she would see them, and their uncle, again.