Seventeen pages into All Hope Is Lost, Lisa-May came to the conclusion that all hope was indeed lost for the book on a whole. Closing it, she got up from the Kozy Korner and shuffled over to the aisle where she had found it earlier. The other titles she picked out of the lines couldn't capture her imagination, so she shuffled back to the sofa to read another chapter of Doctor Jennifer's Diary instead.

Before she could even open her favorite book, Adrienne came bouncing back with a big smile on her face. Instead of the pair of old books, she held a crumpled five dollar bill in her hand that she put into her purse. "Miss LaMarre wanted to buy the books," she said as she sat down with a bump next to Lisa-May whose face had gained the beginnings of a dark scowl. "I'm so glad… well, not that Miss LaMarre wanted to buy them, although I'm quite satisfied with that… no, that someone else will now have the chance to read Henrietta & Co. They were so important to me when I was a young teen and now someone else will get the chance to fall in love with Henrietta and all her crazy, silly, beautiful friends. Henrietta stirred emotions in me that I could hardly understand at the time but that became abundantly clear to me when I hit puberty a couple of years later. She was my first girl-crush. Isn't that just adorable?"

The scowl on Lisa-May's face only darkened by the endless stream of words, and she didn't even have time to nod before Adrienne had taken a deep breath and was off on the next voyage.

"Oh, Henrietta was depicted as a freckled, cute, little tomboy in denim overalls and a striped T-shirt and a baseball cap that she always wore backwards. She always got into all sorts of bother but her big heart and her group of loving friends always saved the day. She was a redhead and I think that's why I have a thing for redheads now. Although the redheads I've known in real life haven't been half as sweet or cute or even charming as Henrietta. Are you familiar with the series, Miss Farrington?"


"I promised Miss LaMarre that I would bring all the remaining titles the next time I came in. Like I said before, I got them for Christmas and my birthdays and the like and I ended up with nearly the entire series. Loni MacLean Porter wrote twenty-five books in total about Henrietta and her friends, but a few were sold out so quickly my parents were unable to find them in the bookstores at the time. I did read them later, though… I found them in the public library at the kids' section which felt somewhat odd to browse through because I had reached my early twenties by then. Don't get me wrong, the books I read then were still magical, but they were perhaps not quite as exciting to me as when I had been a teen."

"Oh, well, that's understanda-"

"And of course I read the last few out of sequence which is never a good thing to do with a story world that lives and evolves in a natural manner. Loni MacLean Porter was able to infuse such magic into the books it was quite extraordinary. As the titles alluded to, the first two books saw Henrietta going on a long canoe trek down the river with her parents and two of her best friends. They saw an old, flat-bottomed riverboat that had been converted into a hostel, and that set off her imagination. Yee-Haw Cowgirl saw Henrietta visiting her grandfather's ranch which made her imagine that she was a tough-as-nails cowgirl in the Wild West. Oh, the adventures that came out of that!  A stagecoach hold-up, a bank robbery, a big shootout in the middle of Main Street… now, Miss Farrington, please don't think I have a photographic memory because I can describe the old books so vividly. I just had to read them again the other day before I let them go."

"I see-"

"There were many other books, too. In another, Henrietta & The Red Ladder Day, she visited a fire station and took part in a special day that was meant to introduce the neighborhood kids to the basic training that all firefighters start with. Later on, she and her friends saved the day when a fire broke out in a utility shed belonging to their elderly neighbor. Oh, I could go on and on," Adrienne said and clapped her hands in glee.

Lisa-May's face gained another dark tone or two, and she reached out and put a calming hand on Adrienne's elbow which made the excitable woman clam up. "I'm sure you could. Perhaps we should save it for a rainy day?"

"Oh… well…"

"If you will excuse me," Lisa-May said and got up from the Kozy Korner. "I need to visit the restroom."

The gray woman got up and strode across the floor without looking back. Her ears were still ringing from the incessant stream of words, and she was pleased, even proud, that she had finally dared to assert herself. When she reached the corner of the next aisle, her conscience forced her to look back at Adrienne. The curly-haired woman sat on the sofa with her hands clenched in her lap and a sad frown etched onto her face.

The frown was mirrored on Lisa-May's own face. What good did it do to assert her position when all it had done was to make someone else miserable?  She felt the familiar sinking feeling inside her. What she ought to do was to go back to Adrienne and apologize, her conscience told her that in no uncertain terms.

At that moment in time, the main entrance opened and Cathy Giardella stepped inside yapping away into a telephone. She hobbled like she had hurt her ankle or knee. The earthy woman noticed Lisa-May and waved at her before she shuffled over to one of the aisles to begin the day's browsing and chatting.

Lisa-May didn't wave back. Instead of going over to Adrienne to apologize, she wrapped her arms around herself and did the opposite - she went into the restroom. Switching on the light and locking the door behind her, she hurried past the mirror above the wash basin so she didn't have to look at herself. She knew she wouldn't like what she would see in the eyes of the woman staring back at her.


After Lisa-May had conducted her business, she was forced to move over to the wash basin but did her best not to look up at the mirror. As she washed her hands - the temperature of the water that came out of the faucets was hit and miss, as always - she kept a firm eye on the lathering and thorough scrubbing. One of the deadliest sins of the seven was not washing hands after visiting the restroom. Millions of lives could have been saved had more people washed their hands during times of crisis, according to her.

Even Lisa-May Farrington could only wash her hands so far, and she had to stop before the hot faucet burned her skin off. She was reluctant to look up, but her conscience dictated that she should. The image of the gray woman in the mirror wasn't pleasant in the least as it stared back at the living representation of her.

She wasn't good with mirrors on the best of days, and today was one of the worst days. Though it was unconnected to the present situation, it was something that had been ingrained in her from an early age when her mother tried to force her into becoming a cute, little doll. She had no intention of ever being a 'cute, little doll' but it had never stopped her mother. It had given her a life-long aversion to mirrors that only grew stronger when she reached adolescence and found she wasn't as pretty as the other young girls she tried to hang out with. Prettiness shouldn't be the deciding factor of anyone's worth, but it invariably was. There wasn't anything to look at, so there was no reason to look in the first place.

It was even worse in the situations where her conscience demanded that she righted a wrong; that she made amends for something she had done. She should look at herself and see how she would have appeared to the person she had wronged. It wasn't a pleasant sight. The sinking feeling returned with a vengeance and formed a word that simply had to escape her gray lips. "Bitch," she mumbled. "Bitch, bitch, bitch… how could I be such a bitch to Adrienne…?" The mirror mocked her far too much for her to keep exposing herself to it, so she looked away.

Unlocking the door with her fingers safely wrapped in her handkerchief so all the scrubbing wouldn't be for naught, she switched off the lights and peeked out into the Bookworm Sanctuary. She could just make out the off-white slacks which meant the curly-haired woman was still sitting at the sofa. Cathy hadn't made her way over there yet, so Adrienne was alone.

Lisa-May exited the bathroom swallowing a bitter taste that had formed in her mouth. She closed the door behind her by wrapping the handkerchief around the door handle as she depressed it to make sure the nasty germs stayed where they were. Laughter once again bubbled out from the office to her left, and she cast a gloomy look at the open door - she still needed to square the earlier misunderstanding with Sandra Gottfried.

First things first. Looking back at the Kozy Korner, she confirmed that Adrienne was still alone. The excitable woman was leafing through the Out & Around magazine that Lisa-May had left on the sofa - or maybe it was a new copy, it was hard to tell since they were all identical. She furrowed her brow and scowled at the mere thought of someone taking the magazine she had selected, though the scowl was swept away by an echo of the statement 'you're doing it again, bitch,' that had somehow entered her ear.

One step led to the next, and before long, she stood in front of Adrienne whose stiffened body language proved that she had noticed Lisa-May returning. "Miss Gryszkowski," she said, but had to stop to let out a sigh while she wrung her hands in front of her stomach. "Adrienne, I'm so sorry for being a b- a bitch just now. I had no right to behave like that. Please forgive me."

The two women locked eyes for the briefest of moments before they both looked away. "I'm sorry for blathering on and on like an idiot," Adrienne said in a tiny voice. "I didn't stop to think that others wouldn't find it obnoxious… oh…"

"It wasn't really that," Lisa-May said and sat down next to the curly-haired Adrienne. She crossed her legs with the upper knee pointed away from her companion like a proper lady should. "It just became a little too much in one go. I love to talk about books, but you said so much in such a short amount of time that it was just… well, too much."

Adrienne nodded. "I know. I'll try to moderate myself from now on. It's just that when I get nervous or excited, I tend to blather on and on about nothing in particular, and when there's a topic that's so dear to my heart as the Henrietta books, I just can't stop… myself… fr- from… God, I did it again. I'm so sorry."

The raging flood of words had already kick-started Lisa-May's proverbial brick wall around her soul, but the sincere look of repentance on Adrienne's face caused the bricks to tumble. Instead of the bitchy scowl that had already begun to form on her lips, she smiled and reached out to pat the back of Adrienne's hand. "Think nothing of it. You caught it in time."

A blissful silence fell among the women. Content with her smooth, respectful solution to her earlier indiscretion, Lisa-May counted to ten on the inside before she reached for Doctor Jennifer's Diary. The second she touched the book, Adrienne turned around on the sofa and took her hand.

"Miss Farrington, may I confide in you?  I think another reason why I talk this much is because the relationship I have just escaped from didn't allow me much time to truly get in touch with my emotions. My girlfriend was so demanding of me… she expected me to do everything at the house though I had to work longer hours than she. She got home at three, and yet she expected me to make dinner in a hurry when I got home at five instead of at least preparing parts of it."


"I'm so glad I got out of that relationship though I'm sorry I had to do it the hard way. One day not so long ago… well, it's already been six months this coming Monday, to be exact… I got home from work an hour early and found her in bed with our neighbor. A guy. Can you believe that?  When I walked in on them, she was giving him hea-"

Shock and horror flashed across Lisa-May's face, and she reached out with the speed of a striking rattlesnake to grab hold of Adrienne's hand. "I. Don't. Need. To. Know. Thank. You," she said in a strangled voice. Her eyes shone with the intensity of a laser beam to convince her companion to stop talking about such filthy matters and otherwise remain quiet.

"Oh… I'm sorry," Adrienne said with a blush creeping up on her cheeks. "I didn't mean for it to be that explicit. It just… just…"

Lisa-May cleared her throat and actually managed to smile at the other woman though the scowl had presented a stronger case for itself. She was determined to be on her best behavior after being rude to Adrienne earlier, but it was hard going to keep her impatience in check. "I know. I don't want to appear rude, but I would like to read my book now. You have a stack of books too… wouldn't it be fun to take a look at one of them?" she continued, pointing at the handful or so of paperbacks that Adrienne had found when she had first made a tour of the aisles.

The curly-haired woman looked at the books like she had forgotten they were there. "Oh… oh, it certainly would. I found several really interesting books by authors I've heard of but never… read… I'm sorry. I'll be quiet."

The two women briefly locked eyes before they each took a book and dug into it.


Felicity's Bookworm Sanctuary saw more customers than usual at the lunch break. The flyer Kristen had created and distributed through her profile on the World Connected web service had been shared and liked countless times, and it seemed people were responding the old-fashioned way by showing up in person.

The regulars had been joined by pairs and singles, by young and old, and by men and women that came from all stops along the rainbow spectrum. Books were presented, accepted or rejected ceaselessly, and everything took place to a soundtrack of life and buzzing activity.

The influx of people brought an end to the peace and quiet, but Lisa-May wasn't too dissatisfied with the hubbub for once. She had nearly made it to the final, tear-jerking chapters of Doctor Jennifer's Diary, but she would read them at home, in private, so she didn't need to explain the tears that would surely come. She put the book into the white carrier bag from the croissant bakery and stole a glance at her companion on the Kozy Korner sofa.

Adrienne Gryszkowski was thoroughly taken by the book she was reading. Snuggled up into the corner of the sofa, she had kicked off her gray ballet flats and folded her legs up underneath her. She sat in wide-eyed - and silent - excitement as she was halfway through a romantic thriller about how a tough FBI profiler and her star-actress wife cracked a dangerous case wide open. Adrienne's left pinkie was wedged between her lips as she moved her eyes down the paragraphs; only the need to change pages could persuade her to take it out. Now and then her cheeks would redden as she reached one of the sizzling hot passages where the two lead characters did far more than talk.

Irregular footsteps approaching the Kozy Korner made Lisa-May move her eyes away from the woman next to her. Cathy Giardella came towards her sporting a wide grin and a taped ankle that gave her a slight limp. The woman with the boyish haircut was dressed in her regular denim bib overalls and sandals, but she had left the batik patterns at home. Instead, she wore a neutral black T-shirt with red highlights at the hem and the sleeves. "Good afternoon, Cathy," Lisa-May said and put out her hand. "Oh dear, have you hurt your ankle?"

"Yeah. I klutzed out last night like you wouldn't believe. Hiya, Lisa-May," Cathy said in her trademark smokey voice as she looked across the sofa at the woman with the curly hair. "Hiya, I'm Cathy Giardella. Nice to meet ya," she said and once more put out her hand.

Adrienne looked up in a daze like she had been pulled from a really good dream - or erotic scene. It took a while for her to realize what went on, but when she had, she leaned forward and put out her left hand since the right one held the book. "I'm Adrienne. Pleased to meet you, Miss… uh…"

"Giardella. It's Cathy. Everybody calls me Cathy," she said with a grin as she shook Adrienne's hand. When she pulled her own hand back, she furrowed her brow and looked down at her glistening palm where the wet pinkie had touched her skin. Chuckling, she noticed where the wetness had come from as Adrienne promptly put her pinkie back in her mouth upon returning to the book. "Now, if all the gals would greet me with a wet pinkie, I'd be in heaven," she continued with a saucy wink aimed at the prudish Lisa-May who responded just like she had predicted - with a horrified grimace.

"To be less vulgar," Lisa-May said after shaking her head in a slow, deliberate fashion, "are you going to tell me what you did to your ankle?"

Chuckling, Cathy hobbled over to Lisa-May's side of the sofa. She put both hands on the armrest and cocked her leg back to take the weight off her injured limb. "Aw, that was the stupidest thing ever. I went down the staircase from my bedroom up on the first floor but sort-of missed the bottom step. Sort-of because I only had my heel on it. I guess I'm a little heavier than I used to be so it couldn't support me, and down I went. It was the final step so it wasn't too bad, but I lost my balance and slammed down flat on my ass!  Wham, baby!  Once I got that body part to talk to me again, I discovered my ankle hurt like a sonovabitch."

"You should be more careful," Lisa-May said somberly.

"I know. Anyway, I wanted to ask you about something," Cathy said and produced a folded-up flyer from her rear pocket. "Have you seen this?  Do you know anything about it?"

Lisa-May took it and unfolded the crumpled piece of paper. "Is it about the Poetry Jam?  That's next Thursday… oh, this isn't the Poetry Jam," she said as she read the top of the flyer that invited all interested women to an open debate on 'the recently published Neo-Feminist Manifest.'

"No, it's some kind of round-table debate. Eh… I'm an old-school feminist so I don't know if it would give me anything," Cathy said and took back the flyer. She studied it again before she folded it up and stuck it down her rear pocket. "The speaker is going to be a Professor Melissa Kramer. Ever heard of her?"

"Can't say that I have, no."

"Me neither. Are you gonna com-"

"No," Lisa-May said with conviction.

Cathy grinned at her old, gray acquaintance. "Oh, okay. I haven't decided yet. I need to think about it a little more before I commit to it. Going alone won't be fun if you know more about applied feminism than the speaker. Right?"

"I wouldn't know, Cathy."

"Well, if you're in that kind of mood, I'm gonna find someone else to ask. Ha!" Cathy said and leaned down to give Lisa-May a playful nudge on her shoulder to coax but a single smile out of the gray woman. The plan worked, though only briefly.

After Cathy had hobbled away in search of someone who knew more about the event, Lisa-May reached over to tap Adrienne's leg. "Miss Gryszkowski, I need to stretch my legs. Please excuse me."

"Mmmm-all right," Adrienne said, not even bothering to take the pinkie out of her mouth.


Lisa-May had barely made one tour of the Bookworm Sanctuary when the main entrance was opened and a wall of noise in the shape of loud indie rock blasted through the bookstore. The sound was quickly muted, but the damage had been done, and Felicity and Sandra came storming out of the office to see what on earth was going on.

"Kristen!  Please don't turn your boom box on in here!" Felicity said with her hands firmly akimbo on her wide hips.

"Sorry girl, sorry ev'rybody," Kristen Laneau said, holding her earphones in one hand and a carrier bag in the other. "My right earphone kinda got snagged on the door handle. It popped out of my ear like shit from a mule!"

Felicity and Sandra stared wide-eyed at the colorful young woman and the white earphones she was holding. "Damn, that music came from your earphones?" Felicity said and looked at her blonde companion who could only shrug. "Damn, Kristen!  You're gonna be deaf as an Easter Island sculpture before you're twenty-five!"

"Huh?" Kristen said, putting her free hand behind an ear. She winked at Felicity who had already narrowed her eyes down into brown slits. Sandra patted her new friend's back in a hurry and guided her back to the office.

Chuckling at Felicity's all-too predictable response, the tattooed woman with the slick possum hairstyle on top of her semi-shaved head shuffled into the bookstore. As always, she was dressed in boots, khaki cargo pants and a sleeveless, o-neck T-shirt. On this day, the T-shirt was crimson and carried the words SAVE THE WORLD on the front and FROM THE F#%&ING POLITICIANS on the back in large, blue letters.

She headed for the Kozy Korner before she noticed the woman sitting there staring at her in wide-eyed horror wasn't Lisa-May or anyone else of the regulars. Grunting, Kristen turned around and swung the carrier bag over her shoulder. When she located Lisa-May busy reading the spines in another of the aisles, she shuffled up to the gray woman. "Whassup, Lisa-May?  Girl, I need to ask a favor. Wouldya mind taking a look at some of my lyrics?  It's for a new song I'm writing for the Jam," she said as she dug into the carrier bag and produced a black notebook with a fabric cover.

"Lyrics?  I'd love to," Lisa-May said and took the notebook which contained the lyrics to all the songs Kristen had created over the years.

"I just can't get the tone right, you know what I mean?  I want it to be somber and depressing but the words don't want to play along."

A part of Lisa-May felt she should be insulted for being considered the resident expert on 'somber' and 'depressing', but then she realized that she probably was. "I'll take a look at it.  How soon do you need it?"

"There's no rush, girl," Kristen said and waved her tattooed hand. "I gotta be places today, but I'll be back tomorrow at the same time. Yeah?"

"Can we make it tomorrow late afternoon instead?  I have a dentist's appointment in my lunch break," Lisa-May said and instinctively ran her tongue across her teeth that needed to be cleaned professionally.

Kristen scrunched up her face like she was trying to recall her agenda for the following day. "Yikes, girl… late afternoon?  Shit, I don't know if I can make that… I'll try to be here. Yeah?"

"All right, Kristen," Lisa-May said with a faint smile creasing her lips. To show the proper respect to the young, colorful poet, she clutched the black notebook to her chest.

"Okay. See ya then… probably. Hiya!" Kristen said and soon left the gray woman behind. The last thing she did before she stepped out of the bookstore was to turn the volume back up to one notch below apocalyptic.


There was one thing Lisa-May needed to do before she could sit down and take a closer look at Kristen's lyrics. Her gray shoes seemed to know, because they took her closer and closer to the office despite her mind's unwillingness to acknowledge it.

The important matter of explaining the earlier disagreement to Sandra Gottfried - who was arguably the most important person at the bookstore following her donation of twenty thousand dollars to cover many of the running costs - weighed down on her mind. Lisa-May could speak to most people even if her replies would on occasion be uttered as single-syllable words, but she and Sandra Gottfried seemed to be on different wavelengths altogether. In the three days Sandra had been at the bookstore, they had barely said two sentences to each other without having at least one of them cause confusion, annoyance or simply hurt.

Arriving at the open door to the office, she knocked on the doorjamb and stepped inside. The office looked like it always did; the strip light in the ceiling hadn't been fixed yet, and the faucet at the small wash basin at the window was dripping. Scores of color-coded binders filled the numerous shelves and made them droop down in the center. A reed basket filled with shiny, red apples stood on the desk, and Felicity and Sandra were both munching on a juicy specimen.

"Hi, Lisa-May," Felicity said and put the apple down on the desk so she could wipe her fingers on a napkin. "What brings you in here?  You found some books you'd like to buy?"

Lisa-May looked from Felicity to Sandra before her eyes settled on the dark-skinned woman behind the desk. "Yes, but that's for later. I would like to have a word with Miss Gottfried… in private, if you don't mind."

"Uh… okay. No problem," Felicity said and shot Sandra a puzzled glance that was responded to by a shrug. "I need to pick up something from next door, anyway. That's gonna take me ten minutes or so. Is that enough?"

"Oh, certainly, Felicity," Lisa-May said and folded her hands in front of her stomach. She cast a glance at Sandra Gottfried's dusty-green tank top that parted slightly at the tummy even when the blonde was sitting down. She still felt it inappropriate for a woman of that age to wear something that revealing, but she knew she needed to suppress it during the conversation.

Felicity got up and strolled through the room, putting a hand on Sandra's shoulder as she went past her.

Lisa-May tracked the administrator with her eyes before she turned her attention back to Sandra. She grimaced at the prospect of explaining herself. Whenever she was forced to do so, the risk of only adding nonsense to the fire was great bordering on the inevitable.

In the meanwhile, Sandra swiveled around on the chair and crossed her Capri-clad legs at the knee. She didn't point her top knee away from the other woman in the room, and Lisa-May was annoyed by that within a second. Once Sandra was comfortable, she shot Lisa-May a puzzled look that proved she had no idea what the conversation would be about.

Lisa-May took a deep breath and prepared her vocal cords to speak, but she hadn't made it beyond a first, inarticulate grunt before Sandra interrupted her all over again.

"Lisa-May, please don't take this the wrong way, but I don't have much time today. I need to leave in fifteen or twenty minutes for a little project I have going. Will it take that long?"

"No," Lisa-May croaked, narrowing her eyes at yet another interruption. "Oh, Miss Gottfried, I just came to apo- apologize for shooting you that glare earlier today. Remember, when you asked me about the missing chapter in the book I was reading?"

"Oh… oh, that thing. Ah," Sandra said and waved her hand in dismissal, "Lisa-May, I forgot all about that ten minutes later."

"I didn't."

Sandra lowered her leg and leaned forward so she could put her elbows on her thighs. "Well, your apology is accepted, but… but I'd really like to know the logical processes behind your, uh… oh, behavior is such a negative word. I can't find a better one. I'd just like to know what made you do it?"

Lisa-May studied the blonde that she knew - by way of a gossiping Cathy - that Felicity had developed a strong crush on. Despite the fact that she was seven years her senior, not to mention that she wore spectacles, she was still prettier than Lisa-May had ever been, and would ever be. Pretty people just didn't understand it - they didn't need to because they world was always at their feet no matter how much they screwed up. "Well… it was the interruption. I just can't stand being interrupted."

"Oh… I'm sorry. I interrupted you again just now…"


Sandra and Lisa-May both clammed up and began to study each other's presence. Where the former was the very image of cool and pretty-pretty with her fit frame and cute face, the latter was the very image of frumpy that began at her gray clothes and ended with her dull looks. Beyond the fact they were both women who loved women, they had absolutely no points in common.

Lisa-May looked down and pressed her hands to her stomach. "If I don't make a stand somewhere, people will just push me around," she said in a tiny voice. When it didn't garner a response from the blonde, she looked up and locked eyes with her. "I know that from painful experience. I'm not saying you would do that. I don't know you. But I'm saying it's happened too often already. I need to draw a line in the sand so people will know they're dealing with a human being and not a furry, little pet."

"I think I understand, Lisa-May," Sandra said and leaned back on the chair. "I've been forced to make an aggressive stance many times in my career. I promise I'll never push you around… but I'd also like to say I was hurt by the looks you sent me. They made me feel unwelcome. Like I was some kind of unwanted outsider who needed to be taught her place. Isn't that what you're struggling against, too?"

"Yes, and I'm sorry. I should have been more forthcoming. But it was just the interruption, you see," Lisa-May said and began to wring her hands. "Nothing more than that. I certainly respect you greatly as a businesswoman, but…"

This time, Sandra waited for Lisa-May to continue on her own. When she didn't, she reckoned it was safe to reply. "Thank you. It took me decades of hard work to get to where I am now. But?"

"But we're so different… so night and day different that I'm afraid it wasn't the last time a misunderstanding will come between us."

Sandra smiled and got up from the chair. She put out her arms and pulled a reluctant, but overruled, Lisa-May into a stiff, clumsy, awkward, all-arms-and-elbows hug that proved once and for all that Lisa-May's words about the two of them being as different as night and day were true. "You're probably right. However, I promise that if I feel slighted, I'll speak up at once so it won't fester for half a day like this time."

"Didn't you say you had forgotten all about it?"


Lisa-May nodded. She never forgot anything so she knew exactly how it would have played on Sandra's mind. "And I will try to be more understanding of other people's needs. It won't be easy, but I'll try."

Sandra chuckled at the statement which was delivered in a bone-dry deadpan. Pulling back from the awkward hug, she realized it wasn't meant as a humorous comment at all. "Good… that's good," she said, furrowing her brow.

The potential for embarrassment was defused by Felicity knocking on the doorjamb to her own office. "So… have you gals finished, or do you need another ten minutes?"

"No, I think we're good. Aren't we good, Lisa-May?" Sandra said and reached out for the gray woman's hands.

"We're good," Lisa-May said, allowing the blonde to give her hands a squeeze though she wasn't too comfortable with anyone she didn't know well touching her anywhere without an invitation.

Felicity grinned and stepped into the office carrying a plastic bag of second-hand books she had been given for free by the community center's janitor. "Neat. Hey, have an apple before you leave, Lisa-May. They're great and juicy."

"Thank you, Felicity," Lisa-May said and took a red apple from the reed basket. "May I take one for Miss Gryszkowski as well?"

"Sure!  Oh, is she a cutie?  Is she girlfriend-material?" Felicity said and stuck out her tongue at the gray woman.

"Oh, please…" Lisa-May said and took another apple. She buffed them on her cardigan which brought out the deep red color. She studied the apple for a few seconds before she realized Felicity and Sandra were looking at her with great expectations. "You're getting worse than Cathy now!" she said, spun around on her heel and stomped out of the office.


On her way back, Lisa-May stopped just out of sight from the Kozy Korner to observe the curly-haired Adrienne who was still snuggled up in the corner of the sofa reading the romantic thriller.

She let her eyes glide up the off-white slacks, past the gray cashmere sweater, the horn-rimmed spectacles and up to her mousy-brown curls. Was Adrienne Gryszkowski a 'cutie,' as Felicity had called her?  She was, even Lisa-May could see that. Was there potential for a friendship?  Yes, though it would be hard work with one speaking like a waterfall, and the other relishing silence. Perhaps they could meet in the middle?

Lisa-May's heart beat faster at the prospects of actually knowing someone apart from her colleagues at work who would never, ever get in touch with her off-hours even if the world was spiraling into the sun. The acquaintances she had made at the bookstore were good for casual conversations, but nothing more substantial than that. The thought of finding a special someone was exciting, but it scared her beyond belief at the same time.

Pushing all those foolish notions aside, Lisa-May sighed deeply and stepped away from the shelves she had been hiding behind. When she approached the Kozy Korner, Adrienne looked up and offered her a smile.

"Hello again," the curly-haired woman said and for once put down the romantic thriller.

"Hello. Would you like an apple?"

Adrienne smiled and reached for the shiny red fruit. "Oh!  Yes, please. I love apples… I have ever since I was a little girl. They always remind me of the lazy summer afternoons where the best thing for my friends and I was to get a refreshing apple."

She shuffled around on the sofa to put her socked feet down on the floor next to her gray ballet flats. "I hope you don't mind, but I've been looking at the notebook. Goodness me, those songs are dark, gloomy, depressing… I wonder why anyone would write songs and poetry that dark?  Isn't music supposed to create a sense of joy in the listener?  Well, joy was the last thing I felt when I read them. They're about gay-bashing, rape, uncaring parents, even suicide attempts…"

Lisa-May narrowed her eyes upon hearing that Adrienne had looked through the notebook without asking for permission. Kristen had trusted her with it, and it wasn't something that should be made available to the public at large. She bit down a barb that had already formed on her tongue - it wouldn't help, and it would only hurt Adrienne. Instead, she bit into the juicy apple to hide her annoyance.

Chewing, she sat down on the sofa and took the black notebook. Though she had to make an important statement, she did what any lady should by waiting until she had swallowed the first bite before she spoke. "Kristen Laneau is a very sensitive young woman despite her provocative exterior. There isn't anything in these lyrics that hasn't happened in real life to her or her circle of friends. She collects the things told to her and distills them into poetry and music. This is what's really going on out there, every single day. She and her friends have had a harder life than any of us can understand. Please, Adrienne, give her some leeway."

"I'm sorry… I didn't stop to think they could be depicting situations from the real world. I just thought that… that she made them that gloomy to attract attention to herself… you know, that she was one of the Youtube generation who film themselves picking their nose and expect to become worldwide celebrities…"

"No, there's far more to Kristen than that. Far more," Lisa-May said and opened the notebook to skim the opening paragraphs of the first song. The lyrics were indeed dark, but written with insight and a literary quality that belied the colorful woman's age.

Adrienne suddenly flew up from her corner of the sofa and fell into Lisa-May's arms. The red apples went one way; the black notebook the other.

The unexpected impact sent them both sprawling onto the seat in an embrace that rivaled anything Lisa-May had ever taken part in - in short, it was a five-star, fur-lined, ocean-going moment of grotesque awkwardness, of stiff, unnatural gestures and clumsy fumbling-about with their hands and legs that suddenly went where limbs shouldn't go unless the ladies involved had already signed on the dotted line on the marriage certificate.

"Oh, Gaaawd, what's going on?  What are you doing?!" Lisa-May croaked into Adrienne's shoulder. Her heart was thumping in her chest; not just as a result of the shock created by being bowled over by a hundred and nineteen pounds of flesh, although it did play a part - but most of it stemmed from the fact that she was locked in a tender embrace with an attractive woman for the first time in more than five years.

While Adrienne howled in embarrassment and tried to scoot back without copping any feels beyond those she had already copped unwittingly, Lisa-May mellowed out and became a boneless creature. She hadn't sought out the contact, but now that it was there, she didn't want to let go. A warm hand touching the skin on her stomach; a leg adding sweet pressure to her thigh; hot breath against her neck. How long had it been?  Nearly six years. Too long. Far too long. The tiniest of moans escaped her lips as a warm river of bliss ran through her. Once the moan was over, she wasn't even sure if it had come from her.

It wasn't until someone let out a piercing cat call that Lisa-May opened her eyes and realized she had turned into the sideshow of the day.

Felicity and Cathy each grabbed hold of one of Adrienne's arms to pull the hapless - and fiercely blushing - woman off Lisa-May's languid body. Sandra joined them with a clean handkerchief in case anyone would burst into tears, but Lisa-May felt like smoking a cigarette instead.

Cathy wore an expression on her face that said she was ready to burst as she looked at the other women with eyes that shone with wicked delight. The earthy woman displayed a wide-open grin as she bent down and slapped Lisa-May's legs. "Aw, hell yeah!" she finally cried, adding to Adrienne's acute embarrassment. "I shoulda known you'd be the first one to get frisky on the sofa!  Hot diggity damn, girl!"

"Oh, get real, Cathy," Lisa-May said and sat up. She showed far more skin than usual since her blouse had ridden up to the point where it wasn't hiding any part of her stomach at all. She folded it down in a hurry and shuffled around on the spot to get her slacks a bit further down as well. Sighing, she looked at the two shiny red apples that had been thrown about in the melee. "Oh… you bruised the apples…" she said somberly.

The throwaway comment made Cathy explode in a howl of laughter that soon claimed Felicity as well. Sandra kept appropriately neutral, but Adrienne's cheeks caught fire all over again, and the conflagration soon spread to her forehead, throat and even the tip of her nose.

Felicity shook her head and helped the shaky Adrienne sit down on the couch. "Can we trust you kids not to play doctor in public?  Thank you," she said in a voice designed to present her as one of the Responsible Adults. "Jeez, you gals," she continued in her regular voice, breaking out in a giggle.

As Cathy hobbled back to the aisle carrying the Western novels, and Felicity and Sandra moved back into the office, Lisa-May and Adrienne stole a shy glance at each other. They were both still visibly embarrassed, but the grotesque awkwardness had served as an effective icebreaker. To show that she wasn't angry or upset, Lisa-May picked up her carrier bag and scooted closer to Adrienne - and she even had a faint smile creasing her lips.


A beautiful, soothing silence spread over the Bookworm Sanctuary as the gray Lisa-May and the excitable Adrienne continued to read their respective books. Now and then, they happened to glance at each other at the same time. Shy, little smiles were exchanged before they returned to the pages.

This continued for an hour or so until Adrienne flipped the last page of the romantic thriller and closed the book. She read the blurb and studied the picture of the author before she put it down on the sofa between her and her companion. "Oh, that was really exciting… I'll definitely buy that," she mumbled to herself like she had forgotten someone was sitting right next to her.

Stretching out, her back cracked and popped a few times as she shook and shimmied to get the kinks out. "Miss Farrington, please excuse me," she continued and got up from the sofa in the Kozy Korner.

Lisa-May put down her book; her attention was snatched by Adrienne's slender figure moving around with grace as the woman shoved her feet into her shoes. "Certainly. Are you going home now, Miss Gryszkowski?"

"No, I need to use the bathroom."

"Ah, in that case… you need to be careful with the faucets. They're unpredictable at the best of times."

Adrienne smiled as she bent down to slip the heel counter of the ballet flats in place over the back of her feet. "I'll remember that. Thank you." Taking her purse, she turned around and strolled over towards the bathroom which had recently become vacant.

Silence returned to the Kozy Korner, and Lisa-May snuggled down to read the final few chapters of a book on man's impact on the environment that she had found in the Miscellaneous department lodged between a Tex Mex cook book and a self-help guide. It was heavy reading, even for her, so her mind took the occasional detour into a far more pleasant scenario: one where she and Adrienne explored each other.

Nothing explicit, of course, just a guided tour of the hidden treasures they had to offer. Never explicit, but certainly sexy. A brief smile crept over Lisa-May's lips as the pretty pictures danced across her mind's eye. The warmth she had felt during the unfortunate hugging-incident made a welcome return, and she allowed it to grace her soul for a brief moment. It performed a slow tour of her body, stopping in places that she had almost forgotten she had.

The smile and the warmth faded when she arrived at the unfortunate fact that she was so rusty in the art of love - not to mention the techniques - that her worth to any woman would be that of a three-dollar bill.

She went back to the book but the drab message had lost her. Sighing, she closed it and put it away.


Adrienne came back from the bathroom five minutes later with cheeks that were once again tinted red. The cause was readily evident as wet spots peppered the off-white slacks from the waist to the knees.

Lisa-May scrunched up her face in horror - the evil, recalcitrant faucets had no doubt doused the slacks. She could only imagine how the sensitive Adrienne felt about it, but if it had been her who'd had an involuntary shower, she'd be devastated. Getting up in a hurry, she started looking around for napkins, towels or anything she could use to mop up the water.

Armed with a stack of gray napkins made of recycled paper, she guided the mortified Adrienne over to the Kozy Korner and helped her down on the sofa. "The faucets?" she asked as she began dabbing down the lower ends of the off-white slacks.

"Yes… it's water… not the other thing, thank God," Adrienne croaked, taking a few of the napkins to dab the upper reaches of her slacks.

"I've told Felicity time and time again to get the faucets fixed before someone is burned by a hot water fountain. Why she hasn't listened, I have no idea." Grunting, Lisa-May continued soaking up the excess water until the napkins were wet and the slacks were dry - or at least, drier than they had been.

Adrienne smiled and let out a sigh of relief at the success. "Thank you so much… goodness me, what a crazy, crazy day it's been. And I only meant to ask Miss LaMarre about the Henrietta & Co. books!  I never meant to stay for this long!" The statement was accompanied by a shy smile directed at Lisa-May.

The gray woman returned the smile as she scooped up all the spent napkins and crumpled them into a wad of paper. She threw them into the nearest trash can for recyclable paper and sat down again - then she remembered the book she had found had lost her interest. A fun thought entered her mind that refused to leave before she had at least asked about it: "Miss Gryszkowski, may I show you my favorite shelves?" she said and put out her hand.

Adrienne's mouth formed an excited O as she took the hand offered to her. "You certainly may!  Lead on, Miss Farrington."

"Please…" Lisa-May said with the beginnings of a shy smile creasing her lips. "Please call me Lisa-May."

"Oh!  I will!  But only if you call me Adrienne."

"I will. That's such a pretty name."

Adrienne smiled and gave the offered hand a little squeeze. "Thank you. Lisa-May is very pretty, too."

The two women moved away from the sofa and walked around the first of the large bookcases. Holding hands - which attracted plenty of attention from the other patrons - they went past Science-Fiction & Fantasy, Western, Romantic Thrillers and Sports Dramas until they reached the rows containing the personal dramas.

Lisa-May let her finger run down the spines of the rows labeled A, B and C until she reached D and Rosita Dosamantes. The book she pulled out had a vibrant, deep orange cover that depicted a sun setting over a ranch house somewhere on the prairie. "You should read this, Adrienne. All Our Sunsets. It takes place in a rural region, but don't be fooled into thinking it's a Western… it's an intense, personal drama about the awakening of a woman who does all the work on a family ranch after the death of her father. One day, a brooding female ranch hand comes along on a motorcycle looking for a job, no questions asked. The two women get off on the wrong foot, and- no, I won't spoil it for you. Just read it."

"I will… thank you," Adrienne said and studied the cover with great interest. Once she had read the blurb at the back which told much the same story, she sought out Lisa-May's hand again. With her fingers, she snared the hand into her own, and once it was there, she gave it a little squeeze.

Lisa-May looked at Adrienne with a wistful smile on her gray lips. She hadn't expected to be holding hands with an attractive woman on her day off, but it was all right because holding hands was safe - she knew exactly how to do that. "So," she said, moving along the rows until she found M. "Alicia Milton-Jones. Driving Towards The Light. A fantastic novel about a woman from the poor side of town who's forced into smuggling heroin to pay for… silly me, now I nearly spoiled it again. I'm so sorry," she said and pulled the book down from the shelf.

Adrienne giggled and gave Lisa-May's hand a little squeeze. "Oh, that's all right. This is fun!  And you look so cute when you realize you're about to say too much."

Much secret furrowing of brow later, Lisa-May stole a glance at the bubbly woman with the horn-rimmed glasses who was eagerly reading the back of Driving Towards The Light.

She could feel her palms starting to sweat over the unexpected term of endearment, but it would be too awkward to pull back from the squeeze which in turn made her palms sweat even more. Cute?  The last time she had been called cute was when she was nine years old. Then, it had been justified, but not later. When she left puberty behind, her face had been transformed into a permanent, near-androgynous shape and look that didn't leave much room for cuteness, perceived or real.

Nervous energy started building up inside her, so she licked her dry lips several times before she moved along the row, intent on showing Adrienne another book or two. Who knew, it might even give the curly-haired woman an opportunity to call her 'cute' again. "Here's another favorite of mine… and not just because it carries my name. You're Not Lisa by Yvette Ouisterham. A fabulous story translated from French where-"

A sound akin to a twig snapping in two was heard from the next aisle; the noise was followed immediately by a pained groan that could only be created by wood about to give up the ghost. A second later, a loud, rolling crash made everyone in the vicinity of the Science-Fiction & Fantasy aisle jump a foot in the air.

Adrienne grabbed hold of Lisa-May and pulled the gray woman closer to her. Her effort was markedly better than their first, fumbling attempt at a hug, because not only did both women manage to stay erect this time, no skin was exposed. "What. Was. That?" she whispered hoarsely. "It sounded like the roof was collapsing…"

"Something did collapse, Adrienne, but it was a shelf…" Lisa-May croaked in a strangled voice. 'Strangled' because her nose was brushing against the side of the other woman's neck. The smoothness of the skin underneath the curly hair was astonishing, and she wished she would never have to leave it behind. The twin peaks hidden by the cashmere sweater were pressed against her own chest, and the exquisite perfume Adrienne used only added to the little slice of heaven she found herself in. With her eyes slipping shut, she extended all her senses and soaked up as much of the sweet, close contact as she could while it was there at her fingertips.

To go six years between girlfriends was a criminal waste of the precious little time people had on the planet, Lisa-May understood that now. Her senses were all working overtime to take as much in as she could before it would be over and done with, but her heart was a greedy little critter that simply refused to roll over and give up the rampant emotions that blasted through it.

'Tell me that wasn't a shelf!' Felicity barked from clear across the bookstore. Heavy, rapid footsteps proved that the administrator was stomping towards the offending aisle. 'It better not be a shelf… or I'm gonna be really, really- damn, it was a shelf!  And books are all over the damn place- argh!'

Lisa-May sighed deeply and pulled back from her companion. It didn't take but a second for the separation to become painful, and she wanted nothing more than to go back into the embrace and stay there for a century - but she knew she couldn't. "Oh, we better help Felicity retrieve the books," she said in a somber, downcast voice.

"Do you think it's safe?" Adrienne whispered, keeping her hand firmly on Lisa-May's side and her face in striking distance to the gray woman. "Miss LaMarre sounds like a caged bear…"

"That's pretty accurate… but if we help her collect the books, she'll get better in a hurry. It won't take long. Come on." The two women moved apart and turned the corner to go into the next aisle.

Felicity sat flat on her rear in the middle of the aisle scooping up the wayward books. She created smaller piles, then larger piles, then huge piles so she wouldn't have to move too often. Moments later, the inevitable happened: one of the medium-sized piles toppled over and once more distributed the books it contained all over the floor. Felicity stopped working to stare daggers at the insubordinate paperbacks.

Cathy arrived at the same time Lisa-May and Adrienne did, but the earthy woman could only hobble along the aisle, and she needed to put a hand on the shelves to support herself for every step she took. "Damn, Felicity… another shelf?"

"Another shelf," Felicity said and thumped her fist into the smooth linoleum floor.

"I wish I could help ya, but… with this bum ankle, I'd be a hindrance, not a help. Just imagine the brouhaha when you and the skinny girls there were gonna pull me back up again. Hell, we better not even try. I'll just find a chair and supervise the work."

Felicity sighed and began to create yet another pile of books. "It's the thought that counts, Cathy. Damn, the Poetry Jam can't come fast enough. Sandra and I decided we wouldn't want to get started on the maintenance work until after the special event. It wouldn't be fair to Kristen to make her perform in dust and all kinds of shit from the builders."

Lisa-May nodded in agreement, as did Adrienne. "That was very thoughtful of you, Felicity. I'm sure Kristen will appreciate that. All right, Adrienne and I will round up the books for you. Miss Gryszkowski?"

"Right behind you, Miss Farrington," Adrienne said and began picking up the books that had made it all the way over to - and in some cases, under - the shelves on the opposite side of the aisle.

"Thanks, gals," Felicity said and clambered to her feet in a somewhat labored fashion. Once the rotund woman was standing up, she dusted off the seat of her pants and began to nudge errant books closer to the main pile with her foot.

"Griss-cow-ski, huh?" Cathy said with a grin. "Tell me, how d'ya spell that?"

Adrienne stood up straight and adjusted her horn-rimmed spectacles. "G-r-y-s-z-k-o-w-s-k-i, Miss Giar- uh, Cathy."

"Now there's a sobriety test, huh?"

"I suppose," Adrienne said and cast a brief glance at Lisa-May who conveyed to her silently that Cathy didn't mean anything by the question.

Cathy grinned at the look on Lisa-May's face. Not only was the gray woman smiling, her complexion was in fact far less gray than usual. Something had happened, that much was clear. It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that she had been smitten by the curly-haired woman helping her - but that it had taken place over the course of an afternoon was nothing short of mindboggling. "Hey, lovey-dovey, you missed one over there… underneath the collapsed shelf. Yeah, Lisa-May, that's right, I was talking to you."

Pausing in her work, Lisa-May scrunched up her face into a mask of annoyance and shot the earthy woman a dark glare. "Lovey-dovey… really, Cathy. That represents a new low, even for your pretty awful standards."

"Well, you do say I have a one-track mind. So… I call it how I see it. Lovey. Dovey."

They all heard the deep, long sigh that came out of the woman in gray, but nobody dared to make a comment about it. When Lisa-May moved over to rescue the one that had been trapped underneath the shelf, she realized that the book wasn't alone - a handful of paperbacks had gone the wrong way when the shelf had collapsed and were lodged underneath the heavy bookcase itself.

"Felicity, we have a problem," Lisa-May said, looking under the shelf resting on her hands and knees and with her back end pointing straight up in the air. "Several books have-"

"Houston, we have a problem!" Cathy echoed, followed by a loud laugh.

Lisa-May pulled back to sit on her thighs. She shot the earthy woman a silent look of pure exasperation that didn't need words to go through loud and clear.

Felicity chuckled over the exchange before she fumbled back down onto the linoleum floor. Sitting down, she scooted over to the shelf and began to fiddle with it. "Yeah… I see what you mean. Damn. We need to remove the entire bottom shelf to salvage those books. But if we do, I don't know if we can get the planks back in there without damaging them… or if we can even do it without the proper tools… that we don't have. Hmmm…"

"So," Cathy said and got up from the hard, uncomfortable chair she had found. Nobody ever used them to sit on for more than three minutes at a time, and now she knew why. "Here's a conundrum. How many women does it take to change a-"

"Cathy…" Lisa-May said somberly.

"No, no, this is good… how many women does it take to change a shelf that's fallen down?"

Lisa-May rolled her eyes and went back to work. If she pulled back the sleeve of her cardigan, she was just barely able to slip her hand in under the collapsed shelf. She could touch the books with her fingertips, but she couldn't pull them back out because there wasn't much to hold onto, and the weight and resistance from the shelf was too great. "Hmmm," she said as she rolled her sleeve back down, echoing Felicity's earlier comment.

"Do you want me to try, Miss Farrington?" Adrienne said and placed a tender hand on Lisa-May's upper back.

Lisa-May smiled as she dusted off her hands that had picked up quite a few bunnies that had been hiding under the shelves. "Be my guest, but I doubt you can do much about it."

Cathy observed the silent exchange between the curly-haired newbie and the woman in gray. She had known Lisa-May for a couple of years, and never in that time had she smiled more than once a day - and she had never, ever allowed anyone she didn't know well to touch her so blatantly. Suppressing a broad grin, she shuffled around on her bad ankle to get a better view. "Gals, I'm serious… how many women does it take to change a shelf that's fallen down?"

"How many, Cathy?" Felicity asked to get it over with.

"Just one. So who's gonna call her?"

Though it was too silly for its own good, the joke did create a ripple of chuckles that rolled among the four women. Adrienne tried her best after pulling back her sleeve, but her fingers could only graze the books that were lodged underneath the shelf, not pull them out. "I'm afraid it's no use. I don't even think it would help if we found a long poker or something because the books are stuck."

"In short, we need to remove the shelf," Felicity said and clambered to her feet all over again. "All right, take five. I need to come up with a plan to get those suckers out… besides, Sandra will soon be back and-"

"Miss LaMarre," Cathy said in a tone that was inquisitive and more than a little mischievous, "I dare say you and Miss Gottfried spend a lot of time together now. I need to know when I should expect the wedding invitation so I can get my favorite dungarees ironed."

Felicity groaned, Lisa-May rolled her eyes and Adrienne blushed.

"Blah, blah, blah," Felicity said as she dusted off the seat of her decorated bell-bottom jeans. "You're butting in where you shouldn't be. Now butt out."

"Yes, Ma'am!  Butting in is what I do best, Ma'am, but I'll give butting out a shot too!"

This time, Felicity rolled her eyes and Lisa-May groaned loudly. Adrienne blushed again as she took in the exchange between the old friends.

The moment was saved from further embarrassment by Sandra coming back into the Bookworm Sanctuary carrying two white, paper carrier bags from the croissant bakery down the street. She was already on her way over to the office when she noticed the whole gang standing in the Science-Fiction & Fantasy aisle. It didn't take much imagination to figure out what had happened, and she groaned out loud as she crossed the smooth linoleum floor to join the others.

Stopping at the piles on the floor, she looked at the collapsed shelf and the many books with a furrowed brow. "Is there any reason why four able-bodied women… oh, I forgot about your ankle, Cathy… why three and a half able-bodied women are just standing around when there's a pile of books on the floor?"

"We need to come up with a plan first," Felicity said, peeking into the paper carrier bags. "A handful of books are stuck down there. We'll damage them if we yank them out without removing the shelf… and we're discussing if we'll damage the shelf if we try to remove it without the proper tools."

"Oh… okay. Well, that certainly calls for a strategy meeting, I can see that," Sandra said as she looked at the others. "Anyway, so we're taking five?"

"More like ten," Cathy said with a grin.

"Right. Well, in the meantime, I visited your sister's croissant bakery. I must say, Cathy, that's a really well-run bakery… clean and inviting. And the smell of the fresh coffee beans!  Makes this woman purr, I can tell you."

"Thanks!  I'll let her know."

Sandra smiled back and adjusted her square-framed spectacles. "I bought a selection of spelt buns and different blends of organic coffee that we need to test before we host the feminist debate next week. It'll be a little more expensive but a lot less hassle to buy the nourishments instead of making them ourselves while all the other stuff is going on. Yeah?"

"Sounds like a plan to me," Felicity said and put her hand on Sandra's elbow.

"While we're on the subject of the debate," Cathy said, waving her hand in the air to get everyone's attention, "does anybody know what the topics of discussion will be?  I'd kinda like to come over, but not if it's some sort of theoretical, intellectual chit-chat by a dry creek college professor who's never been out in the real world."

"Well, I haven't heard any details," Felicity said. Sandra chimed in with a shrug and a "Me neither."

Cathy sighed and stuffed her hands down her pockets.


Ten minutes later, Lisa-May and Adrienne each held a coffee-to-go mug and a paper plate with a spelt bun. Lisa-May's was plain dough, but Adrienne had snatched one with blueberries. The sofa in the Kozy Korner had been occupied by the time they got back to it, so they took their books and personal belongings and shuffled off to find a new spot where they could sample the coffee.

The new spot turned out to be the crates with old vinyl records. Lisa-May hadn't had a record player since her teen years, but Adrienne was the proud owner of a USB turntable that could be hooked up to her computer, so she began to browse through the many second-hand albums while they sampled the coffee and the buns.

"Oh, look at this!  This is from her best period!" Adrienne said, pulling up a pristine Nina Simone album. "Oh… forty-five dollars!  No, I can't afford that. I better stop browsing or else I'll go bankrupt. I have a thing for old records, actually. It stems from my childhood. We always had a record player going in the background. My father is an avid collector of old rock'n'roll albums from the 1970s. He's got all kinds of wonderful albums by bands you've probably never heard of. His pride and joy is a double live album from the 1976 Monterey Folk & Rock Festival. It's a really great album that I've listened to so much I know the songs by heart. One of the groups is still going strong, actually. They released a greatest hits compilation last year that I bought as download, not as vinyl. It's pretty good, but it doesn't have the warmth and soul of the old vinyl recordings. They were typically produced with low-grade equipment, but I must say they're actually far more interesting to listen to compared to much of today's music that's always so glossy that no soul is left anywhere on the album or even the single. Of course, these days, most people stream their music on poor… speakers… which… oh, I'm talking too much again. I'm sorry."

Instead of wearing a dark frown or even a scowl like she would have done not so long ago, Lisa-May wore a warm smile. She scooted a little closer to the other woman whose voice she suddenly found the most soothing she had listened to for a long while. "It doesn't matter," she said with affection. "You have a charming voice."

"Oh… uh… thank you," Adrienne said and adjusted her horn-rimmed spectacles. "How is your coffee?"

"I haven't tried it yet," Lisa-May said and took a sip. The brown liquid had barely touched her tongue before the corners of her mouth pointed down like she had eaten a lemon whole. "Ugh… what's this?  This isn't coffee."  She pulled open the lid and looked at the dark brown liquid that did in fact have a passing resemblance to coffee in both appearance and aroma.

Adrienne furrowed her brow and tried her own coffee. Once she had swallowed the first sip, she smacked her lips to bring out the taste. "Well… this is pretty good, actually. Would you like to try a sip?"

"I don't know if I dare," Lisa-May mumbled as she accepted the other to-go mug. Trying a tiny sip, her face lit up when she found it to be far better. "Oh… this is definitely coffee. That other thing isn't."

"Look," Adrienne said and pointed at the bottom of the mugs, "the blend of coffee is printed on the underside… well, that's just silly. Who can read that before they've emptied it?"

Lisa-May chuckled as she held up the mug containing the poor blend. "Cinnamon-spiced blended imported Guillermo Royale. I better tell Miss Gottfried to remove that one from the list. What does the other one say?"

"Uh… Melange Viennese-style with genuine whipped cream," Adrienne said and broke out in a snigger.

"Oh, that figures. Do we feel brave enough to try the spelt buns?"

The two women looked at each other for a few seconds before they shrugged and bit down into their buns that were - mercifully - well-made.


The military operation to rescue the stranded books was set in motion at two minutes past five in the afternoon. Felicity had created a seven-point plan they needed to follow to the letter in order to get the books out without tearing covers or losing pages.

Step one had already been accomplished with little difficulty. After all, standing in a huddle before sitting down on the floor wasn't too hard. Lisa-May had shed her cardigan to have her arms free. Her hands had been deemed to be the smallest of the women present, so she had been given the important task of reaching in and grabbing hold of the books as soon as Sandra and Felicity were able to loosen the screws holding the collapsed shelf in place.

Step two consisted of Felicity working an electric screwdriver that she had borrowed from the community center's janitor. The first screw came out in one go, but the second needed a bit more work. The whine created by the metal head made everyone flinch, and it turned excruciatingly bad when the third screw didn't feel like releasing at all. "The damn thing won't come off!" she croaked through clenched teeth that watered from the incessant whine.

Cathy supervised the work like she had said she would. After having snatched the spare swivel-chair from the office to give her injured ankle a rest and her rear a softer place to sit, she kept a running commentary on the progress. "Maybe you need a hammer, Felicity?"


"A hammer!  To give it a whack!  Damn that whine… no, that's better. It's almost there… ohhhh, and the bit broke free of the slot!  And again!  You probably need to press down more, Felicity."

Adrienne and Sandra had both stuck fingers in their ears so they couldn't hear Cathy's comments - or the whine - but Lisa-May could and she was well on her way to becoming annoyed. The whine drilled into her brain through her left ear, and Cathy did her best to clog up the right. "No… no, wait, Felicity," she said and pulled her hand out. "Forget the screw. Let's try to lift the plank instead."

"Lift it?  Look, my seven-point plan clearly states that we need to get the screws out first," Felicity said as she turned off the screwdriver. Everyone sighed in relief when the whine cut out. Adrienne and Sandra popped their fingers out of their ears and shot each other tired glances.

"Let's bypass the plan for the moment. The plank's loose in one end, remember?  When you lift it, it'll either slip off or break off. Either way, we can rescue the books," Lisa-May said, fiddling with the plank. When her comments were met with silence, she looked up at her companions with a puzzled frown etched onto her forehead. "For Pete's sake, I can't be the only one here who has assembled furniture from IKEA?  Or can I?"

"I've bought some things from IKEA," Adrienne squeaked, "but I've always paid them to assemble it for me."

Everybody else shrugged.

"I don't believe it. Of all people, I, Lisa-May Farrington, am the only one who's had her hands dirty," she continued in a mumble while she pointed at the plank she wanted Felicity to lift. "There, Felicity. Let's try it."

Adrienne gasped and covered her mouth with her hands. "Oh, please be careful, Lisa-May… that looks dangerous. What if it slips and crushes your fingers?" She spoke in a squeaky voice that earned her a throaty chuckle from Cathy.

"Yeah, 'cos we all know how important fingers are to us grrrls!" Cathy said, earning herself a round of identical groans from the others.

Almost as Lisa-May had expected, the rescue operation wasn't difficult at all when it came down to the nitty gritty. Felicity didn't need to lift the plank more than an inch and a half for Lisa-May's petite hands to slip in and scoop out one book at a time. Seven books in total came out: all three in Zoë Clare's Goddess of War-fantasy series, volume two and three of Lucy Benson's award-winning science-fiction series Destination Antares, and two individual novels, Oona Locare's My Synthetic Heart, and MacNeil Cooper's Survivors Of The Plague.

"And that's all," Lisa-May said, peeking in under the shelves.

Groaning, Felicity released her grip on the plank which plopped back down in place. "All right… now we can get the books back up. I just need to get the next strut from the office so it won't happen again in ten minutes' time."

"Well, I won't be here to help in ten minutes, so you better," Lisa-May said as she dusted off her hands. Sandra gave her a hands-up, but Adrienne did one better and pulled her into a hug that wasn't anywhere near as awkward as the first few had been.

"You were so brave!" she said before she pulled the gray woman even deeper into the hug. Smiling nervously, she lowered her voice to a whisper: "Lisa-May, I'm cooking vegetarian lasagna tonight. And I'm going to have red wine. My dinner table has plenty of room for two. W- W- would… would… d- do you think-"

Lisa-May's heart doubled its pace from one moment to the next as her mind and body tried to put up a brick wall defense against the offer. The situation was frightening, terrifying, even nerve-shattering, but most of all wonderful. She leaned in close and brushed her lips against the smooth skin on Adrienne's neck. "Yes," she whispered back, once again closing her eyes to take in the delightful scent and warmth of the other woman.

Adrienne's cheeks blushed red at hearing the answer. When they separated, she performed a little hip-shimmy on the spot that attracted plenty of attention from the other women there. "Sweet!  I'll buy the books I've found and then we can leave."

A flabbergasted Felicity looked at Sandra who could only shrug in return, but Cathy laughed out loud and hobbled over to Lisa-May where she put her hands on the shoulders of the gray woman's recently donned cardigan. "I'm proud of you, girl. Really I am. Will you think of old Cathy when you gals feast?"

"That," Lisa-May said and deftly snatched Adrienne's hand before the curly-haired woman could move over to the office, "will be the only thing I won't be thinking of, Cathy. You'll just have to find your own cutie."

A wink at Felicity and Sandra settled the deal. Walking hand in hand, Lisa-May and Adrienne strolled over to the office to pay for the books. The former hadn't even bothered to button her cardigan.

Licking her lips, Felicity cocked her head and waved in a puzzled fashion at the two retreating women. "Okay, what just happened there?  Who was that woman wearing Lisa-May's clothes?  She winked at us… she smiled… she let someone hug her… and she's going on a date… no seriously, who was that?"

Sandra chuckled and slipped her arm around Felicity's round waist. "I'm guessing the shrine we made to honor Aphrodite is finally paying off."

"It must be. Huh. Just when you thought you had seen it all… oh, I better get in there and update the databases. Can't leave the kids alone for too long… in fact, they're kinda quiet in there, aren't they?"

Moving her arm in an exaggerated fashion, Cathy put her hand behind her ear to amplify the sounds. She grinned and turned back to Felicity and Sandra. "Yeah. Awfully quiet. Betcha five bucks they're swapping spit."

"Lisa-May?  Nuh-uh," Felicity said and shook her head. "On the other hand…" she added in a slow drawl. Chuckling, she set off in a fast jog to be the first to see if Lisa-May and Adrienne really were kissing in the office.

"Hey!  Unfair!  Injured woman here!" Cathy cried, but the other two didn't have time to wait for her.

Sandra caught up with Felicity in the doorway where they let out a pair of identical, heartfelt "Awwwww" 's at the sight of Adrienne Gryszkowski and the original Woman In Gray, Lisa-May Farrington, locked in a tender embrace that saw their arms wrapped around each other.

Lisa-May's head was resting on Adrienne's shoulder so they weren't kissing, but it didn't take a professor of advanced cartography to see they would be exploring that particular field of pleasure later on in the evening.

"Are they kissing?  Are they kissing?" Cathy said, huffing and puffing as she finally caught up with the others.

Felicity shook her head. "Nope. Five bucks. Deliver."

Grumbling, Cathy dug into her jeans pocket to find a five dollar bill. When she slapped it into Felicity's open palm with a grunt, she happened to look at Lisa-May who stuck out her tongue at the older woman in a rare case of the woman in gray getting the last laugh.





A week later - Thursday.

Felicity LaMarre pulled back the sleeve of her burgundy shirt to check her wristwatch. Grimacing, she realized the hands of time were storming ahead like they were being chased by ol' Scratch himself. Despite the fact she had barely finished eating the chicken salad sandwich she had bought for lunch, it was already twenty past three in the afternoon.

"Three hours ten minutes to go… damn," she mumbled as she looked around at the group of people she had assembled to help put up the chairs and the dais for the week's big event, the Poetry Jam. The group of people shuffled about aimlessly looking at the second-hand books and the old vinyl records because there was nothing for them to do - the chairs she had rented from PartyPeople Rentals hadn't shown up yet. "Double damn," she mumbled, pushing herself off the doorjamb to her office.

She could hear Sandra Gottfried on the phone complaining to the person at the other end of the line. Sandra had called the tardy rental company, but the conversation seemed to be a one-sided affair measured by how much she was speaking compared to the brief gaps where she wasn't.

Felicity couldn't deal with that on top of all her other worries, organizational issues and various challenges, so she shuffled over to the bathroom and knocked softly on the door. "Kristen… are you okay?"

Inside the bathroom, the resident poet, singer-songwriter, sketch artist and much more, twenty-two year old Kristen Laneau, was kneeling on the floor with her hands clutching the sides of the porcelain toilet bowl. The cesspool of nervous energy that always arrived prior to her performances blasted through her at the speed of a raging hurricane. She didn't have anything left in her stomach, but it didn't stop her diaphragm from convulsing.

A single dry heave wasn't much fun; ten of them in a row made her regret ever having agreed to do the Poetry Jam. If she only had to do her own works, it wouldn't matter too much, but she was going to present the poetry and songs she had created out of the stories told to her by the people who lived on the mean streets. It needed to be perfect, and not just a hundred percent perfect, but a thousand percent perfect. Tonight, she wouldn't have any room for foul-ups, missteps, slips of the tongue or any other kinds of errors. Some of the people whose stories she told would be in the audience, so everything had to be from the heart.

As always, she was dressed in ankle boots and low-riding, khaki cargo pants, but the loud muscleshirt she had selected for the evening's big event was soaking in warm water in the wash basin, a victim of the first, unexpected clenching of her stomach. As a result, the numerous colorful tattoos she carried on her torso and arms were in plain sight.

Her first tattoo had come when she was thirteen: a blue rose on her left arm. It had earned her a strong ass-whooping and a month confined to the house. The latter was worse than the former since she wanted to spend the summer hanging out with the group of like-minded girls and boys she had met behind the mall.

That summer was when she realized a great deal about herself. She understood that she enjoyed the company of girls far more than boys, and she understood that she needed to rebel against her uptight parents. The best way to do that was to dress and act the opposite of them - thus, she had nearly a dozen further tattoos made over the course of the next couple of years.

When she turned eighteen, her torso and most of her arms and hands were covered in ink. The rebellion had worked as she had distanced herself from her parents, but now that she grew older, she could see things from their perspective as well. Not all she had done had been smelling of roses.

Much to her surprise, her parents had still tried to help her when the time came for submitting to a college, but her grades weren't good enough for a scholarship, and they weren't wealthy enough to do it the regular way. Instead, she walked the streets and performed odd jobs to make a buck or two.

The dry heaves grew weaker, so she leaned back on her thighs to give her rubbery, trembling arms a rest. She counted her blessings for having the foresight of bringing a bottle of water into the bathroom; taking it, she unscrewed the cap and rinsed her mouth a few times.

Sighing, she splashed a little water onto her hands that she used to cool off her neck and the back of her nearly-shaved head. The only hair she had was an oval patch on the very top of her head that lay flat against her skull in a heavily gelled, slick possum cut. Most of the time, it was jet black, but she had dyed it shocking-red to mark the big event. A cool drop of water trickled down her bare back until it reached the waist of her cargo pants.

The numerous piercings she had in her ears and eyebrows reflected the light from the bulb above the wash basin. Unlike most of her peers, she didn't want studs in her lips, nose or tongue because they interfered with her singing, and that was too important for her to mess with.

Sighing again, she clambered to her feet and shifted over to the wash basin.

'Kristen…' Felicity said from beyond the locked door, 'you've been in there an awful long time… are you sure you're okay?'

"I've been pukin' my guts out, girl," Kristen croaked in a raw voice.

'Oh… do you want me to come in and help you?'

"No. But I need a shirt or something. I puked on my T."

'Yuck… all right. I'll be back before you know I'm gone.'

"Whatever," Kristen croaked, looking at herself in the mirror. Red eyes, gray complexion - she looked like something even an alley cat wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole. It wasn't the first time she was going to perform songs and poetry to an audience, and it wasn't the first time her stomach had rebelled against it, but it had been far worse than usual.

She still had a gruesome taste in her mouth, so she took a mini-swig of the water in the hope she could hold it down. The way her diaphragm performed a flip-flop when the water reached the lower end of her gullet proved that she couldn't.

With her stomach clenching hard, she barely made it over to the toilet before the small swig of water came spewing back out like a fountain.


The only spare shirt Felicity had left in her office was the red-and-green checkered flannel one Sandra had borrowed when her far nicer shirt had suffered a head-on collision with a chocolate croissant on her first day at the Bookworm Sanctuary.

She scrunched up her face as she held up the flannel shirt. It didn't belong to the type of clothing Kristen usually wore, but it would have to do. Shuffling back to the bathroom door, she knocked softly and put her head closer to the door so she didn't have to yell. "Kristen?  I've found a shirt for you."

The door was unlocked and pushed ajar without a word from the other side. A tattooed arm came out with the hand already searching for the shirt. When Felicity put it there, the hand was moved back inside in a hurry.

'What the F-  A flannel shirt?' came the all-too-predictable response.

Felicity chuckled. "Yes!  It's a fashion statement!"

'When?  In 1984?'

"More like 1992."

'Ugh… thanks.'

"You're welcome," Felicity said and moved aside as Kristen locked the door from the other side.

A sudden commotion at the main entrance finally heralded the arrival of the movers from PartyPeople Rentals. The multi-colored door was opened with a bang, and three men pushed sack trucks into the Bookworm Sanctuary each carrying ten stackable chairs that were wrapped in protective plastic and miles of adhesive tape. A cheer rose from the assembled men and women who had been at the bookstore early to help set up the seats.

Felicity hurried over there and made a quick inventory of the stacks of chairs. Counting to thirty, she scrunched up her face and turned to the man who, at least judging by his khaki coveralls and the name tag on his chest that said 'Supervisor Pete,' seemed to be the one in charge of the movers. "Well, you sure took your sweet time in getting here… and where are the dais and the remaining twenty chairs?"

'Supervisor Pete' - a man in his late thirties who had a four-day stubble that was a good match to the rest of his scruffy, ruddy appearance - wiped a few beads of sweat off his brow with a tan handkerchief. "Out in the truck, Ma'am. Please calm down. Hostility will only make my guys nervous and drop their loads."

Felicity narrowed her eyes at the man's comment - she realized it was the same man she had spoken to over the phone, the one who had nearly driven her up one wall and down the other with his lackadaisical behavior. Forcing a smile on her face, she folded her hands in front of her chest. "Oh, but I am calm, Mr. Pete," she said in the sugary voice she had perfected for dealing with people like that. "I suppose I need to sign a letter of receipt or something?"

"That's right, Ma'am. I have it right here," Pete said and reached into his coverall. Before he could produce the documents, a sharp - though smokey - voice cut through the air out in the hallway:

'Who the hell parked their Goddamned big-ass delivery truck in the middle of the parking lot?!  It's taking up a whole row of slots and I had to walk from the other side of the Goddamned universe to get here!' Cathy Giardella roared, barking loud enough for the entire community center to hear.

Felicity chuckled, but Pete didn't seem to find it funny. "Ma'am, I can't recall experiencing this much hostility… well, ever. How can you work in such an environment?"

Scratching an eyebrow, Felicity tried to find a humorous comeback to that, but she gave up. Some people were just too out of reach to even bother. "Yeah, well… anyway, the letter of receipt…?"


Inside the bathroom, Kristen scrubbed her muscleshirt to make it clean and presentable for her show. She had managed to scrub the vomit out of it aided by the burning lava that streamed out of the unpredictable hot water faucet.

Her stomach was still jumping up and down, but the full body tremolo that had racked her entire being earlier was growing less by the minute. Gulping down the bitter taste she still had in her mouth, she held up the muscleshirt that had the words Proud 2-B-A Womyn printed on it in nineteen different fonts and sizes.

She wrung it as much as she could, but it was obviously still wet. There wasn't anything to hang it on inside the bathroom so it could drip-dry, so she needed to take it elsewhere. Holding it by the collar, she unlocked the door, opened it and stepped outside into the bookstore.

All around her, the women and men Felicity had invited to help set up the infrastructure were busy unwrapping the fifty stackable chairs and rearranging the piles for ease of access. When they noticed the colorful, young woman hadn't bothered to button the flannel shirt but had it hanging loose on her shoulders, a few of the gals stopped and grinned at her - the guys blushed and looked away.

Felicity was among those who grinned. "Hiya, Kristen… nice to see you're still one of the living. Tell you what, I think you've misunderstood the concept of buttons…" she said, pointing at the bare skin which was in plain sight all the way up and down Kristen's front.

"Girl, is there anyone in here who doesn't know what a boob is?  Hey, wouldya mind if I hung my shirt in your office?  It needs to drip-dry and you got a metal heater…"

"No, go on… Sandra's in there and she can help you find a hanger."

"Thanks, girl," Kristen said and shuffled over towards the office.

Felicity kept standing at the door to the bathroom, waiting for the inevitable 'Oh-my-Gawd!' that blurted out of Sandra a few seconds after the colorful Kristen had entered the office. "Aw, she's so damn cute," Felicity mumbled as she stomped back to the construction site to be in firm control of her troops.


Ten minutes later, the main entrance opened and a woman in her late twenties stepped inside the busy bookstore. She had a large camera around her neck, and she used it to snap several photos of the women and men who were buzzing around trying to get everything in place. Well-dressed and suave with modest makeup and nice hair, the woman wore a pale-coffee pant suit that covered a shirt with wide lapels.

Though Felicity spotted the woman at once, it took her more than three minutes to finally have time to go over to her. One person after the other came by with questions connected to the seating arrangements ranging from how many chairs they needed to put up in each row to how far the first row of chairs needed to be from the dais.

Patience had never been Felicity's strongest trait, especially not when it was up against disorganization of such a magnitude. When the third person came to her and asked the same question, she pulled Cathy Giardella over to deal with the rest in her inimitable fashion.

The photographer beckoned, and Felicity hurried over to the woman so she wouldn't get a poor impression of the Bookworm Sanctuary. "Hi, I'm Felicity LaMarre. I'm the administrator of the bookstore. We're sorry you had to wait, Miss," she said and put out her hand.

"Hi," the photographer said, shaking it. "I'm Claudia Keenan from Out & Around Magazine. Wow, this is a beehive…"

"Yeah, tell me about it," Felicity said as she wiped a few beads of sweat off her brow. She glanced around at the chaos which didn't seem to follow her nine-point plan at all. She made a mental note of not bothering to make one in the future if the others couldn't be bothered to follow it. "Out & Around?  We have a stack of your magazines right over there."

"I noticed," Claudia said with a grin. "Do you think there's a possibility I could get a brief interview with Kristen Laneau before the big event?  She's a role model to quite a few young people out there."

"I honestly don't know, Miss Keenan," Felicity said and craned her neck to look at the office door. True to style, Kristen hadn't even bothered closing it despite her half-undressed appearance. "Truth be told, she's been caught in an upheaval all afternoon, if you know what I mean. I'll find out and come back to you."

Claudia smiled and reached into her jacket pocket to find her smartphone. She went through a few taps and swipes to load the recording app so it was ready in case the interview could be granted.

Felicity smiled back before she shuffled over to the office door to peek inside. Although Kristen did wear the flannel shirt as she arranged the muscleshirt on a coat hanger above the metal heater, she still hadn't learned the concept of buttoning it. Sandra sat on the spare swivel-chair facing away from the tattooed woman. "Hey, Kristen," Felicity said and knocked on the doorjamb, "do you have the inclination to speak to a reporter from Out & Around?  She seems okay."

Kristen squeezed the lower hem of the shirt with the many words and letters to get the last water out of it. "I don't know, girl. Out & Around is so hit and miss. What's her name?"

"Claudia Keenan."

"Mmmm?  I think I remember her name on a couple of bylines. Tell her it's okay," Kristen said and turned around - at once, Sandra found something really interesting to observe on the office floor. "Hey, Sandra, can I ask you a question?  Why are you so disturbed by my breasts?"

Sandra chuckled and reached up to loosen her collar. "I'm not disturbed, Kristen. I'm just looking away out of respect."

Felicity stepped further into the room and patted Sandra's shoulder. "It's a generation thing, Kristen. Don't worry about it. But please, can you close your shirt while you talk to the reporter lady?  You know your pair of girls there will take the focus away from the important stuff I'm sure you wanna say to her."

"Yeah, all right," the colorful woman said as she began to button the flannel shirt.

"Thanks," Felicity said with a grin. "Do you wanna talk to her in here, or…?"

"No, at the Korner."

Felicity nodded and moved back to the door. "Okay. I'll let her know."

A few seconds after Felicity had left, Kristen finished buttoning her shirt, but she had deliberately made it crooked to make a statement. "Don't you have a pair?" she said and rested a buttock on the metal desk.

"Pardon?" Sandra said as she swiveled the chair back around.

"Of breasts?"

"Well, yes, but… I don't quite follow you."

"Nah, it's clear you don't," Kristen said and got up. Without speaking another word, she shuffled out of the office and left the thoroughly confused Sandra behind.


The bright purple sofa in the Kozy Korner was the only place in the entire bookstore that didn't resemble an anthill. All around it, people were whooshing back and forth carrying chairs and the wooden boards needed to erect the small dais where Kristen was going to perform later on. The number of people in the Bookworm Sanctuary was too great for the available space, which killed the regular coziness stone dead.

Nobody had time to look at the books save for a brave soul or two who had been snared in by the colorful spines in the various aisles instead of schlepping the heavy furniture around.

The reporter had already taken her place at the sofa when Kristen shuffled over there with her hands pressed to her stomach. On her way there, she had walked right into a strong whiff from a baloney sandwich that one of the helpers was eating. Her stomach had rebelled at once, and she needed to press against it to keep it calm.

Groaning, she bumped down onto the sofa and snuggled down into the far corner. After a few seconds, she kicked off her boots and folded her legs up into a protective fetal position so she could rest her head on her knees.

"Miss Laneau," the reporter tried, holding up her smartphone so it could record the conversation, "are you sure you're able to talk to me?  You look terrible."

"I'm fine. I just need a moment," Kristen croaked in a raw voice.

Claudia Keenan nodded and put the telephone down onto the sofa. To kill time, she snapped a few photos of the mass confusion that took place all around them.

Kristen was dizzy from fatigue and the vomiting. She had a sore throat and a thumping headache, and her limbs felt like lead. All in all, it wasn't the best way to prepare for such an important performance. She wished she could pop one of her tranquilizers, but it wouldn't look good in front of the reporter.

Sighing, she relaxed the fetal position she had been in and stretched out her legs. "I'm kinda ready now if ya wanna talk to me, girl," she said, reaching out for the reporter who was still taking pictures at the uncoordinated pandemonium that took place all around them.

Claudia smiled and put away the camera. "If you're up for it?" she said and picked up the telephone.

"Yeah," Kristen said and shuffled around on the sofa so she was closer to the other woman.

"All right. Miss Laneau, when and how did you get started writing songs and poetry?"

"Not long after I turned thirteen," Kristen said and nodded slowly. The gesture didn't make but a single hair move around on her head. "I fell into a depression 'cos I was a freak compared to the others. An outcast who couldn't compete with the popular girls and all their crap pink pom-poms. I wanted to go my own way and I did. The tattoos. That made me even more of a freak. The fact my wet dreams were all about girls was the kick in the head that sent me tumbling into the depression. My Mom had always preached to me that those people were freaks. Well, guess what, Mom… your little Kristen is one of those freaks. I went into hiding… I mean, inside my head. My parents forced me to take anti-depressants and all that shit in the hope they'd get their little daughter back. The only way I could get back on an even keel was to commit all the dark thoughts to paper. So I did."

"Mmmm, very successfully so," Claudia said, checking that the recorder app was working as it should. "They became an instant hit online when you made your body of work available three years ago. You have followers from all over the world."

"Yeah, but you shouldn't fall into the common trap and think those people are really there because of me. Some of them are there for the poetry, yeah, but some are just random followers, and some are just spambots cruising around to make a quick buck. Divide the number of followers by ten and you have a clearer view."

"I see. Noted. Miss Laneau, other popular blogs with large viewing figures are sponsored by everything from hair care products to-"

"O-yeah, they've asked, all right. I've always told them to go F themselves, Claudia. Here's what I think of corporate money… and you can use that in the magazine if ya want," Kristen said and flashed a pair of extended middle fingers.

Claudia chuckled as she took a picture of the provocative gesture. "Thanks, Miss Laneau. Can't promise we'll use that… but who knows. But money isn't all bad, is it?"

"Nah, of course not," Kristen said and fell back against the purple sofa's backrest. "It depends on the owner and what they use it for. Corporate money equals greed. Faceless minions raking in the cash so the fat spider at the center of the web can get richer and richer. I mean, does any single person actually need those extra five billion a year or whatever?  And millions of regular folks, regular women, need to prostitute themselves just to get by. What's wrong with that picture?"

"Indeed. And that's what inspired you to collect songs and poetry written by the regular folks, as you called them?"

"Naw, Claudia, you got that wrong way 'round," Kristen said and sat up straight. "I talk to them… the people I meet around the city streets. All those men and women whose eyes have turned dull 'cos they're forced into an undignified life they'll never escape from… I talk to those people and hear what they say. I listen to their experiences, good and bad… their fears, hopes and dreams and all those things. Then I write poetry or songs that tell the stories of those men and women. That's what I do."

"Oh, I'm sorry… I'm glad that little confusion was cleared up."

Kristen sighed and fell back against the corner of the bright purple sofa. Her brief spark of righteous fire had quelled the slapping waves in her gut, but they returned when the fire died down. "Yeah… these poems and songs come from the heart. Not just my heart, but the heart of the people out there in the real world. The people we never see on TV except when someone's been raped, beaten or killed. We never get to see their faces unless it's through the windows of a cop car. We never get to hear their voices unless their cases are presented on Court TV."

"Miss Laneau, it's clear these people are close to your heart. You said they've been forced into an undignified life… what would you suggest we did to improve the situation for these people?  Lower taxes for people with fixed income, or-"

"It doesn't matter what we do," Kristen said with a dark chuckle.

"You say that with conviction. So there's no hope for them?"

"No. It's far too late. We're back at the corporate money thing. All right, an example from downtown. Take the slums down at Thirty-Fourth Street, yeah?  Dozens of blocks that are one broken window away from being condemned. A single fat spider owns eighty percent of those blocks, and he's squeezing a high rent out of the residents without giving anything back in the shape of maintaining the buildings. As a result, the residents are forced into living under crappy conditions. You with me?"

"Yes, Miss Laneau," Claudia said with an excited grin on her lips.

"All right. A social foundation has been set up to buy the blocks and improve the living standards for everyone, but the fat spider doesn't want to sell 'cos although he'd get a ton of money in his slimy hands now for the bricks and shit, he'd rather bleed the residents dry over the next couple-a years or decades. To him, it's a no-brainer 'cos the rent is most often provided by the city council who'll deduct it from the residents' social income. So you might say he's got his fat snout stuck deep into the city's coffers, yeah?  And why kill the golden goose or whatever it's called."

"Why, indeed."

Kristen let out a deep sigh as she leaned her near-shaved head against the top of the backrest. The pandemonium around them hadn't grown less while she had been talking to the reporter, but at least the chairs and the dais had been set up and were ready to be used. "Yeah. Listen, I can't talk anymore. I need something to drink so my voice won't suffer when it matters. Are we done?"

Claudia smiled and turned off the recording app. "We're done, Miss Laneau. Wow, that was a fascinating interview. I can't promise we'll use the picture of you flipping the birds, but I'll mention it to the editor. I'll definitely root for you tonight."

"Thanks," Kristen said and snuggled up in the corner of the sofa while she could.


Later on, a sound engineer from the community center's AV-department laid down what seemed to be miles of thick cables that were going to connect the two microphones to an amplifier that stood just below the dais. Word had spread that a handsome fellow was in the bookstore, and he had attracted quite a crowd of hopeful boy singles who provided a running commentary on the quality of his work and the color of his eyes.

It was a quarter to six, and the scheduled time for the start of the show was approaching fast. Felicity had organized enough special events to know they often had a nasty surprise up their sleeve; sometimes it was just a little thing like forgetting to buy enough sodas for everyone, sometimes it was A Thing that turned into An Issue that needed to be solved ahead of time or else, and sometimes, it was an apocalyptic calamity that would always trip them up at the wrong moment.

On this occasion, hints bubbled to the surface that they could be headed for scenario number two, 'A Thing that could turn into An Issue.' True to form, it would definitely have to be solved before the performance because someone had forgotten to rent a special chair for Kristen to use on the dais. Somewhat unexpectedly, that someone wasn't Supervisor Pete but Felicity LaMarre.

The regular chair that had been put up by the microphones as a makeshift solution was wrong, wrong, wrong - it didn't take a genius to figure that out. Even the basic shape was wrong for someone who would be singing and playing on the guitar she would carry around her neck.

"It's done, Miss LaMarre," the sound engineer said and got to his feet. His little fanclub followed him along the dais, but a long, sad groan was heard when he took off his left glove which revealed a gold wedding band. "I'm sorry, boys, I'm a one-man-at-a-time kinda guy. And this one's forever," he said and tapped the wedding band to a strong chorus of Awwwwww!

Felicity and Sandra stood behind the little group of hopefuls, chuckling when everyone's hopes were dashed. "Eh, I dunno… is he cute?  Does he look cute to you, Sandra?"

The wealthy blonde, who was part of the Corporate Money class that Kristen had warned about through her self-made company ZenTech World Business Solutions, adjusted her square-framed spectacles to see better. "Well… I suppose he does. And is."

"Oh, he is, mark my words," Cathy said in her trademark smokey voice as she shuffled over to join the other women. She had lost the limp she had received in the accident she'd had on a staircase where she had twisted her ankle through falling down a step, but she still needed to treat it gingerly.

Felicity let out a throaty chuckle that was just on the right side of teasing her old friend. "And how would you… of all people… know that, Cathy?"

"Unlike you bookworms who have your noses buried in paperbacks the whole day, I've been around the block plenty, thank you. I've seen enough wall posters with baby-soft twenty-something guys who looked like him to know his type is really popular… believe me."

The sound engineer hopped off the dais and crouched down at the amplifier to turn it on. A brief, scratching sound gave way to a steady electronic hum. When it was ready, he moved back up onto the dais and proceeded to do a microphone check by counting to ten and back to zero. Everything seemed to work just fine.

"Okay," Felicity said and gave Sandra's shoulders a squeeze. "Since we're getting there, I'll ask Kristen to come over and try out the chair so the sound guy can put the microphones at the correct height. I know what she's gonna say, though."

Smiling, Sandra turned around and gave Felicity's side a casual, little caress to return the favor of the squeeze. "Which is?" she asked, cocking her head.

The caress was hardly noticeable, but Cathy's sharp eyes didn't miss a beat. She broke out in a cheesy grin and stored the information for later.

Felicity cleared her throat and attempted to mimic Kristen's fairer voice. "Girl, you expect me to sit and do my magic on this piece of shit?"

The impersonation made Cathy laugh out loud. "But in fewer words, Felicity."


"Girl…" Kristen said three minutes later while she balanced her acoustic guitar across her lap. "This sucks. No way I can use this crap. No way," she continued while she tried to get her butt comfortable on the chair which was the wrong proportions for the task at hand.

"Told ya," Cathy said with a chuckle.

Kristen shuffled around on the chair to find a better position, but no matter what she tried, her chest was compressed which would render her unable to get enough air to sing without sounding like a bleating goat. "Girl, I can't breathe properly with the chair this low. It'll just screw up the whole damn thing. I can't use this crap!"

Felicity grunted and began to look around for something else to use. They did have other chairs around the bookstore, but as Cathy would attest to, they weren't designed to sit on for more than three minutes at a time. The spare swivel-chair in the office was a theoretical solution, but the wheels couldn't be locked off and the dais wasn't fully even - the risk it would run off with Kristen before she had time to finish the first song was just too great. "Hmmm… what we need is a barstool. An old-fashioned, tall barstool."

Now Sandra let out a grunt. "You're right. A barstool would work fine… and I saw one just the other day. Where was that?" She scrunched up her face and began to move around in a little circle while she racked her brain to come up with the spot where she had seen it. It had been placed against a white wall of some kind, but that wasn't much of a clue since every wall inside the large building housing the community center and all the satellite projects was white. "It was here in the center… but where?  How long do we have, Felicity?"

"Oh, forty-five minutes now. Give or take."

"Right. Hmmm. Okay," Sandra said and grabbed hold of Felicity's arm. "I'll go on a quest to steal the barstool for tonight. I'm sure they won't mind."

"Don't push anyone off if it's occupied when you find it," Felicity said with a broad grin. She took the opportunity to pull Sandra into a sideways hug before the fit woman zipped off on her Amazonic quest.


Ten past six. With twenty minutes to go until the scheduled starting time, the bookstore was slowly filling up. The colorful, young women and men who all wore loud, grungy clothes and wild hair gathered in small groups by the chairs and chatted in excited tones about what they hoped to see.

One thing they didn't yet see was the barstool. The dais was empty which left the metal stand for the two microphones looking like an ostrich standing all by itself. The amplifier had been turned off so the chattering voices wouldn't create any feedback, and the dais seemed curiously abandoned in the middle of the sea of activity.

The main entrance opened to reveal another handful of young people in wild, colorful clothes. They laughed when they recognized their buds and were soon mingling to slap palms and thump fists. Some of the more sensitive members of the audience crept along the walls so they wouldn't get caught up in anything.

"Not long to go now, huh?" Cathy said, shuffling over to Felicity who was leaning against the narrow shelf underneath the posters advertising the many different campaigns set in motion by the city council.

"No. I hope Sandra will be able to find that damn barstool before its too late…"

"Yeah. Wow, have ya ever seen that many piercings in one place before?  There's a girl over there where you can hardly see her facial skin!  I mean… that's a bit too much for me, personally, I gotta admit."

"Me too, Cathy. It's a generation thing."

Cathy chuckled and picked up a copy of the current Out & Around although she had already read every word of every article. "Must be. I guess we did stuff back then they would consider out of this world… like disco dancing."

"Or Vogueing."

"Or bell-bottom jeans… no, wait!"

Felicity groaned out loud and reached out to slap the older woman next to her. Her hand didn't connect on the first swing and she was too tired to try again. "Don't knock my bell-bottoms!  I look fabulous in these jeans!"

"Not saying you don't, Felicity," Cathy said, wearing a grin so broad a 1974 Cadillac Eldorado could have driven through it. "Nah… I'm not wearing cutting edge stuff either," she continued and yanked at a button on her denim bib overalls that she wore over a batik t-shirt like she always did.

"Uh-huh, glad you noticed."

"Hey!  No, seriously, look at all those kids… piercings, tattoos, garish makeup, wild hair and beards. Loud, crazy stuff… and yet," - Turning around, Cathy pointed at a group of quiet girls huddled together near the back - "We still get the sensitive wallflowers who are here to see Kristen, not to get caught up in all that loudness."

"True. I better keep an eye on them as the evening progresses," Felicity said while an unfortunate flashback to her own experiences as a rotund wallflower at proms and parties raced across her mind's eye.


In the office, Kristen moved back from the door and closed it softly behind her. She had been watching the people arriving, but she didn't need to know how many had shown up - she would see that soon enough when she stepped onto the dais with her guitar and her bared soul.

The soul in question was still raw after the unpleasant episodes in the bathroom, but at least her throat was better after a healthy dose of soothing easy apple cider. She tried to take deep, even breaths to get her jittery nerves under control, but it was hard going and it only took a cheer from the bookstore to topple what she had achieved.

Grabbing her guitar, she pulled the strap over her shoulder and began to walk around in circles to burn off some of the nervous energy that coursed through her. She began to play a few chords of one of her songs, but the moment of Zen hadn't arrived yet and she put the guitar down on the metal desk for later.

Her muscleshirt with the many iterations of Proud 2-B-A Womyn was almost dry after having spent several hours hanging over the metal heater. It was only the lower hem that was still moist, so she unbuttoned and whipped off the old, unloved flannel shirt to don the outfit she had chosen for the big event. She felt better wearing her own clothes even if the moist hem tickled her stomach.

She continued to walk around in a circle, but as the hands of time moved closer to six thirty, she could feel her confidence growing. When another cheer from the bookstore didn't send her nerves into a tailspin, she took the guitar and began to rehearse the important opening act, a spoken-word song about life on the mean streets.

A series of tiny knocks on the office door made her come to a halt from one syllable to the next. The knocks were repeated, so she shuffled over to the door to see what was going on.

The person outside was one of the young people there for the performance: a colorful woman in her early twenties. "Hi!  Is this the bathro-" she said, but never made it further before she recognized the person who had opened the door.

The young woman's eyes popped wide open at the sight of her idol standing right there in the flesh. She wore black basketball boots with neon-green laces, torn black jeans and a black sleeveless T-shirt with a custom-made print of a candid photo she had downloaded from Kristen's World Connected profile. The stylized, high-contrast image was accompanied by Kristen's name in a graffiti-like scrawl.

Like a majority of the young people in the audience, she had metal studs everywhere on her face, but mostly on her lips, nose and eyebrows. The lone tattoo she wore on her right upper arm hadn't yet been filled in, so it looked - and was - incomplete. To finish off the ensemble, her hair had been dyed shocking-purple, and it was short and spiky all around save for a heavily gelled wave up front that reached down to cover her eyes. "Aw shit… this isn't the bathroom," she croaked. Her eyes were still wide open which gave her black eyeliner a comical touch.

Kristen grinned at the shocked look on the woman's face. "Nope. That's down there… the tan door. See it?" she said and pointed out of the door past the young woman's shoulder.

The starry-eyed fan could barely tear herself away from Kristen, but she managed to turn around and follow the pointing finger. "Oh… okay. I'm sorry. Thank you… Kristen," she said, no more than a heartbeat away from freaking out over having met her biggest heroine.

"You're welcome. What's your name?"

"Dana Ste- Stepanek…"

"Love your shirt, Dana."

"Oh, God, thank you…"

"But I kinda need to rehearse now, so… catch ya at the performance. Yeah?  Won't be long, girl," Kristen said and put a hand on the door.

"Sure… yeah… I'm sorry," Dana mumbled as she backed out of the door. Her eyes stayed behind a little while longer and went on a quick tour of Kristen's face and body like she wanted to gather all the information she could in case she wouldn't get another chance.

When Kristen closed the door, she could hear Dana letting out a loud, incoherent, squealing whoop from the other side. The rest of the audience would soon know that she had met and spoken to the person they were all there to see. Chuckling, Kristen shuffled away from the door to finish fine-tuning her performance.


At the same time, Sandra swam upstream through the hallway, battling against the strong flow of people going the opposite way. A great deal of the evening classes and popular lectures held by the community center started at six forty-five or at seven, and it seemed that half the city's population of young and old had decided to choose Thursday evening as their night on the town.

She had already apologized a dozen times to the people she had bumped into carrying her heavy load, but judging by the new, massive group of mothers with strollers who had just entered the far end of the hallway - no doubt headed for the center's much-hyped course called Discover Your Toddler's Artistic Skills - she would have to apologize another fifteen or so times before she would reach her destination.

The heavy weight of the clumsy load she carried made her glad she had kept up a strict fitness regime lately. She had found a barstool, and not just any barstool, but the last of its kind; a study in chrome and fake, black leather.

After rummaging through several different storage rooms that only had a ridiculous amount of dust on offer, she had found the last remaining barstool in the office belonging to the community center's chief administrator. She couldn't find anyone to talk to about borrowing the furniture, so she had left a note stating her name and her association with Felicity's Bookworm Sanctuary.

Once the big group of mothers, toddlers and strollers had been dealt with, the door to the bookstore came into sight. She breathed a sigh of relief and put down her heavy load. Opening the door, she put her butt on it to keep it open while she bent over and took a firm, two-handed grip on the barstool.

Grunting, she fumbled through the door and into the Bookworm Sanctuary. She reckoned that all her troubles were over with the safe return to the bookstore, and to celebrate, she grinned and held up the rare piece of furniture in triumph. Two seconds later, the smile faded from her face, and the barstool thumped down onto the smooth linoleum floor in defeat.

She faced a wall of young, black-clad people who all had their backs turned to her. They were chatting in an animated fashion about what Kristen was wearing, the new color of her hair and a hundred other things, and none of them looked ready to give up their spot. It would be possible to move to the left if she wanted to go to the office, but she had her sights set on the dais - unfortunately, it looked like that particular task was going to be futile.

"Okay. Now what?" she mumbled, looking around for Felicity or Cathy. She finally spotted the dark-skinned administrator talking to one of her regular customers who appeared to be wanting to leave before the raucous crowd would get out of hand. Sandra waved at Felicity, but her smaller height compared to many of the colorful, young people made it difficult for her to break through the din that dominated the visual as well as the audio plane. Huffing, she adjusted her spectacles and waited for a plan B to come to her.

By a stroke of good fortune, Felicity eyed the petite blonde who had remained at the main entrance. She whooped out loud when her eyes fell on the barstool, but the cheer was soon quelled when she realized getting through to the dais would be akin to a trip up Mount Everest - doable but damned difficult. She waved and sent a thumbs-up at Sandra who caught the gestures at once. The blonde pointed at her wristwatch; Felicity nodded. "Cathy!  Hey, Cathy… I need your help!" she cried and waved the older woman over to her.

"You just can't live without me, can you?" Cathy said with a grin once she had barged her way through the crowd.

"No, and Sandra can't either," Felicity said with a matching grin.

"Ooooooh, now you're talking!  You wanna get a little triple action going?  I could dig that though I'm basically-"

"Oh, keep your mind out of the gutter, will ya?  Us round girls gotta save the day. Sandra needs to get up to the dais with that thing, and we gotta clear the way."

Cathy stood up on tip-toes to eyeball the blonde at the door. "Damn, how can that little slip of a girl carry that big thing?  I'll bet she's got muscles everywhere, eh?  I can only imagine how her abs look… and feel," she said, giving Felicity a whole series of nudges with her elbow.

"I wouldn't know, Cathy… c'mon, it's bulldozer time!" Felicity said and put out her arm.

It didn't take Cathy long to understand what was needed, and she hooked her opposite arm inside Felicity's to make them an unstoppable force that drove an effective wedge straight into the throng. The two round women stomped ahead and carved a path for the more petite Sandra who once more grabbed hold of the barstool and hurried up close behind her two supporters.

Reaching the dais, Cathy and Felicity moved apart to make way for Sandra and the cumbersome barstool. As the throng closed in behind her like quicksand, Sandra put her right foot up on the dais but needed a hand on her butt for leverage. When she got a little push, she made it the rest of the way and put down the circular, chrome base of the tall barstool at the microphone stand. Though it was fake leather, it looked better than she had feared.

Huffing and puffing, she dusted off her hands on her jeans before she wiped a few beads of sweat off her brow. "Whoa… it looks like a Black Sabbath concert from up here," she croaked, looking out over the wildly-colored heads of the sea of black-clad humanity. The floor of the dais was only fifteen inches off the ground, but it offered her a view she never had: one where she could see the top of people's heads instead of their backs. She tried to count the many different hair colors on display, but she stopped when she ran out of fingers to use.

Felicity stepped up next to Sandra and pulled her into a sideways hug that she responded to by wrapping an arm around Felicity's round waist. "Great work, Sandra. It looks fabulous… just the right thing for Kristen."

"Yeah, I thought so. You're welcome. Oh, and thank you for doing your Moses impersonation… you know, parting the black sea."

"I coulda sworn Moses parted the Red Sea…" Felicity said and pulled Sandra closer.

Guffawing, the blonde gestured out at the audience. "Nope!  Definitely the black sea!  Get it?"

"Ohhhh!" Felicity said and broke out in a snigger that was responded to in kind. They gave each other a further little squeeze before Felicity pointed her thumb at the barstool. "So… where'd ya find it?"

"In the chief administrator's office."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah. Did you know he's got a private bar in there?"

"Does he?  Perhaps we should visit the chief administrator more often, huh?  Okay, we've gone two minutes past the scheduled time. I think we're about ready to kick this into action," Felicity said and craned her neck to look at the condition of the path to the office door. "There aren't too many people over there… would you mind getting Kristen?"

"Not at all… I'm on it," Sandra said and jumped off the edge of the dais. She offered Felicity a quick thumbs-up before she hurried over to the office while the path was clear.

Felicity grinned and moved back to the center of the dais. She grabbed hold of the microphone but remembered at the last moment that the amplifier wasn't turned on yet. She signaled the sound engineer - who stood out like a sore thumb in his pale-brown coverall, enveloped as he was by people wearing black - that he could commence the evening's entertainment.

Once the equipment was on, Felicity drew a deep breath and once again grabbed hold of the microphone. "Good evening, everybody," she said, marveling over the way her dark, silky-smooth timbre sounded over the speakers, "and welcome to Felicity's Bookworm Sanctuary. I'm Felicity LaMarre and we're… about… to-"

She came to a halt when she realized the crowd hadn't clammed up yet - in fact, the din seemed to have grown stronger in expectation of what Kristen Laneau would bring to the show.

At least half the audience looked at their telephones while the other half spoke among themselves; five seconds later, the situation was reversed with the first half now speaking and the other half checking their telephones. Another five seconds later, everybody spoke to everybody else, but it didn't stop them from checking their telephones at the same time. "Uh-huh… okay, this is going to hell in a handbasket," Felicity mumbled.

Narrowing her eyes, she tapped a finger on the microphone several times which created a deep rumble in the speakers. "It's showtime, peeps. Please pay attention to what's going on up here. Respect the woman who's about to share her soul with you. And have a seat… it was hard work putting up all those damn chairs so we really want you to use them." Looking around, she could see that most - but not all - followed her instructions. The group of sensitive wallflowers at the back wall shuffled up to the chairs at the back row and sat down.

Felicity moved back from the microphone to look at the office. Sandra stood in the doorway wearing a big grin and flashing a pair of thumbs-up. A thought of 'can she get any cuter?' flashed through Felicity's mind before she stepped back to the microphone. "Thank you. All right, you're here to see Kristen Laneau… and here she is."

A huge cheer rose from the crowd who all spun around in their seats to look towards the door to the office. The buzz grew once more, but it was from excitement and not the odd, technologically driven detachment from earlier.

Inside the office, Kristen felt her stomach perform a flip-flop all over again. She needed to stretch her arms up in the air and shimmy around on the spot to get her nerves back under control. Gulping down a nervous lump, she offered Sandra a weak smile that belied her hard exterior before she stepped out into the bookstore with her guitar over her shoulder.

The reception she got couldn't have been better. All the colorful, young people cheered her name, patted her on the back more than a dozen times, and snapped so many photos that her likeness had been shared worldwide even before she made it up onto the dais.

Nervous didn't begin to describe her condition, but she managed to screw a smile onto her face as she stepped up on the dais and shuffled over to the microphone stand. She waved her arms in the air to try to get the crowd to settle down, but since it didn't work, she allowed herself to bask in the spotlight for once. "Whassup, everybody… nice to see ya. I'm Kristen Laneau and I hope you're all good," she said into the microphone.

The brief message set off a new round of cheering and snapping, and it took nearly a full minute for the audience to settle down so Kristen could get on with the program. In the meantime, she moved the barstool closer to the microphone stand and made herself comfortable on the fake leather. "Glad to hear it. We got a lot of ground to cover tonight so I'm gonna start by performing a song I wrote myself. It goes a little something like this…"

The next four and a half minutes went by in reverent silence. The members of the unruly crowd all kept quiet while Kristen accompanied herself reciting her spoken-word song about the constant injustices that were committed against minorities of all kinds on the cracked sidewalks, in the stinking back alleys and even on the fancy polished floors of the upper echelon.

At the back of the bookstore, Cathy, Sandra and Felicity were lined up at the narrow shelf by the posters so they wouldn't disturb the performance. When the spoken-word song ended, the whole place erupted in a wild cheer. The three adult women clapped along to show their respect, even if the lyrics dealt with a reality that was far removed from their own. "Wow," Cathy said, leaning in towards Felicity so she didn't have to raise her voice, "that's powerful stuff, huh?  You'd never think it looking at Kristen, but she's got brains to spare."

"Yeah. Remember when we first met her?  She was just a weak, confused little mouse of a girl… look at her now. A worldwide celebrity."

Sandra nodded and leaned in towards the other two women. "Amazing, really. She's got such an authentic voice, too. Oh, that's the good of the Internet right there. There's plenty bad about it, I agree, but it's refreshing to see the positive sides for once."

"Yeah, well," Cathy said with a shrug, "I don't think we'll ever agree on the Internet even having a good side, but it's definitely great to feel the positive energy in here."

Up on the dais, Kristen rose from the barstool. She walked along the edge of the stage to be close to all those who had come to see her perform. While the audience cheered for her, she locked eyes with as many of them as she could to show that they, not she, were all that mattered. One of those she locked eyes with was the girl with the purple hair and the homemade T-shirt. Kristen winked at her which nearly sent the young Dana wobbling to the floor.

"I hope you're okay out there?" Kristen said which earned her another cheer. "Great. It's gonna be a night of bad times and good times… of poetry and song… through the stories that were born on the mean streets by you people and by those who are far worse off than we are. In short, real stories by real people… not that glossy superhero robot shit that Hollyweird tries to cram down our throats all the fuckin' time!"

Down the back, Cathy stuck two fingers in her mouth and let out a loud whistle to show her support. "Too damn right," she said to Felicity and Sandra. "I haven't been to a movie theater for a decade… have you guys?"

Felicity shook her head, but Sandra nodded and leaned in towards Cathy. "You just have to know the right theaters, actually. There's one not far from where I live that shows independent and foreign movies all the time. They're still people-movies, not glossy robot sh- uh, stuff."

"Yeah, but foreign movies… I wanna watch a movie, not read it," Cathy said with a shrug.

Felicity quickly shushed her companions when Kristen pulled a piece of paper out of her pants pocket.

"I was given this letter by a friend," Kristen said and held up the paper for all to see, "who had written it to clear his mind after speaking to a homeless girl in her early twenties. The girl was huddled up with all her belongings in a cardboard box that she called home down by the rear side of the central station, near the concrete jungle of the Thirty-Eighth Street neighborhood. Her face was raw meat and bleeding after she had been assaulted, but the cops didn't wanna help her. The ambulance people didn't wanna help her. The paramedic people from the central station's clinic didn't wanna help her… even the fuckin' Sisters of Mercy mission didn't wanna help her, so she staggered back to her three by three foot home and bled half to death before a good soul finally took pity on her. A nun from a different chapter or whatever they call it."

An upset murmur rippled through the audience.

"Yeah… that's the reality of what's going on out there. Anyway, the letter my friend wrote me was so powerful I had to make it into a poem told from the girl's point of view. It's not going to be pretty, people. It's called I Begged You."

Kristen took off her guitar and pushed the barstool away. Grabbing hold of the microphone, she closed her eyes so she could be alone in the middle of the crowd of people. "I begged you not to threaten me, but you did, and you smiled / I begged you not to hurt me, but you did, and you laughed / I begged you not to violate me, but you did, and you crowed / I begged you not to leave me helpless, but you did, and you said you would be back for more / I begged you to kill me, but you didn't. You walked away."

If a safety pin had been ready to fall, it would have been possible to hear it hit the smooth linoleum floor. A somber silence spread among the audience who - for the most part - had witnessed, or been exposed to, similar incidents.

"Yeah. The girl's name is Johanna. She made it, but how long does she have before the motherfucker returns?" Kristen said and folded up the letter. She put it into her pants pocket and took her guitar.

Pulling the barstool back to the microphone, she strapped her guitar over her shoulder and struck a somber chord. The gloomy music created another wave of murmurs that rippled through the crowd. "I heard someone ask what we can do about it… how we can help Johanna and the others. Not through any of the official channels. Like I said, nobody gave a shit about her when she needed help. All that's left for us to do as human beings is to give society and the politicians a giant F-Y-A and actively help the people in need by providing a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs. Society has gone to rot, we're the only sane people left. A million things need to be done out there… and we need to do them ourselves."

A thunderous applause that threatened to blow out the square, padded tiles in the ceiling filled the Bookworm Sanctuary. Everybody clapped and cheered so hard and for so long that Kristen needed to put her arms in the air to restore the calm.

Down at the back, Cathy chuckled out loud. She leaned over and gave Felicity's shoulder a good nudge. "She should run for congress, huh?  Oh boy, she would kick up a storm among those old, fossilized fellas."

Felicity didn't have time to answer before Sandra tugged at her shirtsleeve. "Psst, Felicity… you're closer to Kristen and these people. She said, give the politicians a giant F-Y-A… what does that acronym cover?"

Grinning, Felicity licked her lips as she leaned in towards Sandra's ear so she could provide the explanation in a whisper. "It either means F you all, or F you, a-holes. Depends on the context. I'd say it was the second option here."

"Oh…" Sandra said, blushing. "I should have known… or figured it out. Thank you."

"You're welcome. If you need another translation, just let me know."

"No, I think I got the rest of it…" Sandra said and adjusted her square-framed spectacles.


The ninety minutes the performance was scheduled to last flew by in a blurry flash. Before anyone had time to really understand it, Kristen started the final set of songs. When she began playing a sequence of chords for another of the songs she had written herself, the audience fell quiet like they invariably did. It was a lengthy intro so it took nearly a minute for her to begin to sing, but she had the crowd in her hand throughout.

Closing her eyes, she sang a quiet, insistent song of how a young lesbian couple living on the streets only found hostility and aversion to their presence, and how a simple but heartfelt love was able to overcome all that and blossom between them when they were finally left alone by the aggressive thugs and the over-protective social workers.

The song hit the right notes with a great deal of the audience who could mirror their own experiences in the poet's perfect choice of words. Before long, many of them had activated the flashlight function and held up their swaying telephones.

At the back, Sandra's jaw slipped down as she took in the sight of the many points of light that danced across the ceiling. "Uh… what… what are they doing?  Is that the modern equivalent of igniting your lighter at concerts?" she whispered so she wouldn't disturb the singing.

"Sure is… that's the eternal flame," Cathy whispered back with a grin.

The song ended with Kristen playing an outro that was almost as long as the intro had been. Once again, everyone piped down when her fingers created magic by moving gracefully across the strings. By the time she reached the final notes, she quieted the guitar and looked out at her audience. "Thank you for the lights, everybody. That was one of my favorites… as you probably know from reading the playlist on my WoCo profile."

The audience cheered when the song was over. A lot of them took the opportunity to snap photos of Kristen as she sat there in all her glistening, steamy glory, and she made outrageous faces at them to make the photos memorable.

Chuckling from the goofiness, she shuffled around on the barstool and pulled out in her sticky shirt to get some fresh air down her front. "To close the show, I'll recite a short poem that was inspired by a conversation I had with a girl I met in hospital a couple of years back. It doesn't have a title 'cos she didn't put one on the note she left behind. She intended it to be the last thing she ever wrote, but she was found in time. She's since made a full recovery from the overdose of pills she took."

Kristen took off the guitar and put it down on the floor. She took a deep breath to prepare for the somber recital before she moved up to the microphone and closed her eyes. "I know I've been a failure from the moment I was born / I know my life, my friends, my soul didn't please you and that you would rather see me gone / you've told me often enough / mother, you need to find someone else to tell / I'm going to heaven; you're stuck right here, in your own little hell…"

A collective gasp was heard from the audience, some of which were no strangers to suicide attempts and notes left for the family.

"I know. It's powerful isn't it?" Kristen said and looked out at the people on the floor. "Her name is Rachelle. Like I said, she made a full recovery. She's moved far, far away from her mother… from what I know, she's happy now, living with some of her father's relatives in another state. All right, that's it. You've been wonderful. I love you all."

A couple of seconds went by in silence while the audience soaked up the final words of their heroine, but then the entire bookstore erupted in a wild cheer that made many of the bookcases tremble. Calls for an encore rippled through the crowd, but Kristen shook her head and got up from the barstool. "I can't tonight, people. I'm beat. If ya wanna talk, join me over at the Kozy Korner, yeah?  The purple sofa over there. Thank you… thank you all for coming. It's been so beautiful tonight."

Felicity grunted and moved away from the back wall. "We better play traffic cops or they'll grind her into sawdust in two seconds flat. C'mon, gals, now it's our turn."


Exhausted from the fatigue that washed over her now the adrenaline left her system, Kristen shuffled over into the Kozy Korner and fell down with a bump onto the purple sofa.

She kicked off her boots and scooted up into the corner where she stuffed one of the fluffy cushions behind her back. She had burned off so much energy through her singing and reciting her poetry that all she could was to rest her near-shaved head on the cushion and let out a long sigh. Her body was steaming hot and her shirt clung to her torso in all sorts of places.

Twelve seconds later on the dot, the sofa was crowded to the point of being a fire hazard. Like-minded women and men dressed in black and with crazy hair competed to sit next to, or at least close to, their heroine. A scuffle broke out when two early-twenty-something girls both wanted the same spot; it had the clear potential of evolving into a real catfight in a matter of seconds if the lid wasn't put on it at once.

"Aw hell… we're too late," Felicity groaned when she had to separate the two girls who both wore similar uniforms. "Cathy… please take this fighting hen right here… I'll deal with the other one."

Cathy grinned and helped her 'fighting hen' away from the danger zone. "C'mon, don't get upset. There's plenty of Kristen to go around, you know. She ain't going anywhere," she said as she pointed at a safer spot the young girl should go to to try again.

One after the other, the members of the audience brought up their telephones and stood next to the armrest Kristen was leaning against to shoot selfies - at times, it resembled a conveyor belt. In no time at all, the poet had featured on forty selfies that had all been shared on their WoCo profiles, and more were lined up. Some even lined up twice to get one where they were acting serious and one where they pulled crazy faces for the camera.

Kristen played along to most of it, but when a girl moved up to the armrest for a third time, it was enough even for the stoic poet. "Girl… give the others a chance too, will ya?" she said, leaning in towards the offending party.

The young girl blushed red and moved away in a hurry so she wouldn't upset the star, but the gap she left behind was soon filled by others who were just as excited about being close to Kristen as the other one had been.

Felicity acted like a traffic cop like she had said she would. At the back, she organized the unruly crowd into orderly queues so they could get their selfies in the can without other people's arms or noses filling out the frame. Now and then, she looked up and locked eyes with Kristen who found it all rather amusing.

"Don't sweat it, people," Kristen said and moved her arms in the air - the gesture alone was enough to make some of the devoted faithful let out excited squeals - "This is the friendliest bookstore in the world. Let's keep it civilized so you all survive, okay?  Come on, girls, there's always room for one more selfie."

That earned her another excited squeal, and several young women lined up at once to snap away. One of them almost sat in Kristen's lap, but it didn't seem to cause the star any discomfort.


The most adventurous among the selfie-crowd had all but snapped the photos they wanted, but several fans were still waiting at the back. Noticing the shy, reserved people while she downed a full bottle of water, Kristen sat up straight and waved the girls - and the single boy - over to her so the wallflowers could get their chance at meeting her too.

"Whassup?" she said, smiling at the fans who hadn't had the nerve to move up to the head of the queue on their own, "did you like the performance?  I thought the evening was pretty damn good. Everything went well."

A chorus of "Yes," "Me too," and even an "I love you, Kristen," reached her ears and made her break out in a smile. A few of the shy people wanted hugs and she was only too happy to provide a little physical contact to those who probably needed it the most. Soon, selfies were taken that all featured shiny eyes and blushing cheeks - one of the fans even wanted an old-fashioned autograph in addition to the picture.

When the shy fans had moved away in a hurry so they wouldn't be at the center of attention for too long, Kristen leaned back in the sofa and took a long, wistful look at her devoted followers while she emptied her bottle of water. They were there for her and for the songs and poetry she wrote and performed. Some of the fans weren't as alternative as their outrageous looks and clothing would suggest - they came from well-off homes, not the mean streets - but she wanted everyone to feel welcome, regardless of their background.

It was still difficult for her to understand how far she had come and how quickly it had happened. One day the shine would wear off and she would be forgotten like yesterday's newspaper, she knew that all too well. The Next Big Internet Thing was always just around the corner - he or she might even have been in the audience. All it took to break through was a strong idea, access to the right channels, and a willingness to work hard while it lasted.

Success in the modern world wasn't measured by the bottom line that business people always obsessed over, or by clinging onto power beyond the point where it became embarrassing to watch like so many politicians did, but by doing good while the spotlight happened to fall on that person. She was happy with what she had accomplished. When the spotlights would be turned off and she would slip back into obscurity, she would walk the mean streets with a satisfied smile on her lips, she was sure of that.

Kristen took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Stretching her back, she snuggled further down in the sofa while she observed the people in the bookstore. It had been a good evening, and the good kind of fatigue ran through her veins like a warm, comfortable blanket. Sometimes when the shows were poor or even bad, the frustration would leave her so brooding that she couldn't sleep for days, but she had done well tonight. She had been able to inject the most important songs and poetry with the heart and soul they needed, and that left her with a sense of pride over a job well done.

The fatigue only grew stronger, so she closed her eyes and leaned her near-shaved head against the fluffy cushion at her back. She was only allowed a moment's rest before something weighed down the backrest right next to her. Looking up, she locked eyes with Felicity who shuffled around the sofa. "Hey, girl," Kristen said and patted the seat. "You want a selfie?  Go right ahead."

Felicity chuckled and settled for mussing Kristen's shoulder. "You did well tonight, Kristen. Really well. To be honest, I think that was your best performance at a Poetry Jam."

"Thank you. The righteous fire was burning… I'm kinda proud over what I did."

"You should be," Felicity said and sat down next to the poet. "Anyway, some of the fans are drifting away… why don't you go home and get some shuteye?"

"Yeah, I was thinking about that," Kristen said and broke out in a wide yawn.

Smacking her lips, it occurred to her that she hadn't seen the purple-haired Dana for most of the evening, or at least since the show ended. She furrowed her brow and looked around at the remaining fans. There were a few purple patches here and there, but none belonged to Dana. "Felicity… uh… this is gonna sound all weird and shit, but I think we've lost a girl… purple hair that went down into her eyes, black T-shirt with a picture of me on it… I can't find her anywhere…"

"Oh… I know who you're talking about," Felicity said and mirrored Kristen by looking around. "Nah, I can't see her. She's probably left already."

Kristen yawned again but sat up straight to see better. "Yeah, could be… but she didn't get a photo or anything. I think we got some Twilight Zone shit going on, girl."

"Kristen, we've got a lot of things on the agenda now… hell, a ton of things," Felicity said and rubbed her weary brow. "We can obviously look for her, but right now it's more important to collect the chairs and take down the dais… and the sound system and all that. We're supposed to have it ready so the crew from PartyPeople Rentals can pick it up tomorrow morning at seven. I'm tellin' ya, there's no way I'm gonna come in at a quarter past six in the damn morning to finish up, and I know you won't either, so it needs to be done tonight."

"Yeah, I hear ya, girl… but we've got someone missing. We just need to do both. I'll look for her. You can-"

"Pack up the chairs," Felicity grumbled, shooting the colorful, young woman a sideways glance. "Yeah, all right. But when I say we need a hand, it's not to scratch our asses, okay?"

"Don't sweat it. I'll be there when you need me. Someone else needs me now." Patting Felicity's thigh, Kristen rose from the sofa and began to look at - and under - the nearest aisles that were still crammed full of books though no one had bothered to look at any of them while the performance had been going on. The initial search didn't yield anything, so she shrugged and began to mingle.

The fans who were still there squealed when their heroine stepped up to them, and a few more selfies were snapped now that they had a golden opportunity to do so. Kristen mugged for the cameras and played along with her fans' wishes, but she kept an eye on each finger trying to work out where the purple-haired girl could have gone to. "Hey, friends," she said, shuffling over towards a cluster of young women clad in black, "didya happen to see a girl with purple hair that kinda went down into her eyes?  And a home-made T-shirt?  She's sorta missing."

All she got out of the line of questioning was a mix of "no," "can't remember her," and "I saw her, but that was a long time ago," which didn't bring her any closer to finding Dana.

The fans drifted away save for the last few diehards, but even they had other things on their mind following the latest round of selfie-snapping. Kristen mingled like a pro and touched as many as she could by thumping guy-fists and offering squealing girl-hugs just to give the last remaining few an extra little thrill.

Over by the bathroom, Cathy let out a grunt which was soon followed by a "What in the flaming hell?  The bathroom door is jammed!  Hey, open up in there, I gotta go something fierce!"

Kristen came to an abrupt stop in the middle of the floor. Furrowing her brow, she stared at the handle on the bathroom door - it was drooping like it wasn't connected to anything inside. "Aw hell… Cathy!  Cathy, I'll bet Dana's in there," she said and hurried over to the bathroom using far more speed than she had shown for a month.

"Could be. It's screwed, that's a fact," the earthy woman said, trying to yank the door handle around. She gave up when all she succeeded in doing was to make the metal appliance rattle and squeak. "… and who the hell's Dana?"

Kristen scrunched up her face as she moved over to the door. "One of the fans… she's probably been in there a while," she said before she knelt down and put her mouth at the keyhole so her voice would travel better. "Hey!  Hey, Dana!  Can you hear me?  Are you in there?"

'Kristen?  Oh God, Kristen, I can hear you!' a tearful voice replied. A few bumps were heard that were followed by a scratching sound on the door's panel. 'The door's jammed shut!  I can't get out!'

"Shit," Kristen said and put her hands behind her head while she gathered her wits. "Shit, shit, shit, she's been in there for… shit!  Dana, are you hurt?"


"Okay. That's good. Can you try to jerk the handle around?"

'I can't!  It fell on the floor when I wanted to leave…'

"Okay. Uh… sit tight!" Standing up, Kristen rubbed her mouth while she looked at Cathy. "She's locked up in the shithouse. What the hell should we do?"

"At least she's got the can at her disposal," Cathy said and crossed her legs. When it wasn't enough to stem the tide that threatened to spill over at the first hiccup, she crossed her eyes as well. "I need to go something awful… if I don't find a can pretty Goddamned soon, we'll have another little problem to mop up."

"Ew, girl… wouldya mind not pissing on the floor?  There's a bathroom over by the cafeteria…"

Cathy sneered in a good-natured fashion as she inched away from the bathroom and over to the Bookworm Sanctuary's main entrance. She left in a hurry, needing to take care of business before it would take care of her.

The commotion reached the office where Sandra had been busy making fruit pulp juice and healthy sandwiches for those who were about to work hard disassembling the stage. She peeked out of the office holding a slice of toast in one hand and a crisp lettuce leaf in the other. "What's going on, Kristen?  What's all the hubbub about?"

"We've got a girl jammed up in the shithouse… the handle's busted."

"Oh… uh…" Sandra said, looking at the food she was holding. She hurried back into the office and put the items down on the metal desk where she was making the refreshments. Ten seconds later, she came to a stop at the bathroom door to survey the situation. "Yes… it's broken," she continued as she yanked at the drooping, rattling handle.

Grunting at the undeniable truth to Sandra's statement, Kristen knelt down to be at the keyhole in case Dana would say anything to her, but all she could hear was a series of quiet sobs. "Dana, are you still okay in there?" she said, molding her lips around the little hole.

'I'm scared and I wanna get out!'

"We're trying, girl. Just hang on, yeah?"

Sandra wrung her hands again and again while she stared at the broken door handle. "Maybe a screwdriver?" she said and bent down to take a closer look at the offending item. "The lock's beyond repair as it is. We might as well break it down."

"Wait a minute, wait a minute," Felicity said, hurrying over to the bathroom door after putting down a stack of chairs - she was the only one who adhered to what her detailed plan said they should be working on. "Not sure I like the sound of that… break what down?"

"The bathroom door," Sandra said, wrapping an arm around the rotund administrator's waist. "There's a girl trapped in there."

Groaning out loud, Felicity looked towards the padded tiles in the ceiling. "Shit!  That was all we needed. All right… let's try a screwdriver first."

"Ha, that's what I said!"

"There's one in the desk drawer. No, I'll get it, I know exactly where it is," Felicity said and ran into the office.


Part 3

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