It’s the perfect day to cuddle up with a good book. The rain alternates between drizzling and pounding, as it has been for the last week. Anna built a fire before she left for her ukulele class an hour ago, so the entire house is nice, warm, and quiet. She also brewed a large pot of tea, so Hael doesn’t have to disrupt Hester’s nap anymore than she already has to for bathroom breaks.
The only problem is that Hael doesn’t have any books to read.
Looking at hers and Anna’s bookshelf, no one would think that. It is overflowing with books, every possible nook and cranny filled. So many different worlds to immerse oneself in, filled with the future, magic, personified animals, dragons, relationships, intrigue, information, possibilities.
She’s already lost herself in those worlds, though. They’re familiar, comforting, accustomed; Hael craves something new, something she hasn’t held before or touched.
And here two more problems arise.
The first is that Hael doesn’t want to leave the warm house to go get more books. Today is a day to be lazy, and Hael wants to indulge herself that. This would be where that e-reader Hannah offered to buy her for her birthday last June would’ve come in handy, but Hael likes having a real copy of a book in her hands, likes to turn the pages, smell them, trace her fingers over the ink and feel the words branding her mind.
The second problem is that Hael doesn’t have money to buy more books. If she goes to the bookstore, even knowing her limited budget, she’s going to grab much more than she can afford, because the books at her favorite used bookstore tend to be cheap, interesting, obscure, and transitory, so if she doesn’t get them right then then she’ll miss her chance with them.
Her gaze slides over to Hester. The cat’s breath rises and falls slowly with sleep. Reaching out, Hael scratches at her exposed stomach, and immediately Hester awakes with a startled mew, only to realize she’s been woken by pets, and she closes her eyes and melts further against Hael’s leg. Hael smiles down at her as she begins to purr.
“Sorry, Hester,” Hael murmurs. She pulls her hand away and shimmies out from under the blanket, trying not to feel guilty when Hester lifts her head and implores with those bug eyes of hers why she’s leaving and has stopped scratching her. “I’ll be back soon, I promise,” she says, giving her head a light scratch. She goes to her room to pick something comfortable to wear out of the house: yoga pants, a hand-me-down shirt with a penguin on the front, and a large jacket.
She leaves a note for Anna telling her where she’s gone, even though she doesn’t think her older sister will be home before her. Anna’s ukulele classes are only an hour long, but she likes to go out with her friends afterward, which can take anywhere from two to five hours. Hael grabs her bag, slips on her shoes, and locks the door behind her. Rain falls softly on her, wetting her hair and running cold streaks down her scalp and neck. The atmosphere is so pleasantly green and grey, the way only rainy days like this can be. The air hits her lungs, fresh, damp, cool. Her eyes close as she inhales again. Perfect.
The sound of a car racing down the road brings Hael back to her purpose. Buying new books. She blinks open her eyes.
The house she shares with Anna - rented from their aunt - is on the edge of the University district, only a few blocks away from the hole-in-the-wall boutiques and restaurants that make up a majority of the district. If Hael really wanted to, a bus that stops directly across the street from her house, and would drop her off meters away from her destination, but she wants to walk, to feel the crisp air in her lungs and the rain soak into her. She steps off the stoop and begins walking down the sidewalk.
Novak Novels is somewhat of a misleading handle, since they stock literature of any length, fiction and nonfiction alike, but Hael can appreciate the alliteration. A woman by the name of Amelia Novak opened the shop several years ago; Hael remembers the grand opening where she bought over two dozen books, and Amelia gave her two slices of celebratory cake instead of one.
The store is tucked between a laundromat that always gives off an artificial lavender scent and an out of business pizza parlor. Bells chime to announce Hael’s arrival when she opens the door, and the perfume of used books and ink hangs heavy in the heated air. There doesn’t appear to be anyone here, even behind the checkout counter. Never once has Hael been here where Amelia or her business partner, Daphne, aren’t smiling and welcoming Hael back.
“Hello?” Hael calls out. She takes slow steps deeper into the store, worry budding in her gut. Where is everybody?
Hael is about to investigate the back room when the door chimes behind her. Whirling around, she catches sight of a woman about Hael’s age with long, flaxen hair, a comfortable chic, and a to-go bag from the Roadhouse across the street in her hand. Her small, full lips part.
“Oh, um,” Hael starts, a warm blush blooming in her cheeks.
“I was just getting lunch,” the woman says, turning to gesture at the Roadhouse with her to-go bag, eyes never leaving Hael’s. “You need anything? I’m filling in for my mom while she’s in Cicero.”
“No,” Hael says. “I was just wondering where anybody was. You’re Amelia’s daughter? Claire?” She knew Amelia had a daughter, but she always imagined her… differently. She imagined Claire having her mother’s curls but her father’s dark hair color; striking features to match her parent’s cheekbones, Amelia’s nose and eyebrows, Jimmy’s mouth. Instead, Claire’s features are her own, soft, though the expression she wears is strong. She does have her father’s eyes, though. The same shape, the same ocean blue shade, the same intensity.
She’s staring. It isn’t polite to stare at people, but Hael can’t help herself. She notes the evenness of her skin tone, her small teeth as she opens her mouth to speak, her button nose, the fan of small eyelashes fringing her eyes, the manicured eyebrows above.
Hael is pretty sure she’s seen Claire’s likeness looking back at her in her art history textbooks, hidden in the Renaissance era, captured by Frederic Leighton, or displayed in a museum. Great poets no doubt took inspiration from her.
Hael is in trouble.
Claire gives a small smile. “Yeah. Mom’s talked about me?”
“Some,” Hael responds and swallows. She hopes she doesn’t look as stupefied as she feels. “She said you were studying medicine at UW.”
“I’m only pre-med right now. I’ll be taking the MCAT in a few weeks, though. Been studying my ass off for them.”
“I’m sure you’ll do well,” Hael assures Claire with a smile that Claire mirrors. Butterflies take flight in Hael’s stomach. “Amelia said you graduated high school with honors.”
“That’s a walk in the park compared to medicine,” Claire says, moving around Hael, who turns her whole body to watch her meander behind the counter. Claire grabs a sign off the cash register that Hael missed earlier, one saying We’ll be back later; she throws it in a drawer. “There’s the coursework, which is a bitch on it’s own, but between classes and studying I have volunteer activities and clinical experience. I hardly have time to sleep or eat!” She dumps her to-go bag on the counter and fishes a sleeve of fries from it. “It’ll be worth it, though. I’m getting into cardiology. I’ll be the best cardiologist in the state. Save people like my dad before their families get torn up, you know?”
“That’s noble.” Hael nods once. The butterflies multiply.
“What about you? You in school?”
“I’m a freshman at Cornish,” Hael responds, her defenses rising. Hael has met her fair share of people who believe an art degree is a waste, that she should spend her time studying something “more important”. Those people infuriate her to no end. What if Claire is one of them? Hael may have only just met her, but she will be disappointed if Claire turns her nose at Hael’s passion.
To Hael’s relief, Claire says, “Oh, nice. What’s your focus? I have a friend there now - a senior. She’s in the theatre department. She really likes it down there.”
“It’s a nice school,” Hael agrees. “I haven’t decided on a major yet. Art and design are equally appealing.”
“You’re young yet; you have time.” Claire lifts Hael a smile. She grabs a couple fries, chews, and swallows before going on. “I’m sure you didn’t come out in this weather just to talk about school, though, right? I mean, it’s winter break; school’s supposed to be the last thing on our minds.” Claire wipes at her mouth with a brown napkin.
“You’re the one who kept up the conversation!”
“Only because you started it!”
Hael chuckles. Her smile hurts to keep up, especially with the blush burning her cheeks, but at the same time it’s impossible to suppress. A wave of warmth fills her chest, bursts out until it tingles all the way to the tips of her fingers and toes.
Hael realizes, when her fingers perch on the smooth, weathered wood of the checkout, that during their conversation she’s gravitated closer and closer to Claire, until the only thing separating them is the counter. Claire smiles at her.
“Seriously, though, what can I do you for?”
“Um,” Hael starts gauchely. If she were Anna, she would smoothly reply “How about your number?” But she is not Anna, so she says, “I don’t know. I just want something - new. It seems like I’ve read every book there is. I need something different.”
“Well, what’s different for you?” Claire asks. “What are you usually into?”
Women, the Anna in her head urges to reply.
That wouldn’t even make sense, Hael responds to her, then she feels silly, having a conversation with her sister psyche while Claire waits for her to answer.
“Fiction,” Hael says at last. She focuses back on the present in time to see Claire take another bite of her burger and nod. “Mostly women’s fiction. And science fiction.”
Claire nods again. “Nice choice,” she says around another bite of fries. Swallowing and with an apologetic grimace, she adds, “Sorry. I haven’t eaten all day. My mom raised me better than this.”
“Then I won’t tell her,” Hael promises with a secret smile. A thrill of excitement zings through her when Claire responds in kind, greasy lips pressed in a simper.
Several long seconds pass as the two of them stare openly at each other. Hael finds herself drowning in Claire’s blue eyes. How could she think of them as Jimmy’s eyes? They belong to Claire, they are her own. While Jimmy’s eyes were beautiful, they weren’t as captivating as Claire’s, not by half.
The spell over them eventually breaks. Claire wipes her mouth again and looks down at a rack of bookmarks beside the register. Her cheeks are pink. “Is there - Is there anything else?”
Confused, Hael echoes, “Anything else?”
Claire lifts her gaze back to Hael. “Books.”
“Oh! Um - Show me something. Your favorite book. I’ll trust your judgement.”
“You sure?” Claire counters. “My taste’s pretty different from yours.”
“I’m looking for something different,” Hael reminds Claire, holding her gaze and not letting go. She’s been told by her peers that her stare can be intimidating, but Claire hasn’t backed down yet, and she doesn’t look like she will anytime soon. The corner of Claire’s mouth lifts up.
“I think I can hook you up.” She towels off her hands and grins at Hael conspiratorially before waving her hand for Hael to follow her. “Come on.”
Helpless but to comply, Hael follows. Claire leads her through the thin walkways bordered by books and books and books, through a doorway, and to the part of the store marketed toward children. Normally, after school and on days where the rain doesn’t discourage going out, this area is teeming with children, supervised by Eve. Now, it is silent save for the patter of rain on the roof.
“Maybe I’m too old for it,” Claire begins, crouching down to scan the books on the lowest shelf, “but my favorite book is The Golden Compass.”
“I haven’t heard of it,” Hael says. She sits down next to Claire, folding her legs but not sitting on them. “What’s it about?”
At Hael’s admittance, Claire rounds on her disbelievingly. Suddenly they’re much closer to each other than they’ve ever been. Hael’s breath stutters. “You haven’t heard of The Golden Compass?”
“No - no, I just said I haven’t,” Hael repeats. “What’s it about?”
"It’s about this girl named Lyra," Claire says with a grin. "She’s only thirteen, but she’s really smart. She has this… they’re called dæmons, which are kind of like a spirit animal, like this manifest of a person’s soul. Everybody’s got a dæmon, and hers is called Panteleimon. Anyway, one day Lyra’s uncle shows up, and then she starts getting mixed up with all sorts of nasty stuff, like stolen children, witches, crazy people called Gobblers - it’s really cool, you’ll like it. It’s probably not so different from what you read, but since you haven’t read it…."
Claire picks a book from the shelf, using her index finger to tip it out of alignment from the others. The book is well-worn with a grey paperback cover that features an animal and a portion of a star map. Embossed in the center of the front is the author’s name as well as the title. PHILIP PULLMAN. THE GOLDEN COMPASS. Claire smiles down at the book wistfully. Then, with a large exhale, she passes it over to Hael.
Taking care of the creased spine, Hael leafs through the book. It isn’t very old, but the smell of aging paper and ink blows in her face. She inhales deeply, eyelids fluttering. The end of the book comes abruptly, and Hael snaps herself back to the present, where a beautiful young woman is by her side. She turns the book over in her hands to touch the golden emboss. A smile grows on her lips.
“Yes, I’ll take this one,” Hael declares. She looks back up to catch Claire staring at her. Claire’s cheeks turn pink and she quickly averts her eyes.
“Will that be all for you today?” Claire asks. She wets her lips with her tongue.
“No,” Hael replies slowly, not even aware of what she’s saying or doing until the words are out of her mouth and she’s leaning forward. Her eyes are focused on Claire’s lips, then her lids flutter closed, and Hael doesn’t need to see anymore because she feels. She feels Claire’s lips, soft and gradual, against her own. She feels hands draw The Golden Compass out of her hold. She feels her heartbeat fly, and she feels the fireworks going off inside her.
She feels the breath Claire exhales on her wet lips when they part.
She feels the world start spinning again.
“Wow,” Claire whispers. Her eyes are wide and her pupils are dilated. Hael probably looks the same. Amazed, wonderstruck, dazzled. She nods to agree with Claire’s remark.
“I’ve never kissed a girl before,” Claire admits quietly. No shame crosses her face, for which Hael is grateful. “That was nice.”
Hael can only nod some more.
When Anna comes home later that afternoon, she finds Hael and Hester exactly where they were before she left: curled up together on the sofa. Hester squints her eyes open to acknowledge Anna’s arrival, but Hael doesn’t look up from her book to do the same.
“You haven’t moved all day,” Anna remarks as she toes off her shoes and shrugs off her coat. She places the coat on a hook above the fireplace to dry off. When she turns back to Hael, who only turns a page and continues reading, Anna smiles. She knows the look of a good book when she sees it; she won’t disturb Hael any further until she hears the book inevitably colliding with the wall.