Marisol Mendez was eleven years old and, therefore, should not have been so nervous standing outside the perfectly ordinary door. She steeled herself, took several deep breaths, and knocked just below the metal number ‘13’. She hoped it wasn’t a sign. She could hear the click of high heels, a familiar sound, and then the door creaked open. The woman at the door was not at all who she was expecting. She was blonde for a start. And white. Marisol certainly hadn’t been expecting that.
“Who are you?” the woman asked and her voice was husky and rough, like she smoked a pack of cigarettes a day.
“My name’s Marisol,” she said. “Happy Birthday, Mom.”
-- From ‘The Queen and the Saviour’ by R. C. Mills
Mary Margaret’s father is the one that finds the apartment. It’s in Chelsea, next to a backpackers and across the road from a police station. They’d never be able to afford it on Emma’s minimal savings while she searches for a job and Mary Margaret’s stipend for her post-graduate studies. But Leo Blanchard, who has always sort of given Emma the creeps, buys the loft apartment, calling it a real estate investment, and charges them a pittance in rent.
Emma takes the tiny room, set above the main space and accessible only by a rickety ladder. It’s barely big enough for a single bed and kitset wardrobe and it’s only fair, after all, that Mary Margaret gets the larger space curtained off in one corner of the loft. It also means Emma gets a modicum of privacy, which for the introverted Emma is beyond important.
“We’re going to be so happy here,” Mary Margaret says, wrapping her arms around Emma’s neck on move in day. Emma, lugging a box full of her roommate’s books, makes gagging noises and kicks her gently in the shin. Her own meagre possessions are already in the apartment, a duffle full of clothes and a box of treasures. Mary Margaret gets sentimental about books and ornaments and bullshit like that, which will make their apartment seem homey. They’d got the basics from Ikea the week before and had them delivered yesterday.
“Yeah,” Emma says, just barely resisting the urge to lie down on the wooden floor in the sun and just bask, cat-like. One of the best things about the place is the large windows, which let in the afternoon sun.
Leo enters, puffing slightly from the stairs and a box of linen under his arm. “I think that’s everything, ladies,” he says, dropping the box and pushing thinning grey hair back from his face. “Do you girls want to grab a bite? My treat.”
Mary Margaret nods; her father is leaving shortly, back to Portland where she’s from. Emma, feigning a desire to give them their space, declines. She needs time to herself. So while Leo and Mary Margaret head in one direction, Emma walks in the other, finding a grocery store and stocking up on the essentials, pasta and milk and coffee. On her way back, she stops at a bakery, buying a box of pastries.
Then she sees it. The bookshop. It’s adorable, nestled in between a stationery store and the bakery. The sign above the door creaks, reading The Rabbit Hole. A bit twee, Emma thinks, but she’s mostly just impressed that there are still independent bookstores functioning. There’s a sign in the window, yellowed and stuck up with tape that’s curling at the edges: Help wanted. On impulse, Emma enters.
It smells like cinnamon and old books and coffee and there are small children in just about every corner, poring over picture books or reading novels. There’s one girl, glasses perched on the end of her nose, squinting at a ‘Percy Jackson’ novel. She barks out a laugh and tugs on the end of one of her braids. Emma can’t help the reluctant smile that curves across her face.
“Can I help you, hon?” a shop assistant, name badge reading ‘Ruby’, asks. She’s tall and long-limbed with a mane of dark, straight hair, streaked with red. She’s carting a box of books, which she rests on the counter, leaning against the counter. She’s not exactly dressed for working with children, in a midriff baring shirt and shorts that show off an expanse of slim, pale legs.
“Hey,” Emma says, balancing grocery bags and the box of pastries. “I was wondering about the job. Is it still going?”
“Oh,” Ruby says, grinning. There’s something feral about her grin, too wide and teeth too bright. “Yeah, that’s been up for a while. You’ll be wanting Lacey then. She owns this joint.” She leans across the counter, granting Emma a view of her pert ass, and yells, “Oi, Lace.”
Emma’s not sure what to expect but it’s not the woman who enters from what she assumes must be the stockroom. Lacey’s really young to own a business and a little grungy and doesn’t seem particularly interested in resumes or references or anything normal. “You like books?” she asks, pulling her thick dark hair back into something that approximates a bun and securing it with an elastic band.
“Yeah,” Emma says.
“Favourite kid’s book?” She’s got a really strong Australian accent, and it takes Emma’s ears a moment to adjust.
“’The Secret Garden’,” she says. She doesn’t have to think about it. It’s the only book she owns – the rest on her e-reader – and it’s been with her since she was a kid, bought for her by her social worker after her third family didn’t work out. It was new then, its hardcover spine smooth and shiny. Emma had treasured it but like all things it had grown old, pages yellowed now and the illustration on the front cover faded. She’d related to the crotchety, unwanted Mary more than she could possibly say.
Lacey nods. “A classic. What would you recommend for a twelve-year-old boy to read?”
“What stuff does the boy like reading?” Emma asks. “I’m not big on, like, ponies are for girls and trains are for boys.” Ruby nods appreciatively and Lacey almost looks like she might smile.
“You got any experience in retail, lady?”
“I spent my time at college making coffee and waiting tables,” Emma says, not mentioning the fact that she dropped out of college at end of her sophomore year. “I’ve spent the past few years working for a bounty hunter in Maine. No bookshop work but I’m a quick study. And the name’s Emma, not lady.”
Lacey sizes her up, gaze drifting from Emma’s hair, which she knows must be frizzy and sweat soaked from the oppressive heat, to the dust-smeared tank top, cut off shorts and flip-flops. Emma shifts from foot to foot, the handles of the grocery bags cutting into her sweaty palms. “You want a trial?” Lacey asks eventually. “One week. Start at eight tomorrow. Pay’s a bit shit but I can give you full time work and health insurance if you pass muster.”
Emma grins. “Yeah, that’d be great. Do you want me to bring my references and stuff?”
Lacey doesn’t bother responding, turning on her heel and heading out the back again. “She likes you,” Ruby says and she wraps her arms around Emma, hugging her, and Emma has to fight off the urge to shy away. “Oh my God, I am so relieved. Ari quit three months ago to go be one with the sea and Lacey has been a total picky bitch about the whole thing and I was seriously contemplating murder because at least prison would be a day off.”
Emma returns to the apartment with a smile that refuses to leave her face and finds Mary Margaret unpacking. Well, she’s found the coffee machine and put up paintings on the brick walls, even if the kitchen table is as yet unassembled. “Good walk?” she asks. There’s a smear of grime across her forehead from where she’s obviously pushed her short hair back with a dirty hand. “Oh, you darling. You bought coffee beans. The grinder’s here somewhere.” She rummages around in a cupboard.
“And pastries,” Emma says, shaking the box. Grease has started to seep through the cardboard, creating darkened patches. “I also got a job, I think.”
“What?” Water overflows from the coffee pot before she has the nous to turn off the taps.
“Yeah,” Emma says, opening the pastries. They’re a bit battered, the icing melting off a chocolate donut, but otherwise unharmed. “There’s a children’s bookshop on the way to the grocery store and they had a sign up. The lady who owns it is a bit of a kook but apparently she liked me, offered me a trial starting tomorrow.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful, Emma!” This would be Mary Margaret’s dream job – she’s been accepted into the masters in children’s writing programme at the New School – but she’s too kind to feel bitter or envious or anything but totally, 100 percent happy for Emma.
It’s not that Emma doesn’t like books, she does. She got a bit addicted to Young Adult literature since she became friends with Mary Margaret, who would hand her copies of ‘The Queen of Atolia’ and ‘Eleanor and Park’ like she was dealing crack. But it’s not her passion like it is her friend’s. They were roommates in their first year of college – though Emma’s a couple of years older than her – and have lived together pretty much ever since. Mary Margaret knows when to give Emma space and when to make her talk, and Emma grounds her from her occasional flights of fancy.
“I think we should celebrate,” Emma says and the damn smile just won’t disappear. “Coffee and pastries?”
“Do you even need to ask?” Mary Margaret replies and turns the grinder on so that the only sound for the next little while is the buzz of coffee being ground and the smell of coffee permeates the apartment.
Yeah, all in all, a pretty damn good day.
The next day, Emma arrives at the bookshop at five to eight, the morning already warming up and she’s regretting her decision to wear dress slacks. Ruby grins when Emma knocks at the door and opens it for her. Lacey, still gruff, looks her over. “You’re over-dressed, buddy.”
“You don’t look much like the owner of a children’s book shop,” Emma says. Lacey’s in Doc Martens, hair in a style Emma might generously refer to as a bird’s nest rather than a big old mess and cut off denim shorts. She’s wearing a ratty tee-shirt with the cover of ‘Catcher in the Rye’ on it, which Emma supposes is something.
“Never had any complaints, smart ass,” Lacey replies, though a grin curves across her face. “Ruby’s going to train you. I’m busy.” She snakes an arm around Ruby’s waist, fingers splaying across the gap between shorts and tank top, before disappearing into the stock room-cum-office out the back.
“So,” Ruby says. “Where do you want to start?”
“Are you guys a couple?” Emma asks. It just pops out and she regrets it the moment she says it. God, how invasive could she possibly be?
“Married,” Ruby says, flashing a thin gold band on her finger. “Going on two years now.”
“Nice,” Emma says. “So, what are my duties?”
Ruby grins and launches into a spiel about the tills and the stock. “Lacey expects us to read one new book a week,” she says. “It’s part of your pay. Choose wisely. I’m the picture book queen so you can do middle grade or young adult.”
“God, my roommate is going to be insanely jealous,” Emma says. “She’s starting her masters in children’s writing next week.”
“Nice for some,” Ruby says. “Tell her to come by. We can give friends and family discount.”
Emma spends the day putting away stock and learning how the crotchety old till works. At eleven thirty she heads into the bakery next door and gets coffee in a take-out cup and a bear claw. “You Lacey’s new’un?” the woman, whose name tag reads Rory, asks. She’s got long brown hair, tied back in a braid, and skin that looks like she hasn’t seen the sun in a while.
“For my sins,” Emma says. “I don’t think she likes me much.”
“Lace doesn’t like anyone. Except maybe Ruby, and even then I’m not so sure. I’m Rory,” the girl says, holding out a hand. It’s wonderfully formal and Emma shakes it, looking the girl’s nails, which are encrusted with coffee grounds. “Aurora, really. My parents were hippies.”
“Emma.” She looks around at the décor, the dark walls and twisted, surreal paintings seeming to be at odds with the chipper princess in front of her. “This is your place?”
Rory laughs, the sound high and tinkling, and moves over to the coffee machine. “Nah, my godmother owns it. I’m the manager though.” She hands over the coffee and Emma takes a seat in the corner of the shop to eat.
About ten minutes later, a woman enters and Rory rushes out from behind the counter and wraps her arms around her neck, kissing her, heedless of the queue building. The woman blushes scarlet and extricates herself from Rory’s grip, brushing straight black hair behind her ears. Rory whispers in her ear and a moment later, the woman is sitting down across from Emma. “Hi,” she says. “Rory says I should talk to you because you’re ‘new and cool and I need more friends who aren’t work colleagues’. I’m really sorry.”
Emma shrugs. “I probably need more friends too,” she says. “You can sit here.”
They sit in remarkably companionable silence for ten minutes and it’s because of that that Emma knows she’s met someone who might quite possibly be her soul mate. “So, what’s your name?” she asks and the woman laughs.
“I wondered who was going to be first to break the silence. I’m Mulan,” she says. “Rory said your name was Emma.”
“Mulan’s a gym teacher,” Rory says, coming over with a coffee and a slice of lemon tart for Mulan. “Just round the corner at the elementary school.”
Emma nods. “I’ve got to get back,” she says, wiping her mouth of any bear claw remnants and standing. Rory picks up her rubbish and returns to the counter. “Nice to meet you both.”
“You should come out for drinks with us one Friday,” Rory says and Mulan nods.
Emma agrees and, both their phone numbers now programmed into her cell phone, she returns to the shop, where Ruby is in a state and Lacey has quite literally barricaded herself behind her desk with boxes of books. “What’s up?”
“We’re having a book launch,” Ruby says. “We’ve never had one before.”
“This is your fault,” Lacey calls out from behind the boxes. “I would’ve said no.”
“You don’t say no to someone like R. C. Mills,” Ruby snaps.
“Who?” Emma asks.
“Oh my God,” Ruby says. “Have you been living under a rock? R. C. Mills. She writes the ‘Marisol Mendez’ series.” Emma screws up her face in confusion. “They’re the biggest thing for the under twelves.” She scurries to a bookshelf, grabs a book and shoves it at her. “Mills is, like, this reclusive genius. She never does book tours or talks or launches. No one knows anything about her. But she’s launching the fourth book in the series in a week and her agent’s asked us to do it.”
Emma looks at the cover of the book, navy blue with a shimmering picture of an apple and a sword. The Queen and the Saviour is emblazoned in embossed golden letters and smaller below it is R. C. Mills. “Cute,” Emma says.
“They’re about fairy tale characters living in small town Maine,” Ruby says. “They’re pretty cool. This latest one’s about Little Red Riding Hood apparently.”
“They’re amazing. Mills is amazing,” Lacey says, emerging from behind the barricade. “And we have to host a launch and I don’t have a fucking clue what I’m doing.” Emma looks around, hoping that kids sitting in the bean bags near the counter and giggling over ‘The Little Mole Who Knew it was none of his Business’ heard Lacey swear.
“Buy in food from next door,” Emma says. “Send out an email invite to your customers and industry people. Organise with Mills’ people to have someone launch it. Someone famous. Mills speaks, reads from the book, we all cheer, people eat food, drink wine or cheap orange juice. Easy.” She shrugs. It’s not like she’s ever done one before, but Mary Margaret dragged her along to a couple when they were back Maine and they followed the same pattern.
Lacey looks like she might kiss Emma. “Okay,” she says. “You’re now officially in charge of publicity at The Rabbit Hole.”
“Does that come with a pay rise?” Emma asks. Lacey rolls her eyes. Still, as she puts together an invite based on the stuff that’s been emailed through from Mills’ agent, she’s feeling pretty pleased with herself. She might just have this job longer than a week.