Alma settled herself on the couch and propped the book against her knees. It was worn at the edges, and some of the pages were feathered and soft, like they had been thumbed through time after time.
She opened the cover again to look at the ink on the inside page. It was dark and fresh, stark against the dusky paper. Richard Spier.
Alma smiled to herself and turned to the first chapter.
She didn't really mean to read it. But she found herself turning pages as the sun dimmed outside, the light growing to a rich yellow and then fading pale until she had to reach behind herself to turn the lamp on.
She found herself shifting uncomfortably sometimes at some of the content, her teeth worrying her lower lip. Now and then she'd smile to herself and commit a line or two to memory.
Jane came home, but Alma only murmured a brief greeting, her eyes still glued to the pages.
She made herself a sandwich when it was dark outside and when the clock had chimed three times more than she thought it would. She stretched and took the book to bed with her, finally closing it again sometime in the thinner hours of morning, the silvery moon bright and high.
She shrugged herself beneath the blankets and gazed at the closed book, which sat on her bedside table next to a glass of water and a pile of coloured bangles.
Sleep eventually beckoned, and despite how late it was when Alma finally succumbed to it, she felt rested and content when she woke again the next morning.
Alma stood behind a row of varied dictionaries, shifting her weight from foot to foot. She had dressed carefully, choosing a blouse that didn't seem as faded as the rest of them and stepping into a skirt her mother had often complimented her on.
She looked down at herself, not really sure why it suddenly mattered so much.
She gripped the book tightly – mostly to stop her hands from shaking – and took a deep breath before she stepped around the safe barrier of the bookshelves, into view.
He didn't look up. He was running his finger down the index in the back of one of his textbooks. Alma suddenly wondered if it was wise to disturb him.
She looked down at the book again, bit her lip, and headed for his table. Her heart beat heavily in her chest and her stomach swirled with butterflies.
She cleared her throat softly and breathed in a gentle gasp of air before she spoke. "Excuse me," she whispered. She could feel a blush rising in her cheeks as a wave of self-consciousness washed over her.
He looked up, and his eyes locked on hers. Alma's racing heart skipped a beat.
She held the book out, gazing helplessly at him with wide eyes. "I think you left this here, yesterday," she said.
His eyes dropped to the book in her hands, and she saw him blink as he recognised it.
"Oh," he said, faint surprise tinting his voice. "Yes, that's mine. Thank you." He took it from her hands and looked up to smile his thanks.
Alma smiled back, her face feeling rather warm. "You're welcome." She hesitated a moment, her hands clasping themselves together in front of her. "I read it," she admitted suddenly. "I hope you don't mind."
He smiled at her again, wider this time, and Alma gazed at him, transfixed.
"No, of course not," he answered. "Did you enjoy it?"
She wondered suddenly if she was bothering him – if he was merely being polite to humour her. But the smile on his face lingered, and his eyes shone at her from behind his glasses. They were blue. Alma had never been close enough to notice before.
"I was up all night reading it," she confessed. She shifted her weight, still feeling shy and exposed as she stood beside him.
He turned the book over in his hands, his thumb stroking down the spine. Alma felt a shiver run through her.
"I haven't had the time to read it yet," he said. "I bought it at a book sale a few weeks ago and I've been carrying it around ever since."
"It's not for class?" she heard herself ask. She bit her lip again and glanced down at the textbooks covering the table in front of him. She hoped she wasn't bothering him.
"No," he answered. He smiled at her again. "Thank you for returning it. I hadn't realised I'd lost it."
"You're welcome," Alma said again, and she took his second thanks to mean the conversation was over. She lowered her head, smiling shyly at him again before she hurried back to the desk. She busied herself with the book cart, breathing rapidly, willing her heart to slow down and her face to return to its normal colour.
She wasn't sure if it was just fanciful thinking or not – but she thought she could feel his eyes on her as she sorted the books in front of her.
He set a book down on the counter after carefully gathering his things. The book was thick and heavy and Alma was convinced it was for class, not pleasure.
She carefully wrote the due date on a thin slip of card, feeling his eyes on her for sure now. She tucked the card into the pocket on the inside of the back cover.
"I think you'll enjoy To Kill a Mockingbird better," she said, sliding the heavy library book back across the counter to him.
He gave her a wide, easy grin, and her heart skipped and drummed again at the warmth and readiness of it. "I don't doubt I will," he said, and he tucked the book under his arm, glancing back at her once before he reached the door.
Alma had a smile on her face for the rest of the afternoon.
Alma sat outside the campus library, her face turned up to the sun, her hands busy as she dreamily braided her hair. It was a break between classes, and the weather was so nice she'd decided to sit outside instead of retreating to her usual shadowy corner between the towering bookshelves in the library.
Sometimes she wondered if she would ever be daring enough to approach Richard Spier and share the large wooden table where he always sat. There was more than enough room for one person.
She doubted she would ever work up the courage, but it was nice to dream for a while, imagining herself approaching him and casually asking him if the seat opposite was taken.
She reached the end of her braid and realised she had nothing to secure it. She dropped her hand and the braid loosened slightly, but kept its form over her left shoulder.
It was pure chance – luck, she thought – that caused her to look up and catch Richard Spier's eye as he strolled toward the library doors.
He smiled at her and nodded his head.
Alma's hand fluttered a nervous wave in return.
It made Alma anxious when Jane insisted upon whispering and talking in class. Alma just wanted to sit and concentrate, taking notes and writing down her assignments. Besides, it was rude to talk.
"It's a boy, right?" Jane whispered in Alma's ear.
Alma blinked and tilted away from Jane's whisper. "What do you mean?" she whispered back, sending a nervous glance to the professor at the front of the room.
"The reason you're so starry-eyed lately," Jane whispered, smiling knowingly. "You're thinking about a boy."
Alma felt her face growing red. "Don't be silly," she whispered back. She bent over her notes. "I'm trying to concentrate, Jane."
She was lost.
She gazed up at the nearest street sign worriedly. It meant nothing to her.
She frowned, trying not to dissolve into a hopeless case of frustrated, worried tears.
It's only Stoneybrook, she thought, trying to calm herself down. The town isn't that big, Alma. You can find your way. Just stop and think for a moment.
Compared to Maynard, Stoneybrook was enormous. Maynard was a narrow dirt road bordered by houses and fields. The few roads that did sprout off from Main Street were straight and open, and Alma knew precisely where they all went.
Stoneybrook was sprawling and winding, the streets curving off into random directions and doubling back on themselves. There were dead ends and wide, irregular blocks and properties that forced her out of her way before she could find another street to cross into. Streets that should have been short were long, and the distance between landmarks was always greater than she expected.
She glanced up at the sky worriedly. Purple and white thunderheads had been building steadily for the past hour, and a storm seemed imminent.
Alma hurried along the street, furious with herself for not double-checking the directions with Jane. She thought about finding a phone booth and calling to ask again, but she doubted Jane would be home.
The sky opened up within a minute of the first roll of thunder. Alma started to run, holding her history notebook over her head like a crude umbrella.
Lights glimmered in the distance, and Alma gasped with relief when she saw the hulking, shadowy outline of the Stoneybrook Public Library. She ran up the front steps and stood under the awning at the front. Rain ran from her clothes and dripped to the brick pathway.
She opened her notebook hastily. The front cover had been soaked, and the first few pages of her notes were now nothing but watered ink and wet paper.
She bit her lip and sniffed pathetically as another crack of thunder sounded loud above. She tucked her wet hair behind her ears and glanced into the library. It was lit, and dry and quiet. But she was still dripping water everywhere and she didn't suppose the staff would appreciate wet smudges and footprints through the building.
She stood under the awning, watching the rain pour down in silver curtains. Now and then a car would hiss through the water lying in the street, its headlights cutting a weak path through the storm.
The door behind her opened, and she turned automatically.
Her heart jumped when she saw who it was, and then quickly sank again.
Of course, she thought, looking down at herself. Of course he sees me like this.
For a brief moment she hoped he wouldn't recognise her. She kept her head down and fervently hoped he'd walk by, but the rain had stopped him, and he looked at her again.
"Goodness," he said in surprise, "what happened? Are you all right?"
"Oh, yes," Alma said, embarrassed. She glanced quickly at him and smiled, despite the rain and the heaviness of misery she felt just then. "I couldn't quite run fast enough, that's all. I got caught in the rain."
"So I see."
She glanced at him again. He caught her eye and offered her a sympathetic smile, which made her heart hammer even faster. He was wearing a long dark coat, and she couldn't help but wonder if he was really considering going out into the weather.
"Do you work at this library as well?" he asked, shifting three books around in his hands.
"No," Alma said, smiling again. "No. I needed a book for my history paper and the copy on campus has been checked out. I wanted to see if they had it here."
Richard shifted the books again and rolled his shoulders. "Would you hold these for a moment, please?"
"Of course." She took the books immediately and Richard shrugged out of his coat.
He held it out for her.
"Oh," Alma stammered, and her face started to glow warm. "I'm fine, thank you."
He smiled and offered the coat again. "I insist."
He helped her into it, holding it for her as she pushed her wet arms into the oversized sleeves. Her hands were lost inside, and she almost dropped his books to the ground. He took them from her again after pulling the coat up over her shoulders.
She was relieved to have it, though the air wasn't cold. "Thank you," she whispered, embarrassed again.
He smiled. "You're welcome."
They stood in front of one another for a moment, the rain hammering down around them.
"You were right, by the way," he said suddenly. "I did enjoy To Kill a Mockingbird."
She smiled, pleased. "There's a film," she said. "Have you seen it?"
"No," he answered regretfully.
"Neither have I." Alma wiggled her fingertips, which just brushed the ends of the sleeves of Richard's coat. She still had her history notebook in one hand. She looked down at it worriedly. "I think my notes are ruined," she said sadly. She turned the book around in her hands.
"Let me see?" Richard asked.
She handed her notes to him, knowing they were a lost cause. Richard peeled the wet pages open and winced at the running ink.
"Is there someone in your class you can borrow notes from?"
"My cousin, Jane," Alma said, though she wasn't sure Jane took very detailed notes. Reminded of her history paper, she looked over her shoulder into the glowing light of the library. "I suppose I'll have to come back another day for that book." She looked down at her wet shoes. "I don't think I should go in like this."
"Which book do you need?"
"A History of Stoneybrooke, by Joseph Hickman."
Richard smiled and pushed the library door open with one hand. "Don't run off with my coat, now..."
Alma smiled back at him.
She waited, smoothing her hair nervously and wriggling her toes inside her soaked shoes. The rain had lessened slightly, though she was sure she'd be stuck under the awning for some time before it stopped completely.
When Richard returned with the book under his arm, she smiled widely at him.
He smiled back at her and held the book out. "I'll swap it in exchange for a name," he said.
Alma blinked at him.
He grinned, and Alma felt her heart jump again. "My name was inside the cover of my book," he said, "so I'm sure you know it. I don't yet know yours..."
Alma looked down, flustered and embarrassed that she hadn't introduced herself sooner. "Alma," she said. "Alma Baker." She glanced up at him once; twice.
Richard handed her the book, and she clutched it tightly.
"It's nice to properly meet you," he said. "Alma."
She smiled shyly. "You too... Richard." She said his name quietly, and he smiled.
"There are town records inside," he said, nodding to the library doors. "You should keep them in mind for your paper."
"Oh, I will," she said, smiling back at him. "Thank you."
They stood side by side, watching the rain. It had lessened significantly now, though it was still quite steady. The temperature had dropped several degrees, and Alma, who was still wet, was greatly relieved to have Richard's coat around her.
"You're not from Stoneybrook," Richard said after a moment. "Did you move here for college?"
Alma glanced at him and nodded. "I'm from Iowa."
Richard smiled at her, looking surprised. "How did you end up here?"
"Oh," Alma said, giving a short laugh. She shrugged. "I had to move away if I wanted to go to college. There are barely enough people in Maynard to keep the schools open."
"There are no colleges in Iowa?" Richard asked teasingly.
Alma felt her face blush, but she laughed. "There are," she said. "But my cousin Jane lives here. She and I write to one another quite often and I suppose she planted the idea that I should come here with her..." Alma shrugged. "So I did. At least here I know somebody. I wouldn't know anyone if I went to some of the colleges I looked at in Iowa. My graduating class in high school was small and mostly boys, and they're all staying on to work on the family farms."
She looked out at the rain. "I like Stoneybrook though," she said after a moment. "Except on days like this, when I get lost. In the rain." She looked down at herself.
"I wasn't aware it was possible to get lost in Stoneybrook," Richard said, though his voice was more concerned than amused.
"Oh," Alma said again, embarrassed. "I know Stoneybrook isn't very big. But Maynard is much smaller, and all the roads there are straight. None of the roads here are straight at all."
"That's true," Richard agreed.
"Did you move here for college too?" Alma asked, looking up at him.
"No," he answered. "I grew up here." He glanced at his watch, and then at her. "You should get out of your wet things," he said. "You'll catch cold if you don't."
"I know," Alma said fretfully, looking down at herself. "It was so nice when I left."
"Where do you live?" Richard asked. He motioned towards the parking lot. "I could give you a lift..." He smiled at her. "If you trust me, that is."
Alma hesitated for the briefest of seconds. "I'm on Forest Drive," she said. "I'm sure it's out of your way."
"You walked all the way from Forest Drive?" Richard asked.
Alma tucked her hair behind her ears. "It was nice when I left," she said again, smiling helplessly at him. "Don't worry about it, Richard, it's... I mean..." She cleared her throat, suddenly flustered at how casually she had dropped his name into the conversation. She steadied herself with a deep breath, but he spoke before she could protest again.
"I need to stop off on campus for a little while," Richard said. "Forest Drive isn't far from there. It's no trouble."
Alma looked down at herself again. "I'll get your car all wet."
He smiled and gave her a small shrug. "It'll dry out again."
"Who was that?"
Alma looked up in alarm as she closed the front door behind her. She could hear Richard's car pulling away from the curb, slicing through the puddles on the street.
Jane was leaning against the wall by the kitchen, a knowing smile on her face.
"Nobody," Alma said, immediately feeling flustered and defensive. "A friend from college."
Jane tilted her head. "I didn't know you had friends at college, Alma." She poked her tongue out briefly and laughed, pushing the kitchen door open. "You want a hot drink?"
"Yes please," Alma called. She put her books on the hall table. "I'm just going to get changed..." She ran upstairs, a smile still on her face.
She changed and grabbed a towel from the bathroom, padding back downstairs in bare feet and bell bottoms that were three inches too long in the legs.
"So who was it?" Jane called, hearing Alma's return down the stairs. "I didn't recognise the car."
Alma suddenly felt a need to roll her eyes, but she refrained. "Richard," she said, trying to sound casual as she towelled her hair, using it as an excuse to hide her glowing face from Jane's view. "It was raining, and I ran into him at the library. He gave me a lift home."
Jane set two large mugs down on the kitchen table with a clunk. "Richard," she said, turning the name into a purr. "I see."
Alma allowed herself to smile only as long as the towel was over her head. When she emerged, her hair in damp tangles around her shoulders, her face was straight – though still a slight shade of pink.
Alma flipped through A History of Stoneybrooke later that evening as she curled against her pillows in bed, the rain still beating against the windows outside. She made a few notes for her paper, but found herself daydreaming, the pen swirling into patterns of flowers or stars as her mind wandered.
Eventually she turned out the light and shrugged herself further into her bed, a silly grin lingering on her face.
Getting lost hadn't turned out so badly, in the end.
The rain continued right through the night into the next day. The streets were running with water.
Alma spent an anxious morning trying to hurry Jane up.
"We're going to be late," she said desperately.
"It's only history class," Jane said irritably. "Relax, Alma."
"I can't relax," Alma snapped, suddenly uncharacteristically short-tempered. "My notes were ruined by the rain yesterday and I need today's lecture notes for my paper."
Jane sighed and pulled her raincoat on. "Come on, then."
"You haven't had breakfast," Alma said anxiously.
"I'm not hungry." Jane stepped out into the rain. "Are you working in the library today?"
"No," Alma answered, hugging her books tightly to her chest as they hurried across the soaked lawn to Jane's car, parked in the driveway. "But I need to go in this afternoon and get started on my paper."
"I'll come and see you after lunch," Jane said. "I should probably think about starting mine as well."
"Okay," Alma agreed. She felt a sudden wave of relief. She and Jane were different – far more different than Alma had prepared herself for as she'd left Iowa. To spend some time together in the quiet, familiar surrounds of the library would be a welcome change from the teasing and pressure she'd been feeling at home.
A loud group of girls and boys were at Richard's usual table in the library, laughing and shoving one another, papers and pens scattered between them. Alma furrowed her brow and found a small table to herself at the back, behind the encyclopaedias.
A tap on her shoulder made her look up before she'd even opened her books.
"Don't sit back here in the dark, Alma," Jane said, not bothering to keep her voice low. "Come and sit with us." She pointed in the direction of the noisy group sitting at Richard's usual table.
"Oh," Alma said, shaking her head. "I didn't know you were there. No, Jane, I won't be able to concentrate if I sit over there with all that noise."
Jane peered over Alma's shoulder at her notes. "The paper isn't due until next week," she said. "There's plenty of time. You need to meet a few people, Alma. You just hide away in here all the time with your nose buried in books."
"No I don't!" Alma denied.
Jane took the chair opposite Alma. "Come and sit with us."
"No," Alma said, almost pleadingly. "Really, Jane, I want to get this finished."
Jane sighed and tilted her head, looking at Alma carefully. "You know," she said, "your mom and dad are miles away. They won't know if you take a few steps off the Path of Goodness and Righteousness for a few hours, Alma."
"That's... I'm..." Alma struggled for something to say, her face turning red. She felt flustered and stupid, and beneath all of that, angry.
"Listen," Jane said impatiently, "I know your parents are strict, Alma. And I know Maynard is tiny. But if you keep hiding yourself away back here, you'll never meet anyone new. You'll never make any friends. And I thought that's what you wanted to do when you moved here?"
Alma almost gave in. Almost.
The stress of getting her work done won out over the stress of lacking a social life. "Tomorrow," she said. "I'll get a good start on my paper today, and I'll sit with your friends tomorrow."
Jane sighed and got to her feet. "Promise?"
Jane glanced down at Alma's books again and smiled, shaking her head. "Don't take it all so seriously, Alma," she said. "Life is meant to be fun." She headed back to her friends, who had quietened slightly under the glare of the head librarian, stacking books on the shelves beside them.
Alma flipped through her notes miserably. She thought Jane meant well, but once again, her cousin had managed to make her feel out of her depth.
She wished she did have friends other than Jane. Someone to talk to about how overwhelming everything was sometimes. Someone to talk to about Jane, and how different the two of them were and how anxious it made her.
Sometimes Alma wished she'd never left Maynard in the first place.
It was late afternoon when Alma checked the time. She began to wish she'd stuck with Jane – she wasn't confident that her cousin would still be on campus, which meant she'd probably have to walk home.
The rain was nothing more than drizzle when Alma left the library, but she was sure it was enough to soak her through by the time she reached Forest Drive, despite her raincoat.
She sighed and stretched, sheltered by the high wall of the library. She watched a few students crossing the quad, their heads bent against the cold drizzle, and she figured she may as well join them.
"I'm beginning to think you like the rain."
She spun at the sound of Richard Spier's voice, and matched his smile with one of her own.
"Hello," she said.
He laughed. "Hello."
"Oh," she said then, realising what he'd said before. "I like it from inside," she said. "I don't really like walking through it."
"You could have fooled me," Richard said, smiling at her and pulling his coat on.
Alma tucked her hair behind her ears and gestured to the library. "I didn't see you in there."
He pushed his glasses up his nose. "I was hidden today," he said. "I didn't see you, either."
Alma tried to keep her face passive, but failed. She smiled again, pleasantly warmed by the fact that maybe he looked for her as often as she looked for him.
He smiled back at her. "Don't walk home yet," he said suddenly. "The rain will stop soon, I'm sure." He shifted his feet and put his hands in his pockets. "I was going to get some coffee," he said. "Would you like some?"
Alma felt a small shiver run down her spine. Before she could take a moment to assess her next move, she heard herself say, "I don't really like coffee that much."
Richard tilted his head. "Oh."
Her heart plummeted. She felt her face growing hot and she began to think of excuses to high-tail it out of there, leaving him behind so the rain could cool her embarrassment.
"Hot chocolate, then?" Richard asked, smiling at her.
Alma let out a loud breath of relief. "Oh," she said. "Yes. I like hot chocolate."
He laughed and held out his arm. She took it and, linked together, they walked forward into the rain.