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A sample from GIRL'S GUIDE TO WITCHCRAFT!
They don't teach witchcraft in library school.
Vermin – check. Mold and mildew – check. Difficult patrons – check. But there was no course in witchcraft, no syllabus for sorcery. If only I'd been properly prepared for my first real job.
I was probably responsible for what happened. After all, I was the one who recited the Scottish Play as I pulled a gigantissimo non-fat half-caf half-decaf light hazelnut heavy vanilla wet cappuccino with whole milk foam and a dusting of cinnamon. "Double, double, toil, and trouble," I said as I plunged the steel nozzle into the carafe of milk.
"What's that from, Jane?" asked my customer, a middle-aged woman who frequented the library on Monday afternoons. Her name was Marguerite, and she was researching something about colonial gardens. She'd had me track down endless pamphlets about propagating flowering trees.
"Macbeth," I said.
See. It was my fault. Everyone knows that it's bad luck to say the name of Shakespeare's Scottish Play. I deserved everything else that happened, that day and in the weeks that followed. Every last thing, even the – Well. No need to get ahead of myself.
I rang up Marguerite's coffee and crossed back to my desk. Strictly speaking, it wasn't necessary to walk by the online catalog. I didn't need to straighten the pens; I didn't have to set out more scratch paper. I wasn't required to organize the newspapers.
But all that busy work gave me an opportunity to walk by Jason Templeton's table.
Jason was my Imaginary Boyfriend. Oh, he was real enough. He just didn't know that he was my boyfriend.
Jason was an assistant professor at Mid-Atlantic University. He looked exactly like that movie star in last summer's blockbuster – you know, the one who suavely seduced two different women while he double-crossed the Mafia and stole the Hope Diamond? Except his hair was caramel-colored. And curly. And he was on the skinny side. And I've never seen him in a tuxedo – he's more of a J. Crew sort of guy.
Okay, maybe he didn't look exactly like a movie star, but when someone is your Imaginary Boyfriend, you give your fantasy a little breathing room....
In fact, since fantasy was my only romantic outlet these days, I gave my dreams a lot of breathing room. After all, they were the magical cure. My dreaming about Jason was helping me to move on, to get over the near-legendary Jilting of Jane Madison.
I knew I should be over Scott Randall by now. Any man who would choose climbing the law firm ladder at his firm's London office over being my beloved husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better or for worse....
Well, he wasn't worth having. Especially when he'd hooked up with some British slut his first week on the new job. And when he had the nerve to write to me – write to me! – and ask for my engagement ring to give to her....
But Scott Randall was the only man I'd ever loved.
And how sad was that? I was twenty-nine years old, and I'd only loved one man. He'd been my high school sweetheart. I'd never even dated seriously in college; Scott and I had made our long-distance thing work. College, then grad school for me (a worthless English masters focusing on Shakespeare, then practical library science!) and law school for him. We'd lived together in D.C. before he took off for London.
He'd dumped me almost nine months ago, and it still felt like a part of me was dying every time I looked at my bare left hand.
So, Jason Templeton was actually a great development for me. Even if I wasn't ready to confess my attraction to him. Even if I hadn't quite brought myself to take a risk, to move him from the "imaginary" category to "real flesh and blood."
At least I had convinced myself that – however unconsciously – Jason came to the Peabridge Free Library to see me. Well, to see me, and to study the relationships between husbands and wives in Georgetown during the two decades immediately following the signing of the Declaration of Independence. My best friend, Melissa, said that boded well – he had a romantic soul and a scholar's mind.
I was certain that one day, he would look up from the letters of George Chesterton. He'd reach for the sharpened pencil that I'd have standing ready (no ink permitted around the original letters), and I'd say something witty and sly, and he'd smile his gorgeous, distracted smile, and then we'd go out for lunch, and our scholarly discussion would turn to personal histories, and we'd take a long weekend drive to North Carolina to visit George Chesterton's ancestral home, and we'd stay in a bed and breakfast with a king size sleigh bed and lace curtains and homemade scones, and....
I hurried over to my desk and opened the top drawer. There, nestled safe among Post-it notes and highlighters was my personal copy of Gentlemen Farmers. Jason's first book. University Press of Virginia had brought it out the year before, and it received great critical acclaim. Okay, it got one column inch in the alumni magazine, but they really seemed to like it.
At Melissa's urging, I had ordered a copy of my own; it had finally arrived in yesterday's mail. She was the one who made me realize that a scholar needed recognition. He needed support. He needed a loving helpmate.
Before I could carry the book over to get Jason's autograph, the phone rang. I glanced at the Caller ID and saw that it was Gran. I could let the call go, but then my grandmother would leave her one message: "Jane Madison's grandmother," she would enunciate before hanging up. Answering machines had been around for decades, but Gran refused to believe that they could be trusted with substantive messages. She was eighty-one years old; who was I to try to change her?
"Library, this is Jane," I said, trying to sound crisp and professional.
"Make me a promise, dear."
Oh no. We were back in "promise" mode. Gran went through these phases. She would read articles or watch television or listen to the radio, and she'd dwell on all the ways that people could die. As she was fond of saying, I was the only family that she had, and she wasn't going to lose me without putting up a fight. (Not until I blessed her hearth with a great-grandchild, in any case.)
In the past month alone, I had sworn that I would not go hang-gliding, or rappel down the outside of the Empire State Building, or practice free-diving in the Caribbean. Those promises were a small price to pay, I suppose, for Gran having raised me.
Every once in a while, though, I wondered if my actual parents would have been so insanely concerned about my safety. I mean, what were the chances that I'd ever engage in such risky behavior, promise to Gran or not? But I suspected that the car crash that took my parents' lives started Gran on her quest for "promises."
"Jane," Gran said. "Are you listening to me?" I'd waited too long to reply.
"Of course. I was just helping a patron at the circulation desk." I glanced across the room at Jason, smile at the ready, but he didn't look up from his notes.
"Make me a promise."
"This is serious!"
"Of course it is. You have my best interest at heart. You always have my best interest at heart. I'm the only granddaughter you're ever going to have."
"Don't get smart with me, little miss librarian."
I glanced at the clock in the lower right corner of my computer screen. "Gran, I've got a meeting with Evelyn in five minutes. I'm going to have to run."
"Promise me you won't lick any toads."
"What!" I was so surprised that I shouted. Jason did glance up then, and I managed a harried smile, pointing at the phone and shrugging elaborately. Great. Now he'd think I was a crazed mime.
"Promise me you won't lick any toads. I read an article about South American toads – they have poison on their skin, and it makes people hallucinate, and those poor people get into car crashes, and they don't even remember to try to get out of the wreck, and they die terrible, fiery deaths."
"Why would I lick a toad, Gran?" I tried to stop the chain reaction at the first link.
"I remember that poster you had on your bedroom wall. 'You have to kiss a lot of toads to find a prince.'"
"That was in fifth grade, Gran. And it was frogs. You know, from fairy tales."
"We form our basic personalities very early," she insisted, and I could picture her shaking her head. "People don't change. You'll always be that fifth grader."
Great. Ten years old forever. I was doomed to spend the rest of my life with braces, stick-on tattoos, and bangs. And I'd always be chosen last for the softball team.
I sighed. Maybe Gran wasn't so far from the truth. I did still have freckles, sprayed across my nose. And my hair still had too much red in the curls that hung half-way down my back. And my glasses continued to slip down my nose when I least expected them to, making me blink my hazel eyes like a dazed chipmunk. "Gran," I said. "I don't even remember the last time I saw a toad."
"All the more reason for me to worry."
What did that mean? "Fine, Gran. I promise. No toad licking for me."
"Thank you, dear." I could hear the relief in her voice. "You'll see. You'll be grateful when the decision is staring you in the face, and you'll know what to do because you've already made up your mind."
"I'm sure I will, Gran." My acquiescence drifted into silence as I watched Jason stack up his notes. I knew his routine better than I knew my own; he was preparing to leave so that he could deliver his noon lecture. He was shutting down his laptop, stowing away his books, capping his pen, clasping his satchel.... And then he was gone. No autograph for Gentleman Farmers today. No blazing Templeton smile. No anything. "Oh, Gran...." I sighed.
"What's wrong, dear?"
She might have been an eighty-one-year-old woman. She might have believed that my fate depended on my ability to withstand the siren call of toads. She might have worried about the most absurd disasters ever to preoccupy a human mind.
But she loved me. She loved me despite my unsightly freckles and unruly curls and smudged eyeglasses. And it seemed like I was never going to find another person who would – never find a man who would.
I shook my head. "Nothing, Gran. I just wish...." I closed my eyes. "I wish I had a magic wand. I wish that I could change things."
I came to my senses just in time. The last detail I needed to share with Gran was the existence of my Imaginary Boyfriend. She was still waiting for me to get over Scott, a man she'd never truly liked. If she heard about Jason, she'd immediately start planning our wedding, my baby shower, our child's first birthday party, all before I could complete my confession. I forced myself to laugh. "Oh, Gran, you know. Just things. Make the day sunny. Find the perfect shoes to go with my new skirt. Finish shelving our new books."
"Jane, you know there aren't any shortcuts. No magic wands in the real world."
"Of course not," I sighed, glancing at my clock. 10:30 sharp. "Sorry, Gran. I really do have to run to that meeting."
As I hung up the phone, I wondered what other promises I'd make before the month was over. I shook my head and crossed the floor to Evelyn's office. She sat behind her desk, half-buried beneath the piles of important papers that had cascaded across its faux-leather surface. I glanced at the prints on the walls – the regimented gardens at Mount Vernon and the colonnaded porch of Monticello – and I wondered once again how my disorganized boss could have chosen to work in a library collection based on order, harmony, and the rational strength of the human mind.
"Jane," Evelyn said as I stopped in her doorway. "Good news and bad news." She waved me toward a chair.
I always felt vaguely guilty when I sat across from her desk, as if I were reporting to the principal of my elementary school. It didn't help that Evelyn looked exactly like the Mother Superior in The Sound of Music. You know, the one who looks like John Wayne in a nun's habit? Poor thing.
I smiled as I sat down. "The board decided that we should hire three new reference librarians, and I'll be in charge of the department?"
She shook her head ruefully. "I'm afraid not."
Unease curled through my gut. This looked serious. "I'll take the good news first, then."
She blinked at me, and I realized that she was a bad-news-first person. She'd be the one to eat her pickled beets before anything else on her plate, holding her nose if she had to. I never understood that – what would happen if you filled up on pickled beets? What if you didn't have any room left for chocolate cheesecake parfait?
"The good news, then," she said. "The board has authorized a special fund for a new project."
I smiled in anticipation, but Evelyn looked away. All righty, then. The good news wasn't actually all that good. I braced myself mentally and asked, "What sort of project?"
"You know that we've been trying to increase walk-in traffic. We want to be more a part of the neighborhood."
I nodded, but I bit my tongue. It wasn't like we had a treasure trove of novels and picture books. The Peabridge and its grounds might occupy a city block in Georgetown, in Washington D.C.'s most historic neighborhood. It might be nestled amid Federalist townhouses and cobbled streets, still looking like the colonial mansion it once had been. It might have grounds that were the envy of city gardeners up and down the East Coast.
But the Peabridge contained the world's leading collection of books, manuscripts, incunabulae, and ephemera about life in eighteenth-century America. Not precisely after-school fare, and hardly a draw for a Mommy and Me book club.
Evelyn went on. "The board decided that we should expand our base by taking a page from Disney's book. You know how they set up Epcot Center – each European country in its own special 'land.'" I nodded warily. I couldn't see any good place that this idea was heading. "Well, we'll do the same thing here. We'll turn the Peabridge into colonial America."
"Turn it into...." I trailed off, bracing myself for the hit.
"Yes!" Evelyn exclaimed, with the enthusiasm of a parent explaining the joys of drilling and filling cavities.
"We'll wear costumes!"
"You have got to be kidding," I said before I could stop myself. I felt guilty, though, when Evelyn's face dropped. "Costumes?" I glanced toward Jason's now-empty table. What sort of Imaginary Boyfriend would be attracted to a woman in hoops, a bodice, and a mob cap?
"The coffee bar just isn't enough, Jane. We still don't have the foot traffic that the board wants. Dr. Bishop has already made arrangements with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; they have some extra stock just sitting in a warehouse. The costumes will arrive by next Monday. You'll see. This will be so much fun!"
Fun. Evelyn might look forward to new clothes. She could set aside that boxy pink and brown suit that was designed for a woman two decades younger. Me, though? I'd feel like I was dressing up for Halloween, every day of my working life. Where was that magic wand when I needed it?
I settled on a logical argument: "Evelyn, we're supposed to support serious scholarship!"
"And we do. We will. But there's nothing that says we have to be sticks in the mud while we're doing it. After all, we don't want anyone to think of us as 'Marian the Librarian,' do we? We don't want to be boring and fussy and...." She trailed off, searching for a suitably terrible word.
I swallowed hard and realized that the worst bit of news remained untold. After all, the costumes had been the good news. I braved her gaze. "And the bad news?"
Evelyn answered in the grave tone of a physician diagnosing a fatal disease. "The board discussed salaries."
No one became a librarian because they wanted to be rich. And absolutely no one took a job at a small private library – a library that had to dress its librarians in eighteenth-century embroidered silk just to get patrons through the door! – because they thought they'd retire early. I'd originally come to the Peabridge on an internship while I was studying to get my masters' degree, and I'd stayed because I liked the people – Evelyn, the rest of the staff. The patrons. I wasn't expecting to become a millionaire.
Still, I wasn't prepared for Evelyn's next words. "We're going to have to cut your pay by twenty-five percent." She rushed on. "I argued against it. I really did. But you know that there are still board members who don't think that we need a reference librarian at all, that we only need an archivist."
I couldn't say anything.
I'd already reduced my vacation budget to a one-week car trip to the beach. I brought my lunch every day (or snuck a gigantissimo latte from the bar). Breakfast was a Pop-tart when I bothered at all.
Well, at least I wouldn't need to waste money on a professional work wardrobe any more. But twenty-five percent? Not possible. Not even in my worst nightmares.
"Rent," I croaked. "If you take a quarter of my pay, I can't pay my rent. I'll be out on the street, Evelyn. I'll be living beneath Key Bridge, pushing a shopping cart to the library's front door every morning."
"Now, Jane," Evelyn said, moderating her tone as if she were talking a jumper down from the top of the Washington Monument. "I told the board that twenty-five percent was too much, that we couldn't do that to the staff. We especially couldn't do that to you – I know that you're already relatively underpaid, even in our field."
Well, it was nice to hear her say that, at least. In fact, she actually looked pleased as she prepared to make her grand announcement. "Jane, I came up with something better. I'm offering you a home. Free of charge, for as long as you work at the Peabridge."
"A home?" I blinked and wondered if I'd slipped into some alternate universe. I resisted the urge to glance around for hidden cameras, for some signal that this was a wacky new reality show.
"It's perfect!" Evelyn raised her chins from her chocolate-colored blouse and gave me a broad smile. "You'll continue to work for us, we'll make the salary cut, but you'll live in the guest house, in the garden out back!"
The guest house. What guest house? The Peabridge gardens were extensive, but there was no guest house. There was a gazebo, and a pagoda, and an obelisk, and.... Then it hit me, like an icepick to my belly.
"Do you mean the old caretaker's shed?"
"Shed?" Evelyn's laugh was a bit forced. "You've obviously never been in there. It's practically a mansion!"
Sure. In someone's sick nightmare. Every time I walked by the ramshackle building, it gave me the creeps: The hair on the back of my neck literally stood on end, and the walls seemed to create their own clammy drafts.
"Evelyn, I can't live in a dusty tool shed."
"It's not a tool shed! It used to be home for a gardening professional, for a trained specialist in colonial horticulture! It has a kitchen. And a separate bedroom."
"And a toilet? Is there even running water out there? Electricity?"
"Of course! Do you think that we're barbarians?"
I stared down at my black slacks and my favorite silk blouse, cut to show off my, alas, minimal decolletage. The outfit was my "Monday best," chosen to lure Jason's attention. This would be the last time I'd wear it to work. Starting next week, I'd be dressed like Martha Washington.
Barbarians? No, but I thought the Peabridge board was entirely out of line with reality.
What else was I going to do, though? Move back in with Gran? Park myself on the floor of Melissa's one-room apartment? How was I ever going to move Jason from the Imaginary Boyfriend category to the Real, if I lived in a cardboard box under Key Bridge? If I was arrested for defaulting on my student loans?
"Rent free?" I asked.
I was tired of fighting with my landlord to fix the leaky ceiling in my current apartment. Thieves had broken in twice in the past year (not that I had anything worth stealing). My commute was nearly an hour, each morning and each afternoon.
A one-minute commute.
I could sleep until 8:00 and still make it to work on time. I could dash home during the day and whip up a quick lunch. I could offer to help Jason with a research project, stay up late working beside him at my kitchen table, then suavely offer him a nightcap.
I could have it all – a real boyfriend, a successful library job, a home of my own, Scott Randall and missing magic wand be damned. I held out my hand, smothering my flash of embarrassment when I saw my chewed fingernails. Hmmm... Another goal, breaking that lifetime habit. "Done," I said.
Evelyn's fingers were cool on mine, and her smile was encouraging. "Done." She smiled.
There. My job was secure. I had a new home. I was going to be spared wear and tear on my admittedly-limited wardrobe.
Then why did it seem as if I was about to tumble headlong over a precipice?
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