It was going to be a bad day. Joshua Winters knew it from the moment he opened his eyes.
Three telemarketers had called that morning already, and Joshua hadn’t been able to fall back to sleep since the first one. He might have been able to, but then the phone rang again. And again. So he just resigned himself to lying restlessly under his quilt. His head throbbed, and he listened to the rain pound his roof. Occasionally, thunder cracked. He thought about his walk to class, and even though he lived in a dorm, it was going to be miserable. He had lost his umbrella last week. He had rushed out of American Literature without it, and by the time he remembered and went back to fetch it, someone else had decided to give it a new home.
His alarm finally sounded, and Joshua got out of bed and stumbled into the bathroom for his morning rituals. He emptied his bladder, washed his face, and put on one of his five pairs of slippers so his feet wouldn’t freeze against the dormitory’s tile floors. His father had taught him about the importance of a morning routine and about keeping five pairs of slippers–that way he would not wear out any one pair too quickly. Every day felt like a new pair of shoes. He had also learned that any day would end badly if he skipped one of his morning steps. Joshua had many stories to prove this hunch, and his friends and family rolled their eyes whenever he said so. Everyone but his dad.
And when a day started off as badly as this one had, Joshua was going to make damn sure that he followed his routine to the letter.
When he was content that he hadn’t jeopardized his day, Joshua went to the kitchen. The dorm he stayed in was technically a suite of apartments, but they all shared a kitchen. He searched the kitchen cabinets for a box of cereal with more than a few crumbs in it. The box of Crunch Berries was half full, so he poured himself a bowl. The milk, however, had decided to congeal in the month since it had expired.
“Thunderstorms, telemarketers, and solid milk,” he said to himself. He tossed the full bowl into the sink. Thomas or someone else would clean it up, hopefully. Joshua wasn’t even going to deal with it. “Today’s gonna be a lot of fun.”
He decided to check the freezer; there might be something that made a decent breakfast in there. Pizza or pastry or something. He hadn’t been shopping in weeks, and apparently neither had his suitemates. All he saw were frozen salmon patties and a few bites of freezer burned Ben & Jerry’s. It was Americone Dream, his favorite, but he conceded to himself that he wasn’t going to get breakfast at home. McDonald’s might be his last, best hope for something to eat.
But first he had to get a shower.
“I’m sorry, sir, but we stop serving breakfast at 10:30. Would you like an Extra Value Meal?” Her voice was unusually chipper for someone smashing a man’s already diminished hopes of a good day.
“No, no. That’s alright,” Joshua said. Strike three. He was out. He looked outside. Still raining. “Can I at least get an orange juice?”
“I’m sorry, sir. That’s a breakfast item.”
“Right,” he said. He tried to smile at her, just to be polite, but couldn’t. It probably looked more like a snarl. He checked his watch as he left the building. 10:37. Seven minutes had cost him breakfast.
He still had 23 minutes until class started, though, and Dr. Bester was the kind of professor who locked the door the minute he began to lecture, and any students who weren’t there didn’t get in. He had done just that to Joshua three times already that semester, and he was out of absences. One more and he would fail American Lit. He couldn’t afford that.
Pulling his jacket collar around his neck to block what rain he could, he ran a beeline to his car. It started smoothly, as usual. At least there was one good thing in a bucket of bad ones.
It was a 20-minute drive to campus, and he had exactly 22 before class started. If he found a good parking spot, he might just make it. Joshua put the car in gear and headed toward Westlake.
Class was a bust. Dr. Bester decided to extend their discussions on William Faulkner into a third day, but Joshua couldn’t remember anything after the first five to ten minutes of class. Dr. Bester started the lecture by telling the class about how Faulkner was the first writer to really find American literature’s voice, but that was about all Joshua could remember.
As an English major, Joshua was supposed to love the classics, the greats. He was expected to read them and love them and write about them. To expand the world’s knowledge about them just a little bit. He could do this with most authors, the ones who were worthy of being anthologized and studied, but he just could not force himself to like Faulkner. Joshua could appreciate what the man did for literature, and he could even see how people could even find that stuff enjoyable. He just didn’t. When he went to bed at night, the chapter he read was going to make a lot more sense than anything in Absalom, Absalom.
But at least the rain had slacked up while he had been in class, which made the bad day seem a little bit better. Joshua had figured he would go home and curl up in front of the television or with a book, wasting the entire afternoon and night. He knew his roommates would give him a hard time for staying in on a Friday night, but he didn’t care. It was fun for him.
But, he thought, since the day had started to get better, he might as well go see Sophie before he went back home and see if the trend continued.
Her family owned the local bookstore, Corner Books, and she was the love of his life. He just wished he were the love of hers.
She had worked at her family’s bookstore the entire time he had been at Westlake University. Joshua had noticed Sophie the first time he visited the store when he was a freshman, and he hadn’t looked at another girl in nearly four years. He remembered walking through the door, moving directly toward the science fiction/fantasy section, and stopping instead in the children’s section because he heard Sophie’s voice. She had been sitting in a rocking chair, reading a children’s book to a couple dozen neighborhood kids who were munching on chocolate chip cookies. It was the first time Joshua had seen the program she called Bookies and Cookies.
He hated that name, but he loved to hear her read. He loved to hear anyone read, really, but her almost-squeaky, should-be-fake voice gave him goosebumps, in the good way. He tried to make at least two trips a week to Corner Books so he could listen to her read for Bookies and Cookies. She did a program every afternoon, but he tried to limit how often he came by, so he didn’t seem like a stalker. But no matter how often he went, he had never been able to get up the nerve to ask her on a date. After all, she was just so beautiful, so sweet, so undeniably perfect that Joshua had no chance.
He went to the store multiple times a week and bought books he intended to read but somehow never found the time to. He and Sophie chatted all the time, and as he became the store’s most loyal customer, their friendship had even reached a first name basis. He had learned a lot about her during their chats, and he had learned even more just by watching her read to the kids. He loved every last tidbit. She was absolutely perfect for him, but despite the obvious cliché, he would not take the chance of ruining their friendship.
He would just keep to his routine and spend whatever time with her he could while he could. After that, who knew?
As he opened Corner Books’ heavy oak door, Joshua had to remind himself that he was low on cash, which meant that he could buy only one cheap, used book this visit. He figured he could do without a fast food combo this week to justify coming by the store. He surveyed the place as the door shut behind him. Mr. Caudle, the owner and Sophie’s dad, sat in an overstuffed armchair reading something Joshua couldn’t see the name of. He was paying little to no attention to anything going on in his store.
“Morning, Mr. Caudle,” Joshua said.
The man looked up from his book and said in a deep Southern accent, “It ain’t mornin’ no more, son.”
“It’s always morning in my heart, sir,” Joshua said.
Mr. Caudle smiled and shook his head. “Yeah,” he said, “I’m sure it is. Sophie’s in the back, Joshua. In the rockin’ chair, I reckon.” He went back to his book.
“Thanks,” Joshua said. He figured that’s where she was. He looked at his watch and noticed that there were still a couple of hours until Bookies and Cookies started.
Sophie, as usual, was sitting in her rocking chair reading. But there was something odd about the book. From what Joshua could tell, she wasn’t holding any novel he could recognize about young wizards or pirate rabbits who hunted for buried gold carrots. She was reading a Moleskine notebook that was so overfilled with loose papers and crinkled notes that the elastic could only barely fit around the the cover.
His Moleskine notebook.
Joshua’s heart dropped. He must have forgotten it in the store, and he had never even missed it. So much for that good day.
Joshua wrote occasionally, but he could never consider himself a writer. Sure, he occasionally daydreamed about getting published and making a career out of writing. He had even been looking at creative writing graduate programs for the last couple years. But in the end, he didn’t put much stock into his dream coming true. He would never let people read his writing, so how could it?
And now, Sophie was reading his notebook. He felt sick. He was nauseated, he was disheartened, he was angry, he was–
“–an amazing writer, Joshua,” Sophie said. Her high-pitched voice interrupted his trance. “You never told me you were this good.”
He would have said something if he were able. Instead, he just stood and stared. He might have even opened his mouth once or twice.
The milk, the rain, the breakfast (or lack thereof), William Faulkner. It all culminated right there. The universe had been preparing him all day for the worst thing that he could possibly imagine. It had even screwed with him by making him think it would get better. But no. Now it was pulling the rug right out from under him.
“Joshua Winters,” Sophie said, “if I had known that this is what you do when you come here and sit in the back, I’d have made you let me read this a long time ago. How long have you been writing this one?” She closed the book and held it up for him to see.
“Umm, about two months,” he said. He tried not to sound as embarrassed as he really was. He just needed to get his notebook back and then head home, where he could curl up with his book and try to forget that Sophie and Corner Books even existed.
“Well, it’s amazing, Josh. Really. I found it in the back when you left the other day.”
“Yeah,” Joshua said, “Sorry about that.”
“I’ve been reading a little at a time when I have a chance. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Oh, umm, no. Sure, I mean. Yeah, no.”
Sophie ignored his stammering. “I thought that since there’s still some time before the kids show up, I’d try and finish it up so I could get it back to you this afternoon.”
Joshua was going to protest and tell her how much he didn’t want her to be reading it, but she just kept talking. He usually thought her talkativeness was cute. Today it was almost irritating. He couldn’t bring himself to interrupt her, though.
“I’m almost finished with this one,” she said. “I would love to read some more of your stuff, if you don’t mind. How many more of these books do you have? Do you always write by hand, or do you ever use a computer?”
“Y-yeah, by hand,” he said. “Umm, I have maybe six or seven notebooks at home. Just stories.”
“Seriously?” she asked. “Would you mind bringing me some of them? I’d love to read them, especially if they’re all this good. Josh, have you ever let anyone read this before?”
“No,” he said. “I don’t, umm, really like people reading my stuff.”
“Oh,” she said. Her shoulders dropped, and her smile faded. “Oh, God, Josh, I didn’t know that. I’m so sorry! I shouldn’t have read this. I just didn’t figure you’d mind.” She stood up and handed him the book. “Here, I’m so sorry. Take it back.”
His mind raced. On one hand, he wanted to rip the composition book from her hands, run out of the store, and never come back. On the other hand, he saw this as an opportunity to make good on why he came in Corner Books week after week.
“Nah,” he said as casually as he could manage.
Sophie smiled. She bit her bottom lip and raised her eyebrows. Joshua smiled back and went for it before she could say anything.
“Yeah, keep it,” he said. “I finished it last week. I guess that’s why I left it just lying there.” He cleared his throat. “I kind of wrote it for you anyway. I was thinking about giving it to you for your birthday next month.” A lie, but only kind of. Joshua did not technically write the stories for her, he wrote them about her. The main characters in all of them were based somehow on her. But he couldn’t tell her that. Her birthday had just been a convenient excuse. “Since you kind of found it before I could really do that, you can just keep it, I guess. So, um, happy birthday.”
“Josh,” Sophie said. She paused and looked down at the notebook. And it was during that pause that Joshua regretted what he had done. It was a stupid idea. A very stupid idea. “That may be,” she continued, “the sweetest thing anyone has ever done for me. You wrote a book for me, Josh.”
“It’s actually just some stories,” he said. “And some notes. Not really a book.”
She looked up at him from the chair. She was crying, but just a little. She was laughing, too. “Whatever,” she said. “I don’t know what to say, Joshua. I really don’t.”
That was when Joshua saw his chance. He would either come off as being very witty and sweet or he would bumble his way into staying single. So he took a breath and said, “Say two things.”
“What?” She asked.
“Thank you,” Joshua said.
“Oh,” she said, laughing. “Thank you.”
“What’s the second thing?”
His voice caught in his throat. His face flushed. Could she see him sweating? He forced the words out: “That you’ll have dinner with me tonight.”
He closed his eyes as he waited on her answer. As he waited, he replayed the rejection he had been expecting for years. He could almost hear her voice telling him that he wasn’t good enough.
“It’s about damn time, Josh,” Sophie said. “Of course I’ll have dinner with you.”
“Really?” he asked. He couldn’t believe his ears. He opened his eyes.
“Well, yeah” she said. “I was beginning to think I was going to have to ask you. Can you pick me up here after work? I should get off around seven.”
He nodded. “That sounds great.”
It was going to be a good day. Joshua Winters knew it from the moment he opened his eyes.
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