Chapter One Chapter One
Barbra Streisand grinds and grinds before sputtering to a stop.
“Ugh!” I call out, and then plead with my car. “Barbra, sweetie.” I place my hand on her dashboard and rub in soothing circles. “I need you to start. I’m going to be late for work. Will you start for me? Pretty please? Okay, ready?”
I turn the keys again. The grinding sound is worse this time, metallic shrieking. “Darn you!” I yank out the key. It’s a freezing December morning, and as I exhale, I can see my frosted breath.
My phone buzzes with a text from Cheyenne: I just folded my 75th sweater of the morning. When do you get here?
The mall opens earlier than usual this week for the Christmas rush. Cheyenne has already been folding clothes at the Gap for an hour, and I’m supposed to be at Once Upon, the independent bookstore I work at, in twenty minutes.
I text back: Hopefully soon! Barbra won’t start
She replies: Rough! I’ll drive you home later
I send her an emoji kiss face, then step out of my car, tug my coat tight, and hurry inside. Mom and Mama are still home, but the house is silent. I peek into the living room first, then the kitchen. Nothing. I thud upstairs to their bedroom, but the door is shut. Muffled voices filter into the hallway at an inaudible murmur. Usually their door is open. Usually I’d waltz right inside and jump on their bed, playing with the tassels of a throw pillow while asking for a ride. But now their door is closed, dampening the tense voices inside.
I take a short breath, then square my shoulders and knock with two quick raps.
The voices stop, and moments later, Mom opens the door. We have the same brown eyes and the same curly brown hair, but her eyes are tired, and her hair is pulled back into a frizzy braid. It really needs a deep condition. I want to recommend a recipe for a great avocado hair mask I found online, but reading the room, now is not the time for hair-care essentials.
“Shoshanna,” Mom says. “Aren’t you supposed to be at work?”
Her voice almost snaps, like she’s mad at me or something. I fiddle with my Star of David necklace and rock back on my heels. “Barbra won’t start. Again. Can I get a ride to the mall?”
“That car should’ve been junked years ago,” Mom mutters.
My pulse skips. She can’t junk Barbra Streisand. Yes, she’s old, passed down from my moms to me, but I need a car, and my Once Upon paycheck doesn’t cover much more than gas and insurance. “Um.” I clear my throat. “I don’t want to be late. Christmas rush and all.”
Mama walks over to us. Her blond hair is still wet from the shower, and she’s wearing her silk peach bathrobe, cinched lightly above her rounded hips. It’s strange, both of them standing by the cracked door, bare feet on their bedroom carpet, while I’m here in the hallway, boots on the hardwood floor.
“I wish I could take you,” Mama says. “But I’m teaching a class soon and need to get ready. Sorry, love.”
I give her a small smile. “That’s okay, Mama.”
“Fine.” Mom’s voice does snap this time. “I’ll take you on the way to work, then. I’ll be downstairs in five.”
“Okay.” I twist my fingers together. “Thanks.”
Mom nods and slides back into the room, closing the door behind her. Their murmurs continue, slightly louder than before. I catch a snippet about dirty dishes. Dishes? Is that really why they’re arguing?
I walk downstairs, but instead of going straight to the garage, I head into the kitchen. The coffeepot sits in the sink. Next to it are a spoon and a mug with an ounce of milky coffee at the bottom. It’s a silly thing to fight about; I can fix it, just like that, and everyone will be happy. I slip off my coat, pull on our pair of ladybug-patterned dish gloves, and wash and dry each piece.
Mom pulls to a stop in front of the mall and then slips a lipstick out of her purse. She applies the creamy pink color in two easy strokes. When I was younger, I’d sprawl out on her bedroom floor, rummaging through her countless bags of cosmetics and perfumes, while she sat at her vanity rubbing in moisturizer and lining her eyes with soft brown pencil. It was calm, our little sanctuary.
“Do you need a ride home later?” Mom asks, capping the lipstick. She sees me eyeing it. “Go on.”
Tension eases from my shoulders as I take her offering. She’s not mad at me. Of course not. It’s not like she was going to jump for joy upon hearing Barbra broke down yet again. “Cheyenne can drive me home,” I say. “Thanks, though!”
I pull down the passenger mirror and apply the color, immediately smudging some onto my skin. I rub my finger at the corner of my mouth to fix it and try not to feel like a little kid playing dress-up. Then I press my lips together and smile. The color is a much softer pink than my jacket and looks nice with my rosy winter cheeks.
“Pretty,” Mom replies. And then, “I need to get to work.”
“Right.” I place the lipstick in the center console. “Well, thanks for the ride.”
I unbuckle my seat belt, grab my tote bag, and slide out of the car. But as I’m about to shut the door, Mom turns to me, her eyes softened. “I’ll ask Eve to swing by later, see what it’ll take to fix Barbra. Okay?”
I beam. “Okay!” Eve is our family friend and a mechanic. Mom met her in their kickboxing class like a decade ago, and Eve always makes house calls when one of the cars, usually Barbra—okay, always Barbra—needs fixing. “See you at Latkepalooza tonight?”
“Of course,” Mom says. “See you tonight.”
I shut the door, and Mom gives a quick wave before driving away.
Latkepalooza is our last-night-of-Hanukkah family tradition. We aren’t the light-the-candles-all-eight-nights type of Jews, but we make sure to celebrate at least one evening with latkes and dreidel. My moms and I love spending time with each other, whether it’s for Latkepalooza, a 90 Day Fiancé marathon, or a night out bowling. We just click, fitting seamlessly together like the two-thousand-piece puzzle we tackled last year. One summer we even made it through a sixteen-hour road trip to New York without getting into a single argument, which is probably like a world record for traveling families everywhere.
But things have been different lately. Open doors and TLC binges have been replaced with shut doors and arguments. And more common than fighting, there’s been silence, all of us disconnected. As Mom drives away, I try to shake off my unease. It’s probably nothing. Just petty squabbles over dishes. We’ve all been busy—Mom works a million hours a week, Mama paints on the screened-in porch, space heater running full blast, often well past dinnertime, and now that it’s winter break, even I’m pulling double shifts. But tonight we’ll all light the candles and open presents and eat stacks of fried potatoes with applesauce, the best topping, and everything will be good again.
The frigid December air cuts through my jacket as I walk toward the mall entrance. It’s barely eight in the morning, but the parking lot is already half full. A silver sedan roams the packed front rows, looking for a close spot. I enter through the east-wing doors and sigh in relief at the burst of warm air. Most of the food court restaurants are still closed, but employees prep in the back, shouting to each other and blasting music. Starbucks is open, the line already fifteen people deep. I’m running late, so I ignore my taste buds begging for a peppermint mocha.
I reach the Gap and spot Cheyenne through the window. Her dark brown skin pops against the display of cream and peach sweaters. She startles when I knock on the glass, then sees me and grins, waving me into the store. I shake my head, saying, “Late! See you at lunch, beautiful!” She blows me a kiss through the window, and I catch it with a smile. We met in the cafeteria in seventh grade when we both went to grab the last slice of cheese pizza. Total rom-com meet-cute moment. We split the slice and talked for all of lunch, topics ranging from our love of Bob’s Burgers to speculating if there’s intelligent life on other planets to confiding in each other about our current crushes, and now our friendship is forever cemented by cheesy goodness.
I keep walking and pass the Disney Store and Pet Depot and H&M and the stand that sells Dead Sea lotions and always has these really hot Israelis working at it, and then finally, I’m here.
The store marquee is written in blue cursive script, and there are vibrant displays in each window with new releases and old favorites. One of the books is angled a bit too far to the left, making the title hard to read. I make a mental note to fix it as I step into the store. The scent of books and the quiet hum of morning customers browsing the shelves welcome me. My body lifts with contentment. I’m home.
A few hours later, the store is packed with holiday shoppers, and I’m running around nonstop, restocking displays, ringing up customers, and reshelving books in the correct spots because god forbid someone puts a book back where they found it, or at least on a display table, instead of shoving it into a spot on the wrong shelf. On my way to the stockroom, I notice a middle-aged white guy standing in the philosophy section. He’s wearing a gray sweater and jeans—and he’s taking pictures of a book, one page at a time.
“Excuse me, sir—” I stop short. “You can’t do that.”
He doesn’t even look at me, just flips the page and angles his phone.
“Sir?” I repeat, making sure he hears me.
He glances up this time, but his eyes don’t register me as a threat. I guess my five-foot stature and chipmunk-print dress aren’t very menacing.
“I’m almost done,” he says, taking another picture.
“But you’re not allowed to do that.” I take a small step forward. “This is a bookstore. A writer worked hard on that book. You can’t steal their work without paying for it.”
“And yet,” he responds, turning another page, “I can.”
“Sir, please either take the book to the register or put it back on the shelf.”
“Sweetheart,” he snaps, voice hard and laced with condescension. “Stop talking.”
The word “sweetheart” burrows under my skin and makes it burn. Ugh. There’s a walkie-talkie attached to my dress pocket, and I want to use it to call security on this guy over the PA system. But this guy is a stranger, and very tall, and the domineering tone of his voice makes me think engaging him further is not a smart idea.
So instead of publicly shaming him, I rush out my next words: “This is wrong, and you’re a bad person,” and then make a run for the stockroom before he can respond. Patronizing, thieving jerk.
“Shoshanna!” a voice calls out to me as I rush past the children’s section. I spin around to find my boss behind me. Her hair is cropped close to her brown skin, and the turquoise color of her blouse pops against her jet-black power wheelchair.
“Hey, Myra!” I clear my throat. “What’s up?”
She tilts her head. “You okay?”
I’m probably flushed from that interaction. “Just some airplane food.” That’s our code phrase for a bad customer. “I’m okay, though.”
“Okay, good.” She smiles, and I feel myself relax. I love this woman. She opened Once Upon fifteen years ago. It’s the only indie bookstore in Wakesville, Georgia, our midsize city ninety minutes south of Atlanta. Books are basically the best thing to ever happen to anyone ever, so I applied for a job the summer after my freshman year. Myra and I spent the hour-long interview discussing fan theories for our favorite series, Time Stands Still, and just like that, I was hired. “We have a new employee,” Myra continues. “He’s in the break room, and I need you to show him the ropes, all right?”
“Absolutely, captain!” I salute her.
She shakes her head. “Don’t do that.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I bow.
“Don’t do that, either.”
“All right, Your Highness.” I curtsy.
She points at me and grins. “Now that I like.”
I curtsy again and then head to the break room. As I open the door, I cheerfully say, “Hello! Welcome to Once Upon! I’m Shoshanna and today—”
My spiel is cut short when I set eyes on the new hire.
The hot new hire.
The are-you-a-lead-in-a-Netflix-teen-movie freaking hot new hire.
He’s white and has dark brown eyes and hair and a jawline sharper than the edge of our display tables I always bang my legs on. He must go to a different school because I definitely would have noticed him walking down the hallway of mine. Heat rises to my cheeks. How dare someone look so attractive this early in the morning? It’s an attack, honestly.
I smile and hope my lipstick hasn’t gone rogue and ended up on my skin again. “Hi, hello. I’m Shoshanna!”
“You mentioned,” he says.
“Oh, right.” I rock back on my heels. “And what’s your name?”
“Jake.” He stretches, pulling one arm behind his head and tugging it with the other. His flannel shirt rises up a bit, exposing the world’s tiniest sliver of skin. I bite my lip. I should get out of this room. This small room with just us inside of it.
“Let’s head out to the floor, Jake!” I clap my hands together. “Nothing special about the break room. Whiteboard has our phone numbers and the weekly schedule. Fridge, label your food, but most of us eat in the food court. Bring your own lock for the lockers. And…” I pluck a spare name tag off the whiteboard. “Here you go.”
His hand grazes mine for a moment, and I squeak and jump back. He gives me a funny look and then glances at the name tag. “Peeta Pettigrew?”
“A little book humor. We give it to the new people. You’ll get one with your own name if you stick around long enough.”
“Right,” Jake says. He stands and slips the name tag into his pocket.
“Oh, you actually need to wear it!”
“Sure,” he responds. But he doesn’t move to put it on. Huh, maybe he’s team Gale or something.
Now that Jake is standing, I notice he isn’t very tall, maybe five-six. But since I’m only five feet, he’s probably the perfect height for my head to fit into the crook of his shoulder, which is not at all a weird thing to observe the first time you meet someone. He picks up a spiral notebook from the table, rolls it up like a newspaper, and shoves it into his pocket. “Are you a writer?” I ask. “I like writing too! I’m working on my first book. It’s a disaster but not a total disaster, which I think is impressive for my first try!”
“No,” Jake replies.
“Real monosyllabic, aren’t ya, buddy?”
He just stares at me.
“Not even a single syllable that time!” I wait for a laugh but only get more staring. I tug on the sleeve of my cardigan, feeling a hint of unease. Why isn’t he laughing? I’m being funny. “Anyways.” I clear my throat. It’s fine. Jake probably just has first-day jitters. I’m sure he’ll warm up to me soon. “Off to the floor!”
I spin and push open the door. But it doesn’t budge because it’s the world’s heaviest door, and I have the strength of the runt of a hamster litter. There’s a button to open the door automatically, but I’m in too deep now to retreat. I push the door again with my shoulder and a huff, but it only cracks open an inch. Then an arm reaches out above me and shoves it open with one solid push, and I’m acutely aware of Jake hovering behind me and how if I leaned back, my shoulders would press against his chest, and my cheeks are heating even more, so I rush out onto the store floor, squeaking out the word “Thanks!”
Jake follows behind me, and I feel in control again. This is my domain. Okay, it’s Myra’s domain, but I’ve been working here for a year and a half now, and I’m totally her favorite employee even if she won’t say it because favoritism or whatever. I usher Jake around each section of the store, explaining the shelving systems and different tasks he’ll need to do. Jake is attentive but silent.
“Myra owns Once Upon,” I say as we round the corner to the children’s section. It’s my favorite part of the store. There are shelves of books I devoured as a child and new ones out all the time. There are little tables and chairs where Mr. and Mrs. Murillo, retired schoolteachers and loyal customers, host story time twice a week. And Myra’s husband, an architect by trade and carpenter by hobby, even built a wooden castle for the kids to crawl inside of and read. Sometimes, when I get to work really early, and it’s only Myra in her office and me on the store floor, I curl up inside the castle with a good book and soak up the calm.
Yes, I can fit inside a children’s wooden castle.
“You met Myra for your interview,” I continue. “She’s pretty great, as long as you follow shelving protocol. So, like, for example, don’t shelve all the purple books together on Prince Remembrance Day, even if she’s a huge Prince fan and you thought she’d appreciate it.”
Jake raises an eyebrow. “Specific.”
“I may or may not be culpable.” I catch his eye and try for a grin. He doesn’t grin back. The hint of unease grows. “Right,” I muster on. “So we all have six-hour shifts, and we can take a half-hour break for food when we want. Like I said, I usually meet my friends at the food court. You could join us today—”
“I brought my lunch.”
“Well you could—”
He cuts me off again. “No, thanks.”
My back stiffens. I’m getting low-key thieving-jerk-in-the-philosophy-section vibes, minus the thieving. I don’t know exactly what’s going on here, but I do know this Jake guy doesn’t have to be rude. “I’m just trying to be friendly,” I tell him.
“And I’m just trying to learn how to do my job.”
“Well, part of your job is being friendly. Like me.”
Jake’s response: raising his eyebrows.
I’m about to bite back when a young voice cuts in. “Um, excuse me, miss.” I look to my left and see a young girl around eight wearing lime-green overalls. I ignore Jake and his attitude and his jawline and kneel down so I’m the same height as the girl. “Hi there!” I stick out my hand. “I’m Shoshanna. What’s your name?”
She shakes my hand with a funny grin, then shyly says, “Marissa.”
“Marissa! That’s an awesome name.” I glance back at Jake. “Isn’t Marissa an awesome name?”
I make direct eye contact with his stupid-beautiful brown eyes. A challenge. I bet he can’t handle a single customer interaction, especially with a kid. But he surprises me by smiling, and it’s a ridiculously good smile that makes me blush, and thank hashem he’s looking at Marissa and not me so he doesn’t notice. “Definitely an awesome name,” Jake agrees. He gives her a thumbs-up, and she giggles and gives him a thumbs-up back. Well, fine. Whatever.
“How can we help you today?” I ask Marissa.
“I want a book,” she says. “But I’ve read all the Princess Doctor ones.”
I smile approvingly. Princess Doctor is a series of early readers books about the Princess of Wynthrop, who gets a medical degree and goes around the world saving people. She’s a total badass. “Those are great books! Some of my favorites! You know, I can think of a few other stories you might like.…”
Marissa trails me around the children’s section as I pluck half a dozen books off the shelves for her. The stack is getting precarious in her small arms when her dad turns a corner and calls her name. She rushes over to him, and he looks aghast at the large pile of books clutched to her chest, but he nods and takes them up to the register. I give a satisfied sigh as they walk away. I seriously have the best job.
Then Jake asks, “So Princess Doctor is one of your favorite books, huh?”
I turn to him and narrow my eyes. “Your tone is quite judgmental. Your face is quite judgmental too.” His smile is all amused, and now it seems like he’s about to laugh. Jerk. “Princess Doctor is a fantastic series and feminist as heck. You’re missing out.” I cross my arms. “Why? What do you read? Great works of lit-er-a-ture?”
“I don’t read, unless it’s for school.”
My mouth drops. “I’m sorry, what? You don’t read?”
I can hear my voice getting louder. “Then why do you work at a bookstore?”
He speaks the next words slowly and laced with condescension thicker than the philosophy thief. “Because I needed a job, Shoshanna.”
“Don’t talk to me like that. Don’t say my name like that.”
The dots are starting to connect. No wonder this guy is standoffish. He doesn’t read books. He’s not even one of us. And he’s talking down to me, treating me like I’m silly and naive probably because I like kids’ books and chipmunk-print dresses. And it’s even worse than that guy in the philosophy section because Jake works here. And here, Once Upon, is my second home, a retreat from the rest of the world, a bubble of comfort and security—an escape from closed doors and fighting parents.
And now, Jake threatens to destroy it.
My fingers twitch, automatically grabbing the walkie-talkie hooked to my dress.
“What are you doing?” Jake asks.
I press the PA button. The speakers crackle.
He takes a step forward. “Seriously, what is your problem?”
“Attention,” I speak into the radio. “We have a code purple.” Jake looks murderous as my voice booms out over the store. “The new hire doesn’t read books.”