The Very Beginning
The bells above the shop door tinkled and chimed as the door swung inward, a thick wave of heat pouring in through the open doorway. Marking his place with his finger, Joe lifted his head from the day’s paper, the corners of his mouth twisting into a frown.
“Well, close the goddamn door if you’re coming in,” he muttered darkly. “You’re letting out all the air conditioning - hey there, Blair! I thought you’d already left!”
Folding down the edge of the paper, Joe pushed back the stool he was sitting on and made his way out from behind the counter. It would help if you smiled at the kid, he scolded himself, and forced his lips to curl upward.
Blair Sandburg grinned and nodded, then turned to push the door closed. “Leaving day after tomorrow. Scheduling or something got screwed up somewhere.” He raised his shoulder in a shrug, the thick leather strap of his backpack sliding down his arm. Joe crossed his arms and leaned back against the counter, watching Blair as he looked from one row of books to the next, the fingers of his right hand curling restlessly into and out of a fist.
“You need something, Blair?”
Blair shrugged again, this time dropping the knapsack to the floor as it slipped once again. The dark curls that he usually kept cut so close to his head were starting to grow out; the result made him look older than his sixteen years. But his eyes were as wide and blue and curious as they were the first time Joe met him, clinging to the loose skirts swirling around his mother’s leg, asking questions and knowing things no little boy should know.
It was nearly closing time and the shop was empty and still. Joe walked over to him, clapping a hand on his shoulder and letting his finger rest there in a gentle squeeze. “Why don’t you take a look around? See if there’s something you want to take for yourself to Rainier.” Blair nodded and moved to walk away, but Joe held on, causing Blair to turn around and look at him. “Something for yourself, son. Not another damn textbook,” Joe said, his tone light but his meaning was clear. Hell, he almost wished he still had that stash of Playboy that he used to keep under the front counter. Anything to get the kid away from studying so damn much and get him out there, with other people, making friends. Doing things a normal teenager should be doing.
Joe listened to the soft, shuffling footsteps as Blair made his way down the far aisle, and shook his head as he sat back down behind the counter, picking up his paper and trying to remember where he was in his article. After only a few minutes the door chimed again and Joe huffed in frustration. “Don’t get a goddamned customer all day and now when I’m trying to read….”
He heard a throat being cleared and looked up, his mood plummeting more rapidly by the moment. “Well, good evening, Ms. Sandburg.”
Naomi nodded coolly. “Joe.”
The silence stretched between them, only to be broken by the sound of a book hitting the floor and Blair’s voice carrying across the shop. “Sorry, Joe.”
“It’s ok, Blair,” Joe called back.
“I came to see if he wanted to go get something to eat,” Naomi said, her eyes darting from the floor, back to where she knew Blair to be, over to the sidewall. Looking at seemingly everything but the man sitting behind the desk, glaring at her. “Look,” she started then actually turned to face him. “I know you don’t approve of the way I raised Blair---”
“I don’t---” Joe stopped, trying to keep his voice low enough so as not to be heard in the back of the store. “I don’t approve? Naomi, I’m not your goddamned father. Or your husband, or your lover. I’m an old man with a bookstore, who’s seen you flit into and out of this town for over ten years, dragging that poor child along with you. What’s the matter; he’s getting to big now to stuff into one of your carry-ons so you decided it’s better to ship him off to school?”
“Now you wait just a minute---"
“No, you wait. You know what your problem is?” Joe hissed, pointing a finger in her direction. “You said I don’t approve of the way you raised Blair. Raised. As if this is something that you did for a while, and now you’re done, and he’s fine and you're fine, and that’s the end of the story. Well, he’s not fine; he’s sixteen and he’s going into a world he knows nothing about where he won’t fit in and won’t know how to deal with that. And I don’t think one dinner out at a nice restaurant is going to help clear your conscience of that one.”
Footsteps broke the heavy silence, and a few seconds later Blair emerged from one of the aisles of books, holding a paperback and laughing, a wide grin on his face. “Joe, check out what I – oh hey! Mom! I didn’t know you were here.”
Naomi cleared her throat and swallowed. “I just stopped in to see if you needed anything,” she said thickly.
“Nah. I’m good. I picked up something to eat on my way over here.” He turned to look at Joe, “would you mind if I took a look at this one and ate my sandwich in the back for a few?”
Joe forced a smile onto his lips and nodded. “Not at all. You go ahead.”
“Cool, man. Thanks.”
When Blair had gone, Naomi cleared her throat and turned toward the door. “Well. I really should be going.”
Joe sat in silence as she left.
` ` ` ` ` ` `
Joe checked his watch again, and slammed his book closed. He was going to miss the kid and all, but staying open three hours after closing time was all he could handle for anybody. He was tired and his bones weren’t all they used to be.
“Hey, Blair,” he called, raising from the stool and stretching, trying to work out the kinks in his back. “Time to close up.” He waited a minute, and when there was no answer, started making his way toward the back of the store, idly straightening the books on the shelves he passed. “Blair? You still in here?” Maybe the kid fell asleep as he was reading. Wouldn't be the first time that had happened. “Blair?” he called again as he turned the corner, then stopped.
Blair was sitting, cross-legged on the floor with a huge book in his lap, the expression on his face nothing short of wonder. “Blair,” Joe said quietly. “What is it?”
Blair raised his head, his eyes wide and strikingly blue. “Where did you get this?” he whispered, lifting the book for Joe’s inspection. “I’ve been in here a hundred times and I’ve never seen this here.”
Slipping his reading glasses back onto his face, Joe took the book from Blair and brushed the dust off the black cover. “The Sentinels of Paraguay by Richard Burton. Hmm.” He flipped it over to check the spine; no, no marking from another store transfer. It was an old book, definitely not something someone could just pick up in a newsstand and nothing Joe had ever remembered seeing on a best-seller list or in any book club. Come to think of it, Joe wasn’t quite sure if he’d ever heard of this book at all.
“Well I’m just not sure, son. If you’d like, tomorrow I can make some calls and---“
“No, that’s ok.” Blair reached for the book, snatching it right out of Joe’s hands. “Doesn’t matter where it’s from. It’s just….” Blair paused and Joe watched as it seemed like Blair was running his hands lightly over the cover, but Joe could tell Blair wasn’t actually touching it. “It’s just…don’t you feel it?”
Joe crouched down to look Blair in the eye. “Feel what?”
“This.” Blair held the book reverently, like a piece of fine china. “Can’t you...” his hands skimmed over the old leather again and he shook his head, “no, actually maybe you can’t,” he said softly. As if making a decision, Blair nodded his head once sharply and looked up at Joe. “I’m going to take this one.”
“Now Blair, I don’t think---”
“But you said I could take any one thing. Well this is the one thing I want.”
“Christ, Blair, I meant like a mystery or something funny. Hell, I’ll find you a Playboy or something if you want. The last thing I wanted you to do was get something else to study. You’re going to be studying enough.”
“This isn’t studying,” Blair insisted as he pushed himself to his feet. “If I can’t take it I’ll buy it but I have to have this book.” Standing at his full height, Blair was very nearly as tall as Joe. “I need this book.”
Joe shook his head. “But...why?”
“I have absolutely no idea, but I know that I need it,” Blair shrugged and Joe was reminded once again that he was just a kid. And if the kid wanted this damned book, he could have it. It wasn't like anyone else would want it anyway.
“Fine. Fine. You win,” Joe muttered, “now you go off and have fun at school and let me know if that thing is worth reading at all.”
“I will, Joe,” Blair smiled brightly and Joe gave in to the urge to reach out and rumple Blair’s hair.
“And get yourself a goddamned haircut,” he said gruffly. “Looking like some sort of hippie punk.”
Blair laughed and Joe unlocked the door, giving his shoulder another squeeze as he sent him home for the last time, his backpack carelessly slung over his shoulder and that damn Sentinel book clutched to his chest. Joe took a moment to look to the sky and hope that everything would work out well for the boy.
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