Time in Willow Creek: 1 year, 8 months, 2 weeks, 1 day
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come?”
“Yes.” She lied.
She wanted his support more than anything but needed to learn to stand on her own. If she could get through the next day, she could handle anything.
Gushing water resonated from his end of the line. He must have been sitting outside. It occurred to her she hadn’t been to his house yet.
“What if I came but, like, hid in the back or something? You don’t have to know I’m there.”
His persistence amused her, but she stuck to her guns. “No.”
He snorted. “I’m gonna come anyway…and I’m wearing a disguise!”
She laughed. “Kevin! Please! I need to do this by myself. It’s important.”
His sigh echoed through the phone like a mighty wind. “I know. I just want to cheer you on, that’s all. You’re gonna be great. I like watching you be great.”
Heat began rising to her cheeks. He always had endearing words for her. Would she ever get used to him lauding her like that?
“I know. I appreciate it.”
“Ok…I’m gonna let you go. Don’t think about it too much. You need to sleep.”
She smiled. “I’ll try.”
“I’ll come by when you get home, ok? I love you.”
“I love you too.”
Getting off the phone had gotten so hard. Neither of them ever wanted to hang up.
He hung up, finally.
She fell back onto the bed. Kevin always knew how to set her heart aflame. The tone of his voice. The emphasis he placed on certain words. He was so charming and well intended, but she had to establish boundaries; he didn’t do so well with them sometimes. If he she let him, he’d probably live her life for her. Honestly, life would be so much easier having someone hovering, making sure she didn’t step on an active mine. Allowing someone else to make the tough decisions sounded like an awesome deal, but her life wouldn’t be her own. She loved his enthusiasm and willingness to help, but he often stole her opportunities to grow.
Laying there, she tried to heed Kevin’s advice and not think about her big meeting. While Juliana sorted through Harriett’s files in the office, she had come across a list of names which corresponded with another document she found previously. It was a list of the library’s highest contributors. Finding it made her feel like she could finally solve the mystery: The Man Without a Face. Who was John Maynard, the man who signed the paychecks? They never stopped coming when Harriett died. Some stranger out there had access to the account, and she needed to know him. For a time, Juliana focused her efforts on finding out who this John Maynard was and how he was related to the library. For a while, she thought she’d never figure it out. She searched and searched and came up empty-handed. When she finally found something, she laughed. The tiny business card had been like a needle in the stacks of papers, papers in drawers, papers in folders. For Harriett to be so neat and orderly, Juliana found the state of the office less than desirable.
Mr. Maynard was a private accountant who handled the payroll, taxes, and whatever financial obligations the library had. He knew Harriett had died but did not receive word about the library closing, so he continued business as normal. Good thing he did. Juliana asked Kevin to accompany her to meet the man. He had more knowledge on the subject than she did, and she needed to capture every bit of information he gave her. John showed her the last few statements–among other things–so she could understand what the expenses were and how they impacted the balance. He emphasized how the budget remained manageable with only two salaries, and it was interesting to see what Harriett meant when she had concerns about hiring her.
On the way home, she and Kevin discussed all they had witnessed. He suggested contacting the donors, introduce herself, explain what happened, and assure them nothing had changed and the library was in good hands. It all sounded so official and serious almost as if that particular moment started the clock on her taking ownership of the library. This was not a drill. It was the real thing, and it frightened her. But, she knew it needed to be done. Contacting everyone individually would be exhausting, however. Instead, she decided to invite them to the library and speak with them all at once. First, she bought some nice invitations and mailed them. Then, she had Kevin help her write a speech so she wouldn’t get stuck. And now, the day had come. She was so nervous.
Most of them arrived on time and milled around the front desk until they received further instructions. They seemed friendly enough, smiling and looking pleased to be there. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Crossing her fingers, she took several deep breaths as she exited the office to greet them.
“Hello. I’m Juliana. Thank you all for coming.”
Everyone introduced themselves. Putting faces to the list of names was nice despite the nerves.
“Will you follow me?”
She led them outside behind the library because there wasn’t enough contiguous seating inside for her guests. The meeting wasn’t appropriate to have in public anyway. The little yard had stools which looked like tree trunks. Harriett used to use the space for special group activities like story time.
The donors all had special connections to the library and Harriett. First, there was Venkat, aka “Cool Kat,” Eason. Harriett taught him in the eighth grade. His other teachers wrote him off as a bad apple and ceased encouraging him. But not Harriett. She pushed him and pushed hard. She stayed on him and took away all the excuses he had for why he couldn’t do well. In the end, he showed up everyone who told him he couldn’t do it or wasn’t good enough. He was very smart, and Harriett saw that. Venkat graduated near the top of his class, went to college, graduated with honors, and started his own technology company. He could never repay Harriett for all she did for him, but he could invest in her vision.
Lonnie and Michaela Fonesca were long-time friends of Rebecca’s and knew Harriett indirectly for years. They were always on the lookout for reputable charities to support. After getting to know Harriett personally and experiencing her heart for the community, they decided to make Community Library their main cause.
Branson Mello was a product of Community Library. He grew up in a single parent household and spent much of his childhood there. Every day after school, until he could stay home alone, he went to the library. Every program Harriett put on, Ms. Mello made sure Branson was there.
Now, he wasn’t so intuitive to know he should have been grateful for the library’s services. He was a typical kid who wanted to be anywhere else but the library. He would beg his mother to allow him to do something, anything else with his summers. Shortly after he graduated high school, his mother fell sick. She was dying, actually. She spent her last months teaching him the most valuable lessons she could muster. One such lesson stuck with him. “Do good things with your money,” she said. “When you get money, don’t be so quick to spend it all on yourself. If you do that, you’ll never have any. Help people who help you. Give to those in need. The best way to guarantee you’ll always have money is to give it away.” At first, he thought she was talking out of her head because it didn’t make sense. How could giving money guarantee financial success? He had to test the theory to see if his dear mother knew what she was talking about. He began giving small amounts to bums on the street and disaster relief funds. After a while, he fell in love with how it felt to help people in need and found other ways to be charitable. Many years would go by before he would notice increases in his own life. They weren’t always monetary, but the goodness he sowed always came back to him.
One day, he saw one of his old buddies from the block. He looked old like life had not been kind to him. They caught up over a meal, and Branson learned many of the old crew were incarcerated, and some were still up to no good. He thought it was crazy that grown men still behaved like hoodlums. But, it wasn’t so crazy. That’s when he realized all that time he spent reluctantly in the library reading books, doing homework, and learning new things, his friends roamed the streets looking for trouble. He could have been one of those in jail, but his intuitive mother kept him out of trouble. Branson decided to begin contributing to Community Library to ensure it remained open so children like him would have a safe place to go, flourish, and have the opportunity to do something meaningful with their lives.
Kengo Okada and Harriett went to school together. He was one of the people who fought with her back in the day when the building needed to be saved. When Harriett came up with the library idea, he was on board and contributed much of his own money. They used to joke about having joint custody of the library. He had a career and couldn’t manage it, and she invested more time and money, so it made sense for her to have ownership. Kengo never had children and didn’t have many reasons to go to the library anymore, but he made sure to contribute regularly to its success.
Last but not least, Cadence Beaty. She too was a former student. She idolized Harriett and went on to become a teacher. She even patterned her tough, no-nonsense style after the dear deceased woman. Some Saturdays, Cadence and Harriett would meet for brunch. They’d chat, and Harriett would give her advice on handling her students. One of those meetings, Harriett casually mentioned something about someone contributing a large sum Community Library. Cadence wasn’t aware the library was private let alone it needed funding. Later on, when she got married, she discussed it with her husband, and they made a plan to donate regularly. Her donations may not be the largest, but they are every bit as meaningful as all the others.
Listening to their stories inspired Juliana. The more she learned about the community and its people, the more she wanted to succeed. Harriett dedicated her life to these people. She couldn’t let them down.
Juliana could have sat out there all afternoon listening to them go on and on about how Harriett changed their lives. Many of them hadn’t seen her since long before she died, but her absence impacted them just the same. Getting emotional seemed inevitable. Talking about her was cleansing, but it also emphasized the fact that she was no longer with them. As she listened, Juliana recognized there might be many others in the community who may have felt similarly to these people but had no idea they could help like Cadence. The beginnings of an idea cropped up in her mind, but she would have to pause its growth and get on with her agenda.
She cleared her throat. “I’m not always good with the words, so I wrote.”
Her audience chuckled.
She pulled out the note cards she had been sitting on. At first, she had tried to write her speech on paper, but Kevin squashed the idea. “Never ever write speeches on paper. That’s what kids do.” That warning gave way to a lecture about how to give speeches. He told her people shouldn’t stand in front of crowds reading their cards. A proper speech had just a few note cards with ordered topics to keep them on track while they gave a rehearsed yet extemporaneous speech. Kevin was very serious about this speech thing, but she couldn’t help but laugh. He made such a big deal out of her little speech to just a few people. On top of that, extemporaneous was such a big word and only emphasized the fact that he had gone a little over the top with the speech talk.
Juliana looked at her note cards then glanced at her audience which gave her pause. They felt like kindred spirits. The speech was good, but they didn’t need corporate-like rah rah. They simply needed to know her and her story. The rest would explain itself.
She tucked the cards back under her butt. “I changed my mind.”
“I come from Monte Vista. When I got here last year, I spoke no Simlish. I knew only a few words.”
Everyone smiled as if they knew how the story would end. Juliana was glad she abandoned the speech.
“I had no home. I met Harriett, and she gave me a room in her house.” Just thinking about her kindness was enough to make her eyes glisten. The ladies in the group joined her in shedding a few tears.
Juliana wiped her eyes forgetting she wore mascara now. “I’m sorry.”
“Take your time,” Lonnie said.
Branson handed her a handkerchief.
“It’s all right. You know we know,” Venkat said.
It felt good to be around people who shared her pain. “Thank you.” She took a deep breath and dabbed her eyes. “She brought me here every day to teach Simlish to me.”
“Ooooh,” Venkat said. “No wonder you speak so well. Harriett was the best, but MAN was she tough!”
“I know that’s right,” Cadence said.
Juliana laughed. “Yes. She was very hard. She used everything to teach.”
Venkat and Cadence smiled and nodded.
“She let me read to the children and put books away. Then she taught me things about the library. She called me protégé.”
“Ooooh, say that again. I like how you say that,” Venkat said.
Everyone laughed. She appreciated the levity.
“When she…” Four months later it was still difficult to say. “She left the library to me.”
“Oh how nice,” Michaela said.
“Congratulations,” Branson said.
“Thank you. I have much to learn, but I am doing my best.”
“If she left you in charge, you must be the right person,” Kengo said.
Everyone nodded enthusiastically, and she blushed. They all believed in her so much, and they barely knew her.
“Thank you all. I appreciate your words. I will make Harriett proud.”
A few appropriate words from Kevin’s speech came to mind. No sense in letting them go to waste. “I have ideas to expand the offerings of the library to better meet the needs of the community. I hope to still have your support.” She stifled the urge to laugh after reciting it.
“You got it, baby,” Venkat said.
Everyone laughed again. Juliana wondered if he was just as outspoken in Harriett’s class.
Small talk ensued for a few minutes before Trish interrupted them. She felt sick and needed to go home, so Juliana saw her guests back inside, and they said their goodbyes. Venkat gave her his card and told her to call if she ever needed anything. That time she recognized the flirting and knew Kevin would tease her if she told him.
At closing time, Juliana found herself swamped. The children’s section was a mess, and she had no idea why they had been so unruly. She had to raise her voice a few times. Even her little BFF, Manu, behaved out of character. All the computers needed what felt like 9,473 updates. Trish hadn’t put any books back all day, and the front desk was littered with them. She also received a small shipment of books that morning and needed to put them into the system. What had Trish done all day? Needless to say, by the time Juliana got home, it was terribly late and she was pooped. Good thing she and Hillary decided to give Kevin a key. He came and went so much, Hillary got tired of answering the door. Juliana was glad he could let himself in now so she wouldn’t have to wait around downstairs for him. She changed into her PJs, got comfortable, and waited for him in her room.
Kevin walked in and found her glued to her phone. He smirked as he recalled that afternoon they exchanged numbers. She could barely operate her phone then, and now she was tethered to it just like everyone else.
“Hey,” she said.
Her voice was so weak and raspy. He lay next to her and hoped it wasn’t because she had been crying again. When she propped herself up, he was glad to see she was just tired.
“It went well?”
She nodded. The tiny smile affirmed it.
“I wish I could have seen you.”
He sighed in frustration as she struggled to keep her eyes open. Not because his visit would be cut short, but the reason behind why she was so tired. At last, she lost the fight, and her eyes closed for the last time.
He leaned over and stroked her hair. “You’re so tired. What is she doing to you?”
He watched her sleep for a moment before he began laughing at the sound that emitted from her lips. “Did you just snore?” He watched her for a few more moments to see if it would happen again. When it was clear that she was gone, he kissed her forehead. “I’m gonna go.”
She stirred and opened her eyes. “Nooo, you just got here. Don’t go.”
Her groggy, whiny voice gave away her desperate need for sleep, but Kevin couldn’t help but be excited.
“Y-you want me to stay?”
Nothing would happen. His mind wasn’t there, but he still saw it as a huge step forward. She was getting more comfortable with him! He hoped the comfort would eventually lead to more intimate situations, but what excited him the most was the prospects of their relationship solidifying into a stronger, cohesive unit. He would never tell her, but sometimes he feared she would leave. One day, she’d get so fed up, she’d accuse him of being overbearing and erase him from her existence.
“Until I sleep.”
“Ok.” He kissed her lips. “I’ll stay for a few minutes.”
She turned over and began snoring almost immediately. He chuckled as quietly as he could. He didn’t peg her as a snorer. She must favor the right side of the bed. He favored the left and was relieved one potential point of conflict could be avoided. That thought gave way to Marq’s advice a month ago about testing the water. Kevin knew and trusted that when the time was right Juliana would let him know she was ready in one way or another. He didn’t need to test anything. But, she was so close and invited him to stay. They could have been subtle signs, right? Maybe if she turned back over she’d nestle her head on his shoulder, and he’d drape his hand over her shoulder just above her breast.
He’d whisper I love you. She’d kiss him, and…
He shook off those thoughts. They were selfish and would never happen. Getting busy in the middle of the night with her family in the adjacent rooms? Yeah right. She needed sleep, not some impromptu adventure under the sheets. He wanted to pull her into his arms and snuggle tightly, but he might have disturbed her precious sleep. He got close, but not too close, and whispered I love you.