While I rewrite the stories that appeared in my 2014 book, The Green Crystal Stories, I’m offering the original stories here in chapter-by-chapter installments.
“The past is but the beginning of a beginning.” —H.G. Wells
Chapter 1: December 24, 2000
Part 1 of 2
Addison Taylor played again the message her husband had left on their answering machine. He would not be home until after midnight. Although the college at nearby New Cambridge was on Christmas hiatus between semesters, he had a lot of student artwork to grade before he could begin his vacation.
“No rest for the weary,” he had said when Addison called his campus office.
She heard exhaustion in Daniel’s voice, recognized the tired strain that comes from trying to meet deadlines.
“Make sure you eat,” she said. “I worry about you.”
“You better. I know how you get when you’re busy.” She listened to him shuffling through papers on his desk. She sighed. She knew she was keeping him from his work, but she had to force herself to say goodbye. She tossed her cell phone on her computer desk next to the wall mirror, glanced up at her freckled face, and then combed her fingers through her hair kept short and blonde with scissors and Clairol in the upstairs bathroom.
Who has time for styling salons? Certainly not me. Not now.
She fixed her pink sweater and white turtleneck collar, and then looked at her dispirited green eyes behind her glasses. Exhaustion hung from her lower lids, drooping down her cheeks and across the corners of her mouth.
The recent divorce from Tom Matthews had been long and bitter, and had kept her from the summer activities she normally did to relax and stay fit. Her exercise now was the steady battle with snow outdoors, last minute Christmas shopping, and the grind of trying to maintain a properly staffed nursing unit at the hospital. Even today, her CEO had sent another memo to cut more nurses’ hours. She leaned her head against her wood bookcase and experienced for the first time age creeping up at her within the stress and exhaustion she felt.
The telephone brought her out of her reverie. It was Aunt Peggy calling, wanting her to come by the bookstore and pick up a Christmas gift. By her watch, it was almost eight-thirty and Addison did not want to dress and go out into the cold night.
“I thought we were going to exchange gifts tomorrow on Christmas Day,” she said, hoping her aunt would change her mind.
“We are, dear,” the old woman said. “It’s just that … I don’t want to ruin the surprise. I’ll be at the store until eight. I could use some help closing.”
Addison shook her head. “If you wanted help at the store, why didn’t you say so?”
“I just did. See you in a few.”
Addison bundled up in her black fur parka and drove her snow-covered silver Volvo toward Ridgewood’s downtown district. With a population of almost eight thousand, downtown was small with two banks, a post office, a few diners and bars, and Peggy’s Good Used Books sandwiched between a hardware store and a pizzeria. The rest of the town’s merchants did business either along the south highway toward Alice Lake, or along the north highway and New Cambridge. Even she favored the stores at North Ridgewood Plaza.
She parked in front of her aunt’s bookstore and apartment, and delicately walked over ice and snow that slowed her progress. Still, light from stores and street lamps reflected like diamonds on every bit of freshly fallen snow and made it a pretty sight.
Inside her aunt’s old building, a tiny bell above the door announced her entrance. Warm and cozy, the place smelled of lilacs and aging paper.
She called out and announced her arrival while she hung her coat on the tree next to the door. A distant voice responded from the back, so Addison made her way through a tunnel of shelves and entered a room full of unwanted books and magazines the town unloaded in the rear of the store at night. Plastic bags, cardboard boxes, paper sacks and volumes of text littered the room’s tables, benches and floor. A fluorescent light flickered and buzzed from the drop ceiling installed twenty years ago. Brown stains on the ceiling tile marked places where rain and snow had seeped inside.
In the center of the room and facing left, a small woman with white hair up in a bun sat at a tiny desk. She stared at a computer monitor and slowly clicked at the keyboard below it.
Addison was always surprised how delicate her aunt looked, like a china doll that could fall and break. But she was far from frailty, even at the age of eighty.
“Thanks for coming,” Aunt Peggy said while she typed. “I’m getting too old to do this myself.”
“Where’s your regular help?”
“I gave them off so they could be with family.”
“If you have so much paperwork to do, why didn’t you close the store early?”
“I couldn’t do that to my customers.”
“Oh, they were here. People still like reading books and owning the classics.” She punched a key. “There,” she said. She rose from the padded office chair and cleared books from a stool. “Have a seat while I fix some tea. Want some?”
“You’ll sit. I can manage.”
Addison took a Kleenex from the desk and wiped melted snow from her glasses. When she put them back on, she spotted an old blue diary on the desk. “I didn’t know you kept a diary.”
“Not mine. But please look. I know you’ll find it interesting.”
Frayed cloth at the edges marked its age. Inside, on the first page, someone had written JANE DOE in elegant penmanship, similar to her own, but shaky. A square Polaroid photograph fell from the pages and landed on the floor. When she picked it up, the picture’s faded image startled her.
A hollow-eyed woman wore large glasses that reminded her of Elton John during the 1970s. Though not as flashy, the woman’s glasses emphasized the startled look on her face. It would have been comical, but she had a too-thin, bag-of-bones body that sat slumped in a wheelchair. Her cheekbones and chin protruded from a haunted face similar to a painting Addison had seen in one of Daniel’s art books titled The Scream. Unlike the painting, however, the woman’s mouth was not open, but misshapen into an odd smile — a queer bit of forced happiness on a face lined with fear. Her hair was long and braided, and despite the photograph’s filmy hues, a strawberry red. She wore an oversized white blouse that exposed stick-like arms, and brown corduroy pants.
The picture ended at the woman’s knees, but Addison saw that she held a blue book in her lap.
She turned the photograph over. On the back and at the bottom, in a different elegant handwriting, someone had written Jane — July 1981.
Aunt Peggy carried in a white tea set on a silver tray, placed it on a wood stool, and took Addison her tea. Addison tucked the photograph in the diary, sat, and placed the book on her lap.
“Did you notice the resemblance?” Aunt Peggy said.
“Resemblance? What resemblance?” Addison carefully took the cup and saucer from Aunt Peggy’s shaking hands. “To whom does she resemble?”
“Your mother, for one. And you … especially you. You didn’t see that?”
“Why? Because she has red hair?”
Aunt Peggy was silent.”
“Is she a relative I don’t know about?” Addison asked.
Aunt Peggy looked long at her niece, and then sat at her desk. She glanced at the tray sitting on the nearby stool. “Oh, I forgot my tea.”
“Sit,” Addison said and put the diary and her cup and saucer on the floor. “I’ll get it.”
“Thank you, dear,” Aunt Peggy said. Then, “Would you like to meet her? I know she certainly wants to meet you.”
Addison put the tea service on the desk and carefully handed Aunt Peggy the steaming cup. “Who wants to meet me?”
“Jane. She—” Aunt Peggy cleared her throat. “She knows you.”
Addison sat. “How? Was she a patient at the hospital once?”
“Many years ago, before you worked there. She was in a coma … got shipped to a private hospital under the observance of Jonathan Holcomb, the man who found her unconscious at Myers Ridge. When she recovered ten years later, she had amnesia and her leg muscles atrophied. Her memory never returned until a few months ago. She’s been in contact with me ever since.”
“So how does she know me?”
Aunt Peggy blew on her tea, sipped, and said, “I met Jane nineteen years ago when I took Jonathan’s daughter Sara to New York City. Jane took a keen interest in me immediately after that. Said I reminded her of someone she knew. Her private nurse thought a weekly visit would help jog her memory.”
Aunt Peggy put down her cup and Addison saw a tear slide down her left cheek. Aunt Peggy sniffed. “I’m bringing her to your mother’s on Christmas. She insisted on meeting you then. She says Christmas was her favorite time of the year when she was growing up.”
Addison nodded. “That’s true for almost everyone. I hold my fondest memories of that time while growing up.”
“Yes. Christmas is a magic time for almost all children.” Aunt Peggy sniffed again. “I must warn you, though; she’s very ill … doesn’t have long left on this earth. That’s why I agreed. A last-wish-granted sort of thing.” She looked hard at Addison. “It’s important that you read her diary before you two meet. And when you do, please do so with an open mind.”
“An open mind?” Addison looked at the book on her lap. “What’s going on? And why are you being so mysterious?”
The light sputtered and Addison watched Aunt Peggy sip her tea in jerky motion, like an actor in an out-of-sync movie from long ago. In the cluttered workroom, she felt almost transported back in time. Then the sputtering stopped and the room was almost bright again.
Aunt Peggy looked at the fluorescent light, its yellowed plastic cover filled with dead insects. “Think I could get you or Daniel to change that light for me? Maybe even clean its cover?”
Addison set a date to bring Daniel to the store and do some general cleaning and tidying the back room. “You really should hire a handyman.”
Aunt Peggy agreed. Then she said, “You’ve been at that hospital since you were sixteen. I see and hear how the new management over there treats you. The place has become a faceless, heartless corporate entity and I think it’s high time you left the place for something better.”
“Are you suggesting I quit my job? If so, I’m sorry to disappoint you but I’m planning to someday retire from there.”
“That’s too bad.” Aunt Peggy leaned forward. “It was going to be a surprise … your big Christmas present from me.” She sat back and smiled. “I’m giving you my store.”
Addison raised an eyebrow and said nothing.
“Don’t act too surprised,” Aunt Peggy said.
Addison apologized. “It’s a kind gesture, Aunt Peggy, but—”
“Addie Johnson, you listen. I recall—”
“It’s Taylor. I’m Addie Taylor now.”
“Yes. Well, I remember how much fun you had when you were Addie Johnson, working here during college, tracking down out-of-print books for Mr. Satordi’s history collection. I loved seeing the joy on your face whenever you sold anyone a new release by their favorite authors.”
“You were meant to have this store. It’s your kismet. Not that hospital.”
“It’s late and tomorrow’s a big day, so do me a favor and go home and think about it. Sleep on it, as they say. Talk it over with Daniel.”
Addison’s cup was taken away and the diary placed in her hands. Then she was guided from the chair and led to her coat. She may have kissed her aunt goodbye, but while she shuffled to her car, she wasn’t sure. Her aunt always seemed to cast a spell over her whenever she talked about giving her the store. And now it seemed to have finally happened for certain.
The winter chill brought her back to her senses when she opened the door and got inside.
She watched through the icy windshield the lights go off in the bookstore, knowing her aunt was headed upstairs to her apartment for the night. She looked down at the diary now in her lap and shook her head. It was obvious the old woman had said all she was going to about the mysterious diary and its author.
She drove home with a mind whirling with questions and possibilities. At home, she microwaved some popcorn, stared at the TV, then curled up on the sofa and fell asleep.
Her dreams were a wash of senseless images of working at Aunt Peggy’s store. A hand touched her shoulder and reality washed over her like a cold wave, chilling her. She warmed immediately when she saw Daniel standing over her. He pulled her to him and they said nothing while they headed upstairs to bed.