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If there were a magical realm that allowed one do-over, Annie Abbott would not waste it on high school. Even now, walking through the hallways of Rainbow Falls High, she got that “uncomfortable-in-her-own-skin” insecurity that plagued her as a teen. In her head, she envisioned her acne returning, her braces getting slapped back on, and her hair before she learned to use product.
Definitely not her glory days. At least classes were in session so she didn’t have to worry about pushing past kids to find her way around. The long hallways with their grayish blue floors and fluorescent lights felt wider when empty. She glanced to the left, saw rows of muted beige lockers lining both sides of a hallway down to a set of double doors.
It gave her a bump of pride when she noticed the carnival poster she’d designed on the huge bulletin board across from the office. She’d been informed by her elderly, but beyond spry, neighbor, Margie, that everyone contributed to community events in whatever way they could. Then she’d volunteered Annie’s graphic design services to be in charge of posters and tickets. At least it was something Annie knew how to do.
Of course, Margie was a pro at eating up other peoples’ time so now Annie was here to talk to the librarian about showing teens how to design flyers and other graphics. Seemed useless since most teens had a better understanding of technology than Annie, but when her neighbor voluntold someone to do something, it was better to just do it.
She stopped in front of the office counter, adjusted the oversized bag on her shoulder, and smiled through the closed Plexiglas slider at the woman talking on the phone. Tall, blond, and obviously a fan of sixties hairstyles, she was an animated talker. Her whole face got in on the conversation as she noticed Annie and gestured one minute with her finger.
The secretary hung up, said something to the older woman behind a desk further back in the office, then turned her attention to Annie. She slid open the divider. “Help you, hon?”
Soft music played a familiar song Annie knew her parents loved. “I’m here to speak with the librarian.”
“Oh, you’re Annie, aren’t you? I’m Sue. You did the posters. They’re just beautiful,” she said, drawing out the word to four syllables instead of three. “You’re dating Ben, aren’t you? He’s my vet. Well, Coco’s vet.” She laughed loudly, then inhaled deeply like she was gearing up for more. “Coco is my Goldendoodle. Named her after Coco Chanel. Best little dog in the world, and she loves Ben so much. He’s just the best.”
The one-sided conversation short-circuited Annie’s brain. She was used to people telling her how much they loved her boyfriend. “Yes. He’s great.”
Everyone had something to say about Ben McIntyre, the town vet. They didn’t mind sharing their thoughts on him, on Annie being his girlfriend, on him being a vet, and on the future of their relationship. Small towns were not unlike soap operas. Everyone was tangled up in everyone’s business and the stories seemed to crisscross to the point of confusion.
If a woman fell for one of the town’s hottest, eligible bachelors, they were going to go to the top of the gossip list. Good thing the list for Rainbow Falls gossip was long and varied.
The secretary came around the front partition, through a door to the side, joining Annie in the hallway.
Sue gestured down the hall. “Library is this way. How are you settling in? Boy, the town is just bursting over this carnival. You’d think it didn’t happen every year like clockwork but it does, and we always bend over backward trying to outdo ourselves. Everyone gets involved.”
Annie wasn’t actually sure if she was supposed to say anything. Framed photo galleries lined the walls, posters and banners talking about upcoming events. There was a spirit week coinciding with the carnival.
“Down here,” Sue said, veering to the left.
Two large metal doors were held open by the stoppers on the bottom. An overhead television listed student messages in the office. Up ahead, leaning on a bank of lockers was a surly-looking girl with bluish purple hair. A man in a suit, who stood several inches taller than her, talked softly. The girl didn’t look at him but Annie watched the stiffness seep out of her shoulders as they walked by.
“Sorry to interrupt, Mr. Mendez. This here is Annie Abbott. She’ll be helping out at the library and she did all of the posters for the carnival.”
The man and the girl looked her way. The girl arched one pierced brow as the man extended his hand.
“Pleasure to meet you, Annie. I’m Oliver Mendez, the principal. The signs are fantastic. We’re so pleased with how they turned out.” He dropped her hand.
“Those signs are sick,” the girl said quietly, looking Annie in the eyes.
Annie wasn’t exactly up on teen slang but the girl probably didn’t think the signs came down with a cold, so she smiled, nodded. “Thank you. They aren’t that hard if you know the program. Are you an artist?”
“Don’t be shy, Lee,” Sue said. She turned her head toward Annie. “Leslie goes by Lee. She’s a very talented artist. Problem is that her favorite canvases are the sides of buildings.”
Annie winced. “Yikes. Probably not the best spot.”
Mr. Mendez nodded in agreement. “Head back to class, young lady. Come see me after school.”
The girl shuffled off down the hallway.
“It would be excellent to get her involved in something that would push her in the right direction,” the principal said, his voice slightly wistful.
Speaking of direction, the librarian was going to think she’d been stood up.
“Sometimes all they need is a nudge,” Annie said, remembering, with fondness, the number of teachers who had been a sounding board or resource for her during her uncertain teen years. How was someone who was just figuring themselves out supposed to know what they wanted to do with their lives?
The principal gave a thoughtful hmmm and started to walk away, clearly distracted. He must have realized because he called her name.
She turned to face him.
He smiled. “Welcome.”
“Oh,” Sue said, turning as well. “Your wife called. Needs you to call her back. She’s phoned three times. Said your cell isn’t working.”
If she wasn’t mistaken, the principal rolled his eyes. Or maybe it was a trick of bad lighting.
He shook his head. “Cell works fine. She just doesn’t seem to understand I can’t talk to her all day. I’m running a school.” With that, he huffed out a breath and turned away. As he walked, he pulled his phone from his suit pocket.
Sue didn’t seem surprised at Oliver’s response. She leaned a tad closer to Annie. “Wife keeps tabs on him like he’s going to run away if she doesn’t know his whereabouts.”
Having a conversation with this woman felt like navigating land mines. Silence felt like protection at the moment.
A little farther down the hallway, which was a whirlwind of color with all of the posters and images adorning the walls, they took a left and came to the library.
Glass windows and doors encased it like they’d created a sunroom at the center of the school. Only, it was full of books. Annie sighed, a smile stretching her cheeks. She could spend a serious amount of time in there. They even had a skylight. How cool was that?
“We have a gorgeous library. Helen takes great care of it. That’s our librarian. She’s a gem. You’ll love her. Her sister, Hazel, runs the bakery downtown. You been there yet?”
“Yes. I’m completely addicted to half of what she sells.” Annie smiled, pulled the door open.
“You and half the town, hon. Here we are. Let’s just make sure Helen is around so you’re not all by your lonesome.”
They stepped into the seemingly empty library, the door shutting behind them. The space was a reader’s fantasy come true. Bookshelves lined the perimeter of the square room. The surrounding windows added an ethereal fairy-tale feel. Longer shelves became shorter as they moved inward, creating what, from above, would look like a maze. There were benches, chairs, a few tables, beanbags, and a whole area with computers. It was welcoming and airy. Annie loved it.
The round circulation desk was to the left. Annie’s attention was quickly pulled that way by the sound of a woman yelling behind a partially open door behind the desk.
Sue sighed. “Here we go again.”
The yelling continued, and Annie wondered if she was supposed to guess what that meant or if she’d find out for herself.
End of Excerpt