The meager November light shone faintly through a window in the back of Albatross Books, the historic bookstore on 1st Ave in downtown Seattle, located in a faded brick building sandwiched between a glossy new Starbucks coffee shop and a Persian rug warehouse that was perpetually having an inventory clearance sale. A folding wooden chalkboard sign out front was announcing the bookstore's anticipated event that day: the start of Nathan Pratchett's book signing tour of his new novel.
The cracked sidewalk outside the bookstore was stained from thousands of coffee-laden pedestrians tripping over the exposed roots of the trees that lined the pavement in this section of town, and the only way to escape the smell of dark roasted beans and the musty breath of intricately woven wool was to step through the tall oak doors of Albatross Books and inhale the delicious scent of a million printed thoughts and dreams.
Behind a roped-off area in the back of the store, trying to consciously ignore the security team milling about, Nathan Pratchett was leaning against a dusty brick wall, skimming over some PR related notes his agent had handed him a few minutes ago; the pale light through the back window and a single bare bulb light fixture about twenty feet away and covered in cobwebs wasn't making it easy to read, though, and eventually he rolled up the printed sheets and crammed them in his back pocket.
The jingle of the bell on top of the front door made him look up and squint towards the street. Standing near the signing table was a young woman in a black dress, fit and flared, high heels, and curls. My god, so many ultra-black curls, cascading down her pale features, too many to be a salon invention and too silky to have been born from a hair product. Nathan realized he had been holding his breath, staring at the woman, when it occurred to him that she was staring right back at him, biting her reddened lower lip and shifting her weight from one heel to the other. Without blinking he pushed himself off the rough wall and started towards the woman in the black, revealing dress, but he hadn't even made it to the first rack of restocking shelves when she turned, walking down another aisle and out of sight. Nathan side-stepped and peeked down the next aisle over, trying to catch another glimpse of her, but all he saw was the bulky back of one of the security guards. Security guards! His last few novels had sold decently well, but Nathan hardly saw the need for security guards in a bookstore located in his "home" town of Seattle. If ever one of his favorite authors should be seen waiting at a signing event of his then, and only maybe then, would he think that such security measures were warranted. As it stood, however, no such appearance had been made. He kept walking and looked down the next aisle, and the next, just barely stopping himself in time to keep from running straight into the far wall when he noticed he had run out of book aisles to peer down in search of this mystery woman. She had vanished! That, or had been swallowed by that giant of a security team member (what was his name? Timmy? Tommy?). Nathan turned around to check the area one more time when he was abruptly confronted by his agent and manager, Cory Feels, who did not look happy in the slightest.
"Hey, Feels," Nathan said, lifting his eyebrows in a way he hoped was inoffensive. Cory Feels was a particularly sensitive man when it came to facial expressions.
"Hey? That's all you've got to say? Nate, I'm a pretty patient dude, but seriously? We've only got about a half an hour until that door blows off the hinges. Home town signing, man! I need to know where you're at, not running all over the damn store looking for my author!" Beads of perspiration had formed above Feels' glasses during his little rant and he blotted at his forehead with a handkerchief he kept in his front pants pocket.
"Feels, c'mon. I'm twenty feet from where you left me with that PR sheet. You didn't have to send the security team on a man hunt or anything. They look like the hunting type, though, don't they? I bet they hunt. Let's ask one of them."
Feels made a noise he thought was a good fake laugh but that everyone else thought was a noise more akin to a suffocating sheep. ""Oh god, Nate. You must have started writing comedy in your spare time. Hilarious. Come on, we need to get you ready."
"Ready? Feels, it's a pen pressed against paper. What's there to get ready for?"
"Are you seriously going to fight me on this again?"
"I have no idea what you're talking about, Feels."
"Dude. Please. Not today. Don't fight me in front of the security team."
"Oh, I bet they would love that! Hunters and fighters. I love this team. Have I told you how much I love this team, Feels?"
"More comedy. Super. Save it for the fans, okay? Come on. And what the hell are you doing over here anyway?"
Nathan shrugged his shoulders. "I was looking for someone," he said.
Feels looked around and adjusted his glasses. "In the Western Romance section?"
"What better place to find that 'special someone'? You know how much I love to be called 'darlin'."
"Fine. Can we get ready now then? Darlin?"
Nathan laughed out loud and patted his manager on the arm. "I thought you'd never ask, cowboy."
As the two men were walking back to the book store office they passed the security guard giant (Tony! Thank god for name tags, Nathan thought, as he looked at the man's shirt) who had a bewildered and uncomfortable smile on his face, a very unbecoming combination on his squarish face.
"Hey, big guy," Nathan said, "what's with the goofy smile?"
Tony seemed to ponder the question for the moment, as if he had been asked to compare two leading vacuum cleaner brands. Finally, furrowing his mile-wide brows, he said, "Nothin'," and lumbered off down the aisle toward the signing table. Author and agent exchanged a look and then continued on.
Back in the office, Nathan and Cory Feels went over the opening speech one more time, with the agent mouthing along from memory (he wrote it, so no surprise) and waving his hands in the air to the words like an orchestral conductor. When Feels felt like Nathan wouldn't completely embarrass himself, the agent shushed the author out the door and jabbed him in the back the entire way to the signing table, humming a 60's love tune just loud enough for Nathan to hear. A line had started forming outside the bookstore and the voices of the crowd were seeping through the walls, drowning out the overhead music and Feels' melody. Right on cue, just as Nathan was emerging from the tunnel of books, the doors opened and the most eager fans of his novels began flowing into the building, the buzz of excitement crackling off them like static electricity. Nathan stopped in front of the table and remained standing, waiting for the incoming crowd to fill in the spaces of the bookstore like so much water in a silverware divider tray.
"I want to thank you all for coming out today," Nathan said to the roomful of smiling faces. "There are more folks here in this room than people who bought my first book." Light laughter rang out from the collection of scarves, beanies and peacoats. "Back then, even my own mother was asking for Cliffs Notes to my stories." More laughter. "But the series grew and more people picked up the books and that happened mostly because of all the support and acclaim I received from all of you loyal readers here in Seattle. This would never have happened without all of you, so again, thank you." There was scattered applause followed by some nervous foot shuffling. Nathan pulled his favorite Cross pen out of his shirt pocket and pointed it to the high vaulted ceiling. "Now let's get on to my favorite part; let's get some books signed!" Behind him, Nathan heard Feels groan and the author realized he had forgotten over half of his practiced speech. He twisted his head around and whispered, "Sorry, Feels. But hey, I've got a few more chances to get it right."
Nathan took a seat at the table and made a show of rocking side to side in his chair to make himself comfortable, waving up the first fan in line, a very bubbly, middle-aged woman in a puffy coat and holding Nathan's entire book series in front of her like an unexpected Oscar's award.
"Oh. My. God! Ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod! I am so nervous right now! Mr. Pratchett, I am your biggest fan!"
"Please, call me Nathan."
"Oh my god, I couldn't!"
"Sure you can. Just give it a try."
"Okay...Nathan," she said, followed by a yelp that sounded painful. "Oh my god, this is such an honor! Thank you for meeting me!"
"Truly, my pleasure." He extended his hands out to her stack of books. "Thank you for being such an avid reader! To whom should I make these out?"
The woman seemed to only then realize that she was carrying something and, in her excited state, nearly threw the stack of novels at Nathan for him to sign. "Ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod! I'm so sorry! I get clumsy when I'm nervous!"
"I'll tell you a secret," Nathan said in a hushed voice. The tone seemed to melt her down to her shoes. She lost the ability to speak but was nodding vigorously, impatiently waiting to hear what her favorite author was about to say. "I get clumsy when I'm nervous, too. I forgot half my speech today because I was so flustered."
The woman's hands went up to her mouth like frightened cats jumping up to a safe window ledge. "Oh my god, thank you for sharing that!" she said through her fingers. "I don't feel so awkward now! Oh my god, I totally forgot! My name is Margaret! Like the former Prime Minister of England!"
Nathan wagged his eyebrows while opening up the books, one by one, and scribbling in them. "My, my, Margaret," he said, "your parents certainly chose a beautiful name for their equally as beautiful daughter."
Margaret turned a dangerous shade of red usually reserved for someone in the late stages of choking on a zealous bite of steak tartare. "Oh my god! Will you write that in one of my books?"
Nathan slid the signed pile back over to her with a wink. "Margaret, I already did."
The overjoyed Margaret made a shriek squeal and hopped once before swooping up her signed books and scampering out the doors into the cold, autumnal air. An older man walked up to the table, with wire-rimmed glasses that sat below a wide broom of white eyebrows like linen curtains hanging pendulously over two circular windows. He was smiling, but Nathan could tell it was the practiced smile of someone who internalized their every pain and kept that darkness hidden from the rest of the world.
"Mr. Pratchett, this is such an honor," the man said in a high, nasally tone, setting down a single book on the table.
"Please, call me Nathan. And how should I address you, sir?"
The man shook his head slowly, his eyebrows swaying like sea anemones. "I certainly haven't been called "sir" in a right few years. Oscar will do just fine, Mr. Pratchett, er I mean, Nathan."
Nathan smiled warmly. "A pleasure to meet you, Oscar. Thank you reading my stories and making it out here today. I guess I picked a pretty dismal day to do a signing." He started to write something in the front of Oscar's copy when the older man put his hand out to stop him.
"Actually, would you mind addressing it to my wife, Catherine?" Oscar said, his hand trembling slightly. Something in the man's voice, albeit subtle, made Nathan's heart ache.
"I don't mind at all, Oscar. It would be my pleasure." He paused, his hand hovering over the space just below where he had written "Oscar". He started writing just as he did with any of his stories, without thinking, just letting the words flow from the world where all things are made and possible.
'Catherine, I hope you found a place of peace in my books. I am forever grateful to have been a part of your life, even though we have never met,
When Nathan handed the book back to Oscar, the older man peered down through his brows and glasses and then slowly nodded his head. "Thank you, Nathan. This is perfect. I...I wish you well, on your health and your new novel. Thank you for your time." Before Nathan had a chance to respond, Oscar had turned and walked away, replaced by the next fan in line, a woman in her late fifties.
"Oh my god, I love you!" she exclaimed, hugging a first edition copy of Nathan's first book as she ran to the table.
"But we've only just met!" Nathan said, smiling warmly and tilting his head to the side. "What would my mother say?"
The woman laughed nervously, blinking rapidly. "I'm so sorry! I told myself I wasn't going to be 'that lady'! And now look at me!"
"Look at me!" Nathan replied. "I used to be terrified of meeting new people, but here we are! Thank you for coming out. What's your name, sweetheart?" Out of the corner of his eye Nathan saw a flash of pale skin and black curls. His head turned like an unseen god had its hand on his skull and was twisting it in the direction it pleased. It was the woman from earlier, when he had been standing in the back, before the crowd had showed up. She was closer this time, facing him, long legs emerging from that delicious dress that showed off a curvaceous figure he couldn't take his eyes off. He could feel his heart pounding as he drank in the sight of her. And then Tony, the bulky security guard, stepped up to speak to her and they both walked behind a shelf of books, hidden from view. Nathan felt the world speed back up and his eyes swam for a second. The lady in front of him was biting her lip and looking decidedly uncomfortable.
"I am sorry," he said quickly, shaking his head vigorously. "I forgot how strong they made the coffee in the back here! Tell me your name once more, please."
"I am the same...way...when I get over caffeinated!" the woman said, raising her eyes to the ceiling. "Charlene. My name is Charlene."
"Charlene, what brings you to Albatross Books today?" Nathan said, straight-faced.
"Charlene, I'm kidding! C'mon, give me that book you're strangling! You're going to make it bleed ink all over this nice table!"
Charlene laughed less nervously and more naturally and she relinquished her hold on the book. Nathan signed it and sent Charlene off into the cold air with a smile and a lifelong memory.
The signing event was to last three hours, a time limit set by Feels who felt it necessary to put a cap on situations like this that could potentially last all day. Nathan had argued that it was his event and they were his fans, but in the end it was Feels' job to coordinate these things and so three hours it would be. The slideshow of faces in front of him never ceased to fascinate Nathan. It was hard to fathom that such a panoply of people could share a common interest in the stories of one author. And the stories they shared with him were incredible, spoken like they had known him for years and couldn't get the words out fast enough to catch up after a long time apart. Nathan did his best to manage his time with each person, listening, talking, sharing, and signing, wishing he could spend more time with them all but wanting to satisfy as many as possible before the three hours were over. He was surprised and disappointed when the security team stepped in between him and the table, blocking him from view of the remaining fans waiting in line. Cory Feels stepped up onto an old wooden step stool and addressed the crowd.
"That's all the time we have today, folks," he said. The bundled crowd started grumbling, murmuring in discontent. "Now, now," he added, fanning his hands up and down to settle the rising wave of disapproval. "We have another signing here next weekend and I promise you will all have the opportunity to meet with Mr. Pratchett. Thank you again for coming!" He stepped down and grabbed Nathan by the arm. "Let's go, big shot," he said to the author, pulling on Nathan's shirt like an anxious parent trying to get his child to the school play on time. Nathan shook off his manager's hand and reluctantly followed the man back to the office, sulking and feeling guilty for not having satisfied everyone who had come out for the signing. Feels was reeling off appointments and schedules, leading Nathan to the car parked out behind the book store, when they ran into Tony, the security man. Feels actually walked into the man's chest so quickly he had to remove his glasses to see if he had broken them.
"Beg ya pardon, Mr Feels, sir," Tony said, without looking apologetic in the slightest. Nodding in Nathan's direction, he added, "I'll get Mr. Pratchett to the radio station. You're in car one, we'll follow you in car two." Before either Cory could protest or Nathan could react, the two of them were being ushered into separate vehicles waiting in the back alley behind the brick building, with Tony personally opening the door of a blacked-out town car for the author.
"Oh, excuse me," Nathan said, as he sat down with a whoomph on the leather bench seat, addressing the person sitting on the other side of the car that he hadn't noticed until now.
"Hi," a warm southern voice said. Nathan's pulse shot up and a weird smile cracked his face in two. It was the phantom woman in the black dress. Before he could say anything, Tony banged the driver's door closed and stepped on the gas, the town car roaring to life and speeding away from the book store alley.