Friday, April 24, 2020

Enjoy Chapter Three of Hidden Bookmarks! (Unfinished Novel-In-Progress)



Chapter Three

“You’re computer did what? demanded Mrs. Vaughn, scowling up at Kincaid from her desk.

   “I saved my work to Dropbox,” Kincaid offered meekly. “I can get it ... but I need to check out a laptop.”

   Mrs. Vaughn laughed. “I remember the days when ‘My dog ate my homework’ was the go-to excuse.”

   She glanced around the room. Students were working quietly, laptops open. A few had raised their heads when she laughed. “Unfortunately, I think all the laptops are checked out.”

   She stood and came around to the front of her desk. “Would anyone be willing to share your computer with Kincaid?”

   All the students looked up this time. No one raised his or her hand. Kincaid, feeling exposed and rejected, went to ask if she could get a pass to the library, where she could at least download and either print her work or send it, when a tentative hand appeared, rising higher and higher in stages, from the back right corner of the room.

   A boy. Bryan Tahl.

   She only knew his name because she occasionally caught the gossip between girls she sat next to and figured out that it was he they kept whispering and giggling about. Though they called him a “nerd” and “dork” and made disparaging remarks about his likely virginity and sexual orientation, it was clear that they had a crush on him. One girl even managed to get him to drive her home one day, where, in her driveway, asked him if he’d like to kiss her, to which he apparently declined. From then on it was “faggy Bryan” this and “gay-boy Bryan” that. The girl, Lori, was considered a “Barbie doll” by her peers, which was the term used to describe particularly attractive girls.

   Those same girls, a whole gaggle of Barbie dolls, were now looking up from their screens, glancing at Bryan and then her, surprise descending over their faces.

   Mrs. Vaughn, who was always up on the goings-on between her students, gave her a quick grin and squeeze of her arm. “There you go,” she said, walking back around her desk and sitting. “Shoot your work to me, and when you’re finished, I’ll have a pass to the library ready with your new assignments on them. You can work on them there. Like I told the others before you got here, if you send your work to me by Saturday, you’ll receive two extra credit points, provided that I feel sufficient work and thought went into it.”

   It was one of the things Kincaid really liked about Mrs. Vaughn—her weekend extra credit policy, and the general ease and grace by which she approached teaching, which was, generally, a far cry from her colleagues.

   “Thanks, Mrs. V,” said Kincaid, grabbing her backpack and making her way to the back row. The Barbie dolls were trying not to glance at her; all failed. Two of them leaned close and began whispering.

   An empty chair waited in the back corner, just behind Bryan Tahl.  She gave a meek and nearly inaudible “Hi” as she got close; he smiled nervously and went back to his screen. She dropped her pack next to him, got the chair, and brought it back and sat.

   “Hi,” she said again.

   “Hey,” he returned, giving her a quick glance.

   She had never had a true crush on any boy, but the closest was this guy, no question about it. Soft-spoken and shy, he had big brown eyes beneath a mop of similarly colored hair that, though seemingly always unkempt, never looked ratty. Kind eyebrows, a button nose, and full lips with the slight hint of a smile always on them. High cheekbones framed a face made for kissing.

   He was tall, too: probably an inch or two over six feet, and athletically slender. For Kincaid—and apparently the Barbies too—that was a plus. He was a musician—a guitarist and cellist—and, as far as she knew, earned grades comparable to hers. He ran for the cross country team and lettered his freshman year—almost unheard of.

   All those pluses going for him, he was not a popular kid, probably because of his introverted, quiet nature. The back corner of any room seemed to be his preferred place; out of sight, yes. But out of mind? Not so much, at least with the Barbie dolls. Sitting back here, he worked in peace, and always alone. It truly was a surprise that he volunteered to share his laptop with her.

   He tapped a bit more on his computer, then pushed it a couple of inches in her direction. “Here.”

   “Thanks,” she said.

   Dropbox was in the upper left corner. She double-clicked on it and logged in when the page loaded.

   Her work was waiting at the top of the list. She copied it, then went to the icon near the bottom—Advanced English—and opened it, where she pasted it. The document showed up immediately. A couple of seconds later, Mrs. Vaughn gave her a silent thumbs-up with a smile.

   She had tried to hurry ... but also not. This might be her one and only chance to get anywhere near Bryan Tahl.

   She logged off and pushed the laptop back. “Thanks,” she said, offering a quick smile-with-nod.

   His smile was quick too, and surprising, for he was looking right at her. “Yeah. Cool. No problem.”

   She stood and, slinging her backpack over her shoulder, walked to the front and Mrs. Vaughn, who held a pass up for her. On the way, the Barbie dolls tittered. She went to glance at them, but forced herself not to. Whatever they had said about her—about her looks, her clothes, her hair ... whatever—she was not going to give them the pleasure of knowing they’d gotten her attention.

   She took the pass. “Thanks, Mrs. V.”

   From two rows behind her, a snide, quiet imitation—“Thanks, Mrs. V.”—followed by more titters, and then—“Asskisser.”

   If Mrs. Vaughn heard it too, she wasn’t letting on. “See you Monday?”

   Kincaid nodded quickly, her cheeks burning, and hurried out of the room.

The conversation with Mom the night before had gone something like this.

   “Did you find anything at the pawn shop?”

   “Yes! It’s not a laptop, but a desktop. With a tower. Three hundred.”

   Mom’s face didn’t drop with the mention of the price—a good sign. “Three hundred? A desktop? Won’t that be kinda hard to shove into your backpack?”

   Kincaid laughed, despite trying not to. “Very funny.”

   “No, seriously,” said Mom. “Don’t you need a laptop for school?”

   Kincaid shrugged. “I can check one out.”

   “I thought you told me that unless you got there super early, they’d all be checked out.”

   “Yeah,” Kincaid sighed. “Guess that’s what I’m gonna have to do.”

   “Oh, honey, no,” said Mom, reaching for her wrist. “We’ll just keep looking, okay? One of the dentists said that there are a couple of good sites for used laptops that he has bought from and trusted. We’ll check into those this weekend.”

   “No ... Mom ...” Kincaid protested. “I think ... I really want the desktop the pawn shop lady showed me. She was super cool and helpful, and the computer was in great shape.”

   “What kind is it?”

   “You won’t believe it, but it’s an old Marillon!”

   Mom snorted. “What?”

   “Yeah!” Kincaid offered enthusiastically. “The pawn lady—her name is Lana—told me that a long time ago Marillon used to be really good, like the best you could buy. She said the old models—like the ones she’s got—are still used by the military! She let me turn it on and browse the Internet! It was like bang! bang! and I was online! And she told me that if it ever breaks down, that we could return it for a full refund!

   Mom’s smile turned into a frown. “The owner of a pawn shop said this to you?”

   “I know, right?”

   Mom studied her for a quiet moment, the frown persisting, and then dissolving a little. “All right. I talked to Dr. Karimi. He knows we’re just getting on our feet, and advanced me four hundred. There’s a conference up in L.A. next month that he said he didn’t need my help at; I offered in exchange for the money to assist him. He agreed, even though I’ll be basically doing nothing up there but sitting on my bum!”

   Kincaid had met Dr. Karimi several times, and liked him. He was from Iraq, and very nice, and was Mom’s most direct boss in a practice with eight dentists.

   “He’s so cool,” said Kincaid with a relieved smile.

   “I think maybe a thank-you card might be in order?” Mom said, raising her eyebrows expectantly.

   “I’ll be happy to,” replied Kincaid. “And if it’s possible, I’d like to give it to him myself.”

   “So when should we go check on this big, luggy Marillon?”

   “I told Lana that we’d come up Saturday. Can we? Please?”

   “Yeah. Sure. I’ve got nothing planned this weekend except to catch up on my bookmarks and Westworld.”

   Mom’s “hobby”—a word Kincaid hated because it implied doing something unseriously—was creating handmade bookmarks. It didn’t require a lot of room—the big roll-top desk straddling the corner near the TV sufficed. She commonly spent entire afternoons and evenings there, even during the workweek, carefully painting the thin strips of cardboard, plastic, wood, even copper

   The work she produced was exceptionally detailed and beautiful. She sold them online, fetching prices as high as $80 for the best of them. That is, whenever someone actually bought one, which wasn’t often. Kincaid admired her dedication; when she was working on them, Kincaid liked to write. The silence always seemed pregnant with creativity.

   She felt a twinge of dismay, for if she got this Marillon, she’d wouldn’t be able to write with Mom in the living room as Mom worked on her bookmarks. For a moment, that was a strong enough disappointment for her almost to say she didn’t want it, but the moment passed. She figured she’d find a way to enjoy those quiet interludes some other way.

She thought of that conversation as she sat in the library and did her work. She had a free period next period, so when the bell rang she asked the librarian if she could keep working, to which Mrs. Kunze replied, “Look around. No one’s here. Stay as long as you’d like, Kincaid.”

   Mrs. Kunze looked like a librarian, thought Kincaid, who got back to work on the checked-out laptop.

   Not that looking like a librarian was a bad thing. In Mrs. Kunze’s case, it wasn’t. She ran a very tight ship, as she liked to call it; to that end she didn’t admit students or even teachers who used the library for any other purpose than that for which it was intended. She had apparently been this school’s librarian going on thirty years.

   Kincaid continued working. A few minutes later she got an idea.

   She minimized the document and went to Ecosia, her preferred search engine, and held up.

   What was the name of that pawn shop?

   She didn’t know!

   She glanced up at the clock after several searches. Ten minutes had passed just like that—all with her trying to think of the name of that shop!

   She wasn’t a fan of Google, but decided to use Maps after another minute debating it. She knew the name of the restaurant next to it—Giant Pizza King—and typed that in, then waited for the image to come up.

   It did. There was the payday loan store next to it, and next to it was ...

Imperial Pawn

   “I should’ve guessed,” she said, since she and the shop both resided in Imperial Beach.

   Back to Ecosia. She typed “Imperial Pawn” into the search bar and hit enter.

   What was she looking for?

   Reviews? Sure. But maybe ... maybe ... something about Lana, who had captured her imagination with her beauty, quick wit, and charm.

   No reviews. Not even one. But then it was a musty old pawn shop in a tiny strip mall in Imperial Beach, miles from downtown San Diego. The only thing that showed was the pawn shop’s hours, its phone number, and its address.

   She typed in “Imperial Pawn Lana,” and waited.

   But the links that came back had nothing to do with Lana’s shop, or her.

   It didn’t surprise or frustrate her (too much). “Oh, well,” she whispered, and got back to work.

She was up early Saturday—8 A.M.

   “That’s not early for you, sweetie,” chuckled Mom, “that’s ... I don’t know what that is. I don’t remember the last time I saw you up on a Saturday before noon!”

   Mom, on the other hand, was an early riser, usually around 6. She’d get to work on her bookmarks after making herself some breakfast, which Kincaid always smelled while lying in bed, even half out of it, and which always made her feel secure, comfortable, and warm. Mom hadn’t even made herself breakfast yet!

   “How ‘bout a fry-up?” she asked.

   “That sounds great. Need help?”

   “Sure. I presume this extra daughter time is courtesy of your anticipated visit to the pawn shop?”

   That was true. But Kincaid was as excited to get the old Marillon as she was in introducing Mom to Lana. That just seemed like something that had to happen.

   “Can we go after breakfast? I think she opens at 9.”

   Mom eyed her as she retrieved the eggs from the fridge. “I don’t think I’ve seen you this jazzed up about something in a long time!”

They ate breakfast; Kincaid helped her clean up, then hurried into the shower. She usually liked to soak in there, but today she took only five minutes. She jumped out, dried off, and dressed—tank top and shorts. She emerged from the bathroom, hair still wet, at five minutes to nine.

   Mom, who was already ready, watched her with amusement. “Shall we?”

   “Yes! We shall!” exclaimed Kincaid excitedly.

   With that they left the apartment, locking the door behind them.

They pulled into the strip mall’s parking lot just a few minutes later. Her heart fell: the CLOSED sign was still on in the pawn shop’s window.

   Mom parked right in front. There were no other cars in the lot, even though the payday loans store was open, and so was Giant Pizza King.

   “Hey,” she said, noting her disappointment, “it’s all right! It’s just a couple minutes past nine! I’m sure this Lana is just getting things ready and isn’t quite ready to open the door.”

   She studied her. “My, my! I don’t think I’ve seen you this excited about getting anything in a long time, including your last laptop! I’m really interested in seeing this computer!”

   At that moment, the sign switched from CLOSED to OPEN. Lana, keys in hand, appeared at the door. She spied Kincaid as she unlocked it and gave her a smile.

   Kincaid had already opened her door. “C’mon, Mom!”

   In truth, she was just as excited for Mom to meet Lana as she was in buying the old Marillon.

   Lana opened the door as Mom got out. “Hello,” she called.

   “You must be this one’s mother,” said Lana, winking at Kincaid.

   Mom approached, followed closely by Kincaid.

   “I’m Audrey,” said Mom, holding out her hand. “Pleased to meet you—Lana, is that right?”

   Lana took her hand. “Please come on in.”

   The shop looked as gloomy and forlorn as before, but somehow didn’t feel nearly as much as just a couple days ago. Kincaid spied the Marillons next to each other and hurried to the left one, which still had the Word 2003 on the desk next to it.

   “This is it, Mom!”

   “So you’ve decided to buy it?” said Lana.

   “I think it’s all she’s talked about the last two days,” chortled Mom.

   “It’s a terrific machine. Both of them are.”

   “Kincaid commented a little on Marillon’s history. I had no idea they were once the top of the line.”

   “That they were. Better than, actually.”

   “How is it, if you don’t mind me asking, that you came to own these two?”

   “Well,” said Lana with a shrug, “I was once an employee of Marillon back in the day.  Good job. Great pay. And then the owner died, and the Board of Directors decided to take the company public, and the rest is ... well it’s sad, really.”

   “What did you do at Marillon?”

   “I sat on the Board. I was the top programmer on the team, which earned me a spot.”

   “That’s cool,” said Kincaid.

   “I’m so sorry for your loss,” said Mom. “From that ... to ... I mean, forgive me ... this?

   Lana shot Kincaid a glance, then looked back at Mom. “Oh, I think I’m exactly where I need to be. This shop ... I opened it just the year before last. It’s been a side project of mine, but ...” she shot Kincaid another glance “... I think I should be devoting more time to it.”

   She gazed at the left Marillon. “Is this the one you want?”

   Kincaid nodded excitedly, picking up the DVD box containing Word 2003. “Can I still have this too?”

   Lana smiled. “I wouldn’t think of letting you go without giving you that!”

   “What is that?” asked Mom.

   “It’s an old version of Word,” answered Kincaid. “Lana says it’s much better than the newer versions.”

   Mom took the box and chuckled. “2003? That’s as old as you!”

   “Freaky, huh!” she laughed.

   “Well,” said Mom, turning to face Lana, “it looks like my sweet child is really set on buying this computer. Did you tell her it was three hundred?”

   “Three hundred,” replied Lana. “Let me unhook it and help you load it into your car before we finalize the transaction.”

   “That’s very trusting,” said Mom with a grateful smile.

The Marillon was remarkably light for its size, and very easy to unplug. Kincaid thought the tower would be heavy, but she had no trouble lifting it and taking it out to the car, where the back door was open and waiting. She laid it carefully on the seat next to the monitor, which was propped securely over the space between the front passenger seat and the seat directly behind. That way it wouldn’t move on the way home.

   The mouse was carefully wrapped in its cord and put into a small, clear plastic bag along with the DVD box of Word 2003 and installation instructions, which Lana said she wrote herself.

   What Kincaid hoped would happen most of all did: Mom and Lana began talking after Mom paid. It started with small talk—Imperial Beach’s weather, the sunsets, crazy drivers tearing through the near intersection—IB Boulevard and Thirteenth Street—and then about Giant Pizza King. “It’s far too tempting a distraction,” admitted Lana. “It’s hard enough trying to maintain my figure without that caloric Xanadu next door!”

   That made Mom laugh. “I think we grab take-out there twice a week!”

   “Don’t you just love their deep dish?” said Lana, who glanced at Kincaid. “Let me guess. You’re a thin-crust kind of gal.”

   “I like both,” answered Kincaid.

   “Tell me more about this shop,” said Mom. “What made you get into the business?”

   Lana’s answer was cryptic and all-too-short. “Well ... to be honest ... I thought I could do a little good around here.”

   When both Kincaid and Mom looked confused (How could a pawn shop do good?), she quickly added, “This space was open—had been for years. I used to drive by and feel sad looking at the empty storefront and the FOR RENT sign in the window. I thought another business would help everyone in the strip mall.”

   “Not to mention the community at large,” said Mom.

   “That too.”

   Somehow from there (Kincaid had wandered off to look at the shop’s other goods, and so had lost the conversational thread a little) the chat diverted into politics, and then relationships. Lana, it turned out, had never been married, which both Mom and Kincaid found remarkable.

   “But you’re so pretty!” they both said at the same time.

   Lana gave an impression of a deeply complimented ingĂ©nue, rolling her eyes and squeezing her shoulders high. “Ah ... thank you,” she tittered as they laughed.

   “I just never found a man strong enough to take me on,” she explained. “I was interested in changing the world, and didn’t have time for loafers or the complacent. Oh, I had some serious offers. But nothing I’d say I ultimately took seriously.”

   Mom then did what Kincaid prayed she’d do. She asked Lana out for a drink, to which Lana accepted. They set the date—next Saturday, happy hour, at Jalisco’s, which was a local favorite. As Mom and Kincaid got into the car, Lana, holding Mom’s door open for her, bent over and peered in. “You shouldn’t have trouble getting it all hooked back up, Kincaid, but if you do, just give me a call.” She handed Mom her business card, which Mom handed to her.

   “Thanks, I will!” said Kincaid.

   “And don’t be a stranger,” Lana finished. “I have a feeling that you’re a pretty special young woman. Maybe this computer will help you discover that.”

Chapter Four