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Adult Assembly Required
Author: Abbi Waxman




   Liz Quinn, the manager of Knight’s, one of the few remaining independent bookstores in Los Angeles, was not someone you’d describe as softhearted. Yes, she had adopted a stray cat who’d had kittens in the store, and yes, she had a new relationship she sometimes blushed over, but generally speaking she viewed humanity with a jaundiced eye.

   However, even Liz was having a hard time not feeling sorry for the customer standing in front of her.

   To start with, the young woman was wet. It doesn’t rain very often in Los Angeles, particularly in August, but it does rain, and ten minutes earlier the clouds had challenged themselves to dump as much rain as they possibly could. Liz had discovered a puddle in front of Douglas Adams and tracked it along the shelves to P. G. Wodehouse. There she found the Homo nimbus and spoke to her.

   “Excuse me, would you care for a towel?”

   The young woman turned to look at her, and Liz realized she’d been crying.

   “Uh . . . yes, thank you. It started raining.” She was still crying, albeit silently; the tears kept rolling down her cheeks, leaving cinematically visible tracks in whatever grimy residue they were washing away.

   “I’d ask if you were OK, but clearly you’re not,” said Liz, whose mastery of the précis was unsurpassed. She raised her voice and called to the back of the store, “Polly, bring a towel, will you?”

   A muffled voice called back.

   “No, I’m not OK,” said the woman. “I’m sorry about the floor.” She took a breath, and reached out to shake Liz’s hand. “My name is Laura Costello, and I’m having a bad day.” She realized that made her sound like a member of a twelve-step group with an extremely low requirement for membership, but it’s what came out.

   “In what way bad?” asked Liz, always interested in other people’s disasters. She wondered what was taking Polly so long with the towel, then remembered she herself had used it to dry Ferdinand the store cat, who’d also missed the memo about the rain. Her brow furrowed slightly as she tried to remember what she’d done with it . . . Had she left it under the cat? Oh well, Polly would work it out. Liz refocused on Laura.

   “Well,” said Laura, taking a deep breath and unloading at a rapid clip, “I moved here for grad school, but I came early so I could get settled and maybe line up some part-time work and today I had a job interview and it went well but I didn’t get it so I guess not that well and then I went home and my apartment building was on fire.” She paused. “Not my apartment building . . .”

   Despite the narrative speed and slightly hysterical delivery, Liz was following. She nodded, her hands folded in front of her like a puzzled but hopeful maître d’. “I understood what you meant. I can see how that might put a kink in your knickers.”

   Laura Costello looked at her cautiously, not entirely certain what knickers were, and sniffed. “So I called my grandmother for suggestions but she snorted and called me a wuss, and to distract me told me a friend of mine had cheated on her boyfriend Dave with Other Dave. The one with the toes.”

   Liz was clinging to the thread, like the fantasy-genre jockey she was. “The original Dave was toeless?”

   Laura shook her head. “No, he has toes, but Other Dave has extra toes.”

   Liz raised her voice again. “Polly! Towel!”

   “And then she said I could always come home, which she knew would calm me down because obviously that’s not what I want to do.”

   “Of course not,” said Liz supportively, though she was beginning to regret even starting this conversation in the first place. Liz had what you might call resting approachable face, which meant this kind of detailed personal download got thrust on her all the time. It was a pity, because she really wasn’t very interested.

   Laura gathered her long wet hair into a makeshift knot and looked at Liz, wide-eyed. “So I was wandering around trying to think of what to do and it started raining so I got on the first bus that came along and here I am.” She was trying to hold it together, and behind her head the twist of hair was slowly and silently unfurling like a cinnamon bun, expanding in the heat of the store. “I have no job, no friends, and now no apartment and no dry clothes or actually any clothes except the ones I’m wearing.” Unexpectedly, she smiled. “But I’m still here and in another month I’ll start grad school and then I’ll have somewhere to live.” She turned up her hands. “It’s fine, I’m fine, everything’s fine.” There was a wobble hiding somewhere in her voice, but it was keeping its head down pretty successfully.

   At that very minute, Polly Culligan, one of the employees of the bookstore, turned up with the towel. “Sorry,” she said breathlessly, “the cat didn’t want to let go.” Then she noticed the drying tears and the soot and the expression on Liz’s face and raised her voice. “Nina!” she yelled. “Put the kettle on.”


* * *


   • • •

   Nina Hill was the co-owner of Knight’s, and a bookish person of the first order. She had been spending the afternoon going through school reading lists for the year, making sure the store was completely stocked. True, most local parents would purchase their books online, the quislings, but you would be surprised how many copies of The Outsiders the store ended up selling at the last minute (stay gold, Ponyboy). Plus, if a local parent walked in and asked for The House on Mango Street or The Great Gatsby and some other parent had snatched up the last copy, there would be hell to pay (and Amazon would pocket the profit). Nina took this responsibility seriously and had been deep in concentration when the door suddenly burst open and a tall, damp woman accosted her where she sat. Nina leapt to her feet, yanked out the earbuds that had prevented her hearing the yelling, the knocking, or the requests for kettle assistance, and prepared to do battle.

   “Hello,” said the sudden arrival, who was, of course, Laura. She looked down. “How did you fracture your wrist?” She’d appeared so abruptly because the rain had made the door to the office swell, and she’d had to push rather harder than she’d expected and . . . you can imagine the rest.

   “I’m sorry,” said Nina. “Are you looking for a book?” She backed up a little, which caused her to step on the cat, who bit her on the ankle. Ferdinand had only just recovered from the loss of the towel, and being stepped on was a bridge too flipping far.

   “Is it a Colles’ fracture?” asked Laura, still standing there dripping on the carpet. The thing to know about both Nina and Laura—though they didn’t realize it about each other at the time—is that they were both women of singular focus. Nina was obsessed with books, popular culture, movies, and anything meme-able. Laura was obsessed with sports, bones, muscles, and achieving a full range of motion. Unfortunately, Laura’s specific area of interest was making her come across as a bit of a nutter. Especially when you added damp, smoke, and the wild hair that was reminding Nina of Scandinavian Hagrid, which isn’t even a thing.

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