"What else could go wrong?" Belle Harris muttered angrily to no one. She teetered on the edge of the sidewalk, trying to shake her bright yellow umbrella open as fat droplets of rain pelted her head. She'd just paid a hundred and thirty bucks to get her hair done. It hadn't looked like rain when she'd set out this morning, so she hadn't thought to bring a hat with her. She'd only had the retractable umbrella because she'd accidentally left it in her purse. But as always, looks could be deceiving. She should know that better than anyone by now.
"Open up, damn it,", giving the umbrella a violent shake.
She heard the blare of a car horn, but didn't register the loud beep was directed at her until a second after the car glided over a pot hole and sent a jet of muddy rain water streaming over her front.
"Son of a bitch!" She couldn't control the flurry of expletives that rolled off her tongue, and she couldn't have kept herself from flinging the useless umbrella across the sidewalk even if she'd wanted to. Which she didn't. The day was simply too horrid, everything seemed to be going wrong, and she didn't see any signs that things would turn for the better. If she had any sense she'd go back to the motel, pack her bags and go home.
"You're getting soaked."
She swung around and peered at the glass store fronts that spanned the sidewalk, searching for the owner of the lilting, Caribbean voice. She was standing directly in front of one of those trendy, stylish taverns designed especially for the young and upwardly mobile. Since she was neither young nor upwardly mobile, she tended to steer clear of such places. Nevertheless, she peered inside. There was a small group of soggy men and women settled on bar stools at one end of the bar. Other than them, the place looked empty. Beside the bar was a coffee house. Another staple every hip downtown center was in a rush to get ,even her unremarkable hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia. She didn't see anyone there, so she let her eyes wander further up the sidewalk, until she saw something that gave her pause. "Chimera?" She'd never seen a shop called Chimera in downtown Lynchburg before, but there it was. The very name seemed out of place for the small, southern and extremely conservative city.
A rather tall and slender, gray haired man was leaning out the doorway of the shop, waving her forward. "Come! You're getting soaked." When she didn't move he edged out a bit more, smiled. He looked a bit like Morgan Freeman when he smiled. Sort of like the idealized image she carried in her head of what a father should look like. "Or you can stay out there and continue to get drenched."
A streak of lightening lit the sky, followed closely by a boom of thunder. This pretty much made the decision for her.
She half walked, half jogged to him. "Thank you," she muttered, eyes fixed to the floor as she crossed the threshold of the shop and entered the store. When she looked up, she gasped. "Oh, my!"
The man appeared at her left, then walked around her and deeper into the shop. She heard the door swing shut behind her and nearly smiled at the soft jingle of bells that sounded as the door settled into place. "This is wonderful. At first I thought the name odd, but..." she paused to gaze at the tall, polished oak shelves overflowing with books, her smile growing, "...but it's perfect, isn't it. You have actual books here. I don't think I've seen such tall book cases or so many books in a good ten years." There were bookcases everywhere. The moment she'd stepped inside she'd wanted to go to them, to search their depths.
Her host walked to a cozy sitting area on the right side of the store. Overstuffed sofas and fluffy armchairs were positioned around a blazing fire whose warmth Belle could feel even from where she stood. Lamps with ornately decorated shades were positioned around the sofa and chairs so a person could sit anywhere to read and still have light. An assortment of candles sat on low tables, tall stands and over the fireplace mantle. Though they weren't lit, the scent of apple cinnamon filled the room.
"I've always preferred books over story disks. You like books, too?" He didn't sit, as she thought he would, but stood behind a large, maroon chair, smiling at her.
"I love books."
"Outstanding! You've come to the right place. Have a look around while I brew a fresh pot of tea."
"Please don't do that. I don't want to put you to any trouble."
"No trouble at all. I enjoy the company. Days like this tend to be slow." He pointed toward the window, indicating the rain.
Belle turned to look, then grimaced. It was pouring. "Thank you so much. I'd hate to think how I'd look if I were still outside."
"I'm Mr. Smith. Mr. Owen Smith, owner and manager of Chimera."
Belle inclined her head. "And I'm Belle. Belle Harris."
"Very nice to meet you, Miss Belle Harris. You go on and have a look around. I'll make us tea and bring you a warm towel so you can dry off."
A good ten minutes later she was huddled on an armchair next to the roaring fire with a fluffy blanket wrapped snug around her shoulders. A mug of hot tea was steaming on the table beside her, and there was a batch of gooey chocolate chip cookies on a porcelain dish beside it.
"You really shouldn't have gone through all this trouble. I don't want to keep you from anything."
"Nobody's coming out in that rain. You're not keeping me from a thing. I'm enjoying your company. It's not every day an old man like me gets to act the knight and save a lady in distress."
She raised her mug and took a slow swallow. "The tea is..." good, she started to say, but couldn't finish. Of all the things she'd expected to find this day, kindness wasn't one of them, and she wasn't prepared for it.
The last few, wretched years came rushing back to her in a flash of vivid images she could do nothing to escape. Stan walking out on her and falling in love with another woman. Her life falling to pieces around her while she stood helpless and impotent among the remains.
She felt a tear glide over her eyelid, plop onto her cheek, then slide sullenly down her face. Another followed soon after. Her face was growing hot with embarrassment even as she replaced her tea and covered her face with her hands. "I'm so sorry," she said into her palms..
He didn't reprimand her for her lack of control, didn't try to comfort her. If he had it would have made her feel worse. He sat on the sofa across from her and let her cry.
When her sobs slowed, he held a plain, white handkerchief out to her. She took it gratefully and mopped her eyes and runny nose.
"Do you want to talk about it?" His voice was quiet, gentle.
She wasn't sure if it was his kindness, the concern she saw in his eyes when she was finally able to bring herself to look at him, or a combination of both, but the entire story came streaming out of her. "My husband divorced me last year. It's our twenty-fifth high school reunion tonight. He'll be there, everyone from school will be there, and he's bringing her. I wanted to go and show them all that I'm fine. That my life isn't falling apart and that..." she shrugged. "This sounds so stupid." Sniffling, she patted her wet hair, then abruptly let her hand drop when a fresh wave of tears threatened to overwhelm her.
"He said I let myself go, that I'd gotten fat and plain...and ugly." She couldn't prevent her eyes from darting to her waistline, couldn't keep from seeing the roll of fat hanging over plus-sized jeans that had fit two years before.
"I suppose he's right. I have gained weight since high school. But hasn't everyone?" She sniffled again. "I wanted to lose all this weight before the reunion, but couldn't. I lost five, but that's not much. So I thought at least I could get my hair done. But I didn't know it was going to rain, and I know this sounds so stupid but...but..." She dissolved into fresh tears.