Bookstore owner Riley Sheffield believed that even the most ordinary life was like a good novel, a tale to be told. Her own life was full of twists and turns, secrets and surprises, with narrative threads that intertwined with the fabric of other people’s lives. Her story revolved around a two-hundred-year-old cottage on the beach—Driftwood Cottage Bookstore.
Her mother had bought the old cottage and turned it into a bookstore, and now Riley was raising her son in the upstairs apartment, her days tuned to the rhythm of the tides and the ebb and flow of customers. The sea-infused air mingled with the scents of ink and paper. The ocean breeze coming through the open windows created a symphony with the creaking walls and groaning bookshelves. The same sand that found its way between Riley’s toes was also embedded in the cracks between the uneven floorboards, in the creases of the well-worn upholstered armchairs and sometimes between the pages of the books. Every morning Riley awoke with anticipation of another day of stories unfolding—stories in the novels she read and in the lives of the customers she served.
On the first floor of the cottage, behind a wooden door to the left of the checkout counter, Riley’s office desk was half hidden beneath the piles of RSVP cards for the party to be held at the bookstore in a week. She avoided the tedious task of recording these responses by walking toward the Book Club Corner—her favorite nook in the store.
Riley sighed as she ran her fingertips lazily across the spines of the books lining the crooked shelves. The stories were old friends that comforted her. The camaraderie of women in the book clubs helped ease the loneliness of being a thirty-two-year-old single mother. Somehow sitting with the women and discussing the novels, then later, their personal stories, had opened Riley’s heart to the tenderness of others’ hurts. Book clubs acted as a balm on the ache for intimacy.
She stood behind the bookshelf and listened while the Beach Babes Book Club talked over and above one another, each woman speaking in the commanding tone of one who believed that what she had to say was more important than what anyone else had to say. Riley smiled, sensing an impending argument brewing. Listening to browsers and book club members, to authors and would-be authors, she’d become an expert at detecting a negative undercurrent.
She poked her head around the corner.
Seated on upholstered club chairs, their feet propped up on faded green-and-pink ottomans, coffee cups scattered on the driftwood side tables, the book club waved back and hollered greetings.
“Riley,” called Lola Martin, her eybrows raised, “who was your first love?”
“Tom Sawyer,” she replied with a crooked smile, slipped a fallen book back onto a shelf. “Interesting question. What book are y’all discussing this month?”
“Beach Music by Pat Conroy,” Lola said. “The main character never stops loving his first love and we were just wondering who yours was. Tom Sawyer does not count.”
“Oh, yes, it does.” Riley walked into the Book Club Corner’s circle, picked up several empty coffee cups. “For a twelve-year-old bookworm sitting alone on the riverbank, Tom Sawyer made a perfect first love.”
“You make it sound like he was real,” Lola said.
“He was.” Riley glanced out the window to the front yard, to the ancient live oak spreading its branches toward the earth and sky, circles of light nestled in its curves.
“See?” said Ashley Carpenter, bouncing her six-month-old baby on her lap. “True love and happy endings are only in fairy tales or novels. Not in real life.”
Riley’s gaze returned to the group. Lola shook her head. “I’m not saying all true loves end happily. But some do. Right?” She looked again at Riley.
Ashley laughed. “Well, I’m gonna need some convincing.”
Riley smiled at the group as several different conversations started up; she said goodbye and returned to her office to face the pile of work.
Of course Tom Sawyer wasn’t her first love: Mack Logan was. She’d kept this conscious knowledge far from her mind, but some memories haunt the heart.
The RSVP cards on her desk brought her thoughts back to the present, to the upcoming party—an ambitious week’s worth of events, a celebration intended to draw an influx of cash into the bookstore to help it stay afloat. This party was also in honor of Mama’s seventieth birthday—a combination Mama believed just could not fail. But of course it could fall short of saving the store. Profits were down, and on the balance sheets Riley saw an abyss of debt with no way out.
This would be the party of all parties, according to Mama; it would rival the Fourth of July celebration, the mayoral inauguration and the town’s very own anniversary. But this was how Mama always talked, as if her grandiose descriptions could somehow make up for the smallness of her everyday life of tea parties, social calls and hours spent on personal grooming before visits to the same people, every day for years on end.
Riley’s sisters, Maisy and Adalee, were also coming to the party. They’d all be together for the first time in six years.
The pile of envelopes on the desk tilted, fell to the floor. Riley picked them up, and then caught her hair in a rubber band to begin removing RSVP cards and recording them in the ledger. The stack of letter-pressed stationery (nothing but the best for Mama) had been arranged in alphabetical order. The town’s premier wedding-invitation specialist had addressed the return envelopes in handsome calligraphy—a donation for which Riley had begged in humiliating fashion. It was important for Mama to keep up the pretense of opulence. For Riley, each family name and return address on the top-left corner created an emotion, including a yearning for those long-gone summers of freedom and joy. She said the names out loud as she drew the cards from the envelopes.
When Riley had been younger, Mama used to call the names out loud in this same manner as she addressed the family’s Christmas cards. She would utter the name in a singsong voice and then say, “Remember when Aunt Sis drank too much at Thanksgiving and knocked over the china cabinet?” or “Oh, sweet Mrs. Duncan, she lost her son to that terrible car wreck.” Each envelope evoked a remembrance.
For once, the phone didn’t ring and no knock sounded on the office door as Riley enjoyed each memory conjured up as she checked guests off the invitation list. Half an hour later she reached for the next envelope––Mr. Mack Logan was written in slanted block letters. She closed her eyes and said his name out loud, her tongue now unfamiliar with the sounds.
A soft, tender and well-guarded place inside Riley opened to a flood of Technicolor memories: Mack’s attempt at ten years old to right the sailboat in the middle of the bay, hollering that he didn’t need her help; at twelve his tousled hair backlit by evening sun at the end of a day’s fishing excursion; at sixteen his body long and lean; at eighteen returning from his senior year in high school as an adult. In rapid sequence she saw the images as if they were pictures in a waterlogged scrapbook. Summer after summer was filled with various images of Mack Logan—her childhood best friend, her ally, the boy who all at once had become a man.
Now he was returning to Palmetto Beach for the bookstore’s celebration, and she would see him again for the first time in thirteen years. What would he be like?
She shoved her memory of him down again, but it was like keeping a buoy underwater. Her Mack images were still vivid and complete. She wasn’t sure why she’d thought they would disappear because she didn’t visit them, like thinking an entire country didn’t exist just because she’d never been there.
Throughout her childhood, this very cottage had been the Logans’ family vacation home, and never once had she imagined that it would become her own unconventional home. Since her son, Brayden, was born twelve years ago and she’d moved here, she’d built her life around this bookstore, focused all her attention on what was practical, necessary. Her sole escape was the novels she devoured.
A knock came to the door and Riley jumped up. “Yes?” she hollered.
“Riley honey?” called Ethel Larkin, who managed the checkout counter.
Riley opened the door to where Ethel held out the portable phone. “It’s Harriet calling from the house.”
Riley smiled. This sweet woman—her white hair piled like cotton batting on top of her head, her clothing bright and loose around her tiny body—had helped run the store for all twelve years. Her sarcasm and wit often kept Riley from taking herself or her problems too seriously. Among Ethel’s many eccentricities was her habit of wearing white gloves every day as if she were going to a cotillion dance. She waved her hands when she talked, and the gloves punctuated every word. Riley was never sure if Ethel realized that her gloves—every pair—were dirty; not just dirty, but torn in places. But Riley never asked—it was part of the mystery of Ethel, a piece of the Driftwood Cottage Bookstore mystique.
Now Ethel held one gloved hand next to her cheek; her eyes were ringed with worry. “Harriet says your mama has fallen.” Riley closed her eyes, whispered in her mind, No. Not Mama. Daddy had died six years before, and the blow still felt fresh and painful.
She grabbed the phone. “Hello?” She glanced through the office doorway to the front foyer, hoping to see the Sheffield matriarch marching in. Evening light fell across the dark floorboards; a young mother and pigtailed girl wound their way among the bookshelves. Mama wouldn’t be arriving now—it was martini time. What could possibly have gone wrong during martini time?
Harriet Waters, Mama’s housekeeper of forty-five years, spoke in shaky tones. “Oh, Riley, your mama fell down the main staircase. I had to call nine-one-one because I couldn’t wake her up. They just took her to the hospital….She woke up before the ambulance got here. She’s mad as hell that I called for help, but what was I gonna do with her all crumpled up at the bottom of the stairs with her eyes all but rolled back in her head? For God’s sake, was I just gonna leave her there?” Her words tripped one over the other.
“Slow down.” Riley grabbed the edge of the desk and attempted to right the room, to understand the words.
Harriet began again. “Your mama’s on her way to General in the back of an ambulance. She left cussing me out, hollering and waving her tiny little arms like she’s gonna kick my butt. I’m still home, but they’re gone…gone.”
Riley leaned against the counter. “Did she fall before or after her evening martinis?”
“After. I been telling her not to walk around an empty house in high heels, but she’s never listened to me.”
Sorrow lodged into the space below Riley’s breastbone at the realization that Mama was still attempting to keep up the gracious lifestyle of her married life—dressing up for cocktails at five, dinner at eight—without a husband. “I’ll be at the hospital as soon as I can.”
Riley hung up the phone and faced Ethel over the faded beige linoleum counter. “I’ve got to run over to General. Can you watch Brayden?”
“Of course,” Ethel said. “Is your mama okay?”
Riley shrugged. “I’m about to find out.” She grabbed her car keys and looked over her shoulder at the book club still huddled in the corner. They’d have moved on from the novel and would now be talking about their personal lives. Riley believed you could chart the interior lives of the book club members by the books they chose. Right now Riley’s life book would be a Southern novel about dysfunctional families pretending that everything was just fine: a drunk mother falling down the front curved staircase, a sister who’d run away to California and another sister with the mistaken assumption that going to a university meant a free pass to all-day and all-night partying.
Riley went over to her son, who’d run in from school moments before. He was leafing through Sport Fishing in the periodical section. Her hand on his arm gained his attention. “Gamma had a little fall; she’s all right but she’s at the hospital. She needs me. Ethel is here.…I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Brayden looked up at her. “Can I come with?”
Riley shook her head. “No, but I’ll call you as soon as I know something.”
He shrugged. “Okay.”
“I love you.” Riley kissed his forehead.
“You, too.” He wiped off the kiss and grinned.
Riley hurried through the doors of the hospital emergency room to the front desk. Memories of her father’s last days in this place crowded her awareness. The receptionist looked up. “May I help you?”
“Yes, I’m looking for Kitsy Sheffield. She would have come in just a few minutes ago.”
“Are you family?”
“Yes. Her daughter.”
“She is in X-ray right now, but you can wait for her in the second room on the right. Dr. Foster will be there shortly.”
“Okay,” Riley called over her shoulder, ran through the double doors and down the hall. The cubbyhole room was empty of its stretcher; she sat in one of two metal chairs and dropped her head into her hands. “Oh, Mama.”
She looked up to see Dr. Foster standing in the doorway. She’d known this man all her life; he’d eased Daddy’s passing. His white hair spoke of his age, while the lines on his face suggested a quiet sorrow for all he’d seen as a small-town physician.
“How is she?” Riley asked.
“She’s already had a CAT scan. She’s now in X-ray. But she’s awake and hollering, so she seems fine, although Harriet says she did black out when she fell. There are definitely some broken bones. I’ll know more in an hour or so.”
“Thanks,” Riley said, and attempted a smile.
Dr. Foster left and the interminable wait began to grate on Riley like a nail file running across a chalkboard. She paced the room and tried not to think of the million things that could go awry if Mama was seriously injured. She went to the doorway when a quarrelsome voice echoed down the ER corridor. Kitsy Sheffield, lying flat on a stretcher, was being rolled down the hallway, screaming at Dr. Foster, “I am telling you, I’m fine. Just give me some pain medicine and I’ll be okay.”
Dr. Foster caught Riley’s glance and smiled. She ran to their side, followed them back to the room. “Mama, I’m here,” she said.
Mama’s normally well-coiffed hair stuck up on the right side and was tamped down in a mass of tangles on the left. Her green eyes were clouded and moist. Her face was blanched the same color as the white blanket pulled up to her chin. A dark-haired nurse pushed the IV pole alongside the stretcher.
“Of course you’re here, dear,” Mama said. “Now tell Dr. Foster to let me go home. Right now. And I mean right now. And this hurts so much. So damn bad.” Tears rose in her eyes and she turned away.
“Kitsy, hold on a minute.” Dr. Foster’s deep voice lowered as the nurse straightened the stretcher and locked its wheels. “Nurse, please give Mrs. Sheffield a dose of the prescribed pain med.”
The nurse pushed buttons on the pump and then closed the door when she left.
Dr. Foster sat next to Kitsy. “You have a sprained wrist, a broken femur, two cracked ribs and a bruise running down your hip that makes it look like you fell off a bucking horse. You didn’t, did you?”
“Very funny,” Mama said.
“You’ll be here for at least a day, so just quit your hollering and settle in. You’ll need casts, splints and some tests. I promise to keep you comfortable. I’m working on getting you a room upstairs, where you can get into a bed and off this stretcher, so just sit tight.”
Mama squinted at Riley. “Why aren’t you at the store? Who’s there?”
“Mama, I believe you are a bit more important than the store.”
“I will be fine. Just fine,” Kitsy said.
Dr. Foster glanced back and forth between them. “Riley, I’m going to ask you to leave so I can talk to your mother in private.”
Kitsy held her palm out in a stopping motion. “It’s okay. We can tell Riley. She will need to know if I am to get through this week.”
Dr. Foster leaned down, adjusted the blanket at the end of the stretcher. “Are you sure?”
Riley felt the revelation, not yet spoken, slip into the room like dark smoke. She went to Mama’s side, wiped a stray hair off her forehead. Lying in the bed with an IV in the back of her hand, with bandages on her arms and a spot of dried blood on her cheek, Mama had a vulnerability that grabbed Riley by the throat and robbed her of breath. “What is it, Dr. Foster?”
“Your mother found a lump behind her knee a few weeks ago. The tests have come back and she has a bone cancer called chondrosarcoma.”
“No.” Riley’s plea was a desperate whisper. “Not cancer. Not like Dad.”
“It’s not like that….It’s not the same kind,” Mama whispered. “My cancer is treatable. They think so anyway. I just don’t want to do anything about it or tell anyone…until after your sisters’ visit, after the bookstore party. Do not tell your sisters….”
“Mama, you cannot wait on treatment. Right, Dr. Foster? She can’t wait. We have to deal with this now.”
“We’re doing all we can, Riley. Obviously these new injuries complicate the situation.” Dr. Foster patted the bedrail as if it were Riley’s hand. “Your mother has made informed decisions and will begin treatment after the party.”
Riley looked down at Mama, her heart reaching out to the childlike woman in the bed, but Kitsy’s eyes were closed and the soft sound of sleep slipped from her parted lips. Riley took two steps toward Dr. Foster. “You have to talk her out of waiting.…”
She had already been through so much heartbreak with her father.
“Is the disease what caused her to break so many bones?” Riley asked.
“It’s possible. Beyond that, your mother will tell you what she wants you to know. I can’t answer all your questions.” Dr. Foster looked away.
Riley grabbed the sleeve of his white coat. “Doc, you can. I’ve known you my entire life.”
Dr. Foster took Riley’s hand. “She wants to get through this week of parties and festivities before she tells anyone. Can you understand her decision? She wants her daughters together—that’s all I can tell you.”
“Parties? Festivities? What is that compared to…?” She couldn’t say the word “death.”
“Everything, to your mother. She will have all her daughters home for the first time in years, and she doesn’t want anything to ruin it.”
“Maisy and Adalee are only coming for two days next weekend. Two days. They’re too busy to be involved in the bookstore or with Mama’s care.”
“Two days is enough for your mother. Listen, Riley, your mother is strong and I will not go against her wishes. For a year and a half, she has been planning this week of parties and looking forward to seeing all her girls together. I will not take that joy away from her.”
“But now she’s gonna miss all of it. She’ll be…in bed.”
“Please, just let us treat her and allow her to tell you whatever she needs to say to you, in her own way and in her own time.” Dr. Foster stood, held up his hand to stay any further words. “And do not say anything to your sisters.”
Dr. Foster shut the door harder than necessary, leaving Riley in the middle of the room, more alone than she’d felt since the day she awoke and found that Maisy had run away to California. She placed her hand on her chest where the thought of losing one more person caused a sharp pain. “No,” she said out loud, and then wondered how many men, women, children, parents and loved ones had mumbled the same denial in this place.
She kissed her sleeping mama’s forehead and walked into the hall, then reached for her cell phone. She dialed Maisy’s number in California. For the past twelve years Riley had convinced herself that she would never need Maisy again.
She’d been wrong.