„Doctor Cullen? I thought you might like some tea."
Carlisle looked up from his paperwork to find one of the nurses already halfway through his office, a steaming cup in her hands that spread the smell of peppermint through the air. She smiled enticingly at him, faltering slightly as she noticed the two other cups of cold tea that sat on his desk.
"Oh, looks like someone else had the same idea." She laughed nervously as she sat the cup down.
He suppressed a sigh and smiled up at her.
"Thank you Nina, it was very… thoughtful of you." He immediately regretted using her name. The smile reappeared, wider than before, and her hand flew up to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear.
"Oh, it's no problem at all. If there is anything else I can do for you…" She let the sentence hang in the air and leaned against his desk.
"No, thank you," he answered quickly, and rose from his desk, „In fact, I was just heading out."
He had had no such plans, but he couldn't stay in his office any longer. This was the fourth time within the last hour that one of the nurses had appeared in his office with tea or questions regarding patients or other flimsy excuses to flirt with him.
Quickly he slipped past her and out of the door, murmuring some inconsequential excuse. Thankfully his office was located near one of the side-exits, and he was out in the fresh air in a flash. He ran his hand over his face and took a deep, unnecessary breath.
It wasn't that he wasn't used to the attentions of the female staff. It was inevitable for him, and usually he was able to handle it quite well. Sure, whenever they moved to a new town and he started to work at a new hospital, it was particularly bad. But it usually took only a few weeks until they realized that their wishes were never going to come true, even if this realization did not keep them from wishing.
Carlisle reacted to their advances with polite friendliness, making sure to treat all of them equally, so as not to give any of them any illusions of favouritism. Still, it was hard for him. He was sociable and friendly by nature, and he could not bring himself to be unnecessarily cold to anyone.
Their job was to save lives, and in order to do so they needed to work together. So he tried his best to smooth any disruptions his person caused, always striving for a careful balance of polite distance and friendly colleagueship, a method that usually worked well. Most of them came around pretty quickly and were able to work with him. Only once in a while one of them would be bolder or not as easily discouraged, and he needed to be more direct, something he was loath to do.
But this time it seemed to be different. Almost half a year had passed since they had taken up residency here, and the excitement about him had not dwindled, instead, most of the nurses were still hovering around him as much as was possible. Maybe it was their tenacity that bothered him more than usual, but of late he found himself more and more irritated by their advances.
Today it had grown so bad that he actually felt the need to flee the hospital, which was usually his place of respite. Now he found himself aimlessly wandering the streets, irritation buzzing through his body like a faint electric current.
His inability to pinpoint what exactly was bothering him only irritated him more. Over the last months something had taken hold of him that neither he nor Edward or Jasper could explain. His life had not changed much, even if he had gained a daughter-in-law and they had once again moved to a different town. It was nothing world-changing, but the easy satisfaction he usually felt when he thought about his family and his job had slightly dwindled.
The wind changed direction and brought with it a scent that pulled him from his musings.
Books, he thought, books and dust and lavender. He inhaled a bit deeper. Leather, Paper; both old and new, wood, vanilla, violets. And something sweet, that reminded him of something...
Curiosity and a desire for distraction made him follow the smell down the street and around a corner. He had wandered farther than he had realized while he was lost in thought, this was a corner of town he had not been to before.
The smell grew stronger in the little street he was walking down now, leading straight to a bookshop that was sitting on the corner, across from a small café. The sign above the door was a faded white and read The Literary Pharmacy written in calligraphy.
A small shiver ran down his back, but the loud voice carrying through the closed door of the shop diverted his attention before he could wonder what had caused it.
"What is that supposed to mean? You won't sell it to me?" a harsh female voice inquired inside the shop. A small sigh, probably barely audible to the enraged customer, preceded the answer.
"If you insist, I will obviously sell it to you, but I'd really rather not. Not this particular book.", another woman replied, her voice even.
"And why not?"
"Because it's not the right one for you. Nick Jordan isn't your type." came the reply.
"Not my type? Miss, I am here to buy a book, not to find a husband!" By now, the woman's voice was bristling with indignation. The other woman chuckled under her breath, the amusement tinging her voice as she said: "With all due respect, but the books you read are far more important than which man you marry, at least in the long run."
A bell rang as Carlisle entered the shop. The air was warm and dry, thick with the scent that had led him here, and he closed the door quietly behind him. The store was bigger than it looked from the outside, roomy and cozy. There were a few small tables and couches strewn throughout the room, most of them by the windows. Huge shelves made of dark wood were overflowing with books, more of them were stacked on tables. Dozens of lamps hang from the ceiling, some alone, some arranged in groups, all with different lampshades. To the right there was a wooden counter currently occupied by the two women. In front of the counter stood an older woman, probably around fifty years old, wrapped in an expensive looking coat, a designer bag hanging from her arm. Her red lips were pressed together in disapproval. Behind the counter was a younger woman, maybe half her customer's age, with long hair, a pretty face and a small smile on her lips. Neither of the women registered his entrance, both of them fully invested in their argument. Silently he started browsing the impressive collection, while he listened to their conversation.
"What kind of bookseller are you? Telling me not to buy books!"
"One who takes her job very seriously. And I do want you to buy books, just not The Lost Boys."
The woman narrowed her eyes and waved her wallet.
"Just give me the damn book, take my money, and then we can both pretend it's a nice day."
The bookseller smiled. "It is a nice day, but you're not getting this book. At least not from me. But I would like to introduce you to a few others, if I may?"
"This is ridiculous!" she spat, her voice growing continuously louder," I'm not having this. Just because you probably disliked the book-", the woman threw her wallet into her bag and turned around, but the younger woman quickly but her hand on her arm before she could walk away. The smile was gone from her face, instead she was studying the woman intently.
"You have the choice. You can go, leave this shop and curse me, or you could make a choice to spare yourself countless hours of torture, from this moment on."
The older woman hesitated for a second, then she ripped her arm away. "That's what I'm doing right now." She whirled around and headed to the door, so the bookseller's next words hit her square in the back.
"Please, put your trust in this, or you will only keep on torturing yourself about those useless relationships with these even more useless men, or your next stupid diet, because you're not thin enough for that one man or not stupid enough for the next one."
With flared nostrils and shaking hands she turned back around to the shopkeeper, her voice icy.
"How dare you?!"
The younger woman did not let this answer discourage her, instead she slipped out from behind the counter, a book in her hands, and slowly made her way over to the other woman. She moved deliberately, carefully, like she was approaching a wounded animal, her voice calm.
"Books can protect you from idiocy. From false hope. Or from the wrong men. They can fill you with life. If it's the right book. The right book can give you love, knowledge, hope… "She said, and held the book out in front of her, her hands covering the title. Automatically the older woman reached for it, but the bookseller didn't let go. Her voice grew soft, almost tender now, as she looked at the woman who stared at her with baited breath.
"You will need a room just for yourself, not too bright, preferably with a bed. Read it slowly, in small portions, so you can rest in between. You will have a lot to think about- and to cry about. You'll cry for yourself. For the years. But you will feel better afterwards. You will understand that you won't have to die now, even if it feels like it, because that guy treated you so horribly. You will like yourself again, and you'll stop feeling like you're ugly and naïve."
She let go of the book. The woman stared at her, the shock written so plainly on her face that it was evident that her words had hit home. She blinked twice and dropped the book.
"You're totally crazy.", she whispered, whirled around and stumbled out of the shop. Through the window Carlisle could see her retreating, each heeled step an angry stab against the ground, her shoulders shaking violently under her coat. He could still hear her rugged breathing. She was fighting against the tears, and he could hear that she was losing.
He turned back around to the bookseller, who was rubbing her face with both her hands. She sighed wearily and bent down to pick up the discarded book, brushing off the now slightly bended spine.
"Wonderful," she muttered under her breath, still perfectly audible to his ears. " Now I've got a ruined book and an angry customer. And I thought I could keep it together."
She walked back to the counter, but stopped mid-step and turned back to the room. Apparently she was only now realizing that somebody else had come in, and her eyes quickly fell on him, widening visibly as she took him in.
"Jesus, Lord Almighty", she said and put a hand to her heart. "Your face needs to come with a warning and a paper bag. "
He stared at her with raised eyebrows. He'd never heard that before.
"A paper bag? To put over my face?"
"Oh," she put her hand over her mouth and started laughing, "No! Sorry, that came out wrong. I mean, putting it over your face might help, but it'd be an awful waste- I meant the kind of paper bag you breathe into, you know." She grinned and whacked her fist against her chest. "Either I'm close to hyperventilating or I'm having palpitations- probably both. You're ridiculously handsome, is what I'm trying to say." She finished, almost accusingly, but her eyes were alight with mirth.
He couldn't help but laugh. It was rare that people openly addressed their beauty, and if they did, it was usually followed up by aggressive flirting or immoral offers, nothing like the open humor that this woman was exhibiting now. A compliment, offered without any expectations.
"I am truly sorry for the lack of warning, but I did not want to interrupt your… discussion." Carlisle answered, and she didn't miss his slight hesitation at the end. She grimaced.
"Ah, yes. I'm sorry you had to witness that, I'm not usually that crazy. I feel awful- it wasn't kind to pester her like that. She was already hurt, she didn't need an insensitive smart-aleck …" She stared out the door, as if she was trying to find the woman outside.
"Is The Lost Boys really that awful?" he asked her, and she looked at him, surprised. He wasn't exactly one to read all the newest praised bestsellers, but even he had heard of the gigantic success Nick Jordan's debut novel had been.
"No, not at all. It's a wonderful book. His first work, very honest and courageous. But the book is overflowing with men that view love as a weakness because it makes them lose control. Not right for her. I mean… It probably wouldn't have hurt her. Much. But it would've been salt in an open wound. Still, I was too… well, I got a bit carried away." She sighed again, her eyes on the door. "I'm always too emotional with women like her," she added, almost as an afterthought to herself. He wanted to ask what she meant by that, but she quickly shook her head as if to clear it, and flashed him a smile.
"Anyways. What brings you here on this fine day? Are you looking for something?" She eyed him speculatively from head to toe, but not in an appreciative manner like before. A sly smile appeared on her lips. "Or are you hiding from the nurses?"
His eyebrows shot up. "How…?" he started, but she laughed and pointed to his white coat.
"Your coat, your face, no ring. It's not that hard to figure out."
Carlisle laughed, a little ill at ease. First her quick – and apparently correct- assessment of the other woman, and now this. She seemed to be awfully observant. He wondered if it was a latent talent. Alice, Jasper and Edward had all exhibited symptoms while they were human, and Bella's shield had been impenetrable…. He cleared his throat as he noticed her raised eyebrow.
"Ah. Well, I am not hiding from the nurses, if you want to know. I am simply… spending my break away from the hospital premises." Which was almost the truth. He wasn't hiding.
"I see," she grinned. "Well, I'll let you browse then. If you have any questions, you know where to find me. And if a stray nurse happens to wander in here, you can hide behind the counter," she added with a wink. He had the feeling she was amusing herself quite well on his behalf, and surprisingly, found himself equally entertained.
"The Literary Pharmacy is quite an unusual name for a bookstore." He observed as he followed her to the counter, and she shrugged.
"It's what it is. My uncle's bookstore, back at home, goes by this name, too. He taught me how important books can be. How they can heal aches that you lot," she looked pointedly at his coat," cannot heal. All those feelings and pains and fears that are too small to be of any consequence for a therapist or a doctor, but that are still very much real. Like the feeling you get when another summer ends. The wistfulness you get on the morning of yet another birthday. Homesickness for the way the air smelled in your grandmother's kitchen. The small sadness when a growing friendship doesn't take hold and you have to look for a companion once more. These kinds of things." She looked up at him, a strange determination on her face." It's a myth that booksellers take care of books. We take care of people. Hence, the name. We sell books like medicine."
He listened to her little speech, surprised and mystified. Her approach to books was not entirely unheard of, but the ferocity and with which she seemed to pursue it was astounding to him. The devotion she felt towards it was plainly evident, and her observation skills now made a lot more sense.
"So The Lost Boys was an aspirin, but that woman was suffering from a cough?"
An approving smile stretched across her face at his comparison and she shook her head eagerly.
"No, The Lost Boys is a blood thinner, and she's in the middle of open heart surgery."
"I see." He nodded with a small smile. "Is it always that bad?"
"Do all your patients have open heart surgeries?" she retorted, and he laughed.
"Thankfully, no. So sometimes you only sell books, and not medicine?"
" Most of the time, yes. I can sort my customers- or patients, if you like- into three categories: The first ones are those who have a certain book in mind, and they come in to buy it. They are happy with their life, and I am happy to help them, because, well, let's be honest, they pay my bills. The second kind are the ones for whom books are the only respite, the only breath of fresh air from the stuffy tedium of daily life. Those I like best, because they don't need my judgement, so they easily trust it. Naturally, I love that." She laughed, then sobered up. She was leaning over the counter slightly, her eyes bright, her face animated.
"Sometimes they entrust me with their little vulnerabilities. They tell me Please, nothing with spiders or insects, I can't stand them or Nothing with brunette women in it, please. Sometimes they sing songs to me or hum melodies they still remember from their childhood, and they want me to find them a book that feels like that song to them.
The third kind are the ones like that woman, although they're not always that heavily wounded. Most of the time it's something lighter, easier. It's not always a wound, sometimes it's simply a desire. But sometimes it's something far more sinister. These customers aren't always easy to deal with, because they usually think they belong to category one." A wry smile stretched across her face.
"Like that woman.", Carlisle guessed, and she nodded.
"Yes." Another glance out of the window, and then she laughed, this time a bit nervously. "She's probably right. I am crazy."
"On the contrary, I think what you say makes perfect sense, even if it's a bit… unusual." He said, meaning every word. Carlisle himself had always been an avid reader, finding respite, knowledge, wisdom or hope between pages when he couldn't find them anywhere else.
She gave him a grateful smile that was much smaller than the ones she usually seemed to hand out quite freely.
His next question was stopped short by the sharp clicking of heels approaching the door, followed by the ringing of the bell. The older woman from earlier was standing in the door, her eyes red and swollen, but her gaze clear and focused.
"Fine," she said, her voice hoarse, "give me those books that will be nice to me, and fuck the men who aren't."
With raised eyebrows he looked from the older woman, who had her chin raised belligerently, to the younger woman who was now smiling widely.
"Wonderful!" she exclaimed and waved the woman over to a big leather armchair.
"I guess I better get out of the way, then", he said, and she smiled at him over her shoulder as she rolled up her sleeves.
He took up The Lost Boys from a table on the other side of the room, scanning the pages absentmindedly while he listened to the silent interrogation that took place on the other side of the room. The questions quickly covered a wide array of topics, none of them too intimate, but neither too generic. The woman quickly lost her inhibition.
Her name was Florence, she was a secretary for a company "that mistakes women as a cross between an espresso machine and a couch" (a description that earned a rather indelicate snort from the other woman), as a child she loved to wear a pair of red corduroy trousers.
Just as she was finishing her description of a frequent nightmare she had, his beeper hummed in his pocket, and he made his way to the door after a quick look, returning the little wave that the bookseller gave him.
He slipped out of the store and heard the woman ask: "So, tell me: How crazy am I?"
Her laughter accompanied him down the street.
"Not more than any of us."
He quickly made his way back to the hospital, a small smile still on his lips.
Only as one of the nurses asked what had put him in such a good mood did he realize that he didn't even know her name.