I busied myself with straightening a stack of postcards. It could have been Lois standing there. Actually, she had been standing there, just a few hours earlier, and had said almost word for word what Marina was saying.

“She’s been here a long time,” I said. “No one knows the picture books as well as Marcia. And she has great rapport with the customers.” At least the ones she knew. Strangers she didn’t much care for. “And kids like her.” Well, some did. The clean ones. Kids who came in with dirty hands were marched to the bathroom to wash.

Marina gave me a look. “You’ve never let anyone go, have you?”

“Um . . .”

“Hah!” She grinned triumphantly. “This isn’t about Marcia’s inability to fulfill her duties as an employee; this is about your fear of firing!”

“Is not.” But my gaze slid away from hers.

She shook her index finger at me. “Prove it.”

“It’s not fear.” So what if I hadn’t ever fired anyone? So what if the thought of firing Marcia made my stomach hurt? So what if the idea of inciting confrontation went against everything my mother ever taught me? If I had to fire Marcia, I would.

“No?” Marina looked at me askance. “Then what is it?”

“Timing. It’s too close to Christmas. And I’ll thank you to remember that this is my store, not some playground for your management theories.”

Marina shook her head, sighing. “Poor Beth, still afraid of life. You need to show your daughter and son how to overcome fear. Show them how to push through the anxiety and come through on the other side. Fear is nothing,” she said solemnly. “If you’re scared, it means whatever you’re scared of isn’t happening. If it was, you’d be too busy working your way out of trouble. . . .”

As she talked, I studied her, trying to figure out what was really going on in that busy brain. Clearly, she had an ulterior motive. And, just as clearly, she wasn’t going to tell me what it was. Ah, well. Time would eventually tell. It always did. Marina couldn’t keep a secret for beans.

The next night, Thursday, I sat at the front of a classroom in what I’d come to consider my spot. Thanks to some fast phone calls, a fair amount of pleading, and some outright begging, I’d convinced the PTA board to change the meeting night from Wednesday to Thursday.

To my right were my three fellow board members: Randy Jarvis, treasurer and owner of the downtown gas station; Erica Hale, president, attorney, and grandmother; and our new vice president, Claudia Wolff.

The four of us had our knees under a rectangular table at the front of the room. It was a fifth-grade classroom, so the furniture was close to adult-sized, but Randy’s size was far from normal. Erica, Claudia, and I fit our bottom halves under the table without any trouble. Randy, on the other hand, kept whacking his knees on the bottom of the table. There was a reason I taped the meetings, and it wasn’t because the board had voted to do so. Many a night I’d studied my handwritten notes, eyeing the jigs and jags due to Randy bumps, and turned on the tape recorder.

Erica put on her half-glasses and banged the gavel. “The Tarver Elementary School PTA meeting will come to order.” Erica, silver-haired and slim, with just the faintest trace of a Southern accent, was one of the first grandparents to join Tarver’s PTA. A dearth of volunteers had called for drastic measures, and allowing extended family to join had swelled the Tarver PTA’s ranks nicely.

I took roll and tried not to wince when I called Claudia Wolff’s name. Our former vice president, Julie Reed, a perky young mother, had come down with twins last year and, understandably, had to resign. In her stead was Claudia Wolff, the PTA’s perennially underappreciated volunteer.

Well, underappreciated according to Claudia, and to be fair, she was probably right. She labored for hours on PTA projects, but spent just as much time asking people to feel sorry for her because she was working so hard on PTA projects.

I tried to like her, honestly I did. One night when the kids were in bed I even sat down and made a list of Claudia’s good points. “Works hard,” I said, writing the words on a yellow legal pad. She was a tireless worker. She’d come early for setup during bake sales, and she’d stay late to help put things away.

“Reliable.” Never once had Claudia forgotten to bake cupcakes or call her branch of the phone tree or missed a PTA meeting.

“Sincere.” Claudia wasn’t the type to say things behind your back. No, she’d tell you to your face what she thought of your ideas, your choices in clothing, and your parenting methods. No one had to wonder what Claudia thought; it was out there front and center.

I’d never gotten any further with the list because Oliver had woken with an earache and I’d had my hands full the rest of the night. Now, as I finished taking roll, I tried to keep the three things I’d written down in the forefront of my mind. If I could continue to think well of Claudia, and if I could stay away from Randy’s pant leg, the meeting would be a rousing success.

We pushed through the only old business item, the upcoming Father-Daughter Dance, and all through the dance committee’s report my mouth grew drier and drier. If I tried to talk, would my voice work, or would it just squeak?

“Next up is new business,” Erica finally said. “Item number one is a new spring project.”

My hands were sweating. What if everyone thought my idea was dumb?

Erica looked at me over her glasses. “Beth, you have the floor.”

“Thanks.” I took a deep breath and looked out at the audience. Isabel Olson was in her son Neal’s seat. Sam Helmstetter, dubbed the Nicest Guy on the Planet, his nice brown plaid scarf still around his neck, had his head tilted toward Tina Heller, who was giggling. Sam’s expression was one of patient fortitude. He was used to Tina. The Hellers and the Helmstetters, in addition to their close proximity in the alphabet, lived backyard to backyard.

Also out there was a mother newly arrived in town, though I couldn’t remember her name. Plus there was Debra O’Conner, formerly known as the Rynwood Woman Who Most Intimidates Me; Heather Kingsley; and CeeCee and Dan Daniels. Marina was home, watching over my children.

I knew almost all of these people. Most of them I knew very well. I sold them books and stickers and stuffed animals, for heaven’s sake, so why was I suddenly so nervous?

“First off,” I said, “please accept my apologies for changing the meeting date at such short notice. What I’m proposing”—my throat froze shut for an eternal moment—“is a story session between the children of Tarver and the senior citizens of Rynwood.”

“At Sunny Rest Assisted Living,” Erica added.

“That’s right.” My face lost its heat and my potential embarrassment suddenly seemed like a silly thing to worry about. “I think we’d all like more interaction between generations. My idea is to match Tarver students with Sunny Rest residents. The students will write stories about their residents, and the end product will be a book that both Sunny Rest and the PTA can sell as a fund-raiser.”

“Lovely idea,” Erica said.

I breathed a little easier. There’d be at least one vote for my motion. Well, two, including mine. When I’d first come aboard as secretary, I’d asked who made a tiebreaking vote. Erica looked thoughtful, Julie started paging through the bylaws, and Randy said he couldn’t think about things like that on an empty stomach. The question hadn’t been answered, and I’d forgotten all about it. Until now.

Debra O’Conner raised her hand.

“Yes, Debra?” Erica asked.

“You said stories. What kind of stories?”

I leaned forward, eager to explain. “The kids decide. But they’ll have a list of questions that need to be answered. Where the resident was born, what they liked to do as children, what music they listened to—oh, all sorts of things. We’ll decide on a minimum and maximum length, and the PTA will edit them.” I’d do the editing, probably, but the project was my idea, so it was only fair.

“So more like an interview than a story,” Claudia said.

Why did a comment that was factually accurate come across as derisive? I tried to separate tone from content and focused on the meaning. “Exactly. The kids will learn about lives very different from their own, and the residents will get their stories in print.”

The room went quiet. I picked at my cuticles. Should I make the motion? Wait for someone else to make the

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