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No Greater Love

By Gina Holder

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There isn’t another smell like this in the entire world. The musty scent of vintage paper enveloped her like the familiarity of a security blanket, drawing her into her happy place. The smell of various perfumes and lavender vacuum powder lingered in the air. Several dimly lit, but fancy lamps sat atop the stand-alone marble-topped bookcases in the middle of the room. A brown, red, and beige rug and leather chairs gave the appearance of a cozy den. Paige McDonald closed her eyes and jostled her hand along the fraying spines where their roughness tickled the pads of her fingertips. She imagined the lives they’d lived, the places they’d been, and the stories they could tell beyond the ones written on their thinning, yellowed pages.
A shrill noise echoed in the distance, breaking into Paige’s daydreams. She lowered her hand and sighed, moving to open the interior door of the Rare Book Room. She stepped through the doorway into the Pearl Room on the third floor of the largest bookstore in the world. Florescent lights momentarily blinded her. She clicked the door shut behind her, protecting the rare literary volumes against the ultraviolet rays.
“Paige! Paige McDonald!”
Customers lifted their heads as the intrusive sound interrupted their browsing. The source of the offensive voice topped the stairs leading from the color-coded Red and Purple Rooms below. “I’ve been searching everywhere for you.”
“Yes, Mrs. Bastille. What can I do for you?” Paige clasped her hands behind her back and waited for instructions as the swanky assistant manager stalked her direction. Cat Bastille’s red hair complemented her fiery personality. She wore an outdated navy pantsuit and a gold scarf around her neck. Paige detested the woman, but she was all that stood between herself and the unemployment office.
The manager invaded Paige’s personal bubble and blew coffee breath in her face. Paige scrunched her nose against the odor. “The toilet is overflowing. Get in there and put a stop to it. Then, clean out the fridge in back. Some of the employees’ lunches are growing mold.” Cat tossed her hair over her shoulder with a show of dramatics. The woman should have been an actress…or a troll.
“Of course, Mrs. Bastille. I’ll take care of it.” Paige kept her voice sweet and submissive, when all she really wanted to do was grab the woman by her oversized hooped earrings and shake her. Cat repeatedly assigned her to the lowest and most demeaning tasks in the store. However, working at Powell’s City of Books in downtown Portland was the closest thing to her dream, and if it required groveling at the feet of Cat Bastille, then so be it. Without another word, she ducked under her boss’s outstretched arm, heading for the janitor’s closet on the second floor.


As her lunch break ended, Paige finished her turkey sandwich, then dropped the trash into the can. She swallowed one last swig from her water bottle, tossed it into the recycling, then returned her lunch bag to her locker.
“I have another job for you.”
She spun around at the sound of her manager’s voice, slamming the locker door a little louder than she intended. Okay, a lot louder. She flinched as Cat’s eyes narrowed. In the manager’s pinched fingers, she held aloft a small key. Paige could only imagine what lock it might open. “What’s that?” She mentally face-palmed herself for asking such a dumb question.
“A key.”
Ask a stupid question, you deserve a stupid answer. “What does it go to?” That’s what I should have said the first time.
The red-haired woman heaved an audible sigh. “A container from the warehouse.” Her whiny voice grated on Paige’s eardrums. “Management wants to have a sidewalk sale tomorrow and Sunday. Go unload the books and arrange them on carts. Get one or two of the other employees to help.” Cat shoved the key toward Paige’s chest.
Paige wrapped her fingers around the metal as she attempted to compute her manager’s request. “That only gives me a few hours before my shift ends.” She already had plans for the evening with her aunt. So what if they involve eating dinner and watching TV?
“I guess you’d better hurry.”
Paige gathered her thoughts. She’d simply have to channel her uber-organizing skills and accomplish the task before leaving. “Where’s the container?”
“In the storeroom. Duh.” Cat Bastille drew out the one-syllable word like an adolescent teenager.
Paige squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. She could handle anything her superior could throw at her. “Yes, ma’am.” She headed out the doorway. Besides, there might be some books for my collection. Gotta love that employee discount.
Cat spoke again from behind her. “I need you to work Sunday, and you can’t use your employee discount on any of the books until after the sale ends.” Can that woman read my mind? A shiver swept over Paige. That was a scary thought.
With the help of two other employees, Paige managed to unload the books and set them upon carts to be rolled out come the morning. With a satisfied grin, she stood back and admired her work. They’d sorted each cart by genre and alphabetically by author. She had already spied a handful of books that she hoped would last until the end of the sale. Few people researched antiquarian literature quite like her and fewer would be searching for these particular volumes. She slipped one from the metal shelf and caressed the embossed title. An excited tingle ran up her arms. I need to check eBay again tonight. She was bidding on a couple of items and the current bid for one in particular was far less than its worth. If she could get her hands on it, she hoped to sell it to a rare book dealer for a tidy profit.
“Call 911! Call 911!”
Years of training kicked in. Paige dropped the book in her hands like a hot coal and bolted into the Green Room. A small child jerked on the floor, coughing and sputtering, while an overwrought gentleman knelt beside her.
Paige dropped to her knees and grabbed his arm. “What happened?”
He raked his hands through his hair, then clenched his fists. His words came out shaky and broken. “I don’t know. Please, help my daughter.”
The child stopped coughing. Her lips turned blue. Not good. “I have first aid training. With your permission, I’ll do CPR.” The anxious father nodded. Paige tucked strands of her hair behind her ears. Ignoring the gathering crowd, she bent over the small child and opened the little girl’s mouth, checking her airways. Something white was visible at the back of her throat. Paige eased her hand in and felt a stick. She tugged. A lollipop came loose. She sat back on her haunches and handed the candy to the father. His face blanched. “I—I thought…”
She’s still not breathing. Paige focused on blowing into the girl’s lips. After what seemed like an eternity, the child gasped for air and began coughing again. Paige rolled her onto her side, then stroked her hair and patted her back, whispering soothing words. “It’s OK. That’s good. Just breathe.”
Moments later, the crowd parted as the EMTs came through the front door with their equipment. Paige stepped back while the father explained what had happened. She wasn’t needed here any longer, so she slipped away. Just before she reached the stairs, a cold hand grabbed her wrist. Cat Bastille’s face was ghostly pale. “How did you know what to do?”
“My grandpa required me to take the first aid class for babysitters at the Red Cross when I was twelve. I’ve renewed my certification ever since.”
Without waiting for a reply, she climbed the stairs to the third floor and entered the employee lounge. She crossed to the lockers and leaned her head on the cool metal, shaking as the adrenaline wore off. A warm feeling spirled like waves over her heart. “You would be so proud, Grandpa. I saved someone today.” She wiped at the tears on her cheeks, sniffled, and unlocked her locker. She checked the time on her cell phone. It was already a quarter after five. Her aunt would worry when she wasn’t home at the usual time. I’ll call her on my way to the bus stop. Aunt Hattie, her grandfather’s sister, had been her caregiver ever since his passing. At twenty-five years of age, Paige hardly needed watching over, but she couldn’t bring herself to get her own place.
Once downstairs, she pushed through the revolving door. Portland’s Pearl District bustled with boutiques, restaurants, and art galleries. People rushed here and there, never taking their eyes off their cell phones.
“Hi, cutie.” A paramedic stood outside, waiting for the others. She tried to ignore him. She swung her backpack over her shoulder and moved down the sidewalk toward the crosswalk. He followed at her heels. “You’re the one that saved that little girl.”
She pretended that a plastic bag rolling down the street distracted her. Almost to the crosswalk. Just a few more steps. Please don’t ask me out.
“I’m Alex Fletcher. Do you want to catch a movie sometime? Maybe go out to dinner?”
Paige stopped walking and shifted her backpack strap to the other shoulder. She turned to face the medic, shielding her eyes from the setting sun behind him. “I don’t date first responders.”
“Really? You don’t know what you’re missing.” Paige walked backward, shaking her head. “Come on, what’s not to like about us hero types?” The paramedic puffed out his chest.
What’s not to like? “The hero part.”
His mouth fell open as she turned to face the crosswalk. The little man appeared in the walk/don’t walk box and she crossed the street without looking back.
“Hey Alex. Let’s roll.” The EMTs called to their partner. The ambulance engine rumbled and they drove off without a siren. Good. The child didn’t need the hospital.
When she reached the bus stop, Paige sat between an elderly woman carrying her grocery bags and a Mario look-alike from the Nintendo game, complete with red jumpsuit and thick mustache.
Holding back tears of frustration, she leaned forward and pressed her face into her hands. Thirteen years. Thirteen years had passed since she’d vowed never to get involved with a civil servant—a hero. She had no argument against helping people—a little kindness went a long way in this messed up world, but she didn’t understand someone who was willing to risk or to give their life for someone they didn’t even know. She’d lost her grandfather to hero work. She wasn’t about to risk her heart to someone who would put the welfare of strangers before those they loved and who loved them.
Right on schedule, the city bus came to a squealing stop and the folding door opened. Paige brushed her hair into place, then she picked up her backpack, slung it over her shoulder, and followed the other passengers onto the bus.



Through the windshield of his BMW, he watched Brooklyn McDonald board the city bus. She was late today—something must have held her up. She’d had a quick, strained conversation with the paramedic out front of the bookstore, then went to wait at her usual bus stop. He took a drink from the paper coffee cup in his hand. It had grown cold while he waited. He gagged, and then dumped the liquid on the ground outside the open window. The bus rolled away from the shelter. He tossed the empty cup into the back seat, then put the car in gear. He flipped on the left blinker and pulled into traffic.



At her stop in the Hawthorne District of Southeast Portland, Paige unlocked her bicycle from the bike rack. When the traffic cleared, she walked her bike across the busy road and then pedaled home to the bungalow on Southeast Madison Street. After locking her bike in the garage, she jogged up the steps and opened the back door.
Grandpa McDonald had bought the house before Paige was born and long before the local housing market had exploded. The paint was chipping, and the gardens were in need of tending. A few shingles were missing from the roof, and one of the windows had a growing crack, but it was home. Paige closed the door and locked it—the only way it stayed closed. “I'm home, Aunt Hattie.”
At the sound of her voice, Aunt Hattie’s animals clamored to greet her: two Dalmatians, a long-haired Persian cat, and a forty-year-old African gray parrot who was sitting on the back of the couch. “Paige home,” he squawked. “Paige home.” Paige’s lips tilted with a smile. He sounded just like her boss. She squatted and was nearly knocked off her feet by the overwhelming love. They licked her face and stroked their heads against her jeans and turtleneck.
She pushed the pets away and stood to her feet as Aunt Hattie appeared from the kitchen. Her aunt wore a flour-covered apron over her ample bodice and skirt. Her white curls bobbed up and down as she jiggled her way across the linoleum flooring. “Paigey. You made it. I was worried.”
Aunt Hattie buried her in a warm embrace. Her chapped lips planted kisses on Paige’s cheek. “Yes, Aunt Hattie. I made it. Sorry I’m late.” Her aunt greeted everyone as if she hadn’t seen them in years, even if it had only been since breakfast.
Paige walked to the closet, tripping over the excited animals. She set her backpack inside and hung her house keys on the hook nearby. “What’s for dinner?”
Aunt Hattie beamed. “I’m trying one of Ina Garten's recipes.” Paige held back a chortle. Her aunt said the name like in a garden. “Chicken pot pie. She fixed it on her TV show this morning.”
She followed Hattie into the kitchen where white flour coated every surface. “What happened in here? There's more flour on the counters than in a pie crust.”
Aunt Hattie threw her hands in the air. “Don't I know it? Ina says, ‘how easy is that?’ But it’s not that easy.”
Paige kissed her aunt on her flour-streaked forehead. “Let me change into some sweats and I'll help you clean up in here.”
She patted the dogs’ heads as she passed, then climbed the steep staircase to her bedroom. Inside the room, every wall, even over the windows, was lined with bookcases, and every bookcase was stacked with books. Every stack was organized according to genre, author, and publication date. A pair of gray sweats waited in a laundry basket on her bed. Aunt Hattie washed, dried, and folded the laundry, but Paige insisted that she put it away herself. She changed her clothes and returned to the kitchen. After they cleaned, Paige and her aunt sat down to dinner at the wobbly dining table. Aunt Hattie had covered the water stains and scratches with a lace tablecloth. A fresh bouquet of spring flowers from the flower beds filled the vase in the center. Paige tucked her napkin on her lap and scooted her chair close. “Smells good, Aunt Hattie.” She stuck her fork into the individual ramekin. Only Aunt Hattie could make the crust raw and burnt at the same time. It soon became clear that the crust wasn't the only thing wrong with Aunt Hattie’s chicken pot pie. The chicken was overcooked, the vegetables were still rock hard, and the gravy was much too salty.
Aunt Hattie stuck out her tongue. “Oh, this is terrible.”
“I’m glad you think so, too.” Paige took a long drink of water to wash the foul taste from her mouth.
They dumped the pot pie into the garbage and ordered pizza from Rovente Pizzeria and ate it in the living room while watching an episode of Downton Abbey. Paige tucked her legs under her on the sofa and took a swig of root beer. Aunt Hattie wiped Ranch dressing from her lips where she sat on a floral chair catty-corner to the couch. “How was work today, Paigey? You haven't said much about it.”
Paige set her glass bottle on a crocheted coaster on the coffee table. “It was all right, I guess.”
“What’s wrong?”
“It’s my boss, Cat Bastille. She treats me like a servant.”
Aunt Hattie took a drink of a vanilla creme pop poured into a glass. “What is your job title again, dear?”
Paige cringed. “Inventory Specialist One.”
“I thought you were the janitor.” Aunt Hattie’s eyes twinkled.
Paige shifted on the couch as the long-haired cat, Delilah, jumped into her lap and began to purr. Aunt Hattie tossed the pizza crusts to the dogs. “Some days I feel like the janitor, but I want to do so much more than clean toilets, change light bulbs, and sort books. How will I ever learn how to run my own bookstore? That's why I wanted the job. I was hoping to learn how to be a successful entrepreneur, not just a glorified housekeeper. I don't know…” She hugged her knees as the credits began rolling on the flat screen. It was her dream to open a hole-in-the-wall bookstore in small-town America—a book nook where every patron was well-known and well-loved. It would be the heartbeat of the community, where people met daily to socialize and enjoy fresh brewed coffee and homemade treats. “I saved a little girl today. She was choking on a lollipop.”
“Good girl. Your grandfather would be so proud of you.” Aunt Hattie leaned forward and picked up the remote from off the coffee table. “Do you want to watch something else? It’s still early.”
“Sure. What’s on next?”
Aunt Hattie waved the remote in Paige’s direction. “I don’t know. You’ll have to check. I don’t have any idea how to find that listy thing.”
Paige pushed the cat off her lap and moved to take the remote from her aunt’s outstretched hand. She grabbed it, then flopped back on the center couch cushion. “It’s called the menu, Aunt Hattie. And there’s a red button that’s marked ‘menu.’ You just press it.”
Aunt Hattie waved her arms. “Of course there is.” Aunt Hattie’s theatrics brought a smile to Paige’s face.
“What do you want to watch?”
“Pick something from my generation. These new-fangled shows are too much for this old heart.”
Paige scanned the menu. The colored strip flashed down the screen. “Little House on the Prairie is playing at eight thirty.” Her eyes scrolled the listings. “Wait. This movie looks interesting.”
“What's it about?” Aunt Hattie raised her glass to her lips.
“It’s on the Hallmark Channel. A man and his wife adopt an orphan girl. Twenty years later, she goes in search of her birth mother—Aunt Hattie, are you OK?” She jumped from her seat and removed the sloshing glass from her aunt’s shaking hand. Aunt Hattie bent over and coughed. Paige slapped her back until the piece of ice dislodged from her aunt's throat and she spit it into her hand. “Thank you, Paigey. I should be more careful. Piece of ice slid right into my mouth.”
Paige eased back onto the edge of the wooden coffee table, her eyebrows drawn and filled with concern for the old woman. Aunt Hattie's face was flushed while she continued coughing and clearing her throat. “Can I get you some water?”
“Yes, please.”
When Paige returned with the glass, Aunt Hattie took it with a grateful smile. “Thank you.” She sipped on the cold water. “Oh, that feels good. Did you say Little House on the Prairie was on?”
“At eight thirty.”
Aunt Hattie set the glass of water on the table. But not on a coaster. Something is wrong. She always uses a coaster. “How about we walk down to that ice cream place on Hawthorne, Ken and Harry’s or whatever it’s called?”
Paige chuckled. “Ben and Jerry’s, Aunt Hattie. Sure, I could use some fresh air too.”
After donning their jackets, the two women stepped out into the nippy spring air and walked down the well-lit street. The signal light turned red and the little man signaled that it was safe to cross. At Ben and Jerry’s, Paige and Aunt Hattie shared a Mini-Vermonster and then returned to the house and curled up on the couch for a rerun episode of Little House on the Prairie.
At 9:30, when the credits rolled, Aunt Hattie said goodnight and climbed the stairs to her room followed by her pets, including the parrot, who put himself to bed in his cage in the hallway. “Goodnight Paige. Goodnight Hattie,” he squawked.
“Goodnight, Gerald,” Paige called up the stairs. The parrot would not go to sleep until she said goodnight. She dug another pop from the fridge and turned on an episode of American Pickers. She tossed a blanket over her legs and snuggled into the couch.

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