Dear Ms Pearson,
Thank you for the opportunity to review your manuscript, however we will not…
Jules’s vision blurred as she stared at the little words on the screen. How many rejections was that in the past six months alone? She pushed her chair from the desk and got up. She didn’t want to think about it. Not anymore. She looked at her laptop and the stack of notebooks and pencils next to it. She didn’t want to write either. What was the point if nobody would ever read it?
You could write just for the sake of writing, a little voice in her head said. You know, like you used to? She sighed. It was true. She didn’t write to publish. She wrote because she was a writer, it was just who she was.
The constant setbacks didn’t help her though. She wanted writing to be her job. She wanted her life to revolve around books, not rejection letters and the impending end of her sabbatical which was creeping closer and closer. And with not even one book published she just couldn’t justify not going back to work.
Jules went over to her bookcase. There had to be a book or something she could read to take away the sinking feeling in her gut. A story to let her escape reality for just a few minutes. She looked through collection but there was nothing she wanted to read. How was that even possible? Jules loved books and there was always something she could reread for the millionth time. But not this time.
There was a beep on the desk from her phone.
So? Did you hear from them?
Jules didn’t answer, she wasn’t ready to face the disappointment by telling someone else. She longed to go back to an easier time. A time when she was still keeping her writing a secret, a time when she had been a fresh-faced teenager trying her hand at fan fiction. Or maybe even back to the time when she was a little girl discovering her joy of stories; once more asking her mum to read her favourite children’s book, The Princess Made of Nothing.
Actually it had been a long time since Jules had even seen a copy of The Princess Made of Nothing. It would be so nice to just get to read it one more time. Surely they had it at the local library. And if not, Jules could buy it. It would be a nice addition to her bookcase. Then whenever she was feeling sad, or needed a reminder why she loved books so much, she could read it. A reminder of where she came from.
She sat down at her laptop again and went to the library’s website to search their database. Nothing. Not deterred from her goal, Jules started searching. She knew that she was using The Princess Made of Nothing to distract her, but at the moment she didn’t care.
* * *
Thirty minutes later Jules was ready to throw in the towel and admit defeat. Getting ahold of a copy seemed almost impossible. It was out of print or sold out everywhere and she couldn’t even find any second hand copies. This made Jules even more adamant. She needed to find this book. She would feel so much better if she did.
Eventually she found an address for the author. She stared at it, the symbolical hamsterwheel turning inside her head. The shock of knowing that the author, Albert Herland, lived in the same town as her was subsiding and instead another idea was developing in her head.
I can’t, can I? He must be over 90 by now. That would be rude, wouldn’t it? She looked at the rejection letter lying ominously on the desk next to her.
She closed her laptop and went to get ready.
* * *
She stared at the number on the door for a long time, repeatedly comparing it to the address she had written down, before finally daring to get out of her car. Just in case. Which was stupid since even if she had the right address the inhabitants would still think she was rude at best, insane at worst. Before she could talk herself out of it, she got out of the car and tried not to think as she made her way to the door. She rang the doorbell and waited.
After just a few minutes, a woman opened the door. The daughter? No, probably granddaughter, Jules thought. The woman was almost as tall as Jules, blonde and with cheeks that were red in a wholesome way. She looked like she should have been on the cover of a skiing magazine. Except her face didn’t wear a smile but squinted blue eyes and a look of annoyance.
“Can I help you?”
“Yes.” Jules said quickly. “My name is Jules Pearson, I’m looking for Albert Herland, does he… um… live here?” She could have slapped herself. You’re supposed to be a writer, good with words, remember?
“What do you want with him?” Arms were crossed and eyes narrowed even further.
“I’m looking for a copy of The Princess Made of Nothing. I haven’t read it since I was a child and it means so much to me but it’s really hard to get hold of. I would pay of course.”
“I’m sorry. We only have two copies left and they’re not for sale.” She started closing the door. Jules, against her better judgement, hurried to put her arm between the door and frame.
“Please, I…” I really need this book, okay?
She didn’t manage to say anything else before the woman’s phone rang.
“Marina.” The woman let go of the door as she talked even if her eyes never left Jules. “No, don’t do this to me, Callie. You promised.”
After a few more words Marina looked Jules up and down as if assessing her body, said an angry “Fine!” and put the phone back in her pocket.
“Okay, you can have a copy. But you need to help me first.”
Jules didn’t know what to say at first. “With what?”
“I need to pick up some supplies for my grandfather; it’s too much for me to carry myself. Nothing too heavy, I think.”
“Okay.” Jules nodded. The Princess Made of Nothing was worth it. “If you promise I’ll get the book afterward, I’ll come along and help you. We can take my car.”
Marina got her jacket and purse and they went to the car. They sat in silence as Jules started the engine and pulled off from the sidewalk.
“What’s wrong with your grandfather?” The silence was unnerving and a little bit awkward. Jules didn’t like it.
“What isn’t wrong with him?” Marina sighed. “He is old. Needs an oxygen tank, and takes a bazillion different types of medicines.” She kept her gaze directed firmly on the window, her face turned from Jules. “Why do you want his book so badly anyway?”
“I need it to cheer me up.” Jules didn’t see any reason to evade the question. “I’m a bit of writer myself. I’ve written a few novels. Published none, but not for the lack of trying. Nobody wants them. I felt like if I could just connect with the book that made me love stories, everything would be okay. I would get the inspiration and motivation to keep going.”
Marina glanced at her, Jules felt her gaze burning into the side of her face. It made her want to scratch it. She waited for Marina to give an answer to her confession.
Marina made a dismissive gesture to the left.
“Take the next exit. We’re here.”
* * *
The things didn’t weigh so much at all. It was just the sheer volume that made it difficult for one person to carry. Marina was walking ahead of her carrying two boxes and Jules came after, carrying two oxygen tanks.
After storing everything in the trunk of her car, they got back inside. Jules started the engine as Marina fastened her seatbelt.
They drove in silence. Marina made no move towards any type of conversation and Jules wasn’t about to talk with someone who had no interest in doing so. She had already embarrassed herself enough. At least once they arrived at Marina’s place, she could get her copy of the book and then be on her way. She could wake up tomorrow having forgotten all about this weird day altogether.
They were almost back when Marina’s phone rang again. She picked it up. This time she spoke in a language that Jules didn’t recognize, but it was clear that it was bad news. Marina’s voice kept rising until she turned off the phone and produced a sound somewhere between a growl and a groan.
“This is just not my day.” Marina muttered. She sighed and when Jules glanced at her, she looked like she wanted to say something but simultaneously didn’t. “I’m somewhat of a freelance cupcake maker.”
Jules laughed despite herself.
“A freelance cupcake maker? Is that even a thing?”
“Hey, at least my things sell.” Marina’s words were cruel but there was a teasing note in her voice.
“Fair enough.” Jules tried to ignore the sting of Marina’s words. She didn’t need to know Marina to know that she didn’t mean anything bad by it.
“I was supposed to deliver a batch of cupcakes today, but since my car is at the shop my associate was supposed to take them.” She looked out of the window, her arms crossed at her chest.
“I’ll help you.” Jules didn’t even have to think about it.
“It’s far away.” Marina still sounded grumpy. It made Jules press on; she wanted to hear a smile in that voice. Just once.
“One hour there, one hour back.”
Jules looked at the time on her dashboard. This impromptu trip to get a hold of The Princess Made of Nothing was turning out much longer than she had anticipated. She should be home writing. That was the obvious choice. And yet she couldn’t imagine going home to her laptop and an apartment full of rejection letters.
“I’ll help you,” Jules said as she parked the car outside the Herland house.
“Really?” Marina turned towards her, the look on her face was one of insecure hope.
* * *
Marina had to check up on her grandfather before they went to deliver the cupcakes. She had reluctantly invited Jules into the living room and given her a glass of water. Jules was no longer offended by Marina’s standoffish nature; it was clear that there were other things behind her reserved exterior. Stress was one thing, Jules guessed, maybe loneliness was another. It was hard to take care of a sick family member, and Marina seemed to be doing it all on her own.
Jules got up from the sofa where she had been sitting and walked over to the bookshelf that was on the side. It was an eclectic collection of baking books, cooking books and several children’s books but she couldn’t see The Princess Made of Nothing anywhere. On one of the shelves closer to the floor, Jules found a small selection of lesbian literature. What are the odds? She grinned. Apparently she and Marina had more in common than she had first thought. Jules couldn’t stop her finger from touching the spines of the books. She had several of the same titles, Jules even found her favourites there. She felt a sting at the thought that no one would ever think of her own book as a favourite.
Marina came back into the living room and Jules straightened her back. She was quite sure that Marina’s small smile meant that she had seen what Jules had been looking at.
“Are you ready?” Jules wanted to get this over with, get The Princess Made of Nothing and then go back to her own life. Try to get published. Maybe self-publish? Jules would figure it out. But first she needed to get this day over and done with.
Marina seemed to almost understand what she was thinking. She turned towards her as they walked to the kitchen to fetch the cupcakes.
“I appreciate this, Jules. As soon as we get back I’m going to find that book for you.”
* * *
Jules had thought that driving for so long would be even more awkward but it wasn’t. There was something comforting about a road trip, the feeling of progression, of going forward, going somewhere, doing something. Marina still seemed tired and grumpy, but all it did was make Jules forget about her own anguish.
“Are you okay?”
“I guess.” Marina stretched her back. “Just tired.”
“How is your grandpa?”
“Old.” Marina laughed mirthlessly. “He told me I shouldn’t have bought another tank for him. Said he doesn’t have long anyway.” She laughed some more.
“Why are you laughing?” Jules couldn’t help emitting a sympathy laugh even though she was puzzled.
“He has been telling me that for about ten years.”
“Have you always taken care of him?”
Marina gave her another look.
“Have you always wanted to be a writer?” Despite being evasive, Marina looked curious. It made Jules almost believe that her question was sincere.
“Always.” Jules tapped her fingers on the wheel. “Ever since I read The Princess Made of Nothing. According to my mum she had barely finished the story when I stood up and announced my career goal.”
Jules scoffed. “Really? ‘Cause it hasn’t worked out for me yet.”
She twitched when Marina briefly touched her arm.
“Of course it’s nice. You have a calling, do you know how rare that is?” Marina removed her hand from the bare skin of Jules’s wrist. “Believe me, it’s better to have a calling than be stuck playing caretaker for an old man and making cupcakes in your spare time.”
“You don’t have any other job?” Jules blurted out. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to sound judgemental. It’s none of my -”
“It’s not like I haven’t had other jobs.” Marina snapped. “I’m just between… I… well, it’s none of your business anyway.” She pulled air in through her teeth. “I’m sorry.” She sounded calmer. “I want a job, but I don’t know what I want to do and grandpa needs me so much. It’s better I just stick to my cupcakes.” There was a sadness in her voice that made Jules ache. Maybe Marina was right? Maybe ambition and anguish were better than no ambition at all.
* * *
It was late afternoon when they got back in the car after delivering the cupcakes. Marina seemed happier now that they were on the way home. So happy that she suggested that they stop and have something to eat when Jules’s stomach started growling.
“Turn here. It’s just truck stop food, but at least their waffles taste decent.”
This happy version of Marina was so strange that Jules didn’t know what to say, so she just followed her directions to a truck stop. They parked and got out.
“You’ve eaten here before?” Jules asked as they walked towards the entrance.
Marina didn’t answer, just smiled enigmatically. “I like food. All kinds of food. And I like to try all kinds of food.”
They found a booth by a window overlooking the forest next to the road. It was beautiful. Sitting there with Marina made Jules forget everything else. With the small talk, Marina’s occasional laughter and the slight sparkle in her eyes, it was so easy for Jules to pretend that they were friends, or maybe even on a date. The thought was a very welcome one.
“So what’s wrong with your book?” Marina leaned her head to the side. “Why does nobody want it?”
Jules almost coughed up her cola drink at the direct question.
“Wow, you really don’t beat around the bush, do you?”
Marina snagged a fry from Jules’s plate and popped it in her mouth. When she had swallowed she stuck out her tongue at her.
“No.” She smiled. “And I’m curious. Why is Jules Pearson not yet a published author? Does your book suck?”
Jules felt her own smile falter.
“Oh come on.” Marina touched her hand. “Don’t be like that. Don’t be sad.” She removed her hand, leaned back and crossed her arms over her chest. She regarded Jules in silence.
“Fine.” Jules rubbed the back of her head and let her ponytail out. “What?” Marina was looking at her with an unreadable expression.
“You should wear your hair down more often. You’re beautiful.” She almost sounded surprised. Jules felt her face heat. She looked down.
“My novel is about a computer analyst.” She started talking, willing her face to cool down again. “Her wife leaves her for a man. The novel is about how she deals with the aftermath, and… finds herself.” Even to Jules’s own ears it sounded boring.
There was another spark in Marina’s eyes at the words ‘her wife’, but when Jules finished talking she made a grimace.
“Ugh. Really? I know you’re a weirdo who harasses the grandchildren of authors you like, but come on? Is that the best you can do?”
A surge of emotion rose within Jules.
“It is good.” She leaned forward. “It’s supposed to be funny. It is funny. I’m proud of it.”
“That’s better.” Marina nodded. “More. Give me more.”
“More?” Jules thought for a moment. She couldn’t think of anything. “It’s about a woman learning to laugh at herself. Learning to laugh at the ups and downs. Making her ready for the time when she meets Miss Right.”
“Miss Right, huh?”
“Are all your characters lesbian?” Marina sipped on her straw. She was still keeping eye contact with Jules.
“Most of them.” Jules nodded. She wasn’t embarrassed. “I’ve had complaints that it’s too many. But I need them to be. ‘Birds of a feather, flock together’, right?”
Marina licked her spoon, looking thoughtful.
“So you’ve been sending it to lesbian publishers then?”
“Not only. Sometimes just LGBT friendly, and one or two mainstream who don’t specify that they were LGBT friendly. I figure that since there isn’t any sex in it -”
“Maybe you should put some sex in it.” Marina looked completely serious. “You know what they say.”
“Sex sells.” Jules nodded but then shook her head. “It would feel like selling out, there isn’t any room for it.”
“But it’s about a woman finding herself right? Just throw in a one-night stand or something.” Marina winked. “It sure would get me to read it.”
Jules thought back to the books in Marina’s bookcase back at the house. There had been some rather raunchy books there.
“Maybe.” Jules thought about it. It was the first time she had discussed her novel in such a frank way with anyone. Maybe her novel did lack sex, or at least some sparks. “Or I’ll just forget about that one and try with any of my others.”
“How many have you written?”
“I’m currently on my fourth.” Jules thought about it. “I’m such a slow writer, if I spent half as much time agonizing about not publishing as I did writing, I would probably be on my fifth or sixth by now.”
“So there is room for improvement.” Marina nodded, looking pleased that Jules had come to the conclusion all by herself.
“So, now that we’ve realised what’s wrong with me.” Jules called on all the bravery she had. “Your turn. What are your plans? What do you need to improve on?”
Marina looked down on her empty plate, her smile faltering.
“I don’t have time to work. I told you.” She didn’t look up as she spoke.
“What does your grandfather say about it?” Jules still hadn’t finished eating, but she ate her burger in quick bites now while waiting for Marina to answer.
Marina looked up again and sighed. She didn’t meet Jules’s gaze however, but instead stared out of the window.
“He wants me to do something. Anything. Find my passion. But how am I supposed to find my passion? How do people do that? Everyone seems to be born with it and here I am, with absolutely no idea.” She grabbed a napkin and started picking it to pieces. “It’s ridiculous.”
“Not everyone knows what their passion is. Maybe you shouldn’t be looking for a grandmother of all passions, maybe you should just look for something you enjoy doing.” So you feel like you’re going somewhere. Jules didn’t say the last words she thought. She didn’t know Marina well enough to say them.
“I guess I like baking,” Marina said thoughtfully. Her eyes were still on the forest and not on Jules’s face. “I like taking pictures of the things that I make. I don’t love it. It’s not my passion. But I like it. I’m good at it.”
“So maybe some kind of baker?” Jules suggested. “Instead of ‘just’ a freelance cupcake maker?”
Marina shrugged her shoulders. She looked at the clock over the counter.
“We should start going back. I need to give you that book as well.”
Oh yeah, the book. Jules had forgotten.
* * *
“Grandpa, I’m home!” Marina called out when they entered the house again.
The sun was setting and shadows were growing. Marina lit the lamps as they went further inside the house.
“That’s strange.” Marina gave Jules a look. “He has a button next to his bed. He usually lights all the lamps if I’m not home when the sun sets. Wait here.”
She ran off to check on her grandpa, leaving Jules yet again alone in the small living room.
“Grandpa?” Jules heard her say. “Grandpa, wake up! Hey!” There was rising note of panic in her voice.
Jules immediately headed in the direction of the grandpa’s room and took out her phone, ready to call an ambulance.
She reached the door and opened it, finding Marina crying and leaning over her grandpa. She looked up when Jules came in.
“He isn’t answering. Call an ambulance!” She shook him again as Jules dialled the number. “Please, please, please wake up!”
Jules spoke to the operator, and then touched her hand to Marina’s back.
“Marina, she wants to speak with you.” She handed Marina the phone, but kept her hand on Marina’s back. She wished she could say or do something to comfort. It’ll be okay, I promise.
Marina spoke quickly and handed the phone back to Jules.
“They’re going to be here in 8 minutes, they said.”
“Can you perform CPR on him?” Jules asked, still unsure what was going on.
“She told me not to.” Marina looked weak and she leaned on Jules as if needing the support. She started crying again. “He is breathing and his heart is beating. He’s just not responding.” She hiccupped. “It must be something with his brain. Oh no, not that too.” With that, Marina put her hands to her face and started crying in earnest.
Jules withheld the pathetic need to say ‘there, there’, and resolved herself to just patting her back and holding her close. They stood like that until there was a knock on the door.
“Wait with your grandpa, I’ll get it.” Jules said before hurrying to the front door.
She let the EMTs in and led them back to the room where Marina was waiting. They went to the old man’s side and started checking on him.
Marina seemed to have trouble leaving his side, so Jules took a grip around her wrist and pulled her into a gentle embrace. She didn’t even think of the fact that they didn’t know each other. She loosely wrapped her arm around Marina’s waist.
“Let them do their job, okay?” She said softly close close to Marina’s ear.
Marina nodded but still sobbed. She made no move to get away from Jules’s embrace.
“We need to take him to the hospital.”
“Okay, okay, okay.” Marina nodded her head several times. “What should I bring?”
“Just yourself, ma’am.” The EMT looked sympathetic. “And call any other relatives that you may need.”
“There is no one else.” The words were final. And they broke Jules’s heart.
Jules noticed that Marina was shaking, and even though she wanted to just hug her closer, she let go. Marina needed to focus. But as soon as she let go, Marina looked up at her, she looked somewhere between terrified and in shock. Jules did the only thing she could do.
“Do you want me to come with you to the hospital?”
“Would you really?” Marina looked like she didn’t dare to hope.
Jules nodded, she didn’t have to think twice about it.
“I’ll drive after the ambulance in my car. Come on.”
* * *
It was almost midnight when Marina came into the waiting room where Jules was sitting.
“He’s going to make it.” Marina looked exhausted and shook up, but there was a smile on her face that to Jules was brighter than the sun.
Jules got up, and they fell into each other’s arms. There was nothing unnatural about hugging each other after such an experience.
“I was so scared,” Marina whispered.
“I know.” Jules hugged her closer, she couldn’t think of a moment where she would want to let go.
“Thank you so much for being here,” Marina continued. “I don’t know how I would have managed of you hadn’t been there.” Without a warning she pressed a soft kiss to the sensitive space just under Jules’s jaw.
“It was nothing.” Jules’s voice was a bit shaky. Kiss me there again. Please?
“Oh gosh, I’m so sorry.” Marina pulled away suddenly. “The book! I completely forgot.”
“It’s not necessary, at all.” Jules hoped that it wasn’t so obvious that all she could do was stare at Marina’s lips. “I had forgotten too.”
“What a day!” Marina turned from Jules and stretched her arms. “And it’s so late.” She turned toward Jules again. “You should go home. I will too, I just need to check on my grandpa one last time.”
“Do you need a ride home?” Jules wasn’t going to leave until she was sure that Marina had everything she needed.
“No, I have a friend who is coming to pick me up in an hour.”
“Oh.” Jules didn’t know what to say, or how to explain the strange feeling of jealousy that inexplicably rose within her. She had gotten so used to helping Marina that it was hard to accept that maybe she wasn’t needed at all. Like Marina herself had said, what a day!
“Oh, the book!” Marina touched her forehead with the palm of her hand. “Almost forgot again. Think you can come by and get it tomorrow?”
Jules nodded. All she felt now was tired.
“Is eight am too early? I’m going back to the hospital after breakfast.”
“No, it’s okay.”
They looked at each other. Marina looked as tired as Jules felt, and she hated to leave her. She wanted to stay. Not just to make sure that Marina was okay, but also because she enjoyed her company. They had spent so many hours together, it felt wrong to end their day. The only day they would ever have.
“I’ll see you tomorrow.” They shared one more look and Jules left.
* * *
The next day everything was different. As Jules went across the little lawn to Marina’s front door, she couldn’t help but compare everything to yesterday. The sun lit up every drop of dew still on the grass and bushes, and it was no longer windy. The Herlands had a surprisingly well kept lawn. Jules doubted that it was Albert who took such care of the bushes and trees which meant it was probably Marina who did it. Maybe gardening could be Marina’s passion? Jules made a mental note to ask her about it.
She stopped at the door and knocked. She only had to wait a second before Marina opened it.
“Hi.” Marina was different too. Instead of grumpy like yesterday, Marina seemed thrilled to see her.
“Hi yourself.” Jules was thrilled to see her too. More than thrilled. Marina looked lovely, but more than that, the look in her eyes made Jules’s heart beat a little bit faster.
“I’m going to find the book, but do you want to come in and have some breakfast?”
Breakfast? “Sure, why not?”
They went into the kitchen and Marina motioned for her to sit down by the table.
“So this is where the magic happens?”
Marina lifted an eyebrow at Jules’s words.
“Oh!” Marina laughed. “Yeah, sometimes here. Sometimes in my friend’s kitchen. Depends on how big the batch ordered is. My oven is small.”
“It looks fine to me.” Jules couldn’t believe her words, especially since her gaze was nowhere near the oven.
Marina burst out laughing.
“Okay, I’m going to go and get that book for you. But help yourself to some cereal.” Marina placed a bowl, a spoon and some cereal in front of her. She also got a cartoon of milk from the fridge. “I’ll be right back.
Jules made herself a bowl and waited for Marina as she ate. She couldn’t believe that she was finally going to get a hold of a copy of The Princess Made of Nothing. She wasn’t even sure if the book would help anymore, or why she had wanted it so much. What she needed was new experiences. A break from the never-ending cycle of sending her out manuscripts only to have them rejected. Marina had given her everything she needed. More than her grandfather’s book could ever have done.
“Fuck.” Marina swore from somewhere in the house.
A few minutes she came to the kitchen. Her pale complexion was completely red and she refused to meet Jules’s gaze.
“I can’t find it.” Marina looked at her now. “I looked everywhere. I can’t find a single copy of The Princess Made of Nothing.”
She looked mortified, but Jules could only laugh. She got up and hugged Marina.
“It’s okay.” She couldn’t stop laughing. “I don’t need it. It’s okay. It’s okay.”
Marina looked up at her with her hands on Jules’s shoulders.
“Really?” Marina looked like she couldn’t believe her ears. “I feel so silly.”
Jules laughed again and this time Marina joined her.
“It’s okay to be silly sometimes.” Jules pressed a kiss to Marina’s cheek, still too shy to do what she actually wanted and claim her lips. “Do you want to go and see your grandpa now? We can take my car.”
Marina chuckled. They looked at each other. There was a question in Marina’s eyes that Jules recognized as her own. Why not make it two days? She grabbed a hold of Marina’s hand and squeezed.
“Okay.” Marina nodded. “We’ll go and see grandpa, but afterwards you need to let me read that novel of yours.”