by Candice Janco

Margaret’s shift at the library normally ended at 11 p.m. on Fridays, but she told her boss that she had to leave early today to pick up a friend at Logan, the lie passing her lips with uncharacteristic ease. Everything had changed since yesterday. The photo cracked open a space for her hopes, and the hours spent at the Mugar Library passed more slowly today than they ever had before.

Margaret checked her watch every five minutes, shaking it and bringing it to her ear to make sure it still worked. It was quiet in the library, since most of the students had already left for spring break. She passed the time reshelving periodicals, where she read her horoscope in Woman’s Day, then thumbed through the magazine with her eyes closed. It was a game she sometimes played. Margaret would close her eyes, flip through the pages with one hand, circle her pointer finger in the air with the other, then plunk her finger on the page when she felt a calling. She would read the lines and look for the meaning in the sentence; she was certain the words were carefully chosen for her. With magazines, she mostly landed on ads for tampons or angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors, but sometimes she lucked out with an ad for a cruise, or an article about how to manifest your best year, and would feel a nervous anticipation for the rest of the day. Today, her calling was “How to Power Through Your Workout,” and Margaret considered that she never did go on a vacation and her best year still hadn’t come, so she closed the magazine and considered giving up on this endeavor entirely. Since finding the photo yesterday, she did not feel satisfied by the seduction of the game’s promise. If she wanted change, she would need to initiate it rather than rely on fate.

Margaret felt some regret about lying to get out of work early, but was desperate to get to Shakespeare and Company before they closed. She felt for the folded photo in her front pocket and fingered its edges like a worry stone—a kindle of courage rising inside of her. She maneuvered through groups of students chatting on the sidewalks and tourists ambling by fold- out tables filled with gaudy knockoff handbags at crosswalks. They must have wondered where she was rushing to on such a beautiful day. If she were a certain kind of girl, a bystander might assume she was meeting friends for happy hour after her last final.

It was mid-April and it seemed the snow might finally end its relentless assault. A breeze from the Charles brought smiles to faces usually tucked into down jackets, and Margaret found herself nodding hello to strangers on the street and smiling kindly at the tourists with their Nikons and cross-shoulder bags held at their hips. A few brave students were wearing shorts and sandals as if the simple act of shimmying into jean shorts and baring your shoulders would serve as a dance to worship the sun. Why women felt the need to remove their clothes as early as possible in the season had always been beyond her, but today she wondered if she might retire her Rockports for a pair of strappy sandals. Her own freckled skin was pale and would remain so all summer given her propensity to burn, but she turned her face up to the sun.

Margaret strode purposefully, not veering side to side to avoid cracks in the sidewalk as she usually did. “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back,” was her internal refrain when walking the city, manipulating the childhood game to predict the outcome of whatever errand lay ahead of her. If Margaret did not step on a crack, she told herself, then the library would be slow today, the market would have fresh beets, she would receive mail in her post office box. She read recently that students at MIT figured out why concrete breaks down and how to stop its slow decay, so she figured this game would be less challenging for future generations. But today, the sidewalk was a spider web of lines. She counted her steps at every even number restarting her count at one hundred. She turned the corner and could see the antiquated sign waving on its hinges, the playwright’s face on the sign beckoning to her. She checked her watch and had more than ten minutes to spare. Thirty-two, thirty-four, thirty-six…see that? She didn’t need luck or magic. Shazam, she thought as she swung open the heavy glass door awakening the leather strap of bells tied to its handle.

“Back so soon?” Doc asked.

Margaret had known Doc since she was a freshman. When she was a student, she had come to the bookstore almost every day after class and every Friday and Saturday night. Now that she was working at the library full time, she could only come when she worked the day shift on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Tuesdays and Thursdays were also her days to feed the cats and to pack an egg salad sandwich for lunch instead of buying a chef salad from Super Soups and Salads on Commonwealth. After leaving the bookstore, Margaret would walk the ten blocks to her apartment and microwave a macaroni and cheese dinner while she fed the cats. Then, she would wash her plate, change into her pajamas, wash her face, brush and floss her teeth, and crawl into bed to read.

When she’d returned to her apartment yesterday afternoon after her regularly scheduled Thursday stop at the bookstore, she immediately sat down in one of the two chairs squeezed into the combined living room/dining room to read. Her roommate, Cathy, wasn’t home from work yet, so she wanted to take advantage of the solitude. Margaret had been studying Celtic philosophy in her spare time and, having run through the major Irish authors’ complete works, she had moved on to more obscure Celtic poets and philosophers, hence the small book of blessings she held in her hands. It was an unusual find at Shakespeare and Company, given the book leaned more toward self-help than literary, but she took it home anyway. She imagined it had found her, reaching to her from its shelves. She purchased it and held it in an awkward embrace.

When Margaret had flipped through the pages of her new book, she was stopped short by a photo wedged between “A New Beginning” and “A Praise for Fire.” She plucked the photo from the pages. In the center of the image were a barn and a smiling young couple, probably in their mid-twenties like her, with their arms wrapped around each other and their fingers tucked into the soft spaces of each other’s bodies. “Honestly,” she sighed. She stared at the couple longer, drawn to the man’s freckled skin and easy smile. His curly red hair was jutting out from his baseball cap as if trying to escape. He wore jeans and a t-shirt that read “Cloud Peak Energy.” Maybe he was an engineer. An Irish engineer. Pappy would have loved that.

Margaret studied the photo the rest of that evening, skipping her macaroni and cheese and forgetting to feed the cats. She rushed to her room and folded the photo so that the young girl was removed from the image and let the half-photo of the man rest idly against the picture frame on her bedside table—the one of her and her dad at her college graduation. They looked quite smart together, she thought, and she imagined for a moment what it might be like to go to Super Soup and Salad with this red-haired boy. She stayed up three hours past her bedtime, aware that she was stumbling upon a spark of adventure.

Margaret had worked at the library for almost five years now and spent most of her free time in used bookstores, so she had come to value the ephemera held between a book’s pages, but this was by far her best find. She kept everything she found: boarding passes, receipts, grocery lists, matchbook covers—all the small, useful, or temporarily important items from a reader’s daily life forgotten and later discovered by a new reader. Finding a receipt could send Margaret researching for days, locating the restaurant, imagining why the keeper of the receipt was there. If there was a name on the receipt it was a bonus.

Once, while reshelving in nonfiction, she found a receipt in The Five Love Languages from Toscano’s restaurant with the patron’s name on it. She could imagine Mike dining alone considering his lactose intolerance as he ordered the bolognese instead of the alfredo. As Margaret continued to flip through the book, additional pieces of Mike’s personality would emerge and she felt connected to this stranger by the fact that they had both read the same words. She wondered why Mike was reading The Five Love Languages and eating Italian alone. His love language was probably “quality time,” she thought as she closed the book’s lonely pages and folded the receipt into a shoebox.

But this photo was special and she carried it around throughout the next day like a small gift from a friend. Her life was not cramped and small when she touched it, the excitement blazing as the day wore on. It was the first time in her twenty-six years that she heard the small whisper, “Go.”

When her dad died, she was tasked with cleaning out the one-bedroom apartment he leased after her parents separated. Pappy had worked for the Transit Authority since he was sixteen, delivering tickets to the patrons of South Boston. Once the automatic ticket machines were installed, he was transferred to Information, and the few people who came by the booth were mostly tourists asking about the commuter train schedule or the best stop for the Paul Revere house, so he found a lot of time to read. He kept his books in milk crates, organized alphabetically by author’s last name, in a corner of his bedroom. Margaret pillaged through the pages like the homeless men scoured the garbage cans outside her library, but all that filled his pages were coffee cup rings and the occasional discarded T-pass. He should have had a coaster from that cruise to Alaska he and her mother had always intended to take, or a ticket stub from Fenway where he had never seen his beloved Sox play.

“Going anywhere special for spring break?” Doc, the bookseller, asked, now noticing Margaret’s euphoric mood. He was going through his day’s receipts, jabbing the keys of his accounting calculator before spearing each one to an oversized pincushion.

“I’ll probably stay in the city. The Mugar is closed for renovation and they need volunteers to move the permanent collection. So, I’m not sure,” she said, although she had already put in for the overtime at the library.

“A young girl like you should go away for spring break. Go to the Cape,” he said.

“Maybe,” Margaret replied.

Doc shrugged and went back to sipping his tea and examining receipts. Doc had owned the used bookstore since Margaret had been a student. His parents came to America in 1972 with the goal of educating their only son as a doctor. He fulfilled his parents’ dream of a Harvard education, double-majoring in biology and theater, but he never applied to med school. Instead, he opened a used bookstore and designed sets at The Footlight Club on nights and weekends. He had become a kind of pseudo-celebrity in Cambridge, prancing to the shop in capes and fedoras that could have easily been costumes from the previous evening’s performance. Doc was also well known for his readings. Margaret had never attended one as she hated crowds and small talk, but she had heard raucous stories of his annual prom themed Stephen King horror reading and his Sunday costume breakfasts “Bagels and Bards.” Because of this and his lost medical degree most of the locals called him “Doc Hollywood” or simply “Doc.”

“Do you know who sold you this book?” Margaret asked, handing him the book of blessings.

Doc turned the book over in his hands, opening and closing the jacket looking for a clue.

“Don’t know.” He shrugged. “I don’t carry a lot of this woo-woo stuff. Must have been from a private collection. Why?”

“I found this in it,” Margaret said, sliding the photo out of her pocket. “I think I know this man.” And, in fact, she did. He was now as familiar to her as her walk to this store, her two-bedroom apartment, or the Dewey Decimal system. In the past twenty-four hours, she had created this stranger’s mild lisp, the way he looked sitting in his kitchen eating a grilled cheese, his retriever Felix.

“I’m looking for him,” she said.

Doc put on the reading glasses that were held from a beaded cord around his neck and turned over the photo in his hands, examining it like a piece of fruit, determining its ripeness. He read aloud the words scribbled on the back while Margaret mouthed them in unison, “Gerald and Kate, please come home.”

“Well, he’s standing in front of Moulton Barn,” Doc said matter-of-factly, handing her back the photo and returning to his receipts. Margaret stared at him blankly.

“In Wyoming,” he continued.

“Are you sure?”

“Positive. When we came to America, my father was convinced we should see the whole damn place. A road trip. Very American. We spent three months traveling in my father’s baby-blue Ford. My sister and I rode in the back seat with my grandmother. My father brought us to every National Park and landmark in America. Those are the Grand Tetons. It’s the most photographed barn in America.”

Had Margaret even noticed the mountains? They didn’t seem that distinguishable from the White Mountains in New Hampshire, but she hadn’t really been looking at the scenery. She was memorizing the placement of his hand on Kate’s shoulder. Certainly, not a sister. A good friend? Margaret hoped.

“It reminds me of that Dannon yogurt commercial.” He started humming the jingle. “You remember that one?” Margaret shook her head.

“The one with the family sitting on the fence in front of the barn eating their yogurt from their little cups, smiling idiotically at each other. It was on the TV all the time. There was a movie filmed there once, too, with Henry Fonda.”

Margaret could see there was more to this story, but she must have had a dumfounded look on her face because Doc waved his hand and said, “Anyway, he may not even live in Jackson Hole. He may have just been visiting the National Park. Five million visitors a year and all that,” Doc said.

“But he wrote, come home,” she said. “He said, please.”

“Well, there you go,” Doc said. “Go to Jackson Hole, look him up. How many Geralds can there be in Jackson Hole? Find your man. Eat some yogurt,” he said, closing the subject.

When she got back to the apartment, Cathy was already home. They both worked at Mugar, but on different schedules. They had also been college roommates and Cathy was as conscientious as Margaret when it came to keeping the place tidy, so it only seemed natural to keep up the arrangements after graduation.

Margaret had spent most of the ten-block walk trying to work through what Doc had told her. Wyoming? Margaret walked into the galley kitchen and tore the top off a microwaveable macaroni and cheese container. Cathy was chopping vegetables for dinner.

“Did you feed Baker and Taylor yesterday?” Cathy asked, not taking her eyes off the cutting board.

“No,” Margaret said.

“Thursday is your day,” Cathy said, lips pinched. “And, why aren’t you at work?”

Margaret froze in the space between Cathy’s chopping and the microwave, unsure of what direction to turn. The truth was she was allergic to cats, and took two Benadryl a day just to tolerate them. She could feel her eyes beginning to prick with tears of anger. The whisper had turned to a flicker, then a hiss “Go! Go!”

“I’m going to need you to feed the cats this week,” Margaret said. “I’m going away for spring break.”

Margaret called her boss to let her know she couldn’t come in over the break and bought a one-way ticket on a Greyhound from Boston to Cheyenne. It had taken a bit of research, but she had a name and number. She called Information for Wyoming and took a chance and asked for the number of Cloud Peak Energy, the name on the shirt. The operator said, “I have a Cloud Peak Energy in Gillette.” The office was still open. When she called, and asked to speak to Gerald, she was immediately transferred. “You’ve reached the desk of Gerald Fitzpatrick. I’m away from my desk at the moment, but if you leave a message…” click. What could she say? Never mind. It was a long ride. She’d have plenty of time to figure it all out.

She placed her duffle bag in the luggage rack. It looked small compared with the other passengers’ bags, but she figured she had enough clothes for the week and could buy more if she decided to stay. She had an overstuffed canvas tote for the fifty-two-hour ride. She had packed three egg salad sandwiches in a small lunch cooler, her water bottle, an extra pair of glasses, a journal, several novels, and a few other sentimental items from her apartment that she would miss if for some reason she didn’t return to Boston: her signed copy of John Irving’s “Interior Space” from his reading at the library last summer, her mother’s trinity necklace, a small stuffed dolphin her father had won for her at the carnival village, and a 6 x 9 photo album with a cutout on the front with a few photos of her mom and dad, Baker and Taylor, her graduation, and the photo of Gerald taken at Moulton Barn.

She opened the novel, if you could call it that, and began to read. Page 1: “Stacey heard the gritty tap of shoes behind her and hoped it was who she thought. The heart knows what the heart wants, thought Stacey, slowing down her pace.” Honestly, thought Margaret. What have I become? She rolled her eyes for no one’s benefit but her own. Margaret had never read a contemporary romance novel, but this was the “new” Margaret, and she needed to expand her taste. She looked down at her freshly painted toenails through her sandals and settled into the story. The protagonist was a matchmaker in a bustling Southern city and while she had no problem creating love connections for her clients, she could not find true love herself. That is, until the rich, successful, and suddenly eligible bachelor, Holden, came to town from New York City. It was getting kind of steamy and Margaret was beginning to feel uncomfortable in her seat, when a young girl boarded the bus. She hadn’t realized they were already in upstate New York. It was the farthest she had ever been from home.

“Anyone sitting here?” the girl asked.

“No,” Margaret said, lifting the canvas tote from the seat next to her and relocating it by her feet.

“Oh, I love that book!” the girl said. She had a high blond ponytail and a floral backpack. “It’s so romantic, don’t you think?”

“Well, I’m not really that far into it,” Margaret lied. “And, you know, I don’t usually read this kind of thing.” To prove it, she took out her copy of Jane Eyre, which held a bookmark near its center. It was her forty-fifth time reading Jane Eyre. She kept a tally on the inside back cover and told herself that once she got to fifty she would find true love like Jane. The Greyhound lurched forward toward Syracuse and Margaret felt nauseated from the fumes. Having lived in the city her entire life, Margaret didn’t have a driver’s license and wasn’t used to the constant stops and starts of the Greyhound. Margaret wondered if she spoke in only one-word sentences the girl would get the hint and leave her alone the rest of the ride.

“So, do you live in Boston?” the girl asked.

“Yes,” said Margaret.

“That’s so cool,” the girl said. “Me too,” oblivious to Margaret’s desire not to chat. “I go to B.U. I’m a Tri-Delt.” She formed her thumbs and index fingers into a triangle. “I’m going home to Cleveland for spring break. Have you ever been to Cleveland?”

“No,” said Margaret. She took out her first egg salad sandwich and, opening the plastic wrap, wondered if it was a bad choice for an enclosed space. She took her first bite and decided it didn’t taste quite right having sat in the plastic for several hours. Maybe she needed to move the ice packs. She bent over to search for her lunch tote, removing the remaining books and photo album to find it.

“Ohhh,” the girl squealed. “I love photos. Can I look?”

Margaret nodded, her mouth full of egg sandwich.

The girl held the photo album on her lap. “So cute,” she said. “What are their names?”

It was obvious that the girl was not going to stop talking so Margaret relented and told her the cats’ names were Baker and Taylor. “You know, like the book distributor,” she said.

“Oh, that’s so cute. Like Tom and Jerry!”

“Well, kind of,” Margaret said. “Except they’re named after real cats. And they’re cats, not a cat and mouse.”

“Right,” the girl said, smiling.

She continued to flip through the album, asking various annoying questions about Margaret’s parents and college graduation. When she came to the last photo she said, “Is this your boyfriend?”

“Yes,” Margaret said, “Gerald.” It had just slipped out. What was she supposed to say? “It is a photo I found in a book of Celtic blessings, I think the fact that I found the picture is a sign that I should leave Boston and find him. I have an address and a name and I’m sure I will find him and we’ll be together forever.” It sounded as ridiculous as it was, so instead she said, “Yes, Gerald.”

“He’s adorable,” she crooned. “Tell me all about him.”

And, so she did. She told her about his slight lisp that was sometimes mistaken for an accent, the way he loved grilled cheese and animals. “Especially his dog,” she said. She told her about his kindness to strangers, his family in Ireland. His house was on a small plot of land, he grew his own vegetables, loved mystery novels. “Literary mysteries,” she clarified. “He is an engineer. He went to MIT. That’s where we met.” She described the rooms in his home, the flowers in the front yard, the soft coolness of his bedding. He didn’t lock the doors, she said, because there was no crime where he lived and when they were bored they walked in the woods near his house for hours without the need to talk and fill the silence. The girl sat wide-eyed as Margaret went on. It must have been over an hour, because when she was done her throat was sore from talking over the engine and the bread on her egg salad sandwich had turned soggy. She talked more than she remembered talking to another human being in her life and the more she talked the more her stomach turned with motion sickness or uncertainty—she wasn’t sure—but she felt the small flame inside of her growing with each new detail, threatening to consume her.

“He sounds perfect,” the girl said.

“He is,” Margaret said. The bus screeched to a stop as the driver announced Albany.

Margaret took Gerald’s photo out of the album and tucked it between the pages of her romance novel.

It was quite possible Gerald was all of those things.

Or none.

“Excuse me,” Margaret said. “This is my stop.”

She slid the book into the seat pocket in front of her and walked off the bus.

Candice Janco has worked in academic and trade publishing for more than twenty years. She is currently employed as a publisher for Elsevier’s Earth & Environmental Science book publishing program. Candice enjoys reading, yoga, and knitting and is grateful to the Great Smokies Writing Program for reawakening her passion for writing.

About Overdue—Based on my fascination with ephemera, Overdue explores how finding something seemingly mundane can cause an extraordinary shift in an ordinary life.