Young Alice Markham loves to read. When she walks into a strange book store and encounters the friendly woman who works there, however, she finds that there is a way to be too involved in a story.
A bell tinkled suddenly, as Alice Markham pushed open the heavy door. "Hello?" she called. "Hello? Is anyone here? The door was unlocked, so I came in. You're open, right?" There was no answer and slowly the little girl shuffled all the way inside. The door swung slowly shut behind her as she took another step forward. Rubbing her eyes, she looked around at the small bookshop she'd wandered into. It was near her school and she'd been curious about it for a long time. That afternoon, she'd finally decided to venture inside.
It seemed like the sort of shop she'd read or dreamt about - because, to all extents and purposes, it was perfect. Every dark, wooden shelf was filled with books; they were all in alphabetical order, their spines unbent and in pristine condition. The walls were painted a cool, welcoming blue, with a wallpaper border of books wrapped around at about adult shoulder height. There were even squashy reading chairs of various sizes scattered throughout the room. Alice let out a gasp of delight and tugged on the hem of her pastel pink shirt. "It's... it's perfect!" she whispered to herself, struck hard by the sentiment once again. Biting her bottom lip in an attempt to stopper her joy, she rushed over to the nearest book shelf and plopped down eagerly beside it, taking a book from the very bottom.
"Excuse me, dear. Were you calling?"
Alice gasped and dropped her book as a tall, middle-aged woman came around the corner. She picked it up and handed it back to the girl. Nervously, Alice took it.
The woman smiled. "Here you are. Now - how can I help you?"
"H-help? I... I was just looking."
"That's fine, dear. Look around as long as you like." She smiled again, her gray eyes sparkling behind her thick glasses. Her dark brown hair was slowly going to gray, and she had it tied back in a thick, misshapen bun. Her crisp, white blouse was tucked neatly into her pleated black pants, and the prim, ruffly collar was fastened with a black and white cameo brooch. She was exactly what a librarian - or book-seller - should look like, Alice thought. Her nervousness dissipated and with only a little hesitation, she returned the smile. "Where are your parents?" she asked suddenly, looking a little worried. "You aren't lost, are you?"
She shook her head. "I'm supposed to go to the daycare across from the school, but the kids there are mean. I wanted to come here instead and look at the books."
"Oh. Well then." She adjusted her thick glasses and gave another, warmer, smile. "You may stay here as long as you need to. What's your name, dear?"
"My name is Alice," she said, her voice small and quiet.
The woman knelt down beside and extended a hand. Alice stuffed her book under one arm and took the woman's hand in her own. "It's very nice to meet you, Alice," she said kindly. "My name is Mrs. Darling. I own The Lantern."
Mrs. Darling laughed a little, covering her mouth with one long-fingered hand. "Oh, I'm sorry, dear! I should have explained. That's the name of this little shop. The Lantern. Illuminating lives with literature." She smiled even more broadly, her eyes closing.
Alice felt more and more at ease the more the woman spoke - her voice was that of an adult used to dealing with children: smooth, soft, and encouraging. "That's nice." She shifted slightly, crossing her legs and stuffing the book back onto the shelf. "Is..." She paused, looking down at the clean, pale yellow carpet.
"Go on, dear. What is it?"
"Is your name really Mrs. Darling?" she blurted out, her pudgy cheeks brightening with embarrassment. The book-seller nodded. Alice gasped with delight, clapping her hands together once. "That's... That's from Peter Pan! The Darlings!"
She laughed again, just a quick, polite little chuckle. Her eyes sparkled as she looked at Alice. "You're very clever; that's right! Though I must admit, my name doesn't come from the book. It's just a very nice coincidence."
Alice still seemed very impressed. "Is it okay if I stay here and read?" she asked, her little hands in timid fists on her dirt stained knees. "Just for... for a little while."
"That's more than fine, my dear!" Mrs. Darling replied, standing up and brushing invisible dirt off her immaculate trousers. "Please - enjoy yourself. It's so good to see young ladies with a passion for the written word! Young people today have no appreciation for literature, it seems." And with that she left Alice to the books, peeping around the corner only once or twice just to check up on her.
The girl stayed there for two and a half hours, engrossed in an adventure novel about a courageous boy and his favorite horse. When finally she closed the book, she sighed in contentment. With some ceremony, she placed the book back on the shelf, looking at it and its brothers with something not far from reverence.
"I'm going home now. My mom's going to come and pick me up soon" she said to Mrs. Darling, who was manning the check-out counter. Alice stood on her tiptoes, hands clutching the edge of the counter. "Thank you for letting me read."
"It's no trouble at all. I know that really I'm running a business and I should be looking for customers, but..." Mrs. Darling sighed and took off her glasses, wiping them quickly with a small, gray cloth. She turned her head towards Alice and smiled. "I do like children, and you seem to love the books very much. So it will be our little secret, all right? Come in whenever you like."
"Really?" Alice's face plumped out in joy and she smiled broadly, bouncing happily in her small pink sneakers. "I can come any time? And just read? Oh, really?"
Mrs. Darling stared at her, eyes unreadable behind the big frames. "Oh yes, dear. Anytime."
After that, Alice came in to The Lantern at least once a week. The shop was almost always empty except for her and Mrs. Darling, so Alice felt no qualms about just finding a book and settling down to read. She was an extremely shy girl and it didn't seem at all odd to her that there were so few customers - in fact, she was glad of it.
"Here, Alice dear," Mrs. Darling said one afternoon. Alice was sitting in an oversized green armchair and she had just finished a new book. She looked up and grinned, a little gap in her smile where she had just lost a baby tooth. "I've found something that I think you'd like."
"What is it?" Alice asked, setting the book she'd just finished on a table off to one side.
"It's called Matilda and it's by Roald Dahl. It's about a very smart girl who also loves to read; it's a children's classic and I think it would be perfect for you."
Alice took the book with wide eyes, honored that Mrs. Darling - whose opinion on books she'd come to view as the highest - had chosen a book especially for her. "Thank you," she murmured, tracing her fingers in cobwebby lines over the cover. Immediately she dived in and by the end of her next visit she had finished it. After that, Mrs. Darling recommended A Little Princess and then Alice's Adventures in Wonderland which, she gently teased, featured Alice's own namesake.
And more than just sharing literature, Alice found the kindly book-seller to be a valuable friend. If she ever had a bad day, Mrs. Darling would always be there to lend a ready ear; and she seemed genuinely interested in helping Alice out. She came in one day, tears running down her cheeks, her coffee-and-milk complexion tinged with red.
"Oh! Alice! What's wrong?"
She settled down into her favorite chair, hugging her knees tight against her chest. "Th-the kids were... were picking on me again."
Mrs. Darling gasped. "Oh, no! Children can be so cruel. I'm so sorry, Alice. You should just ignore them."
"That's what my Daddy always says. B-but... It's hard. I want them to like me! I don't have any friends." She turned her wet face towards the older woman and smiled, lips just trembling. "Except for you, Mrs. Darling. You're my friend."
"Of course I am," she agreed, smoothing down Alice's thick, curly hair. "I'll always be here for you, Alice. I care about you."
Her schoolmates had a tendency to tease Alice; she was pudgy and so shy she could hardly speak, and her family didn't have much money. Some of the crueler children even jeered at her for having parents of different races. She didn't have any friends at school and she spent all the time she wasn't doing class work reading - which, of course, didn't create any favorable impressions with the other children. And her home life wasn't the best, either. Her parents loved her, but they fought, and her father spent most of his time at work, and drank when he got home. Alice wanted to play or talk with him, but he spent his evenings in front of the television set, not to be disturbed. And her mother was a neurotic, high-strung woman who, though caring and attentive, did not have the patience needed to befriend a child. Alice loved them and knew they loved her, but if she wanted companionship she had to find it outside her immediate family.
In halting narrative, over several visits, she explained as much to Mrs. Darling.
"That just isn't fair! Alice, you are a lovely girl, and I think that if only they would get to know you a little better, no one could possibly ignore you!"
Alice smiled a small, tentative smile. "Thank you," she whispered, wiping the tears away with one chubby hand. "You're really nice, Mrs. Darling. I'm glad you'll listen to me."
"Oh, I'm more than happy to listen, Alice! And you know what you deserve?" She took off her glasses and stared at Alice, her lips twitching in the first hints of a broad smile. The effect was somewhat startling; behind the glasses her eyes looked kind and wise. Now, suddenly, they had a sly, cunning gleam.
"Wh-what?" Alice asked, half-worried at hearing the answer.
Mrs. Darling let herself smile. "A happy ending."
With that she stood up and bustled away, asking Alice to wait just one moment. Alice watched her go to the back of the store, swinging her legs absently as she waited. The leather of the chair stuck to the backs of her legs, right where her denim shorts ended. A moment or two later, Mrs. Darling was back, one red leather-bound book cradled in her arms.
"I'd like you to read this one, Alice," she said, her pale cheeks turning a bright, eager pink in her excitement. "It's... it's a very special book."
With trembling hands she handed it to Alice. The girl took it and, after a nod of encouragement from Mrs. Darling, immediately started reading. It was a story of a boy in a situation much like Alice's. He loved reading, didn't have many friends, and his father had left his mother when he was a baby. It was a good story - until the very end. Instead of a conflict and climax with resolution like Alice was used to, the story just ended. Everything worked out for the boy and his life just suddenly and drastically improved. Alice didn't think it was a particularly good book.
"So," Mrs. Darling asked, running a tongue quickly over her lips, "did you enjoy it, my dear? Did you like it?"
Alice's smile faltered a little and she suddenly realized the meaning of the "little white lie." She coughed. "Oh, um... Y-yes. I thought it was very nice that the boy got to be happy in the end." Which was true, of course, but it hadn't made for a very interesting story. Mrs. Darling, however, seemed to think that it was one of the best stories ever; Alice had to wonder if maybe she'd read a different version.
"I'm so glad, my dear. I'm so very glad." Mrs. Darling petted Alice gently, running a hand over her hair before gently cupping her shoulder. "Everyone deserves a happy ending. And I like to make sure that everyone gets one."
Alice looked up at her, confused. "What do you mean, Mrs. Darling?"
"Oh, Alice..." She extended her hand and helped the little girl to her feet. "I'm so very glad you asked." She smiled her odd, excited smile and looked down at Alice with her gleaming eyes. "Would you like to see the back of the store, Alice? I keep my most precious books back there."
Mrs. Darling smiled again and then led Alice away.
A week later, a new customer entered the store. It was an adult this time, a large, dark-skinned man in a button-down shirt and khaki slacks. He looked troubled, circles under his eyes and his thick brows furrowed. With broad, confident strides, he walked up to the counter. "Excuse me, ma'am" he said, "but could I ask you a question?"
Mrs. Darling looked up, a little startled to be so baldly addressed. "Oh! Yes, of course, sir. Welcome to The Lantern."
He nodded away her pleasantries. "My name is Markham - Steve Markham. I heard that... that my little girl used to visit here. She's missing," he said, his eyes burning with worry and fear. "Her name is Alice; she's short, a little chubby, with a full head of curly hair. And she's always wearing pink - it's her favorite color." He paused for a moment to reign in his emotions. "I heard from one of the kids at her school that she used to come in here a lot after school."
"Alice? Why yes, that name does seem familiar. She used to come in here all the time! Oh, she loved reading."
His face fell. "She... used to come in here?"
"Yes," Mrs. Darling said sadly. "But I'm afraid that lately I haven't seen her. Oh dear, I hope nothing's happened to her; she was such a sweet little girl."
"Yeah, she... she really was." Mr. Markham sighed. "Well, thank you for your help. And please - if you see her, will you let me or the police know?"
Mrs. Darling smiled to herself, stroking the cover of a book bound in fresh pink leather. "Don't worry," she said softly, her stormy eyes gleaming. "If I see her, you'll be the first to know."