Glenda listened as her great-granddaughter Emily spoke excitedly about her latest accomplishment, securing the movie rights to a book she never heard of before. That was her thing, the reason she woke up in the morning, the reason she went to work as a lawyer for a movie studio. She loved the thrill of competition, thrived in it, excelled in an industry more concerned for making money than for its workers. She reveled in making obscure writers famous, at having that immediate financial impact to make their lives that much better.
Glenda’s granddaughter rolled her eyes, and Glenda struggled not to do the same. At almost a hundred years old, she had lived a long life, though not necessarily a fulfilling one. There wasn’t anything she felt particularly excited about. She did what needed to be done, what she had to do in order to keep her family alive. There was no joy in it, no reward other than a meager meal most nights, and sometimes having to go without in order to feed her children.
She felt a twinge of jealousy whenever her great-granddaughter came over to visit, regaling her with tales of the celebrities she met, the places she visited, the life she led. It wasn’t for the fact that she rubbed elbows with the rich and famous that Glenda felt jealous. No, she envied that feeling of purpose and excitement, the feeling most people never felt in their entire lives. She envied her great-granddaughter, though she didn’t want to dampen that excitement by being bitter like her granddaughter, Emily’s mother was.
On that particular trip, Emily invited her to go to the bookstore with her. “I hear there’s another book people are buzzing about,” Emily confided in Glenda. “I need to read it and see if it’s worth pursuing.”
Glenda agreed and listened as Emily went on about another book, another movie being made, and another author becoming a little better off than they had been before. When they arrived at the bookstore, they saw a group of kids in the children’s section, looking sad that their reader hadn’t showed up, again. “Kind of sad, don’t you think?” Emily said, glancing in their direction. “I remember you bringing me here as a kid to listen to Storytime during the summer. It’s what got me interested in books in the first place. It’s why I do what I do now, help bring stories to life for another audience.”
Emily walked away, lost in the aisles of books, searching for who knew what, when a child caught Glenda’s attention. A boy, or maybe it was a girl, emaciated and bald, crumpled in a wheelchair, tears falling down their face. Glenda didn’t know why she did it, the compulsion to step forward beyond her conscious thought, but Glenda put her hand on the employee’s arm and asked, “Is there not a reader for the children?”
“No,” the employee replied sadly. “Third time this month. It’s difficult to find someone to read. If we can’t find anyone soon, we’ll have to shut down Storytime for good.”
“I could do it,” Glenda volunteered, surprised at having put herself forward.
“Could you?” The employee looked hopeful. “You would be a godsend, especially for Sarah,” she pointed at the young girl in the wheelchair. “Cancer,” she informed Glenda, “final stages. Probably only has a few weeks left.”
“I’d love to,” Glenda said, her eyes trained on the young girl, her own heart bursting with emotion for the moribund child.
“It’s strictly voluntary,” the employee said. “I wish we could pay someone, but we don’t have the funds for it. Used to be that the library hired someone to read, but they stopped funding it years ago. That’s why we have difficulty finding anyone to read.”
“That’s okay, deary,” Glenda said, taking the book from the employee’s hand. “I could do with getting out of the house every now and again.
Glenda sat in an armchair under the paper tree on the wall. The children that had begun to drift away noticed the new reader sitting down and opening the book and ran back with gleeful shouts and laughs, excited to have someone read to them. Sarah, looking sick and frail, looked up with an intensity that shook Glenda, seeing a life in her that yearned to escape the prison of her body, even if only through the stories told to her by a stranger.
Emily was shocked to see her great-grandmother sitting in the middle of a semi-circle, with children listening with rapt attention as she brought a story to life. Emily listened as well, the images coming to life in her mind’s eye, amazed that so old a woman could inject a mere child’s book with such life as to almost make it real.
That was the first time Glenda sat in the reader’s chair at the bookstore, and she fell in love with it. For the first time in her nearly one century of living, she had found something truly her own, something that excited her. She began planning her next Storytime, reading the next book the store gave her to read, learning the nuances, practicing until she could act out the story for her readers.
No one appreciated it more than young Sarah. She came to life during the weekly readings. Emily made it a point to join Glenda as often as she could, transfixed by the magic the simple act of reading could conjure. Storytime grew until a new sponsor came forward to fund the it, though the sponsor refused to be named. Glenda suspected it was Emily, but she would evade the question when asked with a sly smile.
Always in front, sat Sarah, and Glenda read to her, her hand usually on her knee or Sarah’s hand clasped in her own. Glenda could not let the children down, especially Sarah, whose cancer had gone into remission, and who had grown stronger with each successive week.
And then she was gone. Glenda noticed and learned that Sarah had taken a turn for the worse. Glenda found out where Sarah was at, and began volunteering to read at the Children’s Hospital as well. Even after Sarah had passed away, after listening to one final story, Glenda pressed on, reading at both the hospital and the bookstore, knowing that this was what she was meant to do, grateful at having found her place in the world.
And she continued for years, celebrating her 1ooth birthday with the children who would never even make it to their next, their joy infectious. She read stories of knights and princesses, dragons and aliens, of good and evil, life and love. She poured herself into each book, even as her own life began to fail. “They deserve an escape,” she protested whenever someone would suggest she give up her volunteer work. Even as her body faltered, her voice was strong, bringing life to new stories and new characters.
One day, after her 101st, Glenda sat in the middle of the room, surrounded by her children, “mine,” she thought with pride. They all came, sensing perhaps that this was the last time she would grace them with her presence, though she didn’t know it at the time. She began to read, and she looked up to see a child, healthy and happy at the back of the room.
Glenda continued to read, wondering why the girl looked so familiar, or why the other kids beside her looked familiar as well. It was only after she was done reading, after the hugs and the kisses from her children that she realized who they were. Standing out in front stood Sarah, the glow from her soul palpable. “We’ve come to bring you home, Nanna” Sarah said, offering Glenda her hand.
Glenda reached up and felt the aches and the pains fall off of her. She turned to see herself sleeping peacefully in the chair, the book resting on her lap. Then she felt Sarah tug on hand and knew it was time to go. Without a backwards glance, Glenda walked with Sarah, and the other children she saw pass away. They led her home.