She closed her eyes, inhaling familiar scents. Moldy books. Fresh shavings from the pencil sharpener. A bouquet of wilting chrysanthemums. The tick, tick, tick of the ancient grandfather clock in the library's main hall threatened to carry her straight back to her childhood.
The computer fan clicked on and its whirr rescued her, jolting her into the present -- not that the Clayburn Public Library had changed one iota in the eight years since she'd moved away from this two-horse Kansas town. But the Internet was her lifeline, tethering her to California. To her future. Adrenaline surged through her veins as she clicked the mouse and scrolled down the web page, scanning the list for the only name that mattered.
Her name had to be on that list. It had to be.
One cautious letter at a time, she retyped her name into the search field - Vienne Kenney - and clicked again.
Nothing. There must be some mistake. Staring at the computer screen, her vision blurred and she fought to catch her breath.
She took a sip of lukewarm coffee from the travel mug she'd snuck in, then pushed it to the back of the book-cluttered desk. She'd agonized over this moment for three months, and now it was here. And if this official State of California- sanctioned website was up-to-date, she had good reason to agonize. The site supposedly verified the name of every person who passed the July bar exam.
So why wasn't her name showing up? She glanced at the connection icon on the screen. Maybe there was something wrong with the library's Internet service. Maybe the system was pulling up an old page from when she'd checked earlier today. That had to be it.
She typed in the URL again and entered her information hunt-and-peck style. The page refreshed - with the same results. She slid the ponytail holder from her hair and combed her fingers through the tangled mass of curls.
She couldn't have failed. Not a second time. A sick feeling settled in the hollow of her stomach. She'd lived through this humiliation once before.
She massaged her temples in slow circles. This was a bad dream. It had to be. She'd done everything right this time. Studied her heart out. Spent money she didn't have on a course that practically guaranteed her success at passing the bar. She'd been so confident...
How would she ever live it down if she'd flunked the bar exam again? Tens of thousands of dollars wasted on a law degree -- money she'd spent grudgingly because of its source.
She lifted her head and stared at her cell phone lying on the desk beside the computer's mouse. Her mother would be calling any minute, expecting to celebrate good news. And Jenny, too. Her roommate had another semester to go, but Jenny was brilliant. She would pass easily. On her first try. Salt in the wound.
Vienne put her head in her hands. She'd probably be fired from her job the minute word got out. And if she knew Richard Spencer, he was probably online at this very moment back in California, checking the results to make sure her name was there. When he discovered it conspicuously absent, he'd no doubt call to offer consolation and a shoulder to cry on.
But he would fire her just the same.
A sour taste filled the back of her throat, and her stomach turned a somersault. She took another sip of lukewarm coffee. At least she wouldn't have to walk in to work and face everyone Monday. But she couldn't stick around here either.
Mom probably had half of Coyote County praying for her. Since the day testing started in July, her name had no doubt been at the top of the prayer chain list at Community Christian, complete with all the gory details: Please pray God will bless my daughter, Vienne, with success as she takes the bar exam. This is especially important since she flunked - by a margin of quite a few points - the first time she took the exam.
Vienne gave a silent, humorless laugh. Ironic she would find her name on that dubious prayer list, and nowhere in sight on the list that mattered.
The walls of the library closed in on her. She started to push away from the desk. But something -- some misguided sense of hope -- compelled her back to the computer. She put her hand over the mouse again. Did this Podunk library even have the right software to display the page correctly?
A glimmer of optimism sparked in her. Maybe she'd just missed it. Maybe she'd been looking at the list from the last exam. Or the postings weren't complete. She'd heard of people who weren't on the list at first, but whose names later appeared, much to their relief. Some glitch must have prevented her name from showing up with the other successful candidates. That had to be it.
The page refreshed, and the ominous message appeared again: No names on the pass list match "Vienne Kenney." And this time she knew the truth. She'd failed. Again. Thirty years old and she would never be able to sign her name Vienne Renée Kenney, Attorney-at-Law.
Brinkerman & Associates had been forced to keep her on after the first time she'd failed. But without a license, they didn't have a position for her -- at least not at a salary she could survive on. Not that she'd consider staying at the firm after this humiliation. And she would not take the test a third time. She'd wasted too many years and too much of her mother's money. Her father's money.
She shuddered. It was time to cut her losses and move on. But the job market in Davis was pathetic. Besides, did she really want to face the chance, every day, that she might run into some well-meaning Brinkerman associate who'd feel obligated to pat her arm and tell her how sorry they were and how much they missed her and how was she doing? And was she taking the exam again, etc., etc., ad nauseam?
But where could she go now? She stared at a large painting hanging on the wall in front of her -- a misty landscape of gnarled cottonwood trees and a green-watered river. It was probably supposed to be the Smoky Hill that Clayburn was built upon. It was a peaceful scene -- and nicely done. But it was locus classicus Kansas. And she had shaken the dust of Clayburn off her feet when she left town the summer after high school graduation. The only dreams she'd ever entertained about returning involved thumbing her nose at this hick town and her so-called friends who had made her persona non grata when she needed them most. Surprising that the rejection of a bunch of nobodies could still hurt so much. How her mother could stay here all these years, she didn't know.
Now, thanks to Mom, everybody in town knew about her lofty dreams. Knew she'd graduated law school and worked for a hotshot law firm. Oh, she'd managed to impress a few people. People who'd thought Harlan Kenney's daughter would never amount to anything. It was retribution of sorts, quid pro quo for all the grief this town had given her. She knew it wasn't right, but sometimes it sure did feel good.
But now - now, they'd all know what a fraud she was.
Her cell phone chirped. That would be Mom. She straightened and looked around, hoping the noise hadn't disturbed anyone. But except for the elderly librarian at the front desk, she seemed to be alone in the building.
She didn't recognize the number on the LCD display. Her hopes mounted. Maybe it was about the exam. Maybe there had been a mistake. She flipped open the phone. "Hello?"
A brief hesitation on the line. "Um...I'm calling for Ingrid Kenney's daughter..."
Her pulse jumped. "Yes...this is Vienne."
"This is Harv Weimer at Weimer's Food Market in Salina. I'm sorry to call with bad news, but your mother fell...out in the parking lot here a few minutes ago. She wasn't able to get up on her own, so we called an ambulance."
"Ambulance? Is - is she all right?" She pushed her chair back and searched her purse for her car keys, almost knocking over her coffee in the process.
"She's on her way in the ambulance now. They're taking her to Asbury...the medical center."
"To the hospital? What happened?"
"We're not really sure. A customer found her out in the parking lot. She'd fallen beside her car. She was able to give us your number before she lost consciousness."
"She's not conscious?" Vienne's fingers started to tremble.
"The EMTs seemed to think she may have had a stroke or something."
No...not again. Dr. Billings had warned them Mom might not survive a second stroke. Vienne snagged her keys and headed for the entrance, her purse strap lopped over her arm.
Suddenly failing the bar no longer seemed like the worst thing that could happen to her.