by Kevin Craig
2014 Honourable Mention: Young Adult
I’m trapped in my bedroom again, impatiently waiting for the screaming to end. I know it won’t. I sit cross-legged in the middle of the bed and rock back and forth. My therapy position.
Mom and Dad are down the hall in the living room, screaming about dividing assets. Again. She claims the contents of the den, and he gets the credenza in the dining room. Sheer madness. Not once in the hour since the blow up began have either one of them volunteered to take me. Through the whole entire list of the inventory of their lives, I have been left off the tally. In fact, my name—my existence—hasn’t even come up.
As I rock back and forth, I imagine all the shouted inventory vanishing from the rooms in which they now reside. The apartment—in my imaginary post-divorce visualization—is pretty much empty. Except for the bedroom at the end of the hall on the right. My bedroom. It’s still untouched, abandoned by both of them, occupied by yours truly. Nobody fights for its contents, or the flesh and blood of their loins taking refuge within.
It’s early Sunday afternoon and I usually just chill at home on Sundays and catch up on homework, but I need to get out of this hellish place. I need to stop feeling sorry for myself. I stop rocking, jump off the bed, grab my backpack, and leave my bedroom.
As I walk down the hall, the raised voices become so much louder. In the epicentre of the storm, they become a din of slings and arrows I have to run through to avoid being stung.
“I’m going out,” I say as I walk past my mom, who wields Grandma Sophie’s Tiffany lamp over her head. I’m a ghost.
“I don’t care if she was your mother,” Mom says in what couldn’t possibly be a response to my announcement. “She gave it to me and I’m keeping it. The Tiffany is mine.”
“Dad,” I say as I reach the door. “Going downtown. I’ll be home by ten.”
“It stays in the goddamned family. If you get the Tiffany, I get the Faberge.”
As they both dart toward the Faberge egg on the mantle, I slide my red Converse high-tops on and slip out the door. Unseen. Unheard. Unnoticed. Story of my life.
I’d give anything for things to be over, to be sitting on the other side of the divorce proceedings. Or, at the very least, for domestic co-habitation to be over and done with. But they keep making up, keep prolonging the inevitable. Dividing the assets is a weekly entertainment in our family. It’s a kind of sport in which neither ever argues for possession of the same thing they championed the last time, a kind of sport that never includes me in the spoils of war. I seriously desperately need normalcy in my life.
A walk downtown has always saved me. Just to escape on the subway, or by the power of my own two feet if I’m feeling the need to walk off some of the stewing hostility my parents provoke in me. Just to get away and get lost in the chaos down there. It has always soothed me.
I head for the subway that will deliver me to my sanctuary. I consider texting Cabe and having him meet me, but decide against it. I even consider texting Tad, my boyfriend. But then I’d have to explain why I’m escaping this time. I’m not up for talking, explaining, defending. I prefer a silent trip into my own thoughts while I wait out the storm at home. The further away I get from the epicentre, the better I feel.
In four short stops, the subway releases me into the downtown city streets. I can be anonymous here. I breathe a sigh of relief, stuff my hands into the pockets of my hoody, and walk into the afternoon.
I take a turn down Elm Street. It’s a particularly dead part of the downtown core. There’s nothing really to see besides a couple restaurants at the far end and a framing place somewhere in the middle. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of abandoned storefronts awaiting demolition and the encroaching gentrification. I probably wouldn’t walk here after dark.
Halfway down the street, I see a glow coming from one of the storefronts where I know there shouldn’t be anything. And yet, the glow in the display window suggests life inside. I cross to the opposite side of the street, so I can see it fully as I approach.
As I come upon it, I stop dead and look at the whole façade in disbelief. A bookstore. Only one of my most favorite things in the universe. Just sitting here, inviting, glowing, waiting for me to cross back across the street and step inside.
It’s too good to be real. Balm for my soul when I’m feeling particularly abandoned by the two lunatics back at the apartment flinging family heirlooms in the air about themselves. I cross the street. I stand in front of the window and take a deep breath. A bookstore. Heaven. A haven.
Through the glass of the front door, I see big bells hanging from the knob. They feel like a warning. Only geezers use these things. They have them on the door in case they drop dead of old age or boredom or something. Someone accidentally comes into their store, the bells crash all over the place and they’re brought back to life.
A wave passes over me—a premonition—but I ignore it. As shoddy and dank as the place inside looks, it’s still a bookstore. Curiosity doesn’t only kill cats, dude.
When I open the door, I get a hot rush of mould and old wood and old pages and ancient leather. Man, it’s just too good. The smell of heaven.
I’m a book addict. There. I said it. It will one day be my downfall. And, the older the better. Give me an old book and I’m in nirvana. Mr. Clancy says I’m a dying breed. I may be seventeen and stupid, but even I know books will be around long after the apocalypse hits. Yep, books and cockroaches. And the old relic guy from that band, Keith Richards.
I walk inside and the first thing I see is an old white cat sprawled on the hardwood floor. He stretches inside a thin shaft of the last bit of sunlight coming in through the front window. Spreading away from—or drifting toward—the dirty old thing is a line of dust motes. It looks like both the cat and the motes are fighting for the dying light.
The cat lifts an eye in my direction long enough to telepathically say, ‘Don’t screw with me, I’m busy here’.
There are eight rows of thick wooden shelves, all filled with books that look older than Great-Gram Imogene. If that’s even possible. She’s like ninety or something. She loses teeth every day. They just drop out of her skull like her gums are melting. Seriously.
I go right to the first shelf and start to look at all the books, caress their spines.
I get this kind of spooked out feeling as I peruse the shelf. What bookstore isn’t jam-packed with colour? Everywhere I look there are various tones of only two colours; brown and black. And with all the dust motes floating around wherever the dying sunlight hits, it kind of looks like there’s this low-lying fog throughout the store. On those rare occasions when I’m forced into fishing outings with Dad, low-lying fog is apparently a good thing. While shopping in a bookstore? Not so much.
I have my hand on an old smacked-down mud-dragged copy of a Russian classic—The Brothers Karamazov—when I hear a rumbling throat clearing that sounds like stones in a washing machine or a cat stuck up in a car engine when the ignition turns over. I’ve never heard a death-rattle, but Dad jokes around about them and I’m pretty sure something behind me just made one.
“That’d be a good pick right there, son.” The hairs on my arms reach away and I clench my head into my neck like a turtle, only I can’t make my head disappear down inside my shell. His voice is way worse than his throat-clearing. The cat agrees. It snarls and hisses at the old man like he isn’t its friggin’ owner, or something.
Just as I’m about to tell him I already read everything by Dostoevsky, my eye catches something shiny. You have to understand, in a store as dull as this one it’s almost a eureka moment to discover something that stands out so much.
The old man, who’s not yet in my sightline, scurries toward me. I can see him move up the aisle in my peripheral vision. As my hand reaches out to grab the book’s spine—anything shiny in the dull dark ocean of books, dust and derelicts—he steps between me and it.
“You don’t want that one, son,” he says, already objecting to my choice before I even have a chance to touch it. His voice comes out in a hiss this time.
Who tells a kid that? Of course it automatically becomes the only thing within a twelve block radius I want. And I still haven’t even seen the title. Like the ninja I am, I deke around him and make a grab for the shiny-shiny.
“Ooh!” I say. “The Book of Dreams! Sounds awesome. Is this like the Tibetan one?”
“Young man,” he says. “I’m going to have to ask you not to touch that particular book.”
My hand is lingering by the gold spine. As I move to haul it out of its slot on the shelf, though, the old man’s hand engulfs mine. My first visual. A hand as white as bone and, well, also extremely bony. And cold. The hair already standing up on my arms now electrically stands up. I feel ice course through me, like his touch actually lowers my body temperature.
But I’m a kid who likes his books, right. And I’m in a bookstore where the shelves are filled with books. And who the hell is this old coot to tell me what books I can or cannot touch? It’s for sale, dude. If it’s on the shelf in plain view—in a bookstore—it’s for sale. End of story.
I wrench myself away from his skeletal grip and step back from the shelf, finally with the book in hand.
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you, Ethan,” the old man says as he turns and walks back to the counter at the front of the store. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Just know some books opened cannot be unopened.”
“What the hell does that mean?” I say. Now I feel brave. I won the standoff. I have the book in my hand. Dude is too weird, though. As I watch his back move up the thin aisle, I see he’s impossibly tall and skinny. Like a basketball player who has just returned from a ten-year stay on a deserted island, or something. Like, he-should-be-dead skinny.
His all black suit is three sizes too big for him and covered in dust. His aura itself is dust. It mingles with the motes that fill up all the empty sun-lit spaces in the store. Dude totally creeps me out.
I turn my back on him and make to crack open the gold book cover. My heart races, like I need to see what’s inside. I feel desperate.
“You read the title wrong too, son. Take another look. It’s My Book of Dreams.”
I stop what I’m doing and return my gaze to the cover. My Book of Dreams. Huh? Don’t know how I read it wrong. I’m certain it read THE Book of Dreams.
What was it Shakespeare said? Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Between scary giant, his pissed off cat, the dust motes, and the book, my Spidey senses are telling me to get the hell out. But I’m also intrigued. Too intrigued. Like I said, I’m a bibliophile. And this book is so calling my name.
I spot a chair at the end of the aisle and take my prize over to it. I sit down to open the book.
He just called me Ethan.
“Hey,” I say. “How did you know my name?”
“If you haven’t looked inside that book yet, you can still leave it be and pick another. You still have prerogative on your side, Ethan. You can even leave empty-handed if you wish. It’s not too late.”
Talk about creeping the hell out of a kid.
“How the hell do you know my name?”
But I don’t wait for an answer. None of the alarm bells that should ring in my head are doing their job. Or at least not properly. He has suggested a forbidden-ness about the book and I have never been one to take to that kind of shit very gently. I dive into it.
After I turn the first few pages, though, I begin to lose interest. They’re empty and a rotten smell emanates from them. It’s like the book hasn’t been opened for decades and all the badness that has ever lived in this ancient bookstore has come to rest within the book’s yellowed pages.
“It stinks,” I say more to myself than to the man, who now seems too far away to carry on an actual conversation with. Like I would want to. He totally gives the creeps a bad name. “Why does it smell so bad?”
Apparently, he’s listening. From the front of the store, he says, “That’s a question you really have to ask yourself, young man. You have things to hide in that little head of yours? You have things to be ashamed of? You sure that smell ain’t coming from the inside of yourself, young man? Skunk smells his own stink first, Ethan.”
I stand and walk toward him, book in hand.
“Stop saying my name. How do you know who I am, anyway?”
“I’m just saying that book knows you better than I do. I’m a silly old man who tried to warn you not to dance with the devil. Now you’re dancing, young man. Now you’re dancing.”
Talk about weirdness.
“What the hell are you talking about?” I put the book on the counter and thumb through its empty yellow pages. “You trying to scare me? Who put you up to this anyway?”
The bells on the door ring. And not just a little bit, but like somebody has taken them off the door and slammed them into it and then stomped on them for good measure. I swing around to see who’s come in, but the doorway’s empty. Nobody there.
I jump as something brushes against my ankle. Then I feel like an idiot, because when I look down it’s only the stupid pissed off cat wrapping itself around me. Someone needs to be petted. Guaranteed petting is not something the old man would ever stoop to.
When I reach down to pet the cat, though, it hisses and snaps at my finger. Bitch draws blood with its dirty stinking fangs.
“You wanna watch out for Lilith. She’d sooner eatcha than look atcha. Clean that out before it gets infected. Cats are filthy creatures.”
I suck at the cut and roll my eyes at Lurch.
“Gee thanks, dude. First you try to stop me from buying a book, then your cat bites me. Then you try to freak me out about rabies or some shit. Customer service in this store is tripping.”
“You have bigger problems than an old cat bite, Ethan. You let some stuff in and you let some stuff out when you done opened that book. I warned you. I’ll say it again.”
“What do you mean? It’s just an empty book filled with empty pages that stink like shitty bad breath or something.”
“No. It’s out now. Your book is never empty. It’s the book of your dreams. They there, son. You just have to look to see—”
“Fuck off,” I say as I push the book away from me. Cutting him off mid-sentence didn’t stop anything from happening. I still get the gist of it. The pages in front of me are now filled with words. He was right. There they are, line after line after line of words.
“Can’t leave it now.” He laughs and I can feel the grating vibrations from the laughter in my bones.
“What the hell? I’m out of here. You’re a freaky old man. I don’t know how you did it. I actually don’t give a shit how you did it. I’m out.”
I make for the door. But the old man comes out from behind the counter with a book bag in hand. He slides the gold book into the bag as he makes his way between me and the door.
I look into his face for the first time. Ever see one of those skeletal people in horror movies? You know the ones. They’re not dead, but they’re so skinny and frail and grey and white you just know they’re gonna keel over in the next ten minutes and start eating brains or something. Dude’s like that. Hollow cheeks. Empty eyes that look just as dusty as his black suit. His lips are slits of white. Gashes in his face. I think about screaming but know the sound of it in the dank store would terrify the hell out of me. So I muffle it. I eat the scream like I never ate a scream before in my life.
There I am. Right in front of the door. Lurch stands between me and it, looming. I’m not getting through him. Just as I know he’s scrawny and near death, I also know he’d be like frigging Gibraltar. A man of steel. Something in my head and my heart tells me not to mess with him, not to even touch him.
He reaches toward me and I think for a second that he might kill me. But it’s the hand with the bagged book in it that comes out to meet me.
“Here you go,” he says. “You can’t leave without your new purchase.”
“I’m not buying that piece of shit. Get it away from me.”
“Son, it’s already purchased. It’s yours. Bought and paid for. Told you not to open it. They usually don’t listen, Ethan. Not usually. In recent memory, I only recall one boy taking heed of my words and putting that book back on the shelf. Since you ain’t him, you bought this book. Now take it. Take it and be gone.”
He nudges the book into my belly, pushing it against me like he’s attempting to break the skin and lodge it inside my abdomen.
I back off and push back. “I don’t want it.”
“Take it and go, young man. You stopped playing with choice when you opened it. Take it. And go.”
His eyes burn so hard into me that I do the only thing I can think to do. I reach a hand toward his and grab hold of the book.
“There you go. Now get.”
“You’re a crazy old man,” I say. I know. Lame-assed, right?
“Maybe so. But I don’t dance with devils, Ethan. I leave that to my customers. Now take the book you wanted so badly and be gone from here. It’s time I close up shop for the day. Your parent folk should just about be done with the battle of the Bulge. Be gone with you, boy.”
He steps aside and allows me to leave. My head buzzes, like I’m trapped in a dream state. Fuzz fills up around me and swallows up anything sane left of the moment. I’m outside the store without remembering how I got here. I can hear the muffled ringing of the bells on the other side of the door, but as I look in I can’t see the old man or his cat. I step away from the door, look at the bag in my hands with the old book in it and feel my shoulders slump in defeat.
Then his last words wash over me once more. Not only did he know my name, but he knew what the hell’s going on in my life. He mentioned my parents’ fight. It just isn’t possible.
“Shit. I don’t want this stupid book.”
About this Story
This novel is not yet submitted/published.