There’s no grand opening, no advertising. There’s just one endless summer day after another, and then the curl of fall leaves across the storefront on mainstreet, and when the leaves touch the ground you look up and notice the bookshop.
It’s picturesque. Curlicue writing on the window, a newly painted red door hung open like a mouth attracting customers. You walk by it on your way to and from school every day, and it smells like new paper and a Christmas candle burning too early, or too late.
Two students from your school have disappeared in the past two months. I’m just a whisper on the breeze. A warning.
Don’t go to the bookshop.
The first time you go, it’s after a particularly bad day at school and you know that if you go home now, you’ll only end up more miserable. So you disregard me, jump the fence at the back of the school and cross two streets. It’s late October, and the sky is a bright, cold shade of blue. Your worries fade in the glorious sweep of autumn. Nothing bad can happen when the weather is this generous. You tuck your nose into your jacket as you walk.
There’s a girl crouched outside the bookshop, writing details about an upcoming sale onto a chalkboard. A breeze rattles dead, dry leaves across the sidewalk, and something about the sound makes her look up.
Her eyes darken with interest when she spots you. “Are you a reader?”
By reader, she probably means customer, but you imagine that it means reader in the truest sense — somebody who longs to live between the words. So you nod, and tilt your head to see what the chalkboard says.
Sale. Pirate books.
“Only pirate books?”
She shrugs. “We’re overstocked. Nobody wants stories about pirates.”
“Too much scurvy.”
You laugh, and there’s a brief moment where she frowns like she wasn’t kidding, before she laughs too, to stave off the awkwardness. In the silence afterward, she asks, “would you read a book about pirates?”
“Probably not,” you say. “I like medieval stories. About kings and queens and knights and castles.”
“No,” you say, and feel foolish. “When I read, I … pretend that I’m there. Dragons are a bit much for me.”
It’s more than that. When you read a good book, you can hear the characters talk, see the worlds they live in, feel the emotions in the air. It’s a strange sort of magic. In this cool air, with the shadows long at your feet and the leaves turning golden against the sky before gently drifting to the ground, it’s easier to confess. It’s easier to confess to this girl, who works in this quaint little bookshop and surely understands what it’s like to be a reader.
She studies you, and then nods. Like you’ve passed a test.
“We’re closed now,” she says, though the sign behind the door says open. “But you should return.”
Don’t return to the bookshop.
It’s pleasant enough when you return, just a shop crushed between the florist and the hardware store. There’s a small cat in the window, soaking up the autumn sunlight, next to posters advertising slam poetry and missing kids. Three, now. Golden motes of dust gasp up into the air when you open the door, and instead of sneezing, you just have to admire the way that the lighting makes these tired old books glitter and come to life.
When you close the door, a bell tied to the top jingles.
The girl is at the counter this time. She has a name-tag, but written on it is the sort of name that you forget when you stop reading it. She looks like she’s bored, or possibly dead, bent over a book. Her long black hair spills over her shoulders and onto the table. There are rumors at school that she’s a witch. There are rumors that she’s something worse.
It’s easy to believe in this quiet bookshop with the dust and the cat and the promise of so many worlds within the books.
“I have a question,” you say.
She doesn’t look up. “Second aisle to your left, third shelf. The maroon cover. Not red — maroon.”
“Thank you,” you say, and if there’s a smile behind that curtain of hair, you can’t see it.
You don’t think about the fact that you didn’t ask a question. You don’t quite remember what the question was going to be anyways, but it didn’t have anything to do with a maroon book.
But you find the aisle, and the shelf, and the red book, and next to it, the maroon. Frail gold lettering traces the spine. The Art of Medieval Warfare.
Your eyebrows lift. You can’t remember your question, but this was not the answer.
You pick up the book anyways, touch the brittle pages, trace a finger down the golden letters. Finally, you take a deep breath and crack it open. It’s illustrated, and beautiful, all about catapults and castle fortifications. You wonder what it would be like to live in the book. The fights inside of it seem far more concrete than the fights of this world.
There’s a bookmark that looks newer than the book. There’s words on the bookmark. Don’t read those words.
Midnight tonight. Back of the shop. There’s a key under the florist’s mat.
Don’t keep the bookmark.
You pocket the bookmark and step out into the sunny afternoon.
Don’t go home.
Your mother hurls a plate at you when you walk up the porch, that buckled-down porch with the broken banister and the third step that creaks when you put your weight onto it. It groans when you duck, and the plate sails harmlessly over your head and shatters in the grass.
The Art of Medieval Warfare doesn’t recommend using plates as weapons. Probably.
“Don’t you dare go to your room.” Her face is red; the house smells like beer, even from outside. “We need to talk about your grades.”
You look at her, and then at the staircase. You don’t think she’ll be able to make it to the top, so you climb up and leave her shouting at the bottom step. Dad will be home soon, and he can make her stop.
Don’t think too much about the bookmark.
It’s a thin strip of laminated plastic with a blue tassel on one edge to match the beach scene printed on either side. The bookshop sells them at the front counter, but you’ve never seen anybody buy one. You’ve never seen anybody buy anything from there, actually. It’s a wonder it stays in business, but it’s possible that the rent isn’t very expensive. Nothing in this town is.
You trace the handwriting. Lindy. Now that you’ve brought her name home with you, it’s easy to remember. She looks like a Lindy.
You put the bookmark on the windowsill, next to a dead fly, a plastic snow-globe, and two cups half filled with water that belong downstairs. It’s six hours until midnight, and a thirty minute walk to the bookshop. You have time to decide.
And then shouting erupts from downstairs. It’s possible your decision has been made a long time ago.
Don’t go to the bookshop at night.
It has turned into a different creature in the dark, all shadows and shifting shades of black. You’re completely alone on the street, and the bookshop doesn’t feel like a promise anymore. It feels a bit like a cold autumn night, and it feels a bit like reading the paper in the morning and seeing that another girl has gone missing and thinking, that will never be me.
A streetlamp washes soft light over a faded red car. There is a parking ticket on the windshield that has been there for a week. The circle of yellow light extends beyond the car, but stops well before the shop. The sign over the door says Welcome. The window is black and uninviting. Everything on the street is so, so still, except for a cat that trots across the sidewalk, far more purposeful than you. It’s probably not the same cat from the shop.
There’s a key underneath the florist’s mat. You don’t think this qualifies as breaking and entering. Unless Lindy has set you up. You don’t think she has. And the key fits perfectly into the keyhole of the door that says Welcome above it.
When you open that door, warm air bursts out at you, and it smells a little bit like home. Not like beer, but like old paper and dust and damp earth. So it doesn’t really smell like home, but it smells like what you want home to smell like.
The girl is at the counter, reading beneath a lamp. The lamp is more for decoration than for light. It’s stained glass, with a little brass cord hanging from it. Green and red swirls of light stamp the desk and spill onto the floor. When Lindy looks up, she puts the book down.
“Follow me to the backroom,” she says.
Do not follow her to the backroom.
The backroom is typical for a bookshop, or at least you think it is. You’ve never been in the backroom of a bookshop before. There’s a box filled with books with dented covers and missing pages, labeled defective. There’s another box filled with books with question marks, labeled detective. There’s a third box filled with self-help books labeled reflective, and a last box that has two books in it that might be going on clearance next week.
They don’t matter, because there’s also a table in the middle of the room with The Art of Medieval Warfare on it.
Lindy picks up the book and holds it close to her chest, like a secret. “I wasn’t sure if you would come. It’s hard to tell sometimes.”
“I’m here.” You take a deep breath. It tastes like dust. Everything in this town tastes like dust. All along, you’ve felt that this town was made for leaving. “What’s it like?”
“It’s easier than you think. Faster, too. It’s like stepping into a dream, where you feel completely at home until you wake up and realize that you didn’t know anybody there.” She tips her head so that her eyes shimmer with sympathy. “Except you never realize.”
Like stepping into a dream. The town has been uneasy about the disappearance of the others. Who will be next?
But you know that they were the lucky ones — they escaped this place.
“Have you ever?”
“What makes you think I’m not right now?”
Lindy offers you the book. You think about your mother, and how she had seen in the paper that another girl had gone missing, and said to you: That would never be me.
And she was right, like she always is, and you were wrong, like you always are.
Lindy says, “Touch the book.”
Do not touch that book.
You press your hand against The Art of Medieval Warfare. It feels warm. Like a person instead of a book. Somewhere, you hear the clank of metal against metal, distant enough that you think it could be your imagination. Lindy’s smile is the only thing the light touches. “And now you go.”
This is the part where I tell you no. Where I whisper, do not go into that book. Where I say, your problems are not a place you can escape from.
Why bother? You haven’t listened to anything else I’ve said. None of the others did.
You hesitate, but only for a moment.