Lost Pages by Leah Erickson

The rare book dealer always watches. In all weather, in all seasons, he would be there: leaning in the doorway of his storefront, watching, smoking a cigarette. There was always an intensity in his eyes that was a little importunate, a little desperate, so that when he tried to make eye contact, people looked away.

He had always been there, and he would always be there, like a ghost haunting their town, inspiring both affection and contempt. (Though many confused him with his father, the rare book dealer before him.) Martin was not yet thirty, but with his soft brown beard, his waistcoats and arm garters, he resembled a man from a daguerreotype. No one exactly knew him. But the town was economically depressed, and in times of need, one could always sell something to Martin. He never said no. He purchased not only outdated college textbooks, but also family Bibles, waterlogged childhood fairy tales, even old wedding albums. College diplomas. The shop had become a repository of the town’s abandoned dreams.

Lost Pages was stenciled in gold at the top of the front window, though some of the paint had worn away so that it read L st Page.  Then, scripted across the bottom: Rare Books, Prints, Autographs, Etc. But no one could see anything through the window because it was crammed top to bottom with merchandise.

The locals never shopped in his store.  Only out-of-towners seemed curious, sight-seeing in that quaint section of town with its cafes, its tiny fenced gardens, its narrow, cobblestone streets.  The rare book dealer would hold the door open enticingly, gesture them in with a smile. But it was impossible to enter, for the doorway was packed with books, in haphazard piles with no rhyme or reason. There was only one very narrow tunnel for entering, and frankly it looked dangerous. No one took the chance.

The shop had been shut down by court order more than once in the past year, cited as unsafe, a fire hazard. In spite of the low worth of the merchandise, it distressed Martin to get rid of anything, and he would clench his hands and pace, tears starting in the corners of his eyes, as the firemen in their reflective yellow   slickers came to carry crates away. All this weight, it’s dangerous. The foundation is cracked. These old floors are buckling. You want to wake up dead one morning?

But soon after, as always, he would be open for business. And once again, he could not say no to old sets of moldy children’s encyclopedias, or yellowed scrapbooks of ancient family outings. He aquired dozens  of self help books with bright hopeful covers, their pages tender and dog-eared.

Well, it’s his choice. He does it to himself. It is his right to refuse.

***

Sometimes in the dead of night, unable to sleep, he would spend hours roaming the musty book-tunnels. Listening for a rattling in the vents. Testing a creaking floorboard with his foot. Sometimes it felt as though the building were a large dark body in which he was trapped- the belly of a dying beast.  The only company he had was the sound of the John Coltrane records he played on his turntable, muffled from within the stacks.

The records, the turntable, the shop itself, all had been inherited from his father, who was a minor celebrity in the field of rare books. Somewhere on the buried walls were yellowed pictures of him, having drinks with Allen Ginsberg, on a bench with Charles Bukowski. His father had known everyone, had posed for the camera with a hungry, wolfish smile on his face. He had a grey beard and wore his trademark fedora. A man of immense energy and rapacious appetites. His passions were drink, women, and the pursuit of impossibly obscure literature.

He had been in his fifties when Martin was born. By the time he died in his eighties, his mind had been ravaged by years of drug abuse. He rambled incoherently. His pupils were permanently dilated. He had visions of angels and demons that swarmed around him constantly, whispering in his ears. He swore up and down that he had grown five inches in one night.

And now, Martin was left alone with the shop, and at times the fact gave him fits of sweating anxiety. The money was running out. His father’s greatest finds, the first edition Hemingways and the handwritten manuscripts of Fitzgerald, had been sold off to collectors long ago.

Sometimes, there were stirrings in the book tunnels, as though he wasn’t alone after all. A scampering, scurrying of claws. A gnawing that terrified him.  And the books. He rarely looked at them. He had once opened up a high school yearbook sold to him by the middle aged red haired woman who was a manager at the supermarket. Tucked inside, among pages of long ago sports teams and school plays, was a small stack of pornographic Polaroids of her alone, darkly lit, legs spread open on a tousled motel bed, a nervous smile on her lips. Horrified, he vowed never to look at the merchandise again.

…and always the record would come to its hissing end, until the automatic lever flipped it over to play the other side…

***

One day Martin was standing in his position in the doorway as usual. The mailman was late. Even though no one ever sent him anything of interest, he still felt agitated until the mailman, not the regular one, handed him a small stack of junk mail and then hurried away, averting his eyes.

Martin flipped through it quickly- sales flyers, political ads- then stopped when he saw a large envelope that not only was hand addressed, but was also written in calligraphy. It was addressed to his father.

Slashing it open with a penknife, he pulled out a letter written on thick, cream colored stationery.

Dear Mr. Scott Carmichael,

     You are a rare book dealer of great esteem and of a national reputation, and you have also been a good friend to me in a time of need. It is time to repay that favor.. I was wondering if you should like to come  pay me a call and assess the value of my library.  It is a 2,000 volume collection that belonged to my late wife’s father; I know I have spoken to you of it before. Now the time has come.I will be moving away soon. Leaving my sorrow behind, as it were.  This house echoes so. I greatly hope to see you soon..

    Yours,

    Montague Humphries, Esq.

Martin turned the thing over. Apparently the man must never have heard that his father had died.

He looked at the date on the letter. The letter was over twenty years old.

A little shiver ran through his body; there was a feeling as of a missed heartbeat, a hiccup in time. Martin made his way inside, walking through the twisting book tunnel until he reached the little cave where he drank his tea and ate his meals. Twenty years old? How was it possible? He stared into space, flummoxed.

He put the letter back in its envelope. It gave him a queer feeling to think of it, so he decided not to.

There were no customers that day. Not even anyone to sell him anything, which was unusual. Normally they all treated his place as the town pawnshop.  It made him resentful sometimes , but, at least he had that role to play. At least then people actually talked to him.

He got himself worked into a state of gloom and dejection. And when he made his way up the narrow, book-lined stairs to the tiny slot that contained his bed, he had a hard time sleeping.  Lines from the letter kept repeating in his head.

Leaving my sorrow behind, as it were. This house echoes so.

     Leaving my sorrow behind…

As he slipped in and out of consciousness, the darkness around him seemed to expand, grow huge and empty. This house echoes so.  He had the sensation of being a speck of dust hurtling through infinite space. He startled awake with a jerk and reached for his flashlight; it had just been a dream. Towering piles of books still blocked him in and held him fast on all sides.

Hands shaking, he got up and made his way downstairs to his tiny cluttered desk. Taking pen to paper, in quavering letters, he began to write,

Dear Mr. Humphries,

As you may not have heard, my father whom you wrote regarding your book collection has passed away.  However, if you like, and you are still interested at this late point in time

***

The following week, after posting the letter, Martin felt good. Even a bit giddy. He even cleaned the front windows of the shop of dust and grime, and swept the front walk.

Leaving my sorrow behind, as it were.

But surely, wouldn’t this Mr. Humphries be long gone? Twenty years! And his book collection sold off to some other dealer, carted to the Goodwill.

Or, maybe, the treasures still remained. Rare, beautiful. Much longed for.  And for his eyes alone. The discovery could earn him all the respect in the field that his father had had.

Unless I am too late..

Martin could hardly believe it when he received a response, again addressed in calligraphy, on the same rich creamy envelope

 My Dear Mr. Carmichael,

So happy to hear from you. I have eagerly been awaiting your reply. Please do come. Next Wednesday morning at ten?

Again, the letter was dated twenty years before.

***

As he prepared for the visit, he tried to ignore his anxiety and focus on the positive. He would not acknowledge what he knew deep down to be true: that he was afraid. Very afraid to leave the shop. Afraid to venture outside, with its bright lights and grating noises. He preferred the spellbound quiet of the shop, where he could watch the town from his doorway. It was like looking into a snow globe.

I must. I must. I have become like a shipwrecked man on an island of books!

The day of the appointment came. He called the taxi. He clutched his leather notebook in his hands, waiting. He turned the sign on the front door from “Open” to “Closed.”

***

Pedestrians and business owners from up and down the street stared and whispered. Why is the rare book dealer closed? He’s never closed!

The owner of the candle shop, who had sold him her teenage diary, said, “He can’t close. At least, not for long.”

The burly man who ran the florist’s shop raised his eyebrows with a wry smile and said, “He has my scifi paperbacks and the world stamp collection I kept when I was a kid.  He better not go far. I intend to buy them back someday.”

They watched as a yellow taxi pulled to the curb of the bookshop. And the rare book dealer, looking pale and shaky, locked his front door with a huge loop of silver keys, got into the cab, and was gone.

***

The feeling, as he stepped onto the sidewalk towards the purring yellow cab, was one of intense vertigo.  Everything felt sped up and alarmingly real. The late winter air was damp and chill. The street noises were too loud. For a moment his eyes rolled up and there was the sky, huge, endless, pale winter-white. It all began to spin, that sky, the black lacy treetops, the relentless tide and motion of the town’s midday life.

His knees nearly buckled before he fell into the cab, perspiring.

“Where we going, buddy?” asked the driver good-naturedly.  Seeing black spots swimming before his eyes, Martin answered.

“What say? Can’t hear you.”

“Sixty-three Westwood Drive. Cliffdale.”

“Whew. That far out? Okay.”

As the cab slipped away down the street, Martin began to recover himself. That, he thought, was that. It hadn’t been easy. But he had done it, hadn’t he?

He remembered the last trip he had gone on with his father. His father, jittery and paranoid from the pills he was taking,  insisted on traveling by train to look at a box of notebooks belonging to Ken Casey. (“They have my license plate. I’m being watched. Throw the fuckers off!”)

The rail car was antiquated and cozy with dusty velvet cushions and wood paneling on the walls. His father’s eyes glittered maniacally as he described to Martin the ecstasy of discovering the rare, the unseen, the unknown ghosts of literature.

“The great ideas, son. We are the treasurers of the great ideas and the great thoughts. The archivists of wisdom!” The old man’s eyes rolled dramatically. His hand patted his waistcoat for the hidden pistol he always carried. His father had felt things so much, so strongly. Sometimes it was as though there were no feeling left over for quiet young Martin.

Nonetheless, he had always counted on some great eventuality. . It was the hope that kept him going. Maybe this was his destiny. Maybe now his life could really begin.

He would be an archivist of great ideas. No more would people take advantage of him, selling him what he did not want.  No more, no more, no more.

Lost in his reverie, it took him a while to realize they had been driving for a very long time. When he had crossed the sidewalk, time had felt amplified and sped up, now it felt stretched out mercilessly. He had the impression that hours had passed since they began driving.

“Excuse me. Are we nearly there?”

The driver, who had close shorn red hair and a pink freckled neck, said nothing, merely looked at him through the rear view mirror with concern, brow furrowed, as though he thought Martin were crazy.

When they finally stopped, it was early evening. Dark clouds raced through the sky over a pale moon. In the gloaming, Martin could see no house. Only a monumental set of stone steps going up a steep hill.

“This is it?”

The driver gave him another slow, assessing look. “This is it.”

Martin paid the exorbitant fee, how could he argue? And the yellow cab pulled away, leaving him on his own.

Again, the fear threatened to overcome him. The vertigo, the illness. He was able to ignore it by concentrating on walking up the steps. They were odd steps. Hard to climb and not only because they were steep. In some places the steps were shallow, too small for his foot. Almost ridges. In other places they became so wide and deep that it strained his knees to levee himself up.

At long last he made it to the top. Heart hammering, gasping for breath, he had to stop and recover before he could take in the house itself. It was enormous, made of stone in the Tudor Revival style with steep pointed roofs, and tall chimneys and windows.

On the oversized wooden door was a tiny hand scribbled note in pencil, barely legible: Please come in. Bell broken. In sitting room.

There was an enormous, claw-like latch on the door. It took two hands to press it down. The door swung open onto a long hallway of black and white marble tile.

He didn’t know where the sitting room could be. He began walking down the hallway, calling “Hello?”

No answer. There were many doors leading off this hallway, but none open. He walked until he got to the end. There stood a small gilt table with an empty vase on top. And over that hung a large painting of a woman.

She was not young, possibly in her forties, and very beautiful. She was sitting in repose on a couch, looking thoughtfully out of a window, gentle light bathing her face. Her hair was long and dark, and she wore a long blue dress. Her bare feet were propped underneath her, and her pink toes peeped out.

Martin stood in silent wonder.Something about the image was very moving. Her calm grace and beauty made him feel uplifted.  He tended to idealize beautiful women, as only a virgin could.  And this one had such a gentle glow of beatitude about her. A brief swoon of teariness came over him. Or maybe it was only exhaustion.

A door behind him creaked open. A man crossed the hallway distractedly, headed for another door across the way.  He was a small man of middle age, compact, but with a regal straight bearing. His hair was gray and brilliantined straight back like an old-time actor’s, but his thunderous brows were black, furrowed and Zeus-like.  When he finally noticed Martin, his whole face opened up in a tremulous smile.

“Mr. Carmichael. At last!” He shook Martin’s hand firmly. It felt cool and dry as reptile skin.

“I’m not late, am I?”

The man looked at him, with a fond but exasperated smile and then shook his head. “I’ve been waiting, it feels, forever. Follow me to the sitting room.”

Martin was led through one of the many doors into a room that was very large, but nearly empty.  There was a long sofa covered with a sheet. And a long, narrow oak table, set with whiskey bottles and crystal wine decanters.

“First, my condolences. I’m so sad to hear of your father’s passing.  He was a great man, with a blazing mind! He was a man who could speak with no boundaries. No judgements!  I was actually feeling lonely when I wrote, and was hoping to meet with him for one of our long conversations. But, I imagine that you must be like him, no? So let’s be friends. Shall we have a drink, in his honor?””

“Yes, please.”

“What will it be?”

“Whatever you’re having.”

“Scotch on the rocks it is.”

Martin looked at the man’s back as he prepared the drinks. He wore black pants and a white button down shirt, well tailored to his slight frame. He looked meticulous and neat, but there was a slight tremor in his hands as he lifted chunks of ice from a silver bucket with a pair of tongs.  When he turned back holding his clinking tumbler of scotch, Martin noticed that his eyes looked red, as though he’d been crying.

“Salud,” he said, and held up his scotch to tap glasses with Martin’s.

In the quiet that followed, Martin, who had been propelled forward by jolting adrenalin since leaving his shop, now felt rather hazy and confused. What to say? He had not had a conversation with anyone in such a long time.  His first impression was that he liked this man. He was elegant, civilized, in a way that most people in his town were not.  He seemed of another age, as Martin oftentimes did himself. He admired the man’s well-born manners, his mother-of-pearl cufflinks.

At last, all he could think to say was, “She is beautiful,” gesturing to another painting. This one was on the floor, leaning against a wall. It was the same woman from the hallway painting, except in this one she was riding astride a great palomino Morgan, wearing tweed jodhpurs with her dark hair combed back flat, eyes squinting into the sun.

Mr. Humphries turned and looked at the painting as though he hadn’t seen it before. He walked back, stood this way and then that, considering the painting.  First he looked disdainful. Then his face darkened with something like despair.

Martin panicked, feeling he had somehow upset him. Scrambling to fix things, he blurted out, “I have always wanted to be in love.”

The man looked up blearily, and laughed one sharp sad note. “And you have not?”

“No. I never have. And I regret it.“ He wanted to reassure Mr. Humphries. “I’m sure it’s better to experience love, even if you lose it.” He dropped his eyes and could feel his ears burning red.

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-eight.”

The man laughed again, pressed the spot between his eyes with his thumb. “But when you love someone too much, you are doomed to lose them. And yourself.” He shook his head ruefully and sighed. “Please excuse my tendency to aphorism.” He downed the rest of his drink, gestured around. “And please excuse the state of my home. As you can tell, I will be moving soon. Tying up loose ends.”

“I am surprised you had not left already. Your letter was dated…quite a long time ago.”

“Was it?” Humphries looked confused.

“Did you want me to have a look at the…”

“May I show you some more of the house?”

“Certainly. And then I would be happy to assess the value of your….”

“This way, please.” He led Martin back out to the hallway. “As you can see, there are many rooms. Too many for me to keep.” He opened one of the doors. Martin obligingly peeked inside: an empty ballroom with frescoed ceilings and grand French doors.

“We used to have a lot of parties in this room,” Mr. Humphries said wistfully. “Back in our younger days we had people up all the time. Wild times. Parties that went straight through till morning.”

Martin looked at the room, at the floorboards polished smooth from years of dancing feet. He could almost hear the music, the happy drunken buzz of conversation. He was not used to alcohol, and the scotch was thrumming warmly through his bloodstream.  He imagined Mrs. Humphries, holding court in this room in a sparkling beaded gown, her husband’s hand at her waist. When the party was over, did they make love at dawn?

He thought of what waited for him at home. His cramped dusty shop. The winding tunnels of solitude.  The remnants and mementos of other people’s lives, always crowding him in.

But then Mr. Humphries said, “Come along. There’s more.”

He pulled out a flask, freshened their drinks, and then led Martin through another door that led to what looked like a servants’ back staircase.

“I’m sure you’re eager to see the books,” he said as they walked up the creaking, narrow wooden stairs. “The collection belonged to my late father-in-law.” He turned to smirk at Martin in the semi-darkness. “In fact, all of this belonged to my late father-in-law.” His voice had taken on a peevish tone. “He was a wealthy man, a judge.” Then abruptly, angrily: “He was a son-of-a-bitch.”

Martin, now feeling slightly drunk, exclaimed, “Really!”

“Yes! Controlling, no-good bastard. My wife worshipped him. Daddy issues,” he said mincingly. “He never approved of me. I’ll be happy to leave this place. Leaving my sorrow behind!” he sang in a sudden, country-twang yodel.

Martin barked in laughter. “Good for you!” He felt warm and effusive with drink, with company.

“Yes. I’m actually glad to give his things away. Those books,” he wagged his eyebrows, opening the door, “are worth a fortune. I will give them to you. Then you will make your mark in the business. You’ll be as respected as your father!”

Martin felt knocked off balance for a second, at the mention of his father. “Yeah. I’d like that. I might even leave the shop where I am now and…”

“Voila!” Mr. Humphries cried, gesturing widely with his arms: This floor, this hallway, appeared identical to the one below, down to the gilded table and the wife’s portrait. He laughed seeing Martin’s confusion. “What, feeling a little déjà-vu?” He downed his glass.

Martin laughed weakly, feeling discombobulated. But still, he followed on.

“Hey, wanna see something?” Mr. Humphries opened another door. This time it was a bedroom. It contained a huge four-posted bed with rumpled white bedclothes. There was yet another portrait of his wife, this time in an evening gown, her back to the viewer, looking over her shoulder and laughing mirthfully. There was also a fireplace with a large mirror hung over the top. The mirror had a large, radiating shatter at its center.

Martin again felt himself blush. He didn’t know what to say. “Who did all of these paintings?”

“I did.”

“You are an artist?”

“Some would say that. I don’t know if I would.”

“You’re very talented.” Martin was swaying slightly on his feet. “You obviously loved her very much.” He put a hand on Humphries’s shoulder. He looked so sad. “Tell me,” he asked softly, “What happened to her?”

Humphries shut the door softly, turned to him with a strange smile trembling on his lips. “She was killed.”

“Oh! I’m sorry! I had no…”

“Murder.”

“What? My god.”

“It was the world. The world killed her.” Humphries looked at him with a challenging expression, as though daring him to argue.

“I don’t understand.”

“Well,” he leaned in confidentially, breathing fumes of alcohol into his face. “Some would say she never existed.” He began to whisper. “Some would say she was a creation of my mind. Some would like nothing more than to intrude into my life and destroy her.” Tears sprung to his eyes. “My darling, she could not survive their judgment!” He laughed. “But my passion lives on. I can almost make her real again. But it is like a snake eating its own tail. The more powerful my love, the more elusive she is.”

He was gripping Martin’s arm, with a fanatical light in his eyes. The man was obviously insane. He reminded Martin unpleasantly of his own father. The rambling, the paranoia. The riddles with no answers.

Suddenly, his mind sobered. He straightened up, took a step back.

“Maybe it is time to look at the books?” he interrupted.

Humphries stopped talking, mid-stream, and gaped at him. “You weren’t even listening to me!”

“It’s not that, it is just getting late and I have…”

“I thought that someone like you would understand my situation!”

“I do understand. You’re just alone. When I am alone…” he thought for a second, then whispered, “I can convince myself of anything.”

Liar,” he growled. He was badly drunk, staggering as he began walking down the hall and Martin followed.

Down, down the hallway. Like the other hallways, this one was identical in its design. The wallpaper, which in the beginning Martin had thought was covered in intricate fleur-de-lis, was upon closer inspection a pattern of scenes. A scene of huntsmen and hounds riding into a clearing in the woods. The pattern repeated over and over, maddeningly.

They walked in tense silence, and then turned a corner. It was another hallway, the same. Door upon door leading from the side. The huntsmen. The black and white.  And at the end, always the same gilt table. Only the painting of the woman each time was different. This one showed the wife, nude but for a loosely draped towel, dipping a toe into a steaming bath.

Martin began to feel a sickening panic rise in him. A feeling of being trapped.

“The rare book dealer,” said Humphries sardonically.  “Or should I say, son of the rare book dealer. Your father  was a great man. Do you know how I met him?”

“How?”

Humphries stopped and pulled something from his pocket. “I went to his shop. I needed his help. I needed him to help me decipher the origin of this postcard, because it was driving me mad.”

With a flourish he handed it to Martin. It was an ordinary, generic looking postcard showing a horse chestnut tree in bloom. On the back was written in a  girlish hand,

Monty. I have gone for good, and I am not telling you where. I had to leave or I would have a nervous breakdown. I can’t take your mood swings or your control issues or your petty cruelties any more. You can stay in the house. Take care of Daddy. Don’t worry, I am happy and among friends.

It was unsigned, and the date postmarked was twenty years before.

“You see, I was in a bad state. I knew it wasn’t from my wife. It was some terrible  trick. Those murderers! Well, your father was schooled in rare letters. He analyzed it.  The handwriting, he said, was that of a fifty-two year old Eastern European man with a glass eye! The edges…here…show traces of powdered juniper berry! And best of all…”
He  took the postcard and held it up to the light. “Notice the watermark?”

Mart squinted. “No.”

“Well look! It is watermarked. The Embassy of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia! Ha!” He looked at Martin triumphantly.

“I don’t see a watermark. Are you sure it wasn’t  just  from your wife, and that she really left?”

Humphries looked at him with cold outrage as he put the postcard back in his pocket. “You are not like your father. At all. You are just like the others. Maybe you don’t deserve my books.” He resumed walking, briskly. “Your father and I were fast friends. We embarked on a lost weekend together. I have no memory of it other then I woke up in a field wearing someone else’s trousers, a ten dollar bill taped to my chest and a spent bullet in my pocket….but where was I? Just you wait till you see what I have.  A first edition Arthur Conan Doyle. An inscribed copy of Dubliners with a lock of hair inside. Incredible rarities that the world knows nothing about.”

Humphries listed the books that awaited in a sing-song lullaby. Meanwhile, Martin tried to keep his focus by imagining the life that could lie ahead for him, if he really made the coup he dreamed of. A name, for himself. A new shop. A new town.  Leaving behind his old shop, packed tight with the dead dreams of others.

And yet he could still see his father in his mind’s eye, pupils dark and liquid with madness, lips silently forming words that he couldn’t hear., exhorting him even as his hand prodded fretfully at the hidden pistol.

They kept walking endlessly, from one hallway to another. And always at the end, the image of the woman. That fair skin and dark glossy hair, the flushed lips. A look on her face that seemed to promise so much. It all suddenly filled him with an overwhelming longing, such a great hunger that he’d never experienced before. It felt as though right around each corner was fulfillment, a great revelation.

“Where is it?” he asked in a small strangled voice. “Where is it?”

“Almost there. Calm down, boy. We are almost there. We are leaving our sorrow behind, as it were.”

All at once, Martin’s temper flared up. “But you have been here for twenty years!”

Humphries wheeled around with a look of hurt. “What?”

“The envelopes. The letters. Twenty years old…”

Humphries gave him a long, dark look. But then, his lips twisted into a tight smile. “You know what? I think we are here.” Seemingly at random, he reached behind him and opened one of the doors.

Floor to ceiling bookshelves, full. Rich leather spines, gilded with their titles He could smell the history, the venerability! The room had the feel of a holy place, a shrine of glowing relics. Martin stepped forward.

Humphries put out an arm, blocking him. “I’m afraid,” he said with a sigh, “that I have changed my mind.”

“What?”

“I am not giving them to you, after all.” Again, the smile. But the eyes were not smiling. The eyes burned with cruelty.

Martin gaped at him. The blood began to beat in his ears with the hiss of escaping steam. “You…” his mouth had gone suddenly dry. “You tricked me. You bastard.”

Humphries laughed.  “Spoken like a man who has never gotten a thing he wanted!”

Blinded with longing, heart pounding, Martin shoved him away and made his way to the bookshelf. Theodore Dreiser. A complete set of Dickens. He could barely take it in before Humphries grabbed him by the shirt and flung him back. The men wrestled and kicked. Humphries was laughing in short little huffs. “You want her bad, don’t you, you poor sot! You are a murderer in your heart, like all the others!” His eyes were blazing, his hands shaking. He was insane. And he was the stronger man.

Martin swore in anger, pushed him away and ran from the room. But not before grabbing blindly for a book, just one book. It was thick and heavy in his hand, the leather soft and warm as flesh.  He ran as time played its tricks, stretching out and then racing forward again. His bleary eyes saw only a confused jumble of black and white squares, the glint of gilt, a woman’s laughing eyes. Around a corner, down a staircase, left, right. He didn’t know where he was going. He ran, and ran, in a blind panic.

Until suddenly, he was out, through the front door and into the bracing dawn. Never had it felt so good to gulp the air, to feel his heart pounding, his nerves flooded with life. His feet were steady and sure as he flew down the jagged stone steps, away, away.

Once at the bottom, he leaned against the tree and caught his breath.  The rush of defiance made him feel strong, energized. To the east, the sun was just beginning to rise. He could see the lights of town in the distance. A cool wind was blowing. A faint electronic beep came from the red light of a distant transmission tower. It was all so beautiful. He clutched his prize to his chest and laughed as he turned to take one look back.

But as the sky brightened palely at its edges, he could see that the the house looked dead and empty. Humphries hadn’t even chased him.The smile faded on his lips.

He held the book in front of his face, to see what he had gotten. The book was older than he had thought, the binding rotting away and pulling loose, the gold lettering on the front worn away and illegible.

When he opened it up, the pages were blank. With quiet contemplation he watched as the tissue-thin pages fell loose, one by one, blowing gently away on the wind like great silvery leaves.

______________________________________________________________________________

Leah Erickson has been published in many literary magazines in print and online, including The Saint Ann’s Review, The Stickman Review, Forge Journal, The Furnace Review, The Absent Willow Review, Prick of the Spindle, The Summerset Review, and Ecelctica. Her work appears in the print anthology, “Unlikely Stories of the Third Kind.” She has work upcoming at The Fabulist. She lives in Rhode Island with her husband and daughter.

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