Another bookstore, p.1
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       Another Bookstore, p.1

           Chad Inglis
Another Bookstore
Another Bookstore (A Newt Run Module)

  By Chad Inglis

  Copyright 2012 Chad Inglis

  He was already middle-aged by the time he took possession of the store. Before that he'd made his living as a school teacher, but when his wife died (of a rare form of cancer that swept through her body so quickly he'd barely had time to understand what was happening before she was dead) he found he no longer had the energy to teach. The truth was that even before his wife's illness he'd felt himself on the verge of burning out. He moved through his lessons mechanically, and when he attempted to bring to mind the faces of his students, even a month after they graduated, all that was left was a collection of flesh-toned masks, as if all this time he'd been teaching mannequins rather than children.

  The store belonged to a friend, a man several years older than himself who had been running it more or less successfully for the better part of two decades, but who was now hoping to retire. The two of them reached an agreement that left them both relatively satisfied and included the small apartment above the store. Elliot put his house up for sale and moved in the following week.

  The store occupied the first floor of a converted house on Nascent Street, just two blocks from the university. The location ensured a more or less steady pool of customers, for the most part undergraduate students looking to save a little money on used course books. The interior was long and narrow, with book cases that stretched to the ceiling, the top shelves of which could only be reached by a pair of wooden ladders that ran on tracks along the floor. The counter and register were in the back, and behind that was a small store-room filled with overflow and out-of-date magazines that would never be sold, but which Elliot's friend had kept for nebulous reasons and Elliot himself never got around to clearing out.

  He took to his new life. The days were almost endlessly long, measured in the slow passage of light tracking across the floor from the window, light which seemed somehow different from what he'd been used to, simple and flecked with dust.

  He opened at 9 o'clock and he closed whenever he felt like it, locking the door with a feeling that resembled contentment (or would have if not for the press of loneliness and grief that was almost always with him, and which he pictured as a gust of dry air.) When he was finished counting the day's receipts he climbed the narrow stairs to the apartment above the shop, where he made himself tea or drank a glass of red wine or two and cooked before going to sleep. During the day he sat behind the desk and read, choosing a book at random from the limitless shelves and moving through it without hurry, pausing to look up and stare at the far wall or the stacks of books on the desk or at his own hands, thinking of nothing.

  One year moved into another in much the same way as one day to the next: Elliot grew older, but gradually and without much pain, although there were days when his back bothered him, and the arch of his feet. It wasn't until he had passed his sixtieth birthday that he found the book about the other store.

  It was still early, not yet 10 o'clock. The only customer had been a young female student with poor eyes and hair so blond that it was nearly gray, and who left without buying anything or speaking a word. Elliot came across the book on a shelf below the window. It was a light blue hardcover, and the title, Another Bookstore, was written on the spine in thin gold font. The author was a man named Francis Sheldon. It was a slim volume, barely 100 pages long, although the text was small and cramped, and extended nearly to the margin of the pages. The printing was bad and the paper was of poor quality. The only publishing information was the year the book had been printed, 1901, and Elliot guessed that it was self-published, a vanity project by an author with more ambition, perhaps, than talent. On the first page he read the following:

  "He was already middle-aged by the time he took possession of the bookstore. He'd come into it through a friend, and after the death of his wife (who was struck with a sudden affliction and taken from him before he had the chance to understand what was happening) he conceived of the small store as a kind of refuge, or a cell, in which he could spend the remainder of his time on Earth, growing old along with the books."

  Elliot found his hand was shaking. He set the book back on the shelf and returned to his seat at the register. He worked his thumb over the back of his hand, and stared at the far wall. The bell above the door tinkled, signaling the arrival of a customer. A young couple entered the store, a thin, nondescript man, along with a blonde woman in a leather jacket. They moved about the shelves with the slow, contented air of people who have nothing else to do with their day than peruse the catalogue of a used bookstore. Suddenly, Elliot was seized by the thought that one of them would stumble on the book he'd just found and ask to buy it. He had no logical reason for thinking this, but the possibility filled him with a kind of vague panic and he got up, wincing at the stiffness in his back, and retrieved the book from the shelf. A few minutes later the couple approached the register to purchase an oversized volume of art. Elliot did not bother to read the title, and the price he quoted them was about half of the book’s actual value. As soon as they left, he locked the door and went upstairs where he spent a long, featureless span of time trying to decide what to do next. Finally he went to sleep.

  The next morning he got up, only partially rested, and told himself that he couldn't avoid dealing with the book any longer (it seemed to require some kind of a response from him.) He went downstairs ,and for the first time he failed to open the store. He sat down at the desk and opened the book.

  "For a time he led a peaceful life. All things were ordered and well-founded. He woke up at precisely the same hour every morning and closed the store at the same time every evening. He had few customers, and even fewer visitors. He was content to fade from the world, peacefully and without protest. In the evenings he sat in the armchair in his parlour, watching as the fire slowly died, and then the death of its embers. He had no grand plans or ambitions, and while no man can predict the future, he felt it reasonable to assume that his life was already over, but all of that changed when he found the other bookstore.

  "At the time, he was busy sweeping the store room. It became very dusty unless he cleaned it regularly, but on this particular day he was more diligent than usual, having removed the stacked piles of newspapers and magazines that had been left by the previous owner; the dust he turned up was magnificent, and sent him into fits of sneezing. Behind one of the piles he felt a breath of cool air on the back of his hand. Frowning, he bent down and noticed an iron grill on the wall just above the floor. The draft was coming from there, and with it a faint noise, as of a man moving about in a room. He moved closer, and peered through the perforations in the grill.

  "He was looking down into a room full of bookshelves. He saw a man standing in one of the aisles, but from this angle he could only make out the top of his head. The man was balding, and he puttered about the shelves in an oddly familiar way.

  "The greatest emotion experienced by the observer was puzzlement. He had not been aware that the building had a basement, let alone another bookstore located almost directly under his own. Strangest of all was the light: the room was illuminated neither by gas lamps nor candles, but seemingly by the bright light of day. The observer got down on his stomach and craned his neck for a better view. Sure enough he saw a window there, and beyond it a street with further buildings. At that moment the other man turned far enough for the observer to see his face.

  "It was like looking into a mirror; the man in the other store was identical to himself, but this was no mirror or trick of light. His double moved about the shelves independently, as real as he was. The observer felt his heart racing, and he pressed his face closer to the grill..."

  Elliot finished the book in a single reading. He found the
plot absurd. The first man, the one referred to in the text only as the observer, grew increasingly obsessed with his double. He watched through the grill day and night, and even attempted to dig a hole to the other store. However, the ground beneath the floorboards was solid rock, and although he managed to unhinge the grill far enough that he could fit his head through it, at first speaking to his double and then shouting at him, the man below never appeared to hear him. This was another strangeness in a host of them, since he could hear his double perfectly well, often listening in on him as he conducted his business and went about his life. Not that his double ever said anything even remotely interesting: his conversation was just as sparse as the observer’s own, and as passionless. He did learn that his double was also a widower, although the circumstances of his wife's death were slightly different (she had died of consumption while it had been cholera in the case of his own wife.) He might even have grown bored with the situation, if his double hadn’t discovered a grill of his own.

  The observer watched the other man get down and examine the grill with an odd sense of detachment, as if he was floating somewhere above both space and time. Naturally, his double spent as much time staring into his grill as the observer did, and with as little result.

  In the end, the observer is left to wonder if there might not be an infinite string of such grills, each one looking down onto another bookstore where another version of himself is busy leading much the same life. Thinking along these lines, he attempted to signal the other self that he assumed was watching him, but there was never any sign that he'd been successful.

  After the initial shock of recognition had worn off, Elliot found the book tediously dull. Perhaps if the protagonist had been moved to make some change in his life or circumstances as a result of his discovery there might have been some merit in it, but nothing of the sort took place. The man was left trapped in a seemingly endless loop of frantic inactivity, forever observing himself being observed.

  Elliot put the book down and took a shower. When he was dressed he went to the back room and searched the floor for a grill. He laughed at himself for doing it, but the next day he did the same, and again the day after that. There was no grill, but he did find a small crack in the wall just above the floor. He retrieved an ice-pick from the kitchen and set to work widening the crack, but he only succeeded in uncovering a heating pipe and the brick wall of the adjacent building. He was tempted to try poking a hole there as well, but he held himself back. All day long he had the uncomfortable sensation that he was being watched.

  The next day he attempted to learn more about the book's author, Francis Sheldon. He did a quick search on the internet, but the only reference he turned up was to a dentist with the same name who lived in the capital. He called the man's office, and was told politely that as far as Dr. Sheldon knew he was the first member of his family to be named Francis. At the Newt Run General Library Elliot had more luck, locating two poems by Sheldon in a collection entitled Poems of the Town, published in 1911 by a printing house that no longer existed. One of the poems, titled "Inheritance", was a poorly constructed sonnet, apparently an ode to Sheldon's dead father, and the other was an extremely short work called "The River Under 4th Bridge." This was a mere 4 lines long and dedicated to a woman named Elizabeth Harrison. Neither of the poems seemed in any way related to Another Bookstore.

  Elliot was irritable when he left the library, and despite the cold and the snow that had begun to fall, he decided not to wait for the bus. He trudged numbly with his hands clenched in the pockets of his jacket and watched the press of his boots in the snow. His mind was full of sharp, conflicted thoughts. When he returned home he read Another Bookstore again, imagining himself inside of it, trapped in an endlessly repeating loop of parallel lives. He was sure that in each one of these lives his wife was dead, and that he was here, sitting in a lonely room reading a book with the same title. There could be no other outcome. He took a pen from his desk and wrote the following on the inside cover of the book:

  "Each day is a thousand days, a million, and all of them end exactly the same way."

  He closed the book and put it back on the shelf in roughly the same place where he'd found it. He didn't care if it was ever sold. He turned out the lights and climbed the long staircase to his bed.

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