The door opened slowly with a creak. With caution, I looked around. It looked to be half-bookstore, half-coffeeshop, and something straight out of a Harry Potter novel. The—barista?—was wearing a crimson beret and a lemon-yellow scarf, his skeleton-like hands pursuing a newspaper. The customers were odd, too. One woman reeked of onion but smiled pleasantly. Another held a ferret in his arms daintily, letting the creature venture along his back and arms. A third seemed to be whispering to herself and rocking back and forth in the wooden chair with a clunk each time it hit the floor.
These people were strange. But I was only here for one reason, and that reason looked to be promising. 2021 was going to be the year that I finally picked up a book and got off social media. And the bookshelves were giant and boasted large collections of vintage books. Vines wrapped around the dusty shelves, creating a perfectly unbalanced decor that added just the right amount of mystery to the shop. Nobody seemed to pay much attention to me when I entered, and the barista simply nodded and waved his hand as if to welcome me and remind me of the established code of silence. The books were warm in the sunlight, and though the brightness highlighted some of their imperfections, it only seemed more romantic.
Looking back now, I’m not sure why I chose the book that I did. Maybe it was the ugly caramel color that contrasted sharply with the pastels around it. Maybe it was the crease in the spine that seemed to suggest its previous readers had thoroughly enjoyed its contents. Whatever the reason, the caramel book settled comfortably into my backpack, cozied up against my computer pocket and candy wrappings, and came home with me.
I didn’t find the message when I first opened the book. At first, the book was just awfully dull. It told the story of a young woman during the 1920s who was longing for a husband while she watched her sisters get married. It was a little too reminiscent of Little Women for me, and I tended to roll my eyes at the kind of novel where women just sat around pining for men. It was only later that week when my puppy snatched it from the table—after a wrestling match, no doubt—that the note slipped out. My first thought was that it was someone’s old grocery list or silly note to a friend, or maybe even a password and username, whose power I would never abuse. But it was much stranger, and it made me pull my jacket around me a little more tightly in my own home.
If you’re reading this, please find me. 1140 Julep Lane, Barstow, California
I was scratching my head. What could this possibly be? Then, my train of thoughts got a little more frantic. I didn’t ask for this— I was only trying to live out my New Year’s resolution faithfully by exploring a used bookshop. However, when I tried to push it out of my mind by playing with my puppy or cooking some dinner, it only grew stronger. So I did the only thing I could think to do next—I went back to the used book store.
The guy with the beret was there again, flipping through the pages of a magazine this time. He looked up at me with a blank expression, then went right back to his book. Brushing off his standoffish behavior, I willed myself to walk up to the counter.
“Hey,” I said softly, pressing my fingers against the counter and leaning in to whisper, “I wanted to talk to you because I found this weird note in one of the books—“
He waved me off. “Please, no. I don’t want to get involved in your over-active imagination. Call the cops if it’s really urgent.”
I was taken aback by his rudeness, and I took a couple steps away from the counter only to nearly step on the ferret. His owner hissed at me. I had to get out of that place. I got in my car and picked up my phone to dial the cops. Surely they would find this note to be of interest.
“It’s a vintage book store, you said?” They sounded skeptical.
“Yes, the one where the old Starbucks used to be on South street.”
“Ma’am, I’m sorry, but we just don’t really have basis to do an investigation here. You say it’s a vintage book store. Well, that note could have been there for years—decades, even— as far as we know.”
I hung up with a defeated feeling inside of me and a knot in my stomach. Someone was in trouble in the middle of nowhere, California, and I couldn't just sit there and not do anything about it. Since school was all online anyway, and my roommate was in Bangladesh for the foreseeable future, it was just going to be me and my dog on the road to Barstow, California.
I drove past Santa Cruz soon after leaving my apartment, the thick forests like comforts from my childhood guiding me along. I was tempted to pull over near one of the beaches and stumble my way down the dreaded cliffs to feel the cool rush of air and spray of salt from the ocean. I stopped some fruit stands and bought the sweet cherries and ripe avocados, my fuel for the drive that I was beginning to feel I would certainly regret. The road to the Central Valley was a conglomerate of red dirt set against picturesque mountains, motorcyclists revving their engines and making that dirt fly, billboards advertising questionable Christian slogans, and way too many Walmarts. It was nighttime when I reached Bakersfield. I ran through endless scenarios in my head, questioning what high I had been on that convinced me to drive so far down my state with only a German Shepherd pup who was just beginning to learn how to defend and protect. I came to the conclusion that it would be best to head home in the morning and finally got some sleep in the back of my car.
Maybe it was because the sun was shining that morning and I had seen that a coffee shop was just 2 miles away on the map. Maybe it was the energy that comes from a night of semi-decent sleep. Whatever it was, I erased the home address from my maps and typed in the one from the note again. Maps informed me that it would only be an hour until I reached the destination. I tried shaking some of my jitters with a coffee and a jam session on Radio Disney. Before I knew it, maps was telling me that I was 5 minutes away. I had turned down a secluded road and began to notice that houses and people were both scarce. My cell signal dropped off for a good minute and then flickered weakly. And that was when I saw it: the faded green house in the Google photo, with the same brick chimney and odd rounded door. It looked abandoned; the lights all seemed to be off, and there were no cars in the driveway. I parked my car a few feet away from the house and got my binoculars out to try to peer in the windows. But only a feral cat emerged from the small crack in the house's foundation. I sighed and realized that I had driven down to Barstow for nothing at all. Though I hadn't even read the entire book that I got from the thrift store, I smiled when I realized that my frenzy had actually allowed me to accomplish a long-standing New Year's resolution: go on a solo road trip. It was time to head back home and find a new hobby to pour my imagination into.