The squall of snow never slowed, the plip-plip pattern hitting the windows adding a dreamy rhythm to the bookstore within. Shelves upon shelves of used books which smelt of broken hearts and mild dust lined the walls. The fluorescent lights flickered every minute or three to remind those within of the brewing blizzard.
A young woman sat at the only cashier’s desk. Her brown hair fell in curtains around her oval face, and her brows scrunched in study as she read the book balanced on her lap.
“Who are you?”
She looked up to meet the gaze of a short man, roughly in his thirties, with a splotchy beard and thin rectangle glasses.
“I am Alice,” quoted the girl. She rolled her eyes and plopped her copy of Alice In Wonderland on the counter.
“Lewis Carroll was a genius,” stated the man. He handed her keys from his belt loop, the transfer whipping up the stench of cigarette smoke from one hand to another.
“He sounds crazy,” uttered the girl, the keys jingling in her palm.
“All the best people are,” reminded the man, and when he looked up to see the girl’s puzzled face, he withdrew. “Still, I cannot believe you’ve never read Alice In Wonderland. I mean, it’s a classic-”
“Kevin, you say everything is a classic.”
“Fine then,” Kevin propped himself up on the cashier’s desk like a school teacher about to lecture a child, “What does Amber Hetchings consider classic literature?”
Amber picked up her copy and rubbed her finger down its spine. “Something old, like Moby Dick.” She looked up at Kevin.
“So old means classic?”
“It’s like a rectangle and a square.”
“Classic books tend to be old but not every old book is a classic.”
“Oh. Yeah I suppose you’re right.” He looked at her.
She stared back.
The lights flickered.
“I guess I’m locking up tonight?” Amber asked, gesturing to the keys in her hand.
“Oh yes, my niece is in town and I promised her we would go to the cinema.”
“Oh, what movie?”
“We don’t know yet,” he shrugged.
Amber let the statement hang in the air as she stroked the book’s spine, the keys now loosely on the counter between them.
“Closing time is at 6:30 instead of 7 because of the blizzard,” Kevin finally mumbled.
“Need anything before I leave?”
Kevin hopped off the counter and turned to face Amber.
“See you tomorrow.”
His words lingered in the air long after he left. The two hours seemed to move slower than the pile of snow forming on her car as she looked out the front shop windows. Amber shelved, swept, and wiped the counters and it was only 6:06.
“Hello?” She called into the empty store.
“Hello,” answered the dust.
Amber turned over the ‘opened’ sign to ‘closed’, once again admiring the now heavy snowfall. Exhaling softly, she sauntered to the back of the store to her employee locker. The one that holds her cellphone, coat, scarf, hat, and 3 cigarettes she stole from her mom’s purse a week and a half ago. She sorted through her locker to find a lighter, she began to frown. Rummaging through her bag, she searched. “Kevin smokes,” she whispered as she left the back of the store. She tested the knob on the door labeled ‘management only’. Locked.
“Damn,”she cursed, walking back to her locker, the keys jingling from her belt loop.
She pivoted so hard she almost slipped, catching herself on the door frame. Amber picked up the management key from the loop, slipped it into the keyhole, turned it, and opened the door.
The immediate smell of cigarette smoke and old books hit her like a brick. She scrunched her nose and took a few steps inside, switching on the pitifully fluorescent lights.
Yellowing papers scattered the floor, and a full ashtray lingered on the edge of the coffee stained desk. A bookshelf behind the desk labeled ‘classics’, slightly off-centered, gave the room a crooked effect. An uncomfortable-looking office chair sat behind the desk, swiveled, facing a small filing cabinet.
The only object, besides a lamp and the ashtray, on the desk sat a copy of Ulysses by James Joyce. Multi-colored sticky notes clustered the pages within. Amber picked up the copy and thumbed through it. Most of Kevin’s entries made no sense. Amber read a few aloud to herself:
“Only then does a Man truly understand how loneliness mangles one’s mind to produce such agonizing ways of torture and betrayal. These mind melding forces only produce one product. Men.” Amber read it again. And again.
She flipped to a new page “Chocolate hair. The color of mud. Dirt. Less than Holy. Yet She is here. Yet She is Holy.”
New page: “Christ.”
New page: “Let me handle Her flesh and bones after I am finished with Her mangled mind. Let Her seep into the deepest parts of my pores and allow myself to rekindle the lost flame of a Man who once was.”
She dropped the book on the floor. The thump of the pages against the ground made her jump. “I am just here to get your lighter.” She spoke.
Amber maneuvered around the desk and began to open the single drawer. It only opened halfway, jammed with paper and forgotten objects. Rubber bands, chapstick, sticky notes, pens, an empty notebook, and finally a disposable camera. The objects mingled along with old book fines and fees. No lighter, but gnawing curiosity got the best of her. She opened the filing cabinet.
12 folders labeled by month laid in the top drawer, nothing in the bottom. “Paychecks must be in these,” she predicted. She picked out January’s folder and opened it on her lap.
Countless photographs spilled, some leaking to the floor. She picked one up and turned on the lamp.
Amber saw herself gazing back in the photo, relaxed behind her cashier desk. She picked another, where she shelved books. Another, tending to a customer and another while at her locker. She shuffled through more of them. Outside her car, on her lunch break, examining herself in the employee’s bathroom mirror.
She set the photos down on the desk and took a deep breath of stale air. She stood up, knocking one knee on the opened filing cabinet, and swore. Stumbling out from behind the desk and through the office door, she quickly ran back to her locker. She grabbed her belongings briskly and headed for the front entrance.
A sheet of snow engulfed the entirety of the doorstep, making it impossible to open. Realizing there was no way to leave the store, Amber’s face fell. If this door was snowed in, the backdoor surely was too.
Regardless of logic and reason, Amber desperately tried the backdoor. Icy cold handle and no budge.
She turned and hesitantly drifted back into Kevin’s office. The smell of stale smoke no longer struck her as comforting, but as an omen of the stagnant energy within. She stopped and picked up the copy of Ulysses, turning the book over in her hands. She opened to a colorful page of sticky notes and read Kevin’s newest entry:
“Hunger. What is food to a Man who has eaten his last meal? What is water to a Man who has drank his last drop of blood-soiled wine? Energy is the everlasting force of will that will last no more. Sleep and death await Man. For Man is foolish to believe he has eaten his last meal. For She is there. Her Holy self. She is the Savior of all Man’s hunger. All Man’s thirst. Wine flows through her veins as copper and toned as her hair. She is the Savior. And I am Man.”
She turned to glance at the photos, eyebrows knitted together in confusion. Gradually, the brown caterpillars parted and realization was dawned upon.
“I am the Savior,” she spoke to the stale room.
“Yes,” The room answered in return.
The lights flickered.
Amber reached for the stack of photos.
The store plunged into complete darkness, the hum of the lights lulling, a dying breath.
The icy wind howled outside, quickening along with the beat of Amber’s heart. She forced her hand deep into the drawer and searched for a lighter. Her fingers closed around the object, pulling it to the surface of the messy drawer.
“Amber?” a voice whispered.
Her spine straightened, her eyes widened in the golden glow of the flame.