When I was a child, my whole world revolved around the spines of every book my fingertips could reach. I would run up and down the aisles of row upon row of shelved books to find the perfect stories for her to read to me.
The less pictures a book has, the more enriching the story will be.
The more enriching the story, the more meaningful your reading experience will be.
That was our family’s motto, passed from one generation of librarians and bookstore owners to the next, and I kept those words engraved into my heart because of the truth they held. Whenever she didn’t have a customer to tend to, she would let me drag her over to the shelf with my choice of the day, pick out the battered book my stubby little finger was pointing to, gather me in her arms and read out the stories of the people and magical lands contained on every page. My favourite place as a child was always right there on the floor of the store, folded into my mother’s lap as she read from over my shoulder while my fingers traced over words I couldn’t understand yet. Raven tendrils of her hair would tickle my cheek as she held me captive, but I didn’t care.
And then one day, I stopped caring at all.
If someone in town had told me weeks ago that I would soon be behind the counter of the very bookstore I was trying to avoid inheriting someday, I would’ve rolled my eyes at them and walked away. And yet even now, as I watch some students in the year above me collect some books for a last minute assignment, I can’t help but feel a kinship to the books my mother once lovingly stacked and catalogued onto the shelves around me.
The trill of a bell draws my attention away from the list of borrowed books due today. I check the watch around my wrist and see with some satisfaction that he is right on time. I glance up just in time to see my brother walk through the door with a stack of battered novels in his arms. I force my gaze not to stray towards the shelves pressed against the farthest wall of the store as my brother weaves his way around the students browsing the alphabetised shelves on his way towards me. I raise an eyebrow at the thud that resonates throughout the store when he slams the pile of books onto the wooden surface, but he doesn’t notice in his preoccupation with brushing the sweaty strands of fallen hair out of his eyes. I can’t help but let out an amused scoff at the exaggerated huff he lets out as he catches his breath.
“Did you rob any second hand bookstores that I should know about?”
He shakes his head, the ghost of a smile playing on his lips. “Only the one two towns over, so if the Ridgemond County police comes knocking on your door, I was never here, okay?”
“That’ll be hard to explain once they see the stolen books on our shelves, Brent,” I humour him.
He rolls his eyes at me and shoves the pile in my direction. “Whatever, Danica. Just take the stupid books already.”
I place a hand on the faded cover of the book at the top of the pile. “Thank you for bringing these. I would’ve picked them up from Dad myself, but you finish school at the same time that his shift change happens.”
Brent frowns. “I didn’t get these from Dad.”
“You’re telling me you really had time to rob a bookstore two towns over on your way home from school?”
“What? No,” Brent says with a flicker of annoyance on his face. “I got them from Mrs Fitzgerald. She wanted to donate some of her old books.”
I try not to flinch at the mention of the neighbour’s wife. I must’ve done a terrible job, because the annoyed look etched onto my little brother’s face vanishes. Misinterpreting my reaction, Brent casts a glance at the shelves pressed against the far wall of our family’s bookstore, where all the second hand, dog-eared novels are kept. Before my interest in the bookstore vanished, mom and I used to place all the novels that weren’t glossy enough to be sold on those shelves. It was our own private section of the store that was hardly touched by anyone in town, but ever since I took over the store, the shelves housed all the neglected and overly creased books that nobody in town wanted to even consider touching--least of all me.
Brent’s gaze slides back over to me, and the weight of the pity behind his expression makes my skin crawl with discomfort.
“According to the time frame on the daily schedule you made for me, I still have about three minutes to deliver these books to you. I could shelve these for you if you want,” he adds, making a grab for the stack of books on the counter between us.
I force the corners of my mouth to lift into a smile as I pull them closer to me. “No, that’s okay. You’re supposed to be making a delivery, not stocking the shelves.”
He rolls his eyes again. “You probably have it written down in your schedule that you’ll stock them all without my help anyway.”
“Yes, I do,” I admit, “so leave before you interrupt mine and throw yours off schedule.”
By the time Brent leaves, the rays of sunlight streaming in through the store’s large windows give way for the shadows that creep into the store after sunset. Once the last of the students signs a card for a book in the historical section of the store, I flip the store’s OPEN sign to CLOSED and spend exactly ten minutes browsing the shelves and returning the correct books to their correct categories before crossing the activity off my schedule. When I was younger, my mom would drill the importance of our family tradition of properly organising the shelves by making a game out of it. I had to find the fantasy books from the romance section, the romance books from the science-fictional section (which was never to be confused with the fantasy section, or else I immediately lost ten points) and the young adult reads from the children’s books and put them all back into their proper places in ten minutes. On some days, I’d play by myself while mom stood by with a stopwatch, but we mostly made a race out of it. She let me win for years just to have an excuse to treat me to ice cream behind my father’s back, but I didn’t mind nor care.
And then one day, I started caring.
I started caring about the stupid family legacy of female librarians and book shop owners. I started to care about the way each shelf in the store houses rows and rows of books under a specific genre--and that these books need to stay organised into their genres at the end of every day. I started caring about the books in this shop again.
Because if I didn’t start caring again, no-one else would.
My feet wander over to the farthest shelves in the store before my mind can grasp what I’m about to do. For years, walking up to these shelves was second nature to me. Even when I was as surly as Brent was, my feet carried me past all the shelves in the store and planted themselves in the very centre of the shelves lining this wall. Ever since the night we received the call from the Eldridge County police station, I’ve been avoiding this part of the store--and this book in particular. I came here that night, shortly after the news reached us. She had the keys on her body--since this was her store, her birthright--and we didn’t have a spare. I’d broken the glass door open. My brother and father tried to stop me, but I had to see if she’d left me a note the way she usually did. I had been frantic, heartbroken and desperate. My hands had trembled as I opened the front cover for an explanation, for any explanation.
But I’d found nothing. She’d left me nothing.
Nothing except the bookstore.
My hand clutches the faded spine of the hardcover book of my childhood; of the story I forced her to read to me over and over again until I turned ten. But, if I’m being honest, Charlotte’s Web had been more than that. It had been a medium for us to communicate, even when I didn’t want to talk to her. If the store was empty, I knew I could just open this book and the words “Went out to get groceries from across the street, will be back soon” would be scrawled across a folded piece of paper and left between the front cover and the pages of the book for me to discover. I would sometimes sneak in while she was organising the back room to place a note about how I was sleeping over at Micah’s that night. I checked this book after school every day and she checked for my replies every evening before she locked up the store for the night.
I lift the book from where it’s confined between the other books on the shelf. I don’t know what I’m expecting by unearthing this book. My mom is gone. She will never braid my hair again, or read to me, or brag to the whole neighbourhood about how happy she is that I inherited her pale green eyes, or leave me another note in a book that only we bother to lift off the shelf. And yet… all I have let of her is this book and this bookstore. So for old time’s sake, with a throbbing pang of grief spreading through my chest, I run my fingertips over the image of a little girl and her beloved pig and flip the cover open.
A flash of white slips from the page behind the cover and falls onto the toe of my black boots. I stare down at it with furrowed eyebrows for a second before crouching down to pick it up and unfold it. My heart skips a beat as I read the singular word written in an all too familiar scrawl.
It doesn’t make sense. It shouldn’t make sense. I scoured the whole novel--every fold, every crease, every space between the pages--trying to find a note from her and came up empty. And yet here is a phrase I threw around for years in her presence, written in her handwriting on a piece of paper. It shouldn’t make sense for a note in my dead mom’s handwriting to suddenly pop up, and yet there it is: concrete, real and unwavering in my grip. The fingers of my other hand brush against the inked letters. The sight eases the unbearable heaviness that has been pressing against my chest for weeks.
An idea ignites in the corner of my mind. I reach into the back pocket of my jeans for the pen I carry around to cross off activities on my daily schedules. Using the same paper that fell into my presence with a piece of my mom inked across its surface, I scribble two words beneath hers:
I don’t know how my mom’s note wedged itself between the covers of the book, but looking at a written exchange between us--however one-sided it may be--the gaping whole in my chest feels slightly less empty than it did earlier. Knowing I’m running late for dinner, I fold the note and slip it back between the covers of Charlotte’s Web and place the book in its place in the centre of the shelf.
Maybe it’s because of the discovery of yesterday’s note, but as soon as I open the bookstore, my feet wander towards the second hand bookshelves in the far corner of the store. I grab hold of the battered copy of Charlotte’s Web as if my mom never left at all. I don’t know what I expect to see once I open the front cover, but a freshly folded piece of paper with the imprints of a freshly-inked message in her handwriting greets me immediately. I nearly drop the book in my haste to unfold it.
Dani, I don’t know why you’re only responding to my notes now. I’ve been sending them for weeks. I don’t even know how you were able to sneak into the store and reply when I’m here every second of every day and when the whole town is looking for you, and I don’t even care. All I care about is that you come home to us.
I frown down at the note in my hand. Come home to her? The whole town is looking for me? But I’m right here. Ever since the night of her death, I’ve always been drifting between the town’s only community college and the store.
I glance around the bookstore to see that I am indeed here, with numerous adults and townsfolk nodding their greetings to me as they browse the shelves of my makeshift library. So I whip out my trusty pen and scribble a reply.
I think there's been some sort of mistake. I'm not missing. I've been in charge of the store for weeks, mom.
Keeping myself busy and distracted from the waiting for a reply in those hours between noon and the shadowy dusk after sunset was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do since taking over the bookstore. My schedule lays forgotten beneath the files of admin and inventory forms I resign to doing. Once that stops being a good enough distractor, I walk the aisles of every shelved section of the store, my fingers trailing over the spines of every alphabetised book, but my heart isn’t fully in it.
My thoughts keep drifting back to my mom’s response. After seeing such a lengthy response, all doubt that it is indeed my mom has vanished at the sight of her weird, loopy E’s--among other things. But what I still don’t understand is how she and I can be communicating when she’d dead. Whatever confusion this whole impossible exchange gives me, it can’t stop the bubbling excitement at the prospect of receiving a message from my mom the next day.
But as soon as I unfold that little piece of paper and my eyes gloss over her words, the smile slips from my face. The sinking feeling returns as I feel the residual peppering of phantom kisses against my skin, the harsh grip of a hand around my throat choking off my ability to cry for help. The paper slips through my fingers and flutters to the ground with the blank side staring up at me, but it doesn’t make a difference. The words are imprinted into my brain as much as those forceful encounters are.
Dani, you don’t have to pretend anymore. We know why you ran away. Dad and I know about what happened with Mr Fitzgerald. The whole town does. He’s locked away for what he did to you, so you don’t have to worry about him trying anything again. So just please come home, okay? We miss you.
The whole town knows. That’s what she said.
The whole town knows.
Panic claws its way up into my throat, choking off my air supply. I cast a watery glance around the store and then out the large windows at the townsfolk passing by or crossing the street. Everyone seems oblivious to the twenty year old clutching a copy of Charlotte’s Web with an iron-clad grip, but I know differently. I remember how the rumour got out. I remember how my friends ditched me, how the ladies around town gossiped about “Larisa’s slutty daughter” without knowing all the facts. I felt their judgemental stares as they whispered about the tramp breaking the Fitzgerald marriage to pieces. I remember how the whispers stopped when my mom died.
But if they resurfaced again then--
Wait a second. Mr Fitzgerald isn’t in prison. He still lives right next door.
A thought pops into my head as I reread the message just to be sure I didn’t read it incorrectly the first time. If my dead mom is communicating with me, if I’m right here in town but my somehow very much alive mother claims that I’m missing, and if Mr Fitzgerald is both in jail and right next door…
Nope. No way. There’s no such thing as a parallel universe.