The word tome always fills me with a sense of unease. It’s one of those words that provokes profound thought from its listeners, or users, and weaves imagery of ancient libraries piled high with mysterious, ancient, dusty old tomes.
Tome! Tome! Tome! I thought as I stood before the old store. It was one of those side street buildings without a sign, just a worn white-washed plank of wood hanging from rusted chains. The entrance was packed behind heaps of potted plants and gardenware, making it a small adventure just to get to the door, and tinted windows ensured that not even the most eagle-eyed viewer could see what stood inside. Daffodils and daisies hung from hooks on the ceiling, their baskets swaying in the breeze.
An OPEN sign sat, slanted, dead behind the windowed door. A paper that stuck to the outside, clinging for dear life on peeling pink paint, read, “OPEN sign broken. Come on in! -Owner.”
I put my hand on the cold metal “push” bar, took a deep breath, and stepped inside. The ding of the doorbell accompanied a sudden shift to dark. My eyes strained to adjust to the soft lamplight of the interior. It was cool. The hum of an air conditioner barely felt through thick air. It smelled of paper and leather, hardwood stained by years of rain, and a soft hint of scented candles somewhere deep in the store.
It was a maze in here. The only thing by the door was a glass display counter with an old-school cash register on top. The display was crammed with books, stacked as well as forced in sideways, and the countertop was likewise packed with papers and files.
The floor was carpeted and well maintained with a single path cutting through piles upon piles of used literature. A few rusted magazine racks stood near the left wall, opposite the counter, and were filled with vintage comic books and vinyl records. Atop a shelf behind the counter, a large record player spun a song about ‘meeting again’ on scratched vinyl. It was soft, as if it were being played in the building next door on a rainy afternoon, and filled the store with a certain warm comfort. Pictures of things I didn’t recognize hung from the walls, collecting a smooth layer of dust on the top of their frame. Colorful magnets displaying quirky characters from cartoons and movies covered a metallic box by the vinyls.
Beyond was an endless array of sporadically placed bookshelves stretching from floor to ceiling. The path led through the center of the shelves, crisscrossing outward into each aisle like the trail left by a confused snail after the rain.
I followed the trail, running my hands along the dusty shelves and piles of boxes and books. The labels of each aisle were nonsense- a combination of letters and numbers without any discernible meaning. After a while I stopped counting the rows, stopped caring about the nonsense labeling, and focused on the subjects.
Philosophy. Biology. Zoology. Psychiatry. Anatomy and physiology, respectfully. A row for comedies, tragedies, action, and adventures. The fantasy aisle was well traveled. There were even rows upon rows of short stories and fanfictions, some only a few pages tucked between the prongs of manilla envelopes.
I passed a tall, crooked row that ducked out of view. I leaned into the first shelf and wiped away the dust covering its label- Erotica. I chuckled to myself, it was a long hallway that dimmed into complete darkness near the end.
Finally, after what felt like hours, days, weeks, or maybe even years of walking I came upon a massive wall of neatly packed books pressed between the edges of two shelves. There was a door, small and quaint, situated in the center of the wall. Beside it was a shuttered window with the curtains drawn and a flower pot stretching across its bottom. Roses crept up along the window, crawling up with greedy thorns. I glanced up, a chimney made of leather bound journals stretched up towards the ceiling, a steady plume of white smoke billowing out of its top.
I approached the door cautiously.
My knuckles hit the wood with a hollow thump, sending small shots of pain up my hand. I backed away, listening for movement, and waited for a reply.
I knocked again.
I shrugged, “Eh- what the hell. Why not?” I twisted the doorknob, slowly opening the door and…
...beyond was just another corridor of books. I sighed in disappointment. Not knowing what I expected to find in the first place.
As I strolled down the new corridor, examining the decorated walls and old tomes, I noticed that none of the books had legible titles. Each was wiped, or rather scratched, away either by time or someone in denial of the contents therein. I stopped before a green hardback, jutting out from the wall slightly, and stared at its spine. Incomprehensible. Just white smudges where the author and title should have been. I contemplated removing the book, opening it, and checking the opening pages for answers. As I reached out, the tips of my fingers brushing the green delicately, I froze. A warmth came from further in. A glow. The shuffling and humming of someone working. The smell of scented candles wafted through the corridor, filling each crevice with lavender and floral aroma.
I pulled back from the book, decisive to follow the sounds around a bend just ahead. I have no reason for stealth, so I barge around the corner and stand in the midst of the hall, huffing like a confused animal.
I was befuddled by what I saw. A girl, no older than me, with dark hair and pale skin, was working tirelessly in a circle of books. They were stacked around her, propped into reading positions by one another, some open, their pages flipping periodically as she sat comfortably in her little alcove. The girl herself was grinning goofily with her nose tucked firmly into the swirling pages of a little paperback book. The kind you get on discount when a store goes out of business- or, I suppose, the kind you find in an infinite library of dusty tomes and counterculture paraphernalia.
She made no move to answer my calls. In fact, she made no evidence that she had even noticed me standing there, awkwardly, power posing like some kind of mad man.
Suddenly, her eyes widened and she let out a soft, worried gasp.
I flinched, knowing I had been found.
But I was wrong, instead of shooing me away with a broom or quick kick, she pulled her wrist to her eyes, staring at the time on an old-fashioned watch. She stood, stretching her arms high above her head and letting out a long sigh.
She kind of…mitosed? Mitositisfied? Mitosis. She did that. She split into two, and then four, and then eight before stopping. Each new girl zipped off in a different direction. As I watched her body pull into more copies, I imagined her chromatids pulling together into chromosomes right before my eyes.
Is it weird to look at someone so beautiful and imagine her full of genetic spaghetti?
I was completely aghast at what I was seeing. Stunned. Shocked. Thrown to the bulls, as I’m sure some old man somewhere would say. My mouth hung open wide, but my curiosity grew even wider. I decided to follow one of the girls.
The closest one had jogged past me, back towards the door. I followed at a distance, unsure of what to expect. She noticed me, I’m sure, but said nothing. She left the front door open for me. Peeking out, I found her stooped in front of a bed of roses, watering them from a pail that I had not seen before. They smiled up at her like happy little children, their thorns elongating at the water’s touch, and she smiled back at them.
“O-okay.” I said, pulling my head back into the door and finding the next closest copy.
This one sat behind a desk made of old wood. She scribbled furiously into a notebook beside her, the long plume of her feathered pen adding a brilliant playfulness to the scene.
“What are you doing?” I asked, approaching the desk.
She said nothing, continuing her notes. She had books of science open all around her on small podiums and wire stands. I caught a glance of one of the pages, it held an anatomical diagram of a cat half transparent, a crude drawing of the moon in the top left corner.
I cocked an eyebrow, confused, and went on to find the next copy.
Again, this one appeared to notice me, but said nothing. She was working on something now, standing behind a podium overlooking a row of desks, mouthing words that I couldn’t hear. I imagined the row of desks full of students, each careful to transcribe everything she was saying, hanging on every word. Briefly, I thought of sitting down and writing, someone like her must have words worth writing.
I continued on.
Yet another girl was crouched beside a bed that sat between two shelves. She was pressing a warm, wet, pink towel to someone’s head. A man, someone I didn’t recognize, lay tucked beneath the quilted covers. Her face said it all. Worry, but not for his physical health.
Another copy whizzed past me, spinning me to follow. This one stopped in a kitchen, banging pots and pans together as she dumped meats and vegetables onto the stove. I watched in awe from the kitchen island as she dazzled the meal with spices of all shapes and sizes, dicing each ingredient with the keen eye of an expert. She slid a plate before me, winking playfully. My mouth watered as I reached for it- how long had it been since I had a home cooked meal?
She smacked my hand with a wooden spoon, shaking her head. I reached for the food once more, receiving the same treatment.
“I don’t get to eat this, do I?”
She smiled, shaking her head.
“Damn.” I stood up and walked off to find the next copy.
One was napping in a corner, so I decided to let her be.
There were two copies dancing playfully with one another, twirling like ballet dancers…. or rather like a drunken woman to a Spanish tango. They were laughing, the sound barely audible above a whisper. I watched for a while, contemplated joining, but decided to move on.
There was a wall here. Something I wasn’t supposed to see. A weakness. One of the copies crouched in a corner, frantically stacking books around her. She reminded me of a child building a fort out of couch cushions. The girl had tears on her cheeks, stained, dried, never wiped away by her hand or another. She boxed herself in, groaning as I approached.
My instincts fought, but I decided to let her do her thing. She’ll come out when she’s ready.
There was a small hall behind me, hidden by a strong iron door, torn askew and hanging by one strained hinge. The smell of cigarette smoke eked out in a haze. There were lights dancing down the hall, shadows moving, and the thick stench of sweat and something else wafted out in warm breezes. Two copies worked on the door, repairing the hinge and securing it closed.
“Wh-?” I couldn’t even ask before the girl cut me off, shaking her head and pressing a finger to my lips definitively. I nodded. Some doors were meant to be closed.
Suddenly, a beeping brought all the copies to a halt. They ran back to the center, the circle of books and pillows, some puffing into smoke gleefully before diving in. In only a moment, only one girl remained. She curled up in her circle, pulling her book back to her nose and grinning. Without looking at me, she patted a pillow and threw it just outside her circle. I walked over and took a seat on the pillow, leaning up against the wall and looking into her beautiful mellow-blue eyes.
“I have to stay out here?”
She didn’t look up from her book, just nodded.
“Are you alone here?”
“Do I just sit here?”
She let out an annoyed sigh, picking up and tossing a book my way. I picked it up.
“Should I leave?”
She nodded towards a door that I had not seen earlier, a neon red EXIT sign blinked above it, then shrugged.
“I think I’ll stay, if it’s all the same with you.’
“I’ve been here for a while, you know?” My stomach growled.
She sighed again, then pointed one finger beside me. I turned. A plate had appeared, a batch of fresh cookies steaming on it. I grabbed one and bit in, savoring the sweetness of it.
She said nothing, so I threw a cookie at her. She let it smack her chest, then picked it up and popped it into her mouth, chewing slowly.
Seeing nothing more to do, I took the book and flipped open to the first page.
David Wong? What kind of made up, bullshit name is that?
Solving the following riddle with reveal the awful secret behind the universe-