A "Luminations" Story
Start at the beginning of the Luminations series
"She immediately stepped into the wardrobe and got in among the coats and rubbed her face against them, leaving the door open, of course, because she knew that it is very foolish to shut oneself into any wardrobe. Soon she went further in and found that there was a second row of coats hanging up behind the first one. It was almost quite dark in there and she kept her arms stretched out in front of her so as not to bump her face into the back of the wardrobe. She took a step further in – then two or three steps – always expecting to feel woodwork against the tips of her fingers. But she could not feel it." -C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe
My store's opening day was a celebration. The city councilman from my ward stopped in to wish me well with my new business, dozens of locals poked their heads in to check the place out, my friends came by with congratulatory cupcakes, and I even sold some books. Until this moment, the designations I'd sought for myself… businesswoman, entrepreneur… had remained ephemeral, just out of reach. Now it was all real.
Gaslight Books was off and running, and at closing time I said goodbye to Nate and Em and prepared for a night of working late. The paperwork involved in running a retail store was already daunting to me. Selling my books online was much easier. Now there were sales taxes and inventory procedures, not to mention cleaning up some of the mess left behind by my opening-day crowd.
"See ya, Nancy! You done good!" Em had helped out all day, taking care of errands and going with Nate on a run for some last-minute supplies.
I hugged Em and Nate each in turn and locked the front door behind them, checking for the third time to make sure the sign was flipped to the "closed" position.
Back at my desk I used the store phone to order Chinese. I wanted to get work done, so I ordered it for delivery. Besides, it was starting to rain and the wind was whipping around the buildings of downtown Worcester with a vengeance. Opening day had been sunny, almost mild, so I couldn't complain about it holding off until I was closed. It was a typical New England February, which meant that you never knew what to expect from Mother Nature.
I was having a hard time keeping focussed on just one task. I was shifting from the computer back to my notebooks and ledgers, and back to the pile of used books I'd bought. That was going to be one of the difficulties. Everyone has a pile of dusty paperbacks, and when a new store opens up in town, the first thing some people think about is trading in those books to make a buck or two. And there's more to it than simple economics. You have to buy low to make any money, of course. I'm paying a quarter for a paperback, and that's if it's one I think I need. The problem is that you also want to keep a good rep with the customer, even if she's not actually spending any money on that particular day. The goal is to be "the nice girl who runs the bookstore down the corner" and not "that cheap bitch" when the customer talks to her friends. But there are limits. Series romance novels, for example. I've got more of the things than I could sell in this lifetime, even if I devoted the whole store to them. And that's not something I'm about to do. Not while I've got a shot at the best selection of vintage SF this side of Pandemonium Books over in Cambridge.
Around noon a woman had come in with a pile of kids' books and some beat-up Harlequins and there didn't look like much in the bag I could sell, but I could see she needed the cash, and I'd just made some sales. I bought a boxed set of the paperback editions of C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia from her and a stack of picture books. I sent her home with a few dollars and her romance novels. As I said, the line has to be drawn somewhere.
I was just finishing cataloging the new purchases when the delivery guy arrived with my curry chicken and onions. I settled in to check my online sales while I ate and ended up chatting with Em, who was back home by now. I was liking the new computer and the DSL connection, and I had to remind myself to catch the late bus home. Staying overnight at the store was fine when I was setting things up, but now I had to be showered and presentable for my customers in the morning. This would take some getting used to.
I closed up the cartons of rice and chicken and put them back in the bag to take home. The curry smell lingered around me as I gathered up the books to shelve them.
The children's' section is all the way toward the back wall, and the lights were out except for the one at my desk. I grabbed the penlight I keep in my purse, rather than go all the way to the back room to switch all the power back on at the circuit breaker box. I'd only need the light to read the titles and authors on the shelves. I can walk the layout of my store blind. It's a point of pride and the result of a good deal of practice on those late nights I'd spent working on getting the place ready to open.
Smiling to myself, I shut my eyes and paced my way to the children's section. Sure enough, I knelt slowly, switched on the light, opened my eyes, and there were Bridge to Terabithia and The Westing Game, and a dozen other favorites of years past. I resisted the temptation to plant myself down there and read some cherished passages in the dim light of my little battery-powered candlestick.
"Work to do," I reminded myself. "Bus to catch."
The crack of the back door splintering open came so suddenly that for at least a second my only reaction was dumb disbelief, and by the time my instincts caught enough to scream, the rational side won out and forced me to keep silent.
A second later the power in the shop went out, leaving me in a tiny puddle of light that I knew would give me away if I allowed it to linger.
I was staring right at the penlight, clutching it as I flicked it off. Orange spots faded before my eyes as the darkness closed around me.
There was silence. It just went on and on. It went on for so long that I started to consider that maybe the intruder was gone. Some street person had kicked in the door and cut the lights and then grabbed some piece of junk he though he could hock from the back room and he was gone. Out into the night he'd come from.
Except that if you're just going to grab something, you don't bother cutting the lights, do you?
The front door had to be unlocked with a key. The key was in my purse. My purse was on my desk behind the counter, so I'd need to get around it, then get back out from behind there with the key. Very rapidly my mind played out a series of schemes that involved scrambling and jumping onto the counter to snatch the keys and then a leap or a vault back over to the door and escape. Each little sequence ended the same way: With me down on my fat ass and the guy's claws (he had claws; every time he had claws) in my hair, tearing into my face.
If you make a noise when you're hunting, you'll spook your prey. Then you need to lay low, keep quiet until, stay patient.
I needed to move. I was at a dead-end in my little maze. The bookshelves were taller than me, and the ones over in this corner of the store were a little bit shaky. Crappy workmanship from the first shipment I'd received before I decided that when you buy cheap you get exactly what you pay for. The shelf pegs were too loose and the particle board was slightly warped. I'd cancelled the rest of that order, but the shelves that were already assembled stayed in place. I was planning to replace them once I turned a profit. I was thinking about all of this because I wouldn't have to move until I was done thinking about it. But I had to move.
There was still a stack of books tucked under my left arm. I was shaking. I reached out and set the books down. The floor has a non-stick carpet that I'd been assured was easy to clean, and that I was hoping for dear life would muffle sound.
I started forward on my hands and knees. The skirt wasn't helping matters, but I took it slow, silent. My left hand traced the bottom of the bookshelves seeking the gap between history and poetry that would lead into science fiction and fantasy and philosophy and occult and horror and the passageway back to the front of the store.
My knees started to ache almost immediately. Kneeling always hurt. As a kid I came to associate going to Mass with pain. It made for a remarkably Catholic outlook, all things considered. I found the gap, turned, crept forward.
There was light from the store windows now, but only a little. The nearest streetlight was down the block, and storm was still going strong outside. I stopped to let my eyes adjust and shifted forward to the next gap in the shelves.
He was standing behind the register, a shape, a looming jagged column of shadow clinging back to the wall, barely perceptible. He'd moved from the back room up to the front while I'd been holding my breath and straining to hear, and he had not made a sound. Just some street person… Yeah, right.
My mind started playing video clips again, my own personal little Youtube where every song ended with his claws. I was hearing them rip into my neck now, and the only thing that finally interrupted the stream of visions was the realization that something smelled in the store. I was smelling it over the curry, so it was strong, but I couldn't identify it except that it smelled wet and cold and animal.
There was nowhere I could go and I was losing my nerve. I backed up, my aching knees retracing each step as I slowly backed into the darkness.
I passed back through the gap into my little realm of fairy tales and picture books, and found myself wishing for the darkness to swallow me into a passage to Narnia or to anyplace but here. Last year, two friends I'd known since high school went looking for the passage to the Other World. One of them died. The other might have been better off if she'd died too. But at that moment, there wasn't a fate I wouldn't take over having to face this shadow that had burst uninvited into my domain.
My knee came down on the stack of picture books I'd put down, and they slipped and I lost my balance.
Instinct took over. My hand shot up to grab something to stop my fall. I caught a grip on one of the shelves and my weight pulled the shelf pegs loose.
I watched the shelves crash down like dominoes, showering me with picture books and fairy tales.
I tried to be ready to fight. I don't know how to fight. I was in a fight once in third grade and I got a bloody lip. The attack didn't come, but the silence was gone. There was a scratching sound, the sound of a thin blade cutting into wood.
He didn't care that I was here. I was no threat to him and we both knew it. He'd get to me when it was time.
I started to pick myself up. I wasn't so concerned about silence anymore, but I kept to the shadows, still hoping for someplace to retreat to, safe from harm.
I retraced my steps to get to a vantage point where I could see the man in the shadows.
There was a light. A brilliant spot of red that swept like a single narrow eye.
Laser pointer. Or a laser sight on a gun. Movies again. The Terminator. I wanted that voice: "Come with me if you want to live." There was only silence.
I wanted to live.
The spot from the laser traced patterns on my wall rapidly scrawling circles and triangles that lingered before my eyes as I watched them. He was marking the store, maybe marking me as I watched, unable or unwilling to avert my eyes.
I could accept this, I suddenly realized. Whatever mark was placed on my domain I could wear in blood and wounds on my skin if need be because this store, this domain, it was me. I'd dreamed too long and hard to flee now, and with that realization the fear was replaced by anger.
This shadow was in my domain, marking it in the manner of a dog. I wouldn't show him fear.
I needed a weapon. I sank back into the shadows, moving quickly now, tracing the maze I had memorized toward the front corner near the window. He was moving too. I wasn't sure how I knew it, but I ducked around a wall of shelves and doubled back. However swift and silent he was, this was still my maze, my realm.
I felt his presence closing in behind me, but I'd reached my goal. I pulled up and back, snapping the fire extinguisher free of the little straps that secured it to an alcove in the corner up by the front of the store.
I spun. I'd never used a fire extinguisher. I'd grabbed it, thinking I'd swing it like a club, unlikely to be effective, but maybe better than my fists alone. As I turned, my hands smoothly pulled the pin and slipped into position on the hose and grip. I tensed my grip to squeeze.
I faced only the darkness of my domain. There was the slightest hint of movement from the back room and then the lights came back on. The bastard stopped to switch the power back on before he left. It was a gesture of contempt, of arrogance, or I dared hope maybe of bravado.
Maybe he'd done whatever kind of work he had come for.
But maybe he'd backed down with the task unfinished. Just possibly, he'd found me willing to stand and defend my domain.
I fixed my eyes on the entrance to the back room as I walked over to the counter, reached for the phone and called 911. I managed to tell them the address and to convey something about a break-in, and I don't remember much else between when I stopped talking into the phone and when the police found me.
There was little they could do, of course. I put the story into terms they could understand, and the only evidence they could find was the smashed-in back door, and one of the cops speculated loudly that it was probably a bum or a junkie, and the others nodded because they all know how this neighborhood has gone downhill in the last few years. And now that they were here I was calm and coherent.
I didn't show them the little set of symbols carved in the underside of my desk. A nice policewoman gave me a ride home because I'd missed the last bus and I had to be showered and presentable in the morning for my customers.
Story and Image by Rick Silva, Copyright 2007