Charlotte stumbled upon it quite accidentally. Lifting herself off the sidewalk, she examined her hands for scrapes and cuts. Bright speckles dotted her flesh. She made a silent vow to scold the owner of the disintegrating doorstep she had just tripped over on her way to the bus stop. The screech of brakes and the swooshing sigh of the bus door told her she had missed her ride. She sighed, swiped at her dusty knees, and gazed at the sign above the shop.
Oh, I might as well, she thought. I’ve got nothing better to do.
The bell above the door rang, but stopped halfway through its swing. It hung slightly under perpendicular, giving the appearance of a dangling apple.
Or a broken neck. she decided, cracking her own from side to side and scanning the store for the manager with the dangerous threshold.
Wonder stopped her. If the vanilla-almond scent of aging paper hadn’t caught her attention, the stacks and stacks of leather and cardboard bound tomes did. One their sides, standing like soldiers, or propped to brace others, books of all heights, widths, and thicknesses filled the shelves inside, on top, and next to. If her stinging hand wasn’t reminding her of reality, she might have thought she had entered another world.
“Hello?” she called.
A raspy cough and an “oomph” answered her. From behind the counter, a man straightened himself as much as his rounded spine allowed and rubbed the back of his balding head. He straightened his wire-rimmed glasses and squinted through the peace-sign crack in the right lens and the diagonal one in the left. “Help you?” he croaked as if the may-I stuck in his phlegmy throat.
“Your step outside…”
“Yes, yes,” he said, waving away her unfinished complaint. “Happens all the time. People not watching where they are going. Rushing here and there.”
“Trying to get to the bus stop,” she proffered.
“That too! Blasted reroute! Why can’t they have left my corner alone and kept the stop on Third and Branch?”
“Either way you should…”
“Yes, well, that isn’t a cheap endeavor, my girl. What brings you in?”
“This!” She lifted her hand now covered with spreading bloody drips.
“Oh!” he cried.
She scowled at the rustling beneath the counter. He shuffled out with a stained rag in his hands. She recoiled, wondering what infectious disease riddled the cloth. But, her mouth dropped open as the man crouched on the floor and dabbed a crimson stain still wet on the grimy floor.
“What do you mean coming in here dripping yourself everywhere?”
“I mean to…” What did she mean to do? What could be done at this point, except… “use your washroom.”
“End of the hall to the right. Put pressure on it.”
“Yes, I know.”
“So, you keep it from dripping on my floor.”
She stifled a response and headed as he’d directed. Hearing a scraping noise behind her, she glanced back. He was still working the spot. She noted her footprints in the dust.
After rinsing her hand in the iron-stained sink and wrapping it with a stiff paper towel, she re-entered the shop. The owner was scuffling somewhere amidst the stacks. Not wanting to reengage and hoping to catch the next bus, she called out an unfelt, “Thank you.” She adjusted her grip on the paper towel and grasped the antique brass doorknob.
Though she figured it was a vain attempt at control, she gripped the doorknob harder. He peered around the third shelf from the door. “No admittance without purchase.”
“No admittance without purchase.”
“I simply came in because I missed my bus and…”
“Used the facilities.”
“Because I tripped on your bloody step!”
“Watch where you’re going next time.”
“Next time I’m taking my own reroute. The least you could do is let me use your washroom after I injured my hand.”
“The least you could do is peruse the shelf and put a few coffers in my till for bothering me during inventory.”
“What’s the point of doing inventory if you have an empty till?”
He considered for a moment, clicking his dentures. “No admittance without purchase.”
“Ugh! I haven’t got time.”
“That’s the trouble. No one does. No one has time for the simple pleasure of sitting in a chair, turning the pages of a book, and enjoying a cup of tea.”
“You may have books filled with pages, but I don’t see a chair or a tea kettle.”
He pointed an arthritic finger to something behind her. She twisted the knob slightly as she turned her head. In the corner near the smeared window stood a red brocade chair and a side table with a steaming rosebud teapot and matching cup.
“Look, I really…”
“No admittance without purchase.”
“All right. One cup.”
She released the doorknob, readjusted her scratchy dressing, and made a dramatic flounce on the chair. A plume of dust enveloped her and sent her into a coughing fit. While she recovered, the man ambled his way over to her. He poured her tea—steeped to perfection, she noticed—and slid a three-legged stool in front of her. The stool wobbled as he balanced his stooped frame. She made a move to switch places, but he held up his hand in protest and nodded to her cup. He lifted a small stack of books onto his lap.
“Which one?” he asked.
She surveyed the titles. She knew them. She’d read them on her phone or her electronic reader while riding the bus. She’d liked them. Mostly. But, while their structure, character development, and themes were strong, she didn’t want to live in those worlds. She didn’t want to worry about places like this one becoming obsolete because all the books were burned. She didn’t want a regressive, repressive life with reduced rights, where she might be forced to walk in pairs and birth children for others. She didn’t want to consider the possibility that a lottery casting children into a survival war with one another could save their families and assure them of daily bread. She certainly didn’t want a world redeemed by the impossible: magical beasts, child warlocks, and resurrected wizards.
She wanted something possible.
“Been there, done that,” she said.
“Hmm…you looked like the type. Never fear,” he said, “I have just the thing.”
He hobbled away and returned with a volume in trademark, Harvard-Classic binding. “More to your liking?”
She fingered the cloth-woven cover, lifted it, fanned the leaves, rested her nose in the bindings’ crease, inhaled. She knew the title and author before reading it. “Yes. Much better.”
“I’ll leave you to it,” he said.
She curled herself into the chair. “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”
But, she did as her eyes walked over lines and phrases that returned to her like a long-lost friend. She survived with Jane the frightening night in the red room, the destitution of Lowood, the loss of her best friend Helen, and then the redemptive exodus only to find herself at mysterious Thornfield with its roaming lunatic, winsome orphan, and burdened master.
“Reader, I married him.” In that moment, Charlotte as Jane did, too.
She closed the book, sighed, and laid her head against the cushion.
“Closing time,” said the shopkeeper.
She raised herself from the chair and made her way to the stacks. Finding the right one, she followed the sequence to the correct letter. She drew back. In the place where a gap for the volume in her hand should be was an exact copy. She slipped it from the shelf and compared them. Tucking the volume she had just consumed under her arm, she cracked open its twin and did as she had done with the first. It even smelled the same. Baffled, she shook her head and turned back to the shelf to put the book back in its place. Yet, there was no gap. A third volume of the same everything filled it as if nothing had been removed.
“No admittance without purchase.” The old man stood at the end of the row, a smirk lifting his peace-sign-covered eye into a wink.
“But, I can’t put these back,” she said.
“No, you never can.”
“They’ve been purchased.”
“How? I never gave you money.”
“That isn’t the rate of exchange, my dear.”
“I don’t understand.”
She looked at the volumes in her hands. The words returned and scurried through her like a speed-read. Though nothing was skimmed or skipped. The mossy, fusty smell of moor permeated the room.
“No admittance without purchase,” she murmured.
“And now you have,” he concurred.
“But, this one…”
“You’ll know what to do with it.” He checked his pocket watch. “Closing time,” he said and clicked the watch lid down like a snap.
She didn’t remember grasping the ancient brass doorknob, yet here she was back on the broken sidewalk. Someone bumped her from behind. She was in the bustle of the crowd, shifting to somewhere in a blinding hurry. They all missed it—the spot where she had tripped in front of the store. No one fell.
Then suddenly, someone did. Almost. By instinct, she caught him, the book—which one? Hers or the one from the shelf?—pressed to his chest. His hand covered hers as he straightened. She eased her hand away until he held the cover on his own. His gaze was dazed as he looked at her, tried to process what had almost happened. She smiled at his decidedly homely face. Yet, it felt homey with all the scars of living seeping through the natural signs of age and—maybe—the creases of an inadvertent smile or two.
“Charlotte,” she said, extended her freed hand.
“Edward,” he replied, keeping the book over his heart while taking her hand with the other. She tried, but couldn’t stop staring at his fire-scarred flesh. “My name is Edward.”