“I thought there would be cool stuff here, not just books. I expected like a frog that could predict the future or something.”
Jack didn’t even bring shoes with him on the raft; that was Stephen’s idea. “We don’t want to have to keep track of these on the river,” he had said. “You’d be too worried that they would fall off into the water.”
Stephen was up ahead, at the front of the raft, wielding a long stick that he was using to help push their vessel forward. He stood with a wide stance to keep his pant-legs from unrolling.
Jack adjusted the hand-made wooden rudder slightly.
Their raft was make-shift and shabby. Kept together by random assortments of rope, scrapyard junk, and naïve faith. “We’re not going to find it,” Jack said.
“Oh we’ll find it; my grandpa knows what he is talking about.”
“Or he made it up.”
“Nah, the place is real. You’ll see. There’ll be books galore, and a crazy old lady. He said that. So I know,” Stephen wiped his forehead.
As their raft crept along the calm river, Jack took notice of algae coating the surface. It was beginning to look more like a swamp. The sun was masked somewhere above all the fog—which had seemed to roll in from nowhere. The river widened to the point where Jack could no longer see the bank on either side.
Up ahead they could make out the shrouded shape of a cabin, and maybe a dock. “See,” Stephen said with a triumphant grin and a jubilant hand gesture. “There it is. I think.”
“Well I guess it could be some guy’s house.”
“Then we can’t go in.” Jack stood up and took off his baseball cap.
“Or it could be totally magic and we could find some cool stuff or cool things or cool junk.”
The closer they got to the cabin the more detail they could make out. It did indeed have a dock attached to it, but no boats were tied up. It looked old and battered, as if just looking at it wrong would cause it to buckle and fall apart. Jack figured that their raft would look right at home there. The place quite honestly seemed abandoned.
Jack grabbed the bike tire that they had tied to a rope and got ready to hook it over a post on the dock. Stephen used his stick to position them as close to a post as possible. Once the raft was secured they stepped foot upon the dock.
It creaked beneath their bare feet, and Jack worried that they might get splinters. “Doesn’t look like much,” Jack said. “There’s nothing in there I bet.”
“Nah dude its magic. It’ll be like one of those things. Y’know. Big and huge on the inside and small and little on the outside.” Stephen went ahead and opened the screen door in front of them and entered. Jack stood on the deck, waiting to see if he should go in. He stood there for a minute before Stephen poked his head back out. “Jack, I was right, come in. I swear. It’s awesome. And cool.”
So Jack stepped forward and followed Stephen into the cabin. Indeed, he was right. Amazing. It was just like he said. The inside was entirely different than he expected. It looked like a thrift shop that you would find on a small coastal town. Only instead of random knickknacks the shelves and counters were stacked with books.
There was an old lady with tired eyes and frilly hair staring at them from her glass front counter. She didn’t make a single move. All she did was place her hands firmly on the counter and stare.
Even though no other boats lined the docks outside there were probably about ten to fifteen other kids perusing the shop. Stephen had already chosen an aisle between some large bookcases and pored over the selection of books.
Jack began perusing too but wasn’t sure where to start. Every book seemed entirely unrelated to the books either side of it. A French dictionary next to Canary Row. An unbound paper copy of Sleepy Hollow stored between a September edition of a high school newspaper and a driver’s manual from Florida 1977. There was even a giant dusty tomb that just said “Book” on it.
The bookcases that lined the walls, much like the books themselves, made no effort to match the bookcases next to them. It had seemed that the owner had just taken in whatever shelving they could find and placed them along the walls haphazardly.
It was on a wide bookcase that something caught Jack’s eye. It was just lying there, cover facing upwards. Almost like somebody had just taken it out of the row of books and placed it on the edge of the shelf. Though it wasn’t a book exactly. It was bound by a plastic roll and had a green paper cover. Not to be confused with paperback. The cover was literally paper. The title was “Health Journal: Mrs. Van De Walle’s 2nd grade class.” Below the title was a line that had “Jack Hornsby” written in pencil.
Jack picked it up with wonder. “No way,” he muttered to himself. He leafed through the pages astonished that his second-grade health assignment had somehow found its way to the shelves of this library. Could it be that it was lost, and this is simply where lost books go? Could it be that this place had anything and everything that had ever been written tucked away somewhere? An infinite collection of anything written by humanity—available for checkout. Could it really? Stephen never said what kind of books they’d find except magic. And if so, if any book could be here then what were the odds that Jack would come across this journal, his journal, without any trouble?
Checking the books on the shelf he found a health journal written by Stephen as well. But not any others. There were twenty-odd kids in their second-grade class, yet only Stephen’s and his own assignments were on this shelf.
Jack sat down to browse the contents of the journal and leaned himself against a bookcase. Out of the corner of his eye he could see two younger boys in the corner. “These are dumb,” one of the boys said. “I thought there would be cool stuff here, not just books. I expected like a frog that could predict the future or something.”
His friend didn’t respond.
“I don’t even like reading,” the kid continued. Yet contrary to his word the kid picked up a book from a shelf—a thick one. He seemed surprised. Upon opening it he glued his eyes to the page and appeared catatonic. He didn’t move. It was as if he was absorbing the book through his eyes.
“Mac? Mac you okay?” his friend said.
But he didn’t move.
Jack placed his journal safely on the bookshelf behind him and made a quiet getaway. For a moment he wondered if he should return it to the actual bookshelf that he had found it on but figured that it maybe didn’t matter. In the first aisle he turned into he found Stephen flipping through a timeworn tomb that was labeled in a foreign text.
“What you got there?” Jack asked.
“It’s Egyptian,” he said. Then he furled his brow. “Or uh, the other one. In the Iraq.”
“No no, the older version, the one that is older than that.” Stephen said waving his hand.
“Like the Mesopotambians?”
“Yeah that one, I think.”
Jack stepped closer so that he could get a look at whatever resided on the pages. “Can you read it?”
“Nah. But it’s got pictures see.” Stephen offered half of the tomb to Jack; from it he could see crude sketches of small boats scattered between wedge like symbols. “Looks like maybe they had some rivers wherever this is. Could be something to make our raft better.”
“Yeah but, when are we ever gonna use the raft again? Other than sailing it home?”
He shrugged. “Iuno.” With that he closed the tomb causing a small cloud of dust to poof from the pages. Stephen slid the tomb back onto the shelf.
Jack opened his mouth as if to speak but reconsidered. After a pause he finally said, “I wanna go ask the lady at the front if they have any comic books…but”
“Careful, my grandpa says she’s crazy.”
“Yeah… so maybe not.”
“Well you shouldn’t let that stop you,” Stephen said. He was running his fingers along the shelves as they walked down the aisle. “You dunno what she knows. She could know a lot of comics.”
“But what if she tries to get me or something.”
“Then you run.”
Stephen led Jack by the hand. At the front desk the old woman stood exactly where she was before. Like a statue. Her eyes squinted and her wrinkled hands were placed firmly on the glass counter. When Jack approached her she turned her head towards him, and he could have sworn that he heard bones crack when she moved. She blinked and crumbs of some sort fell from the sides of her eyes to the floor.
Jack smiled at her hoping she might say something, but she remained silent. “Hello,” Jack said timidly. “I was wondering if…”
She squinted her eyes even more and shifted her jaw from either side making a harsh cracking sound.
“I was wondering if there was a section for comic books or something. Somewhere?”
The woman gritted her teeth.
“Like Spiderman, he’s my favorite.”
“No sections,” she said. Her voice was firm but hoarse. She spoke like she hadn’t drank water in years and her tongue had dried up.
“Well, uh. Can I find something like that?”
“You just have to look.”
“Okay, um, I’ll just go do that thanks.” Uneasy, Jack turned to retreat but Stephen had other ideas. He was standing directly next to him looking at the old woman and blocking Jack’s path. He had a starry-eyed gaze and jumped with excited speed to see over the counter.
“How old are you?” Stephen said eagerly.
Jack whispered shrilly into his ear, “What are you doing? Shut up. Shut up. She’s crazy, you said so.”
“Yeah but my grandpa wanted me to ask her something,” Stephen whispered back.
The lady mumbled a response. Presumably her jaw was so ancient that it couldn’t move more than a millimeter when she spoke. In the end she just said “Here.” And placed two cupcakes on the top of the counter. Where she got them from Jack hadn’t a guess.
The cupcakes had identically placed pink frosting, and Stephen instantly picked one up.
“Hold on. Dude. Don’t eat that. You’ll be turned into a talking book or something.”
“It’ll be fine.”
“Didn’t your grandpa say something about not eating food she gives you?”
“As a matter of fact he didn’t. At all. Crazy people can make good cake too you know.” He smiled stupidly at Jack and took a bite. “See, it’s delicious.” Stephen took a second bite.
“Well, you’re an idiot. Look, it’s already doing something weird.”
“No it isn’t.”
Jack pointed to Stephen’s legs. “Yeah, right there.” Stephen’s pant legs were still rolled up, but his leg hair had grown long and dark blue.
“Aw damnit.” He covered his mouth quickly and looked from side to side. “Suppose I can just shave that off?”
“I dunno, is it your whole leg or just the hair?”
“Let me check.” Stephen pulled back the long blue hair to reveal that the skin underneath had turned a bright shade of blue. As well his toenails had become a dark purple and grown to become claw-like. “Uh oh.”
“I told you so man.” Jack turned to the lady. “Is this like a curse? Is there a cure or something?”
“He doesn’t have to kiss me does he?” Stephen said.
The lady smiled, and when she did so Jack could hear her skin cracking as her face shifted. She lifted her shoulders slightly in what may have been a shrug.
“Well now what?” said Stephen. “Is this just how this is now? I guess I can just never wear shorts again or something.”
“Wait. Well. I mean. Shit dude I dunno. Maybe we can find a book here that will have some sort of, information on this. Blue leg syndrome or whatever.”
“Sure okay. But it seems pretty near impossible to find anything on purpose here.” Stephen threw his hands up in the air and began walking towards some bookshelves. “And we don’t even know what to look for!”
So Jack began searching through the many books that lined the shelves of the store. He made sure to stay near Stephen who kept tugging at his leg hair trying to rip it off. Stephen seemed more frazzled than focused so Jack had to do most of the research.
Most of the books they found either had nothing to do with what they were looking for, or nothing to do with anything at all. “Pumpkins: Underpants or Overpants?” one was titled. It was large and dusty and heavier than Jack had thought. He turned to Stephen to show him but stumbled and dropped it to the floor. When it collided with the ground the letters in the titles scrambled and the name changed to “Pond Vapors. Murkiness. Puns. Pattern?” Jack then placed it back on the bookshelf.
Together they spent about half an hour scanning book titles to find anything that might be useful. But nothing was making sense.
“This is pointless!” Stephen said. “We’re not going to find anything. This place has no order, no organization. And I keep almost tripping over my leg hair!” The blue hair had grown so long that it dragged on the floor as he walked.
“Well what else can we do? It’s not like we can ask that lady for help. She’ll just pull some other weird trick. And I haven’t seen any other employees here.”
“Maybe I’ll just live here. Who knows it might not be that bad. I’d have plenty of reading material to pass the time.”
“Don’t talk like that.”
“And who knows, maybe my whole body will become blue and hairy. I’ll just turn into a blue monkey man, like that guy.” He pointed off behind Jack. “Except, you know, I’ll be blue.”
“What?” Jack turned around to see what he was pointing at. It was a chimpanzee walking upright on two legs toddling down the aisle. The chimp saw a pamphlet that Stephen had thrown on the floor and banged his palms against the ground. He then picked it up and placed it firmly back on the shelf.
Jack considered the chimpanzee for a moment and then reached for a book from the shelf directly next to him. He set it down on the ground. The chimp looked at Jack and then at the book. He slowly walked over and slapped the book with his palm and then gripped it. Then he held the book above his head and hopped from foot to foot doing a small dance before he placed the book back on the shelf.
As he began to walk away Jack put a hand on his shoulder. “Excuse me, do you work here?”
“Dude, it’s not gonna say anything,” Stephen said.
The chimp stared at Jack and licked the inside of his right nostril.
“Well, anyways. You wouldn’t happen to know where we could find any information about—“ Jack gestured toward Stephen’s legs.
“Ohhg,” the chimp said while looking from side to side.
“Great,” Stephen said. “We just gotta find the ‘ooh’ section.”
“Shutup.” Jack plucked a strand of blue hair from Stephen.”
He handed the hair to the chimp, who took it in his palm and examined it. Then without warning the chimp ate the hair.
“Well, I think it’s safe to say he doesn’t know where to look,” said Stephen. “Which makes him just like us.”
“Hold on, gimme one last chance here.” Jack cleared his throat. “Mr. Chimpanzee—or Ms. I guess—would you kindly… hey where are you going?” Jack watched as the chimpanzee began climbing the bookshelf to their right and leaped over the top. “Follow him!”
Jack chased after the chimp with Stephen close behind. The chimp was swinging from shadowy rafters; they were covered in a dark mist so it appeared as if the chimp was grabbing onto nothing. Jack struggled to dodge book-carts and small children who were strewn throughout the many hallways between shelves.
He turned around to see if Stephen was still behind him. Panic struck when he realized that he wasn’t there.
A secondary wave of panic came when he realized that he had no discernable way of knowing where in the store he was. It wasn’t that everything looked exactly the same, it was that everything looked the same version of completely random. The bookcase in front of him had several peeled off labels for lemonade bottles and a collection of stickers that each had a variation of “Get well” written on them. He picked up one sticker and sighed.
“Jack!?” Stephen’s voice came. “Jack where’d you go?”
Jack looked around but still didn’t see Stephen. “Where are you?”
After that. No more Stephen. His voice had disappeared into the labyrinth of books. Jack ran madly, looking for anything and nothing. He was in the center of nowhere. All the possibilities of stories and books in the world but no map for where he was supposed to be going.
Jack fell to his knees and began crying. He nested his fingers in his hair and pulled, hoping to remove his brain so that maybe he could be granted a better one. A smarter one. A safer one. Overhead a chimp swung across a series of shadowy bars. And up ahead, in the direction the chimp was heading was the crazy old lady. She was floating in the air and staring at him.
Tears fled from Jack’s eyes. He had never been more scared in his life. Still hovering, she quickly and frantically pulled herself along the bookshelves toward him at terrifying speed. Her visage became translucent and ghostly. She cackled a groggy wail.
Everything in Jack’s body told him to run. To get as far away as possible. To hide. But somewhere else something was telling him he could do it. He could take her. The odds were one hundred to one but maybe…
Jack stood himself up and rolled his pant legs up. He stood strong barefoot in the aisle. He puffed his chest out as much as he could—and he screamed. But he never ran.
Her shadowy terror rushed closer and closer. An intense wind gushed past Jack’s defensive stance. He could see the ancient civilizations of fungus growing in each of her stony wrinkles. Her cackle grew louder and Jack could see the faces of a million screaming children reaching out from her abyss of a mouth.
Then she finally reached him. Jack was ready to be knocked right over and fall into the darkness. But he found himself grounded. Unmoved. And the crazy old woman… where was she? He looked around. Spinning to check each direction over and over again, Jack realized he couldn’t see her anywhere. As he spun, he knocked the shelf next to him. A sleek leather book fell to the floor.
With consideration, Jack picked the book up and opened to a random page. It was colored and everything. Blue. Blue hairy legs. There were a thousand languages printed in a list below the painted image. It didn’t take long for his eyes to spot English. “Clap. Three,” it read.
When he dropped the book down slightly to see over it, he found that his friend had returned to him. Where had he come from? He and his blue legs were dangling from a shelf. It appeared as if he was trying to climb down. “That was incredible!”
Jack looked back from the book to Stephen several times and then set the book down. He clapped his hands three times in a row. At the end of the third clap all the hair fell from Stephen’s legs. The hair assembled on the ground into words. It read, “Older than you.”
“Woah,” Stephen said. He rubbed his legs. “Smooth.”
“We should,” Jack began saying.
“Get out of here maybe?” Stephen offered. He looked from side to side. “Which way?”
Jack didn’t know the answer. But it didn’t matter. “I say this way,” Jack said, pointing a random direction.
“How do you know that’s right?”
“It’s right. And when we get out, I want to show you something,” Jack said. He walked confidently down the aisle. Sure enough in the distance he could see the exit door. Or entrance, depending on the side. “My dad told me about this place on the other way of the river that might be fun to explore.”
“Oh yeah?” Stephen said.
“It’s upstream though. So I hope you’re ready to paddle.”
Written by Adam McDonald