June 4th, 2022
It’s very important for me to remember I’ve been working at Treasure Island Books on Penn Ave for one year, three months, and seventeen days. There’s a mural on the side where everyone holds up multiple colors of books and my boss had to change it, because originally everyone had red books and the neighbors complained that it looked too Maoist. On the first day, I was wearing my short shorts with the lace at the hem and a chunky sweater because I didn’t know how warm or cold it would be in the store all day, so I decided to be wrong no matter what. I know that happened because I was there, no matter what that twerp skulking in the graphic novel section tells me.
I should back up. Everyone tells me I get ahead of myself. That’s why I took this job. I wanted a nice, quiet line of work where I could be friendly without any incentive for promotion, and that’s what I got. See, I learned after burning out before making partner at Williams-Schecht, but then this guy comes in and tells me that’s not true. He said I cast a spell that consumed all of my life force, when he and I were trapped in a magical world together.
Let me describe this guy. He’s somewhere in short king territory, 5’6” if I’m generous. King if I’m lying. Maybe 25, so about ten years younger than me. He wears a short-sleeved white dress shirt that dangles off his shoulders and has a buzz cut even though his hairline looks like it’s perfectly good. Every time he comes up to talk to me, he takes a deep breath.
The first time I was nice, and he just asked a lot of questions about my life. What I’m up to, whether I’m happy. Stuff like that. I deflected as much as I could, and it seemed like he didn’t notice that he wasn’t getting any real answers. It was only after a little bit of that, which I took for inept flirting, that he drops the whole transported-to-another-world deal.
According to him, we were the only two people on the bus when lightning struck, and crackled along the windows, the pull line, arcing from seat to seat, the works. The windows all went bright white, like the sun was on the road next to us, and we woke up in a pile of smoking wreckage in the middle of the forest. I asked him when this happened, and he told me it was August 10th. I told him I worked that day, and the day after that, so obviously I wasn’t in the forest with him. He waved that off with something about a great sacrifice to return to this world, something about lost time, something about surrendered memories. According to him we fought a horrific battle together that only the two of us could have won; I didn’t think I would be particularly valuable in a battle, but he told me that power was different in the other world.
He scampered away after that. He didn’t want to overwhelm me, and didn’t realize how far he was from achieving that. A couple days went by and then he came back today. Before he went on a spiel or anything I asked him about the driver. He said what about the bus driver and I asked what happened to the bus driver, if we got transported so did he right?
The guy didn’t want to talk about it and blinked tears away and excused himself. Hopefully he doesn’t come back, but if he does, I guess I’ve got a way to make him cry. Always good to have an ace up my sleeve.
June 6th, 2022
Two days! That’s the only break I get from this guy, and only because I didn’t work yesterday. I’m sure he came in. If he does any more memory this, time that stuff, I can point right to the pages here. I remember everything. I wrote it down.
I guess he had enough time to think over the bus driver problem. He told me the three of us were looking through the forest, trying to find our way back to a road we couldn’t know was an entire reality away, when a monster with a hundred mouths and one elastic arm burst from the foliage. Later, we’d come up with names for these things and ways to fight them. Purple blood glimmering in the sunlight as it flicked off his enormous sword, the foul stench of barbecue after I summoned a terrific blaze to combat the beast. But right then, he said, we didn’t know anything, and the bus driver didn’t have a chance to learn because the monster grabbed him, spiked him against the ground, and set those numerous mouths on his body.
While the guy told me this, the blood drained from his face. Maybe he rehearsed it enough times that he actually believed it. After that he shuffled out of the store, and I forgot that I was planning to ban him today for creeping me out. It’s fine, I’ve always got pepper spray beneath the counter. I’ll show him a fire spell if he gets nasty.
Some days I used to feel like I was in the grip of a monster like that, like I was getting eaten up from all sides. Every moment of the day was another little nip, another massive chunk of flesh torn from my skeleton, and I’d stumble home with barely anything of me left. I’d get most of myself back over the night, but not all of me. So day by day by day by day I diminished into nothing.
Other days, the good ones, I felt like the monster. My reach was unlimited and I could do anything. The world was my oyster, and I would slurp it down into all my mouths. But then, I wasn’t myself either, I was just the monster.
June 8th, 2022
The guy didn’t come in yesterday or today. I wonder if he’s given up. The store got a big shipment of Sally Rooney’s new book. Bored people in bored conversations having bored sex. I feel like that too sometimes, as if gauze is laid over everything. If she keeps writing it, I’ll keep buying it.
June 9th, 2022
I spoke too soon, he came back today and he was worse than ever. Every time he comes in, he spends half an hour browsing the manga section before he comes up to talk to me, even though he never buys anything. We both know why he’s here.
I told my boss about him, and asked if I could ban him, but my boss is convinced that even if he’s not making purchases yet, we want to cultivate loyalty. I’m not holding my breath.
Today he talked about what happened after the monster. After I learned I could cast spells in that world– for fire, for healing, for whatever resided at the outermost limits of my imagination–and he accidentally lifted a huge rock and discovered his strength. I asked if he could lift a pallet of books we had in the back, but no, his power left him when we returned to the world. Convenient. He said we befriended some of the kingdoms in that world, and made enemies of others, and found ourselves ensnared in a war that benefited none of the participants, only some smiling face deep in the shadows.
When I challenged him directly and asked what anime he was lifting this all from, he got embarrassed and left. Hopefully calling his bluff finally keeps him from coming back. I think anime rots people’s brains in a way that even regular TV doesn’t. There’s so much emphasis on the regular guy who suddenly gets invested with some incredible power that these nerds spend their lives hoping for the same thing to happen to them. But it doesn’t.
June 10th, 2022
The morning was nice and quiet, and I spent it reading a Saramago book. The one about the cave. It made me cry like nothing ever makes me cry, so it was lucky no customers came in for a while. I thought I was home free from my lightweight stalker, but then he was there.
He described some people with weird names and our supposed relationships to them. I don’t know what he gets out of this. There was real sadness in his eyes when he described some of our friends who were killed in battle. Either he’s a gifted actor, or he actually believes this all happened, or I’m gullible. The idea of him believing this doesn’t make me feel any safer, though.
June 11th, 2022
He’s not here today, but I’m not holding my breath. My mom called the shop because she wanted to talk to me, but she couldn’t make it five minutes before asking if I was ever going to go back to being a lawyer. I told her I’d think about it, but I won’t. Instead, I thought about how we should reorganize the shop and intermix used books with new ones. Why not? A book is a book, and finding a good book only to realize it’s cheaper because it’s used would be a pleasant surprise for everyone. But no one else wants to do it and I’m not going to fight them about it.
June 12th, 2022
He’s back. I have to admit I’m getting curious about him, in the way you get curious about the crumpled chassis of a truck when you pass it on the highway. I googled the story he’s telling me, and there’s a lot of stuff similar to it. Mostly anime, like I thought, but nothing exactly matched it. Maybe he wrote it all himself, and is filling me into the empty spot where a woman is supposed to be in the story, in his life. That worries me, but he hasn’t shown up at my house or anything. Just the store. All the time. I can’t ban him because the owner won’t let me, and I can’t call the cops because he hasn’t done anything technically wrong, and also I don’t want them to shoot out the window because they got scared by their own reflections.
He blushed when he recounted his story today. We went on some kind of quest for a gem that would enhance my powers enough to end the war. I asked, if we had all these powers, how was our side losing? That got him kind of annoyed with me. I guess I missed something last time, where our allies had betrayed us in an attempt to win peace from the shadowy presence pulling the strings, who wanted to leech off our power. But our noble spirits didn’t allow us to just walk away and let them fight forever. We wanted enough power to end the war, to make fighting pointless forever. We were fools, he said.
June 15th, 2022
Honest to god I really thought he was gone this time. But no, he was working up his courage for his next move. I knew this one was coming. I knew it, I knew it, I knew it. My skin is still crawling. He described a night when we were on this quest, when we were camping out in a forest so thick with foliage that a patch of starlight seemed as bright as a sunbeam. I kindled a fire with my powers, and we stayed up all night talking. He told me about his life, and there were no surprises: lonely in grade school, lonely in high school, lonely as an adult. Parents that didn’t understand him, wanted him to be more confident and social and so on and so forth. A sob story where nothing sad actually happens. He always wanted to be strong, so strong that the bullies wouldn’t dare touch him, that he could impose his will on the world. But then, once he had his strength, he finally realized what it was for.
He recounted what I told him, and I was ready for a laugh. But then he talked about my father dying. The sickness that stole a little bit away from him every day until he could see anything and understand nothing. He told me about my first boyfriend, who convinced me I’d die without him and who I only left because I knew I’d die with him too. He told me that he’d fallen in love with me because I was a kind and gentle soul that faltered beneath the weight of the world.
I started throwing books at him to make him stop. I screamed at him for being a creep, for stalking me. How long has he been researching me, just to insert me into this little story of his?
It’s stupid that he’d expect me to believe that. I would never confess my secrets and woes to someone I barely know, and I hate the warmth of fire. Give me the crisp night air. Give me the silent weight on my shoulders.
June 16th, 2022
My mom couldn’t even focus on the question. She just kept talking about how much my dad wanted me to make something of my life. How disappointed he’d be if he found out I was a bookstore clerk. Not even a manager, just another worker. And it’s true. She’s right. Good thing he’s dead and can’t see me now so it doesn’t really matter. Eventually I got her to say that no one had asked about me, so that guy must have gotten his info somewhere else.
June 18th, 2022
He crept into the store with a smile on his face, and I knew exactly what he was thinking. In his dreams, I’d spent the last few days wondering how he knew all that, doubting my own reality, wondering what if… could it be? Nope. Fuck him. I threw a hardcover copy of Against the Day at him and the corner caught him right in the forehead and he ran away with blood trickling down his face like a river splitting up into distributaries.
All that bullshit about my kind and gentle soul. My mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother were all the meanest, toughest bitches I ever knew. One time I made a colleague cry for a mistake while writing up a contract. This guy wants to draft me into his fantasy about a wilting flower whose life he saved in fantasy-land. But that’s not me. I’m the fighter, not him.
But then, how did I end up here at the store? Didn’t I give up the fight? That job made me worse. Not tough, not assertive. Cruel. I finally looked in the mirror and ran out of the office one day. I don’t think that was gentle, or kind, or weak. I did it to survive. Because I don’t know how many more times I could have endured my reflection.
June 19th, 2022
I can’t believe he came back. With a stupid bandage on his forehead. He apologized for “startling me.” As if that was the problem. He stayed out of my throwing range, and my pepper spray would have uselessly spiced the air between us. This time, he wanted to tell me how it all ended.
I kicked up my feet and put in headphones, but didn’t turn any music on. The point was to make it seem like I wasn’t listening. Anything he had to say might clue me in to how he learned about me, or what kind of danger he had in store for me, so I couldn’t actually tune him out.
We fought the shadowy presence, another interloper in the world like we were. He’d been gathering power in some arcane way that meant we were no match for him. All of my spells, all of the creep’s strength amounted to nothing. With his impossible speed, the shadowy presence dealt me a mortal wound and I lay bleeding while the creep wailed in anguish. From there, he said, he found the inner strength to overcome the presence.
I asked why he didn’t find that strength before I got killed, if I was so important to him. What good is it to protect things after you’ve already lost them? He didn’t have an answer for that.
After his victory, he found the source of the shadowy presence’s incredible power: a breach in time, contained in a glowing orb, that allowed him to reconstitute himself and begin everything again. Luring people in and consuming them was all part of his plan. He brought it over to me and in my last moments of consciousness I used my magic to understand it, and how to destroy it. We’d each lose something when the breach closed and time stitched itself back together, healing over the wound in an instant like hungry skin. Each of us would be a scar, half-healed. But we did it. I cast the spell. I broke the orb. A pitch black conflagration wormed its way around both of us and drained the color from his eyes and soul until the creep could only see the void. Nothing, in any direction. And then, a white scratch like chalk, and another, and another, until the outline of a massive cathedral door towered above him. The door opened before he could touch it, and he recognized my warmth as it closed behind him.
The creep reappeared in this reality, the last two years of his life gone. Meanwhile, I got woven back into the fabric of the world seamlessly, and so lost my memory of all the time in the other world. That was this guy’s story.
The way he looked at me made me want to cry. He was hoping that this was the moment I regained my memory, that our time together was so important that even time itself couldn’t steal it from me completely.
I had to turn my back to him for a moment. To stay firm, to do what had to come next. I called my boss and told him I was quitting immediately. That very second. I promised to lock up, but recommended he send someone to open the shop back up if he didn’t want to miss the absence of an afternoon rush.
Unemployed again, I rose from behind the counter and walked toward the door. The creep followed me, which is what I wanted even though I also needed some time to wipe away the few tears that had escaped me.
We walked a few blocks down the street; he was a few steps behind me at all times. Maybe the idea of actually walking by my side was unthinkable to him after all this time stalking me. When we reached the alley next to the vintage store, where the two red brick buildings framed the view from the hilltop of the blue sky so bleached by heat that it was almost white, where everything was a silhouette against it.
I grabbed two fistfuls of that dorky button-up shirt and I shouted at him that I was tired of waiting for nothing to happen, tired of waiting for the other shoe to drop. I asked him to do whatever he was planning to do to me already, and when he did nothing and said nothing I kept shouting. The whole neighborhood heard about how my boss tied my hands, how they grew so used to being tied they forgot they’re for anything, but that I have my hands so they can grasp something. I didn’t know what, yet, and I still don’t know now.
There is something in the world that fits perfectly beneath the groove of my fingers; I know it by the swirling prints and rough calluses that await it. I quit that bookstore job not for the creep, and not for the law, but not for nothing either. Finally, effort burning my lungs, I shouted at the creep and told him he didn’t know me in his fantasy world or in the book store because I haven’t found anywhere that I exist yet.
He just smiled. A calm little grin so different than the nerves and stammering he’d managed in the bookstore. He smiled and said, “You know, Sophie, you’re right. I don’t know you.” With a wave goodbye, he walked off between the buildings, minuscule against the white sky that merged with his shirt, while the rest of his body stood dark against it like it had been cut out. I looked away, and back, and whether he took a turn, slipped into a road mirage, or just plain vanished, the alley was suddenly empty and I knew I’d never see him again.
June Martin is a writer and comic artist living in Oakland, CA. Her fiction has appeared in X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine, and New Session. Follow her work at http://www.theworldsgreatestwriter.com.