By Hannah Michnya
She wants to own the crumbling, sagging bookshop on the corner that likely boasts the largest and strangest collection of books in town. It smells of aging paper and leather and glue, and once let in great swaths of radiant sunshine. Now, it is dusty and dim due to the overflow of pages and spines covering the grandiose stained-glass windows. She has found comfort in its overwhelming impossibility of being conquered. She feels at home among the pages that tease her, warning her that she could not decode their secrets if she lived a hundred lifetimes. Books line the sad, drooping shelves; more still lay jumbled on the musty carpeted floor, some rest on windowsills; on pedestals, on chairs. There is damage to each of the books’ pages or covers or both, but no patron minds this small detail. A damaged book is far greater than no book at all.
She wants to be the person who owns all the damaged books. She wants to own the carpet, the shelves, the windows, and the till. She wants to be the person whose head cranes toward the door when the small bell chimes, signaling a new customer. She wants to wander between the rows and ask quietly—because the books ask for her reverence—if the browser needs any help finding anything particular. She wants to do it all herself, never hire another person, never consult with anyone about the property’s mortgage or profit margins or inventory.
She visits every day. There is such a wide assortment of employees—most of whom are incompetent or uninterested in the job--but they seldom recognize her as the regular that she is. She buys frequently one book at a time so as not to disrespect the hard work and mastery of the author and the integrity of the story. She devours whole books in one day occasionally as she perches precariously on the worn, pink, antique Victorian chair. She enters when the shop opens at 9:00 a.m. and leaves when it closes for the day at 6:00 p.m.
She wishes she had kept count. She figures over the past three years she has read at least a hundred books, but she wishes she knew the exact number. She wishes she could celebrate her one hundredth read, not with someone else, but with herself, among the thousands of books she has not yet and will never read. She wishes she could lock the door, stop the bell from chiming and sit on the floor surrounded by her treasure, and congratulate herself for making such an unnoticeable, yet magnificent, dent in the endless stack of words.
Someday, the bookshop will belong to her.
Someday, the smell of the paper will be hers to turn to whenever she pleases, even if it happens to be in the middle of the night, or the earliest hours of the morning.
A friend from university bought her the espresso machine many years ago. Though at the time it seemed an out-of-place, expensive gift to receive, she has since come to love and appreciate the tastes, and warmth it has brought into her life. More than once, she has made herself a deep, rich espresso, sweetened only with natural cocoa, poured it into her to-go cup, and carried it to the bookshop.
When she purchases the books and takes them home—instead of reading them in one sitting inside the shop—she makes the experience of reading while drinking ever more decadent. She pours the espresso into her finest China—a gift passed down for centuries, last from her great-aunt. She wraps her shoulders in the vintage knit blanket she bought from a rummage sale. She rests with her legs crossed comfortably on her sage green IKEA couch. These are her best days.
She lives in one of the country’s rainiest towns and she should not want more dreary, damp days, but she does. She wishes the sun would never show its vicious, stinging face, would always cower behind the dull grey curtain of the clouds. She wishes she had no responsibilities, nowhere to be, no one to answer to, so she could pass each of her remaining days drinking coffee and reading a book while the world outside was grey and damp.
The two women fit together well. Their bodies mix and twine perfectly. It is rare to find someone who can make the first night spent in bed together feel comfortable, feel familiar, and it is exalting when it happens. The hours spent in intimacy leave her flushed and humming with electricity, with song, with pleasure. It is rare to feel this way with a stranger, and rarer still to feel as happy as when reading and drinking coffee. Few occasions are equal to the gratification from sitting in the bookshop, immersed in a literary masterpiece, but she knows that she will have to add this encounter to the short list. Perhaps it will even be ranked first.
They fall asleep next to each other, not interlaced, not touching, but close. Their faces are separated by a few inches, their mouths both parted slightly, their hair splayed in matching messes. They dream of each other, of books and of beaches, of coffee and of cities.
In the morning, she wakes before her guest. With the clarity of the morning light, the pleasantness of the evening dulled from the confusion and fog of sleep, she regrets inviting the woman to stay the night. It is not the woman’s fault, but she would prefer to spend the day in the bookshop.
Resigned to be a kind bedmate and a generous host, she rolls carefully out of bed, and pads quietly to the large, open kitchen where she finds all the necessary ingredients for an indulgent breakfast for two.
Her dearest friend turns thirty soon. Having the largest and most lovely apartment, it is an unspoken agreement that she will host the dinner party. Her large inheritance, her abundance of time, and her penchant for cooking and baking make her the perfect candidate to throw the most exquisite thirtieth birthday party for the most worthy, kind-hearted friend.
And so she does.
Most of the food can be made the day-of, but the red velvet cake —her friend’s favorite—will take the longest and needs to be baked the day before. She will not be tacky, she refuses to draw a large 30 on the cake, or to personalize it. It will not say her friend’s name because it will not say anything. Cakes are not meant to be written on. Paper is.
It is 6:57pm, and her intercom rings once. She buzzes the caller in without bothering to ask who it is. The six friends assemble one or two at a time, until finally everone has arrived. A perfect host, she pours everyone drinks, makes those who have not visited her new apartment yet aware of where everything they may need is located.
The birthday girl and her husband; their other best friend from university and his new boyfriend that no one likes; and two friends of the birthday girl that she met after university all huddle around her impressive mahogany dining table by 8:00pm and dine on the unique meal she has meticulously put together for this night.
Presently, many conversations take place at once. Occasionally, they will all seven discuss one topic together. Other times, they will divide into groups, pairs, and talk about differing affairs. The university friend and his boyfriend are disagreeing—a bit too loudly—about their favorite artist’s newest record.
“I don’t know how many more times you need me to say it: I have no critique on the quality of the music! I’m just saying it’s not for everyone—not even for most of her fan base. I feel like she should be more aware of what her fans want to hear.” Her friend makes this argument as she listens intently and disagrees.
Plucking some of the points of contention from her mind before she can voice them herself, his boyfriend replies, “She’s not your personal music generator. She doesn’t owe you anything. If she wants to make an album that her fan base doesn’t like, that’s entirely her prerogative.”
“I’m not saying she can’t, I’m simply saying she shouldn’t,” her friend counters.
“Look, it’s just bad business! What else do you want me to say? She won’t make the same profits off this one as her last two.”
She interrupts just then to take the side of the boyfriend, though she is not sure why she chooses to do so. She has never liked him and does not plan to start. “Don’t you think she’s rich enough that she doesn’t need to consider profits anymore?”
“Sure,” her friend cedes, turning to face her, palms upturned in exasperation. “But the money would run out some time if she continuously made albums no one likes, yeah?”
The other four dinner guests have allowed their conversation to stop and are now observing the disagreement unfolding between their friends.
Her friend’s boyfriend continues: “Nah, she’ll be making royalties off her music until she dies. She knows that. She’s set for life.”
Both men realize they are being observed, ducks under glass. Blushing slightly, her university friend says, “Enough of our musical debates. Can we toast to Claire?”
He gestures his champagne glass in the birthday girl’s direction and smiles, all teeth. It is Claire’s turn to blush.
Her husband mimics the toasting gesture and bellows, “To thirty-year-old Claire!”
“To thirty-year-old Claire,” they all echo.
One of Claire’s friends from after university asks quietly, “Birthday speech?”
Claire’s husband clears his throat awkwardly before she can reply. He stands. Everyone, including Claire, is surprised.
“Actually, I’d like to do the honors, if I could?”
“Claire Doyle,” he clears his throat to dislodge the nervous, emotional husk. “Thirty will be your best year yet. Every year I’ve known you, you’ve only gotten better with time. I think everyone here can attest to that as well. And every year on my birthday, you always give me something special. You make me feel loved and cared for and understood. I’ve had a lot of time to return the favor, but I could never figure out how to do it like you. I actually don’t know how you always know what to do, what to give me.”
Claire’s face had turned from fresh pink to deep red. Tears brimmed in her eyes and threatened to spill, as he continued. “Anyway, this isn’t about me. I’m gonna get right to the point. You know how you told me you and your friends in university used to dream of owning bookstores? How you said you think someday when you retire, you’d buy a store and fill it with the coolest books you’d read up until that point? Okay, well. I did it.” Everyone waits for clarification. He pauses and looks at each person in turn, then looks at Claire. “I bought The End, the old bookstore down the street. I just thought it’d be perfect for you, baby. Maybe if the profits are good enough you can even retire early and you can have that dream. You can have what you’ve been wanting for years!”
Claire, now sobbing, is not looking at her husband. She has turned to her dearest friend, eyes conveying so many sentiments, none greater than “I’m sorry”. And the host, her dearest friend, breathing deeply, stuck still in shock, is looking icily back at her, eyes filled with sentiments as well, none greater than “How dare you.”
Three weeks passed. The Doyles signed the last of their paperwork, moved in officially as the new owners of The End. More customers have been visiting the shop since the new ownership was announced in the local newspaper. Mr. Doyle had given a quote for the column about how excited he was to “rip the stinky old carpet out” and “smash the failing bookshelves” to make way for better ones. Most patrons are glad for this promise of change, but she is fuming.
Three weeks passed, but they have not spoken. All that time, she could not bring herself to ask her friend the questions that floated and bounced and spun in her head every day. She wanted to know when Claire had ever discussed this dream—that was never Claire’s to begin with; it was always hers, that Claire had simply agreed with and latched onto when they had been roommates in university. She wanted to know why Claire could not simply tell her husband she did not want the shop, did not want this thirtieth birthday gift.
She feels wretched, desperate, more untethered and confused than she ever has in her life. Only aware of it now that it has been snatched so cruelly away from her, she realizes that this dream of owning the bookshop—and of keeping it just as it is now forevermore—kept her sane. Her job is hardly a job, she has no children, no partner, no roommate or other responsibilities or ties to the world. She had only her lifelong plan to buy the bookshop.
She spends every night crying, every morning dejected and bored. She cannot go back and buy another book. She cannot go back to that shop again. Luckily, the day of the dinner party, she had purchased a lengthy, wordy classic and in the three weeks since the party, she had not yet finished it, but she would. She would finish, and she would be out of the only two comforts she had found in this life.
She feels she needs to leave. To move from this town, to find another small corner of another nameless, faceless place, and try to find solace in the starting over, in the possibility of owning a different shop.
But she does not want to own another shop.
She wants to own The End.
And if she cannot own it, then she knows what she must do.
It is dark, the moon and the stars invisible behind the thick cloud cover that hangs low over the town. Even in June, the damp night makes her shiver, chills her through, as she walks briskly down the empty sidewalk.
She mutters to herself. She moves forward. She keeps her head down, the hood of her sweatshirt up, though she knows that no one will be out at this hour, and if they were, the darkness and the absence of streetlamps on this end of the town would shroud her perfectly. She fingers the cold, hard metal thing in her right pants pocket; she feels the grooves, memorizes each tooth.
She approaches her destination. She is unsure if an alarm will sound when she opens the door, but she hopes that this is too advanced a technology for an ancient bookshop.
She pulls the key out, sucks in a damp, unsatisfactory breath, and jams it into the lock. She hears the deadbolt click, stands still as a statue; she waits to hear an alarm. But none sounds.
She knows plucking the key from the till yesterday was probably unnecessary, as she likely could have broken the glass of the front door without anyone hearing, but she wanted to be careful, wanted to be sure.
She moves forward in the dark, knowing where piles of books lay by heart, not needing a light to avoid crashing into any. She goes to her pink chair. Her reading nook. She sits gently, never wanting to slump into the chair for fear that it will shatter. She sits in silence for a timeless stretch of grievous moments. She allows herself one final cry; a few slow tears drop onto her jeans, her hands, her shoes. But she cannot allow herself anymore. She cannot stay long. She cannot think about what she came to do for too long for fear that she will change her mind.
She stands and sniffles. She reaches into her other jean pocket for the pack of matches. She did not think to buy a can of oil, but she plans to light every match in the pack; toss them into every nook and cranny and wait for a thousand different flames to rise.
And so she does.