There is no order here. Aged tomes wrapped some in leather, others paper, brittle with years, lie stacked or arranged along shelf after shelf with no sign of rank or sequence. Their covers run the gamut; names typical, pulled from bestseller lists of the last half century or more, others arcane and bizarre. Some have no names, no titles, lettering worn away by years or their names never known at all.
Howard stands spellbound, gaze upturned to this wall of possible worlds. The noise of the room and rooms around recedes as he looks not at individual volumes but at the sum of their reality, at the monolithic structure they together create. Music pulses bass-heavy tremors in foundations, the melody’s subtleties eradicated by walls and by force so that only a pounding vibration pumps like the heart of the house. People stand gathered in chattering bunches in this room, in every room. Upscale clumps of humanity, ties loosened just enough. A woman cackles at a joke, her laughter eaten whole by the permeating sound. Her dress hugs curves, a red number clinging tight as she squints eyes, bares teeth, a silent grimace of uncontained mirth. She spills a drink as she laughs. No one seems to notice. She breaks away from her assemblage, careening lost through the room until drifting into orbit around Howard, focused on his focus.
A fissure exists in the bookcase edifice, a single square of emptiness among the gathered books, one volume missing from the otherwise perfect structure. It is this hole that draws Howard, a visible blemish in near flawless chaos. The woman sips from the drink in her hand, glass half empty.
“There’s a party going on.”
He blinks, leans away from the bookcase, unaware until now that he’d been leaning in.
“I’m only here for my boss,” he says, waving a hand in no particular direction. She responds with some party pleasantry, eyes wet, cheeks flushed with a mild drunk. Howard looks past, misses her eyes, the pleasant musk coming off her in waves, his notice consumed with a scan of the room.
A man sits on a plush sofa, cushions wrapped in red velvet. A book is held open in his lap. He is a piece dislodged from the order of the room, his clothes showing none of the upscale flash of the other partygoers. The suit of a working man hangs from limbs, fabric thick and color faded. Work boots marred by wear and life. The left eye droops from some long-ago wound. An immaculate part divides a slicked, expensive haircut, a single consent to an inner vanity. He reaches with gloved hand for a glass on a faux-classic steamer trunk fashioned into a coffee table. Shakes the glass, finds it empty. Slow dawning, face puzzled as he looks up from the book. He closes it shut, places its weight on the trunk with care. A cocktail napkin protrudes from its middle where a page is saved. He and his glass are gone from the room in quick, focused steps.
Howard is drawn to and hovers over the book, the makeshift table, bent double, hands clasped at his back in curious pose. The book is a swollen thing, brittle and misshapen, pages made wrinkled and bloated by some long-forgotten calamity. Howard reaches out, a delicate touch turning page after page until he reaches the napkin at the book’s center. A photo of thin children with blank faces looks out of the page. Ancient sad eyes set deep in every face. The photo is very old. Its grim details take up most of the page. The caption reads Stockton Fair, 1898.
Nothing in the photo looks much like a fair.
Howard thumbs through pages, stopping on nothing in particular, letting attention wander across words or illustrations without context. Maps and clippings are printed at random. He turns to the cover.
An Annotated History of Morning Stockton Township.
The spine is slick and unpleasant. He runs a finger along the surface. It feels almost wet. He sits down.
“I got one for you, too.”
Red dress, back from wherever she’d gone. She pushes a drink across the table, raises another to her lips. She leans over, a shadow falling on the book. Howard takes the drink.
He’s awake for minutes before he knows where he is. Eyes blink, squint at sun filtered through diaphanous curtains, something lacy and thin.
Red dress. Her name is Paige. The apartment smells of something sweet, a candle from yesterday or the day before. The room is small, neat but not cramped. Cozy. He rolls over, puts feet on floor, her floor. Last night comes back in flashes. The first drink, talk of her job, something for a lawyer or something in real estate, the second drink, the other drinks, the cab ride across town, pointing out landmarks that don’t matter, the walk up steps outside her apartment. More drinks before it all went black.
He dresses as she enters the room. She mentions food. He thinks of calling into work but doesn’t. The book falls out of his coat. He stares, uncomprehending. He wraps it again in the coat, an infant’s protection against the cold of the world. She hands him a shoe.
She takes him to a pancake place. Breakfast all day. Thin crowd, customers in booths, at tables. Past the breakfast set, too early for lunch. She asks him about his job. He shrugs, says something about research, about making calls, makes jokes about shielding his boss from real work. She laughs between bites of runny egg. She sees the bundle at his side, the coat and its contents, but she doesn’t ask about it and he doesn’t volunteer.
Conversation stalls. They exchange numbers and she goes. He orders a coffee, and when an hour has gone by he finds himself in the same corner booth. The bundle on the seat at his side sits untouched for the first cup and the second, but when the third comes he is unwinding the twists to reveal its secret. A finger across the cover earns the same wet, unpleasant feel. He opens just the front cover and turns the first page. No copyright, no legal text. Pages turn. Pause on the photo he’d examined last night. Stockton Fair, 1898. The vague edge of a building is visible in the background, the photo’s only sign of civilization beyond the sad-eyed children. More pages. Text becomes odd and unreadable as English gives way first to a mesh of language unknown to Howard and then to some gibberish, no language at all. Photos become drawings, child-sized skulls with a thin mask of flesh pulled tight over grins. Stockton Fair, 1652. 1508. 1270. The numbers count back beyond reason. Those terrible eyes, empty or sad. Lifeless orbs imbued with some inner horror. He orders a fourth coffee.
The office stinks of some plug-in potpourri tucked away behind a desk or a cabinet, hidden and ominous. Even from the hallway it threatens to overwhelm. Howard takes deep breaths, succumbing to the onslaught of scent as he enters. A woman stands talking into a phone. Some unseen someone types in the distance. Sunlight can be seen through a distant window, but none of its heat is felt in this place. Fresh-laid carpet eats all sound of trespass. Howard moves eyes front through a maze of cubicles, encountering no life on his way to a desk and a laptop he didn’t bother bringing when last he left. His searches begin with purpose, the book’s title or the name of the town. Soon he is grasping, word combinations and dates that have meaning in his unfocused scan of the book’s text. Nothing. He watches the blinking of a mindless cursor, waiting for answers, for something, but time rolls away and no inspiration is found. He closes the laptop. A satchel hangs from a tack. He shoves the laptop and bundle inside.
No one stops him or even notices as he leaves the office, satchel in tow. His boss’s door is closed and the light is off. The sound of typing has stopped, if it was ever there. The woman on the phone doesn’t speak now, only holds the phone to her ear and listens to some noise a world away. The stink of electric potpourri follows Howard back into the world.
The bus is late. Headlights appear among passing traffic, a few at first, then more until only one car in twenty moves dark along the street. Howard waits at the stop with the other stranded, these exiles leaning out one at a time as each looks for but doesn’t find the looming approach of an elephantine city bus.
Feet tap and some pace along sidewalk damp with mystery fluid and time unspools for minutes into darkness before the late bus arrives at the curb. The few milling travelers enter in a clump and disperse along the seats. Howard flips through pages of the book, looking at maps. Landmarks stand out, trails where highways should be, names of places familiar but wrong. He closes the book and watches the road pass by, shops lit, some not, streetlamps illuminating pockets of world. He touches the phone in his pocket and thinks of calling her, Paige, red dress. He gets off at his stop and goes into his apartment and is still thinking of making that call as he is absorbed by a deep, dreamless sleep.
The workday crawls. Howard fills time with fruitless internet searches, grasping for any loose reference to the arcane details he crosses in his aimless inspections of the book’s content. Nothing. He makes a few calls, fakes his way through morning drudgery, but by lunch he’s slipping out the door.
He doesn’t know where he’s going when he gets in the cab. A bearded man with small eyes stares into the mirror, grip on the wheel white-knuckle tight. He waits. Howard gives his answer.
The cab pulls to a stop in front of a swollen offense of architecture. The party house. Howard pays in cash and asks the driver to wait. The driver says no and leaves.
Gravel crunches on the walk up the drive, rocks trucked in from some imagined place. He approaches the house with head down, unsure of each step. The satchel hangs draped across his middle, its contents dragging his body down, slowing progress. He mounts steps like a man condemned. Knuckles rap on a thick door, a dense wood that swallows sound. A man appears, opens door without word. His dress is casual, his face ambiguous. He could be anyone.
“Can I come in?”
The ambiguous man eyes Howard, gives no sign that he’s heard. Howard goes on.
“I think I left my phone here the other day. At the party. In the library.”
The man does not stir, does not blink.
“I was here with my boss,” says Howard, embarrassed and unsure why.
The ambiguous man blinks. He steps aside.
Dust swirls in pale light streaming in through long windows. A sunroom. The ambiguous man disappears into a doorway and is swallowed by the vast emptiness. Howard doesn’t follow, instead moving through rooms and halls with a vague idea of where he’s going. He encounters no one on the way, only drab rooms decorated with forced imitations of intrigue; paintings of stern faces or lifeless farmhouses in a lost time, new furniture stained with fake age.
The library appears. The shelves are as they were, chaos stacked into a wall of knowledge, centuries of thought, the minds of the vain or the mad captured and displayed. Howard stands where he did before, looking up into that jumble, mouth parted, eyes squinting in perplexity or offense, incredulous.
There is no gap in that wall of chaos.
He runs a hand over the covers of books, no one in particular, feeling the presence they together create. The names and covers are an ambiguous mass that could be as it was or could be shuffled, a puzzle undone and reworked, it’s impossible to tell. He looks for the place he thinks the hole should be, moving close without reason, names of long-dead authors inches from his face.
Howard turns. The ambiguous man stands in the doorway, hands shoved deep into the pockets of the dull, unimpressive pants of anyone anywhere. Howard holds up his phone and nods. The man stands, unblinking.
“I’m not sure how to get back out,” says Howard.
The bus huffs and snorts, makes all the sounds of mythical beasts. The driver listens to earbuds, the bombastic whimsy of a daytime talk show. A passenger thinks of saying this is some kind of violation, but instead he only watches the driver with a seething disdain. The sun is lost hours before its time, replaced with the patter of rain, a ceiling of cloud lording over the world. Howard flips through page after page. Lines stand out, vague references to the fair, to a figure intertwined with the festivities, a centerpiece figure spoken of in ominous reverence. The bus pulls over. Howard looks up, unsure how long he’s been reading. This is not his stop. He closes the book anyway.
Crawling discomfort rides over Howard. He turns. A man is looking his way, a familiar man with a drooping left eye. Howard recoils. Was he on the bus before? Has he been here all this time? Howard changes seats, moves to the front of the bus. He gets off at the next stop, miles from home.
Full dark, rain pelting the awning he steps under, the sound it makes an oppressive presence that crowds in on all sides. He dials her number without a thought for what he’s doing. She picks up on the second ring.
The swirl of thick, cloying incense looms heavy in the air. Her skin is flushed with drink. She sips and sips again as she listens to the things he has to say. He talks for ten minutes, twenty minutes, doubling back on points he himself is too baffled to let pass with only the one viewing. As the story plays out she offers an incredulous stare, nodding at times, always sipping.
He pauses for a beat, breathes in, out, drinks from a bottle of something dark. She cuts in.
“The guy was on the bus.”
“He was on the bus.”
“The guy from the party.”
“Yes,” says Howard.
The incredulous stare remains fixed on him. He looks around for help or for escape, but there is nothing and so he only sits. She speaks.
“Are you screwing with me?”
He pulls the book from his satchel and places it in her lap. She opens to a page at random. A rough sketch of a man with a wild beard and hollow eyes sits among the text, looking out of the page. Paige laughs, a wild sound billowing forth in drunken guffaw.
“Someone should go find this place.”
Howard leans back, unsure what she’s saying.
“It’s not real. It’s not a real place.”
She looks up to meet his eyes, a guise of solemnity washing across her features.
“That’s what makes it fun. Like jumping headfirst into a dream.”
He places a tentative hand on the book and draws it slowly back. He closes its pages but does not put it away, only holds its weight in his own lap, a hand on that slick, unsettling surface. Paige speaks into the silence.
“It’s a nice thought, though.”
She holds the drink to her lips, a coy smile peeking out over the edge of the glass. Her lips appear wet with the vestiges of drink as she speaks.
“Don’t you think?”
The phone is ringing. The landscape of an unfamiliar ceiling is the first thing Howard sees as he opens his eyes. He grabs the phone. A display reads WORK in bright block letters. He doesn’t answer.
Sun splashing onto the room says late morning. An unbroken stillness gives away Paige’s absence. Howard is alone here. He sits up, mouth dry, takes a pull from what’s left of the bottle on the nightstand. The laptop is open, a website offering affordable bus fares to anywhere in the country. He scrolls and types, filling in his info for a ticket, thinking he’s kidding even as he does it, and he drinks and he laughs and when a phone begins to ring he turns it off.
The bus is stuffed with the blank faces of strangers. Howard sees none of this, his attention taken fully by the book in his lap. Hollow eyes of a bearded man look out of the page, their pull compelling, fascinating, an energy there that will not be resisted.
An elderly man in the next seat smiles over at Howard, this young man with his nose in a book. He nods with earnest approval.
“Where you headed?” asks the elderly man.
Howard takes a swig from the bottle secreted away in his satchel, not looking up. The book has all of him now.
Craig Rodgers has published a few books and intends to publish a few more before he fakes his own death. “Morning Stockton” is selected from his latest collection, Francis Top’s Grand Design, available now from Death of Print.