This is possibly in questionable taste, but when has that ever stopped a writer from following an idea? Happy Labor Day.
The Once and Future King
by Charlene Teglia
The bookstore hadn’t been there last week. Michael was almost sure of it. He’d walked past this building last Wednesday instead of taking his usual route that passed on the next side street, but today as on last Wednesday the lights had been against him and he’d walked over to this street in order to keep heading in the right direction rather than waiting for the Walk signal.
Michael didn’t waste a lot of time mulling over the mystery. Small businesses come and go, some very quickly, just a fact of life. Maybe he hadn’t noticed it last week, or maybe it had just opened up. Although the sign over the door didn’t look new and the gilt-edged lettering in the windows that read “Books, New and Used” showed wear.
It was raining. The bookstore was dry. He had time to look inside, nobody waiting for him at home to ask why he’d been ten or fifteen minutes later than usual. He gave in to impulse and put his hand to the door’s brass handle. Muted chimes sang overhead as he pulled it open and walked inside.
Nobody stood at the glass counter, but soft lighting from some indeterminate source illuminated out-facing display racks of new releases. Presumably the shop owner or clerk was in the back, restocking books, and would come to the front in response to the chimes. Michael idly looked over the titles in the displays until a name caught his eye.
“Didn’t know he had a new book out,” he murmured out loud, surprised. He picked up the book, flipped it open, read the blurb inside the cover. The author, known for his all too true to life military thrillers, had evidently decided to try his hand at science fiction. The hero from several previous stories now raced to save the world from alien artifacts stolen from Area 51 by international arms dealers. Well, spy thrillers no longer had the Cold War to provide villains and terrorists didn’t have the same entertainment value. Aliens made sense, sort of.
Deciding to buy the book, Michael kept it in hand and continued to look over the displays. Another cover caught his eye with book review excerpts like “Published posthumously, he definitely saved his best for last” and “A lyrical masterpiece by the man most likely to write from the grave”. The face on the back jacket cover was a familiar one from other book covers and cameos in his own movies, thick glasses, shaggy hair.
“I didn’t know he’d died,” Michael said, again surprised into speaking out loud. Why hadn’t he heard it in the news?
Stacking this book onto the first, feeling a sense of loss for all the stories that had died unborn with that death, he moved into the used section where the celebrated horror author’s backlist had a prominent place. Several of those titles were unfamiliar, books he must have missed somehow. Michael added them to his growing pile of purchases and then headed back to the counter.
Nobody had come in response to the door chimes. Michael placed his stack of books on the countertop and then saw that there was a self-checking station with a scanner and credit card reader. With a shrug, he slid his choices one by one over the scanner, ran his card through the reader, okayed the total although it made his brows raise. The backlist used books must have been considered hard to find for his purchases to add up to that amount.
The card was accepted, a receipt printed out. Michael stuck the receipt inside a cover and looked for a bag to protect the books. It was still raining outside and they wouldn’t fit in his coat pockets. He located a bag at the end of the counter, slid the books inside it, noticed that it had an improvement, a grip and seal sandwich bag type closure, which he took advantage of promptly.
The sealed bag dangling from his hand, Michael swung the shop’s door open. The hushed voices of the chimes sang an accompaniment to his exit. Then he was back on the crowded city sidewalk in the rain. For the remainder of his walk home the traffic demanded his attention, but the books filled him with a poignant mix of sadness and excitement. The thrill of a new story, never read before. The mourning for stories that would never be.
The last turn onto his street, the steps up to the covered entry, the key to unlock the street door for building residents, the stairs to his third floor apartment flew past in a witch’s brew of anticipation. By the time he’d entered his own apartment, Michael knew which book he’d read first. The posthumous book would be last, of course, but what to read first was no easy decision. A backlist book won the mental toss.
Michael settled into his favorite reading chair and began. The book was good, the pacing and characterization everything he’d come to expect, but something about it was odd. It mentioned bands he’d never heard of, pop culture references he couldn’t place. The paper was odd, too. Turning a page, he’d caught the edge and expected it to tear. When it didn’t, some impulse made him grip the edge of the page with both hands and try to tear it. The paper remained intact.
Abandoning the story, he leafed back to the front and read the copyright notice.
Then he sat back in his chair for a long time, the book left unread in his lap.
After a while, he picked up the thriller about stolen alien artifacts. A time machine was one of the stolen items.
Michael imagined a man running down a street, diving into an empty store, turning on the pen-sized implement in his pocket to elude pursuit. Transporting man and store simultaneously.
He didn’t doubt that the bookstore would be gone the next time he walked that way. It had probably already vanished.
Where might it be now? Or rather, when? Would a dinosaur peer a curious head into the doorway and sample a book cover to see if it might be some strange new delicacy?
He would never know, but he had the books. Books he would have to keep hidden in case their contents created a paradox. Books written by the future King that he alone would not have to wait five or ten or twenty years to read.
With a delighted smile, Michael returned to his reading.