Title: The World, A Book
Fandom: Harry Potter. . . three guesses as to pairing and 2 guesses don't count!
Summary: "I don't remember being young," he says. . . "I think that I died, and I came here."
A/N: For schemingreader — I think I'm late with the birthday fic! And it's unbeta'd as well! Plus, it is about death, and probably as close to meta as I am ever likely to write… * throws confetti *
I am not a fanciful person. My life, circumscribed as it has been by misfortune and illness, is quiet, regular, and unremarkable in every regard. My earliest memories are of seeking refuge in books. It would not surprise anyone familiar with my temperament and habits that I found employment at a bookseller's; supposing, of course, the existence of such a familiar person.
But I am quite alone in the world, and friendless perhaps — I never considered the question of whether I had friends one worth posing, much less asking. I am complete unto myself, and content.
Now, however, now. . .
Perhaps it would be more appropriate to phrase those thoughts in the past tense.
One must learn something of human nature when one works in a bookstore — it is inevitable, unless one is particularly stupid. I am not. I learnt early on which people are best avoided: children, of course, and the childlike readers of comics and magazines; persons with peculiar manias, Visigoths or tatting or technology; and readers of Gothic romances, military science fiction, or the ghastly hybrid of the two.
I do not know when the man first came into the shop. He is not the sort who gets noticed — nondescript in every way, such that were you to talk with him, you would afterwards easier recall his clothing (drab jacket, worn jeans) than eye colour, hair colour, height, or build. My awareness of him crept up on me like evening sliding into night. He came to the shop once or twice a week; after a month or so, we had reached the point where I nodded to him when he placed his purchases on the counter.
The books he buys are what make me notice him. He reads fiction, but with no discernable pattern of taste. One week he read Shakespeare, the next Danielle Steel or Jilly Cooper, then a spate of spy thrillers. He read Catch-22 and A Separate Peace and Gone with the Wind and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and then began methodically ploughing through horror.
It takes me several months of his acquaintance before I dare to ask him why he reads what he does. In my less charitable moments — which are, admittedly, most of my moments — I suspect him of choosing the books for their shape or the colour of their covers, as some interior decorators do.
He looks at me, and I realise that he has always been careful before to avoid making eye contact. I feel a shock, his unmemorable presentation seeming suddenly a well-constructed façade. His face is expressive, when he permits: he looks weary and distantly sad, as if he knows things that he wishes he didn't.
"I don't remember being young," he says, with a very faint smile. "Being a child. I think I came from a book. I think that I died, and I came here."
Which is insane, and we both know it is. Just the same, we are both possessed by that mad, magical idea. The world is great and grey, and faceless, slipping past as untenable as a river. A book, though! A book is a brilliant thing, a conspiracy held in the hands and the mind, a place where you can fly.
He watches me and waits for me to — laugh? scoff? — sneer, possibly. I say nothing. I don't smile or frown. My face, I imagine, is as blank as ever (I have a façade of my own).
"I see the story," he continues finally, looking away and down towards New Age Religion. "I can't remember which book it was in, but — it was something huge. Heroes. Evil. Friendship. And in the story — " he rubs his forehead as if that will make things clearer — " I was nobody. A bit player with a meaningless death. That's why," he says, dragging his gaze back to look at me, though not in my eyes, "I think it's true. If I were crazy, wouldn't I be the hero, or the damsel in distress, or the great detective?"
He looks fearsomely earnest, but his eyes are self-mocking, and his mouth twists up as if inviting me to share the joke.
He wants me to laugh, which in its own way is cruel. I cannot recall the last time anyone has wanted me to laugh. I wonder if I remember how to laugh — if I ever knew. But if I laugh, if I give him that, then he will never speak of this madness with me again. Probably he will find another bookshop.
I stack his books up on the desk, reading each title, and then restack them in reverse order before looking up at him. I think I can perhaps speak to him in his own language.
"So, Rosencrantz," I say, and he smiles, and I know that smile. "What have you read so far?"
From that day, our search becomes an almost daily affair. Now that we are allies, he comes shortly before cleaning to look over the books I set aside during the day. There is one comfortable chair, and he settles there with a cup of tea while I sweep away the dirty encroachments of time.
After he pays (he always purchases at least one book) and I lock up, I walk him down to the Underground. Sometimes we stop at the pub. Sometimes we walk down to look at the rushing black river and then turn back. We always talk about books, and death. He has, I discover, employment in a windowless office; I do not care to ask for the details. I have never even asked his name — nor he mine.
In the spring I discover that he has never entered the worlds of children's literature. But — they're written for children, he says, laughing, and I send him home with The Brothers Lionheart. He does not reappear for three days.
I understand. There are books like that.
When he comes in again, he looks. . . haunted. Possessed. As if something fundamental in him has broken beyond repair.
"You could give up," I say.
"I don't know," he says, pensive, head tilting to the side as if considering the idea. "The more I search, the more colour leaches out of — this." He waves a hand, taking in the shop, the world outside the windows, the sunless sky and the ghostly trees.
"That's because you're more than a little mad." I'm sorry to have to acknowledge this. It's a pleasant madness; companionable; but though it coils around us it is not a womb but a tunnel.
He smiles and trails his fingers down the stack of books on the desk. "What have you found for me?" he asks, and the flash of his downturned eyes up through his lashes is laughter. This is the joke, that no matter how far his madness takes him, I am now always just one step ahead.
I suppose that is why, in the end, I am the one to find the book.
I tell him so, when he comes, and he stops, freezes, his whole body seeming to alter subtly, unstiffening and flowing into new lines. He is no longer a creature of invoices and cubicles. This, surely, is what he looks like in his dreams that are not dreams.
"How did I die?" he asks.
I pull my shoulders up and drop them, the constraint of my jacket suddenly unnatural. "On the sidelines of the battle between good and evil. You were, in the end, insignificant. Your wife died, too," I add, unable to resist. "But not your child."
"Hmm," he says, so calm, too calm. "I hadn't thought I'd be so heterosexual."
"It is, after all, a children's book."
"Oh, yes, of course." He gives me a tight-lipped, false smile. "So which book is it?"
"Don't," I say, speaking without thinking, which is something I never do — do not know how to do. "Don't read it. Don't look for it. Even if — even if all this madness were true, what then?"
He's staring at me with a dissecting gaze, stripping away the comfortable lies I have cultivated to make my life, not bearable, but liveable.
"You died as well, didn't you?" He stares at me, and for the first time I can see clearly that his irises are a muddy, motley mix of colours: brown, yes, but also near-black and running-water pale. "How did you die?"
"Unloved," I say, again unthinking.
He stares a long moment more, and then he grabs my hand. He has meticulously never touched me on purpose until now, though our fingers have brushed together over slick paperback covers and yellowing pages on countless occasions.
"Close the shop," he says, hoarse with intent. "Let's — let's just go."
"Where?" I say, as disparagingly as I can whilst fumbling the key ring from the middle desk drawer one-handed. I'll miss my three o'clock cup of tea, I think wildly. Oh, I am falling.
"Anywhere," he says, trying for cinematic bravado but instead sounding as terrified as I feel.
There's no telling where we will go from here. My imagination, which is flawed and paltry, too influenced by the books which are my life, leaps to extremes. Vacations of white sand and azure skies; the pleasant commingling of belongings in a cosy flat. But the future is unwritten, huge, terrifying indeed.
"I've never yet walked through the riverside park," I say. It's true: the park lies on no route to anywhere. It simply curls into itself, cradled by a bend in the river, nearly an island.
We walk there in silence, which he breaks finally to point out green shoots and swollen buds on the trees, life preparing to erupt. The wind is incisive; we both hunch in our coats. He points out a fox's den on the far river bank. I touch his hair. A train shudders ponderously over the iron bridge. The lowering sun makes illusory diamonds of the dirty black water. His thumbs come to rest at the corners of my mouth.
Birds call, from tree to tree; the world turns; pages turn; a story ends; he kisses me and his eyes fall closed; and I, who was dead, I am alive.