Chapter One

I was a complete fool before I ascended to the status of college student, but I was too much of an idiot to see it. I wondered why I was always alone and it didn't cross my mind that I was doing it wrong. So, while clad in my cap and gown, fresh from graduation, I composed a list. I revised it over and over until it was concise and applicable to a new life. To be specific, I made six rules to happy living in present society. I took a sabbatical for a year to find myself and by the first day on campus, I was prepared to be the happy, social butterfly I knew I could be.

Rule number one: Black goes with everything

Rule number two: Have a full contact list at all times

Rule number three: When buying a cell phone plan, unlimited texting is a duh

Rule number four: Be yourself unless it becomes socially unacceptable

Rule number five: Don't let anyone know more about you than you know about them

Rule number six: Books are a girl's best friend

Cypher closed its door with the usual drama and fanfare. As I cleaned the bar counter, an irate costumer didn't want to leave. I paused my motions with the damp rag to observe the brawl in neutrality. I had seen this man in particular a handful of times and his presence was not unexpected. He was not a problem costumer, it was just after hours and his pockets were empty. He loved Cypher a little too much and never, ever wanted to leave. His tall, round stature required to aid of several bouncers to lead him out. His arms flailed under their grip and he shouted creative, drunken profanity. Some of it was undecipherable nonsense, but it was still interesting. I sort of rooted fruitlessly from the sidelines that he would prevail.

The janitorial staff flickered the lights on with the last of the costumers stumbling out the door. Illuminated, the shattered glass and mounds of vomit was shown the the cleanup crew. They would do what they could tonight, but anything other than bodily fluids would wait for the morning. My fellow bartender working that evening informed me it was my turn to finish out our station, although I knew it wasn't. I had taken care of it the last couple of times I had worked with her. I didn't call her out on her lie, smiled, and wished her a safe and good night. I didn't mind. Erik would slip me some cash under the table for my trouble, which was a unique privilege of mine. He was aware of my background and favored me privately. Nothing sketchy and our relationship was platonic. Taking initiative was a valued trait, in Erik's eyes, and I was rewarded handsomely.

I corked wine bottles and swept behind the counter. Once the bar was vacant, Erik came to visit me. "Kayla, how was your shift," he asked innocently?

"Erik! It's Onyx." I sighed loudly. "Remember, Onyx." I would've freaked out on him like a maniac if others were within earshot and he never learned. He had known me with this persona for long enough to get it correct by now. It had morphed into a mild irritation and he did it to give me a dose of my past.

He seated himself on one of the stools and slumped over. "Yes Onyx," he said, adding sarcastic emphasis on my name. "I'm getting to old for this shit..."

"Dude, you aren't a fossil yet. And you're a total night owl." Erik was the owner and rose Cypher into the respectable business it was today. He was getting well into his 30's and had grown Cypher from a seed. It wasn't a club and wasn't by any stretch of the imagination. It was packed with anyone from college students of Calverton University up to eccentric seniors. There was dancing, but no strobe lights or explicit pop music.

He rubbed his temples rhythmically, mid-migraine. He habitually had one hell of a headache when work finished. "I feel older." He peaked open an eyelid and looked at me. "You did a good job today. You young people have so much energy."

"Okay, you seriously are starting to sound old."

"My years are catching up with me and places are aching that haven't before and I almost yelled at a kid to, 'Get off my lawn, you hooligan!'" He huffed in annoyance and raked his fingers through his neat hair. I didn't have to heart to tell him his slicked hair was losing its black pigment to gray and white strands. He hadn't shown his age yet, but it was beginning. He had the type of face that could be mistaken for a younger man. The chub kept wrinkles at bay, but I wouldn't tell it to him directly.

Being a man, though, prevented him from becoming old, just distinct and he was going to become very distinct soon. "I'm bad-tempered tonight."

"You sound like you need a drink." I had put everything away and in order, but I wouldn't mind making him a quick one before I went home.

He nodded 'no' and slipped his leather wallet from his pocket. He kept one-hundred in cash on any given night in twenty dollar bills. "I'm fine, but thanks for the offer. I've had a steady flow tonight." He drank and socialized as a normal costumer and few knew his identity. I was the only baretender that had been informed that Erik was the one paying the checks. "Here Onyx." Erik placed a kind tip on the counter and lightly tousled my hair with a fatherly look in his eyes.

"Thanks." I grasped the much needed money, went to the exit, and said, "I'll see you tomorrow."

He called after me and caught me right before the door shut. "Oh no you don't. You have tomorrow off!"

The next day was a rare occurrence and a splendid break. It was a day in which I was free of classes, work, and no obligations until the next day. I cherished it as a makeshift vacation for myself.

I woke up around eleven when my roommate stumbled in from God knows where. She smelled like cheap liquor and half of her buttons on her blouse were undone, half her bosom hanging freely. I could tell the difference from expensive and bottom shelf wine by scent. You can say its an aquired skill from my profession. Her clumsy entrance roused me from sleep, but she wasn't conscious long enough to reprimand. Checking my clock, I cursed the world for not letting me sleep adequately and yet having it be so late.

I peeled off my work outfit and pulled on comfy, casual clothes. I crashed after arriving back at the dorm from Cypher and didn't have a chance to undress. In the mirror, I could see my smeared lipstick, runny eyeliner, and wrinkled clothing from the previous night. I had to take it off. I was dreadful!

My phone beeped, indicating I had a text. "Cody: babe come to my place?" I didn't feel up to dealing with him or really anybody else. He had been getting a bit too much for me to handle as of late. I ignored the message and the others over the course of the night and tossed my phone on the bed. To avoid temptation from getting caught in the texting black hole, I turned it off. Once I got started, I couldn't simply walk away.

I went down to the diner where they brought out my order before I spoke my request. Yes, it was that kind of dinky, hole-in-the-wall establishment. The food was disgustingly delicious and digestive issues after consuming was not uncommon among patrons. Knowing the health risks didn't make the food any less delectable, but I was cautious. There were two key aspects to keep in mind: milk was never safe, cooked into a meal or otherwise, and bread was uncertain after Wednesdays. I maintained a respectable distance from both, slipping greasy eggs down my throat with a side of over-buttered hash browns and black coffee. I had been told the cream was fine, but I wasn't going to chance it. I listened to the dull rumble from the regulars as I sipped my drink and ate my meal. The waitress chatted with me, babbling dizzily about nothing in particular or nothing I could honestly comprehend. I nodded and smiled when appropriate, which was the best option.

No one I knew came to this place and I didn't intend to see an acquaintance for the entirety of the day, so fashion took a temporary back seat. My hair was pressed and folded into a tight bun against my head. Wearing a black tee-shirt and yoga pants, I was amazingly comfortable, but I wouldn't be caught dead else in them. Kayla had dressed like this, but I wasn't Kayla. Never again. I was Onyx and I was happier than she ever was.

I read the last pages of the book I had been whittling away at and frowned. I needed to purchase another.

The quaint bookstore wasn't much on the outside. There was hand-painted in cursive Bound & Profound, second hand books with a little illustration of a book. It was a stand alone brick structure on the border of the city and the suburbs. It was two stories high and ended in a flat top. The exterior was chipped, weathered, and without windows.

Stores with age often yielded the best selection of preowned books, but not always. Sometimes, they had a hearty selection of newer texts lining the shelves. I couldn't stand for the majority of things written in recent years. Nothing truly excited me. Authors just wrote the entire thing in a hurried mess and was satisfied by pumping out large quantity of crap. Editors were happy to assist in the dispersal of the crap. Readers were eager to read the heaping pile of crap and rave about its incredible quality. Though, in the end, it was still just glorified crap. It couldn't mock the editors and authors. They were doing their jobs by creating the crap that sells. Could it be economics? Maybe I was at fault for not liking crap.

I turned the knob and I was nearly knocked over from its intensity by the scent of yellowed, decaying pages. It took me back to my high school days to my bedroom at my parents house, lined with shelves. Distorted memories of being nose-deep in fantastical plot lines, times, and places raced in a blur. I shut off my senses other than smell and inhaled deeply. My body was suddenly felt airy and my chest was filled with warmth. To say it was pleasant would be a neglectful understatement. I might have gotten high off the fumes. "Miss? Miss? Are you alright?" A girl's chipper voice snapped me from my trance.

My cheeks reddened slightly in response to being caught intoxicated. I'm sure I appeared that I had a mental illness, standing in the doorway, smelling the air like an idiot. "Sorry, I'm fine..." I noted her tag, " Ann."

Worry gone, she smiled. "Good. Anyway, welcome. I'm Ann and it's your first time here, right?" I was about to respond, but she continued, unperturbed by attempt, "I don't recognize you, so it must be because I know every single costumer who enters those doors and you do not ring a bell. No, not at all. You are a total stranger. You were-I mean. You are not anymore. Unless you come in on days I don't work, which are Mondays and Wednesdays always and alternating days during the week." She was running on a single breath and it was a relief to both of us when she took another. Even talking a million miles a minute, she was gasping towards the end. I missed a couple words, but I was still able to determine her message. I couldn't think as quick as she was forming scattered sentences. Too soon, she began again, "The boss watches Bound & Profound on Mondays and Wednesdays 'cause he says that nobody bothers buying books on Mondays and Wednesdays. I don't know. I would buy books on any day of the week. The other days Ultan and I switch off. He's my boyfriend and I love him so much and I see him all the time, but we don't work at the same times. Boss doesn't need more than one person looking after things, but wouldn't it be so romantic, working side by side with the love of your life?"

The one-sided, mindless chatter wasn't going anywhere fast and while she broke her continuous chain, I chimed in, "I'm going to look around, but thanks for the help."

I turned from her and submerged myself in piles and shelves. Every crooked shelf was jammed, edge to edge, with books of all sizes. The ones that didn't fit on the shelves were stacked into towering piles, some reaching shoulder height. The lack of windows deprived the space of natural light and scattered lamps kept the shop from total darkness. The docile light wasn't terribly bright, but it was enough to make out the words on the spines. The lamps were a range of heights, shapes, colors and were found on every available inch. The paint on the ceiling was chipped off in blocky chunks, but the walls were beige and fresh. The atmosphere was untroubled and it seemed that it existed on its own terms. This broken down place wasn't that bad.

Wondering, careful not no touch anything that looked remotely rickety or wobbly, I pulled books off the shelves at random. The buttery pages fluttered over my finger tips as I skimmed. My next choice was hardcover inconveniently located in the center of a billowing pile. I longed for that exact book, in that exact spot, for no exact reason. I gently wriggled it from its spot while trying my best not to let the rest topple.

I almost had it. Almost. I let my guard down at the last little bit was there... and then it rapidly collapsed on top of me. I shielded myself from the falling debris, but the strangest thing occurred. I didn't feel the pain of pointed book corners or anything. Just a shadow blocked me.