He was running through the night. The air was crisp, the water in the stream made a peculiar noise. The animals slept soundly, undisturbed by the loud footsteps of the boy, running, running, running. Until he fell. He looked up, through the gap in the trees and into the stars. His hand lay across his heart and the memories flashed through his mind. He was afraid. Why? He wanted to go home. But when he got home, no one was there. So he ran. His family had left him. They gave in to the yellow, orange, and white embrace fire, and they went to the ashes. Leaving him begging them to come back. So he ran, so far into the woods that the smell of smoke no longer plagued his nostrils.
There were no tears.
There was no crying.
There was only him, with the stars to keep him company.
And when he began to shiver from the cold, a house was erected from the ashes of his sorrows, to protect and keep him, always.
"Another woman has committed suicide today. Amelia Winston was a sister to three boys. She bled herself by severing the subclavian arteries with knitting needles." the TV reporter states with too much enthusiasm. Then again, I'm not really one to talk,
"Why?" I take another bite of my cereal, "Of all the ways to go, why choose something so slow? And with knitting needles no less!"
My mom switches off the TV, "I don't want you watching this stuff, Alina."
I shrug, who cares? I have other ways of finding out the gory details of the news. Riiiiiiing! The sound of the doorbell tears through our quiet apartment. I flee from the responsibility of doing my dishes to answer it.
"Are you ready?" My close friend Mason asks. Mason's the guy every girl in high school wants to date. Longish blonde hair, iceburg blue eyes, oh, and he's ripped. I just happened to be lucky enough to befriend the shy nerd in middle school. I can say that he's stopped playing Pokemon and he has relinquished his Razor scooter in exchange for a skateboard. However, were I to say he has moved on from these things entirely I would be lying.
"Yeah," I grab my backpack, "By mom!"
The air outside is chilly and damp with fog. The sun, no matter how hard it tries, cannot break through to give us any warmth. The leaves of the trees hang their weary heads under the extra weight of the morning mist.
"So, I suppose you've been on top of the suicides that have been happening lately?" Mason says off-handedly.
"Of course," He knows my dream is to be a forensic investigator.
"I also suppose your mom has been turning the TV off?" he raises an eyebrow.
"Of course," I say with a little less enthusiasm. My mom's whole family is a little old fashioned. The last thing she wants me to be is a cop of any sort.
School, like always, is a long and mind numbing. Afterward one of Mason's cult-like followers Ted, and his girlfriend Grace, stops us on our way out. Ted was popular before Mason was. He's liked playing sports and beating the crap out of his friends for as long as I've known him. His skin is the color of strong coffee and his hair, only a few shades darker, is a thin layer
"Dude," Ted pounces on Mason and puts him in a headlock, he chuckles as Mason throws him off, "Ally told us about this new old fashioned bookstore downtown. Grace and I are headed there right now, wanna come?"
Mason nods, "Sure, you in Alina?"
I am not 'cool'. I was never part of the popular club back in middle school and when Mason began his climb to fame I sunk lower by becoming interested in things like animation software and sweats. In fact, if I remember correctly, Mason and I became friends by trading playing cards and comparing scooter-related injuries. I just never managed to grow out of it.
"Mason, dude," Ted's voice gets low, "I don't really want her coming along. She and Grace don't get along very well."
"Okay well, then I guess I have to decline your offer," His shoulders are tense. He gets this way when people shove me to the side, just like I used to do for him, "Come on Alina, let's go." he grabs my arm and tugs me forward.
"Woah! What's the matter?"
"Can you believe that guy? Talking about you like you aren't even there!" his jaw clenches.
"Dude!" Ted jogs up and catches Mason's other arm, the one not welded to me, "Come on, I'm sorry."
"Don't apologize to me," Mason growls.
"Alina," Ted gags, "I'm sorry."
That seems to work for Mason because he and Ted are laughing like buddies not two minutes later. Grace and I walk a little ways behind them in awkward silence. We don't like each other. You see, she and I used to be friends, back in elementary. We used to pretend that the old, fallen, oak tree behind the school was a horse, or a house, or a spaceship. But she was forced to grow up, and to an adult, such things as make believe aren't effective anymore. So I was left alone, watching as she took on things that no child of that age should never have to bear.
It doesn't take long to get to our destination. Ted and Mason are watching a football fail video or something. The bookstore is in an old victorian mansion. The name is printed on a swinging sign that juts out from a metal arch that leads into the front yard. The Book Finder.
The door creaks open. Ted and Mason are still watching the stupid video, oblivious to the small piece of heaven that they've just stepped into. I can't believe my eyes, it's like something out of a book. The second floor has been knocked out so that the floor to ceiling bookshelves are over twenty feet high in every room.
"How may I help you?" A tall man in a suit that looks like it belongs in the 19th century approaches us, his gaze flies over Ted and Mason with a small look of disdain. He carries a faint scent of cigar smoke. He seems to be in his sixties with graying brown hair and sharp hazel eyes. I shake my head wordlessly. This guy has actual rolling ladders.
"Well, let me know if I can be of service." he returns to his post behind a giant oak desk.
"Wow that guy stinks," Grace says.
"No he doesn't," I have the strange urge to defend him, "He just smells like cigar smoke."
"Well it stinks." She takes a picture to put on snapchat. I roll my eyes, social media is the stupidest idea since bigfoot.
"Oh no I insist." the book keeper says to a woman buying a book.
"Please," she begs, "It's so beautiful, I can't just take it for free!"
"Of course you can! It's a gift, I give one to all of my customers." He holds the book out again. "It's why I'm called the Book Finder after all, I find the perfect book for everyone."
The woman guiltily takes the book and leaves. He turns his attention to us.
"Are you looking for anything in particular?" he asks. It takes me a moment to realize I'm being addressed personally.
"Oh," I chuckle nervously, this doesn't happen a lot, "No, I'm perfectly fine looking."
"Any particular interests?"He asks.
"Well, I really like forensics. Mysteries are some of my favorites."
"Ah," he smiles, "Follow me." he grabs a ladder and wheels it in front of the door, "Hold it will you?"
I grab on and watch as he climbs to the top shelf and selects a heavy brown book,
"It's about a forensic detective. Fiction, of course, but it goes into depth with the procedures and whatnot." he passes it to me.
"Wow," I stare at it in wonder, "Thank you but I don't think I can afford this."
"No, probably not," he says wistfully, "so then, consider it a gift."
"No," I laugh, " you've got to be kidding. I can't accept this!"
He sighs, "People these days. When I was your age I would have accepted any gift I was offered and never given it back."
My face flushes, "Sorry. Thank you very much." I sit down in a high-backed leather chair and start reading. It doesn't take me long to get absorbed into the story, like water into a sponge.
"Hey, Alina," Mason jerks me out of the pages, "Let's go."
"Not yet," The man approaches us, "I haven't found you your books yet."
"It's okay, really," Mason protests. I kick him in the shin and shake my head.
"No, no I insist." The man pulls out a gold pocket watch and checks the time then disappears around the corner and returns a moment later with three beautiful old books. To Grace he gives a purple one with gold patterns. To Mason he gives a black one with copper lining. To Ted he hand the most beautiful one, a brown leather book with intricate Celtic patterns. There's just one thing,
"They're all locked," Grace notes.
"Of course," He says, "Come back tomorrow and I'll give you the key."
"Alina, where are we going?" Mason asks.
"To the bookstore." this seems inherently obvious to me, "He said he would give you the key today, remember?"
Mason pulls away from me, "Alina, I don't think I'm going to get the key."
"I gave it some thought and the whole thing seems a bit shady. I don't think you should go back either."
"Oh, okay," I promise. Five minutes later I'm on my way back to the bookstore. I feel horrible breaking a promise, and I keep my eyes on the broken ground the entire way back. The door creaks open just like it did yesterday, allowing the heavy scent of cigar smoke and books to wash over me. Oddly enough, it makes me feel calmer.
"Hello!" I call.
"You're back!" The man exclaims, "But where are your friends?"
"Um," I look down at my hands, "They're not coming."
"Don't worry," he says, "They'll come eventually. Curiosity always wins."
I nod. That's a freakishly valid point, "I'm Alina, by the way."
"Carlson, Carlson Ether." he offers me a hand to shake, " How's that book I left you?"
"Oh, it's pretty good so far," I'm too embarrassed to admit I stayed up till four last night reading it and fell asleep in French as a result.
"Do you read the news, Alina?"
"Oh, yes! Well, I watch the news, but it's all the same, right? These suicides fascinate me, of course, my mother doesn't want me watching it, she says I need to stop filling my mind with this stuff," I'm talking a mile a minute. I tend to do that when I get started on something I like. He doesn't seem to mind that the suicides fascinate me, unlike everyone else I've told.
"I happen to know someone down at the police department who is working on the case, would you like to meet him?"
"Seriously? Of course I want to! That's like a dream come true for me!"
Carlson chuckles, "Come on then, follow me."
"Wait," I pause, my stomach climbing into my throat, "You mean he's here?"
"Mmhm. come on, right on this room here." Carlson leads me into the room I was in yesterday, "Ah there you are Richard, just the man I was looking for." he leads me over and I wave weakly, "this young lady is very interested in your work. She'd like to hear about the suicides."
I'm sure I'm blushing like crazy, "H-hi, I'm Alina."
"Richard," the man says, "but you can call me Dick."
I scrunch my lips, "No, no I'm good with Richard."
Richard chuckles, "So the suicides, aren't you a little young to be hearing about this kind of stuff?"
I blush again, "No! Well, probably but it's so interesting, ya know? I mean, why would so many people suddenly start killing themselves? Don't get me wrong, I know suicide isn't that uncommon, but the ways these people are killing themselves are so painful and slow. What's the point? Is it some kind of cult? Ritual? What?" I'm aware I've been rambling.
Richard chuckles sadly again, "I've been wondering that myself. Like most suicides these people leave a note. Unlike most suicides, the note is the same unanimously. Large Gothic calligraphy on fake antique paper, three words, two on top one underneath with the fold right in the middle of the two lines."
"What do they say?" I ask.
He looks at me out of the corners of his eyes, as if trying to decide whether or not to tell me, "My life's complete."
A week's past since I spoke with Richard. There have been three suicides since then. Among which Grace and Ted were victims. It's affected me more than I thought. I mean, I didn't really like them and they never liked me so why should I care at all? I know why, because now it's real. Only teens and young adults have been dying, so could someone I really care about be a victim? Could I be a victim? The thoughts scare me.
Why would Grace and Ted have both died? Especially within a week of each other? There's something nagging at the back of my brain, a clue. The TV switches on in the livingroom.
"We believe the fire may have been in connection with the suicide. Another tragic loss, Mason Albert was a-" the reporter's voice is cut off by the channel changing. Mason Albert? My Mason Albert? I glance at my phone and see I have a voice mail from Mason.
"It's my life, Alina. That book the Book Finder gave me. My life is written out in painful detail," he sounds panicked, "Alina it's like reading a horror! I can't… there's another way out. It's at the back of the book. It's horrible. I'd never dream of it except… I can't… Please understand. Alina, I'll miss you, but you have to understand."
The voice mail ends, leaving me in a strange mindset. The book? Fire, horrible, can't, can't what? Can't, live? Can't go through whatever the book said? Another tragic loss… Mason Albert. I can't breathe. The book, the book, the book. I jump up and run to the door.
"Alina where are you going?" My mom asks.
"The corner store," I lie.
"Honey, we need to talk."
"Not now mom, I need to go," I rush through the door and slam it shut before my mom can stop me. My feet carry me along the all too familiar path to Carlson. He smiles at me as I walk in,
"Alina how-" he stops smiling, "What's wrong?"
"It was you!" I wheeze, "you made them commit suicide! I haven't figured out how yet but I know it was you."
Carlson looks… pleased?
"I was wondering if my detective would figure it out. Do you want me to tell you how I did it?" he beckons me forward. Logic says no, but, like Carlson said, curiosity always wins. I slide cautiously up to his desk. He pulls out a gold pocket watch. He opens it and shows it to me,
"What the?" I scrunch my eyebrows. Scattered across the face are twenty-six letters and ten numbers.
"A long time ago," Carlson begins, beckoning me into a chair, "there was a man. This man loved the world very dearly. He loved the people, and the machines they created. He loved the scientists, and their drive to understand the world. Most of all, however, he loved authors, because they were the only people who really looked at reality. One day, in the woods, this man stumbled across a house. The house was the color of ash, with boards that seemed as if they should not be standing. The porch was sagging, and the shutters on the windows were nailed shut. There was a storm howling, the trees were bending under the undeniably great power of the wind. The rain, mingled with hail, was biting into his skin. So, the man did the only logical thing, he went up to the house, and when no one answered his knock he let himself in. The house was abandoned, dark, and devoid of any human life. On the table in the dining room, covered in layers of dust and debris, was a gold pocketwatch. The man, understanding that no one lived in the house, decided to take the pocketwatch. He soon discovered that it had a horrific power. It could write out the library number of a book pertaining to each particular person that chronicled the life of that person in explicit detail."
"The pocketwatch," I say, unbelieving, "Could write?"
"Well, no. it could tell you which book belonged to which person. Here you try it." he hands me the pocket watch and I hold it up to a woman who just entered. The letters and numbers align so that it shows a book number BBL 722. I turn back to Carlson. Everything makes sense now.
He looks at me,"Since the pocketwatch fell into his possession, the man has neither fallen ill, nor fallen prey to any form of injury, including death." His face is a mask of sorrow, "But I, I never thought…" his face contorts to anger, "The world has been swallowed by technology. I hate it, so I've been cleaning, I've been showing people what their life is going to be like if they don't change."
"And they're killing themselves!" I yell.
"I know," Carlson looks desperate, "Alina, please, take my pocketwatch. I can't keep living in this world. Take it, I'll die and the suicides will stop."
I reach forward and take the cold metal. Carlson sighs and disappears. He doesn't crumble or go puff, he just fades. My tear filled eyes rise from the desk to the room behind me. Abandoned, dark, and devoid of any life. I look back down to the pocketwatch and suddenly a choked laughter fills the room. I scan the room and my eyes zero in on a chair, its high back facing me. As the male voice begins talking, I quietly make my way to the chair.
"I guess I failed him too, huh," he lets out a choked laughter that sounds like it may be closer to a sob, "I thought maybe, when he picked me up, that I could protect him too. Maybe I could reconcile what happened-" this time the sound that escapes his lips is a sob, "But no, my fate is to lose every person that I ever become close to. I couldn't protect my wife, or my son, or, or my baby girl," He weeps, "Tabitha, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry."
Quietly, I sit down on the chair adjacent to his. His hair, a very pale blonde with a few streaks of light brown, is in desperate need of a cutting. His clothing seems to be from the seventeen hundreds, a farmer's drab.
"Well," I say, "the pocketwatch is mine now. If you belong to the holder-"
He cuts me off, "No, you don't get it. I am the pocketwatch. I have to go wherever it goes. That house, it was never a good idea to stay in that house." In one swift motion he lunges across the room and grabs me by the shoulders, "Stay away from that house. It only brings trouble. Please, that house is what caused all of this. That house is what took my family away from me. Promise that if you are to be my new holder, that you will not go anywhere near that house." he looks me in the eyes, pleading.
"I promise," I say. The man sighs, his whole body relaxing. His eyes, when he opens them, are full of thanks, and full of pain. He reaches out his hand, as if for something he will never obtain, and disappears into the pocketwatch, like sand into the bottom half of an hourglass.
I am alone. The only things to keep me company in my madness are the millions of stories surrounding me. Their voices drift off of paper and whisper. They call me, wanting me to become one of them, forgotten and desolate. I almost wish to, to curl up in sleep and never awaken. When my mind begins to wander to these thoughts of death, the pocketwatch becomes warm in my hand, and for a moment I don't feel so alone.
Thank you so much for suffering through this! This story is a rewrite of a previous 'plot bunny attack'. This is the first of five installments for this particular story, so if you liked it, follow for the next four! As always, please, please, please tell me if you spot any spelling/grammar mistakes, and constructive criticism is welcomed with open arms.