I think maybe if it hadn’t been for the curse, Thomas’d be less lonely. Maybe he’d have found himself a girl bookworm to settle down with, and they’d read all their livelong days, occasionally glancing at each other in acknowledgment of the other’s existence. I might be fooling myself, though.

To be honest I’m not even sure how we’re friends. It’s kind of like when you meet someone and three hours later you realize you never asked their name. So you just don’t bother with it. I just go along with Thomas’ shit, really, that’s all there is to it, because if I thought about his behaviors too much I’d probably get in a funk and leave and then he’d have nobody. A man’s gotta have somebody.

It’s just that witches are bad sports, you know. Notoriously, I mean. And the old ladies, like not the witchy ones but the regular ones, have smartened up to it, too. Makes it so much worse. Now we don’t know which ones are ugly, knobby-nosed things that could curse us if we don’t give them food and shelter, and which ones are ugly and greedy but with nothing to back it up. We sure as shit can’t take the risk so we give them what they want.

Except Thomas, that is. Nobody knocks on his door most days anyway on account of it looking so run down — his daddy used to just barely take care of the place but then he died two years ago. Cancer. It was really hard on Thomas, I know, even if he doesn’t show it.

But the guy has the fortune — or misfortune in this case I guess — of being a good looking sonofabitch. Like if his nose hadn’t been stuck in a book all day everyday he probably could’ve made a living in front of a camera. I guess somehow the word got out that there was this attractive recluse living in town, and it fired up some witch’s shriveled loins. Do witches have loins? Don’t know and don’t care to find out.

Well so this witch knocked on Thomas’ door and Thomas being Thomas he took a long time to open it. When he finally did, he wasn’t particularly nice about it. I don’t know the exact details but that’s what Sweet Pete, Thomas’ next door neighbor, said. I guess he told her he wasn’t interested in what she was selling, and when she explained she wasn’t selling anything and was just an old woman seeking a place to rest her old bones for a bit he said…well…something like,

“Ma’am I’ve read many, many books and several have warned me about old crones that knock on doors.”

So that probably didn’t make her feel too good. And then he said something about getting back to the one he was so close to finishing before he’d been interrupted.

Well she really didn’t like that. She couldn’t have, because she very quickly said some mumbo jumbo (Sweet Pete’s words, not mine) that had Thomas flying back into his house, his legs out from under him and everything.

Lucky for the ladies, Thomas’ face was unharmed. He didn’t turn into a weird bison-beast or a frog.

My friend went running to my house that day — first time I’d seen him outside in the daytime — with a book in hand, banging on my door like a madman. I had to send Cheryll away for an extended lunch break. She wouldn’t stop staring at Thomas.

When my secretary left, Thomas told me he’d been cursed. He said that he’d been alarmed by the evidence of witchery — guess the newspaper isn’t on his reading list — but was relieved when nothing had seemed to change. That is, until he’d tried to get back to his book. Apparently the moment he flipped it to the proper page, he instantly knew how the story would end.

I asked Thomas what the big deal was, which I guess was the wrong thing to do because he began crying. Hysterically, he told me that he’d never read that book before, and when he skipped to the end of the book it was word for word what he’d seen in his head. So then he picked up another book at random, started reading from page one, and again immediately knew every following plot point and ending. He confirmed this with five more books.

“So what if you read them back to front?” I asked, and nearly got slapped for it. My friend was clearly very upset. Then he handed me his book.

“I came here to test something out. Read me the first page.” he said.

Now I’m just the town vet. People come to me, and not very often, to fix their pets or get something out of them that they swallowed. I don’t get much practice in the art of reading out loud, but still, I did my best. Thomas had his eyes closed as he listened to me finish the last line on the first page, something about people bleeding out and a masquerade. Gruesome stuff.

“Okay, stop,” said Thomas, “that’s interesting.”

“Really? You read this stuff? I’m not sure — ”

“No, no. What’s interesting is that I found a workaround. I need to be read to.”

“Oh…okay, but I have the animals, and — ”

“I don’t need you to read to me,” said Thomas, shaking his head, “just someone.” Then he slapped my back. I must have looked offended, I guess. “You’re a shit reader, man. Don’t quit your day job.”

And just like that he walked out and resumed being a recluse. Not for long, though.

***

I’ll tell you about the stream of weeping girls that have come through my house but first let me explain. It’s not my fault. It’s Thomas’.

So in the weeks following the witch incident my friend became open for business. I mean that literally and figuratively. The next day after coming to visit me, he made it a point to open the doors to his house, and even step out now and again.

He wouldn’t do anything big, just shop for groceries and some hardware. I got a little worried when I saw him paint the chipped door frame, but I shouldn’t have. It was all part of a plan. Those limited appearances in society were more than enough to have every woman in the vicinity flock to Thomas’ open door.

Maybe it was the mystery. Maybe it was his soft-spoken, artist way. Probably it was the symmetrical face, which promised good genes and bragging rights.

Thomas entered a chain of relationships that started and ended more or less the same way. The very first one was Jessica, the curly haired daughter of the local grocer. She’d seen Thomas at her father’s store and wanted to find out more about him. After coming to his doorstep with a casserole in hand — seemed out of place to me but maybe I was jealous — she developed what she called an “instant connection” with my friend.

“He loves book so much,” she told me through her tears, “it was so inspiring. When he asked me to read to him I thought it was his way of involving me in his passion. It was so charming.”

Jessica went through an entire box of tissues through the course of telling me about Thomas. It started with her reading a book or two to him a day. They’d take breaks to eat, to — and I don’t mean to be vulgar — make love. But after a little while he asked her to read more and more, so that her voice was hoarse by the end of the day. They stopped making love, and even as they ate Jessica noticed he’d stare at her, making her feel rushed. Pretty soon she realized Thomas was more interested in devouring books than her.

“I think I have to end it.” she said. I didn’t know how to respond. “Why is he like this?”

I shrugged and patted her hand.

“You’re his only friend. Do you think you could have a word with him?”

I shook my head. “Thomas doesn’t change for anybody, I’m sorry.” I tried to think if there was anything I could do for the poor woman. Only one thing occurred to me that might be useful. “Do you have a pet, by any chance?”

“What? Well, yeah I have Bailey, my dog.”

I apologized for not having control over Thomas, and handed her a business card with a jotted down 20% discount for veterinary services. “Dogs are better company anyway,” I said with a smile.

She sighed, thanked me, and left. Thus it began, the flood of tearful girlfriends at my house. My front room looked more like a therapy clinic than a veterinary clinic. Cheryll even threatened quitting a few times, but I think she was too fascinated to mean it.

The increase in business was good enough compensation for the stacks of tissue boxes I was buying. Jessica, it seemed, had spread the word about my little consolation prize, and my practice was gaining weepy female clientele as well as other kinds. I even took her out on a date to thank her. We really hit it off, I think! She liked that I don’t read much, and promised to come over with a casserole.

When it seemed like my friend had gone through the entire dating pool, Thomas was back. He looked both frustrated and well-fed.

“It’s not working,” he said. “I don’t really want somebody else reading to me, it’s not the same.”

“Why? What’s wrong with being read to out loud by pretty girls?”

Thomas rolled his eyes at me. “You don’t get it. Most people aren’t very good at reading.”

“You know, there’s this thing called audiobooks…” I came very close to being slapped that time. Thomas was a print only kind of guy.

“It’s not even just that,” said Thomas, pulling his arm back, “it’s that I don’t want to be read to. I want to hear my own voice. I want to feel like I’m reading to myself again, like it’s all happening in my own head.”

I couldn’t empathize with my friend’s dilemma, but I wanted to help. He was making my business boom, it was the least I could do.

“Have you tried finding a loophole?”

“Of course. I’ve tried everything. I’ve tried reading the book out of order but it’s too confusing. I’ve tried reading the book upside down, but as soon as I understand the story I know how it ends. I’ve even tried your suggestion of reading the ending first, but then I end up spoiling the story anyway.”

“Have you tried…reading books backwards? Not just reading it back to front, but starting with the very last word and reversing it until you get to the front?”

Thomas stared at me for a few seconds. “How would that work? I wouldn’t understand the story at all that way.”

I shrugged. Honestly I was kind of out of ideas.

“Unless…” Thomas stood up all of a sudden. “Wait. Do you have a voice recorder?”

“Like, with tapes and stuff? Uh, no, man, I have a phone with recording capabilities like everyone else.” A bit insensitive, I’ll admit. Thomas was a proud luddite. He didn’t even have a Facebook account.

“Where do they sell voice recorders?”

“Shit, I don’t know. Online for sure, but physical stores? Maybe Sweet Pete’s music shop?”

He left without saying another word.

***

It does make me sad sometimes, knowing that my friend is in his house all day, recording himself reading backwards so he can play it back. I guess I’m partially to blame.

Ever since Thomas found the loophole to both the curse and needing the presence of other humans, I’ve tried to focus more on my own life. Things between Jessica and I are going really well. We go out for walks with Bailey together a lot, and one time I really impressed her with a Heimlich maneuver when her pooch swallowed and choked on a little frog. I just thanked her for the opportunity to save two lives in one go.

I have to admit, though, Thomas’ seclusion was really getting to me. I’d found Jessica, and I sort of wanted the same thing for him. No man’s an island, right? Even animals have packs.

In a moment of moodiness I wound up at the dive bar two towns over. As a rule you never go to the dive in your own town. Too much potential for words getting out that shouldn’t. I ordered whatever light beer was on tap — been having to watch myself thanks to Jessica’s casseroles — and sat down. Two seats over was a witch.

Okay, in all fairness, I didn’t know she was a witch right away, not for sure. They don’t have a sign on them or anything, right, you have to ask or wait for them to say something witchy.

The phone in her hand had a broomstick phone case, though, and she was cackling in a very witchy way. It felt like a safe assumption.

To be honest I didn’t say anything for a while. I’ve never talked to a witch before, unless the old ladies who’d threatened their way into my home and fridge were actually magic. I wasn’t sure if they preferred to be addressed in a certain way, or just how dangerous it might be to engage one in conversation. All the information I had on witches was that they could curse you which wasn’t really encouraging.

Three pints later I was feeling a lot more talkative. When she noticed me looking at her and smiled I took it as an opening. “Are you…I’m sorry, I don’t know if you’ll mind me asking, but ma’am are you a witch by any chance?”

She grinned, revealing menacingly crooked front teeth. “What if I am?” Her voice had a bit of a croak in it. I was almost 100% sure she was a witch.

“Are you around these parts often?” I heard how it sounded but it was too late to take it back.

She cackled. Definitely a cackle, not a laugh. “So what if I am?”

It seemed witches didn’t like providing answers. “Well, you see, my friend got cursed some months back — ”

“Cursed? Let me guess, you think I did it.” Her eyes flashed red for a second. Or I think they did.

“No, no, I’m just asking if maybe you know who cursed him. You know, if you’ve got an in to the witch community. If that’s a thing.”

She seemed to consider this. “When was this exactly?”

“About six months ago. My friend’s name is Thomas, he’s sort of a loner living in — ”

“Attractive loner?” I nodded. “Yes I know all about him. Thomas. But I didn’t put a curse on him.”

“Wait, it was you?” I said, not expecting to have gotten to the bottom of this so quickly. It felt a bit like cheating.

She nodded, scratching her dark grey hair. I watched for spiders but none fell out. “Yes, but I wasn’t cursing him. I was just trying to help the poor guy.”

“Help him? By making it so he’d spoil every book ending for himself? Taking away his only driving force to live?”

The witch lady shrugged. I’ll admit, I got a little heated.

“Well you messed up, lady! He found a way around your stupid spell! He’s been recording himself reading books backwards, a really painstaking process, but then he rewinds the tapes and hears the story front to back! He beat you!” I said, and sloppily punched the table. Almost knocked the empty glass over. I think the beer was getting to me.

“He’s been…recording himself?” asked witch lady. “He wanted to avoid doing anything other than stay in his rotten little shack and read so badly that he’s been reading every word in every book backwards?”

This wasn’t going the way I’d expected, although I’m not even sure what I’d expected. “Yes?”

What followed was what I can only describe as the witchiest, cackliest guffaw I’d ever heard in my life. If I never hear that sound again it will be too soon. It followed me as I paid the bartender, walked out the door and returned to town.

I want to tell Jessica, but I don’t know where to begin. Guess I’ll figure it out.

Magical realism/fiction writer. A fortune teller said she’d never be able to do what she loves for a living, so she’s been trying to prove that b**** wrong.

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