The Short, Short Fiction Series, Part 2 (“The Bookstore Dream”)
By Rob Huckins
The bookstore was a good enough place for the interview, safe from the pretensions of the outside community, with their Volvos and Fair Trade Coffee and organic food all that other bullshit keeping them from seeing life as it really was. At least that’s what the author said during the talk. He said many things during the interview. Funny things. Wise things. Disturbing things, the type which make you wonder what type of brain thinks up such notions. He wore a black robe, not cheap or shiny like a high school graduation gown, but plush and thick, protecting him like a modern day suit of armor as he sat in his chair. When he got up to use the bathroom, make a salient point or go refresh his coffee it flowed around him, a whirling smoke under the command of a dark wizard.
The bookstore parking lot had a half dozen or so cars out front but none of them ever moved. That should have been the first sign he supposed. He looked around. Something was up, something unusual. A robbery perhaps. No, something different. A bomber held the store captive in some macabre standoff with nobody in particular. Who was the bomber trying to leverage? The interviewer sat in his car and ate his sandwich. He had already pulled up to the last few rows so as to maintain his New Year’s resolution of parking farther away from stores in parking lots to get more exercise. Cheap victories, he knew. But it was something.
A bomber was holding people hostage inside the bookstore. Why the bookstore? Surely there were more worthy, more ripe targets than this quaint bevy of gentle people and inquisitive souls. If numbers were what the bomber was looking for, this was hardly a worthy effort. Barely anyone was here. He could see police officers poised around the location, guns safely tucked in their holsters, preparing for the bomber’s inevitable surrender. He started the car and began backing out. He saw a man in the front row, just for a moment, turn his head. He could only see the man’s left eye and mouth agape. The interviewer’s car was already backing out. The silvery faint wire, barely visible, was now taut. He already took his foot off the gas and started pushing the brake but it was too late. The momentum of the car only required another millimeter, another hair’s breadth of movement to commit its most unwittingly heinous act.
The explosion came in a burst, jutting outward from the door to the bookstore, silent for a millisecond, a flash indicating something painfully significant. Debris, glass and fluttering pages came flying out of the door of the bookstore, soon followed by black smoke billowing up and out of the space where the windows used to be. There were just hollow holes where the interviewer used to see the latest bestsellers and new releases. Paper pages swirled about in the air like summer mosquitoes or mad barn swallows. Black smoke rose up from the bookstore’s carcass, a signal Hell had truly won the day.
Nothing moved for a full minute until police started heading toward the bookstore entrance, a move the interviewer found odd since surely there could be another explosion. What were they doing? He stared as two people came staggering out of the bookstore, clearly shocked, moving like zombies, bloody blots on their clothes making them look as if they were dressed in some awful Halloween costume. He got out of the car and fell to the ground. He heard the screams and moans from a distance.
The man from the other car wandered around his car as if looking for lost keys or dropped money, aimless and erratic. He wore glasses. One police officer ran toward him, one hand on his side and the other in the air, waving carefully as if trying to clear a smoky mist in front of him. My life is over. My life is over. He could have said this to himself a thousand more times but only had time to repeat it a half dozen or so before the officer stood in front of him directly, saying something he couldn’t hear at all. He could only see, just past his outstretched hand on the gray and paved parking lot, the gold and green shamrock pin lying on its side, like a spinning top after a good run. My life is over. My life is over.
There is another way this ends. In the interviewer’s other ending, a much more honorable end, he arrives to the bookstore for the interview and is handed a crowbar and told to stand guard outside the door like an unwitting vigilante, waiting for the bomber to make an escape. When that happens he should hit him with the crowbar. This is what the frightened manager said to him while he ran his fingers through his hair and adjusted his glasses on his face. The sound was muffled and the burst short, looking like a full vacuum cleaner bag someone decided to pounce on for a joke and send its contents flying out to the sides. There was some debris but everyone appeared safe. He walked in the doorway, brushing by the people with strange smiles on their faces, mouths and cheekbones and eyes reflecting more relief than happiness. This was not happiness, he now knew. It was relief.
He walked down the stairs and saw the radius of destruction, a short and tight circumference of black and sooted pages and broken furniture and people with backs up against the wall, rubbing their arms or legs or heads. The body was in a black robe, not the cheap kind you might see at a high school graduation, but one with density and good cloth, something that might cost some money or at least command a great deal of attention at a quirky thrift store. Get out while you can the voice said. A raspy voice. One near death. The interviewer looked around for a second and turned to go back up the stairs. Get out while you can. It was not a warning but a mocking invitation, a dare to everyone in earshot. He dropped the crowbar and ran as fast as he could, the deafening sound of the explosion behind him as he kept running, across the parking lot and to the trees and bark mulch island ahead of him. People were screaming again. He did not turn around. He kept running, finally stopping under the short tree and directly on the fresh bark mulch to look at the bookstore, which despite two explosions still stood, at least partially, its windows and door completely gone, pages and other debris strewn outside in shambles around the store.
He had won. People were dead or scared. They were warned. They did not take it seriously. They comforted themselves by reminding everyone these were the ramblings of an old man, a once great man who now spent his days and occasional nights at the local bookstore, combing the aisles and cafe for a life once great, a life once vibrant, once neat and clean, once filled with people and a wife and everything he saw everyone else have. He toyed with the gold and green shamrock pin in his wrinkled hand, twirling it over and over, his thumb and forefinger rotating it all around until it blinked and shined in the daylight, almost twinkling. The old man warned them. But they didn’t listen. My life is over. My life is over.