Cover to Cover
A struggling bookshop.
“It’s a real shame, this place going under.”
Miles spared his uncle a glance before going back to his work. It was time for another speech about the ingratitude and fickleness of the world.
“I outlasted Walden,” Lucas said, standing in front of the plate glass doors to the Last Page bookstore, his hands on his hips and a frown on his face. “I outlasted Borders. I even stayed in business longer than Blockbuster video.” He shook his balding, age-spotted head. “And now this.”
“Don’t be so sad, uncle,” Miles said, unable to help himself. “At least Barnes and Noble is still around.” He risked a peek at the old man, smiled at the scowl deepening across Lucas’ face.
“Thank you for reminding me.” His uncle stomped across the worn floorboards, which showed only a trace of their former parquet patterning, and that only along the edge of the heavy oak shelving racks that stood in ordered ranks, like soldiers standing at attention, unaware that the war had been lost. “It’ll be such a comfort in my forced retirement to know that the lowest common denominator is still in business.”
Miles shrugged. “Good to know somebody is in business,” he muttered, scooping another old, dusty tome from a shelf and dropping it into a large cardboard box, already half full of battered books. He then made a notation on the laptop sitting next to him, noting the title and print date of the volume, or trying to, since the cover was so faded with time as to be nearly illegible.
According to his uncle, the Last Page had once been a profitable enterprise, its shelves crowded with only the finest works, limited first editions and other examples of the very best authors. Touting itself as a store for the most exacting tastes, it had catered to a very distinguished crowd, and been known far and wide as the best place for collectors and pursuers of truly unique literary works.
All that had been long ago, of course, before Miles took up a job there, both to help his aging relation and to bolster his income while he worked his way through school. These days, the tarnished bell over the front door rung only rarely, with most of those who came through mistakenly thinking that the bathroom wasn’t just for customers. Even its exclusive inventory was no longer a selling point, as hard times had limited Uncle Lucas to purchasing second- and thirdhand volumes, bought in bulk to act as filler, their titles so obscure that even the old man had a hard time finding out their true value — which was just as well, since most of them were worthless.
The final blow had come two weeks earlier, in the form of an eviction notice. The Last Page had sat on the same spot for nearly forty years, a squat, aging two-story brick building that occupied what had recently become prime real estate. Uncle Lucas missed one lease renewal, and the speculators swooped in, buying the ground out from beneath his feet. Now Miles was doing his best to pack up the store’s remaining stock for sale to a wholesaler, and his uncle was looking at the end of his life as he’d known it.
“There was a time when people actually valued the written word,” Lucas continued. “A book is meant to be something solid, a tangible form of knowledge. All this stuff about digital storage and ebooks is a… a perversion of a medium.” He ran a finger along the spines of the handful of books still sitting on their shelves. “Wisdom should be something you can reach out and touch, not something so ephemeral that running down your batteries can lose it forever.”
Miles gave another shrug, avoiding the argument his uncle clearly wanted. Books had never meant that much to Miles. Most of the reading he did was what he had to, poring over digital textbooks and papers, most of them with interactive assignments and exams to keep students occupied and challenged. As for leisure reading… well, no one had yet written anything as captivating as the latest TV dramas and sitcoms, so he’d just keep on watching videos for fun.
“I can see I’m wasting my breath here,” Lucas said, the note of ire in his voice making it clear he took Miles’ silence for disagreement. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised; in all your life, young man, you probably haven’t read a single book from cover to cover. Am I right?”
“Not true,” Miles blurted, before even thinking. A brief pause for recollection made him equivocate. “Well, Mom used to read me those Golden Book stories.”
“Golden Book stories,” Lucas repeated, his scowl deepening into what Miles thought of as the “Popeye face”, nose hooked so low that it practically crossed the hard line of compressed lips.
Before the old man could continue his harangue, however, the door opened, the old bell giving its offkey jingle. Both men turned to see a figure step into the store, the newcomer a man in a long raincoat, whose round glasses and short beard gave him an owlish appearance.
“Ah,” Lucas grunted, as if this visitor was expected. “Miles, keep an eye on things for a minute.” He jerked his head in the direction of the rear of the store, where the office was located, and set off, the stranger following without a word being spoken between them.
The scene gave Miles a little frown of his own. The same thing had occurred every so often since he’d started working for his uncle, and a lot more frequently in recent days. He had no idea what went on between Lucas and this string of unanticipated visitors, but it always demanded the old man’s immediate attention.
Several quiet minutes passed, time which Miles put to good use hurrying through the very last of the store’s inventory. If he finished early enough, he could leave Lucas to lock up, and do a little job hunting. That was the most impactful facet of the Last Page’s closing to him; the need to find another part-time gig to keep petty cash coming in. Between mounting tuition and the cost of living, it was always a scrape. Of course, asking his uncle for a loan was worse than pulling teeth. Miles didn’t know much about the old man’s finances, but he was tight with whatever he had.
The stranger emerged from the back of the stacks, breezing past Miles and out the door. Lucas came in his wake, moving slowly, a look on his face like a man who’d just married off his daughter.
“Almost done?” the old man asked, reaching up to massage his chest.
Miles nodded. “Just finishing up.”
“Good,” Lucas said, kneading his fingers into his shoulder and upper arm. “When you’re finished — ” The words broke off in a grunt of pain, and he doubled over.
“Uncle?” Miles hurried forward, feeling a stab of concern.
Before he could say or do anything else, his uncle collapsed to the floor.
The paramedics had Lucas strapped to a stretcher and were rolling him out of the store. Miles trailed after them, harassing the EMTs in a way only a med student could. He knew his uncle wasn’t a young man, and he’d had heart trouble in the past. The stress of everything happening with the store must have been too much to handle. But the EMTs assured him that his uncle would be okay, that they would take him in for a few tests, and release him to home rest within a day or two.
Miles fought back a grimace. He just knew who would be taking care of the old man after that…
Almost as if to confirm his fears, his uncle struggled to raise his head from the gurney, beckoning Miles over. When the younger man bent close, Lucas fumbled off the oxygen mask, reached up to clutch at his nephew’s shirt collar.
“You have to take care of it,” the old man whispered, forcing the words through clenched teeth. His free hand found Miles’, forced something into his grip. “Don’t read it. Don’t believe it. Just keep it safe.” Then he sank back onto the stretcher, letting out a hoarse sigh.
Miles straightened, staring after Lucas as the paramedics loaded him into the waiting ambulance, which then pulled away with a wail of its sirens.
After a long moment, he looked down at the strip of paper his uncle had handed him. A series of number was printed on it, which Miles realized must be the combination to the office safe. What had his uncle meant? What wasn’t he supposed to read or believe?
There was only one way to find out.
Back in the store, he took just enough time to lock the doors. Then he made his way through the maze of shelves, heading deeper into the store. The place had always seemed so cluttered and claustrophobic in the past, the oak stands practically groaning under their burden of moldering books. Now, with their contents gone, the empty shelves lent the store an eerie aura, an almost cavernous sense, like the rib cage of a dead animal, gutted and empty.
Miles shook off the feeling with a shudder, slipped through the door into the office.
This room at least hadn’t changed much. The only furnishings were a battered desk with a chair and a single filing cabinet. The space was just somewhere for Lucas to retreat to, since Miles had long since taken over most of the accounting and management duties of the store, and preferred to work from his computer.
The only other thing in the office was the safe, set into one wall and poorly hidden behind a whiteboard. Miles took the board down, revealing the black, brushed metal façade of the safe door, dominated by an old-fashioned locking dial. He glanced at the paper in his hand, then spun the dial. After the last number, a loud clank sounded, and the door sprung ajar.
The safe was a good-sized affair, easily three feet on a side, and clearly meant to hold a lot. It was something of a disappointment to Miles when he peered inside and found it almost empty. Most of the shelves were bare save for a layer of dust. But right in the middle, looking as if it had been put there only moments earlier, a thick envelope sat.
Eagerly, Miles picked it up, feeling its satisfying weight. A glance inside confirmed his most optimistic hopes: it was stuffed with a fat wad of cash, large bills. Miles looked back at the shelf where it had rested, and saw a larger outline in the accrued dust, an outline the would correspond nicely to a stack of books.
A scowl slipped over his face. That was what Uncle Lucas had been up to, with his parade of mysterious visitors. The old man had been selling off the few treasures he’d held onto, taking cash payments under the table. No doubt none of that money was supposed to find its way to Miles. It was just like the greedy fart.
Miles started to close the safe door, when a glint of reflected light caught his eye. Peering closely into the safe, he noticed that one other thing remained. He reached into the dim recesses of the safe, felt around until something brushed his fingers, and pulled the object out.
It was a book, wrapped in an old cloth. When he removed the covering, Miles caught his breath in a gasp. The book was bound in blood-red leather, heavily inlaid with what looked like real gold. Words were stamped into the cover, in some language that he didn’t recognize. Before he could think about what he was doing, he flipped the cover open, and started to read the first page. For a second, he couldn’t make anything out; the words seemed to blur and shift, as if coming into focus. Then the effect cleared, and he saw what was written there.
“Lucas Willman was nothing if not a careful, shrewd man. He’d made his way in life by never trusting another soul, and by never letting a penny through his hands that he didn’t have to…”
Miles started back, nearly dropping the book. Lucas Willman… that was his uncle. Was this some sort of autobiography? He read on.
“Lucas was especially careful in how he handled the question of his wealth. He knew that the day would come when he would need the money he had so carefully hoarded, and took pains to keep the extent of his fortune, acquired through a life of shady dealings and illegal sales, a close-kept secret.”
Miles stopped, lifting his eyes from the page, his lips pursed. What was this? This couldn’t be anything his uncle had written. The old man would never have acknowledged something like this on paper. True, he was tight with his money and his secrets, but keeping some sort of tell-all was completely out of character.
“Even when his charity might have done a world of good for those around him, Lucas never revealed his wealth. As far as he was concerned, if you couldn’t make it on your own, you didn’t deserve help. Besides, it was his money, and he wouldn’t waste it on other people. That was just his way.”
This was crazy. Even if it described his uncle to a T, Miles had a hard time crediting it. Maybe this was something written by someone Lucas had angered.
“As the years rolled by, Lucas became so obsessed with holding on to his money that he passed up every opportunity to do some good with it. Even when his ambitious and motivated young nephew, Miles, came to work for him, donating his time and effort to helping the old man’s bookstore stay afloat, Lucas withheld every hint of his fabulous wealth from his new assistant. Preferring to keep his secrets and hoard his fortune, he pointedly ignored his nephew’s plight. Medical school was horrendously expensive, and although his savings would have more than covered the cost, Lucas never breathed a word.”
Now Miles did drop the book, letting it hit the floor and backing away. No. This wasn’t true. This was some sort of joke or sick prank. Uncle Lucas knew how much med school meant to Miles. He’d given him a good job, told him over and over again that he would have helped with tuition and expenses if he could. His uncle wouldn’t do this to him, wouldn’t lie to his face, not about this.
He remembered what Lucas had said, lying on that gurney. Don’t believe it. Miles drew in a shaky breath. This was what he’d meant. Some jerk had dug up some information, written this thing, maybe as blackmail. It didn’t matter. The book was going back in the safe, where it belonged.
Then Miles remembered what else he’d found in the safe. He looked back to the envelope, and the hefty roll of cash it held. His uncle wouldn’t have done that to him.
Slowly and carefully, Miles picked up the book again.
“He lied to you, Miles.”
Miles jerked as if struck. Those were the only words now on the page. He flipped to the next one.
“He has so much money. Hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Miles wanted to close the book, wanted to put it away and lock it up. But he didn’t. Instead, he turned the page.
“He doesn’t deserve it. He’s a liar and a miser. He made all that money by doing bad things, lying and cheating, stealing.”
Almost against his will, Miles turned another page.
“That money should go to someone who would use it wisely. Someone who would spend it to make the world a better place. Someone like you.”
His trembling fingers turned another page.
“Keep reading, Miles. I’ll tell you where it is. I’ll tell you just what you have to do.”
Sinking into the rickety desk chair, Miles set the book on the desk in front of him.
And kept reading.
“You’re a good boy, Miles,” Lucas said, from where he lay on the bed, propped up on a pile of cushions. “Not a lot of people would have taken in a crusty old fart like me, offered to take care of me during my convalescence.”
“Don’t mention it, Uncle Lucas,” Miles said, busying himself arranging the bedding around his uncle’s frail body. “It just made sense, with my medical training. And us being so close and all.”
The old man let out a harsh laugh. “Right. So close. Anyway, did you finish up at the store? Is everything taken care of?”
“Yes, Uncle Lucas,” Miles said, smiling at the old man. “The place is emptied out, the deed is ready to hand over.” He shrugged. “Everything’s taken care of.”
Lucas hands fidgeted with the bedsheets. “About that… that thing I said to you, when they were taking me away…?”
“Don’t worry, Uncle Lucas. That’s taken care of, too.”
“Good,” the old man said with a sigh. “You put it someplace safe?”
“I did.” Miles turned away from his uncle, pulled out a syringe and a small vial of clear liquid, shielding his movements from Lucas. With practiced ease, he filled the syringe, gave it a quick tap to shake out any air. “Someplace very safe.”
“That’s good. Very good.” Lucas settled back into his covers, closed his eyes. An instant later they snapped open again. “You… you didn’t read it, did you?”
Miles turned back to face the old man, gave him a reassuring smile. “Oh, you know me,” he said, slipping the needle into a valve on the IV attached to his uncle’s arm, and slowly depressing the plunger. “I’ve never read a book cover to cover in my life.”
This story was written by Ian Gonzales. Ian Gonzales is a writer of fiction works, including short stories and novels. He currently resides in the Pacific Northwest, where he strives to live by the simple maxim of never taking anything so seriously that he can’t love it. To see more of his work, visit his website at ianegonzales.com.
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