by Raechel Henderson
Jodi kneels on the floor taking inventory of musty, used books when she feels someone approach and tower over her. She doesn’t mind the interruption because the books are starting to whisper to her again. When she looks up she bares her neck to the customer. “Your Lucy complex is showing again,” Victor, the shop owner and her boss, says from where he’s building new shelves into the ceiling. Jodi pays him as much attention as the books.
For an instant Jodi and the customer, a boy of sixteen or seventeen, take stock of each other, looking for indicators they might be people who share common interests.
The boy wears standard neo-goth attire–lots of black and dripping in chains–but his costume can’t hide his white-bread good looks. He’d be better suited to a band or school or fast food uniform. Like her, he is an imposter. She imagines the two of them riding a train through the Carpathians under a full moon. He mumbles something to her, more of a long sigh than communication.
He speaks louder but the words still stick together as if he can’t take the time to pronounce each one.
She stands up, brushing her hands on the sides of her jeans. “Say that one more time, slowly.” She smiles at him to let him know the misunderstanding is all her fault.
“Mercurial Skin,” he says at last.
Her smile fades when she sees the girl behind him, his dark twin although hers isn’t a costume: from her black hair and black lips to the spider web patterned fishnet stockings and scuffed boots she is the Real Thing. The girl watches with a gorgeous smirk and Jodi knows she’s been caught desiring someone else’s property. When her smile dismisses Jodi as a threat, Jodi becomes all business.
“Do you know where it is?” he asks.
“What kind of book is it?”
“Who’s the author?” Jodi asks. The pair exchange glances and their attitudes change. He doesn’t seem interested anymore.
“Uh, I dunno …” He glances at his twin, confused looks all around.
“Deezler maybe?” she suggests. “It starts with a ‘D.’”
“Well then you could try literature,” Jodi says.
“Yeah… it’s fiction.”
Jodi pushes past them to show the way. She swerves around cardboard boxes and stacks of books, steps lightly over the uneven tile and dodges the heating duct that juts out of the wall. If she closed her eyes she could find her way back to literature by the smell alone: the antique section smells of old leather, the spiritual and occult sections of incense, the histories of gunpowder and musk. And under it all is the lingering stench of mold as countless overlooked books disintegrate.
She walks briskly around the corner. Most times she keeps her pace slow for bewildered customers so not to lose them amongst the twisting aisles. When she looks back and sees they aren’t behind her she lets out an annoyed sigh and doubles back for them.
She searches the bookstore twice before concluding they’ve disappeared. Her annoyance is eclipsed by her puzzlement. She forgets the inventory as she mulls over the encounter. At one point, as the afternoon bleeds into early evening, she searches Literature and Books in Print for Mercurial Skin but doesn’t find it. Victor would probably know the book, but he’s busy dusting in the shelves. It’s a detailed task: he removes each book and runs a soft dust cloth over the top and spine before returning it and moving to the next book. Sometimes she thinks he whispers back to the books.
Only at the end of the day, as she closes the store does it occur to her it might have been a test. “Mercurial Skin.” A password? What would have happened if she’d recognized the words? What exclusive circle would she have been invited into?
She frowns at her reflection in the display window. Brown hair and a chubby face frown back at her. She’d look ridiculous in goth attire; even so, she considers dying her hair black.
Jodi believes everyone has to become something. Most people just turn into older versions of themselves, but others run into the weird and wonderful who recognize a kindred spirit. Those lucky souls are initiated, nurtured, cocooned, and burst free, a different entity all together. Vampires, werewolves, witches, charismatics, they’re all the same at the start. They find where they fit in and it changes them into someone more interesting, exotic, better.
Jodi spends her days trying to figure out the riddle of Mercurial Skin.
She makes lists of possible responses: Fickle Heart, Deceitful Tongue, Mother Tongue?
She tries anagrams: Numerical risk, Reclaim Ski Urn, Miracle In Rusk.
She lingers in the puzzles section, reading through books on code breaking, not listening to their whisperings. Victor told her on her first day to ignore them. “They’re like beggars. Once they got your attention they won’t shut up for nothing. I’ve lost more’n one employee to the books.” She takes it to mean they’ve quit rather than listen to the constant mutterings.
Without admitting to it, Jodi keeps looking for the neo-goth boy. Her imagination is dominated by scenes of the two of them together. She imagines they are spies hunting down trained assassins in Bangkok. It doesn’t matter that she’s never travelled; doesn’t even have a passport. At first she glances up whenever the door chimes. Soon she turns corners, moves through the stacks, or checks the reading nooks expecting to see him. Even outside the bookstore, on the street, while glancing out her window, or at the grocery store, she anticipates his sudden materialization. The certainty she has of seeing him any moment short-circuits her internal clock. She lives five seconds in the future and moves more slowly to compensate; to give him time to find her. The constant accompanying disappointment weakens her defenses.
The paperback romances twitter at her when she flips through them, pretending to straighten the shelves. The poetry folios recite love sonnets when she passes. The self-help books guarantee she only needs to lose weight, learn how to apply make-up, or believe in herself to get her man. Those books she leaves to Victor’s care.
She watches customers wander through the aisles, running their fingers over the books. After a year of working the store she can tell those who can hear the books from those who can’t. Those who can browse with their heads tilted slightly. They fondle the books and take their time in choosing. Those who can’t snatch books up, skim the first few pages, and make their decisions in seconds. She’s heeded Victor’s advice so far, just the fact that she can hear the books tells Jodi she’s in the right place to find what she’s looking for. Jodi scratches her neck and the sound is like the rustling of pages.
Jodi thinks about getting a tattoo. Something small, maybe on her hip or some place else she could cover up. But that would mean having to disrobe for a stranger and she’s afraid of the needle’s sting.
She can’t fit her usual fantasies to neo-goth boy anymore. Her mind refuses to focus on dreams of adventure and discovery. Instead she’s subconsciously set up house with him: Sunday brunches, sharing yard work, snuggling before the television on work nights. She tries to tell herself it’s all so pathetically banal, but she can’t exorcise the thoughts from her head, nor can she bend them to a more suitable vision. Sure she could have that if that’s what she wanted: some ordinary life with an ordinary guy. But she’d always be dissatisfied, always looking for something more fulfilling.
Afraid she’ll have lost her one and only chance, Jodi turns to the books.
“Mercurial Skin,” she whispers to the tatty and broken spines.
“Mercurial Skin,” they sigh back to her, sounding almost like the neo-goth boy. Jodi looks around but she’s alone.
“What is it?” she asks the books.
The books whisper to her about dashed hopes and painfully drawn out terminal illnesses, the lives of the Indians of the Amazon interior, folk songs of the lower Slavic peoples, the heresies prevalent in 17th century Germany, of a hundred other tangled and convoluted subjects. At first, she thinks they’re trying to help her and she strains to understand what they say.
After a day or two she wonders if they aren’t just a mirror of her own inner turmoil. The main emotional content of their messages are of longing and disappointment.
This isn’t a conversation, she realizes at last. This is a monologue issued by hundreds of actors, each trying to be heard over the others. This is why she ignored the books in the first place, Jodi remembers. Now it’s too late. She opened her ears to them and there’s no stoppering them up.
Even when she’s alone in her apartment she can hear the mediocre, prosaic, characterless stories. It’s an indictment of her own life that she only hears the boring plots. Or maybe it’s a portent of her own future: the books are telling her she’s destined for a wearisome, humdrum experience. She finds her own fantasies weighted down by ponderous verbiage and melodrama. She goes out Saturday night to escape her stilted thoughts.
She stands against the back wall of the club, nursing a vodka tonic as the factions move around each other in an unchoreagraphed minuet. She watches the vampires, too unsure of herself to consider approaching them. The waifs sway, arms stretched above their heads, under the pulsing neon lights. The Baron is trolling the crowds for a playmate, a length of gleaming white nylon rope looped over his shoulder. He’s never once looked at her. She rubs her wrist where the skin has became tough, leathery.
Jodi considers joining the vamps. She watches them lounging in one of the alcoves. They wear black leather corsets and velvet fishtail skirts. Some of them can be called voluptuous. Some are just fat, their breast spilling over their corsets in pale, flabby mounds. Even so, they’re surrounded every Saturday night by admirers. Men and women buy the vamps drinks, whisper in their ears and sneak off with one or another to dark corners. Jodi thinks she’d look good as a vamp with the neo-goth leaning against her. But she can’t afford even a cheap corset, and the weird and wonderful have a strict dress policy.
The ice has melted and diluted her drink. Jodi looks down at her body, expecting to see she has gone invisible. But no, as she casts her gaze down she sees her pigeon chest, thrift-shop dress, dimpled knees and low-heeled shoes. Her clothing and personality are so bland she blends into her surroundings. She slinks home with the sort of fatal wounds only self-recrimination can inflict.
Jodi’s closed up shop but she hasn’t left. She sits, huddled against the books, weeping. She doesn’t want to go out on the street where neo-goth won’t/always will be. She’s tried everything she can think of but nothing’s brought her closer to the answer. Maybe she’s not meant to be anybody else. Maybe this is all she’s meant for.
No. She rejects that thought. Why would she have gotten this job if this isn’t where she’s going to find where she belongs? It can’t be only because Victor needed someone to work the evening shift. She’ll never admit to having taken the job because she needed money, and it seemed like easy work.
The books’ whisperings are comforting tonight. She leans closer, rubs her wet cheeks against cloth and paper bindings. She strokes their spines and feels their pleasure at her touch.
Being a book wouldn’t be so bad. Here among the forgotten and unwanted she wouldn’t be judged, even by her cover.
The books make her an offer: she could join them. What does she have to lose? Her lonely life? Her emptiness? At least on the shelves she would have companions, others who know what it’s like to be over looked. And there is the promise of being picked up one day, taken home, read and enjoyed.
Jodi thinks about the books in the back, the ones riddled with bugs, damp pages fused together, now unreadable. How long do obscure books pine for a reader before they go mad, or give up and fall silent forever? She walks back to the furthest corner and runs her fingers down the spongy spines, listening for a response. Maybe their voices are too faint, or maybe they refuse to speak to her.
A panicky flutter beats against her ribcage. What is she thinking? There’s always tomorrow. She could try a new club, walk a new route home, she could look for a new job. Away from the moldy books, where there are people, where there is life.
The books pull at her, they whisper soothing words, they are warm under her hands and against her cheek. It’s so comfortable here. You’ll have us, they tell her.
All she has to do is abandon her hope of finding anything else, of belonging anywhere else. There’s no romance in giving up, Jodi knows this. But romance can’t stand against the empty ache in her chest.
“Yes.” Her answer comes out as a whisper. Already her body is dissolving. It reforms and she is aware of her new shape, knows how many pages her life takes up, where her covering is frayed, the nature of her odor–dry, as if twenty-two-years’ worth of dust are pressed into her paper. Her pulpy heart leaps when she recognizes her title.
Jodi is lifted from the shelf. She recognizes his hands even though she’s never felt them: soft, gentle but firm. The neo-goth boy traces her slightly embossed title. Another snatches her from him: quick fingers with black-lacquered nails manicured into cruel points.
“What’s this?” The girlfriend reads Jodi’s back jacket copy. “Girl in a bookstore? Jesus, John, do you really want to read this crap?” She’s tossed back onto the shelf. “I’m going to see if they have any Dead Girls.”
John, picks her back up, his fingertips are moth wings on her dust jacket. They are moonbeams, soft rain, warm and intimate. He tucks her under his arm and goes in search of the register.
That night he reads her life. He reads every word of her story, rereads some passages two, three times even. He empathizes with her life and loneliness. The veneer of fiction allows her to finally speak to him and for him to hear her. For the first time Jodi feels understood, accepted, loved. And she reads him. She sees his own desire to belong, his discomfort with the costume but his unwillingness to give it up… yet. When he’s finished, as amber dawn drives away the darkness, both are exhausted. He gives a satisfied sigh before closing her. As he sleeps, Jodi nestled next to him, she whispers to him. She’ll get him back to the bookstore and show him the way. Already she’s dreaming of the two of them on the shelf, side-by-side, moldering away. Together.
About the Author
Raechel Henderson is a dual class seamstress / shieldmaiden. She has sewn professionally since 2008. Over the years she has traveled around the Midwest region selling her handmade bags, skirts, coats and accessories at various events and conventions. Arachne hangs out in the window of her workshop reminding her to check the tension on the sewing machines. She writes about magic, creativity, living a life by one’s own life patterns, her family and books. Her first book, Sew Witchy, is due out December 2019 from Llewellyn.
About the Narrator
Marguerite Kenner (she/her) is a California transplant living in the UK city named after her favorite pastime.
She runs Escape Artists with her partner Alasdair Stuart, and practices as a technology lawyer in London. She loves to voice minor characters in podcasts and play video games, often where people can watch.
Her contributions to genre fiction include being a 2021 Hugo Award Finalist, editing Cast of Wonders from 2013 to 2019, project groups for too many industry orgs to count anymore, community organising, mentoring, and teaching business skills to creatives.
You can follow her adventures across various social media platforms.