Mon. Jun 24th, 2024

I had 48 hours to write this and the prompts were…

Ghost Story – Indulgence – Bookseller

A thief who doesn’t look at the bookshelves when breaking into someone’s home isn’t much of a thief at all. Rare books had once been Frank Sullivan’s trade, and he knew treasure when he saw it. An early, hand-illustrated print of La Divina Commedia, otherwise known as The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. Printed in 1472, only 14 copies were reported to exist, and Frank was looking at one, just sitting on a shelf in some billionaire’s climate-controlled, private library – ripe for the taking.

With gloved hands and great reverence, he picked up the book and sniffed the yellowed pages. The smell intoxicated Frank’s senses and sent him back in time, taking his nose on a journey to 1472. His father once told him that books were the only time machine the world ever invented. A portal made with ink and paper that only people with imagination could traverse. The buyer Frank had in mind for this time machine wasn’t the most reputable man, but then, neither was he. Greg Bennett had been his number-one customer back when Frank inherited his father’s bookstore. However, Greg’s frequent patronage wasn’t enough to save the place from Frank’s stewardship. It went under in just two short years. His father had managed to keep it open for the previous thirty. No one had yet written a time machine capable of fixing Frank’s mistakes. He’d certainly looked.

“100k,” Greg said when Frank put the book in front of him.

 “Are you kidding me? Do you know what this is? It’s worth so much more than that.”

“Yes, it is. You’re more than welcome to take it to an auction house if you’d like, but I get the feeling that’s not an option for you. So, 100k is my final offer, and I can give that to you in cash right now, no questions asked. Let’s call it a risk tax.”

Frank quietly seethed. The offer was an insult, and they both knew it. So much for customer loyalty, he thought with more than a little bitterness. Given time, he knew he could get a better offer. But Frank was impatient, and time is not a playground for impatient men.

“I could pay 200k in heroin if that works better for you,” Greg offered. “It’s good sh*t, and I know you could definitely move it with all those junkie friends you keep. Wouldn’t take you long to double up your money. So, money or heroin? Which would you like?”

He chose the heroin. That smug prick knew he couldn’t resist. Frank found a quiet parking lot, and the needle went in with familiar ease. His eyes rolled back in his head, his body jerked, and his mouth frothed. Frank’s living eyes closed, but his dead ones opened. The parking lot disappeared, and in its place stretched an open field, broken by a river with a stone bridge going over it. On the other side of the bridge was a small town with a sign at its front.

WHITE LIGHT

‘Come towards us.’

Frank got out of the car and looked back down at his own body – lifeless and unmoving. He turned away from the bridge and saw no signs of civilisation in that direction – just infinite nothing. Lacking alternatives, he crossed the bridge to investigate what awaited him in White Light.

The town looked deserted. A ghost town, if you will. Yet, Frank couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched from every window he passed. At the end of a road strewn with fallen leaves stood a building called The Eternal Library. Being a man of books, Frank found himself drawn towards it. Libraries always had answers for those willing to look.

The library’s interior had been well cared for, and that thought troubled Frank as he walked a floor so big it could house its own neighbourhood. The rows of shelves went on for miles, and a never-ending spiral staircase stretched up past the limits of the building and rational thought. He tried to fathom just how many books were in this library. Millions? Billions? Frank picked up a book from the nearest shelf and read its leather-bound spine. ‘Kevin Munroe 1973-2015’

“Can I help you?” a voice called out from down the hall, bouncing and reverberating until it surrounded Frank from all sides.

“Just looking,” Frank called back, trying to hide his panic. A shape stepped out of the shadows, looking more skeleton than man. Some flesh still stubbornly clung to the creature’s bones, with his dehydrated skin having the texture of beef jerky. Frank wanted to run from whatever it was, but fear froze him in place. He dared not turn his back on such a thing. Like a spider in the corner of his room, Frank felt much better about things when he knew exactly where it was.

“Each book is a life told,” the skeleton man explained as he limped toward Frank on legs of decomposing muscle. “Every action. Every deed. Recorded here for posterity. Kept for the time of judgement.”

“Who are you?” Frank managed to ask through his curtain of fear.

“I’m The Librarian. Protector of the books. Would you like to read your own story? Perhaps there’s something to be learned from the life you lead.”

The bony hand of The Librarian picked a book from the shelf that read ‘Frank Sullivan 1984-???’

“Hm, strange,”‘ said The Librarian. “Seems you’re not quite dead yet. Just visiting, are we?”

Frank nodded with a gulp. The Librarian shrugged and appeared to lose interest as he put Frank’s book back on the shelf.

“It’s best you don’t take any books then. All books must be returned, and only the dead and the dying can reach this place. Be warned. I don’t suffer late returns to my library.”

The Librarian turned to go back to the shadows from whence he came, but Frank’s curiosity about the books got the better of him.

“Why don’t I have a date for my death when all these other books do?”

“You still have pages left to fill,” The Librarian said in a bored tone as the shadows painted him into nothing. “My own pages led me here a very long time ago. Now, I wait for the world to end, so I can shut the door behind you all and complete the library’s collection at long last.”

Frank heard a distant voice talking from far away.

“We have a heartbeat!”

He snatched his own book from the shelf and awoke in a hospital bed, feeling like crap. He squeezed his fingers and felt something solid and leather bound between them – ‘Frank Sullivan 1984-???’. The last written page read,

He snatched his own book from the shelf and awoke in a hospital bed, feeling like crap.

After that, all the pages were blank. Frank grabbed the clipboard from the end of his bed and found the pen attached to it. Using that pen, he wrote the next line of his life story.

A lawyer showed up to tell Frank that he had just come into a very large inheritance.

The door opened, and a suited man with a very important-looking briefcase stepped in.

“Mr. Sullivan? I’m here on behalf of my recently deceased client. It would appear that she has left you quite a sizeable sum of money. I would like to go over the details with you.”

            The client happened to be Frank’s estranged mother. According to the lawyer, her sleeve caught fire while she was lighting a cigarette on her front porch. She then ran out onto the road, where she was hit and crushed by a speeding delivery truck. Frank certainly hadn’t picked his mother to die or written for all that weird stuff to happen. They hadn’t even spoken since the creditors came for the store. She blamed him for squandering everything his father had worked hard to build. All ties were when Frank refused to go to rehab in the aftermath. Well, serves the bitch right, Frank thought. She never gave him the love he needed, but he’d surely find a way to love her money. More than money, he now had the most valuable book of them all – a time machine that could go forward instead of backward. He could actually fix his life, get back the bookstore his father built, and be the man he always knew he could be – right after he had a little fun, of course.

            He wrote many beautiful women into his life, and each left Frank a gift to remember them by. Brandy gave him chlamydia, Trinity provided genital warts, and the gonorrhoea came from Tammy. Frank’s penis felt like it was about to fall off, but that still didn’t stop him catching hepatitis from Chantelle. He wore a condom every time, yet he still kept getting infected with venereal diseases.

            Every night, he would eat in the finest establishments, but nothing ever seemed to go right. Night one – they overcooked his steak. Night two – a waiter dropped hot soup in his lap. Night three – a wicked case of food poisoning from the shrimp. Even the best hotel suites weren’t much of a comfort. The toilets clogged every time, and the showers never stayed at an even temperature. But it was nothing to worry about, Frank assured himself. As long as he had the book, he could fix it. He just had to be more specific about the experience he wanted.

            After a solid week of sex, drugs, and partying, he woke up with a sudden chill in his Vegas penthouse suite. Krystal and Monique snored beside him on silk sheets, unbothered by the temperature. At the foot of the bed, Frank saw the familiar beef jerky skeleton of The Librarian, looking right at him with empty eye sockets. Frank caught his scream before it escaped and quickly sat up with his covers pulled tight like a suit of armour.

“The book is overdue,” The Librarian said with a hint of menace just beneath the surface.

“How much do you want for it?” Frank asked. “I can give you money.”

“Return the book, or there will be consequences.”

“Look, I don’t want any trouble. The book is over there on the table. Take it and go.”

The Librarian looked over at the book and gnashed his teeth.

“The book can only be returned by the dead or the dying. You are neither.”

“You want me to kill myself just to bring back your stupid book?”

“If you wish to avoid the eternal consequences, you will bring the book now.”

“Wait, you can’t take it from me, can you? Can you even touch anything in this room?”

A pregnant pause filled the room, and Frank could feel The Librarian’s growing frustration.

“The dead cannot interfere in the affairs of the living.”

“That’s what I thought. Well then, if it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll keep the book. It’s been very useful to me, and I’m not ready to part with it just yet. Enjoy the trip back to that sh*thole town of yours.”

The Librarian laughed, and the laugh escalated into a drowned cackle.

“What’s so funny, dead man? You lost.”

“I have marked your book as overdue. Live your life well, Frank Sullivan, for all men must die, and when you do, I will be waiting at the gates of eternity to teach you what eternity really means.”

The Librarian faded back into the shadows, and Frank started to shake. He knew he shouldn’t have taunted The Librarian, but he couldn’t help himself. He never could. The Librarian’s visit served as a wake-up call. The next day, Frank finally checked himself into rehab and cleaned up his act. His mother would have been so proud. He intended to live for as long as he could now that he knew what waited for him on the other side. Booze and drugs weren’t necessary when he had the book. He could amuse himself in other ways now. The bookstore would have a grand re-opening, and he had a particular book in mind for his first piece of inventory.

Greg Bennett cleared his schedule to take a meeting with Frank. He got on his knees and grovelled, begging Frank to take back The Divine Comedy.

“I will,” said Frank as he lifted pen from paper. “I won’t pay you anything for it either. But first, I want to sit here and watch while you shoot up some of that heroin you gave me.”

Greg’s eyes protested, but his body obeyed the will of the pen as it wrote on the parchment of destiny. Greg shot up, but nothing terrible happened. Frank watched with envy as Greg drifted away on a cloud of pure bliss, and then Frank’s eyes fell on the opened brick of heroin in front of him. He’d been so, so good lately. Surely, there wasn’t any harm in indulging just once, especially when Greg had already taken it for a test drive.

The needle went in. The room went as quiet as a library, and then it became the library. Frank stood with his hand reaching out for a book on the shelf. The book said – ‘Frank Sullivan 1984-2023’. The Librarian stood at his shoulder with a skeletal grin peeking out of a rotting face.

“Back so soon? It’s almost as if you never left.”

“What’s happening?” Frank asked as he looked about in confusion.

“You failed the test. All that power, and you didn’t once think to try and make the world a better place.”

“Wait, I can be a better man. I can pass your test. It’s just there’s always something in the way, you know? I got dealt a bad hand, and it’s not my fault the world made me sh*t.”  

“It’s you, Frank. You’re the sh*t,” The Librarian said with a wag of his finger. “We both gave you so much, and you squandered it all without taking any responsibility for your own actions.”

Frank squinted at The Librarian, and recognition sparked within him. The tone of voice, the bearing. It could only be…

“Dad?”

“There once was a man who loved a bookstore, but that man is gone, and the bookstore is gone. Only The Librarian remains, and there must always be a Librarian in The Eternal Library to render judgement.”

Frank was too stunned to speak.

“Are you ready to hear the consequences of your actions? I’m going to send you back. You’ll get another chance to pass the test, and you’ll fail, as you always fail. Every step you take on the wrong path will taste like ashes in your mouth, and your every pleasure will be ruined until you can prove you’re a man of worth. But I think we both know that you never will. Welcome to eternity, my son, where your book of mistakes never ends.”

By Michael