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Part 27 ended at the end of the road. Off to the side was an ancient abandoned and decrepit bookstore. The instructions the bookseller and Mathilda had received from the odd man Aethelbert read: “When you get to the end of the road, keep going.”
Just as the van was about to leave the road, the bookseller slowed and then stopped.
“I don’t know, Mathilda. I can’t see just driving this old van into the forest. Do you want to go look at the bookshop?”
Mathilda gave a low growl.
“Maybe I should go check it out. There might be books inside. Can you make out the name of the place? It’s in small letters above WE BUY ALL BOOKS.”
He leaned over the passenger seat and peered out the window. Mathilda gave another low growl. She did not like being hovered over.
“It is so rusty. I can only make out the capital letters.”
The capital letters were gilded and only surface tarnished. No rust had eroded or pitted them.
“E O T R B. I think I’m going to go for a closer look.”
Mathilda’s golden eyes widened, and she gave a panicked howl.
“I won’t leave you. Don’t worry.”
He put the van in park and opened the driver’s side door. He stepped out and walked around the front of the vehicle. There was a low wrought-iron fence and gate—kind of Victorian. And very much like you would see in a moldering cemetery. He stepped to the gate, and when he pulled on it, it emitted a loud painful rusty screech. With that, a sickly jaundiced yellow light appeared in each of the two upper-story windows.
The bookseller turned and skedaddled…er…beat a hasty retreat.
He pulled himself up and into the driver’s seat.
“Uh…its getting dark, Mathilda. Maybe we can come exploring in better light. I was able to read the sign. Its called End Of The Road Books. Strange, I’d never heard of it before. I wonder how long it’s been closed.”
There was a pregnant pause…
“Ohhh-K. Scouting books in a hemlock forest. There’s always something new in the old book trade, eh, Mathilda?”
He pulled the gearshift lever on the steering column toward him and then down past R and N to D.
The old van rolled slowly forward. The gravel rattled beneath its wheels. When it left the road and got to the hemlock needles, it seemed to raise up a bit. It was like it was couple inches off the ground.
“This cushion of needles is soft. It’s like driving on a plush carpet.”
Mathilda made a sound: “Errrddd.”
“Yes. It is odd.”
She rose up on her hind legs, stretched and put her front paws on the dashboard. She was staring intently straight ahead through the windshield.
The fractalized light surrounded them more and more…it was encompassing.
Then the trees and everything else disappeared. It was like they were driving into a tunnel of many colors.
“Kind of like the Yellow Brick Road, eh, Ma…”
The van ceased being driven.
In a few moments: “Whoaaaa!”
It wasn’t being propelled by the friction of the wheels on the surface below. It was flowing forward in the light.
Then he saw there was something up ahead. Indistinct, but certainly something beside the crystalline beams and rays of color they were immersed in.
The fractal light of many colors began to break up. Or down.
Abruptly the lights vanished, and the van emerged into something substantial. Real. They were on a cobbled street. The vehicle was rolling toward a Neoclassical marble edifice. Beyond the building, there was nothing. The cobbles and everything else became fuzzy and indistinct beyond the building. It was a void. Not a black void. Not a gray void of cloud or fog. It was just a void. The absence of anything.
“I wonder how far we just drove?”
The building was alone, as if it was in a world of its own.
“This must be the place, Mathilda. I wonder how far we have driven. What do you think?”
The bookseller glanced at the clock on the dashboard.
“7:11. Aethelbert was right. The trip took one hour and eleven minutes. I wonder where we are? That’s odd! I just reset the trip odometer at the shop. It says we went 4321 miles!”
He slowed to a stop at the center of the building’s length. A steep wide flight of marble steps rose to the black rectangle of space far above.
“That must be the door in the building atop the steps. That’s a lot of steps though. Are you up for it? I bet it’s a hundred.”
Mathilda made a trilling sound.
“One hundred and eleven. Really?”
They stood at the base of the stairs and looked up. And up. And UP.
“It looks like a bank, Mathilda.”
“Yes, or a temple.”
At the foot of the stairs, he stared up and up and up.
“…or a …library.”
Mathilda rubbed a cheek against the roughness of his bootlaces.
“But then, all three of those are really one and the same. Buildings created to store and protect important or precious things.”
They stood in silence for a bit.
“It looks familiar, Mathilda… It looks familiar…I know!!!!”
“It’s kinda like the New York Public Library, only more austere…and much higher. Much, much higher.”
“I’m sure we are not in Maryland, anymore.”
[He pronounced it as the English do. Merry Land. Why? It made sense at the time. Maybe because everything was just so alien.]
“Well, should we go for a look? We came all this way…ummm, east.”
Mathilda bounded up and ahead as if to show her prowess. She was 23 steps up by the time he got to 5.
On. And on. And on. And up. And up.
On the thirty-seventh step, the bookseller paused to catch his breath.
Mathilda pranced back, her tail erect, its tip flicking, as she descended to him and rubbed a cheek against the roughness of his bootlaces again.
“Whoa! These steps are steep!” He reached down and scratched behind her ear. She turned her head and pushed back against his hand. She looked up, and her golden eyes flashed turquoise-blue.
‘Who are you really?’ he thought.
He took a deep breath and straightened.
Up and up. This time she stuck by his side.
At the ninety-seventh step, he stopped.
“Not much further, Mathilda. I swear these steps are getting higher as we go. I wonder if that makes this place look even higher. The next step looks like it is 23 inches!”
He looked up and turned his head from side to side.
“That’s odd. Or…ummm. Odder. It seems out of balance. There are eleven pillars. This building is not symmetrical. Let’s push on.”
At the very last step, the bookseller had to put two hands on the stone and push himself up and over.
Mathilda leapt deftly up.
There were large marble squares paving the top. A long gallery stretched from side to side behind the pillars and before the building’s front wall.
A large black void appeared before them.
“That doorway is not square…er…rectangular…er… It is a trapezoid. I’d say it is 11 feet tall. At its base, the entrance is 7 feet wide. At the top, it is 5 feet wide. This whole building is an optical illusion. It’s not trompe l’œil. It’s…umm forced perspective! Is that right, Mathilda?”
She looked up at him and purred in assent.
“Well, should we go in? I wish I’d brought a flashlight.”
They crossed over to the entrance. Then they crossed its threshold. The light from behind them dimly lit the floor for 37 feet. Beyond that was darkness. There was a feeling of vastness beyond and above them.
“What do we do now, Mathilda?”
“You made it! Ho, ho, ho!!” Aethelbert wobbled in toward them from the shadows. His body was all in motion again. His head rolled and lolled upon his shoulders. His arms were just short of flailing in many directions at once. His poor knees turned inward, outward and sideward and backward, changing direction with each step forward.
“Where are we, Aethelbert?”
“You have arrived right on schedule! I told you. 71 minutes from your shop, and you are here!”
“Where are we, Aethelbert?”
“Why, in the library. The Last Library.”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
“Of course not. That is why it is the Last! All the others are not gone! Yet…”
“Well, what state are we in?”
“Ho, ho, ho! An ALTERED state!”
“Ok. Where are the books? Not that I would ever dream of lugging them down all those steps—even if I could afford them.”
“Of course not. We would arrange immediate delivery. And the payment terms would be quite generous. My Mas… He…is a motivated seller right now. Although that can change in a minute. I am afraid he can get moody. Why one time sent me fly… Well, never mind that. Everything got put back together, eventually. He can be a whirlwind sometimes.”
“Well, where are these books, Aethelbert?”
“All around you!”
With that, he pulled what looked like a long rod from a belt tied at his waist. It looked like a large pencil, but its point was crystal. He wobbled it up to his lips and blew on it. The crystal brightened and then beamed. He slowly waved it around and wherever it shone were books. Shelves and shelves of books. He pointed at the foot of the wall nearby and raised it slowly upwards. Higher and higher and higher until the bookseller’s neck ached.
Mathilda cocked her head and said: “Meeeeyou!”
Aethelbert continued raising the light higher and higher.
“151 feet! Ho, ho, ho! Have you ever seen this many books?”
When the light reached the top of the wall, Aethelbert aimed it at the ceiling.
“My Mas…he…is the first to have perfected shelving books on a ceiling! Have you ever seen the like?!”
“Of course not. That is why this is the Last! Now we must go. You are expected. And he is a little distance away. If we walk briskly, it should only take a 11 minutes to reach his seat.”
“Lead the way, Aethelbert.”
The wobbly man pointed the light to the floor.
“Follow me!” and he strode forward.
‘He walks like he is boogieing,’ the bookseller thought.
“I would NEVER!”
They walked and walked and walked.
“How deep is this building, Aethelbert?”
“Why, it is 11 minutes deep! Well, actually 13. There is another 2-minute walk behind…him.””
“And how wide?”
“Why, I don’t know. I have never ventured that far. Plus, off to our left is where the drag…well, we don’t want to go there!”
“To the right?”
“That’s where she…well, you CERTAINLY do not want to encounter her! Not even if you had an army of…well, you wouldn’t have any of those. Not unless your bookstore has another secret room! A BIG one!”
The bookseller looked down. They were treading on book spines! Thousands and thousands of book spines!
“Aethelbert, are we walking on books?”
“Why, how absurd! What you see are facsimile spines! They are made of marble! The real books are below each spine! My Mas…he…is the first to discover how to shelve books…”
“On the floor…”
“Why, yes. Certainly.”
The bookseller slowed and tried to read the spines.
“Wait! Paradise Lost Again The Mss?”
“Wait! Paradise Regained Redux…”
“No, I’m afraid there is no time for shelf reading. He is still 7 minutes away!”
Aethelbert continued apace. The darkness began to close in on the bookseller.
Mathilda growled a “Let’s go.”
The dark surrounding them was bringing a great chill. The bookseller hustled and caught up with the little man whose body was all in motion at the fastest rate he had seen so far.
“How many are there?”
“Well, all of them, of course!” Aethelbert replied.
Then in the distance, the bookseller saw a dim glow.
They got closer and closer. A shape seemed to form. It appeared to be a mound.
The mound had features.
It was a man. A very large man. A very Falstaffian man. He was seated on a large wooden chair. The chair rested upon a book-shaped dais. The spine was 47 inches thick, if it was an inch. If it was an inch, it was 149 inches tall. But of course, it was not tall. It rested on its side!
The massive man had long dirty gray hair parted in the middle. It fell out over his shoulders. Below his shoulders, his body widened and widened. His body filled the chair to overflowing. On either side of the chair were piles of books. The piles got smaller and smaller the further away they were stacked. A vast dirty gray beard spread from ear to ear. It spread outward as it fell from his neck to his chest…but it could not be seen how long it was because an enormous book was open in his lap.
‘He must have a mouth in that nest somewhere,’ the bookseller thought.
The vast man raised his head, and his eyes were yellow with red rims. In the center were black irises. He stared daggers at the bookseller. Daggers of the eyes.
“Don’t!” Aethelbert shushed. “He can hear you!”
The enormous man closed the book with a loud thwop! A cloud of dust rose from it, and for a moment the man was obscured.
“AHHHHHhhhhhhhh…the competition. Here at last.”
The voice was small and large. The dirty gray mustache moved up and down a bit, but was so long the mouth could still not be seen.
“Yes Mas…sir…?” he veritably squeaked.
“What is that doing?!”
Mathilda had walked forward and was heading around the dais.
“Mathilda!” the bookseller exclaimed.
Mathilda turned and gave him a disdainful look.
“Ummmm… Whatever she wants. She’s a cat. That’s what cats do.”
Mathilda continued and disappeared behind the giant book-shaped dais.
The enormous man tried to turn his head to follow her progress, but where Aethelbert seemed to be able to rotate his head nearly 359 degrees, he could barely shift his gaze 3 degrees.
“Is not. Where is that…going?!”
“She is a cat. She’s curious. Exploring…” the bookseller spoke softly.
“IS NOT!!!” the man boomed.
There was the unmistakable sound of 23 books falling from shelves in the blackness far behind the dais.
“We came to look at books,” the bookseller spoke half questioningly.
“BOOKS! Books. Too many books. Who needs 17 Gutenbergs? Not that you’ll pry one of those from me! I’m not sure which I want to keep. Each is a bit different, you know.”
“HOW would you?!!! How many have you owned?!”
“I…I almost acquired a leaf once.”
Mathilda appeared from around the other side of the dais. She had walked the circumference of the book. From the foot of the spine. Around the fore edge. And appearing again at the head of the spine.
She had a look like she had caught the canary. She came over to bookseller and rubbed her cheek against his calf. She looked up and smiled—that is, if a cat can smile. Well, the Cheshire cat had a smile…and sometimes nothing else!
The bookseller straightened and steeled his resolve. He pulled his sloping shoulders back as best he could. It is called BS. Bookseller Shoulders. They sag. It’s a common occupational disorder acquired over decades hunched over forgotten and unforgotten tomes.
“We were invited here to buy some books, sir. May I ask where you got all these?”
“Bought ’em, hrrrummph…at the end of the road.”
“The End Of The Road Bookshop we passed on our way here?”
“My shop…until…it came and ruined my trade.”
Somewhere in the blackness behind him, 13 books crashed to the floor.
To be continued…