The bookseller and Mathilda were soon on familiar roads. Then, up ahead, was the familiar and comforting sight. The bookshop. Home. They turned left into the parking lot. The false dawn was just a faint glow on the horizon. Approaching the big old clapboard bookshop with Tim’s addition—more than doubling its original size (but still not completed)—the bookseller saw the building was spotted…dappled…with thousands of tiny electric green dots of light.
Summer was in full flower.
When he pulled into his loading zone spot at the front steps, the headlights illumined the sprawling porch laden with piles of boxes.
Mathilda emitted a cautionary growl. Her feline sensibilities did not approve of expletives.
“Who dumped all these books on us, Mathilda?”
The van was parked. The driver’s door pushed open. The cat bounded out over the bookseller’s thighs and into the bushes.
“Owww!” he expostulated, more from surprise than pain.
He clambered down onto the pavement.
“Ow!” This time the pain was real. All his joints ached as if they’d been bound for a long time.
He limped up the steps. His Achilles’ heel was acting up.
He wended his way through the piles of boxes—many spilling over with books—to the front door.
A corkboard hung to the left of the door. It was used for sales announcements and notices of lost pets and various people’s services offered. This morning it was a mess.
Many handwritten notes were attached to it using staples and tape and push pins. One large scrawled note was punctured with a large Bowie knife stabbed deep into the surface. It was lettered awkwardly in what looked like red crayon.
“I HAVE BOOKS. NEED GONE. IKE. 301-103-11..”
The automatic security light did not pop on. He fumbled in his four pockets—jacket and pants—for his keys. Fumbled with the 29 keys on his ring. All but 7 were obsolete—vestiges from locks that were once important but were now mere memories of things that had once required protection.
After a few tries, the current front door key responded to the twist of thumb and forefinger. The lock clicked open. He started to pull the door open gently.
A flutter from above his head made him jump back into the dark.
Looking up, he saw there was a muddy Phoebe’s nest built atop the security light’s sconce.
“Odd. I should have noticed that being built.”
He stepped forward and slowly drew the door open. The little silver bell gave a dull clink—as if awakened from a lengthy slumber.
Stepping inside, the front end was softly illuminated by numerous electric lights.
The phones, the computer, the credit card machine, the CD player and other machines…all had little electric dials or displays.
He stepped gingerly toward the counter. Before he got there, Mathilda leapt up and posed on the counter’s end. She gracelessly lifted her left hind leg and began gnawing on it.
He walked behind the counter and stepped to the laptop that served as the brains of the whole business. At his touch of the top right button its screen came to life and glowed white and light gray and blue.
He went to his inbox and pushed the button which released internet orders. That was the lifeblood of his shop. It was always the first thing he checked upon coming into the bookstore.
Line after line after line after line…began scrolling down. Hundreds of orders were dropping in.
“WOW! Big day!”
Looking more closely, he saw the dates were scrolling into the future!
He slipped his iPhone from his pocket. Its screen lit up at his touch.
“Mathilda, my phone says it is July 14th. We left the afternoon of June 25th.” He paused. “This is saying we have been away 19 days. 19?!”
Her purr was a soft low rumbling, as if she was considering and computing the data.
Something caught the bookseller’s eye off to his right—further down the counter where it was darker.
A large sunflower head rose from a heavy lead crystal vase. Its head drooped tiredly. It was far past its prime.
Brilliant fallen yellow petals littered the counter below it.
He stepped over and faced it. Looking down on the counter, the petals spelled out the name: “Althea.”
She always loved sunflowers.
“Mathilda,” he stated, inquired and summoned all in one name. “She was here. Althea…”
His knees weakened, and he sagged to the floor.
All…everything…all..welled up inside him.
“Althea…” he spoke distantly. A sob was rising at the last vowel.
Mathilda pressed a paw to his left hand still laying on the counter above him. Five tiny claws pushed down. Five tiny pinpricks of crimson blood rose from his skin.
He rose and spread the blood across the top of his left with his right hand.
She raised her right hind leg and began gnawing on her foot again. This time, her golden eyes locked onto his.
“She was here, Mathilda. She came back,” his words began to slip into a sad sob. “I didn’t realize how much I missed…her.”
Mathilda raised a paw and pressed it atop his hand once more.
“No! Don’t!” he stated. “I’m fine. Ok…what do we do?”
“Print the orders. Right. People want their books. We are late! Our feedback will be terrible. I don’t think anyone will buy the excuse that we were transported to a book temple in another dimension.”
“Yes. They will love the books we picked up—once they are catalogued.”
“Brrrrrrurrrr,” she rumbled low and soft.
He turned and lifted the switches that turned on all the lights. The store came to life as if awakening from a long slumber. He stepped to the printer and pushed the “On” button. It made mechanical noises, as if adjusting itself. He checked the blank paper supply.
“We’ll need more than this.”
He slid in a full inch and a half. Stepping back to the computer, he pushed the “Print” button with the cursor. The printer came to life and began pulling sheets of paper through itself and spitting them out into its tray.
“Ca-chock, ca chock, ca-chock…”
Pausing to gather his thoughts and plan what was the next priority, he said, “Funny, I don’t feel as though I’ve been awake 19 days.”
A scrape of ceramic across wood below him took his attention. Mathilda was pushing her food bowl with her nose.
“Right! Food,” he told her. “And water.”
Having taken care of that, he turned and went into his office. On his desk was an envelope addressed to him. It was unmistakably Sally’s handwriting. He lifted the flap and pulled out the page and unfolded it.
“July 3. I don’t know where you’ve been, but somehow I knew you were all right, so I didn’t call the police to report you missing. I got a call from Sam [a regular longtime customer] telling me the shop hadn’t opened on Tuesday. I came and checked. You could have at least left a note telling me you were taking a jaunt with that cat. Anyway, I opened the store. I did the next day too. And the next… Anyway, I have to go see Auntie Griselda. She says she is really sick this time, and if I want to see her one last time, I should go right away or it may be too late. You know she has said that before, but I feel I should go this time in case this time it is the real thing. I didn’t have time to go to the bank, so there are seven deposits in the drawer. I didn’t buy much. The regular scouts, when they saw it was just me, just turned and left. Ha ha. I guess I don’t overpay like you. Some young woman came by every day saying you had offered her a summer job. I should have started her to help clean up this mess, but hiring is so complex nowadays, and I don’t know if you have enough in the bank to pay her. Anyway, call me when you get back from wherever. I want to know you are not dead or kidnapped. She left a note, and I pinned it up behind the counter. If you ever do this to me again, I will quit and never cover your butt again. Sally. P.S. Call me please.”
He looked up at the moon face clock hung high on the wall. The second hand was slowly sweeping round in a clockwise direction.
“5:59. Too early to call anyone.”
He rose and left the office. Mathilda was scratching in her box that was discreetly tucked out of sight. The printer was still “ca-chocking.” He pulled out a sheaf of printed orders. so they wouldn’t start spitting out onto the floor.
“Ok, Mathilda, what are the priorities? We have a few hundred orders to pull and pack. A lot of inquiries and ‘where is my book?’ email inquiries. The porch has a few hundred boxes of books that people have dumped off while we were gone. I hope no one wants any money for them. I’ll never be able to figure out what’s what out there. The van is loaded floor to ceiling, front to back and side to side with rare books. I’m sure there are bills to pay. I just looked at my phone, and there are dozens of texts and voicemails. What else?”
Mathilda hopped up to the counter. She had a 3-by-3-inch piece of orange construction paper in her mouth. She put it down on the counter in front of the bookseller and sneezed on it. He picked it up. The note was in dark sepia fountain pen ink and using a very florid medieval calligraphic hand.
“I’m ready to start the summer job you offered. Early morning hours preferred. Heavy lifting, no problem. I read Welsh, Cornish, Gaelic (Scottish and Irish), Hieroglyphs, as well as most modern Indo-European languages. Money is no object. I am guessing you cannot pay much. I will probably buy a lot of books, anyway. My number is … Please call between 4 a.m. and noon. Annirosa.”
Mathilda was perched over the note, reading along.
“What do you think, Mathilda?” he asked.
But she had moved off. She nuzzled the old phone off its cradle and began pushing numbers with her paw.
He heard Annirosa pick up on the first ring. Reaching for the phone, he fumbled it, and it fell to the floor then began rising and falling suspended by its curly cord. It clunked against the floor and counter 11 times before he finally got hold of it and put one end of it to his ear and the other to his mouth.
“Hello? Hello?” he asked a bit frantically.
“Is everything all right at the bookstore?”
“Yes. Yes. This is the bookstore. I’m trying to reach Annirosa.”
“This is she. Do I get the job?”
“Hurray! When do I start?”
“Ummm…now? We are in a bit of a bind.”
“Yes, I heard about the time traveling. You should…”
“Everyone in my coterie got a grand laugh. You are the first one to pry books out Un-petit.”
“Yes. Un-Petit D’un Petit. That’s his real name. Odd fellow that. I cannot wait to begin going through his books.”
“That’s why I’m calling. We need help,” he stated plaintively.
“I will fly right over.”
“Not like that. It is daylight, after all. I am on my way!”
He replaced the phone onto its cradle and turned to Mathilda.
“She’s accepted the job! We’re saved!”
Mathilda was perched before the laptop, tapping away on the keyboard. She was responding to queries and comments and complaints.
23 people were angry in varying degrees from “mildly” to “quite” to “raging.”
“Why weren’t you open [on such and such a day].”
“I FINALLY got my husband to clear his books out of the pantry. He took them to you, only to find you closed on a day your posted hours state you’re open. He brought them back! I had to load them and bring them after midnight. They are on your porch. Don’t you dare refuse them!”
…and so on.
A minute and 19 seconds later, the front door opened. The silver bell above it tinkled emphatically.
Annirosa strode to the counter.
“Where do I begin?”
“Ummm…pulling and packing are a priority. But then the front porch has to have a path from the parking lot to the front created. We open in a few hours. Then there’s…”
“How about you pull the first 101 orders. I will go out and start shifting the boxes to your storeroom. Page me when things are ready. I estimate I can pack 37 single book orders an hour.”
When the store opened at 10, the porch had been cleared of about 300 boxes.
“411,” Annirosa said proudly.
At 10:01, a regular customer tentatively opened the front door.
The bell above the door tinkled tentatively.
The customer stepped in and looked around cautiously. When the bookseller greeted him, he said, “I saw your van out front. You aren’t going out of business are you?”
“No, no, we just had a little time mix up is all.”
“You’ve been closed for days. Vacation?”
“No, no, more of a…business trip. A distant house call.”
“Ahhhh…you should have posted a sign or something. Some of us count on visiting here, you know.”
“Well, we, I certainly didn’t plan on it taking so long. It was as if time just flew by.”
“Ahhhh…anything up my alley?”
“Yes, there will be some nice books coming out as soon as we get caught up.”
By noon, Annirosa had packed nearly 150 orders.
“Only 147,” she bemoaned. “I thought I could do them faster. You should get better packing materials.”
Regular customers dropped in every hour or so. Most had similar comments and questions as the first customer.
Finally, 6 p.m. arrived. The bookseller hurriedly flipped the “Open” sign over in the window and locked the front door.
“WHEW! What a day!” he exclaimed to the inside of the front door.
The door did not reply.
Annirosa stepped up behind him.
“Any more packages for me to wrap?” she blurted out with way too much energy.
The bookseller jumped at the surprise and bumped into the door. The bell shuddered a bit tiredly, but also with a bit of surprise. It had assumed the day was done when the door was locked.
“Sorry,” Annirosa continued. “Are we done for the day?”
“Yes. You had a great first day. Thank you so much!”
“I must take off now. I cannot be out after dark—at least not like this.”
The bookseller turned the key in the lock and gently pushed the front door open to let her out.
The bell rung with only a whisper.
“6 a.m. tomorrow?”
“Heavens no! I won’t be much out of bed by then.”
“I like the early hours. Perhaps Mathilda can let me in.”
The cat was making 4 leaf clovers in between and around their four legs.
“I don’t see how…” He heard a metallic clink. Mathilda had dropped something from her mouth. “Wait! Here’s a key! It was Althea’s. Mathilda will start printing orders as soon as you arrive. Watch her and learn the procedure. I’ll get in as soon as I’m able.”
“No rush. I can start unloading the van til she’s got orders ready. I assume you want the rarities in here.”
“Why, sure. I’m sure they won’t come out of the van as fast as they went in.”
“If books had wings…good evening. I must be off!”
“Wait! How did you know about the rare books and the time we were away? And the funny round man?”
“Everyone I know knows Un-Petit D’un Petit.”
“I’ve never heard of him before.”
“Sure you have! Say the name faster!”
The bookseller thought and thought then tried, “Unpitty Dunpetty?”
“Getting closer. Faster this time!”
“Umpty Dumpty!! Ha! Makes perfect sense!”
“I must fly! I will be changing soon.”
He pulled the door shut and turned the key. When he looked out the front door window, she was nowhere to be seen. Neither on the porch nor in the parking lot.
“That was fast, Mathilda. She’s out of sight already. Well, I’m going to do some paperwork and put the deposits together. Why don’t you get some rest, Mathilda? You’ve had a busy several weeks!”
“I still can’t understand how we were gone for so long. I wasn’t even hungry when we pulled in this morning.”
He went to his office and sat at his desk. He pulled the drawer open and withdrew the envelopes containing the deposits. They were painfully thin.
“SALLY! I never called her!”
He pulled out his phone from his pocket. He heard a soft heavy clunk on the floor next to him. It was the ring. It had followed the phone out of his pocket. He bent over and picked it up. He held it between his thumb and forefinger and peered through it. The space the gold surrounded shimmered, and the shapes beyond were indistinct.
He spoke to the ring, “Strange things happen when you’re out and about.”
He set it down on his desk and pushed Sally’s direct dial number on the phone. He braced himself for her expected tirade. But then he knew she would just be glad he was ok.
As the dialed number sounds pulsed far away, he picked up the ring again.
“I wonder…could I find Althea if I put it on?”
The phone clicked as Sally picked up.
“Where have you been?!”