Story by Jason J. McCuiston
Illustration by L.A. Spooner
Mark shivered in the front seat of the rental car, taking short pulls on his last cigarette, staking his entire life on the next few minutes. He stared into the darkness on the other side of the fitful streetlight, at the empty lot at the end of a nameless lane, deep in the heart of old Dublin. “Come on.” He checked the time on his phone. “Come on, come on, come on. It has to be here. It has to be tonight…”
It had to be for the simple reason that he was officially out of money, out of time, and out of options. If the bookstore wasn’t here tonight, there was no way he was getting out of Ireland a free man. This could be the end of a long, twisted, and horrific road for Mark Lieberman. Or, it could be the beginning of a whole new way of life. Possibly an endless one.
The first time he had seen the bizarre shop, he had been in his early thirties. He hadn’t been wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but, having a good job in telecommunications, neither had he been destitute. He had had friends, family, a girlfriend, a nice rent-controlled apartment in the city, and a 401k. He had been living the American Dream.
And he had systematically thrown every bit of it away over the past decade and a half while chasing the impossible bookstore.
When he had first stumbled upon the place, late one night after an apocalyptic fight with the woman he’d thought to make his wife, he had been drunk and angry. So, he hadn’t fully appreciated the miracle he had discovered.
Tucked into a tiny crevice between a nineteenth-century firehouse now converted into studio apartments and a fancy new bistro in the Village was this amazingly antiquated little bookshop right out of A Christmas Carol. He had walked in for no other reason than nothing else on the street was open at one in the morning.
“Almost one.” Mark checked his phone again. He crushed out his last butt in the ashtray beneath the little NO SMOKING sign on the dash. A shadow passed across his windshield. He looked up to see a trio of drunken Dubliners staggering down the alley to a slurred version of “Oró, Sé Do Bheatha ‘Bhaile.”
He grinned at the youths, remembering so many of his own nights spent in such a manner, a lifetime ago. “Last call, boys. Beddy-bye time for all the soccer hooligans and rowdies.”
The air pressure changed. The temperature in the cold car rose significantly. Mark looked back at the empty lot and watched the air shimmer like a mirage on hot asphalt. He tried not to blink but couldn’t help it. His eyes were too tired. When he opened them again, the bookstore was there, in the lot, as if it had been there since before Bloody Sunday, before the coming of Cromwell and his Puritan depredations, maybe before St. Patrick drove out the snakes.
Mark smiled, reading the antiquated and flowery script painted on the yellowed windows, “The Story of Your Life Booksellers.” He had found it, at long last he had found it again. He shook with joy and anticipation—almost felt like crying. Hands trembling, he grabbed the brown paper sack from the passenger seat and hurried from the car. He wanted to run to the front door but forced himself to put on a façade of calm. He had looked forward to this moment for so long, he wanted to savor it, and to look back on it with pride.
The little brass bell above the door jangled just as it had the first time, he had found the store all those years ago. And the little old lady behind the counter looked up and smiled just as she had before, removing her wireframes to say, “Welcome, Mr. Lieberman,” just as she had fifteen years before. She hadn’t aged a day, but he hadn’t expected her to.
Back when he’d wandered in on a warm spring night in Greenwich Village, he hadn’t really given much thought to this strange woman knowing his name. He had been drunk, and his talkative girlfriend had lived in the neighborhood. But there were other things about the bookstore which had cut through the fog of too much Grey Goose and Sam Adams.
Things that had told him right away that he had stepped out of the normal world of conference calls, karaoke nights, and early-morning workouts. For one thing, the place was a hundred times bigger on the inside than on the outside, with towering row-upon-row of dark and aged bookshelves filled to the rafters with dusty, leather-bound books. And none of the volumes had had a title, only a name.
“I see you brought payment this time,” the old lady said, continuing to smile as she replaced her spectacles. She pursed her lips and affected a sad expression. “Shame about what happened in Las Vegas.”
Mark winced, remembering how he had pulled up at the curb of an abandoned stretch of Downtown in the stolen car, the paper bag falling apart as its contents leaked all over the passenger seat. Throwing the car in park and reaching for the bag, he’d noticed the clock on the dashboard. It read two a.m. He had looked up just in time to see the bookstore shimmer and fade from reality, leaving only a vacant lot covered in scrub, trash, and windblown tumbleweeds.
That had been seven years ago, and he had been compelled to stay on the move, and out of the Southwestern United States ever since. Mark forced a smile and raised the new paper bag. The contents were double wrapped in a ShamWow and Saran Wrap this time.
He remembered that first night in the Village. He had wandered around, sobering up as he tried to make sense of the place, realizing that some of the names on the books were the names of people he knew. He’d picked up the tomes, flipped through them, and invariably had found his own name on the pages, reciting lines of dialogue he remembered saying to or in the presence of the person named on the spine and cover.
A small, older man had entered the store that night, a dirty old blue-and-white Igloo cooler held in one arthritic hand. Mark had watched the transaction from between the towering shelves. The old woman had smiled and beamed as she had opened the cooler, nodding approvingly at its unseen contents. She then produced a large green volume from beneath the counter and handed it to the man. Mark couldn’t hear what was said, but he saw the woman gesture to a small writing nook near the front window and offer the little old man an ink pen. The man had smiled and accepted as Mark set off to find the book bearing his own name.
“I suppose you have it ready for me.” Mark set the paper sack on the counter. “Or didn’t you expect me to make it tonight?”
“Tut-tut, Mr. Lieberman.” The old lady reached beneath the counter. “I knew tonight was your night, and so here it is.” She placed the large red book, his name written on the cover in big gold letters, on the counter. “Now let’s see what you have brought me.”
Mark pushed the bag to her, not wanting to look at its contents again. The price had been high, but he knew that it was worth it. Once he had the book, it wouldn’t matter, anyway.
When he had first carried his book to the counter, that night in New York, he had hoped the store took credit cards, as he only had about fifty bucks in his wallet, but he had Visa and MasterCard. “How much?” he’d asked the shopkeeper as the little old man scribbled away in his new purchase beside the window.
“A life,” she’d said, still smiling.
“A what?” He had understood, on some level, even then. Just as he had understood what the book really meant. He just didn’t want to admit that understanding to himself. Not yet.
The old woman had gestured at the name of the store on the window. “The Story of Your Life,” she said. “That is what we sell here. Once you buy it, you own it, and you can do with it whatever you will.” She had nodded at the old man.
Mark had followed her gaze to find a handsome young man who could have been a pro-football linebacker or an action-movie hero writing in the big green book. At first, Mark had thought it was a different customer, as the newcomer wore a tailored Armani suit and a Rolex whereas the old man had been dressed in out-of-fashion off-the-rack. But when the action hero looked up and smiled, Mark had instantly seen the uncanny resemblance in features. The two incongruous characters were indeed the same man.
“A life for a life.” The smiling woman had opened the old man’s cooler in explanation. Mark had recoiled at the bloody horror staring out at him. He had run screaming from the store, dropping his book in the process.
But that night had haunted him ever since. He could not let go of the tantalizing possibilities offered by the prospect of rewriting his entire life. He could have been born as the scion of a storied and wealthy family with a genius-level IQ. He could change not only the circumstances and attributes of who he was but also the situations and experiences of his life’s journey. He could become an all-star athlete, magna cum laude from an Ivy League school, and a rock-star if he wanted. He’d never have to experience the frustration of another wasted second. No more missed or canceled flights, no more traffic jams, no more boring conversations or meetings, no more dead-end job interviews or dates.
No more bad luck.
So, he had gone back to the Village the next morning. But the store was gone, and no one had ever heard of it. He had begun to think he’d imagined or dreamed of the strange place and events. That was until he saw the action-hero/old man’s smiling face on the cover of Entertainment Weekly at the beginning of summer blockbuster season. Mark had read the article and found that it listed a seven-year career in film. When it seemed that everyone, he knew was a fan, he understood that the bookstore was responsible for all those rich, famous, and powerful folks who always seemed to get what they wanted out of life. The “lucky ones.”
It had taken him two years to track down the movie star/old man and learn the secret of the bookstore. Two years in which he had lost his job and most of his friends, but it had been worth it. Those sacrifices were not the highest price Mark would eventually have to pay. Yet even those crimes could be wiped from the record, once the book was his. “The Story of My Life.”
And, he thought, at the end of that wondrous life he had created, as he lay on his deathbed, he could always open the pages and rewrite a new one from the beginning.
“Oh, she has such lovely eyes.” The old lady fawned over the severed head she had just unwrapped. “My, but I’ll bet she had her pick of beaus.”
Mark grimaced at the final remains of his victim, feeling sick to his empty stomach. She had been a barfly named Deidre O’ “Something”. He had picked her up at a local pub with a little help from his good friend Rohypnol. Fortunately, she had lived alone in a shoddy flat in one of the worst corners of Dublin. He felt more than a little sorry for whoever would have to clean her bathroom after the discovery was made. Of course, once this deal was done, he’d just omit the grisly incident from his newly rewritten life, and the poor girl would keep on keeping on.
“Oh, I’m afraid not, Mr. Lieberman.” The old woman lost the smile as she turned her attention from Deidre O’ Something’s glassy green stare back to him. “The deal is a life for a life. You can change everything you want in the new story you write. Everything that is, except for the details of our transaction. This poor girl is dead, and she must remain so if you are to have the life you want.
“Of course, you do have the freedom to make certain that you are never suspected of the crime. That is what most of our customers do, but there are a few guilty individuals who just aren’t satisfied with their story unless it contains some tragic display of poetic justice. But to each his own, I suppose.”
Mark licked his lips and rubbed his stubbled chin. He wanted to vomit, but he focused on the book. The long sought-after book. The object of the all-consuming quest of one-third of his life. Just inches away. “What … what about the kid in Las Vegas? Does he still have to die?”
“That is a very good question…” The old lady carefully rewrapped Deidre O’ Something’s head and placed it beneath the counter. “Ah, Rosemary is here,” she said just before the brass bell rang.
Another customer entered the store, a thin black woman with a haunted look and wearing shabby clothing. She had a bulging white-plastic grocery bag in her trembling hand. When Mark turned at her entrance, he caught a glimpse of his own reflection in the door glass. Both could have been extras in the same post-apocalyptic movie.
“Be right with you, dear,” the old woman said to the newcomer. “Just let me settle up with Mr. Lieberman, here.” She placed an old-fashioned ink pen on top of the book bearing his name.
Turning back to Mark, she said, “One last proviso: once the rewrite has been completed, the book will instantly return here. However, you are always free to come and purchase it again via the same methods. We here at The Story of Your Life Booksellers pride ourselves on repeat customers. And one of our many unofficial mottos is Not all stories have an End.”
She pushed the crimson tome and pen toward him. “Feel free to get started right here, on the premises, dear. I imagine you’ve already worked out the first five or six chapters in all that time since you discovered us.”
Mark swallowed and grasped the book with shaking hands, feeling the cold, hard leather mold to the pressure of his fingertips. He looked from the old woman to the anxious Rosemary, noticing the blood trickling from her grocery bag, puddling at her feet, and trailing back to the door.
“No, thanks.” Placing the pen on the counter and tucking the book under his arm, Mark turned and made straight for the door, and out into the Dublin night. “I think I’d rather do this in private.”
The winter cold hit him in the face like a welcomed blow. It cleared his mind and settled his stomach in an instant. He turned on the sidewalk and looked at the storefront. From outside, he could see a lovely young woman with mocha-colored skin chatting happily with the pleasant old lady behind the counter. There was no bleeding grocery bag, no severed head wrapped in a ShamWow, and no indication of magic, or The Twilight Zone, or whatever the hell was going on in there.
Mark took a deep breath and hurried across the narrow lane to his car. His fingers still shook as he pulled the keys from his pocket. The rental fob snagged on the seam and the keys tumbled to the wet asphalt.
“Dammit.” Holding his dearly purchased book tight against his chest, Mark knelt to retrieve the keys.
“Hey, mister,” someone said behind him. “What time is it?”
Mark grabbed the keys and turned. The tall, thin-faced man in the tailored suit looked somehow familiar. “Almost two, I think.”
“Good,” the aging action-hero said as he hit Mark across the face with a tire iron. “Then I’ve still got time.”
— ♦♦♦ —
I… I’m not sure exactly what I did. I close my eyes again. I witnessed a crime. I’m certain of that. I remember the shots. I definitely remember those. Everything started getting fuzzy after that.