It was deep winter. The snow drifted high across the rooftops of the little Montana town nestled in the rolling folds of the Rockies, wind and atmosphere raging fast and breathless down south from across the Canadian horizon.
Grey eyed boy. His mother named him Bairn. Old Scott for child.
The only thing she ever wanted was for her baby to stay young forever.
But he was thirteen, no father, and in a backwoods town embering of the smell of clean mountains and wild air, something awoke in him. Maybe it had something to do with wanting to prove he was a man, maybe it was to show his mother that he was strong, "THIRTEEN damit! I'm a man now!" Or maybe it was the stillness after the raging wind of winter that breeds, in boys especially, restlessness. One thing was sure, he made trouble. And the whole town knew.
Stole from the convenient store on the corner. Poor old man Randal never did understand that boy. Randal never cussed to no grown up when he was thirteen, never would'a crossed his mind! And these days, old man Randal didn't take no lip, neither. Bairn learned quick to dodge that shriveled farm fist when it cocked back.
But there was this little basement bookshop that Bairn would always run to when someone was hunting him for doing whatever it was that he had done wrong that day. It was at the end of Morigan St, out where all the coal miners would stop and talk before dawn, out near the last gas station for forty miles, out where the rust and wilderness mingled like myrrh and sweat, it was here that he would let the boy still inside peak out of the shadows. After all, it was hard being a man. Especially so early on. Standing up to superiors, ignoring advice and threats.
There had to be an escape.
It was one of those old dusty places, filled to the brim with books of every subject, that brings a sense of musty age and dreams. It needed a good paint job, wood paneling needed a good sanding, not to mention a good dusting. Most of the books were old out of print paperback editions, pre-read, all of them faded. A collection of sorts. The underground bookshop owner was sometimes nice, big man, black eyes, beard untrimmed. He was the kind of man that exudes a scent of adventure. And not the movie kind. There was stuff from all over the world tossed in corners, hanging from above the door lintels in this little basement shop. For sure, this man was a traveler. There were times when the shop would be closed for weeks on end, but that big burly owner always came back with strange treasures, far away tokens of places labeled "Mystery" to his young mind.
Bairn was usually allowed to go wherever he pleased in the book shop. Sometimes when new orders came in, he was allowed to help unpack. But that was a rarity. Reading wasn't a prized pastime around these parts.
But books were the bait and hook for Bairn. The bait and hook.
And it was Winter. A deep winter that would never leave his mothers soul.
Bairn had left early on the day he dissapeared and burrowed through the snow, like a worm, to the old shop. The door pushed hard with ice on the hinges. Snow piled thin from his boots on the welcome mat inside.
"I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t need yer help today, Boi!! You just stay out, you hear?" came the heavy deep-as-a-dry-well voice of the shopkeeper. Bairn, frozen with his gloved hand still on the door handle, decided once again to ignore what some weirdo was loudly commanding of him. He closed the door. Walking down the front steps and past the shelves and shelves, he striped off the sweaty jacket and gloves and dropped them under the table of old maps by the street window. With his hands in his pockets and shoulders dropped, he clomped up to the counter. From here he could see to the back where the shipments were usually piled. That room through the narrow doorway had a tendency to collect battered UPS boxes or things with a whole lot of tape wrapped around them, but this morning Bairn got a glimpse of something he had never seen in all his young days. The wide dark shape of the shopkeeper stood up, back facing Bairn, with something in his hands. Between the shop keeper and the back door stood a small wooden crate, stained and decrepit. Leaning against the crate was an equally decrepit lid and a used cold press crowbar. Several bent rusty nails were strewn about the furrowed carpet.
And in the shopkeeperÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s hands was a book.
Bairn had his first taste of greed in that moment. It was an irrational emotion, spontaneous and unreasonable, but something inside whispered of delight and adventure like none he had seen. The book was old leather, and, from what Bairn had glimpsed, had metal work all across the cover. Were those hinges on the binding as the shop keeper cracked the cover open?
Bairn must have made a noise, for the shopkeeper spun and glared, the book mouthing shut and disappearing in the loose shop vest.
"I told you boi, get OUT!! You nevva saw this thing, did ya?! DID YA!!" The shopkeeper's voice rising to a din in the small basement space, his tree trunk shape stepping forward. Bairn backed several steps and tripped over his own boots. He tried to brace himself with his hands stretched back, but falling to the ground he smacked his head and the world spun. The next thing he knew, he was running up the front steps and the door was opened by his floating hand, and he tumbled out into the snow...
~ end part one________________________________________
Eyes full of frost. Mouth cold and wet. Matted hair. Jacketless, bare hands freezing as consciousness curls. Whimsy waning to onslaughted newfound longing
and dreams refraining.
...early morning, but bitter and cold. He only half remembered the rush out the door as his eyes opened. Ice on his eyelashes gave the tree branches a deep blue and silver shimmer that wrapped his vision like a halo. He had fallen asleep in the snow forgetting it all for a nightly moon. But with the opening of his mind and memory to the new sun out of the east, it all became clear.
It became clear as he wiped his eyes. It became clear as he rubbed his arms and shook his head of snow. It became undoubtedly clear. A matureness sprung like weed in his mind as he pumped heartily through his first taste of greed.
So, so clear.
He wanted that book.
ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s no reason to scream at a kid for seeing a book right? That old ancient leather thing?
Filigree metal cover shimmering?
Is what it was.
He got to his feet, breathing deep a new air, cold like winter. "I'm going to take it..."
...and ran off to the forest.
He was gone for two days. His mother called the Police. They searched nonstop, but it was hard getting around in the deep snow, which had begun the day before and hadn't let up.
They found his coat and gloves in the old bookshop, but when they questioned the bookkeeper, he had suspicious responses. At first, stuttering, then comments not matching up. He was visibly nervous about something, but wouldn't budge.
He was taken in for questioning late on the second day. He insisted that he remain in his shop, or that someone else stay there while he was gone, mumbling about "somethin' important bein' there."
Everyone left, except for two pale eyes, patient and mischievous, watching from the cold.
It was easy to sneak in once the old shopkeeper was gone. The back door had this little quirk with the handle and a stick in the gap at the bottom, and in no time, the door swung free.
The shop was dark, smelled like coffee... Bairn stepped inside.
~ end part two________________________________________
Winter still tugging at his bare skin, the dark shop sucked him up as the door closed behind. He stopped, and breathed deep a moment longer, then searched.
He found the old crate, squeaking as he moved it aside with his toe, under the shopkeeperÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s workbench. Empty. Packed with dried grass. The thin kind, tall kind that grows in the deserts of the south.
Crowbar still sat near the door. Coffee scorching on the burner.
He left the lights out and let his eyes expand. Then he turned over this and that, looking in old gray file drawers, behind hanging animal heads and paper piles.
Eventually he found it. It was just a matter of time.
Stuffed behind a stack of books under the counter was a battered briefcase, enamel worn off the handle and clasps, leather ripped and worn. The shopkeeper had forgotten to lock it. Maybe it was a moment of quick thinking or carelessness, but sure thing, the clasps sprung open. The book was under a small pile of old pens, worn documents and papers, maps.
It was beautiful. It was slender and tall, longer than his young forearm, and old. It wafted of a dry, thick dust, an ancient aroma. The front cover was plated with filigree, fine metal lace and thorns, curves and shapes, eyes and hands and books. In the center of the cover was a large round seal, rimmed with words he didn't recognize.
He sat on the floor unable to speak. He stared for a long while.
He smelled the leather. Touched the cold metal. Then his fingers split the covers open.
Hazy blue light filled the room, spilling past him onto the wall under the counter.
He jumped up with his hands over his face and the book dropped, open, to the floor.
He staggered against the wall, rubbing his eyes, head bent down.
For a moment he couldn't move. A strange realization that this was no normal book made him think twice. He peeked through his fingers at the book lying open in the middle of the room. Sure enough, the page was glowing merrily. No, not the whole page, a part of it, a section at the top. A panel.
He stepped closer, and then dropped to his knees.
It was a strange moment, all the world seemed to fade from him, the shop, the snow, his worried mother, the police, all the world was gone as he stared at the whispering glowing book. He wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t sure whether to be amazed, terrified, whether he should run or dance. There on the page was a spinning image of a sunlit forest, strange rocks climbing high from the canopy like jagged fingers, all topped with windows and bristling chimneys. Smoke puffed into the sky as the image dipped down below the treetops. Under the leaves, the trees, dark in shadow, glowed with amber streaks. The ground rushed at him in the paper, and buildings emerged. Twists of old tree trunks carved into houses, streams dammed off with strange moving machines, pathways lit with golden lamplight, then the ground rushed away. The sky burst into view, and he could see mountains. As the image rose higher, past the rock towers, he could see and endless sea of mountains.
His eyes dilated. His fingers twitched. The shadow of his open hand passed across his face.
He couldn't believe it. "Just like a movie," he said to himself. "Just like one."
Not just like one.
Danger was waist deep in that moment. And he never saw it coming. Never would have thought to guess the peril. His fingers brushed the glowing image. Flaming sparks shot through his skin, electric haze swathed his mind in an instant. He tried to jerk back his hand, but it took only the blink of an eye for the book to work its magic.
And the boy was gone.
burnt coffee. maps and adventurous memories.
...were all that remained in the old dark shop in the mountains of Montana.