Keeper of the Books
Speculative Fiction | Read Time: 6 min 30 sec | 1,606 words
NOTE: This story will be submitted to the Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition. Early deadline is November 15th ($25 submission fee). Regular deadline is December 15th ($30 submission fee). Max word length is 1,500 words. Therefore, this story will be edited down. What you are reading is the partially edited version.
I clutched my journal to my chest as the gust of wind picked up, whipping the tails of my trench coat back. It was almost like nature was trying to stop me. But I wouldn’t be stopped. I made my decision when I woke this morning and no one was going to stop me. Before the sun sets on the day I will be dead.
The keeper’s house was not hard to find. Everyone had to know where it was and how to get to it in case they needed to deliver the book of a loved one. I delivered my last book just a few weeks ago. I doubt he’d remember me. Hands shaking as I released my wife’s book into his hands. I had other memories of her but her book, written by her own hand, was hard to part with. Now I have returned with the last book I’ll ever need to bring.
I knock on the keeper’s door and it opens almost instantly. “Yes,” he said, standing in his doorway, a cup of coffee in one hand and a book in the other.
“I— I have this for you,” I said and shoved my book forward as if ripping my heart from my chest. My hands gripped it tightly, shaking, waiting for him to take it, but his hands were full. He looked around for someplace to place either the coffee or the book but there wasn’t any.
He stared at me and I could tell he was concerned. I just wanted him to take my damn book!
“Please, come in. Let me put this down in my study and take that from you and you can be on your way.” He turned his back to me and walked down a narrow hallway, expecting me to follow. I looked over my shoulder at the dark clouds forming in the sky and figured I should step inside in case it started to rain.
I followed him to a room at the end of the narrow hallway that was covered from floor to ceiling with books. Every shelf had them. Some stacked vertically, others horizontally. Most of them were covered in dust while others looked like they had just been placed there recently. Every last one filled with the lives of the dead. My book would be joining theirs soon.
He put the book he carried and his coffee mug down on a table beside an armchair in the center of the room. As he turned to me I quickly pushed my book forward again, ramming it into his chest this time and nearly knocking him over. He took it from me and I released it, a sense of relief washing over me that at least he would know why I had to do it.
I turned to make my way back to his front door. I knew rain was coming and I would be soaked but that didn’t matter now. Nothing mattered anymore.
“Wait,” he shouted to me and I stopped. I don’t quite know why. My feet just stopped moving. “There must be some mistake. This is your book.”
I heard him walk up beside me and place the book in front of me as if to return it.
“There’s no mistake, keeper. I’m going to kill myself. So, whatever you’ve done to keep me from moving, release me.”
“I can’t accept this. You know I can’t accept this. Why do you want to take your own life?”
He turned and walked back to his arm chair. As hard as I tried to resist I followed close behind him and sat down in a similar chair opposite his where a fireplace was just beginning to come to life. I swore the second chair and fireplace wasn’t there earlier but I couldn’t remember. I also didn’t much care about anything anymore.
“That’s none of your business. But if you want to know, it’s all in there,” I said, nudging my chin towards my book he had laid on his lap. He lifted it carefully and turned to the last few pages. I wrote them just the night before through tears. Stains I’m sure he could see for himself.
“I don’t usually do this. Read a person’s book in front of them, let along skip the beginning and go right to the end. But in your case I think an exception must be made.” He furrowed his eyebrows and for the first time since I’d seen him I felt like I was really looking at him. He had a bear and mustache that were greying slightly and a mop of curly hair on his head that looked unkempt but fit exactly how I’m sure everyone pictured him looking. Any man who had to live forever had the right to look and dress however he wanted, I felt. And the keeper wore a comfortable bathrobe tied tightly around his waist with matching, and I’m sure equally comfortable, slippers. “Fascinating,” he whispered, bringing me out of my thoughts. I continued to try and make my feet move but they wouldn’t.
“Fine,” I said, finally giving up my fight, “what’s so fascinating?”
“Your assumption that you have no reason to live. Everyone has a reason to live. Come with me,” he said, placing my book on top of the one he had earlier and pushing open a large metal door that seemed to be holding up even more books on a wall I swore wasn’t there before. He touched it with his hand and it swung open easily.
“Like I have a choice,” I muttered as my body involuntarily followed him through this doorway. My jaw dropped when I found myself surrounded by stacks of books that reached the ceiling. At least, I thought they reached the ceiling. I honestly couldn’t see one from my vantage point. The stacks seemed to go on for miles as we kept walking.
Finally, he turned a corner abruptly and I was met with a set of books that look different from all the others. These were bound in bright red leather and looked like they were cared for.
“These are the books of murderers. Most of them killers. Others had far less offenses they committed. All of them had something to live for even though on the surface it seemed like they cared very little for human life.”
“Are you comparing me to a criminal?” I was insulted. My pulse began to race and I could feel tears forming. How dare he! He didn’t even know me!
“How’s your mother?”
I blinked twice, the tears disappearing instantly. “Who?”
“Your mother. How is she?” He continued to walk amongst the stack of books till we found ourselves back in his study and I knew in my heart what he was about to do. “See, I remember you and your family. Your father died of a heart attack last year. Your wife, so young, died too soon only last month.” He pulled two books from a shelf. One belonging to my father, the other, my wife. “I wonder how your mother must’ve felt when she brought this book to me?”
I turned my head away. I didn’t care how she felt. She didn’t care about me when I had to bring Carol’s book here, alone.
“She was alone, too, when she brought me her husband. Where were you?”
I turned back to look him in the eye. Mine were like daggers. I wanted to escape but I couldn’t. “Don’t you dare read my thoughts. Where was I? She didn’t even have the decency to tell me he was sick. I get a lousy letter in the mail. Gee, thanks, mom.”
“Did you tell her you found someone? Did you tell her you got married? Does she even know you’re alive?”
“How about you? Does anyone know you’re alive? Will anyone care when you’re gone? Oh, I forgot, you’ll outlive us all. You sit here reading all these books. All these lives. But have you ever truly lived one yourself? Let me ask you, keeper, where is your book?”
I felt the hold on my legs release and my knees wobbled slightly as I regained my control. I made for the front door before he could stop me again. My hand on the doorknob, I stopped. This time by my own choice. I turned and walked back to where he stood. He looked lost. He looked… like me…
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. You’re right. I have no excuse for why I stopped talking to my mother. Are you alright?”
He looked at me with such sorrow and confusion. “I don’t know. No one’s ever talked like that to me before. Then again, I’ve never invited anyone into my home before. I just don’t know what I’m feeling.”
“That makes two of us, keeper,” I said, and put an arm around his shoulder. “What do you say we go for a walk to that park not too far from here. After it rains you can always count on the sun shining through eventually. My wife always used to say that.” I navigated him towards the door and we walked through it together into the sunlight.
Once we were at the park, the sound of birds chirping and children playing in the distance he turned to me and said, “I don’t think I’ve ever been this far outside of my house before.” Then he let out an involuntary laugh that I couldn’t help but join in on.
A stranger passing by asked us, “what’s so funny?”
“Life!” Said the keeper. “Just life.”
FULL DISCLOSURE: 1. I’m not perfect. 2. I’m not rich. Keeping those two things in mind, you may have come across typos in grammar and punctuation. My feelings won’t be hurt if you point them out in the comments.