“Exactly What You Need”
by Brandon Crilly
“…still can’t believe you have this edition in stock. I’ve spoken to bloody archivists who told me to give up looking. You’re certain you don’t remember how you acquired it?”
Constance shrugged and smiled as per usual, as she laid the professor’s receipt onto the tome he just bought: a leather-bound collection of essays last printed when the radio was novel. The professor beamed and tucked the collection into his satchel.
“I swear I’ve passed this place a hundred times and never thought to come in,” he said as he rewrapped his scarf around his neck. “You said you’ve been in business how long?”
“Four wondrous years,” Constance said, and hid her amusement behind a proud smile.
“Well, the next time I’m hunting the obscure, this will be the first place I try.” He took her hand in both of his with a warm, gentlemanly shake and disappeared into the November air.
And to your surprise, you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for, Constance thought, and started entering Hidden Volumes’ latest sale into the Excel document on her computer. She had never bothered with one of the inventory programs other bookstores used; they weren’t very useful when you were never quite sure what might appear in your stock.
Since it was late morning in the middle of the week, the store wasn’t very busy. With the professor’s departure, there were only three other customers: a mother shopping with her son and a wide-shouldered young man wearing a Carleton University sweater, combing through the philosophy section. The mother and son were just visible across the store, at the furthest of the four stacks that ran the store’s length. She was younger than most people with children that age – Constance guessed the son at six or seven, which meant the mother would have been in her early twenties when she gave birth. The boy listened patiently to his mother’s excited description of a book about dinosaurs and then shook his head and pointed further down the aisle, where Constance knew middle-grade adventure fantasy was shelved.
As mother and son disappeared, Constance typed a quick note on her desktop to call her son Scott when she got home. They had spoken when he got back from his conference in Chicago, but with Joanna’s birthday coming up she figured it was worth chatting again. Or is that more for your benefit than his? The thought sounded more like her late wife’s voice than her own.
The front door chimed again. Constance recognized the woman who entered as she threw back her hood: shorter and close to Constance’s age, she thought, but with the premature gray and careworn lines of a hard life. They had spoken briefly before, and though Constance hadn’t learned her name she did find out the woman was new to the country from Syria, but ahead of the influx of refugees spearheaded by Trudeau. Her first purchase had been a book on ancient Syrian history – something else one would never expect to find in a place like Hidden Volumes.
She looked a little more haggard than usual, as though she hadn’t been sleeping well. Constance tried to catch her eye to say hello, but the woman never looked her way as she climbed the four carpeted stairs into the main body of the store and bee-lined between the stacks.
Over the next while, the Carleton student purchased a book on Aristotle and left, replaced by two of the baristas from the coffee shop across the street, who waved at Constance as they passed. The mother and son still hadn’t emerged; either the magic was taking longer to work–which happened sometimes–or the little boy wasn’t committing to the options being shown. Just because the store knew best didn’t mean the customer would agree.
Constance contemplated quizzing the baristas about today’s lunch specials when she heard a thump from the stacks. She stepped around the counter and up the stairs to investigate. She saw the baristas down one of the center aisles, heard another slam to her left, and found the Syrian woman wandering away. The woman’s attention caught on a knee-level shelf and she scooped up another volume, but the instant she saw the title she grumbled something and jammed it back into place.
Constance followed her past the baristas to the next aisle over. She approached a little cautiously as the woman scanned the shelves with an almost frantic energy. Then she uttered a phrase that hadn’t crossed her lips since she and Joanna inherited Hidden Volumes: “Is there something I can help you find?”
Now that she was closer, she could see the stark red in the woman’s eyes and the bedraggled set to her hair. Constance recalled that she had always looked put together before.
“I’m fine, thank you,” the woman said, one hand running through her long, graying hair.
Constance considered smiling and walking away; sometimes customers were best left alone. She thought of the wooden plaque above her counter, which the original owner had installed: Care for the Customer. And the woman’s nervous energy reminded her so much of Joanna on a bad day that she heard herself say, “It takes a while, sometimes.”
“To find what you’re looking for.” Constance smiled in a way that she hoped was disarming. “Sometimes you have to wander a bit before you find it.”
The Syrian woman ran a finger thoughtfully under her lip. “Is that the way it works?”
Constance blinked at her. “I… yes. Sometimes.” The woman turned back to the shelves, a little calmer. “You’ve been here before, right?”
The woman nodded.
“I’m Constance.” She held out a hand, but the woman still didn’t turn. “Seems rude to have not introduced myself before.”
The woman looked at Constance’s outstretched hand and frowned. “I’m sorry, I…” The smile she offered as they shook hands barely twisted her lips. “Yara.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Yara. So what are you looking for today?” I asked again.
It was an innocuous question. The reaction she received from Yara was a first: a flash of pain across her features, followed by a firm set to her jaw as though she was holding back tears. She looked away like Scott used to growing up, when he’d been caught in a lie.
“Is it something I can help you find?”
“I highly doubt that,” Yara said, and walked away.
What in the… Constance followed in the other woman’s wake. They were almost to the end of the aisle when Yara turned, clearly exasperated.
“If you want to help, you can tell me how this place really works.”
Yara leaned in closer. “How do I find what I’m looking for? What do I need to do?”
Uncertainty swelled in Constance’s gut. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
Yara snorted. “Three times I’ve come to your store. Three times I’ve found the exact book I wanted. Books that were barely printed beyond Aleppo. The last was a teaching edition I left behind in my office at the university; I know only a handful of copies exist. Do not take me for a fool.”
“I would never -”
“Then tell me how long I have to…”
Yara’s eyes fixed on something and widened. She pushed past Constance and crouched in front of the aisle’s lowest shelf.
Her hands trembled as she reached for a ragged book, considerably older than what the professor had purchased earlier. Constance didn’t think she had ever seen something as old taken from Hidden Volumes before. Yara turned it in her hands, revealing a dark leather cover adorned with some sort of Arabic.
“I don’t… I didn’t think.” She turned to Constance. “Thank you.”
Constance was still trying to decide how to respond as Yara wandered a few steps away and opened the book. She let out a long breath as she flipped the pages, hunched like a starving man over a warm meal; she mouthed some of what she read, which Constance couldn’t understand.
Yara abruptly froze. The one hand Constance could see was white-knuckled along the edge of the book.
“I knew it.”
“This shouldn’t exist. And yet it does. I knew this place would…” Yara glanced around. “But if I leave…”
“Yara,” Constance said, trying to ignore her uneasiness as it snaked along her throat. “Can you tell me what’s going on?”
Instead, the woman started reading. Within moments, the antique lights hanging from the ceiling seemed to dim. Constance felt cold air against her skin, though they were nowhere near a door or window. The distant voices of the two baristas and the mother and her son disappeared. Even her breathing and the thumping of her heart seemed muted.
Yara sank to her knees, still reading. A book fell from a shelf to her left. Then another, and another, clustered in the same area. Constance started forward to collect them, but fear overrode that instinct as she saw, unbelievably, a dark figure step into the aisle. It seemed to drift from the spaces made by the fallen books, coalescing in front of Yara as she stopped reading.
The figure was unlike anything Constance had ever seen. It was about a head taller than the stacks and thin like a skeleton; she could see its ribs poking through the almost translucent flesh across its chest. Long, stringy dark hair fell past its shoulders, framing a pointed face that seemed to sneer down at Yara; the yellow of its eyes matched the band wrapped around its forehead, though the latter was stained and marked with age. The staff it held in one gnarled hand was similarly tarnished, ending in a narrow point about level with the figure’s forehead.
It opened its mouth, displaying stained and rotting teeth, and though its high, reedy voice was obviously masculine,
Constance had no idea what language it spoke.
“I knew it,” Yara said again, trembling. “I knew it would work.”
The figure cocked his head and blew a breath through his disgusting teeth. Constance cringed, otherwise frozen in shock as the figure examined the books on either side of the aisle. One spindly finger idly caressed the spines as he muttered under his breath, in the same alien tongue. Joanna had been the one with the gift for languages – she had mastered six before she died – but Constance was lost. The figure stopped muttering and cocked his head the other way, as though listening. For a moment, his yellow gaze fell onto Constance, and she felt a lance of sheer terror through her body, how she imagined a rabbit felt staring into the eyes of a wolf.
The feeling passed as the figure looked down at Yara. “It has been some time … Resheph suspected his name was long-forgotten.” The words were spoken slowly, as though the figure were concentrating. “And in a place such as this … novel, one could say.”
Constance wondered where the other customers had gone, if they were cowering like she desperately wanted to. Yara’s eyes were wide, her mouth hanging open slightly. Terrified as she was of drawing attention to herself, Constance asked,
“What is this?”
“I studied for so long…” Yara said softly. “At the university, we used to debate the point where myth and reality converge…” She looked to Constance, tears in her eyes. “Thank you for this.”
“Let us be about it,” the figure said. “What do you wish of Resheph, mortal?”
Yara’s back straightened. “I wish to deal with you, master of plague and underworld. I want my son returned to me.”
Resheph made a noise in the back of his throat. “Your spawn is within my realm?” When Yara nodded, the figure leaned down and hissed, “Describe the means.”
Yara looked down at her hands. “He… my Bhisan… war took him.” She looked up at Resheph, clearly hoping that would be enough, but the gaunt figure’s eyes were eager for more. “He convinced us to leave, when Aleppo… when the fighting became too severe. He earned us the necessary status with a friend’s assistance. On the day we were to fly, there was fighting that Bhisan’s friend could not cross… Bhisan refused to leave without him, and…”
As tears trickled down Yara’s cheeks, Constance wanted to reach out and hold her, to provide whatever comfort she could. She could imagine Scott doing something similar, but couldn’t imagine losing him; saying goodbye to Joanna had been terrible enough. The creature loomed so closely that she didn’t dare move.
“A man of honor,” Resheph said even slower than before, almost savoring the words. “A loss for my realm.”
“Will you help me?”
“I will bargain.”
“Bargain … for what?”
Resheph placed its free hand on top of one of the stacks, eyes narrowed in thought. Constance risked shifting forward a little, and when he didn’t react, leaned ahead enough that she could see down the aisle that separated the center of the stacks. Those two baristas had been just on the other side. To her surprise, all she could see was darkness, as though the rest of the store had disappeared.
“A suitable offering,” Resheph murmured. “Ever-lovely Anath has need of servants. Your son could be added to her cadre and serve a renewed purpose.”
“No.” Yara’s voice was heated. “My son will not serve the goddess of war. He is not a soldier.”
The goddess of war. Constance’s wide eyes tracked up to Resheph. Even hearing the words, and knowing where she was, her brain had trouble settling the idea of being in the presence of a god. If there is such a thing as magic, why not gods?
“Nothing is freely given,” Resheph said. “An offering is required. A trade of souls, perhaps? So that my realm will not feel the loss.”
Yara’s eyes slid toward Constance, and before she could decide how to react to that, Resheph grunted, “Protected.”
Protected? Constance looked up at the stacks.
“There are others nearby. One of them will suffice. You may choose, or I may, or we can strike a different bargain.”
Yara’s expression withdrew as she considered Resheph’s suggestion.The last of Constance’s disbelief melted away, and four words chimed in her head: Care for the Customer.
“You can’t do that. You can’t make that deal.”
Yara didn’t look at her, or Resheph. “He’s my son. I’m supposed to protect him.”
Now Constance did reach out, not quite to the point of grasping the other woman’s shoulder. “Yara, I’m so sorry about what happened to your son … I understand that loss, I do, but the other people in this store, they’re innocent.”
The glare Yara turned on her was so intense that Constance flinched back. The other woman held her in place with that glare, eyes flashing with a pain that Constance was certain she had never felt before, even when Joanna died. The pain of someone who had lost the most important thing in her life and didn’t understand why – someone who knew that loss could have been avoided, somehow, if the world was less cruel.
Yara turned back to Resheph. “What is the ritual?”
The god’s disgusting visage cracked into a massive grin. “It is simple. I will conduct it, and your son will be returned. Who shall do the choosing?”
After another glance at Constance, Yara said softly, “You.”
Resheph bowed his head and spoke in his own language again. The darkness to his left lightened somewhat, and a new figure stepped into view. Constance recognized one of the baristas, her eyes vacant as though in a trance.
“Yara, please.” The other woman slapped her hand away and stared into the darkness, waiting for her son.
Constance watched the scene unfold, thinking desperately about what she could do. She had never been more than a guardian, in the loosest sense of the word. Minding the shop, she and Joanna used to joke, while they kept Hidden Volumes’ true power as their little secret. She didn’t have any magic of her own – the store was the real magic.
She looked at the shelves behind her. Ever since Joanna died, she had never used the store’s magic for herself – and only rarely before, out of respect to whatever lay behind that magic. The store always provided the book you truly needed, even if you didn’t realize what that book might be, and so for four years she had been afraid of what Hidden Volumes would give her. If the store decided she deserved a reminder of her wife, Constance might not survive the renewed grief.
But at that moment, she thought she had a greater need.
Constance closed her eyes. She ran both palms gently across the shelves, the way she did some mornings before she opened, pretending she could feel the magic brushing through her. She tried to will away her terror, not for herself but for her customers, and focus her thoughts. The magic wasn’t always quick, but right now she needed it to be.
“Please,” she whispered, and opened her eyes.
Not knowing what exactly she was looking for, Constance started scanning titles. Nothing leapt out at her right away. She kept searching, waiting for that sudden spark of realization some customers described. If there was any sort of conscious will to this place, she prayed that it was paying attention.
She heard a gasp behind her and turned. Yara was on her feet. A ghostly figure had begun to appear on Resheph’s right side, one hand clutching the god’s age-worn staff. It was hazy and indistinct, but already starting to solidify. Constance scanned the books more quickly, considered calling out to the store to help her, that she was running out of time.
And then there it was. Constance knew, like every time before, as she reached out for a thin volume just below her eye level. To her surprise, the book was handwritten on ruled paper, bound in metal coils, with an inscription on the inside cover. She couldn’t read any of it; like the book Yara found, this was in some form of Arabic.
The figure beside Resheph had coalesced enough that Constance could see a face as she rushed forward – mid-twenties, she thought, with features like Yara’s. Across from him, the barista began to fade.
Constance grabbed Yara by the shoulder and spun her around. Before she could protest, Constance slammed the book into the other woman’s hands.
Yara’s tear-streaked eyes examined the book. As realization dawned, she clapped a hand to her mouth. When she fumbled with the cover, Constance helped her open it. Shaky fingers ran across the first page and the inscription, as a sad and tired smile pulled at Yara’s lips.
“What would your son be telling you right now?”
The hurt and grief that tightened Yara’s features only intensified. They both knew what Constance was asking her to do. The question was whether what Constance had found was enough to convince Yara to do it.
Fresh tears sprinkled onto the cover of the book as Yara closed her eyes.
“Stop. Stop this. Now.”
Resheph’s chanting ceased. His expression chilly, he said, “I see. Mortals and their qualms.”
The hazy figure to Resheph’s right disappeared, and Yara let out a tiny wail. Resheph studied her without sympathy, blew out a breath, and then folded back into the gaps between books that he had emerged from.
The darkness around them lifted just as quickly. Constance took a step toward the barista, who was blinking around at the shelves. She opened her mouth to say something to Constance, and then closed it in confusion.
“Easy to wander around in here,” Constance said, as lightly as she could manage just then.
The barista nodded and shook her head, then went to find her friend. At the front of the aisle, the mother and her son wandered into view, a book clutched in the little boy’s hands. Their unperturbed smiles caught Constance off guard at first, and she gestured politely for them to wait.
Yara leaned against one of the shelves, running her fingers over the inscription again. She looked up as Constance approached. “My Bhisan’s journal… he catalogued regularly when he studied abroad, so that I could read his stories when he returned to me.”
“It was left behind?” Constance asked.
“Destroyed, I’m sure,” Yara said bitterly. “Along with everything else.”
The other woman shook her head. “You were right. I apologize. I … desecrated this place. It will not happen again.”
Constance let her walk away, much as she wanted to hold the woman back, out of curiosity and concern. To her surprise,
Yara stopped about halfway down the aisle.
“Thank you for this,” she said, and then left without another word.
Conscious of the mother waiting for her at the front of the store–who had no idea how close she and her son had come to actual danger–Constance placed a hand on the nearest shelf and imagined Joanna’s hands on her shoulders until she was certain her body wouldn’t shake as she walked.
“Thank you,” she said as she patted the shelf, and then headed back to her counter
An Ottawa teacher by day, Brandon Crilly has been previously published by Daily Science Fiction, PULP Literature, On Spec, and Electric Athenaeum. He received an Honorable Mention in the 2016 Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards, reviews fiction for BlackGate.com and develops programming for Can-Con in Ottawa. You can find Brandon at brandoncrilly.wordpress.com