It always started with the ringing of a bell. An ancient door creaking open on rusted hinges accompanied by a tinny peal. There was the familiar smell of bitter coffee intertwined with the scent of musty tomes that caused Chris’ mind to quiet itself in the face of a labyrinth of words. His mind was embraced by millions of voices vying for attention. Not necessarily his attention. Simply an indiscriminate desire to be heard and truly embraced by the mind of another. An opportunity for the words held captive in one brain to migrate to another.
Chris raised a heavily wrinkled finger and ran the tip along fragmented letters and words. He hooked his finger at the top of a dark spine and gently tipped the book forward into his sweaty palms. Chris flipped it over to scan the back with a sharp, practiced gaze. He opened it to the first page, caressing paper beneath his fingertips and finding more words than he knew what to do with.
He found himself at the bottom of the sea, he found himself in the middle of a desert, he found himself in churches and cathedrals and palaces constructed from syllables and paragraphs. He found himself forgetting all his aches and pains and the weakness in his knees. Perhaps he might have continued finding himself, if he hadn’t appeared.
It was a living skeleton of a boy dwarfed by an oversize blue hoodie, coalescing from dust motes. His limbs were long and gangly. Sticking out from his jumper was a bony neck supporting a mischievous, narrow face, framed with a wild tangle of jet-black hair. He possessed a pair of mad, ocean green eyes that churned and rippled, as if in the midst of a violent storm. His was a hollow, yet piercing gaze, that sent needles prickling over Chris’ skin.
The boy, Aaron, reached out a translucent hand, as if to pluck one of the volumes off the shelf. His fingernails passed straight through it. He kept reaching until he was up to his shoulder, before sighing deeply.
“Worth a shot.”
Chris wrinkled his nose.
Aaron gave him a translucent grin.
“Let’s start where we left off,” Aaron said brightly. His voice echoed eerily amongst the shelves, as it always did.
A book tumbled into his hands and fell at his feet, falling open to about halfway. There was a flicker of the title: Paradise Lost. Chris instantly recognised it as his copy. There was Chris’ bookmark, a postcard with a picture of Aaron’s bookstore. Aaron stood outside the front, as an adult, hair as messy as ever. Aaron reached out a pale hand, his fingertip passing through the image. His expression was indecipherable.
Chris placed his finger against the first line, and Aaron rested his hand beside his. Age and youth, side by side. Chris lost himself in the words beneath their fingers.
When Chris glanced up, his only companion was the empty space beside him.