Lock up. There was a light still left looming in a back corner, overhead of the Travel and Language section. Somehow. For he was sure he’d switched everything off, double checked it – scrutinised each lightbulb himself, almost.
The underground bookstore is deserted by now, has been for half an hour or so. Emory said goodbye to the last customer… when? It was an older man with a greying moustache, he’d purchased an Ishiguro novel and the latest from Rachel Cusk.
Emory flicks on and off again the light switch – strange, that it remained a bright bulb even when the switch indicated it should have been otherwise. ‘Not my problem,’ he says to himself, briefly contemplating leaving a note.
He roots around in his pocket for his phone and turns on the built-in flashlight. Moving back towards the staff exit, he aims the torch around, book covers reflecting the light. The neatly stacked display of Bluey-related bits and bobs for the kids. He almost slices his foot through a mound of paperbacks, science fiction novels that he can’t remember leaving lying around.
Emory stares around at the darkness.
Heavy footsteps in the darkness, and then they’re gone again.
‘Is someone there?’ He feels like the first character to die in a horror movie.
No one’s there. Of course there isn’t, he’s hearing things, he’s going insane, that’s what happens to you when you work in retail for eight years.
In the dim light of a horribly stood-up phone flashlight, Emory starts to stack the books into a sort of organised pile – they can deal with it in the morning. Again. Not my problem.
The light is back on again. Some sign from the universe he should go back to learning French and spend a weekend in Belgium. His footsteps are quiet, muffled, and a sound like a whole shelving unit coming crashing down onto the linoleum makes him move quicker. Are the shadows moving now?
He fumbles on the light switch, staring out into the dimly lit bookstore. Flick. Darkness again. Nightfall has never once knocked the books right off their perch, scattered them round, freaked him out for no reason.
He pauses there, leaning in the doorway, checking his phone. He replies to a text message that was left unseen and unanswered since his break a couple hours ago. He exhales as he hits send. Travel and Language becomes a beacon once more, spotlighting tourist trips to Spain, to Germany, to the cool of a Canadian winter.
He abandons his post, moving through the store towards the section in the back. Someone’s knocked a Japanese language book off the shelf. It lies awkwardly bent, open on a page about getting directions. Emory bends down to pick it up – the cover is one tear away from coming right off.
Someone’s watching, he thinks, the book colliding with the floor as it tumbles out of his hands. He’s still gripping the cover.
Don’t say that lame shit, ‘we’re closed’ …
He turns on his heels slowly, his stomach choosing the worst possible moment to twist up inside of him. It’s the nerves it’s the nerves it’s the nerves–
The shadows have weight to them now. Somewhere, lurking between the Classics and those tawdry romance novels he wishes they would downplay in some unnoticeable nook, a figure is taking up new space. No, it is not creating space – the bookstore feels smaller, the air thicker to breathe. Fuck. The shadows have weight to them, again. Like a reoccurring nightmare shedding old skin, taking on new flesh, a character from the past has returned. Grinning with no mouth. Making puncture holes in Emory’s abdomen.
He bolts for the staff exit, clipping his left leg with the pointed edge of a display housing the newest Australian autobiography. He yelps an under-his-breath curse and rubs the spot, careful, gentle, inhaling and exhaling. You do that all the time, you’re not hurting. Reassurance helps.
There is breathing down the back of his neck.
A forceful tug of his left leg and he’s down on the ground, a jolt of pain like a monorail running from his ankle to his cranium. Emory wiggles his toes, his feet, slow at first until he gains the courage to sweep around, trying to locate whoever it was that knocked him from vertical to horizontal.
He glances around – nothing. You’re running too fast again, clumsy ass.
The bookstore is quiet, but he cannot hear himself think over the thump of his heart. Using a faux-wood display, he hoists himself up and readjusts. It’s not as much pain as he thought he would be in, but there’s always usually time for the dramatics otherwise.
Shadows look like they could talk.
The staff exit is a sort of side stairwell branded originally as a fire exit. The blank door upstairs faces into an alleyway, so customers are very likely to never notice it, or at least never pay any attention to the green-grey door with no signage above or on it.
Emory just wants to see that door in the darkness, behind him, instead of far, far from him.
He comes around the corner and thinks, at first, that someone left the staircase light off for whatever reason. Pitch darkness, spread over holes and pockets of light. No.
Someone is standing there, approaching, but not shrinking in size. Not the shape of a human, either, not boned or of two arms and two legs. Shapeless except for a human head, carpeted with formless hair.
Emory finds himself running through the Art & Coffee Table Books, rounding a corner into True Crime, being careful not to stab into his side the shelves. There’s the Agatha Christie books he restocked yesterday; there’s the figure, the being, in his periphery, right on his tail. He imagines himself running this fervently in those cross-country races in primary school, leaping over pinecones. Off the shelf he scoops up a smattering of various Manga titles, nothing he’s ever read, and imagines, this time, he’s playing shuffleboard, without the time for patience. In the Classics corner, he aims a copy of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility at the shapeless being’s head. The book is flung back, colliding with a desktop computer screen.
Emory’s breathing is heavy; sweat is beading, gluing his dyed-black hair to his forehead. Foolishly he’s staring into the beady little eyes of the whatever-it-is, feeling around with his right hand for a good grip on, what, the thin little poetry collections behind him? He would launch one of those and it would soar far off into the distance, taking flight with miniscule paper wings.
The shadow knew it had Emory trapped – not in the physical, but out of terror, out of fright, and somehow a complete draining of what those Instagram poetry books had. Flight. It caught in the back of his throat.
Its amorphous form reminded him of the great Titanoboa, smothering its prey with a squeeze—and he isn’t even sure if the Titanoboa had acted like the anaconda in that sense—but his lungs are being squeezed of air, every last breath, and the whole of the bookstore is blank and darkness and he thinks, there, look, he sees scales in the place of stars, shimmering and then shedding. Emory’s screams/cries/ABSOLUTE AND TRUE LIFE-ENDING WAILS NOT HEARD BY THE HUMAN EAR are silenced by what he now understands must be the precursor of the Maiden Death.
And then he feels air like an embrace of love.
His throat feels congested like a highway, as if there is an oil tanker leaking, spilling out. Station wagons and convertibles alike skid out of control, and yet he’s breathing again.
The next thing he notices is the light over the Travel and Language section.
But at his reach are the scattered novels he tossed around, failing and flailing. His aim was dodgy, untrained, you made more of a mess of this place by fighting back.
Emory hugs the copy of Dracula to his chest. Just for a moment, please.
Some monsters are not new. Shadows can be familiar. When he was ten, he thought an extinct creature could take on many forms – first, because he got lost in a theme park and couldn’t find his average-height, average-build father, and second, because he spent an entire day in an empty house, wondering where the rest of his family had gone. His mother, stepfather, two stepsiblings – gone. Had they vacated the earth, he thought, just them… the idea soothed him now, but not then, when he was barely cracking the double digits and he knew nothing.
‘You knew the girls had netball,’ someone said, but it wasn’t family, it wasn’t a friend.
He guessed then that shadows could talk.
Nothing’s even terrifying about a bookstore. Maybe the prices.
You don’t need something new to be scared, Emory.
Author: Keeley Young writes queer literature, fantasy fiction, poetry (sometimes), and emotion-focused work that he hopes makes people feel heard and seen, even just a little. You might be familiar with his work with ScratchThat from last year, where he wrote about cuddling with robots, communing with a dead gay lover, and summoning demons.
Artist: Emma Bruce is a multi-disciplinary visual artist from Yugambeh country working out of Meanjin. Her work discusses the relationship modern society has with the environment through an archival style in hopes to preserve the experience of being in the natural world. Her work hopes to invite her audience to partake in activities that nurture native flora and fauna as well as create a sense of pride to be part of it.
Editors: Kelly Rouzbehi and Breeh Botsford