The Virtual Red Couch is hosting a collaborative short story project. Each week, a new author will continue the story. Check back every Monday to see how the story unfolds!
Written by Emily Simon
“Are you sure there’s nothing I can help you with, Emma, before we close?”
The tone of voice clearly implied that the only request Mrs. Schreibel would entertain so close to 4:00 PM involved the location of the bookshop’s exit. Emma looked up from where she was sitting up against one of the store’s multitude of mismatched bookshelves and gave her most consoling smile.
“My siblings and I are juuuuust about done browsing. I’ll let you know if we have any questions.”
Mrs. Schreibel eyed the book Emma had open in her lap–bookmark ready to mark her place–and gave a little huff. “Browsing. Of course. Just make sure to bring any purchases to the desk before 3:50 PM. I simply cannot offer any assistance after that point.”
It took every ounce of Emma’s willpower not to greet Mrs. Schreibel’s signature dramatics with an eye roll. Instead, she peeked around the shelf to watch in trepidation as the owner slowly descended the circular, rickety staircase in her obnoxiously pink pant suit. Like every other surface in the bookshop, the staircase was lined with a minefield of book stacks and Mrs. Schreibel’s youth was, politely speaking, a little worn around the edges. But Emma need not have worried; if there was any grace or finesse in “delicate” Mrs. Schreibel’s movements, it emerged in her uncanny ability to navigate the unmitigated deluge of books characteristic of The Inkwell Bookshop. Emma’s favorite thing about The Inkwell, in fact, was that the bookshop never seemed to fit the space allotted to it. You were just as likely to be buried by an avalanche of books as you were to stumble across (or over) your newest read.
Emma turned back to the chapter at hand in impatience. It never made sense to her why, even in the summer’s long days, Mrs. Schreibel insisted on closing the bookshop so early. The 4:00 hour was rapidly approaching and Emma could tell from the noise downstairs that there were more than a few disgruntled customers squeezing around each other and the bookshelves to find their gem in the rough. Surely there was just enough money to be made as there was light in the day.
More importantly, how was Emma to leave the dashing Everett Hawforn in the middle of his latest quest? Surely, even grumpy Mrs. Schreibel would extend the bookshop’s hours had she been following Everett through the latest plot twist involving a devastating betrayal at the webbed feet of a platypus and a badly executed match of rock, paper, scissors.
Just as she was burrowing herself back into the story’s drama, however, the dull thumping of feet up the stairwell announced the imminent arrival of her brothers. Emma looked up again in annoyance as Daniel emerged onto the second level followed closely by James, who seemed to be intent on holding half of the bookshop’s contents in his small arms.
“Daniel!” Emma whined. “You know we can’t buy anything! Why did you let him pick anything up?” Daniel looked back in surprise at the boy happily trailing behind him.
“Honest to God, he didn’t have anything in his hands when we started up the stairs.” Daniel said in confusion.
Emma quickly stood up, Everett Hawforn dropping to the floor forgotten, and began to extract the books from her youngest brother’s sticky fingers, hoping against hope that his meager protests and the leftover ice cream residue he had managed to spread over a number of book covers would not attract the attention of Mrs. Schreibel. They seemed to be treading a very thin line recently between a summer spent in the good graces of Mrs. Schreibel and a summer without such easy access to their favorite stories–this being the only bookstore or library close enough for their parents to waive the typical supervision requirements.
“I was just getting to the good part!” Emma couldn’t help but complain as she added the snatched merchandise to book piles around her. Thank goodness the bookshop thrived on chaos rather than a perfectly organized shelving arrangement.
“Well I haven’t even had a chance to find something to read!” Daniel fired back. “It was your turn to go with James to the kiddy book section.”
“No. I distracted James with ice cream earlier so that you could talk with your friend. Just based on the amount of minutes it took you to explain the entire plot of Avatar for the fourth time, I think you still owe me!” But just as Emma was mounting a defense of the precious remaining minutes she had left with Everett Hawforn, an idea struck. “Wait. Wait.” Emma said, quickly scanning her surroundings. “There!” Emma took James’ hand and led him to the back wall of the second floor where Mrs. Schreibel’s calico cat, Remy, was doing his best gargoyle impression atop one of the taller bookshelves.
“James, I need you to do me a huge favor. You see Remy up there?” James nodded. “I need you to keep a very close eye on him. Once he comes down, can you come and tell me? I have a very important question to ask him.”
“Like where all the clouds go?” James asked helpfully.
“Exactly. I’ve been dying to know where all the clouds go,” Emma replied with as much sincerity as she could muster. James, thankfully, took to the task with the kind of gusto only a five-year-old can manage. Chest puffed in importance, he claimed a seat on the nearest stack of books, crossed his arms, and gave his very best stink-eye to the unimpressed cat.
It was a perfect set-up. Remy preferred to observe the bookshop’s activity from up above rather than risk any unwarranted affection. So with James’ sticky fingers waiting below, Emma found it hard to believe that the cat would dare leave his safe spot high above all the action. And if he did move, James would just return to make a report. Emma shared a conspiratorial smile with Daniel before they separated, him to the ground floor and Emma back to her reading spot a couple aisles away from James’ location, to take advantage of the brief reprieve.
And brief it was. Emma had barely been absorbed back into Everett’s train of thought when she felt the approaching footsteps of the bookshop’s owner. How was it possible that even her stride conveyed a deep sense of disapproval? Emma found herself speed-reading the last couple of paragraphs of the chapter, taking so long to look up from the book that Mrs. Schreibel cleared her throat several times before she caught Emma’s reluctant gaze.
“As you might have already guessed, only ten minutes remain before The Inkwell closes its doors for the day. I really must insist that you either return that book to me or bring it to the front to purchase.” And then, as if she had nothing better to do, Mrs. Schreibel stood above Emma waiting for the answer to a question she hadn’t really asked.
“Oh. Well. Right.” Emma closed the book with a snap. “After careful consideration, I have determined that this just isn’t the book for me.”
“Delightful. If you would be so kind as to hand the book over, I’ll make sure it gets back to its rightful place.”
This was a whole new level of vigilance. The fact that the book had a designated spot in this whirlwind of books was also news to Emma, especially since she had carefully nestled the book in a different location every time she had visited the bookshop this week. There was no way she would let the book walk off with someone else when she only had four chapters left between Everett’s current crisis and the happy ending he deserved.
“Oh no, I wouldn’t want to trouble you like that! I’ll put the book back right where I found it!” Emma said hurriedly. “If you want to give everyone else their ten minute warning, I’ll just finish up here and get the book back where it belongs.”
“You’re the only customer left.” Mrs. Schreibel replied with thinly veiled impatience. She held out her hand expectantly.
Now that she was paying attention, the bookshop did seem unnaturally quiet. It wasn’t unusual for Emma to get so engrossed in a text to block out all her surroundings–apparently she had missed a lot in the seemingly small amount of time. Seeing no other choice, Emma handed over “Everett Hawforn and the Bog of Hidden Secrets,” and watched in bewilderment as Mrs. Schreibel made the trek down the stairs to apparently shelve the book on a different floor from where Emma had originally unearthed the story. Emma followed slowly, but determined at least to see which section she would need to spend costly minutes digging through tomorrow. They would have to cut out their ice cream trip from the schedule to make up the lost time.
But by the time Emma reached the bottom of the stairs, she had lost sight of the old lady. Was Mrs. Schreibel so determined to hide the book far from Emma’s grasp? Emma tried hard not to picture her dear Everett disappearing somewhere deep and secret in the bookshop’s maze of shelves. Even from the doorway–where Daniel was waiting–and on her tippy toes, Emma could not locate the owner.
“Wait. Did Remy move? Is James downstairs now?” Daniel asked, joining Emma in her visual sweep of the room. He glanced back at his sister when she didn’t immediately respond and the confusion on her face, promptly replaced by a healthy dose of guilt, told him everything he needed to know.
“You didn’t bring him down with you? Emma, how could you forget about him!?”
“A tiny oversight,” Emma said reassuringly, “I’m sure he’s still in the same spot!”
“He better be.”
As Daniel made for the stairs, Emma made a quick decision.
“Thanks Mrs. Schreiber! We’ll see you tomorrow!” Emma called out loudly, swinging open the front door so that the chiming of a clear bell resounded throughout the shop.
Even though Emma cared deeply about protecting their status at The Inkwell–and leaving the bookshop on time rather than chasing after forgotten siblings always went a long way in reassuring Mrs. Schreiber that they were well-behaving, rule-following guests–she wondered later if she had a different motive in pretending to leave the shop as she did. Just once, Emma wanted to be in the bookshop past closing time. She wanted to see the shadows move across the rows and rows of books as the afternoon passed into evening. She wanted to explore the bookshop’s secrets as they appeared after dark. She wanted to spend an entire, uninterrupted afternoon in an Everett Hawforn adventure. And, perhaps most embarrassingly, she wanted to stay past 4:00 simply because the adult supervision said she couldn’t and wouldn’t explain the reason why.
Emma let the door fall closed and then chased Daniel up the stairs as quietly as she could.
Somewhere between searching every nook and cranny on the second floor (James and Remy were decidedly not where they had left them), Daniel’s watch pinged to alert them to the fact that they had done the unthinkable: defied The Inkwell Bookshop’s strict shopping hours and lived to tell the tale. But they barely noticed this accomplishment or the usually astute Mrs. Schreibel’s absence. Instead, they made a different discovery.
“Um. Emma? You better come and see this.”