Back in his den with the cocoa he settles into the beanbag chair bequeathed to him by a departing student the year before. It is a garish neon green in its natural state, but Zachary draped it with a tapestry that was too heavy to hang on the wall, camouflaging it in shades of brown and grey and violet. He aims the space heater at his legs and opens Sweet Sorrows back to the page the unreliable library lightbulb had stranded him on and begins to read.
He wonders if it will return and loop back to the previous part. Then it changes again.
Zachary Ezra Rawlins’s hands begin to shake.
Because while the first part of the book is a somewhat romantic bit about a pirate, and the second involves a ceremony with an acolyte in a strange underground library, the third part is something else entirely.
The third part is about him.
The boy is the son of the fortune-teller.
A coincidence, he thinks, but as he continues reading the details are too perfect to be fiction. Sage may permeate the shoelaces of many sons of fortune-tellers but he doubts that they also took shortcuts through alleyways on their routes home from school.
When he reaches the part about the door he puts the book down.
He feels light-headed. He stands up, worried he might pass out and thinking he might open the window and instead he kicks over his forgotten mug of cocoa.
Automatically, Zachary walks down the hall to the kitchenette to get paper towels. He mops up the cocoa and goes back to the kitchenette to throw away the sopping towels. He rinses his mug in the sink. The mug has a chip he is not certain was there before. Laughter echoes up the stairwell, far away and hollow.
Zachary returns to his room and confronts the book again, staring at it as it rests nonchalantly on the beanbag chair.
He locks his door, something he rarely does.
He picks up the book and inspects it more thoroughly than he had before. The top corner of the cover is dented, the cloth starting to fray. Tiny flecks of gold dot the spine.
Zachary takes a deep breath and opens the book again. He turns to the page where he left off and forces himself to read the words as they unfold precisely the way he expects them to.
His memory fills in the details left off the page: the way the whitewash reached halfway up the wall and then the bricks turned red again, the dumpsters at the other end of the alley, the weight of his schoolbook-stuffed backpack on his shoulder.
He has remembered that day a thousand times but this time it is different. This time his memory is guided along by the words on the page and it is clear and vibrant. As though the moment only just happened and is not more than a decade in the past.
He can picture the door perfectly. The precision of the paint. The trompe l'oeil effect he couldn't name at the time. The bee with its delicate gold stripes. The sword pointed upright toward the key.
He goes back and rereads the pages about the boy. About him.
About the place he did not find behind the door, whatever a Starless Sea is supposed to be. His hands have stopped shaking but he is light-headed and hot, he remembers now that he never opened the window but he cannot stop reading. He pushes his eyeglasses farther up the bridge of his nose so he can focus better.
He doesn’t understand. Not only how someone could have captured the scene in such detail but how it is here in a book that looks much older than he is. He rubs the paper between his fingers and it feels heavy and rough, yellowing to near brown around the edges.
Could someone have predicted him, down to his shoelaces? Does that mean the rest of it could be true? That somewhere there are tongueless acolytes in a subterranean library? It doesn’t seem fair to him to be the solitary real person in a collection of fictional characters, though he supposes the pirate and the girl could be real. Still, the very idea is so ludicrous that he laughs at himself.
He wonders if he is losing his mind and then decides that if he is able to wonder about it he probably isn’t, which isn’t particularly comforting.
He looks down at the last two words on the page.
Those two words swim through a thousand questions flooding his mind.
Then one of those questions floats to the surface of his thoughts, prompted by the repeated bee motif and his remembered door.
Is this book from that place?
He inspects the book again, pausing at the barcode stuck to the back cover.
Zachary looks closer, and sees that the sticker is obscuring something written or printed there. A spot of black ink peeks out from the bottom of the sticker.
He feels mildly guilty about prying it off. The barcode was faulty, anyway, and likely needs to be replaced. Not that he has any intention of returning the book, not now. He peels the sticker off slowly and carefully, trying to remove it in one piece and attempting not to rip the paper below it. It comes off easily and he sticks it to the edge of his desk before turning back to what is written below it.
There are no words, only a string of symbols that have been stamped or otherwise inscribed onto the back cover, faded and smudged but easily identifiable.
The exposed dot of ink is the hilt of a sword.
Above it is a key.
Above the key is a bee.
Zachary Ezra Rawlins stares at the miniature versions of the same symbols he once contemplated in an alleyway behind his mother’s store and wonders how, exactly, he is supposed to continue a story he didn’t know he was in.