Chapter One. The Basement.
I wasn’t always fond of my parent’s bookstore. Although it was a family thing, apparently my great-great-great grandmother thought, ‘Yeah. Books. Lets sell them.’ And now it’s a family thing. Selling books.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s not awful. It’s laid back. But it’s just… my parents are picky. Everything had to be perfect and I was forced to give up my weekends and nights to make sure the books weren’t dusty, the store was clean, and everything was stocked and happy.
It was totally dumb.
See, I didn’t always have to do this. I had a brother, had is a strong past tense verb… I mean, I still have him, but he’s not around anymore. Apparently he ran off and joined the peace corps. He writes Mom letters, but we get them once a month, barely. He used to run the shop, and he could do it all by himself. This was his dream, to run the shop. To make sure everything was perfect. He didn’t have friends either, Jason was that nerd from that ’80s movie. Then he decided to be a superhero. And now I’m stuck with the shop.
What would I rather be doing? Sleeping, honestly. Or just not working in the shop that will never shut down. Of course, sleeping is pretty difficult too, nighttime is our peak time. But I don’t work those shifts, not allowed to and ‘school is important, no matter how mundane.’
But having a great time? Being sociable? Those things for a 16 year old girl are totally not important.
“Emilianna?” my mother called downstairs over the screech of the tea kettle.
“Calling out sick.” I called back.
“I’ve got tissues, get down here.” Mom shouted back. I groaned, pulling myself out of bed and wiping my runny nose on my sleeve (what and you don’t? Liar.) as I glanced in my mirror. I looked gross.
My brown hair was frizzy and tangled, and despite wanting to cut it off, Mom was a stickler for long hair in the family. I pushed it back into its lumpy, loose bun. My grey sweatshirt had a coffee stain… or was it chocolate?... right over my left boob, but it was soft on the inside, so I sported the stain like the slob I aspired to be. My black leggings hugged my size 4 thighs, showing off their grand collection of lint and cat hair. I slipped on my black slippers and slowly made my way down the stairs.
“Emilianna, by time you get down here your shift will be over.” Mom shouted from the kitchen.
“Okay, that’s a bad thing, how?” I asked as I turned the corner of the stairs which opened into the bookstore part of the house. The eight foot bookshelves towered over me, as they always have and always will, book spines straightened and alphabeticalized by author and separated by genre. I dragged my feet through the aisles of books into the small kitchen my mother spent most of her time in.
It was cozy, or she thought so, the floral wallpaper was peeling and the linoleum tiles hadn’t been replaced since the ’50s. Two mugs, both with terrible book puns written across, were steeping tea on the small round kitchen table. I plopped into the wooden chair and sniffed the tea, wincing at the smell of green tea unaltered by honey.
“No honey, I know. We’re out-,” she started as I stood up to grab the sugar, “And no sugar in yours. You know sugar is bad when you’re sick.”
“Okay, but honestly I’m not going sing in a concert, Mom.” I complained, grabbing the sugar jar anyway, “I’m stocking books and hoping cute boys don’t come in. Which they won’t. Because it’s a bookstore. The most boring place in town.” I dropped three spoons of sugar… and a fourth for good measure, before putting the jar back, unclosed.
“You’re a slob.” she complained, closing the jar behind me.
“I never said I wasn’t.” I shrugged, taking a sip of the tea. I picked out the tea bag, squeezing it against the side of the mug, before throwing it away in the trash.
“You shouldn’t squeeze the tea bag-,”
“Yeah.” I interrupted, slurping the hot tea,
“You take after your father, I swear.” she mumbled as she sat down. She wasn’t wrong, my mother was beautiful where I wasn’t. Her long blonde hair was tucked into a braid decorated with pearls and jeweled flowers against her pale face. She was slender and wore maxi dresses with fancy nude flats everywhere she went. Jason, my brother, took after her, blonde locks, blue eyes, weird birthmark on the shoulder, tall, but not lanky. He was her favorite, but I didn’t like to point it out.
Dad on the other hand, not as jaw dropping. He was average size, average height. Brown hair, shaggy beard he never trimmed (unless Mom scolded him too), thick glasses he was always pushing up the bridge of his nose. I always wondered why Mom settled for him. He was quiet, shy, and kept his nose in a book, and carried at least three with him wherever he went. He was a college professor, teaching ancient religion and snorted when he laughed.
Where Mom was a fairytale princess in real life… Dad was the nerd everyone picked on after school. They weren’t even the same genre.
“Can’t take after Dad-,” I said between slurps that slowly turned into quiet sips, “He’s OCD.”
“Without OCD, he’s quite messy.” she smiled at a memory of before I was born. Dad wasn’t always OCD and timid, but we never heard stories of pre-marriage. Only how great everything became when Jason was born and then me four years later.
I’m pretty sure I’m the family disappointment, but they’re kind enough to not tell me outright. I finished my tea and stood up-
“Rinse out your mug, Emilianna.” My mother didn’t even look up from her own cup. I sighed and grabbed my mug, turning around to the sink.
“I don’t go by my full name, you know.” I mumbled as I cleaned the mug.
“I didn’t name you after your grandmother to shorten your name-,”
“Okay, but you don’t live with my name.” I put the mug on the drying rack, “I do. I go by Lia-,”
“Good for you. There’s a stack of books that need to be reshelved in the History section. And clean the Kid’s Corner before you straighten up the Fiction and Y.A. section.” she sipped her tea and I rolled my eyes as I left.
“Saw that.” she stood gracefully to clean the kitchen. I didn’t respond, but headed towards the History section to reshelve.
If I knew anything about my future, I knew I wouldn’t be like my parents. My brother would get the bookshop and I… I’d do something else. I was a junior in highschool, the year people start saying things like “What do you want to be when you grow up, you know in a few years?”
And it’s like, I don’t know. I don’t know anything about myself except that I won’t work in a library. Or a school. In fact, I was thinking of being something cool, like a scientist. Or an actress. Or you know… something I wasn’t qualified to do at all.
Cleaning Kid’s Corner was easier than expected. Last night there was a premiere for some new kid’s movie, so no one really showed up here, so I moved on to Y.A. I hated Y.A. It was trash. Smut for teenagers who didn’t know how to make out. But it must have been nice to be a heroine for a Y.A novel. Modestly good looking, strong or smart, and then that one super special talent that seems worthless but is actually totally helpful at the end.
Unrealistic. All of them. Besides the magic stuff, and cute boys stuff, although both were also unrealistic, my main problem was the fact that these teens don’t complain enough. Not only that, but most the time they LOVE their families, and I don’t know any teen who’s willing to spend forever with their folks. Oh, and don’t get me started the concept of true love at age 15. Like. No.
When I was in middle school, we had to do this writing project where we had to write a short story on what we would do if we were the main character of a book and needed to save the world. My brother showed me his and tried to help me. His was an eight page epic (for a sixth grader) about how he would travel the land to teach the people the good and so everyone could fight the evil.
I wrote a paragraph about napping and how next time the world shouldn’t really trust me to do anything for anyone, but myself. Like I said, family disappointment. But, my fingers froze on a book cover over the hot shirtless blonde holding a sword (which I’m sure was magical), I’d give those heroines one thing, they weren’t lonely.
Not that I’m lonely. I’m not lonely. I like to be alone. I hate people. Friends are for losers, and I am not a loser you are, don’t be rude!
Sorry… Um… but anyways, I’d like a person to talk to sometimes besides myself. You are your biggest critic and number one fan, but in the end you are just you and that’s about it. I shelved the book as the bell echoed through the store letting me know someone was here. I groaned as I pulled myself up and poked my head out towards the center aisle,
“Hello, welcome to Starr Books. If you need something, find it yourself or ask. Either way.” I ducked back towards my pile of books as I heard the footsteps come down the aisle. Great, customer service, which I was told I lacked in.
“Yo.” a familiar voice pierced my heart, “You still work here?”
I turned around to see Max Daves. 6’3. Muscles. Black dreads. Football lettermen’s jacket. I stood up awkwardly,
“Makes sense why you’re never out. Never took you for a bookworm.” He smiled. I shrugged,
“I’m not. Covering Jason, since he’s off saving the world.”
“Yeah. Crazy Jason.” Max laughed. Max Daves was Jason’s best friend’s little brother who always tagged along and then got stuck with me. Of course, while Jason and Matt Daves (the older brother of Max) were reading, studying, and doing overall nerd things- Max and I were running around outside, playing pranks on the other kids, and overall being total hoodlums. A sport we gave up when Jason disappeared and I had to cover his shifts, Max started football, and I realized I was in love with him.
But love when you’re a teenager isn’t real love and he has a girlfriend. A girlfriend he broke up with you for. A two year girlfriend, the kind that has a promise ring and all of his attention. I’m the old childhood friend and lame ex-girlfriend he sees when he buys his older brother birthday gifts.
“What are you getting today?” I leaned against the shelf gently, careful not to cause the Collapse of Fifth Grade again.
“Um, I don’t know. What have ya’ got?” he asked, suddenly nervous and awkward. I was jealous, his awkward nervousness didn’t steal away his good looks and dork smile. While mine threw me into the negative loop of despair, since I had neither of those things in the first place.
“We’re not a milkshake stop. All I’ve got are books.” I joked. He laughed,
“Yeah…. A milkshake place. We should do that sometime.”
“Please, I’m always working and you’ve got Betty Whats-Her-Name.” I wondered if Mom would call me over to do something that she thought was important. I felt my hands getting sweaty and I was pretty sure I was going to say something really stupid really soon.
“No, um… Is that what you’ve been calling her?” he stopped mid sentence, with a mock glare.
“I don’t call anyone anything.” I shrugged, “I kind of avoid the world.”
“Moira-,” he said her real name, “and I kind of… are on break.”
“Sucks.” I realized now why he was here and my fluttering heart twinged with rage and pain. I turned away to focus on the task at hand, straightening books.
“Listen, what happened between us wasn’t right-,”
“You’re not wrong.” I nodded, refusing to face him-
“And you don’t go out to any of the dances or games anymore-,”
“I’m not a damn cheerleader, Max.” I snapped, turning to glare at him, “Is that what you’re looking for? A personal cheerleader, like Moira? What, she cheat on you? Leave you for someone else? Abandon you? Or did she wait until your brother dissapeared to realize maybe loneliness and grief wasn’t her cup of tea?”
Now that I think about it, maybe I did have a useless hidden talent. It’s called saying stupid things while wiping sweat off on your lint covered leggings while biting the inside of your cheek so you don’t cry in front of the only person that you ever cared about outside of your family. How that will ever come in handy later in life, I’m not sure yet.
But I sure wish I had any other talent but that.
“Lia.” he scratched the back of his neck awkwardly. Guilt etched across his face, “Lia, I-,”
“Don’t have a good excuse?” I asked. I had already stepped into the stupid pit, why not bask in it? “My favorite was we were better off as friends? I think I’ll use that one-,”
“Just, humor me for a minute?” he asked, interrupting me.
“I have a job, Max.” I turned away and he grabbed my arm, twisting me back into him and pressed his lips on mine. For a minute, I fell into the old routine. I was a perfect fit into his broad chest and his hot lips….
I pulled away and my hand reacted faster than my mind did as the slap echoed across the lobby. Tears stung my brown eyes and I cursed inwardly before meeting his eyes,
“You’re a terrible friend. I also have a nasty cold. Hope you catch it.”
And then I did what I did best, ran away. I hid my bathroom for a good while. I’d like to say five or ten minutes. But I have a phone and the clock works. It was thirty. I’d also like to say I talked myself down and walked out the bigger person. But I didn’t. I sobbed in the corner against the wall, wiping snot and tears on my sleeve unable to look in the mirror and see my own enemy. I had turned him away. Who cares if he left me? Who cares if he’d do it again? I loved Max, and I was stupid, so so so so so stupid to push him away like he hurt me. He did hurt me.
This is what I mean about teenage love. It causes delusions. I was better off without him, sort of. I was. I thought so anyway. I had been so far. When was the last time I broke down and sobbed? Four months ago? Five? Six? And he comes waltzing in like he could win me back in a matter of a joke and a kiss like I’m some sort of… Moira.
My thirty minutes flew by or dragged by, a little bit of both, before I stumbled out of the bathroom and my mom was waiting there with a cup of tea.
“Tea doesn’t fix everything Mom. I’m going to bed.” and I walked past her and upstairs to my room. She didn’t say anything. Or if she did I totally didn’t hear her.
Night shifts were loud, and I couldn’t work those shifts. Jason finally got to when he was in high school, but when he ran off to join the peace corps, or wherever he went, the rules about night shifts got a lot… stricter. I couldn’t go downstairs at all. In fact, I had to lock my door.
It was like his disappearance had something to do with the new rules, but he wrote letters that only Mom could read. It was suspicious. But what was I going to do? Get grounded?
… What would being grounded even entail? Doing work around the shop? I wasn’t cool enough to do anything lately anyway. Friends, cute boys, weekends… I didn’t have those options right now. I was going to be sneaky!
I tiptoed down the stairs, constantly debating going back. Mom would be furious, but Dad thought being a ‘rebel’ was in my blood and usually defended me… Most of the time.
I turned the corner quickly, ready to catch the bookshop night-life only to realize no one was there. The place was dead, and closed, just as a bookshop at 10 p.m. should be. But the music played and people laughed loudly, downstairs in the… basement?
See, we’ve always had this basement, don’t get me wrong. I’m not surprised it’s there, it’s just closed down due to being broken and scary. At least, that’s what I’ve always been told since I was like… three.
I turned the doorknob, but it was locked. They locked themselves in? The music lowered and I could hear my mother’s voice in the tone of a question, and my father laughing. The music went up and so did I, back to my room wondering what kind of second life my parents were living and how did it affect Jason.
The next morning I got ready for school. My mother made tea, I ignored her. My father kissed her forehead, waved to me, and headed out the door and my mom would watch the bookshop all day. She never left home. Ever.
But today I would get her too.
At the fifth step from the bottom, I took a deep breath and stepped on my purposely untied shoelace. I tumbled down, busting open my lip, the taste of wet iron filled my mouth and I fought to calm myself. My mother came running,
“Oh! Clumsy!” she gracefully sank to her knees, her dress spilling out from around her, how had she gotten so perfect? It was obnoxious. Probably worse for her that she had a daughter who was so… me.
“Sorry.” I mumbled through my blood filled mouth.
“We should have bandages in the bathroom-,” she started to stand up and I shook my head,
“Dad dropped the heavy box on his foot and broke his toe, remember? We didn’t fill up after that.”
“Oh… we didn’t, did we?” she asked, pushing her blonde strays back and sighed, “Well, keep a rag on it, we need medicine and groceries anyway. I’ll close the shop, just… stay here, alright?”
I nodded and my mother grabbed her purse and dashed out of the house, flipping the open sign around and locking the door behind her. And I?
I went to the bathroom, spat the blood out, rinsed the blood from my mouth and then headed straight towards the basement. Locked. I got on my tip toes and searched blindly with my fingers through the dust above the door frame and my fingers hit the cold metal I prayed was a key. I grabbed it and stared at the old key. It seemed to be one of those old fancy ones you see in movies or at the craft store for $8.99.
I turned it into the doorknob and pushed the door open, taking the key and placing it in my sweatpants pocket. My sweatshirt, I noticed, had a new stain to add to my never clean aesthetic. The blood I wiped from my mouth now stained my sleeve, with chocolate and day old tears.
The stairs creaked as I walked slowly, nervous of the overwhelming darkness. I tripped over the shoelace I forgot to tie, tumbling down the flight of stairs. I screeched, throwing my hands over my head, stairs and splintered wood attacking me from all angles. I collapsed on the floor, tears of pain stinging my eyes as the world blurred. I closed my eyes, a nap. A nap is all I needed to make this pain go away and by time Mom would get back home I’d be grounded….
I shot up, the pain in my body gone, although the feeling in my body was gone too. I looked down and screamed. I was dead. My body was a mess, limbs tossed everywhere, neck not right and the bump on my head was absolutely terrible.
At least I got to kiss Max Daves one more time before I died. Oh, and I slapped him too. He deserved worse. Maybe now Jason would come home. I stood up, the room was a lot colder than I remembered it, was it because I was dead? I don’t know. I flipped on the light switch and took in the lava lamp rug and ’70s bar.
I died to find out my basement was a bar for people who liked the ’70s? Well, continuously the family disappointment I suppose. I bet Jason would’ve died for people’s rights or something like that. I died to find out what kind of people my parents were hanging out with at night.
I sat next to my old body with a sigh, this was to be expected. And I didn’t even look nice either. I died in sweatpants and a stained sweatshirt with untied converse.
I heard the front door shut, my mother’s voice call out for me. She made her way down and saw me.
“Reach for the key.” a voice said behind me as my mother screamed. I turned around and saw a girl in a ripped white dress and her dark blonde curls were loosely pinned on top her head.
“What?” I asked, my mother’s heavy sobs pulling at my heart. I looked back at her, but the girl grabbed me,
“The key. In your pocket. Grab it. Now.” she pushed me at my dead body. I reached into my pocket and pulled at the key and it melted into my hand like a tattoo. I fell back, staring at my hand-
“It’s your key. The last mortal thing you touch, is your key through the world. Convenient yours was actually a key.” she held up her hand, “Mine’s is a dagger.” the dagger’s tip was at the tip of her middle finger as the hilt ended at her wrist.
“Oh.” I nodded.
“Should’ve been stairs.” she said as she took in the scene, “Huh. Well, death is a fickle thing. C’mon then-,”
“But my mom, my dad, my brother-,”
“You’re dead. They can’t use you anymore-,”
“I can go to the hospital-,” I stood up to argue her, “I can get fixed if I’m put back-,”
“You get back in your body and you’ll go brain dead. It’s worse. I’ve watched it happen. So shut up and let me teach you your new world. The world of the dead.” She vanished into a wall. I looked back at my mom,
“I love you.”
She looked at me, her blue eyes streaming tears as she whispered, “I love you.”
I wanted to hug her, to ask if she could see me, but I knew the answer. She heard me by luck, if she even heard me at all. I turned away from her and walked into the wall. Literally, into the wall. I hit it, with my face.
The girl popped back out with a sigh, “Forgot you don’t know that trick yet. Just, c’mon then.” Grabbed my hand and pulled. I looked back to get one last glance at my mother, but it was too late. Death had swallowed me up.