Fall is finally here. With it comes our desire for campfires and spooky stories. I can’t help you with the campfire, but I can share a ghost story with you.
“Gwen’s Used Books” will appear in my upcoming short story collection. You are being granted a chance to read it here first. Very few people have read this tale. Though it has never won a prize, this story is one of my favorites. Please enjoy my little ghost story in good health. All Rights Reserved.
Gwen’s Used Books
By Margarite R. Stever
Lightning forked across the sky as Gwen wiped sweat from her forehead. The hair on her arms stood with the storm’s electricity. Hefting the last box from her car, she struggled to balance her heavy burden. She hauled her latest acquisition inside and set it on the counter, locking the door behind her.
“Well, that’s the last one, Athena. None too soon, either.” She smiled at her best friend and store mascot, her beloved white Chihuahua.
Athena lifted her head from her yellow beanbag behind the counter. Cocking her ears forward, she let out a huff of air and rested her chin on her paws.
Gwen shook her head. “Good talk, Athena. Now let’s get down to business. What treasures did the late Harold Rumbottom have tucked away in these dusty old boxes?”
Extending the blade of her retractable utility knife, she ran the tip across the ancient brown tape sealing the first box. The scent of musty books filled her lungs before she opened the flap. Her hands shook at the sight of the old tomes cocooned within the battered cardboard.
The box was filled with all sorts of books. She’d anticipated finding some Shakespeare, but she hadn’t expected all of the wonderful fairy tales. She dusted a volume of Hans Christian Andersen’s Complete Fairy Tales and Short Stories with her lint-free cloth. She placed it on the counter beside Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and reached into the box for another book.
Rain pelted the windows like angry wasps demanding entry by the time she reached for the last book. Using both hands, she lifted a thick brown leather-bound tome bearing no discernable title. After running her cloth over the cover, Gwen eased the book open.
A puff of green smoke gushed into her face, stinging her eyes and throat. Struggling to breathe, she wasn’t prepared when Athena leapt up and knocked the book from her hands. The dog’s fierce snarls vibrated her entire body.
Gwen tried to retrieve the book from the floor, but Athena batted her hand away. “What’s wrong with you?”
Her fierce protector yipped in response. She lowered her head and growled at the book, her hackles standing straight up.
“Athena!” Gwen picked her up and held her like a football beneath one arm while she hefted the book with the other hand. “What’s gotten in to you?”
“I’m afraid it’s me,” said a voice from behind her.
She squealed and spun around, losing her grip on Athena. The dog rushed over to the tall well-dressed stranger with salt and pepper hair, trying to attack his ankles. Her head passed right through him.
“Who are you? How did you get in here? What do you want?”
“Elizabeth? Is that you?” He glided toward her.
She took a step back and held her hands up in front of her as she’d been taught in self-defense class. “No. I’m Gwen. Now tell me who you are and how you got into my store.”
“Please excuse the intrusion. The resemblance between you and my Elizabeth is striking. You’ve the same fair skin. The same wild dark hair. You even have the same boldness in your brown eyes.” He shook his head.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know your Elizabeth.”
“My apologies. She was my daughter. You are her mirror image. Perhaps you’re one of her descendants.” He extended his hand as if for a handshake. “My name is Peter, and I’ve been imprisoned in yonder book for quite some time. I owe you a debt of gratitude for releasing me.”
She scooped up Athena and backed further away from the stranger. “What are you? You aren’t solid.”
“Sadly, I am no longer flesh and blood. I’ve been a spirit for a long time.”
“You said you were imprisoned inside that book.” She pointed to the tome on the floor. “How did that happen?”
“It’s a long story, but if you’ve the time, I’ll share it with you.”
Gwen glanced at the dog in her arms who was keeping a suspicious eye on the phantom. “I have some time.” She settled on a stool and held her best friend to her chest.
“Well, where to begin?” A beautiful clay pipe appeared in his hand, and he took a long puff. “Ah yes. You see, I always loved books. In my time, bookstores were great meeting places.”
“When was your time?”
“I was born in 1838. I met my demise in 1888.” He chuckled. “I’d lost the energy of youth but not the curiosity.”
“One thing at a time, my dear. Now, where was I? Oh, yes. I died in the alley behind my favorite bookstore. I couldn’t seem to move on, so I haunted the store. It was nice at first. I had all the time in the world to wander around the store with the customers. I listened to their conversations and felt content. I loved spending my days close to all those beautiful books. The trouble was I couldn’t pick them up and read them. Every time I tried to grasp a book, it slipped through my fingers to the floor.”
“How did you die?” she asked.
He took a long puff on his pipe. Purple smoke wafted through the air followed by the sweet scent of pipe tobacco. “I felt a horrible pressure in my chest and couldn’t breathe. I fell to the ground and awoke as a ghost. Now, please stop interrupting me.”
“I’m sorry.” She rose and put Athena, who’d been lulled to sleep by Peter’s voice, on her beanbag before retaking her seat.
“The shopkeeper wasn’t pleased with my continued mess. I must admit, I left several books strewn around the space every night. It took him a while to clean up of a morning so he could open. Before I truly understood how annoyed he was, he brought in a shaman. I wasn’t worried at first, but this fellow was quite powerful. He set a diabolical trap for me.”
“The book.” Color drained from Gwen’s face with the realization.
“Yes. He left that beautiful volume on the counter. I couldn’t see a title and was ever so curious. I tried to grasp the book, which fell to the floor. This one was different, though. It landed open. When I leaned over to examine it, I was sucked inside. The shaman returned the next day, closed the book, and whispered an incantation over it. I couldn’t understand what he said.”
Taking a hanky from his pocket, the ghost wiped his brow. “That shopkeeper was Sebastian Rumbottom. He locked me away in a wooden box. He passed it to his son, and his son after him, and so on. Each generation was warned to keep the book locked up and never open it. I heard the warning with each and every passing of my book.”
“So, you were aware of your surroundings?”
“That was the worst part. I could hear everything, but it was so dark and cold. I heard bits and pieces from so many lives, but no one ever talked to me. I was so very lonely.”
Someone pounded on the door hard enough the art on the walls shook. Gwen turned to see the oldest of the Rumbottom descendants, her high school sweetheart, through the glass.
“You’d better hide. I have a feeling he’s come for you.”
“I won’t go back in that book!” He fled to the Reference Section in the back of the store.
Forcing out a nervous breath, Gwen unlocked the glass door. “Sam, come in. What brings you out on such a stormy night?”
He shook some of the water from his jacket and wiped the rain from his eyes. “I think we sold you an heirloom by mistake. I’m here to buy it back from you.”
“Oh, of course. What’s this heirloom you’re looking for? I’ve only unpacked one box, so I probably haven’t found it yet.”
“It’s a thick brown leather book. It wasn’t supposed to be packed away in some flimsy cardboard. I don’t know what my dad was thinking.” He glanced around the shop.
“I’ve seen several brown leather books. What’s the title?”
“There isn’t one. It’s a special book to the family, but it wouldn’t be of interest to anyone else.” He sidled up to the counter and examined each of the books.
“Are there any distinguishing marks that would help me identify it?” She moved to block the tome from view with her body.
Sam shook his head. “No. It’s extremely important that I find it.” He held her gaze. “I don’t want to alarm you, but the book is dangerous. I need to take it back home where I can keep an eye on it.”
An agonized screech rent the air. Gwen looked up to see Peter flying straight for Sam. “Peter, no! What are you doing?”
“I won’t go back in that prison! I never did anything to your family. I don’t deserve to be locked away.”
Sam glared at her. “I see you’ve already found it. Is he the only one you let out?”
She rose to her full height, propping her hands on her hips. “You mean there are more spirits locked inside that book? Why would anyone do that?”
“Not necessarily spirits, but there are many things locked inside that volume. Now, I need to know how many you set free.”
“I’ve only seen Peter. I opened the cover to try to find the title, and green smoke rushed out at me. Then he appeared.”
He regarded the ghost. “You must be the bookstore phantom. Do you know if any of the others escaped?”
“I was utterly alone in that book. If there were others, they never said a word to me.”
“Sam, please explain this to me. How is this even possible?”
He sighed. “Gwen, I need to get the book closed. Peter was trapped in there by accident. My ancestor was trying to catch a demon that had been sniffing around. The shaman assured him they’d caught the right creature, but apparently not.”
He turned to Peter. “My great, great-grandfather didn’t mind you wandering around his store. He actually missed you once you were gone.”
“Then why did he leave me in there all these years? Why did you?”
“Try to understand. There are twelve demons and evil spirits trapped within the pages of that magic book. You were Number Thirteen. Such books can only hold thirteen entities, so it was locked away to protect the world until a way could be found to safely return them to their realm.”
“Have you found a way yet?” Gwen crossed her arms over her chest with a frown.
“I think so, but I haven’t tested my theory yet. It’s urgent I get the book out of here now.” His eyes blazed and sweat beaded on his forehead.”
“Okay, you can take the book, but leave Peter here. He can haunt my store until he’s ready to move on. He deserves that much.”
Sam smiled. “You’re right. You always did have a big loving heart. It’s one of the things I loved about you.”
He turned to the ghost. “Peter, I’m sorry for what happened to you. I’d like to come back and visit you later if that’s okay. I’d love to talk to you about your life and the people you knew.”
The dapper ghost straightened his suit jacket. “That should be fine, my boy.”
Sam nodded, scooped the book off the floor, and headed out into the storm.
“Do you believe him?” Gwen asked.
“I believe that’s what the young man was told, but there are no demons or anything else in that book. I spent over a hundred and thirty years in there by myself. I think Sebastian’s shaman may have exaggerated his skills.
“I’m glad you’re finally free. Sam will figure things out sooner or later. He’s a smart guy. You’re welcome to stay here for as long as you like.”
Her unexpected guest bowed at the waist. “Thank you, Gwen. It’s good to finally be home. I shall endeavor to keep the mess to a minimum.”
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