Time passed slowly like grit through clinched teeth.
I paced the aisles. I shouted for help. I kicked shelves, wrecked the counter and banged on walls. I checked my cell phone again but it was no use. I succumbed to sleep in the end, more out of the self-induced balm of narcolepsy that wholesome tiredness. I fell to the floor and curled up in a ball and slept deeply.
The next morning, I awoke. I rubbed my eyes and looked around me. I hadn’t moved. I was still there, still in the bookstore. I jumped to my feet and called for help. I looked at my cell phone. The battery was dead. Then I remembered my Zippo.
I’d burn my way out.
I reached inside my jacket and whipped out my lighter and rubbed metal on flint it. A long orange and yellow plume of flame shot out like an long ephemeral feather. I grabbed the first book that came to hand. I didn’t give a fuck what it was, as long as it had paper. I set the flame to a handful of pages and waited for them to take light.
But they didn’t.
In fact, the paper didn’t even singe. I flicked the flame off and felt the paper. Perhaps it was damp but no. The paper was as dry as the eyes of a rich widow. I threw the book down and tried to set another one alight. And then another and another until I gave up. Nothing look light.
Then the voice.
“We’ll let you off this once but if you damage one single page of any of us, you will never leave. Never leave”
I shouted things like ‘Fuck you’ and roared until my throat hurt but it was like shouting at some twisted God. It didn’t make me feel any better I have to admit but I had to let it out.
I walked around the aisles and that was when I found a ladder. There was nothing for it but to start at the back, top left shelf and begin reading the first book then the next.
I cheated sometimes. I skimmed several dozen pages at a time but the books always seemed to know. I would hear a sign before the book would flick its pages back to the start, making me read it all over again. Days passed. There were no windows, no means of keeping track of day or night. My watch had stopped working and I had long since dispensed with it. I flung it in a fit of rage against the counter and it smashed to bits.
Irrational I know but I wasn’t in the mood for winning Nobel prizes in reasonable behavior at that time.
Strange things then happened. Well, it’s strange what becomes normal after a while but every day when I woke up, a loaf of bread and a jug of water was left by my feet. At the far corner, a chemical toilet and bidet. Whatever or whoever was doing this to me didn’t want me dead or leaving turds all over the joint. This was what I ate and drank. White bread and water, just like prisoners in bad cartoons.
I read one book a day at first until I found a book about speed-reading, which I thought was useful but I couldn’t quite master it. I practised it but it felt like skimming and looked where that led me. I progressed to reading two and sometimes three books a day.
I became militaristic about it.
I closed the world, my old world, out of my mind. Just man and books. I saw myself as just having landed on the Normandy beaches. Each book, a field beween here and Berlin. I had to fight my way through each and every single one. There was no shortcut, no chopper or freeway or jeep to suddenly take me to the end.
Months passed. I was resigned to having had lost my home and my job. Even if I was released how would I explain my absence? No-one would believe me. I’d have to start from scratch all over again somewhere else.
Time wore on. I felt I was Sysiphus, or a spirit trapped in a boulder in the middle of a stream, waiting for the stone to be sufficiently worn thin for me to escape. Someday it would happen but it wasn’t to be soon. I put such debilitating thoughts to the back of my head and just ploughed on. Every subject you could think off, every title too. Some I actually enjoyed reading, some were like wading through setting concrete with a hangover. Still, I had to keep going.
Eternities do pass in their own humdrum way and I was on the final shelf. I counted one hundred and twelve books. I got into a rhythm of reading three average sized books a day. I arranged the remaining books in order from longest to shortest. This would help me psychologically. The more I progressed down this shelf, the more books I’d be able to read due to their diminishing lengths, thus the quicker I’d get to the end.
I’ve just got to the final page of the final book. I’m scared now. What if I get to the end and nothing happens? What if I’ve missed a book? I don’t think I have. I was fastidious in making sure I didn’t jumble anything up. I was methodical, I chose each shelf in turn. I didn’t skip a book, why would I? The books were smart. They’d know if I ignored one of their gang. What if the books just didn’t give a shit about me and just let me languish here?
I got to the last paragraph and read each word aloud and slowly. The final sentence. The final word. Period. All done. I had completed my task. I jumped up.
“I’ve finished, I’m all done, I’ve finished. I’m through”
I waited for a response.
How I waited.