Barnes & Noble, 5th Avenue
The science fiction section saw a lot of loiterers, of an afternoon. Stuffed in the back corner, flanked by plate-glass windows overlooking the bustle of Manhattan and the Public Library, it was the perfect place for nerds to bed down and lose themselves in laser guns and little green men.
A few were regulars. None of the bastards ever bought anything.
Jack Shannon criss-crossed the aisles every now and then and cleared out the ones who were getting too comfortable, but for the most part he’d given up. He’d spent his teens haunting shelves of Asimov and Atwood himself.
He’d worked the afternoon-shift Tuesday through Thursday for over a year, now. He worked nights at a dive bar the rest of the week, so he spent most of the time in exhausted misery, but being a bookseller was a good deal.
He loved the smell of books, the tactile feel of them between his fingers–the glue, the binding, the sheer scale of thoughts and tales and characters that populated their shelves. There was no better hangover cure than hunting down some obscure half-remembered title for an old biddy who, ‘was sure it had a green cover, and that the author’s name began with a J… or was it an F?’
So he didn’t save any lives, but it gave him a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Manhattan was the perfect place to work in books. There was always something going on.
Jack jerked as a sharp snap rang out beside his ear. He’d been dozing with his elbow on the counter, staring at a young girl crouched in the far corner with her head in a copy of The Wizard of Earthsea. “Huh?”
Mr Schleider took a thick hardback away from his ear and leaned in close. “Get rid of the geeks, we’ve got incoming,” he muttered. He eyed the girl, and his lip curled. “That loser’s been here over two hours. I want her gone.”
Jack straightened, clearing his throat. “I usually give them three before I turn them out. I think she’s going to pick up the trilogy.”
“She’s a browser if I ever saw one.”
“She’ll buy. My nose says so.”
“I don’t care if she’s planning on buying the whole section. While you and your nose have been daydreaming up here, the rest of us have been setting up for the Peter Knight signing. He’ll be here in two hours–there won’t be room to turn your head in here, soon as we put the signs out. Clear out the chaff, and put your best smile on. Grab a coffee, while you’re at it. You look like crap.”
Jack swallowed the urge to defend his fellow nerds’ honour, and set off for the shelves. “Yes, sir.”
He’d been planning to ask Earthsea girl to dinner. He was a sucker for gawky glasses.
Why do we have to dress up every time some best-seller blunders in? I met Knight last fall. He wouldn’t even let me get a picture with him. Asshole.
Sighing, he made for the back of the store. He was so wrapped up in bitter thoughts that at first he didn’t notice that some of the shelves had frozen solid.
Even when he noticed, his legs carried him onward for a few more moments. His eyes registered the icicles spreading, hopping from one spine to another, emitting puffs of diffuse white mist as they went. Spreading out from the paranormal fantasy section–
No shit, a distant part of Jack’s mind jabbed.
–it blossomed into inch-thick sheet ice in a handful of moments. By the time the first of the readers noticed, a low rumbling noise had faded into audibility from the ether, and from somewhere—everywhere—an ethereal blue light was throbbing, periodically emerging from and retreating behind the world of true form.
Jack’s mind simply blanked out, unable to process. He just kept walking. A small part of him even went so far as to continue sulking that he was going without a date tonight.
Then Earthsea girl screamed, scrabbling away from the shelves with a look of blank, unbelieving disgust written onto her face as she scurried into Jack’s heels and wrapped her arms around his legs.
“What the—?” Mr Schneider bawled from afar. He sounded a million miles away.
Jack blinked at the girl at his feet, then looked back to the icy shelves, which now twinkled like Central Park at Christmas, having by now turned a snowy white, even the floor. The mist was billowing up from the many volumes now, pooling against the ceiling and spreading downwards, showering the entire upper floor with stage-show drama.
“Oh,” Jack said finally. That was all he could muster.
It was funny what you learned about yourself in times of crisis. Apparently, Jack was the kind of person who looked at a book-store turning into a slab of ice, pulsing with electric blue light, and said, ‘Oh’.
The rumble was unmistakable now, and the whole upper floor paused, open-mouthed. Dozens of books thumped to the floor, dropped from limp hands. The stunned unified gape lasted for around ten full, long seconds, seconds that could have been hours.
Then Jack felt it snap like twine under tension cut with scissors, and the panic arrived in earnest.
The world seemed to spool up into furious action in the time it took him to reach down and wrench Earthsea girl up by her elbow. Screams rang out from all directions, coupled with the sound of tumbling shelves and the clatter of scrambling limbs. People downstairs joined in moments later as the stairways filled with wailing customers and staff. Somebody screamed ‘bomb!‘, another cried ‘terrorists!’. The fire alarm tripped, but it was barely audible over the shouting. And a moment later, even the alarm was blanketed by the all-consuming rumbling that build from nowhere, and yet from all directions, and the blue throbbing light began pulsing faster before Jack’s eyes, blinding and yet without source.
All the while, the icicles continued to spread.
“Come on, we have to get out of here,” he yelled.
But Earthsea girl didn’t seem to hear him, china white and limp in his grasp, her gaze fixed on blossoming insanity.
His feet seemed intent on running, tensing to turn, but he gripped the girl her anew with a grunt of frustration, and started hauling her back towards the escalators. “If I die because of you, our date is off!”
Half blinded by the blue light pulsing every other moment, he watched Mr Schneider hesitate at the top of the stairs, catch his eye, then shake his head and vanish downstairs with a grunt.
“Ma said I should’a stuck with the therapy,” Earthsea girl said distantly.
“Move your ass!” he bellowed in her ear.
The viciousness of his voice seemed to reach her, and her eyes cleared. She glanced at him and then the spreading ice, now only a few feet away from them, a white carpet flowering with knee-high crystals, crawling towards them like waves climbing a beach.
An unfeminine, guttural moan escaped her and she stiffened in his grasp. “Oh man!”
Before he could react she scrambled from his grasp and ran bawling for the top of the stairs, leaving him momentarily stunned, gripping thin air.
“Oh,” he said, blinking stupidly.
That’s all I got. Funky blue lights and creeping icicles, and all I’ve got in me is, ‘Oh’.
It was hard to see the spreading ice through the mist, now, and it descended down over his shoulders and enveloped him. The store vanished from sight and panic bubbled up in his stomach at the thought of that ice spreading, unseen, towards him. Tumbling onto his hands and knees, he scrambled back towards the escalators, praying the ice didn’t catch him. The rumble in the air was now deafening, a wailing honk that hurt his ears and pressed in on his skin with physical force.
It reached a crescendo, and the blue light throbbed with a final, blinding flash. With a concussive force that seemed to unzip the air, something exploded in the paranormal section.
The mist blew against the walls, the carpet of icicles vaporising in a heaving puff, and Jack was blown clear across the store, tumbling end over end in a rain of paperbacks.
God, it’s a bomb, it’s a bomb, it’s a bomb! he thought, hurtling into the biography shelves, cowering as a shower of books cascaded down onto his head.
He was a mere ten feet from the escalator, and now he could see the last of the people downstairs bursting, screaming, into the streets. Mr Schneider stood at the base of the escalator, his eyes wild and his body frozen in mid-flight.
“Come on, Jack!” he cried. He tensed as though making to scale the steps, then hesitated again, and turned back on his heels.
Jack was on the verge of getting to his feet when he caught movement in his peripheral vision, over by the paranormal section. Half the shelves were gone, blown to splinters by the force of the explosion. The carpet of ice had thrust up in a halo around the epicentre in a fringe of spiky stalagmites, two-feet-high and throbbing that same ethereal blue.
Striding from the chaos was a bearded man dressed in crimson. Trailing off his shoulders were rivulet of that selfsame mist, shadowing his swaggering advance over the splintered shelves.
Jack gasped as a blast of cold unlike anything he’d ever felt stole into his bones–something no Arctic blizzard could muster.
The cold of somewhere else, muttered a distant part of Jack’s mind.
Where did that come from? He didn’t know, but he did know the inner voice spoke the truth.
Half paralysed and in spasm from shock and pain, he rolled behind the nearest shard of ice. Too late. Before he could come to a stop, the man in crimson was standing over him.
His eyes twinkled a fiery oxblood–actually seemed to undulate with conflagration behind his pupils.
“Ahoy hoy,” he said, a gargling, thick lilt, the accent almost Scottish, yet also distinctly not.
Jack could only blink in reply. “Hi.”
The newcomer tongued the inside of his lip, scanning the room, and drew a deep sigh. “Listen, this is going to get crazy real fast, but I need a hand. You feel like going for a bowl of crazy?”
Jack swallowed. A dull throbbing in his fingers bubbled up as the intense cold ebbed. He had gripped the icicle hard enough to cut into his palms.
The men glanced at the bloodied ice. “Yello!” He clicked his fingers in front of Jack’s eyes. “Stay with me. Have the others been taken yet? Where is Harper? Speak!”
“I–” Jack swallowed.
The man rolled his eyes. “A dribbler. Typical. Never mind, laddie, you can tell me on the way.” Without hesitation he gripped Jack’s collar and tore him up from the ground with inhuman strength, and proceeded to drag him toward the emergency escape. “Honestly, you people are so fragile. One whiff of the real world and you roll over like bloody punch-drunk donkeys.”
Jack could only utter a wordless squawk, his heels dragging over the threshold, leaving the frozen shattered book-store amidst a hail of settling snowflakes and shredded paper.
The entire episode happened in under a minute.
Jack’s mind roiled and his hands bled, but everything around him seemed fuzzy, unreal. It was beyond reckoning, beyond madness.
The back of Jack’s mind spat feebly, I only had an hour left on my shift.
The crimson traveller laughed. “I know, mate, it’s bloody loony. Don’t worry, you get used to it… eventually,” he cried, hurtling along the escape passage.
He read my mind.
Jack bounced along in his wake, bouncing off concrete and scraping his cheek.
This can’t happen. I have plans!… It’s Mexican night, he thought miserably.