Annie had over two thousand books piled up in her Manhattan apartment. Books everywhere. They had long since overflowed her limited shelf space and had found purchase in the strangest of places. They lined the hallway from her bedroom to the living room, filled in the extra spaces in her otherwise sparse kitchen cabinets or sat piled on the top of the toilet tank. A column of books doubled for the missing leg of her breakfast table. Three even stacks of massive cartography volumes made up her coffee table
She had a rickety old television stand that contained no TV, only more books. “When would I find the time for television, Steve?” she once said to me when I offered her an old black and white set that I no longer needed. I lived in the apartment across the hall from her, and over the years I’d taken it upon myself to sort of look out for Annie. She didn’t get out a great deal and seemed somewhat innocent and childlike, despite her apparent middle age. She had a short bob of boyish hair and wore thrift store dresses. She had no visible means of support, but I avoided prying too deeply into her affairs. She was nice enough and welcomed me into her apartment for coffee or tea on certain mornings, or wine in the evening.
Of all of Annie’s countless books, she had a favorite. It was called The Little Big Book of Fairies, by Joynor Welch. It was a slender little hardback volume, printed who knew when. It appeared very old, with gold-leaf fairies and mythical creatures in bas relief upon its cover. She kept it near her at most times, and she seemed to like to thumb through it on occasion and read from it at random. Sometimes she would read out loud from the book to me, and I found the prose quite tight, yet ethereal. I wondered what the story was in this book, because in spite of the transporting beauty of the words she read to me, I could never really make out what was going on. I once asked her how many times she had read it, and she informed me that she had never read it all the way through, but found it safer to only read little snippets at a time. I asked her why she used the word ‘safer,’ but she didn’t answer me.
Annie often loaned me books from her collection, though she never offered, nor did I ever dare to ask for The Little Big Book of Fairies.
One day, not too long ago, Annie disappeared, and no one seemed to know what had happened to her. I’d knocked on her door off and on for several weeks, but gotten no answer. At last the landlord got involved and used his master key to open her door. In due course Annie was declared a missing person. After no kin could be found, the landlord proceeded with the task of boxing up all of her things so they could be donated to welfare.
I offered to help with the chore, and he and I spent the better part of a weekend packing away Annie’s life. As we piled volume after volume of books into cardboard boxes, I realized I didn’t even know her last name. The landlord didn’t either; he said it had smudged on her contract, and she had always paid her rent in cash.
We worked our way through the living room, dining room, kitchen, and at last reached her bedroom. Her closet was a mini library which the landlord barged into and began to rifle the books into more boxes. I took to unsheeting her bed, noting how the sheets smelled of violets and lilacs. As I pulled off the last sheet, I saw a single book tumble out. I knew what it was before I picked it up.
The landlord was still in the closet. I picked up the little book, realizing it was the first time I had ever held it. The thought of tossing The Little Big Book of Fairies into another random box felt like sacrilege. Without a word I slipped through the apartment and across the hall and deposited it into my own apartment. I then returned and finished the job with the landlord. Who would miss one little book?
That night, I cracked the book open and thumbed through its pages. I was surprised how familiar I was with it. Annie had read a great deal of it to me. And now, it was mine. All of it. All the stories of Grandfather Mouse, The Edge of the Woods, and The North Wind’s Farm. It would be my little piece of Annie that no one could ever take away.
Months passed, and spring turned to summer turned to autumn. The book sat in a place of honor on my kitchen table. One night, while sipping a bottle of wine alone, I resolved that I would read it. I lay back on my couch and started on page one, and despite the complexity of the prose, I found myself immersed in it. I was soon lost in stories of the Wild Wood, and fairies and sprites were my companions for the next several evenings.
At last I got to the last chapter, and I saw Annie standing before me. She no longer wore thrift store clothing, but instead was clad in gossamer, with fine, thin wings upon her back. I closed the book, and she was gone. I walked to the window, and looked out at the early morning chaos of the East Village. I knew if I read that last chapter, someone would be cleaning out my apartment soon as well.
I still had things to do in this world, or so I believed. I put the book away. It would still be there for me, someday, if I chose to make the journey.
Christopher Owen lives in Texas with his wife and two cats. His work has appeared at Daily Science Fiction, Fried Fiction, Mystic Signals and other places. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop.