THE READER • by R.F. Hizkia

Paul walks by balancing a stack of paperbacks on his hairy arms. Faded covers and yellowed pages that are ripe for Second Hand upstairs, which I’ll have to check out later. I pretend not to notice him as he throws me a judging glance and make my way over to Crime.

I cock my head sideways and let my eyes dance along the shelves, up and down, back and forth, crisscross, round and round in circles until I feel the strain in my neck. Every now and then I move back as a fellow browser passes in front of me, only to move forward again as another wants to pass me from behind. Disheartened, I realize I’ve done most of the titles already, even the ones marked New or Staff’s choice. It’s time to try something different.

As I head to the back of the shop I pass a small alcove with a sign hanging over it. All the muscles in my body tense and force me to keep looking straight ahead, but I know it says Adult. Perhaps one day I’ll try one of these, when Paul isn’t in, but for now I decide not to add to the list of reasons to throw me out.

It’s been a while since I’ve tried any Science and I wonder if they’ve come up with anything new. My finger traces the titles on the spines — Dinosaurs and Mathematics, Do Fish Understand Quantum Mechanics?, Why your House is smarter than You; popular science at its best in search of something that stands out.

Paul walks by again, reconsiders, stops, and turns to look at me.

“Are you going to actually buy something this time?”

“Who knows?” I say as I jerk my shoulders up in mock ignorance. “There’s just so much to choose from and I don’t want to rush into things.”

He shakes his head and retreats.

My attention is drawn to a table with stacks of hardbacks that look promising. One of the covers has a beautiful illustration of the Crab Nebula, depicted in bright turquoise and gold. I pick up and open one of the copies and feel a tingle in my ears as I hear the slow crack crack of the spine. The photo paper pages tickle my thumb as they flutter by like an incoherent flip book, until I randomly stop somewhere in the middle.

The two pages share a single image of mostly empty space, black nothingness broken only by a scattering of stars. I catch my breath as multi-colored gas clouds rise up out of the book and envelop me. The tables and bookcases disappear, leaving only vast darkness in their place. My heart skips a beat as the parquet rapidly recedes under my feet. But I don’t fall. Instead I drift slowly and freely through empty space, with distant lights to grant me bearing.

For a timeless moment I chase the stars in futile childlike excitement. I close my eyes and spin until I no longer know my up and down, completely indifferent to any sense of direction. Then I feel a force tug at me and I surrender myself to it. I wait to see where it will take me, what hidden vistas it will unveil that should not be gazed upon by mortal eyes.

The absence of time feels like an eternity and I begin to lose patience. The distant stars remain immobile as if I had not moved relative to their position. I seem to be stationary, and yet the mysterious force still tugs at my legs. I look down and nearly choke mid-swallow. My legs are stretched out like the reflection of the sun as it slips into the ocean. With swelling eyes I watch them spiral inward around nothingness and scream for longer than I should be able to. Suddenly I realize how helpless I am without the presence of solid ground under my feet, how much I trust my hands to find support when I stumble or fall. But here in the vast nothing I truly am alone, disconnected. My lungs have long expelled their content, yet I still scream.

The loud clearing of a throat startles me.

“No shouting in the store.”

I blink and find myself back among the books, with squeaky parquet under my shoes. Paul frowns at me, dangerously close to kicking me out.

I put on the most endearing smile I can manage and indicate the book in my hands with a nod. “Sorry. Space. I got sucked in.”

Paul sighs, disgruntled, and walks off with another stack of used books in his arms.

I close the book and put it back on the table with the others. There’s still a good hour left before closing time so I take a moment to regain my composure.

Stephen King is next.

R.F. Hizkia calls The Netherlands his home, where he spends most of his time working, reading, writing and watching movies with his wife. Maybe there’s a bit of procrastination in there as well.

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