Light As Air: Part Nine

If you ever grow a spine.

It’s not like it isn’t true. Even so, it bothers him.Hearing it from someone else, rather than in his own head… It’s different. Crushingly different, in fact. He’s sorting out stock, opening cardboard boxes. He doesn’t mistreat books – it’s a personal peeve of his when people do – but he’s wielding the parcel knife perhaps a little more forcefully than necessary today. He’s minding the covers, but the boxes are absolute toast.

The bell above the door rings. Ah. His first customer of the day. He surreptitiously checks the clock: it’s just gone 9.30.

A bloke is striding through the door, smiling cheerily, and he looks like a scholarly type. No, not a Scholarly type – just your garden variety student. He’s wearing a long, striped scarf, and his glasses are round and half the size of his face, with heavy, black rims. He also has that sleep-deprived, not quite post-puberty look that just screams uni student. It makes Adrian think of that group in the pub and the feelings seeing them brought him. No. Not right now.

The bloke walks up to the counter. “Hello?”

Adrian realises that he’s crouching on the floor a few feet away from the counter, i.e., essentially invisible.

He pops up, steps to stand behind the counter, and the guy jumps a little. “Hi,” he says with his best serving-the-customers smile.

To his credit, the newest customer makes a very quick recovery. He assumes a cheerful demeanour and says, “I hear this is a good place for Scholar lore.”

“That it is.” He heads over to a bookcase in the corner of the room, and he hears the smallest intake of breath. Oh. When he glances back, the man’s eyes are on his jeans pocket; that’s where the watch is, seeing as he’s foregone the waistcoat today. He wonders whether to acknowledge it, or whether that’ll make things awkward. Very likely awkwardness will ensue, so he looks back to the books. On top of the bookcase, he knows, is a fairly self-explanatory cardboard sign that reads Scholars/Mages.“How complex are we talking? Are we talking about Scholar history, or magehood in this century, or…?”

“Activism,” the man says. He’s come to stand next to Adrian, and his eyes are flickering curiously over the spines of the book. He grinds his teeth a little at that; any thought of spines bothers him at the moment. “Mainly the movement, the rest of it. I’m… uh, I’m doing my degree on Scholar history. But this aspect of it, it’s – new to me.” He talks with his hands, like Olivia does; his hands move minutely with every word, his fingers seeming to fidget along with the rest of him, and he gestures to the bookcase every now and again. Adrian hasn’t actually met a scholar of Scholars – hah – because there aren’t many people who study it. Most people know the basics, and they view looking into it further as a waste of time, a soft subject.

“Sure.” Adrian knows what shelf it’s on, but it takes him a second to place it. He slides it out, listening to the gentle hiss of cover against cover. “Try this.” Magehood: Rights, Reasons and Relations. Revised edition, reprinted for its twentieth anniversary. “It’s usually a good starting point.”

“Thanks.” He does seem genuinely grateful, and he takes it gently, flicks through the pages with visible interest. “How much?”

“7.99.” Adrian cocks his head, thinks about it for a second or two. “Though we haven’t exactly had many takers, so I’d be willing to give it to you for six quid.”

The guy lights up. “Six is good. Yeah, I’d be willing to pay six.”

“Great.” Adrian turns to walk back to the counter, and the student trails after him, slow and absentminded, his nose still in the book. He stops, holds his hand out for payment.

The customer looks up from his book and startles, the hint of a blush growing in his cheeks. “Right. Sorry.” He places the book on the counter and then digs around in his pockets, bringing out money and attempting to sort it. He dumps a fiver and a pound coin in front of Adrian; the coin clatters as it falls onto the countertop, spinning a little before it falls. “Here you go,” he says, rather redundantly, in Adrian’s opinion; it’s not as if the handover was subtle enough to be missed by anyone within about twenty feet. Even though the noise makes him wince involuntarily, Adrian can’t begrudge him for it – we’ve all had those kind of days, Adrian especially.

Adrian smiles. ”Thanks. Bag?” At the man’s nod, he wraps the heavy book in a carrier bag – it’s nearly as much of a brick as Angela’s – and hand it over.

“Thank you.” He turns to head out of the shop.

“Have a nice day!” Adrian calls to his retreating back.

He sighs, slumping into his chair and leaning an elbow on the counter. It’s going to be a long day. He realises his elbow’s knocked something. A book. He reaches for it, sliding it back towards him, and grins when he sees what it is. Rise of the Dinosaur Ninjas. He’d forgotten – he must have left it here yesterday, before Angela ambushed him. He picks it up and quickly finds the page where he left off, beginning to read.

Sweat glistened on Aurileyna’s golden skin. Hours in the scorching desert had begun to take their toll on her, and she was feeling light-headed. In her exhaustion, she panted for breath, her round, plentiful, perfectly-sized bosom heaving. The fur of her bikini was her only refuge fsrom the hot red sun, and even that soon wouldn’t be enough – her skin had only developed a glowing, even tan so far, but would soon burn if it was exposed to the sun any longer. She was just considering finding some shelter when an earth-shaking roar sounded from somewhere close behind her.

She whipped round, her chest bouncing with the motion, and had only a moment to wonder how a tyrannosaurus rex could possibly wield a pair of nunchuks with such tiny claws before she began once again to run for her life.

“Adrian.”

It seems that he won’t be allowed even a moment’s peace. He reluctantly removes himself from the book, trying to seem politely interested but instead suspecting that he’s probably glaring.”Paul.”

“Did you get your buyer to pay for the book?”

He’s been dreading this conversation. “She’s promised to return in a few days.”

Paul raises a disbelieving eyebrow, and it’s not a question when he says it: “Has she.”

“I promise.”

Paul shakes his head. “I just don’t understand what you’re doing. You’ve got your head screwed on right, so I just can’t understand why you’d put through an order that big on a promise that vague.” He leans on his tiptoes to look past Adrian, at the door to the back room. “Do you have any Earl Grey?”

Adrian tuts. “Of course I do. I’m not sure what you were expecting. Just keep an eye on the shop.”

With a nod and a crack of his knuckles, Paul takes Adrian’s place behind the counter while he heads through the door.

When he returns, Paul has a fag on the go and is absentmindedly browsing Rise of the Dinosaur Ninjas.

“This is excellent,” he says. “Where’d you find it?”

“It was a birthday present.” He tacks on an explanatory, “Olivia.” He places a mug in front of him. “And put that out. You’re in a room with a lot of very flammable paper. And, well, a very irritable me.” He grew out of his childhood asthma, but he’s never quite forgotten the effect cigarette smoke used to have on him. He still finds himself on edge whenever someone lights up in an enclosed place. Besides, he lives here and Paul doesn’t, even though Paul owns the place, and it’s rude to do it without at least asking first. They’ve had this conversation far too many times before.

“Can I use the back yard?”

Adrian shrugs. “Certainly. Whatever lets you get your fix. Just not in here, alright?”

With a recalcitrant shrug of his own, Paul tucks the book under his arm and grabs the mug, the cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. The cheap ciggy and the pulp paperback are a sharp contrast with his work shirt and trousers. He walks through, trailing smoke with him. Adrian waits until he’s out of eyesight to start swiping at the air, opening a window to let some of it out. Phew.

The bell above the door rings.

He resists the urge to snap, What?! When he turns round, he sees Olivia. “Oh, of course,” he sighs. “Of course this isn’t a private party, feel free to come and join us…”

“Us?”

“Paul’s in the back. Smoking. And stealing my bloody book.”

She puts her hands on her hips. Frowns. Tilts her head to one side and squints at him. Squints some more. “You know, you’ve got a face like a kicked arse.”

Now he does glare at her. “Thanks.”

“No, I mean right now. Something’s really obviously getting on your wick. What is it?”

What happened with the pub and with Angela – it’s too hard to explain. Besides, mentioning things like souls? He’ll sound like even more of a nutter, if that’s possible. He shakes his head, looking pointedly towards the back room door. “Paul was smoking in here again.”

Olivia’s irritation joins his. She glares towards the door, as if her gaze can penetrate three walls and skewer Paul. Who knows? Perhaps it can – it is truly exceptional. Adrian’s been on the receiving end of it enough times. “I told him. I told him that if he did it again I’d take those cigarettes and shove them up his – “

“Yes. Thank you.”

She darts twitchy glances around the room. “I’ll go out there and do it in a minute, but are you sure that that’s all it is?” Her eyes skewer him this time instead.

He debates with himself about it, considers lying. A half-lie, maybe – that might be better than nothing. If he uses that, he might be able to sound slightly less insane. “My buyer… She came back.”

Olivia’s eyebrows raise. “The angel?”

“No,” he lies. “Well yes, the buyer. But no, not an angel. I think you were right. Some sleep helped. But she was still impressively demanding.”

He can actually see her resisting the urge to roll her eyes. “Of course she was.”

He shrugs, raising a hand to rub the back of his neck. “In all frankness, I can’t say it went well.”

“How ‘not well’ did it go? Did she pay you?”

He wants very much to say yes, but he knows that she’ll soon go into the back yard and talk to Paul, who’ll start one of his rants on the subject. He’ll be caught out. “No,” he sighs.

The disbelief and the glare return in full force. “I can’t believe you let her do that.”

“She’s coming back,” he protests, backing away a step or two.

“Did she say when, or will she just randomly turn up and upset you again?”

He looks towards the back room door, praying for Paul to come in and save him. Actually, scratch that – Paul would probably just join in. “Turn up, probably. Hopefully not, but who knows?”

“Right.” She sighs, her shoulders slumping, and then looks towards the back room door. “Is he still out there?” When Adrian nods, she heads through to the back yard.

He lasts an hour until, with no customers and no sign of any more coming, he decides to take an early lunch break. When he heads out there, he finds Paul still buried in Rise of the Dinosaur Ninjas with another fag on the go. Olivia is next to him, seemingly reading the little labels on the flowerbeds. It all seem strangely harmonious – all is quiet, and no-one is threatening actual bodily harm. Adrian can’t help but be a little suspicious.

“So,” he begins.

Paul jumps. Olivia doesn’t. She probably knew he was coming from the moment he stood up behind the counter.

“So,” she returns.

“Is there any particular reason you’re here?”

She shrugs. “I don’t know. I just thought I’d stop by, and I… never quite left?” With a sigh, she asks, “Have you got any bread?”

He gestures into the kitchen and then heads back in. Paul hasn’t even stirred. Olivia follows him in and begins looking through cupboards.

He has his head in the fridge, seriously considering what can be done with one block of gouda, no butter and a cucumber, when he hears the shop bell ring. A few seconds later, Olivia nudges him. “There’s a woman here. And she’s asking for you by name.”

Oh, bollocks.

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