No one remembered the books but her.
Alistair’s eyes drifted open. No one remembered the books but her. The phrase had become something like a blink. A yawn, involuntary. It was the first thought she had every morning since she was ten and she had long come to accept that she had no control over it. Instead, she thought it, she acknowledged it, and she let it slip back into the dark place it came from.
She would’ve loved nothing more than to forget the damned books like everyone else had managed to do. She’d spent years trying everything in her power not to remember them but trying to forget something was like saying don’t blink, don’t breathe. It just made you more aware of the thing you wanted to forget. She didn’t really remember the books anyway, only pieces. The feelings they triggered in her as a child. The imprint of a vivid passage of text, the sound of a strange name. She’d gotten good at not thinking about the little bits of the books, not letting them bubble to the surface. Skillfully not remembering them was how she survived to early-ish adulthood. She used to remember more, but over the years many of those memories had sunk into the deep where everything else had gone. In a rarely frequented corner of her mind she called them the briar books. Not because she wanted to, but because naming them kept them separate from the rest of her life. Because Alistair’s entire life was books. So, there were books. And then there were the briar books, and the latter, for the most part, had been locked behind a door in a remote part of her for fifteen years.
She rolled onto her back, still toasty under the worn, heavy quilt she’d bought from a street vendor on Houston Street the first year she moved to New York at seventeen. The quilt had been a hard refusal to the little voice telling her to go back home. Although she’d only crossed the Manhattan Bridge from Queens, she refused to go back. Even when she thought she’d freeze to death in that old drafty hostel in the Village. She’d had to grope for the quilt last night. Fall had arrived, finally. Her room’s lone, long window glowed faint with cool, near-morning light. Her room was directly over the kitchen of a family-owned Chinese restaurant in the far-east dregs of the Village. It was a studio, if you defined a studio as a large storage room with a hot plate and a toilet in the shower. Alistair felt that, all in all, she had her priorities properly straightened out: less-than-ideal living conditions in exchange for all you could eat egg rolls. Her bed was a frameless mattress in the middle of the tight space. A sink and the aforementioned toilet/shower hybrid anchored one corner of the room where mismatched shower curtains hung from pipes in case she had guests and needed what Danny Chen, whose grandparents owned the restaurant, thought amounted to privacy. But Alistair didn’t have guests. Or furniture, aside from a thrown-out dresser she’d dragged through the restaurant’s kitchen one late, and drunken, summer night a few years back. Instead, she had books—piled three, sometimes four, rows deep, against every available stretch of wall, and scattered in half-read heaps across the old floor. She was surrounded by them, nested in them. She could squint in the early light and imagine she was lying on the floor of an old bookshop’s back room. Cocooned. A short stack of books acted as a coffee-ringed nightstand, a tall stack covered the vent that chugged out cold air regardless of the weather, other stacks held piles of clothes, unopened mail, and her beloved, dinged-to-hell-and-back leather messenger bag. This was Alistair’s cave of paper wonders, her stronghold. And if a fire ever broke out downstairs, she’d be dead in five minutes flat.
She cast an arm out from under the quilt and hooked her cell phone off the floor, bringing the shattered screen close to her bleary brown eyes. She hadn’t charged it last night and it was almost dead. A notification from her aunt Kath. She clicked the shattered screen off and let it drop to the floor without checking the text. No one remembered the books but her. Alistair rolled over, rifling under the covers until she produced the book she’d been reading when she fell asleep. A vellum-paged collection of eighteenth-century romance. She flipped back and forth through the brittle pages, trying to find where she’d left off, trying to drive out the involuntary thought by losing herself in a real book.
She was a voracious reader. She loved books, just not those books. Those books were fixed on strings to a time she’d tried to cut clean away. And when the books resurfaced, really surfaced, so did that dark part of her life. Like an anchor bringing up rotting jetsam. The handful of times she’d talked about them, or rather the circumstances surrounding them, she’d handled it matter-of-factly, coldly, to try and dull the loss, the wide and groaning pain they dredged up. Alistair was more often than not matter-of-fact, in fact. It helped keep things clean, distant. Instead of revealing the truth about what happened to her, she drifted through life and relationships, play acting a young woman’s life like she was on wires in a play, never touching down, until she couldn’t bear another day as the girl everyone needed her to be to feel better about what she really was: shattered pieces of a thing that everyone thought could be wished whole again.
But books, otherwise, were her life; the irony was not lost on her. Her one true love. For Alistair, books were addiction and escape, and also an income source, both passion and trade. Books were how Alistair survived. The volumes in her room had no value beyond their ideas, because she moved valuable books, from estate sales and auctions, to greedy collectors and wealthy investors. They didn’t care about the books, their stories, their authors. Their histories. To them, books were totems of wealth and status. It was gross, mostly, but it kept a Sichuan-scented roof over Alistair’s head. The books that built her cave though were for her: for reading, for keeping, and for keeping out everything else. She wasn’t a collector. She was a hunter.
Alistair’s stomach growled. She hadn’t eaten dinner. She looked over at a hook on the wall, holding six or seven layers of shirts, sweaters, and jackets. And under it all, her prized camel-colored coat. It was finally cool enough to break it out, and that was motivation enough to finally slink out from under the covers. She brushed regrettable, overlong bangs out of her face and got up. She grabbed a hair tie from her dresser and wrapped the rest of her dark, wayward hair into a knot at the back of her head, then threw on heavy sweatpants. She decided to leave on the long john top she slept in and shoved her socked feet into heavy black boots. Then she pulled everything off the hook until she revealed her coat. With its collar tall enough to pop up against the howling East River wind, belt that cinched at her waist and always made her look somewhat put-together, and best of all, a secret interior pocket that was wide enough for a paperback. She was in her Lower Manhattan armor.
It was now dawn. She eased around the books and took the stairs down into the bowels of the dark restaurant, her boots slipping on the freshly-mopped kitchen tile as she passed through. She deftly disconnected the fire alarm on the restaurant’s back door and stepped outside. A grimy back stoop wound through a narrow alley and beyond. Cool air blew over her, a little tainted by the city, but refreshing. She wrapped the coat around her and looped the belt once at her belly. She liked the streets at this time of morning—dark and nearly dead. No one wandering close enough to burst her personal bubble.
Alistair ducked into her favorite bodega and grabbed chocolate milk, a pack of generic Oreos, and sour-cream-and-onion chips. She petted the napping bodega cat and approached Sergio, who was asleep at the register, head on the counter. Their relationship had always solely consisted of knowing, familial head nods that Alistair attributed to them both being working class, or brown-skinned, or both. She tossed everything onto the counter. He didn’t startle, but instead lifted up like a day-old balloon left over from a party and started punching numbers into the register. He knew the price of everything.
“How’s it goin’?” he asked, barely opening his mouth.
“Same as yesterday. You?” Alistair replied.
Sergio shrugged. “Yeah, yeah. Same.”
She swiped her card in the taped-together reader and waited. Declined. He wordlessly reset the transaction, let her swipe again. Declined. She sighed, thought. Alistair was beyond feigning disbelief or confusion at the fact that her card didn’t work. She was incapable of being embarrassed, always had been. Embarrassment required a certain level of self-consciousness that Alistair lacked, and was usually triggered by feelings of being exposed, which Alistair didn’t allow. Instead, she turned to the door, grabbed a warm newspaper off the stack, and tossed it onto the counter. Digging into her jacket pocket, she pulled out a meager fan of single bills, “How much for just the milk and the paper?”
“I know you’re good for it. Hit me up when you get paid,” Sergio answered, before putting his head back down on the counter. From the crook of his arm he mumbled, “Take the cookies too.”
Living in Manhattan as a self-employed high school dropout meant you were always just shy of poverty. But Alistair had a plan. She always had a plan. Maybe not a five-year-style plan, one that might ensure some kind of reliable future, God no, but one that would get her through the day, a week, maybe a season if she stayed stingy (and hungry) enough. Alistair had no future. She had the next day. The next meal. The next book to devour in record time. The next story to sell. The past couldn’t catch up to you if you never made the mistake of plotting out a path it could follow to your future. She sat in a cold, dusty corner park as the sun crept over the east river about three long blocks that way, guzzled chocolate milk, tore into the paper, and flipped straight to the obituaries.
When Alistair left high school, and her aunt and uncle’s house, and Ozone Park, Queens, she’d first made an early living as a hired gun for a grizzled, unapproachable rare books dealer. She’d heard his name a few times, heard from shop owners that she and Ed were circling all the same shops and sites, heard they had a lot in common. They finally met at a literal fire sale in Chelsea, and it turns out he had also been hearing about her. He offered her a job sourcing books for him and handling his bookkeeping. She was barely qualified to deal with the administration and high-level trading he entrusted her with, but no one else was willing to put up with Ed Cumberland so he kept her around. Books were the only thing she cared about so she figured she’d try to make a living out of her sole love. She went to auction and lot sales for Ed, cultivating both the knowledge and gut instinct it took to tell what kind of books were worth snatching up and which ones weren’t. And then Ed would pay her next to nothing and he’d make a slim margin off the resale. She’d done that for four years, living in the old hostel, before she decided she could do it on her own. And without his modicum of scruples or moral integrity to impede her, she could make a lot more than he was making by not only bypassing the middleman, but also the bigger dealers who always had first dibs and first choice. By the time all the A-list dealers and scroungers showed up, next to nothing was left. So, Alistair ventured out on her own and developed a new business model. It was a simple but successful plan: wait for the New York and tristate surrounding elite to die off and then pick their bones before anyone else got a chance to. How? Well, it was shady. And slightly morbid. But it was legal in the strictest sense, and while it only afforded Alistair a paycheck or three a year, they were big enough to keep her one tier above the garbage-eating rats. This wasn’t exactly a retirement plan, but she was twenty-six, working for herself, and living under her own steam in Manhattan. How many assholes from Ozone Park High could say that?
She circled an interesting obit. It was upstate, two hours and change north by train. No matter what, she always kept the cost of a round-trip rail ticket in her savings account. She could make it up there by early afternoon. Weasel her way in. Fingers crossed they had the goods. Call a couple collectors before dinner, secure a deposit or two, have cash before breakfast tomorrow. She killed the chocolate milk and tossed the carton in the garbage.