Christopher felt the crowd’s simmering stares upon his flesh as he fled from the cemetery. With each step he took away from the dreaded place he felt his anger peeling away, revealing layers of embarrassment. Embarrassment for himself, but most importantly, his father. What would he have said if he witnessed such a terrible scene? You blame those pampered rats for disturbing his funeral, but you’re truly the one that tarnished the event. He continued to stalk forward, scarlet violently coloring his cheeks. He tipped his head to the sidewalk, tracing the cracks there, trying not to think about how much they resembled all the fissures now destroying his father’s name.
“You’re blaming yourself. It’s a terrible trait; I’ve tried it myself. Never does really accomplish anything, I’m afraid.”
Christopher halted. His eyes skirted to the man behind him, who he had nearly forgotten about due to his own disparaging thoughts.
“Though, I have a feeling you’ll continue down this path of self-loathing no matter what advice I toss your way,” the stranger said, fixing one of his gloves while eyeing the time on his pocketwatch. “I’ll blame it on youth. You lack perspective.”
Christopher narrowed his eyes. “How do you know how I feel about this?”
“You’ve been stalking in silence for the past two minutes. I don’t know you, but that seems like a symptom of self-hatred.”
“You’re right, you don’t know me.” Christopher folded his arms. “Why did you show up to my father’s funeral, unannounced?”
The man lifted his brows, surveying the cemetery that had quickly become a blur on the horizon. “I wasn’t the only one unexpected to arrive.”
“You’re not my uncle.”
“You’re not wrong.”
Christopher frowned, moving closer. “I’m far from rich. I live in a room atop my father’s bookshop, which, I’ll inform you, is not an ideal living situation. There’s holes in the ceiling. Rats in the attic. Last week, we barely had enough money to scrape together to buy wood for the fireplace. What could you possibly want from me?”
The man simply stared at him, then rose his brows once more. He said nothing.
“You have nothing to say to that?”
“Other than an apology for the rats that share their living space with you?”
Christopher took a step back. His fists curled. “What an evil thing to say—”
“I’m only kidding with you. You’ve gone through enough already, I figured I might as well try to cheer you up.” The humor in his gaze faded, however, replaced by the look he had given the boy back in the cemetery. One of compassion. Understanding. Was Christopher imagining it again? He had no time to double check, for the man was once again fidgeting with the watch. Its surface reflected in the somewhat muted glow of the sun, illuminating a name engraved in the metal.
“I apologize, then, Walter...er…” he said, fighting to read the script, “Carmichael.”
“Warren Carlyle.” He smiled. “Forgot it already? Don’t blame you. I don’t care for it much myself.” He tucked the watch into the pocket of his overcoat with a parting glance. “I think I prefer this Walter Carmichael. Sounds sophisticated. Something I should honestly strive to be.”
Christopher paused, looking the man over for a few moments. Then he nodded. “Well, Mr. Carmichael, thank you.” His gaze drifted back to the graveyard; his view of it had grown faint as they had traversed down 49th Avenue. “If it wasn’t for you, I’d probably be curled up in a jail cell right about now. I don’t think I would’ve lasted another three minutes in there before punching the smirks right off their satisfied faces.”
Warren’s brows quirked up. “Then it’s a shame we left at all. That would have been a sight I would have liked to witness.” He dug into his pocket and retrieved his watch, which he studied for a moment before tossing his gaze to Christopher. “I’m afraid I’ll have to be going.” He turned, then glanced over his shoulder. “There’s a part of me that almost wishes I’ll run into that lovely crowd once more, if only to play the part of your beloved uncle,” he noted with a smile. “Their expressions of absolute shock were truly humorous. I shall be a rather fortunate man if I live to see such looks again in my lifetime.”
Christopher watched as the man strode away, whistling a tune that was soon swallowed up in the roar of 49th Ave. The boy found himself shaking his head; half of him was perplexed that such an affluent man had had the time to even attend his father’s funeral (even if it was on accident), while the other was still stunned that the man possessed the same hatred toward his father’s ‘friends’ as he did himself. Though the man didn’t appear nearly as rich to fit in the same social circle as the Davenshire’s or Hallman’s, Christopher had expected that he’d still possess the same authoritarian air. Though he had joked with Christopher, his insults had been playful and clever, quite a step from the singing quips he had heard at the funeral.
Rainwater curved down the slope of Christopher’s cheek. His eyes flashed upward as dark clouds gathered, pulsing as a distant rumble swept down the street. He started walking, noting the leaves on the trees next to him curling as the wind cupped them in frigid hands. The rain followed him down the avenue, gentle and mist-like. By the time he was a block away it pecked and drilled at his skin, incessant and inescapable. He passed a throng of unfortunate shoppers seeking shelter beneath a barber shop’s tapestry, clutching their purchases in trembling hands, dripping disdain. He hurried past them, head ducked against the gusts even though the wind still managed to creep behind the collar of his shirt.
He hardly noticed when the buildings on either side of him grew thinner and farther apart, like guests in an overstuffed ballroom trying to make way for grander things. Except, there were no grand things here. The boy had left ‘grand’ things behind the moment he fled from 49th; and though those homes were not exceptional by society’s standards, they certainly were not the worst. These homes that flanked him sported more cracks, more lopsided porch steps and wilting fence posts. Their residents weren’t far better off.
Christopher caught glimpses of them as he rushed down the street. Gnarled hands rushed to shut flimsy front doors. Bloodshot eyes peeked behind mouth-devoured curtains. Sopping shoes skidded across the sidewalk, away from the chill and the downpour. But most importantly, the humiliation of living in the grimiest corner of the city. Christopher, it seemed, was the only one to wear his residency with pride. His father had lived his entire life on the same street, on the same small square of land. And Christopher would too. Without complaining.
He soon found himself standing on the sidewalk in front of the bookshop, blinking rainwater out of his eyes. His eyes grazed over the building, expecting normality and comfort. But it was as if the shop itself suspected that something was amiss, for with all its familiarity, it would never be the same. The shelves would remain speckled with dust, crammed with books, but with a few empty spaces due to an unexpected customer. The cracks in the windows would continue to splinter the glass, and the family of mice would continue to burrow together on the rafters. But Mr. Quartermaine would never again walk down the weathered staircase. He would never again lay down his glasses on the aged front desk with a sigh and watch the front door with desperation. He would never again turn to his concerned son and flash him a reassuring grin, tell him that the workflow would increase again, if they only continued to hope.
A screeching sound filled the air, flinging Christopher out of his thoughts. He glanced upward, tracing the unnerving sound to the squealing of the bookshop’s sign on rusted chains. It was attached to a wooden pole, cemented near the sidewalk:
THE QUARTERMAINE BOOKSHOP: SHERFIELD’S FINEST COLLECTION OF NOVELS, ANTHOLOGIES, AND SHORT STORIES.
The sign continued to swing, buffeted by the winds as it advertised the wonders of the Quartermaine’s bookshop to a deserted street. Christopher moved forward, ignoring how his shoes squelched against the grass, and made it to the front door. He swept his hand underneath the mud stained doormat, searching for the housekey.
His fingers graced only the floorboards.
He stood up quickly and glanced around. There was not a soul on the road behind him. He eyed the houses next to him. The one on the right, slipshod and sporting holes in the roof, had been abandoned for years. An elderly couple lived on the one to the left, and he doubted they possessed the interest nor vigor to trek out in the rain to steal a key to a rotting bookshop. His eyes moved toward the door, to where a note was nailed into the wood.
THIS ESTABLISHMENT AND ALL GOODS INSIDE NOW BELONGS TO THE SHERFIELD BANK, AS OF NOVEMBER 12TH, 1873.
No. His hands shook. The words blurred. He refocused, reread. Only to be struck again. And again. Foreclosure? He yanked the paper from the door in trembling hands, moved his eyes across the page once more, hoping to find another line, another word. Certainly he had misread it? Certainly there was somewhere he could go to complain? Finding nothing, his frantic gaze moved to the window. He stepped forward, a hand pressed against the glass. Inside, everything was as he had left it that morning. The same medical books that he had pored through frantically the night of his father’s passing were still strewn over the warped-wood floor. He hadn’t wanted to touch them earlier, put them away; they were reminders of his failure to save his father. Just looking at them made his heart strain. He glanced away, then almost wished he hadn’t. His father’s glasses lay on the right corner of the front desk, upturned, resting upon the weathered spine of a dictionary the old man had been reading just a few days before. Christopher could almost imagine him standing there, hands pressed against the desk, eyes narrowed in concentration, spectacles slipping down the pointed bridge of his nose. His father had spent the majority of his last days there, reading and standing, copying definitions—when he wasn’t coughing blood into his handkerchief.
Christopher had tried to usher his father back into his bed, especially when the coughing sent the man trembling to his knees. But his father had remained adamant. He’d wanted to stay in the lobby. Christopher knew why, of course. Even in his last days, his father had wished for business. A sole customer.
It wasn’t until now, as Christopher stood outside, biting his lip against the cold and his emotions, that he realized why his father had been so attached to the dictionary. He knew he was going to die. New definitions, old definitions; it was as if his father had been reliving his life, relearning words, memorizing them. He didn’t want to die not knowing a single one.
He didn’t want to leave the words behind.
“What about me?”
The words left Christopher’s mouth almost against his will. He found himself looking around, guilt settling into his bones. There was no one there to hear him, certainly not his father. He skittered backwards from the house, past the awning. His foot caught as he made his way down the stairs, nearly sending him to dirt. He steadied himself. He was acting foolish. He was simply stressed. The rain would clear his mind.
“Why were you so fine leaving me behind? Your son. I cared for you while you were ill...I tried.” The rain was a poor audience. It kept drowning out his words, slicing his phrases in half before he had time to form another. But he kept going. Something inside him, something caged, wanted, no—needed, to be let out. “I ran through the whole of Sherfield for you, father! I went to the rich, I begged them, went to my knees! I heard their disdain, their insults. I saw them today—the same petty bunch that cursed your name as you lay dying—and they did so again. At your grave.” He pressed a hand to his throat. His voice was failing. It was growing difficult to tell if his tears were real or just fabrications of the rain treading down his cheeks. He was too numb to tell or care.
“And here I am, father, too poor to enter our own house.” He breathed in, then wiped at his forehead. “What am I to do?”
Wind fluttered the now sopping scrap of paper in his hand, the notice from the bank. He blinked at it. Then let it go. A gust took it in greedy hands, ushered it high into the sky. It drifted right, left, then right again, until it slammed against the storefront, plastered right onto the attic window.
The room where his father had died.
He stumbled back, as if he had taken a blow to the stomach. His knees sunk into the dirt that was fresh with the rain and his tears. How utterly grotesque it was to find that the worst insult toward his father wasn’t muttered atop his corpse, in a cemetery blocks away, but outside his own house, separated by a aged wood and wallpaper, just inches away from where the man had taken his last breath.
Christopher couldn’t be there. Not any longer. Not for another moment. In a flurry he was off the sodden lawn and down the sidewalk. In minutes he was down the street, soon after a block away. Two. Three. Four? He hadn’t counted. He didn’t want to know. He didn’t want to know anything. Anyone. Himself, even. He wanted to hear nothing, see nothing, be nothing.
So he kept running.