You came to this town in search of a book. Well, many books. Classics, mostly, first editions and originals. Your family didn’t really care what you brought back as long as it fetched either a high price or prestige. Trudging up a steep hill, your messenger bag thumps against your thigh, the books inside safely wrapped in layers of plastic and newspaper.
The rest of your family had left to cover other parts of town: antique shops, flea markets, and used book stores. All of them would spend the rest of the day haggling. But you were the youngest and forced a better part of the day embarrassing yourself going door to door, tripping over the short speeches your parents had given you to memorize.
Two books are the goal. At least, that was what you tell yourself as you undid the gate to a regular suburban home. The books were more than the last time you went out. But the last family you visited, who was not forthcoming with a book, gave you information for another one next door.
“It’s old,” was the only response you got from the old man. “Old and that family guards it well so it must be valuable.”
“We must have seen a dozen of you people trying to buy it in that past year,” his wife added.
There isn’t a doorbell, only an iron knocker in the shape of a lion’s head. You grasp the ring dangling out of a heavily fanged mouth and tap it against the metal plate fixed to the wood.
You hear someone yelling something unintelligible before a curtain by the door is lifted to reveal a pair of narrowed dark eyes. Upon seeing you, the eyes blink and the curtain drops. You hear a lock click and a deadbolt turn before the door is opened by a teenage girl about your age. There’s a smile plastered on her face as her eyes inspect you with suspicion.
“Can I help you?”
“My family is new in town,” you begin, counting fingers off behind your back as you launch into a pre-prepared speech, “and I just wanted to introduce ourselves before—“
“Another magpie.” She says, crossing her arms over her chest. “You’re, what, the third one we’ve had this month?”
Taken aback, you ask, “I’m sorry, what?”
“Never mind, the book’s not for sale.”
Your face drops. You couldn’t go back to your family like this.
“…but maybe we could talk about it over dinner.” The girl says with a sigh.
“I would have to check with my family first,” you say, still reeling. This isn’t how it’s supposed to go.
“It’s the only way you’re getting anything off of us,” the girl says. “I know you already swindled the Brooks and McInnis’ today. Not very impressive, mind you. Only second editions and nothing before the 1900s.”
“They’re still good books,” you protest.
“Mine is better,” the girl states with confidence. “Come inside, my mother and I are already tossing food together.”
Walking through the door, the house doesn’t look anything like yours. You grew up in an old Victorian mansion where the creaks and groans of the house settling had lulled you to sleep. The furniture was old, formed for look and not function with thin cushions and hard edges. Most rooms were filled with display cases filled with artifacts and antiques. You used to spend long hours as a child wearing latex gloves, flipping through the pages of old books on the floor of the library.
The room you entered is lined with sunken, overstuffed couches with piles of fantasy books are on the coffee tables. A cheap shelf seems to be set with trinkets from travels: a jar of sea glass and a few conch shells, a bundle of dried flowers in a blue and white porcelain vase, and a picture of the family in front of a random landmark.
This home isn’t a place you expected a rare book to be kept in, much less a relic from ancient times. Above the mantle is a picture frame with a faded black and white photo of an old woman with a wide smile on her face holding a massive leather-bound book.
That’s it. You think. It looks so much like the others kept safe in your bag.
“Who’s in the picture?” you ask the girl.
“My grandmother,” she replies, glancing at the photo. “Great-great-great-grandmother? I don’t remember how many greats.”
“And the book she’s holding?”
“Passed down the family for years.”
“Is it possible for me to see—“
“No, you can’t. Yet,” she states. “And no, you can’t buy it off of us no matter how much money you’re carrying in that bag of yours.”
She turns away from you and yells further into the house, “I brought in a guest, Mom!”
“Mira, I told you to stop doing that,” her mother, a portly woman with graying hair pulled into a bun, says while rounding the corner. “You can’t just take in every collector off the street.”
“This one’s just a kid.”
They proceed into the kitchen, still bickering. You linger, stepping towards a bookshelf crammed with bedraggled tome. The ones towards the bottom are thin children’s books, smudged with spots of jam and corners that have been dented and worn away. As the shelf grew taller, the books became more mature. Chapter books, then thicker novels and a stack of outdated encyclopedias at the top. You reach for one of the novels. It’s bright cover catching your eye.
“Intent on stealing more than you came for?” Mira drawled from the doorway. “That was ten bucks at the used book store, nothing to someone like you.”
“What’s it about?”
She raises an eyebrow. “A princess and an assassin. Love. Normal stuff.”
“That’s different from anything I’ve ever read.”
“What, you only look at dusty tomes and scrolls?”
“Wow. Boring,” She says, grabbing your wrist, “Anyways, dinner.”
When you sit down, you’re impressed by the spread of food. There’s rice wrapped in grape leaves, thin pieces of bread, a roast chicken, and plates with wild rice. Something is baking in the oven, lemon-flavored, you think, from the smell. You shift uneasily, still wary of Mira’s intentions as she slouches into the chair next to you.
Her mother shoots a look in your direction. “What are you waiting for, kid, eat!”
You hastily put food on your plate, copying Mira as she spoons various dishes out for herself. As you begin to eat you’re impressed with the family’s cooking skills. It’s good, really good with just the right amount of spices in the meat; you found yourself going for seconds. “God this is good.”
“Better be,” she mumbles around a mouthful of bread. “Took the entire day.”
“Can I have the recipe?”
“I told you, the book isn’t for sale.”
“The book you came here for,” she says before wiping her mouth with a paper napkin. “We put everything online, anyways.”
Mira shrugs and finishes off the rest of her rice. “The book’s in terrible condition anyways. Not worth much to collectors—we checked with the local bookstore. Better to spread the knowledge than let the physical thing rot away in some cupboard.”
“But—” This was going against everything your parents had taught you. “—But you’re driving the value down even more by—“
“Ever heard of a library?” Mira interrupts you. “You should check it out. You might even find something you’ll like aside from what your family makes you read.”