|BY THE BOOK
“Something is wrong with Allan.” Perplexed, Sophia leaned back in her chair and stared in her roommate’s direction.
Vanessa just returned the look patiently. This was the tenth time that Sophia had made the same statement in the past hour.
“I’m gonna call him.” Sophia stood up quickly, sending the sleeping Fritz to the floor. The cat stalked indignantly to the door, the tip of her tail whipping back and forth like a metronome.
The only phone in the modest apartment was in the kitchen and Sophia perched on the stool in the corner as she dialed the numbers.
“Hi Allan. It’s me, Sophia. Why haven’t you phoned me?” The direct approach seemed to be called for at this point. “I know you’re busy with studies and job but at least you could call me once in a while.” … “But things haven’t changed that much. You had studies and a job for nearly a year now.” … “What do you mean – you have to read a book?” … “Allan? Are you there? Allan? … Hello?”
“What the heck is the matter with him?” She clunked the receiver back in its cradle and stomped back to the living room.
“I don’t get it,” she continued. “We were madly in love and planning our future together one day and the next day he’s not speaking to me. Look at me. I’m a complete wreck. The apartment is a mess and I’m so far behind in my studies – I can’t even think straight.”
Vanessa stood up from the easy chair shaking her head. “Glad I’m not in love. Looks painful.”
“Come on, Vanessa. Help me.”
“I haven’t got a clue. Romance is not my forte. Besides, he probably had a change of heart or found someone else. That’s not unusual. Happens all the time.”
“You’re some help.” Sophia angrily grabbed her coat from the pile of laundry on the couch and marched to the door. “I’m going over to his place. He can’t hang up on me that way.”
The warm spring breezes had begun to melt the remaining snow that blanketed the lawn, and the flowerbeds already boasted early spring growth. The feeling of love and the urge to find a mate infused all of nature around her, which just set her emotions more on edge. Sophia began to have trepidations about confronting him like this. What if he had a new girlfriend at his place? That would put her on the spot. What would she say? What would the other girl say? Her stomach tightened into a hard knot.
She didn’t have long to think further, as Allan’s apartment was only six blocks away. He lived by himself, which only made matters worse. He had no roommate she could interrogate.
The walk had calmed her down momentarily, but as she approached the door the butterflies began to churn in her stomach again.
Ringing the doorbell, she steeled herself for the worst. Instead, Allan opened the door, book in hand, and stared at her with eyes that seemed to be unfocused. But that wasn’t what really caught Sophia’s attention and almost sent her reeling backwards off the porch.
“Allan, you’ve dyed your hair black!” His usual blonde hair, which he always kept a bit long, but not shaggy, was as black as a raven’s feathers.
“Black is really my color. Now, what do you want?”
Sophia hung on to the porch railing for support. She stared at Allen. There was a far away look in his eyes, as if he had just woken up and hadn’t registered the world around him yet.
“Are you alright?”
“Are we still going together?”
“Well, Sophia, I’ve been thinking about that. I think we should split up for a while. I just don’t have time for dating right now.”
Sophia stood with her mouth wide open, suspended in time, trying to assimilate what was just said. Nothing made any sense at all. Where was this undying love that Allan spoke of only a week ago?
“I need to get back to my book now,” he said impatiently.
“I don’t understand you.”
There was nothing more to say, as Allen had already closed the door on her, leaving her staring at its weathered surface. The spring breezes had chilled suddenly, and she wrapped her arms about her as she stumbled off the porch.
Cursing under her breath, she returned to her apartment. Life had suddenly turned 180 degrees and instead of a predictable future of wedding bells midst final exams and moving, loomed utter chaos and unpredictability. What had happened?
“Leave him,” Vanessa suggested. She was engrossed in a book about the Civil War and returned to her studies, leaving Sophia alone in her misery and pondering.
The next day brought Sophia no closer to understanding Allen. In fact, as she was coming out of the campus library, she nearly bumped into him. He was walking blindly, his complete attention on a girl with flame-red hair who was clinging to him. He hadn’t noticed Sophia at all.
“Well, that does take the cake.” Sophia stood there clutching her books to her bosom staring at his back as he moved further away down the sidewalk. She had almost failed to recognize him with his baggy pants and army jacket. So out of character, she thought. He had always been the studious no-nonsense type of guy.
Later that day, she called Tony on the phone. If anybody could understand Allen, it would be Tony, Allen’s closest friend.
“I hear you, Sophia,” he said. “I don’t understand Allen either. He ignores me lately, too. But one thing I do know is that it began after he started to read that confounded book.”
“He found this book about a week ago and he hasn’t been the same since.”
Tony promised to look into things and this comforted Sophia a little. Mind you, it was only a little. Something really odd was happening. A sense of panic had gripped her life by the throat and it showed no sign of easing.
Around dinnertime that night, Tony called Sophia, asking her to meet him at the Golden Briar Restaurant. She persuaded Vanessa to go with her in spite of the history assignment that Vanessa insisted had to be done that evening. Sometimes, friends were more important, Sophia argued, and she needed all the backup she could get.
“The situation is not good.” Tony tapped his finger nervously on the table. “Seems like Allen found this book lying beside some guy who had died just out behind the Books Plus Bookstore a couple weeks ago. He pocketed the book before calling the police.”
“What has that got to do with anything?” Sophia was perplexed.
“Lots. He’s had his nose buried in the book most of the time and has even quit that part-time job that he tried so hard to get for months this year. He’s even been skipping classes, which is so out of character for him.” Tony patted her on the shoulder. “You know how he has been so studious and grade conscious all last year and this. I think you might just have to give up on him; he’s probably just gone bad. Happens, you know. Maybe he feels guilty for not turning in possible evidence to the man’s death or something. It all started with taking that book.”
Sophia slumped in her chair. What was she to do? She dearly loved Allen and the pending loss was a looming, dark eclipse in her life.
An early spring rain had begun to fall outside the restaurant window and a sudden sense of suffocation flooded over Sophia. Springing up from her seat, she slapped a five-dollar bill on the table. “Take care of my check,” she said to Allen, as she turned to head out the door.
The Books Plus Bookstore had an out-of-place atmosphere about it. Should be located next to those shops where fortunetellers forewarn you of an early death, Sophia thought. Even the door chime, announcing her entrance to the owner, had a spooky and fatal sound to it.
The owner shuffled out from behind a desk overflowing with musty old books.
“Yep, I remember the dead man behind my store,” he replied in answer to her question. “Same thing happened three years ago to the day. That’s when I got that mysterious book. It was just lying there beside the corpse and I couldn’t resist picking it up. I regret the day I found it.”
“What is this thing about the book?”
He shambled over to a glass display case in the corner. “I didn’t read it but it gave me the chills just holding it in my hands. Can’t explain it. I only held it for a few seconds and I felt like I was losing control of the moment. I found later that the author had died a horrible death about a hundred years ago; he was murdered in cold blood.”
The owner closed his eyes and shivered. “That was the night the nightmares began. I finally locked it up in this case, here.”
“But it’s empty,” said Sophia, staring at the case.
“Right you are. I had a robbery a month ago and they broke into the case and stole the book. Why a book, I will never know. Didn’t even touch the cash register.”
A far away look crossed his face as he tapped his fingers nervously on the top of the case.
“Go on.” Sophia prodded.
“Well, turns out this guy who robbed me was the very same guy that turned up dead in my alley two weeks ago. Doesn’t that figure, now. Only, there is no book. It disappeared completely.”
That’s where Allen came in to take the book, thought Sophia.
The old man returned to the ladder and climbed to the top where he began pulling out musty, old books to discard into a nearby bin. Feeling dismissed, Sophia left the store and wrapping her coat more snugly around her to protect herself from the chill rain that fell she walked back towards the campus and home. I’ve got to see that book, she thought.
Convincing Vanessa and Tony to help her break into Allen’s apartment was not easy, but Tony agreed to find Allen and keep him busy in conversation for an hour while Vanessa accompanied Sophia.
Once inside the apartment, Sophia easily found the book under Allen’s pillow. “Metamorphous” was the title.
As she cradled the book gingerly in her palms, she broke into a cold sweat, and she began to read the first page. Then she skimmed through the following pages quickly. As she did, she could feel the slimy tendrils of past pain and horror feeling its way along her spine as the character began to take form within her. She shuddered and closed the book quickly. Vanessa stared at her.
“You look like you just saw a ghost.” Vanessa moved quickly to her side.
“Maybe so. Don’t come closer and don’t read over my shoulder.”
Sophia skipped over some pages and read some more. Somehow, skipping through the book this way had a less devastating effect on her. As she read, she could see the changes that Allen was making to become the book’s character. It took a great effort to turn to the end of the book without reading more in between, but she had to find out the ending. At the same time, she was afraid of what she would find.
“Oh, my God,” she uttered as she read the last page. Quickly she located Allen’s bookmark. It was one chapter away from the end. She dropped the book onto the coffee table in shock.
She knew she had to do something fast. The character who was fast becoming Allen (or was it the other way around?) was about to die – behind the bookstore. Where was he?
She dashed out the door with Vanessa trailing behind. Searching all the usual haunts that Allen frequented proved fruitless. And in her haste, she had lost Vanessa somewhere along the way. Was she too late? Behind the bookstore there was no dead body, thankfully, and she decided to return to Allen’s apartment.
The light in his living room was encouraging and she rushed in without knocking. A fire had been lit in the fireplace and he stood with his back to her warming his hands. He turned in shock to see her there.
“You've got to destroy that book.” She was shouting.
“You’re crazy,” he said as he picked up the book to prevent her from taking it. “It’s mine. Go away.”
She grabbed his arm and as he turned to look into her eyes, she could see the dilated pupils and now familiar far off look. He doesn’t even know me, she thought. He flung her off him and she landed on the floor beside the couch. In desperation, she gathered all the energy and determinism she had and rushed him, grabbing for the book. They struggled for what seemed like hours, when suddenly Allen tripped over the coffee table and Sophia found herself standing there with the book in her hand. Time seemed to stand still for an eternity and she felt the ensnaring spirit of the book’s character twist itself around her mind and soul.
“I must survive,” it said. And as its mind began to meld with her mind, she understood. Within this century old book was trapped an evil spirit, spawned by an author of evil intent who continued to relive his life and death over and over through unsuspecting readers.
I will die, she thought in confusion as the spirit wrestled for her very breath. I must give the book back to Allen.
The hypnotic suggestion became stronger and she held the book out to Allen. He reached for it.
“Yes,” spoke the spirit within her mind. “Exactly by the book.”
“No,” she screamed and, with great effort, she tore herself from the internal grip that threatened her survival, and heaved the book into the fireplace.
Ravenously, the flames devoured the aged bindings of the book, and an immense explosion burst through the apartment, throwing Sophia onto her back. She raised herself to her knees and looked at the fireplace. The book was gone. Allen had been knocked flat and was not moving.
“Allen!” She crawled over to him and felt for a heartbeat. There was none. “No,” she cried. “Come back here. You can’t leave me.”
Heaving gasping sobs, she laid her head on his chest. Had she done the right thing by destroying the book? Where was he now? Was he lost forever?
His chest moved under her and she sat up startled. Was it her imagination? It moved again and he opened his eyes.
“What’s happening?” he asked.
“Don’t you remember the book?”
“Do you love me?”
“Of course, I love you. We’re getting married, remember?”
Sophia wrapped her arms around him tightly. He was back.
“But what book? ”he whispered in her ear.
“Never mind,” she whispered back. “I was wondering about our wedding guest book.”
“Aw. That is just like you. Gotta do it by the book.”
She pulled away and stared at him in horror.
“Just a pun.” He laughed and pulled her back to his chest.