Tucked between a dress shop and a stationery store just off Old Town’s main drag, a weathered glass-paned door announces its business in large block letters etched into the smokey glass. It reads: ATHENEUM. A handwritten note on a 3 by 5 note card has been taped to the door below the name: Help Wanted. Apply within.
I stop in front of it, leaving Nikki to continue walking until she realizes I am no longer walking with her.
She turns around. “What are you looking at, Gerald?”
I point to the door. “I must have walked by here a hundred times but I have never noticed this shop before.”
She walks back and peers at the door. “Isn’t an atheneum a library or museum or something?” She says this in that short, clipped way she speaks when she is irritated about something.
Lately she seems always to be irritated about something. This morning it was my insistence that she get out of bed and get dressed and go for a walk with me. She knows she has to get some physical activity in everyday, but everything is so hard for her now and I am the only person she can take it out on.
I try to look past her irritability, her complaining, her descents into despair. I try to see the woman I used to know, the woman I love, the woman being slowly taken away from me. Sometimes I find myself wishing she would hurry up and die so she can leave the pain and humiliation behind and I can get on with my life. I feel guilty about that. But if I am honest with myself, I have to admit I want out. We both do, I suppose, each in our own way.
I start to walk away, but Nikki takes my hand. “Let’s go in.” It is rare for her to show interest in anything these days, so I say, “Okay.”
She turns the tarnished brass doorknob, pushes the door open and steps inside. The clock tower of Saint Stephen’s Church a few blocks away has begun chiming the hours. I glance at my watch; it is ten o’clock on a warm Tuesday morning in August. I follow her into a narrow, dimly lit hall that runs straight ahead thirty or so feet to the foot of a staircase leading to the floor above. A musty smell tickles at my nose.
“Not a very inviting place,” Nikki says. “I hope they’re not counting on drop-in customers.”
The snick of the door latch tells me the door has shut behind us; we both jump. An irrational panic takes hold of me and I grab the doorknob, pull the door open, then let it close again. I laugh. Nikki smiles at me. She doesn’t smile much anymore and I cannot help but smile back; I will miss her smile.
She starts toward the stairway, stops, looks back at me. “I don’t hear the chimes of Saint Stephen’s.”
She’s right. I don’t hear anything except our own breathing; no people talking, no cars driving by, none of the usual busy sounds of Old Town; as though we have left the world behind.
Nikki takes hold of the handrail and grimaces.
“Do we need to go home?” I ask.
“I’m okay. Just my joints complaining.”
I follower her up the stairs. The wooden steps creak under my weight, though not under hers. She doesn’t have much weight left. An open doorway greets us at the top, light from inside painting the landing with a golden glow.
“It’s a bookshop!” she says.
I push past her to see for myself. Warm light emanates from faux gaslights, five of them seated in yellow globes in an ornate chandelier that hangs from the middle of the ceiling. They are a very good imitation of the real thing.
Floor-to-ceiling shelves line the walls, packed to overflowing with books of various sizes and conditions. To our left, three upholstered chairs have been arranged around a coffee table on which resides half a dozen books, one of which has been left open as though someone had been reading it just moments before. Two long tables stand on the other side of the room to our right, crowded with stacks of books threatening to tumble off onto the floor.
Opposite us is the sales counter. It is made of darkly stained wood with intricately carved creatures—dragons, wolves, fairies, and creatures I don’t recognize. It forms a half circle around the shop keeper’s sanctuary, a space large enough for two occupants, though no one is present at the moment. The musty smell I noticed downstairs has followed us into the room.
“Hello?” I say.
No one answers. We are alone, immersed in a heavy silence disturbed only by the tock-tock-tock of a grandfather clock standing in a break in the shelving behind the two tables.
Nikki clears her throat. “It certainly is quiet.”
She walks over to the tables and picks up a book. I follow, happy to see her showing an interest in something. She opens it to the first page. “Gerald, look at this.”
I read the title: “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer’s Comrade) by Mark Twain.”
At the top of the title page, in flowing script, are penned the words: To Major J. B. Pond With the affections of Mark Twain Feb 21/85. Below this, in a different script, are the words: This is the first copy that the author ever set his eyes on. At the bottom of the page is the publisher: New York, Charles L. Webster and Company, 1885.
“It is a first edition,” a voice from behind us says.
Nikki jumps, losing her balance. I catch her by the arm before she can fall. We turn to see an older-looking woman standing behind us. I don’t know where she came from.
Nikki closes the book and examines it front and back. “This is in excellent condition. It looks almost new.”
“It does, doesn’t it?” She holds out her hand. “My name is Martha. I am the curator of this humble establishment.”
Curator. An odd choice of words.
Nikki accepts her hand. “I’m Nikki. And this is Gerald.”
Martha is a short woman and stocky, with long gray hair pulled back in a pony tail that hangs to her waist. Deep creases wander across her face, creating a dramatic landscape, a map of a life lived long and full, a collage of stories waiting to be told. It is difficult to guess her age, but she must be at least in her sixties.
She accepts my hand when I offer it, but her eyes remain fixed on Nikki. “I am so pleased to meet you.” The way she says this leaves me with the impression that it is only tangentially directed at me. It is a disquieting feeling.
I try to inject myself into the moment: “We walk by here all the time, but I have never noticed this shop before. How long have you been here?”
Martha pulls her eyes away from Nikki and looks at me. “It is difficult to say.” She looks at Nikki again. “We don’t get many visitors.”
Another unexpected choice of words.
I turn to the shelves on the wall next to the clock and run my finger across the spines of several books. They are all old. Looking around the room, I realize we have wandered into a rare book shop.
“There must be a couple thousand books here,” I say. “Are they all rare editions? You must have a small fortune invested in them.”
“Max,” she says. “What is the value of the books and manuscripts currently in inventory?”
A male voice that sounds like an English butler answers from somewhere. “Assuming sale by auction in the current year, the collection has a value of 1.6 billion US dollars. I have excluded from the estimate a small part of the collection because it is, to use a current colloquial phrase, priceless.”
I am wondering where the voice comes from when Nikki says, “You’re not serious, are you? That can’t be right.”
“Oh yes,” Martha says. “Max does not make mistakes. And that’s just the book collection. You haven’t seen our other collections yet.”
My mouth has fallen open. Other collections? They have other collections besides this? I’m starting to feel like I have wandered into an episode of The Twilight Zone.
“We have a wide range of artistic creations from other times and places.” She turns and walks away. “May I show you one of my favorite manuscripts?”
We follow her to the coffee table at the far end of the room. Nikki squeezes my arm with both hands, her gaze fixed on the book that lies open on the table. She sits on the edge of one of the chairs and lets her finger slide across the page. Her hand trembles; it is not her usual tremor.
“This is a vellum codex,” she says. Her voice warbles a bit, a sign she is becoming exhausted.
“What is a vellum codex?” I ask. Nikki is an antiques dealer.
“Sheets of specially prepared animal skins bound together in a book. That and papyrus are what they used in the West before they learned how to make paper.”
“This one is from the early first century,” Martha says.
Nikki looks at it again. “That can’t be right. This is in pristine condition. Even under ideal circumstances it could not have survived for two thousand years without undergoing a good deal of decay.”
“So it’s a fake,” I say, with a note of triumph.
“Oh no,” Martha says. “I assure you it is authentic.”
Nikki looks skeptical. “How did you determine its age?”
“Let’s just say I have personal knowledge of its provenance.”
Nikki runs her finger across the first two lines and reads out loud:
Si quis in hoc artem populo non novit amandi,
hoc legat et lecto carmine doctus amet.
“If you do not know the art of love, read my book, and you will be a doctor of love in the future.” Her breath catches. “It’s Ovid’s Art of Love.”
On the page are line after line of neatly penned letters in what I guess is Latin. “I didn’t know you could read Latin.”
“Then how do you know what it says?”
She tilts her head up at me. “I don’t know.” Her face has gone pale.
I look at the woman, then at Nikki, then at the manuscript, then at the room around us. Something is very wrong.
“Look,” I say to Martha. “I don’t know what kind of con you are running here, but Nikki is not well, and I don’t appreciate this one bit.”
Martha’s face maintains an infuriating pleasantness.
I take hold of Nikki’s arm and pull her to her feet. “We’re leaving.”
As I steer her toward the door, she looks back at the woman who says, “It’s all right, dear. You’ll be back soon.”
I hurry her down the stairs to the door, yank it open, and propel us both out onto the muddy bank of a river. Nikki teeters at the water’s edge until I pull her back.
“Oh my,” she says.
The river is as wide as a football field. Massive conifers and dense underbrush form an impenetrable barrier on the opposite bank. There is a dirt road between the river bank and the forest.
The click of the door closing reminds me how we got here. I turn to look. The door is still there, embedded in a rock face not five feet from where we stand at the river’s edge. It looks exactly as it did when we first saw it in Old Town, minus the help wanted notice. The bank rises steeply from the river’s edge to where it merges into the forest.
Nikki hugs herself. “It’s cold here.”
The smell of burning wood tinges the air. Up river of us smoke rises from the chimneys of a cluster of log houses. A dock extends out over the water where men are off-loading sacks and boxes from a wide, flat boat.
“Hallo freund,” a man shouts. He is across the river from us, standing by a horse hitched to a two-wheeled cart. He raises a hand in greeting. A woman in the cart stares at us. She wears a long light-blue dress and has a red bonnet on her head. The man wears plain trousers held up by suspenders over a gray pull-over shirt. He says something else, but I can’t make it out.
“It’s German,” Nikki says.
“And we are attracting attention,” I point upriver. Several people on the dock are pointing in our direction. Two men push a small boat into the water, climb in, and use long poles to push away from the shore. The current catches the boat, carrying them toward us.
I pull Nikki back to the door, which readily opens, and we are back in the musty hall leading to the staircase. The door shuts behind us.
Putting both hands on Nikki’s shoulders, I turn her so she is facing me. “Since when do you know German?”
She takes a step back, pulling free of my hands. “I don’t.” She chews on her bottom lip. “Just like I don’t know Latin.”
I run my fingers through my hair. “Did you see the same thing I saw?”
She smiles for the second time today. “You mean a muddy bank beside a river in an old forest with people on the other side who look like they came out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale and talk in German?” She points at my feet. “There’s mud on your shoes, dear.”
I look down. There is indeed mud on my shoes. On hers, too. I consider opening the door it to see if the river and the forest and the Germans are still there, but I’m too freaked out to try it again. I half expect the men in the boat to come charging through the door anytime now.
We find Martha seated in one of the easy chairs. “I thought you would come back pretty quick,” she says. “Where did the door drop you?”
I’m trying to parse her question into something meaningful when Nikki collapses into a chair. She has only so much strength and it looks like she has used up her quota for the day. I remain standing.
Nikki says. “We opened the door downstairs and walked out into a forest by a river.” She takes in a big breath and lets it out with a sigh. “There were German-speaking people wearing old fashion clothes. They could be Amish but I don’t think so.”
“Most likely they are simple medieval German villagers,” Martha says.
A quizzical expression crosses Nikki’s face, but I’m feeling more frustrated than curious.
“Medieval. German. Villagers. Do you really expect us to believe that the door leading out of this establishment, the same door we used when we came in here in the first place, somehow relocated itself to a river in a forest in medieval Germany?”
Martha offers me an apologetic smile. “I had a similar reaction the first time it happened to me.”
I decide to sit down.
“Max,” she says. “Where and when did you take them?”
The disembodied butler says, “A short distance from Wittenberg, Germany. In the year 1517.”
She smiles to herself. “The year Martin Luther nailed this 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg church and started the Protestant Reformation. He is very much different in person than history makes him out to be.”
Before I can respond to that, Nikki asks, “Who is Max?”
“And where is Max?” I add.
“That would be Maximillian. He is a computer.”
“Don’t be insulting,” the invisible butler says. “I am a sentient artificial intelligence. Hardly a mere computer.”
“Yes dear,” Martha says. “Don’t get your panties in a knot.”
She continues. “I don’t pretend to understand the technical details, but apparently the atheneum, which is very much larger than this room, exists in another dimension, it’s only point of contact with our world being the door. The atheneum itself doesn’t move, but Max can position the door anywhere he wants in space and time.”
I am about to say something but stop when I realize I don’t know what to say. I have been dropped down a rabbit hole and find myself in a world where all the rules have changed and nothing makes sense.
Nikki runs her finger across the vellum codex still lying open on the table. She looks at Martha. “Are you human?”
I snort at the absurdity of the question. Except it’s not any more absurd than anything else we have seen.
“I am just as human as you,” Martha says.
“But this place, the atheneum, it’s not human, is it?”
“The atheneum was created by an alien race called the Velga.”
“And they are collectors.”
“And you do their collecting for them.”
“On our world, yes. I don’t know about other worlds.”
“How long have you been doing this?”
“I was born in the town of Kilmarnock, Country Ayrshire, Scotland in the year of our Lord 1726. I happened across the door in 1787 on my 61st birthday. I had a cancer—“
I do the math in my head and interrupt her. “Wait a minute. That makes you 292 years old.”
Nikki scowls at me.
“Does it?” Martha says. “Let’s see . . . yesterday I was in Paris in the year 1902. The day before that I was in Athens in the year 1390.” She pauses. “You see, time works differently in the atheneum, so asking me how old I am depends on which time frame you are talking about.”
I open my mouth but Nikki gives me another scowl and says, “You were saying you had cancer.”
“Yes. That’s right. I had a cancer of the stomach and didn’t have long to live. There wasn’t anything they could do about it in those days. That’s when I met Wei Lin.
“He had been the curator of the atheneum for 206 years—that’s atheneum years by the way—and had decided it was time to hand it off to someone else. The Atheneum would have kept him alive and in good health for as long as he wanted, but he had grown tired of living. Immortality isn’t all it’s hopped up to be, you know.”
She chuckles at her own joke.
“I was one of several candidates Max had located for the job. He placed the door where I would find it and the rest is history. So to speak.”
She chuckles again as the significance of her story slowly dawns on me.
Nikki has arrived at the same conclusion. “You want Gerald and me to take your place.”
“Then what do you want?” I know I sound angry, but I can’t help it. Martha focuses on Nikki.
“The offer is for you, dear. You don’t have long to live, so history will not be much changed by your absence. The atheneum will restore you to good health and you will stop aging. How would you like to spend the next few centuries collecting and studying the greatest creative works humanity has produced? Not to mention meeting some very interesting people?”
* * *
The clock tower of Saint Stephen’s is chiming the hours. I glance at my watch; it is ten o’clock on a warm Tuesday morning in August. The door shuts behind me. When I look, it is gone, leaving behind a blank brick wall; the same brick wall I have walked past so many times before.
When I get back to our apartment, I find Nikki’s body on the couch. She is dead. An empty box of her chemo medication sits on the coffee table along with half a bottle of vodka. There is a note.
It is better this way for both of us. Know that I am happy and that you will be too. Max says so and Max doesn’t make mistakes.
Love forever, Nikki.
The authorities come and question me. I tell them I went out for a walk and came back to find her dead on the couch. They ask me who Max is and I tell them I don’t know anyone named Max. A few days later the autopsy confirms the cause of death to be an overdose of her meds. They rule it a suicide.
It’s not her body, of course; just a really good facsimile. Or maybe a clone. I don’t really know. In any case, I haven’t told anyone the truth. They would think I’m crazy. Maybe I am. Some days I’m not sure any of it really happened. But most days I can convince myself that it all happened just the way I remember it in my mind.
Nikki was right: it is better this way. For both of us.
T H E E N D
Copyright © 2018 by Michael J Edwards