I watched as the steam climbed from the plate of meatloaf and mashed potatoes placed directly in front of me. I took a breath in, sighed, and slowly sat down at the front counter. This would be the first meal in the past three days that wasn’t sitting on a pale green tray from the hospital just down the road. I had called Gwen at B’s Diner and ordered the food to go. For the last couple days I had been working double shifts at grandfather’s bookstore while he was in the hospital and recovering.

“Just heat it in the microwave for a minute and a half, Jimmy, and it will be perfect. How is your grandfather doing? I heard he was released and sent home, so I put a piece of grapefruit pie in for him.” Gwen winked and smiled at me.

“He’s good. I don’t think anything is going to kill that old man. He’ll outlive me — that’s for sure.” I laughed as I left.

Outside the bookstore, I could see the sleet and freezing ran was making the roads slick. I was happy to be in for the night. Grandpa said I could crash on the old brown lumpy couch in his office. He lived upstairs above the bookstore in a little one bedroom apartment. It’s not that he couldn’t afford better; he just couldn’t stand the idea of being further from his books.

I had moved into my own apartment for the first time last fall. It wasn’t much more then a room with a TV, a bed, and some empty soda cans. After I graduated I took on a full time job working with Grandpa at the bookstore. It wasn’t the best paying gig, but it kept me out of my parents’ house.

Our bookstore was located in one of the oldest buildings in town and it was my grandfather’s father who had started hoarding books in it in 1884. You see, for every book Grandpa sells, he has another in the back room, which is full of his treasured, rare and collected books. Everything from first editions of modern science fiction to ancient texts sealed in glass. He lets a few people back there as long as they follow his rules and are willing to sign in and not take anything out.

With the sleet starting to accumulate on the roads, there would be even less traffic in the store tonight than normal. I would be able to take a few moments and just enjoy my meal, as long as the books and my grandfather minded themselves. That’s when I heard a loud “thump and crack” from upstairs.

“Jimmy? Jimmy I dropped the remote! Can you come up and get it for me?” My grandfather’s voice echoed through the empty store. I could only sigh. It wasn’t his fault he dropped the remote, although I wouldn’t put it past the old man. He got lonely sometimes and would cause problems just so I would come upstairs and sit with him.

I scooped up a bite of the meatloaf, savoring the brown gravy as it slowly slid down my throat. Standing up from the counter, I gave the books a long stare. They were never much of a problem when Grandpa was up and around but when he was on bed rest they had a tendency to misplace themselves so that people couldn’t find what they were looking for.

I clumped halfway up the stairs before I remembered the pie Gwen had so nicely given me to take to Grandpa. I turned around and grabbed the pie before heading back up. At the top of the stairs I could see into Grandpa’s apartment. Stacks of books littered his room. Some piles were disheveled with coffee cups on them and were being used as makeshift furniture, others were neatly stacked with not a fleck of dust on them. To say my grandfather was a little off cuff would be the understatement of the year. He was in his favorite reclining chair. Just out of arm’s reach on the floor was the television remote.

“Thanks, Jimmy. Don’t know if I could have watched another moment of this crap,” cracked Grandpa. I stared at the screen in time to see some reality TV show was on. The remote and Grandpa’s TV were from the 80’s. He didn’t want a new one. He just kept taking the TV back to Phil down the road to repair it when the tube died.

“Sure, Gramps. Oh, Yeah, Gwen at B’s sent…” In one effortless motion Grandpa ripped the pie from my hands and threw it. It bounced off the wall and landed directly in the trash bin.

“What’d ya do that for?” I snapped.

“Don’t ever eat any of that pie! Promise me, Jimmy!” Grandpa gripped my arm like it was a matter of life or death.

“I can’t eat it. You threw the whole thing away.” I pointed to the pie. Grandpa’s eyes followed mine.

“No, not THAT pie. Don’t eat any of the grapefruit pie Gwen makes. Promise!” I looked down at the withered man and just nodded. I’d had enough. I turned and headed back down to my by now cold food.

I took the plate into the office and placed it in the microwave, pressed three buttons and turned back to the counter. There standing in front of me, with very little patience showing on her face, was Ms. Knox, the editor of the town newspaper.

“Why, hello, Jimmy. I hear your grandfather is ill. I do hope he will be on his feet again soon. I’d like to take a look for a certain book in his collection, if you don’t mind.” She headed back through the aisles.

“Ma’am? I mean, Ms. Knox? Would you mind signing in first? “ I fumbled with the strap that held the leather bound book. Opening to one of the nearly last pages, I handed her a pen. “Just here. Grandpa’s only rule is…”

“I know, dear. Sign in and don’t take anything out.” She scowled at me. “I’ve been around long enough to know Patrick’s rules.” She scribbled her name, shut the book, and pushed it back toward me.

Ding.

“It seems your dinner is ready, Jimmy. Eat up. You seem famished.” Sandra’s voice softly echoed more of a command then a recommendation.

“Um, thanks.” I watched her walk — or nearly glide — down the hallway. She was one woman I would not want to meet in a dark alley. No, I wouldn’t want to meet her alone in any alley. I grabbed my plate out of the microwave and placed it on the counter just as a whoosh of cold air was brought in by a barging Bella.

image by David Pringle, Pringle-art.com

“Jimmy! What’s up?” She looked up from her phone only momentarily to acknowledge my existence. She was likely “checking in” with one of those social media thingies. After a few moments, Bella dropped the phone into her jacket pocket. “My mom here? Mmm. Is that B’s meatloaf I smell?” Bella wandered over to the desk and took a fork-full. “Oh. Em. Gee. Sooooo good. I love her food.”

“Hi, Bella. What do you need?” I pulled my plate out of reaching distance in fear she might strike again.

“Mmmyyy moooommm,” she mouthed slowly. “I already said that.”

“She’s in the back room looking for…” Before I could finish, she strode back in that direction.

“Wait! You have to sign in.” I groaned, walking over to the book again and opening it to the same page her mother signed.

She raised her eyebrow at me. “Sign in? Seriously? It’s a bookstore, not a hotel.”

“Your mom is in Grandpa’s rare book section. Everyone signs in — even your mom did. See?” I pointed to the scribble on the page.

“Oookkkaaay Fine. I get it.” Bella sighed. She grabbed the pen and signed. As she ran off, she tipped the book and it fell forward onto the floor. Bella stopped, and attempted to look innocently at me.

“I got it. Go on.” I grumbled, walking around the counter and picking up the large leather bound monstrosity of a book. When I got it around the counter and opened it, the book was facing me rather then the guest. I noticed something strange… there where Bella and her mother had signed in, the names were not their own. I gasped. I instinctively knew why Grandpa had this book… He wasn’t keeping a record of who looked at his books. He was keeping record of the townspeople.

“My boy…” Grandpa’s hand was on my shoulder both firm and tenderly. “You have just found our family’s greatest secret, and inadvertently, Sandra’s and her family’s as well. It’s time we talked. Come with me to the office.” Grandpa, who should have been on bed rest, was pulling me slowly by the arm.

“OK, but Grandpa… who is ‘Clotho’?”

My food sat alone on the counter that night, only touched by a girl I had known as Bella.