by Heather Morris
The new secondhand bookstore in town promised a marvel: purchase one book, of any price or genre, and they would give you, for free, one book you needed but did not know you needed yet.
Annie was, in all things, a skeptic, but she didn’t see that as any reason to turn down a free book. Even if it was just a ploy to get rid of extra stock, there must be some value in whatever the booksellers would pick for her.
So she took a long lunch on a Friday and drove down to see what she could find.
For a palace of marvels, it wasn’t particularly impressive. The building used to be a bank, still had a crumbling vestigial overhang that used to mark the drive-thru lane. It wasn’t busy. A group of teenagers skipping school loitered around a Toyota older than they were in the parking lot, taking in some obscure code Annie had no wish to crack. One or two other cars dotted the lot at odd intervals. Annie had parked as far from them as she could—she always did, anxious about accidentally scraping someone else’s car—and the walk to the door made her stomach curl with unanticipated dread.
The Orangerie, the new sign above the door read.
“Just looking” was already on her lips to answer a pushy sales associate, but no one was behind the counter to greet her with fake smiles or canned pleasantries. A few patrons wended their way through the maze of bookshelves. None appeared to notice her, and they were each indistinct and insubstantial, as though she couldn’t really recall their presence when not looking directly at them.
Annie smiled at the unexpected pleasure of that.
A house of books had always felt to Annie like a house of God. Even one as outwardly uninspiring as The Orangerie, with cheap particleboard shelving set up apparently at random, and the ghosts of old bank notices still visible on the windows and walls, had that air about it. Paper, ink, dust. Convenient portals to a thousand different worlds.
She chose a row at random, and walked slowly, trailing her fingers over the spines of books. Some had been much loved or much abused—cracked spines, torn corners, sticky with fingerprints. Others were outwardly whole, but betrayed age and irrelevance with dated typography, unfashionable covers.
There did not seem to be an organizational method, as far as Annie could tell. Large cookbooks crowded next to genre paperbacks. Car repair manuals shared space with a set of children’s encyclopedias from the sixties. There would be no way to find a specific title here. She would have to let luck guide her.
There was no point in impatience. She knew that she would find something that called to her. And, eventually, she did. A thick biography of Mary Wollstonecraft caught her eye long enough for a second look. She did not generally read biographies, but as her knowledge of Wollstonecraft was confined to Jeopardy trivia and a vague memory of reading A Vindication of the Rights of Women in high school, it seemed like an interesting choice.
An orange sticker on the spine was marked six dollars. A bit more expensive than her lunch would have cost, but she could justify it. She cradled the book in the crook of her arm and headed to the counter.
Now there was an employee—a tall, gangly youth with messy hair and about twenty earrings arrayed along the curve of their left ear. Annie wondered where they had been when she came in, how they knew exactly when to appear.
The bookseller had a nametag that read only Barrow. They were not overly chatty, but rang up Annie’s purchase with a genuine grin, mentioning that they’d read the biography before, and loved it. Annie handed over her six crumpled dollars, and waited. Barrow folded themself over to rummage beneath the counter, then produced Annie’s free book.
The Secret History of the Clockwork King by Michael Ryan Martin.
All of Annie’s nerves seemed to short out; an electrifying spark ran through her. “That…” she said, fingers inching towards the cover, not quite daring to trace the silhouette of the titular character “…this isn’t what I need.”
“It is,” Barrow insisted, evenly.
“It’s not real,” she said. Who would play such an elaborate prank as this? How would they even know?
“It is,” Barrow repeated. Their fingers brushed hers as they pushed the impossible book more firmly towards her. “Have a wonderful day.”
She didn’t go back to work. Didn’t even bother to call. Instead she went home, barely even conscious of the drive. She turned off her phone, curled up on the couch. And stared at the book in her hands.
There had to be thousands of people named Michael Martin. Even the middle name Ryan, that must be so common. It was only a coincidence. It had to be. To indulge in any other thought was insanity.
But….The Secret History of the Clockwork King.
The cover image was of a man, shadowed and distant, crowned with a vicious, jagged crown, holding aloft a sword in a martial, victorious pose.
Annie had never had very much artistic skill, but when Mike first started telling her this story, she had tried her hand at illustrating scenes for him. The more it amused him, the more she drew. And this image, she remembered. It had been crude when she drew it. Here, it was polished and professional. But either way, it had come from her head.
For Mike’s story.
She opened the book, and started at page one.
Three hundred and thirty-seven pages later, she closed the book, and started to sob.
Annie was always the sick one, is the thing. She’s the one who got ear infections every spring, and the flu, the one who had chicken pox, the one whose appendix burst, the one who could get food poisoning just from accidentally smelling potato salad that had sat out on the picnic table ten minutes too long.
Mike was never sick a day in his life. He was into sports—all sports, every sport—and most of Annie’s memories of him feature a revolving rainbow of local league uniforms, for basketball and soccer and baseball and lacrosse. He had been trying to bulk up for football tryouts before his freshman year when they found out.
His heart, his big, strong heart, had a hole in it. He’d been damaged all along, while Annie was taking up everyone’s attention with her petty hurts, and suddenly, the bill had come due.
There were options. None of them were very good. None of them would work, in the end.
Annie’s baby brother had never been still a day in his life. From the day he learned to roll over, he was off like a shot, and he never settled down. Even in sleep he twisted and tossed, he kicked, he thrashed.
But suddenly there were hospital beds, and drugs that made his eyes go spacey, and needles, and tubes. Forget tossing and turning. After the first surgery, he lay prone for so long that when it finally came time to stand up, he couldn’t even do that on his own.
So there were endless rounds of the hospital corridors with the walker, Annie and their parents and a rotating roster of Mike’s friends all hovering behind him as he took one slow, painful step after another.
There were experimental medicines, and a second surgery to fix the consequences of the first. There were spontaneous bleeding events. There were bad reactions to medication. There were months at a time when he got to come home, and then there were long, unexpected weeks back in the ICU. There were wake-up calls for medications and blood draws every four hours, on the dot. Annie learned how to do homework in the hospital waiting room. Mom quit her job. Mike was young, he had always been healthy, he was supposed to get better. Everyone insisted that he would get better.
And he did not.
Annie stayed at the hospital through the night, sometimes, because night was usually when he was awake. He hated to sleep, anymore, hated the hospital when it was quiet and dark. He didn’t know what to do with himself, stuck inside that prison of a bed.
So Annie would stay, and they would talk. Sometimes he made sense. Sometimes the drugs made his speech airy and hard to understand. But it didn’t matter.
“I see stuff, when I close my eyes,” he said to her one night. She assumed he was talking about the drugs, and maybe he was, but what he started to tell her was a story.
She had always been the bookish one in the family. She read Pierce and Le Guin on the sidelines of Mike’s soccer games, Tolkien and Wrede at his basketball meets. She had even written a fanfic or two, though she’d never been able to get over her embarrassment and show anyone.
But Mike, who had always struggled to read, never had patience for anything denser than middle-grade sports novels, was suddenly telling her a story.
It was about a young man, a king, who went off to war and steadily lost pieces of himself in every battle. He defied his advisors and insisted that he must lead every charge and face every foe head on, but such recklessness carried with it consequences. It was also the story of a brilliant surgeon, a young woman who thought they key to immortality was hidden in her studies of the healing arts, and how she fashioned the young king into something different to what he had been, something more.
“You have to start writing this down,” Annie whispered after one night of the tale, hardly daring to breath.
Mike laughed, or tried to. “It’s just this dumb thing in my head. Helps the time pass.”
“No. It’s good. It’s better than good.”
“You don’t have to humor me.”
“I’m not. It’s…you have to start writing this down.”
When she pulled into the parking lot on Saturday morning, Annie half-expected The Orangerie to have disappeared, building and all. That was what happened with magic, wasn’t it?
But, no. Outwardly, it looked pretty much the same. The sign was slightly faded, which seemed odd, but Annie figured that it was more her mood that made everything seem slightly dull rather than any real, physical reason.
The book sat next to her on the passenger seat. Her brother’s book. Her brother’s book, with her brother’s picture in the back—a receding hairline she had never seen, the same dimpled smile she’d always known—and a dedication the front that read To A, For Making Me Write It Down.
Her brother had been dead for eighteen years—one year longer than he got to be alive—and she had a novel with a publication date only one year old sitting on her passenger seat, and she needed to know how.
The same exact teenagers were loitering in the otherwise empty parking lot, though they seemed older, somehow. Yesterday, she’d thought they were high school students, but now they seem more like they belonged in college. They might even be as old as twenty, twenty-one. They didn’t pay any attention to her as she crossed the lot, and she wondered why her brain was even bothering to make the observation. She had much bigger things to deal with than young people hanging out in parking lots.
This time she headed straight to the counter. The book hit with a thud that was louder than she anticipated, and she tried not to jump at the sound. A girl was behind the counter—brown, curvy, purple-haired. “Can I help you?”
“I need to speak to Barrow, please.”
The girl furrowed her brow. “Who?”
“Barrow. Tall, about a million piercings? I know they may not be on shift but I need to find out when they’ll be back. Please.”
“I don’t know anyone called Barrow. What kind of name is that?”
Annie nearly screamed in frustration. “I don’t know, it’s their name. Look, I was here yesterday, and Barrow picked out my free book, and I really need to speak with them about it.”
The girl suddenly straightened, remembering her script. “Oh, The Host? Sorry, you can’t return that here. We still have, like, three boxes in the back. Just be glad you didn’t come in when we had Dewey the Library Cat; I thought we’d never get rid of those.”
Annie sputtered, confused. She pushed Mike’s book across the counter, though she was suddenly reluctant to let it out of her grasp. “What? No. This book. I need to know where Barrow got this book?”
“Look, I told you, there’s no one named Barrow who works here. I couldn’t give out employee information even if there was.”
“Is there anything else I can help you find? This one is, what, steampunk? We’ve got a couple others in that genre hiding around here.”
Annie didn’t need more books. She needed to know where this book came from.
How could Barrow not exist? Annie was a rational person. She couldn’t have just made the person up. After all, she still had the book. That had to prove…something.
Frustrated, she scooped The Secret History of the Clockwork King back up and fled the store. She kicked sullenly at the cracked asphalt of the parking lot, trying to figure out where to go next. A glint of light caught her eye and she looked up, spotted the young loiterers and their old shit-heap of a car.
Annie was well aware that she was…well. Staid. Predictable. Boring. She liked routine, and she disliked impulsiveness, and what was wrong with that?
But what else was she going to do today?
She walked over to the kids, acutely aware that the sort of young who travel in packs could almost certainly smell fear. Mike had been like these kids before he got sick. Cool. Vital. Alive. Annie never had been, hiding behind her glasses and her good grades, always desperate to remain unseen. But she wasn’t a kid anymore, so what did it matter?
“Hey. Any of you know Barrow?”
A boy stretched out on the hood of the car looked her over. “Yeah, sure. Barrow’s good people.”
“Know where I can find them?”
The boy shrugged. One of the girls in the group chimed in. “Hey, is that The Clockwork King? Cool.”
“You’ve read it?”
“Like, three times. I can’t wait for the sequel.”
Annie’s head buzzed. “Sequel?”
“A Record of the Divine Service of the Royal Surgeon. About Leandra, obviously. She’s such a badass super-genius, it’s going to be lit.”
Annie’s voice cracked as she tried to hold back her desperation. “Where did you get this book? From Barrow?”
“Nah, lady,” another kid piped up. “From Amazon. You heard of it?”
“I—” Might as well lay it all out there. “My brother wrote this book. Mike. And I need to find Barrow, so I can find Mike.”
“Right,” the kid from the hood of the car said, sliding off and heading towards the driver’s seat. “Hop in.”
“Wh—just like that? You don’t think I sound crazy?”
“What’s crazy? Barrow’s, like, the best wizard I’ve ever seen. Ze can totally find your brother.”
“Hey, maybe we can get a sneak peak of A Record of the Divine Service of the Royal Surgeon. You know, as a finder’s fee or whatever.”
Annie peered dubiously into the car. There were five kids, plus her. “Um, will we all fit?” Would the car run, even if they did?
The driver, clearly the leader of the pack, rolled his eyes. “What part of the word wizard don’t you understand, lady? Come on. The quest for Barrow awaits!”
This last was apparently said ironically, but Annie was still trying to figure out why they kept talking about wizards. Was it a Harry Potter thing? When had she gotten so completely out of touch with modern slang?
She squeezed into the backseat with the group’s two girls, while one of the boys twisted like a contortionist to move into the front passenger seat and take up space on another boy’s lap. And miraculously, the cramped car did seem to expand, slightly, once everyone was settled. The driver fought with the ignition, and the car sputtered to something resembling life, and they were off.
On page eighty-three of The Secret History of the Clockwork King, the young royal tries to explain to his surgeon for the first time why he is so insistent on leading every charge. He also tells her his name. Though the character is at that point only seventeen, his name has been kept secret for so long that he sometimes forgets it himself.
The scene is poignant and revealing, as the young king unburdens himself of all of his fears and apprehensions while the surgeon neatly stiches a gash along his arm. She does not look him in the eyes—she will not be able to take such liberties for many chapters to come—but she does clutch his hand, under the guise of checking the dexterity and force of his grip, and she says “Joazayal. I will never forget it. I will hold that name sacred and safe until the end of my days. Forget again if you must, and know that I will carry it for you”.
When Mike recited that scene for her, Annie bawled. He went lipstick red—a rarity, by then, when he had so little color—and clammed up.
“You’re not supposed to cry in front of terminal patients. Don’t you know it’s bad manners?”
She threw a tissue, all she had at hand, at him. “Idiot. You’re not terminal.”
“Hey, gross, that has your snot and everything. I could get an infection!”
“Where did you learn to be so…” she trailed off, felt the weight of him watching her. “Where did you learn to make your characters so real?”
“The school of life,” he intoned solemnly, and her answering giggle set of a chain reaction where he clutched desperately at his pillow to staunch the pain of his own laughter, and she felt a pang of guilt.
Annie never told anyone, but on the third anniversary of her brother’s death, she went to a tattoo parlor. Just below her hairline, in a place that is hidden to all but the most intrusive of perusals, she had the name Joazayal inked into her skin. The artist didn’t ask what it meant, and Annie didn’t share. It was a secret, something she felt compelled to carry with her. She couldn’t see it, she couldn’t feel it, but it comforted her to know that it was there.
The kids were named Dewan and Upasana and Luna and Ryder and Jude. They kept talking over each other, or turning up the radio to wail the chorus to one abysmal, heavy-bass song after another. Upasana, the Clockwork King superfan, peppered Annie with questions about Mike, but they were predicated on the assumption that Mike was alive, and Annie didn’t know how to answer them.
She clutched the book to her chest and watched the miles roll by.
Barrow was a difficult wizard to find. They stopped at a record store, a coffee shop, a post office, each time the car sputtering to a halt so vociferously that Annie doubted it would start up again, each time a different kid getting out of the car without bothering to consult with the others. Annie didn’t question the process. They would find Barrow, or they wouldn’t. It was a quest. There were steps one had to follow.
It was dusk by the time they pulled up to an apartment complex. All the kids tumbled out of the car this time, Dewan poking his head back inside when he realized Annie hadn’t followed. “Number 201. Upstairs. Ze doesn’t like surprises, so I’d stand back from the door after you knock.”
“Aren’t you coming?”
“After. The supplicant must face the trial alone.” He put a soft hand to the space between her shoulder blades, gently pushed. “Go on, lady. You’ll be fine.”
“My name’s Annie.”
“Stop stalling, Lady Annie.”
So she squared her shoulders, and she climbed the stairs. The book was still pressed against her heart.
She knocked twice on the door to 201, then self-consciously hopped a few feet back. It took a few minutes, long enough that she considered knocking again, but suddenly Barrow was there, filling up the open doorway.
“Oh. It’s you.”
“Hi. I’m sorry to bother you, but—”
“I expected you. People don’t always come, but when I saw you back then, I thought, she’ll be around.” Ze stepped back. “Welcome.”
Hesitantly, Annie crossed the threshold. She’d half-made herself imagine a shadowy lair of bubbling crucibles and dripping candles. It was just a regular old apartment with cheap beige carpet and low popcorn ceilings. There was a poster for Star Wars hung crookedly on the far wall.
“Listen, the book you gave me yesterday—”
“Was it only yesterday, for you? You moved faster than I expected, Annie Martin.”
Annie blinked. Had she shown Barrow her driver’s license at some point? Or was this all some terrible, overcomplicated ruse to get her alone here, in this place?
“How did you—”
Barrow gently took the book from her. “The Secret History of The Clockwork King. Pretty much your standard pseudo-medieval fantasy riff, but the guy shows promise. Great character work. Decent prose.”
They took Mike’s ashes to the beach, after. The place where they had spent all of their summers before his illness, where they had run around getting sunburned while their parents drank margaritas in the shade. Annie had lost one of her baby teeth on that beach, and when she cried about having nothing to give the tooth fairy, Mike offered to pull out one of his own. Mom figured out what they were up to before any damage was done, and just gave Annie the dollar that would otherwise have appeared that night under her pillow, but Annie never forgot what Mike had almost done for her.
It was a bright day when they scattered him over the water. Annie never went back to the beach, though her parents still made their annual pilgrimage, all these years on.
“I’ll let you in on a secret,” Barrow said, conspiratorially. “Here, in this place, Mike Martin is a high school gym teacher. He’s got pretty bad insomnia, so he started to write at night. Bright future. Couple industry awards down the road, maybe even a TV adaptation. And, yeah, some things are easier for him cause he’s a cis white guy, but when you get down to it, the stories are pretty good all on their own.”
Annie blinked back unexpected tears. “This isn’t real. How is this real?”
Barrow smiled, and it transformed zir entire face. “The thing about books.” Ze waggled The Clockwork King in emphasis. “The thing about books is they’re keys. They’re always keys, but most of the time people don’t know how to use them. Or the people who could use them don’t have them in the first place. You, though. I thought you might figure it out.”
The implications of this spun out, too fast for Annie to catch. All she could ask was, “And if I hadn’t?”
Barrow shrugged. “Well, then you’d have an artifact from another world and a strange story to tell your friends. No harm, anyway.”
“Mike is alive.”
“Let’s go find out where he is.”
“You have a spell that can find people’s addresses?”
“It’s called Google. Pretty sure you have it where you’re from, too.”
Great. She’d slipped into another world, and everyone was a comedian.
“Wait, am I here?” she asked, suddenly apprehensive. “I mean, another me?” What might that look like? Who would Annie Martin be, in a world where her brother hadn’t died?
“It doesn’t work that way. You can’t open the door if there’s a version of you on the other side of it.”
“So, I’m—” Dead. When? How?
Barrow held out zir hand. “What you are is a traveler, with a ways yet to go. Come on. I’ll warn you right now, he’s not the same person who left you, and you won’t be the same person who left him. But I don’t think it will matter, much. You’re family, after all.”
Annie took Barrow’s hand, and followed.
“The Secret History of the Clockwork King” (© Heather Morris) was published in Issue 10 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.