The Bookseller

The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson


For my parents, Dennis and Audrey Fisher, with love and gratitude.


Trust your happiness and the richness of your life at this moment. It is as true and as much yours as anything else that ever happened to you.

—Katherine Anne Porter, Letters of Katherine Anne Porter

Chapter 1

This is not my bedroom.

Where am I? Gasping and pulling unfamiliar bedcovers up to my chin, I strain to collect my senses. But no explanation for my whereabouts comes to mind.

The last thing I remember, it was Wednesday evening and I was painting my bedroom a bright, saturated yellow. Frieda, who had offered to help, was appraising my color choice. “Too much sunniness for a bedroom,” she pronounced, in that Miss Know-It-All tone of hers. “How will you ever sleep in on gloomy days with a room like this?”

I dipped my brush into the paint can, carefully wiped off the excess, and climbed the stepladder. “That’s entirely the point,” I told Frieda. Leaning over, I began cutting along a tall, narrow window frame.

Oughtn’t I to remember what happened next? Oddly, I do not. I cannot recall spending the evening painting, then standing back to admire our work before we cleaned up. I have no memory of thanking Frieda for her help and bidding her good-bye. I don’t remember going to sleep in the sun-colored room, the sharp smell of fresh paint filling my nostrils. But I must have done those things, because here I lie. And given that here is not my home, evidently I am still asleep.

Nonetheless, this is not my typical sort of dream. My nighttime forays tend toward the fantastical, toward dreams that place one outside of conventional time and space. This, I have concluded, is because I read so much. Have you read Something Wicked This Way Comes? It just hit the stands this past June, but is anticipated to be one of the best-selling books of 1962. Ray Bradbury is splendidly readable; I press the novel on everyone who steps into Frieda’s and my bookstore looking for something “really gripping.”

“It will haunt your dreams,” I assure such customers. A self-fulfilling prophecy: the night before last, I dreamed I was stumbling behind Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, the two young protagonists of Bradbury’s book, as they were enticed by the middle-of-the-night arrival of the carnival in Green Town. I was trying to persuade them to proceed with caution—but they, being thirteen-year-old boys, simply ignored me. I remember how difficult it was to keep up with them, how I could not get my feet to operate correctly. Will and Jim moved farther away in the shadows, their shapes turning into dark dots and then finally to nothing, and all I could do was blubber in frustration.

So you see, I am not the type of woman who dreams about something as straightforward as waking up in another person’s bedroom.

This dream bedroom is quite a bit larger and swankier than my actual bedroom. The walls are sage green, nothing like the deep yellow I chose for home. The furniture is a matched set, sleek and modern. The bedspread is neatly folded at the foot of the bed; soft, coordinating linens encase my body. It’s delightful, in a too-put-together sort of way.

I slide under the covers and shut my eyes. Surely, if I keep my eyes closed, soon I will find myself hunting whales in the South Pacific, dressed rather grubbily and swilling whiskey with the mateys on my ship. Or I’ll be flying high over Las Vegas, the wind blowing my hair back against my face, my arms transformed into enormous wings.

But nothing of the sort happens. Instead, I hear a man’s voice. “Wake up. Katharyn, love, wake up.”

I open my eyes and look into the deepest, bluest eyes I have ever seen.

And then I close my own again.

I feel a hand on my shoulder, which is nude, save for the thin strap of my satin nightgown. It’s been a good long while since any man has touched me intimately. But some feelings are unmistakable, no matter how infrequently one experiences them.

I know I should be terrified. That would be the appropriate response, would it not? Even if one is asleep, one should be horrified to sense an unfamiliar man’s hand placed on one’s bare flesh.

Yet, curiously, I find this imaginary fellow’s touch utterly enjoyable. The clasp is gentle but firm, the fingers curled around my upper arm, the thumb gently caressing my skin. I keep my eyes closed, enjoying the sensation.

“Katharyn. Please, love. I’m sorry to wake you, but Missy’s forehead feels warm . . . she wants you. Please, you need to get up.”

Eyes shut, I consider this information. I wonder who Missy is, and why her warm forehead should be any concern of mine.

In that rambling way in which events occur in dreams, my thoughts are replaced with the lyrics to a song that was popular on the radio a few years ago. I can hear the melody, though I’m sure I don’t have the words right—Rosemary Clooney sang the tune, and it was something about having stars in one’s eyes. Something about not letting love turn one into a fool. The idea makes me smile; clearly, I am being about as foolish here as one could possibly be.

I open my eyes and sit up in bed, instantly remorseful that this position shift causes the blue-eyed man to remove his warm hand from my shoulder.

“Who are you?” I ask him. “Where am I?”

He returns my quizzical look. “Katharyn, are you okay?”

For the record, my name is not Katharyn. It’s Kitty.

All right—it really is Katharyn. But I’ve never cared for my given name. It’s always felt too formal. Kath-a-ryn doesn’t roll off the tongue, the way Kitty does. And since my parents bestowed on me an unusual spelling of an otherwise ordinary name, I find it tiresome having to clarify whenever I am asked to spell it.

“I think I’m okay,” I tell Blue Eyes. “But really, I have no idea who you are or where I am. I’m sorry.”

He smiles, and those handsome peepers twinkle. Other than the eyes, he is fairly ordinary-looking. Medium height, medium build, a slight love handle around the middle. Thinning russet hair that is starting to go a bit gray. I’d put his age at around forty, a few years older than me. I inhale, noticing a woodsy, soapy scent about him, as if he recently finished shaving and showering. He smells delectable, and I feel my heart skip a beat. Good heavens, could this dream get any more absurd?

“You must have been in some deep sleep, love,” he says. “You know who I am. I’m your husband. You’re in our bedroom, at our house.” He sweeps his arm around the room, as if to prove his case. “And right now, our daughter—whose name is Missy, by the way, in case you’ve forgotten—is likely running a fever, and she needs her mother.”

He holds out a hand to me. As if on instinct, I slip mine into his.

“Okay?” he begs. “Please, Katharyn.”

I furrow my brow. “I’m sorry, you said you are . . .”

He sighs. “Your husband, Katharyn. I’m your husband, Lars.”

Lars? What a peculiar name. I cannot think of a single person I’ve ever met called Lars. I half smile, thinking about my oh-so-imaginative brain. It couldn’t just invoke a Harry or an Ed or a Bill. No, ma’am, my mind has fabricated a husband named Lars.

“All right,” I say. “Just give me a moment.”

He squeezes my hand and releases it, then leans over to kiss my cheek. “I’ll take her temp while we’re waiting for you.” He rises and leaves the room.

Once again, I close my eyes. Now the dream will shift, surely.

But when I open my eyes, I’m still there. Still in the green bedroom.

I see no alternative, so I get up and cross the room. With its clerestory windows above the bed, its sliding glass door that looks as though it leads to some sort of patio, and its large, adjacent bathroom, I deduce that this room, were it real, would be part of a rather modern residence. More modern—and presumably bigger—than the one-bedroom, 1920s-era duplex that I rent in the Platt Park neighborhood of Denver.

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