The following is an excerpt from my novel The Famulus. It introduces Aberdeen, the main character, as she discusses books with her coworker, Sebastian.
Aberdeen Scotland had missed her appointed “Orientation to Life” session or been placed in the wrong metaphysical homeroom in that strange wonderland where all the young souls hung out before birth. Whatever it was, she was sure everyone else had been born with some kind of innate sense that instructed them how to make friends and convince others they were someone good to dance with or hire for a job or buy a drink for and basically just how to get along in life. She was lacking in something, although she didn’t know what.
It was a rainy Thursday afternoon in October, and she was working at the Buy Back counter of Reads & Rereads, a used-book store in Kilkenny, Indiana. Despite the self-pitying nature of her thoughts, she was having a good day. A customer had just brought in four large boxes of books to sell back, and it would take no stalling on her part to make the processing of the new inventory last until it was time to leave for the day. Pricing and organizing the books was Aberdeen’s favorite task at her job. She liked giving each book individual attention, like they were stray pets taken in and she was giving them the only love and care they might receive for days or weeks at a time.
“I’d like to just toss the whole lot,” said Sebastian, her shift manager and one of her favorite coworkers. A long-haired graduate student, Sebastian had developed a following online due to a series of scathing yet hilarious book reviews he wrote. He not only read more than Aberdeen had time for, but he was the only person in her circle of acquaintances, small as it was, who shared her hobby of writing fiction.
“How can you say something like that?” She exaggerated her outrage by hugging a book to her chest but put it down again when she smelled the combination of stale cigarette smoke and basement mustiness.
“I don’t have time for trash,” Sebastian said. “If something’s not relevant or important, I’m not going to read it.”
He had a long face that always made Aberdeen feel like she was talking to a horse that had been anthropomorphized into a human. Even his hair, longer and fuller than hers, reminded her of a wild mane, which he never subjected to a hair tie or even the confinement of being tucked behind his ears.
“That’s personal preference. There could still be a handful of people, or even just one person, to whom that book could make a difference.”
He squinted one eye at her, giving her a look she had come to know too well from him. His expression implied she should have been smarter than what she was presenting. It had taken months, but she’d finally learned not to take him too seriously.
That look was the reason she would never ask him for a critique of her writing. She knew it wasn’t up to his standards. His characters were all dark, tortured, and psychologically unstable and didn’t do much besides get drunk and sleep with each other, while hers learned powers of teleportation, stole artwork, and went on the kind of cringe-worthy first dates she was sure she would have, although they could laugh about their shortcomings and fall in love despite doing everything wrong.
He held up one of the books. “If a story about a cardboard, alpha male, super spy rescuing what looks like a beauty pageant winner—if this cover illustration is to be believed—is going to ‘make a difference’ to someone,”—he made air quotes with his free hand—“then I’m willing to bet there’s another book out there that will do the same job.”
“So, you support the practice of books going out of print?”
“Of course. If libraries didn’t occasionally weed out their collections, they would run out of shelf space. And information becomes outdated and inaccurate, so who’s to say the same thing can’t happen with fiction, so it’s no longer relevant to anyone in the modern world? Besides, even as it is, there’s no shortage of books to be read.”
“You would just wipe out the life’s work of some poor author.” She tried to pour all her disdain into her tone, but she couldn’t be sure he would pick up on her disapproval. Or that he would care.
“It’s nothing personal. But not every book can be a classic. Far fewer deserve it than those people give the name to these days. You have to decide what kind of mark you want to make on the world.”
“But who decides what’s a classic and what isn’t?”
“There are medical doctors to tell you what’s healthy to eat, and there are liberal arts doctors, PhDs, to tell you what’s healthy to read. And it’s not always what’s best-selling, either. So much of what’s popular these days is classless and all-around bad writing.”
“There’s got to be a better way. That sounds unfair.”
“Unfair to whom? Do you realize there are books in this store that have been here longer than I’ve worked here? No one wants them.”
“Maybe they just haven’t found their audience.”
She thought of the last book for which she had rushed through dinner to get back to reading—an installment in a cozy mystery series set in Scotland. Despite her geographical name, Aberdeen had never been even close to Scotland and knew hardly anything about it other than what she’d picked up in books or on TV. That series, self-published by a Scottish author who wrote about settings familiar to her and created quirky characters who lightened the page with their friendly banter and their love for investigating murders, had served the purpose of combatting loneliness by inviting Aberdeen into a world as real as only a book could make it.
She doubted there was even one thing about the series to meet Sebastian’s standards.
“It’s like people,” she continued, her argument fueled by his obstinacy. “It’s just so hard to meet people who relate to the same things I do or are interested in the same things I am.”
“Like what?” he asked. “What are you interested in that no one else is?”
“Me.” She’d been fishing for laughter, which he gave her, but she meant what she said. “Sometimes books are all I have. I’m serious. I can’t figure people out, and that puts so much pressure on me to be around anyone. I never know what I can say to keep them from mentally tuning out because they don’t connect with me. When I read, it’s like someone saying to me, ‘Hey, I think those things, too.’ And when I write, it’s almost like someone’s listening to me, even if no one ever reads it. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
“You just want someone to listen to you? What do you think I’m doing now?”
She refused to smile at his joke. “But if you think about it, you’re being paid for your time right now.”
“But not by you.”
“Doesn’t matter. You can’t honestly tell me you think we would hang out if we didn’t work together. If we were really friends, we would have already made plans to go out for drinks sometime.”
She regretted saying that, not because she was worried she would offend him, but because she didn’t want him to challenge her and make the suggestion she said he never made. As much as she liked talking to Sebastian at work, having to sustain a conversation with him over an hour without customers or other work-related tasks to distract them would be too stressful.
Maybe that was why she didn’t have many friends.