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I had made a mistake.
As I lay here in bed, staring down at it, I can only think that I should have known something of such impossibility would bring me to this. But when I made the discovery little over a week ago, I was far too excited to think in such rational terms. I had been foolish, addicted. I see that now. By all appearances, ‘it’ was a book. The kind you would see sitting on a desk by a box of cigars in a gentleman’s study. Red leather hardback, weighty, ambiguous. But as I soon discovered, it was a tool for the perverted kind of things nature would not allow.
I should take a step back and explain. When I first read the book – a fine story of a young amnesiac trying to find his way in the world, I loaned it to my new neighbour, Bess Waters. Bess was a pretty thing, a confident woman in her late thirties. A mathematics professor at the local University. I’ll admit to a slight crush – but nothing untoward. I had found her intimidating when she first moved in three months ago. After all, she was a lofty professor, and I was a mere semi-retired librarian. Over time, though, she seemed to warm to me and we soon became friends.
I had offered her the book to read. She took it gladly, promising to read it that week. Three days later when she returned it, she gave me a knowing wink and a devilish smile that seemed out of context for our friendship. I couldn’t quite grasp what this meant and, confused, I read the book for a second time. The moment my eyes fell upon the first sentence, the first word, my flesh bristled at the potential of what lay in my hands.
The story of the young amnesiac was gone. Instead, in those very same pages unfolded a story, told in frank and alarming detail, of a woman who was obsessed with her older, lonely neighbour. She fantasised about him when her house was dark and quiet. She struggled to sleep, ruminating on what could be between them. He was the last thing on her mind before she finally succumbed to sleep, and the first when she awoke. She was a thirty seven year old mathematics professor. He was a semi-retired librarian. Her name was Bess. His name was – well, you get the gist of it.
This book – and I hesitate to even call it that – was a sordid gateway to the mind of the person who read it before you. An ever changing account of their private thoughts, memories, secrets and urges. As you can calculate, this meant that when I gave the book to Bess, she had read an account of my thoughts and desires. This would have, no doubt, loosely translated into a story of a sad, lonely man in his late forties with a slight crush on his neighbour – on her. She wasn’t stupid. She had understood the true nature of the book. She knew that when she returned it, the book would expose her infatuation with me. And yet she had no qualms about this. I should have known this was a sign of what she was capable of. But at the time, I wasn’t alarmed, and I never anticipated what would happen.
I just dived head first into the depravity of it all and enjoyed it.
Really enjoyed it.
I read quickly, devouring the details of her fixation with me. Once finished, I loaned her the book again, hoping to learn more when it returned. I was too shy to do this in person, so I posted it through her letterbox. There was no need for a note – my intentions would be revealed in the book once she read it. She returned it the same way just a day later. The heavy clunk on my doormat as she eased it through the letterbox was the most thrilling sound I had ever heard.
That second read was mind blowing. Our communication through the book had ignited her infatuation, and now her head was filled with me, and only me. There was no room for anything else. She struggled at work, creating a series of bold fictions about the two of us in an attempt to make time away from me worthwhile. Her bedroom was next to mine, and in the evenings she pressed herself against the wall, listening for me as I retired to bed. She had powdered cement under her fingernails from where she had scratched away at the wall in a despairing attempt to get closer.
Reading of her growing infatuation in such intimate detail was like being inside both her mind and body. I felt everything she felt. Every raw emotion. Every physical sensation. Every desperate thought. I felt the aching zeal with which she wanted me, and it only made me want her in the same way. It’s sick, I know. Looking back now, I see just how sick and wrong it was to be ‘in’ someone else like that. But at the time, it was intoxicating and I just couldn’t see sense.
After that second read, I still hadn’t cottoned on to the depths I was sinking to. I just posted the book through her letterbox again, greedy for more. I don’t think I should be judged for that. After all, how often is one the focus of such intense affections, and affections by someone as beautiful as Bess Waters? Not very often, I can tell you. I speak from personal experience. Therefore I think it quite rational that I returned the book hoping for more. I was, in a sense, making up for years of romantic failure. So when she returned the book the following evening, again through the letter box, I abandoned any thought of sleep to gorge on the newly formed text.
As I slipped into her mind once again I learned how she had obtained items of my clothing from the washing line outside, spending hours inhaling the smell of my skin on their cotton. There had been fits of feverish anguish at the thought of being so far away, and she was following me, watching me, intent on closing the distance. The boundaries of her fantasies had blurred and she now believed there was something real and inevitable between us. She was impatient for our union, determined it would happen soon. Any alternative was unthinkable.
I finished reading in the early hours. Unlike the previous reads, I felt no excitement. This time it was different. She felt different – or at least, her mind did. There was a dark, final tone to her thoughts, as if she had finally achieved what she most desired. Knowing this to be me, I felt a creeping unease as I ruminated on what this actually meant.
Heavy eyed, I returned to bed and placed the book on my side table. I slept fitfully, dreaming of Bess, only she wasn’t there. I simply sensed her within a suffocating darkness, but I wasn’t sure whose darkness it was – mine or hers.
It is now the following morning, and the sun is seeping through my curtains. I found the light confusing, and I lifted my head to check the clock on my side table. It was just after 8.30am. Why hadn’t my alarm gone off? It took me a moment to register the heavy weight on my chest, and the space on the table where the book should have been. A quiet alarm crept through me as I looked down at it. The book rested across my chest, split in half, each side of the red cover sprawled over my body like angel wings.
“Bess?” I waited for an answer, but there was silence.
I lifted the book instead and saw new text on the cream pages.
My love, I’ve never been so happy. What we share is unlike anything that anyone else will ever have. Your mind belongs to me, and mine to you. How wonderful that the book has brought us together. But it’s not enough, is it? Now that we share a mind, shouldn’t we share everything else?
We were together. We shared a mind. We were to share everything.
“Shit… Bess, where are you?”
Another heavy silence, followed by the distant sound of vinyl hissing on the turntable downstairs in the living room. It sputtered for a second, before a soft melody began to drift through the house.
Throwing the book to the floor, I leapt out of bed and ran downstairs.
“Bess,” I called out. “How did you get in my house?”
I pushed open the living room door, watching for a moment as the record wobbled on the turntable. Everything else was calm, too calm. As I looked around the empty room, confused, I realised I was looking in the wrong direction. Behind me, a heavy presence swelled in the doorway.
“Bess,” I said, forcing myself to turn around. “I know you think we belong together, but you can’t just come into my house like this – ”
I stopped. The book lay on the floor by my feet, open in the middle. A single line of inky black text waited to be read.
“Shit,” I mumbled. “I mean, yes. Yes, our house. Can you please come out? We need to talk about this.” Gritting my teeth, I stepped over the book, debating whether to turn right into the kitchen, or left to return to the stairway. If I remained downstairs I could run outside if needed. I crept forward into the kitchen, pushing forward despite the weakness in my legs, but the sound of pages fluttering behind stopped me cold. I looked over my shoulder at the book, which now lay in the kitchen doorway. It seemed to wink and smile, just like her. I snatched it from the floor, letting it fall open in my shaking hands. Another single line of text, small and petulant in the middle of the page.
Don’t you want me?
“Of course I do,” I said, desperate. “You know I do. I just want you to come out and face me.” I tucked the book under my arm and ran to the back door on the other side of the kitchen. I reached for the hook where I kept the keys, but the hook was empty.
I tried the door. Locked.
“Bess, come on now.” The book fell from my arm as I tried the door again, tugging hard on the handle. “Let’s talk. In person.”
There was no reply, except for book on the floor. It had fallen face down, and I knew there was more to come in those pages. I picked it up and continued reading.
I don’t want to talk, my love. I just want you. I just want you and I to be together. I need you. I need you to be mine. I need you to make this heart ache go away. Please, my love, take it away. Please don’t leave me with the burden of being without you. We’re so close. We’re almost there. Just a little bit closer and we can be together forever.
Oh god. This was – this was beyond me. What was I supposed to do? I tried to think, to slow my thoughts, but the world around me was fast becoming a suffocating haze of devilish smiles, winks and locked doors. The pounding of my heart was now so hard it resonated down my arms and fingers, making the book tremble in rhythmic little stops and starts.
“Bess,” I said, barely managing a whisper. “Please, where are you?”
In the living room, the turntable sputtered to a stop, leaving the air thick with silence again. I could hear fumbling with records, and shifting feet on the carpet. I forced my legs to move forward, clutching the book, bringing myself closer. It was an aching walk, but I made it. The living room door remained open, a tantalising invitation to join her, and on the other side, a shadow slipped across the carpet.
Taking a deep, shaking breath, I set the book on the floor and nudged it forward with my foot.
“Bess, of course we can be together. There’s nothing I want more. But… can’t we just talk? Please, Bess. Just come out.”
From the other side of the door, two dainty hands reached out for the book, snatching it from the floor and away from sight. I held my breath, waiting, anxious. Was she reading? Was it a trap? Why was it taking so long? Finally, I heard the book sliding across the carpet behind the door, and moments later it appeared, pushed by a single pale finger.
As I reached for the book, I had visions of her tiny hand springing out from behind the door, snatching mine and dragging me down into some violent ending. She didn’t though, and as I retrieved the book, I stared at the door beside me, feeling her impatient presence on the other side. Nervous, I fumbled with the pages until I found the new text.
I don’t understand. I saw your mind so clearly as if it were my own. You were so close to loving me. We were so close. I can’t take this, my love. It’s too much. Please, just tell me you love me. That’s all I need to hear.
I set the book on the floor, too afraid to proceed. Perhaps I should give in. Give myself over to her and burn the book so she would never know that I was choosing her out of fear. I wanted to contemplate that possibility just a little longer, but I found myself pushing the book forward again, as if I no longer held any control over my body. With my thoughts now imbued on those pages, I became paralysed with fear at the thought of what would happen next.
Once again, her delicate hand reach out for the book, and I could hear her shaky breathing on the other side of the door. A hesitant silence, and then a short, pained whimper, like a kitten falling under the wheel of a car. I heard the book snap shut, and just as before, her pale finger pushed it forward.
This is it, I thought. I stepped forward out of the door’s shadow and picked up the book, prising apart the pages. For a dizzying moment, I became mesmerised by it. The sound of the door sliding shut behind me didn’t even register until I heard the firm click of the lock.
You have chosen to reject me. How silly. There is no ‘choosing’. Do you think I chose to fall in love with you? No, I did not. You infected me and now I’m powerless. So if I don’t get to choose, then neither do you. The love I have is a screaming in my head that will continue until I have made you mine. I wish you could feel the same way I do. I wish you could feel the desperation I feel. It would make this so much easier. But, my love, there is no going back now. Not for me, and not for you. I’d rather die than live without you. And whether it is in life or in death, we will be together.
Turn around, my love.
G Francis lives in the UK and works in social science research, a job she loves for its never ending variety. She divides her spare time between friends, family and all manner of creative pursuits, including writing fiction. She has a mild addiction to reading and loves any tale with a dark twist at the end.