Full Summary: After receiving an invitation to write the biography of the severely reclusive author Ethan Church, Bella develops a reluctant obsession with his novels and by extension him. When she accepts his offer, the old, dying man she's presented with and the young, too perfect man she comes across on the nearly empty estate have her convinced she's missing some very important parts of the story.
A/N: Beta'd by Miss Poison (Twilighted) and Feisty Y. Beden (FFn).
Part of this story (going to meet a reclusive author to write their biography) was inspired by The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield.
Disclaimer: I don't own anything Twilight or The Thirteenth Tale. No copyright infringement is intended.
I've never understood people's fear of death. It's something to be avoided, certainly, but it's hardly going to hurt. Death is normal, natural, and inevitable. So you wouldn't be alive anymore, it's not like you're going to care; you'll be dead.
It's not death that should be feared, it's dying. Dying is pain, and waiting. The amounts vary each time, but there's really no such thing as a good combination, unless you don't have either. I've seen people dying, a friend of mine, back when I was too young to understand what death really means, and later both of my long since widowed grandmothers.
I don't mind reading about death, but I don't like reading about dying. That's why I turned down the chance to translate his books when the publishing firm I work for released a new set of editions two years ago.
For me to properly translate a book I have to really read it, understand it completely. I have to be able to carry over all the nuances buried in the words. I've never read an Ethan Church novel, and I don't plan to.
All of his characters are dying; emotionally, mentally, and on a few occasions physically. The books are about life, but it's a bloody, brutal, grim version of life that slowly slips away, as the characters lose themselves. Nobody ever gets what they want, unless it's some twisted farce of what they desired. Everybody's got a monster inside them, and nobody can keep it under control forever.
As I said, I've never read any of his work, but everybody else has. He should ask one of them.
I glance down at the letter that's laying flat on my kitchen table, skimming over the words written in dark flowing ink that I've already read through a dozen times, at least.
Dear Miss Isabella Swan,
Given that you work for the company that publishes my books, I'm going to assume you're familiar, at least to an extent, with my name. So, I'll skip my self-introduction, and move on to the matter at hand.
I have developed an interest in telling the story people seem the most eager to hear, that of my own life. To this end, I wish to commission you to write my biography.
I'll have to ask that you come to stay at my home, so that I can tell you my story in person. You will, of course, be compensated for your time and energy, but that can be discussed later.
As you may be aware, I'm not exactly known for being forthcoming with personal information. I understand that may cause you to question the validity of what I tell you, but I give you my word, my promise, that everything I say will be the truth. I intend to tell you my real story, for as long as you're willing to listen.
In many ways I'm still just as surprised by it now as I was the first time I read it. I can't think of a single reason why he would ask me, or why he would even be aware of me.
Whatever his reasoning, I'm not at all qualified. Aside from my complete lack of experience with his novels, I'm not a biographer, or a writer, or even a journalist. I'm a translator. I don't create. I take other people's stories, break them apart word by word, and reassemble them in another language. Unless he intends to dictate his biography to me, and have me put it into French, or Italian, I can't see a reason for me to become involved. A part of me wants to be, though. It's a very small, clearly irrational part, but it's big enough for me to feel that it wants to, almost desperately.
I mentally push that part aside, as I dig out some stationery for a reply.
Dear Mr Ethan Church,
I can't help, but think a misunderstanding has taken place. I'm not an author, nor am I in any other profession that makes me qualified to write your biography. I would be more than happy to give you the names of some people who would love to help you. Given your popularity, I doubt it will be difficult for you to find someone who is interested, as well as qualified. I wish you the best of luck with your endeavour.
I leave it in an addressed envelope on the little table by the door, ready to be mailed out with my bill payments on my way to work tomorrow morning. After that, I do my best to put the entire matter out of my mind.
The smell hits me as soon as I push open the door; musty old books in a musty old shop. I love this smell. I love this store. Every Saturday morning I walk here to browse the seemingly endless shelves. Romances, mysteries, biographies, nature guides complete with old prints of flowers, bugs, and animals. It all appeals to me in some way, enough to aimlessly leaf through the pages anyway.
Henry, the elderly owner of the shop, looks up when the bell over the door rings, and gives me a friendly smile.
"Good morning, Bella."
"Morning." I smile, before making my way towards the far aisle.
I'm focusing on the feeling of my fingers gliding over the uneven row of book spines, paying little attention to the titles my eyes pass over, when I suddenly stop moving without any conscious thought of doing so. My fingers have stopped on a dark blue spine with raised silver writing that reads Fading Moon, and then in smaller, but identical print below that, it says Ethan Church. My fingers twitch against the binding, fighting the urge to pull it from the shelf.
That irrational urge I had to accept his offer flares to life again in my chest, but this time it wants to look at this book, his book. It practically vibrates with the need to look at the words printed across its pages.
"Couldn't hurt to look," I murmur to myself, trying to dismiss the growing feeling in my chest as I pull it off the shelf. It's just a book.
But it's not just a book. It reaches inside me with the first sentence, leaving something large and heavy in my chest that presses against my lungs, making my heart feel tight. I don't like this. I want to shut the creased paper cover on this feeling, on these words. I want to make it stop, but this thing in my chest is pulsing and twisting, very much alive. I can't stop. I can't even think of stopping, because a part of me is in the book, just like a part of the book is in me.
I read the entire thing sitting on the dingy carpet of the book shop aisle. The edges of the books and shelves dig into my back, but I barely notice. When I finish, I stare dumbly at the last page, while this thing in my chest loses substance. It no longer has a form; it swirls fluidly in my rib-cage. It lessens, disperses through my body, but it doesn't completely go away. There's a bit of a hum that remains.
I flip through the last few incidental pages and shut the back cover. There's no picture, no brief summary about the life of the person who's done this to me. Ethan Church is only faceless words, but he doesn't have to be.
My mind brings up the image of his letter, with its sharp measured handwriting, asking me to meet him and hear his story. I shake my head to dispel the image and stiffly stand. I have no business playing biographer.
My eyes move to the gap on the shelf where the book in my hand belongs. My hand goes back up to the shelf, and before I can even think about it, I'm pulling out more books. I end up with five, all with Ethan Church written on the spines. I grab my bag and start off for the front of the store before I can think too much about this.
I plunk them down on the counter, and freeze when I glance out the window. The street lights have come on, casting circles of yellow light on the dark street.
"I thought I was going to have to go looking for you," Henry laughs, pulling the books across the counter towards him.
"Sorry," I mumble, although I doubt it's audible.
"Fan of Ethan Church, huh?"
"No." I think I hate him. Nobody should be able to reach deep inside someone like that without giving something of themselves in return.
"Are you alright, Bella?"
"I don't know." It's terrifyingly true. I don't know how I feel. I don't know what I'm doing. I don't know what just happened. I feel like I'm losing control of myself.
My stomach growls and I realize I'm starving and my throat is scratchy and dry.
"I'm about to close up for the night. Why don't you come over to Betty's with me?" he asks with concern. I nod. He hands me my change, grabs his coat off the rack, and I follow him out. We make a beeline for the diner across the street. After I order, I don't say another word all night.
I wake up dazed. I'm mildly nauseous from oversleeping, and the light pouring through my bedroom window is falling right in my eyes. It's 2:04 pm. I couldn't fall asleep last night. The stack of books on my kitchen table was practically begging me to read them. There are red crescent indentations on my palms from holding my hands in tight fists to prevent myself from getting up.
I shouldn't have bought those books. I should have left them in the store, at the diner, on the street, anywhere, but here. Now I want to read them. No, now I need to read them. I feel like I'm going insane, like my mind isn't my own. Books can't do this to you. It's ridiculous. Maybe I'm working too much. Maybe I'm not sleeping enough. Maybe I need a vacation.
I curl onto my side, facing away from the window, and pull my bedding tighter around me. If I stay here, I can't read them, but I can't stay here forever. That doesn't mean I can't try though. I drift into a deep, dreamless sleep within minutes.
At some point the nausea must have morphed into hunger, because I wake up starving, thirsty, and I really need to pee. I have to get up.
Throwing back the covers, I glare at the clock. It's 6:23 pm. What the hell is wrong with me?
I enter the kitchen, fighting against myself not to look at the table, at the books. I'll make myself some lunch, eat on the balcony, do the small pile of dishes that have built up next to the sink, and then call my mother.
I put on the kettle and get out the stuff to make a sandwich, but one look out the window tells me the balcony is out. It's pouring rain... in Phoenix. It's a bizarre day all around, I guess.
So, I'll sit in the living room, no big deal. I'm leaning against the counter, waiting for the kettle to boil, and the toaster to pop, but my mind is otherwise occupied.
You know that feeling you get, the sense that somebody's watching you? The back of your neck tingles and you can almost feel their gaze pressing into your back. That's what I'm feeling, except it's coming from the books. It's like they're watching me, silently waiting for something we both know is inevitable. Fantastic, I'm being stalked by books. I really am losing my mind.
I should go out somewhere, get away from here for a while, but I can't for the life of me think of a place to go.
There's a dull pinkish light creeping across the white walls of my living room. Sunrise. I flip through the last few incidental pages and shut the back cover. This one doesn't have a picture or biography either. I look around the room, trying to get my bearings. It's Monday, I'm sure of it. I have to work today.
I sigh as I collect my plate with the half-eaten sandwich, and my cold cup of tea, and take them into the kitchen.
"I'll have to call in sick," I say accusingly, glaring at the stack of books. I need sleep, and food, and very possibly professional help. I put the book in my hand in a new pile, with the one I read in the book shop. I've read two of five, and the second had the same effect on me as the first, but it didn't fade the same way at the end. There's a slight tingling, an almost physical presence in my chest. This time it left a little more of that living energy behind.
Is this feeling going to get stronger every time? I have three more here, but how many are out there in total? Dozens, I think. How much stronger can this feeling get? Would it go away if I met him? I shake my head. I have no business writing; that's not what I do.
I eat the rest of my sandwich, and make a quick call into work, before crawling back into bed. I need a shower, but at the moment I really don't care.
Despite this thing swirling around in my chest, I fall asleep quickly. Clearly, going crazy is exhausting.
I don't even try to fight it when I wake up sometime around four in the afternoon, although I do eat before I start the third book.
The fourth one is done by noon on Tuesday. I told work I have the flu, but this is so much worse. I sleep too much, eat too little, and I can't seem to concentrate on anything, but those damn books. They pull me in, make me read them, and then leave me feeling... haunted. Whatever this thing in my chest is, it's gotten stronger, more present with each book.
I take a hot bath, and it's like torture, trying to force myself to lie there and not think about those books and the faceless man who creates them. I'm extremely unsuccessful.
Does he write them out by hand in that clear, flowing writing of his? Black ink words on thick, pure white paper.
I close my eyes and sink lower into the water, trying to make a list of the things I have to do over the week. I can see the list in my head, but it's all written in his cursive. Suddenly the image shifts into the first page of the first book of his I read, written out by his hand.
I groan and slide down until my head's fully underwater. My hair glides around my face as I shake my head underwater, trying to dislodge all these insidious things that have wormed their way into my brain.
My head breaks the surface, and I gasp for breath. For a second, all I can think about is my body's need for air, but soon enough the feeling in my chest starts to creep back into my awareness. With a sigh, I pull the stopper out of the tub and climb out of the rapidly draining water.
I can't be the only one who reacts like this. Maybe this intense connection is why his books are so popular. Maybe this is normal. Maybe there's a way to get rid of it.
I dress quickly while my computer boots up, not even bothering to towel off my dripping hair before I start my research.
Several hours of scouring various types of fan sites later, and I've learned almost nothing. What I have found, is that there's very little out there to learn.
His first book was published in 1938. He's written forty-eight novels. He never does interviews. Nobody knows what he looks like, where he comes from, how old he is, or even what state he lives in. Apparently nobody knows anything, but everybody's got a theory; a collective of writers using one pseudonym, a serial killer in jail, a man in witness protection from the mob, or possibly a criminal on the run.
A lot of it's kind of funny in a way, overzealous and obsessive, but harmless. Some of it's a little scary, but I'm walking around with a non-corporeal thing in my chest after reading a couple novels, so I doubt I'm in a position to judge anyone at the moment.
I scan through hundreds of fan reviews and reactions. Everybody talks about how moving they are, how personal it feels, but not one person describes anything like what I've been feeling. Of course, I wouldn't admit to this feeling if I was paid, so I guess it isn't completely conclusive that I'm the only one. I'm starting to think I might be, though.
The fifth book is done by Wednesday morning. I wake up on my couch in the evening. My neck is at an odd, uncomfortable angle, and the arm under my torso has fallen asleep long ago. I lie still anyway, hoping it's all been a dream brought on by my body's discomfort. The illusion doesn't last long. My eyes land on the old green book on my coffee table, and my brain stops trying to tell me the feeling in my chest is coming from the arm underneath me pressing up against my rib-cage, and I know it's all real.
I immediately set to work gathering up the books in an old backpack, and shove it all into the back of the highest shelf in my hall closet.
I'm going to work tomorrow, and I'm staying clear of all stores containing books for the near future. This, whatever this is, needs to end.
Work on Thursday goes much better than I thought; of course I did have exceptionally low expectations. I can't concentrate as well as I need to, and this thing is still in my chest, still present, but I'm at work, back to my normal schedule, and that's a start.
I'm feeling pretty confident about today being a solid first step back towards normal, until I get home and find a large envelope in my mailbox.
It's addressed to me in the same stiff, blockish lettering as the last envelope was. It has the same return address as well, a lawyer's office in Chicago. I wait until I get inside my apartment to open it, but just barely.
Just like last time, everything inside the envelope is written by him. On top of the odd assortment of papers is a folded piece of thick stationery with a single sentence inside.
I assure you there has been no misunderstanding.
Beneath that is a plane ticket for Seattle, and a cheque for three thousand dollars with "Extraneous Travel Expenses" written on the memo line, and a small green post-it note on the back that says "It's cold here." How much does he think a couple sweaters and a coat cost? Three thousand dollars, apparently. There's also a handwritten set of papers telling me what I need to bring, what I need to do when I land, and asking for complete secrecy in regard to his location.
I know I should be angry. I told him I wasn't interested, and he basically ignored me, but all I can think is: I'm going to Seattle on Saturday. And the thing in my chest does a little flip.