C.H. Brown is a speculative fiction writer with mixed genera in horror, thriller, and science fiction. An avid reader since childhood, Brown grew to have a knack for the dark side of literature. Accomplishments include placing in the Eyes of Diversity Contest and several short story publications with Wordhaus, Inner Sins Magazine, Anthology Builder, and more. Brown is currently working as an at-home writer developing a novel along with a number of shorts. You can follow C.H. Brown on Twitter at @writerchbrown for more information.
The Guardian of the Stories
He strolled through the labyrinth of books stacked from floor to ceiling, tracing his paper-thin fingers fondly along the row of creased bindings of stories read countless times over. Removing the smoking pipe from his lips, he inhaled a deep breath of aged pages encasing stories that had been loved by the hands of many, marked by fingerprinted corners, scribbled notes, and forgotten slips of makeshift page markers.
The books came to him, The Guardian of the Stories, knowing that here they were protected until he would send them on; not just to any knock at the door, rather he carefully guided each to its fate. He better than anyone knew what isle to send adventurous feet, in whose hands to place a magical world, and which pair of wondering eyes to divulge a great mystery, all through the pages of a book. It was no easy task, but a duty he treasured nonetheless.
Impervious to time and distance, the stories contained a kind of magic that, if an open mind allowed, made special things happen. The Readers came, trusting him to take them where they wanted to go whether it be transported through time, carried across oceans, or exploring far away galaxies.
Startled by the rap against the planked mahogany door, he fumbled his pipe, spilling ash into his equally gray beard. The whiskers beneath his nose twitched as he brushed away the ash, gracelessly bumping through the books to welcome The Reader. The knock echoed again, calling out not only to him, but to some long awaited story hiding in an unknown nook.
The door swung open at last, meeting the old man with a cold gust of snow flurries. Looking ahead, he thought The Reader must have given up until he spotted him, the pale boy swallowed in his tattered coat, cap, and gloves, gazing up in an awe which, as The Guardian had come to find with age, only a select number of children seemed to still have.
“Come in,” he said, ushering the boy into the heated room, the flames of the fireplace crackling as they lapped at the stone which surrounded them.
The door closed and, relaxing his small shoulders underneath the oversized coat, he turned; standing face to face, The Guardian and The Reader examined the other. A spark of excitement flickered behind the old man’s eyes as they held each other’s gaze, the boy returning a similar childlike enthusiasm in his own. It had been some time since a Reader had come, especially one so special as this impressionable child, and The Guardian was ready to guide him.
“Thank you, Sir,” the boy said, barely audible to The Guardian’s elderly ears as he mumbled through chattering teeth.
“You’re quite welcome Mister-” The Guardian paused, “May I have your name?”
“Welcome, Tommy, what can I do for you on this wintry evening?”
Tommy tore from his gaze seeming to notice the mountains of books for the first time, his cracked lips falling open for a fleeting moment revealing what he loved most in the world. The Guardian smiled encouragingly convincing Tommy to continue.
“I’m searching for a story.”
The Guardian gave a serious nod as if he had not expected this request. He knelt closer to the child’s height, bones creaking like a rusty hinge, and said, “And what kind of story are you searching for?”
Tommy pursed his lips, the wheels and knobs turning in his head as he searched for the right words. “A magic one,” he said simply, “for a special occasion. Today is my birthday.” As if to prove it to be true, he stuck his gloved fingers in the coat pocket revealing a handful of coins. “This is for you, to pay for the book.” He held out the small fistful of money politely.
Shaking his head towards the offering, The Guardian rose to his usual height. “Don’t worry about that just now. The question is not of money but of story.” As Tommy returned the coins he reached in his own pocket, digging out the box of matches to relight his pipe. “How old are you today, Tommy?”
He struck the match and lit his pipe, talking between puffs of smoke, “An entire decade. Happy birthday.” He inhaled the crisp earthly smelling leaves as they stood side by side, smoke pouring from the pipe like wildfire, The Guardian lost deep in thought as Tommy waited.
He withdrew the pipe, an answer coming to him at last. “This way.”
The Guardian walked the winding path to a destination only he knew, leading Tommy through the labyrinth of stories for his first time. Unlike Tommy, he knew each book that had come and gone; he had turned every page, one by one as the years went by, making his own crease in the binding, loving them dearly until each story moved on to its next home.
Tommy saw it even before they came to a stop, signaling his excitement with a hushed gasp as the boy peeked around his shoulder. The brown binding wrapped the collection of pages like the trunk of a sturdy tree, particles of dust glistening against the leather binding. He gave Tommy another encouraging smile and, knowing that the only words that needed to be said now rest within the story’s pages, The Guardian disappeared behind another row of books leaving Tommy to his birthday gift.
When darkness settled on the blanket of snow outside, he found Tommy still with the book. The gloves and hat were cast to the floor with Tommy sitting beside them, adventure swimming in his eyes as he clutched his tiny fingers around the edges. Waking from the story in a daze, his far away stare fell on The Guardian as he spoke.
“Someone is waiting for you.”
Tommy scrambled to his feet quickly collecting his belongings, keeping the book tucked underneath his arm all the while. This time Tommy led them from the labyrinth by memory, without a moment’s hesitation until they returned to the door.
“Thank you, Sir.”
“You’re welcome,” The Guardian said, twisting his beard in thought as he studied the sight, the boy and the book, a perfect match, feeling satisfied. “Enjoy.”
“I’ll come back,” Tommy promised, “when I’m ready for another story.”
“You will,” The Guardian said, certain he would indeed be back more than once.
He placed his hand on the brass doorknob ready to leave, but turned back suddenly.
“I almost forgot,” he said, releasing the half turned brass knob to dig in his pocket for the coins.
The Guardian lifted a hand signaling him to stop. “You keep that. I’ll see you when you’re ready for another story.”
Tommy, stunned by his kindness, could only nod. He walked out into the night, the coins jangling with each step as he plunged through inches of powdered snow. The guardian closed the door behind him and walked to the fireplace, sinking into the armchair with ease. He reached underneath the chair’s feet, searching for the crystal ball, and placed it in its stand on the end table. Looking deep into its fortune, he smiled watching the crystal’s vision of Tommy once more.
Tommy, with all features of boyhood left behind, was a hardworking man devoted to his duty. He slid the skeleton key into the brass knob which he had turned so many times before, but only now would no one be there to welcome him. He closed the door behind him, alone in the labyrinth of stories. Countless books had come and gone over the years, most of which he read in his spare time when he wasn’t learning the trade, but he still found this place as magical as that first day. Tears welled behind his eyes as he remembered the old man, not the way he looked in the casket but as he knew him here; The Guardian, puffing his smoldering pipe with his crooked nose buried deep in the pages of these books where, in Tommy’s mind, he would always remain.
An unexpected knock rapped against the planked mahogany, waking Tommy from his thoughts. Tommy twisted the brass knob, wearing a welcoming smile.
Flurries danced around his head as if begging Tommy to stay. He was tempted to return to the comforting scent of crisp pages and smoldering pipe, but his mother glared from the car continuing to beep the horn. Crawling into the back seat, he shut the door as she put the car in gear. He craned his neck to see out the rear window as they drove, watching the book keeper’s shop grow smaller and smaller behind them but, even after it was long from view, he was there. Imagination running wild, Tommy was still dreaming the book keeper was a sorcerer, The Guardian of the Stories, making magic in his castle and sharing the endless labyrinth of books to those who came searching.