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[Literary RPF] "Curiosity Shop" (PG)

Author's Note: Written for [community profile] fic_promptly's Any, any, The Little Shop That Wasn't There Yesterday Featuring a teenaged H.P. Lovecraft.

The shop in the north corner of Benefit and Angell Street had gone without tenants for several weeks after the stationery shop had removed elsewhere, but that afternoon, as young Howard walked home from school, he found a bookstore had opened. Mother expected him back home as soon as he could, and she grew anxious if he returned even a little bit late, but he threw his usual caution to the wind and let himself into the shop.

A cascade of deep-tongued bells rang, the top of the door brushing against them, as he entered. The warm, musty smell one usually found in older libraries and long-established book shops hung in the air, as he rounded the tables and shelves laden with books. The shop had the feel of long occupying this space, but how could it? He'd never seen the like of it before, no less on this street.

He walked through the shelves, scanning the titles on the spines: no newly printed titles here, and none of the yellow-backed paper-covered novels that had started to clutter the shelves in most shops. Gilding, some worn, some faded, on tooled leather spines, warm earth tones to the leather covers: he reached out to caress the covers, tracing over names and titles with his fingertips. Poe, Bierce, Chambers, the faery tales of the Brothers Grimm, the Thousand and One Nights, Frazer's "Golden Bough" - so many volumes that had inspired him as he pored over them in his grandfather's library. As if someone had collected these volumes, based on titles in his memory.

On one shelf just above his head, he spotted one title that had eluded him: a complete copy of the original play, "The King in Yellow", bound in yellow sheepskin, a golden salamander engraved into the cover. He reached for it as if taking up a precious relic, and handling the front cover by the edge, opened it. A paper slip tucked into the front cover showed the price, more than he had in the box in which he kept his meager allowance.

A shadow fell over him and he looked up to spy a tall, slim man in a dark suit, his form in shadow against the light from the curtained windows at the front of the store. "May I help you, young man?" he asked, in a deep, rich voice.

Howard quickly closed the book and started to shuffle it onto a shelf. "I'm fine, I was... just going," he sputtered.

The man, obviously the shopkeeper, held up a hand. "No need to put that volume away so quickly. I take it you're a connoisseur of the phantastical?"

"Yes, since my mother read faery tales to me in my cradle and my grandfather told me ghost stories," Howard said.

The shopkeeper chuckled in his throat. "Your cradle... you speak of it as if you were an elder man. You're, perhaps, sixteen?"

"Seventeen," Howard said.

"Your eyes suggest that you have an old soul," the shopkeeper said. "Shall I wrap that up for you?"

"I don't have the money for it at hand," Howard replied, trying not to sound downcast.

"Keep it: you can bring the fee when you have it," the shopkeeper said, holding out one hand for it. "You have the look of a honest young man Howard put the book into his hand and followed the shopkeeper to the front counter, itself piled with more volumes, where he wrapped the volume in paper, sealing it with yellow sealing wax. The shopkeeper had him sign a credit slip; with that and a handshake, Howard went on his way, another book added to the small pile under his arm.

* * * *

Mother met him in the front room as he let himself into the house. Her eye went immediately to the brown paper parcel amongst his books.

"Howard, you aren't buying books again, are you?" she said. "I told you, we'd take your grandfather's books down from the attic as soon as we can get some bookcases."

"Mother, it's not a volume that Grandfather had: it's a complete copy of 'The King in Yellow'," Howard said.

She wagged her head tiredly. "Don't you already have that one?"

"This is a different edition, with more stories," he fibbed. If he told her what it truly was, she would not believe him. "I'm afraid I need to ask you for an advance on my allowance, to pay for it."

She sighed, rolling her eyes. "Howard, how many times have I told you, we're in shortened circumstances, you can't buy books like you're accustomed to."

"I'll do extra chores, I'll even wash the dishes for a month," he pleaded.

"No, not this time, you need to learn to live within your means. You take that book back to wherever you got it and explain to the clerks why you can't take it," she said, looking him in the eye.

"All right, then I'll work for it: I'll offer to work in the shop where I bought it," Howard argued.

Mother fixed him with a glare. "You'll do no such thing: you're a Philips, you won't lower yourself to that. And besides, you have your class work."

"I can work after class, and there's no shame in selling books," Howard argued. "I know several people who have after-class jobs."

"Yes, people who don't have your breeding, people who deserve to work in shops," Mother replied, proudly.

"But wasn't Father in sales?" Howard pleaded.

"He sold precious metals, that's not the same as mingling with the common class and taking change from their dirty hands," Mother said, fairly spitting the words as if the taste of them sickened her. He started to object, that it seemed a respectable shop, not the sort which daylaborers with grimy hands would exactly patronize, but she held up her hand, not hearing another word from him. "Now, I want you to bring that back tomorrow, don't even unwrap it." She held her hand out to him. "Let me have it so you can't distract yourself from it: your teacher told me that you're failing maths again."

"Yes, Mother," Howard sighed, relinquishing the package to her before trudging up the stairs to his room.

* * * *

The following afternoon, Howard returned home directly after class to collect the package containing the book. Mother handed it over without a word, and he took it as if he were taking a beloved pet to be 'put to sleep'. What a tender euphemism for something dreadful and final. He had passed the shop twice on his way to and from school, and each time, it felt as if the paradise he had enjoyed had transformed into a walled garden locked away from him.

He approached, the package clasped to his chest, then lifted his eyes to the shop windows.

The windows stood empty, no sign of the shelves within; the curtains that covered them replaced with brown paper sheets pasted to the glass. A 'for rent' sign hung in the door, dust and cobwebs hanging from the corners.

He sighed. At least this left him off the hook: he could only hope Mother would not throw a fit when he told her that he could not exactly return the book to a shop that no longer existed.

Naturally, when he related this strange sequence, she insisted that he leave it behind, regardless. He calmly told her that he could not bring himself to leave the package on the doorstep, where it might get rained on or stolen. He even offered to walk her to the shop to show her it had closed, but she relented, too tired to go to that length. He excused himself, pleading he had assignments to complete, and slipped upstairs to his room.

Straightaway, once he had closed the door to his room, he broke the seals and unwrapped the package. The weight of the book felt the same, but the salamander had vanished from the leather cover. Opening it, he found the pages blank, not a word of print on any of them. He sighed; the text had vanished, like the shop from which he had acquired it. But a blank page begged to have words etched across it.

He took up his fountain pen, opened his inkwell and dipping his pen, set to pen to page...

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