Prompt: All books have been banned. Describe a drug deal of books.
The half moon had long since peaked before I dared venture out into the cold night, bundled tightly to protect myself against the frigid air. I pulled my knit hat low and walked down the snowy sidewalk, one of a mere handful of souls that dared brave the freezing night. The few people that I passed paid me no mind, and for that I was more than grateful.
The alley appeared exactly as I’d dreamed it would. Narrow and hunched, it reminded me of the old library I frequented as a child, with its cramped aisles and book stacks that seemed to stretch into the ether. I longingly recalled winter days spent poring over the epic fantasies of Tolkien and Jordan, uncovering Earth’s strangest mysteries with Verne’s scientists and explorers, falling into abyssal despair and madness with Lovecraft’s doomed souls.
It’s been a long time since I’ve held a book. A real book. Ever since Disney’s "Gutenberg law" outlawed traditional media, anything that isn’t licensed or part of a franchise has been hard to come by. I thought I would adapt, I thought it would be fine, but over time I could feel my mind wasting. I felt…starved. Thankfully, an old college friend put me in touch with someone who could help. Or, at least, I hoped they could.
There came a narrow gap between two buildings. Ducking under an archway, heavy cigarette smoke filled my nostrils. Wisps drifted around a tall, slender figure covered in furs, leaning against the brick wall. The smoke seemed to hang frozen in the wintry air.
“Ask not for whom the bell tolls,” I stammered, but I couldn’t tell whether it was due to the cold or anxiety. The person’s face – it seemed to be a woman – was mostly obscured in shadow. She took a long drag on her cigarette, bringing it down to the filter.
“It tolls for thee,” she replied in a brisk Serbian accent. She tossed the butt to the floor and it fizzled in a small puddle. She turned towards me and a pair of sharp eyes glared from underneath the hood of her coat. Her face was thin and gaunt, but her eyes were fire.
“Do you have the lit?” I whispered.
“You have the money?” She whispered back. I reached into my coat pocket and unfolded a bundle of money. She glanced at the amount and scoffed.
“I sell lit,” she said firmly. “For this, you would not get a writing prompt response.”
I sighed, and reached into my other pocket for more. I didn’t want to spend it, but opportunities like this were rare. She quickly pocketed all of it.
“Come,” she commanded. I followed her down a steep flight of stairs into a cellar apartment. As soon as the door opened and that familiar musty odor assailed my nostrils, the money became inconsequential.
Spread across tables and chairs were countless volumes of literature, no doubt liberated from old libraries and shuttered bookstores around the world. Every genre was represented, with collections from authors both familiar and unknown to me. My heart raced as I recognized covers that I hadn’t seen in decades, and I fought the urge to caress each volume as I passed by.
My host spoke to me as I browsed, but her voice seemed distant. “You are lucky. I have some new Tolstoys and a Nabokov, there, on the table to your left. I also have Orwells that just came in last week: Animal Farm, and 1984."
I stumbled through the vast, subterranean library in dumbfounded amazement. For a moment I fell back into my childhood, where I spent hours traversing the aisles searching for a book that would practically leap off the shelves at me. My eyes fell on a dusty hardcover – the complete works of Shakespeare – and it was love at first sight.
“Ah, so you are a poet,” she smirked. “Go on, you may have one more, but be quick.”
Channeling my inner child, I scanned the floors, practically crawling, and came across a tattered Don Quixote. Without a second thought, I clutched both books to my chest, thanked my host, and parted under the cover of darkness.
The moment I locked my front door behind me, I tossed off my outer clothes and fell to the floor of the entryway, staring at my bounty with a fluttering heart. I cannot say how long I sat there running my hands over the aged covers, flipping through the soft pages, inhaling the sweet, dry musk of time-eaten ink and paper. My watery eyes could hardly discern the text, but I could feel the words through the haggard pages, the slight bump of the ink, and the bent spines. The feeling that I was once again reliving my childhood days in that old library was nothing short of orgasmic. I knew that I would read these novels again and again, and prayed that I would someday once again find myself in that magical apartment, stumbling among the piles and rows of forbidden fruit. In the meantime, though, I had my fix.