The Ever After Book Shoppe
by Heather Shaw & Tim Pratt
Alex didn't find the bookstore by searching through phone books or running searches on the Internet, though he'd tried those tactics, fruitlessly. He spent hours walking down streets in the city, avoiding the main thoroughfares, looking hard at the places between shops, where brick met clapboard, where cinderblock met aluminum siding. After weeks of searching, he found the bookshop's door shimmering in the concrete wall at the end of a particularly urine-soaked alley. A neatly lettered wooden sign beside the door read “The Ever After Book Shoppe." Alex pressed down on the brass handle and the door creaked open.
Dust motes shimmered in the sunlight streaming through the many skylights in the ceiling. The proprietor of the shop stood behind the counter, grinning at him. Alex had anticipated a wizened old woman, or a grizzled old man, not this...mixed-up beast before him. The proprietor was young and tall, straight-backed, with dramatic goth makeup turning her face into an exercise in contrasts. She wore her hair in a tight schoolmarm's bun that should have clashed with her loose and colorful earth-mother blouse. She stepped around the counter, looking at him with voracious interest. Her flowing skirt ended just above her battered black biker's boots. And yet somehow it worked, her appearance achieved synthesis when, on anyone else, it would have only managed dissonance.
“You shouldn't have been able to find this place," she said disapprovingly, but still grinning. “The people who come here are ready to give up the world; I rarely get your type in here."
Alex looked around nervously. He'd expected occult trappings -- a fishbowl full of live scorpions, crystal skulls on the counter, bundles of strange-smelling herbs hanging from the rafters. But it was just a bookshop, cluttered and over-full, like any dozen others he'd seen. “How do you know why I came here?”
The woman waved her hand. “And now you're asking all the wrong questions. Just assume that I do know.” She looked at him for a moment, then sighed. “Well, that won't work, will it? You've got no faith. No suspension of disbelief. Fine, I'll state it baldly: You're searching for your lover. She moved in with you, but then she couldn't handle the reality, the dirty socks, the routine, and she left you.”
The proprietor went around the counter again and sat down on a stool. She rested her elbows on the countertop and said “Your lover came here to find the happy ending you couldn't give her. Because that's what we do here, we give people the kind of endings that you only find in books. And you shouldn't be able to find this shop unless you're that kind of person, searching for one of those endings.” She narrowed her eyes at him, a particularly sinister effect, what with her goth make-up. “Which is why I'm not sure how you're here. You're searching for a person, not an ending you've read in a book.”
“Alice told me she'd found the greatest bookshop, that she'd been there three times, that it was never in the same place twice...” He shook his head. “I was watching wrestling on TV, I didn't really listen to her. She said she was going to the bookshop... and she never came back.”
“And she never will.”
“Please,” Alex said, and his voice broke on the word. He missed Alice, missed her like he'd lost a limb, like he'd lost the beginning of all his best dreams, but he didn't know how to say that to the proprietor. “I need her. She's my happy ending. Can you help me?”
The proprietor snorted. “Wrong question! You should have asked if I will help you. Which I won't.”
Alex balled his hands into fists -- not in threat of violence, but in frustration. “If you can't help me, I'm wasting my time, aren't I? I only want you to point me in the right direction, let me go after her!”
“You don't seem to understand. People who come here are ready to give up everything. That's how we stay afloat -- our customers give us all their worldly possessions.”
Which explained where all Alice's things had disappeared to. Her clothes, her stereo, her car, it had all gradually disappeared, as if she were being erased from his life.
“There's no going back once you've entered the books,” the proprietor said. “You can't go in and bring her out. She's lost to this world.”
“What if I want to go in after her?” Alex asked.
“Oh-ho!” The woman cocked her head. “Love her that much, do you? Ready to give up everything in this world, even though it's obviously not ready to give you up yet? Well, then... that's interesting. I appreciate an unusual request, my job can be so dull...” She trailed off and looked around the shop.
After an interminable moment Alex said, “So can I go in after her?”
The woman smiled like the Cheshire Cat, slow and menacing. “Sure... Why not? But you can't start just anywhere... unless you're one of those dreadful speed readers you'll never catch up to her.”
“So jump me ahead, then.” Alice was slipping farther away from him with every passing moment.
“But you'd be lost in the story, with no idea what had gone before!” She tapped her fingernail on the countertop thoughtfully. “Let's make a bargain. If you can guess the book she chose to enter first, then I'll jump you straight to the scene she's in. But if you guess incorrectly, you'll have to find her yourself.” She gestured expansively around the bookstore. “Go ahead. Let's see how well you know your lover.”
Alex bit his lip and looked around the bookstore, with its countless shelves of age-darkened books. Somewhere, between the covers, Alice was living a life without him. He began pacing the rows, looking helplessly at titles. There were so many books, and to tell the truth, he'd never been much of a reader. That was one of the things Alice didn't like about him, that he didn't read much, and didn't understand why she had her nose in a book all the time.
“There are so many books!” he complained. “Can you give me a hint?”
She walked over and stood beside him, her arms crossed. “You're a dull one, aren't you? I can see I expected too much of you. New deal: If you can guess the kind of book she's in, just the genre, I'll jump you one and a half scenes behind her. You'll have to read like mad to catch up, though.”
Alex grinned. He knew Alice well enough for this. “Romance!”
The proprietor smiled and pulled him forward, and for a moment Alex thought she was going to kiss him. She bent down and whispered in his ear.
“Once upon a time... ”
Alex looked around the elaborately decorated pink bedroom. He'd never seen so many ruffles in his life. Just as he was getting his bearings in the sea of pink, a woman in a corset and a full skirt slapped him across the face.
“How dare you!” she exclaimed, her copious breasts heaving in barely suppressed sobs.
“How dare I what?” Alex asked.
“Rushing into a lady's bedchamber unannounced! I could've been undressed! O! The shame of being seen by a common servant in just my underthings! I should have you soundly horsewhipped! You might have seen my knickers, or -- or my bosom covered only by the barest drifting of fine white linen. O!”
The woman swished away from him, one hand pressed dramatically over her forehead. “Not that you servants care about the proprieties any more! My betrothal to Lord Windsolemly is a joke to all of you, isn't it? That little blonde slut of a chambermaid has turned you all against me, with her terrible stories of the indecent things she's allowed Lord Windsolemly to do to her!”
“Did you think that I hadn't noticed the way he looked at her? With her blonde hair and her blue eyes, as if such a pale milksop could compare to my raven tresses, my eyes like dark and limpid pools!”
Blonde hair, blue eyes? Hardly a definitive description, but... “Alice? Do you mean Alice?”
“O! As if I bother with the names of the servants!”
Before Alex could ask her anything more, a man in black leather breeches and an open white shirt strode menacingly through the door.
“Lord Windsolemly!” the lady cried, passionately.
“Miladay!” He backhanded Alex with a careless gesture, sending him reeling against a pink wall, then pulled the lady towards him by the waist. She gasped and panted flutteringly against him. “You are worth more than this! I can't fathom why you frolic with small, unclean serving men of unimpressive stature--”
Alex moaned and touched his face.
“As if it matters to you,” the lady hissed reprovingly. “You, with your trollop of a chambermaid!” The lady writhed and beat her tiny white fists impotently against the Lord's massive chest.
“Her? Bah! Milady, I sent that little wench away this morning! She was only a passing whim, a trifle that I toyed with before finally submerging myself in the pure love of my betrothed!”
“O! Lord Windsolemly! My love! My own, true love!”
Lord Windsolemly ripped open her bodice from neckline to waist, and cast the lady upon the bed. He was so... masculine. Alex crept forward to get a better view of the action on the bed, and then the room faded to black.
Alex looked around, disoriented. This was no scene from a romance -- this was no scene from anywhere. Only whiteness surrounded him, with nothing to provide a sense of scale or perspective. It was like nothing he'd experienced before -- even fog swirled, even unbroken expanses of snow had texture. He felt his grip on reality slipping away. Had he really come to a mysterious bookshop to pursue Alice? Or had something else happened to him, had he been in an accident, or lost his mind? Was he in --
“You're not in a coma,” the Proprietor of the shop said in a bored voice. “This is always the most tiresome part. Of course, Alice understood right away what was happening here. She knows books.”
Alex hurried toward the Proprietor, hungry for the perspective she provided. Her ghost-white face blended into the background perfectly, but her lips were red, and her eyes were dark. “What is this? I was looking for Alice, I was in some kind of a scene, I guess--”
“The scene ended. And since it was the last scene in the book...” The Proprietor shrugged. “That book is finished. Alice has gone on to the next book on the shelf. She's still searching for her happy ending, you see. She'll go on until she finds it. And this --” the Proprietor spread her hands -- “this is the endpages. The blank pages at the back of the book. It's a place to shake off the old plotlines and prepare yourself for something new. Alice is well into the next book already.” She smirked. “You'll never catch her at this rate -- she reads much more quickly than you.”
Alex frowned. “I'm going on. I will catch her.”
“Oh, I know you're going on. You don't have any choice. Your real life is forfeit now. I don't know if you'll like the next book very much. It's rather... cozy... but there's also a bit of blood.” She grinned, and the world
flipped and Alex found himself standing in a neatly furnished study, with bookshelves lining the walls, antique nautical instruments and a wooden globe resting on the desk, and a thin, white-haired man in a smoking jacket, holding a brandy, looking down with pursed lips at a dead man on the carpet.
“Jesus!” Alex sputtered.
The white-haired man looked up, eyebrow arched quizzically. “Hello, my boy,” he said. “I'm Percival Sherman, gentleman by breeding, detective by avocation.” He gestured at the corpse with his brandy glass. “D'you know anything about this, then?”
“I -- no. I'm just looking for my girlfriend, Alice.” If this man was a detective, maybe he could help.
The old fellow's eyes lit up. “Ah, I knew there was a connection. This Alice -- is she blonde, slender, a bit, ah, distracted-looking around the eyes?”
“Yes! Have you seen her?”
“Oh, yes. She ran out of here just a moment ago. She was here with old Quincy's body when I arrived. I hate to think such a pretty thing is a killer, though I've certainly seen things just as unlikely in my day.” He sipped his brandy. “Why, I remember one case, the Case of the Tarnished Constable I called it--”
“Alice didn't kill anyone!” Alex said. He glanced at the body. Alice read mysteries sometimes, but he didn't think she'd want to play that role.
“Well, that's as may be. If nothing else, she's a witness... and if you know her, perhaps you can help me find her.”
Finally, Alex thought -- now he had a chance. Alice could read faster than him, but could she out-think a master sleuth?
“Let's get started,” Alex said, smiling.
Alex spent the next two weeks in an agony of bored confusion. Percival Sherman wandered around, talking to everyone from chambermaids to race-track managers. He spent inordinate amounts of time swirling a brandy snifter and looking thoughtfully at the “clues” he'd collected -- a woman's lace garter, a book of Emily Dickinson poems with several pages torn out, and a blue glass eye. Alex drove Percival's Bentley, transporting the elderly detective from place to place. He ate roasted mutton in the kitchen with Percival's drunk, wise-cracking butler, and slept in a feather bed that made him sneeze. The people Percival spoke to often mentioned Alice, but the trail grew colder every day. The nightclub impresario had seen her just hours before, when she'd auditioned (unsuccessfully) for a job as a torch singer. When they spoke to the tarot-reader, she claimed to have read Alice's fortune a full day before, and by the time they found the dingy apartment where Alice had been staying, the landlord told them she'd been gone a week or more, leaving no forwarding address.
Alex sat in the detective's library, getting drunk on the never-ending supply of brandy. He'd nearly given up. Wherever Alice was, he couldn't find her, not even with the help of this world's greatest detective.
A pudgy man wearing an eyepatch burst into the study, holding a gun. He looked vaguely familiar -- Alex thought he might be a bank manager they'd interviewed the week before, though he hadn't worn a patch, then. “Where's Percival?” he said hoarsely, the barrel of his gun swinging this way and that.
“I don't --” Alex began.
“I'm right here, Mr. Norris,” Percival said, stepping from behind a drape. Several burly police officers followed him. There must have been a whole concealed room behind that curtain. “Along with some of Merriville's Finest. I'm afraid you've been caught, Mr. Norris.”
Norris dropped the gun and wept into his hands. The police led him away.
Percival poured himself a drink and stood, smiling, looking vaguely pleased with himself.
“Another case solved. His mistake, you see, was leaving the key to the bordello on his --”
“But what about Alice?” Alex said.
Percival scratched his head thoughtfully. “Ah, Alice,” he said. “Yes, I'm afraid she was merely a bit of misdirection, a red herring, if you will. I realized your Alice had nothing to do with the case when the dance instructor told me...”
Alex held his head in his hand, much as Norris had, and then everything turned into ellipses, and faded away.
Whiteness again. Alex looked around for the Proprietor, but she wasn't here. He sighed miserably. He would never find Alice at this rate! Frustrated and bored with the whiteness around him, Alex began running. There was no sense of progress, but maybe if he ran fast enough he could flip past a bunch of blank pages...
Alex was still running as he entered the next book. He ran down a cobblestone street, past the tiniest buildings he'd ever seen. He slowed his pace just as he came to the village commons, where hundreds of brightly clad dwarves were cheering a tall blonde Elf on a white steed. “I, Milicent the Beneficant, will slay the dragon that plagues your village!” The horse neighed and kicked as the Elf thrust his sword into the air. The cheering grew deafening.
"But I will need companions to aid me on this long and arduous journey! Who among you is brave enough to join me on such a quest? The way will be long and treacherous, and you may die, but if you live, you may find rewards to fulfill your most secret desires along the way! Who will join me?”
There was an awkward silence as the dwarves looked at one another nervously. A few jostled, trying to goad their reluctant friends into volunteering. Alex was thinking over what the Elf had said about rewards. He was in a fantasy, with dragons and elves and... well, there must be a helpful wizard or wisewoman or someone who could help him find Alice. Alex gulped and stepped forward.
“I -- ” his voice sounded small after the Elf's booming rhetoric. Alex cleared his throat and tried again. “I! Alex , uh, the Seeker, will join you in this, ah, noble quest to kill the dragon!”
A hundred little hands clapped him on the back, pushing him towards the Elf, who grinned down at him. He extended a long-fingered hand and helped Alex onto the horse.
The journey was long and the Elf talked, a lot. The Elf seemed to be providing backstory and colorful historical information, but after listening to the saga of the war between the elves and the dwarves and how the two races came to live in harmony, Alex stopped paying attention. He decided to try to get some useful information. “So, you haven't heard of a woman named Alice, have you?”
The Elf pulled the horse up short, causing the animal to rear up on its hind legs, dumping Alex onto the ground. “Alice Dragon-Friend?” the Elf roared. “How do you know that most vile woman? Speak, Seeker Alex, and tell the truth!”
Dragon-Friend? Oh, dear lord, Alex thought, leave it to Alice to befriend the dragon in this story. He couldn't very well tell the Elf the truth, or he'd be left here in Ye Olde Darkest Forest of Most Lamentable Death and Danger or whatever it was the Elf had called it, for the rest of the book. Alex thought fast and started talking, attempting to mimic the Elf's inconsistently archaic speech.
“Indeed,” he began, trying to sound woeful and sincere, “I do know this woman. She was once my lady, and when I knew her as such she was as lovely and kind a lady as you ever did see.” Alex winced. That last was more cornpone country than middle earth, but maybe the Elf wouldn't notice.
“Alice Dragon-Friend was kind? What caused her to become so Wicked? Was she the victim of some Enchantment?”
“Yes! Exactly! My lady Alice was bewitched by the Evil Magician, uh, Malignant the Malicious, who made her care about monsters instead of loving puppies and, well, me.”
The Elf nodded. “I, too, have run afoul of the Evil Magician Malignant.” The elf looked sorrowful. “He is the most monstrous being this world has ever borne. And worst of all, he is my own brother... But no matter. You seek a way to break the enchantment that has befallen Alice, yes?”
Alex couldn't believe his luck! This story was practically writing itself! “Yes! I need to find a charm that will magically transport me to Alice's side, so I can cure her and live happily ever after and all that...”
The Elf grinned and helped Alex back onto the horse. “My friend, I know just the sorcerer who can help us both in our Quests.”
By the time they came to the little hut in the Golden Woods, Alex was no longer as hopeful about catching up with Alice. It had taken them months and months to wander through various and sundry Valleys of Enchanted Mice and over Mountains of Frolicking Goat-Boys, not to mention crossing Rivers of Tempting Sirens by way of Bridges of Unusually-Ugly Trolls. Even the subplot where they got to ride the unicorns while the steed had his little romance made Alex twitchy with impatience. Yeah, it was cool and neat and all, but he was sure by this point that Alice had already started the next book. The story he was stuck in seemed never-ending.
They finally found the sorcerer. He was tall, with flowing, star-spangled midnight blue robes and a long white beard. He spent a tediously long time arranging a “decent tea” for them, boiling water in a little iron pot in his fireplace and rummaging about in his cupboards for some cookies.
“I hardly get visitors any more these days,” he explained to Milicent as he arranged the cookies in a starburst pattern on a china platter. “It's so nice to have someone to go to the trouble for. I do love entertaining, and I so seldom have the opportunity ...”
“Excuse me,” Alex said, before the Elf could perpetuate the niceties, “but I'm in kind of a hurry, and I need to know if you can help me find Alice or not.”
“Oh, ho! The impatience of youth! Well, let's see if we can find your Alice by looking into the Crystal Ball ...if I can remember where I put it, it's been years since I've had to use dear Crysty...” The old man puttered around, opening many cabinets, most of them more than once, before finding the ball. He blew dust off the ball and sat to peer into it. “Ah, need my spectacles...”
After what seemed an eternity, Alex finally ascertained that his worst fears had come true: Alice was no longer a current character in this book. The old sorcerer seemed almost contrite.
“Oh, poor boy, poor boy! It's an awful thing to lose a lady love, even one who has gone bad as dear Alice did! But you're young yet, and you've many adventures ahead of you. Here, take this amulet to aid you in your journeys; simply hold it over your heart and whisper the name of what you seek, and the amulet will transport you closer to your goal. It's not much good for seeking the Nameless Articles of Power, I know, but --”
Alex stared down at the gaudy ruby pendant on the golden chain. He'd done it! He had fulfilled his Quest! He now had the means to transport himself after his speed-reading girlfriend and have half a chance of catching up with her!
He held the amulet over his heart. He turned to the Elf and the old sorcerer and said, “Thank you so much for all you've done for me.” He clutched the pendant. “Alice!” he whispered, and the scene faded out once again.
Alex looked around the white space and sighed. Here again, but he still had the amulet. He wrapped his hand around it, the jewel warm against his hand. Alice wasn't here, though -- had the amulet failed?
“You're doing rather better than I expected,” the Proprietor said. She sat in a wing-backed chair that hovered in the nothingness. “Even Alice hasn't tried to carry something over from one book to the next.”
“This is supposed to take me to Alice,” he said, shaking the amulet at her. “What am I doing here?”
“It will only help you move through a book, Alex, not from one book to the next. You skipped past the very end of that trash fantasy you were reading, but you can't go skipping over the endpages. You know, you might actually catch Alice at this rate... though I don't know what you'll do with her when you find her.”
“I'm ready to move on.”
She shrugged. “Sure. Don't worry if the amulet changes. It will probably alter to fit whatever book you're in. You can't go violating the internal logic of a story...” Her chair began sliding to the left, and vanished from sight.
Alex took a deep breath and stepped into a new volume.
He stood in a weed-choked ditch beside a cracked asphalt road. Black thunderclouds rolled overhead. Flies buzzed around the carcass of something long-dead, just a few feet away. It looked like a dog, but bigger, almost the size of a man. Alex scrambled out of the ditch, the hairs on the back of his neck rising. The red amulet was gone. He held a bone-handled straight razor in his hand instead, its blue blade faintly luminous. Alex folded it shut, careful not to cut himself, and started walking toward a sign on the side of the road. The sign read “Midnight Cove, Population 1200.” Someone had slashed through the “1200” with red paint and written “7” beneath it.
Somewhere, far away, a dog howled, and then the howl became something very much like a human laugh.
Alex shivered. He hoped Alice was okay. She'd never liked horror movies, probably didn't read books like this, either. He hoped she wouldn't do anything stupid. There weren't likely to be any happily-ever-afters here.
He opened the straight razor and looked at the blade. “Take me to Alice,” he said. The blue light in the blade pulsed, but nothing happened.
Alex closed his eyes. He knew what the blade wanted. “Internal logic” was here in full force.
He pressed the blade against his thumb, hissing in pain as it drew blood -- almost as if it were biting him, instead of cutting. The blood disappeared as if the blade were drinking it, and then the world blurred.
“Holy shit!” a man shouted. Alex looked around, disoriented and lightheaded. He was in a rustic cabin with half a dozen dirty, ragged people. The shouting man held a table leg like a club. “Where'd you come from?”
“Ah,” Alex said. “Maybe you can help me. I'm looking for --”
“He's one of the dog-people, Daddy!” the little girl cried. “Get him!”
“No!” Alex said as the man menaced him. “No, I'm looking for my girlfriend, Alice.”
The man exchanged solemn glances with the other adults. “Alice. She took the rifle and left. Said she was going up into the hills to find the den, to take out the monsters in their own home.” He shivered. “I don't think she's going to make it. She's brave, but...”
Could Alice die here? That was an ever-after, all right, but not a happy one.
Alex pressed his thumb to the razor and whispered her name.
The scene changed.
He stood by the corpse of a shaggy dog-thing the size of a small car. The smell was horrible, and various skeletons (human, canine, and some that seemed combinations of the two) littered the rocks. A rifle lay on the ground, broken in half, as if something had bitten through it.
He didn't see any sign of Alice. He cut himself again, the wound on his thumb throbbing, and this time he skipped past the end.
Alex watched as the blood from his thumb dropped into the perfect whiteness and disappeared. He shuddered, still spooked by the horror novel he'd just come through. Thank goodness for the amulet -- well, razor. It had spared him from the worst of that story. A sudden fear struck him, and he yelled for the Proprietor.
He was hoarse when she finally appeared, her hair wet and hanging down her back, her goth makeup gone. “I'm not here to be summoned whenever you wish!” she hissed at him. Alex was surprised to think that people like her even took showers. “What is it this time?”
“Alice... that last book... I mean, she made it out alive, didn't she?”
The Proprietor laughed. “Oh, I could tell you, but since you've been so rude this time, I don't think I will. Why don't you just read the next book and find out? I'd hate to spoil the end of the story for you.”
The Proprietor wrung out her hair and slipped away. The whiteness began to recede into white spots surrounded by darkness. The spots flew farther and farther away, until they were tiny specks in a vast black sky...
Alex turned away from the screen and examined his surroundings. He was on a spaceship, on the bridge it looked like. A woman in a bright blue jumpsuit noticed him and pulled him over to a console along one wall.
“Are you crazy?” she asked. “You know how the captain disapproves of us beaming directly to the bridge! You're lucky she didn't catch you.”
Alex turned to face the console the woman clearly expected him to operate. He'd seen stuff like this before on TV shows, but he didn't have the first idea what to do. He looked down at his wrist and noticed a slender silver box strapped there, with the words “Temporal Space Distorter 6000” flashing along one side. The amulet/knife thing? He wondered how he was supposed to work it in this book.
A familiar voice snapped him out of his musings. “Ensign! Are you going to raise the shields or leave them down so the Meningies can just walk in here and kill us all?”
Alex turned slowly and realized that he didn't need the TSD 6000 after all. Alice was sitting right in front of him, in the captain's chair. “Darling!” he said, and rushed toward her.
Sitting in the ship's brig, Alex wondered where he'd gone wrong. Not that he'd expected Alice to welcome him with open arms, but she should have at least recognized him. But when he tried to hug her, she'd shouted like he was a madman, and knocked him flat with a stun gun. And here he was.
It didn't make sense. Even if Alice hadn't wanted him to find her, she would have talked to him; she wouldn't have hit him, locked him away.
He looked down at his TSD 6000, still strapped to his wrist. He pushed a small button on one side, held it over his heart and whispered, “Alice?”
“There you are, sir! I've been looking for you. I have a message for you from Alice.”
A creature with undulating tentacles and metallic protuberances slid towards him and thrust a flat oval box into his hand. Alex stared at it, dumbly.
“Oh, yes. She said you might not know how to work one of these, though I can't see how, it's obvious...” The alien pressed some invisible button on the box.
A small hologram of Alice appeared. Alex gasped as she started talking to him.
“Alex! I know you're following me, and I wish you'd stop. You really upset my clone, the captain, and you almost lost us a very strategic position in the war with the Meningies! Lucky for you...”
As Alice rambled on about the complexities of the war, Alex grinned goofily. The captain was a clone! Alice hadn't hit him after all!
“Alex, pay attention,” hologram-Alice snapped. “Stop following me! You're screwing up my stories and ruining the endings of my books! I gave up everything to do this, Alex, and everything includes you! There's a reason I didn't ask you to come with me. If I let you into my stories, I'd be picking up dirty socks and pulling your hair out of the drain for chapters and chapters, and I don't want that. Get it? I don't want you anymore, Alex! Go away! Find a nice book of porn, or some wrestler's biography or something, and stay there!”
The hologram flickered and went out. The alien clicked and whirred sympathetically. “That's a clear enough message, isn't it? Alice asked me to find you a good job here on the space station, if you want it. We'll have to start with something simple, perhaps vat-cleaning in the bio-farms, and then we'll get you some technical training and ...”
But Alex wasn't listening. Alice didn't want him. He was chasing after a character in a story that didn't want anything to do with him. He was to stop following her... and what? Stay here?
In a rare flash of inspiration, Alex realized that he had other options.
Ignoring the prattling alien, he bent his head to the TSD 6000, pressed the button and whispered, “The End.”
The Proprietor stared at him in obvious shock. “Ah,” she said. “I was waiting for Alice. We've been having nice chats, after every book. I didn't expect...”
Alex grinned, holding up the TSD-6000. “I skipped past her, this time.”
The Proprietor sniffed. “Well, it's not as if you can hang around here indefinitely, waiting for her to arrive. She's not even halfway done with that last book -- it's a long one, an omnibus trilogy, and you'll be shuffled on to the next book soon.”
“Oh, I know. But I'll get to the next book before she does.”
Slowly, the Proprietor smiled. “You aren't as foolish as I thought you were. You're going for the happily-ever-after now, then?”
The Proprietor cracked her knuckles. “Well. I know just the book for you.”
Alex found himself in a flower garden, near a small reflecting pool. A fanciful castle loomed behind him, all crystal spires and gleaming gates. He held a small glass sphere in one hand. He turned it one way, and it gleamed gold, like the sun; another way, and it became silver as the moon. He could travel anywhere in this world with this sphere.
Alex walked toward the castle, whistling. He didn't need the magical sphere. He was just where he wanted to be, and he had a lot of work to do.
The princess was at the castle, doing embroidery. It took some time for Alex to explain that he wasn't the prince she'd been waiting for. She seemed disappointed by that, but she listened to his proposal, and agreed, with a grin. She took the magical sphere, turned it in her hands until it shone like the moon, and then winked out of sight, off on adventures of her own.
Alex took over the castle and the kingdom. A few weeks later a bewildered prince arrived, looking for the princess who'd formerly inhabited the palace. Alex broke the news to him gently and gave him a promising lead on another princess, one trapped at the top of a high tower in a dark wood far away.
Alex spent his evenings chatting with the frog who lived in the reflecting pool. The frog approved of his plans. “Princesses aren't all they're cracked up to be,” the toad said. ”You're better off with Alice.”
“Don't I know it,” Alex said.
Alice came to the gates of the castle and knocked. She wore a simple white shift, and carried a staff wrapped in silver vines.
Alex answered the door personally, wearing his best doublet and hose. “My lady,” he said, bowing. “Welcome to my abode.”
“Alex?” she said. “You should be working at the bio-farm and lusting after sim-sluts!”
“I only want you,” he said. He took her hand. She didn't resist, perhaps because she was still surprised to see him. “Doesn't it mean anything, that I followed you all this way, gave up everything?”
Her expression softened. “Oh, Alex. I didn't want to leave you. But it was so damned banal, so grungy and every-day...” She frowned. “But the books haven't been better. Not really. I mean, they're fun, they're exciting, but... they're too thin. They're a good escape, but the people aren't real people. Things tie up too neatly, most of the time. And there's always so much drama. You never get to rest, to just sit down with a cup of tea and...” She laughed. “And read a good book.”
He spread his hands. “This can be the best of both worlds, Alice.” He grinned. “And there are even servants here, to pick up my dirty socks.”
Alice looked at him for a moment, and then laughed. She touched his face. “You came all this way. You could have stayed in any of the books, could have had adventure, romance...”
“What do you think I'm having now?” He leaned forward and kissed her.
He wasn't really a prince, and she wasn't really a princess. But it was a pretty good kiss, all the same.
The Proprietor read the last line, then closed the fairy tale and sighed, a bit wistfully. She'd miss Alice and Alex. They'd been fun. They'd been different.
“Happily-ever-after,” she sang, dusting the impossibly long shelves. “Happily-ever-after-all...”