Human Skin Book

The Unidentified Story

I’m window shopping for my friend’s birthday, and the sign in Edwardian script catches my eye. Funny, I’ve walked by the Curiosity Shoppe maybe a dozen times, I guess. I must not have noticed it.

It’s in one of the older buildings on the tiny street. Probably the perfect place to find something for Tom. There could be a random paperweight in the shape of a raven’s skull or something else weird that Tom would cackle over with glee. He’s a strange guy.

Pulling at the heavy door, I let myself in to the tinkling of a bell.

Inhaling deeply, I first notice the smell. Soft and acrid. The smell of decay, paper, and something else. Tobacco, maybe?

I see I’ve come to the right place. Row after row of open shelving lines the place, floor to ceiling. These shelves, they’re packed with junk, but cool junk, you know? Old typewriters and pedal sewing machines.  A taxidermy ostrich, along with a flock of mismatched birds. Victorian anatomical models of the inner ear, the wrist. Row after row of glass apothecary jars, empty perfume bottles, all growing a fine pelt of dust.

And books. More old hardcovers than I’ve ever seen.

Yep, I’m in the right place.

I scarcely absorb all this, and an elderly gentleman appears from the maze of shelving. He has, of all things, some kind of bright green parrot on his shoulder. Other than that, he looks like the kind of guy who might teach your undergraduate humanities class.

“Yes, young man, may I help you?” he asks in a voice gravelly with age.

“Help you?” the parrot squawks.

“Um, yeah,” I say, still turning my head like a gyroscope at the preserved insects under bell jars, the matryoshkas. “I need a gift for my friend.”

“I see. Well, what interests your friend?”

I think for a little. “He likes strange things. Like, he has a collection of Victorian drawings…he fences. Oh, and he reads. He’s writing a dissertation on Poe.”

The old man’s eyes brighten. “Poe, eh? I have something that might interest him.”

As he walks to the back of the store, the parrot pulls at the fine white wisps crowning his head. I follow him.

“Now, this is a rarity. I guarantee you won’t find another one like it.” He disappears behind a faded black curtain. I wait next to a row of cloudy eyeballs, ears, fingers in jars. A shudder goes through me. Tom may like this stuff, but…

The old man returns, gingerly carrying a large leather-bound tome in both hands.

“This is one of our treasures,” he explains softly, setting it down on a table strewn with receipts and crumbling black and white photographs.

It creaks as he opens it to the title page. I see it is a collected works of Edgar Allen Poe.

“Wow,” I mutter under my breath. The delicate pages, the aging leather cover. It could be a first edition.

“Yes,” the man says. His voice quakes a bit. “It’s the only one of its kind. Just turned up from an estate donation. Not put together by a publishing house, apparently. There is even an unidentified story at the end. Unattributed to Poe.” He steps back, as if glad to stop touching it.

I reach over though and leaf through, ask him how much.

“I’d like to get it off my hands,” he says. “Twenty dollars?”

“Twenty? Really?” It’s hard to hide the surprise in my voice.

“Yes. I’d like to be rid of it,” he says, his face suddenly becoming stoic. Looking at something I can’t see. “I’ve had bad luck with it.”

“Well, if you say so. I mean, with a leather cover like…”

The man looks at me, surprised. “Oh, that’s not leather.”

I don’t get it. I look at him, then back at the book. Back at him. Back at the book.

The pieces click into place.

“Shit, man!” I jerk my hand away from it. “It’s not…I mean…”

I look closer. But I don’t touch it.

It falls open to the last few pages.

“Do you believe in prophecy?” the man says blankly.

I look down…

“Prophecy!” the parrot echoes.

…at the first lines of the story.

“The knife clatters to the ground and a scream pierces the night.”

Human Skin Book

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