January 11, 2023

Another Day at Book Club


June Hyland was a sesquipedalian.

That was the word for her, thought Celia, as she sat in her chair listening to June drone on. If a person could look like a word, then the word for June was sesquipedalian. It wasn’t just that she was long-winded, though June was certainly that.

But, thought Celia, June had a rather long body with a neck like a stove pipe and legs like stilts. Not to mention her long mouth, long nose, and long tongue. Yes, thought Celia, June was as long as a Tolstoy novel and every bit as wordy.

Celia sighed, took a sip of her wine and smiled to herself. She could almost imagine what June would look like as an old dusty Russian novel, with her voice as brittle as the yellowed pages and her tongue as dry as parchment. And don’t forget boring, thought Celia. So boring. Celia laughed a little and took another sip of her wine.

Or maybe, thought Celia, with a small chuckle, June was better described as the Don Quixote of Book Club, always delivering long ridiculous monologues about the books she claimed to have read but had hardly ever understood. Yes, thought Celia. June was a real Don Quixote.

“I just think,” June was saying, perched on the edge of her seat, her long foot bouncing rhythmically in time to imaginary music, “that Tommy must have been suffering from narcoleptis.”

“You mean narcolepsy,” Margaret said.

But June ignored her. She always did.

They were all sitting in a circle in Margaret’s living room, discussing that month’s book selection, Sorcerer of the Cold Worlds. June was delivering one of her wild and improbable theories about the book. Tommy was Thomas, the ostensible hero and sorcerer described in the book’s title. He was most certainly not narcoleptic.

As always happened at book club, the others, most of whom hadn’t bothered to read the book, would never read the book, and could care less about the book, sat around gossiping about the neighbours.

Celia enjoyed listening to them chat but didn’t feel she had anything to contribute. At eighty-two years old, Celia spent her days reading in the common room of the Clearwater Retirement Home and hardly anything worth gossiping about ever happened there.

And anyway, all the other ladies in book club were at least half Celia’s age and, from what she could tell, tolerated her presence in much the same way a mother might tolerate her child sitting at the grown-up table for dessert. They found her adorable, and sweet, and tolerable so long as her mouth was closed and she left the talking to the grownups. So that’s what Celia did. She sat, and she watched, and she listened, and occasionally, she even contributed.

It was Celia’s daughter who suggested she find a book club. Her daughter had stopped by for her forced weekly visits and had been fussing about Celia spending too much time in her books and not enough time socializing with the other geriatrics. So her daughter suggested that maybe the two should be combined, reading and socializing. And having got the idea in her head, soon her daughter was shuttling Celia to book club once a month, dumping her at Margaret’s house before racing off to her PTA meeting or yoga class or whatever it was she had to do that day. Celia’s daughter had a busy life filled with lots of busyness.

Still, after getting through the awkwardness of the first meeting, Celia had slowly grown to enjoy book club. Enjoyed it, that was, until June showed up.

Celia had met plenty of June Hylands in her day. Loud and patronizing, and condescending, June had an opinion on every subject and insisted on sharing it with anyone who would listen. As the oldest lady present, that often meant Celia. To June, Celia was nothing more than an old sofa, something soft and plump and meant to be sat on. And June never missed the chance to sit herself next to Celia and weigh her down with her tired opinions and day-old attitudes. Soon after June had joined the book club, she had taken Celia prisoner and reduced her participation to mere nods and smiles. Every meeting went the same, Celia would spend her time trying to dodge June like a soldier dodging sniper fire, but each time she was happily sacrificed by the other members as a lamb to placate June. It soon became clear that the other members were relieved that June had taken such a strong liking to Celia because it saved each of them from having to endure her tedious and terrible comments.

And so it was that Celia’s voice at book club had all but been snuffed out. She had been muted like an old TV. Tonight was no different. June was droning on and on about the book, and the more she droned, the more Celia thought she would explode.

“And I just don’t see,” said June, “how any of those spells were supposed to work. I mean, was it just me or were the words just gibberish on the page? I…”

Celia stopped listening. Instead, she flipped open her copy of the book to a random page with a magician’s spell printed on it. The words were certainly foreign, but Celia had rather enjoyed that part of the book. It had given the spells an air of authenticity, as though anyone could read them and invoke them and bring them to life. Celia looked over the words and tried to imagine what it would be like to be Thomas, a magician of incredible power. She had felt that way once. It felt like a long time ago now. A time when her opinions still mattered, and her voice could still be heard. She missed that age. She missed being that woman. That woman would have made quick work of June the Sesquipedalian and put her in her place. That woman would have cracked wise with a bon mots and shortened June to size.

As Celia’s mind wandered, she found herself reading the words of the spell, this one about a portal of darkness to another world.

The words were foreign and felt awkward on her tongue, but she found herself sounding them out like her granddaughter did when challenged with Dr. Seuss. Celia found herself concentrating on the words, rolling each sound in her mouth like a sommelier. She had no idea what the words meant, but she sensed something in them and kept reading:

Drire efikal lab okenind, laba kirtal,
laba kirtal fier dre futore, hilen somahire,
hilen somahire dak shiel dre wirlk,
dre wirlk shiel lith eipal lile,
eipal lile ali filn drat kirtal,
drat kirtal win yivra eipal shial laba miarnio

As she sounded out each word in her head, Celia could almost imagine a portal opening on the wall behind June, opening up and sucking her out of the room and out of book club.

Celia felt her anger stirring, working the words over her tongue as June continued to drone. As she came to the end of the spell, Celia felt a strange sensation and heard a distinctive pop. She looked around to see if anyone else had heard it. Everyone was still gossiping. A few were still listening to June, and June continued to listen to herself.

Celia felt disappointed that nothing had happened. What had she expected? Of course, nothing had happened, it was just a book. It was just a stupid book. Celia didn’t live in a magical world where wizards could open up portals to swallow their enemies. Too bad, she thought.

Celia reached for her glass and took another sip of wine. At least she had that much. She turned her attention back to June, and that’s when she saw it, a small red inky looking stain on the wall behind June. She was certain it hadn’t been there before, although Margaret’s house was not exactly on the shortlist to win a Martha Stewart Good Housekeeping award. Margaret had four kids under the age of sixteen, and the house always looked like a battlefield no matter how much Margaret tried to clean it.

Still, the stain — Celia felt certain it was a stain — was a red inky looking blob. Not the kind of mark a child would make. It was a red blob on a white wall. A blob so small Celia almost dismissed it as a figment of her imagination. And she might have, except that as she watched it, she saw the stain move.

Or maybe not move, thought Celia. Stains don’t move, that would be ridiculous. But it had most definitely, what, shifted, maybe? Switched? Or swapped if you’d prefer? Whatever it did, it had done it. Where she had once seen it on the right of June, she now saw it on the left.

Celia closed her eyes and rubbed them with the tips of her fingers. She was tired, that was all. It didn’t help that June was inhaling all of the oxygen out of the room. Or that Celia was feeling rather lightheaded. She opened her eyes again, and to her astonishment, the red inky stain had gotten larger. Where it had once been no bigger than a dime, it was now the diameter of a soccer ball. And as she watched it, it continued to grow. The stain seemed to be devouring the wall, spreading wider and wider until Celia felt she could actually look through the wall into the space beyond. She closed her eyes again several times but still the stain was there. It grew as large as a garage door. And then it stopped.

Celia looked around the room, but nobody else had taken notice of the giant red stain on the wall. She wanted to say something, to point it out to everyone, but the words wouldn’t form in her mouth. June was still droning on, oblivious to the danger behind her. Oblivious to anyone else but herself. And then Celia heard it, another pop, and suddenly the stain was beginning to shrink, to disappear.

Celia considered that for a minute, trying to make sense of what she was seeing. Had she really conjured up a portal to another world? Was she the only one who could see it? She considered speaking out again, but again, she couldn’t find the words. What should she do?

As she sat there considering, she realized there was only one thing she could do. She needed to act. She needed to reclaim her voice. She needed to silence her book club tormentor. And just like that, Celia was on her feet and inching towards June. Slowly at first but then faster. She had to do what needed to be done before the portal disappeared. So she pressed on. And as she moved closer, June’s voice faltered for the first time. But Celia pressed on, ever forward. And soon, June was on her feet, backing away from Celia. But still, Celia walked forward. And with each step, June was forced to take a step back. And then another. And another. Until, like that, June stepped back through the ink stain portal on the wall. And no sooner had she gone through the portal than the portal closed. The wall was just a wall. Everything was as it had been.

Celia turned. All the ladies had stopped speaking. The room was silent. Celia didn’t speak. She couldn’t trust herself to explain. She simply stood there, still as an evening prayer. Nobody said anything. The silence thick in the aftermath. And then Margaret stood up, smiled at her guests, and asked if anyone wanted more wine.

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