Relationships have firsts. First date, first kiss, first fuck, first fight. Anniversaries for everything when you’re conducting a relationship. First gift, that’s a sweet one; first black eye, that’s not. Penny Arrabbiata had a guy buy her a ring once, diamonds and everything, but she didn’t want it and she let him down easy. Had another guy pop her in the jaw once, which she also did not want, and she smiled and apologized and calmed him down and fucked him until he slept, then she slammed a chair into his face, breaking his nose, both occipital bones, his left zygomatic, and concussing him to the point of insensation. Then she took a shit on his chest and left his dorm room. Luckily, this was the sixties and DNA testing did not exist yet, so she was not linked to the assault.
“That’s a delightful story.”
“I’ll bet you tell that to all the boys.”
“I do. Surprised I haven’t told you yet.”
“Oh. No, coiled and corn-speckled.”
Mr Venable laughed HA! like he was sneezing. First time for everything in a relationship, Penny Arrabbiata thought. First time for a kiss and for a fuck and for a fight and, if you were dating someone who owned a magical bookstore, first time for a bookworm uprising. She had fenced a bit at prep school, but she had never wielded a samurai sword before. It was in its scabbard hanging off her shoulder like a deadly purse. She had been waving it around while she walked until she nearly sliced Mr. Venable’s arm off.
“Just a little.”
“‘Just a little?’ A drop is too much. I prefer my blood inside me. And look at my shirt.”
“I’d prefer not to.”
It was 1969, and Mr. Venable was dressed like it. It did not suit him.
“Shirts don’t grow on trees, you know.”
“Money does. I’ll buy you a new one. I barely touched you, you know.”
They were in the second sub-basement to the left.
“Magical bookstore. Magical sword.”
“We should get sushi after this.”
“Should we survive, there shall be sushi. Sheathe the sword.”
The overhead lights swayed though there was no wind at all. The air was stuffy and smelled like paper and punctuation. Penny had her boots on; they clomped on the maple planks that made up the floors of the bookstore with no title. The rows of shelves were not infinite, but just barely. Infinitesque, maybe. They were both wearing corduroy pants.
CHIKKA CHIKKA CHIKKA
“There!” he cried, and ran towards the sound of the bookworms; Penny followed. They made it to the corner of the space, where shelves junctioned off into each other and mingled: the Chemistry section abutted Politics and spawned Chemical Warfare. She had her hand on her sword, felt ridiculous, dropped her hand, CHIKKA CHIKKA, put her hand back on her sword. Mr. Venable sniffed around.
“I can smell them.”
Penny breathed in through her nose, deeply.
“What do they smell like?”
He had a longsword. Sun-shaped pommel at the end of the white hilt. Simple cross-guard made from the same steel as the blade. There was writing down the edges of the blade in an abandoned language. If anyone could translate it, they would know it read “Cast me away that I might judge this bloody city,” but nobody could.
“Do you smell a lake?”
“It’s the sword.”
“Why does your sword–”
Both of them crouched down for no reason. Cocked their heads so their ears could do their best. They squinted their eyes, too. Humans think that squinting their eyes makes them hear better. (This is the corollary to turning down the car radio when you’re looking for a street sign.) Elephants can hear infrasonics through their feet, and foxes can hear a mouse’s heartbeat underground at a thousand paces, but humans can hear well enough. Mostly. So they cocked their heads and strained to hear.
chikka chikka chikka
Mr. Venable pointed–there–and stalked in the direction of his finger. Penny followed. She did not want to admit how much fun she was having; she had been raised coolly. Underplay it, dear. Emotions are so ethnic. Still, she smiled and fingered her katana. Crept forward with glee and bloodthirst but then she whispered,
Penny dropped to her knees and put her ear against the wooden floor. Looked up at Mr. Venable. Nodded. He nodded back. She nodded back at his nodding. He nodded in return, and she said,
“Are we just gonna nod at each other?”
“We were trapped in a death spiral there. We could have perished. Thank you for pulling us out.”
She stood up and kissed him. Penny was used to men kissing her, but she kissed him and Mr. Venable kissed her back. And then they drew their swords.
“Once more into the breach?”
Some sub-basements were accessible via elevator, and others could only be gotten to with stairs. A few were self-encompassing and had no exits or entrances. One sub-basement wandered up and down the Main Drag and popped up in movie theaters and hair salons whenever it felt like it. Another was a contender for the welterweight belt in Malaysia.
The stairs creaked.
CHIKKA CHIKKA CHIKKA
They were in the History section; American History, more specifically. The official version and otherwise. Respectable books the weight of doorstops and pamphlets that would flutter away in the breeze.
“Can you smell them?”
“The last frontier,” Mr. Venable said.
“The last American frontier. Do you know what it was?”
Penny Arrabbiata looked left and right for monsters.
“Just making conversation.”
“The last frontier? I don’t know. California, I’d suppose.”
“Hawaii. Alaska. One of them.”
“Neither. The West was declared closed in 1897.”
“Florida. Both the first and last settled place in America. You’ll recall St. Augustine.”
“Only as an answer to a trivia question.”
“More recognition than most towns get. Established in 1565.”
“For America, yes.”
There was a tortoiseshell cat atop one of the shelves to their right. She was watching for mice and had no interest in the history lesson. She had no name.
“Everything below the panhandle was unknown, at least to the white man, until 1900. A man named Frederick Willoughby mapped the Everglades in a canoe.”
“Someone paid him.”
“A swamp. From Orlando down to the Keys. Simply swamp. Nothing to build on and nowhere to live. No mines at all. Nothing but useless land in the shape of a phallus.”
“Indeed. And white men could not live in a dickswamp. But white men could not resist seaside property. And there was never any winter in Florida, not a tiny little bit.”
“Your story is coming to a moral, I feel.”
“Indeed. In 1900, there were 300 white people living in Miami. Today, it is the third most populous state.”
Mr. Venable spun around on his heel, careful not to slice Penny’s face off with his sword, and gathered her in an arm and kissed her.
“And do you know why?”
“You’re the weirdest romantic.”
He kissed her again.
“And do you know why?”
“The Army Corps of Engineers.”
She kissed him back.
“You’re getting me weirdly hot.”
“They dredged massive canals throughout the entire peninsula. The water drains into them, and back into the ocean. It was a project bigger than Rural Electrification or the Hoover Dam. You can turn a swamp into a neighborhood if you have enough money. The canals are deeper than the groundwater, and so everything flows into them and out. Away from the homes, and away from the retirees. Away from those tired of winter, and there is never any winter in Florida, not even a little bit.”
“What could go wrong with living where you shouldn’t?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all.”
Penny Arrabbiata’s hair was long and brown, and Mr. Venable needed a trim. Neither of them exercised, and they grasped each other by the waist and kissed.
CHIKKA CHIKKA CHIKKA the bookworms were making a frontal assault. Mr. Venable ran towards them with his longsword that he did not quite know how to use, and so did Penny Arrabbiata with her katana, and the two of them beat the monsters back, but they would return. There were always monsters in the bookstore with no title, which was on the Main Drag in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.