With a name like Polly Culpepper, Polly felt that she was inevitably destined for some quirky, unusual occupation. If she hadn't ended up as the owner of a traveling bookmobile, she imagined that she would probably have been a pet psychic or a fortune cookie writer or an eccentric sculptor who made found-object sculptures out of trash and lived in a junkyard.
Of the options, she preferred the traveling bookshop.
The plan had occurred to her because so many people in Alaska lived out on the sprawling highway system, hours from a bookstore or library. Why not, she thought, bring the books to them?
On the outside, her traveling bookshop looked like an ordinary old-fashioned 1980s van; there was a bit of an A-Team van vibe to it. She had cleaned it up, refurbished it completely, and painted the outside purple, then stenciled fireweed and wild rose flowers, liking their crisp splashes of pink. Pink letters read POLLY'S BOOK VAN. The result was nothing like anything else on the road, and it was certainly attention-getting.
She had camping gear in the front with her. Two or three days out of the week she slept at home; the rest of the time she camped out on the road.
The back, of course, was full of bookshelves. They were packed with cheap paperbacks for the most part. She accepted trades, sales, or loans, for which she kept a ledger and collected the loaned-out books when she came back around on her two-week travel circuit.
She set up in parking lots of roadside businesses, in small downtowns, and anywhere else she could look for a few people who needed a book.
It was a fun, free-wheeling existence. She took a couple of months off from the bookmobile circuit in winter and had a part-time job at a bookstore that helped pay for it. It wasn't something she was ever going to get rich at. In fact, barely scraping by was her daily routine. But all in all, she thought that young Polly Culpepper—who would probably have made a good children's book protagonist with that name, she thought—would have been happy to know this was her future.
"How do you fit so many books in there?" was a question she had been asked by more than one patron.
"It's bigger on the inside," she said, laughing it off.
But, well ... it wasn't really a joke.
She had discovered this peculiar property of the van after moving all the books in. She began the bookshop project with a starter library from her own groaning bookshelves: rejects and discards and doubles, books she'd read once and didn't plan to read again, and a few old favorites that she hoped someone else would love as much as she did. Once the van's bookshelves were packed and her own were somewhat emptier, she climbed into the van to make sure everything was strapped down for travel. It took her a little while to notice that she could stand up without bumping her head.
"Hello, what's going on?" she said aloud.
The interior of the van was poorly lit, and she had to use her sense of touch as much as sight to feel her way deeper inside. She really should have touched the opposite side by now.
But instead all she found were more shelves loaded with books. Polly ran her fingers across them. Were these her books? Had she put all these in here? It was too dark to see properly, but she had a dim sense of more shelves extending beyond her, accompanied by a dusty old-library smell.
She pulled out a couple of books, fat dog-eared paperbacks that could have been any of the ones in the many boxes she had reserved for her traveling library/bookshop. It was too dark to read the titles, so she made her way back out to the sunlight again to see what they were. It was a bit startling, after the dimness and sense of vast space she had just experienced, to step down from the van into her own ordinary front yard.
Polly looked at the books she had taken. Were these her own books? She wasn't entirely sure. They looked like typical books from a used bookstore. One was a romance paperback with a red X through the cover, the other a thick fantasy novel that was book 3 of a series she had some vague recollection of reading a long time ago. She opened the pages of the books and shook them on a strange urge to see if there was a message inside, but nothing fell out.
Polly went back to the house and got a flashlight. When she shone it into the van, the beam played across bookshelves and the perfectly normal back side of the inner van wall, covered in the carpet that she had put up for extra noise damping on the road.
But she searched and searched for a hole in the bookshelves where she could have pulled off those two books, and found nothing.
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