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art by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

Book of Love

Michael Haynes lives in Central Ohio where he helps keep IT systems running for a large corporation during the day and puts his characters through the wringer by night. An ardent short story reader and writer, Michael has had stories appear in venues such as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Daily Science Fiction.

He is the Editor for the monthly flash fiction contests run by Kazka Press and is an Associate Editor for the Unidentified Funny Objects series of anthologies. His website is michaelhaynes.info.

I came in from the snow, curses rolling around in my head. A day didn't go by without me wondering how I'd come to this. A once-upon-a-time god reduced to trolling for humans desperate enough to believe in something that surely sounded crazy.
There was a man sitting at the bar with that look I know well. He didn't feel like the wrong sort. I've gotten good at steering clear of those people through the decades. Call it a self-preservation instinct. I feel the joy--or the pain--which comes out of the relationships I forge.
I sat beside him and placed my notebook on the polished wood.
He gave me a quick look and said, "You're a bit early for St. Patrick's, aren't you?" The green suit--it does draw the eye.
I ignored him and got the bartender's attention. It's always best to get a feel for the person in charge of things. More than once I've had to make a quick departure when a proprietor believed I was trying to scam a friend or a regular who could ill afford to part with any of their drinking money.
The bartender confirmed he had Guinness on tap, and went to get one for me.
My prospect had snorted on hearing my order.
"You don't do things half-way, do you?" he asked. This time, he turned to face me full on.
And this time, I answered him. "No," I said. "Not as a matter of practice."
He nodded the careful nod of the half-soused. "I guess a man's got to respect that. You new around here?"
My stout came and I took a sip. "Passing through."
"Huh. Not many folks pass through here."
"I'm not many folks."
He narrowed his eyes a bit, trying to figure that one out.
"I'm just one."
He rolled his eyes. "Well, then, 'Just One.' I hope you enjoy passing through Cal's Tavern."
I raised my glass towards him and he replied with a small tap of his against mine.
We made small talk for a bit, commenting on the basketball game playing on the TV at the other end of the bar. Eventually he introduced himself as Pete. "And I'm sure your name isn't really 'Just One.'"
"Angus," I said, and held out my hand. We shook.
He ordered another drink and I started to get worried. This sort of thing, you've got to catch a man--or a woman--when they're just drunk enough that they're willing to believe what you're saying but not so drunk that they can't hold up their end of a negotiation.
I drummed my fingers on the notebook's faux-marble cover, trying to figure out how to bring up the whole subject of love and relationships without giving him the wrong idea. That had happened more than once, too.
Luck was with me that night. Pete noticed my fidgeting and asked, "What's with the notebook? You a writer?"
"No. I don't write in this book at all. Other people do. I just help them. And they don't write fiction or poetry. They write..." The pause was calculated. This line I'd delivered many times. "Truth."
He didn't seem sure what to make of that. I opened the cover, slowly turned some pages. "See," I continued, "I know this may sound ridiculous, but this is a special book. It's the Book of Love."
As sure as day follows night, I get one of three reactions after that declaration. Some people look at me like I'm crazy and some just laugh. Pete went with option three. The song.
That song's followed me around for over fifty years now and I'm beyond sick of it, though I also suppose it's broken the ice with more than one prospect who would otherwise have given me the "poor crazy guy" look.
"Not the one from the song," I said. "It's the real one."
I continued to leaf through the notebook, page after page crammed full of sentences, all written in different hands.
"I said people write truth in this book. What I mean is this. Someone writes a simple sentence--'Rick loves Lisa,' say. And it becomes true. Whether it was before or not."
"You're shitting me," he said.
"Not at all."
"Right. So why are you in this cruddy bar? Why haven't you written 'Angus is a billionaire' and--"
I held up a finger. "Book of Love, remember. Writing that wouldn't do a thing. It only works for love."
Pete shook his head and looked away. Neither of us spoke for several minutes.
He turned back to me with a look that was steadier than I would have thought he was capable of this far into the night. "Does it..."
I gave him a few seconds, but he just shook his head again. "Oh, go on." I said. "Does it what?"
He licked his lips and took another sip of his drink. Every trace of the amiable bar mate was gone from his expression. "Does it work even if the person loves someone else?"
It was my turn to hesitate, thinking of the consequences of proceeding. This was a common situation and far from the most potentially painful to carry around with me. Still, I'd read him as a sad sack who needed a little help, not someone out to displace another.
He was watching me. I almost lied, but the thinness of my wallet led me forward. "Yes," I said. "It does."
"How much?"
"How much what?" I glanced down the bar and was relieved to see the bartender absorbed in watching the game.
"Look, you're either a con man or you've really got this magic book. Either way, there's got to be something you're wanting out of this. Am I right?"
"A thousand dollars," I said.
He laughed. "I don't have that kind of cash on me."
"Well, then..." I reached for my own wallet, ready to slap five bucks down for my drink and get out of this place and this conversation that had wandered out of my control.
He grabbed my arm. "Don't go." There wasn't a trace of drunkenness in his voice. "A dead man's got no use for money and you walked in here offering me a chance to live."
Pete downed the last of his drink. "There's an ATM just down the street, though. Give me a couple of minutes and I'll be back. Please don't go." He didn't wait for me to answer. He stood up, hollered at the bartender that he was going for a smoke, and left.
I thought about leaving, but the lure of a thousand dollars--double what I usually asked--was too much to pass up. True to his word, Pete was back shortly. He thrust his hand into his coat pocket and came out with a wad of twenties.
"It's all there. Let's do this."
His eyes were moist, his cheeks red. The green bills trembled.
I took the money and pocketed it, then I opened the book to the first page with blank space. I handed him my pen.
He sat and looked at the book for a long moment. He wrote then, quickly, before closing the book and handing me back my pen.
Pete closed his eyes.
I stood to leave, fished out one of the bills he'd just given me, and put it on the bar. I wasn't going to wait for any change. I just wanted out.
As I was turning away, Pete opened his eyes and reached out for me again. There were tears on his face. "Thank you." He said. "You've helped more than you know."
I said something to him, presumably that he was welcome, and hurried away.
I couldn't get to sleep that night, thinking about the whole scene. I would be driving in the morning, heading for another town full of bars, full of prospects. And I had the money. But still, something nagged at me.
Finally, I got out of bed. I flipped open the book and found Pete's entry.
Jagged, blue ink letters read: "Pete doesn't love Cara."
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

Author Comments

"I liked the idea of this story with Angus, the once-upon-a-time god reduced to something like a grifter. And the magical notebook appealed to me, too. Writing earlier drafts of the story, something was nagging at me and I realized that the book was stealing choices away from people. That's still a problem in the world these characters live in, but in this story I believe that Pete made a very wise and loving choice."

- Michael Haynes
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