Novel excerpt: The Book Exchange





“That must be so scary,” he said.

She saw genuine empathy in his eyes, but also relief. Relief that it was her diagnosis, not his. It came as no surprise. She had seen this look before. Perhaps it was just human nature for empathy to only run so deep before self preservation surfaces to say “how sad, but better you than me.”

This time, however, the face also sported a tiny smile. She grappled with an odd impulse to gently coach him on how to better disguise his relief and a desire to slap the smile off his face – though of course she wouldn’t.

Instead, she stared at him for a moment as he squinted his eyes and pressed his eyebrows closer together as if to ramp up the appearance of empathy, as if he recognized he’d better try harder because his thoughts had begun to drift to the enjoyment he would have with his buddies who were probably already waiting for him at the pub. She knew he was decent enough to respect that she had been bravely vulnerable. He would labor to pause in this moment with her, she thought, to try to appear patient and somehow grateful that she had shared this private, awkward information.

She indulged him in his semi-pretense.

“Well, thank you for listening. You’re very kind.” she said.

In reality, he cared too much and the news hit him hard. His smile was simply the adult version of a child’s laugh when told of something too heavy or hugely sad. Yet in a matter of milliseconds he was able to summon a detachment of himself from this horrible news, then a detachment of it from her. And although this forced plausibility lifted the weight from both of them, somehow he knew it was unreliable and, also, she wouldn’t believe it. The thought spun around inside him until again he absorbed her pain and fear and the insufferability dug into him like a claw in a sandbox and caused him to freeze.

He said nothing as she turned toward the door.

She hadn’t needed to tell him why she wouldn’t be back. She could’ve made up anything, or given a canned, vague reason. That would have been hard enough. In that scenario, he might have contrived an excuse to see her again, one that wasn’t too imposing and that was clever enough that it could be viewed as professional, if necessary. He would have wanted to touch her, at last, and would probably have settled on putting one hand on her shoulder in a convincing enough fraternal gesture between colleagues. It would not have been appropriate to give her a goodbye hug. Now he ached to stop her, to hold her, whether or not it was appropriate – though of course he wouldn’t.

She held her head high, yet she walked slowly with a slight shuffle as though dragging a large tarp carrying the weight of all the heavy words she had just spilled out, gathered from underneath and around and inside him, until he could be left as before with no memory of this interaction.

As she disappeared through the doorway into the dark corridor he rightfully imagined her regret of having been so vulnerable with someone she hardly knew. He wrongfully imagined he would never see her again.

Her mortification implored her never to see him again. Her diagnosis seemed complicit.

Neither of them would ever have imagined that there would be a time in the future when he would be pointing a gun at her while her eyes, framed in long lashes moistened into clumps, pleaded with him and her lips breathed the words “I love you.”





The straight black stitch threads poking from Jessica’s skin appeared like a line of spiders’ legs, half crawled into the long seam across her lower abdomen. They hadn’t brought her baby to her, and it had been six hours. Six hours and twenty nine minutes. Her head was propped on two pillows, more than adequate for seeing the puffy, angry line beyond what was left of her belly. A part of her was gone and in its place were the spiders.

That this grotesque exchange felt like nothing short of cruelty was a product of her nascent maternal instinct and paranoia borne of intense sleep deprivation. The paranoia ripened into delusions of hospital aliens, or at least sociopaths.

Or white supremacists.

This possibility caused her to jolt to sitting and she moaned behind closed lips. A bubble of watery blood pushed out from between two pairs of spider legs. She attempted to swing her partially-numb right leg over the side of the hospital bed. It slumped over the edge like a box store bag of cat litter.

“Agg,” she cried and the blood bubble became a rivulet that rolled down the crease of her inner thigh.

“What in God’s name are you doing?” came a voice then a nurse. The nurse stood at the open door, round and backlit by the bright hallway. She expressed a “don’t make me come over there” snort through her nostrils.



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