“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“—so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
-Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
* * *
He’s fourteen years old when he finds it. He’s all knobby knees with scrapes on the palms of his hands and bruises along the top of his knuckles, fine blond hair sticking to the back of his neck in the thick New York City summer heat. He has a slightly bloody nose and a busted lip his Ma’s going to give him hell for after she cleans it better.
He drags his feet along the hot Brooklyn pavement, ears ringing a little, and when he looks up, it’s there, nestled in between two, narrow brick buildings—a hardware store with a dusty white, pinstriped awning to the left and a haberdashery with a line of men’s hats displayed brightly behind the glass to the right. He’s hot and a little disoriented, fresh off a brawl he could probably have avoided, and all he really wants is a cold glass of water and maybe a kerchief if someone’s kind enough to lend him one. What he finds instead is a window with gold curved writing scrawled across the top of the windowpane and a single book in the middle of its display.
Steve stops, lips between his teeth, and presses his scraped palms against the glass—then his nose and his eyeballs and his whole face after that.
His eyes are large as saucers and the ringing kinda gets forgotten, same as the smarting of his knuckles.
By the time the owner comes out to see what kid is fogging up his glass, Steve knows exactly what to ask—
“Say,” he tells the owner, who gives him that once over that every adult gives every kid who looks like he’s more trouble than he could possible be worth, “what could I do to get my hands on that book in the display?”
It’s almost certainly at least a few dollars and Steve doesn’t have a cent to his name.
The owner—a large man with a bushy mustache and perfectly circular glasses—raises a single, bushy eyebrow, and his kind eyes crinkle at the corners.
“Tell you what,” he says. “You work the hours and I’ll give you any book you want, how’s that for a deal?”
Steve wipes his smarting hand across the bridge of his smarting nose and, eyes bright, breath quickening from excitement, holds out a hand.
“You got yourself a deal.”
That is how Steve Rogers ends up reading The Maltese Falcon.
It’s how he ends up reading The Good Earth, The Great Gatsby, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Gone With the Wind. It’s how he gets his grubby little hands on Of Mice and Men, Rebecca, The Grapes of Wrath, and, eventually, The Hobbit, which he loves so much he reads half a dozen times the first month alone. On his Ma’s birthday, he buys her a slice of cake and gives her The Wizard of Oz, wrapped in newspaper. He brings home a stack of Agatha Christie novels and those too, are from the bookstore.
The bookstore’s name is The Yellow Book Road and the owner’s name is Mr. Carroll.
Mr. Carroll is a kind, decent man who loves books and giving kids who look like trouble a second chance. He gives Steve a job that gets him through the Depression and The Yellow Book Road gives him a purpose that gets him through everything else.
First he’s there after school, helping Mr. Carroll set up the displays and dust the shelves and ring up his daily customers and some wander ins besides. Then, he’s there before school too, helping Mr. Carroll count the till and do the expenses and feed the stray cat that Mr. Carroll refuses to name, but also refuses to turn out—a fat, orange thing that kind of makes Steve itchy on account of his allergies, but also is so lazy and so funny that Steve can’t help but give it attention. He sits with him on quiet mornings he’s having trouble breathing anyway and feeds him scraps of leftover breakfast. Steve scritches between his eyes and behind his right ear, just where he likes it, and he reads out to him from whatever novel he’s reading that week and it’s nice to have an audience, even if that audience mostly just uses him for food.
It calms Steve to be there, him and his thin, spindly limbs and half-working lungs and barely functioning eyes, wandering up and down the narrow aisles of bookshelves, touching the spines of books covered in cloth and books covered in leather. Outside, the world is loud and poor and violent and depressing, but inside the store, there’s a calm that sinks into Steve’s bones, an unshakeable, quiet kind of assurance that nothing else might be going exactly okay, but here there’s shelves of worlds he’s never been to and a hundred thousand different endings to explore—some not so okay, but a lot that are happier than anything he’ll ever find outside.
It’s utopia in the middle of Brooklyn, purgatory in the middle of a war. Not a literal war, not yet, but a more insidious kind; the slower kind of war, hunger and poverty eating away at tired folks who are just trying to survive. Steve closes shop and the moment he goes outside, there’s folks who are hungry and folks who are crying and folks who look at him with eyes so weary he feels it in the bones of him. It wears on him the way it wears on his Ma, when she comes home from a shift at the hospital and her feet ache and her heart hurts because she’s seen too much she can’t fix. Steve can’t fix it either, which burns him up inside, but then he comes back in the morning, opening up shop and bending down to scratch the cat behind his ears and it feels better.
He spends years like this, his limbs growing a little and his hair growing a lot, and he never quite stops sneezing from the dust, but he rifles through the new buys and the old acquisitions anyway. He brings home a few dollars for his Ma and a coupla dollars for himself and a whole lot of books for the both of them besides. It’s not perfect, but it’s as close as he’s going to get—his own peaceful oasis, both his time and his bookstore.
Life eventually creeps in whether you like for it to or not. Steve watches the Depression ravage his neighborhood and disease ravage his Ma. Neither take quite as long as they could, but both last too long by half. He watches Brooklyn grow hungrier; he watches his mother grow thinner. He watches from inside the bookstore, wrapping up his hurt in soft gauze and folding it into his heart.
When Sarah Rogers passes, Mr. Carroll gives Steve a whole month off and a whole paycheck he was never expecting, just to help cover her funeral expenses. Steve takes the money because funerals are expensive and he has nothing but books left to his name, but he doesn’t take the time.
He buries his Ma on a Friday and comes back to work on a Saturday. His eyes are red and his face pink and blotchy, but Mr. Carroll doesn’t say nothing about it.
Instead, he gives Steve a gruff hug and a beautiful, leatherbound copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Steve’s never read it before.
“It’s no use going back to yesterday,” Mr. Carroll says and touches Steve’s face. “Because you were a different person then.”
Steve doesn’t understand it then, but he will later. He swallows the thick knot in his throat and nods, vision blurry, chest heavy as an anvil. There’s dirt under his fingernails and the smell of his mother’s perfume lingering on his threadbare clothes.
He sits down on the back steps during his lunch break. The cat curls up by his feet and Steve sneezes only once before opening the book.
Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”
He spends well past his thirty minutes reading, but Mr. Carroll doesn’t scold him for it. He takes care of the customers and Steve follows Alice down the rabbit hole, the cat nudging at his hand.
Nothing happens exactly the way that Steve plans for it to. That’s life, outside of books. The U.S. goes to war and he feels a compunction he can’t dispel. It’s not patriotism or even pride; it’s doing the right thing and doing it as honorably as he can. Well, as close to honorable as he can. Steve can’t enlist the normal way, so he takes the hard way around.
When he comes back to Mr. Carroll with his body three times the size it used to be, Mr. Carroll looks at him sadly.
“Who in the world am I?” he says to Steve, quietly. “Ah, that’s the great puzzle.”
Steve has the book memorized by now, the words committed to heart.
“Am I Alice?” Steve asks Mr. Carroll quietly and Mr. Carroll gives him a soft smile.
“This isn’t Wonderland, Steve,” Mr. Carroll says. “This is war.”
Steve doesn’t know if he will ever come back here, to the little shop between the hardware store and the haberdashery. He doesn’t know if he will ever see it again—the rows of books, neatly put away on endless, narrow shelves, and the stacks of books on the floor, organized in a quiet, exact sort of disarray. He bends down to pet the cat goodbye and the cat looks up at him, with big saucer eyes. He mewls, like he knows this is the last time they will meet.
Mr. Carroll touches Steve’s shoulder.
“His name is Jabberwocky,” he says and Steve startles.
“When did you name him?” he asks.
“He’s always had a name,” Mr. Carroll says. “We all do.”
Jabberwocky turns his nose up at Steve and Steve scratches him between the eyes one last time, for good measure.
“Jabberwocky,” Steve says, with a smile. He remembers the poem. “That’s nonsense.”
“Take care of yourself, Steve,” Mr. Carroll says and this time he hands Steve Through the Looking Glass. “Wherever the rabbit hole takes you, remember—you can always come back home. All you have to do is find the way.”
Steve takes three things to war: a picture of his Ma, a small pocket watch his father had given to his mother before he had left for the Great War himself, and a single page, folded into quarters. It has a small drawing on top and words printed below.
In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by, Dreaming as the summers die:
Ever drifting down the stream, Lingering in the golden gleam,
Life, what is it but a dream?
Steve doesn’t come back from war.
When the government goes through his storage, they find out very little about Captain America but for one thing—he had loved to read.
The Smithsonian takes half of his book collection for their Captain America exhibit. In the middle of the display case, surrounded by his tools of war, is a beautiful, white leather-bound, illustrated copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
* * *
In 2011, they find the Valkyrie crashed in the waters near Greenland. The ship takes some damage to the hull, but inside is a cold, pristine scene. Everything is preserved, an eerie time capsule lit in low blue light, with ice crawling up the sides.
They find him in the middle of the bomber.
There’s a layer of ice covering his waterlogged suit and frost dusting the curves of his cheekbones.
He’s been underwater for nearly 70 years, but he doesn’t look dead. His pale eyelashes are dusted with frost as well, his mouth curved just slightly into the bare hint of a frown. They can’t feel a pulse at first. He looks as though he’s sleeping.
Steve Rogers wakes up to the twenty first century with a jolt of a headache and an intense sense of disorientation.
“You’ve been asleep, Cap,” a man with one eye and a squadron of armed agents at his back tells him. “For almost 70 years.”
It almost doesn’t need to be said. Steve looks at the modern world around him with an increasing sense of disconnect. The lights aren’t his and neither are the buildings. The cars, the animated billboards, the asphalt roads, and the bright glare of colors and advertisements—none of them are his.
“Are you all right?” Nicky Fury asks him and Steve says something about missing a date.
That much is true, but so is this—he missed one date—one day, one second—and more than half a century had passed in that time.
“Let’s get you home, soldier,” Fury tells Steve and Steve wonders: home—what is home, when the world’s gone on without you?
The twenty first century is nothing like what Steve had imagined in the 40s. It’s too loud and it’s too bright and everything is new technology, which isn’t bad, per se, although Steve’s not entirely sure it’s particularly good either. Everything is a little too brash and everyone is a little too busy. The world changes in unfathomable ways in the time he’s in the ice, but it stays the same in all the worst ways too. It’s 2011 and people are still self-serving assholes. It’s 2012 and Steve’s enemies are still the enemies they were in 1945—they just have a different name now, a new shape, a different face.
He spends not months, but a few years getting used to this—the rhythms of this century, for all its good and all its evils. He misses the past like a phantom limb, but he would, wouldn’t he?
“1945 was a long time ago, Cap,” the Widow tells him after one of their early missions and Steve gives a low laugh, unbuckling the cowl from his head.
“For you, maybe,” he says to her. “For me, it was just last year.”
That seems to be the crux of what his teammates, for all of their goodwill, don’t seem to understand.
“Level with me, Cap,” Tony says to him one day.
They’re all in Avengers Tower after a particularly grueling series of missions. Steve hasn’t been back to his apartment in days—neither has anyone else, for that matter. For the first time in three years of begging, the Avengers stay on their designated floors at the Tower because no one has the energy to do more than strip out of their outfits and sink into a hot shower.
Steve meets Tony after he’s washed the stink of alien guts off of him. Tony pours him a glass of bourbon they both know will do nothing for him.
“Okay,” Steve says and takes the glass from him.
“Where do you go, when you’re with us?”
“Don’t give me that look. You’re here physically, but you’re somewhere else mentally,” Tony says and pours himself one too. “You’re here, but you’re not. Why is that?”
Steve raises an eyebrow, but Tony raises one back. He crunches on ice and swallows a mouthful of liquor to avoid answering the question.
Tony, always willing to fill any silence longer than half a breath, stays quiet for once. He’s looking for an answer Steve doesn’t want to give.
Steve’s good at staying silent. Tony’s even better at waiting him out.
Behind him, the elevator door slides open and the others—Clint and Natasha and Bruce amble in. They make straight for the couch and Tony gives Steve an appraising look that gets under his skin.
“I’m here,” Steve says, finally. “Why would you say I’m not here?”
“Sure, you’re here physically,” Tony says with a wave of his hand. “Aren’t we all? But you’re not here where it counts. I know what disconnected looks like. You think I haven’t dissociated? You think I don’t dissociate? I got kidnapped and held in the middle of Afghanistan. I had to build myself an iron suit just to get myself out. Do you think I don’t think about that, every single day? Sometimes I’m here and sometimes I’m still there. Trust my therapy bills, Cap, I know what that’s like. So what is it? Is it the war?”
Everyone always thinks it’s the war and you know, maybe it is. Steve went to war as a soldier and he came out something else. He never finished fighting what he meant to fight and maybe that hangs over him, like a sentence without a closing punctuation mark. It’s not like he had much time to unpack all of that.
But it’s not that, really.
He’s three years out of the ice and some things come easy to him and some things don’t. He reaches for a radio knob and finds an iPhone instead. He takes the stairs down from his apartment and is almost run over by a car—something sleek and electric, fast and irresponsible. His lungs don’t stutter every time he takes a breath, but everything is on a screen, distant and disconnected. The future isn’t the worst thing that’s happened to him, but it doesn’t feel like it belongs to him. Or, more accurately, he doesn’t feel like he belongs to it.
If everyone has a future that they earn, then Steve thinks he got here by accident; he hasn’t earned anything at all.
“I’m fine, Tony,” Steve says, with a smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes. “I’m here every way I can be. Where else would I be?”
That’s not all, Steve thinks. The real question is—where else would he go?
Tony doesn’t look convinced. But then, neither does Steve.
The Widow—Natasha—takes an interest in his love life. Steve thinks it’s her way of being friendly.
Every week they grab coffee at a coffee shop in Greenwich Village that is too expensive by half, but Natasha likes their pastries and Steve likes their flat whites. They’re Avengers; Steve’s not entirely sure of the pay, but he thinks it’s probably enough to splurge on caffeine and chocolate croissants once a week.
“How was your date?” Natasha asks, breaking off a corner of a linzer tart. It’s not the first thing she asks, but it comes up not even halfway into Steve’s drink.
“It was,” Steve says by way of reply.
Natasha raises an eyebrow and Steve takes a mouthful of espresso.
“Did you take her home?” she asks.
Steve doesn’t have to answer that, so he doesn’t. The silence is more telling than an answer would be, anyway.
“Why not?” Natasha prods. “This was your second time out, wasn’t it?”
Steve’s never been particularly good at dating and even less adept with women. The serum had enhanced his musculature, but it sure hadn’t cured his lack of game. The Captain America thing had helped with that, to a certain extent, but then that’s a whole different problem. Steve doesn’t like going on dates as Captain America. He barely likes going on dates as Steve, but at least Steve is real. Awkward, but real.
Cap, on the other hand, is—
“I don’t know,” Steve says, with a slight lift of his shoulder. “She’s nice.”
“Nice,” Natasha repeats. “That’s code for boring.”
“No,” Steve gives her a warning look. “It’s code for nice. She’s perfectly lovely.”
“But?” Natasha dips a corner of her cookie in her coffee.
Steve likes Natasha, but sometimes he wishes she would take a hint.
“But we’ve only gone out twice,” Steve says.
Natasha gives him one of her indecipherable grins—a quick thing, turned up at the corner and gone just as suddenly.
“It’s the 21st century, Steve,” she says. “You’re allowed.”
“I know I’m allowed,” Steve says with some irritation. “I was allowed in the 40s too. I’m not asking for your permission.”
Natasha raises an eyebrow and Steve immediately feels wrong-footed. He tries to be firm and comes off like a jackass. Everything feels wrong on him somehow—awkward, at least. He sighs and breaks off a corner of Natasha’s cookie. She gives him a dirty look, but doesn’t stop him.
“I’m still getting used to this,” Steve admits.
“This century. Dating’s part of that, I guess.”
Natasha hums and then, surprisingly, Steve feels his foot nudged under the table.
“You’ve been out of the ice for a couple of years now,” she says. “Four years and counting. Unless you have a time machine I don’t know about, you’re stuck here, for better or for worse. When are you going to make this your home?”
The question doesn’t sit right with him, but very few things do.
He finishes his coffee and takes their dirty dishes to the counter.
“Hey,” Natasha says, meeting him at the door. She touches his elbow. “I’m just worried about you. I harass you because I care.”
“I know,” Steve says. “I appreciate it, but you don’t have to—”
“Harass you?” Natasha smiles.
“Worry,” Steve’s mouth twitches. “But that too. I can get by on my own, Nat. I promise.”
“Anyone can get by on their own, Steve,” Natasha says. “I just don’t want you to have to.”
Natasha leaves him near Washington Square Park. She takes a train uptown and he waits for the B to take him back to Brooklyn.
He has his cap on and his earbuds in, huddled at the end of a mostly empty subway car.
When are you going to make this your home? Natasha had asked him.
He thinks about that—the sentiment, but the question too.
When are you going to make this your home?
It dislodges something in his memory, like a fragment of his past, set slightly adrift.
Wherever the rabbit hole takes you, remember—you can always come back home. All you have to do is find the way.
Steve almost misses his stop, he feels so askew. He’s nearly out the door when he catches sight of a young woman with a bag. It makes him pause, large body half in and half out of the subway car. His heart rate ticks up.
“Excuse me,” he asks. “Can I ask—where that’s from?”
The young woman takes an earbud out and looks down at her paper bag of books.
“Oh,” she says with a smile. “It’s this cute little bookstore in Brooklyn.
The thing about missions is that they spike in both directions. Steve doesn’t mind them as a means to pass time. There’s something indescribably soothing about clipping his cowl into place and sliding his shield off his back; the urgency of the moment, the heat creeping up the back of his neck, just Steve and his shield and whatever enemy he has to face in front of him. He likes the immediacy of it, but, more importantly, he likes the mindlessness. He doesn’t have to think about whether the alien creation trying to destroy half of Manhattan is something he needs to fight and, in fact, he doesn’t have the time to think about it.
It’s the aftermath that gets complicated.
Missions crest high and then fall just as low.
He catches his breath after a particularly difficult day fighting off enormous, sentient slugs and unbuckles the cowl from his head. He slides it off and slumps against a brick wall, surveying the scene.
There’s guts everywhere. It’s a fucking disaster.
“That’s going to be one hell of a clean up,” Clint Barton says next to him. He’s gotten kind of banged up in the process, but Clint is, as ever, interminably good natured about it all. He unscrews a bottle of water and drains half of it before offering it to Steve.
“Who’s on slug slime duty?” Steve agrees, making a face. He takes the bottle and finishes it off.
“Some poor SHIELD intern, probably,” Clint says. “Better them than me.”
Steve looks at him as he crushes the plastic under his hand.
“You gonna get that looked at?” Steve nods at Clint’s side, where some of the slime had burned through the material of his uniform.
“Yeah,” Clint says rolling a shoulder. “New protocol. Everything goes through medical. You good?”
Steve had managed to avoid most of the toxic slime, although he had not managed to avoid the sight of slugs being blasted to jelly pieces by all manners of weaponry.
“In a manner of speaking,” Steve says. Sure enough, he sees a dozen young SHIELD interns fan out across the half-destroyed streets of the Lower East Side. “Alien slugs, huh?”
“Thor says he doesn’t claim them,” Clint chuckles, then hoists himself off the side of the building.
“Someone has to,” Steve muses out loud and Clint grins.
“All yours, Cap,” he says and claps Steve on the shoulder. “You going home?”
“Yeah,” Steve says tiredly. “Going to take a long shower and try to forget about slug guts.”
“Yeah,” Clint says and steps over a particularly large puddle of green-tinted jelly. “That’s for the best.”
Clint bids Steve goodbye and Steve watches the clean up for a few minutes longer.
Then he tucks his cowl under his arm and heads toward the subway.
Manhattan can be overrun by aliens fifteen ways to Sunday, but the MTA will still be running. Every line will inevitably, however, be running on delays. Then again, the MTA, Steve has learned, does not need aliens for that.
The low hits him halfway through his shower.
The hot water sluices off his new body—not new by objective metrics but still new to him, somehow—the aches in his muscles easing in the steam. The muscle pain never lingers too long, no matter how badly hurt he gets in the field. What lingers behind is something a little deeper than that.
It hits Steve square in the chest; a feeling a little like loneliness and a little like something more—it feels as though the ground has fallen away beneath his feet and he’s lingering over a gaping chasm, the dark yawning up at him, the end nowhere in sight.
He feels it again—the sensation that he’s slightly askew, something in him just a bit off center.
He hasn’t felt grounded in years. It’s ignorable until, well, it isn’t.
Steve grips the tiles and takes in deep breaths—one, two, and three—just the way his SHIELD therapist taught him to. When that doesn’t work, he stumbles out of the shower, hastily drying himself, and tries to squat by his bed, palms pressed into his eyes.
He can still feel the fluttering of his heart, low and rapid, somewhere near his clavicle. Time tears away from him, around him, leaving behind uneven hollows he’s left to stumble through.
Steve tries to catch his breath, but he can’t. When it’s clear nothing is working, he manages to pull on clothes.
He leaves his apartment, locking the door behind him.
Brooklyn has changed in all of the ways it was possible to. The streets are narrower now—brighter, somehow, dirtier, louder in different ways. The shops are more worn down than he remembers, with less tailors and haberdasheries, fewer newspaper boys at the corners and almost no shoe shiners to speak of. He makes a familiar loop around his neighborhood, somewhere between Clinton Hill and Crown Heights. The walking helps, although the neighborhood does not. There’s less brick now than he remembers and more yoga studios. There’s a donut shop three blocks away and next to it, a grimy hole-in-the-wall pizza shop with three tables total and a smudged display case of cheap slices. The pizza costs more than it did in the 30s, but the shitty, salty, grease trap taste is the same. It’s comforting enough, in a way.
Steve slides his hands into his pockets, his wet hair dripping onto the back of his jacket. He goes in the opposite direction today, away from what he’s come to know, that dislodged feeling making him feel uncertain on his feet. He has been in the future for four years now. He’s an Avenger; he has friends; he might even have a family. It’s not the future he imagined for himself, but it’s the future he’s gotten and it’s not all bad, except for days like this when he just can’t seem to catch his breath.
Steve passes a young woman pushing a stroller and he gives her an approximation of a smile. It’s only when she gives him a slightly terrified look that he realizes he must look even worse than he feels. He lets out a breath, drawn deep from his gut, and runs a hand through wet strands of hair.
It’s not that he’s in the future. It’s not even that he’s alone, because he isn’t. It’s that he wears the past like a second skin, the memories embedded deep and coming up close to the surface. It’s not that Steve can’t let go of the past—it’s that he is his past, just like he is his present and he will be his future. His memories are all that anchor him to the person he was, and the person he’s becoming? Well, Steve barely knows him at all.
He runs a hand through his wet hair, distractedly. There’s a buzzing sound he can’t quite dispel.
He turns left when he thinks he should go right.
He walks through Brooklyn, alone.
Steve winds his way through areas of Brooklyn he’s lost the names for. Every block is something new, although they each look foreign to him in very familiar ways. There are juice shops and yoga studios, bodegas and stand-alone delis. If there’s one cute cafe with outdoor seating he doesn’t recognize, well there’s at least half a dozen more. It’s not bad—far from it—but it’s unfamiliar. The whole city feels that way, sometimes.
It’s the city he loves, but not the city he knows. It’s definitely not the city he remembers. Of all of the things that hit him hard, this, somehow, betrays him the most. That not only should New York change, but that it should forget about him entirely.
He wishes there was one thing still living from his past. He wishes there was just one person he could find to remember with him.
The sun begins its slow dip through the Brooklyn skyline, disappearing behind tall, beige-colored buildings and reappearing between pre-war brick townhouses that Steve couldn’t afford then and certainly cannot afford now.
He drags his feet along the dirty sidewalk, the soles of his shoes making soft noises against the concrete. He stops at a streetlight, walks past a small square of a park, and then turns right at a street of brownstones. He walks under the canopy of lush green trees, smiling as a child chases after a dog. That, at least, will never change.
Steve’s phone vibrates halfway down the street and he fishes it out of his jacket.
A text message from Natasha, telling him to come to the Tower for dinner. Any other day, he would give the Avengers a happy chance. Tonight though, he’s in some kind of mood. Human interaction does not only seem like a risk, it seems ill-advised.
Steve considers it, almost replies, and then puts it away.
When he looks back up, dragging himself out of his reverie, he’s at the street corner, caught in an intersection. He can turn right now, follow the path along more street shops, back in the direction he came from. Or, he can turn left and see what’s that way.
Steve’s phone buzzes again and this time he doesn’t even reach for it.
In the end, it’s not a decision he makes, really. He just follows where his gut tells him to go. It says go left, so he goes left.
Imagine his surprise when he sees the pinstriped awning of an old hardware store.
Sometimes, when Steve is lost in that space between his past and his present, he settles into a sliver of time that is neither and both at the same time. It’s a kind of temporal limbo, a way for his brain to stop and make sense of everything that’s happened to him. Usually, when he’s floating in this space, it’s more metaphorical—fleeting thoughts and glimpses in the corner of his vision; a thin, grey divide between memory and reality.
This is nothing like that.
At first, he thinks he’s seeing things—a hallucation, a mirage, a daydream that will disappear the moment his eyes flutter.
But he closes his eyes and opens them again and it’s still there—an awning he remembers as acutely as the apartment he grew up in.
Steve can feel his heart hammer in his chest in a way that is more present than anything he’s felt in a very long time. He can hear the sound of it in his ears; a rat-a-tat-tat-tat. Briefly, he wonders if he’s lost what’s left of his mind. Next to the former hardware store is a familiar storefront—a narrow, yellow door, faded mint borders, and a windowpane with letters curved across the front. There are window hours at the corner of the glass now and half a dozen stickers he doesn’t recognize; the display inside is different and the store next door is a juice shop, but that’s as far as the differences go. If he forgot everything else, Steve would still know this door and this window and this small, narrow building in between two brick storefronts.
He reaches forward, touches the door handle, and when the faint chime above the doorway clinks together, he’s nearly startled backward.
As far as dreams go, this is far too real of one.
Still, Steve tilts his head up and the sign is still there, like something plucked out of his memory.
The Yellow Book Road, it says, just above his head.
It’s disorienting to be two places at once, but that’s the kind of skin-prickling deja vu Steve feels when he steps inside. The door closes behind him and for a moment his senses are overwhelmed, his head stuffed with cotton and caught between memories. The shelves are narrow, polished wood, filled with rows and rows of neat, colorful books. There are books stacked in the aisles and books stacked in the corners and books stacked on top of shelves of differing heights. Customers stand between them, crouch over them. A young man with dreadlocks down his back reaches for the topmost shelf and comes down with a thick book, a hardcover with a ship drawn on the front.
The air is a little warm, a little stifled, but it smells like wood and dust on pages. Steve doesn’t sneeze when he inhales it, but it does sink into his lungs, the taste of paper and ink and the smooth leather of bindings.
His head feels like it’s stuffed with cotton. His heart ticks slowly somewhere near his throat.
He takes one step in and then another. There are two long tables set up in between the crowded rows of shelves and to the left, what, distantly, appears to be the front desk. There are books stacked there too, a small bell, and small containers of magnets and other trinkets. There’s a cash register and a sign that says open, but no person manning it.
Steve’s disorientation increases. For a moment, he thinks he should take a step toward it. It’s his job to be at the register, he remembers.
Then he blinks and he’s back, standing in the doorway.
He gives his head a little shake and looks straight down the store, instead, to the back. At the other end, opposite from him, is a set of stairs, right where he remembers them to be. If Steve isn’t careful, he can see himself sitting there, four score and a lifetime ago.
When he turns his head, he thinks he sees a fat, orange cat.
It isn’t there, of course. Jabberwocky has been gone nearly as long as Steve has.
“Hey, sorry about that,” a harried looking person says, suddenly startling into Steve’s thoughts. He emerges from one of the aisles with two arms full of books; a tall, young man, maybe Steve’s physical age, maybe older, or maybe younger. He has long, brown hair that’s half pulled back into a bun and a grey and black plaid button up that’s open at the throat. He’s wearing dark, ripped jeans, nearly plastered to his legs, and bright, beat up red shoes that Steve recognizes as Converses. There are thick, black frames sitting comfortably on his face. He grins at Steve apologetically.
“Had a bit of an accident back there,” the young man says.
“An...accident?” Steve blinks.
“A book accident,” the man says. He lets out a little puff of breath and tips all of the books onto the already crowded counter. They slide into place with a little bit of clatter, although the man knocks some trinkets off the table and that’s louder. “Ah fuck! Shoot—sorry! Hold on.”
He disappears as he picks up the trinkets and then he emerges again, flapping his arms a bit wildly.
“Like I was saying, book emergency! That’s the most dire kind. There were two shelves and they were ready to tip over, which would have sucked because—I mean you’ve seen the shelves right? It’d be like some kind of incredibly dusty game of dominos. My allergies aren’t ready for that. I developed adult allergies and now I’m allergic to dust, I guess. Glad I work in a bookstore. Anyway, it’s all fixed now, or at least they’re not leaning anymore and the stacks are manageable enough to walk around.”
Steve blinks again.
“The shelf situation I mean,” the man says. “I don’t think I can fix the allergies, you just kind of develop them and then you’re stuck with them forever, aren’t you? Although I have a bottle of Claritin in the back, I guess.”
Steve looks at him uncertainly, but the young man doesn’t notice. He’s started to organize the books into piles.
“Anyway, they’re pretty visible, right? The stacks, I mean. Like, they’re stacks of books. And not thin ones either—we got tomes in here. So I kind of feel like if you trip over an entire stack of books that includes tomes, you have no one to blame but yourself.”
It’s all a lot to process. Everything about this person seems a lot to process.
The young man shifts the books into three different piles and grins at Steve again over the top.
“Anyway, if you trip, don’t sue us. I mean technically you could, but I don’t recommend it. I can only pay you in books and probably only the dusty paperbacks if I’m going to be honest. How many John Grisham novels can cure a twisted ankle? Probably not enough, or maybe too many, I don’t know. I don’t really like John Grisham. So, can I help you?”
Now Steve knows he’s not the smoothest human to ever walk the planet. He’s not even top…million, let alone any number higher. But he usually knows how to use his mouth and he hasn’t been rendered speechless since about 1944, by his estimation. So it’s to his unique horror and confusion that he finds himself with his mouth open and all words refusing to come out.
It would be fine, if he could just smile and nod and turn away, but to compound the horror, the guy in front of him gets a look across his face like shit and, running a hand into his hair, he gives Steve a sheepish smile.
“Sorry, that was a lot, wasn’t it?” he asks. “I’m running on about four cups of coffee and two hours of sleep and it’s near the end of the day, so I tend to get a little...well anyway, you saw. Seriously though, can I help you?”
Steve has no desire to make this perfectly normal person feel like he’s done something wrong when it’s no one’s fault but Steve’s own that his brain has forgotten how to make words, so he unsticks his tongue from the roof of his mouth and says the first thing he can think of.
The young man gives him a politely confused look as though, for some reason, “Carroll” isn’t a full sentence or thought.
“Sorry, there are a lot of Carrolls,” the young man says. “Do you have a first name? Or a last name.”
Steve looks at the stack of books in front of him. On top is one he hasn’t read yet—The Kite Runner. He picks it up, absentmindedly, just to have something to do with his hands.
“Khomeini,” the young man says, looking over at what Steve’s picked up. “Have you read him?”
Steve shakes his head.
“You know those books that render you just...devastated?” Steve looks up and the young man is watching him with a thoughtful expression. “Like, you just know it’s one of the best things you’ve read and you kind of can’t believe you did it to yourself, but you’re glad you did because for the span of that book everything was just...devastating, but beautiful?”
Steve’s chest constricts.
“Yeah,” he says.
“He’s like that,” the young man says, with a smile. “I can’t recommend it enough. But also, make sure you’re in the right headspace for it.”
Steve looks down at the book again. For a moment, he fingers the edges. He’s drawn strength before, from the hard corners of a book, from the sharp edges of uneven papers and the sandpaper feel of everything in between. He does it again now and it soothes him in a way he can’t explain. It dislodges a worry held tight in his throat. Like, everything else has changed, but this hasn’t.
He puts it down.
“Mr. Carroll,” Steve says this time. “He used to own this place...a long time ago. Is he still—do you know what happened to him?”
“Charles Carroll?” the young man says. “He was the original owner…God, ages ago.”
“83 years ago,” Steve mumbles.
“Yeah, something like that.” The young man braces his hands against the counter and leans into it. “He died a really long time ago, I can’t remember when. Sometime after World War II. I think his son inherited the shop and then his daughter, but she sold it sometime in the early 2000s.”
“Oh,” Steve says. It’s not like he expected anything more, but it makes his chest sink a little, makes him feel funny and loose. “Who’s the new owner?”
“Roberts,” the other man says. “He doesn’t live here. Bought the place from the daughter and has hired people to run it ever since. I think I’ve seen him maybe twice since he hired me. He lives in Florida or...somewhere warm.”
That makes Steve look at the young man closer.
“You’re the manager?”
“Sure, why not?” the guy shrugs. “There’s three of us total and we run the place seven days a week, so I guess we’re all one third manager. One of them’s got a family though and the other’s kind of in and out of rehab, which sucks. So I’m maybe like 45% manager and then the other two are the rest.”
Steve must give him some kind of absurd look, because the man starts laughing. It takes over his whole face somehow—his mouth folding up, teeth peeking up over lips, eyes crinkling from the corners. He kind of throws his head back while he does it, like he’s laughing with his whole body and maybe because that is absurd, but probably because Steve is losing what’s left of his mind, Steve finally lets out a puff of breath and when he reemerges, he’s smiling too.
“You want to talk to Mr. Roberts, though?” the young man asks. He shakes his head and starts rummaging behind the desk. “I have his number here somewhere.”
“No,” Steve says quickly and the young man looks up. “No, that’s—okay. I was just wondering. I just knew Mr. Carroll—the old owner.”
“You knew him?” the young man looks confused.
Steve colors a little.
“His family, I mean. I knew his family. I’ve been away for a while and...I didn’t know this was still here. The bookstore.”
The smile that steals over the young man’s face is something different than before—it’s softer, somehow. Warmer, maybe.
“Yeah,” he says. “We’re still here.”
Steve nods. There’s a moment of silence between them and that’s all he really needs. Suddenly, it comes washing over him, like a wave crashing into the shore—how tired he is; a bone-deep, aching, exhaustion.
He’s in a new century with new people and a new life and all he really wanted was one touchstone from his past. That’s what he had asked for. And, strangely, that’s exactly what he had gotten.
“What—” Steve says suddenly and finds his voice croaking. Then he clears his throat and looks up at the young man, who is watching him closely, but not surreptitiously. “What do you suggest? I haven’t picked up a new book in...a while.”
“Well, that’s a big question—” the young man looks at him questioningly.
“Steve,” Steve says. That makes the young man smile.
“James,” he says, nodding to him. “Technically. Call me Bucky though, James makes me sound like an old, dead president.”
That, surprisingly, makes Steve laugh. Which only makes the young man—Bucky—grin wider.
“That’s a big question, Steve,” Bucky says. “What are you in the mood for?”
Steve hasn’t picked up a book in a long time. He had visited the Smithsonian once and seen his old belongings on display—all of his personal mementos and less than half of his collection of books. It had almost made him pick up a library card, but he had hesitated, at the last minute. He still doesn’t know why.
“Nothing too heavy,” Steve says, thinking out loud. “Or too...light. Something I won’t want to put down.”
Bucky leans against the desk, drumming his fingers along the top, thinking. Then his face lights up.
“How do you feel about murder mysteries?”
“Oh,” Steve says, his heart quickening. “I love those.”
“Great,” Bucky says, happily. “Okay, let me introduce you to The Magpie Murders.”
Steve couldn’t really say what happens after that. Only that he follows Bucky past the front desk toward the back of the bookstore and they both get lost in the stacks.
Bucky takes him to the mysteries and thrillers section and although he immediately hands Steve The Magpie Murders (Anthony Horowitz), Steve somehow also ends up with a pile of other books too—Gone Girl and Dark Places by Gillian Flynn (“A lot darker and more fucked up than you could even imagine, Steve,” Bucky says, his eyes lighting up with excitement. “Like, her protagonists kind of suck but that’s the point and then you can’t put it down and—you’re okay with fucked up, right?” “I’m...okay with fucked up,” Steve blinks at him. “Okay great,” Bucky enthuses. “Read those two and then read Sharp Objects and tell me which one you like best.”) and Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (“Okay, this isn’t murder, but Crichton is just the holy grail of science fiction, may his soul rest with the dinosaurs,” Bucky says solemnly, shoving that into Steve’s arm. “Dinosaurs?” Steve asks. “Dinosaurs, Steve,” Bucky says.) and Interview With the Vampire by Ann Rice (“It’s vampires,” Bucky says, emphatically. “Listen, Rice is kind of nutso now, but she created the very fabric of modern vampires and I cannot and will not begrudge her that. Did you like Twilight?” “What?” Steve asks, confused. “Nevermind,” Bucky says and manhandles Steve toward the aisle. “It’s more vampires, but the sparkly kinds.”).
Bucky tries to shove half a dozen other books into Steve’s arms, but by then Steve is getting kind of overwhelmed. He hasn’t read a book in over 80 years, technically, and here he is, exchanging his debit card for a small stack of books on the word of a very effusive bookstore clerk. Well, he can’t blame Bucky for his enthusiasm. In fact, it makes Steve smile.
“Sparkly vampires?” Steve ventures to ask as Bucky’s ringing him up.
“Okay, I’m going to admit it,” Bucky says, sliding Steve’s card through the machine. “I read all of them, okay? All in one sitting. It wasn’t my best look, but I had to know and listen—you know how you start to read something sometimes and you know it’s trash, but it’s like, addictive trash, and you can’t just not consume it. It’s like reality TV that way. Anyway, the point is yeah I read all the Twilight books and I didn’t even hate some of them.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Steve mutters, but Bucky must not hear, because he shrugs and hands Steve back his card and the receipt to sign.
“All I’m saying is that vampires shouldn’t sparkle. It just seems disrespectful to vampire culture.”
“What is vampire culture?” Steve asks Bucky.
“The culture of vampires, Steve,” Bucky answers.
Steve gives him a bemused look.
“I read Dracula?” he says and hands the receipt back.
“Yeah?” Bucky says eagerly. “And?”
“I love,” Steve says with a grin. “Gothic horror.”
Bucky takes in a little dramatic-like gasp, clutching his hand to his chest.
“You couldn’t have started with that? Do you know how much good Gothic horror is out there? There’s a whole section—”
Steve, laughing, takes his books in the bag and starts to back away.
“No, Steve, come back!” Bucky calls to him. “You can’t leave now! We have so much more to cover!”
Steve can’t help but grinning. He holds his books close to his chest.
“Let me finish these first,” he says.
Bucky, half leaning all the way over the front desk, gives him a smile that’s like—well, a little like staring into the face of the sun. It’s bright and open and excited in a way that makes Steve want to feel that way too, somehow. It’s infectious.
“Then you’ll come back?” Bucky asks.
Steve considers it for half a second, then nods.
“I’ll finish these,” he says. “Then I’ll come back.”
He leaves the bookstore with a backwards wave at Bucky. When he’s outside again, just him and his inordinately heavy bag of books, he stops to take stock of himself.
The low feeling is still there, but it’s been shuffled backwards now, like a card that’s been rearranged to the middle, or maybe back of the deck. What’s at the front now is a little different—maybe a little excited, perhaps a dash enthused.
Steve reaches up and touches his face and is surprised to find the smile still there.
He takes the path away from the bookstore, looking back only to see the looped cursive in the window of the store.
The Yellow Book Road, it says, like it always has.
Steve takes the long way home and when he finally gets in, he changes into his pajamas, makes a hot cup of tea, and settles into his couch to read about vampires.
* * *
picture: bucky handing down books to steve from a bookshelf; art by: odetteandodile