Lyla’s bookstore burned down.
She left the house every morning at the same time, 7:15, so that she could open the door at 8:00. She had an obsessive need to make sure the store was completely in order before any customers arrived, despite the fact that she usually stayed at least half an hour after she closed doing the same thing.
As the only employee, Lyla found little time to do anything else but tend to her store. She didn’t get many customers, not like one of the major bookstores. She got just enough business to stay open, to pay the rent for her space, and to give herself a meager paycheck.
It wasn’t that people didn’t like her store, or that they didn’t like Lyla. She was kind and helpful to her customers, and her store was well-kept. The customers she did have were loyal. They returned often and bought new books from her frequently.
No, the problem with her business, Lyla thought, was that there just weren’t enough people in her town who enjoyed reading. She had the only store in town that sold a good selection of books. People were too content to play video games or watch videos on the internet.
Nevertheless, the store kept here busy. There was always a book out of place that needed to be put back, or a new book that she needed to order, or taxes to be filed, or checks to be written for the landlord, or cleaning to be done in the bathroom, or dust to be removed from the top of untouched books, or displays to be created to increase customer interest, or entire sections to be reorganized because Lyla was just not happy with the flow of the store, or… or…
Lyla always found something to do. Sometimes she felt like she didn’t get anything done because she always saw something more that needed doing. The week before the fire, she had repainted the entire store, using the two days she was closed — days she normally reserved for spending time at home and trying accomplish things there.
That was the way of the bookstore. That was the way of owning and operating a business without anyone to help her. It took up her life. Not just her life at the store, but her life outside of it, as she constantly pondered things she might do for the store to improve it.
So when Lyla arrived at the bookstore at 7:28 to see the warm, cheerful orange glow of flames behind the windows, she changed. She parked her car in the lot, askew, without regard for the painted lines. She fell to her knees on the pavement, hands shaking, clawing at her pocket for her phone — but she’d left it in her car.
Lyla shrieked. Tears poured down her face, racing around her gaping mouth as she bellowed out her despair. She considered running into the store. Maybe she could save it. No. Maybe she could save a book, the money in the register, something, anything.
Maybe there was nothing she wanted to save. Maybe instead she wanted to throw herself into the flames, the flames that now consumed everything she had worked for in her life. Since she had been a little girl she’d dreamed of owning a bookstore. That store was her life, and it was burning; she might as well burn her body as well.
Lyla stood on shaking knees, half of her, three quarters of her telling her to just run into the store and accept the prickling heat of the fire. She resisted. She ran to her car instead. She pulled on the handle — locked. She fumbled her keys out of her pocket and unlocked it, opened the doors, reached in to grab her phone.
Lyla called emergency services.
Until they arrived, all she could do was stand there. She felt powerless. She felt a strong drive to do something, anything, but there was nothing she could do. Every day, every minute Lyla had something to do, and she did it, and she made sure she filled every last second to the brim with cleaning or organizing or planning or preparing but now, with her life’s work on fire, all she could do was stand and watch it burn.
In a way it was beautiful, as fire always is. The orange glow shone like a reflection of the sunrise, minimized and brought down to the ground to live, voracious, in the bookstore. Smoke poured out as the fire formed a hole in the roof. Lyla watched from behind the open door of her car as the front window shattered, belching shards onto the sidewalk.
By the time the firemen arrived Lyla already knew it to be too late. She had stared into the flames as they had burned, and they had stared back at her, cajoling, teasing, and — and — comforting.
Lyla couldn’t stop the fire. She couldn’t clean up this mess. Her bookstore wouldn’t recover; or if it did, it wouldn’t be the same. With it burned, she would have no orders to make, no shelves to reorganize, no dust to wipe away from books that hadn’t ever felt the touch of a customer.
With it burned, perhaps, Lyla could find a life outside of the store. Maybe, just maybe, she could do something purely because she enjoyed it, rather than feeling the pressure to clean and maintain and perfect something that it felt like barely anyone else wanted.
Lyla still wept as the firemen approached her. With the blackened husk of her business before her, she thanked the. Or rather, she said thank you in their presence, but in her mind, she spoke to the flames.