It had taken the contractors no fewer than two months to yank down the false ceiling in the Philco-Your-Better-Buy building, remove the dingy sheetrock still clinging to its walls, and render the space ‘broom clean’ as they liked to say in the industry. It wasn’t saying much in this case, but the message Lucy had earlier rubbed into the soot on the floor with the toe of her sneaker was long gone. She finally decided to leave the original brick exposed on the long walls, and to apply fresh sheetrock to walls in the front and rear, sheetrock which now had been taped, applied with mud, and awaited painting. Old fluorescent fixtures still dangled from the original pressed tin ceiling for the time being, for the sole purpose of casting work light down below; before long they’d come down, too, and in their place would go the warmer track lighting Lucy could aim where she pleased. As for the ceiling itself, some of the tiles had been painted in bygone chapters of the building’s history and would need replacing; Lucy much preferred the coppery cast of the unpainted original tiles and would restore the blemished sections of ceiling to its former glory. The most satisfying part about this dramatic transformation, drywall dust notwithstanding, was the enormous volume left in the wake of ripping out generations’ worth of bad design choices. Lucy felt she could come inside the building now and breathe.
The long glass counter sat unmoved from the spot where she found it the first day she stepped across the threshold, but looked rather better now, Lucy concluded, against the warm masonry wall behind it. She had scrubbed it to a fare-thee-well inside and out, and on this rainy afternoon perched behind it on a wood stool she brought from home, with her feet threaded through its rungs. The case remained empty for the time being, but across its scratched top were strewn catalogs and tear sheets from magazines, paint chips and tile and trim samples, and piles of price lists. In the middle of it all Lucy’s laptop screen shone brightly as she scrolled through pages and pages of secondhand store fixtures and shelving. Her head pounded from eye strain against the glare of blue light, but as much from imposing decisions she was yet to make.
She slipped off the stool and yawned and stretched, remembering her coffee at the other end of the counter where she’d left it hours ago. It was somehow warm still, and she glugged it down greedily while her eyes fell on the cover of the tattered little Randolph Caldecott book she’d uncovered in Bran’s basement: The Complete Collection of Pictures and Songs. At first, Lucy imagined she’d have the book assessed to determine its worth, and then make it her inaugural piece of inventory—officially. But then she thought better of that plan and decided to make it a good luck charm of sorts, a talisman for the future of Philco-Your-Better-Buy. She plucked it up and moved back to her perch on the stool. Closing her laptop and gently laying open the book on top of it, for the hundredth time she admired the exquisite detail in the color plates, the ruddy-cheeked villagers, bonneted ladies in long dresses and men in white wigs, imperiled animals, and bucolic landscapes. It had been weeks for the book to finally dry enough for Lucy to begin gingerly separating its pages. A little mold dotted the edges of a leaf here and there, but for its ordeal it was in remarkably good shape.
And just as she was about to close its cover and resume her work, the sterile light above her shone in a way that revealed something she’d missed until now. She played with the angle of the book and squinted, in case it was only a trick of the light, but no—it was unmistakable: childlike scrawl in faded pencil at the bottom of the page. Here was a C, and an E, and then a pair of indecipherable marks. Lucy stared hard at the bottom of a page. No, they were not indecipherable—Lucy realized she was looking at a pair of letter S-es, but drawn awkwardly, and backwards: C-E-S-S—Cess. Lucy snapped up her laptop and the book, and pushing open the front door, flipped off the lights behind her before the deadbolt yielded satisfyingly to her key.