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Palace of the Alleyway - Rowan McGrath

2nd Place

Palace of the Alleyway - Rowan McGrath

The streets were quiet.
The sky was cast in a golden glow, with wispy clouds trailing behind tall suburban buildings. The wintry air blew between her ears, the coolness of the late afternoon contrasted by the warmth of the setting sun. For a moment, time stood still; it was like nothing existed anymore besides her and the empty road she stood on. It was an illusion, broken only by the distant sounds of the city. The moment was a fleeting snapshot in time, and yet, she wished she could savour it forever.
It felt like it had been days since she last stepped out of the house. Maybe even weeks? Months? Years? She wasn’t sure. But when her eyes started to glaze over at the sight of her notebook, she knew she needed time away. She kept her cat close, perched on her shoulder; she knew her cat loved the outdoors, with how much time they spent gazing out her window, so she had to bring them along. Though she could have done without the tickling fur on her cheek…
Her mind was beginning to wander when her cat leapt away, making her heart skip a beat. She only caught a glimpse of their orange tail as they trotted into a dark alleyway. She ran after them, but stopped in her tracks at the entrance; the alleyway was long and claustrophobic, and trying to see the end of it gave her vertigo. She knew she couldn’t just leave them, though.
She ran into the alleyway, calling out for them. She knew they couldn’t have run off too far, but the sun was quickly setting. She didn’t want the evening to end on such a worrying note. Yet, just as she was starting to wear out, a seemingly random turn brought her face-to-face with an odd sight. In an alcove within the alleyway, illuminated by faded light fixtures, stood a small storefront. The sign above it read “Palace of the Alleyway: Bookshop & Café”. Had they run off into here? She had to know for sure.
She grabbed onto the doorhandle and pushed it open. A bell attached to the door rang out, and as she closed the door, the wind stifled. The interior was stuffy, with dusty and decrepit books lining the shelves. An uncharacteristically polished espresso machine sat on the counter in the corner. Despite how messy the place was, she felt that there was an air of sincerity to it; even if it was run-down now, she could tell there was once a real person who stacked all these books here hoping they’d be bought one day. It didn’t look like anyone was taking care of this place now, though, so she could only wonder what kind of person they were.
Her train of thought was swiftly derailed. From across the counter, past an empty doorframe, the hilt of a distinctive burgundy cane peered out towards her. An elderly man stepped out, the tapping of his cane on the floorboards breaking the silence as he offered her a warm, heartfelt smile.
“My, my. It feels as though it’s been years since I last had a customer…” The man spoke, lightly chuckling to himself. “Please, make yourself at home.”
“Oh, I’m sorry! I can’t stay. I’m looking for someone.” She replied. “My name is-”
Before she could finish speaking, a familiar face appeared from behind the old man. A precarious little orange cat.
“Your cat, I take it?” He spoke. “I was wondering for a moment if they were a stray. I let them in to keep them out of the cold.”
She wasted no time snuggling her cat back into her arms. She couldn’t imagine being sincerely strict or tough, but she had to at least give them a small scowl of disapproval. Hopefully they’d know not to scare her like that again.
“Thank you for keeping her safe!” She spoke.
“Oh, don’t mention it. Why don’t I treat you to a coffee? You’re free to borrow any of the books from the shelves in the meantime. I’m just happy to have the company.”
The evening from there was a blur. She picked out an old novella from the shelves titled “Tabula Rasa” and sat down beside the counter, reading as the old man made her a fragrant long black. Reading something besides study material for once was refreshing to her; it had been a long time since she’d felt so engrossed in a piece of writing. When the old man finished making her coffee, she put the book down to acknowledge him, hoping to show her appreciation. The evening shifted to night as they talked about everything that came to mind: from the old man’s past, to his work in the café, and even the close friends, family, and lover who had left him long ago. As the stars scattered across the night sky, and the few droplets of coffee left in her mug grew cold, she knew it was time to leave.
The old man placed the book in her hands as he led her to the door.
“Keep it.” He said. “Consider it a memento.”
“Are you sure?”
“I wouldn’t be saying it if I didn’t mean it.”
Just as she was about to leave, she stopped in her tracks and looked back at the old man.
“Oh! Sir, I never caught your name.”
“Oh, names aren’t important. Just remember one thing, if you will. You’ve made an old soul very happy.”
The old man shut the door. As she walked away from the café with her cat, she turned back one more time, only to see that the café had seemingly disappeared. Where it once stood, there was now nothing but a large brick wall. Yet as the stars shone overhead that night, she smiled. In her hands, she carried Tabula Rasa. She had a new book to add to her shelf when she got home, one to remember the old man by forever.
(Voiceover by Johann Wic)

1 Comments

  • Hello! This is Rowan McGrath, the writer of this story. It really means so much to see my story being presented to so many people, and I really do hope you all enjoy (or enjoyed) reading it. :)

    Though, there’s a small error on this page; the audio recording seems to be playing audio for a different story? Given that the URL still says this is the “Halloween story writing contest”, I’m guessing the audio is from there.

    Rowan McGrath

    May 8, 2022

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