It was later than very same day that Sally was to acquire what would become her most trusted companion, and in some ways, her friend. Her friend had the strangest name she had ever heard, and she loved it all the more for it: U.P.E.A.R.D. ForPreCh. Which meant: Unabridged Pocket Encyclopedia, Atlas, Repository and Dictionary, stamped in grand gold letters on the hard binding, which bent just so like some of her school notebooks, but always felt so much stronger than her flimsy notebooks. In small script along the bottom edge of the soft cloth cover was a fine gold filigree, which is gorgeous, flowing script said: For Precocious Children.
She called it Effpy for short.
She had discovered Effpy by what many would call accident, but which the wiser among us would recognize as fate. The day she found Effpy, or Effpy had found her, was a rumbly, cloudy day, the kind where’d afternoon smells like lightning and magic and the air keeps hustling from place to place, as though it can’t decide where it should go gusting.
Sally was out of her academy early due to the earlier and wholly unexpected infestation of frogs and grublings and beetles and all other sorts of frog food which had crept, hopped, wiggled and wriggled, writhed and crawled en masse (by which we mean oodles at once) through the open basement windows from the mountain the building backed up against. Apparently the critters of the experiments which had escaped had called in their wild comrades for support.
Sally was wandering in the eventual direction of home when a strange odor caught her by the nose. It wasn’t that of the market, not of the day old fish, or the heaps of garlic piled on newspapers on tables lining the street, or the the rather ripe garbage the city seemed rather lazy about picking up, no, it was one half petrichor and one half dusty spring mountain, when the earthiness of the ground seems to rise up anticipating the rain. It was a smell whose conditions defied reality, in that way, and Sally followed it. She followed it one sniff at a time, almost bumping into steaming dumpling trays, stacks of crispy donut twists, and glossy leering fish eyes. She almost put a foot into an open bowl full of water and squirming eels.
Her boots clomped through the old narrow alleys of her neighborhood, with its buzzing neon signs and flappy, sun bleached banners tied to storefronts and rain-rusted railings. The smell grew stronger, and she knew in her bones something fantastic was going to happen.
Then, the smell disappeared.
She opened her eyes (because she had been following her nose this whole time and she had always thought her eyes would distract if she needed her nose to be in charge) and there, where before was only an empty alley was a little hovel of a shop, right between the fruit seller and the stamp store. Sally cocked her head, for as excited as she was, she found the sudden appearance of this place rather odd.
She asked Mr Noh, the stampmaker, who drooped his arms through the underawning of his shop while he smoked, “Was this store always here?”
He shrugged. “Always, I guess,” he said before returning to his square stones and his drills.
“Was this shop always here?” Sally asked Mrs Oh, who was sorting through enormous oranges whose top ends looked like they had been pinched by two enormous fingers into a permanent pucker.
“I guess,” Mrs Oh said, “Though things do change a lot in this city, don’t they?”
Sally peered at the hovel. It butted against the buildings on either side, but it seemed like it had been there for ages. And if Mr Noh and Mrs Oh didn’t find it strange…
The shop’s walls looked soft, like it wasn’t built from the same brick and concrete the rest of the neighborhood was. It almost looked like a tent. But Sally walked up to it and pressed against the walls, and they were as solid as can be. In its one door, there was a single dingy window, and in that window was a sign with a book on it, and under the book it said, “Come in!”
Sally entered, not timidly on tiptoe, but clunkingly in her boots. The door bell jingled.
“Hello!” she shouted in the tiny shop.
“Well, aren’t you precocious,” came a voice from behind a tiny counter square in the middle of the shop.
A wiry old man with wiry old silver glasses popped his head up from behind the counter, though he seemed to be straining to make himself tall enough to do so.
“What’s that mean?” asked Sally.
“It means someone who happily and sometimes annoyingly to others reaches for things that are probably beyond their grasp but which they make sure to get a hold of,” the old man said.
Sally thought on this for a moment, and of her daydreams, and how she was treated at school, and how people always sighed at her responses and how she never knew how to tell anyone about her ideas and how people laughed when she fumbled words that felt too small to cram her thoughts into before she’d give up and simply say, ‘so-so’, and after a moment Sally said, “Yep. Sounds like me.”
“Well, I think I have just the book for you,” he said, scrunching up his old wrinkly face in an expression seemed as though it could only be a heart attack, and if not, was perhaps the world’s most terrifying smile.
Sally laughed at him, though she was concerned for his health, and he ducked down to rustle and rummage through piles of books and boxes that towered above the counter and sprawled all across the tiny shop like dunes across a desert. Finally, he arose and in his hand held a book so compact it fit into even one of his tiny little palms.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“A book can be many things. It can be a friend, it can be a teacher; it can show you your future or create an entirely different fate. It can reveal your past and show you things that hide in plain sight, or transform the ordinary into the spectacular or turn miracles to dust.”
“Which kind of book is this?” Sally asked, now very interested.
“This particular book,” the old man said, looking down on it and smiling, “Just so happens to be capable of all of the above.”
Sally paused, suddenly wary. “How much?” she asked, remembering stories her parents had told her of things that seemed too good to be true, though she felt that feeling again in her bones telling her that this strange old satyr was on the level.
“For you, a very special price,” he said, pushing the thin frame of his glasses up higher onto his rather triangular nose. “It costs but a promise: that you will ask to find in its pages whatever you wonder about and hope to know, and to never fear going on even the roughest of paths if that’s where knowing leads you to go.”
He smiled, gently this time, looking less like his enthusiasm for his teetering piles of books might bring him to an earlier demise than a landslide of the books themselves.
Sally thought. The way she felt when she was with her space robots and swimming and singing in the deep and riding snowbound tigersleds seemed to be seeping into her now. Her skin shivered and goosebumps rose up across her body and even her tangled hair felt as though it stood on end. and her eyes suddenly watered with excitement.
“It is!” she cried, “I promise! I promise to find in its pages all I wonder and hope to know and to never fear going on even the roughest paths if that’s where knowing leads me to go!”
She nearly leapt over the counter as the little man, who was not much taller than she, leaned over the low counter and passed to book reverently to her. It felt heavy, like a Christmas fruitcake, and she hugged it tightly to her body.
“Hurry along then,” the man said, his heart attack smile-grimace slowly creeping back onto his face. Sally wanted to hurry along, lest he endanger himself in his happiness of passing the book on. “There’s a lot of world out there to know.”
As much as Sally loved jams and jellies, she also loved books. Her two loves did not mix well, though, so Sally’s mother had forbade her to use any of the family’s books. As such she had her own bookshelf in her room, fully on picturebooks and storybooks and her favorites, encyclopedias, atlases, dictionaries, and thesauruses. Even then, though..