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Abraham Lincoln at the Used Bookstore This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

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I swear Mother dyes her hair every other day. And she always snaps at me when I ask her if she does. All shrill (it's almost cartoonish, mind you) she says: “That is impolite, Ming!” I asked her a variation of that question this morning – a variation I was certain she would appreciate or at least approve – but she still shrieked: “That is impolite, Ming!” I shuffled back into my cave after that. (My cave is actually a blanket fort in the living room, but I like to hang drawings on the blanket wall and pretend they're cave-paintings.) Li reckons I should tell her why I ask, but the thing is I have no idea why. ­Besides, me? Explain something complex? Li doesn't understand that everyone isn't as eloquent as him.

But enough of that, I guess. That was only this morning over jam and toast. Well, Mother was having that; I was eating cereal as usual. You know what's sad? The cereal pieces that don't get eaten, you know, the soggy ones that swim at the bottom of the shallow milk pool.

But that's not what I wanted to write about. Today I went to the bookstore, the used one, you know, that's only a few blocks from here. Mother and Father have decided to allow me to walk there on my own now that I've turned eleven. Mother says: “You must wear a hat and mittens – yes, the knit ones – and, no, I don't care if they make your fingers sweaty – just wear them,” and Father adds, “Remember to look both ways before crossing the street, Ming.” And then, as I'm attempting to open the door with Mother's oversized mittens, which makes the easy task ten times harder (sigh), Mother bellows from the kitchen: “Oh and don't show anyone your money until you get to the register. Do you hear me, Ming?” 'Course, Mother, except it doesn't matter because I don't have any money. I don't say that though. That would earn me another: “That is impolite, Ming!” and I've already got a collection of those.

Anyway, I went today while little bluffs of white snow collected at the ends of sidewalks and driveways. As I made my way, humming an old jazz tune Father always plays, cars slashed thin paths in the road, criss-crossing gray lines against the white. It was sort of beautiful. Some of the houses had their Christmas lights on. They blinked red and green as I passed and the mechanical reindeer flashed white, making the snow even more ­luminous. The day was cloudy and white and gray, but beautiful. Last year, I found a gray strand in Mother's hair. I told her it was beautiful, like one of her silver rings or the white of winter, but she only sighed in response. I haven't seen one since. It sort of bothers me.

Nonetheless, I made this great trek to the bookstore. I felt like an explorer, and I grabbed a walking stick so I could pretend I was crossing the tundra or climbing Mount Everest. In the snow, this imagining became real, you know.

Through the white-flecked air, my destination, the blinking red lights of the bookstore, called to me. I don't think I'm exaggerating or being overdramatic when I say that place is my absolute favorite.

I went in, the bells jingling. Joanie was working at the register today, and as usual, she saluted to me, wobbling slightly on her stool. Joanie is the best human being I have ever met, and I wish she was my sister. I don't get to see much of my family except Li and Mother and Father. The rest live in China, and I've never been there. Mother says: “It was once beautiful. It could still be for all I know.”

The smell of books hits me hard. You know, I've never minded getting paper cuts as long as they don't hurt too bad and especially if they're from flipping through a good book. Then I barely notice. Mother always makes me sanitize them to make sure they don't get infected.

Skipping to the back shelves, where the fiction lies, I skirted other shoppers and ran my fingers across the ­titles I pass. I'm only in sixth grade but already I'm reading at an eighth-grade level. Li always makes me read to him. What he doesn't know is that I actually love reading aloud.

I wasn't looking for a particular book. And I know, usually I don't have time to go into such detail about my day, but today was extra special. You want to know why? Well, I'm not trying to brag, but I'm pretty sure I met Abraham Lincoln at the used bookstore.

While I looked through an old copy of Oliver Twist, I saw a flash in my peripheral vision. My eyes shot to the source, but it had disappeared around a bookcase. Replacing Oliver Twist on the shelf, I shuffled along the ground. Father would have said: “Pick up your feet, Ming, please” – but that's neither here nor there – and I peeked around the next corner.

Unfortunately, coattails and the flash of fine dress shoes vanished behind another bookcase. I scurried to the end of the aisle and peered cautiously around it. The object with the coattails and the dress shoes was facing my way, so I had to duck behind the bookshelf before I could make the black shape turn into anything. I waited a couple of ticks from the nearby clock. Then I took another peek, and there he was.

Fluorescent light cascaded on his tall form. He stood at a great height indeed, even taller than Li and Father and Milly Newman, the basketball player who lives two houses down. He wore a sleek black suit like the ones you see on Jane Austen and Charles Dickens' book covers. His chin was a thick forest of gray and black, and capping off his great height was a top hat. It was Abraham Lincoln. I'm certain it was. I could recognize him anywhere, any time. His weathered face, his heavy-lidded eyes, yes, he was Abraham Lincoln.

When I told Li about him, he said: “He's probably just an actor.” But I disagree. He was Abraham Lincoln reincarnated. That's what I think. I told Li this, but he still insists that Mr. Lincoln was an actor. But how could they be so similar? No, Abraham ­Lincoln lives, and he likes the same bookstore as me.

I stood there staring at him before diving ­behind a bookcase. You see, he'd looked up again, and the former president made my blood jump in my veins. I didn't want him to find my gaze. Also, Mother and Father would have said: “That is impolite, Ming!” I feel sometimes everything I do is impolite.

I waited again. And then around the corner my eyes went. Now he stood in a different spot, thumbing through a book with his large, rugged hands. It looked like he had endured many paper cuts.

I glanced at my watch then. It was 2:15. Mother always expects me home at 2:35 exactly. Any earlier she assumes I'm upset (because one time I came home crying – once, mind you – after I'd finished a sad book), any later and I've betrayed her trust (she gets all silent when she's angry – it's sort of terrifying).

This worry, however, melted as I heard Mr. Lincoln's shoes clack away. Immediately I followed. We arrived at a third aisle. This one had a few people sporadically standing about, heads bent to the books in their hands.

Mr. Lincoln had begun flipping through Catcher in the Rye. Catcher's my goldfish's name because a couple of days before I got him I saw the book on the shelf. Mother says it's one of her favorites. Father hates it.

I watched his eyes shift from left to right. Every few moments, he would sort of glance up and then I'd act like I was interested in any old book on the shelf near me. When his eyes moved back to the page, I'd continue to watch. I felt like a secret agent or a ninja or, even better, a ninja secret agent time-traveler.

He really is tall, you know.

How had he arrived at this reincarnated state? I was awed, truthfully. I thought about the stuff I'd learned about him in school. How he'd freed the slaves and given the Gettysburg Address and stuff.

'Course, I got so entangled in my awe that Mr. Lincoln caught me staring. I'm sure I was gawking actually, with my mouth hanging open and my eyes wide like some crazed fangirl. I guess that's what I was, though, right?

“Hello, child,” he said, smiling, which made his beard twitch. His voice asked for my attention, no command or demand, but a powerful question. I couldn't say no, so I froze. I had no idea how to react to his light, nonjudgmental gaze. Li would have come up with something clever or intelligent to say. Not me, I guess.

“Hello, Mr. Lincoln,” I said in a squirmy voice.

He was a president. Can you believe it? I said hello to a reincarnated former president. This thought spun inside my head, screeching like the wheels of Father's friend's motorbike – the one Father won't let me ride – on the pavement. The wall-like bookcases seemed to be swaying inward, threatening to rain books on all of us.

“You should come see the show. Tell your parents.” Mr. Lincoln withdrew a flyer and handed it to me. I barely glanced at it.

“You have nice whiskers,” I blurted and automatically covered my mouth. That's what I decided to tell Abraham Lincoln after he'd come back to life?

He smiled a little wider, beard quivering some more. “Thank you, honey. Have a nice day.”

He tipped his hat, patted my head lightly, and departed with a gait ­worthy of the White House.

Surprisingly, the world resumed after that. No one else seemed to ­notice the miraculous event that had taken place. Maybe they were used to seeing reincarnated presidents. I looked at the flyer he'd given me. It said something about a museum-funded production of Presidents Come Alive. For a moment, I ­stuttered.

I walked down the aisle relatively calmly and then broke into a run until I was pushing open the front door. Outside, motors roared and snow fell. I looked right, looked left, but Abraham Lincoln was gone.

I stood in the snow, and looked at the flyer. Flakes thawed on its surface. Abraham Lincoln, I thought, were you real today? I saw my face distorted in the window of a passing car. I looked back at the flyer and scrunched up my nose. A garbage can stood a few feet away, so I threw it in there. I'm not sure why, but it made me angry, angry as I tried to get rid of it but it kept flying out. Finally I crumpled it into a ball and chucked it into the bottom.

“Hey, Ming!”

Tim came running through a curtain of snow. “Hey, Ming! How are you?”

“Good,” I said. Tim sniffled and rubbed his nose bright red.

“What's wrong?”

Tim is my best bud and neighbor, so 'course he saw through my lie.

“Um, did you see Abraham Lincoln come by here?”

“No, why? Did you see him?” he asked brightly.

“Uh, maybe.”

Tim nodded.

“Do you know where people go when they die?”

“Mom says that they go to heaven or …” he gulped, “the other one.”

“What if they come back to earth?”

He thought for a moment, really hard, too. I could see it in the pink flushing his face. “I dunno, Ming.”

I nodded and looked at the trashcan. “Why are you out?”

“Mom sent me to get milk,” he held up a bag. “I gotta go though. See you in school,” he stuck his tongue out in mock disgust. He always acts extra silly whenever I'm sad.

“Bye, Tim.”

Then he ran back into the curtain of snow.

For a short time, I kicked at the ice. That flyer really did trouble me. 'Cause, well, I don't know. It just did, you know? At that moment, I wasn't so sure that I'd met the real Abraham Lincoln because, I'm not sure. Nobody else seemed amazed, so I was starting to wonder if he'd even been there. But I still felt his pat on my head, so he had to have been. I blinked away some tears. I started out for home. Mother's going to be right again, I thought. I'm going to be home early and upset.

I walked a couple paces and stopped. The snow tapped lightly on my shoulder like the weather was trying to make me feel better. I said “Thanks” and sighed. I shuffled in the snow, criss-crossing gray lines against the white. And then I stopped again.

Tim had disappeared but I knew he exists. But what about Abraham Lincoln?

I glanced back at the bookstore and saw Joanie sitting peacefully at her station. I'd forgotten to stop and say hello to her, and I thought maybe she'd have an answer or two. So my feet took me back ­inside to Joanie.

The bells tinkled and warmth welcomed me.“Did you see Mr. Lincoln?” I asked, leaning on the counter and tapping a beat on its surface.

“Yeah.” Joanie turned the page of her photography magazine.

“Wasn't it incredible?”

“Sure.”

I paused. “Joanie, where do people go when they die?”

“Not particularly sure it matters.”

My brain felt heavy. “I see.”

“But hey, they gotta go someplace.” She read every part of me in a single glance.

“Yeah, what if they come back? Like reincarnation?”

“Seems logical.” She sipped from her soda can and moved her eyes back to her magazine.

“And” – worry gathered inside me like a heaping fire – “what if, they don't?”

She looked up again and held my eyes in the depths of her own. “Look around you, kid, and tell me where people go when they die.”

I looked and saw nothing but books. I shook my head.

“You don't have to understand yet, I guess, but you should think about it. People don't just disappear. Now, get out of here.”

She saluted and I waved.

So that was today. I've decided that I met Abraham Lincoln at the used bookstore. The hazy afternoon has turned into a hazy evening. Plows have at least cleared some of the snow.

I think I'm going to bed soon ­because I'm sleepy and I want to be well rested for tomorrow. Father promised to take Li and me to the zoo. Maybe Mr. Lincoln will be there too.



Dear Li,

Today, well, I guess technically it was yesterday, while I was packing for Sunday's move, I found my old diary in the black hole under my bed. And in that diary, I found the above passage. I've enclosed it because I think it'll make you laugh and cry, maybe. It made me cry. I showed it to Tim and he says he remembers that day. He says that he's only ever seen me that distressed two times. That time and after Mother's funeral.

There's that cliché: “So much can happen in years/decades/whatever damn time increment you want.” (I don't think that's actually the line, but wine is supplying me with most of these words.) Truth be told, so much has happened in the eleven years since that passage. It's snowing again, though, and I feel like I'm twelve all over.

Looking at my diary entry, there's so much about Mother in there. It sort of makes me remember that time when we were 15 and 16 and you'd come home late because your girlfriend had talked you into throwing water balloons down the river, and I'd tried to cover for you and then Mother'd played dumb until she caught us both in the kitchen laughing at two in the morning. Do you remember? She'd grabbed both of our ears and dragged us into our bedrooms, whispering angrily about responsibility, no doubt because she didn't want to wake Father.

God, Li, why has time spun this thread for me? Sometimes I feel like I've been punched in my shoulders so much that I'll slouch forever.

I smiled when Joanie came into the tale. You know, she started her own photography studio. It's really high-end and expensive, but she still salutes me when I see her. I'd totally forgotten about what she'd said that day. As you can read, I'd been fixated on Abraham Lincoln.

Did you know that when they carried out Mother's body, all I could think of was her oversized mittens? I'm not sure why. Maybe because as I stood there, watching them lower her coffin, my fingers prickled.

I'm sorry if this letter bears the semblance of a mad woman's writings. I think it might be the wine, or because it's snowing again. These thoughts are just popping into my head so ignore me if you wish.

Anyway, back to what Joanie told me. I've been thinking about it a lot. Where do people go when they die? She knew. I should ask her what she meant. She probably won't tell me though, 'cause you know, she's Joanie.

I just had another glass of wine and watched the Muppets for a short time (admittedly, the characters seem twisted at such a late hour – don't tell your daughter), and while trying to ignore the stalkerish notions of Miss Piggy, I've been thinking. My diary entry never disappeared, and it holds some of Mother in it and some of me and some you and some of Tim and some of Father and even some of that damn reincarnated Abraham Lincoln, so maybe, do you think Mother will reincarnate? Or has she already?

I'm not sure if I can finish that thought. My head sort of hurts. I think I'll stop by that bookstore before leaving Sunday.

Mother liked to tell ­stories. Do you remember that? I never mentioned that in my diary, and I wonder why. But do you remember her stories? About China? There are so many missing pieces and stories and connections and memories. How can someone live with that?

Li, I miss her dearly. I know I found her consistently irritating, but you don't know what you've got until it's buried six feet under the ground. Is that the right saying?

I'm tired. It's two in the morning, you know. So goodnight and see you at Christmas.

Love always,

Ming

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.




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