The air was stale as the stench of old paper waltzed through the room. The room wasn’t large. It was about the size of a four-car garage. Along the walls stood continuous shelves from floor to ceiling filled with comic books.

Throughout the interior of the room rows of waist-high shelves created a labyrinth that led to a small square sitting area with two brown leather chairs on one side, a coffee table in the middle and an old Chesterfield sofa sat opposite the chairs.

On the coffee table sat a stack of single comics neatly stacked on one end and a lightning bolt-shaped ashtray on the opposite end with half of a single cigarette resting in it.

Jeremy dawdled from the back room, each step appearing to inflict a slight pang of discomfort. As he made his way to one of the chairs in the center of the room, his fingers traced the pages of the comics resting inside the boxes sitting atop the shelves.

With a groan, he eased into the seat and rustled in his pocket for a lighter. He leaned forward to grab the half cigarette from the lightning bolt, and he grabbed the comic from the top of the stack. He flung the comic down right in front of him, hunched over and covering the cigarette from habit, he lit it. He picked up the comic, leaned back in the chair with the cigarette hanging from his lips, and rested his head on the back of the chair. Staring at the ceiling he could see the smoke from the cigarette swirling upward.

“So this is my life now, huh?”

Three decades ago, Jeremy bought the comic book store from an aging friend of his dad. Jeremy was 26 then, and he got a loan from his dad to pay for the store.

He was excited. He’d spent most of his life reading comic after comic. He’d even drawn a few comics of his own and bound them together using staples.

So when he got the chance to buy the comic book store, he was beside himself with glee. Not only would he get to be an entrepreneur but he’d get to do what he loved; read and be around comics. It was a dream come true.

He spent day after day carefully arranging the store, the shelves, and the boxes exactly how he wanted. He bought a Chesterfield sofa, two chairs, and an eccentric coffee table from a local furniture store.

He thought it would be a great idea to have a place for people to sit and read so it just made sense to have sitting furniture.

Jeremy always loved the idea of a hedge garden that was shaped like a maze, but he reasoned that he’d never have a yard big enough to pull it off. So he arranged the shelves in the store like a maze instead.

It was perfect.

Then one day two gentlemen walked in. Each of them stood around 6’4. Their faces were decorated with long dark beards and they both wore dark long coats. They had a sort of intimidating presence about them.

Jeremy cheerfully greeted the men as they entered. Getting up from the Chesterfield sofa, he navigated the maze and skipped behind the counter.

“What can I help you find, fellas?”

The men walked menacingly around the store before approaching the counter. Standing over Jeremy and the counter, one of them spoke.

“You have a nice store here. Really nice.” His accent was thick and foreign.

Jeremy replied, “Thanks! I’ve been working on it for a while and it’s finally coming together”.

The man replied, “I can tell. The effort really shines through.”

The other man chimed in, “How long have you been here?”

Jeremy responded saying he’d only been here a few weeks. He explained that he bought the place from a friend of his Dad who was aging and wanted to retire.

The second man responded, “Ah I see. Well my name is Thanasis and this is my brother Alex. We wanted to pop in and welcome you to the neighborhood.”

Jeremy, starting to feel uneasy, responded by saying well thank you.

Alex spoke up at this point. “I know you’re new here but be careful. The neighborhood can be rough at times. There’s been more than a couple of instances of windows being smashed and stores being robbed. Windows are expensive”

Jeremy started to understand why he felt uneasy. Were these men trying to extort him? They didn’t ask for any money but their words felt pregnant with the threat.

Jeremy thanked the men for the advice but assured them that he would be fine.

The men chuckled and left the store again welcoming him to the neighborhood.

As the men left, Jeremy followed them to the door and locked it.

“I guess I’ll call it a day for today.” He said to himself.

Jeremy played basketball in a men's league a couple of times a week and tonight was game night. On the team were a bunch of old buddies from high school and the local college he attended, including his best friend Walter.

Playing with his best friend certainly made everything better. It was a chance for them to hang out and also work together toward a goal. It was his favorite activity outside of reading comics of course.

As they dressed for the game, Jeremy told Walter about the men who visited the shop. He described how these two men walked into the store and looked like they were checking the place out before they came to the counter and stood over him.

“It was a power move! They wanted me to know that they could do damage” he said. “I’m pretty sure they were Greek but I can’t be sure.”

Walter listened intently. He was silent as he took in the words from Jeremy. When Jeremy was finished speaking, Walter finally spoke up.

“Wow. That’s some scary straight-from-TV shit.” He continued “You think they’re in the Mafia?”.

Jeremy scratched his chin before responding. “You know I never even thought about it. But now that you mention it, they both had these thick accents, and they were dressed like hitmen almost.”

Jeremy paused.

“Oh shit. If they’re the Mafia should I just pay them? Should I close? What am I going to do?”

Walter didn’t respond immediately. There was a dense silence before Jeremy broke it.

“No. They didn’t even ask for money. I’ll be fine. And if anybody gives me trouble, they’ll have to answer to my bat.”

Walter chuckled nervously. “ Okay, man.”

After the game, Jeremy headed back to the store. He wanted to sit in the store and read a few comics. It was certainly better than sitting in his apartment alone.

As he arrived at the store, he noticed the front window smashed. Glass littered the floor and a brick lay in the middle of the mess.

“What the fuck?” Jeremy yelped. He rushed to the phone to call the police. He explained everything that happened up to this point. He gave them the names of the two men who were in the store earlier that day. He did everything that he could.

They assured him that they would investigate, and shortly after they left.

Jeremy cleaned the broken glass and sat in one of the chairs. Overwhelmed with emotions, he started to cry.

A week later, the window was replaced and the store was back open for business. Jeremy waited to see the two men again, but they never came to the store again.

Paranoid that they would just break the glass again, Jeremy decided to sleep in the store beside the door just out of sight. That way if anyone did it again, he could quickly chase them down.

Day after day passed and there was no trouble. Jeremy thought to himself that it must be fine so he decided that tonight would be his last night sleeping in the store.

A little after midnight, a loud crash echoed through the store as a brick shattered the glass again. Jeremy leaped to his feet, grabbed his bat, and ran out the door seeing one man dashing for a car parked at the intersection about one block away. Jeremy chased him yelling after him.

He didn’t catch him, but as the man jumped into the car, Jeremy recognized the driver. The street light shined down into the car illuminating what otherwise would have been nearly impossible to see.

It was Walter.

Jeremy dropped to his knees. He was confused. He was hurt. He was angry. Why!?

He would eventually learn that Walter’s mother had fallen ill, and the medical bills were piling up. One day Walter was approached by Thanasis and Alex and they told him that they didn’t like non-Greeks owning businesses in the neighborhood. They said that if he helped them scare Jeremy into selling the shop, they would give him enough money to cover his mother’s bills. They even promised that no harm would come to Jeremy, but they would scare him.

Walter took the cigarette from his lips. He exhaled a cloud of smoke and he took in the room with his eyes.

“So this is my life now, huh?”

“No, comics have always been my life. They’re the only thing that’s never let me down.”