The flames destroyed the city, but Thomas saved the book, Jack tried to write something better, and Wes wanted to burn all of it.
Half of London was gone but at least he had the book in his quaking, victorious hands, slick with blood from ruptured blisters and streaked with soot and crime. And to him, it was worth everything. More than his little room that sits – sat, sat; it certainly couldn’t be there anymore –above the bakery where rats lurked beneath the floorboards and in the walls, more than his dank straw mattress that he shared the fleas. More than every every shirt he owned and every coin he’d ever made, which, admittedly, wasn’t very much. More than any morsel of food he’d ever eaten or any woman he’d ever had.
The city lay in charred chaos around him, gangly houses reduced to piles of smoking rubble, and he felt almost…giddy. His fingers trembled uncontrollably as a cool breeze blew across the barren plain of what used to be a narrow street. It took the last of the warm air – the smoke – with it.
He recognized the voice but he didn’t turn. A cold, icy pain flashed behind his eyes and he closed them, briefly, until he heard her quick footsteps approach.
“Oh, Thomas…” Her voice hitched with disappointment on his name.
Her wild eyes took him in, wide and red-rimmed, and her brown, curly tresses hung limp over her shoulders, filthy and matted with ash. Her skirt, always so neat and clean, was ragged, stained and blackened with soot. Her eyes surveyed the rubble, frantic in a hopeless search.
“Thomas, have you seen Henry?”
He unconsciously gripped the book against his stomach, hands against the rough fabric of his nightshirt. He ignored the white hot pain that clouded his vision for only a moment. “I…don’t know.”
Rose’s eyes caught on his again. They were red and watery like they got when she had too much to drink, which was never very much. Her chest rose, and fell. “What do you mean, you don’t know?” Hysteria was rising in her voice, raking against his ears. “You either know or don’t, Thomas!”
Maybe he did know, but should he tell her? Should he tell anyone? Could he? Rose marched over to him, unsteady over the burnt wood that crunched beneath her feet. She jabbed her finger into chest like a knife.
“Where is he?” Her voice cracked and Thomas felt his throat contract painfully. It had been a snap decision. He hadn’t had time to think of her.
The honest truth was no, he hadn’t seen Henry. Thomas had been awakened by the shouting hardly an hour before – had it really been such a short amount of time? – and he stumbled out into the street, bleary eyed and with one shoe on, to the smell of smoke.
“Thomas!” It was the old baker, Charlie, who rented Thomas’ room out to him. Thomas’s eyes found him heaving a bucket of water up the narrow street. “Help us with the water! I hope yeh’ve got yer valuables, because the fire’s close!”
Thomas blinked. Was this all, perhaps, a very bad dream? I hope you have your valuables, Charlie had said. Valuables. He had the money he’d made at the bookshop stashed under a floorboard-
Thomas felt his blood run cold. The bookshop. It was a twenty minute walk up the road. Thomas glanced at the sky, glowing red. His legs started to run before his mind gave the command.
“Thomas, why’re yeh running down here without a bucket-!” Charlie shouted out as Thomas dashed past him. He covered the twenty minute walk in five, and didn’t hesitate as he approached the flames. His bare foot protested in sharp, hot pain when he stepped down on it – no doubt he’d trodden on a broken piece of wood or a fallen nail – but it didn’t stop him. He had to get there before the fire did.
White terror gripped his heart as he rounded the corner and took in the sight that greeted him. Red flames licked the sides of the little shop, the place Thomas had been employed for just a year and which had grown so dear to him, and so very, very important. Panic threatened to suffocate him before the smoke was given a chance. His eyes darted to the door. The entrance was still untouched.
Pulling the collar of his nightshirt over his mouth, Thomas ran inside the bookshop. He nearly collapsed with relief when he saw it; the book, his book, safe in its place on its shelf. They had planned to print more, but obviously that was a dream of the past now. Thomas stepped forward to grab it.
A tremendous groan overtook the building, and with it came and a muffled shout of fear. Thomas froze, hand outstretched.
Henry. Thomas glanced at a door in the corner. The staircase that led to the upper apartment was behind it. A shelf had fallen in front of the door, and the flames were crawling through the window. For a second, Thomas hesitated. A split second, and his mind began to race through a thousand shades of memory-
Henry, his boyhood school friend, who took him in when his family had succumbed to disease and convinced his father to give him a place in the shop before the old man himself became another victim of plague. Henry, who found him the room above the bakery and taught him everything about business he knew. Henry, who took Thomas’ book and said “It’ll sell” even though it hadn’t.
There was another groan and a wall of heat smacked him in the face. Red hot flames licked the the far wall- it wouldn’t hold the ceiling for long. Thomas stood frozen, hand outstretched, skin screaming against the heat and mind seized with panic- everything was fire, fire, this was Hell and he would burn alive here, skin burnt to black easy as paper-
Thomas lowered his hand and took a halted step toward the door. His skin protested in agony, melting against his bones.The flames drew closer. It would take only seconds to move the shelf and get to Henry. But a loud crack shook the building, and before Thomas could think twice his book was in his hand and he was dashing over the threshold.
His bare foot hit the cobblestone and cool air flooded his starving lungs and washed over his burning skin. He coughed and spit as another loud crack split the air, and he turned just in time to watch the bookshop collapse in a pile of burning walls and pages.
But he had his book. He had his book. His hands, grimy and covered in ash, shook uncontrollably with their victory. He held it close, now, against his stomach, as if to hide it, or as if to make it a part of him.
“Please, Thomas.” Tears leaked from the corners of Rose’s eyes.
Thomas looked away from her. The cold air was freezing, suddenly, and he couldn’t stop shivering. He hadn’t thought of Rose. She was Henry’s girl. Obviously she was Henry’s girl. And Henry was going to ask her to marry him, he’d told Thomas just last week. Thomas was the only other person in the world who knew.
Rose had dissolved into sobs in his silence. The fire was still burning, taking more of London with it. The bright flame burned an imprint into Thomas’ eyes.
“I don’t know, Rose.” His voice felt distant. “I don’t know.”
Wes never knew much about his father. All he knew was that there was something about a bookstore and something about a fire. He never really questioned it. What was there to question? His mother used to say, with a quiet sigh, “He loved us, Wesley, he did, but there was always…his writing.” Growing up, Wes had heard those words so many times he hadn’t realized that he didn’t understand what they meant. Wes was never much a reader, anyway.
So it was unusual for him to have found himself in a bookstore that day. It was after school, the middle of the week and Wes really didn’t have anything better to do, so when his buddy Andy said he was stopping at the bookstore on the way home, Wes had no reason to protest.
He didn’t hang out with a “bad crowd” exactly. There was nothing about them that made them bad. But there wasn’t much that made them good, either. They just kind of…were. There was never any kind of reputation to uphold. Nobody at school cared. Wes liked that.
“I just wanted to check out a new CD,” Andy said as they walked into the bookstore. Wes wouldn’t have cared if he’d wanted to check out the latest self-help book. Andy disappeared into the tiny music section – the store wasn’t all that big, just an old, small business owned by some elderly man from the town – and Wes looked around. He stood beside section marked with a tiny sign that read Teen Fiction. Sure, he may be seventeen, but he didn’t need any of that self discovery romance crap with sad descriptions of sex.
Wes wandered into the next set of shelves, which, at least, presented something relatively interesting. Crime Fiction. He strolled along slowly, eyes sliding from book to book. He felt a twinge of annoyance. The book titles were all but hidden by massive, blocked letters of the author’s names along the spines. Who cared who wrote them?
Wes froze mid-step.
In what he liked to think of as a hollow cavern in his chest, his heart began to thump. He studied the name on the last book on the shelf…but it couldn’t be.
Wes read the title. Hero of Darkness. Way too lame. Maybe that was the reason authors’ names overshadowed the titles. Yet, out of vague curiosity, Wes picked the book from the shelf. The name couldn’t be that uncommon, could it? There were Jacks all over the place, and Caverly…well, Wes imagined he might meet another one someday.
Andy was standing at the end of the aisle, hands empty. Wes put the book back. As they left, Wes made a mental note to come back, if he cared enough.
Four days later he stood before the register. It was late, but the old clerk made no protest as Wes wandered in just minutes before closing, because what kind of person would lock the door on a teenager eager to read? But Wes wasn’t there to browse. He went in, he got it, he left.
When he got home, tucked away safely in his room, he examined the back, the front, even browsed among the dense paragraphs in the middle, but could find no author biography anywhere. Finally – God, he was stupid – he noticed it on the back cover, in miniscule text just above the barcode.
Jack Caverly resides in Connecticut with his wife and son.
Well then, that couldn’t be…because Wes’ father certainly didn’t reside anywhere…even though Wes did live in Connecticut until he was three, and moved only because…
Wes flipped to the copyright page. Published in 1987. Wes had been born in 1986.
So there he was, then. Wes had found his dad, and it had only cost him five dollars. Wes stared down at the cover of Hero of Darkness. Of all the lame books. He certainly wasn’t going to waste any time reading it. Five dollars down the drain, more like it.
A week later, Wes found himself turning to the last page.
He didn’t see himself a fast reader, but a week to read a three hundred page novel had to be some kind of personal record. He never finished the books he was supposed to read for school and didn’t consider himself any kind of literary connoisseur, but he thought the novel was…okay. The story gripped him, he supposed. The writing was good. It was a book. That was about all he had to say.
And that was that. Wes’ father had written a book, and Wes had read it. A story about a war criminal, wrongly accused. Died in the end, but where was the fun in that, Wes wanted to ask. Didn’t everyone die in the end? His father would, he supposed, know all about that.
It would have been fine, really. So his dad wrote an okay book with a stupid title. Okay, sure, time to move on to the next lame ass book, lost among billions. Wes could have lived with that, if he hadn’t remembered what his mother used to say. “He loved us, Wesley, he did, but there was always…his writing.”
It occurred to Wes that he’d never actually seen any of this father’s alleged writing up until now. His mother, it seemed, never kept any in the house. Or at least where he could find it.
Wes didn’t think of himself as an angry person. He preferred indifference to any other emotion. If that was an emotion, some liked to argue. Wes liked to stare back at them, silently. But that night, after he finished the book, after he’d spent three and a half minutes thinking about the mediocre plot and his mother’s words, repeated less frequently throughout the years but always enough- something in him snapped. He stared at the front cover, his father’s name in big, blocked letters and the title – the stupid, lame, idiotic title that may as well have been The Fictional Soldier I Care About More than My Real Life Son.
Wes prided himself on his indifference. He didn’t like to care, and didn’t want to. He wondered, in some back corner of his mind, if his father was where he got it from. Later, after he’d found the police records during an uncharacteristic visit to the local library, he would wonder if that was when he ultimately made the decision to do it.
Three months after that first day in the bookstore, Wes Caverly found himself living in entirely new (and equally crappy) town with a blot of arson on his record. All because, he decided, his father was a stupid fucking writer.
Tears glistened in Rose’s eyes and Thomas looked down. His shoes were brown and dusty and not at all new, as Rose would have liked them to be. She held her hands folded over her stomach, fingers clasped so tight her bloodless knuckles looked whiter than her dress.
This isn’t what I intended, Thomas wanted to say out loud as the priest droned on, declared them man and wife. I didn’t know things would end up this way.
It was three months after the great fire, three months after Henry had “never been found.” Thomas would have been homeless – should have been homeless – but Rose had been his savior. Suddenly they found themselves an unlikely pair, the two who had known Henry best. Thomas would have been content to leave it as that, should have left it as that, but her skin was warm when she needed comfort, and he had no where else to go. So they moved into a little cottage just outside of the devastated city with Rose’s brother, a quiet fellow who “always knew London was destined for Hell’s flames.”
“Henry would have wanted it this way,” Rose said as the priest walked away. They stood outside the tiny church, the two of them. The gray clouds hung low in the sky and the breeze carried a chill, but at least it wasn’t raining. Thomas could hear the rustle of the browned grass, let to grow long.
Rose twisted the ring on her finger. It was made of silver, maybe. Thomas had found it at a pub in town a few weeks prior by chance. Several days later he had heard the local locksmith complaining that his wife had lost her wedding ring and Thomas felt it better to keep quiet, and pray that Rose never met the locksmith’s wife.
Would Henry have wanted it this way? Would Henry have wanted it when Rose first whispered it against the bare skin of Thomas’ shoulder, breath fast and lips warm, her face sticky with tears? Would Henry have wanted it when she said, unblinkingly but not meeting Thomas’ eyes, that they needed to get married, and soon? Would Henry have wanted it every time she kissed Thomas’ lips, every time he thought of his book, hidden beneath their bed? Would he have wanted it?
“Of course,” Thomas said. He raised his hand to press it against the fabric across her back, but she was already walking across the courtyard toward the house.
The four walls that surrounded Jack were a harsh gray and he took pleasure in the fact that it would be the last time he ever had to see them. The concrete burned into his eyes, and if someone had asked him, he wasn’t entirely sure he would have been able to describe the world that existed outside of this place.
He was oddly calm as the officers strapped him into the chair. The cold metal fastened around his wrists almost felt like home. Too bad he wouldn’t miss this place. Ha! They thought this was a punishment? He’d been begging to be put out of his misery since the minute he got here. Cold air drifted from the vent near his feet and curled around his toes. They’d never given him good shoes.
The whole place was solemn and quiet, and he regretted that. He would have liked to go out with a bang, quick but just slow enough that he would be able to see the blood blossom through his clothes.
But he was used to not getting what he wanted. He’d learned never to expect that a long, long time ago.
Time ticked slowly and though there was no clock, he could feel the minutes creeping by, slow and sticky as the layer of grease that covered the young face of the newest corrections officer, whose only instruction was to wait by the door. The feeling reminded him of the single time he’d been put in detention as a boy. Thirty minutes after school for missing a simple homework assignment. He should have known right then that there would never be any justice in life, but instead he went on to write books and when nobody bought or read or even glanced at them, he was actually surprised.
So his heart grew dark and when his daily cup of coffee started tasting like bitter disappointment he stopped writing books and started burning them. He could still see the flames licking the pages and devouring the eyes of those who would never read again. Walls came down around him and he thought of what it had truly taken him to get there; a girl who liked a story, a lifetime of success and that one last whisper of encouragement. You can write. An obsession. A failure. A wife that didn’t understand that staying up until five in the morning to finish a chapter was more important than using that energy to change a baby’s diaper.
He’d considered pleading insanity. No one who ever thought it was a good idea to write a book wasn’t at least a little insane. Instead he listened to his lawyer and got sentenced to death. Really, it was the least they could do. Only the best of the best and the worst of the worst were important to keep alive despite the savagery of their crimes.
He heard his name and was pulled out of the only memories he ever thought worth revisiting. Bright lights blazed from the ceiling of the hollow room and he supposed it was finally time. He heard his name again, spoken in a questioning curiosity that for some reason brought a strange, inquisitive tingle to his ears. He looked up and met the wide eyes of the young, greasy officer.
“You- you wrote that book-” the boy said. “Hero of Darkness.”
He would have cringed at actually hearing that horrible title spoken out loud, but he only stared.
Suddenly, he feel the pulse in his fingertips. The calm that covered him like a protective blanket dissolved into a cold sweat.
“I read it when I was a teenager-”
“Enough, Lawrence.” An older corrections officer appeared in the doorway and wrapped a thick hand around the boy’s arm. He pulled him out of the room, the boy’s eyes turning away from his forever, and the door shut firmly behind them. Jack’s pulse quickened, began to throb against his eardrums. He could taste blood on his tongue, against his the back of his eyeballs, rushing beneath his skin-
The final, soft click of the door resounded in Jack’s head, and he could suddenly see the trees and taste the air and hear the wind he’d never feel again.
Words eluded him. And that was stupid, because even though he didn’t feel the need to talk much, he was never speechless. His tongue groped for something to hit upon, any word to pass between his teeth, but he found nothing. His thoughts were frozen, and it was entirely stupid.
“Wes?” Jackie said slowly, eyes wide and confused, blond hair sticking up out of her ponytail. Damnit, he must look stupid, too. Stupidity dripping from his pores. And – crap – here came the fear. It pooled in his stomach and spread like some sort of deadly acid, eating away at his internal organs.
For the first time, Wes truly regretted burning down that bookstore.
It certainly wasn’t a feeble need of rebellion that drove him to it, as his mother so often liked to tell inquiring relatives. He could still recall the disappointment that boiled inside him as the building went down in flames before his glazed eyes. It had solved nothing like he had hoped it might, didn’t satisfy him an inch, and now here he was standing in front of the single most annoying girl he had ever met in his life. His toes curled in frustration in his oversized shoes.
He’d lit that match in a single, fluid motion with a hiss that sent shivers down his spine, aflame and tingling in his hands as he waited for the very right moment- and then again, and again – one match was not nearly enough- until the air was filled with a symphony of flames that should have been music in the darkness. He wasn’t sure what he was hoping for, but the fire should have been hotter, the building should have burned faster (it was made of wood and paper, what was the hold up?). He had expected sweet satisfaction, but as scraps of charred pages swirled in the smoke around him, and everything was bitter, bitter, bitter, because all he had succeeded in doing was destroying an old man’s business and that hardly even mattered.
“Did you, uh, want to talk to me?” Jackie asked. She tentatively began chewing her gum again, and the sound of it, wet and clucky, crawled along Wes’ skin. His hands curled into fists and the drone of his own voice had never been such a relief to hear.
“Yes,” he said through his clenched jaw. It was a word, maybe just one, but it was better than the empty silence, save her atrocious chewing. His teeth itched to say more.
He’d said nothing when they caught him. He reeked of smoke and indifference, and as they carted him off it was obvious that this stocky white kid with straw colored hair – a face that screamed average before the fire and troubled afterward – would be smelling the stale stench of imprisonment for a long, long time.
He did, and the walls were always gray and the food tasted like cotton balls and the extent of utter nothingness that ran through his veins was enough for his mother to bail him out and send him here, a small town where no one knew his name or his past. “Why do you make your father’s mistakes?”she’d asked, voice strained, eyes shadowed and defeated.
Jackie blew a bubble with her gum and perhaps it was done to fill the awkward silence or simply because this girl was incapable of being still, but it made Wes see red and he dug his fingernails into his palms so hard he could almost taste the blood. He finally said, with words that tasted like cardboard, “I wanted to know if you would go out with me.”
The bubble popped and left a sticky pink seal over Jackie’s lips, and her eyes grew so wide with surprise Wes hoped they would fall right out of her head. He hated people staring, and the agonizing silence that followed grated his eardrums like razors. The inside of his mouth was drier than sand. Why did he care so much all of the sudden?
Her expression changed, and she grinned. A thin layer of sweat broke out on Wes’ forehead and he could almost taste the sour regret of having asked her that question.
“Okay,” she said. The word floated into his ears like a beautiful curse.
The years had hardened Rose. Or at least, that’s what Thomas liked to think. One evening, as they watched their small son play in the garden, Rose spoke.
“I read that book.” She didn’t look at him, but kept her eyes trained on their son. William, they’d named him, after no one in particular. “The one you keep under the bed.”
The sky was beginning to darken and it probably would have been rosy if there were more clouds.
Thomas opened his mouth to ask what, how, why? The book had been buried beneath a shawl, lost in the dust and floorboards. Even he had not looked at it in years.
It had not, however, been vacant from his mind. He thought, sometimes, of the plans he and Henry had had for it.
“It’s brilliant,” Henry had said when they’d printed that first copy. It would be one of many. “Trust me, it’ll sell.”
Thomas smiled. “You expect me to believe that? When the only book you’ve ever sold more than two copies of is the Bible?”
Henry gave him a punch in the shoulder, green eyes cheerful as ever. “We need to move to the west end of the city, with the higher ups. No one can read around here and the only reason the Bible sells is because the king says he reads it, and who do people believe in more than the king?” He didn’t wait for an answer. He held up Thomas’ book. A Death Downriver. “But this, this is worth learning your letters for.”
Thomas felt his chest swell with pride. “You think?” To be honest, not even he had thought his story was worth all that much. Something of a fantastical autobiography, A Death Downriver told the story of a young man whose childhood was taken by war and his family taken plague, and who had, for some reason, survived it all.
“Would I lie to you?” Henry said. He handed the book to Thomas. “We’ll print more soon. Don’t want to upset my father’s old press by turning them out all at once. But believe me, once we do, they’ll be flying off the shelves.” Thomas grinned, his head buzzing with the idea of it. His work had paid off. Truly, it was turning out to be something worth putting his life into.
Rose still wouldn’t look at him, and Thomas didn’t quite know how to respond as thoughts whizzed around his skull. She’d found his book and she’d read it. When he finally heard himself ask it, he knew as the words were coming out of his mouth that it was the wrong question, and he didn’t want to know the answer. “Did you…like it?”
Her eyes slid to his. “It wasn’t quite my taste.”
Henry liked it. Thomas knew better than to say that. What did it matter? Henry, ever-watching Henry, wouldn’t like anything to do with him, now.
“I just wanted to know what the point is,” she said, looking at him unblinkingly, “of keeping it hidden under the bed.”
A place it can always be found, a place it can never get lost, never in danger.
Rose sighed at his less than feeble explanation. Long gone were the days of need and comfort, and indeed, respect. And so it was, with a relationship built on lies. Five and a half short months after the beginning of their marriage, little William was born prematurely and had green eyes unlike any Thomas had ever seen in his own family.
“It still smells like smoke, a little,” Rose said, voice light.
Her eyes fell back on William, who looked up and met Thomas’ gaze instead. He lifted his arms for attention, a smile as wide as only a child could muster, green eyes bright, and Thomas looked away.
The streetlight reflected off of Jackie’s widened eyes as she stared at Wes, crouched in the darkness. In the daylight her eyes were a bright, pale blue, almost milky. It’d crossed his mind once or twice that she could easily impersonate a blind girl. Sometimes, he wished she was blind, because she was always looking at everything all wide-eyed and curious. He had a theory that if she couldn’t see, she might not ask so many damn questions.
“Really?” she whispered, even though there was no one around to hear for miles, probably. A car hadn’t driven by in the last fifteen minutes. The streets were sleek and shining in the orange lamplight from the recent rain, and it smelled musty.
Wes felt himself nod. His heart and his head were pounding. She was the first person in this town that he’d told, and a chorus in his mind sang why, why, why? Why her? Hell if he knew. All he did know was that it was the middle of the night and they were sitting on the trunk of his car and the hood of her raincoat was up even though it wasn’t raining anymore.
“Wow,” she breathed, and he glanced sideways at her. Her hands fidgeted in her pockets. That was not the reaction he had been expecting. Disgust, horror, definitely fear. But she sounded almost…in awe. He hadn’t realized how dry his mouth was until he tried to swallow, and she continued to stare at him until he was sure her eyes were ready to rot. Should have rotted long ago.
“What?” he said defensively.
“Nothing.” She shook her head and leaned closer to him. “Well, not really nothing. How could it be nothing after you say that? Do you burn down things often?”
He blinked. What the hell kind of a question was that? He tells her he burned down one bookstore and she wants more? “Um, not really.”
“Interesting.” She rested her chin on knuckles. Her eyes flicked to his. “You’re not just saying this to impress me, are you?”
He stared at her incredulously. “Impress you?”
She nodded like it was the most obviously thing in the world.
“God, Jackie…and people think I’m the one with the twisted mind?”
She grinned into her hand. “The deep, dark, mysterious Wes, struck speechless because a girl likes a little fire.”
He opened his mouth. He tried to respond, but shit, she was right.
Jack knew he should get back to writing his research project; he had more than enough material for now. There was just something about the shelves and the quiet and the calm that made him feel as if he could walk through them all night. The musty smell of the old books was almost too delicious.
Jack was a fish from a different kind of sea. While most of his friends were out on a Saturday night, doing typical college kid things, Jack was more likely to be found doing more collegiate things. Why waste his weekend killing his brain cells when he could be getting work done? Extra credit, his friend once joked, was Jack’s middle name.
He walked down the aisle, the rubber soles of his shoes silent on the shiny linoleum floors. The research project was extra credit for his theology class, assigned as an option for students on the brink of flunking, but Jack couldn’t pass up a few bonus points. His professor loved his writing. Most professors did, and the knowledge of that sat warmly in Jack’s stomach.
Lost in thought about the project, Jack rounded a corner and nearly ran smack into another person.
“Oh!” the girl yelped in surprise, and Jack nearly cried out as she dropped a massive book on his foot. A sharp pain shot up from his toes. “Oh!” the girl said again. “Oh, oh I’m sorry!”
“It’s…alright,” Jack said through gritted teeth. The girl swooped down and picked up the book, and as she came back up, Jack noted through his pain the way she swept her long brown hair out of her face.
“I don’t normally run into people here around this time,” he said as the pain of his toes faded, feeling rather chatty all of a sudden. The girl looked up at him. Pretty, pretty eyes, perfectly symmetrical, and lips of petal pink he suddenly desired to be on his. “Uh, literally,” he added.
The girls laughed, averting her eyes. “Oh, I don’t normally come to the library.” She pushed her long hair behind her ear, a clean, glossy sheen that reflected the florescent lights. “I’ve got a big paper due Monday, and everywhere else was too distracting.”
“I know what you mean,” Jack said. There was a pause and his eyes fell from her face to the scoop neck of her shirt to the book in her arms. “What’s that enormous book you’re carrying?”
Her face colored slightly. “I just got it out of the rare books collection…a copy of the original, of course.” She showed him the cover. It was shiny and stiff, rarely opened. He held his hand out for a look.
“From the seventeenth century,” he said as he opened to the first page, paper cool and flat beneath his fingers. “You’re brave to want to battle through this.” A Death Downriver. The author’s name was Thomas Leatherby. “Never heard of him.”
“Neither have I,” the girl said, chewing on her lip. “I don’t know, it just sounded more interesting than any of the other books.”
“Yeah?” Jack said, wheedling slightly. “What’s it about?” He was curious and, well, she was nice to look at. He opened to a random page. “’The casket floats up the stinking water of the River Thames. George’s eyes fill with tears for his mother, dead but two days. Plague is a wicked devil.’ Hm, a bit melodramatic, but then again Shakespeare was also a hit at the time.”
A smile flickered on the girl’s face. “The description in the collection said it’s about a man who lives through the Civil War and the Black Plague.” She shrugged. “Depressing, but I’ve always liked English history…” she glanced down at the book. “I’m just not sure how I’m going to read it in time…”
“Well.” Jack slowly closed the book. “I could help you puzzle it out, if you like.”
The girl looked at him, considering. Finally, she said, “Well, alright…my name’s Lilia, but the way.”
Jack held out his hand and she shook it. Her hand was small and his hand fit easily around her smooth, cool skin. He grinned. “Jack.”
Several months later, as they lay in bed together, legs tangled beneath warm sheets and high off of each other’s touch, Lilia said offhandedly, “Do you remember that book? The one I had when we first met? That I dropped on your foot?”
“Of course.” Jack never forgot a book.
“I just, I think about it sometimes,” she said. She giggled. Her head was light on his chest. “I liked it.”
“It was interesting,” he said. “The writing wasn’t the best, but I’ll admit it wasn’t a bad read.” The end, he felt, had come up short. George, a sole survivor of war and plague out of all his family and friends, had gone on to “seek new adventures.” What kind of an ending was that? What had George gone on to do? Obviously, the author didn’t know much about writing literature. He expressed as much to Lilia.
Lilia looked up at him with an affectionate smile. “So pretentious.” Her smile was cheeky. She dragged a finger gently up and down his bare chest beneath the blankets. “Well, Mr. Author, you’re always writing all those essays, why don’t you try your hand at fiction? Maybe you’ll put a few books on the shelves that are up to your standards.” She said it teasingly, but something about her words didn’t quite make it all the way out of Jack’s brain.
“You know, I probably could,” he said, considering. As Lilia’s breathing slowed and she drifted to sleep, the wheels had already begun to turn in his mind.
When death finally came to take Thomas, he wasn’t ready. He didn’t think he would ever be ready. Not that he wanted to live anymore. Not in this world, anyway; if only death truly meant to cease being.
Rose was jealous. She knew who he would find on the other side, and she wanted to get there first. It wasn’t fair, but since when was anything in their lives fair? She resented him on his death bed, as she had resented him every day before that. Thomas didn’t care. After all, what could he do? Go back and change the past?
Would he? Would he go back so he could die a death of ease? Live a life of freedom? Not a single soul besides Rose had read his book. The book he didn’t know what to do with, the book he had started to resent.
The air was heavy in the room and Thomas would have enjoyed the sunlight desperately trying to peak through the dark curtains, but Rose had insisted they remain drawn because sunlight was “bad for his condition.” Because a flower lasts longer in the sun, Thomas thought to himself. But he didn’t have the energy, or the care, to argue.
William sat at the end of his bed on a spindly wooden chair. It looked far too small beneath William’s lanky figure. He was a young man now, barely out of his teens, and he looked like he’d rather be anywhere than in this putrid room with his agonizingly slow dying father.
“William,” Thomas said. His voice was rough from lack of use. His only son looked up, green eyes wary and most likely in hope of a dismissal. “There is a book underneath this bed. I want you to take it and I want you to burn it.”
William’s eyebrows drew together. “Why?” He had a deep voice to go along with his handsome face, and Thomas knew he disappeared at night. Stationary shoes didn’t just appear rattier every morning as if by magic.
Thomas closed his eyes. Exhaustion scratched at his eyeballs. “Please, William.”
When he opened his eyes, the last thing he saw was the back of William’s head as he left the room, something large and bulky in his arms. Thomas smelled the faint scent of smoke that had disappeared long ago.
William Leatherby intended to burn that book. He truly did. What kind of son would disobey his dying father’s last wish?
He had passed his mother standing gravely in the kitchen on his way to carry out the deed. Her thin, curly hair was pulled back in a tight bun and her eyes followed him, flicked to the book in his arms, but she said nothing.
It was just as he went to fetch the firewood and felt the dew from the grass seep in through the newest hole in his shoe, that the idea floated into his mind.
“How much will you take it for?” he asked the bookseller in his tiny shop. The old man looked at him over the counter, wrinkles heavy under his eyes, only one of which was focused on William’s face.
“Depends,” the man said. “Is it good?”
“The best I’ve read,” William declared.
“Can you read?”
The seller squinted his one good eye and glanced at the book again. “A Death Downriver.” He seemed to roll title around on his tongue. Finally, he shrugged with a heaving sigh. “Fine, it seems to be in good condition. How much do you want?”
William grinned. “Enough for a pair of shoes.”
Later, when he returned home, he could tell by the heavy look on his mother’s thin face that his father was, finally, dead. An inexplicable feeling of sorrow hit him firmly in the gut, something he hadn’t been expecting. He felt far away all of the sudden. His father was dead.
He registered, after a moment, that his mother was staring unblinkingly at his feet, and William couldn’t explain the suffocating weight of the guilt he felt when she said, in a voice strained and more wretched than he’d ever heard in his life, “You really are his son, aren’t you?”
Jackie looked at him, aghast. It had been several months since their first date and goddamn would he ever get over how very fucking strange her eyes could be?
“Wes, that’s a terrible idea,” she said, and he felt a seed of embarrassment growing in his stomach. “What’s the highest grade you’ve ever even gotten in an English class? C minus?”
“I got a B once,” he muttered, eyes shaping into an involuntary glare as they so often did. Sure, that may have been in like, seventh grade when he got that B, but still.
“Okay, okay.” Jackie pushed a stray lock of hair that had fallen out of her ponytail behind her ear. He hadn’t expected her to get this frazzled by his suggestion. “I just mean, you could harvest your actual interests instead.”
He crumpled the flyer between his fingers as his hand formed into a fist. “What actual talents?”
“Well,” Jackie said slowly, and Wes could practically see the thoughts turning in her mind behind those glossy eyes. Half a second later, they lit up. Wes had thought that by now he would have mastered the fucking squirmy feeling he got in the pit of his chest every time she did that.
“You’re very quiet, you know, very good at being sneaky, and I always find those silly cute doodles you’re always drawing into my books and journals when I’m not looking, and like, what if you did that to other books? Like library books? The cute doodles with the nice messages like in my books? And they’ll make people feel nice but no one will ever have to know it’s you because you’re so elusive. Like when you burned down the bookstore, even though you were caught. And I did find that very attractive, but I’d rather you not get sent away again, so maybe don’t write in public books. That’s still writing, right? They could be anonymous so people don’t have to know you’re nice.Or, or, why don’t you harvest your interests? You love video games. Anything but enter that contest, Wes. Since when do you even like writing long prose? I’ve read your essays, and you need to just stick to your tiny messages, because even those don’t always have proper grammar, not that creative writing has to be proper, but-”
“Fuck, okay.” Wes could feel his face flushing hot with humiliation because fuck, they’re in the cafeteria and other people are around and Jackie always talked so damn loud. “Shit. I won’t write anything, okay? Mrs. Lynch gave out the flyers in English and I just…”
The only reason he had even entertained the prospect of entering the short story contest was because, well, sometimes he had things to say. His father had done it, so maybe a little talent had carried on to him. It’d be cool to see his name in the town paper. And the prize money didn’t hurt.
Jackie poked his leg underneath the table. “You’re very good at math. You could join the math team, that’s full of lots of competition.”
Wes snorted. Then just nodded, because she was right. Delusional as hell when it came to dating him, but she was usually smart about everything else. Whatever; he’d probably give up after the second page, anyway. And he wasn’t joining the fucking math team. He looked down at what was left of his lunch; peppers he had picked off of his cafeteria pizza, stacked in a small pile in the corner of his styrofoam tray.
“Or you could start by trying to get an A in English.”
Wes snorted again. “Yeah, right.”
He looked up at her. There was a little peanut butter from her sandwich on the edge of her upturned mouth and her hair had fallen out from behind her ear again.
Maybe he could settle for getting all of his homework done tonight. Maybe he’d play video games instead, since she was so supportive in his becoming a gamer. Maybe both. Maybe.
Right now, he was quite tempted to push her hair back behind her ear, but he didn’t.
“I wanted to, though,” he’d write later between the practice problems in her geometry textbook.