Before you regretted voting for that one president, but after your favorite sports team fell out of relevance, all the books were digitized. All the publishers became E-Publishers. The presses stopped. A few libraries remained open as museums, and you remember going to one with a woman you thought you would marry. You would not. Like the museum-library you were a bore, and she left you two months before the wedding for a cruise line captain with a pet sloth.
Except for that brief moment you were engaged in your twenties, you’ve been single. When you hit your thirties, your younger brother started making jokes about how you weren’t single anymore—you were alone. In your forties, you began thinking maybe all those E-Forms with a spot for Marital Status should have an option for alone. Then the big five-zero came and went and your favorite social media site stopped even having a spot for “relationship status” or “interested in.” Sure, other people’s profiles still had those visible, but the internet felt bad for rubbing it in.
Your last pet dog, Schroeder, died the same day of your thesis defense for that PhD in English. You opened the front door, untangling the keys as you talked on the phone to your father about how it went, and there Schroeder was stiff on the couch—tumor the vet said. Of course, you mother was there, but your father wouldn’t come for the sole reason that she was there. That was the first conversation you had with your father in a year. You never thought you would grow up to be the kind of person to have father issues, but you did. Like so many other things, it just happened.
Now you’re fifty-six in the fall of 2048 and you’ve volunteered to teach English Comp for no other reason than a change of pace. Try as you might, reading “Big Two-Hearted River” just doesn’t even make pitching a tent sound fun anymore. You’ve written papers that focus on American Modernism and how it is all about characters who try to connect but ultimately fail. You’ve presented at conferences on Cather’s A Lost Lady. You’ve had mentorships and friendships with students, but you’ve never had a close friendship. The kind of close friendship you keep secret from the Chair.
She is late for the first day of class. You gawk at the hoodie she wears even though it is a 104-degree August day in Kansas. Her hair is brown, and she hasn’t yet pierced her nose. She wears bright red lipstick that you’ll later notice matches her fingernail polish which you’ll later notice matches her toenails as well. You decide not to toss her a snarky comment for being late. You’re a little afraid she might grab it out of the air before it lands and throw it back at you with enough force to undermine your authority for the entire semester—she seems like that kind of girl, or woman. At nineteen, she oscillates between the two.
You ask her name so the computer will hear it and mark her present. She says, “Muriel.” You don’t ask for her last name. That first class you have the students follow along on their tablets as you read the syllabus aloud word for word like the exact same professor you swore you would never become. Muriel has taken a seat in the front corner of the room but makes no effort to pay attention or produce her tablet. Instead, she plays on her phone and once again confirms the reigning issue of pedagogy in the 21st century goes unsolved. You just plain gave up on that one decades ago. You explain to the class that this version of English I is centered on Expressive Argumentation. What you don’t tell them is you think it is a bunch of bullshit and simply two older teaching philosophies smashed together to look new. You assign them a two- to three-page essay in which they will discuss a moment in their life when they had an argument over something associated with personal identity expression. You answer questions as if you know what you’re talking about. Frankly, you have no idea what you would write about from your own life, let alone how to guide your students to write about their lives.
All the brown, metal doors of the last museum-library in the world were welded shut except the main entrance. After all, no one visited anymore. Inside, the dust of forgotten knowledge floated in the air, catching the light that forced its way around boarded-up windows, and gleamed for a single moment in desire to be seen before settling into neat piles in the stacks.
Then in an eruption, the accumulated dust of disused decades shuddered forth, and the entire museum-library clogged with a gray haze. For three days, the dust cloud swirled in the air. The little light that entered the building could not penetrate the dust-fog. An elderly woman walking her Shih Tzu noticed the dust poofing out from the cracks around the windows. She granted the disturbance a simple “Humph,” and moved on down the sidewalk.
As the dust fell in drifts and piles on the yellowed tile floor, the books and shelves were clean. The fiercest drill sergeant’s white-glove inspection would have yielded no results on the spines of those 24,000 volumes. Not even a single speck caught a stray wisp of light. In one great shuddering move like Adam’s first gasp, the books cleaned themselves.
A few class periods later, you ask Muriel to stay after class. While she comes to the front of the room, you realize she’s an inch or two taller than you.
“Need something?” she asks almost as if she had asked you to stay after.
“The computer tells me you didn’t turn in the assignment,” you say and take a step away from her.
“Computers only know what they’re programmed to.” She lowers her hood as she speaks, and brown hair filters the morning sun reminding you of the woman you would not marry.
“Not doing the first assignment isn’t a good way to start the semester,” you tell her while internally you question why you’re calling her out but not the other two students who also didn’t do the assignment.
“The computer doesn’t know I did it,” she says, walloping the table with her backpack as she drops it from her shoulder. She rummages around in it and then holds out a piece of paper. Her sleeve has been pushed up from her search and reveals the lower half of a tattoo. It looks like a leaf, and later in your apartment, she’ll tell you it is her own artistic interpretation of “In a Station of the Metro.”
“Where did you find paper?” you ask, not bothering to reprimand her for not turning it in electronically like the university requires. Instead, you marvel at the faint roughness of the too-white paper as you rub it between your thumb and forefinger.
“You can find it if you look hard enough. Of course, it costs a shit ton ‘cause they don’t make it any more.” She steps toward the door. “I’m going to leave now before it gets too weird between you and that paper.”
You realize you’re holding the paper to your chest, and as you look up, she is leaving the room. Her boot clangs on the metal trashcan keeping the automatic door from closing as she steps over it, and you want to say something to acknowledge the significance of the moment and the paper she has just handed you and what it means to you to see someone love writing in the old way—the way you once did and still could if only she could show you how. After unwrinkling the paper and adjusting your glasses, you see that instead of the essay you assigned, Muriel has written a poem about arguing with her landlord over growing illegal tobacco plants in her apartment. She has done your assignment in her own way with her own words, and because it doesn’t meet the assignment requirements, you will fail it.
Having cleaned themselves of time’s evidence, the books’ next challenge was to take the first few fledgling steps towards true movement. Accomplishing The Great Twitch, as the books thought of it, was easy. However, days passed before anyone could move again. Gulliver’s Travels couldn’t accomplish the task. The Odyssey couldn’t journey an inch. The Road took no steps. No, the first volume to wiggle itself free of the confines of the shelves was The Poky Little Puppy. It shifted its weight from front cardboard cover to back cardboard cover before slipping out from the grasp of its Little Golden Book brethren and soared into the air three shelves from the floor.
Although that first move could not be called a flight, the soft crash of The Poky Little Puppy swooping into a warren of dust bunnies on the floor was enough to jolt the rest of the Little Golden Books to follow. Like dominoes spaced perfectly just to be knocked down in a moment of elation, the books of the museum-library leapt from their shelves causing a cacophony that would have been too much for even the most relaxed librarian.
The noise emanating from the forgotten building was so loud that a police cruiser was called in by the lady with the Shih Tzu who lived next door. She was already late for her video-chat Bible study, so she didn’t stick around to see what happened. After determining that the front door was the only way in or out, the police officer shrugged her shoulders and inspected the digital padlock. It hadn’t been cut nor had an attempt been made to hack it. She located a window that wasn’t boarded up and shined her flashlight on the glass. The dust coating the window was so thick the light simply bounced off it and scattered into its own particles and waves. Not seeing any evidence of tampering or hearing any activity from within, she shrugged her shoulders again and left. No incident report was filed.
Weeks later you are sitting on your couch in your sweatpants and undershirt with a chocolate syrup stain from your second bowl of ice cream that night. The Royals are falling apart in just the third inning of Monday Night Baseball. Sometimes you miss the other sports like football and hockey, but the player safety era pretty much killed anything but incidental contact. Amazing that baseball became popular again. Back when you were in college, the only people who liked baseball were the elderly who slept through it, the douchebags who played it, and the hipsters who labeled their beards as ironic even though it was a fundamental misunderstanding of the term. But, it did become popular again, so there you are sitting on your patched-leather couch in your one bedroom apartment watching the goddamn Twinkies hit a sixth homer off the pitcher who two years ago was going to restore the franchise to glory.
There’s a knock on your door and rather than looking through the blinds, which is always awkward for you and the knocker, you get up and open the peephole-less door. Standing on the second floor wooden walkway is Muriel. She has on her hoodie like always, and her skinny jeans are rolled up at the cuffs showing off her hiking boots. It is as if she came from some bygone era and had catapulted herself into the present. A man with a kettledrum in your heart starts pounding a rhythm you haven’t felt since you bored your fiancée away. The pounding crescendos as she turns just enough so the light outside your door catches her eyes just right and makes them glow with the same blue-green of the aurora borealis. You want to reach out and touch her soft face as the thumping of the kettledrum echoes through your veins. Then you realize you’re a grown man standing in the doorway staring like an idiot at girl who is also your student.
“Sorry,” you both say at the same time.
“For what?” she asks, recovering first.
“Like me showing up here is professional?”
“I’m the one who’d get in more trouble.”
“Trouble for what?”
“What are you doing here?” you ask choosing not to reveal your momentary lapse in mental judgement. It’s all the better if she didn’t notice the fleeting moment the same way you did.
“I had a question about your comments on my poem, but now that I’m here and saying that out loud it sounds like a stupid-ass reason. I could have just asked you after class or during your office hours.”
“No one comes to those.”
“I guess I just wanted to talk about writing, and you seemed like the only one without their head up their ass and full of pretentious bullshit.”
“Would you like to come in?” you ask and the question is out there hanging like a note on a thread connecting you through the doorway. It reverberates in the air like the last inflection of the last syllable after a poem is read and the audience hasn’t started to clap for the esteemed poet. You wonder if the thread will snap and the note will turn green, plummeting to the earth below your feet like vomit, or if she will take it up and you will talk together like kindred spirits. Later you’ll remind her of this timid moment when her brashness fell, and she wasn’t so sure of herself. You’ll tell her you didn’t know you could feel so connected to someone over something as simple as a handwritten poem on a piece of paper. She’ll joke about how she turned that in to spite you and the system, but when you returned the paper with your handwritten comments, she felt a desire to talk to you and that was all. And it was enough.
With regret you had returned the paper to her a few class periods later. After all, you are a professor. The red pen you were able to find at the bottom of the supply closet under stacks of dried ink cartridges for a printer no longer in existence barely wrote, but you made it work and critiqued her work with all the enthusiasm you used to have for your own attempts at poetry. At first it felt like sacrilege to mark that paper with red ink rather than frame it and put it on your desk to gaze upon when your monitor became too much, but then it felt exactly like what you should be doing. Lash it with the markings of your soul and hand it back to her saying take and drink this is my blood, shed for you.
“Sure,” she says.
You step back so she can walk in and you close the door behind her. The deadbolt slides into place once and then out again as you unlock it. She sits down on the couch opposite where you normally sit and puts her boots up on the particleboard coffee table. You realize the TV is still on and turn it off after a quick search for the remote between the couch cushions which brings your hand dangerously close to her body. The Spider-Man movie poster on the wall above the TV screen seems too juvenile, and you curse yourself for not getting rid of it years ago when the woman you almost married asked you to. Maybe if you had, you would be married now and in your house instead of alone with a nineteen-year old student in your apartment at night. Finally, you sit down and look around the room so you don’t make eye contact. The coffee table is not parallel to the couch and you want to correct it, but you don’t.
“How did you find where I live?” you ask and look at her again, hoping she doesn’t notice the look that is surely in your eyes.
“You can find anything online,” she replies, looking back at you revealing nothing.
“All right, what did you want to ask me?”
The books’ next step came after they flopped around on the floor for several days like too many koi in a much too small pond. The Sibley Guide to Birds looked deep within its pages and discovered the secret of flight. It flopped-climbed its way to the top of a mound of less dignified bird guides. From there it made a little hop to the nearest shelf—two up from the ground. It stretched its covers in the closest approximation of the painted birds inside its pages and leapt from the shelf. The first attempt was a rousing failure, and The Sibley Guide to Birds caromed into a pile of tree identification guides. After making the trek back to the shelf, it made a second attempt that saw it spread its covers again and catch a subtle draft upwards. It rose as high as the crumbling tile ceiling before flapping its page-wings to stay in place. Next it swooped down and perched on the top shelf next to a low-hanging sprinkler head.
Soon there was a flock of bird guides flying from shelf to shelf. The ability spread through the museum-library faster than a fire could consume those dry pages. The books rose from the dusty floor tiles that they had flung themselves onto and flit about the air of all the rooms. No longer required to stay in their sections and genres, nonfiction and poetry intermingled. The reference section flew as one to see what those short story things were all about. Science fiction made the split from fantasy having always been angry over being lumped together. The western and the romance made up after years of an on-again off-again relationship.
Needing more space to live in, the books pushed and scraped the metal shelving to the corners and unused rooms of the museum-library which caused the lady with the Shih Tzu to call the police again. The same officer came, and once again, she determined that no one had broken into the building, but she could hear the sound of the books flying about. This time she filed a report stating that the museum-library had been infiltrated by pigeons.
The third time Muriel comes to your apartment to talk about writing she situates herself comfortably on her end of the couch. She takes off her hoodie for the first time ever revealing a simple T-shirt with the image of a lemon eating a stick figure on it. You’re ashamed to realize you were hoping for something different under the hoodie—something more revealing, something with skin, something for you to think about and feel the man with the drum beat out a shameful song.
“Would you like anything to drink?” you ask headed to your small kitchen.
“What do you have?” she asks instead of her previous answers of no.
“Water. This beer from a conference in Louisiana last spring,” you say, opening the refrigerator door.
“Any wine?” she asks.
“No,” you say and stick your head around the corner.
“You’re no fun,” she says taking off her boots and putting her feet on the coffee table.
“You didn’t strike me as a wine connoisseur,” you say now back in the kitchen rifling through cabinets for other options you may have forgotten about.
“Sorry,” she calls back at you. “Guess I’m not your fantasy girl.”
You stop with your hand hovering over a jug of wine deep under the kitchen sink. You wonder if she’s joking. Are you that obvious? The kettledrum begins to beat.
“Actually,” you say, grabbing the wine. “I just remembered I have some crappy wine I got a while back to try and make dinner with.”
“How was it?” she asks as you walk back into the living room with the jug.
“The wine or the dinner?”
“Well, the dinner was a delicious meal for the dumpster cats. I never tried the wine by itself,” you say and sit back down on the couch holding a jug of Carlo Rossi Burgundy. “This is all I have.”
“I’ll take it.”
“I don’t have any wine glasses.”
“Just give me the damn jug.”
You take turns seeing who can stomach the biggest gulps of the dry red wine. Both of you drink straight from the jug Tortilla Flat style. Before you know it, both of you are walking the wobbly line between tipsy and drunk. She has a whole notebook of poetry with her, and you take turns reading aloud what she has written. Her handwriting is shaky at first like a newborn giraffe tottering on stick legs after crashing to the dirt of the Serengeti. Poems later her strokes are bold, written in exuberant pen colors that are unmatched by any hex code. You ask her where she gets the paper and pens. She shrugs and offers that most common answer—internet.
When the glass jug is empty and has rolled under the coffee table, you are no longer sitting on opposite sides of the couch. You are close but not touching as she sits in the middle. Your thighs and elbows brush. Your fingers briefly connect each time you pass the notebook until eventually you are just holding it out between you so you can both read from it.
“They sound so much better when you read them,” she says and you close the notebook.
“They’re the same words.”
“There’s more to it than that, dumbass.”
“I’m almost forty years older than you. Don’t call me a dumbass,” you say but are immediately sorry you brought up the age difference.
You’re aware and she’s aware of how you are sitting. You remember the forgotten detail that she’s actually your student and she’s in your apartment. The taste of the alcohol that you’ve both been drinking becomes sour, and you’re no longer pleasantly drunk. It all coalesces between you and the thread snaps with a dissonant chord.
“Shit, I gotta go,” she says and stands up. She fishes her boots out from under the coffee table causing the wine jug to roll out.
“You shouldn’t drive,” you tell her.
“I walked here.”
“Don’t offer,” she says. “I’ll be fine.”
The door closes behind her. You’re still holding the notebook. You let it slip through your fingers and onto the dusty high-traffic carpet of your shabby apartment. You let yourself fall to the side so you’re lying on the couch. The leather is warm from where she’d been sitting, and you can still smell her mango hand lotion. You close your eyes and hold your breath.
Weeks later, another development occurred—the last step towards the books’ sentience. The wonderment of their flight had worn off and something new was needed. For days little squeaks and chirps had been emanating from random books. One time it would be Red Harvest. Another time it would be The Fossil World. However, the first work to master English was none other than Hamlet. After a babble of yelps and peeps, it shouted aloud.
“To be, or not to be: that is the question!”
All attempts at speech stopped. Then a book in the growing crowd around Hamlet called out.
“You know that’s about suicide, right?”
“Who said that?” Hamlet asked.
The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare flew forward and landed in front of Hamlet.
“Oh, it’s you,” Hamlet said.
“Yeah, it’s me.”
“What do you know?”
“I know everything about you. No one understands you without me,” The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare said strutting about on the desk.
“But I’m the original. What do you need other than the true words on the page?”
“Now, children, let’s not bicker,” said a translation of Beowulf while landing between the two.
“Shut up. You’re just a prose translation,” another translation of Beowulf said skittering into the argument.
In mere minutes, every book in the library was arguing with another trying to prove their merit. Nonfiction versus fiction. Genre versus literary. Poetry versus prose. The books formed camps of ideologies. They took sides and drew up alliances and treaties. They flew about in turmoil and disarray raising almost as much noise as when they had moved the shelves.
The lady with the Shih Tzu called the police station again. This time they sent someone else with the police officer, but instead of investigating the library they went straight to the lady’s house. They told her to stop calling about the building. No one had been in there for decades. It was abandoned. There was no evidence that anyone was messing around with it. She was wasting time and resources by constantly calling them out there. It was just birds shitting on the remnants of useless paper books.
You’re sitting in your office. Muriel hasn’t been in class, which is a relief every time you walk into the room and she isn’t there. She hasn’t been back to your apartment, and you still have her notebook. Every day you take it to school to give back to her in case she shows up. Every night you take it back home with you. There’s a knock on the door and you tell whoever it is to come in.
“Hey,” Muriel says walking into your windowless office.
“I want to—” you start to say but she cuts you off.
“Forget it. You were drunk. I was drunk. It doesn’t mean shit,” she says dropping her backpack to the ground as she sits in the chair across from your desk.
“That’s no excuse,” you say.
“Shut up already. I have something for you.”
“What? You don’t have to give me anything.”
“Dude, it isn’t like that.”
“I wasn’t saying—”
“I know,” she says cutting you off again. She reaches into her backpack and produces a package which she slides across your desk knocking your bowl of Jolly Ranchers over. She leans back and smiles faintly as she watches you.
“Wrapping paper even. You went all out. I haven’t seen a gift actually wrapped in years,” you say turning the rectangular box over in your hands looking at the happy birthday wrapping paper. “You know it isn’t my birthday, right?”
“It’s what I could find.”
You start by peeling the tape off one end. The slower you go the longer the moment will last. Looking up at Muriel, you expect to see her glaring at you to go faster or for her to tell you to rip that fucker open, but she doesn’t. Instead, she waits with her hands in her lap, blinking slowly. Finally, you finish peeling off all the tape and pull back the wrapping. Before opening the taped cardboard box, you take the time to fold the wrapping paper.
“Can use it again,” you say, holding up a neat square of wrapping paper.
You open your desk drawer and find a pair of scissors to cut the tape. Once open, you see Muriel has given you a picture frame. You pull it out and flip it over to see that inside the frame is the poem she wrote for your class assignment. It is the same copy you marked with your red ink.
“Don’t mention it,” she says, and her shoulders drop as she slouches back into the chair.
“I’ll hang it up at home,” you say after looking around the office.
She nods again and then says, “I’m going to drop out.”
“What will you do?”
“I want to print real words. I’ll start a magazine for the people who want their words to be tangible and physical again. What do you think?”
“I think you’re going to need a name for your magazine.”
She looks at you a moment and smiles her real unguarded smile like the night you were drunk and close. You smile back and the drums beat, but this time the rhythm isn’t a driving, hungry beat, but instead, it is a rolling wave of contentment joining body and soul and heart and mind into symphonic equilibrium.
In the end, a council was convened and a ceasefire agreed upon to prevent anymore books being ripped apart. However, it was decided that this measure would not be enough. Western and romance both didn’t trust one another. The entirety of young adult fiction was seen as illegitimate in the presence of literary fiction. They agreed to put their squabbles aside for the time being, but all present knew that it would only take one book to pull the treaty apart.
“You can’t have relations with your students,” the Chair says to you in his office with the door locked.
“It’s not like that.”
“The janitor heard you in your office,” he says, pushing his tablet up on the desk so he can lean in on his elbows.
“Muriel is actually failing my class,” you say.
“So what, you’re giving her extra credit?” The Chair looks away and you follow his eye to the picture of his family hanging on the wall. “Jesus Christ, today went from a nightmare to a bad porno.”
“It isn’t like that.”
“The janitor heard you talking about being drunk and apologizing for what happened. A freshman could connect those dots.”
“Yes, she was at my apartment, and yes, we drank, but then she left. That’s it. I know how it looks. I know it isn’t right, but it isn’t like that.”
“It doesn’t matter. No one will see it that way,” the Chair says.
“I mean she hasn’t actually done any of the assignments, so she’s failing.”
“Look,” the Chair says as he leans back again. “It doesn’t matter. Word gets out and this becomes an embarrassment for the department and the school. What will her parents say? And besides, we’re having a hard enough time as it is proving that the English Department should even be kept around anymore.”
“What do you want me to do?” you ask, but you already know the answer.
“You’re going to have to resign, or I’ll have to fire you. You know I like you. We were hired at the same time. I used to think you would be the Chair.”
“You know what? I just don’t care anymore,” you say, standing and holding out your hand.
“Sorry it had to end like this,” he says and stands to shake your hand.
After the ceasefire was broken and then reinstated, it was decided that the books should find a way to escape in order to continue their existence elsewhere. Reference simply tried to use its bulk to pound out a way through the windows. Crime fiction lurked around the shadows of the museum-library looking for any nook or cranny to sneak through. Nonfiction tried various inventions and experiments to melt the brown metal doors. The children’s books were yelled at by everybody for getting in the way even though they were just trying to help. Science fiction tried to hack the digital padlock. Fantasy tried to use magic to teleport everyone out of the building, or at the very least, make the walls disappear. Western and romance, now back together, canoodled in the supply closets. Drama recorded the goings on of everyone, and young adult fiction tried to gain access to the roof.
You stand outside the last museum-library located in WaKeeney, KS—a dilapidated town where a few scenes of Paper Moon were shot. In your hand is a pair of twenty-four inch bolt cutters. You look at Muriel and she gives you a nod. With a grunt you cut through the digital padlock on the front door of the building. The lock clatters to the concrete and the glass screen cracks. No alarm sounds. From inside you can hear the whirring flaps of what sounds like thousands of birds murmurating from shelf to shelf. Muriel grabs your hand and you pull open the doors.
From the Earth to the Moon is the first volume to fly through the door and into the real sky. It is followed by the other volumes gathered in the entryway and soon the entire museum-library is erupting forth with thousands of books in flight.
The lady with the Shih Tzu comes out onto her porch and drops her phone when she sees the books fluttering into the sky like a mosaic rainbow. She sees two people standing in the doorway with hands clasped and heads upturned watching the migration of books into the clouds. Down the street the police officer stops her squad car and gets out to stand in the middle of the street. She tells herself they’re pigeons, but with each soft scrape of paper-wings that illusion disintegrates.
The books flow into the sky making a cloud of text. They don’t stop when they feel the full heat of the sun. They crash through stray clouds turning vapor into dust. A child in the window seat of an airliner tries to wake her mother as the vein of books rockets passed. The books weave in and out of meteors and space debris burning up in the mesosphere. Astro-workers renovating the ISS into the Planetary Space Colony gesture to each other as the books swarm around the construction. They cut through the beginnings of the solar winds that penetrate Earth’s magnetic shielding. Satellites’ orbits are changed and connectivity on the surface is disrupted. They accelerate beyond the speed of light and become a beam of their own sentient energy. They forge past the solar system and in moments the New Hubble Telescope loses sight of them. The books fade out of humanity’s realm of existence.
“I’ll name it Curious Fictions,” Muriel says to you.
“That’s an awful name,” you say, but you squeeze her hand in yours and the difference of thirty-seven years becomes nothing in the lines of your two palms stained with red ink.