Boy meets book

One of my favorite writing podcasts is called Writing Excuses; at the end of every episode, they give a writing prompt, and sometimes I even do them. This prompt was given in season 11 episode 33, though I suggest not looking it up until you’re done reading, as it gives away the ending. Like John, I just couldn’t get the prompt out of my head…

Johnny pouted in the backseat, arms crossed. He’d been all for going out to brunch at the local Waffle House, but he should have suspected a rat: Mom and Nan didn’t take him out to eat for no reason. He kept his ears open, and sure enough, he’d heard the magic words: “yard sale”. This was the worst possible outcome: knowing them, they’d he hours pouring over stupid knick-knacks that had been ugly when they were new and hadn’t improved with time. They kept telling him he’d find a cool game or maybe even a razor scooter, but he knew better. People didn’t put good stuff in yard sales. They kept it until it broke, or maybe sold it on Craigslist, but never yard sales. This would be a long, painful, hot day. Totally not worth it.

As he got out of his nan’s white Chevy, he crossed his arms with a petulant scowl. “How long is this going to take?”

“Not long,” his mother chided, with the sort of exhaustion that came from dragging an unwilling teenager out of the house.

“And then I can play my game?” He had been excited to get the latest Tony Hawk game, but his mother had insisted that he couldn’t play before breakfast. If he’d known breakfast would turn into an all-day thing, he’d have fought harder.

“Why don’t you see if they have any games here?” asked Nan, giving Mom a kind smile. Johnny rolled his eyes, but they didn’t seem to care. Well, better than standing here awkwardly.

The yard sale contained three long tables arranged in a U-shape, heaped with small items: plates, bowls, silverware, children’s toys, clothing, tools. Johnny could see no sign of organization in the chaos. He decided to wander, starting at one end of the U and meandering along the table. He kept one eye on his mother; she and Nan had gone over to the lawn, and were currently debating the merits the couch displayed there.

Johnny lifted some old records and found himself staring at a pile of books. Maybe they’ll have something decent? he wondered, browsing through several old books on the table. At least I can read something and not be so bored.

He brushed a few King novels aside and there it was: a thick, hardback book. He could practically smell the old book smell just looking at the thing: the cover was a deep tan, the pages cut slightly ragged to allow the book to be bound easier, the corners blunted over the years. The cover bore no title, just a complex design: a raised, dark Celtic knot of some kind, interlocking pyramids and triangular shapes that he couldn’t quite trace no matter how hard he tried.

Johnny’s heart leapt into his throat, his stomach churning. He yearned for the book, in a way that made him slightly uncomfortable underneath the pure desire. He scrambled in his pockets, coming up with only a five dollar bill. Well, this was a yard sale, right? How much could it be?

He picked up the book. Touching the cover sent a tingle through his fingertips, a small shock that ran up his arm and down his spine. He turned the book over, ignoring the heat rushing to his face.

The price tag read, $35.

That has to be a joke, he thought, eyes widening. Thirty five fucking dollars? For a book?

The price tag refused to change. Before he’d really thought it through, he was taking the book to the smiling woman sitting on a stool behind the central table.

“H-how much?” he asked, pretending he hadn’t seen the tag.

“Oh, for that? Thirty five.” Damn.

“I can’t, uh… I don’t exactly have that much.”

She smiled kindly, and for a moment he thought he might get the book after all. “I could go as low as thirty, but that’s it.”

Blushing, stammering, he put the book down, backing away from the table. He did his best to put it out of mind. It was just a stupid book. It was probably stupid anyway, right?

That night, his dreams were full of intricate tangles of diamonds and triangles.

He forgot about the book for years. He graduated high school, and went to college. He studied hard and played hard; he dated a girl, and she broke his heart. Life moved on.

Dan came over one night with a dime bag, dangling it in front of John’s face as if it were a toy for a cat. “I got the good shit!”

“Hey, cut it out!” he snapped, looking around to see if the RA was skulking in the hallway.

“Come on, man. You haven’t come out drinking in weeks. You need to relax, to get over Valerie.”

John sighed, running a hand through his rich brown hair. “Okay. But we need to get somewhere safe.”

The roof of the apartment complex was flat; the fire escape led right up to it, and the fire alarm that should have sounded when they went out onto it had long been disabled by engineering students looking for someplace to do what he was after. Dan rolled a blunt, while John peered over the edge, calculating the drop.

He didn’t want to die, not really. Sometimes it just seemed like his body did things on its own, like his mind just wanted to know what it was like. He didn’t want to picture the fall, to guess at how long the rush of wind would last. He didn’t want to imagine the kind of pain he’d be in at the bottom – or would he feel it at all? Would he just black out and that’d be it?

He stepped back from the edge, and sat next to Dan. His best friend hadn’t been lying; this was good, burning his lungs less than the last time he’d lit up. He must have been moping more than he’d thought, if Dan was going to this extreme.

He laid on his back, taking a long drag from the blunt and exhaling slowly. The patterns of the smoke, over the patterns of the stars… something in the shape of them, just barely, suggested a tangle of angles, a dark pattern on a pale background of smoke.

Dan mistook his cough, plucking the blunt from his fingers. “Hey man, easy, you okay?”

“I’m… yeah. I’m great. Just… just remembering a dream I had once,” he replied. The image sat uneasy in his stomach all night, despite his attempts to smoke it away.

The book was unmistakable, even from across the room. Something about the pattern on the cover registered in Johnathan’s peripheral vision, and there it was: The Book, sitting innocently on a reading table in the library at the university where Johnathan was doing his doctoral thesis.

He was moving before he realized what he’d seen. When his conscious mind caught up, he found himself caressing the cover as if it were a cat, gently stroking the outer edge of the raised design. The same thrill ran through him, up his fingers, along his arm, down his spine. He knew what he had to do.

Slowly, holding his breath, he opened the cover.

The first page was blank.

His heart sank. Was it just a journal of some kind? Just a fancy journal, ready to be written in? But why would it be in a library? Why had nobody written in it?

He turned another page, and let out his breath. The second page was not blank; it was covered in tiny symbols, some language he did not recognize. Someone would be able to translate it for him, he was sure. He’d find out what was in it. A novel? A reference book? It was probably something boring, something mundane, but he’d finally know.

He checked out the book, heading immediately to Sandy’s apartment. Sandy was a linguistics professor; if anyone could figure out what language the book was in, she would. He felt a blush creep across his cheeks. When he’d gotten her address, he’d had a very different idea in mind: coffee, maybe a little wine, a sweet little romantic evening. But now, with the book appearing – finally within his reach! – it was all he could think about.

It was scholarly pride, surely. He had a natural curiosity, and he’d been waiting half a lifetime to find out what the book said. There would be time for dating later. There would be time for everything later. His toes tapped as he waited at a stoplight, the minutes turning into interminable hours as he waited for the green light.

She seemed surprised to see him; he apologized for not calling ahead, but refused the offer of coffee. When he showed her the book, she frowned, and as he explained he was looking for what language it was, she frowned some more, shaking her head as she paged through the book.

“I think it might be Chinese,” he continued, but she cut him off.

“No, here, I’ve got some text, I’ll show you. Chinese is nothing like this.”

Over the next hour, she dug out page after page, showing him old languages and new, Eastern and Western. Nothing fit.

“Could it be Hindi? What about Nubian?”

“I’m sorry, Johnathan, it’s nothing I’ve ever seen before.”

Johnathan sat back, staring at the book on the table between them. Despite the notes and tomes scattered about Sandy’s living room, there was an area around the Book that was clear. It was as if the papers didn’t dare get too close, or perhaps as if the humans didn’t dare obscure the book.

He knew she was right. She’d shown him examples of a dozen scripts, and none of them matched the elegance of the Book. The symbols within flowed together in the way that Arabic did, but each symbol seemed to contain so much more meaning to it, like the traditional Chinese symbols she had shown him. It was maddening.

“Could it be a constructed language, like Tolkien?”

“That, or random scribbles.”

It couldn’t be random. He knew, somehow, looking through the pages, that this book had meaning, had significance. It had chosen him twenty years ago, and he would understand its secrets if it killed him.

He sat on the toilet. His eyes skimmed over his razor, sitting out on the counter, waiting for him to shave in the morning. He imagined the bite of blade on flesh, the gush of blood. He shuddered, and decided to grow his beard out.

The alarm blared, and he rubbed his eyes, surprised to see that the sun had risen while he was comparing the glyphs on page fourteen with the similar pairs on page three hundred and twelve. He silenced the alarm, looking longingly back at his notes. He had to go to work. He had to pay the bills or he’d have no place to work, no light to see by, no pens and paper to write his findings. But he felt like he’d made no progress over the past year. It was so close, so tantalizing. He had the book. He’d been learning about cracking ciphers, under the idea that the script was unique but serving as a cipher for a language on earth. But he was getting nowhere, and he knew it.

He made himself a mug of coffee to go and slipped into his car, tie in hand. He’d put it on later. He was so tired. Why bother going to teach ungrateful brats anyway? He was on the verge of a discovery that could change the whole world, but he had to put it on hold to teach a bunch of rich fucks who never had to work a day in their lives.

As he navigated to the highway, he thought about ramming his car into a tree. The metal would crunch, the tree would groan. If he was moving fast enough, the metal would wrap around the tree, an eternal embrace. If he took off his seatbelt, he’d fly free of the car, breaking the glass…

He shook off the vision, focusing on staying on the road. It was an artifact of sleep deprivation, that was all. He’d have to take the night off. His stomach twisted in rebellion at the thought. Maybe tomorrow night he’d sleep. Tonight he had work to do.

He knew what he would be told, but he couldn’t give up. Just one more try, he told himself, for the dozenth time. He trudged through the giant hall, weaving his way around Starfleet officers and elaborate monsters, pausing obediently whenever he saw a camera so he didn’t interrupt the shot. By the time he reached the booth he wanted, the line had grown long enough to round the corner, so he followed obediently to the end. The Book was at home, locked in his safe; he’d scanned every page and put the actual book away, so as not to damage it further.

The library had demanded a stupidly high fee when he told them he’d “lost” it. If only I’d had the thirty five back then, he told himself, resigned, as he waited in line. Every day he didn’t have an answer was another grain of sand in the hourglass of time, slipping through his fingers. He didn’t have forever. When he died, there’d be nobody left who cared about the book like he did, nobody to crack its secrets.

If only I had a hint…

Forty minutes later, he reached the front of the line and dug the pages out. The bald man behind the table looked up at him, exhausted.

“And who am I making this out to?”

“Actually, I was wondering if you could take a look at something for me.”

“I don’t do–” Johnathan cut him off.

“It’s not a story. I just wanted to know if you’ve seen anything like this before?”

The bestselling author skimmed over the pages briefly, then shook his head. “Maybe Tolkien? It looks kind of elvish?”

Johnathan stifled a groan.

He was having trouble breathing again. Was it the weight of his despair crushing him? No, this wasn’t over. He knew it wasn’t. Just because crypto-analysis got him nowhere, just because it was in no script he’d ever seen, just because no fantasy or scifi author in the country had seen it, it didn’t mean there was no solution. He just had to find something he could crack, some clue, and he’d begin to have an idea. Someone had to have written the book. Somewhere there had to be answers.

He stood, glancing out the window into the night air. A walk would clear his head. It wasn’t raining. He pulled on a coat, slipping out the front door and into the night.

His chest didn’t clear up. It seemed to constrict further, in fact. Was it spring? He couldn’t remember. It might be allergies. He took a few steps before a pain hit his chest, dropping him to the ground. His mind blanked out, and there was nothing but the pain. He lost himself in it, feeling his grasp on reality slip away into the endless sea of pain.

The pain faded. He could think again, though his mind was still addled. What was that? A seizure of some kind? He resolved to see his doctor in the morning – and then grimaced, because it would take time away from his research. Slowly, he picked himself up, feeling oddly light as he did so. He took a few steps. The pain was gone entirely now, and he could breathe easily. Whatever it was, it was over now.

He couldn’t get the doorknob to work as he tried it. He kept missing it somehow, his hand going right past the knob without catching hold. Frustrated, he leaned against the door, passing through it instead. Oh. That’s much easier.

He walked back to his study, sitting at the desk and leaning over the book. The shapes he knew so well had not changed, but the meaning… the meaning was suddenly clear. He could finally read it, as though it were written in plain English, though it clearly was not:

So you’re dead, the first page began. We’re very sorry for the inconvenience, and we hope your death was not painful. Now that you have left your physical body, there are some things we need you to know…