by Julie Wornan
It was just before bedtime when Grandpa showed him the book. Its cover was dark blue and old, and it had a great many pages, thin and ivory-colored like dry rose petals. Some pages even had pictures, ink-drawn in an old-fashioned style.
“That’s a real book, isn’t it?” the boy asked solemnly. “It’s not an e-book.”
Grandpa smiled and put it back in its drawer. There was also a bit of paper printed with brightly colored rows of books on shelf upon shelf. Grandpa explained, “When folks stopped using real books, bookshelf wallpaper came into fashion for a while. Because, you know, a room full of books is a very special place. Each book is a passage to another world — a ride on a magic carpet or a trip through a time machine. Later, though, people came to prefer plain white walls. Our rooms are too small for so much color now.”
“Grandpa? What was written in all those books?”
“Everything. Angels and monsters, knowledge and dreams. And now it’s your bedtime, young man.”
* * *
In a vast room lined with bookshelves, a huge moon shone through a many-paned window. In the moonlight an angel, tall and grave, stood writing with a feather in an enormous notebook. By her side stood a green, scaly monster with round yellow eyes.
“Are you a monster?” the boy asked, not because there was any doubt, but because he might tell by its reply whether it was a good or a bad monster.
“We are just like you,” said the Monster with a smile. “Only we don’t wear brand-name clothes and we don’t use washing machines.” Indeed, the Monster wore no clothes at all. “My sister is writing in the Book of What Was and What Will Be, so we mustn’t speak to her now.”
The Angel looked up from her writing and smiled at the boy. She put a question to him: “Are you happy?”
He didn’t answer, because he didn’t know.
Then the Monster asked, “What do you eat for breakfast?”
That was easy: “Bits of fluffy stuff with no taste floating in make-believe milk.”
The Monster laughed.
“What do you eat?” the boy asked it, because he saw that this Monster was not a scary one. “Little goblins.” it replied, with a wink.
The boy couldn’t tell whether this was a joke or the truth, but he laughed because it was funny either way.
The Angel tickled her nose with the feather, thought a moment, and asked, “Are you rich or poor?”
He knew that there were rich families. They lived in cities with high walls and they had roads for their cars. Nobody else used the roads, because nobody else had cars.
But there were poor people too. You saw them sleeping near walls to keep warm. Then sometimes one day you didn’t see them any more. Daddy said that happened before “elections.”
His own family had water, and a computer of course, and enough food. And they lived in a flat of their own, although it was a bit cramped and the walls were bare and white. Grandpa slept on the kitchen floor. The boy’s own bed was in the living room over the computer desk.
“In the middle, I guess,” the boy replied at last, and the Angel wrote it down.
“What do you want more than anything?” the Monster asked intently, fixing him with its round moon-like eyes.
“A real school with other children. And friends. And a real book, with pictures. Um, two books.”
The Angel wrote.
Then the Monster touched the boy’s cheek and said gently, “You must leave this dream now. We have Angel and Monster things to do.”
He didn’t want to leave, but suddenly he felt terribly sleepy. He curled up tight and slipped deep into his bed like a snail. What pulled him out was Mommy’s voice: “Wake up, Tommy. Time for breakfast and school.”
Tommy was his name when he was awake. He realized that names, like clothes, were things you didn’t really need when you were asleep.
But he awoke in a monstrous mood. He tore the brand labels from his clothes and dashed his e-book to the floor. It didn’t break, luckily. His parents told him solemnly that they couldn’t buy him another, because Daddy worked just ten hours a week and Mommy, only five now.
He was sorry then, so he sat down quietly at the computer and switched on School. The lesson was about one-sixth plus three-tenths, and it seemed pretty useless. But his parents had often told him that he must learn all of School, because he would never get something called a “job” if he did not.
Tommy thought of the people sleeping near walls and tried to pay attention. Grandpa glanced at the lesson and murmured something about the “lowest common denominator,” but in such a way that it seemed to be a sort of joke just to himself.
That evening, Tommy begged Grandpa to let him take the book to bed. Grandpa hesitated an instant and then said, “Of course, child.”
Snuggled into his narrow bed, he turned the fragile pages gently, reading by the wavering light of a street lamp. There was a story about a dragon on a misty mountain, and one in which long-ago ships with great white sails navigated on a vast sea. There was a picture of a mermaid combing her long hair, her fish’s tail draped gracefully over a rock. And then he fell asleep with the Book held tightly in his arms so he could show it to his new friends.
* * *
“It’s not the last of the old books, but it is one of the last,” said the Monster.
The Angel sighed and turned the page of her chronicle. There were only a few blank pages left.
Copyright © 2011 by Julie Wornan