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Let Me Read That Book

Let Me Read That Book

Esther sits in an audience facing an outdoor stage, fidgeting in her seat. The sun shines above in the cloudless blue sky. A warm breeze blows through the air. Upon the stage rests a copper box with a blank electronic display. Two police officers stand nearby, off to the side.

A woman rises from the front row of seats and climbs onto the stage. The muttering crowd falls silent as she approaches a lectern with a microphone.

“Welcome everyone,” she says. “Thank you for coming to the Future Library Project.” The crowd responds with subdued applause.

“As mayor of Berryville, I’m honored to preside over this event. Today, we’ve gathered to preserve the work of some of the most important authors of our time.”

She extends her arm, indicating the box. “We asked each participating author to write a short novel to be sealed in this time capsule for 100 years. These stories are all unpublished, and no one will read them until the time capsule opens.

Every story centers on the theme of ‘longevity,’ which we felt was appropriate. After all, everyone here today will probably be dead before the time capsule opens.”

The mayor pauses, waiting for the crowd to laugh. One person coughs, and another lets out an uneasy chuckle.

She continues. “I’d like to thank the authors who so graciously agreed to work with us on this project. They are Davida L. Mitch, Stephanie Kingsolver, and Jimmie Paulson. Authors, please join me on stage.”

Two women and a man rise from the front row of chairs. The crowd applauds as they climb the stage and stand beside the mayor. Smiling and waving at the audience, they each carry a leather-bound book.

The mayor says, “The time capsule has a special mechanism with cutting-edge battery technology. It will keep the lock closed for the next 100 years.”

She picks up a remote control from the lectern and points it at the box. She presses a button, and the top of the box opens with a metallic hiss. A countdown appears on the electronic display: 100 years, 0 months, 0 weeks, 0 days, 0 hours, 0 minutes, 0 seconds.

“Each of the authors will now read the titles and opening paragraphs of their stories aloud. This way, we’ll at least get a sense of what their stories are about before they disappear for 100 years. Then they’ll place their books into the time capsule. Our first author is Davida L. Mitch.”

The mayor turns to the woman standing closest to her and says, “Ms. Mitch, are you ready?”

Davida nods and smiles. The crowd applauds as she approaches the lectern. The mayor steps to the side, clapping as well.

Davida opens her book and the crowd falls silent. Esther leans forward, tapping her foot, gazing at the book with predatory intensity. With an English accent, Davida says into the microphone, “The title of my story is, ‘From Me Flows What You Call Time.’”

She clears her throat as she looks down at the first page. Then, she looks back up at the crowd. “In 1990, composer Toru Takemitsu wrote a song called, ‘From Me Flows What You Call Time.’ When I first heard its haunting melody, I was forever changed. It was as if he rewrote the rules of my life with his music.”

She stops. Silence hangs in the air.

“Keep reading!” says a voice from the crowd. The audience bursts into laughter, then everyone applauds.

Davida smiles and says, “Would that I could,” and places the book into the box. As she does, Esther leaps out of her seat, ready to pounce. But then she notices one of the police officers staring at her. Stone-faced, the officer shakes her head, “No.” Esther freezes in place, then turns and leaves before the next author starts speaking.

Davida exits a low stone building with a large sign on the side that says, “Berryville Library.” She holds her phone up to her ear as she walks through the parking lot. The sky is aflame with a purple-orange aura as the sun dips below the horizon.

“Hi, Miriam,” she says. “My book signing event is over now. It went well, and so did that silly time capsule presentation earlier today.”

She pauses, listening into the receiver. “Well, one weird thing did happen. As I was signing books, a strange, disheveled woman approached me in the line. I could tell from the look on her face that something wasn’t quite right with her.

“She carried a stack of all the books I’ve ever written. She even had the indie titles I self-published before you became my agent. It was weird, but I was kind of flattered, too, you know? So, I started signing them, and the whole time I could feel her eyes boring into my skull.

“When I finished, I thanked her and waited for her to leave. But she didn’t move. I tried to be nice and say, ‘Excuse me, miss. There are other people waiting,’ but she still didn’t move. Then, she said, ‘Can I read your book?’

“I said, ‘What book?’ and she said, ‘The one you put into the time capsule.’

“I said, ‘I’m sorry, miss, but it’s only for people in the future.’

“She said, ‘I know, but do you have an extra copy you could share with me?’

“At this point, I started getting a little annoyed. I said, ‘No, I don’t. Even if I did, I wouldn’t let anybody read it. Otherwise, what would be the point?’

“She responded by tossing her pile of books into the air. Then she started screaming, ‘Let me read that book, let me read it!’ over and over again. I had no idea what to do. Finally, some burly security guards came and dragged her away. It was the weirdest thing that ever happened to me.”

She reaches her car, unlocks it, and opens the driver’s side door. She sits down and buckles her seatbelt, then hears a clicking sound behind her. She looks in the rearview mirror and sees Esther sitting in the backseat, pointing a gun at her head. Esther looks at her in the mirror and says, “Let me read that book.”

Davida says, “Um, Miriam, I’ll have to call you back.”

Davida pulls up to the outdoor stage. It glows in the moonlight, and an ethereal mist hovers all around it. She turns off her car and says, “Now what?”

Esther says, “Get out and go over to where they buried the time capsule.”

They exit the vehicle and walk over to a disturbed patch of ground in front of the stage. Esther carries her gun in one hand and a shovel in the other. She holds the shovel’s handle out to Davida and says, “Dig.”

A couple hours later, Davida drops the shovel and reaches into the hole she dug. Breathing hard, she lugs the copper box to the surface and places it upon the ground. The countdown says: 99 years, 11 months, 3 weeks, 30 days, 8 hours, 35 minutes, 43 seconds… 42 seconds… 41… 40…

Esther starts trembling. In a shaky voice, she says, “Open it.”

Davida looks at her like she’s crazy and says, “What?”

“Open it.”

“I can’t.”

“Bullshit.”

Scowling, Davida says, “I don’t know how to open the bloody thing. Why do you think I would? I just wrote a bloody book and put it in a bloody box, that’s all I know. The only way you’re ever gonna read it is if you live for another 100 years!”

Esther looks at her blankly, then stares at the countdown timer in silence.

After a few moments, Davida says, “Please let me leave. I won’t go to the police, I promise. In fact, I’ll even write a story about this situation and make you the main character. How does that sound?”

Esther continues staring at the countdown for several more seconds. Then, she says, “Fine, get out of here,” and waves her gun in the direction of the car.

Davida sighs with relief and starts walking toward it. After several paces, she turns around and says, “Well, aren’t you coming? We’re in the middle of nowhere.”

Esther shakes her head and says nothing, her eyes still fixated on the countdown.

Esther sits in her car, holding a newspaper. She reads an article with the headline, “Author Davida L. Mitch Dies.”

“Renowned author Davida L. Mitch passed away of natural causes yesterday. She was 100 years old. Mitch wrote many best sellers during her illustrious career including her most famous work, ‘Kidnapped.’ The story is about a deranged fan who kidnaps an author for bizarre reasons. It won several prestigious awards including the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Man Booker Prize. Critics praised the story for its ‘hyper-realistic’ details.”

Esther looks over the top of the newspaper into the rearview mirror. Her cloudy eyes stare back at her, surrounded by wrinkled skin and framed by white, stringy hair. Then she notices a woman wearing a white lab coat approaching a building nearby. On the side of the building is an acrylic sign that says, “Yosemite Valley Institute on Aging and Longevity.”

Esther puts the newspaper down in the passenger seat, then opens her glove box to reveal a gun inside. She grabs it, then stuffs it into her pocket.

The woman walks up to a door on the side of the building. She holds a plastic identification badge up to a small black box next to it. The box beeps and the door unlocks with a loud clicking noise. As she reaches for the handle, Esther sticks the gun into her ribs from behind. Amber’s body stiffens, and she lets out a small yelp.

Esther says, “Keep walking and act normal.”

Amber nods.

They walk through the doorway and enter a drab, beige-tiled hallway. “Take me to your office,” Esther says, whispering as she slides her gun into the pocket of her windbreaker. Amber says nothing, then turns a corner with Esther following close behind.

An older woman walks down the hallway toward them, followed by a man in a white lab coat. The woman smiles as she passes, and the man nods his head. Amber nods at them while Esther stares straight ahead.

They approach a doorway with a gold nameplate that says, “Dr. Amber Richards, MD, PhD.” Amber reaches into her pocket, and Esther jabs her in the back with the gun.

“Careful,” Esther says.

In a slow, deliberate motion, Amber takes a set of keys out of her pocket. Then, her hand shaking, she inserts one into the lock and turns it. The door opens into a darkened office and they step inside. Esther closes the door behind them and locks it.

“Look at me,” Esther says.

Amber turns to face her, and Esther says, “I want the serum.”

“What?”

“The serum; the one I read about in that healthy living magazine.”

Amber looks confused and says, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Esther rolls her eyes, then reaches into her pocket and pulls out a folded piece of glossy paper. It crinkles as she unfolds it and holds it up. There’s a ragged edge along one of the long sides.

Amber sees that it’s a magazine article entitled, “Scientists Working on Serum to Promote Human Longevity.” A picture of Amber’s smiling face sits in the bottom-right corner of the page.

“You wrote this, did you not?” Esther says.

Amber scoffs and says, “Yes, I wrote that, but it’s not what you think. The article’s about a study in which we tested a longevity serum on lab mice. With it, we were able to double their life spans. But, there’s still a lot of work to do before it’s fit for human consumption. That won’t be until far, far into the future.”

Esther pulls the hammer back on the gun in her pocket with an audible click and says, “The future is now.”

A few minutes later, they arrive at a large metal door in the hallway. Next to it is a security booth with a guard sitting inside. The guard looks up and smiles as Amber approaches.

“Good morning, Dr. Richards,” she says.

Amber gives her a terse nod and speed-walks over to the small black box beside the door. As she holds her badge up to it, the guard’s expression changes to one of confusion.

“Uh, hey, you know you need to sign in, right?” the guard says.

The box beeps and the door unlocks. Amber opens it, ignoring the guard as she steps through. The guard sees Esther following behind her and says, “Hey, this is a restricted area.” Esther points the gun at her and says, “Not for me, it isn’t.” The guard gasps and ducks behind her desk.

Through the doorway, they enter a locker room. There, a woman is putting on a white, polyester cleanroom suit as she stands next to an open locker. She balks when she sees Esther with the gun in her hand.

They walk through the locker room and into a small chamber with a door on the other side. The door closes behind them with a whoosh. Amber scans her badge on another wall-mounted black box. A woman’s voice says through an unseen speaker, “Decontamination process initiating. Please wait.” Vapor jets start spraying through vents in the ceiling, filling the room with fog.

Amber says, “This isn’t going to work out the way you think it will. You don’t know what that stuff will do to you. It’s dangerous.”

“Shut up,” Esther says.

“I’m serious. It’s true that the mice in the study lived twice as long as normal. But what the article didn’t say was that they all died in the same horrific manner. Their bodies ended up spontaneously disintegrating while they were still alive. They were conscious and screaming in agony the entire time. I didn’t talk about it in the article because of how terrible it was.”

“Bullshit.”

A minute later, the vapor dissipates, and the door opens with a whoosh. They enter a white room with smooth reflective surfaces on the floor, walls, and ceiling.

Inside, people in cleanroom suits stand next to tables cluttered with lab instruments. They look up at Amber and Esther as the two step inside.

Esther points her gun at the ceiling and fires a single shot, then says, “Get out.” One person gasps and another screams, then everyone rushes around them and through the exit.

Amber leads Esther to a test tube stand sitting upon one of the tables. Then she picks up a test tube with a light pink liquid inside and hands it to her. “Here it is,” she says, sarcastically. “The longevity serum.” Without a word, Esther grabs the tube and pours the liquid down her throat. Amber watches, revolted.

Esther squeezes her eyes shut as her face twists and contorts. She drops the test tube, and the glass shatters on the floor. Then she drops the gun as well. When she opens her eyes, she sees Amber staring at her, bewildered.

“Are you alright?” Amber says. “I told you that stuff is dangerous. You better hope it doesn’t kill you.”

Esther perceives that Amber is speaking twice as fast as normal and in a high-pitched voice. It reminds her of fast-forwarding through a movie. Esther opens her mouth to respond, but then collapses and passes out.

“As the mayor of Berryville, it gives me great pleasure to be with you for this special occasion.”

The mayor stands upon the outdoor stage behind a lectern with a microphone attached to it. As the audience before her applauds, she notices a strange, disheveled old woman standing in the back of the crowd. The woman looks like a living corpse. She remains completely still without clapping or even moving. The sight of her gives the mayor an uneasy feeling.

Trying to ignore her, the mayor continues. “Today, we’ll open a time capsule buried in this spot 100 years ago as part of the Future Library Project. It contains unpublished stories written by some of the country’s most famous authors of the time.

“The time capsule lies buried in front of this stage. And now, with the help of our city council members, we’ll unbury it and open it up.”

The crowd cheers as a group of people carrying shovels stand up from the first row of chairs. The mayor climbs down from the stage and someone hands her a shovel as well. Then they all start digging.

A short time later, a couple of them reach down into the hole they dug and pull out the copper box. They haul it up onstage and place it on a wooden stand next to the podium. The electronic display on its side says: 0 years, 0 months, 0 weeks, 0 days, 0 hours, 0 minutes, 10 seconds… 9 seconds… 8… 7…

When the countdown reaches zero, the box emits a reverberating click. Then the top opens with a loud hiss as the crowd murmurs in awe. Inside are several new looking leather-bound books. The mayor reaches inside, picks one up, and looks at the cover. Raising her voice, she says, “The title of the first book is ‘From Me Flows What You Call Time’ by Davida L. Mitchell.” The crowd buzzes with excitement.

Then, a horrific shriek pierces the air. The audience members turn around and see a zombie-like old woman lurching through the crowd.

“Let me read that book!” Esther says, her voice hoarse, strained, and creaking. “Let me read it!”

Everyone remains still, paralyzed by the sight of her horrific, decaying visage. When she gets close enough, she swipes the book out of the mayor’s hands with her bone-brittle talons. Then, wide-eyed and shaking, she opens it to the first page.

Before she can start reading, she feels a burning sensation in her fingertips. It extends to her fingers and then her hands as it intensifies. She wails and watches with dismay as her hands turn to ash, then crumble away. The book falls to the ground while everyone looks on in horror. People gasp and scream at the sight; several vomit.

Esther then feels the agonizing burning sensation in her toes. It runs through her feet and up her legs. Her legs disintegrate into ash and she falls to the ground. Her arms fragment into dust on impact.

Through the excruciating pain, she sees the book lying a meter away, still open to the first page. Slithering like a tortured snake, she wiggles over to it and presses her face against the page. She’s able to read the first line.

“In 1990, composer Toru Takemitsu wrote a song called, ‘From me flows what you call time.’”

Her eyeballs dissolve before she can continue.

“No!” she says, coughing up a cloud of rust-colored dust that was once her lungs. Her mouth opens and closes in silent agony as the rest of her body disintegrates into a pile of ash. A moment later, a breeze comes by and blows it all away.