Monday, June 13, 2016

Chaos, F. Feldman

Pool Party
by Frederick W Feldman

She had recently shaved, and the chlorinated sun shone off the smooth skin of her legs. Mary reclined by the pool and enjoyed the crisp, tangy scent of the water.
The sun beat down on her and on the clubhouse. The club was exclusive, with a keycard lock on the picket gate and everything, and there were only a few other people – a family – sharing the pool that day. She pulled her chin to her clavicle and watched the father in his crumpled Hawaiian swim trunks pad by the edge where his young daughter splashed around and floated like a buoy in her overlarge life vest, floating wave by wave away from the mother’s care.
It was dazzlingly bright. The shadow of the clubhouse fell large and geometrically, like the angled edge of a protractor, onto the water. The sun was too bright. Good for a tan, if she remembered not to stay in too long this time, but painful to the eyes. She put on sunglasses and was just about to return to her novel when Verne, in the pool, splashed her with water. It fell on her legs and she started up.
“Watch it. You’ll hit my book,” she chided him.
He looked smug, standing in the pool, with the aftershocks of his prank pulsating against his large muscular trunk. He showed her some teeth – pearly white ones – and shrugged.
“What are you reading?” he asked.
She looked down at the pink and azure cover and the sappy title and wrinkled her nose.
“Just a romance novel,” she said.
Verne (or VT, as most people called him) nodded briskly and then fell into a backstroke and paddled away to the other side of the pool, where the little girl and the wife covered their faces from his splashing. That was Verne Terminus: when he did something, it commanded all his focus. That’s what made him so useful, but also disruptive when poolside.
I was no one special – just an average girl from a small town. Ask anyone, and they’d say that I was destined for a normal, boring life doing something unremarkable. Nothing interesting would happen to me – that’s what they would think, and it’s what I thought for most of my life, too. But something happened on that week I went with my family on a picnic out by grandma’s retirement home, that was definitely remarkable and that would end up changing my life forever…
A clattering pulled her out of her book. Over by the white picket gate, a man swiped his guest pass and then slapped over towards her in his flip-flops.
“You made it,” she greeted him. It was J.
“Wouldn’t miss it. It’s a great day.”
The sun made sunballs on his shades as he looked up towards the sky in appreciation.
“VT’s already in the pool,” said Mary. “I was going to read for a little bit, then maybe I’ll hop in.”
“Ok, I’ll go join him.”
“Umm…hold up,” said Mary. “Do you have any gum on you?”
“I think so…” J searched around until he pulled a slightly crinkled but still shiny slip of foil out of his bag. “Why?”
“May I have it? For the cravings,” she said.
“Oh, sure,” he gave her the gum, and she slipped it behind the clasp of her bikini bottom for later. Then she returned to her novel.
J did a cannon ball into the pool right next to VT. J wiped the water from his face and he was struck again by how large VT was. Seeing his shirtless frame towering above only accentuated that fact. VT was a big guy, and seeing him in the pool made J feel small.
J didn’t work closely with VT, but he had come in contact with him before. Both hearsay and his own personal experience told that VT was a force to be reckoned with.
“Let’s race,” said VT.
They raced. They did laps up and down the pool, VT easily outstripping J’s competent but unremarkable swimming. When they stopped, VT looked revved up and J was panting for breath.
“You win,” gasped J.
VT put his fists on his hips in a victory pose. Behind him, J could see the wife looking at VT and looking distressed. Then J’s morning cup of coffee caught up to him.
“I’ll be right back. I have to use the bathroom,” he excused himself to VT, who shrugged stiffly and launched into the backstroke.
J pulled himself out of the pool and walked ungracefully to the fancy-looking clouded glass of the clubhouse doors. The frame was a light oak in a smooth finish. It must look nice inside.
He pulled the handle, and it rattled in defiance. He tried it again, and it was definitely locked.
“Hey,” he yelled over to Mary. She looked up from her book and glared at him. “Isn’t this supposed to open?”
“No, they don’t let the pool patrons in that door. No guests,” she explained.
“Oh. Okay…”
He walked over to the gate, thinking to go around and get into the clubhouse that way. Surely they would let him use the restroom. But Mary stopped him.
“If you go out the gate, you won’t be able to get back in.”
“The guest pass only lets you in once a day.”
J walked back to the pool in defeat. He would just have to hold it. And if he really had to go, he would go in the pool, and he wouldn’t feel bad. It wouldn’t be his fault; they would have forced his hand. He would not feel guilt.
A diving board was at the far end. It was white and looked extra-floppy. Why not? He’d give it a try.
He stood at the edge and looked at the lucid water below him crawling with the twine of gold sunlight quavering at the bottom. He jumped and felt the board push back. He launched off and dove into the water.
The sound of submergence sucked into his ears with a fwooop. He dove down and touched the bottom with his palms against the rough gunite. The air bubbles created by his exhale rushed past his face and slid up towards the sunlight. He glided across the bottom like a manta ray. Down here it was dark. Then his lungs complained to him, so J pushed off and rocketed towards the top.
Up towards the light, but there was no light. Coming towards the surface, he did not see the sunlight, only the ghostly shudders of artificial light. Once J had wiped the water out of his eyes, he looked around and saw night. He’d dived in when it was day, and now it was night.

“He’s in,” said VT.
Mary watched the gate rattle shut behind the family walking towards the car, the little girl holding onto the hands of both parents and taking hurried, tripping steps to keep up.
“Good. Get out the equipment,” she said.
VT pulled a black box stowed behind a pool chair, undid the clasps, and worked on unpacking it. Wires spilled out. Various devices were stored inside; VT began untangling a blocky radio and tuning it to the right frequencies.
Mary was having cravings again. She unsheathed the gum, pulled out her cigarette lighter, and lit the chewing gum on fire. She held the burning stick up and admired its flickering light, then popped it in her mouth and chomped away. She blew smoke, and inhaled deeply, savoring the minty rotten smell of burning chewing gum. She felt the tension in her muscles releasing, her body relaxing. It was a calmness she believed it important to have during missions. And she wasn’t smoking, so she didn’t have to feel bad.
“Now it gets interesting,” she said, blowing another trail of smoke and sweating from the heat of the sun. She looked down, and her skin was turning pinkish. Time to turn over.

J circumnavigated the pool, looking for another human being. It was night, and there was no one else. He did not want to go through the gate for fear that he would be locked out with nowhere to go.
He stood in the breeze. The water churned quietly. He stared into the horizon that contained little but a sleeping residential area down the road, all still. The electric torches had turned on and lit the pool area, along with the underwater lights.
J’s swim trunks were dripping and he was getting chilled. He recalled the door that wasn’t opened to guests. Perhaps, if he yanked on it loudly and persistently, someone would let him in. He just needed someone to tell him what was going on. Inside, he could hear subdued music and voices.
He walked to the door and gripped the metal handle with a strong hold. He tugged it and was taken by surprise when it swung open, opening onto a stately lobby. He walked in and felt strange standing on the tiled floor in his bare feet with water still dripping from his trunks. A summery sitting area was to his left, and the windows and ceiling were high. The blinds, of course, were drawn, and what would have appeared elegantly and serenely open in the daytime was transformed into a place elegantly hushed.
To his right stood an old man behind a front desk. The man was stooped and looked like he couldn’t see very well, judging from the squint he now leveraged towards J.
There was no one else in the room, and there was no music playing. The old concierge kept his gaze fixed on J, and looked as if he was trying to tell whether he was supposed to recognize J. J stepped forward to help him out and to ask him for assistance. He opened his mouth to speak, but as he did so, he couldn’t come up with a cogent way to explain his predicament. He stood there with his mouth open, and then choked out an awkward “Hi…”
“Good…evening,” said the concierge. His voice was gravelly and halting.
J stared at him dumbly, but he was again surprised when the man looked down at a clipboard and muttered.
“Are you J?”
“Here is the key to your room…” He halted. “It’s on…the third floor.” He halted. “The elevator…is at the end of the hall.”
Meekly, J took the key and walked down the hallway. The hallway was the dull kind found in many hotels: floral carpeting and green wainscoting on latte walls. Doors passed on both sides, and snoring was audible behind them.
To the side, the hallway opened up to a lounge area. He stopped short and stared. Shockingly, it was daylight inside the lounge room. It looked to be about morning, judging from the position of the sun visible outside the tri-pane windows. A young woman sat on the couch, sipping tea from the daintiest saucer in the world, and placing it with care on a doily resting atop the mahogany sofa table.
He could hear her exhale, and see the floating dust become displaced by her breath. She turned her head, and looked quizzically at him. He stumbled back in embarrassment and fear and made quickly for the elevator, not looking back until the doors were halfway closed.
When he entered his room on the third floor, he found it furnished with – in addition to the usual amenities – electronic equipment. Next to a fax machine, a radio was hissing with static.
Something was going on, but J suddenly felt very tired and the bed suddenly looked very warm, so he crawled in and went to sleep.

After that, I wanted to visit the nursing home as many times as I could. Whenever I went with my parents to see grandma, I would wait, antsy, until enough time had elapsed that I could sneak off and traverse the meadow, and hope, with all my heart, that I would run into him there again.
Mary was lying on her stomach, buried in her novel. VT snuck a peek at the cover; the title was In a Beautiful Place out in the Country. It looked sappy.
“I’m surprised,” said VT, in his thick baritone. “Romance novels didn’t strike me as your kind of thing.”
She looked up from her book. “No?”
“I guess everyone likes a little escapism sometimes,” he shrugged, non-combatively.
“Hm. I’m not romantic, if that’s what you mean,” she said.
“I just didn’t think you’d be into the fantasy,” he said.
She closed the book, leaving her thumb wedged inside to mark her place.
“Are you familiar with Plato’s Theory of Forms?” she asked him.
“The idea is that what we perceive in the real world is a shadow of an even real-er world. So we see someone being kind and we know this is virtuous, but we recognize virtue because it’s something from the more real world of absolutes.”
“I don’t believe in romance, but I believe in the idea of romance as an ideal. So I read fantasies like this to remind myself of the ideal that exists in a separate world,” said Mary.
“That was a lot more than I was looking for,” said VT.
“You asked.”
VT shrugged. The sun was getting higher.
“How’s the time look?”
VT checked his watch, then ran some calculations on the instruments scattered around where he was sitting cross-legged on the ground.
“It’s about morning there,” he said.
“Alright, we should wake him up.”
A voice crackled through the static and knifed into his dreams, jolting J awake immediately.
“Hi J. Sleep well?”
Mary’s voice was on the radio.
“Fine,” he said.
“I expected so. Sorry to jump this on you so suddenly, but I couldn’t tell you beforehand. This mission was too confidential. You had to dive in yourself first – literally, in this case,” she said.
“S’fine.” He yawned.
“I’m going to fax you the dossier now. Essentially, this is a hit.”
That woke him up. “A hit? Really?”
“Yeah, really. We’ve got a former agent in there. Rogue, knows too much. Has to be eliminated. It happens.”
“I’ll do whatever the mission requires. Of course. But why me? I’ve never done this sort of thing before.”
Dead air.
“Sure,” she replied, finally. “That’s a good question. Well, to be truthful, you exceeded expectations so highly on Project Volcano and a lot of people took notice. Amazing work and, we didn’t tell you, but it put you on the map as one of our top agents. That’s why, really. Congrats, now you know.”
“I’m honored.”
“Yeah, well, we can throw the party when you get back,” she quipped. “Here comes the dossier. Over and out.”
The fax machine lit up and clattered more like a shredder than a printer, but then it spat out paper after paper, which gently floated onto the floor. J scrambled to organize them as they fell. His eye caught a photo and recognized the face. Unmistakably, it was the woman he saw in the lounge last night, drinking tea in the sun.
There was definitely something strange about her. He’d have to take care.
But now he was hungry. He thought he remembered seeing a dining hall on his way in. He was still wearing his swim trunks. Hoping his superiors had thought beyond gadgetry to the more mundane affairs of living, he checked the drawers and found a few full outfits packed. He picked out a pair of khakis and a casual polo and thanked Mary, although she probably wasn’t listening in.
Exiting the elevator, a hallway led to a breakfast buffet. The dining room was crowded. Many of the patrons looked to be in their autumn years. There were several younger ones, but neither considerably more nor considerably younger.
He scooped steaming eggs and sausage and potatoes onto a plate and sat at an empty table near a window. He dug in. The food was good, but he hankered for a cup of coffee. He looked towards the buffet, but instead of seeing coffee, he saw his target sitting at a table across from him. She was looking straight at him. He gaped at her before he could catch himself, and she stood up and approached him.
He composed himself. She took a seat at his table. He couldn’t read anything in the brown eyes; they were too deep.
“You’re new here,” she said. “Did you just get in yesterday?”
“I did. Are you a permanent resident?”
She spoke easily, yet he felt that she was taking everything in, analyzing him, trying to make up her mind about something. He’d have to be quick.
“Yes, I’ve been here a while. What do you think of the place?”
“It’s nice,” he said, between sausages. “Real nice. Great atmosphere. But do you know if they’re serving coffee? I didn't see any.”
“Coffee?” she repeated. Without another word, she touched her fingers to the empty mug sitting in front of him, and the mug began filling with hot coffee. After it was three-quarters full, she removed her hand. “I prefer tea, but I think you will enjoy that.”
He tried it, and it was a fine cup of coffee, he had to admit. He didn’t ask her how she did it, but he began planning to make his move. Was there a knife he could use? Something heavy? No, he saw nothing…
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“You can call me J. That’s what I go by.”
“Fine. You can call me ‘Ehs.’ How long are you staying here, J?”
“Only about a week. I’m trying to close a deal. I’m in sales,” he lied.
“I see,” she said. And he was worried he had said something wrong, because it sounded like she did see something.
If he left now, he could find a weapon and wait for her.
“It was nice meeting you, Ehs. I look forward to seeing you around,” he said.
“I should get going, too,” she rose with him. “Good luck.”
And she walked away quickly. He had barely stood up, and she was already getting away. He dodged past tables, ruffling the white cloths, and tried to keep up with her pace, which was getting even faster.
He followed her down the hall, keeping a couple yards behind. He was struggling to keep up, and then she broke into a run. All bets were off, then. He darted after her.
They raced down the hallway, which seemed to get longer and longer. She took a turn down another hallway he didn’t see before, but he was steadily gaining.
They rounded another corner, and he just was able to see her slip into the women’s bathroom. He followed her in, but she was gone when he entered. She had to be hiding in one of the stalls.
The bathroom floor and walls had blue tiling all over. It looked more like a pool shower than a bathroom, but there were toilets and sinks as well. There were also faucets stuck on the walls in odd places and there were other stalls with showers. Some of the faucets and two of the showers were left running, although no one was in them. He knelt down and saw no sign of anyone.
He kept very still. The only sounds were the rushing water from the taps, the trickling as the water ran through the cracks in the tiles, and his heartbeat. Each step he took squeaked on the wet floor, and steam filled his nostrils. He rubbed his brow, which was getting sticky and sweaty in the humid room.
He checked the first stall, then the second, then the third. He checked each stall, but no one was hiding in them. Then he was at the end of the bathroom. Two corridors branched out from the right and the left, both tiled in the same way as the rest of the room.
He followed the left into a larger room with actual baths filled with warm water dispensed from the walls. That one ended in two more corridors.
J retraced his steps and investigated the right corridor, which led to a room identical to the left. He took one of the corridors at the end of that one, and found another bathroom. Feeling lost and amazed, he took a corridor at the end of that bathroom, and found himself looking at an Olympic-sized indoor pool, with entrances to countless more bathrooms and showers lining the walls, one after the other.
He had lost her in a labyrinth of bathrooms and pools. J sighed, utterly confounded, and turned around to find his way out.

Stuck under his door, J found a hand-written letter, hastily written. It read:
Dear J,
I don’t think you understand what is going on. I know who sent you and why you are after me. But things are not how you think. They are not your friends, not at all. I have been here a long time, and I know a few things about the clubhouse. If you can keep an open mind and will hear me out, I will explain everything. Meet me for dinner tomorrow night. Do not bring weapons or anything. I will know.
Please listen to me. Don’t do what you will regret.
The letter was unsigned, but of course he knew whom it was. He was not convinced by her hints of conspiracies and mysteries – he couldn’t allow himself to be. But here was a chance to get to her. Surely he could cook something up and complete the mission. Tomorrow, he would complete the mission tomorrow.
He turned the letter around and wrote:
I will hear you out. 5:00pm.
Then he stuck it under his door.
He went inside to radio VT and Mary with the update and work out the details for tomorrow.

It was the perfect night. I could feel the specters of the past disappearing into the night, pushed away by our smiles and gamboling through the County Fair. He was still the commanding and genteel presence I had always thought him to be, but here was his charming and fun-loving side that he showed now, laughing as he missed, again and again, the ring toss. And he was showing it to me. I was just happy that we were friends again, but I couldn’t completely push the sadness out of my heart, for I knew he was due to leave at the end of the month, and once he was gone, he would be gone forever.
I was still able to enjoy our many activities, but as we strolled along the path, away from the bright lights of the fair and came upon the little bridge, I began to sense that he was becoming anxious, and wanted to tell me something. Something very
“J is asking if we have anyone on the inside he can safely bribe,” VT broke in on Mary’s reading again.
“For what?” asked Mary.
“He wants to slip poison in something.”
“Tell him about Chris, the waiter. Bald, wears a ring.”
VT relayed the information.
“He wants you to know he has the objective in sight. He expects to wrap it up tomorrow.”
“Good. He’ll see it through. I’m not worried.” She sat up and put a bookmark in her novel.
“We leaving?” asked VT.
“Yeah, we can go now. He’s got it. There’s no reason to stick around.”
VT nodded. “I’ll pack it up, then.”
He rolled up wires and stuffed them in the box. Mary got her handbag and tried to see how her tan had turned out. Her shoulders were stinging a little, and that boded ill. One of these days, she’d stop before she burnt. One of these days.
VT looked up at her questioningly. “What about extraction?” he asked.
“For J?”
Mary smiled wanly. “There’s no extraction.”
“No extraction?”
“This is the end of the line for J.”
The pieces started to fit together in VT’s mind. Mary watched it on his face. She couldn’t say it gave her pleasure. Not a bit.
“So this mission…this was to eliminate J?” asked VT.
“Essentially. We do have an ex-agent in there that could stand elimination as well, but after Operation Volcano…”
“He knew too much?”
“No one was meant to walk away from that mission. When J did, we had a problem on our end. It happens,” Mary said. “None of this is pretty,”
The two agents stood in the sun. Their mission was complete, and neither was feeling great about it.
“Are you sure that he’s…?”
“I’ve given the concierge, who’s one of ours, J’s photograph with instructions to shoot him on sight,” Mary explained. “And there’s no way out of the clubhouse. It’s metaphysically impossible.”
“I guess that’s that, then,” assented VT.
“That’s that,” Mary said.
And they both left the pool.

The old man stood behind the counter studying the photograph of the man he was supposed to shoot. Not a very remarkable face, but he needed to learn every angle, and he would know every angle, by the time he was done. Bit of an ugly forehead, he thought. He could use that as a distinguishing characteristic. That was good.
There were not many foreheads that were pleasant-looking, he thought. His own he would only rate as average. The high Scandinavian kinds were the best. That’s what foreheads ought to look like, he harrumphed, those good prominent lines. Those were fine foreheads.
Footsteps. He fingered the gun stowed under the counter. A man approaching. He squinted, and struggled to make out the features. His vision wavered and the eyes and nose blended together, but there – there was that ugly ugly forehead. This was the man.
The man started to speak, but before he had a chance to say anything, the old concierge had put a slug in his chest.

J startled from the sound of another gunshot going off downstairs. What was happening? That was the fourth he had heard today. He would be heading down there any moment, so he could check it out soon enough.
He straightened his tie in the mirror. Finding the kitchen, and therein the waiter, had been a chore. It was located on the second floor, but he had found his man and everything was set up.
He took the elevator down, and peered into the lobby. Four bodies lay on the floor. All had obvious gunshot wounds. He had to stay focused on the mission. He did not walk into the lobby. He ignored the bodies.
Ehs was waiting for him at a table. She was attired in a handsome green dress and pearls. He black hair was impeccably combed and let down.
“I took the liberty of ordering for you,” she said. “I’ve tried everything here, so I know what’s good.”
“What is it you want to tell me?” he asked.
“I knew who you were when you told me you were only here for a week. I knew it was a lie, because no one leaves this place. Everyone here is trapped.”
J could believe anything about this place, but he could also disbelieve anything. The mission was his anchor, and his best bet.
“So you’re saying I should leave you alone, since we’re fellow inmates?”
“I was sent on a mission, just like I’m sure you were,” she said. “I was told I had to assassinate a rogue agent. So I did. I found him in here, and I strangled him. Then I waited for extraction, but none came. When some of the others – “ here she gestured, indicating the entire room, “ – tried to kill me, I finally realized that no one was coming. They had trapped me here on purpose.”
“Tried to kill you? These people here seem friendly enough. Did you make up?”
“I spent years hiding. And fighting. It was hard. But that’s later. Listen, the next thing that will happen to you if you kill me is someone here, from the clubhouse, will try to take your life. And you might not be as lucky as I was.”
J was getting curious about her past. What had she done to make her so dangerous?
“What was your background? In the field,” he asked.
The waiter came up to their table. He was bald and a gold ring shone on his finger. He placed a juicy steak with fried vegetables in front of J, and for Ehs he had a slice of cake. He then poured two glasses of wine.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she said, after the waiter left. “Let me ask you a question: have you been on any missions that were…more secret than usual? A little strange, maybe? Anything?”
“Nothing too out of the ordinary,” he said. But he couldn’t completely get Operation Volcano out of his head. And what Mary had said to him about it.
“Mm. Well, my crime was knowing what was considered ‘too much,’ so I had to be made to disappear. You can decide for yourself whether that’s reasonable or not. Or what a reasonable response to that is.”
She took a bite of the cake. Was the poison in the cake or in the glass, J wondered?
“Like I’ve said, I’ve been here for years. And I know for sure that no one is supposed to be able to get out of here – but, in my time here, I have also learned how to…manipulate some things. I believe you’ve experienced my abilities on more than one occasion?”
Just in case, she unfolded her napkin. Then unfolded it again, and again, and again until the napkin reached all the way to the floor. Then she folded it back up and replaced it on her lap.
J was chewing the steak and enjoying it thoroughly.
“I’m still learning,” she said, “but I feel I’m close to being able to make an opening in the clubhouse to escape. I can manipulate rooms, as you’ve seen. I can even manipulate memories – that’s why these people aren’t trying to kill me anymore. I did that later. My first solution was to age them all so they’d be weaker, but I still had to watch my back, so later I removed a memory or two. But all of that, complex as it is, is still easier than hopping dimensions and transmigrating souls.”
“I know, I know. But here are your choices: you can kill me, and live to regret it for an indefinite period of time trapped in the clubhouse alone, and that’s if you manage to survive; or you can simply wait and weigh the evidence I’ve given you. And remember, one choice is irreversible, the other you can always change your mind.”
She took a sip of the wine.
“What you’re saying is interesting, but I’ve already made my choice,” J said, almost sadly.
“What do you mean?” she asked. Then it hit her. Her eyes widened and she looked at the glass. She clutched her throat as it started to contract. She lurched forward and sent the silverware clattering.
“Let’s get you out of here,” he said. He grabbed her under the arm and hoisted her up. She tried to fight him, but she couldn’t. He made a show of comforting her, for the benefit of the other diners who turned from their plates to see what the commotion was.
She was choking and gasping for breath by the time he got her into the hallway. He couldn’t help it; he felt pity for her.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “It’s the way it has to be.”
She broke free from him and hurtled onto the ground where she lay against the wall, her chest heaving, fighting a losing battle to get any air she still could.
He knelt down in front of her, and took her hand. “I’m sorry,” he said again, knowing it was meaningless but not knowing what else to say and not wanting to stand there coldly watching her die.
A loud BANG burst in his eardrums and he felt himself thrown forcefully backwards into the floor. He reeled helplessly, lost as to what was happening.
Incredible pain rose in his left shoulder, which he couldn’t move anymore. And the blood all over his white shirt and pooling beneath him was a surprise. How had this happened?
“That ugly forehead! I…know I got you…this time!”
J craned his head slowly upwards. There was the old concierge standing over him, brandishing a gun. A gun which he now reloaded and aimed for another shot.
And J saw that Ehs had been right.
“You were right,” he said to her.
Another BANG sounded and splinters flew where it hit the carpet and went into the wood.
He looked over at Ehs. She was turning blue, and her eyes were losing focus.
Another BANG shattered his pelvis. He screamed from the pain. The old man reloaded again and his shaky arm was aiming at J’s head this time. Sweat poured down J’s forehead, and he closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. Would he hear the final gunshot, or would it just go black?
He felt slackening fingers grab his head, and bury themselves into his scalp. He felt a whirring and a buzzing in his ears, and then he felt a rushing sensation, then he felt like he was falling, falling, falling, and his stomach was traveling into his chest and his chest was traveling into his stomach. Then everything really did go black.

J awoke slowly. He blinked his eyes a few times to clear out the sleep, and took in his surroundings. It was a little room with a gray carpet. A light wooden table sat on loose legs in the middle of the room. Filled-up bookshelves lined the walls to his sides, two on the left and three on the right, where one was angled so it stood across from where he sat. From where he sat he couldn’t seem to move, and he could see across where the floor rose up about an inch and where there was a window letting in the light, which was bright and beautiful in the quiet library. He saw the spines of all the books lined up on the shelf, in arrays of colors, the gold ones glinting in the sun. There were many children’s books.
And then he recognized the library as his own childhood library, where he spent long and, in his memory, seemingly endless hours, possibly eternities, sitting and reading or just sitting and contemplating.
He tried to get up, but he truly was unable to move. His legs just didn’t seem to work. Then he remembered that he had, when he was barely six years old, had contracted a strange illness that had paralyzed his legs for months and then had gone away. He was amazed he’d forgotten it; he must have buried it very deep. He looked down at his legs, and they were very small. So were his arms. Judging from their size, he looked to be about six years old.
He leaned his head back and rested it against the wall. There was the old ceiling fan with the cane blades, slowly churning the air. The heady submergence of those interminable days when he was young returned to him; he was living them again.
From the side, a young girl walked in the room. She looked to be no more than a year older than he, and she had short black hair. She looked out the window pensively. Then she turned towards him.
“You’ve waited here a long time, haven't you?”
He didn’t know what to say. He just sat there. But he had. He had waited for eons and eons. He felt them in his bones, and in his legs that didn’t move. He nodded, slowly.
“There are a lot of books here,” she said.
Then he remembered one that had always fascinated him.
“Get the blue one,” he said. His voice was high, and soft. “There’s a blue one up there.” He reached up and pointed at the next-to-uppermost shelf.
She stood on her tip-toes and stretched her fingers until she could pull it down. The book was old and faded, and the seams were threaded and worn. It had a scratched picture of an angel on the cover, and the picture was on the wrong side, on the back.
She brought it over and sat down next to him. He opened the book. The pages were yellow and smelled old and flaky. He looked at the words, which were meaningless to him.
“Can you read?” he asked her.
She shook her head, a little shame-facedly.
“I wonder what it says,” she said.
“We can guess,” he suggested.
So she scooted closer and rested her head on his shoulder, and they both took turns guessing at what was written in the book.


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