Tuesday, 19 June 2018 18:33

The Power of the Page by Anne E. Johnson

The Power of the Page by Anne E. JohnsonThe books started talking to Cosmint on a Friday afternoon at around 3:15. Xe— meaning Cosmint, who didn’t think the average pronouns “he” and “she” were awesome enough to describe hir— had popped into the high school library before heading home.

The outline for hir social studies report on World War II was due Monday, and Mrs. Nguyen had said they must use at least one “physical resource.”

“My iPad is a physical resource,” Tonya Marconi had mumbled from the back of the room. Super-ears Nguyen heard that, of course, and exploded with a machine gun volley of “Book, book, book, book, book.”

It was the funniest thing to happen the whole, boring day. Cosmint was reminding hirself of it while hunting for G. L. Mortimer’s The Soldiers of Patton’s Army. “Book, book, book,” xe whispered, tickling a dozen spines with hir sparkling gold fingernails. “Book, book, book.”

Xe found the book, but it resisted when xe pulled. No surprise, Cosmint thought. How gross must these awful, yellowed things be, with their cracked plastic protective covers cloudy with other kids’ fingerprints? But xe needed that book, so xe gave the binding a good yank.

 

Hot white sparks jumped out, like a cigarette lighter not quite catching. Cosmint’s fingers tingled where they touched the cover. Hir nostrils quivered, aroused by a darkly sweet smell — a strangely fearful smell — that arose from the paper when xe opened to the title page. A wave of dizziness passed over hir. Xe steadied hirself against a series of thick books with matching maroon bindings.

Now the chant helped calm hir. “Book, book, book,” xe said with hir eyes squeezed shut. “Book, book, book.”

“We hear you, rescuer,” replied several velvety voices. Cosmint’s eyes snapped open. The only other people in the library were two senior boys who always gave hir a hard time.

“You lose one of your fake boobs, Carrie fairy?” one of them taunted.

Cosmint had learned a long time ago to ignore their nonsense. Obviously, theirs had not been the voices xe heard. Standing on tiptoe in hir two-inch heeled shoes--the school’s dress code limit--xe peered over the chest-high book case.

Nobody there.

“You hold power of the page,” said that gentle chorus. “You must protect the power. You must be our warrior. The Ludline will soon be here to destroy us.”

The voices had to be coming from the books themselves. For some reason, that theory made more sense to Cosmint than ghosts.

“Hello?” xe said to several thick volumes by an author named Barbara Tuchman.

“Salutations, listener,” the books on that shelf said.

Xe squatted so hir face was near them. “Is someone hiding in there?” xe demanded sharply. “I don’t have time for your games.”

“Carmine Finelli.” It wasn’t the books saying Cosmint’s birth name. Mr. Robinson, the assistant librarian, stood behind hir. “Who are we conversing with, Mr. Finelli?”

Cosmint was an expert at covering up hir own crazy. Xe stood up quickly and straightened hir pencil skirt. “Just talking to myself. Took me a minute to find what I needed.” Holding up the book about Patton’s army, xe added, “All set!”

“Bring us all to your castle, rescuer of books,” begged a dozen or so voices as Cosmint hurried to the library counter. My castle. Picturing the tiny public housing apartment where xe lived with hir depressive mother, xe just stopped hirself from saying something snarky.

Mr. Robinson scanned the book. “Enjoy,” he said solemnly, handing back Cosmint’s high school ID, which still read “Carmine Finelli” and showed a thin, black-haired boy who Cosmint used to be in the misty past. Well, until a year ago.

An idea occurred to hir while xe shoved the book into hir backpack. “Do you know what the Ludline is, Mr. Robinson?”

The librarian barely looked up from his computer. “I don’t really follow pop music. Have a good weekend, Carmine.”

Cosmint reached hir run-down high-rise in the T.J. Warren Housing Project in about seven minutes, a new record. Hir mother, as usual, was on the threadbare sofa, wrapped like a larva in a pilling gray blanket. With the one eye that peeked out, she watched a talk show on a TV manufactured in the previous century.

Cosmint’s mother’s depression was nothing new, and xe had learned to ignore or work around it, mainly so xe didn’t go insane. “Ma, do we have any books?”

No answer, so Cosmint used to the remote to lower the TV volume. “Books. I need books.”

Ma’s answer was muffled by the blankets. “I got no money for new school things right now, baby.”

“No, like, books we already own.”

“What kind of books? Why would we have books?”

I should have expected that answer. “Never mind. I’ll ask Jorge. He’s probably got some.”

In fifteen seconds, Cosmint was down the corridor and knocking on Jorge Rodriguez’s apartment door. Xe heard his walker scraping the linoleum before he opened up.

“Hey, kid.” That was how Jorge had greeted hir and everyone else since xe could remember. He called hir mother “kid” too. He’d probably never even noticed that the boy from next door wasn’t a boy anymore, let alone almost a grown-up.

Jorge smiled. Half his teeth were missing. “What you need, kid?”

“Do you have any, like, books I can borrow?”

“Sure, kid. Can you read Spanish, or just English?”

Cosmint chuckled at that question, delivered as if a person who wasn’t bilingual was damaged and should be pitied. Cosmint could get by in the street with Spanish phrases like “¿Qué pasa?” and “¿Qué estás mirando?,” but reading a book was another matter. Even in English, that was a challenge for hir.

But these books weren’t to read. They were for research – to see if they could talk. “Any language.”

“OK. Hang on.”

Jorge hobbled to the back of his studio apartment, leaving Cosmint holding the door open by leaning against it. The stuffy air smelled of stale fry grease and old upholstery, but a vase of fresh daisies on the round table brightened the room.

“Here you go.” Jorge hobbled the few steps back to the door. Cosmint took the three paperback novels he held out. All of them were science fiction, not Cosmint’s thing. Two were in English, one in Spanish. They all talked at once.

“Protect the page,” said two of them, followed a moment later by “¡Proteja la página!” Jorge’s face was friendly and oblivious; he hadn’t heard.

Sprawled on hir bed, Cosmint laid the novels and the history book side by side. Feeling self-conscious, xe addressed the books quietly: “So, what do you want?”

The books said nothing.

“Oh, my God, you guys. Don’t go all silent on me. I might be loco in a lot of other ways, but I know you talked earlier. You definitely did. Well, I’m listening. Now’s not the time to shut up.”

Xe stared at their covers — two spaceships, a moonscape, and General Patton — and waited.

After a couple of minutes of practically holding hir breath, Cosmint snorted. “This is stupid. And I have homework to do.”

Xe reached for the Patton book. All the lights went out. “You got to be kidding…”

Four rectangles started to glow on the bed. The bright orange books levitated, rising to the height of Cosmint’s nose while xe kneeled on the mattress, arms up protectively. “Get away from me. What is happening?” A terrible image appeared in hir mind: glowing objects poised to attack hir sleeping mother in the next room. “Ma! Ma!”

Cosmint sprang from the bed and into the living room. Nothing was hovering over the lump of blankets on the couch. Nothing but the usual dark cloud of hir mother’s depression.

“Ma?” xe said gently. “You doin’ OK?”

Apparently only their apartment had lost electricity. Enough light came in the window from the street lamps to show the lump squirm a little, then grow still again.

Cosmint sighed, annoyed at hirself for freaking out. “We blew a fuse or something. I’ll call the super.” Not that the building’s superintendent ever did much. “Or I’ll see if I can fix it.”

Xe reached on tiptoe to open the fuse box by the door and then flipped a few switches back-and-forth randomly. On the third try, the lights and TV came back on. “There we go.”

Ma didn’t answer. She probably hadn’t noticed. What did it matter to her, anyway?

When Cosmint was about to enter hir bedroom, the voices started up. “We have given you the power. Use this power, we beg you.”

The lights went out again. “Crap. Ma, do we have candles?”

If she answered, Ma’s words were crushed under the deafening flap of book pages. Rushing into the bedroom, Cosmint found all four glowing books open and spinning. Their pages made a wind so strong that xe had to push hir way in. Hoping to stop the source of the wind, xe tried to trap the pages of the nearest book. A shock wave traveled up hir arm and neck. A thunderclap headache dropped hir to hir knees. For one dizzying moment, xe was no longer in hir bedroom, but in another world. Outdoors. Bright sun. Red dust covering the barren ground all the way to the horizon.

Weirder than the surroundings was the fact that Cosmint knew this place. “The terrible Red Hills on the planet Keb15 in the Coshik galaxy,” xe reported.

Those words should have been nonsense, but as they left Cosmint’s lips, this “Coshik Galaxy” seemed like an absolutely real place, as familiar as hir own block.

Within seconds, the surge of wind and energy faded. Cosmint found hirself again in hir room in the housing project of desperation, the Bronx, New York, America, earth, Milky Way. And a few inches from hir knees on the warped and worn floor boards? Red Hills Battalion, one of the sci-fi paperbacks Jorge had lent hir. On the front cover was a spaceship sitting on a landscape of red dust. With trembling hands, Cosmint lifted the book and read from the blurb on the back.

“Commander Ned Bacchus is trying to settle into his new assignment on the planet Keb-15 in the Coshik Galaxy…”

Cosmint stopped reading there because hir mind was drowning in names and what felt like facts: commander Ned Bacchus was 37. He had a wife back on Earth who had lost a leg while in the U.S. Army. Commander Bacchus was in frustrating negotiations with the Legtadi, the dominant native species of Keb-15 about mining for precious —

“Stop!” Cosmint pressed hir fingers to hir ears, as if that might make hir brain shut up. That novel. Some stupid old sci-fi space alien novel that xe wouldn’t be caught dead reading. Now, after touching it while it glowed, xe knew every single detail as if it were the story of hir own life.

The other three books still glowed and spun like huge, dizzy fireflies. Xe didn’t want to touch them. Hir brain screamed that it was a bad idea. But the twirling books drew hir closer, like a cute boy in gym shorts, like a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes in a store window, like a puppy sitting alone across a busy highway. Cosmint lunged forward, hands out, and knocked the books from their suspended spots. Each one gave hir a thrilling buzz and a jolt of knowledge.

The last of the books xe touched was the library loaner about Patton’s army. Stratagems and battle plans filled hir head. And best of all? Courage. The surge of self-confidence and fearlessness made Cosmint’s arteries pulse like they might burst. All that energy had to go somewhere. With hir head back and arms straight up, xe screamed.

The bare lightbulb turned itself on and then exploded into shards. Cosmint didn’t doubt for a second that xe had done that. The massive charge sparking in hir head, hir heart, hir limbs could have powered all of New York City. A million bits of knowledge poked at hir mind like the stars xe had once seen in the night sky over a farm. It was the contents of all those books in clear detail, against the vague, vibrating background of the contents of every book ever written.

“I know!” xe announced to the universe. “There is no end to my knowing.”

“Now you are truly ours.” The books were talking again, together, but slightly out of sync. “The Ludline approaches, human vessel of knowledge. Stop the Ludline.”

The books at the library had mentioned the Ludline, too, but now Cosmint understood. It was a monster. The king of dullards. The enemy to thought and learning. And it was coming to hir school library.

With the fury of a knight determined to save a village from a dragon, Cosmint bounced to hir feet. Xe crossed the living room in three strides — “Don’t go out and leave me alone, baby,” Ma keened from under the blankets — then grabbed hir keys and slammed the door behind hir.

The Bronx streets xe had grown up on turned to blurry streaks of orange, pink, and gray as Cosmint galloped toward school.

Xe was surprised to see welcoming lights at the front door at such a late hour. “Basketball game!” xe said, pumping hir fist at this triumph of fate.

So, getting into the building would be easy. The library, though, was another matter. It closed at five o’clock every day. Cosmint glanced at hir phone – 6:17 pm. And the new knowledge sloshing and gushing in hir brain told hir that the Ludline would arrive that night. Xe tried to focus on the problem of entry instead of the fact that xe had no plan for defeating a monster.

Not knowing what else to do, xe walked to the library and stood helplessly in front of the gray plastic accordion door, pulled shut and locked for the night. At first, xe assumed the tangle of voices was the kids arriving for the ball game. But the voices were coming from behind the accordion door.

Xe closed hir eyes and really listened:

“…the stratosphere, the layer between the troposphere and the sun…”

“…cream the butter, then add one egg at a time…”

“…with the Manchu still in power during the Qing dynasty…”

All the books were talking! They spoke their contents quickly, in high-pitched voices, as if time was running out.

“Scared,” guessed Cosmint.

A hand on hir upper arm made hir squeal and spin around. “What are you scared of, Cosmint?”

It wasn’t a monster, just the history teacher, Mrs. Nguyen. Cosmint was so surprised to see her, that it took several seconds to realize that Mrs. Nguyen had called hir by the correct name instead of Carmine. And her face? A relaxed smile, focused and patient eyes. It was the face of someone who really cared. “Can I help you with anything?” Mrs. Nguyen asked. She genuinely seemed to want to help.

No words would come out, so Cosmint pointed a golden fingernail at the library barrier. Hir worried look wasn’t an act. Those books in there were nearly in a panic. Something awful was about to happen.

Cosmint realized Mrs. Nguyen was talking. “… into the library?”

Assuming the question, Cosmint almost said that xe had left hir phone on a library table. But xe stopped hirself. Teachers always thought kids depended on their phones too much. Mrs. Nguyen’s response would be, “You’ll live without it for one night.”

While the books inside started to scream – Mrs. Nguyen didn’t show any signs of hearing them — Cosmint raised the stakes and wrote some fiction on the spot: “There was this incredible novel. I found it this afternoon. I read the first couple pages. Forgot to check it out, though. I can’t stop thinking about it. I know I won’t sleep if I can’t read more of it tonight.”

Hir words hit the air as fast as a jackhammer on a city sidewalk. Xe couldn’t stop. What had started as a phony sob story now seemed too real and important. “There’s this girl. Meg. Her mom is a scientist. And she has this little brother, Charles Wallace. And there’s these three witches.” Cosmint had never read any such book, yet xe knew it backwards. It was the library, feeding a frantic strand of information directly to hir brain.

“And the Tesseract!” Shouting the strange word had the effect of a huge sneeze; a tingly peace followed the release. The tears Cosmint felt on hir own cheeks mirrored the ones shining on Mrs. Nguyen’s face.

“You mean A Wrinkle in Time.” The history teachers voice caught. “Such a wonderful book.” After a thoughtful nod, she reached into her purse and pulled out a ring of keys. “I used to be assistant librarian here. I can let you check that book out.”

She opened the padlock. Slid back that accordion barrier. She motioned Cosmint into the library. And onto the battlefield.

A dozen things happen at once. Hurricane-force wind, caused by the pages of hundreds of glowing, spinning, screaming books, grabbed Cosmint and Mrs. Nguyen. They both stumbled in like show horses, only their toes touching the ground as the book-wind held them aloft.
Mrs. Nguyen wrapped her arms around herself and joined the screaming. Cosmint focused on the books, and they zeroed in on hir, surrounding hir, calling out urgent warnings.

“Ludline is nearly here.”

“The emperor of dull minds will destroy us.”

“Save us, book listener!” That phrase caught on. “Save us, book listener,” all the books repeated. The volume of the chanting tomes, still with a backdrop of a thousand more texts being read aloud inside hir brain, climbed until Cosmint thought hir soul would shatter from the stress. “Save us. Save us!”

 “Save you from what?” The question came out as a lion’s roar, blowing the spinning books off their axes.

The books answered with a word repeated like rain hitting a jungle’s leafy canopy. “Ludline. Ludline. Ludline.”

Cosmint had never felt so powerful. Xe grabbed Mrs. Nguyen’s sleeve and pulled her under a long table. Cosmint climbed up onto the table, raising hir arms, taking as wide a stance as hir narrow skirt would allow. Energy coursed along hir skeleton and out hir splayed fingers. Xe roared again: “I am ready, Ludline. Come and face Cosmint the Cosmic.”

“What’s happening?” Mrs. Nguyen asked over the howling winds.

“Good question. But I got this, whatever it is.”

The books spoke. “It’s here. The Ludline is here.”

The library’s fluorescent lights flickered on, then off, then on. A humming surge of power doubled their brightness suddenly. The rod-shaped bulbs exploded one by one under the strain. But the darkness lasted only long enough for Cosmint to gasp.

A searing red light ripped through a book case, sending books flying and shrieking.
“No!” cried Cosmint. Xe leapt to the next table, toward the red light. Shaped like a ribbon so intense that it made hir squint, the light spiraled and looped around the library shelves. Books exploded into confetti as the ribbon sliced through them.

“Get out!” shouted Cosmint. “I command you, Ludline.”

The order had no effect.

“You said I was your protector,” xe complained to the books. “Tell me what to do.”
Dozens of glowing books still spun mid-air, dodging the ribbon of destructive light as it thrashed around the library. Two of the volumes glowed a brighter, lighter yellow now, and seemed to be trying to move closer to Cosmint in the midst of the chaos. Xe jumped from the table — hir ankle turned painfully on the landing, and for the first time in ages xe wished xe had worn sneakers — and reached a hand toward each of the highlighted books.

Hir fingers touched both books at once. The sudden avalanche of knowledge buckled hir legs. “I can’t!” xe wailed. Hir knees burned against the tough, nubby carpet. “I just can’t.”
Cosmint looked at Mrs. Nguyen huddled under a table, swatting away shards of shattered binding. A cut on her forehead bled through her fingers. Cosmint mouth the words, “I am so sorry,” and curled into a ball hirself.

But the moment xe closed hir eyes, a great change took place. All the new knowledge settled down and came to order. What had been a violent hailstorm ticking at hir brain now seemed to form two rows of information, soldiers marching and ready for action.
One row was a series of mantras for focusing energy to defeat a problem. “Seriously? A self-help book?” Cosmint had to laugh at the irony. Xe had avoided those hir whole life, convinced xe was so weird that no author could possibly have any useful advice. But now the book taught hir to block out distractions — the spinning books, the flying papers, the other books chattering, Mrs. Nguyen’s weeping, Cosmint’s own fear — and open a tunnel of calm, purposeful vision between hir self and the object.

The object was defeating the Ludline, which grew with each book case it destroyed.

“Don’t panic,” Cosmint told hirself, following the teachings that flowed from the book in hir left hand. “Open your mind to answers. Listen to yourself.”

Cosmint listened, and the answers came through hir right hand. Those fingers grasped a spell book. “No way. A book of spells in the high school library? OK, I’m listening.”

The book spoke to hir. “Recite the Spell of Understanding to conquer those who are the enemies of learning. Recite the Spell of Peace to conquer those who are wantonly destructive. Recite the Spell of Self-Love to heal those who are enemies to themselves.”

Cosmint struggled against the tornado of ripped books until xe was standing. “Here we go. The Spell of Understanding.” The wind tried to swallow hir voice, but xe recited loudly. Defiantly. “To yearn to fill the mind — this is blessed.” The Ludline swept across the room toward hir, as if it knew the words were a threat. “To work to know the world— this is sacred.” The Ludline, now brighter than fire, snaked around Cosmint’s torso and neck. Xe shouted the end of the spell: “To bring understanding to the minds of others—this is the greatest gift anyone can give!”

The searing rope of Ludline against hir skin slackened. Cosmint dared to peek at Mrs. Nguyen. I really should thank my teachers more often. The instant hir mind lost focused, the strangling started again.

“Say another spell,” urged Mrs. Nguyen.

“Another spell, another spell,” Cosmint urged hirself. It was no good. “I can’t remember any more!”

The voices that had been so ordered and precise we’re now a mad jumble. Then a clear if shaky voice cut through. “Turnips, on the other hand, fare better in sandy soil, as do related root vegetables such as jicama and daikon.”

It was Mrs. Nguyen, reading from a book on… gardening? Nothing could have been farther off-topic. But the sound of logical sentences calmed Cosmint’s mind. Xe remembered what came next.

“The Spell of Peace.” Hir breath gurgled and wheezed under the Ludline’s tight coil. “Deepest green for silence. Purest blue for patience.” The coil loosened. “Palest ash for a stilled and resting mind.” The Ludline’s heat subsided. “Darkest gray for the eternal slumber.”

With the crackle of lava cooling, the Ludline turned black and shriveled up, then disappeared. The light of the books dimmed, and those still spinning stopped and fell.

It was an intense peace, almost painful.

“Do you think it’s over?” whimpered Mrs. Nguyen, still clutching the gardening book. “That was like a scene out of a Madeleine L’Engle novel.”

“Who’s novel?”

Mrs. Nguyen, her sweaty face reflecting light from the hallway, stared at Cosmint for a long time. “How did you stop that thing?”

Cosmint shrugged. “Books… I guess.” The details had already left hir memory. The library books were all on their shelves, as if nothing had happened.

“Did you still want to check out A Wrinkle in Time?”

Cosmint helped her to her feet. “I’ve maybe had enough excitement for one night. If I’m totally honest, I just want to put up my feet and watch a stupid show on TV.”

Mrs. Nguyen’s smile grew slowly. “If I’m totally honest, so do I.”

As Cosmint stepped out into the hallway, Mrs. Nguyen called to hir. “You don’t have to do the report for Monday if you don’t want. You get an automatic A for saving the teacher’s life. But maybe it should be our secret.”

“Well, that’s the nicest thing anyone’s said to me all day. And I’m counting the stuff those books blabbed on and on about.” Xe gave a little curtsy. “Good night Mrs. Nguyen.”

“Good night, Cosmint.”

The evening air was chilly, and xe didn’t have a jacket. Still, xe took hir time. No flurry of words battered hir mind now. Just simple quiet. And wondering. What if the Ludline had eaten all the books in the world? Would it then have gone on to eat all the hard drives next? Did books, physical books, still matter?

“You sure lookin’ hot, sugar.”

The comment came from a middle-age guy, drunk as usual, who often hung out on the stoop of Cosmint’s building. Xe was home already.

“Oh, honey,” xe said to him before sliding hir key into the security door lock, “you have no idea how hot I am.”

As xe entered the apartment, hir eyes fell on the lump of blankets on the couch. “I’m home, Ma.”

Xe felt a tug of words in hir mind. They were nearly faded, like a love note dug into the sand with a stick as the tide is coming in. Xe recited them just in time, moving closer to the sofa as xe spoke. “The Spell of Self-Love. Your heart is goodness. Your soul is love. You are nature’s beauty. You are the perfect being, just by being.”

Xe knelt by the sofa and rested both hands on Ma’s head. Xe whispered the last line of the spell right into her ear. “The world is more glorious for your existence.”

When Ma stirred, Cosmint tried to wipe away hir tears without destroying what was left of hir eye make-up.

“You’re home, baby. You came home. Did you get them books you needed?”

A warm feeling filled Cosmint’s chest. Xe couldn’t remember the last time hir mom had thought of anything but her own misery. “Yeah, I got ʼem. You need anything, Ma? You hungry?” After a big struggle, hir mother sat up against the filthy, rumpled pillows. “Yeah, maybe a little.”

Of all the things that had happened so far  that day, those words were the most surprising and satisfying. “For real? Great! I’ll make us some soup.” Cosmint decided to push hir luck. “Want to sit with me at the table?”

“OK.” Another nice surprise.

Cosmint tried to keep the conversation going as xe stirred two cans of chicken and stars soup in a scratched-up sauce pan. “We’ll have a nice evening, you know? And you could tell me what you want to do tomorrow.”

“You have school.”

“Tomorrow’s Saturday, Ma.”

“Oh, that’s lucky for me.”

It was the perfect response. Carmine felt so at peace for the first time in — years, probably. Xe brought the bowls of soup out on a tray.

“This is nice,” said mama. Under her matted black hair steaked with gray, her eyes were focused and calm. “This is nice,” she said again. “Really, really nice.”

The normal sounds of life were welcome: the slurping of soup, the neighbors’ TV, a passing ambulance. Cosmint could not remember a single thing the books had told hir during those long, strange hours. Except for that Spell of Self-Love. That xe would never forget.
After wiping hir mouth with a napkin, xe pushed back hir chair and stood up, chuckling at hirself.

“What are you laughing at, you goofball?” Ma’s face showed the tiniest glimmer of a grin.

Cosmint bent to give her cheek a kiss. “This might sound weird, but I’m in the mood to read a book about General Patton.”

Hir laughter filled the little apartment as xe hurried to hir room.

Additional Info

AUTHOR BIO: Although she grew up in Wisconsin, Anne E. Johnson now writes fiction and poetry from her longtime home in Brooklyn, NY. Her work for pre-teen and teen readers includes the science fiction novels Space Surfers and Exit Code, plus many short stories for Rainbow Rumpus, FrostFire Worlds, Young Explorer's Adventure Guide, and elsewhere. When she's not writing, she can often be found playing Irish jigs and reels on her tin whistle.

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