Authors: Lev Grossman
The apartment was silent. Tentatively, he pressed another key. The screen cleared.
He was back in the forest, back at the beginning again. A gentle breeze was blowing. The sky was blue. He was alive.
HE NEXT DAY
Edward woke up late. His head hurt. The last thing he remembered was wandering around the green landscape in the game, through hills and meadows and thickets, playing with the controls, looking for clues. At some point he'd finished the wine and begun pouring himself nips from a bottle of grappaâZeph and Caroline had brought it back from a conference in Florence last yearâon the principle that sticking to liquids based on grapes would minimize his hangover. He was now reevaluating that principle in light of new evidence.
When did he finally go to bed? God, he was no better than Stewart and his GameBoy. The apartment was stifling. The windows were all closed, and sunlight was pouring in. He could feel the sheen of sweat on his bare back as he swung his legs down. Edward staggered out of bed, threw open all the windows he could find, and staggered back again.
He looked at the clock: It was two in the afternoon. He shook his head. All that stress and lack of sleep must have finally caught up with him. He rested his head in his hands. Today was Fridayâhe was pretty sure it was, anyway. Usually he would have been at work for six hours already. Standing in the kitchen, he ran himself a tall glass of water and drank it in one long, unbroken series of swallows. A sweet, oversized green apple sat on the counter, and he sliced off a thin segment with a steel carving knife. He ate it off the blade. The crispness of it hurt his teeth.
There was a message on his answering machine. It must have been left last night after he went to bed.
“Edward. Zeph here.” Loud party noise in the background. “Everybody else here is talking on their cell phones so Caroline and meâCaroline and Iâwe thought we should call somebody on ours.” Caroline said something in the background. “I'm not yelling. This is how I talk. Listen, I'm talking in my normal voice.” Zeph was drunk.
“We're all pissed off at you,” he went on. “Fabrikant's pissed that you're not here, and we're pissed that you're not here, and that's pretty much everybodyâwell, there's some other people here, they're probably pissed at you too, I can't say for sure. I don't really feel like asking them. We should go now. All this small talk isn't going to make itself. Oh, the Artiste is here, isn't that a scream? I told him about it. I can't believe he came. He's walking around freaking people out. Wow, what a gloriously slutty-looking woman,” Zeph added.
“Look at those heels,” Caroline said in the background. “Why doesn't she just wear stilts?”
The call cut off there.
Edward walked back through his apartment to the bathroom, where he splashed some cold water on his face. It had been a couple of days since he'd shaved.
You're letting yourself go,
You wasted last night, and you've already wasted half of today. Pull yourself together, asshole.
He should call the office and clear up the mess about the Wents' library, he thought, staring at himself in the mirror. No, it was already too late for that today. He should just go over there. By now they'd be waiting for him. He pictured the cool, dark quiet of the Wents' library.
A fresh bloom of sweat was already breaking out on his forehead. He went to the bathroom to take a shower, then he got dressed and threw a notebook and an old sweater into his leather bag. He wasn't going to hang around here all day. At least the Wents had air-conditioning. On his way out he stopped in front of his computer. The monitor screen looked weak and dusty in the direct sunlight. It was still onâthe screensaver was obsessively drawing randomly generated fractal mountain ranges over and over and immediately erasing them again. He hadn't even bothered to quit out of the game. He'd left it on all night while he slept.
Edward tapped the space bar and the screen cleared. He was still alive. Edward frowned. He would have thought some roving space invader or something would have come along and killed him by now. Or maybe it already hadâmaybe he'd been killed a thousand times since last night and then brought back to life a thousand times. Did it even matter? How would he even know?
Even though it was early afternoon outside, in the game it was seven in the evening according to a tiny digital clock near the bottom of the screen. Through the trees a thin band of glowing, fading sunset stretched halfway around the horizon, red and gold and green. He moved forward to the edge of the cliff. The scattering of sunlight across the roughened river water was rendered in exquisite detail, veins of fire rippling and shivering. For a while he just stood and watched it.
Not everything was the same as it had been the night before. The letter that had been in the mailbox was gone, and so was the pistol. He thought of the lyrics from that Beatles song about leaves whirling inside a letter box. And there actually were leaves on the ground nowâthe scene had altered subtly, becoming more autumnal. The silver hourglass he'd seen was there, but it lay broken on the ground, the pale sand inside scattered in the grass, which was looking a little patchy and threadbare. Time had passed here. He looked around nervously.
Downstream, the bridge was in ruins. The span had disappeared, and one of the two stone towers that had supported it was completely gone. The other was scarred and blasted. He ran upstream along the top of the cliff to get a better look. He found that he moved swiftly and smoothly in the game, skimming along over the ground in an even, legless glide, faster than he or anybody else could possibly run in real life. It looked like the bridge had aged, eroded, sagged, and finally collapsed under the sheer weight of years. How could so much time have passed? A long, creamy swath of foam swept downstream from the base of the one surviving tower. As he got closer he could hear the faint rushing sound the turbulence made. Part of a carved stone lion still crouched at the tower's base.
How could the bridge have aged so much in one night? And what was he supposed to do? Fix it? Was that the point of the game? He glided down a steep embankment, then out to the end of the road, as close as he dared to where the ragged edge of the road sagged precipitately downward. The current piled up against the base of the tower like ripples of thick, heavy glass. There was no sound except rushing water, and a looped sample of crickets chirping. A little cartoon sailboat was creeping up the river, looking absurdly peaceful, leaving a white, perfectly V-shaped wake behind it on the dark blue water. From it came the sound of a clear, silvery bell.
He hit Esc to see if the game would let him out, but nothing happened. He tried Ctrl Q, then Alt F4, then Ctrl-Alt-Delete. Nothing, though it did let him save a copy of the game-in-progress.
“Fuck it,” he said out loud.
Maybe killing himself again would help. He walked down to the edge of the road. It was unpaved, a white gravel track with a crest of green grass running along the center. It felt a little weird, deliberately murdering himself, but after a moment's hesitation he backed away to get up some momentum and ran straight over the edge. He didn't tumble this time, just fellâa moment of stillness, floating peacefully in the dusky air, then a plunge down into the dark water.
Instead of sinking he popped back up to the surface. His point of view bobbed up and down, and the current started to take him. He wasn't sinking. He tried to make himself dive down, but he couldn't figure out how. He was as stubbornly buoyant as a cork.
“Die,” he said under his breath. “Die, you little fucker.”
After a while he got bored of trying to drown himself. It was getting darker. He swam over to the base of the one remaining tower and clambered up onto it. Very far away, almost indistinguishable now from the shoreline, he watched the sailboat recede into the distance. There was writing on the stern, illegible now, though he thought it might have said MOMUS.
A GARBAGE TRUCK
was blocking the Wents' narrow street, so the cab let him off around the corner from their apartment. A hard-faced woman was selling tattered back issues of
sun-faded and water-damaged, spread out on a card table. The heat was brutalâthe city was a cement oven. Sunlight flashed painfully off apartment windows and the side mirrors of cars; even the sidewalk was too bright to look at. He walked straight in past the doorman without even looking at him.
The doorman called out after him halfheartedly, “In you go!”
After the glare outside Edward was practically blind in the gloom of the lobby, and he barked his shin on a coffee table. The air smelled like leather and potpourri. He picked his way through the darkness toward the elevators and fished the tube key Laura had given him out of his pocket. It fit easily into a circular socket next to the button for the seventeenth floor. The doors rumbled shut.
Edward hoped nobody would be home, that he could slip upstairs without having to talk to anybody. His shin ached. An elderly Chasidic man got on at nine, reeking of sweat under his black coat, and got off at ten. As he approached the twenty-third floor Edward had a strange premonition that the doors would open onto nothingness, or a blank wall, or a sheer drop, but when he arrived there was only the mirrored anteroom, exactly as before, with the cleaning woman vigorously vacuuming the oriental rug in the front room.
Laura was nowhere in sight. He walked through the front room and down the elegant, empty white hall with its ghostly missing pictures until he found the closet with the spiral staircase. The sound of the vacuum dwindled behind him. His shoes rang lightly on the metal stairs. This time the door at the top of the stairs opened easily, and he closed it firmly behind him. Walking into the library was like slipping into a movie theater on a summer afternoonâthe same dark coolness, the same air of hushed anticipation. He took a deep breath. The air was chilled and musty, but it felt like a damp towel on his aching forehead.
Under the circumstances the prospect of a long afternoon of quiet, industrious, relatively brainless work seemed incredibly pleasant. He walked through the long room to the table, slowly, enjoying the silence and the solitude. Everything was exactly where he'd left it. The large leather volume from the day before was still lying out on the table, dark and sober as a gravestone. He turned on the laptop and strolled over to the open crate while it booted up. The heavy curtains hung open just a sliver, sending a single line of light along the wood floor.
Edward lifted out a short stack of tightly wrapped books from off the top and carried them back to the table. He opened the first one, a small, thin volume bound in gray-green leather with gold trim.
A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy,
by Laurence Sterne. The leather was so soft and crumbly it left smudges on his fingers. It was a tiny, delicate thing, barely a hundred pages long. He opened it just as far as the frontispiece. It was printed in 1791.
He unwrapped the rest of them, throwing the paper on the floor as he went.
The Complaint; or Night Thoughts, and the Force of Religion.
A Victorian-era account of the excavation of a frozen mammoth, full of gorgeous illustrations and bound together with a contemporary treatise on meteorites.
a prerevolutionary French novel with pink paper covers, turned out to be a pornographic accountâwith strong revolutionary subtextâof the sex lives of the French aristocracy, written from the point of view of a piece of sentient furniture. An unidentifiable bundle of crumbling old papers tied together with a black ribbon: early American religious broadsides. A mottled, cheap-looking edition of Joyce's
Edward opened the binder with the instructions in it and followed them as best he could. He counted the unnumbered extra pages at the front and back of each volume. He measured each book in centimeters. With his fingertips he gauged the sharpness of the corners, and he
over foxing and broken spines. He counted pictures and illustrations and looked up any ornaments in a big book that listed the more popular ones, along with the names and dates of the printers who invented them. He copied out any marks or inscriptionsâthe endpaper in the Sterne was covered in arithmetic, written in fountain pen ink gone sepia with age. He spent a long time deciphering a signature on
It turned out to have belonged to Anita Loos.
For each book he tapped an entry into the laptopâthe cataloging software had a separate field for each piece of information. Nobody came up from the apartment below to bother him. It was cold in the library, but the old sweater he'd brought kept him warm and kept the dust off his clothes. As he worked his headache gradually faded. The traffic on Madison was so far away that it registered as nothing more than oceanic white noise, a seashell roar punctuated by the occasional musical honk.
He went back for another stack of books: a three-volume English legal treatise; a travel guide to Tuscany from the '20s crammed with faded Italian wildflowers that fluttered out from between the pages like moths; a French edition of Turgeniev so decayed that it came apart in his hands; a register of London society from 1863. In a way it was idiotic. He was treating these books like they were holy relics. It wasn't like he would ever actually read them. But there was something magnetic about them, something that compelled respect, even the silly ones, like the Enlightenment treatise about how lightning was caused by bees. They were information, data, but not in the form he was used to dealing with it. They were non-digital, nonelectrical chunks of memory, not stamped out of silicon but laboriously crafted out of wood pulp and ink, leather and glue. Somebody had cared enough to write these things; somebody else had cared enough to buy them, possibly even read them, at the very least keep them safe for 150 years, sometimes longer, when they could have vanished at the touch of a spark. That made them worth something, didn't it, just by itself? Though most of them would have bored him rigid the second he cracked them open, which there wasn't much chance of. Maybe that was what he found so appealing: the sight of so many books that he'd never have to read, so much work he'd never have to do. When was the last time he'd actually finished a book? A real, non-detective book?