This piece of flash fiction was written for Writer’s Digest’s 2021 February Flash Fiction Challenge Day 16. I spent two hours on this story; this is the third draft. The prompt: “Write about boring becoming something exciting.”
Image from Wikimedia Commons, Nazareth College from Rochester, NY, USA.
It was my first day on the job and the first Monday of the local school district’s Summer Break when James and his mother, Patricia, walked into the library.
James immediately trudged to the nearest seat, plopped down, crossed his arm, and sulked low into the piece of furniture hiding behind long, curly black bangs. Patricia marched to the counter, an embarrassed smile plastered on her face. After introductions, she explained James was in middle school, seventh grade going on eighth, except there was a teeny, tiny hiccup: he’d failed to do any of the reading assignments all year. If he wanted to move onto the next grade, he had to complete the readings over the summer—ten books and ten book reports.
So Patricia brought James here to the local library because what better place to read and then ponder what you read before tossing those musings into a report on said book. It was also a safe place that didn’t require a fee where James could stay out of trouble and focus on his schoolwork—this Patricia did not say out loud, but her guilty expression gave it away.
“He’s more than welcome here amongst the stacks of adventure and possibility,” I said, patting the air and giving Patricia what I hoped was a reassuring smile.
And so every day that summer Patricia dropped James off at the library.
That first day, James sulked in the chair, never once getting up. As the day progressed, it was not difficult to tell the boy was bored out of his mind. Even still, he refused to move and refused to read. I let him play out the role of obstinate, angst-ridden teenager and went about my day restocking the bookshelves, helping other visitors, and cleaning up here and there. I checked up on him every so often, occasionally finding his eyes wandering the stacks near him. Whenever he noticed me, he’d quickly refocus on the floor and tighten his crossed arms.
He did get up thirty minutes before Patricia was due back. He shuffled over to where I was sorting through a few boxes of donated books and handed me a wrinkled piece of notebook paper. A numbered list of twenty books and their authors were written on it.
I raised a questioning eyebrow at him.
“The books Mr. Waters recommends I choose from to read.”
I frowned. Mr. Waters was an old curmudgeon of an English teacher, even back when I had him ten years ago. His taste in literature was very . . . classical. And the list reflected such tastes. Meaning, it was a bunch of old books about a bunch of things set in times a boy James’s age probably would not give a damn about.
“Which book do you want to read first?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Don’t care. The first one on the lists, I guess?”
I quickly retrieved the book and handed it to him. If disinterest could destroy, then the book would have been nothing but individual atoms with the look James gave it. He returned to his seat, flipped the book open to page one, and that is where it stayed until Patricia picked him up. It stayed on the same page the following day, and the day after that.
“Do you like reading?” I asked him on the fourth day.
“Not really. It’s boring.” It took him ten full seconds to realize who he just said that too. “I-I mean, for me, reading is, you know, boring. But for you, it’s probably the greatest thing ever, being a librarian and all. And I’m sure other people like it to . . .”
He looked away, his cheeks and ears turning red. It took everything I had not to bust out laughing.
“I do rather enjoy reading,” I said with a smile, sitting down at the seat across from him—he’d finally migrated to more comfortable seating in one of the reading nooks the previous day. “So if not reading, what do you like?”
I waited, drawing out the one-sided awkward silence until he finally cracked.
“TV, I guess. Video games.”
“What kind of TV do you watch? What kind of video games do you play?”
After a moment of hesitation, he rattled off a dozen television shows and a half dozen video games. He rounded out the list with a few movies.
Sitting back, I said, “Hmm . . .”
I was familiar, at least superficially, with everything he listed off. There were a few broad through lines with them all: action, adventure, and a dose of violence—more than what Patricia was probably aware of if I had to guess. But there were a few more subtle things I identified: science and technology obviously interested him; mystery about what existed beyond the bounds of our planet and solar system; a desire for excitement and nail-biting suspense; history of different cultures and people and their past conflicts with others.
“Alrighty,” I said, hopping to my feet. “I think I can help you. One moment.”
I strode off into the stacks over to the science-fiction section. I quickly discarded classic sci-fi—there’s no quicker way to drive someone away from science fiction literature than forcing them to read the classics which could be overly dense, meandering, and lack relatable characters. Those can come later. For now, something more modern was needed, something more recognizable and relatable. Then I spot it: a sci-fi book published four years ago set in the future that follows an ensemble cast of found family characters who journey across the stars and come into contact and conflict with all manner of strange, unique aliens.
“Yes, this should do nicely.”
Emerging from the stacks, I returned to James and handed him the book.
Studying the cover, he frowned. Then he read the synopsis on the back of the book, and the frown transformed into an expression of curiosity.
“Why don’t you give that book a chance. I think you’d like it.”
He didn’t answer immediately. He frowned again, struggling with something. Finally, he said, “This isn’t on Mr. Waters’s list.”
“Are you only allowed to read from those twenty books? I thought they were simply recommendations?”
“They are but . . .” He stared down at the book and reread the back. “I don’t think this is the kind of book Mr. Waters would like.”
“Probably not, no. But Mr. Waters’s is not the one that’ll be reading it. You will. So it only matters if it’s a book you’d like to read. Do you think you might enjoy reading this book?”
James stared at the paperback, face scrunched up, the gears in his head turning.
“Maybe?” he finally said.
“Only one way to find out,” I said.
Giving me one more confused, unsure look, he nestled in the chair and opened the book to the first page. Then he began reading.
I walked away to give him some space, but I kept a close eye on him.
The moment happened on page six. It is plain as day on his face—mouth slightly open, eyebrows scrunched together, face a little closer to the book than it was before. It’s the moment all of us who enjoy reading know well, the moment we all crave, the moment we are all addicted to, the moment we wished would never end; it’s the moment where reality falls aways, replaced by the speculative reality springing forth from the pages; it’s the moment where the characters become real, the moment the mystery of the plot fills us with an intense desire to see it solved, the moment the setting erupts in our minds in an explosion of color and form; it’s the moment of pure, utter bliss when the reader and the book merge into one.
James settled back in the chair even more, completely relaxed and no longer existing in this reality.
Smirking, I disappear into the stacks and leave the young man to his moment.