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by Derek Elkins
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I marked Robert Early as an odd sort from the moment my eyes locked onto his from across the fence. Every hair on his head appeared immaculately out of place, as if it had been strategically blown by a supra-intelligent gale. Despite the choking heat, he wore the sleeves of a sweater wrapped around his neck and a heavy wool handkerchief covered his mouth.

Noticing my appraising stare, he hefted his rake into the air in an odd salute then set about his business in the garden.

My wife Bernice and I had recently moved into this small suburb so I could be close enough to my new job but far away from the hazards of the criminal element. We had come from a big city, well, I had, but Bernice had grown up in the outskirts. We returned to the suburbs primarily on her request.

My relationship with Mr. Early was primarily inconsequential, consisting mainly of nods and banal greetings. We would nod to each other as we brought the trash out to the curb. He walked outside once when I was painting and remarked on the weather. Our relationship was very typical of suburban living.

It was a bright, obnoxiously-sunny day when our relationship began to alter in a subtlety different way.

I was in the back yard, standing in a three-foot hole. As a word of explanation, we were experiencing certain sewage reversals that indicated a busted pipe somewhere on the premises. I did not notice the approach of Robert until he was practically straddling the fence.

“Bill!” He exclaimed.

For some reason, he always referred to me as Bill, even though I had attempted to correct him several times.

“Robert, beautiful day isn’t it?”

“Bill, you’re standing in a hole.” His eyebrows shot up as he remarked.

“Yes.” I answered. “We seem to have a problem with the—“

He interrupted. “I just realized that I’ve never told you what I do.”

My eyes narrowed in speculation.

“What you do?”

“Yes,” he exclaimed, his eyebrows waggling with the rhythm of his lips. “I never told you that I’m a writer. I write stories for a living.”

I took the opportunity to lean on my shovel. “That must be interesting. What kind of stories do you write?”

That seemed to knock him back for a moment before he recovered. “Why, I write all sorts of stories: Some good, some bad. I’ve written short stories and novels and plays and all sorts of stories. Every kind you could imagine.”

“Make lots of money doing that, do you?” I wondered out loud.

“Oh, no.” His eyebrows dropped. “I don’t write for the money. I write because the stories need to be written. If I didn’t write them, they’d find some other way to emerge. Once an idea pops into my head, I feel this overwhelming urge to commit it to paper. There was one time when I was on vacation and an idea appeared right in my head. I didn’t get it written down in time and, before I knew it, it had popped into existence.”

I took a moment, just in case I hadn’t heard him properly. “You don’t say.”

“Yes. I do,” he replied. He leaned in, almost conspiratorially. “I’ve just finished my masterpiece.”

“Did you now?” I was just about ready to return to my digging as much as I loathed the mess I would find.

“Oh, yes. There’s never been another one of its kind.” Suddenly, he glanced around, as if trying to ascertain that we were alone. “Would you,” he began haltingly, “would you care to read it?”

I looked into his earnest puppy dog eyes then back down at my mess. “Tell you what, Robert. I would love to read your book.”
He immediately sprang away from the fence.
“But,” I added, which stopped him, “can it wait until after I finish my duties here.”

“What? Oh, certainly, certainly.” And he rushed inside his house.

After a few days, he managed to trap me just as I exited my vehicle after a long day’s work. Mentioning my promise, he thrust the leather-bound book into my hands, looked me deep in the eyes as if gauging my trustworthiness, and then left as abruptly as he had come.

As I moved to my door, I casually inspected the intrusive object. There was little to differentiate it from other tomes that I had read or seen. It was not as thick as a dictionary or so few pages as a children’s book would contain. The binding was fresh and the color of the leather was a non-descript brown.

I quickly thumbed to the back to count the total pages. Only 379. This shouldn’t prove too painful. Reaching the porch, I tucked the book under arm and entered my sanctuary.

Now, I pride myself on being a tenacious reader. Once started, I must see the book through to the ending as successively as possible. In elementary school, my peers had nicknamed me The Black Hole as a great majority of stories had gone in and were never seen or heard from again.

Barring my job, husbandly duties and regular meals, I achieved my victory in admiral time: just short of a day and a half. I was quite unimpressed.

The story line had concerned an electrician named Steven Harbring. The plot was not entirely interesting, but I had been faced with these sort of biographies before and I sloughed my way through it like a responsible officer.

The next day I knocked on Robert Early’s door. My announcement was answered within seconds; almost as if he had been expecting me.

The door cracked open and a bulging eye surveyed myself and the porch. After a moment of scrutiny, Robert opened the door the rest of the way with his wide smile leading the way.

“So,” he asked, “did you like it?”

I offered him the manuscript. “Well…”

“Yes?” He interrupted eagerly.

I resolved myself to the truth. “Well, to tell you the truth, there really wasn’t much to the story, was there? I mean, I’ve read biographies before and this one didn’t especially stand out in the crowd.”

His face fell to the floor. “But, I don’t understand. Biography? Didn’t you open it more than once?”

And then it was my turn to be confused. “Open it twice? Why would I do that? No, I read the whole thing in one setting.”

“But didn’t you open it again after that? See, that’s where the magic of this book lies. You can’t read it just once.”

He held the book once more out to me and reluctantly I took it.

“I don’t really understand,” I started, opening the book once more to the front page, “how reading this one more time…”

I had to stop myself as the beginning was no longer as I remembered it. No, the first time, it had started with a short description of the lineage of Steven Harbring. This time the book began with the simple line, “Joseph Lansing was born to Marty and Glenda Lansing deep in their golden years.”

Confused, I shut the book and reopened it once more. Now, the opening line read, “There was nothing unusual about the birth of Francis Sloan, except that as she arrived in this world, her heart stopped for just three seconds.”

I slammed the book shut and turned my confusion to Mr. Early. “Is this some sort of trick?”

His eyebrows rose. “Trick? No, there’s no trick.”

I looked at the book again and then back up to Robert. “I don’t understand. How can this not be a trick? When I open the book, the stories change.”

“Yes,” he responded with an even wider smile. “Isn’t it wonderful?”

My mouth fell open as I struggled for a quick response. “But, I don’t understand.”

“Yes, you’ve said that.”

“But, books do not work like that. See, the stories stay the same. The words on the page cannot change. They’re finalized, complete, unable to be moved. I…”

He smiled reassuringly, and clapped me on the shoulder. “It’s all right. Won’t you come inside for a moment?”

I nodded as he directed me into his living room and led me into a large stuffed, leather chair. I clutched the book to my chest as a drowning man would clutch at a piece of driftwood, anything to keep me afloat.

Mentioning tea, Robert left me for a moment and headed off to places unknown as I was left to examine the room I had been deposited into.

The room was warmly furnished with many bookshelves filled to overflowing with, to quote Poe, "many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore". A twin mirrored the comfortable chair I inhabited and both sat before a giant writing desk. Between the two chairs sat a circular table with an image of the globe covering the top.

Shortly, Robert returned and deposited two cups of hot tea on the center table. He sat across from me and eyed the book I had still firmly gripped.

"You know," he stated, "you can put that down now, if you’d like."

I looked down in alarm, but soon came to my senses. "What? Oh, of course. Seems almost silly of me now. It must be the simplest form of trick."

Gently, I placed the book between us.

"Oh, I’ve told you. It’s no trick. It just is."

I took a moment to consider his face as he sipped his tea. He could be entirely insane. I had never known anyone directly who suffered from schizophrenia. What would the tell-tale signs be, I wondered.

"I’m not crazy," he answered, reading my thoughts. "It’s very simple. Each time you open the book, you get to see into the life of another, oh for want of a better word, character. Each story is completely different and very unique."

"Are these stories of real people?" I asked.

"As real as you or me."

I glanced again at the book. How did it work? What mysteries did it hide? What were its secrets? Finally, like a firework illuminating the night sky, my mind transfixed on one particular question and would not let go.

"Am I in this book?"

"Everyone is in this book," he answered.

"Yes," I returned obstinately, "but am I in this book?"

He paused a moment to look at the bookshelves. "Do you see all those books lining the shelves? They all contain stories with remarkable and unusual characters. They all have amazing adventures, fantastic experiences and some contain questions that directly interest every human being. Why am I here? What am I supposed to be doing? Is there any more to this life than the hum-drum, day-to-day nothing? Some purport to know the answers; others exist simply to entertain. But regardless of the author’s intent, every one of those books has something in common: they are all fiction. Even the biographies and autobiographies to an extent only tell one side of the story. Every book is written with a fictional bias.

"But this book," and here he lifted the tome from the table, "this one lays the story bare for everyone to see. This one doesn’t tell little white lies to protect feelings. This book doesn’t paint a rosy picture or try to sway the reader in one direction or another. The lives presented in the book just are. They are normal people, like the ones you’d meet every day at the grocery store or swear at for driving too slow in the fast lane. These are real people living real lives and trying, each and every day, to discover the answers to the important questions in life."

I rose quickly to my feet as his speech came to an end. "Robert, I need time to digest this. I don’t know what to think and I don’t know the right questions to ask. Can I have a few days to think this through?"

He rose as well. "Think this through? I’m not asking you to marry me. But, yes, of course, you can have as much time as you need."

I made it to the door, before turning with one last question on my lips. "Robert, have you considered the moral implications of your book?"

He smiled warmly. "Of course."

I opened the door and exited, to give me time to think and to roll this experience around for a while.

Over the next few days, the reality of the book rarely left my thoughts. Additional questions appeared on the horizon of my mind and begged to be considered. I took to writing the questions down in anticipation of my next meeting with Robert Early. After a significant number of days, I found that I could no longer stand to be alone with my unanswered queries. So, with list in hand, I resolutely approached the door of Robert Early once more.

After being seated in his living room again, I began my interrogation.

“Now Robert,” I started, “I can’t deny that this book of yours has caused no little consternation for me the last few days. The implications of it are simply staggering. Suppose you came across a life story where someone is scheduled to meet an untimely end: are you morally obligated to try and locate that person so you can warn them? Or can you simply open the book and re-write their story?”

Robert looked startled. “Oh no, I could never rewrite someone’s story. They write themselves. To attempt so great an intrusion would be almost diabolical. It would be evil.”
“Can you write at all in this book?”

“Of course,” he replied. “I’ve done it on a number of occasions. Like you said, I couldn’t sit back and watch the train wreck. I’m not a monster. But, as I’ve explained, I cannot directly change or control the direction a life is preceding. I can’t add the line ‘And he put down the bottle and never took another drop’ to an alcoholic’s story. It’s simply…”

“What if they asked you to?” I asked.

He sat back suddenly in the confines of the great chair and took a moment. Slowly, he steepled his hands in front of his face as he considered. “If one knew that I was there and they cried out for assistance, would that constitute interference? That’s a fine question. After all, if someone requested my help in real life I wouldn’t hesitate to help. Why should this be any different? But the question is how to let them know that I’m here and have the capability to affect change.”

“If I saw an ant hill,” I said, “and I desired to communicate with the ants, what would be the best way? I couldn’t yell down at the ants as the obvious language barrier was present. To them, I would be just another background noise. I likewise couldn’t write notes or send messages of any kind that they would recognize.”

“Yes, yes,” Robert said, “but we’re not talking about ants. These are logical, thinking human beings. Surely I could leave messages carved into the earth itself…”

“Yes,” I said, “but how long would it take them to discover the messages?”

“Certainly,” He answered. “But if I attempted to communicate directly, the man…”

“Or woman.” I said.

“Yes,” he continued, “the man or woman might simply believe that they’re hearing voices. They would probably conclude that they’ve lost their sanity.”

“There is that,” I agreed.

We sat in silent revelry once more until a brilliant thought struck me like an arrow through the heart. “I wonder if you’re in the book.”

This gave him pause. “Well, I…I’ve never given it much thought. I had naturally assumed that since I wrote it that I wouldn’t be a part of it. No, I’m sure that my story is not written within those pages. Why do you ask?”

“Because it seems to me,” I said, “that the best way to communicate with an ant is to become an ant.”

Robert eyed the book that lay between us on the cold mahogany. “Well, of course. It’s simple enough. But I couldn’t write myself into everyone’s lives, could I? It would be too odd, too unconventional. Once something becomes commonplace, it ceases to be unique.”

“Perhaps you could write yourself into the history. Affect everyone by affecting a select few.”

“Well, that is certainly something to ponder, isn’t it?” Robert announced. “But I will need to work out the particulars. I cannot arrive at just any time and place. It must be perfect. Everything must be perfect. Oh, there are simply too many thoughts to think, too many plans to make. ”

I glanced at my watch then rose from the chair. “Don’t let me keep you. It’s high time I went home. The wife will start to be worried if I don’t return soon.”

“Of course. Of course.” He replied, but his eyes never once left the book, even as I left.

I would love to say that I returned the following week to further discuss the implications of this marvelous work, but the truth is that one day seemed to melt into another. It was two weeks before I returned to knock on the door of Robert Early. To my chagrin, there was no reply. Perhaps he had taken a trip, I reasoned. Or perhaps, he had simply written himself in.

"For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you."
Isaiah 64:3

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