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Now here's a tome you won't find on Oprah's reading list...

Leptimon

By J. Alan Brown

Randy Goodman first saw the trunk on the second Saturday of May around noon.He had rolled out of bed in a thickheaded stupor, his tongue dry and cottonyStaggering to the bathroom to relieve his aching bladder, he barked his shin on the trunk and tumbled to the blue shag carpeting.Then his head really started to pound.

The wooden trunk had been delivered three days earlier, addressed to Randy Goodman, care of Estelle Goodman, Rockwall, Texas.The delivery driver had obliged Estelle and hauled it, puffing and grunting, down to Randy's room in his mother's house.Estelle gave the driver a quarter for his trouble and ignored the man's sour look.That was on Wednesday.

Around six p.m. Friday night, Randy had banged into the house, hungry and impatient.Estelle set a plate of food in front of him, then sat down with him at the kitchen table and kept one eye on the television.He forked the food into his mouth and washed it down with iced tea.

"John Hinckley tried to commit suicide this week," Estelle said.

"Oh yeah?"

"Mm-hmm.He almost overdosed on Tylenol, can you imagine?What could he have been thinking, shooting President Reagan like that?Such a wonderful man."

"What's in the trunk in my room, Ma?"

"How should I know," said Estelle, with heat in her voice."It's not my business to snoop in other people's business."She looked away casually, and Randy could tell that she wanted to know what was in the trunk more than he did.

"Who's it from?" he asked.

"Guy said it came from Oklahoma.Probably from your Uncle Larry."

Randy felt a stab of pain in his heart.Larry Goodman had been a college professor at Oklahoma State University, and Randy still shivered when he thought about how his uncle had died.

"You gonna open it?" Estelle asked.

"I'll look at it tomorrow," he shrugged.He handed her the empty plate and planted his oil-stained ball cap squarely back on his head.He levered himself up out of the kitchen chair.

"Why not right now?" Estelle asked, giving away her curiosity."Don't you want to know what's in it?"

"I said, I'll do it tomorrow, Ma.I gotta go."He was out the front door in six strides, still wearing the same clothes he worked and slept in since Monday morning.Tomorrow would be plenty of time for a shower and a shave and clean clothes.Tonight, it was another Friday night at Rudy's.

And it was Friday night at Rudy's bar that had given Randy his hangover on Saturday morning.His head felt like someone was tapping on it experimentally with a ball peen hammer, looking for soft spots.His bladder was threatening to burst, and his shin was throbbing beneath his interlaced fingers.Picking himself up carefully, he continued his trek to the toilet.He mercifully emptied his bladder, swallowed three Tylenol for his headache, and splashed cold water in his face.In the mirror he saw a twenty-two year old man who looked thirty-five, with bloodshot eyes and a full beard. His was a face that women looked at once, but never twice.He was just starting to grow what could become a magnificent beer belly unless things changed, and they didn't look like they would.He scratched the back of his head and oily hair stuck out in thick, reddish-brown tufts.

After a long, hot shower, he shaved his neck, then threw on a clean T-shirt and jeans.He grabbed a Bud from his mini-refrigerator for breakfast and sat down on the side of his bed to contemplate the trunk in the middle of his room.

It looked like most old beat-up trunks, Randy supposed, but this one had a shiny new padlock bolting it closed.Taped to the top was a plain envelope with some writing on it.Randy pressed his fingers against the envelope and felt what he guessed to be a key.He picked the envelope away from the trunk, and slit it open with a finger.Sure enough, a plain key slid out into his palm.Randy also saw a folded piece of paper in the envelope.He took it out, opened it up and glanced over it quickly, then stuffed it back in.

He unlocked the padlock and slowly lifted the lid.He smiled at himself--did he really figure there would be gold and jewels and stuff, like a real pirate's treasure?No, there was no stolen booty inside.The trunk was filled to the top with nothing but--

"Books," Randy breathed out.

His uncle, Larry Goodman, had taught history, or something.Randy hadn't seen him for a few years, but he had been okay.For a passing moment, Randy compared his Uncle Larry to his own father, Ralph.Why couldn't his ma have married Uncle Larry instead?Uncle Larry had been married to his Aunt Peggy for he-didn't-know how many years, had a couple of kids who had both gone through college and were working somewhere.Uncle Larry had been respectable until . . . until he killed himself at his office desk.

Larry's younger brother, on the other hand, Ralph Goodman, Randy's father, had worked on a construction crew, with its typical feast-or-famine routine.Money was usually tight, alcohol was always drunk, and bruises were dealt like playing cards.One Thursday evening, when Larry was six, Ralph stepped out to get a newspaper and never came back.

Randy dug through the trunk, but it was all books--big, thick hardback books.Some looked brand-new, others looked like they would fall apart in his hands.Great, thought Randy.Uncle Larry couldn't have given me some money or a car or somethin.No, he leaves me some old books that I (can't even read) have absolutely no use for.What am I gonna do with a buncha books?

He pawed through the trunk some more, then he paused.Buried at the bottom was a brown, leather-bound book, and Randy had gotten a queer feeling when his fingers brushed over it, like the funny way his fingertips felt if he picked off too much of the nail.Grabbing the book with both hands he hefted it out and set it on his lap.It was huge, as big as jumbo-sized Cheerios box, and it smelled of old must and rotted leather.Etched into the cover were strange symbols and markings, and he ran his fingers across the grooves.The pages were yellow and wrinkled, like a phone book that had gotten damp.It was held shut with a strap of leather that wrapped around it twice.

Suddenly, Randy started to get a feeling.All at once he was reminded of the time when he was ten and he reached into an old canvas bag down by the creek.An older neighborhood kid had pointed out the bag, and he dared Randy to look inside.Randy had slowly opened the rotted bag and tried to peer into the darkness.Slowly, with shaking hands, he reached in--

And pulled out a cat, stiff with rigor mortis.The desiccated corpse was gray, its legs like sticks, and black, shiny beetles crawled in and out of its hollowed eyes.

Now, years later in his bedroom, Randy felt the same feeling of fascinated dread.He wanted to open the book, but what was inside?He imagined himself lifting the cover, hearing the binding crack with ancient age, smelling the mildew of time and death, until some winged thing leaped at his face--

Randy shook himself and laughed uncertainly.It's just a book, he thought.Books can't hurt you.

Still, he took a long drink of Bud before he unwrapped the leather tie, letting the long strips fall to the floor like discarded snake skins.Holding his breath, he slowly turned the cover back, hearing the binding crack just like he knew it would--

And exhaled with relief.It was just a book.It was not alive, and there was nothing alive in it, just like he thought.

With more speed, he began flipping through the pages.Too bad that I can't(read anything) make out what's in here.He paused now and then and looked at the pictures on the yellowing pages.He flipped at one corner of a picture with his thumb and was surprised to see it had been glued to the page somehow.Most of the pictures were strange--kings and people standing around, or maybe a monk in front of a church altar.Pretty harmless stuff, mostly.

At any rate, what was he going to do with a bunch of old books?Randy figured maybe he could haul the trunk to Half-Price Books on Mockingbird, sell them for a few dollars.Enough for beer money.

And speaking of beer, he thought, then he chuckled.The guys at Rudy's always said that.No matter what the topic--sports, cars, women--you could always change the subject nicely by saying, "And speaking of beer," then take a long drink.Guaranteed laughs.

"Speaking of beer," he said out loud, and closed the book with a snap.Then he inhaled sharply.

In front of him, a diffuse light blossomed, filling his vision, as if he were staring at the sun through bedsheets.He slammed shut his eyes, but the light didn't waver.It was not in front of his eyes, but in his mind.Inside his head.He heard his heart pulse in his ears, throbbing painfully.

Slowly the light faded, melting away like fog on a cold, sunny morning, and the rushing of blood in his ears dampened to a dull roar.He found himself lying on his back across his bed, staring up at the ceiling.For a minute, colors seemed to be washed out, as faded as his collar knit shirts became after two dozen washings.He blinked some more, expecting to see green flashes, but he didn't.

Heaving himself back upright, he swallowed hard, then took another long drink of his beer to flush out the plumbing.

This is some hangover, Randy thought.

That was enough for him.The flash of light was just an after-effect of his hangover, and no other explanation was needed.But he knew that had he had the courage to look himself in the eye, he would admit that he had never experienced anything like that, and he had been on some real benders.Last night was about average, but he had never felt this way before.

He looked back down at the thick, ancient book in his lap, and suddenly he didn't want to be holding it anymore.He wrapped the leather strap around it quickly and pushed it back down into the bottom of the trunk.The other books went back into place on top, followed by the envelope that held the key, then he slammed the lid down and replaced the lock.The key stayed in the lock so he wouldn't lose it.He figured Ma would take a look in the trunk herself, sometime when he was gone, but she wouldn't be much interested in old books, either.

Randy stood up and shoved the trunk into a corner of his room, then downed the last of the beer and tossed the empty away.He was ready for some real food.Bacon sandwiches, pork rinds, maybe some Dr. Pepper.Saturday afternoons in May were for baseball on the television until suppertime.Then it was back out for a Saturday night at Rudy's.

***

Monday morning, Randy was at work, seated in a Kenworth rig heading down I-45 at sixty miles an hour.Randy worked for Hanson Ironworks in downtown Dallas and had been for three years now.On Monday mornings Randy hitched a ride with Skeeter into town, with a promise of a beer for Skeeter on Friday night at Rudy's.Randy's job was to haul seventy tons of scrap iron in a company rig from downtown Dallas to downtown Houston, then drive back empty.Figure five hours to Houston, a couple of hours waiting in line behind the other trucks and unloading, grab lunch, then five or six hours back to Dallas.Without his own car to drive back home, he slept in the cab on weeknights, waiting for morning to come so he could haul another load.He had perfected the art of sleeping soundly; lot lizards were bold at knocking on cab doors, asking in a sweet voice, "Want some company?"The good ones could make it sound like all they really wanted was just to get off their dogs and get some sleep next to another warm body.Maybe they did.But there was always more to it.

At the end of his Friday run, he got his week's pay from the boss and hitched another ride with Skeeter, with another promise of a beer for payback, and headed home in time to wolf down dinner and skip on out to Rudy's and his buddies.

This was the sum of his life--haul waste iron in another man's truck up and down the same road five days a week, then liquefy his week's pay into Trish's cash register on the weekends.Could be worse, Randy thought philosophically.

By noon that Monday, the sun was high and hot, and Randy's rig was being unloaded.He walked to the McDonald's a couple of blocks away for lunch, same as always.He was fourth in line at the counter, and he looked at the sign overhead like he was studying a constellation in the sky.

"T--Two . . . Buh--Biiiig Muh-Macs," he muttered softly."Two Big Macs.Two . . . Dih . . . Dawwwwlersss.Two Big Macs for Two Dollars."

Did I just read that?

He felt his heart pounding.He kept staring at the sign, sounding out the words over and over, until he was next to make his order.

"Whassup, Ran-DEE!"

Napoleon was a young black man with a gold monogrammed tooth (a "M" for some reason) who was so slim that Randy could have wrapped both hands around the boy's waist and still have had room to twiddle his thumbs.He wore his McDonald's uniform cap at a jaunty angle, and he manned Register Three like an air traffic controller.Randy's was a familiar face--same time, every day, like a clock.Randy was even cool enough to earn a handshake--a strict, unwritten no-no in the fast-food industry.

"Hey, Napoleon," Randy said, shaking the teenager's hand.

"Your usual today, man?"

"No," said Randy, pointing at the sign directly behind Napoleon."I want the two Big Macs for two dollars.And a large fry and a Super-size Coke.Lots of ice."

Napoleon's eyebrows crawled up under his brim."Steppin' out today, ain't we?" he said, nodding approvingly."All right, let's do it."His fingers tapped across the flat keyboard with practiced ease."The man wants Big Macs, gonna get Big Macs.Comin up."

Randy paid for his food and sat down at an empty booth, then suddenly shifted around to the other side, facing the restaurant's menu lit up overhead.As he ate, he continued to pore over the big white letters.

"Frrrench Friiies," he said quietly, in between mouthfuls."Rayguhl--Regular.Larrge."

Within fifteen minutes, the burgers and fries were gone.He sat in front of an empty tray for a long time.

***

Five hours later he was in rush-hour traffic just south of downtown Dallas.He poked along Interstate 45, yards at a time.The sun was large and orange over his left shoulder, the skyline shimmered in front of him in a dirty haze, and Randy's head swam with words and letters.

Normally he zoned out with the radio in his rig, letting drawling DJ's pepper him with country's latest--Charlie Pride, Dolly Parton, even the occasional Dwight Yoakum.But today, the radio was silent.As the miles had passed under him that afternoon, Randy's eyes were fixed on billboards and highway signs, and his lips hardly stopped moving.It was as if over the weekend someone had rearranged all the letters.Before they had been random gobbledygook--now they were actually making sense!†† He knew the logos all right.He could tell which billboards were for KFC, and Holiday Inn, and Love's truck stop.Diesel prices were easy enough, and he was good enough with numbers to be able to navigate the interstates and count exits.But he was amazed to see that Denny's offered more than just monstrous pictures of fried eggs, bacon, and pancakes.They wanted to show off something called the Grand Slam Breakfast for $2.99.Some grinning guy named Dean Stanton seemed to promise that if Randy had ever been injured, then somebody owed him a lot of money.And there was one big sign talking something about Microsurgical Vasectomy Reversal with a Money-Back Guarantee.Randy had pulled to a complete stop for that one.His nose bare inches from the windshield, he sounded out the words like he was translating hieroglyphics.Sixty miles later when he saw an identical billboard, his eyes scanned the polysyllabic words and he didn't even slow down.

By the end of the week, Randy was munching on his McDonald's burgers with a Houston Chronicle spread out in front of him.Headlines were big and bold, and usually had short words to save space.He had looked at papers before--looked at the pictures, anyway--but now the captions explained who the people were, and why it was so important what they were saying.Some man was griping about his kid's school policy on organized dances.A couple of women were hawking a book about the time they were lost in Mongolia.And one fellow was announcing that the Houston Astros weren't going to have any season this year, and it was only the third week of May!

Randy had never thought that so many people could talk about so many things, each of them desperate for attention.Randy lived in a small, simple world, consisting of a Kenworth cab, a bedroom in his mother's house, a comfortable bar stool at Rudy's, and three hundred and sixty two miles of black interstate both ways.But by the end of the week, Randy's eyes were opening up.A lot of people were out there, he was starting to see.And all of them wanted something.

Randy may not have had a high school diploma to show off, but he was no dummy.Something Had Happened, and it had to do with that trunk.No, it was that book, the one buried at the bottom, the one wrapped in leather and time and mystery.He had looked at the book, and now he could suddenly read.Once he puzzled out a word, it imprinted itself into his mind.Once read, never forgotten; his reading pace quickly increased.Within two weeks, he could browse through the Dallas Morning News over coffee and vending machine Pop-Tarts.

One Friday night, before stomping home after five days of driving and sleeping in the same clothes, he stood in front of the Rockwall County Library, working up the courage to go in.The glass doors were clean and golden in the setting sun, and he knew he must stink like the bottom of a public trashcan.But he sucked in his gut and walked in.The librarian helped him fill out a library card, and if her eyes watered, she didn't say anything.A bit later, he walked back out with a couple of books under his arm--a kid's biography on A. J. Foyt and a book of dirty jokes.He glanced around nervously, hoping none of his buddies from Rudy's had seen him, then sauntered on home for dinner.

***

"Maximum Occupancy 30" read the sign over the door at Rudy's, Rockwall's oldest and least-respected bar.It was not a large place, and Trish Foster liked it that way.

It was Friday night, but Trish was having little trouble keeping up with drink requests.Her usual gang was there, plus maybe three or four occasionals.She rarely saw anyone new--Dallas tourists found plenty of action at the West End Marketplace downtown.Trish's auburn hair was held back with a green scarf that matched her eyes, and those eyes quickly scanned the room, looking for signals for more drinks, or the warning signs of trouble.Usually there never was anything more than the occasional loud argument over the Rangers' season or the Stars' Stanley Cup chances, but still.Alcohol and familiarity could be a dangerous combination.

She kept a Smith & Wesson .38 in a jury-rigged holster just under the bar, never far from reach.She had only had to pull it out once in the four years of her stewardship of her father's pride and joy.When she pointed it seriously at the stranger who had suddenly pulled a knife out over some silly argument, the skinny man's eyes went wide as saucers.He turned and fled out the front door without looking back, and the incident was over.Good thing; Trish never put any bullets in the pistol.

Trish's father, Rudy Foster, would have been proud of the way she handled the problem.She was sure of that.He had bought and renamed the bar back in the mid-sixties.He had a wife, Helen, who worked at the Brookshire's checking groceries, and they moved into a small trailer behind the bar.Trish came along a few years later, and from an early age her evenings and weekends were spent at the end of the bar, watching TV, doing homework (with Rudy double-checking to make sure she finished it), and most of all, watching the people drift in and out over the years.Over time, she felt she could see in a person's eyes how they would drink.For some, beer was a buddy to share good times with.For others, it was a cold taskmaster, never satisfied.

One evening, when Trish was eleven, she was in her usual place at the end of the bar.Her father was out back receiving some late-evening delivery, brought by a cranky driver who'd had hell finding the place.At the same time, an enormous man with a beard as bushy as a woodchuck came in and started pounding on the bar for a cold one.Rudy had yelled from the back that he'd be there in a goddam minute, but the man wasn't happy with this answer and started hollering.All eyes in the room were warily on him.Trish watched this scene for half a moment, then hopped down off her stool, her little girl's dress billowing softly.She deftly stepped behind the bar, poured him a draft (she had only seen her father do it ten thousand times) and calmly took the man's money without a word.When Rudy finally made it back out front and surmised the situation, he hired her on as an assistant bartender on the spot.Provided her homework was done first, of course.Mother wouldn't mind her eleven-year-old girl in ponytails tending bar; Helen had run off a couple of years earlier to go "find herself" and had never come back.

Less than a week after Trish graduated from high school, she was spending some anxious time considering if she would go to college or find a job, which she far preferred.The question was settled for her that night.She was pulling regular duty behind the bar when a nasty fight started in the corner between two men and eight beers apiece.Rudy jumped the counter to break it up and was rewarded with a knife in the abdomen for his trouble.Trish held her father's head in her lap, her face wet with tears, her hand pressed against the wound, but by the time the ambulance arrived, he was gone.

For the first time ever, Rudy's was closed beyond the usual Sundays (county blue laws).A week later, Rudy's was back open for business--Trish Foster, sole proprietor and owner, at your service.

Now, with the TV squawking importantly and her usual gang well into their familiar routine, she scanned the room again, and her eyes fell on Randy Goodman.Something was going on with Randy, that was for sure.

He had been in every Friday and Saturday night for years.Trish almost hated to take his meager pay with nothing to show for it but a headache and a full bladder, but he never made trouble, and a girl's gotta eat.Out of her weekend regulars, Randy was the quietest one, although that's a relative term.He laughed loud at the stupid jokes, but he was always the last to start laughing and the first to stop.His grin sometimes seemed forced, like that of a little boy who has heard a naughty joke on the playground and is afraid to show that he doesn't exactly get it.

She liked his red hair, and his beard reminded her of her father.Rudy had worn his, he had said, to look tough to half-drunk idiots with violence on their minds.Randy, she recalled with a half-smile, said he wore it "cuz it covers up ugly."He wasn't that bad, Trish thought.Oh, he'll never make it in the movies, that was for sure.But Trish had seen enough to know that what a man looks like and what he is are two different things.

But tonight, Randy had his nose buried in yet another book.Up until a few weeks ago, Trish wasn't quite sure if she had ever seen him read anything, even a newspaper.She had heard he dropped out of high school to "make some real money" driving a truck.But tonight, he sauntered in, gave his customary, "Hey, good-lookin'" greeting to her with a sheepish grin, and plopped down in his usual seat with his finger jammed in a book and another one under his arm.She brought him his first beer with a smile and a wink, then turned to other matters.An hour later she did a double-take.Randy was still reading, and his first beer was nearly full.Normally he was finished with his third by now, and contemplating a fourth.Yes, indeed, that must be some bug to come between Randy and his beer.

In an idle moment, she watched him read.The first couple of nights, his face had been screwed up in concentration as he passed his eyes over the page.This weekend, though, his brow had softened, his eyes as relaxed as a man finished with his second whiskey.Apparently he read something funny because he grinned hugely in a silent laugh, glancing at the ceiling briefly, and Trish's heart caught in her throat.

"You want me to freshen that up for you, hon?" she asked.

Randy glanced up with a startled look, then cocked a half-grin."No thanks, Trish.Guess I'm not thirsty tonight."

Guess I'm not feeling a little horny tonight, she thought in amusement.She didn't suppose Randy would ever be interested in her.He didn't exactly have a lot to offer--he still lived with his mother, for goss' sake.Besides, she was in that stupid bar six nights a week.What was he going to do, take her out for a drink?

***

Randy watched the half-smile that Trish's fanny sketched as she walked away.After her cute little "interruption," Randy self-consciously took another swallow of his drink.Was he really only on his first?He had been so engrossed with his latest book, he hardly noticed.

The days since he had gotten his library card were blurring together.He had read through the A. J. Foyt book and the joke book by the end of a week.Even as he turned the final pages, he could tell he was reading better.He went back to the library on Saturday, and was astonished to learn they let him check out twenty books at a time.He hung around the kidsí shelves for a while, in a category called Intermediate Readers.He wasn't sure what Intermediate meant, but he flipped through one and found he could puzzle out most of the words without trouble.Beverly Cleary and something about a mouse and his motorcycle.One called Encyclopedia Brown that looked interesting.On a lark, he picked up a Louis L'Amour novel because he liked the look of the cowboy on the cover.He had six books all together, and he figured if he knuckled down he could probably read them all within the three weeks he had before they were overdue.That Western he would save for last, because he might not make it through it; it was nearly three hundred pages!

He finished the Western by Wednesday evening.

He borrowed some X-rated novels on a lending rack at the truck stop where he bedded down for the nights, and he worked through those until early in the morning.By Friday night, he had concluded that stuff was boring garbage and he was back at the library for more books that actually had some substance.

Within a month of the time that he stood in line at McDonald's sounding out menu items, he was up to a novel a day.

He was careful not to think of it like that, though.Focus on the future, not on the past; that was his new motto.Work your way through this book, compare it to what you know and have already read, and begin considering the next one.Don't think about how you've somehow compressed twelve years of reading education into less than thirty days.Don't think of how most people are lucky to read a book a yearJust focus on the next book.Because if you do, he said to himself, you will have to come to grips with the fact that something really weird happened.Randy believed in God, but he always assumed he was way off out there making universes and stuff and had no time for puny humans.He was skeptical of angels and UFOs.He did not believe in ghosts or demons, and he certainly did not believe that you could flip through the crackly pages of an old leather book and magically gain the ability to read five hundred words a minute in a month's time.

Still, as uncomfortable as he felt about that Saturday morning in his bedroom with the trunk, he would not go back.Not for anything would he go back and do it over, leave the trunk closed, leave the book untouched.He had been changed, he knew that, but changed for the good.Before that day, all he had was the cab of the truck, his small room in his mother's house, and Rudy's.Now he had the world laid out before him, as if he stood on a high cliff looking down onto the green valley below.Each book he read expanded his domain, his kingdom.He gained powers immortal.He raced through time and charged shining knights on white horses.He held young women in his arms and they looked at him with love and amazement and he kissed their faces, some of them laughing, some wet with tears.He imagined speaking simple words and men merged into thousands and took to the fields of battle in obedience.He puzzled over the identities of those who killed for pleasure or anger or pain.He looked into men's eyes and saw what they most feared and desired.

With each book, Randy grew.Each day he inhaled deeply, and the words of the book flowed into him like dust motes.He inhaled until he thought his lungs and mind would burst.Finally, he exhaled, and what came out of his pent-up lungs were thoughts and images and knowledge.He read, and he knew.He knew why the man at McDonald's shifted his eyes when his wife smiled at him.He knew why the father grinned when the son stuck out his tongue.He felt as if all the ways of men and women were exposed, laid bare, as if the layers of pain and fear and shame were being peeled back with each flick of the page.He had been born twenty-two years ago, and he felt ancient--not old and dry like a cornhusk, but seasoned and patient as a slab of stone.

But the gift he had received was not free.He knew that, understood it more and more with each book he laid down completed.

The third Friday night after the Day of the Trunk, he was at Rudy's, a half-full beer at his elbow.He held a book before him, called The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, about a computer who helps a lunar colony revolt against Earth.Before an hour had passed, he heard the buzzing.It tickled the back of his neck, until he could no longer ignore it.

"I think your lights are going bad," he had said to Trish with a frown, looking up at the dim bulbs recessed in the ceiling overhead."I can hear them buzzing."

Trish followed his gaze."I don't hear anything.You sure?"

"Yeah.It's starting to get on my nerves, that buzzing."

She grinned."Probably just this cheap beer," she said.

But she was wrong.Randy heard the buzzing all that night and again all the next afternoon when he opted out of watching the Texas Rangers battle the Chicago Cubs and instead finished Heinlein's novel.Two days later, when he settled down on his small bed in the back of the trailer with Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, he still heard the buzzing, louder this time.By mid-week, the buzzing had settled into an uneven rhythm, a staccato tempo that felt like someone was tapping a pencil on his chair back.

Tap-tap-tataptap-tap.

He wondered if he was getting a cold.He thought that maybe sinus drainage had blocked his Eustachian tubes, but he felt fine.His sinuses were clear.

Cupping his ears, he could still hear the tapping, neither echoed nor dampened.The tapping subsided when he closed his eyes to sleep, or when he drove to Houston and back.It only occurred when he was reading.Dimly, in the back of his mind, a place he didn't like to probe too much, he knew the gift of reading and the tapping went hand in hand and could not be separated.

Within a couple of weeks, the addiction was sure and strong.He felt uncomfortable without a book nearby.The slightest delay gave him reason to look for a book.A man could read a page or two waiting for a burrito to warm up in the microwave.A session on a toilet was enough for a couple of chapters.He arrived at the library every Friday evening, less than an hour before closing.The librarians greeted him warmly, but still maintained fresh-air distance.He didn't mind.He dumped the last batch of books into the rectangle at the counter, then headed for the shelves.The greats awaited him, eager.They looked as if they held themselves upright like soldiers at attention, faces blank but eyes bursting with hope that he would pick them.He had quickly gone through the old school assignments--the ones his old teachers had assigned for him to read and which had seemed so huge and impossible at the time.He had gleaned enough from high-school buddies to be able to barely pass the quizzes, and by the time he was sixteen the matter was moot.He was long gone into the "real world."Now he made up for lost time--All Quiet on the Western Front, Animal Farm, The Great Gatsby.He drank them in like clean, cold water.

But like any other addiction, the pain increased.The incessant tapping had grown, settled down into a louder, metallic noise that he finally recognized.He had heard the same sound years ago in the halls of his high school.He had never set foot inside the classroom that issued the noise, of course, but he knew what it was.

It was the sound of typewriters.

As he dove into each book, hungry for the red meat and strong beer held within its pages, the typing knocked in his head.

Tap-TaTap-T-T-Tap-TappaTap.

When he tried to read while he was bedded down for the night in his rig, he played music to drown out the typewriters.Sometimes he tried humming tunelessly to himself as he flipped the pages and absorbed the words.But nothing helped.After a few days, while in his usual seat at Rudy's, he imagined that the back of his head had been peeled back, and his face had been pressed close against the platen, so that the keys were striking into his brain, metal hammers that pounded the fleshy meat.A gaunt-cheeked author with enormous eyes pushed back into dark pits was sitting behind him, laughing wickedly, smashing the keys harder and harder.

TACK-TAPPATAPTAC-TA-TAP-TAKKA-TAP-TAC!

He shook his head ferociously and took a big swallow of beer.He glanced up at Trish, who was wiping down the counter.She hadn't seen his shudder.He pressed a palm against his right ear, as if to somehow equalize pressure, but it didn't help.However, the gesture did catch the attention of Brad Holland, one of Rudy's fixtures.

"S'matter, you sick or somethin, Randy?" Brad asked.

"Naw.Just trying to get my ear to pop."Randy tried to excuse himself back to his book.

Brad had been sitting nearby, in view of the television, doing his part to keep up with the beer and the jokes of the four other fellows at the table.Brad was a good man, most of the time, but he didn't like it when people looked at his massive birthmark, a purplish-red stain that covered half his neck and swallowed his right ear.

"What're you readin, anyway?" Brad asked, whisking Randy's book out of his hands.

Aw, hell, thought Randy.He lost my place."It's just a book, man, lemme have it."Randy ignored the fact that the pounding in his brain started to subside.

Brad looked at the cover with the seriousness that comes with seven beers."The Turn . . . of the Screw," he read aloud, with funereal gravity.Then he looked into the middle distance and his eyes started to twinkle.

"Oh, man," Brad said."I'd say it's my turn for a good screw!"Then he washed Randy's face with hot breath as he laughed.Randy grinned and reached for his book, as if reaching through the bars of cage holding a feral monkey who has taken a glittery watch.

Brad started flipping through the pages like a fan."Any pitchers in here," he asked with a leer, but his face soured when he didn't find a one.He handed the book back to Randy with mild disgust."Never seen anyone read so much before.What's gotten into you?"

"Nothin, man.I just like to read," Randy said.He started flipping through, trying to find where he'd left off.Brad turned back to his buddies.

Once Randy found his place, the pounding immediately started again.He scratched the top of his head in frustration, then finally hammered the back of his head with a fist, as if to shake the demonic typewriter keys out of alignment.

By the end of the evening, he was worn out.Numb despair had planted a seed in his chest, and it had quickly grown, wrapping its dark roots around his heart and starting to squeeze.A few days earlier, when humming down I-45 at better than a mile a minute, a random thought had skittered into his mind and bounced around importantly, like a housefly thumping inside a lampshade.

I could teach this stuff.

As soon as he had seized it, he knew it was true.Back in junior high and high school, Miss Nelson, the English teacher, tried to whip the kids up a mountain they had no interest in climbing.She read them long passages from dusty old books, and Randy had let the teacher's dull voice wash over him like the tide against a shoreline.She had read as if she had no more interest in what she was reading than they did, as if she were under orders.

But Randy knew he could get those kids charged.He pictured himself in front of the classroom instead of in the back row.He imagined himself opening a book and reading, simply reading, letting the words fall off his tongue.Surely they could see the passion behind the paragraphs.As he read, he could picture dull eyes and minds slowly taking spark, and he would fan that spark until it took hold.They would sit up, lean forward, mouths slightly open, and the words would flow from him into them like sunlight.Then they would see.Then they would know.They would hunger, and in that hunger they would seek their own food, losing themselves into the unbounded geography of literature the way he did every day.

He would need to finish high school, he soberly told himself.And get a teaching certificate.But that didn't bother him now.What could he fear?How could they hurt him?

What's more, he could give up driving another man's truck.He could get a real job, a respectable job.Dress in a tie every day.Drive his own car to the school.And, he thought with a hint of glee, he could ask a certain bar owner with auburn hair and sparkling eyes out for lunch.He reasoned that someone who worked every night would like to be treated to lunch.She would no longer look at him with pity because of his low prospects.She would look at him with pride and respect.

But that dream was being drowned in the smashing noise of typewriter keys coursing through his skull.

He experimented.He set the book down, pages spread like a tent, on the table before him.Within moments, the keys dwindled and stopped.

Without touching the book, he read the cover.The Turn of the Screw.Henry James.Nothing.

He picked the book back up and opened it quickly, stopping at a random page, boring through the words as quick as he could, and before he finished the first paragraph, he heard them come.The keys started clicking and rapping and hammering, until the noise smashed any thoughts out of his mind.

He snapped the book shut, but held it tightly in his hands, looking straight ahead.That was even worse.The keys settled back down, but not to nothing.Instead, they descended into a steady thrum, a quiet tension that reverberated down his spine, tingling in his groin and behind his eyes.He felt like he was holding a thick rubber balloon, and inside were dozens of wasps, cold and angry, endlessly circling the tiny, inverse world, looking for escape.

He slammed the book down on the table and jammed his fists into his eyes until the thrumming stopped.His heart pounded madly in his ears.

That book, he said to himself.That damned book in that damned trunk!Why did I ever open it?He wondered if it would have been better not to have even touched it.Wouldn't it have been better to go on without books?Without reading?

He considered.

No, once he had tasted, he had changed, and not for anything would he go back to his illiterate life again.Might as well give up beer.

He gathered up his things dispiritedly and stood up.Giving Trish a wave, he left Rudy's, drawing open-mouthed stares from the regulars.It wasn't ten o'clock yet.Randy walked home in the darkness, his mind a whirl of thoughts.When he got home, he brushed his teeth, used the toilet, and fell into bed with exhaustion.For the first time in three weeks, he hadn't read the final paragraph of a single book that day, and the thought settled over him like a cold, damp blanket.

***

On Saturday morning, Randy woke up, showered and shaved, and pulled on comfortable clothes.He sat on his bed, looking at the trunk in the floor of his bedroom, just like he had that fateful day over a month ago.

The answer's in there, he thought.Or at least the beginning of one.

Kneeling down, he lifted the lid and propped it open.He rifled through the books again, this time reading the titles.Schaum's History of Ancient England. ††Myths and Legends of Pagan Rome.Mostly college textbooks.The book--THE book--was still buried under the bottom, and Randy left it there.For now, he thought.

On top was the envelope, the one that had been taped to the outside of the trunk when it was delivered, and had held the padlock key.He took the envelope and opened it up.There had been a letter in there, but Randy had not read it back then.He could read the typewritten letter now.

 

Dear Mr. Randy Foster,

I am writing to you in my capacity as the executor of the legal Will of your uncle, Larry Foster.I worked with your uncle in the history department at OSU, and he and I had developed a friendship over the years.Please let me say how sorry I was to hear of your uncle's tragic death, and how sorry I am to have to serve in this capacity.

As expected, the keys started pounding again in Randy's head.Randy tensed and continued reading quickly.

Your uncle was not a wealthy man--few college professors are--and the bulk of his estate has naturally passed on to his widow, your Aunt Theresa.However, in Larry's will, he specifically mentioned your name, and stated that he wished the best for you.He was sorry that his brother, your father, ran out on you so many years ago.Larry wished he could do more to help, but your mother Estelle would have nothing to do with him.I suppose she associated both brothers as two sides of the same coin, and therefore both men were good for nothing, but I will avow that Larry Foster was a good man.

Toward the end of his life, he said he had developed severe headaches.When the problem continued, I suggested a doctor's visit to rule out something serious, but Larry shrugged off my suggestion and carried on.Over time, I saw these headaches grow worse, at times debilitating the man.I suspect that he was driven out of his mind, and that this is what prompted him to take his own life.

At any rate, because of your uncle's fondness of you, he mentioned to me when he made out his will that he wanted you to have his book collection.These are some rare and valuable editions that Larry acquired in his travels.He did not officially state in his will that you should inherit them, in case Theresa wanted to use them for financial purposes--this was just between friends.Theresa, however, said she wanted nothing to do with them, and so I packed them up and had them delivered to you.

Larry chilled when he remembered that he had planned to sell the lot to a used bookstore for a few bucks.The keys still hammered.

You can certainly do what you wish with them.They will only increase in value over time, naturally.

I remain respectfully yours,

Dr. Trenton Mathers.

 

Randy let the paper drop and fell back onto this bed, closing his eyes against the pain.Slowly, the pounding keys dwindled to a stop, and the throbbing in his head subsided to a dull pain, like sinus pressure before a storm.After a while, he was able to think again.

Uncle Larry left me some books, Randy thought.Did he know I couldn't read?No, probably not.That seemed like one of the things that an educated person takes for granted--that everyone is literate and educated.But surely he would know that there's a difference between attending a school and learning something while you're there.

No, maybe not.It's not likely that a college professor would meet too many students who were going through the motions, not when college is so expensive.Anyone who didn't want to be there could drop out and save a ton of dough.

But below college, at the high school grade level and below, it was very possible for a kid to just . . . drift.Listen close enough in class to pop off a few chip shots to the teacher, keep your nose clean, and you get by.Low grades, to be sure, and no one nominates you to the National Honor Society, but enough to get by.Then, when you're at least sixteen, you quietly drop out, and nobody gets hurt.You start making some money, enough to pay your mother room and board and keep her quiet.Before long, you're a working adult, and lots of places don't care if you got your high school diploma.All they want to know is can you show up to work on time, and did you get kicked out of your last job because you were stealing supplies or getting into fights or something.

So Uncle Larry leaves me his prized books, maybe hoping I'll take up the torch and become another history professor like him, carry on the family legacy, right?Whatever.Except that one of those books has something funny about it.Something peculiar.You open it up and--BOOM!You're transformed.No big deal, just a magic book that changes you, makes you be able to read over a hundred pages in an hour.And that's a good thing, right?Except it's not, because when I open a book, I can hear typing--loud enough to feel like my head is cracking open.

So why does Larry send me this book?Does he know about the curse this book has on it?It teaches you how to read while it drives you insane?If I'm his favorite nephew--I'm your ONLY nephew, he heard Groucho say--why send me this damned book that makes me want to tear off my head for the pounding?

Randy stopped in mid-thought.He had it.He knew he had it.His Uncle Larry wasn't trying to hurt him.He must have made the will long ago, like any good, responsible citizen.Years ago, he had that conversation with Dr. Mathers"Send my book collection to my nephew, Randy Foster, down in Texas, unless my wife wants to keep it."Then, after the will is signed, notarized, and filed away, he acquires another book.An old, beat-up, leather book, smelling like the dungeon of a ancient castle on a foggy hill.He opens the book, flips through it, probably just like I did here in this very bedroom, and--what?He sees the flash of light?Then what?Of course, he already knew how to read.What miracle would be performed to make Larry want to cherish this book so much?Mind reading?Foretelling?Of course, with every miracle comes the price.Before long, good old Uncle Larry would be hearing things, probably.Typewriter keys slamming against his skull, maybe, or perhaps dice rattling around in his head.Maybe voices whispering, whispering, until the poor man would do anything to rid himself of the pain.

Randy suddenly remembered what he had heard about his uncle's death more than three months ago.He had blocked out the grisly method of his uncle's suicide when he heard it, but it all came back to him in a rush. .

Larry Foster had come home from classes at precisely 4:35 PM, same as any other school day.He pecked his wife on the cheek, sorted through the day's mail, and paid any bills that had arrived, rather than let them sit.At 5:00, he sat down to a home-cooked meal with his wife, then helped her clean up the dishes.At approximately 6:00, he told his wife Theresa that he had left some paperwork at his office.He walked to campus as was his usual custom during seasonable weather, entered his office and locked his door.Sitting down at his desk, he wrote a simple note in his bold, clear hand that read in its entirety: This madness has got to stop!†† He tucked the piece of paper into an envelope and laid it in his outbox.†† Then, at approximately 6:45 PM on Tuesday, March 19th, Professor Larry Foster took a pencil in each hand, jabbed them into his ear canals and bled to death on his desk blotter.

I can sympathize, thought Randy.

Kneeling down, Randy dug through the trunk and found the book where he had left it, down on the bottom, hidden from the light by the others.He pulled it out and held it in his lap, just like he had done all those weeks ago.Again he felt that strange feeling through his hands, like fingernails pulled back too far.He ran his fingers through the cryptic letters on the cover, etched by hand who knew how long ago.The letters formed a single, harsh word: LEPTIMON.

His fingers itched to open it, but he didn't.This book is dangerous, Randy thought.It's cursed.Uncle Larry had it.Now I've got it, and sometimes, skewering myself sounds like it would be a relief.

But every curse can be broken, right?At least, that's the way it happens in the stories.But how?

Destroy the book itself?Take it out to the grill out back, douse it in lighter fluid and toss in a match?That might work, he mused, but if it doesn't, he could be stuck with the typewriter keys from hell for the rest of his miserable life.

When in doubt, check it out.He packed the book away again and headed for the Rockwall library.

***

Randy stepped up to the Reference Desk, where a slim, long-legged man was typing on a small index card.He watched at the metal keys jabbing forth at the card, and a shiver went down his spine.

Two small metal signs sat on the edge of the desk, coming close to being pushed off by the stacks of books and papers behind them.One read, Phillip Barlow, Reference Librarian.The second read, Please Interrupt Me.†† Randy decided to take the sign at its word.

"Excuse me, can you help me find something?"

The man took off his glasses and let them hang on their chain around his neck.He looked up and smiled politely."Yes, what can I help you with?"

"Anything about this."Randy handed him a scrap of paper with a single word printed on it.

Barlow put his glasses back on, took the paper and frowned at it."Leptimon . . . Leptimon.No, I've not heard of it.What is it, may I ask?"

"It's an old book.Really old."

Barlow smiled again."I'm afraid our collection of antique books is rather small, only a couple of pieces, and we certainly don't--"

"No, I'm not looking for the book itself," Randy cut in."I just want to know if anything else is written about it.Does anyone know who wrote it, or where it came from.Stuff like that."

"All right, let's see."He wheeled across his hard linoleum to a bookshelf on the other side of the desk and hefted a Books In Print up from a bottom shelf.After a minute of perusing, Barlow shook his head."Nothing here."

Randy watched with interest as the man fussed back and forth amongst his materials.Barlow grabbed books from shelves, flipped through them efficiently, slipped his reading glasses on and off his face at random intervals.Randy smiled inwardly.A year ago, had he seen this man at work, he would have written him off as a panty-waist queer.Now, as Barlow rolled across the floor in his chair to reach for a loose-leaf notebook, his thumb jammed in another book, Randy could appreciate the librarian for what he was: an intelligent, educated man who took his work seriously.

"Well, here's something.Texts of Antiquity, by Joseph Thorden.And that's something we do have in-house."He jotted down some numbers on a small piece of paper."Let's find it, shall we?"Barlow stood and headed further into the tall reference shelves of the library.Randy had to step lively to keep up with Barlow's long, rapid stride.

The librarian stopped at a particular shelf, put his glasses back on, and ran his fingers along the spines, comparing the numbers on his paper with the ones on the books themselves.

"Ah."He pulled a thick blue hardcover book off the shelf and flipped it open to the Table of Contents.Running a long finger down the page rapidly, he shook his head."Nothing here.Let me check the index."†† He turned to the back pages of the book and began scanning them rapidly.Randy was struck by how confident this man was with the books, how easily he handled them, gleaning what he needed with minimal effort.

I want to be like that, he thought suddenly, and his heart ached at the thought of living life without books, without reading.

Let's face it, you're hooked, he told himself.†† He had avoided drugs while in high school, getting all the buzz he needed from beer.But now he realized he was strung out on words and stories.

"Looks like only a couple of pages, I'm afraid," Barlow said, handing him the open book.Randy took the book but kept his eyes off the page.

"Can I check this out?"

Barlow shook his head with a smile, taking his glasses off again."Sorry.Reference materials must remain here, although we do have a Xerox machine if you want to make some copies."

Randy thanked the man and sat down at a nearby table after Barlow stepped away.With his finger poked inside, he examined the cover of the book.He wasn't surprised to feel the steady thrum in his head.

This is going to hurt.

Still, there was nothing for it.Gripping his temples between the thumb and fingers of his left hand, he leaned over and opened the reference book to begin reading.

***

She was marking some entries in a journal book when the office phone rang.

"Rudy's, this is Trish."

"Hey, good lookin'."

"Why--is this Randy Goodman?"

"Yeah," he said, sounding sheepish."How's it going?"

"Well, all right, I suppose," she said.She was a little embarassed to observe that her heart had started beating hard."You've never called here before, Randy.Is something wrong?"

"Oh no," he said quickly."I just wanted to say Hi, I guess."

"Well, hello yourself," and now she really chided herself for grinning like a teenager.

"Are you sure that was all you wanted?" she asked.

"Yeah--well, no, I guess not.Not really."He trailed off.

"Yes?"

"Well, I'm embarassed to say this, but I sort of need to ask you something."

"I see," Trish said, sitting up straight to reach for a calendar.Let me see . . . This Sunday evening wouldn't work, but next Sunday would be perfect.Then again, I'm free for lunch almost every day next week."Go on."

"Okay, I'll just come out with it.I need to do something, and I donít want to do it alone.So I was hoping you could help me."

"Uhh. . . I'm not following you."

"I mean, I need to show you something that I've got, and I want your opinion."

Visions of junior high school flooded into her mind."I beg your pardon?" she asked with heat in her voice.

"The thing is, Trish, is that I'm in trouble, and I need your help."

Her romantic notions drained away instantly.

"Randy?What's wrong?What sort of trouble?Have you been hurt?"

"Not hurt, not really.But I need to do something, something important, and I'm a little nervous.Well, all right, I'm a lot nervous.Maybe a little scared.I guess I need some moral support, mostly."
†††††††††† "Why me?" she asked.

"I'd ask one of the guys, but I guarantee it they wouldn't understand.I wanted to ask you because--well, because you're nice, and I kind of like you."That last part seemed pulled out of him, and she felt her cheeks grow warm.

"I like you, too, Randy.Of course I'll help you, however I can.Can you tell me what's wrong?"

"It's complicated, too complicated to explain on the phone.Have you had lunch yet?"

She glanced with dismay at the discarded wrappers from her Mexican takeout."I'm afraid I have, but I'm open to coffee.Want to meet at Delmar's Diner?"

"Sounds good.Can you be there right away?"

"Meet me there in fifteen."

***

††††††††††† Trish stepped into Delmar's and blinked.The interior of the small diner was gloomy compared to the bright June sunshine outside.It was after one o'clock, so most of the lunch crowd was gone, back to work.The rich mixture of cooking grease, cigarette smoke, and old linoleum filled her nose.A few old-timers were still lingering over their cups of coffee, "smokin' and jokin'", while the two waitresses were recovering from the lunch rush.

††††††††††† She saw a figure stand and finally focused on Randy waving at her.She smiled and walked toward the booth he had reserved for them.As she approached, it suddenly occured to her how sickly he looked.Taking in his pale face with the dark circles under his bloodshot eyes, she felt he looked as if he had been staring down nightmares.He was too nice a young man to have to bear such burdens, she thought with a twist to her heart.

††††††††††† "Hey, good-lookin'," he said as they sat down.

††††††††††† "Randy, you are such a shameless flirt . . . and I love it."

††††††††††† He blushed, which at least put some color in his cheeks.

††††††††††† After ordering coffee from the short, round waitress, she turned back to him."So what's going on?I must say you don't look like you feel well."

††††††††††† "Yeah, I've been better.But I'm not sick, not really.The thing is--"He sucked on a lip for a moment."Trish," he finally said, "have you ever been a big reader?"

††††††††††† She shrugged."I don't know.I don't have much time to read running the bar.I liked some of the books assigned to us in high school--I loved Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice--so romantic.But mostly all I read now are invoices for beer, supplies, things like that.Bills, bills, bills.Why?"

††††††††††† "I was never much of a reader until recently . . . well, actually, to be honest, I couldn't read at all.It didn't seem all that interesting when I was a kid, and I guess I just got used to getting by.I got through school, I got a job driving a truck, and I would just watch TV to catch the news or something."

††††††††††† "But I've seen you read plenty, lately.And fast too, it seems like."

††††††††††† "Yeah, that's what's changed, just recently."He leaned back, not saying anything as the waitress put down Trish's coffee and refilled his own cup, and he waited until she waddled away.

††††††††††† Randy gazed at Trish across the table, and her green eyes were open and trustful, and it was that trust that tipped Randy over the edge from embarassment and shyness into laying his story out onto the table.No one with eyes like that would take advantage of someone's vulnerabilities.

††††††††††† He began to talk about the trunk, delivered what seemed to be years ago, although it was just the previous month.He spoke of his disappointment that his uncle had left him some old musty books that he couldn't read.Finally, as he warmed to the story, he told her about the one big book at the bottom of the trunk, the one that caused the flash of blinding light in his mind when he finished looking through it.

††††††††††† Her face grew puzzled, but not overtly skeptical, so he pressed on, describing the strange wonder of quickly picking up words and phrases, the growing hunger to read, read, read.Finally, he finished by relating how happy he was to be able to pick up a book and read it in a gulp, but dismayed that if he holds a book in his hands he hears typing in his head, hammering, tick-tacketing, drowning out his thoughts.

††††††††††† "I feel like someone who discovers the joys of running only to be suddenly crippled," he said."All I want to do anymore is read, but reading is now the most painful thing in my life.Sometimes I wish I never had picked up that damn book!"

††††††††††† "What kind of book would do something like that?"

††††††††††† "A cursed book," he said simply.

Randy described what he had uncovered at the library.†† He pulled out of his pocket some folded sheets of paper, then spread out the creases against the table.

He sipped his coffee and in his quiet voice retold the twisted story of the mad monk Dominus and his book Leptimon.

***

According to Joseph Thorden in his Texts of Antiquity, a monk living in London during the fourteenth century by the name of Ignatius Dominus wrote Leptimon, but less was known about the book than of the monk himself.It is said he had the ear of King Edward V, who was a devout Catholic, but Dominus had been excommunicated from the Catholic Church for heresy.Nevertheless, the king continued to patron Dominus, despite the monk being ostracized by other advisors and courtiers.Dominus apparently wrote Leptimon, although he denied being the original author.Dominus claimed he discovered some ancient scrolls in an underground tomb "somewhere in the Holy Land."Dominus transcribed the brittle scrolls into a book, copying the Latin word for word.Modern scholarship discounted this story, since no mention of Leptimon had ever been seen before Dominus unveiled it in court, and any scrolls found in former Palestine would likely be written in Greek or Aramaic, rather than Latin.The intelligent assumption was that Dominus wrote the book himself, passing it off as an ancient religious text to the gullible King Edward.

Nevertheless, the King took to the text immediately and was convinced of its authenticity.†† And here was where the murkiness of history took hold.Legend tells that once Edward read the book for himself, he began to grow mad.Within a month of the book's unveiling, the King's body was discovered on the flagstones beneath the bell tower.Next to him laid Ignatius Dominus, his beloved Leptimon clutched to his chest.It was surmised that the monk and the king quarreled and fell out of the tower--a gruesome accident.However, some whispered that it was no accident.Some suspected a murder-suicide.But who was murdered and who committed suicide?

††††††††††† Whatever happened to Leptimon?According to one account, Dominus' body was burned still clutching the book to his chest.But at that time and era, Catholic priests were never cremated, not even excommunicated ones.Instead, he should have been buried in sympathy with the burial of Jesus.So the book may have been buried with him, although Dominus' gravesite has been lost to antiquity.But given the enormous value of books in an era before the printing press, it was possible that Leptimon was spirited away and lost in the mists of London.

***

††††††††††† "So you think this book is, what?Haunted?Cursed?"She didn't seem to be able to keep the skepticism from her eyes.

"I know it sounds crazy, but if you've got a better explanation I'm all for it.Look, less than two months ago I barely knew my ABCs.Now I can read a typical novel in a couple of hours.Except I can't because of this damn typing in my head.The point is I didn't learn how to do this in some mail-order speed-reading course, so can you just give me a small break, please?"His face was flushed.

††††††††††† "I'm sorry, Randy," she said, putting her hand on his."I'll admit I don't understand it, but I believe you anyway.You've never struck me as being a liar before."

††††††††††† Randy swallowed his irritation and shook his head.He had to admit he liked the feeling of her hand on his.

††††††††††† "There's something I don't understand, though," she said."If your uncle liked you so, why would he give you such a dangerous thing?"

"I don't think he meant to.The way I figure it, he made up his will long ago, leaving me his personal book collection.Then maybe he comes back from a trip to Europe with the copy of LeptimonMaybe he had already looked at it over there, maybe he bought it as part of a collection in some estate sale and didn't know what he had until he got back.I don't know.The point is, something must have happened to him.Just like I learned to read, he must have gained something, some talent.He could already read, sure.So maybe he could predict the future, or smell weather patterns, or be able to know when a person was lying.I don't know.But with the gain came the price.Maybe typewriter keys hammering in his head, maybe not.Maybe he heard voices, or felt someone tap him on the shoulder when he was alone in a room.I just don't know.Whatever it was, it was enough to push him over the edge.Anyway, after he killed himself, his will was executed.Leptimon was packed up along with his other books and shipped off to me in a trunk.My aunt probably didn't know what it was; she just filled her poor husband's final wishes.And now I've got it, curse and all.

"And," he continued, "that jives with what I found out at the library today.According to this researcher, this was no ordinary book.It was probably intended to be a trap."

"What sort of trap?" she asked.

"A way of controlling another person.You know, trap them under your spell.

"Think about it. Ignatius supposedly dabbled in dark magic or such; that's part of why he was excommunicated from the Catholic Church.So he writes Leptimon, and puts in it the blessing and the curse, then gives it to the King Edward."

"But why?"

"It's simple," said Randy."Imagine you're the king, and some priest, one of dozens, a nobody, suppose he gives you a book.He says he "found" it, and offered it to you as a simple gift, since you're so noble and wise and whatever.You look at it, and you get the blessing, right?Maybe you can suddenly sense when your food's been poisoned, or maybe you can overhear your adversary's plans to overthrow your kingdom from miles away.Whatever.As a king, you're probably going to be very grateful.You'll elevate this mad priest to be your chief advisor, no matter what his reputation.That's exactly what King Edward did with Ignatius.

"Then, shortly after, the curse takes hold, and the king starts going mad himself.Who knows?But now Ignatius is set, so it's time to bump off the king.But it's possible that they argued over something on the bell tower.'Take it back, Ignatius," the king might have said.'Give me my mind back, you cursed priest.'The king slams the book into Ignatius' chest, knocking him back toward the tower's edge.Ignatius is falling back, reaches out, and grabs the king, and they plummet to their deaths.The mad king, and the mad priest, with Leptimon clutched to his chest."

††††††††††† Trish chuckled."That would make some movie."

††††††††††† Randy just shuddered.

††††††††††† "Sorry.That was out of line."She held out her hands towards the photocopies Randy made at the library and began scanning the pages."So now what?" she asked.

"Well, I couldn't find out anymore about Leptimon, but I was able to find out a bit more about Ignatius Dominus.The Vatican is pretty thorough about records when they excommunicate one of their own.Typical cover-your-ass stuff.†††††††

"Ignatius Dominus supposedly came from Scotland, trained at the Vatican, and settled in England in 1483 where he finally worked his way into the King's court.His priestly record had been spotty, but he wasn't in any serious trouble until after his service to Edward.That was when he started exploring black magic, opening doors that should have remained firmly shut."

"It says here," she read, "that there was one thing about Ignatius, though.Call it his trademark."

"What?"

"He did everything backward."

"Backward?" Randy asked."What do you mean, backward?"

"That's what I mean--backward.Supposedly, that was how Ignatius walked everywhere.He slept days and walked backwards around the castle grounds at night.And he was famous for chanting backwards.The Lord's Prayer, things like that.All backward.That was what likely got him in trouble with the Vatican.Chanting backwards is too sacrilegious, too similar to demonic arts."

"So where does the book fit in?"

"Well," she ruminated, tapping her finger against her lips, "suppose you're Ignatius.You want to write a book that will be your secret weapon, something that appears innocent enough to the casual observer.But at the same time, you don't want to be trapped with your own book.Plus, you might want a . . .Ē She paused to consider."An antidote, for lack of a better word.Maybe once you've cursed the king, you've worked it out that you need to break the spell without the king going daffy.So you've got to put in it a way of breaking the curse, even for yourself if you accidentally trigger it."

"So?"

"So, that could be it.This could be your way of breaking the curse."

"I'm not following you," he said.

"So, I'm thinking, maybe if you read Leptimon backward, you'll break the curse."

"You've got to be kidding!" said Randy."That's the craziest thing I've ever heard of."

"I would think the craziest thing you've ever heard of is an old book that can teach someone to read overnight."

Randy didn't say anything to that.She watched him stare into his coffee, and she felt a pang in her heart.

"So what are you going to do?" she finally asked.

He looked back up at her and gave her that crooked grin again."Well, I guess that's why I called you.You've been great letting me get this off my chest and everything, but what I really need is some moral support."He paused and swallowed hard."I want to confront this book again, try this crazy scheme of yours, but I've got to admit I'm scared.I was hoping you could sort of help me get through it.I'm a lot braver with a pretty girl in the room," and with that he flushed crimson.

She dimpled.Suddenly all she wanted was to take him in her arms, hold his head to her chest and smooth his hair until the pain in his eyes melted away.

"So where is it?" she asked.

***

††††††††††† "Ma, what are you doing here?" Randy blurt out.

††††††††††† He had just held the front door to his house open and followed Trish inside when he noticed the television was on.Estelle was in her recliner watching Gunsmoke."You're supposed to be at work today," he said in accusal.

††††††††††† "I didn't feel well, and they let me take the afternoon off."She stood up and adjusted her bathrobe."And who do we have here?" she said, appraising Trish from head to foot.

††††††††††† "This is Trish Foster.She's just a friend."

††††††††††† "It's nice to meet you, Mrs. Goodman."

††††††††††† "Well," said Estelle, "had I known you would be bringing home a visitor I would have cleaned up a bit."She began to clean up the living room of used tissues and dirty snack plates."Matter of fact, I donít recall you ever bringing home any guests."

††††††††††† "It's no big deal, Ma.I just want to show her something in my room, is all.

††††††††††† "All right.Trish, would you like to have a seat?" she said, gesturing to the couch."Can I get you something to drink?Some iced tea, perhaps?"

"No, thank you."

"Ma, what I need to do is sort of private.We're going to go back to my room."

Estelle stopped."Now, Randy, I don't like the thought of you taking a strange girl into your room.That's always been the rule in my house."

Randy fumed."Ma, you just made up that "rule" because it's never come up before.Geez, I'm not a kid anymore."

"Well," Estelle said."I can see that it was a fortunate thing that I came home early today."She weighed Trish again with a sour look."I suppose you were hoping to have the house to yourself all afternoon and evening."

"Ma, it's nothing like that!"

"Randy," Estelle said, stiffening her back.

"I can assure you," Trish cut in, "that everything's all right, Mrs. Goodman.This is simply a courtesy visit, that's all."

"C'mon," Randy said, taking Trish by the elbow.He led her down the hall to his bedroom.

"You leave your door open, young man!" Estelle spoke up from the living room.Randy shut the door and locked it.

"Sorry about that.I honestly wasn't expecting her to be here."

She smiled."It's all right.Honestly, it would be nice to have an over-protective parent once in a while."

"Wanna beer?" he said as he pushed some dirty laundry off a chair for her.

"Sure."

He opened a Bud from his refrigerator and handed it to her.She sat down on the chair he pulled out for her, and he sat across from her on his unmade bed.

"I really appreciate you doing this, Trish."

She shrugged."Sure.So . . . are you going to let me see it?"

Randy sighed, then he got up and yanked the trunk out of his closet into the middle of the room.The key was still in the padlock, and Randy unlocked it and lifted the lid of the trunk. He sorted through the other history books until he found it down at the bottom where he left it.Hefting it back out, he hesitated, then handed it to her.

Trish's face was a mixture of fascinated dread.She set the monstrous volume in her lap, then traced her fingers across the carved letters in the leather cover."It feels funny to touch it," she said quietly.

Randy nodded."That alone should have told me to ignore it."He shrugged, the gesture of a man who has learned to live with a self-inflicted injury.

She moved her left hand across the book and started to lift the cover.

"NO!" Randy shouted, slamming his hand on top of the book, closing the cover down on her fingers.She yanked her fingers out quickly.

"What's the matter?" she asked, sucking on a finger."I just wanted to see it."

"No way," Randy said."I don't want you cursed, too.If you kill yourself because of it, I'll feel responsible."Rather roughly, Randy took the book back and set it in his own lap.

"This book is dangerous," Randy said."We know of two people who have owned it--King Whatshisname and my uncle.†† And both have killed themselves.Who knows who has had it during the centuries in between?My uncle bought it in Europe, likely from an estate sale.Did the previous owner hang himself in his kitchen?Now I own it, and believe me, I'm starting to have thoughts myself along those lines.I hand this to you, and the chain just goes on.What will happen after you throw yourself in front of a truck?Who have you got listed in your will?Who will be next?"

"I'm not going to kill myself," she said with a look of distaste."I happen to enjoy my life."

"So did my uncle," said Randy."So did I, until recently.Before I got this, my life was fairly simple.I won't deny that I'm glad I can read, but the price was too high.Do you get that?The price was too high!"

Trish stared at him."You're stalling.Go ahead and do it, then.Read that silly book backwards if you think it's going to help.Otherwise I'm leaving."

"God help me, I'm scared," he said, then he took a deep breath and spread his hands out across the cover of Leptimon.

In full force, he felt the odd tingly sensation pulsing through his fingers.Within his head, the wasps returned--humming, buzzing, furious at being trapped, seeking an escape to sting

†††††††††† (This can't work.What am I doing?Sure, I'll just turn to the back page of this damn book and I'll read whatever I find there and suddenly everything will be all better, won't it.Sure, you betcha.And when I'm done, I'll stand up and I'll have lost twenty pounds and my chin will square up and my eyes will turn blue, true blue instead of this washed-out gray.)

†††††††††† and he flipped the ancient thing over in his lap.††††

††††††††††† Right, and my father will come home sober and rich.Uh-huh, and I'll march right up to Trish and I'll put my hands on her shoulders and I'll kiss her left cheek and then I'll kiss her right cheek and then I'll lean back and look at her in her eyes, except she won't be looking at me with stunned shock but she'll flutter her lashes at me and throw me a coy grin and then I'll kiss her mouth and just fall in until I drown in her.

†††††††††† Randy pulled up the back cover, exposing the last page, which was blank

†††††††††† Then I'll pick her up because I'm so strong and I'll carry her out of that filthy bar and we'll run away where she'll never have to mop up someone's vomit in the john ever again.Why?She won't have to because I'll marry her and support her and I'll never run out on her.I'll be a teacher who wins national awards and all my students will go on to college and win scholarships.

†††††††††† and then he turned the thick paper over.

††††††††††† And after a few years of turning the American education system on its ear with my example, I'll start writing, because Lord knows I've read enough and felt enough to know I'll just take a pen in hand and the words will spill out and I'll become the next Faulkner, the next Steinbeck, the heir to King.Right.

†††††††††† Randy stared at the print pasted before him.His stomach rolled and sweat beaded on the back of his neck.The eyes in the print glared at him, mocked him, dared him to look awayHe tasted a metallic tang in his throat and he recognized the onset of nausea.He stared at the two pairs of eyes looking at him from the print and he swallowed to hold back the vomit that was certain to spew out of his mouth.

†††††††††† Witch's Tit.

A woman with coal-black hair to her waist smiled at him.Her red eyes were a blend of seductiveness, pain, and intense pleasure and they looked as large as pools.She wore nothing but a silver collar wrapped tightly around her throat.Strung up as if held by piano wire hooked into her skin, her arms and legs were spread like Michelangelo's model man.Her fingers splayed out as if she were in agony but her eyes hungered for more.Her breasts were full and impossibly round, suspended above a smooth belly that descended into a neat mass of dark hair.

†††††††††† Below her, and half again her size, was the vision of madness.An alien pair of eyes, wide and almond-shaped, glowed dully toward Randy.A long, reptilian head held those hideous eyes in place.Below the head was the body, a gross mockery of the woman's own.Dark lines of strength filled the torso, lined with coarse hair.Thin, wiry arms ended in fists of power and fury.The creature wore no clothing.Below the waist, the legs widened, spread into thick, powerful thighs over short, backward-bending knees and shins.The legs ended in a pair of dark, thick hooves.

†††††††††† From the top of the monster's head protruded a reed, as long as one of his arms, as thin as a willow branch.The reed rose upward, widening at the top like a funnel to couple at the base of the woman's torso.From beneath her vagina protruded a thick, round knob, dark and hot, and the demon's proboscis mated with that barbaric nipple, sucking, coaxing.Randy felt a fist of ice nestle around his heart and squeeze.

†††††††††† Witch's Tit.Oh, God!The devil himself!

†††††††††† He tore his eyes from the print and he turned the page.Calligraphic letters spilled down the page as if written by a lunatic, yet the words were clear enough.Without control, he opened his mouth and began to utter the words within.

†††††††††† "A principio anima humina . . ."

†††††††††† As the words poured forth from his mouth, his body trembled with loathing.He tried to squeeze his eyes, but they stayed transfixed to the page.

†††††††††† Oh, sweet Jesus!

†††††††††† The familiar came home, like a rabid dog returned to lap up its own vomit.In his head, he heard, he heard--

†††††††††† "A principio anima humina in articulo mortis fastidiosus mysterium tremendum."

†††††††††† --the sound of the book.Not typing, but something worse.He felt vibrating through his skull the sound of a quill pen.

†††††††††† "Homo nefarius sanguino sanguis asperges ara guttatim."

†††††††††† I can't take this!Oh, God!

†††††††††† Scratching, skritching.He turned another page.Randy felt as if his body were stretched on a rack, stretched like the witch, feeling the pulsing in his groin as his body's fluids drained away down that gripping hole.

†††††††††† "Obesus nudatum corpus--"

†††††††††† The scratching increased with each word, until he was sure his temples would burst, like soft spots in radiator hoses spewing to relieve the pressure.

†††††††††† "--in terram demergi perpetuitas limbus in infinitum!"

Randy felt a pair of hands grip his shoulders.Hang on!†† The voice was shouting, but dimly heard, as if spoken over the scream of a bandsaw.Trish.She was shouting.Keep going!

†††††††††† "Multis cum lacrimis femina--"

†††††††††† From a distance, he felt fluid run from his nose.He wiped it with the back of his hand like a kid wearing a greasy shirt and was shocked to see a dark smear across his hand.

†††††††††† Blood.

†††††††††† He swallowed, and tasted hot salt.The scratching continued.

†††††††††† SCRATCH SKRIT-RITCH SCRITCH SHRIT-RATCH SCRATCH

†††††††††† "--ebrius sanguis et facere sacreamentum!"

He shouted the words now.He heard a wooden pounding from a great distance--his mother, pounding on the door.

†††††††††† Randy?!

†††††††††† Don't stop!"

†††††††††† What's going on?

†††††††††† Don't stop!Just keep going!

†††††††††† GO AWAY!STOP IT!STOP IT!

†††††††††† "Flagrante delicto homo concubia nocte in pectore--"

†††††††††† Another page.The scratching continued.

†††††††††† I'm dying!

†††††††††† Randy clawed at his face with one hand, felt a slap across his wrist.Felt another slap when he brought his clawed hand back to his eyes.

†††††††††† No!Keep reading!

†††††††††† "--pellectio malum liber maculis interfusa!"

†††††††††† Randy!Locked doorknob jiggling.More pounding.

†††††††††† Blood fountained into his mouth from his nose.He felt a warm tickle in his ear canal.

†††††††††† Ahh!!!

†††††††††† "Fraus pia!"

†††††††††† The scratching went on.Feather quill, scratching across the page, scratching across his mind.Randy felt as if his brains had been scooped out like a cadaver--

†††††††††† "Nondum natus malum, omen infaustum!"

†††††††††† --and thick, jagged hooks were scraping across the inside of his skull, scratching, scraping, metal on bone.

†††††††††† "AHH!!IT HURTS!"

†††††††††† "RANDY!"

†††††††††† "I CAN'T!I CAN'T!MAKE IT STOOOP!"

With a fury, he pushed the book off his lap with the heels of his palms.Trish tried to catch it but missed, and the book fell roughly to the floor. Randy fell back on his bed, gripping his hair to keep himself from scratching his eyes out.

†††††††††† After what seemed a long while, the scratching in Randy's head subsided.He wiped his nose again with the back of his arm.It came away bloody, but the bleeding seemed to be slowing.He probed his ear with a finger and felt thick wetness.

†††††††††† "Randy?" Estelle called. "What's going on in there?You open this door right this minute!"

†††††††††† "Just a minute, Ma!" Randy croaked.He leaned himself up and felt as if he left the back of his skull plastered to the sheets behind him, as if he had peeled off the back of his own head.Pain scored through his head like a hot ice pick plunged into his eye.He gripped his head in both hands and squeezed fiercely, willing his cranium not to burst like a rotten melon.Dimly, he heard Trish lever herself back into her chair.

"Oh, God, my head," Randy said finally.Experimentally, he opened his eyes, ready for them to pop loose and bounce to the floor with wet plops.

†††††††††† "RANDY!" Estelle shrilled.

†††††††††† She's going to call the cops soon if I don't get rid of her."Comin, Ma." he hollered.He rose to unsteady feet, then lurched across the room to his door.He opened the door twelve inches, resting his quivering body against the edge of the door for a support.

†††††††††† Estelle's face was all eyes.She looked at the blood that was drying on Randy's face and shirt."Oh, my Lord!What happened!"

†††††††††† Randy started to shake his head, then stopped when it felt like something was loose inside."It's okay, Ma.I just had a nosebleed, is all.I'm fine."

†††††††††† "Well you don't look fine!What happened in here?"

†††††††††† "Nothin, Ma.We were just talkin and carryin on, and I had a nosebleed."

"I heard you shouting.You sounded like you were dying!"

†††††††††† Randy shrugged."Oh, we got to arguing about stuff.Politics, and all.Stupid stuff, really.Honest, Ma, I'm okay."His knees were turning weak.

†††††††††† "Everything's fine, Mrs. Goodman," said Trish from behind Randy.Her face was pale, but her voice was firm and soothing.

†††††††††† "I'm okay, Ma.Promise!"Randy started to close the door on her.Not sure how much longer I can keep standing.

†††††††††† "Randy--"

†††††††††† "We're okay," said Randy, and he closed the door on her and leaned his head against his arm across the door.Through the wood paneling he heard her mutter, then finally walk back down the hall to her chair and television.Randy staggered back to his bed and fell in, watching the ceiling turn gray with pain.

†††††††††† "Do you think it worked?" Trish asked casually.

†††††††††† Randy rolled his eyes at her.Any more was too painful."I don't know, but one thing's for sure--I'm never opening up that book again, frontward or backwards."

†††††††††† Trish nodded and folder her arms about herself.

sat back upright again, carefully holding his head as if it were a pitcher full of sloshing water.He found a bottle of Tylenol and dry-swallowed three tablets.Even as the pills settled in his stomach, he felt as if his headache was subsiding.

†††††††††† "Give me a book."

†††††††††† "I beg your pardon?"

†††††††††† "Give me something to read.Anything."

Trish glanced at Leptimon, still sprawled out on the floor like a gunshot victim.Then she quickly took her eyes away and scanned the room.She spotted a paperback copy of The Leavening, by Miles Jefferson, the pages yellow with age, and handed it to Randy.Randy took the book, and with his head hunched over toward his knees.He flipped through it, then stopped at a page.

"Young Lewiston looked at the woman in the window above him," Randy read, "and he marked that particular time.From then on, he considered that hour and that day as a turning point in his life, a hinge.Before that time, he was a boy of whom young women were merely background scenery to be ignored, or obstacles to be dealt with.From then on, the world was filled anew, as if a primary color were suddenly revealed to his blasted corneas."

For the first time that afternoon, the first for a long time, Randy smiled."I can still read," he said with unashamed joy."And what's more, I don't hear any typing."All he did hear was his pulse, pounding through his brain, but that was easing with each passing moment.

†††††††††† "He watched her, and his heart crawled up into his . . . throat.The . . . eff--The eff--ver--ves--cent young woman pressed the . . . long stehm-ud--stemmed--rose to her face and . . . in--inhaalled deeeepleee."

†††††††††† Slowly, the crooked grin on Randy's face fell." . . . Loo--Lewwwwisston canoe that had--knew!--that had he . . ."

†††††††††† Randy let the book fall through his fingers to the floor.He covered his face with his fingers and moaned softly.

"Oh, Randy.I'm so sorry."She leaned forward and put a warm hand on his shoulder.

Randy didn't look up.Can't read.Can't read!He rolled back into his bed and curled up, facing the wall, turning his back on Trish, on his mother, on the world.Can't read.

After a minute, he heard Trish stand up and move her chair back against the wall.She stood by his bed over him, saying nothing.She leaned over and pressed her cool lips against his temple, then quietly left the room and closed the door behind her.Randy heard some murmuring between Trish and Estelle, then heard Trish leave through the front door.Within moments, even though it was nearly three in the afternoon, Randy fell into a dreamless sleep.

***

At five o'clock PM that Saturday, Randy finished the task he had set out to do.

†††††††††† He had washed up the blood from his nose and ear in the bathroom and changed shirts.After that, he headed for the kitchen to get a paper grocery bag from under the sink.He had to assure Estelle--four times--that he was all right and that nothing was wrong.He had just invited a friend over for a chat, and they got to arguing about stuff, just carrying on.Yes, he knew Trish had let herself out.No, he didn't know if Trish would ever be back, but he promised he would check with her before bringing over a woman.

†††††††††† Going back to his bedroom, Randy picked the book up by the binding from off the floor and slipped it into the paper sack.For the last time, he felt the strange tingling pressure in his fingers.He folded the top of the bag, like some overgrown boy's lunch, then carried the package back out of his room and out to the porch.Estelle had gone back to watching Wheel of Fortune on the television, and Randy didn't think she had seen him step out.

†††††††††† Randy dropped the package onto the rusty Coleman grill that had been all but abandoned on the back porch.Estelle only used it twice a year--once on Memorial Day and again on Labor Day.She would cook a package of hot dogs on it for her and Randy.They would end up eating perhaps half the package on the holiday itself, then warm up the remainder in the oven on the following days until they were gone.

†††††††††† Randy lifted off the filthy grill--uncleaned since the last time it had been used a month earlier--and set it aside on the porch like a manhole cover.He soaked the ashen coals that lay at the bottom of the grill with a generous amount of lighter fluid, then he set the sack, still rolled up tight on top of the wet coals.For good measure, he squirted the paper sack with lighter fluid also, and the sack turned dark from the moisture.Then he lit a wooden kitchen match and tossed it into the grill.The paper lit quickly, and soon Randy had to step back from the heat of the flames.

†††††††††† Within minutes, the book of Ignatius Dominus, 1323-1359 C.E. was consumed.Randy sat on a green-and-white lawn chair that creaked in protest at his weight.He sat and watched the book turn to ash.Within twenty minutes, the fire was depleted of fuel and guttered out, leaving only hot ashes left cooling in the bottom of the grill.

†††††††††† At five-thirty that same evening, Randy called a certain bartender and asked her out to lunch for the next day.The bartender pretended to check her calendar, then suggested that she might be free at that time.Randy could hear the grin on her face as she said this, and he was grinning too, despite his heart's attempt to batter a hole in his chest.He hung up, then went through a difficult moment when he realized that it was Saturday night, and that he was expected at Rudy's, having attended as faithfully as a Methodist parishioner for several years.Could he talk to Trish this evening after what they went through?Could he maintain that air of casualness and sophistication that James Bond wore so effortlessly?He finally decided that he would try.After the afternoon he had, he could use a drink.

Shortly afterwards, he made another phone call, to the Rockwall County Library, which was about to close for the night at six P.M.The person answering the phone, a friendly mother of two named Barbara, recognized Randy after he gave his name, and in fact was just commenting to Shirley that they hadn't seen him that day.Randy blushed and grinned, said he had been busy lately, and was about to tell her that he'd be in again real soon once he moved some things around.

†††††††††† But he didn't.Instead, he asked Barbara a question, a personal question.He had pictured himself asking the question of various people through the years, but fear and ignorance and inertia had always held him back.Swallowing hard, he asked Barbara the question, and once the words left his mouth, he felt as if an unseen door had suddenly opened in the holding cell of his life, and light streamed in, and he was free to step outside into the bright sunshine and walk on the cool, soft grass.

†††††††††† The question he asked Barbara the librarian was:

†††††††††† "Do you know anyone who can teach me how to read?"