“Please read me!” Hardcover whispered as the top of a brown-haired head paused in front of his shelf. Though he knew humans couldn’t hear him, he repeated the plea over and over. Fingers crept toward him, creating a trail in the dust. If Hardcover had lungs, he would have held his breath. Just a couple more inches…
“Come look at this!”
The hand disappeared and the teen joined another boy his age, who held out a paperback novel. Together they scurried off to the cash register.
Hardcover sighed. “That’s the tenth time today, the thirty-third time this week, and the two hundred and forty-sixth time this month.”
“It’s a dire tragedy,” Gables moaned.
“Or a disaster, calamity, catastrophe…” Old Dict recited from below.
“I expected this generation to have more common sense!” Prejudice huffed as the teen set his money on the counter. “For pity’s sake, if kids want garbage, they can scrounge it out of the dumpster for free.”
“I told you so,” the rookie bestseller spat. As the boy exited the store and passed the window, he opened his new book to read the first page. His face lit up like he’d discovered a pot of gold. He sauntered away without taking his eyes off the bestseller.
Why can’t a reader look at me like that? Hardcover’s interior tingled with adventures, love, and wit—enough to satisfy the most voracious reader—if only someone would give him a chance.
“The reason no one ever buys us is because old man Barnaby put us on the highest shelf instead of down there with the new books!” Hardcover wished an earthquake would shake them off the shelf and onto the floor.
“We’ll be read someday,” Gables insisted.
“You’ve been saying that for the last three years,” Prejudice reminded her.
The clock’s hands struck four, and the bell above the door jangled to announce the school crowd. The kids stampeded to the rack of new releases without even glancing their way.
Mr. Barnaby scribbled on a piece of paper and taped it to Hardcover’s shelf. “We have a sale on these old books today if any of you are interested.”
The kids rushed over. Hardcover nearly burst out of his cover. He’d never seen so many potential readers by his shelf in his life! One of them would undoubtedly choose him.
A boy in a baseball cap tilted his head to read the title on Hardcover’s spine. He reached for him, pulling him out an inch. For the first time, Hardcover was going to be read. For the first time, he was going to entice someone to stay up late to learn what would happen next. For the first time, he was going to impact a person’s life. For the first time—
A boy with glasses bumped into the baseball hat kid and Hardcover hit the floor with a bang.
“Sorry!” the kid apologized, straightening his glasses, though he didn’t sound like he meant it.
The baseball hat kid turned back to the shelf and grabbed another book instead.
No! That’s not fair! He touched me first! Dozens of feet shuffled around Hardcover. No one noticed him until someone’s sparkly pink sneaker decided to use him as a stepping stool. He seethed, feeling as if his pages had been ripped out.
“Hey, what’s this?” The girl removed her foot and bent to pick him up. All the kids gathered around, and Hardcover would have given anything to have had eyes to roll at that moment.
“Smells like my grandpa’s house.” The boy with the glasses wrinkled his nose. Apparently his vision was as bad as his sniffing capabilities.
“Aw, it looks kinda quaint to me.” The girl caressed Hardcover’s gold lettering, and he forgave her of all past grievances, although he’d rather not be referred to as “quaint.” She gently lifted his flap while the rest of the children gaped over her shoulder. Her eyes skimmed the first page as she read aloud. “Sir Woodro deliberated and haply pursued a cavernous measure of innovation and ingenuity…”
She furrowed her eyebrows. “Who reads this kind of stuff anymore?” She dropped Hardcover back onto the floor and returned to the new rack with the other children.
Pain shot through Hardcover’s bent pages, but somehow the fall didn’t hurt much compared to the laughter that seemed to make the ink of his words bleed.
He didn’t move from the floor all day, except when a customer or two kicked him aside. Finally, some young upstart, who didn’t realize his mistake and probably never would, placed him alongside the new releases.
“Dude, get a load of this old classic,” one of the bestsellers beside him muttered. “I bet he’s one of those double-spacers.”
“You should respect your elders! I was written long before your author could even hold a pen,” Hardcover replied.
Mr. Barnaby walked by and stopped, raising an eyebrow.
“You should listen to your betters,” the rookie retorted as Mr. Barnaby transferred Hardcover to the shelf where he kept the corpses of dead novels.
I’m certain that the children didn’t mean any insult. They haven’t yet learned to appreciate good literature. Hardcover pretended to be unfazed by the incident, but deep down he was glad Mr. Barnaby had tucked him in the darkest, dustiest corner.
Two months later
The glaring whiteness of fingers startled Hardcover so much that he resurrected himself from his entombment of apathy. No, don’t read me!
Soft skin brushed his spine. No!
The thin, acned face of what looked like a fourteen-year-old boy made Hardcover’s acquaintance. His stringy black hair hung over his eyes. Of all people. Hardcover groaned. Why can’t everyone leave me alone? With all the joke books in the store, surely customers can find something else to snicker at.
Without a word, the boy tromped over to a chair and sat. He seemed like the sort of person who never smiled, not because he didn’t want to, but because he didn’t know how. He flipped Hardcover open, and a few glances at the words taught him the beginnings of a grin. Hardcover braced himself, but instead of laughing, the boy turned the page. And another, and another, and—
“What do you think you’re doing? This isn’t a library!” Mr. Barnaby yanked the boy up by his hoodie. “If you read it, you buy it!”
The boy gulped. Perspiration from his hands dampened Hardcover. He shoved Hardcover into Mr. Barnaby’s chest and bounded out.
“Stupid kids,” Mr. Barnaby mumbled, sliding Hardcover back onto his old shelf alongside Gables.
“I thought I told you to stay out of here!” Mr. Barnaby bellowed, chasing the boy out. But that phrase was like poetry to Hardcover. Every so often, Hardcover’s reader would sneak into the store and resume where he’d left off. Even when he didn’t, he would pass the window and smile at Hardcover. Maybe other people didn’t want to read him, but one person did—and that was all that mattered.
Eventually Mr. Barnaby grew so aggravated by the boy’s refusal to buy Hardcover that he stacked him on the shelf behind the counter. Hardcover’s reader didn’t return for a while after that. Then, as Hardcover rested contentedly on the shelf one afternoon, that familiar gray hoodie appeared in the window.
“He’s come back!” The words on Hardcover’s pages pumped to the rhythm of his story’s heartbeat.
A bunch of other kids blocked his reader. One of them moved away, and his reader smirked as he rolled a new skateboard around on the sidewalk. Another kid approached and motioned to the skateboard. Hardcover’s reader shook his head, scurrying away. The other boy followed him and tore the skateboard out from under him.
His reader’s face reddened. He lunged for the thief, fists flying.
A cop hurried over and struggled to separate the two boys. The other kids dispersed while he scolded Hardcover’s reader. When the cop released him, he spat his bubble gum on the ground and skated off.
No—it can’t be him. It just can’t be. My story would have taught him better.
The front door opened, and a man in a gray suit marched up to the cash register.
“I warned you that I wouldn’t have the payments until next month!” Barnaby threw an empty book box under the counter.
“I told you I needed the money now.” The man rubbed his forehead. “Otherwise I’ll have to evict you.”
For the first time in Hardcover’s life, Mr. Barnaby trembled. He burst into a fit of coughing, holding his chest.
“Barnaby? Are you okay?”
Mr. Barnaby fumbled through a drawer. He pulled out an empty pill bottle. Moments later, he and the pill bottle crashed to the floor.
Three weeks later
Terry, Mr. Barnaby’s part-time employee, hung a sign in the window. Sale! We’re going out of business! Everything must go! The shelves were already getting bare. Except for Hardcover’s.
“What shall they do with us if no one decides to purchase us?” Prejudice asked as a woman selected a newer old book from the shelf.
“Our lives will become a graveyard of buried hopes!” Gables moaned.
Despite having four hundred pages of words, Hardcover couldn’t think of a single one to say.
Terry took the book from the woman, but before ringing it up, he pointed to Hardcover’s shelf. “If you’re searching for a bargain, those books are seventy percent off.”
The woman strolled over, studying each cover carefully. Hardcover didn’t even care how close her fingers came to touching him—he wouldn’t be picked. When her gaze fell upon Gables, her lips spread wide.
“I remember my mother had a copy just like this! She used to read it to us when we were kids!” She cradled Gables like a priceless treasure.
“Farewell, my friends!” Gables called softly.
No one will ever hold me like that. Hardcover sighed, thankful for the shadows that hid him.
One by one, each book departed from the store until only Hardcover and Prejudice remained.
“Haul that last shelf out, will ya?” Terry gestured behind him and stepped outside to fling boxes into the dumpster.
The movers jiggled the shelf and Hardcover toppled.
“Hey, did you know there are still a few books up here?”
Terry walked over and lifted Hardcover and Prejudice off the shelf, squinting at one and then the other. He slipped Prejudice into his jacket but tossed Hardcover onto the floor. The men removed the shelf, and Terry locked up for the last time.
The sound of fluttering pages and slamming covers seemed to haunt the room. Hardcover could almost hear Mr. Barnaby tapping the register’s keys. A month elapsed, and the noises were replaced by whistling wind. Every morning a passerby would peep through the window as if interested, but no one ever rented the place. Apparently Mr. Barnaby was as poor at choosing locations as he was books to sell.
Dust particles swirled in the morning sunlight like a flurry of snow. The floorboards creaked, reminding Hardcover of the winter nights when Carol would share the story of Ebenezer.
Hardcover reviewed his contents for the umpteenth time—now even his plot had become monotonous. If I’m bored by my own story, why would anyone else enjoy it? His reader’s smile rose to mind, but Hardcover’s words must have been useless because they hadn’t left any lasting impression. And if his story didn’t change people, what was the purpose of him being written?
Heat floated up through the cracks in the floor. Someone must have rented the building after all. Hardcover waited for the new owner to emerge from the furnace room, estimating how long before he landed in the dumpster.
A man stopped by the window, pressing his face against the glass. You’re too late, mister. It’s sold. The man gasped, backing away and waving a finger at the building. He seemed to be yelling. I wish he’d speak up!
An orange glow erupted behind him. A flame whipped out at him and almost singed him. Rafters crashed from the ceiling.
Hardcover’s frame started to peel and crack from the temperature. He hoped someone would break through the door and rescue him. But then a thought wiped out his hope.
Why would anyone want to rescue me?
The fire spread across the floor, consuming the old book boxes and reducing them to ashes.
A torrent of water scrubbed away the few remaining flecks of color on Hardcover’s spine. Blackened boots clomped to and fro on the roof tiles above him. Red and white lights flashed through the slits.
All the sirens, stomping, and sloshing faded into a howling wind that blew some of the debris off Hardcover just as the streetlight flicked on. A hunched figure sidled by, smoking a cigarette. His footsteps paused near the rubble.
A board clattered off of Hardcover, letting in the light. Another revealed a black-haired man with the same kind of dark eyes that Hardcover’s reader had. The man blew a puff of smoke directly at him.
The man slumped onto the bench under the streetlight and stared at Hardcover as if trying to determine whether reading was a worthwhile venture or not.
He cracked Hardcover open, exposing his ink-streaked, charcoaled pages. His gaze ran back and forth across the page. He gently set his cigarette aside, his eyes glistening like melted stars.
A tear splattered onto Hardcover’s first page, and several hours later, one dripped onto his last one.
Mariposa Aristeo is a writer of quirky characters and fantastical adventures filled with heart, humor, hope, and, very often, dinosaurs. If you can’t find her in one of her own imaginary worlds, try combing the pages of a great middle-grade fantasy novel.
At Story Embers, igniting (and sometimes imploding) ideas is her favorite pastime, so she often uses her creativity to make graphics for articles and writing quotes, as well as implement new strategies for SE’s social media channels. Explosions aside, she loves getting to know each and every writer here at SE by running the popular #embersgram hashtag on Instagram and responding to your questions and emails.
Besides being a co-owner of Story Embers, Mariposa is a member of ACFW, a children’s book illustrator, and the host of the IGTV series #middlegrademagicwithmari. You can check out her book recommendations (and shenanigans) on her Instagram page or her character sketches on her art account.