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an incurable and infectious malady

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It was strange living in a house where books were plentiful. They were stacked on tables and shelves, though they were precious things, and most of them were frail and crackling along the edges, they were out in the open where anyone could just look at them. Just pick them up and flip through them the way he used to go through his feed while he got ready for the day. No one was limited to their book, either, like Guy thought might be the case when he first got here, anyone could look at any book at any time.

Reading was another story still.

Guy still had to get the hang of not just jumping in the middle—books weren’t like feeds or the news, you weren’t meant to just flip them open, beginning and end still held sway, and gave the middle the meaning that he’d been craving, the depth that Faber had talked about all those months ago. Now he told John that, and watched John’s eyes widen, watched his mouth twist in that soft, cruel smile he’d known for so many years.

“Sit,” said Guy, before John could say anything about the futility of it all. “I’ll read to you.”

And John, given an open opportunity to rip into Guy, did not. He sat, on the floor next to Guy’s feet, just close enough that his shoulders brush against Guy’s knees, just close enough that Guy could feel the expanses and contractions of his chest as he breathed.

“This one’s about—”

“A man who makes it his own great personal quest to do battle with windmills,” filled in John.

I’m telling you the story,” said Guy.

“And I’m telling you I’m aware of it. ‘In short, his wits being quite gone, he hit upon the strangest notion that ever madman in this world hit upon, and that was that he fancied it was right and requisite, as well for the support of his own honor as for the service of his country, that he should make a knight-errant of himself.’“

“I like it.”

“I’m surprised.”

Guy ignored that, and found his place again on the page. He thought, for a small moment, that he might have liked it better if John was reading it to him, but he thought of the way that John had begged him in the fire station, with all the others listening, read, read to me, and it had been spat like a command but Guy had known it for the plea that it was. So he read, this time, alone, with no others watching.

“Still louder shouted Don Quixote,” he began, “calling them knaves and traitors, and the lord of the castle, who allowed knights-errant to be treated in this fashion, a villain and a low-born knight whom, had he received the order of knighthood, he would call to account for his treachery.”

John’s head lay against his knee. If he reached down, he would have been able to tangle his fingers in John’s hair. It was getting long, for a fireman, anything longer than an inch or two meant you risked getting it burnt—so was Guy’s, and it stuck out at all angles—but John’s hair lay flat, and curled a little at the ends. Guy had half a mind to twirl it around his fingers.

“You’re just going to begin? Where you were?”

“You already know the story,” said Guy, “Like you said. And I don’t. We’re starting where I am.”

John pondered this for a moment, and Guy let him take time to think about it. When John didn’t speak, Guy continued.

“‘But of you,’ he cried, ‘base and vile rabble, I make no account; fling, strike, come on, do all ye can against me, ye shall see what the reward of your folly and insolence will be.’“

He continued on, finding a rhythm. It was slow, while he tried not to stumble over his words, but as he read he felt John’s breathing slow, felt John’s weight slowly relax against the chair that Guy was sitting in, felt the words become easier, even as the story became more difficult. He couldn’t have guessed at how long they sat there, only that, after a little while, his voice was beginning to grow hoarse. John didn’t laugh at the parts that Guy thought were supposed to be funny, though Guy could imagine, without seeing John’s face, that he might have smiled. Still he continued.

At a certain point, he thought—

“Hm,” said John.

“You’re awake?”

“Are you? Go, on, read the next line.”

“To-morrow shall not pass without public judgment upon them.” Guy frowned, and read ahead a few lines, not aloud. Even books, it seemed, blamed everything on other books, and the priest and the man were going to gather and burn the old man’s books to save him. Guy was beginning to think that everyone had it wrong—sure, old Benjamin Franklin might not have been the first of their profession, but he had come along long after it had began. “Oh.”

“You sound like you’re losing your voice,” said John, lightly.

Guy shut the book, and, on a momentary whim, reached down to ruffle John’s hair. He felt the sharp intake of John’s breath, wondered if, maybe, he’d been wrong, but John leaned back against him, made no move to get up. So this was what it meant, he realized, to understand what it was that he was reading. He felt, suddenly, as though he had gotten a glimpse of a map ahead of him. Mildred’s programs used to reference maps in the old days, with drawings on the side that said Here There Be Monsters, back when everything was uncivilized and there were places in the world yet to know. He saw the monster on the horizon of the ocean, and knew it was not a journey to make tonight.

“There’s a contradiction in it that makes your head spin, isn’t there?” asked John. “They’re burning the books, and the old man is crazy because of the books, so they’re not wrong, but the author wrote that into a book. What are you supposed to make of it, then?”

“I don’t think that’s what he meant.”

That, it seemed, was all John needed to hear, or maybe it was just the way that Guy’s voice cracked in the middle, not from emotion but because he’d been talking for longer than he knew, that prevented John from pushing the subject. For now, thought Guy, there was no way this was the end of it, and he thought of all of the days that could be in this little commune, as they both recited their books to one another, with the sweet smell of rotting paper and the others flickering in and out of the rooms, leaving the two ex-firemen to discover what they had been taught since infancy. Guy let his nails drag along John’s scalp, as gently as he held the fragile old book in his free hand.

“Same time tomorrow?” said Guy. John snorted, but didn’t move away.

“Sure, why not?”