Sunlight streamed through the windows in Binny’s room. The tops of the surrounding gardens were slightly distorted through the wavy panes of glass. Binny rubbed the sleep from her eyes; the previous night’s conversation slowly coming back to her.
“Do you know how many pieces of fiction are published every year?” Katniss had said. Binny didn’t know. But Katniss did and had been happy to explain in detail.
Apparently, on order of a hundred thousand pieces of fiction were created and shared every year. At least that had been the rough estimate. Apparently even the Keepers didn’t know exactly.
And for every book or story that was written and read even just once, the characters from that book would eventually show up in the Stacks, just as confused and forlorn as Binny had been. It was Arya who’d offered those particular descriptors.
Katniss had done some quick math estimating an average of ten characters that had made it into the Stacks from each book and that led to roughly a million new citizens each year.
This was when Arya had taken over and explained that in recent years those numbers had exploded. Apparently the Internet had unleashed a torrent of new writers and stories on society, and each of those had contributed characters to the Stacks as well.
Binny recalled Katniss’ sarcastic interjection, “The Keepers love that.”
Hermione had pursed her lips in disapproval during this part of the conversation in such a way that Binny had decided not to ask for more detail.
“So you see, you’re never gonna find them,” Katniss had said with finality.
Binny thought she remembered Arya saying under her breath, “Family is overrated anyway.” But now she wasn’t completely certain.
Hermione apparently felt the conversation had run its course, “We should all get to sleep anyway. We need to be up tomorrow.”
And Binny had suddenly felt quite tired. Exhausted in fact. She had so many more questions, but sleep took her in its warm embrace and hadn’t let go until just now.
Knocking was apparently a mere formality as Hermione entered immediately without waiting for a response. “Hey sleepyhead. It’s time to get up. You don’t want to be late. It’s bad form.”
Binny pulled the blanket up to her neck. “Late? Late for what?”
Hermione shook her head in mock frustration. “For what? For work of course.”
Binny trailed Hermione as best she could in the morning ‘traffic’. Arya had run a bit ahead, and Katniss was lagging behind looking determined not to change her pace no matter how often Hermione complained.
Eventually they were through one of the stone arches and into the library which if anything was more packed than it had been the previous day. Binny gawked at the sheer number of books the place housed. And she was sure she was seeing only a tiny fraction of a fraction of them as she walked.
The bookcases were built eight, nine, or even ten shelves high. Bookcases were built into walls. There were low walls with just two or three shelves, and high walls that arched over passageways with one or two shelves built into the arches themselves.
Even the benches, seats, and carrels that they passed contained books. Periodically there were also little living room arrangements with screens mounted on nearby walls or set on low tables. But unlike the previous day, these were all empty now.
As they were walking through a particularly tight passage Hermione came to an abrupt stop. “Oh, so sorry Three.”
A young man was standing on an extremely tall ladder placing books on a top shelf. He was gray but with the barest golden tint. He sparkled a little. Like faded asphalt glittering in the sun. He was twenty or twenty-five maybe? Binny wasn’t entirely sure as adults all just kind of looked old to her, but this guy definitely looked younger than Binny’s book parents.
“Hello ladies. I was just finishing up my. I didn’t mean to get in your way,” Three said. And then noticing Binny, he bowed slightly.
“It’s okay. We’ve got a little time still,” Hermione said.
Three folded up his ladder and exited the narrow aisle sideways taking special care not to knock his ladder into any of the bookcases.
“And now you’ve met Three.” Katniss said.
Hermione turned to the bookcase the man had been attending. It was impossibly tall and had carved ornamental work on many of its surfaces. She started scanning the books on a shelf at eye level as she traced the tip of her index finger along their spines. She bent her knees as she followed the trail progressively down the bookcase until she got to the bottom shelf and crouched to get a good look.
After a moment, Hermione popped up with four volumes. A Dance with Dragons, which she handed to Arya, Catching Fire, which Katniss took despite a look that said she couldn’t care less, and The Madrona Heroes Register: Echoes of the Past which she placed carefully in Binny’s hand. Another volume, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which Hermione kept for herself.
“Ugh, paperback,” Katniss muttered.
“It doesn’t matter you know,” Hermione said.
“It feels tighter somehow.”
“That’s just silly.”
“Just be happy you don’t have to squeeze into one of those things,” Arya pointed at an old man who was fumbling with a black tablet. It had a glossy screen. “I heard that we might all eventually have to use those.” Arya nodded seriously as she spoke.
“Who did you hear that from? That’s ridiculous,” Hermione snapped. “Enough of that. Who’s first?”
Binny had been in such a hurry to get here on time, she hadn’t had a moment to ask the questions that were piling up haphazardly in her mind, heavy logs falling off a truck onto the road after a sudden swerve.
“Wait!” Binny almost shouted, and then caught herself remembering she was in a library, though she wasn’t entirely sure if she was supposed to whisper here given the bustle.
“What?” Arya said, looking impatient.
“What are we doing?” Binny asked.
“I told you, work,” Hermione said.
“I’m sorry. What do you mean, work?” Binny said in a more moderate tone.
“You didn’t think we were just gonna lounge around all day gorging on chowder did you?” Katniss snarked.
Hermione shot Katniss a look, and then turned to Binny. “I’m sorry Binny. We didn’t properly explain what we do here.”
Binny stared back wide-eyed waiting for Hermione to continue.
“Every day, we go back into our books because people are reading them, and it’s not really much of a book without the characters now is it.”
“People need their Hermione,” Arya mocked.
Hermione ignored her.
“But how – ” Binny started to ask.
Katniss put a hand on her shoulder and for a moment looked almost sympathetic. “Don’t worry, it’s essentially automatic. Watch.”
Katniss took a step back, and made a bit of a show going slowly so Binny could understand each step. Katniss opened her book. Anticipating Binny’s question she added, “You just open it. Wherever it opens, just start reading.”
Katniss started reading. It only took a few seconds. Binny didn’t know if the book grew or Katniss shrank, maybe some of both. Punctuating the transition, Katniss was swallowed entirely by the book which hung in mid-air for the briefest moment before it disappeared with a gentle pop.
Binny almost jumped out of her skin. “Is she okay?”
Arya looked impatient while Hermione just laughed a quiet laugh.
“She’s fine. Though, I expect she’s narrowly escaping death at the moment,” Hermione said.
Arya couldn’t wait anymore and opened her book as well. Pop.
Suddenly Binny was conscious of a chorus of low popping sounds coming from all over the library.
“You now. Hurry,” Hermione urged.
“Hurry?” Binny asked nervously.
“I guess there’s no exact hard deadline, but if you don’t get in the book, the book is gonna get you in it, and that’s a touch more unpleasant,” Hermione explained trying her best not to scare Binny.
It didn’t work. Binny was scared of popping into the book but having the book take the initiative seemed much worse. Binny opened her book.
It opened somewhere in the middle of Chapter Six. Binny looked up at Hermione who was doing the same thing making sure out of the corner of her eye that Binny was complying with her instructions. Binny looked at the page and started to read.
Binny didn’t know how crying worked, but if there was a tank somewhere in her body that stored tears, it was now empty.
By the time Binny got to the word empty, Hermione had disappeared. The book had grown large and it had disappeared too. And then suddenly the Stacks were gone as well. Not just Binny’s surroundings, but the whole notion of the Stacks themselves were gone from Binny’s mind.
Binny was once again Binny Jordan. The Binny Jordan who lived in an old brown house in the middle of the Madrona neighborhood of Seattle overlooking a lake. She had an older brother, a younger sister, and at the moment it smelled terrible and she had cried until she could cry no more.
Binny took stock of the dog poop in which she’d sat, raised herself out of the old rusty car, and started walking through the Madrona woods to home. Real home.
“How did you know?” Binny was sitting cross-legged on the floor of the library next to an impossibly tall bookcase that was carved with ornate designs. It was not the same bookcase from which Hermione had retrieved her book that morning. The teal book, her book, The Madrona Heroes Register, sat in her lap.
“What?” Katniss said as she limped out of Catching Fire with a soft whoosh. Katniss’ limp faded after she took a couple of tentative steps seemingly searching for an injury that was no longer there. “Can’t you see I’m nursing a sprained ankle here?”
“You look fine to me. How did you know my sister could turn herself invisible?” Binny repeated grimly.
“I told you. I read your stupid book,” Katniss said acidly.
Two more whooshes. Arya and Hermione reappeared as well.
“It’s not stupid. It’s my life,” Binny said with more force than she’d intended.
“Your life? Your life?” Katniss escalated. “This. This!” Katniss gestured all around her, “This is your life.”
Hermione quickly tried to shush Katniss, and then looked around to see if anyone had seen the outburst. Binny wasn’t sure who Hermione was looking for.
“I was back there. I was, home. Everything was right again. Everything was the way it was. And I didn’t remember any of…” Binny looked around her and then glared back at Katniss, “…this.”
“Yeah. Well, get used to it.” Arya stepped between the two girls. “Cause this is how we roll. Every day. Rain or shine.”
“There’s no rain here,” Hermione said.
“There is if you want it,” Arya replied, for some reason enjoying the growing cloud between Binny and Katniss.
“Binny,” Hermione crouched down to Binny who was still sitting cross-legged on the floor. “This is our purpose. It’s noble. We do this so people all over the world can see themselves in us. So they can feel not quite so alone.”
“So they can have the experience of being alive.” Katniss said. Binny couldn’t determine if Katniss was being sarcastic.
Hermione held out a hand to Binny to help her up indicating that they should get going.
As they walked away, Binny stopped suddenly. “Wait, I still have my book, I have to put it back.”
“Oh, don’t worry. Put it anywhere. It doesn’t matter.” Arya said.
Hermione reassured, “When we need it again in the morning, it will be there.”
Katniss and Binny stayed silent on the walk home to Misselthwaite Manor. Katniss was brooding about something, but Binny was intently listening to Hermione explain more about how things worked.
“So you see, you don’t have to actually be in the book for each individual reader exactly when they are reading that portion of the book.” Hermione seemed to be enjoying herself as she explained the intricacies of their ‘work’. “Of course that would be effectively impossible for each of us.”
Katniss broke her silence momentarily, muttering, “Not for her it wouldn’t be. Her book only has one reader.”
“Ignore her. She’s not being nice,” Hermione told Binny as she could sense Binny was about to respond to Katniss’ dig. “Anyway, as I was saying, you could never be in the book at the right place at the right time just as each reader was experiencing that moment.”
“The whole system works kind of like a battery.” And then in aside to herself, “Glad I was muggle born and am familiar with batteries.” Hermione continued explaining, “Every day we go and live in our books for awhile, essentially acting out what happens in the story. Every time we do, we charge up the book’s battery a little bit. Readers use up the battery by reading the book.”
“So the more readers who read it, the more the battery gets used up?” Binny felt like she was starting to understand.
“Actually no.” Hermione corrected as politely as she could. “Whether you have a few readers, or thousands – ”
“Or millions” Arya mouthed.
“ – you do the same amount of charging.” Hermione finished.
“And you go in order of the book every time? I picked up right where I left off yesterday.” Binny said.
“Well, actually no.” Hermione corrected again.
Binny was feeling like she would never understand how the Stacks worked.
“We jump around all over. We’re not entirely sure why. I suppose we go where we’re needed. You’re going in order now because it’s your first time through.”
“All of us spend more time in our earlier books than our later books.” Katniss seemed ready to rejoin the conversation as if the earlier stress hadn’t occurred.
“Maybe that’s because your later books aren’t as good as the first one,” Binny realized how insulting an observation that was only after the words had left her mouth.
Katniss seemed to take the comment in stride, shrugging her shoulders. “Whatever. Mine are actually a commercial success no matter what you think. If I were you, I’d worry more about whether anyone’s ever gonna read your book.”
Hermione grimaced at Katniss.
“Why does she keep saying I should worry about whether anyone’s gonna read my book?” Binny asked.
By now the girls were in the swarm of characters walking the main thoroughfare that surrounded the library. A smushy giant of a man made of what appeared to be clay, lumbered by leaving little traces of his body as he walked. Hebrew characters had been carved into his forehead.
Katniss stopped abruptly, turning on Binny and ticking off points on her fingers as she spoke. “First, I already told you, your book isn’t very good. Which is not surprising given that, second, it’s a first-time novel, and third, your author self-published.”
“What does that mean?” Binny asked.
“It means, that your author had the gall to think that the world needed to hear all about you.” Now Katniss was pointing her index finger at Binny’s chest. “Nobody asked him. Nobody demanded Binny in their lives. No publisher thought his book was worth publishing. He just decided to inflict his story, your story, on all of us, and now here you are.”
Katniss stormed off towards the ivy covered door that Binny had just noticed a few feet away.
“Are your books self-published?” Binny asked Hermione and Arya?
They each shook their heads.
“Don’t pay any attention to that. The world is changing. There’s nothing wrong with self-publishing.” Hermione assured Binny. “My author was rejected dozens of times before a publisher took a chance on my book. So what do they really know? They’re all guessing as far as I can tell. And frankly, I think these publishers are not long for this world anyway. Now that anyone can publish a book, who really needs them.”
Clearly considering the matter closed, Hermione turned on her heel and parted the ivy making room for Binny and Arya to return home through the Secret Garden.