Binny hadn’t quite eaten as much as Arya, but she had come close. And now, lying in bed, snug under the heavy covers, Binny regretted it. She assumed she’d feel better in the morning once her body had processed the mammoth amount of sugar and chocolate she’d consumed.
It came slowly and fitfully, but sleep did finally come. And then, so did Madrona.
Binny picked up her skateboard and trotted back to the start of the little course she’d made for herself. Penny, the strange girl from across the street was perched watching Binny. But for some reason Binny wasn’t bothered by Penny’s presence.
Instead of trying to do jumps on her skateboard, in the dream, Binny was trying to do a handstand on her skateboard as it rolled down the sidewalk. Binny had never done a handstand on firm ground much less her skateboard in her life (not in her book and not in the Stacks) but for now it seemed like a perfectly rational thing to attempt. Besides, Dream-Binny was pretty close to making it happen.
One more try, and… boom. Binny was doing a handstand on her skateboard. It was easier than she expected. Like hanging from the monkey bars, swaying gently in the breeze. Binny rolled to a stop, and Penny gave her the thumbs down signal. It took Binny a moment to remind herself that Penny was right-side-up so it was actually a thumbs up.
And then suddenly, though Binny was still hanging upside down from her skateboard with her hyper-local flipped gravity, her skateboard was no longer on the sidewalk. It was on the kitchen table at her house, in Madrona. Her older brother Zach, her younger sister Cassie, and her parents, Jay and Julie, were all sitting around the table eating dinner. Binny was still standing upside down, hands gripping her skateboard in the exact center of the table. She was like a strange vase of flowers.
“Please pass the fish sticks,” Cassie said with a mouthful of the fish sticks that had just recently been on her plate. It sounded more like feeze fass da pfish shticksh.
“Gross. Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Binny said.
Binny’s father parceled out more fish onto Cassie’s plate.
“Binny, you’re not her parent,” Julie said to her eldest daughter. And then to her youngest, “And don’t talk with your mouth full please.”
“Can I have another one?” Zach stared at the now empty serving dish.
“Don’t worry, I have more in the oven. They’re almost ready,” Jay said.
Binny spun gently on her back wheels to face whoever was talking at any given moment. It seemed like the obvious thing to do. Everyone was recognizable despite being upside down. The whole scene felt more normal than Binny thought it should.
“What did you do today Zach?” Julie asked her son. “Did you get a chance to start that book I gave you?”
Zach hesitated before he spoke, looking uncomfortable for a moment. “Yeah.”
“And?” Zach’s mother looked hopeful and expectant. “It was one of my absolute favorites at your age.”
“I’m just not that into it,” Zach said.
“Did you give it a try?” Julie pushed.
“Yes. I told you.”
“Did you get to Marvin the depressed robot? I love him.” Julie chuckled as she spoke.
“It’s paranoid android you know, not depressed robot,” Jay offered. Nobody seemed interested in his clarification.
“Yeah. It’s just not that funny,” Zach said.
Julie’s eyes widened in surprise. “Seriously? Not funny? You’re insane. It’s hysterical.”
“It really isn’t.” Zach stood his ground.
“How did we raise a son with no sense of humor?” Julie asked Jay.
Jay shook his head in mock resignation.
Binny watched the conversation, half listening, half experimenting with just how fancy a turn she could execute doing a handstand on her skateboard on the dinner table.
“Sorry,” Zach said, not sounding very sorry.
“Tell that to the characters in the book,” Julie lectured.
“Cassie. You can drink it, or you can let it sit there. Those are your two choices. You cannot use it as a sculptural medium,” Jay barked.
Absent additional fish sticks, Cassie had started constructing a complicated and beautiful structure of bubbles using the straw in her glass of chocolate milk. Each bubble built on the preceding, creating a milky brown semi-transparent honeycomb in her glass.
“Wait what?” Binny said to her mother.
“What darling? I’m impressed with your skateboarding skills, by the way.” Julie smiled at her eldest daughter.
“What did you say about the characters in the book, in the book Zach doesn’t like?” Binny asked, her voice tense.
“In Hitchhiker’s?” Julie asked. “I was just saying that the characters in the book will be disappointed if Zach doesn’t read the rest of the book.” And then to Zach, “Once you finish this one, there are four more you know.”
“There’s a sixth one actually. But written by someone else,” Jay volunteered.
“Hmmm.” Julie sounded skeptical.
“Why? Why will they be disappointed?” Binny asked her mother.
“Are the fish sticks ready yet?” Zach asked his father.
“Oh, thanks for the reminder.” Jay got up from the kitchen table and headed toward the oven.
“Darling,” Julie lowered her gaze to look Binny in the eye. “You know exactly what happens to the characters in a book if the book doesn’t get read.”
Binny’s mother’s words started making Binny feel wobbly. Binny let her gaze extended past her mother and watched her father. He approached the oven, and opened the door to retrieve the rest of the fish sticks.
But there were no fish sticks in the oven. Instead, Binny saw a raging fire. She had seen it before. Suddenly the table, her mother, her siblings, and the kitchen fell away. Her father was now various shades of gray and wearing a robe.
Inside the oven, Binny saw Suzy Summers, the little girl she’d seen in the library with One.
Suzy turned to Gray Jay and said “Do you think I’ll ever be able to come back?”
Jay/One didn’t answer but the look on his/her face told Binny and the girl everything they needed to know.
But this time Binny didn’t look away. Binny watched the girl walk into the fire, her book clutched tightly at her side, her chin up, as brave as a six-year-old girl could look. For a moment nothing happened.
But then the book opened and started growing. Suzy let herself be sucked into the book. The flames around them finally ignited the pair, and just as Suzy completely entered the pages, both she and the book lit up like flash paper. In a moment, they’d been consumed. All that was left were bits of stringy black ash floating on the invisible air currents above the fire.
Binny woke up.
The sheets were damp where Binny had been lying down. She was clammy from the sweat. It had been cold in the room when she went to sleep but now Binny felt extra warm. Like she’d been near a fire.
And then it hit her the way dreams sometimes do. Binny’s dream came back to her in a rush of vivid detail. Skateboarding outside with Penny, and then doing a handstand on her skateboard in the middle of the kitchen table during dinner. She’d seen her whole book family.
Binny followed the thread of the dream, and then felt her stomach drop when she reached the conclusion. The little girl had walked into the fire. She and her book both. And they’d done it because nobody read Suzy Summer’s Tales anymore. Nobody was interested.
And when people weren’t interested in your book, you took a trip to the fire room. You, your book, all the characters in it, it was time for one final pop – but this one happened in the furnace.
The memory of Katniss’ comments started pummeling Binny’s mind. Katniss had been forced to read Binny’s book. They all had. And Katniss didn’t think it was very good. Katniss had said that Binny didn’t have to worry about being in the Stacks for very long.
It all came together with a sickening perfection. If nobody read your book, then your existence in the Stacks, was over. And over with spectacular finality in Binny’s opinion.
Binny started to cry.
What was it Hermione had said? Binny wallowed in her fear for some minutes before a small voice in her mind finally rose above the noise of the imaginary fire. Oh yes. Hermione had said that the Madrona Heroes Register was charming.
What did that mean? Binny thought. Hermione was naturally polite. Was she being polite when she said charming? Was that like describing an undersized house as cozy? Or a mangy mutt as lovable? Or maybe Hermione was being genuine. And the book really was charming.
Did that even matter? Binny knew that not all books were good, and that quality was not necessarily a reliable indicator of whether anyone was going to read a particular book. Binny’s parents thought the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was good, but Zach clearly hadn’t liked it. Binny couldn’t remember if that was only true in her dream or in her book as well. Everything felt jumbled.
Binny looked out the wavy panes of glass of her window. Not even the faintest hints of light. Just the unyielding dark of that time of night when nobody is ever awake. Nobody except Binny. And now she was awake in a way that made it clear she was done with sleep for the night. Binny dressed quietly and slipped out of Misselthwaite Manor.
The Library was relatively quiet given how late it was. The throngs of people were gone, and now the patron population resembled that of the libraries Binny had experienced in her other life. The lights glowed softly somehow giving the Library a night-time feel. A screen in the distance flashed cheerily. Binny walked towards it.
Binny had spent so much time processing all the strange new things in the Stacks that she hadn’t had much time to wonder about the periodic enormous flat screen televisions that dotted the library’s landscape. Each was surrounded by a cozy living room’s worth of furniture. The one Binny approached looked empty.
The screen was showing a movie. From the looks of it, it was made before Binny was born. In it a man sat across from a woman at a large table asking her questions.
“The book was called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. He’s trying to determine if she’s an android.”
Startled, Binny turned to the sound of the voice.
Standing to the side of one of the comfy easy chairs was what looked like a robot. Binny had mistaken it for a lamp, or furniture, or honestly she wasn’t sure quite what she had thought it was.
“Sorry. I hope I didn’t startle you,” The robot said. “I really am trying not to do that.”
“It’s okay.” Binny said, not entirely sure that it was in fact okay.
The robot had been slumped over. It had never occurred to Binny that a robot could slump but this one did. Binny could tell because as he apologized he had raised himself looking like he was heavier than he actually was. Binny assumed it was a he based on the tenor of his robot voice, but in fact she wasn’t sure about the pronouns in this situation at all.
The movie continued for a bit and the robot said, “I think you ought to know I’m feeling very depressed.” The robot made this declaration in a matter of fact way like he expected Binny to not care thereby adding to his depression.
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.” Binny tried to console him. She wasn’t entirely sure how one consoled a depressed robot.
“You’re sitting right in the middle of the weekly android film club. Nobody but me ever shows up though.”
Depressed robot? Binny remembered her mother mentioning that in her dream. And then lightning struck. “You’re Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
“Oh. A fan girl.” Marvin said hopelessly.
Binny didn’t know how a robot could have expressions but something about the rhythm of the light in Marvin’s flat-topped triangular red eyes conveyed strong disappointment. “You don’t like having fans?”
“I have an exceptionally large mind. I’m not sure that signing autographs is the best application of my intellect.”
“How humble of you to let me know. I promise I won’t ask for an autograph.” Marvin’s self-pity was starting to grate on Binny. Her annoyance overtook her previous hesitation at conversing with a robot like it was person.
“It’s planet-sized. My mind that is. That’s how I know you were being sarcastic just now.”
“It took a planet-sized brain to figure that out?” Binny caught herself being sarcastic again, and smiled sheepishly as she apologized. “Sorry. I understand being bummed out. I’m pretty bummed as well.”
The novelty of Marvin had made Binny temporarily forget the realizations from her dream, but now they came rushing back with force.
Marvin seemed to perk up at Binny feeling badly. “You too huh? Are you also feeling like everything is pointless?”
Binny thought for a moment. “Well, yeah, that’s a pretty good way to describe it.” Binny went on to explain her newfound understanding of what happened to characters from books that people stopped reading.
Marvin nodded appreciatively. “I wish people would stop reading Hitchhiker’s. Then I could end this desolate existence.”
Binny tried to be sympathetic, “Yes. I understand, but I actually would prefer to remain in existence.”
That seemed to stump Marvin. Despite his massive intelligence, it appeared to take him some time to contemplate why anyone would want to remain alive.
“I’m just not sure if my book is any good,” Binny confessed as she sniffled trying not to break into tears. She had the feeling that Marvin might not have much sympathy for that.
“Does it really matter if it’s any good? I think my books are terrible. Frivolous really. And yet, confoundingly popular. As far as I can tell, quality has no connection with commercial success.” Marvin said.
“Well, I just thought that maybe if it was any good, it would have a chance at people wanting to read it,” Binny responded.
“Meh.” Marvin said.
“I just read your book. And it’s meh. Kids getting super powers? I’d have to put it squarely in the frivolous category.”
Binny looked stricken.
“Oh, I think you should be heartened.” Marvin said, though he didn’t sound exactly reassuring.
“I should feel good that you didn’t like it?” Binny asked?
“Your book is frivolous and predictable. But then again, so is mine. So take heart, that’s what the public seems to want. I’m sure you’ll be stuck here in the Stacks forever like me.” Marvin shrugged electronically.
Binny wasn’t sure whether to smile or sob. Marvin seemed to think she wouldn’t be sent to the fire, but he also appeared to hate her book.
“You know, you do have options other than asking melancholy androids for book reviews.”
Binny whipped around to see the man with the glasses from the previous evening grinning at her. Binny wasn’t sure how long he’d been listening to the conversation and it showed on her face.
“I didn’t mean to eavesdrop,” The man said. “I was just exploring and heard the tail end of your conversation.”
“Eavesdrop all you want. Wouldn’t you be melancholy as well if you had my intellect and were stuck here?” Marvin interjected.
“Luckily, I’m not nearly as smart as you Marvin, so I don’t have to deal with that unfortunate situation,” The man replied.
At the height of Binny’s confusion and fear over being sent to the fire, the man had suggested there was another option. “I have other options?” Binny asked the man.
“Yes.” The man smiled.
“Like?” Binny was getting annoyed with how the man always seemed to look like he knew something she didn’t.
“Well, generally, I try to tailor my advice for each unique situation, but in this case, my advice to you is the same as it was the last time we spoke. Why don’t you read the book?”
“I read that book already,” Binny replied. “Paris in the Twentieth Century. It was sad.”
“Yes, of course. But in this case, I’m talking about Madrona Heroes. Your book Binny. Then you can make up your own mind on whether or not you’ve got a chance of surviving here.”
The realization washed slowly across Binny’s face like the morning sun. Binny’s smile was wide and hopeful.