This is a tale from a dystopian collection of mine, entitled The Day the Last Dreamer Died. I wrote it years ago...this particular tale took shape in 2004, just after I left Borders, where I'd been working for a good five years. At that time, interestingly enough, Borders was still thriving...

Between the Covers

Dust lay thick in Login Holloway's kitchen sink.

He hardly ever used his kitchen, much less the rest of his small apartment.  He simply had a bed to sleep in, covered with a navy blue synthetic sleeping bag from which leaked his unslept sleep.

 

He could no longer sleep.  Not after what he'd done.

 

He had a sound system as well, although with systemic, universal implantation of computer music chips, his equipment had been rendered redundant.    But then, Login Holloway was a dinosaur in this world.

 

His world had in fact long been extinct.  He wondered how long it would be before his kindred dwindled from a select few to none.

 

Not long, he was certain.

 

He leaned out his window, smoking.  The sun was rising.  In a half an hour he had to be at work.

 

He lived on the sixteenth floor.  He could just see his workplace, across the Park of Sunshine Dreams.  Its roof gleamed in happy colors.

 

Between the Covers. 

 

The country's only remaining bookstore.  Of course, it was far more than a bookstore.  The chain had high-tailed it into the fairy-tale of retail; it had not only spread through state after state, it now owned entire towns.

 

Sunshine Dreams.  A Between the Covers town.

 

Five--or was it six?--chains of company towns clinked their links across the land.  Fifty miles away stood Rolling Acres, a SmartMart town.  One hundred and fifty miles away flowed Sparkling River, owned by WalledInn. 

 

Login tried to remember a time before the land was stained with cities chained up in store-chains.

 

He shook his head, and drew deeply on his cigarette. 

 

No.  He couldn't remember.

 

And if anyone could remember, it should've been Login.  He was old, after all.  In his mid-seventies, yet until recently he had still walked with a spring in his step.

 

How could he have done what he did?

 

His secret was permanently sealed.  He could never share his treasure with anyone again.   His coworkers, except the only one older than him, all thought of him as an oddity, hardly the commodity he needed to be to earn respect in this town. 

 

Sunshine Dreams.   He laughed, scornfully.

 

He threw the cigarette out the window. 

 

And went to work.

 

                                                                        **

 

Nora greeted him at the door.  "Good morning Login," she said.  She always greeted him by name.  He returned the kindness.  Login replied, "Good morning Nora.”

 

Nora was one of the last remaining individuals not baptized with a computerized name.  She must have been at least ninety-five.  She was a greeter at Between the Covers, whose duty it was to grace each customer with the grace of her smile.

 

Smiles still mattered in Sunshine Dreams.  All Between the Covers towns believed in smiles--they lit up their billboards with well, sunshine.

 

Nora was fortunate to have her job.  In all Between the Covers towns most people had died by the time they were sixty.  It was a mystery Between the Covers town scientists had spent years trying to elucidate; Between the Covers ensured all their residents/employees had access to all the basics human bodies required; food was in plenty, if not obscenely so.  Sex was in abundance.  Money was just enough to keep people satisfied, thus tied to the town.

 

No one ever left a Between the Covers town.

 

It wasn’t that the town prevented people from leaving; rather it knew once it had outfitted residents with the benefits of comfort and security they would never want to leave.  Anyway, where would they go?  Only the giant cities—New York, Los Angeles—were as yet not operated by corporations.  But there was no security there.

 

Nora and Login shared a kinship because of their strange hardship.  They just kept living. Nora knew why--or maybe then, she didn't.   Nora was a little lost in the head, but it was ok.  All she had to do was smile.

 

"Oh, Login," she called, as Login was racing to clock in at the oracular time clock.  The time clock clocked each minute of their lives, as the town of Sunshine Dreams was entirely centralized. 

 

Nora was a bit more alert today.  She wanted to warn Login of something.  Login sensed the tone in her voice.  He turned around, and raced back, "What, Nora?  Be quick."  He appreciated her warnings, but she spoke too slowly sometimes.

 

"Login," Nora whispered, as rapidly as she could, “Scroll is here today.  He's in a mood."

 

Login nodded.  "Thanks, Nora," he said. 

 

He had to watch out for Scroll.  His immediate supervisor.  Scroll didn't like him.  But then, not many people did.

 

 No one understood Login Holloway.  They didn't worry about Nora because she was from the era BTC--Before the Computers.  Nora really was a dinosaur, who'd surely die soon.   BTC scientists couldn't concern themselves with the nearly-dead like her; they had to deal with Misfits who kept arising After the Computers.  Unfortunately, they hadn't yet determined how to entirely eradicate these adamant aberrations; they were currently coasting on a 98.6% success rate.

 

That wasn't enough.

 

That's why no one understood Login; he was an aberration. He was born After the Computers.  His name said so itself.  All Between the Covers town residents named their young after technical terms; the computers were so unerringly efficient they became the town's ungodly gods.  Login was one of them; yet he was old.  He had worked in a BTC enterprise all his life yet had never risen in the ranks.  He had never wanted to. 

 

Maybe that's what no one could understand.  Login Holloway was queerly hollow; he never wanted to have authority over another.

 

This bothered Scroll.  Scroll couldn't understand someone so different from himself.  So Scroll analyzed everything different about Login, pondering in great depth each implicated meaning.   Login lived alone,  and he was old, so he must have saved at least a substantial amount of money.  Yet his glasses had broken (and no one wore glasses anymore), and he never bothered to fix them.  He simply taped the broken pieces together.

 

But most shockingly difficult to understand was the fact that Login never drove.  He took two different buses to work, and walked.  Surely he could afford a car by now.  Especially as BTC, naturally owning the local gas stations, positively encouraged gas-guzzling.

 

And what did Login do on the weekends?  He never joined in Company gatherings.  He never went to the Bar.  He never went to the Movies.

 

And Everyone went to the Movies.  BTC knew its residents not simply needed but thrived upon Endless Entertainment.

 

What did Login do with his money?  This gnawed at Scroll.  Scroll needed to know what Login did with his life.  It could only be because Scroll didn’t have much of a life.  Scroll couldn't admit that to himself, but he knew it was true. But he didn't know why.  After all he had all the food and sex he needed.

 

But now he needed to know Login's secret.  He told Page Up, the Manager one day, "Holloway's got a hideaway.  And I’m going to find out where and what it is."

 

Page Up didn't say anything, simply lightly smiled, and left.  Page Up had too much to worry about, to give even a single thought to the shenanigans his employees involved themselves in.  When in doubt, smile, that was his motto.

 

He smiled all the while.

 

That's what you did in Sunshine Dreams.

 

                                                                        **

 

Fiction no longer existed.

 

Only Nora could recall the days when fiction still graced the shelves of bookstores.  But that was when she herself was very young; by the time she had entered her teens all fiction had disappeared.  There hadn't been an official government ban against fiction; Between the Covers one day simply decided to stop selling it.  And, being the only bookstore left in the country, fiction naturally disappeared from people's minds.  Once all the old professors died off, no one protested against the dearth of literary imagination--after all, who read anymore?  All the information you needed you got off your computer.  And if you really got tired of reading something on a screen, you could always buy a book--but no one bought fiction anymore. 

 

Why buy fiction?  Fiction was Fake.

 

Of course, the capers of escapist fiction still existed.  Role-playing, manga, and the wizards, demons, and overlords of science fiction took up one-third of the Between the Covers book sales floor.   Mysteries and horror still sold well; writers kept popping up who could drum up the most humdrum of murders or who were exquisitely versatile in the subversions of the perverse.

 

Romance novels still existed as well, placed judiciously steps away from the Sex section, which occupied another third of the book sales floor.  All the pornographic magazines were kept in this area as well; the very purpose of BTC was the ratification of instant gratification. All chain-link towns insisted that customers be mired in incessant desire.  And desires were meant to be fulfilled.

 

The rest of the book sales floor was divided between Food, Money, and Self-Help.  Chefs, naked, half-clothed, and otherwise sold their delectable edibles with mouthwatering pictures of their goods.  Chiefs of organizations promised to give readers who had the itch to get rich their unbeatable secret.  Of course BTC towns were structured so that no one could really get rich; security, not money, was the reward residents received for their complacency.  But to dream of more money was one dream that residents were allowed.

 

Gurus of Profound Wisdom promised to divulge the secrets of the self to all those were who were unknowingly whirling in the gulf of self-indulgence.  So many self-help books were stuffed onto the shelves that helping the self seemed entirely hopeless.

 

Nora didn't think of any of this now; all she sought to do between her sent-up smiles was to escape for a while.  She must have been aging rapidly because she had started whispering strange words which resurfaced in her mind from her long-ago forays into the world of fiction.  "Willows on the wind.  A mole in his home.  A mole in his hole.  Yes I want to be a mole in his hole!"  Sometimes she'd get too loud, and would have to watch herself.  A customer might enter, and she'd have to quickly smile, and whisk the willows away.

 

Luckily, though, not many people paid attention to Nora.  She was sometimes surprised BTC employed her at all.  But, then, it was imperative in all BTC towns that everyone smile.  So a greeter was the best way to start out a customer's day.

 

She saw Login rush across the floor with a cart.  He had a lot to do this afternoon.  And with Scroll watching him, he had to make certain he didn't do the one thing he wasn't supposed to do--look through books. 

 

Nora watched everyone.  She had nothing else to do.  And the one thing she knew for sure was that Login looked through books.  He never seemed to actually read in the store--once you looked through hundreds of cookbooks, surfed through dozens of books on the self, they all morphed into one—but still, he had a need to open up books.

 

Maybe that's why books still existed; the touch of a book trembled with the vestigial touch of a tree.  And there were hardly anymore trees in Sunshine Dreams.  Trees were only planted in the Park when BTC realized the need for oxygen outweighed the annoyance of tree-roots cracking up concrete lots.

 

But Login knew he couldn't open up books.   Books were Product.  He knew that.

 

Today he had no books on his cart, however.  He had bundles of Attachments.

 

It was a well-known fact that books never sold on their own nowadays.  They had to be sprinkled with trinkets.  Dozens of self-help books came with little bags of brightly-colored pills, to soothe a self's stricken mood.  All cookbooks came with a sprinkle of candy, or a cookie attached in a square plastic sheath to the back cover of a book. Ironically weight-loss books, which still sold well despite the introduction of the After the Fat pill which killed fat cells, thereby permitting endless self-indulgence without a shred of balance, came with a cookie or candy as well.  “Diets are difficult” blurbs would say, “Treat yourself once before you jump into this one.”  Unfortunately the After the Fat pill didn’t work efficiently upon everyone; human body chemistry was still surprisingly resistant to universal uniformity.

 

The sex books came with little pop-up dolls to practice positions with, condoms, or small packets of Viagra.

 

Between the Covers believed in the basics.

 

Business books arrived with a check for a dollar or two.  A little something to get a customer started.

 

And BTC didn't have to worry about theft, for no one stole in Sunshine Dreams.

 

All Between the Covers towns saw to that.

 

Login made himself busy, attaching Attachments to Product.  In spite of himself, his mind wandered.  He knew he had to keep focused on his Task, but his mind wandered to what he had--

 

he felt a tap on his shoulder. 

 

Nora.  "Login," she whispered, "I can tell your mind is wandering.  You’ve twirled that Attachment around in your hands three times.  Scroll will see you.  He’s already seen you drift away once.  Stop it."

 

Login nodded.  "Thanks Nora," he said.

 

Scroll was on him.  He had to watch it.

 

He knew well what Between the Covers did with dreamers.

 

                                                                        **

 

He remembered what had happened to Password.  Pass, for short.

 

She was a young girl, must have been in her early twenties.  As soon as she walked in the store Login knew she'd be trouble.

 

She was different.

 

She draped herself in flowing garments; she didn't even bother with imparting the secrets of her body parts to the world, as all women did nowadays.  Login thought that women did that as much for other women as they did for men; women thrilled in unconsciously, or consciously, displaying themselves to the competition. 

 

The women on the covers of men's magazines no longer had heads; all focus was fixed on the body, all emphasis on the bottom line.

 

Beheaded for the sake of the body; that was back to the basics.

 

As Pass shelved Product her eyes kept wandering, or she’d finger the spine of a book.  Login knew she was lost in the most dangerous of worlds--Thought.

 

She had such an air of innocence about her, even though she was already in her twenties.

 

Login had to only watch her a few minutes before he knew.

 

She was a Misfit.

 

Scroll would know in a day.

 

Login tried to warn Pass.  "Keep focused on Task.  You know, don't you, what happens to dreamers?  Or not just to dreamers, but to anyone who thinks about anything?"

 

Pass looked him in the eyes then.  Hollow, chestnut eyes.

 

"Of course I know," she said.  "What do you think?"

 

Dreamers were sent to the Asylum.  And unless they modified their ways--and most didn't, dreaming being the most incurable of diseases--they spent their lives shut up in a lock-up.  That's where the remaining 1.4% of BTC population ended up.

 

"Be careful Pass," he said.

 

He tried to watch over her as best as he could.  She was really strange.

 

Pass not only showed no interest in movie after endless movie, she didn’t even have the music chip implanted inside her.   Music was no longer sold in BTC stores as everyone had piped-in music from the implantations. BTC controlled who listened to what when.  The music chips created dependency, for after the implantation a person could bear Silence no more.  Much better to keep on track with a personal soundtrack.  Therefore most of the BTC sales floor was screened-away in computer screens--videos of all types, from movies to games, sold the best.  Most new employees tried to cast surreptitious glances at the new movies that were released every other day.

 

But Pass had no interest in that at all.  Instead she'd open up a book to take a quick look.  Knowing how a chef got started in his career interested her.  Reading about a president's argument with his defense secretary interested her.  (Politics and History took up just under 1% of the book sales floor.  Religion had disappeared entirely, except for watered-down wishfulness which was shelved in self-help and comic-book caricatures of deities which were kept in science fiction.  Serious religious books could only be found in Hospital lending libraries, as disease and illness ensured human bodies were still disobedient to complete corporate control.)   Reading about the clothes a CEO liked to wear to important meetings interested her.  And if that interested her so…

 

Login knew he shouldn't.  He knew he was stepping into danger.

 

But for the first time in his life, the idea of sharing his secret with another was too tantalizing to ignore.

 

A few weeks later, he tapped on Pass' shoulder as she was pushing a cart.  She turned.  "Pass,” he whispered.  "I want to show you something."

 

"Sure," she said.

 

"No, not here," he said, "Come home with me after work."

 

As soon as he said that, he knew how it sounded.  She caught her breath.  Casual liaisons were the norm nowadays—marriage still existed, for no one could bear the lunacy of being alone, but loyalty to a single person was scarce.  Affairs fared well in corporate towns; sacrifice and belief in an ideal stuck fast to the past.  No one thought in ideals anymore.  For decades upon decades BTC towns--all chain-link towns--had emphasized the basics.  All notions of beauty were stripped to reveal the nakedness of the bottom line.  Food and sex were the basics; as long as everyone had ample unrestricted access to the satisfaction of all appetites, BTC believed its residents would be not simply comfortable, but too content to think.

 

Pass knew all this existed, but never expected it from Login.  He saw the surprise in her eyes.  "No, no," Login said hurriedly, "That's not what I mean.  My dear,”-- the phrase slipped through his lips before he realized how natural, how unselfconscious, how gentle, it sounded to him-- “My dear, I want to show you something you need to see."

 

He trembled as he said the last line.  He knew he was right.  She needed to see it.

 

But he couldn't bring himself to think of the consequences.

 

                                                                        **

 

Scroll was talking to Page Up. He was infuriated that he hadn’t been able to crack Login’s secret. "Sir, what do we do?  Login is a trouble-maker.  I've seen him look through books.  He never socializes with the rest of us.  He's always on his own.  And he's old.  Sir, what's happened to him?  Why doesn't he just die?  All bodies in BTC towns die by his age--except Nora, of course. "

 

Page Up looked at Scroll.  Why was Scroll even telling him this? Page Up had something much more serious on his mind. 

 

Finally he said, "We may not have to worry about him anymore Scroll."  

 

And, he thought, 'Hopefully I won't have to deal with you for much longer either.'

 

                                                                        **

 

Login remembered that day with crystal-clear clarity.

 

Pass discreetly followed him home after work.  As invisibly as she could, she shadowed him on two different buses, and walked the rest of the way to his apartment.

 

Sunshine Towers.

 

The block of flats was at least twenty stories high.  There were a handful of apartment-buildings like this.  It was easier for BTC to keep everyone in control when everyone lived within certain limits.

 

As she arrived at his apartment building, she felt a bit nervous.  What in the world could Login wish to show her? What did he have that was so unique that he couldn't bring it to work?

 

He didn't just want sex from her, did he?  Most men would, but she knew he was different.  In spite of the fact she didn't know him very well, she knew she trusted him.

 

They were both Misfits.

 

She had seen him looking through books as well.

 

How could she not look through books?  It was why she worked in the BTC bookstore.  She could've worked in other stores in the town--there was always an endless supply of Product to sell--but she couldn't bear the thought of selling goods upon goods in warehouses made-up as stores.

 

She could also have worked in the MoviePlex, but she had next to no interest in Movies.  All films were now inescapably escapist, and were no more than video versions of genre fiction.

 

Why did she like books? She didn't even know. She was born in a BTC town, and had never lived anywhere else.  Her parents had no special fondness for books. They came to a BTC town for the same reason everyone else came--for security.  BTC promised employment and contentment in their towns.  That's why there were always waiting lists to enter. 

 

And once you entered, you spent one year in an Orientation Center.

 

Pass shuddered.  Thank Windows she never had to spend one year there.  Children born into BTC towns only had to spend six months.  One year if they were incorrigible.

 

That's why no one ever stole from a BTC town. You would have to return to the Orientation Center if you did.   She shivered as she heard the drill in her head:   All loss was preventable, and would therefore be prevented.

 

Why even think of her time in the Orientation Center?  It was over, it was over, Windows, it was over.

 

Windows.  She remembered the first time she said that word in that way.  Her mother, having been born on the Outside, asked her what she meant by it.  Pass didn’t know how to reply.  “I don’t know exactly what I mean,” she said, thinking.  “Maybe I’m referring to something bigger than me.”  Her mother remarked that people once said, “God.”  God.  Such a strange, flat, word.  It referred to something eminently unverifiable, and so entirely inefficient.

 

She started losing herself in Thought again when she realized she was standing in front of Login's apartment. 

 

The door was already open.

 

Login stood there, in an apartment almost astonishingly bare.

 

Login understood the look of surprise in her eye.  "I know, Pass, I know.  My place is nothing.  I spend all my money on…you'll see soon enough."

 

He asked her to sit down on a single chair. "Do you want some water?"

 

Pass nodded. 

 

To her surprise, Login walked to a little refrigerator in his bedroom where he kept bottled water, and handed her a bottle.

 

"Thanks,” Pass said. 

 

Login nodded.  "Drink up dear.  I don't want you bringing that into the kitchen."

 

How strange.  She wasn't allowed to drink water in the kitchen?

 

She took a few sips, and placed the bottle back on the floor.  "That's enough," she said.

 

"Ok, then," Login said, getting up from his place on the floor, "Follow me."

 

They went into the kitchen, where there was one more chair.  "Sit down," Login said, motioning her to the chair.  "I'll stand."

 

Pass nodded, dumbly.

 

Login cleared his throat, and started speaking.  He coughed.  He smoked a lot.  "Pass I've been watching you.  I don't know if you realize it, but you have a feel for books-- a real feel."

 

Pass nodded.  Of course I do, she thought.

 

"My dear have you ever read fiction?"  Login asked.

 

Fiction?  The word was archaic.  It rang like a Latin phrase in her ears.

 

"No one reads fiction.  It's not allowed." Pass replied.

 

Login nodded.  It was true.  It wasn't allowed. All chain-link towns insisted that fiction not exist in their towns.  Fiction--good fiction--most unfortunately made people think.  And not simply think, but feel. Fiction made people look beyond their walled-in reality and feel something invisible, yet undeniable.  Empathy?  Compassion?  Such archaic words for such ethereal concepts.   Fiction made people discontent with their surfeit of contentment.

 

Luckily for the chain-link towns no one bothered owning fiction as everyone had simply forgotten about it.

 

"I know.  But Pass you are someone who should read fiction."

 

"How can I?" she asked.  "I mean, aside from romance and manga, it doesn't exist."

 

Login didn't reply.  He simply turned to the pantry door, and took out a large wooden chest marked Flour and Sugar.

 

He opened it.

 

Pass looked inside.

 

She gasped.

 

There were books inside!  She felt her heart beating quickly. She swallowed.  "What are these?" she asked, a touch warily.

 

"Pick one up," Login replied.  "Look inside."

 

She picked one up, opened it up to a random page, and started reading.  Somewhere I have never traveled, gladly beyond any silence…  "What is this?"  she asked. 

 

Login hastily replied, "You shouldn't start with poetry.  Work your way up to that."  He reached deeper in the chest.  "Here," he said, handing her a worn copy of a book.

 

Pass read.  I have never begun a novel with more misgiving…Login gave her another one.   On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York...Another one. There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills.  These hills are grass-covered and rolling and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. "What are these?" she asked.

 

Login was moved at the wonder with which she asked the question.  He realized how long it had been since he had been touched by something.  "Pass, those are…novels," he said.

 

"Novels?" she replied, quizzically.  Login drew in his breath.

 

She had no idea what a novel was.

 

Login slid down onto the floor.  "Just keep reading," he said.  You'll learn what they are."

 

                                                                        **

 

Hours passed, as Pass and Login sat in the kitchen, reading.  

 

They both ran into the living room from time to time to get some water.

 

These novels were too precious, not to mention too expensive, to be damaged by water.

 

Finally, around two o'clock, Pass put a book down.  The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. 

 

She had tears in her eyes.

 

"I'm reading of places I've never been to, and I'll never see.  I'm reading of people I've never met, and will never meet.  And I see them more clearly than I see people on the street.  Login where did you get these?"

 

Login hesitated.  That was one thing he couldn't tell her in full.  He didn't want his source compromised.  Finally he said, "There is a dealer.  He's as old as Nora.  I order "food" from him.  He sends me books in cereal boxes, rice boxes, cookie boxes…Look."  Login opened up all the cupboard doors.  They were jammed full with boxes of books, all disguised as boxes of food.  "I keep them in the kitchen because I don’t think anyone will suspect I have books hidden as food.  Food is far too important in BTC to fool around with."

 

Pass nodded.

 

Login smiled sheepishly.  "This is why I have nothing in my apartment Pass.  These are incredibly expensive.  All fiction is out-of-print now.  These are incredibly rare."

 

Pass touched each page gingerly.  "Yes," she nodded, "I see why they're so expensive."

 

She looked him in the eyes.  "Thank you, Login.  It was so…impossibly kind for you to show these to me."

 

Login shook his head.  He was too moved to speak.  He was just pleased to be able to share his secret with a kindred spirit.

 

Pass got up from her chair.  She came to him, and kissed him on the cheek.

 

She walked back to her chair, and continued reading.

 

Login touched his cheek.  He couldn't remember the last time he'd been so purely kissed.  Kisses always led to sex--this was a given in all BTC entertainment, and thus, among all BTC residents.

 

She was still reading, quietly.

 

And he got it--what was so unique about Pass.

 

She had no desire to be desperately desired.

 

He was awed by this, yet it troubled him deeply.

 

For without doubt it meant she was doomed.

 

She was too different.

 

Finally, at around six a.m. she looked up from her books.  "Work!" she said, "We both have to go to work." 

 

Login nodded.  "Yes," he said, "You go in first, so they won't see us come in together."

 

Pass laughed.  "Why?" she asked, "What's the worst they'll think?  That we had sex?  They'll never imagine what we really did."

 

                                                            **

 

While he was bundling Attachments for Product, Login stifled a quick smile as he recalled Pass' last line.

 

Then he sighed. 

 

How could he have done what he did?

 

But he'd seen no other way out.

 

Anyone else in his position would've done the same thing.

 

                                                            **

 

Nora died the following day.

 

It was almost laughable.  She was in the middle of creating her smile for the first customer of the day, when her smile froze and she simply keeled over.

 

The customer had to leap out of the way.

 

Page Up, called by Scroll, came running out to assess the situation and calm the customer's frazzled nerves.  "I'm so sorry ma'am for inconveniencing you.  Let me get you a drink."

 

It was Login who felt her pulse, and called the Police.

 

He couldn't believe Nora was gone.

 

Who would warn him now?  And not just warn him, but talk to him?

 

Pass, Nora, they were both gone.  For the first time in years--not since was a child--he felt a tear forming.

 

"Login we haven't closed the store," Scroll said.  "Get to it."

 

Login turned back to his cart.

 

No more denying it.

 

He knew finally what he had to do.

 

                                                            **

 

Rain clouds were gathering as Login walked to the Asylum.

 

The Asylum was a long ways away from Sunshine Towers—it was situated on the outskirts of town, near the Outside, to keep it out of people’s minds.

 

Login heard people referring to it now and then on the street.  “We gotta keep them away.  Those damn dreamers.  They’ll just shake everything up if we don’t watch it.”

 

He sighed.

 

He was in his seventies.  What harm would have come to him if he had gone to the Asylum?

 

Instead of sending Pass…

 

After her initial foray into Fiction, Pass came over for the next few weeks.  She read voraciously. 

 

For a while, Login thought his fears had been unfounded.  She read and was quiet at work—probably tired from staying up all night.

 

But after a while she started mumbling.  Muttering words, passages, thoughts out loud.  Very softly, certainly, but loud enough so that Login could hear.  And if Login could hear, Scroll could hear.

 

He tried desperately to warn her, “Pass, please, be quiet.  We’ll both get into trouble.  You know what they’ll do to us.”

 

She’d look at him as if she were in a trance, nod, and apologize.  “I’m sorry Login, I’ll be more careful, I promise.”

 

But she couldn’t keep her promise.  It’s not that she didn’t want to—she couldn’t.

 

Poetry became the last straw for Login.  Pass graduated to poetry in a few weeks.  Login was pleased at first, in awe at her talent for grasping so quickly the singular beauty of metaphor. 

 

But soon afterwards she started reciting verse to herself.  Login kept telling her to be quiet, and she’d stop for a while, but start again.  To his frustration, Login found Pass to be powerless against poetry.

 

There was only one thing Login could do. If she didn’t shut up, not only would she be sent to the Asylum, but he’d be sent to Prison for not declaring his store of illegal fiction.  And BTC would destroy the books, he was certain.

 

Pass left him with no other choice.

 

He told Scroll himself. 

 

He told Scroll Pass had been reading books on the floor.  She’d been reading and reading, and had been reciting what she read.  She wouldn’t stop.

 

Scroll looked at him suspiciously at first—he knew Login and Pass were sleeping together--but then, upon spying Pass alone, he knew Login was telling the truth.  As Scroll never read, he never knew what exactly Pass was reciting, but the fact that she was so blatantly disobeying Rules was cause enough not simply for dismissal, but for swift passage to the Asylum.

 

Surprisingly, Scroll first gave her a warning--Login knew he must have wanted to have sex with her-- but to Scroll’s frustration she didn’t listen.

 

So one morning, while Nora looked on with a bemused smile, the Police hauled Pass away.

 

Login shivered.  How could he have done that?  Pass didn’t even tell on him.  She just smiled wanly as she was taken away, telling him with her eyes, “This was just a matter of time.”

 

He kept walking.

 

He thought he knew one reason why Pass was different.  She was one of the last few children born of genuine parents.  Most people who wanted children picked the qualities they wanted in a child and had them artificially cloned, inseminated, created. 

 

The only love—such a foreign, fragile word—that existed in retail towns anymore was the love a person had towards the child he created.  But it was only due to the fact he created him, and thus had some sort of authority over him.

 

Everyone got exactly what they wanted in BTC towns.

 

Desires were meant to be fulfilled.

 

He arrived at the Asylum as it started to rain.  A tall, gray, concrete building.  Login was nervous.  He stood underneath an awning and smoked his last cigarette.

 

He entered, and was given a pass to see Pass. 

 

He found her on the twelfth floor. 

 

She was in a common room, sitting by herself on a chair near a window.  She was watching the rain.

 

He entered, and stood by her for a few minutes. 

 

She didn’t turn her head.

 

Finally, he said, clearing his throat, wishing he had a cigarette with him, “Pass, it’s me, Login.”

 

She turned her head, but looked at him with glazed eyes.

 

Eyes inescapably opaque.

 

He hated himself for what he had done.

 

He swallowed, “Do you remember me?  It’s me, Login”.

 

She’d been here at least six months.  It must have felt a lifetime to her.

 

She opened her mouth, and started to speak softly, “But because truly being here is so much; because everything here apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way keeps calling to us.  Us, the most fleeting of all.”

 

Login sighed.  Poetry.  She was still reciting poetry.  Hearing her speak poetry in an asylum was an abomination.  This was all so wrong.

 

“Look Pass, I wanted to tell you, I am so sorry.  I am so sorry for turning you in.”

 

Pass answered, “Earth, invisible!  What, if not transformation, is your urgent command?  Earth, my dearest, I will.”

 

Login felt he would collapse.  “Pass, please, listen to me, I have to tell you I am sorry.  And I want to tell you—I’ll tell them the truth.  I’ll trade places with you.  I’ll let them take the books.”

 

Pass’ eyes then cleared.  She spoke quietly, firmly.  “I don’t want you to.  I want to stay here.”

 

Login was surprised at her sudden clarity of mind.  She hadn’t lost it after all.

 

She took Login’s hand, and pulled him close.  She whispered, “The struggle for spirit in those books is what has kept you alive, and it is what will sustain me.  Login, you have graced me with my own long-lost ghosts.  Thanks to you, I will always be haunted.”

 

She kissed his hand, and let go.

 

He started to speak, but the look in her eyes quieted him.  She was through with him.  She started speaking to herself again.  “Unspeakably I have belonged to you, from the first.  You were always right, and your holiest inspiration is our intimate companion, Death.”

 

As he turned away, sick at heart from looking at her, he heard her whisper, “Superabundant being wells up in my heart.”

 

                                                                        **

 

Nora had died.  Pass had released him.

 

Login would soon experience one more release.

 

When he went to work the next day, Page Up was at the door.  “Login,” he said, “I need to speak with you.”

 

Login swallowed.   Something was up.

 

He went into Page Up’s comfortable office. 

 

Page Up got to the point.  “Look Login, BTC is changing.  And change is good.”  Page Up smiled.

 

Login was hardly breathing.

 

“We are going to stop selling books.  It’s a drain on the company, not to mention the town. And frankly, no one reads, let’s face it.  All the gurus of self-help, money, the chefs, they’re all on video now. And everyone has personal video players.  So there really is no need for books at all.”

 

“Therefore, we have to cut staff.  Therefore, we are letting you go.”

 

Login didn’t feel anything, except a slight breeze flitting through his eyes.  It was a strange sensation.

 

His first thought was that Scroll must be thrilled.  He didn’t know that Scroll too would be let go.  All Product would now be sold Online.  Page Up himself would manage the Online business.

 

“Feel free to work in other sectors of the town.  There will certainly be a job for you.”  Page Up didn’t say it, but he knew there were hardly any jobs for someone like Login.  Login was not simply a Misfit, he was too old.

 

Login’s head felt very heavy.  He muttered, “See you sir,” mechanically, and left. 

 

But as he left Page Up’s office his head cleared.

 

With crystal-clear clarity, he knew what he had to do.

 

                                                                        **

 

Pass spotted the fire from the Asylum window.

 

“Windows!” she whispered to herself, “What’s happening?”  She was startled from her daily recitation of poetry.  She stood on her chair to get the best view possible of the flames.  She couldn’t stop staring at the fire—watching something so gloriously out-of-control brought tears to her eyes.

 

A nurse saw her standing on her toes, and came to her.  “Sit down, don’t get riled up like the other patients.  A building’s burning, it happens once in a while.”

 

“What happened?” Pass asked.

 

The nurse shrugged.  “No one knows how the fire broke out.  Strange, isn’t it?”

 

It was true.  Fires were rare in Sunshine Dreams.  Arson was non-existent and every building was outfitted with high-tech sprinklers.  All loss was preventable, and would therefore be prevented.

 

Something substantial had to be burning.

 

Pass asked on impulse, “What building is that?”

 

The nurse replied, “I think they said Sunshine Towers.”

 

Pass nodded.  It all made sense.

 

What else could he have done?

 

                                                                        **

 

Scroll stood a few feet away from Sunshine Towers, watching firemen put out the fire.  As soon as he heard Sunshine Towers was on fire, he had raced to the building.  He was furiously curious, and currently unemployed.  He had to find out what happened to Login.

 

“I wonder if Login’s ok,” he thought.

 

He was startled when he heard a fireman scream, from up in the building, “Books are in here.  Books are burning.  More water, more water!!”

 

Books?  Scroll nodded to himself.   It had to be Login’s apartment that was on fire.  No one else would have so many books in his apartment.

 

Scroll sighed.  It was too bad he and Login had already been fired.  He could’ve got him on this one.

 

Then he heard a fireman yell, “There’s a body in here.  No need for an ambulance.  He’s dead.”

 

Scroll stepped back.  Login?

 

A few minutes later, he saw Login rolled out of the building.

 

“I’ll be,” he said to himself, “Login’s finally logged out.”

 

He never would’ve expected this.

 

He turned around to leave, strangely satisfied.

 

He finally knew Login’s secret.

 

Well, that was over. 

 

He sighed, and looked at his watch. 

 

What next?

 

Maybe he’d go to the Movies.

 

 

 

 

All quotations from:    1.  somewhere I have never traveled--E.E. Cummings

2.  The Razor’s Edge-- Somerset Maugham

3.  The Age of Innocence-- Edith Wharton

4.  Cry, the Beloved Country-- Alan Paton

5.  The Ninth Elegy-- Rainer Maria Rilke