By Steve M
Yeah, I wrote this. Blame no one else.
Emma stood in the doorway of the hospital room. She watched the nurse make the final adjustments to the bed. She raised Norton Bookchin until he was almost upright. The woman in the blue hospital scrubs glimpsed Emma and motioned for her to come into the room. But Emma was frightened. She wasn’t scared of her great-grandfather. No, she was terrified of doing anything that would upset her mother and give the woman another excuse to beat her. Emma loved Grandpa Norton. She took timid steps towards the bed. The nurse put her hand on Norton’s arm, and he opened his eyes. He smiled when he saw Emma.
“Hi, Grandpa,” she said. The 116-year-old man removed the breathing apparatus covering his nose and mouth.
“There’s my special one,” he said and patted the bed beside him.
Norton Bookchin was dying. The disease from eating processed foods had finally caught him, and cancer ran rampant through his body. The medical staff alleviated most of his pain while he made his goodbyes. And this was his last. Emma, special Emma. The old man would miss her more than the others. Norton Bookchin was an orphan. Emma wished she were an orphan.
“How have you been, darling?” He asked her.
“I finished the book you gave me.”
“Did you like it?”
“It was wonderful” she replied.
“What was your favorite part?”
Norton the storyteller, that’s what they called him in the family. Some of the men referred to him as Norton the bullshit artist. Emma thought of him as the friendly old man with the funny, fantastic stories. And she loved him for the stories. But most of all she loved that when she saw Grandpa Norton, her mother stopped beating her for days and weeks. Instead of every other day, sometimes it would be three weeks. But then like an alcoholic with little self-control, her mother would become a monster again.
“You must make me a solemn promise,” he said to her with dull eyes from painkillers.
“You must keep the Christmas story going,” he said.
Every Christmas Norton told the same story. And every Christmas it became more elaborate. In Norton’s story, Santa Claus used a spaceship to facilitate toy delivery. He had large deposits of toys floating in geostationary orbit above all of the major cities of the world. This afforded him time to work on the harder to deliver areas out in the countryside.
“But grandpa, it’s a big story and I don’t have a big imagination.”
“You are wrong, darling. You have more than enough imagination.”
For an orphan, Norton Bookchin did very well during his lifetime. He never became fabulously wealthy. But he was comfortably so. In the garage of his home, overlooking the Pacific Ocean was a collection of automobiles. The oldest was from 1922, and the newest was less than a month old. 42 of them in total and auto collectors from around the country waited patiently for Norton to die so they could try and buy them from the family for less than they were worth. Yes, Grandpa Norton had lived a very fascinating, life.
“But you add new stuff to the story every year. I might mess it up.”
“No you won’t. Think about it carefully before you add new details. That’s all. You know the rest already” Norton sighed and closed his eyes for a moment. Then he opened them again and smiled. “Sorry it’s the pain medication, it does that sometimes.”
“The blast of tingles then, the pillow over the world,” he replied.
“Please don’t go grandpa. I’ll miss you.”
“Not as much as I’ll miss you. But I have to go darling. If I stay any longer, it will be horrible. For me and for you.”
Emma failed at her second objective. The tears moved from eyelids to cheek. Norton moved his hand to hers.
“I have something for you. Something just for you. But you have to promise to never share it with anyone else. Do you promise?”
“Yes,” she replied. She wiped the tear from her eyes and sniffled.
“It is over there in my bag. Get it for me please.”
Emma got up from the bed and walked over to the sofa in the room. Beside it was a light tan leather bag, the old kind from the 1940s. His initials had been pressed into the leather. Emma looked back at her great-grandfather. She unzipped the bag and looked inside.
“What do you want me to get grandpa?”
“You’ll know it. It’s the thing that doesn’t belong.”
In the bag was a toothbrush, toothpaste, underwear, socks, a copy of I Robot, and at the very bottom of the bag was a flat piece of clear plastic, less than half an inch thick and roughly the size of a clipboard. Emma removed it from the bag.
“Yep, that’s it. Oh, there’s a book in there for you too, don’t forget it.” Emma removed I Robot from the bag as well and brought both back to the bed. The entire family had gathered to see what Norton would give away before he died. Some, like her mother, had hoped for a sizable gain before the reading of the will.
“What is it grandpa?”
“It’s a book.”
“I Robot, yes, I know.”
“No not that, the other thing is also a book.”
Emma was confused. It was just a piece of plastic. There were no pages, and she could see through the glass-like object.
“I don’t understand.”
“But you will soon. First, let’s get you registered as the new owner.”
Emma began to wonder about her great-grandfather. Her father, before he left, said that Norton was crazy. According to him, the stories Norton told everyone proved that. But Emma liked the stories even if he was deranged and Emma missed her father. She missed the bike rides together. She missed how her father kept her angry mother under control most of the time.
“Lay it flat on the bed,” said Norton softly with his eyelids shut. “Woo, that was a strong one,” and he opened his eyes again. Emma obeyed.
“Now, lay your hand flat on top of it.” Emma did as she was told. “Good girl, turn it over and put your other hand on it.”
“There” she said as she put her left hand on the other side.
“Only one step left. Now I want you to spit on it.”
“Grandpa, that’s silly.”
“It may be silly, but it’s part of the DNA identifier technology built into the book.”
Emma spit onto the piece of plastic. Nothing happened.
“Now what?” she asked as she looked at her spittle on the plastic.
“It will take a day or so to register you as the new owner. It needs to do DNA sequencing to register you. Can’t let anyone else read it.”
“Oh,” said Emma. She didn’t know what DNA sequencing was, but it sounded important.
“Good girl. Now I’m going to tell you something that I’ve never told anyone else. And you must promise to keep it a secret as long as you live. Do you promise?”
“I promise” she replied.
“But do you really, really promise? This is a promise you can’t make today and break tomorrow. This is a promise for life and your life depends on it.”
Emma felt uncomfortable. She didn’t want to upset Grandpa Norton. If she did, she certainly didn’t want her mother to know about it.
“I super-duper, absolutely, positively promise.”
“Excellent.” Grandpa Norton pointed to the chair. Emma pulled it beside the bed and sat down.
“In your hand is the Book of Everything,” he said. “It contains all human knowledge from the entire galaxy up until I was the same age you are now.”
“Is it a history book?”
“It is much more than that. It is history. It is art. It is all knowledge from planets as far away as Anthripo to Centauri Beso. Every invention, every event, every song and there are billions of songs. It’s all in there. If you want to know how to create a photon sail, the instructions are there. And, if you want to add engines that will move you faster than the speed of light, the designs are there too. But good luck finding the materials on earth. I tried for 50 years then gave up.”
Emma thought that it must’ve been tough to grow up as an orphan as her great-grandfather did. The never knowing his parents, she was sure was the source of his wild imagination. But she loved the stories he would tell. The double moons of Centauri Beso, creating the double tides of both the water and sand.
“I am not from earth.”
Emma was not surprised to hear this. The pain of being an orphan, she reasoned, must’ve been a terrible thing. It screamed that he was unwanted and unloved and less than ordinary. Her great-grandfather had retreated into his imagination, a place where he was extraordinary. At that moment she realized that Grandpa Norton had saved his last story for her. She began to realize just how much he loved her.
“Where do you come from?”
“Where is the place I always describe in my stories?”
“Centauri Beso. The planet with the double moons. And the days and nights that are three times longer than Earth.”
“Good girl. That is where I was born. But most of the time I spent on a starship with my parents. They were traders.”
“How did you get to Earth?” She asked him.
“A survival pod,” he replied.
“It is a small egg-shaped container made of a very dense metal. My mother put me in it and launched it moments before their ship crashed onto Earth. The book I’m giving you is the only thing I have from my mother. She put it in the pod with me.”
“Your parents didn’t survive the crash?”
“No,” was all he said and they were quiet for a while. Finally Emma spoke again.
“Why did they crash?”
“Because of the damage to the ship.”
“How did the ship get damaged?” she asked.
“Pirates. Damned Pirates.”
“Like in the movies?”
“Pretty close to the movies. My parents were traders. The Pirates thought they had stolen artifacts from a planet under quarantine. The Pirates demanded the relics. They accused my parents of stealing them and said they were going to sell them on the black market. And there is only one destination for priceless stolen relics.”
“Where’s that Grandpa?”
“The University of Centrum Kath.”
“That’s the place with the math machine, right?”
“The one and only. Administrators of the universe.”
“But your parents didn’t steal them, did they?”
“No. They traded for them.” Norton picked up the bed controller and reclined himself slightly. He pointed at a cup of water with the straw on the table hovering over the foot of the bed. Emma got the cup and helped her great-grandfather take a sip.
“You can never share this book with anyone. I’m very serious about this. Don’t make the mistake I did.”
“What mistake? She asked him.
“I showed it to my best friend once. Four days later he stole it. I hadn’t figured out the security for the book yet. Anyone who had it, could read it. No handprints. No saliva. No DNA. Wide open.”
“Did he give it back?”
“No. It took me seven months to find him and the book.”
“Did he apologize for stealing it?”
“What happened to him?” she asked him.
“He didn’t survive.”
“Did you kill him?”
Many questions in life go without answers. This was one.
“You must promise me. More than you have ever promised anything in your life. Keep the book safe.”
“I promise, Grandpa.”
“Every government on this planet will kill you just to get this book. And even more people than governments will try to take it from you. That’s why no one can ever know about it.”
Emma thought about her school. She remembered how much fun she had acting in the school play about the American Revolution. She resolved that her performance for Grandpa Norton would be better than anything she ever did at school.
“Will they send ninjas?”
“No. Just men and women with guns.”
“Where should I hide the book?” She asked him.
“The safest place is in plain sight. It sat for decades on a bookshelf in my library. You can’t lock it away because you need it.”
“What will I need it for?”
“To improve your life. To make things better for you and the ones you love. But you’ve got to stay on the down low. If you use the book to become fabulously wealthy, you will attract attention and attention is the one thing you do not want. So use it sparingly. With the knowledge from the book, I could’ve become the richest man on earth. But I didn’t. I bought one share in each of those technology companies at the right time. Just one.”
“Momma keeps talking about your shares. They’re worth a lot of money.”
“They are,” he confirmed. He closed his eyes for a few seconds and Emma watched a tremble go through his right arm. It was like a tiny human earthquake. He groaned like an animal in pain. He opened his eyes again.
“Just remember. Keep the book safe at all times. And when you hand it down choose very carefully who you give it to.”
“Why did you give it to me?” she asked him.
“I was eight years old when I became an orphan, the same age you are now. And you need this book. More than I ever needed it. It will teach you many things just like it taught me. It will teach you about how that no-good mother of yours thinks so you can avoid her anger and her fists.”
Emma had always wondered if he knew about her mother. He had talked to her mother for a long time last year. And for several months, she tried to be better.
“Thank you, Grandpa” she said and reached forward and squeezed his hand.
“And it will help you escape from her if there are no alternatives.”
Emma sighed. Her mother was certain to beat her if she knew their conversation. Norton closed his eyes and groaned heavily again.
“It’s getting worse now. I can feel it. Even through the drugs, I can feel it.”
“I’m sorry Grandpa. I wish it didn’t hurt.”
“I know you do darling.” He squeezed her hand hard. She looked down at the wrinkly skin, liver spots, and the vein with the needle in his hand taped into place.
“Give me a hug and a kiss. It’s time for Grandpa to leave.”
“But I don’t want you to go,” she said desperately.
“If I don’t leave now it will be terrible for me and for you.”
Emma began to cry. Norton squeezed her hand. She cried for a long time. But even tears come with an expiration date and eventually hers ran their course. She kissed Norton on both of his cheeks like he always did her. He groaned again really hard then spoke his final words to her.
“It’s okay. I’ve had fun. And best of all, I met you.”
When Emma got home that evening she went straight to her room. Her mother was on her best behavior with so many of the relatives around them. Child abuse requires privacy. Emma put the thick piece of plastic next to her on the bed. She picked up I Robot and began to read it. She liked the story.
The next day she put the thick piece of plastic on a shelf in her closet next to the black shoes she would wear the following day to the funeral of Grandpa Norton.
At the funeral, there were long speeches by many people. They spoke of Norton’s kindness, his incredible good luck, and his love of storytelling. As they spoke about Norton’s elaborate Christmas story, Emma smiled. Grandpa Norton had saved his last story for her. To at least one person in this world, she had been special.
That should be the end of the story. But it isn’t.
A day after the funeral Emma was sound asleep in her bed. In her closet, the thick piece of plastic began to flash in a blue color like a police light.
“Would you like me to help you become familiar with my contents?” it asked at 3:42AM Thursday morning.