“Take this here,” said Cándida, speaking to her trainee in soft Spanish so as not to disturb or be comprehended by the Anglos still sleeping off hangovers nearby. “Bed unmade, one pillow propped up, and the comforter thrown across the room to cover the air conditioner. What do you think made it like this?”

“Hm,” said Silvia. “Well, I think that maybe the gentleman wanted to read in bed, so he propped up the pillow. And it’s been warm these past few days, so he threw the comforter over there because it was too hot.”

“Maybe,” said Cándida. “But that’s awfully naive–and awfully tame. When you’ve been here awhile, you’ll see it differently. We cleaners notice things that other people don’t.”

“Well, what do you see here?” Silvia asked.

“It was a booty call, and things got so rough that he needed to put a pillow up to keep from bashing his brains out on the headboard. And he threw the comforter across the room in a fit of passion–or, more likely, to make his pretty little girlfriend think it was passion, which would make her less likely to tell her husband about it.”

“Does everyone who works here get that cynical?” said Silvia, beginning to gingerly pull the sheets off the hotel bed.

“Sooner or later,” said Cándida. “But I’m sure that my version is the right one.”

A knock at the door interrupted her. “Hey, can I tiptoe in?” said the Anglo lady standing there. “I forgot my book.”

Silvia folded her arms and gave Cándida a self-satisfied look as the woman retrieved a novel from the bedside drawer nearest the propped up pillow.

“Come on, honey! It can’t be called sex on the beach if the tide has come in!” Another Anglo, this one in a bikini and thong, was at the door.

“Coming, honey!” The other woman skipped off carrying her book, leaving Cándida with an expression that was half-surprised, half-smug.

“Let’s call that one a draw,” said Silvia.

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There was very little in the room–all the clothes were neatly packed away, suitcases in the closet. Not so much as a wrinkle in the cover. But then, that was Jane for you…fastidious to a point.

The only thing askance in the entire room was a brightly-colored paperback on the nightstand. The Popular Tree. It was a sentimental story about a big-city girl finding herself by returning to her home town for a funeral, and a New York Times bestseller. It was easy to see why the title had appealed to Jane; she had been back in town from far-off Hopewell for only about a month. Her small home, with its lakeside view and sliver of golden sand beach, was more like a hotel room, with all the major items still in storage.

But that book…touching it, fanning the pages, one couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the sense of it, before reading a single word. The cheap paperback pages had sponged up every scent of Jane’s month-long beachside stay. The aroma of sunblock, of water, of fish…shampoo, clean cotton, even a hint of nail polish. The Popular Tree had absorbed them all, and to be near it was to have those sweet memories of blissful afternoons unlocked.

It was a bauble too bright and too intoxicating for the house as it now stood. All the warmth and memory in the world couldn’t wash away the bitter truth behind Jane’s book.

It had been the last thing she ever read.

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Fawn Delacroix Pivec owned a small library of books about the little chinks through which magic might seep into our otherwise mundane world. Lewis and Lewis, C. S. and Carroll respectively, were first and foremost in the collection, and her peers in school had long grown tired of endless book reports and dioramas on they and their literary successors.

So, when standing longingly in a fairy ring at the very edge of the Pivecs’ five acres, Fawn was delighted but unsurprised to spy a fairy flitting back and forth among the stinging nettles and wild raspberries tumbling over the old fence.

“Take me with you,” she whispered breathlessly, at once afraid to cry out and scare the delicate being away and unable to contain her joy upon seeing it.

The tiny fairy cocked its head and regarded her.

“Take me with you,” Fawn said again. “Don’t be afraid, I won’t hurt you. I’m ready to see your world. I always have been.”

“Oh, child,” said the fairy, in a voice that was birdsong and cicadas, summer rain and running water. “My poor precious child. You dwelt in our world for an aeon and verily became our most beloved friend and queen, ere you returned. But mortal memories cannot hold that where we dwell and dance, so it has already slipped away from you like sand in a spring tempest.”

From an idea by breylee.

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I found that I could not rid myself of the horrid book, no matter how hard I tried. It continued to record my every action, thought, and word upon its pages as they occurred, in a hand and tone not unlike what I used for my diary. The librarian had warned me of this, but my curiosity and foolishness were now manifest…and I could not bring the text back without angering the Hexagon Library, which is most unwise.

Seeing my entire life’s activity laid out is both intoxicating and horrifying. Perhaps I find myself unable to part with the book because I keep hoping to look forward in its diabolical pages, to see what has yet to happen. I have never been able to do so, but the tantalizing prospect is astonishingly seductive.

But I must have succeeded. I must have, if you are reading this. For I kept no diary, and these words can only be read between the covers of that most dire tome. So I must have rid myself of it for you to be able to read it now.

And that can only mean that my future is laid out for you to read pages on.

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227. If you think the book was bad, you should have seen the query letter.

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Children have such a wonderful way of investing everything they see with an anima, an animating spirit, and it’s beyond their young comprehension that the playthings and pets they talk to might not understand or absorb every word, every secret.

Zoë’s parents had bought Goldie the goldfish on a whim, expecting a sailor’s funeral for him in a month. But to their surprise, the bowl’s water was changed, aerated, and sprinkled with nourishing flakes with astonishing regularity for a flighty six-year-old. But Zoë saw Goldie as a full member of the family, and he enjoyed her full confidence.

In fact, late at night–after her bedtime–Zoë would often sneak out of bed and hand her head over Goldie’s bowl. With the two of them lit only by light leaking in from the hall, or a nightlight, Zoë would talk to her fish. Her day at school, who’d been mean to her, questions about the water temperature and fish food…Goldie was better than a diary written in Zoë’s halting hand because he had his own wants and needs and opinions. Even if he couldn’t express them.

One night, not long after Zoë’s seventh birthday, she couldn’t sleep and approached Goldie’s bowl as usual. “How are you doing tonight, Goldie?” she whispered brightly.

“I’m doing fine, Zoë,” said Goldie. “How are you?”

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As discussed in the academic paper “From Concealed to Canon in 10 Years” from the monograph Neglected Voices (Southern Michigan University Press, 2011), the meteoric rise of the author Sarah Lincoln Camden among literary critics is in many ways unprecedented. While there are many authors who were all but unknown in their own lifetimes, like Emily Dickinson, they only ascended to their favored place in the literary canon–those works considered essential to a literary education–after decades of study and a gradual increase in popularity.

In contrast, Camden’s nonfiction writings and short stories were appearing in college curricula and reading lists less than five years later. “As far as I’m concerned, Camden is canonical already,” was the riposte of a famous literary critic when asked about it. “I don’t know of a single 19th-century American literature course that isn’t using at least one of her writings, and it’s on every comprehensive exam reading list that our department has prepared since 2007.

Naturally, part of that appeal comes from her life story. Born ca. 1888, the illegitimate daughter of a New York businessman and his African-American maid, Camden represents an intersection of racial and class issues that have long fascinated academics and students of history. Her education–according to her writing, provided for by her otherwise absent father–lends a probing, progressive, and intelligent angle to the writing that is often absent from contemporary perspectives regardless of race, class, or sex.

But far beyond that, the nature of Camden’s journals, stories, and other manuscript fragments are notable for the absorbing quality of their prose. “I was sucked in from the very first,” said academic Dr. Chris Stevenson, who helped unearth the writings buried in an obscure and forgotten archive. “The stories, the essays, the journal entries…not just windows on a less equitable time, but riveting reading in their own right.”

In short, Sarah Lincoln Camden is enjoying a remarkable rise to the fame and literary prominence that eluded her in life, all the more remarkable for coming over 120 years after her death.

There’s only one problem: Sarah Lincoln Camden does not and never has existed.

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Borges once wrote of a secret society dedicated to bring about the replacement of our world by another by methodically documenting every facet of the new world in an encyclopedia; the facts about the new world would gradually replace those of the old through substitution, forgery, and dissemination of altered or completely fictional books. After all, if books (and their successors) can be altered, and they form the only record of the world beyond what people have seen with their own eyes, to change them is to change all.

I believe that someone may have taken that tale to heart.

In my role as a regional coordinator for a major consortium of libraries, I hear a lot of scuttlebutt about books and such; in my previous life I worked for Merchant & Field Booksellers and still maintain some contacts there. Lately my librarians on the one hand and my booksellers on the other have been bringing me texts that, quite frankly, don’t make any sense.

They run the gamut from leather-bound to cheap pulp and bear realistic-sounding but totally false publishers. Real love went into their creation, unlike some of the publish-on-demand crap that bubbles up. Yet the world they describe so blithely and without elaboration is an alien one, like the place I live but in many ways completely different.

The publication dates, for one. Who would create a fake book with a date fifty or a hundred years in the future, or one using a date system (PC) that seems to have begun counting three or four years ago? I’ve read many of the titles, and they are rife with descriptions of kingdoms and empires alongside cell phones and sports cars–the sort of thing many cheap and terrible books aspire to, it’s true. I think they describe a world like ours in which most nation-states have collapsed and in which technology has largely stagnated among the ruins of a fragmented USA. Stagnation and fragmentation, or stagmentation, or fragnation if you prefer.

The kind of internal consistency I’ve seen seems to belie the theory that it’s a single kook slipping these onto shelves. It’s almost enough to make me believe that these crazyquilt places, these Beral Lands, Vativia, Eastern and Outland Empires, or the Rift actually exist somewhere.

That’s crazy of course. But is a Borgesian attempt to alter the fabric of our reality any less so, or an elaborate and expensive literary prank so obtuse that only a handful of booksellers and archivists worldwide could get the joke? Next to that, sometimes I’m willing to allow that these books, these tawdry novels and single volumes of larger works, have simply slipped through some crack from one place to another.

After all, as Borges said, what would someone in another world make of one of our encyclopedias? What would the advanced but fragmented, stagnant but vibrant places I read in these mystery books think if this writing wound up on their own computer screen?

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Clarence continued to read the text:

“Look, I know it seems a little odd,” said the Grimoire. “Why trust a book, after all?”

“That’s not what I’m worried about,” said Clarence. “I’m more worried about this book pulling a Neverending Story on me and changing to reflect what I’m thinking or saying.”

“No shit,” Clarence muttered. But he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the page.

“How do you expect a book to speak with you?” the Grimoire cried. “How else but through the text? It’s not like a book has a mouth or vocal cords. And yes, I know in the context of the book you’re reading I’ve got lines and quote marks just like something with lips would. But that’s just for your sake. It may be confusing but just run with it.”

“All right,” said Clarence. “And my thoughts are apparently my dialogue, since even though I have lips I’m definitely not flapping them.”

“More or less,” said the Grimoire. “They’re edited a bit for coherence and to remove the occasional intrusive thought like fantasies about that girl in high school you never had the courage to ask out or even talk to.”

Clarence reddened. “Sheesh,” he mouthed.

“What do you want from me?” Clarence said.

“Oh, it’s simple,” said the Grimoire. “On the last page of me there’s an inscription. I need you to take me to the Pillars of Vladizapad and read them aloud in a commanding voice.”

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I even tended to refer to him with the informal pseudo-affectionate nickname “Teddy” even though I knew through a little bit of research that he’d hated being called that by anyone who wasn’t a close family member. Then again, Theodore Marlowe was the sort that knew the value of a name: born John Theodore Marlow, it had taken the judicious dropping of a too-common first name and the addition of an unnecessary vowel to make his a name fit for literary immortality.

Deerton held its annual Marlowe Days events at the same time as the county fair as the only vestige of tourism a tiny burg like that was able to eke out. After all, Teddy had been born at what was then Deerton General (now Infrared Health Systems Mid-Michigan Campus no. 27) and attended what was then Deerton Elementary (now John T. Seymour Elementary) until the age of 10, when his family had moved to Grand Rapids and thence to Detroit. He’d been shortlisted for a Nobel, his novels and stories were still in print, and film adaptations had made millions of dollars over the years.

I prickled a little under the management role I had in Marlowe Days, though, for the simple reason that Theodore Marlowe hadn’t been all that find of Deerton at all. Biographies tended to give us a sentence, if we were lucky, before going into exhaustive detail on Marlowe’s days in Grand Rapids and Detroit. I had been through reams of interviews, and all the man ever had to say about us was negative. There was the CBS interview from 1969 where he talked of “escaping the stultifying atmosphere of small-town mundanity,” for instance, or the 1978 radio talk where he said “everything that made me who I am is of the furniture and automotive cities.”

As in not Deerton.

After moving away, he hadn’t visited once despite plenty of Marlow and Higginsfield relatives. Invitations to speak at DHS commencements or other events were returned unopened. His books, powerful as they were, spoke to the salad days of Michigan industry giving way to the rust belt.

Big city problems.

Only in death, it seemed, did Teddy have anything for us. His estate agreed to Marlowe Days less than two months after the author died in 1980.

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