Book of Worlds
The deadliest and most powerful book in the world lay for many long years in the last place anyone would expect to find it: a high school library. Small, brown, dusty and unobtrusive, it sat on the furthest corner of the bottom shelf at the back, because the author’s surname was Zindel – Arthur T. Zindel. It was so small and narrow that the more substantial books on either side hid it from view, and the cover was wrinkled and unadorned as was the author’s name. Had it not been hailing and blisteringly cold, and had any one of Brian Poole’s friends been at school that day in early July, the book would have stayed there until time had faded the pages blank and crackled yellow.
The library was packed and warm, and while Brian ordinarily didn’t mind the cold – it was somehow a matter of pride that he walked in ice cold air in a T shirt without so much as a shiver – his friends weren’t around, so he needed a way to pass the time for an hour.
No one looked up when he walked in. Kids were everywhere, studying, playing games, surfing internet, or trying to surreptitiously watch porn. A couple of teachers sat behind a desk and another strolled around the brightly lit room, looking stern. Brian moved through the mess of people and disappeared into the comforting solitude of the shelves at the far back. It was dusty and dimly lit there, and everything else sounded muffled and far away. It was a strange feeling, that sense of isolation in the middle of a crowd. He felt as though he could curl up behind the shelves with a book and stay there for as long as he liked, never seen, never missed, separate from the world.
He scrolled the books idly, finding nothing. There had been a time when the school library had contained ‘Adult’ books, but these days you were hard pressed to find anything more violent than a John Grisham. And god forbid anything had a swear word in it. Brian wondered which teacher had the job of deciding which books were inappropriate for high schoolers. Probably Miss Weland. He had a mental image of throwing her from a bridge, screaming all the way down, and then smiled: the irony wasn’t lost on him.
Wilbur Smith, Clive Cussler, Dean Koontz. A bunch of Enid Blytons – he’d read them all – same for three Narnia books, the Lord of the Rings, and a Grisham. Plus a bunch he’d never heard of and didn’t like the look of. Some romances and classics too long and heavy to even attempt.
He was crouching at the end of the bookshelf, scouring for familiar names or interesting titles, or he wouldn’t have seen it at all. He reached into a narrow gap and pulled a leather bound book the size of a postcard and two fingers thick. There was no title on the front, only the name Arthur T. Zindel in gold roman letters. The title was actually handwritten on the first page – where the copyright and publishing details should have been. Book of Worlds, it said.
He flipped through the pages and discovered that the whole thing was handwritten, and there were even diagrams scratched in what looked like fountain pen here and there. The writing was curled and careful, more like artwork than writing, but the letters were big enough that it wasn’t hard to read. The whole thing looked more like someone’s diary than a published book, and judging by that teabag yellow tinge of the paper, whoever wrote it was long dead.
He glanced around in case someone was watching and then lifted the book up to his face and inhaled deeply. No synthetic paper smell here; these pages smelled like the wood they were cut from. Rich and smoky.
The page numbers were also handwritten, and they began on the third page, which was titled: Chapter One – How I Discovered the Secret Worlds. Smiling slightly, he sat cross legged facing the bookshelf with his back to the plastered wall behind him. The chatter and laughter of the library rolled away from him as he began to read.
Chapter One – How I Discovered the Secret Worlds
Dear Children, if you are reading this I have been gone for a long time, perhaps even many years. Diana, it is my intention to leave this specifically to you, as the most avid – or should I say the only reader in the family, you are the most likely to open it. I’d like all three of you to read and pay attention, because in this book I will describe what has been happening to me, and where I am now. You may laugh at what I tell you, dismiss it as nothing more than a tale (and I’m sure at least one of you will – despite everything I’ve tried to teach you, your mother was ever imprisoned by what she always called ‘the cold, hard, truth of the world.’ Anyway, I assure you every word of this book is true, and if you pay attention to my words and trust me, you may even come and visit, one day. I hope you do, as I’m sure I’ll miss you all, and never mind the bitterness and arguments that have come between us recently.
If you do not visit me… Then I’m afraid I shall have to go on missing you, because after the things I’ve seen, nothing will convince me to return to the world you call home. And at the risk of sounding harsh, if none of you can put in the time and effort to read a book left to you by your father after his disappearance, then I don’t want to see you. But I have faith, sons and daughter, and if you regret the things you’ve said to me even half as much as I do those I said to you, you will find me, and I promise that when you see what I have found, you will never want to return to your world again.
Now, let us begin.
Brian read the first chapter, and then the second, entitled: My First Adventure, and then the end of lunch bell rang. He ignored it completely, but after he heard everyone else filing out of the library he tensed up slightly and made sure his breathing was inaudible. Ten minutes later a class of year twelves filed in and the teacher’s droning voice filled the next hour, not a word of which penetrated Brian’s concentration, same for the loud IT class that took up the next hour.
Never in his life had Brian come across a character quite like Mr. Zindel. He threw himself into each of the bizarre worlds with abandon, despite more than once nearly losing his life, yet he never claimed to be fearless. ‘One cannot ever let fear affect the course of one’s life. Having said that, for much of my life I have been utterly terrified.’ For Brian, it was a totally new concept. Normally in books and movies characters who were scared screamed and ran away – they were the victims. The Bruce Willises and Clint Eastwoods of fiction simply didn’t feel fear. They, after all, could shoot guns and do martial arts. Zindel claimed only to be: ‘A rather voracious bookworm, if a resourceful one.’ You can be him! Brian thought more than once. Fear doesn’t matter. It didn’t matter to him, why should it matter to you? You can do anything!
At last, before he could get into Chapter 6: The World of Endless Tunnels, the bell rang and he decided he should get moving soon. He waited until shortly after he heard a bunch of year elevens and twelves file in for after school study and then he shoved the book into his school bag and strode out of the aisles as naturally as he could.
The librarian, a fat, grumpy woman, glanced up at him and then told a couple of senior boys to be quiet. When she next looked up, he was already out the door and halfway to his locker.
He walked home, as usual. It was five kilometres, but he always walked, to and from school. Walking out in the open was living, to a degree. To sit in a bus and stare out at the road was like being dead and watching other people live. You weren’t really out there, in the world. It was July, and the rain hadn’t stopped yet, though it had slowed to a drizzle that stung his arms with cold.
Dinner was chicken, rice and peas. He ate about half the chicken by himself in silence while his parents chatted aimlessly about their day, and when he was full he disappeared upstairs, tore the book out of his bag and read until three in the morning.
When he reached the final page, he was sitting straight up in bed, wide awake, heart hammering in his chest and red circles beginning to form around his eyes. It had nothing to do with the stories themselves, although that was part of it, or the way it was written, though that was part of it too, but the idea of it. At sixteen, Brian had left childhood far enough behind that he didn’t really believe anything in the book was possible, but even so… it almost convinced him. The author certainly seemed convinced – unless it was a well delivered act, Arthur T. Zindel was certifiably insane, because he undoubtedly believed every word of his book.
Brian dropped the book and slid back on his bed, resting his head against the wall. He thought about it for a long time, playing with it in his mind. The concept was intoxicating. Other worlds, sewn infinitely through this reality. With most books, the fiction was an understanding – you knew the author was making things up, and the agreement was you went along for the ride. But Zindel was saying something else – he claimed from the start that everything he said was real. And the scary part – the exciting part was… It could be. It was fantastical, it was magical, but… What if?
Of course, in the end, there was only one way to find out about any of it. Brian was reluctant to shatter the beautiful fantasy so soon, but there was no way he was getting to sleep tonight if he didn’t do something. Eventually, he snatched his laptop from his desk, logged on and started a search for Arthur T. Zindel.
It didn’t take long. Zindel was a widower, and had lived in Westlake for almost his whole life. He was largely regarded as a hermit, holed up in his large house and writing fantasy novels starring a character named Barry Whisp, who travelled through strange worlds having adventures. They were unsuccessful. Brian had no interest in this, but one of the headlines on the upper left contents bar caught his eye: Later life and disappearance. He scrolled down and read quickly, his eyes aching.
Zindel’s eldest son, Gerard, reported his father’s disappearance on August 8th, 1930, and when he still hadn’t surfaced by 1937 he was declared legally dead and his will executed.
He really had disappeared. Brian searched a little longer with no luck. That, it seemed, was where the story ended. No one was likely to discover the truth, either, since his youngest daughter, Diane, was already seventeen years old in 1937 – by now she’d probably be dead.
Brian chuckled to himself and shut the computer. He’d expected to find something more reasonable, like: Zindel was a popular fantasy author in the 1900s, most famous for his novel ‘Book of Worlds’. He died in 1930, and is buried in…
The time on his phone read four thirty. His bedroom windows were frosted and the early morning birds were already starting up, though the sun still had over an hour to rise. He lay back on his bed and stared at the ceiling. His vision swam, and it hurt to blink. His body wanted him to fall asleep, but he was caught up in the fever of the book – there was no hope for it.
He thought about telling one of his friends, but gave it up almost immediately. They’d see through it straight away, probably laugh at him, call him crazy in a good natured way. Most of all, telling it to someone else would destroy this feeling he had now, this feeling of mad possibility.
No, there was only one way to work this out so that he could get some sleep. He had to make sure it wasn’t real, even if it meant killing this brilliant, childish excitement inside him. He had to make a door.