Listen to this short story, narrated by C.S.E. Cooney:
This story includes instances of fatphobic language, depictions of abusive family dynamics, and childhood bullying.
“Can you read me a bedtime story?” says the recovering boy, his brown eyes half-closed.
“Not tonight, guy,” says Brian, the father, standing over the twin bed in the cramped room. “Doc said you need your rest.”
“Pleeeease,” the boy presses. “Mom used to read me a bedtime story every night.”
Brian gazes out the window, where the January sun is slipping away. It was a good day, all told. The outpatient brain surgery went on without a hitch. Andre is officially a “BookWorm Baby.”
With his callused dark-brown hands, Brian lifts a quilted comforter, tucking his boy in. “Tomorrow, how ‘bout we take a trip to the library, see how this whole implant thing works.”
Andre lights up. “Promise?!”
“Not if you don’t get some shuteye.”
Andre’s eyes snap shut. Brian stands there, surrounded by boxes yet to be unpacked.
Andre yawns. “Maybe you can get a BookWorm too. So we both can have one.”
“Nah, not at my age. My top floor can’t handle all that retrofitting. Now go ‘head, get you some sleep, alright? Got a big day ahead of us.”
As Brian walks out, the boy calls after him: “Dad?”
“What is it, guy?”
“I like being here with you.”
Standing in the doorway, a wave of warmth washes over Brian, a rush like he’s never felt before getting custody. He hesitates to cross the threshold, afraid the feeling might disappear if he does.
Back in his own room, Brian sits on the edge of his bed, thinking about Andre, the implant, the opportunities his son will get that Brian himself never got a whiff of. The thought compels him to reach under the bed, where he hides a book with a giant eye on the cover, a photomosaic of notable figures ranging from Muhammad Ali to Octavia Butler. Super Vision: The Perceptive Power of Dyslexia.
He can’t recall how many times he’s cracked open this book, especially since his son moved in. But paralyzed by the weight of his own memories — of the kids who called him “Molasses Ass” for being “Black and slow,” of the teachers who turned him down when he wanted extra time on his tests, of the days he felt utterly alone — Brian never gets past paragraph one. He puts the book under the bed.
Brian didn’t even bother with the BookWorm e-manual. He’d seen the ads: Happy kids with their headsets, uploading book after book from the VR library to their brains. Instantly. Click and done. (“I got through all 1001 Books to Read Before You Die in one night,” proclaimed a little Black girl in butterfly barrettes. “I’m a BookWorm Baby!”)
How exactly does the literacy implant bypass the visual and auditory centers to feed information straight to the frontal lobe? Brian doesn’t have all the answers. But he does know this is a good move for Andre, setting him up early so he won’t get left behind and get laughed at and rejected over and again and end up dropping out before he hits fifteen.
The alarm goes off at six a.m., but Brian’s already awake. He usually gets up around now for work, making calls to his usual contacts to see if any solar panel installation projects around the Bay Area could use a spare hand. Not today.
After a quick run to the corner store to grab some bread, half-a-dozen eggs, and whipped cream, he’s back home with the whole place smelling like bacon. In the cluttered kitchen, three strips sizzle on a cast-iron skillet. Brian cracks two eggs over a small silver bowl to make the batter for Happy Face French Toast, a home-cooked meal to start their father-son day off right.
When Brian was a kid, his fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Dickenson, used to lecture about how crucial breakfast was for concentration, how poor nutrition leads to poor grades and so forth. Of course, all those Fs Brian got had nothing to do with food. But he believed her back then. And stuffed his face morning, noon, and night, which added weight but not wisdom, and gave the other kids even more cause to call him slow.
Andre walks in, wearing faded Spider-Man pajamas, dragging his feet, eyes on the floor.
“There he is,” Brian says. “How’s your head, guy?”
Andre slumps down at the wooden table. “Don’t be mad.”
“Mad?” Brian coats two slices of bread in yellow batter, plops them onto the greasy skillet. “What’d I be mad for?”
“I, uh …” Andre picks at his fingernails. “I went to the Teca … last night. See ’cause I forgot Mom left my old headset in my box of toys, and I thought it was broken, but it wasn’t, so then I—”
“Hold up, timeout, what’s the Teca?”
“You know, BookWorm’s VR library. I got a free pass for winning the lottery, remember? Dad, you gotta see it, there’s so many books, all the books you can ever imagine!”
But Brian couldn’t care less about a VR library. He was all set to go to a real one, for some real father-son bonding time. Brian turns his back to the boy, flipping the toast before it burns.
“What is it?”
“You ever read a book called The Meta-morph-o-sis? By Franz Kaf-ka?”
“Cain’t say I have, no.”
“That’s the one I read last night. I thought it was gonna be, like, a superhero book, but it wasn’t, but it was really good! You should read it. It’s about this salesman who wakes up and he’s a bug—”
“You was s’posed to be resting up.”
“But I can rest all day today. See, because now we don’t have to go to the library anymore. I can just upload books from home with my free pass.”
The French toast is done. Brian slides the pieces onto the plate with the bacon and eggs, then shakes up the can of whipped cream and draws on the face: two dots and a big smile.
He sets the plate in front of the boy. “Eat up.”
“You’re not eating?”
“I’m good. Matter fact, I’m thinking I might just go on ‘head to the library myself.”
Brian floats the idea out there, hoping for his son to grab it and say he wants to go with him. That doesn’t happen. Andre simply nods as he douses the French toast in syrup, takes his knife and fork and proceeds to cut that happy face to pieces.
There are no books at the busy Stockton library on North El Dorado Street. Not real books you can actually hold — only white shelves lined with holograms of titles for visitors to download to e-readers or upload to a VR booth on the second floor. Brian stands at the entrance, culture-shocked, an analog man in a digital world that’s passed him by.
“Can I help you?” asks a box-shaped robot librarian with a monitor for a head.
“Oh, um … alright then,” Brian says, caught off guard. “I’m looking for a, uh, a bug book — I mean, a book about a bug, but I forgot the name …”
The librarian’s face blinks, then shows a long list: hundreds of thousands of results for bug books. But all those books, all those titles look like nothing to him but a jumbled mess of black marks jumping on a white screen.
“You know what, never mind,” Brian says, rushing off to browse on his own.
The librarian rolls right along after him. “I can help you.”
Brian picks up the pace, self-conscious of all the eyes watching him get chased by a machine. He cuts around a corner, darts down the aisle. Then pulls out his cell, pretending to answer a call. “Hello?” he whispers on the phone to nobody. “No, I can’t talk right now, I’m over at the library.” Peering through slots in shelves without books. “Looking for … something.”
“Can I help you?” asks another robot librarian, startling him.
“Look here, I don’t need help, alright? Now go, go somewhere.”
“Did your child recently get a BookWorm implant?”
Brian ends the non-existent call. “How you know that?”
The librarian’s face blinks and another BookWorm ad plays. Not the one with the little Black girl in butterfly barrettes. This one shows grown-ups sharing stories as parents of BookWorm babies, documentary-style. One lady talks about her eight-year-old girl going through “a Russian Lit phase.” A couple on a couch laughs that their five-year-old boy recites Ulysses but still wets the bed. Another woman praises her precious baby girl who went from “building blocks to discourses on Deconstruction” in three days. All thanks to the BookWorm.
Brian doesn’t want to hear anymore. He taps the screen to cut the video, but the machine quickly scans his fingerprint and says: “Hello … Brian.”
Brian yanks his hand back like the screen’s hot. “The fuck?”
“If you’ve read the manual on literary implants, you know the first few weeks can be a difficult adjustment process. Has your child made you feel insecure?”
Brian laughs. “Say what?”
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“Whoa, ain’t nobody ashamed—”
“The mood swings, the distance, that feeling of rejection. By joining a BookWorm Habitat in your area, you can find comfort in knowing you’re not alone.” The librarian’s face blinks, then shows a list of local support group contacts. “We’re here to help.”
“I don’t need no help!”
Brian freezes, his face burning like it used to back in elementary, then he dashes out.
Back on the road, Brian commands his pickup truck to call home.
“Hello?” Andre answers.
“Brotherman, it’s Dad. How you feeling?”
“Excelsior! Guess how many books I read this morning.”
“One-hundred and fifty-four!”
Brian switches the truck to manual mode, grips the wheel. “Wow. That’s something, guy.”
“What’s the last book you read, Dad?”
“Last book? Well, I ain’t had much free time what with work and the hearings—”
“Have you read Frankenstein?”
“Oh yeah, I remember that movie with, um, what’s his name?”
“Have you read anything by Charles Dickens?”
“Hmm. I might have, but honestly I don’t remember.”
“Joyce? Pynchon? Marquez?”
Brian rubs his beard. “She sounds familiar. But you gotta understand, when you get to be my age, you don’t retain everything so easy—”
“When are you coming home?”
“Just left the library, so I’m headed home now—”
“Good, we’ll talk more when you get here, okay? Love you, Dad.”
The call ends. It’s the first time Andre’s ever said those three words on his own accord. Washed over once again by that warm feeling, Brian can’t help but smile and he decides to make one more stop.
The used bookstore off Thorton Road is a throwback, a forgotten relic with actual books on shelves and books on tables and books on books. An old friend of Brian’s, Brother Affiq Ali, owns the place. The bell jingles as Brian enters, summoned by the swirling incense smoke and the sounds of “Milestones” by Miles Davis.
Affiq peeks out the back room, rubs his eyes in disbelief. “B-Real? Is that you?!”
“Feeq da Freak,” Brian says as Affiq rushes over to hug him.
“What’s good, fam?” Affiq moves a pile of books off the sofa for Brian. “Sit down, sit down.”
“Can’t stay too long. My son waiting on me at the house.”
“Yo, that’s right.” Affiq turns down the jazz. “I heard about that.”
Brian doesn’t know what “that” means. But if he could guess, “that” would be Camille, his ex, who left him and took their son because Brian wasn’t “handling his business fast enough.” But working on her master’s, her mind snapped from all the stress. And Brian got a second chance at fatherhood.
“Been looking all over the city for a book, but I forgot the name. It’s a bug book.”
“Like a nature book?”
“Nah, like, uh, it’s a kid’s book — my son read it last night.”
“A bug book. Lemme think.” Affiq browses the shelves. “It’s good your boy still reading, though. This Teca bullshit got me all discombobulated. Bruh, whatever you do, keep your boy off that BookWorm.”
“He just got one.”
“Had the surgery yesterday.”
“Noooooo!” Affiq tumbles over the loveseat in dramatic fashion. “My nigga, tell me you didn’t fall for that ‘revolutionizing literacy’ hype.”
“I’m setting my boy up right.”
Affiq pops up, shaking his head as he goes behind the front counter, grabs a paperback book: The Mis-Education of The Negro by Carter G. Woodson. He holds open the preface for Brian to read the highlighted line, which to Brian looks something like:
The mree ipnraimtg of iomrifaotnn is not etcoiudan.
Brian just laughs. “What you flipping out about?”
Affiq looks around, all paranoid. He leans in close, tapping his third eye with his middle finger. “Mind fucking control.” Then flips to another page in the middle of the book, revealing a longer highlighted passage, which to Brian looks something like:
If you can corntol a man’s tnkhinig you do not have to wrroy auobt his aicotn. Wehn you dmtneiree what a man sahll thnik you do not have to coercnn ylroeusf auobt what he wlil do. If you make a man feel taht he is ieonirfr, you do not have to copmel him to aeccpt an ieofrnir suttas, for he wlil seek it hemislf. If you make a man thnik that he is jsutly an oucsatt, you do not have to order him to the back door. He will go wtouiht bneig tlod; and if tehre is no back door, his very natrue will damned one.
Brian closes the book and stands. “Look, I’m thinking big picture. This implant will give my boy opportunities we ain’t had coming up. Getting left behind won’t even be possible.”
“Leveling the playing field, I get all that,” Affiq says. “But this some NWO-type shit, B. Peep game, every time these kids upload a book, the brain’s reward center lights up like it does with good food or a good fuck. That ain’t just pleasure reading. That’s dopamine! That craving for the next book-high, feel me? Same neurological response you get from a hit of crack.”
Brian puffs up, feeling defensive. “What you saying?”
“My nigga, what I’m saying is …” Affiq lights another incense stick. “Notice how all those BookWorm commercials show Black and Brown kids mostly?” Brian recalls the commercial. “Reading is fundamental my ass. These motherfuckers are fundamentally drug dealers.”
Brian shoos him off. He did his homework. He watched the videos. The BookWorm is legit.
“This what you looking for?” Affiq hands Brian a picture book with a spider on the cover.
Brian doesn’t remember Andre talking about a spider. “Is this about a salesman?”
“You ain’t up on Anansi?” Affiq takes a stack of books off a table to alphabetize them. “That little spider is the truth. He’s a West African god, but a trickster. Real slick with his. You should check it out. That one’s about how dude became keeper of all the stories in the world.”
Sitting in his pickup at McKinley Park, Brian is trying to understand the book he just bought. He’s been re-reading and re-re-reading sentences. So far, he’s figured that Anansi wants to be the King of All Stories, but the sky-god tells the spider he can’t have all the stories till he passes the test. Anansi says he’s ready for anything, so the sky-god says he must catch three things: hornets, a python, and a leopard … And that’s as far as Brian got. He doesn’t know how the spider’s gonna pull this one off. But Brian thinks this book will be a good gift for his boy since, evidently, he’s into bugs now.
“He’ll like this,” Brian says, nodding to himself, trying to forget what Affiq was saying about mind control and crack. Is Brian a good father? The question rattles around in his brain and he realizes he lost track of time. The sun is almost gone. Flooded by fear, he commands the truck to call home. It rings. And rings. But nobody answers.
When Brian gets home, all the lights are off. He doesn’t see anything or hear anyone.
“Dre?” Brian calls out. “Andre, where you at?!”
Brian rushes down the hall to Andre’s room. The bed’s made up like it hasn’t been slept in. No signs of life anywhere. Brian’s heart starts thrashing, ready to rip through his chest.
Then he hears a squeak.
Coming from the bathroom.
Brian moves down the hall, pushes open the bathroom door to find Andre, sitting there in the empty tub with his pajamas still on, holding the VR headset.
And Brian’s fear then yields to rage. “Guy, didn’t you hear me calling—”
But when Andre looks up, Brian sees his brown eyes all puffy from crying them out.
“I didn’t know where you were.” Andre sniffles, wiping his snotty nose with his pajama sleeve. “And then I thought, ‘What if you got eaten by a rhinoceros?!’”
“That’s what happened to James’ dad.”
“You know, James and the Giant Peach?”
“Oh, right, right, the giant peach,” Brian says, having no idea about such things.
“And then I thought maybe you got abducted by IT and sent to prison on Camazotz!”
Looking at his son, this scared little boy, Brian knows all too well what it’s like to feel alone, abandoned, and he hates himself for putting Andre through that. “I, um, I got you a gift—”
“I can’t live here,” says the boy.
Brian’s heart hits the floor. “What you mean? You … you just got here.”
“Not here.” Andre waves his hand around. “Here. In America. We built this country, yet this country sets us up to fail. The gods are fallen.” He buries his face in his hands. “All safety gone.”
“Alright, guy,” Brian says, holding out his hand, “why don’t you come up out of there, huh?”
Andre shakes his head. “Why don’t you read?”
Brian recoils. “Say what?”
“Read Foucault. Read Fanon. You’ll see! We’ve been conditioned to fear ‘the other’ and hate ‘the other,’ which is us. We’re perpetrating — I mean, per-pet-uating our own self-punishment system.”
“Why you talking like a white boy?”
Andre frowns. “What does that mean?”
“It means … you’ve done enough reading for one day.”
With that, Brian goes to the kitchen, thinking that’s the final word.
“How can you say that?” Andre climbs out to chase him. “How can you say that?! If we got caught with a book back in the day, we’d get beaten or lynched!”
“Who’s we?” Brian gets out some ribs to heat under a food-warming halo. “You wasn’t there.”
“But that’s our people. What about the anti-literacy laws passed in South Carolina and Texas? And so it goes. But my brain’s not dried up. Beware, for I am fearless! I think therefore I am! Why do you think Frederick Douglass said: ‘Once you learn to read, you will be forever free’?”
“Check this out,” Brian says, “I let you get away with reading when you shoulda been resting, but now it’s dinnertime. So sit down and eat up—”
“I’ll pass. I’m a vegan now.”
“Ain’t nothing wrong with these ribs. They leftovers from the church.”
“I’m not a Christian anymore. It’s true what Marx said: ‘Religion is the opiate of the masses.’”
“Do you even know what opiate means?”
“No. But I agree.”
“Uh-huh. So what are you, an atheist?”
“I’m just me,” says the boy. “I don’t believe in labels.”
Brian turns around with a smirk. “Think you smart, huh? ‘Cause you memorized a few quotes? You sound like a robot. So and so said this, so and so said that.” Brian scoffs. “That ain’t real reading. You just craving that next book-high.”
Andre laughs. “Are you slow?”
And with that trigger word, Brian is no longer Brian the Father. He’s a fourth-grader, under buzzing fluorescent lights, at the front of the classroom because Mrs. Dickenson forced him to get up and read a page of Charlotte’s Web, and all the kids are cracking up because he’s stumbling over his sentences like his drunk stepdad stumbled over air.
“Don’t you ever say that to me!” Brian grips his son by the arm. “You wouldn’t be nowhere if it wasn’t for me, you understand?! I’m the king ‘round here. This my house and you not gonna talk to me any ol’ kinda way. You don’t wanna eat? Go to bed hungry then.” Brian snatches the VR headset from the boy’s little hands. “I’ma hold onto this till you get some sense up in you.”
Andre starts crying as he runs down the hall to his bedroom.
“And stop crying ‘fore I give you something to cry about!”
Then the buzzing lights and the laughing kids disappear. In the kitchen, Brian slumps down at the table, full of shame, and stares at the steaming ribs the boy left behind.
The late January sun is down. Brian is lying in the master bedroom. Almost an hour has passed before he finds the courage to go down the hall with the book he wants to tell his son about. Outside the boy’s bedroom, he hears no sounds on the other side.
“Guy,” he says, rapping his knuckle on the door. “Andre, you awake?”
He pokes his head in. All Brian sees is a lump under the comforter. He sits on the edge of the bed, setting his eyes on the unpacked boxes around the room.
“Last night, you asked me to read you a bedtime story …” He stops, clears his throat, wipes his sweaty palms on his pants, rests his callused hands on the book in his lap. “Look, I wanted to apologize for … I know I’m not the best father, but I, um … I wanna show you something. You mind cutting on that light? I just wanted to show you my book.”
Brian holds up the book. Andre turns on the nightstand lamp, squints at the cover.
“Super Vision,” Andre reads the title. “I’ve never heard of this book before.”
“Yeah, it’s not really popular all like that.”
“What’s it about?”
“I ain’t even read it myself.”
The boy frowns. “I don’t get it.” He takes the book from him.
As Andre flips through the pages, Brian starts unpacking boxes, avoiding eye contact, keeping his hands busy so the boy won’t see them shaking. What was he thinking?! This is stupid — he’s stupid! And now his son will see him for the failure that he is. And all Brian wants to do now is snatch the book back and run away and crawl under covers to hide because he knows the boy’s laughing behind his back, realizing his own father’s a fat motherfucking idiot—
Unable to face his son, Brian stares at his own shadow on the wall. “Huh.”
“Why didn’t you tell me you have special powers!”
“I ain’t got nobody’s powers.”
“Yuh-huh, says so right here,” he says. “C’mon, we can read it together!”
Slowly, Brian turns around. He sees his boy there in bed, caught in the glow of the lamp. He sees his brown eyes, open for the first time. Brian still wants to crawl under something, but he can’t. His mind taunts him with other things he can’t do, like remember names and read two-hundred words a minute. Truth be told, he can’t do a lot of things, but does that make him a bad father? Brian doesn’t think so. Doesn’t being a good father just mean being an open book? Open to learning? That sounds about right. Brian doesn’t have all the answers. But his son has just given him an opportunity, a test. So he goes to him, sits close to him, and the two of them, the man and the boy, read a bedtime story.