On her twelfth wedding anniversary, as she cleaned the house, Laurie came upon a leather-bound notebook in the nightstand drawer on her husband’s side of the bed.
She held the book in her hand, uncertain what to do. She closed her eyes, flipped the notebook to a random page, and caressed it with her fingers. She could feel the lines etched into the page, looping cursive lines that held a map to her husband’s heart.
Silently cursing herself, she opened her eyes.
I won’t read it, she said to herself. I’ll just riffle through it quickly. That’s not really snooping.
As she rapidly flipped through the notebook, the flowing blue ink lines danced around like an animated film. Once in a while her eyes would alight on a word or two — “dinner,” “rest,” “I don’t” — conferring no sense.
But he had made some drawings too, and those, even seen in a fraction of a second, stayed with her. One was of a house where all the windows were boarded up. Another was of a woman’s face — it had to be her! — whose expression was impossible to read. Her heart beat faster and her face flushed.
Her husband was writing about her, and she had no idea what he wrote.
She realized that it had been a long time since she felt close to him. Funny how she had put that out of her mind, ignored it like a messy corner of the closet.
He took her out to dinner that night. They were polite to each other, as they always were now, as they had grown used to being. She said nothing to him about what she had found.
The next morning, still dressed in her lime green robe, Laurie picked up the newspaper in the driveway and glanced at the front page.
The letters on the page wriggled like the worms her husband strung on hooks the one time he took her fishing. Every time she tried to focus on a letter, it stretched, twisted, and rolled into a meaningless black squiggle.
She dropped the newspaper as though it were on fire.
The letters swam around the white pool of the splayed-open newspaper: the big letters from the headlines wandered, each alone, like sharks, while the smaller ones from the articles schooled like minnows.
Then they began to jump off the page, flopping against the asphalt driveway before bouncing onto the lawn, where they melted into the earth. The paper they left behind was blank.
Laurie showed the newspaper to her husband and son. They stared at it.
“It looks all right,” David said. “Do you feel dizzy?”
She tried to explain, calmly, what she was seeing.
“Mom, is this some kind of roundabout way to comment on my English grade?” Eleven-year-old Frankie’s voice hovered between annoyance and incredulity. But he lost interest a moment later. “Oh, don’t put an apple in my lunch again, please.”
Laurie stared at the cereal box on the table: nothing but swirling, colored patterns that refused to resolve. She couldn’t even read the logo. She glanced at the calendar on the wall: all the numbers turned into droopy noodles and ran off the paper.
“It’s probably stress,” said David. “You’ve been working too hard.” He put his coffee cup in the sink and picked up his jacket. “I’m running late. Don’t forget to call the exterminator.” He tried to kiss her on his way out. She flinched.
“It’s not a joke!” she hissed. Sometimes she wondered if he even heard her. “I can’t read a fucking thing!”
Frankie laughed while David stared.
“Sorry,” she said.
She called work — thank goodness that her phone had voice dial; she couldn’t read the names and numbers in her address book at all — to say that she wasn’t coming in. “It’s my eyes,” she said. “Or maybe my head.”
She sat in the middle of a pile of books, magazines, newspapers, coupon circulars, church pamphlets, dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases — every form of printed matter she could find in the house.
She realized suddenly how many books she owned that she had never read. She had once loved poetry and devoured books about ants and stars and history and love, about everything that she found interesting and wanted to learn more. And now she hardly read anything at all.
What would her old self from twenty years ago think of her life now?
The not-reading was just a symptom. She had settled into a job and gotten married and had a son and bought a house, and she had not noticed as the water boiled slowly around her: one small sacrifice leading to another, each compromise paving the way for the next. Before she knew it, her life had turned into a long waking dream in which she seemed to do only what others wanted. She had ceased wanting what she couldn’t have.
She had stopped reading for herself because she was no longer curious, and she hadn’t even missed it.
Her old self would be embarrassed.
As she opened and stared at each book, magazine, pamphlet, the letters jumped out of their word-formations, crowded together into dense blocks, and dissolved into writhing blobs.
She picked up the bundles of paper and threw them as hard as she could against the wall. Books fluttered to the ground like pigeons, their white pages flapping frantically. Pamphlets landed more leisurely, like butterflies. The letters dropped out of them like sesame seeds, like black ants, like mascara flakes. They skittered into the cracks in the floor and disappeared, leaving behind blank pages, as white as fresh fallen snow.
Finally, she ran into the bedroom, jerked open the nightstand drawer, and took out her husband’s journal.
As she had expected, the blue ink lines snaked around the page like the trails of snails in her garden. They were unreadable.
At least the ink didn’t spill off the page, so that was something.
She cried, at first loudly, then very quietly.
Reluctantly, Laurie went to see her doctor, but he couldn’t find anything wrong with her.
“What do you see?” He pointed at the “E” at the top of eye chart on the wall.
The “E” wiggled, flattened, and danced on the wall, like a hopping frog.
“A frog,” Laurie said. The ink frog hopped off the chart, landed by her feet, and hopped again out of the office. “Now it’s gone.”
The doctor bent to scribble something on his notepad. Then he cleared his throat.
“I’m probably not the sort of doctor you need.”
Laurie stared at him. He scribbled some more on his notepad.
“I can make a referral if you want.”
Laurie shook her head. “I’m not crazy, if that’s what you think. I just can’t read.”
The doctor sighed, sat down, and rubbed his nose.
“I’m going to talk for a bit not in my capacity as your doctor. Look, there are days when I think nothing makes any sense. There’s just too much to read in life these days: the Internet, smartphones, ads everywhere you look, ‘tweets’ — whatever those are — total information overload. And it doesn’t help that we’re all taught to think everything is some kind of symbol, means something else. Sometimes I wish I could stop reading for a few days and just see the world as it is. Maybe things will return to normal if you stop trying to read into everything.”
Laurie didn’t tell him about her husband’s journal. She didn’t tell him how she felt judged, as though she was boring and her life a waste. She didn’t tell him that at nights, she thought she slept next to a stranger, an impenetrable, opaque, blank volume that she could no longer comprehend.
Laurie could remember a time when she knew the mind of her husband, and he hers, as though they were reading from the same page.
It had seemed so effortless, back then, to share everything. Every dream had seemed possible, and every obstacle but another opportunity.
Try as she might, she could not re-summon that glow. It was like re-reading, as an adult, a book that had once enthralled her as a child.
Laurie tried to listen to her doctor, to turn a loss into a gain.
She found that, for the most part, she did not miss reading.
She canceled the subscription to the newspaper — David always got his news from the Web anyway. She stopped bothering with the computer — no more annoying emails trying to sell her things, no more gossiping “friends” on Facebook that she hadn’t seen in years, no more reading on the screen, which always made her head hurt. She had used up her sick days and was now burning into vacation time, but she didn’t care.
She convinced herself that she felt serene, happy. During the day she kept the TV on as background noise and, occasionally, she glanced at it. TV was actually better now that she couldn’t read. She didn’t have to see the scrolling tickers and blinking “BREAKING NEWS” headlines that used to leave her distracted and frazzled.
But, once, some woman was talking smugly about her new book: a guide for “women who were too busy to be happy.” Don’t blame anyone else for your problems! she said, gesturing for emphasis. Seize the moment and be in control of your life! Dream, believe, be extraordinary! Laurie had hurled the remote at the TV and then had to walk around the block three times to get the image of her punching that smiling woman in the face out of her head.
Laurie pretended that the books, the books with their blank pages and pictures-only covers lined up on her shelves, were like the fake books they had in furniture stores. She hadn’t read a book in years, she thought, so fake books would have served her just as well.
Once in a while, she did wish she could talk to someone about what she was going through. But who? She could just imagine how she would sound: crazy. All she had to do was to close her eyes to see the looks that would be on the faces of her friends and family. No, she had to deal with this herself.
Especially not David and Frankie. Since she didn’t want to repeat her outburst from that first morning, she pretended that nothing was wrong and simply told them that she was working from home for a few weeks.
They noticed nothing odd, perhaps because they never saw her read anyway.
She contemplated writing — no, dictating — a book about her experience, about how life would be better if everyone stopped reading. She thought her book would be at least as good as the guidebook by that insufferable woman on the talk show.
Sometimes she sought her husband out of the corner of her eye, trying to catch him writing in his secret journal.
As the days went by, it became harder and harder to keep up the pretense. Laurie could not read the menus in restaurants and could not decipher the bills in the mail. She sent a card that said “Get well soon, Naomi!” to a retirement party — the art had fooled her.
Laurie had to admit that it all came back to that journal. It had to be the source of all her problems. And the solution.
What did he write in there? Did he complain about her, mock her ordinariness and her shrunken life? Or did he pity her, thinking that she should have tried harder, been more ambitious? Maybe he blamed her for holding him back. Perhaps he had seen through her pretense and thought she was going mad. He was probably having an affair.
In her mind, the journal began to take on mythical qualities. She wanted to read it more than she had wanted to read anything in her life.
She had to try to pin the letters down.
First, she tried taking photographs. Perhaps the problem was with her eyes. Maybe the letters would not run from a camera as they ran from her gaze.
Although the words in the photos were caught in mid-motion, the letters remained unintelligible. It looked like an invented alphabet, based on the squiggles of tadpoles.
With her peripheral vision, she caught the pages of the journal move on their own, fluttering, giggling at her. But when she stared at them, the pages lay still.
Next she tried to freeze the notebook. If the letters could swim and wriggle and jump and hop, she reasoned, perhaps coldness would finally stop them and allow them to be read.
She tried to stuff the journal into the freezer, and it immediately began to fight. It bucked in her hands like a fish, struggling to evade her grasp.
“Get … back … in …” she said, gritting her teeth, and tried to shove it back into the freezer. A part of her wanted to laugh — it was so cartoonish, so absurd. A part of her wanted to cry — surely she was going mad, utterly and completely insane oh God what will Frankie think if he sees his mother like this. But she pushed and pushed, like her life depended on it.
The journal began to scream — a sound somewhere between the rustling of paper and the cry of cicadas — and it opened up like the jaw of an animal and clamped down on Laurie’s hands, scraping sideways.
Laurie cried out as the sharp edge of the pages sliced through her fingers. She dropped the journal, which remained inert on the kitchen floor while she sucked the blood from her hand.
The journal, sensing danger, began to conceal itself. It no longer could be found in the nightstand.
Laurie was convinced that it was now hiding somewhere in the house, silent, concealed, as day after day, the secret in its pages grew ever more elaborate and alluring.
Laurie decided that she had to hunt it down.
She prepared bottles of glue and a large salad bowl so that she would be ready to immerse the book in paste upon its capture, trapping the letters much the way her mother had once caught flies with strips of sticky paper.
When she was alone in the house, she stalked it. Methodically, she scanned each room, searching every nook and cranny. In her hands she held a pair of kitchen scissors, ready to pounce.
She emptied the bookshelves, upended drawers, scattered every pile of paper in David’s office onto the floor. More letters fled from the open pages, like cockroaches caught in sunlight. She watched as tax records, bank statements, reference books, and his work files became just blank sheets of paper before her eyes.
Still, she could not find the one book she wanted, the only one she cared about.
Then she heard a rustling outside. Frankie wasn’t supposed to be home yet.
She dashed out into the hallway. And there was her husband, beyond the screen door, standing with a stunned expression on his face.
“Why weren’t you picking up the phone? I—”
But she was not listening. She was looking at the briefcase in his hand, from which the leather-bound notebook peeked out.
In a second she was out on the porch. She dove and yanked the briefcase out of his hand, ignoring his surprised yelp. She grabbed the notebook and held onto it, despite its wild flapping, like a chicken about to be slaughtered.
The journal tried to cut her hands again. She threw it against the ground, pinned it with her foot, and with the scissors in her hand, she began to stab and cut at the fluttering pages, at the writhing lines of ink.
David shouted; she ignored him. He wrapped his arms around her, trying to restrain her. The scissors fell from her hands, clattering against the wooden slats of the porch. She fought and punched at his chest, his arms, his shoulders, until she was exhausted.
Gradually, the fluttering pages stopped.
And it began to rain, dark, huge, inky drops that fell around her, on her, splattering into puddles full of letters, like alphabet soup.
As if from a distance, she heard her husband’s voice. “I want you to read it. Please read it.”
He was holding her the way he had not done in a long time, the way he used to wrap his arms tight around her when they danced so that the world seemed to come to a stop, suspended in a moment just between them.
The blue ink on the pages of the journal stopped moving. She found that she could, in fact, read.
I don’t know what Laurie is thinking …
She must be disappointed with us …
We never talk any more …
How do I tell her I do not like my work …
Sometimes she seems so far away …
And the words grew blurry and indistinct, as she read and read, gazing into the mystery of her own heart.
About the Author
Ken Liu (kenliu.name) is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. His fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, among other places. He has won a Nebula, two Hugos, a World Fantasy Award, and a Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award, and been nominated for the Sturgeon and the Locus Awards. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.