As soon as I took a sip, I realized it was poison.
Obviously, I didn’t swallow. I froze, juice dribbling slightly out of the corner of my mouth. I glanced around, slowly, to see if anyone had noticed my reaction. Hey, Ling, you all right? What’s wrong? Oh no, someone poisoned your drink?
Pphht. Yeah right. Everyone was too busy dancing, their bodies wiggling in time to the music – an album by the Weird Sisters, or Led Zepplin, whichever it was.
They certainly weren’t paying attention to me, one of the bookless.
Carefully, I spat the contents back into my cup. Orange juice, with flicks of my recent hamburger, floated up, innocently. It was hard to believe it was contaminated. I briefly had the urge to wash out my mouth with water, but I dismissed the idea. I had barely tasted the stuff. I’d be fine.
But, if someone had posioned the drinks…
I cursed, turning, and knocked against a tall, sturdy figure. A hand gripped my shoulder. “Ye gods, Ling!” A deep voice said. “Watch thyself! I hast spilled the catsup o’er my blouse!”
I looked up, and saw one of the most popular book characters in the world. She’s also one of my few friends.
We used to see each other a lot more when I was younger, me and Sanfraya Huch, before her adventures in the mythical world of Ghershoba took the reading world by the storm, and my status as a bookless character became widely know. Not that Sanfraya is prejudiced; more, with her reputation and importance among book characters, her schedule is very full (not to mention she was prophesied to save her world from some dark sorcerer, who’s hated her since birth, blah blah, you know the rest). The fact that she – and I, for that matter – was at the party was unusual.
She’s busy; I just prefer to keep to myself.
I showed her my cup. “My drink was posioned,” I said.
“What?” Sanfraya shrugged dismissively, waving her hand in front of it. Green lightning zapped my cup. “Not anymore,” She told me. “Ye gods, how do mortals keep themselves safe without simple anti-death spells?”
“Soap,” I said, staring at the smoking, melting cup in my hands. “And that was far from your best spell.”
She sniffed grandly as a guy and a girl made their way through the crowd. “Hey guys,” the guy said, grinning, throwing his arm around the girl’s shoulder. “How’s the party?”
“Horrible,” I said.
The girl laughed. “Ling Haunders, would it kill you to try to be social for once? Look, if you want, I could introduce you to that Potter kid; he doesn’t care about book status, plus he’s got an invisible cloak…”
“No, really, Lockhart,” I told her, although I made a mental note of this Potter dude, “Someone just poisoned the orange juice. You have to get rid of it.”
Kevin stared at me. “What?” He whirled around. “But…me and Lockhart are in our own universe! We could have been killed!” He looked at the beer in Lockhart’s hand and gave it a wild karate chop.
Their horror was my own, I realized.
See, Lockhart and Kevin were my only other friends, the main characters of a contemporary romance novel. They were having a party – in their book, Fields of Pain – at Lockhart’s house while her parents were at that science convention hosted by the Sherlock Holmes universe. Lockhart had begged me and Sanfraya to come. I hadn’t wanted too, but Kevin and Lockhart had been going through a lot lately; Kevin’s mother had died in a tragic, avoidable car accident, and Lockhart’s dad had dramatically forbidden her from dating (seriously, sometimes I think contemporary characters get it in the shorts; just ask Eleanor and Park ).
But, see, the poison was at their party, in their universe. If they had been in another universe, say, the Sherlock Holmes one, if they had drunken the poison, it wouldn’t have effected them. All characters are immune to death outside of their own universe, which, I realized as I glanced around the room at the dozens of fantasy, sci-fi, action and romance heroes, made almost everyone at this party safe.
Except for the party’s hosts.
See, as a character who was fully fleshed out in an author’s mind, but then, inexplicably, forgotten, I had no book to call my own, and was therefore born without the ability to regenerate in other universes. Me drinking poison at Lockhart’s house was just as bad as being blown up in the Hunger Games, or being exposed to R5.
I felt anger boil up inside me. Someone had deliberately sabotaged Lockhart’s party; I was sure of it.
But who had been the intended target – the adorable Kevin and Lockhart?
Or me, one of the bookless?
“Hey!” Kevin barked at the crowd. “Everyone stay away from the drinks!” Everyone stopped, and turned. Someone even had the presence of mind to turn the boom box off. “Someone poisoned the beverages,” Kevin went on, “you should all be fine, since you’re crossing over, but leave it alone.” He thought for a moment. “And someone call 911.”
Sanfraya gave him a blank look. “Nine One who?” I noticed several other fantasy and sci-fi characters giving each other blank looks. I rolled my eyes.
“Do you know who did it?” A pale girl with knives and swords strapped to her belt asked Kevin.
I answered. “No,” I said, “And we aren’t sure who it was intended for, and why.”
Someone in the audience snorted. “Who asked you, Bookend?” Almost everyone burst out into cruel laughter.
I felt my face burn red. The bookless are despised among book characters; we are the minority, and, in the eyes of book characters, not human.
“That was uncalled for, ye brute!” Sanfraya roared, her eyes blazing with anger. Literally, her eyes had burst into flames, and she sent a jagged flash of energy in the general direction of the voice. Everyone ducked, and it hit the boombox instead, turning it into ash. “Someone hast made a vulgar attempt to take my friend’s life!” She thundered. “This sanctuary is no place for thy idiotic hatred!”
“Um, thanks, Sanny,” I said, sort of touched, but also thankful she hadn’t sent someone to the seventh circle of hell, “But, we don’t know if I was the intended target…”
“Actually,” Lockhart said timidly, “I think you were. You had the orange juice, right?”
I looked at the cup. “You know it,” I said. Orange juice is one of the few things I love heart and soul. Lockhart and Kevin had teased me in the past about my “addiction”, but only idiots drank beer, in my opinion (yes, I know Lockhart was drinking it…).
Lockhart gestured, and walked over to the beverages. The crowd parted as me, her, Kevin and Sanfrya came to the table. She held up the orange juice container. “See?” She asked.
I blinked. When I had gotten my drink earlier, I hadn’t noticed the permanent marker inscription – HANDS OFF!! Ling’s only!!!!!
“I…I wrote that just after dad brought it from the store,” Kevin said. “I didn’t want anyone else to take your juice, Ling.” He sounded horrified. “Unless the other drinks have been tampered with too…”
I tested them, carefully, dipping my finger in each of the containers, and taking a small taste. They seemed fine.
The orange juice was full of poison.
I had almost certainly been the target.
I looked up at Kevin. “Your dad bought it from the store?”
“Yeah,” he pointed to a door in the corner of the room, “He put them in the kitchen, then left. I took everything – the beverages, the pretzels, dip – out of the grocery bags. I scribbled that thing, then left the stuff in the kitchen.”
“For how long?” I demanded.
“About fifty minutes before the party began,” Kevin said.
I thought for a moment. “Were…people here before you set everything up?” It didn’t even occur to me that Kevin had poisoned the drinks, or Lockhart. I knew they could never have done it.
A kid wearing a Camp Half Blood t-shirt waved a sword animatedly. “Wylder McManniss got here at the same time as me,” he said sheepishly, as if he was tattling on someone stealing candy, “we were here talking to Lockhart and Kevin ages before anything was set up. Ans…he went into the kitchen.”
Everyone turned, and I felt an incredible loathing boil in the back of m y throat. Wylder was a football jock in his universe, and vastly rich. He hated the bookless. He made posts on BookFace all the time about bookless arrests, and made nasty little comments like, “How long will we allow this to continue before we finally take an eraser to these freaks?”
“Yeah, so?” He sneered. ” I was hungry.” He pointed at the crowd. “Besides, Glitterbug was in there before me. I surprised her when she was coming out. She looked guilty about something.”
There was an indignant humph, and a girl in a skimpy orange jumpsuit and wings coming out of her back stepped forward. She was the famous side kick of War Man from Fun Comix. “I was looking for a glass of water,” she said icily. “And I had spilled ice-cubes on the floor. I was looking for a broom.”
Wylder arched his eyebrows. “I didn’t see any ice cubes.”
“You wouldn’t be able to see an asteroid hit the earth even if it was happening right in front of you!” Glitterbug hissed, muttering something under her breath that sounded like, “Neanderthal.”
I glared at both of them, but, honestly, neither of them seemed likely to have done the thing. I mean, Wylder hated the bookless, and Glitterbug clearly thought she was superior to everyone in the universe, but they were acting like children. I don’t think they’d have the stomach to kill someone.
“Why are we even worried about this?” Someone asked. “It’s just a Bookend.”
Flames curled at the end of Sanfraya’s fingers.
“That’s enough!” Kevin snapped. “I don’t want to hear another -“
“No, Kevin,” I said quietly, but firmly. I turned to the crowd, catching their eyes as I scanned them. “Come on guys, tell me – why do you hate me so much?”
I waited. Kevin, Sanfraya and Lockhart stood behind me, aghast. This was unlike me. I was the loner, the one who ran away from trouble.
I couldn’t afford to let things hurt me.
But, tonight, in an instant, this had escalated from being hurt to being killed. I was done with these people. Who did they think they were? What gave them the right to take my life?
Because it was mine, and being bookless made no difference.
Everyone started speaking at once.
“My mom says you guys want to kill us!”
“You don’t belong here!”
“You’re jealous of people with stories!”
“Your kind wants to take over the universe!”
As they went on, and Kevin and Sanfraya tried to shut them up, I just stood there, watching. The words didn’t make sense to me; it was like wind, blowing loudly in my face.
What had I done to deserve this?
I hadn’t asked to be born bookless.
Lockhart squeezed my arm.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I shouldn’t have made you come.”
I was still, then I nodded. Kevin and Sanfraya had finally gotten everyone to be quiet ( Sanfaray had started turning people into hedgehogs). They watched as I turned, and walked towards the front door.
Kevin walked forward, trying to stop me. “No, Ling…the police’ll be here soon…”
“And they’ll do what?” I demanded hotly. Tears were pouring down my face, but I yelled out my words loudly, clearly. Everyone had to hear. “They’re just as prejudiced as the rest; they don’t care about a worthless…bookend.”
I gripped the doorknob, then whirled around. I faced the whole room once more.
“There is a saying, ‘Never judge a book by it’s cover,’” I told them. My hand was clutching the doorknob so tightly my fingers ached. “Yet, all my life, that’s all people have done concerning me – or, rather, they haven’t. I don’t have a cover.
“But, you know what, you people never took the chance to get to know me – you’ve never asked me what my favorite movie is, or what my hobbies are – heck, you’ve never asked me how I feel about all the bookless hatred.” I stood up straight.
“But…believe me when I say this…I have been around all of you my entire life. Whether I’ve interacted with you through my few friends, or read about you in your own books, Tom Sawyer, Divergent, Throne of Glass, all of them.” I clenched my teeth.
“I have taken the time to get to know you. And you know what I think?” I turned away. “You. Aren’t. Worth. My. Time.” I opened the door. It had begun to rain. “I’ll be passing the liquor store!” I yelled back at Kevin, Sanfraya and Lockhart.
And I slammed the door behind me.
The rain was cold, and shivered, wishing I had remembered to bring a jacket. When I crossed over next, I’d have to choose a book in a tropical paradise.
I could hear footsteps through the raindrops, and I quickened my pace, passing by the – now closed – Al’s Liquor Mart!. Most likely, it was the same place that the drinks had been purchased.
The footsteps were coming closer.
I ducked into an alley, and wiped wet hair out of my eyes. “Who’s there?” I called out in a frightened voice.
For a moment, there was no answer. I breathed heavily.
Then a shadow, a huge figure, jumped at me, knocking me to the gravel ground. I tasted blood in my mouth.
The shadow was far taller than me, taller than Wylder even, and heavier. I could hear him breathing heavily in the darkness. I jumped to my feet with a scream, and he slapped me in the face, sending me spinning again.
“Stay down, Bookend,” the shadow hissed. He raised a boot.
And I leaped into action.
When I had yelled out to Kevin where I was going, I had known what I was asking for. No one would care if someone had tried to kill a bookless character.
But I did. And I was going to make sure they paid for it.
I grabbed the shadow’s boot, twisting it. As he fell, I thanked my maker, whoever he or she was, for at least giving me martial arts training. As the shadow stumbled, I lashed out with my fist, catching him in the throat. He gurgled.
My knife came out of my jean pocket next, and I flicked the switch. The blade sprang to life, and I buried it in the man’s shoulder
The shadow screamed, and fell to his knees, clutching his shoulder. I yanked the blade free, and pulled the hood obscuring him off his face. Kneeling down, I put the knife to his throat.
I blinked. I knew that face.
“Mr Mcarthy?” It was Kevin’s dad.
The man glared at me, blood dribbling down his gray beard. Of course. Mr Mcarthy had gotten the drinks. Why hadn’t I suspected him? I cursed my creator, whoever he or she was, for not making me smarter. I pressed the knife against his throat, rage blurring my thoughts. He hadn’t stayed at the party, but he could have easily waited outside, seeing if his plan worked.
And followed me when it didn’t.
“Wretched bookend,” Mr Mcarthy snarled. He had guts. My knife was ready to slit his throat. “I told my son to stay away from the likes of you. You’re a menace to society.”
“So everyone keeps saying,” I said coldly, “but, then again, I wasn’t the one who poisoned a teen aged girl’s drink.” I glared at him. “I feel bad for Kevin; he deserved a better father.”
“He deserves better friends!” Mr Mcarthy screamed at me. His eyes were wide. “You were poisoning his life! You had to be stopped! How can Kevin hold his head up high among the reading world if he keeps being affiliated with you? Where will it stop? Next thing I know, he’ll have *******, half character, half bookend children with you.”
“He loves Lockhart.” I said, pressing the knife even closer. Mr Mcarthy was silent, glaring at me with blind hatred.
Yet another character who hated me for what I was. For what I wasn’t.
I looked at him right in the eyes.
“You deserve to die, Mr Mcarthy,” I said softly. I raised the knife above my head.
“I may not be a character…I may never be like you. But…remember this…” I leaned in, close to his ear.
“I am a better person than you will ever be.”
I plunged the knife down.
Mr Mcarthy gasped.
The knife was firmly planted in the ground in front of him. I stood, ignoring his slack jawed expression . I turned, and walked away.
I had wanted to kill him. I almost had.
But that would have proven nothing. It would have sunk me to his level.
Maybe, one day, the bookless will be accepted by their full-fledged character brethren. Maybe they’ll realize that a universe to call your own doesn’t make you human, or a lack of one makes you an animal.
And, maybe, by sparing a murderer’s life, I will have brought us one step closer to peace.