Your Words There for the World to See
by Aimee Ogden
The school library doesn’t have the book you want. No surprise there. There are a few dozen volumes on its shelves; plenty of other books are out there in the cloud, but the part of the cloud with your book is partitioned off too. It’s in the Premium Access tier and a Title X school in Ass-Nowhere, Wisconsin is not exactly Premium Access quality. The librarian apologizes for that, but apologies don’t put the words in your hands.
There’s still a library or two open to the public, down by the capital, but you don’t have the gas for a drive like that. The last one in Adams County closed three years ago. There’s still the country repository, though. If they have the book you want they’ll send a drone to your house with it. The next time you get computer lab access, you pull up the repository website. Your heart squeezes in your chest when you type the title into the search bar, and sure enough, there it is. Its row in the search results is painted emerald green for Available. You tap the button to request it, but an error message pops up instead. You owe $15.96 for a paperback you failed to return eight years ago. Eight years. You probably left it on one of your visits to the hospital. Your heart squeezes again, for different reasons.
The timer in the bottom corner of the screen turns orange. You slam the Logout button so you still have some computer time on your account to last you the rest of the week.
Your history textbook has no cover anymore and no mention of anything that happened east of the Ural Mountains until the Korean War. You read the assigned section on Martin Luther before the classroom discussion, even though he’s as boring as any other of the dead white guys you’ve read about this year. When your teacher tries to pull up the Publicpedia article on his however-many theses, everything after the introductory paragraph is behind a pay wall.
You skip school lunch for a week until you have enough money to pay the fine, and then you send a PayMe over to the library account. Dad and Fran probably would have given you the credit if you’d just asked, but you don’t have the words to explain it to them. In the meantime Fran frets over your enormous appetite: the snacks you snatch from the pantry the second you get home from school, the second helpings at dinner. You hear her talking to your dad one night, after you’re supposed to be asleep: “I just wish she trusted me enough to tell me what’s bothering her!” You do trust her. But you don’t have the words to tell her so, or to tell her why, or what you need. You hardly even know what you need.
After another nine days, the red text at the top of your account profile disappears, and when you try again to order the book, no error message appears. You pump your fist in victory, and the librarian at her desk says, “Shhh!” even though you haven’t made a sound.
Another week passes and the book still hasn’t arrived at your door. You log on at school to check the estimated delivery date, and find a notice of failure to deliver instead. Your apartment building doesn’t have the hardware to scan drones and admit them inside, and the library won’t simply leave books propped up by the front door. Drones can’t tell when it’s raining or muddy and they can’t stop a thief from picking up an unsecured book and walking away with it. It all makes sense but you read the email over and over, trying to find a logical fault line that you can reach through and tear the whole thing apart.
This is the second week of the Fahrenheit-451 unit in American Literature. Your teacher sits on her desk at the front of the room and asks you in a serious voice to write in your journals about how you would feel living in a society where art was destroyed.
You get sent to the principal’s office for not being able to explain to her what made you laugh so hard that tears burned your eyes and ran out through your nose.
You bank up your computer time through Midwinter Break and then debit a whole study hour’s worth to read the electronic resource version of the book that the library offers for a five-day download. When you try to open the file, though, it’s headache-inducing gibberish. The file format is incompatible with the antique software the lab computers are running.
You don’t know the words you need to shout your frustration right now. But your hands do. Your fingers crash on the keyboard. The librarian glances over at you, opens her mouth, then looks away again. It’s just a page but it’s your page, and you’re tired when you finish. When the librarian turns away to answer a phone call from the office, you send a dozen copies of it to the printer. During fifth period you pass them to your friends beneath the cover of desks.
A friend of a friend has fumbled her way into the school intranet passcodes. She calls herself a hacker, but really she just found the list that the drama teacher taped inside her top desk drawer. Breathlessly she asks you if you want to do something, like, really cool with those words of yours. You don’t ask what this really cool thing might be before saying yes. When the school brings in a motivational speaker to tell you how your lives are all going to amount to fuck-all if you don’t accept Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior, a white screen drops behind him halfway through his set. Out of the speakers, a distorted voice belches, reading the passage you wrote over a staticky scratchpunk track. A projector on the catwalk beams your words–your words!–up on the screen for the whole school to see. Words like power and privilege. Words like seize and speak and (you’re especially proud of this one) abolish. Words like justice. It’s not perfect: you couldn’t quite articulate what justice would look like. Only the shape of its absence. When the vice principal runs up on the stage, the machine-gun rat-a-tat of her heels breaks the magic spell of silence, and the other kids erupt in laughter and whoops.
The friend’s friend gets detention and the principal makes her write a five-page essay about the limits of free speech. She doesn’t tag you, though, and a couple of the local news channels pick up the story. Even one on the Premium Access tier, you hear later. Not that you actually get to see it.
One night your dad offers you a few minutes on his new work smart-phone. He needs it for work, he says, but sighs, and adds that he just wants to shut his eyes for a little while before he finishes up the tasks he brought home tonight. At last you pull up the book, in the right format. You can’t finish it all tonight, can’t even read a whole chapter in the fifteen minutes your dad has offered you. You read what you can anyway, and those glowing words pulse and twine through your own, filling you up, hollowing you out. Leaving you half-satisfied and already starving for more.
About the Author
Aimee Ogden is a former science teacher and software tester; now she writes stories about sad astronauts and angry princesses. Her work can also be found in Shimmer, Apex, and Escape Pod, and forthcoming in Analog.
About the Narrator
Tina Connolly is the author of the Ironskin trilogy from Tor Books, and the Seriously Wicked series, from Tor Teen. Ironskin, her first fantasy novel, was a Nebula finalist. Her stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and many more.