Martin stares at the cover of a leather-bound journal and thinks of a little green bus stop bench. The one just round the corner from his newest job, with the chipping paint and wobbly seat.
Sitting there after a late shift, journal in hand, pen at the ready, its end tapping against his chin. Little flecks of ink marring the pages just so, and then raindrops, as the sky darkens without his notice. Blinking at the squeak of the bus brakes, closing the journal with a finger tucked between the pages because the ink isn’t dry. Clambering on board and struggling for the words as they slip away like smoke. Catching them, or something close enough to them, maybe something better, and opening the book again to jot it down, finding water-drops on a few of the words, the ink bleeding purple thorns, which should be disappointing but isn’t, is beautiful, a happy accident, and the poem realer for it, infused with memory and time and place and—and—
A cart wheel squeaks behind him. Chatter and checkout beeps and footsteps and overheads flood back in.
Martin hefts his grocery basket, frowns. They still need eggs.
Days pass. Weeks.
Martin walks past the journal display without looking and doesn’t think about it even a little.
It's gone two months later and he doesn't think about that either.
He has plenty of spiral ones at home. Perfectly good and much cheaper anyway. Just because they’re not leather-bound or unlined or pretty—
He’s got printer paper. He can just fold it, if the aesthetic matters so much. Staple it in the back, scribble some words, call it a day.
So he does.
It turns out a bit funny, the staples not quite parallel with each other, the corners of the pages not quite aligned, but that’s fine. It’s not meant to be perfect, just functional.
And it is. Even a bit pretty, with the half-tidy scrawl and the smeared ink and even the drops of tea on pages two, three, and four. It should look awful, really, objectively, and maybe it does, but mostly it just looks used. Lived-with.
It’s kind of nice.
Still no fancy leather journal, of course, but...nice.
It takes ages for Martin to fill it up all the way.
He’s not got a lot of time for writing, is the thing, between work and home. Scraps of time on his commute, late at night, early in the morning. And that’s only when he can force words on the page. Half the time he can’t get so far as pulling out his pen, much less setting anything halfway coherent down.
But he manages, eventually. Flips through it after, half-smiling, then shoves it in his bottom drawer and goes to sleep.
He’ll make another over the weekend.
Sunday evening rolls around and Martin can’t find the stapler.
And then he can, but there’s no staples left. And he can’t find the replacements.
He tears apart the little supply cupboard and then the kitchen and then his bedroom in an effort to find them, quietly as he can so as to avoid waking his mother.
He fails on the first count. Succeeds on the second.
...Just as well, he tells himself. This is stupid, really. His composition books work just fine. There’s no need to go to all this fuss—it’s stupid. He should let it go.
And he’s about to, halfway to writing it all off as a colossal waste of time when a final ransacking of his closet turns up a needle and sturdy black thread, last used for fixing the hem of one his mother’s blankets, some four months ago. (He’s been meaning to darn his socks with the leftovers for the last three.)
Martin hums consideringly, tucks the needle and thread in the pocket of his hoodie, puts his closet back in a semblance of order, and heads for his computer.
It takes nearly an hour to find a simple bookbinding tutorial. He watches it all the way through, and then finds another and another and another and another, and then goes back to the first one, tries to follow along with the materials he has.
No use. He keeps having to pause and rewind to catch what’s being said and then again and again to make sense of it in a way he can physically copy motion-for-motion, and it’s getting grating in a way that makes him want to shove the monitor off his desk and storm all the way out of the flat, and his mum would have an absolute conniption at the noise, and rightly so.
So he closes the video and looks for written instructions instead.
Finds some before too terribly long, and is just steeling himself to slog through the hellish text wall when the first scroll-down reveals there are pictures, too.
Something loosens round his shoulders.
He settles in to read.
When he finally closes the instruction tabs, three nights have passed, he’s requisitioned their old corkscrew, pricked the hell out of his fingertips, and made an absolute mess of his desk, but there’s a very shoddy little book with a mangled newspaper cover sitting on his bedside table.
It looks a bit silly, and rather a lot like it should be lying in a rubbish bin somewhere, and he’s definitely not going to let anyone see him writing in it and definitely not leaving it lying round where anyone can see it, ever, because they’ll definitely absolutely throw it away on sight, but.
It also exists, and it didn’t before, and that’s—really nice. He almost doesn’t know what to do with it.
He fills it with sonnets. (He fills it with fragments of sonnets. Sometimes he pieces them together, later, but mostly he doesn’t.)
Martin is very careful not to leave the notebook lying round anywhere it might be found.
It really does look an awful lot like garbage on first glance, is the thing, and while that’s helpful in that he expects it should keep anyone from thinking to read it, it’s also mildly alarming when he thinks about it for more than ten seconds. He can’t shake the feeling that someone really might just toss it in the bin, thinking it’s only a months-old paper.
And, well, if anyone does glance twice and realize it’s a notebook—it’s unusual enough that someone might get curious, might just open it and have a quick look-through.
And he’s not quite sure which of the two options is the more frightening one, entirely, but he thinks it might be the second. Probably is the second.
He’s found his poems thrown out before, after all, when his mum’s mistaken half-crumpled papers and loose pages and untidy notebooks for rubbish he’s forgotten to dump in the bin. (His own fault, really. He knows she hates mess, and is usually much better about tidying up his poetry. Just, once in a while he finds himself in a bit of a rush, forgets to sweep everything away, and—his own fault.)
And it’s not so bad. So if it happens again—well he’ll be upset, of course, but he’ll cope.
If anyone actually reads any of it, though—he’s pretty sure he’ll just die on the spot.
So there’s his answer, he supposes.
Slowly, Martin begins to fill up the newspaper book too.
Half a year later, when it’s full, he finds himself online, staring longingly at bookbinding materials.
It isn’t the first time he’s done so. It won’t be the last.
He’s about to click away from the page when it occurs to him—
His mum’s birthday is in a few weeks. He’s already got something planned, of course—a nice breakfast, a tidier flat, that particular record she’s been looking for going on a few years now—but maybe….
She doesn’t like a huge fuss, usually, tires her out too much (all those feelings in the air, even if they’re positive, they’re just—they’re a lot). But one extra gift shouldn’t be a problem, just so long as Martin keeps his nerves in check while she’s opening it, which he will. He’s getting better at that.
Yeah. Yeah, he’ll try it.
Martin nods to himself and adds the items to his cart, proceeds to checkout before he can talk himself out of the idea. (It’s for his mum. It’s for his mum. It’s fine.)
The items arrive and Martin takes his time putting them all together. Several days, organizing the materials, rewatching the videos over and over to be sure he understands, practicing with plain paper again—
And then there’s a week to go and he has to stop procrastinating or he’ll end up making it the night before and it’ll look awful and she’ll hate it and—
So he sets himself a timer for later in the evening, and when it sounds off he silences it and gathers all his materials and sets to work.
The pages first, cut to size and carefully arranged, folded slowly into little signatures, and then stacked and set off to the side, and….
When it’s finished, he slips over to the kitchen to take a blossom from the little daffodil plant in the window—the only one of half a dozen he’s managed to grow himself. The rest are his mum’s, and he leaves them alone now as much as ever.
He starts to place the flower on the first page, but thinks better of it—she might prefer to choose the first one she’ll see when opening the book herself. If she uses it, that is. She might not.
He shakes his head and sticks the flower carefully in the middle of the book, so he’ll take up neither the first nor the last page, and then closes it and slips it beneath the stack of old spiral-bounds in his bottom drawer. With any luck, the blossom will have dried by the time her birthday arrives, and it won’t smell funny, and the book won’t automatically open to that page.
And if the universe declines him that luck—doesn’t matter. It’s fine. It’ll be fine.
If she doesn’t like it, she doesn’t like it. She doesn’t have to know he made it. It can just be something he picked up from the shop. And if she does like it, then—maybe he can tell her. Maybe.
In any case—
No sense fussing about it til the day of.
Her birthday arrives quietly, as it does every year.
Martin crawls out of bed at six-oh-three and makes porridge with strawberries and cream. When he hears her stirring, he sets the kettle boiling, pulls out tea, makes himself a mug, and grabs a bowl of porridge for himself, though without the strawberries. (How she ignores the clashing textures he’ll never understand.)
Then he sets it down in the sitting room, fetches the presents from his bedroom, and places them beside her bowl a moment before she steps out of her room.
He ducks away to the kitchen after saying good morning, heads back in to take her dishes for a quick wash before he heads out, and when he ducks in to say goodbye and wish her a good day, she’s holding the book, tracing its edges with a soft smile.
“Where did you find this?”
He shrugs and offers something about a secondhand shop. “Thought you might like it. Good paperweight, at least.”
“It’s pretty,” she says. Then, “You know, I used to press flowers. In my first flat. I’d pick them from everywhere. Stole a couple daffodils from—”
“Your neighbor, wasn’t it?” Martin regrets the interruption instantly, an apology flying to the tip of his tongue.
But his mum just nods, laughs. “I couldn’t resist. Maybe I should take it up again.”
Martin’s shoulders unwind. “Might be nice. Maybe if—” The timer shrills in the kitchen and he startles a little. “Ah, sorry Mum.” He shuffles over, turns off the alarm, makes a face. “Work. I tried to switch shifts, but—”
She waves a hand, looking a bit pinched. “Go, go. Don’t want to be late.”
He nods, trying not to look too guilty or too grateful. “Back this evening.” He takes her dishes to the sink. “See you, Mum. Happy birthday, love you.”
“Love you, too.”
And he leaves, but not before one last glance over his shoulder, just in time to see his mum opening the book. It lands on the middle page, with the flower. A soft look crosses her face, just for a second, and then the door closes behind him.
The relief and pride stay with him the rest of the day, buzzing warm and daffodil-yellow.
There’s some leftover paper from his mother’s book, so he cuts it all in half and makes another one, pocket-sized, without a cover this time, just for himself.
He sticks it in his coat pocket.
Martin scribbles down phrases on scrap paper and on napkins and in spiral-bounds and never puts a single word in the pocketbook.
Sometimes he thinks about pulling it out, jotting down a stanza or two, or a list of near-rhymes, and once or twice even a grocery list when he’s been in a pinch. Sometimes he gets as far as reaching for it, even rummaging about in his bag with his off hand, searching for a pen.
He always seems to stop, though, with his hand on the open spine, the paper cool and smooth beneath his fingertips, the threads thin and a little rough. He thinks probably it’s the contrast that stops him, the different textures juxtaposed, the feel of them just interesting enough to give him pause—time enough to remember that actually he has a receipt in his other pocket and he can just use that, instead.
Other times, though—because he’s a poet at heart, and can never resist a deeper meaning, even if he has to invent it from sawdust and string—other times, he thinks what stops him are the ridges. The little spaces between the signatures, the thread binding them together. The reminder that the little book is, as yet, unfinished.
Sometimes Martin runs a finger over that unfinished spine and thinks to himself, a little nonsensically, the bananas are still green. (A holdover from years back, first uttered when trying to explain why breakfast was half an hour late, because he’d had to change things last-minute and search for entirely different ingredients because the smoothie was a no-go because, of course—)
It’s not ready yet. So he waits.
The next time her birthday rolls around, Martin buys his mother yarn and makes another book, fills it with poems he knows she likes, and some others he thinks she might. (It takes him no fewer than three library trips to get the printing right. He keeps fucking up the margins.)
He stays up until half twelve in the morning two days in a row getting the binding done and getting it done right, and then an extra half hour the second day, hand-writing a note for her in the front—but damn if it isn’t worth it when all’s said and done, staring at his handiwork in the warm glow of his bedside lamp, even if afterwards his hands ache round the knuckles and his eyes are dryer than his mum’s sense of humor.
It’s a few hours’ reading and aimless tidying the next morning before his mother makes her way out to the sitting room, sinks down on the sofa. Another hour’s quiet company, before he sets presents down beside breakfast, in the usual gift bag.
She pulls out the yarn first. It’s simple stuff, what was cheap on the shelf and easy on the eyes, but she seems happy enough with it, though she lets slip twice that it’s not quite right for the shawl she’s been wanting to do, not quite the right weight, and goes on about the adjustments she’ll have to make as a result—but she’s at least animated as she explains things, so that’s good, that’s nice.
Her face doesn’t do anything at all when she looks at the journal, except go a little bit puzzled as she leafs through it. She sets it down after a moment or two, promises to have a proper look-through later, and read the dedication too, if she can make sense of his chicken scratch. She says the last with a laugh, and it’s a warm sound, gently teasing.
Martin feels distinctly room-temperature.
He offers her a somewhat plastic smile, scrunching his eyes shut, and then offers an apologetic glance at the kitchen, an intention to tidy up for a while.
She nods, and he turns to go, but she stops him, taps the yarn and book both, and says thank you.
An ache settles in the back of his throat, and he nods, and ducks away to scrub the counters.
Martin’s mother starts the shawl that night, and the book rests on the sitting room table, untouched.
A few days later, it migrates to the top of her bookshelf.
Martin is quite sure she still hasn’t read it, and nearly as sure that she’s never going to. If she were, she would’ve started already, and he’d know, because she’d have opinions about it. Loud ones. (He’s been looking forward to and dreading it in equal measure.) And as she’s not done so, it stands to reason it’ll be a small miracle if she so much as opens the front page.
But even still. It sits there on the shelf, alongside only three other things: a weather-worn Polish novel; a pristine shoebox filled with Polaroids and ticket stubs and scraps of cloth; and a small, obviously hand-bound book, with flowers peeking up from between the pages.
Martin loses one job and lands another that seems at least thirty percent less sketchy, takes the pocketbook along the first day, isn’t fired, and celebrates by dithering over bookbinding supplies again.
He doesn’t buy any.
Martin’s mother finishes the shawl.
Martin loses another job and scores a steadier one doing inventory for a local warehouse, and takes the book with him again. It’s a comforting weight in his pocket, familiar, grounding in the wash of noise.
Sometimes he slips a hand in his pocket, traces the edge of the spine, the corners of the pages. They wear smooth, over the weeks and months.
His mother starts wearing the shawl around the house.
Martin doesn’t bother trying to write on his commute anymore. Just comes home most nights with fingertips red and numb from wrapping his hoodie strings around and around and around them on the Tube, his tongue heavy with the weight of poetry unrecited.
How public - like a Frog -
Early one morning, after a particularly long night, Martin finds he cannot sleep.
He tries the shifting and the tossing and the turning and the wrapping his blankets tight about his shoulders, pretending to be a moth in a cocoon. He tries the counting sheep. He tries the chamomile tea followed by more blankets and alphabetical lists of poets he likes because he’s too annoyed at the concept of sheep for counting them to be relaxing.
None of it does any good. Not even getting up and checking on his mum helps calm the uncomfortable start-and-stop flutter in his chest, and that usually does the trick, so in the end Martin sighs, presses a hand down his face, resigns himself to a horrible day, and pulls out his laptop.
He clicks round social media for a while, aimlessly, but all that does is annoy him, so he turns instead to his files.
He sifts through, finds the one marked Work (backup), opens it up, clicks through the various nested subfolders until he gets to one marked training guide highlights, and then opens that and there they are—the full text of...not his favorite poems so much as ones that have stuck, a bit. Lingered in that way a final note does on the piano in the middle of a still, empty room. Or sometimes like wet sand in socks. Or hair ties wrapped too tight round fingers. Or steam from a hot mug, rising.
He skims through the file, not really reading so much as staring, looking for he-doesn’t-know-what. He expects he’ll know it when he sees it. Probably.
He scrolls, and scrolls, and something catches his eye—a stanza, one line in particular, two words back to back that always taste right on his tongue, when he mumbles them to himself in quiet moments when no one’s around.
Siken. Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out.
Martin reads it all the way through, and one more time for good measure, tapping out a rhythm as he goes, and then just tapping as the words keep swirling round and round in his head, long after he stops mouthing them. He traces little patterns on the keyboard, then, swirling from one key to the next to the next, purposefully slowly, then idly, just...thinking.
He wants to write something, he thinks, maybe. But also he doesn’t. No, he wants...he wants….
He rubs his eyes and reads the poem again. Hums, just a little. A short sound, half a sigh. Looks round for a spiral-bound and is about to pull one from under his mattress when he pauses.
Sets the laptop aside and slips out of bed. He should still have, in his coat pocket….
The little book is there, right where he left it.
Martin brings it back to bed, turns it over and over in his hands. It’s light, still, and marred with pencil marks on the front and back. The bottom corner’s gone soft with wear, from all the times he’s run his fingers over it, flipped the pages rapid to hear them shuffle-thwip. There’s a receipt sticking out the top from some long-ago shopping trip.
But the binding still looks okay, and there are no ink marks, or tea stains, or horrible crinkled pages. It’s in nice enough condition. (Still green, he thinks, not rotting.)
He fumbles for his bedside table, picks up a pen, uncaps it, holds it over the page, glances back at the Siken poem to be sure he remembers the words—
And hesitates. A beat, two, three, long enough that he’s grateful he’s working with ballpoint and not something that might drip.
Because he has a couple options here, now that he thinks about it. He can copy the poems over by hand, and risk misspelling things, forgetting words, running out of space, all that sort of thing —or he can save the poems to a new file, change the font size and the margins, and go to the library tomorrow, print them out, paste them in place.
Option three, printing the poems straight onto the pages before binding them, is right out. Bit unfortunate, as it sounds the nicest, but—just as well, actually, he supposes, the more he thinks about it. Doesn’t feel right. Maybe later, with something else? But not this.
It can’t be like something off the shelf. All the time he’s spent walking round with it jammed in his pocket, it just...feels wrong. Too impersonal. Too…. He frowns, scrunches up his eyes, trying to remember the word. Not clinical, although—almost. Just. The idea feels too flat. Empty.
It should be more...something, somehow. Patchwork, maybe.
...Printing and pasting it is, then.
He spends the next few hours picking out a small list of poems. He doesn’t want to fill the whole thing just yet, doesn’t even want to imagine how long it would take, so he just picks an even dozen and calls it good.
...Tries to. He winds up with twenty-three, nine of them Keats, because he is—hah—nothing if not predictable. He debates the relative merits of just going with it, printing out the lot, but—no. No, he set a limit for a reason. (If he starts with twenty-three he’ll never start at all. A dozen is a stretch as it is. So—)
He begins the terrible, awful work of narrowing it down. Gets rid of most of the Keats, chucks both Sappho reluctantly, the Yeats without much fuss, and some horrible stretched length of time later calls it good, and does the formatting and the file-saving and then finally the sleeping.
It’s about two weeks, give or take, before Martin actually makes it to the library. There’s just not time.
But then there is, and he goes, and it’s quick and he could’ve done it sooner really and it’s his own fault for wasting so much time beating round the bush—
He resists the urge to paste the pages down there and then and heads home.
Which is just as well, he realizes, halfway back to the flat. He doesn’t have any scissors in his bag. Or glue. Just the book.
At half-nine, his mum’s in bed and the house is quiet, so when Martin’s finished tidying the kitchen, he gathers up everything he needs and sets to work.
He does all the cutting first before he even lets himself think of pasting anything down, spends about a thousand years making sure all the edges are even and the slips of paper haven’t gotten too creased.
When that’s all set, he sifts through the lot and finds Siken’s Litany. It’s nice, and he likes Siken, and it’s relatively inoffensive, as poems go. It doesn’t mean much, except in one or two places that his mother probably won’t recognize. Mostly he just...likes the way it sounds in his head. The shape it makes. It’s a good shape.
So he picks it up, measures it against the book, finds a decent place to cut it in half, flips a couple pages into the book, and then sets about coating the first poem-half in paste and spending about a million years making sure it’s not sitting askew before pressing it down and turning the page to affix the second.
The moment that’s done, he flips a handful of pages on, ignoring the sudden sense that he’s pasted both halves on at awful angles, and begins to very carefully arrange the Keats. Sonnet X. He’s drawn inspiration from it more than once—enough times that it’s more nerve-wracking to add than the first, though he’s already done the pasting twice now and really should’ve got the hang of it. He ends up leaving a funny crease through one corner, but that’s, that’s okay. Aesthetic, right? He doesn’t have to care. (He tries very hard not to.)
A few pages on, there goes the obligatory Shakespeare, Sonnet 18, ignoring how cliche it feels because it doesn’t matter, he just likes it and that’s enough.
Frank O’Hara next. Another Keats. Audre Lorde. Oscar Wilde. The last Keats. Emily Dickinson. James Baldwin. George Eliot.
Aaand...there. Emma Lazarus.
Martin nods approvingly at his work, goes to close it, and then freezes and begins leafing back through the pages, suddenly paranoid they’ve all stuck together. (By some miracle, only two have, and they’re easy to unstick.)
He waves the pages back and forth gently until they’re dryer, then sets the book in his bottom drawer, tidies up the paper scraps and scissors and things, and shuffles off to bed.
Martin deems the book definitely dry enough midway through the next afternoon and puts it back in his coat pocket.
It stays there for weeks, only occasionally pulled out and flicked through. Mostly it’s just there, a handy thing to tap on during idle moments, soft, to the beat of whatever song he’s listening to, or the meter of whatever poem is winding its way through his head, or just—tapping, sometimes, without copying anything specific. (A bit rarer, that, but it does happen occasionally, when something’s got its hooks in him so deep all the words fly out of his head.)
He adds more poems, as the weeks and months wear on, always at night, always hiding it away afterwards.
One early-morning hour, a year or so on, Martin sticks on Yeats like molasses. He tries to pick the poem apart inside his head, articulate to himself the way the lines work, how they tick, but he can’t. There’s a lot, it’s too much, the words won’t settle. He gnaws his lip for several long minutes, debating the relative merits of dashing off for some scratch paper, before abandoning the idea and scribbling on his wrist to make sure the pen still works and then scribbling a few notes in the margins.
About diction, mostly, form, that sort of thing, though he’s a little rusty, hasn’t written an essay for going on four years now—but then he gets carried away and there’s a few more about theme, personal connections, insights—
And then some notes on a few poems on neighboring pages, and then he puts the pen and book away and doesn’t look at either for the rest of the day.
When he does, he regrets it.
It’s not right, the scribbles in the margins. They’re just...off, they don’t match, they don’t fit in the book as a whole, they’re not what it’s for.
Martin avoids the book for three more days before he feels too stupid to keep doing so and flips through it idly.
He doesn’t make any more notes.
Nor the next time.
But the next he does. And he thinks, after he finishes annotating an Anzaldúa, maybe it’s not what it’s supposed to be for, sure. But what’s done is done, so….
Maybe it can be, anyway.
Martin loses one of his jobs—admittedly, not one he enjoyed very much, an office thing with long hours and a number of definitely-illegal practices—but steady enough work, and not the worst pay he’s had, and definitely absolutely vital to his budget and so he spends a very long night cross-legged on his bed, applying to two dozen more jobs he’s increasingly unqualified for, with increasingly outlandish CVs.
The poetry clippings lay abandoned on his desk.
He hears back from exactly three of them. One’s retail, again, and barely enough with the other part-time jobs to keep him afloat. Another’s a mid-level editing position at an online magazine. And another’s a spooky library sort of deal, entry-level.
The book sits in his pocket during each of the phone interviews.
Three weeks pass. The retail place emails him to say they’re sorry, but. Neither the editing thing nor the library email him at all, so he grays them out on his spreadsheet and moves on.
Four days later, he gets a call. The library people—the Magnus Institute—want a second interview. As soon as possible, they say. They think he seems like a good fit.
Martin reviews the job posting and researches assistant librarian duties and drafts answers to common interview questions with his CV as a reference and doesn’t let himself think about poetry at all for three days straight.
Martin takes the book with him to the Magnus interview.
He does not read it in the waiting room, nice as the distraction would be, in case the general state of the thing reflects poorly on his ability to take care of books. (He’s smoothed out the creased corners and erased stray pencil marks, of course, but still hasn’t gotten round to giving it a proper cover.)
He does mention it, though, when the man asks about his hobbies. Or—sort of? He doesn’t say anything about poetry, but he does mention bookbinding, stretches it a little into book restoration, throws in a bald-faced lie about retouching a few esoteric tomes. He feels like an idiot, entirely see-through, the man’s definitely laughing at him as he smiles and scribbles something down—
But Martin manages to finish the interview out the same as any other, without getting tossed out on the street or yelled at or attacked with a stapler or any of the other three dozen possibilities that fly through his head.
Barely a week later, he gets a job offer.
He accepts, of course, all smiles down the phone, and then hangs up and starts making his mother tea to stave off the impending anxiety attack.
Two cups of tea and a number of useless breathing exercises later, Martin pulls out his laptop and googles the Dewey Decimal system.
Once he feels grounded in the basics of what it actually is and how it’s meant to work, he sets about making online flashcards. First for key vocabulary, then for the system itself. He spends a lot of time on class 900, in particular—there’s supposed to be a lot of history stuff in the Institute, isn’t there? And...folklore, right? Which would probably be in literature, so...800? And the psych stuff is in 100, so definitely review that, and if horror movies have taught him anything it’s that there’s bound to be some stuff on religion, so...what is that, 200?
Right. Right, okay. Time to look a little deeper, then….
Martin gets stuck after a few hours, reading the same sentences over and over again, so he takes a break, makes himself dinner, and the sits back down to work.
Five minutes later, he’s not googled a single thing.
He closes all his tabs, pulls up poetry instead, reads for an hour. Then, hoping to ease himself back into studying, looks up how to classify poetry anthologies.
It takes all of five minutes for him to get lost down the rabbithole, figuring out how to classify all three of the collections he’s bought, and then several more that he’s borrowed, and then the one he’s busy making, and then just different kinds of poetry—English, Spanish, Greek, American, Latin, and so on.
Complete waste of time, of course, but interesting enough to keep him more-or-less focused instead of charging off into the depths of Netflix.
He shifts back to more general things—common codes that go after the decimal, what they mean—and makes a mental note to look up Polish poetry later.
He adds Wislawa Szymborksa’s Radosc pisania the night before his first day.
His first day on the job is an absolute nightmare.
Nothing actually happens, of course, but it feels, keenly, like one of those scenes in a horror film, that slow rising dread leading up to an obvious jumpscare—except it keeps failing to arrive.
Someone—he doesn’t quite catch their name, and they keep talking before he can ask them to repeat it, and by the time he has a chance to do so he’s too embarrassed, so he’ll just have to keep an ear out and hope the universe throws him a bone—someone shows him round the library, talking his ear off about what they do and what special policies they have and this and that, and he wants so badly to take notes, because he’s never going to remember any of this, but he’s not sure if that’s weird or not so he just—doesn’t.
And then the someone hands him off to someone else, who says Thanks and I’ve got him from here, Ted—
And Martin’s so busy filing away that name that he almost misses Alison introducing herself and very nearly lands himself back at square one.
And then it’s just following her round all day watching how she does things and trying desperately to remember it all and not out himself as a complete fraud.
Through it all, the journal is a familiar weight in his pocket.
On day three, they have him re-shelving books, and Martin discovers fairly quickly that folklore isn’t under literature, for some unfathomable reason, and that’s horribly embarrassing, but Janice—a very sweet old lady with the three grandchildren and a penchant for shortbreads—just laughs and says she always forgets that one too (like she’s not sharp as a tack and hasn’t been at this going on forty years), reminds him of the layout again (like he’s some kind of idiot) and where to find the labels on the spines (like they’re not in the same space every time, like he might have forgotten like some kind of idiot), and that it’s okay, he’s still settling in, he’s doing remarkably well.
She’s lying through her teeth, and he wants to throttle her, but he’s lying about a great deal more and if she’s noticed (and she has, she obviously has), she’s not making a fuss, so—
Martin smiles, and nods, and thanks her for her patience, slipping one hand into his pocket and digging his nails into the journal’s spine.
Martin does, in fact, settle in.
Not wholly, not completely, and certainly not quickly—there’s still so much he doesn’t know, still so many mistakes he keeps making, even months on—but eventually Alison asks him to do the reshelving and he nods and smiles and he’s done in three-quarters of the time it takes anyone else. Janice asks him to apply stickers to the new acquisitions and he fumbles a few, but out of clumsiness rather than terrified ignorance. Ted asks him to man the desk for a while and the scripts trip easily off his tongue.
Maybe, he thinks, midway through the fifth month, as he stands in a quiet corner of the library with one hand resting on the return cart and the other tapping his journal through his jacket pocket softly. Maybe he can do this.
Of course, a week later he’s at the front desk and a patron asks him what is probably, undoubtedly a very simple question and he doesn’t know the answer and google won’t tell him so he has to go bother Alison about it.
If, through all the livelong day, he thinks, on stuttering repeat, long after she’s taken over the situation. Through all the—through—
George Eliot taunts him all the livelong day. He scrubs the kitchen top to bottom after his mum goes to bed.
Nearly a year on, in the dead of winter, it’s snowing and Martin’s late and he has to swap coats on his way out the door.
He makes it just on time and is so relieved and so busy it takes him a full three hours to realize his left-hand pocket is empty. He hasn’t got his book.
Of course he hasn’t. It’s in his other coat.
For a brief moment Martin considers hustling back on his lunch break to grab it. Then considers how worried his mum will be at the sight of him, how exasperated when she realizes what he’s actually there for—
Martin fiddles with the zipper on his coat.
Did he put his other coat away properly, or did he leave it lying around? Because if he left lying around his mum might have picked it up, gone through the pockets—not even being nosy, she may have decided it needs a wash and upended his pockets beforehand to—
Oh, god, she may have decided it needs a wash and not bothered to upend the pockets, or, or just not realized there was anything in them, or just forgotten, or—
Martin volunteers to do something or other and it’s lucky it turns out to be a task he’s done dozens of times before because working out something utterly new while trying not to seem totally out his depth and also trying not to visualize his book waterlogged and ruined, with the ink bleeding and the poems unpeeling and the binding battered and the pages stuck together and tearing when he tries to separate them and—
Martin might be hyperventilating a little bit.
He finishes the task in record time and finds a quiet corner and tries to get hold of himself. It’s fine. He’s fine. She wouldn’t do that, she won’t do that, it’s in his room, he shut the door, she won’t go in when he’s not there, she won’t.
She’s got too much to do today anyway, physical therapy and all. It’s fine. It’ll be fine. It will.
Martin takes a deep breath and presses the heels of his hands to his eyes for one second, two, three, four, and then exhales slowly, running his hands through his hair a few times. Then he opens his eyes, draws himself up tall, stops slouching, and heads back to the front desk.
He still feels shaky and a hair too thin, but the back shelves need dusting.
Martin feels wrong all day. A half-step out of place, a half-breath behind. (He keeps one hand on his inhaler all through the afternoon, just in case, and blames the dust.)
When he finally walks through the door to his bedroom and shuts it behind himself, his coat is lying on the floor where he left it. When he paws for the pockets, cheeks hot, his book is inside, right where he left it. He pages through it, rocks in his chest, and the poems are still there.
Everything is in order. Nothing’s been removed, nothing’s been added, nothing looks or smells odd. By all accounts, it’s untouched.
Martin sits down on the bed and tries to think of course. He lands on a wordless pile of something that doesn’t quite manage to be relief. Puts on the coat. Puts the book back in the pocket.
Goes to make dinner.
Martin adds I Will Go Out to Look at the Flowers almost in apology. (He doesn’t let himself think overmuch about it.)
Martin never quite stops making mistakes, and he’s very aware of it, but he gets better at hiding them, and better at working out how to avoid them in the future. He rarely makes the same one twice.
And he makes himself invaluable in a number of small ways—he works overtime, he remembers how everyone takes their tea, he suggests simplifications to overcomplicated routines, he memorizes the preferences of their most common patrons, he volunteers to handle the trickier ones (sometimes may I speak to the manager types repackaged in snobby academic skins, and sometimes just a bit odd in ways he recognizes, and sometimes a bit of both)—and so on and so forth.
And the others seem to like him well enough. They don’t hate him, at least. (Though Martin wonders, sometimes, about Ted.)
And it’s been years now, four, maybe five, and they haven’t fired him yet and it seems unlikely—barring accidents—that they’re going to.
And so it is that Martin walks through the front door one morning, four-maybe-five years in, and doesn’t worry at all that they’re going to throw him right back out. Instead, he wanders over to his post, pulls out his journal, and begins to write.
The budget fluctuates, as it always does, and Martin tightens his belt and struggles through online audio transcription and makes ends meet.
His mother begins to talk about care homes.
Martin annotates Langston Hughes. (Places with no carpet on the floor, he’s been thinking all week. Bare.)
His mother continues, over the next several months, to talk about care homes, so Martin looks at a few online. And then at the budget. And then a few more. And then back to the budget. And then—makes a few calls. Sends out a few queries. Secures a horrible evening job and sets himself a schedule for online transcription work and then talks to his mother and makes another few calls and draws up paperwork and finds a new, smaller flat and helps her pack up her things.
She takes the flower-pressing book. She leaves the poetry behind.
The night after he drops his mother off at the care home, after the long train ride back alone, he sits down on the floor and reads through it, just once.
Then he puts it in a box and begins to pack up the rest of the flat.
There isn’t much.
The first weekend after the move, Martin unpacks everything he owns in a fit of nervous energy, cleans the whole flat, and then sleeps in fits and starts until his alarm Monday morning.
The second weekend after the move, everything is spotless and it’s too bright out to sleep, so he swings by the library and prints out a few pages before swinging back home and setting everything up at half-one in the afternoon in his tiny little sitting room.
He doesn’t accomplish much of anything. A single poem cut out and primed for pasting and not pasted in because he gives up because it feels too—weird. Not right.
So he drags the mess to his bedroom and finishes there. Puts everything away afterwards, except for the notebook, which he holds in both hands for several long moments before opening it up and flipping through the pages.
Then he tucks it away, logs into the transcription website.
Martin doesn’t add Harris’s Famine—it feels wrong, off, left-of-center—but he thinks about it.
Elias Bouchard calls Martin to his office two months and a week after his mum moves out and Martin uses the ten-minute trek upstairs to steel himself for the ordeal, wonder if he’ll be blacklisted, and resign himself to yet another dead-end retail job—
But Bouchard doesn’t actually fire him. Doesn’t even make any transparently circuitous comments to the effect that if he doesn’t get his act together he won’t last another week. Doesn’t even so much as mention a single one of the many, many errors he’s made over the last six years.
Quite the opposite.
He offers him—not quite a promotion, more a lateral transfer. But with a pay rise that means he can stop poking at night jobs and maybe even quit the weekend one and drop the audio transcription and the instant noodles and—
He takes the job.
Martin knows he should go straight back to the library after his meeting with Elias, so he does. And then he volunteers to handle the returns cart, heads off to the far end of the library to begin his circuit, and mutters Keats under his breath to get his stupid heartrate to calm down.
Three poems and a bit of nervous laughter later, it does.
He makes a mental note to add the last sometime over the weekend—after he googles what the hell an archival assistant does.
Archival assistants get snapped at, apparently.
At least they do when they bring in dogs out of the cold and make messes of archives and completely fuck up first impressions.
He sits out the lecture, makes apologies, tidies the footprints, makes tea, begins first tasks.
It’s a bit of a lot.
So he doesn’t have a moment to rest til just before end-of-day, and he uses it to collect all the apology mugs and wash them up in the breakroom. (If he can be nothing else, he can be polite.)
When everything’s washed and dried, his shoulders loosen. He smiles easy as he says goodbye.
But he still holds the journal all the way home, one hand in his pocket, curled tight round the open spine.
Friday evening, Tim and Sasha invite him out for drinks. He says yes and hopes it isn’t the wrong answer.
It doesn’t seem to be. They both grin, and include him easily in conversation at the pub, and though he sticks to water out of habit, he winds up thoroughly punch-drunk after anyway, somewhere between giddy and dizzy with adrenaline.
He’s survived his first week in the Archives, he’s gone out and been social, he’s—that’s a whole thing. Maybe even a thing-and-a-half.
So he buys himself a nice bit of faux leather. It’s about time the journal had a cover, and he’s earned it, or something.
The journal looks weird, after.
The color’s not right, the texture’s off, the corners are too sharp, the visual’s too clean, the thing overall’s just a hair too large, sits funny in his hand.
He can’t quite look at it. Finds himself squinting, like his mum’s turned up the brightness on his phone again, except in the real world and without any actual logical equivalents involved. If anything, the brightness has been turned down. The smooth off-white of years-old pages, weathered with pencil dust and actual dust and an assortment of little stains (ink, tea, the occasional bit of food), now replaced with a deep brown. Objectively beautiful, softer on the eyes—
He traces a hand across the front.
Soft to the touch, too. And sturdy. It can withstand a little rain, a little getting-dropped-on-the-floor. And that’s nice, of course, useful, with how often it rains and how clumsy he is.
He mind flickers through a dozen half-formed thoughts about banana peels and cold hard sidewalks, littered with puddles.
He shoves them out of mind, puts the book back in his pocket.
It looks wrong for weeks. Stays in his pocket during morning commutes.
He gets used to it eventually, of course.
Weeks turn to months, and the soft brown cover grows softer, worn not with weather or pencil marks, but the touch of his own fingers, tracing soft paths in its surface at odd moments. Morning commutes. Evening commutes. Exhausted staring contests with bags of rice at the supermarket. Quiet breaks in document storage. Research outings.
There are rather a lot of those. (More than Google led him to expect from an archival job, but then he supposes that’s what he gets for calling it good after only a half dozen scattered hours of frantic searching.)
They take him all over, and he’s half-tempted, sometimes, to leave his journal locked in his desk. The idea of losing it somewhere, on a bus or along some winding road that he’ll forget in an hour’s time or on some poor old woman’s coffee table, whose face and surname would surely blend into the dozen others on his list—the very idea twists his stomach in knots.
But then, the thought of leaving it behind—
So along it goes, tucked down deep in his pocket, and the pocket buttoned half the time to boot.
He’s tempted to pull it out while on the clock exactly once, when one of the Angelas mentions a passing interest in poetry. After a moment’s hesitation, his eyes land on her coffee table, and the bin beside it.
He redirects the conversation back to jigsaws.
Martin uses the leftover fake leather to make another book, and starts jotting down poems again. Just a few ideas, here and there, lines to play with, tweak into more proper things later, maybe. Not for certain, just…maybe.
It’s kind of nice.
Martin has the journal tucked deep in his coat pocket when he goes to investigate Carlos Vittery. The pocket is buttoned. He doesn’t want it to fall out when he’s breaking and entering, and doesn’t much fancy the idea of spiders crawling all on the pages either. (Vital part of the ecosystem they might be, but notebooks aren’t exactly their natural habitat.)
He reads through the journal cover to cover eight times while trapped in his flat. He thinks of a hundred things to add to it, but with the power out there’s no printing, and he doesn’t trust his memory enough to pencil them in by hand.
He wants to write something original, pencil that in if nothing else—
But his concept book is locked in his bottom drawer at work, and this one isn’t for that, and it’s just as well anyway because he can hardly think straight, much less put words in front of each other in anything approaching a coherent sort of order, and even if he could the concentration required would keep him from watching the door properly and he can’t be having that, so.
Just as well.
He puts the journal back in his pocket after one week and five days, and leaves it there.
He has it when he leaves, he knows he does, can feel its weight in his pocket hitting against the side of his leg as he rushes through the door, darting round the worms still writhing on the ground.
He wants to pull it out of his pocket, hold it to his chest, but his hands are a little busy holding the worms so he doesn’t, focuses instead on one foot in front of the other and the familiar path to the Institute and the steady beat against his leg, solid, grounding.
He forgets about it when he gives his statement. Everything narrows down to the words he’s saying and the memories grown sharper in the retelling and the frown-lines carved deep in Jon’s face.
It is only that night, in the Archives, after everyone has gone home, as he’s patting himself down, skin crawling, almost shivering with discomfort and cold, that he thinks to pull out the book, distract himself, shuffle through its pages.
But there’s no book either of his hoodie’s pockets. Nothing in them at all, actually, apart from his inhaler. And anyway, wasn’t—he could swear he was wearing his coat overtop it. Double-layer, to keep out the worms. He could swear—
But he washed up in the bathroom, didn’t he? Somewhere between giving his statement and calling his mum. Locked the door, half-stripped, used his own shirt for a scrub-brush. Maybe he left it there. It’d be just like him, do something stupid like that.
So he checks the bathroom.
And then the Archives, because surely it not being there just means he wasn’t that stupid after all. And then he checks Jon’s office, because surely he just forgot it on the chair or something. And then he checks the trash, because it had worms on, he thinks, maybe, probably. He wrapped it round them at some point, didn’t he?
Then document storage again, because surely he just missed it. And then the breakroom, and the trash in there, and then document storage again, and then Jon’s office, and the trash in there again, then the bathroom, and the trash in there.
And then he picks the lock to the Lost and Found, because really surely he actually was that stupid after all, and it really would be just like him to just leave it lying round, and surely someone must have just—
No. There’s Sasha’s old sweater, and Adam-from-filing’s purple squid tie, but no coat, no book, so he storms back down to the Archives and tears them apart. When pushing aside boxes and yanking open drawers turns to kicking walls and yanking at his own hair and cursing, he grits his teeth and stalks over to document storage and slams the door and—
When the rage passes, he stands.
Fixes the blankets on the cot.
Returns to the shared office space. Begins closing drawers, pushing in chairs. Replacing files, tidying boxes. Picking up stray paperclips, pens, rubbish.
He moves from task to task, weightless, until the room is back in order.
Then he makes one last hollow circuit through the Institute, and heads back to document storage, where he checks for worms exactly twice, and then lays down on the cot.
He thinks, vaguely, of asking Tim if he’s seen it. Asking Jon if he threw it away.
Pointless, though. They did, they must’ve. Or else they burned it. Which would be the smart thing, really, what with the worms, and infection and things. (But his book was in the pocket, surely it was fine, surely no worms got to it, surely—)
He thinks piercingly of texting Tim, asking him if maybe—
But of course he doesn’t have his phone.
He doesn’t sleep very well.
The next morning, after Martin puts himself in something vaguely resembling order in the upstairs restroom, he heads back down to the Archives to find his coat neatly folded on his desk.
He picks it up gingerly, shakes it out, and there’s no cascade of worms, so he holds it closer, breathes in the oddly floral scent.
“It’s been washed.”
Martin jumps, but it’s only Sasha, looking at him with—probably amusement? “Right, um, um. Sorry, thanks. Sorry.”
It’s definitely amusement, the way her face twitches. Maybe irritation. “Wasn’t me. Tim, remember?”
He doesn’t, actually, but he nods, smiles, begins rifling through the pockets. There’s his keys, his wallet, three pens, a piece of—candy? A piece of hard candy, one of those butterscotch things, possibly acquired from one of the five thousand old women he’s interviewed in the last few months. And a receipt.
His smile freezes. He goes through all the pockets again. Keys, wallet, pens, candy, receipt. Keys, wallet, pens, candy, receipt. Keys, wallet, pens, candy—
“I’ll—” He starts, and has to clear his throat. “I’ll just go tell him thanks, then. D’you know where he is?”
Sasha says something about the breakroom, and Martin nods, smiles, thanks her, and goes straight to document storage.
Shuts the door. Sits down on the cot again. Tries to think rationally through visions of worms wriggling through the pages, leaving awful holes and worse stains. It’s entirely possible that Tim just forgot to put the book back with the rest of his things. Or that it was gone before Tim had it, sure, but Martin actually dropped it somewhere nearer the Institute, instead of directly into a pile of worms. Maybe if he just asks Tim to have a look—
No, because he’ll actually go and do it. And it won’t be anywhere safe along the way, it’ll be back on the threshold of Martin’s flat in a pile of dead worms, and when Tim reaches down to get it they’ll jump and burrow into his skin and he’ll die or worse and—
But maybe, Martin thinks, trying for optimism, maybe he doesn’t need to. Maybe Tim just didn’t notice the book in his pocket. Just put it through the wash. Is waiting for it to dry out. Maybe that’s all.
Better than worms, he thinks, as a weight settles on his chest. Better than worms.
A knock at the door makes him yelp, press back against the wall.
Tim. Just Tim.
He uncurls, stands, swipes at his cheeks. “Yes, sorry, yeah! What do you need?”
The door opens, and Tim walks in. “Sasha said you were looking for me?”
“I—yeah, I was. Got a bit distracted, was hoping to catch up on some filing.” Martin pastes on a sheepish smile, ducking his shoulders just so. “But, um, I just wanted to say thanks. For the, uh.” He plucks at his coat.
“Oh, sure, course! Used about a gallon of color-safe bleach, should be fine.”
“Right. Well, thank you.”
“Least I could do. Did us all a favor, really. Only other option was burning, and you know how Jon gets about ignition sources.” A grin Martin struggles to mimic. Then, a little too carefully, “...Was that all?”
Martin struggles for words for long enough that it’s obvious the answer is no, so he gives up trying to say yes. “I, um. I was just curious—wondering. Did you happen to find anything else?” He plucks at his pockets.
“Ah,” Tim says. “Yeah. The book, right? Sorry, set it aside for some cleaning. I’ll have it tomorrow.”
Martin swallows past sudden nausea. “Cleaning?”
“There were, erm. Some dead worms on the cover. Thought it could do with a bit of—” He wiggles his fingers vaguely.
“Please tell me you didn’t just—”
Tim places a hand on his heart. “I spent an hour googling how to safely disinfect old books before I even touched it.”
Martin’s shoulders fall. “Sorry. Of course you—it’s—you didn’t have t—”
“I wanted to. And anyway, count it for job research, eh? I should probably know it anyway, preservation and all.”
“...Right,” Martin says. “Well. Thank you. Um. Whenever you get round to it—”
“I can pop over at lunch, if—”
Please, Martin thinks. “No, no, it’s—tomorrow’s fine.” He considers, briefly, strangling someone. Possibly Tim, for making the offer, for being so goddamned genuine. “Really. No rush.”
Tim gives him an inscrutable look, shifting back on his heels. “...All right. Tomorrow, then. First thing, yeah?”
“No rush.” Martin repeats, and wills himself not to scowl. Wills himself to sound sincere. “Thanks.”
“Course. Now c’mon, we gotta go. Sasha’s gonna eat all the danishes.”
The day passes in scattershot moments, like handfuls of sand tossed hours apart.
Sasha doesn’t eat all the danishes. Tim doesn’t reach the statement-giver he’s been calling round for. Martin doesn’t file the reports correctly. Jon doesn’t snap.
Sasha does file the reports correctly. Tim tells a joke. Jon drinks all of his tea. Martin twists the buttons on his coat-sleeves round and round and round.
Everyone goes home.
Martin stays, and doesn’t sleep.
The next day, as promised, Tim brings the book.
Martin tries for casual-but-sincere when he thanks him, and he’s nearly sure he gets it right, even, but he ruins it immediately by flipping through the book on the spot, running his fingers over the one, two, three, four places it’s been noticeably chewed up, and then closing it and tucking it back in his pocket with an entirely unnecessary pat.
He folds his hands behind his back, after, and looks up, braced for a joke about a moment alone with that thing, but Tim’s just swiping at his phone. Twitter, looks like.
Martin wants to thank him again, but his eyes are burning and his chest’s humming and there’s a fifty-fifty chance of no voice in his throat, so he takes the out and escapes to the breakroom.
He makes tea until the humming stops, then passes it out with biscuits. Tim quietly gets one extra. Martin quietly gets one less.
It isn’t enough to stop Baldwin turning circles in his head—I cannot tell how much I owe.)
“Thanks,” Martin says again when Tim drops by document storage to say goodbye a little past end-of-day (not knocking this time, just announcing himself and swanning in), because he’s been turning the book over and over in his hands and the night before over and over in his head and it feels like Tim can see both of those at once and still the biscuits don’t feel like enough. “For, you know.” He holds it up a little, then goes back to turning it round.
Tim smiles the way he does when Martin laughs at a joke he’s just told. “Course. Anytime.”
“I know it’s a bit silly, but—”
“I mean, it’s just a book? But—”
“And this is just a bracelet.” Tim taps his wrist, the little thing he never removes, plastic beads, black, with rainbow colors dead-center, all strung on an incongruous silver chain. “Still couldn’t focus for a week the one time I lost it. Ask Sasha.”
Martin doesn’t know what to say to that. He considers Oh and It’s probably not the same and I’m just stupid and I’m just autistic. Discards them all.
Tim shrugs into the ensuing silence, jams his hands in his pockets. “So! Not silly, sorry for not getting it back to you sooner, happy to help.”
Martin nods, still not sure what to say. Thank you feels appropriate, but before he can get the words out Tim’s drumming his fingers on the doorframe and saying he’s about to head out, so he just nods again, tells Tim to stay safe.
And that’s that.
Another quiet night.
Martin wonders, in impossibly long hours with nothing to do but tidy up, whether Tim opened the book for more than just cleaning. Whether he read any of the poems, any of Martin’s notes. Whether he liked any of them, what he thought of the musings on theme and structure and sound.
In the shorter hours, the office bright with fluorescents and brighter with jokes, he never asks. There’s less space to think, and he doesn’t want to know.
Martin takes to carrying a knife in the same pocket as the book, but stops when it leaves a lengthwise scratch on the cover, in part because he doesn’t want to damage it further, and in part because a wild part of him thinks of replacing the cover entirely, then starts thinking of bookbinding in general, then starts thinking of making another book sometime to fill up the empty hours, then starts thinking of his materials at home out of reach, then starts thinking of replacements, then wonders if a corkscrew might serve as an awl, then wonders about the other possible applications of a corkscrew—
And then he’s carrying a corkscrew round in his other pocket.
Martin smiles at Tim and smiles at Sasha and sinks into his office chair, smiling at his computer. He starts typing up his notes, face stuck like plastic, and tries not to think too hard about the subject matter.
The interview was….
Well, it was an interview.
Martin resolves to call his mother soon. (She probably won’t pick up, but he needs—wants to hear from her. He’s got to try.)
He pushes his laptop away slightly and pulls out his journal. Opens it to a random page—Dickinson, I’m Nobody—starts reading, mouthing the words as he goes.
He reads the poem twice over, smooths the peeling-up corners down, makes a mental note to glue them properly over the weekend, and then tucks the book away again and turns back to his notes, faster now. Jon’s expecting the Ivy Meadows case done within the hour.
He adds exactly one poem while he’s living in the Institute. It doesn’t feel right, printing and pasting here in the dead of night after everyone’s gone home.
It’s not that it’s unfamiliar. It’s too-familiar, is the thing.
Even with everyone gone home and the door shut, it feels like his mother might walk in at any moment. Like he’ll turn round and there she’ll be, just behind him, squinting at his work, seconds from offering constructive criticism.
(Stupid, of course, but he can’t seem to shake the feeling. Especially not with Jon staying later and later, and sometimes not going home at all. If he caught him at this—)
He takes to pulling up spoken-word poetry on his phone instead, when it gets too quiet, sometimes reciting it to himself quietly in between old favorites. It’s...nice. The words taste good. (And they’re a handy distraction when he starts imagining knocks at the door, flashes of silver, squelching.)
He starts recording his own poetry too, eventually. Just little bits, here and there. The words never taste quite right, but they sound okay, played back.
When Prentiss attacks the Institute, Martin has no breath in his lungs to whisper poems, and no space in his head to think of them, and absolutely no awareness of the little hand-bound book in his pocket.
There are only tunnels filled with worms.
When Prentiss is dead, and the police have let him go, and Jon has let him go, and he’s alone again in the Archives because he doesn’t have his flat anymore and hasn’t yet got a new one, he remembers the book and scrambles to check its pages.
They’re fine, though. And the cover. The whole thing, completely untouched. Not a single extra worm-bite, not so much as a tiny smear.
It’s a good thing. He’s relieved.
(He’s also disappointed, and wants to stab himself for it.)
Martin stays up until three in the morning the first night in his new flat printing and cutting and pasting.
He starts, predictably, with Keats—When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be. Then stalls for a little while. (It’s been the only one pressing, burning, since document storage, but there were others, in the months before. Others….)
He finds written copies of some of the spoken-word pieces, adds them even though the form’s wrong. (He’s tempted to try QR codes, but that’s not right, either. Worse, in a way. The writtens will have to do.)
Kay Ulanday Barrett first. (He waffles between Cento: You are SO brave and For Anil for a full hour before choosing both.)
Kamila Rina, next. The Resistance.
These, he annotates first with bits and pieces about how they’re performed. Then the usual scatter of impressions.
(The pages end up overcrowded. He tries not to let it bother him.)
He adds more, in the weeks and months that follow.
After one very long weekend involving a lengthy phone call to the care home, a loud bus ride, a ten-minute visit, a somehow-louder bus ride, a two-minute phone call to the care home, and a number of unrelated but unnecessarily sharply phrased texts to Tim, Martin sinks down on his bed with his laptop and clicks between tabs for hours on end.
He finds his way to poetry, as he so often does, and scrolls down through the sticky-tape list, and stops, eventually, on Philip Larkin’s This Be The Verse. (It is not the first time.)
He runs his nail along the little ridge on the J key, back and forth, back and forth. (There is a reason for that.)
He presses his nail down in the gap between the keys. (There is.)
His phone buzzes and he nearly throws his laptop to the ground, somewhere between flinching and furious.
He doesn’t. He picks up his phone, instead, texts Tim back slowly, choosing his sentences word-by-word, painstakingly molding them into something soft. (Diction, he thinks. Connotation. Avoid the k’s, the hard c’s. Don’t imply blame.)
Then he hits send. Turns his phone screen off, turns back to his laptop, highlights the Larkin, and pastes it into another tab.
He prints it out and pastes it in the book that same night.
In the morning, he tucks it away.
He doesn’t annotate it.
Martin keeps the book even closer to hand during everything with Jon. He knows Jon’s gone through Sasha’s trash and Tim’s desk and it stands to reason he’s probably next, if he hasn’t been hit already. (He probably has, if the way he talks to him, looks at him, refuses to drink any of his tea is any indication. But that doesn’t mean Jon’s done with him. He certainly hasn’t let up with the others.)
And there’s no way he’s letting Jon get his hands on the book. He’d absolutely—he’d just die.
...Well. If Jon happened across The giver (for Berdis) or In A London Drawingroom or something he might be able to live. But if he read Martin’s notes on Sonnet 104—
He keeps the pocket buttoned at all times and never removes his coat.
Martin takes lunch with Jon every few days for months. It’s a way to make sure he eats and an excuse to talk to him both.
They talk about a lot of things, as weeks turn to months. Jon’s paranoia. Martin’s mother. Jon’s grandmother. Martin’s latest Netflix binge. Jon’s latest wiki deep dive. A little about politics, a little about music, a lot about turtles.
In all that time, they never talk about poetry.
Martin has the book in the corridors. He’s aware of it, almost piercingly so, sitting deep in his right-hand pocket, wants nothing more than to take it out and sit down and read until everything either starts making sense or falls away entirely.
He ignores the urge. He’s got a tape recorder in his left hand and his fingers threaded through Tim’s on the right, squeezing at irregular intervals. (Tricky, once they fall to pins and needles, painful, even, but he can’t stop. Tim starts fraying apart at the edges when he does, and Martin can’t tell, in this twisting hellscape, if that’s figurative. At times he’s horribly sure it’s not.)
Martin can’t find his tape, after the corridors, after the police, after the dust settling, but the book is where it always was, and the relief of that almost cancels out his desire to throttle Tim for lying.
He annotates an old poem with jagged lines that night, the hard-won half-cursive that litters the other pages abandoned in favor of nearly slicing through the paper. Form over function, he thinks. Worth it.
Several days later, he looks back over Count That Day Lost and feels sick.
After he records his first statement, Martin searches for another poem to add to the book. He’s not sure whether he’s distracting himself or marking the occasion, and terribly sure that it doesn’t really matter because both options make him a horrible person—just in different ways.
After five straight hours of tearing himself in knots over it, Martin goes to bed without pasting anything at all. Not out of a sense of, of decorum or anything, no, just—
Nothing seems to fit.
Jon returns bleeding from the neck and favoring his left hand.
Martin restocks the first aid kit with bandages and aloe and thinks of Sappho.
Jon disappears for weeks, then returns again, stumbling and uncertain, and Martin thinks of Prentiss and of Tim and of Baldwin.
He hovers, a little, a lot, and does not annotate Untitled.
Jon calls Martin from America. They speak for maybe three minutes about the case he’s following up on, and through all of them Jon sounds so, so tired.
Adrienne Rich had a point, he supposes, about the trees.
Jon returns again, for good this time, and the Archives are tense in a way that has him making tea twice as often as usual, and thinking all the while of bridges.
One builds them, he mumbles to himself as he stirs in honey, as one walks.
An hour later, Jon’s mug sits in the sink, empty. So does Melanie’s. Basira’s is washed and dried and put away.
Tim’s sits full and cold at the edge of his desk.
One builds them, Martin mouths, as he pours it down the sink. (It puts him in mind of fountains, and Anzaldúa slips into Shakespeare—silver fountains mud, he thinks, disjointed, authorizing thy trespass with compare.)
Jon leaves for the wax museum and Martin thinks in fragments of statements, not stanzas, as he clicks the lighter on.
After Elias leaves, in the long hours waiting to hear from Jon, Tim, Basira, Daisy, anyone, Martin tries not to think of what Elias showed him or of his friends all lying dead and the world warping round their rotting corpses.
He succeeds, occasionally, for seconds at a time. But it all bleeds into each other, itself, everything blurring from Elias to Man hands on misery to man, and then mirrors and then funhouse mirrors and then circuses and then wax museums and through it all, to the tune of circus music, in the back of his head—
Get out as early as you can.
Martin sits at Jon’s bedside with a notebook open in his lap and a pen held loose in his hand.
There’s no poetry in it. There aren’t words for this.
There are doodles, here and there, there is a list of things he needs to remember that he will forget to check, there are the words fair creature of an hour crossed out three times in bleeding-blue ink.
He talks to Jon, some. (Is this microphone live? plays on a loop inside his head. He tells it to shut up, and keeps talking. Maybe Jon can hear him. Maybe he can’t. It’s not really the point, except for how it is, no matter how much he tells himself it’s the principle of the thing. He’s hoping for a fairytale, but this isn’t one, and it’s not a poem either. It’s just Martin, stubbornly trying to change the genre, force the form into something he likes better. Even that’s too lofty. It’s just Martin sat beside a corpse, hoping it’ll wake up and smile at him.)
(Even that’s too rose-colored. The corpse could wake up and glare him to stone and he’d be happy as he fossilized.)
The others are distant.
Martin hates it. Not because he’s worried for them (though he is, or at least—he’s trying to be, trying to be, though it takes more and more energy every day), but because it makes everything too quiet. Gives him too much room to think.
He keeps thinking about Tim. He keeps thinking about how, for all they don’t know what happened officially, he’s fairly sure—
He’s fairly sure—
He keeps thinking of Siken, is the thing. Litany. It used to remind him of Jon. Still does. Now more than ever, really. It just also reminds him of clasped hands and wax museums, these days.
(He’s starting to hate Siken.)
Martin’s mum dies. Time turns to soup.
Somewhere between laying daffodils on her grave and listening to Peter’s offer, Larkin winds through his head. He wants to rip it out. It coils down his spine.
Somewhere between the offer and the Flesh, he sits in a chair with the book in his lap and stares at This Be The Verse—still blank, after all this time—and imagines the sound of tearing paper. Imagines the click of a lighter, the lick of flames devouring the words, the heat drawing closer and closer to his fingers until finally it crawls up over them too and—
He shoves the damn thing in the nearest drawer.
Somewhere in there, he retrieves it, something like ashamed, everything like relieved. No one threw it away.
(Some part of him is even more ashamed in turn—he’s messy, he’s always been messy, it was never her fault, they may not mean to—but it’s a dull sort of shame. Perfunctory. Performative, and isn’t that worse?)
He sticks it in his pocket (not the right one, but what does it matter, he feels unbalanced for two solid hours, but what does it matter).
After the Flesh, he retrieves it. He has an idea, has a page printed and cut to size even, but—
He can’t decide where to put it. There aren’t very many free pages left. A few handfuls, scattered in singles here and there, none of them feeling quite right.
Maybe, though. Maybe that’s for the best.
He closes the book.
He takes Peter’s deal.
Martin pulls the journal out a little over two months later.
It’s sort of funny, he thinks, resting a hand on a blank page. He always thought he’d just make another when he got to this point. Start a collection.
High-pilèd books, he thinks, in charactery.
How things change.
Jon wakes up and Martin thinks of O’Hara’s Mayakovsky. He considered adding it to the book, once, sometime during Jon’s stint in America, even got as far as printing it out and cutting it to size before he settled on Bishop’s One Art.
He doesn’t get that far, this time.
Only traces his fingers over annotation after annotation, feeling the indents press into his fingers.
And then closes the book.
Martin speaks to Jon for just a few minutes, and for hours afterward he thinks in scraps of Lorde.
Two days later, he puts the journal in a drawer and locks it.
It’s a tactical decision as much an emotional one, and it pays off.
For several blurry days, Martin’s heart rate spikes every time he slips his hand into his empty pocket. Every time it does, Peter smiles faintly.
Martin stares back blandly through the sweeping cold, not bothering to return the expression, and Peter smiles wider. (Sometimes the corners of his eyes crinkle up. Sometimes they don’t. Martin can never quite decide which is worse.)
He whispers to himself in quiet moments, when Peter isn’t there. (Keats, usually. Even now, he wanders back and back and back to Keats.)
He hopes, sometimes, that a recorder will turn up. Sometimes he even looks. But there’s never any there. Just an empty room.
He tells himself to stop looking, starts reciting poetry with his eyes closed in an effort to follow through. But there’s always the glance-round when he’s finished, when he opens his eyes, and he’s always listening for the click. Doesn’t matter, in the end. He never sees or hears anything.
He stops bothering to close his eyes.
The coffin sings.
Martin drowns out the noise with the clatter of tape recorders, not so much placed down as dropped haphazardly, clicks them all on.
The coffin scratches.
Martin thinks, helplessly, high-pilèd tapes.
And he goes to find more.
Martin stills over the scrap paper, fingers lax on the pen, and considers what to write. His head is cloudy with a million things he shouldn’t say and a million ways he shouldn’t say them.
He selects the simplest, the most impersonal, and scrawls it on the scrap. The second his pen leaves the paper, revealing the short message in its entirety, it feels unbearably intimate. The obvious pressure of the pen, the exaggerated flick of the letter-ends, the drops of ink now falling as he sits here ruminating, damning in their splatter.
Obvious, he thinks. Dangerous. Exposed.
He crumples the note, throws it away, and turns his mind back to boring administrative task number thirty-seven.
Two hours later, his mind swirling with spreadsheets, Martin takes the nearest pad of sticky notes and writes, in simple, unhurried letters:
Talk to him.
(In the back of his mind, he annotates—monosyllabic, understated punctuation, note there is no exclamation point, note the use of sentence case, the lack of an underline, the size of the words. Note there are three of them, and note the parallel. The lack of the word please. The lack of a thank you. Of a sign-off. Nothing accidental, everything deliberate, so deliberate you wrote it twice, and isn’t that its own kind of damning?)
Martin rejects Jon’s farce of a request and moves around for two days after with the wisps of a poem on his tongue.
He’s lost the shape of it. When he tries to remember, the stanza falls to sludge.
He thinks several times, in those two days, of unlocking the drawer. Pulling out the book, finding the rest of the line.
He doesn’t. Just tries to let it go, and then when that doesn’t work googles the only scrap he can keep hold of—the moon that bled in my mouth.
He doesn’t bother clicking the link that pops up. The preview text jogs his memory well enough. (Neruda, added a fit of melancholy some years ago—before Jon, before the Institute, even, back when the book was still mostly-blank. A long week with his mother, and a longer week at the warehouse. A nameless figure in place of the you, pasted firm over the top of fleeting thoughts of his father, of daydreams long-since abandoned—going off to find him, convincing him to come back. Scarcely annotated for years, until—well. Until Jon. And even then, only first stanzas.)
Martin thinks, vaguely, that now would be an appropriate time to find himself rocking back and forth, or biting his lip, or fighting the urge to laugh.
He’s not, though. He’s just sitting.
He closes the tab and goes back to spreadsheets.
Martin thinks, vaguely, that just a few years ago learning about the Extinction would make him feel guilty about wasting so much paper (the way he used to when anyone mentioned global warming, or when his mother talked about printing costs—as though the library demanded payment in diamonds).
It doesn’t, now.
When the last domino falls, there is a tape on Jon’s desk and a journal locked in a drawer, twelve years old and incomplete.
Martin stands alone on a beach draped in fog, or maybe made of it, and thinks, vaguely, of unreflecting love.
It feels dimly appropriate.
If there are poems for the way Jon’s hand feels in his, as they leave the Lonely, Martin can’t remember them.
They travel light. Only the clothes on their backs, the key to the safehouse, and a thoroughly disrespectful amount of Peter Lukas’s money.
On the train, Jon mentions a knitting bag. It’s offhand, more than half a joke at his own expense, something to do besides twiddle his thumbs—which he can’t seem to stop himself from doing every time Martin lets go of his hand.
Martin stacks his fingers one on top of the other, over and over and over, and only smiles in response.
Jon makes a joke about hoping he locked the rib drawer, and five minutes later Martin feels vaguely like he’s forgotten something.
Jon hands him a yellow notepad, two days into their stay in the cottage, and Martin blinks at it and thanks him in his customer service voice.
Jon doesn’t seem to notice, just says, “I thought you might—for your poetry?”
There is a locked drawer in the Institute.
Martin forces himself to smile. Nod. Say thank you again in the proper register.
It doesn’t quite work, but—though he teeters on the verge of speech—Jon doesn’t press.
Martin tries to write in the notepad. He manages a few words and crosses them out.
He tries again a few days later. He manages a handful of lines, only half of them his own, and crosses them out twice as viciously.
Martin tells Jon, in disjointed bits and pieces, about the journal. That he’s had it since he was twenty, a few poems he’s pasted inside (the sillier ones, mostly), that it’s still in the Institute, probably.
Jon listens. He doesn’t pry.
(“I wondered,” is all he says. “It looked—” He looks distinctly, endearingly uncomfortable. “—loved.”)
Martin keeps trying with the notepad, and after—a while? (Hard to keep track of the days, without phones, and it doesn’t help that things are still a bit—fuzzy about the edges, in a way he’s not entirely sure is the Lonely’s fault.) After a while, he manages a few lines.
Patchy things, here and there. About dust in corners, rolling fields, hands held. A thing or two about knitting. A thing or two about conversation.
(Nothing about fog, though the temptation is there.)
He writes about silly things. He’s never tried silly before. He’s not sure he’ll like it, but, well. No harm in the experiment, is there?
So Martin writes a few lines about turtles, and a few more about cows.
It’s kind of nice.
The world ends. Martin can’t find the legal pads any more than he can find tea that doesn’t scuttle-writhe-slither. He misses both.
He misses the journal more.
Jon wanders off to vent and Martin shifts from foot to foot and recites poems. Something to do to fill up the time, fill up the air, distract himself from all the screaming-twisting-squelching-pain. (It gets tiring, listening at all hours. And it’s dangerous, waiting alone with no tether. Better to keep moving, keep talking—and, he tells himself, you never know, one of the victims might like Anzaldúa!)
It’s never quite enough, of course—impossible to really drown anything out, and even if it weren’t, the difference between holding the old book in his hands and clinging to scraps of verse inside his head is definitely Vast-aligned—but it’s...something.
He wonders, sometimes, if maybe the book still there. Locked up somewhere in the Panopticon, waiting.
Probably not. Probably gone the way of the notepads. Or maybe the tea, if it’s still round. Maybe it scuttles, too.
Maybe it’s a Leitner. (For the Lonely, maybe, or the Eye, or the End. Or all of them at once, and the others besides. Regular smorgasbord.) He wonders, briefly, what it might do. Toys with a few morbid possibilities, and then forces himself to drop it.
It’s...just as well he left it behind, in the end.
For the best.
And it is, really—
But there were pages left to fill.
Martin wonders, sometimes, if the book will still be around after. (If there is an—there will be an after.) If it will still be a Leitner, or if it might change back.
Will there be traces of the change, if it does? A silvery slime in place of the glue, to match the old worm-holes in the cover? Singeing about the edges? Or will the lettering be faded? The ink bleed red when wet? The corners slice just a little too sharply? The cover stick in place? Or will his fingers pass right through? Will there be different words? Will reading them feel like reading statements? Or like nothing at all?
Or will it be just as it was.
The same old book, the same old poems, the same old worn-soft paper. (This makes him feel a bit sick, in a way that almost feels like longing, but isn’t.)
He finds himself hoping (in a way that makes him feel better and worse) that it won’t. That reading it will leave him with papercuts, stained fingers, phantom fog curling about his ankles. Anything but worn-soft corners, poorly-done stitches, barely-there weight in his pocket.
Anything. Any sort of difference at all.
...But, he supposes. But. If it stays the same....
There will be pages left to fill.