Morning sunlight washed over the sky gleaming off the sharpened tip of a large skyscraper. Fixated on it, letting his feet think for themselves, Jack-o again felt a sense of wonder. The large slim building pointed to the sky, the clouds above and behind it glowed with shades of deep red, pink, and orange, and he was certain this was the image on the cover of the book. In school, many of the children called the building the “big pencil,” but Jack-o had always preferred its true name, the Washington Monument.
Bringing his eyes back to the surface, anxious to see where his feet were taking him, he remembered his mother telling him stories of her childhood about her own time spent visiting the nation’s capital. She had told him about watching the fireworks on the fourth of July from the lawn of the mall with thousands and thousands of other people. Jack-o’s father had told him that maybe in a couple years they could take a family vacation to the city and experience it all for themselves. Now he supposed that would have to wait.
Jack-o’s eyes were getting heavy and the pain was threatening his consciousness. Looking behind him, he decided he was far enough from the road where Stone would be driving and looked for somewhere secluded to rest. Glancing around, fighting off the exhaustion that threatened to take him at any moment, the boy saw a small opening between two buildings. He stumbled over to the alleyway and saw someone sleeping underneath a blanket about three-quarters of the way down. Only a few yards away was a large blue dumpster, Jack-o took another few shaky steps, fell to the ground with his back against the metal container, and was asleep instantly.
The sun was high in the sky when he awoke. For all Jack-o knew he had been asleep for a week. Staring out of the alley at the strangely familiar land beyond, the boy tried to figure out his next move. He thought of Temron, lying on the ground, shaking, dying. Pain tightened his throat and sadness threatened his judgment. It felt like the most powerful glue in creation held him to the ground and against the dumpster. Depression pushed him into the Earth and though the boy knew he had to move, his legs couldn’t find the power. His arms sat against his body like lead ran through his veins. All he wanted to do was curl up in his mother’s arms and cry, and cry until he used up what precious little water was left in his body. He just wanted to go home.
Jack-o began to take long, deep breaths to combat the tears. His lungs were sore from surviving the desert, still, he made sure to fill them each time he inhaled. The air smelt different here than it had on Temron’s Earth, it had a young crispness to it, but it was also heavy and a bit sour. The boy could only assume the addition of chemicals from various manmade sources gave it the taste. Taking one more deep breath, the boy pushed himself to his feet. Every inch of his body groaned stiffly as he stood.
Walking slowly out of the alleyway, the boy took in the world around him. There were cars and people all over the place. It was the exact opposite of the world he’d just left where he and Temron were the only two people he had seen in just over a year. At first, Jack-o had been concerned about someone noticing him. After all, he was a young boy wearing what were now barely tatters for clothes, with every inch of his visible body resembled a heavily overcooked piece of meat. However, his fears were quickly done away with.
Every person he saw seemed to be immersed in their own world to such an extent that as far as they were concerned nothing else was happening around them at all. He watched people bumping into other people due to lack of attention. While others simply maneuvered through the crowd like snakes in the ground, finding holes in the clusters of people and delicately squeezing through.
The further he walked, the closer to the middle of the city he thought he must be. Around him the crowds were thickening and lining the streets were trucks or stands selling food, souvenirs, or other random wares. Jack-o stopped at one that had newspapers and magazines covering its walls and racks. He grabbed the Washington Post and read the front page headline.
“More Missing, More Dead. Are We Truly the Falling Rome of the West?”
This wasn’t the first time Jack-o had read the newspaper headline, it was in the early pages of the book. Quickly, he glanced around looking for a man that could be detective Stone. The boy knew in the book it was on Stone’s desk that the paper was found and read, but who knew what could have changed already just by him being in the story. With no sign of anyone matching the description of the detective, a man’s voice startled the boy.
“This ain’t a library kid, if ya ain’t buying keep moving.” Jack-o dropped the paper back into the rack like it was burning his fingertips. He met the clerk’s eyes as he did and they stared back at him with a hardness that made the boy want to run as fast as he could. Blending back into the crowd he thought about the story he was currently involved in.
D.O.A. in the American Rome, revolved around detective Stone, a hardened NSA agent who had a major drinking and drug problem, and his search for a serial killer. The, D.O.A., stood for, Dead on Arrival. The main plot of the book focused on an unknown person kidnapping major American figures (movie stars, politicians, anyone with large public influence), and shipping them to the White House in pieces, every time with a letter that read, Even The Greatest Empires Fall, signed, ROME.
Jack-o’s father had read the book at least three times and had talked about it with his wife regularly. Whenever the boy had asked his father if he could borrow it, the response was always the same,
“Maybe in a couple year’s bud. This one might still be a little too grown up for you.” This, of course, led to Jack-o regularly stealing the book and reading bits and pieces when he could. Though, after the first few chapters, the boy realized his father may have been right. The tone of the story made him feel eerie and uncomfortable as he read. That’s how he felt now as he walked down the busy sidewalk.
Something about the world around him was, off. The sun shone brightly on what should have been a beautiful fall day, but instead, it was a menacing glow. As if it were watching his every step, waiting for a chance to strike. Or was simply a new fear carried over from the boy’s time spent in Temron’s world? It didn’t help that Jack-o had never finished reading, D.O.A. He had no way of knowing what should or should not be happening in the story like he had with the previous two. Everything was new and unexpected, which made it all the more dangerous.
“I have to get out of here,” the boy said to himself under his breath. His voice was raspy, but Jack-o was happy to hear it was still there. He hadn’t spoken since he read the words that carried him to this darkened version of the nation’s capital city. But where was there to go? The boy supposed he could simply go find a new book to read himself into, maybe even one he was familiar with, but then what?
His legs were getting tired and his lungs began to burn hotter. Up ahead there was a small building with a park bench across from it. Jack-o ambled over, weaving through the crowd and sat down heavily. It seemed the lead was still coursing rapidly through his veins. While he sat, the boy let his mind wander through all the events leading up to this point. It all still seemed like a dream, perhaps the most vivid nightmare any one human had ever experienced. A small part of him hoped he may still wake up any second, but that was just a child’s hope, and he knew it. His home seemed so far away, a distant memory of a time in the past. With that thought, Jack-o’s heart sunk down into the well that was constantly growing inside of him. No longer did he feel like a child, nor was he sure what time meant. Finally, he felt completely alone. There was no Rona in this story, there was no Temron, just Jack-o.
Again his mind went back to the two men he had recently and briefly known in the flesh, and again he knew inside of him their demises were both on his shoulders. He hoped that they were reset back into their own storylines once he had left, but there was no way of knowing. It was not simply the fear of, D.O.A’s, story that kept him away from the main character, the boy didn’t know how much more weight in death his shoulders could carry.
The small building across from him had a sign at the top indicating it was a remote visitor center and information booth. A person sat behind the glass enclosure and Jack-o could make out a handful of books and brochures meant to help newcomers to the area navigate their vacations. One of the travel aids, in particular, caught his eye, D.C. In a Minute, and suddenly the boy had an idea.
What if there were no story for him to affect? No plot line for his presence to disrupt? Would it matter? Staring at the book Jack-o felt drawn to it. He remembered his small library in Temron’s cabin and everything seemed to fall into place. Perhaps had his mind not been so tired he would have figured out his next steps before even entering the darkened, uncomfortable world of, D.O.A.
All that mattered was finding his own book, his own story, and making his way back to his parents. To do that he needed books, lots, and lots of books. As hard as it sounded in his mind, he had to forget Temron and Rona, their part of his story was over. Slowly, he opened his bag and pulled out the picture of his family. In all the time that had passed, still, Jack-o had not had the courage to look at the photo. Now the smiling faces of his mother and father stared up into his eyes. The boy thought of that day again, remembering the love that enveloped his family like a soft, invisible cloud; then he remembered the Destroyer, there one moment, gone the next with his mother and father in tow. He would find them, and he would kill the thing responsible for all of this, he had no other options. Tears rolled slowly down his cheeks and Jack-o put the picture back into his bag.
There was a library his mother had told him they would visit when they took their vacation to this great city. It was the largest library in the United States, the Library of Congress. His feet moved before he knew he had made the decision to get up, and his voice spoke before he knew the words he meant to say.
“May I please see the book, D.C. in a Minute?” His voice was weak and the woman behind the counter looked at him skeptically before slowly pushing the thin book through the opening in the glass.
“Thank you,” he said flipping to the table of contents and quickly finding the page containing information about the famous library. With over 162 million books the boy couldn’t think of anywhere better to begin his search. If his family were nothing more than characters in a book, it seemed like the chances of that book being in such a large library were good. If it meant he had to read every word of the millions of books held within those walls, so be it. First things first, though, he had to get out of the D.C. he currently stood in, had to get out of, D.O.A., before something could stop him. He flipped back to the front of the book and found the introduction page.
“The hustle and bustle of the big city can eat a person alive,” Jack-o’s voice raspily read the words aloud and the last thing he heard before the green light took him away once more was the woman behind the counter say,
“What in the…”