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Reading Time

Beth Cato resides in Arizona with her husband and son. She's an associate member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, with work appearing in The Pedestal Magazine, Every Day Fiction, and the MOUNTAIN MAGIC anthology from Woodland Press. Her essays can be found in several volumes of Chicken Soup for the Soul. For information on her latest projects, please visit www.bethcato.com.

We began to burn the books, and Dad tried to kill himself.
Almost all of the extra furniture had been burned over the previous month, leaving the upholstery and padding from sofas and chairs heaped on the big bed in what used to be just Mom's and Dad's room. Me and Taylor stayed in that room all day since heat rises, and we wore so many layers of clothes that it was hard to go up and down the stairs. Anyway, with so many of the walls and rooms empty, the whole house echoed so their voices really carried from the downstairs library.
"I can't do this, Vick, I can't. Burning books, like Nazis?"
"We are not burning books like Nazis. We're burning books to keep our kids warm and alive. I've torn apart everything else first. You know that. The books are last."
Dad made some sort of weird moan like a whale from an old nature show. "I know, I know. But if we make it out of here, what sort of world will it be without books? What sort of civilization--"
"Tom. Listen to yourself. We're one family. There are other survivors out there. You've said yourself that a nuclear winter isn't supposed to last long. It's a drop in temperature, nothing permanent."
"I thought it would be over by now. The smoke and debris should have cleared the atmosphere."
"That's what this is really about, isn't it? You were wrong, but it's okay to be wrong. We're still alive. We have rations for the next two months. It'll be June by then. We'll dig out of the snow and find other people. Whenever we leave the house, we'll have to leave the books behind, anyway. Just get down from the chair, please."
Something squealed against the floor.
"Leaving books behind isn't the same as burning them. You can't compare the two."
This wasn't good. Dad had been really quiet for a few days. I had wondered if the books had been why since I felt the same way. I loved his library. Thousands and thousands of books, some of them really old. It made me feel sick, tossing that first book on the fire, but I refused to throw up. Food was too precious.
Taylor's body was a warm lump beside my leg. He whimpered in his sleep as I edged away from him, my shoes thudding on the floor. Mom and Dad normally would have heard that and stopped talking, but not this time. I waddled down the hall and towards my old room. Like candle smoke, the sound of their voices drifted up the staircase.
"We need you, Tom. Please."
"If you didn't have me, you'd have more food. You'd last longer. Taylor could eat more. A kid of six shouldn't be that skinny, even with all those clothes on."
Any of my stuff that could be burned already had been. The shelves, the bed, all that was gone. I still had some pink plastic toys—old sentimental things—and the leftovers from my dumped-out dresser drawers. I dug through the mess, looking for Great-Aunt Sara's birthday gifts.
"We need you. We love you. You're part of this family. You help. You've been clearing the roof of snow, or it might have caved in by now. We're in this together. We need you, Tom."
I took the stairs, one at a time, my legs thick with layers of pants. The knees didn't quite bend. Going up again would be much harder.
The silence had been so long, I was afraid of what I might find in the library. Mom stood in the doorway, her pale face framed by a sweatshirt hood. Dad was in the middle of the room on top of his metal desk chair, a rope swaying behind him like something out of a western.
"Lucca, go back upstairs and keep Taylor warm," Dad said, as if I could ignore what he was about to do. His words formed clouds in the air.
"No, she needs to stay," Mom said. "If you're going to do this, I won't be able to hide it from them."
"Yes, you'll have to explain the sudden appearance of fresh meat somehow," Dad said, his face twisting into some weird wannabe smile.
I had both hands tucked behind my back. "That's gross, Dad. I know about the Donner Party. I could hear everything you both were saying, too."
Mom sucked in a sharp breath. "Taylor--"
"Was sound asleep when I left the bed. He doesn't know a thing. But I had an idea for Dad. Remember last year when you told Aunt Sarah I wanted a music player, and she bought me that ancient little tape player instead of an iPod?" I held out both my hands. "I also have a whole box of blank tapes and two cases of batteries, and Mom said ages ago those weren't good for the radio or flashlights. There's not enough tapes for all of the books, but if we have to burn favorites, maybe we can read them first. Make them last longer. I can carry this with me whenever we leave."
Dad stared at me with his jaw hanging open like a fish. I walked up to him and cleared my throat. "Can I help you down, Dad?"
His legs quivered as he moved to sit, both arms tucked against his stomach. "It's something," he murmured. "It's something."
"Well, I sure don't want to clean the snow off the roof, even if it is a five-foot drop now," I said.
He managed a faint smile. "Yeah. Lazy teenager."
"That's right. I expect you to do the book reading, too."
He closed his eyes. "Remember when we used to do reading times before bed, when you were little?"
"Yeah," I said, squeezing his hand. "Guess we just needed an excuse to start again."
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, August 18th, 2011

Author Comments

The first line of "Reading Time" popped into my head one day, and I spent weeks mulling it over to figure out the rest of the story. I hope I'm never in the same situation as my characters. The burning of books would truly be a last resort to stay alive.

- Beth Cato
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