From the author: We all want to be lost in a good book, but Nobody has spent decades trapped in one they don't like very much.
I’m Nobody — not the one in Emily Dickinson’s poem, although we share the same views. Tonight, you will find me in the grim green room.
When in this room — and I’m dragged back here all too often — I feel edgy and unwell. Perhaps the full moon, creeping above the windowsill like a peeping Tom, is to blame.
Boredom presses in like bad weather from these three go-light green walls (the fourth, doubtless an equally aggressively green, is invisible). I pull a volume from the neat rows of identical books, hoping against hope that something interesting will lie between the pages. As always, the books lie blank and silent. The only real book on this shelf is The Runaway Bunny — a good book, but one I’ve read thousands of times.
I am not alone here. Would that I were! The child lies stiffly in bed, furred paws resting atop the covers. This nameless, pajama-clad child is of indeterminate sex and species. Its head resembles a stuffed rabbit’s — not a real rabbit, mind you, but a stuffed rabbit.
“Hello,” I say tentatively. Without looking at me, the child begins its nightly litany of its possessions. If I had eyes, I would roll them, but I am the least-developed Nobody in the history of fictional characters.
Once upon a time, I lived in author’s minds. I frolicked across fresh white pages, danced on the ruled lines. That is what Nobodies are for. Miss Dickinson never realized that there are more than two of us. We are legion, for we are needed.
Most Nobodies yearn to become fixed persons, the characters who run away with stories. I am the less common sort, the kind who enjoys being Nobody. I love basking half-formed in the words, feeling the ideas flow around me. When the character begins to set like gelatin in a mold, I slip out to become Nobody again. After Nobodies become TKs, they soon become Somebodies, and once one is named there’s no hope of being a carefree Nobody again.
But something terrible happened in the green room. Nobody became a character, and so I am trapped here. From time to time I almost escape, but I always snap back to this cheerless place, where the moon moves in the same arc.
The child is a useless conversationalist. The mouse and the kittens stare at me blankly, too unrealized even to chase one another as they teleport from page to page. The toyhouse is empty, and its yellow windows — a trompe l’oeil mimicking light from within — hold neither warmth nor welcome.
I cross to the old-fashioned telephone and lift the receiver, but dead silence greets me. Voices from the telephone do not belong in this book; the only voices here sift in, disembodied and without direction, when it pleases them.
People call this book timeless, but I can’t agree. I know the world has changed. The bowl of mush doesn’t belong on the table; children forgo snacks before bed. Combs look much the same, but hairbrushes have handles now. Fireplaces are no longer common in bedrooms. Even the language has changed. Just once, I would like the dignity of a direct-address comma.
“Why do people still read this book?” I ask in despair.
Nothing in the room moves, but the voices answer. Baritones and sopranos layer over one another, accents and languages clash, but nevertheless they say clearly, “Children love this book.”
“Because it talks like they do. But you don’t need a book to bid goodnight to everything in sight. Children love it more when it’s a game with their parents, when no book is opened.”
“Parents love this book.”
“Admiring bog!” I cry. “I hear their voices in the telephone, gabbling in their rush. Their world seethes with flickering screens and bad spelling and speakers turned too loud. They’d rather have suspiciously quiet kittens and a bowl full of mush.”
“The parents want peace,” admit the voices, “They want a pleasant book to soothe their children to sleep.”
“I’ve seen the toys they give their children! Those things turn batteries into chirps and giggles and five-second earworms. They flash like police cars speeding to an accident. To ‘stimulate’ them, the parents say. Why does no one stimulate children’s minds with books?”
“They do,” snap the voices. “They have vocabulary books. Many have excellent photographs, some even correctly labeled.”
“Children need more than words. They need stories! They need characters to love! When I’ve glimpsed books beyond this one, I’ve witnessed adventures. I’ve met real characters — a Nobody knows those. Goslings and wild things, a rabbit made of velveteen. This book has no characters, no story. It’s a ritual tamed into meaninglessness, read relentlessly by tired parents desperate to bore their children to sleep.”
The old woman appears in the rocking chair, her beady eyes gleaming out of her masklike rabbit head. “Hush,” she mutters without glancing up from her knitting. “Hush.”
I sigh. I know what happens next. Resigned, I watch the child pull its furry limbs out from under the covers and begin to make its rounds.
“Thanks for nothing, noises everywhere,” I hiss. I open the door of the toyhouse and crawl in, my amorphous body flexing like a rat’s. Here I am unobserved, and once my role is finished, perhaps I can break out.
Perhaps this time I can fly away. Although it’s against my nature, I begin to dream of becoming a Somebody. Anything would be better than the life of a Nobody trapped in a finished book. The joy of Nobodyness lies in watching the book grow, but this one just froze — and too many times in a day, I am frozen in it.
The child curves its boneless limbs across its pillow, muttering its goodnights to comb and to brush, to me and to mush.
And with that, I am free — for now. I will try to escape, but someone is reading this book almost every second of the day.
It’s always bedtime somewhere.