His actual name was Carl Bokmanski, but the kids didn’t care. One of them saw him reading in the corner of the playground and changed it to Bookmanski. It might as well have been a legal change because it stuck. For years he was plagued with variations: Bookwormski, Bookboy, and finally Bookman.
His last roommate had fallen into the second category. When he moved in, the living room was filled with boxes of his books, and they had argued. Carl finally compromised on a storage room, where a majority of his collection would reside.
He spent a miserable year ferrying books between the apartment and his storage room. When the lease finally ended, he swore to never have a roommate again.
Now Carl and his collection resided in a 500 square foot studio. What he couldn’t fit there went into a storage room two floors up, which he turned into a private library. Some people collected action figures, wine, cigars, and guns, he had told his former roommate. How was this any different?
The roommate had responded by calling him a hoarder, a phrase that Carl found insulting. Hoarders collected old newspapers and junk. They never sold anything. Carl was a frequent seller at the local bookstores. He was also a frequent buyer.
Books in his collection were like his pets. He paid attention to them, kept them in good condition, and kept accurate records of their value. While his rating system contained standard factors like page condition and cover quality, it also included smell and likeability.
Like pets, some of his books wanted his attention, some were indifferent, and others were downright hostile. He kept the unlikeable books in a locked case in the far left corner of the storage room.
He occasionally tried to read these books, but the contents and the smell of these books was vile. They usually came from antique stores or estate sales. The owners (for reasons they would never explain) seemed happy to part with them regardless of age or edition.
After a bad day at work, he would escape to his reading chair and lose himself in a book. For Carl, reading was also a sensory experience. He liked the feel of the spine and cover in his hands, the smell, and the feel of the pages brushing his fingertips.
Today was one of those bad days. Chip (his frat boy boss), had been particularly aggressive. His new edict was a security policy that banned all personal items (especially those containing paper) from workspaces. His eyes were fixated on Carl as he explained it in the morning meeting.
Carl didn’t argue because he knew it wouldn’t accomplish anything. Instead, he grabbed a banker’s box, assembled it, and packed up the books that he kept on the shelf above his desk.
Chip slapped him hard on the back. “Way to be a team player Bookman! I didn’t think you could work without books.”
“I’ll manage.” Carl muttered and sat at his desk, which seemed naked, and forced himself to work.
The other employees had a harder time packing up their tchotchkes and personal photos. Martha, his cube neighbor, had threatened to quit and/or talk to human resources twice an hour for the remainder of the day.
His first visit to the break room confirmed his suspicions. The other employees blamed him. He endured two minutes of hateful stares and upraised middle fingers before he took his coffee outside to the smoking area.
Once home, he visited the storage room. He needed a good escape. The book had to be unique.
He spent an hour browsing through the shelves in his apartment and then the ones in his storage room.
He couldn't get it out of his head. His coworkers were happy to see him pack up his books. They were no different from the kids on the playground. He hated them.
And then he heard it. The humming was low at first, but it was coming from the chest in the left corner.
Almost without thinking, he crossed the room, fished out his keys, and opened the chest. Which of the books was doing this? He touched each one and set aside the ones that weren't right.
Near the bottom of the chest, there was a book he had forgotten about. It was bound in red leather and had been one of his first acquisitions. He touched it and was rewarded with a gentle shock.
This was it. He picked it up and opened it. The humming increased and he could feel it behind his eyes. The smell was rich and musty. It hinted at something impossibly old. Why he had put this book in the chest? He couldn’t remember and didn’t care.
He tried to read it, but the words were in another language that he didn't recognize. The illustrations were macabre, but had a dark beauty that he appreciated.
It called to an older part of him and he responded by lightly touching the words on each page. As he touched the words, he became aware of their meaning and they became part of him. He continued reading by touch until exhaustion overtook him and he fell asleep on the floor of the storage room.
He stumbled back to his apartment and showered. As he toweled off, he noticed that the skin on his hands felt different. It was drier somehow than the rest of him. He touched his chest with his fingertips. The texture on his fingertips had definitely changed. He decided to ignore it. It was probably due to stress at work.
His alarm went off in the bedroom.
If he didn't leave soon, he would be late for work. Chip had it in for him and this would give him the perfect opportunity. It didn't seem to matter anymore. The job was a dead end and he would find something else if he lost it.
He was suddenly tired. Still wrapped in a towel, he stumbled to the bed and passed out.
He woke up around eight hours later with a craving for the book. He put on his clothes and went back to the storage room to retrieve it.
The hum had changed, grown more powerful. He closed his eyes and let it wash over him. Clutching the book in both hands, he ran back to his apartment and collapsed into his reading chair.
The smell had changed too. He held it closer to his face and inhaled deeply. It was rust, blood, tears, and bone. He felt at home in it, connected.
No question about it. The book was home. Carl never wanted to leave.
Chip was working in his garage when he heard a noise coming from the unlit corner near the back door.
“Chip, I’ve come for you.” The voice rasped like old leaves blowing across concrete.
“I haven’t been gone that long and you've already forgotten me.”
Carl emerged from the shadows and Chip nearly screamed.
“I’m doing much better Chip. I have a new job and I don’t need to work for you anymore.”
Chip was shaking hard to enough to rattle his teeth.
“You’re an ignorant man Chip, but I can fix that. All you need is a little knowledge.”
He reached for Chip with long, leathery fingers. This time Chip did scream, but it didn’t last for long.
Chip was not much of a meal, more like amusement park food than anything else. For the moment, Carl felt sated but knew that he would need to feed again soon.
He finally felt like a whole person. He finally belonged. Carl blinked his new eyes, one on either side of his head-spine and grinned happily behind pages made flesh.