Cheyenne Zaremba talks to Canvas Lit Board member Ana Anaya about her award-winning short story "In Between the Lines" and how she sees her characters as colors.
"THE BOOK INSIDE THE STORY" CONTEST
Listen to the story
as read by the author
In Between the Lines
The bookstore had always been his haven. He was never interested in following the other boys around as they took drags from cheap cigarettes behind convenience stores, or put their hand to some sort of ball in a game of sport. The bookstore had always been his place; they understood him - the books - they knew him better than anyone. He was welcomed among the unpurchased clearance items that knew the true meaning of worth, and the seldom entered corner of the adult section, where he wondered if any of the books ever actually left the shelf. The witches and wizards, heroes and villains, the girls next door and the boys who were larger than life, they didn’t judge him. They saw his vow of silence as a statement of acceptance. "We can tell him," they said, "because he will never tell anyone else." They trusted him with their secrets, their messages, hidden between the lines and in the subtexts.
It wasn’t so much of a vow of silence as it was a guarantee. He was born without sound, no ability to talk, no words ever on his lips. He was mute, which made his reason for isolation all the more understandable to most. He couldn’t talk, so why put himself in a position where the one skill he lacked was most commonly used? He didn’t have to talk to anyone at the bookstore; in fact, nobody really talked at all there, and it was generally very quiet.
The books liked him, but not just because of his eternal silence; he was routine. He arrived at the same time every day, with the same type of drink in his cup, and he left at the same time every evening, exactly four and one half hours after he had arrived; the only thing that ever changed was the book. Sometimes it was a fantasy book, when he needed to be reminded that the monsters at school weren’t the only ones people had to deal with. When he was feeling a little euphoric, it might be a romance novel, but never anything that sold too well. He never read the books that everyone else was reading; he didn’t want to know what they knew, he wanted to know something different. Some days' people would acknowledge his presence, with a word, or a look, and he would feel a little bit important. Most people didn’t bother; they were busy enough with their own baggage to even think about anyone else’s.
Today is a cold day with driving sleet, burning your face raw with savage force. For him, today is like any other day: school is hell, home is hell, but the bookstore is safe, and quiet, and full of something like magic. He sits in his usual place, his back against a shelf of ‘special addition classics’ and half-priced sticky notes, most of the packages ripped and empty. A tragic classical romance looks particular good to him today; within reach and thick enough that most students required to read it probably don’t. The cover is hard and purple, smooth between his palms.
He has no idea that today will be different; the books know, the shelves know, even the torn sticky tabs know. They know that today won’t be a very encouraging day for the reading of the purple book, they know that he has a red pen with a missing cap in his pocket, and they know what frustration can do to a person; they’ve seen it enough times. They aren’t surprised when, on a day that was supposed to be like any other, he scribbles on the first page of a book he doesn’t own.
“Is anyone even out there anymore?”
He has so much more to say and ask and write. But today is not his day to write those things. He is unorthodox today; he leaves early, with tear stained cheeks and white knuckles.
The books are afraid. They tremble on their shelves and in the hands of readers. He won’t return for several days or, they are afraid, not at all. A Friday passes, with reading heard from the children’s section…then a Saturday, with its young adult book club...and a nearly empty store on Sunday.
But on Monday, the books are still and quiet. Something is different on this Monday or perhaps it is the same, because he comes in at his usual time. The books know that he has a black eye and bruises on his ribs and mind. The purple covered book is still on the shelf where he left it, unpurchased; something is different about it today, though, something about the book is new; he’ll know soon enough.
“Is anyone even out there anymore?” still scrawled on the page in angry red pen, and below it in a round blue cursive, “I am.”
He doesn’t know what’s more unlikely, the fact that someone picked this exact book off a shelf of others just like it, or the fact that someone out there might care. A frightening idea, that someone might see what’s really wrong. A shell of lies is only as good as the liar it conceals.
The books know he still has a red pen with a missing cap in his pocket, and he knows this too, but nothing seems quite right. He’ll just read today, but 18,600-odd words in he’ll only remember two. When he leaves, the books know he’ll be back tomorrow, but that’s all they know for certain.
The books are right, the books are always right. He returns the next day, his black eye more yellow and purple than black, his finger nails bitten raw. Even though he’s 62 pages into the purple book, he’ll look at page one first and see something unexpected.
“I know you might not want to talk to me, I know that the inside of this book might be the only place where you can be alone, and I know that I’m nothing but a stranger, but like I said, I am here.”
Blue pen, round cursive all waiting for a reply from the angry red pen. He never meant to speak to anyone; it was always a rhetorical question. He’s not sure how to respond, conversation has never been his forté.
“You don’t even know me.” Too harsh.
“If I had wanted to talk to someone I would have friends.” Too pathetic.
“Don’t waste your time on me.” Too much like a cry for help.
The stranger is right, he doesn’t want to talk. Perhaps something positive would be best, something that will make it sound like crying out in frustration is something he seldom does, something that will make him sound like a depressed poet or a romantic, because those people are normal…right?
“It’s nice to know the world isn’t as empty as it seems.”
Yes, that’s the one, he’s sure of it. He holds the red pen carefully, trying to make the writing look natural, and relaxed…not hasty and afraid like the first red question.
The books know he’s satisfied. He thinks he’s ended the conversation, made his way safely back into his shell of lies, and betrayed nothing of his true character. But they also know that he’s wrong. Today he’ll read like usual, and tomorrow when he returns he’ll have in mind to do the same. He’ll think that everything has gone back to normal. In retrospect, the books will realize that this was the day that everything changed. This was the day that the blue pen found the chink in the armor, and pulled…hard.
“Maybe the world seems empty because you want it to be. Maybe it seems empty because you’re trying too hard to keep it away. Maybe you need to let go…”
At first he doesn’t understand. Why does this person continue to waste their time returning to the same book in the same corner of the store? Why do they bother to come to the bookstore every day and write in an unpurchased copy of an unsuccessful romance novel? And then it dawns on him. He’s been doing the exact same thing.
For years he’s frequented the bookstore in a repetitive fashion, and never has it occurred to him that someone else might have the same habit. How many times has he seen them, and not realized someday he’d be having a conversation with them in the front of a purple covered novel? How many times has he nearly brushed shoulders with the blue penned stranger?
But they’re just that, a stranger. And all he wants to do is read, but the stupid blue pen keeps getting in the way of the words, trying to write another story between the lines and in the margins.
“I don’t understand why you keep coming back. I was frustrated; I wrote in the front of a book…it’s over.
Maybe you’re the one who needs to let go.”
He could write that, but it seems futile. The blue pen will have some sort of retort, pointing out features that aren’t there…or maybe they are there, maybe he is pessimistic and fed-up and maybe he just doesn’t care anymore.
All he wanted was to read the book, so that’s what he’ll do. It’s not a particularly long book, or a difficult one. It doesn’t take much focus to read it. In a few hours he’ll finish it. He’ll read the final sentence, the author’s page of recognitions, even the publishing information and in every way he will be done with the book. Completely finished, he won’t have to touch it anymore, he won’t pick it up again, he’ll just go back to the way things were, and read a different book tomorrow.
Or at least that’s what he would have done, if he hadn’t been interrupted. It’s late and the sky has grown dark with the absence of sun, the streets are bathed with car headlights and lamp light. But he doesn’t care that he’s stayed later than usual, or that there are messages on his phone from “friends” he was supposed to meet with, he only cares about finishing the purple covered book.
Pages from the end, the books hear the bell above the door jingle, as it does when every customer enters, but this is a unique sort of ring. The books hear the sound of feet, padding quickly and lightly over the carpeted floor, and they see a light-haired head bobbing as the body it rests upon rounds the corner towards where he sits.
He doesn’t hear any of this. He’s absorbed in the story as he always is, he doesn’t just read the words, he’s part of them. He doesn’t notice when a light-haired boy crouches down beside him, or when the boy begins pulling purple covered books off the shelf, or when he sighs audibly and pulls a blue pen out of his pocket.
He only notices when the boy taps his on the shoulder and addresses him directly.
“Excuse me, I’m sorry to interrupt, but I was looking for a certain book and I noticed that you happen to be reading a copy. Would you mind if I took a look? It should just take a second.”
He looks between the boy and the purple covered book in his hands. There are plenty of other purple covered books on the shelf, and he doesn’t particularly want to give this one up. He pulls his red pen, still missing the cap, out of a deep pocket in his coat, and jots a note on an unpackaged sticky note that fell from the plastic wrapper above.
“There are other copies…”
He hands the note to the light-haired boy, whose mouth is agape, eyes focused on the red pen. The boy holds up his own blue pen. “I came here a couple days ago in a foul mood and found some writing in the front of one of the books…I was kind of hoping that I had found someone to talk to.” He puts the blue pen back in his pocket, and drops to resting on his knees.
The red pen suddenly feels like it’s made of fire in his hand. What is he doing here? He should’ve left earlier like normal, he should’ve just left the book alone on the shelf, but no, he stayed and now he’s face to face with the round blue cursive boy.
The light-haired boy bites his lip, eyes thoughtfully studying his firm grip of the purple book, the small tremble of the red pen in his hand. “Would you…like to get some coffee with me? My treat.” he asks, quietly, whispering almost, like he’s just remembered that his mother told him to keep him voice low when he was in the library or the bookstore.
The books feel the tension, he’s been caught off-guard with the red pen in his hand and they’re afraid that he’ll do something panicky. An opportunity for change, for friends, is staring him in the face. Maybe he doesn’t realize that, perhaps he isn’t thinking quite that far ahead…he could have just the “now” in mind. The nerve-wracking “now” where his hands are shaking and his stomach feels full of something buzzing, and he doesn’t know whether talking with someone will be worth the awkwardness. The books are so quiet; they lean forwards, waiting for him to press the red pen to the note pad and write.
He can hear the cars driving by on the wet road, and the fabric of the light-haired boy’s jacket as he relaxes his shoulders. His hands are slick, and his chest feels like it's burning.
This blue cursive boy came to the bookstore to write to him in the pages of a book. Now he wants to have coffee, he wants to talk, he wants to be with someone…him.
He’s let fear drive him to this point, where he fell to screaming in pen because he couldn’t yell out any other way, and now to the point where he’s faced with someone who has expressed interest that he doesn’t know how to accept. He’s afraid of what will happen if he says yes; talking was never something he was good at. He’s afraid of what will happen if someone really knows him. But he’s so sick of being afraid, of running, of hiding, of ignoring problems that won’t go away unless he confronts them…and at this point, he’s more afraid to be alone than anything else.
The books watch tentatively as he presses the shaking red pen to the note pad, and writes slowly. They watch him hand the light-haired boy a note, this one longer than the first.
“I don’t drink coffee.” it reads. “But you can buy me tea instead.”
The books know he thinks it will be just once, and that they’ll part ways and everything will go back to the way it was. But they know better than that. They’ve see it enough times. The first time will be the strangest, with awkward introductions and jumps from topic to topic, trying to find something they both enjoy. But the books know that he won’t give up.
They’ve always liked him for a reason…he was routine. He would arrive at the same time every day, order the same drink, sit in the same seat by the window, and talk with the same light-haired friend. Only, unlike before, things would change. He would be different, occasionally even spontaneous, and open to new opportunities, even if they scared him at first.
There would be a certain purple covered book that was never too far from reach, in a backpack or a car, or on a book shelf at home. A purple covered book with red a blue writing squeezed between the lines of the story.
The books wish they could speak so they could tell him these things now. But they know it’s not that easy. The answer is always there, written in between the lines and in the margins, hidden in the back stories and the foreshadowing, disguised among the characters and the plot lines. The books know they are different from another, but in the subtexts, always there for anyone who looks hard enough, they all say the same thing:
“The world is what you make of it; make it yours."
Cheyenne Zaremba is a fifteen-year old tenth grader. She is homeschooled and is an artist, as well as a writer. Cheyenne hopes to someday write and illustrate her own books, but is also interested in careers in business, science, and photography.