Notes: Disclaimer in the previous chapter. This is a companion concept piece, meant to be read after or alongside "Someday's Readers". The final paragraphs contain a mild spoiler for the end of Someday's Readers, and it is recommended that you read that one first. Someday's Readers contains no spoilers for this story.
Thanks to Beatrice Lord, my beta for this chapter!
紙使いに大切事 (Kami ｔsukaini ｔaisetsuna koto | Things that are important to a Paper User)
The most delicious part of any day was that first hour. When the sun was warm through the window, if you were lucky. When the sounds of all the humans outside were still quiet. When it was easy enough to roll over, stretch a little, and open your eyes to see the page that you fell asleep reading. Still open, undisturbed. With the luxury of drifting from a forgotten dream into the compelling and rewarding joy of a well written book.
Yomiko Readman savoured those mornings. Life was short, and there were many ways that a good lie-in with a book could be disturbed. She'd seen enough death in the last few years, and had more than her fair share of interrupted paragraphs; she jealously guarded her moments of peace. She was ever thankful that Nancy had decided to take Junior on a holiday, this year. The two of them deserved a chance to bond a little more, now that they'd both gotten over their initial shyness. Yomiko didn't envy them that task at all. She was even more grateful that Nenene had gotten used to normal life again. Instead of coming around at all hours, Nenene had returned to spending most of her time writing; she dropped by with food and sometimes an editor's proof of a chapter. She never stayed long, or tried to make too much conversation.
The best part about reading in the morning, Yomiko decided, as she scratched one itchy sole of her foot – right foot – with the big toe of her left, was that Nenene didn't wake up until well after noon these days. Living with the three Paper Sisters, she had fallen into the habit of staying up late, writing into the early morning. Sleeping most of the daylight away.
It left Yomiko more time to luxuriate with the less noble novels. The pulpy ones, the romances, the high-school action thrillers. Anything can be written well, or poorly, after all. Yomiko was hardly someone to walk past any readable book. But Nenene did tend to get a little snooty, when she caught Yomiko reading someone else's books. Especially one of the trashier romances.
Or perhaps it had just been that one romance author, now she thought of it. But, damnit, it didn't matter at all. Instead of reading lazily and happily, she had simply stared at the page and worried about Nenene and how easy it was to injure her pride, as an author. It was almost as if Nenene wanted to be the sole author in Yomiko's life, she got so tetchy about it all.
Pah! It wasn't worth thinking about! She'd deal with Nenene if she showed up in the afternoon. She really shouldn't be letting her own thoughts ruin a perfectly good book. Yomiko marked her place careful now she was awake; moving about in her rooms did tempt fate, and bookslides weren't rare occurrences. She fumbled around for the tightly capped bottle of water she knew she'd left lying near the mattress somewhere the night before, sticking her arm into a small space left between piles of books. Dark, damp, humid Japan flavoured must rose from some of the less disturbed piles.
For some reason, her books, her home here, always smelt like that. British books, dry and pulpy and strange, were erotic in their exotic scents and textures. But there was something about smooth recycled brownish paper, thin paperbacks with glossy dustcovers... maybe it was a combination of the glue used for the perfect binding, and the climate. The mold that snuck everywhere, if you weren't careful. It was hard to pinpoint, but it was the smell of home. Even at her parents' house out away from the city, it was the smell of books and home.
The library had been too carefully air conditioned. Books weren't allowed too much air, or moisture, in there. She'd almost cried, eyes damp, when she'd first come home to this. When she'd seen the tidy, clean, shrink-wrapped piles of new releases, and the brown string paper bags full of secondhand novels. All things that Nenene had bought for her in her absence. She wasn't quite sure how they'd escaped The Joker's attempt at recreating Ray Bradbury's horrific future vision, but she was glad enough that they had. She didn't really want to ask any questions, tempt any cruel chance that something might go wrong. A spiteful god demanding books left owing. Anything else, anything other than books, and it would be an amusing silly joke. But books were too important for something like that.
Aha! She wriggled, twisting her shoulder and wrist a little, to sneak the bottle back up and out between the books without disturbing anything. Slowly, slowly. When she took a sip of water, it was flavoured around the edges by little scraps of detritus, dandruff from one of the older or more fragile books. It was still a welcome taste in her mouth, and the water helped to clear her head a little, wake her up, and chase the unsettling thoughts about book burning and spine degradation from her mind. She felt ready, to dive back in.
That anticipation was thrumming inside her, like wild energy. Electricity. A longing to know, to learn, to read. To commune with the deepest and most complete connection with another human mind, human soul, that one could ever hope to achieve. That, and she would finally learn about what was happening to the cat that had vanished down the alleyway.
That is, she would have, if she hadn't heard a high-voiced sneeze. Someone else was in the building, and they were close. The books would insulate the noise, if they were a whole floor away, which meant that whoever it was must be close. She closed her book carefully with the page marked, slid to somewhere out of sight of the doorway, and summoned some paper into her hand.
The door creaked open, gently. A small hand fumbled around, stretching out to brush up against some piles of books. Footsteps fell a little awkwardly, finding their way around stray discarded books. Yomiko steadied herself, ready to attack. The person didn't sound like Nenene, or Nancy, or anyone who came visiting. She readied, and held the paper between her fingers to sharp attention.
Then, a bright scruffy head of hair came into view. Awkward teenage limbs gangled over a pile of books, and the girl Anita King stood sheepishly in Yomiko's room.
"Uh, hi. Sorry if I startled you."
Yomiko felt her face turn red with embarrassment. She was The Paper, after all, and she'd gotten spooked by a kid. A kid who was on her own side, nonetheless. Someone with paper magic, too. Someone she should have been able to recognise. She very obviously wasn't in good sorts. Maybe Nenene was right, and breakfast was a good idea.
"No, it's alright, sorry. Here, ah, sit. Push those off the bed."
Yomiko relaxed, and began to shift things about, making space for Anita. She picked up the book she had been reading, to stuff the papers into the front cover, and froze. In the papers in her hand, was the bookmark. She'd summoned her bookmark. Sure, she'd be able to find her place again, but the tedium of the chore, the revisitation of previous pages, it would ruin the flow of it all.
"Ah, I can come back later, if it's not a good time."
Yomiko blinked, and shook her head. "No, it's fine. I was just... waking up. Not having much luck at it, either."
Anita kicked her heels gently against the floor, and hmmned in sympathy. "I share a bed with Mii-nee. You have no idea how hard it is to get up sometimes. She can totally spoil my mood, in the mornings."
Yomiko nodded. She had no idea, to be honest. She'd never had any siblings herself. She could imagine, though, that any noise or interruption in the morning could be awful. She hadn't had anyone to contend with, for most of her own morning, and she'd still been having a rotten time of it.
"So, Anita." She spoke as much for a distraction from her handful of papers, and bookmark, than for any reason. "I didn't expect to see you here today..." Yomiko trailed off, not quite sure how to ask if Anita needed help without offending the stubborn and independent girl. It had been a lot easier, when they'd been on the roadside, at night, and everything had been urgent. Without the sense of dire need and impending doom, Yomiko was less willing to push things. She wasn't a people person, she was a book person.
"It's those stupid, useless idiots!" The girl exclaimed, throwing her hands up in the air, and leaning backwards without a care, landing on Yomiko's duvet with a soft pomp of dusty air. "They just keep on wasting every cent we earn on books! Even with Nenene-ne covering food and everything, there's never anything left for me!"
Yomiko was, she had to admit it, a little confused. "But, I thought you'd overcome that barrier. I thought you liked books." She was a little guilty, if it was book related. She'd talked to Nenene about it, about Anita's nightmares. She felt a little responsible, even if the evil done was wholly the work of the library staff. She'd imprinted horrible nightmares into that young child's mind. Yomiko had never meant to do anything like that.
She'd felt a ray of absolution light up her heart, when she'd heard that the kid was reading, and enjoying it.
"I do! That's the problem!" Anita sighed heavily, with the gravity that only a child can affect, and stared up at Yomiko's cobwebbed ceiling.
Yomiko regarded her, not sure whether she should be baffled or amused. She put all of herself into thinking about the problem. It was almost as interesting as a good popular mystery. "Oh!" She discovered the answer without having to think too hard at all. It was quite obvious, really. "So they've learnt their book-buying habits with a budget for two, not three."
Anita nodded emphatically. "Exactly! Did you know? I've never bought a book. Well, I probably would have forced them to buy Hisa-chan's books, but she gave most of them to me. Signed."
"Really?! You're kidding! No! Can I borrow them?"
Anita rubbed at her cheeks, and scowled at the messy piles around the room. "You're kidding, right? Ruin your own copies, your an adult! Those are special to me!"
Yomiko sighed, defeated. She'd just have to pick up some of them. She'd always meant to read some of that girl's books – Nenene had said they were worth it, if a bit rough – but she'd never really gotten around to it. They weren't quite old enough to have filtered down into the stores she usually scoured for rare delights.
Now that she thought of that, it seemed quite natural. To fully educate a young girl, fulfilling a karmic debt, and at the same time, getting a new and interesting novel that was a guaranteed good read. She'd even be able to get the author to sign them, if she was kind enough to Anita.
"Come on," She puffed out, gathering shoes and coat and scrabbling around in her usual spots for forgotten notes of money, "we're taking you to a bookshop."
Anita sat up, alert. "But I haven't got any money, the stupid twins spent it all on some translated English ones..."
Yomiko waved a hand dismissively. "Nevermind that. You're a paper user who has never bought her own book before. It's scandalous. Here." She took the notes she'd found, and shoved them at Anita, in a messy fistful. "I've got some money here that will cover what I need today. Not all I want, but surely what I need. So take this. I owe you one, anyway."
Anita didn't seem to feel the need to argue that point. She grumbled a little, but shoved the money into a pocket and followed Yomiko's frantic footsteps down and out onto the street. When they emerged from the books, and the quiet repose of paper, the busy oil-slicked electric roads of the city, full of people, seemed rude and too bright. Full of farting machines and pedestrian traffic.
She expected to be marched down the street, straight into a secondhand store, perhaps even that top secret one, but instead, Yomiko lead her to the train station.
"Oi, I thought we were going bookshopping!"
Yomiko nodded enthusiastically, as she bought tickets and walked on into the station, leaving Anita to follow hopelessly, weaving between commuters as she tried to keep up. "Well, Jinbouchou's back that way!"
Yomiko shook her head, smiled, and waited until they had both settled between the others on the train to speak. "Oh yes, but you've been there. You've never been to the first Kinokuniya, however. Or a real, huge, fantastic Book Off! For your first experience, you don't want the slow and mature taste of antiquarian books and die-hard collectors! No, you want to drown in the ocean of pulp fiction. The heavens of shining bright covers! Edges shaved down to appear newer, cleaner than they are; the discount piles, the tachiyomi students in the manga section!"
Yomiko was blushing, obviously remembering her own personal indiscretions of adolescence. "To be able to find everything that you might want in one section, to have shopkeepers that couldn't care less, but will search on their computers for whatever you might need. It's a changed world, Anita. They didn't have such sophisticated systems, when I was your age. You'll be able to have them make a whole database of books you might like..."
Yomiko paused for effect, and Anita was pretty sure that her nearly rabid enthusiasm was disturbing the businessmen that stood near them. "And you could afford them all."
Now that, that made Anita's eyes go wide. She'd seen the bills that her sisters could rack up, indulging in unmissable books, rare elite finds. She'd become used to books being expensive, and unattainable. Something that was just beyond hope. She'd borrowed books by the truckload from the school library, and read all the ones that Nenene-ne owned, but there was something special, different, about having unrestricted access to your own books. Being able to deny someone else permission to read them. To make notes in the margins. To keep them in your pockets, just in case you felt like revisiting that one beautiful line of prose.
"You're lying, right. No way is that possible."
Yomiko's eyes shimmered with pity for her. "Oh, but it is! Depending on the quality, and how recent it is, you're looking at, I'd say, between 100 and 300 yen. Each."
Anita felt something much bigger than she'd ever felt before building up inside. A heady hot rush of adrenaline, as if she was in a fight. But sweeter than that. It was like all the sugar highs in the world, times a thousand. She could feel her cheeks burning, not from shame or shyness or indignation, but simply unrestrainable emotion. Eagerness.
"H-how long till we get there?" Anita felt her voice waver uncertainly. She swallowed, but her throat still felt dry.
"Not long now." Yomiko reassured her, in a serious tone. "Perhaps half an hour, at most, before our first stop."
Where the procession of the crowd had before seemed too rushed and hectic, at the other end of the trip, it seemed sluggish and restrained. An impenetrable wall of suits and grey, boring people with phones and bags. Trivial concerns. Anita could barely keep herself inside her own skin, and Yomiko was amazed that, for once, she was the person least excited about purchasing books in her company. It would have been unnerving, if Anita's powerlessness in the face of booklust hadn't been so adorable. It reminded Yomiko of the first time, as a boarder at high school, that she had sacrificed her food money for a new release.
The facade of Book Off was bright and primary, more discount sales advertising than bookish enticement. The whole spirit of it was different to that of the tamer, more dignified stores in Jinbouchou. But it would serve a purpose. All frills stripped off, all decorations aside from bright cheap Chinese plastic elided. Prices slapped on with pricing guns, and the shuffle of feet only second to the sound of the clerks' voices at the registers in volume.
Clean, cheap shelves lined the walls to near the roofs. Aisles were narrow. The building was free-standing, and a couple of stories tall. Large signs directed people to the locations of various items; the franchise carried games, DVDs, CDs, magazines, manga, as well as books. They had import sections, foreign languages, reference, history, literature... everything.
Anita's eyes were wide, taking it all in. But when Yomiko had given her a push in the direction of the fiction, she made a beeline to a very familiar logo and shelf. Yomiko herself had browsed out of curiosity; she'd never needed to pay for any books from that publisher. She wondered. Surely not, of course. Anita was just looking for books similar to what she'd already read...
No, Yomiko was wrong. Or, rather, her suspicions had been correct. Anita had walked directly to, and removed, a copy of Nenene's first novel. Yomiko approached behind her gently, and laid understanding hands on the girl's shoulders. "You don't have to spend your money on them, you know," she explained, "I'm sure Nenene will let you read them anytime. She'd probably give you copies, if you asked."
Anita scowled, and strode off in an energetic huff, grabbed a plastic shopping basket with a deep and angry frown, and returned. She violently, but carefully, slammed several Sumiregawa novels into the basket before she spoke again, in a terse and low tone. "It's different. I'm allowed to make a choice, you said. Allowed to spend the money. So I'm buying books that I want to keep. That I think are worth the money. I already have all of Hisa-chan's, so..."
Yomiko nodded. That made, in fact, perfect sense. "I think that if you let Nenene see those, she's going to get very abashed and then tease you, to cover up how touched it will make her feel."
Anita exhaled in a heavy puff of breath. "Yeah. That's what I reckon. But I still gotta do it." She eyed the books carefully, and Yomiko could recognise that eye. The eye of a bibliophile who just couldn't help but want more, even if she knew she couldn't afford it.
Yomiko picked up one of them, and pointed helpfully at the sticker. "It's only 100, see. Because these ones are over a decade old, now. You could get all the ones up to... here," Yomiko pointed to the likely threshold of prices, "and still buy two new hardcover books. If you settle for the older stuff, you can have heaps more."
The information sunk into Anita heavily. It seemed, to Yomiko, as if the girl had exhausted herself, and was dumbstruck rather than infatuated with the realisation that she could move from a no-hope morning into an afternoon of relative literary wealth. They browsed silently, scanning the shelves, occasionally moving around another customer politely. It wasn't until they'd carefully risked the adolescent fantasy adventure shelves that the idea entered Yomiko's head.
"I'm your bookmother."
Anita dropped the book she'd been considering into the basket, and eyed her warily. "My what?!"
Yomiko smiled, and strode off for a second. It would be easier with reference material. She was lucky, and glad of it, to have found a copy. An English book, it wasn't translated into Japanese yet. Wasn't likely to be. But Anita was bilingual, and would probably be an adept at picking up another language.
"In here. The City of Dreaming Books. It has, near the start, this concept. That parents and siblings, family, are responsible for a child's needs. Clothes, food, education. But a bookparent – like a godparent, or mentor – is someone, an adult, who is responsible for the bibliographical enrichment of the child. I'm a bit late, admittedly, to do things I imagine a bookmother is supposed to do, like find the right picture books. But I am here. I'm an adult, technically a family friend. Buying you books and showing you the ropes."
Anita seemed to think about it for a moment, and then snatched the English book impatiently from Yomiko. She dropped it on top of the others. "Alright, then. Since you're the bookmother, you have to make up for half a lifetime of book buying. I can live with that."
She smiled up at Yomiko, and then hummed happily, moving between the shelves much more comfortably than Yomiko would have expected, even just several hours ago. It seemed that the reservations Anita had once held towards buying her own books were evaporating completely as the morning went on. Yomiko began to feel a slight sinking feeling, at the thought that her own book purchasing funds might be encroached upon. But the girl was a student, and Yomiko was sure that if anything went horribly wrong, she could always buy books for the girl, then borrow them indeterminately.
Yes. That seemed, Yomiko thought, as she watched Anita heft the basket onto the counter and count out the remainder of her purchases, a good idea. She watched as Anita swayed under the weight of her new old books. They swung, pendulous in large carrier bags, throwing her balance out to the right and left. Yomiko herself knew how easy it was to become distracted, the heady experience of a book binge. But the poor kid looked about ready to collapse under all that weight.
"Don't forget what we are." She whispered. Anita's mouth formed a silent, round "O", and with a short shift of attention, the bags became much easier for her to manage. Yomiko found herself grinning. Donnie had had to say something similar to her, once. And that... that had been the first time, perhaps, that she'd remembered Donnie. Not Donnie the reader and lover, but Donnie The Paper, and not felt a twinge of sadness. It was quite different, having fought alongside other paper users. Paper Sisters. The term itself implied something more intimate and far less mercenary than the induction Yomiko herself had been given. Even if they'd suffered the conspiracies behind their own powers, they still had that sense of family. Solidarity. It had never been able to be broken.
Yomiko realised that Anita was staring at her with a very strange look in her eyes. Yomiko didn't know how to respond. She did the best she could. "It reminded me of someone. Coming out with you, talking about books. I just... he died, a long time ago."
Anita blanched, and ushered Yomiko out of the store with her bags. They stood on the pavement, and watched the early lunch crowd bustle to get seats at a small noodle store down the street. "Sorry, if I'd known I wouldn't have... well, um..."
Yomiko patted Anita on the head, because the kid's hands were full, and Yomiko reckoned that Nenene would be happy to hear about it later, if nothing else. "No, it was a nice memory. About books, and discount pricing, and discovering a whole new world of culture. Book people. Before him I'd always been so insular that I'd hardly noticed the world at all."
She led the way, taking a bag and letting Anita get some air on the walk before they reached Books Kinokuniya. "Is that the sort of thing?" Anita asked, pausing for breath, despite her lightened load. "That's important to a paper-user? Not just liking the books, but having all our good memories tied up with them too?"
Yomiko thought about it for a while, as they waited for the pedestrian light to turn green. "Maybe. What about your life, though? You hated books, because of that fire..."
Anita shrugged one shoulder, as if she was rolling that problem down her back and out of the way, a quick dismissal. "That's got nothing to do with it."
She stopped, so that they could cross the busy street, and didn't speak up again until the tall Kinokuniya building loomed over them, crowded in on either side by other tall concrete chunks of commercial business. The midday sun reflected off the glass of the windows, even in the thick smog of the city, and not a book could be seen from the street level.
"It's all about what the memories are attached to. The good ones, I mean." Anita finally explained. Yomiko led her over to a clerk that recognised Yomiko, and was more than happy to mind the two bags loaded with books. Anita smiled, and patted Yomiko on the arm. "I'd better not go anywhere without my fairy bookmother again!" She joked.
Well, it wasn't as if Yomiko had had any pressing work recently. A few trips to some bookstores every now and then wouldn't hurt her schedule that badly. She let Anita lead the way, gave her time to gape at the floor signage. Anita chose to reach the top, then come back down.
"All my good memories," Anita continued, as Yomiko took a moment to register that the previous conversation was being resumed "are of those two dolts." Maggie and Michelle, the other sisters. Yomiko found herself nodding in comprehension.
"And they've always been passionate about books."
Anita nodded. "Exactly. So even if I hated books as a paper user, I've always associated them with the people that I love most."
It was sweet, in a twisted way. A lovely image, but Yomiko would have much rather not damaged Anita psychologically. If she'd had her druthers, which of course at the time...
As if she could sense Yomiko's declining mood, Anita intruded with more questions that had no obvious answers.
"So what else is important? You're enlightening me, right? We've got books, memories of books..."
"Bookmarks," Yomiko murmured, remembering her mistake from the morning, "oh! And catalogues!"
She drew Anita over to a computer terminal, and gestured for her to type something into the search field. Anita did so, bemused. "Didn't the staff at the other place have a catalogue behind their counter?"
Yomiko simply held her breath, and waited. Anita had input the title "Anne of Green Gables". Not the Japanese translated title, but the original English. Perhaps Yomiko's earlier plugging of an English language novel had influenced Anita to explore the work in its original form. She waited as Anita's eyes grew wider, a smile of glee spreading on her own face.
"It's on bookshelf 27, shelf B... in Sydney?!"
Yomiko nodded. "These consoles are hooked up to the databases for every Kinokuniya in the world. So if it's in stock anywhere, they can ship it to you. Or hold it. Or order another from the same supplier. You can see the covers, too. And just the shelf location function is really useful. They have employees who just go around and find lost books, put them back where they belong."
Anita nodded slowly. "I can see how a good catalogue is something important."
Yomiko was about to encourage Anita to look up something that she might want to read, on the local catalogue filter only, but Anita's stomach let out a miserable grumble. She blushed a little, and didn't meet Yomiko's eyes.
"Well, there's a cafe somewhere in here. If you can find it, I suppose that I can treat you to lunch."
After some plodding around, and a basketful of books – this time equally shared prizes for them both, more frugal due to the new book price stickers – they sat down wearily at a cafe table, Yomiko allowing Anita to order something for her while she had a glass of water.
Footsteps came up to them, but as they were near enough to the cashier, Yomiko thought nothing of it until her eyes wandered into the right place at the right time. She saw Nenene smiling slyly, and raising a finger to her lips, warning Yomiko to stay quiet. She leant forwards, and with two hovering hands, dashed inwards to pinch at Anita's cheeks.
"Oi, brat, what are you doing here? I didn't ask you to babysit my Sensei."
Anita jumped, and then treated Nenene to a very disapproving glare. Nenene scruffed up Anita's hair, and elbowed her out of her seat. "Hisami's over there, if you wanted to catch up with her. We were about to call it a day, anyway. We're almost done."
Anita stuck her tongue out at Nenene, and then hurried over to Hisami. But Yomiko only had eyes for the thick manila folder that Nenene cradled close to her chest protectively as she sipped Yomiko's coffee.
"Sensei, is that..." Yomiko didn't dare voice her hopes, in case she jinxed them. Almost done was not quite done, after all.
Nenene grinned, and nodded. "Final draft. This one's for the editor, but I've got a few backup copies at home. Come for dinner, and you can take one home with you."
Yomiko felt her heart almost break with the exultant joy and glory of it. This was hotter than a fresh printing, warm from the machine. This was a barely finished, editor's copy of a whole new novel. Written by her favourite author. Or, wait, was it? There was a strange name on the envelope. Yomiko twisted a little to see it, her heart in her throat.
Sumiregawa and Hishiishi.
If it was possible for the day to get any better, Yomiko failed to see how. She couldn't wait until all this socialising nonsense was done, and she could sit down with her own copy and just read.
Endnote: I'm not sure if the big Kinokuniya truly has a cafe or not; the one in Sydney does, and I'm assuming that the central shopfront would have one too. If I'm wrong, much apologies. One day, I'll be rich enough to visit for myself, and then I shall rectify any errors in my description.