So, without further ado, here is Part 1 to "Under the Rug," by Katherine Downie. (Copyright Katherine Downie, 2008. No stealing my work, or something may just get you...read on...)
Frank Batton liked nothing more at the end of the day than a cup of hot cocoa and a good book. Every evening for the last twenty-seven years (with very few exceptions) he was in his green wing back chair by 7pm, hot cocoa in hand and a well-loved book in his lap. His reading chair was so old and worn that you could pour plaster in it and come out with a perfect mould of Frank’s backside. His friends joked that he could sell them both to museums – the chair to a historical museum, the mould to a museum of modern art. Frank wasn’t much of a jokester, but that always got a chuckle out of him.
Twenty-seven years of the same thing every night seemed boring to his young neighbor Maggie Grippin. She urged him to try something different for a change, but Frank always told her that he liked tradition, order, and familiarity, thank you very much. Maggie loved new things: going to a new play at the local theater, trying the new coffee flavors at the coffee shop on the corner, a new dress, the smell of a new book. And she loved science fiction, something Frank Batton could not tolerate.
“Hogwash” was Frank’s favorite word to use when he disapproved of something, and Maggie kept a secret tally of how many times Frank said it concerning her latest sci-fi novel. Nevertheless, Maggie was insistent, trying to interest Frank by telling him surprising plot twists and unexpected endings. Being a kind man, he usually let her go on for a while, until she knew her time was up by the unfailing utterance of his favorite word.
“Hogwash! That’s all these newfandangled authors write!” Frank spat a little in his excitement. “What happened to the classics? Moby Dick, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, David Copperfield! These are books worth reading, my dear.” Frank took a breath and gave Maggie a steady look. “This book you’re reading is pure and simple balderdash.”
“Balderdash?” Maggie thought to herself. That’s a new one.
Maggie had stopped by Frank’s on her way home from her job at the Lonesome Dove Bookstore in town. She often dropped in on Frank, worrying that he might be lonely, all alone in that big house with nothing but “tradition, order, and familiarity” to keep him company. Though Frank could be a little grumpy during these visits, Maggie often caught him smiling into his hot cocoa when he thought she wasn’t looking.
“Mr. Batton, how can you call this ‘hogwash’? This writer has been compared to Jules Verne, ‘The Father of Science Fiction’ and one of the most read authors in the world!” Maggie watched as Frank scratched his balding head and gave her a pitying look. “You say this book is balderdash, but how can so many readers and literary critics be wrong?”
“They may not be wrong…” Frank said slowly, “but I don’t have to agree with their opinions, do I?”
She turned the book over and pointed to a name on the back. “Look at this, Mr. Batton…Frank…see this name here? M. John Livret. Your favorite literary critic! You told me once that whatever Mr. Livret recommends, you read. Well he read this book, he loved it, and here is his testimonial right here!” Maggie jammed her finger at the words in quotation marks as she set the book on Frank’s lap. An onlooker observing this scene might have thought that Frank had just been told that his best friend and confidant had published Frank’s innermost secrets in the book now lying untouched in his lap. “L-Livret?” Frank felt almost betrayed by this critic, to whom he owed so many pleasurable hours of literary joy. “He…recommended it?”
Half a minute passed before Frank could bring himself to pick up this unknown book and look at the words printed on the dust jacket. Maggie saw his lips move as he read, and caught phrases like, “more magician than author,” “instant classic”and“story brought to life” as Frank’s consternation grew.
“Try it, Frank. Livret wouldn’t lead you astray.”
Frank sat there for some minutes staring at the book, lost in thought.
“Well, Frank, I’d better be getting home. I’ll stop by tomorrow to see how you’re liking the book.” Frank barely lifted his hand in farewell as Maggie stepped off the porch. It may have been her imagination, but she thought she heard a faint “Balderdash” as she walked towards her house.
That evening, 7:00 found Frank in his usual chair with his usual cup of cocoa and his usual well-worn book. All thought of the “Abomination,” as Frank called Maggie’s book, was lost as he dove into the ocean with a well-known whale. Frank could hear the sea gulls and smell the salt in the air as Melville carried him on the waves of the sea. The outside world was lost on Frank, totally lost…but...what was that shuffling sound?
Pulled from his novel, Frank looked around the room to identify the noise, but all was still and silent. Returning to the book, he got 2 sentences in and heard the noise again, but again found no change in the familiar room. Except…the Book, Maggie’s book, caught Frank’s attention once more where it lay on a nearby table. He stared at it for some moments…
When out of the corner of Frank’s eye, he saw something move under the rug.