The Book Burner
"Hey. Hey mister, what are you doing?"
The old man didn't look up. It was obvious what he was doing. So he said nothing.
"Hey mister, can I help?"
The old man hesitated. He knew the kid, a boy who had moved into the house next door earlier in the spring. He had seen him riding a bicycle with training wheels up and down the driveway. There was no harm in it, the old man decided, and handed a book to the boy, a paperback with a grim-looking cowboy on the cover. "I'll leave home then," said Billy, strapping on his sleeping father's guns. He turned away from the rising sun and smiled. "I'll go West to find my fortune and my fame."
It was his own voice he heard reading the words. The voice haunted him day and night, whispering words like falling snow.
The boy tossed the book onto the grill. The flames quickly enveloped it, stabbing the cowboy through and through. The boy laughed and clapped, and for the first time since hearing the news, the old man felt his heart lighten.
They watched until it was nothing but a blackened husk with pieces falling through the grate. Then the old man reached down and threw another book on the fire. Thurston hesitated. . . and then slammed his fist down on the hyperspace button. It was true that the Slurvax outnumbered Earth's space fleet 10-to-1. "But it only takes one man to make a difference," he said out loud. "It only takes one man to be a -"
"Mister, can I do the next one?"
The old man handed the kid another book. The boy started to throw it, then stopped.
"This one looks pretty cool. A knight!" The boy flipped through the pages, examining the illustrations. "I bet he goes on a quest. I bet he kills a dragon!" The boy swung the book like a sword and then looked up at the old man, face bright with excitement. The old man closed his eyes. "Father, I have to go," Gerald said. "There's no one else left to fight the beast."
The boy was asking a question. "- I? Mister, can I have this one, please?"
"No, you can't have it." The old man snatched the book away. "It belonged to someone else." It was true. He had merely read the words aloud. The stories, the damnable stories, had taken root in his son's heart.
The boy stared at him open-mouthed. "Why are you burning it then? If you don't want it, why can't I have it?"
The old man's chest grew tight. "My duty means more to me than my death," Gerald said. The young squire swung himself up onto the horse. "Father, why won't you understand?"
He nearly screamed the words. "You're a selfish brat." The wind had changed, his eyes were watering, and he turned away from the smoke. "Fuck off. Fuck off, I said!"
The boy burst into tears. He ran a short distance towards his house, only stopping to yell, "I'm telling my mom!" Then he was gone.
The old man stared into the fire, watching the hypnotically flickering embers. He caressed the book with his thumb. He hadn't wanted to chase the boy away. He had wanted him to stay.
He took a deep, shuddering breath. Then he threw the book onto the fire and watched as the words turned to ash.
I hate the idea of burning books. But there are things that I dread more, and this story is about one of them (which it turns out I can't bring myself to explicitly name).
On a sidenote, I've never said "Hey mister" in my life. I can't help but think that this opening comes from some other story, but I can't figure out which...