We Are Inevitable, Page 1Gayle Forman
ALSO BY GAYLE FORMAN
I Have Lost My Way
I Was Here
Just One Night
Just One Year
Just One Day
Where She Went
If I Stay
Sisters in Sanity
An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, New York
First published in the United States of America by Viking,
an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 2021
Copyright © 2021 by Gayle Forman
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For the Heathers, the Kathleens, the Mitchells, the Beckys, and all the booksellers, who give us a great good place.
Also by Gayle Forman
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs
Too Loud a Solitude
Sometimes a Great Notion
The Giving Tree
A Wrinkle in Time
When You Reach Me
The Scent of Desire
The Little Book of Hygge
The Art of the Deal
Goldmine Record Album Price Guide
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Starting and Running a Coffee Bar
Tuesdays with Morrie
The Big Book
The 2010 Rand McNally Road Atlas
The Magician’s Nephew
A Grief Observed
The Great Good Place
About the Author
A town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore, it knows it’s not foolin’ a soul.
—Neil Gaiman, American Gods
Every act of creation begins with an act of destruction.
Home is where I want to be, but I guess I’m already there.
—Talking Heads, “This Must Be the Place”
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs
They say it took the dinosaurs thirty-three thousand years to die. Thirty-three millennia from the moment the asteroid slammed into the Yucatán Peninsula to the day that the last dinosaur keeled over, starving, freezing, poisoned by toxic gases.
Now, from a universal perspective, thirty-three thousand years is not much. Barely a blink of an eye. But it’s still thirty-three thousand years. Almost two million Mondays. It’s not nothing.
The thing I keep coming back to is: Did they know? Did some poor T-rex feel the impact of the asteroid shake the earth, look up, and go, Oh, shit, that’s curtains for me? Did the camarasaurus living thousands of miles from the impact zone notice the sun darkening from all that ash and understand its days were numbered? Did the triceratops wonder why the air suddenly smelled so different without knowing it was the poison gases released by a blast that was equivalent to ten billion atomic bombs (not that atomic bombs had been invented yet)? How far into that thirty-three-thousand-year stretch did they go before they understood that their extinction was not looming—it had already happened?
The book I’m reading, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte, which I discovered mis-shelved with atlases a few months back, has a lot to say on what life was like for dinosaurs. But it doesn’t really delve into what they were thinking toward the end. There’s only so much, I guess, you can conjecture about creatures that lived sixty million years ago. Their thoughts on their own extinction, like so many other mysteries, they took with them.
* * *
Fact: Dinosaurs still exist. Here’s what they look like. A father and son in a failing used bookstore, spending long, aimless days consuming words no one around here buys anymore. The father, Ira, sits reading in his usual spot, a ripped upholstered chair, dented from years of use, in the maps section, next to the picture window that’s not so picturesque anymore with its Harry Potter lightning-bolt crack running down the side of it. The son—that’s me, Aaron—slumps on a stool by the starving cash register, obsessively reading about dinosaurs. The shelves in the store, once so tidy and neat, spill over, the books like soldiers in a long-lost war. We have more volumes now than we did when we were a functioning bookstore because whenever Ira sees a book in the garbage or recycling bin, or on the side of the road, he rescues it and brings it home. We are a store full of left-behinds.
The morning this tale begins, Ira and I are sitting in our usual spots, reading our usual books, when an ungodly moan shudders through the store. It sounds like a foghorn except we are in the Cascade mountains of Washington State, a hundred miles from the ocean or ships or foghorns.
Ira jumps up from his seat, eyes wide and panicky. “What was that?”
“I don’t—” I’m drowned out by an ice-sharp crack, followed by the pitiful sounds of books avalanching onto the floor. One of our largest shelves has split down the middle, like the chestnut tree in Jane Eyre. And anyone who’s read Jane Eyre knows what that portends.
Ira races over, kneeling down, despondent as he hovers over the fallen soldiers, as if he’s the general who led them to their deaths. He’s not. This is not his fault. None of it.
“I got this,” I tell him in the whispery voice I’ve learned to use when he gets agitated. I lead him back to his chair, extract the weighted blanket, and lay it over him. I turn on the kettle we keep downstairs and brew him some chamomile tea.
“But the books . . .” Ira’s voice is heavy with mourning, as if the books were living, breathing things. Which to him they are.
Ira believes books are miracles. “Twenty-six letters,” he used to tell me as I sat on his lap, looking at picture books about sibling badgers or hungry caterpillars while he read some biography of LBJ or a volume of poetry by Matthea Harvey. “Twenty-six letters and some punctuation marks and you have infinite words in infinite worlds.” He’d gesture at my book, at his book, at all the books in the shop. “How is that not a miracle?”
“Don’t worry,” I tell Ira now, walking over to clea
r up the mess on the floor. “The books will be fine.”
The books will not be fine. Even they seem to get that, splayed out, pages open, spines cracked, dust jackets hanging off, their fresh paper smell, their relevance, their dignity, gone. I flip through an old Tuscany travel guide from the floor, pausing on a listing for an Italian pensione that probably got killed by Airbnb. Then I pick up a cookbook, uncrease the almost pornographic picture of a cheese soufflé recipe no one will look at now that they can log onto Epicurious. The books are orphans, but they are our orphans, and so I stack them gently in a corner with the tenderness they deserve.
Unlike my brother Sandy, who never gave two shits about books but conquered his first early reader before he even started kindergarten, I, who desperately wanted the keys to Ira’s castle, had a hard time learning to read. The words danced across the page and I could never remember the various rules about how an E at the end makes the vowel say its own name. The teachers would have meetings with Ira and Mom about delays and interventions. Mom was worried but Ira was not. “It’ll happen when it happens.” But every day that it didn’t happen, I felt like I was being denied a miracle.
Toward the end of third grade, I picked up a book from the bins at school, not one of the annoying just-right baby books that got sent home in my backpack, but a hardcover novel with an illustration of a majestic and kindly lion that seemed to be beckoning to me. I opened the first page and read the line: Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. And with that, my world changed.
Ira had been reading to me since before I was born, but that was not remotely comparable to reading on my own, the way that being a passenger in a car is nothing like being the driver. I’ve been driving ever since, from Narnia to Hogwarts to Middle-earth, from Nigeria to Tasmania to the northern lights of Norway. All those worlds, in twenty-six letters. If anything, I’d thought, Ira had undersold the miracle.
But no more. These days, the only book I can stomach is The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs. Other than that, I can’t even look at a book without thinking about all that we’ve lost, and all we are still going to lose. Maybe this is why at night, in the quiet of my bedroom, I fantasize about the store going up in flames. I itch to hear that foof of the paper igniting. I imagine the heat of the blaze as our books, our clothes, our memories are incinerated. Sandy’s records melt into a river of vinyl. When the fire is over, the vinyl will solidify, capturing in it bits and pieces of our lives. Fossils that future generations will study, trying to understand the people who lived here once, and how they went extinct.
“What about the shelf?” Ira asks now.
The shelf is ruined. Consider this a metaphor for the store. Our lives. But Ira’s brow is furrowed in worry, as if the broken shelf physically pains him. Which it probably does. And when something pains Ira, it pains me too. Which I why I tell him we’ll get a new shelf.
And so it begins.
* * *
The next morning, Ira wakes me with a series of gentle shakes. “Aaron,” he says, a manic gleam in his hazel eyes, “you said we’d go buy a new shelf.”
Did I? It’s still dark outside. My head is full of cotton balls.
“C’mon!” Ira urges.
I blink until the digital clock comes into focus. It’s 5:12. “Now?”
“Well, we have to drive to Seattle and back and if we leave at six, even if we hit traffic, we’ll be there by eight when Coleman’s opens and we can be done by eight thirty and there won’t be traffic heading north, so we can be back by ten.”
According to the laminated sign on the door Mom made a lifetime ago, Bluebird Books is open from ten to six, Monday through Saturday, closed Sundays. Ira insists on abiding by our posted times, even on snow days, even on sick days. It’s part of what he calls the bookseller covenant. The fact that no one ever comes into the store before noon, if they come in at all, does not seem to play into his logic.
“Can’t we get shelves in Bellingham?” I’m still not fully awake, which is why I add, “At the Home Depot?” even though I know Ira does not shop at Home Depot. Or Costco. Or Amazon. Ira remains committed to the small, independent store. A dinosaur who supports other dinosaurs.
“Absolutely not!” Ira says. “We have always shopped at Coleman’s. Your mother and I bought our first bookshelf from Linda and Steve. Now come on!” He yanks away the covers. “Let’s get moving.”
Twenty minutes later, we are firing up the Volvo wagon and pulling out of the driveway. It’s still midnight dark, dawn feeling very far away. At this hour, the businesses are all shuttered, so you can’t tell which ones are kaput—like Dress You Up, which still has its dusty mannequins in the window—and which are just closed.
Ira slows to wave to Penny Macklemore as she unlocks the hardware store, one of many businesses in town she owns. “Good morning, Penny!” He unrolls his window, showering us both with a blast of Northwest air, whose dampness makes it feel far colder than it actually is. “You’re up early.”
“Oh, I’m always up this early,” Penny replies. “That’s why I catch all the worms.”
“Well, we’re off to buy some new shelves,” Ira replies. “See you later.”
We drive toward the interstate, down the winding road, past the mills that used to employ half our town and now stand empty, partially reclaimed by the forests they once transformed into paper.
“Your mom and I bought all our furniture from Coleman’s,” Ira says as he merges onto the interstate. “It’s run by a husband and wife. Well, it was until Steve died. Now Linda runs it with her daughter.” Ira pauses. “Kind of like you and me.”
“Right,” I say, wondering if Linda Coleman’s daughter also has fantasies about her store going up in flames. Wood, after all, is as flammable as paper.
“No matter how long it’s been,” Ira continues, “Linda always remembers the last thing we bought. ‘Ira,’ she’ll say. ‘How’s that display table working out?’ Even if it’s been years.”
What Ira is talking about is the hand-sell. He is a big believer in the hand-sell. Once upon a time, he and Mom were very good at it. Before the asteroid came and ruined the business and frayed his brain, Ira had an almost photographic memory of what any given customer had read last, and therefore an uncanny ability to suggest what they should read next. So for instance, if Kayla Stoddard came in, stopping to chat with Mom about the brand-new coat (with tags on) Kayla had scored at the Goodwill, Ira would remember that the last two books Kayla had bought were Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, and would surmise, correctly, that she was on a Poirot kick and would quietly have Appointment with Death ready for her. He and Mom used to sell a lot of books this way.
“Linda will find us a good replacement for the broken shelf,” Ira says as a gasoline tanker tears past the Volvo on the uphill. “And then we can organize a bit here and there and turn things around.”
Ira often talks about turning things around. But what he really means is turning back time, to before the asteroid hit. And though I’ve read a fair number of books about the theoretical possibility of time travel, as far as I know, no one has invented a time machine yet. Still, I don’t blame him for wishing.
When we pull into Coleman’s, right at eight, the store is dark and locked. I run out to check the sign on the door. “It says it opens at nine,” I call to Ira.
“That’s odd.” Ira scratches his beard. “I could’ve sworn it was open from eight to four. Linda arranged the schedule like that so they could be home with the kids in the evening. Though the daughter, Lisa is her name,” Ira says, snapping his fingers at the synaptic connection, “she’s grown now, so maybe they changed the hours. Now we’re going to open late.”
He frowns, as if there will be people waiting eagerly at our doorstep the way we are waiting at Coleman’s.
“Well, since we have time to kill, do you want to get some break
fast?” I ask.
“Sure,” Ira agrees.
We get back in the car and drive toward a shopping center. On one end of the parking lot is one of those giant health food emporiums. On the other side is a bookstore. Its windows are jammed with artful displays of new titles, smiling author photos advertising upcoming readings, a calendar of events. All signs of a bookshop thriving—in Amazon’s backyard, no less—having survived algorithms, pandemics, TikTok. A reminder that not all species went extinct after the asteroid hit. Just the dinosaurs.
The sight of the store deflates Ira, who slumps in his seat and refuses to get out of the car. “Just go grab me something.”
The health food store is decked out for Halloween: gourds and pumpkins and artisanal candy with “real sugar” because apparently that’s a selling point. The prepared-food area is like a museum: fresh-cut fruit symmetrically laid out, a buffet of scrambled eggs and fluffy biscuits warming under a heat lamp. Ten dollars a pound. The egg breakfast at C.J.’s is five bucks, including juice and coffee.
I set off for something more affordable. And it’s there, between kombucha scobies and shade-grown coffee, I see it: a table with records for sale. The cheapest one is twenty bucks. They go up, significantly, from there.
A tattooed hipster mans the table. He wears a fedora with a feather in it. I can’t tell if it’s a Halloween costume or just his “ironic” style.
“You collect vinyl?” he asks.
“Me? No!” I tell him. “I don’t like records, or CDs, or music, for that matter.”
The hipster rears back as if I just informed him that I mutilate kittens for fun. “What kind of person doesn’t like music?”
My reply is automatic, an age-old distinction I don’t even question: “A book person.”
* * *
Around eight forty-five, bellies full of on-sale granola bars, we pull back into the Coleman’s parking lot just as a guy wearing a red vest is unlocking the metal gate. “Hello,” Ira calls, leaping out of the car. “Are you open?”