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Ur, Page 2

Stephen King

  “Yeah, but!” Henderson had replied, his sweet smile now becoming slightly sly.


  “They’re also ideas and emotions. You said so in our first class.”

  “Well,” Wesley had said, “you’ve got me there. But books aren’t solely ideas. Books have a smell, for instance. One that gets better—more nostalgic—as the years go by. Does this gadget of yours have a smell?”

  “Nope,” Henderson replied. “Not really. But when you turn the pages…here, with this button…they kind of flutter, like in a real book, and I can go to any page I want, and when it sleeps, it shows pictures of famous writers, and it holds a charge, and—”

  “It’s a computer,” Wesley had said. “You’e reading off the computer.”

  The Henderson kid had taken his Kindle back. You say that like it’s a bad thing. It’s still ‘Paul’s Case.’’

  “You’ve never heard of a Kindle, Mr. Smith?” Josie Quinn had asked. Her tone was that of a kindly anthropologist asking a member of New Guinea’s Kombai tribe if he had ever heard of electric stoves and elevator shoes.

  “No,” he said, not because it was true—he had seen something called SHOP THE KINDLE STORE when he bought books from Amazon online—but because, on the whole, he thought he would prefer being perceived by them as Old School. New School was somehow…mediocre.

  “You ought to get one,” the Henderson kid said, and when Wesley had replied, without even thinking, “Perhaps I will,” the class had broken into spontaneous applause. For the first time since Ellen’s departure, Wesley had felt faintly cheered. Because they wanted him to get a book-reading gadget, and also because the applause suggested they did see him as Old School. Teachable Old School.

  He did not seriously consider buying a Kindle (if he was Old School, then books were definitely the way to go) until a couple of weeks later. One day on his way home from school he imagined Ellen seeing him with his Kindle, just strolling across the quad and bopping his finger on the little NEXT PAGE button.

  What in the world are you doing? she would ask. Speaking to him at last.

  Reading off the computer, he would say. Just like the rest of you.


  But, as the Henderson kid might put it, was that a bad thing? It occurred to him that spite was a kind of methadone for lovers. Was it better to go cold turkey? Perhaps not.

  When he got home he turned on his desktop Dell (he owned no laptop and took pride in the fact) and went to the Amazon website. He had expected the gadget to go for four hundred dollars or so, maybe more if there was a Cadillac model, and was surprised to find it was cheaper than that. Then he went to the Kindle Store (which he had been so successfully ignoring) and discovered that the Henderson kid was right: the books were ridiculously cheap, hardcover novels (what cover, ha-ha) priced below most trade paperbacks. Considering what he spent on books, the Kindle might pay for itself. As for the reaction of his colleagues—all those hoicked eyebrows—Wesley discovered he relished the prospect. Which led to an interesting insight into human nature, or at least the human nature of the academic: one liked to be perceived by one’s students as Old School, but by one’s peers as New School.

  I’m experimenting with new technology, he imagined himself saying.

  He liked the sound of it. It was New School all the way.

  He also liked thinking of Ellen’s reaction. He had stopped leaving messages on her phone, and he had begun avoiding places—The Pit Stop, Harry’s Pizza—where he might run into her, but that could change. Surely I’m reading off the computer, just like the rest of you was too good a line to waste.

  Oh, that’s small, he scolded himself as he sat in front of his computer, looking at the picture of the Kindle. That is spite so small it probably wouldn’t poison a newborn kitten.

  True! But if it was the only spite of which he was capable, why not indulge it?

  So he had clicked on the Buy Kindle box, and the gadget had arrived a day later, in a box stamped with the smile logo and the words ONE-DAY DELIVERY. Wesley hadn’t opted for one-day, and would protest that charge if it showed up on his MasterCard bill, but he had unpacked his new acquisition with real pleasure—similar to the pleasure he felt when unpacking a box of books, but sharper. Because there was that sense of heading into the unknown, he supposed. Not that he expected the Kindle to replace books, or to be much more than a novelty item, really; an attention-getter for a few weeks or months that would afterward stand forgotten and gathering dust beside the Rubik’s Cube on the knickknack shelf in his living room.

  It didn’t strike him as peculiar that, whereas the Henderson kid’s Kindle had been white, his was pink.

  Not then.

  II — Ur Functions

  When Wesley got back to his apartment after his confessional conversation with Don Allman, the message light on his answering machine was blinking. Two messages. He pushed the playback button, expecting to hear his mother complaining about her arthritis and making trenchant observations about how some sons actually called home more often than twice a month. After that would come a robo-call from the Moore Echo, reminding him—for the dozenth time—that his subscription had lapsed. But it wasn’t his mother and it wasn’t the newspaper. When he heard Ellen’s voice, he paused in the act of reaching for a beer and listened bent-over, with one hand outstretched in the fridge’s frosty glow.

  “Hi, Wes,” she said, sounding uncharacteristically unsure of herself. There was a long pause, long enough for Wesley to wonder if that was all there was going to be. In the background he heard hollow shouts and bouncing balls. She was in the gym, or had been when she left the message. “I’ve been thinking about us. Thinking that maybe we should try again. I miss you.” And then, as if she had seen him rushing for the door: “But not yet. I need to think a little more about…what you said.” A pause. “I was wrong to throw your book like that, but I was upset.” Another pause, almost as long as the one after she’d said hi. “There’s a pre-season tourney in Lexington this weekend. You know, the one they call the Bluegrass. It’s a big deal. Maybe when I get back, we should talk. Please don’t call me until then, because I’ve got to concentrate on the girls. Defense is terrible, and I’ve only got one girl who can actually shoot from the perimeter, and…I don’t know, this is probably a big mistake.”

  “It’s not,” he told the answering machine. His heart was pumping. He was still leaning into the open refrigerator, feeling the cold wafting out and striking his face, which seemed too hot. “Believe me, it’s not.”

  “I had lunch with Suzanne Montanari the other day, and she says you’re carrying around one of those electronic reading thingies. To me that seemed…I don’t know, like a sign that we should try again.” She laughed, then screamed so loud that Wesley jumped. “Chase down that loose ball! You either run or you sit!” Then: “Sorry. I’ve got to go. Don’t call me. I’ll call you. One way or the other. After the Bluegrass. I’m sorry I’ve been dodging your calls, but…you hurt my feelings, Wes. Coaches have feelings too, you know. I—”

  A beep interrupted her. The allotted message time had run out. Wesley uttered the word Norman Mailer’s publishers had refused to let him use in The Naked and the Dead.

  Then the second message started and she was back. “I guess English teachers also have feelings. Suzanne says we’re not right for each other, she says we’re too far apart in our interests, but…maybe there’s a middle ground. I’m glad you got the reader. If it’s a Kindle, I think you can also use it to go to the Internet. I…I need to think about this. Don’t call me. I’m not quite ready. Goodbye.”

  Wesley got his beer. He was smiling. Then he thought of the spite that had been living in his heart for the last month and stopped. He went to the calendar on the wall, and wrote PRE-SEASON TOURNEY across Saturday and Sunday. He paused, then drew a line through the days of the work—week after, a line on which he wrote ELLEN???

  With that done he sat down in his favorite chair, drank his beer, and
tried to read 2666. It was a crazy book, but sort of interesting.

  He wondered if it was available from the Kindle Store.

  * * *

  That evening, after replaying Ellen’s messages for the third time, Wesley turned on his Dell and went to the Athletic Department website to check for details concerning the Bluegrass Pre-Season Invitational Tournament. He knew it would be a mistake to turn up there, and he had no intentions of doing so, but he did want to know who the Meerkats were playing, what their chances were, and when Ellen would be back.

  It turned out there were eight teams, seven from Division Two and only one from Division Three: the Lady Meerkats of Moore. Wesley felt pride on Ellen’s behalf when he saw that, and was once more ashamed of his spite…which she (lucky him!) knew nothing about. She actually seemed to think he had bought the Kindle as a way of sending her a message: Maybe you’re right, and maybe I can change. Maybe we both can. He supposed that if things went well, he would in time come to convince himself that was indeed so.

  On the website he saw that the team would leave for Lexington by bus at noon this coming Friday. They would practice at Rupp Arena that evening, and play their first game—against the Bulldogs of Truman State, Indiana—on Saturday morning. Because the tourney was double elimination, they wouldn’t be starting back until Sunday evening no matter what. Which meant he wouldn’t hear from her until the following Monday at the earliest.

  It was going to be a long week.

  “And,” he told his computer (a good listener!), “she may decide against trying again, anyway. I have to be prepared for that.”

  Well, he could try. And he could also call that bitch Suzanne Montanari and tell her in no uncertain terms to stop campaigning against him. Why would she do that in the first place? She was a colleague, for God’s sake!

  Only if he did that, Suzanne might carry tales straight back to her friend (friend? who knew? who even suspected?) Ellen. It might be best to leave that aspect of things alone. Although the spite wasn’t entirely out of his heart after all, it seemed. Now it was directed at Ms. Montanari.

  “Never mind,” he told his computer. “George Herbert was wrong. Living well isn’t the best revenge; loving well is.”

  He started to turn off his computer, then remembered something Don Allman had said about Wesley’s Kindle: I thought they only came in white. Certainly the Henderson kid’s had been white, but—what was the saying?—one swallow didn’t make a summer. After a few false starts (Google, full of information but essentially dumb as a post, lead him first to a discussion of whether or not the Kindle would ever be able to produce color images on its screen, a subject in which Wesley—as a book-reader—had absolutely zero interest), he thought to search for Kindle Fan Sites. He found one called The Kindle Kandle. At the top was a bizarre photo of a woman in Quaker garb reading her Kindle by candlelight. Or possibly kandlelight. Here he read several posts—complaints, mostly—about how the Kindle came in only one color, which one blogger called “plain old smudge-friendly white.” Below it was a reply suggesting that if the complainer persisted in reading with dirty fingers, he could buy a custom sleeve for his Kindle. “In any color you like,” she added. “Grow up and show some creativity!”

  Wesley turned off his computer, went into the kitchen, got another beer, and pulled his own Kindle from his briefcase. His pink Kindle. Except for the color, it looked exactly the same as the ones on the Kindle Kandle website.

  “Kindle-Kandle, bibble-babble,” he said. “It’s just some flaw in the plastic.” Perhaps, but why had it come one-day express delivery when he hadn’t specified that? Because someone at the Kindle factory wanted to get rid of the pink mutant as soon as possible? That was ridiculous. They would have just thrown it away. Another victim of quality control.

  He thought of Ellen’s message again (by then he had it by heart). If it’s a Kindle, I think you can use it to go to the Internet, she’d said. He wondered if it was true. He turned the Kindle on, and as he did so, he remembered there was something else odd about it: no instruction booklet. He hadn’t questioned that until now, because the device was so simple to use it practically ran itself (a creepy idea, when you considered it). He thought of going back to the Kindle Kandlers to find out if this was a true oddity, then dismissed the idea. He was just goofing around, after all, beginning to while away the hours between now and next Monday, when he might hear from Ellen again.

  “I miss you, kiddo,” he said, and was surprised to hear his voice waver. He did miss her. He hadn’t realized how much until he’d heard her voice. He’d been too wrapped up in his own wounded ego. Not to mention his sweaty little spite. Strange to think that spite might have earned him a second chance. Much stranger, when you got right down to it, than a pink Kindle.

  The screen titled Wesley’s Kindle booted up. Listed were the books he had so far purchased—Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates, and The Old Man and the Sea, by Hemingway. The gadget had come with The New Oxford American Dictionary pre-loaded. You only had to begin typing your word and the Kindle found it for you. It was, he thought, TiVo for smart people.

  The question was, could you access the Internet?

  He pushed the MENU button and was presented with a number of choices. The top one (of course) invited him to SHOP THE KINDLE STORE. But near the bottom was something called EXPERIMENTAL. That looked interesting. He moved the cursor to it, opened it, and read this at the top of the screen: We are working on these experimental prototypes. Do you find them useful?

  “Well, I don’t know,” Wesley said. “What are they?”

  The first prototype turned out to be BASIC WEB. So Ellen was right. The Kindle was apparently a lot more computerized than it looked at first blush. He glanced at the other experimental choices: music downloads (big whoop) and text-to-speech (which might come in handy if he were blind). He pushed the NEXT PAGE button to see if there were other experimental prototypes. There was one: UR FUNCTIONS.

  Now what in the hell was that? Ur, so far as he knew, had only two meanings: a city in the Old Testament, and a prefix meaning “primitive” or “basic.” The screen didn’t help; although there were explanations for the other experimental functions, there was none for this. Well, there was one way to find out. He highlighted UR FUNCTIONS and selected it.

  A new menu appeared. There were three items: UR BOOKS, UR NEWS ARCHIVE, and UR LOCAL (UNDER CONSTRUCTION).

  “Huh,” Wesley said. “What in the world.”

  He highlighted UR BOOKS, dropped his finger onto the select button, then hesitated. Suddenly his skin felt cold, as when he’d been stilled by the sound of Ellen’s recorded voice while reaching into the fridge for a beer. He would later think, It was my own ur. Something basic and primitive deep inside, telling me not to do it.

  But was he not a modern man? One who now read off the computer?

  He was. He was. So he pushed the button.

  The screen blanked, then WELCOME TO UR BOOKS! appeared at the top of the screen…and in red! The Kandlers were behind the technological curve, it seemed; there was Kolor on the Kindle. Beneath the welcome message was a picture—not of Charles Dickens or Eudora Welty, but of a large black tower. There was something ominous about it. Below, also in red, was an invitation to Select Author (your choice may not be available). And below that, a blinking cursor.

  “What the hell,” Wesley told the empty room. He licked his lips, which were suddenly dry, and typed ERNEST HEMINGWAY.

  The screen wiped itself clean. The function, whatever it was supposed to be, didn’t seem to work. After ten seconds or so, Wesley reached for the Kindle, meaning to turn it off. Before he could push the slide-switch, the screen finally produced a new message.

  10,438,721 URS SEARCHED





  “What in the name o
f God is this?” Wesley whispered. Below the message, the cursor blinked. Above it, in small type (black, not red), was one further instruction: NUMERIC ENTRY ONLY. NO COMMAS OR DASHES. YOUR CURRENT UR: 117586.

  Wesley felt a strong urge (an ur urge!) to turn the pink Kindle off and drop it into the silverware drawer. Or into the freezer along with the ice cream and Stouffer’s frozen dinners, that might be even better. Instead, he used the teeny-tiny keypad to enter his birth date. 7191974 would do as well as any number, he reckoned. He hesitated again, then plunged the tip of his index finger down on the select button. When the screen blanked this time, he had to fight an impulse to get up from the kitchen chair he was sitting in and back away from the table. A crazy certainty had arisen in his mind: a hand—or perhaps a claw—was going to swim up from the grayness of the Kindle’s screen, grab him by the throat, and yank him in. He would exist forever after in computerized grayness, floating around the microchips and between the many worlds of Ur.

  Then the screen produced type, plain old prosaic type, and the superstitious dread departed. He scanned the Kindle’s screen (the size of a small paperback) eagerly, although what he was eager for he had no idea.

  At the top was the author’s full name—Ernest Miller Hemingway—and his dates. Next came a long list of his published works…but it was wrong. The Sun Also Rises was there…For Whom the Bell Tolls…the short stories…The Old Man and the Sea, of course…but there were also three or four titles Wesley didn’t recognize, and except for minor essays, he thought he had read all of Hemingway’s considerable output. Also…