For his eleventh birthday, our parents gifted my brother Henry a refurbished Kindle Paperwhite to divert attention away from video games. They called it the “iPad for smart people,” a device stripped free of distractions and designed with a singular purpose in mind: reading. Although it took some getting used to, the Kindle became Henry’s main jam by Week Five, bumping his once beloved Xbox down to sidepiece status.
At any given moment, there were at least three selections in his virtual library all at various degrees of rigor. My parents worried consuming multiple books at once would cause mental burnout. However, Henry claimed having options added excitement to the reading experience as suggested by his newly adopted mantra, “the more the merrier.”
When fellow classmates asked what book Henry was reading, he corrected them without hesitation. “It’s books.” Emphasizing the plurality by maintaining an “s” sound for however long it took his opponents to walk away. After other kids overheard and came over, he just stared at them while a hissing sound continued emitting from between his clenched teeth until they, too, had no choice but to retreat. A behavior which earned him the moniker, “book snake,” the reptilian version of bookworm. Mom became distraught after a guidance counselor called home expressing concern regarding Henry’s inability to assimilate with peers.
Henry found social engagement to be laborious, insisting that time spent making small talk could be spent absorbing knowledge for the betterment of oneself. His level of syntax had also improved tenfold and it was during civil discourses with Mom that this became most apparent.
“How do you expect to make any friends?” she asked.
“Oh mother, the nature of public school is such that people become no more than transient beings. Thus, it is utterly preposterous to seek any sort of stability in something so fleeting as human companionship. Preposterous!”
Engaging with my brother alone worried Mom greatly knowing she was no match for someone whose rolodex of words seemed to be growing by the minute. Dad was often called in as backup with a pocket thesaurus, assigned the task of finding simpler alternatives for the onslaught of unfamiliar words being flung their way. My parents soon reached a compromise with Henry, allowing him to pursue his literary inclinations only if he agreed to stop hissing at other kids. He maintained his portion of the deal and used pockets of free time to fully immerse himself in the fanciful worlds of such characters as Sherlock Holmes and Don Quixote.
Afternoons became noticeably different ever since my brother began putting his energy elsewhere. What was once many hours of gunfire sounds coming from upstairs got replaced by an almost unsettling silence. While the peace was appreciated, it made me realize how much I missed the ringing of virtual ammunition reminding me that Henry was still an active member of our household. I called his name on one such afternoon only to hear a response bounce back from outside. Peeking through the blinds, I saw Henry reading crossed-legged in the middle of our driveway while the Sun continued beating down on his frail eleven year old frame.
“What the hell are you doing, come inside this instant!” I exclaimed.
He shifted his gaze off the Kindle and lifted it into the air, pointing towards the screen as though I could see its contents.
“Did you know these could be used in direct sunlight?” Henry replied. “Clear as day, let me tell ya.”
I insisted he cooperate knowing that, hailing from a bloodline of pale complexioned folk, his skin would surely burn were he to stay outside for any longer. Before Henry continued reading, he stuck his tongue out and began flicking it rapidly in full reptilian fashion. This was profoundly disturbing, only second to when Henry collapsed both arms against his side and slithered downstairs into the kitchen when Mom summoned us for dinner. Signaling his approach with a trail of squeaks each time he inched forward on the tile floor. As upset as I was at him for disregarding orders, who could blame the kid? Besides, Henry was probably just trying to regulate his own body temperature to keep himself alive. Book snakes are cold-blooded creatures after all.
Nam Hoang Tran holds a B.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Central Florida. His work appears or is forthcoming in Funny-ish, Star 82 Review, Bending Genres, (mac)ro(mic), and elsewhere. He currently lives in Orlando. Find him online at www.namhtran.com.