Described by our judges as a 'Wonderful story, with special edges, about bonding over books,' this story by Christian Bergmann was selected as the winner of our 2022-2023 'How My Book Changed the World' writing competition.
‘Are you okay?’ Victoria asked. ‘It’s probably violating some stalking law to be looking at me like that.’
Honestly, I wasn’t sure I was okay. If I could bend the universe to my will, I would have forced open its deepest, coldest recesses and let it take me, even if it meant falling forever through a bottomless abyss.
Surely anything – even that – would be preferable to Victoria Lily noticing my badly disguised glances.
I cleared my throat. ‘No, I’m sorry, I wasn’t – I mean, I was, but I wasn’t – you know – I was just –’ It’s always been a source of amazement to me how quickly I crumble into a horrible mess of words and sweat when a girl talks to me. ‘Please don’t think I’m weird. I’m not. I promise.’
She snorted, amused with how easily she could toy with me. ‘What’s wrong with being a little weird?’
‘Not weird in that way,’ I replied, though maybe a little too quickly. ‘Weird in the … you know … other way.’
‘You look like you could use a chair,’ she said. ‘Sit down, before you faint.’
She gestured to the chair opposite and for a moment I thought my heart would stop beating.
We were in the main library of St Edmund’s. It was lunch and, as usual, I had decided to take my salad sandwich, discreetly packed with crisps when Mum wasn’t looking, and spend my hour here. Food wasn’t allowed – Mrs Grimes was ever-vigilant, with eyes that somehow saw everything – but I’d gotten eating covertly down to an art form, which was more than I could say for my attempts at subtlety. While browsing for a book I’d seen her, and so help me, every inch of her seemed to shine.
I sat down at the table. A few moments of uncomfortable silence elapsed between us, until I pointed to the book in her hands.
‘If it makes you feel less weird about me, I actually just noticed what you were reading,’ I said. My hands were rubbing together unconsciously, clammy and tense. It was a true statement, if only a partial truth. But she didn’t need to know the whole truth – confessing someone’s beauty during your first real conversation isn’t prudent (so I’ve been told).
Something flashed in her eyes – maybe understanding. I hoped so.
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Have you read it?’
‘Yeah,’ I said with an awkward half-laugh. ‘What do you think?’
‘Honestly, not what I was expecting.’ She turned it to the front cover, where the words How to Survive the Multiverse were emblazoned. ‘I don’t normally go for stories set in a multiverse. This one has a different spin, which is nice.’
‘My uncle always said the multiverse was a stupid concept. A scientist’s strange abandonment of reason.’
Tone it down a bit, I scolded myself.
Victoria pursed her lips thoughtfully. ‘Well, there is something a bit … frustrating about the concept, isn’t there? I mean, infinite universes, infinite variations of the same characters … doesn’t it just drain all the meaning and uniqueness out of life?’
‘Call me naïve, but I like to think this universe actually means something. That what we do matters and can’t just be dismissed as one in an infinite, interchangeable vortex of worlds.’
‘Wow, you’re really articulate,’ I said before I could stop myself, and everything in me burned to high heaven.
She gave me a look I couldn’t quite decipher. ‘It’s also a get-out-of-jail-free card for the author. Frees him from any meaningful consequences in his work.’
‘Yeah,’ I said.
Okay, over-adjustment. At least say something intelligent.
I’d read How to Survive the Multiverse only a week before. As a story, it was fun. It was about a boy who discovers the multiverse by being kidnapped and taken across worlds. Only, when they used the phrase ‘multiverse’, it literally meant ‘multiple’ universes, not ‘infinite’. There are only a handful of universes outside of this one, and they are all, in some way, connected to this one primary reality. This was a kind of ‘parent’ reality, and the existence – and events – of the others depended on this one.
So, I knew what Victoria meant. There was a legitimate feeling of consequence to the characters’ actions.
The novel was also interspersed with letters written from his father, someone who’d already explored and discovered the other universes. They acted as a guide and source of insight on his adventures. It was a nice touch. It meant the story felt something like Alex Rider meets How do you live? meets other universes.
‘So, I take it you’re not a fan of the superhero genre right now,’ I said.
She rolled her eyes.
Man, even her eyerolls are graceful.
‘Don’t even get me started on that,’ she replied. ‘What a way to sap the drama out of everything. It’s all so boring now.’
I cleared my throat. ‘My name’s Ben, by the way.’
She gave me one of those looks again, the one I couldn’t interpret. ‘I know.’
‘My name’s Victoria.’
‘I know you know.’
‘I didn’t realise you were so into . . .’ I trailed off, realising that however I ended that sentence, it was going to make me look like a judgmental ass. I closed my eyes and sighed. ‘Sorry, I’m really not good at this.’
‘What, talking to girls?’
‘Well, yeah. But you specifically.’
‘I can tell.’
This time, her cool expression melted into a smile so warm my chest hollowed out.
‘I just – I’ve never known someone so pretty be into something so … you know …’
‘That’s because you’ve never talked to me properly before. It’s amazing what you find out when you sit down and talk to someone.’ She grinned. ‘You know, instead of just staring at them from across the library.’
Again, everything in me burned in embarrassment.
She closed her book slowly. ‘Look, I do have to go before bell, but this was fun.’
I swallowed hard and nodded, glancing down at my feet.
Finally, as she was shouldering her backpack, I plucked up the courage and asked, ‘What are you doing tomorrow?’ I felt as though I’d jumped off the edge of a cliff – everything in me disappeared in the freefall and I was just waiting to hit the bottom.
Again, that smile. ‘I’ll be here. Finishing the book.’
‘Cool.’ I cleared my throat again. ‘Maybe we can talk about how it ends.’
‘I’d like that, Ben. You bring the sandwiches, I’ll bring the soda.’ She leaned in close on her way out. ‘We’ll have to be sneaky so Mrs Grimes doesn’t see.’
Her closeness sent my head into a tailspin, and it was all I could do to keep myself upright.
I nodded quickly. ‘Yeah, sure thing.’
‘See you tomorrow, Ben.’
‘See you tomorrow, Victoria.’
Then she was gone, and I was left wrapped in my own silence, unable to believe or comprehend what had just taken place. It all happened so quickly, but somehow I’d landed on my feet, even if my stomach was turning.
I realised I was smiling. A stupid, stupid smile.
Without thinking, I took out my sandwich, peeled off the foil and took a loud bite.
Within moments, a shadow loomed over me, and I glanced up to see Mrs Grimes peering down over the rim of her spectacles. She did not look pleased.
I hurriedly stuffed my sandwich away in the pack and bounced out of the library with a mumbled apology.
Accidentally being on Mrs Grimes’ watch-list was only a minor inconvenience, though. I still had a stupid grin plastered on my face, one even she couldn’t wipe away. I also had the strangest feeling ballooning in my chest, one I hadn’t felt before, and kept me buoyed the rest of the day and into the night (I didn’t sleep a wink that night).
Somehow, I knew that when tomorrow came, my world wasn’t going to be the same again. That I wasn’t going to be the same again. I already wasn’t.