by Henry Whittier-Ferguson
“The problem is that the goddamn Chinese keep stealing our secrets,” says the man in the suit into his phone. “No. No, that’s what I’m saying. I don’t trust email. I’m at the post office. I’m mailing it now.” He hands me the package he’s holding. “Nevada,” he says to me. “Can you overnight this?”
“It’s going to cost you,” I tell him. I am not Chinese but this is what I think: a secret is only a secret if it wants to be stolen. The man pays with a golden card. The package feels like a thick ream of paper. Back in the mailroom, I open it as a surgeon might open up a body.
Inside I find a stack of patents for a new kind of battery. These batteries charge faster and last longer. They can go in your phone or your computer or your car or your house. They can go in anything. The applications are limitless, the patents say. I photocopy each page and bind my copies together. When I’m done, I carefully reseal the package. Even I can’t tell if it’s been opened.
This kid was mailing drugs. His eyes were all over the room, pupils like dimes, and he was swallowing too much. I took his package home for the night. It turned out he was sending a copy of Walden with sheets of blotter acid between the pages. I ate a hit of the acid and sat in my armchair, reading the section called “Reading.”
…and all the centuries to come shall have successively deposited their trophies in the forum of the world, I read. By such a pile we may hope to scale heaven at last.
I could feel my jaw hanging loose from my skull, my tongue soft and heavy, like wet newsprint. I went to the basement, where I keep all the secrets I know. I poured over them, my trophies.
I found the invoices from Rodney at the medical supply company, the itemized lists of gauze and antibiotics, sterilized needles and tubing and the sutures and titanium screws to keep the skin and bone together. I read Shane Bradley’s W2 from his line cook job at the hotel. I knew his social security number and how much he made last year, which was $27,432.86 before taxes. I read Melissa’s postcard to Jesse while he was away at summer camp. She was sorry but she couldn’t wait another month for him to come home, she was with Daniel now.
Some of them, I could see their faces as clear as when they handed me the letters. Others I never saw. I just picked their words out of a bin. I loved them all. My vision swam with hexagons of light, their edges diffusing into little rainbows. I felt like a prism, separating beams into spectrums, each color standing alone, even as it bled into the next.
The library burned blue-green because of all the ink. They said it might have been arson, though they could never be sure. My mother was a librarian. I was twelve years old. I had grown up sneaking between the stacks, hiding in the dim room where they kept the microfilm and the projectors. The night it happened, they called her and we drove down and watched it all burn from behind the police barrier and I was sure that all was lost. I remember the exact sound of her cry as the roof finally caved, the groan of beams bending and the great sigh of heat that drew the moisture from my open mouth.
The secret to the batteries is in how they fit the cells together, so you can keep on building them as big as you want them to be. It’s a good system. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re building until you’ve already built it. How can you know beforehand how big it will get?
I walk home through the park in the early evening, the copied pages safe in my bag. The air smells like sap and the sun moves through the trees in diagonals of shadow and light on the gravel path. An old man is searching through a trash can for empty bottles.
“Excuse me, are you Chinese?” I ask. He shakes his head.
“Oh. That’s okay,” I tell him. “Do you want to hear a secret?”