I heard the scream at almost the same time I heard the crash. Joan, my next-door neighbor was unusually clumsy but I wasn’t surprised to hear my phone ring a moment later. I answered it, reluctantly.
“Get over here.” Joan’s voice was full of pain and panic. “There’s been a terrible accident.”
A moment later, I was in her apartment and we were both looking down at the recently deceased lying prone on the floor. Joan was sobbing.
“She had a good life,” I said. I bent and picked up the Kindle, which Joan had named Bethany. Its screen was cracked and a jagged circle like a bullet hole was bleeding out high-tech ink into the rest of the screen.
Joan buried her face in my shoulder and shook with a pathos that rivaled the ending of Old Yeller.
“You can get another one,” I said, patting her awkwardly on the shoulder.
“But it takes . . . two days to ship with . . . Amazon Prime,” she gasped between sobs.
Joan was a reader in the same way the sun was a tad warm. She told me once she usually read over 400 books a year. Looking around her living room, I saw only one bookshelf, mostly covered in knickknacks. Her whole library had been transferred years ago to the flatlining piece of tech in my hands.
“Maybe you can read on your phone until then.”
She wiped her eyes and looked at me morosely. “The screen’s too small. It hurts my eyes.”
“You could read on the computer,” I said. She wrinkled her nose with a look of such revulsion you would think that I had suggested pooping on the welcome mat.
I helped her order a new Kindle and offered to drive her to the library. Then I remembered that it was Sunday and it was closed. I didn’t really read myself and I didn’t think that inviting her up to play Fortnite would help much. I left her clutching a dictionary and rocking back and forth slowly.
Joan and I weren’t much more than acquaintances, but I felt I should check on her after supper, just to make sure she was okay. She didn’t answer her phone, so I went next door and knocked. There was no answer, but I saw that the lights were on. Finally, I tried the door. Thirty seconds later, I called 911.
“She was just lying on her couch, staring at the ceiling,” I told the doctor at the hospital. “Maybe I panicked.”
“No, it’s good you brought her in,” the doctor said, shining a light into her eyes. “Did she have any trauma or shocks recently?”
“She broke her Kindle today,” I said.
The doctor looked pensive and puckered his lips in a way I found disconcerting. “Let me run some tests,” he said.
He left me in the waiting room wishing, ironically, that I had something to read, but he was back in twenty minutes.
“It’s a rare condition called a bibliophilic comatose state,” he said. “It’s caused by a sudden lack of reading material. We’ll try to draw her out of it. We’ve got a medical grade e-reader set up, but we need to know what she usually reads.”
“History, I think?” I usually tuned Joan out if she started talking about what she was reading. “She likes British history. I think.” She had said something about British history, I remembered.
“Okay, we’ll start her out on a regimen of historical fiction. I’ll try twenty pages of Philippa Gregory and see how it goes.”
The doctor assumed that I wanted to see Joan, so he led the way back into the newly constructed Injuries of the Arts wing to her room. I looked through the window at her lying in bed, monitors strapped to her arms. Her eyes were open and an e-reader was set up in front of her. A little robotic finger flicked at the screen every ten seconds to flip the page, making a beeping noise as it did.
I woke up in a chair in the hallway of the hospital with a nurse leaning over me.
“I thought you’d want to know about your friend’s progress,” she said. “We’ve switched to Alison Weir. If that has no effect, we’ll have to try something harder, maybe even David Starkey.”
I didn’t know what that meant, but I left my number and went home to sleep. The next day as I was returning from work, I saw that Joan’s new Kindle had been delivered and was sitting outside her door with the usual lack of security that delivery companies reserved for expensive high-tech devices. I took it to the hospital to see if she was awake.
Joan seemed responsive when I got to her room. I knocked on the window and she looked my way. I pointed at the package and her face lit up with relief. I went into the room and gave it to her.
“Thanks,” she said, “and thank God it came so fast. I’ve been reading nothing but British history for the last day. I don’t know what idiot thought I liked that stuff.”