The back of the amber haired girl's head blended in perfectly in the row of high school students sitting at computers in the school library. Her mass of wavy hair was tied precariously at the nape of her neck with a bright red ribbon. Her hair lay heavily on the back of her tie-dyed tee shirt.
The girl typed furiously on the keyboard, spouting out lines of text on the screen at an incredible rate. A few minutes later she stopped abruptly, scrolled to the top of the e-mail she had been writing and read it over carefully. It was the girl's fifth attempt at a letter that would convince a publisher to read and accept her unsolicited and so far unsuccessful manuscript.
The girl's name was Sparrow, and the first thing she'd tell you were she to meet you was that she was a writer. The second thing she'd tell you, was that her parents had been young, and going through a strange time when they'd named her, but that that was of far less consequence.
It would only be then in the conversation that Sparrow would realize that the person she was talking to – in this case, you – most likely care very little about who she was and simply wanted directions to some obscure street.
But that didn't bother Sparrow in any way. One day, she knew, people would care. One day, people wouldn't have to be told what her name was, because they'd have read her bestsellers, and would recognize her face instantly from the back cover. And because she knew that that day would come soon, she was perfectly content to remain uncared for by absolute strangers.
Sparrow sent the e-mail and got up from her plastic library chair. She shoved her three freshly borrowed calculus books into her backpack, and left the building with her bag slung heavily over her shoulder.
With the sun shining brightly on her face, Sparrow marched cheerfully down the people-sprinkled sidewalk towards the bus stop a few blocks away. In a few minutes she was sitting on the crowded bus, staring curiously at the people around her.
Sitting beside her was a nervous-looking man who was rather overweight and trying not to touch Sparrow. In front of her were two college students laughing and joking carelessly. On the bench ahead of them was a young lady bouncing a dark-haired toddler on her knee.
Sparrow frowned thoughtfully. In a little over a year, approximately 82 of the people on the bus – including Sparrow herself – would be homeless and starving. That is, assuming there was no flaw in her logic, which Sparrow was certain that there was. It was ridiculous to think that she had been right in her predictions, regardless of how sound her arguments seemed. Even though Sparrow had reached her conclusions using every rule of enlightened reason her considerable wit had provided her with, it was downright absurd to think that the republic of the United States of America would dissolve. Would fall. Would destroy itself from the inside.
While one – that is, you – might have thought that being so vastly wrong would bother Sparrow, you would have been just as mistaken as she was certain that she was. You see, to Sparrow, this was just one of those things. It was a clever idea – it made for a perfectly good novel – it even seemed plausible if you really wished it to seem so. But by no means did that guarantee that it held any truth in it.
And if she was right – which, if you asked her, she wasn't – it didn't make any difference. Because if there hadn't been any flaw in her reasoning, then the result was inevitable, and there was surely no use worrying about it.
A smile cracked across Sparrow's pensive expression. She could just imagine herself repeating the thought process that had just occupied her brain to the already nervous man beside her. She played the scene out several times in her head, with the poor man bursting into tears, screaming ad having a heart attack in turns. Perhaps it would be better if she kept her farfetched ideas to herself, Sparrow thought in amusement.
The remainder of the bus ride was also spent in silence, which was a fairly good thing, as Sparrow stared passed her bench-mate, out the window, praying to whomever was inclined to listen that this time the manuscript would be accepted.
Over the next few weeks Sparrow checked her e-mail between five and fifteen times a day and haunted the den where the computer in her house was situated for half hours at a time. Choosing those times, of course, by logically considering when a reply was likely to arrive, naturally taking into account time zone differences and the presumed schedule of the average editor.
While this provided some expression of her impatience, there was still quite a bit to get out of her system. So it was that the ordinarily self-sufficient Sparrow called up her friend Jane, and invited her over.
Jane's outside appearance was a perfect opposite of Sparrow's. Her hair was black and entirely straight, resting lightly on her shoulders. She was approximately three inches taller than Sparrow, and her skin was about three shades paler. She was of course, different from Sparrow in several other ways as well, the most obvious of those being that Jane, unlike Sparrow, was one of those people who could float into a room unnoticed, letting the unavoidable scream when someone turned around and did see her announce her presence for her. Sparrow pondered these differences in amusement as she waited impatiently for her friend.
And so, fifteen minutes after Sparrow called Jane the first time, and about seven minutes after she called a second time to see where she was, Sparrow's friend drifted into the den with a bemused grin on her face.
"I suppose you haven't left your computer's side for the past twenty days."
"Their website said that they respond very quickly."
"Your point?" Jane asked with a smile as she rearranged the piles of magazines over the sofa and sat down.
Sparrow smiled back at her. "My point is that there was a very large chance – probability, if you will – that I'd get some sort of response by now."
"Sure, in a perfect world."
"Come on," Sparrow said, pacing around the room. "I only sent them the first twenty pages! Are there words the silly editors don't understand or something? I mean, I see how that would be a problem, but…"
During this rant, Jane settled into a more comfortable position on the couch, and stared up at Sparrow with a dry smile and a raised eyebrow.
"Are you done yet?" she asked as Sparrow caught her breath.
"For the time being."
Sparrow leaned against the wall. "It was a good twenty pages," she mumbled.
Jane's eyes twinkled. "Yes it was."
"The characters were introduced. I ended with a cliffhanger. The last line, for heaven's sake, was 'And the grand republic that was the United States of America, which had stood proud for two hundred and fifty years collapsed like a cared house onto the awaiting ground,'" Sparrow recited.
"Yeah." Jane nodded. "Despite your rather silly accusations, you know I did actually read the novel."
"That's what they all say," Sparrow said, waving Jane's comment aside.
"Why'd you come over anyway, if you were just going to laugh at me?" Sparrow complained.
Jane smiled. "Well, first of all, laughing at you's pretty fun."
Sparrow raised her eyebrows.
"And second of all, if the e-mail does come, someone's going to have to scrape you off the ceiling with a spatula, where you'll inevitable end up when you're done climbing walls in your excitement. Figured I was as good a person as any to do that." She laughed again.
Sparrow sat down next to Jane on the couch. A minute later she got up and went to the computer. Jane rolled her eyes as Sparrow checked her e-mail yet again.
There was a moment of silence. The moment stretched.
"Jus' a second." She sounded fairly distant.
"Just – wait –"
Jane lightly lifted up from the sofa and walked up behind Sparrow. She pushed her hair away from her face and stared at the computer screen.
An e-mail was open. Sparrow was reading it intently. She seemed to be drowning in the rows of text. Jane skimmed through it. She only seemed to absorb single phrases. Very impressed. Incredible storytelling. Hesitant to publish. Dangerous. Will cause panic. No one wants proof of America's destruction. The words swam in Jane's head.
"They- they said they'd publish it." Sparrow sounded dazed. "They accepted it."
"Yeah." Jane returned to the sofa and slowly sat down, sinking into its cushions.
"This moment isn't exactly happening the way I'd always planned it," Sparrow said after a moment, joining Jane on the couch.
"Then again," Jane commented, "that e-mail isn't exactly what you'd planned either." Her voice was filled with feigned calm.
"No, not really."
The two girls sat together on the couch for quite a while after they'd read the e-mail. They were both sunken in thought, neither uttering a word. It was Jane who eventually broke the silence.
"So are you going to write back to them, or are you going to-" she stopped herself short and looked at Sparrow with slightly raised eyebrows.
"Am I going to what?"
Jane waited a beat before answering. "Do you plan on deleting it?
Sparrow lowered her eyebrows. "Deleting what?" A frown darkened Sparrow's face.
"You know what." The room was silent again.
Jane glanced at her watch a moment later and rose off the sofa. "I've got to go." She stopped at the door.
"So much for scraping you off the ceiling, huh?" She smiled weakly and left.
Soon after, Sparrow unattached herself from the couch and replaced herself in front of the computer. Slowly she opened a document titled Ashes. She skimmed through the 107 page file, stopping every once in a while to read a page or a chapter. Sparrow read over the depictions of the destruction. She read over the descriptions of the processes that lead to the collapse. The cold reasoning of her main character played out in her mind. The lines on the screen, though, were unable to block out the words of the e-mail that seemed to be emblazoned before Sparrow's eyes.
The reasoning is too clear. People will think your hypotheses are correct. They'll act.
The words trailed off in Sparrow's mind. They were followed by images of worry, of fear. Sparrow could see people reading the book, the whole while never really sure if it wasn't actually true. If maybe their lives as they knew them really were over.
Sparrow stared at the screen, hardly seeing the black-on-white text. She'd only written a novel. She'd just – It had never occurred to her to think that it was true. Even now it seemed absurd.
But what if people did believe. She had to at least consider the possibility, didn't she? Because what if people acted because of a silly story she'd written? What if-
Sparrow's eyes focused on the text. 'The people had not wanted war,' Sparrow read silently. 'Had not expected it, or intended for it to come. It had quietly snuck up on them all – it had attacked from behind. But now it too late. There was no turning back. War was upon them.'
Sparrow closed her eyes. She didn't want to read anymore. She had never thought anything could come of her story but entertainment. She had never wished for anything more. But closing her eyes only made her more aware of Jane's question that still hung in the air, still made her short of breath.
Sparrow re-opened her eyes. She carefully slid the mouse along its pad, selecting options on her computer. Menu. Delete file. Are you sure? The question stared at her coldly from the screen.
Sparrow wrinkled her nose for a moment. A deep frown had taken sole residence of her face. She moved the cursor back and forth between the two options on the screen. From one to the other, in some sort of tug of war within Sparrow's mind. Thoughts raced through her head, reeking havoc and confusion in her thoughts.
The cursor on the computer screen rested lightly on the button reading 'delete.' One click and the whole issue would disappear. She could rid her mind of doubt – just by gently moving her finger. If she did – if she clicked the mouse – her story would once again be nothing more than an idea. In fact, it would then be nothing at all.
But Sparrow knew that that wasn't so. That it oughtn't be so. Her story was something. Slowly the cursor moved like a ghost to the cancel button. Ashes. The story's title hung in Sparrow's mind. Maybe that's all the story was – just ashes. Surely that's all it promised to the world.
But it wasn't true, Sparrow insisted to herself. America wasn't falling apart. The book wasn't going to be the announcement of some future destruction – it would be the thing that brought it about. It was irresponsible to keep it. She thought the whole premise of the book was silly, but apparently someone else didn't. The editor was worried.
The cursor returned to the delete button. But the editor had been willing to publish it, half of Sparrow shouted. He was willing to take a risk. He believed that it was important. He was willing to be responsible for the consequences. He chose.
Sparrow stared at the screen, her eyes wide. All she seemed to see were the two options on it. Delete. Cancel.
A heartbeat later, Sparrow pressed the button on the mouse. Her computer buzzed for a second, obeying her command. The file was still safe. Still there. All of a sudden, though, it was more than an idea. It was now alive. It would change things, because she'd chosen.
Sparrow continued to sit at the computer a while yet, exhausted. Her eyes gazed blankly at the screen. She felt so tired. So spent.
A small smile, though, flickered quietly across Sparrow's face. Maybe war was upon them, a voice within her whispered. And maybe she was sounding the alarm.