Today's Reading

BEIJING, 1966

She isn't afraid, but he is. They stand, in the darkness, before a glass case of old things. A Ming dynasty inkstone. A chrysanthemum carved from horn. A Song painting stamped with ruby-red collector's seals. And on a silk pillow, so slight it could be missed: an ancient lotus seed with a legend behind it.

The story goes like this: One night, long ago, a dragon emerged from the sky and dropped this seed into the emperor's open hand. His advisors huddled near to examine it. 'What fortune!' they remarked. This seed would grant the emperor his greatest wish. Unfortunately, he died that night, while contemplating his options. He might have asked for immortality.

She takes a hammer from her knapsack. With all her strength, she strikes the glass. It makes a beautifully clear sound as it shatters. Quickly, the two get to work, securing the relics. It is an attempt to spare them from the Red Guards' destruction—an act of protest, small, against a movement she's no match for.

The seed is unspectacular, so old it resembles a stone. Yet she's aware it contains an entire future: roots, stems, leaves, blooms, to seeds once more—encoded, like she is. Her heart pumps blood, her lungs take in air, she sleeps, wakes, eats, excretes. Will her life be long or short? What has she chosen, she wonders, and what has chosen her? She likes the fragrance of gardenias, but not the scent of lipstick. She doesn't mind the rain. She is in love, which feels, to her, at once easy and hard, elemental and ungraspable—like vanishing and eternity at the same time. She wants to ask of every person she meets: Is it this way for you?

"Hurry," her companion says.

A door slams, loudly. Someone is here. The footsteps draw closer.

They flee.

Outside, she opens her fist. On her bleeding palm rests a stolen seed. The story is fiction. And yet: Why shouldn't the wish be hers?

PART ONE

Lily

CHAPTER 1

1999

My alarm rang at seven and I pressed snooze as usual. The second time I awoke, it was still seven. This happened occasionally, these blips in my existence. I got blank stares whenever I tried explaining them, so I didn't anymore. The feeling I had was that time wouldn't move. A second would refuse to pass as it usually did, and I would find myself trapped in a moment—unable to progress beyond a minute or two.

My bathroom mirror, flecked white with toothpaste, reflected me to myself. Lines from the pillow were pressed into my cheek. I ran my fingers over the indentations. The toothpaste flecks gave the effect of being in a shaken snow globe.

In the kitchen, the same drain flies circled the sink, unless they were new ones—the former ones' progeny. Debbie never washed her dishes, and her lipstick-rimmed mug sat balanced on the edge of the sink, like a dare to raise the issue. Warily, I ate a piece of toast with blueberry jam. The toast crunched as it always had. Some jam got on my cheek, and in swiping it from my face I removed some blush. Now there was a void in my coloring. I would have to redo the makeup, but it relieved me to see that the regular laws of physics continued to apply.

Outside, I regarded my surroundings with suspicion, as though they were a dream I might wake up from. Like everyone, I had recently watched 'The Matrix'. Would it be so bad to discover that life until now, or some portion of it, had been illusory—an advanced society's highly realistic simulation? It might actually be a relief.

Downstairs, Mrs. Chin restocked the key chains of her souvenir shop. She was arguing with Mr. Peng, who owned the salon next door. Seeing me, they paused their quarrel.

"Lei hou, Lily," Mrs. Chin said with a wave, pronouncing it 'lee lee'. She'd taught me exactly three words of Cantonese: 'Lei hou ma?' How are you?

"Lei hou ma!" I called back. "I'm okay," I added, in English.

Mrs. Chin's hair, newly permed, shimmered with auburn highlights— Mr. Peng's handiwork. From a plastic bag with a happy face on it, she pulled out a bun. The yeast smelled sweet. Did I want one? I shook my head. Not today.

The bell on the café door gave its meek ring. I ordered my regular latte—the latte I shouldn't have been buying, because I didn't make any money. I sat to drink it. A dark-haired man held a bagel to a child's small mouth, waiting for the child to accept a bite. I followed his gaze to the New York City street, where nothing appeared out of the ordinary: people, pigeons, bags of trash. Holding the bagel steady, the father's mind traveled elsewhere. It was a look I remembered my mother wearing when I was a child—one I resented. How dare she think of anything but me?


...

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Today's Reading

BEIJING, 1966

She isn't afraid, but he is. They stand, in the darkness, before a glass case of old things. A Ming dynasty inkstone. A chrysanthemum carved from horn. A Song painting stamped with ruby-red collector's seals. And on a silk pillow, so slight it could be missed: an ancient lotus seed with a legend behind it.

The story goes like this: One night, long ago, a dragon emerged from the sky and dropped this seed into the emperor's open hand. His advisors huddled near to examine it. 'What fortune!' they remarked. This seed would grant the emperor his greatest wish. Unfortunately, he died that night, while contemplating his options. He might have asked for immortality.

She takes a hammer from her knapsack. With all her strength, she strikes the glass. It makes a beautifully clear sound as it shatters. Quickly, the two get to work, securing the relics. It is an attempt to spare them from the Red Guards' destruction—an act of protest, small, against a movement she's no match for.

The seed is unspectacular, so old it resembles a stone. Yet she's aware it contains an entire future: roots, stems, leaves, blooms, to seeds once more—encoded, like she is. Her heart pumps blood, her lungs take in air, she sleeps, wakes, eats, excretes. Will her life be long or short? What has she chosen, she wonders, and what has chosen her? She likes the fragrance of gardenias, but not the scent of lipstick. She doesn't mind the rain. She is in love, which feels, to her, at once easy and hard, elemental and ungraspable—like vanishing and eternity at the same time. She wants to ask of every person she meets: Is it this way for you?

"Hurry," her companion says.

A door slams, loudly. Someone is here. The footsteps draw closer.

They flee.

Outside, she opens her fist. On her bleeding palm rests a stolen seed. The story is fiction. And yet: Why shouldn't the wish be hers?

PART ONE

Lily

CHAPTER 1

1999

My alarm rang at seven and I pressed snooze as usual. The second time I awoke, it was still seven. This happened occasionally, these blips in my existence. I got blank stares whenever I tried explaining them, so I didn't anymore. The feeling I had was that time wouldn't move. A second would refuse to pass as it usually did, and I would find myself trapped in a moment—unable to progress beyond a minute or two.

My bathroom mirror, flecked white with toothpaste, reflected me to myself. Lines from the pillow were pressed into my cheek. I ran my fingers over the indentations. The toothpaste flecks gave the effect of being in a shaken snow globe.

In the kitchen, the same drain flies circled the sink, unless they were new ones—the former ones' progeny. Debbie never washed her dishes, and her lipstick-rimmed mug sat balanced on the edge of the sink, like a dare to raise the issue. Warily, I ate a piece of toast with blueberry jam. The toast crunched as it always had. Some jam got on my cheek, and in swiping it from my face I removed some blush. Now there was a void in my coloring. I would have to redo the makeup, but it relieved me to see that the regular laws of physics continued to apply.

Outside, I regarded my surroundings with suspicion, as though they were a dream I might wake up from. Like everyone, I had recently watched 'The Matrix'. Would it be so bad to discover that life until now, or some portion of it, had been illusory—an advanced society's highly realistic simulation? It might actually be a relief.

Downstairs, Mrs. Chin restocked the key chains of her souvenir shop. She was arguing with Mr. Peng, who owned the salon next door. Seeing me, they paused their quarrel.

"Lei hou, Lily," Mrs. Chin said with a wave, pronouncing it 'lee lee'. She'd taught me exactly three words of Cantonese: 'Lei hou ma?' How are you?

"Lei hou ma!" I called back. "I'm okay," I added, in English.

Mrs. Chin's hair, newly permed, shimmered with auburn highlights— Mr. Peng's handiwork. From a plastic bag with a happy face on it, she pulled out a bun. The yeast smelled sweet. Did I want one? I shook my head. Not today.

The bell on the café door gave its meek ring. I ordered my regular latte—the latte I shouldn't have been buying, because I didn't make any money. I sat to drink it. A dark-haired man held a bagel to a child's small mouth, waiting for the child to accept a bite. I followed his gaze to the New York City street, where nothing appeared out of the ordinary: people, pigeons, bags of trash. Holding the bagel steady, the father's mind traveled elsewhere. It was a look I remembered my mother wearing when I was a child—one I resented. How dare she think of anything but me?


...

Join the Library's Online Book Clubs and start receiving chapters from popular books in your daily email. Every day, Monday through Friday, we'll send you a portion of a book that takes only five minutes to read. Each Monday we begin a new book and by Friday you will have the chance to read 2 or 3 chapters, enough to know if it's a book you want to finish. You can read a wide variety of books including fiction, nonfiction, romance, business, teen and mystery books. Just give us your email address and five minutes a day, and we'll give you an exciting world of reading.

What our readers think...