- Pages: 288 Pages
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: Viking Books for Young Readers
- ISBN: 9780425290804
An Excerpt From
We Are Inevitable
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs
They say it took the dinosaurs thirty-three thousand years to die. Thirty-three millennia from the moment the asteroid slammed into the Yucatán Peninsula to the day that the last dinosaur keeled over, starving, freezing, poisoned by toxic gases.
Now, from a universal perspective, thirty-three thousand years is not much. Barely a blink of an eye. But it’s still thirty-three thousand years. Almost two million Mondays. It’s not nothing.
The thing I keep coming back to is: Did they know? Did some poor T-rex feel the impact of the asteroid shake the earth, look up, and go,Oh, shit, that’s curtains for me? Did the camarasaurus living thousands of miles from the impact zone notice the sun darkening from all that ash and understand its days were numbered? Did the triceratops wonder why the air suddenly smelled so different without knowing it was the poison gases released by a blast that was equivalent to ten billion atomic bombs (not that atomic bombs had been invented yet)? How far into that thirty-three-thousand-year stretch did they go before they understood that their extinction was not looming—it had already happened?
The book I’m reading, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte, which I discovered mis-shelved with atlases a few months back, has a lot to say on what life was like for dinosaurs.But it doesn’t really delve into what they were thinking toward the end. There’s only so much, I guess, you can conjecture about creatures that lived sixty million years ago. Their thoughts on their own extinction, like so many other mysteries, they took with them.
Fact: Dinosaurs still exist. Here’s what they look like. A father and son in a failing used bookstore, spending long, aimless days consuming words no one around here buys anymore. The father, Ira, sits reading in his usual spot, a ripped upholstered chair, dented from years of use, in the maps section, next to the picture window that’s not so picturesque anymore with its Harry Potter lightning-bolt crack running down the side of it. The son—that’s me, Aaron—slumps on a stool by the starving cash register, obsessively reading about dinosaurs. The shelves in the store, once so tidy and neat, spill over, the books like soldiers in a long-lost war. We have more volumes now than we did when we were a functioning bookstore because whenever Ira sees a book in the garbage or recycling bin, or on the side of the road, he rescues it and brings it home. We are a store full of left-behinds.
The morning this tale begins, Ira and I are sitting in our usual spots, reading our usual books, when an ungodly moan shudders through the store. It sounds like a foghorn except we are in the Cascade mountains of Washington State, a hundred miles from the ocean or ships or foghorns.
Ira jumps up from his seat, eyes wide and panicky. “What was that?”
“I don’t—” I’m drowned out by an ice-sharp crack, followed by the pitiful sounds of books avalanching onto the floor. One of our largest shelves has split down the middle, like the chestnut tree inJane Eyre. And anyone who’s read Jane Eyre knows what that portends.
Ira races over, kneeling down, despondent as he hovers over the fallen soldiers, as if he’s the general who led them to their deaths. He’s not. This is not his fault. None of it.
“I got this,” I tell him in the whispery voice I’ve learned to use when he gets agitated. I lead him back to his chair, extract the weighted blanket, and lay it over him. I turn on the kettle we keep downstairs and brew him some chamomile tea.
“But the books . . .” Ira’s voice is heavy with mourning, as if the books were living, breathing things. Which to him they are.
Ira believes books are miracles. “Twenty-six letters,” he used to tell me as I sat on his lap, looking at picture books about sibling badgers or hungry caterpillars while he read some biography of LBJ or a volume of poetry by Matthea Harvey. “Twenty-six letters and some punctuation marks and you have infinite words in infinite worlds.” He’d gesture at my book, at his book, at all the books in the shop. “How is that not a miracle?”
“Don’t worry,” I tell Ira now, walking over to clear up the mess on the floor. “The books will be fine.”
The books will not be fine. Even they seem to get that, splayed out, pages open, spines cracked, dust jackets hanging off, their fresh paper smell, their relevance, their dignity, gone. I flip through anold Tuscany travel guide from the floor, pausing on a listing for an Italian pensione that probably got killed by Airbnb. Then Ipick up a cookbook, uncrease the almost pornographic picture of a cheese soufflé recipe no one will look at now that they can log onto Epicurious. The books are orphans, but they are our orphans,and so I stack them gently in a corner with the tenderness they deserve.
Unlike my brother Sandy, who never gave two shits about books but conquered his first early reader before he even started kindergarten, I, who desperately wanted the keys to Ira’s castle, had a hard time learning to read. The words danced across the page and I could never remember the various rules about how anE at the end makes the vowel say its own name. The teachers would have meetings with Ira and Mom about delays and interventions. Mom was worried but Ira was not. “It’ll happen when it happens.” But every day that it didn’t happen, I felt like I was being denied a miracle.
Toward the end of third grade, I picked up a book from the bins at school, not one of the annoying just-right baby books that got sent home in my backpack, but a hardcover novel with an illustration of a majestic and kindly lion that seemed to be beckoning to me. I opened the first page and read the line: Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. And with that, my world changed.
Ira had been reading to me since before I was born, but that was not remotely comparable to reading on my own, the way that being a passenger in a car is nothing like being the driver. I’ve been driving ever since, from Narnia to Hogwarts to Middle-earth, from Nigeria to Tasmania to the northern lights of Norway. All those worlds, in twenty-six letters. If anything, I’d thought, Ira had undersold the miracle.
But no more. These days, the only book I can stomach is The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs. Other than that, I can’t even look at a book without thinking about all that we’ve lost, and all we are still going to lose. Maybe this is why at night, in the quiet of my bedroom, I fantasize about the store going up in flames. I itch to hear thatfoof of the paper igniting. I imagine the heat of the blaze as our books, our clothes, our memories are incinerated. Sandy’s records melt into a river of vinyl. When the fire is over, the vinyl will solidify, capturing in it bits and pieces of our lives. Fossils that future generations will study, trying to understand the people who lived here once, and how they went extinct.
“What about the shelf?” Ira asks now.
The shelf is ruined. Consider this a metaphor for the store. Our lives. But Ira’s brow is furrowed in worry, as if the broken shelf physically pains him. Which it probably does. And when something pains Ira, it pains me too. Which I why I tell him we’ll get a new shelf.
And so it begins.