2026

James David Cohn


There was a hole where the book should have been.

In the university library, the boy had gone to the stacks to find Butler’s Use of Statistics in Sociology. He was a freshman with an intended major in Sociology but the statistics part was killing him, he was thinking maybe he should bail, but the withdraw-without-fail period had ended.

You could see that someone had taken the book from the shelf recently; there was a space where the book had been pulled, and the row of books had not yet been pushed together by the staff to close the space.

“Shit,” he said. It was the book recommended by the professor for people having difficulty with stats. It was 9:55 the night before the Thanksgiving break and the library was about to close. He chose another book next to the space and went to the desk to check it out.

In front of him at the desk was a girl, and over her shoulder he could see she had put the Butler book on the desk. She was reaching into her purse.

“Stop!” he said.

“What?” said the girl, turning.

“Wow,” said the boy.

“Wow what?” she asked.

“Um. I need that book.”

“I need it more.”

“Oh, I don’t think so. It’s the book my prof recommended and I’m going to seriously drown without it.”

The girl smiled. The boy had no idea what his face was doing.

“What section are you in?” she asked.

“100,” he said.

“I’m in 102,” she said. “Hard, isn’t it?”

“It is so hard,” he said, “that I really, really quite really need that book.”

“Yes,” she said, “but possession is 90 percent of the law.”

“Actually,” the boy said, “possession is nine tenths of the law.”

“Same thing,” she said, tapping the book. “I bet that’s in here. Anyway, point is, I’ve got the book.”

The boy considered this.

“Make you a deal,” he said. “Let me take the book home this weekend for Thanksgiving and I’ll return it first thing Monday. You can put a hold on it today, right after I check it out, and you’ll be first in line when I return it.”

“So what’s the deal, buddy?” she asked, poking him in the chest with a corner of the book. “What’s in it for me?”

“Breakfast,” he said.

“Ha! I’m going home for the break tomorrow morning on a 6:30 flight. When do I collect this so-called breakfast?”

“Breakfast now,” said the boy.

***


“I don’t need a menu,” she said, after they had sat down in a booth at the all-night diner.

“Wow. Are you sure? They have a pretty big menu.”

“I know what I want,” the girl said.

“Well, so do I.” The boy said to the waiter, “Bacon and eggs, scrambled, toast, large orange juice.”

The waiter turned to the girl, and she said, “French fries, make them extra crispy, please. Also an order of mashed potatoes.”

“Wow,” said the boy.

“And to drink?” the waiter asked.

“Nothing.”

“So just water?”

“No, said the girl. “Nothing to drink.”

The waiter left and the boy said, “Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten with someone who had nothing to drink, not even water.”

"You say that word a lot,” said the girl. “Wow. You say that a lot. I’m going to call you Sir Wowalot.”

“It’s because I’m amazed a lot, said the boy. “Aren’t you a Wowalot?”

“I guess,” said the girl. “But isn’t everyone?”

“I don’t know,” the boy said. “Some people seem pretty much asleep. I mean, I think my father’s more or less awake, but my mom is what I call a sleepwalker. Even when she’s awake, she’s just going through the motions. I mean, I get emails from her, and all they are are forwarded things, no message except for the forwarded joke or news story or whatever it is. I don’t even read them, It’s just delete delete delete. Maybe it’s a mom thing. Is your mom like that?”

“My mom is dead. She died when I was young.”

“Oh,” said the boy.

“Yes,” she said.

“Did your dad remarry?”

“He died, too. They were in a plane crash.”

“Wow,” said the boy. There was a silence, neither of them filling it, until the boy asked, “Do you have siblings?”

“I had a sister,” the girl said, “but she died in the crash, too. So did my cousin. It was a private plane, my dad’s plane. Mechanical problems in the middle of the flight, my dad tried to land it in a field but it flipped over.”

“How old were you?”

“Seven,” she said.

“Who told you about it? I mean, who gave you the news? Was it the police? The person you were staying with?”

“I was in the plane. When it crashed.”

For a while the boy couldn’t think of anything to say. The girl continued,

“I had a broken wrist but other than that was pretty much okay. I was only seven but I could tell they were dead, I mean, it was obvious. So I just started walking. It was dark and it was freezing, I didn’t have my shoes on because I’d taken them off in the plane. There were briars and woods and creeks and stuff, and I just kept walking and walking, falling and getting up and walking and walking, trying to go as straight as I could, but there were no houses or roads and I wasn’t sure if I was going straight or not, or how far I’d have to go to find someone.”

The boy looked at her. He was trying to decide if he believed her.

She shook her hair and looked up. She said to the ceiling, “Anyway, I got to a road and followed it and saw these lights and there was a house and I banged on the door, there was this guy who lived alone way out there, he liked being away from people, and he called 911 and they came and got me.”

The boy was going to say wow but he did not say wow. He said, “That’s like – I don’t know – miraculous.”

“That,” she said, “or luck. I seem to have a knack for being in the right place at the right place.”

He stared at her, then she smiled and said, “John Lennon. He wrote that in one of his short stories.”

“John Lennon wrote short stories?” the boy asked.

“Yeah, most people don’t know that, they were really funny, crazy stories with silly made-up words. My grandmother gave his book to me when I was thirteen because that’s how old she was when she read it, she was thirteen in 1965 when the book came out and she thought it was the funniest thing in the world. I did too. I still do. ‘No Flies on Frank.’ ‘The Singularge Case of Miss Ann Duffield.’”

“Did she raise you?” asked the boy.

“Yes,” said the girl. “My grandmother is amazing. She was 52 when my family died and she was into the whole Sixties thing, revolution and flower children and all that. I wore bell bottoms that she made for me.”

The boy didn’t know what bell bottoms were.

The waiter arrived, carrying a tray of food. He set a plate of mashed potatoes, a plate of French fries, and a glass of water in front of the girl. She moved the water to the edge of the table. The waiter put the boy’s food and his orange juice in front of him and left.

The girl took a fry, scooped out a generous amount of mashed potatoes with it, and looked at the boy. She said, “My grandmother calls this ‘Potatoes on Potatoes.’ The trick is to get the fries extra crispy so you can use them to scoop.” Then she took a bite.

“Wow,” said the boy.

***


He walked her to her dorm. “So I promise I’ll return the book when I get back from the break,” he said.

“You’d better,” she said, with what he thought might be a wink.

“Okay. Well then,” he said.

“Well then,” she said, teasing. He wanted to kiss her but he wasn’t sure what to do, he felt clumsy, and then she gave him a hug that lasted a long time, let him go, turned and began to walk away.

“I’ll call you!” he said.

As she was walking away, the girl sang, “Maybe you will, maybe you won’t!”

“Oh,” thought the boy. “I will.”

***


When he got back to his dorm, the boy searched the Internet for stories about private plane crashes with lone survivors. The girl’s story was just – he didn’t know. He was sure it would be kind of legendary or something if it had really happened. The search yielded many results but none exactly like this, until it occurred to him to enter her name in the search string, and there it was, the whole story exactly as she described.

“Wow,” he said.

***


The next day the boy flew home. His parents had already bought a Christmas tree. The family always set up their tree on Thanksgiving Day. The boy’s father stood on a chair to right the tree. It was a swivel chair. As the father leaned forward, the chair shot out from under him. The father fell, fracturing his neck.

The boy sat in the neuro ICU waiting room with the rest of his family. His father was fitted with a halo, bolted to his head to keep his neck still while the bones healed.

In the neuro ICU waiting room he met a girl named Heather. Heather’s brother had suffered Traumatic Brain Injury in a motorcycle accident. The boy spent a lot of time talking to Heather in the ICU waiting room. They joked that the room should be called “The Horrible Room” because anyone who was there was there because of something horrible.

They exchanged contact information.

***


When the boy returned to school, he returned the Butler book as he had promised. He did not call the girl. He called Heather all the time.

Over the winter break, Heather became his lover, a thing he had never known. They agreed that the long-distance relationship was unsatisfying. He transferred to her university the following summer, telling his parents that the reason for the transfer was that this university had a better department in his new major, English Literature. His parents asked him if he was transferring because of Heather. The boy said Heather had nothing to do with it. The boy might have believed this.

***


He and Heather married. They had two children, both girls. He was more or less content. He had a good job. He loved his wife though there were things about her that annoyed him, but hey.

When he read about small plane crashes, he thought about the girl. Then one day, he read about a small plane crash, and he did not think about the girl. He was not aware of having forgotten her, but he would never remember her again. This is how it is when we forget: we do not even know that we have forgotten.

Here is what the boy said on a day when he read about the crash of a small plane, on a day when he had forgotten the girl and would never remember her again:

“Wow.”

***


From the Miami Herald, January 3, 2015:

PLANE THAT CRASHED, KILLING FOUR, STARTED OUT IN KEY WEST; 7-YEAR-OLD GIRL SURVIVES. By Larry Kahn. A plane that crashed in Kentucky Friday night, killing four people aboard, had taken off from Key West. The only survivor was a 7-year-old girl. The dead are the girl’s parents, a sister and a cousin. The girl, [name redacted], was released from the hospital Saturday, The Associated Press reported.

© 2018 James David Cohn except for Miami Herald article which is used by permission