Wedged in the middle of a ragged old book in a dusty bookstore lives Flute. Though most words love their cozy spots on their warm pages, Flute is a word who prefers adventure. He loves the dark hours of night when the store closes, and the words can come out to play.
Flute fidgets as he strains to listen, waiting for the sound that signals the day’s end. As soon as the cuckoo clock strikes nine, the store will be closed and dark. He wishes for the thousandth time that he could tell when the lights go out, but it’s always dark here in the book. At least until someone opens it, but then he’s not allowed to move. (People, of course, can never know that words can climb off pages.)
“Ding. Cu coo. Ding. Cu coo. Ding. Cu coo.”
At the sound of the clock, Flute wriggles out of his space, bumping into the words closest to him in his hurry. He squeezes past the larger words and rushes to the edge of the page. There he pauses. Carefully, he pokes out from between the covers and checks to make sure the store is empty. Everything’s dark, so Flute scrambles off the paper and jumps down to the shelf. At last, the words are free to leave their books.
As Flute bounds over the edge of his shelf, sliding down the covers of the books beneath, more words emerge from the pages. Paper crinkles and flutters as the words move away, gathering into groups.
Little and’s slide out and bump together. They stretch their tails and yawn. Flute waves a quick greeting to them. Only one and notices and sleepily returns the wave. Then the and toddles back to her friends, curling up and joining the pile of napping words.
Nearby, the’s cluster and move in a herd, discussing all the words they introduce. Flute watches them for a while as they babel together. The the’s seem to do nothing but gossip at first, but then Flute notices them spreading out, only to regroup a moment later when other words come too close. Together, they shuffle off, away from the offending presence of outsiders. After a few minutes of watching them gather and move in response to other words, Flute has an idea. He waits for the the’s to spread out again, and then he ducks down, wiggling his e high in the air. He jumps up and gallops toward them, skidding as he circles around the flock. The the’s huddle together and begin bleating in distress. Flute continues to cycle around them until all the the’s are packed in a tight bunch.
As he races around them a fifth time, Flute slides too far to the left and crashes into a thou, falling over. He looks up to see the thou glaring down at him. Around him thy’s and thine’s roll their eyes or shake their heads in disapproval. As Flute peels himself off the floor, he bows his head in apology. The thou lets out a low “Hmpf” and rolls his shoulders, turning back to his conversation with his peers. Several of the antique words let out sighs and a few continue to shoot glares in Flute’s general direction.
Flute slinks off to the right, away from the judging archaic vocabulary and the still-protesting herd of the’s. He pauses at the base of a shelf, deciding where to go next. With a twitch of his f, he sets off to the left.
Flute only gets a few steps before stopping abruptly, feeling a quick tug on his e. Bending back, he sees an excited a jumping up and down.
The a gestures upward, and Flute notices more a’s hiding in the shelves above, peeking out shyly at him. Flute waves to them, inviting them along, and they jump forward, tumbling from the tops of books and spaces between covers. One by one, they hop down to meet him, some of them needing each other’s help. Flute catches a few of the more timid ones, until all the a’s who want to join are on the bottom shelf. Then they set off on their expedition.
With all the a’s trailing behind him in a row, Flute runs across the wooden floor. He trots with his bouncing a’s to the end of the shelf and rounds the corner, halting suddenly.
The a’s crash into him, causing a few to roll until they land flat on the floor. Flute bounces and waves his comrades’ attention to a splendid sight before them.
Dust bunnies are playing tag, scuttling and sliding around the feet of the chairs. Flute wiggles his e and runs forward. He skids to a stop next to a dust bunny, who immediately tags him and hops away. Flute chases him, and soon the a’s tumble into the game as well. The words chase the dust, and the dust tickles the words as they race around the store.
Soon the dust bunnies grow tired and end the game, going to hide back underneath the shelves. The a’s and Flute continue the game in front of the opening in hopes of luring the bunnies back out. They give up when the dust starts to snore softly.
The a’s gather back around their leader, whose attention is quickly drawn toward the counter. Flute nudges the a’s toward it, giving them a boost as they climb up the side of the table. They reach the top and wait for Flute. He climbs up last and immediately starts his exploration, and the a’s waddle behind him as he scouts out the new area.
That is, they follow Flute until one a notices a splotch on the table. The little a wanders off to inspect it and hops in delight as he discovers that the splotch is in fact a puddle of ink. He plunks in and rolls around. When the other a’s see him, they rush over, tumbling on top of each other to play in the puddle. They splash each other with ink while Flute, unaware of what his companions are doing, makes his way to the cash register.
He steps carefully onto the closest button. “Click.” The button sinks a little beneath his weight. Flute wags his e. Bending down, he pounces onto the next button. “Click.” Sink. And the next. “Click.” Sink.
He spins and jumps as far as he can, landing splat on the biggest button. “Click. Ching!” The empty money drawer pops open. Flute glances at it and bobs up and down. The word turns to wave to his friends, ready to share his excitement when . . . he sees them splashing.
The leader stops for a moment surprised and lets out a low, “tsk.” He shakes the curl of his f, and hops off the register. Then he marches over to where the a’s are playing and making messes.
The excited words continue splashing and sloshing in the ink until one by one they notice Flute and freeze. One a (the a who found the puddle in the first place) doesn’t see him and continues to play, oblivious to his leader’s approach.
The a stomps in the puddle and, “Splat,” a spray of ink hits Flute. The little a turns to see Flute with black dripping down the curl of his f. Bashfully, the a climbs out of the ink and scurries over to huddle with the others.
Flute sighs and waves them toward the tissue box. He jumps up and pulls the edge of a tissue to the countertop. The a’s gleefully file over, rubbing off all their acquired extra ink.
Once they are all cleaned off, Flute leads them to the cash register, where the drawer is open and welcoming. The group stands on the edge of the buttons, looking down and fidgeting eagerly, waiting for Flute to jump first. He complies quite willingly and into the drawer they all go. Soon they’re helping each other over the dividers, exploring every section.
As they make their way through the drawer, they hear a footstep by the door. All the words freeze, listening closely. They look at each other and stretch in surprise as they notice how much brighter it’s gotten. Sure enough, they hear a key in the lock. The Caretaker is back!
The a’s scramble around desperately, poking their heads into other sections to find Flute. He boosts each of them out of the drawer, pulling himself up as quickly as possible after. Then he ushers the a’s to the edge, nudging them down to the ground. One a jumps and knocks into the drawer as he drops, causing it to slam shut and trap the tail of the last a.
Flute yelps and pulls the a’s back up the side of the counter.
The keys jangle again and the door rattles, still closed.
Flute and the a’s gather around their trapped friend, pulling and yanking with all their might.
Another key slides into the lock.
The words pull together one more time, and one a falls off balance, landing on the big button. The drawer pops back open, and all the words tumble to the floor. Flute straightens up quickly and gathers all the a’s together, rushing them forward to the safety of a shelf, just as the Caretaker comes in.
They travel under one shelf and scramble across the walkway to the next, making it into the shadows just as the footsteps turn toward them. Pulling together for a moment, they wait for the Caretaker to pass. Then they run forward again. Another shelf over, two more shelves down.
Flute waits for the sound of the cuckoo clock anxiously, knowing that as soon as it goes off, more people will fill the store. He nudges the a’s to go faster, finally spotting their shelf. He runs forward, then stops short, turning around and pushing the a’s back into the shadows as the Caretaker walks by again.
The human is standing right in front of their shelf, blocking their way back. Flute’s stomach sinks. The Caretaker is looking at the books. What if he picks one of their books? He’ll be missing words!
Flute glances from side to side and sees a dust bunny nearby. He gestures quickly to the desk, hoping the dust would understand. The bunny nods and hops off. A moment later, Flute hears pens fall to the ground.
The Caretaker turns and walks away to inspect the noise, and Flute ushers his troupe homeward. They rush up the shelves frantically, the a’s separating and scrambling to their proper books and pages. As the last a makes it in, Flute dives into his book, wiggling back to his spot. Just a few moments later, the Caretaker returns.
He pulls out Flute’s book and lays it on the counter, flipping it open. He pulls out his bookmark and starts to read. As he does, he squints, noticing an extra spot of black ink by one of the f’s. He shrugs and continues reading.
When the Caretaker turns the page, Flute lets out a sigh of relief. He squirms in the dark happily, wondering what adventures he would have tomorrow night.
*”The Night Adventure of Words” was originally published in The Mountain Laurel, Volume 53, Facets