"The Corrections Company"
Chapter One: In the Library
Nora had been sitting in the same spot for exactly thirty-seven minutes when the man came up to her. She was perched on the edge of her chair, pushing the ice around in her cup with a straw, pretending to read, but actually just staring out the window. Daydreaming. The library was filled with sunlight, and the tiny cafe squeezed into one corner of the first floor was Nora’s favorite spot to sit after school was over. It was the perfect place to think.
“Excuse me,” the man said, and Nora looked up quickly. She hadn’t heard him approach.
“Oh,” was all she said.
He hurried on, seating himself on the edge of the chair opposite her. “May I?” he asked, somewhat belatedly. Then he gestured to her hand—the one that held her book open. “You seem to be quick in magic.”
Nora felt her mouth fall open, but for a moment, she couldn’t do anything about it. She probably should have been frightened, or at least cautious of the strange old man who had seated himself at her table and was talking to her, but he was so singular that she found no room for fear among all the curiosity he stirred up in her. He was dressed in a simple gray sweater and slacks, the kind that old men usually wear, with a pair of wire glasses. But his face, as Nora immediately noticed, was the friendliest face she had ever seen, and his words to her suddenly reverberated in her ears: You seem to be quick in magic.
She shook her head and found her tongue. “What did you say?” she asked.
He smiled, the wrinkles on his face growing deeper with the gesture. “Your hand,” he said, pointing down. “It tells me that you have magic.”
She looked down, and realized that she had been touching the corners of the book compulsively, as she often did. First the top right, then the bottom left, then the top left, and then the bottom right. Symmetrically, over and over in a repeated pattern. She often found herself touching objects with this pattern. She lifted her hand from the book and drew it under the table.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said, and then grew cautious. Was the man making fun of her? She glanced around, taking in the empty seats surrounding her and the barista hunched over her phone by the espresso machine. No one else was watching. She looked back at the old man. He was still smiling.
“Magic is hard to come by, these days,” the man went on. “I have to look high and low to find someone willing to display it. I suspect—” he leaned back suddenly, sighing and shaking his head, “that many more have it. But they have been taught to hide it, without ever really knowing what they’re hiding. But sometimes,” and he laid a finger against the side of his nose, “the magic wants to be caught. And it finds a way to burst out despite our best efforts.”
Nora didn’t know what to say to this man. She had never been quick with words. The sincerity with which he spoke radiated out of his face, yet what he said was nonsensical. She decided to be polite.
“Sir,” she said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think I understand what you’re talking about.”
The man’s smile faded a little, and he sighed again. “I thought as much,” he said. “Well, that’s what comes of parents these days. Teachers too. They should really have the children teach in those schools. Things would be much less backwards if they did.”
Nora was starting to think about how to get out of the conversation. She looked around again, but the barista was still on her phone.
“Well then,” the man said, “let me ask you a question. Have you ever felt that an object just must be touched? Have you ever sensed that you should step off a staircase with your right foot instead of your left, and shifted your weight so that you can? Have you ever felt that you should turn over your right shoulder, and not your left, as if there was an invisible rubber band pulling you in that direction?”
At her silence, he nodded. “That, my friend, is magic. Or, at least, the remnant of it. Magic was once apparent to everyone, but now it’s hidden away. Today many of us still feel it stirring, trapped in our bodies—the memory of a time when the magic within reacted to the magic without. It aches because now the magic within can’t find any magic in the outside world. You—” he pointed at her, “just don’t have a name for it.”
Nora felt her mouth open again, because the sincerity in the man’s gaze was blinding. He fully believed what he was telling her, yet he was telling her nonsense. And he was telling his nonsense to a complete stranger. All the same, buried underneath her skepticism and her confusion, something in his words caught her. She had felt all those things. But they were just brain tricks, strange habits she had. She’d been trying to cover them up her entire life.
“How do you know that?” she heard herself ask, and then was surprised that she’d asked it.
The man smiled again. “Known it all my life,” he said. “You see I, unlike most everyone else on this current planet, had parents who understood, because their parents understood, and their parents understood, and those parents—well, they lived during a time when the last bits of public magic were disappearing.”
“Public...magic?” Nora asked. She was beginning to feel curious again, though still utterly confused.
“Yes,” the man said. “Back when there were sideshows, and people couldn’t explain everything, and when fairy stories were still current news. Go out into the woods and pick up a stone and you just might find something under it. And I don’t mean centipedes and potato bugs,” he scoffed. “The kind of magic that ran wild during the Middle Ages, when people didn’t have science to hide behind. Public magic so unpredictable and real, the only safety you could devise was to claim it with a story and tell it around the fire at night, and hope the elves didn’t pay you a visit.”
Are we still talking about me? Nora wondered. But the next moment the man reached forward and patted the table.
“This isn’t what I’m here to discuss,” he said, shaking himself in a way that settled him deeper into his chair. He leaned forward just a bit and fixed Nora with his cheerful eyes. “Young lady,” he said seriously, “have you ever read a story that had a bad ending? A sad ending, or an ending that was too complicated. One that you just felt inside of you couldn’t be the real way the story was meant to end? Come now—have you?”
Nora thought for a moment. “Well,” she said, and then stopped. There had always been one book that had bothered her, from the moment she had finished it. “Maybe...The Hunted?” It was a book she had first read a few years ago, checked out of this very library. It told the story of a young Jewish girl who had been captured during World War II, and ended up dying in a concentration camp.
The old man—if it was possible—smiled wider. “There. As if I needed further proof of your magic.” He took something out of his pocket and held it in his hand as he said his next words. “I approached you today,” he said, “not simply because I noticed your magic. I wanted to speak with you because I am recruiting for my company, and you seem like a likely candidate for the job.” Suddenly, he leaned in close, so close that Nora could distinctly smell peppermint on his breath and the kind of soap that old people use. “We are in the business of correcting wrongs, as far as stories are concerned. We are the keepers of tales, and the knowers of truthful endings. And we are always seeking talented young people to help us in our work.”
He slid his hand across the table, and when he lifted it Nora saw a card before her eyes. It was a plain white business card, and on it in fancy embossed letters was printed:
Charles E. Goode
The Corrections Company
Per Omnia Saecula Saeculorum
She looked up. “The Corrections Company?” she asked. “What do you correct?”
He nodded. “Ah,” he said. “What do we correct. What do we...correct.” When he said the words they came out not as a question, but almost as a statement. “We change and prevent the unfortunate telling of tales. We use our—” he winked at Nora, “magic—to search and find, to aid and discover. We are silent, unseen, and essential. What is your name?” he suddenly asked.
“Nora,” Nora said, and then remembered that is wasn’t wise to tell strangers one’s name. But the man just nodded.
“Well Nora,” he said, “if you come to the address I have so carefully inscribed upon the back of that card, you will find out all and more than you want to know about us. And perhaps,” he winked again, “meet someone who can teach you how to use some of that magic you’ve been trying to hide all these years.”
Nora looked back down at the card, studying the lettering, and then flipping it over to see the address scribbled on the back. When she looked back up to question the old man further, he was gone. It gave her a shock, and her eyes darted around the room, seeking him. But he was nowhere to be found. The barista finally looked up from her phone and glanced around, then grabbed a cup from the tray and helped herself to some coffee. Nora looked back down at the business card, blinking in case it was all a dream.
No. The card was still there, with the barely intelligible writing on the back. She squinted at it and read, “55 Second Street, third floor, office 3B.” That was all.
She stood quickly and threw her book into her backpack, then set her cup on the counter in front of the barista and with a murmured thanks hurried out of the cafe. She ran down the steps of the library, turning her head as she ran and searching the street for any sign of the old man. Charles, his card had said. But the late September day was silent and calm, with no disturbances ruining the post-school afternoon quiet. The houses on the other side of the street stood tall and still, and even the train tracks to Nora’s right were quiet, with no train traffic to break the steady hum of the warm day.
As Nora stood in front of the library, a mom walked by, carting a little girl and boy behind her. As she passed by, the little girl smiled up at Nora, displaying sticky teeth from the lollipop she held in her hand. Nora smiled back, and then looked back down at the card she clutched. The man who had given it to her had been, by far, the strangest person she had ever met. Since when did adults talk about magic like it was real? And what was this mysterious company he had spoken of?
Glancing around one last time, Nora unzipped the front pocket of her backpack and slid the card inside. She couldn’t go, of course. She knew better than to go to a strange office building by herself, and she certainly couldn’t tell anyone about the man. Especially not her parents. They would tell her that he was just an eccentric old man who had some strange ideas.
For some reason, it was very important to Nora that they didn’t say that. Suddenly, she turned around and went back into the library. Passing the cafe, she headed into the stacks, nearly colliding with Miss Betty, the librarian.
“Ho there,” Miss Betty said, smiling. “Slow down, my friend.”
“Sorry,” Nora apologized. She looked up at Miss Betty shyly. She’d always liked the friendly librarian who used funny phrases. “I was looking for The Hunted. I want to check it out again.”
“You do love that book,” Miss Betty said. She turned around and led the way to a far shelf, running her finger down the “S” section until she found the book. She pulled it out and gazed at the cover for a moment. “Strong,” she said. “Angela Strong. Wonder what her deal is.” She turned to Nora and handed her the book. “Well, you’re just about the only one who likes that book. It doesn’t have a very happy ending.”
Nora nodded. It was the only book she’d ever read that didn’t, except for the books in the “cautionary tales” section at the school library. All books had happy endings. That was just the way it was. But this one book—this little volume she held in her hands right now—this had the kind of ending the old man had spoken of, and for some reason Nora was drawn to it. As if by reading it over and over, the ending would change and become happy. As if she could fix it.
“Thanks,” she said quickly, and then turned and went up to the book checkout. Outside again, Nora shoved the book into her bag and set off down the street. The library was only a few blocks from her house, but her parents would be expecting her home for dinner soon. She wasn’t allowed to have a phone until she turned sixteen—still two years away—and in addition to the fact that her lack of texting capabilities spelled death to her social status at school, her parents were constantly worrying over where she was. She sometimes wondered why they didn’t just cave in and buy her a phone.
“Mom?” she called as she pushed open the front door, “I’m home.”
“Dinner,” her mom called back.
Nora ran up the steps and dumped her backpack, then came back down. In the kitchen, her mother and father were setting the table. She could hear her brother Joey fiddling with his guitar in the living room.
“Nora get your brother,” her mother said, passing a bowl of salad to Nora’s father.
“Joey!” Nora called, sitting down at the table.
Her mother gave her a look, then turned back to the refrigerator. She was tall and boney, like Nora, and she had the same long brown hair and close-set brown eyes. She always said that if she and Nora had been teenagers in the ‘70s, they would have been goddesses. But Nora’s mother had been a teenager in the ‘80s, when her hair stubbornly refused to take a perm, and the power suits made her look like a giant person (Nora had seen the photos). And Nora was a teenager now, when short dresses and skinny jeans made her look even taller and more awkward than she was. “Women are slaves to fashion,” Nora’s mother often lamented. “But we do not need to be ruled by it.”
“Mom,” Nora asked, playing with her fork as Joey came into the kitchen, “why do all books have happy endings?”
“Books?” Nora’s mom said absently. She set down a tray of burritos and swatted Joey’s hand away from the salad. “Sit,” she ordered. Then she turned her gaze on Nora. “Why do books have happy endings? Well, who would want to read about something sad?” she asked. “There’s enough sadness in real life.”
“But don’t you think—”
“SIT,” Nora’s mom ordered, and Joey sat. She turned back to Nora. “What did you say, honey?”
Nora shrugged. “Never mind.”
After dinner, Nora went up to her room. She unzipped her backpack and took out The Hunted. Flipping through it, she re-read her favorite parts until she came to the end. Snuggling into her pillows, she read the words again that she had read so many times before. The story was about a girl named Sarah. The beginning of the book was all about Sarah’s life in Warsaw, Poland, but as the book progressed it told about how her parents were taken from their home, and Sarah and her younger brother escaped to the country and were hidden by a family of farmers. At the end of the book a party of Nazis came to raid the farm. Nora ran her hand over the page, reading it slowly:
My hiding place was better than Joshua’s. I crouched deeper beneath the trough, not daring to breathe. I felt as if every breath was as loud as a hurricane, threatening to blow down the walls of the barn. From where I was, all I could see was the wood of the paneling lining the stall. I could not see Joshua’s hiding place, though I knew he was behind the rack of raincoats. His boots were sticking out, woefully obvious beside the row of work boots. But what could he do? We had hidden as fast as possible, and still I was sure the men had seen us scurrying. I prayed quickly, fiercely, that God would send an angel to guard us, as he had sent one to shut the mouths of the lions for Daniel. But I thought of all the other Jews who had been taken, and fear washed over me.
I heard the men’s voices drawing closer, passing by my stall. “The child,” they said, speaking quickly. “The child will be hidden in here. The neighbors said they spotted her slipping in the door in the morning and coming out again at night.”
I breathed faster. They did not know there were two of us. They were only searching for one. I knew then, very suddenly, what I must do. And from some unknown source of strength, I found myself rolling out from under the trough and standing up. “Please don’t hurt me!” I said, starting to cry. The men turned quickly, their eyes revealing triumph.
“What are you doing in here, little girl?” they asked. “Are you a Jew?”
“Yes,” I said, crying harder. I could not stop the tears, though I knew they were childish. But only one thing truly mattered to me—that my brother, Joshua, stood safely hidden among the coats. When the men took me away, he would be safe.
Nora stopped reading and put the book down. Sarah was taken away, and the book ended as she was taken by train to a concentration camp. But her spirit came back, in the epilogue, and saw that her brother Joshua survived. Perhaps, in some ways, the ending was satisfying. Certainly it was a noble thing Sarah did. But Nora did not like the ending. She wanted to change it. She wanted Sarah and Joshua to escape, and find their parents, and be happy. She wanted the book to end like other books did, because, as her mother had said, there was enough sadness in real life. Nora had read the history of the Holocaust in her school books. Made up stories were supposed to be up-lifting. This one was not.
She leaned over the bed and pulled the business card she had been given out of her backpack. Flipping it over, Nora read the front again.
The Corrections Company.
The very name intrigued her, and she flipped the card over and over in her fingers. What could it mean? How did they correct the end of stories? Did they petition authors? Nora had tried to correct the end of The Hunted herself. She had written an alternate ending, one in which Sarah and Joshua outsmarted the soldiers and escaped. But it hadn’t been enough. Somehow, her writing didn’t fit. It wasn’t what the author had written, and in a way that Nora couldn’t explain, she knew deep down that only the author could fix the story.
Nora stretched out her fingers in front of her face and looked at her hand. She had magic, the old man had said. She squinted hard, trying to see some trace of magic in her skin. It looked like a pretty ordinary hand to her. Turning it over, she flicked her fingers toward the window and whispered, “Abracadabra.”
Nothing happened. Feeling stupid, Nora dropped both the book and the business card onto the floor by her bed and went into the bathroom to brush her teeth.