Reading books used to be fun. I admit, my idea of fun was whack but hey, better than abducting a kid for a cross-country sexcapade in the back of an SUV after passively murdering her mother. In French, too.
Damn Humbug, distracting me from my story. How did it start again?
Right, the snowstorm.
The snowstorm raged on the streets of Fenbay, pelting the side-walks with hail the size of ducklings. I ducked inside as the doors whizzed open, shook the snow off my coat, and looked out the glass panels at the flurry of frozen sky-mud. There was no pale fire outside, all of it snatched by the Zemblan. Wasn’t the only reason I cursed Shakespeare though. I detested him for being an obfuscator of the truth. He sang with an empty voice, knew how to play with words, twist and turn them until they came back to bite you in the ass like an ouroboros with midnight juice.
What I’m trying to say is that Shakespeare was a liar. And I don’t mean he was Bacon or something, I mean he lied like he wanted to be a real boy. He said the lines wouldn’t end but the eternal summer was over and it was cold outside, even though man’s eyes could still breathe, or whatever.
He said that words would never die, but as I walked into the building, all I saw were tombs. Empty tombs. He was right about one thing though; life’s a stage. I just wish it wasn’t a two-stage modernist drudge through a sales pitch. Why couldn’t we be in the one with the rapping Federalists? To be fair, being in the edgy, post-modern, fourth-wall breaking story with the throwaway references and lampshades wasn’t much better.
The old man snored at his desk. I rang the bell. He stirred. I rang it again. He grumbled as he awoke, and his beard flew over his eyes. He cleared his face, and stared at me through his overly large vermin glasses.
I tried to hand him my library card but he crossed his twigs instead.
“Come on kid, why do this to yourself? Go do something healthier, something fun. I can hook you up to a JumpNet. Grandkid’s been plugged in for months now so he’s gonna take a break tonight. I can let you try it while he’s off. How about it?”
I pushed the card further in his face. He mumbled, took it, and swiped it on the strip. Click. I walked in, pushing past the revolving steel rods.
“We close at 9,” he said, before mumbling under his breath, “I’ll lock you in for real if you stay any longer.”
He wouldn’t. Didn’t want my parents on his ass. I almost wanted to tell him to not worry about them, but I liked staying in the library till midnight. The glass panes on the outer walls – the only crappy part of the building – were dark and dead by then, like a honeycomb housed by zombie bees. The clock on the first-floor landing would ring at twelve like a windchime, echoing in the empty aisles with an eerie, ethereal tingling.
My heavy boots hit the ground gently but the tiles still rang. Should’ve worn my sneakers. All the shelves were empty, books put away for preservation, they said, but then what was the point of the library?
The floor was clean despite the blizzard and rains afflicting the city for the past month, and the old man sure as hell hadn’t cleaned the place. The library didn’t have a robosweep either. No huddling figures in the corners, no blankets on the floor – even the homeless didn’t come here.
Down several aisles, across another dozen book-less rows. The pitter patter of my feet, the thump thumping of the snow on the windows. Dusty cobwebs and the scent of synthetic tile-cleaning fluid. The lights dimmed this far in, like a dungeon or a crypt.
I saw the light, and it was bright. The cramped aisles gave way to a reading room with plush cushions, rough rugs, and soft sofas. Here, unlike in the rest of the library, the shelves weren’t emptied out graves but living, breathing tombstones with colorful spines and stenciled titles that shimmered under the orange hues coming from the ancient – and possibly illegal – reading lamps on either end of the room. I stepped down the stairs and strolled along the shelves, eyeing the books scrunched together on the wooden beams.
There were only a couple hundred of them, and they weren’t arranged in any discernable way. Historical fiction rubbed shoulders with self-help, fantasy neighbored geography, and musical compositions were sandwiched between romance novellas and science fiction. But the shelves were dusted, the floor swept, the pillows fluffed. I had no idea who was taking care of the place or why the books hadn’t been shipped to Nebraska yet, but I wasn’t going to complain about the only books in the city.
I slid the ladder to the far side of the shelves and climbed near the ceiling. I pulled a green ribbon from between a hardcover and a paperback, both copies of a bildungsroman about a pipsqueak. It had been a wonderful read, albeit slow and hard to understand but I chalked that up to the centuries that lay between me and Dickens. I’d read another tale he’d conjured up, heard it was the best-selling story of all time back when stories used to be good enough to sell.
The next book was an old one, referenced on the backs of dozens of other books and in the few magazines sprinkled around the shelves. It was a soft hardbound with flaky edges and coffee-stained pages. I’d read this one at least twice over the past month. I handled it gingerly while stepping off the ladder. Safely on a sofa with a lamp trained just over my head, I opened the first page and began.
“It was a bright cold day in April –”
Sharp, measured footsteps, crafted by hand and worth a million bucks, echoed down the aisles. I frowned. The old man couldn’t afford to sound like that. I sat up, breath held, staring at the darkness under the clock on the first-floor landing. The crisp steps stopped. The clock kept ticking.
A gray shoe stepped into the light, followed by black pants so shiny they stood out against the dark aisle. White gloves emerged, cured leather too expensive to slap with. They pulled on black cuffs, revealing a slick black watch with crystal hands that gleamed all the way to my sofa. The cologne hit me then, it reminded me of what my dad’s boss wore, only richer, more luxurious, more full of itself. A figure left the shadows.
Perfect posture, sculpted face, chiseled jawline, and a designer haircut, tied together with a red tie on a wrinkle-proof, but still ironed shirt and a silk scarf so smooth it rippled. Kid wouldn’t have been out of place behind the Wall Street bull.
He glanced over the book in my hand, eyes flitting over the ribbon on the armrest. We said nothing. My eyes fell to the pages, he walked to the shelves.
He went to the end of the bookshelves, and climbed the ladder in a motion as natural as mine. I peeked over the pages and saw him picking through a row. He pulled out a black leather bookmark and an old hardcover, descended, and sat on an armchair by the other reading lamp. I couldn’t make out the title but there was a sculpture on the cover; some old guy with a curly beard. Judging by the state of it, it seemed like he’d read that book quite often too.
We read in silence. Or at least he did, I wasn’t reading. I couldn’t focus. I’d never met someone who liked to read as much as I did, not even at school. The few sympathizers I’d found online had been fakes; bots and assholes, most likely. But there was another question in my head that kept me from speaking.
What was a guy like him doing in a place like this? If he could afford what he was wearing, he could afford to buy a few books. Would’ve been cheap too, because no one wanted them. He could probably buy the whole library and ship it to his own private island or something. Then again, he was here, and he was reading. No point brooding over it, Jean, might as well continue reading yourself. I focused on the words.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking –”
The ground shook and there were loud thumps as things fell behind me. Must’ve been an earthquake. I glanced over. The books on the highest shelf had fallen out. I met the rich kid’s gaze and we wordlessly grabbed some of the fallen books, swung the ladders around, and began shelving. The clock kept ticking. It was way past nine now. The old man was probably snoring in his seat, cursing me in his dreams.
The last book was one I’d already read as a kid. It was a religious story about a witch, a lion, and a cupboard or something. It was banned a couple of years ago, so finding a copy here was a pleasant surprise. The rich kid had a book in his hand too, a thick one with a dragon on its cover. We climbed the ladders together and reached the open space in the center.
We stopped – the space was too small. I tried squeezing the books on my end together but couldn’t eke out a millimeter. The other shelves were full; how the hell did this fit in the first place?
I looked up. Rich kid pointed at the books on my side and then his. I nodded and pushed. He grabbed the books on the other side and pushed too, and we tried to squeeze the remaining books in. We kept at it for a good while, clock still ticking. Frustrated, I swung back to the edges, rearranged and tweaked every crooked book, and came back to the space. His ladder rattled as he did the same. We tried again, pushing harder, forcing every hardback to lock together, every paperback to stick. Not good enough.
“I’ll take one with me,” he said.
“I’ll take the other.”
“How’ll you get past the librarian?”
“Old man doesn’t care.”
“The machines do.”
“Machines haven’t worked in years. I’ve borrowed lots of books before.”
“Okay,” he said. “But there’s enough room here for one.”
“Put yours, it’s a better fit.”
“I was thinking of reading this, it brings back some memories.”
We stood awkwardly on the ladders, high above the ground, surrounded by books as the night drew on. It was about time for me to go home, the shuttles wouldn’t run past one.
“Alright,” I said. “I’ll just take the one I was reading before.” I made to replace the book but it wouldn’t go in. Frowning, I reached in with my other hand.
The rich kid looked on as I grunted and pulled out a book that had been hiding in the back of the shelves. The cover was dark and sooty, burnt and crumbling. The pages were stiff and crinkly, a dark mustard brown that reeked of old age. Rich kid shimmied closer and peeked. The title was illegible but I could make out an elegant font and golden letters embossed at the bottom – the author’s name, most likely. It read, “One.”
The back was singed black but it didn’t seem like there was much there to begin with. This was the kind of book that needed preserving which meant they’d probably toss it in a landfill. I gingerly opened the first page, rich kid breathing down my neck. The page was wrinkled and full of holes and burn marks, like an old firefighter’s skin. Still no title, nor any useful details. All we got was an acknowledgement.
“For my sister, who was always a disappointment to herself first, and a joy to others second. If anyone else reads this, I beg you to stop. These words are not for you, this world, these characters, this story, none of it is for you.
This tale is dark, humorless, and epigrammatic. Yet if you continue to read this despite my warnings, be warned, the plot might just suck you in, and refuse to let go.
If you have yet to put this away, I commend you. Thank you for your indulgence, I hope this is an experience you won’t forget.”
As I finished reading, my hands warmed. The holes on the page expanded, the wrinkles collapsed, and the burns spread. Flames erupted on the page and I slipped. Rich kid reached over, grabbed empty air, and fell after me – his ladder sliding away.
I hit the ground and my lungs emptied out. Pain wracked through me and my vision blurred. Rich kid’s head hit mine. The clock struck and the windchimes rang. Once, twice, all the way to thirteen.
The world swam straight into the darkness.