Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Short Story #2

Every Friday, or on days when Dad went on fishing trips, Mom would pick me up from school during her break, and bring me to the Anchorage public library, where she worked at the checkout counters. I would always look forward to these visits to the library, because I was different. I had a superpower, one that only revealed itself within those heavily air conditioned walls. Only it’s gone now, and I know exactly who to blame.
From the outside, the library complex looked like a few fat cardboard rolls stuck together on the top of a hill. Mom grabbed my hand roughly after I tripped running up the long flight of stairs leading to the entrance. In winter, if it was snowing hard enough, I liked to stand under the clear overhang, and watch the mini avalanches crash softly into the asphalt below. If I stayed for too long, Mom would come out and yell at me for “bothering people. Come inside, before you catch a cold. Don’t you want to take off that itchy snow suit?”
My snow suit was very itchy.
After nearly busting my gut on the turnstile, I would, on most days, rush immediately towards the youth section of the library. It was here that I felt the most comfortable. Given the amount of time I spent here, I wouldn’t be surprised if other patrons thought of me as a ghost, encumbered by regrets of taking Amelia Bedelia far too seriously. I experienced a feeling of belonging every time I meandered the aisles, searching for the next Encyclopedia Brown installment. Everything fit. The books appealed to my likes and dislikes, were easy to read, and the authors didn’t say confusing things like “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Even the bookshelves were my size, and the entire area felt spacious while I sprawled out over the brightly colored couches, Encyclopedia Brown in hand.
When reading, my power unleashed.  Words transformed, sentences merged into images before me. I would no longer see the page, and the library walls would give way to the vast worlds that the books provided me. I became a character, watching, not reading. I knew this was special, because Mom, Dad, and Lucy didn’t believe me when I told them. Except I don’t have any powers anymore, and it’s all her fault.
It was a chilly day in late spring, when threats of “Be home before sundown” were beginning to lose their power. I had finished the entire collection of Encyclopedia Brown, and all of the computers with The Oregon Trail were taken. I decided to explore a bit, until I was bored enough to take a nap.
To imagine the library’s layout, it’s best to picture a giant doughnut. All of the sections were centered around a large pillar, and each section looped around to meet the others. From the entrance, taking a right would bring you to the youth books, and making a left would bring you to the adult fiction. To the back of the pillar hid a hallway of sorts, which connected the two. In this hallway were two drinking fountains, one small and one tall. When Dad visited, he would tell me stories while drinking from the fountains, out of earshot from both Mom and Lucy.
“When did you first get to use the tall fountain?” I asked him once. “I want to be taller.”
Dad tried to look thoughtful, but the effect was lost while bending over a trickle of water. He wiped his mouth, then hummed slightly in a low tone.
“You know, that’s a tough one. Maybe I’m just an old man, but I can’t recall the first time I switched. By the time you’re tall enough to use it, you’ll be thinking about other things. Or maybe you’ll just be really, really thirsty.” He looked at me and smiled.
“Do you want me to lift you up?”
“What? No! That’s embarrassing,” I squealed, and shied away from his outstretched arms.
“Oh, come on, it’s not so bad. Here, look.” At this, he kneeled down and began drinking from the short fountain, his mouth barely reaching the stream.
As he did this, an old woman passed through the hallway and gave Dad a funny look. When she left, we both laughed until water dribbled down our chins.
Of course, Dad was in the middle of the ocean on this particular day, so I made my way towards the gift shop, which was nearly overflowing with mass produced trinkets with Eskimo inspired designs. I never understood why anyone would choose to visit Alaska. It was far too cold in the winter, and there were far too many bugs in the summer. Just thinking about it made me cold and itchy.
“Hi Mom. Whatcha reading?” I stood on my tip toes to lean over the counter, where Mom was on duty. She was reading a Nora Roberts romance novel with a particularly embarrassing front cover. She closed it quickly.
“You wouldn’t like it. There’s lots of kissing and cuddling”
“Why do you read those books? Don’t you love Dad?” She was starting to look annoyed, and tried to find a customer to shake me away.
“Daddy isn’t the romantic type, so I read these books to get my fill. Remember what I said about bothering me during work? I’m busy right now.” And she went back to her Nora Roberts.
“I’m sorry” And I was. I decided to go bother Lucy instead, but Mom called me back.
“Charlie. Charlie!” I turned around. “Look, I’m sorry, too. I know it’s tough when Daddy’s gone fishing, so please be patient. How about this? I’ll buy you an ice cream on the way home.”
Maybe Mom didn’t know I liked the library. I wanted to cheer her up, so I put on my brightest smile, and replied, “Awesome!” I skipped away, taking Mom’s own smile to be one of genuine happiness, and not relief.
At this point I had covered most of the first floor, so I took my exploration to the next level. The stairs that led to the second floor were excessively large, being both very wide and very short. Every time I climbed them, I felt as if I were slowly rising to a higher plane. Which is exactly what stairs are supposed to do, but the atmosphere between the two floors was markedly different. Home to the reference books, there was a hushed silence that permeated the entire perimeter. Both floors were quiet, but up there it was more tense, suffocating. All of the scary looking books with scary looking titles made me feel small and insignificant. The bookshelves were made of metal, not wood. Maybe this was only my imagination, or the raised altitude, but it was chillier there.
The only reason I would ever venture up there would be to look at the picture exhibits showcasing Alaska’s history, or to bother Lucy when she was working on her school papers on the computers. Still committed to being thorough, I walked with feigned purpose towards the exhibits.
I noticed an old man that I had seen before on other days. I stood beside him and looked at the signboard in front of us. It was a picture of the library before and after the Good Friday earthquake of 1964. I was too young to know much about it, and even Mom and Dad were young when it happened and had only fragmented memories of the incident. I skimmed over the description, and looked at the old man. He stared glumly at the carnage, detached from his immediate surroundings. I’m not sure if he noticed me. Out of nowhere, he began to speak.
“I was standing right here on Friday. Water. Water everywhere. It felt as though I were out on the open ocean, that’s how bad the earth was shaking. I was rolling, rolling on the ground. I wanted to go to my mother, but she…” He stopped there, and then repeated his words again. And again. He was like a pair of headphones that provided extra info at museums, only he was cheaper, and less avoidable. The earthquake had shaken him so badly, he had remained rooted to the spot. I felt bad, but I sidled away, taking my time at the other exhibits before heading to the computers.
I tried to sneak up on Lucy, but she noticed my shadow, which meant she wasn’t paying attention to her book.
“Go away, Piggy! I have to finish this book.” She still didn’t turn around.
“What’s it called?” I began to poke her, lightly.
“Lord of the Flies. It’s pretty boring. You might like it, though, the boys are your age.” She ignored my pokes, so I stopped.
“Who’s Piggy?”
Lucy, I should mention, had a habit of calling me by the names of characters she disliked. I’ve been everything from Fiver to Holden to Lenina, but I was used to it at that point. Lucy was in high school, which meant she knew more than me, and she enjoyed reminding me of this fact.
“Piggy. Ugh! This guy is a total loser. Kinda like you, Piggy. Now be a dear and leave.” She looked like she had abandoned her book, and was writing something discreetly. I leaned over her shoulder and read out loud, accentuating each word.
“Dear. Johnny. Levine. Oh! Lucy has a boyfriend!” She crumpled the paper at this declaration and grabbed my shirt after spinning around. She looked furious, but I knew she wasn’t seriously mad. Lucy never got mad.
“Okay, Pigster. Two things. One. No telling Mom. Two. If she finds out, I’ll beat you. And three. He’s not my boyfriend.” I got the picture, and raised my hands in defeat. 
“Good.” She let go of my shirt, and whirled back to the desk. “If you’re not busy, I have a job for you. Get me this book from downstairs. I’ll write down the title.” She quickly scribbled something on the paper in front of her, and handed it to me. “Make it quick.”
            Not having the authority to defy my sister, I slowly descended to the warm lobby, grumbling about the author who thought “Piggy” was an acceptable name. I went to the left this time, and found myself among the tall, dark colored wood shelves of adult fiction. I could only reach two thirds of the shelf’s contents, so in the narrow aisles I always felt like I was being squished by all the unfamiliar books.
I realized a bit too late that the shelves were organized by author name, and I couldn’t remember the author of To Kill a Mockingbird on cue. I zigzagged back and forth in an inefficient pattern, hoping for the title to pop out somewhere. Reaching the A-Co aisle, I nearly gave up. I was surprised to see a girl, about my age, looking through the shelves as well. She noticed me, and looked just as surprised.
“Hey. Over here,” she whispered, beckoning me with a quick hand motion. Curious, I complied. She was nothing if not eye catching. She wore a bright pink top with a flamingo print, and bright yellow shorts covered in bright orange flowers. Her bright blond curls made it look like someone had dumped a healthy serving of macaroni and cheese onto her head. I was nearly blinded, but I somehow arrived right next to her, expectant.
“Great!” She looked down at her bright blue watch, and then frowned. “Actually, I have to go. Be here tomorrow.” And she ran off, leaving me slightly off put. If I didn’t know better, it seemed like she left an afterimage behind, full of brightly clashing colors.
However, soon enough the shelves dimmed, and the gloomy atmosphere reminded me of Lucy’s request. One of the librarians helped me to recall Harper Lee’s whereabouts, and I passed the rest of the afternoon in a haze. That night, all I could think about was the girl. Not for anything that she possessed, no. I was only curious about her request. Why did she want me? Me. I was used to people pushing me away. That’s all it was, curiosity.  Either way, I decided not to tell Lucy or Mom about it.
The next day, I looked forward to visiting the library even more than usual. I passed on the comforts of Encyclopedia Brown and the Oregon Trail entirely, and waited for the girl in the aisle of yesterday’s meeting. To pass the time, I went through the many books, looking for anything interesting. I was disappointed. All of the descriptions were about a boy and his father and a living room, or two sisters trying to overcome their self-hatred by working at a hardware store, or boring things of that nature. Where were the adventures? The mystical lands and magical people? Even when I did find an exciting description, the words were too complicated for my special power to activate, so I gave up. I finished the A-Co aisle, then moved to Co-Ea, to Ea-Fe, and before I knew it, Lucy was next to me telling me to get my butt over to the entrance, Piggy.
The girl never showed up. I was disappointed, but only just. Somewhere during that afternoon I had lost my interest in whatever she was doing. The bookshelves still felt like they were closing in on me, and I didn’t like the discomfort of it.
The next day, the day of Dad’s return in the evening, I plonked down into a comfortable couch, and began immersing myself in a worn copy of Watership Down. But something kept my mind from fully concentrating on the rabbits’ tragedy, and before long I found myself back among the suffocating shelves of adult fiction.
“Heh. You’re surprisingly obedient.” It was the girl, and her style had not changed, wearing a bright red dress, long bright purple socks, and a bright green hat to hide her hair.
“Where were you?” I asked. She scoffed.
“Humph. You can’t expect me to be free every day, now can you? I was busy, that’s all.” She began leafing through the books, and the impression I had built up of her in the past two days was beginning to crumble.
“So? What do you need me for?” I asked.
“I’m looking for a book. Only, I’m not sure if it’s even here.” She pulled out a large book, thought better of it, and put it back.
“Why don’t you ask the librarian? My mom’s here, she’ll probably know.” This seemed like an obvious thing to me, and I felt stupid for expecting more. Only, she turned to look at me, her face scrunched up in a mix of disgust and confusion.
“What? Are you stupid? No, you dork. I’m looking for a book that doesn’t exist in the library records.” She lowered her voice at this, trying to give her quest a sense of mystery. I didn’t buy it.
“Wh-“ I paused for a moment to hold back a sneeze. “Why?”
“Because!” Her eyes widened, looking beyond the row of books before her. “Wouldn’t it be exciting to look for something that might not even be there? Whatever, you don’t have to help me.”
It didn’t sound exciting to me, but I understood the sentiment. Finding a hidden book, it was like treasure, only worth a lot less.
“Alright, alright. What do you want me to do?” I tried my best to look interested. She snapped shut the book she was reading, jerked her head in my direction, and smiled excitedly.
“Great! Hmm, just pick a book you’ve never heard of and meet me upstairs at the computers. We’ll check the system for a match.” She ran off, leaving me alone with the mountain of books. I perused the aisles, trying to find something that stood out as inconspicuous. Realizing that I didn’t know a majority of the titles, I picked one at random, and rushed upstairs.
“The Sound and the Fury?” she yelled quite loudly, apparently furious. “Who doesn’t know the Sound and the Fury? Every library has a copy. I would know, I’ve been to quite a few libraries. Ugh.” Apparently my strategy had failed. I caught Lucy smirking at me, and felt even more embarrassed.
“Well, that’s one down, right?” It was a weak argument. “What’s the book about, anyway?”
She looked flustered. “Uh, well, you know. Whatever! Let’s switch, I’ll look for the books.”
We spent most of the afternoon searching for the book that didn’t exist. We would laugh at some of the obscure titles, and she gave me lectures about the proper way to read.
“Don’t you read at all? Books aren’t about adventure. They’re about, uh, what’s in here.” She pointed to her brightly colored hat. I indicated that I was clueless, but she continued.
“It’s not about the what, it’s about the why.” She looked proud at this revelation.
“Why?” I asked, genuinely curious. She frowned at me, something I was beginning to get used to.
“Um, I don’t know. But you’ll know, you know? Whatever. Come on! Check for a match.”
She handed me a small, black, paperbound book that had no title. After flipping through a few pages, the name revealed itself as “On Bullshit” by H.G. Frankfurt. It was very mysterious.
“What do you think it’s about?” I asked.
“Why, bullshit, of course.” And she was right. Of course.
“But what’s bullshit?”
 She stole the book away from me, and flipped through a few pages.
“That’s easy.” She cleared her throat, but suddenly looked frustrated.
“Hey! This guy says he doesn’t know what bullshit is.” She showed me, and she was right. “That’s…that’s…” She seemed like she had a word on the edge of her tongue. “Well, that’s something stupid, that’s what it is. I don’t like this book.”
I typed the name into the database, and to my surprise, no matches returned. We both sat very still, not sure of how to react. I looked down at the book. It felt, wrong, somehow. The girl started to laugh.
“You can have it,” she told me, and fell silent. And then she got up, pushed in her chair, and left.
“Wait!” I stumbled trying to get out of my chair, and hit my knee on the corner of the desk. She was already halfway down the stairs. “Hey, wait!” I chased after her, but she exited the doors with a hurried push. I stood at the entrance, but it was too late. She was gone, I knew it. I felt angry, and I didn’t know why.
“Bullshit!” I yelled, and the silent library grew even quieter.
Dad drove us to a restaurant that evening, to celebrate his return, but a telltale gloom hung over the table. Mom had yelled at me in the library for yelling in the library, and I learned what the word bullshit meant. Everyone looked uncomfortable, swirling their spoons absentmindedly in their split pea soup. It was Lucy who broke the silence.
“Who was that girl you were with today? She was pretty cute, huh?” She forced a toying smile.
“I don’t know. How’s that project going, with Johnny Levine?” I would regret this later, but I didn’t care.
            The table returned to silence, and the soup tasted extra mushy.
I’m not sure what happened to the girl, but in the following weeks, she never returned, wearing flashy clothes or otherwise. It took me a while to enjoy the peace of the library again, but I recovered soon enough. Lucy stopped calling me Piggy after she finished her Lord of the Flies, for some unknown reason. She said she didn’t want to talk about it.
 After that day, I lost my powers. I would prowl the aisles of youth fiction, hunting for books that would allow me to escape. But I knew too much. My imagination was blocked. I slumped down into my favorite couch, but I no longer fit. Everything looked small.

1 comment:

  1. I loved it! Especially all the references to the books. Just how much I would love to go back in time to be able to enjoy all the Children's books again!

    Thank you for a great read!