Day 7: You are locked in a library after hours.
This one was a little more challenging, so I had to spread it out over what seemed like an eternity-getting stuck in a library is much more difficult than I thought! I’ve rewritten this twice. Also, don’t try to find Sweetwater on a map of New York, I made it up.
When I moved to a small town called Sweetwater in upstate New York, I really didn’t expect anything exciting to happen. With less than 1,500 residents, no traffic lights and very little teeth, I knew that I was headed towards isolation at best, judgement for my “city ways” at worst.
I was very, very wrong.
I moved to Sweetwater from Midtown Manhattan after I broke up with my long-time boyfriend Paul. Paul was a great intellectual, a great teacher, and a great cheater. On a whim, I applied for a teaching position at a college just outside of Sweetwater, and was very surprised when I received a call to come in the next day. Unfortunately, the college was located in a bustling town, where rent was steep and availability was scarce; so, I settled in Sweetwater which was only about 10 minutes from work. To say I was enchanted with it’s small-town charm would be a complete lie, so instead I’ll tell you the truth; I hated it. There was really only one thing I loved about Sweetwater, and that was the Sweetwater Public Library.
It might seem strange in a small town like this to have a public library, but the Sweetwater Public Library was really the jewel of the town. Nestled by Sweetwater Creek, surrounded by tall trees and far enough away from the other buildings on Main Street to feel secluded, the library was the best kept building in town. The librarian, Ren Cranton, was a spirited man of 94 who loved every book in the library; so much so, that he claimed they spoke to him. He would spend hours walking up and down the aisles of books, touching their spines, whispering to them. Sometimes, I could almost swear it was in a different language. Old Ren was the only person I got along with in Sweetwater, and I made it a point to go to that library every day after work to read, and stayed as long as I could on the weekends.
One Sunday, I was thoroughly engrossed in a fantasy novel about talking wolves and forest magic when I heard shuffling footsteps. I looked up and Ren smiled down at me. “Hate to bother you Ms. Newton, but I have to close up a little early tonight. I have a dinner date with Mrs. Cranton.”
I returned his smile. “Of course Ren. Let me get my bag and I’ll head out.” I rose from my chair, stretching slightly before reaching for my bag. Ren picked up my book and clucked his tongue quietly.
“I do love this book. There’s something about natural magic that has always intrigued me.” He handed me the book and I slipped a bookmark inside to mark my page.
“Most of the ‘talking animal’ fantasy books I’ve read are too fluffy. I like the grittiness of this novel.” I slid the book into my bag carefully, to the obvious approval of the aging librarian. He leaned against one of the rough cut pillars and sighed.
“Ah yes, the subject of believable fantasy is tempting, isn’t it? Maybe it resonates with you because you like to believe that if it isn’t rainbows and knights in shining armor, there might be a smidgen of truth to it.” I quirked an eyebrow and he smiled again, digging in his pocket. I heard a delicate tink, tink and he pulled his hand back out, one single silver key flat in his palm. “We who talk to books, know where the magic lies.” He held his hand out to me and gestured for me to take the key. I hesitantly lifted it from his hand, then caught his gaze.
“What does this go to? I asked, my eyes drawn down to the intricate vines twisting in silver on the very old key. He gestured widely with his arms.
“The library, Ms. Newton. I know you haven’t lived here long, but I’m sure you’ve noticed you and I are the only two people who come in this place these days.” He laid a gentle hand on an old, deeply aged bookshelf, his fingers tracing a groove in the wood. “Yes, libraries are more peaceful now then they’ve ever been. But, these books do get lonely, and they could certainly do with some company…at least for a few more hours.” He smiled and walked to the circulation desk, an old, heavy piece of furniture that held stacks of random books, crossword puzzles and pens. I followed him, still studying the key.
“When will I give you the key back?” I asked. “When should I close the door?” He turned, shrugging a light jacket onto his bony shoulders, and reached out to squeeze my arm lightly.
“When it’s time to leave, you’ll know.” He placed his worn baseball cap on his head and opened the door, the amber light of late summer greeting his pale, smiling face. “Good reading, Ms. Newton.” I nodded and he walked out, the door latching behind him.
Then, it was quiet.
There was something a bit spooky about being left alone in the library by myself. I knew no one else was in the library, and it was only 3 o’clock in the afternoon, but still; the silence was intense. I walked back to my bag, pulled out my book and plopped back down into the worn leather recliner, my legs hanging over the side as I flipped to my last page and began to read.
Before long, the words seemed to blur together, and my eyelids seemed to be made out of lead. I couldn’t keep them open anymore. I’ll just close my eyes for a few minutes. I thought to myself. A quick power nap and I’d continue reading until dinner time. I closed my book and set it in my lap before leaning my head back and immediately falling asleep.
You are not alone.
I woke with a start, drool covering the right side of my face that had been pressed against the chair. I wiped my cheek and chin with my sleeve, trying to blink the sleep out of my eyes. “What time is it?” I said out loud to no one in particular. The warm, amber rays of summer sun that had filtered lazily through the windows were gone; only a deep, dusty navy glow remained. The dim lights of the library cast a benevolent light on the books below, the brightest of them being the light on the circulation desk. I rose from my chair, stretching deeply as I padded over to the desk in quiet, socked feet.
“She’s awake, what do we do now?” A hushed voice said. A low chuckle, then a quiet shuffling. “This one’s different, Ren wouldn’t have given her the key if he didn’t want her to find out about us.” The voice’s southern drawl was distinctly female, and definitely not native to Sweetwater. I laid a hand on the circulation desk, the tick tock of the clock booming in my ears. It was midnight. How was it midnight already?
“Hello?” I said, trying to peer into the darkness behind the ancient desk. Rows of poorly lit fiction books stood like sentinels in the dim light, but I couldn’t see anyone back there. “It’s late and I don’t know if you came in while I was sleeping, but I need to lock up now.” I said warily. I heard another low chuckle.
“Darlin’, we didn’t come in while you were sleeping, we’ve been here all along. Now, I’m fixing to come out there and introduce myself to you, but you have to promise me you won’t panic.” the southern woman drawled loudly. Another voice chimed in. “Yes, the last person panicked and ran outside, screaming to the whole town about ghosts, we don’t need that kind of attention.” A muffled thump, then an “ouch, don’t hit me Sandra! I’m just speaking the truth!” The female voice, Sandra, sighed loudly. “You’re going to frighten the girl you idiot. We ain’t ghosts honey, but we ain’t mortal neither. You just have to promise me that you’re not going to scream. Can you do that for me?” she asked kindly. I swallowed hard.
“Sure. I won’t panic. Just…just come out so I can see you, face to face.”
There was a quiet mumbling, and then footsteps. From the center of the fiction section directly behind the circulation desk, two figure emerged; one, a lean woman who looked to be in her early 30’s and the other, a man whose face I could not see. The woman was dressed in dark brown pants, a cream colored long sleeved button up shirt and brown boots. Her face was the color of well tanned leather, and the texture of it too; dark brown eyes sat curiously below thick, blonde brows. Her hair, hidden mostly by her tan cowboy hat, was braided to the left of her neck and tied with a piece of leather string. The man stood about 6’5″ and wore a full suit of armor, though not the type you’d think of; he wasn’t shining by any means. His armor was boiled leather, with a breastplate of steel, his face covered by a helmet adorned with vines and thorns. I took a few steps back, unsure of what to say.
Sandra put up a hand, as if to say I come in peace. “I’m not going to hurt you. Like I said, we ain’t ghosts but we ain’t from here neither. My name is Sandy Ransom, and this here is Frederick of…where the hell are you from again?” she said, looking up at the man. He looked down at her, shaking his head, then looked at me. “Frederick of Umberhollow River Falls, at your service.” Sandy shook her head. “If that ain’t the dumbest name for a town I ever heard, I don’t know what is.” Frederick took a step to the side and looked down at her. “Yes, and what’s the name of the run down little dirt city you come from?” he asked in a flowing English accent. She narrowed her eyes indignantly. “Rustpeak Junction ain’t no little dirt city, friend, and at least we know whether we’re a holler, a river or a damn waterfall.” They began to bicker among themselves before finally I couldn’t take it anymore.
“Stop! Both of you! How did you get here, in this library…in Sweetwater?” I demanded. They both looked at me, and Sandy cocked her head to the side. “I figured Ren would have told you all about us. I figure we been here near as long as Ren has, don’t you think Freddy?” she asked. Frederick nodded, and moved his head as if he were looking around, although it was hard to tell with his helmet on. “We’ve been coming here to talk to Ren for a lifetime, it seems. At least, for Ren. We don’t get older, Sandy and I, and the others of course. A lot of the others have been here much longer than we have, and they know the guardians that came before.”
“What others? What…guardians?” I asked, trying to make sense of what was in front of me. A lifetime? But these people couldn’t be nearly as old as Ren.
Sandy smiled, her crooked teeth slightly yellow against her leather face. “There’s a whole library here darlin’, and we ain’t the only characters in these books. Just the two that were tasked with meeting the newest guardians. It’s a thankless job, but someone has to do it.” Frederick laughed. “Our thanks is that we don’t die, Sandra, honor has no value.” Sandy rolled her eyes. “Blah blah honor blah. That’s what I heard there.” Before they started bickering, I walked over to my bag and stuffed my book inside. Sandy followed. “What are you doing?” she asked warily.
“I’m going home. Obviously someone drugged me, or this is a fever dream or something. I don’t know what’s going on here, but there’s no way you’ve been around as long as Ren unless you’re either really old or he’s young and aging like a bag of garbage.” I picked up my coat and turned to face them, stumbling back a bit as I realized how close Sandy was to me. She narrowed her eyes.
“If you leave, all of us will disappear. We can’t leave this library and Ren is all that’s been standing between us and death. Obviously that old man thought you were the one to get us through the next 60 years, don’t just walk outta here without letting us explain.”
I heard a shuffle of armor and Frederick stood at her side. Up close, I could see his eyes; one of them was missing. The other was a bright, emerald green. “We don’t know anything about your world, Ms. Newton. We don’t even know your first name. All we know is that Ren has been the keeper of our realms for decades, and that this is the only known place where our worlds intersect.” He raised his gloved hands to weave his fingers together. “I understand how frightening this must be, but imagine how frightening it is for us, knowing that if a new guardian is not in place by time Ren passes away, we might tumble into obscurity. Without a guardian, we can no longer walk between realms, and the magic that keeps us from being words scrawled on parchment will die. And so will we.”
I stood for a moment, studying them. I was in a library, in a town full of strangers, in the middle of the night, confronted by a woman from the wild west, and a man from some sort of medieval time. In all likelihood, I thought, Ren had somehow drugged me and this was an elaborate dream while he and some other organ harvesters took out one of my kidneys and maybe even part of my liver to sell on the black market. But, looking in their eyes, I felt something…something that compelled me to make what would end up being the most dangerous decision of my life.
I set my coat down on the chair, and plopped my bag on top of it. “Alright,” I said, crossing my arms, “Where do we begin?”