Past the county’s rushing river, a hop and skip away from a painted forest, and a leap from mountain range covered in herding goats, there sat a large, worn library. It stood short and stout, a sinking roof with peeling yellow paint chipped away from the harsh weather. The only thing that would catch a wandering man or a woman heading to work was the windows. Tall stained-glass drowning in violets and greens and dripping reds and blues. Pictures of Lancelot and Dracula and great storybook battles with dragons sketched in a burning orange, or a grand pirate ship crashing against glass colored like rushing waves and stormy gray skies. There wasn’t one wall that didn’t have these windows pulsating with hues and adventure. On a warm summer day or a frosty winter morning, right at the peak of dawn, the light pours through these windows, cascading speckled beauty and life across the landscape or the interior. I used to sneak out of my home before the sun would come up and dance and do cartwheels in the colors of the library, before heading inside and reading until I passed out on the carpeted floor. I wanted to spend my life there.
Older, old enough to get a job, I stacked books and swept floors. I spent my childhood here, but never realized the secrets this place held. I would stay late nights helping Mrs. Crater ready the fading library for tomorrow. She mismatched the building, a tall lean woman with sharp pointy cheekbones and a chin that jutted out just a bit too far. The only thing that the two soulmates have in common was worn wrinkled skin and sinking dark gray ceilings. She was quiet, sweet and almost too good with children, and better with adults. Mrs. Crater let me check out whatever book I wanted, if I brought them back how they were, maybe even in greater condition. But only after I do a check and chat with each section of the library. I didn’t misspeak, I meant to say chat. The library was jumping to life with stories and ideas and books. Each section wasn’t just that, it was a country. And each country had a guardian.
I pushed the wheeled metal cart full of books needing to find home again, first heading to the romance division. Immediately I heard unabashed sobbing coming from the back. I sighed and made my way over to Amelia, hunched over on her knees crying into her hands. The walls were carved with different sweethearts, some scratched out angrily. Tissues and rose petals littered the carpet.
“Heart troubles again?” I asked, placing all the Sparks’ books back into the shelf.
“Am I ugly? Why doesn’t he even look at me? I know he likes me! Am I ugly!?” I looked over at the snotty and makeup smeared face, trying to find the right words.
“…No?” This caused a larger crying fit. I quickly got back to the cart and power walked away. As her sniffles faded they were replaced with the sounds of a gun’s trigger. I picked up some books, passing Billy, large cowboy hat tipped down. Sand and dirt crunched under my feet, a tumbleweed skittering past us and the buffalo skulls that decorated the brackets. I could feel his cold steel eyes on my back, but I haven’t felt a chill since my first week here. He cocks his pistol over and over to intimidate me. It didn’t work.
“You going to say something or are you going to be the strong and silent outlaw?” I asked, putting on a painfully bad southern accent. A husky chuckle came from his throat.
“I can’t git anythang pas’ you, can I?” He flicked his hat up, sending a stubble covered smile my way. I shrugged.
“You’re going to have to try harder than that,” I replied, back to my cart and leaving him and his Western section alone. I picked through the next bundle of books when a cannon ball whizzed above my head. I felt hairs tickle the bottom of it. I dropped to my knees, the loud cackle of a dumb adventure boy hovering over me.
“Finn! We’ve talked about this!” I stood snatching the stack of books I needed to return. Finn hopped onto one of the shelves, the one marked adventure, as he continued to laugh.
“You talked to me. I just pretended to listen and chose to ignore it.”
“You could hurt someone or worse, one of the literal thousand-year-old books in the back!”
“Oh lighten up, I know where to aim so that doesn’t happen. And Crater lets me express myself.” He bent backwards, standing up on his hands, walking down the shelf. He avoided the rope and swords he laid haphazardly around his unit of books. The only neat thing in that place was the large model ship sat at the end of rows of books. I tossed a book at him. He tumbled down onto the carpeted floor with an ‘oof!’ I slammed the stack needed to be returned there into his chest.
“Then be useful while you’re at it.” I headed back to the cart, pushing to the next section.
“You can’t subject me to stacking duty!” Finn yelled, but I ignored it. Soon I couldn’t hear his whining anymore. But the farther I pushed the darker it got. I was getting to the worst division in the library.
Horror wasn’t a bad genre, but it wasn’t fun to be around it so much. The tall shelves almost reached the sky, a slight fog creeping out between the dark abyss in the middle. Cobwebs and thorn covered vines stuck to the walls, slithering in between the few spines I could see. Pressing the to be returned books to the edge, I never even thought of setting foot in the there. I swallowed hard and tugged the gates around both sides, closed, locking them in place. This was the only section that needed to be secured each night. I never met the guardian of this one. On occasion I swear I could see a silhouette of something, but only for a brief moment. Sometimes I caught long boney fingers, other times I thought I saw horns the size of tree trunks. Whatever large creature lurked inside it never made a sound. I felt a sudden cold gust on my back and booked it to my cart, almost running to the next part of the library.
My dread was soon replaced with the sound of a bouncing ball. I smiled, looking down at the tiny girl in dark pigtails and red overalls occupying the children’s section. She played with a large purple kickball, amongst the other toys covering the entire place. A slide and swing set mingled with the wood shelving.
“Hey there Joselyn.” She turned to me and grinned ear to ear.
“More books!” She ran over to me, reaching for the stack in my hands.
“Can I put them back! Please please pleaaaase!” I chuckled and handed her them.
“Ok just be careful.” She didn’t stick around to heed my warning, hopping between shelves with the books around her chest. I shook my head, kicking the ball over to the corner before she could stumble over it.
My next trip was to sci-fi, which was honestly the easiest one of my rounds. I stepped inside, placing everything that was checked back in onto hard steel racks, blinking with multicolored lights. My eyes would glance at the guardian floating at the end of the division. An alien, no name, hovered legs crossed, four arms folded into his lap. Large orange eyes, a few dozen on either side, contrasted with sky blue skin. I slipped the last book back in place, much closer to him, or her, or it I wasn’t sure. I looked up at it. It looked back, nodding in some mutual respect. I nodded back and once more headed to my cart.
The last section was honestly my favorite to read. I had always loved fantasy books, ever since I was a child pouring over fairytales to myself. Flowers bloomed between cracks, along with shimmery ribbons of gold and silver. A cobblestone strip was set under my feet. I made my way in-between shelves, placing stories back in their home once more. Suddenly glittery little droplets rained down and tickled my nose. I sneezed.
“Hey Petunia.” I sniffed and turned around facing the fairy no bigger than my pinky. She twirled around my head in an excited flurry.
“Pleasure to see you again. Thought I would send a little magic along your way!” Her squeaky voice filled my ears softly. More glitter rained down onto me.
“Thank you, Petunia. But again, I think I’m allergic.” I sneezed again, much harder. Petunia went sailing back landing into one of the lilies.
“It’s too similar to pollen…” I finished, picking her up in my hand. She gathered herself, shaking off dust and possibly snot.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, wiping my nose with my sleeve.
“Oh, it’s alright dear. Thank you for the books.” She flew out of my palm and sat herself on the spine of one of the books.
“No problem. Stay safe.”
“You stay safer!” She twinkled, a slight chime of bells following. With an empty metal cart, I made my way to the circled check out desk. Mrs. Crater sent a toothy smile my way.
“Hope everything went alright for you,” She said. I shrugged.
“As good as it could be,” I replied, parking the cart with the others.
“Guardians are a bit intense.”
“It’s all fine, really. I’m just glad to be here.”
“Well that’s good. So what books are picking up?” I paused at her question, twisting my lips.
“I think I might wait until I finish the ones I have at home,” I said. She raised a pencil thin eyebrow.
“No not really. I already grabbed a new one.”
I stepped out into the brisk dusk air, my jacket clinging to my skin, book tucked in my side. I looked back at the decaying structure, walls and roof worrying my mind that it might collapse one day. But as I looked at the gleaming windows, that all dissipated. The library will always be here.
No matter what.