She flicked the lights. Off, on. Off, on. It was the signal, like a bit of morse code for the patrons. Time to leave.
Unhurriedly, the patrons packed the belongings they had spread across tables and desks. They tucked away snack wrappers that they weren’t supposed to have in the library at all, doing so as discreetly as one can with a crinkly noise maker, crumbs falling on the way and so leaving traces of their minor infractions. They unplugged their electronics, wrapping the cords of their headphones and sliding them into backpacks and bags.
Something about closing time made the patrons noisy; it was as if the flicking lights signalled both the impending closing of the library, but also granted permission to speak up about plans to clean the kitchen or grab a coffee with a visiting friend. The noise stirred the books on their metal shelves. The woman tried to fix them with the quintessential over-the-frame-of-her-glasses-look, but they avoided eye contact as they trailed out. She pulled the door shut behind the last patron and locked the door, exhaling deeply before turning off the lights and throwing the library into dark stillness.
Someone watching the young woman in the oversized cardigan and big round glasses might assume she was tired from the day. Someone more experienced with the inner workings of the library might see the exhale as the exhaustion that comes from a day of searching the stacks for an elusive, missing call number, keying in search terms for patrons who don’t know what they want, and of course, reminding patrons that not returning their books on time will result in late fees and that yes, they can renew their books online.
And while these observers may have been partially right, it is only the most experienced, the ones bearing the title of Librarian, that truly know the woman’s sigh.
She was preparing. For her shift had only just begun. The woman rolled up her sleeves, tightened the ponytail in her hair, and pushed her glasses up her nose. The lenses glinted in the glow of the emergency lights. The stacks sat silent, for now. The woman marched to the reference desk, opening a drawer with one of the keys on her keychain that had MELVERN PUBLIC LIBRARY printed on the lanyard. From the drawer, she pulled a stack of reference cards so old the information had been printed with a typewriter. Each letter had been punched into the cardstock so that it left just the hint of embossed texture on the back side of the card. Of course, other librarians used different weapons these days, but she had been trained with reference cards, and frankly, Melvern was not the forerunner in library technological advances, so she was stuck with the cards. Not that she minded.
She pocketed the reference cards, keeping one out, flipping it between her fingers like it was from a deck of cards and she was a magician about to dazzle a crowd with a trick. A small, weary smile tugged at her lips. If only those magicians knew what they were missing.
She started her patrol, near the back wall of the library where the 100s were tucked away. Philosophy tended to be a quiet, peaceful section, but a rhythmic thumping told her not all was well in the library this night. She moved through the section quickly, faint whispers about the questions of Form and telos and the good life reaching her ears like a siren’s song. But the last thing she needed was a lecture from Aristotle on the meaning of life. She moved swiftly on.
Shadows jumped and lurked just on the edges of the stacks, moving across her periphery vision. Behind her, the metal of the shelf groaned. She dared not turn her head, but her fingers tightened around the edges of the reference card, and she reached for another from her pocket.
Parents told children that nothing lurked in the shadows, and while that may be true for closets and bedrooms, it is not so in the stacks of books dense with stories and knowledge. The key in the library was strategy. Which shadows ought one chase? Not those in the 100s, 200s, or even 300s. Important as they were, those shadows rarely meant harm. They only wanted attention, undivided and focussed attention. But she needed her focus elsewhere. The thump sounded again, and she stepped lightly around the edge of one of the rows into the 400s. A soft babble filled her ears, and she picked up three, four, perhaps six languages staking their claim to the limited shelf space. So far, nothing was amiss here. Then she froze, holding a breath she had been ready to exhale in relief.
Through the multilingual murmurs she could make out a faint, but persistent sound. It wobbled and wavered, sometimes so quiet she was tempted to think it her imagination. She inched forward. The sound of the 400s blocking out the danger she knew was coming. Her feet padded gently on the carpet and were nearly silent from years of training. She turned the corner, pressing her back against the shelf that proclaimed she was approaching the 500s—Natural Sciences.
Slowly, carefully, and without letting out a breath, she peered around the corner. Her heart hammering in her chest just as loud and with the same rhythm of the distant thumping. Her eyes widened. And golden eyes glinted back. Tiger. A vague question resounded in the back of her mind, but how had it escaped? A quick scan of the floor answered her question. A brightly coloured copy of The Children’s Encyclopedia of Big Cats lay open on the floor. And next to it, a small child clutching her knees and whimpering softly.
The woman stepped forward, the tiger growled, and the girl choked through a sob. She looked up when the woman crouched down to her level, her keys clinking together. The woman put a finger to her lips. The girl nodded, trying to catch her breath between sobs. The tiger growled again and pounced. The woman leapt, scooping up the book as she jumped between the girl and the tiger.
The girl screamed.
The young woman turned and clamped a hand over the girl’s mouth, shushing her with a hiss. The girl’s eyes widened, and she strained to see the empty aisle where the tiger had been only a second earlier.
“The tiger’s back where he belongs,” the woman whispered, pointing to the closed encyclopedia on the floor. “We need to keep moving. Everything will be awake now.”
“Where’s my mommy?” the little girl asked, and the woman cringed at the pitch and volume of the question.
“Was she in the library with you?” the woman asked.
The little girl shrugged. “I don’t know.”
The woman ground her teeth, her ears perking at the sound of ripping, snarling, thumping, and quite possibly an armoured horse a few rows down from where they were. “On my back, now. It’s not safe here. We need to keep moving.”
The girl didn’t protest, but once she was holding tightly around the woman’s neck, she whispered. “What about my backpack?”
“You will have to get it from the lost and found tomorrow,” the woman said, internally groaning at the thought of searching through The Children’s Encyclopedia of Big Cats to find the lost bag.
A horse, or ten of them from the sound of it, whinnied behind them. “Time to go!”
The woman ran through the stack, no longer carefully padding her steps in silence; there was no need anymore. Anything that could escape had the moment the girl had screamed. The woman pulled the cards out of her pocket as they went. She handed one behind her to the girl.
“Throw that at anything that moves,” she whispered, hoisting the girl higher onto her back.
“But it’s just paper,” the girl protested.
“Just do—” her command was cut off when something large slithered across the end of the stack they were nearing. It lifted huge wings, knocking into the nearby shelves.
The woman’s eyes widened, and she caught the nearest book as it was about to fall. She glanced at the cover, Creatures of Myth and Legend in Fantasy. They had entered the most dangerous section of all—Literature.
“Is that a snake?” the girl whispered, and the creature turned at her voice, its head entering the faint glow of the emergency light revealing scales, huge teeth, and golden glinting eyes.
“No,” the woman breathed. “It’s a dragon.”
She drew her cards and threw them like daggers at the dragon. The cards bounced off the armoured hide of the beast. It roared and tried to stick its head into the stack, huge jaws snapping inches from where the woman and the girl were standing. The woman turned on her heel and bolted back the way they had come as the dragon pushed the shelves, causing a domino effect for the rest of the stacks in the 800 section.
The girl screamed again, but this time the woman didn’t shush her. Noise was no longer a factor. They needed to get out. She hoisted the girl on her back again, the weight of the child bearing down on her. Then she bolted.
On another night, she might have a chance to stave off the dragon, restore the parading knights on their horses back to their books, and foil the plots of the escape artists in the 800s. On another night, her reference cards could halt any creature, small or big in its tracks. On another night, maybe, but tonight with the girl whimpering on her back and the very real possibility that the girl’s mother was somewhere in the library, the woman stood no chance. Escape was the only option.
Around them the sounds of battle raged. The knights had found the dragon and were charging the creature even as the bookshelves toppled around them. The woman moved in the commotion. A riderless horse ran in their direction and the woman flicked a card as it passed, stopping the creature mid step. She shifted the girl off her back and onto the horse before straddling the saddle herself.
“Hold on tight,” she whispered, plucking the card from the horse’s mane.
The horse was reanimated instantly and the three of them took off at a gallop toward the red glowing exit sign leaving the chaos of the 800s behind them. The woman stole a glance behind her. Where was the girl’s mother?
“Mommy!” the girl shouted.
The woman searched the chaos of the Literature section. She could see nothing.
“No! Over there!” The girl tugged on the woman’s shirt, turning her attention back to the exit.
The woman heard before she saw. The thumping. The thumping she had heard since the beginning of her night. She thought it had been one of the books. But it was the mother, banging on the locked door to the library because her daughter had been left inside.
The woman pulled the horse to stop, sticking a reference card between its ears. She dismounted and pulled the girl off the frozen horse.
“Your mom is just outside that door. Push the door open and go home.” The woman said.
The little girl’s lip quivered, and her eyes welled with tears. “But—”
The woman smiled and put a finger to her lips, shushing softly. “It will be okay. Go to your mom.”
The girl was convinced and ran to the door, pushing against it until the mother could pull it open. She wrapped her arms around her daughter.
“Sorry!” she called, her voice echoing across the distance.
The woman cringed at the sound, simply waving as the mother and daughter left and the door clicked behind them, locking them out, and locking the books and everything in them, inside the building. The woman turned to face the library. She pushed her glasses back up her nose and pulled a handful of reference cards from her pocket. Now the real work could begin.