Jacob Sullivan huddled up against the shelves, the dark metal digging into his backbone as he rested his head and exhaled for the first time in the past hour. He only dared to close his eyes as the familiar smell of old pages sent the message to his brain that he was safe, concealed amongst the fiction section in Madison Public Library. The ceiling tiles, he noticed, were a strange and pockmarked pasty color; not quite white, not quite gray, and several badly in need of repair. If he wanted, he could use the marks to count the minutes until it was safe for him to leave. Stupid Kevyn Stewart was lurking around outside again, waiting for Jacob to come out of the library so he could hurtle insults at him as he walked home. He had done this every day after school for the past year and would likely continue to do it for every year that Jacob was alive. Jacob didn’t understand what he had done to earn so much of Kevyn’s attention but whatever it was, he was certain he had already paid the price and then some. It wasn’t a long walk from the library to home but a necessary one. No one would be at his house for another hour and his mother didn’t want him to be alone, so the library seemed a safe option to her. Since his dad had left, she’d become overly concerned with his safety. If only she could understand that being alone at home was far better than being in Kevyn’s company. Why did he have to be so awful? Likely because his parents had shoved an unnecessary ‘y’ into his name, thereby submitting him to a lifetime of explaining how his name was spelled. I’d be pissed off too, Jacob thought to himself. To make matters worse, their last names shared the same initial and would therefore be linked for the remainder of school, unless one of them died or moved away, neither of which seemed likely. But a boy can hope.
His head rested against the books while his mind stirred uneasily. He couldn’t focus on anything he was meant to. Like his book report due in a week, his math study guide he had failed twice, or the impending dance at school which everyone pretended wasn’t a big deal but secretly was either dreading or eagerly awaiting. Dreading, in his case. Jacob could think of few greater ways to insult oneself than to publicly thrash around in front of your peers who already thought you were a goof. His thumbnail absently flipped a piece of torn fabric on his jeans as he mentally cursed himself for even considering going to the dance. You needed to have either a date or a group of friends and Jacob had neither. Not that he was completely friendless, but this month was rough. His best friend had moved to another district, and his other friends were more terrified of stepping foot into a social function than he was. There was no chance he was going, so he should just put it out of his mind altogether. But somehow, he couldn’t quite. All of the nagging irritants in his life, his daunting schoolwork, the insults from Kevyn, and the dance he would never see, circled in his head as if they were twirling to the tune of his brain self-destructing. And so, he would sit there hiding and waiting for his watch to buzz telling him to go home. If he was lucky, Kevyn would grow tired of lurking and leave for home as well.
“You planning on reading any of these or just using them as pillows?” a voice sounded from his left, breaking the silence and making him jump.
“Huh? Oh no, sorry,” he said as he left his shelf-pillow and stood.
The woman who had snuck up on him was wearing typical librarian garb; a long blue skirt with a small floral pattern, comfortable sandals which she unapologetically wore with socks, and a fuzzy cardigan which had a sparkly brooch attached on the chest. Her face was kind but stern and she clearly did not approve of children loitering amongst her books. She was not old by any means, perhaps only in her thirties, but her face held a no-nonsense wisdom and he doubted anyone had ever countered her and gotten away with it.
“Are you looking for something in particular? I’d be happy to help,” she offered kindly.
Jacob didn’t know how to ask for what he really needed which was for his mother to get her old job back so she could be home after school and he wouldn’t have to endure hiding in this library every day or for Kevyn’s ridiculous insults to stop; they’d gotten pretty terrible lately as the boy was running out of things to say. Last week he had likened Jacob’s mom to a banana, but the jab didn’t land having made no sense whatsoever. Poor kid was really reaching.
Not knowing what to say he simply said, “No,” and made to leave the previously empty row of books.
“Hold on a minute, I do not believe you cannot think of a single thing you would like to read about. Do you know where you are standing right now?”
Jacob looked around and shook his head, all the book spines seemed the same to him.
“This is the fantasy section. This is the section where dreams become reality, where boring young kids turn into wizards, monsters rule the earth, and unknown realms battle one another for rights to possess the amulets of fallen kings. This is where your dreams take hold of you and soar.”
Her face was intensely overjoyed by her own description, and he stared at her in wonder, wishing he possessed even an ounce of her passion for anything in his life. He didn’t have the heart to tell her he wasn’t a very good reader, so he just shrugged.
She smiled, refusing to be deterred. “What interests you most? Dragons? Magic? Kingdoms battling? Talking animals?”
Jacob couldn’t pick a favorite because he’d never read anything related to any of those topics.
She twisted her mouth up quizzically and crouched down so she was at eye level with him. Her eyes patrolled the shelves as she seemed to be mentally forcing a book to come forward and present itself.
“I know,” she said. “Let’s try this. What sounds more interesting, a young knight who must travel the lands of a far-off realm in order to rescue his family’s long-lost heir? Or a young boy who gets bullied at school but discovers he has the ability to use magic to change his fate?”
He’d known his eyes had lit up at the sound of that one. Oh, how he wished he could have magical powers to make Kevyn Stewart disappear. Perhaps he could banish him to that far off realm she had mentioned where he would have to battle dragons in order to survive.
“Okay, magic over bullies it is,” she said wistfully and turned in a full circle making a tsk, tsk, tsk sound with her tongue. “Ah-ha. Here it is,” she said pointing a finger. “This is the one. Go ahead, take it.”
Jacob hesitated but as he studied the lettering on the spine of the book, he couldn’t help but feel curious about what these words could be describing. They were a dark golden color with swirling sparkles which scrawled into one another. Quickly he reached out and pulled it from the shelf, leaving a rectangular gap where it had been standing.
“What happens to the boy?” he asked as he studied the cover. There was a picture of a young boy, about his age, triumphantly holding up a staff, the end of it on fire with starlight which spread over the cover and exploded off the edges.
She shook her head and scowled in mock disappointment, “I would never tell someone the ending to a book! That would ruin everything. The ending doesn’t matter. What matters is how he gets there and the only way you will get that is to read it.”
Jacob felt a ripple of excitement within, the likes of which had been absent for a long time. Somehow, seeing the boy on the cover looking exalted made him feel hopeful, as if maybe he could thwart his bully just as this boy had thwarted his. He looked up at the woman and smiled, a real smile.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Don’t mention it. After all, this is my job, isn’t it?”
He nodded, thinking working in a library might be a pretty cool job to have.
“You come back and tell me how it’s going, okay? I’d love to hear what you think about the story. It is one of my favorites, after all,” she grinned warmly.
“Maybe I could come back, and you can tell me another one of your favorites?” he asked hopefully. He didn’t know this about himself yet and wouldn’t realize it until he was much older, but he was desperate for friendship at the time.
She smiled looking equally excited, “I would love that. Not everyone takes the time to talk with me about what they read.”
Jacob held the book to his chest and felt for the first time in a long time that everything was going to be okay. Maybe not today, but one day soon his life was going to change. He just knew it. And that feeling, although he wasn’t aware of it at the time, was more magical than anything which would transpire in the following days. And that is saying something.
New book in hand, he passed by the reference desk where a librarian was rummaging through an overloaded cart full of books. She was clearly set to the task of sorting as she held a stack of post-it notes in one hand, swiftly brandishing her markers where necessary so she could return each section to their home on the shelves. Jacob barely noticed her as he was much too preoccupied to stop and chat, all he wanted to do was begin his book as soon as possible.
The librarian, however, did not seem to notice his intentions and peeked her head from around the counter partition, eying him as he passed.
“Do you need any help?” she asked.
“No, thanks,” he said confidently. “Another lady already helped me.” He raised his new book by way of explanation.
The woman behind the counter cocked her head slightly. “There isn’t anyone else working today,” she said cautiously. “You’re certain someone recommended that book?”
Jacob looked at the book in his hand and turned around to the row of shelves from which he had just emerged, a small tingling sensation running up his neck.
“Are you alright?” the woman asked, a slight tone of concern in her voice. “Are you here with anyone?”
Jacob shook his head instantly. He was never with anyone and if he did happen to be in someone’s company, he was usually trying to escape it. He looked back at the book he held, the shiny letters still calling him to open it up and spend the next few days of his life devouring it.
“Yeah,” he answered. “I’m fine. It must have been someone who doesn’t work here I guess.”
“Was she wearing a name tag like this one?” the librarian asked.
He studied the rectangular piece of plastic she was pointing to which was affixed to her shirt pocket.
Jacob shook his head. “No, she was wearing jewelry there, a shiny circle.” He felt silly, not knowing the name for the adornment but how could an 11-year-old be expected to know such a name. It’s not as if he went around shopping for shirt jewelry.
The librarian knitted her brows together as she listened. “You mean a brooch?”
He nodded, not knowing if that were correct or not.
“Huh,” she said and began to turn back to her stack of books. She had a lot of work to do and what harm was it if a polite patron was making book suggestions? But she paused, sticky note in mid-air as a nagging thought appeared in her mind. After school the front of the library had regular traffic with children using the tutoring facilities or waiting to be picked up by their parents. But the traffic in the fiction section was usually low. And she had been behind her desk for thirty minutes at least. No one besides the sad-faced boy had entered. If someone had snuck past her then it was either intentional or she was losing her touch. Either way, she needed to know. Not that she fancied herself the troll of the reference desk, granting or denying admission to all who passed. But she did take note of who came and went. It was her job, after all, to notice the patrons in case a child went missing or one of the teenagers was sent on a mission to graffiti something. So, she set down her stickies and her books, emerging from behind the counter with a look of calm determination.
“Let’s just have a look, why don’t we?” her voice was casual, the kind of voice adults use to speak to other people’s children but never their own.
Jacob hesitated, wanting to go find a reading nook instead. But he felt as though he were involved in what the librarian was questioning and so he followed slowly and at a distance, dragging his scuffed sneakers on the looped beige carpet.
Seconds later she emerged from the rows, her hands on her hips and a scowl on her face. “You wouldn’t be teasing me, would you?” she asked in mock accusation.
“No, I swear. A woman who works here helped me pick this out. She even said it was her job.”
This bothered her now because no one else was working that section of the library. She was positive because she was irate with the amount of work she had been left while two of the other librarians were out sick. The only other staff was at the front desk for checkouts and returns.
The librarian thought about this, studying Jacob as if he had told her a joke with a terrible punchline. She didn’t have time for this, she barely had time to finish reshelving before her shift was over.
“Well,” she flopped her hands against her legs, clearly admitting defeat. “Whoever it was, they’re gone now. Did you get the book you wanted?”
“Oh, yes,” he said smiling, remembering what he was holding.
She grinned, pleased to see the sad-faced boy finally cheerful. “Good, well I better get back to work. See you tomorrow.”
He turned and walked swiftly for the reading nooks, not wanting another distraction to keep him from starting his new magical adventure. He paused only a second as the hem of a blue skirt floated around the corner of a shelf marked K through M. Of course, he could have imagined it, but he didn’t say anything for fear the librarian might keep him from his book. Maybe if he read all night, he could finish the entire thing. He would come back tomorrow and see if the helpful librarian was still there, waiting in the fantasy section. He knew she would want to hear what he thought of the story. She did say it was a favorite and that not many people talked to her about what they read. Later, Jacob would realize this was an odd statement for a librarian to have made, but that day he was simply too caught up with his newfound feeling of joy. Or perhaps, he realized it all along, and simply didn’t want to spoil it.
Having found a vacant nook in the corner, Jacob settled in for what would be a riveting and uninterrupted hour. No anxious thoughts of dances, tests, or bullies. A new world had been opened up and it needed his full attention. Little did he know, his world was about to open up as well.